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.



Lessons of a Failed Governor

During the 2010 Gubernatorial race I was intrigued by the dermatologist from Tuscaloosa on the Republican ticket, Dr. Robert Bentley.  He seemed so un-political, so genuine and well, nice.  He captured the hearts of many Alabamians with his clever slogan, “Alabama is sick and it needs a doctor” and his promise to not take a salary until things turned around.  Through my ministerial network I learned good things about him, mainly how he had taught a Sunday school class at FBC Tuscaloosa for years, how he often shared the Gospel with his patients and of his reputation as a fine Christian gentlemen.  Therefore, both in the primary and general election I proudly cast my vote for Dr. Bentley. He was the underdog in the primary beating out GOP favorite Bradley Byrne and then defeating a challenge from Democrat Ron Sparks.  As a Christian, particularly an Alabama Baptist, I felt proud as I watched him deliver his victory speech.  I remember thinking, “this guy is one of us”.  His first four years were promising as he brought jobs to Alabama and got the economy moving again.  I watched him minister to the people of my hometown with Christian compassion after the tragic day of April 27, 2011.  In January of 2013,  I attended a pastor’s prayer breakfast in Montgomery and heard him speak passionately of his strong faith in the Lord and even had the pleasure of a five minute chat afterwards along with a photo opportunity.

As word began to leak early in 2014 about possible ethic and moral failures, I first brushed them off and labeled them as “political opposition”. But as time went on the accusations became louder and more distinct.  I remember the day I heard of the ALEA helicopter flying his wallet to the beach,  his wife filing for divorce, and more rumors of corruption and ethic law violations, wow.  Unfolding before me was the very public downfall of a man for which I voted in four different elections, my heart broke.  It isn’t surprising that an Alabama government official failed the public, that is becoming all too common.  My heart broke not for a failed governor, but for the failure of a fifty year Christian marriage and the undoing of a fellow brother in Christ.  As a matter of fact, all fellow believers should be brokenhearted.  This is so much bigger than politics and the state of Alabama, this is about a fellow believer, a redeemed man who made really bad decisions.  I know that some will say, “no Christian acts that way” or “I am not even sure he is a Christian.”  Yet, I am reminded of James 4:12,God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor?” I can certainly judge him on his actions as a Christian brother, but I should never question a man’s eternal standing, that job belongs to the “one who has the power to save or destroy.”

The New York times recently published an article entitled, “For Alabama Christians, Gov. Bentley’s Downfall is a Bitter Blow”. In that article, Bentley is described as a man that Christians in Alabama put much hope to which now has become a “bitter blow”.  While I agree that it does hurt,  Bentley’s fall is so much bigger than heartache for a segment of our state’s population.  The fall of a godly man is much more serious than a “bitter blow”, it breaks the heart of God.  Truthfully, it should break every believers heart.  Not because Robert Bentley is a high profile person, but because he is a man for which God sent his Son to die.  The “bitter blow” may be felt by some in Alabama, but it is most importantly felt in heaven.  Yet, the biblical truth is that God still loves Robert Bentley and offers forgiveness and total cleansing.  The Lord doesn’t see him as Governor Bentley, he simply sees him as a son. I picture the Lord as the father in Luke 15 waiting on Robert Bentley to return home. If Dr. Bentley will humble himself, confess and repent of his sins, the promise of Scripture is “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9.  It is my honest prayer that my brother in Christ will run to the cross and find healing and restoration.  Being the governor of Alabama is of little importance when compared to being in good standing with the creator of the Universe. Every believer should join together and pray for our brother. “…but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘today’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” Hebrews 3:13.  

What lessons can Christians learn from Governor Bentley’s Failure?

