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.

Make Disciples – Part 2, Discipling a community

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In Part 1 of “Make Disciples” we focused on the wording of Matthew 28:19 in which Jesus told the Eleven that they were to “disciple all the nations.” Working on the premise that the greatest mission success of the 19th Century was the Christianization of the United States, I suggested that discipling the U.S. was a matter of evangelization, resulting in church starting, followed by the formation of Christian ministries and institutions, such as schools, colleges, hospitals, and orphanages, among other things.

Now, let’s think about “discipling the community.” When I served in the Bible belt state of Oklahoma I learned that while Oklahoma was more churched than Washington State, there was still great variation from one community to the next regarding church attendance. In some communities well under 10 percent attended church on a given Sunday, while in others more than 40 percent were in church. In the Northwest (Washington, Oregon and Idaho), while church attendance is below that of southern states, and the number of churches is lower for the population, there are some exceptions to this. There are communities in the Northwest that are quite Christian and church attendance is high.

So how does a community become more Christian? First, we must understand that it takes generations to disciple a nation or a community. Discipleship implies more than making God’s Word known to a community or a people. It requires that God’s Word penetrate into the distinctive ways of thought, relational networks, and those special ways of doing things that give a community its commonality, coherence, and identity. Discipling a community means that biblical truth and thinking must enter the patterns of thought and life of that community. The way a people think and make decisions, the bonds that hold a community together, don’t change or develop quickly. It is a long process (see Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 50).

Second, some towns are more Christian because exceptional pastors and other godly leaders gave their lives to discipling the community. Spiritual leadership makes a huge difference, especially when a city is blessed with great leaders spanning two or more generations.

Pastors and churches can do several things to disciple their community. First, pray for your community, its leaders, churches, businesses, school and children. Pray for the various groups of people in the community. Prayer might seem obvious, but doing the obvious doesn’t always happen. Most churches devote little time to praying for their community during their public worship services. As one who worships in 40 or more churches each year I can tell you that I seldom hear prayer that lifts up the local community, or any Kingdom or mission concerns.

Second, identify the various networks of people in the community (language and ethnicity, social groupings, occupational groups, sports community, arts community, etc.), pray for them, and explore ways to connect with them. The larger the town the more groupings of people there will be. But even in a small town you will have several different groupings. It could be that your church members are already a part of several different groups.

Third, identify community needs and those who are working/tasked to meet those needs. As you identify needs, explore ways that God might use your church to meet one or more of these needs. Schools and service organizations often welcome churches who offer to help them.

Fourth, build relationships and friendships with community leaders. If you care about your community leaders as individuals, and aren’t seeking to “get something” from them, God can bless these relationships in unexpected ways.

Fifth, focus on children and young people. When discipling a community, do not neglect the young ones. In childhood we develop our sense of right and wrong and personal disciplines. A child can and will learn almost anything, and they can become anything God wants them to become. The older we get the harder it is to change behaviors, values, careers, everything. Decisions we make as adolescents will shape our entire lives. Nothing a church does is more important than what it does to love and reach children for Jesus Christ.

Sixth, orient the ministry of the church to obeying the teaching of Scripture in ways that connect with the needs of your community. Your town is unlike any other town. There is no “model church” doing what your church needs to do because each community is different and the particular composition of the Body of Christ is different for each local church and for the local churches in a particular community.

There is much more that could be said, and examples that could be given, to elaborate and illustrate how to disciple a community. But one final thought might help – learn to both “love” and “like” your church and your town. If we don’t find a way to love and like the people where we serve we will limit our effectiveness. God’s work is all about our relationship with Him and with others. Both must be strong for Him to use us to disciple our town.

Welcoming Newcomers to Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prison Outhouse was the Only Place We Could Worship

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Something that I regularly do is check a couple of websites for articles on the persecution of Christians. One site is http://www.persecution.org and another is http://www.opendoorsusa.org. Today I read an article on Open Doors (an organization founded by Brother Andrew for those of you who remember him) that I thought I would repost to my blog.

For those of you who are pastors or Bible teachers, I highly recommend that you check sites like these. On them you will learn some of what is happening with and to believers worldwide. You will also read stories that you can share with your church. When we read such stories it helps us to put things in better perspective. It is so easy to get bothered by things that, in the end, are trivial or silly when compared to what Christians are facing elsewhere. So the article below comes from Open Doors and the author is Emily Fuentes, dated January 13, 2016.

