Monday, December 10, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Non-Crappy Starring You! eCards on JibJab

Its that time of year when our family takes some time off and spends a couple of weeks with extended family in South Carolina. God willing, I'll be back here in mid-January. But for now, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone. Enjoy watching my boys pummelling each other above!

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Potential of a Mormon Presidency: My Thoughts

In the wake of Mitt Romney's speech last night, many born-again followers of Jesus are asking if his Mormon faith should be a factor in their decision of whether to vote for him as President in 2008. Given all the discussion surrounding this issue in the news media and on the blogs, I thought I'd share my own feelings on the issue, and tell you how Romney's faith affects my views of him as a Presidential candidate:

Now that we have that issue out of the way, let's talk about Mitt the candidate, shall we?

Seriously, the idea that Romney's Mormonism should even be a factor in this race seems overblown to me. On the contrary, at the intersections of faith and public policy, there are many issues on which Mormons and evangelicals stand together. With this in mind, it just may be that this Latter-Day Saint could make a much better President than, say, the last two Southern Baptists who have occupied the office.

This is not to say that I'm unconcerned about Mormonism and the deceiving affect it has on its adherents. Nor am I seeking to get in line behind James Dobson, who in an attempt at supporting Romney seems to be warming up to the LDS church in a way that really makes me uncomfortable. And I would be the first to repudiate Richard Land's recent goofy remarks about Mormonism being a "fourth Abrahamic faith." Mormonism is about as close to orthodox Christianity as is Hinduism. In fact, I think in the end, Mormons have more gods than the Hindus, and that polytheistic leaning would betray any attempts to allign this sect with anything Abrahamic.

So in the end, I've been very dissapointed to hear evangelical leaders suggest that Christians can vote for Romney because "Mormonism is OK." It's not OK. We shouldn't vote for him because his faith is "OK." We should vote for him because, in spite of his heretical faith, he is a family man who holds to the same general values as those who genuinely follow Christ, and would encourage such values as President. The truth is that you don't have to like Mormonism to like Romney.

At the same time, I must say that Romney is not my first choice. Nevertheless, should he become the nominee, his Mormon faith is not reason in my opinion to deny him a Pennsylvannia Avenue address.

We don't have to pretend that he shares our faith. We just have to remember that he isn't trying to be anyone's pastor.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Movies and Atheism, Ecclesial Politics, and Other Random Thoughts

As I understand it, a torrent of protest is currently rising among evangelical Christians who want to see The Golden Compass banned from theatres because of its "stealth atheistic message." But I say "bring it on!" The free exchange of ideas is, after all, a highly held American value. Plus, from what I've seen of this film, it will only serve to remind clear thinkers that atheism never had an original thought.

The movie is based on the first part of a fictional trilogy written by British atheist Phillip Pullman called "His Dark Materials." In the third and final installment of Pullman's trilogy, the protagonist characters, in a Nietzschesque fashion, manage to kill a character who is simply called "God."

Although the cinematic version reportedly toned-down the novel's strong secularist edge, many Christians fear that this movie will encourage children to move from the silver screen to the book and subsequently be highly influenced by atheism.

Bill Donohue, President and CEO of the Catholic League, claims that these books "denigrate Christianity, thrash the Catholic church and sell the virtue of atheism."

But those willing to take a closer look at this movie and its print-media counterpart will discover that John Milton's Paradise Lost is among the main literary influences behind Pullman's work. And although Pullman vehemently denies that his writings are for the purpose of countering Christian writers such as C.S. Lewis, his own vitriolic criticism of Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia as "Blatantly racist" and "monumentally disparaging to women" together with the metaphorical similarities between the books betray his desire to set up his trilogy as a literary antithesis to authors such as Lewis.

These "behind the scenes" observations demonstrate both Pullman's dependency on Christian fantasy writers, and the larger reality that atheism, as a worldview, will always be defined in terms of its negative and reactionary foundations. The simple fact that this series was written in response to a dearth of atheist fantasy literature reveals the lack of true intelligence and creativity among the atheist community, as well as their dependency on Christian sources to produce anything of true quality.

My guess is that most children whose parents allow them to view this film will simply enjoy a good fantasy movie. Those who choose to read the books, if guided by mature Christian parents and church leaders, will simply discover what previous generations have discovered; namely, that atheism is intellectually disonest, categorically incomplete, and ultimately ethically bankrupt. I don't think that's a bad conclusion for our kids to reach.

And in other news, the emerging church and politics was a hot topic of conversation last week on NBCs nightly news. Tom Brokaw interviewed Dr. Al Mohler of Southern Seminary, as well as Tadd Grandstaff, founding pastor of Pine Ridge Church in Burlington North Carolina.

Ed Stetzer has already pointed out the most crucial of the misleading comments by the media in this regard, which you can find here. Overall, this is a good discussion.

Although my status as a Gen-Xer probably inform my own opinion of what I heard, I am largely in agreement with Tadd and his contention that younger evangelicals will not be sold out to either political party. While in the short-run this may result in the wrong people in power, in the long run, it should result in both political parties coming more closely in line with Christian principles. And as Ed has already stated, the philosophical chasm between Grandstaff and Mohler as described by NBC News isn't nearly as wide as a casual observer might think.

So, one group is pushing the idea that there is no God while those who believe there is a God display some slight differences regarding how He would have us get involved politically. Meanwhile, my local Wal-Mart greeter met me at the door two nights ago with a warm "Merry Christmas."

There are still many things that are right with the world!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

God at Work: Reflections on our Efforts in the Pacific Rim

This week, I'm with the pastoral leadership of one of our churches in Columbus, Ohio at the International Mission Board Pacific Rim Conference.

Although there is much information I cannot share because of security concerns, I want to briefly reflect on the work God is doing in that region of the world, as well as the work I believe God wants to do there.

The Workers: We Southern Baptists are truly unworthy of the mission personnel God has raised up from within our churches! Every time I am around IMB workers I walk away astounded at their conviction and commitment to the are of the world where God has called them.

The Personnel who serve in Pacific Rim region are no different. Last night, I heard the testimony of a worker serving in one of the mos dangerous and "Christian hostile" areas of the world. She serves in a place where her faith might literally one day cost her life. But the fear she expressed in our meeting was not for her life. Instead, she stood in our midst and wept over the lost souls with whom she has developed relationships. Many more such stories were shared that caused me to give thanks to God, and marvel at the way He has so graciously raised up workers for the harvest from churches like ours.

The Need: When I return to the Baltimore area tomorrow, I will bring with me more than 80 individual requests for help that the IMB has made for this region. The needs range in commitment from short-term, one-week efforts to career. More than 30 of these requests are for students, which makes me immediately think of my boys. As parents, our top priority is often, and appropriately, the safety of our children. But how many of us love the Gospel more than our children?

If you want more information on these needs, please call our office and I'll be glad to get you in touch with the appropriate personnel.

The Cost: As we meet to discuss work in this area of the world, the 2008 season has begun for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.

While Cooperative Program dollars are used to fund a variety of things, every penny of every dollar given to Lottie is used to underwrite the work of our personnel in the field. Most don't realize that our IMB is the second largest multi-national corporation in the United States, with only the Federal government boasting a larger budget and work force. As I reflect on this, it is fitting that the spread of the Gospel would be given such prominence. Your gift to Lottie Moon this year will ensure that we keep our current workers in the field, and that we send even more. If you are Southern Baptist, you can give this offering through a designated check made ot to your local church, or, you can give here.

The Urgency: Idolatry, spiritual confusion and darkness opress millions of people in the Pacific Rim. With little access to the Gospel, they stand as enemies of God in the wake of the coming King Jesus. This reality should compel us to do everything possible to make the Gospel known among these people. As Paul says with such rhetorical beauty in Romans 10; they can't believe if they don't hear. They can't hear if no one preaches to them. And no one can preach to them unless faithful followers of Jesus send them.

In 2008, our Association will work with our churches engaging several areas of the world, including the Pacific Rim, Southeast Asia, India, Middle America, and the Carribean. But with 55 churches, the only reason we would not eventually have a significant presence on every inhabited continent is disobedience to the Great Commission! Wherever God has called you, I challenge you to engage, to pray, to give, and to go! May God be glorified by our response to His international beckoning this Christmas season!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Robertson and Giuliani: The Evangelical Election Year Crisis

Well, its official! By his official endorsement of Rudolph Giuliani, televangelist Pat Robertson tells American evangelicals it is worth voting for a candidate who favors the murder of unborn children in lieu of the fact that his position on fighting terrorism means the continued existence of a nation that murders unborn children.

Make no mistake, in some evangelical circles, nationalism now trumps truth, which means that evangelicalism as we know it no longer exists!

