18 December 2013

Has Phil Robertson Crossed the Line?

That sound you heard this morning was the heads of journalists exploding as they read the GQ interview with Phil Robertson right before they dashed off to their computers to tell America of the unbelievable, anti-gay remarks Robertson candidly made.  GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) was quick to respond with what you would expect - with a mixture of outrage, misconception of Christian belief and biblical ignorance.

A spokesman from GLAAD stated, "Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil's lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe...Phil's decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to examine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families."

In the full interview (which I have read) the GQ writer Drew Magary visited with the Robertsons in their home place in Monroe, LA.  He spent the day in Phil's home and out riding in an ATV around the property while they talked.  Magary was perplexed by Phil and his family.  He was taken back by how much Phil genuinely wanted to talk about Jesus and how real his religion was to him.  He was also astonished at his lack of political correctness on the topic of homosexuality.  But this foul-mouthed (or writing) journalist did have this to say about Phil: "He is welcoming and gracious.  He is a man who preaches the gospel of the outdoors and, to my great envy, practices what he preaches."

Magary easily got Phil to reveal his thoughts on homosexuality.  I think one could question Phil's judgment is the overly earthy language he used to make his point, but that just seems to be who he is.  He puts things in such a way that it makes you listen, whether you're aghast or appreciative.

Here is the main quotes that are causing spastic fits among gay activists:

"It seems like, to me, a vagina -as a man- would be more desirable than a man's anus.  That's just me. I'm thinking: There's more there! She's got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes!  You know what I'm saying? But hey, sin: It's not logical, my man.  It's just not logical."

Or how about this one?

"Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there.  Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men...Don't be deceived.  Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers - they won't inherit the kingdom of God.  Don't deceive yourself. It's not right."

To give Magary some credit on the interview, he did also include this quote: "We never, ever judge someone on who's going to heaven, hell.  That's the Almighty's job. We just love 'em, give 'em the good news about Jesus - whether they're homosexual, drunks, terrorists.  We let God sort 'em out later, you see what I'm saying?"

Well, with ammunition like this for GLAAD and others to fire out to the LGBT community, the Robertson family and A&E are going to have to decide to retract and apologize or resist and ignore. 

While GLAAD will describe Phil as using "vile stereotypes" to describe the LGBT community, I find it hard to argue with the logistics of gay sex Phil so vividly reminded us of.  It just doesn't sound so great when he puts it so bluntly. 

So, has Phil Robertson finally crossed the line?  I got to be honest, I reacted with a bit of a cringe on reading the article in GQ, thinking to myself something like, "Really Phil, did you have to go there and say that? Couldn't you have made your point a little more diplomatically?"  However, as a Bible believing Christian, it's impossible to refute the substance of his critique of homosexuality.  As I have stated before, Bible believing Christians are constrained to condemn homosexual behavior because God's Word does.  It's really pretty simple from a Bible believing Christian's point of view.  It's just not popular among non-Christians and among so many self-proclaimed cultural Christians.  Actually, it's down right offensive to the homosexual community and those who support it.

We'll see where this goes for the Robertsons.  My guess is Phil doesn't give a squirrel's tail what anyone thinks or if A&E even cancels the show.  It should be obvious to all that this backwoods, red state, duck hunting, southern Christian really believes what the Bible teaches about homosexuality and if asked a direct question will give you a straight answer. 

It will be interesting if he is afforded the same tolerance to hold his beliefs publicly that those are vilifying him desire for themselves.  Probably not.        

06 December 2013

A Must Read for Pastors

By the providence of God I attended a pastor's retreat sponsored by my association of churches.  A pastor from a town about an hour away from where I live came and conducted the devotional times we shared together.  He over viewed some of the basic ideas in a book he gave to us provided by my denomination's North American Mission Board.  I just finished the book, of which I had not heard of, and I have been devastated by it.  The book is entitled Dangerous Calling (2012) and it's content hit me square between the eyes and cut me to my core.  I didn't just merely find myself tritely encouraged by it, but guilty through identification with much of it.  I must confess that I saw myself engaged in much of the behavior, attitude, and thinking described in it's pages.  It has worked a wonderful grief over my own pride within me.  For this I am grateful. 

The author, Paul David Tripp, of whom I know nothing about, writes from his own experience and candidness about the unique challenges of vocational ministry.  He has lived and thought deeply about the struggles with which pastors secretly wrestle.  He cuts right through to the reality and dangers of pride and duplicity in ministry and so many other issues that threaten to incapacitate a pastor from inside his own soul. 

To my pastor friends, I highly recommend Dangerous Calling to you.  Going into it, I didn't feel particularly overwhelmed by ministry or discouraged to the point of crisis, but while reading it I could see that I am standing too close to some dangerous cliffs.  If you are in a time of crisis in your ministry or marriage or both and you feel stuck, confused and angry, then get this book as quick as you can and move it to the top of your reading list.  Even if you feel like everything is going just fine, I believe God can use it to bring a fresh perspective to your calling that you may not even realize you need.           

03 December 2013

Moving the Church Foward Faithfully

As a pastor I am constantly considering how faithfully to move the church God has entrusted to my leadership forward.  How can I lead a congregation in need of revitalization and renewal from where it is to where it needs to be?  If you're like me and so many other pastors, you labor within a church that needs desperately to move forward faithfully and attempt greater things for God.  However, you probably encounter the same apathy and contentment with mediocrity that all churches in need of revitalization possess.  You may be in a ministry context that is so mired in complacency and compromise that you don't know where to begin.  I feel your pain, but I believe there is always hope for Christ's churches.  That hope is found in what we call revival.  I don't mean revival services, but true revival of the soul of a church when enough individuals of the congregation collectively become the spiritual critical mass necessary to unleash real revitalization and bring revival to the ministry of the church.

Genuine revival is the work of God.  By the Spirit of God, conviction over the sins of worldliness, selfishness, and complacency take hold of the people of God bringing them to genuine repentance.  This repentance in turn leads them to authentic and grateful worship and sacrificial service.  This turning to God-honoring and focused worship and true service revitalizes the ministry of the church with renewed enthusiasm for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And this revived commitment to ministry fosters a refreshed fellowship centered on the right things.  This is what I earnestly desire for First Baptist Hazard.  I bet you want this for your church too.

Even though I know that ultimately revival is the work of God, I know that God mysteriously uses people, particularly his called-out leaders, to lead revival and renewal.  This is not a contradiction, but a marvelous mystery of His providence.  Therefore, my job is not merely to pray and wait, but to pray and lead.  This still begs the question:  How do I prayerfully lead the church forward faithfully?

The first matter to settle is what I want to lead the church toward.  I must first be wise and biblically faithful about what I set up as the target.  I can't buy into the idea that I can just shoot at any target.  It's not simply about hitting a target; it's about hitting the right target.

The target I want to set up for the church is one that is Gospel-centered, disciple-making, and service-oriented.  The Word of God (i.e. the Gospel) should always be the focus of worship and teaching.  I should desire for my flock to love God's Word and be passionate about the Gospel.  I should desire to see my flock become mature disciples of Christ in both their knowledge of His Word and how they live.  I should expect that if my flock is healthy in Christ, they will give sacrificially and generously of their money, time and effort to demonstrate compassion for others needs and the sharing of the Gospel locally and globally.  I believe that this is the right place to desire to lead the church.  I think this is faithful to God's commission for His church.  Notice, this has nothing to do with simply getting bigger. 

However, I am still left to figure out how to hit the target.  If I know where I need to lead the church, it does me little good if I don't know how to get her there.  My target must be faithful and my methods must also be faithful.  What can I do to move the church forward faithfully?

