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!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Knowing Your Community: Who Do You Ask?

Jesus' incarnation is the model He calls His church to follow.  "As the Father has sent me, so also do I send you." (John 20:21).  Our Lord immersed Himself into the lives of others, and calls His people to reach the world in His name in the same manner.

In light of this reality, nothing is quite so ironic as a church that has completely lost touch with its community.

In the last post, I listed some tangible ways churches could measure whether they have lost touch with the people to whom God has called them.  Today, I want to address the issue of how to re-establish connection with your community.  In particular, who are the best people to ask about your community?

1. Ask your neighbors.  Neighbors usually see it as in their best interests to keep abreast of what is happening in the community.  While pastors are often focused exclusively on what is happening at the church, their neighbors are generally aware of new local laws, public hearings about new businesses, and other issues that may affect the community.

Additionally, neighbors are also a diverse bunch. Though they may all live in the same neighborhood, they get into their cars each and every morning and drive off to very different places to work.  Each therefore has a different perspective on the realities surrounding the community, and each of these perspectives are valuable.

2. Ask the local school principals.  Local school administrators keep a close eye on the children enrolled in their institutions, and they can generally connect academic performance to realities in the home.  Those who teach and lead in local schools are also usually aware of "good" and "bad" neighborhoods, as well as needy families.  They are an excellent source of information that can be connected to tangible needs the church can meet.

3. Ask the police.  Police officers see the worst parts of humanity, and most don't have to be convinced that our world is fallen, because they are keenly aware of how depravity has manifested itself in those who presume to break the law.  But police also see most clearly where the greatest needs are in a community or city, and they are anxious for help from anyone who might be able to make their job easier.

I remember telling a police officer; "my prayer is that I can do enough of what I do, and the result is that you won't have to do as much as you do."  Cops understand that, and generally appreciate the church's cooperation and partnership.

4. Ask the sewer department.  Didn't expect to see this one, did you?  But if you want to know where new growth areas are occurring in your city and/or community, this is where you go.  The local chamber of commerce will tell you where they want growth to take place, but no municipality goes through the expense of installing new sewer lines unless growth is actually going to occur there.  Ask the folks who lay sewer pipe and you will get an accurate picture of future growth.

5. Ask the Lord.  God loves your community.  Jesus died for your community.  And He has placed your church there to reach them, and to serve them.  He already knows their needs, and how He wants your church to meet them.  Ask Him for wisdom.  Ask Him to open the eyes of your church to the realities around it.  And ask Him to give you what you need to make Jesus more widely known where He has planted you.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Four Ways to Know if Your Church is Out of Touch

"We want to reach our community!"  In 23 years of ministry, I've never served or consulted with a single congregation that didn't say this.  But for too many churches, they just weren't getting it done.

For many years, church leaders have attended conferences, listened to church growth "experts," and copied strategies that were successful in other contexts in the hope that the result would be people coming to Christ and communities being impacted.  But too often, the most critical piece of the puzzle wasn't even considered.

Too many churches are implementing "strategies" that have little to no connection to their community.  This is because too many churches are completely out of touch with their surrounding community.

How do you know if your church has lost touch?  Over the years, I've observed four primary indicators:

1. The members of the congregation aren't from the community.  Driving through a not-yet-regentrified area of Louisville Kentucky years ago, we saw prostitutes on the corner, witnessed people entering the local crack houses, and sensed the obvious presence of darkness.  But once we turned into the church parking lot, we saw a Lexus, parked next to a Mercedes, which was in turn parked next to a Cadillac.

Those who had been members of this church for decades claimed they wanted to reach this community.  But the community had drastically changed over the years, and the church members no longer lived there!  They understood nothing of the poverty and addiction that surrounded them, and had no personal desire to envelope themselves in the lives of "those people," but they fully expected the community to   come into a facility, structure, and approach to ministry that was totally foreign to them.  If no one from your church lives in the community, it may be time to relocate your church, and give the building back to believers who actually live there.

2. Church meetings don't include substantive discussion of the community.  It was a three hour business meeting that included a lot of very important issues: what should the worship service look like?  How should we structure ourselves?  And of course, "who is going to be in control?"  But for 180 minutes, this dying church said nothing about Jesus, or the community that surrounded them.

