Monday, May 11, 2020

What I Pray The Church Doesn’t Lose After the Lock-Down of 2020

Since before the founding of this nation, Churches have held a place of prominence, respect, and more.  Followers of Christ have had an easy way to practice faith, to establish a church, and to worship.  After all, it is a part of our nation's founding documents.  Sometimes, ease, comfort, and convenience breed an attitude of entitlement and complacency while discomfort, troubling interruptions, and the breaking of tradition bring the basic needs to the forefront. 

Having watched the struggle of Pastors and churches trying to find their way during this pandemic, I keep being overwhelmed by a sense of excitement.  As an outsider who is a very interested observer, the response has been extraordinary.  By external forces, we have been forced to change lifelong traditions for the sake of the gospel.  We have learned to 'color outside of the lines' and 'operate outside of the box'.  Here are just a few things that I pray our churches do not lose after this lockdown.

1) To be free of a specific building or place - While the 'church buildings' offer us much, they merely house the church.  While most acknowledge the church is the people and not the building, at the same time, we operate as if the opposite is true.  For 2 months we have been forced to be the church and be the church outside of our building.  While we should be thankful for the place and the edifice, much of the work of the church IS TO BE DONE, outside of the building.  I pray that we do not lose this understanding.

2) The ability to function without programs of the past - By and large, we in the Baptist Church, had (or have) become a 'program-driven' entity.  Forty-five years ago I heard Dr. Jack Taylor say this, "If God could bless anyone because they had programs, it would be Southern Baptist."  He was and is right.  In fact, we seem to be so program driven that we do not believe we can function absent a program.  However, in this lock-down, we have discovered that the gospel is paramount and the programs are only as good as they are effective in presenting the gospel and discipling the saints.  I pray that we embrace programs which are effective in and for the gospel, adjust programs that can be massaged to be effective, discard the long-standing programs which, through this time, have been revealed to not be effective, and resist the temptation to programs our god.

3) The flexibility to change - One of the obvious developing attributes of this lock-down is the flexibility of the congregation.  People are once again engaging personally to find out 'when, where, and how' the church is meeting.  Nothing is taken for granted and, by and large, grumbling is heard very little because it is out of our control so we have 'rolled with the punches.'  To see God's people have the ability to change with a text, email, Facebook post, or just a phone call (personal phone trees) is a breath of fresh air. This ability for flexibility should be norm and not the exception because the gospel is the priority. I pray that we not return to the inflexibility of the past, but embrace being flexible for the sake of the gospel. 

4) That Technology has vast potential for the gospel - Seeing many churches who have had less than a positive view of technology NOW embrace that technology as a way to connect with their congregants, share the gospel, and communicate to those outside of Christ has been encouraging.  True, technology has many bad actors but so does music (spoken as a professional musician for 50 years).  The exciting thing and the thing I pray we don't lose is the embracing of this medium to convey the gospel.  This is an opportunity unparalleled in its reach.  I pray that the use of technology for the gospel never ends.

5) The understanding that we don't have it all figured out - When you have an easy go of it, it is easy to think 'we've got this.'  However, throw in a little pandemic, where it is not so easy and all the rules get changed, and you realize that perhaps we need to go back to basics.  I pray that our hearts have been so impacted that we seek God to help us going forward, realizing we are in a new and different day.  Admittedly, not all will change, but if we think we have the philosophical answer for tomorrow, we may short-sell the gospel.  I pray we keep praying, searching, and seeking for His best.  How will we receive offerings?  How will we partake of the Lord's Supper?  Will our approach to Baptism need to be given extra thought?  Will our buildings which are designed in days past for a specific number of attendees have to be now considered to sit only 50% - 75% of their former capacity?  There is much more to process in this thought.  I pray that we continue to seek and search for His answers and way forward.

6) The desire to gather and grow - Everywhere I go I hear, "I can't wait until we can meet again." Maybe it's true, "absence makes the heart grow fonder", but I pray it is more than desiring a social connection.  My prayer is that this attitude is birthed in the desire to worship corporately, hear the word face to face, return to a time of passionate invitation, and collectively hear each other worship God in song.  I pray that the desires expressed during this time become the seed for the authentic and exciting worship and personal discipleship in the days ahead.

7) The Ministry to the Church By Members - Sadly, before this lockdown, too many expected the pastor and/or staff to do most of the ministry.  Additionally, any attempt by the pastor to engage others in the day-to-day hospital, shut-in, or house-to-house, ministry was met with skepticism and criticism as the pastor trying to get out of 'work'.  This lock-down has forced us to employ other methods than the pastor only, embrace a new way of thinking, and even accept some responsibility for ministry.  This has been as simple as members taking a list of 6-12 church members and calling on them weekly to check and see how they are doing.  It is a simple thing, out of which, could grow a ministry that promotes church health and individual growth.  I pray that we become an Ephesians 4 church where the ministers can truly 'train believers for the work of the ministry."

