Running Low On Hope That the SBC Will Right This Ship

Sometimes in the Southern Baptist (SBC) bubble that I grew up within, serve within, and often live within, I think that everyone is talking about SBC issues and concepts all the time. The truth is the majority of my deeply politically-conservative, tradition-laden, church-on-every-corner, southern town is not Southern Baptist. The vast majority are not Christians and many only hold to a "God and country" version of American Christianity rather than a biblically convictional version. In other words, just like every other pastor and Christian I know, I live in the heart of a mission field where lostness has more reign than I desire.

If I am not careful, I will get sidetracked from the actual mission. Since I am a Southern Baptist and have been my entire life (I was Southern Baptist, at least on Sunday School roll, prior to my new birth moment) I often think in "Baptistese" utilizing a lexicon that not even all our church members understand (i.e. messengers, autonomy, Cooperative Program, IMB, NAMB, State Board of Missions, Executive Committee, UUPG, Lottie, Annie, etc.)

Within our SBC bubble things happen.

Good things happen.

Conventions occur annually on the state and national level. Associations and networks come together to intentionally fulfill the mandates of the Great Commission and Great Commandment for the glory of God. Board meetings and entity gatherings take place where saints intentionally pray and plan for wisdom to extend the reach of the gospel. Missionaries are sent. Churches are planted. Seminarians are trained. These are all good things (and the list is not extensive.)

But...bad things happen, too.

Sometimes this is unintentional. Sometimes...sadly it seems to be systemic. Maybe this is a result of brand-protection, propagation of a long-held buddy system, latent Christian celebrity making, or idol worship.

Then...yesterday. A Southern Baptist event took place that quickly moved to the front burner for many active and engaged SBC pastors and church members. I heard the phrase "the world is watching" from many and maybe that is so, but even if the world wasn't watching, I was. And more importantly, our Sovereign God was...and is.

What occurred was a special called meeting of the SBC Executive Committee (the managing and functioning agency for Cooperative Program issues and denominational decisions throughout the year excluding the two days when the actual Southern Baptist Convention is in session.) The polity of this organizational structure may seem strange to those who are not Southern Baptist, but suffice to say this group is the SBC decision-making group when the annual meeting is not in session. Yet, there is a very clear and specific caveat for this group. They work at the behest of the SBC and our messengers (voting representatives at our annual meeting sent from local, autonomous churches in good standing.) In June 2021 the SBC Annual Meeting took place in Nashville, Tennessee. It was one of the largest attended in numerous years due to two things - 1) the 2020 meeting cancellation due to COVID and 2) the genned-up in-house squabbles between factions hoping to get their respective man elected president. It was fun. Kind of like riding a roller coaster that makes you throw up all over your shirt is fun.

Our Most Recent Mess

Nevertheless, during the Executive Committee's presentation at our annual meeting where the intent was to unveil and promote a new vision for the SBC (It was unveiled, but this was no home run. It was welcomed with a collective "amen" that sounded more like "meh") a motion was made from the floor (remember - this is just a big Baptist business meeting) by messenger and pastor Grant Gaines regarding the widely-known sexual abuse scandals in many local churches and the response requested from the Executive Committee. His motion is below:

I move that the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 15-16, 2021, in Nashville, TN, ask the newly elected president of the SBC to appoint a task force within 30 days of the date of this Convention that shall be comprised of members of Baptist churches cooperating with this Convention and experts in sexual abuse and the handling of sexual abuse-related dynamics. This task force shall either assume oversight of the third-party review announced previously by the Executive Committee or initiate a separate third-party review. Said task force shall ensure that the third-party review includes an investigation into any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives. The investigation shall include actions and decisions of staff and members of the Executive Committee from January 1, 2000 to June 14, 2021. This investigation should include an audit of the procedures and actions taken by the Credentials Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, which was formed at the Convention meeting in Birmingham, AL, June 11-12, 2019. The review shall be funded by allocations from the Cooperative Program.

We further move that the task force agree to the accepted best-standards and practices as recommended by the commissioned third-party, including but not limited to the Executive Committee staff and members waiving attorney client privilege in order to ensure full access to information and accuracy in the review. A written report on the factual findings of this review shall be presented to the task force 30 days prior to the SBC Annual meeting in 2022, and made public in full form within one week of the Task Force’s receipt of the report along with suggestions from the task force for actions to be taken by our convention.

The motion was discussed and voted upon. (Full disclosure - I voted to affirm the motion.) An overwhelming majority of messengers affirmed this and we left the annual meeting with the understanding that since the messengers had spoken, the things within the motion would be accomplished.

That is how it is supposed to be.

The Executive Committee is comprised of faithful Southern Baptists throughout our convention churches (pastors, church staff members, church members, men, women, young, median age, and older.)

A task force focusing on the sex-abuse issues of the SBC was put together and gave wise, strongly worded, step-by-step recommendations to the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee met recently and found themselves at an impasse regarding the motion. Delays were made and amendments to press on were defeated. The sticking point was the waiving of attorney-client privilege.

A special called meeting was held yesterday (September 28, 2021) via Zoom. The meeting was streamed live online and many, like me, did watch. Was it the "watching world?" Perhaps. There were certainly many Baptists watching. 

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Zoom meetings are the norm for many now. We use them in our church for committees and small group Bible studies. We use Zoom for local and state meetings. Yet, for this subject and with this much at stake for our convention, it became clear last night that a virtual meeting via Zoom was a poor choice. Despite the frustrating fact many apparently could not figure out how to mute/unmute, turn their cameras on/off, or vote electronically, there were bigger problems. The presentation showed a lack of professionalism, lack of decorum at times, inability to effectively count votes, and a revealed lack of respect for the SBC messengers by some, not all, on the committee. The recommendations from the sex abuse task force was disregarded. It was like watching a slow car wreck occur and those tuning in knew it would not turn out well.

The Enemy must love this stuff.

Sure enough, it did not turn out well. 

The fact that a vote on an amendment within the meeting had to take place by the committee members regarding whether or not they would do what they had been instructed to do by the messengers of the SBC causes me great concern. And I know some will say "But you just don't understand," or "You're not a lawyer," or "The messengers aren't privy to all the things this committee is privy to and they're just trying to protect the SBC," and other such things.

Those statements may be accurate.

Nevertheless, I am a Southern Baptist. And as a Southern Baptist I know our polity reveals that we are not a top-down, hierarchical denomination. We are a network of cooperating churches coming together for the sake of the gospel, to grow God's kingdom globally through evangelism, discipleship, and missions with doctrine and practices that conform to our confession of faith. It just seems to me that somewhere over the years a new system overtook the original programming. It's like a computer virus. It is a system that elevates brand over Bible. It's a system that says that people matter and that we care for the down-and-out, the hungry, the lonely, the abused, and the forgotten...but acts like it's more important to not be embarrassed publicly while doing more to promote programs, denominational efforts, and temporal issues that create celebrity pastors which harm greatly the church.

I have experienced much in SBC life over the years. I have heard angry preachers and angry Baptists attack one another at times.  Today I fear this moment may be the one that leaves more destruction, collateral damage, and unaddressed problems than we realize. 

Some are working to #DefundTheEC. There are cries by some to leave the SBC. A few are seeking to consider how to send funds to denominational entities of choice while eliminating the ones (in this case the Executive Committee) that anger them. A number of church planters are vocally wondering if they should remain in the Send Network and the SBC. 

Maybe it's just frustrated talk.

I doubt it.

I like to think that I mostly an optimist. Sometimes I doubt that I am an optimist. That makes me a pessimistic optimist. So, in my pessimistic optimism I believe that it is not too late. I want to believe that all those years and stories of sexual abuse survivors fighting for recognition, help, and justice will not continued to be ignored. I want to believe that when the majority of SBC messengers affirm a motion to do the right thing that those SBC agencies, entities, and committees given such assignments will stop hiding behind preference and legalese and do what they have been elected and appointed to do.

This is a watershed moment for the SBC. 

It is not too late to right the ship (I hope.) 

This means change must take place. That is most likely a change in leadership first, followed by a change in function and maybe structure. 

And maybe...please...can we stop having Zoom meetings like we just had so that our collective public embarrassment can be centered around issues and important topics rather than our inability to effectively utilize technology and behave like adults?


Facing the Reality That Your Church Has Changed

"Your church is perfectly positioned and staffed to reach a people who no longer exist."

