Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Gulf-Coast Partnership

I’ve just returned from Gulport Mississippi, where I spoke to the bi-annual session of the Gulf Coast Baptist Association. Over the past several years, our two associations have had multiple opportunities to bless each other, and this year, we are codifying our already warm relationship by entering into covenantal partnership with each other.

The Gulf Coast Association voted unanimously on Monday night to enter this partnership, and pending our association’s approval at our October meeting, it will be official. Partnerships are good because they promote cooperation, accountability, and greater Kingdom impact. I was thinking about this yesterday while preparing to speak to our Mississippi brothers and sisters. Basically, I took an inventory of all that God has accomplished in the Mid-Maryland area over the past four years, and here is what I came up with:

-Leadership development in one form or another has been provided to over 250 pastors and laity.
-There are presently 16 new churches in MMBA that did not exist four years ago.
-More than 500 volunteers have been deployed for mission efforts in North America.
-More than 250 volunteers from our churches have served in International mission efforts.
-More than 120 church planters have been trained and helped to deploy internationally.
-Our association has a significant presence on four continents, and when the ministries of all our member churches are considered, we have a significant presence for missions on every inhabited continent.
-In one way or another, we have helped to equip more than 50 churches to more effectively reach, bless, and change their own communities.
-19 churches have been planted in our area, and surrounding areas.

More is coming next year. So far in 2009:

-We will deploy to the Gulf Coast for at least two mission efforts.
-We will send missionaries to Mexico, the Carribean, East Asia, India, and the Pacific Rim.
-We will continue to plant churches in our own area.
-We are planning for joint leadership development, mission efforts, and disaster relief efforts by both Gulf Coast Association and Mid-Maryland Association.

We have 53 churches in MMBA, 19 of which are less than 5 years old, with many who do not own their own property. Yet all of the above was accomplished for one reason: 53 churches decided that they could do more together than they could apart. Add to this the 66 congregations that make up the Gulf Coast Association, and one is pressed to ask; what kind of Kingdom impact could 119 churches have?

I can’t wait to find out!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

America’s Public Schools: Education or Indoctrination?

In recent weeks a number of events have transpired across the country concerning public education. While each of these events occurred independently of the others, each one bears significant testimony that John Dewey’s vision of public education is finally being realized.

In other words, we have much to fear!

The following words are difficult to write for several reasons. First of all, I hate having to admit I am wrong. Three years ago I challenged Al Mohler’s contention that evangelicals should begin to develop an “exit strategy” related to a proposed SBC resolution on public education. Although I remain opposed to the Convention unduly judging parents for enrolling their children in public education, I am re-thinking Mohler’s proposal in particular.

Second, as a product of the public education system, I turned out alright (although some might debate this point) and sometimes it is difficult to believe that government control over public education is more, shall we say, imperial than it was when I attended. Furthermore, my wife and I are presently quite happy with our son’s public elementary school. As such, I don’t want it to seem that what I am about to say is intended to be a blanket statement of all public educational institutions. As I have said earlier, there still remain areas of the country where parental and local control of education remains strong, although how much longer this will be the case remains to be seen.

Finally, its hard to write against a system that I know employs many good, Bible-believing, born-again people who truly care about the students they teach. Among those in that number is my younger brother. I cannot stress enough that for the most part, the problems with public education are not related to the teachers. Instead, the problems are inherent to the system itself.

Still, for evangelicals to simply ignore all that is happening in regard to government-funded and controlled education would be ignoring the elephant in the room. But such events do not happen in a vacuum, and to see their origin we need to revisit the roots of our public education system, beginning with its most influential philosopher.

John Dewey is widely considered to be the most influential educational reformer in American history. In light of this assumption, it is interesting to know that Dewey himself was only a teacher for a few short years. Before his 24th birthday he had decided that education was not his field. He continued his own education, completing a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in 1884. His doctoral work motivated further studies in the Philosophy of Education. Observing various understandings of education, Dewey sought a balance between Plato’s emphasis on the societal good and Rousseau’s rugged individualism. The ultimate results of his work were published in his 1916 book entitled “Democracy and Education.” Dewey’s conclusion was that an individual’s significance, purpose and meaning are inextricably linked to his or her relationship with society at large, and therefore, the task of educators was to bring these two worlds together in symbiotic relationship.

In fairness, there are benefits to this understanding of education. From the time of Dewey, education evolved beyond the instilling of mere facts and head knowledge, and set the goal of actually equipping people to be productive members of society. The problem was that over time, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction, to the point that today, education is no longer primarily about learning to read, write, add, subtract, and think. Instead, education is now about instilling a particular societal worldview. Richard Rorty, one of Dewey’s many epistemological protégés, contends that truth is “made,” not “found,” and therefore society should seek to free itself from “truth” and construct its own understandings. Likewise Mary Calderone, who first introduced and advocated the idea of public school sex education, suggested that children should be “freed” from the traditional influences of the past (i.e. parents and churches) so that they can broaden their horizons in the area of sexuality. No wonder Playboy’s Hugh Hefner volunteered to financially underwrite sex education during its first years. The results have had to be good for business.

