Thursday, December 22, 2011

Waiting for Christmas*

All of us find that certain Biblical commands are easier to obey than others. Personally, I have never struggled with the "active" commands of Scripture . . . ."GO" "TEACH" "BAPTIZE" "PREACH" are divine calls to which I almost always respond in the right way.

But recently, I have been struggling in my efforts to obey the more "passive" commands of Scripture. God created me with a high-D personality and leadership style hard-wired into my consciousness. As such, commands like "WAIT" "BE QUIET" and "BE STILL" are more difficult for me. But this week, I have found a model for such patience in Luke 2.

The story of Simeon is one of those tales that, if televised, would likely be relegated to the Hallmark Channel and never seen as a "Christmas classic." While most pastors will spend the perfunctory amount of time in the first part of Luke 2 this Christmas, this second part of the chapter is often overlooked. Still, Simeon's ability to wait on God amazes me. Verse 25 states that he was "righteous" and "devout," and that this righteous devotion was manifest in the way that he waited. His life really matched what he professed to believe. God had told him years earlier that he would not die before bearing witness to the Messiah with his own eyes, and with strong faith, Simeon clings to this promise . . . .by waiting!

Within one month of Jesus' birth, Simeon experiences God's fulfilled promise. Joseph and Mary, two blue-collar, lower-middle-class parents, bring their newborn son into the temple in Jerusalem according to the custom of the law. At this point, Simeon has been waiting for decades, and his excitement over being able to finally see the Christ-child is evident to anyone in the temple that day. As he takes the infant in his arms, he exclaims: "Now Master, You can dismiss your slave in peace according to your Word. For my eyes have seen your salvation." (Luke 2:29-20 HCSB)

This was the last thing Simeon was waiting for before his death, and throughout decades of waiting, he never gave up. God loves faith like that . . . .faith that hangs on . . . .faith that is willing to wait.

But we aren't part of a culture that sees value in waiting. We want instant gratification. In a society dominated by drive-thru lanes, microwaves, TiVO, and 24-hour service, waiting isn't a virtue, its a weakness! If you are waiting, its because you weren't assertive enough, or didn't demand enough.

Perhaps this is why it is such a struggle for guys like me to submit to God in this way. But if I am able to wait, I learn that God keeps His promises. Simeon waited for decades. But in truth, Simeon's people had been waiting for several millenia! The promise Simeon saw was made as early as Genesis 3:15, and restated in Genesis 12, Genesis 17, 2 Samuel 7, Jeremiah 31, Isaiah 53, Zechariah . . . .you get the picture. God allowed centuries to pass before making good on His promise. But in the end, He always keeps them.

But waiting on the fulfillment of God's promise isn't something we do naturally, which is why Luke emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in Simeon's life no less than three times in this passage. The Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit revealed truth to him. The Holy Spirit guided him. And the Holy Spirit helped him to wait.

Without the Holy Spirit, we can't wait. We will jump the gun. We will try to get ahead of where God is working. And we will fail. The Old Testament is full of accounts of men who would not wait on God's promises and failed. For Abraham, it was the conception of Ishmael by Hagar. For Saul, it was the consulting of a medium. For Moses, it was simply striking a rock in anger. But the result of refusing to wait is always the same: sin, shame, hurt, and devastation.

But there are others who did wait on God: Elisha, Job, Nehemiah, Paul, and others. Elisha was protected by an unseen yet innumerable army (2 Kings 6), but not before being faced with the army of Aram. Job was given back double what was taken from him (Job 42), but not before he lost everything most precious to him. Nehemiah saw the completion of the walls around Jerusalem, but not before facing strong opposition from the Samaritans. Paul was able to witness the spread of the Gospel throughout the entire Roman Empire, but was also forbidden by God from entering Asia.

Life doesn't give us a lot of green lights. More often than not, God doesn't say "you can have it now." Most often, he says "you must wait," and then uses the process of waiting to make us into the kind of people He wants us to be . . . .and this drives me crazy! I'm an active guy. I like to move. I like to work. I like to play. And I like doing all of these things with intensity. Waiting has never been on my list of favorite things to do. But this Christmas, God is working on me by having me wait.

Perhaps this is true for some who are reading as well. If so, know that if you give up, you will never know how truly close you were to seeing the fulfillment of His promises to you. Picture Simeon getting up on the morning of Jesus' dedication, murmuring to himself "I've been waiting on this for 40 years. Is it ever going to happen?" Meanwhile, the Messiah is in town, and his parents are on their way to see Simeon at this very moment.

God's promises and God's answers are closer than you think, because God is closer than you think. If you refuse to wait on Him, you might very well forfeit everything. So this Christmas, be still, be quiet, and wait on the Lord. You won't be sorry!

*This post was originally published December 12, 2006

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sin, Redemption, and the Justice of God: What I Learned from the Death of Kim Jong Il

Being away from the office for the holidays, I'm further behind than normal when it comes to keeping up with the news. So it was yesterday before I discovered that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was dead.

My emotions have been both strong and diverse since that moment.

On the one hand, my faith teaches me that Kim Jong Il was a human being created in the image and likeness of God; a human being who possessed an eternal soul that is most likely, based on his own worldview affirmations and accompanying behavior, being tormented at this very moment in hell. And since the Scriptures teach that this torment will never end, there is a side of me that is sorrowful. In some sense, this reflects the heart of God, who says "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways. . ." (Ezekiel 33:11 ESV)

On the other hand, I cannot hide my satisfaction in knowing that an egotistical, dictatorial, mass-murdering maniac will no longer be able to persecute his own people. During his 14 year regime, the so-called "dear leader" of North Korea imprisoned more than 200,000 political dissidents, tortured and murdered thousands of his own people, took a "military first" approach to government infrastructure and allowed his own people to starve during one of the worst localized famines in modern history. He oversaw the massive imprisonment of Christians, as well as government endorsed policies that encouraged the kidnapping of foreign nationals, and the sexual abuse and trafficking of young North Korean girls for the pleasure of North Korean government leaders. If ever there was a tangible expression of Satan-incarnate in our generation, it was Kim Jong Il.

It was with these two warring sets of emotion that I said to my wife last night, "Kim Jong Il has died and gone to hell."

Amy's very quick response was a simple "Wow, I'm not sure what to think about how you just said that." And she was right.

After some time in prayer, I think I know what was happening inside me. In one sense, the satisfaction that someone is likely facing retribution for wrongs done is a just feeling that appeals to the justice of God Himself. The Scriptures tell us that the law of God is inscribed on the heart of men and women to the extent that even those who do not know Christ can recognize injustice when they see it, and they rightly want it rectified. (Romans 2:15) Likewise, our Creator is just, and has promised to leave no sin unpunished. Ultimately, He will right every wrong in His grand mission to reconcille the world to Himself.

I have sometimes counseled victims of violence, rape, theft, or some other injustice, and many times, they have come into my office assuming that a Christian should never get angry at such things when the truth is just the opposite. Jesus got angry enough to crack a whip and turn over tables . . .INSIDE the temple! We read in the Scriptures that God is angry with the wicked (Psalm 7:11), and that the injustice of sinners causes him to hate "all workers of iniquity" (Psalm 5:5). So when we are angry at obvious injustice, we are reflecting the heart of our God who despises when those he has created in His image are abused and taken advantage of. There is no sin in being angry at injustice, and there is no sin in desiring justice for those who deserve it. Therefore, it is not wrong to desire justice for a madman like Kim Jong Il. It is, in fact, righteous, to take satisfaction in the fact that, one way or another, God is, even now, calling the "dear leaders' atrocities to account, and issuing punishment accordingly.

But my sin last night was that in my quick and smug dismissal of a man who the whole world knew was evil, I conveniently forgot that I have the same sin nature in me that has probably sent Kim Jong Il into eternal judgement. My wife was right. What I said was Biblically correct. But I should not have said it with confidence. I should have said it with trembling.

There is obvious evil in the world. The Stalins, Hitlers, Quaddafis and Kims of our time are but a few historical examples of what happens when the worst kind of evil is allowed to influence a people or a government. When we witness the kind of unspeakable atrocities that have been committed by such men, it becomes much easier to believe in hell. But what we forget is that the same sin nature that affected the hearts of these hardened, pagan leaders also resides in the heart of this Baptist preacher.

