Church life is replete with themes, growth strategies, title phrases, and trendy belief statements. At one point the only differentiator among churches in a community was the denominational tag.
As non-denominational churches expanded and those within our Baptist world divided, grew, and launched into the church-growth strategies so prevalent in the late twentieth century, we added to our lexicon such church designators as seeker-friendly, purpose-driven, contemporary, family-based, and more. As a response, or perhaps a reaction, other churches sought to ensure that they were known for not being any of those things declared by neighboring churches by promoting their version of church as traditional, “old-time religion” or even “KJV-only.” Words matter and these were designed so that potential church members would know they version of church that was available.
It sounds like a marketing strategy because it is.
Often these descriptive phrases ended up on promotional pieces, church signs, t-shirts, banners, and whatever could be used to promote the local church.
As we work with church planters and journey with them through the process of naming their church and getting the word out to the community, often these same marketing techniques, though updated for the digital age and changed to be more “relevant” tend to rise to the surface. I am not at all opposed to a proper marketing technique and right ways to get the word out about one’s church. I do believe there are some things pastors should consider.
If you’re intent on being a gospel-centered or gospel-driven church, then be that. You just don’t have to put that on your promotional material. I actually believe every church should be gospel-centered/driven because the gospel is the good news and the good news is Christ. If a new church is seeking to reach the previously unchurched, lost, unsaved people in its community the phrase “gospel-centered/driven” will actually mean nothing…because that’s a church phrase. However, if a church is intent in reaching the already churched, those who attend other churches, disgruntled former attenders and church members, etc. the term may work. Yet, if the goal is to be a church that presents the good news to those who have never heard it, drop the churchy taglines and just be that type of church.
Be gospel-centered/driven. It will become clear as you reach and disciple those who need this good news.
This is the true for just about every other church-centric tagline that is used. At the church where I pastor, we thought about putting “We love God. We love people,” on our church sign, but we have nixed that. Why? Because if I have to emblazon this truth on our sign that we are the people who love our neighbors…it may mean that we have never shown them that we love this. It could mean that we do not love them actually, just philosophically. We desire our community to know we love God by our actions. We want them to know we love people through what we do and how we treat them. We desire that all know we love where we live because we exemplify that. We desire to do all this in Christ’s name, for the glory of God. While we won’t shy away from using the words, there is more value in saying it to someone in person while showing these realities to them, than by just posting them on a sign or website.
Nevertheless, we do have these things visible within our church building and on internal communications as part of our church’s vision frame. We continually repeat the values of “Love God, love people, love where we live, etc.” not for the people outside our church family, but for the members already here…just so they/we do not forget. Like the ancient Israelites, we are all forgetful.
Pastor, planter, replanter, revitalizer, I encourage you to know why you do what you do. Know the unique version of local church God has called you to be. Preach the Word. Stand firmly in the faith on the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but focus more on being than on telling everyone what you are. Otherwise, your tagline will be little more than aspirational and you may just miss your target.
Do you know what almost NO ONE in your community is asking regarding the upcoming October 31 events? They are NOT asking whether they should participate in their neighborhood Trick or Treating. They are NOT debating whether or not they should purchase overpriced candy to give out at the doors to children dressed as superheroes, princesses, and Bluey. They are NOT asking which local church they never attend may be having an event they can attend (though many may be considering such if convenient.) Oh, and since October 31 is on Sunday this year, most of your neighbors are NOT feeling conflicted about Halloween being on the Lord's Day.
For years our church has hosted a "Trunk or Treat" event for the community that has drawn great crowds, tired many church members, and left us thinking "Well...that was very tiring, but good." Yet, this year we are doing things a bit differently.
After deciding to not host our "Trunk or Treat" event, our leadership team began asking what, if anything could or should be done on this second-most popular holiday in America. Of course there are all the "Should Christians Celebrate Halloween" articles and discussions that come up this time of year. To be honest, over the years, I have likely held every differing opinion on this. And since I do not desire to write an article on the subject of Halloween and Christians, I'll just link to Travis Allen's well crafted one here on the Grace To You site (click here) and move on.
As our team contemplated our calendared events, knowing there are some in our church who will be upset that we are no longer doing exactly what we have done in previous years (There will always be that group. I think we still have some members that are a bit frustrated we no longer have "Hanging of the Green" at Christmas. We stopped doing that in 1992, two years before I joined the staff here. I am grateful.) There are some who will likely like the fact we are not hosting a "Trunk or Treat." And...there are many who simply do not care either way.
That's how it is for most church-based events.
One of our values as a church is that we "love where we live." It's practical, aspirational to a degree, and needed. Yet, to love where we live means that often we must do the work of the minister not just at the church building (or in the church parking lot on Halloween) but in our own homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Therefore, we are attempting a shift this year. Perhaps this will be the year that we can begin to pry apart the philosophy that Christian activities must take place at the church buildings only. There's something about equipping the saints and commissioning believers to be on mission in their own communities, neighborhoods, apartment complexes, and cul-de-sacs.
Seeking to discover how best to do this for Halloween, without compromising any theological beliefs or matters of conscience I found a sister church in our network that has produced a logical, point-by-point, step-by-step, how-to strategy for Halloween outreach for their members. Since stealing is a sin, our church will be gleaning (that's a good biblical, not sinful word) from Fruit Cove Baptist Church and present similar ideas and plans to our church family. Thank you to Fruit Cove and Pastor Tim Maynard and staff for this great idea. A portion of their plan is below.
Just a portion of Fruit Cove Baptist Church's Halloween Outreach Plan. More at fruitcove.com/neighbor
I do not know how many of our church family will actually take this advice and do this, but I am optimistic.
