Checklist for Planning a Worship Service

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Recently I led a seminar for the Columbia Basin Baptist Association on planning a worship service. The following is the handout I used and I thought it might be helpful to others who plan worship services.

A classic and helpful understanding of corporate worship was given by Soren Kierkegaard more than 150 years ago. He said that in a service of worship God is the audience, the congregants are the performers, and the pastor is the prompter. If this is a correct, and I believe that it is, then worship needs to be directed toward God with the intent of pleasing Him. Worship leaders are to lead congregants to “perform” for God, to engage with God, in thought and heart and behavior. Worshippers are not consumers of religious products and the worship leaders are not the suppliers of such products.

This in no way infers that worship leaders should ignore the presence of unbelievers and church guests attending a service of Christian worship. Worship services are a major entry way into churches and into the Kingdom for the unbeliever. As missionaries have identified, unbelievers experience two “conversions” as they come to Christ. First, they are converted to us. Second, they are converted to Christ. They first ask the question, “Do I like/respect these church people?” If they do, then they will listen to what we say about Christ. Worship leaders must guide the congregants with clarity and understanding, much like a Holy Land tour guide explains each step of the pilgrim’s journey through Jerusalem. With this in mind, the following checklist is helpful in worship planning.

1. Prayer

a. For what do we need to pray? What do we need to say to God? What do we need to hear from God? Even as the pastor prepares his sermon, he should prepare to lead the congregation in prayer by making a prayer list as the week passes.
b. When will we pray? Beginning of the service? Pastoral prayer? End of service?
c. Who will lead in prayer? Methods of praying that will be employed?

2. God’s Word, the Bible

a. What passages will we read and when will we read them?
b. Who will we select to read God’s Word? (Pastor/preacher, men, women, children)
c. Is the reading of God’s Word a central act of our worship?

3. Music/singing

a. What do we want to teach through the song(s)? Does the song teach biblical truths?
b. Does the congregation know the song?
c. Is the song singable? Is the music in a range that men and women can sing?
d. Does the song magnify God and exalt Jesus Christ?
e. Do any of the songs mention Jesus? The gospel?
f. Does the music leader engage the congregation and lead them to sing? (eye contact, facial expression, smile, good use of transitions between songs)
g. When using a “praise team,” does each member sing every verse? If not, what does this communicate to the congregation?
h. Caution: worship music can sometimes become performance rather than leading the congregation to participate, making the congregation the audience rather than God.

4. Testimonies

a. Is there someone who can share a testimony that connects to the theme of the message and the Scripture?
b. Has someone experienced God and the church would benefit from hearing their story?
c. New believer testimonies, including young people?
d. Testimonies of sharing Christ with a lost person?

5. Message/sermon

a. What biblical text does God want me to preach/teach?
b. What is the central truth of the text?
c. How and when will I read the text? When I do, how should I hold the Bible?
d. How will the text and its truth be communicated and applied?
e. Big Question for the preacher – Do you believe what you say, or is this just helpful information or good advice?
f. Am I preaching to those present?
g. What do I want the congregation to know, believe or do as a result of the message?
h. Am I aiming for the heart and not just the head?
i. Who attending needs to know Christ as Savior or follow Him in baptism?
j. Is PowerPoint helpful?
k. Is the message internalized?
l. What level of eye contact do I seek to maintain (at least 80 percent)?

6. Opportunity to respond to God’s call

a. How will we give people the opportunity to say “yes” to Christ?
b. Methods of response/invitation? Will we use multiple methods?
c. How will we share with the congregation decisions for Christ that are made in the worship service?
d. How will we welcome new believers and new members into the church?

7. How will you receive the offering (the correct word is “receive,” not “take”)? How can we do stewardship education as we prepare to receive the offering? Is there information we can share about how this offering will be used in God’s work?

8. Is there something we can celebrate or highlight as we worship?

9. Is our worship “indigenous?” i.e. using the gifts and talents of the people God has given us?

10. If a lost person, or a person unfamiliar with our church, attends today, would he know what to do during every aspect of the service? Are we assuming people know how to find a biblical text, have a Bible, or that they know the stories of the Bible, or that they know when to sing, etc.? How can we make everything clear and helpful to a guest?

