Summer Ministry in the Pacific Northwest

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Summer in the Pacific Northwest is as close to the Edenic garden as you will to find. But in addition to enjoying the outdoors, Northwest Baptists do some of their most impactful ministry in the summer months. Vacation Bible Schools and various sports, children and youth camps, anchor our summer ministry, and to these you can add mission trips and community outreach and service projects.

This spring 383 people were trained to lead Bible schools in NWBC and associational events. We anticipate the making of many disciples among the thousands of children ministered to by our churches in Bible schools and camps this summer. Many churches have more children in their Bible schools than the total church attendance on an average Sunday. Bible schools remain the most effective evangelistic ministry of our churches.

Not only do we conduct Bible schools here at home, 50 Northwest Baptists from 10 churches will serve the children of IMB missionaries in Asia from July 30 to August 5. Next summer we have been invited to a missionary retreat which we will require about 140 people serving hundreds of missionary children in Asia, as well as providing medical, technical, and security support. Only by partnering together can we have such great impact serving our IMB missionaries.

Here at home our churches are loving their neighbors in community holiday events, city clean-up projects, school improvement activities, refugee and immigrant ministries, and person-to-person Gospel sharing. The churches with which I have worshiped already this summer have attenders that come from about 25 different nations (about 50 nations are represented in our almost 500 congregations)!

As we consider the primary task that God has given us, to reach 11.5 million neighbors in the Northwest, there are certain values that help guide our work. First, we value the individual person. Most of what we see Jesus doing in the New Testament is focused on one person – Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, a blind man, lame man, demon-possessed man, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, the thief on the cross, and many others. Jesus gave His full attention to individual people, often people that others did not value. We must do the same. One person matters.

Second, we value every church, because every church, regardless of size, is the Body of Christ which “He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28d). We need each church and we value each church as a partner in the gospel, understanding that the local church best knows their people and must determine how they can best love their community and share the gospel where they live.

Third, we value the collaboration of true partners. In a partnership, the “weaker” partner is respected by the “stronger” partner, understanding that God works in mysterious ways, choosing the “weak” to shame the “strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). Whether speaking of individuals or churches, partnership enables us to have a bigger and more consistent gospel impact. This is the genius of the Cooperative Program (CP) method of funding missions. By the way, our NWBC churches gave an average of 7.5 percent to missions through CP last year, far above the national average of 4.86.

I hope that you are enjoying your summer, and that you will know that it is a good day to serve the Lord in the Pacific Northwest!

Trust and Partnership – A Recovery Program for the SBC

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The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) needs a recovery program.  Followers of Jesus, including those who lead, are not exempt from addiction to power, money, and sex, and we have been reminded of this with jarring frequency over the past few weeks and months.  Deep wounds caused by multiple failures are now festering from infection.  Added to the more public matters is a sick hubris that has caused some to weaponize money and leadership, intentionally hurting others, certain that they are smarter, wiser, or better than “them.”  Much of the focus has been on the resignation of leaders and the firing of a seminary president, and rightly so, but perhaps worse than the headlines is our deficit of trust and partnership that has grown as large as the national debt.  Although trust and partnership have been eroded in multiple ways, the serious erosion of cooperation and trust between the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and denominational partners has led to a collapse in the numbers of churches started and the number of new believers baptized.

Many think that we are in the midst of a church planting boom in the SBC.  We are not.  In the past two years we have tallied the lowest number of new church starts in decades, reaching a new low of 691 throughout North America in 2017.  Moreover, new church plant numbers the past seven years are far below the seven years prior, while the church planting budget is 350 percent higher than it was in 2010!  The truth is we are experiencing a colossal collapse in the number of new church plants while spending far more money from the NAMB budget.  The primary reason that Southern Baptists are planting half as many churches as we were ten years ago is because the North American Mission Board (NAMB) has greatly reduced its cooperation with state and regional conventions in favor of a top-down approach in which NAMB mostly controls church planting outside of the south, and in which NAMB has greatly reduced funding for church planting in the south.

