Wednesday, September 08, 2010

To Burn or not to Burn? The Koran, Christian-Muslim Relations, and the Gospel.

Pastor Terry Jones is, quite literally, "on the war path." Jones, head of Dove World Outreach Church in Florida, is determined to commemorate the ninth anniversary of September 11 in a very atypical way. Less than 72 hours from the time this article is posted, Pastor Jones will lead a ceremony in which the Koran is burned in protest of radical Islam. His announcement of these plans have already set fire to the media, the blogosphere, talk radio, and political pundits who immediately began taking sides in the whole "should he--shouldn't he" debate. More recently, General David Patreus issued a strong warning that Pastor Jones' intentions could incite further violence against American soliders in Afghanistan.

All of these are important factors to consider. But for those who claim to follow Jesus Christ, the issues at stake are much deeper than one who simply watches CNN or FOX News might imagine.

On the surface, it would appear that this is simply an issue of basic rights. Those in favor of Jones' plans to continue with a public burning of the Koran frequently appeal to the fact that he has a right to do so, and no one is arguing against that fact. To be sure, I'm very thankful to live in a place where one can burn a book, a bra, a flag, or any other thing they want without fear of government repression or persecution. Though I oppose all of these actions, their legal protection is essential to the preservation of a democratic society in which the free exchange of ideas remains unrestricted by "big brother."

At the same time, as a follower of Jesus my primary citizenship is not of this world. As such, there may be actions and attitudes I am free to express in America that I am bound to repress for the sake of the Gospel. To date, a handful of supporters have argued in favor of Terry Jones on the basis of his constitutional right to do as he pleases. What no one seems to be asking is whether this is appropriate behavior for a follower of Jesus commissioned to reach all people--including Muslims--with the Gospel. His desire is to protect our culture from the dangerous influence of radical Islam. This is a desire that I share. The difference between us is that Terry Jones seems content to jettison the Gospel mandate in order to preserve our way of life. I am not. The early apostles who started churches in the power of the Holy Spirit did not enjoy the freedoms we Americans enjoy, and still they were faithful to their call. Ultimately, our appeal as Christians is not to the Bill of Rights, but to our resurrected Lord.

Essentially, there are three primary reasons that Pastor Jones' pending actions should be condemned loudly and clearly by all who claim to know Jesus:

1. Wrong Offense. Paul tells us clearly in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that the message of the cross is a "stumbling block." Simply put, the Gospel is an offense, which means that if followers of Jesus are faithful to their calling, people will be stung with the truth that their sin has separated them from their God, and that the only way back to Him is through the bloody sacrifice of His Son. This is the offense of the cross that Jesus said would be the cause of His people being hated for the sake of His name.
The problem comes when followers of Jesus use something other than Christ crucified as a tool of offense against others, and then claim that they are simply being "hated," when in fact, they are just being a jerk. Such is the case with a pastor who makes a public spectacle out of setting fire to a Muslim holy book. Our call is to communicate the Gospel of Jesus, not our dismay at radical Islam. Furthermore, if we offend our Muslim friends through foolish political posturing, we lose any chance of bringing them to the offense that can rescue their souls.

2. Wrong Enemy. Contrary to what Terry Jones believes, Muslims are not our enemy. To take it even further, even radical Muslims are not our enemy. Instead, they are the victims of our enemy; the great adversary and accuser of souls. I'm convinced that Satan would love nothing more than for this burning of the Koran to proceed, primarily because it will serve to draw harder lines of demarcation between Muslims, and the Christians who are called to reach out to them. By focusing more on the "survival of America" than the Gospel, Pastor Jones has unwittingly positioned himself as a tool of our real enemy.

3. Wrong Focus. As I listened to Terry Jones on radio and TV today, I was struck by the number of times he justified the pending actions of his church with the following statement: "when will we stop backing down?" Accompanying this statement were insinuations that radical muslims must hear a "warning" and that "they must be shown a certain amount of force." Admittedly, Pastor Jones may be correct in his assessment of the more radical elements of Islam, but even if he is, he confuses the assignment God has given His church with the mandate God places on the state to wield the sword against evil-doers. In short, Terry Jones' statements betray the reality of a church that is out of focus and off mission. In essence, his actions, intentional or not, will result in answering radical Islam with a radical form of Zealotistic Christianity that is, in reality, no Christianity at all.

In my home library there is a shelf that contains the works of most of the worlds religions. Among those works is a very ornate copy of the Koran given to me 15 years ago by an Imam. Next to that is a copy of the Book of Mormon. Next to that is a copy of the Jehovah's Witnesses' "New World Translation" of the Bible. Next to that is a copy of the Bahgavad Gita and next to that the Muktika Upanishad. As I observe the media controversy surrounding Pastor Terry Jones, I am reminded that there is coming a day, at the end of the age, when in fact all claims to truth not grounded exclusively in Jesus Christ will be burned by our God, who is Himself a consuming fire.

I'm also convinced that among that kindling will be the "wood, hay and stubble" that masquaraded as Christianity, but had as its primary goal the preservation of a western culture rather than the advance of God's Kingdom. With knowledge of that day of judgment comes a responsibility to wisdom, prudence, truth, and love. This issue isn't about Terry Jones. It isn't about the military, the conservatives, the liberals, or even September 11. For Christians, this issue is about who our Lord is, and whether we love Him enough to obey His clear commands.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Gospel Unity and Gospel Mission Go Hand in Hand.

This week, I'm in Gulfport, Mississippi with about 40 volunteers from eight of our churches. We have been at work down here helping rebuild the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina essentially washed the entire city away five years ago.

Our association is at work doing missions in nine different areas of the world, and our work in Mississippi serves a two-fold purpose. First, our work here is part and parcel of a larger partnership we have with the Gulf Coast Association, and we are delighted that the churches in Mississippi and Maryland will be serving each other until this partnership concludes in 2013. Second, for many people who have never served in volunteer missions this trip provides an entryway that we hope will lead to other things. Over half of our group this year are first-timers, and the next step for them after returning to Maryland is to come to our "Frontliners" event and have their awareness raised of the global scope of our work together. Our hope is that this event, combined with the experience in Mississippi, will "hook" them so that their next stop will be Mexico, or Asia, or India.

Yeah, its shady. But its for the Kingdom, so we are unabashed in our efforts to railroad people into going to the nations. :)

Along the way, I've also found another great side-benefit of this trip. The western church, like the western culture in which it resides, struggles with multicultural unity. For many churches, MacGavran's "Homogeneous Unit Principle" is treated less like a sociological observation and more like an excuse not to be intentional about reaching out to those different from themselves. This is also true when it comes to the various generational groups within the church. We have largely "departmentalized" those at different stages of life to the extent that 1 Timothy 5:1-2 cannot possibly be honored in our churches.

Yet last night I noticed that, strangely enough, these barriers seem to breakdown when God's people are on mission together. The eight churches that are represented on this trip vary greatly in terms of their worship styles and ministry processes. Some have greater numbers of younger people, and others boast great "senior ministries." A senior adult minister talked about his 50+ year marriage as a young Korean-American high school senior listened with awe-struck attention. Parents and children played cards together, older and younger men spent time looking at home improvement books together to learn more about the drywall project they will be taking part in this week. I too listened, and learned, as a parent with children slightly older than my own taught me (without realizing she was teaching me) how to best guide my boys through the next stage of their lives.

Last night--and for the rest of this week--all of these are moving together as one, helping to rebuild the Gulf Coast and sharing Jesus along the way. Last year, a young girl from New Orleans told our group that she had never heard of Jesus Christ. No one seemed to care how old everyone else was, or what color everyone else was, when her conversion was reported to the group. The Gospel caused all those distinctions to dissapear.

There is a history to this phenomennon that goes all the way back to the first century. As Paul closes out his letter to the church at Rome, you see a stark picture of a group of men who defy the class and race distinctions of the Empire in which they lived. A former rabbi, his secretary, a wealthy benefactor, a powerful government official, and the number two and number three household servants are all in the room as Paul completes this letter. Each is from a very different background. Each has nothing in common with anyone else in the room--except the Gospel of course; which is why these men are calling one another "brother."

