Tuesday, October 31, 2006

How To Prevent A Church Split, Part 5

In this last post of the series, it seems appropriate to end where we began: with the importance of the pastor in preventing church splits.

The most natural thing in the world is for a congregation to appreciate and respect its main preaching pastor. It happens without much effort in many cases, as the pastor opens the Word of God to the people of God Sunday after Sunday. That act of teaching is an act of love. And the longer one does it with a congregation--the people and the pastor growing in intimate knowledge of one another--the more the affections grow.

On the whole, I think this is as God intends it. If you can look out onto a people hoping to hear the Word of God fed to them by you, and not grow in fatherly affection for them, something is terribly wrong. Something essential is missing in the heart of the preacher. For after all, preaching is not merely or primarily an intellectual exercise. It is primarily an exercise of the heart… the preacher pouring His into the Word of God, then pouring out into the people, and the people opening theirs to be filled with the glorious riches of God in the preaching moment. If love is missing, the heart is defective.

And so it’s also natural that the primary preacher accrues a certain kind of authority in the eyes of the congregation as well. Loving authority stemming from loving teaching and preaching seems to be the plan of God.

But the human heart is also an idol factory. Without Spirit-filled thinking, men and women may easily begin to “worship” the pastor. No one will use that word to describe their affections and allegiance, but their hearts and actions will be fairly close to “worship.” At the least, there is such a thing as being overly devoted or loyal to a pastor. The problem affected Corinth and it affects many churches today.

If we are to prevent church splits one thing we must do is make sure that the natural affections and authority that accrue to the teaching office is dispersed among the leadership of the church. We must find obvious, subtle, and effective ways to attach the allegiance of the people to the church and the leadership as a whole. Four things come to mind. I’m sure there are others and welcome the feedback.

One practical thing we can do is make sure that other gifted men in the leadership and the body have an opportunity to exercise their teaching gifts. We certainly should use such men in Sunday school and small group settings. But we should also provide them opportunity in the more public meetings of the church: Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings (if you have them), and mid-week Bible study.

Men don’t have to be seasoned, professional preachers. They should be clear communicators or the meetings won’t be edifying. But taking a “risk” on a younger man or a man with little preaching experience is a perfectly fine thing to do. A couple of churches I know use the Sunday evening service in part with this purpose in mind, and they often find new teaching gifts in the body and are able to help hone those gifts.

As the congregation grows more accustomed to hearing more of their leaders love them through teaching, we help to inoculate the body against one chief cause of church splits: disproportionate attachment to one leader. And as a rule, the more charismatic a leader you are, the more important this sharing of teaching authority becomes.

If we’re the main preaching/teaching elder, the other way we can spread authority and esteem for the entire body and leadership is to make specific, edifying comments about other leaders in the body.

I don’t mean we need to flatter our leaders. Our words should be true and proportionate to the situation or quality we’re commenting on. And they should be specific enough in detail to model for the congregation how to give godly encouragement and why they should be thankful for their leadership.

And our comments to the wider church should always underscore, not undermine, the leadership of the church. Wherever there may be disagreements or discontent among leaders it should be expressed and resolved in meetings with the other leaders. The surest path to wider congregational discontent will be for leaders to act, comment, or react in ways that suggest fraction and division among the leaders. When members stumble on issues that divide the leadership, or issues that the leaders are currently weighing, we should politely and with positive tone invite their continued prayers for the leaders as the discussions continue. We must cultivate a culture and discipline in our churches that “makes every effort to maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3), and this culture must begin with and be modeled by the leadership. Our public comments go a long way in spreading authority, supporting that authority, and preventing or amplifying tensions that lead to division.

I have served as an elder in two churches prior to being given the gift and privilege of serving as senior pastor at FBC. Both of those pastors, Peter Rochelle and Mark Dever, were good models of submission to the elders as a whole. They were “first among equals,” but they did not abuse that position and authority. They accepted counsel, they listened, they contributed, and they were longsuffering with those of us who disagreed and in many cases knew less about an issue than they. They were willing, despite better biblical and theological knowledge and greater wisdom from experience, to submit to the direction of the entire group. That was humble submission.

That’s not to say there weren’t times when they were strongly convicted about an issue and would hold the line. There were times of disagreement, sometimes strong disagreement. In those times, the group of elders needed to be humble and to submit. We needed to determine more precisely (a) what questions needed to be answered, (b) what decision criteria were operative, (c) what mutual goals should govern us, and (d) what exact timeline for making a decision was necessary or wise. In those situations, by God’s grace, mutual submission, trusting that all who shepherd have the same goal—the glory of God revealed in His bride the church—provides much needed unity in the leadership. This can take time to build, but toiling for it is necessary for protecting the church from splits. We must war against our sense of “entitlement” as pastors or elders, and against the conceit that whispers to us that we see more clearly or more learnedly than our brothers who lead with us, and give ourselves to cultivating godly humility that submits.

Lastly, leaders must lead. Pastors must lead. There is a danger of being overly passive in the face of situations and decisions that require clear thinking and charting a course. In those cases we must lead.

And we can’t be afraid to lead. There may be 1,000 things we must be sensitive to, but we must resist the paralysis that comes from over-analyzing and tea leaf reading. Leadership is as much an act of faith as prayer. We must trust that God is at work in our leadership of the church, and that He will providentially rule in our prayerful efforts.

And we must not be afraid to lead the church toward a split in order to prevent a split.

This may sound counter-intuitive. After all, the entire series of posts is about preventing splits.

I’m convinced that merely showing up and being yourself will be a “splitting” factor for some people. We can not give in to fear of man and seek to please people. It is required of stewards that they be faithful. And sometimes being faithful requires upsetting some apple carts. You don’t necessarily start out to do so, but in the course of applying God’s Word and pursuing faithful church practice some disgruntlement is bound to happen. When it does… we must keep leading. For some, this will have the feel of “forcing” an ever so gradual “split” of sorts, as people who are opposed to biblical faithfulness peel away and leave.

If this is necessary, then hopefully that’s a one-by-one peeling, with people leaving in positive rather than disruptive ways. But if we’re being faithful, we must remember that we’re building deeper foundations that hopefully the church can rest upon in strength for generations to come. We must not let the short-term struggles that arise over this or that issue to upset the long-term goal of preserving the unity and growing the entire body into full maturity in Christ.

Reformation Day Reflections

The Pope of blogging (Tim Challies) has called all bloggers to post reflections on the Reformation and its meaning for us today. In obedience to the pontiff of posts, I thought I’d kiss the ring and share my two cents on so important an observance.

What does a German monk nailing a long list of complaints on a church door have to do with an African American ministering in a small, international Caribbean island? Luther’s world and my own couldn’t be farther apart it seems.

But on closer inspection, I would not be in Cayman if it were not for that massive Christian church split some 500 years ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about church splits lately… and this one I am quite thankful for. I could wish that the result had been sweeping reform in the Roman Catholic Church. But failing that, I’m thrilled for the recovery of the Gospel.

If there had been no recovery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the grand promise of justification in the sight of God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone—I and most African-Americans and Caribbean peoples would likely be utterly and eternally lost today.

The greatest miracle of the Reformation is that enslaved Africans heard, above the din of rattling chains and the back-slashing crack of whips, the free Gospel call at the hands of slave traders and many less-than-heroic gospel preachers in the plantation south. That untutored Africans, imprisoned in a foreign land and surrounded by hostile wilderness, heard with clarity the learned oracles of Christ, were spiritually set free, and found the glorious banks of Zion is astounding!

However crude, however hampered by their conditions, however assaulted and persecuted by white brothers and sisters in Christ, the Reformation found expression among African descended peoples. There was every earthly reason why it should not have happened. But the one heavenly reason why it should – justification by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone – prevailed even among the meanest slaves of the south and the Caribbean.

You see… this gospel truly makes everything level at the foot of the cross. The conversion of African Americans and Afro-Caribbean peoples proves this. Despite caste and castigation, slaves came to Jesus! It’s inexplicable apart from the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Why would the master’s Master become the Master of the mastered? Because He is Master of all.

Clifton Johnson’s classic collection of slave conversion stories, God Struck Me Dead, makes the point in the slave's own words. One slave recalled:

I saw in a vision, myself in two bodies, a little body and an old body. My old body was dangling over hell and destruction. A voice said to me, “My little one, I have cleansed you of all iniquity. By grace are you saved and it is not of yourself but the gift of God. Weep not, for you are a new child. Abide in me and you need never fear.” I looked in the distance and saw the rejoicing and singing.

I know that I have been dug up and made alive and my soul made satisfied. (God Struck Me Dead, p. 48).

The slave understood God’s sovereignty in election (and all things for that matter) in a way that many of us still fail to grasp:
He (God) spoke to me once after I prayed and prayed trying to hurry Him and get a religion. He said, ‘I am a time-God. Behold, I work after the counsel of my own will and in due time I will visit whomsoever I will (p. 7).