I first heard a Christian leader make that statement about fifteen years ago. His point was that often churches of a certain age find themselves overwhelmed by decades of programmatic, event-driven, historically successful strategies that were not and are not necessarily sinful, but over time become ineffective. Thus, your church may still be filling its calendar with elements designed to reach...people who are no longer in the community or attending the church.

Change Leads to Pastoral Frustration

I have discovered that I often do not think the way other pastors of churches think. This is not because I have some secret knowledge others do not or some insight that others have yet to gain. It is because I am weird. Yep, that's it. I tend to ask questions that others never consider and I just do not know better than to ask. Sometimes, I am like that four-year-old who responds to everything his parents say with "Why?" or the even deeper question of "But...why?"

It can be frustrating and I'm sure my frustration frustrates those who are part of the church I serve.

Yet, I still ask the questions. 

I still wonder why we do things we do. I wonder why things are the way they are. So I ask.

I do my best to look toward a place that is truly impossible to see - the future - to hopefully get a handle on trends and cultural shifts so that we as a church can be positioned well to present the never-changing, life-redeeming message of the gospel to the yet unreached.

"This is Not Your Father's Oldsmobile"

Now this dates me and those who are not at least fifty-years-old likely have no idea what I'm referencing. Yet, I'll attempt to explain.

Back in ancient history the company known as General Motors produced a line of vehicles under the brand name "Oldsmobile." Oldsmobile was positioned in the auto industry to reach a specific target market. 

At one point, Oldsmobile was focused toward an older demographic. Eventually, the market-share shrunk and GM was basically competing with itself (since Buick and Cadillac also targeted the same group.) Thus, in the mid-1980s Oldsmobile began running an ad campaign under the by-line "Not your father's Oldsmobile." The commercials featured actors who had starred in older television shows or movies along with their adult children. I remember ones featuring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy of "Star Trek." They were in the cars with their respective children and the adult children were shocked at how sporty the new Olds were. Thus..."This is not your father's Oldsmobile" was then stated and plastered on the screen.

It was catchy and creative. Apparently, not enough though as the Olds brand was soon discontinued. Yet, that phrase stuck with me and in church life where the retirement of long-dead programs and outdated emphases remains, the marketability of "This is not your father's church" seems to resonate.

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Of course, when I speak of this type of branding and marketing of the local church, I am not speaking of the abandonment of timeless truths, the value of the Lord's Day, the doctrines that define us, or the inerrancy of God's Word. Those and other vital elements of who we are as Christians and our message are timeless and never change and should never be tampered.

Yet, as most of us who grew up in church know, there are elements that were used by God for a season, but the season ended. In these cases, change has to happen. Otherwise, the church ceases to to be faithful to the calling God has given and ends up existing in a form that exists solely for itself.

Some struggle with this reality, but it does not make it any less true.

Many of our Baptist churches in need of revitalization or replanting now have faithful remnants of brothers and sisters in Christ serving and seeking to survive in their communities. Yet, even by their own admission, walking into the church is like stepping back in time. Back in time not to a moment of biblical focus and holiness, but just back a few decades to a time when said church was reaching its community and had more people in the gathering.

And Then...The Pandemic

There has been much written for many years regarding contextualization and the changing landscape of church planting, sustaining, and community engagement. Then COVID-19 hit and suddenly what smart people said would happen within the coming decade occurred within a span of weeks. 

Churches who refused or never thought seriously about online streaming, online giving, or online anything were reevaluating their strategies. Pot-luck meals went the way of the buffet restaurants. BST (Baptist Standard Time) for all meetings, services, Sunday schools, etc. was erased. A year's worth of events and programming disappeared. And...many pastors and ministry leaders whose job description and in some cases personal identities were defined by what they do (or did) rather than in who they are began to struggle. All the "Ministers of..." and "Associate Pastors to..." that were tasked a certain age group, ministry element, or program found themselves wondering what to do since their gatherings and programs were gone. Of course, this is an over-simplification as pastors and ministers truly focus on people, but it is easy for one to slide into busyness and tasks. It happens to all of us at some point, I guess.

Suddenly, discovering how to connect and reconnect became paramount. How to "do church" when how we "did church" was unavailable. The longing for "getting back to normal" began to be shared. And now, despite the delta variant, many churches are back to meeting in person. Programs are rebooted and structures are being reset. But...in many cases, the church has changed. In some cases it has been dramatic.

A great crowd for many on a Sunday gathering is very much smaller than pre-pandemic. A shift has happened. Now, we must adjust.

This is not your father's church...and it's not even the church you attended pre-pandemic in some cases.

When I arrived at our church to begin serving in pastoral ministry our community was much different. It was 1994. The population was smaller. The number of homes within a drivable distance was much less. Average incomes of those living near our church was significantly higher than now. There were fewer schools, fewer churches, and much history to preserve.

It is now 2021 and as I stated to our congregation a few Sundays ago - we cannot pretend that we are the church we were when we were the only conservative Baptist (or evangelical) show in town. Our mission field has changed and in some cases, we have pretended nothing has happened. A new coat of paint on a wall does not fix long-deferred maintenance. 

There is no going back, but there is a way forward.

We cannot simply ignore the mission field that exists in the present, pretending we are who we were in the past (with the numbers in the room we had at that time and the budget we had then) and be faithful to be who God has us here to be right now.

Reality Checks Are Good

So, let's just be honest. People ask me how many members we have at our church. I normally answer "I have no idea" but I do know on the books we have about four times as many "members" as we do who attend and participate in ministry. This has been the case for decades yet has been exacerbated due to our pandemic-infused online only era of church gatherings. Thus, we have bogus numbers. And our church is not alone. 

Numbers are our friends, but only if they're accurate.

Can the brand of our church survive a dose of reality? What if we begin to admit our church is not as big as it used to be, or as big as the church down the street? What if we actually look in the mirror and see who we are, then look out the window to see who really lives nearby. If we continue to seek to reach people who do not exist we will ultimately be successful in reaching nobody. 

Change is a pain. I don't like it, but it can be helpful.

Ignoring reality is a sign of pending death. I am thankful for who we really are (and for who really is in the room - or online) and believe the never-changing God has kept us here for his glory and ultimately for our good and our community's good. Rear view mirrors are great, but there's a reason they're smaller than the front windshield. 

Maybe you needed that reminder as well. God is sovereign and maybe he has been shrinking our imagined crowds of self-defined "Gideon's army"  to those who are truly disciples and will be used for the work ahead.


The 2021 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting Is Over...So Now What?

I knew the questions would come once I returned home from Nashville. 

These are legitimate and right questions. 

Members of the church I pastor want to know what happened in Nashville at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting. They have seen the news reports, the tweets, the blog posts, and one said "I've read from so many different places about the SBC. I think I am more confused about what is going on now than I was a week ago."

I have also discovered that not only do many members of local Southern Baptist churches not fully understand the polity of our convention and annual meeting (most of us never take time to explain it,) there are also a number of local church leaders who are confused about it and a good number of the 15,000+ who gathered in the room that still are trying to put the pieces together.

Unlike other denominations (and the SBC is not truly considered a denomination due to the autonomous nature of member churches) we do not have a top-down hierarchy. Yet, we do have polity. We do have cooperative agreements. We do have a statement of faith that gives us clarity regarding our doctrinal beliefs and structure. 

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Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting 2021


When the SBC meets annually for our meeting, it truly is a convention. In fact, the two days of our meeting between the opening and closing gavel hits, the SBC exists. Outside those two days, there really is no convention. This is eye-opening for many. Not unlike the Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention, the National Pipefitters Convention, the DAV National Convention, or even ComicCon (Comic Book & Sci-fi Convention) for example, the SBC is simply... a convention. There is allotted meeting space. There are groups that gather for meals. There are seminary alumni gatherings. There is an exhibit hall, complete with booths representing many ministries and groups (complete with freebies and bowls of candy.) 

For the remaining 363 days each year, the SBC Executive Committee acts as the SBC ad interim, or between annual meetings. (More here on the EC.)

During the convention meeting, which is simply a huge business meeting of Southern Baptists, decisions are made, resolutions are proposed, reports are given, speeches (and sermons) are offered, and votes are taken.

The SBC does not have delegates. Churches do not send representatives. Churches who cooperate within SBC associations and state conventions send "messengers." 

