The Death of Respectful Debate

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I rarely write on current events, preferring to devote my efforts to ministry concerns that are more timeless. But for some time now, a number of years really, our nation has been plunging into an abyss of vitriol and disdain toward those of opposing political and cultural viewpoints. The divisions are bone deep, and the hostility bubbles so near the surface that respectful debate seems dead. The worst of motives are assumed for every misspoken word and inarticulate phrase. Harsh labels are pasted onto people. Forgiveness, empathy and love are actions absent from public discourse, and, increasingly, in much private discourse.

Two events prompted me to write about this. First, two older Baptist pastors whom I respect, one black and the other white, got into an argument via social media, prompted by the terrible events in Charlottesville, VA. I was struck by how quickly bad motives were ascribed and things were taken the worst possible way. I expect professional political hacks and biased media propagandists to destroy people for political purposes, but not Jesus-loving, Baptist preacher friends. I know this is just one example, but it is not an isolated one. Destroyed friendships and divorces have happened, and are happening, as people sink into the toxic demands that others conform to personal points of view.

Second, some Christian leaders have weighed into recent political matters in ways that were less than helpful. Whether “our side” is in or out of power, will we ever learn that there is no clear correlation between Kingdom advance and which political party holds the reigns of governmental power? Will we learn that you cannot engage in “reasoned debate” via twitter or Facebook or any other form of social media. Too much of the public discourse is done through sound-bites and 140-character responses, which, when used to speak on matters of life and death, racism and riots, heaven and hell, is beyond dangerous. It is reckless and potentially ruinous to relationships and Christian witness and career. I could pine for the era when Lincoln and Douglass would debate for hours, holding the attention of a large audience as they used reason and humor and the tools of rhetoric to persuade others of their viewpoint, but those days will never return.

With that said, let me offer a couple of suggestions as we seek to navigate the minefield, and avoid the abyss, that has emerged in contemporary American life. First, when speaking to another who has a different viewpoint, seek first to understand, then to be understood. Stephen Covey taught this principle in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but we see this in every conversation Jesus ever had, from Nicodemus to the Woman at the Well to His conversations with Pharisees and Sadducees and the high priest. Jesus never, ever spoke in such a way that revealed He misunderstood the other person.

Now, you say, “But He’s God and I’m not.” Yes, but we can learn how to speak with others from the way Jesus spoke. The primary way we gain understanding of the viewpoint of another is to “listen first.” Listen, and ask clarifying questions as needed. Try to understand not only what the other person believes, but why they believe that way. The “why” is vital when seeking to understand another person’s viewpoint. “Why” we believe the way we do is influenced by our family life, particular experiences, our own sin and weaknesses, and a host of other things.

“Seeking first to understand” is not something we see modeled in our political leaders, nor in much of the media. I enjoy history, not simply learning the outcomes of history, but learning about the process that produced them. The more you know about the process, the better you understand “why” the particular outcome. This is true of how people develop their opinions and their worldview. The opinions we hold are the result of a process, perhaps a very long process, a personal process of learning and experiencing. If we are ever to recapture “respectful debate,” it will happen as we seek to understand “why” the other believes the way they do. It may not lead to achieving agreement, but it might keep us from hating the other person, or them hating us.

Second, knowledge puffs up with pride, but love builds up the other person (1 Cor. 8:1). Love for our neighbor and for our enemy will cause us to want the best for them. In the current climate in America, the goal in public discourse seems to be destruction of the other person. “Destroy them. Ruin their career. Wreck their reputation. Seize their power and take it for yourself.” We see this every day, but destroying the other must never be the aim of a follower of Jesus. Love expressed toward the other, seeking their betterment, is far more powerful than winning the argument, if our goal is to help them see Jesus. Speak the truth, yes, but speak it in love. Without love, I am nothing. Without love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:2-3).

People more knowledgeable on the subject than me are saying that the divisions in our nation are deeper than they have ever been, perhaps since the Civil War. I don’t know whether that is literally true, but no one can dispute the divisions are deep. But that’s not what most concerns me. What most concerns me is there is too little evidence that Christian leaders are making things better, at least on the national level. Maybe that’s because too few Christians are in positions of leadership. Maybe it’s because some who do have access to the media are saying the wrong things and contributing to the division.

Whatever be true in that regard, what is unarguably true for the believer is that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save the sinful, rebellious people of the world (John 3:17). Whether our nation will be saved from vitriol dominating the public discourse, no one can be certain. But every believer can commit daily to love God more, to love our neighbors more, and to strive to build others up in ways we speak to them and act toward them.

