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!

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.”

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.

What’s My Opinion Worth? Not Much.

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“If I can talk you into something, someone smarter than me can talk you out of it.” I’ve used that line several times over the years, most often emphasizing that a person doesn’t trust Jesus Christ as Lord because of a clever argument. Lifelong faith in Jesus happens when the Holy Spirit brings conviction of the truth about sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:9-11). It is not someone’s opinion about God or truth that matters. It’s the truth itself, and the work of the Holy Spirit, that makes an eternal difference. My opinion about these things isn’t worth much. But the truth is worth everything.

For this reason I am cautious about expressing my opinion in print about divisive political matters. I’ll tell you what I think, in the right context, face-to-face, but in print, facial expression is absent, nuance is lost, and if a person disagrees with my opinion I probably won’t be able to have an honest dialogue with them. It could even lead them to “write me off.”

Now, I don’t mean by this that “opinion articles” should not be written and offered to the public in order to persuade others of a particular viewpoint. I just believe that as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose greatest ambition is to help people come to know Jesus, I need to be careful about sharing my opinion on issues that don’t matter nearly as much as He does, if that makes sense.

So often when I read people expressing their opinion, whether on social media or through more formal venues, I ask the question, “Does their opinion really matter as it concerns solving the problem or helping the people affected by the problem?” Or, by expressing their opinion, are they simply venting, and, in effect, “putting up a wall” between themselves and others whose greatest need is Jesus, not their opinion on a given topic.
Though I am not entirely consistent in following my own principles and advice, the following is what guides me when confronted by issues that threaten to divide people. If you are a preacher, or someone who loves Jesus and wants others to know Him and love Him like you do, perhaps these principles will help you.

First, in my life, Jesus matters most. I try to put Him first, and I don’t want to share my opinion about a lesser matter in a way that would turn you, or another, away from Jesus Christ. It’s not that lesser matters aren’t important. They’re just not as important as Jesus, or as helping others to know Jesus.

Second, I try to ask myself, “Does expressing what I think on a divisive issue contribute toward the solution to the problem?” Most often I conclude that expressing my opinion won’t make any difference at all. There are very few people who will change their mind because of what I think, and often my wife is not even one of the few! Now, if God’s Word, the Bible, speaks clearly to the issue, that’s a different story. I might well share what the Bible says. I once had a homosexual ask me my opinion of homosexuality and whether I thought it was wrong. I told him what I am trying to say here, namely, “My opinion on the subject doesn’t matter. But have you read the New Testament? Read the New Testament and pray as you read, asking God to speak to you.” This particular man claimed to be a Christian, though he had never read the Bible, so I tried to encourage him to read what God has to say in His Word.

Third, is there something I can actually “do” to help the situation? Offering an opinion is easy, but working toward a solution doesn’t have to be too difficult either. Maybe it would be difficult if you are one of the few who actually write the laws or execute the laws. But most often the things that we can do to help solve the problem are not big things or profound things. Maybe it’s one small thing that helps one other person. Do that one small thing. It could be volunteering at a school, helping a neighbor, or being kind to the neighborhood kids. Use what influence and relationships you have to show God’s love to another human being. And pray for people. Pray for your town and the issues people are facing. You could even write an encouraging note to a person who is hurting.

When I listen to the national debate on issues regarding race relations, respect for the flag, freedom of speech, and the like, I grow concerned for our nation. But I grow more concerned when Christians, and Christian leaders, throw their opinion around in ways that hurt the witness of the Church. I have concluded that my opinion on these issues really only matters if it leads me to take steps that will truly help resolve the problem. Most often these steps will focus on my local community and relationships and on my efforts to serve others as moved by God’s love for them.

In the annual meeting of the Northwest Baptist Convention (Eugene, OR on Nov. 7-8), we will talk some about how to be a blessing to our neighbors in the Northwest. People without Jesus don’t need our opinions. They need our gospel witness and the blessing of God’s love flowing through us and to them.

