Garth Brooks, Notre Dame, and Your Christmas Service at Church

Last night while the big game for the NFL was broadcast on NBC and Hallmark was showing yet another Christmas movie, a country music superstar came out of self-imposed semi-retirement. The Garth Brooks Stadium Tour has begun and the concert recorded in the rain at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana in October aired on CBS last night. The production quality of Brooks' concert was incredible. He has been known for his live shows since breaking onto the scene over two decades ago. While other country singers would stand behind a microphone in their starched Wranglers while playing guitar and belting out hits (George Strait, Alan Jackson, et. al.) Brooks would wear the wrap-around microphone that he must have either borrowed from Madonna or the Drive-Thru worker at Chick-fil-A, run around the stage or at times, pull a Bon Jovi and fly above the crowd. Brooks is an entertainer for certain.

Whether you like his music or not, there's no denying he has appeal for many. The stadium was packed. It was raining. It was cold. And while I know that post-production can do some pretty amazing things, based on tweets and reports online from those who were in attendance, plus what was seen on television, the crowd LOVED the show.

Photo credit: tncountryfan on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

So, what does this have to do with anything related to church, Christianity, worship, or anything else spiritual?

While watching last night, I said to my wife "Brooks has the crowd in his hand. He's no evangelist, but he's evangelizing and the crowd is 'amening" their approval." I followed up with "If he asked people to come down front to make a decision, they'd come in droves." This was not a condemnation on crusades or the traditional "come down the aisle" moment in many churches. I was just noting that what we were observing in this very well produced event was something that we have seen in religious settings as well (albeit with fewer people in the crowd.)

My friend and pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Dean Inserra tweeted as the concert was completing:

 

Dean hit the nail on the head in this comparison.

Some of you reading will be upset that I, a Baptist preacher, may seem to be condoning the message or lifestyle promoted in Brooks' songs. Well, I'm not. However, I do know the words of many of the hits he played. I like some more than others. Yet, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who actually has a radio in their vehicle, an iTunes or Amazon Music account or who has been alive for the past twenty years or so who does not know at least some of the words to "Friends in Low Places." 

Christmas at Church

No I do not recommend singing "Callin' Baton Rouge" at your Christmas Eve service. Yet, I do find some insight from this event that was on television last night. Spurred on by Dean Inserra's tweet, I recommend the following to pastors who are trying to find ways to connect with their communities during this Christmas season.

  1. Plan Well. Every community is different, so know yours. If you don't...you have more issues than Chris Gaines. Presuming you know the people in your community, plan a service that will connect with them and allow them to not only feel welcomed, but encouraged that there is a God who loves them deeply. If your service is planned for church people, you will only connect with church people (yours and those who are members of other churches.) It's easy to plan a church service for church people. Don't.
  2. Preach Clearly. Christmas sermons are sometimes the most difficult for pastors, because we (pastors) all too often try to be really creative and end up missing the point. Jesus is the point. He always is. He always must be. The "birth of Jesus" story is known by many, but don't presume it is rightly known by the crowd in your building. Some view the story of the nativity as little more than than a holiday fairy tale or myth on par with the Rudolph, Frosty, and Grinch stories. (BTW - I like all those stories and even the Charlie Brown one.) BTW - just because it's Christmas, don't leave Jesus as a baby in a manger. Get to the cross. Preach the resurrection. A little Easter at Christmas is needed by all.
  3. Provide the Familiar. Sing songs that people have heard. Is it a sin to sing "Jingle Bells"? I say no. However, sing the carols that glorify the Christ. Don't skip or ignore those. People have heard them. Many know the words. They may just sing along. The words point to Christ. Christ is the point, remember? Sing about him. Worship him with these classics. It's possible. And, as we saw with Brooks' incredible show, you don't even have to have the very best singer in town on the stage leading. You do need to be able to lead people to sing, however. In the age of performance worship and having to present the latest pop-song worship chorus, many in the room are left watching and missing the opportunity to worship with song. Vicarious worship is not the goal. The best worship leaders are the leaders who worship.
  4. Present the Decision. Don't forget to draw the net (that's an evangelism term that refers to giving people the opportunity to respond) and express to all who have attended your special Christmas Eve or seasonal service that God loves them. He sent his son. He wants to know them personally and they can receive something more than a temporal gift wrapped in paper. Life is available. Whether you allow people to respond by calling them down front, offering them a moment to meet with you following the service, giving them a link on your app to click, or a number to text does not matter. There are numerous ways to give people the opportunity to respond. Just don't leave it left undone. Otherwise, you will once again evaluate your service with your staff and say "We had a good crowd, but we're not sure if anyone made a decision and therefore, have no way to follow up." Yep - we've done this way too often.

