Saturday, December 22, 2007

Googling God

If your church is not interested in reaching young adults, it should be! For many years, campus ministry was the laboratory for the church in reaching young adults. Denominational collegiate ministry was a place of experimentation and innovation in finding new ways to tell the old story. I am not so sure that is true today (but that is a story for another time).

From time to time, a new resource surfaces to aid churches and church-related ministries in their outreach to young adults. My friend Dick Olsen of Central Seminary introduced me to a new one recently: Googling God: The Religious Landscape of People in Their 20s and 30s by Mike Hayes (Paulist Press, 2007).

I did a quick survey of the book and have to start with a couple of disclaimers:

First, it is written from a Roman Catholic perspective, so the reader will have to work through that and interpret the comments in his or her own context.

Second, if Hayes talked about postmodernism, I missed it. He takes a generational cohort approach, considering how the church can reach out to those 18 to 39 years of age. This age grouping intersects two generational cohorts--the Gen Xers and the Millennials. Although I think that the generational approach is interesting, it misses the point of the real change that is going on in culture. As Jimmy Long points out in Emerging Hope, we are dealing not simply with generational change, we are dealing with a change in epistemology or "our way of knowing." The generational view is the up close and personal approach; the postmodern view is the satellite photograph.

Hayes takes the generational approach seriously. His understanding of the needs of these two generational groups can be summarized in this quote on page 124:

Milliennial adults as a whole do have more of a longing for security and certitude than do their Gen X counterparts. By the same token, Gen Xers are spiritually enriched by being together in communal experiences but have little need for a personal or private spirituality. Both have an overwhelmingly need to intellectualize their faith--how does all of this make sense in the everyday? Faith for young adults is not a spectator sport. They long to integrate it into every fiber of their lives and live that faith unapologetically.

Even if he misses the postmodern perspective, Hayes' book is worth reading for chapters 7 and 8. Chapter seven is entitled "Doing Ministry: Fifteen Initial Steps in Starting a Young Adult Ministry." It is practical, informative and will stimulate your thinking about doing ministry with this age group. Chapter eight on"Resources for Building a Young Adult Ministry" emphasizes the use of digital resources--the Internet, web pages, podcasting, blogs, and many more.

Whatever your denominational bent or cultural perspective, Hayes provides some helpful ideas for young adult ministry through local faith communities. I wish that more church people took it as seriously.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Putting Christ in Christmas?

In his book Christmas: A Candid History, Bruce David Forbes "deconstructs" the holiday. He is not attempting to be the Grinch, but he points out that much of what we love about Christmas predates Christianity. Romans, Scandinavians, and others attempted to break the hold of the coldest and darkest time of the year with celebrations that involved hospitality, gift-giving, eating, and drinking.

Forbes points out,

One idea I do not recommend is a campaign to turn Christmas into the purely spiritual holiday it never was. My understanding is that the Christmas message is "incarnation," that God entered fully into the world. So combining Jesus' birthday party with at least some worldly celebrating seems appropriate.

We talk about being a missional people--those who are on mission with God and speaking the truth of God to our culture. Perhaps we should adjust our paradigm a bit and consider Christmas as a model of how the Christian message can engage the culture by breathing the sacred gospel into secular patterns. Is this so different from what God did by becoming incarnate in a baby?

The point is not to "put Christ back into Christmas" (as some would proclaim) but to celebrate Christ not only within Christmas but the whole of our lives. By so doing, we truly become a missional or incarnational people

Monday, December 17, 2007

The World Without Us

In his book The World Without Us, journalist Alan Weisman poses an interesting question: "What would the world look like if humankind were suddenly removed from the planet?" Actually, he develops this idea in two steps. First, he speculates what the world would be like today if humanity had never developed, then he looks at what the earth would be like if we no longer existed.

He makes a good case that, from the beginning, humanity has impacted the ecosystem through pollution, farming, and species extinction. Wherever we have lived, we have both used and abused the environment. Weisman gives some fascinating examples of how the environment has experienced a resurgence when a certain area--such as the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula--has been abandoned by humanity. He argues that nature tries to restore the proper balance when given the opportunity.

In an interesting thought experiment, he discusses both the consequences of a sudden absence of humanity for the ecosystem and then what would survive that absence. The most frightening thought is what would happen to large chemical processing and storage facilities, nuclear power plants, and nuclear storage sites when abandoned by their custodians. He notes that there are some things that would survive as witnesses to the human era. The most enduring human construction would probably be Mt. Rushmore! Bronze statuary would be very durable. The item that would probably outlast everything is the common plastic water bottle. It seems that polymers are forever!

Weisman draws on geology, paleontology, physics, biology, chemistry and anthropology to present his sweeping case. In the end, he even touches a bit on philosophy and religion in considering various apocalyptic scenarios that might "take us out."

Even if we don't take into the account the biblical teachings about Creation and stewardship of all things (which Weisman does not do), we must realize that what we do to the created order does make a difference. We were not meant to exploiters of the created order but, rather, to be participants within its grandeur and richness. Weisman reminds us of the importance of healthy and wise human interaction with the world. It is an impressive and enlightening argument.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

I finally got around to watching the DVD of "An Inconvenient Truth", the award-winning documentary about Al Gore's presentation on global warming and climate change. Although it comes across at times like a political campaign film, the film makes quite an impact on several levels. For one, it shows us a man's passion. We don't know what kind of president Al Gore would have made, but it is interesting to see an interesting, articulate person who was once "the next president of the United States" (as he jokingly notes) make a clear case about a difficult issue. That's rather refreshing.

Humankind is a force of nature. Even if one wants to skip over the Genesis account and its theology of stewardship of all creation, there are others besides Gore who make this case. In his book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman argues that humankind and its progenitors started affecting the ecology very early and were responsible for the annihilation of whole species in the prehistoric, pre-technological era.

But back to Gore. Whether you buy his argument or not, you should take two things into account. First, his interest in the environment goes back to college when professor Roger Revelle shared with students his research on climate change. According to Gore, Revelle was a major influence on his life and created an interest in environmental issues that followed him into politics. The question for the church is, "What concerns are we instilling in young adults today?"

Second, it is clear from the audiences shown in the film who attended Gore's presentation around the world that this issue resonates with young adults. I am not sure if this is because they consider it a moral issue (as Gore argues) or because they are concerned about their survival and that of their offspring. Either way, young men and women seem eager to not only learn but to become involved. Is the church recognizing this?

I don't know what kind of president Al Gore would have been, but in the long run, he may have greater impact for good than the present resident of the White House.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Not One Stone

Chapter 24 of Matthew's gospel begins with Jesus responding to his disciples' comments about the grandiose nature of the Temple with these words: "Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down." His comments remind us of the transitory nature of all man-made institutions, even those built to attest to the Holy.

November is a good time to think about the evanescence of institutional relationships in Baptist life. State Baptist conventions have been meeting and many continue the process of renegotiating their relationships with institutions such as colleges, hospitals, and charitable entities.

When the interim president of Carson-Newman College was asked if he could foresee a time when the college might want to sever its relation to the Tennessee Baptist Convention, he responded, "No, but a time may come when the convention will want to leave the college." Although he did not spell out the circumstances, we can assume that he understands that this is a two way street. Right now, some conventions are fighting to hold on to the institutions that they helped to create, but the realities of a post-denominational age may cause judicatories to want to distance themselves from their children!

I believe that the day is near when all of the institutions founded by Baptists will want to be free of the conventions and the conventions will want to let them go. Institutionalism was an effort to put into bricks, mortar, and programming the mission of the church(es) to lift up the downtrodden, educate the illiterate, and heal the sick. Churches were at the forefront in establishing colleges, hospitals, orphanages, and nursing homes. Eventually, the missions of these creations became intertwined with the modern agenda and secular society bought into their work. This meant that some of these even became money-making endeavors (or at least became recipients of government funding that strengthened them in their work) and became attractive from an economic perspective. When economic competition entered the picture, everything changed. The playing field has been altered,and the institutions must adapt in order to survive.

