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." 

2021-Nashville-1500-x-500-Final-B

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.)

Gdm

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.

Ravi2
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.


What Are Parents To Do When Their Teenager Stands Alone?

Three years ago we  began making the very strategic shift in our church from a simple age-grade programmatic model to an equipping model. This model is focused on equipping disciples within families with an emphasis on making disciples who make disciples (within the home.)

I have written on this before. One of the warnings for any church making the shift is the inevitable loss of families, members, and attenders who just do not understand the shift or plainly do not like the focus. In other words - count the cost. (I have written about this here.)

Often when there is such a shift in ministerial philosophy within a church, the real results of effectiveness are not known until months or even years later. Earlier today, I received this email from a church member with a teenage daughter. While the subject is a specific issue the daughter was facing in school, the celebration shared was that home-based discipleship with intentional family worship has led to the response celebrated by both mom and dad. I celebrate alongside them as God is glorified in this. 

Here's their story, with names removed...

It is 9:30pm on a Wednesday. Lunches are made. Homework is completed. Chores are finished—only to begin again in a few short hours. You gather the family together for a short nightly devotional and prayer. And then it hits you out of nowhere. That unseen spiritual attack at the moment when you are exhausted and weak, simply seeking refuge and rest. Putting away her studies and work for the day my daughter informs us that she is struggling with a school assignment and not because of its level of difficulty but its content. We pull up the assigned short story and are immediately shocked. The story is not even borderline pushing the limits—it is graphic. Not knowing who is reading this, I will not even give the author or title so as to not glorify what is basically soft-core pornography, nor do I want to put in the eyes of others what should never have seen the light of day. It is not art. It is not literature—and my wife and I are both language arts majors and educators. We taught Shakespeare with all of his innuendo. We taught Twain and Lee and the controversial language and race issues. We understand the dangers of censorship and are firm supporters of the First Amendment. However, this is in-your-face sex and violence and it has been put into my 15-year-old daughter’s eyes and the eyes of hundreds other young people. In just a few hours she will be told to continue reading the story and provide written answers to in-depth questions about its content.

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How do you respond? What do you do as a parent? As a student? Immediately we run the gamut of human emotion and response. Anger. How could this teacher think this was even remotely appropriate? We will be at the school to meet with the principal first thing in the morning. Frustration. Who approved this assignment? In a world that greatly struggles with domestic and sexual violence, why are our public schools increasingly pushing and glorifying it? Sadness. Why can’t our kids just go to school and be kids? At younger and younger ages our children seem to be bombarded with heavier and darker topics hidden under the guise of liberal arts education. Fear. If we speak out, will my daughter become the target of harassment and retaliation? Confusion. Maybe we are just overreacting. Is it really that big of a deal? Spiritual warfare at 9:30pm on a school night.

Surely other parents will be outraged, too? We put the kids to bed with instructions to pray for wisdom and then begin to discuss and reach out. It is late and we are met with this response and thought: It is not a big deal. The Bible is graphic. This is just a similar description of what was occurring inside and outside the Gates of Hell. We can’t put our kids in bubbles. We begin to waver. Yet this seems different. While the Bible does sometimes graphically describe man’s wicked deeds and ways, it is always presented as sin--man’s depravity pointing the way to the need of a Savior. Sin is never glorified. It is presented as exactly what it is: deadly and destructive. The story that my daughter read portrays it as pleasurable and life-giving. It is a lie being presented as truth. This is a big deal. It is an attempt to isolate, indoctrinate, assimilate, and confuse my daughter and others. As Christians we are called to be many things—light, salt, ambassadors. We are “beggars pointing other beggars to the Bread.” We are called to be set apart and stand for the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Augustine is to have once written, “Sometimes we must stand against the world for the good of the world.”

We end our evening with prayer—heartfelt and intimate. Our daughter may very well have to stand “alone” and it may come with a cost. The next morning, we instruct her that we stand with her if she is led to stand and refuse to complete the assignment. We assure her from Romans 8:1-2: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

God knows her heart and we love her—no strings attached. I kiss her cheek and then watch her walk out the door with her older brother into the darkness of an early morning.

My heart is heavy and my wife and I begin to pray over her. Then come the texts. None of her friends will stand with her. She will be standing “alone.” She is afraid and is just going to do the assignment.

I get this at 7:06am: “I don’t know what to do.”

Those two voices: the Lord gently affirming her faithfulness and the world screaming for her conformity. We feel helpless. We want to rush to the school and fight for her. This is why families matter. This is why churches must equip families no matter their structure. Because when faith and life intersect, when spiritual attacks happen late on school nights, we must be prepared.

I text her back: “It is okay. Either way God loves you. He KNOWS your heart and He knows you are for Him. We love you. You do what God leads you to do. You are NOT alone!”

Fifteen long minutes go by and then we receive a picture of the assignment with her handwritten response:

Ms.______, I mean this in the most polite way possible but I cannot do this assignment. I think you are a fantastic teacher but this story goes against my morals and values. Some parts of this story are so straightforward and disgusting that I don’t feel okay reading it. Jesus died for us so I think I should not entertain what He died for. So I will take a zero for this or I would be happy to do another assignment. Thank you.