Here's a brief synopsis of who can send messengers:

The SBC Bylaws state that a church must have indicated it is in “friendly cooperation with the Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work” and have made financial contributions to Convention work in the fiscal year preceding the annual meeting in June in order to seat messengers. The fiscal year ends on September 30 each year.

Each qualifying church automatically receives two messengers and can qualify for up to ten additional messengers based on the level of financial support the church has given to Convention causes (see SBC Constitution, Article III, for greater detail.)

If a church is recognized by a cooperating state or regional Baptist convention as a cooperating church and makes CP contributions through the state convention, the church’s name is forwarded to the SBC through the state’s Annual Church Profile report as a church in friendly cooperation with the Convention. (SBC.net)

At this year's meeting our worship pastor and I served as messengers from First Baptist Church of Orange Park.

This year's meeting was different than in year's past. The attendance was more than double from recent years. There were significant issues brought to the messengers to be addressed. On the heels of resolutions related to Critical Race Theory & Intersectionality (CRT/I) and the sex abuse scandal revealed in the Houston Chronicle article of February 2019, it is sufficient to say that not every messenger was walking in unity with others as our convention began.

Is the SBC Drifting?

Depending on which news reports you read, which videos you watch, and if you're on Twitter, which Baptists you follow, the messages regarding theological drift are varied.

There is a group that has come together decrying the liberal drift of the SBC. They have formed a network within the SBC called the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN.) It seemingly launched as a grassroots effort a year ago with the purpose of "righting the ship" of the SBC and the perceived liberal drift that is occurring. 

The steering council of the team represents (for the most part) conservative SBC pastors and leaders. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is an interesting choice for the council. Though he previously served as an SBC pastor in Arkansas, he is apparently attending a non-denominational, egalitarian church now. I do not know most of the others on the council, but those I do know have been faithful Southern Baptists for years. While I disagree with them, they believe the CBN is needed.

I Don't Believe We Need To Fix What Isn't Broken

I do not believe the CBN is needed. In fact, I do not believe we need a Conservative Baptist Network because I believe the SBC is the network of conservative Baptists. That statement will likely get me some eye rolls and perhaps some social media arguments. Nevertheless, I do believe it is the case and I do not desire to debate regarding it.

SBC Presidential Election

Some have asked me if position of SBC President is simply symbolic with no real power. While "power" may not be the term I would use, the role is more than symbolic.

My friend, Pastor Jon Beck of First Baptist Church Avon Park, Florida, wrote this for his church members who were wondering about such as his church's messengers prepared to attend the annual meeting:

The Election for SBC President

Why is this important?

  • President appoints the Committee on Committees
  • C on C nominates the Nominations Committee (voted on by messengers)
  • Nominating Committee Nominates Trustees (voted on my messengers)
  • Trustees lead and oversee the Entities

SBC Entities

The Southern Baptist Convention conducts its work throughout the year through eleven ministry entities, the SBC Executive Committee (which serves as “the fiduciary, the fiscal, and executive entity of the Convention”), and an auxiliary called Woman’s Missionary Union.

  • SBC Executive Committee
  • Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC)
  • GuideStone Financial Resources
  • International Mission Board (IMB)
  • Lifeway Christian Resources
  • North American Mission Board (NAMB)
  • Theological Seminaries
    • Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention 
    • Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS)
    • New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary(NOBTS)
    • Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS)
    • The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS)
    • Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS)
  • Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU)

Pastor Beck's full posting is here.

There were four men nominated this year to serve the one-year term of SBC President. One is a state convention leader. One is a seminary president. Two are local pastors. Opinions on these men were varied, as was evidenced by the pre-annual meeting social media blasts and campaign videos.

I hate that our election of SBC President left me with some of the same "icky feelings" that our national elections elicit. Baptists are not immune to name-calling (though it is often couched in Christianese...meaning some just add the word "Brother" before the diatribe calling out another.) 

Ultimately, each of these men is my brother. Each has be redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. They each have a story to tell of when they were lost, when the Spirit of God drew them to the Father, and when they each surrendered their lives to Christ as Lord. 

In other words...each of these men will spend eternity in heaven. To God alone be the glory!

Yet, only one would be elected president of the SBC in 2021. 

After a run-off election (since no candidate had over 50 percent of the vote the first go-round) Pastor Ed Litton was elected President of the SBC. 

Despite what some have declared, Litton is not an egalitarian. He is not a liberal. He is not a moderate. 

Ed Litton has served his church well and has been an asset to Southern Baptists for years. He and his wife have supported and served pastors and pastors' wives, especially church planters, well for years. 

Regardless who won the election, I knew some would cry foul. Everyone knew this. And now, some are crying foul. 

Ed Litton needs our prayers. The SBC may very well be at a crossroads and future annual meetings may be just as challenging. Yet, I believe God is not worried about that. Perhaps this our "for such a time as this" moment.

The SBC Remains Faithful to Biblical Truth

The warnings against liberal theological drift should always be addressed. Left alone, without a rudder, any ship will drift. Mainline Protestant denominations in America have for the most part not only drifted, but have gone full speed ahead into liberal theological worldviews. This began many decades ago and if not for the conservative resurgence within the SBC in the 1970s and 1980s, our Convention would have been lost. Yet, holding to the anchor of biblical inerrancy led to a turn toward biblical fidelity and conservative theology. I believe this was necessary and am thankful for those who fought the good fight for the sake of doctrine, for the glory of God and the good of our churches.

While some do believe we are now going that very same way, I disagree. Our statement of faith (Baptist Faith & Message 2000) remains intact. We took no steps to reword it, amend it, or change it this year. There was no need to do so. Our confessional statement is solid and allows for autonomous Baptist churches to cooperate together with like-minded Baptists within a larger story.

Questions regarding CRT/I may not have been answered to some's liking, but the resolution approved by messengers on Tuesday, June 15 "On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation" was worded well and sufficient in my opinion. I do not believe that Southern Baptists (as a whole, as churches, or as entities) use CRT/I as their measuring line for understanding racial issues from a biblical perspective. I do believe it is wise for Christians to at least understand the concepts of this belief system to understand where others may be coming from regarding race relations and racial issues. To some, that statement will never be enough. To others, it is likely too much. Nevertheless, I hold that when any teaching is elevated over the inerrant Word of God, the one holding that teaching has failed. God's Word alone has the final say. 

Yet, to discount the reality of what has been deemed systemic racism and to ignore the hurt and suffering those of minority races have experienced would be sinful as well. 

Where Do I Stand?

I am an inerrantist. I believe the Bible is true from beginning to end, without error. I am a complementarian. I affirm the Baptist Faith and Message (2000.) I am a pastor and my primary calling, after my family, is to the membership of First Baptist Church of Orange Park. I am called to shepherd, teach, preach, pray, and protect. 

If at any point I believed the SBC was heading toward an unbiblical, liberally theological, man-centered belief system, I would oppose the SBC as best I could and if that did not lead to change, I would lead our church to disfellowship with the SBC and other member churches. But...I do not believe that is happening now. So I remain and am pleased to be a Southern Baptist (though I think Great Commission Baptist is the better name.)

Some of my friends and pastors of sister churches will disagree with me. They have in the past. That's okay. I disagree with them, too. (Just not on Twitter.) Yet, I pray that our love for the Lord and for one another will sustain us. 

The SBC annual meeting is truly a great family reunion. Some often reference the "crazy relatives" who attend. (If you cannot name the "crazy relative" then you may be who they're talking about.) Regardless, I love these men and women in our SBC family. I am praying for better days ahead. I am no SBC apologist, but I am not ready to abandon this ship.

The 2021 annual meeting is over. The fields remain ready for harvest. There's work to be done.


Southern Baptists Will Have To Decide If We Truly Are "Great Commission Baptists"

Every year when our Southern Baptist Convention gathers, banners and logos are pasted upon the host city's convention center. There are often placards throughout the city, near the hotels and where SBC messengers will be walking. It is no different than any other convention with a theme.

Each year's theme is presented by the current president of the SBC. J.D. Greear has been our president for three years thanks to the pandemic (the terms are for one-year only, and traditionally presidents will run for two concurrent terms.) In 2019, Greear announced the theme for the Birmingham meeting would be "Gospel Above All." In 2020, the announced theme for the since canceled Orlando meeting was "GSPL: Above All. Always." Apparently, 2020 was to be the year we avoided vowels (just kidding J.D.) I actually thought our 2021 theme would just be the 2020 one carried over, but when the Nashville theme was announced a change was clear. The 2021 theme for our meeting next week is "We Are Great Commission Baptists." 

