Thursday, July 30, 2015

"How Did You Do It?" Reflections on 21 years of Marital "bliss" and "blisters."

21 years ago at this time, a beautiful, smart, winsome, godly young lady with obvious issues of blindness and bad character judgement had already said "I do" to a young 22-year-old knot-head named Joel.  We were preparing to leave the wedding reception where we had been talking with friends and family, and head to the beautiful area of Boone, North Carolina, where we would spend our Honeymoon.

If, at that moment, you had told either of us what God had in store for us over the next two decades, we would not have believed it!

As you can tell from the pictures, we don't look the same as we once did.  Amy has gotten a lot prettier, and I've gotten a lot uglier and hairier!  Additionally, there are now three other people who live with us who call us "Mom" and "Dad," and as anyone who is a parent knows, the presence of such little ones changes life in profound ways.  All in all, its been a blessed 21 years, and yes, I'd do it all over again with this wonderful woman.  It hasn't all been fun, but marriage isn't supposed to be.

Over the past several decades, divorce statistics remain unchanged, and as a minister of the Gospel, I've personally experienced those statistics.  Charles Lowery once comically said "I'd rather preach a funeral than a wedding any day.  They pay more, and they last longer!"  I can certainly vouch for that.  About 30% of the couples for whom I have officiated a wedding are now divorced.  On the other hand, everyone I've ever buried is right where I left them!

In this kind of context, we are often asked by younger couples how we have made it as long as we have.  Because we constantly praise and adore each other publicly, sometimes folks get the false impression that Amy and I have never had marriage struggles. Truth is, we have hit a few very rough patches in our years together, just like every couple does.  So, why are we still together?

1. Because we try to love Jesus more than we love each other.  Here is the unvarnished truth.  I don't deserve my wife, and the Biblical prohibition against divorce isn't about me or her.  Its about Jesus.  I think if we based our "staying power" merely on our devotion to each other, we too might have been a statistic years ago.  Keeping the wedding vows I made to my wife aren't primarily for the benefit of my wife.  Its about a promise I made to my Creator and Redeemer when I entered into the very marriage covenant that He created in order to point people to Himself.

One day in the future, one of us will pass away and leave the other one behind.  In that moment, the Rainey marriage covenant will be forever severed, because contrary to what some false religions teach, we aren't headed toward an eternal marriage between Joel and Amy. Instead, Joel and Amy are both headed toward their ultimate Bridegroom.  On that day, we won't miss each other because we will both be too busy basking in the unspeakable glory of what our earthly marriage was always supposed to be pointing to.  As wonderful as my relationship has been with Amy, I can't imagine how wonderful that day will be!

So over the past 21 years when arguments seemed to become more regular, or one of us thought the other seemed to be less tolerable, we've tried to look beyond each other, and toward what we promised God we would do our best to reflect--the very thing He expects marriage to reflect.  It hasn't always been easy, but God has a way of always out-giving us in every way, and I've certainly experienced that when it comes to how rewarded I feel by Him for our faithfulness to each other.

2. Because we allow each other to be who we are.  Amy genuinely loves to run, and has completed two half-marathons.  If I'm running, its either because someone has a gun, or because I've come to the conclusion that I don't need to get any fatter than I already am.  Amy is a slow, careful, deliberate and thoughtful reader.  I go through books like chicken wings.  Amy likes to take her time in the grocery store.  I want to split up the list and do double the shopping in half the time.  When we vacation, Amy enjoys the journey.  I'm trying to break a record to get to the destination.

Bottom line:  we are different, and we allow for those differences in each other.  I have a pair of running shoes only because she loves to run.  She has a motorcycle helmet because she knows I'm most relaxed when I'm on my Harley in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains.  Because we know these things about each other, we make sure the other can make time for these things.  They come up every time we have a "calendar meeting."  And we do this because, in the midst of my work-related travel and publishing deadlines, and her juggling of the home schedule, we don't want to lose each other.  I thank God for a woman who, when she sees me stressed out, asks "so when was the last time you took a ride Babe?"

3. Because we are best friends.  I'll be brutally honest here:  When I was standing at the altar 21 years ago with my soon-to-be wife, I had a few things going through my mind, but none so intense as the thoughts of what we would be up to that evening!  (Cue the retching now from the peanut gallery.......and my children!)