It Happened One Sunday

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It happened in Spokane, WA on a Sunday morning in the spring of 1937. Eighteen year-old Lillian Privette was in church, as was her custom.

1937 was a difficult year. Unemployment in the U.S. was 14.3 percent and climbing, reaching 19 percent by 1938. Nazi aggression made war seem likely to astute observers such as Winston Churchill. It was also during that year that Amelia Earhart vanished during her around-the-world solo flight.
But as difficult as things were in the world, God was at work, as He always is.

Gifted with a beautiful voice, Lillian loved singing the hymns of the faith. On this particular Sunday, one hymn became a special favorite. As she later told the story, they were singing the great Isaac Watts hymn, “At the Cross,” when she heard a strong, if unfamiliar voice. She looked over, and standing a few persons away, was a handsome young man named Everett. With a striking bearing and clear blue eyes, he possessed the muscular confidence of a young man chiseled by hard, physical labor. Everett had come in from the woods where his family carved a living as loggers.

Finished with school by the eighth grade, Everett helped support a family of twelve by felling timber with his dad. But it was Sunday, and they were far from home, so they attended church in the city. As God would have it, they sat on Lillian’s pew. And while singing “At the Cross,” she heard his voice, looked his way, and described her experience as “love at first sight.”

Everett was smitten with Lillian as well. That morning he asked her to go on a date … to church. Everett drove to Lillian’s house to take her to Easter services at her church. The courtship moved quickly, and they were married by year’s end, beginning 61 years together.

In the 40 years since my grandparents, Everett and Lillian Adams, told me the story of how they met, I have never sung “At the Cross” without thinking of them. We even have the song displayed in our home to remind us of the faith tradition of our family.

I tell this story as an encouragement to parents and grandparents to share your stories with your family. Children need to hear our stories of faith in Jesus Christ, and they need to know what God has done in and through our families.

The first person I helped lead to faith in Christ was my college roommate, Steve Phillips. I hadn’t seen Steve in twenty years, then, on a family vacation that took us near his home, I gave him a call and we had a wonderful visit. He and his wife have a beautiful family that loves Jesus. It had never occurred to me that our sons knew nothing about Steve and how God had used their Dad to share Jesus with Steve. I learned that I need to share such stories with them. It was good for them to know that when I was about their age now, that I was trying to serve and share Jesus with others.

One of the great concerns that many have is the salvation of their own children and their commitment to serve Jesus after they leave home. This is a valid concern that requires multiplied efforts. Sharing your faith stories with your kids is one worthy effort toward that end.

Have you told your children and grandchildren how you became a follower of Jesus? Tell them. Have you shared a time when you believe God was guiding you and it changed your life? Share it. Have you talked about serving Jesus, maybe leading a friend to Christ? Tell them. Did you help to start a church? Is there a time when you denied self, and sacrificed, for Jesus and His cause? These are stories that others need to hear, especially our own kids.

Everett and Lillian have been with Jesus for more than fifteen years. When they died I lost someone who prayed for me daily. I will always remember my Grandpa’s first words after he heard me preach my first sermon. “You are called,” he said. That meant a lot to me. It still does. And I want my sons to know the story.

The Death of Respectful Debate

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I rarely write on current events, preferring to devote my efforts to ministry concerns that are more timeless. But for some time now, a number of years really, our nation has been plunging into an abyss of vitriol and disdain toward those of opposing political and cultural viewpoints. The divisions are bone deep, and the hostility bubbles so near the surface that respectful debate seems dead. The worst of motives are assumed for every misspoken word and inarticulate phrase. Harsh labels are pasted onto people. Forgiveness, empathy and love are actions absent from public discourse, and, increasingly, in much private discourse.

