Wednesday, January 25, 2023

How do we defend Christian truth in today's culture?

 I believe the title of this post is one of the most critical questions we can ask today. In a postmodern society the idea of absolute truth is rejected. The only absolute truth that is acceptable is that there is no absolute truth! Paul Gould addresses this problem in his excellent book Cultural Apologetics. He first defines the problem by writing

"Today, religious claims generally and Christian claims specifically are viewed as subjective claims. The truth claims of Christianity are not understood as claims pointing to an objective, mind-independent reality. Rather they are viewed as private, subjective beliefs held by a few faithful individuals. As subjective beliefs, these claims are viewed as irrelevant to the so-called public marketplace of ideas. Christianity is marginalized and ignored since the claims Christians make are treated as personal preference, not as something publicly testable, and not as claims that can compete for the mantle of 'public truth,'"

Tony Dungy is one of the kindest, gentlest Christian men you will ever meet. He has come under tremendous criticism because he dared tweet that he and his wife would be attending a Right-to-Life rally. To the postmodern individual this was unacceptable. They alone know the truth, and the only truth acceptable to the "woke" generation is that abortion should be available to all persons. 

The same things happens when one makes the claim that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. This is not acceptable in our pluralistic society that insists that all religions pray to the same God and that, if heaven even exists, that all persons will  go to "a better place" when they die. Anyone who studies world religions even briefly will note that all religions are not the same and that all gods are not the same. Jesus said He was the only way to God. This is a tough claim to make to today's culture, but it is one as Christians we must make. All roads may lead to Rome, but all religions do not lead to salvation.

We could address many other areas in which our modern culture has deviated from clear Christian teaching. The problem is that, while we may understand there is a problem, few churches are willing to address it. One reason we do not address the differences between Christian teaching and today's postmodern mindset may be fear of upsetting people. Another reason we do not is because we are not sure we know how to relate the Gospel to the various aspects of contemporary life.

I have found this book very helpful in that regard. Gould gives us direction that we as ministers can use to speak to the issues that divided the church and our culture. He writes, "The cultural apologist should help seekers overcome...barriers so that the seekers can genuinely consider the question of Jesus as an attractive possibility....What we cannot do, however, is to ignore them if we want others to see and understand Jesus as their only hope and greatest need."

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Pastoral leadership for the smaller church

For the past 2+ years I have had the privilege of serving as the Transitional Pastor of a great church I dearly love. I explained when I went there that it was likely that I would be there for 1 1/2 - 2 years, and my time there has exceeded that estimate. As a former denominational minister who worked with dozens of pastor search teams I knew how difficult it is for smaller churches to find pastors. We have prayed much for this search team to find the person God has prepared for the position. I applaud the search team for their dedication and hard work. They have had to overcome more than one disappointment, but they have done so trusting God to lead them to the right individual.

During this process I have seen numerous other smaller churches struggle to find pastors. Some have been looking even longer that I have served in my present position. Some wonder what is wrong with them that no one is interested in serving there. One of the dangers is that they will lower their expectations and simply take the first person who shows an interest in being their pastor. That often turns out to be a big mistake.

I've addressed the reasons in previous posts about why it's so difficult for smaller churches to find pastors and will not repeat those reasons here. Many of those reasons are related to the candidates themselves. Sometimes the reasons have more to do with the church and its expectations.

When I still worked as a Regional Minister many smaller churches still believed they needed a full-time pastor even though their church had been in decline for some time. The hope was that with a full-time pastor they could return to their former glory years. I'm afraid for many that is a false hope. I recently spoke to a member of a church of a different denomination than mine who told me their current pastor recently announced his upcoming retirement. This person told me since Covid the church is down to about 20 people attending on a regular basis, none younger than retirement age. Because of endowments and the generous giving of former members the church has a large bank account. Although he didn't say anything, that combination historically has meant that the church would seek a fully-funded pastor believing that person would rebuild their church to its former glory. These churches fail to realize that they would be better served by a bivocational minister making more money available to reach out into the community that would allow them to minister to that community and grow the church.

