SAFE-GUARDING THE CHURCH

SAFE-GUARDING THE CHURCH

The basement fellowship hall of one of the largest churches in the county was packed with the most ecumenical gathering of local church leaders I’ve ever seen. The recent spate of mass-shootings obviously had everybody thinking about safety and local law-enforcement agencies along with the Commonwealth’s Attorney were hosting a church safety seminar. The presenters were excellent and reminded me of some lessons learned the hard way that are worth sharing.

Twenty-five years ago, I operated a fleet garage in Atlanta, Georgia. The garage was part of a large, downtown ministry that had an electronic security system monitored by an on-site, twenty-four-hour security staff. One zone of the system had been malfunctioning and, when it alarmed one night, the security staff by-passed it and ignored it. Thieves made off with thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and a dump-truck.

Lesson: A security system that isn’t in place and operating all the time isn’t a security system. It is a false sense of security.

Forty years ago, our automotive tech class was taking a break outside the shop, standing around, shooting the breeze when up walks another student with a pine branch about the size of a baseball bat in his hand. He starts yelling at a guy not five feet from me about a girl they were both pursuing. Quick as a flash he swung that branch and I saw my friend’s head changed shape under the blow. Just as fast my friend was down, and the attacker was gone.

Lesson: From our point of view, violence is random and incredibly fast. We never know when it is coming our way. People assume that Jesus’ only response to violence was passivity. That is inaccurate as well as inadequate. Jesus resisted hypocritical teaching of religious leaders, as well as their usurious exploitation of worshipers in the temple, with aggressive action (John 2:15). When soldiers asked how to practice righteousness he did not tell them to lay down their arms and resign their commissions (Luke 3:14). Before his departure he recognized the need for armed defense against violent evil by urging his men to provide themselves with swords (Luke 22:36). Violent evil will be with us till Christ returns so we must be prepared.

Three months ago, we hosted a family discipleship seminar. Our presenter, Dr. Kevin Jones, traveled four hours to be with us. A couple dozen people gathered to hear his talk and not half-way through we had to evacuate the building for a tornado warning.

Last week, to the complete shock of the congregation, one of our young praise band members fainted—in the middle of a song—on stage, requiring immediate first-aid. A husband & wife team of nurses immediately took charge and took care of him, but it took a while for the rest of us to regain our equilibrium.

Lesson: We need a plan and a designated team to handle such emergencies.

Thankfully, a group of dedicated church-members have volunteered to serve as our church’s Safety Team. They have been developing plans and policies for various situations to keep all of us as safe as possible during worship services and other events.

When the team is ready, they will lead us through a few emergency preparedness drills. Should an emergency occur our job as church members will be to stay out of their way as they move toward the crisis and follow any directions they may have for us.

Does your church have a safety team?

GROWING UP IN GOD’S UNIVERSITY

The interview was disturbing. The young woman I was counseling was in deep-dish trouble. Her relationships were dysfunctional, she was up to her armpits in debt, and most of her decisions were based on a daily reading of her horoscope.

But the most troubling thing is that she had grown up attending church. She was supposed to know how to manage life. But she didn’t. Her spiritual journey included a lot of lessons to help her feel good, but very few to help her live as a true follower of Christ. I should not have been surprised.

In 2005, University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith and colleague Melinda Lundquist Denton published The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, revealing that most teens adhered to a pseudo-religion Smith dubbed MTD, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Its tenets:

  • There is a God who created everything and watches over us.
  • That God wants people to be good as defined by most world religions.
  • The goal of life is happiness and feeling good about oneself.
  • We only need God when we have a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

In other words, the moral part is superseded by the therapeutic. Purity of heart, Christlike sacrifice for others, repentance, forgiveness and the pursuit of righteousness and the rule of God in life[1] aren’t in the picture. Feeling good trumps everything.

Smith’s follow-up research published in 2011 showed nothing had improved. Though 40 percent of young believers said their moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or other religious feeling, it is unlikely that those beliefs were biblically consistent. And 61 percent “had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism.”[2]

Those teens are grown up now and most of America follows MTD.