Others have already spoken eloquently and prophetically to this issue; chief among them Russ Moore, who in a recent radio program rightly contends that the abortion issue is important enough to withdraw one's support of a candidate. But many are stating that this politically-charged endorsement is appropriate. AFter all, Rudy seems at present to be the only candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton in a general election. Giuliani himself has recently been hawking himself on Christian conservatives by encouraging them to think of him as an "80% ally" as opposed to a "20% opponent."

So the question remains: is it ever appropriate to cast a vote for a pro-abortion candidate? Should evangelicals resort to "single-issue voting" and subsequently risk losing elections to lesser candidates? Such a question was the focus of the gubernatorial elections in my state of Maryland last year. Personally, I went into the voting booth with this issue heavy on my mind. I didn't want the present governor to take office. He would raise my taxes, forward a secularist agenda, and expand the influence of government over the nuclear family. In the end, the realization that neither gubernatorial candidate respected human life enough to grow a backbone with regard to abortion meant I was forced by conscience to abstain from voting for a governor in Maryland.

Friends questioned my judgement in this matter. After all, wouldn't more votes for Robert Erhlich have assured a government friendly toward evangelicals? Is the issue of abortion really that important?

To answer this question, we must back up from the trees a bit to see the proverbial forest. Are there single issues that would automatically disqualify a candidate from serving in public office? For a tangible example, let's assume that five year's from now, in the 2012 election, evangelicals have another "darling" candidate. Let's assume this candidate has a strong pro-family record, and takes positions that are, overall, largely attractive to Christian conservatives. But there is one caveat with this candidate: he believes our nation should re-institute slavery.

Tell me, would you dare vote for such a candidate?

In the end, the problem with a racist candidate is essentially the same as that of a pro-choice candidate. Both groups are categorically denying personhood to an entire class of people. The former bases this denial on the degree of pigmentaion in the skin; the latter on how far one has progressed through the birth canal. The result, however, is the same: a group of people created in the image and likeness of God are being defined as less than such.

To be sure, being "pro-life" by itself does not neccesarily qualify one to hold public office. However, being "pro-choice" by itself fundamentally disqualifies one from serving. Practically speaking, this means that in the event of a Clinton-Giuliani contest in the general election, Americans would have no qualified candidate for which to vote.

Countering this argument, Robertson contends that there is a more important issue than Giuliani's pro-choice position, and that is national security. We should elect a candidate who will protect us from the "bloodlust" of Islamic terrorists. But is the "bloodlust" of abortion providers any less of a threat to our national identity? Apart from a philosophically fundamental belief in the sacredness of human life, our "security" will only serve to protect a house of cards.

Of course, the emphasis of nationalism over truth began years ago, when evangelicals decided to prostitute themselves out to the Republican party rather than seeking to influence both parties with principles of righteousness. The end result is seen in this year's presidential candidates. Truth is, if Rudy Giuliani is the best candidate Christian conservatives can see fit to support, then perhaps our nation deserves a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Don't be Stupid!: Church Planting "Jugulars" Part II

Ever see otherwise intelligent folk do something that could qualify for the $1000 award on "Country Fried Home Videos?" Every time I watch that show I am amazed that the same people who attempt those mindless stunts manage to hold a steady job, speak in complete sentences, or even breed.

But if we are honest, we all would have to admit times when we have done things that call our intelligence and sanity into question. Trouble is, when you do stupid things in the early stages of a church plant, the effects are long term.

While at New Orleans Seminary last week, I was asked to speak to students on the most frequently committed "bone-headed" acts of church planters. More to the point: what were some of the top problems I have observed from watching guys come onto the field here. Below is a list of "bullett points" I used for my presenation, and I pray it is helpful to anyone who wants to plant, or anyone who wants to help a planter:

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.

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. The depend too much on the denominational system, As a denominational guy,its hard for me to admit it. Nevertheless, the truth about denominations 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. Lately. my top reccomendation 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 the spiritual authorities there. At the same time, God has called you to plant a church, which means that if you are spending more time around the associational office than you are in the field, you aren't fulfilling your calling.

3. They have unrealistic expectations. I'm currently writing a book with Missional Press that should be released next fall, and it deals exclusively with this issue. Too many guys come to the field having read Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll, and Bob Roberts, 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 there plant is simply the "norm."

A recent research project has just been completed by Leadership Network, which found that churches whose attendance exceeds 100 after four years are a small minority. The problem is that when church planters read the stories of Northpoint, Saddleback, and Mars Hill, 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!

I'm sure there are many more land mines I could warn you about. But these are the "top three" I have seen our guys in Maryland stepping on. My prayer is that if God has called you to plant a church, these warnings will serve to help you as you move forward.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Church Planting "Jugulars"

Its been a great week so far. Today I spoke to classes at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary about church planting. My friend and fellow partner in crime Dr. Jack Allen actually allowed his students to be exposed to me. I always enjoy the opportunity to be back in the classroom and interact with students.

Dr. Allen asked me to speak primarily on two things:

1. What I would reccomend potential planters do prior to their arrival in the field.
2. A few of the top mistakes I see guys making in the field early on.

What follows is a bit of fodder from those discussions.

Things to do before you get to the field to plant.

1. Pray, Pray, Pray!!!! Yeah I know, we talk about this issue so much already. Trouble is, we talk about it more than we do it, and there could be no more crucial time devoted to prayer than the time just before deploying to plant a church. If church planting is anywhere near as effective as Peter Wagner says it is, Satan must hate it more than almost anything else we do. From experience I can testify that the enemy will come after you. He will come after your family. And in the face of such warfare, prayer is the only hope you have. Pray alone. Pray with your family. Ask 300-500 folks to pray with you (these are Jack's preferred numbers) and get ready!

2. Confirm all Partners IN WRITING! Let me preface with this statement: No one I know at the North American Mission Board, our state convention, or our association would intentionally deceive a church planter about the amount of support he will receive. Unfortunately, the chief liability of multiple autonomous partners is that often, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. In this environment, a single, innocent clerical error could mean funding cuts in the $1000s of dollars. In the event of such an error, written commitments will substantiate all that is needed for supporting partners to get their act together.

3. Research the Focus Area Before you go. Ed Stetzer suggests (and he is right)that your first day in the field, you should know as much about the history, geography, culture, and spiritual state of the area as those who have resided there for years. Such knowledge, if gained in advance of your deployment, will conserve valuable time that once you arrive, should be spent cultivating, rather than studying, your area.

4. Participate in Assessment, and if Possible, Multiple Assessments. Different church planting ministries will, by virtue of their own values, look for different things. Being assessed at least twice will give you a much more accurate picture of the "total you."

5. Secure a coach. A subscription to coachnet costs only $75 annually, and the return on investment (provided you are coached by someone who knows what they are doing, and has your best interests at heart) is immeasurable! Coaches draw out the best in you, help you "refocus" in times of confusion and discouragement, and help you work through unanticipated issues.

In a couple of days, I'll post on the top problems/mistakes I see guys making early in their church planting efforts.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sex Scandals: Why Vietnam Got it Right

In the United States, its hip to be a whore! If you think that statement too strong, perhaps you simply aren't paying attention.

Over the past few years, sex has been so trivialized and perverted in the west that it hardly bears resemblance any longer to the intimate gift between husband and wife God intended it to be. Reality shows, movies, magazines and even the "female pornography" disguised as a romance novel have made an indelible mark on sexuality in the US. The most tangible example of this fact is seen anytime an American celebrity is caught in a compromising position. The one-night-stands and sex tapes shown on entertainment TV barely elicit a yawn. Maybe this is why what has happened recently in Vietnam has our western culture surprised . . .even shocked, that someone is actually facing consequences for their behavior.

BBC News reports that Vietnamese television star Hoang Thuy Linh's highly popular Vang Anh's Diaries has been cancelled by Vietnam Television due to a sex tape featuring the 19-year old that made its way to the internet. "This is the most scandalous and controversial thing that has ever happened in Vietnam's virtual world," says journalist Hung Nguyen.

Her TV show featured the adult Linh portraying Vang Anh, a Vietnamese student whose character has become highly popular among young teens. The average viewer is 14, and according to the BCC article, the show's cancellation has ignited a firestorm on the web. Does she deserve to be punished for her behavior? Is sympathy currently her greatest need? Is there a necesity to apologize for what she has done?

For the most part, the responses from around the world have been, well, rather western:

Seoul resident Jenny Howard laments that such a "big deal" has been made of this incident by Vietname television, and suggests that there are much greater threats to a civilized society than two young people having sex. "We see suicide bombers killing hundreds of people on TV, insugents killing and mainming hostages and yet a bit of two people enjoying themselves and we are in fear of society."

