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.

The Two Sides of a Church's Reputation

There are at least two things that are true about reputations.  First, a good reputation is a source of blessing and favor.  Second, a bad...

More Recent Popular Posts