God is Working, Doing More Than We Know

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Last Friday night in the city of Portland, OR rioters burned a stack of Bibles. Protests and rioting have continued nightly in Portland for over two months. Seattle, WA has seen similar happenings, including the short-lived “CHOP,” a pretend “nation” of sorts, but it was no joke as lives were violently taken amidst the rebellion.

Churches in these areas are striving and struggling as they seek to share Jesus Christ and pray for the peace of their cities. Covid-19 has made everything we do much more difficult, but pastors and churches remain faithful. Although I have sensed a “settled sadness” in many, if not most, there is also a confidence that God is at work.

Many years ago as I was reading the story of Jericho’s walls tumbling down, a truth jump out that I hadn’t considered before. As Israel marched around Jericho day after day, God was at work, and he was doing more than they knew. God’s battle plan for Jericho was unlike any before or since. Yet the people obeyed Him, marching every day, then on the seventh day adding trumpets and a shout to the march. The truth that leaped from the text for me that day was that the decision of the people to obey God, and march around the city, built their faith and their confidence in God. God’s battle plan for Jericho had never been used before, and it couldn’t have made much sense to a military commander, but their obedience developed their faith as they witnessed God do a mighty work.

I must confess, when I see much of what is happening in the Northwest, and across the nation, I can settle into sadness. But then I read God’s Word, as I do daily, and I’m reminded that God is always at work, and He’s always doing more than we know. I see God at work in some of my neighbors as they seek ways to teach their children and build their families. I’ve seen tears in the eyes of church attenders as they sing together, and I’ve seen their tears through my own. I’ve seen people lose hope in a dream built by human hands, and find hope in a Savior who overcame a troubled world. One of our NWBC churches is starting a school while many public schools have announced they will not allow classes to meet. This church sees a need, and an opportunity, provided by the leftward lurch in public schools, and the Covid-19 shutdown. As the pastor, who’s older than me, spoke of his vision and dream for this new school, I was awed and humbled by his faith and confidence in God. Far from sadness, I heard giddiness in his voice as he spoke about the dream God had given him, and how that dream is quickly forming into a workable plan. If we ever thought “certain circumstances” were necessary for joy and peace, we’ve been reminded that they are not.

It still makes me sad when I learn that people down the road and across town are blaspheming the God I love. It bothers me greatly that many in the “ruling class” now consider biblical Christianity as hateful. But then I read the words of a man imprisoned for Christ say to the church in his day that they shined “like stars” in a “crooked and perverted generation” (Phil. 2:15).

People who know and obey God, living in grace and truth, are different from the peoples of the world. This has always been true. The greatest temptation we face is failure to live by faith, and then to act with courage, fueled by faith. We can do this because, by faith, we know that God is doing more than we know. We see Him at work, if only we have eyes to see. Some things God is doing are clear, but He’s even doing more, and that knowledge gives me hope in a troubled world.

Thoughts on Race and Justice in America

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Grief. Outrage. Fear. Disgust. Dismay. And struggling to see what good might come from this. These emotions and responses have been swinging back and forth in my heart and mind since witnessing the video of the gruesome killing of George Floyd. In the days since that horrible day on May 25, our nation has witnessed peaceful protests, violent rioting, additional murders and maimings, and now, as I write, the largest city in the Northwest is partly under the control of protesters. Seattle, WA has succumbed to an “occupying protest.” Neither Seattle’s Mayor Durkan, nor Governor Inslee, have revealed a plan as to how to deal with the occupation of six city blocks in the Capital Hill neighborhood, which includes a police precinct building. It’s an embarrassing display of lawlessness, fraught with danger, and filled with irony.

There are many concerns churning within each of us. My primary concern is for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and the message of truth and justice and love and hope and forgiveness that we proclaim and live as we are enabled by the Holy Spirit. About one third of the churches of the Northwest Baptist Convention are led by non-Anglo pastors. Most of these pastors and churches worship in a language other than English, but we do have African-American pastors, and other ethnic minority pastors, whose congregations worship in English.

