Connecting With Offline & Non-Internet Connected Church Members During a Pandemic

Each week I join a Zoom meeting (like many, I have become accustomed to numerous online meetings and gatherings and have had more meetings using the app Zoom than ever before) with other pastors in our region. The purpose is to pray for one another, share concerns, and learn from each other new ways of ministering to and with our congregations during this time of social distancing and the inability of meeting together in large groups.

Most of us are finding this new way of coming together as a church to be challenging. I think each week a few pastors lament the lack of face-to-face gatherings while being thankful that we have more options now than ever for online streaming and internet-based meetings.

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The lamentable growth of social media and all the negativity that comes with it (e.g. Twitter debates, Instagram envy, Facebook venting, etc.) has been moved aside as churches and ministries seek to redeem the online tools for the day. We have shifted everything we can to streaming and online groups. It is good, but not best and we long for the day when the church can come together face-to-face once again. We pray this is soon.

Not Everyone Is Online

As our church leadership has worked through our membership rolls, calling individuals to see if they have any needs and how they are doing personally, we have discovered a few things.

First, we discovered that many more church members have disabled their landlines in their homes and never informed the church. Therefore, we have incorrect information in our membership database for quite a few people.

Second, we found that we were talking to some church members who have not been to the church for years and actually either forgot they were members or have joined elsewhere and...never let us know. That's not their fault, but reveals how many times we as a church have let others "fall through the cracks." 

Third, we discovered that the least used app on our smartphones actually works. I'm referring to the "phone" app that on most phones is an icon of an old landline headset and when clicked actually dials a number so that another phone rings and an actual conversation can happen. I say this in jest, but in the day of text messaging and email, we (well...I) just don't make as many actual phone calls as I used to.

Fourth, we found that some in our church membership do not have smartphones, a computer in the house, or internet capability. In fact, some of these dear saints have no desire to have any of these things and will not be getting them.

Connecting with Offline Members

This last revelation is not actually surprising. In most of these cases, the individuals are senior adults. They did not grow up using personal computers. Many of them retired prior to their companies moving to be fully-computerized. In some cases, the computers they have used were not WYSIWYG icon-driven point-and-click devices connected to the internet, but old-school, C-prompt green text on black screen devices and dumb-head terminals. If those terms to not mean anything to you, don't worry. It may just mean you're young enough to have never used such. 

When social media took off many seniors eventually jumped on board at the insistence of their children and family members living in other states and regions. All the sudden the media platform designed only for college students (Facebook) became predominantly used by older adults. 

Still, not everyone jumped on board for various reasons.

The challenge for us today was in how to keep connected with these church members who cannot join a Zoom meeting online, watch a service on YouTube, or even comment on a Facebook post?

Since these online options are the primary ones we're using, we discovered that we must find a way in addition to regular phone calls, to keep these dear saints connected.

As all of us know personally, these dear saints were saddened they could not be with their friends and church family members weekly. They also shared that they missed hearing our Sunday services. While they were watching some very good pastors preach on television each week, they stated that it just was not the same and that the church they watched was not their church family.

I thought about mailing (snail mail) a copy of my sermon transcript weekly to these members. I may still do that as needed, but even then, I knew I would miss some. I needed another alternative.

Dial-A-Sermon

When I was a child I remember our little church getting a large phone bill one month. My mother was the church secretary, so that's how I heard about this. This increase baffled the pastor and office staff until it was discovered that the pastor's son had been using the church phone to call "Dial-a-Joke" numerous times. This phone line was a pay-per-call line and the young man didn't know it was going to charge the church. The bill racked up...and to be honest, the jokes weren't that funny.

I only remembered that story when I saw a church in the UK post that they had developed a "Dial-A-Sermon" option for their church members. At first, I thought "That's a waste." It sounded so old-school and dated and then I read more. It seems that this was a fix for the issue facing our church. By setting up this "Dial-A-Sermon" option, church members could call a number, hear a recorded voice state that they had reached the church's sermon line and then shortly, the audio from the previous Sunday's sermon would play. It's not ideal, but it works. A person can listen to a full sermon on their telephone (I would recommend a speaker phone for this.) 

This is much better than Dial-A-Joke!

For a very nominal fee (about $1 a month) this was done.

I went to the website linked and in about thirty minutes had signed up for the app (Twilio,) chosen a number in our area code (one actually assigned to my town) recorded a welcome note and linked the previous Sunday's audio file to the app. So far the number has been called at least twenty times. I know that because I have called it twenty times throughout the week just to see if it still works.

I called the senior ladies in our church who had told me they had no way to watch or hear our sermons and gave them the number. They were so happy. It was as if they had been reconnected at least in one small way to their church in this age of stay-at-home distancing. 

Since then, I have shared the information with numerous churches. I have seen a few begin their own "Dial-A-Sermon" option. 

Maybe it is something that can help you and your church as well. 

Rather than type up a step-by-step order of how to do this, I will just link the page where I found my instructions. It's on the Switched On Network site. Click here.

This is just one more way to connect with church members (By the way - personal phone calls remain the best.) If you have discovered others, please leave comments below. I would love to hear them.

If you're interested in hearing how it sounds, our Dial-A-Sermon number is 904-298-6417 (regular rates apply if you're calling long distance from a landline.)


To the Pastors Not Trending In the News: Well Done!

You have likely seen the headlines...

"Louisiana Pastor Defies Coronavirus Order, Draws Over 1,000 People to Services" (NBC News)
"Florida Pastor Arrested After Defying Virus Orders" (NY Times)
"Churches Hold Crowded Services In Defiance of Government Coronavirus Guidance (Fox News)
"'Demonic Spirit:' Miami Pastor Rejects Coronavirus Warning" (Miami Herald)

These are the stories that trend and make headlines. These are the pastors and religious leaders that pop up on Twitter feeds and trending news reports today. Yet, these are not the norm. These are not representative of the thousands of pastors seeking to glorify God, lead well, shepherd their flocks, and love their neighbors.

These are trying days, and pastors of local churches are not immune to the pressures of being isolated and social distancing. 

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Photo credit: Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ on Visualhunt / CC BY

The handful of attention-grabbing stories seem to be little more than attempts by some to elevate themselves and their particular churches or ministries while claiming the right to do so under the banner of religious freedom.

The challenges before churches and other religious groups today are very real. While some may view mandates as conspiratorial and  little more than government leaders seeking ways to permanently close down churches (NYC Mayor di Blasio's recent press conference notwithstanding) the facts seem to show otherwise. 

The Non-Trending Pastors 

For the past few weeks, there have been hundreds of online meetings of pastors and Christian leaders held. Everyone's timeline has been flooded with screenshots of online meetings with pastors, staff, church leaders, and church members doing what they can to stay connected while social distancing. The jokes about everyone's meetings looking like "Hollywood Squares" or "The Brady Bunch" abound.

Offices have become laptops on desks in back bedrooms. Many pastors understand first-hand what the BBC reporter was facing when his report from South Korea a while back when viral. Do you remember this?

