Monday, February 23, 2009

My Favorite Geeks

USB Cables and Binary Digits

In this blog I would like to pay homage to my digital heroes or what I might call “my favorite geeks”. My list does not include Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Larry Page although I (and millions of others) regularly make use of their creations. The people I want to recognize are individuals who have found ways to use the Internet and other digital media to communicate the gospel, impact society, and train people in caring ministries.

Robert Parham and his team at recognized the power of the Internet several years ago. Although it was founded as the Baptist Center for Ethics in 1991, this organization has become a thoroughly digital entity in 2002 with a daily e-newsletter, online resources, and a virtual office. The web site features new releases church resources, social commentary, sermons, and Bible study resources and has recently gone through a complete redesign with added audio and video resources. Once heavily involved in conducting conferences, the organization has invested in DVD production for use by local churches and community organizations. is an online presence for positive change (and, to assure full disclosure, they are kind enough to publish selections from my blog on occasion).

Sam Davidson created with the mission of “Saving the world. Five minutes at a time.” Cool People Care is both an organization and an online entity that exists to show you how to change the world in whatever time you have, wherever you live. Their daily e-newsletter provides practical suggestions to make a difference in the world without leaving your community. There are links to service options and ministry opportunities in almost 50 cities across the nation. The format is fresh and creative with an attitude that appeals to young adults.

In 1993 the Wayne E. Oates Institute was founded to continue the legacy of Dr. Oates by addressing the need for professional and lay caregivers to learn from each other and give care to the whole person--body, mind, and spirit. In 1998, the Institute expanded by putting their resources on the Internet and extending their program offerings to include online learning and publishing. Under the leadership of Vicki Hollon and Chris Hammon, the Oates institute provides a number of services: an Online Campus, an Online Learning Center, the Center for Oates Studies, and a bookstore. This is a great resource for busy helping professionals no matter where they live.

David Cassady, formerly of Smyth and Helwys Publishers, is the principal of The Brainstorm Lab, a media development firm. He is also one of the creators of The Faith Lab, an online resource to stimulate thinking and encourage action related to faith development. The Faith Lab is focused upon helping churches and religious organizations to learn how to use new media effectively. New media includes website and web technologies, digital photography, audio and video (including podcasts), and new approaches to print publications. This is a new but promising service.

What do these digital innovators have in common?

First, they think non-geographically. They could do their work from anywhere in the world (and often do). They recognize that ministry is done locally in a specific context, but they provide a service to users wherever they live and work.

Second, they are entrepreneurs who build their services on partnerships. To the best of my knowledge, none of these folks are supported by “deep pocket” donors. They depend on sponsorships, individual donors, and partners to survive. As a result, their existence is always precarious.

Third, they provide a service. They are resource brokers. They do not provide the final answer, but they do provide a means for people to pool information, try out possible solutions, and make their own choices about what works and what doesn’t.

Fourth, they model what they are selling. The folks who have put these online services together are practitioners—counselors, educators, activists, ethicists, media specialists—who are willing to share what they are learning.

Fifth, they are willing to change to meet a changing context. They recognize that their constituents are moving targets and they move with them.

So these are my favorite geeks. Who are yours?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

"They Sure Didn't Teach Me THAT in Seminary"

How often have you heard these words (or said them yourself): “They sure didn’t teach me THAT in seminary!” Now, sometimes this is simply not true. Committed professors drew upon their experiences in churches and their academic backgrounds to share skills and insights with ministers in formation. They tried to help us understand how to preach to meet people’s needs, minister to them in times of crisis, and how to apply biblical texts to contemporary situations. We simply did not get it. We had not reached that “teachable moment.”

On the other hand, the statement is sometimes true. There are several reasons for this:

First, even with a two or three year degree program, there is just so much a curriculum can bear. No matter how important a particular discipline or skill is, there are a limited number of hours in a day as well as in a degree program. In every theological institution, hard choices must be made about what to include and some things will be left out.