Of course, this brings us to another issue. Just as there are not many fully-funded pastors willing to serve smaller churches; there are not many bivocational ministers available either. Now, this is just a guess as I do not have any actual data, but I bet there are at least 20 smaller churches who need a bivocational pastor within a 50 mile radius of me and cannot find one. Now, what is wrong with this picture?

Has God messed up and not prepared people for the needs of His church, or has God's people not recognized that He has been calling them to such ministry? Personally, I am not going to blame God. I believe there are many God has called to the ministry who are afraid to step out and commit themselves to that work. They are afraid of the commitment that would be required. They are reluctant to commit to the education they would need. (BTW - You do not need a seminary degree to serve as a bivocational pastor!) What you do need is to recognize that God has His hand on you and is calling you to serve Him in this role.

I cannot call anyone to the ministry and would not try. Only God can call someone to serve as a pastor. At the same time, I can challenge you to pray about what you may have felt for some time that might be a calling to such a ministry, and I can make myself available to you if you want to talk about it. Churches need pastoral leadership. If you think God might be calling you to that role, it's time to talk to someone.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

A life well lived

I read yesterday where Jack Hayford passed away. I never met the man, but he was one I admired from afar. He wrote over 50 books and more than 600 hymns and choruses. His song Majesty is sung in many churches each week. He was the founding pastor of The Church on the Way where he served as senior pastor for more than 30 years. He also founded The Kings University where he served as chancellor and was active with Promise Keepers. For five years he served as President of The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

I heard him speak in interviews and on tape a number of times and was always impressed by his gentle spirit. He was a man called of God who recognized that calling and sought to live in that calling to the best of his ability.

One of the things that impressed me so much about Jack Hayford was his approach to ministry and to life. He was never flamboyant or excessive in his approach to either. The various positions he held could have made him arrogant, a problem some mega-church pastors and denominational leaders seem unable to avoid. I always felt I could sit down with Jack Hayford and talk about anything and be heard and come away with practical advice that addressed my questions.

Hayford is now in eternity with the One he worshiped so well. No doubt he has heard the wonderful words we all seek to hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant...." He truly lived life well.

We could do worse than follow the example Jack Hayford set before us. He was a pastor to thousands, a founder of an important university, a writer, a song writer, and yet I believe if you asked him he would respond that he was simply doing what God called him to do. Far more than his successes, he was faithful to the work God set before him. This should be the goal of all of us called into ministry.

One of the things I find most attractive in Christian leaders is faithfulness. I own a print of George Younce and Glenn Payne, founding members of The Cathedrals, that is on the wall in front of my desk. Their faithfulness in carrying out God's call on their lives has always been an inspiration to me. I see that picture numerous times a day when I working in my study to encourage me to that same faithfulness. Jack Hayford inspires the same desire to be faithful to God's call on my life. I care not about the world's acclaim. I only want to hear God's affirmation of my life and ministry when I stand before Him. I encourage you to seek the same.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Christian Websites and Pop-Up Ads

 It might be early in the year for a rant, but here it comes anyway. I was doing research on a topic on several Christian websites and struggled to do anything for all the pop-up ads that  kept appearing on my screen. Some of them blocked half the page so I couldn't read anything until I did something with the pop-up, and in some cases there wasn't even an option to delete it. I just had to go off the page without reading the article.

I understand the need to monetize a site, but it was ridiculous at the number of pop-up ads on these sites. I tried to visualize a non-Christian trying to learn more about Christianity running into this problem. Such a person would come to the conclusion that the site wasn't nearly as interested in providing information as it was in getting their money. That mindset already exists in the thinking of many non-Christians (and some Christians as well).

Along with the commercial pop-ups there were also those offering a free resource, again with no way to delete the pop-up. Those "free" resources requires your email address which will lead to your inbox being filled with more offers. No thanks.

Very seldom do I research a topic on secular sites and have to deal with unwanted pop-ups. They may have offers for consideration, but they are not usually preventing anyone from reading the article.

