Thursday, February 16, 2017

A tale of two churches

June 28, 1914.  Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary,  was assassinated by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo.  This is almost universally acknowledged to be the day that World War 1 began.  This assassination was the trigger for a series of events that led to war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, a war led to conflict that  spread around the world.  

Sometimes it's easy to look back and see the beginning, how something started,and what events led to the place you're at today. The Great Recession can be traced to Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929.  World War 2 began with September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.  Even in your own life you might note when you first met your spouse, your first date, or your wedding day.  The death of a loved might also mark change in your life, easily traced back to the day of their first signs of illness or diagnosis.  

Other times, it's not so easy to see the beginning.  It's harder to pinpoint when you begin to get old, when a marriage begins to fall apart, or when a church begins to die.  

I recently saw two churches, within one mile of each other. They  actually had the same name, (NW Baptist vs NW Christian) Both had big old buildings and historic ties to the area.  Both were in the same changing neighborhood.  Both faced the white flight and changing demographics.  But only one church had a thriving ministry. It had three ethnic churches that shared it's campus, had a thriving ministry to the surrounding community, and was full of worshippers on Sunday.  The other church was not only struggling, they had to close their doors.  Their big old building was empty, while the church down the street was full.

It's tempting to want to dig through their records, their business meeting and board meetings, to try and pinpoint the date it all went wrong.  I doubt you would find anything very clear though.  It's unlikely that you can go back to one decision, one meeting, or even one pastor when it all started to go wrong.  There's not an event outside of the church in the community either, that led to the closing.  Because the church down the road faced all the same changes over the last 50 years.

It's usually not one big decision that leads to the death of a church.  It's a thousand small decisions.  The weekly, even daily decisions that are made to focus on member's comforts over the community's lostness.  Every time the decision is made to reward gossip instead of focus on prayer, or avoid conflict by giving into church bullies, a church dies a little.  The big decision to close the church was precipitated by a thousand small decisions to ask lost people to come to them, instead of imploring saved people to go out and share.  The unwillingness to share a pew with someone who looks different, or sing a new a song, or stand up for truth.  These are the decisions that lead to the death of a church.

Sometimes a church downfall is traced to scandalous affairs, or stealing money, or some other large drama. But even these events are set up by the small decisions of those involved.

It works the other way, too.  We might show up on a Sunday thinking, this is the day that it all changes. Revival will come, God's spirit will fall, the church will turn the corner towards health.  The decisions that lead to a church's death are numerous and small ones.  The decisions that lead to a church's health are numerous and small as well.  The daily decision by members to die to themselves, to focus on others, the willingness to be uncomfortable to reach others for the gospel.  The weekly preaching of sound doctrine, the choosing of gospel over comfort. This is how a church gets healthy.

The true meaning of Revitalization.

Four times a year the Oxford English Dictionary updates its entries, adding hundreds of words each year.  Long the gold standard of the dictionary world, the OED has to update quarterly because of the massive influx of words today.   Words or phrases that 20 years ago would be nonsense are now part of every day language, even used in newspapers and on the nightly news.  This past December 2016, words such as Brexit, fulled, hakbut of crochet, Fulfulde (n. and adj.), glam-ma, YouTuber, and upstander were added to the list.  (No I don’t know what all those mean)

Every so often in the Christian subculture there are new words and phrases that catch on and become buzzwords.  You might remember when words like missional, emergent, emerging, church planting, or more first began to be circulated.  Often due to influential books, authors, or preachers, these words help put a point on something that need to be expressed in the current moment. 

In the last few years the phrase “church revitalization” has been flowing fast and free.  I myself am getting a MA in Church Revitalization from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a degree that didn’t exist a few years ago.  Many state Baptist conventions have departments focused on church revitalization, there are national conferences for it, and more than a few books have been written about it.  All this for a word that wasn’t used hardly at all more than a few  years ago.

“Church Revitalization” is a helpful phrase that illustrates what needs to be done with what many call  “legacy” churches.  A new church plant is not needed, but what is needed to is revitalize, literally to “imbue with new life and vitality,” churches that have long been stagnant or declining.  Much of what this brings to mind is updating church structures, changing harmful or unwieldy polity, and modernizing the worship service.  If you walked into a county seat First Baptist Church in a small town in the south, you might think you need to update the sanctuary, do away with committees that don’t work, and introduce modern music and other elements into the worship service.  You could do all of these things, however, and still have the same people without a revitalized church. 

We often say that the church is the people, not a building. This is backed up by scripture of course. But if the church is the people, then there is only one way to revitalize a church: revitalize the people.  This is much more difficult work of course.  It’s easy to paint walls, to change bylaws, or teach people a new song.  Those things are easy to change in comparison to changing a person's heart.  But heart change is the only true and lasting way to change a church.  

The way a person's heart changes is through the Holy Sprit, of course.  The method that God has ordained for us to do this is through discipleship. My experience is that most churches that are need of revitalization are full of people who need discipled, and have probably never been truly discipled.  They might have been in church for 40, 50, or 60 years, they might be deacons or committee chairs or Sunday School teachers.  Please hear me.  This is not an indictment of these people as much as it is an indictment of the system that let this happen. These people are often the pillars of the church, who have upheld it for generations.  They might be good people, who sincerely love God, but they have never been shown what it means to follow Christ for a lifetime.  A flurry of activity at conversion is not a substitute for a lifetime of discipleship.  You can change the building or the service all you want, but if you don’t begin to change the people that make up the core of the church, then what you have done will not last.

Of course, it’s a lot harder to change people than to change the curtains in the sanctuary.  (and you know how hard it is to do that)  The primary goal of revitalization then must be to disciple people.  Discipleship is a long slow process, one that we cannot work ourselves. We plant and we water, but God gives the increase. (I Cor 3:6)  I don’t mean to say that we should ignore the buildings, or the committees, or the way we worship.  Those are important changes that often must be made to bring a church into the 21st century. But the most important changes you will be a part of are the changes that occur in a person’s heart.  

Aim for people's hearts, pray for their hearts, pray for new awareness of the majesty of the glory of God.  Ask God for a change that only He can bring. When it comes to revitalization, don’t settle for only the easy and temporary over the difficult and lasting.  Ask God to revitalize his church, his people, the bride of Christ.  Start with the hearts, and move out from there. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What's left when a church closes

Some skills are God-given. Some are acquired through hard work.  Through years of practice and hard work, I have learned to spot a garage sale sign at great distances.  Driving through the city recently my eye caught a big one.   Not only was it a going out of business sign, it was at a church.

I drove to a big old church building that backed up to a high school in one of the older parts of the city.  It was a mainline protestant church, and as I entered the old gym, the sights and smells were familiar.  It looked and felt like almost every older church I have been in.  Like my church, even.  I wandered around the building some, and it had all the problems older buildings have. Dated decor, lots of stairs, and it was probably difficult to direct people in the maze of hallways.  One table in the back had a picture of the congregation taken a few years back. The church shared little demographically with the high school you could see out the window.  I talked to a few of the ladies working the sale. The church was closing down because they didn't have the money to pay the bills, the building was too much to take care of, and the just couldn't keep membership up. Tears filled their eyes as they spoke of closing down the church, and how hard it had been.  I wished I had more time to hear their stories.

It was a sobering thing to walk this church as it was closing.  The stuff, junk some would say, that filled the tables represented hundreds of  thousands of dollars worth of items. The chairs and tables that were for sale once sat in classrooms that were filled with children hearing the Gospel, with adults studying the bible, and with youth learning about Jesus.  But now?  The hallways were dead, the classrooms were silent, and the nursery was stripped of anything that could be sold.

