Far as the curse is found…

snakeapple-1.png

“No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.”

Most of us are familiar with the popular Christmas hymn, “Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts.  One of the beautiful things I appreciate about Christmas is the opportunity it provides to sing familiar hymns and songs associated with the birth of Christ.  Christmas provides a yearly rhythm where we reflect on the gospel by drawing us to sing songs that the church usually reserves for just the Christmas holiday season.   There is a beauty and a danger in familiarity.  The beauty is that the words of these songs are imbedded in our memories, and hopefully our hearts.  The danger is that their familiarity can lead us to recall and sing them without giving much reflection to what we are singing.

I was thinking this week about this particular line from “Joy to the World” and the powerful truth it proclaims that I really have never paused to reflect upon.  In the first line of the hymn, we excitedly pronounce “joy to the world” because the Lord and King has now come.  The announcement of the arrival of the King ignites joy into the hearts of those who belong to His kingdom.  Consequently, we are called to “let every heart prepare Him room”.  In order to make room for the King of Kings, you must first relinquish the right to your own throne.

When we come to this third verse, we see the powerful implications of the arrival of our King.  This King of Kings is also our kinsman redeemer.  He has come not only to establish His rule over the earth, but also to redeem us from the curse of sin that we have brought into the world and into our own lives because we rejected His rule and authority and decided to supplant His rule with our own.  The result of our sin and rejection of Him is seen in the prevailing presence of sin and sorrows in our world.  As we fell in the garden, God pronounced a curse not only to Adam, but to the very creation that he was commanded to steward.  God said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Paul echoed this curse on creation in Romans 8 when he wrote, For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  

Simply put, have you ever wondered to yourself, “What is wrong with this world?  Why does life have to be so hard?”  The answer is that this world and all its inhabitants are living under the rightful curse of the sin and rebellion of all mankind.  And the scope of that curse is universal.  Paul says that the entire creation was subjected to futility.  But the good news of the gospel, and the good news we proclaim in song, is this truth –  because our sovereign King and perfect Redeemer has finally come, there will one day be a full and final redemption in which sin and sorrow will no longer grow and thorns will one day be vanquished from creation.  Not only that, but His blessings will flow “far as the curse is found.”  There isn’t one fallen molecule in this creation that will not one day experience the blessings of redemption.  What a glorious truth to sing!  Joy to the world, indeed!

 

Thoughts from Uganda (five months later)…

This past July, I had the honor of leading a mission trip to Uganda with Four Corners Ministries.  It was my third trip to Northern Uganda in the last 6 years with FCM.  The story of what God is doing in that region through the ministry of Four Corners and Abaana’s Hope is virtually impossible to adequately put into words.  But if I were able to personally take you there, you would find a holistic and thriving Christian community in the midst of the African bush where darkness, hopelessness, and lostness once reigned.  Our primary work for the past decade has been among the Acholi people, a people group once ravaged by a 20-year civil war in Northern Uganda.  The sovereignty of God has now opened another door of ministry for FCM to work directly among the 1.5 million refugees and displaced people from South Sudan who have relocated to Northern Uganda.

37610800_10156791970430288_1021225845827567616_o.jpgThe team that I led this year was composed of 8 team members – 5 pastors, 2 young men who feel called to ministry, and a good friend of mine who came to take video of the trip. Few of the team members had a connection to each other, outside of their personal connection to me, before meeting at the airport in Atlanta.  However, by the end of the journey, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the shared experience of gospel ministry had bound us together as brothers-in-Christ.  The primary purpose of our trip was two-fold: 1) to provide a “vision trip” experience for those who were first-timers to see and feel the ministry impact among the Acholi and the great need for the gospel among the South Sudanese; and, 2) to lead two “leadership training conferences” among pastors and church leaders in the region around Gulu, as well as in the refugee camp in Adjumani.  While I could write a long description of all the experiences we encountered on that trip, I will forgo that detailed description in lieu of several thoughts and observations I still have several months later.

