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.

 

Baptizing Barbarians

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My people were barbarians, just plain dangerous, before Jesus rescued them and saved them from sin. You have to go back a few years because the gospel came to my people a long time ago. It’s a pretty amazing story. My people came from England, and though you might not realize it, before the missionary-evangelists came to English soil, the people there were dangerous. Here’s how it happened.

In the year A.D. 596 a follower of Jesus named Augustine led forty others from the European Continent to England in order to preach Jesus to the barbarians who lived there. The closer they got the more frightened they became. They had reason to be afraid. There was every possibility they would not survive the encounter. Augustine even asked for permission to abandon the missionary journey and return home. Denied permission, the missionary band braved the danger and journeyed into uncertainty.

When finally they arrived, rather than face a violent death, they found tremendous response to the message of Jesus. Even King Ethelbert was open to the gospel message. The Holy Spirit moved in the hearts of thousands. One-by-one they were born again, passing from death to life. And get this: on Christmas Day of the year A.D. 597, 10,000 barbarians were baptized in Canterbury, England! Even today one of the most famous church buildings in the world is the Canterbury Cathedral, and the leader of the Church of England is the Archbishop of Canterbury. This all goes back to Augustine’s ministry over 1,400 years ago when my English ancestors, and many of yours, were rescued from barbarism and hell itself through the ministry of Augustine and his missionary band.

One thing I know about you is that your people, like mine, were barbarians before they knew Jesus. It doesn’t matter from whence they came, they were barbarians before Jesus was brought to their land and entered their hearts.

When I served in Oklahoma, now considered a “Bible-belt state,” I learned an interesting story from its early history. In 1718 a traveler named Harpe passed through the eastern part of what is now Oklahoma. He spoke of meeting native peoples called Tayavayas, who were quite friendly to him. They gave him many gifts, including an eight-year-old Apache slave boy with one finger missing off each hand. It seems the Tayavayas had eaten two fingers, marking the boy as food. They told Harpe they wished they had more to give him, that they had 17 others, but they had made a feast of them.

That’s how it was in Oklahoma before the missionary-evangelists came. And many of the first Jesus-followers in Oklahoma were Native Americans who came to Oklahoma through the “trail of tears.” The first Baptist church in that state was bilingual, speaking both Creek and English.

I thought of these stories recently when I was preaching on one of the most glorious, transformational truths ever revealed: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Each of us individually, and our people collectively, were barbaric in many ways, enemies of God, before we submitted to the Savior who spilled His blood for our sins. While I was in rebellion against Him, while I was shaking my fist in the face of God and demanding my glory, not His, even then Jesus died for me.

The word “commends” is a special word. “God commends His own love.” The word is in the present tense, meaning God’s love is presently, and continuously, being poured out toward us. God’s love is alive and fresh and powerful and is at this moment being poured out toward sinners. How do we know God loves us like this? We know because Christ died for us. Jesus died in one brief hour a long time ago, but that death has an eternal power. His blood spilt in ages past has present power to wash away sins. Jesus’ blood provides a covering of righteousness even now. Jesus shed His blood one time, in one hour, and ever since that day, God has commended that shed blood into the heart of every sinner, every barbarian, who comes to Jesus in faith.

Have you baptized any barbarians lately? Remember, if you don’t reach the barbarian down the street, he might marry your daughter! He might work for you or you for him. Or maybe the barbarian is your own child. God already loves them. And He has experience saving and baptizing barbarians.

Lou Holtz Can Teach Us Something about Church

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Lou Holtz knows how to build a successful football program. He knows a few things about successful organizations, period. After more than 50 years in the sports world, one striking observation he made is that only two organizations looked better on the inside than they appeared from the outside – the University of Notre Dame and Augusta Country Club. Every other entity he has been part of looked worse from the inside than it did from outside.

Churches and ministries could ponder Holtz’s observation and learn from it. Many churches struggle with building a successful evangelism and outreach ministry. Part of the problem is that inside reality doesn’t match outside appearance. Because churches depend on the insiders (attenders) to invite outsiders to come inside (unchurched people), it’s vital that the insiders believe they have something wonderful to offer.

A couple of stories will illustrate what I mean. While in seminary I served as an evangelism intern in a church. I spent five to ten hours each week teaching people how to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and leading them to do it door-to-door. It was a formative experience for me. However, one sad fact in that experience is that I believed there was another church in town that was better than ours. Their pastor was a better preacher (our pastor said he didn’t spend much time in sermon preparation). They planned a more dynamic worship service and stronger mission engagement. I had no problem telling people about Jesus Christ and what He did for them, but it was more difficult to invite them to our church because I feared they would be disappointed when they came.

