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Category: Church Life (page 1 of 3)

An Optimistic View of the SBC Numbers

A recent report from Baptist Press detailed the 2018 Annual Church Profile (ACP) for Southern Baptist Churches. The ACP provides annual numbers in a variety of categories and is compiled by Lifeway Christian Resources. Here is what Baptist Press had to say:

Although Southern Baptist congregations reported increased giving, reported membership of those congregations declined by 192,404, down 1.28 percent to 14.8 million members. Average weekly worship attendance declined by 0.43 percent to 5.3 million worshipers… Southern Baptist congregations baptized 246,442 people in 2018, a 3.02 percent decline from the 254,122 reported in 2017. 

These numbers are, of course, not what Southern Baptists want to see. A few prominent SBC leaders have offered helpful thoughts on the report, such as this article from Dr. Albert Mohler.

As the pastor of a mid-size church in central KY, I have a slightly different view of the ACP, or perhaps it would be fairer to say that I can think of a few reasons why we might be optimistic when considering a couple of the categories in which there were declining numbers.

The Decline in Reported Membership.
Southern Baptists have long been aware of their persistent membership problem. Most SBC churches have two to three times the number of people on their church membership rolls than people who are faithfully attending. Though there may be several factors contributing to this trend, the SBC has identified the most significant and the most spiritually problematic factor – the reality of an unregenerate church membership. In 2005, Jim Elliff wrote a powerful article called “Southern Baptists, An Unregenerate Denomination” where he lays out the facts of the SBC membership struggles and offers 5 suggestions on the how to reverse the trend (you can read an updated version of the article here).

Three years later at the SBC Annual Meeting, Southern Baptists voted in favor of a resolution titled, “On Regenerate Church Membership And Church Member Restoration.” Two sentences are of particular interest:

RESOLVED, That we humbly urge our churches to maintain accurate membership rolls for the purpose of fostering ministry and accountability among all members of the congregation

RESOLVED, That we humbly encourage denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior’s teachings on church discipline, even if such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches (emphasis mine).

At my church in Graefenburg, KY, we are currently in the middle of a process to address our own membership problem. We are taking the time to work in multiple stages in order to have a membership roll that accurately reflects the covenant faithfulness of our flock. We are primarily engaged in this effort because of our biblical convictions on church membership, but we also find support in the Convention herself, with denominational leaders and messengers encouraging and praying for churches to restore their rolls to a regenerate status.

I say that to say this – in 2020, I have every expectation that the membership numbers we will be reporting in the ACP will be dramatically lower than our 2019 numbers. Although I certainly hope and pray that over the next several years we will see those numbers rise again due to baptisms and new members, I nevertheless see the initial reduction as a sign of health for my church, not a sign of disease. Is it possible that faithful, hard-working pastors and churches are doing the same? Is this at least a partial reason to be optimistic about the reduction of church membership reflected in the ACP? I believe it is.

The Decline in Baptisms
I have previously written on my conviction that churches should baptize children without a prolonged probationary period, a trend that seems to be gaining momentum. Nevertheless, children should only be baptized upon a credible profession of faith. Taking the time and energy to build a relationship with the child, discussing the gospel and the cost of discipleship, and walking with the young boy or girl before moving too quickly toward the baptismal waters are essential pastoral responsibilities.

The first reason for optimism listed above – that churches are working to ensure a regenerate membership – overlaps with this second reason for optimism. More pastors are taking seriously the need for credible confessions of faith before dunking children at a young age. Again, although I am concerned about the concept of extended probationary periods in order to observe fruit in a young person’s life, I eagerly affirm multiple gospel conversations and assurance of both understanding and conviction before adding another baptism to the books. If the ACP baptism numbers reflects, in part, a tendency for pastors to be cautious with baptizing our younger folks, then I am optimistic about that trend.

I’ve never been a big numbers guy although I recognize their place and purpose. We do not want to ignore the annual ACP but neither do we want to fret. God’s faithfulness is unquestionable. And so, let us continue to be faithful to preach the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ!

What I Told My Congregation Concerning The Reproductive Health Act

Below are comments I made to Graefenburg Baptist Church during worship on January 27, 2019. I am grateful for the help of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and their mission to help inform churches of kingdom-related issues.

In case you aren’t aware, last Tuesday, which was the 46th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the New York legislature passed a law called the Reproductive Health Act that expands abortion rights in New York. The law has elicited all kinds of reaction from both supporters and critics, with some celebrating and applauding while others lamenting the ongoing destruction of babies in the womb. Because we live in a day where information is quickly available but not necessarily well informed, I wanted to provide you with a quick briefing of what actually happened in New York.