What you don't need to have an effective Christmas service is the production budget of Garth. Don't be who you're not and don't fret that you don't have unlimited resources for smoke machines, lighting, or other effects. If you have those things, that's fine, but those are not the point when the true focus is clear.

So this Baptist preacher learned something from a country singer with hits about drinking, cheating, dancing, and a false narrative about prayer while performing on stage with a man dressed as a leprechaun at a Catholic university. 

Weird.

________________

Photo credit: tncountryfan on Visualhunt /CC BY-NC


A Moment That Changed Everything - My Message at @GameDayChurch on 9/11

We launched our second year of GameDay Church on September 11. This church service/event in the parking lot of EverBank Field prior to the Jaguars - Packers game drew a crowd and allowed us to engage in gospel-centric conversations with those walking by and hanging out at our tailgate event. Being that it was September 11, I felt that addressing the fifteenth anniversary of the tragic day of terror that hit our nation was appropriate. 

Here is a transcript of my message on 9/11 with reference to Matthew 9. Thanks to Jon Wood, our campus minister at IslandChurch for the story regarding the Eagles - Redskins football game.

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A few years ago there was an NFL game scheduled on a Sunday, but rather than a 1pm start, this one started at 2pm. That’s strange, but not the strangest thing about this game.

The game was being played between the Redskins and the Eagles. Philadelphia was out of the playoff hunt, but they were looking to play the role of spoiler. The Redskins were sitting at .500 and were in a position to squeak into the playoffs, but needed the win.

The game began with the Eagles taking an early lead.

The Redskins took advantage of a Philly turnover and scored in the second quarter, to tie it up at 7 apiece. Not really an offensive game so far.

 The game continued on and the fans who remained in the stands to watch what became a very sloppy game did so because, they’re well…fans.

The Eagles ended up turning the ball over more and the Redskins won. The game ended as most everyone thought.

And once the game was over, no one cared.

That game was over about 5pm and because of the way news spread at the time, the things happening globally that day became known by the fans and players by the end of the game. The announcer at the game, it’s is said, began asking some of the fans in the stands to report to certain areas immediately.

You see, on that day, December 7, 1941, everything changed. 

America was divided at the time. Can you imagine a divided America? It was severe. Many thought the war was dumb and we shouldn’t bother or get involved. Others thought we must. Then, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor happened and there was no longer a valid option of sitting on the sidelines. America was thrust into World War II.

Those men who were called out of the stadium were active-duty military personnel. They were now at war. More would join. The entire nation would engage, even on the home front.

Fifteen years ago, another day began, just like every other day. People got up, had their coffee, went to work and then planes hit towers, a plane hit the Pentagon and one even crashed in Pennsylvania. The news reports were horrendous and clear.

Things had changed.

We now live in a post 9/11 world now and are reminded of that even as we enter EverBank today for the game. The metal detectors and bag searches are now normal.

Going to the airport and flying is different than it used to be.

We have a "new normal" because of these horrendous acts.

Sometimes, a regular day, or at least our plans for a regular day, can end up life-changing.

In these cases, the changes were brought on by attacks and terrorism. But, there are moments in life that are also unexpected, that lead to more positive and encouraging life-change.

In the Bible, there was a man named Matthew. He was a Jewish man, but not liked by his people. He was considered a sell-out. He was working for the occupying nation in his homeland by collecting taxes from his peers.

And, in those days, tax collectors were known to, and even expected to, fleece the people to pad their own pockets. The Roman government (the occupying one) didn’t care how much the native collectors gathered in taxes, as long as they had the amount Rome wanted. So, any extra they could get was for themselves.

So, Matthew goes to work on that day – just another day – nothing special expected, but something special did happen. Something he never saw coming.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”Matthew 9:9-13 (ESV)  [1]

Look at what happened. Jesus, the Son of God, intentionally went to a guy that the religious people, the neighbors, and others in the community did not like and would avoid if possible. Jesus went to him. He met him at his place of business, in his own comfort zone and offered him a chance at new life.

He said, “Follow me” which seems like the shortest invitation ever, and it was, but coming from Jesus, it was clearly strategic.

Matthew didn’t expect this, but was overwhelmed with the invite. “Me? Follow you? Seriously?” and he did.

Matthew became one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, one of his closest friends. He, like the others in Jesus group of close friends, would later be described as one of the men who was turning the world upside down, for good.

Just another day, right?

Nope.

Everything changed and on this day, it changed for the better.

