Wednesday, September 25, 2013

When "Friendly Fire" Isn't so Friendly

Nearly two decades ago, Pastor Trey Rhodes was sitting in a meeting of other pastors who were considering the sponsorship of a new church. The local Baptist Association had called this meeting to discuss "concerns" that several of the pastors had relative to this new church proposal. Church planting wasn't nearly as "cool" back then as it is now, and in fact was held in high suspicion in several segments of my denomination. In particular, these guys were concerned about the theology, evangelistic philosophy, and methods this young church planter under their inspection wanted to employ.  In their eyes, he was too close to the "wrong kind of people."

Before long, the meeting turned caustic, with accusations of heresy and being "unBaptistic" being leveled at a young guy who wasn't in the room to defend himself.

That young guy was me.

After hearing several very negative comments about me, Pastor Trey obtained my phone number and called me directly. Over the next several months as we got to know each other and he came to understand who I really was and what I wanted to see accomplished through planting new churches, he became a fan, and later on, a very dear friend. Two years after this, our new church had the opportunity to play a small role in helping Trey launch out himself to start a new church.

Such was the Kingdom advance that resulted from the decision to make a single phone call, and actually get to know someone. It's a shame that doesn't happen more often.

As a guy who spends most of his time working with pastors and seeking to bring the churches they lead to greater missional cooperation, I've spent more time than I want trying to de-fuse misconceptions and get past misunderstandings, and toward the commonalities I know are present for us to be on mission together. To be sure, I'm convinced I serve with some of the finest pastors in the country. I'm thankful that in the northeast, we don't have the luxury of so easily dividing over silly issues and gross generalizations of each other. When you represent less than .01% of the total population, you simply cannot afford to divide on too many things! Nevertheless, even in an area like ours the propensity exists to hold fellow pastors in suspicion, merely on the word from a third party, and without talking to them directly.

We who dare to pastor churches should know better! We preach from a Bible that clearly instructs us to refrain from making judgments on fallacious grounds, and we serve a Lord who was crucified precisely because of the same kind of rumor-mongering, slander, and character assassination that, regrettably, some in pastoral leadership sometimes commit without thinking.

This scenario happens every time we say of one of our fellow pastors "I heard he is a Calvinist! He must not believe in sharing Jesus," or "with the way his church is growing, he MUST be compromising something!" or "I'm not so sure he is 'one of us'."

It continues with assignment of motive without any basis in reality. If he employs a church growth tactic we don't agree with we assume he is "all about the numbers." If he hosts a Super Bowl party on a Sunday night we assume he is "bowing to the idol of professional football." If he engages a segment of his culture in a way we think goes too far, we declare that he has "sold out."

When such claims are thoughtlessly made without so much as a shred of evidence, or without actually trying to get to know someone, those actions say more about us than those we are accusing. To be sure, putting someone else down often makes us appear better, more holy, and closer to God in our own minds, but it does nothing to help the reputation of our Lord Jesus or the advance of His Kingdom.

Making matters worse, too many pastors don't go right to the source, but instead rely on so-called "discernment ministries," organizations who make it their life's work to destroy the ministry of anyone they deem heretical. Funny thing is that many of these so-called ministries are themselves guilty of malpractice, since the overwhelming majority are not directly accountable to any local church, and that should tell you pretty much everything you need to know. Pastors have the intelligence and ability to seek out accurate answers about a fellow pastor simply by reading original source material. When it comes to the "big name" guys, make sure you have read their books before you say anything publicly so that whatever you say you can say with accuracy.

Oh, and when it comes to the pastor across town, the solution is easier still. Don't say a word about him from your pulpit until you have sat down with him personally.