Tears well in my eyes. I am proud but I know this did not come from me or her mother. Paul continues in Romans 12:1-2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Her Father in Heaven taught her well and she was ready for this test. As of this writing we have not received the teacher’s response but I know this: no matter the outcome my daughter has taught me something. She was not “ashamed of the testimony about our Lord” and displayed “a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (1 Timothy 1:7-8) While my first response was to fight in my power, she showed reliance on the Lord and His wisdom. She stood firm, responded in love, and glorified our Lord.

Families, Trevin Wax writes...

“In every age, the world implements strategies of isolation, indoctrination, assimilation, and confusion, and in every age, the church must resist with confidence and courage, trusting that our faithfulness will be a gift to the nations we know will one day bow before the world’s true King.” (article on TGC here.)

Begin today to prepare your children for the spiritual battles that lie ahead. Fight the temptation to isolate them or fight for them. There may be a time for that but be led by the Spirit through prayer and Godly wisdom. When your faith and life intersect, when spiritual attacks happen at 9:30pm on a school night, what will your children learn about your walk with Christ?

Sometimes you just need a reminder from God that the effort you are exerting to help parents be equipped to equip their children is worth it. Sometimes, as parents and guardians of children and teenagers, you just need a moment where God reveals the effort is making a difference.

Disciples making disciples–it's not a new idea. It just sometimes gets ignored or forgotten in our celebrity-focused, consumer-centered, attractional, event-oriented versions of church. But don't lose heart, equipping the saints (even those within our homes) is worth it. Better yet, through the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to do so.


The Pastor's Kid Responds to "The Pastor's Kid" and Other Stuff (Guest Post by Ashley O'Brien)

Ashley (Tarkington) O'Brien has read the book The Pastor's Kid:What It's Like and How to Help by Barnabas Piper and as a pastor's kid (my kid) she has written this review of, or rather a response to, his book. Yet, this is more than a book review, it is a wise discourse from one who grew up in the fishbowl known as the "pastor's family" and her perspective of how this impacted her view of God and the church. 

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I recently read the book The Pastor’s Kid: What It's Like and How to Help by Barnabas Piper. Barnabas Piper is the son of Pastor John Piper, known by many as the 33-year pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, founder of Desiring God ministries, author of numerous books, speaker at Passion Conferences and more. I initially saw the book advertised on my social media pages (apparently my pages know the occupation of my father...that's scary.)

I was interested on Barnabas’ perspective as a pastor's kid (for obvious reasons) and what he had to say.  I enjoyed the book and could relate to Piper's stories and understood how some would struggle under the identity of their father's title. I could also see how some would be benefited by the role as well. I talked to my brother about our experiences growing up in a pastor's home, just to get his perspective. We grew up in the same God-honoring home, were active in the same church and ministries, had many of the same influences in the church, but as teenagers and adults diverged into the two most common and opposite stereotypes of a being a "Pastor’s Kid" or "PK."

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This is not a picture of Ashley, but these look like church kids.

As my brother and I discussed points highlighted in the book, we concluded that our dad’s occupation and position as pastor of the church had little to do with how we were raised. What I mean is that we were not raised to be good PKs, but were raised to know the Lord, know about him, to love God, love people, love God's church, and become his disciples. We "grew up in church" as did many others, and were loved, taught, and prayed for by many in our church family. My brother and I concluded that none of those things would have changed if dad were not the pastor. In other words, we determined that our family simply was seeking to be authentic Christians and our upbringing was not any more Christian just because our dad stood on the stage and preached each Sunday. 

We agreed that due to dad’s position we were able to experience places and people that we would not have otherwise. So, we selfishly are thankful for that. Nevertheless, a negative aspect of being a PK would be the expectations placed on us by others. This is understandable, but a bit frustrating. Adults have expectations of children and teenagers, especially related to behavior. For any church kid, there are expectations and since the church is supposed to be family, there comes a collective expectation from "family" members and a heightened level of responsibility. 

Based on Piper's book, the concerns and issues experienced by a PK can actually be valid for any person who grew up with a church family. This is not a bad thing. It is just a reality. 

To the person who grew up in church and abandoned church upon entering adulthood, there are many reasons as to why that exit occurred. Statements like “That's my parent's faith. It's just not for me" or other similar reasons (excuses) are common.

