How Did Your Church Die? Two Ways - Gradually, Then Suddenly.

In 1926 Ernest Hemingway published his novel The Sun Also Rises. As with many Hemingway books, this one became a best-seller and remains in print today. This character Mike Campbell was asked about his money troubles and responded with this oft-quoted answer. 

"How did you go bankrupt?"

"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly." - Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

As a pastor of a legacy church (i.e. old church) in what was formerly called "The Bible Belt" of the southern United States, I have watched numerous churches in our region come face-to-face with closure or abandonment. Even some (most) larger legacy churches are having to make staffing and organizational decisions to ensure they have a future of ministry ahead of them in the city. While an historically large church may have millions of dollars worth of property and a long legacy of great work for the Lord in a region, the reality often hits as changing demographics and population shifts result in a downturn of attendance, giving, and impact. Some have stated how sad it is when this happens. I guess that's true, but this is no new story and should not surprise us. Just take a trip to Europe to visit some of the megachurches of history where great things for God were done years ago. It seems that just about all local churches have a shelf life. 

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A Closed Church in Northern Wales

What is sad is when a local church and its members are surprised by reality and end up panicking, making unwise decisions, and positioning themselves to be little more than a footnote of Christian work in a region.

Church planting is part of our local church's DNA. Even before the term "planting" became popular, our church was focused on launching new "missions" and supporting other churches in our area and throughout the world. This was set in motion long before I came to be pastor and I am thankful for this.

Yet, at the same time we focus on new work and church planting, the reality of local church closures and dying churches is upon us. I don't think we're planting at a rate to replace all the historic churches now faced with death. Thus, we see a focus now on church replanting and revitalization. We are seeking to see a movement of God that historically we have never seen. 

Yet, churches are dying. They're closing their doors. 

The quote from Hemmingway could be applied to churches as well.

"How did your church die?"

"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."

Church Planting Is Hard

Church planting is hard. It is hard on planters, their spouses, their children, and on the members who sign up to be part of a "launch team" only to discover that after about month of setting up and tearing down their portable church in their leased location, it just is not fun anymore. I pray for these planters regularly, believing they are truly on the frontlines of ministry and mission in our own communities. 

Church Replanting/Revitalization May Be Harder

As difficult as church planting is, I believe church replanting and revitalization is more difficult. In many cases, the replant/revitalization (I will use these terms together, but I do understand these are not the same) is akin to an adult child having to tell their senior adult parent they will no longer be allowed to drive their car (the one they paid for and have owned for years) and will be taking their keys and license away. That may be the best comparative illustration I have heard. For instance, in many cases, these older churches have decades of history. There is an era of growth likely when things were going well, people were joining the church, being baptized, and the community was being reached. Perhaps the church never hit "megachurch" status (megachurches are very rare) but the church was healthy...for a season. Yet, that chapter of history is closed. It is a great memory and the legacy is very real, but currently the church is barely hanging on. The membership is decidedly older, often comprised of only older people. There have been no baptisms for years. The community has changed so much that the neighbors do not look like the members of the church. While the property may be owned, the offerings are not enough to cover such things as pastoral salary, utilities, insurance, and lawn care expenses. 

The church is bankrupt. 

How did it happen?

Well, gradually at first, but then suddenly.

When the "suddenly" hits, the reality of what is to come becomes clear. It is sad. It is tragic. 

It Doesn't Have To Be This Way

This is the reality of many local churches. In our city and region today, there are approximately forty churches that are in this category (that I know of.) Some realize it. They are taking steps to ensure a gospel witness remains.

We have seen some incredible stories in our network. One church gifted its property to another that was newer, growing, and ethnically different (from the current church, but the same as the community where the building is located.) Another church deeded its property to our network and that facility has been given over to another new, growing church comprised of immigrants and refugees who have relocated to our city. It's thriving now. Still others have partnered with larger legacy churches. In these cases, we are seeing the larger churches bring the older, smaller one under its wings, providing financial support, pastoral leadership, and numerous resources for the purpose of replanting and relaunching the church in the same facility for future decades of ministry.

Tragically, there are many who remain in their state of bankruptcy, closer to dying today than ever. Sadly, I fear that some will end up selling their property, liquidating their assets, and leave their legacy as little more than a historical footnote. This is not good. This is not godly.

I am praying that we will be as the men of Issachar (1 Chron 12:32) having the insight to know the times well and respond wisely. 

Regardless the size or location of your local church the fact that gradual, then sudden death could occur is a reality. Resting on one's laurels (or bank account, pastor's personality, history in a community, etc.) is not enough. It never has been. It cannot be. 

What is occurring in churches throughout our region and nation is not reserved for certain churches of certain demographical makeup in specific areas. Every church is susceptible. Every leader has blind spots. May we wise up and see what God is showing us. 

The Hope

I am hopeful. I know that some churches will close. I know that others will begin. This life-cycle is real and we can continue to celebrate the wondrous things God has done through his local expressions of church throughout our communities. Yet, premature closure is little more than the enemy's attack on God and a small victory. Small, but deadly. I hate seeing a region lose a center for gospel witness. I hate seeing a region left abandoned (not by God, but by his people.) Therefore, we must pray more, serve well, stop living as if other local churches are the enemy, and come together for God's glory. Many are doing so. That's why I have such hope.

This is difficult. But, if it were easy, anyone could do it. Our joy in the Lord gives us strength. Replanting and revitalization is working, but not due to the creativity and ingenuity of those with "new ideas" on how to do church, but because God is empowering his people, living faithfully, for his glory to be the instruments of bringing life to that which was previously dead, or dying. This is God at work. He alone gets the glory, but oh, we get to bask in his glory and this is for our good.

Press on church planter, replanter, and revitalizer. For the pastor of the legacy church who is now experiencing the best chapter in your history, be wise and be aware. Perhaps you are meant to strengthen the replanter or come alongside the dying church to offer support and leadership for a new work?

Let's not leave this task left undone.

What's the worst that can happen? Well...what happens if you choose to let your senior adult parent who cannot see well and is a danger to himself and others continue to drive? 

I believe that revitalized churches will be reawakened in much the same way they began to die, at least in this case.

"How did your church get revitalized?"

"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."


When Jesus Said "No, You Cannot Come With Me."

This morning I met with our students at the local junior high to lead our weekly Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meeting. We have a great group of seventh and eighth graders. Some are athletes, others are not. It's an FCA meeting, but students do not have to be athletes to attend. Truthfully, they don't have to be Christians either. In fact, they don't even have to want to fellowship. Nevertheless, we meet. After our welcome, and the weekly stuffing of our faces with Munchkins from Dunkin Donuts, we enter into our weekly study.

Today, I shared a story that has been a "go to" one for these meetings at different times over the years. It's intriguing, but familiar to most who have been in church. For those who have never been to church, it's a bit shocking - often resulting with "That's in the Bible?" questions.

The Naked Man in the Cemetery

The story is one found in three of the gospel accounts. In some places, it's referenced as one demon-possessed man found living in the cemetery. In another, it's two men. It's not contradictory. Read why here.

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The story gets the attention of the students...well...because it's about a naked man who lives in a cemetery. That's crazy! Right? That's what the people in the nearby town thought. 

The passage I read this morning was from Luke's gospel - Luke 8:26-39. Click here for the verses.

