Friday, October 10, 2008

Some things are Just More Important

I'm currently sitting at my kitchen table, listening to my wife talk to her mother, with the faint sound of my three-year-old in the distance, playing with his grandfather. And as I sit here about to write something I've honestly thought of writing for some time now, God is confirming in my heart that what I'm about to write is probably long past-due.

It's time to take a break--a long, long break--from the blogosphere.

Honestly, I've thoroughly enjoyed being able to express my thoughts through this site for over three years. But recently, several things are coalescing in my life that confirm to me that it is time to stop blogging.

1. My Family. I have a wife and two boys that I don't deserve, and spending time here is, I am convinced, time that I've taken away from them. Next year will also be a year for limiting travel, because I have become convinced over the past few months that if I don't make these adjustments, I'm going to miss the most crucial years of my son's lives.

2. My Association. While its been great to hear from many locals in my own area, in the end, I'm not sure my writing here has done very much to help the 53 churches I am privileged to serve. Since they are my primary callling, as well as my primary means of making a living, I owe them some of the time I've spent here.

3. My Life. It just seems as though life has sped up in an almost uncontrollable way the past two years. Over the next couple of months, I'l be adding some additional study/professional development to my agenda as well as another writing project that I anticipate being ready by 2010.

With all this in view, some things simply had to go. Actually, a few things had to go, this being one of them.

The site will remain open. It just won't be very active. It's been great to meet so many wonderful people through this venue. But frankly, some things are simply more important right now. There are plenty of others out there more eloquent than I who will continue to keep the blogosphere busy, and occassionally, I'll check them out and keep myself informed. To those who have read my stuff, its an honor that you considered my words worthy of your time. God willing, as I establish some new life boundaries and "re-set" my priorities according to my gifts, He will continue to encourage and equip others through my work. There is no higher honor than this.

Thanks again for reading!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

What Associations were Meant to Be

I have to confess that often I feel a bit strange in my current role as a Director of Missions. I love what I do, mind you. Its just that at one time, I considered Associations to be among the most useless institutions on planet earth...right up there with congress and those TSA guys at the airport.

In fairness, I admit that my strong bias against associations were based largely in negative experiences I had with them early in my ministry. And in truth, some of those perceptions were real, and regrettably, still are in some areas. The charge that the Association is a denominational dinosaur, and the Director is usually nothing more than a washed-out pastor is, as much as I hate to admit, true to a large extent in many areas of the country.

At the same time, two men over the past seven years have convinced me that if its done right, the Association still has the potential to produce a Kingdom synergy unparalleled anywhere else. Churches working together, leveraging their collective influence to extend the reign of Christ in our world is a wonder to watch, and I've never seen them work together with more effectiveness than when they are utilizing a lean, mean, well-oiled, Kingdom-minded Association to do it. The first of these men, Ron Davis, gave me a vision of what the association could be. The second man, my predecessor, demonstrated what it could be by building the association I now lead into a missionally-driven, local church centered entity.

Others have also been "shining lights" in this area, including Mike Day of the Mid-South Association in Memphis and Doyle Braden of Orange County Association, where Saddleback holds its associational membership.

But tonight, I want to talk about the association that I'm currenly the most familiar with; the one I am privileged to lead. While we haven't yet "arrived," I believe we are currently on a trajectory that will end with our being the kind of networking, synergistic, missional organization our churches both need and deserve. The following video was played publicly for the first time today at our annual meeting. It highlights what God has been doing in our midst, and how our association has played a role in His work. In short, this video represents our move toward what Associations were meant to be. Enjoy!

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Vision of the Young and the Old

Yesterday was one of those days that remind me why I live in Maryland, and why I do what I do. Our association, in partnership with Embrace Baltimore and several sponsor churches, helped to launch The Village, a new church in the Hampden borogh, just a few blocks from Johns Hopkins University. Between 70 and 75 people came to this inaugural service, more than half of whom were totally unchurched. The birth of a church is an exciting thing to watch.

But the celebration was more intense because of the way in which this new church came about. About two years ago, we began working through one of our churches with the Hampden Bapist Church. Hampden Baptist is an historical congregation to say the least, started in 1874. Their present facility was erected in 1890, and continues to grace the streets of Hampden with its beauty. The old church grew and ministered effectively for many years, and reached its heyday during the 1940s and 1950s, when the average attendance was greater than 800 people!

The following decades brought enormous change to the city, and the congregation, like many urban churches during this time, watched as the majority of its membership took flight to the suburbs. This decline continued precipitously, and when we began our conversations with the church two years ago, attendance hovered at about 35 people.

Through a covenant agreement, we committed ourselves to maintaining the current facility for the church, providing pastoral care and a preacher for Sundays. In the meantime, we would begin putting the pieces together for a new church to be born in Hampden. Once we were ready, the Hampden church pledged to work with us to start this church, recognizing that the future would belong, not to them, but to this new church. Their desire to leave a Gospel legacy in Hampden was the motivation for their commitment.

Several months ago, we recognized that the time had come. I called a meeting with the Hampden congregaion to tell them we were ready to start the new church. However, it would need to meet in their building at the same time that they were currently holding worship, and as such, we needed to ask them to move their services to a different time. I did all of this based on the covenant agreement that all parties signed, but I've been ministering in Baptist churches long enough to know that it doesnt matter what people sign. If they don't want to do something, it simply won't happen!

Again, the people of Hampden Baptist Church demonstrated their commitment to a legacy that would outlive them. They quickly agreed to open up their building for use by The Village during the 11:00 hour. But the moment that got to me came after our meeting had closed. A sweet lady in her 90s came up to me, leaned over her walker, pointed back at Dan Hyun, our church planter, and said "I've been praying for him for the past two years. The Lord promised me months ago while I was praying that He would let me live long enough to meet this young man and see this church started. Now that its happened, I don't know how much longer I have, but I am thanking God this morning for the future He is giving us!"

After that statement, no one will ever be able to convince me that 70, 80, and 90-year-olds don't have vision!

During the services yesterday, I approached the lone trustee to ask him what he thought. After all, the worship style is very different, and the music in particular much louder. His very direct response to me was "We were promised this more than two years ago, and its about time!"

God was at work in Baltimore yesterday, and He is using the vision of both the young and old to bring the people of this community to saving faith in Jesus! I pray He continues to move in this way in our area for His glory!

Friday, September 05, 2008

2012 Republican Ticket!

I couldn't help myself! I just had to post this because it is just too funny to resist. My friend and well-known missiological guru Ed Stetzer made a comment on Twitter a couple of nights ago that ultimately resulted in the picture above.

Scary thing is, he might just win! I can see it now; a $10,000 tax credit for anyone who plants a church! Oh yeah!

Then again, he's probably best suited for hiw current role. You can read that statement positively (as in "Ed, you are too good at what you do now to leave that role vacant.") or negatively (as in "Ed, keep your day job dude.")

Of course, Ed already has wa more executive experience than Obama! But he's also probably one of those guys who clings bitterly to his guns and religion.

Thanks for the needed laugh Ed.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Football Season and the Need for "Team Players" in the Church

In addition to the beautiful leaves and crisp air that accompany a Maryland fall, one of the things I love most about this time of year is the inauguration of football season. This season, however, hasn't started off very well. I find myself typing these words the morning after my team's humiliating opening game loss to Alabama. A 4 point favorite going in, the Clemson Tigers looked more like the Clemson Cub Scouts. For the next several weeks I am sure I will be frequently reminded of this sad example of a football game by Crimson Tide friends of mine with whom I shared a vibrant back-and-forth "whos gonna beat who" conversation before the game. Turns out, "trash talk" isn't such a great idea after all.

Anyone who watched this game would conclude that the majority of the blame for this loss is to be placed on an inexperienced offensive line. Clemson is currently picked to win their conference, have a strong defense, and the best quarterback in the ACC, but none of that mattered last night. And as I continue to think about this loss, I see a sharp and clear parallel to what is happening in many churches.

The offensive line simply failed last night, and when that happens, the effects eventually trickle over to every other area of the team. Although offensive lineman get little attention when things are going well in a game, their role is crucial. If they don't block for the QB and other ball carriers, it cripples the ability of the offense to move the chains. Consequently, their lack of blocking becomes the cause of short "3 and out" drives that move all the playing time to the defense. Over time, this wears down the defense, thereby further weakening their ablity to stop the opposing team. This is precisely the scenario that occurred last night.