The Reproductive Health Act made 3 primary changes to New York law:
First, the act removed abortion from the criminal code, meaning that abortions which take place during the third trimester – right up to the point of birth – are no longer a criminal offense.
Second, the act opened the door wider for who can actually perform an abortion. Under the new law, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and midwives are allowed to perform abortions.
Third, and the one that is getting the most attention, is that the act allows abortions in the third trimester – often called late term abortions – in the absence of fetal viability or if it is necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.

Before this new law, third trimester abortions were only allowed in New York if the mother’s life was in jeopardy. Now, however, late-term abortions are allowed to protect the health of the mother, which is not limited to physical health. It includes emotional, psychological, and the over-all well being of the patient. Obviously, the concern is that this dramatically widens the scope for late term abortions.

All of this is certainly difficult news to read, and from a Christian worldview, it is a direct attack against the goodness of God’s creative blessing of children. The Bible speaks clearly about how God understands life in the womb.

But here is the part I want to make sure we understand: None of this is new. Nothing that happened in New York this past week is new. Multiple states already have abortion removed from their criminal code. Multiple states already have loose requirements on who can perform an abortion. And yes, perhaps you didn’t realize, but multiple states already have little to no restrictions on third trimester, late-term abortions. Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington DC – none of those have bans or restrictions in place to prevent late-term abortions.

January is the Sanctity of Life month. Christians are right to express regret and even anger over what has happened in New York. But where was the outrage week before last when this very thing was happening all over our country? Christians have a reputation for becoming irate over news headlines, but then show little stamina when it comes to actually getting our feet wet to make a difference. We have a tendency to wait until something new happens we don’t like, and then express our anger all over again. That isn’t good enough.

Nor is it good enough to demonize the other side. We will not save babies by calling people names and treating them as sub-human. Remember, the reason we are passionate about this in the first place is because we believe every human is created in the image of God – including those with whom we disagree.

So what are we to do? There are political responses that are necessary and important. But I’m your pastor, and my role is not to tell you what to do politically. I certainly hope your faith in Christ guides your political action, and we need faithful Christians involved in politics. But that is not my sphere this morning.

As your pastor, I do want to urge you to get involved, and the easiest way to do that is through an incredible ministry called A Loving Choice Pregnancy Center in Shelbyville. I have gotten to know the director whose name is Diana Cahill. Just a couple of weeks ago she gave me an updated tour of the facility and we talked a good while about how the church can respond. Although there is a time and place to express frustration through social media posts and memes, the way we will rescue children is by developing relationships with men and women who are looking for help. And that requires gentleness, humility, and most of all, the love of Christ.

Me and My Friend Jay

I like this picture.

This is my friend and colleague Jay Padgett and this is us doing what we do quite often – visiting a church member together.  On this particular occasion, we were in the Frankfort Regional Medical Center to have prayer with a dear friend. Unbeknownst to us, as we left the hospital, the husband of the patient we had just visited snapped this photo from their hospital room. It shows Jay and I walking side-by-side, wearing our overcoats (this was last winter), making our way to our vehicle to move on to the next visit.

I’m thankful for my friend.  And this photo of us silently walking to our car on a crisp, cool winter day sums it up nicely. If I have any say in the matter, Jay and I will serve the Lord and the church together until God puts us on the sideline.

And while I’m talking about my friend Jay, I want to express thanksgiving for my friend Philip Coleman. Pastor Phil Coleman is sharp as a tack and doing an incredible job reaching families and parents with gospel-saturated guidance and instruction. He and I are often found discussing weighty heart issues about families in our congregation either in our office or on the phone late at night and I am deeply grateful to the Lord for his leadership and friendship.

I’m certain that many pastors across the country have a staff they are in tension with and struggle to connect with. But the staff at GBC truly are together for the gospel in more ways than one. They are blessings, and if you are a member of GBC, I hope you recognize and give thanks for Pastor Jay Padgett and Pastor Phil Coleman.

The Church Calendar and Making Disciples

People Over Programs. Eternal Over Temporal.

The idea is simple. An overemphasis on programming and its accompanying time for administration tends to make people busier, but doesn’t tend to make them more like Jesus.

It’s not that programs aren’t important. They are. And it’s not that temporal issues should be overlooked. They shouldn’t. But what should demand the majority of our time? What should be most noticeable about a church calendar?

Church revitalization director Mark Clifton recently tweeted, “…churches are often among the busiest places in our lives with much of that activity providing little in discipleship & kingdom growth. Think frequent & lengthy committee mtgs.”

I think that’s right. A Christ-centered, gospel-oriented church is one that preaches the glorious grace of God against the unbiblical burden of works-righteousness. Yet, even the most grace-focused church in relation to salvation can become a works-righteousness church in relation to discipleship. In other words, churches will be tempted to base their discipleship success on the number of events, programs, and services on their church calendar. The question, “what is your church becoming” is supplanted with “what is your church doing?”

The goal of every church program should be two-fold:  to help the participants find greater joy in Jesus and greater love for one another. When leaders are spending more time trying to plan, correct, and keep the program operating than they are investing in the people of the programs, then the program is probably failing. Programs should be designed to properly provide support for discipleship. Programs should point people to Christ and one another, not point people back to the program. In staff meetings, discussions on programming should have the freedom to focus more on the people than on the structure.  About three years ago I jokingly told my staff that I wanted to see a calendar void of programs in 10 years. What I meant is that I want our people to understand discipleship to be a product of investing in the Bible and one another. Fancy videos, study guides, and tied-up evenings during the week isn’t necessary. Although those things can be helpful and fruitful, they don’t magically make disciples, and often, they make disciple-making our families more difficult. Churches can’t preach the necessity of family discipleship while simultaneously keeping families away from home due to programming.

I believe in the power of the word of God to transform people in Jesus. In reverse, I believe nothing else has the power to transform people in Jesus. Thus, programs should be a tool by which the Bible is treasured and given the opportunity to do what it was breathed out to do – “for training in righteousness.”

Preaching remains the single greatest means by which people hear the gospel, respond to the gospel, and grow in the gospel. It is not a coincidence that preaching does not (or at least, should not) feel like a program. It happens every week. It follows a pattern of some kind. But it isn’t programmed. It involves the Bible being studied, being spoken, and being received. God responds by saving the lost and maturing the righteous.

The solution to over-programming is not to kill all programs. I’m thankful for solid programs and I’m doubly thankful for the dedicated leaders and teachers who are involved in keeping the programs running. Instead of killing programs, the more productive (and more difficult) response is to determine how well the programs are serving the people by moving them toward your church’s identity and vision. Discovering how much time is spent working on the programs versus how much time is spent discipling the people is a powerful assessment tool. And of course, determining if the programs are helping produce growing disciples should be an essential and common discussion among the church staff.

So, what does your church calendar look like?

My Thoughts on the Nashville Statement

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) released a statement this past Tuesday consisting of fourteen articles concerning human sexuality. Unsurprisingly, the statement was met with strong support from many leaders and pastors within the evangelical community and equally strong disapproval from a variety of pastors, church leaders, and civic leaders who denounce the statement as harmful to the LGBTQ community.

I process statements like this in two parts: first, the content and second, the call to action. In other words, what does the statement actually say and how should I respond?

The Content
I support the fourteen articles of the Nashville Statement and have added my name among its signers. My support is nothing revolutionary or surprising, it is simply an affirmation of what I believe the Scriptures teach on sexuality. In addition, the content of the Nashville Statement should not be surprising to those who are opposed to it. Nothing in the fourteen articles contradicts what the church has historically believed and taught about sexuality. One of the authors, Denny Burk, said, “It was our aim to say nothing new, but to bear witness to something very ancient.” Likewise, political commentator Ben Shapiro said, “Did I miss the part of the #NashvilleStatement where any serious Christian doctrine changed in the slightest?” Thus, the content of the statement is not groundbreaking and simply clarifies in one unified declaration what the church has proclaimed for centuries.

Call To Action
So what? Those are the two words that cause preachers and bible teachers to lose sleep at night, and in this context, cause us to consider how the Nashville Statement should help us not only think correctly about human sexuality, but also respond correctly. Why is this statement necessary and what should we do in response?

I believe the most significant reason the Nashville Statement is a necessary summary of biblical truth as it relates to human relationships and sexuality is because the church today is forced to address questions the church of yesterday would never have needed to ask. There are unique and difficult challenges pressing in on the church related to biblical sexuality that have arrived in just the past few years and these challenges are too great for generalized assumptions about the church’s position on a variety of ethical and moral relationships, including homosexuality and transgenderism. The church must not underestimate the power of societal influence. If we do not remain clear on the ways in which a biblical sexual ethic, along with a host of other issues, stands in contrast to the spirit of the age, then we will fall to its mounting pressure. And although the honest thing to do at that point would be to throw our bibles into a pile of rubbish, the more common and deadly reaction is to turn our bibles into a defense of the very thing it denies….sin. That is precisely where we find churches today who once held to a strong biblical sexual ethic. It can happen to us all.

With that being said, there are things about the statement I’m not thrilled with, the most obvious being the timing of its release. I don’t think there is necessarily a perfect time to submit a statement of this kind, but it seems there are better times than others. It has not been a good year for evangelical Christianity, and in my case specifically, the Southern Baptist Convention, at least when it comes to outside perception. Evangelicals are viewed more skeptically than ever before, and in some ways we deserve the skepticism. With the lingering issues concerning racial reconciliation, the ongoing controversy of evangelicals and President Trump, and the immediate turmoil following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, it seems a better time could have been found to go public with the Nashville Statement.

Also, I would have appreciated a greater sense of response in the articles, helping the church see the way of compassion and grace even while standing firm on biblical truth. There is mention of the grace, power, and hope of the Lord Jesus to save all sinners, but more could be said about the human response. Granted, that was not the primary purpose of this statement, but I believe follow up work needs to be done in its absence. For example, I was glad to see Denny Burk post this article on his blog about how to form relationships with those who have a different sexual ethic.

For me and my church, if this statement causes us to separate from our gay or transgendered neighbors or express feelings of moral superiority, then we would be reading it in a harmful way that does not honor the gospel of Jesus Christ. Likewise, befriending gay and transgendered people for the sole purpose of “fixing them” is equally harmful. No, our response is to be the same as it is for everyone else – invest in people in order to show them the transforming grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we believe God is love, and if we believe God is the author of Scripture, then there is nothing loving about wavering on biblical truth. And yet, we patiently point our neighbor to this good news of the gospel without condemnation, without guilt, without oppression, and without excuse.

The ability to hide from the issues in front of us today is no longer a possibility. The Nashville Statement returns to the historic Christian teaching on what it means to be created in the image of God, to be male and female. There is certainly an alternative, one that is quite persuasive and influential. Each Christian must decide where they land. As for me, I will stand on the former.

 

The Pulpit And Political Speech: Why I Won’t Take The Bait

President Trump made a promise at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast to repeal the law that prohibits political endorsements from the pulpit. The law is known as the Johnson Amendment and was established in 1954 to restrict tax-exempt churches and other entities from engaging in partisan politics. The language under the Internal Revenue Code reads, “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Trump signed an executive order today that, in part, focused on adjusting the Johnson Amendment in order to lift restrictions on churches and pastors.

On the surface, this sounds like a win for evangelicals. And there are some positive aspects of this executive order to be thankful for as a Christian, or as a person of any faith. Religious liberty is a non-negotiable bedrock of our democracy and is in my thinking one of the clearest non-partisan issues in front of the American people. Furthermore, for Baptists, religious liberty has been one of the pillars of our identity and our history. So, an executive order to re-establish a commitment to religious freedoms for every person of faith is welcomed, needed, and appreciated.

But as for me and my church, we will continue to refrain from political punditry and partisan endorsements as a church, regardless of the status of the Johnson Amendment. Here’s why:

The Misson of the Church
Although we tend to use the word “missions” when discussing the command Christ gave to his church, the reality is that the church has a singular mission – to make disciples. God’s redemptive decision before the foundation of the world to rescue rebellious sinners through the sacrifice of his only begotten Son is not merely one of several narrative threads woven into the biblical story. It is the story. And it is this story of Christ crucified that directs the church both in her remembrance of who she is, and also who she is not.

Politics, although designed for the social good of the people, is nevertheless a pursuit of power in order to realize a particular approach or theory for how a country should be managed. It’s an important mission. Just not the mission of the church. And entangled in the political mission of our government is an unavoidable trap to out-negotiate, to out-wit, to out-con, and to out-maneuver an opponent for the purpose of achieving greater power. This ever-present agenda of the political world simply does not mesh with an institution who is to be known for our humility, self-sacrifice, love of enemies, servanthood, and allegiance to a different kingdom. The church is to pray for those who are involved in the political game. The church is not to play it.

The Issues of the Church
The Johnson Amendment has no power to regulate the most important ecclesiological responsibility:  preach the word. There is no law on earth that would keep me from preaching the holy scriptures, and if the church is faithful to exposit the Bible, then the issues will be addressed. And if the issues are addressed, then the congregation will be shaped and formed by God to wisely choose the best candidate at any given time. Legendary pastor Adrian Rogers said, “if [a pastor] has done his job, his members will prayerfully and correctly use the standard of God’s Word to select the right candidate.”

And remember, the Johnson Amendment concerns a 501(c)(3) institution. It obviously has no power over the lives of individual Christians, even those who are most committed to the church, to support, endorse, debate, and oppose any candidate they choose. What we are addressing here are the actions of the church as a whole.

We do not need the Johnson Amendment lifted in order to speak to the most pressing issues of our time as a church. We need only the word of God and people who are called to preach it and teach it.

The Purity of the Church
Pastors and churches are human. I believe in the integrity of most churches to pursue only what Christ has established for his people and to hold to his moral authority alone. But we are human. And the purity of the church, both from within and the perception from without, would be open to attack like never before if we embraced a political agenda. The Johnson Amendment is designed to protect the interests of both the state and the church. Without those protections, political heads will quickly attempt to funnel money through our churches in return for a particular endorsement or plug. Need a new church van? No problem, just oppose Senator Smith and support Senator Jones and it’s yours. And by the way, ease up on the sexual purity rhetoric right now – Senator Jones is dealing with a few things and we don’t need that pressure on him right now.

You see? We might scoff at these ideas now as unrealistic. But within our own Southern Baptist Convention, we have already felt the power of political leanings in ways that have not only embarrassed us, but harmed the pursuit of our mission.

The Future of the Church
What kind of legacy do we want the church to have in 25 years? Surely it is to be like the apostle Paul, who would boast only in Christ alone. Our children and grandchildren need a church committed to the counter-cultural, risk-taking, gospel-centered message of a risen Christ without the dilution of a secondary political agenda. The church is not alienated from the political sphere, but the work she does carries an eternal future hope that extends well beyond the mere endorsement of a political party or piece of legislation.

Coram Deo
To live coram Deo is to live one’s life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, for the glory of God. And that is my approach to the church and politics. When our churches lead our people to “seek first the kingdom” and devote themselves to the undivided, unrelenting glory of God, then their influence in the world, including the political world, will be known and felt. And it will be felt in ways that are true to the church of Jesus Christ. Ways that are lasting. Ways that are commendable.

Christians should be thankful for any action that seeks to strengthen religious liberty in our country. I hope President Trump, and future presidents, will not stop pursuing, defending, and increasing the freedoms of religious people. But we must be careful to properly discern what true religious liberty looks like. And when churches walk through the door of political engagement in the name of religious liberty, they might find themselves on the verge of losing both.

 

 

 

Christmas At Graefenburg

The seasons of Advent and Christmas are special times for Christian churches, and at Graefenburg Baptist Church it really is the most wonderful time of the year. More than the programs and the music and the special services is the warmth of the people who express kindness in a million different ways. I love my church, and I really love her during Christmas.

Although there are many things to love about Graefenburg during the month of December, what rises to the top of the list is the determination to keep the mission of Christ at the forefront of our activities. I don’t just mean hanging banners that say, “Jesus is the reason for the season” (which is certainly true), but I mean sacrificially responding to lostness around the world because we know that Jesus was born to die.

The members of GBC work throughout the Advent season to raise money for something called the “Christ For The World” offering which is broken into four parts:

75% – Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. This is an offering that is used to support international missionaries of the Southern Baptist Convention.
15% – Eliza Broadus Offering. This offering supports Kentucky Baptist mission causes.
5% – A local ministry. The church chooses a different local ministry each year and supports it with these funds. This year we chose the “Kentucky Changers” ministry that will be in Shelby County during the summer of 2017.
5% – Stays at GBC for our own mission trips and Great Commission efforts.

Every year our Christ For The World offering goal is increased, and every year we meet our goal. This year I was a bit concerned. Our Acts 1:8 Team set a goal of $25,000 for the offering and that is a pretty huge amount for a church our size. But, our mission team prayed for the church to joyfully give and for the money to reach people with the good news of Jesus Christ. I was excited to see what would happen.

Our first Christmas event to raise money is called the “Lottie Moon Craft Auction.” It is the coolest event of the year. Our congregation brings crafts, candy, desserts, and all kinds of hand-made items to auction off in order to raise money to meet the Christ For The World goal. I have never seen anything like it. This year our one-night craft auction brought in over $10,000! This money was raised with all kinds of laughter and love. It really is a beautiful thing to behold (a photo of this year’s auction is below). I was watching a tin of 12 pieces of peanut butter fudge sell for $100.

I am so thrilled and thankful to say that Graefenburg Baptist Church met our 2016 goal and it is still climbing at almost $27,000. Yes, Christmas at Graefenburg is special for many reasons. The fellowship is wonderful, the spirit is sweet, and the conviction to fulfill the Great Commission is clear. I’m already looking forward to next year.

The Resolution You Should Make And Keep

I like making resolutions. I have written before on the benefit of creating a list of goals for the new year and we are in good company when we do so. A young, nineteen-year-old Jonathan Edwards, who is considered the greatest American theologian, famously wrote 70 resolutions aimed at his joy and God’s glory. The best part about Edwards’ resolutions? He begins by saying, “Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.” That is a beautiful example of what Jerry Bridges calls “Dependent Responsibility.” We are dependent on the grace of God to do anything, and yet we are responsible to act.

So with that in mind, here is one resolution you should make and keep for 2017:  Resolve to be committed and consistent with your local church family.

Here’s Why…

Being Committed and Consistent Is A Command
I’m not an antinomian. I still believe when God tells us to do something (or not to do something) then we are responsible for obeying. In His wisdom, God does not issue commands to His children without good reason, so we know there is joy waiting for us in the instruction to consistently gather together as the church (Hebrews 10:24-25). Nevertheless, if there were nothing else to say concerning this resolution, this remains the only point we need to make. God said to do it, and because of the power of grace, we can.

Being Committed and Consistent is How We Develop Intimacy With One Another
The gospel of Jesus Christ provides two kinds of reconciliation; we are reconciled to God and we are reconciled to one another. The disastrous effect of sin has broken our intimacy with God and created enmity toward one another. It is no accident to read of Cain’s murderous jealousy against Abel in Genesis 4, one chapter after the curse of sin was unleashed on the earth. The gospel tears down this wall of contempt, but it requires a commitment to one another. Something beautiful begins to happen when Christians are committed and consistent to their church family – they begin to be real with one another. Putting on thinly disguised facades becomes a thing of the past because God uses consistency to create trust, and trust causes us to be open with our struggles, our pain, and our suffering. Then, the loneliness of our suffering dissipates into the comfort of learning how others are struggling right alongside with us. And what a joy it is to share one another’s burdens as we worship together, often through tears. But it will never happen without being committed and consistent.

Being Committed and Consistent is a Strong Attack Against Idolatry
John Calvin famously said that “man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols.” The prophet Jeremiah would have agreed. He wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it?” No one is immune from the creation and worship of idols and the romanticized notion of “just follow your heart” is a recipe for disaster. I have noticed how our idols tend to grow, mature, and develop into objects of worship we would have initially never conceived as possible. None of us set out to construct a golden calf in its entirety. Instead, we form a leg and think it isn’t such a big deal. And then we form an ear. And then the tail. And after time, without realizing, we have a shiny, fully constructed calf in front of us that demands our time, attention, and worship. The greatest attack against this pattern of idol construction is committing you and your family to the ministry of the church.

Being Committed and Consistent Makes Up The Whole Body
God has graciously given each Christian gifts with which the church can be edified. This is pretty simple. If you are not committed and consistent to the church, then neither are your gifts. According to Paul, that’s not good. You make up the whole body and your presence is important.

Being Committed and Consistent Trains Our Children
Do you want your children to have an active faith in the Lord and consistent service to the church? They won’t if you don’t.

Being Committed and Consistent Keeps Us Accountable
The leadership of the local church has been established by God, in part, to help maintain accountability for its members (and there are structures in place to maintain accountability for the leadership). Becoming a member of an evangelical church will mean that you are willingly coming underneath the leadership of that church and acknowledging that your life needs accountability. Not in a stalking, invasion of privacy way, but in a biblical call to holiness way. Being committed and consistent allows pastors and other church members the opportunity to say, “hey, how are you doing?” in a safe and God-honoring environment.

Being Committed and Consistent Helps Us Grow
Sitting under the preaching of God’s Word, participating in a Sunday School class, attending a mission trip, volunteering at the local soup kitchen, and taking a sick family a meal are ways that God transforms lives in Jesus. A committed and consistent family will be more active in all these areas than an inconsistent family.

Being Committed and Consistent Helps Give Us Strength
The joy of the Lord is your strength (Nehemiah 8:10) and consistent worship with fellow Christians is the best way I know to experience joy in the Lord, which means it is an absolutely essential part of our strength.

Back to Jonathan Edwards…
Resolutions can become a means to guilt and self-condemnation when we slip up and fall off track. But the grace of God is bigger. We truly are unable to do anything without the grace of God enabling us, so the best place to start with your resolutions is the gospel. Through the gospel we have peace with God, peace with our fellow man, and power to grow in our spiritual lives. No matter how well you are doing with your commitment and consistency to your local church, the power of the gospel is the only means through which you can turn around and change. So do not allow this resolution or any others to become a source of frustration for you. Rather, let them be a reminder of the good news of what Christ has done in your life. Then, live in the power of the good news!

So, if you are a member of Graefenburg Baptist Church, I’ll see you on Sunday! If you are a member somewhere else, then your pastor will see you on Sunday. If you aren’t attending, then get to a church on Sunday. Grace and peace to you all in 2017.

 

 

 

 

Why I Recommend Lent To My Southern Baptist Church

The 2016 calendar is inching closer to February 10 which means a variety of blog articles, Facebook status updates, and Twitter feeds will be providing support for or against the season known as Lent. February 10 is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten season.

In order to define our terms, Lent is one of the most significant seasons of the Christian Calendar and is celebrated by a wide variety Christian traditions. Lent is most commonly associated with a period of prayer, reflection, repentance, and fasting that lasts from Ash Wednesday until Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday when Jesus was crucified. These different traditions will take different approaches to the 40 day period of Lent. Some traditions are quite strict with this season, prescribing it as a necessary part of faith and practice. Other traditions take a less stringent approach by providing resources and opportunities to prepare for Easter Sunday while keeping the door of freedom wide open if a person should choose to not observe.

I am a Southern Baptist pastor. Theologically and convictionally, I align most closely with the Reformed tradition in terms of my views on scripture, salvation, congregational worship, and church life. I do not believe a corporate gathering of believers should be bound by a strict liturgy that eliminates freedom in worship, nor do I espouse any extra-biblical tradition that would violate the core principal convictions of being saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed.

So, it would seem someone like me, a Southern Baptist pastor rooted in the Reformed tradition, would be the last person to encourage my congregation to observe Lent. But that is exactly what I have done in years past and will continue to do.  Here are a couple of reasons why:

1. Extra-biblical does not necessarily equal enslavement.
To be certain, the season of Lent is an extra-biblical practice. That simply means that Lent is not commanded in the Bible. That’s important. If Christians engage in spiritual activities that are not explicitly commanded in Scripture, we need to have a good reason from biblical principles as to why those activities are edifying to us and glorifying to God. Of course, faithful evangelical Christians engage in a host of activities that are not explicit in scripture, such as celebrating Christmas, because the freedom to worship Christ in the awe and gratitude of his incarnation certainly aligns with biblical principles.

Yet, one of the more common refrains I hear from men I highly respect but highly disagree with concerning Lent is that observing this season “leads people into slavery.” Such indictments against recommending Lent to a congregation carry several problems. First, this is a general, sweeping statement. As I have noted, the observance of Lent does not come in a one-size-fits-all package and without an understanding of how a particular church preaches the gospel of Christ, union with Christ, and freedom in Christ, a blanket condemnation of turning people into slaves through the observance of Lent is reckless. Second, those in the Baptist Lent enslavement camp are guilty of pressing back against the fundamental issue of the 16th century while living in the 21st century. I suppose it’s possible that a Southern Baptist church who encourages Lent might be endorsing a mandatory, superstitious set of regulations by which a Christian can curry favor with God, but I’ve not met a Baptist pastor yet who would ever embrace such a heretical view.

2. Lenten observance does not endorse legalism.
The great H.J. Kuiper, an influential editor of The Banner from 1928-1956, helped provide a balance to Lent by endorsing some elements of the season he found worthy while expressing concern over other elements. One of his concerns was that Lent would promote the spiritual disciplines for one brief time of the year but then cause Christians to become lax in their walk with the Lord the remaining year.

Although I appreciate Kuiper’s concerns and find them much more plausible than the enslavement argument, they are nevertheless misplaced. Although Lent itself is not commanded in Scripture, Feast Days most certainly were. The primary intent of the Feasts were to set aside a period of remembrance and personal piety for what the Lord had done and was doing. Was God suggesting his people “forget” the Lord their God during the periods in between the feasts? Of course not.  Today we see a plethora of helpful (although I would admit too many) 40 day emphasis literature and bible studies. Sometimes it is right and helpful to focus ourselves during a period of time on an area of our Christian life. I can’t think of a better time than the weeks leading up to our Savior’s death and resurrection.

Does the idea of fasting, prayer, and repentance lead to legalism? This is nonsensical. What is magical about the word “Lent” or the 40 days before Easter that would cause these disciplines to become legalistic? If that is our approach, then we must never instruct or encourage our people to fast and meditate on the cross at any time of the year. Which is foolishness and unbiblical.

3. We must not become enslaved to a specific tradition.
I read an article last year describing how a person in the Reformed Tradition should not observe Lent because the season conflicted with the traditional interpretation of church life and practice within the Reformed camp. That’s scary stuff. When we base our church practices and spiritual growth solely on what a particular tradition points to, then we become slaves to a tradition and not to Christ – the very thing the Reformation protested against.

4. Practically speaking, the denouncement of Lent becomes laughable.
I had a good chuckle last year when IMB President David Platt called on all Southern Baptist leaders to guide our people into fasting for the IMB Great Commission work. His appeal to pastors fell within the time frame of the Lenten season. I wondered how my fellow SBC pastors and leaders who had come out strong in opposition to Lent would handle Platt’s request. Would they lead their congregation to fast for the IMB with a big asterisks that says, “This has nothing to do with Lent. You will not be enslaved or become a legalist by doing this.” The point is that if calling our people to prayer, repentance, meditation, and fasting during the 40 days before Easter is frowned upon, then we are frowning upon essential spiritual disciplines. The issue is not if we lead our people into these practices, it’s how we lead them into these practice. If we lead them by saying these are “necessary,” then there is a problem. But that is true for any time of the year, not just Lent. If we lead them by saying these are “worthwhile,” then there is benefit.

5. I want my congregation to grow closer to Jesus.
Graefenburg Baptist Church exists to “Glorify God alone by transforming lives in Jesus in order to love more and serve more.” The two key words in our mission is “in Jesus.” We spend a lot of time, well virtually every Sunday, reminding ourselves of the power of the gospel and the utter futility of attempting to live the Christian life apart from the power of Christ in us. And yet, we are a people who pursue holiness. Dependent Responsibility is what we call that. Dependent on the power of Christ in us, but responsible to pursue Jesus. What that means is that we will call our people to obey. We will call our people to engage in the disciplines. We will call our people to pray, to read, and to worship. But we will call them to these things based on the power available to them in Christ, not in themselves.

That doesn’t take a back seat during Lent. We don’t change gears and suggest that over the next 40 days, everything we have learned together about the gospel and our dependence on Christ is put on pause. On the contrary, we teach that based on the power you have in Christ, pursue him these few days leading up to Easter. How could I not take advantage of this incredible time of the year to help my people on their journey?

In conclusion, if you are not convinced of the benefit of Lent and think it isn’t for you, then here is my advice…don’t do it! You have that freedom in Christ! But I encourage you to pick up a book on the cross (how about this one), and grab a family worship guide through Lent (my church will be providing one on February 7), and meditate each day on your identity in Jesus, and by all means, get to worship on Sunday mornings.

Enslavement? I think not. The joy of Christian living? Yes. Yes indeed.

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The Email I Woke Up To This Morning

This morning I woke up to an email from our church financial secretary. She was updating me and a few others on the totals for Graefenburg Baptist Church’s “Christ for the World Offering.” A little background. . . .

GBC has an annual offering during the season of Advent called “Christ for the World.” As you might expect, this is a missions offering with every penny being used to support Great Commission causes all over the world. The total offering collected is divided into these percentages:  75% to Lottie Moon (International Missions), 15% to Eliza Broadus (Kentucky Missions), 5% to a local Shelby County ministry, and 5% stays at GBC for our Acts 1:8 Team to use on mission opportunities.

How does a pastor walk the line between thanksgiving and pride? Between encouraging church members for a job well done without sending a “you can stop working now” message? One option is simply to say nothing. That would take care of both the pride and motivation issue. But I don’t think that is very pastoral. I think church members need to occasionally hear how they have been a faithful blessing.

So, this morning I woke up to an email from our church financial secretary. You see, our Christ for the World offering goal is well beyond what a church our size “should” set. Well beyond. To look at our goal is to think, “if they only meet half that goal, they will still be giving in amazing ways.” After reading this email from the financial secretary this morning, I was reminded of what I had received in the mail just a couple of months before. I received a few certificates from the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board about our missions giving in 2014.

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What about that email from the church financial secretary? Well, she was letting me know that over the course of the month we have already raised 92% of our CFTW goal. And for that, I say “thank you” to all our church members and regular attenders. Your commitment to the Great Commission is overwhelming. But, I also say to you, “we haven’t met our goal yet!” There is still work to do.

I want the Lord to keep me from pride. But if there was ever an area where the temptation to be prideful was so sweet, it is in the bragging on my church family for this commitment to their church life. Keep it up.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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