Why We Let Other Churches Use Our Building

Among western, and especially American evangelical churches, a sense of territorialism has been a reality for as long as I can remember.

"Church A" has been in a community for a while. "Church B" exists in a neighboring community. A sense of ownership over a region develops, not unlike that which exists between school districts. The sense of ownership is not necessarily bad, especially when a church deems its neighborhood and surrounding community as their missional responsibility for engagement. 

The problems often develop when "Church A" gets upset at "Church B" for perceived encroachment on their domain.

A jealousy develops and negative thoughts and comments often result.

There are obviously issues in churches and at times, church splits happen and members leave to join another church. These rarely are the result of a Kingdom-mindedness and more often are the result of one or more issues (poor pastoral leadership, disagreements with doctrinal stances, consumer mentalities, seeking better ministries for kids, etc.) that are more prevalent among Christians than we'd like to admit. Sometimes sinful motivations are what push or pull members away from one church to another (or to none.) This is grievous and can be delved in more at a later time.

Nevertheless, the sin of Christian competitiveness rears its head at times and the church experiences jealousy or an isolationist mindset. 

As I write this, I am reminded that the sense of competitiveness and territorialism exists even within my own heart. Comparative ministry analysis between our church and others is an easy thing to do. Sometimes, it's helpful and healthy. At other times, it is simply an outgrowth of jealousy or desperation.

Acknowledging my own weaknesses in these areas, I continue to repent. I know that new works (i.e. new churches, church plants, church campuses, etc.) statistically reach people sometimes at higher rates than established churches. Why? I'll leave that for someone else to study. Sounds like a doctoral dissertation for someone, maybe?

We (our church) have joined others in our network of churches (Jacksonville Baptist Association), state convention, mission agencies and other groups throughout North America and the world lauding the church planting and new work efforts. I have served as a church planting assessor, have coached new pastors, sought to help new works get launched, find locations, funding, etc.

So, when a new church with solid doctrine, quality leadership, and a passion for the gospel seeks to launch in our community, I know to be frustrated, competitive or comparative is hypocritical at best.

That's why we have determined to work with new churches launching in our "territory," offering help when possible. Why? Because there are more unsaved people in our community than saved, and we know that we cannot reach them on our own. God continues to draw people to himself and we are honored and blessed to be part of his great story.

In the past, we have hosted other churches in our buildings. Some have been churches that met for just a few months. Others were focused on reaching people in our community who speak a different heart language than English. Some started as just a planter and core team seeking a place to pray and gather prior to taking their next steps.

DOXA CHURCH

We are honored to host a new church plant, pastored by Jeth Looney, for such meetings. Doxa Church is going to have some pre-launch meetings at our church building in Orange Park with the intent of planting in Orange Park soon. Jeth is a called pastor and gifted to teach and preach. His heart for the gospel and reaching this community for Christ is evident. Doxa will be part of our city network and convention moving forward and we believe that God is already at work through this new church as they have gathered in homes, and will do great things through them in Orange Park and beyond.

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Doxa Church Vision Meeting in the F Building of FBCOP on 3/18/2018

Do we really need another church in Orange Park?

Apparently, there are still unsaved, unreached, and unengaged people in Orange Park. So the answer is yes. Yes, we need more gospel-centric, unapologetic, missional churches in our community. We need these churches, and they need us. The mission remains and together we can do much more for the kingdom of God and the sake of the gospel than we can alone.

What if members of FBC Orange Park leave to join Doxa?

Hmmm, this is the real question isn't it? It's safer to host a meeting. It's dangerous to see church members leave to join another church in the community. However, unlike the common exits that are predicated by frustrations or doctrinal issues, if members of our church (well, it's really God's church, right?) leave to help launch a new work in Orange Park...good. In fact, "To God be the glory!" 

We have a choice - we can either continue to work on building our small kingdoms, believing that somehow this is good, or allow our actions to match our words and trust God to grow His kingdom through any means he chooses. Sometimes, he may call a church member from "Church A" to serve in "Church B." This is far different from the normal transfer member "growth." I do believe, however, that God never calls a church member from a church to another for the purpose of doing nothing but being served. I also believe that any "sent" members must be members in good standing, generous, service-minded, and action-oriented, not under church discipline, and not disengaged.

Pray for Doxa Church

Unnamed
Pastor Jeth Looney

Join me in praying for Jeth and his team as they seek to launch Doxa Church in Orange Park. May we continue to be part of movements of God greater than ourselves.

 


The Sin of Intermarriage

Today, I led our MidPoint Bible Study through the last two chapters of Ezra. I won't take the time to dissect all that is in these powerful chapters focused on a people's repentance, but will address the primary sin of God's people as addressed.

INTERFAITH MARRIAGE IS SINFUL

The people of God had disobeyed him by marrying and allowing their children to marry those from other faiths. From a 21st century cultural view that values an unbiblical and biased view of tolerance more than truth, this seems so out of step and wrong. Yet, God's Word was clearly given to his people as he led them through Moses' guidance from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land.

“Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods. Exodus 34:11-16 (ESV)

Seems pretty cut and dried. God's people are not to intermarry with the idolators of the land.

Then, when God's people are brought back home to Jerusalem in another exodus from slavery, this time under Ezra's leadership, we read this...

After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.” As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Ezra 9:1-3 (ESV

The people of God forsook the commands of God and the realization that much of their turmoil was based on generational sin that was ignored by leaders and excused by those committing the sins is clear. 

Ezra sought forgiveness from God and led the people to repent. Interesting because Ezra did not marry an idolatrous woman. Yet, he knew complicity of sins of the past and present was true and repented. This may help some who just cannot understand why a people group (for instance white Southern Baptists) feel the need to repent for the sins of long-dead ancestors. Yet, this biblical principle is clearly given here and present-day believers should take it to heart.

I have addressed this before, but with today's current climate of division and the propagation of information (true and untrue) at such alarming speed, it leads me to go here once more.

INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE IS NOT SINFUL

Despite what some believe, what grandma said, what the culture you grew up in has stated, and unfortunately what some churches have even stated as true, interracial marriage is NOT a sin. It is not wrong. It is not even close to being a sin. To believe so is to admit that cultural prejudices remain and at that revelation the only right response would be to do as Ezra did.

I shared this earlier, but when church members years ago came to visit me seeking biblical counsel, complete with verses to give their daughter with hopes she would not marry a black man, they left discouraged. I did not give them the answers they sought. I did not give them verses to use as weapons to promote their personal prejudices. I did not give them a "white answer" intent on keeping the black man from their daughter.

