The Christian Dilemma: Balancing Grace and Truth

In 1997 pastor Ken Smith of University Reformed Presbyterian Church sat down and wrote a letter to the most unlikely recipient.  Dr. Rosaria Champaign was a tenured English professor at Syracuse University and widely renowned as a scholar in feminist theory.  Dr. Champaign was a lesbian, a LBGTQ activist and outspoken critic of the “religious right”.  She had written a scathing article on the Promise Keepers movement and Christianity in general regarding their “politics and hatred toward people like me.”  Her article generated a big response both of support and criticism.  As would be expected the critical letters came from Christians which only furthered her anger and skepticism toward the church and Christianity in general.  While most were quickly read and tossed in the trash one letter in particular intrigued Rosaria, it was the letter from Pastor Ken.  The letter was not filled with criticism or “I need to set you straight”, it was written with compassion and, as Rosaria describes, “graciousness.”   The letter asked thought provoking questions that the accomplished scholar had never considered and it ended with the simple invitation, “come and join my family for dinner.”

Some of her colleagues encouraged her to visit with Pastor Ken because it would be “good for her research.”  That evening at dinner pastor Ken and his wife Floy did not try and conform her to their beliefs nor did they share the gospel.  They simply began a relationship with her and maintained it over the coming months.  She began reading the Bible and meeting regularly with Pastor Ken and his wife.  At first she read the Bible for research as she prepared to write a scholarly article on the “religious right” but soon she found herself immersed in the beauty of God’s word.  Through the relationship with genuine believers and the power of God’s Word Dr. Rosaria Champaign asked Christ into her heart.  She would leave her homosexual life and would later marry a pastor and today Rosaria Champaign Butterfield is a shining witness for Christ as she displays the power of conversion.  Her book Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert tells of her journey to Christ and the unlikely road she travelled to find eternal purpose.   If it had not been for Pastor Ken and his wife and their perfect balance of showing grace while infusing truth, she likely would never have been exposed to the love of Christ.

The Christian church has not always been effective at finding the equilibrium of grace and truth.  In our history, the pendulum has often swung to one extreme.  On the one hand too much grace is a license for liberty where choices of morality are left to the whim and flavor of the individual.  For a Christian to show only grace to a sinner is akin to knowing someone has cancer and never telling them or offering them medical treatment. The other extreme offers too much truth which leads to legalism and a rigid pharisaicalism.  Thus, the Christian dilemma.  How can Christians find the perfect balance of grace and truth?  I will admit I have not always been very good at this.  I have often used the phrase, “hate the sin and not the sinner.”  Yet, in reality I will admit that my heart has burned with anger toward certain groups and particularly world views that ridicule the things I most dearly love and cherish regarding my faith. Don’t get me wrong, I SHOULD be bothered by the effects of sin and Satan.  It should bother me that millions are ambivalent to the gospel and refuse to hear the truth of Christ.  But, why are they ambivalent to the truth of Christ?  Could it be that we have not presented it very well to them? After all, what if a homosexual couple walked into your church Sunday?  How would that go in your congregation?  Rosaria Butterfield speaks of how she, for weeks, would sit in her car across from Pastor Ken’s church because she was scared of how the congregants would respond to her.  When she finally got out of her car and walked in she was shocked to find people who were genuinely welcoming and loving toward her.  It is not that we have to love the choices that a person is making, but we MUST make a choice to love the person.  Where does the Christian look for the perfect balance of grace and love and how do we begin to implement it in our life?  The answer is found in John 1: 14-17.  The first 18 verses of the gospel is a prequel to the gospel narrative.  John sums up his own understanding of Christ in these verses.  In verse 14 we read, “The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed his Glory, the Glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of GRACE and TRUTH.”  And in verses 16 and 17 John speaks of how we have received “grace upon grace” through Christ and how “GRACE and TRUTH came through Jesus Christ.”  Jesus was and is the perfect mix of grace and truth.

Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.  This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such despicable people, even eating with them!”  Luke 15: 1-2 NLT.  Jesus would combat their complaints with three beautiful parables that perfectly illustrate God’s love for those who are broken.  The parable of the shepherd, the coin and the lost son all reflect something lost, someone seeking and the remarkable and joyous celebration once they are united.   The ministry of Jesus exhibited grace to those whom the church refused to give it.  To the woman at the well he offered “living water”, to the one caught in adultery he would save her from condemnation and offer her a better way.  To Zacchaeus he gave hope and purpose, to Mary Magdalene, he shewed away 7 demons.  To the sinful woman with the alabaster jar, he simply offered himself and the list goes on and on.   Grace was even shown to those who crucified him.  Jesus continually offered grace upon grace to those whom the religious leaders scorned.  “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, sick people do.  I have come to call sinners to turn from their sins, not to spend my time with those who think they are already good enough.” Luke 5:31 NLT.

Yet grace alone would not have been sufficient enough.  If salvation is seen as a house, grace would be the welcome mat and truth would be the door in which one enters the house of God.  While offering grace to the Samaritan woman in John 4 he confronts her sin, after chasing away the adulterous woman’s accusers he tells her to “go and sin no more.”  Salvation came to Zacchaeus but only after he was willing to give his wealth away.  Speaking of truth Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” John 14:6. 

