Sunday, September 21, 2008

Upcoming conferences

One of the evidences of the doctrinal reformation that we are in is the proliferation of doctrinally sound conferences over the last two decades. Dozens of such conferences are held each year across the USA. Two years ago a friend counted over 5o that were scheduled within a 12 month span. While conferences are far from the the essence of reformation, they do provide something of a barometer to measure the growing interest in the doctrines of grace in our day.

Following is information on two of meetings that will be held this week.

The Southwest Founders Conference will meet Sept. 25-27 at Heritage Baptist Church in Mansfield, Texas. The theme is "Growing the Local Church." I am scheduled to speak 4 times. If you are in the area, come by and say hello. Andrew Nicewander plans to live-blog the conference, so check his blog if you are interested in the notes and info on the audio. I may try to "live-twitter" it. ;-)

The Evangelical Forum will host a leadership conference for Pastors and Laymen Sept. 26-27 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The theme is "Of God and Of the Holy Trinity." Joseph Pipa and Bruce Ware will be the speakers.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Truth Happens

The wise man tells us to "buy the truth and do not sell it" (Proverbs 23:23) and Jude admonishes us to "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (3). These and other texts imply that truth will not always have smooth sailing or be received with welcome arms. But opposition is no excuse for retreat, no matter how hostile it might become. The history of martyrs is a stark reminder of this.

This video by Linux illustrates how ideas that finally win the day go through 4 phases: 1st, they are simply ignored; 2nd, they are ridiculed; 3rd, they are strongly opposed; and 4th, they triumph.

Of course, Linux is simply making an observation without any regard to God's providence. But this does seem to be a discernible pattern that can be traced in the history of ideas. Think about the spread of Christianity in the early centuries of the church. Or consider the advance of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, or the development of modern Baptists in the 17th century.

Regardless of where the Lord places us in His historical agenda, our responsibility is clear--we must humbly accept the truth of His Word and, as faithful stewards of it, keep preaching, teaching and living it regardless of the responses we see.

Because of the faithfulness of Christ, our confidence, in the words of Balthasar Hubmaier, is this: the truth is immortal.

HT: Orrin Woodward

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Restoring health to an unhealthy church: What is the goal?

The goal of reformation in a local church should not be to make all the members Calvinists. Obviously (or at least it ought to be obvious to anyone who knows me!), I would not think that a bad thing if it happened, but I would never recommend that as the goal of restoring health to a church. It is simply not big enough. In fact, if that is all that were to happen in a church then there still would be cause for concern and need to press energetically for even deeper reformation.

Anyone interested in seeing a church become spiritually healthy must aim at seeing that body increasingly become everything that God's Word calls a church to be. Mark Dever has helpfully defined a healthy church as one that "increasingly reflects God's character as his character has been revealed in his Word." The most important thing a local church can do is to fulfill its calling to be the church.

As the bride of Christ, the body of Christ and the house of God the church is to live in such a way that puts the goodness and greatness of the living God on display. Paul makes this point in Ephesians 3 when he describes the purpose of Gospel preaching as enabling the "manifold wisdom of God" to be put on display "by the church" (10). The way that Christ's people live together in covenanted devotion to their Lord and each other makes a statement to the watching world about the character of our God and Savior.

When a church is filled with unconverted or spiritually apathetic members, it lies about Jesus Christ. When it is marked by dissension and open immorality it misrepresents the the God who is three in one and holy, holy, holy. When it is self-consumed and unconcerned about the unconverted it projects a perverted picture of the God who sent His Son into the world to seek and to save that which was lost. When it is happily ignorant of Bible doctrine it sends false messages about the God of truth.

The pursuit of spiritual health will not allow such misrepresentations of the Lord to go unaddressed. The goal is to see Christ honored among His people as they become increasingly motivated and empowered by His gospel to live out His will on earth.