Add to this the fact that NAMB has slashed evangelism funding to about one third of what it was ten years ago.  In 2010 NAMB had an evangelism staff of 52 people, organized into six teams, in addition to hundreds of state convention jointly-funded positions.  In 2018 there are only two people in evangelism (a leader and his assistant) listed on NAMB’s website, and the one evangelism leader is also the pastor of a church with attendance over 1,000.  This is especially striking when you learn that NAMB currently lists 30 staff doing marketing and event planning!  At the state convention level, NAMB has also slashed evangelism funding for personnel, so that we have a fraction of the national evangelism leaders and far fewer evangelism implementers at the associational and state level.

Evangelism funding was reduced because, NAMB argued, the best way to do evangelism is to start new churches.  While that can be debated, there is no debate that evangelistic funding from NAMB was intended to serve all 47,000 SBC affiliated churches, while church planting funding focuses only on church plants.  Most evangelism is done by established churches because that’s where the vast majority of our people worship – common sense!  But we are experiencing a disastrous drop in the number of new believers following Jesus in baptism.  Baptisms have plummeted to a level not seen in more than 70 years.  In 2015 we dropped below 300,000 baptisms for the first time since 1947, and in 2017 a total of 254,122 persons were baptized.  This is a drop of 24 percent from 2011 when 333,000 were baptized.  There is almost no living memory of a time Southern Baptists baptized so few.  As seen in the chart below, we are currently experiencing the steepest decline in baptisms in recorded SBC history (source is the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, Vol. 1 No 2, Fall 2003 and SBC Annuals).

SBC-baptisms_1900-2017

The extreme reduction in cooperation between NAMB and state conventions, including the elimination of funding for hundreds of associational and state convention positions, has greatly reduced the ability of local Southern Baptist denominational entities (state conventions and local associations) to serve the needs of our churches, which is partly why we are experiencing serious decline (including a decline in Annual Church Profile reporting because of fewer associational and convention employees working to get the information).  In the Northwest Baptist Convention our convention staff is less than half the number that we were in 2009.  Believing the incendiary charge that state conventions were “bloated bureaucracies,” a handful of influential SBC leaders and influencers pushed for state conventions to give more cooperative dollars to the national SBC (a 50/50 split was called for), and NAMB reduced funding to state conventions at the same time.  These actions, and the accusations that were hurled toward state conventions, have done great damage to relationships, destroyed trust, and damaged our ability to start churches and engage in a cooperative evangelism effort.  Both church plant numbers and baptisms plummeted following the changes that began in 2010, which, ironically, was the year the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) recommendations were adopted at the SBC in Orlando, FL, and in which the GCR called for “the phasing out of Cooperative Agreements” between NAMB and state conventions.  Unfortunately, no effective cooperative strategy has replaced the cooperative agreements, thus we have become less effective at planting churches and doing evangelism than we were prior to the GCR.  I’ve recently noticed that others, too, have recognized the need for recovery in the SBC, including those behind the Reform NAMB Now movement (www.reformnambnow.org).

Some think that talking openly and honestly about the fact of our decline, and the reasons for it, is “not helpful.”  Some fear that if Baptists are told the truth it will demotivate cooperative giving.  Apparently they weren’t taught the old Baptist axiom “trust the Lord and tell the people.”  Transparency is vital.  The truth of the matter is critical if we are to build and maintain trust.  Unity without truth enables bad behavior.  The people who support the work have a right to know the truth.  They deserve an honest reporting of our present condition, and an honest and open debate, even if some leaders find it unhelpful to themselves.

Some might also think that because our entities are governed by trustees elected at the annual meeting of the SBC that it is unnecessary and counterproductive to discuss these matters in a public forum.  But I believe that SBC trustees need to hear from rank-and-file, pew-sitting Baptists whose tithes are paying the bills.  “Brett and Brianna Baptist” should not be kept in-the-dark about the issues and how their Cooperative Program mission’s dollars are being spent.  Trustee boards operate best when the SBC constituency knows the issues and can discuss the issues with the trustees.  Trustees represent Southern Baptist people and Southern Baptist Churches.  They do not represent the entity on whose board they sit.  Therefore, trustees need to hear from an informed constituency.

So, what can we do to build back trust and cooperation at all levels of the SBC?  First, we must be open and honest about our present condition and not suppress “negative information” out of fear that Baptists cannot handle the truth.  SBC entities need to present the reality of their situation and not merely provide reports that highlight the positives and conceal the challenges and failures.  State conventions and associations must do the same.  Acknowledging reality, and dealing with things as they really are, is where leadership begins.  God’s people can handle the truth.  What they cannot handle, and what they deeply resent, is the truth being concealed and covered up.