In a postmodern era, churches will think twice about putting all of their marbles in the institutional bag. Ministry will happen closer to home and will be held lightly in hopes that those outside of the community of faith will not only join in ministering to the needs of society, but in so doing may find themselves part of the Kingdom.

Baptists, you did well and created some wonderful institutions that "stood in the breach" to meet the needs of society! Now it is time to move on and work in areas that others are neglecting, pioneering new approaches to mission and ministry.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Questions for the 21st Century Church

Church membership and participation are very fluid for young adults. I often find myself in discussions about the future of the church, especially at it relates to reaching and engaging young adults. As we watch our committed church members grow older, it is natural to ask the questions, "Who is next? Who is stepping in to take their places? Who is willing to serve?" I could probably make a case that these are the wrong questions and ones that speak more to our desire to maintain an institution that build a community. At any rate, I think there are some questions that the church must answer if it is to be viable for anyone in the 21st century.

First, what is the church? We have been tied to buildings, trained professional staff members, and programs for so long that we have come to think of these things as the church. These things represent the church, especially in a modern American context, but we must remind ourselves that the church is actually an organism that must continually be reborn (or reformed) day by day, year by year, and decade by decade.

Second, what is the Bible? In the old days, we could say, "It is the Word of God." What does that really mean in a postmodern context where the metanarrative of Christendom has broken down? Does this really communicate anything positive to those who are outside or on the fringes of the faith? We live in a time where we are picking up the pieces of a century old (at least) conflict between fundamentalists and liberals (I use these terms in a classical and not pejorative way). It is time that we recognize that both approaches missed the point, embracing modernist views of text that makes little or no sense to many people today. We must articulate a "third way" of addressing scripture that takes text, original context, present context, and application seriously. Only as we engage the Bible as a living, dynamic source of inspiration, encouragement, and correction can we speak to the needs of a postmodern generation.

Third, what does it mean to be "spiritually formed"? Put another way, what does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? Conversion is a past, present, and future activity in the life of a believer. We too often want to nail down a particular time and place when we were "saved" without considering how God is saving us every day and will save us in the future. It is time that we articulated that process in a challenging manner that invites participation.

Fourth, how are Christians to relate to the world around them? We cannot ignore our culture if we hope to minister within it, but at the same time, we cannot fully embrace it without some loss of our identity as "citizens of another kingdom." If this world really matters (and I think it does since God chose to become incarnate in it in the person of Jesus Christ), we must engage it with the gospel message.

As I review these questions, I realize that they are the very questions that our Baptist forbears have struggled with since John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and Roger Williams organized churches in the early seventeenth century. They were concerned about the nature of the church and who should belong to it, the application of the Bible to their lives and times, how one might grow in his or her faith, and what difference being a Christian made in the society of their day. Baptists and other believers have been struggling with the same questions since then. The answers were not always the same, but the ones they did come up with required faith, courage, and commitment in order to put into action. Do we have the same willingness to face and answer these questions?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Taking Sides

On Saturday, my wife and I took our eight-year-old grandson, Noah, to visit Stones River National Battlefield here in Murfreesboro. This is the site of the Battle of Stones River, an engagement that lasted from December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863. The battle is characterized by historians as having the largest percentage of casualties on both sides, a total of 23,515--some 13,600 on the Union side and about 10,600 on the Confederate side.

Once inside the Visitors Center, we found ourselves in front of a map showing the initial deployment of forces. This produced Noah's first question: "Which one is our side?" This led to some discussion. His mother's family grew up in the South--Mississippi and Alabama--and she was born in Tennessee. Noah's father is originally from Indiana, and all his family lived in the North. We talked about this for a few minutes, and then he asked, "Who were the bad guys and who were the good guys?"

The historian in me tried to keep the details simple: It all depends on how you look at it! If you were a soldier from the North, you were concerned about preserving the Union, not letting your friends down, and staying alive. If you were part of the Confederate forces, you probably saw yourself as defending your homeland from invaders, being a good comrade to your fellow soldiers, and staying alive. Among the common soldiers of both sides, slavery was not the issue. Economics was not the issue. Who was good and who was bad? Depends on your perspective.

Now we can argue that in the long run the preservation of the Union and the eventual end of slavery were worthy outcomes to a bloody "uncivil" war, but I was led to think about our tendency to want to divide every issue into "good" versus "bad" and "us" versus "them." Such a dichotomy leads inevitably to confrontation, conflict, and demonization of the enemy. We no longer confront an enemy but a stereotype of a real person. Of course, this is the easy way out and avoids dealing with the complexities of any situation.

Jesus was careful to avoid the "us" versus "them" mentality. His mission was inclusive. His was a desire to reconcile all people to God. Everyone was and is a child of God, worthy of His love. This didn't go down too well with some of the religious leaders of Jesus' day, but he didn't seem to care and went ahead and loved them all.

As our visit to the battlefield came to a conclusion, Noah observed, "I guess I like both sides." I think that's Gospel.

Friday, September 28, 2007

An Ancient Church Tradition

While attending the Ancient Future Community Group Life Conference at Willow Creek, I had the opportunity to participate in a spiritual tradition that is both ancient and present (and hopefully will be future). Amy and Judge Reinhold led a breakout session on contemplative prayer, actually a presentation and demonstration of lectio divina or "sacred reading" of scripture that incorporates periods of silence to listen to what God might be saying to us through a text. This was not a new practice for me, but the testimony provided by this couple of the impact it had made on their small group (at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles) and their own lives was inspiring. The Bible has actually become the agenda of their small group.

The simple truth of their presentation is that reading and meditating on the Bible can make a difference in people's lives. Many of us come from a tradition that says it values Scripture but that actually tends to ignore it. Episcopalians use more Bible reading in their worship than any Baptist church does! In Bible study, we often talk about ourselves and our needs more than we talk about the Bible. If we really want to be traditional, let's read the Bible more!

God, help us to listen for your voice in our busy lives!

Monday, September 24, 2007


Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation by a couple who do mission work in a very challenging part of the world. There are perhaps a 100 believers in the people group with whom they work and no indigenous churches. They were very candid in saying that they did not have any "warm fuzzy" success stories to share, but they provided some great insights into the strategy they are using to reach people and plant churches in a difficult environment.

Although they are working to develop relationships with people through a specific platform that will give entree into the society, their goal is developing house churches that are indigenous, organic, and reproducible. There was a good time of discussion in response to the question "What might not be reproducible?" in a church located in a non-western, resource poor area. We talked about how a perceived need for credentialed clergy, printed literature, and buildings could hamper church growth in their situation. Becoming dependent on resources that are not readily available in that context could kill an indigenous church movement.

The key question they asked was, "Do we really believe that the Word of God and the Spirit of God are adequate to plant and grow and church?" This is a good question both in the culture where this missionary couple work and in our own. Are we so dependent on programs and expensive resources that we continually need a new "fix" to keep our churches going? Is it possible that we have neglected the Word of God and the Spirit of God in starting and growing churches?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Starfish and the Spider

I have always been interested in the way that organizations function. There is a new organizational phenomenon among us, one that I hesitate even to call an "organization." This is the decentralized structure exemplified by Napster, Wikipedia, or even the Internet itself.

Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom have written a book entitled The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations that gives a very informal but insightful introduction to this type of structure.

The key to this book is understanding the difference between a starfish and a spider. A spider has a head. If you cut it off, the spider dies. If you cut off a leg, it’s gone; it doesn’t grow back. A starfish does not have a head. If you cut off a leg, it will grow another one. If you cut it in half, you will have two starfish. A spider is a centralized system. A starfish is a decentralized system.

In spider companies, power and knowledge are concentrated at the top. In starfish organizations, power is spread throughout. Contrary to the title of the book, decentralized organizations do have leaders, but they are not traditional leaders. Spider organizations have a head or “president” who is in control. Starfish organizations (at least initially) have a catalyst who promotes chaos.

Key principles of the book are:
1. When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized.
2. It’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders.
3. An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system.
4. Open systems can easily mutate.
5. The decentralized organization sneaks up on you.
6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease.
7. Put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute.
8. When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized.