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I'm anticipating (well hoping) a responsive reading at each session that will hearken back to cheer from the film "We Are Marshall!" Maybe Greear can just go to the platform and say "WE ARE..." and the messengers can respond "GREAT COMMISSION BAPTISTS!" But, alas, I doubt that will happen. Not because Baptists are against responsive readings or even gleaned university football cheers. It will not happen because even the theme likely would cause controversy. I'm sure it already has. 

Statements like "I thought we were SOUTHERN Baptists!" would resound. I can anticipate a question brought to the messengers and leaders from a well-meaning messenger who just cannot understand why we would avoid using the word "Southern." Then, of course, a messenger representing a church in Michigan, Oregon, Toronto or some other locale north of the Mason-Dixon line or west of Texas would stand at another microphone with a response akin to "We're not all in the south." And then...someone else would reference our collective history which includes slaveholders seeking to be missionaries, avoidance of civil rights issues, Martin Luther King, Jr., and maybe even the historical value or racial implications of the Confederate flag. 

It is clear that I have attended more than a few of our annual meetings.

Nevertheless, my Southern Baptist Convention has more issues this year than determining the theme for the annual meeting. It is just that as I plan my journey to Nashville, sign up for the pre-SBC Send Conference, gather my tickets to alumni luncheons and other meetings, I keep seeing "We Are Great Commission Baptists" everywhere.

I like the theme.

I really do.

I just wonder if it is true.

Is "Great Commission Baptists" declarative for who we are or is it aspirational for who we desire to be?

I know no Southern Baptist who would deny the value or commands that are included in the Great Commission (mostly looking at the Matthew 28:19-20 reference.) I know no one in my own church that would say it is unimportant. Yet, I also know that even in my own life, I do not always live and serve in such a way that keeps the "Gospel Above All" and as a Christ-commissioned disciple.

What must a Great Commission Baptist be? That's the question. Clearly it should not be presumed that every Southern Baptist knows what this means. It also should not be presumed that when verbal affirmation of the Great Commission is given that practical, lived-out actions automatically follow.

While we joke that Baptists love a good controversy and fight, it is actually evidence of our sin nature and our loss of focus upon the gospel.

I read an article by a former Southern Baptist, Erick Erickson regarding the current SBC issues. While you may or may not like Erickson's writings, statements, or beliefs in other areas, in this statement I fear he is sadly correct. Erickson stated:

A group within the SBC has decided to organize politically in response to some perceived liberalism creeping in. I have a lot of friends in the group and some who are on the outside and share the concerns. But, from my vantage point, it seems they’ve decided every fight is a matter of orthodoxy and anyone who stands in their way can be smeared — it’s just politics after all.

Another group within the SBC seems to have responded almost in kind and are increasingly vocal about racial reconciliation and a host of other social justice issues. In countering those pushing hard against critical theory and perceived liberalism, they seem to have gone off to other extremes.

Both sides share something in common — defining themselves in opposition to the other instead of defining themselves in support of the gospel. The actually have something else in common too — they treat the others as if they are political enemies, not just opponents and neither has shame for doing so, just rationale and justification. (The SBC: I Have Some Thoughts)

I'm Really Concerned This Year!

I have received text messages and have heard from other Southern Baptist pastors on all sides of various controversies in recent weeks. The common theme has been "I'm really concerned this year." I hear this and agree.

I too am concerned. Yet, I'm less concerned that the "wrong" person wins a denominational election. I am more concerned that we may gather, have meetings in the big room and secret meetings in the hallways and smaller rooms. I am concerned that the real issues that must be addressed will not be. I am concerned that the things tabled in the past will never come up again. I am concerned that the Great Commission will be little more than a theme on a banner to be removed the evening following the final gavel and messengers will travel back to their respective homes reporting little more than political posturing, angry speeches, hurt feelings, with the few highlights being the restaurants in the city and the reconnections with old friends (those are not to be missed, by the way.)

But are we really going to be "Great Commission Baptists" who believe the "Gospel is Above All" in how we live, love, and serve our Lord?

I am just one pastor of a suburban church. We are not a mega-church. Our influence is small compared to others. I have a great church full of imperfect children of God who just want to see friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family members saved. We want to see disciples made. We want to be equipped to serve well, engage lostness intentionally, and see God's kingdom expand. 

That's what Great Commission Baptists should want. Right?

The Great Commission is clear. 

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 CSB)

Great Commission Baptists who believe the gospel is above all will not allow:

  • Protecting a church's or denomination's brand by ignoring sin.
  • Nationalism over the gospel.
  • Abandonment of biblical fidelity (and inerrancy) in order to line up with the latest push from the moral revolution.
  • Political posturing disguised as theology (within the church, denomination, and the community.)
  • Abuse and victimization of others or protection of abusers. (Yes, we need a database of abusers.)
  • Idolatry of celebrity Christians (even in our own denomination.)
  • Legalism disguised as doctrinal gatekeeping. (And to be clear, I affirm strongly doctrinal fidelity as expressed in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, so I'm not affirming weakening such. I just believe Pharisaical posturing is so very easy and often ignored.)
  • Racism.
  • Classism.
  • Local church autonomy to be diminished, but also will not use autonomy as a false barrier to dealing with very real issues of sin.
  • And numerous other items that conflict with "teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you"

This is what I believe.

I am not running for anything. I am just one messenger attending my Southern Baptist annual gathering. I look forward to connecting with friends, reconnecting with old ones, and making new ones. While others are working to get their designee elected, their agenda moved forward, and their battles won (all valiant desires,) I will be praying that our agenda will be usurped by the Holy Spirit early in our gathering. 

May we see change take place this year in Nashville. And may it be a change precipitated by repentance. I am praying we collectively experience a brokenness next week due to the realization that for far too long we have allowed our own agendas and posturing to take center stage.

WE ARE...

GREAT COMMISSION BAPTISTS!

(I hope.)


"Gospel-Driven Ministry" by Jared C. Wilson - Book Review

There are a few authors who are on my "buy the book as soon as it is available" list. Jared C. Wilson is one such author. His books focusing on the gospel and specifically on church and ministry leadership are golden. Most recently, he has released a book titled Gospel-Driven Ministry: An Introduction to the Calling and Work of a Pastor. At first, I thought this may be a restructured or rereleased version of his book The Gospel-Driven Church. It is not. This book is focused more on the qualifications of the pastorate and the focus on gospel-centrality in ministry. (BTW - The Gospel-Driven Church is a must read as well.)

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I mentioned recently to some peers that Wilson's latest book is one I wish I had been able to read decades prior. The insight into the joys and challenges of pastoral ministry is so valuable. However, to be honest, even if this book was available a few decades prior, and even if I had been given it by a trusted pastor, and even if I had read it...I likely would not have been able to digest the depths of truth offered in needed and beneficial ways. The arrogance of my youth would have left me with a book full of highlighted phrases and healthy insight, but most likely not as impactful in my life and ministry as needed.

Nevertheless, I now have a stack of these books in my office. I have the honor of working with many church planters and new pastors in my city. Often over coffee or when meeting with one of these young men I give them a copy of Jared's book along with instructions to read, highlight, and think deeply on the insight offered. I am believing these men are more mature in their walk and less arrogant than I was at their age. I also have come to grips with the reality that I have shifted into the role of "older pastor" whom others believe may have some wisdom to offer. I may not have wisdom...but I do have a listening ear...and a free book by Jared C. Wilson.

What I love about Jared's writing is his clarity and boldness in declaring truth while also inviting the reader into his own stories of victory, pain, and pastoral calling. Jared writes about authentic situations and not just about ideal circumstances. He has a way of explaining the very true, challenging, fulfilling, and at times painful realities of serving as a pastor of a church while also seeking to be a godly husband, father, and friend. He reminds the pastor reading that church life is messy at times, but so very worth it as God is glorified when the gospel is central. I find myself reading through the book and pausing to say "Yep, that's true." It may not be new news, but it is comforting to know that the issues I face are not special, but are similar to what all pastors face (though certainly the context and circumstances may be unique.)

This book is a good read for all Christians, but a must-read for pastors and ministry leaders. The practical insight offered through easily understood story-telling, with real-life illustrations and stories remind the pastor/shepherd that ministry faithfulness is less on doing everything, but trusting that Christ has already done everything.

