Thursday, January 22, 2015

One Simple Command: Roe v. Wade After 42 Years

42 years ago today, nine black-robed justices handed down a decision that would forever change the moral landscape of the United States.  Since that time, more than 57 million human beings created in God's image and likeness have been murdered within the confines of their mother's wombs.

Is that too strong a statement?  Is it too negative a tone?  Is it too culturally divisive to employ such incendiary language?  Well, let me ask it this way.  If something is bad, do you use good words to describe it?

I understand the moral complexities that come into play where abortion is concerned.  As a pastor of 22 years, I have more experience counseling women through the gut-wrenching decisions our society forces them to make than any politician who has ever voted on this issue.  I've sat with the single mom whose budget is stretched thin.  I've sat with the woman who has just been told her baby has downs syndrome, or some other dreaded, chronic disease.  I've also sat with those who chose to have an abortion.  Women who have submitted to this procedure are 34% more likely to suffer from anxiety, 110% more prone to alcohol abuse, and 155% more likely to take their own lives, and I have seen the flesh and blood evidence of those statistics in my office.  Anyone who automatically equates being "pro-choice" with "pro-women" is either an idiot or a liar.

The emotional havoc that comes as a result of this now four-decade long culture of death should come as a surprise to no one.  Regardless of the circumstances that gave rise to each decision to  terminate a pregnancy, each abortion is the elimination of a human life.   This is not a matter of philosophical or even theological debate.  It is plain science.  Life begins at conception.  And for the past 41 years our nation has been busy eliminating more than 57 million of those lives.

57 million.

Let that number sink in, because its greater than the current populations of Kentucky, Oregon, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, North and South Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming combined.    To kill that many people over a 42 year period, you must terminate a pregnancy every 20 seconds--and not stop killing for an entire generation.

Meanwhile, God continues to speak clearly.  "You shall not murder."

Anyone who objectively observes this bloodshed must come to the inescapable conclusion that abortion is not at heart a political issue.  It isn't even a philosophical issue.  It is, quite simply, Satanic.  In John 8:44, Jesus states that Satan's natural language is to lie, and his natural actions are to murder.  Anywhere there is deception and bloodshed on a massive scale, you can be sure our enemy is involved.  Whether it is Herod's murderous rage through a blood-soaked Bethlehem, Hitler's merciless and genocidal paranoia, or the lies of a U.S. President seeking to cast this issue as one of granting women "safe, affordable health care," death and deception can always be found holding hands.

Politicians who hide their moral cowardice with trite phrases like "reproductive freedom" and "women's rights" betray with their own incoherence the unvarnished reality that "I believe in a woman's right to choose" is half a sentence.  If you finish that sentence honestly, then what I've seen in the counseling room over the past 22 years begins to make perfect sense. And this bloodshed has happened on the watch of political leaders of both parties who value obfuscation over truth.  A generation ago, C.S. Lewis graphically yet accurately described the character of such leaders:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function.  We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.  We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.  We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

Satan has lied to us by telling us that there is a quick way out of a tough situation.  He has convinced us that the presence of moral complexity means that there is no moral clarity.

Meanwhile, God continues to speak with abundant moral clarity. "You shall not murder."

Since 1973, we've been told that this was an issue of women's rights and freedom of choice.  We believed that lie, and the result is roughly 29 million females aborted--and having no "choice" in the matter.  We were told that abortion would be, in part, a solution to supposed population control that would result in great financial costs to society.  We believed that lie, and the result is a workforce that lacks roughly 30 million workers who would be contributing to a social safety net that wouldn't be under such financial constraints with their contributions.

And as these ripple effects of our bloodshed continue to puzzle us, God continues to call out and say "You shall not murder."

We wonder why there is such seeming disregard for human life in society.  Why are women increasingly victims of violence?  Why does it seem that men are increasingly unable to control their lusts?  Why do they eagerly seek sex but avoid marriage and commitment?  Why do they think its OK to abandon their children to poverty and all its effects?  Why all the senseless killing in our schools?  From whence comes this beastly ambivalence toward the sanctity of human life.

Once again, God connects the dots with this command. "You shall not murder."

Our nation is swimming in the blood of its own innocent, and we do so because we have believed the lies of our enemy, who wants to see the bloodshed continue.  There is one way to stop it.  Turn from the enemy.  Stop being complicit in his schemes, and return to Jesus.