Another convert tells a similar story: “I began to pray for my soul more and more and began to hurry God. He gave me the gift in His own time. He was drawing me all the time but I didn’t know it” (p. 41).

They knew the sovereign election of sinners in their own experience:

I was born a slave and lived through some very hard times. If it had not been for my God, I don’t know what I would have done. Through His mercy I was lifted up. My soul began singing and I was told that I was one of the elected children and that I would live as long as God lives (p. 23; emphasis added).

“How can we find God? God has a chosen people. He has always had a chosen people and He calls whomsoever He wills. Any child who has been born of the spirit, knows it for he has felt His power, tasted His love and seen the travail of his soul.”

“After I passed through this experience (a vision of Jesus and the city) I lost all worldly cares. The things I used to enjoy don’t interest me now. I am a new creature in Jesus, the workmanship of His hand saved from the foundation of the world. I was a chosen vessel before the wind ever blew or before the sun ever shined.

Religion is not a work but a gift from God. We are saved by grace and it is not of ourselves but the gift of God” (p. 57).

These are the testimonies of field hands at the twilight of chattel slavery. To these we could add the more educated voices of Jupiter Hammon, Lemuel Haynes, Phillis Wheatley and country preacher Joseph Bayesmore (Weldon, NC) and a host of others. As John Saillant put it: “the Calvinism provided the deepest structuring elements of their thought.”

The miracle is that the Reformation Gospel came to African America and the Caribbean.

The work that’s left before us is to recapture it and to reform our churches according to the Word of God. There’s much to celebrate this Reformation Day… and much work to be done once the celebration is over.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Great Quotes from the Week

Phil Ryken, bringing to our attention David Shiflett's assessment of liberal Christianity's view of God:

While many Americans hold less than orthodox views, a strong majority believe that God is omnipotent and as such 'rules this world.' This is in much contrast to the '30 percent God' popular with some progressives, a deity who would have a difficult time fixing a parking ticket. For some progressives, even a 30 percent God--God Lite--is far too much" (from Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity).

(HT: Mark Dever) David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs (2005), p. 9:

This Word of God is the means by which God accomplishes his saving work in his people, and this is a work that no evangelist and no preacher can do. This is why the dearth of serious, sustained biblical preaching in the Church today is a serious matter. When the Church loses the Word of God it loses the very means by which God does his work. In its absence, therefore, a script is being written, however unwittingly, for the Church’s undoing, not in one cataclysmic moment, but in a slow, inexorable slide made up of piece by tiny piece of daily dereliction.

Carolyn McCulley's hillarious introduction to her post on why she is adjusting some priorities:

A few months ago, I purchased a new purse. I should have been duly warned because this one came with its own light. Take it from me, if your purse is cavernous enough to require a light to find what's residing on the bottom, it is just too big! Another indicator that a purse is outsized: your mobile phone always goes to voicemail before you can get your hands on it to answer. But the real litmus test is "the big dig." If you have to disgorge the contents of your purse on your lap, the restaurant table, or the adjoining car seat just to find a pack of gum, you need a better system.

I am waiting for purse manufacturers to recognize that we need a feminine toolbox, not a soft-sided pouch. We need compartments with strong dividers to organize keys, multiple lipsticks, mobile phone, PDA, iPod, digital camera, sunglasses, wallet, pain reliever, mints/gum, tissues, feminine products, and other necessities (such as Shout-Wipes for the spill-prone). That's just the stuff a single woman hauls around. When you get married, you need compartments for the "hey, honey, can you put this in your purse for me" items. Then when you have kids, you have to add a plastic-lined, hazardous waste compartment for all the soiled and half-used items your children hand you--"here, Mommy."

If you're going to take a punch in the gut... one of the best punchers in the world is Scott Croft, whom I had the pleasure of serving with as an elder at CHBC. I miss this brother and here's why:

I once counseled a Christian brother in his dating relationship with a great woman. She was godly, caring, and bright. She was attractive, but not a supermodel. For weeks I listened to this brother agonize over his refusal to commit and propose to this woman. He said they were able to talk well about a lot of things, but there were a few topics he was interested in that she couldn't really engage with, and sometimes the conversation "dragged."

He also said that, while he found her basically attractive, there was one feature of hers that he "just pictured differently" on the woman he would marry. I would ask about her godliness and character and faith, and he said all those things were stellar (and he was right). Finally, he said, "I guess I'm looking for a 'ten'."

I could hold back no longer. Without really thinking, I responded, "You're looking for a 'ten'? But, brother, look at yourself. You're like a 'six.' If you ever find the woman you're looking for, and she has your attitude, what makes you think she would have you?"

Check out the full article, "Brother, You're Like A Six" at Boundless.

From Expository Thoughts, another gem from Baxter:
You cannot break men’s hearts by jesting with them, or telling them a smooth tale, or pronouncing a gaudy oration. Men will not cast away their dearest pleasures at the drowsy request of one that seemth not to mean as he speaks, or to care much whether his request be granted or not. If you say that the work is God’s, and he may do it by the weakest means, I answer, It is true, he may do so; but yet his ordinary way is to work by means, and to make not only the matter that is preached, but also the manner of preaching instrumental to the work (The Reformed Pastor, 149).

Friday, October 27, 2006

How To Prevent A Church Split, Part 4

Earlier this week, Mark Dever over at T4G posted this great quote from David Wells’ Above All Earthly Pow’rs:

This Word of God is the means by which God accomplishes his saving work in his people, and this is a work that no evangelist and no preacher can do. This is why the dearth of serious, sustained biblical preaching in the Church today is a serious matter. When the Church loses the Word of God it loses the very means by which God does his work. In its absence, therefore, a script is being written, however unwittingly, for the Church’s undoing, not in one cataclysmic moment, but in a slow, inexorable slide made up of piece by tiny piece of daily dereliction.

With tremendous economy of words, Wells articulates why it is churches split. They abandon the Word of God.

I don’t necessarily mean the kind of abandonment that rejects the Word altogether. I don’t mean they assault the Word by deny its inspiration and authority or doubting its historicity. I think Wells is describing, and I think church splits occur because churches demonstrate in their practice their belief that the Scripture is not sufficient for faith and conduct.

In Wells words, “a script is being written, however unwittingly, for the Church’s undoing, not in one cataclysmic moment, but in a slow, inexorable slide made up of piece by tiny piece of daily dereliction.” What an apt description of so much of church life and individual Christian life: a “daily dereliction” of the Word of God leads to the unraveling of the church.

When, where and how does this “daily dereliction” occur?

First, Wells rightly points out that it occurs in too much preaching today. Better minds have written better treatments of the problem with preaching today… so I have only one comment on this subject. I make it with fear and trembling knowing that my own inadequacies as a preacher are displayed every Sunday before God, the elect of heaven, and a couple hundred saints and sinners. But here it is: failure to preach God’s Word clearly, fully, urgently and only is treason against God our Father, Christ our Lord, and His bride the church. It’s high treason. By preaching God’s Word “clearly, fully, urgently and only” I don’t mean every sermon is perfect, that every sermon includes everything that could be said about a given text, or that illustrations and analogies are a no-no. I merely mean that if the “Word of God is the means by which God accomplishes his saving work in his people” as Wells puts it, then failure to preach it is to oppose God at the point of His divine rescue of the world with the very means of that rescue. Preaching that fails to center on the Word of God is treasonous.

Second, abandonment of the Word of God occurs in counseling. The impulse in the Christian ministry is to approach counseling as “talk therapy.” The tendency is to over-empathize and to under-discipline. I mean “discipline” in its broadest sense. The Word of God is to shape the person’s affections, thoughts, desires, and choices and, thereby, discipline, form or mold the person. When I fail to do this, I’m writing a script for the unraveling of that person’s life and the church’s life… and they stand there “unwittingly” being shaped by the wrong tool. I’m convinced that I miss far too many opportunities to simply open the Bible and apply it to the persons and cases before me. When I do that, I demonstrate my lack of confidence in the sufficiency of the Scripture. I’m not taking up the nouthetic—integrationist debate here. I’m simply saying that even though I think I’m more nouthetic in my attitude… in my practice, I’m quite lacking. And that’s to the detriment of my church’s unity and the ability to prevent a split. In those closer encounters between pastor and sheep, I have the opportunity to model what it means to bring every thought captive and to not go beyond what is written and to thereby teach that sheep how to do so in her or his own life. Modeling and teaching that should pay dividends when a question arises that threatens to split the church. If habitually and instinctively individuals resort to the Word of God at such times, bringing themselves under its imperatives, then I’m a long way toward warding off painful division. And the church is a lot closer to being of one mind… God’s mind.