Being driven by and centered on the gospel is freeing and Wilson's writing is a breath of fresh air in an age of church-centered stress.

Here are just a sampling of quotes that I highlighted as I read Gospel-Driven Ministry. They're "tweetable" but ultimately are worth more than likes on a social media post. The wise will take these to heart:

  • "A call to pastoral ministry is the inclination to conform one's desires and direction to the aspiration of shepherding a church. it must not simply be a desire to preach." (p. 17)
  • "The pastorate is not a right or an entitlement. The pastorate is a sacred stewardship reserved only for the qualified, called, and commissioned men." (p. 24)
  • "If we do not preach Christ from the text, we are not preaching a Christian sermon." (p. 37)
  • "Ask yourself this: Could this sermon be preached in a synagogue? A Mormon temple? A Jehovah's Witness kingdom hall? Each of these religions affirms the moral uplift of the Scriptures. Each of them uses the Bible to make inspirational, spiritual points about doing god to others and honoring God. But the one thing that we have that they do not is the gospel. It is the gospel that chiefly distinguishes Christian preaching from unchristian preaching." (p. 65)
  • "Do not preach an illustration in search of a text." (p. 95)
  • "The heart of ministry is a heart that doesn't see people as the interruption to your ministry, but sees the interruptions as the ministry." (p. 121)
  • "Worse than an unfeeling, uncaring pastor is a sullen, whiny, sad-sack pastor." (p. 145)
  • "Be transparent. Be honest. Don't just share the what; explain the why." (p. 160)
  • "It may sound noble and godly to keep convenience store hours, but it's a fast track to physical exhaustion and gradual resentment of the flock." (p. 201)
  • "I used to think pastoral ministry was about helping people live. Then, I learned it was actually about helping people die." (p. 217)
  • "You are not ready to shepherd until you have been spiritual discombobulated by the gospel and essentially reconstituted by the gospel." (p. 226)
  • "Christian ministry is the overflow of the mystery of God in Christ coming to bear on your soul and, through yours, on the souls of others." (p. 227)

Certainly, it is clear by now. I highly recommend this book. Buy it. Read it. Highlight it. Thank God for the insight. Then, give a copy to another pastor or ministry leader. They will thank you for it.

And...in case you, like me, are now one of the "seasoned pastors" in your community. Read the book. Put it on your shelf. Then, in about a year, take it off the shelf and reread it. You will thank Jared for this.


The Ravi Zacharias Scandal & the Danger of Creating Celebrity Christians

I will often get questions from church members, even those on staff, regarding the feasibility of using a curriculum item or teaching series by certain teachers. This has seemingly multiplied as more and more pastors and teachers have shifted from the "Good to listen to" list to the "We won't use that material." In some cases it is due to doctrinal errors. Yet, some are due to overt, revealed, moral failure.

The most recent, and perhaps the most frustrating among evangelical leaders, has been the revealed sinful actions of Ravi Zacharias. For years, Zacharias had been celebrated as an accomplished apologist in the church. His gatherings at public universities where he would debate atheists and take questions from students have been viewed by millions. His soft-spoken demeanor and intelligent way of engaging in these venues with what appeared to be true care and love was unique. I enjoyed his teachings and viewed numerous clips such as these. I have also read his writings and books.

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Photo credit: lausannemovement on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

A couple of years ago I had a meeting with the general manager of a local Christian radio station. This station has faithfully presented great preaching and teaching over the airwaves in our community for decades. We had hosted a fiftieth anniversary celebration for them a few years back and we were discussing another community gathering sponsored by the station. One of the potential speakers they were talking with was Ravi Zacharias. At this point, I mentioned that there were some stories circulating about Ravi and they may wish to look into those before booking. The stories were floating around on the internet and being shared on social media, but by and large, they were not known (or were being ignored) by most Christians.

The stories were concerning, but they had been refuted by Ravi and most people just believed the man whom they saw as a purveyor of truth and therefore viewed the accusers as just seeking money or notoriety. 

Grieving the Death of Ravi

Ravi Zacharias had been ill for a while and in May 2020 he died. There were many who mourned his death and postings asking for prayer for his family members were flooding the internet. This was a time of grief and I, as well as many others, were sad that he had died, was praying for his family, and wondering what the next phase of his ministry (RZIM) would be.

Grieving More Deeply at What Has Been Revealed

It has been almost a full year and more and more stories of Ravi have come to the surface. The ministry had called in an independent investigating team to see what these stories held. The truth of the one who built a ministry declaring the truth has become known.

Years of sexual sin has been admitted by the ministry after reviewing the evidence. There are many stories now covering the issues. Here are some...

His ministry (RZIM) posted a well-written and clear open letter. Click here to read.

The Crushing of Idols

Ravi was gifted a platform and he used that well, when it comes to his teaching. Yet, it seems he also used that well when it came to victimizing others. Ravi Zacharias was a celebrity evangelist. He was...dare I say "idolized" by many. This truth even comes out in some of the stories revealing that dark side. Idolatry is a terrible, abhorrent thing.

I have heard many sermons on the sin of having idols.

I have not heard many on the dangers of becoming an idol.

In this case, the celebrity (even posthumously) has fallen. The idol that many held has been crushed. Even more tragic are the responses I read and hear from Christian brothers and sisters. 

"There but for the grace of God, go I"

Well-meaning Christians brothers and sisters respond to the stories as they continue to be revealed, but often the responses are little more than salt in the wounds of the victims. Clearly, in this age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo and even #SBCToo, there are women (and men) who have been victimized sexually by those in authority (in religious authority) and to read and hear the tepid responses by so many causes some to relive their own pains of abuse.

Certainly, we are all susceptible to the sins of the flesh, but that does not minimize, must not cover up or sugar-coat, the years of intentional, strategic, well-thought out sexual abuse at that hands of this man. There are victims. That means Ravi was the victimizer.

"It's their words against his"

I read this in a comment online. In this case, it is much more than that. RZIM has confessed the accusations are true. They have stated after the investigation that they believe these accusations. Here, in the ministry leaders own open letter it states, "We believe not only the women who made their allegations public but also additional women who had not previously made public allegations against Ravi but whose identities and stories were uncovered during the investigation."

"It's not fair to accuse him after his death"

It is fair. Why? Because the ramifications of his acts remain. Victims are still alive.

"Even David sinned sexually and remained king"

Ravi Zacharias is not King David. The stories are both tragic. They are both evidence of the power of sexual sin and lustful desire, but it is not right, nor helpful to just lean into David every time we see a leader fall. David is not to be our model. Christ alone is.

"I just won't believe it"

This is the kicker. This comment was posted on the Baptist Press's Facebook page under their article on the subject. Responses to this person's comment were strong, and mostly in love. The "I just WON'T believe it" was emphasized. This is a statement of willfully ignoring the facts of sinful (and in this case criminal) acts simply because you do not wish the story to be true.

Perhaps this is the logical result of evangelicals declaring "Fake News" to everything in the mainstream media that is offensive, perceived to be skewed, and certainly written from a non-biblical worldview. Yet, just because a story says the opposite of what we wish does not make it false. 

"I just WON'T believe it" is akin to "I choose my own truth" and that, my friends, is not what Scripture teaches.

How Many More?

Ravi's failure has become just another in a long list of previously respected Bible teachers and leaders we will no longer affirm in our church.

It is disheartening at a minimum when reading of Ravi and others. It is also a clarion call to the church to ensure that we never elevate a man or woman whom we really, really like into a position that is reserved for Christ alone. 

Sadly, there remain many who are guilty of similar sexual abuse acts within the church. In most cases, they are not celebrity pastors. They are not heads of international ministries. They are not well-known outside a small community. They have abused and continue to do so. In some cases, they just shift to another small church where they begin again, leaving victims in their wake who wonder where God was, where he is, and why the church puts up with and seemingly excuses such.

In my denomination (Southern Baptist Convention) there has been a call for a database churches could access to discover such stories. Under the banner of autonomy, that has yet to be set up. Since I am simply a pastor of a local church, I am likely unaware of all the legal ramifications and issues that may make something like this untenable. Yet, I also pastor a church that has a tragic story in our history. In our case, the abuser was hired after doing the same at a previous church. I think it's time we figure out how to make such a clearinghouse work. Otherwise, we will have more Ravi stories, but sadly...more will remain unveiled and the hurt will continue.