This is the great news of the Gospel--that even hands covered with blood can be forgiven.  The single mom who killed her child because she thought there was no other way can have peace.  The thug who drove his girlfriend to the Planned Parenthood clinic because he wanted pleasure without responsibility can be forgiven. The doctor who made millions off of baby's bones can be forgiven.  And the nation guilty of purging 57 million of its most vulnerable citizens--largely for the mere sake of convenience--can be forgiven, healed, and restored.  But the bloodshed has to stop.  We cannot find healing in the one true God while still sacrificing our children to Molech.

42 years.  57 million children.  One simple command.

"You shall not murder."

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Why Followers of Jesus are NOT Charlie Hebdo

"Know this, my beloved brothers; let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger"  -James 1:19, ESV

Last weeks massacre in Paris in reaction to a satirical cartoon published by the famed Charlie Hebdo has sparked fresh debate about the virtues and vices of free speech.  These brutal attacks were apparently precipitated by a cartoon in that publication featuring a disrespectful and lewd depiction of Muhammad, Islam's founding prophet.

The world, it would seem, is appropriately outraged, as there is absolutely no justification for violence.  If one's ideas or beliefs can't stand heavy scrutiny--even the disrespectful kind--without resorting to violence, then whatever you believe is demonstrated to be a lie.   People from across all ideological and religious spectrum--including vast numbers of Muslims--are rightfully condemning this act.  But what most--including Christians--are missing in this conversation is that it involves two very different questions.

The first has to do with our commitment to free speech.  Nothing tests that commitment quite as strongly as being in the same vicinity as someone with a larger microphone than you who is insulting at the top of his lungs that which you have spent your life adoring and proclaiming.   The barbarians who committed these atrocities last week in Paris, to say the least, failed that test miserably.  Should Charlie Hebdo be allowed to satirically portray Islam's most revered figure?  Should Kazantstakis be allowed to portray Jesus Christ as a fornicating degenerate?  Should anyone be able to print--or say--anything they like to portray an idea, or attack one?  Should they be able to do so free from the threat of reprisal from government?  Moreover, should they be able to do so under government-assured protections from anyone who would do them harm?  For hundreds of years, the most liberal of western ideals has answered those questions with a nearly unqualified yes.  Count me as one who agrees.

But the question of whether one can think, believe, and say what they want and be confined to their own free conscience rather than government compulsion is different from the question of whether one should think, believe, or say certain things.  We may believe in freedom of speech, but for followers of Jesus, our right to say whatever we want--and our right to decide how to say it--ended the moment we proclaimed Him as Lord.

Since the Paris attacks, much ink has been spilled extolling the virtues of free speech, and much of it has been written by Christians quick to defend Charlie Hebdo's right to offend Muslims.  The hashtag #IamCharlieHebdo has been trending for days now on social media.  While the Christian worldview does commend freedom of conscience and expression, there is one thing all who follow Christ need to remember.  We don't believe such things because "We are Charlie Hebdo."

We should seek justice for those who have been victimized by the atrocities in Paris.  And yes, we should oppose any government coercion or threats of violence anywhere that free minds and free printing presses are threatened.  But carelessly throwing unquestioned support behind a lewd and ultimately purposeless cartoon is no way to do it.  If we believe support of such things is necessary for us to faithfully "preach the Gospel," then we have a very weak Gospel!

Being faithful to Jesus and His message is not synonymous with being disrespectful to another's beliefs.  As an evangelical Christian, I believe God has fully and finally revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, and in Christ provided blood atonement as a substitute for all who turn from their sins and place their faith in Him.  I believe Jesus when He said "no one comes to the Father except through me."

Consequently, I believe that other religions are not sufficient to bring one into a genuine relationship with God, including Islam.  Not only do I reject Muhammad as "the" prophet, I don't even accept him as "a" prophet.  I have studied his life in relationship with those who revere him and understand why my Muslim friends feel differently, but at the end of the day, this is the great chasm that separates our systems of belief.  If my Muslim friends are correct, then I, by worshipping Jesus as God am committing the unpardonable sin of shirk and will be damned forever.  If I am correct, then my Muslim friends will die in their sins with no substitute, no advocate, no forgiveness, and no escape from eternal judgement.  These statements will come as no surprise to followers of Islam who know me personally, and I have managed to communicate all of this without resorting to a single satirical cartoon, or linking to a single disrespectful and ignorant media post.

In other words, followers of Jesus need to realize that there is much more at stake here than the freedom to print a senseless cartoon.  Snide comments, rude insults, and disrespectful caricatures of people who follow other faiths do nothing to further the most important and eternally consequential of conversations, and such actions treat as enemies those whom Jesus died to save.   I don't know about you, but I don't want to stand in front of Jesus one day and have to answer for such nonsense.  I don't want my Lord to see me as a person who cares more about my free speech than someone else's eternal soul.