When I think of our diversity, I primarily think of language since that’s the biggest barrier to communication and understanding each other. Beyond language there are cultural differences. And then we get to differences in appearance, personal experience, age, etc. Several of our pastors have survived wars, genocides and severe persecution. Nearly two dozen came to our country as refugees from Burma, Cambodia, Bhutan, Vietnam, El Salvador and other countries. Many of our pastors grew up in the southern part of the United States, and the older pastors among us grew up with forced segregation of blacks and whites. I grew up in a small Montana town and never met a black person until I was in college. My first experience with someone of a different skin color were two Vietnamese boys whose family came to Whitefish, MT when I was 14. I got to know these boys by helping them learn English. By the time we graduated from high school they not only knew English, they drove two of the coolest cars in school because their family started a highly successful restaurant and they worked very hard to achieve aspirations made possible by coming to America.

We all have our own unique experiences, but what I want each of our pastors to know is that I love you. Even as I write, I know I say it out of ignorance as to who many of you really are, and love is not generic; it’s personal. This week I spoke with a pastor on the phone whom I met seven years ago but haven’t seen since. That’s the nature of our work and of our relationship. And yet, I love you because I trust that you have a love for Jesus and His people, as do I. I love you if for no other reason than the God who is in you, and who has laid claim to your life, is also in me and owns me. Whatever our particular views on issues and the things that are part of our human distinctions, I trust that we make Jesus and His Kingdom our primary concern.
This doesn’t negate varied viewpoints on how to remedy the injustices and disparities that exist in our world, but I do believe that our unity in Jesus is primary. If this is true, what does it mean for our cooperative mission work? God’s Word is the truth that must guide our thinking and behavior. From His Word, I would offer a couple things that I trust will be helpful. I do not intend this to be comprehensive, but I do believe it identifies key biblical truths.

First, the most fundamental truth about every human being is that he or she is created in the image of God. The Bible states this in Genesis 1:27 and it is repeated throughout the Scriptures. The dignity and value of every individual is tied to this fact. From this comes the Christian belief that individuals are precious and valued, not simply groups of people or nations of people or people of a certain color, but every individual person has equal value and dignity and the God-given right to be treated justly. It is correct to say that while individuals and groups have certain physical characteristics, we are fundamentally one race, the human race, distinct from all other created beings. God breathed life into human beings. We are His image bearers in a way no other living thing is. Acts 17:26 says that every nationality throughout the whole earth has descended from one man. The genetic variations required to produce the beautiful diversity in the appearance of individual human beings were present in Adam.

One reason human beings sometimes devalue or despise people of a different skin color (though skin color is not the only, or even the greatest difference between individual human beings) is because most people do not believe every single human being is created in God’s image and that we are all descendants of one man. Most people believe in some form of biological evolution of the origin of life. Although hatred of the other “tribe” has existed for thousands of years, for the past 150 years evolution has been used to support theories of racial differences and racial superiority. For example, in the early 20th Century an African pygmy was kept in the Bronx Zoo as an example of evolution (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-tragic-tale-of-the-pygmy-in-the-zoo-2787905/).

This was horrific, and clearly racist, but many historical examples and arguments have used the theory of evolution to argue that some humans are more advanced than others. About 75 million people died in WWII, three percent of the world’s population, because Hitler believed some humans had no value and weren’t fully human. The Armenian, Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, all happening within the past century, were predicated on the idea that some humans have more worth than others. Soviet and Chinese Communism led to the death of at least 60 million people because atheistic communism denies the image of God in each human being, and thus the worth of an individual. These cannot all be necessarily be linked directly to evolutionary theory. Scholars have specifically argued that Hitler did not believe Germanic peoples descended from apes, for example. But any theory of humanity that falls short of what the Scripture teaches, which includes all forms of racism and racist theories, ultimately leads to devaluing human beings. Christians must argue from Scripture the fundamental truths that there is one humanity, descended from one man, and each person is created in God’s image with equal value and worth.
Second, while every person has descended from the first Adam, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, has made peace between humanity and God, and between individual humans, through His death on the cross. Jesus Christ is our peace. God sent His son to reconcile humanity to Himself and to each other (Ephesians 2). Peace in the human heart, love in the human heart, love of neighbor and love of enemy is only possible in Jesus Christ. He is the only cure for hatred and bigotry because sin produces wrong and wicked thinking that only Christ can heal. Racism and all other sin will only be put to death when we are crucified with Christ and He comes to live in us. Even then, we are subject to acting in sinful ways. Solomon wrote, “The hearts of people are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Eccl. 9:3). But as Christians we have the objective truth of God’s Word, the power of the Gospel, and the indwelling of God Himself, which gives us the ability to resist and overcome sin.

