Reviving a Dying Church

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Thirty years ago this April I began my first pastorate. It was a dying church – dead really. Today we would call it a “legacy church plant.” There were ten people who attended our first Sunday, all but one retired, with the one being a teenage boy. I’m not sure why the boy was there, except that he lived on the other side of the cemetery. The cemetery, church, and a small school building, long since closed, bordered each other. The Thurmond family gave the property for these three entities in the 1890s, each deemed important for a community in those days.

My wife and I served that church for 3 ½ formative years, formative for us and for that church and community. I soon learned that the former pastor recommended that the church disband and give the building to the local Baptist association. He had reasoned this was their best option since they hadn’t baptized anyone in four years, only had a Sunday morning worship service with few attenders, and little prospect of seeing things turn around. The few attenders, most of whom had lived there all their lives, considered his suggestion, but decided to give it “one more try,” which meant giving one more seminary student an opportunity to “learn on them.”

We moved into the parsonage, which hadn’t been lived in for a few years. They tried to get it ready for us, but they hadn’t killed the scorpions, which we killed by the dozens. Then there were the skunks under the house. I would sit up at night, with a light shining into the yard, waiting for the skunks to come out. I shot them once they got far enough from the house that they couldn’t get back before they died. The house wasn’t much, but it was rent free, and that was most of our pay, so we were grateful to have it.

We had no neighbors, except cattle and the cemetery. And we had fireflies, hundreds of them that spring! One night I caught a couple of dozen in a mason jar and released them into our bedroom. I must say, it was quite romantic having those fireflies lighting up our room. But they all died so I only did that one time.

When I think back on those days, I am grateful that we came from a church that taught us how to share the gospel, and believed you had to take the gospel to the people, not wait for them to come to you. So that’s what we did. We began to visit the homes in that rural area, and a few more people started coming. The real breakthrough came that summer when Curtis Aydelotte gave his life to Christ.

I went to Curtis’s house and visited with his wife Kandy. She said that she would be at church with her kids but her husband wouldn’t because “he doesn’t go to church.” But the next day there he was. Within a month he received Christ and became the first person baptized in that church in 4 years. Curtis was 47 years old. He later told me that when I came to his house he was sick in bed with a migraine, but he could see me out the window. When his wife told him I was a preacher, he said, “Huh, a preacher who wears blue jeans. I think I’ll try that church.” That was 30 years ago and Curtis and Kandy are still serving Christ in their senior years.

Others soon came to know Christ. Families were transformed. The church grew. We never became large, but that church is still there today. The ten there when we arrived are all dead, save the one boy, but the church remains.

A fellow seminary student asked me, “How do you get motivated to preach to so few people?” That was an odd question to me. Motivation was not a problem. For one thing, I was visiting people throughout the week, sharing Christ with them, and inviting them to church. If they came and I wasn’t prepared for them, that would be a tragedy. Moreover, every individual who came needed, and deserved, to hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word just as much as the attender of a mega-church did. A further motivation for me, I must admit, was that I was learning how to preach and how to pastor God’s people. These both required hard work. I was young and knew that I wouldn’t be at that church forever. But if I did not serve them well, why should God give me any other ministry? Besides, this was what God called me to, and I was having a lot of fun.

We saw a “little revival” in that church and community. It came as the pastor, and then the church, began to share Christ with others. It came as our little church gained confidence that God was at work, and that they could invite people to attend with the confidence that God could use us to bring eternal life to others. Within two years, God even used our church to start another church about seven miles away. We were the first church to start a church in that association in about ten years. That served to motivate other churches, much bigger churches, to do the same.

Those years at Fairview Baptist Church were good years. We learned a lot, and we saw God do a good work.

This Sunday, April 3, I’ll be preaching at Orchards Baptist Church in Lewiston, ID, beginning a four-day revival emphasis. I pray that we see God do deep work in that church, and that lost people are drawn to Jesus. But I do know this, if your church needs revival, share the Gospel on a regular basis and lead your church to do the same. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to save a person from sin, and nothing revives a church like God’s people getting right with Him, and then sharing the gospel with others.

Several years ago I saw Curtis Aydelotte at a funeral. He told me that recently he had crashed his motorcycle and was sliding down the road, certain he would die. But he said, “It was amazing because I wasn’t afraid. I was sliding down the road and I knew I would be with God.” He said, “That’s the thought that hit my brain. I knew I’d be with God – and I wasn’t afraid.” Then he said, “I thought you’d like to know that.”