First, biblical literacy must increase.  The best overall strategy for this is expository preaching and discipleship classes and small groups that focus on the learning the biblical content.  People can't live the Bible when they remain functionally ignorant of its contents and have gross misconceptions of what's in it.  Learning the Bible needs to begin in earnest with our children.  Churches need to utilize curriculum that effectively gets kids familiar with biblical content.  The Gospel Project is excellent material for age-graded small groups and well-run Awana Clubs are good choices for this goal.  Youth ministry has to be Word-focused - the Gospel contained in the Word of God truly transforms young people and gives them a faith that sticks.  I'm still trying to strategize greater ways to create more opportunity for people to simply learn the Bible.
Second, expectations of leaders must increase.  Pastors need to lovingly, wisely, firmly and determinedly expect more of lay leaders.  The pastor and staff are just the tip of the spear in regards to leadership for the church.  It's takes numerous lay-leaders to come along side the paid pastors to create a healthy ministry.  The deacons or elders are critical spiritual leadership for the congregation.  These men must be held to a high standard of Christian living and commitment to the Gospel.  They are charged with the spiritual care of the congregation and to be the example of Christian faithfulness.  Directors, team leaders, committee chairs, teachers and others who hold positions of leadership need to be held accountable for the responsibility that has been entrusted to them.  Over time a culture of expectation for leaders needs to emerge as normal.  This does not mean that leaders are those who have spiritually arrived and no longer need grace.  Just the contrary.  Leaders should be those (including the pastor) who exhibit a clear, humble dependence on grace, awe of God, and boldness in the power of God and not themselves.  Leaders have to grow and mature in that grace.  The church should be a safe place for leaders to make mistakes and not get beat up for it.  However, leaders should be committed to grow personally, give the time necessary to lead, earnestly seek God as they lead, and know that they set the example for others.     

Third, a reasonable and rightly-focused plan must be pursued.  It is not a spiritual thing to not have a plan; it is not a guarantee for success simply because you have a plan.  Total dependence on God is always primary.  I must pursue ministry leadership with a humility and personal neediness that makes much of God and His grace and provision and little of my own ability.  However, God has called me to lead. Therefore, God has called me to make decisions about matters.  And if God has called me to make decisions, then he has called me to be intentional about moving the church forward and not to be haphazard about it.  And if God has called me to be intentional about leading the church, then he has called me to have a plan.  However, this plan does not have to come completely from me.  The Bible directs us toward the wisdom of counselors and collaboration.  Other leaders in the church need to help prayerfully develop, buy into, and implement the plan.  The plan must be faithful to Scripture and conform to the purpose of the church.  The plan is just a tool that will be retooled periodically for greater faithfulness and effectiveness.  The plan is not the goal, but it is the method for reaching the goal - a healthy, faithful church.     

Fourth, a commitment to prayer and patience must remain strong.  It is easy to get busy with the business of ministry and forget to feed the soul with prayer and personal devotion.  This can be particularly easy for us pastors if we are not careful.  The subtle slide into self-sufficiency in all our ministry tasks is toxic to our souls.  Leaders, beginning with pastors, must nurture a vibrant personal faith walk with Christ and allow that to flow into all those ministry tasks.  The congregation must always be reminded of the importance of prayer and given opportunities to gather corporately to that singular purpose.  Leadership teams must always remember that their effective leadership is grounded in a commitment to prayer as they plan and strategize ministry. Additionally, leaders and congregations must exercise patience.  Patience in ministry is not despairing, panicking, or allowing fear to hurry you into bad decisions.  Patience is not complacency.  Patience is the ability to treat one another graciously even when our efforts come up short of what we hope.  Patience is celebrating the small things.  Patience is demonstrating a rock solid faith in the Lord as you work in the ministry and wait on Him.  Patience is staying on course and doing the hard work of lovingly confronting compromise and while encouraging greater faithfulness.  Above all, patience is love because we are told love is patient. 

Fifth, an abiding sense of dependence on God must prevail.  I've already hinted at this, but I want to emphasize it here.  Moving the church forward faithfully ultimately and totally depends on the power of God working in people's lives (including mine) in transformative ways.  The key word here is faithfully.  There are big movements and huge church growth experiences that are not necessarily faithful.  In the end those movements have been manufactured with gimmicks, marketing, and strategies that undermine the Gospel rather that lift it up.  Sometimes those methods appeal to the self-centeredness that the Gospel has come to eradicate.  Many times it seems we are building our own little kingdoms, rather than focusing on the dynamics of His kingdom.  As I attempt to lead the church to revitalization I must never forget that I desperately need God and He doesn't need me.  I'm a servant in a position of leadership of others yet always under the One who made me and saved me.  My calling is to be faithful to Him personally, dependent on His grace always for all things, to love His church, to point people to Christ, and work for His glory.

So many churches need revitalization.  My hope is that I and other pastors will be the leaders God has called us to be by moving churches forward, but only in a way that is faithful to the Gospel with which we have been entrusted.

14 November 2013

Ashamed of the Name Baptist

I have been and still find myself struggling with concern for the label Baptist.  There is an uneasiness evoked in my spirit each time I observe a new church approved by our Kentucky Baptist Convention for admission that chooses not to use the label.  I've thought a lot about this issue and I've tried to understand the motivation for such a choice. And I've heard the pros of leaving the name out and going generic.  I get it, even if I don't buy it.

What I've decided is not to judge the motivation.  However, I am making some observations about the consequences.  Here is what I'm seeing, although I will freely concede that I'm speaking in generalities, not absolutes.

When a church chooses not to use the label that has historically identified itself within a certain tradition, then a harmful ambiguity is introduced.  The pastor becomes predisposed to a "don't tell" policy in regards to Baptist identity.  If he is asked a direct question about the church's identity, then the information is surrendered, but it's not an identity voluntarily disclosed on the front end.  

Another observation is that once the name is not employed by a new church, then certain historic Southern Baptist distinctives become less important, particularly congregationalism and cooperation.  Again, not all do this, but I've observed enough that do to be concerned.     

Additionally, it seems that these non-Baptist, Baptist pastors are utilizing non-Baptist models and resources, further widening the gap between what the church is technically supposed to be and what it actually is in its practice.

So, in summary, these secret Baptist churches tend to adopt and utilize methods and models outside Southern Baptist life, move away from a historic Baptist congregationalism, and de-emphasize or eliminate traditional means of cooperation, such as giving to the Cooperative Program, participation in the local association and leveraging state and national resources for ministry and mission.  Again, this is not an absolute claim, just an observation of a pervasive trend.

My contention is that that label Baptist is significant historically, theologically, and practically.  Therefore, I have a hunch that we have been and are undermining our cooperative work, confusing our identity and compromising biblical commitments every time we financially support and admit a new church that strategically chooses to hide its identity.  Of course, right now I'm speaking primarily of the potential consequences.  It will take some time for my hypothesis to be proved or disproved.

For the past several years I've watched our Kentucky Baptist Convention admit new churches into the fellowship of Kentucky Southern Baptists.  Each year at least half (sometimes more) do not bear the label Baptist.  Even if just half of those churches go on to be healthy churches, where does that put the denomination 50 years from now if we continue on such a path?  Does the term Baptist completely loose its significance?  Do non-labeled Baptist congregations increasingly get confused about their cloudy heritage?  When the founding pastor (who is a Baptist) moves on, what kind of pastor will the church look for next?  I believe there are many such important questions that we are not critically thinking about as we launch so many new churches with Baptist support without Baptist identities.

