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.

A Person of Value

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Last summer my son recommended a book by Cormac McCarthy, considered by some as America’s greatest living novelist. McCarthy is a storyteller whose pulsing prose and inventiveness reveal rare brilliance. His masterly-crafted sentences are a joy. What draws me to his books is his insight into human nature.

Consider these statements from All the Pretty Horses: “No creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold” (p. 11). I have thought of that sentence as I prayed about my own ability to care about what God loves. Is my heart rightly shaped?

How about this one: “If one does not come to value what is true above what is useful it will make little difference whether she lives at all” (p. 240). That statement brings names to mind of those I fear are putting usefulness above truth. Many of them are in leadership roles. I don’t want to be that kind of person or leader.

Chapters could be written on both those statements. But the one I want you to think about most is this: “I wanted very much to be a person of value and I had to ask myself how this could be possible if there was not something like a soul or like a spirit that is in the life of a person and which could endure any misfortune or disfigurement and yet be no less for it. If one were to be a person of value that value could not be a condition subject to the hazards of fortune. It had to be a quality that could not change. No matter what” (p. 235).

The character speaking these words is a high-society Mexican woman whose hand was disfigured when a gun she fired exploded destroying two of her fingers. Even her father viewed her differently after the disfigurement, causing her to question her value.

When Christians think about the value of a single human life we begin with Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according Our likeness.’” If every human is created by God in the image of God then every human being has value, equal value. Jesus’ attention to individual people shows the value God places on every human being including notorious sinners like Pharisees and tax-collectors and adulterers and cross-killed thieves – and me. The gospel means that disfigured humans are so valued that Jesus suffered and died for them, providing the only means by which their disfigured lives might be restored, including the internal spiritual disfigurement created by their own sin.

McCarthy’s character reveals that every human wants what only God can provide – value that does not diminish with time or circumstance – value that transcends the quality of our brains or bodies or personalities – value that is equal at birth and death and beyond death – value that is not diminished by an early grave or added to by a long and fruitful life.

Every person who ever lives wants to be valued, and I would say valued equally to all others. But like ocean waves pounding relentlessly, tirelessly on the scarred shoreline, our world pounds and hammers on the hearts and minds of every person everywhere. The principalities and powers of darkness are working to diminish us. You see it on the playgrounds and in the boardrooms and even in church houses. A person’s value rising and falling according to what they and others think they’re worth. It’s a dangerous way to live. Placing differing values on individuals according to a genuine or perceived defect has produced enormous suffering and evil. We see this clearly in the abortionists and the terrorists and any person who sees other persons as expendable or merely useful for accomplishing certain ends. I recently toured the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. which testifies to the evil humans can do when they think some possess greater value than others.

The value of a single person is the heart and passion of the gospel. It is the heart and passion of the Body of Christ if she is a true witness to God’s heart. Everything that a church and a Christ-follower do should demonstrate the pricelessness of a single human soul. It meets with the yearning for value that all people have, and most importantly it reflects God’s heart toward “the least of these.”

This understanding of value can only be true if we are created by God and if we are indeed spirit, soul and body, created to live forever in relationship to Him. This understanding of value has profound implications for the church and for how we live our lives. Let me suggest two conclusions.

First, we must have deep compassion for every individual human being who is oppressed and diminished by the forces of evil, with all of the attending effects to their personal lives and to society. Christ-followers are not seeking to “win” a war with unbelievers. Our mission is to serve. Our purpose is to demonstrate that only the gospel is good news for people. No other message reveals the character of God and the value He places on a person. Only the gospel provides what every human wants and needs – value undiminished by misfortune or disfigurement.

Second, Christ-followers must be ruthless in our efforts to do no harm to another human being and to place great value on every single human being. I’m not advocating pacifism here. The Bible upholds the principles of self-defense and opposing evildoers with force. What I am saying is that people must come before strategies.

I have seen great harm come to people in Christian organizations because of commitment to a particular strategy or idea, most often an unproven idea at that. I believe the diminished impact of certain churches and larger religious organizations can often be traced to putting strategies above people and self-interest above the interests of others and even above Kingdom concerns. When even one person in an organization is devalued and treated wrongly, it sends a message to every other person in the organization, and every person associated with the organization, that they too would be poorly treated if leadership deemed it helpful to accomplishing the goals. I understand that decisions must be made that are not always popular, and might even cause hurt to certain people. Too often, however, I’ve seen leaders act with recklessness toward others. The truth is that devaluing people is never right and it never works.

