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.

Who Should Lead Southern Baptists

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Who should lead Southern Baptists? Answer: those who fully support the Cooperative Program and have demonstrated their support through the percentage giving of the church they serve and lead. My assertion’s explanation and argumentation is this:

In round numbers, Southern Baptists churches contribute approximately $690 million annually through the Cooperative Program, Lottie Moon International Missions Offering and the Annie Armstrong North American Missions Offering. Approximately $475 million is contributed through the Cooperative Program and $215 million is contributed through the two major mission offerings. These numbers vary year-to-year by several million dollars. In addition, many millions more are given through State Convention annual missions offerings, Disaster Relief, World Hunger Offering, and associational mission gifts.

I share these numbers because I fear the average “Brett and Brianna Baptist” SBC church members have little idea of the impact Southern Baptists make because we cooperate financially to send and sustain missionaries, educate pastors, start churches, train leaders, and so much more. Moreover, “Brett and Brianna Baptist” probably do not understand the scope of our cooperative work and the manner in which it is funded.

The largest and primary funding strategy for SBC churches is the Cooperative Program (CP), a unified effort for local, regional, national and international ministry and missions. Most churches allocate CP mission dollars as a percentage of their annual budget, though some budget a set dollar amount. According to a report of the SBC Funding Study Committee, issued on September 23, 2003, SBC churches maintained a percentage giving to missions through the CP in the 11 percent range from 1930 to 1980. By the 1980s this average had dropped to 10.5 percent, and by 2002 it was 7.39 percent. In 2017 that number had fallen to 5.16 percent. As a percentage of the church budget, SBC churches are giving less than half to CP missions than they did just 30 years ago.

Various suggestions have been offered as to why CP missions giving has dropped so dramatically. These suggestions range from rising health insurance costs, to more emphasis on local ministry, political infighting, and the desire of churches to do missions directly. No doubt these have all contributed to our decline in CP supported missions. But I want to suggest something different – I firmly believe that the single biggest factor in our decline is the selection of leaders who do not fully support CP as the major way to fund Southern Baptist missions. Thus, they do not – and, really, cannot – share passionately with others a vision for the impact such a unified effort makes.

If a church chooses to support missions directly, and gives a small percentage or zero through the CP, that is their right as an autonomous church. Some pastors and churches may believe they can better allocate their missions dollars than can state conventions and the SBC. Often these are megachurches with huge budgets. I get that. But remember, there are less than 200 SBC megachurches (average worship attendance of 2,000 or more), and a total of 51,000 SBC churches and mission churches. Half of the churches in the Northwest Baptist Convention, where I serve, average 50 or less in worship. Nationally the median number is probably closer to 70, but the normative SBC church has far fewer than 100 on Sunday. That’s partly why CP missions has worked so brilliantly over the years. It makes possible a cooperative missions strategy that strengthens the abilities of the typical church to play a part in the far-reaching responsibilities of the Great Commission. Sure, if your church has 200 or 500 or 1,000 on Sunday, you might have the staffing and finances to do some larger mission projects. But even a large church finds it difficult to have a fully-orbed Acts 1:8 missions strategy.

Recently I visited with the pastor of an independent church that has 3,000 in weekend worship attendance. He was amazed to learn our church planting efforts in the Northwest include Vietnamese, Bhutanese, Korean, Spanish, Burmese and many other non-English language churches. He quickly understood that even given the resources of a large church they cannot penetrate lostness like our 500 smaller churches do through a cooperative strategy. CP missions is just such a cooperative strategy and we should choose leaders who understand it, believe in it and have supported it over the course of their ministries.

Presently, the International Mission Board (IMB) of the SBC is seeking a new president. In addition to the necessary spiritual qualifications, experience, and gifting, the next president should have a background that demonstrates a strong commitment to support missions through the CP. Remember, international missionaries don’t fall off angel’s wings onto the mission field! They are discipled and educated and called out through the ministries of our churches and through CP supported state camps, college ministries, seminaries, and the like. The SBC is a system of missions, ministry, training and education, and we need each part of the system for the global enterprise to remain healthy. Key leaders like the president of the IMB should understand this and support it. If a particular leader doesn’t support the SBC system of CP support (and you will only know he supports CP by what he led his church to do), he should not lead a CP supported SBC entity.