The tables were piled high with many of the same things that probably fill many older churches, tucked away in closets and classrooms.  Punch bowls, board games, fake flowers and foliage. There were lots of decorations for all the holidays, telephones, and file cabinets.  There were piles and piles of tables and chairs, bookshelves and books, curriculum and more. A table full of office supplies, kids toys, and craft supplies.  There was a corner in the back with filmstrips and projectors and turntables. The record player, with stereo and turntable, had a label on it that said it belonged to the "Youth Department."

This is what is left over a church closes. Stuff. Stuff that once was used for ministry, for the glory of God, was being picked over and sold for pennies on the dollar.  At one point all of these things were seen as helpful, necessary even, for the ministry that church did. People sacrificed to buy these things, to provide the church with what it needed to survive and do ministry.

But what the church needs most is people, not things. The people who populated the halls were long gone, but the stuff remained.  You can often tell what a person values by what they own. At an estate sale, a person's life is on display, what they spent their money on, where they went, what they took pictures of to preserve the memory of.  This church sale felt the same way.  You could see the nursery items and kids' tables and communion sets.  They had everything that a person might say you need to have church.  There are church plants that would love to have their space, their kids supplies, their instruments.  I bet some people even think if they just had those things, they would have succeeded.

They had all the stuff.  But they had no people.  We know a church isn't a building, it's people.  Sometimes a church loses their building due to fire or storms and we are reminded of the truthfulness of that phrase.  But everyday, silently around us the opposite plays out.   A building, supplies, books, and equipment are left, but no people.  It's the people of a church that bring God glory, it's the people of a church that is the "wisdom of God made manifest in the world."  There's nothing wrong with buildings or chairs or stuff.  Those are only tools to bring glory to God through the fulfillment of the Great Commission.  But the danger of focusing on things over people is that we might actually get what we want.  Enough stuff to fill a gym even.

But nothing about that glorifies God.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

He Passed me the plate

It was something that had happened to me hundreds of times before.  I stood in front of the church leading in the Lord's Supper.  Taking the plates, leading in prayer, and doing it all in remembrance of the work and sacrifice of Jesus.

I had prepared and prayed and was ready to lead.  As the music started and I walked out I was reminded again of how grateful I was to be able to lead the church in this remembrance.  I think this is one the great privileiges I have as a pastor, and I have tried to never take it for granted.

Our human mind though, often forgets, even when it needs to remember.  My desk that is littered with post-it notes is a testament to that.  It is because God knows that we are prone to forget that we are told to "do this in remembrance of me."  Every time  your church partakes in this remembrance, it helps to remind us, so that we don't forget the sacrifice of Christ for us, His body broken and his blood shed.

The deacons who had served the bread to the church returned with the plates.  I took one and offered him the bread, and turned to the other side.  He also took a piece as I held it, but then he passed me the plate.

He passed me the plate.

In that moment I was overwhelmed by the sacrifice of Christ as I was reminded I'm  a participant in the Lord's Supper, not a leader.  Though it might be privilege to stand at the front of the church as we remember the body and the blood of Christ, I am just in much of that grace that was given at the cross as anyone else.

I hope you get that same kind of reminder today.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2 gods or One God

We all have a choice.

At the end of his life Joshua stood before the people he had led into the Promised Land.  He reminds of all that God has done for them.  After coming from Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb had the faith that God would deliver the nations of Canaan into their hands. Their faith was rewarded, and after wandering through the desert Joshua was picked by God as the successor to Moses.  Joshua led them against Jericho, and then in a systematic march through the land.  God delivered Israel, just as Joshua said he would.  Now at the end of his life, Joshua reminds the nation of all that God has done.  He doesn't leave it there, though, and in Joshua 24 he recounts the whole history of Israel, starting with Abraham.  God's faithfulness is show through Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers.

The list of nations was impressive.  Pharoah and Egypt, Balak and Moab, Jericho, the Amorites, the Preizzites, the Canaanite's and the Hittite's, the Girgashite's, the Hivite's, the Jebusites.  All of these nations God had defeated before Israel.  In a beautiful picture of the gospel, God tells them that

"gave you a land on which you had not labored, and cities which you had not built, and you have lived in them; you are eating of vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant."  Joshua 24:13

Who could forget God and all his deeds?  How could they choose someone else after all that God has done for them?

But Joshua knew the truth:  We all have a choice about what God we will worship.  God created us with free choice to reject God. The question for every human being is not "Will I worship?" but "What will I worship?"

Joshua offers three options.

"If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." Joshua 24:15

You've heard part of that verse no doubt.  Go to your local Christian bookstore and you can find it in every kind of wall art you imagine.  It's good to choose to serve the Lord, but it's not your only option.  Joshua lists three choices that the nation of Israel has: the god's of your fathers, the god's of the Amorite's, or the God of Israel.  We are all faced with these options.

We often makes idols out of the past.  Joshua has just spent many verses reminding Israel of it's past.  It's good and wise to celebrate what God has done in the past, but it's easy to make an idol out of it.  It's not a sin to remember the past. But it is a sin to focus on the past at the expense of the present.  There are multitudes of books and articles making this point about the modern church.  Nevertheless, it is a god that is chosen far too often by churches and individuals.  The churches that make this choice often find they have no choice but to close their doors, as their past is no longer wanted by today's world.

Joshua also tells them they can worship the gods of the land, of the Amorites.  The god's of the present are a powerful pull on the church today.  We might easily see the folly of worshiping the gods of the past, but it's no use if we only exchange the past for the present. The gods of our age are not the gods of the Amorites, but the gods of pleasure, success, power, money, and crowds.  Each of them tells us that if we give in to the current culture, and worship along with them, that things will be easier, that we will be accepted, that we will find our place of prestige is upheld.  It's easy to see the churches that fall in line with the gods of the sexual revolution, of individual freedom at all costs, or of the triumph of science over all else.  The churches that worship the gods of the present close as frequently as the churches that choose the gods of the past.  Different gods, same outcome.  Choosing your pleasure over God's presence always leads to death.

The last choice that Joshua gives is the one that we are familiar with.  "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."  Literally, Joshua says that they will choose to follow Yahweh, the eternal one.  The one who was, and is, and is to come is the one that Joshua chooses to worship, the one who will outlast the others.   By choosing to focus on the eternal one, Joshua chooses the presence of God over the comfort of the the past or the pleasures of the present.  The churches that choose to do this today might face backlash when the eternal God clashes with the gods of the present.  But in the end this church and this church only prevail, strengthened up and built by God himself.

This is the choice that all of face, that every church faces.  Who will we worship? The gods of the past, the gods of the present, or Yahweh, the eternal one?  Only one choice leads to life.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

To My 3 Daughters

When your mother and I got married, we dreamed of having children someday.  I can honestly admit for myself that none of those dreams involved having three daughters!   I'm definitely in over my head with bows, princesses, excessive amounts of pink, and SOOO much talking.  But God has blessed me with you, and I wouldn't change it for all the boys in the world.

I'm concerned though, for your hearts as your grow up in an increasingly difficult world.  I'm not an old man, though you make me feel it sometimes. But the world I grew up in is not the world we live in now.  And I can't even imagine what the world will be like as you continue to grow and mature into womanhood.  Who knows what the results of the 2016 election will bring, or what the world of even our own state will look like in a few years.  It's hard to prepare you for a world that seems so uncertain. Should I be teaching your survival skills?  Or another language?  Should I be learning these things?  I can't foresee the all the future holds, but I know that your opinion of yourself will guide and shape your decisions.  I'm more convinced than ever that it's my duty as your father to make sure that your understanding of who you are doesn't just come from who the world says you are, but who God says you are.

You are young enough now that you still have some innocence about you, and I want to protect that as long as I can. But no one can stay innocent in a fallen world forever, and so I want you to have a solid foundation as to who you are.

