Does the South Really Need More Churches?

Our church is beginning a very exciting new chapter. We are beginning to embrace the reality that a healthy church is a multiplying church. A healthy church is a church-planting church. What is true for individual disciples, that they be disciple-makers of disciple-makers, is also true for local churches.

Now, almost every pundit on matters ecclesial agrees there are pockets in North America that are under-churched. Marin County, CA and Portland, OR are two examples. But, what about the South? Does the Bible-belt really need more churches? Aren’t there enough churches in the South that Southern churches can take their limited resources and pour them into the places of real need, like the unreached people groups of the other nations?

Clearly, healthy churches need to be devoted to bringing the gospel to the nations. This is not an either/or. It is a both/and. But, should churches in the South spend a lot of time, energy, and money on planting new churches in what seems to be one of the most established Christian areas in America, which seems to be the most Christian nation in the world?

Yes. Absolutely. I think we would actually be neglecting our call if we did not. It would be unhealthy if we did not.

But, some of you might need to know why. And, some of you may still not agree with my reasons, but at least you will see there are good reasons. Each needs much more unpacking, but let me at least list them out.

1. Biblical theology argument: The New Testament shows that the model of kingdom expansion was church planting. As soon as the Apostles began their ministry outside the initial revivals in Jerusalem, churches were planted in Asia Minor, often directed by Paul and his cohort. The kingdom had its pivot foot in local churches, and still does. This New Testament paradigm is not just descriptive but prescriptive, and there is a library’s worth of nuanced Biblical and theological treatments that establish this. Take a look at http://www.redeemer.com for some resources.

2. Healthy church argument: Simply tallying up how many churches are in a given area and how many people attend them is not the way to do the math on this issue. The issue is: how many heathy churches with converted Christians who are on mission comprise the ecclesial make up of an area? Many people define a healthy church as: orthodox, stable attendance,  and stable income. That is not the right definition. A healthy church is rigorously Biblical with a value for expositional ministry, has godly leadership, it equips believers for ministry, it has a strong community, it has a clear and robust gospel-centered vision, it invests mercy locally, it emphasized and trains people for personal evangelism, and it is committed to multiplying healthy churches locally and globally. So, are there enough of those churches in any area, even the South? No. Nope. Nada. Uhuh. From Chapel Hill to Nashville, Birmingham to Jackson, Richmond to Memphis, more truly healthy churches are needed. By the way, when more heathy churches are planted in an area, two things happen in that community. The churches that have potential (Biblically faithful but not healthy yet) are stoked to life, and unhealthy churches (dysfunctional, theologically liberal, legalistic) are brought to a quicker end. Adding more churches only helps the true churches of that area. Everyone benefits.

3. Demographic argument: Even though the South tends to have more healthy churches than other parts of the country, most people in the South are not Christians and do not have a strong connection to a healthy church. In the Triangle, there are over a million people who do not know Christ. We could triple the amount of local churches and still not adequately reach these people. Different churches, while sharing the characteristics that make for health, can still be quite different in ethos. Different ethos attracts different people. The more churches that are contextual to a certain sub-group or demographic, the better.

4. This only helps a commitment to the nations argument: Churches that plant churches, as long as they are truly healthy, will be more committed to international church planting and ministry, not less. Multiplying churches are also better internally. There tends to be more growth as a local body. There are more resources to take care of internal needs. A multiplying church is robust and full of gospel energy. A lot of that energy (and finances) can be directed at the nations.

5. History proves the above arguments argument: The biggest thing going against those skeptical of this is history. In the last 25 years, as this vision of the church has taken off as a fact of Biblical obedience (not trendiness), the above four arguments have proven to be the case. Now, can church planting churches not be healthy? Of course, and history has shown that, but that is why I defined health not solely upon church-planting but also other indicators like godly leadership and Biblical fidelity.

