Courage

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(Note: I wrote this article for the NW Baptist Witness a couple of weeks before the Coronavirus shut down much of our nation)

“We have given our children for Mexico, and now we will go back and give our lives.” Those words were spoken by Minnie Lacy following the death of all five of her children within 15 days. One-by-one the children succumbed to a horrible fever until each was dead. Her husband, George, didn’t think they could continue their mission work. “My Dear, we will give up and come home,” he said, before Minnie spoke those immortal words. This led to 30 years of heroic and fruitful ministry in Mexico. If you want to read the rest of the story, get David Brady’s excellent book, Not Forgotten: Inspiring Missionary Pioneers, and you will read of 18 such missionaries whose names you don’t know, but whose lives mattered much for Christ, and whose stories will help you live heroically for Christ.

I’ve been thinking about courage lately. My dad, when he was a boy, overcame his fear of bees by holding a bee up to his finger, and letting the bee sting him. His mom was terrified of bees, and he didn’t want to be afraid like his mom.

My dad taught me that courage is something that can be attained. We can grow in our ability to act courageously. That’s important because the time will come when each of us will need courage, and having courage may be more important than you know. Rev. 21:8 says, “But the cowards, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars – their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Have you ever associated cowardice with unbelief or murder or idolatry and other terrible sins? Though you may not have made the association, our Lord has.
So how can we practice living courageously? How do we become courageous men and women of God?

First, practice courage. Do things to help you overcome fear. I’m not referring to reckless behavior, but putting yourself into ministry opportunities that challenge your fears.

One of my early fears was public speaking. I had a bad lisp as a child. Speech therapy helped me overcome it, but overcoming it “in my head” took longer. I well remember the worship service in which I was asked to pray for the first time. Without warning, the worship leader said, “Randy, would you lead us in prayer?” I was stunned. But I did it. And it served as an important step to overcoming fear.

Second, do something for Christ that you’ve never done before. Share Jesus with someone. Volunteer to offer a public prayer. Visit a shut-in. Just do something. Spiritual growth requires more than knowing the truth. It requires doing the truth.

Third, read stories of courageous people. Missionary biographies are great. Reading how others lived courageously can help build our backbone. Something that has most surprised me as a ministry leader is that many “leaders” are gripped by fear. Fear of what “powerful people” will think if they take a contrary position, or fear of losing position or perks, too often keeps people from doing what they know in their hearts is the right thing to do. One way to overcome such fear is spend time with courageous people, and this can be partly done by reading their stories.

How does a courageous Christian live? They live in fear of God, not men. Obeying God is paramount, not pleasing others and forsaking God by doing so. The stories of Daniel in the lions den and his three friends in the fiery furnace teach this truth.
Courageous people fear God, not failure. Fear of failure keeps people from “attempting great things for God and expecting great things from God,” to paraphrase missionary pioneer William Carey. Scripture is replete with stories of God-fearing people standing up to tyrants, fighting giants, confronting death because they loved/feared God more than anything.

You can add to the list, but I’ll conclude by saying that we must disciple children to have courage and fear God. The evil one is discipling children to fear everything but God. Don’t fail your kids at this point. Help them be a Daniel, or a Deborah!

An Encouraging Word about God’s Work in the Northwest

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In a world where tragedy, scandal, and politics dominate the news, sometimes you need to hear a good, refreshing word. With that in mind, I want to share some of the really good things that have been happening in the Northwest.

As I write, 28 are gathered in our Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) building, learning how to serve churches as “transitional pastors.” These are men who’ve spent their lives as pastors, and now they will continue to serve churches that are seeking their next pastor. These men are lifelong learners and in ministry lifelong learning is the “fountain of youth.” It keeps you relevant, effective, and vigorous. Helping church prepare for the next pastor, and find a good pastor, is probably the most important and helpful thing we can do for a church.

This spring a preaching conference served 40 pastors, followed by another on reaching and caring for people (Count the Cost), with about the same number attending. “Count the Cost” is something you’ll be hearing more about as it will help any church regardless of size, location, ethnicity or language. We’ve also had 128 attend children’s ministry and VBS training this spring. Our annual Women’s Summit had 302 women, by far our largest attendance ever. One person told me that she brought a friend who was a Buddhist and she gave her life to Christ at the Women’s Summit!

Our annual Youth Conference had 440 in attendance, with 12 professions of faith. Our NWBC youth ministry leader, Lance Logue, invited two boys playing basketball to join the conference. They said they weren’t there for the conference, but he told them they were welcome to attend. They did, and both boys prayed to receive Christ!