Christians must come to a place of perfect equilibrium between grace and truth, light instead of heat.  Our anger must be directed at the one who has caused the mess and not the one dealing with messy things.  The angriest response we see of Christ was in confronting the money changers in the temple.  He didn’t get angry with the sinners, he was angry with the church leaders.  His response to the broken and lost was always predictable, he showed grace, love and compassion.  “He felt great pity for the crowds that came, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36.  What if Rosario Champaign were to walk into your church this Sunday?  How would you respond?  What if she is sitting in the office next to you every day at work?  Have your ever established a relationship with her?  The world should recognize us by our love, compassion and grace. It seems the world only knows what Christians are against and not what we can offer.  And when they recognize our grace, we will then and only then have opportunity to infuse the truth of the Gospel.  Our churches must be hospitals for the sick while dispensing the truth that can make them well.  The answer to our dilemma is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Show grace to someone today, it very well may give you opportunity to share truth tomorrow.

 

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Why Plant New Churches?

This was a question posed to me in a phone conversation with an associational leader.  I didn’t call him to speak about church planting, but I guess he just needed to vent. “I have many established churches that are struggling to keep their doors open. We need to focus more on revitalizing these churches and less on planting new ones. We already have enough churches, we just need to strengthen the ones we have.”  While I certainly sympathize with this associational leaders concern for the churches in his area I also recognize his statements to be a little short-sighted.  C. Peter Wagner is widely known as the father of the modern day church growth movement.  In his book, Church Planting for a Great Harvest Wagner states, “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”  Interestingly Wagner wrote that statement 26 years ago when church planting wasn’t a hot topic.  What did Wagner see that some don’t see in relation to the importance of planting new churches?

I sometimes hear people say things like, “We don’t need new churches because there are plenty of unused seats in our existing churches” or “A new church will only take people out of the pews of already struggling churches.”  But are those statements actual facts or simply statements based on assumptions from uninformed observers?  The truth is that we MUST plant new churches and I think there are many reasons why this must be an emphasis in the Southern Baptist Convention and other mainline denominations.

  1. Planting new churches helps fulfill the Great Commission.  If we are going to make disciples of all nations then we must begin new works that will effectively reach the nations.  I would make the argument that this was exactly the Apostle Paul’s mindset.  When you study the book of Acts you find that Paul went to the major cities of his day for one reason, to plant churches.  Paul first went to Lystra, Derbe, Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth and other major urban areas to plant churches that would plant more churches. Paul understood that if the Gospel was to spread effectively he needed to reach the major cities and build strong churches that would begin new works in the surrounding areas.  We know that he placed Titus in Crete in order to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5), which essentially means, “train new church leaders”.   Most scholars agree that the church at Colosse was a church plant which began through Paul’s work in Ephesus. (Col 1:7; 4:12).  If church planting was the focus of the Apostle Paul it should certainly be the focus of the church today.
  2. It takes all kind of churches to reach all kinds of people.  America is growing increasingly diverse while many churches remain narrowly focused on a specific demographic.  In a recent study Demographer William Frey, research professor at the University of Michigan, found some interesting trends in regards to the growing diversity in the United States.  He focuses on the diversity in terms of age, “Forty-seven states and 90 percent of the counties have an absolute decline in white population under age 20. All net growth of children in this country is coming from racial and ethnic minorities.” (Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America).  That is a shocking statement, but what does it mean for the church?  If we are going to reach the “nations” we must realize that the “nations” are coming to us and largely they are coming unreached.  A Pew Research Study released in March 2016 revealed the changing landscape of American population.  “By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. Much of this change has been (and will be) driven by immigration. Nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the U.S. in the past 50 years, mostly from Latin America and Asia. Today, a near-record 14% of the country’s population is foreign born compared with just 5% in 1965. Over the next five decades, the majority of U.S. population growth is projected to be linked to new Asian and Hispanic immigration.” (10 Demographic Trends that are Shaping the US and the World, Pew Research Council).  As the church of Jesus Christ how should we respond to these statistics? We could shake our fist at such numbers and galvanize our selves in our churches in order to maintain the uniformity that most congregations now realize.  This is not Great Commission thinking.  I believe that Jesus Christ would rather his church begin new churches that will best reach this growing diverse population.  We must be “in front” of the changing dynamics of diversity and not playing catch up for the next 50 years.  Lets be honest, most SBC churches in rural America will not effectively reach a diverse population and many have no desire to.  Yet if we are going to be true to the command of Christ to “make disciples of all nations” then we MUST plant churches that will most effectively reach all kinds of people.
  3. Many of our established churches will close their doors in the next 20 years.  I hate that my fingers just typed that last statement.  It is a sobering thought yet it is undeniable.  In his book, This Present Future Reggie McNeal states, “The current church culture in North America is on life support.  It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations from a previous world order. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalists die off.” He also states, “80% of money given to churches comes from people aged 55 and older”.  Wow! Our state convention has placed strong emphasis on church revitalization in the past 3 years.  Much resources have been given to send “church coaches” to declining churches in order to assist those church leaders in assessing the current church culture and recommending systemic changes to promote new growth.  I have seen evidence that this is working, yet most churches that need this the most don’t seek assistance. For many churches, by the time they do ask for help it is too late, the dye has already been cast. I see the “ground truth” of this as I travel.  We should assist church leaders to revitalize these churches who are in decline and celebrate the success stories, but also realize that many churches will close.  For every church that closes we must replace it with a new work that has a better chance to reach new people for Christ.
  4. New churches are often more effective in reaching new people.  “Dozens of denominational studies have confirmed that the average new church gains most of its new members (60-80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any church, while churches over 10-15 years of age gain 80-90% of new members by transfer from other congregations.” (Tim Keller, Why Plant Churches) I know there are other variables and this isn’t always the case, but I believe that new churches do a better job reaching and baptizing new believers and study after study reveal that truth.
  5. Church population is losing ground to numerical population.  From 1990-2004 America grew in population 18.1% while the church population slightly declined. (ChurchLeaders.com) Thom Rainer has stated many times that the greatest concern for the evangelical church is the rapid rate in which churches are unable to keep up with the growing population rate.  Every time I hear hear a well meaning person say, “The last thing we need is another new church, we already have enough churches”, I cringe. We may have lots of churches, but most aren’t missional and most are not reaching the growing diversity in population.(and have no desire to reach them.)  In Alabama, (the Bible belt) we are accustomed to churches on every corner, but in most areas of the united states this is not the case.  I once preached a revival in Montana and was struck by the fact that we drove 30-50 miles each day without seeing an evangelical church.  In America (and yes in Alabama too) we must be robust in our church planting efforts.