I want to briefly add that Christians have sometimes used the Bible to promote racism, slavery, and various forms of bigotry. Whenever and wherever that occurs it is to our shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. The biblical truth I have shared above should guide our exegesis of Scripture whenever we are tempted to think certain Bible texts support any form of bias against others for characteristics intrinsic to them.
So, what should Christians do in the aftermath of the brutal, public killing of George Floyd and all that has happened since? We should advocate that justice be done. We should work for justice, knowing that we are moving toward the Day when God will render judgement and right all wrongs. The biblical perspective on justice is that we can’t achieve it perfectly here, but God can and He will. We should love God and love our neighbor. We should do acts of love for people who look similar to us and different than us. This requires intentionality in crossing barriers of color and economics and education and language, among others. And don’t forget our law enforcement personnel. These men and women come from peoples of every color and are serving under incredible pressure, even as they wrestle with their own deep emotions and pain.

Do we have a vital role to play in the politics of our nation? Yes. We must select leaders who believe in the worth and dignity of every human being, and we must hold them accountable, regardless of whether they’re in our favored political party. Regarding the election of leaders, Christians need to get more involved in local elections and primary elections because that’s where we have the greatest opportunity to choose leaders who adhere to the biblical truth of the worth and dignity of each person, and who lead with the conviction that they will one day stand before God to be judged by Him. Most of the political issues that affect our daily lives concern school boards, city councils, and state government. Do you know your local representatives? Do they know you? That’s where a pastor and church can have the greatest influence on things affecting daily life in our communities. By the time we get to national, general elections we mostly have a choice between two candidates. Often neither provide a satisfying choice, though one will typically represent biblical concerns better than the other. That said, quality candidates are best sorted out earlier in the process.

The bottom line for the believer is that we must make disciples of Jesus Christ and teach those disciples to think biblically about all of life. It begins with loving God. It continues with loving our neighbor. It’s easy to say. It takes a lifetime to learn how to do. I, for one, am still learning, and I want to be an eager learner. I want to learn by listening to others, with the heart and mind of a missionary, but mostly I need to hear from God, and learn from Him, how best I can love others and share Christ in meaningful ways.

Are We There Yet?

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“Are we there yet? Why is it taking so long?” Every parent on a road trip with their kids has endured whining questions. Little children don’t understand the relationship between time and distance, so a long, boring car ride seems endless. And what happens when there are two or three kids in the backseat? Trouble! Squabbling and poking and crying.

For almost three months America has been on a journey. It seems like a trip to nowhere. Will it be over by the end of summer? Who knows? No one does, but it won’t be over soon enough! We simply don’t know when it will end. And like kids in the backseat on a cross-country trip, that spells trouble.

For political leaders Covid-19 is both a difficultly and an opportunity because politicians can use the virus like a ballistic missile to blow up their opposition by destroying confidence in their leadership. Politicians, by design, exploit problems to gain control. It may sound cynical, but it’s mostly true. And it’s not just politicians who use crises this way. Recently I heard a Christian leader say that crises provide “smoke cover” for leaders to do things they want to do, but can’t without the covering of “smoke.” He was speaking of the current Covid-19 crisis.