What does all this mean practically? Several things, chief among them being:
  1. To see the Word of God become preiminent and foundational to the life of the church. We should desire that our collective attitude in the church should be, "wherever the Scripture leads, we will go; whatever it teaches, we will believe...whatever the costs or the consequences."
  2. To see the membership reflect reality. It is tragically commonplace today for churches to have far more paper members than real ones. Our statistics lie. Here is a simple formula to use to help gauge the spiritual health of your church: If your membership exceeds your attendance then you have a problem. The more that it exceeds it, the greater the problem is. In Baptist life we have historically stated it like this: We believe in a regenerate church membership. A local church ought to reflect that belief.
  3. To see the worship gatherings of the church marked by God-centered, Gospel-saturated, passionate intensity where Jesus Christ is recognized as supremely glorious.
  4. To see the lives of the members marked by evangelistic compassion that results in intentional efforts to make disciples for Jesus Christ.
  5. To see a humble, servant-hearted commitment to minister after the pattern of Christ characterize the culture of the church.
The list is not exhaustive, but it does contain elements that are essential to a healthy church. A. W. Tozer once said that every pastor ought to have two churches in his mind at all times. The first when he reads the New Testament instructions on what a church ought to be. The other is the church he sees on Sunday mornings when they are gathered for worship. The goal is to so live and work and minister and pray that the church that is becomes increasingly like the church that ought to be.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Restoring Health to an Unhealthy Church: Why Attempt It?

Many pastors and church leaders think that any effort to lead a church back to more radically biblical health is a fool's errand and should only be attempted by...well, by fools. Sometimes this sentiment is fueled by pastoral and ecclesiological naivete. There is no perfect church and even the healthiest must constantly pursue greater spiritual health. It is, as the reformers said, "the church reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God."

For others, antipathy toward working for radical reformation in a local church arises from painful experiences. More than a few good men have seen their efforts lead a church to more spiritually healthy pathways blow up in their faces. The stories from some of those situations seem more fitting for a Stephen King novel than for ecclesiastical history.

Physical attacks, financial threats, lawsuits, newspaper articles, denominational intimidators, emotional and verbal abuse are only some of the methods that have been marshaled against efforts to lead a church to spiritual health. At this point I suppose it is necessary to give the obligatory notice that pastors and other church leaders have also inflicted some serious harm on churches by unwise and un-Christlike attitudes and actions in the name of reformation. That has happened. It does happen and it is shameful and indefensible.

Nevertheless, what I have witnessed leads me to conclude that the great majority of the difficulties that come from efforts to pursue biblical renewal churches arise primarily from the entrenched carnality that permeates the ethos of many congregations today. If, as has been repeatedly argued here, the majority of our churches are filled with unregenerate members, then it only stands to reason that when biblical and spiritual course corrections are proposed in a church that a sizeable number of the members will not like it. If carnal, Christless appetites and inclinations have been made to feel at home in a church by giving them a religious veneer, then when that veneer is removed by the true Gospel the godlessness underneath gets exposed. Often that exposure resembles the reaction of smoldering embers to an influx of oxygen. The results can be pyrotechnic.

Given all of this, why in the world should a pastor attempt to lead his church toward renewed spiritual health? Why not just shake the dust from your feet of established churches and give yourself exclusively to planting new churches? Or why not limit your sense of calling to serve churches that already display encouraging signs of real spiritual life and health? Why attempt the work of biblical re-formation in a local church?

I have addressed this in broader terms a few years ago in an article entitled, "Why Work for Reformation within the Southern Baptist Convention?" Much of what I wrote there pertains to the more narrowly focused question of this post. Beyond a doubt, the greatest reason is found in the attitude, teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ deserves to have the churches that bear His Name to walk worthy of His honor. His agenda for the local church ought to be carried out at any and all costs. Where that agenda has been forsaken, for whatever reason, those who love Christ should seek to have it restored.

In our day of quick fixes and instant gratification it can be a challenge to develop and maintain a long-term perspective on church life. Patience may still be a virtue but it tends to be a bothersome one that we would just as soon not have to cultivate in our efforts to do what we judge to be important. In this regard the late James Boice was correct when he noted that we tend to overestimate what God will do in 1 year and underestimate what He will do in twenty.

But that is not the perspective of our Lord. Jesus demonstrates incredible patience with His people, both individually and corporately. After all, He did not kill me before I completed this post (or you before you read down to this line) though there is enough sin remaining in me to justify such swift judgment. He is similarly patient with His churches.

We tend to give up on churches too quickly and write them off as beyond recovery. Some, undoubtedly, are. But probably not as many as we would like to think. Serious problems in a church are no reason to abandon it. Think about this for a moment.

Would you be willing to pastor a church that nauseates Jesus? Would you even be willing to remain a member of such a church? What about one that is self-deceived? Or what if it is spiritually lukewarm, or has a prominent member who is a known adulterer and promotes fornication and adultery? Would you consider a call to a congregation that is blatantly hypocritical, or is spiritually dead? Most of us would probably cringe at the thought of trying to minister in churches like these.

