Jesus Wept. Will We?

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Jesus issued commands and commissions. He also cried. The commands of Jesus instructed the church from its first days, but so too did His compassion. Jesus wept when He saw Lazarus dead (John 11:35). He was “moved with compassion” and healed those stricken by terrible diseases and malformations (Mark 1:41). He welcomed the weary and burdened (Matt. 11:28).

With all Jesus did as our sinless Savior, crucified and risen, and with all that He said that no other man could ever say, it’s the compassion of Jesus for the bruised and broken, the dirty and disfigured and damaged, that most revealed His heart. Powerful? Yes. Jesus is powerful in creation and salvation and in every other way. Wise? Jesus’ wisdom is perfect. But He also wept. He felt. He hurt. He suffered.

A few months ago, on a day when I learned some disturbing news, I woke up in the middle of the night with the words “Jesus wept” in my mind. Those words haven’t long left my thoughts since.

“Jesus wept” has challenged me personally. I fear I weep too little, and then too often for the wrong reasons.

“Jesus wept” has also spoken to me about the proper response when our ministry is weak and ineffective. The annual compilation of statistics for SBC churches was released this week. What they reveal is deeply sad. It prompted me to think, “Jesus wept. Will we?”

Before I get into the national SBC numbers, let me say I am most grateful that our Northwest churches have grown in ministry impact by almost every measure. For three consecutive years our churches have baptized more new disciples of Jesus Christ than the prior year, with 2,046 baptisms in 2016, up from 2,007 in 2015. Total worship attendance increased to 30,616 from 30,147. Total missions giving increased to $6,914,914 from $6,129,398, and Cooperative Program giving also showed a significant increase in 2016, though that is not a number included in the annual church profile report.
Probably the most important thing about the annual report is the trend line.

In the Northwest the trends are heading in the right direction, and for this I am grateful. Not that we’re beating our chests in triumphal victory. Far from it. Lostness is so great in our area that at times we wonder if we’ll ever make real progress. Half of our churches average 50 and below. It’s a struggle for many of our pastors and churches just to survive. Still, when we step back and look at the bigger picture, we are thankful to see our ministries inching forward. From the NWBC level, we feel that our focus on evangelism, missions (including church planting), and training leaders is serving our churches well. We exist to extend the missions impact of our churches and to help equip leaders in our churches. We are doing that. We believe in cooperative/collaborative work in the Northwest. This includes cooperating with our SBC partners. Our partnership with NAMB mostly involves church planting, but also some on evangelism. Our East Asia IMB partnership has proven to be a huge blessing to our missionaries and our NWBC churches. Our partnership with Gateway Seminary has had enormous impact on the Northwest as hundreds of our leaders have attended Gateway (formerly Golden Gate Seminary) and graduated from its programs with increased effectiveness.

Although my primary focus is the NWBC, as it should be, I am concerned for the SBC nationally. We are part of this important family. Consider these statistics from the 2016 annual church profile:

Baptisms – 280,773 people in 2016, down from 295,212 in 2015 for 4.89 percent decline. A decade ago we were baptizing over 350,000 people annually. We haven’t reached fewer than 300,000 since the 1940s, until the last two years. Again, the trend nationally has been downward for several years.

Worship attendance – 5.2 million weekly, which is a drop from about 5.55 million, for a 6.75 percent decline.

Church starts – 732 new church plants, down from 926 in 2015. I don’t remember when we’ve seen so few church plants. Until this decade we regularly reported over 1,200 new church plants each year.

Cooperative Program percentage – 5.16 percent of the church budget on average, down from 5.18 percent the year prior. In the Northwest the average is about 7 percent per church, for which we are most grateful. The trend toward lower CP missions giving has been going on for decades and is now less than half of what it once was.

Added to these statistics is the fact that our IMB mission force is 25 percent smaller than it was two years ago with 1,200 fewer field missionaries. Our international missions force has not only been greatly reduced in numbers, but many of those who left the field were seasoned leaders with language and cultural skills developed over ten or twenty years and more. This alone ought to make us weep.

Next week is the annual meeting of the SBC in Phoenix, AZ. While gathered we need to face the hard facts and not smooth things over with anecdotes and a few good stories. Is God at work in many of our churches and ministries? Certainly He is. But the job of leaders requires that we take the satellite view of things. We need to look at the major trend lines. We need to ask the questions, “Why? Why the decline? How did we get here? What do we need to change? How do we move forward?” I believe that we can identify reasons for our decline nationally and each denominational agency and trustee board, each convention of churches, every association and local church leader has a part to play in this. And after saying all that, my great hope is that we will drop to our knees and weep. That would be in keeping with the meeting’s theme – “Pray for such a time as this.”

The great genius of Southern Baptists is that our cooperation is voluntary. Voluntary cooperation through the Cooperative Program has enabled us to develop a system of associations, state conventions, educational institutions, and mission boards unparalleled in history. But for a voluntary system of support to thrive there must a high level of trust and respect for all partners. That’s too often missing in our work these days.