Growing Up Is Inevitable

At some point, the church kid (not just the PK) grows up. It's unavoidable. The church kid has to graduate from the kids' ministry (or at least they should) and move up to the next level of age-graded ministry. Maybe this was the shift to the “cool” youth group (at least "cool" as it pertains to church youth groups.) In some churches this means gathering in a separate room designed by concerned adults seeking to create place where teenagers would feel welcome. Maybe it included the designated seats in big church where teenagers would sit together, rather than sitting with their parents. It is a rite of passage of sorts. Then comes the next step into "big" church–high school graduation. For the few who remain in the church, moving from the youth room with all the smoke machines, old couches, broken ping pong tables, loud praise music, pizzas, and games to the "boring big church" services is required. It is here that the music volume decreased, many people seemed disengaged, most didn't sing along with the music, and the music was not new or cutting edge (or at least it seemed the songs were strange versions of those performed by the youth band.) Church was now boring, it seemed. It was no longer fun. Gone was the weekly social hour where you could gather with friends during the middle of the week. No one was making you attend any longer. Friends moved away to college. Some stopped attending after receiving their free gift from the church during the high school graduation recognition. In fact, for many, that was the last time some former members of the youth group (at least some of them) were seen at church.  And you are tempted to walk away as well. Perhaps using the old excuse of “I am not being fed," but deep down knowing you just do not want to be fed what they are feeding you. You had rededicated your life to Christ many times, especially at youth camp, but now...church just isn't the same.

This isn't the biography of PKs only. There are many kids who grew up in the church who can relate because this is their story as well, whether they were a PK, a deacon's kid, a committee member's kid, or just a kid who went to church a lot.

We collectively nod our heads in agreement and think of all those fond memories of our childhood and teenage years. As adults, some of us become frustrated with the church. Some shop around for new churches, always seeking the newest experience (while actually being driven by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia resulting in a search for a Sunday experience that is basically an updated version of the youth worship at camps from years prior or the mid-week student gatherings of our high school years.)

Though I loved all the camps, mission trips, and pizza nights, I believe we may have unwittingly done a disservice over time. We created silos of ministry and rarely if ever integrated generationally. This led to an easy exit for active attenders upon high school graduation. Certainly, the individual has a choice. We cannot force anyone to remain in the church, but we must not put all the blame on the individual if the church as a whole never intentionally connected church family members beyond those of the same age or demographic. 

While Piper's book is focused mainly on his experiences as a pastor’s kid, it can easily relate to everyone who grew up as a church kid. 

Jeremy Noel is quoted in the book stating...

“Finding God was the greatest challenge. Being raised in an atmosphere where God was ministry, vocation and hobby makes it hard to be amazed by the gospel. Being raised where life is always about showing God to a group makes it hard to see God individually.”

At some point, the child has to own it. The now adult, former "church kid" must own their decisions and their relationship (or lack of relationship) with Christ and his church. Take responsibility. Noel's quote is real and reveals authentic challenges. It also explains why so many leave the church after high school. We can blame parents, teachers, and preachers…but, at the end of the day, when the now adult does not take ownership for his or her relationship with Christ, it falls on them. Children have to grow up. There is a needed graduation from the “fun” church and the “feed me” church that is built upon a consumer mentality.  

Barnabas Piper stated well...

“PKs (church kids) despite all these struggles cannot wallow in and bemoan them. Rather, we must own what responsibilities are ours; to honor Jesus, to honor our fathers and mothers, to love and support the church, and to go about our lives not as victims but as the redeemed. Grace is here for us all!” 

For the Pastors

To the pastors–love your children. Be willing to listen. Be a parent first, not always their pastor. Cheer for them at ball games (but remember who you represent so maybe don’t yell so much at the referee.) Don’t elevate your children in a way that they believe they are better than their church peers. They are surely the most important to you, but no one wants some little snot (sorry - I'm venting a bit) saying to his or her Bible study teacher “But don’t you know who my dad is?”

None of this may stir up issues for you or them initially, but it could be harmful in the long run. It can impact how your children view church and Christ. It will affect how they function as a teenager and adult when you are not there to tell them the right church answers or force them to be at church with you. Those outside the church do not care that their dad was a pastor (or they may have some unfair preconceived ideas about what that means.) Just remember that your children did not choose to be the child of a pastor or to be in the spotlight (even if it's just the spotlight of a local church.) They do not typically enjoy being illustrations in your sermon. Be sure to have a genuine conversation with your children about his or her decision to be a Christ follower. Do not doubt, of course, but understand that this decision could have been easily made due to the pressure and assumption that they should be a Christian simply because you are the pastor. Help your children make the decision to surrender to Christ as Lord their own, and not yours. Remember, God has no grandchildren. Be real with your children. If your child never sees you struggle or knows that you doubt at times, then they will feel as if they are not allowed to either. Allowing them to wrestle with their salvation or relationship with Christ and his church is healthy and all believers experience this. Offer up transparency and allow your children to ask you the hard questions so they may view their relationship with Christ and his church more real and their own. When their dad is supposed to be the “super-Christian” it is tough to be raw and real, especially when they feel they do not measure up.

For the PK

PKs–understand that your identity is not founded on what your father or mother do for a living. It is not what you excel at or how you look. As a child of God, your identity is solely found in Christ. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you will feel free from others expectations. Standing strong in Christ and his church and growing up to be a bold follower of Christ is truly what your Christian parents desire. God gave you the parents you were intended to have for a reason. So, appreciate them and love them, it is not easy being a pastor. It's not easy being a pastor's wife. And, we know, it's not easy being a pastor's kid either. But...who said this was supposed to be easy? That's just one reason we can rely on God and his grace.