Jun 28, 2010

A Toy Story

After my last couple trouble making posts, I am back to my bright and cheery posts.  I'm sure all three of you still reading this will be delighted.  This past Friday, the Staples Family Five went to enjoy Pixar's latest masterpiece, Toy Story 3.  As you probably expect, it was phenomenal.  I am continually baffled as to how one movie production company can be so consistently on the top of their game.  Eleven movies.  Eleven home runs.  And I'm not talking eleven home runs that barely squeaked over the short wall in the right field corner.  Or even an inside the ball park home run that only happened because the center fielder misplayed it.  I am talking about eleven booming shots.  Two of them went to dead center, about twenty rows up.  Four of them were upper deckers that hit some drunk guy in the face.  Two of them landed out in the street.  And three smashed the lights, causing a shower of sparks and an awesome chill-inducing ending.  (If you want to read what my ranking is, here's a post I wrote around Oscar time.)

Where does Toy Story 3 rank?  I will have to watch it again to decide for sure.  But it is certainly one of those three light cluster destroyers.  It is up there with Up and WALL-E as the best Pixar movies ever.  And it had better get one of those ten Best Pictures slots.  I am still constantly amazed at the geniuses at that establishment.  The work they put into these things.  Even when they are putting out sequels, they still give each of them the same treatment as the originals.  Think about most third movies in a trilogy.  How many times can you say the third movie was the BEST movie?  (Honestly, I don't know if I can even think of one instance of that.)  Some would say Lord of the Rings, since the third one won all the Oscars.  But the second movie was the best one.  The Academy was rewarding the series with all those wins.

I'm not going to lie - I cried like a little girl.  It wasn't even just one scene, either.  These characters have so much emotional depth.  Their friendship and love is so intense.  I found myself hurting for them.  They were toys, for Pete's sake.  But I ached for them as they tried to deal with the fact that they just were not wanted (or appeared to be).  I actually thought about the toybox that I toted around for years as I moved.  It was filled with stuffed Garfields and vinyl California Raisins figurines and action figures.  And tons of rabbit toys from when I was Natalie's age.  I held on to them for years - not wanting to say goodbye to that part of my life.  I also held onto them thinking my kids would want them for some reason.  (Although, knowing my kids now, they would hardly be interested in most of that junk.)  So eventually most of that found its way into a garbage can or a donation box.  I could imagine the Dallas Cowboys action figure wondering what he did wrong.  Then I jerked myself to reality by saying, "Stupid.  They are just toys.  They can't feel anything."

But that was where the scenes between Andy and his mom got me.  That was where the tears started and didn't stop.  Because that is real.  Kids grow up.  They stop playing with their little toys and start using computers and iPods.  As I watched Andy using his laptop and Mollie listening to her iPod, I could see my kids in that.  I can already hardly believe Josiah is turning nine in less that three months.  Natalie starts FIRST GRADE.  My little baby girl is in FIRST GRADE?!?  Gabe is so tiny that it seems his babyhood has lasted longer.  But then we go through Publix and he is counting and saying the letters.  And I know his turn is just around the corner.  Before long, I'll be the parent getting my kid ready to go to college.  And that thought just kills me.  It is too soon.  I'm not ready for that.  Josiah will be driving in six years.  Gabe is old enough to go to preschool.  Natalie is doing cartwheels and handstands like a big girl.

So many times in my mind, I still see myself as a younger person.  It is like my brain got stuck at 25.  Since I have worked with students for so long, it is easy to still think young.  But when the reality really sets in, it is scary.  I'm 36.  The kids I taught last year at ICS were born after I graduated from high school.  They literally are young enough to be my kids.  And my kids are growing up - even if I don't want them to.  We already have seen Josiah outgrow Planet Heroes and Larry Boy.  Natalie thinks Strawberry Shortcake is for babies.  And Gabe has moved past Max and Ruby to Wow Wow Wubzy and Diego.  He actually sat through Toy Story 3 and points out the characters now.

That is what left me in tears at the end of the movie.  The thought of my kids one day packing up boxes and moving off to school.  Josiah one day will put the Puppy World dogs into a box and stuff them in the attic - or send them to Goodwill.  Natalie won't want her Build a Bear unicorn or her Love Bear or mermaid.  Gabe won't build trains of cars around the room.  They won't run across the room to give me a hug.  They won't bring me books and say, "Wead it!"  They won't squeal and race to the door when Heather gets home yelling, "MOMMA! MOMMA! MOMMA!"  People will think they are silly to hold onto those special toys.  And, I guess, as a parent we worry they will outgrow us too.  They won't cry at the thought that I am going out of town to teach at a seminar.  They won't think we are cool to hang around.  They won't grab my hand in a store, just because they love me.

The Toy Story franchise has never been just about toys.  The first movie presented such an interesting concept.  What do toys do when we aren't around?  But it blossomed into much more than that.  It was about loyalty and friendship and accepting change.  The second movie delved into the concepts of realizing our purpose.  We need to do what we were put here to do - even if it means sacrifice.  The third movie dealt with so much - friendship, loyalty, love, death, power, vengeance, rejection.  But most of all it was about letting go  - even when we desperately want to hold on.  We so badly want to fight the passage of time.  We are dragged kicking and screaming into the future.  People have developed so many efforts to delay it - plastic surgery, mid life crises, immaturity.  But our kids won't stop growing.  And, as parents, we should want our kids to reach their potential and change their world - something they can't do unless they go out on their own.  But, man it is hard.