My point? If you want to unite the various groups in your church that the news media, shopping malls, gerrymandering politicians, class and race-related activist groups, and demographers seek with all their might to keep separated, get them on mission together! Gospel Unity and Gospel Mission have a symbiotic relationship in that one always begets the other, and the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus grows in more powerful ways than we could possibly imagine!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Memorial Day Thanks

As I write this post, I'm sitting in my living room watching my boys play and anticipating a GREAT pasta dinner my wife is making. Both are a wonderful way to kick off the coming long weekend. Our plans are to do some work around the house, spend lots of quality time as a family, visit some close friends in Gettysburg, and enjoy what appears will be several beautiful days during Memorial Day weekend.

Ironically, many of those we honor during this time will not have these same privileges. They are fighting abroad in Iraq or Afghanistan, or stationed at any number of military bases all over the world. Many others still have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

As a preacher, my calling is not subject to human law. As Paul told Timothy, we are to preach "in season, and out of season." This means we speak of Jesus when it is popular and when it is unpopular; when people like it and when people hate it; when it is legal, and also whenever and wherever it is against the law.

Many who share my calling in other parts of the world are fulfilling that calling under the threat of persecution, arrest, and even death. As a follower of Christ, I like to think that I would also be this faithful to Him. At the same time, I'm thankful to live in a place where I have no fear of being arrested or killed--with government approval--because of my faith.

And the lion's share of credit for these freedoms belongs to our soliders, our airmen, our sailors, our marines, and members of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Just today my wife showed me this very touching photo of a young boy running toward his dad, who had just arrived back from a tour of duty. Take a look:

Upon seeing this photo, my first thought was, "how many countries exist in the world where a child can run toward an attack helicopter with absolutely no fear?" Other places in the world fear their military. Here, our soliders are heros.

To those of you who have served to defend our freedoms past or present, thank you! This weekend is about you and the sacrifices you make. We Americans are a fickle and diverse group of people. Sometimes, we may not even agree with where you are going and/or why you are fighting. But all of us should recognize that you who "follow orders" are the ones who truly guard our freedoms. On this Memorial Day weekend, know that you are loved, appreciated, and will never be forgotten.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Racism, Depravity, and the Gospel that Unites

Reading Leonard Pitts' Miami Herald Column in this past Sunday's paper was especially hard for me. Entitled "A Child's View of Black and White," the article described with painful detail new "doll tests" that are given to children to determine if racism might exist. Pitts, himself an African-American, rightly lamented the predispositions of children, both black and white, toward identifying "darker" dolls as "bad" and "dumb." More specifically, he cited an encounter with a young black girl who "did not think she was beautiful . . . because she is dark."

Concluding this very sad column, Pitts wrote in an exasperated manner that we are "40 years into a future where Michael Jordan is an icon, Bill Cosby is a national father figure, and a Kenyan's son is President of these United States. Forty years, and still . . ."

As should be expected, Pitts claims that such a national racial dillemma begs an explanation. "How do you explain the psychology of self-loathing and the futility of judging onesself by someone else's beauty standards?" This is an excellent question, and as a white son of the south, what made this article hard to read is that I know the answer.

There are many things about my background and upbringing that make me proud. The installation of a strong Protestant work ethic, and cultural emphases on honesty, integrity, and helping one's neighbor are just a few examples. My home culture's attitude toward race relations however, is not on this list. Growing up, I heard all the standard stereotypes aimed at anyone who didn't share my skin tone. I heard interracial dating and marriage condemned. And though I was told "we are all equal, no matter what color we are," I rarely saw this "equality" meeted out fairly in my hometown.

Thankfully, God has redeemed me from such prejudice, and over the course of many years liberated me from such ways of thinking. Yet the problem of racism still exists, and I have discovered that the southern United States isn't the only place where it can be found. Shortly after moving to Maryland nearly six years ago, I was shocked to sit in a barber's chair only to hear the word "n*gger" within the first five minutes from the guy cutting my hair. 40 miles north of the nation's capital, I found a more vitriolic form of racism in the northeast that I had never encountered in the south.

The truth is that racism's origins can't be defined by a region of the country, nor can it be traced ultimately to parental attitudes, cultural prejudices, or even extremist groups like neo-Nazis, the KKK, or the Black Panthers. Ultimately, each of these sources of race-based hatred finds its origins in the Garden of Eden, within the minds of our first parents who sinned out of a self-centered heart that desired the opposite of God's design.

Paul tells us in Acts 17:24 that God "made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth." In other words, God's intent from the beginning was to create a diverse human race that would bring Him glory. The various ethnicities that exist on our planet are not the result of the fall, as is so often contended by some ill-informed and badly-biased interpreters of the text. Each originated in the mind of our Creator for His own ultimate glory. Furthermore, we are told that this divine demand for diverse worshippers all over the globe will come to pass, as that great, uncountable multitude of human beings, "from every nation, from all tribes, peoples, and languages" stand before the throne of the Lamb crying out "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever!" (Revelation 7:9, 12, ESV)

In short, God intends to unite every ethnic group and language on the globe under the Lordship of Jesus for His own glory. As one of my mentors once stated, a unison choir is nice, but a choir that sings parts--the same song sung in various tones--sounds much more glorious. Racial and ethnic diversity exist because God is worthy of so much more than a unison choir at the end of the age. Race matters! And it matters because God matters!

Such is the reason why racism is such a deadly and dangerous disease in our culture. When Leonard Pitts describes it, he rightly laments the way human beings created in God's image are mistreated as a result, but he fails to see that the ultimate insult is against God Himself.

All of us are naturally more comfortable around people most like ourselves. When we allow this disposition to evolve into a prejudice, we have at that point made an idol of our ethnicity. When we show a preference for one person over another based on skin color, we are saying to God with our actions, "you are not worthy of ethnically diverse glory."

To summarize, racism is a direct offense against the Creator of all human beings. It represents a denial of and opposition to His aim to make himself known among all peoples so that He receives the glory that is His due. It is a preference for our own glory--the lifting up of our own ethnic identity and value as created beings over His value as our Creator. This is what makes racism such an abhorrent evil.

And yet, racist attitudes are still "tolerated" among our churches. One recent example is a Louisiana Southern Baptist congregation that rescinded its invitation for an IMB missionary to speak because he and his wife had adopted interracially. I don't know whether such evil exists on a congregational level in any of the churches of the Mid-Maryland Association, but if it does, I'll go ahead now and invite that church to tender its withdrawal from our fellowship--before MMBA takes care of it for you! In the end, such a strong stand isn't about being politically correct. Ultimately, it isn't even about the treatment of fellow human beings, as important as that is. In the end, this issue is about whether our churches desire what God desires--a unified universal church where no ethnic or language group is left out! If your church seeks any less than this because of racial prejudice, your church isn't preaching the Gospel and it is very likely that you stand on the precepice of being damned for eternity.

But there is yet another side to this issue. As Pitts rightly points out, we are 40 years beyond the civil rights movement--more than 145 years beyond the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th ammendment, and the spirit of racism is still alive and well. As a journalist, Pitts seeks, and fails, to understand why this is the case. To Pitts, it seems logical that a bloody civil war, sweeping constitutional changes, and monumantal cultural shifts brought on by the Civil Rights Act should be enough to create a culture wherein racism no longer exists. And such would seem logical, were it not for the reality of sin. To be sure, all of the above were the right decision. No nation that presumes any moral authority whatsoever should tolerate involuntary servitude or government-endorsed preference for any race. At the same time, the abolishment of slavery, by itself, doesn't stop one from looking with disdain on his darker-skinned brother. Likewise, goverment emphases like Affirmative Action might help mask the symptoms of racism, but it will never cure what is really wrong with us.

The central problem is that we are in rebellion against our Creator and thus, we hate what He loves, including racial diversity. As such, the solution to racism is the same as the solution to all sin; a bloody cross and an empty tomb. If this message is genuinely preached and lived in our churches, the evil of racism cannot last long.