Yet, these are the very kinds of churches that Jesus addresses in Revelation 2-3. Some of them were simply wicked. Our Lord speaks plainly about the sinfulness of five of them. The charges He brings against them are incredible. Yet, He comes to them to warn them and call them to repent. He has not yet given up on them, though He does indeed threaten to remove the lamp stand from among them (2:5) unless they repent. Nevertheless, before He takes the step of unchurching them He calls them to biblical renewal. By His letters He works for the recovery of their spiritual health.

If our Lord is willing to take this kind of attitude toward spirituall sick churches, then so should His servants. In any church that has not completely died, there remain some of Christ's sheep mixed in with the goats and the wolves. They need a shepherd--one who will lead them back to the paths of the Chief Shepherd.

In order to "strengthen the things that remain" one must be willing to engage the work of biblical reformation in local churches. Is this kind of work hard? Of course it is. Is it for everyone? Not necessarily. But it will be for some, whom the Lord equips and providentially guides to enter into churches that are in severe need of a biblical course correction. Such men should be willing to attempt it.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Restoring health to an unhealthy church

The rationale behind the resolution on integrity in church membership is that too many of our churches are spiritually sick and ready to die. Indeed some of them may already be dead but simply haven't bothered with having a proper funeral, yet.

Over the next two weeks or so I intend to offer some thoughts on principles of restoring health to an unhealthy church. Several people have asked me to address this topic here as questions have arisen about the serious problems that plague many of our modern evangelical churches. I have been somewhat reluctant to make such an attempt for several reasons.

First, every church situation has its own unique challenges and opportunities. This means that there is no "one-size-fits-all program" that can be recommended to pastors and church leaders. In fact, there simply is no program for church renewal. Those who suggest otherwise betray how detached they actually are from local church leadership.

Second, good people disagree on approaches to this subject and I have no desire to cast aspersion on what some are teaching on matters related to church reformation.

Third, the pursuit of ecclesiological health is never-ending. Any effort to talk about this subject in a definitive way tends to cloud that reality. Though I do think we can speak in general terms of healthy vs. unhealthy churches, it is more precise to speak of more healthy vs. less healthy ones.

With those caveats delineated, here are six questions on church reformation and renewal that I plan to address over the next two weeks.
  1. Why attempt it?
  2. What is the goal?
  3. What principles should guide you?
  4. Where do you start?
  5. What should you expect?
  6. How do you persevere?
I am in my 22nd year of pastoring Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida. Though we have much, much further to go in our efforts to follow Christ and grow in His grace, the Lord has lovingly taken us down a long road and through some rough patches in our pursuit of spiritual health. He has also taught us some very valuable lessons along the way. Some of those lessons might be of use to fellow pastors and church leaders.

Many others have travelled this same path in other local churches and I hope that their insights will be offered in the comments of these posts. A growing number of younger pastors and students are committed to pursuing this kind of ministry and I hope that some of them will offer their reflections and questions as we dialogue about this vitally important issue.

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Radio Interview with Mike Corley

Mike Corley has invited me to be on his radio show Tuesday, October 2, 2007 at 12:15 Central Time. It is available live on the internet from his site and also on the Salem Radio Network. We will be discussing "Do We Need Revival or Reformation?"

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Integrity in Church Membership Gaining Momemtum

Christianity Today refers to my failed resolution calling for integrity in church membership in its August issue. So does the Missouri Baptist Pathway in its current issue. The CT editorial is appropriately entitled, "Statistical Shell Game" and contains very insightful observations, including this one:
The failed resolution's statement on statistical accuracy, at least, ought to attract widespread support. Since World War II, leading evangelicals have regarded statistics as a matter of gospel integrity. That's because revivalists in the early 20th century often exaggerated the size of their flocks. The statistical shell game may work in the short term, but eventually someone uncovers the truth.
And this sober, prophetic warning:
A fate worse than insignificance awaits us if we fail to be honest. The numbers trap tempts evangelicals to implement programs that will boost the bottom line, regardless of their biblical warrant. "What works?" begins to replace, "What does God's Word teach us?" Such programs may appear to succeed for a time. But Jesus told a parable about what happens when we do not build on the foundation of his Word. The rains will come, the floodwaters will rise, and the winds will blow against that house. Sooner or later, the house will fall. And great will be that fall, Jesus warned (Matt. 7:24-27).

