Jesus and your Neighbor, that’s the Test

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Jesus said, “I tell you … there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

One of the most striking characteristics in the ministry and message of Jesus is his attention to the value and importance of a single individual. Much of what we know about Jesus comes from his interaction with one person and his parables that focused on the worth or behavior of a single person – Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the man born blind, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, Pilate, the Rich Young Ruler, the Prodigal Son, and so many others.

The value that Jesus places on a single person is one of the most important and attractive qualities of Jesus. The “end-justifies-the-means” ethic of tyrants and bullies who are willing to sacrifice the individual for some “higher purpose,” or for the “greater number,” is devastatingly refuted by Jesus’ treatment of the most ordinary humans.

Recently I’ve been thinking about this as it relates to two things. First, some in positions of power and influence are willing to damage an individual, or fail to seek justice for an individual, in order to protect an institution. The institution could be a church, denomination of churches, or a particular “ministry.” In order to “protect the ministry,” an individual person is hurt or allowed to suffer. Second, organizations, including ministries, are tempted to suppress the truth (poor performance numbers, mistreatment of individuals, etc.) when they think the truth will bring a “backlash” from the constituents (the people paying the bills).

When did Jesus ever mistreat an individual in order to protect the religious establishment? When did Jesus ever suppress the truth, fearing people couldn’t handle the truth? The answer to both questions is – NEVER. Jesus never hurt an individual, no matter how unimportant some thought they were, in order to please the religious established or protect the religious institution from others learning the truth.

There are two questions that will help you know how to handle any difficulty or ethical situation you will face in life: What does God say about this? And, how does it affect my neighbor? Other forms of the two questions might be: What does the Bible say? And, how does it affect an individual person?”

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, mostly because my sleep has been disturbed by leaders suppressing the truth, or hurting an individual, in order to “protect” the ministry. We never protect our ministry by suppressing the truth, even if the truth is ugly … especially when the truth is ugly. God’s people can handle the truth. What they can’t handle is hiding the truth or avoiding the truth.

Equally disturbing is a willingness to let a person suffer, or to actually harm a person, in order to protect or promote the “ministry.” God will not, He will not ever, bless a ministry in which a person is deliberately harmed, or in which harm is not redressed.
The test is really quite simple, Jesus and my neighbor. If I’m good with them, nothing much will go wrong. If I am good with them, I don’t need to worry about my “religious institution” or establishment. And with that said, I can now sleep undisturbed.

Ministry Guaranteed to Bless Your City

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A sanitation worker in our town was crushed when he was hit by a car and pinned up against the garbage truck. He was horribly injured and our church prayed for him and his family. Following the prayer, a church deacon asked a simple question that ultimately transformed our ministry. Here’s the question: “I wonder if that man has a church that is ministering to him and his family?” We learned that he did have a church and they were doing well by him. But this led to a second question: What about others in our community, who in time of crisis, have no church family? What of those who have no pastor, no Bible class, no ministry and no living testimony of God’s love and care in their life? What about them?

This tragic situation and the subsequent questions resulted in a profound commitment by our church. We determined that we would pray for, and serve as best we could, every family in town touched by tragedy. House fires, car wrecks, crime victims, accidents of various kinds, horrible medical diagnoses; these happened with some frequency in our ministry area of 25,000 people. And when they did, we sent two or three to the home with the simple message, “We’re from First Baptist. We heard what happened. We’re so sorry. We want to pray for you and see if there is any way we can help.”
Sometimes our involvement ended after the prayer and words of love and concern. Other times clothing or food was provided, biblical counseling was provided, a wheel chair ramp was built, among other things. The results included some coming to faith in Christ, goodwill built with the family and friends, and some actually joined our church so that they could be involved in this ministry of care. Our church was known for several things, one of which became, “They’re the church that serves everybody and anybody in time of crisis.”

