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.

Northwest Baptists are Heading to Asia

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Tomorrow Paula and I will leave for Asia, joining 163 Northwest Baptists from 32 churches, to serve hundreds of missionaries living throughout Asia. Most of our mission team will serve several hundred missionary children, teaching them VBS, among other things. For example, Paula and six others will have 41 second-graders for nine hours each day.

There are a large number of kids in each age group, from newborns through high school. The volunteers from our churches have been preparing for several months to serve them, teach them, and love on them. This is the first such retreat these missionaries have had since 2009.

Each day we will have a worship service in which the missionaries will gather to pray and sing and study God’s Word. For many this will be their first time to worship in English, and to worship together, for three years or more. I will preach at some of these services. I will also lead a morning Bible study the first five days and would appreciate your prayers, not only for myself but for all our team. Other team members include a medical doctor, three nurses, security persons, technology persons, and two licensed Christian counselors.

Our volunteers are taking vacation from work and they are paying their own way. We have several mothers going who are leaving their children with their dads, grandparents or friends. Just yesterday I learned of one mother who is leaving four children with her husband, the youngest just two years-old. It’s humbling to see God’s people do such things because they love the Lord and they love our missionaries.

Also of interest is that 17 of the missionaries are from the Northwest or have served in the Northwest. These are men and women that our churches sent overseas, some 30 years ago, others more recently. We look forward to seeing them and encouraging them.

This mission effort of our churches is one more step in a partnership that the Northwest Baptist Convention of churches has with missionaries in Asia. Over the past two years, many of our churches have sent short term teams to serve alongside our long-term missions personnel. Most of these teams have sought to share the love of Jesus Christ in remote cities and towns in Asia where the name of Jesus is not widely known. For several weeks this summer one of our churches had 20 university students serving in an Asian university city, sharing Christ with college students there.

Words cannot express the gratitude I have for our pastors and churches. I believe that the growth in baptisms, church attendance, and Cooperative Program mission giving that we are seeing in the Northwest is due in part to our churches becoming more outwardly focused.

Churches that do evangelism and missions locally and globally tend to be more effective in reaching their neighbors with God’s love. Christians who are confident that Jesus Christ can save any person from their sin are more likely to tell others about Jesus. Believers who say with the Apostle Paul, “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day,” are a powerful force in the world (2 Tim. 1:12).

Our team will return Aug. 11-13. Thank you for your prayers. Thank you for your support.

The Journey to Faith in Christ

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Most Muslims who come to faith in Jesus Christ do so after 10:00 at night! This important fact was explored by Nik Ripken as a part of his research into the persecuted church. He learned that in many Muslim cultures, particularly in the Arab world, the first meal of the day is around noon and the last meal is late at night. This late meal is the setting in which Muslim men, in particular, are most willing to talk about important things. Because of this, many missionary families adjust their daily schedule to fit the cultural realities of the people they seek to reach for Christ. Parents in Portland, OR don’t take their children to the city park at 2:00 AM, but in some faraway places parents do just that (Ripken, The Insanity of Obedience, 260).

If you haven’t read Ripken’s book, I would recommend it, as well as his previous book The Insanity of God. In addition to serving as an international missionary for over 25 years, Ripken has interviewed hundreds of persecuted Christians in about 60 different countries. What he learned will encourage, challenge, and instruct you. One point of instruction concerns what we might call “the process of conversion.” What process, or journey, does the radically unchurched person travel before coming to faith in Christ? The answer depends on their locale, background, language, and a host of other things. You can easily identify the journey to Christ of a child who grows up attending your church, but what of the radically unchurched person in your town?

Answering this question is vital for the Christian who wants God to use them to lead others to Jesus. Moreover, the answer requires the ongoing pursuit of knowing your community and the various peoples in your community.

I was once the pastor of the “big church” in a small Texas town of 1,700. One family that came to faith in Christ did so after my wife and I got to know them in the hospital. We both had a child in the hospital suffering from pneumonia. This common experience led to talking, praying, and eventually, this family gave their lives to Jesus. Later, the husband said that a church member had invited them to our church a few years prior. The invitation went something like this, “It will help your business if you come to our church.” Yes, that really happened! And what’s more, it was true. It would have helped his plumbing business had he attended our church. But even though he wasn’t yet a Christian, he understood that attending church to build your business didn’t seem right.