One day, the elements will test what we have built in our churches, crusades, and mercy ministries. The greater the exaggeration, the greater the fall.
Amen. The Pathway annonces that the 2008 Pastors' Conference will address the issue of regenerate church membership by having Mark Dever and two staff members from Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC speak on the theme, "Building Gospel Centered Churches" in each of the 6 sessions. This is the brainchild of Pastor Joe Braden, who serves as the President of the MO Pastors' Conference this year.

The Pathway gives some background to the upcoming conference:
A resolution on integrity in church membership was brought to the floor after having been rejected by the Resolutions Committee. It ultimately failed on a floor vote that required a 2/3 majority to bring it to life. Some observers felt it may have pulled as much as 51 percent in the losing effort.

Shortly after the June 12-13 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Interim Executive Director David Tolliver communicated that he took seriously “the reminder … concerning more accurate and honest reporting of numbers.” Both Tolliver and MBC President Mike Green agreed that rather than continuing to refer to the MBC as being comprised of about 600,000 total members, the more accurate number would be about 400,000.
I predict that the Missouri Pastors' Conference will be a smashing success, much like the national pastors' conference before the SBC in 2006. Pray that more Associational and State Convention leaders will have the wisdom and boldness of Tolliver and Braden in addressing this issue forthrightly. If they do, we will have reason to praise God for the spread of reformation and to pray that it will not be deterred in the face of any opposition that might arise.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Finally! Prayer in Public Schools

The Carver elementary school in San Diego is paving the way for prayer to be returned to public schools. Carver administrators have set aside 15 minutes from classroom instruction each afternoon to accommodate 100 religious students that are newly enrolled in the school. Amazingly, the ACLU seems willing to stand down on this one and let the practice continue, evidently not concerned that this action violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Many fundamentalist groups would be celebrating this new found sensitivity toward and encouragement of religious expression in a government school if it were not Muslims who are being served. That's right. The Carver policy has been designed to allow Muslim students to observe salat as prescribed by the Quran.

This article from the San Diego Union-Tribune tells the story. What it does not tell, however, is what these events display to someone committed to confessional Christianity and the Baptist understanding of church-state relationships. Let me offer a few personal opinions of what the Carver school actions suggest.
  1. Our government elementary and secondary school system is irreparably broken. There are obvious exceptions from classroom to classroom and even from school to school, but the system is beyond repair. We no longer have a Christian worldview underpinning the efforts to educate the populace. McGuffey's Readers (in their original form) would never be allowed in most modern government classrooms. Though I realize that this issue is laden with difficulties and often addressed unhelpfully shrill voices, I am more convinced than ever that Christians need to start developing exit strategies for our children to leave government schools. By all means, let's keep sending Christian teachers to the classrooms. They should go as missionaries who recognize that they are invading territory that is hostile to the claims of our Savior.
  2. Education cannot be morally neutral. All teaching has an unavoidable perspective. The widespread perspective of our government schools has moved from a basically Christian worldview, to a secular worldview into rapidly developing anti-Christian worldviews that play right into the hands of radical Islamists who are unhesitant to work pluralism to their advantage as they plot to move from tolerance to equality to supremacy. If you doubt their goals you have not listened to their proclamations.
  3. The battle against Islam will not be fought primarily on foreign fields and will certainly not be won by guns and smart bombs. It is an ideological fight. It is a battle for the minds and souls of men and women and boys and girls. Only a muscular, vigorous, radically biblical Christianity can prevail. The insipid versions that dominate the American landscape--including the evangelical landscape--cannot stand against militant Islam. Only the true Gospel of Jesus Christ will do. And it is that Gospel that, I believe, has been largely lost or forgotten by many in our day who name the Name of Christ and assume that they understand and believe what He taught.
All of this to say, the Carver school administrators' antics further highlight our desperate need for reformation on a large scale. The Gospel must be recovered and churches must be reformed according to the Word of God. May the Lord grant us both through the outpouring of His Spirit.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

SBC-SA Wrap up: the good, the bad, and the confusing

The Southern Baptist Convention has much within it to commend, much to lament and somethings that are just plain confusing. The recent meeting in San Antonio confirmed this assessment in various ways.

The Good
The spirit at the convention was less rancorous than some expected and was helpfully free from much of the bravado that has marked recent years. This is due, in large part, to the spirit exhibited by the President. I was very grateful for that.

Who cannot rejoice at the work of faithful gospel laborers around the world? Those who spoke from the platform as well as those with whom I spoke privately left me very encouraged that many within the family of Southern Baptists are vitally concerned about getting the Gospel to every people group in the world. The International Mission Board has its problems--many of which have been aired openly over the last 18 months--but it is still a tremendously useful agent in helping local churches send missionaries around the world.