Pastors and churches overcome this issue by living the Gospel. Churches will confront--and if neccesary remove from membersip--those who are members of groups with racist ideology. Pastors will openly confront these sinful attitudes and call men and women who possess them to repentance. Diversity will be celebrated and reflected in a congregation's leadership, as elders and deacons are appointed who represent and look like the community they are called to reach. Pastors will emphasize the importance of being "equally-yoked" by teaching their people that this means marriage takes place within the same FAITH, not neccesarily the same RACE. Interracial marriage ceremonies will be held that give church members a foretaste of the diverse worship that we are headed for in heaven. Interracial couples and families who have repented of sin and trusted Christ will be welcomed as the brothers and sisters in Christ that they are. Families in the church will adopt children from other nations, cultures, and ethnicities, and such will be celebrated in the life of the church. Denominational entities, from the local association to the national SBC, will take a strong stand on this issue, to the extent that churches which refuse to acknowlege God's plan for all nations are removed from fellowship.

We are racist toward each other because we have sinned against our God. Thus, the Gospel is the only message that can unite us. Churches that understand this and live it will ultimately heal the scars caused by racial prejudice. This is in fact the only context in which genuine racial unity can be realized. Those churches that refuse to play this role . . .well, they may not even be true churches.

Some Comic Relief

More posts are coming shortly on more serious themes, but you MUST see the video below! Absolutely hillarious. Enjoy! Oh, and if you see yourself in it, try not to get too angry. Sometimes, we take ourselves WAY too seriously. :)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Another Gift and Heritage from God

To the left is our new daughter, Abigail Grace Rainey!

Ten days ago our family was driving to a 5-K race to help raise funds for a local pregnancy center when my wife's Blackberry started buzzing. A few seconds later she grabbed my arm in sobs, and while I'm wondering who died, she held up her phone and for the first time, I saw the picture you are now looking at!

For those who read here but were not aware, my wife and I began the process for an international adoption about a year ago. Interestingly enough, we made the decision while on a weekend away from the kids. For many years, we have sensed that God would someday want us to add to our family via an international adoption. In particular, the nation of China has long been on our hearts. Last year, that sense of call expanded to include a heartfelt desire by both of us for a daughter. One year later, it appears God is about to unite us with our little girl.

In case you didn't know, that timeframe itself is a bit of a miracle. According to the law of averages, we were supposed to be waiting for at least another year before being matched. Unbenownst to us, Chinese adoption officials opened up a database not normally accessible to Americans, and our agency was able to gain access--and find our little girl. She was found abandoned by authorities on May 6, 2009, and doctors assessed her age at four days when she arrived at the hospital, meaning that this past Sunday was her first birthday. She currently resides in an orphanage in north-central China, and with the exception of a medically-correctable cleft lip and palate, is believed to be in excellent health.

So at this point, we are simply waiting for an invitation from the U.S. Consulate in this province to travel to pick her up. God willing, sometime in the next 3 to 5 months, Amy and I will be traveling over to get her. In the meantime, I'll be finishing the work downstairs that added another bedroom to our home, and securing family transportation big enough to hold all five of us (the Jeep Liberty is great, but won't hold us all).

For those of you who know us well and have prayed for us during this time, thanks so much for the prayers. The Lord certainly heard them!

We chose her name prayerfully. We will call her "Grace," which is a name that also belonged to her maternal great-grandmother; my wife's grandmother, who was as sweet and godly a woman as has ever walked the earth. Her first name was my choice. Abigail (אֲבִיגַיִל ) was one of the wives of David who showed great strength and character in the face of her first husband's foolish behavior; a woman of great discernment who faced hard situations in the way a worshipper of God should. But its the etymology of her name that was the compelling factor. Abigail means "her father's joy."

That, she already is!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

GCR Response, Part III; What We Can Do Better

Buckle up boys and girls, this is going to be a long one!

In the last two posts I have listed the good, the bad, and the ugly of the GCR preliminary report as I perceive it from the position of a missionary in a pioneer North American field. Certainly, we as the SBC can do a better job with the resources God has blessed us with to reach our own nation and the world with the Gospel. At the same time, what the Task Force has put forward so far is unlikely to accomplish that goal. From the beginning of this movement (which most would mark as coinciding with the “Axioms” message by Dr. Danny Akin), the rallying cry and rationale for a GCR has rested on the fact that we currently spend 98% of our resources on 5% of the world’s population. Missionaries are called and ready, but cannot be funded, and the SBC must do more to ensure that we play the role God would expect of us, relative to the resources we have, in reaching the world with the Gospel. This was the vision Dr. Akin put in front of the pastors in my association last November, and I saw those men rally quickly behind that vision. I have seen them just as quickly dismiss the GCR preliminary report because it does nothing substantive to meet this goal. How is it that a movement that started with the call to get more resources to the nations can end with a report that does very little for the nations, and in fact concentrates most of its attention on NAMB?
These are the thoughts I am left with as I ponder the implications of the preliminary report, and as I shared these thoughts with our Association’s Executive Board, one of its members bluntly asked “Joel, what would you do if you were in charge of this thing?”

As much as I hate being an armchair quarterback, there are many things I would suggest that would, I believe, make the SBC much more effective in reaching the original goal that was touted at the beginning of this movement. 1.7 billion people on our planet have never heard of Jesus. Each week, more than a million people within this population die separated from God because there is no missionary to share with them how they can be in relationship with Him. If we want to change that we can, but to utilize our resources to reach these people will require more radical moves than the Task Force has recommended. What follows are my own suggestions as to how this goal might be accomplished:

1. Changes at the North American Mission Board. In my last post, I stated that the indiscriminate “phasing out” of cooperative budgeting between NAMB and the state conventions was a bad idea. At the same time, these agreements do need to be revisited. . .ALL of them.
A. All national and jointly funded NAMB missionaries must have their roles examined in light of the new, sharper focus recommended by the Task Force. More pointedly, mission personnel must be directly involved in evangelism and the planting of New Testament churches in order to retain their benefits and any salary subsidies they receive. With NAMB having a more regional presence across North America under the Task Force’s proposal, accountability on this point will be easier to maintain. Those who work in an area outside evangelism and church planting would have their positions phased out over 3 years, starting in 2011. Assuming that this results in a 10% reduction in the cost of cooperative agreements, this would free up an additional $5 million by 2014. However, if the work is to remain "grass roots," missionaries will need to be answerable to local churches through states and associations rather than NAMB, as the Task Force is suggesting.
B. NAMB mission personnel involved in state and associational work in “new work” areas would be expected to model the same move toward non-dependency that they expect of the churches that are planted. Though I have strong differences with Jerry Rankin regarding the "supervisory" role NAMB should assume in the future, I agree with him that the same dependency on outside funding and support that handicapped international work for decades is today having the same effect in North America. (you can read his take on this here.) Independence and self-sufficiency are always to be prefered over perpetual ecclesiastical wellfare. As associations and new work state conventions plant new contributing churches, outside salary subsidies would be drawn down over a maximum period of 10 years. Associations that are more fiscally healthy—such as the one I currently lead—would be phased down over a shorter period of time. These funds would then be “recycled” through the appropriate state convention to start new associations if needed with more missionary personnel. If new associations are not needed, the funds would be converted and aimed at specific church planting strategies. Both the state conventions and associations would be eligible for these subsidies, as would multiplying local churches. In short, rather than eliminating cooperative agreements, make cooperative agreements directly available to partners at all levels of denominational life. Local churches and associations should have the same potential working relationship with NAMB as the state conventions now have, thereby assuring the indigeneity of any strategies that are implemented.
C. The NAMB facilities in Alpharetta, GA would be sold, and NAMB’s regional offices would be shared with the Georgia, Maryland/Delaware, New York, Northwest, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Colorado, and Texas Conventions respectively. In short, NAMB would be housed regionally within state convention facilities. The proceeds from the sale of the Alpharetta property would be used to ensure that adequate space is provided for both NAMB and the state convention in which they are housed, the balance would be deposited, and $1 million in interest annually could be given to the IMB.
The amounts freed up from these changes would be reallocated to the International Mission Board. Total anticipated allocation: $6 million.

2. Changes at the Seminaries: 5% of the amount currently allocated from the Cooperative Program to go to the seminaries would be reallocated to the International Mission Board. As each of the seminaries receives a different amount of the 22.16% of Cooperative Program dollars currently alloted to them collectively, any neccesary budget cuts would be proportional to the amount each seminary received. The average cut across the board would be a bit under $370,000 per seminary--much less than the average new work state convention is being asked to give up under the current proposal. While there are many ways that an academic institution can make up for a budget loss of this sort, one way would be to fill faculty needs with academically-qualified local pastors who would teach adjunctively.
The amount freed up from these changes would also be reallocated to the International Mission Board. Total anticipated allocation: $2.3 million.