A Summary

We don't have a long time together on Thursday mornings before school starts, so I shared the story quickly. These students always listen and interact well, but this time they were really drawn in to the strange story. Here is a brief summary:

  • Jesus and his disciples get on a boat on the west side of the Sea of Galilee
  • They begin their journey to the east side of the Sea.
  • A storm comes up. Jesus calms it.
  • They arrive on the west shore. 
  • The disciples stay in the boat. Jesus gets out.
  • There's a naked man in the cemetery on that shore.
  • The naked man comes to Jesus, because the demons inside him know him. 
  • The demons speak, questioning why Jesus was there. They were afraid.
  • They ask if he would just send them into the herd of pigs nearby, rather than cast them into the abyss (apparently, they know how the Bible ends.)
  • Jesus obliges and they enter the pigs.
  • The pigs then run off the cliff and die.
  • The herdsmen aren't happy. They're scared.
  • They run into town and tell the townspeople.
  • The townspeople come to the cemetery and see Jesus sitting with the formerly naked man (now clothed) and everything ... seems ... normal. This is shocking!
  • The townspeople (Gentiles, by the way) are afraid and ask Jesus to leave.
  • Apparently, the disciples are still in the boat.
  • The healed, formerly naked demon-possessed man comes to Jesus and asks to go with Jesus.
  • Jesus says, "No."

The man is instructed to go back to his people and tell them what Jesus had done. 

Shocking Moments

I asked the students what shocked them the most about the story. 

Of course, as is the case every single time I tell this, they were upset that the pigs had to die. 

Yep. Every time.

They thought it was unfair because the pig herders had lost their pigs. Seemed like a harsh thing. They asked "Why did Jesus kill the pigs?"

Interesting, because Jesus didn't kill the pigs, but just as many of us do, when things happen that seem unfair, we often blame God for the hardship.

Then, there's the naked man. That part was weird. How did Jesus know he was there? Why would a good Jewish rabbi go to an unclean land of the Gentiles, be near unclean animals (pigs) and hang out in an unclean cemetery? There's much here. 

Notice, that as far as we can tell, the good Jewish disciples didn't even get out of the boat. They weren't ready for this, but Jesus was preparing them. I wonder if Peter thought of this moment when he had the vision prior to meeting with Cornelius?

We talked about how this crazy, naked, demon-possessed man was not liked by the townspeople. He scared them. Likely, he angered them as well. Why? Because if he's in the cemetery, no one can come and pay respects to their dearly departed. There's no leaving flowers or spending time there to honor the dead. It was too risky.

But now everything has changed. 

Jesus shows up. Heals the man. Transforms him. He's a brand new man!

Rejection?

This is what shocked us most. This man, likely not wanted by his people, desired to go with Jesus. He asked. He was ready to get into the boat and become one of the inner crowd. 

Then, Jesus says "No."

What? This is the total opposite of every invitation at youth camp, revivals, and church services I have gone to most of my life. The pastor or evangelist always says "Jesus loves you. Come to him. He will never leave you. Come on down that aisle and make a decision to abandon everything for the sake of Christ." The message has been "Come see. Walk with Christ. Stay with him. He won't reject you." Then, there's this story.

It seems so out of place, out of character, and just wrong.

Jesus said "No!"

Of course, he gave him more instructions. He said: "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you."

In other words, Jesus said "No, you can't come with me. You cannot get in the boat with the disciples. You need to go into the town. Go home to the people who have been afraid and embarrassed of you for years. Go back to those who made fun of you, avoided you, warned their children to stay away from you. Go back to a people who are from your own culture...but, don't really like you. Oh, and when you do, be sure to tell them all that I, a Jewish rabbi, Son of God, from the other side of the sea has done for you." (That's my paraphrase and definitely can be corrected.)

Oh. Okay.

Then Jesus got in his boat with the disciples and made their way back across the water, never to come to this place again, as far as we know.

It's a strange story, to say the least.

A mission movement in this Gentile region began, to come to fruition when Paul arrived years later. An unnamed man who formerly was possessed with a legion of demons was healed, transformed, and rescued. His seminary training lasted just the time it took for the herdsmen to get out of the region, go into town and bring all the residents back with them. He's then commissioned, ordained, and sent out as a missionary. 

And Jesus said "No." 

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Photo credit: duncan on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

What's the Point?

There is much to learn here. Some things I have thought of after reading this over and over, and by sharing it once more with a group of teenagers. These are just some of the points I believe are transferable to our lives...

  • Not all followers of Jesus are at a point of accepting all other followers of Jesus, but eventually will be the longer they walk with him (I'm thinking of the disciples who apparently never exited the boat.)
  • Sometimes we can miss the point by being distracted by other things going on around the main focus (i.e. worried about the dead pigs rather than focusing on the demon-possessed man.)
  • Fear can trump faith. The townspeople were so frightened, they just asked Jesus to leave, rather than celebrate that their friend/relative/fellow townsperson was healed.
  • Following Christ fully mat not look like what we desire (the man wanted to get in the boat, not be left in the cemetery.)
  • Our personal testimonies, or stories of rescue by Christ are not about us, but ultimately about him. This is why we don't know the name of the one who seems by many to be the main character (the man in the cemetery.) Why? Because he's not the main character. Jesus is. He is in our stories as well.
  • A "no" may hurt, but when God says "no" there is always a bigger "yes" behind it. Jesus saying "no" to the man was not a rejection, but an invitation. The "yes" was that many would come to Christ, or at least be open to hearing about Christ. The man, just like you and me, was not privy to all that would occur. Thankfully, he was obedient and remained. Oh, and as an aside, I don't think the disciples were quite ready to take this Gentile into their boat yet.

I love this story. I have heard it so many times throughout my life, but the more I look into it, the more I see. Students love talking about it. It's strange. It has so many odd elements in it - pigs, Jesus, naked man, cemetery, demons, angry business owners, a boat, etc.

We also talked about how so many of us can relate to the rescued man...and maybe sometimes to the disciples in the boat who just aren't ready to like others who are different...yet. 

It was a great morning.

I am, however, very cognizant that some of our junior high students may have gone home today and told their parents "Hey, we talked about a naked man at FCA today," and not explain any more than that. I'm waiting for the phone calls and emails. 


Hey Christian - Your Faith Is Showing (Expressing the Fruit of the Spirit Online)

Social media and a networked online presence for people is here to stay. This new instant media world has impacted much. Conversations are often conducted with misspelled and abbreviated words through texts, political statements and movements are no longer relegated to door-to-door "evangelistic" programs or even whisper campaigns in elevators. Verification of news authenticity is suffering due to the fact that information is shared immediately. When wrong information is shared, it's often not retracted. If retracted, it's rarely noticed. 

For the Christian, social media and an online presence can be a wonderful way to proclaim the gospel. However, it can also be a trap easily ensnaring the believer with deeply held convictions, leaving them searching for online echo chambers where community complaints can be affirmed.

For all the great potential (and no doubt, great and godly things have occurred through online conversations and communication) of an online presence for the glory of God, so too is the great opportunity to do harm.

Even those seeking to do right sometimes find that a tweet or post needs to be deleted (I'm guilty of that.) 

As I read through the Gospel of Matthew, I pause at this statement by Jesus...

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. - Matthew 12:33 (ESV)

Well...amen! Right? I know this is true. You know this is true. I'm no tree-ologist, but I know that if a tree is good is should produce good fruit. Good fruit comes from good trees. Bad fruit comes from bad trees.

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When it comes to good fruit, I'm drawn to what the Holy Spirit led Paul to write regarding the fruit of the Spirit (obviously good fruit.)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. - Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)

Social Media and the Fruit of the Spirit

One thing that social media has done is allow Christians (pastors, too) to have connections with church members and fellow believers. This is good, sometimes. At other times, it is grievous. Why? Because we see Christians posting, sharing, and opining on things in such a way that is little more than cringe-worthy (not to mention ungodly and harmful.)

Shocker! 

This has been true for all time, but especially in our current culture. Whether it's political divides, anger over chicken restaurants, promoted boycotts, generational divides, or even sports rivalries, it seems that some have revealed what we always have known to be true (but would rather not see confirmed.) Some see their Christianity reserved for the hour on Sunday morning, revealing little of the transformed, redeemed, authentic life of a Christ follower during the rest of the week, either in person or online.