Imagine hundreds of believers refusing to isolate themselves from the very people they have been commissioned to reach with the gospel. Imagine hundreds of Christians actually having fun and smiling as dozens of children (potentially) come to their doors asking for free candy (and by the way - give out good candy and don't give out tracts.) Imagine relationships beginning that could eventually lead to a gospel conversation. Imagine the church focusing on going where the crowd is rather than always trying to create a crowd.
Of course, if you just cannot move yourself to do anything on Halloween. That's understandable. No guilt throwing here.
But even if that is your conviction, I encourage you to pray that somehow, in some way, God would use his grace-filled, redeemed children to live as missionaries and love where they live so much that others may hear and experience the gospel and that angels will rejoice.
As for me and my house...we will be eating all the Reese's before any kids start ringing our doorbell.
Here's a link to our webpage with ideas for our church members - click here.
Recently I have been listening and learning from other pastors, church leaders, ministry coaches, and those on our own church staff about some of the things that are essential to be a healthy church as well as a church with distinctive doctrinal beliefs and functions.
Will Mancini, Dave Rhodes, David Loveless, Carey Nieuwhof, Bob Bumgarner, and many others have been leading in strategic areas of church health and strategic disciple-making for years. These have been instrumental in my ministry (some I know personally and others only through their books and resources) most recently when it comes to navigating through the quickly changing church culture (thank you COVID) for current and future kingdom impact.
In today's leadership meeting with our church's staff, I took a question I first heard from Will Mancini regarding disciple-making. I shifted it a bit from Mancini's wording. This question led to fruitful discussion and more questions from our team. As we seek to be the men and women God has called us to be here at our church (First Baptist Church of Orange Park) the question led to clarity and, to be honest, some concepts we have previously not considered. So...here's the question:
Why would God want a disciple from our church?
In other words, what distinctive things that make our church unique provide value to being a disciple of Jesus Christ?
If there is nothing uniquely offered by the fellowship and community that is our church family, then what advantage or benefit is there to being part of our local church family?
This is a challenging question, especially in the age of growing non-denominationalism and the increase of "nones" when it comes to church connection and identity.
Our church is Baptist. We are part of the Southern Baptist Convention. We hold to an understanding of doctrine that is uniquely Baptist. I stated in our meeting today that while we may apologize for the actions and words of some within our Baptist faith tribe, we do not apologize for adhering to the doctrinal truths that define us as Baptist. In our case, these are delineated in our confessional statement, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.
These doctrinal beliefs are important and valuable, but as we see in our own church as well as across the denominational spectrum, there are members who do not know, and sadly in some cases do not care, the distinctive and long-held beliefs that identify ourselves as Baptist. This is true for churches of other denominations as well when it comes to their distinctive beliefs.
Christians should be kingdom-minded, focusing on reaching the world for Christ, living as authentic believers, and being faithfully part of a larger story where God alone is glorified. However, some have landed in a "kingdom-0nly" focus where they have abandoned the distinctive truths that identify doctrinal uniqueness. In some cases, it has led to an anti-denominational belief that perhaps on the surface looks good, but may lead individuals to a very muddy understanding of doctrinally distinctive teachings.
There are also those who are so arrogantly denominational (or arrogantly "my church only") that they will not see how anyone outside their church or declared faith tribe can truly be Christian. I have been asked "Do you think that only Baptists go to heaven?" My answer has been "No, I don't even think all Baptists are going to heaven."
The rise of fundamentalism in some cases has led to some churches and church members living in this category. The kingdom of God is therefore ultimately ignored while the little kingdoms of "our church" is elevated.
Mancini and Rhodes speak of a place where kingdom growth and focus is high as well as faith tribe (denomination or church) distinctive identities. This is a healthy place of gracious confidence.
The graciously confident believer can state, "We know we're not the only ones working toward kingdom growth but we're confident about what we bring to the table." This is a definition given by Mancini and Rhodes.
So, as we look at our/your specific church, what are the distinctive beliefs and functions that make our/your church unique? What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ from our/your church? What value does being part of our/your church provide the disciple?
We are all called to love God, love people, and make disciples. That phrase is biblical, sounds good from the pulpit, and looks great on a tee shirt, but there is more the church must do in its disciple-making practice than just throw this tag-line out there.
We are taking a journey of faith together in our church that leads us to glorify God by being graciously confident in who we are in Christ. This is what each local church offers.
Does God desire more disciples from and through our/your church? Absolutely.
In our case, that means disciples who hold to the authority of the Word of God, reality of the Trinity, redemption through Christ alone, who is the Way, Truth, and the Life, priesthood of every believer, ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper as symbols of life and communion with God and our church family, and the opportunity to be part of a family equipped to glorify God by making disciples through redemptive communities.
Our unique calling is essential as is our adherence to the timeless doctrines of faith that identify us as God's children. In our case, this is declared in our alignment as Baptist Christians.
Your church is to be a disciple-making church. So is mine. And it is vital we know why God would want more disciples from our church. This leads to kingdom-minded, biblically sound, graciously confident disciples who make disciples.
For years I have heard stories of church splits. Sometimes these are needed divisions in that they are over doctrine. When unbiblical actions occur or false doctrine is espoused from leaders, division seems inevitable. We have seen this recently in evangelical churches related to the definition of marriage and other such things. In fact, my own denomination was launched over a disagreement regarding slave-holders being sent as missionaries. In our case, we were wrong, sinfully wrong on our stance. Thanks be to God for forgiveness and redemption. And, yes, we are still working toward unity and reconciliation as a denomination.