Therefore, the South needs more healthy churches. But, so does the Northeast, West coast, Midwest, and the Rockies. So does Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Antarctica. Let us be committed to all of these. Let us not forget who lives across the street, not just across the oceans. Let us not forget that the church is the hope of the world.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

There is Something About the Lord’s Day

I have been here in North Carolina for three falls now. I have detected a pattern. The low humidity, warm weather, and off-season travel prices cause something to happen. That something is a large percentage of our people becoming erratic in their worship attendance. Now, I am all for taking time off. Weekends in an area where there is easy access to a beautiful coastline or to beautiful mountains should be used for renewal and recreation. But, what does it say when fairly large chunks of a church don’t attend a Lord’s Day worship service in weeks? Is this all about taking advantage of good weather or is there something more?

I would encourage us to consider that these attendance figures, that I think every church in our area experiences, is endemic of a greater challenge, and that is a laxity toward gathered worship. I wonder if there is prevailing notion that while one should attend church more often than not, that it is just not that vital to be at church every Sunday. So, on top of illness or travel, I would guess there is a fair amount of people who wake up on Sunday mornings and just don’t feel like going to church, that they would rather take a hike in a state park or have a leisurely morning reading the paper and hitting up an artisan bakery. This is just my theory, but I think my sense of things might be somewhat accurate.

In that vein I would encourage you to read this blog by Tim Challies on why going to church for gathered worship is pretty important.

Why You May Be Tempted To Neglect Your Church

I will follow up on some more thoughts that I hope will inspire at least a few people to re-evaluate their understanding of gathered worship. I hope that many of us will simply desire to be at church when not sick or traveling because we know what God does through that worship.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Things We Won’t Regret

Kevin DeYoung just wrote a post on The Gospel Coalition site that is worth pasting here, on things we will not regret in life. Here it is:

After writing yesterday’s post on God’s “regret” and then reading R.C. Sproul Jr. write poignantly about how he regretsnot holding his wife’s hand more, I got to thinking about all the things we are likely not to regret when we get to the end of our days.

We won’t regret playing hide and seek with our children.

We won’t regret turning off the t.v. and putting the phone away.

We won’t regret that one night (or week, or even season of life) we let the kids get happy meals just so they would be happy and we could survive.

We won’t regret singing the same hymns over and over until they became familiar enough to sing with the saints around a hospital bed.

We won’t regret the time we spent hiding the word in our hearts.

We won’t regret jumping in a pile of leaves every fall.

We won’t regret overlooking a lot of little things that bother us about our spouses.

We won’t regret kissing our spouse in front of the kids.

We won’t regret going to bed with a messy house if that meant we had time to chase the kids around in the backyard.

We won’t regret all the wasted time with friends.

We won’t regret laughing often and laughing loudly.

We won’t regret hugging our kids whenever they’ll let us.

We won’t regret the times the kids slept in our beds and the times in the middle of the night we had to carry them softly back to theirs.

We won’t regret being a little bit goofy.

We won’t regret asking for forgiveness, and we won’t regret forgiving those who ask.

We won’t regret dancing at weddings–fast and silly with our kids, slow and sweet with our spouse.

We won’t regret giving most people the benefit of the doubt.

We won’t regret commiting to a good church and sticking around.

We won’t regret learning to play the piano, read music, or sing in parts.

We won’t regret reading to our children.

We won’t regret time spent in prayer.

We won’t regret going on long road trips filled with frustrations, but full with memories.

We won’t regret letting our kids be kids.

We won’t regret walking with people through suffering.

We won’t regret trusting Jesus.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

His Increase, Our Decrease, and the Issue of Self Denial

Matt. 16:24   Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

I was very challenged by something I read this morning. I was challenged by how a very important Biblical truth is being ignored to the vast detriment of the health of the evangelical church and how this church has found itself so flat footed in the face of one of the greatest theological, ethical, social, and political challenges it is confronted with today.

The truth is found in the verses above. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and to take up our cross. He did not say,”Some of you may have something that you cannot bring with you as you follow me”, or “Deny things outside of you, which may be challenging or tempting.” No, he says to all of us “Deny yourself.” That means all of us must submit ourselves to the reality that we must do some denying and the thing we deny is resident in us. Then, we must take up our cross, shorthand for sacrificially laying down our lives, often everyday in little and big ways, to echo the Big C Cross to the world.