Let me give a short caveat here:

I was proud to be a Kentucky Baptist this week as we held our annual meeting in Paducah.  We had some difficult decisions to make, but I believe we collectively made the right decisions.  One of the most vexing issues facing Kentucky Baptists was the growing concerns about the direction of Sunrise Children's Services.  I am not making little of the hard choice that ultimately will have to be made in regards to that ministry, but I can't help suspect that the beginning of that ministry's waywardness was when Kentucky Baptists thought it was beneficial and harmless to drop the label Baptist from the ministry (Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children) and opt for a completely secular name that could mean anything and potentially stand for nothing.

I think we ought not overlook that small beginning step toward the mess that we found ourselves in this week.  I'm not suggesting with certainty that there is a direct causal relationship, but my instincts tell me that when the whole story is told with enough hindsight that it will be one of those "factors" that historians identify when attempting to give explanation to movements or trends. 

God's kingdom and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are neither historically or uniquely Baptist.   I am not saying that Baptist is "the way, the truth and the life" in an ultimate truth kind of way.  However, as a Baptist I believe that the label stands for important doctrinal and practical commitments that are more than merely good ideas at best.  These commitments are driven by an overall commitment to be faithful to the Word of God.  If there has been one driving characteristics among Baptists from the beginning, as second generation children of the Reformation, is has been a commitment to sola scriptura for belief and practice, even when that meant going against the culture and even risking persecution.  There are those in the modern era who call themselves Baptist who do compromise God's Word.  We call them liberals.  I'm not talking about them. 

The churches that make up the Kentucky Baptist Convention overwhelmingly hold to a high view of Scripture.  And that means something.  Tuesday in Paducah we saw that commitment shine.

Now back to my main thought in this post.  Even as we stand strong on Scripture, I believe we may be undermining our own efforts at advancing the Gospel in church planting.  It would seem to me that new churches receiving support from Baptist churches ought to be Baptist themselves.  I would think that the pastors would be committed to Baptist distinctives (i.e. The Baptist Faith and Message) and work to improve the reputation of the label rather than hide it in shame.  I would hope that our leadership on the national and state levels would think more on the possible long-term consequences of running away from the label Baptist.  And church planters, I wish those of you who are or are contemplating hiding your identity would consider the question of integrity that hangs over such a decision. 

Baptists are called Baptists for specific reasons.  I believe those are good reasons historically and biblically.  A denominational label is more than merely a name.  That name represents your distinctiveness and commitments that are important.  I think it's time to stop this trend of being ashamed of the name and start making it a better name. 

11 September 2013

The Pains of Change in Church

This blog post is first and foremost for the members and attenders of First Baptist Church, Hazard.  If others benefit from it as well, that's just icing on the cake!  What follows here is a short reflection on the process of leading a church through a long-range strategic planning process for the purpose of bringing revitalization.  This has been the most challenging endeavor to date in my five years as pastor of FBC, Hazard.  And like many of my church members, I am a mixture of excitement and nervousness.  At times I feel unbelievably hopeful and sure, and at other times I honestly feel somewhat overwhelmed at the scope of the task.  I want to address what I'm calling the pains of change in leading a church toward revitalization.

Change is hard.  Change in the church is really hard.  Change in a church that is over one hundred years old is really, really hard!  But with God, change for the good is possible.  Change is typically what we only embrace when we feel not changing is the worse alternative.  Change is what we make ourselves do when we feel certain that the end result is improvement.  Church is no different.  Typically, a church member will not want to cooperate with change unless a compelling reason is presented for why the change is necessary for a better future. 

Many churches need revitalization, including mine. The case for the need for revitalization doesn't take long to make.  The quantitative evidence of the last 50 years shows decline and growing ineffectiveness.  If you talk to people who have been in the church for a few decades, they qualitatively feel that things are not as good as they used to be.  Overall, everyone knows that the church is stale, lacks a clear vision, and has no plan for improvement.  Revitalization is needed.  If you are a member of FBC and you don't see the need for revitalization, then stop here and go back and read my post from June 19.

Once you determine revitalization is needed and the church needs to get on a trajectory of health and growth and off the one of decline, then you must look change squarely in the eyes and say, "It's on!" But here in comes the rub.  Change is painful, even when it's good.  There are really two kinds of pain.  One kind of pain let's you know that something is wrong - like when you're sick.  Another kind of pain you endure to reap a reward - like studying for the test, pushing your body to get in better shape, or practicing a skill to master it.  A church feels the first kind of pain when there is conflict or decline.  A church feels the second kind when it takes steps toward revitalization.  Here are five pains of change we will be experiencing as we move toward revitalization.

Pain #1: Trusting Your Change Leaders

Some of us by nature are not trusting.  We've been burnt too many times by politicians, bosses, co-workers, other church members, and sadly even our pastors.  The uncomfortableness of change can be alleviated somewhat by learning to trust your leaders.  If being skeptical and untrusting is your default setting, then you're going to have to work on this.  I'm not suggesting a blind trust in your pastoral and lay leadership.  I am suggesting an informed trust that allows the leaders to lead as long as they maintain trustworthiness.  Trust in your leaders will greatly increase if you take the time to be informed and engage in opportunities to dialogue with them.  I always welcome phone calls or visits from those who want to talk, ask a question, or even express a concern.  Most of the time the conversation ends with greater clarification and an affirmed cooperation.  Or at least we understand each other better even if there isn't total agreement upon an issue. 

Our Long-Range Planning Team has consisted of 12 people.  All of us together as leaders have been praying, discussing, researching, learning and growing in understanding about where and how to lead our church.  It would be unwise as your pastor to go at such a task alone.  Proverbs 15:22 says, "Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed."  Proverbs 27:17 tells us that, "Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another."   I have found both these verified in our process!

Trusting God with change, and in turn trusting the leaders that God has given the church, is imperative.  Without a healthy degree of trust, doubts about leaders' motives will rule the day and create a climate of distrust that will frustrate true revitalization.  Church, trust your leaders!

Pain #2: Leaving the Familiar

Implicit in any kind of change is the understanding that some of what is currently familiar is going away.  Leaving the comfortable, familiar way of doing things is painful.  Many folks are significantly invested in the ways things have always been.  They know how things work and what to expect from years of familiarity.  Change threatens to strip that away.  However, if a church is to experience true revitalization in a new day, then it must come to the realization that it cannot keep doing the same things with the same approach and expect different and better results.  What may have worked then, simply may not work as well now.  Change is always occurring all around us in our culture and in our local community.  But the church is notoriously slow in responding to this change because we don't want to change.  Eventually, however, you must take your head out of the sand and see that the pain of change is worth it.  Giving up some of the familiar to embrace something more effective is a short-term pain we need to endure.

Pain #3: Living with Uncertainty

The reason we love the familiar is because we can be certain about what to expect.  We like to know what to expect in worship.  We like to know that VBS will still work the same way that it has for years.  We like to know that the administration of the church will still be the same next week as it was last year.  We like to be in that comfort zone of familiarity.  However, when we embrace revitalization in the form of a 5-year long-range plan, we invite a much higher level of uncertainty into the life of the church.  We determine to head out in uncharted waters.  We are charting a course with a specific destination and methods of how to get there, but the waters are uncharted nevertheless.  We haven't been here before!  Furthermore, we cannot predict with certainty if all will work just the way we envision.  That means we have to be flexible and willing to modify and grow as the needs present themselves.

