Summer Ministry in the Pacific Northwest

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Summer in the Pacific Northwest is as close to the Edenic garden as you will to find. But in addition to enjoying the outdoors, Northwest Baptists do some of their most impactful ministry in the summer months. Vacation Bible Schools and various sports, children and youth camps, anchor our summer ministry, and to these you can add mission trips and community outreach and service projects.

This spring 383 people were trained to lead Bible schools in NWBC and associational events. We anticipate the making of many disciples among the thousands of children ministered to by our churches in Bible schools and camps this summer. Many churches have more children in their Bible schools than the total church attendance on an average Sunday. Bible schools remain the most effective evangelistic ministry of our churches.

Not only do we conduct Bible schools here at home, 50 Northwest Baptists from 10 churches will serve the children of IMB missionaries in Asia from July 30 to August 5. Next summer we have been invited to a missionary retreat which we will require about 140 people serving hundreds of missionary children in Asia, as well as providing medical, technical, and security support. Only by partnering together can we have such great impact serving our IMB missionaries.

Here at home our churches are loving their neighbors in community holiday events, city clean-up projects, school improvement activities, refugee and immigrant ministries, and person-to-person Gospel sharing. The churches with which I have worshiped already this summer have attenders that come from about 25 different nations (about 50 nations are represented in our almost 500 congregations)!

As we consider the primary task that God has given us, to reach 11.5 million neighbors in the Northwest, there are certain values that help guide our work. First, we value the individual person. Most of what we see Jesus doing in the New Testament is focused on one person – Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, a blind man, lame man, demon-possessed man, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, the thief on the cross, and many others. Jesus gave His full attention to individual people, often people that others did not value. We must do the same. One person matters.

Second, we value every church, because every church, regardless of size, is the Body of Christ which “He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28d). We need each church and we value each church as a partner in the gospel, understanding that the local church best knows their people and must determine how they can best love their community and share the gospel where they live.

Third, we value the collaboration of true partners. In a partnership, the “weaker” partner is respected by the “stronger” partner, understanding that God works in mysterious ways, choosing the “weak” to shame the “strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). Whether speaking of individuals or churches, partnership enables us to have a bigger and more consistent gospel impact. This is the genius of the Cooperative Program (CP) method of funding missions. By the way, our NWBC churches gave an average of 7.5 percent to missions through CP last year, far above the national average of 4.86.

I hope that you are enjoying your summer, and that you will know that it is a good day to serve the Lord in the Pacific Northwest!

A Plea for Reasonably-Gifted Leaders

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Question: Where have all the great preachers gone?

Answer: They are where they have always been … few and far between.

This question/answer dialogue was given to a preaching class by Professor James Heflin when I was in seminary. Evangelism Professor Roy Fish said something similar when he remarked there was only one Elijah, not ten such men, when Elijah served as God’s prophet. The same was true of Martin Luther or Billy Graham. The point being that most preachers and servants of God are more ordinary in their gifting, and that’s the way it’s always been.

I have a concern that the 10-talented among God’s servants are not simply applauded for their ministry, but held up as the standard of what is laudable. It is counter-cultural to say this, but what the church needs today is more “reasonably-gifted” leaders who love God with all their hearts, love people, and who are able and willing to persevere in ministry. We need to bless and celebrate these servants of God. We need more pastors, not just better pastors. We need more witnesses for Christ, not simply better witnesses. We need more faithful financial stewards, not just a few who have more money to give.

Not that we shouldn’t bless and be grateful for the 10-talented, but they are few and far between and thus while we can learn from them, and be grateful for them, we should not consider them as “the” acceptable standard for ministry. For example, I’m grateful for the ministry of the mega-church, but they represent far less than half a percent of all churches. In addition, they are largely a modern phenomenon, mostly happening in the last 40 years, and quadrupling in the United States in the last 20 years. Are future church-attenders in the U.S. going to increasingly be found in the mega-church? I don’t know, maybe. But I do know that most places in the world where the church is growing it is doing so through a multiplication of small churches with reasonably-gifted leaders and a miracle-working God “who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). The church is growing in China, Cuba and throughout much of Africa through ordinary Jesus-loving people sharing the joy of God’s grace and mercy with neighbors who need a Savior and Lord.

Something else to consider is that most of the ministries that have experienced explosive growth have unique advantages not afforded to the average church or ministry leader. One ministry leader that has been held as an example of what’s possible has a dad who was a seminary professor and mega-church pastor. He’s also enjoyed strong support from another well-known mega-church pastor, including very significant funding, and this brief list doesn’t exhaust the unique advantages he has. I don’t recount this to diminish or demean what God has accomplished through him. I thank God for him. But it’s not helpful to the Kingdom to compare other church planters and pastors to a man who has a background and support that are unique.

Too many believe that to lead God’s people you have to know the systems, strategies, and best practices of the few who are “highly successful.” I disagree. To lead the people of God you must hear from God. To lead God’s people you must know His mind and heart. The men of God in the Bible not only knew God’s heart, they embodied His heart and mind. Certainly this was true of Jeremiah, Hosea, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, not to mention Joseph, David, Paul and so many others. This isn’t to totally discount what we can learn from the 10-talented and “highly successful.” It is to say that most of God’s work is done by ordinary people who seek His heart and mind and obey Him. As Henry Blackaby used to remind us, “Look for where God is at work. Listen for His voice. Then join Him in His work” (paraphrase).

Remember, Elijah wasn’t the only person of God who didn’t bow before Baal. There were 7,000 others. They are nameless and faceless, but faithful too, even as was the one superstar among them, Elijah.