And I know what some of you are asking, "but it wasn't just the physical attraction.  You did LOVE her, didn't you?"  And I will say yes, I loved her--at least as much as any 22-year-old BOY could love anyone. Furthermore, those feelings weren't wrong.  God put them there for a reason.  But, those feelings alone don't make a marriage last, principally because they come and go.  You'd be amazed at how quickly the sweet smell of cologne and perfume fades when the stench of dirty laundry and medicinal salve is in the room!  

Over the years, Amy and I have had many "romantic getaways" when we hire a sitter and take off for a night away, or several nights away.  Our 10th anniversary was spent in Cozumel; our 20th in Key Largo.  This year's anniversary falls less than 48 hours after Amy returned from Vietnam, so whatever we are doing, it will involve a jacked-up body clock, and she will probably need to turn in by 8 PM to catch up on 40 hours without sleep from Hanoi back to Baltimore two days ago.

And then there was two years ago.  We were planning to go out for a quiet evening together at a local restaurant, but two of our three children caught a stomach bug, so instead we ate takeout, sat on our back deck, and were available in case one of them threw up.  Romantic, huh?

And over the past 21 years, we've had many more experiences like what we faced two years ago than we've had trips to exotic destinations!  And through all of those experiences, we have learned that the best way to face them is to do so as friends.  There is nothing wrong with romance.  I've learned to enjoy it far more over the years. When we get dressed up to go out, Amy is always stunning.  Its funny, I can look at women's clothes on the rack, or jewelry in her jewelry box and not have a clue, but believe me, she knows where it all goes, and it looks really good when she gets it all in place!  She is beautiful, thoughtful and intelligent, and that makes candlelight dinners with her an exquisite pleasure.

Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with sex.  Matter of fact, I happen to think that sex is fantastic!  Sex can greatly enhance a permanent bond between husband and wife, but it cannot create that bond, and it isn't what makes a marriage last.  Prolonged sickness, a tough pregnancy, young children that won't sleep, stressful times at work, and a hundred other things can result in you being "on the bench" for a while where sex is concerned.  But you always have friendship, regardless of whether the lights are dimmed, whether you hear the kids puking in the background, or whether or not you can work out that getaway.  Friendship isn't dependent on context.  Its unconditional, just like the love we are commanded to have for each other in a marriage.

4. Because we have sought help.  Once early in our marriage a co-worker commented that Amy and I always seemed to get along so well.  "Do you ever fight?" she asked?  "Oh yeah, " I responded, "and sometimes, chains and billy-sticks are involved!"

I've known and pastored a lot of married couples, and the only ones I've known who never had a rough patch were those who had a problem with compulsive lying.  Amy and I have experienced those rough patches too, and one of the ways we made it through was to seek help.  Twice we have visited a counselor, because there was an issue we knew we needed to work through together, but weren't sure how to do it.  At that point, our marriage wasn't "about to fall apart" (if you wait that long, you might need more than a counselor!), but we wanted to stay on top of things together.

We have also been greatly helped through the years by other couples much older, who have been married much longer.  By living in relationship with them, we have learned from their mistakes, and gained much wisdom on how to improve our own relationship.  Professional counseling can be a good thing, but trust me, the guy with a Ph.D. who is on his third wife has nothing profitable to say to you about marriage.  On the other hand, if you can find a couple who has been married at least as long as you have been alive, you will most likely gain a lot of very useful wisdom.  Come to think of it, you shouldn't even be asking this 21 year veteran about marriage.  I'm still learning myself!  Instead, go to church and find that man who has been married for 40 or 50 or 60 years.  Find that sweet old lady who walks in every Sunday with a walking cane in one hand, and her husband's hand in the other.  You might learn something.  I know Amy and I have!

I am an undeserving, but forgiven and therefore incredibly blessed man.  I'm grateful to Jesus for holding us together for all these years, and I'm grateful to a wonderful wife and best friend who continues with me on this journey.  Happy Anniversary Amy!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

2015 Summer Reading List

Well, its time for me to take a break from the blogosphere for several weeks, take a family vacation, spend some time overseas, and get ready for a busy fall!  As has been the case for many years, I want to leave you with the following reading recommendations for your summer.

1. Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex  Scott Bessenecker.  I have a review of this book that will be coming out in a few months in the fall edition of Evangelical Missions Quarterly.  One of the things I've said frequently in recent years is this: that the biggest barrier to the global spread of our 2000-year-old message is a 200-year-old delivery system!  In this book, Bessenecker, who works for Intervarsity Fellowship, seeks to paint a picture of what 21st century global engagement might look like.  Though there are a few areas where Bessenecker and I would part ways, overall, his analysis of many "modern missions"vehicles is accurate, and worthy of the church's attention.  Pastors who have a heart for reaching the world with the Gospel should read, and digest slowly and carefully, Bessenecker's observations.  Those of us who work at the denominational level should pay even closer attention.  I don't believe the death of denominations is a foregone conclusion.  In fact, I think our brightest days may be ahead, but only if we sincerely seek to understand the world as it is rather than as we wish it were, or as it was when our respective institutions were founded.  Bessenecker's work gives us a great start toward re-envisioning what this should look like as we anticipate bridging the mid-21st century.

2. 52 Weeks With Jesus: Fall in Love with the One Who Changed Everything.  James Merritt  A parishioner gave me a copy of Merritt's new book just a few weeks ago, and I've since begun to incorporate it into my own devotional times.  Short but substantive daily readings are gathered into 52 "chapters" designed to take you through an entire year of devotions.  In his classic style, James Merritt combines accurate exegesis with practical application for your daily walk.

3. Autopsy of a Deceased Church.  Thom Rainer  The value of this little book is inversely proportional to its size.  Many pastors in our Convention have already availed themselves of it, and many churches in decline have looked to it for an accurate diagnosis of what ails them.  One church I've recently consulted with that is searching for a new pastor was actually frightened by this book.  They saw themselves in its pages, and took measures to correct their downward slide.  They have since begun to grow even without a pastor!  One of the worst kept secrets in the west is that the majority of our churches are plateaued or in decline.  Rainer succinctly and accurately identifies the most common elements causing this slide.  Its a short read that is well-worth your time.

4. The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected.  Nik Ripken  Considered to be one of the foremost experts on the persecuted church around the world, Nik Ripken intertwines his personal story of growing up in rural Kentucky and his eventual exposure to the rest of the world with the realities of that world as he has experienced them as a Christian missionary and aid worker.  Like Ripken, I grew up in the American south where Christianity was almost a cultural expectation, meaning that texts like Luke 9:23 made very little sense to me.  Candidly, its never really cost me--or many other American Christians for that matter--very much at all to be a disciple of Jesus.  Ripken gives us a vivid picture of our brothers and sisters abroad for whom that is not true, and through their stories gives us a vision of those who live in our own time, who are described by the author of Hebrews as "those of whom the world was not worthy."  Ripken's book is a phenomenal description of how God's persecuted children are advancing the global movement of Jesus in places you wouldn't expect.

5. Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Non-Evangelism.  Carl Medearis  Medearis is an American pastor who currently serves with his family in Beirut, Lebanon.  Though his main area of expertise and writing focuses on ministry in Muslim-majority contexts, Medearis' focus in this book is to equip followers of Jesus to speak naturally about their faith.  Over the past couple of years, I've grown fond of Carl Medearis from a distance and learned much from his writings personally.  If you struggle with actively and regularly sharing your faith, this book can help you learn to speak more naturally about the One who has changed your life.

I hope you enjoy these great reads, and I'll see you in the fall!

Monday, June 01, 2015

Combat Soldiers, Special Needs Parenting, and the Church

According to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 1 in 68 children in America have been identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  Though each child plots differently on the spectrum (some high and others low), one thing that all parents of children with special needs share in common is this:  life can be very, very challenging!

Whether it is ASD or some other issue, parenting a special needs child poses unique challenges.  I know, because my wife and I are the parents of a special needs son.  One of the unique aspects of autism is that it magnifies all things about your child--ALL things.  All are created in God's image, and all are affected by sin.  Through the lens of autism, special needs parents have a front-row seat to the best of the imago dei and the worst of the fall--and they often see both within minutes of each other.

Yet many who are not raising special needs kids have difficulty understanding the experiences of special needs parents.  In many ways, the article below is accurate in describing the role of a special needs parent as that of a combat soldier.  If that sounds like an overstatement, just keep reading.

But beyond the challenges of special needs parents, there is another issue.  The one place where they should feel refuge; the one place their child should feel valued above all other places, is too often the one place where they are merely treated as a burden.  Conversely, many special needs parents see church involvement as a burden.  This simply should not be.