Third, I think churches often split because they’ve abandoned the Word of God in charting, teaching and communicating, explaining and/or defending future directions for the church. The place where you really need good elders and leaders is in resolving those questions, issues or disputes that have no clear biblical answer and are therefore a matter of Christian liberty or wisdom. It’s easy to chart, communicate and defend a decision when it’s a matter of right or wrong, obedience or disobedience. But when it’s a matter of wisdom… things become a bit trickier. The tendency at times is to insist you’ve felt or received “God’s leading” or a particular “calling” as an explanation. Or, there are knee-jerk, defensive appeals for “submitting to leadership.” Our people see through this. After all, they have “leadings” and “callings,” too. The church develops the habit of resolving disputes by deciding who offers the strongest insistence that “God told me so” or “you need to submit.” In a congregational context this is deadly. It teaches the people that there really is no authority outside of ourselves when it comes to the less clear matters, which in the minds of most people are the most important or at least the most impassioned matters. Even in cases where the decision rests on wisdom or prudence, our best judgment about a particular question, we should still demonstrate how that decision is wise in light of clearer commands and examples in Scripture. We should rehearse or display for our folks something of our wrestling with and searching of the Scripture in order to arrive at this decision so that they see us submitting to God’s Word in the unclear or tough times. We do this with the hopes that they will learn to habitually do the same in cases that threaten a church split.

Pastor’s Personal Life
Fourth, and finally, the centrality of the Word of God must be demonstrated in the pastor’s own personal life. This is almost axiomatic. But as another Wells put it: “we’ve reached the point where the first duty of intelligent man is to restate the obvious.” When I survey the lives of televangelists and many of the popular authors my people enjoy and give ear to, I’m terrified at what they are imbibing. Today, to be a “successful pastor” means imaging forth upper crust attitudes, ambitions and achievements. The Word of God is not only not central to those lives, but it’s not even in the picture except to justify my belly’s desires. The Word must surely be central to our ministrations, but it must also be central to our personal devotion and choices. I need to be the model of this, even as I learning to practice it in the church. I’m afraid that sometimes the reason I’m not helping people bring every thought captive is because my every thought isn’t captive. I’m not sufficiently arrested with the glories and beauties of the Savior revealed in His Word to be instinctively and habitually pointing others there. And that works against one of my major objectives… preventing a church split.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

How To Prevent A Church Split, Part 3

How many people do you know in your church? Of them, how many do you know well?

Even in small churches, the tendency often is to "count" the number of relationships one has by the number of people we "know," that is, whose names we know or whose faces we recognize. We "know" them because we see them occasionally or we speak with them from time to time... polite but disinterested "how ya doing?" chit-chat after the service.

We couldn’t tell you much about who their close friends are or who they spend time with in church. We couldn’t tell you important spiritual information about them… how they came to faith in Christ, what their home life was like growing up, or what their current spiritual victories or struggles are. If they serve in an obvious public way we could point that out, but we couldn’t talk intelligently about the ways that person needs to be served.

Okay... if you're in this category of folks, if there are others like this in your church, it's time for you to start praying against a church split. A split may not imminent but some of the conditions for one are present.

Every church split, by definition, involves people who are alienated in their affections toward one another. The splits occur when this alienation is hardened and seemingly intractable. But the roots of the split extend back to that time when everyone seemed to be getting along (meaning there were no obvious conflicts) but really didn’t know one another. That period is the calm before the storm. Introduce an offense, teach something that crosses someone’s pet sin or tender spot, and what appeared to be placid water begins to foam and roil until a major storm approaches the shores of the church.

As pastors I think it’s our duty to act while things are calm, to take a preventative step before these conditions for a split are aggravated. And, so far, I think one of the best antidotes to a split are wide, healthy, and spiritually encouraging relationships in the body.

We must relinquish our passive approach to friendships. That’s the bottom line. We’re too passive in cultivating meaningful affection for one another. We wait for the relationship to come to us. We want it to be “natural” and to “just flow” or “click.” I suppose there is a thing as trying too hard, but I think most of us a far from that. We try too little. We’d rather the coziness of being alone with our own thoughts, interests, and “friends” from some yesteryear like high school or college. We don’t like the toil of getting to know others and opening ourselves up (much less prying into their lives) in a substantive, transparent way.

One correction to this is an active hospitality ministry. By hospitality, I mean the cultivation of a wide network of relationships in the church through any number of invitations, engagements, and entertainments. The emphasis here is on the wideness of the relationships, not the particular activity over which you build them. Some part of our people’s time must be given over to meeting as many fellow members as possible, especially members not like them (i.e., different age, social/economic class, family backgrounds, ethnicity).

We must teach our people to open up their lives by opening up their calendars and their homes. If our churches are going to be healthy enough to survive difficulties, then our people must have enough credit with one another—drawn from the tenderness of sharing meals and meaningful conversation—to trust and assume the best. We must know one another broadly enough and deeply enough to know when someone else’s apparent anger is really deep hurt, or when someone’s resistance is masking pride, or when a brother’s disappearance from the fellowship is likely a sign of trouble with sin. And we can’t see beneath the apparent in one another’s lives if we don’t actually cultivate friendships with others. And an active hospitality ministry in the body is one way of doing that. Of course, church-wide fellowships are another. But the point is that we don’t want to “professionalize” fellowship and hospitality by reducing it to only those church-sanctioned events and failing to discourage active hospitality by/from members.

Most churches I’ve belonged to have not had active discipleship efforts in place. Some people in “natural friendships” find time to encourage one another, pray together, or have regular accountability meetings. These tend to be some of the more mature members who find their way to each other. But the majority of people are not in that kind of relationship, at least not with members of their church. They find a lot of encouragement and love from Christian friends at work or at other churches. But they find little stimulus and nurture from the people with whom they covenant together in the local church. In other words, when our main source of spiritual care (apart from sermons and public gatherings) comes from those outside our church, our affections are likely to be stronger for those outside the body than for those inside. This makes it easy for us to “quit” on others because they’re not the source of nurture and love anyway. This is why some people can easily leave the church at the first sign of trouble and find a home in a church across town. Their hearts were already there with people that they loved more than their church family.

If hospitality builds wide relationships, then discipleship builds deeper ones. Is it too much to expect that every member of the church has at least two intentional, spiritually-focused relationships in the church… a relationship with someone more mature that is building into their lives and a relationship with someone as or less mature into whom they are building? And this, I would suggest, should be in addition to those relationships formed in small groups. So add two to the number of folks in your small group.

We will be healthier if we take some responsibility for one another’s spiritual lives. The membership is to be the frontline of spiritual care. If our affections lie with another country or just with our unit (i.e., small group) then our first line of defense against splits will be easily divided and run over. The enemy will establish key beach heads, take over key forts and bridges, and lay siege to the city.

As pastors, we are called to be examples in everything. That includes hospitality and discipleship. So, we must be chief among those who serve in this way. I realize that many pastors barely have a place to call a retreat, a place to escape the pressures of the ministry. But they will never have a place of retreat among their own people if they don’t begin to push the enemy out of the camp by carrying on an active hospitality and discipleship ministries among the people.

It’s no accident that the Lord of the church includes “hospitable” among the qualifications for church leadership. Why? Well, not simply because “hospitable” is another way of saying “he’s a nice guy” or “he’s friendly.” Hospitable includes an active disposition to serve others by engaging and entertaining them. It is being generous with your self, giving yourself away to others. That tends to directly oppose the slow decay and passive approach to relationships in the church. It’s vital that we leaders model healthy relationships in the body. We must do that with fellow leaders, and we must do that with members in the body.

Sentinels and Watchmen
One concluding thought. It seems to me that some churches split because someone ignored the warning signs for far too long. They heard the fearful cries of the villagers on the outskirts of the city when the enemy first struck, but they did not sound the alarm. They could see from afar off the smoke rising from the battle, but they did not blow the horn. There are those of us who have been called to be watchmen upon the wall, and there are those among us who like sentinels are scouting the area for trouble and opportunity. We must be faithful in reporting and responding to what we see and what we find.

What do I mean? Take elders and deacons, for example. As leaders in the body, serving as “shock absorbers” is one part of our responsibility. This is a perspective I picked up from the brothers at CHBC. When a disgruntled parent in the nursery, or a member offended at a sermon, or disaffection in the ranks is first observed, do we as elders and leaders absorb that shock or do we multiply it? Do we understand that we have an opportunity to diffuse a situation before it multiplies? Do we recognize that very often a certain nod of the head, knowing sly smile, shrug of the shoulders, or raising of the brow signals to our people that we agree or approve of their actions, which tear away at the relational foundation of the church?

More damage is done with a facial expression or body language from a leader who fails to be a shock absorber than by any number of petty pains or hurts that weak or wounded sheep may express. Our job is to absorb these minor shocks to the body like a black hole, to submerge them into the deep void of forgiveness, and to work to make sure the complaint is heard, addressed appropriately (which could range from resolving a real problem to rebuking a sinning sibling), and stopped with us.

If we’re going to prevent church splits, we must be the kind of leaders who can take a hit without escalating the battle, who can diffuse issues in a godly way that actually strengthens relationships in the church. And we must be models of what it means to actively, tenaciously, intentionally, and loving pursue deep and wide relationships in the body of Christ. At her core, the church is a mass of spiritual relationships—individuals to the Lord and to one another, forming something more than the sum of her parts, forming a body. Lose these relationships and we unravel the church.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

How To Prevent A Church Split, Part 2

As a boy, I loved reading the Encyclopedia Brown mystery novels. It was engaging and stimulating stuff. Sherlock Holmes for us young shorties. (If any of you have any of the stories and you’d like to part with them for a modest fee, please e-mail me).