Am I suggesting that pastors should not warn their people when they believe false teaching is present? Not at all! Paul warned us that wolves abound who look like sheep, and part of our role includes the protection of our flocks. But I am suggesting that our current practice of third-party sources and hearsay means we "cry wolf" way too often, and lose the respect and attention of our people in the process, thereby opening them up to REAL attacks from REAL false prophets.
Looking back on my experiences with that Association in planting my first church, I'm thankful for what God allowed me to experience.  Prior to those scars, I was just as likely to assume the worst, especially when it came to people who were not from my tribe.  In many ways, my willingness to reach out to marginalized and misunderstood peoples today  is due to that experience, and the motivation it gave me to make correct and accurate judgments, one person at a time.  Trust me, when you walk closely with Muslims, and/or the gay community these days, its an effective avenue into "hot water" with some evangelicals.  I don't agree with what either of those groups believe, but I've also learned not to tolerate false statements made against anyone, regardless of who they are.

We are not politicians in competition with one another for the "party nomination." We are a band of brothers on the same side of the battlefield, and who need to ensure that, in the midst of all the casualties that already result from the degree of spiritual battle in which we are involved, "friendly fire" isn't the cause of those casualties.

We rightly lament the rampant gossip, backbiting, slander, and character assassination that so often takes place in our churches. We wonder to ourselves how on earth people who are supposed to know and walk with Jesus can act in such ways.

Gentlemen, the sad truth is that many times, they act in such ways because they are following our example! We need to set a better one!
The pastorate needs more good men like Pastor Trey Rhodes. And the evangelical church needs its present leadership to commit to better discernment that is guided by actually getting to know other people. Stopping this kind of ungodly behavior in our churches begins with us.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mental Illness and the Church: Where do We Go From Here?

On Monday night, my wife and I watched the heartbreaking interview with Rick and Kay Warren in which, for the first time, they shared with the public their experiences surrounding the April suicide of their 27 year old son Matthew.  Due to the circumstances surrounding Matthew's death, the interview spanned a number of issues: including  parenting, gun control, and the struggle of faith that occurs in even the most committed during such gut-wrenching times. But the primary focus of the interview centered on the state of mental health care in our country, and the role the church should play in that discussion.

I watched, first of all, as a father of three.  There is absolutely nothing I wouldn't do for my children.  I can't imagine the helpless feeling of knowing your son or daughter suffers from an ailment, and that in spite of the best doctors, you are still unable to prevent them from doing something like this to themselves.  My heart broke for the Warren's when I first heard of their son's death back in April.  Last night, this father's heart broke all over again.

But I also watched this as a pastor, and I did so with one question in my mind:  "Why would anyone suffering from mental illness turn to the church for help?"  I want the church to be the first stop for people in need.  Unfortunately, I was unable to answer my own question.

As it turns out, my reservations have some statistical warrant.  Just this week, Lifeway Research released its latest poll on mental illness and the church.  You can find the bulk of that research here, but what haunts me about the results is this:  48% of evangelicals believe that Bible study and prayer ALONE can cure mental illness.  Essentially, that means that half of regular, church-going, evangelical Christians see mental illness as solely a "spiritual" issue.  By contrast, only 21% of those polled who attend church said they believed they would feel welcome in their church if they had a mental illness.  Additionally, 45% of the unchurched don't think people with mental illnesses are fully welcome in the body of Christ.

I believe that prayer works, and I believe that God still heals!  I have no doubt that the people of God, praying in faith, could certainly see someone fully restored to health.  I've seen it with my own eyes--cancerous tumors that no longer appeared on the CT scan after God's people have prayed, for example. At the same time, I don't know of any church who would discourage their people from visiting the doctor, or getting needed medical treatment.  Yet in too many churches, when it comes to mental health that same common sense approach goes out the window.

In my experience, this is primarily due to the misconception by many pastors that to accept the validity of mental health care is to deny the sufficiency of Scripture.  The problem with that assumption is that to deny our parishioners access to care that can potentially save their lives and help their families is to ignore one very important principle that those fully sufficient Scriptures teach.

Scripture teaches that God reveals Himself to us in two primary ways.  General Revelation is the process whereby God reveals truth through the created order (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20-21) and also through the human consciousness (Romans 2:14-15).  Special Revelation is the description given to specific ways in which God reveals truth throughout redemptive history, first through miraculous phenomena such as burning bushes, still, small voices, and messages in tongues, and ultimately in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2), who in turn is revealed in the written Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16).