Hea Woo’s Story

The sharp, cold wind blew through the prison cell, but Hea Woo could hardly feel it… she could hardly feel anything. “I was within hours of death; sick, malnourished and frozen from the deplorable conditions of the prison cell,” shared Hea Woo. “I didn’t think I would be alive to be used by God. I didn’t think I would ever see the outside of the prison cell.”

But then something happened that would change Hea Woo’s life and the lives of many fellow prisoners. “I felt God stir a fire in my heart to share the gospel with others in prison.”

Hea Woo knew that this was impossible for many reasons; The prison guards were capable of murdering anyone who shared about Christianity. And she also didn’t know which prisoners would report her if she did share the gospel message.

For three long days, Hea Woo tried to ignore the calling God had placed on her heart. But after three days she could ignore it no longer, as God had given her very specific instructions.

“Share your cornmeal with another prisoner.” It did not seem like much, but when Hea Woo gave her cornmeal to a fellow prisoner, she literally gave them life. “I realized that was my calling- to bring life to those who were dying. By giving my own food, I was able to give them life and make a sacrifice of my own. This opened up many possibilities to share about Christ.”

One by one more and more prisoners were interested in hearing about Christ, as they were amazed by Hea Woo’s sacrifice. She had to be wise about the best ways to minister to others and the safest place to fellowship, so she prayed for guidance.

“God placed it on my heart: The outhouse of the prison was the only place we could worship.” And so they worshipped God in the most lowly and unlikely place. In that outhouse, they were free to fellowship and worship, even though they were in prison in North Korea.

After several years, Hea Woo was able to leave North Korea, but the mark she left is still felt in the country. God used her to bring several people to Christ, heal many and start several house churches.
Today, more than 50,000 to 70,000 Christians remain in North Korean prison camps. Learn more about how you can help these believers.

*Representative names to protect persecuted Christians

Evangelism in an Election Year

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President Clinton was impeached when I was a local church pastor. The issues involved matters of morality that required a response from pastors, on occasion, but doing this in a “non-political way” wasn’t always easy. The Sunday following his impeachment was most memorable. I began my message saying that in the past week someone had done something to our country for which I could never forgive them. “The harm to our country was so great it could not be overlooked,” I said. I could see the congregation bracing themselves for what I would say next. They thought, “Oh no, here it comes!” And then, just when they thought I was about to launch into a political rant, I said, “I will never forgive Michael Jordan for retiring from the NBA!” which was the other “big news story” of the week. That statement prompted the biggest outburst of laughter we ever enjoyed together.

All laughter aside, political issues are always difficult for pastors and churches, and perhaps doubly so in an election year. And when politics intersects with biblical teaching, it often requires a response from pastors. But as important as elections are, and they are important, evangelizing the lost is truly vital. And lest you want to evangelize only Democrats, or only Republicans, I want to suggest some guidelines for our conversations with others, particularly with unbelievers.

First, the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be the supreme message of our lives. When speaking with unbelievers, do not risk offending them and lose any chance of witness by discussing politics. Stick with Jesus as your subject. If we confuse receiving Jesus with adhering to a particular political viewpoint we will destroy our witness to at least half of our neighbors.

Second, God’s ways are not man’s ways. Politics and elections don’t deter or detour Him. There are many biblical examples of God orchestrating the politics exactly the opposite of what believers would have preferred. Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were God’s instruments, the Bible says, though they were pagan rulers and wicked men. Contemporary historians say that Chairman Mao Zedong, the atheistic ruler of China for 27 years, who sought to destroy the church, helped to establish the conditions for the explosive church growth that China has experienced in the past 30 years. I read recently that the two countries in which the Church is growing fastest, as a percentage of the population, are Iran and Afghanistan. The article suggested that growth is being accelerated by hardline, Islamic rulers, which are turning people away from Islam and toward the Prince of Peace.