Certainly, things have changed. 

Pastors have agonized with decisions related to weekly gatherings. Pressures to cancel have been weighed against pressures to continue meeting. For the most part, the churches in our community and the pastors I know personally have complied with the social distancing requests. By doing so, they don't make the news. And...that is good.

What is worth noting is that these local churches are not meeting in groups larger than ten. The vast majority have shifted to online preaching and connecting via telephone, emails, texts, and online meetings. Some pastors and churches have taken leaps forward to utilize technology they previously did not use. This has caused quite a bit of stress as well. Yet, it is so encouraging to hear how some who have fast-tracked their learning curve of such things, not to be trendy or cool, but to be effective in staying connected with their church members and community. 

I'm hearing daily from my pastor friends about creative (and recommended guideline-compliant) things being done in their church to minister well during these days. 

The church prevails and God's pastors ARE leading well. In fact, most of the pastors I know are working longer hours and doing more during this time of isolation than in prior weeks simply to minister best to their church members and community.

Press On 

To the pastors out there who will never be a headline on the news, congratulations! You're doing this right. 

Press on. Pastor well. Stay socially distanced, but not socially disconnected. God has placed you where he has and equipped you for the work he called you to do. Even in isolation, you know it's true, but you may need to be reminded - YOU ARE NOT ALONE.


"The Loneliness Solution" by Jack Eason - Book Review

"Loneliness is killing us, and we don't even realize it." (p. 6) 

This opening line in chapter one of Jack Eason's forthcoming book The Loneliness Solution not only draws in the reader but makes a bold declaration. Loneliness is a very real problem in the world. This seems strange since the living generations today are the most interconnected (and perhaps over-connected) generations in history. In an era where the word "friend" has become a verb to describe the act of confirming a connection on social media rather than simply a noun to describe another person whom is invited into a person's life in a close way, loneliness rages.

Loneliness

A few weeks ago, Jack sent me a pre-published copy of the book to read. I was honored to receive this from him and share a bit here of what he covers and why I recommend you get a copy.

Eason shares a story in the initial chapter of a fifty-four-year-old man was found dead in his home four months after his passing. Eventually, the smell from the apartment grew so pungent as the weather shifted from cool to warm, that neighbors starting taking notice. This man's remains were removed and a company was called in that specializes in cleaning the homes of those who are categorized as "lonely deaths." The fact that such a business segment exists startled me.

The research information that Eason provides is staggering, especially when it is revealed that younger adults (those categorized as Generation Z) are the loneliest generation alive. The loneliest generation is also the most interconnected generation in history.

It is true that one can be lonely in a crowd. Even if the crowd is virtual or only on social media.

Not Just "Them"

As the book unfolds, the categorizations of people groups merge when loneliness is clearly not something only young people, or senior adults face. It is a human issue and the heart of man and woman is susceptible to this great attack by the enemy of God. The enemy has attacked the image-bearers of God with subtle and strategic ways that cause many to believe they are okay and have many close friends. Yet, when the layers are peeled back, many of these same individuals find themselves in dark places socially and mentally as their concepts of friendship wane.

Loneliness is therefore, not just something "those people" face. All are potentially affected by the loneliness problem. There are many circumstances and situations that feed into this. Jack Eason delves into the depths of these issues well.

The Problem Has a Solution

As the book states in the title, and clearly lays out in the early chapters, loneliness is a problem. God stated as much in the story of creation.

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Genesis 2:18 (ESV)

It is not good for man, or woman, to be alone. In the Genesis account, God provided a solution. Throughout scripture, he provides a solution to the loneliness problem. Even today, he provides the solution.

Jack Eason exposes why the most interconnected and over-connected generations in history self-identify as the most lonely. He doesn't leave it as simply a description of a state of being, but reveals God's solution. With engaging and relatable stories, Eason expresses God's desire that man or woman not be alone, and provides practical, biblical steps to remedy the issue. Each chapter concludes with a list of recommended action steps. This is more than a theoretical treatise, but a call to action in the community, and as revealed in the final chapters, even within the church.

I strongly recommend this book, especially during this season of isolation. I was sent the pre-release copy of the book (to be published by Revell in October 2020) and have completed the read, with many highlights and underlines. During this time of self-quarantine due to COVID-19 it was a welcome read. What I previously considered a normal, busy schedule has been shifted and slowed. This is true for all. It is during these days that many are, as the country song stated, "finding out who their friends are." The church must, and is proving to, rise up to reconnect with those who were perhaps over-connected, but not really connected. 

Loneliness is a problem. It is a deadly problem. Nevertheless, God has a solution. Be sure to order your copy of The Loneliness Solution today when it is published in October. In the meantime click here to be notified and to receive a FREE downloadable chapter from the book.


Confessions (and Repentance) of An Unintentional Plagiarist

A number of years ago I began writing this blog. I wasn’t sure what blogging was and while blogging likely peaked in popularity on personal sites like mine a few years ago, I continue to post thoughts and insights, and sometimes frustrations, in forms of short articles here.

I continue to read quite a few from pastors and Christian leaders every week (even more during a pandemic, it seems.) While I seek not to live in an echo chamber, I do read from quite a few pastors and ministry leaders who have similar views as me on the state of the western church. I often have a notepad handy and as I read, I jot down points and thoughts that if I had heard shared in person would elicit an “Amen” from me or at least an “Uh-huh!”

I have often then written my own posts with similar themes and my take on the same issues. I tend to have a much smaller readership, so in many ways my posts are for my own sorting out of thoughts and ultimately become the weekly e-mailed newsletter articles we send to our church membership.

My Unoriginal Thoughts

Last Monday I shared a post on how the pandemic reveals much of what we think about church in America and west today. I used illustrations of church growth and expansion we have seen in our culture and my community over the past few decades under the banner of “church growth.” I had written about this prior as have many. I even wrote of the danger of becoming a “Lone Ranger” Christian as many of us have preached against. I felt the need to explain who the Lone Ranger was since the only recent depiction was poorly done in a movie starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer. Nevertheless, the isolationism of Christianity and elevation of consumerism were the foci.

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Photo credit: Maik Meid on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Seeing many online postings about the growing boredom during the pandemic concerns me, so I also wrote about the “Bored Believers” whom we are seeking to lead as pastors.

The problem wasn’t the focus of the article.

The problem was that minutes after posting, I received a message from a Christian leader whom I respect and whose articles and books I read asking why I had basically copied his most recent article posted it as my own. I was shocked. First, that someone actually read my blog. Second, that this brother read my blog. (The original article is by Jared C. Wilson and is posted here.)

I was shocked. Then, shook.

My first reaction was “No way. I didn’t copy his article.”

I immediately clicked onto his article he had linked in the message.

I began reading his article and about halfway through, I began to feel a knot in my stomach as I realized that while I did not intentionally copy his article, it was so very similar (similar titles, three subheadings the same, similar concepts other than personal illustrations and an additional subheading with content) that if it had been submitted to a university or seminary it would not have passed the plagiarism smell test.

