Monday, November 05, 2012

Anatomy of a Revival 7: Living in Victory

(Nehemiah 7:1-4) After completing repairs of Jerusalem's wall, Nehemiah takes steps to consolidate and secure their victory and ensure continued growth. Churches will often plan a major effort such as high attendance day, VBS or a revival campaign. The careful planning, congregational involvement and contagious excitement result in a successful outcome. However, while basking in the glow of victory, there a tendency to relax. A “mission accomplished” attitude takes over which will limit the spiritual harvest.

Nehemiah knew that spiritual victories are short-lived and that God's enemies were still lurking outside the walls, so he appointed gatekeepers. Church leaders act as spiritual gatekeepers. Their role is not to keep certain people out but, rather, to keep people in by guarding the back door.

A large number of people who come in the front door of the church through successful outreach efforts walk out the back door through neglect. People who do not feel connected to their new church will drop out within six months. Spiritual gatekeepers can increase the ratio of newcomers who stay by creating relationship opportunities through personal follow-up, small group enrollment and fellowship opportunities.

Nehemiah also appointed singers and Levites (religious workers) to restore worship in Jerusalem. This reminds us that spiritual warfare is fought with spiritual weapons. Prayer, worship and praise are power weapons that strengthen us individually and as a church.

More leaders would be needed to keep the forward momentum. Nehemiah appointed two qualified leaders for Jerusalem so that the revival could continue and expand. It is often said that “everything rises or falls on leadership,” making leadership a limiting factor in Kingdom growth.

More workers and leaders are needed because there is still work to do. Nehemiah saw the finished walls but also noted: “the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt. (Nehemiah 7:4)”

Like Nehemiah, church leaders need to identify, recruit, empower and mentor new leaders. Paul wrote, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Timothy 2:2)”

What is the potential in your church? Are there empty pews and unused classrooms? If your church is in the process of revival, keep it going by looking to the potential and creating opportunities for people to lead and serve.

Recommended reading:
Hand Me Another Brick by Chuck Swindoll
 


Friday, November 02, 2012

Anatomy of a Revival 6: Avoiding Distractions

(Nehemiah 6:1-19) The wall is finished. Nehemiah won but, even in victory, you cannot let your guard down. As you celebrate be watchful. Distractions can limit your spiritual gains and possibly reverse them. The Bible warns: “Be self controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (1 Peter 5:8-9)

Sometimes distractions come disguised as harmless options or even good things. Now that the wall is finished the enemies want to be friends. They were trying to trick Nehemiah into leaving Jerusalem, where he had armed support, to come to a conference where he could be ambushed. Sensing this, Nehemiah declines, saying, “I am carrying on a great project, and I cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?”

Nehemiah keeps his focus and remembers his priorities; teaching us that not every opportunity is heaven sent. Even good things have the potential to distract us from the best things.

Another distraction for Nehemiah was the rumor that he wanted to be king of Jerusalem. They were saying that the wall was not meant to honor God but, rather, for Nehemiah's own benefit. People tend to believe the worse about others, especially their leaders, and lies have a way of getting a life of their own. Remember that Satan is the father of lies.

Nehemiah simply denies the rumor. He doesn’t try to disprove the accusation but merely states, “That is a lie. There is no truth in it.”

That’s the best way to respond to a charge like this; a flat denial. We must be disciplined about arguments. Saying less is more. Those who are making a difference for the Lord will always be criticized. It is tempting to spend a lot of time and emotional energy arguing our case but our supporters don't need to hear it and our accusers won't believe it. We must learn the patience to take the attacks in stride and give God the time do His work.

Nehemiah prayed to God for strength and went back to work. Although hurt and discouraged by these accusations, he was able to continue by focusing on God instead of feelings.

Many factors can distract us from keeping the main thing the main thing. Nehemiah completed his mission because his priorities were right, his discernment was keen, and his response was courageous. These three factors are vital for an urban minister who wants to fulfill his calling.

Recommended reading:
Hand Me Another Brick by Chuck Swindoll
 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Anatomy of a Revival 5: Handling Conflict

(Nehemiah 5:1-19) God’s people had been busy rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem but work on had ground to a halt. The people were exhausted and on the brink of ruin. They were no longer concerned about the vision. What good was a wall if you had nothing to eat?

Nehemiah listened to the people’s complaints. There was a famine, and the people were hungry. Landowners had to mortgaged their property to buy food and lenders were squeezing profits out of their brother’s misery. Many had their homes foreclosed and family members were used as collateral. If a man could not repay a loan, his wife and children could be sold as slaves.