So here’s a goal that will bless your city: commit to visiting and praying for every person stricken by tragedy. The tragedy doesn’t have to be physical injury. In our local newspaper I read weekly, if not daily, of hardships in families. A local mayor’s portrait was on the front page because he was accused of soliciting sex for money. A grandmother went to prison because she embezzled from her employer. A family was ripped apart when a grandson murdered his grandmother. The list goes on. But questions that a local church needs to ask are, “Does this family have a church? Do they have a pastor? Let’s visit them and pray for them and see how we might show them God’s love.”

When I surrendered to ministry leadership a pastor told me that if I would minister to hurting people I would never lack for ministry opportunities. He was right. But I also learned that I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed to lead our church to organize and to do this in our ministry field.

Often when we discuss ministry goals we talk budgets and baptisms and attendance in public worship and Bible study. These are important matters to consider. But mostly they are the byproduct of other things. Things like leading a church to pray for Kingdom concerns and mobilizing outreach ministries of various kinds. Through ministries like http://www.Pray4EveryHome.org every member of your church can pray for their 100 closest neighbors. Through My316 and God Space you can teach your church how to share the Gospel and minister to people (these are provided to every NWBC church without cost thanks to the generous Cooperative Program missions giving of our churches).

How about this as a goal: We will pray for missionaries, the lost in our community, city and school leaders, and all of the children in town, in every public gathering of our church. That is Kingdom praying –praying for the city, unbelievers, and the missionaries we send and support. If we don’t pray for Kingdom concerns when we gather as church, Kingdom praying won’t happen in the homes of most church members.

Things like this make me excited for the spiritual possibility present in every church. Whether you gather with 20 or 200 on Sunday, these are the kinds of things you can do that will touch heaven and human hearts and will make a difference in your city. God told the people in Jeremiah’s day, living as exiles in Babylon, “Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper” (Jere. 29:7). That is a good word for us, living in a 21st Century Babylon.

Diagnosing Church Health with One Question

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Yesterday I spoke with our son and his wife about the church they visited in St. Louis that morning. Luke and Hannah moved to St. Louis a few weeks ago so that he can pursue an MD-PhD program and she do premed studies at Washington University. A priority for them is to find a church home.

We talked about the church they visited that morning, and Hannah said that she didn’t think that was the church for them. When I asked why, she said that she wouldn’t feel comfortable inviting friends to the church.

Hannah and Luke’s experience at church surfaces an essential question that church attenders ask and answer, even if they don’t voice the question. The question is this: Do I invite people to my church? If not, why not? If yes, why yes? And, when people are seeking for a church home, Hannah’s response reveals that this is a question that some seek to answer before they join a church.

If I was going to ask church attenders one line of questions to diagnose the health of their church, these are the questions I would ask. I would begin with the question, “Do you invite/bring friends and extended family to your church?” If they do, it reveals that they have some level of confidence that their friends will have a “good experience” at their church. This “good experience” includes everything from being welcomed and warmly received, to whether they will “enjoy” the worship experience, or, more importantly, whether they will have an opportunity to encounter God through His Word and through the worship of His people. If church attenders do not invite friends to church, it might reveal that they have less confidence that their friends will have a “good experience” at church. We would have to “dig down” to identify the reasons people do or don’t invite their friends to church. Thus, the follow-up questions of “why?” or “why not?” are essential because some are excited about their church for the wrong reasons (i.e. some cult-group members excitedly invite people to their cult).

So, here’s a question for church leaders: Do your people invite others to church, confident that they will hear from God and be led to Him through prayer and the ministry of the Word? Or, do the attenders of your church fail to invite others because they lack confidence that their friends will have a good experience, and, more importantly, experience God as they worship?

As helpful as it might be for leaders to ask that question, it would be more helpful to ask it of all those who attend the church. Growing churches have attenders who confidently invite others to their church.

For more help on building the confidence of your church to invite others, see Becoming a Welcoming Church by Thom Rainer. Also, the NWBC Pastor Cluster groups will focus on this topic beginning in September, 2018.

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.

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.