Ramesh and Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are Family

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If you’re over 50 the phrase “we are family” might bring the Sister Sledge 1979 pop song to mind. But recent events have reminded me that Baptists really are family. For example, when Jimmy Stewart of the Alaska Baptist Convention received devastating third degree burns in July, he was flown to a Seattle hospital. Upon arrival NWBC persons and pastors were onsite assisting the family with transportation and housing needs. A similar request came when a mission team member from Alabama was flown to a Seattle hospital in September. Staff at the Puget Sound Association responded to a request from his Alabama pastor who knew that his Baptist family in Washington would minister to his church member.

Requests like these are not unusual. Recently a Baptist family member in the south requested that we find an Oregon church to help a friend in crisis, and we did. Another shared that when their child moved from Oregon to Massachusetts they contacted our Baptist family in Boston who helped this young couple move into their apartment.

In August our Northwest Baptist family sent 163 from 32 of our churches to minister to 1,100 family members (missionaries) serving in Asia. Our missionaries depend on us to support them through the Cooperative Program, but they also need their Baptist family to pray for them and join them on their mission field. They invited us to help them in their training retreat because we are their family. Twenty-two of these same missionaries will spend nine days with us in early October, helping us know better how to reach Asian peoples living in the Northwest, among other things (details on our website at http://www.nwbaptist.org).

This summer we received an application from a church that wants to affiliate with the NWBC. This church has a large ministry, with thirteen members attending seminary and several serving in international missions. Their small group ministry includes learning Old Testament Hebrew and others studying biblical theology at a very high level.

So why do they want to affiliate with the NWBC? They are looking for family. They are a church without the extended family that Baptists have. They don’t have associations, conventions, seminaries, mission boards, and a support system beyond their own town. As Baptists, we even have an insurance and retirement system for our pastors (GuideStone).

Like all families, we have our disagreements, crazy uncles, loudmouthed cousins, and dysfunctional branches on the family tree. Sometimes these things frustrate us. But where would we be without our extended family?

In November the NWBC family will gather in Spokane for our annual meeting. We will celebrate what God is doing in our Northwest family with abundant testimonies and worship. Our family will even gather around tables Tuesday, Nov. 15, for a prime rib dinner (details on our website at http://www.nwbaptist.org). It will be a sweet time of fellowship. It is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!

Relationships – The Key to Effective Leadership … and Evangelism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journey to Faith in Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming Newcomers to Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give Me a Good Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evangelism, Baptisms, and Politics (Crazy I Know!)

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Last week we completed our Story Witnessing Workshops. What a joy to see 260 people from 50 or more churches, including many pastors, trained to listen well and connect Bible stories with the lives of those who need a Savior. Every community needs more witnesses to Jesus and His love. People will listen to a Bible story that relates to their life. The Prodigal Son, Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and the Good Samaritan have universal appeal. More than that, they are powerful. Like a lightning bolt, God’s Word penetrates the mind and heart as no other word can. And people love stories. You can use these Bible stories to share Jesus with others.

Something to rejoice over is that 236 more people followed Jesus in believer’s baptism in the past year than in the previous year in our NWBC churches. In 2015 our churches reported 1,915 baptisms, up from 1,679 in 2014 and 1,643 in 2013. We praise God for this. There is nothing more important than loving God, loving our neighbors and sharing Christ with them. We will not go far wrong if we do these things.

Many are discouraged and disgusted with this year’s election politics. Count me in that number. But if nothing else, political elections, though important, remind us that our greatest needs will never be met by government. Indeed, our citizenship in heaven is that which is most precious to us. And this too can strengthen our witness to our neighbors. Like us, they are likely dismayed by the 2016 election process. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ demonstrates that our personhood is eternal. Therefore, our relationships “in Christ” are eternal. I will know my loved ones in heaven. Heaven provides us with a forever family. I do not fear that when death strikes my loved one, I will never see them again.

The resurrection of Jesus means that all God’s people will be raised and we will keep our personhood. I will know my wife. I will know our sons. Death will not end our relationship. That is a precious part of the blessed hope. We do not find this hope in our earthly citizenship. We do not find it in our job or career or any other thing.

So when our neighbors are discouraged by life or politics or poor health, share with them the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Help them see that all who know and love Jesus will be raised from the dead to eternal life. Tell them that in heaven we will know each other, and that we don’t have to say “goodbye” when a Jesus follower leaves this life. This is our hope. This is our life. This was the hope of those who suffered under Nero and Hitler and ISIS, and this was the hope of those who prospered under Washington and Jefferson, or your favorite president.

One final thought – summer provides wonderful opportunities to share Christ. Vacation Bible School and Bible camps are among the best opportunities, but also remember that many relocate in the summer months. Keep your eyes open to new move-ins, the new kid on the ball team, and the new customer or coworker. New people are open to new friendships. Let’s be their friends for Jesus’ sake. It is a good day to serve the Lord!