What if we actually believed what Christ stated?

What if our actions were to reveal our faith?

It's not a works theology, but a faith that leads to godliness.

Before you tweet, post, share, or comment, consider the following:

LOVE - Is what you're about to post reveal the agape, unconditional, grace-filled, love of God? This is not a culturally defined love that affirms sin, but a biblical love that begins with the "Come and see..." rather than an attack or declaration of how much you dislike someone or something.

JOY - Is what you share something the can bring joy, even a smile to the face of one who reads it? Yes, it can be funny. It can be a meme. It's not a sin to laugh. Of course, it should not be laughter at the expense of others. Can the reading of your post be used to bring a sense of contentment in others?

PEACE - Are you posting things that divide or unite? Demean or lift up? "Blessed are the peacemakers" is what Jesus said. That's online, too.

PATIENCE - Be slow to speak, slow to tweet, slow to post, slow to comment. 

KINDNESS - Is your post mean? Do you use demeaning terms to describe an image-bearer of God who happens to disagree with you, represent the "other" political party, live a lifestyle you cannot affirm? You don't have to agree with everyone to be kind to and about them.

GOODNESS - Do your words encourage others to live like Christ? He is good. Our words should be too.

FAITHFULNESS - Are your words simply religious clichés? Seriously, just leave the "Let go and let God" phrases go and post things that are true, right, and revealing of your faithfulness in Christ. The clichés may not be wrong, but they're still clichés. So, are your postings designed to point people to Christ or to you?

GENTLENESS - Comment threads are not the place to declare one's frustration with everyone else. I'm a member of a few community pages on Facebook and rarely are there things shared there that are gentle and edifying. However, if I wish to read how some people cannot stand others who dare drive worse they they do, don't put their trash cans up on the correct day, or even dare to move into their neighborhood, I have plenty to read. Rare is the gentle word. Perhaps there is an issue to confront, but likely it's not best to do so online. 

SELF-CONTROL - And this is perhaps the biggest one. Before you post, tweet, respond, or comment ask yourself this question "Should I actually say this?" Based on the other fruit of the Spirit, does this need to be stated here, now, and in this way? Or...is it better to pray first, seek God's lead and maybe...just maybe...the wise thing to do is leave that post left unposted.

Hey Christian, Your Faith Is Showing

Your likes, posts, tweets, and comments reveal who you are. As followers of Christ, this means our online persona as well as our face-to-face interactions. This is not easy. It never has been. It's just that with the online realities of the day, our walk with the Lord has a bigger audience than ever.

You may not grow the kingdom of God online, but you certainly can hinder its growth. Be wise. Be fruitful. Produce good fruit.


Striving to Care Well in Our Church (And Not Allow the Emphasis to Be Another Program)

It seems that every day another Christian leader, church leader, former pastor, and Christian entertainer has succumbed to the #MeToo and #ChurchToo focus. While some just wish we could talk about something else, those who have been victimized sexually in the past by spiritual leaders are thankful that we are finally talking about it. Hopefully, we are doing more than talk.

Southern Baptists naively though the sex abuse issues in the church were primarily "Catholic issues" in the past. The sexual deviancy by some Catholic priests that became news fodder a number of years ago was thought to be a result from poor theology (from an evangelical perspective) and the requirement of singleness and celibacy among the priesthood. 

Then, when reporters Sarah Smith (now with the Houston Chronicle) and Nichole Manna produced the poignant articles under the title "Spirit of Fear" at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram focusing on sexual abuse stories primarily in Independent Baptist churches (including one in my county) many Southern Baptists just shook their collective heads declaring it was due to lack of accountability and legalism that permeates in many independent churches.

The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

The old saying about chickens coming home to roost refers to the fact that unconfessed and unrepentant sins committed in the past will come back to haunt oneself. The truth will be laid bare and will no longer be avoidable. 

That's what has happened in some of the churches of our Southern Baptist Convention. What could not happen here, has happened here. Thanks (and I do mean thanks) to an exposé titled "Abuse of Faith" by reporters Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, and John Tedesco of the Houston Chronicle published in February 2019, the heretofore not talked about, or even acknowledged, has become a leading topic among pastors, church members, and denominational entities.

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David Tarkington is seated next to Debbie Vasquez (abused & impregnated by her pastor as a teen) at the Caring Well Conference in Dallas. Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle

J.D. Greear, President of the Southern Baptist Convention and Pastor of Summit Church in North Carolina, met with denominational leaders and other pastors while declaring that steps must be taken to acknowledge the sin, hold churches and pastors accountable, and primarily offer help and healing to victims and survivors, while seeking justice for perpetrators. 

From the outside looking in, the concept seems simple, but in reality the functionality of such a move has proven very difficult. This is primarily due to the autonomous nature of SBC churches and the lack of power denominational leaders have. Yet, with that being said, the truth is being revealed that their are right steps to be taken that do work, are working, and offer help and hope in this area. As has been stated by many, we hold to our churches having autonomy, but cannot hide behind that when it comes to doctrinal, legal, and moral issues such as clergy abuse and church compliance.

Caring Well

In just a short amount of time, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and LifeWay produced curriculum, video training, and even held a national conference (the annual ERLC Conference in Dallas shifted its focus to the abuse issue this year) to ensure this issue of response and healing was a front-burner issue for SBC churches. 

Much good has been done, but nonetheless for some, it will not be enough.

While I do not have impact on large-scale denominational policies or practices (other than voting as a messenger at the annual meetings and serving on our state's Board of Missions) I do have impact on the church God has called me to pastor. Like many SBC churches, we have an overabundance of curriculum and program options. We have a closet at the church where we store dozens of video series, workbooks, and other resources. To be honest, I'm just about done with the latest "fix in a box" that's available for purchase. That's why at first, I was a bit skeptical of the Caring Well curriculum and training videos. Yet, I knew we must not ignore this reality and if nothing else, this material may be used to push us forward to be a church that will not ignore abuse issues, nor pretend that our own church's sad history could not happen again (READ MORE HERE).

I shared with our church membership that we would be forming a Caring Well team. This team would include some of the pastors on staff, some age-group leaders, members of the church with counseling backgrounds, some with law enforcement experience, those who have served victims of abuse, and others who may choose to serve. In just a few meetings, we found ourselves with a team much larger than I anticipated. Nevertheless, we have the team God has put together not to protect the brand of our local church, but to ensure we glorify Him and provide hope and healing for those in our church and community who have suffered from abuse by spiritual leaders and those of power. 

Some even felt free to share their own stories of suffering. For at least one, it was the first time her story of survival had been shared publicly. Suddenly, we knew that the statistics do not lie. There are women and men in our church family who have been carrying a burden for years. They don't relish their experience, but being survivors of sexual abuse and discovering they are not alone, or to blame, has moved them to a place where we believe God will bring full healing. This is no formulaic process. It's not cookie-cutter, easy-to-do stuff. As each week goes by, I hear more. I'm heartbroken. I'm grieved. And with each new revelation on social media or the news of another church leader's sin being exposed, I see more who are triggered and brought back to their own moments of trauma.

Our Caring Well team is new. We're still working to figure out what to do. We have some plans in place, but more to be done. We see the primary mission of the church to be proclamation of the gospel. We desire the lost to be saved. We want to see the broken healed. We want to ensure that the Enemy no longer has a foothold in Christ's church, using those with titles, callings, and positions of power to inflict (sometimes eternal) damage on those in the flock. 

Therefore, our Caring Well emphasis must never become another curriculum in the closet. It will not be all we do, but it must be a part of who we are. Our church, every church campus and sister church in our network, must not only declare to care well, but actually care well. That is our our calling.