37533603_10100408313639344_5569744736555630592_o.jpgFirst, the vast majority of the American evangelical church is clueless about the global state of lostness and the deep need for the gospel throughout the world.  Like many people I know, I grew up in a Southern Baptist culture where we talked about the importance of missions and heard many stories of what God was doing through missionaries around the world.  However, until I personally began to go to places where Christ has not actually been named, I had no idea how deep the need is for the gospel around the world.  Lostness is easily hidden behind empty numbers and statistics.  Once I came face-to-face with people who, only a few years ago, not only lived in dire circumstances personally and economically, but also in deep spiritual hopelessness without any personal gospel witness, my eyes were opened to a whole new reality.  The numbers and statistics faded into the background and were replaced with names and faces – Carolyn, Grace, Stephen, Vincent, and hundreds more.  I began to see the spiritual darkness in that one remote part of the world first-hand.

I attribute this ignorance in the church pews for the most part to the ignorance in the pulpit among my fellow pastors about the global state of lostness.  I have witnessed firsthand that most pastors are too preoccupied with measuring our personal value by the size of our own pithy little kingdom outposts and competing with our fellow churches in town to even give any thought whatsoever to the fact that billions of people around the world have no gospel witness at all.  In many other parts of the world, churches aren’t fighting over a measly pool of easily-disgruntled and rarely-satisfied religious consumers because there aren’t enough professing Christians to fight over.  Brother Pastor, I plead with you, stop measuring your ministry worth by metrics that aren’t even registering in the portals of heaven.  Jesus made it clear that heaven throws a party when one lost sinner repents, but he never said anything about this past Sunday morning attendance eclipsing last year’s at your church. 37488546_10100408310740154_6085786319890415616_o.jpg

A second thought that keeps recurring with me is that the brand of Christianity that the evangelical church is exporting around the world is embarrassingly insufficient and inadequate to accomplish the Great Commission.  As in many other parts of the world, the evangelical witness that the American church has sent to central Africa is saturated with prosperity-gospel heresy.  In comparison to many countries in Africa, Uganda is considered very friendly to Christianity and “Christian influence” is seen throughout the country.  However, like most of our pragmatically-induced evangelical culture, as long as someone identifies as a Christian or pastor, we check that box and move on.  A deeper exploration of many of these pastors and churches reveals that what is being proclaimed in these pulpits is just an Africanized version of the prosperity garbage filling many American pulpits and public airwaves.  The prosperity gospel is simply a form of animism (the worship of the spirit world) dressed up in Christian language.  Ken Mbugua did an excellent job presenting this in his article “Africa, the Prosperity Gospel, and the Problem of Unguarded Churches“.

There are many underlying reasons why we are not having the global impact we claim we are having.  For one, the American church continually equates effectiveness with numbers.  Our decades steeped in the “church growth” mindset have indoctrinated us into believing that numbers equals success.  Our donors in the states want to hear about the thousands that are reached in one area and are not impressed when a church only reaches 8-10 people in a year.  Africans understand our fascination with numbers, so they easily report thousands of new converts and dozens of new churches planted.  But, this doesn’t mean that the people reached have actually responded to a biblically-faithful presentation of the gospel, that they have truly repented of their sin and trusted Jesus instead of adding another deity to their pantheon of spirits, or that they are genuinely being discipled by another, more mature believer.  Another reason is that pastors in many areas around the world are being funded by American ministries, but there is no accountability for what they preach from the pulpit or teach their members.  Pastors promise parishioners if they come to church and pray to Jesus that he will give them abundant crops or insure personal health.  Most pastors have little to no access to biblical or theological training.  What little training they have quite likely didn’t offer basic instruction in biblical interpretation, biblical theology, or defining the gospel.  At one of our leadership trainings, I was grieved when we asked several pastors in the refugee camps a basic question about the gospel, many of them gave “works-based” answers that were void of any concept of salvation by grace and grounded their own personal salvation on the fact that they were pastors and not sinners in need of grace.

37539438_10100408315450714_1182965939008700416_o.jpgEven with these sobering realities, I am more excited about the future of missions than ever before.  It was one of my greatest honors to lead these 7 men and show them firsthand what can blossom in the midst of great spiritual darkness when you give people the simple gospel and let the word of God do the work.  I am excited about the new Pastor Training Center that we are launching through Four Corners in 2019.  I believe that this ministry will help us begin to push back lostness in dramatic ways by training men in gospel-centered ministry and networking them together for accountability and mutual disciple-making.  I eagerly anticipate seeing possibly thousands of displaced South Sudanese find the hope of Christ in the midst of their personal pain and displacement.