Nehemiah was angry over the injustice, oppression, and disunity in the body. While it was not against God’s law to loan money to one another, they were not to act like predatory lenders and take advantage of a tough situation (Deuteronomy 23:19-20.) However, Nehemiah’s anger was controlled and constructive. He paused, took a deep breath and thought about it for a while before confronting the issue.

Then, Nehemiah publicly confronted the people whose greed had created the strife. Correcting any problem begins by facing it head-on. As Barney Fife would say, “Nip it in the bud.”

Nehemiah put the vision on hold in order to address an issue of right and wrong. He kept the stakes high by reminding the people that their abuse of the people had the same negative impact on their witness as the broken-down walls. He called them to obedience and required all property returned, debts forgiven, and slaves freed.

Nehemiah teaches us that conflict can come even during revival but we must be the church before we can build the church. There is a connection between the effectiveness of our mission and how we treat each other. We must learn to care for one another before we can hope to reach our community for Christ.

Relational problems are inevitable and can’t be ignored. Even though it’s painful and it may seem easier to avoid or deny relational problems, we must face conflict head-on. Otherwise, it will grow deep roots and bear bitter fruit.

Rather than trying to be right, our goal must restoring the relationship. We’re not to defeat our brothers and sisters but to build them up, resolve the issue and get back to kingdom work.

God’s work is at risk when we have conflict. Some among God's people who are out for themselves. They want their needs met even if it is at the cost of someone else. Some want power, some want recognition, some want money. 

Like Nehemiah, the wise leader will think before speaking. Sometimes disunity comes from things that are said in the heat of the moment. Nehemiah considered his situation carefully and regained unity among the people. The result was that God's work resumed. 

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Proverbs 15:1  

 

Recommended reading:
Hand Me Another Brick by Chuck Swindoll
 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Anatomy of a Revival 4: Opposition and Discouragement

(Nehemiah 4:1-23) Dealing with criticism is one of the greatest challenges a leader will face. Nehemiah didn’t face opposition because he was doing something wrong. He faced opposition because he was doing what was right. He was serving God by leading a revival in Jerusalem.

It hurts when people misjudge your motives and doubt your sincerity. It is hard to keep going when under attack by the constant clatter of their critics. Some critics feel threatened by the success of a new leader others have a different agenda. Sometimes that agenda is self-serving.

The first wave of criticism came by way of insult and ridicule. “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?” (Nehemiah 4:2)

“What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!” (Nehemiah 4:3)

Insult and ridicule are easy cheap shots aimed to demoralize the leader and people by striking at the of the insecurity that we all have.

When the mocking failed, threats of violence ensued. Nehemiah had to post a guard and the people had to prepare for battle. Although the battle never came, the stress was wearing down the wall-builders. God's servants can lose heart when opposition arises. Even if the opposition is clearly wrong, some will simply quit.

The people of Jerusalem were initially excited. They began the work with great anticipation and joy but something happened when the wall was built to half its height. Fatigue led to frustration and then to discouragement. The work now seemed harder and more dangerous.

Nehemiah's response is instructive to church leaders today. First, he stayed focused on the mission and turned the rest over to God. Focusing on the insults will distract us from our mission. Turn them over to God and keep moving! When Abraham Lincoln, was told that he should make a statement to attempt to minimize the damage of the criticism made against him he replied, “I will not give an answer to these fools. My enemies will not believe my answer and my friends do not need it.”

Secondly, Nehemiah reorganized the work. He put guards at all the vulnerable spots and prepared for battle. The mission did not change but the environment did. Like Nehemiah, the church must adapt, too. We must keep our eyes on our mission and purpose and find ways to accomplish them in our current circumstances. Paradoxically, if the church is to remain the same (in mission) it must change (in method).

The success of the wall was dependent upon God who inspired its beginning. Nehemiah battled enemies and discouragement by keeping focus on God and His mission. He said, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.” (Nehemiah 4:14)

The right response to opposition is to press forward with the mission of God. Opposition must not stop the work of the church. Despite opposition from within & without, we have confidence in God’s promise that: “...greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4)

Recommended reading:
Hand Me Another Brick by Chuck Swindoll

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Anatomy of a Revival 3: Setting the Stage for Revival

(Nehemiah 2:11-2:20) As we observe Nehemiah set the stage for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, we discover principles for setting the stage for church revival. He evaluated the situation, recruited workers and faced down his critics.

THE PLANNING STAGE

Nehemiah left as soon as his documentation was in order. He arrives at Jerusalem with the King's permission to rebuild the walls and authorization to take timber from the King's forest. He is also escorted by the King's troops. It seems that the need for building permits was not created by our society.