For pastors, the leadership challenge is different. Pastors shepherd people they know by name and by sight. Churches are bodies of believers whose head is Christ, bound together by love for Christ and His love for them. So the pastoral challenge isn’t like that of the politician leading opposing factions. It’s more like that of the parent with kids squabbling in the backseat. Now, don’t run too far with this analogy. Pastors aren’t our parents and the congregation isn’t a gathering of whining children, though there are different levels of spiritual maturity and understanding in the membership of any church.

The church is a family. We live together, young and old, mature and immature. We see things differently, but we each have an interest in the health of the family. We may whine, and we might even squabble about how to drive the car down the long and winding road, but we love our church and want it healthy and living in obedience to Christ.

So, are there some principles or guidelines that can help pastors and churches as we travel together on a difficult, unfamiliar road? Yes, there are a few:

First, now and always, we must fear God and love God above all others. Honoring God and seeking what He wants us to be, say, and do is always the most important thing. When we get this right, everything is right. Every day the challenge is the same. What is God saying? What does He want from me? How can I obey Him? Much of the trouble we face happens because we fear others more than God. We love God, but we love something/someone else, more. This is a problem. It is a bigger problem than Covid-19. Pastors, church members, love God first. Fear God most. Everything else becomes clearer when we get this right.

Second, love your neighbor. Bless your community. This requires intention, not mere sentiment. Loving is something we do, not something we say or feel. Every crisis or problem provides us the opportunity to love someone, bless someone. How does God want me to love my neighbor today? How does God want us to bless our community today? Yesterday my wife gave each of the 13 kids on our cul-de-sac a set of marbles with instructions on different games to play. She also wrote them a poem. She’s been introducing our neighbor kids to various “old fashioned games” to try and alleviate a bit of the stay-at-home monotony. She’s having fun, and the kids are too.

Pastors I’ve spoken with are leading their churches to abide by the stay-at-home orders, and the social distancing guidelines, out of love for their church and community, not because they believe the government has the authority to dictate whether the church can gather for worship. They are voluntarily following the guidelines because they love their people and don’t want to jeopardize the health and lives of their church and community.

Whether our state and national leaders, including the medical experts, get things exactly right in terms of how to handle the crisis is not the primary point when it concerns the church gathering or not. The politicians and medical experts won’t get it exactly right. They’ve changed their opinions about things such as whether to wear a mask or not. They have changed the rationale for the stay-at-home orders as well. We can certainly argue and disagree about how fast to open up the economy and get people back to work. But don’t let this create a problem for your church. When we think about love, remember love for the “weaker brother” (Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8). Covid-19 is providing new ways to do this. This leads to the next principle.

Third, protect and promote the unity of the church. Some families pull together in a crisis and some get blown up by it. Churches are no different. Like kids squabbling in the backseat, this Covid-19 road trip is putting pressure on churches. There are financial pressures caused by over 36 million people losing their jobs in just eight weeks. Church members are seeing their businesses crumble. Some are dealing with sickness and even death. Even before Covid-19, an average of 7,700 people died every day in the United States, more than 2.8 million each year. If the averages hold true, that means that while 90,000 have died of Covid-19 in the U.S. so far, another 800,000 have died from some other cause. Covid-19 didn’t introduce death to us, but it has introduced massive job loss and isolation through stay-at-home orders.

Added to these troubles, pastors are learning new technologies and acquiring new skills and working harder than ever. Then there’s the pressure about when to begin gathering again and how to gather. When we gather, what precautions should we take? Do we need sanitation stations in the church building? How do we practice social distancing? Do people wear masks? Do we take temperatures as people walk in the door? What do we do if someone in the church gets sick with Covid-19? Do we ask everyone they came near to self-quarantine?

How about this question: should we obey governmental mandates and guidelines regarding the stay-at-home orders, or should we not obey them? What about the U.S. constitutional liberties about free exercise of religion? Are we allowing the government to trample on our constitutional and God-given rights by following the stay-at-home orders and not gathering for worship? And if we violate the governmental orders and guidelines, and someone gets sick, can they file a lawsuit? Will our insurance company support us if we fail to follow guidelines? These are the questions church leaders are considering.