3. Eliminate the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I'll make the case for this one short and sweet. If Southern Baptists really believe that the ultimate answer to society's ills is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then let's put our money where our mouths are! While I have appreciation for the work of the ERLC, and most of the time find myself in agreement with the positions taken, I will also admit that sound political decisions are no substitute for the power of the Gospel. We learn this from the history of the Old Testament itself. King Josiah, for example, enacted wonderful, godly reforms during his rule over Judah. But without changed hearts, Judah continued in its idolatry.
Additionally, we already have SBC leaders who speak eloquently to cultural and political issues, and represent our denomination with truth and grace, chief among them being Al Mohler. Ultimately, if America is to be "saved," it will be by people repenting of their sins and coming to Jesus. That said, I'd recommend we take the monies we have invested in Republican politics for years and years, and forward it on to the International Mission Board to reach the nations.
Total allocation: $3.3 million.

4. Changes at the International Mission Board. I would cut the current number of IMB trustees in half--one per state convention is more than sufficient. (for that matter, we would probably do well to consider this same approach at every one of our SBC entities. Talk about saving money! Another conversation for another day, to be sure). Additionally, move from 6 meetings per year to 3, with only one of those meetings being "face-to-face." Twice per year trustees could meet "virtually" and the investment the IMB would make in the technology for this to happen would be minimal compared to the continual purchasing of airline tickets, hotel rooms, meals, etc. that currently cost approximately $100,000 per meeting.
Of course, the question is then asked "how will we appoint missionaries in a timely manner?" My answer to this question is for the SBC to place its trust in the candidate consultants employed by the IMB. Trustees would still set the parameters for missionary appointment, but individual appointments could be approved by IMB staff within those parameters. The past five years have revealed clearly that IMB trustees not missiologically well-informed often choose to care about the wrong things when considering missionary candidates. Employ people you trust at IMB and then trust them! The monies saved could be reallocated internally and provide needed support to missionaries.
Total allocation: $550,000.

The above suggestions, in addition to the current recommendation by the Task Force to move 1% of CP dollars from the Executive Committee to the IMB, would result in a total increase of more than $12 million dollars to reaching the nations! Of course, churches excited to see 57% of Cooperative Program dollars on their way to resource the reaching of the nations would no doubt increase their own contributions to the CP as they are able.

With this said, here is my very simple question: If the GCR was supposed to be about getting ever increasing amounts of CP dollars to the 1.7 billion who have never heard the Gospel, why then are we not seeing proposals from the Task Force that would send substantively increased amounts to the IMB? Why, after all of the noise about "the nations" is the preliminary report predominantly about the North American Mission Board?

Jerry Rankin is right to point out that the SBC could play a major role in reaching the world with the Gospel, but that our present structure suggests we don't want to. Unfortunately, the recommendations of the Task Force as they now stand do very little in my estimation to change that. My prayer is that by the final report on May 3, we will see the kind of bold, courageous, faith-filled, Christ-centered vision that those of us who voted for the GCR at last year's convention hoped to see. Let us all pray earnestly for the Task Force in these final days. Even more so, let's pray for the courage and faithfulness to do what God expects as we seek our unique role in extending His Kingdom.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The GCR Report: A Correction and Clarification

Let me preface this post with the admission that I studied math in public school . . .in South Carolina. :) That fact should explain the following correction:

In my last post, several large figures were thrown about, one of which was a side-reference to the amount our International Mission Board spends annually on trustee meetings. About four years ago, I was speaking with a trustee who shared with me that the average cost per meeting was around $500,000, and that the Board met 6 times per year. After four years, I assumed that if anything, that cost had gone up, and therefore, stated that the amount spent by the IMB for this purpose was $3 million annually, thinking that if anything, this was a conservative estimate.

This morning I had the opportunity to speak with Terry Sharp, the chief liason between the IMB and associational leaders such as myself. During our conversation he asked me to clarify that the actual cost of a single trustee meeting is actually closer to $100,000, which would bring the total annual cost of these meetings to about $600,000, not the $3 million I referred to earlier.

Additionally, the trustees have recently looked at ways of cutting costs, including cutting two of their meetings out, which would presumably cut another $200,000 from their expenses.

My apologies for the inaccuracy of that figure. I'm always happy to hear that our entities are spending "less" than assumed on administrative costs, and the IMB has certainly demonstrated through this its own commitment to stewardship of the dollars given her by the churches. My last post on this issue will deal with ways that even more monies can be sent in her direction.

Monday, April 12, 2010

GCR Response, Part II: The Things that Puzzle Me.

The GCR Task Force was charged last year with recommending ways that Southern Baptists can do our work more effectively. In my last post I pointed out several things about their preliminary report that made me glad to have voted in favor of this approach. In this post, I'd like to address a few things that both trouble and puzzle me. They trouble me because, as a missionary in the field, the potential damage that could befall our work in North America as a result of some of their recommendations seems plain to me. They puzzle me because the folks I know personally on the task force are good and wise people, and I'm trying to understand why they too don't see the weaknesses in certain parts of their report.

1. The Centralized "de-centralization" of NAMB; I mentioned in the last post that I was in favor of the task force's recommendation that the North American Mission Board be de-centralized. The problem with the preliminary report is that the exact opposite is what will take place. There seems to be an assumption that if NAMB is relocated to seven areas of North America that the entity will be automatically decentralized. But geographic relocation alone does not constitute decentralization. In fact, when one looks at the other recommendations dealing with the phasing out of Cooperative Agreements and the direct appointment of all missions personnel by NAMB, it becomes clear that the goals of the task force are not matched by their proposed plans in this area. In the end, if these proposals are realized, it will not result in true decentralization. The consolidation of money, power, and personnel into one denominational missions board is a "centralizing" move. I'll deal with what true decentralization looks like in my next post, but for now, I'll simply say that it looks nothing like what the Task Force has proposed.

2. The Indiscriminate Phasing out of Cooperative Agreements and Budgets; This proposal has received the most attention, and rightly so. For one thing, we can certainly do cooperative budgeting better, and I'm all in favor of a total renegotiation of ALL budget agreements in light of the new emphases the task force is recommending for NAMB. At the same time, the recommendation to simply "phase out" these agreements across North America would mean the elimination of more than 1700 missionary personnel in NEW WORK AREAS. While some would certainly be retained by NAMB under the new system, it is almost certain that many would not due to the financial restraints that would accompany a strategy in which NAMB could no longer count on state conventions and associations to contribute significant percentages of financial support to its mission force.
Fortunately, the Task Force makes the assumptions behind this recommendation clear in their preliminary report:
-They assume that all state conventions are essentially the same.
-They assume that much of the $50 million now being funneled through cooperative agreements is being wasted on "state and associational employees," and that if that $50 million could just be turned back over to NAMB, it would automatically be invested in "reaching North America for Christ." The irony of that assumption is that I work with many of those "state and associational employees" in an area that is 80% unchurched, and more than 90% non-evangelical. In the past five years, more than 100 new churches have been planted in this area. Ours has been hailed as one of the better church planting support systems in North America, and our assessment process is unmatched anywhere else on this continent. I'm honestly not sure why anyone would consider an investment that resulted in those things a "waste."
-They assume that state conventions are the only entities where "waste" occurs. The obvious belief of the Task Force is that as long as states have a say in how $50 million North American missions dollars are spent, the money will be wasted, but if NAMB controls it all, it will be invested well. Isn't this the same entity that spent $250,000 on a fire truck? I'll let the reader figure this one out, because I simply can't get my head around it.
-They assume that NAMB is better equipped to design church planting strategy than state conventions and local associations. Yet recent research has substantiated that evangelical Christianity is on the rise in the northeast, northwest, and other new work areas (see map here). Much of the reason for this has to do with the fact that NAMB, states, and associations all understand their respective roles. NAMB, rather than prescribing strategy, has developed strategic frameworks, and states and associations have, in turn, developed contextual church planting strategies that fit within that national framework.
To be sure, every single cooperative agreement should be revisited, and either continued, phased out, or adjusted based on NAMB's new focus. But to phase out all financial arrangements indiscriminately will not result in forward progress in North American church planting, and in fact may roll us back a few years while NAMB seeks to catch up to what we have been doing.
Of course, I'm not the first to point out these facts, and I'm aware of how the contention over this point has been answered by those in favor of cooperative agreement phase-outs. In fact, the rancorous way in which the responses have come has surprised me . . .