He paused for three days to evaluate the work. He toured the city and noted the condition of the walls. He looked for resources, potential leaders and measured the morale of the city. A leader who seeks to guide a church through renewal must do the same. Moving a church from decline to growth is a difficult task that is filled with peril. What are the causes for decline? Those issues that can be addressed must be prioritized. Who are the gatekeepers? How much will it cost and how will it be financed?

THE PARTNERING STAGE

Nehemiah recruited help by appealing directly to the people. He knew that the current leadership could not fix the problem. Too often, it's the leaders who say it can't be done. God needs a Nehemiah type to come in, find resources and cheer the church on fulfill God's mission. There are countless churches all over America that are told they can't. Maybe denominational consultants can't. Maybe church leaders and pastors can't. BUT GOD CAN!

Nehemiah was open and honest about the condition of the walls and gates; the work would be hard. Then he said, "Let us rebuild."
I heard a preacher say, “Faith can move mountains, but don’t be surprised if God hands you a shovel.”

He presented the spiritual perspective. The ruins of Jerusalem represented their spiritual disgrace. The collapsed walls gave the pagans the idea that the God of Israel has abandoned his people. A building project is more than just brick and mortar. There are spiritual opportunities and challenges. Nehemiah assured them that God’s hand was in it. It’s God’s mission and He will give the victory.

They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work”

THE PERSEVERANCE STAGE

God's people can expect persecution when we do his work. Jesus promised us we would, “...they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” (John 15:20 NIV)

He also said we would be blessed for ours is the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:10 NIV)

Nehemiah's arrival under the King's authority diminished the power of some local big shots. They mocked and ridiculed and said that Nehemiah was breaking the law. Verbal onslaughts have always been part of the enemy’s demoralizing tactics.

When a church starts coming together to do God's work after a long period of apathy, Satan puts it into high gear. Slanders, whispers of discontent, stubborn opposition and vicious attacks will come from people who were once quiet and sweet. God's people can become discouraged by such action but now is the time to persevere. Satan's howls are indications that the church is coming back to life.

Nehemiah doesn’t answer their lies or engage in a conversation with them. Nor does he ignore them. He declares, “The God of heaven will give us success.”

He doesn’t let their criticism stop the work that God wanted done. He says, “We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”

Those who ridicule and mock and threaten miss out on God’s plan. Now that is leadership at its best, keeping a biblical perspective toward the opposition.

When we follow God, we should expect spiritual opposition and even be thankful for it. It’s a sign that we’ve angered the enemy and encroached on some territory that He thinks is his. If there’s no conflict or opposition, then we’re probably not disturbing the enemy enough.

the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
1 John 4:4

Recommended reading:
Hand Me Another Brick by Chuck Swindoll

Friday, September 28, 2012

Anatomy of a Revival 2: Three Leadership Qualities Needed for Revival

(Nehemiah 2:1-10) Nehemiah demonstrated three qualities that a leader needs in order to revitalize and renew the ministry of a church. The first of these is Patience.

Nehemiah waited four months before an opportunity arose to present his plans for rebuilding Jerusalem to the King. When a leader has a vision, there is the immediate desire to proclaim it to the world. If this is done too quickly, the results can be disastrous. Timing is vital to the success of a new idea.

Nehemiah's patience was rewarded when the King asked him what was wrong. One-on-one conversations with the King were rare and often unexpected. Nehemiah then demonstrated the second leadership quality needed for revival: Preparation.

During the four months of waiting Nehemiah prayed and prepared. He had an answer for all the King's questions. He knew how long it would take, what documents were required and where to acquire the needed construction material. Church leaders must likewise be prepared when presenting plans to the church. Critics will blow holes in a plan that is poorly presented, placing the leader in a defensive posture that will carry over to the next big idea.

Like Nehemiah, leaders need to be ready when an opportunity arises. One of the marks of an effective church is how quickly it can take advantage of a ministry opportunity. Had Nehemiah not been ready, it might have been another four months before he was summoned by the King again.

The third leadership quality needed for revival is the most essential. Nehemiah relied on God's Providence. God is always working behind the scenes. He places us right where He wants us. God landed Nehemiah a job that gave him an inside track to the King.

A big job requires big faith. Nehemiah knew the King's heart had to be changed. He had previously issued an order against rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. Proverbs teaches, “In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him” (Proverbs 21:1). The King granted all of Nehemiah’s requests.

Nehemiah gave God all the glory. He gave testimony to the goodness of God, “…and because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests” (Nehemiah 2:8).