OK. Let’s get real. In the American evangelical church, how much self-denying-cross-bearing is actually going on? Not much, it seems. We are very good at self-embracing-cross-avoiding. Suffering and American Christianity have an awkward relationship, and that is not a good thing. That is why I think one of the most spiritually fruitful epochs for us is on the horizon as we are going to be further marginalized and even persecuted for being Biblical in our beliefs and practices. The American church has played with Caesars money and power for so long and we are so used to it, that as Caesar is now coming to collect on his loan, we are experiencing a rude awakening. But, it will cause wheat and chaff to part, and a spiritual awakening will come about, and for that I am thankful.

In the meantime, here is the issue this situation reveals. As we want to be Biblically faithful and loving in our pastoral approach to those who experience same sex attraction, by what moral authority do we call these people to deny themselves and take up their cross in living faithfully before God, which will mean for those who never experience freedom from their same sex desires the prospect of life long celibacy? Well, the moral authority is Scripture, but do you see what I am getting at? It is hard for these friends, many of them fellow believers, to see the beauty and blessing of self denial in the Scriptures if they do not see it all over the place in the lives of Christians in their churches! I bet my back teeth that if the Bible Church, and your church, was full of self-denying-cross-bearing Christians, when we ask people with same sex attraction to commit to celibacy, though hard [self denial and cross bearing are by nature hard - that is the point], they will clasp our hands, for our hands will be there to clasp, and we will journey together, following our Savior Jesus, who’s nail scarred hands and feet, glorious now, we will have our eyes upon. I am so glad our Savior is the ultimate and perfect self-denying-CROSS-bearer, but the church needs to grow in his image, and boy will it empower our ministry to those with same sex attraction.

So, friends, in our aim to have Christ increase in us, and for us to decrease, may we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and in doing so, have Jesus shine as we are able to love the sexually broken in fellowship, co-sinners who are hungry for holiness, as friends who love, embrace, and clasp hands. Yes, we want to be faithful to the Bible on this issue, absolutely! But, will we be faithful to all of it, including the part that calls all of us to deny ourselves and take up a cross?

By the way, the article that challenged me can be found at this website which is a UK-based site dedicated to teaching and edification around the issues of Biblical faithfulness, healthy church witness and ministry, godly love, and the issue of homosexuality. http://www.livingout.org

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

How to Listen to a Sermon

Before you read on, please watch the video above, starting at minute 19 and go to about minute 23. This is from Howard Hendrick’s memorial service. Howard was a longtime professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, a pastor, and an author. This is his son, giving an important recollection of how his dad listened to sermons.

OK. Read on.

One of my commitments is that I share the pulpit. There are two reasons. One, I believe that a big part of  my role is to raise up pastors, so sharing the pulpit means enabling other pastors to develop as preachers. Two, I think it is a better thing for a church not to be built around one man, even if that means we don’t grow as fast or as big. In the longterm, I think it creates a healthier church with a more long term benefit to the kingdom. There are implications to this. One is that a congregation must learn to listen to men of varying degree of ability, style, and experience as preachers. There is a sacrifice, in other words. But, it is worthwhile, given my two guiding principles.

That is some context to what I am about to say. I hope this is a helpful reflection, and not a rant, but I admit it comes as a response. People have been giving me feedback. I guess I should take it as a compliment but it is also disturbing. Some folks, and it may just be a few overall, are struggling to engage some of the other preachers for one reason or another. Now, that is OK. Nothing wrong so far. Here is what discourages me. I have been told said people “check out”, on principle, once a certain preacher conveys a less than desirable signal, mostly by way of tone, body language, and/or simply their rhetorical style and ability level to date. I asked said people if there was anything wrong with content. Was anything unbiblical or heterodox? “No” was the response. In fact, usually said preachers were commended for being Biblically and theologically precise. So, here is what discouraged me. Good people, who love the Lord, and…who know better…decide to check out if the communication style is not amenable.