In April we had 247 gather for our annual NWBC Church Planter’s Retreat. This included 58 pastors, 45 wives, and over 100 of their kids. Twenty-two volunteers taught the VBS curriculum to the kids. Languages represented among these church planters included English, Spanish, Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Romanian and Mandarin. And we had four new churches launch on Easter Sunday!

What about Disaster Relief? In April 140 DR volunteers attended a two-day training event, preparing for wherever they might be deployed. If you have a disaster in your area, know that we have people ready to serve. DR chaplains have been called upon in school shootings and other traumatic events.

You are providing all types of leadership training and resources by supporting missions through the Cooperative Program. When people are trained, you are providing the training through the NWBC. When Disaster Relief volunteers are deployed, you are sending them through the commitment of your church to invest in a cooperative mission’s strategy. At our church planting retreat, I told all of our church planters that every cooperating NWBC church is investing in them through Cooperative Program missions giving (and through the Northwest Impact Mission Offering).

I know I’m giving you a lot of numbers, but these numbers represent people, and most of these numbers represent people trained for ministry in our churches – your church! Is it making a difference? Yes! According to our Annual Church Profile information, worship attendance increased in our NWBC churches to 33,433 in 2018, up from 29,412 in 2017. Small group attendance increase to 20,406, up from 18,455 in 2017. Total baptisms reported by our churches were 1,742. This number is down from 1,954 the previous year, but the general trend over five years is up. That said, we must make sharing the gospel a top priority and it is our commitment to help you by providing resources and training yearly.

One final word: please pray for the 115 people from 26 of our NWBC churches who will serve hundreds of IMB missionaries and their children in Asia this coming July.

I hope this brief report encourages you as it does me. It is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!

Contemplations as Northwest Baptists Prepare to Gather in Our Annual Meeting

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Several hundred Northwest Baptists will gather in our annual meeting on Nov. 13-14, 2018, at the Great Wolf Lodge near Chehalis, WA. As we prepare to gather, worship, and celebrate what God is doing in and through us, consider the following “meditation:”

The only person present in every epoch and on each Bible page is God Himself. Every scene in Scripture is dominated by His presence. From Eden to the Flood, from Abraham to Moses to Gideon to Peter, Paul and Mary, God alone dominates history’s script.

And yet, from the beginning God created human beings as His “imagers” on the earth. Because every person is created in the image of God, and tasked with representing Him, every person has his or her “day” to serve and glorify God. Many of God’s imagers fail to image Him fully because of sinful self-destruction and gross unbelief, and we all fall short of glorifying God fully because of sin. Some of God’s imagers have their day cut short, chopped off before their lives lift off. The evils of child-killing and the bloodshed of war destroy many souls created by God to image Him in the subduing and governing of all earthly creation.

But those who know the God in whose image they are made have the miraculous possibility of making the day in which they live, a small speck of time in the large swath of human history, a day that will count for all of eternity. Indeed, those who know God in their day will know God from their day forward, for all eternity. That makes the day in which we live, and the opportunity it affords, stupendous beyond the imagination of our feeble minds.

Consider this – the child in your church who comes to faith will mature into an imager of God whose prayers are heard by heaven! That child who is led by you to love Jesus is a child who will never be alone. Never will that child be orphaned or abandoned in the world. That child will one day be launched as a missionary missile to teach school, or image God in business or politics or constructing houses or raising children of their own who will live to His glory. And no matter what next week brings, or the years beyond that, a child who knows Jesus will enjoy all of eternity with God and the hosts of heaven in a “forever family.”

The student in college who is seeking life’s purpose and meaning is led down the path to knowing God by a Jesus-follower, and is surprised by the joy of meeting the God in whose image they are made. Through your ministry and witness their life becomes anchored on the Truth they never knew existed.

Families in your town are desperately trying, or barely trying, to provide spiritual and moral guidance to their children. Most are doing the best they can with what little they know. Then the church steps into their lives, and the truth of Christ enters their thinking, and faithful witness is lived in their presence, and love for neighbor (and love for enemy) is experienced deeply, and in a moment, or in the course of time, they are reborn. Their family is created anew. Peace and joy and the blessing of God enter their home. Marriages are saved. Children are rescued from a misspent life. All because a church, or a believer … you … lived for Christ in your day.

