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.

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.

Make Disciples: Part 3 – Discipling a Church

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Parts 1 and 2 of “Making Disciples” focused on discipling the nation and the community. In Part 3 the focus is the local church, which is the means God uses to disciple individuals, a community and a nation. A community becomes more Christian when local churches take the gospel to their community, love their community, and lead the individuals in their community to Christ. But for this to happen there must be a church in the community that behaves “Christianly.” What does it mean to behave Christianly and how does a church do it?

Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 to “disciple all of the nations” is followed by two actions steps – baptizing them and teaching them to observe everything Christ commanded. Baptism is the public act of identifying with Jesus Christ and His church. In the New Testament, baptism followed immediately after one’s personal profession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Making disciples begins with gospel witness (evangelism) by which individuals, and sometimes entire households, come to profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ and follow Him in believer’s baptism.

Following baptism, making disciples is described by the phrase “teaching them to observe” all of the commands that Jesus gave to the eleven remaining disciples (Matt. 28:20). Those who commit to Christ must learn to obey all of the teachings of Jesus. Now, here’s an observation: many churches are better at teaching the meaning of the Scriptures than teaching obedience to the Scriptures. In sermons and Bible lessons the “What?” is often taught, but not the “Now what?”

So how do church leaders teach the church to obey Christ commands? You can do so by doing these three things.

1. Destiny – Teach every believer that he/she has a purpose in God’s kingdom. Every person “in Christ” has a destiny, a reason for being and a role to fulfill in the Body of Christ. Every person matters. Throughout the New Testament we see this, and God’s people must be taught to read the Scriptures with a view to discovering their own purpose in God’s work. Every believer has spiritual gifting and therefore each has a purpose in what God is accomplishing in the world. The purpose of the church, and of each believer, must be addressed from the pulpit monthly at the very least. It must be taught in small groups. And we must teach our children, in the home, and in the church, that they have a destiny to fulfill in God’s kingdom.

2. Opportunity – Provide the church with opportunities to obey the teachings of Christ. With varying degrees of effectiveness, churches provide opportunities to worship, to contribute to God’s work financially, to walk with God’s people in unity, and to serve God through the ministries of the church and in their daily lives. But some churches are much better at giving people specific opportunities to answer the question “Now what?” Every sermon and Bible lesson should answer this question. The programing and ministry of the church should provide opportunities for God’s people to “do acts of obedience.” Things like evangelism training and sharing the gospel, mission projects, serving widows, and serving the poor and needy, help give opportunities for God’s people to obey Him. Church leaders should regularly ask the question, “How can we show God’s love to our community? How can we take the gospel to our community and to peoples beyond?” These questions will lead to opportunities for serving God (talk to civic and school leaders to get a better understanding of community needs). Also, don’t forget to provide opportunities to celebrate what God does and to pray for God to work through the opportunities provided by the church. How much praying does your church do on Sunday morning that focuses on loving the community and sharing Christ? Are you giving your people opportunities to pray for community leaders, pray for the lost, pray for missionaries, and pray for the persecuted church? Each local church needs to connect with the worldwide church through prayer. A small church can have a huge impact by praying for big things.

3. Responsibility – Lead each of God’s people to take personal responsibility for answering the call to love God and to love their neighbors. Each believer needs to take responsibility for God’s work. Opportunities provided must be seized by God’s people as they take personally the task of sharing Christ with the lost and loving their neighbors.

From a programming perspective, individual churches will address these three things in different ways. But think about those in the Scriptures whom God has greatly used. Think about those throughout history, and even those you know personally through whom God has done great things. Each of these people had a sense of destiny. Each of them created and seized opportunities. And each of them took personal responsibility for serving God. A church that leads its people to do these things will become a dynamic church, greatly used of God, no matter its numerical size.