The result of Dewey’s philosophy in the United States is our present system of public education, which is steeped in cultural postmodernism.

The move from “classical” to “social” education has yielded many negative results, including a highly centralized and tightly controlled curriculum, government “certification” for teachers, and a system that puts government beauracracy before students. Most damning of all, the move from classical to social education monopolized by the federal government is designed to bring our children to capitulate to the prevailing postmodern worldview. Simply put, public education doesn’t teach children how to think. It teaches them what to think. No more debate about the origin of man. Our culture follows Darwinian philosophy and children will simply be told this is the “truth.” There will be no opportunities to debate the validity of the theory of global warming. It is simply presented as scientific “fact.”

Ben Stein’s recent documentary film Expelled illustrates the prejudice against those who dare refuse to bow before the prevailing worldview. Although ultimately Stein’s film contains nothing particularly new, it serves as a fresh reminder that in our current educational climate, contrarian’s are not welcome.

Add to this my friend Kevin Bussey’s recent post on a national “Day of Silence.” Public school districts all over the country are observing this day in order to promote the homosexual lifestyle as normative. World Net Daily carried the original story, and reported that a number of very troubled Christian parents were choosing to keep their children home on this day in protest. Yet the school districts in Indiana warned parents that it was “against the law” to keep their child out of school for reasons of protest, and one father was warned by his son’s school principal that his son would fail for the year if he did not attend school that day.

In addition, legal challenges continue to be brought against parents who have chosen to circumvent public education altogether. In a recent California case, an appellate court took advantage of an admittedly questionable home-school environment to violate the rights of parents all over the state. “California courts have held,” stated Justice Walter Croskey, “that under provisions in the education code, parents to not have a constitutional right to home-school their children.” The court has now decided that there must be a “certified teacher” in the home before home-schooling will be allowed in California. Mike Smith, President of the Home School Legal Defense Fund in Virginia, has stated that as many as 60,000 families in the state may be affected by this tyrannical over-stepping of judicial boundaries. Teacher’s unions, by contrast, love this decision.

Such moves to usurp parental authority are, unfortunately, not isolated. School boards in general are granted almost unfettered power over parents, all in the name of salvaging a system that in many places—especially in the urban centers of the country—is irreparably broken, and made continually worse by an overbearing federal government.

With all of the above in view, maybe its time for me to jump on Mohler’s “exit strategy” bandwagon after all. More on how to do this later.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

New Book Now Available for Pre-Sale

The good folks over at Missional Press have afforded me the opportunity to put a few of my feeble thoughts about church planting into published writing. As of today, the book is available for pre-sale at a reduced cost directly from the publisher. The plans are to release the book in a couple of weeks. At that point, it should be available for purchase from local bookstores, at Lifeway, and on Amazon.

But if you want to get your copy in advance, you can get it here.

For upcoming reviews of the book, keep watch here, here, and here.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Movement, or No Movement: What's the Difference?

This week, I'm in Tuxtla-Gutierrez, the capital city of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. I and a team from our association have had the privilege of holding training for church planters here, as well as working with the Chiapas Convention and local association to develop a church planters network.

Today, the participants caught fire! Before lunch, a strong network/learning community had been built and the first meetings had been planned. It's exciting to see God at work. Wherever he decies to show up in the world, the results are always glorious!

Nevertheless, the reason we suggested beginning a network was because so many church planters had felt marginalized, and even resented, by established church pastors. They needed some form of encouragement, exhortation, and mutual learning in order to facilitate their vision of a church in every city in their region. That's quite an aspiration, and its also quite apostolic! By the end of the book of Acts, each of the 40 cities mentioned in the book boasts a church. Our brothers and sisters in Chiapas want to follow that pattern, and I hope you will join me in praying for God to give them success.