In the Northwest there are many people seizing the opportunity presented by God in this day. Northwest Baptists are gathering for worship and Bible study on Sunday, and serving in schools and on jobsites throughout the week. One church is teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in a Buddhist temple, and they share the Gospel of Jesus Christ as they teach ESL! Others are fully participating in community celebrations so that they can “rub elbows” with their neighbors, build friendships, and share the living hope of Jesus. Prisoners are visited. The hungry are fed. The lost are led home. Almost 2,000 people followed Jesus in believer’s baptism through the ministry of our churches last year. Churches are striving, struggling to live and love and share the good news of Christ in their day.

So as messengers gather from our Northwest Baptist churches, we do so with gratitude to God for what He is doing. We gather in the knowledge that together we strive to make the most of our day. And we gather in the firm belief our day is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest.

This is Our Day

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In another day, on April 13, 1948, messengers from 15 Northwest Baptist churches met in Portland, OR to organize the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC). They believed that together they could more effectively reach the Northwest for Christ. By 1952 there were 53 churches in the NWBC. There were 291 churches by 1972 (some of these were in Canada). Strong growth has continued over the past 40 years through sharing the gospel, training leaders, and gathering new believers into churches. Today we have 485 churches in the NWBC. The Canadian Convention separated from the NWBC in 1985 and became its own SBC affiliated convention numbering several hundred churches.

In our day the work of the NWBC is much the same as it has always been. Our churches cooperate together in ways that maximize our effectiveness in key areas of Kingdom work. So how does your NWBC serve our churches in this, our day?

First, we put a priority on training leaders. Monthly pastor clusters is one of the large pieces of this training. The clusters focus on the spiritual life of the leader and the spiritual health of the church. They study and discuss disciple-making, evangelism, worship planning, and much more. We also support the Pacific Northwest Campus of Gateway Seminary as a primary method of training leaders. Currently I am teaching preaching to 17 students at our PNW campus. Added to this is training for Bible teachers, worship leaders, Disaster Relief volunteers, college ministers and others. We train transitional “interim pastors” and help churches in their search for pastors. Training leaders is something that we best do cooperatively, understanding that no single church can do broad-based training on their own.

Second, we prioritize evangelism. The NWBC provides evangelistic training and resources to every NWBC church. The Cooperative Program (CP) mission giving of our churches makes this possible. We continue to provide My316 evangelism materials to our churches. At our annual meeting this November 13-14, 2018 we will launch a new resource available to every church, without cost, because we believe that making disciples should be at the center of ministry for every church.

Third, we help start new churches. Currently we have churches worshipping in about 27 different languages in communities of all sizes. Churches are started in urban and rural areas, from cities to small towns. I am personally involved in a new church in a town of 8,000 people. The church launches on September 30, but already we have had a young man come to Christ and receive water baptism. With only one church for every 23,000 in population in the Northwest we need many more churches in many more places.

Fourth, we do missions beyond the Northwest. Through the CP and other mission offerings we support missionaries in over 100 nations. Also, the NWBC has a special partnership in East Asia in which many of our churches have participated. During July 10-23, 2019, we will bring about 130 people from our NWBC churches to serve hundreds missionaries and their children in a retreat in Asia. We are the only state convention of churches to ever do this, and this will be the third major retreat in which we serve our missionaries in this way.

You are making an enormous difference through your involvement and support of the NWBC, and we have much left to do. This is our day! And it is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!

A Plea for Reasonably-Gifted Leaders

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Question: Where have all the great preachers gone?

Answer: They are where they have always been … few and far between.

This question/answer dialogue was given to a preaching class by Professor James Heflin when I was in seminary. Evangelism Professor Roy Fish said something similar when he remarked there was only one Elijah, not ten such men, when Elijah served as God’s prophet. The same was true of Martin Luther or Billy Graham. The point being that most preachers and servants of God are more ordinary in their gifting, and that’s the way it’s always been.

I have a concern that the 10-talented among God’s servants are not simply applauded for their ministry, but held up as the standard of what is laudable. It is counter-cultural to say this, but what the church needs today is more “reasonably-gifted” leaders who love God with all their hearts, love people, and who are able and willing to persevere in ministry. We need to bless and celebrate these servants of God. We need more pastors, not just better pastors. We need more witnesses for Christ, not simply better witnesses. We need more faithful financial stewards, not just a few who have more money to give.