-"So it seems we value the status quo over getting the Gospel to the nations."
-"It appears the job of a denominational beaurecrat is more important than an unreached people group on the other side of the world."

As inaccurate as such politically-charged rhetoric is, these statements might actually have some merit, were it not for the fact that NONE of the $50 million is prescribed by the Task Force to be redirected to the nations. It is simply being moved from the state to the national level, but staying in North America. As such, the charge that we are choosing status quo over the nations has no foundation. On this point, the Emperor is indeed naked!

Personally, I'd be highly in favor of part of that $50 million making its way into an investment in international missions, and in my third installment, I'll make some suggestions as to how this could happen. But the current recommendations merely reallocate money that stays in North America. And if I may be so bold as to channel a thought from Timothy George a generation ago, the reallocation of millions of dollars from one denominational beauracracy to another doth not a Great Commission Resurgence make.

3. No Substantive Increase in International Missions Giving. While I'm appreciative of the Task Force making an additional 1% of CP dollars available for the International Mission Board, I'm both puzzled and dissapointed that what started as a rallying cry to "reach the nations" has only resulted in a $3 million increase (which, incidentally, is what the IMB spends yearly on trustee meetings. Maybe the state conventions aren't the only place where fat can be cut.)
To be honest, my most visceral reaction to the report came upon hearing the proposed increase. After all the noise that was made over the past year about getting more resources to the nations (noise that I agree with, and joined in on), I could only think to myself "Only 1%?!? Are you kidding me?!?!?!" Additionally, when one considers what it may cost for the IMB to assume its new responsibility of helping engage unreached peoples on American soil, a $3 million increase seems more like a pentalty than an increase.
I'm truly excited that 51% of Cooperative Program dollars are now going to fund international missions. At the same time, we can do much, MUCH better. In my final post on this subject, I'll suggest some ways in which we could see, not $3 million, not $6 million, but instead $15-$20 million additional dollars on their way to the unreached peoples of the world.

Let me reiterate the respect I have for each member of the GCR Task Force, and the recognition I have for the hard work they have already done. I certainly do not envy them. Additionally, I believe they are listening to Southern Baptists across North America, and I'm holding out hope that the final report will be something around which all of us can unite, and that will actually increase our effectiveness in reaching the world with the Gospel. Many of their recommendations are helpful, but in the end, shuffling $50 million from the state to the national level, and reallocating 1% in CP gifts from the Executive Committee to the IMB is simply not enough. In my next post, I'll suggest some alternative approaches.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

GCR Response Part I: The Things Everyone Should Love

"Getting the Gospel to the nations" was the rallying cry that produced a 95%-plus vote to form the GCR Task Force on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention in Louisville last year. Mine was one of the ballots raised in favor of forming that group, and in this part of my response to the preliminary report, I'd like to point out the things that make me glad I did:

1. Unleashing the International Mission Board on American soil. This idea has been a long-time coming, and I'm very thankful to see it endorsed by the task force. For years, NAMB and the IMB have collaborated regarding unreached people groups residing in North America. (see for just one example), and the IMB has been a helpful counselor in bringing the focus on missions in North America from generations and geography to people groups. "Simple church" training for multiplying disciples has been very effective in some parts of North America, and this training has been provided by--you guessed it--the International Mission Board. At the associational level, we train missions volunteers with "Frontliners," a curriculum I was privlleged to preview and consult on for presentation in North America. It was written by the former Middle America-Caribbean Region of the IMB, and is without a doubt the best training in missions philosophy and practice out there. With this recommendation, the IMB can finally function officially in a role they have already proven to be effective in a more meritorious way. In my area alone, more than 25 unreached people groups reside without an indigenous church to reach them. Over the past six years, we have planted churches among 7 language groups, including the most recent Chin Burmese church launched just three weeks ago. Yet more than 60 languages are spoken in our area. I for one will be elated to have the expertise of the International Mission Board in helping us reach the 53 language groups and more than 25 people groups who need Gospel-preaching churches in their midst.

2. The Concept of a De-centralized North American Mission Board: Since 1997, NAMB has been charged with developing a strategic framework in which contextual and regional strategies can be developed nationwide that will effectively reach North America for Christ. Even amidst all the tumultuous activity that has taken place "at the top" of this organization, NAMB has managed over the past four years to narrow their focus from nine major ministry objectives to three, thereby producing a sharper focus toward reaching North America. With this in view, it only makes sense that the next step would be to downnsize the NAMB staff accordingly, and relocate NAMB to separate regions of the continent, with the majority locations being found in new work areas. Though I remain skeptical of the apparent assumption that geographic relocation alone constitutes "de-centralization" (I'll deal with this assumption in the next post), I'm genuinely excited about the prospect of a scenario that I hope will include the sale of the lucrative real estate in Alpharetta, and the disbursment of NAMB to areas where we should be concentrating most on penetrating lostness.

3. The Concept of "Great Commission Giving." I know there are many who believe this recommendation will spell the end of Cooperative Program giving in the classical sense. I do not share their pessimism, and in fact believe that this recommendation puts appropriate pressure on associations (including the one I am privileged to lead), state conventions, and our seminaries to be worthy of those gifts. I believe that all will rise to the challenge. Furthermore, I am one who has grown tired over the years at seeing good and godly men chastised publicly simply because their churches gave to missions in a different way. One church of which I am aware gave $1.5 million directly to the IMB to help fund a church planting movement in an area of the world that is 99% Muslim. I strongly believe such gifts should be celebrated and encouraged. No level of denominational beaureacracy should dictate what is and is not appropriate "missions giving." Such decisions should be made by the local church alone, and when such churches give sacrificially to reach the nations, the SBC at all levels should celebrate God's work through them, regardless of "how" or "to whom" those gifts are credited.

4. More than 50% of Cooperative Program Dollars Directed at the International Mission Board. If there is any rationale for a church to continue to give through the Cooperative Program, this is it. For the first time in our history since the founding of the CP in 1925, more than 50% of the gifts that make it to Nashville will in turn make it to the unreached peoples of the world. That said, $3 million is not enough and frankly, I believe the Task Force can do better in this regard (this too will be addressed in future posts), but I'm excited to see any increase in the percentage of funds that go to international missions.

As I said earlier, there is much to love about this report, and the four issues mentioned above are representative of a few things that I personally find very encouraging. At the same time, there are some unintended consequences that I am afraid will result from other recommendations made--unintended consequences that could potentially weaken our efforts to reach North America, and that do not meet the need with the appropriate resources required for missions overseas. These are issues I'll deal with in the next post.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Great Commission Resurgence: Some Thoughts From the Field

For almost six years, I have served the Lord, the churches of my association, and those separated from Jesus in central Maryland. After spending some time planting churches in the south and teaching adjuctively, our family answered God's call to come to the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. corridor to work with what was then about 40 churches in reaching a population of more than 1.2 million who live in the area between these two large cities. Over that time, we have seen God do some incredible things. We have seen lives changed by the Gospel, more than 25 new churches started in our associational area, and roughly 100 more churches started in partnership with our state convention and in different parts of the world through our international work. Its been quite a ride!

With all this in view, it goes without saying that I was excited to see a Task Force appointed at last year's SBC to examine whether we could do more of this very thing--in more effective ways. My signature was among the first electronically afixed to the "Axioms" document, and as a missionary in the field, I waited to see what the initial results of their work might look like. After hearing the report, having the opportunity to hear directly from Task Force members, advocates and opponents of the initial recommendations, and spending some time reflecting on how these recommendations might affect our work here, as well as mission work around the world, I still don't think myself able to speak to the report in the fullest sense that I would wish. Still, I do believe I have a pretty good handle on the implications of what the Task Force is recommending, and believe I can provide an analysis that gives the perspective of a guy "in the field."