When it comes to local churches splitting, the stories are just as sinful and sad.
Most often the church splits we have heard about or have experienced personally have little to do with doctrine. In fact, a church can divide over just about anything.
There are stories of churches dividing over the color of the carpet, a change in the schedule, the use of hymnbooks versus projecting the songs, and any other number of things. I heard of one that split over the color of shingles put on the roof of the building, even after the fight led to one side having one color shingles and the other having another.
People will Fight Over Anything
Humanity has always been divided. History is replete with stories of rebellions, divisions, wars, and battles. There are winners, losers, and those who are categorized as collateral damage. In many cases, the battles were needful and right. Even in Scripture we see battles between God's people and the enemies of God. Unrighteousness and sinfulness leads to disunity and individualism. It has always been the case. It always will be this side of eternity.
There are many battles occurring in our nation today. Being an election year, each division is accentuated and more intense than ever. It seems that we check our news feed daily to determine that which we should be angry about now.
Most recently, face masks have become the issue. I was talking to one of our missionaries in Europe recently and he asked if the issues over masks was truly happening. He found it amazing that people would actually get upset over being asked (or required in some cases) to wear a face mask. I told him it is an issue and seemingly growing.
I fear that generations to come will look back and wonder how churches could be so foolish as to fight over face masks, just as we do now regarding those splits over carpet color. Ridiculous.
Maybe it is the nature of our personal desire for independence and our elevation of individual rights that makes this such an issue?
Maybe it is because people just, by nature, do not like being told what to do?
Maybe it is because people are watching way too much 24-hour news on television or on their streaming apps?
Maybe it is due to the fact that everyone is overwhelmed, stressed, and angry and masks just seem to be the tipping point in this year of pandemic isolation, racial disunity, murder hornets, bubonic plague infested squirrels, cancelled sports, and social distancing?
Maybe it is something else.
People are sinful. It's the heart of man that is distanced from God and desires to live for self rather than others.
What about when Christians are asked to wear a face mask? What about when those of us who are free in Christ, redeemed, called, saved, and sent, are asked by...you know, the governor, or the corporation, or the superintendent, or the mayor, or...even their pastor, to wear a mask?
One gentleman (I don't know who he is because I was home last Sunday awaiting my COVID-19 test results, but if he reads this, he may send me an email or let me know how much he doesn't appreciate me writing this) told one of our associate pastors last Sunday when asked to put on a mask, "I have Jesus. I don't need a mask!"
Hmmm. I wonder if he put on his seat belt in his car when he drove home?
I am truly thankful this brother has faith. I just do not believe his choice to not not wear a mask from his seat to the exit is evidence of faith. It may be evidence of self-confidence, but that is not faith...at least not faith in God.
Our church began requiring face masks in our services a few weeks back. We are in Florida, so though we are meeting, we are taking extra precautions with distanced seating, face masks, social distancing, sanitizer, etc. The vast majority of people messaged me and told me personally "Thank you!" Some struggled with the requirement and do not like it. They have let me know, too. Let me say clearly that if anyone likes wearing a face mask, they are super weird. No one likes wearing face masks. We don't wear face masks because we like it. We wear them because even if there is just a slight chance they help, it is worth it.
It is not persecution by the government to have to wear face masks. Persecution will likely come one day, but it will not be spearheaded by mask-wearing. When persecution comes, you will know it. Just ask my friends in China.
Here's my thought about why we should wear face masks during this time. If I were serving as a missionary in a foreign land I would go through language and cultural training. I would learn as much about these image-bearers who live differently than I do. I would adjust in ways that do not compromise my faith in order to engage them in conversation, show that I care, and ultimately share the love of Christ in words and deeds. Why? Because that is what missionaries do. That is what all Christians should do. We have a mission to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.
In our nation today, there are the "wear masks" people and the "not wearing masks" people. In my estimation, there are more wearing masks now because they either are afraid or they are trying to be compliant with the requirements of stores and local officials.
I want to reach these people for Christ.
I want to reach the anti-maskers, too.
I am concerned that if I do not wear a mask I am creating a barrier (virtual, not physical...like a mask) between others and myself. If in my desire to uphold my right to not wear a mask I lose an opportunity to share the gospel, I have lost more than I can imagine.
To love others more than self is the calling. To love the Lord most of all is the command.
If me wearing a mask gives me an opportunity, even without saying a word, to express that I care for others...I will wear a mask.
I hope you will, too.
And if we're not careful, while we, as Christians are over here debating face masks, the world keeps spinning and millions remain unengaged with the gospel. You cannot "go tell" if you're home arguing over the unimportant.
(Seriously - this is not the time to debate the intricacies of N95 versus homemade masks that look like they used to be T-shirts. If that's the argument now, the point is missed.)
The era of the church growth movement along with its structure of specialized ministry led to multi-staffed churches with numerous associate pastors, assistant pastors, age-graded pastors, ministry interns, directors of ministry. etc. over the years.
I am not saying these ministry positions are wrong. We have godly people serving in these and other positions at our church. In fact, I served as a youth minister, student pastor (same thing as a youth minister, but a more professional sounding title,) singles and collegiate pastor, and young married adults pastor prior to being called to serve as the senior pastor (or lead pastor, or better yet, just "pastor") of the church I currently serve. It was during these years as an associate I know God prepared, honed, and developed me to serve in the role I now have. Still, there are many days I feel unqualified for this pastoral role (not biblically unqualified...just a bit amazed that God would see fit to choose me to serve him this way.)