11. How do we give new people an opportunity to learn about Christ and our church?

12. Are there opportunities to express joy and gratitude as we worship?

The pastor/preacher is the worship leader of the church because he is the church’s theologian by the call of God, spiritual gifting, educational training, and the call of the church. As a part of his calling, therefore, the pastor must give direction as to the content and flow of the worship service. Worship planning can be done as a team, and it’s generally best to do it that way. But the pastor knows what he’s trying to accomplish through the message and the worship service should flow from that.

In addition, wise pastors know that vision transfers through people not paper. The vision that God gives a pastor (the source of the vision must be from God) must be transferred into the hearts of the people in order for it to become the vision of the church. This is a key job of the pastor as servant-leader. The worship service provides the pastor his best opportunity to lead the church into God’s preferred future.

In Times Like These We Need Confidence in the Gospel

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When missionary Lesslie Newbigin returned to Great Britain from India he said that he found a greater mission field in Britain than he had left in India. Key to this was his observation that Indian believers had confidence in the gospel and those in Britain did not. Christians with whom Newbigin worked in India believed in the power of Christ’s shed blood to wash away sin and guilt. They believed that death had been defeated through the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. They believed in the power of the Holy Spirit to raise a repentant sinner from death to life. But things were different with the church-goers he encountered in Britain. They were timid and apologetic in the face of a culture that was increasingly hostile to, and dismissive of, biblical truth. It shocked him.

What Newbigin experienced in Britain is far too common in American churches today. Thank God Baptists have not abandoned biblical truth as some have. But that is not to say we haven’t too often neglected to teach and live the truth we claim to believe. Denial of Bible truth is three steps too far for a good Baptist. We wouldn’t do that. But neglecting to teach the truth, and demonstrating a lack of confidence in the transformative power of the Gospel to bring eternal life, is much too common for far too many.

So how do we restore the confidence of God’s people in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Let me suggest a few things.

First, pastors and Bible teachers must be convinced that the Gospel is true and we must teach it with confidence. The first question a listener has of any speaker/teacher is, “Does he believe what he says?” We have abundant reasons to have confidence in the gospel because it is supported by historical events. Our faith is not a leap into the dark. Our faith is not mere philosophy. It is history. Our Savior did things and said things in history. Peter, James and John and Matthew and the others changed the world because they heard Jesus speak. They saw Him act. They watched Him die. They saw Him raised. They touched and spoke to our resurrected Lord. They watched Him ascend back to heaven. And then they travelled the world for the next 30 years and more, preaching this good news until most of them surrendered their own lives in a martyr’s death.

These are some of the historical facts of our faith. There are many more. We have reason to be confident that Jesus Christ lived, died, was raised, and that one day He will return to judge the living and the dead. Our preaching and teaching must reflect our strong confidence in the gospel message.

Second, when believers gather for worship our gatherings must be saturated with confident, gospel praying. The reading and preaching of the Word of God must be the central act of our worship. And Scripture reading must be restored to a place of primacy in worship. We should sing gospel songs that speak of Jesus and what He has done and what He will one day do.

There was a time that Baptist worship services were characterized by Kingdom and gospel praying, the singing of gospel songs (songs that teach and celebrate who Jesus is and what He did on the Cross), the reading of Scripture, and a message from the Scripture. From my observation, most Baptist sermons focus on proclaiming and applying the teaching of a particular biblical text. That’s good. But much of our praying and singing does not reflect on gospel truths and kingdom concerns, and we rarely hear Scripture readings in our worship services. I believe most of our churches could benefit greatly by adding more Scripture and prayer to our worship services, and by including some songs whose lyrics present and declare gospel truths and actually use the name “Jesus.”

Third, the witness of each local church is more vibrant and confident when the church is sent into the world from a worship experience in which gospel power was expressed and experienced. When God’s people are confident in the power of Christ to change lives, and when we express and experience this in corporate worship, we are more likely to live our faith positively and confidently.