I focused on God's design for marriage to be between one man and one woman. That still true precept is clearly under attack in our culture, but nonetheless, remains true. I shared how God intends for children of God to marry children of God and that the focus is for marriage to be a uniting of two who know the Lord personally so that the marriage may celebrate that relationship, draw each closer to God and be a witness to the world of God's grace, mercy and holiness.

And that, my friends is defined by faith, not by skin tone.

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Photo credit: Rod_Miranda on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

I addressed this back in a 2011 post (HERE) and believe more strongly now than ever that the church has allowed this version of racism to fester for far too long.

When a man joining our church asks "Will I be welcome at this church?" I had to ask "Why do you ask?" His response was "Well, as you can see, I'm a black man. My wife is white." When I heard that question, I was reminded at the stain of racism and how strong it is in our nation, our region, even in our churches. I was clear in my response and stated "Some may have an issue with that. There are unfortunately sins that have been deemed acceptable in the church. But, under my pastoral leadership, we are calling sin what it is and will not allow it to remain ignored." This man serves on our pastoral staff and is a key leader of our team. I appreciated his honest question, but was saddened that it had to be asked in 2018. 

Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary stated this:

"Diversity is not an accident or a problem; it is a sign of God's providence and promise. If the church gets this wrong, it is not just getting race and ethnic difference wrong. It is getting the gospel wrong." (from Removing the Stain of Racism from the SBC)

Ethnic diversity often gets lost in the conversations about gospel unity and we would be wise to get to the center of the issue. Often the interracial marriage beliefs bring these to the surface. 

Dr. Jarvis J. Williams says this:

But ethnic diversity is not the same as gospel-centered racial reconciliation, and the goal of gospel-centered racial reconciliation is not simply diversity. Gospel-centered racial reconciliation is the pursuit of love for the "other" that flows from the Spirit-empowered obedience of those who repent, believe in the cross and resurrection of Jesus by faith, and are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah. (from Removing the Stain of Racism from the SBC)

Moses' Black Wife

Here's a passage that often is ignored by those who wish to propagate their sinful belief that God wants races to marry their "own kind. Moses married a Cushite woman.

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. Numbers 12:1 (ESV)

It's there in black and white (no pun intended.) Moses married a Cushite. His brother and sister didn't like it. They didn't like the woman. God approved, but Miriam and Aaron did not. This woman is from Cush. Where is Cush? It's south of Ethiopia. The Cushites were a people with dark, likely very dark, skin. To be clear, Moses was not a pasty-white European as he has been portrayed in artwork and movies. However, Moses was not a very dark skinned Cushite either it seems. What becomes clear in the passage is that God was not disapproving. When Miriam did, God punished her. This is when she was given leprosy by God (v. 10) due to her response. There's more here, but the clear racism and frustration over Moses marrying the "wrong woman" was evident.

Back to the Bible Study

Ezra was grieved because God's people (the "holy race" in ESV is better translated as "holy seed" with reference back to the Abrahamic Covenant) had traded the Creator for creation and "whored themselves" to the false gods and goddesses of those surrounding people. This is deeper than telling your teenagers not to date non-believers, but gives credence to that command. When Christians date and sadly, marry non-believers the Christian journey suffers. It is disobedient to God's command. A mixed-faith marriage creates a weak faith and within a generation or two often results in a no-faith family.

While too much to go into here, it's clear that God's design for marriage is for a Christian man to marry a Christian woman and for that couple to remain married for life. This is for God's glory and the couple's good.

Personal Theology

God's people under Ezra's leadership were shaken. They were trembling. Why? Because they read the Word of God and knew of his holiness. Their sin was revealed and they would have to face it. Through their repentance and difficult steps of obedience, they were forgiven. 

Your theology should determine your belief system and your politics, not the other way around. 


A Little Monday Encouragement for the Pastor Who Is Done

It's Monday and for pastors out there reading this, I want to remind you "Never resign on a Monday."

Sundays are big days for pastors. Days of preparation, even if to the average church attender, every Sunday feels like every other Sunday. Sundays take a lot of time. Much prayer goes into the services and events scheduled at most churches. In most cases, pastors delay their family time, time off, fun time with the kids, relaxation time, etc. - you know Sabbath - in preparation for these weekend gatherings.

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Photo credit: CJ Sorg on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

Then, it's time for church and amazingly, people actually show up. That's always encouraging.

Yet, once the day is over, Monday hits and it's time for the "post-game press conference" at least in our heads (unless your John Crist, then you actually have one. See here.)

Perhaps you have heard the following, or things like this in the last 24 hours:

  • The music was too loud.
  • The music was great.
  • The music was bad.
  • The music was perfect.
  • I felt welcomed.
  • No one greeted me.
  • I loved it here.
  • It was a terrible experience.
  • I'll be back.
  • I'm never coming back.
  • Loved the sermon.
  • Weak sermon.
  • Sermon was deep. Really made me think.
  • Sermon was shallow. Milk, not meat.
  • Sermon was like a seminary class. Loved that!
  • Sermon was like a seminary class. I don't want to know all that language and history. Boring.
  • Small group was great. Felt like home.
  • Small group was a basically a clique. I think they were upset I showed up.
  • Youth group time was great. Kids loved it.
  • Youth group was terrible. No one there my kids go to school with. 
  • Youth group was great. Teachers were engaging. Class was fun.
  • Youth group was terrible. Teachers were mean. Boring.
  • Loved the small group. Teacher was so prepared.
  • Hated the small group. Teacher didn't show up.
  • My kids loved their group. Thank you for being so friendly, welcoming and providing a safe place.
  • Hate the kids and preschool groups. Hate having to go through the security program. Won't be back.
  • You guys are so down to earth and relatable.
  • You guys are stuck up. 
  • Pastor makes me feel comfortable because he doesn't wear a tie. 
  • Pastor is disrespectful because he doesn't wear a tie.
  • Pastor - we hate it, but our job is transferring us so this will be our last Sunday here. Thanks so much.
  • Pastor - we've put up with it long enough, but we don't like what this church is, and our feelings are hurt again, so we're leaving and this will be our last Sunday here. Please take us off all the email lists.
  • It's exciting to see what God is doing locally and globally through this church.
  • We're frustrated that so many other things are happening when we think the church should just meet here.
  • So glad we're able to engage globally on mission. Love our priorities.
  • We probably should keep more of the money we're giving to missions and just pay off this building. Hate our priorities.
  • We love you.
  • We don't like you.
  • You are such a caring person. 
  • You didn't visit me or my family member.

And all those comments likely came from the same service.