We can all relate to the 9/11 change, especially if you’re old enough to remember it. Some of us may remember Pearl Harbor, but at a minimum, we’ve read about it or watched the videos about it. We understand how those moments can change everything. And some of us here have a Matthew story – we understand how Jesus surprises us and changes everything. When we least expected it.

And maybe some here today will experience this. It’s just another Sunday. It’s another football game. It’s the start of the season. There was a day much like this last season and the season before, etc. But, today, you’re here and maybe, just maybe, Jesus is still doing what he did 2000 years ago. He’s meeting you when you least expected it and saying “Follow me.” Now, you get to decide to follow him or not.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 9:9–13). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.


Talk Is Cheap - Part 5 - The Implanted Word

10-11-2015 Talk is Cheap - Part 5 - Receiving the Word

When I was a kid, I would plant beans in cups in my room. It’s weird, but I was a weird kid. My mom would buy bags of dried beans at the grocery - you know lima beans, great northern (or butter) beans, etc. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this, but I would take some of those beans, put some dirt in a cup and plant them in a little one-bean garden in my room.

Eventually, this became part of the required science project in junior high school. Amazingly (at least to me) these beans would sprout and grow. I never had any beans grow on my bean plants, but they always would sprout and grow. Some became pretty tall.

I was probably the only kid in school growing beans in cups in my room. Now, I knew of some other students who grew plants in their rooms, but I was never allowed to hang out with them. I think they eventually got caught.

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I was never a gardener, but some of you are. We have master gardeners here in the church family. I do not know the intricacies of gardening. It requires more patience than I have, I guess.  But those of you who know more about that, know the principles referred to in Scripture regarding gardening and faith. You know, “You reap what you sow” and the like.

The Bible actually uses a number of references related to agriculture and life outside the city. It’s wise not to skip these portions just because you may not live on a farm or grow your own food. The deeper truths are there and vital.

In James' letter in the New Testament he speaks of the need to receive with meekness the implanted word. It made me think of those beans I used to plant, for some reason. 

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. James 1:19-21 (ESV)

This is a reference to Christians who have been born again. This word is the gospel. It has been given to us as a gift. Jesus spoke of this. James referenced this. 

In John’s account of Jesus’ life, he shares a moment where Jesus spoke to religious leaders who sought to kill him.

I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. John 8:37 (ESV)

Jesus is speaking to people who are people who were highly religious and looked upon well by those in society. They were the celebrity preachers of the day and were greatly loved. They knew their Bible (well, the Old Testament at least) and could quote it verbatim. They looked well, dressed well, spoke well and yet. . .Jesus calls them out.

Apparently, the implantation of the word of God (a phrase I never hear anyone using) is more biblical than “praying the prayer” and “asking Jesus into your heart.” 

What Is the Result of Not Receiving This Word?

Apart from the reception of the implanted word, religion is dead.

Maybe that’s what has happened to most of the churches in our nation?

Maybe that’s why the mission has seemingly been forsaken?

Maybe that’s why we lament that “things are really getting bad?”

Maybe we have spent too much time focusing on behaving well rather than the reception of the word and therefore have fallen into the mundane walk of a religion with no power?

Could it be that we have unknowingly become more like the ones wanting to throw stones at Jesus than like Jesus Himself? Not consciously, but perhaps it has occurred.

Maybe that’s why it is so difficult a concept to quantify the command to “make disciples?” 

Maybe that’s why we think that by doing more religious activity we are forwarding the Kingdom of God?

In the midst of this reality, there is great news. All we have to do is put away and receive.

New birth is received through surrender to God’s Spirit, the repentance of sin and reception of Jesus Christ as Lord.

The Spirit carries the word into our lives and reveals the truth of Christ that is not possible just by choice. It’s by God’s design.

Life is given through the word and through that word of Truth, we are transformed.

The Spirit of God dwells within the children of God. The word of God is implanted within the children of God.

Verse 21 tells us the result of receiving this implanted word is the salvation of our souls. Don’t underestimate this.

It’s truly a simple principle, when you think about it. “Put away” and “receive.” Maybe you have a desire, but that hasn’t been enough for you to see life change. Maybe you were sincere in your prayer to receive Christ. . .but still there’s something not quite right. It’s not about having everything figured out. It’s about total surrender - perhaps the one thing keeping many who have “prayed the prayer” from being disciples of Christ.

What If?

What if we did this? What if we received with meekness the implanted word? What if total surrender happened today? What if church attenders and even church members took the dangerous step of faith into living as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

It’s not adding something into our lives. It’s replacing something.