As an association, our On Mission Council (i.e. Executive Board) have all read the report, read the responses, had their own conversations with Task Force members, and sought to anticipate what this means for an association of 58 churches in central Maryland. They asked me to speak to the report, interpreting as best as I can the implications, both for ourselves and the rest of the Southern Baptist Convention. What will follow is a three-part analysis I will provide for our churches--and whoever else might be interested--on their behalf.

Next week, I will post Part I, which will deal specifically with areas of agreement. There are many. In fact, there is much, MUCH to love about this initial report, and I want to latch on to that greater vision of accomplishing the Great Commission together, and doing it more effectively.

In Part II, I will note areas of concern. Specifically, I will note areas where, as it appears to me, some of the proposed plans of the Task Force are unconnected to the original GCR declaration, and may in fact weaken our abilities to advance the Kingdom of God together. Any restructuring plan as complex as this one will never be without unintended consequences. Nevertheless, I will seek to point out some areas where--as an "insider" to our mission work in a new work area, we may want the Task Force to take a second look.

Part III is the result of a direct question I was asked by our Association's On Mission Council: "What would you do if it were up to you to structure the SBC for more effective Great Commission ministry?" Our pastors--rightly--think it is not enough to simply critique, but also to offer helpful solutions. I will seek to do that in this final part for the six or seven people who will be left reading by that point. :)

To be honest, I struggled for several weeks as to whether I should even speak publicly to the GCR at all. With all the unhelpful rhetoric on both sides out there, the last thing I want to do is join a verbal fight. To be honest, I've got better things to do. So why did I ultimately decide to speak to this?

In short, it is because I love the Southern Baptist Convention. I was brought to faith in Jesus in an SBC church, baptized in an SBC church, ordained by an SBC church, and trained in an SBC seminary. After nearly 18 years of ministry I have been on both the giving and receiving end of Cooperative Program dollars. Though it is far from a perfect system, I have experienced the incredible Kingdom advance that results when we are firing on all cylinders, and like the Task Force, I want to see our churches pushing back the darkness here, and all over the world.

So in that spirit, I'll look forward to offering to our churches, and anyone else willing to listen, what I hope will be a helpful, substantive contribution to this discussion. Additionally, I pray God continues to use our collaborative work as 40,000+ churches to bring the Gospel to everyone in the world.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Zealotism is Never Good: Why It's Important to be a Better Christ-Follower than Republican (or Democrat!)

"Zealotism" is a term that originates with a first century Jewish group who believed--essentially--that the Messiah was first and foremost a political figure who would usher in political liberation from the Romans. As such, this group was sorely dissapointed when Jesus built the Kingdom instead on service and suffering. At its most repulsive stage, the result was the selling of Jesus for a slave's wage in an attempt to force His hand at political domination. At every level, Zealotism is antithetical to the Gospel. Unfortunately, this is a fact many American Christians have forgotten.

Don't get me wrong. Followers of Jesus in a free and open society like ours have a responsibility to apply the Christian worldview to their politics, contend for righteousness in the public square, and vote their conscience under the Lordship of Jesus. To do any less in the context of a democratic republic is to abdicate one's responsibility. The problem comes when we begin to think that our "agenda" can be accomplished by buddying up to one political party, one Political Action Committee, or one candidate. Many Christians today would readily admit that the Gospel is the only ultimate answer to all that ails us. Yet far too many simultaneously make more noise (positive or negative) about the most recent topic covered on FOX, CNN, or MSNBC than they do about Jesus. Many seem more concerned about being good Republicans--or good Democrats--than good Christians.

To truly follow Jesus, one must be willing to play a prophetic role, and often that role will involve speaking against BOTH political parties. At the end of the day, both are Machiavellian to the core, and will thus say anything to their respective continuencies in order to retain power. Regrettably, Christians often assume this same power-seeking posture, functioning in a way that betrays what they truly think: that societies problems aren't solved by the Gospel, but instead by prostituting onesself out to a political party. It truly makes me wonder if we aren't assuming the same posture as those first century zealots who also believed that the answer was to simply seize political power.

To illustrate my point, I've listed several categories below . . .categories toward which Scripture speaks clearly . . .and shown how both political parties have positioned themselves against Scripture. Admittedly, many of these statements are generalized and thus do not apply to all Republicans and/or Democrats. Nevertheless, it is often the extremes of a party that best point out why such approaches are not the correct approaches in extending our Savior's Kingdom on earth.

Democrats forget that God granted us dominion over the earth. Republicans forget that this dominion is for the purpose of cultivating and caring for a planet that belongs to someone else!

Democrats refuse to value unborn life. Republicans deny a societal responsibility to care for human beings after they are born.

Republicans don't realize that race matters. Democrats don't understand the reason that race matters.

Democrats love to punish hard work. Republicans love to reward excess, greed, and overconsumption.

Democrats don't understand that "homosexual marriage" is a metaphysical impossibility. Republicans don't understand that "marriage" has a much deeper definition that just "a man and a woman." BOTH need to recognize that marriage is not a "right." It is a status of privilege.

Republicans need to stop calling America a "Christian nation." We never have been, never will be, and the suggestion that we are sends a perverted message of what the Gospel is to the rest of the world. I grow tired of doing missions in other nations and having to explain that the message of Jesus is not materialism and porn. Democrats, by contrast, need to deal with the fact that 1/3 of the electorate in this country is "Christian" and thus we are not a totally "secular" country either. Christians in America have had great influence.

Democrats should actually be proud to be American. Though not perfect, our nation is a great one, and we should not be ashamed of where we are from. Republicans should acknowledge that America is not perfect, and has made its share or mistakes in history, including an occassional display of "arrogance." Nations in the Bible are both commended and condemned, including Israel, whose nationalistic tendencies did not protect it from idolatry, or keep it from God's judgment. America, like every other great empire in human history, will one day come to an end. If not before Jesus returns, then it will certainly cease to exist at that point as the Kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord and His Christ. As a Christian, my first allegiance is to that coming Kingdom.

I'm quite certain that after reading this, those committed to the left AND right will be angry with me. If you claim to be a follower of Jesus, you should examine this anger and try to determine where it is coming from. Why does it seem we are more concerned about a political party than God's Kingdom? Why does it seem that so much energy gets expended--quite naturally--debating the recent health care bill, but so little energy seems to go toward talking with equal passion about our neighbor's need for Jesus? Why do BOTH sides seem so caught up in debating the principles of a temporary kingdom instead of seeking to instill the values of an eternal Kingdom? Could it be that we have made an idol of our political ideologies? Have we cast Elephants and Donkeys in the same gold as Aaron's calf?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Glen Beck: Poster Child for Civil Religion

"Look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. . .they are code words." So said Radio and TV host Glen Beck on his March 11 radio show. Apparently, Mr. Beck has yet to familiarize himself with the actual content of the Gospels. Not only does his comment reflect a naive category confusion between political and theological issues, it betrays a perverted view of the Gospel itself mixed with a bizzare form of civil religion that Beck--and apparently millions of others--have confused with the message of Jesus.

To be sure, Glen Beck has long since established himself as a strong voice of the political right with some stout libertarian leanings thrown in. As such, it should be no surprise to anyone familiar with his show that he would be in opposition to the current administration's push toward a national health care system, or that he would highly favor extreme reforms to our country's current wellfare net. Such are political positions that Mr. Beck is entitled to. The problem comes when one becomes so committed to his or her political ideology that he or she will reinterpret even their faith in order to remain committed to that ideology. There are plenty of professing Christians in our nation more interested in being good Republicans--or good Democrats--than in following Jesus. This week, Glen Beck became their poster-child.

This is what makes "civil religion" so dangerous. Certainly as followers of Jesus, every aspect of our lives--including the political--should be examined and developed in light of the Gospel. As His disciple, how I vote should be as Biblically informed as how I choose a church family. But when my political views begin to define terms like "social justice" rather than the Bible, I've crossed the line into civil religion.

On the political right, such civil religion looks really attractive; at least on the surface. The problem is defined as a lack of prosperity and the Messiah is capitalism. My sacramental duties in this religion are to get a good education, get a good job, earn lots of money, buy a home, and consume all the good things that the economy has produced for me so as to keep the markets on an upward trend. "The American Dream" usurps the Gospel of Jesus Christ in many American homes, which is why so many like Glen Beck fail to understand the central role of social justice in the life of the Christian church.

