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.

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.

A Person of Value

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Last summer my son recommended a book by Cormac McCarthy, considered by some as America’s greatest living novelist. McCarthy is a storyteller whose pulsing prose and inventiveness reveal rare brilliance. His masterly-crafted sentences are a joy. What draws me to his books is his insight into human nature.

Consider these statements from All the Pretty Horses: “No creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold” (p. 11). I have thought of that sentence as I prayed about my own ability to care about what God loves. Is my heart rightly shaped?

How about this one: “If one does not come to value what is true above what is useful it will make little difference whether she lives at all” (p. 240). That statement brings names to mind of those I fear are putting usefulness above truth. Many of them are in leadership roles. I don’t want to be that kind of person or leader.

Chapters could be written on both those statements. But the one I want you to think about most is this: “I wanted very much to be a person of value and I had to ask myself how this could be possible if there was not something like a soul or like a spirit that is in the life of a person and which could endure any misfortune or disfigurement and yet be no less for it. If one were to be a person of value that value could not be a condition subject to the hazards of fortune. It had to be a quality that could not change. No matter what” (p. 235).

The character speaking these words is a high-society Mexican woman whose hand was disfigured when a gun she fired exploded destroying two of her fingers. Even her father viewed her differently after the disfigurement, causing her to question her value.

When Christians think about the value of a single human life we begin with Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according Our likeness.’” If every human is created by God in the image of God then every human being has value, equal value. Jesus’ attention to individual people shows the value God places on every human being including notorious sinners like Pharisees and tax-collectors and adulterers and cross-killed thieves – and me. The gospel means that disfigured humans are so valued that Jesus suffered and died for them, providing the only means by which their disfigured lives might be restored, including the internal spiritual disfigurement created by their own sin.

McCarthy’s character reveals that every human wants what only God can provide – value that does not diminish with time or circumstance – value that transcends the quality of our brains or bodies or personalities – value that is equal at birth and death and beyond death – value that is not diminished by an early grave or added to by a long and fruitful life.

Every person who ever lives wants to be valued, and I would say valued equally to all others. But like ocean waves pounding relentlessly, tirelessly on the scarred shoreline, our world pounds and hammers on the hearts and minds of every person everywhere. The principalities and powers of darkness are working to diminish us. You see it on the playgrounds and in the boardrooms and even in church houses. A person’s value rising and falling according to what they and others think they’re worth. It’s a dangerous way to live. Placing differing values on individuals according to a genuine or perceived defect has produced enormous suffering and evil. We see this clearly in the abortionists and the terrorists and any person who sees other persons as expendable or merely useful for accomplishing certain ends. I recently toured the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. which testifies to the evil humans can do when they think some possess greater value than others.

The value of a single person is the heart and passion of the gospel. It is the heart and passion of the Body of Christ if she is a true witness to God’s heart. Everything that a church and a Christ-follower do should demonstrate the pricelessness of a single human soul. It meets with the yearning for value that all people have, and most importantly it reflects God’s heart toward “the least of these.”

This understanding of value can only be true if we are created by God and if we are indeed spirit, soul and body, created to live forever in relationship to Him. This understanding of value has profound implications for the church and for how we live our lives. Let me suggest two conclusions.

First, we must have deep compassion for every individual human being who is oppressed and diminished by the forces of evil, with all of the attending effects to their personal lives and to society. Christ-followers are not seeking to “win” a war with unbelievers. Our mission is to serve. Our purpose is to demonstrate that only the gospel is good news for people. No other message reveals the character of God and the value He places on a person. Only the gospel provides what every human wants and needs – value undiminished by misfortune or disfigurement.

Second, Christ-followers must be ruthless in our efforts to do no harm to another human being and to place great value on every single human being. I’m not advocating pacifism here. The Bible upholds the principles of self-defense and opposing evildoers with force. What I am saying is that people must come before strategies.

I have seen great harm come to people in Christian organizations because of commitment to a particular strategy or idea, most often an unproven idea at that. I believe the diminished impact of certain churches and larger religious organizations can often be traced to putting strategies above people and self-interest above the interests of others and even above Kingdom concerns. When even one person in an organization is devalued and treated wrongly, it sends a message to every other person in the organization, and every person associated with the organization, that they too would be poorly treated if leadership deemed it helpful to accomplishing the goals. I understand that decisions must be made that are not always popular, and might even cause hurt to certain people. Too often, however, I’ve seen leaders act with recklessness toward others. The truth is that devaluing people is never right and it never works.

A few questions for you and for me: Do you believe that you possess value equal to all others? Do you place equal value on every human being? If not, is your heart shaped to hold this truth and live accordingly?

Looking Up and Out

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We live in the greatest time in all of history to advance the gospel. We live in a most difficult time in which to pastor and lead a church.