We are blessed in our state to have a tremendous church planting strategy through ALSBOM and Church Planting Strategist Lamar Duke, yet it cannot be accomplished by one man or one organization.  If thriving churches would assist our state convention to plant more churches in the coming years we could more effectively carry out the Great Commission in our state and beyond. Also, if pastors, ministers, associational missionaries and lay leaders would all pray for the Lord to send out more workers in the field and for effective new works to begin we would truly see a Great Commission resurgence. So yes, lets revitalize our declining established churches, but also maintain a strong commitment to begin new works for the glory of God.

Five ways to make your church”Guest Ready”.

 

Is your church “guest ready”? Most church members never consider this question because they assume the answer is YES!  However, after visiting a number of churches over the past few years it is my observation that most churches are not very “guest ready”.  The best advice I have seen pertaining to this subject is actually found on an old shampoo commercial, “Your never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  That is true in the dandruff world but it is also true for your church.  First impression is everything.   When guests visit your church they begin making decisions regarding a return visit long before the sermon is over.  Actually, many will make their decision shortly after they drive on to your campus. (I am not saying I agree with this mentality but it is a simple fact.)  What they see or don’t see may be as important as what they experience in your church service.  It is a good idea for church leaders to consider the following points to make sure you are prepared for that family that visits this Sunday.

Here are a few things to consider (along with thought provoking questions) in making your church “Guest ready”:  

  1.  Carefully consider your “first impression.”  Often times a simple work day and a small amount of budget money can go a long way in making a guests “first impression” more pleasant.  I think a church’s campus ought to be one of the most beautiful campuses in town.  After all, you are the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. (I realize the church is the people not the building, but I didn’t want to speak on the attractiveness of your members) A run down campus sends a strong message to potential guests.  They will make initial judgments in regards to how aesthetically pleasing your campus appears.  Questions to consider: Is the campus attractive to prospective guests?  Do repairs need to be made to the parking lot?  Is there a covered drop off area in case of weather issues?  Are there simple repairs to your building that need to be done such as paint, pressure washing, brick repair, disheveled steps?
  2. Carefully consider your parking.  The parking lot is usually the most overlooked part of the campus even though it is the first thing your feet touch when you come to church.  I remember as a pastor of a growing church my frustration when we hit an attendance wall.  We could not seem to bust through a certain attendance number.  After inviting a pastor friend of mine to church one Sunday I realized why we were not able to eclipse a certain attendance number.  After circling our parking lot for over 10 minutes looking for a spot he said to me, “You need more parking.”  A light went off in my head!  That was our number one attendance inhibitor.  But it is more than just having adequate parking, you should also consider the condition of your parking lot.  Questions to consider: What is the current number of parking spots on your campus?  Estimating 3 people per car, what is the total number of people that could park on your campus? Are there dedicated parking spots for guests?  People with disabilities? Is there a proper flow of traffic in your parking lot when entering and exiting the campus?  Do the parking lines need repainting or are they clearly visible?
  3. Carefully consider your signage.   Directional signage should be visible to guests as soon as they enter campus.  Arrows should point to the most important areas such as the sanctuary, nursery and children’s areas and welcome center.  Doors should be clearly marked along with areas of intersecting hallways.  There is never a situation when churches have “too many directional signs.”  In this case too much information is actually a good thing.   Questions to consider: When guests enter your parking lot are there signs pointing them to dedicated parking areas?  Is there clear signage pointing guests to nursery, children’s space, youth areas and sanctuary?  Are the signs easily readable?  Are they outdated, faded or scratched?  Are they highly visible?  Is there a low likelihood that guests would ever ask the question, “Where do we go?”
  4.  Carefully consider your accessibility.  Many churches, particularly older buildings, are simply not handicap accessible.  If your church isn’t prepared for those with disabilities you are inadvertently saying, “If you have a disability you are not welcome here.” Questions to consider: Is your church accessible to everyone who would come?  Are handicap parking spots close to level entrances or ramps?  Are bathrooms and sanctuary accessible to those with disabilities or the elderly?
  5. Carefully consider how you greet your guests.  The majority of churches I visit have a couple of men handing out bulletins at the door of the sanctuary.  While this is always a nice thing to do, IT ISN’T ENOUGH! I have been shocked at the number of men who have handed me a bulletin without looking me in the eye and giving a simple “welcome, glad to have you.”  Greeters are not the same as ushers. (Go back and read that last statement again for clarity).  Greeters must GREET.  The most effective churches have a mix of demographics that make up their greeter ministry.  Men, women, teens and even children can take part in this important ministry.  Greeters should always hold out a friendly hand and share their name as they ask the name of the one they are shaking hands.  Name tags are critically important as well.  In the 1980’s Walmart began monopolizing the shopping store market with a similar approach.  If it works at Walmart, I am pretty sure it will work at your church!  (Blue vests are optional).  Place greeters in the parking lot and every entrance so guests are welcomed more than once.  Remember, guests will likely not leave complaining that too many people said, “Welcome, we are glad you’re here.” Questions to consider: Do greeters do more than just hand out a bulletin?  Are greeters intentionally warm and welcoming to those who come to your campus?  Does the first touch come before the guests or members enter the facility?