This June Southern Baptist will also elect a new SBC president. The man elected to this position should likewise be someone who has a track-record of strong CP support. How can a person effectively lead Southern Baptists if his church doesn’t support CP with a minimum of the 5.16 percent that the average church gives? Indeed, shouldn’t our leaders come from churches that give above the average percentage? This seems like common sense, but such sense seems less and less common.

Southern Baptists are at a critical crossroad. One road leads to the continuation of decline in CP missions giving and the continuation of the decline of the SBC (that is a subject for another article, but yes, we are in serious decline by most every measure). The other road will lead us to growth in our cooperative missions strategy. Which road we travel will depend not only on what we do individually, but also on those we choose to lead us. As for me, I will do all I can to encourage Southern Baptists to select leaders who generously support missions through the Cooperative Program and have a long history of doing so.

NWBC Annual Report for 2017

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The following is my written report for the annual meeting of the Northwest Baptist Convention meeting in Eugene, OR on Nov. 7-8, 2017. My oral report will be given on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at about 10:30 AM. The title is “Being a Blessing in Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Blessing. It’s a beautiful word signifying deep satisfaction and abundance. Diamonds and emeralds are chosen for their gleaming brilliance. Bless and blessing are verbal gemstones used of the holy and harmonious relationship between God and His creation. The first creatures blessed by God were fish and birds (Gen. 1:22). Next we see God blessing Noah and his family as He launches them into a new world after the flood. God blesses them and tells them to fill the earth with many children (Gen. 9:1).

When we come to Genesis 12 and the calling of Abraham, God not only tells Abraham, “I will bless you,” but He tells him, “You will be a blessing to others” and “all the people on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:2-3). Here we see that blessing, and blessing others, entails a purpose for God’s people and the launching of God’s redemptive mission to humankind. Most fascinating is that God reiterates His purpose of Abraham blessing the nations even as Abraham pleads for Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:18-19).

Built into the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the truth that God’s people are the means by which God will bless the peoples of the earth. God’s people, Abraham’s spiritual children (Gal. 3:6-9), are a blessing to all peoples. Loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, praying for others, praying even our persecutors, and speaking the truth of the gospel in love, are means by which we bless all peoples.

It’s been said that our purpose is not to “build a great church” in the city, but rather to see our church as God’s means to build a great city, to bless the city. As we journey with God on mission we will bless our community. As we practice righteousness and justice, we will demonstrate obedience to Christ’s commands and bless our city. As we live the truth of Gospel, demonstrating the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our future resurrection, we will bless our cities.

Abraham lived in the land of Sodom and Gomorrah. So do we. What are God’s people to do in such a place? We are to pray and plead to God for the people of our city. We are to love them, warn them, and live the truth among them. We must disciple our children and disciple our neighbors, calling people to Jesus from the land of Sodom and Gomorrah.

At our best, Northwest Baptists are doing these things. We are blessing our communities. We are sharing the gospel and gathering believers into churches, churches in which worship is expressed in more than two dozen languages and 50 nationalities and people groups. Last year 23 new churches were launched. Already this year we have equaled that number. Half of our new churches worship in a language other than English. Approximately 150 of our 492 churches worship in other languages. This is the fruit of cooperation. Other denominations and networks of churches do not have the diversity of churches that we enjoy. Only by cooperating can we do hard things like reaching into our immigrant populations.

Cooperation also enables us to do hard things like Disaster Relief (DR). DR chaplains were deployed to serve in the fire-stricken areas of the Northwest. Multiple Northwest DR teams have served in Texas. We expect that during our Annual Meeting in Eugene that we will have teams in Puerto Rico as well.

Everything that Northwest Baptists do cooperatively begins by training pastors and other leaders. At least 1,000 people received training through the cooperative work of our churches, including 200 pastors and church planters and more than 500 children’s and youth workers. Fifteen pastors travelled to East Asia on one of three vision trips, with others leading teams from their church to work with our IMB personnel there. Forty pastors and spouses were trained as transitional pastoral leaders to help churches who are in-between pastors.