As I consult with churches, particularly when they are in the pastor search phase, it becomes apparent that most feel all that ails them will be solved if they can only find "the right man to lead us." I think I've found a new term for this sentiment: "Star Quarterback syndrome." It's what Clemson had going into last night's game, and it cost them a humiliating defeat. Churches that don't wake up from this deluson will face similar and more serious defeat at the hands of the enemy.

The answer to this dillemma is for churches to realize that Billy Graham himself can't make a difference in a church where, as Paul would put it, all the parts of the body aren't working together. (1 Corinthians 12:11-13) Having a "star quarterback" in the pulpit will not help the church if the linemen, defensive ends, special teams, and even the managers and trainers are not functioning within their roles in the way God intended. Such is the reason we encourage churches to utilize the interim period to shore up in weak areas before they install a new pastor.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do with a game such as that played last night is simply forget about it. Other times, its good to learn from it. Cullen Harper can't win a football game without the rest of his team, and a "star" pastor can't fix a dysfunctional church all by himself. The members of the body have to take responsibility for their own dysfuncation, repent, and begin to function as the body Christ has called them to be.

I hope Clemson can pull themselves together and have a good season. But more than this, I pray that our churches will truly be the local body of Christ so that others will see Jesus in them.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

God and Gustav: A Guest Blog

It was exactly three years ago today when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast and left horrible destruction in her wake. Via a partnership our churches have with the Gulf Coast Association, we continue helping the people of Mississippi rebuild, and now it appears that yet another strong hurricane may very well hit that same area.

Of course,a lot can happen between now and 2 PM Monday. But at its current course, it will make a dead hit at Gulfport Mississippi and travel straight up Highway 49. Lot's of people are, understandably, upset and on edge, and regardless of how strongly you believe in Providence, such convictions are very difficult to apply in these kinds of situations. But I have a friend who seems to be doing a pretty good job at laughing in the face of Gustav, even if he does so with a lump in his own throat.

Unlike most of us who merely watched Katrina from afar, my friend Jack Allen actually lived through it. As such, when he speaks of God's sovereingty and goodness, he's not just waxing eloquent. He has applied such teaching in a very real way in the past. Jack teaches missions at New Orleans Seminary. He is a dear friend, and I asked his permission to share his latest thoughts with you.

As you are reading, pray for the people who live along the Gulf Coast. But more than anything else, pray that the faith of which you read in Jack's post will be present in even more people as this storm moves toward its mainland destination.

Can Gustav Get er Done? (Dr. Jack Allen)
I spent most of this morning doing a hurricane continuance plan for my students. I did this little marvel of strategic planning for several reasons.

(1) Because I love my students and I know that even if they are evacuated in the middle of the night to unknown shores because a terrifying storm is bearing down on their behinds, they will want to know what to read in their course textbooks.

(2) My students will need something to keep them busy so that their minds do not drift to thoughts of The Killer Storm, The Surge, The Flood, The Looting, or The Drowned Furniture (those all sound like great punk rock bands, don’t they?).

(3) The academic boss of bosses around here--Dr. Dallas Cowboy Lemke--told me to do it, and I want to be a joy to lead.

All that academic strategery aside, there are several people around here who confide in me that THEY ARE SCARED. Those of you who know me, I want you to imagine what level of terror might prompt someone to tell me that he or she is scared of the possibility of another hurricane hitting New Orleans. Was the counseling office closed? Maybe so, maybe they left town! I would sooner go to the checkout lady at Walgreens for a shoulder on which to whine than come to me. But, there they are, all five of them (now six) Facebooking, emailing, stopping me at the coffee shop, calling me for advice. My advice? GET OUT NOW! (Not really.)

It’s curious though. If that many people are asking me what to do, where to go, and if there can be any hope, it probably means that literally tens more are thinking of ending it all and moving to Jackson. Oh please, Lord, bring them to their senses.

Dude, I know you’re scared. Your wife admits, but you’re a Southern boy and think you’ll turn gay the instant you admit fear. You won’t. I’m a little bit scared, and I wear hardly any makeup at all.

You’d be a fool not to be a little scared. I went through Katrina. I lived apart from my students for a year, then apart from my wife and daughter for another year. I do not wish the loss of family time or grandmother’s antiques on anyone.

We prayed and prayed, for that storm to hit someplace it wouldn’t matter, like Lake Charles, but God had other plans. It was our turn to suffer, and we lived through it. In fact, for many of us, our faith grew more in the year or two after Katrina than it did the ten before. I see benefits from Katrina. I got new clothes and new furniture! I am significantly less tolerant of peoples’ junk than I was before the storm. Maybe that’s good. I am significantly more grateful for my wife than I was before the storm (she denies the last statement, but I know the truth), and that is very good. In many ways I am a better instructor now than I was before the storm.

So, I have a counterintuitive plan. I am challenging Gustav to finish what Katrina could not. Come on in brothah! I dare you. Bow up to Cat 5 and waltz right up the Mississippi. I do not care. You, Mr. Hurricane, cannot touch me, this city, or anyone in it without the express permission of your Creator. If He says to have a go at New Orleans, then fine. Otherwise, stop making people scared. We have better things to do with our time.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Isaiah and Immigration The Second; Legal Considerations

You don't have to be an expert in legal matters to conclude that our current immigration situation is a mess. As I said in my last post on this issue, our current system rewards those who break the law, and sends those trying to obey it back where they came from. Laws that create this kind of environment are, by default, unjust, and we have already heard Isaiah speak poignantly and with resolve to God's views of unjust law. But what instruction can we find in his prophecy that will help us chart a more equitable way forward?

Woe to those who enact evil statutes,
and to those who constantly record unuust decisions
so as to deprive the needy of justice
and rob the poor of My people of their rights
so that widows may be their spoil
and that they may plunder the orphan. -Isaiah 10:1-2

By the prophet's own words, unjust laws:
-remove justice from the needy. With regard to immigration, this would, I think,include removing the opportunity for a better life from one who is willing to work, pay his or her share of taxes, and assimilate into our culture. Yet this is exactly the case for thousands of immigrants who are denied the opportunity to make this better life for themselves.

-robs the poor of their rights. When social services, public education, emergency medical care and other wellfare services are given to those who will, because of their illegal status, likely never pay taxes, the result is that many of our own citizens have needed social services "robbed" from them and given to others.

-widows and orphans are taken advantage of. In other words, an unjust law is one which allows the opportunity for government exploitation of the weak. (For some reason, the lottery comes to mind) Yet immigrants, legal and illegal, rather than having consistent law to which they can refer, are instead constantly subjected to the whims of individual INS agents, whose scope of authority in this regard exceeds that of a federal judge. And frankly, if you throw into that mix the absolute incompetence I have personally witnessed from several who work for INS, the picture is one that would rightly frighten anyone trying to immigrate to the United States. Our current system strips immigrants of the dignity they deserve as human beings created in God's image, and replaces the rule of law with the monarchial tyranny of an INS agent.

The challenge then, is to develop an immigration system that is "just," that delivers justice to those who seek it, grants rights regardless of socioeconomic status, and subjects all applicants for residency to the same rule of law; one that is clear, and treats those subjected to it with the dignity God would expect.

What would such a system look like, and how would we arrive at its adoption? Again, I admit being as qualified to write laws as I am to pilot a nuclear submarine. Nevertheless, I would suggest the following general direction, subject to the scrutiny of those who are more competent that I:

1. Totally dismantle the current immigration system, release all employees of this agency and make them re-apply if they want to continue to be paid with our tax dollars. This includes embassy employees worldwide. Its a radical move, I know. Still, Ronald Reagan's words of more than 20 years ago have never been more true than when applied to immigration. Government isn't the solution to our problem. It IS the problem! While I am sure there are many competent and able professionals who work for immigration, the incompetence I have witnessed has convinced me that this move is neccesary. The raw power INS agents have is scary enough. Mix that raw power with ignorance, and you have a real mess!