Curtis was right. I did like hearing that. It demonstrated that the Jesus he had come to know decades before, through the ministry of a little reviving church, is powerful, and His salvation is eternal.

Evangelism, Baptisms, and Politics (Crazy I Know!)

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Last week we completed our Story Witnessing Workshops. What a joy to see 260 people from 50 or more churches, including many pastors, trained to listen well and connect Bible stories with the lives of those who need a Savior. Every community needs more witnesses to Jesus and His love. People will listen to a Bible story that relates to their life. The Prodigal Son, Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and the Good Samaritan have universal appeal. More than that, they are powerful. Like a lightning bolt, God’s Word penetrates the mind and heart as no other word can. And people love stories. You can use these Bible stories to share Jesus with others.

Something to rejoice over is that 236 more people followed Jesus in believer’s baptism in the past year than in the previous year in our NWBC churches. In 2015 our churches reported 1,915 baptisms, up from 1,679 in 2014 and 1,643 in 2013. We praise God for this. There is nothing more important than loving God, loving our neighbors and sharing Christ with them. We will not go far wrong if we do these things.

Many are discouraged and disgusted with this year’s election politics. Count me in that number. But if nothing else, political elections, though important, remind us that our greatest needs will never be met by government. Indeed, our citizenship in heaven is that which is most precious to us. And this too can strengthen our witness to our neighbors. Like us, they are likely dismayed by the 2016 election process. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ demonstrates that our personhood is eternal. Therefore, our relationships “in Christ” are eternal. I will know my loved ones in heaven. Heaven provides us with a forever family. I do not fear that when death strikes my loved one, I will never see them again.

The resurrection of Jesus means that all God’s people will be raised and we will keep our personhood. I will know my wife. I will know our sons. Death will not end our relationship. That is a precious part of the blessed hope. We do not find this hope in our earthly citizenship. We do not find it in our job or career or any other thing.

So when our neighbors are discouraged by life or politics or poor health, share with them the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Help them see that all who know and love Jesus will be raised from the dead to eternal life. Tell them that in heaven we will know each other, and that we don’t have to say “goodbye” when a Jesus follower leaves this life. This is our hope. This is our life. This was the hope of those who suffered under Nero and Hitler and ISIS, and this was the hope of those who prospered under Washington and Jefferson, or your favorite president.

One final thought – summer provides wonderful opportunities to share Christ. Vacation Bible School and Bible camps are among the best opportunities, but also remember that many relocate in the summer months. Keep your eyes open to new move-ins, the new kid on the ball team, and the new customer or coworker. New people are open to new friendships. Let’s be their friends for Jesus’ sake. It is a good day to serve the Lord!

Trust: The Irreplaceable Currency of Voluntary Missionary Movements

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High trust societies prosper; low trust societies don’t. Nearly 20 years ago my wife started an import business to help missionaries in South Asia secure business visas. She imported from a country that manufactured unique jewelry, carpets and clothing. The business was successful in that several missionaries received long-term visas. Financially, though, it was not profitable. A primary reason behind the lack of profit was that the people from whom she imported always skimmed some of the products.

Economists know that prosperous nations have high levels of trust, enabling them to develop banks, stock markets and legal systems that operate with an integrity that builds trust. Poor nations are generally low in trust, often extending little trust of anyone beyond family, ethnic group, or religion.

When I think about the work we do together as Baptists, I am amazed that a voluntary missionary movement such as ours has prospered in miraculous ways – and that is what the Southern Baptist (SB) denomination is – a voluntary missionary movement – an incredibly successful one at that. While we grieve the recent downsizing of the International Mission Board (983 missionaries have left the field, plus 149 stateside staff), it’s remarkable that 3,941 international missionaries are being sustained through the voluntary missions support of Southern Baptists (as of 2/23/16).

In addition, more than 900 churches are being planted each year in North America, 18,000 seminary students are being trained, and thousands more are sharpening their skills and strengthening their hearts through training and events, and so much more. The SB voluntary missionary movement includes dozens of colleges and universities, collegiate ministries, children’s homes, and, at one time, hospitals. The currency that has been irreplaceable in moving our missionary movement forward is trust and good will. More than the almighty dollar, Southern Baptists, and our Northwest Baptist network, have enjoyed a level of trust that has enabled our now 46,000 churches to do Kingdom work together, even during difficult days.