That isn’t the way Church is supposed to be. The Church should be God’s university on planet earth, a learning center for Biblical life lessons, a place where each member is constantly growing up into maturity in Christ.[3]

Healthy Churches equip believers to discern between wisdom and the world’s empty values.

Consider some examples: What do you think about climate change?  How about a nuclear-armed Iran? What about health care? College debt? How about the Virginia Tax Code? And what about education? Helping the poor? Sex-ed in schools?

Simple answers elude us. How should a serious Christian respond? Can the Bible help?

The Bible doesn’t always teach us what to think. But it can teach us how to think. That’s what it means to develop a Biblical Worldview. Christians truly educated in God’s university know how to ‘think Biblically’ on issues from Abortion to Zoning laws. In that sense, a healthy church produces better parents, better students, better leaders, better workers and better citizens because it produces better thinkers.

HOW GOD HEALS BROKEN HEARTS

HOW GOD HEALS BROKEN HEARTS

Humanity is broken and hurting. Hear some comments from hurting people:

I’m 48 years old and my wife has just filed for divorce. I never planned for this. I never thought I would be alone and have to start all over this late in life. On top of that it may bankrupt me.

I was still in rehab, just recovering from a gran mall seizure brought on by spinal meningitis that could have killed me, when we learned that our daughter, contrary to everything we had taught her, had just “come out” as gay. We read the letter and sat down in front of her old bedroom door and wept broken and bitter tears.

My first husband beat me. The man I’m married to now doesn’t love me. I am fourth or fifth on his priority list. I’m so lonely and unhappy that I’m flying to the other side of the country to find a job and a new life. My life is adrift.

We only want to know one thing when we’re hurting. We aren’t interested in the weather. We don’t care about the stock market. And we sure don’t care about politics. We only want to know how to be healed.

Psalm 147, the second in a set of five that make up the last songs in the book, is a song about healing.

Verse two gives us the context saying, “He gathers the exiles of Israel.” The Psalm was written to help the people of God worship after their return from exile in Babylon. It was good to go home, but still a time of great brokenness and sadness. Their cities and towns had been destroyed, their property given to foreigners. Their spiritual, civic, and economic infrastructure was like Houston after Hurricane Harvey: a shambles.

The psalm shows us that God heals in four ways: “The Lord builds up; The Lord gathers; The Lord heals; The Lord binds up their wounds.” (V. 2-3).

First, he rebuilds what was broken down—the walls in Israel’s case. He gives them the tools and resources and leadership (under Nehemiah) to make their city secure once again, to keep out invaders, to give them stability.

God rebuilds our walls too. Brokenhearted people are often violated people. When we are sexually abused as children; when parents lose children; when we’ve invested years and fortunes in a career and suddenly lose it, our walls are broken down. We feel violated, less secure.

The healer of broken hearts helps us rebuild our walls. He brings together the tools, and the resources, and the leadership we need to make our city secure again, to give us stability in a shaky world.

Second, God gathers what was scattered. In Israel’s case it was the people, scattered about the Babylonian empire. Bit by bit and tribe by tribe, they made the pilgrimage back to the land of promise. God opened doors for them to leave. Cyrus the king issued a decree making money available. Property was returned. Travel was protected.

How does God heal us? He gathers what was scattered. Brokenhearted people are often lonely people, disconnected from healthy relationships with others. God brings us together for strength and encouragement. The New Testament is full of references to this. (See Acts 2:44-46; 2 Thessalonians 1:3).

God heals us when he gathers us to his people. When we become part of the living body of Christ, the Church, we cease to be scattered. We become connected to others who dispel our loneliness and welcome us into their lives based on our common relationship with Christ.

A challenge: do you isolate yourself? If so you are missing the healing God has for you. You may not like it at first, but it’s what you need, and God has it for you in his Church.