Although church attendance might be a business strategy in some places (not in the Northwest!), appealing to a business motivation won’t help you reach the radically unchurched for Jesus Christ. The journey to Christ will likely follow a path that takes into account several factors, including:

1. The rhythms of life. People’s schedules and lifestyle differ depending upon age, ethnicity, education, children in the home, employment, hobbies, health matters, etc.
2. Religious background and beliefs
3. Real and perceived needs
4. Friendships (including family) – who are their closest friends and what do they believe about Christ?
5. Personal sin with which they struggle, or which they simply enjoy

There are other factors you could add to the list. But the main point is this: when a person comes to Christ, they travel along a particular road to do so. The better we know the people of our community, as individuals and as groups, the better we are able to share the real Jesus with them. Remember, many people who reject Jesus don’t reject the true, biblical Jesus. They reject the “people of Jesus,” or they reject some “image” of Jesus that is distorted. Ripken says that many who suffer martyrdom for Jesus are murdered, not because the killers reject their witness for Jesus, but because the martyrs affiliated with a Western person or organization. Often the killers don’t even know the specific message of the gospel, or the claims of Christ. They kill for secondary reasons, which is a real tragedy.

So what about your town? Where do people gather? Where do women or men sit around and discuss important things? How can you discover the particular needs of people in your town? Do you have church attenders who are connected to organizations and groups that will help the church connect to various peoples. Are new homes being built in your area? Are new businesses being started? Do you drive around the town using different routes so that you can discover such things?

I once served in an area where nearly half of the adults were functionally illiterate. Learning this changed how we trained our small group Bible study teachers. It impacted our methods of evangelism. In one church, when discussing how to take the gospel to every home in town, the person who helped plan the strategy was a newspaper delivery person. He knew how to cover the town!

The point is, people are different and communities are different. First Baptist Church of Toledo, WA has 400 people attending on Sunday morning, and the town only has a population 725. The FBC of Toledo, OR isn’t nearly so large, though the town has a population of 3,465. The towns are very different religiously, spiritually, historically and culturally. These differences make for a different kind of ministry. The differences aren’t found simply between communities, but between individuals in each community.

For every person there is a process, a journey, on which they can encounter the real Jesus. Part of the joy of ministry is discovering what process works with each person. When we know this we can help guide their steps so that they will meet the real Jesus and hopefully come to know Him.

Let me end with one caution. Many churches have discontinued evangelistic methods that they perceive are not as effective as they once were. The problem, however, is that they haven’t replaced the old methods with new methods. Don’t throw out the old unless you have a legitimate replacement. Although people come to Christ through different processes, ultimately it is the power of the Gospel, the message of Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and Second Coming, that is powerful to save a person from sin (Romans 1:16f).

Give Me a Good Map

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Every week I use the Global Positioning Satellite system (GPS) to get me where I need to be. Most of you are familiar with GPS and you use it too. It’s quite remarkable when you consider how it works and the accuracy of the system. Missionaries even use GPS to pinpoint remote church locations where roads don’t exist.

As much as I appreciate GPS, it hasn’t completely replaced a good map. My favorite map is the National Geographic Atlas of the World. Its 138 pages contain maps on world climate, population, and food. There are even energy and minerals maps, as well as maps of the moon, the solar system, and the heavens, together with the standard maps you would expect.

The reason I like maps is because they help put my location in perspective. When I look at a map I can see where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. On a map I can view the totality of my travels and pinpoint special places along the journey. Maps give a perspective that GPS can’t give.

As Christians we have a perspective that unbelievers don’t have. The Bible provides us this perspective by giving us the roadmap of history. We know how things started and how things will end. We know that Jesus Christ stands at the center of history. This means that the purpose of life, and even daily happenings, find ultimate meaning in their relationship to what God is doing and has done through Jesus Christ.

For example, as soon as the Fall took place in the Garden of Eden, God directed man’s mind to the coming of Jesus by promising that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). From this beginning, the Bible unfolds God’s plan in Christ, revealing His will and purpose through the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament revelation, before the end of history when Jesus Christ returns.

Because Jesus provides us with perspective and purpose in daily living, Hebrews tells us to keep our eyes on Jesus as we run the race of life (Heb. 12:1f). Jesus enables us to “stay on our feet” and continue moving forward with Him, even as we navigate life’s daily trials.

Contrast the perspective that Jesus gives the believer with that of those who don’t know Christ. For the unbeliever, history is going nowhere and life is absurd because there is no perspective-point, and thus no way to place the events of the day into history’s purpose. We see this reflected in our media, and especially in our news, where the focus is on the politics of the moment or the sporting event of the week. For the unbeliever, life is about tragedies and triumphs, ups and downs, but without the perspective of the Bible, and without finding one’s center in Jesus Christ, it all becomes meaningless.

Without Jesus, life is only about winning and losing, and we all ultimately lose in the end. Some lose by virtue of the situation into which they are born. Would you like to be born a girl in ISIS controlled Syria? You’re in trouble from day one. Or what if you were born infirmed in India, where karma teaches that handicapped people are suffering for misdeeds in a past life? For the unbeliever, the best that can be hoped for is that I might have a little peace and happiness during my days “under the sun” (born an American, for example), but there is no ultimate purpose in this. Without Jesus I have no roadmap in which I can place my life’s journey in the context of the entire earth and all of history. I only have GPS coordinates. I know where I am, but where I am has no connection with the past or the future, and do I even have a future?