You and your sins must separate, or you and your God cannot come together. - Charles Spurgeon


Talk Is Cheap - Part 3 "The Ordination of Robert Powell"

09-27-2015 Talk is Cheap - Part 3 - Calling Out

I have had the honor of seeing many young men and women step up and say "Yes" to God regarding calling into ministry. As I reflected on the men and women serving Him in various churches, missions, ministries and even in the workplace that I have had the honor of knowing over the years, I have been humbled by God's grace.

Yesterday, we had the privilege of licensing and ordaining Robert L. Powell to the Gospel Ministry. Robert grew up in Orange Park as a regular attender and member of First Baptist Church. At age twelve, he surrendered his life to Jesus Christ and as a high school senior, he said "yes" to the calling into full-time ministry. He has since graduated from The Baptist College of Florida and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and currently serves as the Children's Ministry Assistant Pastor at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Baker, Florida.

He has been called out, equipped, sent out and set apart for God's glory and His ministry. 

Robert Powell Ordination


Talk Is Cheap - Part 2

09-20-2015 Talk is Cheap - Part 2 - On the Team

Ever tried out for a sports team as a kid and discovered, much to your surprise, that when the final cuts were made, you were NOT on the team? That was my seventh grade baseball experience and effectively shifted me to basketball and a career of bad church softball.

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There is a truly awkward feeling to show up at at party, thinking you are in the right place, only to discover that you weren't really invited. 

Sometimes people feel this way in church or around believers. It's not a clique issue (though those are issues) but one of family. When the conversations go places spiritually and you just feel lost, thinking "What are they talking about?" there is a sense that you're standing at the punch bowl at the party, but truly aren't part of the group.

Some, tragically, have committed their lives to church or religion and missed Christ in the process. This type of faith is a superficial, dead faith and when trials come, is revealed for what it is.

Maybe this is why there are so many non-attending church members in our churches today, relegated to the "Whatever happened to them?" files.

This message looks at James chapter 1 and digs into this reality.

Yet, here's the good news of the Gospel - there is an open invitation to join the family of God. The gift of salvation awaits. Listen to this message and if you need to talk to someone personally about where you stand with Christ, comment below.


The Fam - Part 3 - "Redeemed Family"

08-23-2015 - The Fam - Part 3 - Redeemed Family

When you hear principles of parenting or marriage and you know the information is right and good, do you ever feel that for you and your family "it's too late"?

"If I knew then what I know now" is heard over and over again.

Knowing that God redeems our past is incredible, but sometimes even that doesn't bring the comfort needed. Why is this? In this message, I share plainly how we, as believers, are often victim to the lies that keep us from living as redeemed children of God in a redeemed family.

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The Southern Baptist Convention - A Family Gathered for a Big Story #SBC15

I am currently in Columbus, Ohio, gathering with thousands of family members (that's what it feels like) at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have been to numerous denominational meetings such as this in the past, but this year, there is a different feel.

FAMILY MEETING

I call it a meeting with family members, for that is what it truly is. Baptist brothers and sisters from throughout the land gather together and reconnect with old friends, worship together, make decisions that will impact many through policy affirmations. Like many families, we also grimace at some things said and done by others in the family. It is like being with others over a holiday and then the crazy uncle shows up. We love him, but we never know what he's going to do or say. Every family has that guy. Our SBC has those as well. And, if you can't figure out who he/she may be. . . it may be you.

A "REALITY SHOW" 

Since I categorize our SBC meeting as a family gathering, in some ways it has become like the families featured on television reality shows. There is a sense of trying to just be family, but always knowing that the cameras (or in this case, the national news media as well as bloggers, Tweeters and Facebook posters are in the room as well. . .just watching and waiting.)

Personally, I am glad these guests are in the room, either physically or virtually, in that I believe God uses these avenues to ensure we (Baptists) stay on focus, in "witness-mode" and loving to all, even though we cannot be and will not be affirming to all.

On the heels of headlines that bemoan (or celebrate) the decline of evangelicals in America and statements in op-eds like this one have found places in national media outlets.

As Southern Baptists gather Tuesday for their annual summer meeting, gloom hangs over the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. (Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, The Washington Post)

While the reality is that numbers in Baptist life, such as membership and baptism, are in decline, I have not sensed an overwhelming sense of gloom in our gathering based on this. Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research continually reminds us that "facts are our friends." It's true. The scorecard that has been used for decades in SBC life has been flawed from the outset and while we all know the numbers we have seen in the past were never truly accurate, as Dr. Al Mohler stated at a Baptist21 gathering, "We've never really trusted our numbers, but we bragged on them when they worked for us."

This is true.

Yet, in the midst of facing the facts of these numbers, this convention meeting has become one of purpose - a purpose beyond denominationalism.