1.  You are God's creation, made in His image.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  I don't have all the answers about just exactly how God created the world, or when it happened, but I believe that He did.  And I know that you are His special creation, that there is not another one of you in the whole world.  You have great value as the created child of God Almighty.  God chose to give you brown eyes or blue eyes, to make you tall or short, even to make contemplative or energetic.  You are God's creation, and for that reason you are valuable!  Others in this world will try to tell you that your value is based only on how you look, or what kind of clothes you wear, or who you date. But you, by yourself, as God made you, are of infinite worth.  Not only to me and your mother, but to God of all creation. Never take lightly the fact that God has made you just as you are for a purpose.  Your worth does not rise and fall with what people think of you. Rather, your worth is the same on the day you were born as it will be on the day you die: a beloved daughter of the King of Kings.

2.  The world does not define what a woman is.  People are quick to say that a woman must act a certain way, or dress a certain way, or look a certain way.  Those values have changed over time and cultures. Different world cultures see beauty in different things. But God is the one who created you, as a woman, and God is the one who defines what that means.  And it's not about looks or abilities or what you want to wear. Who you are as a woman is something that has been built into you by God.  If try to hit the target of the world's definition of what a woman is, you will be aiming for a moving target your whole life.  Or you will be tempted to feel that you were somehow made wrong, as you don't match the world's definition.  In Christ we are given the fullest expression of our humanity, man or woman.  Learn to tune out the world and listen to who God says you are, and nothing else.

3.  You are more than your feelings.  I'm struck that I carry much of the same feelings with me now as a 36 year old dad that I carried with me as an eight year old boy on the playground.  We carry much of the same baggage through our life, though we find different ways to express it.  But you are more than your feelings. Your feelings can betray you, make you believe something that isn't the whole truth, or something that isn't the truth at all.  It seems crazy to doubt some of the intense emotions that you might have, but you are more than what you feel.  You are beautiful even if you feel ugly, you are valuable even if you feel worthless.  You are wanted even if you feel unwanted.  You are what God has made you, nothing more and nothing less. This is not to say you should ignore your feelings. But know that because of our sinful natures, our own minds sometimes fight against us.

Someone might point out that this is the same point, just put three different ways. They are probably right. But here is what it all boils down to.

Find your identity in Christ.  He made you, He values you, He died for you.  This means you are of great worth, no matter what someone else thinks.  You are young enough now that you still think I'm superman, that I can do no wrong.  I assure that is not the case.  I know that I will hurt you in this life, that I will let you down, that I will say things that I will regret.  I know that boys and clothes and other girls and the world and everything else will all come with so many opinions and ideas about who you need to be and how you need to dress and look and act and talk.  People you love and care for will have opinions, as well as people you have never met and even the culture at large.  But they don't define you.  Learn to filter the good from the bad, to focus on those who love you and want your good.

The prayer I pray for you above all else is from Psalm Psalm 73:28 "But as for me, the nearness of God is my good."  I pray that just to be near to God will the best thing in the world for you, that to stay in relationship with God will be the thing that drives above all else.

I will never forget holding each of you in my arms after you were born.  I love you more than my words can ever express.  I will always love you, no matter what choices you make in life. Even if you ignore all I have said here and find your value in the ways of the world, know that they will never love you the way I do.  No matter what happens in your life, you have two people, your mother and I, who will always love you.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Living Church, by John Stott

John Stott was the longtime Rector of All Souls in England.  He was a celebrated author, theologian, and leader among evangelicals until his death in 2011.  Towards the end of his life he put out this book, The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor.  Stott shares some of his convictions about the necessity of the church, and the future of the church in an uncertain world.  Stott had a great love for the church, and that comes through in his writings.  He had the privilege to serve at the same church for practically his whole life, the same one he grew up at as a child. His love for the church was not limited to All Souls, though, and God used him mightily through his pen and pulpit to guide others towards Him.

Below are a few quotes

All authentic mission is incarnational mission. 

The church is not "over" the Holy Scriptures, but under them.  

The Holy Spirit's presence is not measured by decibels.  

No book is more scathing of empty religion than the Bible.  

The church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God.

This book by Stott was a short read, but a great reminder of God's heart for the church.  I encourage you to pick up and learn from it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

God's Operating Table

My wife had been in labor for hours, and they finally decided they had to do a c-section.  Just before they whisked her back to prep for the surgery, some one had a favor to ask. "I'm a student doctor," they said, "Do you care if I stand in and watch your wife's surgery?"  Everybody has to learn somewhere I figured, so I gave my permission.

It's a fairly common practice to have students watch experienced surgeons work.   They build whole theaters for that type of thing, with theatre seating, bright lights, and more, all designed to help people see just where the surgeon makes his incisions.  Just don't bring in Junior Mints to watch.

As a pastor, I feel like I have a closeup view of the operating room too. But the surgery we see performed is even more important than heart surgery or a c-section. We get to watch God, through the scalpel of His word, operate on the lives of people to make them more spiritually healthy.  The word cuts and exposes the diseased parts of our hearts, allowing them to be removed.  The Great Physician deftly works to bring us to health, to remove unhealthy parts, and to make us into who he wants us to be.

As we preach the word every week, work in counseling, and labor in discipleship, we often have a first hand view of God's working in a person's life.  It's a joy and a privilege to watch God work on a person's life.  It's through this work that God brings a person into maturity, and begins to make us more like Him.  Three things come to mind as we watch God operate.

1.  Pastors, you are not the surgeon.  It's not your job to save people, Christ has already done all the work needed.  It's easy to get a complex when someone says our sermon spoke to their heart, but their is no power in our words. We don't have some sort of special knowledge that we can impart to others. God is the one who works in people's lives, and it's him we should point them to.  A student watching a surgery would never interrupt to tell the surgeon what he is doing wrong, or the way he would have done it.  Even as a surgeon does something that looks painful to us, we can trust the surgeon to work in people to bring them to health and life.

2.  We preach, we teach, we disciple, but the Word is doing the work in people's lives. When someone tells you they are thankful for you sermon, what they really are thankful for is God's word through you.  God's word is living and active, after all, sharper than a two edged sword.  The word can even judge between the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  Our most cleverly turned phrases and alliterations can never do that. Labor over your sermon, work hard at the craft. But trust the scalpel of the Word.   The most important thing a church does is get the Word into people's lives, what ever that looks like. From the pulpit, small groups, bible reading plans, and more, a pastor, and a church, must give room to the Word of God for it to work.

3.  Sometimes people get up off the table. In the middle of my wife's c-section, she never got up or moved. But some people don't like the painfulness of the word exposing the diseased places in our hearts, so they get up and walk away.  It's a hard thing to watch as pastor, seeing someone that you care about get up and walk away from the work of God in their heart.  This is one of the hardest things to face as a pastor. It's worse than being marginalized by the world, or bitten by stray sheep.  It' s hard to see someone who is drawing close to God decide they don't want that after all.  But it's not uncommon.  Falling out of regular church attendance, neglecting God's word, and not setting our minds on things above are just a few of the ways that people get up off God's operating table.

The good news, of course, is that no matter how many times we get up off the table, God welcomes us back.  There's no one that you see who is beyond the reach of God's Word. So preach it with boldness, and enjoy your first row seat to see God work in the life of His people.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Biblical Church Revitalization, by Brian Croft

There is an urgent need for good materials on church revitalization. There have been a few people who attempted to put something together, or become the leading voice in the area. Church revitalization is an area that is growing rapidly.

Brian Croft's book "Biblical Church Revitalization" is the new bar that every book that follows will have to meet. Croft pastors Auburndale Baptist Church in Kentucky, and runs the ministry Practical Shepherding.  He has been a great voice over the past few years in the area of pastoring.  He writes about revitalization not from an academic aspect, but with the heart of pastor for a local church.  His own church had been through some painful experiences, and he shares those with you as he writes.  More than anything, Croft gives us just what he said he would in the title. A solid basis for "biblical church revitalization."  This is not just a how to book, although it is full of practical advice.  Croft writes to pastors and church leaders with honesty about the difficulties in revitalization, and the reason why we should risk it anyways:  for the glory of God.