At the final judgement, "we were just exercising our freedom of speech" will not be a sufficient answer to the King of Kings.  Those of us who claim to follow Him are, first and foremost, His humble servants.  He is Lord of our mind, Lord of our tongue, and Lord of our pen.  When we refrain from joining useless and un-redemptive conversations, we aren't doing it because we fear Islam.  We do it because we love Muslims, and we fear Jesus who died for them and has commissioned us to live with them, love them, and share His message.

Might we still offend someone?  Certainly its possible.  But let's make sure if we do, the tool of our offense isn't a careless word, but a bloody cross.  After all, we are followers of Jesus, not Charlie Hebdo!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Five "Short-Timers" Who Won't Stay at Your Church Long-Term

I walked out of a restaurant a few days ago sure of one thing:  the young lady who showed me to my seat and bid me farewell when I left was what we call a "short-timer."  I walked in to find no one to receive me and a waitress had to call this young lady over so she could begin to do what I assume the restaurant hired her to do.  And when I left, she was sitting down in the corner.  Pleasant and kind, but not very excited at all about where she was or what she was doing, and the most subtle of signs were to me a very loud signal.   I thought to myself "she isn't going to be here much longer."

For some reason, that experience got me to thinking about the signals that get sent by people who won't be at your church for very long.  If you are a Pastor with a true shepherd's heart, its always painful to see people depart from your church.  But sometimes, its especially surprising and hurtful because we just didn't see it coming.

Pastors, here are five people who, if they join your church, are unlikely to stay for long.

1. The "Big Fish"  The big fish is the guy or gal who comes to you from another church, usually nearby, who felt their position and influence at their former church was no longer welcome and decided to take it elsewhere.  Usually, the big fish was a board chairman, or a deacon, or a prominent Sunday School teacher, or maybe all of the above!  While in some cases a person with this kind of background is someone to be excited about adding to your roles, be wary of anyone coming into your church who cites their credentials in the first conversation.

The best way to discern the true motives of someone like this is to quickly assign them something that requires a servant's heart.  Once while planting a church, I had a gentleman and his wife visit us.  On his way out the door he informed me that he had lots of skill and knowledge about how a church should operate, and would love to help us out.  In response, I literally handed him a toilet brush and asked him if he'd be willing to help our volunteers clean the bathrooms.  We never saw him again.

If the pastor is any kind of genuine leader, the "big fish" won't stay.

2. The "Recovering Patient"  Hurting people are everywhere, and many times the source of their injury has been a church.  When these people find their way through your doors, they should also find an opportunity to heal.  But once that healing takes place, don't be surprised when they head for the door again.

This can happen for all kinds of reasons.  Perhaps the healing process produced in them a desire to go back to their former church and patch things up, or perhaps they are a little nervous knowing that the guy preaching to them every Sunday has seen the contents of their psychological underwear drawer.  Either way, don't be surprised when they start to leave.  Any good shepherd hates to lose sheep, but in this case, you do want to be gracious, and ensure that they land safely in another pasture where they can be fed.

3. The "Lobbyist"  The Lobbyist has an agenda, but unfortunately, its not Jesus or His Great Commission.  Fortunately, the lobbyist is usually easy to identify because the issues he/she cares about are normally plastered on his or her shoulders like placards on a stock car at the Daytona 500.  When the first conversation a pastor has with someone involves questions like "How often do you preach explicitly about the doctrines of grace?"  or "what supports do you have for my home-schooled kids" or "what do you believe about the rapture" or "Can I talk with you about distributing voter guides to the membership about efforts to take our guns away," well, you have a lobbyist on your hands.  Nearly everything in the church has to take second place to their poverty initiative, mission trip, or theological agenda.  Such a person will only hang around for as long as he/she feels the body is appropriately feeding his/her agenda.  They are there for themselves, not the overall health of the body.

4. The "Early Adopter" It always strokes the ego when someone very quickly falls in love with your church and seeks membership.  But beware:  with rare exception, people tend to walk out in generally the same way they walk in.  Allow and encourage people to take their time when considering a church.  Membership in a local expression of Christ's body is viewed by the Scriptures as a covenant relationship--not at all unlike a marriage.  So don't get too excited when people treat your membership process like a Vegas wedding chapel.