While my wife and I are blessed with a wonderful church family full of folks who understand, I've talked with way too many special needs families where this is not the case.  Overall, the church is failing the families of special needs kids.  If you want to know how, and if you want your church to be a true place of refuge, read the following article by Sheri Dacon.

You can access it here:

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

We Need to Talk: The Conversation White Evangelicals are Avoiding

Woe to those who make unjust laws; to those who issue oppressive decrees.  -Isaiah 10:1

"Systemic Racism"  Just utter the phrase, and emotions immediately go into the stratosphere.

Last week, I was invited to speak to a youth group at one of our churches about all that has transpired in Baltimore.  We had a great conversation about the long-term issues present in the city that need to be addressed.  I was highly encouraged by these young men and women, and their willingness to talk about these subjects.  I was even more impressed by their knowledge, and understanding that these are long-term issues that will require long-term commitments.

In suburbia, that's a rare thing.

Over the past few weeks since the riots, I've witnessed followers of Jesus outside the city make many pronouncements about the city.  Those experiences have made me realize that the body of Christ is divided--largely along geographic, socio-economic, and racial lines.  In other words, we are divided in exactly the same ways that the world is divided!

For some time I've suspected that our rural and suburban congregations understand very little about our brothers and sisters who live in the city. (and vice-versa)  But recent events in Baltimore have me more convicted than ever about this divide.  We need to talk!

But in order to have this conversation, we have to stop playing the world's game of yelling at each other through media soundbites.  The issues in Baltimore, at heart, are reconciliation issues, and as followers of Jesus, we carry with us the greatest story of reconciliation in the history of humanity.  But our presumption of the worst about each other is clouding that message, and if we want to avoid answering to Jesus for this, we have to put aside simplistic answers to what ails Baltimore and other cities, and have honest conversations with each other.  Over the past few weeks, I've been highly encouraged to see some pastors and others in our churches express willingness to enter these discussions.  But there are still too many who oversimplify what they don't understand.

A few things I've heard that oversimplify the issues:

1. "You just hate cops."  I've been a chaplain for two police departments, and have a high degree of respect for these men and women.  Furthermore, I believe anyone who picked up a rock and threw it at a badge in Baltimore was assaulting an expression of God-ordained civil authority, and they should be prosecuted.  Seeking to understand why someone takes violent action is not the same thing as condoning that action.

Additionally, speaking against police officers, and speaking against the system they are charged with enforcing by oath are two completely different things.  And when we work together to make the latter more just, we are also protecting and honoring police officers.  When I speak about an unjust system, I'm not just doing it for the victims of that system.  I speak about it for the benefit of police officers as well.  Their job is to enforce the law, whether or not they agree with it.  So if the system they are enforcing is infected with injustice, that's a dangerous environment in which to work!

We need to stop equating honest critique of the system with "hating cops."

2. "Just obey the law and you won't get in trouble."This is absolutely true.  Or maybe not!  Many decades ago during the Great Depression, many of my ancestors produced, transported, distributed, and consumed illegal alcohol.  Most who remember those "bootlegger" days will explain that environment in this way; "well, it was the Depression, and there were simply no jobs that paid a living wage.  This was the only way we could get by."

Am I excusing my ancestors from breaking the law by such a statement?  Not at all!  Yet most understand that there were systemic issues in rural Appalachian culture that motivated such behavior. It just doesn't seem like we understand that the same issues are present in cities like Baltimore.  Drugs are produced, distributed and sold because, in many parts of the city, there is little else one can do to make a livable wage.  And once you are arrested and imprisoned on drug charges, its a little hard to find honest work once you get out. So guess what you do?  The vicious cycle continues.

Again, my point is not to justify breaking the law.  It is to give some perspective on the complicated issues surrounding crime in the city.  I only wish solving the city's problems were as simple as telling people to "just obey the law."

3. "Those people need to get a job."Having talked with many of "those people," I can tell you first hand that many of them would LOVE to.  Problem is, there are no jobs--at least none within walking distance.  And with what car are they going to get to a more prosperous part of the city, or out of the city, to find gainful employment?  And again, if they have a criminal record, what are the chances that anyone will hire them?