If you spend more time analyzing the church than you do serving the community your church was put there to serve, its a sure sign your church is completely out of touch.

3. There is no link between church ministries and the common concerns of your community.  The church was seriously considering spending $3 million on a brand new, state-of-the-art "family life center," complete with a full-sized gymnasium, free weights and nautilus equipment, and aerobics classes.  Problem was, no one had considered that there was already a $15 million facility just across the street that provided all those things already--and did so in a way the church would never be able to compete with.

Too often, churches start food pantries, ministries for single moms, recovery ministries, divorce care, financial counseling, and a thousand other things without so much as asking a single person from the community what the needs are.   A church that truly serves its community listens to its community, connects community needs with its own ministries, and those ministries with the Gospel.

4. Community Transformation isn't part of the vision.  When I teach church planting courses, one of the assignments always includes the students assembling an initial strategy plan for a new church that includes community analysis, vision, mission, and an overview of the first 18 months.  And I warn the students that if the vision stops with a picture of the church, they will have earned a failing grade!

Church is essential to the mission.  In fact, without the church, there is no true mission!  But though the church is necessary, it is not ultimate.  God's Kingdom is ultimate, and the result of any effective church that is aware of its surroundings is a community that reflects more of the Kingdom of God.  How will the community look different 10 years from now if your church is truly obedient to Jesus.  If you haven't answered that question, then whatever you have described isn't vision.  If you've never asked the question in the first place, your church may be completely out of touch.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Sex: The New State Religion

Last October, I wrote the following piece in reaction to several legal developments that threatened religious freedom.  Recent debate over an Indiana law that would have afforded people of faith a day in court--and required the government to demonstrate a compelling public interest before requiring someone to use their creative gifts to endorse something they don't believe to be right--reveals even more clearly that freedom of religion has now taken a back seat to sexual libertarianism.  These developments demonstrate that a new state religion has emerged, empowered by a far-left fundamentalism to silence dissent, shut down debate, and punitively affect people whose conscience runs counter to the sexual revolutionaries of the day.  I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether what I've written below is now more substantiated than it was even 5 months ago.

Religious Freedom in America is dying.  Though this has been stated often, and ignored just as often, rolling one's eyes at the statement doesn't make it less true.

The biggest irony here is that the vehicle being used--possibly in an unintentional way--to kill religious freedom is the very vehicle everyone in the country was assured would not affect it--laws that now codify our current sexual revolution, and are most visible in cases involving abortion and LGBT rights. 

Those who favor these laws have for years assured Christians that these changes in the law would not in any way affect religious freedom, or infringe on the consciences of those who believe these actions to be sinful.  Many of us responded by saying that these moves would in fact affect religious liberty--perhaps in an irreversible way.  Turns out, we were right.

A number of recent examples point clearly to this fact, most recently a California law that now requires churches with group health plans to cover abortion services.  And just last week, there was the debacle surrounding the Mayor's office in Houston, Texas, which in response to statements and petition drives from area churches sought to subpoena sermons and other correspondence.  Though I sometimes find myself in disagreement with Ecclesia Pastor Chris Seay, I found his open letter to Houston's Mayor to be a perfect combination of humility before Caesar, and bold confidence in the God who rules above Caesar.  You should read it here:

Additionally, my friend Tim McKnight, who teaches Missions at Anderson University in my home state, has written a thorough and accurate post on the history of religious liberty, the role of Christians in securing it, and the way it has been turned on its head over the past few decades.  You can read that one here:

In light of so much happening at once on this front, I expect those of no faith to believe and behave as they do.  But I've been particularly disappointed in what seem to be many misinformed Christ-followers who greet these developments with a shrug and a question of "what's the big deal?"

Well, to doctors, insurance administrators, bakers, photographers, coordinators and venue operators who have been sued and threatened with fines and jail time by the government, its a VERY big deal.  Earlier in the year, I wrote on the issue of gay weddings to encourage Christ-followers in those professions to consider serving gay couples as an expression of the love of Christ, but in that same article, I was also clear that such service should not be rendered by orders of the compelling influence of Caesar.