Please join me in praying for the Acholi people, the Olubo people, the Nuer people, and many of the dozens of level 1-2 unreached people groups in central Africa.  If you want to know more about how you or your church can personally support real, gospel-centered ministry among hard-to-reach peoples, please leave a comment or reach out to me on Facebook.

Till all the nations hear!

Restarting…

1-1.jpgI’ve finally decided to restart my blog after an almost two-year hiatus.  I launched this blog a couple of years ago with the intention of deepening the habit of writing and putting my thoughts into tangible words.   At one time, I held the vain belief that I might be a repository of spiritual wisdom that the masses were clamoring for.  And, I mistakenly thought that once I opened the computer to start typing these thoughts, not only would the words flow fast and furious from my fingers, but the masses would clamor for more.  I envisioned a post going up and within hours reaching thousands of views.  I dreamt of starting a platform for myself and several ministry friends where the conversations we were having around coffee at the conferences would launch into the greater evangelical world.

Then I discovered something – writing is hard.  Whether typing into a blog or simply writing into my journal, writing is hard.  To write, I have to slow down, and I don’t often have time to slow down.  To write well and consistently, I have to unplug from social media and turn off the extraneous electronic devices.  I have to concentrate more on thinking.  And it’s hard to do that when my mind is preoccupied with listening to the latest sports podcast or binging the newest Netflix offering.

I am painfully discovering the truth that if I don’t make certain practices in my life an intentional discipline, the will suffer from unintentional neglect.  Whether that’s wrestling through God’s word, personally discipling a few other men, or creating meaningful experiences and conversations with my family.  For my personal and spiritual health, I need to let go of some of the things that don’t matter to focus more on some of the things that should.

So, I will try in this space to wrestle through the discipline of writing and, hopefully, have something worthwhile for you to read from time to time.  Thanks for stopping by.  Hope to see you again soon.

Seeing Past Your Church’s Mailbox…

mailbox-005.jpgThere is a troubling little secret in ministry that that often goes unnoticed by the average church member, but it can have toxic and dangerous implications on us in pastoral ministry.  It’s the dangerous combination of personal ambition, the need for validation from others, and the tendency to base “success” in ministry solely on pragmatic valuations like growing numbers or statistics that are most quoted and measured in denominational headquarters.  The result is that many people I know in ministry seldom see past their own church’s mailbox.  Sure, we all know how to give external lip-service to the fact that when it comes to evangelical churches, we are all on the same team.  Even while we do so, we often secretly harbor thoughts of envy, skepticism, or comparing statistics. We know how to say “Amen” when a brother shares that he had three new families join the church Sunday.  As we do so, some of us are actually affirming other voices inside our heads and hearts.  “I’m a failure because nobody moved an inch after my sermon.”  “Yeah, if I had his location and his budget and his building, I would have people walk down each week too.”

This dangerous mix shows up subtly in several ways.  First, there is the inevitable barrage of questions at pastor’s meetings, “How many are you running in Sunday School?”, “So, have you guys gone to two services yet?”, “Did you hear about _________ Church and how many they had on Easter Sunday morning?”  The hidden suggestion is that success is measured mostly by numbers. Increasing numbers equates to ministerial success and pastoral fidelity.  Very rarely do I ever talk to a brother in the ministry whose first question to me is “How’s your time personally in God’s word lately?”  or “What are some ways that you’ve been wounded in ministry recently and how can I pray for you?”  When I do meet someone who displays such an others-first spirit, I usually want to stay around a while and talk.

The other way this often shows up is in the sanctified “pastor brag”.  In this case, pious ministers have learned the art of touting their recent successes followed by a quick “Praise the Lord” or “It’s all God’s doing.  Nothing I’ve done.”   I have noticed that these pastors are usually very quick to tell you how many people have walked an aisle or been baptized recently, but they are often silent about the people that have left the church.  I don’t usually hear stories from these men about having a two-hour lunch with a young man who just needed to be discipled and know God’s word better.  Sometimes I think the pursuit of the one gets lost in the midst of pursuing the ninety-nine.

