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.

A Dream for Your City

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What dream do you have for your city? That’s a question for every believer to consider. What we dream for our city will guide our prayers and the ministry of our families and churches. Please note, the question is not, “What dream do you have for your church?” That might be a follow-up question to the dream you have for your city. If you dream of a day when every person in your city has someone who loves them, and loves Jesus, and thus prays for them and ministers God’s love to them, that “city dream” will influence what you dream for your church. But dreaming about what you want God to do in your city should come first.

This morning I read the book of Jonah. Every time I read Jonah I am somewhat stupefied with how the book ends. Jonah was angry that God spared the city of Nineveh. God said, “Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?” (4:11). These are the last words of that little book. Whether God was speaking about 120,000 children in Nineveh, or whether he was speaking of the ignorance of the people, is uncertain. What’s most striking is the reference to “many animals.” God spared the city, in part, because of the animals in the city.

We don’t know how Jonah answered God’s question. But we should have an answer to God’s question as it relates to our city. I should have an answer as it relates to the Northwest. My dream for the Northwest is that every household have someone praying for them, and that every household have believers who love them with God’s love. My dream is that every church be fully engaged in an Acts 1:8 evangelism and missions ministry. My dream is that joy and gratitude permeate our worship gatherings.

A favorite phrase of mine is that “it is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest.” I believe that. I also believe that “this is our day.” Yesterday belonged to others. Tomorrow belongs to the next generation. But today … today is our day. Paul told the Ephesian church to “make the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). Evil days were good days to serve the Lord. That is true of our day. The presence of evil provides us the opportunity to make our day a good day in God’s Kingdom. So, consider the question, “What dream do you have for your city?”

Marsha Gray

Many of you know Marsha Gray. For 40 years Marsha has served Northwest Baptists. She has worked with six executive directors and dozens of convention staff. She has been a friend, adviser, and confidant to her coworkers and church leaders alike. In my five years no one has helped and supported me more than Marsha. I trust her, respect her, and love her as my sister in Christ. No one cares more about the Northwest Baptist Convention of Churches than she does. She has given much of her life, and her heart, to God’s work through Northwest Baptists.

June 29th will be Marsha’s last day in the office before entering a well-deserved retirement. It won’t be quite the same around our office. Even in retirement, however, Marsha will serve us as she begins a term as a trustee of Gateway Baptist Seminary. Thank you, Marsha! And send us a few pictures as you and Don travel the country.

Trust – The Indispensable Ingredient for Seizing Unexpected Ministry Opportunities

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A few weeks ago I was asked to speak about things I have learned in 35 years of ministry. I decided to tell a story that illustrates what can happen in a church/ministry when trust is high. This article is longer than most, but I think you will find it encouraging. Partly, I just wanted to get it down on paper for myself.

I was in my tenth year as pastor of FBC McAlester, OK when we learned that the trial of Terry Nichols, a conspirator in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, would be held in the Pittsburg County Courthouse, adjacent to our church. Nichols had already been convicted in a federal trial and given a life sentence. The trial in McAlester was an Oklahoma State trial, undertaken so that Nichols could be given the death penalty for his role in the murder of 168 people, including three pregnant women and 19 children.

Our local newspaper said that the trial could last six months and that our town of 18,000 would be inundated with media people. Our church staff had our weekly meeting the day we learned the trial would be held next door to our church building. We first discussed the problems this could bring, primarily with parking, but we quickly transitioned to the question, “Is there a ministry opportunity in this situation?”

Tom Beddow was a staff member who had the unique role of providing counseling, as well as helping us connect to the needs of the community in creative ways. Tom said, “I’ll call Paul Bettis at the Oklahoma Baptist Convention office and see if he knows anything about this.” Paul led the chaplaincy ministry for Oklahoma Baptists, and when Tom told him that he wanted information about the trial, and how the church might help, Paul said, “I can’t talk to you. I can’t talk to anyone in Pittsburg County.” Tom said, “I don’t live in Pittsburg County. I live in Pontotoc County. Does that help?” Paul said, “Let me check and I’ll call you back.”