What are you waiting for?  Walk through these questions as a “guest” of your church.  Take a notebook, pen  and a copy of this article and evaluate how “guest ready” your church is for Sunday.  The guests are coming, are you prepared?  Remember, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you a Spiritual Tourist?

 

I wish I could say that I thought of that title but I didn’t.  Recently I was speaking at a pastor’s conference and one of the pastors in the room spoke of the frustration of church members moving to the church down the street in search of a “greater experience.”  He referred to them as “spiritual tourists.”  I thought that was a pretty good term.  A tourist by definition is someone who visits a place temporarily in order to get the most out of the experience before moving on to the next stop.  Unfortunately that explains the church experience of too many Christians and the watered down commitment toward church membership today.

Let’s be honest about church growth, statistics consistently show that much of it is transfer growth.  Church growth expert George Hunter estimates that 80% of church growth in evangelical churches is transfer growth.  In other words, as Great Commission churches we are called to reach the lost in our communities, but often we mostly reach members of other congregations.  Not to say church leaders are intentionally trying to steal sheep, most do not.  Much of the problem is rooted in a consumer mindset that has taken hold of so many Christians.

In 2009, a Lifeway research study of Protestant church pastors revealed “49 percent of new attendees during the last five years have transferred from other congregations, while 32 percent were unchurched and 19 percent were children born to adults attending the church.” (http://www.lifeway.com/Article/LifeWay-Research-finds-ministry-expansion-doesn’t-automatically-lead-to-attendance-growth).  Based on this research, much of the church growth comes from transfer growth and organic growth (68%).   This trend is not healthy for the church and is actually working against us.   For instance, in the SBC baptism and membership numbers are at the lowest level in years and consumer Christianity isn’t helping to reverse those numbers.  Church leaders are putting most of their energy into keeping the sheep in the pen and less energy on reaching the lost sheep. The prevailing question today is “How do we keep members happy and satisfied with their church experience?”  It should be, “How do we reach more unchurched and unsaved people in our community?”  Thom Rainer has written prolifically on this subject, but most of his writings have a consistent theme worth restating, “church membership is not about me.”  I will admit as a pastor, much of my frustration comes from this mindset in members.  I am amazed at how quickly someone will leave a church that God has used mightily in their life.  If there is an issue that arises rather than staying and working with church leaders to overcome, they simply jump ship.  Nothing frustrates a pastor more than spending much time reaching a family only to see them leave the first time they disagree with a decision. Even worse the next week they are on Facebook bragging about their new found church down the street. (Seriously, please stop doing that.)  If they only knew how it discourages the heart of the pastor and church leaders.  It is crushing.

My parents have been members of the same church since I was in the nursery,  I am now 44 years old.  I have watched their church go through struggle after struggle, yet there stands Terry and Jean Blackwell serving, giving and helping.  I have always respected their unwavering commitment to Cottage Hill Baptist Church.  They will not leave their church, because they realize that it is not about them.  May their tribe increase!

I realize there are legitimate reasons to leave a church, no doubt.  

  1. Major doctrinal issues or the church is practicing things that are unbiblical.
  2. When the vision of the leadership and the direction of the church doesn’t match God’s calling in your life.
  3. If you are moving to another town, county, state.
  4. When your church is consistently stuck in tradition and is being disobedient to the Great Commission and you see no hope for change.
  5. If your preacher begins handling dangerous reptiles or takes you to the beach on a retreat and announces he has created a new kool-aid recipe.