Recently I found myself in another such meeting where some of these dynamics were at play.  After about 20 minutes of the usual pastoral bloviating about numbers and statistics, we heard someone speak about the work that God was doing among an unreached people group in another part of the world.  We heard stories about how the gospel had been changing lives and bringing hope to a place that had no access to the gospel just a few years before.  We also heard about a vision to partner with existing churches to plant gospel-centered churches among unreached people groups.  We were reminded in a very powerful way that lostness is a global problem and that there are great pockets of the world that have no access to the gospel.  We were reminded that the task of planting churches falls on existing churches.  Missions organizations don’t plant churches. Healthy churches plant churches.  It dawned on me that with so many “successful” churches in our midst that surely there will be a rush to partner to accomplish the task of expanding the gospel to unreached people groups.  When the speaker finished, he gave time for any follow-up questions.  Surely this would be the moment when the light bulb would go on and a new vision for global ministry would be ignited.  Sadly, that was not the case.  One of my fellow ministers asked a question about what the process would be like if his church wanted more info.  (I also found out later that he actually did schedule a follow-up appointment for his church to begin partnering with the organization.)  After that was answered, there was a minute of awkward silence, followed by a thanks to the speaker for coming.  That was it.  No other questions asked. A few warm handshakes and let’s all get back to our offices.  After all, who has time for anything else when you have so much success coming in your own front door?  Anyways, isn’t the task of global missions best accomplished by writing a check to missions agencies and letting them deal with the issues?

I came away from that meeting with the same feeling I have had dozens of other times.  When it comes to ministry, most of us in church leadership have a hard time seeing past our church’s mailbox.  We all want to see the yearly ACP statistics at the annual associational meeting to see how we stacked up against the other churches in the area.  When a family leaves one church to start attending another church down the road, seldom does the pastor of the new church ask why they left the old church, much less suggest that the family needs to go have a talk with the former pastor to make sure they are leaving for a biblically sound reason.  After all, why run off a good prospect?  Church members who transfer from another church usually make better tithers than new people that we reach.

The fact of the matter is that any and all statistical analysis about church membership in the United States shows the same facts – church attendance and identification are declining while population in the United States is increasing.  The vast majority of our metro cities in the United States have larger numbers of unreached people than some countries around the world.  There are still over 6,000 unreached people groups in the world representing a population of over 3 billion people.  Meanwhile, in the places where the largest representation of evangelical Christians live, we are so busy swapping sheep and fighting over wayward church members that we don’t even see the vast mission field that God has called us to.  Surely we can do better than that.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not mad at anybody.  The reality is that I know that deep in my heart is that same propensity to only see my church in my local geography and try to create pragmatic ways to get the numbers up so that I can get the validation of my peers. Often I want people to walk an aisle on Sunday just so I can have something to share at the minister’s meeting on Monday.  But, I know that God has called me to more than that.  I know that God has placed in my life a strategic opportunity to partner with a fellow pastor in Boston who has the opportunity to reach more Indians and Asians in greater Boston than reside in my whole county.  I know that God has placed an opportunity for my church to be able to seed the seeds of the gospel bear fruit in Northern Uganda among a people group that can have life-changing effects on that country for generations.  These endeavors are costly and time-consuming.  And they don’t always increase the bottle line on the ACP.  But, as a friend of mine said recently, “We do this because the gospel changes all things for all people.”  And, God keeps reminding me every day that His church doesn’t stop at my mailbox.

It’s Not THAT Big of a Deal…

One of the great twists of our sinful, fallen hearts is the capacity that all of us have towards self-deception and rationalization when it comes to the sins that so easily embed themselves deeply in the hidden chambers of the human heart.  For many of us, we have a keen eye when it comes to finding faults in others, while at the same time, we can easily dismiss those ways in which we fall short of the glory of God.  This is the issue at the heart of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:3-5, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Many Christians have simply adopted the mentality that fighting sin is simply a matter of avoiding “the big ones” that make everyone’s list of no-no’s while treating other sins that may not make everyone’s “Top 5” as just the accepted way things are.  In the process, we develop “coping mechanisms” that allow us to walk around as “eye inspectors” while at the same time bumping into people with our own log.   We may try to cover our sin with righteous behavior. We become Pharisees that are adept at keeping the big requirements of the law while ignoring things like justice, mercy, and grace.  Or, we may try to “reclassify” sin.  We engage in this whenever we take something like impatience or a loose tongue and say, “Well, I wouldn’t classify that as a ‘sin’.”  Meanwhile, we forget that God never gave you and me the job of classifying anything as sin.  He’s already done that and made it clear.