Fear of an uncertain future is normal in our sinful, human condition.  The opposite of fear is faith. Therefore, the best antidote for our fear of an uncertain future is greater faith in the God who is in control of that future.  If in good conscience we know that we are moving forward on sure biblical footing, then we should trust God with the results.  We can set goals and lay out a plan, but ultimately we commit all we do to the Lord and trust Him. 

Pain #4: Elevating Expectations of Leaders

I like to think of this pain as a growing pain.  Some of us remember experiencing those physically as children.  And when we grew faster the pain was worse!  In order for the church to be effective and grow, it must expect more from it's leaders and members.  Everyone expects certain things from the pastor, who is paid.  He needs to preach a good sermon every week.  He needs to visit the sick and home bound.  He needs to visit the prospects and be out in the community.  He needs to keep watch on the church's finances and facilities.  He needs to always be available for counseling, weddings and funerals. He needs to supervise the staff. He needs to be the model example of a husband and father.  And I don't begrudge you having such expectations of me - you should.

However, a pastor can only do so much (even as a paid employee).  The pastor is the tip of the spear on the spiritual leadership of a church, but a church must understand that it takes a village of lay leaders committed to the vision of the church and to the time and sacrifice that it takes to see it accomplished.  Under our new organization in the Constitution & By-Laws, more is expected of our leaders.  There will be three groups of key leaders that you'll be learning more about: deacons, directors, and ministry teams.  These leaders will be charged with providing spiritual care, oversight, and coordination of ministry.  Our ministry teams especially will be the hub of ministry evaluation, strategizing, planning, and recruiting volunteers.  I'll be calling on these folks to commit more and stretch themselves by providing greater leadership.  This might be a little scary. These leaders will be asked to do more, but also be empowered to do more.  They will be asked to grow themselves as leaders, which might be a little painful at times.  But the rewards for our church far exceed the growing pains.

Pain #5: Expecting More of Volunteers

There is simply no way around the fact that an essential ingredient for a healthy, growing church is hard work.  I've heard it said that success is spelled w-o-r-k.  It's imperative that the expectations of our designated leaders be raised so that they actually provide leadership.  However, it is equally important that all our membership understand the importance of being involved.  We know that God expects all His children in His church to work together. (Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12).  There are no bench warmers! 

Let's be honest.  Making the commitment to serve and be faithful is painful for some of us.  We feel bad when we weasel out of our church commitments, so after awhile we just stop making them.  It's easier to just be a taker; it's harder to be a giver.  Our money is so tight that we only give when we have some extra,  It's harder to give to the Lord first and make due with the rest. 

It's time for all of us at FBC to re-evaluate our commitment level.  Do you expect your church to be better, but yet you sit on the sidelines and do little to nothing to help make it better?  You might need to overcome the fear of this pain and re-prioritize a few things to make yourself more available to make volunteering in ministry more doable.  You may need to make financial adjustments so you can begin to give to the church.  Sometimes our priorities as Christians are simply out of whack.  We all have the same amount of time; it's just a matter of what we do with all of it.  We all have a certain amount of money; it's just a matter of how we choose to spend it.

Adjusting your life to put more devotion to God into it will be a painful change. You will have to say no to some good things, so you'll have time for the best things.  A church that collectively works hard and is willing to sacrifice for the God-sized vision at hand will experience a kind of fellowship and effectiveness that can't be attained otherwise. 

Change comes with certain pains.  But if we are willing to endure the pain of change then we will reap gain of change.  Paul wrote, "And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary" (Gal. 6:9).  It is absolutely clear that it is time to move aggressively toward a revitalization effort.  In order to accomplish this, our church must embrace a significant amount of change concerning what we do and how we do it.  If we walk together hand-in-hand we can encourage each other through any fear and doubts and strengthen each other when we grow weary.

In all the talk of change, however, some things don't change.  God Himself does not change.  His Word does not change.  His purpose for His church does not change.  His expectations of how we live our lives does not change.  It's nice to know that with all the change that can bring fear and pain, we can be firmly anchored to the most important things that don't change, which give us ultimate security, courage and hope.         

21 August 2013

I Preach Verse-by-Verse and It's Not Boring!

You might think by the title of this post that I'm indulging is self-adulation.  Or, if you've actually heard me, maybe you're thinking I have an overactive imagination!  However, I'm under no delusion that as a preacher I'm anything close to the wordsmith of a Charles Spurgeon or the orator of an Adrian Rogers.  I don't have the presence or deep resonating voice of a W.A. Criswell, the charisma of Voddie Baucham, or the profundity of John Piper.  Nope. None of that belongs to me.  Actually, I got to admit my brainpower, oratory skills, and personal presence are dreadfully average.  Oh yeah, and I'm not really that funny either.

So, why would anyone want to listen to me preach?  Good question.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I believe every preacher is under obligation to the calling to become as sharp as a tool for the Lord as he possibly can.  Those of us who are charged to bring the Word every week should try to do so in a way that is pleasing to the ear and interesting.  We should work to get people's attention and hold it for a little while to accomplish the goal of making God's Word clear to them.  We shouldn't stammer around in our delivery, be convoluted in content, needlessly repetitive, talk over people's heads, or be boring.  We should try to do what we do to the best of our ability with excellence.

When most people hear that a preacher preaches verse-by-verse, they're first thought is - how boring!  This approach, known as expository preaching, is in fact what keeps a guy like me from being boring.  My experience has shown that this approach is what makes the Word of God come most alive for the people.  This style of preaching presupposes that the Word itself is engaging enough without me having to adorn it with my imaginative touches and packaging.

As I see the preaching task, it is my goal to help people encounter the Word of God as fully as I possibly can.  It's my job to take God's words and explain them and apply them to people's lives.  It is my goal to make clear the truth that God has revealed.  Leading others to discover the truth that God has given them is the objective.  If I can successfully do this, then my preaching can't be boring.  If my preaching is boring, it's because I've failed to do this.

God said it best Himself through the writer of Hebrews: "For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of the soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." (Heb. 4:12)  In other words, the Bible is not boring!  When we let it speak the way God intended, it is plenty exciting.  It's content is alive, vibrant, and meaningful and will speak the truth we most desperately need into our lives. 

It is possible to have entertaining sermons without a whole lot of God's Word involved.  However, that kind of engaging oratory depends on a personality, not God.  That kind of preaching may move people, be heartfelt and motivational, but it's not transformative.  People may applaud and be mesmerized, but remain unchanged because the Word of God was not expounded.  The topic of many sermons may have a little supporting Scripture sprinkled throughout, but the Bible is used like a garnish rather than being served up as the main course.

I have been preaching verse-by-verse through books for the past seven years.  For the last five years this has been my primary delivery method at First Baptist Hazard.  Over the years I've learned how this approach helps me the preacher and those to whom I preach.

Preaching verse-by-verse...

1. Helps me to prepare better sermons.
I still have to decide, like any preacher, on a preaching plan. However, once I have determined which book of God's Word to preach I know for many weeks what I'm doing. I can't imagine waking up on Monday mornings thinking, "now what am I going to preach on this Sunday?"  Expository preaching let's me digest thoroughly a whole book, study it intently over a long period of time and deliver the whole book in context. 

2. Forces me to dig deeper and deal with the harder passages.
Many in my congregation have become accustomed to getting the tougher passages of Scripture in the course of my preaching because I preach verse-by-verse.  They've come to learn that the harder to swallow or understand texts will not be skipped or glossed over.  I will challenge myself to wrestle with them and then challenge my flock to do the same.  This is a very good thing. 