  1. Surround yourself with Christians who will hold you accountable.Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” Galatians 6: 1-2.  It is critical that we create a circle of accountability around us and watch out for one another’s spiritual well being. One has to wonder if the governor had such a circle around him and if he did, why didn’t a brother have a heart-to-heart with him?  Did someone try and he wasn’t willing to listen?  Had he isolated himself so much that it become difficult for a fellow Christian to reach him? A strong accountability circle will simply not allow a fellow soldier to fall without a fight.  Every Christian needs fellow soldiers who will stand with them in life’s spiritual battles.  Do you have someone in your life who will give you “honest talk”?  Do you surround yourself with those who walk in integrity and have strong Christian character?
  2. Pride is perhaps the greatest sin and it comes into our lives gradually.Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.” James 4:10.  For a believer, down is up and up is down.  As we lower ourselves in humility before the Lord, he then lifts us up and gives our lives the greatest of meaning and joy.  It was the temptation of pride to which  Satan used to trip all of mankind (Genesis 3:1-5).  If enough people pat you on the back the risk is that you will begin to believe them. “For pride is a spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love or contentment, or even common sense.” -C.S. Lewis.  Lewis is correct, when pride creeps in we lose our ability of common sense and more important, spiritual sensitivity. When we exalt ourselves, we de-throne Christ from our hearts and our lives become a tail spin of mismanagement, mistakes and corruption.  Don’t let power or pride creep into your life, the results could be disastrous. 
  3. Invest more time in your marriage than any other relationship.  If you are spending more time with someone else of the opposite sex that doesn’t share your last name, the moral failure is surely around the corner.  Paul reminds us men to “love your wives as Christ loves the church.” Eph 5:25.  For both husband and wife there must be on display perpetual Christian devotion to one another that is rooted in the love of Christ.  The failings of the governor has reminded me of the primacy of my relationship with my spouse.  No other woman in the world should know my deepest secrets, biggest fears and grandest dreams.  I should share no intimacy with another except the one to which the Lord has given me. 
  4. The truth, regardless of how embarrassing and painful, will always be your best friend.  Solomon reminds us bluntly that “The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in those who tell the truth.” Prov. 12:22.  There were many times in the past four years when simply telling the truth would have been a better choice for our governor, but it was not to be.  Every falsehood will eventually be revealed and all lies will, in time, come back to haunt you.  If you have failed, admit it.  Don’t cover up sin through lying and falsehoods.  Sin covered up by sin is a double portion of poison to the soul.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

A Cyrenian, a Criminal and a Centurion: The Power of the Cross

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. Isaiah 53: 4-5 NLT

As we celebrate Holy Week together we are reminded today that the greatest hope and healing was provided by Jesus Christ on the cross.  The healing provided for us by Jesus was not a temporary fix or simply an event to help you get through hard times.  On a Friday afternoon 2,000 years ago on a hill called Calvary all of the griefs, sorrows, corruption and failures of mankind collided with the grace, mercy and unconditional love of God.  Isaiah wrote these verses 600 years before the birth of Christ and yet his description of the cross event in chapter 53 could have been recorded by an eye witness.  Isaiah says that Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.  He was “wounded” and “bruised” and “Chastised” and “Striped” all because of OUR iniquities, OUR transgressions.   Isaiah would later say in verse 10 that “it pleased the Lord to bruise Him and put him through grief” and in verse 11, “When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.”

In Luke’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus we find 3 unlikely people who were profoundly touched by the power of the cross.

Luke 23: 26-47

The Cyrenian- A Person on a Religious Journey.  V. 26. As Jesus begins the “Via Dolorosa”, he was already in a place of great physical weakness. He had spent a night contemplating divine wrath to which Mark records, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”.  In front of Caiaphas, he would be struck time again, blindfolded and mocked, scourged with the flagellum whip to which his skin would have been flayed open.  As he began the walk from Pilate’s court to Golgatha upon his shoulders was thrust a patibulum, the 100 pound cross beam, his strength left him and he fell.  The beam landed beside the feet of a very surprised North African man named Simon from Cyrene.  The scripture informs us that “they laid hold of a certain man named Simon who was on his way from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.”  Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention Simon’s roll in this drama for a distinct purpose.  Simon, in many ways, reveals to us the expectation for every person who calls themselves a disciple of Christ.  We too are called to “take up our cross and follow him”.

If today you don’t feel the weight of the cross on your soul, if there is no sacrifice then you aren’t properly following him.  Charles Spurgeon said, “There are no crown wearers in heaven who were not first cross bearers on earth.”

Simon was a man on a religious journey.  He came to Jerusalem from North Africa to celebrate the Jewish Passover.  He had likely brought his family to the Holy city, like most sojourners he would have purchased a Passover lamb at the market and was in preparation for finding a place for his family to lodge and celebrate. The Bible says he was “Coming in from the country” directly to the spot where Jesus fell that day.  Simon trudged the way of sorrows with the blood of Jesus likely dripping from the cross beam onto his body.  He arrived at Golgatha and dropped the beam.  On that beam they placed Jesus and I can imagine Simon watching the events that followed. His heart was moved by what he saw and his religious journey found its destination. In the Gospel of Mark, Simon of Cyrene is listed as “the father of Rufus and Alexander” (15:21).  Mark named Simon’s sons likely because Simon and his family were known to the Christian community to which his gospel was written.  Most scholars agree that Simon left that day forever changed.  Simon, a man on a religious journey found more than a religious experience, he encountered the ultimate lover of his soul and committed his life to him.