Second, building trust and cooperation requires selecting leaders who believe in the cooperative system, including the cooperative funding system that made the SBC the greatest missionary denomination we have ever known.  Southern Baptists have some pastors who are effective leaders for their church, but they are not effective leaders denominationally because they do not sufficiently believe in, or participate in, the Cooperative Program method of funding our ministry and the cooperative structure that we have established locally, statewide, and nationally.  Most Southern Baptists worship in churches of less than 200 on Sunday.  These churches give the most money to cooperative missions and they send the most missionaries.  They believe in, and practice, cooperative missions.  We need leaders who understand this and celebrate the cooperative efforts and sacrifices of these churches.  This doesn’t mean large-church pastors can’t lead the SBC – not at all!  But it does mean these pastors need to believe in the cooperative method of missions from which we have benefitted for 90 years.  If our missionary methods don’t capitalize on the combined strength of the 99 percent of our churches which have fewer than 1,000 on Sunday, we will continue to decline and fail to accomplish all that we could for the glory of God.  In 2017 Southern Baptist churches gave $475 million to missions through the Cooperative Program and $215 million through the two national mission offerings.  Those churches that strongly support the Cooperative Program need SBC leaders who do the same.  SBC leaders must be able to look pastors in the eye and say, “imitate me” regarding Cooperative Program giving.  If an SBC leader cannot do that, he’s like a pastor who implores his people to give generously while he gives miserly.

Third, we must return to a cooperative system between NAMB and state conventions that prioritizes a church planting and evangelism strategy that is formed and led mostly by those closest to the field of ministry.  How can leaders in Alpharetta, GA know what’s best for Syracuse or Chicago or Seattle or Anchorage, not to mention the thousands of smaller communities that are inevitably overlooked by everyone except those who actually live there?  This includes both church planting and evangelism strategies.  In the name of planting more churches NAMB has exploded the church planting budget and slashed the evangelism budget.  The result is far fewer churches being planted and a collapse in total baptisms.  I believe this decline in church plant numbers is largely the result of a top-down national strategy that has reduced missionary boots-on-the-ground, ignored the input and pleas of local leaders, and destroyed the trust we once enjoyed between national and state convention leaders.  It’s not working and the numbers tell the story.  Actually, the numbers tell part of the story.  The rest is told by the wreckage done to relationships and families in the implementation of this terribly flawed strategy.

Is the SBC still worthy of our support?  Absolutely.  We no longer have 5,600 international missionaries, but we still have 3,500 fully-funded missionaries and no other network of churches comes close to that number.  Presently we are not starting 1,200 to 1,500 churches each year, but no other network started the 691 churches that SBC churches did in 2017.  Can God rescue us and revive us and bless us once again?  Without question He can.  He’s done it many times before.  But it’s a fact that churches die, movements die, and denominations have died too.  It is not inevitable that we recover our former effectiveness, and it’s not even certain that we will survive for another generation.  God’s plan is certain.  He will prevail.  Of that we can be certain. But whether the SBC continues to play a leading role in His plan is yet to be determined.

For now, we need prayer and repentance.  We must execute a turnabout, spiritually, relationally, and strategically.  Good organization and strategy won’t move the heart of a holy God.  Only hearts directed toward Him, seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness, will bless God and cause His face to shine upon us.  If we do that individually, we’ll be all right, come what may.  As far as the SBC goes, a recovery program requires building trust, respect, and true partnership founded upon truth and acknowledging reality.  If we can do this, we can recover and experience vitality once again.

 

A Dream for Your City

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What dream do you have for your city? That’s a question for every believer to consider. What we dream for our city will guide our prayers and the ministry of our families and churches. Please note, the question is not, “What dream do you have for your church?” That might be a follow-up question to the dream you have for your city. If you dream of a day when every person in your city has someone who loves them, and loves Jesus, and thus prays for them and ministers God’s love to them, that “city dream” will influence what you dream for your church. But dreaming about what you want God to do in your city should come first.