So, while God reveals Himself in these two primary ways, human beings also explore truth in two primary ways.  Where special revelation is concerned, disciplines like Biblical studies, Biblical and Systematic Theology, and Hermaneutics are employed.  Where general revelation is concerned, we explore the created order through the earth, life and physical sciences, and we explore the inward human psyche through anthropology, sociology, education science, and psychology.

In short, through the behavioral sciences, God has provided us an avenue by which we can learn things about the human mind that will allow us to help.  Sure, some who handed these sciences down to us in history didn't always have the purest motives, and still others were openly hostile to Christian faith.  But we also can't dismiss that they stumbled onto some very legitimate findings that can be of help where mental health is concerned.  Some veins of historical science haven't exactly been friendly to Christians either, but I'm not about to reject the very scientific method that gave my children a vaccine for chicken pox.  Truth was discovered, albeit through some rather crooked vessels.

With all this in view, here is why it is dangerous for pastors to reject the help that can be offered by the mental health field.  First, by appealing to the sufficiency of Scripture, we are rejecting what those Scriptures tell us about the validity of discovering truth via general revelation.  To put it bluntly, we are ignoring Scripture in an attempt to defend it, and that never ends well.

Second, we treat people with legitimate illnesses as though their problems are solely spiritual.  Admittedly there are times when this is the case.  Over the past 20 years, I've met with more than a few who claimed to "need counseling," when what they really needed was repentance.  But often, working together with mental health professionals will help us help our people with the scientific advances God has given us.  My friend Ed Stetzer said it well earlier this week: Let's treat character issues like character issues, but let's treat illnesses like an illness.

Third, the rejection of mental health care sets up a polarization between two disciplines that should be helping each other.  The lack of trust between clergy and mental health professionals is both obvious and palpable in too many areas of our culture, and both sides need to rid themselves of the false assumptions they have about the other, and talk openly with each other.

I'll be the first to agree that we are an over-medicated society.  We pop a pill for just about anything these days--when we get too fat, when we are working too hard, or when we need more vitamins.  It is true that sometimes the answer isn't becoming dependent on a synthetic substance, but instead repenting from gluttony, getting some sleep, or eating some healthy vegetables.  But the answer to a society that over-medicates isn't no medication.  Its appropriate medication.  Only when pastors and mental health professionals work together can we help to strike that balance.  Many of those mental health professionals can be found in our churches each and every Sunday.  Let's seek to understand each other within the church--the very context in which God intends that trust grow between brothers and sisters.  Let's equip those saints to fulfill a calling that is ever more crucial in our day, and let's cooperate with them in a way that integrates our respective disciplines for the glory of God.

As a pastor, I want to see less Matthew Warren stories.  If the church doesn't play a role in mental health, we will see more suicides, not less. The spiritual dimension that churches bring to the healing process is absolutely and critically essential.  But if the church wants to play a role, we have to be more approachable than recent research would indicate we are perceived to be.  

We don't stigmatize people with heart conditions or diabetes.  We pray for them, and we urge them to get the medical attention that we all know they need.  Those who suffer from mental illness should be treated in exactly the same way, and mental health professionals who love Jesus can help us take a badly needed and new approach to these precious image bearers of God.  

Together, we can create the kind of church environment that causes the mentally ill to see open arms everywhere they see a church.  Let's work toward that day!

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Five-Fold Strategy Guaranteed to Kill Your Church

The following is based in experiences I've had with churches I've consulted with over more than 20 years of service in ministry. Over that time, I have become convinced that we have perfected the pathology by which we can accelerate the decline and eventual demise of a local church. I've seen the following happen in different orders, with different emphases, and I can guarantee that if you implement these five things, you will be pushing the nuclear button on your congregation. I've seen it happen enough times, and western evangelicalism has developed habits that have perfected this approach.

1. Perpetually send an unclear sound. Make sure that key leaders remain clueless, and divided, when it comes to the identity, purpose, vision, and direction of the church. Speak in spiritual euphemisms that seem holy, like "we just want to love Jesus and each other," or "we just want to follow the Bible." These sorts of nebulous statements, absent of any contextual application, are a way to sound thoroughly Biblical without actually being Biblical. Furthermore, they are the perfect way to stay adrift in a sea of irrelevance, and never identify who God created your local church to be, and what He wants her to do. The result, of course, is that the church will do nothing.