As we continue down the road of Covid-19, this question of governmental authority, and when and how the church should start gathering, is beginning to threaten the unity of some churches. Disunity in the church over Covid-19 would be a great tragedy. Don’t let it happen.

Your pastor and church leaders are trying to do the right thing in the best way. Support them in this. They have incredible pressures upon them right now and they need the support and love of their church, just as you need their love and support. Like the rest of us, your pastor has never gone through something like this. He needs to know you support him. You don’t have to agree with his every move to fully support him as your pastor. He is God’s under-shepherd for your church. He bears a great responsibility about how he serves God’s church. He knows this, and more than the opinion of any other person, your pastor wants God’s blessing on his life and the people he serves. With all that your church and pastors are facing, don’t add disunity and grumbling to the mix. That will only serve the purpose of the evil one.

Fourth, focus on disciple-making and disciple growing. This is the mission of the church. Problems provide the church unique opportunities to make and grow disciples. Just think of the opportunities Covid-19 is providing families. Moms and Dads are home with their kids, teaching them math and history and grammar. Parents are teaching their kids how to handle a problem and how to redeem the time. How to pray. How to pull-together as a family. They are taking walks together, playing together, resolving conflict together, learning how to be together 24/7.

I don’t know all that parents are teaching their kids through this, but I know that they are teaching them because kids are always learning something, good or bad. I can imagine there is a family in your church that is memorizing a Bible chapter or a Bible book, together. They are redeeming this stay-at-home order, trying to make the best of it. Covid-19 provides churches a unique disciple-making opportunity. How are you growing the faith of your church and the obedience of your church during these days? What are you doing to further develop the leaders in the church? Has God led you to biblical texts that you have found helpful to grow the obedience of your church?

Impatient kids on a long road trip eventually learn that the trip will end. It might end at grandma’s house where they’re greeted with hugs and cookies. It might end at the beach or a family gathering where they get to play with the cousins. But all road trips end. The trip down Covid-19 will end as well. When it does, things won’t be quite the same. We’ll be in another place, at the end of the road. And when we get there, we don’t know what we’ll find, exactly. But we know that the Father will be there with us. Hopefully we’ll arrive together, as families and church families, serving God in His ever-changing and fallen world.

Trust: The Essential Leadership Quality During Crisis

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When I was 14 years-old my family drove 265 miles from Whitefish, MT to Spokane, WA to see the movie Jaws. My grandparents lived near Spokane so seeing the movie wasn’t the only reason for our trip, but it’s the only part I remember. When we got to the theater there was a long line and the theater filled before we got in, so we stood in line for the next showing. It was worth it! To this day Jaws is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. One thing that made the movie scary is that you didn’t see the monster. For much of the movie Jaws was unseen, but terrifying and brutal, attacking unknowing swimmers from the murky depths.

Like the shark in Jaws, Covid-19 is an unseen killer, but unlike Jaws there’s almost no place of safety. “Stay out of the water” and Jaws won’t bite you! But nearly every landmass in the world has reported cases of the virus. As of today, April 30, 210 countries and territories have reported cases of Covid-19. The first death in the U.S. from the virus is believed to be a woman in California on February 6, 2020. Twelve weeks later, 61,867 deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 in the U.S., and 231,415 in the world.

Nothing in our lifetime has challenged leaders on the scale of this killer virus. From the President to governors and mayors and school principals, and from business owners to church pastors to moms and dads, leading through this crisis is excruciatingly difficult.

It’s difficult because we can’t see the killer and define it with precision. It’s difficult because the means of victory are more costly than anything we’ve ever experienced, and we can’t quite agree on what exactly are the proper means. It’s difficult because the solutions, we are told, will be determined by science and data, but it’s not a “pure science.” Shutting down business and church and sports and national parks and staying home in isolation is a primary tactic to fight this enemy. But the science that has determined this as our best, first tactic, creates other problems, and some of them are deadly too. Over 30 million have filed for unemployment in six weeks. Job loss and the inability to pay bills leads to depression, drug and alcohol abuse, abuse in the home, and even suicide. Businesses built over a lifetime are being destroyed. How long do we keep things shut-down, and should stay-at-home orders be applied uniformly across the country or throughout a particular state? The decisions will be determined by science and data, we are told, but who interprets the data and how best do we apply the science? And how do the scientific disciplines of medicine, social science, political and economic sciences, interact as decisions are made?