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?

Ramesh and Jesus

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I was tired from 16 hours of travel and hadn’t been to bed in 30 hours, but my conversation with Ramesh was a highlight of our recent mission trip to Asia. Ramesh was our Uber driver who took us home from the Portland airport after our extended mission trip. He lives in Vancouver, WA where our NWBC offices are located. He lives 15 minutes from our home. And he needs Jesus as much as anyone we met in Myanmar or Japan.

Ramesh was born in Fiji, but he has lived in the United States for 32 years. When I asked him about his life here he said that things weren’t going well for him and that he was considering changing his religion to see if a new religion would bring him a better life. I asked him what his religion was and he said that he is a Hindu. I said, “What new religion are you considering?” He said that he thought he might become a Christian. I said, “How do you become a Christian?” He said, “By getting baptized.”

I told Ramesh that I am a Christian, and I asked him if I could share what the Bible says about becoming a Christian. He welcomed my offer and I began by sharing John 3:16. I said, “Ramesh, according to the Scriptures Christianity is different than religions. Christianity is about coming to know Jesus Christ and inviting Him into your life.” We discussed the Bible’s teaching on sin, repentance and faith. We talked about the uniqueness of Jesus as the One who is fully God and fully man, truly the Lord of all.

After about 15 minutes we arrived at our house. I said, “Ramesh, would you like to pray right now and invite Jesus to come into your life as your Lord and Savior?” He said, “I want to think about it some more.” I asked if he had any more questions. He didn’t, and then I encouraged him to pray and ask God to speak to him. I gave him a card with my email and phone number and asked him to call me. I said, “I think God brought us together tonight Ramesh.” He agreed. He even carried some of our bags into house. I prayed for him, and then he left.

That’s been two weeks and I haven’t yet heard from Ramesh. But I’ve thought about him and have prayed for him. And, in a way, I think Ramesh was a reminder from God to me that I am surrounded by people who need Jesus right here in the Northwest. Like Ramesh, they may think baptism makes a person Christian. Many of our neighbors haven’t rejected Jesus outright. They simply don’t know the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and coming again.

Ramesh seemed genuinely grateful that I had shared Jesus with him. It seemed like he was hearing things for the very first time … the first time. I wonder, how many are waiting to learn the truth about Jesus for the very first time? More than we know, I expect. Most are open to a genuine conversation about faith and God and forgiveness and grace. Not a sales pitch, but a conversation, from the heart, with expectancy, but a conversation just the same.

It’s been said before, but I do think many unbelievers in the Northwest have rejected, or ignored, a “form of religion” that they think is true Christianity. We need many, many conversations with our friends. Conversations that focus on gospel truths, spoken with uncommon grace, bathed in God’s love.

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.

Relationships – The Key to Effective Leadership … and Evangelism

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Great coaches develop strong and healthy relationships with their athletes. Mike Krzyzewski has more wins than any other Division 1 basketball coach in the history of the NCAA, 1,043 wins. He has won five national championships, two gold medals with the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team, and will coach for a third gold medal this coming August. Coach K, as he is known, has said that his success, in part, is due to a realization he had while observing his family at the dinner table. Years ago, he noticed how his wife and three daughters related to one another. They each showed interest in the other’s day. They were in tune with each other’s feelings. This led Coach K to develop a coaching style built on establishing strong relationships with his players. It includes listening to them and motivating them in positive ways. Coach K has learned what many researchers have identified: our desire to form meaningful relationships powerfully influences our motivation (Bret Stetka, Scientific American: Mind, July/August 2016).

As I read the article referenced above, I thought of the missionary-evangelist Paul the Apostle, whose effectiveness was determined more by the size of his heart than that of his brain. Paul had a big brain to be sure, but it was his massive heart that enabled him persevere through great suffering, share Christ with friend and foe, and invade the kingdom of darkness, leaving churches in his wake. Paul had three big things going for him: his personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his huge heart for people. I mean, who but Paul has ever said, when speaking of his intense sorrow over the lostness of the Jewish people, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers” (Rom 9:3).

Paul’s heart for the Corinthians meant he was willing to be treated “like the world’s garbage” (1 Cor. 4:13). For the salvation of the Philippians he went to prison. In Lystra he was stoned and left for dead. He reminded the Thessalonians that he shared both the gospel and his own life with them, because they had become so dear to him (1 Thess. 2:8).