2. Design a new system that takes into account the current realities we face as a nation. Such a system would include:
-The ability to concentrate manpower on multiple entry points.
-More deliberate and clear guidelines and policies for INS workers, so that the decisions that affect immigrants are based on law rather than the whims of an agent.
-Expedited processing of immigration requests. Responses from the government taking longer than 6 months would result in penalties to those who work for INS. The one exception to this would be below...
-"Red flagging" of anyone coming from a nation known to harbor terrorists (call it profiling if you want, its the right thing to do. In spite of our culture of political correctness, anyone with half a brain knows the people who attacked our country were not of Latin American descent.) More thorough background checks and longer periods of probationary stay would be required.
-Temporary worker permits to all current residents, whether or not they were legal under the former system. Give them 90 days to secure the permit, and one year beyond that to find gainful employment and pay taxes. If they find a legal occupation, keep it, and learn English, after a certain amount of time they can receive a "green card," and a path to citizenship if they want it which would take no longer than five years to obtain. If they fail to secure the permit, or don't prove themselves productive, or add to our crime problems by their behavior, send them packing pronto!

3. After the new system is in place, build tighter security around both borders (not a literal fence. What a silly waste of time and money, in my opinion) Anyone entering the country illegally after this point is automatically deported, with exceptions granted to those claiming assylum as political refugees.

4. Utilize NAFTA and other legal measures to encourage further business investment in Mexico and Central America. Yes, this would cost us at first. But eventually, a prosperous Mexico would mean few illegal immigration problems for the United States, and subsequently, much less of a drain on our own economy. In fact, the eventual American revenue generated from the likely sale of businesses to Mexican and other nationals would create more prosperity on this side of the Rio Grande as well. Two neighboring, prosperous nations will compliment each other, and help each other build a prosperous future.

Human rights. Human equality. Human dignity. All three are mandated by God's Word to every government to whom He allows continued existence. Re-inventing our immigration system is, I believe, an absolute neccesity for our nation to acheive this end. While I am certain others far more knowledgeable than me could devise much wiser plans than I have suggested above, my hope is, in the end, to see a system that is truly "just."

But just laws alone are not enough, nor are they the first priority for God's people. The church and those who make up its membership have great responsibilities toward our immigrant friends that transcend the legal and political arenas, and we sin if we wait for the legal issues to be solved before we seek to fulfill those responsibilities. I'll talk about these in my final post on this subject in the coming days.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Evangelicals and the Political Process: A Conversation with Brian McLaren and Richard Land

Believe it or not, Richard Land and Brian McLaren had a cordial conversation! Though its hard to believe, these respective representatives of conservative and progressive evangelicalism spent more than a half-hour on issues of agreement, and in the end, I think the church will be better for having listened to it.

Make no mistake, I'm still no fan of McLaren's theology (though every time I've been around him, he makes it very difficult to dislike him personally), nor do I find myself in unanimous agreement with Land. But through my friend David Phillips, I was made privy to the recorded conversation below, and I was positively challenged by its contents. Given that I'm in the middle of a few posts on political issues such as immigration, I thought this video would serve as a great primer going into the coming election season. Some highlights (with which I strongly agree) were:

-Political parties are, by their very nature, Machiavellian, and thus, only as "good" as they have to be to garner votes and retain power.
-Evangelicals should not be committed to any political party unconditionally, but instead, should demand that political parties committ to evangelical ideals regarding the sanctity of life, traditional family values, poverty, social justice, and religious freedom.
-While "conservatives" and "liberals" can (and should) divide over a number of issues, there are also many issues on which we can (and should) stand shoulder to shoulder.
-Labels (such as conservative/liberal, etc.) can be helpful in identifying positions and vantage points, but too often are used to stereotype and malign individuals.
-Overall, the media is not your friend, regardless of your political or theological persuasion.

Have a look for yourself! The video is about 40 minutes in length, and it really is worth your time, especially if you want to think more deeply on the relationship between evangelical faith and politics.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Isaiah and Immigration

With the recognition that we are a nation built on immigrants, I find it ironic that the current immigration debate has become so vitriolic on both sides. What I find even more paradoxical is that a nation of immigrants presuming to live under the rule of law is seemingly losing its respect for both immigrants and the law. Thankfully, the prophet Isaiah, though he lived more than 2500 years ago, has more wisdom than either the Democrats or the Republicans.

I've been thinking about the immigration issue for some time now, due to my own intimate dealings with the subject matter. I say this to point out that the immigration issue, for me, is not merely an abstract, academic discussion, but rather, one that I deal with on an almost weekly basis. Every Sunday, our churches worship in six different languages. More than 25% of our member congregations are non-Anglo and non-English speaking. As such, many of the pastors of those churches are not American citizens, and consequently, part of our service to our churches is to help immigrant pastors navigate through the legal jaggernaut that is the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. In fact, our office keeps a close relationship with an immigration attorney, whom we often consult for just this purpose.

After more than five years of dealing with this issue in both South Carolina and Maryland, I've come to the conclusion that the problems which permeate the current immigration debate have their roots in the immigration system itself. And here is where Isaiah speaks pointedly and prophetically:

"Woe to those who enact evil statutes
And to those who constantly record unjust decisions,
2 So as to deprive the needy of justice
And rob the poor of My people of their rights,
So that widows may be their spoil
And that they may plunder the orphans.
3 Now what will you do in the day of punishment,
And in the devastation which will come from afar?
To whom will you flee for help?
And where will you leave your wealth?"

Sound a bit strong? Not if you have had much experience with our immigration system, which has itself produced the following problems:

1. A nation awash in lawbreakers. Organizations like casa de Maryland here in my state actually encourage immigrants and employers to break the law, and are strong advocates for granting to illegal immigrants the same social benefits my father has worked more than 40 years to obtain. Marches have been held in Montgomery county, not far from my home, where illegals, with the help of this organization, demand their "rights," which strikes me as funny. Were I to go to France, stand outside a government building and demand the same rights, privileges, and social benefits as those who have lived and worked legally in that nation for decades, I suspect it wouldn't be long before I was given a complimentary ride in a French police car to the nearest American consulate.
But overall, illegals themselves are not the problem. Many in fact do not "demand" rights. They only want a fair shot at being able to make a life for themselves in the US, and are prevented from doing so by a system that is complicated, intimidating, and hopelessly unclear. In short, while a loud minority of arrogant lawbreakers make the news, a huge number of illegals wish to be legal, but are made to be criminal by a system that gives them no chance of a normal American life.

2. Mistreatment of those who try to do the right thing.. I have seen it over and over again. Even in my own association, immigrants who try to obey the law are hassled, harrassed, delayed, stonewalled, and mistreated. While thousands cross our borders illegally every week with INS looking the other way, simultaneously, good people trying to obey the law are sent packing.

In other words, the lawbreakers are being rewarded, while those who try to obey the law are being punished. Laws that create this kind of environment are, by default, unjust laws, and therefore fit Isaiah's descrpition. Our current system of immigration deprives the needy, the widows, and the orphans by stripping those who have worked, paid taxes, and invested in our nation legally from their right to continued residency, while simultaneously granting these same benefits to those who are here illegally, thereby depriving American poor, widows, and orphans.

Part of the problem, of course, is the antiquated nature of our current system. Originally set up to accomodate a mostly European population entering the nation through Ellis Island and San Francisco, our curent system cannot possibly be expected to accomodate immigrants from all over the world, coming through multiple entry points.

But to solve these, and many of the other issues with our current system will take more than the "get rid of them all" approach of many Republicans, or the "ignore the law" approach of many Democrats. It will require a Biblical conviction to write and enforce laws that are just, and an American church that understands our responsibility to minister to "aliens and strangers" (Leviticus 19:34). To treat our foreign-born friends with dignity means that we have laws that are fair to them, while simultaneously holding them accountable to obey those laws.

How do we do this? While I'm far from a legal expert, I'll try to offer a few ways to "move forward" in the coming days.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Atonement Applied

Evangelical Christians rightly confess that Jesus Christ is God, who came in the flesh, came into the world through the womb of a virgin, lived a completely sinless life, died as a substitute for sinners in a bloody mess on a Roman Cross, was raised bodily from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is personally coming back. Any message that includes less than the above is not the Gospel.

Still, we often have trouble making application of these precious truths beyond the challenge to "be saved." In the end, the world responds to the statements above, not so much with disbelief, but instead with a resounding "so what?"

Mark Driscoll's newest book gives as clear an answer to that question as I have heard in some time.

Death by Love is a thorough exposition of the atonement of Jesus, and how the truth of His sacrifice changes lives, purifies hearts, removes guilt, and overcomes the myriad of struggles we all face. The book will be out early next month, but you can get a sneak peak if you want. It is practically pastoral, deeply missional, connected to the real world, and most important of all, faithful to the Biblical Gospel.