Third, God heals the brokenhearted with the brokenhearted. He heals the addicted with the formerly addicted; the divorced with the previously divorced; the grieving with the grieved, the hope and purpose from those who’ve come through on the other side of brokenness.

But there is a catch to all of this. Or maybe it’s better to say that the path to the healing power of God is counter-intuitive.

We are tempted in our brokenness to turn away from God, even to run. That’s the worst thing we can do. When the storm blows the hardest it is time to lean into him. The Psalmist shows us how.

Embrace humility in the pain. “Sing to him with thanksgiving,” it says (V. 4-7). Praising God when we hurt is a humbling thing, completely counter-intuitive. But that’s where the healing comes from. Lean into that wind. That’s what drives the fear and insecurity away, leaning into him with worship and praise, not running.

Finally, “put your hope in him.” (V. 8-11). Remember what Jesus said to Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus had died? “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” “Look to me Mary, look to me Martha. Put your hope solely in me.” It’s counter-intuitive, but it works.

Many voices vie for our attention when we are brokenhearted, many people, many philosophies promise peace and healing. Only God can give us the order we need, the comprehensive understanding that leads to healing. Only God can give us himself.

REMOVING HISTORICAL GLOSS: Metaxas’ Enlightening Luther Biography

Johann Tetzel was being robbed. The Dominican friar and Grand Commissioner for indulgences in Germany was on his way from one very profitable preaching crusade to another when a German nobleman, one who had made a great point of asking whether all future sins could be forgiven if only the right indulgence was bought, cashed in on his prior purchase and relieved the preacher of his purse.

At least, that’s how the story goes.

Yesterday, October 31, 2017, was the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which, according to the 2000 edition of LOOK magazine was the second, behind the invention of the printing press which enabled it, greatest event in the last one thousand years. The story of Tetzel and the robber baron, which is probably mythical, is one of many that Eric Metaxas covers in his excellent work, MARTIN LUTHER: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.

Although I am only halfway through the book, listening to the audible version, I am totally sold on Metaxas’s ability to make a complicated story not only accessible and informative, but entertaining.

Mailed Not Nailed

For example, everyone knows that a theologian and monk named Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by posting 95 theses opposing the sale of indulgences on the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. (An indulgence supposedly draws on the merit of the good works of Christ and the saints to deliver a sinner from punishment on earth or in purgatory). But most do not know that Luther may or may not have personally nailed the document to the doors, the bulletin board of its day. It could have been a clerk that swung the hammer. What sets October 31st apart, according to Metaxas, is that is the day Luther mailed his theses to his presiding bishop, Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg, with a proposal to call a conference of theologians on the abusive sale of indulgences.

Gutenberg’s Internet

Metaxas also illuminates the fact that, in those early days of the printing press, Luther had no intention of igniting a revolution and no idea of the part he would play in it. He was simply a pastor / theologian and faithful Catholic trying to do his job and protect his parish from oppression and heresy. The 95 theses, written in Latin, would have been indecipherable to most Germans who passed the church doors. They were meant for a limited audience of theological scholars who would have had thoughtful discussions and sent their conclusions and recommendations off to higher authority for approval.

But the printing press was to the sixteenth century what the internet is today. Information transfer went from snail’s pace to light speed almost overnight. Further, with no copyright law in place, Luther could not prevent publishers from pushing his ideas far beyond the boundaries of Wittenberg and Mainz. He was soon embroiled in a battle that he had not planned and could not have anticipated. (He also never made a dime from his writings). Ultimately, Luther saw this series of unfortunate events as providential and embraced his calling as a reformer. But Metaxas removes the gloss of history and helps us see that Luther, like many of us, was a man of his times driven as much by circumstance as by conviction to take up the work which God had prepared in advance for him to do.

I’ve only brushed the surface of Metaxas’s latest, but I hope you will read it. It will give any Christian a greater comprehension of the treasures of grace we possess, the place in history we occupy, and perhaps help us see our calling as well as Luther saw his.