Our greatest need remains, and will always be, more pastors. Churches need shepherds. They need shepherds whose call and commitment is to love the Lord and His church, and shepherds who lead the church to bless the community, who walk with God in in the community, and who share Jesus with the community. The purpose of the NWBC is to equip and extend the ministry of the churches and her pastors so that together we can have a missions impact as extensive as Jesus declared in Acts 1:8, even as we serve in the land of Sodom and Gomorrah. And remember, it is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!

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.

Lou Holtz Can Teach Us Something about Church

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Lou Holtz knows how to build a successful football program. He knows a few things about successful organizations, period. After more than 50 years in the sports world, one striking observation he made is that only two organizations looked better on the inside than they appeared from the outside – the University of Notre Dame and Augusta Country Club. Every other entity he has been part of looked worse from the inside than it did from outside.

Churches and ministries could ponder Holtz’s observation and learn from it. Many churches struggle with building a successful evangelism and outreach ministry. Part of the problem is that inside reality doesn’t match outside appearance. Because churches depend on the insiders (attenders) to invite outsiders to come inside (unchurched people), it’s vital that the insiders believe they have something wonderful to offer.

A couple of stories will illustrate what I mean. While in seminary I served as an evangelism intern in a church. I spent five to ten hours each week teaching people how to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and leading them to do it door-to-door. It was a formative experience for me. However, one sad fact in that experience is that I believed there was another church in town that was better than ours. Their pastor was a better preacher (our pastor said he didn’t spend much time in sermon preparation). They planned a more dynamic worship service and stronger mission engagement. I had no problem telling people about Jesus Christ and what He did for them, but it was more difficult to invite them to our church because I feared they would be disappointed when they came.

The second story concerns a church I served as pastor. A fellow minister from another denomination visited with me about joining our church. It was a big step for him and his young family. I will never forget what he said: “I want to attend a church where I can bring lost friends, confident that they will hear a well-prepared message from the Bible, be welcomed and treated well, and where we don’t have to fear something will happen that will make us want to crawl under the pew.”

I’ve thought of that statement made in 1993 many times since. If the church doesn’t look good from the inside, if members and attenders lack the confidence that guests can experience God’s presence, hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word, experience the heart-felt worship of God’s people, be led to God’s throne in meaningful prayer, and experience God’s love through His people, they will hesitate to bring their friends to church.
Our SBC family nationally has experienced a significant decline in evangelistic effectiveness. Fewer people are following Christ in believer’s baptism through our churches. Church membership and attendance has declined. Many are exploring the reasons for decline, most often lamenting that we are not sharing the gospel in our communities like we must. Others complain that we are not receiving the resources and leadership at the national level that our churches need because other strategies have been prioritized.

I believe both of these are true. That’s why in the Northwest Baptist Convention we provide MY316 evangelism resources free-of-charge to our churches (our churches paid for them through their Cooperative Program mission gifts). It’s why we conduct regional evangelism training events like Story Witnessing. Dozens of churches each year host “mystery guests” to help them evaluate Sunday morning worship gatherings. Pastor-clusters always have some emphasis on evangelism and discipleship. At this year’s annual NWBC meeting (November 7-8 in Eugene, OR) every attender will be given a book, Sharing Jesus without Freaking Out, and will have the opportunity to attend a training event led by author, Alvin Reid, to learn how to teach it in their churches. Missions and evangelism is why we exist as a convention of churches. Together we can equip our leaders and extend our missions impact far better than we could if we were alone.

These things being true, at the local church level, it would be good if we asked the question, “Does our church look better from the inside than it does from the outside? Can I confidently invite people to my church, believing they will experience God through our church?” If not, what changes can be made to have that confidence?

Churches with effective outreach and evangelism ministries have attenders who enthusiastically and confidently recommend their church to others. These churches provide opportunities for attenders to learn how to share the gospel, and they provide special events that give attenders easy ways to invite friends and neighbors to church.

If you need help diagnosing the condition of your church and finding a prescription that helps your church get healthy, we have staff trained and assigned to do that. Please call upon us. That’s our job, and more importantly, it’s our joy to assist our pastors and churches as together we strive to reach the Northwest with the good news of Jesus Christ.

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.

A Person of Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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