This morning I read the book of Jonah. Every time I read Jonah I am somewhat stupefied with how the book ends. Jonah was angry that God spared the city of Nineveh. God said, “Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?” (4:11). These are the last words of that little book. Whether God was speaking about 120,000 children in Nineveh, or whether he was speaking of the ignorance of the people, is uncertain. What’s most striking is the reference to “many animals.” God spared the city, in part, because of the animals in the city.

We don’t know how Jonah answered God’s question. But we should have an answer to God’s question as it relates to our city. I should have an answer as it relates to the Northwest. My dream for the Northwest is that every household have someone praying for them, and that every household have believers who love them with God’s love. My dream is that every church be fully engaged in an Acts 1:8 evangelism and missions ministry. My dream is that joy and gratitude permeate our worship gatherings.

A favorite phrase of mine is that “it is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest.” I believe that. I also believe that “this is our day.” Yesterday belonged to others. Tomorrow belongs to the next generation. But today … today is our day. Paul told the Ephesian church to “make the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). Evil days were good days to serve the Lord. That is true of our day. The presence of evil provides us the opportunity to make our day a good day in God’s Kingdom. So, consider the question, “What dream do you have for your city?”

Marsha Gray

Many of you know Marsha Gray. For 40 years Marsha has served Northwest Baptists. She has worked with six executive directors and dozens of convention staff. She has been a friend, adviser, and confidant to her coworkers and church leaders alike. In my five years no one has helped and supported me more than Marsha. I trust her, respect her, and love her as my sister in Christ. No one cares more about the Northwest Baptist Convention of Churches than she does. She has given much of her life, and her heart, to God’s work through Northwest Baptists.

June 29th will be Marsha’s last day in the office before entering a well-deserved retirement. It won’t be quite the same around our office. Even in retirement, however, Marsha will serve us as she begins a term as a trustee of Gateway Baptist Seminary. Thank you, Marsha! And send us a few pictures as you and Don travel the country.

A Plea for Reasonably-Gifted Leaders

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Question: Where have all the great preachers gone?

Answer: They are where they have always been … few and far between.

This question/answer dialogue was given to a preaching class by Professor James Heflin when I was in seminary. Evangelism Professor Roy Fish said something similar when he remarked there was only one Elijah, not ten such men, when Elijah served as God’s prophet. The same was true of Martin Luther or Billy Graham. The point being that most preachers and servants of God are more ordinary in their gifting, and that’s the way it’s always been.

I have a concern that the 10-talented among God’s servants are not simply applauded for their ministry, but held up as the standard of what is laudable. It is counter-cultural to say this, but what the church needs today is more “reasonably-gifted” leaders who love God with all their hearts, love people, and who are able and willing to persevere in ministry. We need to bless and celebrate these servants of God. We need more pastors, not just better pastors. We need more witnesses for Christ, not simply better witnesses. We need more faithful financial stewards, not just a few who have more money to give.

Not that we shouldn’t bless and be grateful for the 10-talented, but they are few and far between and thus while we can learn from them, and be grateful for them, we should not consider them as “the” acceptable standard for ministry. For example, I’m grateful for the ministry of the mega-church, but they represent far less than half a percent of all churches. In addition, they are largely a modern phenomenon, mostly happening in the last 40 years, and quadrupling in the United States in the last 20 years. Are future church-attenders in the U.S. going to increasingly be found in the mega-church? I don’t know, maybe. But I do know that most places in the world where the church is growing it is doing so through a multiplication of small churches with reasonably-gifted leaders and a miracle-working God “who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). The church is growing in China, Cuba and throughout much of Africa through ordinary Jesus-loving people sharing the joy of God’s grace and mercy with neighbors who need a Savior and Lord.

Something else to consider is that most of the ministries that have experienced explosive growth have unique advantages not afforded to the average church or ministry leader. One ministry leader that has been held as an example of what’s possible has a dad who was a seminary professor and mega-church pastor. He’s also enjoyed strong support from another well-known mega-church pastor, including very significant funding, and this brief list doesn’t exhaust the unique advantages he has. I don’t recount this to diminish or demean what God has accomplished through him. I thank God for him. But it’s not helpful to the Kingdom to compare other church planters and pastors to a man who has a background and support that are unique.