Only God could have brought about such a dramatic change in the King’s mind and the Jerusalem's destiny. Nehemiah was meticulous in his planning but it would not have been enough were it not for the Lord’s perfect timing, constant guidance, and overruling provision.

God has put in you in this place at this time. What you do and where you are right now is no accident. What vision has God given you? Will you follow the biblical example of Nehemiah?

The wise man looks ahead.
Proverbs 14:8

Recommended reading:
Hand Me Another Brick by Chuck Swindoll

Monday, September 24, 2012

Anatomy of a Revival 1: Prayer and Patience are Needed for Revival

Sometimes church consultants will look at a particular church and declare it too far gone to be renewed. The building is too run down and the people too tired and demoralized. They usually recommend that a church like this celebrate its past and shut the doors.

Its easy to get used to worshiping in a rundown building. Deterioration can happen so slowly that its hardly noticed by regular attendees. However, the cumulative effect is what visitors see. A church that needs paint and yard work can give the impression of spiritual decline.

Jerusalem had become run down like a neglected inner-city church. Once the center of worship for God's people, now it was a slum. The Israelites had been allowed to return from their exile but after many years the walls of Jerusalem were still in ruins. The physical condition of the city reflected the spiritual condition of its inhabitants. They had become content and learned to live among the rubble.

Nehemiah was heartbroken when he heard the news and decided to do something about it. He was an exiled Israelite who worked directly for the King of Persia. He had a burden to rebuild Jerusalem and was in a position to make it happen.

Vision begins with a dissatisfaction over the way things are. One person can get the ball rolling and soon others will join in. Even a simple act of painting the church or cleaning out a classroom can lift the spirits of the members. They will start to think about the future and talk about their church.

Godly change begins with prayer. Nehemiah prayed and waited patiently for months before an opportunity presented itself. The great revivals in history have all begun with the prayers of God's people.

Our hearts ought to break at the sight of a rundown church the way Nehemiah's was broken over the ruins of Jerusalem. We need people with a Nehemiah spirit to pray and work toward revival in our churches.

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace.
The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. 
For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
Nehemiah 1:3-4


Recommended Reading: Hand Me Another Brick by Chuck Swindoll

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Remember the Future


“Some churches have been managing decline for so long that they have lost sight of the future,” says Gerald Kuecher in Remember the Future: Financial Leadership and Asset Management for Congregations.
  
Fear motivates church leaders to make short-sighted decisions that focus on the the crisis of the moment. However, the skills that allow a church to survive are not the ones that lead to growth. Fear creates a negative dynamic of complaining and stinginess that drives people away from the church.

Long before a church reaches the point of no return, where the building has deteriorated and the congregation has dwindled to an unsustainable level, leaders started making decisions that sold out the future. The sacrifices of past generations were mismanaged by the present group, leaving nothing for the future. We are reminded of the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) where a servant is called wicked for hiding money he was given to invest.

Churches that own property, however modest, have inherited a legacy from a past generation who believed in the future. Keucher reminds current church leaders that their church has a future and they ought to leave the next generation of leaders a stronger situation than the one they received. Planning should, therefore, look to the farthest horizon and building maintenance ought not be deferred.

Churches that believe they have a future and share a compelling vision will attract new members. Both new and current members will be motivated to financially support a church that has a future. Even past members may want to help preserve the building for which they hold such fond memories. Moreover, they will want to leave a legacy for future generations.

Fearful churches feel alone and forgotten but there are resources for those who will believe in and work towards the future. We must never forget that our Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10). Perhaps Nehemiah was mindful of this when he requested permission and resources from the King of Persia to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, 
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
 Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Staying on course

During an orienteering exercise in the Army, I was given a map and a compass and a destination. It was simple enough but I ran into an obstacle. Between myself and my destination was a murky, swollen creek of unknown depth. I decided to find a way around it so I made course corrections and reached my destination later than I anticipated but dry and free of leeches.

There are some leadership lessons here:

1. You need to know to your destination. A church needs a clear vision; an understanding and agreement about a preferred future. The clearer the vision the greater the congregational motivation to achieve it.

2. There is more than one way to get there. I could have chosen the dirty (perhaps dangerous) route through the swampy water. Instead, I took the time to weigh the alternatives and chose a longer but cleaner route. If church leaders get in a rush they can make a mess of things resulting in hurt feelings and lost members.

3. Course corrections are required. I've read that NASA made over 1000 course corrections to reach the moon. Even when the vision is clear adjustments are required. There may obstacles or opportunities but knowing the destination allows for good decisions.