I still love a great mystery novel or suspense thriller. Mystery creates much of the wonder of life. And because it leaves us in wonder, a kind of admiring awe, mystery creates a godly humility.

Christianity is a mystery from start to finish. Its truths stagger the mind and refresh the soul… One God in three Persons, creation ex nihilo, Perfect Infinity squeezed into the finiteness of a virgin’s womb, sinless perfection, substitution and propitiation, simultaneously just and sinner, resurrection, new birth, and I could go on. These are grand, towering, staggering, “biggie-sized” truths. They are mysterious in the best sense of the word.

But there is at least one other mystery in Christianity. In fact, the Bible itself uses the term “mystery” to describe it. There is the mystery of the church (Eph. 3). The church is the revelation of a mystery hidden in ages past but now revealed by the Spirit of God to His holy apostles and prophets. That mystery is that there is one people of God—Jew and Gentile in one body, heirs together, and partakers together of the promise—and that the intent of God, His eternal purpose, is that the church should reveal His wisdom to heavenly powers (3:10, 11) and be the repository of His glory along with Christ (3:21).

Take that in for a moment….

That makes this next mystery all the more puzzling. It is mysterious to me that the centrality of the church is so little preached today. What explains its absence from the vast majority of sermons, Bible studies, and Sunday school classes? How did it just vanish from the thinking of Christians? It’s a detective mystery worthy of Encyclopedia Brown. And it's a problem that we must fix if we are to ever see our people desire life with all God's people above their own self-interests and affinity groups.

To prevent church splits, we must regain the centrality of the local church in our preaching and practice. We must lay heavy biblical emphasis on the centrality of the people of God throughout redemptive history and in contemporary Christian life. We must preach and emphasize the fact that the church is central to God’s affections, self-identification, and eternal plan. It must, therefore, be central to ours.

The Church: The Center of God’s Affections
The Scripture tells us that earthly marriage is a picture (dim and imperfect, surely) of Christ’s love for the church… again called a “mystery” (Eph. 5:25-32). The church is his bride, which He is purifying and preparing for the consummation. He gave himself for her and is her Savior. In other words, the church is the center of the Savior’s affections. Our preaching must make this plain, and not just from the obvious places like Eph. 5. We must underscore this in all of Scripture which is the story of God creating for himself a people upon whom He sovereignly places His love.

As a preacher, I must work against the strong currents of individualism that reads all of Scripture as a “personal love letter” from Jesus to each individual. As an evangelist, I have to undermine the popular sentiment that says “God has a plan for your (read individual) life” and “you need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Well… God does have a plan for His people and it the center of it is involvement in His church, His body, His royal nation. The emphasis almost everywhere is on plural nouns, not first person singulars. It is vitally important that we make it clear that discipleship by definition includes following Christ in the company of His people, in fact, loving His people.

The Church: Central to Jesus’ Self-Identity
We must also preach and make clear that Christ Jesus strongly identifies with the church. Recall that arresting question He asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?” Paul’s imprisonment and abuse of Christians was actually done to Christ. All of the body of Christ imagery says nothing if it doesn’t mean that Christ identifies with His people. And throughout the biblical record, the Lord identifies with His chosen, calling them by His name, protecting and providing for them, dwelling in their midst.

We have to teach and preach this so that our people will see the rightness of identifying with Him. Though the Lord saves us individually, Christ identifies fundamentally with the church. And our identification with Him is clearest when we too associate with the church. All of the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s supper) the Lord left us are designed to make this allegiance clear. They say more than this, but not less than this: that we identify with Jesus by identifying with His body, the same body that He identifies with. We must help our folks understand this so that their allegiance to the Lord is expressed in large measure through their allegiance to the church—not the pastor, not the music, not particular church programs, or conveniences like service times. Their allegiance must be raised to the level of Christ, which is an allegiance to the entire people of God.

The Church: Central to God’s Plan of Redemption
We must, finally, help our people see that the church is the center of God’s redeeming and self-glorifying plan in heaven and on earth. That’s what we gather from Eph. 1:10, 22-23; 2:14-22; 3:9-11, 20-21. It’s through the church that the evangelism of the world is carried out. The church reveals God’s wisdom and glory. The church proclaims the defeat of the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Through the church, the Lord will gather all things under His feet.

Our people must know that God has not plan of redemption and no plan for spiritual edification and maturity outside the church. They must know that participation in church is about far more than their individual needs. Participation in the church is essential to advancing the plans of God to bring to himself glory, to redeem humanity, and to bring all things to completion. And they must be taught to prize all of that above their individual selves. We must teach them that if it’s God’s glory they wish to pursue, then one of the easiest things they can do is to join, commit to, and love a local church—which is God’s eternal design for them anyway.

I suspect that if our people are immersed in these truths week to week, taught to read the Scripture with at least one corporate lense, and encouraged to live out the faith with “one another,” we will begin the process of inoculating our churches against the plague of church splits. This I take to be my objective as a pastor.

Next time, Lord willing, we’ll consider the importance of relationships in protecting the church from splits.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

How To Prevent A Church Split, Part 1

I have a new and growing conviction. It's occupying a lot of my thoughts these days... good thoughts, I think. I don't know why it hasn't always been a conviction, at least not quite in this way. But, nonetheless, I am convinced that one of my fundamental objectives as a pastor is to prevent church splits from happening.

I don't mean that it's my responsibility to make sure no one leaves, or to settle every dispute in a way that preserves unity at all costs. No, there'll be times when a "split" will humanly speaking be inevitable, and I trust that the Lord has good purposes in causing or allowing them to happen.

What I mean is this: I have some basic responsibilities as a pastor. I must teach and preach God's Word; I must pray; I must be an example; and, I must carry on a visitation ministry. That's basically what I think a pastor is to do (admittedly a bit oversimplified). But I am increasingly convinced that I am to do those things with a particular perspective. I'm to do those things with an eye toward the developing and continuing unity of the church. Said negatively, I'm to work in such a way as to prevent the splintering of Christ's local body in my charge.

It seems to me that preventing splits is a bit like preventative health care. Most of us trolly through life without caring much about our health. We eat any and most everything. We don't exercise regularly. Our sleep habits are terrible. We overwork ourselves at high-stress jobs, and we seldom take vacations. Then we go to the doctor for a checkup or because some pain or another won't go away. That's when we hear the news: our bodies have actually been carrying on a covert coup against us. We're told that our blood pressure is high. Cholestorol is clogging up blood flow. And then there is the dreaded "O" word that seems to be wreaking havoc on youth in particular--obesity.

We react with surprise at the news. Not the kind of surprise that's completely unsuspecting; we knew that neglecting ourselves could result in these things. No, we're surprised because it happened to us. "High blood pressure... that's aunt Annie's problem. Obesity... that's uncle Bobo's issue." The reality of the problem--completely preventable if it had been at least a part of our focus--comes crashing home. We're sick and now there is only the drudgery of changing life-long habits and/or undergoing some radical procedure.

I think church splits are a lot like that. Churches adopt lifelong bad habits, deny the warning signs (the sleeplessness, headaches and chest pains), and then are surprised when part of the body carries out the silent coup. They don't think it will happen to them no matter how bad things get. And then it does and the pain is great.

There were early warning signs:

  • Growing numbers of cliques and factions. Cliques present themselves as "natural friendships," groups of people who "get along" because of some shared interests, backgrounds, or ideas. But without care, these groups will harden into impenetrable factions that use their common interests as a rallying cry against the rest of the body.
  • Low concern for the church qua church. We live in a Christian era that stresses the individual like no era before it. Most people think Christianity is about me and "my personal relationship with Jesus." That littly phrase, "my personal," acting as a kind of double possessive, is deadly to the body. And it's often compounded by the next warning signal.
  • Self-interests dominate group interests. If life is all about "my personal relationship" then I'm likely to be quite self-seeking. I want to be stimulated. I want to be served. I want my preferences met. I... I... I... till there is no "we" left. And where that exists, there will be little concern--certainly not ultimate concern--for the needs and mission of the larger group, the church.
  • Isolated and absent members. It's understandable, given the first three symptoms, that some number of members will be isolated in the body, without any meaningful relationships, or absent altogether. Large numbers of isolated and absent members actually have the peculiar effect of making it more difficult to pastor those who are attending. Isolated and absent members make it more difficult to know who is in your care and who is not. And at various points they will cause you to expend a lot of energy trying to "catch up with them" and diagnose their spiritual state. But there's another problem. These isolated and absentee members actually undermine the very fabric of fellowship and relationships in the body. They make it normal to be a part of a church and simultaneously anonymous and uninvolved with others. So, there becomes no relational context in the church to support a wider concern for the church, making splits easier to ponder.
  • Lack of humility. Pride is a lethal foe. Combine pride with any of the symptoms above and you can just hear the emergency room attendant yelling "STAT" into the loud speaker. Pride surfaces itself in an unwillingness to hear feedback, be it a word of correction, instruction and even encouragement. Pride in the cliques says, "we've got it all together and those folks over there need to get with us." Pride in "lone ranger Christians" contends that she/he doesn't need the church. Absent members exhibit pride when they say, "Leave me alone; this is my life." This pride is deadly serious.
  • Mixed allegiance to the pastor(s)/elders. Sometimes some members feel a fierce allegiance to the pastor(s), while others feel fairly opposed or indifferent to him/them. And when church members clump together on the poles of love and dislike, you can just about be certain that some significant number of them have taken their eyes off the true Head of the Church, Jesus. One cries "I'm with Appollos," and another cries "I'm with Paul." The fact that everyone is not crying "I'm with Jesus" and "We follow our pastors as they follow Jesus" should be of real concern.
  • Low emphasis on the Word of God. I can't state this problem better than David Wells' observation (HT: Mark Dever). Quite simply, if we lose the centrality, sufficiency, and authority of the Word of God, we unravel the church as we abandon the only rule of faith and conduct.