The political left has its own corollary message. The problem as they see it is a lack of economic equity. The Messiah is a social servies/wellfare system that redistributes the wealth of the country and eventually ushers in in a utopia, and my sacramental duties include contributing my "fair share" so that the nation can evolve together. Social justice on the left is an end in itself.

The Christian faith commends a much higher view of social justice than that propogated by either the right or the left. Jesus commands mercy toward the poor, care for the widow and orphan, respect and care for the elderly. In fact, the Christian church is the reason so many hospitals, institutions of higher learning, orphanages, soup kitchens, crisis pregnancy centers, and homeless shelters exist in this country. To be sure, followers of Christ don't see these ministries as ends in themselves. We have no delusions about ushering in a utopia. We do, however, believe that when we seek to relieve poverty we are foreshadowing a coming Kingdom where no poverty will exist. When we adopt orphans, we are reflecting the Gospel of a God who adopted alien children into His own family and made us joint-heirs with His Son Jesus Christ. When we minister to the homeless, we do so as though we are housing the Lord Himself. Ultimately, we seek social justice because we believe it foreshadows an ultimate justice which is coming. In short, we do what we do to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ with our deeds as well as with our words.

So wherever social justice is perverted or loathed, you can be sure the Gospel is not well-understood.

Frankly, Mr. Beck's own Mormon faith is of no real help here. The works-based Gospel of the Latter-Day Saints, based on a fictional picture of Jesus and the promise of self-promotion to one's own state of deity, actually makes a great religious cousin to the civil religion he seeks to promote. But the Gospel isn't about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Contrary to what many believe today, the phrase "God helps those who help themselves" is nowhere to be found in Holy Scripture.

Instead, the Gospel teaches us that we all--the whole human race, regardless of social status, race, language, or gender--are helpless. Our central problem has nothing to do with how much or little we possess, but instead our utter lack of the holiness required for fellowship with our Creator. We are natural rebels, who have broken the laws of the God who created us. Thus, our Messiah Jesus came to take our sin on Himself and be punished as our substitute, and grant us His own holiness so that we could be in a right relationship with God. With this in view, the damnable nature of the "pull youself up by your own bootstraps" Gospel should be made clear.

Its OK for Christians to agree with Glen Beck. But those who do should take care that they don't end up joining him in his worship of the golden calf called "The American Dream." Followers of Jesus have a higher calling, and such a calling can't be fulfilled when Jesus' commands to seek justice for the poor are supplanted by the worship of mammon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Thoughts on the GCR Task Force Report are . . .I don't have any . . .yet.

That I listened last night to the initial report of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force--a group that is dillegently seeking a common road toward more effective mission work by Southern Baptists--while myself on mission with volunteers from 5 of our churches in Vancouver, B.C. is a surreal coincidence.

By my "body clock," it was 3 AM when I viewed the online report led by Dr. Ronnie Floyd, which can be found here: I figured a quick perusal of what was said would not only help me adjust my body cycles to the time zone I'm in, but would also help me anticipate questions, concerns, and comments from pastors and church leaders in my association once I return to Maryland next week.

After watching I can tell you with absolute confidence . . .I got nothin'. At least, not yet.

Like most who watched, much excited me greatly about the report. Other things were difficult to understand, and still others raised concerns in my mind. At the same time, there are some things I know:

-Whatever happens, Jesus is still Lord, and His Kingdom will still go forth.

-I know most of the folks on this task force, and their personal integrity and passion for the Great Commission gives me confidence that they are doing their best to serve us well and lead us down the right path.

-I know that ALL of the folks on the task force are sinners--just like yours truly--and that due to the fall they will not get everything right. Therefore, we must continue to pray earnestly for them, and that the Holy Spirit would guide them.

-I know that those who watched and will ponder the report and its implications--including myself--should do so prayerfully and contemplatively, not rushing to stern judgement or holding to "the way we've always done it" on the one hand because of things they may not agree with, and not "flag-waving" and calling anyone who has concerns "anti-Great Commission" or "committed to the beauacracy" on the other hand. Political rhetoric on either side of this debate at a time like this is rarely helpful, and sometimes even irresponsible. Wherever you land, be careful how you treat your brothers and sisters.

-I know that the best way to address concerns and offer perspective is to pick up the phone and talk to a GCR task force member personally. Again, these are people of integrity and I am confident they will be honest, listen to your concerns, and take the thoughts of Southern Baptists into future meetings. Whether you are a huge fan or a huge critic, at this point, the appropriate place to make your views known would be to take them directly to the task force. Blogs and social networking sites have their place, but I honestly don't think they are the best forum for discussing these issues at this time--at least not in detail.

-I know that all task force members would certainly prefer our prayers over and above our criticism. I can honestly say that I would not want to replace any of them and bear the burden I know they are bearing.

So in short, I think the best way to express my thoughts about last night's presentation is with another man's words--a man God inspired. Since by the superintention of the Holy Spirit James says it better than I or anyone else, I'll conclude with these words:

"Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person hbe quick to hear, islow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." -James 1:19-20 ESV

So far, that's my "2 cents." If you think it worth at least that much, please pass it on.

Let's keep praying and seeking God together.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Most Important Assessment Question

Part of my work with the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware involves helping to assess candidates who seek to plant new churches with us. Yesterday was one of those days in which I spent about 8 hours with two other assessors, a candidate and his wife. Its a long day to say the least for the assessors themselves, not to mention the candidate, who I am sure often wonders when Dr. Rorshach is going to appear with his inkblots. It is a mentally and emotionally intense day, but it is neccesary, because putting the wrong man in the field damages him, his family, the community he is seeking to reach, and the reputation of Jesus.

Lots of important issues get examined in that room, including a guys capacity to cast a compelling vision, his internal motivations, his family life, his relationships with non-Christians, and how he handles and thinks about money, authority, sex, marriage, children, friendships, enemies, structures, and the Gospel. At the end of the day, we put it all together and ask a very simple question: "Do his behaviors and attitudes match those that we know are present in a successful church planter?" Modes of dress, preferred styles of worship, philosophies of church growth, and personalities vary widely among these men, but the one thing that they all must hold in common to work with us are behaviors that are commensurate with introducing people to Jesus, and then congregating those people into new churches.

To do this sort of work, an assessor has to check many of his own personal prejudices at the door. In the end, it really doeesn't matter whether I'd be personally comfortable hanging out with this guy. What really matters is whether he can connect to and succesfully pastor the people he is seeking to reach. Still, there is one thing that is very personal that each assessor should keep in mind. So yesterday during one of our breaks, I placed this one issue on my Facebook wall: "Would I allow this man to pastor my wife and children?"

After getting both public and private, positive and negative response to that status, I thought it would be a good idea to elaborate. Soundbites of the sort found on social networking pages are not the ideal way to communicate something as comprehensive as the thoughts that were in my fallen brain yesterday when I tried to express them on Facebook. Some responded negatively, thinking that I meant that his passing or failing assessment grade should be ultimately tied to whether I genuinely like him, or to how much attention my family might receive from him were we a part of his new church. Honestly, my question doesn't presume that my family and I would even be a part of his church. That is a different, though related, question. The question is one of trust: Is this a man I whose teaching I would allow my family to sit under week after week? When I ask that question, I am looking for the following:

1. His View of Jesus. If I hear a candidate continually talking about the "church" in a way that is disconnected from Jesus, then I'm hearing a guy who has a woefully inadequate ecclesiology, and is consequently more interested in building an organization than in building Christ-followers. On the other hand, if everything from the growth strategy to the structure is permeated with discussion about making Jesus known, then I can be assured I have a guy who knows, ultimately, what this thing called church planting is all about. Such is the reason why theological convictions such as the virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection of Christ are so neccesary. By these things, Jesus is vindicated as the Lord of His church, which He sends out to continue His work, in the power of His spirit. Candidates who don't understand this neccesary connection end up planting an organization that--blunt as it sounds--looks more like a whore than a bride. On the other hand, if a man starts with Jesus and His Gospel, and moves toward an understanding of "church" from that starting point, such is a man who will always be lifting up Jesus. That is the kind of man I want yelling at my wife and kids each and every Sunday!