As years go by, ministry models for evangelical churches shift. Whether purpose-driven, attractional, event-oriented, emergent, missional, or any other trending term of the day, church leadership tends to always be looking for the next silver bullet for church growth and ministry. (By the way, there's no silver bullet. Daniel Im has written about this. Check out the book trailer here.)
The Rise of Church Planting
For the past twelve years or so, we have seen a dramatic increase in the planting of new churches in America. Denominational mission agencies, like our North American Mission Board (NAMB), have strategically shifted to enable planters to relocate to urban settings and fast-growing areas for the purpose of increasing the churches in areas where the numbers of unchurched or de-churched continues to increase. NAMB is not alone. Numerous other groups have been and are planting churches. Planters are responding to God's call to leave the comparative safety of the known church culture of home and relocate their families to areas that cause many church members and family members to say "Why would you do that?"
I won't go into all the reasons church planting is needed today. There are many stories and statistics showing how God is using this era of church planting for his glory.
Where Do We Get Planters?
As a pastor of what is now termed a "legacy church" (that means we are an older, established church that has been in the same community for decades) I have sought to lead our church to not only be supportive of church planting, but to be a sending church raising up men and women to go. At some point, the Great Commission has to be more than theoretical.
I wish I could say we have batted 1.000 doing this, but ... it has been a learning process. We have sent out some planters and families who are serving the Lord faithfully. These are incredible stories of long-term ministry and we remain partnered and engaged with them. There are others we have met and come alongside for a season.
Staffing the Church Differently
One of my pastor friends who served in a Virginia church years ago led me to think more strategically about church planting and the concept of sending planters. This was years prior to NAMB producing the Send Network and before I had ever heard of Acts29, ARC, Vision360 or any other church planting movement.
My friend told me he would not hire an associate pastor (e.g. worship pastor, student pastor, teaching pastor, etc.) to serve on staff with him unless that man was willing to leave the church to either start a new church or help start one.
My first reaction was "What?!?"
Why would I respond this way? Because my life experience in church was very traditional. I knew that churches hired staff members intending they remain on staff at the church for years. If at any time, a staff person left the church...even in good standing...it would only be to go to another church (most often after a series of secret interviews without letting the pastor know,) in another city, to serve in a similar role but with better pay.
But, to hire someone expecting them to leave to pastor a new church...in a nearby community perhaps, much less the same one, was unheard of. That only happened when churches split. At least that was my understanding and experience.
Oh, how things change. That crazy idea from my pastor friend has proven to be biblical, right, and good for the kingdom. In his case, the result has been a number of new churches in the same area of Virginia, as well as other communities throughout the world (thanks to God calling those stationed to nearby military bases being transferred to other areas and starting new churches.)
Is Everyone Called To Church Planting?
I mentioned in a meeting yesterday that not everyone is called to church planting. At that point a church planter in the meeting said "I think they are."
I thought about that and...I think he's right.
While not everyone is called to move to a new church plant, I do believe that in order to be Great Commission Christians, we are all called to church planting, to the expansion of God's church throughout the world, even in areas where some in the community say "We have enough churches around here."
The truth is that we do not have enough churches. We may have more churches than Starbucks and gas stations in some communities, but there truly is no region where there are enough churches. How can I say this? Because I know that there are still unsaved people everywhere. While the church does not save them, God has always and will continue to use his church through the power of the Holy Spirit to draw people to himself.
So, I have shifted my thinking.
I believe now, as my friend did years ago, that every associate pastor and ministry staff person at our church must be willing and ready to leave our church in order to help plant and start new churches. This is much different than being ready to leave to go to another church with more programs and better pay (but that happens, too.)
Gone are the days when an associate pastor will be hired with the expectation he remain in the position for decades. He may remain there, but he must be willing to abandon that particular area of ministry for where God calls.
However, it must be noted that just because someone in an associate position wants to be a church planter, it does not mean he should. That's where the value of assessment and long-term strategic planning comes in. These do not supersede the call, but I know God has used these tools to help men secure and solidify where and if God is calling to plant a church.
Frustration in ministry is not the best determiner for a change in ministry.
What This Means for the Church
It means that church members need to understand that ultimately every pastoral staff member is called by God and affirmed by the church to serve. If, or when, God calls that associate pastor to step out in faith to plant (or assist in planting) a new church, he must be free to do so (pending wise counsel and clear assessment.) Ideally, the new church plant led by the former staff member will be supported and provided for by the church where he previously served.
Healthy churches plant churches.
Healthy churches send planters.
Healthy churches support their planters with prayer, people, and provision.
Healthy churches look upward and outward more than inward.
Our church has not "arrived," so we are not necessarily the best model for doing this well. Yet, we are now doing more than just talking the talk. I have instructed every staff person in our church that at no point do I see their position here to be their finish line. It could end up being the last place of serving in full-time ministry for some, but the willingness to go must never be erased. It must never be squelched.
It may mean that a beloved staff member leaves for a new work. It may mean that some faithful church members go with him to help plant the new work. It may mean that, if needed, another person is hired to do the work previously done by the planter. It may mean all of this and more. It likely will. And this is good.
Kingdom work supersedes our kingdom work (little "k").
May we see more churches planted by legacy churches. We all say that churches plant churches. It's time for more churches to actually do this rather than leaving planters out there on their own hoping to land on their feet.
For years I have lamented the overly full, consumer church member appeasing, busyness creating church calendar at our church. For other pastors out there of established churches, you understand exactly what I mean.
In fact, I wrote about this a few years ago and, of course, nothing much has changed. We still have a large white-board calendar on the wall of our conference room. We keep the company that makes Expo Dry-Erase Markers in business. We are doing much...but not doing well.