Dr. Ronnie Floyd has been touring the nation and using social and traditional media outlets to emphasize the need for prayer among Baptists and all evangelicals in our nation. At the outset, a pastor emphasizing prayer sounds uneventful or, honestly, not impactful. The sad reality is that when a SBC meeting adjusts its schedule and shifts traditional sermons, business and other events to open up a prime, evening session for prayer it becomes newsworthy.

More Than a Meeting About Same-Sex Marriage

The Pastors Conference began on Sunday evening and with winsome truth presented by pastors throughout Sunday and Monday, the Spirit of God was challenging messengers (this is the Baptist term for those from local churches who have been elected by their churches to represent them at this gathering) in ways that was needed and still needed so that we may lovingly engage a culture with the hope of the Gospel without fear or hatred.

The news reports have been focused on Dr. Floyd's message on Tuesday morning where statements regarding the nation's proclivity of endorsing and promoting same-sex unions were addressed. For the average reader of the news, one would think that all Southern Baptists do is talk about LGBT people in our families and cities. While these issues must be addressed, this was not the "Anti-Gay SBC Meeting" so many have stated it to be. To be clear, there has been no waffling on the biblical truths and the religious liberties and pending Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage has been discussed in numerous venues throughout the week.

However, what is often not reported are the bigger stories and foundational Gospel elements that our family came together around. What has not been reported is the movement of the Spirit of God in a moment of declared repentance and reconciliation.

Some Notable Moments in This Year's SBC Family Gathering

These are moments that I deem as powerful and focus oriented. To be honest, some were moments where God may have spoken more clearly to me than others simply due to my personal journey of faith and the chapter of life where I nowreside.

  • Authentic unity among our mission boards - For years, our two mission boards (International & North American) have done great work, but  have never truly worked strategically together. One of the first noticeable moments of unity was when I went into the Exhibit Hall and saw both IMB and NAMB exhibit booths next to each other, decorated similarly, one giving away coffee mugs and the other giving away samples of coffee, while missionaries from both agencies wore similar shirts. Now, that may seem superficial to some, but it's a message that was heart loud and clear. Throughout the week as Drs. David Platt & Kevin Ezell spoke to groups together, their camaraderie was apparent and the reality became even more clear - these guys are working together. For those outside the SBC family, this doesn't mean much, but for the family members, this is HUGE. . .and wonderful.
  • Powerful Sermons - I did not hear every sermon presented this weekend at the Pastors Conference and Annual Meeting, but I did hear most. These godly men have obviously prayed for weeks in preparation for their moment to present the Word. None took it lightly. No sermon was bad (in the sense one can grade a sermon) and all were valuable. Of those that "rang the bell" for me regarding challenge and conviction, I must say that my brother from Jacksonville, H.B. Charles, Jr., Dr. Russell Moore and Pastor J.D. Greear's messages resonated loudly. 
  • James MacDonald & Harvest Bible Chapel are now Southern Baptist - There was rumor that James would make an announcement during his sermon on Monday night. I told a friend "He's joining the SBC." Now, I had no idea and do not know James personally, but when he made his announcement, it looked like I was in the know. Ha. Nevertheless, this is a big story. Now, there are some who are not fond of James and Harvest and may not be happy they are now part of the family, but then again, there are Baptist churches who have been in the fold for decades that others aren't too fond of either, so that's irrelevant. What this does show is that a significant church leader in our nation with influence among many churches has stated that the mission and the doctrine of the SBC is valuable and viable and he wants to be a part. So. . . just like that, we now have a new church in the Chicago area (with others throughout the land in the network.) I'm not sure we count that as a new church plant, though Kevin Ezell may try to do so (That's a joke for those who struggle with written sarcasm.)
  • Send Network Luncheon - Over 2,000 people gathered to eat a soggy sandwich and some powerfully powdered BBQ chips at the Send Network Luncheon. This was a huge gathering and yet, it was basically a large crowd seated in a room watching Platt and Ezell talk about reaching the world for the Gospel, and to enjoy seeing Platt squirm when Ezell asked loaded questions and told jokes on his behalf in front of the crowd. It became clear that Platt and Ezell would make a great touring comedy duo, with Platt playing the straight man and Ezell telling the jokes. (BTW - the use of the term "straight man" is a comedy term that has no connection to the current LGBT discussion that many think Baptists cannot stop talking about.)
  • The Cooperative Program Stage - In the Exhibit Hall, there's a small stage set up between the IMB and NAMB booths. This is the Executive Board's CP Stage where interesting interviews and frank discussions about polity, future and mission take place. Hosted by different denominational leaders throughout the day, these discussions are worthy of a small stand-up audience.
  • Free Stuff - Numerous booths throughout the Exhibit Hall offering pens, T-shirts, books, coffee mugs, and candy means pastors become little kids for a couple of days, holding out their free Guidestone bags and basically "Trick or Treating" from booth to booth. Keep up the free books and coffee mugs. These are a pastor's favorite things.
  • Not Your Traditional SBC - I was impressed and encouraged by the attendance this year, especially in a city that requires most messengers to fly to in order to attend. The racial and generational diversity evident in the room was exciting to see. Ted Traylor told us to wear blue jeans on Tuesday and Russell Moore said we need more tattoos in the SBC. Maybe those were shocking statements, but it's hard to imagine hearing that from the stage a decade or two ago.