The fact that an animated movie about toys is able to teach that is amazing.  As a life lesson, Toy Story 3 was great.  As a film, it was incredible.  It wrapped up both the toy story line AND the Andy story line perfectly.  It was gorgeously made.  It had real emotion - both happiness and sadness.  It really was a masterpiece.  And it was something that I was able to share with my kids.  We all were excited about the movie, enjoyed it, and had a great memory because of it.  They just couldn't understand my tears.  Not yet.

Jun 16, 2010

What's Wrong with the Southern Baptist Convention?

This very long post is about the Southern Baptist Convention.  I'm just letting you know that it may be boring to you if that is not a topic you care about.  And it may offend you if it is a topic you care about.  Warning over.

The Southern Baptist Convention is holding its annual meeting in Orlando this week.  The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the country (over 16 million members and 42,000 churches), so their annual meeting is a pretty big deal.  It usually generates national news.  Unfortunately it is often because of some "controversial" resolution that is being passed (boycott of Disney, position on gender roles).  This year, though, there is also an internal exploration of what exactly is going wrong with the SBC.  There was a Task Force formed a while back to explore this very issue.  Why, for the first time in their 165 year history are they decreasing in membership?

To explain my interest in this issue, I will offer a brief personal history.  I was saved at age four.  My mom had come to Christ two years earlier.  However, my father did not become a Christian for another seventeen years.  Our house was filled with turmoil - especially over the issue of church.  We went through several stretches where my father did not allow us to go to church.  (Even though he sent us toa Christian school.)  So we didn't associate with a denomination, since we had to church hop for much of my younger years.  We called ourselves "Christians," not Baptist or Methodists or whatever.  We attended Palm Beach Bible Fellowship and Palm Bible Chapel and some church with Faith in the name.  We briefly went to First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, but didn't latch on there.

In fourth grade, we started attending Forest Hill Christian Missionary Alliance.  That was our first real affiliation with a denominational church.  We never joined, since my mom didn't like membership and my dad didn't want us to.  In seventh and eighth grade, we switched to FBC WPB again.  Jack Graham was pastor (future President of the SBC).  It was a much bigger church and offered more opportunities for us as kids - youth camp, VBS, youth choir.  But we went back to the CMA church until I was a junior in high school.  That is when we went back to FBC WPB.  Keith Thomas was pastor at that point (future big shot of the SBC).  It was at this point that I basically aligned with the SBC.  I felt that the denomination's doctrine was the closest to the Bible.  And I knew that, for the most part, attending a SBC church was going to be a safe choice.  After all, I was moving to Orlando after high school and would need to find a place.

This was also when I was fighting my call to the ministry.  It wasn't an open rebellion.  I just was pushing it down and pursuing teaching.  When I moved, I attending FBC Orlando (Jim Henry pastor - future President of the SBC).  It was just too big.  After attending there for three months, I was asked in Sunday School if it was my first time by one of the leaders I had talked to several times before.  In my mind I said, "No, but it is my last."  I tried some other places, but finally ended up at FBC Oviedo.  (Dwayne Mercer pastor - future President of the Florida Baptist Convention)  That was where I stayed, joined, and accepted my call into the ministry.  After graduation, I went to FBC Temple Terrace near Tampa.  (Rick Edmonds pastor)  It was my first church ministry job.  I also worked at the BCM on campus at USF (Eddie Gilley director).  That was my first experience with "The Convention" - since I had to report to the Florida Baptist Convention and the North American Mission Board for my job reports.  I was licensed and ordained at FBC TT.

Since then, I have almost always attended SBC churches (except for a few months in 2006 and this year).  We went to FBC Orange Park while we lived in Jacksonville.  I worked on staff at FBC Oviedo for over four years.  Then I was on staff at Waypoint Church (an SBC church plant) for two years.  And we tried to find a SBC church in Tallahassee.  After about nine months of frustration, we finally started attending Grace Church of Tallahassee.  Technically it is non-denominational, but the ministers all went to Southern Baptist Seminary and the church is loosely connected to the Grace Church movement started by John MacArthur.  All of that is to say that I am not an SBC hater.  I am an SBC minister.  I have attended SBC churches for almost twenty years.  I have been under the leadership of some very high ranking SBC pastors.  I attended an SBC seminary (did not finish due to life's curveballs).  And I have worked with the SBC as a minister, support staff, convention employee, speaker at SBC events.  I love the SBC.  I want that understood so that no one for a moment believes that I am just taking aim at an easy target.

The SBC is indeed in trouble and there are many reasons.  Some will get worse as the world continues to move further away from God.  Some could be fixed by the SBC if they were willing to try.  And I do admire the convention for actually addressing this.  They could have just kept their head buried in the sand, ignoring the reality.  I don't necessarily feel like the way they have addressed it was the best way.  But it was an effort.  I hope that they can get some answers.  No matter what you personally think of the SBC, the world would be a worse place without it.  The ministries they perform - from Disaster Relief to foreign missions to curriculum production - have a massive impact on our world.  I am a very small fish in this ocean.  But I have had lots of opportunities to observe the SBC from many perspectives.  And, honestly, I have nothing to lose by writing this.  At this point, I'm a stay at home dad with a non-profit ministry.  What can the SBC do to me?  They can not hire me?  That's been the case for years.  Basically, I can write what many of my fellow ministers want to.  I hope that it can be helpful to someone.