"I just don't want to believe it...but it is true. God help us."


Why Be a Disciple of Jesus Christ from Your Church?

Recently I have been listening and learning from other pastors, church leaders, ministry coaches, and those on our own church staff about some of the things that are essential to be a healthy church as well as a church with distinctive doctrinal beliefs and functions.

Will Mancini, Dave Rhodes, David Loveless, Carey Nieuwhof, Bob Bumgarner, and many others have been leading in strategic areas of church health and strategic disciple-making for years. These have been instrumental in my ministry (some I know personally and others only through their books and resources) most recently when it comes to navigating through the quickly changing church culture (thank you COVID) for current and future kingdom impact.

In today's leadership meeting with our church's staff, I took a question I first heard from Will Mancini regarding disciple-making. I shifted it a bit from Mancini's wording. This question led to fruitful discussion and more questions from our team. As we seek to be the men and women God has called us to be here at our church (First Baptist Church of Orange Park) the question led to clarity and, to be honest, some concepts we have previously not considered. So...here's the question:

Why would God want a disciple from our church?

In other words, what distinctive things that make our church unique provide value to being a disciple of Jesus Christ?

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If there is nothing uniquely offered by the fellowship and community that is our church family, then what advantage or benefit is there to being part of our local church family?

This is a challenging question, especially in the age of growing non-denominationalism and the increase of "nones" when it comes to church connection and identity.

Our church is Baptist. We are part of the Southern Baptist Convention. We hold to an understanding of doctrine that is uniquely Baptist. I stated in our meeting today that while we may apologize for the actions and words of some within our Baptist faith tribe, we do not apologize for adhering to the doctrinal truths that define us as Baptist. In our case, these are delineated in our confessional statement, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.

These doctrinal beliefs are important and valuable, but as we see in our own church as well as across the denominational spectrum, there are members who do not know, and sadly in some cases do not care, the distinctive and long-held beliefs that identify ourselves as Baptist. This is true for churches of other denominations as well when it comes to their distinctive beliefs.

Doctrine Matters

Christians should be kingdom-minded, focusing on reaching the world for Christ, living as authentic believers, and being faithfully part of a larger story where God alone is glorified. However, some have landed in a "kingdom-0nly" focus where they have abandoned the distinctive truths that identify doctrinal uniqueness. In some cases, it has led to an anti-denominational belief that perhaps on the surface looks good, but may lead individuals to a very muddy understanding of doctrinally distinctive teachings. 

There are also those who are so arrogantly denominational (or arrogantly "my church only") that they will not see how anyone outside their church or declared faith tribe can truly be Christian. I have been asked "Do you think that only Baptists go to heaven?" My answer has been "No, I don't even think all Baptists are going to heaven."

The rise of fundamentalism in some cases has led to some churches and church members living in this category. The kingdom of God is therefore ultimately ignored while the little kingdoms of "our church" is elevated.

Mancini and Rhodes speak of a place where kingdom growth and focus is high as well as faith tribe (denomination or church) distinctive identities. This is a healthy place of gracious confidence.

The graciously confident believer can state, "We know we're not the only ones working toward kingdom growth but we're confident about what we bring to the table." This is a definition given by Mancini and Rhodes.

Hard Questions

So, as we look at our/your specific church, what are the distinctive beliefs and functions that make our/your church unique? What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ from our/your church? What value does being part of our/your church provide the disciple? 

We are all called to love God, love people, and make disciples. That phrase is biblical, sounds good from the pulpit, and looks great on a tee shirt, but there is more the church must do in its disciple-making practice than just throw this tag-line out there.

We are taking a journey of faith together in our church that leads us to glorify God by being graciously confident in who we are in Christ. This is what each local church offers.

Does God desire more disciples from and through our/your church? Absolutely.

In our case, that means disciples who hold to the authority of the Word of God, reality of the Trinity, redemption through Christ alone, who is the Way, Truth, and the Life, priesthood of every believer, ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper as symbols of life and communion with God and our church family, and the opportunity to be part of a family equipped to glorify God by making disciples through redemptive communities.

Our unique calling is essential as is our adherence to the timeless doctrines of faith that identify us as God's children. In our case, this is declared in our alignment as Baptist Christians. 

Your church is to be a disciple-making church. So is mine. And it is vital we know why God would want more disciples from our church. This leads to kingdom-minded, biblically sound, graciously confident disciples who make disciples.


You Might Be a Consumer Christian If...

Jeff Foxworthy has made a living off one joke. The "You might be a redneck if..." joke launched his career and he has done very well, to say the least. 

My friend Mike Williams has done stand-up comedy in churches for years and he had a set where he copied Foxworthy's model, but gave it a Baptist identity. I still remember some of his punchlines.

You might be a Southern Baptist if:

  • Your pastor's name is written in dry-erase marker on the sign out front.
  • You ever bummed a cigarette off a deacon.
  • You have never sung the third stanza of a hymn.

There are more, but these are the ones I remember.

It was earlier this week as I began reading a new book by Will Mancici titled Future Church. This book, along with his others Church Unique and God Dreams should be read by all church leaders. It clarifies some things about the American church and how we are structured that need to be addressed. As Mancini and co-author Cory Hartman were working on this latest book and moving toward publication date, the pandemic hit. As I read now, it is clear that the revelations given by Mancini and Hartman are not only timely but essential for the local church today.

Upper and Lower Room Churches

I won't go into all the details of what the authors are defining. You would need to get the book for the nuts and bolts of all this. However, the concept of Upper Room and Lower Room churches is so essential I will try to summarize it here.

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People who go to and stay at a local church (we'll talk pre-pandemic era) often do so for one of four reasons (in addition to the Holy Spirit's lead.)

These are:

  1. Place - the location of the church building or gathering is important. For some, the building holds memories (the sacredness or "sacred cow" syndrome) for the members. Often these are of bygone days when great spiritual moments occurred in the life of a person (where they were saved, where they met their spouse, where they were baptized, etc.)
  2. Personality - the pastor is not only an initial draw, but that which keeps people coming. How many friends of yours tweet or post graphics featuring their pastor and comments or phrases he said during a sermon? He's engaging. He's funny. He seems to care. Then...if he leaves a percentage of attenders drift away as well. Oh, it may not be the lead pastor either. In some cases, it is the associate pastor of the designated "most favorite ministry program" who is the draw. That leads us to the next element.
  3. Programs - whether it is AWANA, the women's Bible study, the senior adult trips, the youth group, or any other such ministry or program, these draw many people. These are not bad, but they certainly are not the fullness of what church is or should be. Think of these programs as entry ways or onramps to the church. Sadly, some tend to stand in the entry, or park on the onramp. You know how frustrating that can be, especially if you are behind them. Lastly...
  4. People - the people are the church, right? Yes and no. The people who are Christians make up the church and it is the people gathered who are the church. We (all of us) are relational beings and that means we need others. Even introverts who secretly want to live as hermits actually need others to be healthy and obedient to all the "one anothers" of Scripture. What happens is even in open groups, a tendency for perceived "us four and no more" develops. Why? Not because we do not like others, but that we are like Lego pieces and all our connections are snapped together with no room for others (thanks to Larry Osborne for that illustration.) Mancini states, "When people get their identity from friendships at church, they resist the proverbial open chair." (Future Church, p. 27)

Mancini and Hartman reveal that these four elements of church connectedness and church growth are part of the lower room. They are the most easily accessed areas (if you picture a house with a lower floor and an upper floor.) Yet, it is the upper room where the church's vision, mission, and disciple-making strategy is cemented. The challenge we all face is moving those from the lower room to the upper room. It could be said that Jesus had thousands in the lower room of his ministry (remember the crowd who received free food from Christ) and at one key moment only 120 in the upper room (a literal upper room in Acts 1:15.) 

The clarity in this illustration helps me in understanding some of the challenges and realities we now face in the local church. The pandemic is revealing much of this, not creating it. Like other pastors, I have decried the growth of the consumerism in the church (while confessing that much of our programming and structure actually fuels this reality.) Now, I see that most people are not intentionally desiring to be consumer Christians. It may simply be that they are just enjoying the lower room and have never been led to the staircase leading to the upper room.

But beware, consumer Christianity is so very easy.

Consumer Christianity and the Lower Room

So, as I seek to help brothers and sisters with a bit of self-diagnosis, here are some things that may reveal you have slid into consumerism (and this is no joke)...