No, I didn't hear all those yesterday, but I have heard all those at some point. And, they're likely all true, at least from someone's perspective.

So, pastor, be encouraged. It's Monday. There will be more, but we don't serve the Lord for the applause of man, right? Yet, we do like that applause. 

I know it hurts when the negative statements come. They're taken personal, because regardless how they're prefaced...they are personal.

Hang in there. Next Sunday is going to be awesome...unless it isn't.

Just make sure you're prayed up and prepared to preach the gospel. Preach it clearly, unapologetically, and with love. Never compromise the truth. Never lean on your own understanding, or skillset, or personality, or ability to motivate, or speaking style, but lean only on Christ.

It's Monday. Never resign on a Monday.


When Villains Become Heroes

Each month, I gather with a group of friends, some Christians, others not, at a local comic book shop to discuss the connection between stories, theology, and culture. We call our gatherings CHAT (Costumed Heroes and Theology) and the open discussions have been healthy and thought-provoking.

Last Sunday evening, I threw a concept out to the group to discuss. The concept centered on forgiveness, redemption, and how a comic villain could become a hero (and ultimately, how that could happen in real life.)

The Avengers films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so successful that even those who did not grow up reading comic books or care about the narratives are at least familiar with characters like Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, etc.

The original Avengers comic book was printed in 1963 and featured the following characters (now famous from film): Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and the Wasp. Some other minor characters like Voyager, Rick Jones, and Willie appeared as well, but the core was made up of the now famous heroes.

By issue 16 (May 1965) it was time for the team line-up to change. Over the decades this has happened often. What makes issue 16 so interesting (well, for comic readers at least) is that the new team would feature the following characters joining Captain America:

  • Hawkeye
  • Quicksilver
  • Scarlet Witch

Eventually, even Black Widow would join.

Avengers_Vol_1_16

Original team members like Thor, Hulk, Giant-Man (previously Ant-Man), the Wasp, and Iron Man would leave the team.

What is so significant about the addition of Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Black Widow? Each of these characters began as a villain in the comics. 

There was much talk in our gathering about this, about forgiveness, redemption, how one can shift from one side of the aisle to the other, how a villain can become a hero, etc.

Professor Mark White states, "In the universe of comic books, unlike the real world, it's possible to change the past. Sometimes heroes or villains go back in time to change or preserve the course of history. More often, writers decide that something happened in the past that they failed to mention or that their characters did not know about, so they fill in the gaps, not changing history as much as completing it (after the fact.)"1

I have never read the actual Avengers comic where this introduction to new members happened, but I have looked it up online. I talked with some who did read it and it seems that a significant event took place to allow these former "bad guys and ladies" to be admitted into the club known as "Earth's Mightiest Heroes." 

They had been redeemed.

They had an advocate.

Each characterization was unique, but by and large, Captain America vouched for the new team of heroes. 

Cap, the image of virtue and morality (at least prior to the weird short-lived recent storyline where he revealed he was a Hydra/Nazi sleeper agent) basically stated "These people are with me."

And, that was enough.

Our Advocate

It reminded me of an actual story of real people expressed in Scripture. Paul (aka Saul,) the Christian killer and enemy of the church was converted by Christ on the road to Damascus. His conversion story is covered in Acts 9.

He truly was transformed, but it would not be easy for all the current Christians (the ones previously sought by Paul for destruction) to accept him into their group.

Yet, there was a man. A righteous man who stood beside Paul an advocated for his admission to the church.

And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. Acts 9:26-28 (ESV)

Barnabas advocated for the former villain to join the ranks of the Christians in the church, as an apostle.

I'm sure some in the church still gave Paul the side-eye on occasion, but the change was real, not orchestrated by an author trying to sell another magazine, and time would prove this.

This is what happens for each person who surrenders to Christ as Lord. In fact, apart from Christ, we all stand as enemies to God. Yet, through his grace and mercy, we are invited into his story, not as extras or unimportant characters, but as sons and daughters. 

Our advocate isn't Barnabas. It surely isn't Captain America.

Our advocate is Jesus Christ. He has taken upon himself the entirety of humanity's sin debt. Through our repentance and surrender to him, we have the privilege of stepping away from a title of "enemy of God" to something much greater than getting to join the Avengers. We attain the rights of children and friends of God. Through Christ, we belong, not because of our righteousness, but due to his.

It's amazing how a comic book can lead to deeper conversations.

___________

1Mark D. White The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth's Mightiest Thinkers (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012), 84.


The Truth About Church Competition and "Copy + Paste" Programming

We live in an era of quick fix methodology in life. The church is not immune to this.

As statistics for the American church continue to show decreases in baptisms and consistent attendance, many long-time local churches now find themselves struggling to remain not just relevant to a changing to community, but ultimately alive as a congregation.

The church growth movement of the 1970s and 1980s has left a residue of wrongly placed markers for church health that actually do not reveal health, but just attendance, and when attendance wanes, the church is deemed a failure. The church may be failing, but there are more health indicators than just people in the pews. While some mega-churches and new works have creative footprints online and in their respective communities, there are many other local churches seeking to continue serving the Lord and their community, but find themselves struggling to pay bills, engage those in the community or remain open.

Church Competition

Now, most pastors would never admit they're competitors with other local churches. The sad truth is that over time, churches tend to program, develop, offer ministries, music, and events based not on what may be best long-term, or even with a foundational theological understanding, but more on what seems to be working elsewhere. That’s why so many churches seem to be clones of others (especially of those that market really well).

Have you ever wondered why the new church launch in your city looks suspiciously like the mega-church from North Carolina, Dallas, Southern California, or Australia? 

And while I am as guilty as just about any other pastor in striving to find what “secret sauce” is working now to get people and keep people in church, the fact remains that a short-term fix focused on the latest program, event, staff position, concert, or any other tangible thing will be just that – a short-term fix.

New ministries, new staff members, new leadership, new branding, etc. will not provide that which is most needed. That being said, there are definitely moments where each of the previously listed items, and more, must be addressed. Some things must change. Some ministries need to be shelved. That's a reality and I am for all that. However, what I am saying is that to simply focus on the latest marketed "church fix" would be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Things would look good for a season, but that shifting and rearranging would do nothing to keep the ship afloat or moving forward.

Knowing the state of the evangelical church in our nation today, and just observing the data from the evangelical churches (especially the traditionally Baptist ones in my own city) it is clear that the next trendy fix will do little more than delay the inevitable.

While I'm addressing the realities of established churches, church planters and new works should take heed as well. 