2. Invest More Time in Needy People than in Leaders. You know the old saying; "The squeaky wheel gets the most grease." In many local churches, those who "squeak" the loudest seem to get all the grease! And the grand mistake of church leaders is to give inordinate attention to the loudest and most needy people in the congregation, rather than invest in those God has gifted to lead the church. This sets up an environment in which people learn that the most attention will always be paid to the loudest complainers. And this is precisely the kind of environment that will suck the life out of any real leader--or inadvertently push leaders right out the door.

3. Try to Please Everybody. Almost without exception, in every church I've ever consulted with that is in decline, decisions are never executed without the final question of "who will be upset by this?" Inevitably, good decisions are always sabotaged by someone suggesting that "doing this might really upset . . .[fill in the name of your preferred group.]" In fact, the one way to ensure that #1 above takes place, is to assume this posture, because you can't make a clear decision about anything if the number one concern is always about someone not being pleased. Guess what? THERE IS NO SIGNIFICANT DECISION THAT WILL EVER BE MADE IN A CHURCH THAT MAKES EVERYBODY HAPPY! This means of course, that if you are trying to please everybody with decision and direction, you will never make a substantive decision, and you will never have clear direction. Atrophy is the inevitable result, because in the attempt to please everybody, you have displeased God.

4. Refuse to Confront Troublemakers. Principled dissent is one thing. Saboteurs are an entirely different matter and in too many churches, they are allowed to run free and do what they please, no matter the negative impact they have on the rest of the body. They may come in the form of the lady who "holds back" her tithe because she doesn't like a decision that was reached. They may come in the form of the guy who presumes the right to "pull the e-brake" on anything church leaders have decided on that he doesn't agree with. It may come in the form of those who use the phone or internet as a corridor for gossip to undermine the forward progress of the church.

Strong leadership is needed in these situations. The gossip has to be called out and confronted. The self-proclaimed "devil's advocate" with his hand on the e-brake needs to be told that the church isn't interested in Satan's opinion. And the lady who steals from God needs to be reminded that she isn't just "punishing the leadership," she is breaking her covenant promise to those in her church family, and to her God. Without strong leaders to confront such nonsense, troublemakers will be free to throw additional anchors over the side of their drifting ship to ensure that it goes precisely nowhere.

5. Seek to Live in the Past. Churches actually do this in a number of ways, the most obvious of which is to be highly suspicious of any sort of change. Music styles, architecture, structural paradigms, and cultural engagement in general are all evolving concepts, and if the church does not reflect the culture in which it finds itself in all these areas, the result is far worse than simply an unclear Gospel. In the end, the church may lose the Gospel altogether, because they have identified its delivery with certain cultural accutrements rather than a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

But there is more than one way to live in the past. As with any social system, churches over time develop corporate patterns of behavior, and some of these patterns are not healthy. If they are not repented of and clearly dealt with, they become the growing snowball that leads the church in one direction; downhill!

One thing is for sure though. If you want to ensure that you don't exist in the future, then just refuse to think about it.

Roughly 3500 churches in North America close their doors for good each and every year. The vast majority of those I've seen close with my own eyes did so by following the strategy I've outlined above. Many of them were not even aware of what they were doing, and when their subconscious path was pointed out, they simply chose to deny it . . .and keep dying!

So if you are following the principles above, and refuse to repent, I can guarantee that your church will eventually be included in that number.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Evangelicals and Other Faiths: What Would Jesus Do?

Tonight, I'm scheduled to appear on The Stream, a 30 minute news program on the Al Jazeera America Network.  In the past several weeks I've gotten to know some great people working in their Washington, D.C. studios, and they have asked me to contribute to a discussion that I think is essential for peace, liberty, and the advance of the Christian Gospel.

The subject is interfaith relationships, and how they can help bring understanding of each other and even cooperation in areas where we agree.  I'll have the honor of sharing this conversation with Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and Rabbi Kilel Rose.  Dr. Mattson is a former Catholic who converted to Islam in her 20s, and has since become a highly respected Muslim scholar.  Among other things, she has been a passionate advocate of interfaith understanding and multi-faith activism.