These are some of the early warning signals for a church split. Imperceptible at their start, they grow very slowly in most cases. When you feel mild discomfort from them, they've usually rooted themselves to some extent. And by the time you feel real pain, those roots have formed huge balls and arteries that wrap themselves around the foundation of the house. Excavating them will be painful and costly. But in many cases, by the time you feel the pain, the conditions for a split are quite abundant.

I'm convinced that it's my job to pastor in such a way that I try to ward off, retard, uproot or cut out these problems before they give birth to greater sin. I need to approach the basic task of pastoring with at least one eye toward prevention. And I need to look beyond the horizon of this present congregation to consider those who are coming after us, to take the long view with the hopes of leaving a congregation that would be healthy for generations should the Lord tarry.

Since pastors tend to impress upon their congregations something of their own personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, and that impress tends to linger through subsequent generations and pastorates, for good and for ill, I need to work hard at being an example of one that loves like Jesus loves and one that encourages and teaches others to pursue unity and peace. That's my task, I think. That's the task of every Christian. In the next couple of posts, we'll explore some ways of thinking about and living out this task.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Live A Life Worthy of the Calling You Received

Lord willing, this coming Sunday, I'll have the great privilege of opening up a great passage of scripture, Ephesians 4:1-16. Couldn't do a better post than just sharing God's Word today.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men."

(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

May we all "live a life worthy of the calling we have received" in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Forget the World Series...

Who is the best NBA player in the world?

I think Dime Magazine has it correct in selecting D-Wade at the top of their top ten. He's a monster on the hardwoods and seems to be a good guy off the court as well.

Look at that vertical! Reminds me of myself... 50 pounds and 18 years ago ;-)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Good Thoughts on Pastoral Visitation

The Lord used Richard Baxter's visitation ministry to work a revival in Kidderminster. It seems He is stirring good spiritual thought and fruit in Paul Martin's visitation ministry. He has some good thoughts on this excellent ministry here and here. His second post begins with a great quote from Baxter:
We must labour to be acquainted, not only with the persons, but with the state of all our people, with their inclinations and conversations; what are the sins of which they are most in danger, and what duties they are most apt to neglect, and what temptations they are most liable to; for if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians. –- Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 90.

Southwestern: Resolved... No Tongues, No How

On Tuesday, in a lopsided vote of 36-1 (Rev. Dwight McKissic being the lone dissenting vote), Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary passed a resolution stating:
Southwestern will not knowingly endorse in any way, advertise, or commend
the conclusions of the contemporary charismatic movement including private
prayer language. Neither will Southwestern knowingly employ professors or
administrators who promote such practices.

The 12 Apostles of Democratic Religion

Religion News Service featured an article this week that listed the twelve people they think are teaching the Democratic party to "get religion." I like the hubris of naming 12. It's also an interesting list. Let's pray that Dem's (and Republicans) do, in fact, "get religion" and the choices in the future are that much more difficult because candidates at national, state and local levels are believers or at lease hold to a biblical view of the good life.

On another note, Dr. Mohler asks if Christians should fast from politics.

Boot Camp for Street Preachers

Having tried my hand at street preaching, I respect and pray for those who remain committed to the open air. Here's a group taking it to the street.

Many say we shouldn't preach the gospel this way; it's offensive. I've heard offensive preaching, which is to be distinguished from the offense of the gospel. Offensive preaching is offensive whether it's in a local park or a local church. The offense of the gospel is a good thing wherever it occurs. I'm thankful for the Judge Bork look-alike who regularly visited NC State to preach on the brickyard and corners around the university. I was a scoffer, a hater of the cross, and an idolator at the time, but I'm thankful now!

Shotgun Churches

You've heard of the Victorian, the Cape Cod, the transitional, traditional, contemporary, and the once-fabulous split-level home. There are also the MacMansions popping up all over suburbia. But in the poor, working lower class town where I'm from, the "shotgun house" is pretty popular. That's those little houses of simple design with one main corridor with a couple of rooms off to the side. They get their name from the fact that you could shoot a shotgun through the front door all the way through the back door without hitting anyone or any walls.

I think it's time we christen some churches "shotgun churches." Seems the front and back door of too many churches are wide open. You could fire a sawed-off through one door and never hit a wall or a member. Faster than the speeding bullets can travel through, members enter and leave.

At least that's what we're to gather from a recently published Lifeway Research survey of 469 "formerly churched adults" who gave their top reasons for leaving church. (HT: Pray Connecticut). Lifeway conducted the survey "to better understand why people stop attending church - and what it would take to bring them back.

Part 1 of the survey focused on why people are leaving. The two major categories of reasons for leaving were "changes in life situations" (59%) and "disenchantment with pastor/church" (37%). Between these categories, the top responses were:

  1. Simply got too busy - 19 %
  2. Family/home responsibilities prevented attendance - 17 %
  3. Church members seemed hypocritical - 17 %
  4. Church members were judgmental of others - 17 %
  5. Moved too far from church - 17 %
  6. Work situation prevented church attendance - 15 %
  7. Church was not helping me develop spiritually - 14 %
  8. Stopped believing in organized religion - 14 %
  9. Church was run by a clique that discouraged involvement - 12 %
  10. Got divorced/separated - 10 %

There's much to respond to here. On the one hand, it seems clear that these folks did not understand the centrality of the local church in God's plan of redemption (Eph. 2:11-3:10). When the top reason for leaving is "simply got too busy" and "family/home responsibilities prevented attendance," then someone has never learned or taught that following Jesus means and always has meant, in part, joining the local collection of other followers of Jesus as the people of God. This very basic aspect of the Christian life must be recaptured and emphasized in our membership classes and our public teaching. It must be.

Also, there are the problems with the behavior of some Chrisitians. Certainly, people inside the church are hurt from time to time. Pastors stumble. Members wound. So, part of our teaching must emphasize growing in Christ likeness and the "one another" passages of Scripture. Instead of investing an inordinate amount of time in fancy vision and values statements made popular by corporations, perhaps we should major on that vision and those values expressed by God himself in His Word. Let's hold the Bible's picture of the church up as the vision, and call all our people to enroll in that vision, which includes loving our brothers so uniquely and visibly that others will know we are followers of Jesus.

The respondents described themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" (24%), "Christian, but not particularly devout" (42%), "devout Christian with a strong belief in God" (19%), wavering on Christianity (10%), and no belief in God at all (6%).

These self-descriptions are helpful because they suggest that as much as 40% of the respondents (former church members) quite possibly were not Christians at all (spiritual but not religious, wavering on Christianity, and no belief at all). That's not including the potential numbers of people who are falsely assuring themselves when they say they are "Christians, but not particularly devout." Setting aside for a moment the particular responses given for not attending, it would seem the more fundamental problem is taking care to be sure people understand and profess the gospel before admitting them to membership. In other words, these statistics suggest that what we need to do is close the front door to the church so that only Christians who value and are committed to the local church a priori are admitted to membership. We'll always have these kinds of reasons for leaving and high non-attendance rates if we don't first work to have our membership comprised of informed, confessing Christians.

Here, I think the Lifeway writers got it precisely backward when they concluded, in part, "More than 80 percent of the formerly churched do not have a strong belief in God, explaining why work and family are a higher priority than church. But would they be 'too busy' to attend if they felt more welcome at church?" If the idea that they're "too busy" is a sham, why would we think that the solution is to make them "more welcome at church"? I think we want them experiencing discomfort at church because our emphasis on the corporate life of God's people, drawn from the Scripture, causes them to be convicted and to notice their low valuations. Our aim is not to make the uncommitted comfortable, but to edify the committed saints and thus make the Christian life distinctive and attractive for those who are being saved.