Further and harsher criticism came from Brazilian resident James Smith, who claimed that the problem is cultural oppression: "This is typical of repressive societies. The first thing they try to control is your sex life. If you permit them to tell you when, how and with whom to have sex, controlling everything else is easy. This is why religions and other despotic regimes are anti-sex. The world will be better off when we are rid of both."

Talk about killing a mouse with a Sherman tank!

For one thing, these is a huge difference between bring punished by legal authorities for breaking the law, and having your television show cancelled because you don't have the good sense to keep your most private moments private. There are currently no reports of Linh being prosecuted or "oppressed" in the sense that any of her freedoms are being taken away.

In the western world where drunk-driving hollywood stars are merely slapped on the proverbial wrist, it is apparently very hard to draw a distinction between the penal code and tacit societal approval. Nevertheless, lets set the record straight here: Linh lost her tv show, and subsequently, her huge cultural influence, because of risque behavior. No one is jailing her for life or strapping her to a gurney, which makes talk of "oppression" seem just a bit like overkill.

I'm guessing the reason the west has reacted so to this issue is because on the other side of the pond, Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton and a host of others have only grown in influence over American society. Bare it all in Vietnam, lose your show. Bare it all in America, gain a reality show!

To be sure, I sincerely feel for this young lady, whose life has now been irreversibly affected by what she no doubt admits was a stupid move. Additionally, I find it strange that no one has made any pejorative statements about Linh's boyfriend, who reportedly filmed the "event." Although we can't be sure how the video made its way to the web, I'm betting the boyfriend, in a search for fame via his bedding of a famous actress, had something to do with it.

At the same time, those who are flooding the web with their input into this whole fiasco have one thing right: there are societal consequences both ways. In the US, the consequences of such behavior are greater fame (more people recognize Anna Nicole Smith than Abraham Lincoln) and subsequently, greater influence over a culture that has, surprisingly, become ever-more sexualized. Sexual activity has increased exponentially as a result, with some children as young as 9 and 10 enjoying their "friends with benefits." Middle-school aged girls are now required in some areas to receive an HPV vaccine, assuming that their sexual activity before marriage is a foregone conlcusion. Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister and Company and others sensationalize sexuality in a desparate effort to market their clothing to teens and pre-teens.

Meanwhile in Vietnam, a nation decided not to promote such behavior. The result was that a promising, but naive young lady lost her television show.

Which would you choose?

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Missional Conversation"

"Emerging," "Incarnational," "Missional." A Google Search on any of these terms will reveal them to be the most discussed and hotly debated topics within the church today. But how on earth do these terms, and their much-debated definitions, help the average follower of Jesus who is genuinely seeking to live his faith in his own context?

This past May, I was asked to be part of a dialogue to answer this very question. The implications of our answer were as close to home as one of the churches we have planted here in Maryland. Metanoia Church in Ellicott City, and their pastor, Adam Feldman, hosted this dialogue, which is now available as a podcast. Joining us in this discussion were Ken Sorrell of the International Mission Board's Middle America and Carribean Region, and David Phillips.

Following this discussion was another, very helpful dialogue on contextualizing the Gospel in culture. You can find all the podcasts here.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Missionaries to the Rich and Powerful

I was privileged, not only to be raised in a church environment, but also to be raised in a “missionary” church environment. As such, my history included numerous opportunities to hear from missionaries who were serving Jesus all over the world. This included “short term” volunteers who sought to take the Gospel to different parts of the globe.

Such an environment allowed me to hear all sorts of testimonials from people in my own church, particularly those who sought to minister in the so-called “third world.” While hearing their moving stories certainly proved motivational, I was also disturbed by the limited perspective these missionaries brought back with them. For some, the most substantive thing they could say was “I had no idea how blessed I was until I saw how these poor people live.” Now that I live among a people who, from an economic perspective, are at the opposite end of that spectrum, I know why such statements bothered me so.

I was raised in a lower-middle class, blue collar home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in rural South Carolina. Given that background, I sometimes wonder why on earth God has placed me in my current field of service. Where I live and serve, blue collar jobs account for less than 13% of the work force. Of that work force, more than 80% hold a college degree, and 31% hold a Master’s degree or higher. Even in the current “sluggish” housing market, the average price of a single family home here is well in excess of $450,000, but such prices are not intimidating to a population whose average per capita income exceeds $90,000 annually.

Adding to this demographic picture is the fact that this year, my county was named the third most affluent county in North America. Similarly, the state of Maryland was recognized as the most affluent of all 50 states, boasting more millionaires than any other state in the union.

In addition, the people who live here are as powerful as they are wealthy. God has allowed my wife and I to cross paths with high-level defense workers, congressmen and senators, Fortune 500 CEOs and business-owning entrepreneurs. In short, our mission field is largely made up of some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world . . .

. . .people who are just as sick with sin as anyone living in the “third world!”

The issue in working with people of this stature is the way they are often stereotyped by the church. Regrettably, most Christians, rather than following a Biblical pattern of observing people, will adopt a cultural pattern. Such a pattern can be seen in the various ways our two primary political parties view the “rich.” One party believes that the rich are rich because they took advantage of those less fortunate, and the poor are poor because they are mistreated and not afforded the same opportunities as their more wealthy counterparts. Another political party believes that the poor are so because they aren’t bright enough to “cut it,” and the wealthy by contrast are so because they study hard and work hard. Thus, they deserve all the good fortune that comes their way.

Of course, the fallacy in both of these stereotypes is that in both, people are judged according to their possessions. The fact is that wealthy people are first and foremost . . .well, people! In that sense, their problems and struggles, while not nearly as obvious, are just as present. The “poor” are neither dumb nor righteous, and the “rich” are neither smart nor greedy, merely as a result of what they possess. Likewise, the “rich” are not satisfied in their riches, nor are the “poor” kept from satisfaction because of their lack.

Yet this stereotype is the reason we are so often quick to judge our celebrity culture. Take Britney Spears for example. The “train wreck” that her life has become is analyzed and lamented, not only by Hollywood, but also by judgmental Christians who think to themselves “what a spoiled-rotten girl! With all her fame and fortune, she still can’t get her act together!” Such statements assume that one’s money and fame will somehow make one’s life less of a mess, and those who make such statements should read afresh Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes!

This is a lesson I have learned from experience as I seek to reach the people of my area with the Gospel. When my family and I first moved here nearly three years ago, I thought to myself, “I’m a southern, blue-collar redneck. How on earth am I going to effectively minister to wealthy, powerful, white-collar people in the northeast?” My presumption of course, was that because they possessed more money and power than I would likely ever enjoy, that I couldn’t help them. Obviously, I had forgotten about Phillip.

In Acts 8, Phillip is providentially brought in contact with an Ethiopian eunuch. “Providentially” is a key term here, because the likelihood of this kind of encounter between a middle-class Jew and a wealthy and powerful Ethiopian official happening serendipitously was slim to none! Nevertheless, what Phillip discovered was that while this man was powerful, wealthy, famous and influential, he was also very lost! In commenting on this passage, Greg Laurie describes this encounter as “a very empty man [the Ethiopian] who met a very satisfied one [Phillip].” Ironic isn’t it? It was the “poor” man who was satisfied.

Yet the Scriptures tell us that this is exactly the way we should view our lost friends, regardless of the income bracket to which they belong. I appreciate and admire my friends in other parts of the world who minister to the “least of these.” But let’s not forget that from an eschatological standpoint, there is no difference between “rich” and “poor.” More than eighty percent of the population in my area has no relationship to Jesus Christ. They may drive a Mercedes, live in a “McMansion” and embody the epitome of the “American Dream,” but inside, their condition is identical to that of the unregenerate of the visible church in Laodicea. They are “miserable, poor, blind and naked.”

Dan McMillan was one of those people. At the top of the venerable McMillan Publishing company, he enjoyed all the benefits that came with wealth, fame and power. Still, something was missing that made all the accoutrements of his life seem worthless. Thankfully, a young church planter of “less than average” means named David Draper, brought McMillan to understand his need for Jesus Christ. His conversion led to a weekly breakfast and Bible study where McMillan sought to reach his friends in the publishing industry with the Gospel.

Not long before his death, McMillan allowed folks from the North American Mission Board to interview him about his conversion. Toward the end of the interview, this wealthy and powerful man made a desperate plea to his Christian brothers and sisters: “The church is always focusing on the poor and disenfranchised, and that’s good. They certainly need it. But what about me? Why did it take so long for someone to get to me?”