3. Keeps me on God's agenda, not mine.
One of the constant dangers to us all-too-human preachers is to use our pulpit to vent our own frustrations or push personal agenda.  Those of us who are prone to passion may get really worked up about something and end up saying stupid things from the pulpit on God's time.  This is a very bad thing.  Preaching verse-by-verse keeps me on track.  It helps me to stay with the Word and not follow my own emotions or reactions to circumstances.  I need this for myself.

4. Alleviates the pressure to make creativity the main thing.
I'm not against creativity in preaching or worship.  Don't miss what I'm saying here.  However, if preachers are not careful creativity can become the engine that drives the sermon and service rather than the Word of God.  The Bible will become the proof text add on for the theme.  This is a tricky one.  A topical sermon can be a good exposition of the Word of God creatively presented.  However, preaching verse-by-verse, keeping the text in context helps me keep the point of the text the point of my message.  It's real easy to miss the real point of the text by preaching topically. 

5. Allows the congregation to hear the whole counsel of God's Word.
Personally, I have had tremendous, positive feedback to expository preaching, even if they don't know what it is.  Numerous times people have expressed appreciation for seeing how a particular text fits into the book as a whole or how the story-line develops in a narrative book.  Preaching verse-by-verse through books makes me evaluate if I am preaching the whole counsel of the Word.  It helps me to strive to be aware of my natural inclinations.  I have to occasionally step back and ask: When did I last preach through a portion of the Old Testament?  Am I unintentionally ignoring the minor prophets or the wisdom literature?  I don't relish the idea of a sermon series through Leviticus, but someday, somehow, I've got to teach the people what that book is about and how it fits into the Gospel.  And I don't even want to think about the Song of Songs!  However, I'm committed not to preach through any book twice until I've done them all once.  Only verse-by-verse preaching would constrain me to do this.   

6. Is most effective for growing disciples
A growing disciple is constantly learning how the whole Bible fits together and always culminates in Christ.  Primarily preaching expository sermons helps me do this.  Growing as a disciple is a long, slow process.  Jumping from one 4-week sermon series to another that primarily speak to felt needs, is not the most effective way to grow disciples (in my opinion).  I think there are places for great topically driven, felt-need driven, biblically sound studies to add to an overall discipleship strategy in the church.  However, I like to put those in small group studies.  Christians grow most effectively by engaging them most directly with the Word of God itself in its own context. 

7. Places the Bible center stage.
I want to do everything I can as the worship leader of my congregation to make sure that the Word of God is the focus of worship.  Hopefully, God's Word and truth is embedded in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray.  However, in Baptist (and most Protestant) churches the worship service climaxes with the delivery of the Word of God in the form of a sermon.  This is THE great privilege and responsibility of the pastor.  We pastors do a lot of administrative and ministerial things, but this is the MAIN thing we do under the calling we have from God.  Others can help us with everything else, but it is the pastor's charge to stand regularly before his flock and feed them the Word of God.  Verse-by-verse preaching helps me make sure that I don't subtly, even in the smallest ways, begin to move the Bible from the center. 

8. Is well received, believe it or not.
In my narrow experience I have had overwhelming positive response to verse-by-verse preaching.  I've never had someone say they were tired the Gospel of Mark, or bored with the stories in Genesis, or overdone with Malachi.  My experience has been just the opposite.  I have found people growing in biblical understanding and sometimes even talking to me about the passage that will come next because they are reading ahead!  If my sermons are ever boring, it's because I'm boring.  God's Word is alive and meaningful and the instrument that God uses to enlighten minds and convict hearts.  I want my sermons to be as pregnant with God's Word as possible and have as little of me as possible.  I've found when I do that, then the messages are received well for the right reason. 

I'm sure there are other good reasons that preaching verse-by-verse is advantageous for faithful, biblical preaching.  If you have other reasons that come to mind, I would love to hear them. The above eight items just reflect my current, short musing on the subject and certainly isn't exhaustive.

I do occasionally break from a book study and do something topical on special occasions or for special emphases.  Or I may just focus a sermon series on a certain portion of Scripture.  However, I've learned that my bread and butter is verse-by-verse through books.  So, again I might be boring sometimes (I hope not), but I can guarantee that God's Word faithfully explained and applied is not!

"Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction." 2 Tim. 4:2

04 July 2013

A Political Pastor on the 4th of July

The fourth of July (2013) marks the traditional birth date of the United States of America.  To date this makes our country 237 years young.  The actual birth of the country is a remarkable story.  It's a story of treason and courage; one of rebellion and a desire for independence.  It was an event that was embedded with political ideals and religious zeal.  It was fueled by the secular and the sacred.  It's primary movers were a mixture of those of strong, orthodox Christian faith and those of non-Christian worldviews. 

Fifty-six men signed the initial document of declared independence (or rebellion) and became the country's birth certificate.  These men assembled as representatives of the English colonies and affixed their names to a document penned by Thomas Jefferson that would either forge a radical new existence for all the colonies or be the cause of each of their deaths.  It was a huge risk, but one they had come to consider necessary.     

The Declaration of Independence is a short, straightforward document.  It basically states that once a government has become so oppressive and unresponsive to the needs of the people, then those people have a right to go their own way.  Furthermore, the document enumerates many grievances that the signers believed legitimized declaring their independence.  They obviously believed in the validity of their actions, and they hoped that others across the Atlantic might see it that way too.  If you haven't closely read it lately or ever, you should take a few minutes and explore it for yourself.

One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was the clergyman John Witherspoon (1723-94).  He moved from Scotland to New Jersey just a few short years before the move toward independence began.  He had been a pastor in Scotland and had been recruited to come to New Jersey to become the new president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton).  At that time the school was still in the business of training pastors as part of its primary purpose.   

It wasn't long before the preacher/educator also donned the hat of politician.  He was elected as a representative from New Jersey and assembled with the rest of the delegation on that hot July summer in Philadelphia.  As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he felt no conflict with also giving himself to a political cause that he deemed just. Check out his 1776 sermon "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men." 
Witherspoon has always caused me to reflect on the relationship a pastor has to politics.  Should a pastor make comment and involve himself in the pressing political questions of his day, or should he remain a silent bystander and let others tend to the politics?  Should he get down in the mud, or should he stand above it?  Certainly, a minister of the gospel has a God-given calling and duty to speak biblically to moral issues, and sometimes moral issues are political issues.  But is it appropriate for a pastor to be a political activist?
When I think of Witherspoon and the 4th of July, I'm reminded that we are indebted to such men of God who helped lead a political revolution.  They possessed a faith that wasn't dominated by an other-worldliness.  They also understood the practical realities of human affairs and understood that momentous times called for decisiveness and leadership.  Witherspoon never compromised his faith (at least not in his own mind) and he never seemed to tuck and run from the important issues.  It appears he saw it as his calling to lead as a Christian man, either as a preacher or statesman, depending on the stage offered to him.  At such a time as was his, I believe he rose courageously to engage his religious and political issues with conviction of heart and sound mind.
Some would view Witherspoon as a horrible example of a minister.  He should have left politics to the statesmen and simply tended to his college and pulpit, some may contend.  However, I interpret his involvement in the birth of our country as acceptable and even heroic.  He didn't limit his parish to those who just might attend his sermons.  He saw his whole community as a flock to which he had obligation to defend and protect.  So, as a matter of conviction he literally put his name on the line. 
I believe times do arise in which men of God cannot be content to sit on the sidelines.  There are times to roll up the sleeves and put biblical convictions to practical and even political use.  I suppose those times must be saturated with prayers for wisdom as well as boldness.  Witherspoon may not be one of the household names around the 4th of July (like Jefferson or Franklin), but I know that I'm thankful for this one preacher from Scotland, who made America his home, and helped make it a home for me too.  I'm glad he decided to get involved and cast his whole self into the public arena for what he considered a noble cause.