Not that we shouldn’t bless and be grateful for the 10-talented, but they are few and far between and thus while we can learn from them, and be grateful for them, we should not consider them as “the” acceptable standard for ministry. For example, I’m grateful for the ministry of the mega-church, but they represent far less than half a percent of all churches. In addition, they are largely a modern phenomenon, mostly happening in the last 40 years, and quadrupling in the United States in the last 20 years. Are future church-attenders in the U.S. going to increasingly be found in the mega-church? I don’t know, maybe. But I do know that most places in the world where the church is growing it is doing so through a multiplication of small churches with reasonably-gifted leaders and a miracle-working God “who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). The church is growing in China, Cuba and throughout much of Africa through ordinary Jesus-loving people sharing the joy of God’s grace and mercy with neighbors who need a Savior and Lord.

Something else to consider is that most of the ministries that have experienced explosive growth have unique advantages not afforded to the average church or ministry leader. One ministry leader that has been held as an example of what’s possible has a dad who was a seminary professor and mega-church pastor. He’s also enjoyed strong support from another well-known mega-church pastor, including very significant funding, and this brief list doesn’t exhaust the unique advantages he has. I don’t recount this to diminish or demean what God has accomplished through him. I thank God for him. But it’s not helpful to the Kingdom to compare other church planters and pastors to a man who has a background and support that are unique.

Too many believe that to lead God’s people you have to know the systems, strategies, and best practices of the few who are “highly successful.” I disagree. To lead the people of God you must hear from God. To lead God’s people you must know His mind and heart. The men of God in the Bible not only knew God’s heart, they embodied His heart and mind. Certainly this was true of Jeremiah, Hosea, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, not to mention Joseph, David, Paul and so many others. This isn’t to totally discount what we can learn from the 10-talented and “highly successful.” It is to say that most of God’s work is done by ordinary people who seek His heart and mind and obey Him. As Henry Blackaby used to remind us, “Look for where God is at work. Listen for His voice. Then join Him in His work” (paraphrase).

Remember, Elijah wasn’t the only person of God who didn’t bow before Baal. There were 7,000 others. They are nameless and faceless, but faithful too, even as was the one superstar among them, Elijah.

The Newspaper’s Role in Your Leadership

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It was once said a preacher ought to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, meaning that the sermon needs to connect biblical truth to life today, life in this world, and life in a particular place. That image of the pastor-preacher with the Bible and the newspaper made sense when I first heard it many years ago. It still resonates with me. I suspect, however, it lacks the impact it once had. That’s a shame.

I know I’m fighting an uphill battle on this one. Newspapers are in decline. Most young adults don’t read them anymore. News is found in other places and with personal “filters.” Uphill battle or not, it’s one that deserves a fight. Ministry leaders need to read their local newspaper. Thumbing through the paper with your hands, your eye catches things it won’t if you read the paper on your smartphone or computer.

First, your local newspaper helps you to know your community. Your city has issues involving economic, political, legal, educational and moral aspects of life. These are issues particular to your community. The churches, residents, schoolchildren, businesses, homeowners, homeless, everyone in the community is affected by decisions of community leaders and the particular issues the city is facing. And certain hot-button issues change daily. No person should know more about the city than ministry leaders. You might pick up bits and pieces down at the coffee shop or through the internet, but the local newspaper will give you the broadest coverage of life in your community. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t relate something from the newspaper to my sermon text on Sunday.

Second, who’s being born and who is dying in your town? Most local papers will inform you daily or weekly about these matters. If someone is killed in a tragic accident, or a young person’s life is cut short in some way, the church needs to know about it and maybe you can minister to the family. At the very least you can pray for them. Churches have been built by ministering to families of newborns. Who is filing a marriage license or divorce papers? Who was arrested for a DUI or other criminal behavior? The paper will tell you. Maybe you can reach out to them. Maybe you host substance abuse classes, or Divorce Care classes, or parenting classes and they can be invited to attend.

Third, what’s going on at the schools in your town? Which students had a great game, excelled in a sporting event, suffered an injury, have a part in the school play, or won the spelling bee? Every week young people in your town are featured in the local newspaper. How encouraging it is for them to receive an extra copy of the article, with a note written by a pastor, Sunday school teacher or other ministry leader!

Fourth, ministry leaders can use the paper to influence others. You can write letters to the editor. I’ve written articles for local papers and established relationships with reporters. Sometimes the local paper will publish articles about something the church is doing as a by-product of these relationships.
Fifth, the local newspaper will help you to pray for your city and its leaders. Every city has people and situations that need prayer. The newspaper will provide you matters for which to pray each and every day.

These principles are not for people who don’t care about their city or have no desire to impact their city. This is about ministry leaders, sent by God to a particular place, for a particular time. No one should know more about the city, and care more about its people, than the ministry leaders called there. The newspaper is indispensable in connecting you to the city in a holistic way.

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.