One of the tragedies of a presidential election year in the United States is that the term “evangelical” is associated with a particular political candidate. “Who do the evangelicals support?” is a familiar question in news reports, which makes evangelical Christians (including Baptists) sound like we’re a political organization. Even worse, I fear people think that we believe the church’s agenda is accomplished through politics (and maybe some of us believe that too!) rather than gospel witness.

It’s not that we don’t have a legitimate interest and concern regarding who our political leaders are. We do and we should. But the bottom line is that the only thing the church has is Jesus and the gospel of His saving grace. We don’t have good ideas. We don’t have political clout. We don’t have strategies or programs or anything other thing that remotely compares to Jesus’ presence and His power to replace a heart of stone with a heart for Him. Gospel preaching, gospel singing, gospel praying, all of which flows from God’s Word, that’s where the power is. In times like these, the old hymn says, we need a Savior. That we do. And that we have. Rejoice and be glad! Be confident in Him!

P.S. This morning in my devotional time I read Jeremiah 9:1 in which the prophet writes, “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.” I don’t pretend to know the sorrow that Jeremiah knew as he watched the utter destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the slaughter of thousands. But like many of you, I’ve felt anger, and, at times, a depressed resignation when I look at the goings on in our nation. The one thing, the only thing, that grabs me by the throat and awakens me to what is really real, is God’s Word and my confidence in Him. When I consider the glories of Christ, my hope and my joy soon returns.

The Praying Pastor

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When the congregation gathers it doesn’t need nor does it expect “cool” and “hip” in the pulpit. What the congregation needs and wants (whether or not they articulate it) is a word addressed to God and a Word from God.

That thought came to me this morning as I was praying and thinking about our churches. I have written about this before, but I am really burdened by the need for more prayer in our church gatherings. The prayers offered are usually quite brief, lacking depth and breadth in terms of Kingdom matters. I realize that sounds judgmental, but please know that I am too often guilty of the same. Too often when I consider myself and my ministry there is more doing than praying, and, even worse, there is doing without praying.

I know the Bible well enough to know that God’s people experience utter disaster unless He shows up and takes action. I believe Paul expressed something similar about himself when he said “I am unspiritual” (NIV) or “I am carnal” (KJV) (Romans 7:14). What did an unspiritual Apostle Paul do? I think he sometimes acted without prayer or made decisions based on experience or human reasoning without seeking God’s mind on matters.

So what do I mean by the congregation needing to hear a word addressed to God? I mean that they need to hear God’s man speaking to God on their behalf, leading them to the Throne, confessing sin, asking for forgiveness, interceding for the lost and the persecuted and the missionaries and the leaders and the servants of God. God’s man pouring his heart out to God as the congregation listens and engages with their hearts. It’s not that others cannot and should not lead in prayer when the congregation gathers, but the pastor must do so. No one prepares and plans for the Sunday meeting like the one who occupies the pulpit.

Leonard Ravenhill tells the story of a special worship gathering involving many pastors. Each pastor was to do only one thing. One would pray, one would read the Scriptures, another would preach, and one would appeal for the offering. Charles Spurgeon was chosen as the one to preach, but as he heard explained how things were going to work, the famed preacher said, “If there is only one thing that I may do tonight, I want to offer the prayer” (Revival Praying, p. 80). Wise man.

We preachers must lead our people in prayer and teach prayer, and we teach prayer by praying with and for our people. We hear a great deal today about great preachers. We need to hear more about preachers who pray and who lead their people to pray for the great concerns of God’s Kingdom.

Without question, pastoring a church is more difficult today than at any time in recent memory. We have churches in the Northwest that are discussing whether to admit into membership, or employ in the church (yes, I’ve had one phone call about this), individuals involved with marijuana in some way. Our churches and church members are dealing with same-sex marriage and transgender issues. We are in the midst of a presidential election campaign with two deeply flawed candidates, and this too is causing discord among Christian leaders and in some churches.

All of that is to say that pastors need prayer, and need to pray, more than ever. If you’re a lay person, please pray for your pastor and be his friend. More than once the encouragement of a layman helped me to do the right thing when I was a pastor. Pastors, more than any other person, earnestly strive to speak the truth in love and dispense grace, while also being faithful to reprove, rebuke and correct us when we go astray. They need our prayers.