5. The "Peacemaker" Yes, Jesus said clearly that those who make peace will be blessed to be called children of God.  But too often, peacemaking is sorely misunderstood as meaning the avoidance of all conflict.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is no peacemaking unless there is conflict in which peace can be made!  Yet there are some who believe that a the bride of Christ should never be seen without her makeup, and when honest, and sometimes needed conflict enters the fray, they will bail because "we don't want trouble."  Help such people mature as much as they will let you, but those who seek to avoid all manner of conflict don't generally hang around very long, because genuine intimacy REQUIRES conflict.  They want to keep everything at surface level because to them, this is "peacemaking."

Pastors should be kind to all who enter the churches they shepherd.  But they should also be wise, and tough enough to realize that you can't count on everybody to be with you for the long-haul.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Building Effective Global Partnerships

Next week, I'll be headed to Charleston, SC, where this year's annual Partnership Mission Coordinator's meeting will take place.  Mission leaders from across the nation will converge on this historic city for several days to learn from one another, and collaborate in ways that will help us better equip churches to be more effective on mission.

Over the years, much debate has ensued over the usefulness of what we call "short-term missions."  Since much ink has been spilled over this particular issue already, I won't belabor that particular point, but will refer you to a great resource on the subject put together a few years back by Robert Priest, my academic colleague at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  If you are interested in the history of short-term missions (the current expression of which dates back to around 1949), and a thorough and honest evaluation of its global impact, there is no better resource.

My role, in addition to overseeing the local evangelism efforts of our network, is to mobilize local churches for more effective global engagement, and this is an interesting and challenging time to be involved in such work.  Principally, the challenge comes from the fact that the "modern missions movement" which began in 1790 is coming to an end.  I've written on this subject before, but that reality means that what I do is now far more substantive than simply putting together "mission trips." If your church is simply looking for help with logistics, any travel agent can help with such matters.  What our team exists for is to help the church understand not only its centrality in the mission, but the best and most effective ways to execute that mission as we move deeper into the 21st century.

So what follows are four guidelines we provide to our churches. As we are a Baptist network, we do not presume to instruct or "order" our churches to do missions in any particular way.  However, as a steward of the resources provided us by those churches, we want to be as wise as possible when advising those we serve.  And, we want to be intentional about the strategic framework within which we will devote our resources.  So to our churches we simply say "we will help you in any way you want, but for our substantive participation in what you are doing, we need to see the following characteristics addressed in your strategy."

Local church-led.  Over the past decade, every single partnership I've ever put together that was successful had one common element: it was led by a local church!  In the past, state conventions, associations, or other such organizations would piece together an agreement, into which they would invite local churches.  In certain situations like disaster relief, this can still be a very effective way to mobilize the body of Christ.  But in longer-term commitments, local churches have to lead the way, and use entities like ours to embolden the effort.  In short, when we need to mobilize quickly in response to a disaster that requires charity, organizations like ours can lead the way every effectively. We are blessed to have one of the best disaster relief and recovery mobilizers in the country on our team here, and she does a phenomenal job when such situations arise.

But most mission engagement shouldn't be about "charity."  They should focus on "development" (More on this in a bit)  And in those situations, the relational connections that are necessary for long-term effectiveness can only be established at the level of the local church.

"Front-door" approach.  For a hundred years from the start of the modern missions movement in 1790, Christianity spread from a small geographic space no more than 150 miles from the north Atlantic Ocean to cover the entire known world!  Then beginning in the 20th century, the boxer rebellion and cultural revolution of China, the rise of Soviet Communism in eastern Europe and Asia, and rising tensions in the middle east created a new term and category: the "closed country."  Such places are understood to be contexts into which our modern missions delivery system is not welcome.  And its true that in these parts of the world, Christians cannot simply plant churches at will.  But I've been to many of these places, and I can tell you from experience; they are NOT closed to the Gospel! They are merely resistant toward what they perceive as a western cultural invasion into their way of life called "Christianity."

In response, many mission organizations created "platforms" through which they would enter an area, while underneath the surface, they would employ modern missions under cover of night.  I understand why some would think this approach is necessary.  The Great Commission is non-negotiable for those who take following Jesus seriously, and there are no Scriptural exception clauses for so-called "closed countries."  But the longer I'm involved in global engagement, and the more I learn about how other parts of the world operate, the more uncomfortable I've become with a strategy that says "its ok to break the 9th commandment in an effort to declare to the rest of the world that they shouldn't be breaking the 1st one."

Of the 5.5 billion people in the world without a relationship to Jesus, most live in places you can't go openly as a "missionary."  That's OK.  In the new world that is emerging, the Gospel doesn't need our modern mission assumptions.  Its just as powerful without them.  Instead, let's engage these areas and peoples in a way that demonstrates we are genuinely concerned for their present world, as well as where they will spend the next one.  The same places resistant to traditional missionaries throw their doors open wide to teachers, doctors, nurses, IT engineers, agriculture specialists, and athletic coaches.  And with rare exception, you can serve within these roles in these places, and be VERY open about who you are and who you worship.