In a voluntary system, when significant problems arise, leaders are often hesitant to talk about them publically for fear that it will demotivate cooperative giving. Let me be clear, there is no other denomination or convention of churches that is doing more to reach the lost in the United States and around the world than Southern Baptists. If you know of one please tell me. We have every reason to support the SBC and to increase our support. No one sends more missionaries. No one starts more churches. No one disciples more people. No seminary system educates more preachers. But we should do better. We used to do better and we can again. If we fail our impact for Christ will grow less and less and less.

I’m going to stop there. I’m going to pray, maybe even shed a tear.

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.

Roseburg Reminds Us to Honor Our Pastors

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Last Thursday, October 1, several pastors in and near Roseburg, OR responded to the horrific murder of eight students at Umpqua Community College. Many others were wounded physically and many more were damaged emotionally, and, perhaps, spiritually. Like the hero first responders who advanced to stop the attacker and bind the wounds of the suffering, these pastors waded into an ocean of grief to pray for and comfort those whose hearts were ripped open by a wicked and violent act. And their work is not yet complete. There will be funerals, many home visits, and continued counseling. And when the community and the world turns its attention elsewhere, grief, anger, and depression will remain for months and years and even a lifetime for many, and pastors will continue to give care and comfort.

Fortunately, events like last Thursday are rare for a community, but ministering the love and presence of Christ to those who suffer is not unusual for pastors. If you are not a pastor, you probably can’t understand that many pastors say that they would rather serve a family suffering from the death of a loved one than perform a wedding. Among the reasons for this are that death provides a unique opportunity to point to the hope of the resurrection and the need to know Jesus Christ. A pastor’s heart is like that of the shepherd who leaves those who are safe and secure to seek for the one who is lost and hurting. The calling and work of the pastor is difficult. A pastor rarely rests his head, confident that he completed all of his work. Sunday is always coming, and there are always others to visit and counsel and with whom to share the gospel.

Each October churches are encouraged to honor their pastors and show them appreciation. Many reasons exist to honor a faithful pastor who labors to bring a fresh message from God’s Word each week, among his many other tasks. In addition to the burden of the church, many pastors are compared to other pastors who are deemed more “talented” and more “successful.” Within the last week someone told me that sometimes they stay home from church so they can watch their favorite preacher, a mega-church pastor, on his live internet feed. We preachers and pastors serve God first, and such things shouldn’t stab us like a knife to the belly. But pastors are human and they too can get hurt. Another person told me last week that a pastor friend of his, whose church had several thousand members, battled depression and felt he didn’t “measure up” because a nearby church had thousands more. His depression became so severe that he took his own life. Obviously he had problems. Faithfulness to his calling, and the joy of knowing God, wasn’t enough for him. But the fact is, many pastors battle discouragement.

Your pastor is God’s gift to your church and your community. He loves God and he loves His people. He was called by God to lead the church in the proclamation of the Word of God and in prayer. He is worthy of respect, love, and, yes, honor. Allow me to suggest a few ways you can show appreciation to your pastor.

Consider providing your pastor an extended retreat for prayer and study each year. Such a retreat should be a week at minimum, but there may be good reason to consider a two-week retreat, during which your pastor will plan sermons and seek God’s presence and direction for himself and the church. When I look back on my 19 years as a pastor, I preached too much and didn’t take enough time to retreat from the daily pressures of ministry. Many of my “breakthroughs” came when I was on vacation or doing a mission trip because the weekly routine was broken. But I should have retreated for extended prayer and study. Help your pastor to do this.

What else can you do to honor and appreciate your pastor? Some “dos” include: pray for him every day, tell him thank you, support him with your participation in ministry, encourage him to seize opportunities to attend pastoral trainings and other “iron-sharpens-iron” opportunities, send him on a mission trip (and don’t count it as his vacation), and forgive him when he makes a mistake (or when you think he makes a mistake). Also, respect his wife and family, understanding that their involvement in ministry will shift and change depending on the ages of children, work schedules, health issues, and other family dynamics.

Some “don’ts” include: don’t compare him to other preachers. Don’t expect him to spend all of his time in the church house, but help him connect with people and needs in the community. Don’t speak badly of him to church members, and certainly not to those who aren’t members of the church. Most who complain about their pastor don’t pray for him. Please don’t do that. Every day he is dealing with matters concerning heaven and hell and life and death.

I used to tell our church that I want to forgive others because I need forgiveness. I want to extend grace to others because I need grace. I want to be generous with others, because I need others to be generous with me. Everything that you need, your pastor needs. He carries a heavy burden. He cares about your children. He serves the young and the old. And he’s trying to lead the church to look to the fields which are ready for a spiritual harvest. You can be his friend. You can walk beside him in ministry. You can encourage him.

And know this, when tragedy hits home, when the need is great, your pastor will be there. He’ll be there whether or not you’re a “good church member.” He’ll minister to your family. He’ll love your kids. Just like those pastors in Roseburg are doing this very day.

God bless our pastors. Encourage them with Your presence and Your strength. Amen.