Anyway, our experiences this week have led me to observe some common elements that determine whether or not a church planting movement is possible among a group of God's people. To be sure, the culture very different here. In fact, every time I come to Latin America I'm "brushing up" on what little Spanish I know. By the end of this week I'll at least be able to order food, hail a cab, have small talk with the hotel staff, and find my way to public restrooms. But over the next year, I'll be back with the "gringos" and I'll get rusty. As such, the cultural differences are very real to me. Given this fact, my observations of common problems in church planting are stark indeed when seen against the contrast of those cultural differences! Regardless of the language and culture, those things that determine whether a movement of new churches takes place are pretty uniform. I have found that whether you are in Mexico or Manhattan, the following principles generally apply:


1. ASSERT BEAURAUCRATIC CONTROL OF IT. Beauracracy has its place. As much as I hate to admit this, there can be no clear structure, and no real rhyme or reason to your strategy without some degree of beauracracy. At the same time, it is there to give structure to the movement, not stifle it. If you have reached a point where your guidelines, policies, procedures, lines of accountability, and total structure are so imposing that they no longer facilitate the mission they were intended to support, don't hold your breath waiting for a movement of new churches!
2. REFUSE TO ACCEPT "NEW WINESKINS." Sometimes it is very difficult for the establishment to accept new methods of evangelism and church planting. Currently, guys like Erwin McManus, Mark Driscoll, and those who follow them are heavily criticized and attacked for their innovative approaches to ministry. But they weren't the first "targets" of the establishment. Thirteen years ago a young California pastor named Rick Warren took his shots as well, and now he is, to an extent, the establishment he once rejected! But Warren wasn't the first either. More than a half-century ago many Fundamentalists were highly upset with a young pastor who touted that he would reach every possible person, using every possible means. His name was Jerry Falwell.
From time to time, denominations and other agencies feel threatned by new approaches to mission. When those feelings translate into endless policies and attempts to "rule out" anything with which they are uncomfortable, you can rest assured that such agencied have just signed their own death warrant.
3. TAKE A "TOP-DOWN" APPROACH TO YOUR CHURCH PLANTING STRATEGY. To be brief, church planting strategy should be led by churches, not denominations. Too much centralized power in this regard results in a few churches that look exactly alike, rather than many churches who each fit well within their own environment.
4. MAKE SURE THERE IS A LOT OF "IN-FIGHTING." In the sixteeen years I have been in ministry, I have met a few guys who were always waiting for the next "battle." Some were conservative; others were liberal. All of them were full of demonic influence. Anybody with half a brain can uncover a controversial issue, take a side, and pick a fight. To be sure, some things are worth fighting for. But if you seem to spend more time putting out man-made fires, and less time trying to stoke God-inspired ones, you have just lost your relevance.
5. PLAN MORE THAN YOU PRAY. Any genuine movement of God doesn't begin in the boardroom, but on our knees. Sophisticated strategy components, charts, graphs and other visual aids are a total waste of paper without prayer.


1. UNIFY AROUND THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST. Remember when I said some things are worth fighting for? This is it! On the one hand, this means that we should be warry of any attempts to dilute or compromise the message of Jesus' incarnation, propitiatory death, bodily resurrection, ascension, return, and His command to repent and believe. On the other hand, this also means we should seek to avoid peripheral conflicts about things like Calvinism, theonomy, or other less-than-worthy issues that will detract us from mission if we make them our fight. Our affinity is the Gospel!
2. DE-CENTRALIZE YOUR STRATEGY AND LINES OF ACCOUNTABILITY. Glocalnet, ACTS29, GCM, and other highly successful church planting networks have modeled this principle for us for a few years now, and each year the point is proven all the more. Put local churches in charge of reproducing themselves, and use the centralized "mother-ship," be it a para-church headquarters or a denomination, to do the only thing it can do well; serve churches and seek to undergird their efforts, not legislate them. A movement is, by definition, something that can't be "controlled."
3. MAKE SURE THE BEAUAUCRACY KNOWS, AND STAYS, IN ITS PLACE. In a sense, this is just a re-statement of #2, but I think its an important enough principle to mention it at least twice! Denominational and para-church beauracracy should give structure and clarity to the aims of the local church, not legislate what those churches can and cannot do.
4. DEPLOY FRONT-LINE MISSIONARIES WHO WILL PUSH THE ENVELOPE. I admit, sometimes this is hard, partially because at times, you have to pull these guys back from the "edge" before they fall off (or take back some rope before they hang themselves. Choose whichever metaphor you like best.) At the same time, these kinds of "front-line" thinkers will challenge your own Biblical assumptions. If you simply react to their brashness and irreverance, you won't learn anything and eventually they will leave and be without the wisdom they need to succeed. But if you make sure the guidance you give is thoroughly Biblical, and be willing to struggle with them as they push back the edges of darkness and sin, you will both be stronger and more spiritually mature for it.
5. PRAY MORE THAN YOU PLAN. Jim Cymbala testifies to this in every book he has ever written. They have a fantastic choir, and Jim's not a bad preacher either! But if you ask, he will tell you that the singular reason Brooklyn Tabernacle continues to impact its culture is because his people stay on their knees.

So the choice is ours. Thing is, God will start such movements with or without us. The question is whether we will play a cooperative part in what He is doing.