Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Thoughts on the GCR Task Force Report are . . .I don't have any . . .yet.

That I listened last night to the initial report of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force--a group that is dillegently seeking a common road toward more effective mission work by Southern Baptists--while myself on mission with volunteers from 5 of our churches in Vancouver, B.C. is a surreal coincidence.

By my "body clock," it was 3 AM when I viewed the online report led by Dr. Ronnie Floyd, which can be found here: I figured a quick perusal of what was said would not only help me adjust my body cycles to the time zone I'm in, but would also help me anticipate questions, concerns, and comments from pastors and church leaders in my association once I return to Maryland next week.

After watching I can tell you with absolute confidence . . .I got nothin'. At least, not yet.

Like most who watched, much excited me greatly about the report. Other things were difficult to understand, and still others raised concerns in my mind. At the same time, there are some things I know:

-Whatever happens, Jesus is still Lord, and His Kingdom will still go forth.

-I know most of the folks on this task force, and their personal integrity and passion for the Great Commission gives me confidence that they are doing their best to serve us well and lead us down the right path.

-I know that ALL of the folks on the task force are sinners--just like yours truly--and that due to the fall they will not get everything right. Therefore, we must continue to pray earnestly for them, and that the Holy Spirit would guide them.

-I know that those who watched and will ponder the report and its implications--including myself--should do so prayerfully and contemplatively, not rushing to stern judgement or holding to "the way we've always done it" on the one hand because of things they may not agree with, and not "flag-waving" and calling anyone who has concerns "anti-Great Commission" or "committed to the beauacracy" on the other hand. Political rhetoric on either side of this debate at a time like this is rarely helpful, and sometimes even irresponsible. Wherever you land, be careful how you treat your brothers and sisters.

-I know that the best way to address concerns and offer perspective is to pick up the phone and talk to a GCR task force member personally. Again, these are people of integrity and I am confident they will be honest, listen to your concerns, and take the thoughts of Southern Baptists into future meetings. Whether you are a huge fan or a huge critic, at this point, the appropriate place to make your views known would be to take them directly to the task force. Blogs and social networking sites have their place, but I honestly don't think they are the best forum for discussing these issues at this time--at least not in detail.

-I know that all task force members would certainly prefer our prayers over and above our criticism. I can honestly say that I would not want to replace any of them and bear the burden I know they are bearing.

So in short, I think the best way to express my thoughts about last night's presentation is with another man's words--a man God inspired. Since by the superintention of the Holy Spirit James says it better than I or anyone else, I'll conclude with these words:

"Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person hbe quick to hear, islow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." -James 1:19-20 ESV

So far, that's my "2 cents." If you think it worth at least that much, please pass it on.

Let's keep praying and seeking God together.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Most Important Assessment Question

Part of my work with the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware involves helping to assess candidates who seek to plant new churches with us. Yesterday was one of those days in which I spent about 8 hours with two other assessors, a candidate and his wife. Its a long day to say the least for the assessors themselves, not to mention the candidate, who I am sure often wonders when Dr. Rorshach is going to appear with his inkblots. It is a mentally and emotionally intense day, but it is neccesary, because putting the wrong man in the field damages him, his family, the community he is seeking to reach, and the reputation of Jesus.

Lots of important issues get examined in that room, including a guys capacity to cast a compelling vision, his internal motivations, his family life, his relationships with non-Christians, and how he handles and thinks about money, authority, sex, marriage, children, friendships, enemies, structures, and the Gospel. At the end of the day, we put it all together and ask a very simple question: "Do his behaviors and attitudes match those that we know are present in a successful church planter?" Modes of dress, preferred styles of worship, philosophies of church growth, and personalities vary widely among these men, but the one thing that they all must hold in common to work with us are behaviors that are commensurate with introducing people to Jesus, and then congregating those people into new churches.

To do this sort of work, an assessor has to check many of his own personal prejudices at the door. In the end, it really doeesn't matter whether I'd be personally comfortable hanging out with this guy. What really matters is whether he can connect to and succesfully pastor the people he is seeking to reach. Still, there is one thing that is very personal that each assessor should keep in mind. So yesterday during one of our breaks, I placed this one issue on my Facebook wall: "Would I allow this man to pastor my wife and children?"