I asked some of our Caring Well team members to share why they're serving. I am encouraged by these responses (just a sampling, not all responses received):

When you explained what Caring Well Ministry entails, I immediately felt a pull or drawing toward this ministry.  While serving on church staff as the Preschool Director and in another church as Children’s Director, neither church “cared well” for the ones hurting. Situations were quickly swept away and quietly dealt with leaving the innocent feeling betrayed. So my short and brief statement is; I want to care well!  I want hurting individuals to feel safe and know they WILL BE CARED FOR.

 

Victims of abuse deserve to be heard, have their allegations investigated in an objective manner and see the perpetrators brought to justice.  I want to serve to help make sure we minimize the opportunities for abuse to occur, make sure we protect and minister to those who are the victims of abuse and see that they get the justice they deserve. 

 

The best way to care well is to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. A child who is abused anywhere, but especially at church, may be so harmed spiritually that they never come to know Christ. We have to do everything in our power to protect them, so they have that opportunity.

 

I have always had a heart for children whether my own, coaching kids sports, working with 4th through 6th graders at church or my grandchildren. Children are undeniably God's gift to us. As I study our Caring Well Handbook and watch the videos and pray, I think this is beyond me and I won't be able to help much, but I know I can do something.

 

I fought hard for many years for victims and survivors of child abuse and assault, and even though it has been quite some time since I have been active in the system, I have never lost my desire to help or my empathy for the individuals whose lives most certainly have been hugely impacted by their experiences.  When the Caring Well information was mentioned I knew immediately that if possible I wanted to be a part to minister in whatever way God leads to provide understanding, empathy, compassion, friendship and a listening heart and ear. 

 

I am a survivor.  By God's grace, as a child I had the protective factors available to help me cope even though I didn't disclose my abuse to my parents.  I was fortunate in ways that so many others are not, and with that comes a sense of duty to help ensure that anyone suffering from abuse will have access to whatever resources are needed to cope, survive, and thrive.  

More News Stories = More Victims

Sadly, stories of sexual sin revelations continue. Whether it's the potential calling of a pastor who almost twenty years ago victimized young girls in his youth group, a spiritual leader who downplayed a victims accusation to protect an image, or a Christian entertainer whose private sexual escapades and propositions with young single and married women shocked the fans who just wanted some clean entertainment, the truth is clear.

It is not the fault of unbiblical ecclesiology, poor interpretations of theology, suggestive clothing worn by naive (or not so naive) teenagers, or loneliness due to marital stress. 

The fool blames those things for his/her sinful actions. The enemy says "It's their fault. You deserve this. You're a leader. You have needs." and more. 

To the victim, we seek to care well and pray for your healing.

To the victimizer, we seek justice upon you and pray for your healing as well. 

It remains a gospel issue, and therefore something we must do as the local body. The gates of hell will not prevail against God's church. That is so true and we must remember that. However, we must also remember that does not mean local bodies, led poorly, that abandon the fullness of the gospel will continue to exist. Some shouldn't.

 

File this under "Things they didn't teach me at seminary."


How Deep Is This Caring Well? Addressing Sexual Abuse in the Church

Last week my wife and I traveled to Dallas, Texas for the 2019 SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) National Conference. As a result of the February 2019 exposé in the Houston Chronicle regarding sexual abuse in Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches, the focus of this year's conference what changed to address the issue directly.

Some have asked us how we liked the conference. 

How can you like a conference that is focused on addressing such heinous crimes and sin? 

Well, we did like it because a very real issue was being addressed. It was "good" that no longer were we intentionally or subconsciously ignoring victims of such abuse. Yet, sin is never good. This left us with an overwhelming feeling of sadness, grief, and lament.

Caring well

From a perspective as a pastor in an SBC church, I knew that focusing on such instances was considered by some to be a risky endeavor. For those who were asked to speak, it was clear that ERLC and SBC leaders did not tell them to hold back. It seems that they were not even asked to avoid certain subjects or people. In this era, that was refreshing.

If you followed the #CaringWell trending hashtag online, you likely saw many comments related to the conference. Some were supportive. Others were cautiously encouraged. Still others were angered that the event was even occurring. Of those angered, they constituted varied perspectives.

On one end were those who fear acknowledging that such abuse even occurred in their (our) churches, seminaries, and institutions and to speak of them would tarnish the SBC brand and image. (News flash: It's already been tarnished.) 

On the other end of the spectrum were those who have been victimized by church leaders or others in power (even if in smaller churches) in the past and were appalled that such an event would be sponsored by an agency of the SBC. It seemed, according to some of the statements and posts, to be little more than an attempt at whitewashing sin to give the SBC the ability to say "See, we did something."

I understand where these opinions come from. To say they're not legitimate would be wrong. 

Yet, I went to the conference hopeful. I was not seeking to see if anyone shared a "gotcha" statement or if the ERLC was simply putting on a show for the media. I was seeking to hear from those speaking, victims and advocates. I wanted to come away with some insight into what those in my church may be feeling who have suffered through similar events in their past. I realize that based on statistics there are likely many who have suffered as victims of sexual abuse in our church family (even if not perpetrated by anyone in a church in their past) and this reality is something I must consider when praying, preparing, preaching, and leading those whom God has placed in this local body for me to shepherd. 

I want to shepherd well.

So, I came home with a brain full of information, numerous notes (some disguised as tweets) and insight into things that I had never even considered prior. While some practical information was provided to ensure our church is better suited to protect people from abuse (not just to protect our image or brand - oh, Lord, please no - but to protect victims and those who could be victimized) I found myself drawn into the very personal stories shared from the platform from women and men who had been abused. These were not just stories that would make a good episode of Dateline, but stories that exposed a sinful underbelly that often is allowed to grow in ministries, churches, youth sports and other organizations where predation occurs.

There were so many who spoke and shared. I won't be able to highlight all of them in this post. There are some whose stories continue to resonate, not in a way that "Oh, that's interesting" but in "Oh my! I am grieved that you experienced that and I'm amazed you have found the courage to share." For some, they are first-hand accounts of stories I've heard and read about. For others, they were insights and accounts that I had never heard prior.

My wife and I talked about the information presented. We began to question whether certain people we know and some we are related to could be victims of abuse. We saw in our own conversation what we were warned about by the speakers - the tendency to see all as victims or as victimizers. It happens. It was an overwhelming three days of information, all on the same subject. It was needed. It is needed. And while we recognize that not all people we know find themselves in one of the two categories mentioned above, we do realize that there are far too many who have personal stories that sound much like what has been shared in the Houston Chronicle and from the stage.

Some have gone public with their stories. Many have not.

Some have found support from their churches, church leaders, and denominational representatives. Others have not. 

Some have abandoned the church. Others have not.

Some are hoping for change and help. Others have abandoned any hope for change.

This is the reality. It is a tragic reality.

Yet, I have hope.

That may not be enough for those who are needing more. I know that. But even in the midst of these sinful, nasty, abuse-laden, image-bearer trashing, falsely holy, power-focused stories of the past, I hold onto hope. It's not a hope in man, or in the SBC, or in the ERLC, or any denominational entity (and to be clear, I'm not anti-SBC.) It is only in Christ and the healing offered from the one whose image we bear do I have hope. 

As Mary DeMuth stated from the main stage this past week, God has chosen to use the broken, sinned against, "foolish things" of this world to confound the wise. He is using the "least of these" in these cases, years later, to reveal ignored and excused sin, so that he may be seen clearly.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. - 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 (ESV)

Brothers and sisters, we have much work to do. The work must be done, but not in our power. If done in our power...then, we have nothing but a conference and resources that help make our brand look caring (I'm not saying that is what we have, but that is what it will be if we rely on self) when healing and right steps must be made. 

The church must help the helpless. We must listen to the cries of the wounded. We must stop believing that every victim is no more than a modern-day version of Potiphar's wife just making up accusations against innocent people. There are certainly some Potiphar's wives out there, but they are the minority. 

