Summer Ministry in the Pacific Northwest

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Summer in the Pacific Northwest is as close to the Edenic garden as you will to find. But in addition to enjoying the outdoors, Northwest Baptists do some of their most impactful ministry in the summer months. Vacation Bible Schools and various sports, children and youth camps, anchor our summer ministry, and to these you can add mission trips and community outreach and service projects.

This spring 383 people were trained to lead Bible schools in NWBC and associational events. We anticipate the making of many disciples among the thousands of children ministered to by our churches in Bible schools and camps this summer. Many churches have more children in their Bible schools than the total church attendance on an average Sunday. Bible schools remain the most effective evangelistic ministry of our churches.

Not only do we conduct Bible schools here at home, 50 Northwest Baptists from 10 churches will serve the children of IMB missionaries in Asia from July 30 to August 5. Next summer we have been invited to a missionary retreat which we will require about 140 people serving hundreds of missionary children in Asia, as well as providing medical, technical, and security support. Only by partnering together can we have such great impact serving our IMB missionaries.

Here at home our churches are loving their neighbors in community holiday events, city clean-up projects, school improvement activities, refugee and immigrant ministries, and person-to-person Gospel sharing. The churches with which I have worshiped already this summer have attenders that come from about 25 different nations (about 50 nations are represented in our almost 500 congregations)!

As we consider the primary task that God has given us, to reach 11.5 million neighbors in the Northwest, there are certain values that help guide our work. First, we value the individual person. Most of what we see Jesus doing in the New Testament is focused on one person – Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, a blind man, lame man, demon-possessed man, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, the thief on the cross, and many others. Jesus gave His full attention to individual people, often people that others did not value. We must do the same. One person matters.

Second, we value every church, because every church, regardless of size, is the Body of Christ which “He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28d). We need each church and we value each church as a partner in the gospel, understanding that the local church best knows their people and must determine how they can best love their community and share the gospel where they live.

Third, we value the collaboration of true partners. In a partnership, the “weaker” partner is respected by the “stronger” partner, understanding that God works in mysterious ways, choosing the “weak” to shame the “strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). Whether speaking of individuals or churches, partnership enables us to have a bigger and more consistent gospel impact. This is the genius of the Cooperative Program (CP) method of funding missions. By the way, our NWBC churches gave an average of 7.5 percent to missions through CP last year, far above the national average of 4.86.

I hope that you are enjoying your summer, and that you will know that it is a good day to serve the Lord in the Pacific Northwest!

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.

Baptizing Barbarians

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My people were barbarians, just plain dangerous, before Jesus rescued them and saved them from sin. You have to go back a few years because the gospel came to my people a long time ago. It’s a pretty amazing story. My people came from England, and though you might not realize it, before the missionary-evangelists came to English soil, the people there were dangerous. Here’s how it happened.

In the year A.D. 596 a follower of Jesus named Augustine led forty others from the European Continent to England in order to preach Jesus to the barbarians who lived there. The closer they got the more frightened they became. They had reason to be afraid. There was every possibility they would not survive the encounter. Augustine even asked for permission to abandon the missionary journey and return home. Denied permission, the missionary band braved the danger and journeyed into uncertainty.

When finally they arrived, rather than face a violent death, they found tremendous response to the message of Jesus. Even King Ethelbert was open to the gospel message. The Holy Spirit moved in the hearts of thousands. One-by-one they were born again, passing from death to life. And get this: on Christmas Day of the year A.D. 597, 10,000 barbarians were baptized in Canterbury, England! Even today one of the most famous church buildings in the world is the Canterbury Cathedral, and the leader of the Church of England is the Archbishop of Canterbury. This all goes back to Augustine’s ministry over 1,400 years ago when my English ancestors, and many of yours, were rescued from barbarism and hell itself through the ministry of Augustine and his missionary band.

One thing I know about you is that your people, like mine, were barbarians before they knew Jesus. It doesn’t matter from whence they came, they were barbarians before Jesus was brought to their land and entered their hearts.

When I served in Oklahoma, now considered a “Bible-belt state,” I learned an interesting story from its early history. In 1718 a traveler named Harpe passed through the eastern part of what is now Oklahoma. He spoke of meeting native peoples called Tayavayas, who were quite friendly to him. They gave him many gifts, including an eight-year-old Apache slave boy with one finger missing off each hand. It seems the Tayavayas had eaten two fingers, marking the boy as food. They told Harpe they wished they had more to give him, that they had 17 others, but they had made a feast of them.

That’s how it was in Oklahoma before the missionary-evangelists came. And many of the first Jesus-followers in Oklahoma were Native Americans who came to Oklahoma through the “trail of tears.” The first Baptist church in that state was bilingual, speaking both Creek and English.