4. "This is a political issue and we shouldn't talk politics from the pulpit." Just because a politician talks about something a lot doesn't make the issue purely "political."  I find it strange that when I'm in the city and address abortion or sexual sin, I'm accused of "being political in the pulpit."  But I'm equally amazed at how I get charged with the same thing when I'm in white suburbia and bring up issues of systemic justice in our cities.  God's Word has much to say about all these issues, and faithful followers of Jesus will refuse to bow at the alter of golden elephants, or golden donkeys.

A few things we need to talk honestly about:

Justice:  We need to speak honestly about a system that treats people differently if they can afford a good attorney.  We need to speak prophetically toward a justice system where private industry profits from the imprisonment of the populace.  We need to ask why, with only 5% of the world's population, we house 1/3 of the worlds prisoners.  And we also need to state the obvious: that most who are the victims of these inconsistencies are from the black community in our nations cities.

Economics:  The infrastructure of most of our cities, including Baltimore, is weak and crumbling, and that environment will not provide appropriate fuel to ignite an economic engine.  Baltimore in particular has some of the best health care facilities in the world, and most of the poorest in the city have no access to it.  Howard County, which shares a border with Baltimore, is one of the top five public school districts in the nation.  Yet many inner city schools are still using textbooks with copyrights from the 1970s. The crime rate in certain parts of the city is inhibiting economic growth, and that slow growth in turn creates a ripe environment for more crime.

Urban development:  When most see urban communities gentrified, they celebrate.  Yet most gentrification projects are executed with the aim of attracting a very different kind of person to that area than those who currently live there.  When Donald Trump buys up 15 city blocks, razes crack houses, and builds $500,000 townhomes, the result is a revitalization of the area by an influx of folks who are already among the middle and upper classes.  Problem is, this approach to development does nothing to actually help the poor, who are simply relocated to another part of the city.  We need conversations that focus on project development that seeks the renewal of an area from the inside-out.

The Gospel: Our understanding of Creation and the imago dei should motivate us to serve those in areas like Baltimore whose living conditions are, quite frankly, beneath the dignity of our common humanity.  Our understanding of the fall should humble us to realize that we in suburbia are just as broken, just as sinful, just as rebellious against God, and suffer from just as much dysfunction as our urban neighbors.  Its just easier to hide our junk behind gated communities.  Our understanding of redemption should push us toward doing what Jesus did--incarnating ourselves among people different from us.

For us, that will mean going into contexts like Baltimore as learners, seeking to understand and identify with people in the city that Jesus died to save.  And our understanding of restoration should lead us to be satisfied with nothing less than a long-term commitment to areas like Baltimore--commitment that eventually leads to the spiritual and tangible transformation of communities that reflect the Kingdom Jesus one day intends to establish here on earth.  There are already many faithful pastors, and other brothers and sisters in Christ there from whom we can learn much.  And if we come as learners, they long for our partnership and cooperation!

But by and large, we aren't having these conversations in our churches.  Our propensity to oversimplify issues and cast them in partisan terms--essentially to capitulate to definitions and explanations given by media talking heads in 3-minute segments--has blinded us to the fact that there are serious issues of justice in our cities that need to be addressed.  It is past time for us to hear from pastors and churches in those cities who work in these conditions every day.  In fact, opportunities are developing right now to have those conversations this coming November in Baltimore!  As soon as the details are finalized, I will post them here.

We need to talk!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Getting out of the Ghetto: Why Pew's Research on the Church in America Means Very Little

"If you live in a ghetto the size of New York City, you may not know it."  I heard those words 15 years ago from a pastor talking about my denomination.  His simple point was that there are indeed Christians outside the Southern Baptist Convention.  But when you are the largest Protestant denomination in America, sometimes its hard to see past your own sense of largeness.

But that principle isn't true only for my denominational tribe.  Its also true for the wider body of Christ in the west, and events of the past few days have proven this fact.  Last week, Pew Research released its latest project focusing on the state of American Evangelicalism.   Called America's Changing Religious Landscape, the study claims that the number of self-proclaimed Christians has dropped sharply over the past 7 years, while adherents to other faiths and the unaffiliated (sometimes called the "nones") continue to grow.