8) The Pioneer Spirit – Worshipping with one of our churches yesterday, I experienced worship in a way that stirred the pioneer in me. It was outside, on a trailer, using a sound system not a radio receiver, and it reminded me of days passed when the gospel was at the forefront of all we did. Reflecting on that service as well as others I have attended and participated in during these days, the pioneer spirit is what comes to the mind. It is the spirit which is epitomized in this scenario, “What if we were to come to this location for the purpose of sharing the gospel because there was no church in sight, no traditions to keep, no building to house us, and no cultural expectations on us, “WHAT WOULD WE DO AND HOW WOULD WE DO IT?” We would be pioneers! This is the spirit that has been witnessed during these days. I pray that we don’t lose that spirit.

As I pray daily and diligently for the church, not only for our churches in this association but also for the churches across our land and the globe, I pray that the lessons we have learned during these days will not be lost in the days ahead.  These are only the ones that came to mind today, but there are many more.  My prayer continues.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

What Happens When The Style Is Gone

This morning I was reading an article about two prominent Pastors connected to the Southern Baptist Convention.  Both have worldwide ministries and impact.  Literally millions of people around the globe, to say nothing of the several thousand members and others faithfully attending before the COVID19 shutdown.  The article was very specific and graphic about the differences in the ministry of these two men.  While both were deemed to be ‘conservative’ in theology, one would be seen as traditional (although he was and is progressively modern) in his approach while the other one was the lights, sounds, smoke, and more, which many would term as 'contemporary'.. 

Both men have amassed an incredible number of followers from all walks of life.  Different races, cultures, nationalities, and more were a part of each man’s congregation.  At the outset I should offer that, having spent years and years within the traditional (never wanting to try much new) church, my heart has always been to think outside of the box.  Though I am not sure I have always communicated it well, my internal motivation was to do my part, to build His Kingdom.  The deep theologians would say, “He is building His Kingdom, Jesus is building His church.”  And my response is, “Yes, I know that too.”  But I also recognize that Jesus said, “Open your eyes and see the field because they are ready for harvest” AND “PRAY that the Lord would send laborers into the fields” AND the last words of Jesus before the ascension were, “YOU ARE MY WITNESSED, so GO AND MAKE DISCIPLES.”  The funny thing is how many people believe they know everything that the Lord meant in these words, honestly, I can discern some of what He meant, but certainly not all of it.  One thing is clear, God’s redeemed has a definite part to play in the expansion of the gospel among mankind.  We should do it passionately and not apathetically.

Back to our two pastors (who shall remain namely).  For the sake of identity, I shall call one Traditional and the other Contemporary (although these two terms are grossly misleading, they are understandable).

In both the traditional and contemporary traditions of worship, we find people who make their living by criticizing the other. 

The traditionalist criticizes the contemporary as throwing the hymns out.  Article after article is written castigating the contemporary as abandoning hymns in favor of choruses and praise songs.  Articles such as, 10 (or 15, or 35 or 327) Reasons to Sing Hymns are given as an affront to those who sing the ‘Contemporary Stuff.’  After all, so goes the argument, hymns contain great doctrine.  If all else fails, they recite that old, tire adage of calling the contemporary music, as “7-11s’ which for the uninformed means that you sing ‘7 words 11 times’.  In fairness and on balance, this was the case at one time, and as a worship leader at that time, the repeating garnered more participation, but that’s another story for another article, but ‘7-11s are not the standard today.  Taking a moment to read lyrics as opposed to castigating style may be a personal discovery that some of the greatest lyrics written are being penned today.  Some not so much, but we are seeing some super strong lyrics come off the pen of today’s writers.

At the same time, the one who attends or leads a contemporary service criticizes the traditionalist as being stuck in the past, locked up in a historical box, not speaking the language of the day, and singing songs which are largely not understood.  It is at this point that someone asks, “What is an Ebenezer?”  I offer two quick thoughts before proceeding.  1) There is no doubt that the lyrics of the hymns contain good theology, but if they teach theology, how is it that the past two generations are the most theologically ignorant people in the past two hundred years?  2) If we were indeed so theologically and Biblically astute, we should all realize that Ebenezer is spoken of in 1 Samuel 4-7 and is about worship. 