One of the chief ways we try to incorrectly deal with sin is by the act of minimizing.  Again, this comes when we primarily define sin as “the biggies” that we all inherently know we need to avoid.  But, we even forget that the “Top Ten” list that God gave to Moses not only included prohibitions against stealing, but also against coveting our neighbor’s property.  So, when we allow things like home improvement shows or our neighbors brand new sports car to create within us an unhealthy desire to want something that God has not in his sovereignty provided for us at this time, we get in trouble.  When we only define idolatry and graven images as the shrines in a Buddhist temple in Tebet but don’t see the obsession with our mutual funds as a form of idolatry, we miss the whole point.   When we engage in gossip in the church and reclassify it as “sharing a need” or “prayer request”, we minimize the danger it is to not only our tongue, but to our very soul.  When a sports team or an organization cuts corners and engages in unethical behavior and its  managers or constituents say things like, “Everyone’s doing it” or “That’s just what you have to do to stay ahead” we take what is called cheating and minimize it.  When a student doesn’t see the inherent wrongness in cheating on a test or plagiarizing another’s work in his or her paper, he has minimized sin and is on dangerous ground spiritually.

The problem is that deep-down at heart, we simply find it too easy to deceive ourselves and think we’ve done a good job at deceiving others.  But when we get to the point that we rationalize, minimize, or reclassify sin, we have stepped outside of the truth of the gospel and we have inadvertently placed ourselves outside of the need for grace.  As Paul Tripp says in his book “Dangerous Calling”:

“If you aren’t daily admitting to yourself that you are a mess and in daily and rather desperate need for forgiving and transforming grace, and if the evidence around has not caused you to abandon your confidence in your own righteousness, then you are going to give yourself to the work of convincing yourself that you are okay.” (Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry”)

So, Christian, any time you hear the words, “It’s not THAT big of a deal”, you should shudder in terror, especially if you ever hear them coming from your own lips.  Whenever you are tempted to minimize your impatience, your arrogance, your discontentment, or your lack of self-control, take a moment and ask the Holy Spirit to do a surgical work in your heart and propel you to the cross of Jesus where those sins have been crucified.  Don’t allow refined, or what Jerry Bridges calls “respectable sins”, to set up a home in your heart.  And, don’t allow yourself to become comfortable pointing out the specks in others eyes until you have submitted to the Holy Spirit and asked him to do some spiritual ophthalmology on your own.

Your social media posts and Ephesians 4

Your social media posts and Ephesians 4

Paul said some pointed words in Ephesians 5:29 that I think we need to dust off and revisit in the light of our current social media culture.  “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Eph 4:29 ESV)

I believe if Paul were writing these words today in the midst of our often-toxic social media culture, he would write it this way: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths [or off your fingertips], but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”   We live in a time where everyone has a platform.  Everyone has their own little corner of the internet in which they are sovereign.  Everyone has an opinion and everyone thinks their opinion is not only correct, but that everyone else would do well to share the same opinion.  This can often turn a place like Facebook or Twitter, which are provided to give us a sense of connectedness to others, into a battle zone.  Even worse, I think that oftentimes we will engage in social media dialogue in a much harsher way than we would if we were face to face with that same person.  The isolation of social media allows us to vent all of our thoughts and feelings without interruption, but also oftentimes without careful evaluation.

Social media can be a wonderful opportunity and potentially a powerful tool for the advancement of the gospel.  It can also become a cesspool where we see the worst of the human heart.  I once heard Andy Stanley describe how most of us have learned over time to put a filter over our mouths to control what we want people to think about us.  But every once in a while, something pierces through that filter where we say something hurtful, critical, or inappropriate.  We usually respond by saying, “I don’t know where that came from.  That’s not the kind of person that I am.”  But, the truth is that it really is the person that you are.  You were harboring those thoughts and emotions all along.  You just let something through the filter that you didn’t intend to let pass.  When it comes to social media, I think many of us have taken the filter off.  Consequently, we get on tirades about political topics.  We offer our uninvited opinions about current social issues. Or, we just get mad and vent about something online.  The post may give us a temporary sense of vindication, justice, or validation.  But, as followers of Jesus Christ, what often gets lost in the wake is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  What real victory did you win if you silence someone who disagrees with you about a topic, but you lose the opportunity to speak the gospel into their lives?  There will certainly be times when, as Christ followers, we will need to speak up for what God’s word says about certain issues.  When we do, we must make sure that what offends the other person is the uncompromising nature of the gospel and God’s word and not our approach or our attitude.