Paul called Tom 30 minutes later and told him the situation, which went generally like this: “We think the trial will last six months and that as many as 150 bombing survivors and victim family members will be there each day. We need a safe place for them to go when they want to leave the courtroom, some place where the media can’t reach them, some place where they can relax. We need to feed them a breakfast and a good lunch every day of the trial, Monday-Friday, for as many as six months. We can’t charge them for the food.”

Paul told Tom, “You can’t tell anyone about this.” Tom said, “I have to tell the pastor.” After some checking, Tom was allowed to tell me, and we were allowed to share it with our church staff, but each of us was sworn to secrecy. We couldn’t tell anyone else because they were concerned it could taint the jury pool.

The situation boiled down to this – the Oklahoma City District of Attorney’s Office needed someone to feed and care for as many as 150 people daily for six months, but they couldn’t share this need publically. The question for me and my staff was this, “Can you commit to provide for this need without informing the church that you are committing them to six months of ministry, Monday through Friday, including providing food and other support services to these families?” Our staff and I enthusiastically and confidently committed ourselves and our church to this ministry opportunity, knowing we couldn’t tell our church or the deacons or anyone else that to which we had committed them.

About five weeks before the trial began we told the District of Attorney’s Office that we needed to bring some key lay leaders into the planning and preparation process. They asked for a list of names, and if they were not in the thousand-person jury pool, we could meet with them. None of the 21 names we gave them was in the jury pool.

The night we met with the 21 was amazing. Each were choice servants of God, people of faith who had given God a big “YES” when lesser opportunities were presented. There was an overwhelming spirit of gratitude that God would choose us to minister to a people so badly wounded by the bombing. As we talked about the particulars of purchasing food and preparing meals, someone suggested that we ask Walmart and other businesses if they would help us. But one of the 21, a big bear of a man, said, “How much glory would Walmart want if they paid for this? I think God deserves all of the glory and we don’t need to ask Walmart for help.” That statement resonated with us, and we determined to ask for no outside help. This wasn’t meant to be negative toward Walmart or any other business. It was meant as an expression of faith and confidence that our God could use His people to do this thing. And He did.

One week before the trial started and the jury was selected, I was permitted to tell church what we had committed them to do. It was a Sunday morning. As I explained the incredible opportunity God had given us to care for these families who had suffered so, to feed them, listen to their stories, offer prayer and comfort, there was tremendous excitement in our congregation. It seemed like everyone wanted to know how they could help. The spirit was one of gratitude that God had chosen us for this work, and every need we had was met.

The trial lasted 3 ½ months. Our church never faltered. We set aside $2,000 to buy food, thinking that would get us through the first couple of weeks. At the end of the trial $1,800 remained. One small country church, unsolicited, sent us $500 to purchase food. Others did the same.

One survivor who attended the trial was Mr. Khan. Mr. Khan was Islamic and couldn’t eat the food we had prepared. One of our volunteers told him, “Mr. Khan, you tell me what you would like to eat and I’ll prepare it.” She did so every day thereafter. Mr. Khan said, “I am a Muslim. But if I ever become a Christian it will be because of what you have done for me.”

Another person mentioned how hard the benches were in the courtroom. One of our people heard the comment and bought cushions for every seat in the courtroom.

Our church had two custodians who were not members of our church. Some were concerned that we were overworking them, but they came to us and said, “We want to be a part of this. If it means we have to work extra we will donate our time because we want to help.”

About two months into the trial I told a group at lunch that I wouldn’t see them the next week because I was taking my family on vacation. A man asked me where we were going and I told him Washington D.C. He asked, “Are you touring the White House?” I said that we were trying to get a tour of the East Wing (which is where the tourists were allowed to go), but that it hadn’t come through yet. He said, “I’m retired Secret Service. I can get you a private Secret Service tour of the West Wing.” The next week our family met a Secret Service agent early one evening, and he toured us through the West Wing of the White House – the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, pictures in the Rose Garden, the whole works.”

The trial wrapped up late one Friday evening on June 11, 2004. The jury deadlocked on giving Nichols a death sentence, which meant “life without parole” was the maximum he could receive. I was at my house. They called me about 10:00 PM and told me of the verdict and the sentence, and they said that the families wanted to gather one last time in our church and they wanted me to pray for them and speak to them.