Even if any of these describe your church (Except #5) you should exhaust every opportunity to bring positive change before leaving and spend much time in prayer about the decision.

Ultimately, it comes down to this question, “Am I a consumer of my church’s ministries or a contributor to my church’s ministries?”  That is a great question.  Think twice before leaving your church.  I was profoundly saddened after I left my last pastorate to see how many people left after I went to my next assignment.  It has been one of the most crushing experiences of my life. The change in pastor is no reason to leave your church.  Here are some thoughts to consider:

Your church membership is part of your testimony.  Part of your testimony of God’s work in your life is a direct result of how God is using you in your church.  If you are a spiritual tourist, you are hurting the integrity of your testimony.

The Bible teaches us that God places us in a church for a specific purpose. “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” Eph. 4:16.  He is the one who joined you to that congregation to do your part through the spiritual gift he has placed in your life. When you change your church membership, you strongly need to consider this biblical fact.

Every church has issues, the only perfect church is found in heaven.  Sometimes the grass seems greener on the other side simply because it has more, well you know, to fertilize it. (If you catch my drift or smell). If you are leaving your church because of an issue it may be that you will find the same issue at you next church (or worse).

Your first question of church membership should be, “How can I serve?” and not “How can this church serve me?”  Consumer mindset vs. Contributor mindset

Think twice before you leave your church.  You may be the very one God has placed in that church to enact change and renewal.  Spiritual tourists visit and consume.  Spiritual giants stay and contribute.  Spiritual tourists seek to get the most out of a church experience. Spiritual giants pray that their church will get the most out of them.

 

Miscarriages and Mother’s Day

 

It has been the tradition of many churches to give out awards or special gifts on Mother’s Day to the youngest mother, oldest mother,etc.  Often times special recognition is given to new moms or baby dedications take place on Mother’s Day.  In no way am I recommending that churches should stop these recognitions.  They are very meaningful and mothers are worthy of our honor, no doubt.  I am asking church leaders to be aware that this Sunday you will have some in your church that are hurting.  In the United States 15%-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, thus the chance of someone in your church having recently suffered the emotional, physical and spiritual pain of the end of a pregnancy is likely.

In 2000 our second daughter was born.  We enjoyed two healthy uneventful pregnancies with our first two girls.  However, in the next two years my wife and I would endure the pain of two miscarriages.  I remember the shock and dismay of both of those events.  It made no sense to us that we could have two uneventful pregnancies and then, suddenly, we would be unable to have a third child.   The depth of pain my wife and I went through is much deeper than I could ever explain through this article.  As a husband, I felt ill equipped to help my wife through the pain she was experiencing.  I saw her struggle through the emotions of anger, disappointment, sadness and concerns about future pregnancies.  It has been my experience that many women experience feelings of failure after a miscarriage. They sometimes blame themselves for not being able to carry the baby full term. As a husband, I learned the best assistance I could give was to hold her tight and cry with her. (Which I did, a lot.)  Those two Mother’s Days for us were bitter sweet.  Yes, we had two daughters we adored, but we also knew we had two children in the Lord’s presence and not with us.  According to the Scriptures, life begins at conception.  The newly formed baby isn’t just a piece of tissue, it is a person created in the image of God.  The Psalmist was clear on this point, “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb.  Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!  Your workmanship is marvelous and how well I know it.  You watched me being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.  You saw me before I was born.  Every day of my life was recorded in your book.  Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” Ps. 139: 13-16 NLT.  I believe that when I get to heaven I will, for the first time, hold my two babies.  How precious the thought.  On January 9, 2003, our third daughter was born and we rejoice in the Lord for his goodness in the gift of Averie.  We relished in her birth knowing the emotions of the two pregnancies before. Through those experiences I came to better understand the emotional, spiritual and physical pains that came with miscarriage.  It is often called a “failed pregnancy” which further leads the mother to feel that somehow she “failed” in her role.  And then there are the well meaning people in the church along with family members.  People who (bless their hearts) are trying to make the woman feel better.  They say things like, “Well, if the Lord wanted you to have that baby you would have.”  Or maybe, “It just wasn’t the Lord’s will.”  It seems with every comment the pain gets worse.  Many ladies just stay away from church for a while to avoid the conversations.

Perhaps Mother’s Day is the worst of the days for those who have been through this pain. While we celebrate the joys of Motherhood, we should find opportunities to recognize those in our midst who are hurting.  This Mother’s Day, I am asking church leaders to consider those ladies who strongly desire to celebrate Mother’s day, but haven’t had the opportunity.

I encourage church leaders to have a special time of prayer for those moms who have suffered loss this past year.   You don’t need to point them out (please don’t make them stand), just a simple healing prayer for hurting moms can go a long way in making this Mother’s Day a little more tolerable.

Also a reminder, be thoughtful in what you say to those who have suffered through a miscarriage.   The right heart that offers the wrong words can be damaging. Words aren’t even necessary. A simple touch, hug or smile can speak a thousand words.  For those Mom’s who have been through the pain, be a blessing to those who are going through similar struggles.  “He comforts us in all our troubles so we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” 2 Corninthians 1:4.