The second story concerns a church I served as pastor. A fellow minister from another denomination visited with me about joining our church. It was a big step for him and his young family. I will never forget what he said: “I want to attend a church where I can bring lost friends, confident that they will hear a well-prepared message from the Bible, be welcomed and treated well, and where we don’t have to fear something will happen that will make us want to crawl under the pew.”

I’ve thought of that statement made in 1993 many times since. If the church doesn’t look good from the inside, if members and attenders lack the confidence that guests can experience God’s presence, hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word, experience the heart-felt worship of God’s people, be led to God’s throne in meaningful prayer, and experience God’s love through His people, they will hesitate to bring their friends to church.
Our SBC family nationally has experienced a significant decline in evangelistic effectiveness. Fewer people are following Christ in believer’s baptism through our churches. Church membership and attendance has declined. Many are exploring the reasons for decline, most often lamenting that we are not sharing the gospel in our communities like we must. Others complain that we are not receiving the resources and leadership at the national level that our churches need because other strategies have been prioritized.

I believe both of these are true. That’s why in the Northwest Baptist Convention we provide MY316 evangelism resources free-of-charge to our churches (our churches paid for them through their Cooperative Program mission gifts). It’s why we conduct regional evangelism training events like Story Witnessing. Dozens of churches each year host “mystery guests” to help them evaluate Sunday morning worship gatherings. Pastor-clusters always have some emphasis on evangelism and discipleship. At this year’s annual NWBC meeting (November 7-8 in Eugene, OR) every attender will be given a book, Sharing Jesus without Freaking Out, and will have the opportunity to attend a training event led by author, Alvin Reid, to learn how to teach it in their churches. Missions and evangelism is why we exist as a convention of churches. Together we can equip our leaders and extend our missions impact far better than we could if we were alone.

These things being true, at the local church level, it would be good if we asked the question, “Does our church look better from the inside than it does from the outside? Can I confidently invite people to my church, believing they will experience God through our church?” If not, what changes can be made to have that confidence?

Churches with effective outreach and evangelism ministries have attenders who enthusiastically and confidently recommend their church to others. These churches provide opportunities for attenders to learn how to share the gospel, and they provide special events that give attenders easy ways to invite friends and neighbors to church.

If you need help diagnosing the condition of your church and finding a prescription that helps your church get healthy, we have staff trained and assigned to do that. Please call upon us. That’s our job, and more importantly, it’s our joy to assist our pastors and churches as together we strive to reach the Northwest with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Wept. Will We?

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Jesus issued commands and commissions. He also cried. The commands of Jesus instructed the church from its first days, but so too did His compassion. Jesus wept when He saw Lazarus dead (John 11:35). He was “moved with compassion” and healed those stricken by terrible diseases and malformations (Mark 1:41). He welcomed the weary and burdened (Matt. 11:28).

With all Jesus did as our sinless Savior, crucified and risen, and with all that He said that no other man could ever say, it’s the compassion of Jesus for the bruised and broken, the dirty and disfigured and damaged, that most revealed His heart. Powerful? Yes. Jesus is powerful in creation and salvation and in every other way. Wise? Jesus’ wisdom is perfect. But He also wept. He felt. He hurt. He suffered.

A few months ago, on a day when I learned some disturbing news, I woke up in the middle of the night with the words “Jesus wept” in my mind. Those words haven’t long left my thoughts since.

“Jesus wept” has challenged me personally. I fear I weep too little, and then too often for the wrong reasons.

“Jesus wept” has also spoken to me about the proper response when our ministry is weak and ineffective. The annual compilation of statistics for SBC churches was released this week. What they reveal is deeply sad. It prompted me to think, “Jesus wept. Will we?”

Before I get into the national SBC numbers, let me say I am most grateful that our Northwest churches have grown in ministry impact by almost every measure. For three consecutive years our churches have baptized more new disciples of Jesus Christ than the prior year, with 2,046 baptisms in 2016, up from 2,007 in 2015. Total worship attendance increased to 30,616 from 30,147. Total missions giving increased to $6,914,914 from $6,129,398, and Cooperative Program giving also showed a significant increase in 2016, though that is not a number included in the annual church profile report.
Probably the most important thing about the annual report is the trend line.

In the Northwest the trends are heading in the right direction, and for this I am grateful. Not that we’re beating our chests in triumphal victory. Far from it. Lostness is so great in our area that at times we wonder if we’ll ever make real progress. Half of our churches average 50 and below. It’s a struggle for many of our pastors and churches just to survive. Still, when we step back and look at the bigger picture, we are thankful to see our ministries inching forward. From the NWBC level, we feel that our focus on evangelism, missions (including church planting), and training leaders is serving our churches well. We exist to extend the missions impact of our churches and to help equip leaders in our churches. We are doing that. We believe in cooperative/collaborative work in the Northwest. This includes cooperating with our SBC partners. Our partnership with NAMB mostly involves church planting, but also some on evangelism. Our East Asia IMB partnership has proven to be a huge blessing to our missionaries and our NWBC churches. Our partnership with Gateway Seminary has had enormous impact on the Northwest as hundreds of our leaders have attended Gateway (formerly Golden Gate Seminary) and graduated from its programs with increased effectiveness.