Also, check out the video below that tells just a few of the stories behind the book.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

In Memory of a Colleague

Dr. Bruce Revel was a friend, and cherished colleague. As Director of Missions for Eastern Baptist Association on Maryland's shoreline, Bruce had a heart and desire to see that entire area changed by the Gospel. The last time he and I sat down together, he was planning to launch a huge ministry to the deaf in one of his churches that he envisioned would multiply across his association, and even the state. That meeting was on July 17, just days before I left for vacation. I had no idea it would be the last time we would speak in this world.

I was with my family, on my way back from the Tennessee mountains when I received the call telling me that Bruce had suddenly and unexpectedly gone to be with Jesus this past Sunday. Today, someone sent me the last blog post Bruce wrote before his death. It was surreal, to say the least, to read thoughts of mortaility from a man just weeks before his death. I pray that he was able to reorganize his life in the way he wished prior to his departure for the next world. But even more so, I pray that I can make those same priorities.

This Friday, I will join what I am sure will be throngs of mourners as we lay our brother to rest. He was a very young 59-years-old, which only proves that death is non-discriminatory. I'd encourage you to read his last blog post, and act accordingly.

It's Getting Busy . . .not that anything has changed!

As I type, I'm sitting in the customer service area of my local Ford dealership, waiting on my Taurus to be serviced. Aside from a 10-day vacation from which I just returned, moments like this have been rare over the past couple of months. But its been exciting to see God at work in so many ways!

First, there was a trip to the Eastern Caribbean. I had the opportunity to spend several days on the island of Antigua with my pastors, Jerry Cooper and Rob Stephens, and help them begin to map out a church planting strategy for the island. Less than two months later, plans have moved forward at a fast pace. The first training event for indigenous church planters is next week! Through this trip, God providentially alligned us in relationnships with pastors and laity who share a passion for reaching the island. The long-term vision is for the movement to "go viral." Given the centrality of this island to the rest of the Eastern Caribbean, our prayer is that the Gospel will eventually spread from Antigua to other islands.

Then, there was the Southern Baptist Convention. I know, I know, there are a few of you out there who think the SBC has seen its best days. While I value your friendship, I don't share your pessimism, and this year's convention gave evidence, I believe, that our best days are (potentially) ahead of us. Overall, there was a somber, introspective spirit among the messengers that was reflected in many ways, cheifly in the resolutions. While I personally have always felt resolutions to be a total waste of time, I am unusually perturbed to see them often aimed at people who aren't in the room. This year, things were different. In particular, in the resolution on integrity in church membership, Southern Baptists sent a clarion call . . .to ourselves! And of course, there is always the opportunity to re-connect with old friends. All in all, I walked away from this year's convention very encouraged about our future. In the coming days, I will deliver on what I promised at the beginning of the year with a post on why I'm still Southern Baptist.

Two weeks later, I was on Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Through a partnership we have with Gulf Coast Association, our churches have worked for the past three years to help bring continued relief to this area, which was hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. With the hurricane now three years removed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get the needed resources for continued rebuilding. In our "fix-it-fast" culture, it is sometimes hard to fathom that hurricane victims would still need help after three years. But category 5 hurricanes don't leave behind the kind of problems that can be fixed quickly, and thankfully, the churches in my association understand this. 40 volunteers joined us in Gulfport, rebuilt homes, hosted VBS at two churches, and shared the love of Jesus with the people in this area. It was also great to have my family with me on this trip. My lovely wife headed up the kitchen crew, without which we would all have been very hungry!

Now that the fall season is upon us, it looks as if things aren't likely to slow down! The next three Sundays are filled with speaking dates. I'm privileged to speak in a lot of places, but I genuinely love preaching to the churches in my association. My current position doesn't lend itself to close relationships with laity, or to regular Biblical expositional series', and preaching in MMBA churches is the closest I can get to the pastoral role that I so often miss.

September is full as well. The good folks at Southeastern Seminary have invited me to their campus to talk about Maryland/Delaware church planting, along with my good friends David Jackson, and Troy Bush. As an "occassional" professor, I always enjoy being around students, especially those preparing to make sanctified trouble for God's Kingdom. In fact, I'm praying that a couple of future Maryland church planters will be around.

I'm back from North Carolina just in time for our second Frontliner's conference of the year. We held this conference in January, and the response has been outstanding.

Immediately after the conference, I board a plane for Atlanta, where I will speak Sunday at Orange Hill Baptist Church in Marietta. My good friend Spencer Haygood gave me the opportunity to speak to their Missions Conference four years ago, and evidently doesn't think his church has been punished enough! :) It will be great to see the people of Orange Hill again, and it is always an honor to be invited to challenge God's people toward better Great Commission fulfillment.

Oh, and don't tell him, but my son Sam will be joining me on the trip to Atlanta. The trip will be a surprise for him, but I'm also looking forward, in the midst of all the scheduling chaos, to some "father-son" time.

In the meantime, I've had a couple of months to think about a few issues, and although I'm far from a political expert, the upcoming election season provides a great opportunity to address issues the church dare not be silent about. The first item on my list: immigration. More on that later.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Shocking News from Pew Research

I'd comment, but I am simply speechless! This MSNBC segment tells the story.

New Book Podcast

While I'm still taking a brief hiatus from the blog world, I thought I'd share the following with you. This week I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. David Jackson, who leads Church Multiplication for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, to do a podcast on my new book. As always, David and I had a great time together, and hopefully what we put together will be of help to our guys in the field who are doing the real Kingdom work. The podcast is about twenty minutes in length, and you can access it here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Summer Break from the Blogosphere

Martin Luther once commented; "I have so much to do today, that I simply must go to bed." As I observe my summer schedule, I think I know how he felt!

This summer is shaping up to be a busy one indeed, and includes the following:

-A Mission Trip to the Carribean: Yeah, I know what your'e thinking. But it really is. Next week I join a couple of our pastors down there to survey the landscape and talk with locals about helping with an indigenous church planting movement. Exciting stuff!

The Southern Baptist Convention: I'll be in Indianapolis June 8-11 for the annual meeting of my denomination.

A Mission Trip to Mississippi: In July, Amy and I will be leading a team of 40 in VBS, evangelism, and construction, as we continue to help rebuild the Gulf Coast area.

A Family Vacation: Because after all this, we are going to need one!

With all this in view, writing here is going to take a "back seat" for the summer. God willing, I should be back around the first of August, and I'll be keeping up with the blogosphere and other news, as always. Hope everyone has a great summer!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Pray for the Chapman Family

For the past two decades I have been one of many who have followed the career of Steven Curtis Chapman. He is a talented artist who loves Jesus and has demonstrated huge spiritual growth over his career.

As an enormous fan of parents who adopt, I am also thankful for Shaohannah's Hope, and International adoption ministry founded by Chapman and his wife Mary Beth. This ministry has assisted more than 1500 families in adopting children.

While listening to the news on my way to the office today, I heard that tragedy has struck the Chapman family. Their youngest adopted daughter was struck by an SUV in the family's driveway yesterday afternoon, and died later at Vanderbilt University Hospital from injuries sustained in the accident. You can find the story here.
As the father of two boys, I cannot imagine the grief that has already engulfed this godly family, let alone the dark days that are coming. Let us pray for God's comfort and grace to be poured out on this wonderful family during this very difficult time.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My Preferred Half of Romans 14

One of the most annoying experiences of ministry often comes, interestingly enough, after I've preached a message. It's that moment when I'm standing in the back of the church shaking hands, and someone comes up and says "great message Dr. Rainey. I wish _________ could have been here to hear it. They need it!"

Honestly, it's hard in moments like that to keep my temper at bay. I want to ask, in righteous indignation, "don't you need it too? What's wrong with you that you see faults in others before you see them in yourself? Haven't you read Matthew 7:1-5?? Are you an idiot?? . . . .

. . .but just before exploding, the Spirit reminds me that often, I too, am an idiot.

For example, many folks on my wife's side of the family come out of a Holiness background. Because of this, they hold strong convictions that I don't hold. I remember early in our dating life when Amy would say "don't talk about movies we have seen around the relatives. They believe going to the theater is sinful."

Of course, my instant reaction was to appeal to Romans 14. After all, Paul has given us clear instruction regarding how to relate to each other on "debatable" matters. There is nothing . . .absolutely NOTHING in Scripture that forbids me from seeing a good movie, especially one in which there is lots of gunplay, fast cars, and buildings blowing up in a hopelessly gratuitous fashion. There is liberty in Christ, and where "movies for guys who like movies" are concerned, I aim to exercise my liberty!!