There are many who are on a religious journey looking for hope. Their religious journeys have only yielded experiences, rituals and promises of hope.  Yet when you meet Jesus and encounter the cross your religious journey gives way to a life changing relationship with the living God.  People on religious journeys are seeking ways to get to God, yet the Bible reveals that God sent his son so that he could seek us.

The Criminal – A Person who needed Hope. V.39-43.  There were two criminals crucified with Jesus, one on either side.  Ironically, it was customary that the center cross was reserved for the criminal with the worst of crimes and on this day a perfect man was placed upon it.  It is possible that the two criminals were a part of the band of robbers and insurrectionist that ran with Barabbas.  Mark informs us that BOTH criminals joined the soldiers and throngs of people and hurled insults toward the center cross (Mark 15:32).  On top of the immense pain of the cross, Jesus was being insulted by the Romans soldiers at his feet, the hundreds amassed below in the crowd and to add to his grief, now even the men on either side of him joined the tongue lashing.  In Luke’s account we learn that after a while one of the criminals fell silent while the other continued to mock him.  “One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you are the Messiah, are you?  Prove it by saving yourself and us, too, while you are at it!”  A man at the point of death hung beside the one who would eventually overthrow death.  The criminal shared no words of regrets, no remorse, no repentance or guilt, no concern for Jesus.  And Jesus in turn, offered him no words, only silence.

The other criminal stopped speaking and now only listened to the words of Jesus from the cross.  He spoke up and in a stunning turn of events, “Don’t you fear God when you are dying?  We deserve to die for our evil deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  And then turning to Jesus with a humble heart asked, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.”  And in reply the words of Christ, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

A man with a death sentence found life.  A guilty man would soon stand in the presence of God with no guilt.  Though his body was bound by the nails of the cross, his soul found freedom.  Though his lungs struggled for air, his soul was nourished with the life giving power of Jesus Christ.

With Christ there is no such thing as a hopeless situation.   For those who feel their mistakes are too big and beyond forgiveness the criminal on the cross forever stands as a lasting image that “anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”. Romans 10:13.  Even though our sins are great, even though our sins and failures are glaring and perpetual, when faced with the glory and grace of Calvary our sins become white as snow.

The Centurion- An unlikely Worshiper. V. 47. A Centurion is a Roman officer in charge of 100 soldiers, thus the title Centurion.  Crucifixions were carried out by the Romans, and the local regiment stationed in Jerusalem were obviously in charge of such executions. While there is no way of knowing for sure we can assume that this centurion had seen and led many such crucifixions, and likely had become hardened to the whole experience.  It would likely had been him who stood by supervising the flogging of Christ and allowed his soldiers to place a robe and crown of thorns on Jesus before presenting him to the crowd. As a hardened war man he was probably not religious and had heard stories about Jesus, he was certainly no fan of the Jews and no follower of Christ.  He stood by as his soldiers gambled for the clothes of Jesus, he was silent as the criminals hurled insults at the center cross and he would eventually be the one to thrust his sword into the side of Jesus to confirm his death.

He was, in the greatest sense, the least likely person to be spiritually moved on that day. His persona was cold, his heart hardened, his hands had killed many men in his lifetime.  Yet, on this day, at this time this unlikely worshiper glorified God.  All of the synoptic gospels record his response at the climax of the event.  Both Matthew and Mark record his words as “Surely this man was the Son of God.” While Luke adds that he Glorified God or worshiped God and proclaimed that this man was “righteous or innocent.”  When you combine the three narratives you get one powerful picture of a war hardened executioner broken at the foot of the cross.

He had stood by as his soldiers beat, mocked, shamed, spat upon, flayed the skin off of Jesus and nailed him to a cross.  And yet he heard Jesus say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  He felt the earthquake and heard the rending of the Temple. He saw the sky darkened and heard Jesus say, “It is finished.”  His response was proclamation and glorification.

Three men, all from different backgrounds, different stories.  One was on a Religious journey, one was dying desperately in need of hope and one was working, yet all were immeasurably changed by Jesus Christ.  All three participated, all three were impacted by the cross.  That brings me to this question, how has the cross of Jesus Christ impacted YOU?

“But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed.”