Too many believe that to lead God’s people you have to know the systems, strategies, and best practices of the few who are “highly successful.” I disagree. To lead the people of God you must hear from God. To lead God’s people you must know His mind and heart. The men of God in the Bible not only knew God’s heart, they embodied His heart and mind. Certainly this was true of Jeremiah, Hosea, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, not to mention Joseph, David, Paul and so many others. This isn’t to totally discount what we can learn from the 10-talented and “highly successful.” It is to say that most of God’s work is done by ordinary people who seek His heart and mind and obey Him. As Henry Blackaby used to remind us, “Look for where God is at work. Listen for His voice. Then join Him in His work” (paraphrase).

Remember, Elijah wasn’t the only person of God who didn’t bow before Baal. There were 7,000 others. They are nameless and faceless, but faithful too, even as was the one superstar among them, Elijah.

Who Should Lead Southern Baptists

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Who should lead Southern Baptists? Answer: those who fully support the Cooperative Program and have demonstrated their support through the percentage giving of the church they serve and lead. My assertion’s explanation and argumentation is this:

In round numbers, Southern Baptists churches contribute approximately $690 million annually through the Cooperative Program, Lottie Moon International Missions Offering and the Annie Armstrong North American Missions Offering. Approximately $475 million is contributed through the Cooperative Program and $215 million is contributed through the two major mission offerings. These numbers vary year-to-year by several million dollars. In addition, many millions more are given through State Convention annual missions offerings, Disaster Relief, World Hunger Offering, and associational mission gifts.

I share these numbers because I fear the average “Brett and Brianna Baptist” SBC church members have little idea of the impact Southern Baptists make because we cooperate financially to send and sustain missionaries, educate pastors, start churches, train leaders, and so much more. Moreover, “Brett and Brianna Baptist” probably do not understand the scope of our cooperative work and the manner in which it is funded.

The largest and primary funding strategy for SBC churches is the Cooperative Program (CP), a unified effort for local, regional, national and international ministry and missions. Most churches allocate CP mission dollars as a percentage of their annual budget, though some budget a set dollar amount. According to a report of the SBC Funding Study Committee, issued on September 23, 2003, SBC churches maintained a percentage giving to missions through the CP in the 11 percent range from 1930 to 1980. By the 1980s this average had dropped to 10.5 percent, and by 2002 it was 7.39 percent. In 2017 that number had fallen to 5.16 percent. As a percentage of the church budget, SBC churches are giving less than half to CP missions than they did just 30 years ago.

Various suggestions have been offered as to why CP missions giving has dropped so dramatically. These suggestions range from rising health insurance costs, to more emphasis on local ministry, political infighting, and the desire of churches to do missions directly. No doubt these have all contributed to our decline in CP supported missions. But I want to suggest something different – I firmly believe that the single biggest factor in our decline is the selection of leaders who do not fully support CP as the major way to fund Southern Baptist missions. Thus, they do not – and, really, cannot – share passionately with others a vision for the impact such a unified effort makes.

If a church chooses to support missions directly, and gives a small percentage or zero through the CP, that is their right as an autonomous church. Some pastors and churches may believe they can better allocate their missions dollars than can state conventions and the SBC. Often these are megachurches with huge budgets. I get that. But remember, there are less than 200 SBC megachurches (average worship attendance of 2,000 or more), and a total of 51,000 SBC churches and mission churches. Half of the churches in the Northwest Baptist Convention, where I serve, average 50 or less in worship. Nationally the median number is probably closer to 70, but the normative SBC church has far fewer than 100 on Sunday. That’s partly why CP missions has worked so brilliantly over the years. It makes possible a cooperative missions strategy that strengthens the abilities of the typical church to play a part in the far-reaching responsibilities of the Great Commission. Sure, if your church has 200 or 500 or 1,000 on Sunday, you might have the staffing and finances to do some larger mission projects. But even a large church finds it difficult to have a fully-orbed Acts 1:8 missions strategy.

Recently I visited with the pastor of an independent church that has 3,000 in weekend worship attendance. He was amazed to learn our church planting efforts in the Northwest include Vietnamese, Bhutanese, Korean, Spanish, Burmese and many other non-English language churches. He quickly understood that even given the resources of a large church they cannot penetrate lostness like our 500 smaller churches do through a cooperative strategy. CP missions is just such a cooperative strategy and we should choose leaders who understand it, believe in it and have supported it over the course of their ministries.