Now, let me say it again, there is nothing wrong with struggling with the communication style or ability of a preacher. Certain styles evoke certain emotions given the listener, the cultural orientation of the society, the relationship between speaker and audience, and a whole bunch of other factors. The question then becomes, should that ever be a reason for “checking out”? My emphatic answer, and I say this out of love, is NO! Let me put it another way: if a sermon is Biblically based, and therefore teaching God’s truth, one is accountable and responsible to listen, to submit, and to apply the teaching, as God’s word.

So, how does one get to that point as a sermon listener? Let me give you some suggestions:

1. Believe that the most important thing about a sermon is that it is Biblical.

Homiletics is important. Content is so much more important. Please come prepared to take in content first and foremost. Let strong communication be the icing on the cake, but not what you depend upon. The most important part of evaluation is “is this guy getting the text right?” If the preacher is doing something that can improve his ability to communicate, take note of it by all means, but don’t check out unless the sermon can rightly be called a sermon of man’s thoughts, not God’s.

2. Talk with the preacher in a loving way if there are things that can improve his preaching.

OK, so you are struggling with the dude’s style at the pulpit. But, you listened to his content and you grew by God’s grace because truth was spoken. Come and talk to him, and do it out of love because you want to see him grow. In other words, just as you don’t check out from a sermon, don’t write off a man. Love him. Desire for him to thrive. Talk with him. Be gentle, and desire to serve him as one of your pastors.

3. Know that the teaching team at the Bible church strives for excellence and growth.

Our staff is committed to excellence, and where we are not excellent we want to change and grow. From building appearance, to signage, to guest experience, to the heat of the building, to overall communication, to preaching, we want to grow. No one is being shoddy on purpose. Every Wednesday morning the teaching team gathers and reviews the previous sermon and helps the preacher who will preach the next Sunday prepare for that sermon. We are hard on each other. Probably harder than you will ever be. But, sometimes we are not as sensitive to certain things and that is why we need to hear from you. Just know we care about meeting you where you are at, short of compromising Biblical values. All we ask is that you commit yourself to being an excellent listener on your end.

4. Please gain perspective.

Sometimes when all you have driven recently is a BMW and most people around you drive BMWs, you forget that most of the world drives entry level compacts. In fact, you forget that a Honda Accord is a great car. Then, you feel entitled to the performance and door fit of a BMW and get peeved when you rent a cheap compact, and it’s an American car to boot. What am I getting at? Friend, the least developed preacher on our team is better than most regular Sunday preachers in this country. It’s just that you are used to “big church” world where we have really nice buildings, and big budgets, and cool media, and really gifted communicators. That’s all good. Hey, this is who we are but just don’t forget that this is not normal. As we allow other preachers to develop and as we commit to the Bible church not being the Jay Thomas show, please realize you are not really making a very big sacrifice. Really. Truth. Promise. Get perspective!

5. Be Thankful.

Finally, realize what you have. You have a group of godly pastors, who love Jesus, who love you, and who love the Word of God, and they are doing their best to bring God’s word to your life so you can see Jesus in all his glory and be transformed by his marvelous grace. Are we all there yet as communicators? No. But, we generally bring a Biblically faithful message to you every week. Please be thankful for that. Don’t focus on how one dude does this or that or the tone in his voice. Talk with him. Help him. But don’t check out. Let me be super blunt. I think the devil might be getting a foothold. If you read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, by checking out in a sermon due to stylistic reasons, you are falling into a huge satanic trap. Be thankful. That is an impenetrable armor for satanic attack.