I put this issue first because I think it is the most glaring issue - which actually spills over into the other issues on this list.  I wrote about the problem with Christian celebrity in this posting.  It has become the way of life in modern American Christianity.  And the SBC is perhaps the most guilty of this habit.  There is a general mindset that pastors of large churches are worth more than the pastors of smaller churches.  If they are growing that much, they must be doing something right.  As a result, a minister of a large church become someone that the other churches try to emulate.  They get invited to speak at convention events.  They are the guest speaker at special church events.  They get the book deals from Lifeway (the SBC publishing arm).  They have their own disciples.  People who work for them get hired just because of their connection.  And, as they become bigger and bigger, they become more of a CEO and become more distant to their church.  At a typical mega-church in the SBC, the pastor's only interaction with his membership is from the pulpit - unless he decides to do a walkthrough at some event for the church.  Taking it one step further, the pastor may not even interact with his own STAFF - leaving that to an executive pastor.  Pastors who are not at this level yet set aim for this.  They want to work their way up the ladder.  So they hop to larger and larger churches.  They have their churches create television programs and books to highlight their sermon series - hoping to be noticed by the higher ups.  They dress like the big shots.  They quote the big shots.  They want to become a big shot.  It is a vicious cycle.

The people who are identified as the major power brokers have a massive amount of pull in the convention.  They can dictate the direction of things.  They can make a younger minister's career - or utterly destroy it.  And they become fiercely protective of their ground.  They never make a mistake.  Staff turnover is high, since the blame is always being placed on underlings.  Staff burnout is also through the roof, since the junior ministers are expected to work insane hours.  They have to be at every event, even if the senior pastor doesn't.  The same goes for musicians, music minister, even youth pastors.  There is a hierarchy.  Ministers with large attendance, big budgets, huge facilities are put on a pedestal.  That is why I even put the names of the pastors in my history.  Those names are recognized and looked up to.  People would kill to be able to put Graham, Thomas, Henry, Mercer on their resume. Those names open doors.

This is a huge problem.  And it isn't a new one.  We see this in the New Testament.  Paul had to fight this mindset when he encountered people who would say they were disciples of different teachers.  Paul said that we should be disciples of Christ.  Today, more weight is put on the pastor's name than on his life or teaching.  Reputation is more important than reality.  And Christ gets shuffled to the back of the deck.  The fact of the matter is that a huge percentage of these men that are being lifted up are not loving, not merciful, not caring, not kind.  They don't look out for others.  They don't exhibit the fruits of the Spirit.  They are impatient, selfish, egomaniacal, driven, arrogant, judgmental.  They preach good.  They have a good reputation.  But, they are human and this mindset actually makes their human flaws worse.  No person should have that much attention and importance.  People are not strong enough to handle it.  And a denomination that keeps looking to the celebrities to lead it is going to lose its way.

I would rank this as the second biggest problem in the SBC.  So much energy is spent fighting over issues that, truthfully, do not make an eternal difference.  I remember the huge uproar over the Disney boycott back in the late 1990s.  It is a perfect example of this problem.  In the long run, the boycott did nothing.  The average member of an SBC church didn't follow it.  It didn't hurt Disney at all.  There was infighting over it (with Orlando and Florida SBC churches leading the charge against it).  And it just made the SBC look stupid to the world.

The internal battles are sucking the energy out of the convention.  There is the worship style battle that seems to exist in a majority of churches.  There is a huge fight going on between what I like to call the five point Calvinists and the four and a half pointers.  The reformed Calvinist bloc (led by Southern Seminary) will fight with everyone that doesn't agree with them.  Many of them personally target people, like Ergun Caner of Liberty.  This particular issue has caused so many vicious fights in churches - splitting groups apart.  (I personally have had to deal with fights over this more times than I can remember.)  Then there is the Full Quiver movement (Voddie Bauchman is big in this) and the fight that brings.  This is the belief that we are called to have lots of kids.  People who buy into this fight for it against the people who think it is irresponsible to have so many kids.  There is the battle over biblical gender roles - brought to a head by the resolution a few years back that led to a bunch of Texas churches seceding.  There is the homeschooling vs Christian school vs public school battle.  There are people who believe all parachurch group (ministries that exist outside of a church itself) suck money and support away from the church.

So much energy is spent on these fights that it affects how the denomination functions.  Just think about how well you are able to worship if you get in a fight on the way to church.  Now imagine that fight happening IN the church.  Abraham Lincoln said that a house divided against itself can't stand.  Jesus said a man can't serve two masters.  Both of those play into this.  A church can't function right if it constantly besieged by fights within its members.  And a convention that has such loud fights will have a hard time being unified on anything.  It is like millions of people are dying of thirst because we are fighting over the method to give them water, or the color of the pitcher, or how many kids the person bringing the water should have.  It seems a bit foolish.

When you go back up to problem 1, one side issue from this is that people try to replicate the "success" of a famous pastor/church.  The easiest way to do that is if they have come up with some program to mimic.  SBC loves putting out programs.  Just plug it into your church and it will work.  It almost sounds like an infomercial.  "YOU TOO can have a huge church.  Just send six payments of $19.95..."  In evangelism, there was CWT, then E.E., then FAITH, then Evangecube.  You had Cross Seekers in college ministry.  True Love Waits is the official purity program.  Every year Lifeway puts out a VBS theme.  The SBC was one of the biggest groups to buy into Promise Keepers and a Purpose Driven Life.  John Maxwell's leadership programs are just about mandatory for ministers.