The Two Most Impactful Moments

The Prayer Gathering

Tuesday night's prayer gathering was promoted well. Yet, to be honest, I went in like many of my friends (who were honest with me) expecting . . . well, little. Yes, I confess this sin of low expectation. I confess that I was tired and wondered if it would be worth me staying for this event. . . for I sometimes bristle at "Christian events" that seem to exist just for the sake of being an event.

I stayed.

I knew I needed to do so.

The prayer meeting began and we sang. I would say worship began, but that doesn't necessarily begin just because music starts. Worship did begin shortly after I joined in with the singing. I asked God to speak to me, one of thousands in a room that was much more full than I anticipated (again, I repent of my sin of low expectations.) 

One by one, prayers were offered. We followed Dr. Floyd's lead, but it was clear that Dr. Floyd wasn't really the one leading this. God had entered the fray and had taken control.

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I prayed with a group sitting near me. I had never met them before, but I believe, as I told them, that God had placed us near each other in the room so that we could unite in prayer. 

We prayed with and affirmed the prayers of brothers and sisters around us and on the stage. Prayers of confession were voiced. Prayers of repentance were offered. Prayers of reconciliation between the races were stated - this was more than a resolution. Prayers of pleading - asking for healing of our families, for our children, for our nation, for our culture, etc. were placed before God. Prayers for our leaders, for President Obama (YES! Baptists prayed for the President. We asked forgiveness for not doing so and for ignoring the biblical mandate.) 

We prayed. 

We sang.

We prayed as we sang.

And we believe.

We believe that prayer works and that God hears our prayers.

We contemplated the reality of the "If. . . then" prayers and realized that God may not doing the "then" portions because we have not been obedient in the "if" portions.

Was this just a meeting? Well, it could be for some, but that's their choice. I believe this is not the end-game, but the beginning. 

The Missionary Commissioning Service

Together, IMB and NAMB, under the direction of Dr. Ezell and Dr. Platt, respectively, led out in a commissioning service for missionaries and churches (yes - the local churches) who have said "Yes! We will go!" 

I was sitting alone in the crowd, but with family as the stories of individuals and couples were shared. Details on the lostness of our world were presented. I was challenged by the strong word given by Dr. Platt regarding the reasons we must be sent and be sending.

I was brought to tears as I thought of the stories before me. Missionaries pictured on the screen were sitting in the crowd. When their names and photographs appeared on the screen, they stood up, holding a Lumio book lamp in their hands, and it became clear - these people are doing the hard things and doing so because they must. 

They are the light of the world taking the Light of the world into the darkness and we are sending them. Therefore, we are going with them.

It was powerful. It was amazing. This was more than a simple prayer and a passport. 

At the close, under the direction of Dr. Platt, we were challenged to celebrate these who say "YES" more loudly than we cheer for our favorite football team. How can we cheer louder for those who play a game that doesn't matte for eternity than for the God who is sending out his ambassadors into the darkness for a task that holds eternity in the balance?

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Why Come To These Gatherings?

In the past, people would come to the SBC Annual Meeting to watch or be a part of the latest argument or fight. There are some pretty nasty chapters in our story. Yet, today, even with disagreement from some we find ourselves as Stetzer stated on Monday, experiencing more peace in the family than in recent years.

This is significant, especially in a culture that will continue to marginalize and maybe even criminalize some of the biblical and moral stances we must take.

We are a family (crazy uncle and all) and God has seen fit, in His grace, to let us in on His great story.

That's why I come. This is my family and our Father has much for us.


Reflections From Three Days with Baptist Pastors & Leaders

I have spent the last few days in Lakeland, Florida attending the Florida Baptist Pastors Conference and the annual Florida Baptist State Convention. It has been a good few days as I have been able to reconnect with pastors and ministry leaders from throughout our state. The worship leaders were wonderful and the sermons challenging and definitely God-inspired.