Dan McMillan is with Jesus today, not because of his money, but rather because someone loved him enough to share Solomon’s wisdom that riches, while nice, are ultimately “vanity” and “meaninglessness” if not accompanied with a fear of God that leads to keeping His commandments. I am convinced that God wants to populate heaven with people like this. But if we are to play any significant part in getting them there, our focus needs to shift from the back pocket to the soul.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Convergent: Southeastern Seminary and the Emerging Church

We Southern Baptists are blessed to have six theological seminaries spread out all over the country. Most aspiring ministers of the Gospel are within driving distance to at least one of these institutions, and all are fine places to prepare yourself for ministry. But lately, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is becoming my favorite!

Granted, thats saying a lot for a two-time graduate of Southern, but I have been particularly impressed with Danny Akin since he assumed the Presidency of this institution. This week I'm actually on the Wake Forest North Carolina campus for the Convergent Conference, which has featured Ed Stetzer, J.D. Greear, and most notably, Mark Driscoll, all of which are speaking about the emerging church and how evangelicalism should view it.

Tonight Dr. Akin closed the Friday series of meetings with a message from 1 Corinthians about appropriate Christian behavior and cultural engagement. As always, he showed an unapologetic commitment to the authority of Scripture, while at the same time demonstrating himself well-versed in N.T. Wright, and others whose theology helps to undergird the worldiew of many in emerging church circles.

Honestly, the fact that he invited Driscoll to speak is alone a sure indication of his fair treatment of the subject. I would venture a guess that the Missouri Convention, after its convoluted and hopelessly confused statements on the subject,* would not have given Driscoll the same ear . . .let alone the same respect.

Nevertheless, Akin's move to hold a conference on emerging church issues, while far from total accomodation of everything in the movement, clearly signaled his recognition that cultures are changing in North America and that the church bears the responsibility of reaching them. This requires a commitment to the unchanging Gospel, but it also requires a presentation of that Gospel in changing ways.

Anyone attending these meetings will go away with two facts about Southeastern Seminary that have been clearly demonstrated: 1. The commitment of this institution to the supreme and sole authority of Scripture has not, and will not, change. 2. The commitment of this institution to play its part in reaching everyone with the Gospel will not change either.

In the end, I suppose thats what I like best about Southeastern, and Akin. His primary passion is the evangelization of lost people. He said at this year's Southern Baptist Convention that as long as he is President of Southeastern, he would allow nothing to be raised to an issue that would be a detriment to this cause. With this in view I say, long live his Presidency!

*Regarding the Missouri Convention's statements on the Acts 29 network, two things are helpful to know:
1. Dr. Mark DeVine, Professor of Theology at Midwestern Seminary, actually gave an excellent report that for some reason seemed to be totally misunderstood by Convention leadership.
2. Acts 29 has published a response to the contentions of the Missouri Convention that clear up any misconceptions about this organization's doctrinal fidelity.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Church Planting and Authenticity/Consistency

Some of our pastors and planters spent a couple of great days this week at Branch Creek Church near Philadelphia at the Purpose Driven Launching Conference. One of the issues we deal with regularly in Maryland church planting is that of obtaining the "critical mass" neccesary for a church to really "take off." And given the number of folks who attended this series of meetings, I suspect Maryland isn't the only place where this is a problem.

However, as I listened, and had subsequent conversations with our guys in the field over lunch (and dinner, and breakfast the next morning, and lunch . . .) it occured to me that much of our problem might be less about the model we employ and more about whether we consistently employ it.

Take the "Purpose-Driven" guys for instance. It is apparent that no one takes the stage at these meetings who doesn't wholly "buy in" to the whole "baseball-diamond" effect. Personally, I like the PDC model of planting, but I'm simply not sold on it as the "be-all, end-all" of what we need. There are at least five other legitimate and viable approaches to church planting in North America, and in my opinion, each of these is needed as much (and in some cases, more) as the PDC approach. With this perception of things, it is highly unlikely that I will ever "key note" any sort of Purpose-Driven event, and actually, this is probably a good thing.

At the same time, if you are planting a Purpose-Driven church, it is, for the most part, not to your advantage to "syncretize" your approach with other ways of planting. And as I reflect on this, I can't help but think that this is part of the reason churches sometimes don't make it.

Obviously, I'm not saying that the Purpose-Driven, or any other model, shouldn't be contextualized to the area where you are located and the people you are trying to reach. My point, however, is that if you plan from the beginning to "launch large," then stick with the program until you do just that. On the other hand, if you take a more personal, "relational" approach in the beginning, don't expect an explosion of growth, and don't shift models "mid-stream" simply because things aren't what you originally pictured them to be.

One way to look at this is by comparing the two approaches to church planting. Although there are a plethora of ministry models employed on our continent, you can basically boil them down to two "approaches." And since Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch have already given names and descriptions to these two approaches, I will use their definitions.

The "Attractional" Approach: Frost and Hirsch describe this approach as one in which "the church bids people to come and hear the Gospel in the holy confines of its church and community." In short, this approach starts with some sort of established church system and seeks to invite (or attract) as many initial "seekers" as possible to come and hear. The conference we were a part of this week was most definitely promoting an "attractional" model. The main emphases were on marketing, researching the area, recruiting a team of people to help you run the "system" you set up, and "launching" the church with as many people as possible in attendance.

The "Incarnational" Approach: Frost and Hirsch give a simple definition of this term: "Instead of asking non-Christians to come to us, to our services, our gatherings, and our programs on our terms, the incarnational church seeks to infiltrate society to represent Christ in the world." To a large extent, this approach is a strong "echo" of the type of church planting often done in international contexts, and follows a path very close to that blazed by the British missionary Leslie Newbigin: Bring the Gospel, and only the Gospel, to bear on a given culture in a contextual way, and "church" then grows out of the infusion between Gospel and Culture.

With these two approaches in mind, the next question is usually: "Which of these is more effective in an American context?" The answer of course, is "YES!!!" Our association supports and encourages both approaches, because the diversity of our area demands it. However, I have casually observed, not only here, but in other places, that consistency is sometimes a real problem. Guys start with an attractional strategy, and when their launch date yields 75 people instead of 150, they quickly switch gears. Conversely, guys will also start with an incarnational strategy, and when the time comes near for funding to dry up, they try to "draw a crowd," often because they let money rather than mission determine what they will do.

I say all of this as a "backdrop" to this statement: I don't care which approach you use, so long as two conditions are met:
1. The approach is the best way to reach people for Jesus, given your context.
2. You remain CONSISTENT in your approach.

As I reflect on this past week's conference, four principles come to mind to guide us in remaining consistent.

1. Know who you are. I might add to this sentence: "know who you are BEFORE you plant." Before you move to a field to start a church, regardless of the style, you need to know what the essential DNA of that church will be made of. In short, you need to be totally sold out to the way YOU will do church in this area!

Of course, this doesn't mean you become condescending toward other models and approaches to church planting. There are already too many out there who think theirs is the "Biblical" model. What it does mean is that you have done your homework, and as a result believe strongly that the way you are going to plant IN THIS AREA is THE way to do it! In other words, be true to yourself, the Gospel, and the community and/or people group you are seeking to reach.

2. Be Consistent with who you are. I'll never forget receiving the strategy plan of a planter who wanted to take an incarnational approach to church planting. The more I read of his initial plan, the more excited I became. "YES, this is EXACTLY what is needed in this area . . .not a church (at least not initially), but instead a discipleship process that results in converts, which in turn eventually produces a congregation of people who follow Jesus." His strategy plan was streamlined, clear, and compelling . . .that is, until I got to the budget!

Although the plan was very atypical of established churches in our area, the budget looked exactly like our established churches . . .funds were allocated for advertising, facility rental, and multi-media equipment . . .none of which would be used . . .at least not during the first year of the plant. If your "advertising strategy" is 100% relational (as is usually the case with an incarnational approach), then be consistent by not budgeting money to Viacom for advertising. If you will start in homes and stay there, then be consistent by not including a line item for facility rental. If your vision is to attract people one at a time, then don't paint your people a pictture of large crowds gathered every Sunday, since it probably won't happen.

Once you have determined the best way to reach people in a given area, consistenly employ that approach. Don't just let it influence how you staff, budget, and set structure for your church. Let it exclusively determine how you do all of these things!

3. Expect support according to who you are! Our association is moving toward guidelines that reflect this principle. Called and gifted church planters are worth their weight in gold! At the same time, no one is really paid what they are worth. If that were the case, teachers would be millionaires and lawyers and politicians would be broke! [grin] Financial support, particularly from the "outside," needs to be based on the mission.

That statement of course, has a reciprocal effect on both supporters and the church planters that they support. On the one hand, if we are financially supporting a planter who utilizes an incarnational approach, we should understand that the growth, while steady, will be slow. If I judged my incarnational guys by the standards set in the conference we attended this week, I would have cancelled all their financial support a year ago. 10-15 people after a year is a dismal failure . . .in an attractional church. But in an incarnational model, these numbers can represent a huge success, particularly if you are located in an area where there is a high resistance to the Gospel.

