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!

New Year Opportunities and Challenges

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Thank you Northwest Baptists for your faithfulness to make disciples and do missions. Not only did our churches reach more people for Christ last year, and baptize more, your generosity to support missions through the Cooperative Program, the Sylvia Wilson Northwest Mission Offering, Annie Armstrong North American Offering, World Hunger and Disaster Relief offerings all showed significant increase in 2015. The Lottie Moon International Missions Offering was slightly down in 2015, but the Lottie Moon Offering we received on January 2, 2016 put us ahead of the previous year as well, which was a 25 percent increase from the year before that. In addition, 35 new churches were launched last year. We have grown from 34 funded church plants two years ago, to 68 by the end of 2015. The total number of NWBC churches now stands at 484, up from 466 the previous year.

The new year presents us with some great opportunities, as well as a challenge. First, in March we will have one-day Story Witnessing workshops throughout our convention. These will be followed up by a three-day workshop in September (dates and locations in the Witness and on our website at http://www.nwbaptist.org). In MY316 evangelism training, we teach you how to tell your salvation story, and how to use John 3:16 to share the Gospel. In Story Witnessing you learn how to listen, ask good questions, and then tell a Bible story that relates to what the person said. It is a powerful way to share the gospel.

Another opportunity is that of serving our IMB missionaries in a huge retreat in August. We need 200 volunteers to serve in Thailand, and we need many more praying for them and supporting them. We will have 1,300 missionaries, including children. They currently have 524 children, with 8 more in adoption process, and 14 missionary wives are with child. How fun! We get to serve these missionaries and their children. Please note, a $350 deposit is due by February 15, with the total cost being $700, plus airfare and some meals. Your church has much more info about this trip. You can also email Sheila Allen at Sheila@nwbaptist.org.

The challenge we face concerns church planting funding. Because of the rapid growth we have had in new churches, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) provided us with additional funding in 2015, corresponding with extra funding that we provided. Though NAMB encouraged us to keep growing the number of our new churches, with the expectation that we would receive additional funding in 2016, things changed when the International Mission Board announced that they would were downsizing by 800 missionaries for financial reasons. For many years the IMB has been spending from reserve funds, and selling property, to keep more missionaries on the field. They can no longer do this. Baptists across the country, and indeed the world, are grieved as hundreds of missionaries return from the field. NAMB has determined to help the IMB by giving them $4 million dollars in 2016. Largely because of this, we were told in late November that additional dollars beyond our basic funding agreement would not be available in 2016. If other state conventions underspend their budgets, we could receive additional funding, but we won’t know this until April.

It is important for you to know this because it affects the funding that our church planters receive. Please pray for our church planters. Please support them as you can. We are grateful for the support that we receive from NAMB and other partners, but this is a reminder that Southern Baptists are an interconnected system of 46,000 churches, associations, conventions, seminaries, and mission agencies. When one part of the system suffers, we all do. In the Northwest we receive a great deal of support from our SBC family, including NAMB and the IMB. Sometimes the decisions they make affect us adversely, but we are far, far better for being a part of the SBC family. It is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest.

Baptism – A Dangerous Opportunity

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Andrew White is pastor of St. George’s Church in Baghdad, Iraq. The church has been under siege for over a decade. Church members are killed frequently, 93 in one year alone. The threat is particularly great for those who convert to Christianity from Islam and are baptized. In one year White baptized 13 adults, each secretly, 11 of whom were dead within a week. He always warns them of the danger of baptism, but they want to follow Jesus and eagerly share their newfound joy. White says, “Christians in Iraq always practice their faith.… Our people refuse to deny the practice of their faith” (Faith Under Fire).

Baptism is a very big deal. It marks the beginning of the public life of a Christian. It is the act by which we affirm the Gospel of Jesus Christ and identify with His people. Clearly, the world sees baptism as a defining event, an act that threatens family and community cohesion. Baptism is viewed as dangerous.

It might surprise you that many unbelievers in the Northwest regard baptism as a “big deal.” One Northwest pastor said that 95 percent of the people who come to him needing Jesus address the issue by saying, “I want to talk about being baptized.” They do so because water baptism is the defining act whereby a person commits publically to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Is baptism a big deal for you and your church? I want to suggest several things you can do to make baptism the celebration and evangelistic opportunity that it should be for your church.

First, meet with every baptismal candidate and help them make a list of people they want to invite to their baptism. Obviously you want to explain to them the meaning of their baptism, but don’t neglect to help them identify the people they know who need Jesus.

Second, provide them with “baptism invitation cards” that they can send to friends and family (the church could even mail the cards for them). Your church can order invitation cards from the NWBC at no charge. Your Cooperative Program (CP) contributions have already purchased your invitation cards.

Third, share the gospel in each baptism service and share the testimonies of each person baptized. You might want to videotape the testimonies in advance. But allowing the church and guests to hear the gospel personalized through testimony is powerful.

Fourth, the worship service should celebrate Jesus and what He has done for us. Choose gospel music appropriate to such a service. And remember, unchurched guests do not know our new songs. This is a good time to dust-off some classic gospel hymns with which they might be better acquainted.

Fifth, pray personally for each baptism candidate by name. They will remember this day for the rest of their lives, as will their families. The service should be very personal and gospel centered.

Sixth, present each candidate with a baptism certificate and with a quality Bible. You can order baptism certificates through the NWBC without charge as your CP giving has already purchased these. You can also order new believers books for each person, also purchased through your CP.

A baptism service can be a great evangelistic opportunity for your church. It should be a celebration start to finish. But also remember that baptism is serious. It is dangerous. It is an act pregnant with deep and profound meaning, something for which we would give our very lives. Many have and are giving their lives for Jesus. Pray for the persecuted. Rescue the perishing. Jesus is merciful. Jesus will save.