I was talking to a friend earlier this week who lives in the panhandle of Florida. As many of you know, our panhandle was hit severely by a hurricane in the fall of 2018. The panhandle may not be in the news cycle any longer, but our friends will continue to clean up, rebuild, and recover from this devastating storm for months, if not years.
My friend is an associate pastor at a church in the panhandle and he shared that one of the silver-linings of storm recovery is that his church had to totally erase their ministry calendar, scale down, and begin again with a clean slate. The energy and focus of the pastors on staff has been rejuvenated as well as those who are members of the church. They've begun to refocus their efforts to not simply fill the calendar again to get back to "normal" but to only do that which is needed and right for the health and growth of the church and members.
A hurricane or natural disaster can and does cause this, but we shouldn't have to wait for such dire circumstances to force us to do that which is needed and right.
I was listening to a podcast from September 2018 featuring Pastor Robby Gallaty of Long Hollow Baptist Church in the Nashville area. Robby is known for his solid preaching and teaching and mostly for his focus on disciple-making. His discipleship pathway has been implemented at Long Hollow, and subsequently copied by numerous other churches. He affirms this in that there truly are no new ideas. Even Robby's, as he revealed, has roots in the ministry of historic pastors and church leaders, not to mention the Scripture primarily.
Nevertheless, at our staff meeting last Tuesday, I frustratingly shared with our leadership team my concerns about our church's effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission and Great Commandment.
We do many good things. We're engaged well in our community. We are actually, for the most part, embodying the missional strategies spoken of years ago. Yet, in our efforts to effectively make disciples...we are falling short.
Sadly, most church members do not recognize this.
Gallaty used a reference in the podcast that clarified some things for me. It's not new news, but something I needed to hear again. He used the illustration of the Cheesecake Factory menu. We have a Cheesecake Factory in Jacksonville and my wife and I have eaten there on occasion. The food is good, the cheesecakes are great, but the menu...is overwhelming. According to the website there are over 250 items on the menu available. When you are handed the menu, you notice the waiters and waitresses have to wear those back-braces like employees at The Home Depot due to the weight of the book. It would take about three days to read the entire menu, so it's best to preview it online before arriving at the restaurant. Okay, the book isn't that large, but there are over 250 items on it. It does take a while to make your choice. They have almost everything on it.
Just like our church.
We have a menu of ministries and in this era of consumer Christianity, we find it easier to add more ministries in an attempt to keep people from leaving the church to join the new one down the street, or the one with greatest new promo pieces and ministry options for the kids or other family members. When trying to reach the unchurched, even more ministries are added. We're not alone - others do this too. Just take a look at the churches in your community. Look at their websites, social media pages, promo videos, and images of their smiling members sharing how great the church is. It's all good, but church shopping looks more like Amazon.com than it should.
And, we're guilty as well.
It's not that these ministry options are not good. Some of them are needed and helpful in helping create and grow disciples of Jesus Christ.
It's just that we, like many churches, do not clearly provide the needed map for disciple-making. We provide a menu. Telling a Christian to just pick a few good items off the ministry menu is not enough to make a disciple. When the discipleship pathway is not intentional, the pathway is broken, not used, or viewed as little more than a theme for a series, but not a strategy for life.
So...here's the challenge before us - we need to get rid of the menu and provide a map. And, like any good GPS, continue to upgrade the map so that we are wise in our strategies of Christian health. Otherwise, we will end up where we are today with a busy calendar, a menu of ministries, a competitive nature regarding other churches, and feeling fulfilled that we have made church members...while not making disciples.
We're a work in progress. I'm sure you and your church is as well. So, let's pray together for this. May we make the shift, be strategic about it, fulfill the Great Commission, and be the church that brings glory fo God alone.
It is at times like this when community leaders, news agencies, and even those with no belief in God call for things to be done. The word “pray” becomes a hashtag that trends for a few days as many use social media to state we must #PrayForJacksonville. I believe that and am even sharing that statement, but the church of Jesus Christ must not fall into the trap of seeing prayer as a weak, viral response to tragedy. While city leaders and national politicians seek to piggyback on the tragedies of Friday’s shooting at the Raines-Lee high school football game and the terrible act of violence Sunday at The Jacksonville Landing, the call for the church is to do more than declare the world as dark and sin as bad.
One Jacksonville city leader stated “We really need to talk about God. I’m asking the faith-based community to step up.” I cannot disagree with that, but the church must understand that to “step up” means we must first kneel before God together, seeking His face, His will, while confessing our sins of complacency and self-promotion.
This is not a political issue. These issues are not solely about safety and seemingly random acts of violence. This is about sin. For some the sad reality is that sin affects not just the one committing it, but others (family, friends, and sometimes bystanders with no connection to the individual.)
The Christian community should not be surprised when evil things occur. This is how it has always been. Yet, the church cannot remain sequestered in our buildings from the community we have been called to engage for the Gospel. Church, it is time to step up. It begins with prayer (real, repentant, convictional, worshipful prayer) and follows with stepping outside our buildings to engage, in love, the community we have been called and placed within to serve.
This is for the glory of God alone.
This is for the good of our city, our families, our friends.
Pray for Jacksonville please. Pray. Step up. Kneel down. Step outside and be the light in the darkness.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." Acts 17:22-23 (ESV)
The story of Paul's engagement at the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, reminds us that the message of the Gospel is not just to be held privately, but strategically taken to those in need of redemption through Jesus Christ.
While there have been many advancements regarding technology and industry in the centuries since Paul spoke to these ancient people near Athens, not much has truly changed. Humanity remains depraved and in need of rescue and redemption. The Gospel remains true. God's church continues to move forward under the mandate of the Great Commission as we go through life to engage others with the message of truth.