He strikes a good balance between what he calls the "two extremes of church revitalization, the Pragmatist and the Purist."  Croft, as you might expect, puts a large emphasis on the role of pastoring and shepherding in revitalization.  Not just preaching, but in the trench pastoring as well.  Any church leader would benefit from reading this book.  Below are a few quotes I pulled out.

A church is revitalized by the power of God, through the spirit of God, at work through the word of God, by means of a faithful shepherd of God. 

A pastor must trust the power of the Word in preaching the Gospel to breathe life into a church. 

Be careful about quickly dismissing opposition as unbelief.  

The hurt and pain a previous pastor caused a congregation does not vanish when the new pastor arrives.  

Churches that need revitalization need courageous pastors.  

The key to survival in pastoral ministry is a pastor's diligent care for his own soul.  

Statistical growth is not the objective of church revitalization, but it is an expected outcome.  

Flickering Lamps, by Richard Blackaby

When I was at the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis I had the opportunity to attend the North American Mission Board's Replanting Conference.  Richard Blackaby was the guest speaker on Saturday Night, and they gave out copies of his book "Flickering Lamps." As I understand it this was written to encourage those in church revitalization and replanting.  As the majority of churches in North America are plateaued or declining, Blackaby tells some of the story of his dad, author Henry Blackaby, and the challenges they faced as Henry moved the family to Canada to pastor a small run down church.  They moved to Faith Baptist Church, that had a for sale sign out front!  Some faith!  It's a hopeful and encouraging story that is short on how-to's and long on Jesus and the Spirit.  I think every church lead would be encouraged by this book, and will be drawn close to Christ because of it.  Below are a few quotes that I pulled out.

Jesus is the one who closes churches, not the world.

The key's to glorifying God are first to love God, and second, to love God in God's way.

Any church that is not exalting Christ by it behavior has lost it's reason to exist.  

It's arrogant to assume that God seeks to be glorified, to make disciples of all nations, yet he left the local church to figure out the details.  

When you are suffering decline, you can't afford the consequences of enlisting ineffective leaders.  

A church is in a precarious position when the phrase "we can't afford to" is spoken more than "God is leading us to."

A church's measure of success is the glory it brings to God.  

The land is littered with churches that have been torn apart because people treated the church as if it belonged to them rather than to God.  

The church is not called to do good things, but God things.  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Why the Pastor Needs a Council of Historians

All churches have a history, but mine has a peculiar one.  In July 1993, a team from our church went to serve in Florida to help rebuild houses after Hurricane Andrew. North of Tampa, there was rain and one of the vans flipped over.  Seven people were on the van, and two were thrown from the van. David Craig, 40, and Jane Neese, 80, were thrown from the van and killed at the scene. A third woman became paralyzed from the wreck, and the others faced severe injuries.  

It was a terrible time in the life of the church, one that I learned about after I came to pastor.  It was a difficult time to lose two church members, one 80 years old!  The incident stayed with the church for a long time, and was followed by lawsuits and grieving and other things that come with that.  It cast a shadow over future mission trips by the church, and even still does to this day, 23 years later.  

I thought of this event when i read the recent article Why The President Needs a Council of Historians.  The authors, both professors at Harvard, put forward several ideas of why the US President needs a council of historical advisers. Turns out that most politicians are ignorant of much of US history, especially at a policy level.  Historians could serve to caution, remind, illustrate the trajectory of a policy, and more.  

In much the same way, I think the pastor needs a council of historians around him.  I do think that all pastors need to study church history, but more to the point, they need to study their church's own history.  You are undoubtedly aware, that your church's history did not begin with you.  Regardless of the health of your church when you arrive, you have a lot to gain by studying and understanding it’s history.

  1. You can learn from the tragedies.  
This episode in my church's history affected everyone involved in it.  It was a tragedy, and affected the decisions that were made, the policy put forward, and the mission trips they went on. Even still, as we discussed a recent trip to Colorado, I have to keep this episode in mind, though it happened long before me.  For those in the church then, that is what comes to mind when mission trips come up.  They want to make sure every precaution is taken, that all policy is followed, and that things are correct.  I can’t just assume that nothing bad will happen, because for them, the worst already happened.  Policy, procedures, people, are all still affected by that.  Learning about what has shaped this congregation over the past 20, 50, or even 100 years will give you insight into why they respond the way do, or protect the things they protect.  From this you can know when to step lightly, when to grieve, or when to step boldly.  

2.  You can learn from the triumphs.

Although we have difficulties in our past, we have our fair share of triumphs, too. The churches that were started to reach out to neighboring communities, the outreach to the local junior college, when they took in refugees in the 70's,  even just the fact of 118 years of faithfulness and counting. All these things are worth celebrating, and can be used to remind a church of they good have done, and the good that your church still can do.  Celebrating past successes is a great way to honor the faithful saints in the church, and you might even find a success that can be revived again.  

3. You can learn from the mundane.

In between the tragedies and the triumphs in your church are a lot of average ordinary days.  There are many Sundays, where songs were sang, prayers were led, the gospel was preached.  There is much to learn, even from these "ordinary" days. A church that has faithfully made disciples, supported missions, and worshiped together over the years is a testament to the faithfulness of God.   No place is perfect, but they have faithfully proclaimed God's word and celebrated the Lords Supper probably longer than you have been a Christian . There are people who served as deacons longer than I have been alive. Learn from their faithfulness.

Where can a pastor find this council of church historians?  Don't neglect digging in the church records or racing the church history. Maybe contact the historical commission for your denomination.  You can look in old newspapers, or with your state historical society.  There is probably more out there than you think, if you look in the right places.

 But above all, listen.  Listen to those who have been there, to those who have been faithful. Don't ignore those who have served faithfully in the church for 40 or 50 years. They have seen it all come down the pike, and can probably teach you a thing or two.

 But you have to listen. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

An Update to Pilgrims Progress

*Editors Note:  I would never change Pilgrim's Progess.  One of my favorite books I read every year.  I would not really change Bunyan's work.  

Proposal:  A modern character update to John Bunyan's classic Pilgrim's Progress

Character Name: Distraction

Character Summary:  Distraction is always, well distracted.  He speaks boldly about following the path to the Heavenly City, but never makes it very far on the road. He is definitely on the right path, but only travels in burst, and has long periods of inactivity.  Christian finds him just beyond the cross after he loses his burden, and they have the following conversation.

Chrstian:  Are you traveling on this path, friend?  Might you be able to point me in the way to go?

Distraction:  I am definitely all about this path, and I'm so excited I lost by my burden.  I can point you in the right way for sure.  

C:  Have you been here in this spot long?

D: Not really, no.  I entered through the gate maybe four or five years ago.  I was really intent on getting to the heavenly city, but you know, some stuff came up. So I parked here for a while. 

C: Four or five years?

D: Yeah maybe longer.  I kinda lost track after the second conference on "How to Go Farther" on the path.

C: Don't you want to get to see the King?  He has already done so much for me in removing my burden.  I can't imagine knowing the King is waiting for me to arrive, and staying here in the same spot for years.

D:  Yeah, well, I know already made it farther than a lot of people.  I'm just thankful, ya know? I really intend to get around to reading that letter from the King someday.  

C: You have a letter from the King and haven't read it? What have you been doing?

D: Well, first I started on the letter, but I noticed the grass on this side of the path wasn't as lush as the other side. So I spent some time researching how to make grass grow in the shade.