A few questions for you and for me: Do you believe that you possess value equal to all others? Do you place equal value on every human being? If not, is your heart shaped to hold this truth and live accordingly?

Looking Up and Out

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We live in the greatest time in all of history to advance the gospel. We live in a most difficult time in which to pastor and lead a church.

Opportunities abound for believers to share their faith, and the kingdom of God is advancing powerfully among many peoples the world over. At the same time, churches in America face new challenges daily. There’s not space to outline the challenges floating in the sea of opportunity, but many problems are placed in perspective by looking up and out – looking up to God in prayer and contemplation upon His Word, and looking out to the world that so desperately needs God’s grace and mercy.

Whenever God’s people gather they must look up to God in prayer for the lost and needy in their community. They should pray regularly for the persecuted and suffering church, and pray also for the missionaries and their children. Pray that God will forgive us and cleanse us and use us for His glory.

Humbly submitting ourselves to God in prayer when we gather is rarer than you might think. Consider, how much time does your church spend in prayer during your worship services? And for what do you pray? Reading the newspaper will help you know what to pray for in your area. Perhaps your church is connected to one or more missionary families. Do you pray for them regularly? Do you pray for their children? The smallest church can have a powerful, worldwide ministry through prayer. If your church gives to missions through the Cooperative Program, and every Baptist church should, you are supporting 3,600 international missionaries and about 2,000 missionary children. Our missionaries serve in virtually every nation on earth. Ten of our missionaries have given their lives for Christ in the past 15 years. They need our prayer and support, as do the 3,000 church planters in North America and 19,000 seminary students attending one of our six SBC seminaries.

A church that looks up to God in fervent, kingdom prayer, will have better perspective on the challenges they face. A church that prays for kingdom concerns will less likely focus on small and petty things. Likewise, a church that submits to the reading and exposition of God’s Word, with a heart to obey God, will be better equipped to deal with the challenges of contemporary life. Remember, Jesus didn’t say, “Teach them my Word,” but “teach them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20a).

Look up to God in prayer and submission to His Word, and look out to the world in ministry, witness, mission and love of neighbor. Paul told the church in Corinth they were “a letter from Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God” (2 Cor. 3:3). Your church is a letter from Christ to our world. God’s life is in you. You are His ambassador. Feeble and small in number, but powerful as you look up to God and look out to a world in desperate need of Him.

It is a good day to serve the Lord.

Every Person, Every Town

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“The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

Jesus’ command that His disciples are to “disciple all the nations” (Matt. 28:19), coupled with the Lord “not wanting any to perish,” prompts a question that I believe every church needs to answer – Will we commit to share the gospel with every person in our town (or ministry field)? If God doesn’t want any person to perish, and if those already saved are God’s means to share the gospel with unbelievers, will we take the gospel to every person in our area?

That is a big question. This big question helps define the mission of every believer and every local church. A more difficult question is the strategy question, “How can we share Christ with every person?” Or, “How can we disciple our community?” For our Northwest Baptist Convention region the question would be, “How can we pray for, and share Christ with, each of the 11.5 million people in our area?” A big strategy question like this demands what Google calls “moonshot thinking.”

In the book How Google Works, Google cofounder and CEO Larry Page, says that it is tremendously difficult to get teams to be super ambitious. Even though Google assembled some of the brightest engineering minds on the planet, “moonshot thinking” is not what people are educated to do. People are more inclined to limit their thinking to that which is possible, based on prior experience, while at the same time thinking some things are impossible. But Google works to overcome such limited thinking.

I’ll provide one example from the book – Google Maps and Earth. By now, most of us have used Google Maps to find a location, and probably you have viewed your house on Google Earth. I’ve used Maps to navigate in countries around the world, including some of the poorest nations. Google Maps and Earth were launched because some “moonshot thinker” believed it was possible to photograph the entire planet and map every road. It turns out this ambitious goal was beyond the financial and human resources of Google … unless the mapping was done by volunteers, Googlers as they’re called. That’s what happened. A new community of grass-root volunteer cartographers were allowed and enabled to contribute to Maps. For example, unpaid Googlers mapped over 25,000 kilometers of roads in Pakistan in just two months (p. 233). When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the US Gulf Coast in August 2005, Google Earth had only been on the market for eight weeks. But the team that developed the Maps and Earth project sprang into action, launching over 8,000 up-to-the minute satellite images that accurately showed the scope of the disaster. These maps helped rescue workers navigate the areas and later helped survivors in deciding when and whether they could return to their homes. Since then, similar projects have followed other disasters, such as the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami (p. 241).