Comic Books and Superheroes
When I was a boy, I loved reading and collecting comic books. When I had saved up enough change (from that quarter a week allowance) I would ask my parents to stop by the 7-Eleven on the way home from church in Montgomery, Alabama so I could peruse the comic book stand for the latest issues featuring my favorite heroes. This was no comic book shop. There were no plastic bags with acid-free boards for storing the magazines. The rack was metal, spun, and sat near the door. Most of the comic books were bent as children like me would bend them down to see which issues were hidden behind. I remember when they were 25 cents, then 30 cents and 35 cents and then "Still Only 35 cents." I normally would go home with two or three issues. These would be read numerous times and added to the stack I was accumulating.
Of course, like most people my age, I would get the first issues of new comics hoping that one day they would be worth thousands of dollars like the first "Action Comics" and "Batman" issues of old. Nevertheless, most of the magazines my generation bought were stored safely and because our parents didn't throw them out like those from previous generations, we now have a plethora of books that are "Fabulous First Issues" which aren't worth much because supply (in those plastic sleeves in cardboard boxes) is so high.
Photo credit: Sam Howzit via VisualHunt.com / CC BY
Resurgence of Superheroes in Comic Books
In case you haven't noticed, after a time when comic book sales tanked and superhero films and television shows seemed to be fading, a renewal of interest in these heroes with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man has occurred.
The Golden Age (1936 - early 1950s)
Since the Golden Age of comics (1936 - early 1950s,) heroes with brightly-colored spandex have attracted the interest of children and teenagers. During the 1940s, superhero comic interest waned. Magazine publishers began to produce books with different themes such as westerns, romance, science fiction, crime, and horror. In fact, many superhero titles were cancelled at this time. Of the dozens produced in the early 1940s, the only ones featuring superheroes to continue production by DC (the industry leader at the time) through the decade were Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Detective Comics, Batman, Superboy, Superman, Wonder Woman, and World's Finest Comics.
Photo credit: Terry McCombs via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC
The Silver Age (1956 - 1970)
Many changes took place in the world of comic books following the Golden Age. Controversy developed over the alleged connection between comic book themes and juvenile delinquency. In 1954, the comic publishers implemented a self-regulated Comics Code Authority and a shift from crime and horror themes led to a reintroduction of superheroes. The introduction of a new Flash from DC Comics launched this era and soon upstart Marvel Comics launched the Fantastic Four and a new wave of fans was born.
Photo credit: Michael Vance1 via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA
The Bronze Age (1970 - 1985)
This next age of comic book production moved Marvel Comics to the forefront. It was during this time I was collecting those books sold at the 7-Eleven. While many of the mainstay heroes remained, newer ones were introduced and a return to darker plot lines emerged (e.g. racism, alcoholism, drug abuse, urban poverty, pollution, etc.). Many of the heroes introduced in this era became the models for newer television shows like "The Incredible Hulk," "Wonder Woman," and "Spider-Man" and movies like the Christopher Reeve helmed "Superman: The Movie" and Michael Keaton's "Batman."
Photo credit: Brian Wilkins via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC
The Modern Age (1985 - present)
As generations shift, so too do the heroes they admire. While comic sales dropped, new business models were implemented. Character licensing was sold and plans for new films have been made. It is during this era when many comic book characters were redesigned, creators gained ownership of characters through independent comics, and publishing houses became more commercialized.
Some call this the Dark Age of Comics due to the influence of writers and artists like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Anti-heroes (like Deadpool, the Punisher, and even Batman) became more popular.
Photo credit: Asbestos Bill via Visualhunt / CC BY
The Cinematic Universes
When Christopher Reeve first put on the blue tights and red "S" a new era of marketing comic book heroes developed. The "Superman" movie from the late 1970s stated that fans "would believe a man could fly" and based on ticket sales, they did. When Tim Burton introduced a darker "Batman" to the big screen in the 1980s, many fans thought it would fail, primarily because Michael Keaton was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the campiness of Adam West's Caped Crusader was the prominent screen image known. When Burton's film became a hit, it seemed like superhero movies would soon take over the multiplex. Nevertheless, sequels didn't fare as well and other films like Dolph Lundgren's "The Punisher" and David Hasselhoff's "Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." proved that Hollywood hadn't quite figured out how to move the comic heroes en masse to the big screen.
Then Tobey Maguire became Spider-Man and soon thereafter Christian Bale moved under the cowl of the Dark Knight and, as they say...the rest is history.
Marvel and DC have created effective (at least financially) cinematic universes that have proven to connect with audiences.
Photo credit: junaidrao via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: junaidrao via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND
More Than a Weak Sermon Series Theme
Apparently there are many fans of superheroes in our communities. These run the gamut from stereotypical fanboy or fangirl who knows intricate details of multiverses to the casual fan who just saw Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and watches Sheldon and Leonard on "The Big Bang Theory."
In recent years, with attempts to capitalize on pop culture with catchy themes, some have preached sermons or themed kids events at churches with pseudo-superhero concepts. I'm guilty of having done this in the past, but the truth is as Dr. Timothy Paul Jones stated in a blog post from earlier this year:
For many Christians, the temptation seems to be to engage in what I would identify as a “thin reading” of these cultural artifacts (comic books and superhero films,) hunting for surface-level connections between the Bible and our favorite superhero tales. Pastors who become caught up in such thin readings may construct entire sermon series out of the latest films or feel compelled to drop references to movies into their messages—all to achieve a perceived sense of relevance by linking Scripture to culture. This is not authentic cultural engagement, however. In most instances, it’s closer to uncritical cultural appropriation. Full-fledged Christian engagement with the culture digs deeper than surface-level links and wrestles with the conflicting worldviews that undergird these artistic artifacts.