How can we make the best use of this approach to structure in the mission of the church? What does this say about the way that a "denomination-like" entity such as CBF should operate? I will attempt to unpack some of that in future blogs, but I welcome your input (that's part of the decentralized approach!)

Friday, September 07, 2007

Respect for the Uniform

As I listened to a profile of General David H. Petraeus on NPR today, I was reminded again of how much I respect the men and women who were the military uniform of our country. I supposed this goes back to 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower ran for president on the Republican ticket and my parents, lifelong Democrats, voted for him. They felt that Eisenhower, as the supreme military commander in Europe during WW II, was a hero, a man of integrity who had proven himself in the service of his country.

I have a great of respect for men like Colin Powell, Wes Clark, John McCain, Jimmy Carter, John Kennedy, and others who have held command and then continued to serve their country in other ways. I respect and honor the men and women who serve in our armed forces today. They have various motivations for their decisions to become part of the military, but they all place their lives on the line on behalf of other Americans. They endure hardship so that the rest of us can avoid it.

I have worn the uniform, and it was by choice not chance. Making that choice resulted in a tour of duty in Vietnam, a military exercise that continues to divide and trouble our nation. I served not because I thought that Vietnam was a "just war" (that's a subject for another time), but because I had taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. I followed through on my commitment, even if it was unpleasant and inconvenient. Others made greater sacrifices in that war even to the point of giving their lives. I knew some of them.

Although we live in a democracy (or more technically a "democratic republic"), we must remember that the military is not a democracy. I think we can make a case that for many it is a meritocracy and has offered opportunities that they would not have had otherwise. Military leaders are not democratically elected with but one exception--the President, the commander-in-chief. The president is the commander of all armed forces. In our system of government, the military is ultimately under civilian control. We don't elect our generals, but we do elect our President, who then selects civilians to serve as Secretary of Defense and of each military service. The generals recommend and then carry out the orders given to them. I think I would prefer that our President be someone who has worn the uniform and, even more to the point, one who has served in a real war. I think such a person would be less inclined to commit young men and women to battle when diplomacy and economic coercion might product better results. A person who has served or who has a family member in the military has more credibility for me when it comes to making decisions about military action.

A former Secretary of State is reported to have said, "What's the use of having all of this military power if we don't use it?" The point is that we have it so that we don't have to use it except as a last resort.

May God bless the Americans who wear the uniform and may God guide those who make decisions about their future.

Friday, August 31, 2007

They Love Jesus. . . But the Church?

My wife and I had the opportunity to share lunch this week with a young Christian couple who pursue their vocations in a southeast Asian country. Although the young man originally went there to do evangelistic work, they now operate a ministry center that provides outreach, fellowship, and skill training for people in the community.

The husband pointed out that he had initially seen his ministry as reaching people for Christ and then introducing them into local churches so that they might be discipled and nurtured in the Christian faith. He was surprised and disappointed when he discovered that this second step was more difficult than he had anticipated! The local churches erected barriers (both cultural and theological) that were difficult for new believers to overcome. In many cases, these barriers were western in origin--practices, worship styles, and customs that were completely foreign to the indigenous culture.

As a result, this young man is helping young believers as they form an "organic faith community" (avoiding the use of the term "church") to aid them in their Christian growth and ministry. He says, "They see their gathering as not only a way for them to redeem the beauty of their culture as followers of Christ, but also as key witness to those considering making the huge step of faith into God's family but are reluctant to embrace a 'foreign' religion. For [these people], Jesus is very appealing but most feel they would have to give up their cultural identity to follow Him."

Now, this is not a missionary "going native," it an example of a committed ambassador for Christ learning how to speak most effectively to a non-Christian, non-western culture. This is an example of cross-cultural contextualization--presenting the Gospel in such a way that it can be heard and embraced within a particular culture. In fact, this is what the Apostle Paul and his companions had to do as they pushed out in the Greco-Roman world. They had to decide what was essential about the faith and what was just baggage that could be discarded without harm.

Although most of us are not facing the kind of challenge that my friends in southeast Asia encounter, perhaps we need to ask ourselves, "Are there barriers that we raise in our churches that make it difficult for people to hear the real message of Christ?" It is food for thought.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Love the Church

A couple of weeks ago I attended an ordination service in east Tennessee. Loyd Allen, professor at McAfee School of Theology, brought the "charge" to the young woman who was being ordained. He presented some excellent comments, but one stuck in my mind. He said, "Love the church but don't worship the church." He reminded the candidate (and all of those present) that the full allegiance for the believer is to God alone. He was warning us that worship of the church can become an idol.

We may accept the fact that we are to love our spouse, or our children, or our work, and not to worship any of those, but can we accept that warning when it comes to the church? Are there times when we really seem to be worshipping the church?

I think we worship the church when we are not willing to acknowledge its failures. Failure is not bad, but if we do not learn from failure, we are missing an opportunity for growth. I think we worship the church when we allow church activities to take the place of time with God. Just because we are busy with "religious" things does not mean that we are about God's business. I think we worship the church when we make preservation of the church the primary motivation for serving the church. The church has survived a long time without me, and it will without me.

Allen also made the comment that "the church is not the kingdom but it witnesses to the kingdom." This is good missional church thinking. The church is part of God's kingdom, but it does not encompass all that God is doing in the world. The people of God need to be alert to all of the ways that God is acting for redemption and reconciliation in our time.

I love the church and have committed my life to "building up the body of Christ," but I must always remember that the church is not an end in itself and its work is ultimately in God's hands.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Leadership Summit

I spent the last three days attending the Leadership Summit of the Willow Creek Association at one of the several hundred satellite sites to which it is broadcast. This is my fourth time to attend--once at the South Barrington, Illinois, campus. I am sure that there will be some who will wonder why I attend this conference and ask "What can you learn from a flashy, seeker-oriented, mega-church?"

Honestly, I believe that this is one of the best leadership conferences offered. The program planners bring in a diverse group of speakers from the church, management, and business. This year's roster included Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard; Marcus Buckingham, author and management consultant; Colin Powell, former Secretary of State; John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park (CA) Presbyterian Church; Richard Curtis, writer, film maker, and poverty activist; and Jimmy Carter, former President of the US. They are not afraid to bring folks to the platform who might present views that diverge from those of their primarily evangelical, conservative audience (Bill Clinton has even been on the program). In fact, the mix reminds me of the old SBC Christian Life Commission seminars that featured people like John Claypool, Jerry Clower, Brooks Hays, Jimmy Carter, and Robert Schuller (among others). You might not agree with everything they said, but at least you were able to hear them present their views in their own words. As pastor Bill Hybels asked,"Who can a leader learn from?" The answer, of course, is "Anyone you are willing to listen to and whose views you will to thoughtfully consider."

Willow Creek Church itself has been proactive in many areas that other churches have been reluctant to address. They openly engage the culture through music, dance, drama, and other media. They are strong proponents for women in leadership roles (including ministry). They not only talk about racial reconciliation but the church is actively seeking to become more racially diverse. They are dealing aggressively with issues like poverty and HIV/AIDS.

Willow is an easy target. One does not have to go far to find something to criticize, but isn't that true of any church? Whether they are doing things the right way may be open to discussion, but at least they are trying!

Whom can we learn from? You would be surprised.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

An Ordinary Man

I just finished reading An Ordinary Man, the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Rusesabagina is the focus of the movie Hotel Rwanda, the story of how one hotel manager saved over 1200 people during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. During 100 days, over one million people were killed in politically-motivated ethnic violence. Yes, that’s 1,000,000 people. Rusesabagina does not spare any details in describing the brutality and insanity of this genocide.

The book is not only Rusesabagina’s life story, it is a brief history of the country of Rwanda, a discourse on good in the face of evil, and a political critique of those who allowed it to happen—Rwandans, the United Nations, the United States, and various European countries. This is a chilling and ultimately frustrating story, but it is a book that is hard to put down. We are left asking, “How could this have happened?’ We are also left with the message that it could happen again.