Furthermore, those who would object to my affinity for fast cars and bullets on the silver screen should consider carefully the following verses from Romans 14:

" . . .and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him." v.3b
"Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?" v.4
"Why do you pass judgement on your brother?" v.10
"Therefore, let us not pass judgement on one another any longer." v.13a

Wow, if only my "weaker brother" were here to read these verses. He sure needs it!

Problem is, in quoting my preferred half of this text, I've totally ignored (i.e. violated) the parts that are addressed to me in an effort to point out those parts that are addressed to my weaker brother. Talk about irony!

As a "stronger brother" in this regard, I should instead be looking at the following passages:

"Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains. . ." v.3a
". . .but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother." v.13b
"For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died." v.15
"It is not good to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble." v.21

Do such texts mean that I should totally abstain from "Ironman" this weekend? Not neccesarily. At the same time, it probably means I should keep quiet about it around certain folks out of deferrence for their convictions. OF course, they have their responsibilities as well. But I'm not responsible to fulfill my weaker brother's responsibilities. I'm responsible to fulfill mine.

The same is true for any other debatable issue. My denomination, for example, has, on the whole, very strong convictions about alcohol consumption . . .convictions that I share to a large extent. So when it comes to beer, I switch teams. I'm no longer a "strong" brother. Now, I'm a "weaker" one.

The thing that interests me about any debatable issue is that most folks are just like me . . .they have a propensity to appeal to those verses in Romans 14 that are addressed to their opponents. The problem with this approach is that it not only ignores those texts most applicable to you, but it also violates the spirit of the very texts to which we appeal; a spirit that is best summarized by Paul's contention that "the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to god and approved by men. So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding." (vv.17-18)

Appealing to my "preferred half" of Romans 14 is never conducive to the kind of peace and Kingdom thinking that Paul describes. To pursue peace, I have to appropriate the other half . . .the half that describes my responsibilities when it comes to debatable issues.

With this in mind, maybe I don't need to judge my brother who participates in activities I find I can't participate in without sinning. Conversely, perhaps I need to resist colorful descriptions of "Ironman" in front of certain family members.

Maybe, just maybe, if we all practiced such things, righteousness and peace and joy would be seen more clearly in us by those who need to know Jesus. Just maybe, this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 14.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Increasing Need for Ethnic Churches

Yesterday I was invited to participate in the ordination service of Rev. Vyacheslav Paliy (he graciously let's me call him Slav). The service, held at the New Way Russian-Ukrainian Baptist Church, a church we helped start three years ago, was a beautiful example of the power of the Gospel, and the wisdom of contextualization. Though I understood very little that was said, it was still a very special time spent with my Russian brothers and sisters.

After the service, I drove less than 5 miles up the road to the First Hispanic Baptist Church of Reisterstown, a church we helped start in 2006. So it goes without saying that yesterday was definitely a multicultural experience for me.

Our association is culturally, racially, and linguistically diverse. Appropriately, our churches are also diverse. Every Sunday morning our churches worship in six different languages. One of every five of our churches proclaims the Gospel each Sunday in the Korean language alone. Still, when compared with the more than 60 languages that are spoken in our area in the school systems alone, we are way behind the curve.

Years ago, Oscar Romo stated that America, "hardly the melting pot described by history texts, has been a land that from its beginning was marked by diversity, not homogeneity." I live and walk in the reality of that statement almost daily, and yesterday I was reminded of how much work remains to be done. North America is becoming more and more unchurched everyday, but not just in terms of population alone. Just as the church is behind the curve in terms of reaching our growing population, we are also behind in terms of reaching all the people groups that now exist on our home continent.

Distance can no longer be used as an excuse of why we are not reaching the nations (not that distance was ever a legitimate excuse to begin with). God has literally brought the nations to our front doorstep. In light of this, I challenge every brother and sister in Christ to do the following things:

1. Research your own area: Just a quick look at, and you will likely be shocked at the vast linguistic and cultural diversity in your own backyard. I just discovered not long ago in Westminster Maryland, a small, socially conservative, largely white community, there was an active Cameroonian church! The world is literally all around you and your church. Do a little research to determine who is there, and who needs the Gospel.

2. Contact your association/state convention for help: If you aren't Baptist, then contact your own denominational agency, or network with whom you are affiliated for help in determining what your church can do to reach out to those you find in your area.

3. Do whatever is neccesary to bring the Gospel to the people: You may need to work with others to bring in an indigenous church planter, provide office space, and part of a salary. Or, it could be just as simple as allowing an ethnic group the use of your worship and education space.

At the end of the age, John tells us that the church will be made up of people from every tribe, language, people, and tongue. The fact that so many ethnicities in my area are without a church is evidence that Jesus is not yet worshipped to the degree that He deserves here! In your area, I am sure the situation is similar. God has now arranged it so that reaching these people doesn't require an overseas plane ticket or immersion into a foreign culture. It only requires seeing these precious souls the way Jesus does.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Back to Pulpit Basics

Sometimes, in the midst of talking strategy, style, and approach (which are all important), we seem to forget substance. To be sure, change is a constant. I speak about cultural change a lot. But one thing must never change if the church is to be what she ought to be, and that is the centrality of the pulpit.

Pastoral care is important. Church Growth is important. Studying culture is important. But nothing, absolutely nothing replaces the regular, deep, faithful, powerful, Spirit-annointed proclamation of God's Word. Such is the preimminent task of the pastor, and without it, the pastor fails at his calling.

I first saw the video below a couple of months ago while at a conference in Seattle. Thanks to Micah Fries, via Timmy Brister, I was able to access the YouTube version, and have imbedded it below. It is well worth four minutes of your time.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Gulf-Coast Partnership

I’ve just returned from Gulport Mississippi, where I spoke to the bi-annual session of the Gulf Coast Baptist Association. Over the past several years, our two associations have had multiple opportunities to bless each other, and this year, we are codifying our already warm relationship by entering into covenantal partnership with each other.

The Gulf Coast Association voted unanimously on Monday night to enter this partnership, and pending our association’s approval at our October meeting, it will be official. Partnerships are good because they promote cooperation, accountability, and greater Kingdom impact. I was thinking about this yesterday while preparing to speak to our Mississippi brothers and sisters. Basically, I took an inventory of all that God has accomplished in the Mid-Maryland area over the past four years, and here is what I came up with:

-Leadership development in one form or another has been provided to over 250 pastors and laity.
-There are presently 16 new churches in MMBA that did not exist four years ago.
-More than 500 volunteers have been deployed for mission efforts in North America.
-More than 250 volunteers from our churches have served in International mission efforts.
-More than 120 church planters have been trained and helped to deploy internationally.
-Our association has a significant presence on four continents, and when the ministries of all our member churches are considered, we have a significant presence for missions on every inhabited continent.
-In one way or another, we have helped to equip more than 50 churches to more effectively reach, bless, and change their own communities.
-19 churches have been planted in our area, and surrounding areas.

More is coming next year. So far in 2009:

-We will deploy to the Gulf Coast for at least two mission efforts.
-We will send missionaries to Mexico, the Carribean, East Asia, India, and the Pacific Rim.
-We will continue to plant churches in our own area.
-We are planning for joint leadership development, mission efforts, and disaster relief efforts by both Gulf Coast Association and Mid-Maryland Association.

We have 53 churches in MMBA, 19 of which are less than 5 years old, with many who do not own their own property. Yet all of the above was accomplished for one reason: 53 churches decided that they could do more together than they could apart. Add to this the 66 congregations that make up the Gulf Coast Association, and one is pressed to ask; what kind of Kingdom impact could 119 churches have?

I can’t wait to find out!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

America’s Public Schools: Education or Indoctrination?

In recent weeks a number of events have transpired across the country concerning public education. While each of these events occurred independently of the others, each one bears significant testimony that John Dewey’s vision of public education is finally being realized.

In other words, we have much to fear!

The following words are difficult to write for several reasons. First of all, I hate having to admit I am wrong. Three years ago I challenged Al Mohler’s contention that evangelicals should begin to develop an “exit strategy” related to a proposed SBC resolution on public education. Although I remain opposed to the Convention unduly judging parents for enrolling their children in public education, I am re-thinking Mohler’s proposal in particular.