Jones' article goes deeper and is well worth your read. Read it here.
Engaging on Mars Hill
What is it about these heroes that not only connects generations and draws fans, but gathers groups together at Comic-Con and movie premieres? The religious undertones are not always subtle and the fact that most early superheroes such as Superman were rooted in Judaism (ever wondered why his name is Kal-El?) reveals many Old Testament themes woven into the histories, especially from the Golden Age.
Yet, even anti-religious sentiment and humanistic worldviews aside, there is a sense, for the most part of good, evil, truth, justice, and other such things that at the core are religious concepts.
Many of the fictional heroes and heroines either find their root in Greek and Roman mythology or at a minimum are influenced by some of these types of stories. It is my contention that the culturally popular fictional heroes are not much different than the false gods and goddesses worshipped and adored by the ancient people of Paul's day.
Paul engaged those who were far from God strategically. He went to Mars Hill for this purpose. He did not remain silent, but talked intelligently and not condescendingly to those in the crowd.
After reading numerous articles and studying God's Word on living sent as his church to a lost and dying world, I thought of Dr. Jones' postings about worldviews as revealed in comic books and the cinematic universes of Marvel and DC.
What if the church engaged this affinity group through story-telling in ways that centers on the Scripture and the Gospel? What if rather than just continuing to add programs and events to reach the already reached, we went to this "Mars Hill" in our culture today? I have talked to a few teenagers specifically about this. Some attend church, but always seem to be on the fringes. Others have no place for church in their lives and basically have denied or ignored the message of the Gospel. I asked if they would consider joining me for a study called "The Meta-narrative of the Gospel as Revealed in the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes?" Yeah - that's what I named it, based on Dr. Jones' articles. However, I may shorten it to "Superhero Sunday Nights."
Their interest was piqued.
I asked, "Do you have any friends who may be interested in something like this?"
The answer was yes and they began to rattle off names of students I do not know. Most have no connection with a church and no relationship (or desire for a relationship) with Christ.
I am not sure what this will even look like - The Big Bang Theory meets the Bible? I hope more than that. It's just that we (the church) have done much over the decades to connect with students through affinities like athletics, drama and theater, dance, and music, but I have yet to hear of an intentionally evangelistic effort (more than a gimmick event) that seeks to connect with those whom many categorize as nerds and geeks, but most likely think deeply and love and understand the intricacies of story. Ultimately, the Story is what they need.
Some will mock. Some will ignore. Yet, I believe some will be drawn by God to Himself. It's been done before.
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. Acts 17:32-34 (ESV)
A few years ago, in one of our network's church planter assessment meetings, my wife and I served as coaches and assessors as we have done for years. At times, we meet men who are wrestling with the call into pastoral ministry. Each story is unique and as these men with their wives go through an intense two days of assessment, stories unfold and we are amazed each time how God calls us to Himself, from diverse backgrounds for His good and glory.
In some cases, our pastors/planters are men who have served on church staff, but are answering the call to leave full-time (i.e. paid) ministry to plant a new work in our city or elsewhere. At other times, these are men who have served in other venues or denominations and are joining our pastoral internship and pipeline of assessment, encouragement, and peer learning. There are also some who are basically just "kicking the tires" to see if perhaps God is calling them to such a ministry role.
As I stated, each story is unique and we have the privilege of hearing testimonials from these men and their wives about how they ended up where they are.
As the weekend comes to a close, we have the task of affirming or redirecting the men as church planters, all while praying and seeking discernment and leadership from God in these areas.
One year, a pastor and his wife joined us for an assessment weekend. This pastor is a friend and is not originally from the United States. I won't use his name or exact story, but in general, this man pastored a church in a foreign land for years. He now lives in the US and through his connections in numerous cities, basically pastors up to 70 house churches, all centered around the native culture and language.
Photo credit: OliYoung via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA
He and his wife have no children and they serve faithfully despite his physical ailments due to things that happened to him in his home country from those opposed to the Gospel.
He does speak English, as does his wife, but English is not their heart language. Therefore, the comfort level of communicating in English is not there. Nevertheless, as we assessed him I felt a bit foolish. Here is a man who has more experience than I do as a pastor. He has been through persecution - and I mean real persecution, not the typical American version of being made fun of. He has a "thorn in the flesh" that slows him down considerably, yet he doesn't complain (at least not in English.) He and his wife open their home up to visitor at all times of day and night as need may be. To open the home for a guest, in their cultural setting, means to provide a meal...every time. This happens almost daily.
He serves in our city at a ministry focused on connecting and reaching internationals. He travels as need be to help churches for his people group in other cities in the nation. He mentors others.
He is not perfect. He will tell you so. Nevertheless, I am always honored to spend time with him.
At this setting, I was listening to his stories and what God is doing in his life. Along with other pastors and friends, we were inspired, but had a warning for him as well.
We told him that he must rest.
He must take a Sabbath.
He is burning the candle at both ends and in the middle.
He acknowledged this, as did his wife.
Then, he said something. He slowly and softly asked this rhetorical question - "How can I rest when so many are lost?"
And I was overcome with the reality that this brother is burdened for the lostness of our world at a level I seek to find. He did not discount the need for Sabbath, but his rest is found not in a day of the week, but in Christ.
This pastor is the epitome of living sent. He is on mission. He is missional. He is faithful.
May we be burdened for the lostness of our world as well.