An interesting twist is the fact that Rusesabagina started out to become a Seventh-Day Adventist minister. While in seminary, he realized that he did not have the sense of calling that would sustain him in small, rural pastorates and sought a more urban lifestyle as the manager of a European-owned hotel in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Toward the end of the book the author shares a bit of his struggles with faith, but I was left wanting more.

Rusesabagina is well-read, literate, and reflective, and it is clear that some of his biblical and theological training is still part of his thinking. Although he indicates that he has little involvement with formal religion or any church at this point in his life, the book gives great personal insights on seeking a vocation and an affirmation of finding one’s calling. For Rusesabagina, the greatest call in life was to exercise the gift of hospitality through being a hotel manager. In fact, he points out that one of the key lessons he learned was from his training to be a Sabena hotel manager: “They showed me how to respect myself by respecting others.” (p. 164) This sense of calling sustained him during a time of chaos.

Despite his protests, Rusesabagina is nothing less than a hero. Here is a man who used every tool at his disposal to save his fellows from slaughter. In the face of evil, he exercised integrity. While facing personal danger, he showed courage. We may have some moral scruples about some of the people with whom he negotiated and the methods he used, but we cannot dispute that this was a man of integrity who put everything on the line to serve others.

This book is required reading for entering freshmen at Middle Tennessee State University this year (including my granddaughter). Paul Rusesabagina will be the speaker at the university’s convocation in August. I hope to hear him. He has shown us how “an ordinary man” can be a hero.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

What's In a Name?

I continue to struggle with finding a good adjective to describe what kind of Baptist I am. It would be nice to have a brief, short-hand way to communicate what my commitments are. "Liberal" is not a bad term if one uses the dictionary meaning ("marked by generosity and openhandedness") but it has been used so much in a pejorative sense that I hesitate to embrace it.

Many of us like to call ourselves "moderate" Baptists, but this tends to bring to mind the "lukewarm" church at Laodicea that the narrator wants to "spit out of his mouth"! I like the term "progressive," especially as it is defined by Fisher Humphreys in his book The Way We Were--informed, committed to women in ministry, concerned about the world's needs. Of course, at least one national Baptist convention has made this a part of its name, so the use of the term may be a bit confusing.

Some have drawn the distinction between "conventional" and "convictional" Baptists, but that requires a good bit of explanation. Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics has tried the terms "Golden Rule" Baptists and "goodwill" Baptists; those may catch on if we really act like that!

I occasionally use the term "Fellowship Baptists" to refer to my group and in so doing I am probably acknowledging that CBF is becoming more "denomination-like" all the time. Of course, I still call myself a Tennessee Baptist; I am not willing to give up that term to a particular denominational group.

Maybe at this point I am just a "seeking Baptist" and that might not be a bad term but it may be a bit dangerous. Roger Williams was a Baptist for awhile, but he ended up being a seeker and left the Baptist realm entirely. I am not ready to do that.

So right now when I fill out a survey, I just put "Baptist" and leave the interpretation up to others (and that is probably dangerous, too).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

What can you do for me?

Someone once told me., "Planting new churches is not rocket science." Probably not, but that doesn't mean that it is easy. Perhaps church planting is closer to an art, something like planting an ornamental garden! The organization which I serve has blisters, sore muscles, and thorns to prove it.
We have learned a great deal about starting new churches, in large part by making mistakes. We have had more failures than successes. I can tell you a lot of things one ought NOT to do in starting a new church, but I cannot guarantee that if you simply avoid these errors that you will succeed.
We continue to try and to learn in the process. One thing I am learning is that the "high tech/high touch" principle is significant in starting a new church. The idea comes from John Naisbit's book Megatrends. Naisbit explained that in the emerging world people want to utilize technology to do their work and communicate, but they also desire healthy relationships.
How does this apply to new churches? On the one hand, we can use technology--websites, e-mail, blogs, PowerPoint--to communicate, build networks, and get to know people. At the same time, there is no substitute for person-to-person, face-to-face relationships. People need people, not just a computer screen, for strong relationships to develop. Technology can open the door, but personal relationships must grow out of those contacts.
I think CBF and TCBF are in a good position to provide both. We don't have a lot of financial resources available to assist in planting churches, but we are pretty savvy when it comes to technology and we can be good friends! In fact, I have found that many young church planters are more interested in relationships than finances. That's good since we have a lot more of the former than the latter!

Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Family Affair

These comments on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship/American Baptist joint worship service are a logical followup to my comments earlier about the Baptist family. Last night was the closing session of the CBF General Assembly in Washington, DC, and the opening session of the ABCUSA Biennial Meeting. The worship service was an opportunity to celebrate what brings us together as Baptists. The music styles were varied as befits our diversity. Church state separation was celebrated. Missions was emphasized. Rather than feature one person as the keynote speaker, we had the opportunity to hear from Roy Medley, general secretary of ABCUSA; Tyrone Pitts, general secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; and Daniel Vestal, (executive) coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. These leaders shared their insights about the values that unite Baptists generally and the personal events that have brought them together as individuals. As Vestal said, "We need to get to know each other. There's more to unite us than divide us." It was fitting that we closed our worship at the Lord's Table where all believers are welcome.

It would be easy to gloss over the real organizational, cultural, and procedural issues that do divide us at this point. Baptists represented at this meeting have some real differences to overcome, and we must be honest about those issues. However, we can continue to seek ways to come together around mission and ministry.

I came out of this meeting with several "feelings" about the future.

First, there are real opportunities for us to partner with "like-minded" Baptists if we are not concerned about uniformity, organizational unity, or who gets the credit. As long as we work to network churches to do Kingdom work, we can accomplish a great deal. We can also really get to know each other as we get our hands dirty in that work.

Second, the future of our mission efforts as Fellowship Baptists lies in cooperation with groups like the ABC and Progressive Baptists. We are stronger together than we are individually.

Third, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Finding ways to work together can be a positive witness to the world that laughs at Baptist "cooperation" because of our fragmentation and combative history.

Fourth, Baptists are better than we have allowed ourselves to think that we are. Since we (moderate Baptists) have become a minority movement, many Baptists in the south have developed a negative self-image. We can no longer claim to being part of the "God's last and only hope" to win the world for Christ. Many of us have learned humility, now we must learn how to use that humility to be true servants in the Kingdom.

Fifth, it is time for us to take some risks. We don't have a great deal to lose. Let's open the doors and make some new friends.

Friday night was a step in the right direction. Let's not falter now!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Welcome to the Family!

We hear a lot about "dysfunctional families" today, but I have come to the conclusion that most families fit the description. In fact, most of the family stories we have in the Bible are about troubled families beginning with Adam and Eve and their sons and going on to Abraham and his sons, David and Absalom, Hosea and Gomer, and innumerable other families. In our own families, we live with the consequences of perceived favoritism, unwise choices, and "the roads not taken." Even so, we try to get the family together for special occasions and holidays to break bread together and celebrate our common heritage.

When I consider our Baptist family, I see a lot of dysfunction. As Bill Leonard has said, Baptists were conceived in such a way that conflict is assured! The slavery issue was a key conflict that resulted in the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 and created a major division in the Baptist family in our country. In recent days, the SBC controversy has led to strained relationships among Baptists in the south as we seek to clarify our identity and maintain our integrity while often cooperating with one another in local congregations.

Some may say, "Why do we even bother to try to work together as Baptists? Let's just do 'our thing' in the local church and forget everything else." The reason is that the New Testament testifies to cooperation between local bodies of believers. Cooperation is biblical! The desire to cooperate and work with others is built into the Baptist DNA (as much as we may try to ignore it).

Later this month, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the American Baptist Churches USA will convene their national meetings in Washington, DC, and will hold one joint worship service and share in some auxiliary events. This is not a move toward consolidation, but it is an opportunity to celebrate both our commonalities and differences. It is a time to "break bread" with our brothers and sisters in the ABC tradition.

Early in 2008, a number of Baptists from various parts of the family will join in Atlanta to celebrate the "New Baptist Covenant." Here again, the goal is not unification but unity around common concerns and promoting a positive Baptist witness.