In the world of athletics, the best coaches know that athletes need to feel like you’re on their side before they’re willing to accept what you say. Paul proved to those he served, and to the lost people he was trying to reach, that he was on their side.

Missiologists like Lesslie Newbigin have spoken of “two conversions” that an unbeliever must experience. The first conversion is when they decide they like us, or respect and trust us, so that they will listen to what we say. The second conversion is when they believe the gospel that we preach and they are transformed by Christ. The first conversion happens as the relationship with a believer develops. The second conversion occurs when they establish a relationship with Christ as a result of our witness.

What is true of an individual believer is true of a church. When the community learns that the church is on their side, working to bless the community, the influence of the church increases.

This week I visited with the pastor of a church that has 25 in attendance on Sunday morning. I was amazed as he described how that church ministers to a significant homeless population in his area each week, has a weekly one-on-one mentoring program to about 15 school children, and multiple other life-giving ministries they are doing (including providing meeting space to other churches). I don’t know if the church will grow in attendance, or whether they will transition in some other way (they have options), but they are certainly using God’s resources to bring abundant life to their community with each day He gives them. And they are establishing favor in the community beyond what might seem possible. Of course, a “dozen-minus-one” fully-devoted followers of Jesus is how it all began!

Today I looked at a list of baptisms from our Northwest Baptist churches, broken down by the age of the church. I did this because some have said that new churches are more than three times as effective in reaching lost people as existing churches. When measuring against average attendance, this is not true. Churches under five years of age baptized one person for every 11 in average attendance. All other churches baptized one person for every 15 in average attendance. The difference is considerable, but not as great as some might think. The reason for this, I believe, is that evangelism, like leadership, is relational. Some churches do much better than others because they are more intentional in training and deploying witnesses for Christ. But reaching people for Christ, and retaining them as active members of your church, results from personal relationships.

In other words, it takes people to reach people. And it takes people to keep people. Where this becomes strategic, and not just an observation, is when you realize that your attendance in small groups is in direct proportion to the number of small groups you have. If you have ten small groups (or Sunday school classes), you will average 100 per week. If you have five small groups, you will average 50 in attendance. It all about relationships! One teacher, on average, can’t reach 50 people in average attendance. They can reach about 10 people.

Coach K works at building a strong relationship with each of his players. He does this because he wants to win games. I think he also wants to build great young men, but he certainly wants to win games.

Our ambition is to save souls. Our desire is to see others come to love Jesus Christ. That should motivate us to build strong relationships with unbelievers.

Legendary missionary Amy Carmichael said that the people of India knew a missionary loved them when the missionary spent their “free time” with them. If the missionary only spent time with an Indian during working hours, the Indian knew that they were not considered a friend by the missionary. Rather, they were the project of the missionary. Ouch!

It really is all about relationships. And “all,” meaning all things meaningful in ministry and life, is about relationship.

The Journey to Faith in Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming Newcomers to Church

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As a college senior I had an interview trip to Dallas, TX with Arco Oil Company. I arrived on a flight from Butte, Montana on a Sunday afternoon. I became a Southern Baptist through the ministry of the Baptist Student Union at Montana Tech, and was a member of the Floral Park Baptist Church in Butte, but I had heard of FBC, Dallas and their legendary pastor, W.A. Criswell. My hotel was in downtown Dallas, and I knew the First Baptist Church was somewhere downtown, so I set out on foot to find it.

I found the church easily enough, arriving in time for the Sunday evening worship service. To my disappointment, Dr. Criswell wasn’t preaching that night. He was in attendance, sitting on the platform, but an associate pastor brought the message. As I recall it was in a good message, but what I most remember was how Dr. Criswell welcomed those who responded during the invitation. I especially remember a woman who came to join the church. Dr. Criswell said something very much like this: “I see here that you’re an English teacher. How wonderful. God bless you. Did you know that my bachelor’s degree was in English? If I was anything in all-of-the-world other than a preacher of the gospel, I would be an English teacher. God bless you dear woman. God bless you. Welcome to First Baptist Church.”

He made that woman feel like a million bucks! His words were spoken warmly and personally. He looked directly at her as he spoke to her, giving her his full attention and appreciation, before speaking with equal warmth and welcome to the others who responded that evening.

Welcoming newcomers and new members into our churches in a warm, joyful and pleasant manner is extremely important. Some churches do this well. Some do not. With that in mind, I would like to offer some things to consider when welcoming guests and new members into your church.