Some of my Christian friends need to re-consider their use of pop-up ads. It really does not project a very good image.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Preparing for 2023

Sunday will be the first day of a new year. Are you ready to lead your church in 2023? If you are one of the pastors who are still waiting for things to return to normal after Covid you are not ready to lead your church into the new year.  That normal no longer exists nor will it return. Much of what you learned in seminary for how to lead a church is now outdated and will do you little good. Leaders have to find a new normal because pre-covid days will not return to the church.

Thom Rainer wrote a very helpful little book in 2020 called The Post-Quarantine Church that should be required reading for all church leaders. At 111 pages it easily readable in a day or two, but I encourage you to spend more time than that with this book. As I read it I felt like the author clearly understood the changes Covid has brought to the church. In this post let me address just one chapter in the book, the one on doing ministry in a digital world.

Most smaller churches never considered putting their services online prior to the Covid quarantine. Suddenly, many of those churches began exploring how to stream their services on social media or on hastily developed web pages. Overnight many pastors became tele-evangelists! Rainer's organization estimates that more than 100,000 churches that never had an internet presence developed one during the pandemic. The church I now serve as Transitional Pastor would be included in that number. Churches had to learn a lot to begin streaming their services, and many of continue to learn how to improve that internet presence. 

Many churches probably assumed that once the quarantine was behind us we could forget streaming our services. Surprise! Many in our congregation never returned to live worship services but continue to faithfully watch our online services. While we may have once considered our digital ministry to be an emergency stopgap it is now being seen as an important part of our ministry. In fact, it is more than that. Rainer writes in this book, "As we move into the post-quarantine church era, the challenge is how best to reach people and serve them on the digital mission field." Beside that statement I wrote in the margin, "The digital world is a new mission field for the church."

The author suggests that churches realize that we are now dealing with three different groups. One is digital only, one is digitally transitioning, and the third is dual citizens. In addition, we continue to have those members who physically attend the worship services of our churches. If you are only focusing on those physically present each Sunday you are missing out on ministering to an important group of people.

As you prepare to lead your church into 2023 make sure you are considering all the groups Rainer has identified in this book. If you ignore the digital opportunities you now have you will miss an important group of individuals God has given you.

If you have not yet read this book you need to do so. You can order it through Amazon by clicking on the title above. Yes, I will receive a small payment if you do that, but if that bothers you let me know and I'll send you a check for those pennies I'll receive from Amazon. Have a great New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2022

2022 Reading List

 For the first time in my adult life this year I read more fiction books than non-fiction. The non-fiction books were all Star Wars related so I must admit to being a Star Wars nerd. They make good reading when one is standing in line at Wal-Mart, waiting for a meal to be served in a restaurant or while watching a ball game on TV. Fortunately, I did manage to read some other good books in 2022 and want to share the top six books that I read this year.

#6 - A Non-Anxious Presence by Mark Sayers. We live in a very chaotic world, and the church finds itself in the midst of that chaos. Few church leaders would question that the church is going through a transition time as we seem to be passing from one church era into another one. The author refers to this period as a gray zone, and it is in this gray zone that we must minister. None of us knows what the church will be like as it emerges from the gray zone, and this uncertainty makes many of us, pastors and lay people alike, nervous and concerned. One of the challenges of pastoral leadership to to lead in these gray zones. I found this book a very good guide for how to do that. The author also encourages us by writing, "gray zones are preciously the kinds of places that God seeds with renewal and rebirth." Believing that as I do makes it much easier to provide pastoral leadership during these uncertain times.

#5 - Intentional Churches by Bart Rendel and Doug Parks. One word that has been very meaningful to me in recent years is intentionality. I have grown weary of churches thinking they can continue to do what they've always done and somehow things will magically begin to improve. I feel the same way about individuals who drift through life never understanding why their lives do not improve. As the authors point out, intentional churches understand the vision God has for their church and take the steps to achieve that vision. Moving forward with purpose is always better than drifting with no sense of direction. They also point out that intentional churches needs intentional leaders. This includes both pastoral and lay leaders, and until these are intentional in their ministry approach, the church never will be.