C: Grass

D:  Yeah. Then I remembered the letter and picked it up again. Then I decided before I went on more I should share some with some people about how great the the letter from the King is.  

C:  Oh, well, that sounds good.  It's good to share with others.  But how can you share about something you haven't read?  

D:  Well, I did read part of it, before I got distracted.   I even shared part of the letter I read with some people, but then I started reading about people who don't even have a letter from the King, they haven't even heard.

C: But you do have a letter and haven't read it.  And you're still in the same spot on the path you've been for years.

D: Well, then I met my new friend, Entertainment.  Have you met him?  No matter where you are or what's going on, he takes your mind off things.  He's not really a bad guy.  And he is loads of fun at parties.  

C: Parties.  On the path to the heavenly kingdom?

D: Well, it gets pretty boring here, ya know?  So Entertainment and I grab people on the path and get them to stay with us.  

C: Do many stay?  

D: Lots.  You might be surprised.  This spot is just really comfortable, ya know?  I want everybody to feel good and enjoy their time here.  I'm afraid if I go farther down the path, the next spot won't be as comfortable. It won't have the things I'm used to here.   I'd just like to have this comfortable spot, a little further down the path.  

Christian begins to look around, seeing how comfortable he has made that spot on the path. Christian begins to sit down and talk to Distraction more, before Evangelist grabs him by the arm and kicks him down the path.  

Thursday, June 02, 2016

When Your Office Burns

About two weeks ago, I was awakened by a call from a church member, about 5 AM.  I didn't think it was a social call at that hour, and sure enough he had called to tell me the church was on fire.
 I threw clothes on and ran down there, watching as firefighters worked hard to put out the fire in our Nursery, Children, and office building.  The fire was set intentionally by two young men, who said they were "bored," and had already set the middle school music room on fire earlier. All our first responders did a great job, with about 7 units coming out from surrounding areas.  

I had a little experience with this through dealing with it through church members and friends, but never had it been my own stuff.  My office got hit pretty hard, as you can see.
  I didn't have much of value besides my computer and my books,  and we were able to get most of those out. All day Friday and Saturday was spent running, running, running, getting things out, calling insurance, fielding phone calls from friends and others, and talking to reporters. Being arson they were all over it, and I was glad for the opportunity to share the news that the church is not a building, but people.  Church members came together to help, work, process, and more.  We are getting through this together.  It was beautiful to see the body of Christ working together to meet needs and show the world the "wisdom of God made manifest in the world." We carried all the items out we wanted to salvage, from my office and the financial office into the Family Life Center and laid them out on tarps to dry.  (That is nowhere near all of them)

My office is my life.  It's my second home, and some weeks it's my first home.  If you don't count sleep, I spend more time there than at home some weeks.  It contained all I had ever done in ministry.  Diplomas, ordination papers, notes from friends and colleagues.  All the books I had collected, mostly from garage sales and book sales and more.  I can't stand to pay full price for a book.  A shelf contained all my notebooks of sermons, as I write them all out longform.  The top of my desk contained my notes for the coming Sunday, my prayer journal, my preaching bible, and more books.  My computer holds notes and files and documents for the church.  Another shelf held study notes I made in prep, and the church directory I used to pray through for church members.  The shelves around held pictures of my three girls, my wife and I when were young and in love, and pictures of us now older and in love.  Countless drawings made for Father's Day, Christmas, or just because.  Gifts from from former church members and family members, items from India, Kenya, both my grandmothers Bibles, and even items from as far away as my childhood.  

Some of that will be salvaged; books will be cleaned of soot and smoke and smell, most of them.  Knick-nacks are cleaned off, some are tossed. (like all my Keith Green LP's)  I was able to get the documents from my computer.  Other items will just never be the same.  

So I started over in a new office.  I borrowed a desk from a local business, a church member brought a chair.  I got an old filing cabinet and bookshelf, and set out to study, because Sunday is coming.
 I just couldn't bring myself to focus though. So much to do, so much to think about, so much to remember to do.  My beautiful amazing wife set out putting my office in order, to make it feel like an office.  Even with a new computer and printer and notebooks, it's still kind of hard to focus.  

My office was my life.  It was a womb in which sermons were birthed for the congregation God has given me shepherd of, and I spend many hours poring over books and scribbling notes. And lot's of staring at the wall, because that's what sermon prep looks like sometime.  Books I use and read over and over had become old friends I could turn to when I was out of sorts.  Eugene Peterson on Working the Angles, or Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Why Revival Tarries changed my life when I picked it up at a thrift store in college.  Preaching and Preachers taught me the seriousness of the task I have been given.  A Long Obedience in the Same Direction taught me the beautiful nature of the plodding Christian life.  Bibles I had used up and were on the shelf.  Commentaries by Luther, Owens, Mcgee, Barclay, Hodge, Ironsides, Spurgeon, Kidner, Pink, Mcintosh and more lined the shelves.  Bunyan on Suffering, Bounds on Prayer, Lloyd-Jones on the Sermon on the Mount, Dever on the importance of the church.  Biographies of saints gone by taught me the brevity of life.  Brother Andrew, Elisabeth Elliot, Keith Green, Richard Wurmbrand, Calvin, Luther, Bunyan, Crosby, Bartlett, Bonhoeffer, Brainerd, Jim Elliot, David Wilkerson, Corrie Ten Boom.  They were taken away, and now I'm finding a new home to study in, without those friends there.  

Some might say this is a good time to go digital, but there is something about holding a book in my hand that a tablet can't replace.  Buying an old book and reading the inscription in the front to a pastor I'll never know always warms my heart.  Many books might be 50 years old by the time I come across them, and cannot be replaced.  I will get many (most, even?) of my books back, so I don't want to be too melodramatic.  I know too how blessed I am to have all  of these books with me, when Tyndale died for translating the Bible into English, and others have lived without the blessings I have.  Life and death are in the power of the tongue, and the printed word as well.    


Tuesday, October 06, 2015

What kind of problem are you facing?

I left to go to church last Sunday morning, and couldn't find my keys.  I always hang them by the door, and after looking in a couple of other spots they were nowhere to be found.  I had one last spot to look: in the truck.  I had got in the habit of leaving them in there, even in the ignition.  This is only possible because I live in a small town and have a 27 year old truck no one would want to steal. But when I got to the truck, in a hurry now to get to church, I saw that I had locked them inside the cab.  With only one set of keys (because the closest place to get a copy is about 1/8 of mile away), I quickly found a coat hanger and set to work.

I knew what the problem was, and so I set out to fix it, by unlocking the door.  I had to try for about 20 minutes and two coat hangers before finally getting it open.  I had a problem, I found a solution.  But one thing I never did was pray over my locked door.  My problem wasn't spiritual, it was physical, and I could take care of it myself.

We all encounter problems, and we all seek solutions. But often we seek the wrong kind of solution to the problem that we face.  In Acts 12, James the brother of John has been arrested and beheaded by Herod, and after seeing it that it pleases the Jews, he makes plans to do the same to Peter.  Acts 12:5 lays out the problem, and the church's solution.

"So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God." Acts 12:5 NASB

We are not blind to our problems.  It doesn't take a keen eye to see that many churches in America are sick today, and yours might be one of them. But while we see what the problem is, we fail to see what kind of problem it is, and then seek the wrong answer.  Peter being in jail could have been seen as a political problem, so the solution is to call in political favors, to pull some strings, and get him out.  Someone might have seen it as a physical problem, so the physical solution is to bust him out of jail, Ocean's Eleven style with all the apostles.  But the church saw Peter being in jail about to be beheaded as a spiritual problem, and so they sought a spiritual answer through prayer.