What Baptists need in the 21st century is not union but opportunities for fellowship, dialogue, and mutual service. We need to be able to sit down around the family table, acknowledging that we have hurt one another and even been estranged at times, but we are still part of the family. Anytime we can do that, it is a good thing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Autonomous Church?

As long as I can remember, I have heard Baptists talk about "the autonomy of the local church." It is a tenet of faith for most of us. In an article published by Associated Baptist Press, Beth Newman comments on this idea from the perspective of a recent Baptist World Alliance symposium. She observes that the most important statement to emerge from that meeting was, "We affirm that for Baptists the local church is wholly church but not the whole church."

I may unpack this more in future postings, but this is an important concept. Although we celebrate the opportunity and responsibility of each local congregation to "discover and fulfill its God-given mission" (in CBF terms), we must not forget that each congregation is just one small part of the bigger picture that God is creating that is the Kingdom or Reign of God. Just like a massive mosaic made up of many colored tiles, all are necessary to make a coherent picture. Certainly, a few holes here and there may not be a problem, but the picture would be so much better if all the parts were present.

Each congregation must find and pursue its mission, but it must also consider how that fits into the bigger picture and determine how God may be calling it to join with other congregations to compose the total picture of God's mission in the world.

Our churches are indeed autonomous but that does not mean that they don't need each other!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Social Networking

Here's a report on my latest experience on the web. I have discovered Facebook. If you are not familiar with Facebook, it is an online site that facilitates social networking. Wikipedia defines a social network as "a social structure made of nodes (which are generally individuals or organizations) that are tied by one or more specific types of relations," such as values, friends, kinship, etc.

With Facebook, you can invite people to be your "friends" online. If they agree, you then have access to their friends list and can grow your network of friends. Of course, you can invite folks to join directly or browse established networks, but I have enjoyed "mining" other people's lists! It is a bit addictive. This discovery has resulted in some observations:

First, our networks tend to overlap with one another. I started out with one colleague and pretty soon found myself in networks that involved young adults, those who work with young adults, former campus ministry colleagues, and CBF folks. Very often, the same persons showed up in more than one of these groups.

Second, this is a young adult thing! Although I took a look at MySpace, I never really "got it." Maybe it was because it seemed more oriented toward youth (and that begins with 10 year olds now). If you access a college or seminary network on Facebook, you will often find hundreds, even thousands of Facebook participants.

Third, my list is growing slowly, but I must admit that when I came across someone with over 200 "friends" I was not envious; I was suspicious. Who has this many "friends?" Acquaintances, yes, but friends? After analysis, I discovered that some folks who work with youth and young adults use this as a communications tool. For example, those who supervise church camp staffers use Facebook to keep in touch and build community.

Fourth, this IS a way to build community. It helps people who don't see each other often to keep in touch with family news, latest activities, etc.

Fifth, most folks on Facebook seem to be enjoying themselves (to judge by the pictures they have posted)! There is a certain playfulness about this site that is refreshing.

OK, now that I have discovered Facebook, I am sure that it will soon be replaced by something else, but it is interesting to see that folks do want to connect with each other in fresh, fun ways. What does that say to those of us in the Christian world?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Developing Leaders

During the spring, our church provided a Sunday School emphasis called Leadership First. Fifteen church members were exposed to a 13 week study that provided (very) brief surveys of the Old and New Testaments, Baptist beliefs, Sunday School principles, age group training, and class observation and evaluation.

Although the content was helpful, the opportunity for these leaders to spend time together, build community, and dream about the future of our church were probably the most important outcomes. The primary evaluation by the group was, "It was too short."

For more information, go to Caleb's Cafe and look for the "Leadership First" group.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Looking Back

Forgive me if I continue down memory lane in this posting, but we have been doing some cleaning and rearranging at our house, and I came across a paper I wrote when I was in college. OK, I haven't saved all the papers I wrote in college or seminary, but this is a very special paper to me.

Let me set the context. In 1965, I was a senior at the University of Southern Mississippi, a public university. My major was history with a minor in religion and philosophy. At the time, there was not a single African-American student at the college. Our sister institution, Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) had been integrated about two years earlier with the assistance of the Army. I was taking an ethics course with Robert Arrington, a young professor still working on his doctorate who was, to the best of my knowledge, not a Christian. When we were assigned a term paper, I asked Mr. Arrington if I could write a paper on "Christian Ethics and Racial Discrimination." He not only said "yes," he encouraged me to do so.

With the assistance of Louie Farmer, my Baptist Student Union director, and Harold Kitchings, pastor of University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, I was able to come up with some great resources. I was introduced to Baptist ethicists T. B Maston (not knowing I would one day be campus minister at his alma mater, Carson-Newman) and Henlee Barnette. I even had access to a paper written by Kirby Godsey (future president of Mercer University) at New Orleans Seminary. Of course, I also read Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph McGill, and some representative segregationists.

As I read it today, I think the paper holds up pretty well, especially the final paragraph: "If there is any fault in the modern Christian, it is a lack of understanding of what Christ was talking about. Many see Jesus Christ only as an extension of themselves, hindered by the same worries and prejudices. As long as this type of thinking continues, Christ will remain to many people only a Jewish philosopher who taught a rather interesting philosophy of love two thousand years ago, and nothing more. Can Christianity work? Rather, let us ask, has it been tried? "

I am grateful to my professor for encouraging me to tackle this project, to Louie Farmer and Harold Kitchings for taking the time to help a young student broaden his horizons, and to those courageous writers who took a stand for what was right when it was not popular. These folks helped to prepare me for the new world that was breaking into our lives.

By the way, I got an "A" on the paper.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Greatest Generation

I attended the memorial service today for Art Driscoll, a friend and mentor who helped me a great deal in my early days in collegiate ministry. Perhaps it was fitting that Art passed away on Memorial Day weekend. Art was a B-17 pilot in World War II, served as campus minister at the Universities of Oklahoma and Virginia, and worked for 20 years at National Student Ministries. He was in his early twenties when he entered the military. We forget how young these men were (my Dad was an "old man" in his unit since he was 28 when he was drafted!). Many of them left the senior prom and went right into basic training. They experienced conditions that most of us who served in subsequent conflicts did not have to endure. Their girl friends and wives heard from them only sporadically and had their own challenges to deal with at home.

When they returned from the military, men like Art remade our society and had a significant impact on college ministry as they entered college with the aid of the GI Bill. Students who had fought in Europe, the South Pacific, and other foreign locales brought new insights (and perhaps some attitude?) to college life. Many felt a call to ministry and their names joined those of others who shaped a boom in campus ministry during the 50s and 60s--Roselle, Baird, Rollins, Junker, Magee, Howard, Bramlette, and so many more.

Several people who spoke today identified Art as a "mentor." Art certainly served in that role for me. During his years at NSM, he was primarily responsible for the leadership development of adults who worked with college students--campus directors, state staff, and faculty members. I was pleased when he agreed to be the field supervisor for my doctor of ministry work in 1973. I drove into Nashville from Murfreesboro a number of times over the course of a year to meet with him, reflect on written assignments together, and receive suggestions about resources and approaches to ministry. Perhaps just as important was the way that Art facilitated the opportunity to learn from others. He would bring veteran campus ministers in to Nashville to share their "models for ministry" with colleagues from around the country. These were rich, rewarding sessions that challenged a young campus minister to broaden his horizons. Perhaps this was a carryover from Art's service as part of a bomber team--an awareness that the best learning often takes place as colleagues share with one another.

Of course, Art was not my only mentor. Another was Louie Farmer, my Baptist student union director. I could write much about him and his wife, Mildred. Nell Magee of National Student Ministries was another; Nell gave me great encouragement and opportunities to develop my teaching and facilitating skills. Another was Glenn Yarbrough who first employed me as a campus director and provided a healthy balance of independence and direction.