Opportunities abound for believers to share their faith, and the kingdom of God is advancing powerfully among many peoples the world over. At the same time, churches in America face new challenges daily. There’s not space to outline the challenges floating in the sea of opportunity, but many problems are placed in perspective by looking up and out – looking up to God in prayer and contemplation upon His Word, and looking out to the world that so desperately needs God’s grace and mercy.

Whenever God’s people gather they must look up to God in prayer for the lost and needy in their community. They should pray regularly for the persecuted and suffering church, and pray also for the missionaries and their children. Pray that God will forgive us and cleanse us and use us for His glory.

Humbly submitting ourselves to God in prayer when we gather is rarer than you might think. Consider, how much time does your church spend in prayer during your worship services? And for what do you pray? Reading the newspaper will help you know what to pray for in your area. Perhaps your church is connected to one or more missionary families. Do you pray for them regularly? Do you pray for their children? The smallest church can have a powerful, worldwide ministry through prayer. If your church gives to missions through the Cooperative Program, and every Baptist church should, you are supporting 3,600 international missionaries and about 2,000 missionary children. Our missionaries serve in virtually every nation on earth. Ten of our missionaries have given their lives for Christ in the past 15 years. They need our prayer and support, as do the 3,000 church planters in North America and 19,000 seminary students attending one of our six SBC seminaries.

A church that looks up to God in fervent, kingdom prayer, will have better perspective on the challenges they face. A church that prays for kingdom concerns will less likely focus on small and petty things. Likewise, a church that submits to the reading and exposition of God’s Word, with a heart to obey God, will be better equipped to deal with the challenges of contemporary life. Remember, Jesus didn’t say, “Teach them my Word,” but “teach them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20a).

Look up to God in prayer and submission to His Word, and look out to the world in ministry, witness, mission and love of neighbor. Paul told the church in Corinth they were “a letter from Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God” (2 Cor. 3:3). Your church is a letter from Christ to our world. God’s life is in you. You are His ambassador. Feeble and small in number, but powerful as you look up to God and look out to a world in desperate need of Him.

It is a good day to serve the Lord.

Every Person, Every Town

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“The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

Jesus’ command that His disciples are to “disciple all the nations” (Matt. 28:19), coupled with the Lord “not wanting any to perish,” prompts a question that I believe every church needs to answer – Will we commit to share the gospel with every person in our town (or ministry field)? If God doesn’t want any person to perish, and if those already saved are God’s means to share the gospel with unbelievers, will we take the gospel to every person in our area?

That is a big question. This big question helps define the mission of every believer and every local church. A more difficult question is the strategy question, “How can we share Christ with every person?” Or, “How can we disciple our community?” For our Northwest Baptist Convention region the question would be, “How can we pray for, and share Christ with, each of the 11.5 million people in our area?” A big strategy question like this demands what Google calls “moonshot thinking.”

In the book How Google Works, Google cofounder and CEO Larry Page, says that it is tremendously difficult to get teams to be super ambitious. Even though Google assembled some of the brightest engineering minds on the planet, “moonshot thinking” is not what people are educated to do. People are more inclined to limit their thinking to that which is possible, based on prior experience, while at the same time thinking some things are impossible. But Google works to overcome such limited thinking.

I’ll provide one example from the book – Google Maps and Earth. By now, most of us have used Google Maps to find a location, and probably you have viewed your house on Google Earth. I’ve used Maps to navigate in countries around the world, including some of the poorest nations. Google Maps and Earth were launched because some “moonshot thinker” believed it was possible to photograph the entire planet and map every road. It turns out this ambitious goal was beyond the financial and human resources of Google … unless the mapping was done by volunteers, Googlers as they’re called. That’s what happened. A new community of grass-root volunteer cartographers were allowed and enabled to contribute to Maps. For example, unpaid Googlers mapped over 25,000 kilometers of roads in Pakistan in just two months (p. 233). When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the US Gulf Coast in August 2005, Google Earth had only been on the market for eight weeks. But the team that developed the Maps and Earth project sprang into action, launching over 8,000 up-to-the minute satellite images that accurately showed the scope of the disaster. These maps helped rescue workers navigate the areas and later helped survivors in deciding when and whether they could return to their homes. Since then, similar projects have followed other disasters, such as the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami (p. 241).

Though Google hasn’t yet celebrated its 19th birthday (Sept. 4, 1998), it recently became the most valuable brand in the world, surpassing Apple. Moonshot thinking and thinkers have been keys to Google’s success.

So, back to the strategy question, “How can we share Christ with every person in our town?” Or, another version of the same question, “How can we pray for, show God’s love to, and share Christ with, every person in our town?” I think that’s a question worthy of consideration. The answer to such a question will certainly require expansive and creative moonshot thinking.  Or, better yet, God-sized thinking – “Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20).  And the answer will likely be answers, as in multiple strategies and efforts. But I can’t think of any question more worthy for a church to consider.

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.