Southern Baptists have some of the greatest seminaries in the world within our ranks. When I compare what and how and by whom today's students are being taught in seminaries like Southern and Southeastern I am filled with thanksgiving for the upgrade in theological education that we have witnessed since I attended seminary. Some of the books that I had to read on my own time and to the chagrin of some of my professors are required reading for modern students. In addition, the cost of seminary training in our SBC institutions is amazingly low when compared to other schools. We should rejoice over that.

The Bad
Bureaucracy still rules the day too often and in too many places in SBC life. Timothy George's prophetic warning more than 2 decades ago is being proven before our eyes: "The exchange of one set of bureaucrats for another does not a reformation make." The mentality that we should all just go along in order to get along will not pass muster any longer. Nor will current leaders be effective simply by saying to Southern Baptists, "Trust us. Just trust us." Those interested enough in the SBC to attend the annual meetings do trust the leadership, but they also expect accountability and humility from our leaders. Defensiveness, intimidation, demagoguery, paternalism and condescending attitudes do not play as well today as they did a generation ago (and they didn't play all that well even then).

It is evident both by the schedule and by some of those who spoke from the platform that there really is not a genuine desire for substantive debate and dialogue even on important issues that come before the convention. President Frank Page did a great job moderating the meeting. His spirit was contagiously sweet and more than once he went the extra mile to assure that messengers were treated with respect. But there simply is not enough time allocated for messengers to debate the issues that are brought before the convention. More than once the committee on the order of business recommended that we move the schedule forward because we did not need the full time that had been allotted for certain reports. However, debate was also cut short on more than one occasion when the issues before us warranted more time.

Southern Baptists need the kind of leadership that will take a hard look at what we are doing and how we are doing it, and be willing to make some radical proposals to counteract the bureaucratic mindset that too often sets in when organizations grow large. I know that we experienced some reorganization in 1995 but we are past due for fresh look at our denominational structure, agencies and institutions.

The Confusing
I don't know how to answer those who ask me why the convention passed a resolution on global warming while refusing to consider on on integrity in church membership. Some of the suggestions offered by readers of this blog in a previous post have real merit. But, I do not have a definitive answer. (Tony Kummer has extracted the video recording of the effort to get my resolution to the floor of the convention.)

Here is the way that I see it and how I have tried to explain my perspective on this matter to several people and in a variety of forums. If it is accurate to say that the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists give little or no indication of ever having been born of God's Spirit then we are in real trouble. Serious trouble. Life-threatening trouble. If well over half of those we welcome into our churches through evangelism and other means are unconverted then we are obviously not doing church in accordance with the New Testament. If the majority of our members are unconverted, then there is no other problem that we face that is more important than addressing this situation. There is no other item on our agenda that deserves more attention and concern than this. If we fail to address this, it does not matter what else we may attempt, we are allowing a cancer to grow that will destroy local churches. In fact, it has already done so, and is continuing its deadly rampage as you read this. I regularly talk to pastors and members who bear the brunt of such spiritual devastation. They have watched their churches repeatedly deny Christ in attitude and action all-the-while being regarded as good churches by SBC standards.

I have spoken with more than a few SBC leaders and pastors who have admitted to me privately that my assessment of this situation is accurate. They have agreed that we have no issue larger than this confronting us at this time. Some disagree with my approach to addressing the problem straight on and calling attention to it as I have tried to do by way of introducting a resolution to the convention. I have no problem with that kind of thinking. What does bewilder me, however, is how someone can agree with that assessment and be willing to do nothing or to promote other agendas in ways that suggest that those items are of extreme--even grave--importance.

I fear that if we do not win the battle for our churches becoming healthy then every gain we experienced in the battle for the Bible will be lost in a generation. What kind of churches spawned and allowed liberalism to take root in our agencies and institutions? Poorly ordered ones whose memberships were largely (by all indications) unconverted. What kind of churches predominate the landscape of the SBC today? Poorly ordered ones whose memberships remain largely unconverted.

The great 19th century Southern Baptist Theologian, John Dagg, made this observation in his Manual of Church Order: when disciplines leaves a church, Christ goes with it. If that is true, what does it say about the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist Churches? Even many so-called "flagship churches?"

While we have much for which to be thankful in the corner of Zion known as the SBC, we have much to lament and fear. And we have many reasons to feel desperate--desperate for reformation and revival. May our Lord be pleased to grant it to us.

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