If you’re a pastor, do not delegate all of the public praying to others. If the pastor is to lead in only two things, it would be the teaching of the Word of God and prayer. No one is better positioned to know the needs of the church and community than the pastor. And no one cares more, or thinks more deeply about Kingdom matters with each approaching Sunday, than the pastor. As you study to prepare the Sunday sermon, think also about the matters you want to address in prayer that Sunday. Take notes, make a list of those matters with which you want to approach God while worshipping with your people.

One final question – who have you heard that really knows how to pray? I can think of a few, but too few. That bothers me less, however, than wondering if my name would come to anyone’s mind when asked that question.

Lord, have mercy, and teach me to pray.

Churches Old and New

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Let’s start with the numbers. In the 2015 church year, churches that were established or affiliated with the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) from 2011-2015 baptized 224 persons and gave $169,340 to missions through the Cooperative Program (CP). Churches established and affiliated between 2006-2010 baptized 335 persons and gave $130,143 to missions through CP. Churches older than 2006 baptized 1,447 and gave $2,423,637 to missions through CP.

This means that churches older than five years of age baptized 89 percent of those baptized in our NWBC churches, and these same churches gave 93.8 percent of the mission dollars through CP. Churches more than ten years old performed 72 percent of all baptisms and gave 89 percent of the CP mission dollars.
For the past several years much attention and ministry focus of Southern Baptist denominational entities (associational, state and regional, and national) has been on church planting. Church planting has occupied a significant portion of my own ministry, both as a pastor and as a denomination leader in two state conventions. My involvement in church planting is convictional. It is based on my understanding of how people have been reached for Christ throughout history, both in the United States and beyond.

A pithy expression that I sometimes use is “whoever has the most churches wins.” This statement is based on the observation that the group with the most churches also has the most weekly worshippers (whether they accomplish the most for the Kingdom is another question). This has been true throughout the entire history of our nation (see Rodney Stark’s The Churching of America). Southern Baptists have more church attenders than Methodists because we have more churches and Methodists have more attenders than Episcopalians for the same reason. Likewise, the Bible belt is what it is because there are more churches there than in the Northwest where I serve. The Northwest Baptist Convention has 466 churches, but if we had the same density of churches as Mississippi or Oklahoma we would have 8,000 churches or 5,000 churches respectively. That’s why Mississippi and Oklahoma are the Bible belt and Washington and Oregon and Idaho are not.

The statement “whoever has the most churches wins” is not meant to convey that we reach people by planting new churches. New churches are, or should be, the result of evangelism. Church planters focus on reaching unchurched people, leading them to Christ, and gathering them into the new church. From what I can see, that is what our Northwest church planters are doing. But pastors of established churches lead their people to do the same thing, reach people for Christ and bring them into the church fellowship. So, when asked what our greatest need is, I always say that we need more pastors and evangelistic church planting pastors. If you have them, you’ll have more churches and you’ll have healthier churches. Evangelists and church planter/gatherers precede having more churches.

Though we must never diminish our efforts to send out missionary church planters who focus on reaching peoples from among all the peoples inhabiting our nation, the fact is the great majority of the gospel work being done in the Northwest, and throughout the United States, is being done by established churches. Moreover, most of the Cooperative Program mission dollars are given by established churches. This is not to say that established churches are necessarily more generous in their support of missions, nor are they necessarily more evangelistic in their behaviors. It is simply recognizing that most people who attend church are in established churches, and if we do not seek to help these churches remain and regain health and evangelistic effectiveness, we are missing our most significant opportunity to reach people “today” with the good news of Jesus Christ. Moreover, it’s important that we continue to acknowledge and say “thank you” to the faithful churches that built, and continue to build and support, who we are as Northwest Baptists and Southern Baptists.

Our younger churches are a significant part of our present ministry and they will be a growing part of our future ministry. Also, if in the Northwest we hope to increase the percent of our people who know Christ and attend church, we need to continually call out evangelists and church planter/gatherers. Planting new churches will always be a high priority.