Second, we as students or the seminary leaders cannot always know what skills and abilities will be needed in the future. For example, how many of us were trained to deal with the personal and institutional needs that result from a national financial crisis? We expected incomes to increase, endowments to grow, and loans to be readily available. Who knew that computers would revolutionize how we write, communicate, and even conduct worship? Many of us started out using mimeograph machines and were grateful when Xerox copiers were added to the office. Who could foretell the changes in public morality and sexual mores that challenge our traditional concepts of morality? I took several counseling courses in seminary but I was not prepared to counsel the homosexual student who came into my office less than a year after I graduated.

Third, if we had listened carefully to our instructors, we might have heard some of them say, “We can’t teach you everything you need to know to do ministry. You will have to learn throughout your life.” They may not have used the term “lifelong learner,” but they understood the concept.

I was fortunate that when I graduated from seminary, I was able to pursue the ministry to which I felt called and for which I had prepared, but I found out pretty quickly that I needed to learn new skills—small group process, leadership dynamics, researching new faith movements, some additional counseling skills, and a new theology of doing ministry that centered on personal rather than organizational development.

The best thing that a seminary education (or any education for that matter) can do is to teach us how to learn. We either become lifelong learners or we fail to live up to our calling. “They didn’t teach me that in seminary” is not a valid excuse.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Heritage and Hope

A number of new churches have formed in the last 16 years that have chosen to affiliate with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Some have developed into strong, growing congregations while others have remained rather small and underdeveloped. I have friends in both types of churches and have worked with both as a state judicatory leader.

I am sure that the comments that follow will alienate some people in the moderate Baptist camp. I believe that there is a place for a church that affirms its Baptist theology and heritage while reaching out to its community in evangelism and service. On the other hand, there is little hope for those congregations who have chosen to define themselves as “not like the Southern Baptist Convention.” The former may come to understand what it means to be a missional church. The latter chooses to be a ghetto for hurt, disaffected Baptists who are looking for people like themselves. The former are strengthened by their past; the latter are captive to their past.

The greatest lesson we can learn from our experience in the SBC is to embrace the good experiences and to try to avoid duplicating the bad experiences. The old saying that “those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it” is appropriate, but once one has studied history, he or she must take action in the contemporary world.

This has nothing to do with worship styles. There are new Baptist churches that practice a traditional, even liturgical, approach to worship that are reaching unchurched people. At that same time, there are churches that practice contemporary worship that fail to connect with their community. It is not about worship but about orientation.

If I were looking for a new church to join, I would much rather cast my lot with a group who look to the future with hope and enthusiasm than with a group that is still holding on to its anger. As I have begun “reinventing” myself as a church consultant, I have consciously positioned myself to work with smaller churches that might not usually have access to an outside consultant, but it would be poor use of my time to work with churches that want to define themselves in negative terms and look inward. I would rather spend time with folks who honor their heritage but are not afraid to try new approaches to ministry. I am pleased that there are churches like that who want my services.

When I was a summer missionary in Ohio over 40 years ago, I was surprised by the Southern Baptist church planters whose idea of “outreach” was to look for license tags from the South and try to enlist those people for their churches. They were not reaching out to the unchurched in the area but were actually forming “Southern societies.” When I was in the same area about ten years ago, I noted that none of those church plants had survived.

Where does God call us to direct our attention? Should we look inward or outward, backward or forward? You know the answers.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sharing the News Instantly

Let me make this clear up front. This is not an effort of a proud new grandfather to get a picture of his grandson on his blog (well, maybe it is, just a little bit).

Cooper Maddox Stump was born this morning at 1:06 a.m. in Murfreesboro. He weighed in at 8 pounds, 5 ounces, and was 20 inches long. By 2:24, his picture was posted on Facebook by way of my cell phone. By 3:43 a.m., ten pictures were posted of proud big brother, big sister, Mom, Dad, and Grandparents with the newcomer. At 3:45 a.m., I was receiving good wishes from a friend in Thailand. By 11:00 a.m., there were at least a dozen responses. As a friend in east Tennessee wrote, "Now THIS is a great use of Facebook!”