On the other hand, church planters should understand that outside financial support cannot continue indefinitely. I can count on half of one hand the number of guys I know whose churches were financially self-sufficient enough to support them with a full-time salary before their outside funding ran out. I certainly wasn't one of that number! The simple fact is that most planters, even those planting attractional models, will eventually have to "get a job," at least for a while.

The point here is simple: if you plant Bob Banks' church, don't expect Bob Roberts' salary!

4. Judge success based on who you are. "Numbers aren't everything" they say. Well, that depends! Which numbers are we talking about? The number of people in the seats? The number of dollars in the plate? The number of bricks used to put up the new structure?

How about the number of lives transformed by the Gospel? How about the number of marriages saved because wives and husbands put Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 (and a few verses of Song of Songs) into practice? How about the number of couples who found their way out of debt and into lives of good stewardship because they were taught, and applied, Biblical principles? How about the number of children who didn't turn to gangs, or drugs, or alcohol, or violence, because their parents were taught how to raise them in the admonition of the Lord?

I remember shutting down a plant a couple of years ago and listening to the planter tell me stories like the ones above. My response to him was: "This church may have failed, but you did not!"

At the same time, I'm confident that one reason many churches fail is because they don't clearly mark out before they begin what success is going to look like!

Most of the guys leading the Purpose-Driven conferences have churches of several thousand people. That's because God has blessed their ministries incredibly. It's also because they live in areas where 100s of thousands reside. If you are in a community of 5000 people, you simply cannot judge "success" by the same standard!

Emphasizing authenticity (knowing who you are) and consistency (applying with regularity who you are) in the beginning stages of a plant can be the greatest ways to promote resilience and strength in a church planter's ministry. In a few days I'll post on leadership and management qualities that are helpful in this regard. But I'm convinced that if we do our homework in advance, we can avoid a lot of heartache . . .and bring more souls into the Kingdom . . . by resisting the temptation to "switch horses midsteam!"

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Indigenous Church Planting: Lessons from Middle America

To the left and below are pictures of a recent church planting seminar I was privileged to lead in southern Mexico. God is indeed moving all over the world, and His presence in Mexico is evident in the fact that the churches of that area want to plant a new church in every "municipo" (county seat) in the state of Chiapas. I was privileged to lead a team from our association to respond to an invitation by the churches of Mexico to assist them with setting up a church planting process to acheive this goal.

It has been said that during international missions endeavors, one often learns as much as he or she teaches, and is often blessed as much as he or she is a blessing. I can certainly attest to the fact that I learned as much, of not more, from these committed pastors than they learned from me. Unfortunately, what I learned from them is something that they don't yet seem to recognize about themselves: namely, that they have every resource they need to facillitate a church planting movement without American help.

If anything, we have "helped" enough already. By this, I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't seek to work with our brothers and sisters in other nations. In fact, our plans are to continue where we left off in subsequent discussions next year. However, during my time in Mexico I couldn't help but notice that the barriers to a church planting movement faced by the Mexican church are almost identical to those we face in the states. And I can't help but believe this is tied to the culture of dependency we have often created while doing missions in Middle America.

For example, one of our favorite things to do for our brothers and sisters, especially in the "third world," is to erect a church building for them. Our second favorite thing to do is to fund the salary of the pastor who will preach in that building. While I am certain these efforts are the result of the best of intentions, and a genuine desire to see disciples made, in many cases the opposite is what happens. The pastor doesn't teach his people stewardship, because the source of income for himself and the church comes from outside. The people of God don't give, because the Americans are picking up the tab. The mission dies, because the Americans aren't there to perpetuate what they started. Most tragically, no more churches are planted . . .that is, until (you guessed it) the Americans show up to erect another building!

It is in this context that we now find ourselves . . .a "culture of dependency" wherein the Mexican church has been, by and large, disempowered by its well-meaning American counterpart. Regrettably, the trouble gets worse from this point. When American money, American buildings, and American ways of doing church are interjected into Mexican (or any other) culture, American problems almost always follow. The result?

. . . The established Mexican church is now "up in arms" because Mexican church planters are telling their people that it really is OK to dance.

. . . The established Mexican church believes it cannot sustain a church planting movement on its own because of the lack of "trained professionals" to lead these churches.

. . . The established Mexican church believes it will take lots of financial resources--certainly more than they posess--to multiply churches in the way they envision.

All of this sounds eerily familiar.

The problem with indigenous church planting in ecclesiological contexts like this one is that many of the established churches themselves are not indigenous . . .they are American! In starting churches, they adopted our leadership models, our decision-making processes, our financial expectations, our programmatic approach to ministry, our "campus-centered" orientation, and in some cases, even our architecture!

Contrast this picture with that of the truly "indigenous" church . . .one that is in no way dependent on outside "suppport" or "help" to maintain its ministry. One that can reproduce itsself in ever-more contextual ways as it plants other churches in other areas. One that truly preaches a "counter-cultural" Gospel message while at the same time looking and sounding like the culture in which it finds itself.

So my question in the midst of all this is as follows: How on earth do a bunch of white guys from an upper-middle class area in Maryland help to propogate a movement like the one I've described above? While I haven't yet figured it all out, there are a few principles that I think have to guide American missionaries--short term or otherwise--as we seek to facillitate the multiplication of churches in other parts of the world. These principles are, in my view, solidly Biblical, unsophisticatedly simple, and interesting enough, very Baptist!

1. The Principle of Global Minsitry: Because we are presently the richest and most powerful nation in the world, our tendency as Americans is to think ourselves superior in every way. We think anyone without central air conditioning or an electric Viking range is "poor and unfortunate" when in fact many who live in mud huts are quite happy with their living conditions. Similarly, we think any church without a brick structure, or any pastor without an auto allowance or seminary degree will automatically produce a "sub-standard" ecclesiology. The fact is that churches in many nations of the world exist and thrive without buildings or theological seminaries. With all of our resources, education, wealth and power, the American church is anemic when compared to the church in other parts of the globe. It would do us well to remember this so that we don't encourage our brothers and sisters in other nations to do it the way we do it.

This was, I believe, a very helpful point we made during a panel discussion with Mexican church planters and pastors on the second day of our seminar. When told by state convention leadership that their culture was to "copy" what we did in America, my response was simple: "We are the only continent on planet earth where Christianity is not growing. Why on earth would you want to emulate that?!?!" The church is indeed global, and if we are to have any significant part in helping it expand globally, we must give up our preference for western culture and allow the church to be the church wherever it is found.

To be sure, God has given us in the states a grand opportunity to empower the churches in other nations. But to take advantage of this opportunity, we absolutely must check our "national pride" at the door!

2. The Principle of Church Autonomy: Once during the seminar, one of the pastors asked me my opinion about a subject that, as it turns out, has become very controversial in Mexico. Though it wasn't a "cardinal issue" such as the deity of Christ, or even a "Baptist distinctive" such as a commitment to immersion, this tertiary issue had already caused quite a stir among God's people in Mexico.

As he was asking the question, I could feel my blood pressure begin to rise. Oh, how I wanted to simply give my opinion and encourage them to follow my lead. But in the end, my opinions, however strong they are, do not matter! What matters is what the Scriptures teach. And what matters even more is that the church be able to arrive at the right conclusion via their own study of God's Word.

While we should make every effort to teach national pastors and laity how to read and study the Word, and while the basic principles of interpreting Scripture should be laid before them, the task of theological education abroad should be the same as it is here: teach God's people "how" to think, not "what" to think! It would have been very easy for me to answer the pastor's question directly . . .and set a precedent for "spoon-feeding" them theology. It would have been very easy for us to insert the church planting process we utilize in Maryland into Mexico. But God's people should instead be empowered, as the Bereans in Acts, to study the text, and their culture, on their own.

3. The Principle of "Scripture alone": With all of our talk about strategy, contextualization, "target" and "focus" groups, behavioral assessments, and demographic and psychographic observations, the fact remains that a true New Testament church cannot be planted if the Word of God is not the final authority for that faith community. I have attended church planting seminars in the states where days were spent musing on the enigma that is postmodernism, but there was nothing said about Scriptural authority. I agree with Mark Driscoll, who says that those who do such things are "practicing liberals" even if their theology is "conservative." If we are to have any significant part in a church planting movement, here or abroad, all of our strategies, studies, and tactics must ultimately find their appropriate place in submission to Scripture.

I have experienced very little Latin American culture, and as a result, I am the last person to deliver instructions to a group of Mexican pastors about how to reach their own people. My authority during this seminar was not found in my cultural "savy," but in the Word of God, from which all the principles I taught were drawn. Once we empower God's people by arming them with the Word, and lay out the principles for how to teach the Word in a way that connects with their culture, they can take it successfully from that point.