That said, we must never forget, and never neglect, those churches long since established. Most of the gospel work is being done through them. And most of the support for new churches is being given by them. Some of these churches have enjoyed continuous ministry for over 100 years. Imagine that! We have churches in the Northwest who have met weekly, preaching the gospel and worshipping Jesus, without fail, for 30, 40, 50 years and more. Our oldest church is the Baptist Church on Homedale in Klamath Falls, OR (formerly the First Baptist Church before a merger with another church) founded in 1884 as Mt. Zion Baptist Church. We thank God for you!

So consider this a “shout-out” to churches old and new, without which the NWBC and the SBC would cease to exist as a people cooperating in gospel work to the glory of our God.

The Offering – An Overlooked Opportunity

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Attending a different church each week (three different churches last Sunday!) has educated me on the variety of ways churches do worship. One aspect of worship that most churches could greatly improve upon is the offering.

Churches use a variety of methods to receive the tithes and offerings of God’s people. Some place offering boxes near the entrances to the worship center. Those who use this method usually mention the offering boxes at the same time they welcome guests. Typically they ask guests to fill out an information card and place it in the offering box. At this time they remind the congregation that they can deposit their offering in the box as well.

Other churches “pass the plate” or a basket at some time during the worship service, giving the congregation an opportunity to place their offering in the plate as it passes before them. When this is done, it should be mentioned that the offering is a part of worship, and that this is the church’s opportunity to give back to God a part of what He has given to them.

Another method of receiving the offering which is becoming increasingly popular is online giving. Giving via the internet is convenient for those who do not attend church regularly because of work or travel schedules. One downside of online giving is that there are fees attached to credit-card-giving.

Perhaps the most troublesome method of giving I have witnessed is that of giving your offering directly to the church treasurer. Yes, I have been in at least one church that did not want guests to feel obligated to give, and because their church was small, and every attender knew and trusted the church treasurer, they simply gave their offering to him! There are number of problems with that method, not the least of which is the offering is not an obvious act of worship, but rather a way to make sure the church has the funds to “pay the bills.”

Methods of giving aside, my overall impression is that most churches are missing two significant opportunities when they receive the offering. The first missed opportunity is failure to make the offering a part of the worship experience of the giver. Whatever method of receiving the offering you use, there should be something said about the offering being a gift to God, that it is something which pleases God, and investing our treasure in God’s work reveals something of what it is in our hearts (Matthew 6:21). In some way, connect the offering to worship.

Secondly, each week educate the church on how their financial gifts are making a difference in Kingdom work. When the offering is received give the church a specific example of how their gifts are being used to bless God and His Kingdom. For example, last Sunday I was in a church that had just completed Vacation Bible School. The decorations were up, and the children sang two VBS songs to begin the worship service. When the offering was received, this provided an opportunity to thank the congregation for their financial gifts and to tell them that through their faithful giving the church was able to provide VBS, giving facts and figures about the children who attended and the decisions for Christ that were made.

Each week tell the church one story about how their offerings are being used. Tell the story of a missionary the church is supporting through the cooperative program. Thank the church for supporting this missionary through their faithful giving. Bible study literature, Bibles that are given away, scholarships for children’s camp, food for needy families, support for a new church plant – these are just some of the things that can be mentioned week-by-week, helping the church attach Kingdom ministry to their financial giving.

Educating a church about biblical stewardship is a challenge. Most pastors preach too little on matters of giving. I know I did. But we don’t have to preach about financial stewardship to educate the church on the matter. We can do a little each week as we receive the tithes and offerings of God’s people. In this way we can keep it positive as we thank the church for investing in these ministries through their giving.

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.

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.

Collaborative Ministry Vibrant in the Northwest

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In the past few weeks we have witnessed the abundant fruit of collaboration among our Northwest Baptist churches. It’s been very encouraging! On April 12 the semi-annual meeting of the Central Washington Baptist Association focused on missions. Wapato’s First Baptist Church was nearly full as pastors and church members gathered to share stories of new church plants, collegiate ministry, and various mission trips that Central Association’s member churches are doing. One thing I learned is that Wapato, a town of about 5,000 souls, is 76 percent Hispanic. Spanish is so dominant that the menu of the restaurant in which Paula and I ate was in Spanish – with no English translation. Who would have guessed it?