Although my primary focus is the NWBC, as it should be, I am concerned for the SBC nationally. We are part of this important family. Consider these statistics from the 2016 annual church profile:

Baptisms – 280,773 people in 2016, down from 295,212 in 2015 for 4.89 percent decline. A decade ago we were baptizing over 350,000 people annually. We haven’t reached fewer than 300,000 since the 1940s, until the last two years. Again, the trend nationally has been downward for several years.

Worship attendance – 5.2 million weekly, which is a drop from about 5.55 million, for a 6.75 percent decline.

Church starts – 732 new church plants, down from 926 in 2015. I don’t remember when we’ve seen so few church plants. Until this decade we regularly reported over 1,200 new church plants each year.

Cooperative Program percentage – 5.16 percent of the church budget on average, down from 5.18 percent the year prior. In the Northwest the average is about 7 percent per church, for which we are most grateful. The trend toward lower CP missions giving has been going on for decades and is now less than half of what it once was.

Added to these statistics is the fact that our IMB mission force is 25 percent smaller than it was two years ago with 1,200 fewer field missionaries. Our international missions force has not only been greatly reduced in numbers, but many of those who left the field were seasoned leaders with language and cultural skills developed over ten or twenty years and more. This alone ought to make us weep.

Next week is the annual meeting of the SBC in Phoenix, AZ. While gathered we need to face the hard facts and not smooth things over with anecdotes and a few good stories. Is God at work in many of our churches and ministries? Certainly He is. But the job of leaders requires that we take the satellite view of things. We need to look at the major trend lines. We need to ask the questions, “Why? Why the decline? How did we get here? What do we need to change? How do we move forward?” I believe that we can identify reasons for our decline nationally and each denominational agency and trustee board, each convention of churches, every association and local church leader has a part to play in this. And after saying all that, my great hope is that we will drop to our knees and weep. That would be in keeping with the meeting’s theme – “Pray for such a time as this.”

The great genius of Southern Baptists is that our cooperation is voluntary. Voluntary cooperation through the Cooperative Program has enabled us to develop a system of associations, state conventions, educational institutions, and mission boards unparalleled in history. But for a voluntary system of support to thrive there must a high level of trust and respect for all partners. That’s too often missing in our work these days.

In a voluntary system, when significant problems arise, leaders are often hesitant to talk about them publically for fear that it will demotivate cooperative giving. Let me be clear, there is no other denomination or convention of churches that is doing more to reach the lost in the United States and around the world than Southern Baptists. If you know of one please tell me. We have every reason to support the SBC and to increase our support. No one sends more missionaries. No one starts more churches. No one disciples more people. No seminary system educates more preachers. But we should do better. We used to do better and we can again. If we fail our impact for Christ will grow less and less and less.

I’m going to stop there. I’m going to pray, maybe even shed a tear.

Ramesh and Jesus

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I was tired from 16 hours of travel and hadn’t been to bed in 30 hours, but my conversation with Ramesh was a highlight of our recent mission trip to Asia. Ramesh was our Uber driver who took us home from the Portland airport after our extended mission trip. He lives in Vancouver, WA where our NWBC offices are located. He lives 15 minutes from our home. And he needs Jesus as much as anyone we met in Myanmar or Japan.

Ramesh was born in Fiji, but he has lived in the United States for 32 years. When I asked him about his life here he said that things weren’t going well for him and that he was considering changing his religion to see if a new religion would bring him a better life. I asked him what his religion was and he said that he is a Hindu. I said, “What new religion are you considering?” He said that he thought he might become a Christian. I said, “How do you become a Christian?” He said, “By getting baptized.”

I told Ramesh that I am a Christian, and I asked him if I could share what the Bible says about becoming a Christian. He welcomed my offer and I began by sharing John 3:16. I said, “Ramesh, according to the Scriptures Christianity is different than religions. Christianity is about coming to know Jesus Christ and inviting Him into your life.” We discussed the Bible’s teaching on sin, repentance and faith. We talked about the uniqueness of Jesus as the One who is fully God and fully man, truly the Lord of all.

After about 15 minutes we arrived at our house. I said, “Ramesh, would you like to pray right now and invite Jesus to come into your life as your Lord and Savior?” He said, “I want to think about it some more.” I asked if he had any more questions. He didn’t, and then I encouraged him to pray and ask God to speak to him. I gave him a card with my email and phone number and asked him to call me. I said, “I think God brought us together tonight Ramesh.” He agreed. He even carried some of our bags into house. I prayed for him, and then he left.