Copy + Paste Programming

Anyone who works with computers of software to any degree understands the "copy + paste" illustration. Software allows for the copying of text or images from one document or program to another. All you have to do is "paste" the copied item to the new work and, voila, it's a new creation. Well, it's a new look, but there's really nothing new there. It's the same thing, just replicated. This is not new. Andy Warhol make much by copying and pasting images for his modern artistic works. Ever see the Campbell's soup can or Marilyn Monroe work from Warhol?

When I was a kid in Alabama, a new hamburger restaurant opened. It was headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee and apparently the founder was a disgruntled worker from another famous fast-food restaurant. The name of the new restaurant was Judy's. Judy's sold hamburgers with square meat patties. They had sides like fries and chili and shakes. Their logo was a blond girl that looked much like a redhead many would recognize today.

Judy's
Cedar Rapids, IA - Judy’s Home Style Hamburgers & Fixin’s restaurant is seen under construction at 1854 42nd St. NE. Shortly after completion of the new Judy’s stores in Cedar Rapids, a lawsuit was brought against the franchise by Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant because of close similarities, forcing the closure of the Judy’s restaurants. All Judy’s stores were subsequently absorbed into the Wendy’s chain, including the store in this photo. Gazette photo November 19, 1977.

 

 

The restaurant was not bad. Our family ate there once, but as soon as we went it, it was clear...this was a clone. We were eating in a clone of Wendy's restaurant. The food tasted the same. The building was modeled the same. The only differences were that Judy's was blue where Wendy's was red, the girl was blond instead of a redhead, and they had fruit pies (the good, deep-fried ones like McDonald's used to have) instead of Frostys.

Wendy's took them to court and won a cease and desist case. Judy's closed down. They had to pay Wendy's $10 million. Some of their restaurants became Wendy's and now the copy is just barely found on the internet as a restaurant that "used to be."

I know some Judy-style churches that are little more than clones of other churches.

They have found models that work in certain cities and communities, have sought to copy them exactly and paste them into their systems, expecting healthy results.

It's the easy fix. It's the easy way to launch. Just do what someone else is doing. Makes sense, right?

I've attended some of these churches. Some are wonderfully organized and have moved beyond a simple cloning to develop their own identity and processes. That's been done numerous times and actually can lead to health in the church.

Nevertheless, there are others who have sought to be something they never were supposed to be. Sure, Andy Stanley has a pretty good ministry and maybe you can copy his model, but the fact is - you're not Andy Stanley and you aren't in Alpharetta, you didn't launch with a large group of church attenders decades ago, so just stop. Take advantage of the principles of health and growth perhaps, but stop trying to be Andy.

For some of you, Andy's ministry is far from what you desire, so in your cases, stop trying to be...

  • Matt Chandler
  • John Piper
  • Robby Gallaty
  • Rick Warren
  • J.D. Greear
  • H.B. Charles
  • Eric Mason
  • Or whomever you love to listen to preach

Each of these men, and many others, have great things to offer and their churches do as well. But, you are not them. Even if you live in their cities, you are not in their churches (likely) and God has a calling for you that will differ from theirs.

The copy + paste mentality of church replication may be fueling more of the celebrity church and celebrity pastor growth that we see in our culture today. We should be better than this.

I respect each of the men mentioned above, have read much of what they have respectively written, have talked to some of them personally, listened to most of them preach live and online, and have nothing but respect for them. I have learned from them. I have been blessed by them. But...I am not any of them. And neither are you.

Does this mean that we cannot learn from other local churches? Absolutely not. Pastors continue to meet together, text each other, talk on the telephone, and seek insight into ministries (i.e. programs and events) that prove fruitful.

The warning is to not fall into the trap of believing that simply copying another's contextual ministry model and pasting it in one's church will result in healthy, fruitful, ministry. 

Programs come and go. Styles shift. Methodology changes. Contextual clarity is a must, and is a moving target. Yet, even so, we are reminded that since there's nothing new under the sun, the hope and strength we have as local churches must be founded on the gospel and the greatest commandment.

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31 (ESV) [1]

So, young pastor just starting out, or seasoned pastor struggling to move your church forward - stop looking around for some "secret sauce" of ministry that will fix everything in your congregation and context. Start with your own heart and personal walk. Talk with friends in ministry and seek wise counsel. Will you be led to change things in your church setting? Perhaps, but remember, most disciple-making takes time. In fact, I believe all disciple-making takes time. Leading a healthy church is about leading a disciple-making fellowship - and it will take time. 

Press on. Be encouraged.

Don't pastor a "Judy's Hamburger Church" that is simply a copy of someone else's work. I'm not sure there's such a thing as spiritual plagiarism, but this comes close. 

 

 

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mk 12:29-31). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


Black History and White Pastors

In 1926, the second week in February was declared "Negro History Week" by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Why February? Why the second week? The week was chosen based on the birth dates of two gentlemen revered by many black Americans - Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). 

The intent was to emphasize and encourage the study of valuable history of American blacks in the public schools. 

Not surprisingly, the first weekly celebration was met with lukewarm response by many. In some cases, lukewarm would be considered an overstatement. Nevertheless, the event was created and became an annual emphasis, gaining strength over the years. It was not long before the Negro History Week was being promoted by churches and groups throughout the nation. 

The week morphed and grew into Black History Month in 1969, first at Kent State University. As you know, the late 1960s were trying times. The Civil Rights Movement had grown from gatherings in 1954 to swell in the late 1960s, leading to long-overdue legislation. Yet, just passing laws did not solve the racial divide issues in our nation. In fact, now almost fifty years later, as far as we have come, there are still great racial divides, distrust, and disunity. Oh, don't get me wrong, I believe we have come far, but then again...I'm a white, middle-class male and my perspective relates that.

I know deeply that though we have come far, we have far to go. 

So, it is February once more. It's Black History Month (or African-American History Month as it is now often labeled.) I read the quote from Carter Woodson today regarding why he felt the need to begin such a focus. 

"If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization."

As I pray through the significance of such a focus this month, I cannot help but admit that I do not know much, much less enough, about the significant history of black Americans, not to mention black Christian theologians. 

Some push back and say things like "What about a white history month?" I know they mean well (or maybe not) but the truth is every month seems to be primarily a white history month. There are no labels for such, but I don't have to struggle to remember hearing and reading historical accounts of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Dolly Madison, Napoleon, Queen Victoria, Dwight Eisenhower, etc. World (mostly European) and American history is predominantly white.

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Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on Visual Hunt / No known copyright restrictions

While there should be emphases on "brown" and "yellow" (pardon the colloquialisms) for great historical achievements from those from Latin American, Hispanic, and Asian heritages, this month's focus is on the historical significance of those with the darkest shade of melanin.

