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.