Paul reminds us in the first three chapters of Romans that no one is exempt from the wrath of God because "all have sinned." (Romans 3:23), and the sin is, ultimately, against God. And since the offense is against an infinite being, it is only right--only just--that the punishment itself be infinite. When God examines the depth of my heart, He sees the same viral sickness that resided in the heart of the recently deceased North Korean dictator. And when sin is observed from this persepective, we come to the conclusion that at heart, there really isn't any difference between Kim Jong Il and the rest of us.

Thankfully, the Gospel doesn't end with "justice for all," but instead with the offer of grace to anyone who will accept it. But this grace isn't cheap. It isn't "sweeping under the rug" the reality of our hearts' condition and the sin and evil that results. For those who place their faith in Jesus, He has become our "propitiation." (Romans 3:25), meaning that He has borne the wrath of God in our place. Because of this, he could "pass over the sins previously committed" and become "just, and justifier of the one who has faith."

Once, there was another ruler of another kingdom. This ruler took another man's wife, impregnated her, and effectively murdered her husband to try and cover up the scandal. Imagine that you are the parent of Uriah, the faithful soldier of Israel. Imagine your discovery that the King of Israel has taken your daughter-in-law from your son, and sent your son to the front lines of battle to ensure his death so that he can cover up his adultery. Would you not want justice? Would you not cry "foul" when Nathan the prophet says to King David, "your sins are forgiven?" How can this happen? Because God's promise in the New Covenant was that he will settle all debts, render all justice, and "balance the books." In David's case, as in the case of every believer, that debt was settled at Calvary, and that is the only thing separating us from people like Kim Jong Il.

If you are tempted to think your sins are not as offensive to God as those of the "dear leader," then its been too long since you have seen and meditated on the bloody mess atop Golgotha's hill.

God is a God of justice. In the end, this means that in the absence of any final hour confession of Christ, Kim Jong Il will be paying for his crimes against God and men for the rest of eternity, and this is right. But it didn't have to be this way, and neither does it have to be this way for anyone else.

The death of Kim Jong Il should remind us of the justice of God. It should also remind us that this justice is indiscriminate, and that for every one of us, a day of reckoning is coming. On that day, either my sins will be paid in full by Jesus, or that payment will be required at my own hands.

Kim Jong Il is in hell. If you can say that, or read it without trembling, your view of justice is way too shallow.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sinning with a Smartphone

The cute picture to your right was posted by my wife yesterday. Amy and I have a good time nudging each other about the other's use of smart phone technology, but there is a serious side to this issue that is too often excused, or outright ignored in our current climate.

The fact that I'm writing this article and publishing it via electronic media should be enough to demonstrate that I am not against technology. Through the internet and related communications devices, my office can operate "virtually" without actually having to be "in" the office. All our staff are issued smartphones and laptops so that we can easily stay in touch with each other while in various locations across this vast association, which stretches from College Park to southern Pennsylvania.

Additionally, smartphone technology allows me to stay up to date on the latest national and international news (CNN is so last generation!), converge all my social media in a way that allows me to better communicate with the churches I serve, or stay in touch with an old high school buddy. Last month while in India, I could be reached by any pastor in our network who simply dialed my cell number as if I were in my office in Eldersburg, Maryland, and Skype technology allows me to host virtual "face to face" meetings no matter where I find myself in the world. It also lets me see my wife and kids when I'm away. Everything from important meetings to sermon preparation is expedited because of technology that is right at our fingertips.

But there is another side to this issue. When the need to "stay connected" results in one being disconnected from those closest to him, an addiction has been formed that must, for the glory of God, be broken.

I admit, I have been there. Regrettably, the comical scene you see in the cartoon cell above has been played out in the Rainey household, on more than a few occassions. To this day, it remains a difficult struggle. After all, I get about 200 emails a day. My combined social media connections are in excess of 2000 people, and I serve a network of churches where roughly 12,000 people worship every week. So there is always an update, a message, an alert, or a need. And thanks to the technology at my fingertips, I'm ALWAYS aware of it--for better or for worse.

So here is the bottom line, (and I know more than a few pastors who need to pay heed to this as well). Of all 12,000 people who attend our churches, none should be as important to me as the one I'm married to. Unfortunately many times, by virtue of my never-ending phone-checks, I've communicated just the opposite. Over the years, I've had to re-assess my relationship with all of my electronic gadgets. I would suggest that anyone, in any profession, do the same. Every household is different. Therefore, I would not prescribe exactly the same approach for every family. Nevertheless, I do hope my description of our own approach to this issue below will encourage more families to set appropriate boundaries. For our household in 2012, there are three, non-negotiable rules that are in play where smartphones are concerned:

1. 8 PM is "shut-off" time. At some point, the office has to be closed, even if its "virtual." For me, closing time is never later than 8 PM each night, unless an evening meeting has me out later. If its 8:15 and I'm at home, you will not be able to get in touch with me unless you are the Associational Moderator, the Chair of our Administrative Team, or our Office Manager. Over the years, I've discovered that these three folks know what actually constitutes an "emergency." Most of the other 12,000 people in our network don't. Between 8 and 8:30, we are putting our kids to bed, praying with our kids, reading Bible stories, sharing potty humor, talking about any problems at school (sometimes those problems and potty humor are related, but I digress), and being a family. After 8:30 is time for Amy and I to be together, talk about our day, watch a movie, pray together, and just be husband and wife. Twitter updates and text messages don't enhance that time. They steal from it.

At the end of the day, there is only one person who can ensure that my family gets the time from their husband/dad that they are entitled to and that person is me. To literally say with your actions "12,000 people will just have to wait" requires some hard boundaries.

2. The phone is in another room during dinner, or in the car during a family event. I used to take my phone into my son's band concerts. The result was that I never enjoyed the concert because I was either reading the news or responding to an email. A generation ago, the question was "when is dad getting home from work?" Today, the question is "when is dad going to put his work down and pay attention to me?" I don't want to repeat those early sins, because when I communicate with my smartphone that a news article about the GOP debate is more important than my son's improved trumpet skills, I am sinning against my son.

Family meals are another time when the phone is not a welcome device. Early in our marriage, we set a rule that we would not answer the house phone if it rang during dinner. It is ironic that 17 years later, that rule is still in place, but somehow it became acceptable to bring my DROID to the dining room table and ignore my wife and kids while responding to a Facebook comment. There is absolutely no emergency so great that it cannot wait until after family dinner to receive my attention. (and, just as a reminder, there is no such thing as an emergency "on Facebook.")

3. "Need to use only" is in effect on family vacations. Before we leave on vacation, I record a message on my phone that states when I'll be back, and a number where those who need more immediate attention can call one of my staff. I do NOT leave those who call an option to be called back before I return.

Instead, I turn the phone OFF, and put it in the console of our family's minivan. I only take it out and turn it ON when Amy and I are going to be separated during the day. Again, our Associational leadership have Amy's cell number, and know that in an emergency, they can get to me through her. But I do not answer a phone issued to me for business purposes if I'm not supposed to be conducting business.

On several occassions, I have unknowingly called pastors on vacation, and had more than one of them actually pick up the phone while on the beach with their families! Guys, we really aren't needed that badly! And if we have conditioned our people that we are "always available" and further enabled that attitude by the way we abuse technology, we not only sin against our families, but also against the people we are supposed to be equipping for ministry, because we have trained them instead to be dependent on us.

Technology is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately those of us who use technology have fallen minds and sin-sick hearts that have often turned a wonderful, time-saving invention into an idol. I hope some of the ideas above will be helpful to others, as you seek to strike the balance between staying connected to work and refusing to be disconnected at home. To those who are out of control, from a guy who admits to having once been out of control, stop sinning against your family, and get dominion over your smartphone!

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Austerity, or Retrenchment? How Organizations Can Tighten Their Belts with Purpose

If by now you aren't aware of our nation's economic woes and its effect on everything from employment to retail sales, you are probably one who lives in the woods, churns your own butter, and only have access to dialup. You probably don't own the technology to be able to read this blog either.

Yep, its scary out there, and over the past three years, I've watched as the people in the churches I serve have lost their livelihoods, homes, and hope. I've also had a front row seat to the effect of these realities on the churches themselves. And occassionally, I've seen elder boards, finance committees, and pastors hit the panic button when their church started hemmoraging financially. In the economy of the "new normal," everybody is feeling the pinch, and trying to determine how to do more with less.