This brother’s article was one of many I had read over the weekend and while I thought initially, I was just sharing some challenging thoughts to my church and readership, I saw immediately that three of my four points were not my thoughts. They could not be. My title was basically the same relating to the concept of church and the pandemic.

(I have reread the previous paragraph and my response is “How can one accidentally copy someone else?” And…other than lazy note-taking and irresponsibility related to not linking original articles, which I often do when I share thoughts on my blog from others, there’s no good answer. No excuse.)

I contacted the brother through direct message and apologized. I am doing so again here publicly. I am thankful for the grace he has shown. I confess I tend to apologize over and over after being forgiven. I’m sorry for that, too.

Unintentional or Intentional, Sin Is Sin

Over the past few days since this exchange, I have been wrestling over even writing this. This article today may end up under the category “Too many apologies” and be viewed as weak by many. Yet, here it is. So, these are my thoughts.

Whether I intended to copy another’s intellectual property or not is not the issue. Whether a person intends to sin or not is not the issue. The point is that once a wrongdoing is exposed and revealed, we (well, in this case I) have a responsibility to respond. The response can be deflection, justification of acts, ignoring the hurt, pretending it’s no big deal, initiating some form of weak damage control, or by admitting wrongdoing and repenting.

Once I looked back at the original article and realized that I had read it earlier over the weekend, and compared it to the text of my article, I immediate deleted mine. It’s gone now. Two clicks on the mouse and there isn’t even a copy left in draft mode anywhere. I then shared the original article online.

Did My Actions and Words Fix Things?

Well, not for me. Not completely. Why? Well, because what's done was done. Ultimately because the issue of stealing intellectual property IS a big deal today. It bothers me when ideas are “borrowed” without credit. It is sinful to make money (or gain clicks online) from something that is claimed as original when it is clearly culmination of other’s thoughts. It bothers me because it is stealing. It is sin.

We all know the preacher joke that has been told for years:

  • The first time a story is used in a sermon the preacher says, “So-and-so once said…”
  • The next time that same story is used, the preacher says, “Someone once said…”
  • The next time, the preacher says, “It’s been said for years…”
  • Finally, the preacher says, “As I always say…”

It’s funny (I guess,) but it reveals that sometimes, even in preaching the gospel, in sharing good news, we can be guilty of intentionally or unintentionally gleaning (or just call it what it is – stealing) thoughts and illustrations from others. Now, most would say “That’s no big deal because the end result is what matters.” That is little more than the “end justifies the means” and that argument falls apart in an ethics analysis quickly.

Be Mindful

As many of my brothers will be now be preaching online this weekend and the weekends to come, I would say to go ahead and use illustrations others have used, quote commentaries you have studied, reference sermons from others that you have found helpful, but don’t claim originality. There really is nothing new under the sun, but we must be careful not to claim stories and examples that are not ours. Once integrity is lost, the potentially listening lost will walk away, wondering if the truth you share about Christ is true, or just another borrowed story.

Oh, and be careful if you are broadcasting your services online. Be sure you have the right, legal CCLI permissions to do so. It’s the right thing to do.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I would say I have learned something this week, but I did not learn something new. I was simply and strongly reminded of something I have already learned. Something I learned in high school, in college, in seminary, and most recently in writing my doctoral project. Something that is inexcusable to not do.

Give credit where credit is due. There's a reason Kate Turabian is still a popular writer and continuing to update her book, even thirty plus years after her death. Credit matters, and while you may not be graded on the accuracy of the format of your footnotes in your own personal blog or articles, at least share where the original content was found, even if it isn't word-for-word. Unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism.

Giving proper credit is the only right thing to do and will allow you to continue sharing honestly as a man or woman of integrity that which is most important.


Encouraging Words and Insight for Pastors During This Pandemic

Like you, I fight the information overload that occurs in our culture. With 24-hour news updates online and on television, multiple messages targeted to different groups regarding the same issues, and even conflicting information based on source, it can be overwhelming. 

I have even found that by reading and taking in so much information, it becomes difficult to process all of it. To my pastor friends reading this, you likely are facing the same thing, in addition to trying to manage the differing opinions and recommendations of those in your church, as well as the every day ministry needs of those under your care.

I am hearing some excellent and encouraging stories from fellow pastors and Christian leaders of how the church is stepping up to serve. Rather than delineate all that the church does wrong (which, I confess is much easier especially as I lean into being more critical than I should) I thought I would share some of these updates, ideas, and even transcripts of what some pastors and leaders have said to help their congregations. 

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A Devotional Thought on Fear

Dr. Paul David Tripp

Be afraid, but don’t give way to fear.

In this moment of global pandemic, don’t let your meditation be dominated by fear so that you become God-forgetful. Don’t ignore the reality of the situation, don’t be embarrassed by your instinctual ability to respond rapidly when needed, and make wise plans out of appropriate concern.

Most of all, never stop fearing God.

Full devotion transcript at his website here - https://www.paultripp.com/wednesdays-word/posts/its-okay-to-fear-coronavirus

Video of this devotion here - https://www.facebook.com/pdtripp/videos/213273036688067/

A Prescription for Anxiety

Dr. Tim Maynard, Fruit Cove Baptist Church, St Johns, Florida

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew‬ ‭6:25-34‬ ‭ESV)‬‬

  1. Read twice daily, slowly: Once in the morning and once in the evening.
  2. Read it to your children. Daily.
  3. If you choose to watch the media, read before and after each broadcast.
  4. Believe what you read. This is God’s Word, and it never fails.
  5. ‘Nuff said.

(from Facebook)

What To Do In a Pandemic

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Pastor, Christ Covenant Church, Matthews, North Carolina

Things Christians should not do in a pandemic:

  1. Tell everyone it's too late!
  2. Tell everyone it's not a big deal!
  3. Act like experts.
  4. Make everything about politics.

Things Christians can do:

  1. Pray.
  2. Trust God.
  3. Show compassion.
  4. Give thanks in all circumstances. (from Twitter)

An Explanation for Your Church Explaining Why You're Going Online Only for Now

Dr. Todd Fisher, Immanuel Baptist Church, Shawnee, Oklahoma

I have consulted with many of the doctors and health care officials in our church. In summary, they have stressed two critical things.

First, this virus is very contagious. It is extremely serious for senior adults or those with compromised immune systems. Most people who get the COVID-19 virus will have only a mild illness. But, as Christians, our calling is to live selfless lives. So, our response is not to avoid becoming sick ourselves, but to protect the highest risk people among us.

Second, this virus has the potential of overrunning our current capacities for healthcare. The percentage of those who are most adversely affected by this virus has a high hospitalization rate. If we don't all cooperatively work to help reduce the speed at which this virus spreads, we could exceed our community's healthcare capacity.

Some may say this is an overreaction. However, there is a big difference between panic and appropriate response. We're not panicking or responding in fear, but simply seeking to understand the burden this disease can cause.