That’s been two weeks and I haven’t yet heard from Ramesh. But I’ve thought about him and have prayed for him. And, in a way, I think Ramesh was a reminder from God to me that I am surrounded by people who need Jesus right here in the Northwest. Like Ramesh, they may think baptism makes a person Christian. Many of our neighbors haven’t rejected Jesus outright. They simply don’t know the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and coming again.

Ramesh seemed genuinely grateful that I had shared Jesus with him. It seemed like he was hearing things for the very first time … the first time. I wonder, how many are waiting to learn the truth about Jesus for the very first time? More than we know, I expect. Most are open to a genuine conversation about faith and God and forgiveness and grace. Not a sales pitch, but a conversation, from the heart, with expectancy, but a conversation just the same.

It’s been said before, but I do think many unbelievers in the Northwest have rejected, or ignored, a “form of religion” that they think is true Christianity. We need many, many conversations with our friends. Conversations that focus on gospel truths, spoken with uncommon grace, bathed in God’s love.

Make Disciples: Part 3 – Discipling a Church

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Parts 1 and 2 of “Making Disciples” focused on discipling the nation and the community. In Part 3 the focus is the local church, which is the means God uses to disciple individuals, a community and a nation. A community becomes more Christian when local churches take the gospel to their community, love their community, and lead the individuals in their community to Christ. But for this to happen there must be a church in the community that behaves “Christianly.” What does it mean to behave Christianly and how does a church do it?

Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 to “disciple all of the nations” is followed by two actions steps – baptizing them and teaching them to observe everything Christ commanded. Baptism is the public act of identifying with Jesus Christ and His church. In the New Testament, baptism followed immediately after one’s personal profession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Making disciples begins with gospel witness (evangelism) by which individuals, and sometimes entire households, come to profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ and follow Him in believer’s baptism.

Following baptism, making disciples is described by the phrase “teaching them to observe” all of the commands that Jesus gave to the eleven remaining disciples (Matt. 28:20). Those who commit to Christ must learn to obey all of the teachings of Jesus. Now, here’s an observation: many churches are better at teaching the meaning of the Scriptures than teaching obedience to the Scriptures. In sermons and Bible lessons the “What?” is often taught, but not the “Now what?”

So how do church leaders teach the church to obey Christ commands? You can do so by doing these three things.

1. Destiny – Teach every believer that he/she has a purpose in God’s kingdom. Every person “in Christ” has a destiny, a reason for being and a role to fulfill in the Body of Christ. Every person matters. Throughout the New Testament we see this, and God’s people must be taught to read the Scriptures with a view to discovering their own purpose in God’s work. Every believer has spiritual gifting and therefore each has a purpose in what God is accomplishing in the world. The purpose of the church, and of each believer, must be addressed from the pulpit monthly at the very least. It must be taught in small groups. And we must teach our children, in the home, and in the church, that they have a destiny to fulfill in God’s kingdom.

2. Opportunity – Provide the church with opportunities to obey the teachings of Christ. With varying degrees of effectiveness, churches provide opportunities to worship, to contribute to God’s work financially, to walk with God’s people in unity, and to serve God through the ministries of the church and in their daily lives. But some churches are much better at giving people specific opportunities to answer the question “Now what?” Every sermon and Bible lesson should answer this question. The programing and ministry of the church should provide opportunities for God’s people to “do acts of obedience.” Things like evangelism training and sharing the gospel, mission projects, serving widows, and serving the poor and needy, help give opportunities for God’s people to obey Him. Church leaders should regularly ask the question, “How can we show God’s love to our community? How can we take the gospel to our community and to peoples beyond?” These questions will lead to opportunities for serving God (talk to civic and school leaders to get a better understanding of community needs). Also, don’t forget to provide opportunities to celebrate what God does and to pray for God to work through the opportunities provided by the church. How much praying does your church do on Sunday morning that focuses on loving the community and sharing Christ? Are you giving your people opportunities to pray for community leaders, pray for the lost, pray for missionaries, and pray for the persecuted church? Each local church needs to connect with the worldwide church through prayer. A small church can have a huge impact by praying for big things.

3. Responsibility – Lead each of God’s people to take personal responsibility for answering the call to love God and to love their neighbors. Each believer needs to take responsibility for God’s work. Opportunities provided must be seized by God’s people as they take personally the task of sharing Christ with the lost and loving their neighbors.

From a programming perspective, individual churches will address these three things in different ways. But think about those in the Scriptures whom God has greatly used. Think about those throughout history, and even those you know personally through whom God has done great things. Each of these people had a sense of destiny. Each of them created and seized opportunities. And each of them took personal responsibility for serving God. A church that leads its people to do these things will become a dynamic church, greatly used of God, no matter its numerical size.

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!