Open Letter to the Wearied Pastor

I purposefully write this article to you on a Monday morning because that is when a wearied pastor needs it the most.   Every pastor I know has at one time slouched in his desk chair on Monday morning feeling completely exhausted both mentally and physically.  Sometimes you suffer from Monday fatigue because you had a marvelous Sunday which led you to a “good tired”.  However, there are other weeks where your fatigue is mostly emotional and spiritual.  Maybe for you attendance hasn’t been good lately,  tithing is down,  deacons meeting didn’t go as you would have preferred, you feel as though you “swung and missed” on the sermon yesterday and you have a difficult counseling appointment coming to your office this afternoon.  I have been there.

You are not alone in your weariness. Focus on the Family indicates that 90% of pastors work more than 46 hours a week.  75% of pastors report they have gone through a significant stress related crisis at least once in their ministry. 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job and 40% report a serious conflict with a church member at least once a month. (Pastors at Greater Risk, H.B.London and Neil B. Wiseman). For these and many other reasons pastoral tenures are down and the number of pastors leaving the ministry is at its highest rate in many years.  Another study found that 45.5% of pastors say they have experienced depression or “burn out” to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry. (The Parsonage, April 2002).  Don’t be a statistic.

I offer to you, my wearied pastor friend,  3 scriptural reminders:

  1.  God has placed in your heart an irrevocable calling .  No matter how bad things seem or how low you feel, the calling of God on your life is not impacted or lessened during difficult days.  I was told early on in ministry that there would be rough days where I would need to hold on to my calling a little tighter than usual.  Out of the billions, God has called a few to do what you do.  It is the highest privilege known to man. In speaking of his ministry Paul says to the Corinthians, “For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6).  In the 4th chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul is reflecting on the purpose and passion of his call to ministry.  He compares his calling to a “light shining in his heart” which is likened to the moment God called light out of darkness in Genesis.  Paul states that his ministry calling includes the same Glory that shown on the face of Christ at the transfiguration!  In verses 7-12 Paul lists his various struggles in ministry all leading to the peak of this passage, “That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!” (16-17).  The surpassing Glory of God which empowered Paul’s calling was glorious enough to overwhelm the worst of his situations which led him to exclaim, “That is why we never give up.”  Though your body is fatigued, your mind exhausted and your spirit feels crushed, the calling in your heart is as glorious as the first light of creation and the face of Christ on Mount Hermon. On my toughest days in ministry I often go back to that day when I felt the assurance of his holy calling on my life. Ministry can get messy and complicated. There are times I have to go back to the place of my calling simply to be reminded of the powerful truth that God chose me.
  2. God placed you in his hand with an inexhaustible grip.  There is an unseen hand holding you.  On your worst days he holds your chin up, while you are in the pulpit he holds your spirit up and on your most stressful days his grip will grow even tighter.  As John writes to the 7 churches in Asia Minor he writes about his powerful vision of our victorious Lord.  In the midst of his description is a great reminder of the love that Jesus Christ has for his pastors.  “He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and his Countenance was like the sun shining its strength.” Revelation 1:16.  The “seven stars” in his right hand were the seven pastors of the churches to which he was writing.  He is not seen here simply watching over the pastors or keeping them in close proximity, he is holding them in his right hand. His right hand signifies his eternal strength and the fact that he is holding these pastors in his dominant hand should give us great encouragement as his under shepherds.  When ministry gets tough I often picture myself as a child in the midst of a hurried crowd, holding a tight grip to my father’s hand.  However, the visualization becomes more scriptural when I recognize that I am not holding his hand, I am actually nestled in his hand. It is a place of protection and ownership.  It is also a sign that he is using us for his glory. It is in our dominant hand that items are used most effectively, so it is with us in the hand of Christ.   Paul gives us the same picture in Philippians 3:12b, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”   At the time of your calling Christ Jesus took hold of you.  He has you in the palm of his powerful, protecting hand.  Take a deep breath, sit back, pray and enjoy his presence. In the quietness of that moment you will sense his strong grip.
  3. God will one day place on your head an incorruptible crown. “Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly–not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor.” 1 Peter 5: 2-4.  Though I don’t pretend to understand or comprehend, Peter looks to a day when our Great Shepherd presents to us a crown of glory.  There are many crowns mentioned in the Scripture, but this one in particular is reserved for faithful church leaders. I know there are days when your head is spinning with tasks and other days when your head is overwhelmed with burdens.  Yet, I can guarantee there is coming a day when your head will be crowned with glory.  Is pastoral ministry worth all the stress?  Would it be easier to quit and do some thing else?  Maybe.  However, on your worst days reflect on the truth of this verse and the reality that it represents.  This is not just some story or something to make you feel better about ministry.  My wearied pastor friend, don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t lose heart.  One day in eternity the very one who you have preached about, prayed to and spoken of will take those nail scarred hands and place a crown on your head.  You have preached about his glory but one day he will share it with you in the form of an incorruptible crown.