Now think about this. Several years ago, my friend in Thailand probably would not have received this news until our December Christmas letter. Friends in east Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina would not have seen these pictures for months. What a testimony to the power of the Internet to communicate even the most ordinary (well, maybe not that ordinary) things of life.

Let’s move this beyond family events to news, ideas, and opinions. Through blogs, Twitter, and so many other online digital services, one person can share information and ideas almost instantly with people around the world. A pastor’s blog is read not just by his congregation but by a seminary teacher in South Africa. A missionary’s work is reported in real time to supporters on the other side of the world. A reporter engages in a dialogue with his readers on a real time basis.

Things have changed, and new tools have been provided to us. We are challenged to use these new instruments for good (including sharing pictures of grandchildren).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

God's Call for Your Church

Intrinsic to the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer is the tenet that each believer is unique and has been gifted by God to make a unique contribution to the church. Although we persist in putting people into places where they don’t fit in the church just to keep an organization chart filled, this is an important concept that many churches are beginning to embrace.

I would like to suggest a corollary to this doctrine: the uniqueness of every church. At the core of the missional church concept is that each congregation is called to be part of the missio Dei (sending of God) in its particular context. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship embraces this idea in stating its mission as “helping churches and individuals discover and fulfill their God-given mission.”

Like everything else, there is the temptation to make “missional church” into another program like bus ministry or Evangelism Explosion. Missional church is not a program but a theological perspective that should inform, inspire, and empower the people of God to become part of the sending of God into the world. Of primary importance is that the form of this sending will not be the same for every church. Each local congregation’s expression of the missio Dei will be unique to its particular circumstances and opportunities.

Of course, all churches hold certain things in common; for example, the ministry of the Word, the formation of disciples, ministry to those within the household of faith, service to the world, and the practice of the ordinances/sacraments. The ways that these are expressed, however, are appropriate to each congregation and its culture (even within a hierarchical church structure).

Each congregation has unique resources—its facilities, the community in which it is placed, its particular location in that larger community, its people and their gifts, skills, connections, and finances. These resources equip a church to do a particular type (or types) of ministry. Of course, a church may adopt a ministry and accomplish significant results, but that ministry may not be its highest calling—the best use of its God-given resources.

How does a church go about identifying its resources and its unique ministries? I offer five basic suggestions. First, pray with one another and with people in your community for discernment. This will develop a spirit of openness. Second, read the Bible with fresh eyes by involving those outside of the church in that endeavor. God often speaks through the peripheral and marginalized. Third, spend time talking with each other and your neighbors in the community—individuals, government officials, social service organizations, and other faith groups. In this way, you will discover what others are doing and where the real needs are. This also fosters cooperation rather than competition. Fourth, once you have embraced a ministry, do it well. It is more important to do one thing well than many things poorly.

To what unique task is God calling your church?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Real Baptists

In a recent article by Bob Allen of Associated Baptist Press, Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Decatur, Georgia, commented on the probability of the escalation of criticism of her church by the Georgia Baptist Convention, which has already chosen not to accept the church’s mission contributions. Pennington-Russell is reported to have said the following:

"In that hour-long conversation it became crystal-clear to me why people are abandoning denominational structures in droves and why denominationalism as it exists today is doomed," she reported. "The sad reality is most denominational organizations are stuck in bureaucratic systems that have forgotten why they exist in the first place," she said. She said denominations -- like churches -- exist not to provide goods and services to eligible "members" but to worship and serve.

Julie, I have to point out that most denominations see regulation and control as their proper role. They do not necessarily see their role as worship and service. They believe that it is their responsibility to preserve order, assure correct doctrine, and enforce cooperation (yes, that last combination is a bit ironic). The difference is that such denominational organizations do not usually call themselves “Baptist.”