What does this mean for us? It means that we must keep our eyes on history’s champion, Jesus Christ, and not get derailed by the politics of the moment or the passing pleasures of sin. Love your neighbor. Be a blessing to your city. Demonstrate in word and deed that God’s plan in Christ is history’s great story. Jesus was and is and always will be. Kings come and go, but King Jesus will prevail. Indeed, He already has! As Paul wrote from the dungeon, shortly before his death, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day” (2 Tim. 1:12).

Reviving a Dying Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Divine Appointment with a Same-Sex “Married” Man

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Kevin is a bright, friendly young man that my wife and I met by divine appointment on a long flight last week. Though I am cautious about ascribing activity to God, Paula and I both believe that He wanted us to meet this young man who is in a same-sex marriage with another man. Here’s how it happened.

About a month ago I bought a new book by retired Southern Baptist missionary William “Bud” Fray. Bud even signed the book for me. I love missionaries and Bud Fray served long and well in Africa. I took his book on a trip last week, reading it on the flight over. My wife wanted to read it on the return flight, and that’s how we met Kevin. When he saw the title of the book, Both Feet In, he said that his father told him he should read that book. Kevin’s father is a Roman Catholic who lives in Florida, but this Catholic man read a new book by a Southern Baptist missionary, published by a small publisher (New Hope), and told his homosexual son that he ought to read it! This opened a huge door for Paula and me.

It turns out that Kevin attends church each week, a Catholic church. His same-sex partner is a Methodist chaplain who “preaches” weekly. I asked Kevin what his faith meant to him and what it does for him. He spoke mostly of the importance of the rituals, which have long been a part of his life. He also said that he finds serenity in an hour spent away from technology and going through a religious routine that has been unchanged since his childhood.

Paula and I shared with Kevin what Jesus means to each of us, describing who Jesus is and what He did to bring forgiveness of sin and the hope of eternal life. At some point Kevin brought up the subject of homosexuality, basically saying that he had come to terms with “who he is.” He was not argumentative or militant in the least, but he did repeatedly referred to his partner as “my husband.” When he learned that I am a Baptist preacher, rather than get defensive or turned off, he seemed to think that God had brought us together so that I could “answer some questions that he has.”

At one point he did ask me what my view on the matter of homosexuality is. I told him, “Really, my opinion on the matter isn’t important.” I continued by saying, “I learned long ago that if I could talk someone into something, someone smarter than me could talk them out of it.” I then asked him if he had ever read the New Testament. With enthusiasm, and perhaps some embarrassment, he said, “No! I haven’t. I’ve read verses. When the priest speaks I read the verses he reads. But I’ve never read it.” So, rather than tell him my view of homosexuality, I encouraged him to read the New Testament. I said, “Kevin, read asking God to show you Jesus. Pay attention to who Jesus is and what He did for you and me. What I think isn’t important. But what the Bible says, and who Jesus is, is of the greatest importance.”

Kevin really liked that. We gave him Bud Fray’s book. We exchanged business cards. And he said that he will let us know when he has read Bud’s book and the New Testament. I pray that Kevin will be delivered from unbelief as the Holy Spirit guides him into truth through the Scriptures.

Repentance is never easy. It is not easy for me. Pride and selfishness can so easily rise up within me. The Cross of Christ challenges and confronts these things in me. The temptation to self-sufficiency, prayerlessness, and a host of other vile and ungodly filth are ever “crouching at the door” of my heart. Kevin will have to deal with his own sins and weaknesses. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful! He can penetrate and pierce the thickest and toughest of human hearts. He can enter the minds of human beings, minds dedicated to bane and stupid and disgusting things, and transform them for His noble purpose. Rescuing and purchasing sinners from the dark domain of this world’s prince, and bringing them into His bright kingdom, is what Jesus does daily. He can do for Kevin what He did for me.

This was my first such conversation since the U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. I must confess, I can get very angry when I think about many of our nation’s leaders and where they have taken us. When I read about, and listen to, those advocating for the normalization of sin, and demanding that we celebrate such sin, I want to punch someone. I’m just being honest. But when I visited with this same-sex married man, the first I have ever met, rather than feeling anger, I felt deep sadness for him. Here is guy who is very likeable, not militant, and I don’t say this lightly, but my heart broke for him. My wife felt the same way.

We are praying for Kevin. We will have some level of correspondence with him. He needs Jesus. He needs rescuing. He needs some Christian friends to love him and help him when Jesus reveals to him what repentance will mean. Come to think of it, those are things I needed too.