And now, continued threats of fiscal and criminal punishment have been leveled for the first time at ordained ministers who refused to officiate at a gay wedding, merely because they operate a "for profit" wedding chapel.  The message in this one case is clear:  Religious freedom only applies if you are "non-profit."

Yet from the other side, people of faith are told that even as a "non-profit" your free speech is limited.  Rather than deal honestly and straightforwardly with the honest differences we have, the far-left have sought to silence the voice of the church by categorizing certain moral issues as "political," and consequently threatening the church's tax-exempt status for speaking on issues that for centuries have been understood to be the clear domain of faith communities. 

In short, the two-sided approach to killing religious liberty is clear:  Punish "for-profit" entities for living their convictions,  punish "non-profit" ones for speaking publicly about their convictions, and do both from a position of power wherein government presumptuously monopolizes the conversation, and silences dissenters.  This is intellectual and political cowardice at its worst.  And when taken together, recent events reveal three clear trends that, if not stopped, threaten the very existence of religious freedom in America.

Followers of Jesus who don't see these trends want to be compassionate--especially toward our LGBT neighbors, and like them, I want to see the church continue on its present learning curve so that these image-bearers of God are increasingly treated with the dignity and respect they are owed as human beings.  But those who shrug their shoulders at concern over our current sexual revolution in the west and its more recent effects on our legal system are looking past some rather ominous shifts.  In particular, this current revolution has resulted in the following:

1. It turns religious freedom on its head. The First Amendment to our Constitution places no limits on individuals, or even corporations--be they for-profit or non-profit--in regard to religious liberty.  Quite the contrary, the Constitution actually limits Congress. I find it incredible that government at any level presumes the right to instruct people of faith--individually or corporately--as to what they can and cannot say inside their houses of worship, and what they can and cannot do (or refuse to do) outside those houses of worship.  Rather than adhering to what the Founders of this country called our "first freedom," they are by legislation and judicial fiat establishing a state religion, and that religion is sex. But what I find more incredible are those who claim to follow Christ who seem to be OK with government attempts to be Lord of the conscience.

2. It defines marriage as a "right." I have dealt before with the misconception of marriage as a "right" here, yet I must admit the highly effective message discipline practiced in recent years by those who use deceptively beautiful phrases like "marriage equality."  Those who aggressively favor homosexual unions have been largely successful in couching their agenda in the verbiage of "civil rights."  If interracial marriage is permitted, for example, then what is wrong with allowing two men or two women to be wed to each other?  In responding to this question, evangelicals have too often accepted the premise of that question.  Rather than speaking of who does and does not have a "right" to marry, we should continue to point out that no one--not even heterosexual couples--have a "right" to marriage.  Historically, this institution has been viewed as a status of privilege, and this truth is functionally proven by the fact that although a clerk of court may be forced by law to issue a license, no public official--minister, notary public, or judge--is required to perform the ceremony(at least, not until now).  Marriage is not a "right."

Consequently, a marriage license is not a statement of "tolerance," but affirmation.  Through a marriage license, the public via their local government is saying "this is a good thing, not only for this couple, but also for society as a whole, which has always benefited from strong families that have a strong marriage as their anchor."    It's one thing to ask for equality in public accommodations, or housing, or employment.  These are rights that should belong to any human being created in God's image and likeness.  But when the homosexual community asks for the privilege of marriage, they are asking for more than mere "tolerance," and we are seeing proof of this in the civil and criminal cases that are now unfolding before us.

3. It illustrates the results of postmodern thought.  Philosophical postmodernism can only ultimately lead to one place:  nihilism.  And, we are seeing the results of that slide before our very eyes.  The ironic foundation of a radically relativistic epistemology comes full circle when those who find themselves in the majority seek to impose one view of what "tolerance" means to them on everyone else using the power of the state.  This is precisely what we are witnessing in our current environment, which says to people of faith "keep it to yourselves, keep it in your church buildings, synagoges or mosques, and don't dare try to apply it outside those realms," and calls such restriction "religious liberty." 