On April 21 the semi-annual meeting of the Inland Empire Baptist Association also focused on missions. Dayspring Baptist Church in Rathdrum, ID hosted the meeting which nearly filled the church. Several churches set up displays highlighting their mission’s involvement. Reports were given about associational camps and ministries, demonstrating that when churches work together we can accomplish ministry that has far-reaching impact.

On April 23 we had a truly historic one-day training event at our NWBC building in Vancouver, WA, in which 160 mission team members, from over 30 Northwest Baptist churches, gathered to prepare for our East Asia mission trip this summer (July 28 to August 11). Our convention of churches will serve all of our East Asia IMB missionaries and their children. This is their first such retreat since 2009, and with all of the changes at the IMB (1,132 missionaries and staff leaving the field in the past few months), this retreat is extremely important. More than 140 missionaries in East Asia have left the field, but still we expect about 1,200 missionaries and children at this retreat. The response of our pastors and churches to this unique opportunity has been overwhelming and truly humbling. No one church could do something like this, but together, collaboratively, it’s amazing what God can do with us. Even if your church is not sending a team member, your prayers and Cooperative Program missions giving make you a part of the team that will minister to our East Asia missionaries.

On April 25-27, 268 church planters, spouses, children, and a wonderful group of volunteers (who provided VBS to the 105 children of our church planters), gathered at Cannon Beach for our annual Church Planter’s Retreat. The focus was on evangelism. It involved both training and inspiration, reminding each of us that new churches are intended to be gatherings of new believers, not new gatherings of longtime Christians. We are grateful to God for leading these families to plant their lives in communities and neighborhoods that are underserved with gospel witness.

On April 15-16 our annual NWBC Women’s Summit hosted 153 women from 48 churches. Twenty-two breakouts were provided, focusing on the theme “Go Deeper with God.” Nancy Hall leads our women’s ministry as a volunteer and provides outstanding service to our churches and our women.

In addition to all of this, Riviera Baptist Church in Eugene hosted a Region 4 leadership training event on April 9 in which 61 preschool and children’s workers received training, as did several others. A similar training event will be hosted by Airway Heights Baptist Church on May 14 for churches in Region 5.

April ended with our annual Student Conference, in which more than 400 young people and their leaders, from 31 churches, gathered at Greater Gresham Baptist Church. About 30 made decisions for Christ!

As I think back over the last month, gratitude fills my heart for the pastors and leaders of our churches. They are doing the frontline work of ministry. They are walking by faith. And they are walking together with their ministry brothers. Their churches are cooperating associationally and within the convention to do missions and evangelistic work.

Which reminds me – on May 23-25 we have our biennial “Oasis Retreat” for pastors, staff and wives in Seaside, OR. Over 200 have enrolled, which we believe is our largest group ever (though it goes back 40 years so we aren’t certain of that). Paula and I have been preparing for the past couple of months to minister to our pastors and wives during these days and we are praying that each participant will experience true spiritual refreshment. Please pray for our Northwest pastors and spouses. They are godly people who love Jesus, love His Church, and want to hear from Him, “Well done, good and faithful servant” on a day soon to come.

Trust: The Irreplaceable Currency of Voluntary Missionary Movements

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High trust societies prosper; low trust societies don’t. Nearly 20 years ago my wife started an import business to help missionaries in South Asia secure business visas. She imported from a country that manufactured unique jewelry, carpets and clothing. The business was successful in that several missionaries received long-term visas. Financially, though, it was not profitable. A primary reason behind the lack of profit was that the people from whom she imported always skimmed some of the products.

Economists know that prosperous nations have high levels of trust, enabling them to develop banks, stock markets and legal systems that operate with an integrity that builds trust. Poor nations are generally low in trust, often extending little trust of anyone beyond family, ethnic group, or religion.

When I think about the work we do together as Baptists, I am amazed that a voluntary missionary movement such as ours has prospered in miraculous ways – and that is what the Southern Baptist (SB) denomination is – a voluntary missionary movement – an incredibly successful one at that. While we grieve the recent downsizing of the International Mission Board (983 missionaries have left the field, plus 149 stateside staff), it’s remarkable that 3,941 international missionaries are being sustained through the voluntary missions support of Southern Baptists (as of 2/23/16).