Presently, the International Mission Board (IMB) of the SBC is seeking a new president. In addition to the necessary spiritual qualifications, experience, and gifting, the next president should have a background that demonstrates a strong commitment to support missions through the CP. Remember, international missionaries don’t fall off angel’s wings onto the mission field! They are discipled and educated and called out through the ministries of our churches and through CP supported state camps, college ministries, seminaries, and the like. The SBC is a system of missions, ministry, training and education, and we need each part of the system for the global enterprise to remain healthy. Key leaders like the president of the IMB should understand this and support it. If a particular leader doesn’t support the SBC system of CP support (and you will only know he supports CP by what he led his church to do), he should not lead a CP supported SBC entity.

This June Southern Baptist will also elect a new SBC president. The man elected to this position should likewise be someone who has a track-record of strong CP support. How can a person effectively lead Southern Baptists if his church doesn’t support CP with a minimum of the 5.16 percent that the average church gives? Indeed, shouldn’t our leaders come from churches that give above the average percentage? This seems like common sense, but such sense seems less and less common.

Southern Baptists are at a critical crossroad. One road leads to the continuation of decline in CP missions giving and the continuation of the decline of the SBC (that is a subject for another article, but yes, we are in serious decline by most every measure). The other road will lead us to growth in our cooperative missions strategy. Which road we travel will depend not only on what we do individually, but also on those we choose to lead us. As for me, I will do all I can to encourage Southern Baptists to select leaders who generously support missions through the Cooperative Program and have a long history of doing so.

Why I Am a Christian

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I am a Christian because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. It’s just about that simple. The opening words of Genesis One revealing the creative utterance of God are breathtaking. The poetry of the 23rd Psalm reflecting a deep intimate relationship between a man and his God is unsurpassed. The Messianic birth narratives revealing God’s commitment to redeem humanity through incarnation are sublime. Added to these are any number of biblical histories, prophetic utterances and ethical teachings. And we must always cling to the Cross, brutal and bloody, proving Christ loves us beyond description.

While the entirety of Scripture is God-breathed, and profitable in every way, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the starting-point of Christian faith. As Paul writes in Ephesians, God’s saving power for believers “is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 1:19b-20). Moreover, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).

Yes, the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead is where Christian faith begins. Not only that, but Christ’s resurrection has no parallel in the world’s major religions. The Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path of Buddhism provide a form of ethical instruction, as does the Islamic Koran. Clearly Christians find both utterly deficient for life and godliness, but some form ethics and code of conduct are found in all religions.

What is not found in the world’s religions is the assertion that God became man, was crucified and died for our sin, and after three days in the grave rose from the dead in triumph over sin, death and the grave. Moreover, the New Testament goes beyond asserting Christ’s resurrection by offering evidence for the resurrection. The evidence begins with the empty tomb and the eyewitness accounts of the Apostles to the resurrection. It continues with the preaching of Peter in Acts 2, the healing of the crippled beggar in Acts 3 “in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene” (Acts 3:6), the creation of the Church, and the martyrdom of the Apostolic eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord. Don’t forget, Christianity is rooted in history. It is not merely a collection of wise sayings and rules for life. Jesus lived, died and rose again in a specific place, at a particular time, and interacting with thousands of people.

Recently I returned from Burma, a country that is officially Buddhist. There are more Buddhist pagodas in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay that there are steeples in Dallas, TX! The largest of these is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Rising 325 feet, it is covered in as much as 60 tons of gold. Why have Burmese Buddhists invested such wealth in this pagoda? Because they believe that it contains eight strands of hair from Buddha himself. They know he’s dead. They don’t believe he’s a god. But in the hope of having good karma they worship him in this way (Remember, when Buddhists and Hindus speak of karma they are not speaking about rewards or punishment in this life, but rather in a future life via reincarnation).

Thank God we have a living Savior! Resurrected, reigning and coming again! In a little over two weeks we will celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter Sunday. But those who trust in Jesus Christ experience the victory of Christ’s resurrection every day.