If you want to make a ton of money in the church world, pitch an easy to memorize gimmick to a big shot pastor.  Once they implement it, and his name gets attached to it, everyone will want it.  It needs a formula, a clever title, some kind of thing to memorize.  It happens pretty frequently.  Some minister will write a book that strikes a chord.  He hits the speaking circuit.  His sales goes through the roof.  Every church seems to be making their staff read it.  They run Bible studies based on it.  Everywhere you turn in that church for like a year, that book is mentioned and glorified.  Then, a couple years later, another book (or movie) takes it place.  There is no quick fix to our problems or to quick solution for life.  But it seems like we're willing to try all the time to find one.

The other big gimmick, which ties into problem 1 and contributes to other ones also is the love affair with conferences.  Conferences are big money.  Ministers want to go to at least one a year.  There are exhibit halls and breakout sessions and big name speakers.  And lots of money.  (Personally, I think the modern Church Conference is the closest things we'll see to the money changers at the Temple.)  At the high end conferences (Orange Conference, Catalyst), exhibitors are gouged for a MINIMUM of $1500 just for a table.  Sponsorships can hit $15,000 or $25,000.  Just putting some quick numbers together, a big national conference can generate over $300,000 just from exhibits and sponsors.  Then there is the registration fees - hundreds of dollars times 4000 attenders.  The big speakers get paid $10,000 for one or two days.  The musicians can get $30,000.  It is amazing.  But churches eat these up.  They "get new ideas" or "get refreshed" or "get challenged."  In reality, they spend a lot of tithe money for a mini-vacation with a religious theme.  (At one conference, a church member generated this classic line: "We just spent more on fudge than I tithed last month.")  Again, it is another quick fix attempt with high dollars attached.

A couple years back, the SBC came up with this plan to have a million baptisms in a year.  It was a noble goal, but it didn't happen.  It actually wasn't even close.  But, instead of rejoicing over the ones that happened, there was a big row over the failure of it.  In a memorable moment, SBC President Bobby Welch took aim at the younger ministers and wailed that if they had taken less time blogging and spent more time trying to lead people to Christ, then they might have hit their goal.  I remember talking to several younger ministers after that happened.  They said that it was indicative of the way younger ministers were treated within the SBC.

When the younger ones would ask questions - like "Why do we do it this way?" - they got smacked back down.  "Where were you when we were ridding the seminaries of the liberals?  Where were you when we got this thing going?  Sit down and hush up."  One younger minister in particular said, "We stayed.  We followed the rules.  We went to their seminary.  We worked our way up through the hiring ladders.  We used their materials.  But we aren't allowed to even ask for an explanation."  True, the younger people were not there waging those wars years ago.  But they are the ones in touch with the younger generations now.  And they have valid thoughts.  But, for now, they are still relegated to the sidelines.  The SBC and its state offices still are electing the old guard to leadership positions - or their 1st generation disciples.  The younger guys (and by younger, that can go up to 40 years old) have to wait their turn.  Only, like Prince Charles, it feels like their turn is never going to come.

It isn't even just about leadership.  If something appears to question an established way of doing things, that is seen as an affront.  It is rebellion.  I have even heard one of the old guard say that criticizing the Church is the same as criticizing Christ, since that is His Bride.  Huh?  I remember the vehement and vicious reaction by the older ministers to Donald Miller's book Blue Like Jazz.  That book resonated with a lot of younger ministers because it reflected a world and a Church that was wrestling and disillusioned by the modern approach of religion.  Instead of seeing the validity of the emotions, the book and author were blasted from the pulpit by the old guard - while being embraced and promoted by the younger side.  How long did it take before churches and older ministers allowed websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts?  If the idea doesn't come from the top, it takes forever to catch on.

But there is two sides to this coin.  The younger ministers and members have a huge problem with respecting the older ministers.  We are instructed in the Bible to respect our elders and to listen to them.  That doesn't mean they are always right.  But they have navigated things that we have not experienced yet.  Some of them have forgotten more than the younger guys ever knew.  As Christians, we should recognize the importance of the older generation.  Instead, many times it seems like the younger group wants to ship them off to the Church equivalent of a retirement home.

This does not just apply to the older ministers.  It also manifests itself in how the senior adults are treated at our churches.  I served as the senior adult minister at a church (part of my many duties).  It was a wonderful experience.  I loved those people.  In fact, I can honestly say, my interactions with the senior adults in the churches I have served at have been some of the best things I got to experience.  Those people have long successful marriages, careers, walks with Christ.  They should be a huge resource.  They can teach so much.  But they are usually pushed to some side building, given their own service, and resented for exerting so much influence.  They give more money than most ages groups, so they have to be listened to.  But the average pastor resents that.  Even more disturbing is that most church plants and start ups have virtually no senior adults in them.  They are all young families.  Is it any coincidence that so many of these churches struggle with finances, leadership issues, commitment, directions, and longevity?

Think about a country club.  It is a beautiful place with gorgeous facilities.  It benefits its members.  There are dues, membership handbooks, introductory classes, events for its members.  And outsiders have to earn their way in through becoming like the members and going through the entrance rules.  Sounds like a church - especially an SBC church.  There is a way of dressing, talking, acting.  There is membership.  There are dues (tithes).  There is a membership handbook (Class 101, photo directory).  There are lots of events for their members.  They have ornate and wonderful facilities.  And for you to crack into the church, you have to run into a member, get invited, get accepted, become like them.