Tear up that resignation letter and do away with those thoughts of quitting.  Your calling is grand, his grip is great and your future is crowned with an incorruptible glory.  Keep a tight grip on the Gospel plow!

Overcoming Attendance Plateau


Every church has a life cycle.  Aubrey Malphurs represents this by using the bell curve approach or as he calls it “the sigmoid curve”.  The bell curve of church life involves a start (birth), growth, various levels of plateau, decline and eventually death.  Everything has a life cycle, even churches.  The key is to create new growth at the top of the curve before the natural down hill momentum carries the church toward decline.  The majority of churches (70%) never reach the age of 100. For new churches, the 15-20 year mark usually takes them to a point of natural plateau unless they are consistently evaluating ministries and refreshing the churches vision statement.

All declining churches were at some point in their history at a plateau in membership and chose either to ignore it, become indifferent to it or the church failed in efforts to overcome it.  

Often times when a church reaches out to their state convention or a consultant for help they are in such deep decline that it is almost impossible to stop it.  One of the most critical decisions church leaders must make is what actions to take when attendance plateaus and growth stagnates.

How do we define attendance plateau?  If your regular attendance has not seen more than 5% growth in a two year span, you are likely at the top of the curve. Churches at the top of the curve have plateaued in attendance and if nothing is done inevitably it will begin to decline.  If this is your church, don’t panic!  Remember that these plateaus are a natural part of the life cycle of every church.  What you do with this discovery will be the key to where the church will be on the life cycle curve in 10 years.  Most causes for stagnated attendance are completely fixable.

Here are 5 common reasons why church attendance becomes stagnate.

The vision of the church becomes stale and uninspiring.

When a new pastor is brought to a church often the first item on the agenda is to cast a new exciting vision for the ministry of the church.  Often the pastor will take the first year to evaluate, plan, pray and have dialogue with key leaders in order to cast a new vision for the congregation.  The church’s vision involves what the mission and purpose of the church would look like if it is fully realized. The pastor reveals the new vision with excitement and enthusiasm to which the congregation is emboldened to more effective ministry.  However, over time this vision runs its course and loses forward momentum. Over time vision must be re-cast, renewed and refreshed. I believe that a pastor must inspire the congregation with a new vision statement every 5-7 years.  A Holy Spirit led vision has the capability of rallying the congregation and awakening even the coldest of hearts to the grandiose Christ led possibilities of ministry effectiveness.   If the vision of the pastor has grown stale it will not be spoken of and will become only a faint dream of past success.  Pastors must ask God for fresh vision on a reoccurring basis.

The church is not staffed properly for continued growth.

I was recently speaking with a pastor who wanted to increase the number of children and young families that attend his church.  My suggestion seemed to be a no-brainer, “You need to bring a children’s minister on staff.”  He looked at me as if I had 3 heads and said “Why do we need a children’s minister when we don’t have any children to minister to?”  Staff shouldn’t be hired simply based on existing needs, they should be hired based on future wants.  I said to the pastor, “You don’t hire a children’s minister because you HAVE children in your church, you hire a children’s minister because you WANT to have children in your church.”  Your church may be stagnant simply based on the fact that you are not adequately staffed.  Three good questions to ask in relation to this point are:  Have we staffed for growth? Are current staff members able to lead the church to the next level of ministry?  Are current staff members serving in roles that have outgrown them?  Not all staff positions have to be paid positions, some will take a position simply for the experience and passion they have to serve and use their spiritual gifts.

The church isn’t utilizing its current space effectively.

For about a 1 year period the church I was pastor was stuck at the 300 attendance mark. We would occasionally have more than 300 in Bible study but not on a regular basis. To fix this I reached out to one of our state missionaries to come and lead our church in small group training.  As I finished giving him a tour of our facilities he turned to me and said, “The issue you have isn’t how you are doing Sunday school, it is the space limitations that are holding you back.”  Of course!  How could I not have seen that?  The maximum capacity of educational space in our church was around 300-325 and most Sundays we were bumping capacity.  We did a space inventory and reconfigured the way we were using our building. We instantly found more room and eventually built new youth space and a children’s building.  As soon as we found more space we broke the 300 barrier!   The old adage goes like this:  If you are 80% capacity, then you are FULL! Time to start planning for future space.  Some questions to ask in regards to facilities: Do your buildings limit our growth?  Is there other ways to configure your space that will maximize its potential capacity?  Does the church need to start a second worship service? Is the facility outdated and in need of a fresh look? Is it time to begin discussing a building campaign?