6. OK, one more: strive to have an intrinsically motivated love for God’s Word that needs little coddling.

One thing that struck me about Howard Hendrick’s sons testimony is that Howie, as he was called, loved God’s Word. Period. He believed it was a gift from God above. Yes, it is great to have an anointed preacher, but if you love God’s word, intrinsically, you will never hear a bad sermon if that sermon is a proclamation of the Bible. Seriously. You won’t. Try it!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Seek Feedback: Reality is Your Best Friend

I am learning that there is something very few people have experienced in a formal and organized way, and also something very few people seek out, on purpose. That something is feedback. Let’s be honest, it is hard to hear what people think of us, especially when it is not positive. Part of the reason we hate feedback is that we do in fact receive it, all the time, but usually in reactionary, unplanned, emotionally heightened, and unhealthy ways. Therefore, while the content might be accurate, the social situation is not conducive to the feedback being received well. But, feedback is not only important, but absolutely essential to our personal maturity and growth as Christians.

I am learning this because my job as a pastor is one of being under constant scrutiny, especially at a church that is getting used to a Lead Pastor [read: me], who has a significant amount of influence delegated to me. Being a pastor is also inherently one of existing under the microscope. Most pastors get feedback, but unfortunately its in the unhealthy camp – jabs, criticisms that come at you between services, emails, second hand gossip, people who leave over one sentence you said in a sermon taken out of context, etc. But, my elders are doing something really wise. They have set me up to get regular, intentional, thoughtful, feedback. In fact, we are now having the entire staff do this at least once a year. We are building a culture among the staff where throughout the year we are affirming and coaching each other, and once a year, we evaluate. The idea is that we are helping each other know reality as outside, more objective, observers and friends. The key is that we are friends and loyal to each other. The feedback may be negative, but it is offered out of love, for the good of the other.

Here are some reasons we have made this change and are shaping a culture of feedback:

1. Reality is your best friend. Many people avoid knowing what other people think of them because they’d rather put their head in the sand like an ostrich than deal with reality. Put another way, the reality they want is what they want, rather than what actually is. When they do receive feedback, people like this write it off, get mad, wallow in self pity, and obsess over how the other person or people are wrong and misguided or even have it out for them. But friend, reality is your best friend. Feel what you feel. Think what you think. But reality is reality, and feedback helps you connect with it.

2. Perception is not equivalent to reality, but it is a part of reality. In other words, you don’t need to agree with all feedback (I will hopefully blog later about how to receive feedback), but you have to accept that certain people feel a certain way about you and you, like it or not, in some way played a part. You may not have sinned or made mistake, but for some reason, that you need to attend to, someone reacted negatively. Even if said party is reacting to you in total error, a conversation and a leadership move on your part is in order.

3. Feedback is a form of love. Feedback can be a dagger. Or, it can be the wound of a friend (Proverbs 27:6). As you seek out feedback, you are setting up a system of hearing what others think of you in controlled, intentional, thoughtful, and prepared situations. At the very least, you have prepared yourself. Again, you may encounter feedback that is not reflective of who you are and what you have done, but you may find out there is a relational rupture with a friend, colleague, or family member. Also, please don’t just focus this on work, but set up a culture of feedback with your family and friends, too.

Summary: reality is your best friend. Because we don’t believe that, we avoid life changing, even life saving, truth through feedback. The ostrich playbook is not helping anyone, not least you. So, cozy up to reality and start asking for feedback.

By the way, formal evaluations are pretty intense. Probably once a year is good for 360 evaluations. But, through thoughtful conversations, good questions, and a lifestyle of affirmation and coaching, feedback can be expressed throughout the year in healthy ways. And remember, part of feedback is also telling people where they are gifted, a blessing, and an instrument of grace in God’s hands. If you cozy up to reality and seek feedback, you are going to experience a lot more affirmation than criticism, by God’s grace.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

wrath AND mercy

In our both-and series, this will be the most challenging pair to reconcile and perhaps the most important to our practical spiritual lives in Christ. One of the most important both-ands of the Christian faith is the wrath AND mercy of God.