2. His view of Scripture. Since Jesus is ultimately revealed in the Bible, I want a man who has a high view of the inspiration of the Biblical text. Casual observation of the best Bible teachers reveals an obvious connection: Those who teach well from the text are those who think well aboutthe text. This doesn't mean that a guy has to use all of the conservative, evangelical "buzzwords" like "inerrancy" or "infallability" with the same regularity with which he might use common conjunctions. I know many men who "believe the Bible" yet have little to no idea what it actually says. My experiences with canddiates tells me that while true "inerrantists" don't shy away from using the word, they don't speak about it nearly so much as they practice it. When conversing with a guy I would let be my family's pastor, questions, problems, objections, and guidance all start with the simple phrase "the Bible says . . ."

3. His own Family Commitment. I have a very high view of the value of family because I see an equally high view of the family in the Scriptures. Consequently, I don't want my family sitting underneath the teaching of a guy who undoes these values by mistreating his wife, being overly harsh with his children, being absent from his home too much because of "ministry," or sacrificing his family out of professional pursuits. When my wife and kids look at their pastor, I want them to see the same kind of family commitment to which I aspire.

4. His Evangelistic Practice. I am growing more certain each day of the fact that unevangelistic pastors are the primary reason for unevangelistic churches. Eventually, people will emulate what they see in their leaders. This doesn't mean I want a guy to present the "four spiritual laws" to every flight attendant, or leave a tract at every restaurant table. What I do want is a pastor who naturally shares his faith in much the same way that people in love speak of their beloved. One man we recently assessed wasn't particularly eloquent, didn't have the most winsome personality, and honestly, I've heard better preachers. But he "oozed" Jesus, and literally hundreds have come to Christ because of this. So he passed!

Obviously, there are other very important things that need to be examined when we are seeking to place the best candidates in the field to start new churches. The factors I've listed above aren't the only ones we look at. But I do believe they are the most important. For that matter, every Christian family should ask these questions of the men who are presuming to lead churches they are considering being a part of. The greatest honor any man can give another is the trust that comes with placing his family in your hands. When searching for a pastor, remember that he will watch over the souls of your family, and examine him accordingly!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Remembering Where we Came From: The Kairos Journal Gets it Right

For the past several decades debate has raged in our culture over the question of whether the United States is, or ever has been, a "Christian nation." Our current President recently spoke abroad regarding this issue, assuring muslim nations in particular that we are most assuredly not, while conservative political groups accuse him and others who share his point of view with "historical revisionism."

Christian historian David Barton refers to the multiple references to God by our nations founding fathers, their dependence on divine providence, and frequent appeals to heaven's blessing as grounds for believing that our genesis as a nation was a distinctly Christian one.

When confronted with the question "Is the US a Christian nation?" the intellectually honest believer must respond with "yes and no." On the one hand, when the plethora of theological vantagepoints held by our founding fathers is closely examined, one comes to the conclusion that if any ever intended a state religion it would not be Christianity, but instead a strange mix of Freemasonry and moralistic deism. While many who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence were genuine followers of Christ, Thomas Jefferson, who essentially authored the document, offered his daily prayers to a god who was conspicuously absent from the everyday affairs of men, seemed incapable of performing the miracles described in Scripture, and certainly bore no resemblace to the God of the Bible. As a follower of Jesus, the peculiar beliefs of some of our founding fathers make me thankful they did not establish a state church.

On the other hand, the nation's history and all the privilege that has come from it bear the unique fingerprints of a Biblical understanding of reality, knowlege and ethics. Though the first colonists sought total religious freedom, they saw Christianity as the one faith which could guarantee such freedom. Anyone taking a simple tour of the Capitol rotunda can see this fact by merely looking at the artwork hung around the room. Of the four paitings hanging in these hallowed halls, three depict revival services and the last a baptism. Admittedly, the "under God" phrase in our pledge of allegiance and the "in God we trust" phrase on our coinage and in our halls of government may have been late 20th century additions to our culture. Still, on closer examination it appears that these move to install these phrases was a reaction to forces from the other extreme that at the time were seeking to totally erase the influence of the Christian faith on the country.

On that note the editors of the Kairos Journal warn: if it ever comes to that, we may lose the privilege that comes with our legacy.

Their pamphlet "Legatees of a Great Inheritance: How the Judeo-Christian Tradition Has Shaped the West," plainly lays out the influence of our religious heritage on the founding of western ideals that continue today. Conversely, the document also notes where secularist influence is now at the point of eroding these ideals. Such has already taken place in western Europe, and the editors warn that similar societal decay and erosion of freedoms could take place in the U.S. if all--Christian or non-Christian--fail to understand, appreciate, and preserve the rights and privileges we have inherited from this worldview.

One tangible example of this can be observed in our nation's public school systems. My oldest is a fourth-grader at one of those schools. This past December, the kids spent a day each looking at the history of Hannukkah and Kwanza, but not one word was said about the coming of Jesus Christ and the Christmas season. Certainly our children should be exposed to all traditions, and I'm happy that my son is more familiar with the traditions of others--especially in the highly diverse area in which we live. But why the conspicuous absence of anything Christian?

The editors of Kairos well point out that the very freedom we have to discuss the various traditions comes from our Christian heritage. But this isn't the only advantage to our heritage. Christian ideals such as the dignity of all human beings (which springs from our understanding of humans as uniquely created in the image and likeness of God Himself) and universal human rights was ultimately responsible for the elimination of gladitorial brutality, and the promotion of racial and gender equality. Slavery no longer legally exists in the west because of Christian-conscience-driven Englishmen like William Wilberforce and a strong abolitionist movement among the northern evangelical Chrisians in America. God-willing, a day is coming where abortion won't exist either, because of these same ideals.

Our critical realist epistemology, conviction that all truth belongs to God, and belief in the value of general revelation led to the founding of public school systems and the advance of science in the modern world. Our pluralist convictions--our belief that forced conversion is in reality no conversion at all--led to ideals like freedom of conscience and religion. The arts, architecture, music and fiction have all been touched by the creativity spawned by a Biblical worldview. The Geneva Conventions are simply the practical, modern application of Augustine's Just War Theory. Believe what you want about torture. The fact is that if it weren't for Christian ideals, we wouldn't even be having that conversation.

Though the editors commend the Christian faith to all, the objective of this journal is not to convert. Rather, it is to issue a call to reconsider the way our society seems to be jettisonning our Christian heritage. "Western Civilizzation," they contend, "is indebted to the Judeo-Christian tradition for its notions of human dignity and human rights, its innovation in science and medicine, its habits of humanitarian charity and universal education, and its rich contribution to the arts. Though once commonplace, this claim has become increasingly controversial, challenged by the revisionists of late modernity as well as those who suffer from historical amnesia."

This is not to say that everyone in our society has to accept Chrisianity as truth. Our own faith teaches us that this won't happen. It is to say that the Christian tradition should be reinstated to its rightful place in our history. As politically incorrect as it may be to state the obvious, Hindus did not give us a belief in universal human rights, nor did the muslim world give us freedom of speech or religion. (Try planting a Christian church in the middle-east if you doubt this.)

"Legatees of a Great Inheritance" is a valuable and historically accurate compendium of the Christian influence on the west, and the editors of Kairos have given us a crucial, "Cliffs Notes" approach to a wider, deeper history, the center of which is the cross of Christ Himself. Read it, and in doing so, reacquaint yourself with the ideals that have made western society great. More importantly, acquaint yourself with the One who granted these ideals, lived them perfectly, and died to give us life abundant, in the here, and the hereafter.

Visit the Kairos Journal online here.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Back in the Saddle!

After some time away, I'm ready to enter the blog world yet again! For a little more than a year--with a couple of exceptions--I took time off from the blog in order to complete some post-doctoral work and reorganize life in general.

2010 should be an exciting year, and I look forward to sharing what God is doing in central Maryland and around the world. Additionally, another book is in the works, and I should have more information coming on that by the fall.

So to the 6 or 7 of you who still check back here from time to time, thanks for sticking with me. :) I'd appreciate it if you would go get a few others and let them know we are back online at! More later.