There is a positive side to this. For years, many churches relied on fat incomes. Now that streams of income have grown fewer and more anemic, churches are learning to depend on the Lord. At the same time, I've seen quite a few knee jerk reactions to a drop in giving. Though these reactions, for the most part, are motivated by a noble desire to "save the church," an over-reactionary approach to what the corporate world calls "austerity measures" can result in a demoralized staff, a culture of panic ministries with no resources to operate, and a church adrift in "survival mode."

With all this in view (and with apparently no end in sight to our economic woes), I'm going to suggest a different approach. In the past year alone I've heard from several pastors who have had their salaries drastically and suddenly cut because of panicking financial administrators. I've seen ministries and mission efforts stopped in their tracks because the "bean-counters" reacted in fear, and I've seen churches unintentionally publicize desparation to the communities they are called to give hope to.

In other words, when you react to bad economic times by simply saying "cut, cut, cut," here is what you are saying to your church, and your community: "We are going to try and keep doing everything we have done before. We just aren't going to do it as well."

To be sure, no organization can continue spending more than it takes in (I'm waiting for the government to learn this lesson--perhaps in vain!) But there is a right way and a wrong way to cut spending. "Austerity measures" without a clear purpose don't communicate that you are responsible. They communicate that you are cheap!

So, how do you "cut with a purpose?"

1. Get ahead of the tsunami! Have good, sharp people on your financial team that can project income/giving trends in a way that allows you to prepare in advance. If you know a storm is coming, you can prepare for it in a way that minimizes the damage. Giving a pastor or staff member 60 days notice that they will have to absorb a huge cut in salary demoralizes staff in a way that can sometimes render them impotent to continue leading. A sudden freeze in spending not only damages effective ministries, but sends shockwaves of panic throughout an organization. People will honestly wonder if their paychecks are the next thing to get frozen!

On the other hand, if projections indicate that austerity measures might be neccesary, communicate the reasons clearly, and communicate the plan as soon as possible. Get ahead of the problem, plan for it before it arrives, and give the people who work for the organization time to plan for it as well!

2. Re-visit your Vision and Mission. This is why I prefer the term "retrenchment" to "austerity." "Austerity" simply communicates that an organization is reducing its spending. "Retrenchment" communicates that an organization is facing tight financial times with its purpose and mission clearly in view.

The first question to ask in tight financial times is not "what do we cut," but instead, "What are we supposed to be doing?" The mission of God's church does not change simply because there isn't as much dough in the offering plate as their used to be. Though cuts must sometimes be made, making those cuts without first reassessing what the organization is called to do can unintentionally sabotage that mission. Every organization can cut spending, but no organization should cut things that will be to the detriment of the mission.

3. Jettison tangential emphases and the expenses needed to maintain them. During more affluent times, churches will often say "yes" to a program or ministry that might not be central to its purpose, but will fund it anway because, well, the money is there.

In leaner times, when a church reassesses expenses in light of its mission and vision, the first things to go should be those things that weigh down the organization rather than help it to accomplish its goals. Most or all of these ministries may be good. But the church as a whole is ALWAYS more important than any of its parts. Don't defund a ministry central to the operation of the church and expect it to continue. Instead, defund ministries not central to the operation of the church, bury them with dignity, and move on!

4. Staff according to the new reality rather than merely reducing staff for the old reality. Too many churches and organizations, when seeking to cut spending in personnel, simply ask "who gets to stay, and who has to go." Both of these are the wrong first questions! Instead, construct a "new normal" in light of the overall purpose of the church, and ask how that "new normal" needs to be staffed. Yes, this may still mean that someone loses their job. But the question of whether someone keeps their job should never be answered only in light of the church's financial situation. Once tangential emphases have been eliminated and the next strategic steps of the church are clear, staffing decisions should be made in light of what it will take for the church to move forward. In one sense, you might call this "zero-based staffing."

Just because you can "afford" to keep someone doesn't mean you should. Conversely, tight financial times, in and of themselves, do not justify demoralizing a solid, faithful, and successful leader.

I believe Jerry Rankin is right: Austerity measures will become the norm in many churches and organizations in the near future. But cutting spending doesn't mean you have to be cheap. Tighten your belt with a purpose!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Global Associations?

I write this post while on my way to Chennai, a city in southeast India where I and a pastor colleague from our Association will spend several days training indigenous pastors. We began yesterday in London, where I met with folks with whom we will be working next summer, serving the city during the summer olympics.

So this morning, I sit at Heathrow airport (not an uncommon place to sit if you are on your way to India), and since our flight has been delayed by four hours (also not an uncommon thing if you are on your way to India), I've had some time to think through how God has blessed the Association of churches that I'm privileged to lead. As an appointee of the North American Mission Board my primary responsibilities involve mission work in the United States. Yet my work sometimes takes me out of the country because the churches I serve in central Maryland understand that global missions is accomplished, first and foremost, by local churches.

Four years ago, I stood in front of our Association at its annual session, and issued a challenge that within the next five years, our churches should work together to make a significant missions impact on every inhabited continent on the globe. Our churches answered this call, and just two months ago, when a group of MMBA volunteers began work in Australia, we reached that goal--a full year early!

Its truly a privilege to lead a network of churches that understand their global mandate. At the same time, I strongly believe this should be the norm for every Baptist Association. While this post is far from a comprehensive and detailed guide on how to lead Associations in that direction, I have listed below three primary elements that are an absolute neccesity for any Association that wants to go global.

Awareness: About two years ago I met a gentleman from the staff of our International Mission Board, who shared with me that the IMB had brought him home from his overseas assignment so that he could work to promote the work of international missions among local churches on a full-time basis. Puzzled, I asked him to clarify his role for me, and again he said "I'm here to promote the work of IMB among local SBC churches," to which I replied "funny, I thought that's what I did."

It is disconcerting that the IMB feels is has to spend missions dollars to keep missionaries here in the states in order to raise the awareness of our churches where global missions in concerned. Fundamentally, I consider this to be because of a failure at the Associational level. Directors of Missions have historically been the primary conduit of promotion when it comes to both giving and participation in missions, and I'm convinced that if Associations would again return to this promotional role, our churches would be more accutely aware of the extent of lostness around the globe, and also be equipped by the Association to identify and engage the part of that lost world that Jesus wants them to reach. I pray for a fresh movement of global missions awareness and promotion at the Associational level. Directors of Missions can be a vital link between local churches and unreached peoples around the globe. Historically, we have been exactly that, and we need to return to that focus.

Intentionality: The "bloody ram's head" on the table of conversation in SBC life is that the Director of Missions is a slowy dying, yet endangered species in our denomination. I believe the biggest reason for this has nothing to do with "regionalization," "restructuring" or anything else happening at other levels of our denomination. Instead, I believe the biggest reason DOMs get a bad rap is because so many are not as intentional as their job title suggests

Let me quickly follow that statement by saying that I believe most DOMs are great guys who really do have a heart for lost people, and love our mission enterprise. Additionally, there is much "generalist" work to be done at the Associational level. Search committees have to be guided and advised, churches in conflict need mediation and/or arbitration, and occassionally, doctrinal questions need a local forum in which they can be settled. But ultimately, if the job title means anything at all, it speaks to what should be the primary focus. I am not the "Director of Theology," the "Director of Search Committees," or the "Director of Baptist Identity." I am the "Director of Missions," and I believe that title itself is pregnant with intentionality

Associations that survive and thrive in the future will be those networks that recognize this. DOMs who successfully navigate the sea of change in our denomination will truly fulfill the role of a local missiologist for their churches, and will see to it that the primary focus of their work is mobilizing churches for evangelism, leadership development, and church planting; the three inevitable results of Biblically-based missionary work. The natural outcome of such an emphasis will be an Association of churches with a truly global focus.

Strategy: For Associations to make the shift I'm talking about, many things might have to change. Everything from the structure of the entity to the job descriptions of its staff will need to be revisited and open to revision. And these discussions must be ongoing. Just recently, I met with my own board to discuss with them how my role next year will change due to the growth of our Association to almost 60 churches, the expansion of our work in central Maryland and around the world, and NAMB's expectations of me as a church planting catalyst. 2011 has been a good year for us, but if we want to continue our work in an effective way, I simply cannot have a schedule and focus in 2012 that is identical to 2011. As Alan Hirsch has wisely but simply stated, "What got you HERE isn't neccesarily what will get you THERE."

Therefore, the intentionality I mention above must be applied strategically, and this must happen on at least an annual basis! If the ultimate aim of an Association is to mobilize churches for their Biblically mandated missionary work, then everything about the Association must be constantly evaluated and structured in a way that will allow this aim to be reached.