It was an evening I will never forget. I don’t say this lightly, but God gave me a message that night. It was a message unrelated to any I had ever delivered. I spoke about the need we have for justice, but how the justice we ultimately need cannot be provided by any earthly court. “How do you secure justice for those who are gone? How do you render justice for an act so horrific?” I then said, “It’s during times like this that the resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes most precious. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. And a day is coming when all the dead will be raised and God Himself will render judgment. “ I further assured them that our hope for justice is based on a God who’s love and power are so great that He not always knows the right thing to do, He has the power to do what He knows is right. “Many of you feel let down tonight. You don’t feel like justice was done. But no human court can provide what we most need. We need assurance that our loved ones have a future. We need to know that they’re alright. We need to know that we can see them again. And that is the promise of the gospel. That is the hope that Jesus’ resurrection provides.” Those moments were special. They were powerful as God ministered His Word to those gathered.

In the aftermath of the trial Oklahoma City District Attorney Wes Lane and his team of prosecutors travelled 145 miles to our church on a Sunday morning just to worship with us and to publically thank our people for what they did. Several of the survivors did the same. The Oklahoma governor issued a proclamation honoring our church. And if you tour the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial you will see a plaque honoring FBC, McAlester. The person responsible for that recognition was Judge Stephen Taylor. He presided over the trial and said that the ministry our church provided was indispensable and he wanted it recognized.

In my years of ministry those months were the highpoint, not because it was the most impactful thing that church had ever done or I have ever experienced. It’s the highpoint because it revealed a level of trust and confidence in God and in God’s people that was extraordinary. Stephen Covey called it the “speed of trust.” High trust allows you to move quickly and confidently. Low trust keeps churches from doing much of anything. Sometimes a lengthy decision-making process is necessary, like when you’re deciding whether to build a large structure. But sometimes churches forgo great ministry opportunities because trust is low. We were able to commit the church to such a huge ministry because we had already seen God do many things over the past decade and trust was built in the process.

When David faced Goliath, he said, “The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:37). We were able to say that the Lord who had delivered us and used us in multiple ways in times past will certainly do so once again.

The bottom line is that churches and pastors who hear from God and experience God gain confidence that the God who “said and did” is the God who still “says and does.”

Praying for Your Neighbors

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One of my dreams is that every Northwest child will have someone who loves them praying for them and sharing Christ with them. How tragic that a child can grow up without ever hearing the truth of Jesus and without having someone praying for their soul. Even more disturbing is that many of these children are our neighbors.

When I first expressed this dream it was more of a “wish and a prayer.” But now the dream of every child, or more correctly, every household, having someone praying for them can become reality. The Northwest Baptist Convention of churches has entered into a partnership with Pray4EveryHome that gives you access to the name and address of your hundred closest neighbors. When you register to pray for your neighbors you will receive a daily email with five names and addresses of your neighbors that you can pray for that day.

The idea is that each of our churches will register to pray for their community through Pray4EveryHome.org. And each church will encourage the members to register as a “praying neighbor” on the same website. When you do this you will receive daily prayer emails. Just imagine, if your church has ten people praying for their neighbors, you will be praying for 50 families daily. Twenty members praying means 100 families prayed for each day! Of course, there will be overlap because some of your church members live in the same neighborhood and will be praying for the same people, which is tremendous in that your neighbors will have more people praying for them!

On March 14, 2018 we will have a training event for this ministry at the Northwest Baptist Center in Vancouver, WA (10:00 AM to 5:00 PM). Also, Richland Baptist will host a training on March 9-10 (Friday evening from 6:30-9:30 and Saturday from 9:00 AM-noon). Registration information for the March 14 training can be found at http://www.nwbaptist.org. Registration for the Richland training is at Karen@richlandbaptistchurch.org.

What will it cost you to be a part of this powerful prayer and outreach ministry? Zero dollars because your faithful support of missions giving through the Cooperative Program enabled the NWBC to purchase this ministry for all of our churches (we also had a generous designated gift from a church).

Another important question concerns the frequency with which the data is updated – which is every 90 days. Every household address in the entire Northwest is updated every 90 days, keeping fresh the information on who are your neighbors.

Some of you are already thinking that you can use this information for your evangelism and outreach ministry. You can. As powerful as the prayer strategy is, it is only the beginning of how God can use you to transform your neighborhood and your town.