Dr. Fisher's full video is on Facebook here.

Keep Preaching the Word, Even if Not In Person

Dr. Jared C. Wilson, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Obviously, conscience and conviction may dictate whether you want to preach via the internet, but it’s still important to put the gospel in front of your people as many ways as you can. If that means broadcasting a full sermon each Sunday, do it. It may also mean publishing podcasts, vodcasts, blog posts, tweets, or Facebook updates involving devotional thoughts. Right now, your people are taking in all kinds of messages—some helpful, some not, some simply distracting. Don’t let other voices tempt them in their loneliness or anxiety to tempt their eyes away from Jesus. Figure out the ways that work best for your convictions and your context to “show them Jesus.” This is your prime directive.

From "Tending the Lambs You Can't Touch" on The Gospel Coalition site here.

Steward Well

Dr. Mark Dever, Pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC

God knows when will be the next sermon each one of us will hear in person. Let us steward the last one God gave us. (from Twitter)

Click here for the link to a very helpful 9Marks podcast featuring Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman titled "On When the Church Can't Gather."

Sing Praises

Matt Merker, Director of Creative Resources and Training for Getty Music

As the globe responds to the pandemic of coronavirus and COVID-19, Christ invites his people, as always, to approach the throne of God with confidence to find help in our time of need (Heb 4:16). The hymns of the faith, both ancient and modern, offer us a vocabulary for expressing our fears, anxieties, and questions to the One who hears.

Many churches have decided to cancel their gatherings out of concern for those most vulnerable to the virus. These are exceptional times. There’s no substitute for meeting with God’s people in the local church and letting the Word dwell in us richly as we sing (Col 3:16). Yet, though many believers may be temporarily separated, this isn’t a time to stay silent. Now, as ever, the Christian sings.

Click here for a list and description of "25 Hymns to Sing in Troubled Times" published on the 9Marks site.

Give Like Never Before

Johnny Hunt, Senior VP of Evangelism and Leadership, North American Mission Board

I want to love the Lord and others well. He has said that to whom much has been given, much is required. I know that speaks to more than just our finances, but it does speak of our finances, too. Let's love the Lord and others well and give like never before. Let's lead the way in meeting needs in this crisis.

From Facebook video dated March 16, 2020.

Draw Close to God

Dr. Willy Rice, Calvary Church, Clearwater, Florida

No need to practice distancing from God and there is no quarantine on the Holy Spirit. (from Twitter)

Perspective

James Ross, Pastor, First Baptist Church on Bayshore, Niceville, Florida

Gates of Hell > COVID-19.

Jesus' Church > Gates of Hell.

Therefore... Jesus' Church > COVID-19. (from Twitter)

Revival Awaiting

Paul Purvis, Pastor, Mission Hill Church, Temple Terrace, Florida

Bars and nightclubs closing down! The last time our nation experienced this we called it Great Awakening! What if? May God simplify and strengthen His church. May we experience personal and corporate revival. May we rise up and “be the church.” Wherever you are, do whatever it takes, to shine with the light and love of Jesus like a city on a hill. (from Twitter)

A Heavier Workload For A Great Moment

JimBo Stewart, Pastor, Redemption Church, Jacksonville, Florida

Pastor, if you think your “workload” has decreased because your church isn’t gathering on Sunday, you are missing a great pastoral moment in the life of your church. I am praying for you as we all try to shepherd well in this unique season. (from Twitter)

I have corresponded with a number of pastors over the past four days. For you who pastor a church, know that you are not alone. I mean, we all know that God has promised to never leave us nor forsake us and we trust that word which is true. God has also provided other pastors in your city, region, and throughout the world who are going through the very same thing (or very similar things) you are working through now. Through easy access online and via phones, we can text, email, and talk with others in ways that our ancestors never dreamed. So, be encouraged. God is doing something incredible even through this pandemic. Stay the course. Lead well. Trust Him.

 

How Today's Crisis Can Lead the Church To Go Viral Again

When we speak of things going viral, most often it is simply a term used to describe a trending news story or tweet. In fact, for the past few years, to get a story to go viral has been the goal of many.

Yet, now we think of viral in a more traditional way and. . . it's not comforting at all. It is especially not something we desire.

With all that is coming out (and changing daily, if not multiple times a day) regarding COVID-19, there is no one in our community unaffected. 

As I write this, the White House has just recommended no groups of more than ten to gather in public places. While this will negatively impact restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses, the question are facing primarily is how this impacts the gathering of the church.

Virus

Bigger Is Not Necessarily Better

The church growth movement and the subsequent megachurch phenomenon has created a "bigger is always better" mindset among many American Christians. Don't get me wrong, there are some wonderful megachurches with thousands gathering weekly for worship. While the big crowds are perfect for promotional pieces and much energy is created in the worship gatherings, it is easier for an individual to attend and hide in the crowd, simply consuming the presented product rather than truly engaging as a covenant member of the body.

Most, if not all, large churches know that connection is vital and strategically create and promote small groups and community groups for members so that hopefully no one is lost in the crowd. Yet, it still happens. It happens in small churches as well.

Getting Smaller

Years ago during the growth of Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Church model, he would say that the church must grow larger (because it is a living organism) while simultaneously grow smaller. The emphasis was on the inter-connectedness in smaller groups that provide healthy relationships. 

Now, our church, like many others, have decided to cancel large group gatherings such as worship and even Life Groups (i.e. Sunday school) in order to provide healthy "social distancing" until the coronavirus has run its course.

While some balk at the idea of doing so as simply not trusting God and being fearful (I'll write about this later) others are thankful for their pastors taking the lead and doing so. It's viewed as a practical way to "love one's neighbor." 

Online Fills the Gap

We are offering our services online each Sunday. Next week I will be preaching to an empty worship center with only our worship team and our production team in the building. To be honest, it's not easy preaching to a camera. Yet, this is best at this time and I am thankful for the technology that allows this to happen.

Streaming Is Not Just for Large Churches

While online church is not the best option, it is better than not gathering at all...by a long shot. This is why we offer this. The good news is that regardless your church's size, if you have a facility to film in, even if it's the pastor's living room, with a smart phone, a Facebook or YouTube account, and someone to hit "start" on the phone, anyone can stream live. This isn't just for large churches.