If there is a pairing that can cause confusion or provide stunning clarity regarding how to interpret certain Biblical ideas and themes, and also how to interpret God’s providence in our lives, it is this pairing. So friends, my big admonition here is this: please embrace a God that has both the characteristic of wrath and mercy in his divine attributes! If you do not, if you will not, you will not have a true picture of God. You will end up with a god of your making. If you have a god only of mercy (and love) and no wrath (and judgment), you will have a permissive, uncle of a god. He may be displeased at times but he will chuckle your sin and brokeness away and leave it for someone else to deal with, if at all. If you only have a god of wrath, you will serve a tyrant, a capricious Zues-like creation that will make you disdain authority and any concept of law.

Start with the Bible. All of it. Both OT and NT. First, note that both testaments are full of wrath and mercy. In fact, there is more intense language of judgment in the NT, and on the lips of Jesus, than the OT. Go ahead and check me on that. The NT is the testament that emphasizes wrath, for in it the temporal and geographically limited wrath spoken of the in the OT becomes eternal and universal, starting with Jesus’ proclamations (Matt 5:29; Luke 12:5). Jesus was far more intense than any OT prophet! Paul is quite gentle compared with Jesus. The end of the Bible, the part we really like, because it points us to heaven, is all about the culmination of God’s wrath up evil, sin, and sinners, and his mercy and redemption toward those he saved through Jesus. Rev 19 is a beautiful chapter, like a painting by Jackson Pollack, intense, brooding, full of fire, yet also light, beautiful light, with a celebration, yet a celebration premised on that burning lake of fire. The storyline of the Bible has the two chords of wrath and mercy, braided, and clear.

It is quite clear. But is it compelling? Yes. The wrath of God is always connected to his mercy. God hates sin, for he is holy and dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16). We cower at this truth. But, we must realize it is this truth that assures us that evil will be dealt with, the evil that so burdens us on this earth – genocide, the human sex trade, the abuse of children, war crimes, and the like. We do not want a God who will not deal with these. No human definition of love is that big or rationale to justify that kind of god. So, we accept God judges evil, and he is good for it. The part we don’t like is that we fall under this condemnation, too, because, well, we like to see ourselves as so very different. We are first world, white collar sinners, so our sin is more a mistake or mild foolishness. And yet, God is infinitely holy and even the smallest stain of unholiness against that backdrop is an infinite stain. That is Biblical reality. We need a God who hates wrongdoing and sin, and we must embrace that we are part of a rebellion against him. We are sinners. We deserve his wrath.

And yet – and yet – God is infinitely merciful. That mercy always attend to the judgment. That mercy will get the last word. Did you know in the OT, the stipulations in the covenant of Sinai, while severe, were nothing compared to the covenants of the other nations during the time of Moses? And, the covenant of Sinai had one very big condition, that of repentance. If Israel repented, God would relent and he would forgive and he would bless again. No other foreign covenant treaty came close to that. In the intensity of God’s anger against sin, especially the sin of his own people, God’s love and faithfulness persisted and he knew that one day, for he had planned it from the beginning, he would send his Son to be the greatest and final expression of mercy. Only the God of the Bible was a God who offered to forgive, because he would himself absorb his own wrath. Something needed to pay. Jesus was that something, that someone. Think about it. Without wrath AND mercy the cross would be emptied of it’s glory and power. But, the cross is a both-and. The cross is where Jesus, our Lord, took the wrath we deserved in order to show the mercy of God to us! And how we love and worship him for it!

In our day, these two characteristics are assumed to be at odds. No friend, they are part of a beautiful whole, and they both kiss at the cross. If you do not have both, you have no place for the cross.

It may be a journey. It may take a lot of Biblical study and conversation with Biblically minded friends to come to grips with this, and we are all in the process of growing in our knowledge of these things, but please stop running from this both-and. Please accept that wrath AND mercy go together, and that the God who makes most sense, is most awesome, is most glorious, is most winsome, is the God of wrath AND mercy. It will make the Bible come to life and make sense in a new way! It will cause you to fall on your knees again at the wonder of the gospel – the good news that God saves sinners – and salvation and sin only make sense as categories if you have a God of wrath AND mercy.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized