Thursday, November 15, 2007

God at Work: Reflections on our Efforts in the Pacific Rim

This week, I'm with the pastoral leadership of one of our churches in Columbus, Ohio at the International Mission Board Pacific Rim Conference.

Although there is much information I cannot share because of security concerns, I want to briefly reflect on the work God is doing in that region of the world, as well as the work I believe God wants to do there.

The Workers: We Southern Baptists are truly unworthy of the mission personnel God has raised up from within our churches! Every time I am around IMB workers I walk away astounded at their conviction and commitment to the are of the world where God has called them.

The Personnel who serve in Pacific Rim region are no different. Last night, I heard the testimony of a worker serving in one of the mos dangerous and "Christian hostile" areas of the world. She serves in a place where her faith might literally one day cost her life. But the fear she expressed in our meeting was not for her life. Instead, she stood in our midst and wept over the lost souls with whom she has developed relationships. Many more such stories were shared that caused me to give thanks to God, and marvel at the way He has so graciously raised up workers for the harvest from churches like ours.

The Need: When I return to the Baltimore area tomorrow, I will bring with me more than 80 individual requests for help that the IMB has made for this region. The needs range in commitment from short-term, one-week efforts to career. More than 30 of these requests are for students, which makes me immediately think of my boys. As parents, our top priority is often, and appropriately, the safety of our children. But how many of us love the Gospel more than our children?

If you want more information on these needs, please call our office and I'll be glad to get you in touch with the appropriate personnel.

The Cost: As we meet to discuss work in this area of the world, the 2008 season has begun for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.

While Cooperative Program dollars are used to fund a variety of things, every penny of every dollar given to Lottie is used to underwrite the work of our personnel in the field. Most don't realize that our IMB is the second largest multi-national corporation in the United States, with only the Federal government boasting a larger budget and work force. As I reflect on this, it is fitting that the spread of the Gospel would be given such prominence. Your gift to Lottie Moon this year will ensure that we keep our current workers in the field, and that we send even more. If you are Southern Baptist, you can give this offering through a designated check made ot to your local church, or, you can give here.

The Urgency: Idolatry, spiritual confusion and darkness opress millions of people in the Pacific Rim. With little access to the Gospel, they stand as enemies of God in the wake of the coming King Jesus. This reality should compel us to do everything possible to make the Gospel known among these people. As Paul says with such rhetorical beauty in Romans 10; they can't believe if they don't hear. They can't hear if no one preaches to them. And no one can preach to them unless faithful followers of Jesus send them.

In 2008, our Association will work with our churches engaging several areas of the world, including the Pacific Rim, Southeast Asia, India, Middle America, and the Carribean. But with 55 churches, the only reason we would not eventually have a significant presence on every inhabited continent is disobedience to the Great Commission! Wherever God has called you, I challenge you to engage, to pray, to give, and to go! May God be glorified by our response to His international beckoning this Christmas season!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Robertson and Giuliani: The Evangelical Election Year Crisis

Well, its official! By his official endorsement of Rudolph Giuliani, televangelist Pat Robertson tells American evangelicals it is worth voting for a candidate who favors the murder of unborn children in lieu of the fact that his position on fighting terrorism means the continued existence of a nation that murders unborn children.

Make no mistake, in some evangelical circles, nationalism now trumps truth, which means that evangelicalism as we know it no longer exists!

Others have already spoken eloquently and prophetically to this issue; chief among them Russ Moore, who in a recent radio program rightly contends that the abortion issue is important enough to withdraw one's support of a candidate. But many are stating that this politically-charged endorsement is appropriate. AFter all, Rudy seems at present to be the only candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton in a general election. Giuliani himself has recently been hawking himself on Christian conservatives by encouraging them to think of him as an "80% ally" as opposed to a "20% opponent."

So the question remains: is it ever appropriate to cast a vote for a pro-abortion candidate? Should evangelicals resort to "single-issue voting" and subsequently risk losing elections to lesser candidates? Such a question was the focus of the gubernatorial elections in my state of Maryland last year. Personally, I went into the voting booth with this issue heavy on my mind. I didn't want the present governor to take office. He would raise my taxes, forward a secularist agenda, and expand the influence of government over the nuclear family. In the end, the realization that neither gubernatorial candidate respected human life enough to grow a backbone with regard to abortion meant I was forced by conscience to abstain from voting for a governor in Maryland.

Friends questioned my judgement in this matter. After all, wouldn't more votes for Robert Erhlich have assured a government friendly toward evangelicals? Is the issue of abortion really that important?

To answer this question, we must back up from the trees a bit to see the proverbial forest. Are there single issues that would automatically disqualify a candidate from serving in public office? For a tangible example, let's assume that five year's from now, in the 2012 election, evangelicals have another "darling" candidate. Let's assume this candidate has a strong pro-family record, and takes positions that are, overall, largely attractive to Christian conservatives. But there is one caveat with this candidate: he believes our nation should re-institute slavery.

Tell me, would you dare vote for such a candidate?

In the end, the problem with a racist candidate is essentially the same as that of a pro-choice candidate. Both groups are categorically denying personhood to an entire class of people. The former bases this denial on the degree of pigmentaion in the skin; the latter on how far one has progressed through the birth canal. The result, however, is the same: a group of people created in the image and likeness of God are being defined as less than such.

To be sure, being "pro-life" by itself does not neccesarily qualify one to hold public office. However, being "pro-choice" by itself fundamentally disqualifies one from serving. Practically speaking, this means that in the event of a Clinton-Giuliani contest in the general election, Americans would have no qualified candidate for which to vote.

Countering this argument, Robertson contends that there is a more important issue than Giuliani's pro-choice position, and that is national security. We should elect a candidate who will protect us from the "bloodlust" of Islamic terrorists. But is the "bloodlust" of abortion providers any less of a threat to our national identity? Apart from a philosophically fundamental belief in the sacredness of human life, our "security" will only serve to protect a house of cards.

Of course, the emphasis of nationalism over truth began years ago, when evangelicals decided to prostitute themselves out to the Republican party rather than seeking to influence both parties with principles of righteousness. The end result is seen in this year's presidential candidates. Truth is, if Rudy Giuliani is the best candidate Christian conservatives can see fit to support, then perhaps our nation deserves a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Don't be Stupid!: Church Planting "Jugulars" Part II

Ever see otherwise intelligent folk do something that could qualify for the $1000 award on "Country Fried Home Videos?" Every time I watch that show I am amazed that the same people who attempt those mindless stunts manage to hold a steady job, speak in complete sentences, or even breed.

But if we are honest, we all would have to admit times when we have done things that call our intelligence and sanity into question. Trouble is, when you do stupid things in the early stages of a church plant, the effects are long term.

While at New Orleans Seminary last week, I was asked to speak to students on the most frequently committed "bone-headed" acts of church planters. More to the point: what were some of the top problems I have observed from watching guys come onto the field here. Below is a list of "bullett points" I used for my presenation, and I pray it is helpful to anyone who wants to plant, or anyone who wants to help a planter:

1. They have a vision for the church, but not for the community. In his book Winning, former GE CEO Jack Welch laments the overuse of vision and mission statements in the business world. I share these lamentations because I have seen winsome statements crafted by church planters in their training that have little to nothing to do with the area they are seeking to reach. Simply put, many church planters I talk to know how many they want to show up, they know what kind of building they want, and of course, they know what their salary should be! The problem is that these ideas are seldom expanded to include how the church system they design will impact the community around them.

Those tempted to define their church's vision in this way should read Bob Lewis' book The Church of Irresistible Influence. To make short a long story that is worth the read, Lewis' Fellowship Bible Church of Little Rock, AR came to the conclusion that although their attendance exceeded 3000 people every Sunday, if their church disappeared the city of Little Rock would not notice, which made their church a failure by default. The subsequent story of their efforts to become a city-impacting church is inspiring, and worthy of emulation.

Any church planting vision that is worth the paper on which its written will have an "end game" that reaches beyond the walls of a building and sees the transformation of an entire community by the Gospel.

2. The depend too much on the denominational system, As a denominational guy,its hard for me to admit it. Nevertheless, the truth about denominations is while we can be a great help to you, we can also handicap you, especially if you depend on us too much.

This is particularly true of the guys who go "full time." The temptation is to act as an employee of the system rather than the church planting missionary God has called you to be. Lately. my top reccomendation to church planters is that they begin in a bi-vocational role. Intentional outside employment is good and healthy. It gets you into the community, and forces you into relationships with people who don't know Jesus. In addition, it tests your stamina and resilience. While planting a church, I worked two additional jobs while simultaneously finishing a doctorate. Needless to say, I have little tolerance for guys who think they can't do this unless they are doing it full-time.

But regardless of whether you are full-time or part-time, from day one you should refuse to see yourself as a denominational employee. To be sure, if part of a denomination, you are accountable to the spiritual authorities there. At the same time, God has called you to plant a church, which means that if you are spending more time around the associational office than you are in the field, you aren't fulfilling your calling.

3. They have unrealistic expectations. I'm currently writing a book with Missional Press that should be released next fall, and it deals exclusively with this issue. Too many guys come to the field having read Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll, and Bob Roberts, and they think they will be next in line. Subsequently, when they haven't broken the 50 barrier after their first year in the field, they feel like a failure. In addition, there are a few denominational folk out there who also make them feel like a failure, when the truth is there plant is simply the "norm."

A recent research project has just been completed by Leadership Network, which found that churches whose attendance exceeds 100 after four years are a small minority. The problem is that when church planters read the stories of Northpoint, Saddleback, and Mars Hill, they forget that people love these stories because of how extraordinary they are. If you are a church planter, know that while I pray you are indeed one of those exceptions, more than likely your experience will be quite "ordinary." Just remember that throughout the Scriptures, God used ordinary people, places, and events to accomplish great things, and don't give up!

I'm sure there are many more land mines I could warn you about. But these are the "top three" I have seen our guys in Maryland stepping on. My prayer is that if God has called you to plant a church, these warnings will serve to help you as you move forward.