Who Should Lead Southern Baptists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Am a Christian

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I am a Christian because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. It’s just about that simple. The opening words of Genesis One revealing the creative utterance of God are breathtaking. The poetry of the 23rd Psalm reflecting a deep intimate relationship between a man and his God is unsurpassed. The Messianic birth narratives revealing God’s commitment to redeem humanity through incarnation are sublime. Added to these are any number of biblical histories, prophetic utterances and ethical teachings. And we must always cling to the Cross, brutal and bloody, proving Christ loves us beyond description.

While the entirety of Scripture is God-breathed, and profitable in every way, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the starting-point of Christian faith. As Paul writes in Ephesians, God’s saving power for believers “is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 1:19b-20). Moreover, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).

Yes, the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead is where Christian faith begins. Not only that, but Christ’s resurrection has no parallel in the world’s major religions. The Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path of Buddhism provide a form of ethical instruction, as does the Islamic Koran. Clearly Christians find both utterly deficient for life and godliness, but some form ethics and code of conduct are found in all religions.

What is not found in the world’s religions is the assertion that God became man, was crucified and died for our sin, and after three days in the grave rose from the dead in triumph over sin, death and the grave. Moreover, the New Testament goes beyond asserting Christ’s resurrection by offering evidence for the resurrection. The evidence begins with the empty tomb and the eyewitness accounts of the Apostles to the resurrection. It continues with the preaching of Peter in Acts 2, the healing of the crippled beggar in Acts 3 “in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene” (Acts 3:6), the creation of the Church, and the martyrdom of the Apostolic eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord. Don’t forget, Christianity is rooted in history. It is not merely a collection of wise sayings and rules for life. Jesus lived, died and rose again in a specific place, at a particular time, and interacting with thousands of people.

Recently I returned from Burma, a country that is officially Buddhist. There are more Buddhist pagodas in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay that there are steeples in Dallas, TX! The largest of these is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Rising 325 feet, it is covered in as much as 60 tons of gold. Why have Burmese Buddhists invested such wealth in this pagoda? Because they believe that it contains eight strands of hair from Buddha himself. They know he’s dead. They don’t believe he’s a god. But in the hope of having good karma they worship him in this way (Remember, when Buddhists and Hindus speak of karma they are not speaking about rewards or punishment in this life, but rather in a future life via reincarnation).

Thank God we have a living Savior! Resurrected, reigning and coming again! In a little over two weeks we will celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter Sunday. But those who trust in Jesus Christ experience the victory of Christ’s resurrection every day.

Yes, I am a Christian because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. If you are not a Christian, what do you believe about Jesus and His resurrection? If the resurrection is a lie, then Christianity has no foundation. It is vital that you understand this. Our entire faith stands or falls on the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if you look at the evidence, and conclude that the resurrection really happened, you are left to conclude that Jesus is what He and the Scriptures claim Him to be – Lord and King, forever and ever, and you must, dear friend, you must follow Him in faith and obedience.

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.

The Newspaper’s Role in Your Leadership

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It was once said a preacher ought to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, meaning that the sermon needs to connect biblical truth to life today, life in this world, and life in a particular place. That image of the pastor-preacher with the Bible and the newspaper made sense when I first heard it many years ago. It still resonates with me. I suspect, however, it lacks the impact it once had. That’s a shame.

I know I’m fighting an uphill battle on this one. Newspapers are in decline. Most young adults don’t read them anymore. News is found in other places and with personal “filters.” Uphill battle or not, it’s one that deserves a fight. Ministry leaders need to read their local newspaper. Thumbing through the paper with your hands, your eye catches things it won’t if you read the paper on your smartphone or computer.

First, your local newspaper helps you to know your community. Your city has issues involving economic, political, legal, educational and moral aspects of life. These are issues particular to your community. The churches, residents, schoolchildren, businesses, homeowners, homeless, everyone in the community is affected by decisions of community leaders and the particular issues the city is facing. And certain hot-button issues change daily. No person should know more about the city than ministry leaders. You might pick up bits and pieces down at the coffee shop or through the internet, but the local newspaper will give you the broadest coverage of life in your community. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t relate something from the newspaper to my sermon text on Sunday.

Second, who’s being born and who is dying in your town? Most local papers will inform you daily or weekly about these matters. If someone is killed in a tragic accident, or a young person’s life is cut short in some way, the church needs to know about it and maybe you can minister to the family. At the very least you can pray for them. Churches have been built by ministering to families of newborns. Who is filing a marriage license or divorce papers? Who was arrested for a DUI or other criminal behavior? The paper will tell you. Maybe you can reach out to them. Maybe you host substance abuse classes, or Divorce Care classes, or parenting classes and they can be invited to attend.

Third, what’s going on at the schools in your town? Which students had a great game, excelled in a sporting event, suffered an injury, have a part in the school play, or won the spelling bee? Every week young people in your town are featured in the local newspaper. How encouraging it is for them to receive an extra copy of the article, with a note written by a pastor, Sunday school teacher or other ministry leader!

Fourth, ministry leaders can use the paper to influence others. You can write letters to the editor. I’ve written articles for local papers and established relationships with reporters. Sometimes the local paper will publish articles about something the church is doing as a by-product of these relationships.
Fifth, the local newspaper will help you to pray for your city and its leaders. Every city has people and situations that need prayer. The newspaper will provide you matters for which to pray each and every day.

These principles are not for people who don’t care about their city or have no desire to impact their city. This is about ministry leaders, sent by God to a particular place, for a particular time. No one should know more about the city, and care more about its people, than the ministry leaders called there. The newspaper is indispensable in connecting you to the city in a holistic way.

Lou Holtz Can Teach Us Something about Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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