International missions is the responsibility of every local church, and the Association sits, potentially, at the most strategic place to help churches get there. Leverage that local influence so that more of the world's unreached peoples come to know Jesus!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween, Anfechtung, and the Protestant Reformation

"Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scripture, or from plain and clear reason and arguments, I cannot and will not recant. To go against conscience is neither right, nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me!" -Martin Luther

Tomorrow evening, Amy and I will join other parents who walk their children around a mall, or church parking lot, or to neighbors houses, in the effort to fill their Halloween bags with candy. Non-profit organizations all over the country will rake in the money by hosting haunted houses and scaring the living daylights out of people who, ironically enough, are paying big money to have the daylights scared out of them.

As is usually the case on October 31, churches are taking advantage of the season by sponsoring “trunk or treat” outreach projects, or taking their youth through a “judgment house.” I find it strange that at this time of year, the church pays so much attention to a holiday that has nothing to do with its history and heritage, and so little attention to the historical event that continues to define us to this day. 494 years ago today, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed a 95-point statement of concern to the door of a church in Wittenburg Germany. This single gesture ignited a movement that resulted in the recovery of the Biblical Gospel, the empowerment of the laity, the uncovering of the true church, and probably most important, the escape from something more terrifying than anything our imaginations could invent on Halloween.

Luther had a word for this terror. He called it Anfechtung. Although there is no English word that corresponds exactly to the German phrase, we know that Luther was expressing the deepest kind of darkness that one experiences when his worst moments of terror, depression, doubt and despair combine. Born in 1483, young Luther aspired to practice law, but in 1505 after a near-death experience, he fled to a monastery, and would spend the next decade struggling with doubt about the condition of his own soul.

Living under the constant fear of God’s judgment caused Luther to confess with regularity the slightest offense to his spiritual guide, Johann von Staupitz. Staupitz, who served as the chaplain of the University of Wittenburg where Luther taught Theology, eventually grew tired of Luther’s perpetual appeals for forgiveness and said to him “God is not mad at you. You are mad at God.” Eventually, Luther would come to agree with Staupitz’ assessment. Indeed, Luther admitted later on that he in fact hated God, and came to realize shortly afterward that this hatred was but one part of a fallen will that sought to rebel against the Creator.

Ironically, it was through his assignment teaching Psalms and Galatians that Luther finally began to develop a different picture of God. He discovered that Jesus, in dying on the cross, took our iniquity on Himself, and subsequently, the penalty for such iniquity. In short, Christ took our anfechtung, that terror of God's wrath which the human soul rightly dreads. But it was a prior trip to Rome coupled with his studies in the Scriptures that brought Martin Luther to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church was not interested in taking away anfechtung, but instead profiting from it!

Luther had traveled to Rome because he wanted to see Roman Catholicism at its best. What he found was a cultic center of medevial ecclesiastical power that disappointed him greatly. The selling of “indulgences,” or offerings by which one could supposedly free himself and others from purgatory, found its way to Wittenburg in 1517 by way of the charismatic Johann Tetzel. Commissioned by the Pope himself to finance the building of St. Peter’s Bascillica in Rome, Tetzel stood in the square of the city and with confidence offered his hearers the opportunity to free themselves and their relatives from purgatory, from damnation . . .from anfechtung. His words, while eloquent, stirred anger in Luther:

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!

At the end of that same month, October 31, 1517, Luther responded to Tetzel’s message with his 95 theses, and the course was set for an ecclesiastical tidal wave that would eventually be called the Protestant Reformation. Lasting more than three generations, this ecclesiological shift has given us the Scriptures in the language of the people, a theologically informed laity, freedom of religion, and most importantly, the recovery of the Biblical Gospel. Though it was not his original intent to separate from Rome, Luther’s subsequent studies brought him to the conclusion that Roman Catholicism proclaimed a false Gospel.

Likewise, Protestants today rightly deny the existence of a priestly class. We rightfully challenge the legitimacy of a papal office, and contend that the existence of the papacy itself only illustrates the confusion that is propogated when church councils and tradition are seen to carry authority equal to the Scriptures themselves. We rightfully declare that salvation comes not by the imposed sacramental “works” of the church, but instead by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone!

Modern Protestantism owes its affirmation of sola Scriptura, sola Christo, sola fide, sola gratia, and sola Deo Gloria to the legacy left us by Martin Luther. But such theological axioms by themselves aren’t much of a legacy, unless they demonstrate efficacy in removing the anfechtung from which Luther so desperately wanted deliverance.

The dread Luther felt prior to his conversion was legitimate, warranted, and deserved. Human beings are born separated from God, become actual transgressors from the moment we are volitionally able to choose, and are as a result the enemies of our Creator. Being the enemy of the One who just gave you the last breath you took is certainly a position in which one should rightfully feel dread. But as Luther discovered, through the substitutionary death of Christ, God has become “both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21)

While the masses may spend October 31 taking in the “Saw” trilogy, or watching old “Nightmare on Elm Street” flicks on DVD, followers of Christ should recognize that for the church, October 31 represents much more than fear. To the contrary, this day represents the beginning of a young Monk’s discovery that God, by himself, without human effort, takes away sin, and the appropriate fear of God’s judgment that accompanies such sin.

Halloween is known by our culture as a time to be filled with fear, with dread . . .with anfechtung. But the legacy left us by men like Luther and those who followed serve to remind us every October 31 that God has not given us a spirit of fear! Let's spend this October 31 thanking God for the recovery of the Gospel that made our conversion, and the removal of our fears, possible.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Five-Fold Strategy Guaranteed to Kill Your Church

The following is based in experiences I've had with churches I've consulted with over my nearly 20 years of service in ministry. Over that time, I have become convinced that we have perfected the pathology by which we can accelerate the decline and eventual demise of a local church. I've seen the following happen in different orders, with different emphases, and I can guarantee that if you implement these five things, you will be pushing the nuclear button on your congregation. I've seen it happen enough times, and western evangelicalism has developed habits that have perfected this approach.

1. Perpetually send an unclear sound. Make sure that key leaders remain clueless, and divided, when it comes to the identity, purpose, vision, and direction of the church. Speak in spiritual euphemisms that seem holy, like "we just want to love Jesus and each other," or "we just want to follow the Bible." These sorts of nebulous statements, absent of any contextual application, are a way to sound thoroughly Biblical without actually being Biblical. Furthermore, they are the perfect way to stay adrift in a sea of irrelevance, and never identify who God created your local church to be, and what He wants her to do. The result, of course, is that the church will do nothing.

2. Invest More Time in Needy People than in Leaders. You know the old saying; "The squeaky wheel gets the most grease." In many local churches, those who "squeak" the loudest seem to get all the grease! And the grand mistake of church leaders is to give inordinate attention to the loudest and most needy people in the congregation, rather than invest in those God has gifted to lead the church. This sets up an environment in which people learn that the most attention will always be paid to the loudest complainers. And this is precisely the kind of environment that will suck the life out of any real leader--or inadvertently push leaders right out the door.

3. Try to Please Everybody. Almost without exception, in every church I've ever consulted with that is in decline, decisions are never executed without the final question of "who will be upset by this?" Inevitably, good decisions are always sabotaged by someone suggesting that "doing this might really upset . . .[fill in the name of your preferred group.]" In fact, the one way to ensure that #1 above takes place, is to assume this posture, because you can't make a clear decision about anything if the number one concern is always about someone not being pleased. Guess what? THERE IS NO SIGNIFICANT DECISION THAT WILL EVER BE MADE IN A CHURCH THAT MAKES EVERYBODY HAPPY! This means of course, that if you are trying to please everybody with decision and direction, you will never make a substantive decision, and you will never have clear direction. Atrophy is the inevitable result, because in the attempt to please everybody, you have displeased God.

4. Refuse to Confront Troublemakers. Principled dissent is one thing. Saboteurs are an entirely different matter and in too many churches, they are allowed to run free and do what they please, no matter the negative impact they have on the rest of the body. They may come in the form of the lady who "holds back" her tithe because she doesn't like a decision that was reached. They may come in the form of the guy who presumes the right to "pull the e-brake" on anything church leaders have decided on that he doesn't agree with. It may come in the form of those who use the phone or internet as a corridor for gossip to undermine the forward progress of the church.