All of these folks were and are part of the "greatest generation" to me. They were willing to take the difficult circumstances they were given and made something out of them with faith and courage. Thank God for the blessing they have been to us!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Decision Making

My friend, Jerry Gaither, is a retired school administrator who has experienced all of the knocks and bruises that come from being a true "public servant." Some time ago, he shared with me a sheet he calls "An Administrator's Ethics Test." I think it serves as a good guide for any of us who are called to be stewards of other's resources. Here are Jerry's questions:

Will I be violating board policy, the law, or the rights of others?

Is it equitable?

  • Can I sit down around a table and face all parties concerned at the same time?
  • Does it promote wholesome relationships?
  • Can I look in the mirror and feel good about myself?

Is it explainable?

  • In a clear and concise manner that the general public can understand it? (If you can't explain it to all concerned, it may be perceived as being unfair.)

Will it leave me with a clear conscience?

  • Will it make me proud?
  • Will it stand the light of day--tomorrow, as well as today?
  • Would I feel good if my family knew about it?
  • Supreme test--Could I kneel in my bedroom and pray, "Dear Lord, I have done my best; give me what I deserve."

Jerry first wrote this down almost twenty years ago. It is still relevant today. Thank you, Jerry, for sharing these questions out of your own experience.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

What I Am Reading

I like to read. At any particular time, I may be reading two or three books (some with more enthusiasm than others!). Over the past year, a number of the books I have been reading have been connected to the two seminary classes I have taught. Right now, the books I am working on are completely my choice. One that is going pretty fast is a new book by Oliver “Buzz” Thomas, a former Baptist Joint Committee staffer who now lives in east Tennessee. The book is 10 Things Your Minster Wants to Tell You (But Can’t Because He Needs the Job). Thomas applies sound biblical scholarship to such issues as “What About Women?” “Other Religions” and “Why are We Here?” The thesis of the book is that your minister would tell you about these things if you trusted his/her ability to understand and interpret the Word of God and were willing to be challenged in your own faith!

I was attracted to Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why because of author Bart Ehrman’s personal story. Ehrman currently has three of the five top selling books from Oxford University Press. This one is a top seller from HarperSanFrancisco. Starting out as a born-again evangelical (he graduated from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton), Ehrman’s study of textual criticism seems to have led him completely out of the Christian faith. I have read one of his other books and heard several of his lectures; he is certainly an expert on early church writings and “lost Christianities.” I will let you know what I think about this one once I have finished it!

Leading from the Second Chair by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson is aimed at those who fill “second chair” or associate roles in churches and Christian organizations, but it also provides insights for those in the “first chair” to help develop the leadership skills of their associates. The book is built around three paradoxes, emphasizing both/add rather than either/or--subordinate-leader; deep-wide; and contentment-dreaming. The biblical content is drawn from the Old Testament story of Joseph. It is very practical, but it is probably much longer than it needs to be.

The final book I am carrying around with me is Organic Community by Joseph R. Myers. This is the second offering in a publishing partnership between Emergent Village and Baker Books titled “Emersion.” Since community seems to be the key feature of the emerging church movement, this is a very appropriate contribution to the conversation. Those of us who are church leaders may think we already know all about community, but Myers takes a different tack. I think I will enjoy this one!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Jack Bauer: Looking for Grace?

OK, I admit it. I watch 24. Although I have watched it on and off for several seasons, this is the first year that I have seen every episode (sometimes by recorded delay). I know it has violence and some pretty unlikely plot twists (who would have thought that Bauer's father would be the greatest threat to our national security?) and I know that many Republicans are fans, but it challenges me as it puts our hero into situations where he has to make some difficult choices. And quite honestly, his moral compass is usually better than the elected leaders represented on the show.

As I watched the last scene last night (I had recorded it earlier in the week), it became clear to me that here was a man who needed some grace in his life. He started the season willing to die voluntarily to save his country after being held prisoner by the Chinese for years, he found out that both his father and brother were traitors, he rediscovered his lost love only to see her in a near-catatonic state, he was shot and beaten (but that's nothing new), and he was double-crossed by his superiors more times than one can count. He ended the season asking former Secretary of Defense Raines, "Why have I trusted men like you?" Good question (of course, it would be a pretty dull program if he didn't).

At the end of a horrendous day, our hero is basically saying, "What's this all about? Why have I gone through all this? What's the payoff?" These are good existential questions for a person looking for meaning, purpose, and maybe some forgiveness for his crimes.

Although Jack may not realize it, he has received grace in the response of loyal friends time and again. Audrey Raines (Jack's lover) is in no shape to console him, but Bill Buchanan (his former boss) and Karen Hays (the president's advisor) are willing to put their reputations and careers on the line because they trust Jack. What's the payoff for them? Simply knowing that they have stood by a person who is making the right decision in saving a 16-year-old boy (Jack's nephew) from kidnapping and death.

Grace is provided to Jack in the person of people who are willing to reach out and do what's right. That's not a bad coda to the season. Are Christians willing to do the same?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Tale of Two Presidents

The CBF Leadership Team is meeting in Little Rock this week (this team includes state and regional coordinators as well as national coordinators). We spent some time today learning about two presidents. One is Dr. Fitzgerald Hill, president of Arkansas Baptist College, the only historic black Baptist college west of the Mississippi (founded in 1884). Dr. Hill spoke to our group this morning and hosted us for lunch on campus. The other president we had the opportunity to consider was Bill Clinton, 42nd president of the United States, as we visited the Clinton Presidential Center and Library.

Hill, a former football coach, has a vision not only to revitalize a formerly declining institution, but to raise up a new generation of male African-American leaders. A committed father, he has rearranged his priorities to place his family first. He is a believer who is committed to challenging young men to grow mentally, spiritually, and physically. He presents his vision clearly, with fervor, and with faith. He is already seeing results as enrolment grows, financial resources are procured, and partners are coming alongside. CBF of Arkansas and Millard Fuller are partnering with ABC to make this happen. I think it will!

Clinton, a poor Arkansas boy who used his drive and savvy to rise to the highest elected office in the land, is a tragic figure. He was raised on the Bible as a Southern Baptist, and he can still "talk the talk" when he is in a church pulpit better than any other Democrat alive. I accept that he has repented of his foolish personal behavior while President and I sincerely think that history will treat him kindly as both a national and world leader. There is much about him that I admire. Even so, as I walked through the Clinton Center, I was burdened with thoughts of the opportunities wasted and what might have been.

Two leaders. Two challenges. Both believers. But choices do matter.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Missions Matrix

When it comes to Christian missions, we live in interesting times. I thought about this last night as I listened to a young American woman talk about the ministry that she and her husband do in southeast Asia (I will not refer to her by name or to the location where the couple works.) She is an articulate and attractive person who is using her creative gifts to reach out to people through a holistic ministry grounded in her Christian faith. Her parents have both been involved in Southern Baptist causes for years. This woman served with Cooperative Baptist missionaries in southeast Asia for two years after college. While there, she met a young man from another country working with an independent missionary agency. After her term of service, he came to the states, met her parents, they became engaged, married, and returned to their new home to work with the aforementioned missions group.

To understand where we are in missions work today, let's get this straight. Here is a young woman from a Southern Baptist background whose missions vision was broadened by her work with CBF missionaries and she is now working with a non-denominational group. Here's the next layer--her parents have been supportive of her work all along and have not been "turned off" by her involvement first with CBF and now with a non-denominational group. In fact, they are seeking out individuals and churches who will support the work. Here's the third layer--the state CBF coordinator arranged for her to speak to his church's missions committee and youth group about her work!

Does this seem strange to you? Maybe it's because I am still shaking off the old denominational paradigm of missions service, but I don't think this would have happened even ten years ago. Could it be that our vision of missions and being a missional people is changing and growing?

I could go on to make comments about the creative, cutting edge ministry that this couple is doing in their new home, but that is a story for another day. Right now, I am still amazed at how God works. Surely God has a sense of humor!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Parental Responsibility

While listening to a call-in radio program on media censorship recently, I overheard a comment to this effect: "Having children is a choice. If you choose to have children, it is up to you to monitor what they see and hear." My immediate response to this was, "Really?" I think that the speaker might want to rethink this comment. What if we applied this to public education? Does the public have the responsibility to educate someone else's children? I have a problem with those who argue against support for public education with the comment, "I raised my children. Why should I have to pay higher taxes to educate other people's children?"