Also in your church will be ladies who are dealing with infertility and Moms who have lost children to death. Be sensitive to these deeply wounded ladies. Church should be a place where the wounded find caring, wonderful people who “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.”  This Mother’s Day honor Moms, recognize their significance. But also recognize that some Mom’s may not need a gift or flower, they may just need to know that someone cares.

 

Great Commission Revisited

 

Next month, the Olympic torch will begin its journey from Athens, Greece to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.  The journey will take 3 months and will cover 10,000 miles in an airplane and 12,000 more miles on the ground.  Once the torch makes it to Brazil, hand after hand will pass it on until the final runner brings it into the Olympic stadium for the official lighting of the Olympic cauldron which is the flame of competition.   What a journey!  Person after person pass the torch, mile after mile until it reaches the climactic moment.  In Matthew 28: 16-20 and Acts 1:8, Jesus lights the gospel torch and passes it to the disciples.  Their commission was to take the gospel torch to the ends of the earth, leaving a trail of faithful disciples in their wake.  I have heard these verses preached and taught most of my life.  Every time it has been taught to me only as an evangelistic statement, but it is so much more than that.  Could it be we have misunderstood this important statement?  Maybe our churches are in decline not because we lack evangelistic fervor, but because we are not committed to disciple-making?

While the number of churches added each year has increased at a steady pace throughout the convention’s history, the number of baptisms has been in steady decline since 1999. SBC churches are seeing the fewest baptisms per church since the 1920s.  Chuck Kelley states, “We have more churches, more pastors and staff members, more money and more resources and steadily fewer baptisms per church.”  Last year, over 11,000 SBC churches recorded no baptisms.  I am convinced that if churches will commit to be disciple-making churches we will see revival and revitalization.

The statement that Jesus makes in this passage is a clear mandate. Combined with his statements in Acts 1, this would be his last words to his church.  These are verses we have heard for years, but I am under the belief that most Christians have not really examined what he said and how he modeled it.  You see, the great commission is Jesus simply passing the torch to his disciples.  In other words, he is asking them to do what he has modeled for them for the previous 3 years of his ministry.  Every one of the eleven disciples who heard this statement had been reached and taught by him. Those guys were examples of how this commission is supposed to work.  Everything he is telling them to do, he had done for them.

These 11 guys come to this mountain somewhat bewildered, confused, and unsure.  V. 17 gives clear indication of that.  They must be thinking, “what now?”  Some worshiped, some doubted, but all listened. The statement that Jesus gives to them is of critical importance due to the information that Matthew has given us. There was a certain segment of his followers who were still unsettled in their faith.  That is why the words of verse 18 are of super importance.  Jesus made a declarative statement, “ALL AUTHORITY has been given to me.”  Hard to argue with that statement considering he had been dead in the grave a few weeks before.  The word authority (exousia) means delegated authority.  His authority was given to him by his father.  Authority over death, hell, sin, disease, the earthly realm and the spiritual realm. (Phil 2: 10). That authority was amazing, unprecedented and unparalleled, but the most amazing thing is what happens next.

Notice the transition after that verse, “Therefore, Go!”  The word “therefore” was him imparting this authority over to them.  Jesus is saying, “I have taught you, I have shown you, I have led you and all authority belongs to me, therefore I am passing it on to you.”  They were not being commission simply to go in their own power and hand out gospel tracts.  This statement is critical in understanding the rest of the verses.  I have the authority and I am giving it to you so go in my name.  Luke shares with us in Acts 1 that he also said that not only would they have authority to go, but they would be empowered to be effective.  “But when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, you will receive power and will tell people about me everywhere…” Acts 1:8.  And to make sure that you understand the “hand off” taking place, notice 28:20b, “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” That authority would be signified by his presence which is being promised in perpetuity.  The Gospel torch given to the disciples has been handed down to us.  The delegated authority given to the disciples, given to Paul, Silas, Martin Luther, George Whitefield, Lottie Moon and Billy Graham has also been given to us. We cannot be the generation who allows the flame of disciple-making to fizzle.  Verse 18 is a critical introduction to the Great Commission yet we often overlook it.  

It is my belief that the following “take aways” from the Great Commission are critical to understand:

Evangelism isn’t something we “go and do” it is something that we “live and exhibit”. “Go (poreuomai) and make disciples.” V. 19.  It is interesting to see how Young’s literal translation interprets this two letter word, “having gone, then, disciple all the nations, (baptizing them — to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” The NIV says, “As you go”.  The reason these translations use this phrase is the Greek word is in the present tense.  In other words, it isn’t something you are GOING to do, it is something you ARE doing.  We are all in the process of going. The great commission is to be lived out each day through the natural activity of our lives.  We hear mission teams quote this verse as if they are fulfilling the great commission by GOING on a trip.  While, there is certainly truth that this team is being obedient to the call to “go”,  we shouldn’t relegate  the commission to a mission trip or adventure.  The commission of Christ calls us to make disciples every day of our lives and live as though we are on a perpetual mission trip.