New Members aren’t effectively assimilated into the church and new believers aren’t being discipled. 

If either of these are true in your church the attrition rate will sky rocket and thus attendance will plateau. The more new members and attenders buy into the vision and ministry of the church the more attendance growth will continue.  Assimilation describes the method in which new members and attenders become deeply connected with the church.  Churches need to require new member classes in order for membership to be finalized.  The more new church members understand the function, purpose and vision of their new church the more they will attend, serve and invite others.  Also a church must train a core group of disciple makers in order to effectively fulfill the Great Commission.  Matthew 28: 18-20 is not only an evangelistic statement from Jesus, it is a clarion call for disciple making churches!


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. ( 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.

The Greatest Miracle of Christmas

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

This prophecy by Isaiah was given over 600 years before the birth of Christ.  The titles listed for the “son” that would be born have eternal ramifications.  Each one of the titles are divine in nature and point to a most significant event in which divinity and humanity would collide.  It is the most important prophecy in the Old Testament Canon because it points to both the incarnation of the birth of Christ and the redemption he provided by his death on Calvary.  Isaiah says of this “son“, that “…the government will rest upon his shoulder.”  The Hebrew word used here is misrah which could also be translated kingdom or empire.  In other words,  the burden of a kingdom would be placed on the shoulders of this “son”.   The cross was violently thrust upon the shoulders of the Son of God along with the burden of fallen humanity.  Thus the burden of the misrah or Kingdom rests solely on the atonement he provided for us.

Before the burden was thrust upon the shoulders of Christ at his death we are faced with the significance of his birth.  “A child is born, a son is given...”  Yet, not just any child or any son.  He would be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.  As a wonderful counselor He is the great High Priest who “understands our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15).  As Mighty God He came to us through the miracle of the virgin birth and incarnation. (John 1:14).  As Everlasting Father His birth was not his true beginning and his death would not be His end. (John 8:58 & John 1:1).  As the Prince of Peace He would reconcile forever the enmity between God and Man. (1 Timothy 2:5).

The greatest miracle of Christmas is found in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, John starts his narrative long before the birth in Bethlehem.  He looks back through eternity with the opening statement of his Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1).  Three different times John uses the word “Logos” to describe Jesus Christ.  This Greek word encapsulates the full meaning of all thought, ideas and reason.  It is a BIG word.  The Logos was God.   If there was ever any doubt of the deity of Christ, Isaiah’s prophecy in 9:6 ought to quiet the critics.  He would be born “Mighty God“.   The Word was God and John says, “So the Word (Logos) became human and made his home among us.” (John 1:14 NLT).  God made his home among us!  There it is!  That is the greatest miracle in history.

The fall of mankind occurred in Genesis 3 and from that time to the moment the angels announced the birth, there were only futile attempts of restoring the broken relationship. The Tower of Babel could not reach high enough,  no amount of slaughtered oxen could suffice and even the law could only reveal humanity’s need of reconciliation.  In Genesis 3, God cast humanity out of his presence,  yet in the Gospels he interjects himself into humanity.  John says, “He made his home among us.”  HE came to US.  We could never have come to him, but he came to us.  The uncorrupted seed was placed in the womb of Mary through immaculate conception and heaven came near.  In every religion there is a group of committed people who are seeking to find a way to “get to God.”  Yet the miracle of the Advent reveals God coming to us.  Deity did not only come to live among us, He came to die for us.  No wonder Paul said of this message, “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.” (1 Cor. 1:23)  It may sound foolish to some but to me it sounds like salvation. The angels announcement was very clear, “For there is born TO YOU this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11).   That announcement resonates through the halls of human history and in the hearts of broken humanity.  The Kingdom has been restored, the burden of our sin rests upon his shoulders and eternal life has now been made possible.  The story of Christmas is, “God became man so that man could come to God.”  On a very dark night 2,000 years ago light came and that light “gives light to every man coming into the world.” (John 1:9).

This Christmas I hope you enjoy being with family. I hope you eat lots of good food and exchange gifts with those you love.  In the midst of this busy season,  I hope you will recall the greatest miracle of all.  God came to us, died for us so we could one day live with Him.