Second, as a product of the public education system, I turned out alright (although some might debate this point) and sometimes it is difficult to believe that government control over public education is more, shall we say, imperial than it was when I attended. Furthermore, my wife and I are presently quite happy with our son’s public elementary school. As such, I don’t want it to seem that what I am about to say is intended to be a blanket statement of all public educational institutions. As I have said earlier, there still remain areas of the country where parental and local control of education remains strong, although how much longer this will be the case remains to be seen.

Finally, its hard to write against a system that I know employs many good, Bible-believing, born-again people who truly care about the students they teach. Among those in that number is my younger brother. I cannot stress enough that for the most part, the problems with public education are not related to the teachers. Instead, the problems are inherent to the system itself.

Still, for evangelicals to simply ignore all that is happening in regard to government-funded and controlled education would be ignoring the elephant in the room. But such events do not happen in a vacuum, and to see their origin we need to revisit the roots of our public education system, beginning with its most influential philosopher.

John Dewey is widely considered to be the most influential educational reformer in American history. In light of this assumption, it is interesting to know that Dewey himself was only a teacher for a few short years. Before his 24th birthday he had decided that education was not his field. He continued his own education, completing a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in 1884. His doctoral work motivated further studies in the Philosophy of Education. Observing various understandings of education, Dewey sought a balance between Plato’s emphasis on the societal good and Rousseau’s rugged individualism. The ultimate results of his work were published in his 1916 book entitled “Democracy and Education.” Dewey’s conclusion was that an individual’s significance, purpose and meaning are inextricably linked to his or her relationship with society at large, and therefore, the task of educators was to bring these two worlds together in symbiotic relationship.

In fairness, there are benefits to this understanding of education. From the time of Dewey, education evolved beyond the instilling of mere facts and head knowledge, and set the goal of actually equipping people to be productive members of society. The problem was that over time, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction, to the point that today, education is no longer primarily about learning to read, write, add, subtract, and think. Instead, education is now about instilling a particular societal worldview. Richard Rorty, one of Dewey’s many epistemological protégés, contends that truth is “made,” not “found,” and therefore society should seek to free itself from “truth” and construct its own understandings. Likewise Mary Calderone, who first introduced and advocated the idea of public school sex education, suggested that children should be “freed” from the traditional influences of the past (i.e. parents and churches) so that they can broaden their horizons in the area of sexuality. No wonder Playboy’s Hugh Hefner volunteered to financially underwrite sex education during its first years. The results have had to be good for business.

The result of Dewey’s philosophy in the United States is our present system of public education, which is steeped in cultural postmodernism.

The move from “classical” to “social” education has yielded many negative results, including a highly centralized and tightly controlled curriculum, government “certification” for teachers, and a system that puts government beauracracy before students. Most damning of all, the move from classical to social education monopolized by the federal government is designed to bring our children to capitulate to the prevailing postmodern worldview. Simply put, public education doesn’t teach children how to think. It teaches them what to think. No more debate about the origin of man. Our culture follows Darwinian philosophy and children will simply be told this is the “truth.” There will be no opportunities to debate the validity of the theory of global warming. It is simply presented as scientific “fact.”

Ben Stein’s recent documentary film Expelled illustrates the prejudice against those who dare refuse to bow before the prevailing worldview. Although ultimately Stein’s film contains nothing particularly new, it serves as a fresh reminder that in our current educational climate, contrarian’s are not welcome.

Add to this my friend Kevin Bussey’s recent post on a national “Day of Silence.” Public school districts all over the country are observing this day in order to promote the homosexual lifestyle as normative. World Net Daily carried the original story, and reported that a number of very troubled Christian parents were choosing to keep their children home on this day in protest. Yet the school districts in Indiana warned parents that it was “against the law” to keep their child out of school for reasons of protest, and one father was warned by his son’s school principal that his son would fail for the year if he did not attend school that day.

In addition, legal challenges continue to be brought against parents who have chosen to circumvent public education altogether. In a recent California case, an appellate court took advantage of an admittedly questionable home-school environment to violate the rights of parents all over the state. “California courts have held,” stated Justice Walter Croskey, “that under provisions in the education code, parents to not have a constitutional right to home-school their children.” The court has now decided that there must be a “certified teacher” in the home before home-schooling will be allowed in California. Mike Smith, President of the Home School Legal Defense Fund in Virginia, has stated that as many as 60,000 families in the state may be affected by this tyrannical over-stepping of judicial boundaries. Teacher’s unions, by contrast, love this decision.

Such moves to usurp parental authority are, unfortunately, not isolated. School boards in general are granted almost unfettered power over parents, all in the name of salvaging a system that in many places—especially in the urban centers of the country—is irreparably broken, and made continually worse by an overbearing federal government.

With all of the above in view, maybe its time for me to jump on Mohler’s “exit strategy” bandwagon after all. More on how to do this later.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

New Book Now Available for Pre-Sale

The good folks over at Missional Press have afforded me the opportunity to put a few of my feeble thoughts about church planting into published writing. As of today, the book is available for pre-sale at a reduced cost directly from the publisher. The plans are to release the book in a couple of weeks. At that point, it should be available for purchase from local bookstores, at Lifeway, and on Amazon.

But if you want to get your copy in advance, you can get it here.

For upcoming reviews of the book, keep watch here, here, and here.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Movement, or No Movement: What's the Difference?

This week, I'm in Tuxtla-Gutierrez, the capital city of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. I and a team from our association have had the privilege of holding training for church planters here, as well as working with the Chiapas Convention and local association to develop a church planters network.

Today, the participants caught fire! Before lunch, a strong network/learning community had been built and the first meetings had been planned. It's exciting to see God at work. Wherever he decies to show up in the world, the results are always glorious!

Nevertheless, the reason we suggested beginning a network was because so many church planters had felt marginalized, and even resented, by established church pastors. They needed some form of encouragement, exhortation, and mutual learning in order to facilitate their vision of a church in every city in their region. That's quite an aspiration, and its also quite apostolic! By the end of the book of Acts, each of the 40 cities mentioned in the book boasts a church. Our brothers and sisters in Chiapas want to follow that pattern, and I hope you will join me in praying for God to give them success.

Anyway, our experiences this week have led me to observe some common elements that determine whether or not a church planting movement is possible among a group of God's people. To be sure, the culture very different here. In fact, every time I come to Latin America I'm "brushing up" on what little Spanish I know. By the end of this week I'll at least be able to order food, hail a cab, have small talk with the hotel staff, and find my way to public restrooms. But over the next year, I'll be back with the "gringos" and I'll get rusty. As such, the cultural differences are very real to me. Given this fact, my observations of common problems in church planting are stark indeed when seen against the contrast of those cultural differences! Regardless of the language and culture, those things that determine whether a movement of new churches takes place are pretty uniform. I have found that whether you are in Mexico or Manhattan, the following principles generally apply:


1. ASSERT BEAURAUCRATIC CONTROL OF IT. Beauracracy has its place. As much as I hate to admit this, there can be no clear structure, and no real rhyme or reason to your strategy without some degree of beauracracy. At the same time, it is there to give structure to the movement, not stifle it. If you have reached a point where your guidelines, policies, procedures, lines of accountability, and total structure are so imposing that they no longer facilitate the mission they were intended to support, don't hold your breath waiting for a movement of new churches!
2. REFUSE TO ACCEPT "NEW WINESKINS." Sometimes it is very difficult for the establishment to accept new methods of evangelism and church planting. Currently, guys like Erwin McManus, Mark Driscoll, and those who follow them are heavily criticized and attacked for their innovative approaches to ministry. But they weren't the first "targets" of the establishment. Thirteen years ago a young California pastor named Rick Warren took his shots as well, and now he is, to an extent, the establishment he once rejected! But Warren wasn't the first either. More than a half-century ago many Fundamentalists were highly upset with a young pastor who touted that he would reach every possible person, using every possible means. His name was Jerry Falwell.
From time to time, denominations and other agencies feel threatned by new approaches to mission. When those feelings translate into endless policies and attempts to "rule out" anything with which they are uncomfortable, you can rest assured that such agencied have just signed their own death warrant.
3. TAKE A "TOP-DOWN" APPROACH TO YOUR CHURCH PLANTING STRATEGY. To be brief, church planting strategy should be led by churches, not denominations. Too much centralized power in this regard results in a few churches that look exactly alike, rather than many churches who each fit well within their own environment.
4. MAKE SURE THERE IS A LOT OF "IN-FIGHTING." In the sixteeen years I have been in ministry, I have met a few guys who were always waiting for the next "battle." Some were conservative; others were liberal. All of them were full of demonic influence. Anybody with half a brain can uncover a controversial issue, take a side, and pick a fight. To be sure, some things are worth fighting for. But if you seem to spend more time putting out man-made fires, and less time trying to stoke God-inspired ones, you have just lost your relevance.
5. PLAN MORE THAN YOU PRAY. Any genuine movement of God doesn't begin in the boardroom, but on our knees. Sophisticated strategy components, charts, graphs and other visual aids are a total waste of paper without prayer.