Reaction to this report has varied, and a few have lamented the beginning of the end of American Christianity.  But those who think such things don't understand this research--or the nature of Christian faith wherever it may exist on the globe.  As Ed Stetzer has well-said, "Christianity is not dying and no serious researcher thinks that."  So why do so many-including those within the body of Christ in the west--seem to believe it is so?  I would suggest its because our "ghetto" is crumbling.  For too long, we've been unable to see the work of God beyond our own western constructs.  And that's a large part of why Pew's latest research isn't very helpful.

1. It measures institutional Christendom, not Christianity.  No doubt about it, the predominant and most visible brand of "Christianity" that has existed on this continent for centuries is dying.  But that doesn't mean that genuine followers of Jesus in the west are declining in numbers.  As our culture continues to shift in a direction that makes being Christian something that is no longer culturally convenient, we are witnessing Jesus separating His American sheep from the goats with whom they have long been herded inside an institutional form of western Christendom.

Decades ago Billy Graham postulated that as many as 75% of church-goers had no genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.  Pew's observations of the decline in numbers in the western church doesn't reflect that there are less Christians in America.  It is only revealing who the genuine Christ-followers are among us.

2. It is focused on the west.  For the past 500 years, Protestant Christianity in all its forms has been primarily defined in western terms--first throughout Europe and eventually by its growth in America. For the most part, this is because "Reformation theology" was developed in a distinctly western context, and it was that theology that for the past half millennium has informed everything from our modern church structures to our missions-delivery systems.  Though I have great appreciation for this tradition (I am, after all, a product of church life, seminary education, and missions deployment that has been almost exclusively informed by this approach), it is not a tradition that has ever truly considered the whole of the global body of Christ.  The most we can say of western Protestantism in this regard is that it saw itself as the "starting point" for spreading the Gospel throughout the world.  But even today, most in Protestant churches don't think very much about the contribution of the wider and global body of Christ.  And this myopic understanding continues in spite of the fact that other nations have been sending missionaries to our own shores for decades.

When we look exclusively, or for that matter, even primarily, through this western Reformed lens, we miss most of what God is doing in the world today.  While we lament the decline of Christendom in the west, our brothers and sisters in the "2/3 world" are witnessing an explosion of growth.  Alan Hirsch has rightly stated that "the new face of 21st century global Christianity is no longer the European man, but the African woman."  Throughout South America, sub-sahara Africa, the middle east, and the Asian subcontinent, Jesus is using His church in these areas to introduce millions of new believers to Himself.  Perhaps if we focused a little less on our decline, and more on what is causing their success, we might learn something that would empower the Gospel witness of the western church.  It is past time for us to step down from the teacher's lectern and begin learning from our brothers and sisters abroad

3. It feeds the misconception that we are different from the rest of the world.  Why do we seem so unwilling to learn from other Christians around the world?  Is it pride?  Is it a sense of the heresy of "American exceptionalism" applied to our churches?  Probably not.  In fact, its more likely that we don't listen to the global church because we still labor under the delusion that their context doesn't apply in ours.  And this is the case because we continue to believe--in spite of historically unprecedented global migration patterns that affect every continent including ours--that there are two ways of doing church; one way for us, and another way for the rest of the world.  Even phrases like "domestic missions" and "international missions" betray our ignorance.  In a world where my next-door neighbor is as likely to be a Buddhist from India as a Presbyterian from Philadelphia, we need to stop examining the western church through exclusively western eyes.  Pew's observations of the growth in ethnic and cultural diversity in its study is a helpful start, but we must go further.

The reaction by Christians to Pew's research reminds me of the story of the Emmaus-bound disciples.  In the midst of their pain, confusion, and fear after Jesus' crucifixion, their Lord joins them in His resurrected body and walks among them--but they don't see Him!  That's the picture I think of when I think of the western church.  In the midst of massive cultural and worldview shifts on our own continent, we are too fearful to see beyond to the miraculous work God is doing globally--work He is doing among our brothers and sisters in places that are no longer "far away" and from which we can learn much.

But to learn those lessons, we have to lift our eyes beyond old constructs.  We must stop judging ourselves by standards that are more influenced by a dying western church culture than by Scripture, and see Jesus walking among us and beckoning us toward what He is doing globally.  After all, He isn't interested in redeeming one small cultural piece of His body.  He wants the whole world.  And one day, He is going to get it all!

So we can lament what is happening to cultural Christianity, or we can join the global body of Christ as Jesus extends His true Kingdom.  But to do the latter, we have to be cured of our myopia.

Time to get out of the ghetto!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Is "Tribalism" a Threat to Your Church?