We are not commissioned to merely convert the lost. “Go and make disciples”.  The church has turned this statement of Jesus into something it was never meant to be.  It was never meant to be simply a call to convert people. In this view we become like spiritual snipers touching souls for a moment and moving on to the next lost person. I recently spoke to a lady whose husband had made a profession of faith a few months ago during a church service.  With tears in her eyes she told me that her husband has now shrunk back to his old ways and rarely has an interest in attending church.  Could it be that the church has failed this man?  What if when he walked the aisle of that church and gave his heart to Christ the church would have paired him with a mature follower of Christ initiating a disciple-making relationship?  I guarantee that he would have a much better chance of being a growing believer today.  Today, we have a large group of Christian refugees who are waiting on someone to disciple them, “teach them”.  They have become a number on the church’s annual church profile but not a fully committed follower of Christ.

Tragically, over the years the church has created two anti-great commission movements:

* The first is the idea that there is a “gift of evangelism” and only a few specially gifted and anointed people can effectively share their faith.  Nowhere in Scripture is there found such an idea.  In Ephesians 4 Paul speaks of service gifts for the church.  “He is the one who gave these gifts to the church:  the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers.  Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ…” (4:11-12).  This doesn’t speak of an evangelism gift, it speaks of an office of the church.  The truth is that we have all been given the “ministry of reconciliation” 2 Cor. 5:18. We are all called to be disciple-makers.

* The second anti-great commission movement has been the one time evangelistic encounter movement.  This is where churches send people out to find the lost, convert them and move on to the next “soul win.”  We can’t see lost people as those to be “won over” or conquered.  They aren’t numbers or statistics.  Each one represents someone who not only needs to be converted, but discipled.  Yes, the Great Commission is an evangelistic statement, but it is also a disciple making statement.

We are commissioned to “make disciples.” “Go and make disciples”, “Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” V.20. It has been my experience that the majority of people misunderstand this important commission because they neglect verse 20.  We spend so much time talking about verse 19 that we miss the importance of verse 20.  Two words here in this passage “Teach” and “disciples” are of prime importance if we really want to understand the great commission of Jesus Christ. The word teach (didaskó) means to impart instruction. We see the word 220 times in the NT so it is a very important term. In this verse it is in the future tense. That changes the way we see this verse because what Christ is saying is “continue teaching them”, not just teach them in a new members class or teach them by reading the next page of the gospel track.  The word gives us the idea that Christ meant that a disciple-disciplee relationship was to ensue if the Great Commission is to be correctly applied. The next word of importance is who we will be teaching, “teach these new disciples”. The word is used for the second time indicating importance.  It is the word disciple (mathéteuó) is the word learner. We get our English word Math from this word. I like the way one word study commentary describes the word disciple, helping someone to progressively learn the Word of God to become a matured, growing disciple (literally, “a learner,” a true Christ-follower); to train (develop) in the truths of Scripture and the lifestyle required.  We are to teach them on an ongoing basis to be learners of Christ.  Jesus says “teaching them to obey” or “observe” ALL the commands I have given you.  That is not only a Sunday school class experience.  Obey or observe, “to guard over” my teachings.  The end result of the Great Commission is not a mission trip or a witnessing event.  It is a converted soul who has been taught to obey, observe and guard over the teachings of Christ.  We have relegated the word discipleship into a program or a group of classes where we come and sit down for an hour and leave.  Nothing wrong with planning discipleship opportunities.  But we must understand that discipleship is much more than a program or an hour of Bible study.  We must first be committed disciples (learners) and then we are to engage in discipling someone else.

For so long I have gotten this wrong.  As a pastor, I remember seeing people to come to Christ and placing them in a new members class.  However, I didn’t match them with a mature follower of Christ to walk with them and show them what it meant to be a disciple. I have learned from my mistake and now believe I  didn’t truly understand the Great Commission.  Think about the new believers in your church and what you can do to ensure that they remain committed to Christ.  Re-imagine how your church is fulfilling the Great Commission.  We are not called to make converts, we are called to make disciples!

For more information on disciple-making,  read “4 Chair Discipling” by Dann Spader.  Also, plan to attend the Flashpoint Conference coming to Samford’s Wright Center January 2017.

 

 

Old Wineskin Baptist Church

One day some people said to Jesus, “John the Baptist’s disciples fast and pray regularly, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees. Why are your disciples always eating and drinking?”Jesus responded, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Then Jesus gave them this illustration: “No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and uses it to patch an old garment. For then the new garment would be ruined, and the new patch wouldn’t even match the old garment. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the new wine would burst the wineskins, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine must be stored in new wineskins. But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. ‘The old is just fine,’ they say.” Luke 5: 33-39. 

Jesus was a radical. When he came onto the scene, he made everything new. He came with a new message, a new approach, a new way of worship, new spiritual language, new illustrations and new radical methods.  The story of the gospels is the clashing of the old way and the new way.  The old way was represented by the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, the rabbinic law, the temple and the structured formality of religion and religious practice.  The new way was personified in Jesus Christ himself.  He had a new message of grace. He brought new methods in order to reach people.  He ate with the sinners, he would speak to the Lepers, he would acknowledge the faith of a Roman officer while at the same time publicly accost the religious leaders. He taught in a new way using parables and illustrations. He discouraged religious acts and encourage holy living.  He was resented by the traditionalists of his day.