If your church is struggling financially, is it a spiritual problem or a physical one?  If your church is comfortable and doesn't want to reach out to it's community, is it a spiritual problem or a physical one?  If a pastor or leader is is struggling because attendance is down, is it a spiritual problem or a physical one.  We often think that we have the answer to all our problems, if people will just listen to us.  If these are physical problems, then there are physical solutions out there to help you.  Ways to raise giving, to boost attendance, ideas to stir a comfortable church can be found by the hundreds.  But if these problems are spiritual ones at their heart, then God alone has the answer, and prayer must be made "fervently by the church to God."  

Use common sense.  If your parking lot has weeds, pull them.  If the sanctuary needs painting, paint it, don't just pray over it.  If the keys are locked inside your truck, go find a coat hanger.  We would never seek spiritual solutions to physical problems.  So why do seek physical answers to spiritual problems?  

Ask yourself what is the root cause of your problems.  Recognize that many (if not most) of the problems that plague churches and families are spiritual problems at their core.  And then seek the one who has all the answers, no matter how big the problem might be.  

Peter ends up out of jail in Acts 12.  Neither he nor the church could seem to believe what God had done.  But when we get the right solution for the right problem, even the jail doors can open.  

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Two Jobs

Like many pre-adolescent boys, my first job was mowing lawns.  I mowed the lawn at home of course, but then got a job mowing at my school in the summer, where my dad was a principal.  Looking back, it was a pretty simple job.  Mow, weedeat.  That's about it.  I don't think I got a job description, but if I had it wouldn't have needed to be more than one or two sentences.

As a pastor, my job description has gotten a little bit more complicated.  I didn't have a description when I came to my current church, so we put one together.  I basically wrote the whole thing, and I'm still overwhelmed by it at times.  A pastor often plays so many roles, from shepherd to teacher to administrator, vision caster, trainer, janitor, secretary, and more.  At the beginning of the week I think I can accomplish all I need to, but as the week goes on, it seems like the to-do list gets bigger, and the done list doesn't have near enough on it.

What often weighs most on pastors though is not the physical things to be done, but the spiritual health and growth of the church.  We are flooded with people telling us we need to have the vision, the plan, the ideas to take our church to the next level.  We have to be that next-level leader in order to be effective pastors, we are so often told.  When problems arise we must strategize how to overcome them and then we need to make sure we can see problems before they arise!

Things are going well for the church in Acts 6.  Salvation, growth, miracles, and more are common for the early church. But then a problem arises, that no one saw coming.  I find comfort in the fact that the disciples apparently hadn't covered all the bases in their long range planning. But when the problem is noticed, it's acknowledged, it's delegated, and the disciples return to their main tasks.  Preaching and prayer.

"But we will devote ourselves to the prayer, and to the ministry of the word."  Acts 6:4

The disciples, as they see it, have only two tasks.  To preach and to pray.  They get other things out of the way so that they can get back to those main tasks.  It would have been poor leadership to let the problem fester, but it would have been just as poor leadership to neglect the Word and prayer to solve that problem.

No job description covers every possibility that can come up, but the disciples had a simple one: Preach and Pray. When something comes up, deal with it so they can get back to preaching and praying.   We are not made told about any of the brainstorming session the disciples had to reach Jerusalem, or to their think tanks on problems they faced. They preached, they prayed. Some problem had easy solutions, like Acts 6.  Some needed more prayer and seeking God, like Acts 15. But the early church did not need them to be superheroes, or to be transcendent leaders.  They needed them to preach and to pray.

Pastor, that's what your church needs from you most.  Most of us will never be the type of transformational leaders that get their own book deal and conference.  But we can preach, and we can pray.  Don't neglect your two most important tasks for something else.

Thursday, September 03, 2015


Helping my wife prepare for a garage sale is one of the things that I despise most in the world.  Not only because I'm a pack rat, but all the work involved.  I was going through a sack of baby clothes, and marveled at how the small the newborn clothes were.  Almost 8 months ago our lives changed dramtically when our third daughter came into this world.  I can hardly remember life without her, though my wife assures me that it happened.  From the moment she came into this world she has been growing, growing, and growing.  She has outgrown clothes, toys, shoes, and more in only 8 months, and I know from experience it's only going to get worse.  The thing about children is that they never stop growing until they are brought to physical maturity.  Barring a physical ailment or disease, God has built it into children to grown until they reach the point of maturity.  I don't have to tell my daughters to grow, I don't have to always remind them.  I don't have a plan for them to physically grow.  It just happens!

Although physical maturity happens without our planning, Paul told the church at Colossae that spiritual maturity does not work that way.  Speaking of his role as a minister of God, he says this:

 We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.  Col 1:28-29

To Paul, his role as a minister could not be more clear.  He works, labors, striving, he says, to bring people to completeness in Christ.  He labors to present them as mature followers of God.  And this, he says, is heavy labor. 

Spiritual maturity, you see, does not just happen.  My children will physically grow whether I tell them to or not.  I don't have to set time aside for their physical growth each day, and it's certainly not a labor for me.  But to grow spiritually takes work, takes labor, takes striving everyday to be closer to God.  Paul said his purpose as a minister is to labor to bring people to maturity.  

Paul's labor is specifically for people.  He does not labor for his plan.  He's not working to bring his ideas of ministry to maturity.  He is not working for a building, for a plan, or for an organization.  He works for people.  He labors, he strives, he agonizes.  He fights daily for people.  Not against them as they stand in the way of his plans, but for them, for their souls,  and for their hearts.  

And it is labor. It's not easy.  Physical maturity, though it happens naturally, is full of aches and pains and growth spurts and baby teething and getting used to your body as it changes and all sorts of things.  Why do we think spiritual maturity is going to be any easier?  The stakes for spiritual maturity are higher, and the opposition is greater!  The devil fights against our growing closer to Christ, trying all the time to get us to be complacent where we are, to be satisfied with our walk with God, even to take a step back.  Nowhere in the Bible do we get the idea that spiritual growth is easy.  It's the opposite.  Paul said it's a fight.  

But although Paul fights, he does not do it in his own strength.  He labors "according to the power , which mightily works within me."  It is incredible gut wrenching, soul breaking work to bring yourself or others to spiritual maturity.  Thankfully it is not done in our own power which would soon run out.  It is done in the power of Christ!  If it is fighting, striving labor to do it in the power of Christ, imagine how hard it is to do it your own power!  It's impossible!  

There's no confusing what Paul sees as his task.  Spiritual maturity won't happen on accident.  It takes concentration on people, not on plans, vision statements, or buildings.  And it can only be done through the power of Christ.   

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The School Year and the Church Year

I dropped off my children for the first day of school today.  This year I have a daughter in 3rd grade, and a daughter in Kindergarten.  But I can't talk about that or I might cry.

The elementary school was electric with energy as I walked my youngest to her class.  Teachers were excited, kids were running around, some people looked lost too!  I could tell the teachers were looking forward to a new year, and the kids were too.  I grew up with a father for a teacher, a principal actually, so I'm familiar with the excitement.  The school year starts off strong and follows a predictable schedule. Fall Break, Thanksgiving, Christmas break, and on into the spring semester.  But more than anything, a school year is pushing towards a goal.  A qualifiable, tangible goal: to teach children and move them on to the next grade.  I know teachers do much more than that, but that simplifies it.  And even beyond the goal, a school year has an end in sight.  There's a beginning of the year, middle, and end.  To break it down even farther, each semester has a beginning and end, down to even every day.

It was great to see how excited the teachers and kids were this morning.  As I got in my car and left for the church, I thought about my work week, work year, and work day.  My clear goal as a pastor is to move people into relationship with Christ, with each other, and to grow deeper in that knowledge of God everyday.  This past Sunday we baptized two elementary students to mark their recent decisions for Christ.  But I cannot rest thinking that know I can check them off a list, as if the work God is doing in them is done.  Or even that my work in proclaiming the gospel to them is done.  A pastor's work schedule often does not have a clear beginning and end.  Growing closer to Christ is something that is carried out over a lifetime.  One of the things I still struggle with as a pastor is this very fact.  I often go home at the end of the day thinking there was someone else I could have called, visited, another commentary to check.  But the work takes a lifetime.  A pastor then, is a plodder.  Going day by day, striving to move closer to Christ everyday.