Other Considerations - A Silver Lining

As our church staff met today, we are brainstorming some other ideas for the weeks ahead. These may be things you and your church could consider. Again, these are just ideas. We have not fleshed them all out just yet:

  • Recording preschool and children's teachers teaching Sunday School then posting on the website and social media so families with children at home can "take them to their class" too.
  • Providing PDF pages and links to videos for parents to lead children through during the week.
  • Offering some interactive games and learning options for what we could call in Sunday School lingo as "closed groups" using Zoom. This video conference software works on Android, Apple, and computers and allows for interactivity. The free account allows for up to 100 to join for forty minutes. 
  • We are looking at some large group (Sunday School ling0 = "open groups") teaching for different age groups via Facebook Live. This could be done on YouTube streaming as well.
  • We are trying to find ways to connect with our church family who are in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. This can be through phone calls, cards, and even FaceTime if staff can help. One wife of a man who is in a rehab center says he has a room with a window, so she's going to sit outside his window and call him. This is good for daytime and I would let staff know - otherwise "Peeping Tom Church" will trend and that's not what we want.
  • We have even thought of those in our church who do not have the technological acumen or devices to stream our services. What if a couple of family took their smartphone over to a fellow member without access and watched the service together? This would be a great intergenerational opportunity. Of course, still washing hands and ensuring all are as safely distanced as possible.

The church will prevail, but the calendar will change. We've been trying to clear our calendar for years and now, for the next few weeks, it's blank. This is a great opportunity.

What if God is using this to lead his church to rise up and see the value of the individual even more than before. The "one anothers" really mean more now when one is somewhat isolated from others. Let's not fear. Let's not react. Let's respond well and serve our community in the name of Jesus Christ. While the world fears, we have the answer. 

For generations Christian leaders have rightly told church members that they were not saved to sit. Now, we have a few weeks to sit, but sitting and staying in our homes does not mean we have permission to be unegaged and ignore the mandate of the gospel.

Just because we are not in the same physical room together, we must remember that we, the church ARE together.

I'm praying that our ministry and efforts to fulfill the Great Commission and Great Commandment will go viral in our communities again as we ask the question "How do we do church...or better yet, how can we be His church best during these days?"


Live In Such A Way Other Christians Don't Have To Apologize For You

The respectful Christian is an obedient Christian. 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12:14-18 (ESV)

As I read this passage of Scripture today I am reminded of the context in which it was written. Persecution of Christians at this time was not simply an emotional stressor. Lives were at stake. Prison stays and beatings were not only a possibility, but a likelihood. To be a Christian in the first century who could truly bless one's persecutors would be impossible apart from God's love and his indwelling Spirit.

The same is true today.

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The passage in Romans does not affirm a milquetoast, watered-down life of faith. Boldness of faith and blessing of persecutors are not at odds.

Though Christians today likely will "amen" these and other Bible passages, the challenge, especially in the twenty-first century west, is to understand what blessing others truly means. Blessing, honoring, and respecting others seem mostly synonymous in these commands.

Showing respect to those with differing opinions, lifestyles, cultural backgrounds, and even political leanings appears to not only be rare, but perhaps a lost art for many claiming the name of Christ. 

This is not a practice of calling evil good or good evil (see Isaiah 5:20.) This is about being obedient to show respect and honor to others, despite our differences. Respect and honor of people are not synonymous of agreeing with unbiblical beliefs. It is more about acknowledgement of people being God's image-bearers and the value of respect.

Elliot Clark writes in his excellent book Evangelism as Exiles...

Clearly this is not how we typically treat our opponents. Yet this is the kind of gentle respect and dignity we should display to all rulers and authorities, all races and religions, all classes and persuasions, showing due honor to fellow image-bearers. And this shouldn't be that hard. For if we struggle now to do this with a transgender neighbor or a coworker from Saudi Arabia, how are we going to be gracious and bless those who overtly persecute us one day?1

Christian pastors, theologians, and leaders acknowledge the growing secularity in America and the west. Cultural norms have shifted dramatically in a very short time. 

Now, more than ever, we must live as "salt and light" in the communities and areas God has placed us. 

Clark continues in his book with this insight related to how the church is viewed in the west...

Our secular society is increasingly suspicious of religion. Christians are no longer part of the solution; we're the problem. Pastors aren't trustworthy. Churches are suspect. Bible-believers are bigots. Thus the days of attractional evangelism are waning. The times of relying on the gravitational pull of our social standing to bring people into church, a Christian camp, or a revival meeting are all but gone. The time is coming, and is here now, when the world won't listen to our gospel simply because they respect us.

However, they might listen if we respect them.2

As we seek to engage our neighbors, our friends, our coworkers, and even our enemies with the message of the gospel, perhaps if we take to heart Paul's Holy Spirit-inspired words to bless those who persecute us (and even before they persecute us) we will discover that God is honored most of all.

Apologizing For and Excusing Other Believers

It gets tiring having to apologize for Christian brothers and sisters who spend more time ranting about those who offend them, bother them, live lives categorized as "beneath" them, and complain about those who vote differently than they do (these rants are most often seen on social media in a strange attempt to sway other's behaviors through negativity) to my friends and those I seek to bless and ultimately share the gospel. 

It is even more challenging to excuse evangelicals holding a temporary celebrity status when they appear on the news or at public venues seemingly speaking for all Christians in America. Yet, we press on. We have to take the time to state clearly that while it seems to some that the gospel is little more than a political platform statement, it is not. So we explain this to our friends, neighbors, and potential brothers and sisters. Why? Because the message of the gospel is too vital to ignore. The life-saving gospel is too valuable to exchange it for a temporal affirmations from an echo chamber.

It is not that I or any other believer must apologize for the broad spectrum of things said and done throughout the ages by those who claim to be Christians, but truly are not. It is more of stating something such as “I’m sorry that is how you have been presented Christ. Please let me show you in his Word who he is and what the gospel truly is.” These types of conversations do not often happen in one-shot moments, but over a period of conversations with other image-bearers who believe differently. Blessing, honor, and respect is not found in shouting at others, leaving tracts instead of money as your tips at restaurants, simply putting a chrome fish on the back of your car, or perhaps a sticker that let's others know you love Jesus so much you get angry if people do not say "Merry Christmas."

I don't claim to be "above" these brothers and sisters. I am certain others have had to apologize for statements I have made and actions I have done. This is to my shame. Though imperfect, I seek to not bring shame to the gospel and to my fellow believers. I desire for God to approve of my thoughts and actions and to live a life on the narrowness of God's truth in such a way that his love shines through. If I have to be excused, then I pray it is because I come across as loving and caring while simultaneously narrow-minded (meaning that I will always hold to the biblical teaching that Christ is the only way to salvation.)

"To honor others is to have a genuine care and concern for them. So this is what we must do–even for those who have no concern for us." - Elliot Clark

____________

        1Elliot Clark, Evangelism As Exiles: Life On Mission As Strangers In Our Own Land. (The Gospel Coalition, 2019), 80.

         2Clark, 81.

 


Churches Must Love Their Cities As Much As the "Bold City Brigade" Loves Jacksonville & the Jaguars

In our city and region, sports teams are powerful influencers. While I am sure those sports fans from historic Title Towns like Green Bay, Chicago, New York, and Boston would claim that the energy here regarding sports pales in comparison to theirs, the fact remains that our city loves sports. 