PRODUCING BETTER THINKERS

The discussion had been disturbing. The young woman I was counseling was in deep-dish trouble. Her relationships were dysfunctional, she was up to her armpits in debt, and most of her decisions were based on a daily reading of her horoscope.

But the most disturbing thing was that she had grown up attending church. She was supposed to know how to manage life, but she didn’t. Her spiritual journey included a lot of lessons to help her feel good, but very few to help her be good.

That isn’t the way Church is supposed to be.

The Apostle Paul said that in the Church we are to “in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph 4:15). We have the Scriptures for, as he told Timothy, “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

The church is supposed to be God’s university on planet earth, a learning center for Biblical life lessons, a place where each member is constantly growing up into maturity in Christ.

A healthy church is a place where the Christian’s life foundations are laid, where we learn how the Bible applies to everyday life. Healthy churches equip believers to discern between wisdom and the world’s empty values.

Consider some issues believers should be able to think through and come to soundly biblical conclusions: How best to manage our finances? How are we to think about gun violence? What is the best way to help Puerto Rico recover? Should we stay in NAFTA? How about student loan debt? How should we lower the burden on college students? How can we discern between so-called fake news and the real thing?

The list of things we need to know how to think about is endless and simple answers elude us. How should serious-minded believers respond? Can the Bible help?

The Bible doesn’t always teach us what to think. But it can teach us how to think biblically on issues from Abortion to Zoning laws. That’s what it means to develop a biblical worldview. Healthy Christians develop a biblical worldview in God’s university, the local church, becoming in the process better parents, better students, better leaders, better workers, and better citizens.

I’m so grateful for the dedicated Sunday School teachers and small group leaders our church has benefited from over the years! The list is long, but each one has helped us “grow up in all things into Christ,” to think biblically about our world.

And what about you? Do you have the ability to teach? Have you ever tried? Could you take a rotation in Children’s Church, or as a small group Bible study, or Sunday School teacher?

Just like the young woman in my office that day, the church needs good teachers on all levels now more than ever. Ask God if he is calling you to lay the foundation for someone else’s future.

JESUS’S UN-AMERICAN DREAM

Michael Jordan, principal owner and chairman of the Charlotte Hornets and one of the greatest professional basketball players ever, retired from the court in 2003 as one of the game’s wealthiest contestants.

The owner of the Chicago Bulls, Jerry Reinsdorf, for whom Jordan played most of his career, remarked at the time, “He’s living the American Dream. The American Dream is to reach a point in your life where you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do and can do everything that you do want to do.”

I do this. So do you. We like to set up our lives so that we don’t have to get involved with the world’s problems if we don’t want to. We can’t do it on the scale of a wealthy person like Jordan. But we do it in other ways. And when we do we leave Jesus’s decidedly Un-American dream for us out of the equation.

What is Jesus’s Un-American dream?

You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavor, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a lamp and place it under a bushel, but on the lamp stand; and so it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matthew 15:13-14).

All of us are aware of the increasing darkness of western culture. We see corruption, rampant immorality, the porn epidemic, the growth of the so-called euthanasia movement, the redefinition not only of marriage but of what it means to be male and female even in kindergarten, and the increasing assaults on religious freedom.

We see it and far too many of us react in fear and withdrawal, happy to cast blame on “them,” “the culture,” or “the world,” but unable to see the Lord’s Un-American calling on ourselves.

The late Anglican cleric John R.W. Stott made a pertinent observation about this.

“If the house is dark at night, there is no sense in blaming the house. That’s what happens when the sun goes down. The question to ask is, “Where is the light?”

“If meat goes bad, there is no sense in blaming the meat. That is what happens when the bacteria are allowed to breed unchecked. The question to ask is, “Where is the salt?”

“If society becomes corrupt like a dark night or stinking fish, there’s no sense in blaming society. That’s what happens when fallen human society is left to itself and human evil is unrestrained and unchecked. The question to ask is “Where is the church?”