The church in the US has before it an enormous opportunity to facilitate the multiplication of congregations, both stateside and international. But if such churches are to be effective, they must also be indigenous, which means that the lessons learned as we walk this road together with our brothers in other nations, will be reciprocal.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Was the Church the First to Change the Definition of Marriage?

He denies that Jesus is Messiah, and calls the President of my alma mater a “spiritual racist” because of his belief that Jesus is the only way to God. Needless to say, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is one of the last people with whom I thought I would ever agree!

Last Thursday evening was like most Thursday evenings for me: I came home from a day at the office to take my wife to the gym, my kids to the child care center in the gym, and myself to the treadmill (ugh!), and then the pool (ahh!).

I love my gym membership, by the way . . .especially the way all the treadmills are tied in to television screens. It’s a multi-tasking dream! And while watching a special CNN report called “God, Sex and Greed,” I caught a panel discussion regarding the injection of “faith talk” into the political speeches of the 2008 Presidential hopefuls. Host Roland Martin was emphasizing the fact that as we approach the 2008 elections, Democrats are ratcheting up talk about their faith in God, and in doing so entering a conversation that has for many election cycles been dominated by Republicans. Joining him to discuss this interesting phenomenon were liberal Baptist Theology Professor Michael Dyson, Muslim author Irshad Manji, and Rabbi Boteach.

Asked to give his perception of this phenomenon, Boteach responded, “The problem, Roland, is that for the past 10 years, religious morality has been defined as anti-abortion and hating gay people.”

Suddenly, the heart monitor on my treadmill began to beep.

Thankfully, I continued to listen. And surprisingly, in spite of all my disagreements with the Rabbi, my heart resonated with what I heard next:

“. . . .And in a sense, religion has become a mockery as a result. We've got a 50 percent divorce rate. Any country with a 50 percent divorce rate has no right to call itself civilized. Who do we blame? The gay people. I mean, we ruined marriage well before any gay people decided to get married.”

Sadly, the Rabbi is absolutely correct! While conservative politicians scream about the efforts of some in the homosexual community to “re-define marriage,” the fact is that our society has been tinkering with God’s definition for decades . . .long before any homosexual ever demanded the benefit of this rite. Fornication, adultery, and divorce are in fact nothing more than acts which pervert God’s definition of this sacred relationship.

So in a sense, the Rabbi is correct when he contends that marriage has been a mockery in America for decades. The current discussion about homosexual marriage isn’t the beginning of the “re-definition of marriage.” It is its culmination! And when the divorce, premarital sex and adultery rates are virtually the same inside the church as they are outside the church, the people of God have lost their authority to speak prophetically to this issue.

This is precisely the reason why Al Mohler, in discussing this same subject, rightly contends that evangelicals “cannot begin a conversation about homosexual marriage by talking about homosexual marriage.” Reclaiming God’s definition of marriage means not only that we flatly reject the idea of homosexual nuptials as a tragic oxymoron, but that we also refuse to “wink” at the sins against this God-ordained institution that have occurred for years within our own midst. Such reclamation means that the church must again judge marriage according to the Scriptures, and such judgment, as the Apostle Peter tells us, begins with the household of God!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Some Good Conversation on the Web

I love to write.

There is something about the exercise of putting your thoughts into words that brings clarity, and when the subject is God and His Gospel, the mental clarity gained from writing frequently makes its way to the heart as well. But from time to time, even the best writers recognize that with regard to certain subjects, there are others who have "said it better."

God willing, next week I will post on my experiences while in southeast Asia (in April) and Chiapas Mexico (last month) and reflect on them in light of what the church should be in each and every culture. But for now, there are some very worthy conversations taking place in other areas of cyberspace, and I would be remiss if I didn't call your attention to their existence.

1. The Emerging Church and Evangelicalism. On September 21 and 22, I will be in Wake Forest, North Carolina for the Convergent Conference, which will be held on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The "emerging church" has become so controversial, many evangelicals have simply written it off as a heretical aberration of the true church. In many ways, this movement is not so different from the "church growth" and "church health" movements that preceeded it, meaning that while there are indeed theological concerns in certain sectors of the movement, there is much about the emerging church that can be very helpful to the body of Christ.

I am thankful that in the midst of the criticisms and "cheap one-liners" toward this movement, Dr. Danny Akin has chosen to take the route of genuine scholarship. Akin, who serves as President of Southeastern, is hosting this conference, and will be speaking alongside Ed Stetzer (Missiologist in Residence and Director of Research at Lifeway), Mark Driscoll(Founding Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle), and Southeastern Professors Alvin Reid and John Hammett, among others.

Last year, I had the privilege of helping contribute to an article Dr. Hammett wrote for the Criswell Theological Review on this very issue. Throughout our interactions, I was profoundly impressed by his tenacious defense of the truth coupled with his careful and fair analysis of the movement as a whole. I genuinely look forward to meeting him in person.

The 21st Century finds most developed cultures in a constant state of flux. If the church is to effectively impact western culture it must cease its reactionary posture toward culture and instead begin to lead it. At the same time, emerging methods should be undergirded by a solidly Biblical theology. Through Convergent, Danny Akin has provided a context in which honest conversations can begin regarding how Southern Baptists will meet this challenge.

2. Baptist Identity in a post-denominational world. Dr. Sam Storms, Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, posted a thought-provoking article today on the subjects of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. I found myself in agreement with him at several points, while personally parting ways with him regarding the relationship of Baptism and church membership in particular.

Nevertheless, his words should stir the kind of conversation that needs to happen in our churches. So many Baptists apply their convictions consistently regarding Baptism and the Lord's Supper, yet have no idea where the Scriptural evidence exists that undergirds their practice. We are not "people of the Baptist Faith and Message," we are "people of the Book," which means that in a "post-denominational context," we need to be prepared to defend our heritage because it is Biblical, rather than assuming the Bible is in agreement with our traditions.

Conversations like the one started today by Dr. Storms are a helpful starting point in finding our Scriptural moorings again. You can find the article here.

3. The End of our Work and the End of the World. Bob Roberts of Northwood Church in Dallas, Texas had an excellent article posted last week on how to effectively evangelize middle-eastern cultures.

Though many other things are said, his warnings against allowing a "narrow" eschatology determine not only public policy, but also missiological philosophy, were the most striking of the entire piece. One section in particular deserves to be quoted:

First, we are allowing speculative theology to formulate foreign policy. That’s very dangerous. When conservative Bible believing scholars can’t agree – for one opinion to be pushed to the point of war is arrogant and dangerous.

and again . . . . . .

we have not respected the views and situation of Palestinian evangelical Christians. Before ’67 2/3rds of Palestinians present were Christians – now that’s 8 to 12% depending on who you talk to. How could we have ignored their concerns – these are our brothers in Christ. This makes no sense. Who was better positioned to tell people in the Middle-East about Jesus than the Palestinians?!!!

Now, I have to admit, as a "non-dispensationalist," my biases toward what Bob is saying here should be clearly revealed. At the same time, his argument (and I agree) isn't against holding to a dispensationalist eschatology. Its against allowing this one view (among at least three others, all held by conservative, Bible-believing evangelicals) to so dominate the evangelical landscape that it informs both our philosophy of missions and our foreign policy views in uniform.

Sometimes, when it comes to impacting the world, we can be our own worst enemy, and one of the things I appreciate about Bob is his willingness to say this.

Find the article in its entirety here.

So there you have it! There are lots of thought-provoking discussions presently going on in cyberspace. Happy exploring, and I'll have some more thoughts of my own in about a week.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Its all about Leadership . . .or is it?

As a whole, I am very grateful for the emphasis given to the discipline of church leadership over the past two decades. Given the dearth of such training for pastors throughout much of the twentieth century, coupled with the enormous changes that have taken place in the pastoral role, the study and practice of sound leadership principles is absolutely essential.

At the same time, I have grave concerns over how a discipline that has provided great help to pastors is beginning, in some sectors of the church, to be viewed as a "magic pill."

From the turn of the 20th century until around 1930, American business culture subscribed largely to what has become known as "Great Man Theory." In order for a company to be a success, a "great man" with inherently extraordinary skills in leadership and management was needed, and all would be well. This age culminated with the celebration of Ford Motor Company and the invention of the "assembly line" of Henry Ford.

Over the next several decades, leadership theory evolved from the view of the "great man" to "group theory" (1930-1940), "trait theory" (1940-1950), "behavior theory" (1950-1960), "situational theory" (1960-1970), and "excellence theory" (1980s). While the history of western leadership philosophy is more complex than this, these categories are the generally accepted description of our philosophical evolution regarding this discipline.