No more "sneaking around" for us!  We will be honest and up front with the peoples of the world.  Yes, I understand this means it will take longer to engage people with the Gospel and eventually see churches emerge, but that's why we also include marker # 3 below:

Long-term commitment.  Here is what I've often said to the people in our churches: "If your interest in an area or people doesn't last longer than CNN's interest, just stay home!"    To be honest, too many churches approach missions like a drunk deer hunter.

Imagine a guy with a loaded 30-.06, sufficiently soused and with an itchy trigger finger.  Everywhere he hears a noise he yells "DEER!" turns, and fires.  How many churches do you know that approach mission strategy this way?  "Oh, a tornado hit Oklahoma.  Let's go there!"  Three months later, there is still MUCH work to do in Moore and Oklahoma City, but the church has grown tired of that enterprise and has moved on. "HEY!  There is a small church building in Montana eaten up with mold.  Let's go fix it!"  Once its half-finished, the church sees yet another opportunity in Japan, then another in New York, yet another in Canada.

In the end, nothing truly gets done, because a church with a huge heart but limited resources wasn't intentional about managing those resources for maximum impact.

What's the best way to ensure this doesn't happen?  Think long and hard, and pray long and hard, about where God wants YOUR church to be involved.  Once you have explored the opportunities and made a decision, sink the shaft deep, and commit to stay for a minimum of 15 years!  Realistically, it will take the first 5 of those years at a minimum to earn the trust of the people there.  Most places around the world have seen westerners come and go. So our team no longer speaks of "short-term missions."  Instead, we talk about "long-term project development."   If you don't want your international efforts to amount to "wood, hay and stubble" in the end, you need to commit for the long-haul.

Mobilize the whole body of Christ.  As I said above, places resistant to "missionaries" are begging for teachers, doctors, engineers, and others.  Guess where those people are?  If you are a pastor, they are most likely sitting in front of you every single Sunday!  Stop seeing their appearance at the church as the pinnacle of success and mobilize that army God gave you!

Every long-term international effort we currently have has a local church leading the way, but its not the pastors who are "on the ground."  Its educators teaming up with a University in southeast Asia to equip teachers there for service to special needs children.  Its business owners setting up the finances necessary to develop a local, agrarian-based economy in west Africa.  Its coaches working to bring baseball to the Caribbean.  Its construction contractors helping to build hospitals and schools in the middle east.  And inevitably, each of these projects becomes a catalyst for relationship, the sharing of faith, and many people meeting Jesus.

The Great Commission wasn't given to pastors.  It was given to the churches pastors serve!  Make sure the entire body is mobilized for His work!

Beyond these parameters, we also want to ensure indigeneity, local reproducibility, and ultimate non-dependency where long-term efforts are employed.  But from the viewpoint of the local church, the four markers above are the ones we look for to determine if a church is truly ready for a substantive, long-term partnership abroad.

The mark of the modern missions movement is an indelible one that is evident around the world. But as we see that epoch of Gospel engagement start to fade from the scene, I believe even greater and more effective days can be ahead.  But our role in that new world will be largely dependent on us becoming less dependent on a modern delivery system for missions, and developing new partnerships that better reflect our current global reality.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Still Waiting for--and Pursuing--Peace on Earth

In a few days, I will take a couple of weeks to celebrate the Christmas and New Years' holidays with my family.

This time of year seems more peaceful to me than any other.  But as events in our world have reminded us this year, there is a marked difference between feeling peaceful, and actually having peace.  Both Testaments of our Bible employ a word for peace that transcends mere feeling or sentimentality, and their Holy Spirit-inspired authors bridge the linguistic differences between Hebrew and Greek to choose words that have a remarkably similar meaning.  Both the Old Testament and the New communicate a sense of completeness and wholeness.  Both imply a sense of total welfare, and both include an element of ultimate justice.  In other words, Biblical peace is more than a feeling.  Its a sense of balance and wholeness and covers all of humanity, and its something God promises to restore to the world.

We often get glimpses of what this looks like during the Christmas season--sometimes through experiences that make us feel as though we are living for a moment inside a Norman Rockwell painting.  We should enjoy such times, but we should never mistake them for the ultimate peace that Scripture promises us will someday come.  As recently as last evening, we were reminded of this as reports came in from Sydney Australia of what appears to be an ISIS-inspired hostage situation.  We are, perhaps, living in one of the most unpredictably violent periods of modern human history, even as we will quote the angelic announcement of "peace on earth" from now until the conclusion of the advent season.