Strong leadership is needed in these situations. The gossip has to be called out and confronted. The self-proclaimed "devil's advocate" with his hand on the e-brake needs to be told that the church isn't interested in Satan's opinion. And the lady who steals from God needs to be reminded that she isn't just "punishing the leadership," she is breaking her covenant promise to those in her church family, and to her God. Without strong leaders to confront such nonsense, troublemakers will be free to throw additional anchors over the side of their drifting ship to ensure that it goes precisely nowhere.

5. Seek to Live in the Past. Churches actually do this in a number of ways, the most obvious of which is to be highly suspicious of any sort of change. Music styles, architecture, structural paradigms, and cultural engagement in general are all evolving concepts, and if the church does not reflect the culture in which it finds itself in all these areas, the result is far worse than simply an unclear Gospel. In the end, the church may lose the Gospel altogether, because they have identified its delivery with certain cultural accutrements rather than a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

But there is more than one way to live in the past. As with any social system, churches over time develop corporate patterns of behavior, and some of these patterns are not healthy. If they are not repented of and clearly dealt with, they become the growing snowball that leads the church in one direction; downhill!

One thing is for sure though. If you want to ensure that you don't exist in the future, then just refuse to think about it.

Roughly 3500 churches in North America close their doors for good each and every year. The vast majority of those I've seen close with my own eyes did so by following the strategy I've outlined above. Many of them were not even aware of what they were doing, and when their subconsiceous path was pointed out, they simply chose to deny it . . .and keep dying!

So if you are following the principles above, and refuse to repent, I can guarantee that your church will eventually be included in that number, and you should be!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Doesn't Matter . . .and Why it Does.

In case you have been living under a rock for the past five years and aren't already aware of it, one of the Republican candidates for President is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Yep, Mitt Romney is Mormon, and that fact has quite a few in the evangelical community really upset. Romney's Mormonism has also brought out others on the Republican side who simply don't understand why anyone should be so upset, because they see little if any difference between Mormonism and Christianity.

Both groups have it wrong.

Of course, Romney's religious views became an issue in the last election cycle as well, and many pundits believe it could have played a role in his primary defeat at the hands of Arizona Senator John McCain. ( I wrote about this issue here.)But this time around, the issue rose again after Texas Governor Rick Perry was criticized for his association with Pastor Robert Jeffress, who unequivocally refered to Mormonism as a "cult." To be sure, many evangelical Christians agree with Pastor Jeffress that Romney should not be a candidate for President because he is Mormon. I just don't happen to be one of them.

For one thing, Article VI of the US Constitution clearly says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Needless to say, I think the office of President fits this description.

Additionally, one need not be an evangelical Christian in order to be an effective leader. Conversely, just because someone claims to be evangelical does not mean they are capable of leading a nation. Martin Luther expressed this sentiment best almost 400 years ago when he claimed "I'd rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian."

With all this in view, I'm disturbed to find many of my fellow evangelicals repulsed at a Presidential canddiate merely because of the religion with which he is associated. Mitt Romney's close association with the LDS church has little relevance to how well equipped he may be to defend our country against foreign and domestic enemies, or write and pass a cogent and effective energy policy, or get our struggling economy back on track. So I am disturbed that so many would forget the lessons we learned from John F. Kennedy's presidency almost a half century ago, and allow a man's religion to be the single issue that turns them against him.

Still, as disturbed as I am by this angst against a Mormon candidate, the response by Romney supporters who claim to be evangelical Christians disturbs me more.

A Baltimore Sun article on Sunday stated that Perry's campaign, in response to Pastor Jeffrees' statements "distanced itself from [his] remarks." And how did the Texas governor, who is himself a vocal evangelical Christian, "distance" himself? By explicitly stating that "Mormonism is not a cult."

Salt Lake City, we have a problem!

That problem, of course, is that Mormonism has about as much in common with historic, orthodox Christianity as does Hinduism. In one sense, evangelicals might actually have more in common with Hindus, since Hindus don't worship as many gods as the Mormons do. If that sounds like an over-the-top statement, consider briefly the origins and theology of "Latter Day Saint Christianity."

Founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s, Mormonism is based on three extra-Biblical sources, The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, all of which were authored by Smith. In particular, the Book of Mormon is based on a series of "visions" given a 14-year-old Smith by an angel named Moroni. Although there is precisely zero archeological or historical evidence for this claim, Mormons cling tightly to the belief that in the book of Mormon, Smith answered two questions that were at the forefront of 19th century American life: Which of all the Christian denominations is correct, and what is the origin of the Native Americans?

During his encounter with Moroni at his family farm in Palmyra, New York, Smith answered the first question by saying of the various denominational expressions of the Christian church that "they are all wrong, and their creeds are an abomination in God's sight." As a result of this experience, Smith saw himself as one called to restore "true Christianity" to the earth. But the "Christianity" he subsequently spread was very odd, to say the least.

Where God is concerned, Smith taught that our Creator was no more than a highly exalted man. "As man is," Smith claimed, "God once was; as God is, man may become." In essence, Smith taught that God was not God from eternity past, but instead had advanced himself to the state of deity, and created human beings to follow after this pattern. In the face of texts like John 4:24, Mormonism teaches that God has flesh and bones, just like His creation, and that human beings, through "eternal marriage," can live forever in dominion over their own world, as gods over their own planets. Though they deny it today, it was Brigham Young himself who advocated the worship of and prayer to Adam as a god.

The tricky part of all this, of course, is that Mormons utilize much of the same Biblical language that their evangelical counterparts are familiar with. They speak freely of Jesus, salvation, and even atonement. But while their vocabulary sounds identical to ours, their dictionary gives very different definitions of those terms.

To have salvation, for example, one must not only believe in Jesus (who is not God, but instead the first "spirit baby" of God the Father and Mary), but must also submit to Mormon baptism, receive the ordinances of the temple, and perform good works. Faithfulness to these teachings of course, results in "becoming as God is."

Much more could be said here, but suffice it to say that when one looks at the totality of Mormon beliefs, it is clear that they do not embrace a Biblical view of any major Christian doctrine and therefore, they cannot be counted as "Christian."

Such a statement is a hard pill to swallow when one looks at the way 21st century Mormonism has reinvented itself in the eyes of the public. They are experts in public relations, and have successfully presented themselves as mainstream. Popular business leaders like Steven Covey and Bill Marriott, and powerful politicians like Orrin Hatch are openly Mormon, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has become an American institution, having been invited to perform at Presidential inaugurations. Brigham Young University is today the largest private institution of higher education in America, with a student body of more than 30,000. Moreover, the church has grown to over 10 million faithful followers in more than 150 countries. They certainly don't look like a cult.

Which brings us back to Mitt Romney. The former Massachussets Governor is seeking the Republican nomination for President, and in the process, is trying to assure the American people that his membership in the Mormon church will not negatively affect his performance as President. I believe him. But such is not the same as saying that I believe in Mormonism, and the call for "tolerance" that minimizes these differences and as a result compromises the clear Gospel of Jesus Christ must be answered loudly and clearly.

A Politico article released just today quotes Romney, alongside popular New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, calling on Governor Perry to "repudiate" the remarks of Pastor Jeffrees and deny that Mormonism is, in fact, a cult. In other words, if Governor Perry desires to be "tolerant," he must turn his back on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This isn't tolerance. It is pure insanity!

Once upon a time, "tolerance" was what helped adherents of various faiths to coexist with each other. It was rooted in mutual respect, and grounded in the firm belief that "forced conversion" is in fact, no conversion at all. Such is exactly the kind of tolerance that forms the root of Article VI of our Constitution. It is why a person's religious beliefs should not be a litmus test for the office of President, or for any other office at the federal level.

Unfortunately, this is not the kind of "tolerance" that is being promoted by Governors Romney and Christie. The "tolerance" they speak of is one in which major differences about God, Jesus, Salvation, heaven, hell, and all other things of eternal importance should be minimized, or altogether erased. Yet, no honest person who examines the clear teachings of Mormonism can come to the conclusion that it is compatible in any way with the teachings of Jesus. Romney has the Constitution, Article VI, to protect him from religious discrimination. Allowing him to hijack Christianity in the process is not only unneccesary but dangerous.

Luther was right. A wise Turk makes a better leader than a foolish Christian. What the Romney campaign is ignoring however, is that a Turk is still a Turk. The fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon does not, in itself, disqualify him from holding the office of President. It does, however, mean that he cannot accurately be called "Christian." If these distinctions cannot be adequately maintained, then ardent evangelicals may deny what our Constitution clearly states. But if the "tolerance" we must have is defined in the way Christie and Romney define it, we may lose Biblical Christianity altogether.