I have heard it stated, or at least alluded to, that to celebrate or focus on such a racially centered month of history means that one is liberal. I reject that. Liberalism and conservatism (based on current American political definitions) should not come into play when recognizing the achievements of those in our nation and culture who should be remembered. 

I'm Not Racist, But...

Have you ever heard anyone begin a conversation with that phrase? Do you know what that means? It means the next words out of that person's mouth will likely reveal the racial or racially insensitive undertones deep within their heart or mind. Many don't even know they have these.

  • "I'm not racist, but I'm not sure my kid will do well at that school. There are just too many people there who are ... different from him." Yep, I've heard this one and I know the school being referenced. What does this statement mean? Well, in some cases it could be a statement about educational strength, teacher qualifications, academic health, etc. But, in this case, it meant one thing. "I'm not sure my white kid will do well in a school with so many black kids." Uh...yeah. 
  • "I'm not racist, but I don't see why we have to study black history every February."
  • "I'm not racist, but I don't like the NBA anymore since Larry Bird retired. It's so urban now."
  • "I'm not racist, but I think different races worship differently so it's okay to have churches for each group." 

There are more. I've heard them all. I am sure I have said some of them in the past. For that I repent. Why? Because...it's racist and that is sin!

Racial Unity Must Be Gospel Unity

Recently I was asked to co-chair with my friend, Pastor Elijah Simmons of Mt. Horeb Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, a committee, or team of pastors and leaders in our local Baptist association focused on addressing clearly the issues of racial unity and gospel clarity among our churches. As we prepare to meet this month, I am convicted that personally, I have far to go. 

I have far to go because I am unaware of so much that our black and African-American Christian brothers and sisters have offered and have to offer to the world of Christendom. I have far to go because as I look at the books on my shelves, most are, or were, written by white men. I have hundreds of books. I have a handful written by black authors. I have far to go. No wonder many young black men and women believe that Christianity is a white man's religion. 

If you ask the average white Christian church attender to name an African-American pastor in the United States, you will likely get a few names of those who preach prosperity false gospel messages and live lavish lifestyles (BTW - there are more white guys and ladies doing the same) and be unable to name those who preach the gospel with clarity, sincerity, and right division of the Word. 

Yet, there are many whom all would be helped to hear. Just some...

  • Eric Mason
  • H.B. Charles, Jr.
  • Cam Triggs
  • Tony Evans
  • Thabiti Anyabwile
  • Robert Smith
  • Elijah Simmons
  • Fred Luter
  • Eric Cummings
  • Many more (anytime I try to make a list, I leave many off, so this is just a short-list of those I have listened to.)

The skin tone of these men is not what makes their preaching valuable. Their commitment to the Lord and solid preaching of the gospel makes their preaching powerful and valuable.

I know to begin to talk about race relations and black-white issues in our nation, one will be vilified. I know the conversations we will have as pastors come on the heels of hundreds of conversations and prayers of those men and women before us (of all shades of skin tone.) 

It may even be risky.

But, then again, hasn't it always been risky? 

Hasn't it always been risky for Christians to declare truth, stand for what is right and holy, and declare truth as prophets of old did, when the populace refused to listen?

Then again, who ever said Christianity was for those who want it easy?

Unity in the Gospel

I was recently asked why I would agree to serve on the gospel unity commission mentioned earlier. This is why:

Since the inception of the SBC (which, by the way was fueled by the unfortunate and sinful practice of slavery) there have been at least 31 SBC resolutions regarding race. Each has been framed by world events, cultural practices, and even at times, acceptable sins. At different moments, through God’s direction, SBC leaders have revisited our history and offered greatly needed and rightly worded resolutions centered on repentance of previously held beliefs and practices among member churches and denominational institutions regarding race.

While it is clear we as a denomination have come far from our first gathering in 1845, the facts remain that continued steps of progress regarding race relations among Baptists and all believers must be taken. The need for our member churches to unite publicly for the sake of the gospel requires us to stand firmly as brothers and sisters in Christ, allowing for no form of privilege, acceptance, or even friendship based on race to flourish. Some say that as a nation we are more divided now than ever. I’m sure our black and brown brothers and sisters who grew up during the 1960s in the South, not to mention the ancestors who were owned by other human beings may declare it was worse then than now. Nevertheless, we do know that the division that exists today is very real, and sometimes to our dismay, that divide is not just outside the church walls.

Therefore, our group is coming together, as we have been for years (because we are brothers, pastors, and friends) to focus on this issue clearly. The stand for gospel unity as it relates to racial diversity is a narrow place. Yet, the narrower the place we stand, the broader the influence we will have for the sake of the gospel.

We have come far. We have far to go. Fortunately, we are not creating our path. God already has.

Happy Black History Month. 


When "It Could Happen Here" Actually Happens Here

It has been said that the world is shrinking. With the propagation of 24-hour news channels and the growth of social media, events taking place on the other side of the world (like the Olympics) are viewed in real-time. What used to take hours to be disseminated now is known in seconds.

It's true for global news and sporting events, but those stories pale in comparison to what was made known yesterday.

Yesterday, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (Broward County), Nikolas Cruz (19) barged into his former high school with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle and carried out one of the deadliest shootings in modern American history. Seventeen were murdered. A school and community has been rocked. Families are devastated.

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The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was one of the deadliest in American history. Credit Saul Martinez for The New York Times

A Columbine-type event happened again. This time much closer to where we live. The images from the news show students, teachers, parents, police officers, community residents who look just like our neighbors...because they are our neighbors (though a few hundred miles south.)

Others are ramping up their lobbying efforts and political pushes based on these events. 

I, however, am praying for these families of those slain, for the students impacted, for the coaches, teachers, school employees, and administrators who cannot just get back to "business as usual." I'm praying for my brothers who serve as pastors in the community as they serve those in their churches who were impacted, some tragically. I'm praying for those believers and churches who want to do something, and will do much for the sake of the gospel at this time.

I'm praying for justice for the one who committed the crime. And, just in case it's not clear, a prayer for justice can coincide with prayer he finds hope in Christ. Those are not mutually exclusive prayers.

Some state that the #PrayFor_____ movements that come when tragedies occur are empty. In truth, they may be for most, but for believers who follow Christ, true prayer is not a passive thought designed to make self feel good, but active and powerful and real. May we be men and women of prayer, holding up the arms of our brothers and sisters in south Florida who are currently in the center of the tragedy.

It could happen here.

Now, it has happened here.