Rabbi Rose leads the Beth Shalom Synagogue in Edmonton, Alberta, and has actively sought relationships with leaders in other faith traditions in his area, as well as his prior assignment as a Rabbi in Nashville.

So why did this evangelical Christian agree to participate in a show like this?  In short, because I think Jesus would have!

The Scriptures call for followers of Jesus to be separated, not isolated.  How on earth can followers of other religions know Jesus if they don't know us?  And how can they know us when we refuse to associate with them because we fear "what that might look like?"

I understand some of the fear.  I've heard from some in my own tribe who fear that we will compromise our faith, and I get that concern.  The last thing I want to do is dishonor Jesus.  But when I think about how He incarnated Himself among people not like Him, lived perfectly among them, gave His life for them, and post-resurrection calls us to live our lives after Him (John 20:21), I can't help but think that dialogue with people of other religions isn't a compromise of our faith.  On the contrary, its practicing our faith at its highest level.

Jesus told us "blessed are the peacemakers."  No one argues that there is a lot of unnecessary violence in the world--much of it caused by misunderstanding.  We need leaders who are committed to overcome that misunderstanding and model for the rest of the world what it looks like to wrestle through differences with others toward genuine friendship. Tonight, a Jewish leader and a Muslim leader have offered to have one of those conversations. And given what I understand about the nature of the Great Commission, pastors should be among those who lead the way in accepting those opportunities!

Of course, doing this must involve clarity and honesty.  There is a lot of talk today about "tolerance."  Personally, I'm not interested in tolerance.  Tolerance is what I give the TSA every time I'm in line at the airport, and honestly, I think my friends in other faiths deserve more than that.  What I want with them is friendship.  But friendship requires a few things:

1. Honesty:  We have to be honest about our differences, and understand that those differences are over the most important issues--issues of eternal consequence.
2. Commitment:  We need unconditional friendships that are not contingent on whether our non-Christian friends ever become Christian.
3. Freedom: One of the things we can work together on with our friends is the effort to ensure that we all remain free to believe what we want, worship as we choose, and share our message with others.
4. Understanding: And honestly, you can't have that unless you listen as well as talk.  Accenting areas where we agree with one another is not the same as saying we agree on everything.  Additionally, the best way to learn about another faith is to build a relationship with someone who follows it, and listen to why they follow it.

If you are interested in watching, you can find a channel guide here to see if AJA is available in your area and/or offered by your cable provider.  And please pray for me, and for the discussion tonight.  Pray that the message of Jesus is made clear, and that deeper relationships can be forged between Christians and non-Christians who are committed to peace.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Creating a Culture for Planting Churches, Part I

My maternal grandfather passed away when I was six years old. Even at that young age, my early experiences with him left an indelibly positive mark on me. Most of our time together was wonderful and usually involved going to baseball games or watching "Gunsmoke" re-runs. But there were a few unpleasant moments in our relationship as well. One of those would happen every time I followed him through his garden--walking barefoot through that rich South Carolina dirt that he had just churned up with his tiller. "Get out of my rows!" he would shout, and in retrospect, he had good reason to be angry. As a farmer, my Pa Pa understood well that no matter how well you farmed, the soil had to be right if you wanted crops. Environment means everything when you are trying to grow a living organism.

Likewise, when associations and networks seek to plant churches, a sufficient support system is invaluable. At the same time, the most sophistocated support system in the world is useless if there is no passion to take advantage of it and no understanding of why it exists. The environment in which the system exists matters, and if the culture within which you are trying to plant churches is not itself permeated by the priority of church planting, the result is usually failure.

So the first issue in ensuring effective church planting in your association or network is not an effective support system, but a passionate church planting culture. In this post, I'll briefly describe the steps in helping cultivate this kind of culture.