So much has changed and evolved in 237 years.  The United States of America, through it's ups and downs, continues to be a grand experiment.  The Founders, including pastor Witherspoon, chartered a course for a country founded on personal liberty, state sovereignty, and limited federal power contained within a commitment to public virtue (assumed Christian values for the vast majority).  But the road of national development has been bumpy, contentious, and even deadly at times.  And who knows what the future will hold for us.  I hope that when the crisis comes, whatever it may be, that men of God will stand firm in the pulpit and in the public space to do what is right.

Thank you John Witherspoon!  Happy 4th of July everyone! 


27 June 2013

What the Supreme Court's Ruling Tells Me about the Future

On June 26 the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which had defined marriage between a man and woman, consequently not recognizing same-sex marriage.  The catalyst for this decision was a lawsuit regarding federal benefits, or in this case the lack thereof, in regards to an elderly lesbian couple.  They had been legally married in their state and then later one died.  Because the federal government did not recognize them as a married couple, certain federal benefits did not apply.  Therefore, the survivor was left with a hefty estate tax as the property of the deceased individual was willed to her.  So the context of this moral issue about marriage and sexuality was in the practical area of benefits and money.

The Court ruled 5-4 that DOMA was unconstitutional and only designed to harm homosexual couples.  Of course, when the Supreme Court rules a law unconstitutional, they must argue from the Constitution of the United States regarding the specific part or parts that are violated by the law.  In this case the argument of the majority was that DOMA violated the 5th Amendment, which reads as follows:

"No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

What I've gathered is that the Court focused on the portion that says, "nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property." 

Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the majority, stated, “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.” (New York Times article)

Technically, the Court's decision only applies to the 12 states which presently recognized same-sex marriage.  Here they are in the order in which each made gay marriage legal beginning in 2003: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Maine, Maryland, Washington) However, it is easy to see where this is leading - the federal mandate that all states must recognize gay marriage.  It's coming. 

Also, in another decision, the Supreme Court decided not to hear a case concerning California's Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that overturned a 2008 decision to legalize gay marriage.  A lower trial court in California had overruled Prop 8, so the Court's refusal to take the case and rule on it essentially allowed the lower courts ruling to stand, which in effect makes California the 13th state now to recognize legally gay marriage.

This culture shift is dramatically reshaping our collective view of sexuality and marriage.  It is a march away from a biblical view of such things and an embracing of the spirit of Judges 21:25, "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (KJV).

When the foundation is removed, how can the house stand?  Those who forged this country and the Founding Fathers who penned the Constitution possessed a biblical world-view.  They certainly were not all Christian men, but the culture was infused with Christian understanding, convention, ethic, morality, and expectations.  I can only image the collective gasp of the Founding Fathers at the Supreme Court's use of the 5th Amendment to justify that gay marriage is morally acceptable.  It would certainly flip their wigs!

Unfortunately, the Constitution has become a useless document on this moral issue.  The Fathers never addressed the issue, and certainly couldn't have possessed a reason to do so.  The immorality of homosexual behavior was assumed culturally.  However, I know a source that has always and continues to condemn the lifestyle.  And unlike the Constitution, it is still relevant on this issue.  It is unchanging and unwavering.  And as long as I hold it in my hand and proclaim it's content, it will not be silent.  Our unbelieving culture is progressively wanting to sweep the Bible into the trash bin for it's alleged bigotry.  Our liberal brothers and sisters want to do the same, only to a lesser degree.  They just choose to dismiss the perceived offensive parts so that we can all get along.

The church is on a collision course with our culture on the issue of homosexuality.  We have seen it coming for some time, but the issue is accelerating and the clash is going to be dramatic.  I see no reason to believe that the encroachment of the federal government into this issue will not become increasingly intrusive.  As Christians push back and the church stands firm there will be consequences.  So, pastors, believers, and churches, count the cost now.  What are you willing to suffer for the truth of God?  That used to be a question that was only hypothetical.  Suffering for the truth of God was only something I read about in history, but I believe I can see it on the horizon for us right here in the good old USA.    


19 June 2013

Leading a Dying Congregation to Embrace Change

I've been reading a lot about affecting positive change in the church that will lead to revitalization.  I've been learning how to lead a team through the long-range planning process without scaring them off.  When you begin to talk about real change among a group within the church a silent chill sets in.  Everyone knows that change is difficult, risky, and even potentially explosive.

So, when is it time to take the risk and attempt to lead a church to embrace change?  We pastors are in the business of diagnosing our church's problems.  We spend our time contemplating what our congregation is doing well or what it's missing.  Most often we see weakness and challenges sooner than the average church member.  Most certainly, we see the need for change sooner than the congregation as a whole.  However, it is probably quite foolish to run ahead of the people into dramatic change without their trust and some assurance that the vast majority have good understanding of why the change is needed. 

At some point a pastor will clearly discern that the pain of not changing is going to be much greater than the pain of changing.  However, that doesn't mean that the people have seen this yet.  If the church's attendance and budget have been shrinking, they may have a sense that all is not as well as it should be; however, they still may not feel an urgency for change.  Why?  Because change is always painful - even good change.  Most of us, however, desperately want to avoid pain.  The problem with declining churches is they want to put off the pain and ignore the reality until they absolutely have no choice but to deal with it.  But by opting for a delayed pain, they have chosen the greater pain. 

How do you lead the church to embrace change?  I'm going to start by just showing them the facts.  So, listen up First Baptist family!

I have reviewed the last 50 years of our Annual Church Profiles (ACP), known by different names through the decades.  This is what Southern Baptist Churches complete and file with the local association each year.  It contains a numerical history of the church.  I can find on it each year's average attendances in Sunday school and worship (but worship only back to 1990), how much the people contributed, how much the church gave to missions, how many baptisms occurred and so forth.  The numbers tell a certain raw story.  Behind the numbers, however, are many factors, such as strengths and weakness in leadership, issues of conflict, the strength of the local economy, population migrations, and so forth.  These numbers don't tell a complete story, but they do rather convincingly show us that revitalization is needed, therefore change is necessary.

To those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, this is what the numbers are telling First Baptist Church of Hazard, Kentucky:

Missions Giving

Currently, FBC gives 7.75%  of it's undesignated giving to the Cooperative Program (CP).  This is up from the 6% when I first became pastor in 2008, but far from the sacrificial commitment the church once made. 

The Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention began in 1925.  Ever since then, it has functioned as a marvelous tool of cooperation among all Southern Baptist churches.  Essentially, it is a pot of money from which Southern Baptists support it's missionaries and theological education at the national level and the church-supporting ministries of the state convention closer to home. 

In 1963 FBC contributed 13.5% of its tithes and offerings to the CP.  For 30 years that rate was no lower that 12% and peaked at 18% for three consecutive years (90-92).  Since 2000, the rate has never reached 10% and been as low at 5%.


I also noticed that Sunday school attendance in the 60s was particularly high.  The reason for this is that the church was sponsoring three separate missions.  One of them today is a sister church in our association.  This is evidence that the church was impacting it's community intentionally with, what we call today, church planting.

When I looked at baptisms I also noticed a trend.  During the 30 years from 1963 to 1992 the annual average number of baptisms was 24.  The lowest year in that span was 1984 with 6 and the highest was 1963 with 115!  Since 1992 the annual average of baptism at FBC has been 8.  Although a line graph on baptisms looks a bit like an EKG, when I look at 50 years of data the trend of the last 20 years is clearly and significantly downward.