In Ephesians 4:29, Paul gives us some great wisdom regarding the way we use our social media platforms.

  • Does what I am typing reveal a corrupt side of my heart where I have refused to let the Holy Spirit have control?
  • Am I about to post something that could be interpreted as slanderous, unnecessarily hurtful, or little more than salacious gossip that profits nobody and puts a bad light on the Lord Jesus Christ?
  • Is what I am about to say going to be something that “builds others up” or is it going to be something designed to tear others down?
  • Is what I am about to type “fitting to the occasion” in such as way that it may show a difference of opinion, but does so with grace and truth?
  • Will what I have posted give grace to the readers?  Will it reveal a heart that is being transformed by grace?  Will it be something that leads others to a greater appreciation for Jesus and his grace?

Let me share you some further tests that I am trying to apply to myself when I use social media.  I don’t always get these right.  I still sometimes allow my cynical and sarcastic wit to take an unhealthy place in my heart.  But, I also realize that whatever platform I have has been given to me by God and should be stewarded just like everything else he has provided me with.

  • Do my Twitter and Facebook posts reveal the heart of someone who has been “crucified with Christ” and who no longer lives, but in whom Christ lives?  Would this be something that ultimately puts the Lord Jesus Christ in a good light?
  • Am I using my social media platform wisely as a tool to make disciples and advance the Great Commission?
  • Am I just posting this for my personal validation or am I posting this because I sense the Holy Spirit seeking to lead me to speak on this topic?
  • Am I applying the three-tests rule: “Is what I am about to say true? Is what I am about to say necessary to the cause? Is what I am about to say wise or helpful to the situation?”

Like I said before, I don’t always apply these tests perfectly.  I still allow my passion for the Red Sox or the Bulldogs to give way to a dig at the Yankees or Rebels from time to time. I still allow my comments to be controlled by cynicism more than by the gospel.  But, I think if all of us from time to time would step back from the keyboard and ask some wisdom questions before we typed in that post and hit the “share” button, we would find our journey through the social media maze to be much more enjoyable and profitable.  What other tests do you apply when using social media?

How (and Why) Our Average, Normal Church Has Partnered On a Personal Level to Plant Other Gospel-Centered Churches

What can an average-size, “normal” Southern Baptist church do personally to make a difference for the gospel?  In an era where church attendance is declining and church resources are more limited than ever before, is there any way that the “average” church can really do anything of significance to make a kingdom impact for the gospel of Jesus Christ?  In an era where most of the attention and recognition in the evangelical world goes to “mega” churches with large auditoriums and multi-million dollar budgets, can the average church in a rural area or a declining town do anything tangible to help make the Great Commission a visible reality within and beyond its walls?  These are the questions that I am many pastors of smaller, normal-size churches are faced with regularly.  These are the questions I sought to address in my first few years as a new pastor at a regular-old church in a typical town in the Bible-belt, Southern, evangelical culture.

When God called me to the blessed opportunity to pastor Sixth Street Baptist Church in July 2009, it was my first opportunity to sit in the first chair as a Senior Pastor after having served for 18+ years in various support ministerial roles in very different and distinct churches.  As I began, I was faced with all the reasons why our ability to accomplish the Great Commission in a personal, tangible way was limited – our community was not growing because the largest employer had laid off hundreds of people, our church had been through several years of numerical decline, we were going to have to reduce our budget because receipts did not match expectations.  These are the same challenges that the vast majority of pastors face every day.  Most pastors are called to lead churches with smaller numerical metrics in average, rural communities.  If you divide total attendance at SBC churches by the total number of SBC churches, the average worship attendance of an SBC church is about 122.  Around 50% of SBC churches average less than 200 people in attendance.  By these numbers, SSBC is a very normal Southern Baptist Church.  On a typical day, we may average about 180 people in worship. On a good day, we might break 200.