Having said all of this and to be transparent: my perspective is somewhat unique, though not as unique as it once was.  Having been a professional church musician for almost a half-century, serving as a vocational music minister (remember those) for almost 20 years, a senior pastor for a little more than 20 years, and now a Director of Missions, I have born witness to the workings, ministry, and mission, of God’s church from almost all sides and have seen many of the modern-day changes which have taken place.  Admittedly, in my desire to see every church I have been privileged to serve reach beyond themselves, my leadership has pushed the envelop to stay in tune with the times.  My goal has always been to give the NEVER-CHANGING GOSPEL TO THE EVER-CHANGING WORLD SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE THEY UNDERSTAND.

Having said all of these things, here is the question which keeps me up at night:  “In America, what would the church members do “IF” their style  was taken away?”  What if the contemporary church was relegated to only hymns once again?  What if the traditional church were changed to only sing contemporary songs?  What would the ensuing chaos be like?

Let’s take it one step further:  What if ALL MUSIC WERE TAKEN AWAY?    What if we came together (after the lockdown) and prayed, preached, shared hearts, receive God’s tithes, and went home?  What if?

I ask that for a few moments we give this some honest consideration.  What if there was no organ or drums, piano or keyboard, choir or praise-team, or even lighting effects or stain-glass window, how would that impact you?  What would it do to your personal faith and worship?  If you are one of the few who invites people to “Church” (actually the church service), what are you inviting them to?  To hear the music or the message, to meet your friends or your savior, or to witness the media or the power of God in our lives? 

Let me be clear, no one owes me an explanation, but I read in scripture about how many people are going to be surprised and how we are told to ‘examine ourselves’, this short blog is one of the many calls to do just that.  Someone tells you that the ‘traditional way’ is the only way or that the ‘contemporary approach’ is the only spiritual way’, be careful.  Personally, it grieves me that when we put these things in a box, it is OUR box, it is what “I” am comfortable with.  Yes, I have a personal preference about public worship, but my personal preference is not necessarily more spiritual than someone who doesn’t share my view.  After all, like it or not, be angry with me or not, even agree with me or not, style is not what gains us an entry into a right relationship to God and eternal life.  It’s Jesus.  Admittedly in His day, He was the tradition breaker. 

If anyone takes the time to read this, I expect (so it’s okay) to be attacked vehemently.  Why?  Because you do not question someone’s god and not get pushback.  Based on what I see, on both sides of this style argument, style has become a god in the American church. 

One of my wonderful pastors lamented, “We need to be careful about building a church based on style”.

Thank you Matt Redmon for, years ago, telling us about your and your church’s journey:

When the music fades
All is stripped away
And I simply come
Longing just to bring
Something that's of worth
That will bless Your heart

I'll bring You more than a song
For a song in itself
Is not what You have required
You search much deeper within
Through the way things appear
You're looking into my heart

I'm coming back to the heart of worship
And it's all about You, it's all about You, Jesus
I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it
When it's all about You, it's all about You, Jesus

For people who know this song, it is likely that they will read over them without READING them.
As I close I offer this.  As a young man, some of the things I thought essential are the very things today that I wonder if God may one day say, “And you thought that was important?  I’m sorry you missed out.”

The essentials of the faith are just that, ESSENTIAL.  But there is not one word about style because style seems to change and be a personal preference rather than a theological requirement.
When all is stripped away, it’s not about style, it about the Savior.  And style, traditional or contemporary can open our eyes or occlude our eyesight to the Savior. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

A Fresh Voice

Being one who is always looking to God and asking Him to speak into my heart with a fresh word, I do a great deal of reading and listening of men who seem to be somewhat successful in leading people to come to Christ, follow Christ, and serve Christ.  Most of the time these men are Southern Baptist, but sometimes not.  In recent years, I have read a great deal of Thom Rainer, Michael Catt, and Chuck Lawless, just to name a few of many. 
This past week, I encountered a new person via a twitter feed from a friend.  His name is Carey Nieuwhof, a Canadian pastor. who has some keen insight (at least for me) into leading, preaching, as well as spiritual and strategic thinking.  Sometimes it is forgotten that God expects us to use our minds to overcome the schemes of Satan.  For instance, we see that the church of our membership is declining.  Some would say, “No problem, God will take care of it,”  In actuality, God may have determined to ‘take care of it’ by placing some people who love Him enough to think clearly, spiritually, strategically, and logically, to be HIS catalyst for the redirection of the church.  It is obvious to me that while Carey is not the only definitive expert to be consulted and considered, he is certainly one that can help us to see ourselves. 
In a Dec 2019 blog, Carey spoke to “7 Subtle Signs Your Church is Dying”….While he expounds on each point, here those seven reasons are in ‘bullet form.’
Here is the web address for this blog from Carey;
I am thankful to find a fresh voice to speak into me.  My prayer is that I will never cease from the desire to find new people to speak from the Lord into my heart.  We never get too old to learn.  Grace

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