Friends, praying for all the households in your neighborhood may well provide the greatest spiritual impact you’ve ever had. There are roughly 5 million households in the Northwest. Fifty thousand people praying for their 100 closest neighbors equals 5 million. Amazing!

It’s a great day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!

What’s My Opinion Worth? Not Much.

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“If I can talk you into something, someone smarter than me can talk you out of it.” I’ve used that line several times over the years, most often emphasizing that a person doesn’t trust Jesus Christ as Lord because of a clever argument. Lifelong faith in Jesus happens when the Holy Spirit brings conviction of the truth about sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:9-11). It is not someone’s opinion about God or truth that matters. It’s the truth itself, and the work of the Holy Spirit, that makes an eternal difference. My opinion about these things isn’t worth much. But the truth is worth everything.

For this reason I am cautious about expressing my opinion in print about divisive political matters. I’ll tell you what I think, in the right context, face-to-face, but in print, facial expression is absent, nuance is lost, and if a person disagrees with my opinion I probably won’t be able to have an honest dialogue with them. It could even lead them to “write me off.”

Now, I don’t mean by this that “opinion articles” should not be written and offered to the public in order to persuade others of a particular viewpoint. I just believe that as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose greatest ambition is to help people come to know Jesus, I need to be careful about sharing my opinion on issues that don’t matter nearly as much as He does, if that makes sense.

So often when I read people expressing their opinion, whether on social media or through more formal venues, I ask the question, “Does their opinion really matter as it concerns solving the problem or helping the people affected by the problem?” Or, by expressing their opinion, are they simply venting, and, in effect, “putting up a wall” between themselves and others whose greatest need is Jesus, not their opinion on a given topic.
Though I am not entirely consistent in following my own principles and advice, the following is what guides me when confronted by issues that threaten to divide people. If you are a preacher, or someone who loves Jesus and wants others to know Him and love Him like you do, perhaps these principles will help you.

First, in my life, Jesus matters most. I try to put Him first, and I don’t want to share my opinion about a lesser matter in a way that would turn you, or another, away from Jesus Christ. It’s not that lesser matters aren’t important. They’re just not as important as Jesus, or as helping others to know Jesus.

Second, I try to ask myself, “Does expressing what I think on a divisive issue contribute toward the solution to the problem?” Most often I conclude that expressing my opinion won’t make any difference at all. There are very few people who will change their mind because of what I think, and often my wife is not even one of the few! Now, if God’s Word, the Bible, speaks clearly to the issue, that’s a different story. I might well share what the Bible says. I once had a homosexual ask me my opinion of homosexuality and whether I thought it was wrong. I told him what I am trying to say here, namely, “My opinion on the subject doesn’t matter. But have you read the New Testament? Read the New Testament and pray as you read, asking God to speak to you.” This particular man claimed to be a Christian, though he had never read the Bible, so I tried to encourage him to read what God has to say in His Word.

Third, is there something I can actually “do” to help the situation? Offering an opinion is easy, but working toward a solution doesn’t have to be too difficult either. Maybe it would be difficult if you are one of the few who actually write the laws or execute the laws. But most often the things that we can do to help solve the problem are not big things or profound things. Maybe it’s one small thing that helps one other person. Do that one small thing. It could be volunteering at a school, helping a neighbor, or being kind to the neighborhood kids. Use what influence and relationships you have to show God’s love to another human being. And pray for people. Pray for your town and the issues people are facing. You could even write an encouraging note to a person who is hurting.

When I listen to the national debate on issues regarding race relations, respect for the flag, freedom of speech, and the like, I grow concerned for our nation. But I grow more concerned when Christians, and Christian leaders, throw their opinion around in ways that hurt the witness of the Church. I have concluded that my opinion on these issues really only matters if it leads me to take steps that will truly help resolve the problem. Most often these steps will focus on my local community and relationships and on my efforts to serve others as moved by God’s love for them.

In the annual meeting of the Northwest Baptist Convention (Eugene, OR on Nov. 7-8), we will talk some about how to be a blessing to our neighbors in the Northwest. People without Jesus don’t need our opinions. They need our gospel witness and the blessing of God’s love flowing through us and to them.