God leaves his people – us – here for a reason. He could have said, “Come out, be separate, start a holy commune, create your own economy, your own schools, your own record companies, your own TV shows. Isolate yourselves in suspicious fear of all that is in the world.  Hide out in the holy ghetto until I come and get you!”

But that isn’t what he said. He said, “Stay there! Stay in the world! Keep it from rotting. Guide it toward that which is good!”

We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. That’s Jesus’s Un-American dream for us.

STAYING PUT: Lessons from Long-Term Ministry

“Thank you,” seems inadequate for all of the honors I received from Faith Community Church  last Sunday. The church took the morning to celebrate my twentieth anniversary as its pastor, taking me by surprise in the process.

Some themes stood out in the comments, and others came to mind later, which might prove helpful to you someday. Call them Leadership Lessons from Long -Term Ministry, but many will apply even if you are not a preacher.

Preach the Word. Expository preaching, interpreting and explaining a passage of scripture in its historical, grammatical, literary, cultural, and biblical context, demonstrating how it applies to the listener and points them to Christ, is key to the vitality of any church or believer. It is a time-consuming endeavor that preachers either have to fight for against other demands, or are gifted with by a congregation. FCC made the decision long before I arrived to give its pastor, and by proxy itself, that gift. All of us benefit from it. Find a church that values this and you will usually find a healthy church.

Decide to stay. If you want to have a deep impact on a community you have to commit to the long term. Randy Pope, Eugene Peterson, Rick Warren, and many others advocated for this in their writings as I was preparing for ministry, and I believed them then. But now I’ve seen the generational effects of hoeing one row for two decades and the fruit is sweet. Warning: You cannot do long-term work without short-term rests. Build Sabbath into your lifestyle and vacations into your years.

Speak hard truth with soft words. Speak with grace and gospel faithfulness to the difficult cultural trends of the day and do not flinch. It will force you to examine yourself, be fair to others, and rely more on Christ. It will also stiffen the spines of your listeners.

Be with people one-on-one. Love them for who they are, where they are, as they are. Grieve with them, celebrate with them, honor them, and respect them. They will do the same for you.

Make sure you have a Paul, a Barnabas, and a Timothy; a mentor, a brother, and a disciple, or trainee into whom you can pour your life. They will coach you when you are clueless, strengthen you when you are weak, and challenge you to keep growing.

Believe in people and don’t micro-manage them. Find good people, give them the goal and the support they need, and then get out of their way. Look for and expect their best, and they will usually give it to you. Related: recruit people to your team who are strong where you are weak. I learned long ago that I was too emotional and empathetic for my own good. That’s one reason I try to surround myself what I call “concrete rational” personality types who can help me stay grounded in biblical objectivity.

Pray more than you politic. Consensus building and deal-making have their place in life. But no amount of politicking can accomplish what prayer can do.

Plan ahead and then give your plans to God.  Every leader needs to be at least five months, and preferably five years, ahead of his organization. But as in war, so in ministry, no plan survives combat. Keep the goal clearly in mind, pay attention to the dynamics of the situation, listen to His Spirit and be flexible with the details.

Offend early and often. I’m a recovering co-dependent people-pleaser. It took years to realize that people come into churches and other organizations with all kinds of expectations of the leadership, some conscious, some not; some reasonable, some silly, and some outrageous. Trying to keep them all happy was suicidal. I learned to make sure they knew what to expect, and what not to expect, as soon as possible. It felt offensive to my empathetic soul to do this, to disappoint some people up front, and anger others. Thus the motto, but the proof — the stability and harmony generated by uniform expectations — has indeed been in the pudding. FCC’s Handbook has been a great tool for this. If your organization doesn’t have a handbook, you should write one, and then require everyone to read it.

Finally, hold everything loosely. Any entity you lead is a stewardship from God, including your family. It doesn’t belong to you and he can take it from you whenever it suits his purposes. Live with gratitude and open, up-raised palms.

Phil 1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. [1]

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Php 1:3–6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.