You might be a consumer Christian if, (since the pandemic hit):

  • You haven't watched your church's online service in its fullness.
  • You long to get back to "normal" so you can take the kids back to the fun mid-week program at your church.
  • You haven't joined a Zoom or online group with others in your church family.
  • Your Sundays have been filled with other activities and you aren't sure you will adjust your calendar to attend post-pandemic.
  • You have "attended" numerous other churches online and like the music at Church A, the preaching at Church B, and the events of Church C. You basically created a buffet church (it's the Golden Corral of Christianity...let that sink in.)
  • You haven't prayed with other believers.
  • You haven't partaken of the ordinance of the Lord's Supper with your church family (and you never thought about that until you read this.)
  • You use the pandemic as your reason excuse for not gathering as the church, but have gone to grocery stores, restaurants, shopping centers, the zoo, theme parks, ball games, and other places where crowds are gathering (without as many guidelines as your church has put in place for safety.)
  • You don't miss the church.

Consumer Christianity has been manufactured well in our nation. The church growth movement that fueled the offering of ministries and events as custom-fitted, marketable religiously-themed items not only left many people in the lower room of what should be the healthy church, but left them with many others people (thousands even) so that it felt normal.

This cancerous, sinful, short-sighted church strategy does not make disciples, but only creates fake disciples (thanks to Mancini for that term.)

So, you may discover that you have found a nice, comfortable sofa in the foyer of the lower room of church. It's comfortable, but does not transform lives. 

But this is not an easy shift.

I am shaken by Mancini's revelation on this. He says "The bottom line is that I underestimated the power of the Lower Room. Its gravitational pull is not the tug of a minor moon. but the force field of a black hole." (Future Church, p. 35)

The good news is that no one has to remain in the lower room. While the lower room is not bad. It is not unChristian. It is not evil. It simply is not enough. It is not the fullness of church. When the lower room is all there is, consumer Christianity reigns. No one has to settle in to consumer Christianity. That is not the way.

It is time to move up to the Upper Room. Praise be to God, he has removed many of the items that left many settling for religious God-stuff, with no transformation and ultimately...no maturation as a Christ-follower (and for some, a revelation of a non-existent relationship to God through Jesus Christ.) Repent. Come home. And...come on up.


Why Pastors Desire Celebrity Status (Knowing They Shouldn't)

There are instances in pastoral leadership when we must admit that even though we know certain things are not best for the church or the path to disciple-making, we do them anyway. 

For instance, most gospel-focused pastors I know clearly affirm how the growth "consumer Christianity" has negatively impacted the church in our culture. Yet, even knowing and stating this, we often continue to develop ministries, services, and programs that actually feed the consumer mentality. I am not saying that all ministries and activities should cease, but rather than leading contextually and biblically, it just becomes easier to provide a buffet of "church stuff" hoping the already attending continue to attend (and give) and that some unchurched may begin, while shoving strategic, relational disciple-making to the back burner. This is not a shot at other pastors and churches. it's a revelation from my own mirror.

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Another circumstance that many consider to be a modern-day result of social media and celebrity culture is the rise of the "celebrity pastor." Even the title sounds icky and though there is no biblical office for "celebrity pastor" the position nevertheless exists in our culture today. 

Though many consider this to be a modern-day trend only, Carey Nieuwhof reminds us in an article he posted a number of years ago that this has been the case since the beginning of the church. Remember the church members who liked Paul more than Apollos and so on? Nieuwhof even clarifies that not everything is a negative when it comes to celebrity pastor status, but the dangers are very real (Full Article Here

Rise of Celebrity

Even prior to the advent of social media and trending stories, memes, and posts, some pastors became globally known and impacted the lives of thousands, if not millions. For instance, even years after his death I still hear how the life and ministry of Billy Graham has impacted many personally. 

Yet, it seems within the last twenty years or so a new, fast-growing trend of celebrity status hit the American church. Pastors were platformed (many never sought it) and found themselves as influencers and community impact leaders in very positive ways. In addition to the clearly defined false teachers (hucksters) of the prosperity-gospel who fleece congregants and television viewers of funds for personal gain, some well-intentioned, theologically-sound preachers and teachers began to be raised up.

Names became well-known among Christians and church leaders. Conferences were held. Teaching was offered. Video series were developed. In some cases, bands and worship teams were developed to promote the brand (oh...and God too.) I began to see pastors and young Christian leaders name their children after such celebrity pastors. 

While I have a number of books on my shelves written by some of these men, I often wondered how long they could ride this wave of status. I confess that I should have been praying for these men while reading their books and listening to their sermons.

The Inevitable Fall

Whether celebrity status was desired or not, many found themselves no longer simply shepherding the flock in their local church, but managing a global brand of marketable Christianity. 

It is 2020 and far too many of these men who were filling stadiums, doing book tours, sitting on the couches on secular talk shows, and promoting their brand online have fallen. 

It is tragic.

Churches have closed. Others have fired leaders. Some sadly have resorted to legal action against brothers and sisters. Those presumed to be godly have been exposed to be mean-spirited. Church leaders who excused wrong actions and attitudes for years have finally addressed the elephant in the room.

Some leaders private, unbiblical sexual activities have been exposed. Marriages have ended. Children have suffered. Families have divided. The collateral damage is immense.

Even some leaders who are now deceased are having their previously hidden sinful actions revealed. 

Sexual abuse has happened far too often (BTW - when it occurs once, it is far too often) in churches. Sexual abuse victims have been shamed in attempts to keep the ministry's brand viable and marketable.

Those who found themselves riding high now wonder where their fans are.

Why, Then Would Pastors Want This?

There is something about the heart - you know, the sinful, self-focused, self-loving heart that we all have within us. The longing we have for being loved reigns. The desire to be applauded is real. The jealousy that rises when we see others whom we deem to be less talented and less articulate being idolized and platformed in our industry (in this case, in American Christianity) occurs all too often. 

Fleeting thoughts of "It would be nice to be leading a church that size, to be preaching at a conference like that, to be a best-selling author doing book signings, to be an internet influencer, to be a 'cool pastor,' to be sought, to be elevated, etc." come into the minds of many. 

Full transparency - I've had these thoughts, too. I have them far too often.

Even knowing how the Enemy loves to prop up those proclaiming the gospel just to tear them down does not convince us to be content.

What To Do?

I guess that really is the answer. Our contentedness, our joy, our ministry must be solely found in Christ. (BTW - we know this...but we still fail too often) The longing to make a difference, to leave a legacy, to impact lives for eternity, is good. It is holy. Yet, it is the good that can often be perverted unknowingly. 

To live humbly, but boldly as Christ's ambassadors is the call. 

There have been many, many godly men and women throughout Christendom who were known in their day, influential in their era, are revered today years after their passing, and have been seen as legacy leavers for Christ's sake. In other words, being known by many is not a sin. In fact, as stated earlier, it is often God's design to make himself known.

What makes the difference is when the private life and the public life of the Christian leader match. The pastor seeking to live holy, striving to live generously, focusing on the gospel, and glorifying God in private must also do so in public (and vice versa.)

When the temptation to want to be known seeps in, we must repent and rely on God to keep us focused on him, on making him known, on glorifying him. We won't do this perfectly, and that's the joy (or struggle at times) of pastoring well. 

Pray for the Pastors 

Oh, and pray for those who are known, leading large churches and ministries, preaching truth, and seeking to impact the world for God's glory. Pray for them because if they fall...the impact will reverberate throughout the church, the community, and in some cases the world. 

Pray for the relatively unknown ones as well. The temptations are just as real. If they fall, others are impacted. It may be a smaller number of those impacted and hurt, but the ramifications are just as real.

I would love to never have to see another headline of a celebrity pastor's failure. 

Recommended Reading

There are many books written by godly leaders that address the challenges of pastoring and the temptations faced. Two that I recommend are by Paul David Tripp.

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry and Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church


What the Pastor Is Expected and Obligated To Do

In most churches pastors are hired (called) and given a job description which lists expectations the congregation holds. Perhaps this is an example of current-era business practices and human resource strategies being "baptized" and brought into the church. I am not saying that is bad, but the job description (hopefully one centered on the biblical responsibilities and qualifications) often does not delineate the unspoken expectations of the pastor.

Those expectations are normally discovered by acts of omission (or perhaps commission.) 