So, with these leadership difficulties identified, and they are not the only challenges, what is the most important thing a leader can do in such a crisis? Quite simply, leaders must tell the truth. Tell the truth as best as you know it and as completely as you can. Don’t “manage the truth.” Tell the truth. Distort nothing. Be fully transparent. Confess what you don’t know. State what you do you know. Don’t overstate, or understate, just tell the truth. Manipulate no one. Don’t exaggerate things, and don’t try to reassure people by minimizing the situation, either. Lament loss. Acknowledge disaster, even as you express biblical hope. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

John Barry’s outstanding book, The Great Influenza, tells the story of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people. The book is a thrilling, terrifying account of what happened then and is happening now on a smaller scale. In the Afterword to the 2018 edition Barry writes, “If there is a single dominant lesson from 1918, it’s that governments need to tell the truth in a crisis.” He says, “As horrific as the disease itself was, public officials and the media helped create that terror … by minimizing it, by trying to reassure.” He writes further, “The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other” (pp. 460f).

Barry is right. Telling the truth, as best we know it, builds trust. Lying, hiding the truth, being dishonest with what you know and don’t know, destroys trust. And when leaders lose trust, they’ve lost the ability to lead. You’ve seen it – a brilliant and gifted person who can’t lead a country, a church, or even their own family because they’re not trusted. Nothing compensates for loss of trust.

What’s true about leadership during a mega-pandemic is true about leadership when the crisis is isolated to one family, or one church, or a large network of churches. Truth-telling, which is necessary to build trust, isn’t just vital for governments, it’s vital at all levels of leadership. Trust is the essential thing a leader must have. Thus, the crisis that is most damaging long-term is not the crisis event itself, but the erosion of trust that can destroy relationships, organizations, and the essence of society and culture.

Here is a worthy prayer: “God protect me from doing things or saying things that erode the trust that others have placed in me. God heal the wounds I inflict when my actions create distrust. God help me be a person you can trust, so that I am worthy of the trust of others.”

An Encouraging Word about God’s Work in the Northwest

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In a world where tragedy, scandal, and politics dominate the news, sometimes you need to hear a good, refreshing word. With that in mind, I want to share some of the really good things that have been happening in the Northwest.

As I write, 28 are gathered in our Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) building, learning how to serve churches as “transitional pastors.” These are men who’ve spent their lives as pastors, and now they will continue to serve churches that are seeking their next pastor. These men are lifelong learners and in ministry lifelong learning is the “fountain of youth.” It keeps you relevant, effective, and vigorous. Helping church prepare for the next pastor, and find a good pastor, is probably the most important and helpful thing we can do for a church.

This spring a preaching conference served 40 pastors, followed by another on reaching and caring for people (Count the Cost), with about the same number attending. “Count the Cost” is something you’ll be hearing more about as it will help any church regardless of size, location, ethnicity or language. We’ve also had 128 attend children’s ministry and VBS training this spring. Our annual Women’s Summit had 302 women, by far our largest attendance ever. One person told me that she brought a friend who was a Buddhist and she gave her life to Christ at the Women’s Summit!

Our annual Youth Conference had 440 in attendance, with 12 professions of faith. Our NWBC youth ministry leader, Lance Logue, invited two boys playing basketball to join the conference. They said they weren’t there for the conference, but he told them they were welcome to attend. They did, and both boys prayed to receive Christ!

In April we had 247 gather for our annual NWBC Church Planter’s Retreat. This included 58 pastors, 45 wives, and over 100 of their kids. Twenty-two volunteers taught the VBS curriculum to the kids. Languages represented among these church planters included English, Spanish, Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Romanian and Mandarin. And we had four new churches launch on Easter Sunday!