However, while God’s work through the SB voluntary missionary movement has been remarkable, it is not inevitable that God will continue to bless us and use us to bring the gospel to our nation and our world. Jesus said that the gates of Hades will not prevail against His Church, and we believe this absolutely, but local churches do die, and denominations and missionary movements have died as well. The Church continues, but local expressions of the Church have no such guarantee. Have you ever visited the churches that Paul founded in Ephesus, Corinth, or Philippi? Neither have I because those churches no longer exist. In 1776 the Congregationalists had the greatest number of churches in America. Today they are blip on the screen of American church life.

Glossy optimism about the voluntary missionary movement that is Southern Baptist is not warranted. The facts (baptisms, missionaries on the field, new churches planted) indicate that our missionary movement has not only ceased moving forward, but we have actually taken steps backward. Some become uncomfortable when such things are pointed out, but I believe that we must face things as they really are, including how we got to where we are, if we hope to regain momentum in our grand mission endeavor.

For effectiveness to continue and grow, we must build and grow the “trust bank.” How do we do that? Here is a thesis statement for you to consider: Trust results from the credibility of the leader, and the confidence that the leader acts in the best interest of the organization. Believing this to be true, I want to offer several essentials for building and maintaining trust. Please note, though I have referenced the larger missionary movement that we call the SBC, these principles apply to any voluntary missionary movement, including the regional convention that I lead, or that of the local church.

The key to a missionary movement is leadership. Voluntary missionary movements require leaders who:

1. Believe in the missionary movement that they lead. This may seem obvious, but some leaders only believe in the movement “when they are the leader.” The most effective, trust-building leaders are chosen to lead because they demonstrated belief in the movement even before they came to lead it. We see this in the Bible over and again (Acts 6:3; 1 Thess. 2; 1 Tim. 3; many Old Testament examples, with David being one of the best because he fought a giant for his God and country before he became king). Southern Baptists hearts are united by a cause, the Great Commission, but we are also united by the means we have chosen to engage our cause, namely working together cooperatively, which includes the Cooperative Program. To be a Southern Baptist means we believe that the Great Commission is our commission, and that a primary method to fulfilling it is through CP missions.

2. Develop strong and healthy relationships with others who lead the missionary movement. Voluntary missionary movements require trust, and trust is built through relationship. We see an example of this in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and we see it throughout Paul’s letters.

3. Are transparent and open to inquiry and accountability. In a voluntary missionary movement, no one is more accountable than the leader. Strong, secure leaders invite inquiry and discussion. Restricting speech will destroy a voluntary missionary movement. “Trust the Lord and tell the people” is an old Baptist saying.

4. Always keep their word and act with integrity. Always.

5. Explain their actions, giving the “why?” as well as the “what?” Knowing “why” a particular course of action was taken, especially if the decision is controversial, will preserve and build trust because it demonstrates respect toward others in the missionary movement. Again, we see this in Acts 15. We see it throughout Paul’s communication with various churches as he explained himself and his teaching.

6. Admit and explain failure. Repent and ask forgiveness when they sin.

7. Think and plan for the long-term. Christopher Columbus, yes, the one who “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492, believed that he was extending Christianity, and that through his efforts and those of others, Jesus could return in about 150 years. Jonathan Edwards, the great revivalist and preacher, wrote in the 1740s that the last people he expected to be reached for Christ were the Muslims, and that by the year 2,000 Jesus could return. He was looking forward 250 years. Leaders of voluntary missionary movements serve as though Jesus could return tomorrow, but they don’t “sell the farm,” trading tomorrow for today.

Those of us who lead aspects of the Southern Baptist missionary movement, whether we are local church pastors, associational or denominational leaders, inherited the trust and good will built by our forefathers. Just as inherited wealth tends to dissipate over time, trust and good will can easily be eroded over time if it is not stewarded well. When a voluntary missionary movement loses these, it loses everything.

Many years ago I read Jay Winik’s book titled April 1865: The Month that Saved America, which focused on the final month of the American Civil War. It was a fascinating book, the thesis of which was that it was not inevitable that the war ended the way that it did, allowing for the United States to reunite and eventually become one again. To paraphrase, he said that great men did great things, at the right time. Had Lincoln, Lee and Grant chosen differently, we would live in a different world today.

God is sovereign. He will accomplish His agenda. But it would be presumption, not faith, to say that God has to bless us and use us to get His work done. As leaders of a Bible class, a church, or an agency that serves churches, we must do all we can to build trust, so that God alone gets the glory as He uses us in ways greater than ever.