First, the welcome begins with the invitation. Few people attend a church for the first time unless they are invited to do so. Church attenders who love their church, and believe in what God is doing through their church, are the best “inviters,” and they are often the best witnesses for Christ. Few church members will invite others to their church if they fear their friends won’t be welcomed and have a good experience when they attend. Thus, one thing we should strive to do is give our church attenders confidence that they can bring their friends to church gatherings with the full confidence that we won’t embarrass them by being unprepared or uninterested in their friend.

Second, the welcome continues as the newcomer parks their car and walks to the front door of the church. Most churches have greeters at the front door, but I have noticed that often these greeters are inside the church and do not open the doors for people as they approach. Walking up to a closed church door can be intimidating for a newcomer, especially an unchurched newcomer. Train your greeters to open the door and welcome people “as they approach the door,” not after they enter the building.

Third, place greeters inside the worship center, with specific instructions to look for those who might be newcomers. Don’t put a “greeter badge” on these greeters. They should simply be friendly people who make sure all attending are warmly welcomed. Also, they can help the newcomer get infants into the nursery or preschool area, and in other ways make sure their needs are met and their questions answered. If they can follow up with the newcomers after the service, thanking them for attending and offering any needed assistance, that is even better. This method of greeting is more helpful than a “formal greeting time” during the worship service when everyone is invited to greet others.

Fourth, contact newcomers within 24 hours. Give them a phone call at the very least. Bringing a gift to their door, with a “thankyou” for attending, and making yourself available to answer questions, is even better. A personal note from the pastor, or another person in the church, is a good follow-up to the phone call or personal visit.

Fifth, connect newcomers and new members to as many church members as possible. Small group leaders and ministry leaders need to connect with new people and help them find their place in the fellowship of the church. As you introduce new members to the church, have the person who invited them stand with them. Also, invite their small group leader stand with them. Certainly, the person who led them to faith in Christ is vital to connecting them to others in the church.

Sixth, invite new members, or newcomers, into your home. When I was a pastor we had new member fellowships in our home. We invited them in small groups and used this time to get better acquainted, answer questions, and help them feel personally connected to our family and to the church family. We also hosted Sunday school/Bible class groups in our home, with the goal that every member of our church would be in our home. This was much easier than me, as the pastor, trying to visit the homes of all of our members, and I believe it was more effective in extending a warm, personal welcome to our church.

I did not take the job with Arco Oil Company in Dallas. Instead we moved to Ft. Worth nine months later to attend seminary. We visited FBC Dallas a couple of times and did get to hear Dr. Criswell preach. But interestingly, it was the warm manner in which he spoke to individuals that I most remember. I suspect that what people most remember about us is how we treat them individually. For this reason, it is very important to plan well how you and your church welcome newcomers.

Give Me a Good Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prison Outhouse was the Only Place We Could Worship

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Something that I regularly do is check a couple of websites for articles on the persecution of Christians. One site is http://www.persecution.org and another is http://www.opendoorsusa.org. Today I read an article on Open Doors (an organization founded by Brother Andrew for those of you who remember him) that I thought I would repost to my blog.

For those of you who are pastors or Bible teachers, I highly recommend that you check sites like these. On them you will learn some of what is happening with and to believers worldwide. You will also read stories that you can share with your church. When we read such stories it helps us to put things in better perspective. It is so easy to get bothered by things that, in the end, are trivial or silly when compared to what Christians are facing elsewhere. So the article below comes from Open Doors and the author is Emily Fuentes, dated January 13, 2016.

Hea Woo’s Story

The sharp, cold wind blew through the prison cell, but Hea Woo could hardly feel it… she could hardly feel anything. “I was within hours of death; sick, malnourished and frozen from the deplorable conditions of the prison cell,” shared Hea Woo. “I didn’t think I would be alive to be used by God. I didn’t think I would ever see the outside of the prison cell.”

But then something happened that would change Hea Woo’s life and the lives of many fellow prisoners. “I felt God stir a fire in my heart to share the gospel with others in prison.”

Hea Woo knew that this was impossible for many reasons; The prison guards were capable of murdering anyone who shared about Christianity. And she also didn’t know which prisoners would report her if she did share the gospel message.

For three long days, Hea Woo tried to ignore the calling God had placed on her heart. But after three days she could ignore it no longer, as God had given her very specific instructions.

“Share your cornmeal with another prisoner.” It did not seem like much, but when Hea Woo gave her cornmeal to a fellow prisoner, she literally gave them life. “I realized that was my calling- to bring life to those who were dying. By giving my own food, I was able to give them life and make a sacrifice of my own. This opened up many possibilities to share about Christ.”