Videos from speakers who have given ERLC permission to post will be uploaded soon and available for viewing. Our Caring Well team will watch. We will discuss the messages. We will continue to pray and take tangible steps in our church to ensure that we are not just a building on an avenue in Orange Park, Florida, but a local body of Christ-followers who love the Lord with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength...and love our neighbors and most vulnerable as ourselves. We will be a church that cares well. In fact, it is a deep well whose name is Christ. We will continue to go to this well, for that is the only place where the Living Water can be found. 

Until the videos are posted, here are some of the live-tweets I made as stories were being shared (Apologies to Andrew Schmutzer for misspelling his name in every one of my tweets):

 


Why We're Cancelling Youth Group

Well...we're not cancelling youth ministry. 

We are moving one of our Wednesday youth worship services to another location. In fact, we're dividing our group up and saying "go to one of these available locations."

Why?

Partly because we are partnered with the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes para-church group. In fact, our student minister is the county representative for the group. In our area, this is the only para-church group with a presence on every junior high school and high school campus. Being para-church, the emphasis is not to create a youth group on campus that pulls students from the local church. In fact, the focus is to come alongside the local church to best reach as many students as possible with the message of the gospel. Though this is the stated focus for every para-church group, when the county representative is a local church student minister, it is much easier to see it come to fruition. That is, once other church student leaders begin to trust our student minister to have a kingdom focus, rather than "our church" focus. He's proven himself, so we've crossed this hurdle.

Fields of faith

Fields of Faith - October 9 at 6pm

On Wednesday, October 9 our teenagers will NOT be meeting at our church. This is a bit of a shocker for parents who are used to bringing all the children to the church campus, then going to their own Bible study. Yet, on this night, it all changes.

Fields of Faith is an FCA-sponsored event held on local school campuses. (BTW - it's not just for athletes. All students are welcome.)

According to the Fields of Faith website:

Fields of Faith is a student led event. Students invite, pray for, share with, and challenge their peers to read the Bible and follow Jesus Christ. An athletic field provides a neutral, rally point where a community can come together.

But, but, but...

Many questions come from students, parents, and church leaders. 

Who else is going?

Students like routine, just like adults, and if the service at church is not happening, they are not sure about going somewhere else, even a familiar school, unless they know others attending. That's why it is so vital that students lead out. If a student attends a rival school, challenges in their mind occur as well. In our case, we're saying "Go with your friend." It's that easy. Some campuses may have large groups. Others may have just a few. We know that every single student wants to know who else is going. We don't know. We won't know. 

Transportation is a problem.

We know. Parents have let us know. If their younger children are involved in groups at the church building, how are they to get their teenagers to the high school down the street (or on the other side of town?) It's a valid question. We have discovered that most parents and students, given enough lead time can work this out. As a parent, we did so for our children when they had to be at two different locations at the same time, whether due to school events or travel ball. Of course, we would never say to allow your student to ride with someone you do not know, is not trusted, or vetted.

We can't cancel youth group on Wednesday?

This is a reason given by many church leaders. It may be a challenge, but here's something I have found to be true as a pastor...YES, you can. You can. In fact, it is not cancelling, it is moving. (However, if your church's leadership just will not do this, don't push. Don't rebel. Don't get angry. Don't create dissension. Go to your church building and worship with your brothers and sisters. This is not a bad thing. I believe in pastoral leadership and if your pastor says no, then trust him.)

In our case, it is actually putting feet to a message we have preached for years. We tell families and individuals to be the church, share Christ with their friends, don't be sequestered in a church building all the time, be in the world but not of it. This one event on a Wednesday (one of 52 Wednesdays) gives students an opportunity to just show up where we tell them to be real in their faith ALL THE TIME

I am excited we are enabling this to happen in our church and pray that others will.

It will be inconvenient. Maybe we need a little inconvenience in our faith? Who said Christianity was convenient anyway?

What if a student shows up at the church and the youth building is closed, lights are off, and no other students are there?

Well, some will show up, I'm sure. In our case, we actually have a Bible study in our worship center where students can join others. There may be places they can assist in recreation for Awana (never alone with children, by the way.) So, if that student show up and at that very moment remembers "Oh yeah, we're not meeting tonight. We're supposed to be at the high school," they can either leave and drive down the street to the school or join the adults in Bible study. We likely won't have any pre-study games, but the Bible remains true, and not just for adults.

So, we're cancelling our youth ministry meeting for one evening, in order to send out missionaries to the field where their faith will be tested, tried, and they will see that God is doing things in our county that most do not realize.

May this event be more than annual event. May it be a catalyst for renewal, revival, and awakening. (It's not out of the question.) 


Blaming the Monster We Created - Consumer Christianity in America

Pastors often find themselves meeting together at conferences, denominational events, or community gatherings. Once the typical small talk is over, and if they actually like and trust each other, many will begin to express what they feel regarding the seeming lack of commitment of church members nowadays. This is not new. It has been the reality for decades. Yet, like all generations, the present realities are the most pressing. 

I talked with a church planter recently and asked the open-ended and very dangerous question "How are things going at your church?"

He answered. It was a typical answer. It was not one that is reserved for church planters, but in the world of planting is very, very common. He said, "It ebbs and flows. Yesterday was good, but it is hard. It's hard keeping members engaged and focused."

Yep. It's hard. Not just for church plants, but for established churches as well. 

One of the most common targets for sad pastors is lamenting "consumer Christianity" that seems to be so prevalent today. In case you have never heard this term, here are some descriptors:

Characteristics of Consumer Christians (not a complete list):

  • Self-focused
  • Looks for ministry options in the church that solely benefit themselves and their family members
  • Wants a children's program/youth program/choir/band/etc. that is large and attractive
  • Loves programs that entertain
  • Desires excellence in production of events and activities
  • Wants to "be fed"
  • Is an audience member, but not part of the congregation
  • Has a list of what the church should do for them
  • Sees church as a spiritual Target, Walmart, or Amazon, simply there to provide spiritual goods as desired
  • A purchaser who never actually gives back
  • Transient (brand-loyal for a while, but since church is a brand is eventually desirous of a new brand)
  • A marketing agency's target
  • Sees regular attendance as once a month...maybe
  • Actively attends church, unless something else is happening in the community
  • Does not serve
  • Posts "Looking for a new church" online every now and then to see what else is being offered

The consumer model of church attender, or "Consumer Christianity" is rampant in our culture. Whether you live in the urban core, the suburbs, or even in rural areas, consumerism reigns. 

Consider these words by Skye Jethani, writing for Christianity Today:

When we approach Christianity as consumers rather than seeing it [our faith] as a comprehensive way of life, an interpretive set of beliefs and values, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express identity. And the demotion of Jesus Christ from Lord to label means to live as a Christian no longer carries an expectation of obedience and good works, but rather the perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise and experiences.1

Who's To Blame?

Consumer Christianity has existed in some form or fashion since the beginning of the church. People coming with less than holy motivations fill the buildings. The letters of Paul address some such instances. Yet, the current state of affairs in the world of celebrity pastors and spirituality sold as a commodity seems a bit out of hand. 

While pastors and church leaders lament the consumer nature of Christianity that results in tepid spirituality and a bevy of church shoppers, perhaps it is time to take a good, long look in the mirror. 

Like many pastors my age, I grew up in an era known for the church growth movement. Sadly, this led to the marketing of easy grace, the building of large facilities, and shifting of worship styles in order to reach seekers. The seeker sensitive, attractional model of ministry made headlines, created megachurches, and expanded the power of those at the pinnacle of movement. But...it also added to the creation of consumers, ultimately to the detriment of the church.

This is not to say that every megachurch, engaging church with a popular pastor/leader is wrong or "doing church" unbiblically. In fact, many are faithfully preaching, teaching, and leading. Nevertheless, the reality of consumer Christianity remains.