Yes, I am a Christian because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. If you are not a Christian, what do you believe about Jesus and His resurrection? If the resurrection is a lie, then Christianity has no foundation. It is vital that you understand this. Our entire faith stands or falls on the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if you look at the evidence, and conclude that the resurrection really happened, you are left to conclude that Jesus is what He and the Scriptures claim Him to be – Lord and King, forever and ever, and you must, dear friend, you must follow Him in faith and obedience.

Trust – The Indispensable Ingredient for Seizing Unexpected Ministry Opportunities

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A few weeks ago I was asked to speak about things I have learned in 35 years of ministry. I decided to tell a story that illustrates what can happen in a church/ministry when trust is high. This article is longer than most, but I think you will find it encouraging. Partly, I just wanted to get it down on paper for myself.

I was in my tenth year as pastor of FBC McAlester, OK when we learned that the trial of Terry Nichols, a conspirator in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, would be held in the Pittsburg County Courthouse, adjacent to our church. Nichols had already been convicted in a federal trial and given a life sentence. The trial in McAlester was an Oklahoma State trial, undertaken so that Nichols could be given the death penalty for his role in the murder of 168 people, including three pregnant women and 19 children.

Our local newspaper said that the trial could last six months and that our town of 18,000 would be inundated with media people. Our church staff had our weekly meeting the day we learned the trial would be held next door to our church building. We first discussed the problems this could bring, primarily with parking, but we quickly transitioned to the question, “Is there a ministry opportunity in this situation?”

Tom Beddow was a staff member who had the unique role of providing counseling, as well as helping us connect to the needs of the community in creative ways. Tom said, “I’ll call Paul Bettis at the Oklahoma Baptist Convention office and see if he knows anything about this.” Paul led the chaplaincy ministry for Oklahoma Baptists, and when Tom told him that he wanted information about the trial, and how the church might help, Paul said, “I can’t talk to you. I can’t talk to anyone in Pittsburg County.” Tom said, “I don’t live in Pittsburg County. I live in Pontotoc County. Does that help?” Paul said, “Let me check and I’ll call you back.”

Paul called Tom 30 minutes later and told him the situation, which went generally like this: “We think the trial will last six months and that as many as 150 bombing survivors and victim family members will be there each day. We need a safe place for them to go when they want to leave the courtroom, some place where the media can’t reach them, some place where they can relax. We need to feed them a breakfast and a good lunch every day of the trial, Monday-Friday, for as many as six months. We can’t charge them for the food.”

Paul told Tom, “You can’t tell anyone about this.” Tom said, “I have to tell the pastor.” After some checking, Tom was allowed to tell me, and we were allowed to share it with our church staff, but each of us was sworn to secrecy. We couldn’t tell anyone else because they were concerned it could taint the jury pool.

The situation boiled down to this – the Oklahoma City District of Attorney’s Office needed someone to feed and care for as many as 150 people daily for six months, but they couldn’t share this need publically. The question for me and my staff was this, “Can you commit to provide for this need without informing the church that you are committing them to six months of ministry, Monday through Friday, including providing food and other support services to these families?” Our staff and I enthusiastically and confidently committed ourselves and our church to this ministry opportunity, knowing we couldn’t tell our church or the deacons or anyone else that to which we had committed them.

About five weeks before the trial began we told the District of Attorney’s Office that we needed to bring some key lay leaders into the planning and preparation process. They asked for a list of names, and if they were not in the thousand-person jury pool, we could meet with them. None of the 21 names we gave them was in the jury pool.

The night we met with the 21 was amazing. Each were choice servants of God, people of faith who had given God a big “YES” when lesser opportunities were presented. There was an overwhelming spirit of gratitude that God would choose us to minister to a people so badly wounded by the bombing. As we talked about the particulars of purchasing food and preparing meals, someone suggested that we ask Walmart and other businesses if they would help us. But one of the 21, a big bear of a man, said, “How much glory would Walmart want if they paid for this? I think God deserves all of the glory and we don’t need to ask Walmart for help.” That statement resonated with us, and we determined to ask for no outside help. This wasn’t meant to be negative toward Walmart or any other business. It was meant as an expression of faith and confidence that our God could use His people to do this thing. And He did.