Here are some observations, in no particular order, of this convention and my opinions and inferences about the future work of Baptists in the state of Florida:

Leadership Matters

We have been blessed these past 25+ years to have Dr. John Sullivan lead Florida Baptists as Executive Director-Treasurer. As with any leadership task so large, there have been many challenges over the years. Since people are. . .well, people, there have been some personality conflicts over the years with Dr. Sullivan and some in the state. There have been disagreements and differing views as to how certain things should be done and I'm sure different views regarding vision for the future of the Florida Baptist Convention and all that makes up our cooperating union. 

However, even with those issues, which are common in any organization or church, Dr. Sullivan has led with dignity and honor. In a world (and a Christian sub-culture) that is continually changing, I have been thankful for Dr. Sullivan's stance on biblical authority, church autonomy, missional growth and ultimately on seeing as many people in our state and world come to know Jesus Christ personally as Lord and Savior.

Dr. Sullivan is retiring now and leaves a legacy that honors God. There are still challenges ahead for Baptists in this state, so the leadership void will be looming. That being said, we look back with fond memories and thankful hearts to the years behind us, ready to step forward into a future that has the same God at the helm we have always served.

So, personally, I say "Thank you" to Dr. John Sullivan and am praying for our state's search committee and State Board of Missions as we seek to discover the man God has already set aside for this honorable role. It is vital that we hear the voice of God clearly because Godly leadership matters.

Encouragement Is Needed

The Pastors Conference is a gathering prior to the annual state meeting. It is a time where emphasis on pastoral leadership and health is paramount.

B2HtcN_IIAILeLaThe pastoral ministry is not easy. Any man serving in such role could attest to this. I'm not seeking sympathy or desiring to play a victim. That's not my goal at all. However, I have discovered in my own walk, and as I talk with others, that often the pressures of pastoring seem to creep up on an individual and ultimately, wear down a man until the joy of serving and leading seems foreign.

Encouragement is a strong tonic. To hear strong, inspired, challenging and comforting words from men speaking from the battlegrounds to other soldiers in the field is vital. I often do not realize how much I need this time until I am experiencing it.

A three-day convention gathering can be tiring as well, but it is more energizing as we see pastors ready to go back home to churches who love them. Pastors are ready to lead again, to serve again, to fight battles against an unseen enemy again and ultimately recharged for that which is ahead.

With as many pastors resigning and falling into sin as we see in our nation today, this time of encouragement and re-charging must not be forsaken.

The Mission Remains

As I hear of victories in local churches and watch highlight videos of ministries and mission endeavors throughout our state, I am encouraged, but also saddened. 

Here's why - with all the "wins" the reality of a state that is growing darker in sin and further from the Truth of the Gospel is our reality. We must celebrate the victories, but also remember that the task is great and there is much to be done.

To be satisfied with where we are and to sit on our small victories is like the baseball player who settles for a single, but never makes it around the bases to home plate.

Cooperation Is More Than a Tag-Line

Staying with the baseball motif, the runner on first often needs help getting around those bases. Oh, there's the rare player who steals second, steals third and may make it home on a pitching error. Even in those cases, the extra bases are gained based on the mistakes of the opposition. In most cases, the runner gets home "with a little help from his friends." The next batters play a major role in moving the runner along.

In our world, cooperating churches are needed to push back the darkness. God's church will prevail, but we must remember that "our" churches aren't really "ours." They're His!

Therefore, we MUST COOPERATE in this great mission in order to fulfill His Great Commission. 

We will never win this state to Jesus Christ if we continue to try to do so as individuals, with small kingdom mindsets and personal glory as the goal.

We Must Not Forget What It Means to Be Baptist

In an age where denominational titles seem to be less than vogue, it is vital that we, as Baptists do not forsake our distinctives. I agree with Dr. Ted Traylor who said that churches who take "Baptist" out of their name doesn't bother him, but churches who take "Baptist" out of their identity do. There is a reason we Baptists, in our autonomy and independence, with a firm understanding and belief in the inerrant Word of God, our ordinances and celebrations of new life (baptism) and renewed life (Lord's Supper) have been blessed by God so. 

Maybe it's education. Perhaps it's just living out our faith well. Regardless, we have a great heritage and a greater God. Christian first, absolutely. Baptist as a distinctive, definitely.

Mission and Missional Are Non-Negotiables

I had a gentleman berate me about leading our church to be missional not too long ago. My response was clear - "A church that is not missional is not a church." I stand by that statement. 

However, the term "missional" is becoming too much of a buzzword lately and unfortunately, seems to be losing some of its "oomph" (you know what I mean by that, right?) Yet, living missionally is our calling. It's more than a trend.