Jesus always told His Disciples to GO.  It implied action.  Get off your duff.  Go where they are.  Meet them on their turf.  Meet their needs.  Rescue them.  The modern church makes it clear their primary message is COME.  Come and see, come receive, come and be assimilated.  We open our doors and tell them to come.  We send out postcards, put up billboards, offer draws, present the sales pitch.  Get them in the door.  It is no longer a rescue mission; it is a sales job.  It is like we are selling memberships at a time share or country club.  "Look at our amazing facilities.  Listen to the entertainment options.  Try our Wednesday night dinner.  See all the things your kids can do.  All you have to do is join, not rock the boat, and pay 10% of your income."  Think about what church members are told - invite your friends to church.  Bring them to this event.  The entire message of the Gospel has been subverted by the promotion of the country club.

The country club is also obsessed with money and numbers.  How much do you make?  How much is this worth?  How many people come?  What ranking are we?  You want a prestigious country club.  That is determined by how wealthy it is, how fancy its buildings are, how many people it has, who those people are, how well known it is.  That is the modern SBC church.  When you go to a conference, the first questions about your church are 1) how big is it, 2) what's your budget, and 3) what kind of facilities are there?  The fourth question is how many salvations you had last year.  It's all about numbers.

Evangelism still exists, but it has been banished to Tuesday nights.  We just saw that our members no longer are told to GO.  They are told to bring people.  Then, our crack expert trained evangelism team will "follow up."  With the emergence of FAITH evangelism training, the average SBC church removed the responsibility for evangelism from the membership and placed it on the FAITH teams.  The SBC touted FAITH as a way to grow your church.  They held up FBC Daytona - the creator of FAITH - and their huge number of decisions.  There were FAITH training conferences for pastors.  Churches had to set up FAITH exactly the way that it was prescribed.  Plug it into your church and, viola, instant growth.  This program capitalized on problems 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and caused 8.

The problem was that most churches had some form of churchwide visitation.  Yes, there was evangelism training.  But visitation was the job of everyone.  Big groups would show up on Tuesday night or Sunday afternoon or Tuesday morning to visit guests, shut ins, prayer needs.  Once FAITH got implemented, most churches saw their visitation numbers plummet.  It was the FAITH team's problem now.  And, following the FAITH manual, unless you were FAITH trained you couldn't participate.  You had to follow the outline implicitly.  Even though the presentation was not very effective with college students or young adults, you had to follow it.  "Decisions" in most churches actually went down.  So did baptisms.  But the most damaging result is that the average church member stopped sharing their own personal experiences with God.  They would just invite people to church and hope someone else could "clinch the deal."

This led to a showdown between discipleship and evangelism.  I say it was a showdown, but it was hardly a fair fight.  Evangelism had a gatling gun and discipleship had to borrow a pea shooter.  Evangelism had all the money and support from higher ups.  In most state conventions, there was a huge evangelism department and two guys in the basement for the discipleship department.  Evangelism is quantifiable.  There are numbers to show.  You can hold up the number of people in your FAITH training, the number of salvations, the number of memberships, the number of baptisms.  Numbers look good.  They make you happy.  They get you noticed at the Convention.  Discipleship is slow and time consuming and has no numbers.

FAITH was an all-encompassing program.  Its tendrils wormed into every aspect of the church.  As a result, the goal was to get people in the doors, get them visited, get them saved, teach them to get more people in the door.  But they never were discipled in this program.  Their evangelism training was the only teaching they got.  Many new Christians never grew.  They never learned how to study the Bible or pray.  They got frustrated.  In addition, they never got rid of the sinful elements of their life.  They learned how to dress like a Christian, talk like one, act like one.  But the never learned how to live like Christ.  Divorces in Christian homes are just as common as in non-Christian homes.  Porn usage, premarital sex, unethical behavior, affairs, abuse.  All those things are rampant in Christian homes.  And elite FAITH team would lead the person to Christ.  They would assign him to a Sunday School class.  No one knew this person or had invested in his life.  So no one walked with him.

There is no easy gimmick for discipleship.  There isn't a how-to guide.  It is an investment of your life in the life of another.  It is walking with them and sharing and answering questions.  It is teaching how to study and how to pray.  It is sharpening that person.  But that is not easily taught or modeled.  The Senior Pastor is not going to do it - he is busy studying for his sermon or writing a book or being important.  Staff members are too busy to do it, what with all their responsibilities.  Church members never learn how to do and are never asked to do it.  So it doesn't happen.

SBC has always been known for its missions efforts.  There are thousands of SBC missionaries all over the world.  The International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board run short term mission trips, long term assignments, two year stints.  There are Bible translation efforts and reaching unreached people groups.  There is the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering that helps support missionaries.  Most SBC churches have a mission emphasis week.  They sent teams out a few times a year to help build churches or teach English or lead sports camps.  These are wonderful things with amazing results.  The SBC has always gotten this right.

Recently, though, it has become very apparent that the emphasis on foreign missions actually causes some problems.  It kind of assuages the guilt of GO and DO.  We can't go, so we send others.  We support them.  We pray for them.  Once a year we praise them.  We don't have to do that now.  Or, we'll go for a short time to help them and feel better.  But, like the argument about foreign adoption, it generates the question: Isn't there anyone here in the US that needs help?  Why do we always have to scamper off to Haiti or Nicaragua to do missions?  What about the homeless shelter down the street?  What about the pregnancy center or the drug rehab facility or the battered woman home?  Wouldn't they benefit from some of that money and effort?