I thought of these stories recently when I was preaching on one of the most glorious, transformational truths ever revealed: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Each of us individually, and our people collectively, were barbaric in many ways, enemies of God, before we submitted to the Savior who spilled His blood for our sins. While I was in rebellion against Him, while I was shaking my fist in the face of God and demanding my glory, not His, even then Jesus died for me.

The word “commends” is a special word. “God commends His own love.” The word is in the present tense, meaning God’s love is presently, and continuously, being poured out toward us. God’s love is alive and fresh and powerful and is at this moment being poured out toward sinners. How do we know God loves us like this? We know because Christ died for us. Jesus died in one brief hour a long time ago, but that death has an eternal power. His blood spilt in ages past has present power to wash away sins. Jesus’ blood provides a covering of righteousness even now. Jesus shed His blood one time, in one hour, and ever since that day, God has commended that shed blood into the heart of every sinner, every barbarian, who comes to Jesus in faith.

Have you baptized any barbarians lately? Remember, if you don’t reach the barbarian down the street, he might marry your daughter! He might work for you or you for him. Or maybe the barbarian is your own child. God already loves them. And He has experience saving and baptizing barbarians.

NWBC Annual Report for 2017

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The following is my written report for the annual meeting of the Northwest Baptist Convention meeting in Eugene, OR on Nov. 7-8, 2017. My oral report will be given on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at about 10:30 AM. The title is “Being a Blessing in Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Blessing. It’s a beautiful word signifying deep satisfaction and abundance. Diamonds and emeralds are chosen for their gleaming brilliance. Bless and blessing are verbal gemstones used of the holy and harmonious relationship between God and His creation. The first creatures blessed by God were fish and birds (Gen. 1:22). Next we see God blessing Noah and his family as He launches them into a new world after the flood. God blesses them and tells them to fill the earth with many children (Gen. 9:1).

When we come to Genesis 12 and the calling of Abraham, God not only tells Abraham, “I will bless you,” but He tells him, “You will be a blessing to others” and “all the people on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:2-3). Here we see that blessing, and blessing others, entails a purpose for God’s people and the launching of God’s redemptive mission to humankind. Most fascinating is that God reiterates His purpose of Abraham blessing the nations even as Abraham pleads for Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:18-19).

Built into the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the truth that God’s people are the means by which God will bless the peoples of the earth. God’s people, Abraham’s spiritual children (Gal. 3:6-9), are a blessing to all peoples. Loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, praying for others, praying even our persecutors, and speaking the truth of the gospel in love, are means by which we bless all peoples.

It’s been said that our purpose is not to “build a great church” in the city, but rather to see our church as God’s means to build a great city, to bless the city. As we journey with God on mission we will bless our community. As we practice righteousness and justice, we will demonstrate obedience to Christ’s commands and bless our city. As we live the truth of Gospel, demonstrating the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our future resurrection, we will bless our cities.

Abraham lived in the land of Sodom and Gomorrah. So do we. What are God’s people to do in such a place? We are to pray and plead to God for the people of our city. We are to love them, warn them, and live the truth among them. We must disciple our children and disciple our neighbors, calling people to Jesus from the land of Sodom and Gomorrah.

At our best, Northwest Baptists are doing these things. We are blessing our communities. We are sharing the gospel and gathering believers into churches, churches in which worship is expressed in more than two dozen languages and 50 nationalities and people groups. Last year 23 new churches were launched. Already this year we have equaled that number. Half of our new churches worship in a language other than English. Approximately 150 of our 492 churches worship in other languages. This is the fruit of cooperation. Other denominations and networks of churches do not have the diversity of churches that we enjoy. Only by cooperating can we do hard things like reaching into our immigrant populations.

Cooperation also enables us to do hard things like Disaster Relief (DR). DR chaplains were deployed to serve in the fire-stricken areas of the Northwest. Multiple Northwest DR teams have served in Texas. We expect that during our Annual Meeting in Eugene that we will have teams in Puerto Rico as well.

Everything that Northwest Baptists do cooperatively begins by training pastors and other leaders. At least 1,000 people received training through the cooperative work of our churches, including 200 pastors and church planters and more than 500 children’s and youth workers. Fifteen pastors travelled to East Asia on one of three vision trips, with others leading teams from their church to work with our IMB personnel there. Forty pastors and spouses were trained as transitional pastoral leaders to help churches who are in-between pastors.

Our greatest need remains, and will always be, more pastors. Churches need shepherds. They need shepherds whose call and commitment is to love the Lord and His church, and shepherds who lead the church to bless the community, who walk with God in in the community, and who share Jesus with the community. The purpose of the NWBC is to equip and extend the ministry of the churches and her pastors so that together we can have a missions impact as extensive as Jesus declared in Acts 1:8, even as we serve in the land of Sodom and Gomorrah. And remember, it is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!