Who's to blame? We are. At least partially.

The seeker-sensitive model seemed logical at the time. "Let's look at the popular music of the day, strip down the religiosity of the service, and create a fun, exciting event each weekend so that lost people will want to come to church." At least that was the proposed reasoning.

Despite the seeming logic of it all, this passage of Scripture remains true...

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. Romans 3:10-11 (ESV)

So, no one seeks God, but the church sought to believe that people were seekers, looking for God. 

Frankenstein's Church

We continued to build the monster, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein. The American church pieced together parts and ideas all with good and, I'd say godly, intentions. Church staff were added with the intent of reaching segments of society, whether it be youth, single adults, young professionals, etc. This is not much different than having separate areas in a department store for different ages. People are different, right? Those of different ages desire different things. We know this. Marketing proves this.  It seemed logical.

And it worked...to a degree.

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Photo credit: twm1340 on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

Crowds did gather. Groups did grow. The era of the huge youth group and ministry was strong. Para-church ministries increased their attendance as well, while many saying they were "for the church" but in practice were just competing with the local church. 

The evangelical church's Frankenstein's monster was roaming the countryside. New versions of church were launched. The old was abandoned as out of date and boring (to be honest, some were really out of date and boring.) New was in and consumers were sought.

Then, we got angry.

We blamed the church attenders and members for being what we built them to be. We became upset when the young family decided to try the new church with a larger children's program or event. We complained when church members started traveling with their children's travel team. We cried foul when numerous members purchased season passes to the local theme parks and began going to them every other weekend because that was their "escape" and their self-defined "family time." We wondered why offerings were down, seats were empty, and attendance sputtered.

But we should not have wondered.

We are a few generations into this model and it clearly works exactly as it was built.

Dr. Frankenstein's monster did exactly what it was built to do, even if the good doctor did not realize or wish to believe it.

Consumer Christians are always looking for the latest version of church. It's not unlike the marketing strategies of Apple when the release a new iPhone. The user's old iPhone still works, but the attraction of getting the latest is so strong that people wait in line just to spend a lot of money for the latest version. Then, in about a year, the "new" iPhone is an old iPhone and customers are now ready to throw it out (or give to their parents) and get an upgrade.

Sadly, some churches market the very same way to the consumers and wonder why there are consumers?

Now What Do We Do?

Well, the answer is not to turn our church services into stoic, gothic, 18th century gathering places. The gospel is not boring, so the church should not settle for boring services with no life. The answer is not to find the better model and shelve everything we're doing (though shelving some things is definitely a good idea.) The answer is not to falsely believe that the heyday of the church in America was the 1950s so we need to do what we did then. That won't work. We have too many churches today built to reach people in the 1950s. Those churches are dying.

What we must do is confess our sin and repent.

We must simply go back to the basics, realizing that lifelong discipleship and transformation of a person is not something that occurs because of a keen marketing campaign, a cool gathering spot, or a nice, new logo. None of those things are wrong. In fact, I like all those, but those are not life changing.

The gospel alone is the answer. Christ alone is the key. He is still the way, truth, and life. He is still the only way. When the local church pushes that message to the side and emphasizes all the extraneous, temporary things, no wonder we find ourselves a few decades later asking "What went wrong?"

While that monster is still roaming the countryside, I'm encouraged by what I am seeing and experiencing in our local church and among pastors and churches in our community. Sure, there are some still focused on being the latest version of church for local consumers, but by and large, most are abandoning the "Come look at us. We have a great, new version of this product you need" approach.

Jared Wilson's latest book The Gospel-Driven Church addresses this. He's not the only one speaking of this, but it is encouraging to see the conversation shift back to the gospel in such a way. Cam Hyde writes in his review of Wilson's book...

Wilson will argue throughout the book for a more gospel-driven approach rather than using any means necessary to get people through the doors of your church (an attractional method). He addresses the pitfalls of relying solely on being attractional and shows the biblical necessity of a gospel-driven approach while showing those in leadership how to steer their churches toward this change. 

We are learning that models come and go, but the gospel remains. The shiny, new, fancy attractional models will not last, and in most cases have proven to not sustain or create disciples. Since our commission as the church of Jesus Christ is to make disciples, not club members, we must confess our collective sin of relying on an attractional model and submit to the Spirit's lead that points to Christ and the good news of the gospel.

Consumer Christians remain. They're everywhere. It is very, very easy to slide into the model that seeks to "meet their needs wants" and build programs that do so. We must remain faithful to the Lord, be the church he has commissioned and called us to be, and remember that life-change only occurs through Christ. We must pray that the consumers in our midst surrender to Christ. Otherwise, they will remain weak in their faith, angry at their previous church, continually searching for the latest and greatest, all the while stagnant as a Christian, if a Christian at all.

__________

                  1Skye Jethani, "From Lord to Label: How Consumerism Undermines Our Faith," Christianity Today, July 10, 2006, accessed September 30, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2006/july-online-only/from-lord-to-label-how-consumerism-undermines-our-faith.html


Sports, Idolatry, and Created Heroes

I am a sports fan. I have been since I was a child. I come by it naturally as my father has always been a big sports fan.

I remember watching games on television as a kid. I also remember when I actually became more enamored with the game than the uniforms or the team logos (though, I still love uniforms and team logos. I guess I'm one who "gets it" according to Paul Lukas and Uni-Watch. I am also thankful for the work of Chris Creamer. I love his site.)

Over the years, like other fans, I have developed a liking for certain sports, teams, leagues, and athletes. Some are based on where I lived as a child and the fan-base that surrounded me. In some cases, these were the teams that we were able to get on television in our region or were those teams and sports followed by family members.

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Photo credit: Jim Larrison on Visualhunt / CC BY

Like many American sports fans, I have favorites in the big four leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, & NHL,) while I have begun to follow teams in some of the smaller leagues growing in popularity as well (mainly MLS.)

Not only did I grow up watching sports, I played as well. I played soccer (one season - we lost every game except the one I didn't make it to, so that ended my soccer career,) baseball, and basketball. Being one of the tallest kids in junior high and high school (topping out at 6'7") I leaned into basketball after some urging by the coach. While my skill level was a bit behind my peers for years, as the coach said "You're tall and I can't teach height. I can teach basketball, so you're on the team." I loved the sport, but mostly I loved being part of a team and representing my schools. Playing in high school was great, but the years I played in college truly helped me to grow in areas off the court. It was only two years of being on the team, so I learned the ups and downs of making a team, being let go, and working through adversity.

Sports as Idolatry

At some point, every kid playing basketball in the driveway or throwing a football in the front yard dreams of playing on the biggest stage in the world, for that team he cheered for growing up. Some do make it to the big leagues, but the vast majority do not. For these (of whom I am one) we go to games and buy tickets or watch our favorite teams or athletes on television and land into the category of fan.

Here in the South, sports has been called religion. It's often said "tongue-in-cheek" but we know there is truth to that, especially on Saturdays during college football season.

Can sports become an idol? Sure it can. Anything can. Barnabas Piper was featured on the Sports Spectrum podcast this week and was asked that question. He stated...

It can very easily be idolatry in that way where it is the thing people depend on to fill in the gaps in other areas of their lives. They fight with their spouse and turn to watching football. They had a miserable week at work and turn to, you know, playing softball. They...do whatever...and it becomes a crutch or an idol often. You see it in them.

I think that's where vitriol comes from.

When we depend too much on something that we don't have any control over or ... it's not an ultimate thing. Sports are not ultimate. They're a gift from God. They're tons of fun, but they're not an ultimate thing.

When we put too much dependence on that, we're just setting ourselves up for misery, for disappointment, and so...then, all that hope we put on it just gets crushed. It seems to be a pattern across sports. It doesn't matter what the sport is, what the level is. When you see the Little League dads throwing haymakers at their kid's game because a fourteen-year-old made a bad strike call...there's just a level of insanity.