The church of course, finally caught up with culture in the 1960s, when seminaries began to charge their schools of Christian Education with teaching leadership principles to aspiring ministers of the Gospel. Today, leadership as an academic discipline is viewed by many seminaries as equal in importance to the study of theology. While sound theology is an essential and foundational qualification for pastoral ministry, it is also true that sound theology without leadership skills results in knowledge wasted on onesself and a orthodox church immobilized by its own pastor.

Still, over the past few decades, leadership studies have grown to the extent that, in the church, we are almost seeing the return of the "Great Man" theory. Less than a decade ago in a conference on church planting, the late Rick Ferguson stated that if you have the "right leader," you could drop him into a barren area, with no money and no other outside support, and he would grow a church. Such statements are now commonplace in seminars and conferences on pastoral leadership.

I recognize these statement as a bit hyperbolic. Still, I ain't buyin' the point!

We spend an inordinate amount of time today with assessing potential leaders, and this is especially true in church planting. On the whole, this is as it should be. Certainly experience has told us that someone seeking to plant a church with deficient leadership skills will most likely fail. The problem come when we move beyond this base understanding of the neccesity of leadership to claim the mantra of John Maxwell that has reverberated in church life to the extent that most now look in Scripture to find it: "Everything rises and falls on leadership." But is this really true?

The fact is that great leaders fail. I have seen it personally. I remember the first church plant I ever had to "shut down." I remember meeting the planter over a four-hour lunch. I remember the bitter tears. I remember making plans with him to "re-locate" the remaining families. I remember hearing his exasperated prayers to God of "where did I go wrong?" I remember thinking with him about how he would now support his family. And I also remember thinking "we assessed this guy, and we told him he had the leadership skills to successfully plant this church." According to our "great man" mentality, this was all we needed, right?

This is the hypocritical irony I have seen in church planting systems across the methodological and denominational spectrum. We assess a guy, tell him he is the "right leader" for a plant, and then when it fails, 99% of the time our response is "this was a leadership issue."

I don't deny that many failures can be credited to a deficiency in leadership, but those who are always so quick to point out the failure at this level sometimes forget that it takes more than a "great man" to build a great church. If you question that statement, you need only take a brief look at the life of an Old Testament leader.

The time is just before the wilderness wandering. The place is Kadesh, and Moses has just sent out twelve spies in order to plot out the best way to take the land God had promised His people. Ten of the twelve return with "doomsday" predictions about their chances. Apparently, they had forgotten that their objective was to report on the "status" of the enemy, not give their opinion of whether they should do what God had already commanded.

Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, are ready to obey. Unfortunately, the people of Israel side with the pessimists, and God's people spend the next four decades wandering . . .and dying!

Without a doubt, this is one of the most colossal "failures" in the history of any nation! The question is, was this a "leadership issue?" Perhaps Moses should have spent more time discovering how to "develop the leaders around him."

Or, just perhaps, this was a "truth" issue. Just maybe, Moses really was God's man, whom God's people simply rejected. Bill Hybels wouldn't have been pleased at all with this kind of turnout, but in recounting his life, the writer of Hebrews certainly seems to think Moses a "great leader" (Hebrews 11:23-30)

Needless to say, if a man with a failure like this on his record is referred to by Scripture as a "great leader," and we are currently assessing nearly every ministry failure as a "leadership problem," we should probably rethink our definition of "leadership." And as we are rethinking our definition, maybe it would be helpful to look to Scripture to find our parameters. In the case of Moses, his great leadership was centrally characterized, not by "success" or "acheivement," but instead by faith, conviction, obedience, values, and boldness.

Contrary to Maxwell's popular cliche, everything does not "rise and fall" on leadership. Everything rises and falls on the Word of God. Effective, godly, skilled leaders are desperately needed, and the work of church planting in particular cannot happen without such individuals. But such individuals are not a "magic pill" that cures all that is wrong with the church. This realization will guard our hearts from bowing to the idol of "personality," and empower us to undergird the right leadership with all that is essential to grow God's Kingdom

Saturday, July 14, 2007

I do Believe in "Alien Baptism"

Since the latter part of 2005 there has been a debate among SBC conservatives, a sometimes not-so-friendly one, on the nature of Biblical Baptism. Birthed from the new baptism guideline adopted by the IMB's trustee board, this conversation has unfolded to include many fruitful and useful conversations about church membership, accountability, making disciples, church planting, and cross-cultural ministry.

While most of the conversations of which I have been a part have been affable and respectful, there have been a few remarks suggesting that those of us who oppose the new guideline are ignorant of Baptist history, or care nothing about Baptist identity, or even worse, are unconcerned about accurate theology. Today, I would like to clear up the true reason for my opposition to the IMB baptism guideline. Contrary to what many have said, I do not oppose this move because I don't believe in "alien baptism." I oppose it because I very much believe that "baptisms" occur that are anything but, which makes them Biblically invalid, "alien" acts. And I oppose the new IMB guideline because I believe it creates another "alien Baptism."

I firmly and proudly proclaim that I am Baptist, not because our history bears us out as the most faithful (the slaves of 19th century America would beg to differ, I think), or because my family is entrenched in this denominational stream (my loved-ones hail from Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and non-denominational backgrounds, as well as Baptist).

I am Baptist because as I examine our doctrinal beliefs and hold them up against the light of Scripture, I see a tradition that is, in my opinion, more faithful to the actual message of the Bible than any other I have seen or studied. Our view on regenerate immersion is but one reason that after a few years of searching during my high school days, I came back, willingly, to the SBC. I believe the Scriptures are very clear on Baptism. It is a picture of the Gospel, which means to alter it in any way from its Scriptural form is to distort the picture God aims to portray of the grace of God and the transforming power of the cross and resurrection. I take that seriously. And because I take that seriously, I have taken great care over the past 15 years of my ministry to ensure that "baptisms" that take place on my watch are those of which the New Testament bears witness.

In light of those 15 years, I have come to recognize four types of "baptism" which do not fit the Biblical pattern. My reason for opposing the new IMB guideline is because, regrettably, what they require misses the Scriptural mark as well. Let me explain by describing the four types of "alien baptism.":

1. An "Alien Baptism" is any baptism that takes place prior to regeneration and conversion. I love my covanental brothers, but they are simply wrong to draw so tight a parallel between baptism and circumcision as to assume the validity of "infant baptism." Certainly a parallel exists between these two rites, but so do some obvious distinctions. Circumcision, like baptism, was for the purpose of marking one as a member of the Old Testament community of faith. However, the community of faith in the New Testament does not include the children of the community simply by birth. The New Covenant states clearly that only those who have believed are its members.

Admittedly, this is a very simplified version of the discussion. But arguments expanded from the above synopsis reveal two views: one pedo-baptist and the other credo-baptist. While I love, respect, and admire my brothers who claim the former, my view is most definitely the latter. And the consequence of my conclusions is simple: I have no choice other than to reject the sprinkling of an infant. It is not baptism as described by the New Testament, which makes it "alien."

2. An "Alien Baptism" is one that occurs by any mode other than immersion. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule (For example, a quadrapalegic might have a bit of a time being "immersed"), but such exceptions should be granted in extreme cases only.

Even those who accept other modes of baptism admit that the etymology of the Greek term is abundantly perspicuous. In addition, both Luther and Calvin are on record in the annuls of history as stating that immersion was the mode practiced by the Apostles. If the fathers of the Lutheran and Presbyterian traditions respectively admit that the Baptists have it right, what does that say to their successors who remain in these traditions about sprinkling and/or effusion?

Text after New Testament text describes baptism as a metaphor for death and resurrection; the transition from a life of sin to a life of righteousness; the physical symbol of one's "immersion" into Christ and His body. Such texts have been the reason why for 15 years I have said, gently but firmly to those who have not been immersed and seek membership in a church I pastor, "you were never really Baptized."

3. An "Alien Immersion" is one that takes place among a "faith community" that is not made up of genuine followers of Christ. Simply put: The Mormon Church practices immersion after confession, but I do not accept what happens within their walls as "baptism." In a similar vein, other cult groups practice an immersion that on the surface looks exactly like what you would witness at your average First Baptist Church. But the body performing this rite does not believe the Gospel, denies the truth of Jesus Christ, and is therefore unregenerate. As the old saying goes; put an unregenerate person under the water, and they simply go down a dry sinner and come up a wet one!