Ask the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner if they think we have "peace."

Ask the families of the 47 police officers who will not be celebrating Christmas with them because they were killed in the line of duty in 2013 if they think we have "peace."

Ask the Israeli IDF soldier whose life is threatened daily by political forces beyond his control if he or she thinks we have "peace."

Ask the Palestinian family who lives in an open-air occupied prison under the threat of becoming "collateral damage" if they think we have "peace."

Ask the average American who has read the latest CIA report on torture if he or she thinks we have "peace."

Ask the Pakistani family whose child was blown to bits by a drone strike if they think we have "peace."

Ask the thousands of military families who will sit at Christmas dinner this year without their loved-one who was killed in battle if they think we have "peace."

Ask the Ukrainian family now living under Russian occupation if they think we have "peace."

Ask the thousands of Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, and others from Iraq, Syria, and surrounding areas who have witnessed unspeakable horrors at the hands of ISIS if they think we have "peace."

Ask the parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School who are about to spend their third Christmas without their kids if they think we have "peace."

In some cases, the people above are on polar opposite sides of the violence.  But there is one thing they all hold in common, and its their answer to this question.

So what are Christians to make of this?  How can we possibly speak of the sort of peace the Scriptures describe--and promise--in the midst of our current global context of violence?  Well, for starters, we can go back 2000 years and discover that the world into which our Savior was born was also experiencing this kind of violence.

When you and I read Paul's words in Galatians about Jesus' coming in "the fulness of time" (4:4) our temptation is to sanitize our description of that kairos (the greek term for the "right moment.")  We speak of the Roman road system that would make the rapid spread of the Christian Gospel possible, but we leave out the Roman practice of crucifixion--which makes water boarding look like a college frat initiation.  We speak of the pax Romana which ensured relative "peace" throughout the empire, but neglect the barbaric way in which the Roman occupiers often kept that peace.  We speak of the Jewish longing for Messiah that at this point in time had reached peak expectations, but forget the murderous rage of Herod the Great that resulted in a blood-soaked Bethlehem--a Jew killing fellow Jews in a raw grasp for political power.

And today, we also tend to ignore the darker side of our own surroundings.  Over the years, our family has taken several folks visiting our area to nearby Washington, D.C.  Inevitably, I will take guests to the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and point them down the mall toward the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, explaining that the Egyptian and Greek architecture respectively--along with the Roman architecture we are standing on at the Capitol--was chosen by the designers of this city to illustrate that we were building on the great empires of the past in order to build the most exceptional and free society that has ever existed in the history of humanity.  But every time we witness violence in our own land--whether it be in person or through the media--we are reminded that we are but another imperfect empire in a long line of empires--none of which will ever be able to truly and finally bring "peace."

The world into which Jesus came and the world you and I inhabit are equally violent.  In many ways, that first Christmas looked far less like a Bing Crosby song, and more like an ISIS-controlled Syria.

Yet into that turbulent environment walks a Priest by the name of Simeon.  Luke tells us that he had waited for virtually his entire ministry for God's Messianic promise to be fulfilled.   The arrival of a lower middle-class family with their 8-day old baby boy finally fulfilled that promise.  In that moment, Simeon blocked out the surrounding violence, and only saw promise.

"for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.  a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel."

Yet here we are, 2000 years later, and the world still doesn't know the "peace" of which our Scriptures speak.  Why is this?  Because Jesus' advent was merely the announcement--His life a precursor, His death full payment, and His resurrection the guarantee of peace for all who will turn from their sins and put their trust in Him.  Ultimate and final peace--the sort that is more than merely the absence of conflict, but also includes the presence of justice, wholeness, and balance--isn't here.  At least, not yet.

Which means when followers of Jesus speak of their hope for peace at Christmastime, we aren't doing so under the delusion that we will usher that peace in without the return of Jesus.  But when we cross political aisles, railroad tracks, and neighborhoods to understand and stand in solidarity with another, we are providing a foretaste of what this world will be when the One who came in humility  the first time comes the second time as conqueror of the world He created.  One of our popular carols at this time of year expresses this hope perfectly:

No more let sins, and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow,
far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found!