What about Disaster Relief? In April 140 DR volunteers attended a two-day training event, preparing for wherever they might be deployed. If you have a disaster in your area, know that we have people ready to serve. DR chaplains have been called upon in school shootings and other traumatic events.

You are providing all types of leadership training and resources by supporting missions through the Cooperative Program. When people are trained, you are providing the training through the NWBC. When Disaster Relief volunteers are deployed, you are sending them through the commitment of your church to invest in a cooperative mission’s strategy. At our church planting retreat, I told all of our church planters that every cooperating NWBC church is investing in them through Cooperative Program missions giving (and through the Northwest Impact Mission Offering).

I know I’m giving you a lot of numbers, but these numbers represent people, and most of these numbers represent people trained for ministry in our churches – your church! Is it making a difference? Yes! According to our Annual Church Profile information, worship attendance increased in our NWBC churches to 33,433 in 2018, up from 29,412 in 2017. Small group attendance increase to 20,406, up from 18,455 in 2017. Total baptisms reported by our churches were 1,742. This number is down from 1,954 the previous year, but the general trend over five years is up. That said, we must make sharing the gospel a top priority and it is our commitment to help you by providing resources and training yearly.

One final word: please pray for the 115 people from 26 of our NWBC churches who will serve hundreds of IMB missionaries and their children in Asia this coming July.

I hope this brief report encourages you as it does me. It is a good day to serve the Lord in the 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.

The Newspaper’s Role in Your Leadership

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It was once said a preacher ought to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, meaning that the sermon needs to connect biblical truth to life today, life in this world, and life in a particular place. That image of the pastor-preacher with the Bible and the newspaper made sense when I first heard it many years ago. It still resonates with me. I suspect, however, it lacks the impact it once had. That’s a shame.

I know I’m fighting an uphill battle on this one. Newspapers are in decline. Most young adults don’t read them anymore. News is found in other places and with personal “filters.” Uphill battle or not, it’s one that deserves a fight. Ministry leaders need to read their local newspaper. Thumbing through the paper with your hands, your eye catches things it won’t if you read the paper on your smartphone or computer.

First, your local newspaper helps you to know your community. Your city has issues involving economic, political, legal, educational and moral aspects of life. These are issues particular to your community. The churches, residents, schoolchildren, businesses, homeowners, homeless, everyone in the community is affected by decisions of community leaders and the particular issues the city is facing. And certain hot-button issues change daily. No person should know more about the city than ministry leaders. You might pick up bits and pieces down at the coffee shop or through the internet, but the local newspaper will give you the broadest coverage of life in your community. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t relate something from the newspaper to my sermon text on Sunday.

Second, who’s being born and who is dying in your town? Most local papers will inform you daily or weekly about these matters. If someone is killed in a tragic accident, or a young person’s life is cut short in some way, the church needs to know about it and maybe you can minister to the family. At the very least you can pray for them. Churches have been built by ministering to families of newborns. Who is filing a marriage license or divorce papers? Who was arrested for a DUI or other criminal behavior? The paper will tell you. Maybe you can reach out to them. Maybe you host substance abuse classes, or Divorce Care classes, or parenting classes and they can be invited to attend.

Third, what’s going on at the schools in your town? Which students had a great game, excelled in a sporting event, suffered an injury, have a part in the school play, or won the spelling bee? Every week young people in your town are featured in the local newspaper. How encouraging it is for them to receive an extra copy of the article, with a note written by a pastor, Sunday school teacher or other ministry leader!

Fourth, ministry leaders can use the paper to influence others. You can write letters to the editor. I’ve written articles for local papers and established relationships with reporters. Sometimes the local paper will publish articles about something the church is doing as a by-product of these relationships.
Fifth, the local newspaper will help you to pray for your city and its leaders. Every city has people and situations that need prayer. The newspaper will provide you matters for which to pray each and every day.

These principles are not for people who don’t care about their city or have no desire to impact their city. This is about ministry leaders, sent by God to a particular place, for a particular time. No one should know more about the city, and care more about its people, than the ministry leaders called there. The newspaper is indispensable in connecting you to the city in a holistic way.

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.

A Person of Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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