In the end, this isn't about the homosexual community.  Its not about "tolerance" and its not about protecting a vulnerable class of people.  Its about a guiding philosophy that is currently taking us on a dangerous, agenda-driven trajectory.  The next issue could very well involve your own church, and/or your own pastor.  It might even involve you merely seeking to follow your own convictions as a follower of Jesus, and facing fines or even imprisonment for doing so.  Followers of Jesus asking "what's the big deal?" need to be cured of their ignorance, pull their head out of the sand, and join pastors like Chris Seay in speaking out before its too late.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Church Planting Jugulars: Three Mistakes to Avoid

Over the past 10 years I've had the honor of assessing, training, and speaking into the lives of hundreds of church planters here in the mid-Atlantic, and around the world.  Though my current role doesn't include the oversight of church planting, I still love these God-called men and women who risk much to establish more and more outposts of God's Kingdom.  

There is no mission without the church, and the church moves forward best by multiplication, which means that all who love Jesus should also love church planting.  Some of the most joyous experiences of my  ministry have been watching the birth of new churches.

Conversely, the most painful conversations I've had over the past decade involved conversations with planters who failed.  I"m sometimes asked what I believe are the most common pitfalls of those who don't make it.  My top three are below:

1. They have a vision for the church, but not for the community. In his book Winning, former GE CEO Jack Welch laments the overuse of vision and mission statements in the business world. I share these lamentations because I have seen winsome statements crafted by church planters in their training that have little to nothing to do with the area they are seeking to reach. Simply put, many church planters I talk to know how many they want to show up, they know what kind of building they want, and of course, they know what their salary should be. The problem is that these ideas are seldom expanded to include how the church system they design will impact the community around them.  Rather than start with an understanding of the community, they start with inserting a foreign church system into the community.

Those tempted to define their church's vision in this way should read Bob Lewis' book The Church of Irresistible Influence. To make short a long story that is worth the read, Lewis' Fellowship Bible Church of Little Rock, AR came to the conclusion that although their attendance exceeded 3000 people every Sunday, if their church disappeared the city of Little Rock would not notice, which made their church a failure by default. The subsequent story of their efforts to become a city-impacting church is inspiring, and worthy of emulation.

Any church planting vision that is worth the paper on which its written will have an "end game" that reaches beyond the walls of a building and sees the transformation of an entire community by the Gospel.

2. They depend too much on the denominational system, The truth about denominations--and those of us who work for them--is while we can be a great help to you, we can also handicap you, especially if you depend on us too much.

This is particularly true of the guys who go "full time." The temptation is to act as an employee of the system rather than the church planting missionary God has called you to be. My most frequent recommendation to church planters is that they begin in a bi-vocational role. Intentional outside employment is good and healthy. It gets you into the community, and forces you into relationships with people who don't know Jesus. In addition, it tests your stamina and resilience. While planting a church, I worked two additional jobs while simultaneously finishing a doctorate. Needless to say, I have little tolerance for guys who think they can't do this unless they are doing it full-time.

But regardless of whether you are full-time or part-time, from day one you should refuse to see yourself as a denominational employee. To be sure, if part of a denomination, you are accountable to those who support you. At the same time, God has called you to plant a church, which means that if you are spending more time around the office than you are in the field, you aren't fulfilling your calling.

3. They have unrealistic expectations. My book Planting Churches in the Real World deals directly with this issue.   Too many guys come to the field having read Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley and others, and they think they will be next in line. Subsequently, when they haven't broken the 50 barrier after their first year in the field, they feel like a failure. In addition, there are a few denominational folk out there who also make them feel like a failure, when the truth is that their plant is simply the "norm."  

A few years ago, Leadership Network found that new churches whose attendance exceeds 100 after four years are a small minority. The problem is that when church planters read the stories of Northpoint and Saddleback, they forget that people love these stories because of how extraordinary they are. If you are a church planter, know that while I pray you are indeed one of those exceptions, more than likely your experience will be quite "ordinary." Just remember that throughout the Scriptures, God used ordinary people, places, and events to accomplish great things, and don't give up!