So what do I mean by "church planting culture?" Simply put, a church planting culture is an environment within which church planting is a high and non-negotiable priority. And the role of the network leader or Associational Missionary is to catalyze the thinking that "we MUST do this . . .or we fail!"  If networks of churches exist first and foremost as a missions organization (and that statement is a foregone conclusion as far as I'm concerned), and if the Biblically-defined and successful missionary task ALWAYS results in the multiplication of churches (another foregone conclusion, and if you don't agree, you've never read the book of Acts), the only accurate conclusion is that the Association that doesn't actively promote church planting is willfully leaving God's mission incomplete. For some these words may sound harsh, but this is the attitude that will permeate any association that is faithful to its missionary calling. The role of Associational leaders then, is to cultivate this kind of culture. Some simple steps toward this end are:

1. Read Together. Expose yourself, and other key pastors and lay leaders, to resources that reveal church planting as an essential part of the mission of God. Bibliographies abound containing resources like this, and in the past 15 years the increased popularity of church planting has caused those lists to grow exponentially. As you are mining those lists for resources your pastors and leaders will actually read, keep three distinct emphases in mind. First, expose your people to resources that describe, in full, the missionary task as defined in the Bible, which always results in converts, indigenous leaders, and new churches. Second, find resources that speak to the practical components of church planting. Such will give your leadership an initial blueprint of the kind of system that needs to be errected. Finally, expose pastors and laity in your churches to resources that focus on the local church as the primary vehicle for church planting. Repeatedly teach and emphasize that this is THEIR job. If you don't, the best you will get is an Association of well-wishers who hope this new church planting venture works out for you. And while that kind of attitude makes for great job security and probably even extra funding for the mission, it won't create the kind of environment I'm talking about. At the end of the day, local churches need to "own" their own responsibility to plant churches.

2. Expose the Association to Lostness in Your Area. In short, this means you need to have the statistics, be confident in their accuracy, and be able to translate the implications to your churches.

For example, if you envelop the collective geographic proximity of all 58 of our member churches, there are more than 1 million people living in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. region who have no relationship to Jesus Christ. By contrast, there are approximately 11,000 people worshipping in our churches every Sunday. To reach all of the non-Christians in my area without planting any new churches, our current churches and missions would have to grow, on average, by 17,000 people EACH. Since our largest congregation only runs about 600 on Sunday, and since facilities that can hold tens of thousands of people are at a premium in this area, the only tenable solution is to start new churches, and lots of them. I tell our folks often that if we started 1000 new churches next year, and each grew to 1000 in attendance, we would still not have reached everyone with the Gospel when you factor in projected population growth.

This is the sort of information you must communicate to the churches you serve. What are the demographic indicators in your area? You should know them better than local politicians and the Chamber of Commerce, and you should be able to translate them into the substantiation for new churches.

3. Involve Key Partner Churches. I came to Maryland in 2005 with a singular mandate: to help lead the effort to plant as many churches as possible in my region. The first year our Association planted four churches. By the end of my second year we had planted 12. At the time our Association only consisted of about 40 churches, so a 20% growth rate in one year made me look good, and it made our messengers at our 2006 annual meeting feel good . . .until two years later when roughly half of those churches no longer existed!

In reaction to this, our leadership commissioned a thorough study of our church planting efforts. What we discovered was that every single new church that originated from the Associational office was either already dead, or weak and anemic. Needless to say, I was wondering about my own job security at that point! Thankfully, our leadership also decided to look specifically at the churches that were still alive and growing by making disciples. The one common denominator of each one of these growing church plants was that they were birthed, not out of my office, but out of another local church.

So on the basis of personal experience let me plead with you: don't seek to do this on your own without local churches who are willing to own the process with you! A couple of months ago, we did another five year study. Since 2007, we have operated with the assumption that churches plant churches, and we simply empower their efforts. As a result, our success rate for all churches planted since 2007 is near 100%. This sort of success is only realized when the mentality of the churches shifts from "we are helping the Association plant churches" to "we are planting churches and the Association is helping us do it."

If you are in an Association that has not seen a new church in some time and you are working with churches that simply don't know how to do this, keep in mind that your first partner churches don't have to be alligned with your Association. Use Biblically sound, evangelical churches who have planted other churches, and have demonstrated that they know what they are doing to work alongside your churches. The result will be knowledge added to zeal and over time, you will reap great results.