Church Unity Is Not Always a Good Thing

I came to serve on pastoral staff at First Baptist Church of Orange Park in 1994. Our senior pastor, Allen Harrod saw something in me that led the church to say "yes" when the time came to call a new student pastor. I am thankful for him and his willingness to take a chance on a just graduated (actually not even graduated at the time of the hiring) seminary student who had never even been a member of a church with more than 120 regular attenders. 

In the early 2000s Dr. Harrod retired and moved back home to Kentucky.

It was during this time I submitted my name to the pastor search committee for consideration as senior pastor. This was a huge step of faith, not only for me, but especially for the committee and the church.

In 2005, the church called me to be the senior pastor, a position I have held since August of that year.

As I think back to the process of hiring, I met with the deacon body, the personnel committee, the pastor search committee, and numerous other groups. These meetings took place over a number of months. We had been without a pastor for over a year and a sense was growing among the church members that a senior pastor needed to be called soon. The committees were praying through whether or not to call me and present me to the church body for a vote. It was a time of uncertainty, but I was confident that whether the church called me or said no, God had a plan. In fact, I'm still confident of that and rest in that daily. Nevertheless, the church called me, and as much as I felt unqualified to serve as student pastor at this church in 1994, that feeling was exponentially larger for this new role.

The common, stated desire of church leaders and members was that the church be unified. 

Unity is good, but unity must never be the goal.

Church unity is not always a good thing.

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Photo credit: <a href="https://visualhunt.com/author/a99b2d">tHeDiGiTaLdRoPoUt</a> on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/re/2dad6e">VisualHunt</a> / <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/"> CC BY-NC-SA</a>

Sometimes, unity can be sinful

When churches are sinfully unified the unity becomes a tool of the enemy keeping believers from repentance and holy living.

For example, in 1845 my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was formed. Despite all the good that has been done through SBC evangelistic and mission endeavors over the years, the fact remains that our denomination was founded, at least partially, on the agreed, and unified belief among leaders that slavery was okay. 

Our own denomination was birthed out of a commitment to preserve and defend slavery. We cannot evade the historical facts. Along with Presbyterians and Methodists, Baptists broke their national fellowship over the morality of slave ownership. The nomination of James Reeve, a Georgia Baptist and slaveholder, to serve as a missionary through the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) was a clear test intended to force the society's hand one way or another, to take sides with either abolitionists or with slavery's defenders. The ABHMS chose not to receive the application, thereby trying to avoid making any pronouncement on the issue. When Alabama Baptists subsequently wrote to the Triennial Convention, headquartered in Boston, regarding the board's disposition toward appointing slaveholders to foreign mission work, things took a more concrete form. The board members replied: "If ... any one should offer himself as a missionary, having slaves, and should insist on retaining them as his property, we could not appoint them. One thing is certain, we can never be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery." In response, by May 1845 white delegates from the deep South gathered in Augusta, Georgia, and formed a new mission society, the Southern Baptist Convention. The majority of the 293 delegates came from Georgia and South Carolina. After organizing the new fellowship, forged in defense of slavery, the distinguished guests ironically joined together to sing "Blest Be the Tie That Binds." 1

These Christian leaders were unified. They were unified in their sinful and wrongly held beliefs that slavery was okay, or at a minimum not a gospel issue. We could debate the cultural understandings and political ramifications. Some even reference others in Christendom who held slaves. Even some biblical characters were slaveholders. I have had those discussions with others, but I would caution anyone, especially Christians, from attempting to justify the ownership of another human being as anything but ultimately sinful.

Fortunately, God has redeemed our churches from this chapter in history. At least, we hope and believe the process of redemption has begun.

To bring it a bit more to current day, even though slavery was outlawed following the Civil War, the race divide did not disappear in America, even among those claiming the name of Christ. 

Throughout the twentieth century, and sadly even today, there are "white" churches where blacks are not welcome. I'm sure there are "black" or "brown" churches who do not welcome whites either, but that does not excuse the prominent white churches in America. Since I'm a white guy (just in case that wasn't clear from my picture to the left on this blog) I'll speak about the white churches.

There have been/are "white" churches who are unified in their beliefs regarding the acceptance of blacks in their membership. Their unified beliefs that churches should remain segregated by race are wrong. Those beliefs are sinful and do not honor God. 

Yet, they're unified.

In some cases, Christians accept people of other races into church membership, but if one were desirous to marry their child, the issues of what is right and holy come up. I even had a former church member come to me for counsel, seeking biblical references affirming the sinfulness of interracial (black and white in this case) marriage. That church member did not receive the counsel desired. There is no biblical support for such. 

Yet, some churches are unified in their abhorrence to inter-racial marriage.

They are wrong.

See what I mean.

Since some of you wish I would get off the race issue, let's address another area where churchgoers are unified and wrong. As the cultural revolution continues to change what is considered normative and acceptable in our society, churches and denominations are having to answer questions previous generations never considered. 

Gender issues and identity questions are at the forefront and unified statements regarding acceptable weddings and other issues now make the news. While some wish to equate the gender and sexual identity issues to those of race, I would see those as not comparative. 

Some churches have abandoned what I deem as biblical teaching to acquiesce to the new cultural norms. 

From my perspective, there are churches standing together in unity, but abandoning the full teaching of the gospel (not unlike our SBC fore-bearers).

So, unity is not always good. 

When Unity is Godly

When the church is unified, there is power, but the key question is "On what are we unified?"

This is not about opinions regarding church methodology. This is about unity in Christ.

Unity within the body of Christ must be centered on the truth and person of Christ. Unity must affirm and focus on the Trinity. The foundation of the unified church must be the gospel.

To be unified on other issues, allowing those to become primary, may lead us down a road far from the gospel and the mission of the church. For that we must be cautioned. Yet, unity in the gospel is to be sought. Jesus' prayer speaks of this.

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. John 17:6-211 (ESV)

May we be unified in Christ.

____________________

1Jarvis J. Williams and Kevin M. Jones, Removing the stain of racism from the Southern Baptist Convention: diverse African American and white perspectives (Nasvhille, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 10.


Why Didn't Any Black Employees Come to Work Today?

Well, I know the title of this post may draw some attention (and that's the intention) but to be honest, this was the very naive question that I had almost thirty years ago when I was interning at a Fortune 500 company. I shared an office with another student - an African-American young woman (we were all young back then) who was getting her degree at another university in the city. Trina was a great office-mate and became a good friend. We worked together for just over a year and a half.

It was on a Monday in January back in 1989. I worked in an executive marketing office as computer support staff. The employees on our floor, whom I supported with my technical know-how (I could reboot computers and put dot-matrix printer paper in their printers) had worked for the corporation for decades. They were a professional, diverse, and experienced sales force. 