One by one more and more prisoners were interested in hearing about Christ, as they were amazed by Hea Woo’s sacrifice. She had to be wise about the best ways to minister to others and the safest place to fellowship, so she prayed for guidance.

“God placed it on my heart: The outhouse of the prison was the only place we could worship.” And so they worshipped God in the most lowly and unlikely place. In that outhouse, they were free to fellowship and worship, even though they were in prison in North Korea.

After several years, Hea Woo was able to leave North Korea, but the mark she left is still felt in the country. God used her to bring several people to Christ, heal many and start several house churches.
Today, more than 50,000 to 70,000 Christians remain in North Korean prison camps. Learn more about how you can help these believers.

*Representative names to protect persecuted Christians

Friendship Matters: Loving Our Homosexual Neighbors

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I spent the early part of this week at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The highlights were the Tuesday evening prayer service in which thousands gathered to pray for spiritual awakening in our lives, our churches, and our nation; followed by a missionary commission service on Wednesday morning. Although these were the highlights, the matter that has captured national attention is the stand we took upholding traditional marriage as defined and described by the Bible. This subject was timely, and necessary, because of the imminent Supreme Court decision on whether same-sex marriage will be deemed a constitutional right. If it is deemed a “right,” there will be serious implications for all believers, churches and religious institutions. Indeed, we are already seeing this happen in the Northwest, where same-sex marriage has been made legal in Washington by popular vote.

The Northwest Baptist Convention of churches has already taken a step to address this matter by affirming the Baptist Faith and Message as our statement of faith. The BF&M describes God’s plan for marriage as a union between one man and one woman, for life. As an NWBC member church, your church is protected, in part, by this statement of faith. Ashley Seuell, attorney with the Northwest Baptist Foundation, has drafted a document that can provide further help in this matter.

The discussion of same-sex relationships that I found most helpful at the SBC was a panel discussion which included a university professor who had lived as a lesbian, but whom Christ saved, delivering her from her unbelief, and ultimately also delivered her from her homosexual lifestyle. Her name is Dr. Rosaria Butterfield and I want to briefly describe for you what she said.

First, she said that friendship matters. Her journey to Christ began through friendship with a pastor and his wife. They ate in each other’s homes. They welcomed her into their lives. When she decided to write a book about why Christians “hate” people like her, they encouraged her to read the Bible as part of her research. She took the challenge and read the entire Bible seven times in two years. The result of her time in God’s Word was that she wanted Jesus. She wanted the Jesus she came to know through the Scriptures. She was powerfully drawn to Him. In describing her salvation she said, “I wasn’t converted out of homosexuality. I was converted out of unbelief. Then God went to work on the rest.”

One of Dr. Butterfield’s primary lessons for the church is this: We need to be an accessible community where unbelievers are welcomed and friendship is real. Friendship matters. Friendship in which there are no conditions is vital to reaching people. Butterfield said that the homosexual world provided her with community, and it was critical to her conversion that the pastor and his wife provided community as well.

As I heard her speak about the need for Christians to truly befriend unbelievers, I thought of the late British missionary Leslie Newbigin, who spoke of two conversions. First, unbelievers are converted to the church, or some part of the church. Then they are converted to Christ. He meant by this that people first ask questions like, “Do I like those people? Do I want to spend time with them? Are their lives attractive?” Only when they receive satisfactory answers to these questions do they listen to the gospel message that we proclaim.

A matter related to friendship is the words we use to help deliver people from unbelief. Butterfield said, “Your words should be no stronger than your relationship.” That is a wise statement. As Christians, we are commanded not simply to speak the truth, but to speak the truth in love. Love is communicated through relationship. To say that we love all people is theoretical. It is philosophical. Love requires relationship, which brings us back to Dr. Butterfield’s point that the church must be accessible and friendship with unbelievers must be real. This is the context in which we become legitimate and our words will find consideration in the hearts and minds of unbelieving friends.

Same-sex marriage will remain an issue in the Northwest, regardless of what the Supreme Court does, because Washington residents have voted for it. Churches will have to deal with it, as will individual Christians because of how it affects the work-place, and even our own families. Already one of our churches lost their place of worship because the owner of the building objected to the church’s view on same-sex marriage. But these challenges do not remove Jesus’ command that we love our neighbors. Friendship provides the avenue for love, and, we pray, for transformed lives.