In addition, more than 900 churches are being planted each year in North America, 18,000 seminary students are being trained, and thousands more are sharpening their skills and strengthening their hearts through training and events, and so much more. The SB voluntary missionary movement includes dozens of colleges and universities, collegiate ministries, children’s homes, and, at one time, hospitals. The currency that has been irreplaceable in moving our missionary movement forward is trust and good will. More than the almighty dollar, Southern Baptists, and our Northwest Baptist network, have enjoyed a level of trust that has enabled our now 46,000 churches to do Kingdom work together, even during difficult days.

However, while God’s work through the SB voluntary missionary movement has been remarkable, it is not inevitable that God will continue to bless us and use us to bring the gospel to our nation and our world. Jesus said that the gates of Hades will not prevail against His Church, and we believe this absolutely, but local churches do die, and denominations and missionary movements have died as well. The Church continues, but local expressions of the Church have no such guarantee. Have you ever visited the churches that Paul founded in Ephesus, Corinth, or Philippi? Neither have I because those churches no longer exist. In 1776 the Congregationalists had the greatest number of churches in America. Today they are blip on the screen of American church life.

Glossy optimism about the voluntary missionary movement that is Southern Baptist is not warranted. The facts (baptisms, missionaries on the field, new churches planted) indicate that our missionary movement has not only ceased moving forward, but we have actually taken steps backward. Some become uncomfortable when such things are pointed out, but I believe that we must face things as they really are, including how we got to where we are, if we hope to regain momentum in our grand mission endeavor.

For effectiveness to continue and grow, we must build and grow the “trust bank.” How do we do that? Here is a thesis statement for you to consider: Trust results from the credibility of the leader, and the confidence that the leader acts in the best interest of the organization. Believing this to be true, I want to offer several essentials for building and maintaining trust. Please note, though I have referenced the larger missionary movement that we call the SBC, these principles apply to any voluntary missionary movement, including the regional convention that I lead, or that of the local church.

The key to a missionary movement is leadership. Voluntary missionary movements require leaders who:

1. Believe in the missionary movement that they lead. This may seem obvious, but some leaders only believe in the movement “when they are the leader.” The most effective, trust-building leaders are chosen to lead because they demonstrated belief in the movement even before they came to lead it. We see this in the Bible over and again (Acts 6:3; 1 Thess. 2; 1 Tim. 3; many Old Testament examples, with David being one of the best because he fought a giant for his God and country before he became king). Southern Baptists hearts are united by a cause, the Great Commission, but we are also united by the means we have chosen to engage our cause, namely working together cooperatively, which includes the Cooperative Program. To be a Southern Baptist means we believe that the Great Commission is our commission, and that a primary method to fulfilling it is through CP missions.

2. Develop strong and healthy relationships with others who lead the missionary movement. Voluntary missionary movements require trust, and trust is built through relationship. We see an example of this in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and we see it throughout Paul’s letters.

3. Are transparent and open to inquiry and accountability. In a voluntary missionary movement, no one is more accountable than the leader. Strong, secure leaders invite inquiry and discussion. Restricting speech will destroy a voluntary missionary movement. “Trust the Lord and tell the people” is an old Baptist saying.

4. Always keep their word and act with integrity. Always.

5. Explain their actions, giving the “why?” as well as the “what?” Knowing “why” a particular course of action was taken, especially if the decision is controversial, will preserve and build trust because it demonstrates respect toward others in the missionary movement. Again, we see this in Acts 15. We see it throughout Paul’s communication with various churches as he explained himself and his teaching.

6. Admit and explain failure. Repent and ask forgiveness when they sin.

7. Think and plan for the long-term. Christopher Columbus, yes, the one who “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492, believed that he was extending Christianity, and that through his efforts and those of others, Jesus could return in about 150 years. Jonathan Edwards, the great revivalist and preacher, wrote in the 1740s that the last people he expected to be reached for Christ were the Muslims, and that by the year 2,000 Jesus could return. He was looking forward 250 years. Leaders of voluntary missionary movements serve as though Jesus could return tomorrow, but they don’t “sell the farm,” trading tomorrow for today.