A Sports Loving City

It has been a tough run for our one major professional sports team. Our minor league teams (Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and Jacksonville Icemen) have fared well and have great fan-bases. However, with more games each year, smaller venues, and cheaper tickets it is not really fair to comparing the numbers for our minor league baseball and hockey teams to MLB and NHL cities is an apples to oranges comparison. Yet, to be clear, both of these minor league franchises have done exceptionally well in connecting with the city, advertisers, regional groups, and fans of all ages. The entertainment value is high.

Enter: The Jaguars

Twenty-five years ago Jacksonville made national and international news when the NFL awarded our city a new franchise. I have made this region my home since that time and like many others here have gone all in as a fan of the teal and black Jaguars. Initially, our team sold out the rebuilt Gator Bowl stadium (later named Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, EverBank Field, and now TIAA Bank Field.) During the era of Coach Tom Coughlin and players such as Mark Brunell, Tony Boselli, Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell, and Fred Taylor, our team saw early success and narrowly missed an early visit to the Super Bowl. Those were great days and the fans throughout our city donned the teal and proudly declared their love for the Jaguars.

Yet, we're a small market. Other than Green Bay, Wisconsin, I believe Jacksonville may be the smallest in the NFL. When the team began its far-too-long journey through a valley punctuated with losing seasons, poor draft picks, tarps over seats, and less than stellar play on the field, the rumors began to circulate that the NFL would love for the team to relocate to a larger market.

There were rumors of the Los Angeles Jaguars, the Las Vegas Jaguars, the St. Louis Jaguars, and more recently, the London Jaguars. The rumors died down some once the team began to show signs of a turnaround. The 2017 Jaguars season was exciting and the team made it once more to the AFC Championship only to lose to the New England Patriots because someone could not acknowledge that "Myles Jack wasn't down." I'm not bitter. I'm just speaking truth here.

The fan base increased. Ticket sales were up. It was a great season. Things were looking up for 2018. The dreaded word in sports - "potential" was being used much.

Then, the wheels fell off. The Jags had another struggling season in 2018. The 2019 season was not much better. There were trades, firings, and statements from team management to the fans. Yet, even in our small market, there remained great passion for our team.

Another London Game?

Earlier this week the Jaguars announced that in addition to the annual home game played in London, they would be playing two back-to-back home games at Wembley Stadium. This leaves only six regular season home games for Jaguars fans in Jacksonville. While I understand the reasoning given regarding revenue for the team, it is clear that the fan-base with access to social media and call-in radio shows were quick to voice their displeasure.

Sure enough, rumors began once more related to a potential relocation of our team.

The team owner and management have repeatedly stated that is not the goal, but fans are wary. They fear that what occurred in Baltimore, St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland will one day happen here.

As a fan of the team, I certainly hope this is not the case. As a pastor with ministry partners in London, I have been able to see games there as well. London is definitely a huge money-maker for the team and a packed out Wembley Stadium is impressive. Still, I do not want to see the team leave. For selfish reasons, it is because I enjoy watching and cheering for the Jaguars. In addition to that, and definitely a higher priority is what I see the team does for our city and northeast Florida region. 

Passion in the City

Jacksonville has always been a sports town. For decades it has been the strong college football fanbase that has driven the city. The number of Florida Gators, Georgia Bulldogs, Florida State Seminoles, and other college fans is clear throughout the year. When our own universities (University of North Florida and Jacksonville University) in the city excelled in basketball, the city and nation took notice.

The Jaguars have been able in the past to bring the city together at times. Yeah, I know there are many transplants from elsewhere who will never been all in with the Jaguars, but remembering the story of how this city gained a team, how the fans filled the old Gator Bowl years prior to entice the NFL to arrive, and how the teal and black covered the city during the moments of victory reveal the uniting power of a winning team.

Passion for the City

When the Jaguars made their most recent London announcement, a number of fan groups united to share their displeasure. One group, the Bold City Brigade, has released a statement and continues to push fans to share their desire for team ownership to reconsider the London option. While the two-games-in-London scenario is likely not going to change for 2020, the passion for our city has been clearly shared.

Just look at the statement from the Bold City Brigade here - 

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CLICK FOR LARGER VIEW OR GO TO http://www.boldcitybrigade.com/

Whether you care about football or not, or even acknowledge the Jaguars as a team you would watch, this passionate statement reveals the love for a team and for a city by a large number of citizens.

My point is not about the Jaguars. It is not about Mr. Khan's desire to have his team play two games in London. It is not even about the NFL which tends to divide people about as much as a State of the Union address.

As a fan, I cheer for the team, but that is not the point.

As I have watched this scenario play out this week, I have thought about the makeup of our city. Our city is one of the most divided and regionalized around. While the land that makes up Jacksonville is large, the unique areas are still here. There are the west side, the south side, downtown, the beaches, the north side, San Marco, Avondale, and more. These do not even consider the non Duval County regions that are some of the fastest growing areas in the state that are also considered part of the "First Coast."

These names make sense to residents. If I meet a person in another part of the country I tell them I am from Jacksonville. If they say "Oh I used to live there," then I say "Well, I am actually from Orange Park." Why? Because one from here knows that there are many different communities that comprise our area and that each has a distinctive identity.

We Must Love Our City

When the Bold City Brigade made their statement, partnered with the many posts on blogs and social media, it was clear that a collective nerve had been hit. In the midst of the stated frustration, anger, confusion, and even worry was a uniting factor. These people (my people) love their football, but also their city.

It is home. 

This is a reminder that our churches and we, as individual believers, must love our people and our city as well. 

I pastor a church that is strategic and intentional when it comes to missions and church planting. We know that we must support and send pastors to the far reaches of the world. We understand and do not apologize for our work in cities as far away as Toronto and Portland. Yet, as we serve and go there, we understand that our church in Orange Park was placed there by God years ago for a reason. Our community needed a gospel witness. There was a need for a church like ours to be placed in a town that would grow and change tremendously over the decades. Throughout these changes, the gospel preached and taught in our church has remained constant.

Our neighborhood is older. The houses are decades old now. The income status of our community has changed. So, too has the racial and cultural diversity. And we love it! 

We love our community. 

We love our city.

We love our people. When I say "our people" I am not talking about members of our church only. I am talking about our neighbors, the children and teachers in our local schools, the first responders who serve, the ones who do not attend church, do not claim to be Christians, and perhaps have stated that they do not like us too much. 

This is not compromising on the gospel. It is not the ignoring of sin. It is loving others as Christ loved us. It is loving people without affirming sin. It is agape. It is needed and we must remember that love is a choice. So we love.

We must. 

We must love with the love God has given us. We must love enough to keep from hiding in our buildings. We must declare the gospel clearly. We must love enough to confront when needed, comfort when required, and clarify when asked.

The Bold City Brigade loves their city. They love their team. 

Do we love our city this much? We must. 

Apart from love, the message will not be shared. The message of the gospel is not a win or lose message. It is a live or die message.

 

By the way - I really don't want the Jaguars to relocate. Ever. DUUUVAL!!!!! 


Why We Continue to Plant Churches & Partner with Church Planters

I am not a church planter. 

Most of you probably know that. 