Hopefully, it will surprise no one reading these words to discover that I'm a Baptist.  I was brought to a Baptist church for the first time when I was just a few days old.  I heard the message of Jesus, and became one of His followers in a Baptist church.  I was licensed and duly ordained as a Baptist minister, I'm a two-time graduate of a Baptist seminary, and I serve on the leadership team of a Baptist missions entity.  So I'm about as Baptist as they come.

And when I say I'm a Baptist, that's more than merely a statement of how I was raised or who cuts my paycheck.  I am confessionally, convictionally, Baptist.  I love my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, believe we will be in heaven together, and greatly appreciate their focus on the continuity of the Biblical narrative as it is contained in Covenant Theology.  Yet my best understanding of the Scriptures teaches me that infants are not, automatically, children of that covenant and thus, are not candidates for baptism.  So I could never be a Presbyterian.

I also believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still active today--ALL of them, including the ones that make some of my fellow Baptists nervous.  As such, I love and appreciate my Pentecostal brothers and sisters for their focus on the empowering necessity of the Holy Spirit.  At the same time, the Pentecostal understanding of how miraculous phenomenon like speaking in tongues are connected to Holy Spirit baptism are problematic for a guy like me, who believes we are as immersed as we will ever be by the Holy Spirit at the moment of our conversion.  So I wouldn't make a very good, faithful Pentecostal either.

Additionally, I see the book of Acts revealing an early multiplication of very strong, and very free, self-governing churches, which means I'd be inelligible for inclusion in the United Methodist Church also.  Just about any way you cut me, I bleed a brand of Christian faith that can accurately be called "Baptist."

Yet even with the convictions I hold, I've been blessed, encouraged, empowered, informed, challenged, and grown by men and women from across the denominational spectrum of evangelicalism.  In many ways, I would not be the man, husband, father, or pastor I am today without the positive influences of people like Tim Keller, Lawrence White, D. James Kennedy, Jack Hayford, James MacDonald, Chuck Swindoll, Bryan Chapel, Loran Livingston,  Eric Metaxas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and a host of others.  And none of the above-named people are Baptist!

In other words, I don't mind belonging to a particular "tribe" of Christianity, so long as it doesn't succumb to tribalism.  Yet some in my denomination would seek to "cleanse" us from anything, or any influence that isn't distinctly Baptist.  Sometimes this is motivated by an apparent fear that our people will join another denomination because of someone who influences them.

And yes, sometimes, a brother or sister may come to different convictions than I do about something that causes them to be true to their integrity, and join a tradition that more accurately alligns with their beliefs. Truly, there are worse things that can happen in our churches than the above display of doctrinal integrity.   But honestly,  if reading a single quote from D. James Kennedy turns one of my parishioners into a Presbyterian, I don't think the problem is D. James Kennedy!

Currently, there is much discussion in our denomination about a number of movements and/or theological persuasions, and whether these pose a threat to our existence as Baptists.  But of all the "isms" I know of that exist within our ranks, none from my vantage point seem to pose as big a threat as does "tribalism."

Tribalism might be a threat to you if:

1. Denominationalism is a substitute for discipleship.  By any measurable standard, the evangelical world as a whole is not "making disciples," as Jesus commanded, at least not those of the Romans 12:1-2 sort.  So, when you discover someone who is actually making disciples--marriages are strong, kids are raised in the fear of God, addictions are overcome, and society is positively changed as a result of the Gospel--is your first reaction to celebrate that fact, or is it to make sure that ministry performs baptisms the same way yours does, or holds to your own doctrinal position on alcohol consumption, Calvinism, or worship style?  If so, you may be a victim of tribalism.

2. Secondary issues are elevated to Gospel issues. A few years ago, one of our mission boards actually stated that baptism by immersion as a sign of conversion wasn't enough to be a "Baptist" missionary.  It had to have taken place in a church that affirms "eternal security."  So, if you were confessionally, convictionally Baptist, but were immersed in a Pentecostal or Nazarene environment, you were put out to pasture, unless you agreed to be "baptized" in an SBC church.  When I asked one trustee about this decision, I was actually told that holiness and Pentecostal churches teach "a works salvation in reverse."  This man demonstrated both a horrible misunderstanding of the historical and theological underpinnings of Arminianism, as well as a grotesquely myopic view of the meaning of baptism.  I'm not sure which of these caused the other in this "chicken-egg" conundrum, but the end result was a claim that because Pentecostals don't believe as we do on an issue not central to saving faith,  they don't proclaim the Gospel at all.  When a command of Jesus is domesticated and perverted to the extent that you believe it identifies you with a denominational tradition more than the King of Kings, you might be a victim of tribalism.