If someone wants to be part of a denominational hierarchy that will make their decisions for them, they will have no trouble finding one. In fact, if you want a church that will tell you what God’s will is for your life, it is not difficult to find one of those, either. But, again, most of these do not call themselves “Baptist.”

The real kicker here is not that a denominational structure wants to provide “quality control” but that such an organization considers itself “Baptist.”

Real Baptists are an ornery lot. They don’t like to be put into little boxes. They were born to disagree.

Real Baptists proudly point to Roger Williams as the founder of the first Baptist church in America, and most of them remember that Williams did not stay a Baptist very long. He refused to be tied down in belief and practice. Maybe that’s another reason that we are the way we are.

The folks that Julie and her church are dealing with may call themselves “Baptist” but I am sure that Roger Williams would laugh in their faces and then slam the door on the way out!

Friday, February 06, 2009

Letting the Bible Speak

Several years ago when I was working for a large denominational organization, I was frustrated by a certain part of the Personnel Manual. I said to my supervisor, “This is an ambiguous statement.” He replied, “It’s not ambiguous; you just don’t agree with it.” He was right.

I think this is appropriate when we consider the Bible and our study of the Bible. On one hand, we naturally come to our reading of the Bible with preconceived ideas. Those ideas are based on our culture, the preachers and teachers we heard growing up, the books we read, and our own personal prejudices. These preconceptions often block God’s ability to speak a fresh word to us through the Scripture.

We forget that the Bible is more than an ancient book. It is the living Word of God. Hebrews 4:12 says,

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (NIV)

Too often we come to the Bible already knowing what we want it to say. When we read the Bible, we may be looking for information when God wants us to find inspiration. We are looking for an answer, when God has a question there for us. We may be looking for comfort when God really wants to use it to make us uncomfortable.

On the other hand, since the Bible is “living and active,” it can speak to us in ways unique to our life circumstances. I can revisit passages that I read when I was a young person and have a completely different understanding of them. I cannot teach or preach about Romans 8:28 the same way that I did twenty years ago since I have gone through the experience of losing loved ones to illness and death. Life happened to me and it happens to you. Life provides us with experiences that let the Spirit offer new insights to us from the scriptures.

Although there is a coherent message and unity to the Bible, we limit God when we settle on only one application of a portion of Scripture to our lives. The Bible is as relevant to our lives as the morning newscast—perhaps even more relevant.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Art of Preaching

This morning I substituted for my pastor in two services—an early service that is traditional in format and a later service that has more of a praise and worship format. This, of course, required a change in attire—dark suit, white shirt, and tie in the early service, open neck shirt, sport coat and khakis in the later service. This is not a problem for me; I am comfortable either way.

I don’t preach on a regular basis, so when I do I am particularly sensitive to the response of the congregation—especially the “real-time” feedback. In each service, I knew many of the folks who were listening and may have tended to concentrate more on individual responses. Since I really like teaching more than preaching due to the opportunity for oral feedback and dialogue, when I preach I tend to look for some glimmer of response—the head nod of agreement, the quick smile of recognition, the questioning look around the eyes, the mixed response to (what I think are) clever comments or allusions. Of course, I also notice the closed eyes of the saints who have been driven to meditation by my thrilling message!

After such an experience, I am reminded what a challenge the preaching ministry is, especially when done before the same group of people on a weekly basis. Within most congregations there are usually people representing five generations, three worldviews (print, broadcast, and digital), numerous geographic origins, and a wide variety of educational backgrounds. The preacher is challenged to say something meaningful that will have some impact on each of these individuals.

Because of this, I think of preaching as a humbling experience for a mere mortal. I am glad that I am not called to do it every week. The good preacher is an artist who seeks to relate a biblical text to a particular group of people through the creative use of speech. All of this is (hopefully) infused by the presence and power of God’s Spirit.

I admire those who have nurtured or developed the skills to do this in an effective way. Whether you think this is a good thing or not, preaching is still the central act of worship in most of our churches. We need to find every way to encourage those who attempt the task on a weekly basis.