Part 2 of the article, asks whether or not "church leavers" would be willing to return. Here are the results:

  1. 4% are actively looking for another church;
  2. 6% would prefer to resume attending the church they left;
  3. 62% are not actively looking at all, but are "open" to attending;

The average respondent had not attended regularly for the past 14 years. But the Lifeway authors conclude that we should be encouraged that 3 out of 4 are "willing to give it another try." Fourteen years of non-attendance and only 10% of folks looking to attend in some fashion hardly inspire optimism. This reminds me of the SBC's tendency to count non-attending church members as "prospects." They're supposed to be converts! Perhaps a little more pessimism about their spiritual position and a little less optimism about "getting them to come to church is the answer" is warranted.

Among those who indicated some "interest" in returning to church "when they felt it was time to return" (58%) or "felt God calling them to church" (31%), these were some of the reasons they might consider returning:

  • "to fill a gap felt since stopping regular church attendance" (34%) - this is the most promising statistic in the entire survey for my money. Folks are supposed to feel a gap when they've removed themselves from the fellowship of God's people.
  • "to bring me closer to God" (46%). In a survey where most respondents may not be Christians, I'm not sure what this means.
  • "be around those with similar values" (32%). Depending on the values, this is a recipe for cliques and nominalism.
  • "to make friends" (31%). See above.
  • "to make a difference/help others in the community" (30%). This, too, may indicate that folks are not clear on exactly what the nature and primary purpose of the local church is. It's not fundamentally a community service club, though it may engage in many worthwhile community outreach/improvement activities.

At the end of the day, the Lifeway study is interesting and helpful because it points out once again that for the health of the local church and individual Christians, we must recover a high view of the local church, its centrality in the redemptive plan of God, and the importance of healthy church membership practices that close the front door and open the back. Apart from these things, we will always be plagued with constant leavers and non-attenders.

We would be better off if we thought of statistics like these as not so much indicators of opportunities but signs of impending death and decay. These data are just as likely to forecast church decline and church splits as they are opportunities for recapturing former members. If we're not careful in our membership practices, we will invite all kinds of folks with different interests and commitments and will one day look up only to find that we've filled the church with carnality of the sort that only produces strife and pain.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


A good friend has posted an excellent review of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. Turns out... the letter isn't to us at all.


Seems that in the last couple of months, the Lord has given me something to share with each of my daughters. My oldest girl, Afiya, loves Civ4. We have to monitor each other's use. My youngest girl, 6 year old Eden, has decided she wants to blog. How fun. She's up to her 3rd post over at Tales from Eden.


Mark Lauterbach, pastor of Grace Church and author at GospelDrivenLife, has written a helpful post over at Na called "How to Disagree (Humbly)". It's an instructive reflection and one necessary for negotiating the Christian life.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


"Race is not the Church's biggest problem. Our biggest problem is loving and befriending people who are not like us. Weekly meetings, conferences, and programs have failed because they are too simplistic. Now is the time for the Church to demonstrate radical relationships of inconvenience."

That's exactly right! Read Anthony Bradley's complete post: The Divided Church.

(HT: Ekklesia)

Monday, October 16, 2006


I sometimes talk too much. I could benefit from hearing and heeding the words of James 1:19: "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." I'm not there yet.
But from time to time, I am silenced. It's not that I don't have things to say. That's a rarity. It's that the words I have seem so inadequate. I'm forced to recognize that there are situations that exceed my verbal prowess. Hospital visitations is where it happens most often.

Visit 1
I remember the lady who called the church asking if someone could visit her, bring her a Bible, and help her find a place to live. She said she was a Christian, was new to the city, and had hit a patch of bad luck. Her calls were persistent, and she sounded desperate. In God's inscrutable wisdom, I was the only pastor able to visit her. So, I grabbed an intern and headed over.

She neglected to mention in her many calls that she was in the psychiatric ward of the hospital. That tiny omission coupled with the layers of security and strict protocol had me wishing for an easy out... an unexpected visit from the doctor, an end to visiting hours, a fire drill, power outage... anything.

We make it to the floor, are escorted to a private meeting room, and left waiting for our friend. She clearly had "issues." Her story checked out as best I could tell. She recounted the robbery that left her penniless, the boyfriend who abused then abandoned her, joblessness, medications above her pay grade, and homelessness awaiting her at discharge (2 days) in a new city with no friends or family. In all of that, she was deeply grateful for the Bible... and deeply saddened that she had called tons of churches (including her old church back home) and only we had visited her or returned her calls. "Christian people ought to love better than that." Speechless. Well... not exactly speechless, but what I thought to say sounded hollow, rehearsed until automatic, almost robotic, and useless. As best I recall, what I said was true... factually accurate. But looking at this disheveled heap of a woman with the wild eyes and matching hair, with the broken life and heart, I knew before the words escaped this wind tunnel of a mouth that they would miss their target.

Visit 2
On another occasion, there was the visit to the elderly mother of seven who was losing her battle with cancer. She called for a minister because she wanted to "get right with God." No one told her she was losing her bout with the disease... but I don't think they had to. She bore all the marks... clean shaven, frail from weight loss, weakness, IV drips, and flower baskets that hardly passed for still lifes.

An awkward introduction, followed by a clumsy greeting, "How are you doing?" (Wish I hadn't said that! Goofus!)

"I'm okay" was the gracious reply. She wasn't. Or at least whether she was or wasn't depended on her answers to my questions.

We talked almost an hour. There were her wishes and regrets. There were unlikely hopes for leaving the hospital and recovering. She spoke of sudden unexpected deaths in the family... young people who according to the averages had 5 decades of life left but were suddenly gone. I was reminded again of how wrong it seems for a parent to outlive their children, and in this case, their grandchildren.

She had been "raised in the church," though she readily confessed that she didn't understand the Bible. She agonized over praying and not being able to remember her prayers. She doubted that she was right with God. Though she wasn't a Bible reader, she knew the rudiments of the gospel. She asked for a primer on the whole Bible; she wanted to understand it. I gave her an overview with what I hoped were enough hooks on which to hang sections of the Bible and key stories. She was appreciative but still in need.

"Why does God let all of this happen? Why do people die?" She wanted a good answer. She wasn't antagonistic or skeptical... just earnest and scared. "Sin," I explained, adding details whenever I sensed more questioning on her face. I slowly presented the gospel again. She understood and said she believed before asking me, "How about my forgetting? Why do I keep forgetting what I pray? Can you help me with my doubts?" Silence. Again, not the silence of a closed mouth... but the silence of words that, though true, seem so far from anything actually happening in the person's life. I don't know if I'll ever get accustomed to that look that overtakes the face and says, "I really wish you had more to offer."

I gave her theologically sound answers, read appropriate sections of the Scripture, and finally spent some time in prayer with her. My prayers did seem to escape the ceiling. They were offered in faith I trust. But all my words to her bumbled and stumbled against the back of my teeth. They grew roots on the tip of my tongue.

Sometimes a person simply needs some company, someone to listen and empathize. I think I do that pretty well. But sometimes a person needs a response, an answer. And many times, the answer needs to come from somewhere other than me. It needs to come from God himself.

I agree with Tripp in War of Words when he says that it's our words that are normally the tools God uses to encourage and help others. We should speak to edify and to administer grace. However, there are bruises and doubts, pains and fears that are not easily massaged, consoled and healed by the pastor. In these situations, people need to hear from God himself. It's not our words that minister; it's His words spoken in His Word and/or whispered in a way that only He can, directly to the soul. That last clause may get me in trouble with some cessationists or folks who are shy about anything that sounds remotely charismatic. My guess is that many of them have not been in enough hospital rooms or visited enough deathbeds to speak with folks whose questions and longings require the Voice of All Authority.

Self Assessment
I think I may be far too dependent in the wrong ways on my insight and eloquence. Too often, genuine faith trods along too far behind my actual speaking. I hope, pray and trust... usually in the car ride home... that the words left back there are tilling the soil or were sprouting beneath my sight at the time. Of course, I pray before the visit. But during the visit... perhaps it's too much self-effort and self-reliance. I'm learning that my focus is on me too often.

How dreadful! To meet with a soul that will soon face its Maker... and to be thinking about myself... my words! Is there a more gross vanity than to concern yourself with yourself while the light of life is being extinguished before you?! Uuugh! I should be silenced.

In these moments of being silenced, I'm also learning to pray more fervently. Perhaps the silence is meant to provoke exactly that, a closed mouth with my fellow man and an open mouth in prayer with the God who speaks best.

How Far Will We Go to Integrate the Church?

This past Sunday, I had the great privilege of preaching Ephesians 2:11-22. I always love meditating on the mystery of the church, and God's eternal plan to make a people out of those who were no people, to "make one new man" our of Jew and Gentile. It was a humbling honor to unpack this passage for a little while on Sunday.

While I was continuing to meditate on the glories of the passage, I came across this story: Louisiana Black Church Will Pay Whites to Attend.

The Bishop Fred Caldwell of Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Church offered white people who attend his church $5/hr for attending Sunday services and $10/hr for Thursday services. One church member commented: "I don't see it as any different than a lot of the churches that have different social functions to attract visitors. Bishop just kind of cut to the chase and went to the money."