4. An "Alien Immersion" is one that places the primary focus of the ordinace on anything besides union with Jesus Christ and His people. Scripture is clear in teaching that there is ONE baptism. With that in view, I am appreciative of the IMBs desire that all who go to the mission field under our banner have experienced this. The problem comes when they begin to tie baptismal validity to doctrines that while precious and essential to Baptists, are secondary in matters of salvation and the church. I am speaking of course of how the IMB ties baptismal validity to whether the congregation that performed the baptism believes in "eternal security." The outcome of such a guideline is that a candidate could be genuinely born again, immersed in the name of the triune God after this experience, as a testimony of that experience, among people who share our Gospel convictions and are themselves believers, and still be required to be "baptized" in a Southern Baptist Church.

Anyone from a Nazarene of Assemblies of God background would look at our statement on Baptism in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message and find himself in total agreement with its contents. Nevertheless, because those churches differ with us (and wrongly so, I believe) on the issued of eternal security, the New Testament-based baptisms that took place within their walls are now declared to be invalid by the International Mission Board. The result is a requirement that a missionary candidate be "baptized" in an SBC church.

But if the candidate has already been Scripturally baptized, and there is only one baptism, then what exactly is being required by the IMB?

I believe IMB trustees are honorable people, and like me, they simply want to guard our Biblical heritage and ensure the same of those who will represent us on the mission field. But this new guideline changes the focus of Baptism from Christ and His people to the doctrine of "eternal security." Such a move means that the above question can be answered in only one way: The IMB is now requiring "alien baptism," which ironically, is the very thing I am certain they were trying to avoid with the new guideline.

This is precisely the reason my opposition to this new guideline has been so strong. I love our International Mission Board, and I love its trustees. But as a pastor, I will never, ever, EVER place someone under the water and bring them back up for the purpose of identifying them with "eternal security." And I will never do it for the same reason that I will never sprinkle water on the head of an infant: both are misrepresentations of what God intended baptism to be!

So now you have it. Disagree if you want (and I know many of you do), debate the points delineated above. But please refrain from saying any longer that we who oppose the new guideline do so because we don't think as highly of baptism as do those who favor what has happened in Richmond. My opposition is for the exact opposite reason.

Several years ago, I remember Hershael York (who vehemently disagrees with me on this issue, and whom I continue to love and respect) say that God has certain "pictures of the Gospel." I remember this illustration vividly, and have even used it on occasion myself (crediting Dr. York, of course). Marriage, he said, is a picture of the union that exists between Christ and His church, which is why divorce, adultery, homosexuality, etc. are such serious sins. They "break God's picture." The Lord's Supper likewise, is a picture of the sacrifice that it took to secure our salvation. Such is why knowingly allowing an unregenerate person to partake, or one partaking with known and unrepentant sin in his or her heart would be a travesty. It would "break God's picture."

Baptism, like the other two events mentioned, is yet another "picture"--possibly one of the most important. It demonstrates the candidate's confession of Christ publicly (which is why it is for believers only). It illustrates the death of the old self, and rising again to walk in a new life (which is why it is by immersion only.) In short, when we tamper with baptism, we break the picture God intends to portray of the Gospel. I don't believe for a moment that IMB trustees intended to break this picture when they formed the new baptism guideline months ago. Still, the only conclusion I can reach is that they have inserted yet another "alien baptism." With respect toward them, I cannot recognize such as valid, nor will I pretend that "its no big deal."

The Gospel is that important, and therefore, so is Baptism!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Richard Baxter, Paul Washer, and the Recovery of the Biblical Gospel

Let's face it: American evangelicalism is awash in pulpit therapy, "felt needs" foci, and nationalistic materialism. Even with our "conservative" approach to Scripture, it seems we are less and less transformed by Scripture. Radically following Christ is defined, not in terms of martyrdom, but rather in terms of wearing a Christian T-shirt into a public school.

In this environment, it is truly difficult to find men who truly and genuinely preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In my personal study, I have always been able to rely on the Puritans to accurately deliver the mail. But Edwards, Bunyan, Baxter and Spurgeon are, regrettably, little known to church-goers in the 21st century, and outside of a few exceptions like John Piper, there seem to be few pastors in the broader public eye who care more about the glory of God than the applause of men.

These are heavy charges, I know. But honestly, when was the last time you heard a pastor over radio or television speak about the Gospel . . .not in terms of the key to life fulfillment, but instead in the Biblical terms of escaping the wrath to come?

This is particularly a problem in my neck of the woods. The Baltimore-Washington D.C. area is one of the most affluent in the country. From all tangible perspectives, the people who reside here are, generally speaking, not in search of "life fulfilment." They already have the $800,000 home on the 18th green, the three-bay garage with a Mercedes parked next to a Lexus, which is in turn parked next to a Hummer. They have their children all enrolled in private, college-preparatory schools, and they are living large with salaries that far exceed $100,000 annually. Telling these people that Jesus will "make their life better" is tantamount to telling Brahms that Jesus will help him play a better and more effective lullaby.

They don't need a relationship with Christ for a "more fulfilled life." They need a relationship with Christ for a secure eternity. And last night, I heard one missionary who still believes this.

Paul David Washer is the founder of the HeartCry Missionary Society, located in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Operating under the authority of Muscle Shoals First Baptist Church, this Society seeks to train and deploy indigenous pastors, missionaries and church planters all over the globe. But while I was particularly impressed with their emphasis on the use of indigenous missionaries, it was a message Washer preached on DVD, given me by a recent aquaintance, that re-energized my spirit, and reminded me that there are still genuine men of God in the broader public eye.

Still, it was dissapointing to learn that Washer has not been invited back to the same venue where I saw him preach this recorded message last night. More dissappointing still was to subsequently read of abuse by listeners, verbal assaults, and one instance of even being pelted by water balloons after speaking.

Indeed, the words he speaks are direct, and unpopular, even within the ranks of so-called "conservative" Christianity. And as I listened to this hour-long message yesterday evening, I suspect that his words are such precisely because of the conviction they bring. They sure brought conviction on me!

The evangelical sense of history has become extremely shallow. We forget that since the Apostolic age, the greatest of God's men have often preached unpopular messages. I think immediately of Jonathan Edwards and his infamous sermon preached to a crowd of unbelievers at Enfield Conneticut in 1741:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight . . .and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up . . .O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.

Not exactly a candidate for "feel-good sermon of the year" now is it? This man, described by 18th century pastor Samuel Davies as "the profoundest reasoner, and the greatest divine that America ever produced," was such because he both knew and believed the Biblical Gospel.

The same can be said for 17th century pastor Richard Baxter. "I preach as never sure to preach again," said the Puritan preacher, "and as a dying man to dying men." Baxter, like so many of his brothers, knew the eternal gravity that came with the preaching task. Oh, for such a thing to be so in the new millenium!

I find it tragically ironic that while so many within evangelicalism chide the Emergent church for its ambivilence toward subsitutionary atonement, they simultaneously minimize what they claim is so important. While the substitutionary death of Jesus is indeed central to the Gospel message, the purpose behind that atonement barely gets mention in today's evangelical pulpit. The simple fact is that it is grossly offensive to apply penal subsitution to the life of the sinner.

To do so means the preacher must point to human nature as "rotten to the core." He must accentuate the physical sufferings of Christ, and then tell his listeners that the physical torture was a picnic compared to the terror of God's wrath that fell upon His own Son. He must remind his people of what that agonizing death at Golgotha should teach us: that the wages of sin is death. Sin is the refusal to acknowledge our Creator and follow Him unconditionally, and such is a capitol offense. He must warn all within the sound of his voice of the wrath to come, and urge them to come to Christ . . . not for a better sex life or a nicer car or a better marriage, but for the only path to redemption from the terrible wrath of an angry God whom they have despised and whose laws they have trampled under foot.

Paul David Washer is just such a preacher. It was obvious to me as I watched his message to thousands of Alabama Baptist youth that he was not interested in popularity, or accolades, or even being invited back to speak again (which, interestingly, he wasn't). His passion was the same as the Apostle who shares his name; to preach Christ crucified!

I'm not suggesting that every sermon be "hell, fire and brimstone." The Apostle Paul himself encouraged young Timothy to balance his preaching between "rebuke" and "exhortation." (2 Tim. 4:2). Nor am I saying we should never speak of Jesus as the answer to a fulfilling life. He spoke of Himself in this way (John 10:10). I am also not suggesting that the message of the Gospel is always preached in a cultural vaccum. In our age, believers in the west must increasingly live like missionaries, and the job of the missionary, according to Ed Stetzer, is to find the question the culture is asking to which the Gospel is the only answer.

What I am saying is this: In the midst of a modern evangelicalism baptized with an enculturated, albeit more conservative version of "health, wealth, and prosperity," we should be constantly evaluating our ministries to ensure that at the heart of it all remains a bloody cross and a bodily ressurection. God grant such insight to more pulpits!

You can listen online to the message I saw on DVD by clicking here:
Then click on "Youth Evangelism Conference 2002."