On that Monday, I came to work and noticed that Trina was not there. Then I noticed some of the sales force were gone as well. Normally that happens when trade shows or conferences are scheduled and a group are on the road, but that wasn't the case on this day.

It didn't take long to notice the common denominator of all the absent employees was skin color. Our African-American coworkers were not present. Oh, there were some others gone as well, but the entire executive office building was void of black and brown employees on that Monday, and it was obvious.

I don't think I asked the question aloud, but I did think, "Where are all the black employees?" 

Naive? Clearly.

The fact I had no idea why a large group of employees would be off work on MLK Day in 1989 is embarrassing. The corporation had set holidays where employees were off, plus an option for a few "personal holidays." Apparently, this allowed those who celebrated certain religious days to not work without the corporation being viewed as endorsing a religion. I imagine that was the reasoning for MLK Day to be a "personal holiday" as well. From my perspective, however, it positioned the holiday to second tier and not that important.

About ten years ago, I chose to have our church office closed on MLK Day as a time of remembrance, and honoring of the memory of what Dr. King represents in our nation. 

Yep - prior to that, First Baptist Church of Orange Park viewed MLK Day as just another office work day. A hold over from a prior era? Perhaps. Maybe the changing "white-ness" of our community actually opened our eyes to the reality of Gospel ministry and racial reconciliation, which in my view cannot be separated. We do close the office now. It is a time of remembrance and hopefulness for the future. 

Why Does This Matter?

There are numerous reasons Americans should seek to be honor the ideals of racial reconciliation. In our current era, the racial divide, especially between blacks and whites in our nation, seems to be widening rather than shrinking. Oh, there are good stories that abound as well, but as far as we have come from the days of slavery, the era of segregation, and the push for civil rights, it is clear we have far yet to go.

Nevertheless, for me, a Southern Baptist pastor at a Southern Baptist Church, there are some glaring reasons why we (especially Southern Baptists) must not ignore this day, much less the ideals and message of Dr. King.

For decades, since the inception of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), race has been an issue. In fact, the SBC was actually founded in the 1840s by slaveholders who were opposed to the abolitionist movements and the fact the national denomination would not send missionaries who were pro-slavery.

As a Southern Baptist who is actually proud of all we do as a network of churches throughout the world in our churches, through missions, disaster relief, orphan care, and racial reconciliation, the fact remains we have a sordid past and numerous embarrassing and sinful chapters. When the SBC passed a resolution a number of years ago apologizing for the covert and overt racial separations of leaders generations prior, many white Baptists were vocal in their opposition and their belief it was unneeded. In a brief reading of SBC history, one can find resolutions on race from all the way back to 1845 at the convention's inception. Reading these "whereas" statements are interesting and sad at points, as it seems more should have been done. This is likely true, but even as white as the SBC is today, it was even whiter in the past and the resolutions, even the very best ones (and there are some great ones) were penned by a white majority with good intent, but at times not enough vigor or clarity.

Of course, that's my opinion.

Even last year at our annual meeting in Phoenix, when a resolution regarding the denouncement of the racist "alt-right" movement was brought to the floor, it was not until it failed to pass that the voting messengers realized a missed opportunity and the mistake it was.

Eventually, a resolution on the subject was reintroduced and the overwhelming affirmation was heard throughout the evangelical world. But, I caution the white pastors of SBC churches from straining their shoulder by patting themselves on the back too hard. I have talked with a number of my African-American SBC pastor friends and they have expressed a question of belonging and acceptance. 

It seems that I cannot help from viewing the world through my white American lenses. 

Neither can my black, brown, or any other melanin shade help but view the world from their respective lenses.

So when a moment is before us - you know, something like acknowledging the federal holiday known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it is wise to not ignore it. 

However, more than acknowledgment of the past must be done.

The Dream Remains

Dr. King's most famous speech shared in August 1963 in Washington DC resonates with Americans. Yet, the dream of equality among the races remains something yet to be fully experienced. So, it remains.

I believe the racial unity expressed in Dr. King's dream is more than a man-made desire. At the core is the gospel.

Dr. Jarvis J. Williams of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary writes...

In the Bible, racial identity is not based on pseudoscience, which wrongly argues one's racial identity is based exclusively on biology. We must understand that the Bible's category of race has absolutely nothing to do with racial hierarchy based on biological inferiority. We must also understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message about the vertical reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles to God and a message about the horizontal reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles (of all skin tones - my addition) to one another.

Some have argued that racial reconciliation is not a gospel issue. I strongly disagree with that concept. Some like Pastor Randy White, in his 2014 post "The Evangelical Response to Ferguson and Why I Don't Get It" assert that the issue is social, not gospel. In his assertion, he limits race to skin color when defining it. He, as well as others, have criticized other Southern Baptists who have asserted in light of Ferguson that the gospel has anything to do with race and racial reconciliation. 

Clearly, I disagree with Pastor White. Strongly.

There's much more to be done and said and perhaps, if nothing else, the celebration of this holiday will force us as Christians to pray for and with our brothers and sisters in Christ, seeking gospel unity (which includes racial unity) for the glory of God and ultimately the good of his people.

For my African-American brothers, sisters, and friends, please forgive my naiveté of the past (and even the present.) It's clear why so many co-workers took a personal holiday. I wish I had as well.

Mlk 2018

BTW - I highly recommend this book by Dr. Williams and Dr. Kevin M. Jones - Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention.

Also, for my white pastor friends, in order to broaden your concepts regarding a black Christian perspective on things, check out my friends at the Jude 3 Project. Insightful, and challenging videos, postings, and resources.

And, to answer the oft-asked question - Yes, there are more "races" than black and white, but in our context in America, with the holiday we celebrate today, and the history we own collectively, the black-white divide is the one where healing must begin, continue to grow, and expand. Remember, it's a gospel issue.


Pastor - Are You Prepared to Preach a Funeral?

I have the honor of serving with and leading numerous young pastors and church planters. These men have a passion for God and a heart for the gospel. Yet, there are those moments when pastoral expectations and responsibilities are thrust upon them that are far from what they were thinking when they first surrendered to God's pastoral call.

One such responsibility is preaching funerals.

We are only four days into 2018 and so far we have hosted one funeral, have two more Friday, one next week and another pending.

Since 1994, when I first began serving on pastoral staff at our church, I have attended and preached at well over 100 funerals. I have most of my messages saved. I have learned some things through the years and while this is not an exhaustive list, perhaps it may be helpful for young pastors and those who find themselves having to speak at a church member's or loved one's funeral service.