I presuppose a couple of things. First, when we agree to be part of a society, we agree to accept certain responsibilities. One of those is nurturing an educated populace. You may call this social planning, but in frontier America the first institution planted after the church was (sually) the school. Why? So people could read write, and "cipher" so that they could make a living and not be a drain on socieity. Also, they could inform themselves to be good members of the republic. Second, if I am to have a better life, others are going to have a better life, too. That won't happen unless they are educated to be good workers and good citizens.

What does this say to the church? Baptists don't "baptize" babies, but their parents do come to many of our churches to "dedicate" their children. In this process, the church agrees to aid the parents in the Christian nurture of their children. What does this involve? It is more than providing a children/preschool minister and a budget for children and preschool ministry. This means that we are concerned about growing them in the Christian faith. We will volunteer to work with them through the program organizations of the church, we will work to keep them from harm, and (beware) we will be good examples to them in the way that we conduct ourselves inside and outside of church gatherings.

It would be easy to say, "Hey, you had the kid. He's your problem!" As a Christian, I can't say that--not if I believe in the future of the Kingdom.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Is anyone beyond the reach of God?

Our pastor raised a good question on Sunday morning in talking about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus: "Is anyone beyond the reach of God?" He went on to talk about overlooking the possibilities of reaching out to people that we think are unreachable or, perhaps more realistically, that we are uncomfortable reaching out to. He commented, "Do we spend too much time reaching out to people like ourselves?"

Why do we restrict those to whom we reach out? Perhaps they just make us uncomfortable because of their lifestyle, appearance, or actions. Then maybe we feel inadequate because we perceive that they are smarter, better dressed, or more affluent that we are. Could it just be that we are afraid that we will make fools of ourselves?

The pastor suggested several groups that should be considered for outreach--families with special needs children, senior adults who are becoming less independent, and those who are intentionally single.

Who would you add to that group? I think I would add college-age young adults, especially those who are openly antagonistic to organized religion. Another group would be environmentalists who tend to distrust Christians who have talked a better game of being good stewards of Creation than in actually doing something about it. There is also members of the artistic community who could add so much to our experience.

Can you think of others?

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Easter morning brought a full house to morning worship at our church. At least 150 more attended than on the usual Sunday morning. I am sure that the situation was similar in your place of worship. It was a great time of worship with many families sitting together, powerful music, good preaching, and a public profession of faith. But what are we to make of all these additional worshippers? Why don't we see these folks all the time?

Of course, Easter is a special day. There are many worshippers who attend two or three times a month, but most make a special effort to be there on Easter. Some come because it is a family affair. Others may come out of curiosity or a sense of obligation.

So how do we treat these folks? Should we make them feel guilty that they aren't there all the time? Should we take the occasion to exhort them to more regular attendance?

No, we should do what our pastor did this morning: share a message of hope. Where do we find hope? At the entrance to an empty tomb. People need hope not guilt. They need hope not encouragement. They need hope not criticism. I am thankful that so many came to our church (and yours) to a place where the message of hope could be heard.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Faith-Based Missions

I ran into a friend at Starbucks this morning. When I asked about his family, he told me about the work that his son and daughter-in-law are doing in Africa with an independent mission board. They are enjoying their ministry with local church leaders, but they are having to raise their own support.

Remember the "old days" when we used to proclaim proudly, "Our missionaries don't have to go out and raise their own support because we have a unified program of missions giving"? My, how times have changed. You can still support missionaries through a unified program (such as Global Missions of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship), but have you noticed how many "freelance" missionaries there are out there these days? Some of these folks are part of established organizations but a number have set up their own ministries that are incorporated, have their own boards of directors, and have carved out their own missions niche.

I don't necessarily see this as a negative thing. In fact, my wife and I support three missionary couples through monthly contributions--one couple is with a national organization that works with International students, one is with a campus evangelism ministry, another works overseas to reach out to youth and young adults. We also contribute to an NGO that helps with agricultural missions overseas.

The most interesting development is the individual or couple who have launched their own missions organization. They have perceived a need, have a real passion for fulfill that need, and invite others to join them in the effort.

Why has this happened? I can think of some reasons and you may come up with some of your own. First, there are many needs in the world and the individual may have come to the conclusion that no one else is doing this and God has called me to help meet this need. Second, there is an increasing distrust of large missions-sending agencies. Third, people have a tendency to support an individual or a need with which they personally identify. Fourth, we have a new generation that is very entrepreneurial; they are ready and willing to take the initiative to get the job done, and they want as few people as possible looking over their shoulders!

In some ways this is not so different from the missionary societies founded in the US and England during the nineteenth century. These started outside the churches, they were funded primarily by individuals, and the initial missionaries were often motivated lay people. In fact, the opportunities for women to do ministry were greater through these organizations than in the traditional church settings.

Of course, this presents some practical problems. As an individual how many of these folks can I support? For pastors, this raises the question, How many of these folks should have access to our congregation to ask for support? There are also issues of accountability and doctrinal fidelity.

Here again, I am not saying that this movement should be squelched, but how do we deal with it wisely, as good stewards of God's blessings?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Conversion--Event or Process?

Some of you may remember the explanation of sanctification that we learned in Sunday School, Training Union, etc.--"We have been saved, we are being saved, we will be saved." Since sanctification seems to be another way of saying "converted" or "saved," this might be a helpful way to look at the previous topic from another perspective. Salvation is not just an isolated event in time, but an on-going process.

In a very real sense, all who have named the name of Christ are still in the process of being saved. No matter how one first entered onto that path, the work has started, and the work of becoming more like Christ goes on from day to day. It is not finished yet; I would say that it will not be accomplished until "the day of Christ Jesus"--either His return or our leaving this life.

So if we are in the process of being saved, what contributes to that process? First, worship--both private and corporate. As we come close to God and God comes close to us, we gain not only new understanding, but a better understanding of grace as well.

Second, love for our neighbor. What's this got to do with salvation? In one of John's epistles, we find the comment (my translation), "If you can't love the brother you can see, how will people know that you love the God that you can't see." Love for neighbor--in word and deed--is a sign that we are somehow different than we were and are becoming more than we were. Indeed, we might say that love itself is a process--a day to day walk--rather than an event.

What are some other signs that salvation is at work in your life?

Sunday, March 18, 2007


I suppose that the apostle Paul's conversion experience has become the template for many Christians--a rabid persecutor of Christians, he had a life-changing experience with the risen Christ on the road to Damasacus, and subsequently became the foremost promoter of the Gospel he had once reviled.

I think we assume several things about Paul's experience, and I may unpack some of those in the future, but holding up his experience as a standard for all conversions is the one I want to look at in this posting.

I had the opportunity to lead a deacons' retreat for one of our churches last Friday night. The material I was using is very good (Bill Hybels' Walk Across the Room) and, like all good evangelism training resources, explains how to tell your faith story with humility, simplicity, clarity, and brevity. The pattern goes something like this--What was your life like before you knew Christ? How did you come to the point of submitting to His leadership in your life? What was your life like after that decision? Of course, this pattern is drawn from the experience of Paul--one he recounts several times in the Book of Acts.

I asked the group Friday night this question, "How many of you grew up in the church and made a profession of faith at a young age (you can define "young" however you wish). About 80 percent of the hands went up. I was not surprised. I shared my own testimony something like this:

"I grew up in the church and can't remember a time when I did not know that there was a God who loved me. I made a public profession of faith in Christ at age 12. When I was a sophomore in college, I was going through some difficult times. I got down on my knees beside my bed one night and prayed, 'God, I don't know what you want me to do with my life, but there must be something better than what I am doing. I submit myself to you.' Well, things didn't get miracously better, but I began to perceive God's presence in my life, a presence that has stayed with me through thirty years of ministry, a tour in Vietnam, the raising of three children, and the loss of a grandchild to cancer."