3. Identity turns to Isolation. Occasionally, I run into this in the church planting world when I'm told, in spite of the fact that there may be multiple Gospel-preaching churches in a given area, that we may need to put a church there anyway because "there is no BAPTIST work there."  If you think we don't need other Christian traditions working with us to accomplish the Great Commission--or worse yet, if you think the Great Commission can't be accomplished unless we are driving the work in a given area--you may be a victim of tribalism.

I think our work is important, and I think our identity is important.  As a guy serving a Baptist missions entity, that's why I wouldn't put a Lutheran on the field to plant a church, or encourage one of our established churches to hire a Pentecostal, or consider anyone for missionary service under our banner who would be OK with throwing water on a baby and calling it baptism.  But I don't have to be your twin to be your brother, and the sooner all Southern Baptists realize our dire need for the wider body of Christ to accomplish His mission, the healthier and more effective we will be within our own tribe.  Ironically, that will also be the moment when our identity is more firmly established, because it will be in Jesus.

My friend Bob Roberts says it best.  "Jesus did away with all tribes when He brought the Kingdom."  So let's hold our secondary convictions.  But more importantly, let's lean into the mission--even alongside those who don't share those convictions.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

It's Time to Love Baltimore!

Human beings are, at one and the same time, created in God's image and likeness, and separated from God because of their sin.  And the more human beings you have located in the same place, the more obvious those two realities become.

Living within the shadow of Baltimore Maryland for over a decade, I can recall many moments when that great city has reflected the very glory of God.  But this morning, I am heartbroken, because as the rest of the world observes the riots that currently threaten the peace of this wonderful city, they are witnessing how truly depraved we can be

Last night, Baltimore suffered from a significant and self-inflicted wound.  In a scene that defines the perfect storm created by racist history, corruption, lawlessness, distrust, and violence, our city revealed itself as being under demonic influence.

That's what you watched on CNN last night.  But what you didn't see is how God is already at work among the chaos.  What happened on the cross is itself testimony to the fact that God is often most highly glorified in the midst of chaos, confusion, deep depravity, and anger.  And underneath the surface of the coverage national media are giving to this city, He is doing it again!

City pastors praying over blood gang members
-Last night, rival gang members marched together to protect pastors from harm who were seeking to minister in the city.  Later that evening, they were allowed to speak in Baltimore churches, and pastors from all over the city laid hands on them and prayed for them.

-This morning, Pastor Tally Wilgis and the wonderful people of Captivate Church are feeding kids.  In an area of the city where 84% of the children are on a free or reduced lunch program, when school is cancelled, they don't eat.  So the body of Christ is feeding more than 100 of them.

-Pastor Brad O'Brien and the folks at Jesus our Redeemer are currently coordinating help and aid to the hundreds of police officer, firefighters, and National Guard personnel that will be setting our city back in order.

-Pastors Mike Crawford, Joel Kurz, Dan Hyun, and many others opened their church facilities so that God's people could pray, frightened citizens could find refuge, and the church could begin forming a response to serve this city that Jesus died to save.

These are just a few things that took place last night.  God was, and continues to be, at work in mighty ways.  History tells us that moments of spiritual awakening are often preceded by societal chaos.  Our network of churches--many of which are found within Baltimore's city limits--believe with all our hearts that this is God's desire.  And we know this because in the midst of bloodshed, we are reminded through the cross that Jesus Himself was the first to bleed for this city.

So as strife and unrest continue to threaten Baltimore, our churches are running toward that need, and taking with them the greatest story of reconciliation in all of human history!

Want to help us?  Please point everyone in your church here.  Every dollar donated will be channeled directly to Baltimore area churches for the exclusive purpose of helping them serve the city, and bring reconciliation through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

My friend and colleague Mike Crawford said it best last night.  "Satan wants our city, and he can't have it!"

As other opportunities for service in Baltimore continue to develop, you can contribute right now to help these men and their churches bring true peace.

It is time to love Baltimore!