#4 - Forward by David Jeremiah. I admit I am late to the David Jeremiah party. I've been watching his ministry on TV for the past few months and this is his first book I've read. I love his biblical approach to real life. Jeremiah points out that our best lives are ahead of us. That is especially encouraging to someone 74 years old, but it is one I readily accept! This is not only true of individuals; it is true of churches. I really loved this book.

#3 - Determined to Believe by John C. Lennox. One reason I read fewer non-fiction books this year is that I read more non-fiction books that took longer to read! This is one of those books. Not only was it 356 pages long, it was rich and deep requiring a lot of concentration on my part. Much of the church world is being challenged by the Calvinist-Arminian debate. I've read enough from both sides to know their proof-texts. Lennox moves beyond these to address the important issues regarding fatalism and freedom. Serious readers wanting to better understand this disagreement will want to study this book.

#2 - Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. This is a reread of a book I read a couple of years ago. I was so impressed with it that I felt it important to read it again. He compares Christian leadership today to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Their purpose was to find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean, a trade route everyone knew was there. Imagine their surprise when they reaching the Rocky Mountains and found their canoes would not take them where they needed to go! Does this sound like the challenge facing today's church? What has got us here will not take us where we need to go. Lewis and Clark had to ditch their canoes and find new ways to continue their journey. So must the church. I love this book.

#1 - Historical Theology by Gregg R. Allison. I'll start the review by stating the book is 733 pages not counting the index and glossary of words. This was slow reading for me, but I'll admit I'm not the sharpest crayon in the box. Maybe you'll read it in a couple of days, but I doubt it. Allison follows the bestselling book Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem. He traces the various components of Christian doctrine according to a topical-chronological arrangement. There are a lot of footnotes! The book leans towards a Calvinist approach to many of the doctrines, but not enough that is will be troubling to those who do not hold to that approach. No doubt this is a book that will be used in many seminaries as a text book, but it is accessible to most readers who will take the time to study it. It is well worth that time.

One of these days I've got to start cleaning out my library, but I don't have time right now. I've got more books coming in this week.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Christmas travel

 We left Monday morning to visit our son and his family in Austin, Texas. As always, we had a great time. While having a wonderful lunch of barbequed brisket, as you can only get in Texas, I got a notice that our flight for Thursday morning had been canceled. With the weather storm approaching I wasn't entirely surprised but was hopeful that the timing of our flights would keep us ahead of the storms. My son helped me schedule another flight for Friday morning, but he was certain that flight would also be canceled. He began to search for another flight on a different airline.

We found American Airlines had flights that would return us to Louisville, KY where our car was parked at the airport so we quickly booked it. We had little time to rush to the airport to catch the plane but managed to make it. Unfortunately, although we had booked seats together, when we printed our boarding passes my wife and I were on opposite ends of the plane. We flew into Charlotte and had about 10 minutes before our next plane began boarding. Although it was only a 50 minute flight from Charlotte to Louisville, there as a medical emergency on the plane. Fortunately, there were medical people traveling and they were able to attend to the emergency. We finally made it home about 2:00 AM.

Obviously, the back-up flight I had booked would have been canceled, and we likely would have been stuck in Austin until probably Monday at least before we could have found a flight out. Or, as we are now seeing on the news, it might have been much later. Our original flight was on Southwest, and we now know they are having serious problems. As much as we disliked missing out on one more evening with our son we made the smart move to catch a flight out ahead of the storm. Thousands of people are now stranded in airports and unlikely to be home for Christmas.

Southwest has given us refunds for the canceled flight and the one we canceled. Our next two trips to Austin are now paid for. American Airlines was wonderful in accommodating us and the other passengers on the flights we took with them. I know airlines get a lot of criticism, but I have to congratulate them based on our experience this week.

My wife and I were home for Christmas. Due to the road conditions our daughter and her family were not able to be here for Christmas, but everyone is safe. We want to thank God for providing us with a flight out ahead of the winter storm, and we want to pray for those who are stuck in airports and bus terminals unable to get home. We ask that you pray as well for those who need shelter in this horrific winter storm.