Now, this may raise theological questions for some, but I felt validated when one of the members of the group Friday night came up and said, "I am glad that you shared your experience. I thought I was the only one who had come to Christ in that way.

Perhaps it is time to realize that God works with each of us in God's own way. For some, it will be the nurturing process of church and family. For others, it will be a "Damascus Road" experience. Who are we to tell God and the Spirit how to work? If we were more comfortable with the way that God has worked in our lives, perhaps we would be more comfortable in telling others about God.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The House of the Lord

After a meeting today at the University of the South in Sewanee, I took a few minutes to walk into the magnificent All Saints Chapel on campus and enjoy the beauty of that sacred space. It may seem odd that I enjoy such beautiful architecture. I am a pretty practical Baptist who knows that God is present everywhere, but there are several reasons that being in such a building is a blessing to my soul.

First of all, a place of worship like All Saints is a testimony to the faith of men and women who loved God enough to do their best to honor God in constructing the edifice. The chapel itself (like all great places of worship) took years to complete, surely testing the patience and faith of many supporters. The stone walls and stained glass windows are a material testimony to their commitment.

Another reason standing in such a place blesses me is the stillness of the building in the midst of a busy, bustling campus. It reminds me of the presence of God with us even in the busy-ness of life.
Third, when I was in seminary I developed an interest in church architecture as an expression of theology. A building like All Saints embodies a number of aspects of Christian theology, including the celebration of the sacraments and the importance of public worship. Theology can be manifested not only in people and actions but in buildings as well.
Could the money have been used elsewhere to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, give water to the thirsty? Maybe. But how many people have been inspired by such a building to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, give water to the thirsty? Only God knows.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Southern Baptist Who "Gets It"

Since I no longer consider myself a Southern Baptist, you may be surprised that I would say this, but there are some Southern Baptists who really "get it"--that is, they are able to read the signs of the times and move to adapt organizations that will respond effectively to the needs of churches.

One such case is Mike Day, (executive?) director of missions for the Mid-South Baptist Association in Memphis. At a symposium in Jackson, Tennessee, last month, Day made this statement: "[Southern Baptists] will proclaim [local church] autonomy as sacred and necessary, yet we behave sometimes like we require the approval of others or we behave as if we have the right to approve. It's an implied hierarchy, for sure. We won't ever admit that it exists."

Now, we could get into a long discussion about how this "hierarchy" operates in Baptist life today, but my immediate response was appreciation for Day's vision. He was calling for a renewed commitment to the work of the local church and a revised role for Baptist associations as supporters of churches in doing ministry. He also advocated a regional approach to Baptist associations clustered around urban centers that would eventually lead to the demise of state Baptist conventions. He called for a "new paradigm that must be church-driven, priority-based, resource-focused, strategically managed and regionally oriented."

Fellowship Baptists will resonant with some of his observations. From the beginning, CBF has encouraged partnering with other entities (not "reinventing the wheel"), resourcing churches, and avoiding the ownership of institutions. However, I think we are still struggling with the state and regional organizational component. We don't want to reproduce the old approach, but we haven't really found the best way to do it.

Anyway, I appreciate Day's comments. They are the remarks of someone whose organization is taking a realistic, hard look at how entities beyond the local church can help churches discover and fulfill their God-given mission. It is a task that we must all take seriously.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Organic Church Growth

Growing a new church is much like growing a crop. It takes time, work, and patience. In short, it is an organic process. Crops are not manufactured; they are grown. The church is more than an organization; it is an organism. In Natural Church Development, Christian Schwarz observes, “The organizational realm of church ministry can be ‘manufactured’—the organic level can’t.”

We have been working for about a year to start a new church in a growing part of our city. What do we have to show for it? We still don't have regular weekly worship and the monthly gatherings we hold are not as large as they were six months ago. We have had one successful outreach event that was led by about 30 folks from First Baptist, our sponsor church, and drew about as many uninvolved folks, but we have not been able to integrate these new folks into the groups that are meeting on a regular basis.

We do have three home Bible study fellowships meeting that involve about 25 people. They are not as strong was we would like, but we have seen things happening in the groups. People are studying the scriptures, they are praying for each other, they are growing spiritually, and they are making new friends.

I believe that these home Bible fellowships are an essential, organic part of growing a new church. These must be nurtured, encouraged, and strengthened if a new church is to develop in the area. Although Schwarz points out that many characteristics must interact for a church to be healthy, the multiplication of small groups is the foundation of church growth.

So progress in bringing folks together to start a new church is not as rapid as some of us would like, but growth is happening. Pray for this growth to be deep before it is wide.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Healthy Motivation

For over a year, I have been working with a group of folks to put down roots for a new church start in a rapidly growing part of our city. Starting new churches is not a task for the weak! It is very much like a roller-coaster ride.

As we met yesterday in a community gathering (about 20 folks), we shared prayer requests, gave thanks for what has already happened, and prayed about our future direction. One of our group made a very significant comment, "It's hard to start a new church when people are not already upset or angry about something!" I have heard the same sentiment expressed in different ways, but it does prompt some thinking about the philosophy we have adopted in starting this new church.

First, we are not looking for those angry about their present church situation. Folks like that usually just bring their anger with them. On the other hand, if a person is presently part of a fellowship but has a vision for outreach that is not being fulfilled in their present setting, we welcome them to join in this task. Like the baby bird moving out of the nest, leaving home is healthy when you are ready.

Second, we have not attempted to beat the drum about this being a CBF-related church. Churches are, first of all, local expressions of the grace of God. They are blessed by God and accountable to God for their service and ministry. They join with other groups in order to further that ministry. Now, we believe that CBF and TCBF are good partners for ministry, but I don't think that is a primary selling point for this new church start.

Third, we really are looking for people who are not presently part of a Christian fellowship. If you think there aren't folks like that in our community, take a second look. They come in various categories. Some are simply unaffiliated Christians who are new to the community and still seeking a place to belong. Some have been badly burned by previous church relationships and need some healing before they will jump in again. Some are non-believers (or, as one friend likes to call them, "pre-Christians") who really have no clear understanding of the gospel.

Can you start a new church with people who are not angry? I pray that we can. We continue to seek ways to harness the more productive passions of care and compassion to motivate this work.

Any insights that might help us?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Take a look at what we do!

Last week I received a call from a reporter with a middle Tennessee newspaper asking for comment on President Carter's convening of a group to call for a meeting of progressive Baptists in 2008. Of course, she said almost immediately, "I have not been writing religious news very long. Can you explain to me what's happened to Southern Baptists and how your group differs from them?" This led to questions about inerrancy and the "official position" of Fellowship Baptists on women in ministry.

Those of you who have found yourself in this position know how frustrating this can be. How can you explain 400 years of Baptist history in general and 25 years of Baptist history in the South specifically in a 5 minute discussion?

Although I did spend some time explaining my personal understanding of the role of women in church leadership and some examples of Fellowship missions, I tried to make several points.

First, if you want to know how Fellowship Baptists differ from Southern Baptists, you will have to make the comparison. I can tell you want we are doing, but I don't pay a lot of attention to the SBC anymore.

Second, Fellowship Baptists are not a monolithic group, but neither are Southern Baptists. I pointed out that pastor Rick Warren, who identifies himself as a Southern Baptist, seems to find himself on a different track from his brethern, especially when it comes to things like the BWA, ministry with HIV/AIDS victims, and working with both Republicans and Democrats.

Third, Fellowship Baptists are Bible people. We have a high regard for scripture, so much so that we support over a dozen theological institutions to prepare women and men for the ministry of the Word.

Fourth, if you want to know what we believe about women in ministry, look at what we do. All the statements and good intentions in the world are no good if you are not committed to diversity in leadership and openness in service. Is our record perfect? No, it is not, but we are trying.

In short, we've got our plates full trying to be the people of God on mission. Take a look at what we are doing and make your own evaluation.

By the way, I did tell her that I thought President Carter is on the right track. Baptists need to find new ways to work together in the 21st century. "The old has passed away; new things have come."