Two events prompted me to write about this. First, two older Baptist pastors whom I respect, one black and the other white, got into an argument via social media, prompted by the terrible events in Charlottesville, VA. I was struck by how quickly bad motives were ascribed and things were taken the worst possible way. I expect professional political hacks and biased media propagandists to destroy people for political purposes, but not Jesus-loving, Baptist preacher friends. I know this is just one example, but it is not an isolated one. Destroyed friendships and divorces have happened, and are happening, as people sink into the toxic demands that others conform to personal points of view.

Second, some Christian leaders have weighed into recent political matters in ways that were less than helpful. Whether “our side” is in or out of power, will we ever learn that there is no clear correlation between Kingdom advance and which political party holds the reigns of governmental power? Will we learn that you cannot engage in “reasoned debate” via twitter or Facebook or any other form of social media. Too much of the public discourse is done through sound-bites and 140-character responses, which, when used to speak on matters of life and death, racism and riots, heaven and hell, is beyond dangerous. It is reckless and potentially ruinous to relationships and Christian witness and career. I could pine for the era when Lincoln and Douglass would debate for hours, holding the attention of a large audience as they used reason and humor and the tools of rhetoric to persuade others of their viewpoint, but those days will never return.

With that said, let me offer a couple of suggestions as we seek to navigate the minefield, and avoid the abyss, that has emerged in contemporary American life. First, when speaking to another who has a different viewpoint, seek first to understand, then to be understood. Stephen Covey taught this principle in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but we see this in every conversation Jesus ever had, from Nicodemus to the Woman at the Well to His conversations with Pharisees and Sadducees and the high priest. Jesus never, ever spoke in such a way that revealed He misunderstood the other person.

Now, you say, “But He’s God and I’m not.” Yes, but we can learn how to speak with others from the way Jesus spoke. The primary way we gain understanding of the viewpoint of another is to “listen first.” Listen, and ask clarifying questions as needed. Try to understand not only what the other person believes, but why they believe that way. The “why” is vital when seeking to understand another person’s viewpoint. “Why” we believe the way we do is influenced by our family life, particular experiences, our own sin and weaknesses, and a host of other things.

“Seeking first to understand” is not something we see modeled in our political leaders, nor in much of the media. I enjoy history, not simply learning the outcomes of history, but learning about the process that produced them. The more you know about the process, the better you understand “why” the particular outcome. This is true of how people develop their opinions and their worldview. The opinions we hold are the result of a process, perhaps a very long process, a personal process of learning and experiencing. If we are ever to recapture “respectful debate,” it will happen as we seek to understand “why” the other believes the way they do. It may not lead to achieving agreement, but it might keep us from hating the other person, or them hating us.

Second, knowledge puffs up with pride, but love builds up the other person (1 Cor. 8:1). Love for our neighbor and for our enemy will cause us to want the best for them. In the current climate in America, the goal in public discourse seems to be destruction of the other person. “Destroy them. Ruin their career. Wreck their reputation. Seize their power and take it for yourself.” We see this every day, but destroying the other must never be the aim of a follower of Jesus. Love expressed toward the other, seeking their betterment, is far more powerful than winning the argument, if our goal is to help them see Jesus. Speak the truth, yes, but speak it in love. Without love, I am nothing. Without love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:2-3).

People more knowledgeable on the subject than me are saying that the divisions in our nation are deeper than they have ever been, perhaps since the Civil War. I don’t know whether that is literally true, but no one can dispute the divisions are deep. But that’s not what most concerns me. What most concerns me is there is too little evidence that Christian leaders are making things better, at least on the national level. Maybe that’s because too few Christians are in positions of leadership. Maybe it’s because some who do have access to the media are saying the wrong things and contributing to the division.

Whatever be true in that regard, what is unarguably true for the believer is that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save the sinful, rebellious people of the world (John 3:17). Whether our nation will be saved from vitriol dominating the public discourse, no one can be certain. But every believer can commit daily to love God more, to love our neighbors more, and to strive to build others up in ways we speak to them and act toward them.