So I ask myself often,  “What can the average pastor of an average SBC church realistically expect to accomplish in a personal, tangible, measurable way to accomplish the Great Commission?”  I would submit to you the answer is “more than you think at first.”  When I began my tenure here, our church had been doing what most churches in our stage of life do.  We were giving a generous portion of our budget through the Cooperative Program of the SBC and we occasionally put together a mission trip to go somewhere to assist in some construction needs or put together some service projects and Backyard Bible Clubs.  (If you aren’t Southern Baptist, the Cooperative Program is a funding mechanism that allows every SBC church to contribute to one large fund that allows them to financially support gospel-centered work in their own state as well as support thousands of missionaries domestically and internationally and partially fund six seminaries for theological education.)  I am a very firm believer in the Cooperative Program and very thankful for it.  It allows the average church in the SBC to partner together with other average churches their size to do more than all of us could do separately on our own.  It really is a perfect example of synergy – the sum of the whole is greater than the collective sum of the individual parts.  But, I have also seen a great temptation by many churches to allow our personal support of the Cooperative Program to become an end rather than a means of our accomplishing the Great Commission.  I believed that God expects more than that from our church.

So, we began a conversation from the the very beginning about how we could do more and what specifically God would have us to do, without sacrificing the Cooperative Program in the process.  I believed God wanted us to accomplish two main goals – have a global footprint somewhere (or multiple places) internationally and partner with a church plant in a metro-city domestically.  Since 2010, our church has had people on the ground serving in some capacity in the following countries: Dominican Republic, Guinea, Swaziland, Ukraine, Kenya, and Uganda. We helped send a family full-time to Uganda and began a partnership with Four Corners Ministries there.  Since that time, FCM has planted a vibrant gospel-centered church in the African bush called Living Stones Community Church.  In addition to that, in 2016, we added a directly monthly support in our budget to partner with Indian Community Church in Waltham, MA.  Our church freed about $6,000 in financial resources to support these endeavors and have committed to sending teams to both of these areas at least once a year, if possible.

Here are 4 Reasons Why We Want to Have a Direct Role in Planting Gospel-Centered Churches:

  1. It reminds us as a congregation that the “church” is much bigger than our little corner of the world.  It’s too easy in church leadership to develop a “silo” mentality where the vast majority of your mental energy and internal resources are spent on trying to build up your numbers.  We must remember that lostness is a global problem and, that, as churches, we are called to impact lostness in tangible ways.
  2. Being able to put tangible names, faces, and stories to the Great Commission brings energy to the vision.  One of the benefits of having direct partnerships is that puts a names and faces on the topic of missions.  When I speak of the Acholi people or of Indian Community Church, my church members have greater energy and engagement than when I speak solely of national entities or mission funds.  Since we have enlarged our missional net through direct partnerships, the amount of money our church has given to missions has increased, not decreased.
  3. Because we want to find ways to counter lostness directly and not just complain about it.   Again, I must remind myself continually that lostness is a global problem.  And much of the angst that we as believers feel about the direction of our country or the state of our world is directly tied into the problem of global lostness.  Until the gospel penetrates the hearts of people, lost people will continue to think and behave like lost people.  And the choices of lost people have consequences and baggage that affect all of us.  So, instead of insulating ourselves in holy huddles and decrying how bad the world is getting, God has called us to go into the world and make disciples.
  4. Because gospel multiplication, not personal preservation, is the primary job of the church.  We have heard the stats for years about declining baptisms and plateaued churches.  Many of us have a weekly reminder of limited and declining resources, financial and personnel.  The natural tendency in those moments is to try to keep the ship afloat.  However, we need to remember that as the people of God in the kingdom of God, we don’t operate from a scarcity mentality; we operate from a kingdom mentality.

One truth became apparent to me early on in this process – We couldn’t wait until we had more money coming in before we freed up the money necessary to do missions.  I believe that a greater vision of the Great Commission will free up resources that currently lie dormant in your congregation.  The reality for most of us is this: all the money that you need to accomplish the Great Commission assignment that God has for your church is already in the pews of your church.  We just have to find a way to free up people to see a greater vision than they currently do.