No wonder Jesus said those who make peace will be called "children of God" (Matthew 5:9).  When we pursue peace, we demonstrate that we are like our heavenly Father.  As we celebrate this Christmas, let's let that celebration be signified by our own efforts at peace-making.  Like our Savior, let's live as a sent people, and while we wait for ultimate peace on earth, let's not merely be satisfied with the peace we "feel."  Let's cross lines.  Let's run toward trouble while the rest of the world runs away from it, and let's demonstrate the ultimate end to our message by bringing the love and presence of Jesus wherever it is needed.....

....far as the curse is found!

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Danger of "Living in the Present."

Imagine a married couple are expecting a child.  Now imagine that during that 9-month period they do absolutely nothing to get ready for that child.  They do nothing to provide a nursery, a bed, or a place to change diapers.  They don't think through how their work schedules are going to change in order to care for this child, or how they will afford childcare outside the home should the wife decide to go back to work.  They don't add the child to their will.  They don't provide life insurance for the child.  Worst of all, they don't secure medical coverage for the child once he or she is born.  Now imagine asking this couple halfway through the pregnancy how they could have possibly been so short-sighted.  And imagine them responding by saying "we are doing just fine right now. We don't have a baby yet, and there is no need to do any of that until we have one."

You have just observed a couple who live consistently in the present, and think nothing of the future.  How many churches do you know like this?

Churches are often accused of "living in the past," but if the truth were told, too many churches are simply "living in the present," and simultaneously wondering why there is no growth, no excitement, and no vision.

Not long ago I was consulting with one of our congregations, and made some recommendations on steps forward they needed to take.  My work with Baptist churches means that I don't have any final authority over the churches I serve, but I also figure they wouldn't be paying me if they didn't want my input from time to time. However, one particularly strong objection to my recommended changes was punctuated by the phrase, "besides, we are doing just fine as we are."

"That may be true," I replied, "but you are not doing just fine as you will be."

A church with 100 active members will always--ALWAYS be at around 100 members unless it begins living in the future, and as such, behaving as if it were at 200 or 300.  But that sort of behavior demands change that can be uncomfortable.

1. Governance.   Smaller churches can have monthly business meetings and discuss everything....and I do mean EVERYTHING.  I once sat through a meeting in which the church body had a 45 minute discussion about how to spend $100.  To their credit, they were also very kind and civil to one another while having this conversation, so I couldn't accuse them of being ungodly.  But I did come very close to offering to write a check if they would simply stop talking!

But once a church begins to grow, monthly gatherings where every member of the body has the opportunity to offer input become increasingly impractical.  In Baptist churches, this means that our congregationalism becomes less "democratic" and more representative.  And this may be the hardest thing to change because everyone wants to be heard!  Problem is, once a church gets to the 250 mark, its not possible for everyone to be heard any longer, and if you want to get there, you have to start behaving like you are already there!

2. Staffing.  Conventional wisdom where church staff are concerned is "we will hire them when we can afford them."  To be sure, I have sometimes consulted with churches that are "over-staffed" and did so with the false notion that simply filling a position would somehow create excitement and subsequent growth.  But hiring the right people will create growth.  Generally speaking, you shouldn't wait until you can afford them.  Instead, you should hire who you can't afford to lose, and then watch them earn their keep!

3. Budget.  The ministry budget of a church is the real statement of a church's core values, and without faith-filled and calculated risk playing a role in the budget process, churches will inevitably budget "in the present."  Instead of starting with "what we took in last year," churches should instead start with the financial necessities involved in meeting the needs of its community and the world.  Too many resources that could otherwise be invested in Kingdom advance stay in the hip pockets and purses of God's people simply because we fear dreaming big, and being straight with the church about what it will take financially to live that  dream!  We aren't "all about the money," but we are all about Jesus and His Kingdom, and church members should be challenged to give sacrificially based on a future vision.

Churches that grow and impact their communities and the world are churches that live in the future!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Immigration and the Great Commission

"100 years ago we sent missionaries to the nations to look for cities.  Today you go to the cities and you find the nations."  -Ray Bakke

Today, President Obama is expected to reveal his plans for reforming our current immigration system--plans that most expect will be controversial.  If you want to stoke emotions and heat up a conversation,  you need only mention the subject of illegal immigration and step back.  The sparks are certain to fly!

In the wake of this latest round of tense discussion over this issue, the folks at Lifeway released a survey that shows pastors significantly support some form of immigration reform.  For many pastors, this is now no longer an impersonal issue, because many are starting to see the way it personally affects people they now know.  I've discussed at length before why I believe our current system demands significant reform, but regardless of your position on this issue, followers of Jesus should be responding to immigration first on the basis of our Kingdom calling.