Those of us who lead aspects of the Southern Baptist missionary movement, whether we are local church pastors, associational or denominational leaders, inherited the trust and good will built by our forefathers. Just as inherited wealth tends to dissipate over time, trust and good will can easily be eroded over time if it is not stewarded well. When a voluntary missionary movement loses these, it loses everything.

Many years ago I read Jay Winik’s book titled April 1865: The Month that Saved America, which focused on the final month of the American Civil War. It was a fascinating book, the thesis of which was that it was not inevitable that the war ended the way that it did, allowing for the United States to reunite and eventually become one again. To paraphrase, he said that great men did great things, at the right time. Had Lincoln, Lee and Grant chosen differently, we would live in a different world today.

God is sovereign. He will accomplish His agenda. But it would be presumption, not faith, to say that God has to bless us and use us to get His work done. As leaders of a Bible class, a church, or an agency that serves churches, we must do all we can to build trust, so that God alone gets the glory as He uses us in ways greater than ever.

What of Those who will never claim the Prize?

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I’ve been reading through Deuteronomy the last few weeks during my morning devotional time. This amazing book records Moses’ final spoken words to Israel before his death. It is rich with content and contains a powerful message for us today, multiple messages really. But one that has stayed with me for many days is Moses’ plea to God that he be allowed to enter the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 3:23-28 we read that Moses “begged the Lord … please let me cross over and see the beautiful land on the other side of the Jordan…. But the Lord was angry with me … and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, ‘That’s enough! Do not speak to me again about this matter’ … But commission Joshua and encourage and strengthen him, for he will cross over ahead of the people and enable them to inherit this land.”

There is great emotion and sadness in this story. For 40 years Moses had led God’s people. With humility and faithfulness he led them and prayed for them and protected them. But in the end, only two men above the age of 20 when they left Egypt were allowed to enter the Promised Land – Joshua and Caleb. All the others died. The wilderness was littered with their corpses for 40 years. Then, when all above age 60 were dead, save Joshua and Caleb, Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land.

A question that came to me is this: What did God do in Israel during those 40 years in the Wilderness? One thing He did was enable those who died to prepare the generation that would conquer and claim the land. Moses and the others fathered children, multiplied their numbers, then raised them, taught them, trained them, made disciples of them. They taught the younger generation to trust God and follow God. Moses taught Joshua leadership skills and built strength into him for the task that was to come. Then, after 40 years of funerals, when the elders were dead, the people were ready to claim God’s promise.

Imagine living your whole life knowing that you will never achieve your dreams. You will never have what God had wanted to give you, if only you had remained faithful to Him. That was the situation that Moses and the elders faced. Their sinfulness and rebellion caused them to miss a tremendous blessing. And when it did, their purpose became that of preparing their children to claim the blessing.

No one knows what tomorrow holds for any of us. But I do know this, if Jesus’ return is delayed for another decade, or century, or millennium, nothing we do is more important than making disciples of the next generation of God’s people. When I think of the lostness of the Northwest, I think of the little ones who don’t have moms and dads teaching them to love Jesus. I think of college students, 625,000 of them in the Northwest, most of whom are giving no thought as to what God wants for their life.

Whatever we are doing, we had best do all we can to teach our children and grandchildren how to walk with God, and we’d best teach the neighbor kids how to walk with God as well. Our schools and universities are mission fields. We may not live to see the next Great Awakening , the Day of the Lord, or the Glorious Day, in which case our greatest work may be the investment we make in those whom God will use on that Day.

As I see it, that was the task of those whom Moses led out of Egypt. That’s what God did through them. They lived and died so that others could conquer.

Last week I read an excellent biography of Thomas Jefferson titled American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis. One thing that Ellis noted was that the remarkable leadership of the Founding Fathers was due in part to “the self-conscious sense that the future was watching,” thus it “elevated the standards and expectations of all concerned. At least in a small way, we are complicitous in their achievement because we were the ultimate audience for their performances” (p. 300f).
As parents, pastors, leaders, it will serve us well to remember that the future, and God, are watching what we do. It is also comforting, in a way, to know that we have a part to play in the great drama of building God’s Kingdom, even if our part is preparing those who themselves will claim the promise.