Lou Holtz Can Teach Us Something about Church

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Lou Holtz knows how to build a successful football program. He knows a few things about successful organizations, period. After more than 50 years in the sports world, one striking observation he made is that only two organizations looked better on the inside than they appeared from the outside – the University of Notre Dame and Augusta Country Club. Every other entity he has been part of looked worse from the inside than it did from outside.

Churches and ministries could ponder Holtz’s observation and learn from it. Many churches struggle with building a successful evangelism and outreach ministry. Part of the problem is that inside reality doesn’t match outside appearance. Because churches depend on the insiders (attenders) to invite outsiders to come inside (unchurched people), it’s vital that the insiders believe they have something wonderful to offer.

A couple of stories will illustrate what I mean. While in seminary I served as an evangelism intern in a church. I spent five to ten hours each week teaching people how to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and leading them to do it door-to-door. It was a formative experience for me. However, one sad fact in that experience is that I believed there was another church in town that was better than ours. Their pastor was a better preacher (our pastor said he didn’t spend much time in sermon preparation). They planned a more dynamic worship service and stronger mission engagement. I had no problem telling people about Jesus Christ and what He did for them, but it was more difficult to invite them to our church because I feared they would be disappointed when they came.

The second story concerns a church I served as pastor. A fellow minister from another denomination visited with me about joining our church. It was a big step for him and his young family. I will never forget what he said: “I want to attend a church where I can bring lost friends, confident that they will hear a well-prepared message from the Bible, be welcomed and treated well, and where we don’t have to fear something will happen that will make us want to crawl under the pew.”

I’ve thought of that statement made in 1993 many times since. If the church doesn’t look good from the inside, if members and attenders lack the confidence that guests can experience God’s presence, hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word, experience the heart-felt worship of God’s people, be led to God’s throne in meaningful prayer, and experience God’s love through His people, they will hesitate to bring their friends to church.
Our SBC family nationally has experienced a significant decline in evangelistic effectiveness. Fewer people are following Christ in believer’s baptism through our churches. Church membership and attendance has declined. Many are exploring the reasons for decline, most often lamenting that we are not sharing the gospel in our communities like we must. Others complain that we are not receiving the resources and leadership at the national level that our churches need because other strategies have been prioritized.

I believe both of these are true. That’s why in the Northwest Baptist Convention we provide MY316 evangelism resources free-of-charge to our churches (our churches paid for them through their Cooperative Program mission gifts). It’s why we conduct regional evangelism training events like Story Witnessing. Dozens of churches each year host “mystery guests” to help them evaluate Sunday morning worship gatherings. Pastor-clusters always have some emphasis on evangelism and discipleship. At this year’s annual NWBC meeting (November 7-8 in Eugene, OR) every attender will be given a book, Sharing Jesus without Freaking Out, and will have the opportunity to attend a training event led by author, Alvin Reid, to learn how to teach it in their churches. Missions and evangelism is why we exist as a convention of churches. Together we can equip our leaders and extend our missions impact far better than we could if we were alone.

These things being true, at the local church level, it would be good if we asked the question, “Does our church look better from the inside than it does from the outside? Can I confidently invite people to my church, believing they will experience God through our church?” If not, what changes can be made to have that confidence?

Churches with effective outreach and evangelism ministries have attenders who enthusiastically and confidently recommend their church to others. These churches provide opportunities for attenders to learn how to share the gospel, and they provide special events that give attenders easy ways to invite friends and neighbors to church.

If you need help diagnosing the condition of your church and finding a prescription that helps your church get healthy, we have staff trained and assigned to do that. Please call upon us. That’s our job, and more importantly, it’s our joy to assist our pastors and churches as together we strive to reach the Northwest with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Wept. Will We?

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Jesus issued commands and commissions. He also cried. The commands of Jesus instructed the church from its first days, but so too did His compassion. Jesus wept when He saw Lazarus dead (John 11:35). He was “moved with compassion” and healed those stricken by terrible diseases and malformations (Mark 1:41). He welcomed the weary and burdened (Matt. 11:28).

With all Jesus did as our sinless Savior, crucified and risen, and with all that He said that no other man could ever say, it’s the compassion of Jesus for the bruised and broken, the dirty and disfigured and damaged, that most revealed His heart. Powerful? Yes. Jesus is powerful in creation and salvation and in every other way. Wise? Jesus’ wisdom is perfect. But He also wept. He felt. He hurt. He suffered.

A few months ago, on a day when I learned some disturbing news, I woke up in the middle of the night with the words “Jesus wept” in my mind. Those words haven’t long left my thoughts since.