What?! This is a whole new level of racial reconciliation and integrated church services!

My wife's question was, "How does he know who the white people are?" Which seemed rather odd until I remembered that I'm in Grand Cayman and knowing this isn't always so obvious.

Now, the article is three years old. But it's still worth the read. I appreciate that pastor's ambition... I really do. But am I the only one who thinks this is too much? How many of you would attend a church with this offer? I think Mark Dever owes me for the hours and hours of services and sermons I've sat through. There's Sunday morning, Sunday night, service review after Sunday night, Wednesday night Bible study, Thursday morning theology breakfast (where there is NO breakfast!), and the occasional Henry Forum. In the immortal words of Ice T to Chris Rock in New Jack City, "You owe Pookie; you owe a lot of people."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Remember Abbot & Costello's "Who's on First"?

A version for our time! (HT: Thoughts of a Wood Elf)

Click here for the immortal original.
Abbott: Ultimate SuperDuper Computer Store. Can I help you?
Costello: Thanks. I'm setting up a home office in the den, and I'm thinking of buying a computer.
Abbott: Mac?
Costello: No, the name is Bud.
Abbott: Your computer?
Costello: I don't own a computer. I want to buy one.
Abbott: Mac?
Costello: I told you, my name is Bud.
Abbott: What about Windows?
Costello: Why? Does it get stuffy?
Abbott: Do you want a computer with Windows?
Costello: I don't know. What do I see when I look out the windows?
Abbott: Wallpaper.
Costello: Never mind the windows. I need a computer and software.
Abbott: Software that runs on Windows?
Costello: No, on the computer! I need something I can use to write proposals, track expenses. You know, run a business. What have you got?
Abbott: Office.
Costello: Yeah, for my office. Can you recommend anything?
Abbott: I just did.
Costello: You just did what?
Abbott: Recommend something.
Costello: You recommended something?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: For my office?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: Okay, what did you recommend for my office?
Abbott: Office.
Costello: Yes, for my office.
Abbott: Office for Windows.
Costello: I already have an office and it already has windows! Let's say I'm sitting at my computer, and I want to type a proposal. What do I need?
Abbott: Word.
Costello: If I'm writing a proposal, I'm going to need lots of words. But what program do I load?
Abbott: Word.
Costello: What word?
Abbott: The Word in Office.
Costello: The only word in "office" is "office."
Abbott: The Word in Office for Windows.
Costello: Which word in "office for windows"?
Abbott: The Word you get when you click the blue W.
Costello: I'm going to click your big blue W if you don't give me a straight answer. Let's forget about words for a minute. What do I need if I want to watch a movie over the Internet?
Abbott: RealOne.
Costello: Maybe a real movie, maybe a cartoon. What I watch is none of your business. But what do I need to watch it?
Abbott: RealOne.
Costello: If it's a long movie I'll also want to watch reels two, three, and four. Can I watch reel four?
Abbott: Of course.
Costello: Great! With what?
Abbott: RealOne.
Costello: Okay, so I'm sitting at my computer and I want to watch a movie. What do I do?
Abbott: You click the blue 1.
Costello: I click the blue one what?
Abbott: The blue 1.
Costello: Is that different from the blue W?
Abbott: Of course it is. The blue 1 is RealOne. The blue W is Word.
Costello: What word?
Abbott: The Word in Office for Windows.
Costello: But there are three words in "office for windows"!
Abbott: No, just one. But it's the most popular Word in the world.
Costello: It is?
Abbott: Yes, although to be fair there aren't many other Words left. It pretty much wiped out all the other Words.
Costello: And that word is the real one?
Abbott: No. RealOne has nothing to do with Word. RealOne isn't even part of Office.
Costello: Never mind; I don't want to get started with that again. But I also need something for bank accounts, loans, and so on. What do you have to help me track my money?
Abbott: Money.
Costello: That's right... What do you have?
Abbott: Money.
Costello: I need money to track my money?
Abbott: Money.
Costello: Money comes bundled with my computer?
Abbott: Exactly. No extra charge.
Costello: I get a bundle of money with my computer at no extra charge? How much money do I get?
Abbott: Just one copy.
Costello: I get a copy of money. Isn't that illegal?
Abbott: No. We have a license from Microsoft to make copies of Money.
Costello: Microsoft can license you to make money?
Abbott: Why not? They own it.
Costello: Well, it's great that I'm going to get free money, but I'll still need to track it. Do you have anything for managing your money?
Abbott: Managing Your Money? That program disappeared years ago.
Costello: Well, what do you sell in its place?
Abbott: Money.
Costello: You sell money?
Abbott: Of course. But if you buy a computer from us, you get it for free.
Costello: That's all very wonderful, but I'll be running a business. Do you have any software for, you know, accounting?
Abbott: Simply Accounting.
Costello: Probably, but it might get a little complicated.
Abbott: If you don't want Simply Accounting, you might try M.Y.O.B.
Costello: M.Y.O.B.? What does that stand for?
Abbott: Mind Your Own Business. Costello: I beg your pardon?
Abbott: No, that would be I.B.Y.P. I said M.Y.O.B.
Costello: Look, I just need to do some accounting for my home business. You know-accounting? You do it with money.
Abbott: Of course you can do accounting with Money. But you may need more.
Costello: More money?
Abbott: More than Money. Money can't do everything.
Costello: I don't need a sermon! Okay, let's forget about money for the moment. I'm worried that my computer might...what's the word? Crash. And if my computer crashes, what can I use to restore my data?
Abbott: GoBack.
Costello: Okay. I'm worried about my computer smashing and I need something to restore my data. What do you recommend?
Abbott: GoBack.
Costello: How many times do I have to repeat myself?
Abbott: I've never asked you to repeat yourself. All I said was GoBack.
Costello: How can I go back if I haven't even been anywhere? Okay, I'll go back. What do I need to write a proposal?
Abbott: Word.
Costello: But I'll need lots of words to write a proposal.
Abbott: No, you only need one Word - the Word in Office for Windows.
Costello: But there's three words in... Oh, never mind. *click*
Abbott: Hello? Hello? Customers! Why do they always hang up on me? Oh, well.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Distinctive Christianity in a Nominal Christian Culture, Part 5: Confession

In this series of posts, we've been attempting to probe the question, "How can Christians live genuinely distinctive Christian lives in the midst of a culture where everyone would claim to be Christian, but where a good many may have an incorrect idea of what it means to be a Christian?" We've discussed the ways in which definitions, preaching, membership, and supernatural love factor into this question.

Today, we're taking a look at a lost Christian distinctive that would help immensely in making clearer the distinctions between cultural and genuine Christianity: confession.

In most churches, one of the last things you might here is any serious confession of sin. Confessions of faith we have. Posters with confessions of God's Name are plentiful. But corporate, and often individual, confessions of sin is a rarity. People blush and become awkward at the suggestion that our sins ought to be spoken of to others. And certainly many are disturbed by prayer in the corporate setting a prayer that has as its main feature an admission of sins specific enough to be meaningful and general enough to apply to all present. Confession, it seems, is a lost discipline.

But God's people have historically made confession both a public and a private factor. And I'm convinced that the Holy Spirit often uses such confessions as sparks for personal and corporate revivals. We see that in several places in the Old Testament. As God's people came to their senses, awakened from their sins, and acknowledged their sinfulness and need for forgiveness, God often granted new spiritual zeal, holiness of life, and love for God. And in the New Testament, "repent" is the first demand of the Gospel. Consequently, there can be no entrance into the new covenant and saving faith without admitting in the first instance that we are sinners, without confessing in other words. Confession accompanies conversion, but it also marks the Christian life after conversion, for we continue to sin and continue to need and desire fellowship with God.

So one might ask, "Why has confession of sin gone the way of T-Rex and Triceratops?" I think, in part, because nominalism is more pervasive in its effects than we sometimes realize. And one thing nominalism gnaws away at is the sincerity and humility required to confess our sins to others or in the public gathering of the church. Nominalism exalts privacy and "a personal relationship with God" over bearing with one another, restoring a brother who has fallen, or the continuing discipline of repentance.

We need to recover this discipline for the health of our individual and corporate lives, and for the health of our Gospel witness. One thing non-Christians rarely ever do is confess sin. In our sinful nature, we don't want to be found out. We would rather hide and take cover like our first parents Adam and Eve. Because of our pride and self-love, we can't bear any discrediting of our person. So, in our flesh and as non-Christians, we shade the truth. We soften the blow to our egos by blaming others, qualifying our admissions, and making light of our injury or offense to others. The unregenerate delights in his sin and enjoys the company of those similarly minded (Rom. 1:32). So, admitting and acknowledging said sin to others--much less to God--isn't really something they're inclined to do.

Here, then, is our opportunity to set the Christian life apart by confessing our sins.