*This article is a re-post from a series on the Association and Church Planting, first published in 2011

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

An Open Letter to Mosquitoes

Nearly three years ago at this time, my wife and I were in China getting ready to meet our little girl--now over 4 years old--and complete all the in-country and American citizenship paperwork that would both make her our daughter, and an American citizen.  We landed in Beijing, and spent two days touring the city while the Chinese government finalized all the details for our pending adoption.

While on tour, our guide warned us to look out for swindlers on the street who would try to sell us everything from fake Rolex watches to event tickets that had long-expired.  "When they start to walk in your direction" he said, "just start waving your hand and shaking your head, and whatever you do, just keep walking away, and don't even make eye contact.  These people are nothing but mosquitoes!"

I later learned what he meant by comparing them to a blood-sucking insect.  Not only will they rob you blind and take your money, but they will also take you energy and attention off of what you are there to do--in our case, to enjoy the beauty of ancient China, and bring our daughter home.

As I think about that experience, it makes me wonder how many pastors (or leaders in any other profession) are sidetracked nearly every day by a different kind of mosquito.  When someone comes to you with a concern or complaint, your shepherd's heart goes out to them, and because you love them, you want to see them walk away satisfied.  But sometimes, all that happens is that you end up in a perpetual "back and forth" with someone whose mind is unlikely to change, and who is not nearly as interested in dialogue and understanding as they are their own agenda.

My office gets its share of these people as well.  In fact, over the last week, we've had quite a persistent little devil that is demanding our attention regarding an issue that he thinks is of eternal importance.   Our collective response--based on my own orders to our staff--has been absolute silence.

Is this because I have no heart?  Not at all.  Its because after 21 years in ministry, I've seen his ilk many times, and I simply don't have time for him, nor will I waste staff and other resources entrusted to us by our churches to address his concerns, which I can almost guarantee will never be alleviated.  Over the years, we've had several folks like this try to get us sidetracked from time to time.

So Pastor, if you are wondering how to deal with your own "mosquitoes," let me encourage you to follow my lead, as its expressed in the following open letter:

To Whom It May Concern,

Every day, our office is inundated with phone calls, emails, social media, and various other kinds of correspondence.  My own personal email count averages more than 100 each day, and that doesn't include those that are screened by my staff.  Because this level of communication can sometimes be overwhelming for an office our size, and because we give priority to those who are members of churches that are in our network  it sometimes takes us a bit to respond to you if you are reaching out to us from outside that network.  If you have experienced a delay in our response, I hope you will understand and bear with us.  Thank you for your patience.

However, there may be a few of you out there who never get a response from us, and I suppose we at least owe you an explanation for why your letter ended up in the trash, why your phone calls were never returned, why your email landed in our spam box, or your social media messages were blocked.  What follows is an attempt to explain why you never heard from us:

-To the "purpose-driven hater" who believes Rick Warren is the antiChrist, and wonders why we no longer take your call and haven't answered your letters.........

-To the Fundamentalist who leaves nasty messages about our contemporary churches, and wonders why we don't call back to explain ourselves.........

-To the denominational purist who demands to know if any of our churches also cooperate with Acts29, and wonders why we haven't met those demands.......

-To the angry anti-Reformed guy who wonders why I don't respond to his attempts to start a twitter direct message conversation that will identify all the evil Calvinists in this Association.........

-To the group that wonders why our office refuses to hoc your "we support Israel no matter what even if they carpet bomb Turkey unprovoked" wares on our churches.........

-To the out-of-state "Christian organization" leaders who question my Patriotism because, as a follower of Jesus, I'm public about hanging out with my Muslim friends, and wonders why I haven't responded to defend said accusation........

-To the prophecy nut who wonders why we won't dis-fellowship churches in our Association who don't agree fully with his own views of end time events, and can't understand why I won't respond to his emails.. . . .

-To anyone else I've missed who made the mistake of calling a missions mobilization entity in order to nit-pick a theological or political point of view and wonders why we haven't been willing to be distracted enough by you to even respond.......

...its because I have better things to do with my time.  And honestly, you do too!

Warmest Regards,