It is always strange how a church can have a dozen people sign up to pay $2,000 to go work in Brazil for a week.  But if a church does a Saturday trip to mow a shut-ins lawn, they have the same three people show up.  It seems that when it comes to Acts 1:8, most churches do great with the "Ends of the Earth."  But they ignore the "Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria" parts.  We are supposed to start at home.  We should be ministering to those people in our community first.  That is part of the GO that we are missing.  It is feast or famine with most SBC places.  They either won't GO at all, or they will GO far away.  But they won't go down the street.  I have heard a big shot SBC pastor actually say that the reason that his church doesn't help with homeless ministry is that there are no homeless people in his city.  (Uh...)  The benevolence fund - something most SBC churches have to help local people with food and such - is woefully low on money.  The very same church that will drop $100,000 on a huge missions conference will only contribute $25,000 to the benevolence fund each year.  How are we supposed to show the people in our community that our church cares if we never are out there doing anything - or we're all occupied far away.  Many churches saw their members pull deep out of their wallets to help the tsunami victims or Haiti earthquake victims.  But they did nothing for the Nashville flooding victims or the local family on the street because dad got laid off from his job.

This problem is a result of all of the others, and a cause of all the others.  It is actually the biggest problem, but it also is accelerated by the other problems.  The Bible just is not the cornerstone of the modern SBC church.  The senior pastor is the foundation.  Or all the programs and events is the base.  But the Bible is not.  I have been in church services where the name of Jesus is never mentioned.  I have been in numerous staff meetings where God is not brought up.  Entire sermon series or Sunday school series have been constructed without the Bible.

Pastors love to talk about success and service and family.  But they don't want to preach on holiness or being like Christ.  They love to have sermon series on "hot button topics" or "controversial issues" or "relevant themes."  The Bible becomes a supporting player.  I am NOT saying that the only way to preach is verse by verse through the Bible.  But the Bible needed to be liberally woven through whatever you preach.  There needs to be verses as supporting evidence.  Stories and videos and dramas are great.  Jokes can help people get drawn in.  Lord knows I use all of those things.  But the Bible is the only thing that is promised to last forever.  It is bringing the presence of God into the sermon.  The Bible tells us the Word of God won't return void.  That's a heck of a promise.  You want to see your sermons have power?  You want to see your youth group on fire for God?  You want to see people get saved and regenerated?  Use the Bible frequently and thoroughly.  Not just the fun stories, either.  And not just the deep theological battles.  It is a complete work.  Use all of it.

Every church activity doesn't have to be a Bible study.  I know there is a real benefit to just getting together and having fun.  But sermons, Bible studies, camps, rallies.  These things need to be full of biblical principles.  If you find it necessary on one Sunday to real drill into something relevant that turns into moral training, and you feel God led you there, then do what you're told.  But not week after week.  And don't just base the sermon series on someone else's book, using it as the main source.  That is like a baker going to Entemann's and buying a bunch of donuts to sell as his own.  Use that book and do a thorough study of the topic for yourself.  If you are the pastor, it is your job to feed your sheep and shepherd them.  That means to give them food - the Word of God.  There is no substitute.

Sure, there are other issues that the SBC is battling.  I think that there is a lack of respect for women, a reliance on entertainment and showmanship, a lack of pastors who see themselves as shepherds.  And, like I tried to preface things with, I think there is lots to love about the Southern Baptist Convention.  It is also easy to see this list and question, "Wouldn't this apply to every denomination?"  The answer would probably be yes, although I am not qualified to say that.  I think every Christian could make this list for themselves.  I know that in ministry and in my personal life I have been guilty of all of these things as well.  It is easy to attack the writer and get defensive.  I would pray instead that you look to see if this is true in your life and your church.  If so, how do you fix it?  The SBC has problems.  And, just like the problems didn't come overnight, the solutions won't implement overnight either.  I hope that it is willing to actually try.

Jun 14, 2010

But What If He Doesn't?

There is a common teaching we see on television and in the movies.  The good guys win.  The bad guys lose.  Even when things appear hopeless, the good guys always get a last minute reprieve.  There is a fortuitous truck to hit the bad guy.  A mystery check arrives just in time.  The villains make a fatal miscalculation due to arrogance.  Some past good deed causes someone to act valiantly in thanks.  Good things happen to good people.  Bad things happen to bad people.  Dragons are vanquished and the hero rides off into the sunset with the beautiful woman and all is right in the world.

There is also a line of teaching that goes on in most churches.  We are taught that we want to be in the center of God's will.  We want to be doing exactly what He wants us to do - rejecting our own selfish and petty desires to pursue what He has planned for us.  This is the safest place to be.  When you wander from God's will and path, then He has to discipline you.  After all, he disciplines those he loves.  So the church sets up this very clear delineation.  If you do what is right - if you tithe and serve and pray for the missionaries and stand up for God at work, you get rewarded.  You are safe and provided for.  If you do what is wrong - if you are stingy with God and don't pray or read your Bible and pick jobs just because of the money, then you get smacked around.

I think that it comes from trying to encourage the membership to allow God to lead them.  Many Christians make their life choices without any thought as to what God feels - or what He may desire for them and their lives.  So, the church tries to defeat that mindset by teaching how we should follow God and obey Him.  It may be scary.  It may be costly.  But God will always provide and reward us for our faithfulness.