Monday, September 26, 2011

So Einstein was Wrong?! General Revelation, the Speed of Light and the Authority of Scripture.

One of the darker results of modernity is the intellectual arrogance it has created. We know what we know, and nothing can change that. After all, we have SEEN the truth with our own eyes. We have seen the evidence, and that evidence is superior to anything else.

Richard Dawkins, the most well-known champion of what has been called the "new atheism," accurately expresses the unfettered confidence modernity has given us in our own experiences. "I believe," he states, "not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence . . .Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence."

So there you have it! The evidence is overwhelming, and because of it we know what we know. We know that life is a product of biological evolution. We know that the stories in Scripture are mere fables written for the purpose of religious propaganda, because of course, they sometimes do not match what we observe and feel. Its kind of like the speed of light. Everyone knows that nothing travels faster than light . . .

. . .that is, until this past week.

Just last week, leading scientists in Geneva Switzerland discovered subatomic particles that appear to travel faster than light. A Baltimore Sun article reporting the event admitted that this observation, "if confirmed, could force a major rethinking of theories on the makeup of the cosmos."

At first glance, it wouldn't appear that placing a speed limit on light would have such a great impact on the broader physical sciences. But the theory about the speed of light, known as "special relativity" and first published in 1905, has since been one principle by which scientists have sought to understand the origins of our universe and how it continues to expand. If this theory is proven wrong, it could effectively undo decades of research that are dependent on this theory as a first premise. To put it bluntly, if these scientists' observations are reflective of reality, it means that Albert Einstein, the father of the theory of relativity, was wrong.

Yeah, THAT Einstein!

Further experimentation is of course neccesary to confirm this, and no one is yet stating anything definitively. Astrophysicist Martin Rees wisely said that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this is an extraordinary claim." Still, everyone involved in this very recent event is well-aware of the implications if these observations in fact turn out to be true.

For the Christian, shocking discoveries like this should remind us of our limitations when it comes to accessing truth solely through scientific experimentation. Empirical knowlege has always had its limits, and many highly intelligent people have eventually found themselves mistaken even when operating within those limits.

This is not to say that Christians should reject scientific experimentation and discovery, or that such discovery isn't believed by Christ-followers to be of benefit to humanity. From a personal standpoint, I'm very thankful that scientific experimentation resulted in medical advances that 6 years ago, saved the life of my son Seth. 50 years ago, I had an uncle die on the same day he was born of the same lung condition my son had. Science is to be credited for such life-saving technology.

Yet we run into trouble when we begin to accept scientific discovery uncritically, principally because in so doing, we assume that there is no better way to access truth. If the scientific seems to contradict what is contained in our "holy books," we reject, or radically "reinterpret" the latter almost without thought on the assumption that the former couldn't possibly be wrong.

Such has recently been the case in a new debate about the historicity of Adam and Eve. Dr. Francis Collins, a professed Christian and current head of the National Institutes of Health, has recently claimed that evidence in the study of the human genome makes it "highly improbable" that the human race is descended from a literal "first couple." Collins, the former head of BioLogos, a foundation committed to "reconcilling" science with Christianity, has apparently influenced many pastors and Christian leaders, including many evangelicals. We now, based on discoveries like these, "know" what the ancients did not know: that the Genesis account is not an accurate history of our origins, but instead is itself the product of literary evolution: an account of human origins colated from various Mesopotamian sources and accomodated to an emerging Judaic culture in the ancient near east.

In short, we must radically re-interpret the Bible in order to "reconcille" it with what we REALLY know.

These are not new arguments. Early in the 20th century, liberal Baptist theologian Paul Tillich sought to reconcille Scripture with "scientific fact" through what he called a "method of correlation." For centuries, Christians have believed that God reveals truth through both general and special revelation. In general revelation, God speaks externally through the created order (Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:20), and also internally through the human conscience (Romans 2:14-15). Human beings can have access to general revelation through the earth, life, and physical sciences, as well as through anthropology, sociology, psychology, and education sciences.

In special revelation, God speaks to us ultimately and finally in the person of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2), and Christ Himself is revealed, fully and finally, in the text of Holy Scripture (John 5:39)

But what do we do when general revelation appears to contradict special revelation? Tillich's approach was to give equal weight to both by segregating the "book of Scripture" (the Bible) from the "book of nature" (science and scientific study). The problem of course, is that though the Bible is not a science book, it does occassionally speak to issues related to the sciences. (I might add that the "Separate but Equal" argument has never yielded good results) So how do we react when, for example, scientific evidence seems to suggest that Adam and Eve could not really have existed? Tillich's approach was to take the scientific evidence at face value and recast the Biblical narrative in a way that causes it to teach something very different than what it actually says. Such an approach inevitably makes God's special revelation subservient to general revelation. Or to speak more bluntly and prophetically, it makes a golden calf out of the scientific method.

Yet many Christian leaders persist in reinventing Adam, despite the circular reasoning of evolutionaly science, its apparent conflict with the 2nd law of thermodynamics, or the admitted limitations of empirical scientific experimentation.

The recent discovery in Geneva serves to remind us that science is not perfect because the human beings that conduct scientific experiments are not perfect. The human mind is fallen and thus, never fully trustworthy. And if this observation is indeed determined to be an accurate one, and decades of scientific research based on a faulty 20th century premise are trashed in its wake, we would do well to consider that brilliant men like Francis Collins can be wrong and it is not wise to impulsively reinvent the Christian narrative simply because a few fallen minds have suggested it might not be accurate.

If Albert Einstein can be wrong, so can they.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Leadership Competency: Asking the Right Questions

There is an old peanuts' comic strip that shows Charlie Brown firing an arrow blindly into the side of a barn. The next cell shows him after walking up to the spot where the arrow landed, and with bucket and brush in hand, painting a target around the arrow. Looking back at Lucy he says "this way, I never miss!"

When it comes to measuring effective leadership in local churches, I fear that many pastors and congregations use this same approach. Many congregations paint targets in the form of expectations, that are irrelevant, or unBiblical, or unrealistic. Some pastors likewise, simply paint targets around themselves in an effort to either avoid accountability altogether, or to protect themselves from a church they fear has set them up to fail. The results of this vicious cycle can be seen in many churches throughout North America.

On Sunday night, October 2, our Association will be hosting our annual meeting, and will feature a panel discussion on leadership competency aimed specifically at this issue, and led by seven seasoned leaders from our own churches. The next day, we will host two identical pastor's leadership forums to allow pastors and church leaders to further unpack the issues that will be raised at the plenary session. If you are in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, there is no charge for attending these events, and you can sign up here.
In previous posts, I introduced you to the concept behind this approach to our annual meeting, and also introduced you to the men who will lead us in discussion on Sunday night. In this post, I want to begin asking questions that we will address on October 2.

Feel free to respond to the first three leading questions by commenting here, and if you have additional questions you would like our panel to address, please leave them here, or send them to us at with "Panel Discussion Question" in the subject line.

Again, you can sign up for the plenary session here, and the forums here.

1. How would you define "effective leadership" in the church, in two sentences or less?

2. How should effective leadership in the church be measured and/or judged?

3. What are churches measuring/examining in their pastors that is not helpful to their pastor, or to the church?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Leadership Competency in the Local Church: Meet Our Panel

On October 2, our Association will host our annual session at Hope Baptist Church in Laurel MD. This year's theme is "Great Leaders . . .Great Churches," and our primary emphasis will be on the issue of Leadership Competency in the Local Church. Both our annual meeting and the next day's Pastor Leadership Forums will focus on this crucial topic, and the plenary meeting on Sunday night will include a panel discussion on this issue by seasoned pastors and leaders in our churches. In this post, I want to introduce you to those men.

Our Association is blessed to have a number of competent leaders as pastors, as well as many skilled lay-leaders. The panel below represents some of the best and wisest in our network of churches. I hope you will join us for this time of learning if you are in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area. You can sign up here.

Dr. Chris Brammer.
For the past 24 years, Chris has served as Senior Pastor of Hampstead Baptist Church in northern Carroll County. Under his leadership, the church has grown to an average attendance of more than 450 every Sunday. Currently, he is leading the church through its next expansion project, and simultaneously working with our Association in establishing a satellite campus in Upperco called "The Mount." He is a graduate of Southwestern Seminary, and Luther Rice Seminary. Chris is from Roanoke, VA, and he and his wife Lee have three children and 2 grandchildren.