After getting both public and private, positive and negative response to that status, I thought it would be a good idea to elaborate. Soundbites of the sort found on social networking pages are not the ideal way to communicate something as comprehensive as the thoughts that were in my fallen brain yesterday when I tried to express them on Facebook. Some responded negatively, thinking that I meant that his passing or failing assessment grade should be ultimately tied to whether I genuinely like him, or to how much attention my family might receive from him were we a part of his new church. Honestly, my question doesn't presume that my family and I would even be a part of his church. That is a different, though related, question. The question is one of trust: Is this a man I whose teaching I would allow my family to sit under week after week? When I ask that question, I am looking for the following:

1. His View of Jesus. If I hear a candidate continually talking about the "church" in a way that is disconnected from Jesus, then I'm hearing a guy who has a woefully inadequate ecclesiology, and is consequently more interested in building an organization than in building Christ-followers. On the other hand, if everything from the growth strategy to the structure is permeated with discussion about making Jesus known, then I can be assured I have a guy who knows, ultimately, what this thing called church planting is all about. Such is the reason why theological convictions such as the virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection of Christ are so neccesary. By these things, Jesus is vindicated as the Lord of His church, which He sends out to continue His work, in the power of His spirit. Candidates who don't understand this neccesary connection end up planting an organization that--blunt as it sounds--looks more like a whore than a bride. On the other hand, if a man starts with Jesus and His Gospel, and moves toward an understanding of "church" from that starting point, such is a man who will always be lifting up Jesus. That is the kind of man I want yelling at my wife and kids each and every Sunday!

2. His view of Scripture. Since Jesus is ultimately revealed in the Bible, I want a man who has a high view of the inspiration of the Biblical text. Casual observation of the best Bible teachers reveals an obvious connection: Those who teach well from the text are those who think well aboutthe text. This doesn't mean that a guy has to use all of the conservative, evangelical "buzzwords" like "inerrancy" or "infallability" with the same regularity with which he might use common conjunctions. I know many men who "believe the Bible" yet have little to no idea what it actually says. My experiences with canddiates tells me that while true "inerrantists" don't shy away from using the word, they don't speak about it nearly so much as they practice it. When conversing with a guy I would let be my family's pastor, questions, problems, objections, and guidance all start with the simple phrase "the Bible says . . ."

3. His own Family Commitment. I have a very high view of the value of family because I see an equally high view of the family in the Scriptures. Consequently, I don't want my family sitting underneath the teaching of a guy who undoes these values by mistreating his wife, being overly harsh with his children, being absent from his home too much because of "ministry," or sacrificing his family out of professional pursuits. When my wife and kids look at their pastor, I want them to see the same kind of family commitment to which I aspire.

4. His Evangelistic Practice. I am growing more certain each day of the fact that unevangelistic pastors are the primary reason for unevangelistic churches. Eventually, people will emulate what they see in their leaders. This doesn't mean I want a guy to present the "four spiritual laws" to every flight attendant, or leave a tract at every restaurant table. What I do want is a pastor who naturally shares his faith in much the same way that people in love speak of their beloved. One man we recently assessed wasn't particularly eloquent, didn't have the most winsome personality, and honestly, I've heard better preachers. But he "oozed" Jesus, and literally hundreds have come to Christ because of this. So he passed!

Obviously, there are other very important things that need to be examined when we are seeking to place the best candidates in the field to start new churches. The factors I've listed above aren't the only ones we look at. But I do believe they are the most important. For that matter, every Christian family should ask these questions of the men who are presuming to lead churches they are considering being a part of. The greatest honor any man can give another is the trust that comes with placing his family in your hands. When searching for a pastor, remember that he will watch over the souls of your family, and examine him accordingly!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Remembering Where we Came From: The Kairos Journal Gets it Right

For the past several decades debate has raged in our culture over the question of whether the United States is, or ever has been, a "Christian nation." Our current President recently spoke abroad regarding this issue, assuring muslim nations in particular that we are most assuredly not, while conservative political groups accuse him and others who share his point of view with "historical revisionism."

Christian historian David Barton refers to the multiple references to God by our nations founding fathers, their dependence on divine providence, and frequent appeals to heaven's blessing as grounds for believing that our genesis as a nation was a distinctly Christian one.

When confronted with the question "Is the US a Christian nation?" the intellectually honest believer must respond with "yes and no." On the one hand, when the plethora of theological vantagepoints held by our founding fathers is closely examined, one comes to the conclusion that if any ever intended a state religion it would not be Christianity, but instead a strange mix of Freemasonry and moralistic deism. While many who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence were genuine followers of Christ, Thomas Jefferson, who essentially authored the document, offered his daily prayers to a god who was conspicuously absent from the everyday affairs of men, seemed incapable of performing the miracles described in Scripture, and certainly bore no resemblace to the God of the Bible. As a follower of Jesus, the peculiar beliefs of some of our founding fathers make me thankful they did not establish a state church.