We should confess our sins to one another and pray for one another. That practice brings healing among God's people (James 5:16). I don't think I know a better model of this than that demonstrated by the Sovereign Grace pastors and congregations I've had the pleasure of knowing. They are a model of humility and of aggressively warring against pride and hypocrisy by confessing their sins to one another. They watch over one another by actively participating in accountability groups as pastors and by putting their people into tight small groups where confession and healing are one part of the agenda together.

As pastors, we should either include confession of sins in our pastoral prayers or add a prayer of confession to our order of service. We should groom our people to see confession as a healhty spiritual practice that gives life. And by confessing publicly, we make such acknowlegements of sin "normal" for the Christian life. Shame lies in the sin itself, not in the confessing of it.

We should confess our sins to non-Christians. Once I felt so convicted by the Lord for not having a submissive heart with a supervisor. I did what she asked and tried to do it well, but I did it grumbling and complaining usually. Until conviction fell so heavy that I had to go to her office and confess my sin against her and the Lord. A non-Christian, she nearly fell out of her chair. She was quite surprised by the confession. I don't think a Christian had ever apologized to her for any sins against her. Then the conversation turned toward Christ when she tried to hurriedly assure me that everything was okay. I had to tell her that it wasn't okay because I was there to work for Another Boss, Christ Jesus who knows my heart, unto whom I am to do every labor without complaint. It was a good conversation. It's to my shame that I haven't done this more often because I've certainly sinned against non-Christians since then. But this instance suggests to me that actively confessing our sins as Christians aids our evangelism and our making clear the difference between "Christian" self-righteousness and genuine Christian humility and faith.

I can see this distinguishing and evangelistic effect at times during a sermon, when on occassion I'm lead to apologize to non-Christians for the sinful ways we have responded to some issues in the public square or for how we have been self-righteous and botched Gospel conversations with them. There is first a slightly surprised look (like... "hey, he's apologizing for something") followed by a kind of appreciative look (like... "thanks for being real enough to admit Christians aren't perfect").

On the whole, I need to grow a great deal in this area. My pride wars against me; my flesh stiffens and fights. But I need to be filled with God's Spirit and cross-centered enough to know that my sins are real, that they affect others, and that I must war against them, in large part, by confessing them. Confession is good for the soul, for the church, and for non-Christians who are often witnesses to a kind of nominalism that would deny indwelling sin and avoid confession.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Black Church Is Homophobic

That's what we're constantly told anyway. Many theologically liberal academicians and pastors make a lot of noise chiding the Black Church for being homophobic and hypocritical. We're told that the church smuggles in gay choir directors and musicians in order to have a bumpin' musical program but won't acknowledge homosexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation and lifestyle choice.

A new book scheduled to be released Oct. 15th is continuing in this tradition of criticizing predominantly Black churches for "hundreds of years of silence" on homosexuality in the church. Episcopalian priest, the Rev. Horace L. Griffin, argues in his new book, Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches, that "The black church's teaching that homosexuality is immoral has created a crisis for lesbian and gay Christians in black churhces." Griffin asserts that "This black-church-sanctioned homophobia produces a lot of twisted black people."

The problem according to Griffin, who is himself a practicing homosexual, is that "black church leaders and congregants have been resistant and even closed in treating gay and heterosexual congregants equally or, in many cases, of simply offering compassion to gay people." This unequal treatment, according to Griffin, leaves homosexuals in "no-win situations" and robs them of "their soul, if not their integrity, family and lives."

Like many of the theologically liberal critics of the Black church, Griffin compares the church's treatment of homosexuals to the Bible-twisting oppression of slaveholders.

Now, I stand with Griffin in condemning any absence of compassion or hatred shown toward homosexuals. The church, black and white, has its share of guilt and shame to bear because of its failure to recognize the humanity and the deep spiritual need of homosexuals. Such behavior is sub-Christian and ought to be rejecteed and repented of by anyone who encounters it.

Having said that, however, we're still left with the central thesis of Griffin's book: Is it true that the Black church is homophobic? Is it true that church's treatment of homosexuals has resulted in "a lot of twisted black people"? Is the church to be blamed in this way?

Perhaps there is yet a more fundamental question. What is homosexuality? Should we give over ground to the claim that sexual orientation is an inherent, perhaps biologically determined, stable characteristic? And, should we at least spend some time asking, What is sex for?

None of the scientific literature leaves us any confidence that the idea of "sexual orientation" is anything other than individual preference. That is, individuals may very strongly feel attraction to persons of the same sex, but that does not amount to an "orientation" that has any basis in biology or that can be measured reliably. At best, the concept is fluid, with persons moving in and out of "orientations" at different points in their lives and feeling unsettled at other points. It would simply be foolish to base church practice, or public policy for that matter, on a concept that has no credible scientific basis in reality.

That's the social and biological science in a nutshell. We've not even considered the biblical argument. Biblically, we're told that homosexuality is a sin (Rom. 1). It's a sin, like all other sins that ensnare people, that must be repented of and must be atoned for. Repentance and faith in the atoning work of Christ ushers an individual into the family and household of God. Acceptance into the life of the church is a function of acceptance with God through faith in Christ. So, the conclusion of Romans 1: "Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them." Our failure to make this clear to practicing homosexuals and any of the other persons described in Romans 1 would be the real failure to love.

And biblically, though many advocates of homosexual inclusion appeal to the "love" that such persons share as a good worthy of acceptance, we can't honestly conclude that such "love" is good or even love at all. The Apostle Paul writes that love, in part, "does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth" (1 Cor. 13: 6). If that's the case, and if homosexuality is "wrongdoing," then despite the claims to the contrary, we must conclude that participating with someone in this wrongdoing is not love, is not good, and is not consistent with the truth. The loving thing, again, is to tell the truth about the sin and to call the sinner to repentance and faith in Christ alone.

What is sex for? It's for procreation in marriage. It's for intimacy between a man and a woman in marriage. It's for pleasure in marriage. Some homosexual advocates want to make intimacy and pleasure cardinal virtues, claim their right to these things in homosexual relationships, and convince us then to "normalize" their lifestyle. They say that not all heterosexual couples can or even desire to procreate, so procreation can not be essetnial to what sex is for. Whether every homosexual couple can or desires to procreate or not, the normal potential for such couples to procreate is evident and demonstrates the obvious: that's what sex is for. The fact that no homosexual couple can procreate also demonstrates the obvious: homosexual acts are not properly speaking "sex."

And though sex also is designed for pleasure, it's evident that not everything that is good to us is good for us. The crack addict finds pleasure in the pipe. The alcoholic finds pleasure in the bottle. The wife abuser and the child molestor find pleasure in their acts. But none of these things are good for the individual, the victims, or the society. We'd be wise to continue to conclude in the Black church that homosexuality offers no "pleasure" that is good for us. Though sin may appear pleasant for a season, its end is surely death.

Griffin opines that "Until black church leaders adopt different Christian approaches, 'Down Low' practices will continue." His meaning is that the closed sexual activities of some men in the church will continue and contribute to unhealthy outcomes for such men.

But what are "different Christian approaches" to homosexuality... to sin? Different other than repentance, gouging out our eyes, cutting off our arms? Different than mutual accountability and warring against sin?

We do need different approaches than the ones we're currently using in the church. But they are the approaches the Bible itself gives us. We need a return to Biblical orthodoxy that emphasizes the authority and sufficiency of Scripture for faith and life. We need to return to the Gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ... a holy God, angry at sin, sent His only Son to pay the penalty of sin in His death on the cross, and now demands all men everywhere to repent of their sins and believe on Jesus Christ. And we need to recover the practice of loving corrective church discipline. The Lord has spoken to us about how to handle such issues (1 Cor. 5). What is left for us as stewards to do is to be faithful with what the Lord has left us to do.

It's books like these that make me extremely glad that the pew is far more evangelical than the pulpit in so many churches. May the Lord be pleased to preserve, strengthen and use the Black church for His glory!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Praying for Lost Family and Friends

If there is one thing that troubles the Christian, it's the agony of watching family and friends continue unrepentant and unregenerate. Sometimes the concern is overwhelming. Eric Simmons offers some good words of encouragement in "Faith for Unsaved Family and Friends" over at New Attitude Humble Orthodoxy. Read and pray.

I Wish I Were Praying More!

Historia Ecclesiastica has posted a couple good historical pieces on prayer and revival. Check them out here and here.

I was struck most by the following:

When [John] Sutcliff lay dying in 1814 he said to Fuller: “I wish I had prayed more.” For some time Fuller ruminated on this statement by his dying friend. Eventually he came to the conviction that Sutcliff did not mean that he “wished he had prayed more frequently, but more spiritually.”

Then Fuller elaborated on this interpretation by applying Sutcliff’s statement to his own life:

“I wish I had prayer more for the influence of the Holy Spirit; I might have enjoyed more of the power of vital godliness. I wish I had prayed more for the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in studying and preaching my sermons; I might have seen more of the blessing of God attending my ministry. I wish I had prayed more for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to attend the labours of our friends in India; I might have witnessed more of the effects of their efforts in the conversion of the heathen. [cited J. W. Morris, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Andrew Fuller (London, 1816), 443].