EXPECTATIONS

Everyone has their own expectations of what a funeral service should be. In fact, each region of our country expects different things. In our area, the visitation held the day before the funeral service is mostly gone. Yet, in some small towns in the South, I know that this continues. For example, in the small Tennessee town where my parents live, a dear friend of our family died on January 1 of this year. I received word of the service with the announcement that visitation would be held at the funeral home on the day prior to the service for three hours with an additional two hour visitation at the church where the funeral would be held. 

There's nothing wrong with that tradition, it's just an example of something that is rare elsewhere. 

Therefore, if you as a pastor are new to the community and have not attended a funeral in the area prior, ask some questions. Find out what is the norm for the region. There's no reason to push against what has been done prior, especially if it is simply traditional preference and not biblically wrong (I'll address biblical issues later in this post.)

Family members of the deceased often have expectations as well. This can range from having things they want done at the funeral to trusting you to plan and do everything at the funeral. Again, not an issue, just be aware. 

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Here are some bullet points on dos and don'ts for funerals (in no particular order):

DO

  • Pray before you meet with family that God will comfort them in their grief and provide you with wise words of counsel in preparation.
  • If you sense division among the family, take control of the planning of the service in a loving way, offering to ensure that God is honored. 
  • Ensure you know how to pronounce the name of the deceased.
  • Ensure you don't use a given name that was not preferred by the decedent or family members when referencing the individual.
  • Meet with the family members, or a family member, prior to the service when planning what to say.
  • Share stories of the decedent that bring smiles to loved ones and remind them of the life of their loved one.
  • Realize that a lifetime cannot be encapsulated in 30 minutes.
  • Have appropriate songs played, sung.
  • Ensure doctrinal teaching is biblically founded and correct.
  • When allowing family members or friends to speak, ask them to write down what they will be saying. Be firm in this. There's always that person who says "I don't need to write anything down. I'll just share from the heart." That's a mistake. You may find yourself correcting bad theology that is espoused, or sitting behind them as they speak, not hearing what they are saying. This may lead to you repeating what has already been shared. And, if they have it written down, you can provide them comfort in case they cannot finish when they began to speak by just reading their notes aloud on their behalf.
  • Remind family members that no one other than you is expected to speak, but if you would like to offer them the opportunity, do so (see above point.)
  • Pray during the service.
  • Pray for God to comfort those who grieve.
  • Create an order of service that flows naturally. (Example: Obituary Reading, Prayer, Family Message, Song, Pastoral Message, Prayer, Closing Song.)
  • Communicate with the funeral home representative regarding the order of the service so you know and they know what is coming next.
  • Ensure the casket is closed when the service begins. It's hard on the family and challenging for the pastor to speak behind an open casket. 
  • Offer hope - real hope founded in the gospel. You know this. Just make sure it's in your notes so you don't minimize it.
  • Ensure the message focused on Christ and that he is presented as the only one worthy of worship and that God alone can bring the peace, hope, and life celebrated on this day.
  • Make each funeral unique and special. The biblical message is unchanging, but the family stories and memories are unique. 
  • Offer a call to salvation. This does not have to be a "come down the aisle invitation" but should at a minimum be an invitation to come to Christ and speak to you or another Christian following the funeral.
  • If military honors are going to be provided, clarify when (likely at the graveside) and work with the honor guard to ensure a smooth transition. In most cases, at graveside service following the funeral, I will simply read a passage of Scripture and pray and then step back, turning over the remaining graveside service to the honor guard. If the folding and presentation of the flag is to take place during the funeral service, I finish my sermon, pray, then step back turning over the closing of the service to the honor guard. Communication and coordination is key to allow for proper service and protocol.
  • If the deceased was a believer, ask if he/she had a Bible they used and perhaps highlighted verses or took notes within. You may find some treasured memories or insights into what to share.
  • Pray and prepare and trust God.
  • Use Scripture (Some passages I've used in the past - Ecclesiastes 7:2, John 5:24, John 13:7, John 14:1-6, 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, Philippians 1:20-24, 1 John 5:13.)

DON'T

  • Forget that this is a time of worship, where the Bible is preached, God is worshipped, and hope in Christ is made clear.
  • If at all possible, do not have an open microphone where people are invited to come forward and share about the decedent. It can be an wonderful moment, but it can also be stressful. If no one stands up to speak, people will be hurt. In most cases, it's because people are not comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. If people do begin sharing, the time could go on and on and be stressful for family and friends as well. However, if this becomes something the family really, really wants, ask if they have a few people who would agree to speak and then share with the congregation that you'll open up the floor to two or three more just to share a brief, two or three sentence testimony about the deceased. It may sound uncaring, but actually provides for an orderly service where God is honored and the loved one is remembered well. Also, be prepared if you have to do the open mic to have some things shared that probably should not be.
  • Allow music that is dishonoring to Christ. That does not mean every song must be a hymn, but some songs are inappropriate. Had one request for the decedent's favorite song to be played during the pre-service slide show. I had never heard of it and didn't know it was a request, but received a call from the funeral home asking "Is this song okay?" I guess the part about smoking pot and getting drunk on Courvoisier raised the question. We opted to not use that song.
  • Forget who your audience is. You're speaking primarily to the family members and close friends who are sitting up front. Focus on them. Don't worry about the others who came to the service.
  • Forget to offer hope in Christ.
  • Give false hope. If the deceased was not a believer, don't say "He/she's in a better place." You don't have to be rude. You don't need to be mean. Just don't give the family and others in the room the false hope that everyone gets to heaven. 
  • Share or affirm unbiblical ideas. No, dead people do not become angels. No, your loved one is not your guardian angel. No, your loved one is not watching over you. No, your loved one is not in your heart. No, your loved one is not in heaven just doing bigger versions of earthly hobbies (i.e. golfing in heaven, fishing in heaven, watching football in heaven regardless what Audio Adrenaline said, eating ... well, okay, there's eating.)
  • Talk forever. 
  • Let the video slideshow run during the service. It's great for pre-service, but distracting during the service.
  • Invite everyone to the meal following the service unless you've been instructed that everyone is invited and there is enough food available (if the post-service lunch is a custom in your area.)
  • Allow an open casket during the funeral. During the visitation prior that is fine (if the family chooses) but preaching behind an open casket is difficult, not just for the pastor, but for the family sitting before it.
  • Presume the family wants you to preach at the funeral. Clarify the ask.

There are many more things to do and not do, but as you serve God's church and the community during times of grief, these are some guidelines I believe may help. What are some other suggestions you have? Leave them in the comments.