I pastor what has been called by various entities an "established church," a "legacy church," an "historic church," and other things. Basically, I pastor an older church. Our church was founded in 1921. I guess it was planted then, but no one was really using that term back in the 1920s. 

After decades of systematic growth featuring steps forward as well as steps backward, celebrations and crises, transitions and traditions, and all that a church of almost one-hundred years would face, we are a church that not only believes in church planting, but has taken steps to resource new pastors and church planters and help them find footing in the region they are planting. 

We don't really have to do this. I have discovered that many churches our age just do not bother with the church planting process that has been popular in western Christianity for the past decade or so. It is not that these other churches see no value in church planting (I hope) but that they just have never done so, never felt God's lead to emphasize it, have many other things requiring funding and decisions, etc. so that church planting is just not on their radar.

I'm not faulting the churches my brothers pastor, because I get it. 

It Seems Like a Trend

Church planting seems like a trend. Trends come and go. For some it seems like the latest "church growth strategy" that is just the next phase in a long history of starts and stops and programmatic church events, emphases, and functions.

Yet, for me, for our church and network of churches, something happened a number of years ago that helped us realize that church planting and supporting new work cannot be optional for a healthy church (and I am talking about a healthy established, legacy, or historic church like ours.)

You see, my natural tendency is to be self-focused, to look inward, and when deciding whether or not to do something, or to invest in something, I ask "How does this affect me?"

The local church is like that as well. Church planting is touted by many as right, needed, and necessary (I have said that) but for most churches, it is very difficult to come to grips with the reality that to support a church planter means initial loss. There's really no way around this.

Let's just say you are the pastor or a leader at a healthy, established church. You aren't perfect. Your church isn't either, but it's a good church.

A man in your church, perhaps a small group leader, elder, or deacon comes to you and shares with the church family that he and his wife feel God's leading to leave the fellowship and plant a new church. In this scenario, let's say that the new church is in the same region, maybe in the same community.

It is clear to you that this brother is not seeking to leave your church because he is upset. He is humble. He is godly. He does not have a negative or unbiblical agenda. He is not telling others (or even thinking) "I can do better than our pastor." He is not speaking badly about the style of worship, the translation of the Bible used, or the dress code expected at your church. In other words, he is sincerely seeking to follow God's lead and believes God desires him to plant a new church in the region. He comes to you for your blessing. You give it.

When he leaves, the practical losses will begin to add up. Likely, some who attend and tithe to the church you pastor will leave with him to support him, either for a short time or for the long haul. If your church decides to support and send him, you will be giving church members the "go ahead" to leave with him and you will likely send financial support as well, at least initially.

Not only has your church lost people who normally worship with you and serve at the church, you will be losing some money that previously was earmarked for other things. 

And...you have to find a new small group leader and perhaps others to step in to the roles he and his wife filled previously.

No wonder some churches push pause when being encouraged to plant churches and support planters.

And, I'm giving an example of a great experience.

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When our church began to seek God's will regarding church planting, we did not know exactly what that would entail. Our mission board was shifting to send people to key urban areas in North America. I connected with a few leaders in such cities and began to see that there was much work to be done for the Kingdom in our nation. The concept of the Bible Belt was a façade and I knew it, but these connections affirmed it.

Then, one of our deacons and his wife (who served on our church staff) shared that God was leading them to go serve in one of these cities as support for church planters. We had talked about it earlier and I knew this was potentially something God was doing in their lives. Sure enough, a few years back they relocated to Toronto where they serve Toronto Church Planting and a network of planters in the North American Mission Board. While we haven't had anyone else uproot to move there with them, we do have a number of church members who have visited and give regularly, in addition to budgeted funds, in support. 

This began a more intentional story for our church. Now, in addition to Toronto, we now support (we're not the only supporters and we can only do little for some) planters in Portland, Oregon, Washington, DC, Orlando, Florida, Leesburg, Florida, and soon in New York City. 

It costs. It costs time, resources, and people.

We Cannot Afford to Plant Churches

Though we have been immensely blessed by God, and as of December 31, 2019 we are debt-free for the first time in over forty years, the facts are that we cannot afford to plant churches. We have a pastoral staff to pay. We have administrative support and maintenance and custodial staff to pay. We have a facility requiring thousands of dollars of decades of deferred maintenance. We have unexpected expenses. We live in Florida, so a storm, flooding, trees down, etc. are often an annual possibility. We've been fortunate and blessed thus far.

We have ministry expenses and some things that church members see as expected that still cost money. We have a revitalization church we are supporting and two campuses that have expenses, rent, and other costs.

On paper...we really cannot afford to plant churches and support church planters.

We Cannot Afford NOT to Plant Churches

But here it is. While on paper it seems a big stretch to be all in on church planting and revitalization, the fact is we must do this. We know that all churches have a shelf-life. Ours is almost one-hundred years old and while I desire that it remains for centuries in the future, I have no guarantee of that. I do know we can leave a legacy for God's kingdom that will last when we are gone.

Years ago Dr. Jeff Farmer wrote his dissertation on church planting and the impact it has on the sending church. He compared seventy-five churches who were planting other churches with seventy-five who were not. The churches were of all sizes so the clear distinction was simply the planting aspect. His research found that churches that plant are healthier than those who do not. (Read "5 Reasons Established Churches Should Plant Churches" by Ed Stetzer)

I believe it is because planting forces the sending to church to look outside the walls more. When the focus is less about growing "my church" and about seeing God's church and his kingdom grow, it just makes sense to plant. 

I believe that new churches reach more people quickly.

I believe the gospel needs to go where the people are.

I believe that church plants churches and new pastors are called, commissioned, and ordained by the local church for God's glory.

I believe denominational agencies and mission boards can help fund and resource church planters, but I do not believe they are the primary resources. Churches plant churches.

I believe multiplication is better than addition.

I am convinced our church was planted here in 1921 to meet a clear need. There was no Baptist church in our community at the time, thus our name - First Baptist Church. The need was seen. The calling was clear. The work was done. I have a sneaky feeling that those who actually started First Baptist Church couldn't afford to do so either, but they did. For that I am so thankful.

For our church, church planting and revitalization has become our DNA. It is one way we make disciples and multiply them. It is one way we fulfill the Great Commission. The reach of the gospel is extended. While we continue to have focus in our own community, with various ministries, campuses, partnerships, and services, we also have been given by God the opportunity to reach the world strategically and intentionally.

We are not a perfect church. We are not a mega-church. We are not a rich (financially) church. 

We are a blessed church and we seek to see God's Kingdom expanded. Therefore, I believe by planting new churches and funding planters as best we can (even sacrificially) we are an obedient church.

While I won't be here a century from now, I pray that the legacy our church leaves will be impactful for generations to come. That is one reason we plant. That is why I encourage your church to do so as well. Be warned, it is costly. 

But it is worth it.