This teaching crops up all over the place.  A church may tells its members that they need to tithe their 10% to the church.  That may hurt them financially, but God will reward them for their giving.  And, if they are struggling financially, it probably is because they are withholding money from God.  Another way we see this is when a church teaching stories like Gideon and Job - emphasizing how God delivers and restores when the people are faithful.  (Extreme versions of this are called Prosperity Doctrine or Name It and Claim It.)  It can be a very encouraging thought.  If we do what we should do, then God will reward us.  This could come through financial stability or promotions or good health or getting a spouse.  Faithfulness equals reward.  That's what is taught.  It may be at the last minute - like the orphans waiting for food when the delivery man comes to the door.  But it will happen.  We just need to close our eyes and jump, and God will be there with a safety net.  There is even the song "Saved the Day," where God is portrayed as a rescuing hero - swooping in at the last minute to rescue everyone.

But, what if He doesn't?

This is one of the toughest questions I have had to face in my Christian walk.  What about if God does NOT come and save the day?  What if He doesn't ride over the ridge to help fight off the army of orcs?  What if He doesn't come swooping in on some screeching creature of vengeance to destroy the evil conspirators?  What if we go broke, lose our job, get sick?  Does that mean He is any less God?  Does that automatically mean that we were doing something wrong?

That is one of the dangers of the lines of teaching mentioned earlier.  We begin to believe that if we are doing the right thing we should be insulated from problems.  And if there are problems, we must be doing something wrong.  And, worse still, we apply that guide when looking at other people.  If they are suffering they must be out of God's will.  This is where you get to the point that you can actually blame the people of New Orleans for the flooding of Katrina by saying, "They are a sinful city so God punished them."  [I hate to break it to you, we ALL live in sinful cities.  If that theory is right, we're all screwed.]

This teaching is NOT Biblical.  Look at the people God help up as examples in the Bible.  They were taken out behind the toolshed and beaten MMA style.  Are you going to tell me that the Apostles were in the wrong?  Their murders were the result of their sin?  Didn't we see this was disproved in the story of Job that this mindset was wrong?  Job's friends accused him of everything and he hadn't done anything.  Even Jesus argued with this belief when his Disciples asked who had sinned - the crippled man or his parents.  Jesus responded that neither had.

The fact of the matter is that God does NOT always come to the rescue and fix everything.  There are times when He wants His people to go through a situation that is less than pleasant.  It may be to grow them or teach them.  It may be to teach other people.  It may be that if they got what they wanted they would turn from God.  Whatever the reason, God chooses many times to not answer "Yes" to a plea for help.  And following God does NOT mean you are wearing an invisible shield.  In fact, following God may put you into more danger than not following Him.  My good friend, David Tarkington, preached a sermon last Sunday called "In the Center of God's Will Is the Safest Place to Be?"  He got into the fact that it isn't safe.  This is something I have always said too - it can be the most dangerous place in the world.

Look at the missionaries who have been killed over the years.  Look at the Christians in other countries who are mistreated for their faith.  What have they done wrong?  What about the people here in America who have been ridiculed and passed over for jobs and fired and worse?  Please tell me what they did wrong.  That is the inherent problem with the aforementioned lessons.  You cannot have it both ways.  If it is true that God is always going to reward for obedience, then a lack of reward implies disobedience.

There are tons of dangers to this teaching.  It is running rampant in some of the more destitute areas of the world.  Missionaries are going into poor regions teaching that following God brings reward.  The people there are so desperate for some relief from their struggles that they jump at this.  What happens when they don't see the promised benefits?  Another problem is that we then begin to view people with much as better than those with little.  Churches love it when a wealthy person begins attending their church.  They usually quickly scale into leadership positions (deacons, trustees, committee chairs).  This is done without as much regard to their spiritual state - or it their portfolio is enough proof.  Pastors of large churches are seen as more worthy than pastors of small churches.  They always get elected to national offices.  They get asked to preach at events.  And the pastor of the smaller church is seen as needing to move up - or as trapped there.  (This is despite the fact that many ministers at large churches are actually pretty horrible people to be around.)

New Christians are often sold a bill of goods when they are led to Christ, or brought into a church.  They hear that all their problems are over.  God is going to heal every wound, end every addiction, pay every bill, rescue every person.  However, that is not always true.  And when they realize that, they are disillusioned.  Or they feel they were lied to.  Sometimes they feel they must be doing something wrong. As a result, their walk with God begins with a handicap.  It is a dangerous and false teaching.  And it gives people an incorrect view of God.  They misunderstand His motives and His plan.

Yes, God can come through with a miraculous rescue.  He can provide.  He can bring money and jobs and healing.  He can remove enemies and open doors.  He can do truly amazing things.  But, just because He CAN, does not mean He HAS TO, and it does not mean He WILL.  And that doesn't mean that God is bad or we are doing anything wrong.  In fact, it may mean that we are precisely where we are supposed to be.  Which can be a pretty tough message to swallow.

Jun 8, 2010

Sweaty Little Secret

I realized I haven't posted in a while.  I think I got confused - since I am running two blogs.  So I'll post on the Darth Fatso site, and think I posted over here.  It also doesn't help that I've written two entire posts for this blog and then chose not to post them.  (Trust me, I did you a favor.)  To remedy this, I have come up with something extra special.  I am going to reveal a secret.  Oooooo.  Ready?

I hate summer.