Third, heart transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit. The most important thing we can do for the lost is lead them to Jesus, then teach them to pray and read the Word. If they (or we!) will do these things, the Holy Spirit will transform their (our) minds so that they (we) become more like Jesus. When people come to Jesus their morality and worldview changes. About a year ago one of our Northwest churches led a young couple to Christ who made their living by farming marijuana. The pastor told me that they got very involved in Bible study and were hungry to grow in Christ. By the fall, the couple became convicted that they needed a new line of work. Jesus saved them, forgave them, and He is transforming their hearts and minds. Note that salvation came before transformation.

Fourth, the “world” already regards us politically. The message of the Church to the lost world is too often a political message, and that is a shame. If you ask an unbeliever what a conservative, evangelical Christian is, he will describe them with political language. We have already seen this in the current presidential race as various candidates vie for the “evangelical vote.” It is far better to be known for the ministry we do and the God honoring character we have than the political stand we take, or the candidate we endorse, if we want to have spiritual influence with the lost.

Finally, the true Gospel is cross-cultural and cross-political. It works in every context. The Gospel works in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the United States. It works in free societies and in those ruled by tyrants. The true Gospel can bring conviction of sin to liberals and conservatives, and both need Jesus.

I once had a professor whose father was a pastor. He said that a man once came to his father asking for spiritual counsel. He visited with the man, and then asked, “Aren’t you a member of such-and-such a church? Isn’t so-and-so your pastor?” The man said that yes, he was correct on both matters. My professor’s father then asked, “Why didn’t you go to your pastor for counsel?” And the man said, “If I needed a golfing tip I would speak with my pastor, but I needed to speak with a man of God.” Ouch!

That is the greatest lesson that professor ever taught me and I’ve never forgotten it. Whether you are a pastor or a layman, the people you know will figure you out. In time they will know what is most important to you. Each of us must decide, is it more important to share our political opinion or to share Christ. Don’t be known as a political preacher or political Sunday school teacher. Better to be known as a lover of Jesus and seeker of lost souls.

Friendship Matters: Loving Our Homosexual Neighbors

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I spent the early part of this week at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The highlights were the Tuesday evening prayer service in which thousands gathered to pray for spiritual awakening in our lives, our churches, and our nation; followed by a missionary commission service on Wednesday morning. Although these were the highlights, the matter that has captured national attention is the stand we took upholding traditional marriage as defined and described by the Bible. This subject was timely, and necessary, because of the imminent Supreme Court decision on whether same-sex marriage will be deemed a constitutional right. If it is deemed a “right,” there will be serious implications for all believers, churches and religious institutions. Indeed, we are already seeing this happen in the Northwest, where same-sex marriage has been made legal in Washington by popular vote.

The Northwest Baptist Convention of churches has already taken a step to address this matter by affirming the Baptist Faith and Message as our statement of faith. The BF&M describes God’s plan for marriage as a union between one man and one woman, for life. As an NWBC member church, your church is protected, in part, by this statement of faith. Ashley Seuell, attorney with the Northwest Baptist Foundation, has drafted a document that can provide further help in this matter.

The discussion of same-sex relationships that I found most helpful at the SBC was a panel discussion which included a university professor who had lived as a lesbian, but whom Christ saved, delivering her from her unbelief, and ultimately also delivered her from her homosexual lifestyle. Her name is Dr. Rosaria Butterfield and I want to briefly describe for you what she said.

First, she said that friendship matters. Her journey to Christ began through friendship with a pastor and his wife. They ate in each other’s homes. They welcomed her into their lives. When she decided to write a book about why Christians “hate” people like her, they encouraged her to read the Bible as part of her research. She took the challenge and read the entire Bible seven times in two years. The result of her time in God’s Word was that she wanted Jesus. She wanted the Jesus she came to know through the Scriptures. She was powerfully drawn to Him. In describing her salvation she said, “I wasn’t converted out of homosexuality. I was converted out of unbelief. Then God went to work on the rest.”

One of Dr. Butterfield’s primary lessons for the church is this: We need to be an accessible community where unbelievers are welcomed and friendship is real. Friendship matters. Friendship in which there are no conditions is vital to reaching people. Butterfield said that the homosexual world provided her with community, and it was critical to her conversion that the pastor and his wife provided community as well.