Sunday School and Worship

Of course, attendance numbers of Sunday school and worship mirror the above statistics.  The average Sunday school attendance of the last 20 years has been 137.  But the average of the last ten years has been 95, and the last five years has been 85.  From 1963 to 1992 Sunday school averaged was 236 with the highest year in 1965 at 427.   

Worship attendance records only go back to 1990, but they do tell a story of decline and the need for revitalization.  From 1990 to 1999 our worship attendance average was 217. From 2000 to 2004 the average was 204.  From 2005 to 2009 the average was 157.  And from 2010 through 2012 it has been 149.  Again, the trend has been downward for an extended period of time.

A typical reaction to his kind of data is defensiveness.  Church folks can immediately begin to point to factors that have caused the decline.  They may talk about a certain pastor who "destroyed" the church.  They point out that days used to be better economically when the coal was "booming."  Some will just sigh and say that the culture just isn't the same and people today just don't care about the things they used to.  Although many of these factors may be real, none of them are excuses for a resignation into complacency and a give up attitude.

As I look at the trends of the last 50 years of FBC, the need for a bold new vision and change becomes all the more obvious to me.  I hope that after reading this the First Baptist family can also see the need to embrace change for a better future.  God is granting us a window of opportunity to repent of our ineffectiveness and our uncaring hearts and do better.  We have time to trust God with a big vision, depending on Him all the while for its realization while we give ourselves to it sacrificially.   

The Long-Range Planning Team is currently in the process of dreaming a God-sized vision for 2018.  In other words, what do we want to see at FBC roughly five years from now.  We know that the status-quo is no good and will only lead us to where we don't want to be.  Good, exciting change is coming and we are determined to make the hard decisions and stay the course as we prayerfully seek the Lord's wisdom throughout it all.

Fellow pastor, does your church need revitalization?  Do you see it the need, but very few in your congregation do?  Maybe you can start to create awareness simply by holding up the mirror and helping them to gain a fresh perspective.  Your church, like mine, has had better days.  Celebrate those days. Refresh the memories of your older crowd and educate the younger ones. Use the facts to contrast the past with the present and motivate your people to dream boldly, give sacrificially, grow spiritually, and serve so that God will accomplish even greater things in the future through them.         

04 June 2013

Southern Baptists' New Statement on the Calvinism Debate

An advisory committee, appointed by Executive Director Frank Page last August, has published its report in anticipation of the annual meeting in Houston next week.  The drama around Calvinism continues to intrude into Southern Baptist life causing tension, frustration, and confusion.  The resurgence in Calvinism in the last couple of decades has given rise to an increasing factionalism.  This growing tension has become a threat to the unity of the SBC.

Frank Page (an outspoken critic of Calvinism in the past) did assemble a theologically diverse committee of the traditional who's who of the SBC.  The selection of individuals alone speaks well of the commitment to a fair process and genuine and constructive dialogue. 

The title of the committee's document is "Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension."  The alliteration makes me suspect they may have conjured up Adrian Rogers for the task!  My guess is that David Dockery was the primary author, but that's just my hunch.

Regardless of who deserves the most credit for the statement, all the committee should be applauded for the excellent guide they have produced for Southern Baptists.  I'm not sure if it will actually result in greater charity and unity, but it certainly won't hurt.

I believe it is a good report for several reasons.  First, it distinguishes the gospel itself from man-made theological systems.  While acknowledging the differences in interpretation and understanding, the statement makes clear that we can agree upon the clear, biblically revealed truth.  For example, the report says, "we agree that God loves everyone and desires to save everyone, but we differ as to why only some are ultimately saved."  Also, "We agree that everyone has inherited Adam's hopelessly fallen sin nature, but we differ as to whether we also inherit the guilt."  Numerous other theological interpretations are mentioned.  The document encourages us to "live in the tensions of unanswered questions" and that these tensions should "spur us to search the Scriptures more dutifully."

Second, the statement reinforces that the Baptist Faith and Message should be THE confession among Southern Baptists as the doctrinal guide for our cooperation.  Some of us may be fond of other historic Baptist confessions because they line up better with our personal theology, but as a cooperating Southern Baptist only the Baptist Faith and Message is relevant and Calvinists and non-Calvinists can affirm its statements.  Doctrinally, our unity is to be found here.

Third, the committee urges us all to get along with each other!  Neither Calvinists or non-Calvinists should insist on their view when it comes to cooperation.  This will probably prove to be the most difficult aspect of our denominational life together.  It is easier to say we will "agree to disagree" and not allow our theological commitments to prejudice us against others than to actually demonstrate such a commitment.  My hope is that we will embrace the spirit of the committee's statement and move on together with a renewed commitment to cooperation characterized by love for one another and for a lost world that needs to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not our squabbling over theological tensions.  

I encourage every Southern Baptist to take the time to get informed. You can read the full report here.

08 May 2013

Ugh! The New Church in My Town is Killing My Old Church!

I'm choosing to write about something that some of us pastors would rather not talk about.  Furthermore, I'm not writing about this hypothetically.  This is happening in my ministry context right now and I believe the Lord is stretching me and teaching me a thing or two about leadership in the process.  Consequently, I want to breech this sensitive subject, bare my soul, and maybe be an encouragement to my church and other pastors in the same boat.

In my small town God is doing no small work in a new church plant.  This church in three short years has gone from nothing to attracting 500-600 in Sunday worship.  This church had over 1,000 on Easter Sunday!  This church is drawing people from all the surrounding counties as well as our own.  This church is the talk of the town and rightfully so.

This church is part of my own denomination of Southern Baptists.  Three years ago this church received a generous sum of money to be a "high impact church plant" of the Kentucky Baptist Convention (some 2,400 churches).  This support allowed the church planter (the pastor) to move his family and launch the work.  This is something our convention does across the state.  As a denomination our hope is to start churches in areas where new, vibrant churches are needed. So, my church along with every other Kentucky Baptist church that gives to the Cooperative Program helped to get this church started. 

I remember talking to this pastor before he moved to Hazard, when the church was still just a dream of what the Lord was leading him to do.  He and I already were acquainted, and I was completely supportive of this move, if indeed this was what God was doing in his life and in my community.  Along the way, our church helped him out by getting the word out in the first stages of the church plant and lending space and equipment.  I was always glad to help.

But here's the problem.  This church was not supposed to get this successful this quickly in my ministry backyard!  As my old church (founded in 1898) continues to struggle in so many ways, this new church has exploded into the largest, most exciting church in the county.  This congregation has introduced a new style of worship, reached unchurched and dechurched people, seen many conversions, and impacted the community for the Gospel.  They are getting it done!  Consequently, they are also drawing some church folks away from other churches.  I've just recently lost my first active family to the new church, and it hurt. 

So, what am I to do?  How do I respond to this reality?  I've been working through this as a pastor and the following is what I believe God has taught me.  If you're a pastor in a similar situation, I hope it will appropriately rebuke, encourage and challenge you.

1. Resist envy and the temptation to criticize

Envy is an ugly thing and we pastors are not immune to it.  One can feel it beginning to rise up in the soul when another is having the success that you would wish for yourself.  We all know that in church work we are not supposed to be competing.  "We are all on the same team," is the right thing to say.  Sometimes, I think we pastors say these words attempting to convince our own hearts of this truth because in our hearts we don't affirm this sentiment.  Envy ultimately leads you to begin to resent the more successful work and secretly wish for it's failure.  Yep, I just wrote the words we are all afraid to admit. 