The Potential Church Member May Struggle with Your Membership Process

As a lifelong Baptist who grew up in a family that moved every few years due to my father's military service, I have been part of a number of Baptist churches. For the most part, during the 1970s and 1980s, the churches we joined were pretty much carbon copies of each other. Each used the same Sunday School curriculum, handed out identical bulletins, sung from the same version of the Baptist Hymnal, had the same schedule (Sunday School at 9:45am and Worship at 11am with Sunday evening and Wednesday evening events too,) and for many, the layout of the facilities were exactly the same. This was not unheard of in Southern Baptist life in that most of our material was published by LifeWay (née Baptist Sunday School Board) and the blueprints used for building were provided by the denomination. Finding sameness was comfortable and allowed for an ease of joining a new church upon relocation.

The membership process in each church was similar, too. This is from memory and I was a child for most of these moves, but it seems that joining a church was pretty simple. Here's the process as I remember it:

  1. You attend a service
  2. Walk down the aisle during the invitation hymn
  3. Tell the pastor you want to join the church
  4. The pastor would ask if you were a Christian and if you were a member of another Baptist church.
  5. If the answers were "yes" then the new church would contact the former and "send for your letter."
  6. If the potential new member was not yet a Christian or baptized, those very important discussions were held and membership was complete upon baptism.
  7. Then there was the moment when you and your family were brought up before the church  (normally about five minutes after you walked down the aisle)
  8. The pastor would present you to the congregation and a brief business meeting took place. It went something like this: "This family wants to unite with our church. We're so excited about this. All in favor say 'Amen!'"
  9. The congregation would say "Amen."
  10. The pastor would ask if anyone thought otherwise, but most often there were no "nay" votes.

It was that easy. Boom! You're a church member.

I am sure it was not like this everywhere, but in most of the smaller churches our family attended it seemed to work this way. It could be that the church was so excited to have a young family join that they just "amened" us in before risking losing us.

Easy Membership Leads to Difficulty

As I think back I wonder if anyone at these churches ever had doctrinal discussions with my parents prior to joining? I'm sure there were some conversations, but as I stated, I was a child so I was not in those meetings.

I know my parents listened to a few sermons to determine whether or not the pastor stayed true to Scripture. I am confident that some of the things that led to joining certain churches had to do with how welcoming the people were, the opportunities for personal growth, and whether or not the children's ministry was of good quality.

Not much has changed regarding families and potential church membership today.

However, in those cases where membership is rushed, conversations do not take place, testimonies are not shared, and the potential for creating members while sacrificing the call to make disciples occurs.

Membership Classes and Covenants

When our church first instituted new members classes, most people understood the reasoning. However, some were adamant that it was unnecessary, wrong, and even "un-Baptist." Once we explained the reasonings (doctrinal clarification, salvation assurance, ordinance explanations, and clarifying member expectations) for the class, many agreed that it was needed and helpful.

Some, however, still did not like it. 

The Concept of Covenant Membership

One of the biggest pushbacks was from those who refused to sign or agree to covenant with other members. Some had previously been members of churches that were...well, toxic. Those who had gone through difficulties at other churches (or our own in the past) struggled with trusting leaders and seeing the value of committing (or covenanting as we stated) with others in the church for fear of being hurt.

I understand that fear.

Regardless how others may have soiled the concept of covenant membership, the affirmations of being one in Christ and being responsible to one another resonate throughout the New Testament. Therefore, it is biblical to be in an honest, gospel-centric, covenant relationship with other brothers and sisters in Christ as a local church.

I do know some who struggle with this due to experiences that involve abuse of power, and in some cases, traumatic sinful actions made by those who used the "covenant" terminology in unbiblical and selfish ways. I am not speaking of such instances. I do not minimize those as they are very real and impactful. That is just a subject for another article.

For the purpose of this article, I am speaking of healthy churches, led by biblically-sound, godly leaders who submit to the lordship of Christ. Healthy churches include covenant members who are redeemed by Christ, accountable to the Lord and one another, and serve well together, selflessly for God's glory alone and their own good.

Opposition to Membership Classes

Over the years, I have heard numerous reasons why potential members balk at the concept of required new members' classes.

The most common is:

I have been a member of many Baptist churches and never had to take a class before. I should not have to do so here.

Other opposition tends to fall from this train of thought. This response and similar ones come from those who have been members of other Baptist churches for years. In their mind the "send for my letter" model described above is all that should be required. A class seems like legalism to them. I heard one state that it seemed "cultish." That was a shock to me.

Truth be told, the process could become legalistic. I am sure it has at certain places.  I am not for creating extra-biblical hoops for people to jump through to become part of the body

I do value the one-on-one conversations with brothers and sisters who seek to become members. In most cases, the personal connections are needed and helpful. They are helpful for the potential members to understand who we are as a local church, how we seek to fulfill God's great commission, and how they can join in this journey of faith with us.

It is beneficial when it is determined that a person wants to join the church but has never joined God's family. Just because a person has a long tenure as a church member elsewhere does not mean that they are born again children of God. If this church attender is not a believer we gain a clear opportunity to present the gospel, answer questions, and follow the Holy Spirit's lead.

That's not legalism. That's loving.

Membership Interviews

We are now at the point of adding membership interviews into our new member process. Again, this is not to create another hoop, but to help brothers and sisters unite with our church well. These interviews will be led by pastors and ministry leaders on our staff during membership classes. They are individual conversations that may take place in a large room during a time of sharing a meal together. 

What will happen in the interviews?

We will share who we are a a church and describe doctrinal distinctions of our fellowship. This will be a time of clarifying what we believe about the ordinances of the church, structure of our church, the vision and mission of our church and expanded ministries, and answer questions regarding such. The potential member will have the opportunity to share his/her personal story of how he/she came to know Christ as Lord. This personal testimony time is a key moment in that many believers are never challenged to share. During this time, key elements of one's personal story will be given to help them focus on the gracious love of God and how he rescued them. 

For those brothers and sisters who come from other churches that view baptism differently, we will have an opportunity to discuss our understanding of the ordinance clearly.

Expectations of a member will be also presented.

Additionally the expectations a member should have from his/her church will be presented.

If church membership is the next step, we move forward. If there are barriers to work through, we can prayerfully and carefully do so. It may be that we ask the candidate for membership if he/she would be open to meeting with a current church member (same gender) for a season of study to help answer some questions that may arise. There are other things that may come up, but the goal is not just to get another name on a membership roll or check off another box, but to seek God as we grow in number possibly, but most importantly, as we make disciples. 

I am sure that some will balk at the "interview" process simply because it sounds more business-oriented than church-oriented. Perhaps there's a better term. I am not sure what a better term would be, but I am certain that such conversations will not only be helpful for the individuals but beneficial for the church.

Membership requires relationships. Primarily with Christ. Secondarily with his children. We cannot do life together if we do not know one another. 

You Want to Join Our Church?

So, you want to join our church? Great. Let's talk about it. Maybe over dinner?

It sure beats having you coming down an aisle and being paraded in front of a bunch of people you don't know yet so they can "Amen" you into the family.