As I heard her speak about the need for Christians to truly befriend unbelievers, I thought of the late British missionary Leslie Newbigin, who spoke of two conversions. First, unbelievers are converted to the church, or some part of the church. Then they are converted to Christ. He meant by this that people first ask questions like, “Do I like those people? Do I want to spend time with them? Are their lives attractive?” Only when they receive satisfactory answers to these questions do they listen to the gospel message that we proclaim.

A matter related to friendship is the words we use to help deliver people from unbelief. Butterfield said, “Your words should be no stronger than your relationship.” That is a wise statement. As Christians, we are commanded not simply to speak the truth, but to speak the truth in love. Love is communicated through relationship. To say that we love all people is theoretical. It is philosophical. Love requires relationship, which brings us back to Dr. Butterfield’s point that the church must be accessible and friendship with unbelievers must be real. This is the context in which we become legitimate and our words will find consideration in the hearts and minds of unbelieving friends.

Same-sex marriage will remain an issue in the Northwest, regardless of what the Supreme Court does, because Washington residents have voted for it. Churches will have to deal with it, as will individual Christians because of how it affects the work-place, and even our own families. Already one of our churches lost their place of worship because the owner of the building objected to the church’s view on same-sex marriage. But these challenges do not remove Jesus’ command that we love our neighbors. Friendship provides the avenue for love, and, we pray, for transformed lives.

How to Change Your Community

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I had the joy of visiting with a hot-hearted young pastor who delighted in sharing what God is doing in the church he serves. He’d been in this, his first pastorate, for six months. He spoke of leading people to Christ, performing his first baptisms, a wedding, and yes, a couple of funerals. He is clearly enjoying the people and the work of an under-shepherd. But what I wanted to know was whether he had the community on his heart.

I asked, “Does your town have a manager, or just the mayor?” He said they had a mayor and city council. “What’s the mayor’s name and what is he like?” I asked. He told me his name and mentioned having lunched together. I continued to ask him about others in his town. We talked about the police and fire chiefs, the school superintendent and principals. We talked about the banks and businesses, the editor of the city paper, and the pastors of other churches in town. This young pastor had already met all of these people, knew their names, and was forging friendships with many of them. He was building relationships within the church, but he was also establishing friendships in the community that will deepen his witness and ministry opportunities far into the future.

In light of that, consider this: the work of the pastor is not to build a great church in the community, but rather to shepherd the church toward building a great community. Better to work for community transformation than to spend all our efforts building one local church. Oh, please don’t get me wrong! Strong churches are the heart and soul of the city. The Church is the means God has chosen to rescue the lost and salt the earth. But churches are strongest when they impact the broader community through a network of relationships.

Let me share with you some assignments that will help you, as a pastor, connect with your community (laypeople, don’t quit reading, because I’ve got some ideas for you as well!). First, pastor, get to know other leaders in your community. These include school and governmental leaders, other pastors, social service organizations and health care providers. If you have a youth shelter, pregnancy center, adoption services, or Boys and Girls Club, get acquainted with those folks. Do the same with bankers and employers of various kinds. You will want to know the newspaper editor and reporters. The manager of the grocery stores and department stores can become great friends. They often have large hearts and great interest in helping with feeding and clothing ministries.

Every city has people who love it and who desire to make it better. A wise pastor will get to know them, whether or not they are members of the church he serves. And remember, if people like you, they will work with you. If they don’t know you, they have no reason to like you or partner with you in ministry. But never, ever ask for personal discounts from business people! This is a real turn-off and sends the wrong message. We want to partner with them in ministry and build community, not receive personal favors from them.

What if you are not the pastor in your church? What can you do to help your church be a transforming presence in the community? There is much you can do, but one of the best things is to help your pastor get to know the people that you know. Introduce him to your friends. Help him meet the Rotarians and firemen and service providers. Pastors need friends who introduce them to others. The membership of your local church is already connected to all aspects of community life. Help your ministry leaders build these connections, which will facilitate important relationships and friendships.

Our Catholic friends assign their priests to a parish, which speaks not only of the membership of the church, but the people living in a particular area. I like that. As pastors, we are not simply assigned to the membership of a certain local church. In some sense, we are responsible for all the people in our area.

I knew we were making progress when the mayor, who was not a church member or even a Baptist, told me that he recommended our church to others. He said, “I invite them to my church, but I tell them, ‘if you don’t like our church, I would go to First Baptist.’” Why did he do that? We were friends.