In addition to living missionally in our community and world, we must also be "on mission" at all times. These two terms tend to overlap, but there is a distinction. The mission we must be at is global in scope. In fact, it's a Kingdom-sized mission.

While our missional expressions that lead us to the local school to help teachers and mentor children, to the public playground to do acts of service and kindness, engagements with local organizations in need of volunteers or space, etc., our "on mission" actions lead us concurrently to engage strategically with the Gospel. 

Mowing your neighbors lawn in the name of Jesus is good and right, and missional. Intentionally sharing the Gospel with your neighbor is living on mission. 

We have missionaries throughout our state and many who are being sent by local churches to the uttermost parts of the world. 

As we push back the darkness, we must continue in this journey. To be a sending church requires faith and funds and family. This was made clear this week.

Healthy Church Plants are Wins for All

Sometimes I hear people complain about all the emphasis being placed on church planting. They lament that we need to focus more on established church revitalization. 

The problem with an either/or mentality is that . . . well, we stay exactly as we are and nothing changes. 

Yes, revitalization must happen and we saw some incredible stories of churches in our state working through that. However, the clear reality for churches who are crying "Revitalize! Revitalize!" is that it will not happen if the church is unwilling to change.

Churches stuck in the "this is how we always done it" mentality are perfectly positioned and organized to do exactly what they're doing now. It's going to take more than a new coat of paint and a better website.

So, for the church ready to change. . .let's revitalize. We need you alive and healthy where God planted you.

If you won't change, hurry up and shut down or hand over the facilities to another work so an engaged church may have a chance to be birthed where you are currently located but doing nothing.

As for church planting. The key is "healthy" church planting. New works reach more people quickly. There are caveats to that statement, I understand, but the results we are seeing in Jacksonville and throughout the state are clear. When a planter is assessed and partnered with a strong, established church, Kingdom growth happens.

More Diversity Is Needed

The racial makeup of our state is continually in flux. While I cannot change the color of my skin or the heart language I speak, I know that we must seek to grow churches and partner better with those who are not lily-white and English speaking. While some may joke that Miami and south Florida is more like Latin America than the rest of America, the word I hear from pastors in those regions is that more churches are needed, more pastors are needed, more workers are needed. The fields may be "white" unto harvest elsewhere, but in south Florida and in many of our urban areas and other pockets of subcultures throughout our state, those fields are "brown" and "black" and every other shade of skin. 

It's Time to Have a Spanish Sermon

I shared with one friend that perhaps it's time that one of the key messages brought at the annual meeting is done by a Spanish speaking pastor with a heart for the Kingdom. It does not matter than I do not speak Spanish. There are many churches in our state where English is the primary language and we have guests and members who speak another heart language. Maybe it's time for the subtitles to be put on the screen in English for those of us who are mono-lingual and let the Word be broadcast in the room (and throughout the state and world since it's streamed live on the internet) in the heart language of a growing portion of this wonderful state?

There's Much Work To Do

Overall, it has been a good week, but as I reflect on this state and our Baptist partners, I know, as do others, that there is much to be done. As one pastor mentioned over the weekend "There's no place for lazy pastor in God's Kingdom." Amen to that and I add to it, "There's no place for a lazy Christian in God's Kingdom." There's much to be done and to God be the glory.

Thankfully, We Are Not Alone

I am so thankful for pastor brothers and friends in ministry. It is so encouraging to see that even though the work ahead is daunting, I am not in this battle alone. Not only do I have brothers and sisters in Christ along in this journey, I rest fully on the reality that my God is with me as well. As H.B. Charles stated this evening, "God's personal presence is also His perpetual presence."


God Hates Divorce. . .But Not the Divorcee

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"God hates divorce!" We know this. The Bible is clear. Yet, sometimes, the church and others misinterpret this to be "God hates divorcees." That's unfortunate and a misread of Scripture.

Divorce2_616However, though many have been stung by divorce, the reality and solid truth is that "God hates it." Why? Ultimately, because it pictures the dismembering of the "one-flesh" of the covenant. Marriage is an illustration of God's covenant relationship with us through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the "bridegroom." We, the church are the "bride."

Malachi speaks God's word clearly to His people in Chapter 2 of his book. It's a message that was relevant to a self-serving religious people 450 years before Christ. The timeless principle shows the relevance of God's Living Word is always there.

It is a hard truth, but a needed one. While many live their lives under the banner "God wants me to be happy, right?" the Spirit of the Lord is saying clearly, "God wants you to be holy." 

I pray we take to heart the last portion of Malachi 2:16, regardless of our human relationship status:

So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless. Malachi 2:16b (ESV)