In Luke 5, Jesus is being confronted by the Pharisees and teachers of religious law on the way his disciples shun the old way of doing things. The practice in question was fasting.  They demanded legalistic ritual, Jesus desired loving devotion.  He gave them an illustration to explain his view on the new way of doing things.  The old wine skins represent the legalism of the Jews and Pharisees, the new wine represents the new covenant that Jesus came to secure with man.  His new wine was the message of salvation.  He would later tell his disciples, “This wine is the token of God’s new covenant to save you, an agreement sealed with the blood I will pour out for you.” Luke 22:20.   Notice what Jesus said was the claim of the Pharisees, “the old is better.” Most pastors have heard that phrase from well-meaning church members.

Not since the protestant reformation has the church faced a more crucial time that right now.  Speaking in his book of the condition of the church Reggie McNeal of the Leadership Network says, “The current church culture in North America is on life support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations from a previous world order.  The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out or when the remaining three fourths of the older generation dies off.”  He says that 80% of money given to congregations comes from people fifty-five or older.    It is estimated that more than 350,000 SBC churches are in need of revitalization.

The church is not doing a good job of reaching younger generations. 52% of people born before 1946 report of regular church attendance.  Contrast that by the generation born between 1961-1981 which shows only 36%.  The number of households who reveal “no religious preference” continues to rise. George Barna reports that the unchurched population has grown from 24-34% in just one decade.  Dawson McCalister, national youth ministry specialist, says that 90% of kids active in high school youth ministries do not attend church by the time they are Sophomores in college.

It is my belief that too many churches are allowing the wine to be wasted through outdated methodologies and inflexible structures.  The result is predictable, we are not effectively reaching the next generation. Too many churches are putting the gospel message in worn out wine skins.  Old Wineskine Baptist Church will continue to do the same things year after year with little to no effect, merely patching are patching up old garments. V.36.

Do you attend Old Wineskin Baptist Church?  You could be an agent of change to turn your church around! A couple of thoughts on the current condition of many churches:

1. The ministry approach (methods) must be relevant to cultural changes.   By methods I am referring to the type of wine skin that is holding the wine.  Are the methods of ministry in your church merely worn out wineskins? Are they effective?  Does your church do an effective job of reaching your culture and community?  Is your church trying to win souls or does it spend most of its time keeping the saints happy? Does your church have a healthy mix of young and old?

Jesus used new methods to reach his culture.  If it took feeding five thousand he would do it.  If he needed to break up a good funeral, he would do it. If it took eating with tax collectors and prostitutes to reach them, he would do it. If it took feasting instead of fasting, going to the well instead of going to worship, he would do it.  The world Jesus entered was crying out for something new.  They had tired of the old way of doing things and were hungry for the new bread he offered.

Old Wineskin Baptist continues to use the same methods and asks the culture to come and be a part of it.  That rarely happens. Effective churches do a great job answering the question, “what will most effectively reach this new generation, this community, this culture?”

2. Our culture is desperate for the Gospel.  Many churches are not effectively sharing the message. In Luke 5,  Jesus was very descriptive about the importance of the new wine.  He knew that the people around him desperately needed a drink of that wine.  They needed to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  Today’s culture is thirsty for truth. They are hearing messages like, “All religions are good,  you just need to find the one that fits you. Just try to be the best person you can be and everything will be fine.”  These philosophies are dead ends. Americans are more spiritual than ever and more disconnected from the church than ever.  The sad truth is that People are leaving the church in order to find spirituality.

America is confused on what being a Christian means. Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway Resources, led a study on the beliefs of people who claimed to be “born again Christians”.  In the study he asked two questions, Do you know for certain that if you died today you would go to heaven?  And he asked, If you were to die today, what would you say to God if he asked you why should I let you into my kingdom?  5,200 people were interviewed.

Only 65% of people born before 1964 responded with the correct biblical answer.

Baby boomer generation (born before 1964) 35% gave the correct biblical response.

Baby buster generation (born before 1976) 15% gave the correct biblical response.

And sadly of the Baby Bridgers generation (born before 1994) only 4%.

These are people who claim to be Christians and don’t even have a good theology on salvation.  How much more confused are the unchurched in our culture?  People are desperate for the message of the gospel.  Yet, yearly more than 25% of SBC churches baptize zero people within the church year.

The Christian church in America is in trouble.  Where will the church be in fifty years?  In twenty years?  We had better be open to the idea that new wineskins are necessary. Our methods must change, our message must not.  What worked in the 1950’s doesn’t work today.  Stepping into Old Wineskin Baptist Church is like stepping through a time warp taking people back 50 years or more. How much wasted wine has been spilt simply because churches have refused to change the wine skin?

Are you one of those who says, “The old is better?”  Even if the old is not effective anymore?  Will your attitude hold the church back or encourage the church to move forward in reaching this generation? Are you willing to be an agent of change?  Old Wineskin Baptist will soon burst, who will be there to pick up the spilled wine?