We are beyond using the excuse "They didn't teach me that in seminary" in that pastor/shepherds do very many things not taught in seminary. Things that no class syllabus could lay out have occurred in every pastor's experience. 

For example, it may seem like no big deal to rearrange the furniture in a Sunday School class or to move a podium from one room to another where it could be better used, but when the pastor finds out that the podium was built by long-deceased Brother Buford and was meant to remain in his old classroom...a "special called business meeting" may be on the horizon.

Every pastor who has served for any significant length of time in a local church (whether an established church or a new plant) will have stories where he inadvertently crossed a line or stepped on a social landmine unawares.

There are  expectations that churches and Christians as individuals have for pastors that are truly biblical and should never be questioned, abdicated, or ignored. 

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.  - 2 Timothy 4:2 ESV

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  - Acts 20:28 ESV

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.  - Ephesians 4:11-12 ESV

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.  - 1 Peter 5:1-4 ESV

There are others, but the point is that Scripture speaks to the obligations, responsibilities, morality, and expectations of the one called out by God to serve as pastor in his local church.

Then, there are other expectations that are placed upon the pastor by well-intentioned church members. Not all expectations are bad. In fact, most could not be categorized as being unbiblical. There are many expectations that are little more than cultural or historical and while not actually spoken of or against in Scripture, if these items usurp the priority of prayer, Bible study, and preaching the Word well (allowing time for study) then the church could actually be piling on responsibilities designed not by God, but by others, that will actually harm the ministry by keeping the pastor tired, perpetually dissatisfied, absent from his family, and unprepared for the primacy of the role.

Hospital Visitation

For example, while visiting the sick in hospitals or those in nursing homes is not mentioned as a pastoral responsibility in those terms in the Bible, it is often the right thing to do (pending COVID restrictions.) It is actually the right thing to do for all Christians and not just a pastoral responsibility.

Counseling

Offering counseling is another good thing. It is even a biblical thing, but not the primary thing pastors must do.

Community Events

Being visible in the community at local gatherings, club meetings, prayer breakfasts, golf tournaments, board meetings, etc. are not necessarily bad, but if done in order to elevate self (or to elevate one's pastor) or to create some form of small-pond celebrity status...then, well, it is bad and likely sinful. They can also overwhelm a pastor's schedule keeping him from the primary call, by creating a full calendar of events that have nothing to do with the church or the call. 

Funerals

Preaching at funerals is expected by church members, though not a mandate in scripture. In fact, this has become a very important part of my ministry. As I serve the Lord in a church with many aging members, funerals have become far more regular on my schedule than I desire. Yet, these moments of gathering with family and friends, remembering a recently passed loved one, celebrating God's grace and mercy, and proclaiming the truth of the gospel allows for these moments that always interrupt our schedules to become holy pauses where God is glorified and the truth is declared.

Weddings

Then, there are weddings. I have had the honor of officiating many weddings over the years. Each one has been unique and each has presented a new set of questions to answer.

While much talk in Christian circles is about the fallout related to the Obergefell decision of the US Supreme Court a few years back making same-sex unions legal, I won't address the intricacies of that here as I have written about it previously. However, in case it is not known, I do not agree with the Supreme Court decision and I hold to the biblical definition of marriage being only between one man (born a man) to one woman (born a woman) for life in a covenant relationship.

I have been part of many Christian weddings where God was honored clearly and the worship experience truly occurred. They have been memorable, joyous, holy occasions.

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Nevertheless, some "Christian" weddings have shifted from being a ceremony where God was worshipped, where the union of man and woman was clearly expressed as an illustration of Christ and his church, and the crowd walked away knowing they had experienced holy matrimony (with an emphasis on holy) to being little more than an event designed to be remembered for the dress of the wedding party, the  venue, decorations, theme, Instagram hashtag, and the post-ceremony antics.

Weddings are Big Business

It is clear from "Say Yes to the Dress" to the renovations of old barns and farms into destination wedding venues, and even the influence of so-called reality shows such as "The Bachelor" and every "I married someone I just met..." show on TLC, that weddings have become big business. The show becomes more important than the vows for some and amazingly many are left scratching their heads when the shine has worn off and they realize they put far more energy and money into the wedding than the marriage.

It is painful to watch.

It is more painful as a pastor to know that at some level I may have allowed this to occur by ignoring the guidelines for marriage and steps needed to help a bride and groom wisely prepare and plan for their wedding and ultimately marriage.

Church members have expectations and they just presume that the pastor will officiate their child or grandchild's wedding, or maybe even their own wedding simply because he is the pastor and that is what he is supposed to do.

Over the years, I have made numerous mistakes when it comes to weddings. I have stood as the pastor, God's ambassador, calling a man and woman into holy matrimony, without preparing them for what the ceremony means and what is to come. Sometimes, I have done so because I knew this was my expected role. Other times, it was because I knew the people getting married and called them friends. 

Often guidelines are written to help keep future mistakes from being made. Therefore, we have set up some guidelines that provide guardrails for our pastors and ministers on staff. In fact, it gives them permission to say "NO" to a couple when they have been asked to officiate such a ceremony in order to provide a larger "YES" to helping them walk into a godly, biblical marriage.

Pre-marital counseling is a must and we utilize the "Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts" material by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. There are many other quality pre-marital counseling resources available and each pastor must deem what works best for him and the couple. The key is to ensure it is not rushed and serious evaluation and discussion occurs, always going back to God's role for husband and wife and his blessing upon the union. 

When do we say NO to weddings?

Well, this list is not in order of importance or all encompassing, but does provide some basics for our church's pastors when it comes to weddings. There could be lists for every segment above, but the wedding issue continues to be one that must be addressed, so here is a sampling of when we say "no":

  • When either bride or groom is a believer seeking to marry a non-believer. 
  • When the bride or groom have never attended the church, or any church.
  • When the bride or groom used to attend but haven't been active in years and just want the pastor or venue for the ceremony because "that's expected."
  • When neither the bride or groom is a believer. There really is no need to have a Christian wedding for non-Christians, though the opportunity to share the gospel must not be ignored.
  • When another pastor at the church the couple actually attends refused to officiate their wedding due to some biblical offense and the couple is only seeking some other pastor to fill the spot.
  • When the couple refuses to participate in multi-session pre-marital counseling.
  • When elements of the service actually make a mockery of God and his design (for instance, I refused a ceremony where the bride was going to wear a tuxedo and the groom was going to wear a dress because they thought it was "funny.")
  • When a couple is living together out of wedlock. There may be cases where the individuals are unbelievers who both recently surrendered their lives to Christ and allowances (temporary separation, quick counsel and private ceremony, etc.) are made. In these cases, the God-honoring aspects are clear. Yet, there are also cases where long-time church members/attenders just ignore these guidelines, move in together (the line is often "for financial reasons") and basically expect the pastor/minister to ignore the facts before him. 
  • When adultery has clearly occurred and repentance is absent.
  • When either the bride or groom is already married. Just wanted to clarify that for the fans of "Sister Wives."
  • For me...when I am not available. The truth is, I am most often available and while I may shift things at the last minute to speak at a funeral for a dear saint, I will not shift to accommodate a ceremony that just happens to be in the middle of a much needed vacation or other trip.

Grace Abounds

It should be noted that while we have these items that lead us to say "NO" that it is not a joy to say no to a couple. The hope is that this man and woman in love would be open to honest, heart-felt, biblical conversations with one of our pastors about the gospel, God's design for marriage, and how to honor him. Grace abounds and this must not be ignored. The wedding planning may just be a gospel conversation moment and should not be brushed off. The end result is that at times, "no" is still the answer from the pastor, but it is not to be offered as a legalistic response (there's no joy in being mean) but as a plea for holiness and trusting God.

Be Steadfast, Pastor

Pastor, there are always expectations placed upon you that seem to lie outside the job description. When you say "no" to a church member who has clear expectations for your presence, performance, or approval, you had best have a bigger "yes" ready. We don't say "no" just for the fun of it. The "no" is meant to drive people to a deeper, biblical "yes" and that is part of shepherding well. 

The wise shepherd will lead his sheep, but may have to yell "no" at them at times in order to protect them and guide them to safety and abundance.

Everyone has expectations of everyone else. Look to the Word first and hold fast to your calling. For the church member, do the same and pray for your pastor as he seeks to lead wisely and well. And...give him a break if he says no to officiating your kids' wedding or can't visit your neighbor's aunt in the hospital every week.