I believe Piper is spot on. Most every sane, adult sports fan would agree. But, we often slide into this idolatrous mode where our fandom becomes more important than it ever should be. 

I asked a friend who serves as a chaplain and mentor to many athletes about some of the dynamics these athletes face. I began to see things that should be obvious to all of us as fans, but often get ignored. These are things as Christians we may even miss as we watch our favorite uniforms compete during weekend games. 

Creating and Destroying Sports "Heroes"

These are not points shared by the chaplain, but things that have come to mind that I believe should be remembered as we cheer on our teams and favorite athletes, in no particular order:

  • For the most part, these sports "heroes" are very young. This is especially true for rookies. While there are some exceptions, and some long-time veterans on these professional teams, most of the premiere athletes on our favorite teams are in their young twenties. I am now at an age where my young twenties are little more than history lessons. What I know is this - I am glad social media did not exist when I was in my late teens and early twenties. If it did, my statements about life would still be posted online somewhere from a twenty-year-old's perspective. I know there are some very wise and insightful young men and women out there, but just knowing who I was back then...I'm glad there's not much of a record. I was immature. I was young. I was growing up and learning. So too are many of these young athletes. 
  • "They're all millionaires. They're set for life." It may seem that way, but it's not true. Some are multi-millionaires. Some have shoe contracts and logos and have their images plastered everywhere, but there are many more professional athletes who may be a few rungs down on the bench, making the rookie minimum (which is substantial in some leagues, but is simply an annual contract.) Be careful to judge someone by the stuff they accumulate, especially in cases where their surrounding support do not bring wisdom to the table. 
  • "They're getting paid to play a game, so they should just be quiet and play!" Uh...I've heard this. You likely have as well. It may be a game, but do not forget, at the professional level it is a business. There is a union. There are team owners. There are many dollars being negotiated. Players have a shelf-life. Even Tom Brady will not play forever. While some athletes tend to say things that make us cringe, or become the opposite of fans of them, remember the previous bullet points and also remember that not every twenty or thirty-something has a microphone shoved into their face regularly with pointed questions designed to elicit controversial remarks. There are likely many who have said things only to go home where their spouse says "Honey...really? You shouldn't have said that." Okay, that's what happens in pastors' homes, but I imagine it happens in athletes' homes as well.
  • When it comes to professional and collegiate athletes, most have experienced a lifetime of playing sports where they were the best on the team. They were celebrated in high school and on their travel teams. They were placed on pedestals and told they were the best. In some cases, some people have used this idol-making process to create revenue streams for their respective teams, doing little more than using the athlete for the good of the brand. 
  • When the run is over...many are forgotten and struggle to find their way. I believe the severity of this reality increases at every level of play. I was excited to finally become a starter on my high school basketball team. I was pumped when the small college in my town offered me a scholarship to play for them. Two years later I was traumatized when my scholarship was removed, a better player was signed, and I was told I would no longer be on the team. I wasn't even playing at the NCAA D-I level, but even then, my identity which has been so wrapped up in my sport was shaken. I don't think I even watched basketball for four years after that. I cannot imagine the emotions and fear that comes when the professional athlete who has a good contract with his team, an agent who helps negotiate such, is then brought into the coach's office to be told that his/her services will no longer be needed. It cannot be easy. Some may make the transition easier than others, but what about those who do not? Identity wrapped up in what you do (playing a game in these cases) is gone when what you do becomes what you used to do. 
  • Fans forget that these people are not just imaginary players on a video game or just someone chosen for a fantasy league. These are men and women, made in the image of God, who for a short season of their lives, played a game for fun and the entertainment of of those who bought tickets and cheered for the logo on the uniform. 

The sports-saturated culture we live in creates sports "heroes." I use the quotes because I struggle with using that term to describe athletes, but it is used so often, it seems to resonate with most. Therefore, when our sports "heroes" are doing well, standing high upon the pedestal we create for them, we are at peace.

Until the next week, when the "hero" has a bad game. Worse yet, what if the "hero" is injured? What if he/she cannot ever play at the high level again? 

I'm guilty of just moving on and cheering for the next in line. Why? Because I've been a fan of certain teams for years and the players and personnel always change. I will likely always be that fan. In fact, that's pretty normal.

However, I am convicted that the players who entertained me for years while wearing the uniform I cheer for, are not two-dimensional men and women, but people just like me (well, okay not just like me. They're actual athletes. I'm a former athlete who never made it to their level, with a strong emphasis on "former.") They are like me in that they are image-bearers of God. They have things in life that bring them joy. They have fears, too. They wonder who they truly are and many have been seeking that for years. Some had a higher level of confidence in their identity as long as they wore the uniform, but now? Now, they wonder.

That's why it is so vital that these men and women hear the truth of the gospel. It's needed for all, not just them, so don't misread what I'm writing. Yet, in this case in a culture that creates these sports idols, the church needs to be proactive in seeking to help those who help them during the most difficult times of life. Maybe it's a chaplain? Maybe it's a coach?

What If Christian Fans...

Maybe it begins with prayer?

While some may not see the value, can you imagine what it would be like for a professional or collegiate athlete who was celebrated for years in his town, but due to recent reports or maybe some poorly advised choices, is now being raked over the coals daily in the blogs, articles, radio programs, and television media? What if they received a card or message from a fan who "gets it" saying something like "I don't know exactly what the pressure you feel is like, but I want you to know that God does. It must be hard to be in your situation right now. Please know that while I am a fan of the team, I have beliefs and a faith that is much bigger and more important than wins and losses. Therefore, know that I am praying for you and your family."  What if that fan actually did pray? More than once?

This would not be some sappy self-focused message intent on receiving an autograph or free tickets to the game, but a true prayer for these young men and women who play games for our entertainment. Prayer that they would know the God who bestows identity, not based on sports performance, but on submission to Him, repentance of sin, and surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Maybe, just maybe, those we celebrate would begin to understand a game plan for life that goes beyond the playing field. And, we as fans, could be a catalyst for a God-sized story to occur.

BTW - I still like when my teams win. I still get upset when they do not. I'm still a fan of sports. However, I'm a follower and child of God. That changes everything.


The Most Shocking Thing in the Bible

The Bible is an amazing book, and much more than just a book. Within the sixty-six books of the Bible there are stories of adventure, romance, battle, rescue, and numerous other things that are commonly spoken of as elements of an epic. There are also stories and passages that cause you to pause as a reader and say "What did I just read? That's in the Bible?" These verses have been called obscure by some. I do not like categorizing any of God's inerrant Word as obscure, but I understand the reasoning. These are shocking passages. These may be stories that didn't get the Veggie Tales treatment or were not illustrated in your Children's Bible. Some are strange. Others are ... well, not rated PG.

Yet, the truth remains...

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. - 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)

There are no passages or stories that should relegated as obscure or unimportant. However, they still may be shocking.

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Photo credit: Mirra fotograf og kunst on Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

In most cases the surprising verses have to do with things that are not fully explained to the reader. For example, the story of circumcision of Moses's son by Zipporah which led to Moses not being killed by God (Exodus 4:24-26) is one such account. It is in the Bible. I have read it, but I don't understand fully what is happening here. Oh, I get the specifics, but there are more unanswered questions than answered ones. Apparently, I am in good company because commentators also struggle with explaining this passage well, or at least consistently. 

Other stories are ones that reveal elements of God's nature that most would rather just not know. For instance, there are numerous accounts of God's wrath being poured out upon people in the Bible. The stories of Noah, the exodus, Sodom and Gomorrah, and others come to mind.