On the other hand, the nation's history and all the privilege that has come from it bear the unique fingerprints of a Biblical understanding of reality, knowlege and ethics. Though the first colonists sought total religious freedom, they saw Christianity as the one faith which could guarantee such freedom. Anyone taking a simple tour of the Capitol rotunda can see this fact by merely looking at the artwork hung around the room. Of the four paitings hanging in these hallowed halls, three depict revival services and the last a baptism. Admittedly, the "under God" phrase in our pledge of allegiance and the "in God we trust" phrase on our coinage and in our halls of government may have been late 20th century additions to our culture. Still, on closer examination it appears that these move to install these phrases was a reaction to forces from the other extreme that at the time were seeking to totally erase the influence of the Christian faith on the country.

On that note the editors of the Kairos Journal warn: if it ever comes to that, we may lose the privilege that comes with our legacy.

Their pamphlet "Legatees of a Great Inheritance: How the Judeo-Christian Tradition Has Shaped the West," plainly lays out the influence of our religious heritage on the founding of western ideals that continue today. Conversely, the document also notes where secularist influence is now at the point of eroding these ideals. Such has already taken place in western Europe, and the editors warn that similar societal decay and erosion of freedoms could take place in the U.S. if all--Christian or non-Christian--fail to understand, appreciate, and preserve the rights and privileges we have inherited from this worldview.

One tangible example of this can be observed in our nation's public school systems. My oldest is a fourth-grader at one of those schools. This past December, the kids spent a day each looking at the history of Hannukkah and Kwanza, but not one word was said about the coming of Jesus Christ and the Christmas season. Certainly our children should be exposed to all traditions, and I'm happy that my son is more familiar with the traditions of others--especially in the highly diverse area in which we live. But why the conspicuous absence of anything Christian?

The editors of Kairos well point out that the very freedom we have to discuss the various traditions comes from our Christian heritage. But this isn't the only advantage to our heritage. Christian ideals such as the dignity of all human beings (which springs from our understanding of humans as uniquely created in the image and likeness of God Himself) and universal human rights was ultimately responsible for the elimination of gladitorial brutality, and the promotion of racial and gender equality. Slavery no longer legally exists in the west because of Christian-conscience-driven Englishmen like William Wilberforce and a strong abolitionist movement among the northern evangelical Chrisians in America. God-willing, a day is coming where abortion won't exist either, because of these same ideals.

Our critical realist epistemology, conviction that all truth belongs to God, and belief in the value of general revelation led to the founding of public school systems and the advance of science in the modern world. Our pluralist convictions--our belief that forced conversion is in reality no conversion at all--led to ideals like freedom of conscience and religion. The arts, architecture, music and fiction have all been touched by the creativity spawned by a Biblical worldview. The Geneva Conventions are simply the practical, modern application of Augustine's Just War Theory. Believe what you want about torture. The fact is that if it weren't for Christian ideals, we wouldn't even be having that conversation.

Though the editors commend the Christian faith to all, the objective of this journal is not to convert. Rather, it is to issue a call to reconsider the way our society seems to be jettisonning our Christian heritage. "Western Civilizzation," they contend, "is indebted to the Judeo-Christian tradition for its notions of human dignity and human rights, its innovation in science and medicine, its habits of humanitarian charity and universal education, and its rich contribution to the arts. Though once commonplace, this claim has become increasingly controversial, challenged by the revisionists of late modernity as well as those who suffer from historical amnesia."

This is not to say that everyone in our society has to accept Chrisianity as truth. Our own faith teaches us that this won't happen. It is to say that the Christian tradition should be reinstated to its rightful place in our history. As politically incorrect as it may be to state the obvious, Hindus did not give us a belief in universal human rights, nor did the muslim world give us freedom of speech or religion. (Try planting a Christian church in the middle-east if you doubt this.)

"Legatees of a Great Inheritance" is a valuable and historically accurate compendium of the Christian influence on the west, and the editors of Kairos have given us a crucial, "Cliffs Notes" approach to a wider, deeper history, the center of which is the cross of Christ Himself. Read it, and in doing so, reacquaint yourself with the ideals that have made western society great. More importantly, acquaint yourself with the One who granted these ideals, lived them perfectly, and died to give us life abundant, in the here, and the hereafter.

Visit the Kairos Journal online here.