In his more than two decades of pastoral leadership in Hampstead, Chris has been instrumental in raising up pastors and missionaries. Because of this, Hampstead Baptist Church has representation on mission fields and in pulpits all over the world.

Pastor Gary Glanville.
Gary has served as Senior Pastor of Northwest Baptist Church in Reisterstown for 32 years. Under his leadership, the church has grown to more than 500, and has planted four other churches over the past 7 years. He and his wife Debbie have three children and three grandchildren. He is a graduate of Dallas Baptist University.

After three decades of ministry to the same local congregation, Pastor Gary is uniquely qualified to discuss the various stages of change, power, and conflict that a church experiences through the years, and how best to navigate through that change.

Pastor Dan Hyun
Originally from Philadelphia, Dan is the founding and Lead Pastor of The Village, a new church he started in 2008 in Hampden Village in Baltimore. In less than 3 years, the church has grown to more than 80 people in worship, and more than 20 people finding Jesus. Dan has a missionary's heart, and is passionate about "planting the Gospel" in the city, and seeing church emerge from that evangelistic work.

A graduate of Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA, He and his wife Judie have two daughters. Dan will bring much insight to the discussion of leading the mission of the church.

Pastor Paul Andrews
Paul is the founding and Lead Pastor of Faith Family Church in Finksburg, MD. Under his leadership the church has grown to an average attendance of 250 since it was planted in 2002. He is a ministry veteran of more than 30 years, and as such, is able to speak with authority to issues of leading change and leading mission. He and his wife Judy have 3children and 2 grandchildren.

Paul is a graduate of Bob Jones University, and is currently working on a D.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

Dr. Steve Neel
This year, Steve will celebrate 30 years as Senior Pastor of South Columbia Baptist Church. Steve became pastor at
South Columbia while the church was still a “mission church” with just a few dozen people. Over the past three decades the church has grown exponentially under his steady leadership to an average attendance of more than 350 each Sunday.

Steve is known as a steady pastoral leader, and can speak with authority to the issue of how to guide God's church with a steady hand, that is in turn governed by a steady head. Born in Washington, D.C., Steve is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife Nancy have three adult children.

Pastor Terry Felton
For the past 10 years, Terry has served the Mason-Dixon Baptist Church in New Freedom, PA, first as Associate Pastor, and since 2006 as Senior Pastor. A decade ago, Terry entered a ministry environment that had been marked to a large degree by conflict. Today, Mason-Dixon is a unified body of believers committed to accomplishing the mission of God both locally and globally.

Terry's experiences over the past 10 years can more greatly inform the process of change, power and conflict in a church, and many younger church leaders can learn from Terry's efforts to earn the respect and trust needed to lead a congregation as a young man.

He is a graduate of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, VA. He and his wife Amanda have four children.

Mr. Neil Romano
Neil joins our panel as a layman, and will help us see the issues we discuss from the standpoint of laity, as well as speak to the aspects of leadership outside the church that will be helpful to pastors. He is the owner of The Romano Group, LLC, a media company that has produced, among other things, commercial material for Major League Baseball. Additionally, Neil has vast experience in government, having served as Communications Director for the White House Office of Drug Abuse Policy under President Reagan, and most recently as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Dissability Policy under President Bush. He is a national spokesman and strong advocate for employment of the disabled.

He and his wife Barbara have two children, and live in Clarksville, MD. They are members of Gethsemane Baptist Church in Glenwood.

Dr. Tom Fillinger
Tom has served as Senior Pastor of Southeast Community Church in Columbia, SC for more than 10 years, and is also CEO of IgniteUS, a leadership development and church consulting organization that seeks to empower pastors and churches toward transformational change. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Tom had the privilege of having a front row seat to the Cuban missle blockade in 1962, so he knows a little something about conflict to say the least. In many ways, military conflict may have prepared him well for pastoral ministry in a Baptist church. :) He has decades of experience transitioning churches to be more effective in impacting their communities and fulfilling the Great Commission to make disciples.

He is a graduate of Denver Seminary, and has been married to his wife Peggy for 50 years. They have 3 children and 13 grandchildren.

I have the privilege of serving as Moderator of this panel. I hope you will join us to learn from these experienced pastors and leaders. What, in particular, will we talk about? The answer to that question is coming in subsequent posts. And if you have a question for this panel, leave it here at the blog, or email it to with "Leadership Panel" in the subject line. We will also take questions from the floor, and text message questions at the meeting.

Sign up now, and sign up here. And check back here for updated information as we move toward October 2.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Great Leaders, Great Churches: A Discussion about Leadership Competency in the Church

On October 2, our Association will host our annual session with the theme "Great Leaders. . .Great Churches." The next day, we will host two Pastor's Forums in two different locations in our area to continue the conversation.

Thus far, the response has been roughly twice what we usually receive at this time, and I think I know why.

Instictively, pastors and the people they lead are aware of the crucial importance of skilled leadership. Though they tend to lag behind the curve, even colleges and seminaries are now acknowledging the need to address this issue from an academic standpoint. For the past 10 years, programs have been developed to better prepare aspiring church leaders for the seas they will have to navigate once they leave the academy and accompanying study of the church as it should be, and enter into service in the church as it actually is. The Editor of Preaching magazine said only a year ago that "there is a desparate need for more training in leadership."

Those who study the church have long recognized this. George Barna noted six years ago that "our ongoing research continued to show that churches do not act strategically because of a paucity of leadership."

Yet still the question remains, "What is a competent leader?" The need for such has been widely acknowleged, but a Biblically sound, clear and succinct description of what it looks like is scarce, if it exists at all.

The lack of clarity on this issue leaves many pastors wondering if they are truly effective, if they are spending their time in the wisest way, if they are accomplishing anything of eternal value. It also leaves many churches without a clear way to evaluate their pastor's service. For some churches, this means there is no accountability for their pastor. Other churches make up their own rules, and usually end up crucifying a guy.

If pastors were simply C.E.O.s of a business, the "bottom line" would be a sufficient marker of success, and of course in the church, the "bottom line" consists of attendance, baptisms, and giving. Church leaders are correct to point out that while these are incredibly important markers (those numbers, after all, represent the souls of people Jesus died to save), they are not the only ones that should be used to judge the competency of a ministry leader. The Scriptures bear out in many contexts that faithfulness sometimes means less numbers instead of more.

On the other hand, I have over almost 20 years of vocational ministry seen the occassional pastor who did not want accountability at all. "We aren't about numbers" is sometimes simply a cover to hide a Hyper-Calvinist aversion to evangelism, or laziness, or outright incompetence. These men take personal advantage of the church's nebulous approach to how competency is judged. I've also seen churches use the ambiguity on this issue in order to pick virtually anything they can find to criticize, demean, and even destroy a faithful pastor.

On October 2-3, we will begin a conversation that I hope at least for our context, will provide our pastors and churches with the tools to evaluate their leadership. Until that time, I will be posting leading questions here for discussion, as well as taking suggested questions back to our panel of pastors who will lead us on October 2.

In my next post, I'll be introducing that panel to you. These are all men who are faithful and effective pastors within our Association, and I'll be giving a brief profile of each of them so you can see for yourself the kind of men who will be fielding these questions. After this, I'll spend a few weeks discussing some of the subject matter we hope to cover in October. If you are in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area you are welcome to join us, and you can find details and sign up online here.

But no matter where you are, this is a critical issue for all churches, and I hope you will join in the forthcoming discussion.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Summer Reading for Pastors and Church Leaders

"What are you reading?" I've been hearing that question since I started out in ministry more than 19 years ago. In the beginning, it came from older, wiser and seasoned pastors who used the question as a way to start a conversation that would guide me in my own development. Years later, the question continues to be asked by ministry colleagues as an avenue of inquiry and accountability.

But in recent years, I'm beginning to notice that when I answer this question, people actually take my answers seriously. Whether I'm old enough or wise enough for this reaction to be justified I can't tell, but regardless, I'm always recommending what I believe to be good (and also not-so-good, but neccesary) reading to those who lead our churches.