1. UNIFY AROUND THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST. Remember when I said some things are worth fighting for? This is it! On the one hand, this means that we should be warry of any attempts to dilute or compromise the message of Jesus' incarnation, propitiatory death, bodily resurrection, ascension, return, and His command to repent and believe. On the other hand, this also means we should seek to avoid peripheral conflicts about things like Calvinism, theonomy, or other less-than-worthy issues that will detract us from mission if we make them our fight. Our affinity is the Gospel!
2. DE-CENTRALIZE YOUR STRATEGY AND LINES OF ACCOUNTABILITY. Glocalnet, ACTS29, GCM, and other highly successful church planting networks have modeled this principle for us for a few years now, and each year the point is proven all the more. Put local churches in charge of reproducing themselves, and use the centralized "mother-ship," be it a para-church headquarters or a denomination, to do the only thing it can do well; serve churches and seek to undergird their efforts, not legislate them. A movement is, by definition, something that can't be "controlled."
3. MAKE SURE THE BEAUAUCRACY KNOWS, AND STAYS, IN ITS PLACE. In a sense, this is just a re-statement of #2, but I think its an important enough principle to mention it at least twice! Denominational and para-church beauracracy should give structure and clarity to the aims of the local church, not legislate what those churches can and cannot do.
4. DEPLOY FRONT-LINE MISSIONARIES WHO WILL PUSH THE ENVELOPE. I admit, sometimes this is hard, partially because at times, you have to pull these guys back from the "edge" before they fall off (or take back some rope before they hang themselves. Choose whichever metaphor you like best.) At the same time, these kinds of "front-line" thinkers will challenge your own Biblical assumptions. If you simply react to their brashness and irreverance, you won't learn anything and eventually they will leave and be without the wisdom they need to succeed. But if you make sure the guidance you give is thoroughly Biblical, and be willing to struggle with them as they push back the edges of darkness and sin, you will both be stronger and more spiritually mature for it.
5. PRAY MORE THAN YOU PLAN. Jim Cymbala testifies to this in every book he has ever written. They have a fantastic choir, and Jim's not a bad preacher either! But if you ask, he will tell you that the singular reason Brooklyn Tabernacle continues to impact its culture is because his people stay on their knees.

So the choice is ours. Thing is, God will start such movements with or without us. The question is whether we will play a cooperative part in what He is doing.

Friday, March 14, 2008

How Pervasive is the Prosperity Gospel? A Brief Word from John Piper

I obtained the video below from my friend Spencer Haygood, and commend it to anyone who comes across this weblog.

During all my years as a pastor, I have had to contend with the heresy known as the "Prosperity Gospel," or "Word of Faith" gospel. I abhor this message, chiefly because it replaces Christ's death and resurrection with the promise of good health and lots of money. In short, it presents a supposed answer to poverty and sickness, but never addresses what causes poverty, sickness, divorce, murder, rape, depression, and thousands of other problems. It never addresses the sin problem, but instead only scratches the itch of a western culture enamored with all things that glitter. For this reason, this is the most damnable of all false gospels proclaimed in the west, and for years I have been forced from time to time to expose such false prophets as Kenneth Copeland, Jesse Duplantis, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, and others who proclaim it.

But a recent message from John Piper now has me wondering: has the prosperity "gospel" now become so prevalent that it even affects, and infects, my own attitudes and actions?

Spend the next three minutes or so watching this short clip. Its challenging, convicting, sobering, and neccesary, I believe, for where we are today.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Marriage and the Gospel

To the left is the most beautiful, intelligent, sagacious, gracious, gentle, sexy, humble, articulate, wonderful woman in the whole world! No wonder I'm hurting this week!

My lovely wife is helping lead a team from our church on a vision trip to the island of Antigua. She will be back this Sunday night, so I have taken a week of mission trip leave to work from home and stay with the boys. Obviously, the week has been busy, as I have combined my work schedule with taking care of Sam and Seth. Still, all the busyness hasn't helped much. Being without her is excruiciating. And yet the very thing that has held us together for nearly 14 years is, paradoxically, the same thing that compells us to spend this week apart from each other.

By the way, I know what some of you are already thinking. "Antigua. Yeah, suffering for Jesus in 80 degree weather in February." Actually, I've been teasing her about this for the past several weeks. But like most islands in the Carribean, once you leave the shore and head inland, you begin to see the harsh physical and spiritual realities that exist.

But back to the subject at hand: This morning I had a conversation with a woman about missing my wife. Our youngest woke up sad, and I was commenting that he missed mommy, and so did I. Her reply was that she wished her marriage had been like that, and it was a wonderful opportunity to share with her about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and how it really wasn't our personalities, or even our commonalities, that held us together. It is our common faith in Christ that has produced the marriage Amy and I have. The longer I'm married, the more I realize this. The things Scripture demands of me as a husband are things I could never do in my own strength. By nature, I'm a lazy, responsibility-shirking slob. No one like me could ever truly love their wife with the same voracity that Jesus loves His people. All of these experiences constantly remind me that the Gospel is not just for my soul, but also for my marriage.

At the same time, this week also reminds me that the corollary is also true. The Gospel isn't just for our marriage. Our marriage is also for the Gospel.

And so I will live out the rest of this week deeply missing my wife's conversation, touch, embrace, company, and friendship. But I will do it knowing that she is involved in a strategic Kingdom advance . . .one that will bear fruit which will outlast even our marriage. After all, marriage is only good until death. But the Gospel she is presenting this week lasts for eternity, and our marriage is meant to illustrate those eternal values.

I'm praying for Amy's safe return late Sunday night. No doubt the boys and I will all feel much better when that plane hits the tarmac at Baltimore-Washington Airport. I can't wait to hold her again. But more than this, I can't wait to see Jesus, and I can't wait to see the fruit He brought to bear through our relationship, and mutual commitment to the spread of the Gospel

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Pray for Union University

Last night, much of the nation was glued to TV sets watching the "Super Tuesday" primaries, and I'll admit to being among that crowd. But while the nation's attention was turned primarily toward politics, a group of Baptist students and educators were dealing with a weather nightmare. Thank God no lives were lost, and thank God for the opportunity given the leaders of this institution to bear witness to a Kingdom that is infinitely more significant than the United States.

The campus of Union University was the victim of several terrible tornadoes. Early estimates are that as much as 40% of the campus has been totally destroyed. More than half of the 1800 resident students lost their homes last night.

Please be in prayer for this great University. Pray that the administration and faculty will present themselves to public media in a way that gives honor and glory to a sovereign God who rules, even in the midst of tragedy.

Pray for the students, more than 50 of whom were injured, and several of whom were hospitalized. Pray for God to heal their wounds, be they physical, or emotional.

Pray that God will use these events to open widely a door that will allow the mass-spread of the Gospel message.

Pray for the Disaster Relief efforts that will no doubt be activated in response to this tragedy. Pray that those who respond will do so not only with their hands, but also with their hearts.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Legacy of Liberty

Is it hard to associate this picture with Jerry Falwell? If so, you are among the majority of people who don't realize that what you saw of him on CNN was only a scant glance at the periphery of a deep, abiding, and lasting ministry legacy.

I was invited by Dave Earley to come to Liberty University last week, speak to students about church planting, and play a part in their Church Planting Emphasis Week. It was my first time on the Lynchburg, VA campus, and after this visit, I realize that someone should shoot me for not having gone sooner. What follows are just a few observations of what God is doing there.

1. The legacy of Jerry Falwell. I've written about this issue before, but it bears repeating; Jerry Falwell has left a positively indelible mark on the Christian church. Say what you want to about the man (and I've said a few things myself in dissagreement), no one can doubt the tidal wave of influence this man has had on just about every aspect of our culture, and that legacy begins where every God-called and Biblically qualified man's legacy should begin; with his own children.