It feels like there is not much glamor in plodding.  No celebrating the first day, or moving someone on to the next grade.  But this way reminds me that Christ is the one who does the work in peoples hearts, not me.  Plodding helps me find my satisfaction in Christ, and not in what I have done.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Strangers in a Small Church.

"Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and [a]the alien who is in your [b]town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law." Deuteronomy 31:12

 It's been a little over a week since the horrific shootings in Charleston. Dylan Roof opened fire after Bible study, killing 9 people. The shooting was no doubt racially motivated, and much ink has been spilt over diagnosing the causes, cures, and more of racism in our country.

One particular commentator I heard on NPR made sure to mention that as an African-American church, Emmanuel AME was welcoming to all who came through her doors. In fact, the commentator continued, an African American walking into a historically white church would not receive the same open arms that Dylan Roof did at Emmanuel. I was unable to glean the name of commentator, but I do know that I disagree with that statement, at least in part.

I want to approach the shooting from a different perspective, from that of a small church. I don't know the attendance normally at Emmanuel AME, but the small group there on that Wednesday night puts them in the average as far as churches are concerned across the country, no matter the denomination. I myself pastor a small church in rural community, filled with other small churches. At most (all?) of the churches in our community, it's not uncommon to have groups of under twenty in attendance at services not on Sunday morning. I have been a part of services when a stranger walks into the church, and no doubt they attract attention. Not because of race or gender, but because there is someone new there! Anyone who is not a "usual" stands out in small group, no matter if we are meeting in the sanctuary, downstairs in the basement, or somewhere else, you cannot help but notice someone new. Roof has stated that he almost couldn't go through with the shooting because everyone there was so nice to him, and I bet that he would have the same welcome at many small churches throughout the country, regardless of denomination, race, or gender.

In light of the shooting, many have urged churches to re evaluate their security procedures, to train responders, to look out for "suspicious people." But what is a church community to do when a stranger walks into a small group? Pat them down? Install metal detectors? Make Wednesday Bible Study a "members only" event? The very nature and mission of a church is for it to be welcoming and opening to anyone who walks through the door. The very nature of a church is even to put itself at risk in order to accomplish it's mission: loving our neighbor as ourselves.

I freely admit taking note of different people in service, particularly because of such events as the Charleston shooting. But what are we to do, church? Close our doors? If we want to reach the community, we will be at risk every time the doors are open. My church sits right on a major highway, and we always get  people passing through town on way to somewhere else. I remember one particular event, a large (large) cowboy of man walked in to our Wednesday night service after we had already served meal and were about to start Bible study. In a small community we know "of" everyone, it seems at least. But this man was a complete stranger. He stayed for study in our small group of twenty or so. We talked afterwards and I heard his story, of passing through from Alabama to Wisconsin to Texas looking for work. I gave him some meal money, prayed with him, and he moved on. When he walked in our service I had no idea his purpose or mission in coming, but we did what Christ command us to do. Welcome him in the name of the Lord.

By all means use wisdom and take precautions in your church.  But when a stranger comes in your church, we have no other option but to welcome them. It's what God commands of us. We must not stop there though, we must love them as ourselves, and work to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all who will listen.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

On Being Content

I timidly knocked on the door, not really sure what to expect.  I couldn't believe that I had finally made it, that I was finally there.  All those years of longing, all those years of wandering, all those those years of wondering.  All of that came to an end as the door opened up.

I only had to knock once, and the door quickly opened up, and then I saw Him.  I couldn't believe it was Him!  I fell at His feet, speechless, not knowing what to say.  A lifetime of talking about Him, of reading about Him, and I now I fell down as a dead man.  Without words, he picked me up.  I hadn't expected Him to greet me.  I thought a servant would, surely He would be to busy for someone as lowly as me.  But He greeted me warmly, as He picked me up off the floor giving the best embrace I had ever had.  In that embrace, all my fears melted away, all my concern about not belonging, all of them were gone.  For in His face and in His touch I knew and felt His love for me.

We walked into a room where a great meal was taking place.  The place was beautiful, of course. But in this room, the banqueting hall, I felt that love and and passion He had for all who were there.  And there were people as far as the eye could see in every direction.  He knew them all by name, and they knew Him, of course!  The joy in the room was contagious as we found a spot to sit down and eat.

The food came, like nothing you'd ever seen before.  More than anyone could ever eat, but none of it seemed to go to waste.  Always hot, never ending, the feast carried on and on. But the food was not why were there.  It was to be with Him.  To see Him. To give Him the honor that he deserved.  Everyone there was there for the same purpose.  Him.

The guy next to me had only been there a few days, he said.  They guy across from him for years!  Everywhere I turned I saw familiar faces, but then again, everyone looked familiar.  Even though we were all different races and spoke different languages, we all understood each other.  We all got along.  We were family.

He was always there, the head of our family.  He continued to walk amongst us, constantly bringing new people to the table.  And there was always room for one more!

I stopped Him one day.  I was so grateful for the feast, for the family, for the love.  For the table he provided, and for being fed.

"But could you get some more variety?", I asked.  "It's not that I'm ungrateful.  I'm very grateful!  I just want something else. Something more, something different, you know? You see, I saw what the man next to me had, and it looked good.  So I got it, but then I didn't like it.  I just want something different.   Nothing fancy, I'm not asking for much.  Just more.  I just want more.  More. More. More"

"Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." - Phl 4:11-13 

The Lord has been dealing with me about contentment.  I am never satisfied, always asking for more.  To say I'm thankful but then constantly yearn for more is the epitome of selfishness, of turning my eyes on myself.  Christ supplies all my needs, whether I'm in heaven or not, and I must "learn", as Paul did, the secret of being content.  It's a slow process.  

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Jihads and Youth Groups

We hear constantly about how young adults and teenagers are leaving the evangelical church in America and the rise of the nones. The picture that is painted for the future of religion in America is a bleak one, if all one listens to is these reports.

That's why I was fascinated by this recent article from Rolling Stone about the way that the Islamic State is reaching out and attracting young adults and teen agers from around the world.  The article is lengthy, but a great look at how teenagers are flocking to a stronger religious affiliation than their parents.  Far from watering down the Muslim faith to reach out to these young adults and teens, ISIS is calling for them to leave the comforts of home, to leave the ways of the western world, and for them to come and live and support and fight on behalf of Islamic State.

The article starts with the story of the three Muslim youth from Chicago, siblings, who plan to leave their parents and travel and join the Muslim state.  The oldest left a note for his parents:

"An Islamic State has been established, and it is thus obligatory upon every able-bodied male and female to migrate," Hamzah had written in a letter he left for his parents, explaining why he was leaving the comforts of suburbia for the khilafah, or caliphate. "I cannot live under a law in which I am afraid to speak my beliefs."

The other siblings expressed similar opinions,  stating that "this nation is openly against Islam and Muslims" and that "Living in this land is haram [sinful]."  Although it's clear that many young people are leaving the evangelical church, many young Muslims are desiring to leave home and go overseas to serve their god.  The story of these teens is only one among many that have left home, from America, Scotland, UK, and elsewhere to travel to become part of the Islamic State.  According to one report, 33 people in the US have been detained or questioned for attempting to aid or join ISIS.  ISIS is actively recruiting on social media, and some report the DOJ is looking to prosecute those who voice support for ISIS on twitter.  This picture is but one way they are glorifying the fight against the western world.  