Ashley O'Brien has been active in church her entire life, raised in a pastor's family and now serving on the Leadership Team of firstFAMILY (FBC Orange Park) as Director of Social Media
I genuinely get excited when someone surrenders their life to Christ. When a person listens to God and steps out to serve and be a part of something bigger makes me glad. It's inspiring and exciting when a man and wife plant a church intent on reaching the unreached. It's so exciting when Christians act like Christians! I love when people get excited about the Gospel and have to do something about it. However, sometimes it seems the steps taken seem to be focused wrongly. That's is what has led to my frustration.
Ashley and her husband Jordan
I, just like other Christians, want to reach people for Christ. I want everyone to be involved in church - a solid, biblically-focused church. I want people to know what they are getting into when they accept Christ. I believe they should feel at home when they enter the church's facility. Like many, I want to create a place that is attractive and inviting and what some would call “trendy.” Yet, I don’t want to sacrifice the Gospel for that. Jesus himself is attractional to a degree. Just look at the crowds that gathered to see him during his time of ministry around Galilee. Of course, not everyone in the crowd were truly followers. In fact, most were not followers of Jesus, just fans. Jesus' words were offensive. The religious leaders didn't like what he said. Eventually, those who were just there for the show walked away. Apparently, they were offended as well, or perhaps when they truly listened to what Jesus was saying (i.e. "Carry your cross") they decided it was too much.
Too many churches are founded on how to make church look “cool.” The flashy lights, the cool logo, the unusual name that hides the fact the group is truly a church all are part of the marketing strategy to reach Millennials. The great graphics and promos, the promise of free food and maybe a coffee mug, or whatever gets people to take a second look, to ask a question, to check it out are used by just about every new church, church plant, and legacy church seeking to engage the culture. In many cases, these things work. The room is filled. People come. Even Millennials show up. That’s the target audience is seems for most new churches now. And though it is exciting to reach this generation (my generation), the "stuff" that's offered can sometimes be nothing but "fluff." That’s the frustrating part. We fill the “church facility" (whether it's an established church building, a rented school cafeteria, a theater, warehouse, or even restaurant) but are we seeing transformations? Are we seeing people surrender their lives to Christ? Or are we filling up a room for an awesome production for people who look like they are worshipping (and in truth, many truly are) and appear to understand what God is saying through the pastor's message. But, let's be honest. sometimes the appearance or worship and engagement are based on what we think we're supposed to look like. You know, "This picture of me standing and worshipping will look great on Instagram or Snapchat!" Sorry, if that sounds cynical, but I have grown up in the era of big worship production events and while I love the music and the gatherings, it is just way too easy to fall into the trap of performance (even when you're not on stage) rather than truly worship.
It’s hard being a Christian in the world for obvious reasons. This is not earth-shattering. It's always been hard to be a Christian in the world. Why? Because the world never celebrates Christ. Believe me, as difficult as it is to be a follower of Christ in a post-Christian culture, I know what we face here in the west truly does not even compare to what our brothers and sisters in Christ face throughout the world, especially where persecution means death and not just being made fun of on social media.
Yet, I’m finding it becoming more difficult to be a Christian in the "church world." This was something I never expected. My frustration is growing in the area of church life that seems so close, but yet so far from what living missionally truly is.
I want to invite people to church, but I won’t apologize for when they hear the Gospel preached. If anything other than the biblical message is preached, then calling the gathering a church is debatable.
If a church spends all their capital seeking to not look or sound like God's church, then at some level either the Gospel is not being preached or the group has pulled off little more than a "bait and switch." It's one thing for the pastor to be versed in apologetics (contending for the Gospel and defending the faith,) but something totally different if the pastor is apologizing for the Gospel, seeking not to offend.
I would feel dissatisfied if all they heard was a therapeutic message. These types of messages are prominent and the crowd can listen without being able to discern if the message was from from the Bible or just a self-help book. The Gospel is offensive. It is truth. And, we all know that at times, the truth hurts. We don’t need to create churches that ignore truth. We don’t need another pastor building his kingdom and ultimately mar the Christian name. We don’t need a church that stands alone, either overtly or covertly building their crowds from those already attending solid (and maybe multi-generational) churches in the area. We need something else ... and I have no idea what that is, other than the truth and the Gospel.
New church plants are exciting. I believe they're needed. The numbers bear this out. My generation is growing less and less connected with the church. Yet, superficial fluffy entertainment-driven gatherings are not really the answer, are they?
So, from my perspective, our current churches, new campuses, and new church plants must have these:
Founded on Truth not a pastor's personality
Deemed successfully engaging not by how many Christians from other churches they can gather in a room weekly, but by how many lost are reached
Brokenness for the lost in the community, even if they don't fit the prescribed demographic of choice
Seeking the unengaged, not just the disgruntled attenders of other churches
Passion for the Gospel
Love of God
Love of people
Desire to make disciples...not just photogenic "worshippers"
As Christians, if we are obedient to what God has called us to do, God will be obedient to what He said he will do.
So, your gathering may have really cool stage lights and a smoke machine (those aren't bad...our church has them), a worship leader and band that does well, and maybe some really good coffee (free trade coffee, of course) and a bagel or even a free coffee mug or T-shirt for first time guests. In fact, there's nothing wrong with any of those things. Do it. I like coffee mugs and free T-shirts.
But...don't miss the point.
Churches don't exist for us. They're for God. They're his to begin with.
Be attractional. No issue there, just don't focus so much on the things that don't matter in eternity and miss the Gospel.
Church planting is an exciting and scary adventure for most. I pray those pastors and launch team members hold tight to the truth and the reason behind it all. Reaching lost people for Christ.