One week before the trial started and the jury was selected, I was permitted to tell church what we had committed them to do. It was a Sunday morning. As I explained the incredible opportunity God had given us to care for these families who had suffered so, to feed them, listen to their stories, offer prayer and comfort, there was tremendous excitement in our congregation. It seemed like everyone wanted to know how they could help. The spirit was one of gratitude that God had chosen us for this work, and every need we had was met.

The trial lasted 3 ½ months. Our church never faltered. We set aside $2,000 to buy food, thinking that would get us through the first couple of weeks. At the end of the trial $1,800 remained. One small country church, unsolicited, sent us $500 to purchase food. Others did the same.

One survivor who attended the trial was Mr. Khan. Mr. Khan was Islamic and couldn’t eat the food we had prepared. One of our volunteers told him, “Mr. Khan, you tell me what you would like to eat and I’ll prepare it.” She did so every day thereafter. Mr. Khan said, “I am a Muslim. But if I ever become a Christian it will be because of what you have done for me.”

Another person mentioned how hard the benches were in the courtroom. One of our people heard the comment and bought cushions for every seat in the courtroom.

Our church had two custodians who were not members of our church. Some were concerned that we were overworking them, but they came to us and said, “We want to be a part of this. If it means we have to work extra we will donate our time because we want to help.”

About two months into the trial I told a group at lunch that I wouldn’t see them the next week because I was taking my family on vacation. A man asked me where we were going and I told him Washington D.C. He asked, “Are you touring the White House?” I said that we were trying to get a tour of the East Wing (which is where the tourists were allowed to go), but that it hadn’t come through yet. He said, “I’m retired Secret Service. I can get you a private Secret Service tour of the West Wing.” The next week our family met a Secret Service agent early one evening, and he toured us through the West Wing of the White House – the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, pictures in the Rose Garden, the whole works.”

The trial wrapped up late one Friday evening on June 11, 2004. The jury deadlocked on giving Nichols a death sentence, which meant “life without parole” was the maximum he could receive. I was at my house. They called me about 10:00 PM and told me of the verdict and the sentence, and they said that the families wanted to gather one last time in our church and they wanted me to pray for them and speak to them.

It was an evening I will never forget. I don’t say this lightly, but God gave me a message that night. It was a message unrelated to any I had ever delivered. I spoke about the need we have for justice, but how the justice we ultimately need cannot be provided by any earthly court. “How do you secure justice for those who are gone? How do you render justice for an act so horrific?” I then said, “It’s during times like this that the resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes most precious. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. And a day is coming when all the dead will be raised and God Himself will render judgment. “ I further assured them that our hope for justice is based on a God who’s love and power are so great that He not always knows the right thing to do, He has the power to do what He knows is right. “Many of you feel let down tonight. You don’t feel like justice was done. But no human court can provide what we most need. We need assurance that our loved ones have a future. We need to know that they’re alright. We need to know that we can see them again. And that is the promise of the gospel. That is the hope that Jesus’ resurrection provides.” Those moments were special. They were powerful as God ministered His Word to those gathered.

In the aftermath of the trial Oklahoma City District Attorney Wes Lane and his team of prosecutors travelled 145 miles to our church on a Sunday morning just to worship with us and to publically thank our people for what they did. Several of the survivors did the same. The Oklahoma governor issued a proclamation honoring our church. And if you tour the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial you will see a plaque honoring FBC, McAlester. The person responsible for that recognition was Judge Stephen Taylor. He presided over the trial and said that the ministry our church provided was indispensable and he wanted it recognized.

In my years of ministry those months were the highpoint, not because it was the most impactful thing that church had ever done or I have ever experienced. It’s the highpoint because it revealed a level of trust and confidence in God and in God’s people that was extraordinary. Stephen Covey called it the “speed of trust.” High trust allows you to move quickly and confidently. Low trust keeps churches from doing much of anything. Sometimes a lengthy decision-making process is necessary, like when you’re deciding whether to build a large structure. But sometimes churches forgo great ministry opportunities because trust is low. We were able to commit the church to such a huge ministry because we had already seen God do many things over the past decade and trust was built in the process.

When David faced Goliath, he said, “The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:37). We were able to say that the Lord who had delivered us and used us in multiple ways in times past will certainly do so once again.

The bottom line is that churches and pastors who hear from God and experience God gain confidence that the God who “said and did” is the God who still “says and does.”