Phew, that felt good to get that off my chest.  It ranks up there with my other secrets that make people wonder if I really am an American.  You know?  I hate baseball.  I don't really like most dogs.  I like to watch soccer and hockey.  I'm not a fan of Elvis OR The Beatles.  (Take THAT Quentin Tarantino.)  I don't like ribs.  Stuff like that.  I hate summer.  This isn't a surprise to my family or closest friends.  I have a long and very vocal record of griping about summer.  But some people may not really believe that I truly HATE it.  Those people would be very wrong.

I have always hated summer.  When I was a kid, when I should have been doing a happy dance and singing "School's Out for Summer," I was usually bummed out.  You see, school is where I thrived.  It was what made me - at least in my eyes.  I was a big shot in school: the best grades, the respect of teachers, the best behavior, truckloads of awards, lots of friends.  I loved school.  But when summer came along?  I felt exposed.  The stuff that most people want to do during the summer did not appeal to me.  I don't lay out due to rapid and severe sunburns.  I hate the heat due to all the sweating.  I didn't like wearing minimal clothes due to all the fatness.  I feared the ocean due to the almost drowning (several times).  I didn't like the beach due to the minimal clothes and ocean and heat - which led to the sweating, near drownings, and sunburns and showed off the fatness.  I didn't like playing sports due to massive lack of coordination - and the sweating.

The heat was oppressive - basically ninety straight days over ninety degrees.  And the humidity made it even worse - it usually hovered around ninety percent.  Our house didn't have air conditioning, so it was absolutely brutal during the summer.  We would open the windows to try to get some kind of cross breeze.  (Yeah right.  Any air blowing in felt like a moist hair dryer.)  Then we had to run around the house when it would start raining to shut the windows.  This turned the house into a hotbox - which, as any South Floridian knows, happened EVERY day between 2 and 4 pm.  We had ceiling fans, which stirred up the muggy air.  And then we would have little fans next to our beds for night time.  Mmmm, refreshing.

In addition, we had next to no kids in our neighborhood.  It was kind of strange, actually.  It really wasn't until high school that I saw many of my friends outside of the school year - except for the one or two who went to my church.  So it was basically just my brother, sister, and me trying to make it through the summer.  We didn't travel (except for the summer after my seventh grade year when we went to cool and refreshing St. Pete Beach).  We also never went to movies - so there wasn't even that distraction.  And the only sport playing is baseball - which I can't stand.  I mostly just sat around and read books, listened to records, and waited for school to start.

When my teen years rolled around, I no longer had to worry about boredom.  Now I had the joy of the "summer job" to fill my time.  My summer job was at Ponderosa Steakhouse as the salad bar attendant.  Woot!  Then I worked at AMC Theatres for two different summers.  I also would help out at the church a lot during the summer.  (That was fun - seriously it was.)  I also had surgery twice over the summer and broke my foot in a different one.

Once college started, I had classes to keep me occupied.  It was the best of both worlds at that point.  Sure, it was summer.  But I still had school.  And the student activities I was involved in didn't stop during the summer.  This began the Golden Age of summer for me.  I had three summers in college, and then four working as a college minister, when I actually liked summer.  As a college minister, summer was great.  The students didn't have as many commitments.  You could plan a whole mess of smaller activities, which were usually well attended - for a summer.  That was even better - expectations were low, since it was summer.  So if you had thirty people show up for something, everyone was thrilled.  Whereas during the year, thirty people would get you insulted during staff meeting.

When I became a working stiff, summer was kind of just there.  There usually would be a week of vacation to break up the monotony - which was nice.  Even if it was at the beach, at least it wasn't work. So that was nice.  Working at a church later as the graphic designer, summer was pretty busy most of the time.  There was a lot of prep for the fall in the student ministries - so that meant projects.  And there was a lot of stuff needing created for camps and such - which meant projects.  But there also were a lot of vacations by the ministers, which meant less work.  I actually preferred having work to do.  (Remember, this is the same person who preferred school.)

Now that my kids are in school, summer has again become the dreaded time of year.  Not only am I trying to find things to do.  Now I have three little people who are also going stir crazy in the house.  They want to get out and do things.  But the same ugly elements of heat and sun still exist.  Last summer we had ten days straight over 100 degrees.  You don't take kids out in that kind of heat.  Like I said last year, taking three kids to the store to kill time is just irresponsible.  They have all this pent up energy.  Next thing you know they are racing around Publix, running into meat department employees.  But without the structure of school, the days seem daunting.

My kids are not too different from me, either.  Both of them cried on the last day of school - sad to leave their friends and teachers.  They were looking forward to summer, but are already bored.  If I had to guess, they are about two weeks away from wanting to go back to school.  They are waking up at seven each morning - they don't even want to sleep in.  And the freedom to lay around and do nothing will become irritating before too long.  Natalie already is tired of it.  [None of this is even taking into account the depression that I battle last summer, due to the mind-numbing boredom of it all.]

We have some basic plans to generate things to do.  I talked about some of this in my second Lost post a few weeks ago.  The kids have projects to do this summer.  Josiah is creating a comic book.  Natalie is creating a scrapbook.  We are going to try to go to the playground in the early morning, before it gets too oppressively hot.  And there are some trips to break up the monotony.  Even so, the summer is going to be a challenge - as always.  Unless there are some ways to cool the great outdoors and end sunburns and heat stroke, summer is always going to be rough.  Only 76 days until school starts!!!