“Jesus wept” has challenged me personally. I fear I weep too little, and then too often for the wrong reasons.

“Jesus wept” has also spoken to me about the proper response when our ministry is weak and ineffective. The annual compilation of statistics for SBC churches was released this week. What they reveal is deeply sad. It prompted me to think, “Jesus wept. Will we?”

Before I get into the national SBC numbers, let me say I am most grateful that our Northwest churches have grown in ministry impact by almost every measure. For three consecutive years our churches have baptized more new disciples of Jesus Christ than the prior year, with 2,046 baptisms in 2016, up from 2,007 in 2015. Total worship attendance increased to 30,616 from 30,147. Total missions giving increased to $6,914,914 from $6,129,398, and Cooperative Program giving also showed a significant increase in 2016, though that is not a number included in the annual church profile report.
Probably the most important thing about the annual report is the trend line.

In the Northwest the trends are heading in the right direction, and for this I am grateful. Not that we’re beating our chests in triumphal victory. Far from it. Lostness is so great in our area that at times we wonder if we’ll ever make real progress. Half of our churches average 50 and below. It’s a struggle for many of our pastors and churches just to survive. Still, when we step back and look at the bigger picture, we are thankful to see our ministries inching forward. From the NWBC level, we feel that our focus on evangelism, missions (including church planting), and training leaders is serving our churches well. We exist to extend the missions impact of our churches and to help equip leaders in our churches. We are doing that. We believe in cooperative/collaborative work in the Northwest. This includes cooperating with our SBC partners. Our partnership with NAMB mostly involves church planting, but also some on evangelism. Our East Asia IMB partnership has proven to be a huge blessing to our missionaries and our NWBC churches. Our partnership with Gateway Seminary has had enormous impact on the Northwest as hundreds of our leaders have attended Gateway (formerly Golden Gate Seminary) and graduated from its programs with increased effectiveness.

Although my primary focus is the NWBC, as it should be, I am concerned for the SBC nationally. We are part of this important family. Consider these statistics from the 2016 annual church profile:

Baptisms – 280,773 people in 2016, down from 295,212 in 2015 for 4.89 percent decline. A decade ago we were baptizing over 350,000 people annually. We haven’t reached fewer than 300,000 since the 1940s, until the last two years. Again, the trend nationally has been downward for several years.

Worship attendance – 5.2 million weekly, which is a drop from about 5.55 million, for a 6.75 percent decline.

Church starts – 732 new church plants, down from 926 in 2015. I don’t remember when we’ve seen so few church plants. Until this decade we regularly reported over 1,200 new church plants each year.

Cooperative Program percentage – 5.16 percent of the church budget on average, down from 5.18 percent the year prior. In the Northwest the average is about 7 percent per church, for which we are most grateful. The trend toward lower CP missions giving has been going on for decades and is now less than half of what it once was.

Added to these statistics is the fact that our IMB mission force is 25 percent smaller than it was two years ago with 1,200 fewer field missionaries. Our international missions force has not only been greatly reduced in numbers, but many of those who left the field were seasoned leaders with language and cultural skills developed over ten or twenty years and more. This alone ought to make us weep.

Next week is the annual meeting of the SBC in Phoenix, AZ. While gathered we need to face the hard facts and not smooth things over with anecdotes and a few good stories. Is God at work in many of our churches and ministries? Certainly He is. But the job of leaders requires that we take the satellite view of things. We need to look at the major trend lines. We need to ask the questions, “Why? Why the decline? How did we get here? What do we need to change? How do we move forward?” I believe that we can identify reasons for our decline nationally and each denominational agency and trustee board, each convention of churches, every association and local church leader has a part to play in this. And after saying all that, my great hope is that we will drop to our knees and weep. That would be in keeping with the meeting’s theme – “Pray for such a time as this.”

The great genius of Southern Baptists is that our cooperation is voluntary. Voluntary cooperation through the Cooperative Program has enabled us to develop a system of associations, state conventions, educational institutions, and mission boards unparalleled in history. But for a voluntary system of support to thrive there must a high level of trust and respect for all partners. That’s too often missing in our work these days.

In a voluntary system, when significant problems arise, leaders are often hesitant to talk about them publically for fear that it will demotivate cooperative giving. Let me be clear, there is no other denomination or convention of churches that is doing more to reach the lost in the United States and around the world than Southern Baptists. If you know of one please tell me. We have every reason to support the SBC and to increase our support. No one sends more missionaries. No one starts more churches. No one disciples more people. No seminary system educates more preachers. But we should do better. We used to do better and we can again. If we fail our impact for Christ will grow less and less and less.

I’m going to stop there. I’m going to pray, maybe even shed a tear.

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.