As the summer continues, I wanted to provide a recommended reading list for 2011, as I have done in past years. The list below is diverse. Some books are strictly theological in nature, others deal with cultural engagement and mission, and still others amount to heresy. But if you were to ask me to list for you the seven books that any pastor or church leader MUST put on their read list for the summer, I'd respond with the following (in no particular order):

1. Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson. "On the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church." (Zondervan, 2011)
*The western church is currently swimming (or drowning!) in a sea of data that says its days as a relevant entity to civilization are numbered. In this bold work, Hirsch and Ferguson contend just the opposite: that the western church is at the point of "turning a corner" and becoming more powerful and effective than it has been in hundreds of years. But this new future won't look very much like the past. As Hirsch repeatedly states throughout the book, "what got us HERE, won't neccesarily get us THERE." Through four main sections of the book entitled "Imagine," "Shift," "Innovate," and "Move," the authors challenge the reader to conceptualize new expressions of church that don't contradict or compete with church in its current expression, but instead compliment it. As is usually the case with Hirsch, the book is almost conceptual to a fault, leavng the reader with the work of translating the concepts practially into his own ministry field. But I finished this volume highly encouraged about the future of the bride of Christ in the United States and Europe.

2. Timothy Webster. "Christ-Centered Pastors: Four Essentials Pastors Must Do To Focus on Christ, Not Man." (Cross Books, 2010)
Tim Webster is a Bible church pastor in my local area here in Maryland, and a friend to pastors everywhere. This concise volume (less than 300 pages, which is quite short when one considers the total content covered) deals with basics like pastoral character and qualifications, as well as church polity, church discipline, and the spiritual development of disciples. And unlike so many books written on these subjects, Webster's book actually lays out practical ways that a pastor can lead his congregation toward these ideals. He does take what I consider to be a few unfair swipes at guys like Jim Collins, and paints a picture of the business literature many pastors read today as more mutually exclusive from Biblical leadership than I personally believe it is. He is also an adamant supporter of a plurality of elders style of leadership, so some in my Baptist tribe might be a bit uneasy with his conclusions. But I believe he is fair in his representation of congregational govenance, and in fact believes the two can coexist (I agree!). In the end, this is a great "refresher read" for pastors, and a healthy challenge to ensure that one's focus is truly on Jesus and His mission.

3. Millard J. Erickson. "Who's Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate." (Kregel Academic and Professional, 2009)
For those who may be unaware, there is a debate currently raging in evangelical academic circles over certain elements of the doctrine of the trinity. In academic vernacular, this debate is between those holding the "gradational-authority view" and the "equivalent authority view" of the relationship of the persons within the Godhead. Erickson, the consummate theologian in his classic fashion, makes this debate understandable, and applicable in the life of the local church.
If you are wondering why on earth I would recommend a book like this, or why on earth the average pastor should care, I will propose that one's understanding of these issues will eventually affect one's views of church leadership, the role of women in the church, and even one's understanding of prayer. In short, this debate is eventually going to find its way into the local church, although admittedly it will do so using more common language. Understanding the theological issues in play that will lie behind these discussions will help the local church pastor to be ready, and to effectively lead his people through these discussions.

4. Rob Bell. "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived." (HarperOne, 2011)
Be honest, you knew this one was coming, didn't you? Too many pastors simply dismiss best-selling books from the pulpit rather than deal with the actual content--usually because they don't agree with the book's conclusions. The result is that your people will read these books anyway, and have no guidance on how to assess or process its contents. So yes, I'm recommending you buy the book, which admittedly will add to Bell's royalties. I'm also recommending that you read it thoroughly, and be prepared to agree with Bell on several issues. There is much valid content in this book, although it can only be found squeezed in between shoddy historical research, "cherry-picked" Bible verses and irresponsible hermaneutics. As a pastor, you should be familiar with books like this one. And you should admit to your people that there is in fact, some good to be found in them. You should also remind them that they can find clean water in the bottom of the toilet too, and that doesn't mean they should drink it.

5. David Hesselgrave and Ed Stetzer. "MissionSHIFT: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millenium." (B&H, 2010)
I recommend this book assuming that you are a church leader who understands God's command for every local assembly to have a vision for evangelism as large as history and as all-encompassing as the globe. At the same time, this volume will help the local church leader to understand all the conversation currently surrounding western, domestic missions as well. Words like "relavancy" and "contextualization" are a bit spooky to some, and the concepts, as well as examples of good and not-so-good application of them, are outlined and debated well by more than a dozen seasoned pastors and missiologists. Like any aquisition work, not all articles are of the same caliber, and some even miss the point completely (I'm looking at you, Norman Geisler.) But I am aware of no better resource that helps bring understanding to the future of God's global mission.

6. Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter. "For the City: Proclaiming and Living Out the Gospel" (Zondervan, 2011)
Don't look for a ton of practical instruction on how urban ministry and church planting should be done here. (Instead, read virtually anything Harvie Conn has published). But do look forward to being encouraged, challenged, and having your own heart enlarged for the urban centers of the world. These two Acts29 network pastors share their own ministry biographies, and in so doing are communicating how God is at work in two of American's great cities through the impact of local churches with a passion for the city.

7. James Davison Hunter. "To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World." (Oxford, 2010)
I've already written a comprehensive review of this book, which can be found here, and also in the forthcoming edition of the Great Commission Research Journal. In short, this book provides a helpful beginning to a conversation about how best to engage and change culture with the Gospel. Hunter's conclusions are a bit fuzzy, but he asks ALL the right questions . . . questions that every pastor and church leader should also be asking.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

False Prophecy is No Laughing Matter: What I've Learned from Harold Camping

"When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him." -Deuteronomy 18:22, ESV

"But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction." " -2 Peter 2:1 ESV

Let's face it, both the world and the church got a big kick out of Harold Camping's failed prophecy. It wasn't just late night comedians who benefited from Camping's idiocy. Christians everywhere made fun of this man and his prophecies. I should know. I was one of them.

And I was wrong.

By this, I don't mean that I've suddenly begun to grant credibility to Camping and his twisted message. I simply mean that for a follower of Jesus, false prophets and false messages are no laughing matter. They are eternally and deadly serious. And I was reminded of this as I read Al Mohler's article on this issue this morning.

Several weeks ago, I joined many of my non-Christian friends in their mockery of Camping. To be honest, they had some brilliant ideas about how to milk this thing for all it was worth! Leaving clothes on the ground surrounded by dry ice to make it appear as though they had been "raptured" struck a humorous chord with me, and I have to admit to laughing out loud at the pictures.

To be sure, many an Old Testament prophet spent his fair share of time mocking false prophets. (Elijah's suggestion that Baal might be too constipated to play "King of the Hill" on Mt. Carmel comes immediately to mind.) But in the end, even when mockery is employed as an apologetic tool, the seriousness of false prophecy is always made plain in the Biblical text. For the most part, this was not the case on May 21.

So after some reflection on these recent events, I've come to the conclusion that my approach to all this Camping madness was wrong. Though Camping and his "interpretations" are most certainly a joke, what this teaching has done to the name of Jesus Christ for the past 20 years is no laughing matter at all.

Within Christendom, sheep have been led astray by this false teacher, to the point that many of them emptied bank accounts and left gainful employment only to see May 21 come and go, and their livelihoods with it. Outside the body of Christ, many had their focus turned from Jesus to Harold Camping, and beginning early on May 22, secular news outlets turned from merely mocking Camping, to mocking the idea of Jesus' second coming altogether.

The name of Christ was drug through the mud by Harold Camping, and all I did was laugh about it.

Mohler's article this morning simply confirmed for me that the church needs to renew its commitment to confronting false teachers. Like wolves in a sheep pen, it is not sufficient to simply acknowlege their existence. It is not enough to simply identify the wolves among the sheep. We must also draw them out, separate them, and shoot them (not literally of course, but the analogy of wolf-hunting does indicate how ferocious out confrontation of false teachers should be) out of our love for the name of Jesus, and His true sheep.

To be sure, a man who denies the reality of hell, denies the legitimacy of Christ's church and refuses to be held accountable by other brothers in Christ has clearly exhibited the characteristics of a wolf. And wolves are no laughing matter.

So to my non-Christian friends, though it is always fun to laugh with you, I'm very sorry to have misrepresented how serious this issue was to you. Camping is wrong, but Jesus IS coming back . . .to the wailing of those who do not follow Him. It is true that no one knows the day or hour, but that day/hour is coming with absolute certainty, and I am sorry to have wasted an opportunity like this to talk about the REAL second coming of Jesus Christ. Camping does not represent Jesus or His message, but I should have made that message more plain to you.

To my Christian friends, let us commit from this moment on to stand vigilant against anyone who would defame the name of our Lord and Savior. Rest assured, this is not the last time a false prophet will make a ridiculous claim in the name of Jesus. Next time, lets commit to treating this issue as seriously as the Bible does.

Mohler's excellent article can be found here.