I encourage you to read the whole article.  As I read it I kept wondering why we have such a difficult time getting people to come to church on Sunday morning, yet these groups are able to get teens to leave their home, their parents, and the comforts of home to come and join the fight.  A couple of observations came to mind as I read the article as to why Muslims teens are drawn to this fight.

1.  They expect much of them.  Most church youth groups are known for their fun and games and trips they go on.  I have nothing against those things per se, but what came up time and time again in the article is that ISIS believes that everyone is able to contribute to the fight they see themselves in.  They don't see teenagers as people to entertained until they can grow up and be a part, rather they are soldiers that can fight alongside of them in the war against the western world. 
 In his first video appearance as self-annointed caliph, Baghdadi issued a direct call to not just fighters, but also doctors, judges, engineers and experts in Islamic law to help build the new "Islamic State," where all Muslims were now obligated to go.

This call is for all people, regardless of age or skill level.  By contrast, I often hear well meaning church members say something to effect of "The youth are the church of tomorrow!"  While well meaning, this can lead youth and even young adults to think the church has no place for them to serve.  We often put too low of expectations on youth as being just "kids" who need to "grow up" before God uses them.  But scripture is full of people that were used by God, of all ages, and we would do well to raise the expectations we have of our youth groups.  They can serve and promote and advance the kingdom of God now in innumerable ways.  

2.  They give them somewhere to belong to  Most teenagers feel like they don't belong, whether at school, church, or even their own family.  I understand that the message that comes from ISIS is mostly propaganda, but they still provide a place for these youth and young adults to belong to.  So much so that they are willing to leave home, country, and friends in order to travel half way across the world to join them.  Most people are desperately looking for a place to belong to, none perhaps more so than teenagers.  ISIS appears to be a place where all are welcomed, as long as they swear allegiance to Allah, and provide that place that can be called home. One of the main focuses in the story is on a young teenage muslim girl in Chicago, who struggled to fit in.  She thought leaving would make more sense than staying.  

In fact, in some ways, life in a city like Raqqa might be better. She'd have a whole community of sisters, a group of ready-made friends, just waiting. And everyone, it seemed — at least everyone she talked to — was under 25.

Everyone, but perhaps especially students, are looking for somewhere to belong to.  They provided a place for them to be a part of.

3.  They expect them to give something up to follow the call.  In most of our churches, people want to be able to have all the good things of life, and be a follower of God as well. We tell them they can be cool, well liked, a nice house, nice car, travel , and be a all that God asks them to be.   ISIS expects people to give up things, even family, to follow the call to come and join the Islamic State.  The higher the price for something, the more valuable it seems.  If all we ask people to give up is a few hours on Sunday to follow God,  we devalue the cross.  ISIS asks people to give everything, up to and including their life, and people flock to it in droves.  We need to send the message to the world and young people that the Cross of Christ is worth giving up everything for.  

Again, I know that the message that ISIS promotes is not reality. Much of this is propaganda at it's finest.  That's part of the article, also. But they seem to have no problem engaging young people to follow a religion, to give up something to be a part of it, and to provide somewhere to belong to.  

If this much can be done with lies, imagine what the Church of God, the body of Christ, can do with the Truth.  

Monday, March 02, 2015

Overlooking the Cooperative Program

“Mr. President, Mr. President!” Three voices spoke almost as one. “Mr. President, do I have the floor?”

The president’s gavel hammered vigorously. “The Chair recognizes Brother Stealey.”

“Mr. President, we must settle this evolution issue at once,” Clarence Stealey said. “Let the messengers to this annual session of the Southern Baptist Convention vote now. It’s the most pressing matter before us in 1925. Brother Burts’s money report can come later.”

“Mr. President!” shouted Bronson Ray taking advantage of Stealey’s pause, “the editor from Oklahoma may think other matters are more important than money. But that’s because he doesn’t have the foreign missionaries looking to him for their salaries. He doesn’t have debts piling higher every month and precious little money coming in to pay them. I tell you we are in a bad way. This Convention must do something before it leaves Memphis...”

The gavel beat out an insistent interruption.
“Gentleman, Gentleman!” said President McDaniel. “Let’s get on with the order of business. Brother Charles Burts has been standing here for ten minutes now to give his report. We shall hear him now.”

Burts eyes moved over the big room, and then back to the paper in his hand. He read slowly, his voice lifting slightly as he accented certain words and phrases. His was the first annual report of the Future Program Commission, of which he was general director. The report set forth and named the new unified budget of the denomination.

“From the adoption of this report it shall be known as the Cooperative Program,” read Burts.
The report was adopted in routine fashion by messengers anxious to get on with debate on evolution. With that action, the the Cooperative Program was launched May 13, 1925 at the Southern Baptist Convention in Memphis, TN.

The Cooperative Program was almost overlooked in the beginning. State papers were concerned with debts and debate. Few messengers paid attention to it or caught its significance.

Our Cooperative Program By W. E. Grindstaff, Sunday School Training Course material 1965 Published by Convention Press

Such humble beginnings for something that most Baptist’s would be quick to praise now. Something that seems to be an indispensable part of Baptist life is less than 100 years old and got off to a slow start, as Grindstaff later discusses in his book. Grindstaff served as pastor of several churches in Oklahoma after attending Oklahoma Baptist University, and later served the BGCO and was director of Cooperative Program Promotion with the Stewardship Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, so this is an area he is well familiar with. There were several failed attempts at funding the work of Southern Baptist before this, such as the Judson Memorial Fund, the $75 Million Campaign, and the many special pleas made by agencies to churches every week across the country. Until the Conventions agencies paid off most of their outstanding debts with the “Hundred Thousand Club” from 1933-1943, the CP was slow in getting going.

Once it finally started rolling, it was a great plan that funded untold salvations, missionaries, block parties, and baptisms, among other things. There has been much discussion about the future of the CP, and of the way that we need to fund our work among the nations.   But as I read this book, by a man commissioned by the Southern Baptist Convention to write a training course to educate all Southern Baptists on the Cooperative Program, I was struck at the time it took them to reach the conclusion of the CP, and the time, again and again, it took to fine tune it. I know that we have now reached that time again, but I doubt the CP will be scrapped any time soon.  It will be tweaked, challenged, changed, and more, as it has throughout it's history. Obstacles arise, new ideas come forth, and we must do the best to continue to push the gospel, to our neighbors and the nations.  The history of the SBC is one of change, believe it or not.  We tried whatever we could to get the name of Jesus out to the world.  Some attempts were ill advised, some were spectacularly successful.

The history of the CP is well documented, but we act as if everyone agreed it was a great idea at the time. Grinsdstaff records the sentiments of three people who left that convention in 1925.

"Happiness of former conventions was not on the face of delegates.  This was due, perhaps, to the depressing effect of our huge debts."  CW McEloy

"The Convention was the least satisfying of all I have attended in twenty-five years."  TC Skinner

"The Convention struck no high tide.  We seemed to not be together."  Frank L Hardy

At a time when they just voted to start cooperating, to institute the great CP, it was felt as if nothing was accomplished.  It feels like the SBC is more divided than ever now, so it's good to be reminded that this is not a new spot in history!  Although our concerns are many, and there are difficulties to overcome, we can look at history and see God worked through that time and is working through ours as well.

There were many varied opinions that were put forth, and tempers flared as the SBC fought to figure out the best way to fund God's work.  At the time, it seemed like there were more pressing issues to deal with, but there is no more pressing issue than sharing the Gospel.  As we continue to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the world, we must continue to work together, finding new and creative ways to work together, as we have before.

We won't all agree on every single detail.  We are Baptist's, after all.   But by the grace of God we will continue to work together to take the good news of Christ across the street and across the world.  I trust the leaders God has blessed us with in the SBC, and trust the heart of it's pastors and members to put Christ first above all.