I met Jonathan Falwell, and had the opportunity to hear the five-year vision of Thomas Road from him directly. The church has taken on a God-sized task of planting more churches in the next five years than they have planted in the last fifty!

2. Liberty Baptist Fellowship. If you are in our association, you willl be receiving information on this organization soon. For a nominal monthly cost, your church can be a part of this fellowship, which partners with associations like ours and churches like yours to send out church planters. The funds given to the Fellowship are all directed toward the financial support of planters in the field. In addition, as a member of the fellowship, ministerial staff at your church can atted seminary tuition free.

3. Ergun Caner. Given some things I have said about this guy before, some readers might be surprised to see the picture of the two of us above. If nothing else, my few moments with Ergun Caner have taught me that in most cases, you really need to sit down and talk with someone directly before making a judgement call on them.

Ed Stetzer introduced us to each other, and before the evening was over, we still had our disagreements, but I now know which lane this guy drives in, and not only is it much closer to my own than I originally thought, but he is also an OK guy. I understand he also rides a Harley, which also ratcheted him up a knotch in my book!

4. Elmer Towns. I actually shook his hand. Enough said! Anyone who has a passion for planting churches cannot help but stand in respect of the one guy who probably had more to do with the success of Thomas Road and Liberty than Falwell himself.

5. The students. Having spent four years teaching on a University campus, I always enjoy being back around students. I spoke at both the University, and Liberty Theological Seminary, and also had the opportunity to pray and talk with several students who responded to the call to missions during Wednesday night's "campus church." These students are lining up to walk through mine fields, war zones, and countries they aren't supposed to be in so that Christ will be more widely known and worshipped. The emerging generation gives me great hope for the church.

6. The Kingdom of God. Its a lot bigger than Liberty University, and the folks at Liberty know that, which is one of the reasons God is using this campus in great ways. They are cooperating with Southern Baptists, as well as a host of other groups committed both to sound doctrine and missional fruitfulness, and God is blessing them as a result.

The next stop for me in 2008 will be Seattle, at the Reform and Resurge Conference. Its going to be an exciting year.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Frontliners: Re-Envisioning the Role of the Local Church in International Missions

This weekend, our association will be leading the Frontliners Conference at Gethsemane Baptist Church in Glenwood, Maryland, in cooperation with the International Mission Board's Middle America/Carribean Region.

International Missions: its a subject that excites the heart of anyone who truly loves Jesus and wants to see Him more widely known among all peoples. But how can we know that our temporary, short-term efforts in another country will bear lasting fruit?

Anyone who has served in short-term efforts overseas has returned with a general sense of excitement about the trip. At the same time, I meet many mission volunteers who leave the field with lingering questions about the long-term benefit of their work. Loads of spiritual "decisions" are reached, but often, little lasting fruit is developed from such efforts. Ray Comfort states that this is a pressing issue even in stateside evangelistic efforts:

"In 1991, in the first year of the decade of harvest, a major denomination in the U.S. was able to obtain 294,000 decisions for Christ. That is, in one year, this major denomination of 11,500 churches was able to obtain 294,000 decisions for Christ. Unfortunately, they could only find 14,000 [of these converts] in fellowship, which means they couldn't account for 280,000 of their decisions."

These sorts of anemic long-term results are tragic, and even more so when such results are imported by American Christianity into another culture.

Still, the Scriptures are clear that any genuine New Testament Church will be actively involved in Evangelism and Discipleship efforts that are global in scope, meaning that the centrality of the local church in international mission efforts in absolutely essential. But how do we improve our results?

Certainly one answer to this problem is to stop the same shallow "evangelism" efforts in other countries that have left American Christianity awash in cultural Christians who think their eternity is secure because they mouthed a few prefabricated words at the front of a church building. Instead, our focus should be on seeking to obtain genuine conversions to Christ that are vindicated by spiritual growth and the multiplication of churches. Elmer Towns puts it this way:

"The Great Commission implies that church planting is the primary method to evangelize the world. To reach lost people in every culture of the world, a church must be established in every culture to communicate the Gospel and nurture those who are saved. In a simplistic observation, one of the reasons why so much foreign missions work is fruitless is because great effort is spent on winning people to Christ apart from identifying them with a New Testament church.”

Practically, this means that when local churches send volunteers, their long-term goals should stretch beyond conversions and toward the establishment and multiplication of indigenous churches.

With all this in mind, we will spend an entire day introducing folks from a number of our churches to the principles of planting indigenous, non-dependent, and reproducible churches overseas. I am convinced that this is the responsibility of each and every local church.

For those of you in the Mid-Maryland area who are interested, information on attending the conference can be found here. You will note that the "official" deadline has passed. Just remember that Baptist deadlines are more like the date we start making follow-up calls than the date we close registration. Childcare is provided as well, although we will definitely need those numbers as soon as possible.

If you would like us to host this conference at your church, and you are located in Maryland or the surrounding area, give us a call and we would be glad to work it out. If you are out of the area, but are interested in something like this, I highly encourage you to get in tough with MAC Region Personnel, or contact Ken Sorrell directly.

Oh, and did I mention where you can get more information?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Holiday Reading and Relaxation

Late last year, I read this article, which pricked my conscience regarding "working vacations" and other such oxymoronic concepts. As a result, I arranged my schedule at the end of 2007 so that the combination of holidays and remaining vacation time would give me a full two weeks to spend with my family. For 14 days I had no laptop and no cell phone. With the exception of our associational staff and the Senior Pastors of all our churches who had access to a direct line in case of emergency, I was unavailable to everyone . . .except Amy and the boys. It was a wonderful time.

So many times I hear pastors and church leaders talk about how much they work as if the sheer quantity of hours somehow said something about their work ethic. I've also chided a few of our pastors over the years for answering their cell phones while on vacation. If Jesus intentionally separated Himself from His work from time to time, we should consider His example. The total relaxation that comes from unplugging both literally and professionally, actually recharges the batteries and makes one a more efficient worker when he returns. As I write these words on the last official day of "vacation," I am pumped about hitting the office tomorrow and facing a New Year full of exciting challenges.

In addtion, I had a chance, as always, to do some substantive reading while away:

Jim Kuhn, Ronald Reagan in Private. Reagan is one of my personal models of leadership, and I try to read something biographical about his life and work at least once a year. To be honest, I've read better biographies of Reagan than this one, written by his former Executive Assistant. Generally, it wasn't very well-written, and the author makes several significant mistakes (i.e. his reference to being able to see the lights of "Emmettsville" Maryland from his room at Camp David. [The town is called Emmittsburg.]), and also seems a bit Pollyannish about Reagan. I admire Reagan, but know he wasn't perfect, so I don't need someone building the guy up for me to continue learning from the man and his leadership. But it is still worth the read, as it gives several inside glimpses of the man at a personal level that allow you to see how his personality affected his decision-making.

Reggie McNeal Get a Life Broadman and Hollman graciously sent me an advance copy of this one a couple of months ago. Honestly, this one reads a bit like the Cliffs Notes from Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life." It's a shorter, simplified approach to helping you discover why God created you. From my perspective, you can do a short daily reading with Rick over 40 days, or do a slightly longer daily read with Reggie over 5 days, and get the same result. This is a great lay-level book that also offers companion workbooks and different formats for group study. But is you are a pastor, I'd check out something different by Reggie. For my money, Practicing Greatness, released last year, is a much better and more helpful read.

Bob Logan Be Fruitful and Multiply. I read this one late last week, and after finishing, was ready to come back to work the very next day! Ed Stetzer reccomended this one to me, and it was an outstanding read, especially for churches interested in extending their influence and the reach of God's Kingdom through church planting. Several years ago I was able to attend a "Cultivating Church Multiplication Movements" training with Logan at Reformed Seminary in Orlando. This book is esentially an extrapolation of the principles of that conference, with much more "meat." 2008 will be a year of transitioning at our association, as we implement what we believe will be better ways to facilitate the multiplication of new churches through our existing congregations. I'm purchasing a copy of this book for everyone on our church planting team, and we will use its contents to help inform how we will make this transition.

I am really looking forward to this year, and believe God has some exciting things in store for our churches. I'm also looking forward to addressing more issues here, and in the coming days, will post on issues like immigration, local church involvement in international missions, and why I plan to remain a Southern Baptist. Happy New Year!