The nations are quite literally next door.  In the last decade, the foreign-born population of the United States has grown by almost 9 million.  One of four children in our country has at least one parent who was not born here, and there are over 800,000 international students currently attending Universities and graduate schools in the United States.  Today, chances are when the subject of immigration is raised, most pastors now have at least one face and one name attached to the issue.  Wherever you are politically on this subject, if you are a follower of Jesus, you believe these people to be image-bearers of God that Jesus died to save.  We also believe that in the providence of God, these individuals have come to our shores and that like anyone else in our proximity, it is our responsibility to see that they hear of Jesus.

A friend shared recently of a young Pakistani man who came to the United States a few years back to study at a University in the upper midwest.  He came over with two suitcases full of hospitality gifts, as it is a custom in his country to present a gift of appreciation for anyone who invites you to their home.  Four years later, he completed his degree and returned to Pakistan--with both of those suitcases still full.

In four years, this young man had never been invited into an American home!

How many have come to our nation, and gone back to their own, without ever once hearing the Gospel?  For how many is this the reason because Christians were more concerned about their legal status than their eternal destiny?  Let's let the President, Congress, and INS answer for whether or not they are doing their job.  Followers of Jesus have a different one.

By Bob Smietana
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The nation’s Protestant senior pastors want the U.S. government to mix justice with mercy when it comes to immigration reform.
Most say it's the government’s job to stop people from entering the country illegally.
They also support reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country.
And they believe Christians should help immigrants, no matter what their legal status.
Those are among the findings of a new survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors from Nashville-based LifeWay Research. The survey was conducted prior to the mid-term elections.
Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, said pastors don’t approve of illegal immigration. But they want to help illegal immigrants make things right.
“This is one of many cases in which Christians can look at those around them and say, ‘I don’t agree with what got you to this place in life, but I will love you while you are here,’” says McConnell.
Nearly 6 in 10 of Protestant senior pastors (58 percent) agree with the statement: “I am in favor of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for those who are currently in the country illegally.” About a third (34 percent) disagree. Seven percent are not sure.
Most African-American pastors (80 percent) agree, as do a majority of white pastors (59 percent). Two-thirds (68 percent) of mainline pastors and more than half (54 percent) of evangelical pastors also favor a path to citizenship.
Pastors of mid-sized churches are more likely to agree than those from small churches. Two-thirds (66 percent) of pastors of churches with between 100 and 249 attenders agree. About half (54 percent) of pastors with less than 50 people in their congregation agree.  
Two-thirds (63 percent) of pastors under age 45 favor a pathway, as do a little over half (55 percent) of those ages 45-54.
Churches want to lend a hand
LifeWay Research also found pastors want to help their immigrant neighbors, no matter what their legal status.
Caring for immigrants can be “an opportunity to show people who Jesus is,” said McConnell.
About half (47 percent) of Protestant senior pastors say their church currently helps immigrants.
And most (79 percent) agree with the statement: “Christians have a responsibility to assist immigrants, even if they are in the country illegally.” One in 6 (17 percent) disagree.
More than three quarters of evangelical pastors (77 percent) and most mainline pastors (86 percent) agree. Most pastors under 45 (83 percent) and those in churches with 100 or more attenders (82 percent) agree.
The new study parallels the findings of a 2013 LifeWay Research survey. 
In that poll, 58 percent of pastors supported immigration reform. And about half (51 percent) said reform would help their church or denomination reach Hispanic Americans.
Other recent polling found that people in the pews have similar views to their pastors on the issue of immigration reform.
A 2014 Pew Research poll found that about two-third of Protestants (69 percent) support reform that would allow undocumented immigrant to stay in the country if they meet certain conditions. Three-quarters of Catholics (77 percent) also support reform.
Pew also found that less than half of Protestants (46 percent) say it is important that reform happens this year.
Pastors want the government to do its job
Protestant pastors of all kinds want the government to do a better job preventing people from entering the country illegally.
Almost 9 in 10 (87 percent) agree with the statement: “The U.S. government has the responsibility to stop illegal immigration.”
Most evangelical (91 percent) and mainline pastors (82 percent) agree. Pastors in the Midwest (38 percent) are less likely to agree than pastors in the South (89 percent) and West (90 percent). Pastors under age 45 are less likely to agree (82 percent).
“Justice, love, and mercy are all intrinsic to the Christian faith,” said McConnell. “It appears pastors see the need to end illegal immigration as an issue of justice. They also want to show love and mercy while the legal problem is addressed.”
# # # 
The phone survey of Protestant pastors was conducted Sept. 11-18, 2014. The calling list was a stratified random sample drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Responses were weighted by region to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Bob Smietana is senior writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.