The wrath of God is often sanitized, if not ignored, by many who claim to be Christian. In many cases, cultural Christians want God, but not the one of the Bible. They desire the god who is made in their own image. This God is a god of love and friendship and acceptance. He is the "god who behaves" according to one's desires. Sadly, that version of God is not God at all.

A god who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol. – R.C. Sproul

The Shocking Truth

What is more shocking than discovering that God is a God of justice, holiness, and wrath is discovering that his gracious love and mercy provides a way for you and I to avoid his wrath.

As Christians we say "we were saved" and that is true. It seems that most believe that we have been simply saved from hell. According to Scripture, when we surrender to Christ, repent of our sins, receive his payment on the cross as justification for our sins, we are saved. We are saved...FROM THE WRATH OF GOD. 

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. Romans 5:9 (ESV)

God is love. He is merciful. He is gracious. So much so that he has saved me, a wretched sinner who does not deserve a chance at life. He saved me not because I deserved it, but because he desired it. He provided a way. That way is truth. That way is life. That way is Jesus Christ.

That is truly shocking.

And I am so glad it's true.


Christians, Depression, and Mental Illness

Through my recent studies in the book of Ezekiel for Sunday sermon preparation and 1 John for my mid-week Bible study, I have been speaking on the tendency for us to either justify our sin or not acknowledging it for what it is. This is part of human nature (i.e. sin nature) and we all do this at some point. 

In 1973 psychologist Karl Menninger shocked many with his book Whatever Became of Sin?

He writes about the seeming absence of the word sin in modern English. He stated that churches and pastors who were known to preach against sin and used the world prolifically now seemed to avoid it. He was speaking of many in the mainline Protestant denominations and even the early 1970s genesis of what became known as political correctness.

He states this regarding the word “sin”...

It is surely nothing new that men want to get away from acknowledging their sins or even thinking about them. Is this not the religious history of mankind? Perhaps we are only more glib nowadays and equipped with more euphemisms. We can speak of error and transgression and infraction and mistakes without the naïve exposure that goes with serious use of that old-fashioned pietistic word “sin.”

We love sanitized words. That way we can pretend sin isn’t real. 

Mental Illness and Sin

Sometimes we like to call our sin something other than sin. In the past, I have stated "We may call it a mistake, a challenge, or even call it mental illness or a disorder in a way to excuse sin." I now realize that by categorizing mental illness and disorder as I did, I presented these as synonymous with sin. They are not. 

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To claim that someone's illness is a sin is akin to what the disciples asked Jesus when they came upon a blind man.

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” - John 9:1-5 (ESV)

There is much division among evangelical Christians regarding mental health. The spectrum of mental illness is wide and when spoken of among Christians, various opinions arise. For years the concept of depression or mental illness among Christians was seen as a sign of sin or wrongdoing. In some cases, the prescription was just to "be positive and pray more, go to church more, trust God more, be happy, etc." None of those recommendations are wrong. However, the Christian in your church who sincerely desires help, who reads the Bible more, prays more, and everything else that good Christians are supposed to do, often experiences an "almost there, but not quite" reality and wonders if it will ever get better.

What is mental illness?

When speaking of mental illness or depression, a clear definition is difficult to find. Biblical counselors often state that mental illness is not a disease but a construct. Psychologists Herb Kutchins and Stuart Kirk who have served on The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) committees (the group that decides what is and is not a mental illness), state:

The category of [mental illness] itself is an invention, a creation. It may be a good and useful invention, or it may be a confusing one. DSM is a compendium of constructs. And like a large and popular mutual fund, DSM's holdings are constantly changing as the managers' estimates and beliefs about the value of those holdings change.1

That description may cause frustration for some. At first glance, it appears that they are saying mental illness is not real. That is not what they're stating. What they are emphasizing is the mystery of defining that which is seemingly understood by the masses as clearly defined, most often as biological. 

Sadly, the church often becomes the place where those who suffer from mental disorders or depression feel less safe than elsewhere.

Dr. Jeremy Pierre stated this in an article about mental illness and the church, following the suicide of Saddleback Church's Pastor Rick and Kay Warren's son, Matthew...

Everyone knows the unpleasant impulse to hide something about himself that others wouldn’t approve of. For those who experience overwhelming emotions or find themselves caught in patterns of unusual behavior, this impulse is more than unpleasant—it’s terrifying. We are aware of the general standards of normalcy around us, and when we don’t measure up to those standards, we feel shame. The easiest way to stay included is to hide those things about us that don’t measure up. Lest we demonize the church, let’s admit that this is true in any sphere of relationships—the neighborhood, the workplace, the rec league.

Nevertheless, it’s right to recognize that the church should be different. And, at least in some churches, it’s not. Sometimes it’s worse because the standards of normalcy are mixed with standards of morality, and the stakes get even higher. The thought of a guy at work finding out you take meds might be unpleasant to you, but the thought of your pastor finding out might be downright distressing. In your mind, your coworker might think you’re a little screwy, but your pastor might think you’re screwy and sinning. And so you may be more tempted to hide stuff from your pastor than from your coworker.2

To equate mental illness, mental disorders, or depression as sin is inaccurate. Yet, as believers, we know that all illness (physical, emotional, behavioral, etc.) are results of the fall of man. Sin is the ultimate source. Our brokenness impacts all of creation. The sin nature within all leads to suffering and that suffering is meant to make us groan for the life to come, when all of creation will be set free from corruption (Pierre). 

That's the promise in Scripture.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. - Romans 8:18-19 (ESV)

Counselors such as Jay Adams, with his nouthetic (to confront out of concern for the change of heart) biblical counseling approach addressed from a biblical perspective the same issue that Menninger did from a secular one in his book referenced earlier. The context of sin minimization meant that the segmentation of the person was being addressed (i.e. behavioral, physical, mental, emotional, etc.) without taking a biblical perspective that we as image-bearers of God are not just one aspect of humanity. Adams noted that the the church seemingly lost its focus on sin and salvation and also the focus on sanctification. This ignoring of the daily growth in Christlikeness through the valleys and lamentable moments was ignored by many.

Ultimately, we know and affirm that Christ is the answer for all life's circumstances and for our sin. He is the redeemer. These are not questioned.

But, what about the one who is ill, the one struggling to get up in the morning, battling thoughts and feelings that seemingly paralyze them? 

Rather than simply declare that the person is in sin (they may be, but address that for what it is, not just because they are battling depression or suffering from a mental disorder) we should look to Christ for guidance and follow the Holy Spirit's lead in offering help as brothers and sisters. 

The mind can descend far lower than the body. For [the mind] there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour. - Charles Spurgeon

Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, had bouts of sadness. Perhaps even moments of severe depression. His words do not discount the Lord's helping hand, but also does not ignore his very real feelings. 

For the believer who is suffering with depression or other mental disorder, here's what Lieryn Barnett states on a post featured at The Gospel Coalition (full article here.)

  1. You are not alone.
  2. It is not your fault
  3. God sees you and is with you
  4. God's Word speaks to you

The thorn in the flesh is very real, and unique for different individuals. The feelings you have do not define you, though in the midst of the difficulty, they feel as if they do. God ultimately is the healer. Go to him, lean into him, trust him. Trust that he often provides others (pastors, doctors, nurses, friends) who can be very real help along the journey. 

Where there is sin revealed, confess and repent. 

Where it is not sin, it is a "thorn in the flesh" and we pray as Paul did that God would remove it. If he does, we will praise him. If he chooses not to, we will praise him and pray that you experience his grace as sufficient.

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           1Heath Lambert, "Can Jesus Heal Mental Illness? Part 1," Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, March 16, 2014, accessed August 28, 2019, https://biblicalcounseling.com/can-jesus-heal-mental-illness-part-1/.

         2Jeremy Pierre, "Mental Illness and the Church," Biblical Counseling Coalition, April 19, 2013, accessed August 28, 2019, http://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2013/04/19/mental-illness-and-the-church/.