Though Google hasn’t yet celebrated its 19th birthday (Sept. 4, 1998), it recently became the most valuable brand in the world, surpassing Apple. Moonshot thinking and thinkers have been keys to Google’s success.

So, back to the strategy question, “How can we share Christ with every person in our town?” Or, another version of the same question, “How can we pray for, show God’s love to, and share Christ with, every person in our town?” I think that’s a question worthy of consideration. The answer to such a question will certainly require expansive and creative moonshot thinking.  Or, better yet, God-sized thinking – “Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20).  And the answer will likely be answers, as in multiple strategies and efforts. But I can’t think of any question more worthy for a church to consider.

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.

Make Disciples: Part 3 – Discipling a Church

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Parts 1 and 2 of “Making Disciples” focused on discipling the nation and the community. In Part 3 the focus is the local church, which is the means God uses to disciple individuals, a community and a nation. A community becomes more Christian when local churches take the gospel to their community, love their community, and lead the individuals in their community to Christ. But for this to happen there must be a church in the community that behaves “Christianly.” What does it mean to behave Christianly and how does a church do it?

Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 to “disciple all of the nations” is followed by two actions steps – baptizing them and teaching them to observe everything Christ commanded. Baptism is the public act of identifying with Jesus Christ and His church. In the New Testament, baptism followed immediately after one’s personal profession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Making disciples begins with gospel witness (evangelism) by which individuals, and sometimes entire households, come to profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ and follow Him in believer’s baptism.

Following baptism, making disciples is described by the phrase “teaching them to observe” all of the commands that Jesus gave to the eleven remaining disciples (Matt. 28:20). Those who commit to Christ must learn to obey all of the teachings of Jesus. Now, here’s an observation: many churches are better at teaching the meaning of the Scriptures than teaching obedience to the Scriptures. In sermons and Bible lessons the “What?” is often taught, but not the “Now what?”

So how do church leaders teach the church to obey Christ commands? You can do so by doing these three things.

1. Destiny – Teach every believer that he/she has a purpose in God’s kingdom. Every person “in Christ” has a destiny, a reason for being and a role to fulfill in the Body of Christ. Every person matters. Throughout the New Testament we see this, and God’s people must be taught to read the Scriptures with a view to discovering their own purpose in God’s work. Every believer has spiritual gifting and therefore each has a purpose in what God is accomplishing in the world. The purpose of the church, and of each believer, must be addressed from the pulpit monthly at the very least. It must be taught in small groups. And we must teach our children, in the home, and in the church, that they have a destiny to fulfill in God’s kingdom.

2. Opportunity – Provide the church with opportunities to obey the teachings of Christ. With varying degrees of effectiveness, churches provide opportunities to worship, to contribute to God’s work financially, to walk with God’s people in unity, and to serve God through the ministries of the church and in their daily lives. But some churches are much better at giving people specific opportunities to answer the question “Now what?” Every sermon and Bible lesson should answer this question. The programing and ministry of the church should provide opportunities for God’s people to “do acts of obedience.” Things like evangelism training and sharing the gospel, mission projects, serving widows, and serving the poor and needy, help give opportunities for God’s people to obey Him. Church leaders should regularly ask the question, “How can we show God’s love to our community? How can we take the gospel to our community and to peoples beyond?” These questions will lead to opportunities for serving God (talk to civic and school leaders to get a better understanding of community needs). Also, don’t forget to provide opportunities to celebrate what God does and to pray for God to work through the opportunities provided by the church. How much praying does your church do on Sunday morning that focuses on loving the community and sharing Christ? Are you giving your people opportunities to pray for community leaders, pray for the lost, pray for missionaries, and pray for the persecuted church? Each local church needs to connect with the worldwide church through prayer. A small church can have a huge impact by praying for big things.

3. Responsibility – Lead each of God’s people to take personal responsibility for answering the call to love God and to love their neighbors. Each believer needs to take responsibility for God’s work. Opportunities provided must be seized by God’s people as they take personally the task of sharing Christ with the lost and loving their neighbors.

From a programming perspective, individual churches will address these three things in different ways. But think about those in the Scriptures whom God has greatly used. Think about those throughout history, and even those you know personally through whom God has done great things. Each of these people had a sense of destiny. Each of them created and seized opportunities. And each of them took personal responsibility for serving God. A church that leads its people to do these things will become a dynamic church, greatly used of God, no matter its numerical size.