Ask yourself this question:  How would I react inwardly if I heard that the new, growing church that took my church members suddenly had a horrible conflict or scandal?  Inwardly, would you be grieved for the church or would you privately rejoice in their misfortune?  You may want to keep that answer to yourself.  Like I said, envy is an ugly thing.

One of the hallmarks of an envious spirit, even if you try to mask it, is the irresistible urge to criticize the new church.  You'll be tempted to dismiss what God is doing by saying things like, "It's the newness that's attracting people, nothing more."  "Sure, they're drawing a big crowd, but look how superficial it is!"  "Can you believe the gimmicks they use to get people in!"  "Yeah, they put on a good show, but it won't last."  And on and on it goes within the circle of envious pastors and lay leaders.

This ungodly, self-destructive spirit you must stop in yourself before it consumes you.  I think because we are sinners, even if saved sinners, we naturally start down this road.  But as soon as you recognize it in yourself, God tells you clearly you don't have to let it control you.  Christ has broken the power of sin in your life and you are no longer a slave to it.  Go read Romans 6 again if you need to right now.  I think the first step of moving on effectively in the ministry to which God has called me is to repent of the envy I may have in my own heart first.

2. Start taking notes

Instead of being envious of the new, vibrant church, start paying attention to what they're doing.  I'm not saying start doing what they are doing.  That would be a mistake.  But pay attention to the vision that is driving their activity.  Instead of resenting the new pastor, take him to lunch and listen to his story and pick his brain - even if he is 20 or 30 years younger than you!

The truth is that he is just as insecure about many things - just like you.  But he does have something that you and your church lacks.  He began the church with a clearly articulated vision that has fell on much good soil and blossomed.  The enthusiasm he has for the vision has been caught by others, motivating them to serve, go, tell, bring, and share.  This vision has translated into the excitement that you see and wish you could see in your own church.  This is why you've lost good people to this church.  They are possibly attracted to a clear, compelling vision of which they can be part that they know doesn't exist in your church. 

3. Lead your flock to recast a vision

At one time your old church was new.  At one time your ho-hum church had an exciting vision.  The problem is that it lost it along the way and now the church simply is on a cruise-control, maintenance mode.  This is the kiss of death for a church.  First Baptist Hazard was founded by the visionary pastor A.S. Petrey in 1898.  The church grew consistently and planted several other churches in the region until peaking out in the 1960s.  Since then the church has been on a trajectory toward death.  For the most part it's been a slow death, but dead is dead no matter how or when you get there.

However, my old church like yours has an opportunity to reboot.  On our current path the church is doomed; however, that doom is not necessary.  It can be avoided and new life can come to the church.  But the church must grab hold of a new vision.  It must embrace change, dream big, and make the necessary sacrifices.  New church plants often talk about the "launching" of a new church.  Careful planning, communicating, preparing and promoting of this launch is crucial to the ultimate success of the new church.  An old church needs to take a similar approach; however, for the old church this is a "re-launch."  But this re-launch can be just as dramatic as starting a new church.

In a church where the vision has faded through the years, the pastor must lead the congregation through a long-range strategic planning process.  I'm closing in on the completing of my fifth year at FBC Hazard.  When I first arrived there was much work to do in regards to stabilizing ministry, improving morale, listening to the needs, and building trust.  I came in on the heels of some devastating conflict.  Now, the church has stabilized, the spirit is good, I can see clearly where the church has been and what the needs are, and I have the trust of my congregation.  Now it's time to move toward a new, bold, big vision for the future.

I've never taken a church through a bonafide long-range planning process, so I've had to go back to school.  I figured out that we have to tackle two sides to the same coin to do this right.  First I needed to assemble a team to assist me in the long-range planning and I needed to figure out how to do it.  So, I started reading.  The guide I landed on is Aubrey Malphurs' Advanced Strategic Planning: A New Model for Church and Ministry Leaders.  I can't tell you how thankful I am for this book.  It has become my step-by-step guide.  Get this book. Read it. Use it.

Second, I knew that our church's present Constitution and By-Laws had to be updated and significantly altered to align with the emerging vision for the church.  That document needed to have embedded in it this vision.  It needed to reflect the structure, organization and procedure for strategically pursuing this vision.  Therefore, we are currently at work on making the needed changes in this document to be in harmony with the emerging vision from the long-range strategic planning process.

This long-range strategic planning process is far from complete, but it's becoming crystal clear just how big this is and how much is riding on it's success.  Like many dying churches, FBC Hazard is at a crossroads.  One road is the easy path - the one of least resistance.  It is the path of denial, maintenance, status quo, and minimal impact that will ultimately lead to pain and death.  The other road is the harder path - the one of change and sacrifice.  It is the path of honest evaluation, prayerful thinking, hard work and real faith in God's provision. 

I'm desirous for my old church to breath the fresh air of new life.  I believe that these dry bones can live again because God can breath new life into them.  But our motivation has to be a God-sized vision that will infuse a congregation with renewed enthusiasm, attract new people, and reach the lost with the Gospel.  With what I've learned so far, here is what this vision must possess:

1. It must have biblical foundation

The values on which the mission and vision, and ultimately the strategy to accomplish the vision, must be biblical values.  What God loves, we must love.  The principles God lays down in His Word for us, must give shape to the fundamental values that will drive the ministry.  Answer these questions from the Bible:  What is the church?  Whose church is it? What is the purpose of the church?  What does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like?  The answers to these kind of questions will get you pointed in the right direction.

2. It must be big and bold

Most often we just think too small.  We tend to think only about our limitations based on how little money we have, how poor our facilities may be, how uncommitted people can be, or how previous efforts have failed.  What we forget is that God can accomplish surprising and amazing results with our little.  Can we have faith for God to do well beyond what we might normally expect?  I think we have to.  This is the compelling part of the vision that will excite people.  So what if they think you're crazy!  We must get a bold vision that is bigger than the sum of our budget, personnel and past experience.

3. It must fit who we are as a congregation

I've spoken of the new, growing church in my town.  God has blessed them and is doing a great work there through them.  I believe that I can learn much by observing what's happening in that ministry.  However, it would be a huge mistake to think that their style, organization, methods, or any combination of such things is the reason for the success.  Again, it's the vision that is driving all those things that is the reason.  My vision for FBC Hazard must fit who we are.  It must flow authentically from our personalities, our passions, our style, and what we value and can offer our community.  I'm not sure I know exactly what all this is yet, but I'm determined with my team to figure it out.

4. It must be measurable 
The purpose of a long-range plan is to develop a strategy to accomplish the vision.  How do you know if you're accomplishing the vision?  You have to be able to measure it.  A long-range plan should set specific goals over specific periods of time.  And part of the boldness of a vision is not being afraid of failure.  Failures are only failures if it causes you to give up.  Otherwise, what one person might call failure, I'll choose to call a learning experience.  A vision is a snap-shot of the future as you hope it will be, God willing.   How many people do you want to reach?  What kind of ministry do you want to see impacting lives?  How many lost souls do you want to see be reconciled to God through Jesus?  Don't see this a presumption, see it as vision.

If you're a pastor of a dying church, take heart.  All may not be lost.  Regrettably, some churches will die.  And if a church will not be passionate for God and be committed to the Great Commission, then maybe it should die.  But for many churches that are on the downward slope, it's certainly not too late.  But the time to act is now.  If you have the trust of your congregation and you can confidently assemble a team of committed people, start the long-range planning process as soon as you can.  Do your homework first.  You're steering the ship.  Know where you're going before you lead others.  But get started and make the impact that God called you to make!

P.S. The new church isn't really killing your church, even if you're losing members to it.  Your church was already doing that to itself before they moved in.

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