In 2002 Baptist Temple went through a vision casting process that involved the whole church. The result was a well written document that outlined goals that were practical, measurable and achievable. It was this document that convinced to accept the call to serve as pastor of the church 3 years ago. Much of what has been achieved in the past few years at Baptist Temple are a result of this document. A few course corrections were needed.

Although the process was called VISION 2012, the document is as vital today as it was 10 years ago. What is needed are course corrections.

All of Baptist Temple is invited to a Long-Range planning workshop to think about what we need to continue implementing the action plan that was painstakingly outlined 10 years ago. We will meet on Friday, October 12 and Saturday morning, October 13.

In the meantime be sure to read the 2002 vision statement.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Being Baptist: Religious Freedom

Baptists believe in complete religious freedom for everyone. Freedom for religion and freedom from religion. This strong belief was born from religious persecution suffered in England and the colonies. State churches tend to use force to uphold a particular set of doctrines and silence dissent.

When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the emperor took the role of protecting the faith. Both pagans and heretics were persecuted. Over the centuries, many were burned at the stake in an effort to keep the church pure.

The Protestant Reformation enabled many churches break away from the Roman Catholic Church but, rather than bring religious freedom, it only increased persecution. Each ruler decided the religion for their territory. The Protestants became the persecutors and the Catholics retaliated.

Religious refugees came to America seeking religious freedom but only for themselves. The Puritans that founded Massachusetts created a state church supported by taxes. Only members of the church could vote or hold office. Dissidents like Quakers and Baptists were imprisoned and executed. Each colony set its own standards for religious freedom.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all. Nothing in this amendment prevents religion from influencing the government and being a voice for justice and morality in the public square. Jesus said that we are to be salt and light in society and that we are to be His witnesses.

This creates tension and conflict in a society that seems to be increasingly polarized. The recent Chick Fil A confrontation showed that both sides of the gay marriage debate have significant clout. Public debate is good and Christians should be a part of it but we must not confuse politics with the gospel.

Political power is not the way to bring about the type of Kingdom that Jesus describes. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas lamented that 20 years after the Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan, America was pretty much the same. He wrote, “For Christians, the vision of worldly power is not a calling, but a distraction. It is a temptation Jesus rejected, not because it was dangerous, but because it was trivial compared with his mission.”

We need changed hearts NOT changed laws; we need revival NOT revolution. II Chronicles 7:14: “if my people which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sins, and will heal their land”.

God does not belong to any political party. Isaiah was discouraged in the year that king Uzziah died. He had ruled for decades and now the future was uncertain. But Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up. Uzziah was dead but God was still on the throne.

God can work through any government. Rome was pagan and hostile to Christianity but Roman roads and laws helped Christianity to spread. The Bible says that all authority comes from God and we should submit to it. This was written particularly about the government of Rome who crucified Christ, persecuted Christians, and had morally bankrupt rulers.

The church must reserve the right to speak the truth to all parties. When church becomes the mouthpiece for any political party it loses its prophetic voice.

So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Matthew 22:21

Monday, August 13, 2012

Being Baptist: Soul Freedom

Soul competency or freedom is a foundational Baptist distinctive that is essential for our teaching concerning humanity, the church and salvation. It is tied to the Reformation principle of the Priesthood of the Believer. At the heart of this doctrine is that every individual has access to God without the need of a priest or any human mediator. The Bible says, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6 NIV).

Each individual is responsible before God to accept or reject salvation. Therefore Baptism and church membership are for those who make a personal decision to accept God's gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

A further understanding comes from 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (NIV)

There is no special clergy class. The church is composed of a “royal priesthood” chosen to tell people of God's love. The work of the church is not the sole realm of the pastor and a few paid professionals, it belongs to all God's people: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10 NIV)

Congregational church polity is also tied to soul freedom. Baptist churches are run in a democratic manner. Each member has an equal say and a right to be heard. Born again Christians can be trusted, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to help the church make wise decisions. However, congregational church polity only works if people show up at business meetings. Otherwise, the church is run by a small group of those who show up. The church is at its best when its members faithfully participate in making decisions.

Soul Freedom has both rights and responsibilities. “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10 NIV)

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Thriving Church

I recently heard a speaker say something about churches that were thriving but not growing. The phrase caught my attention. Growing churches are the ones that usually get attention. Fast growing churches get the most attention. It is generally assumed that if a church is thriving it is growing numerically but that's not always true.

One piece of advise I received early in my ministry was that, if I wanted a growing church, I needed to be in a growing community. That makes sense but God wants churches everywhere even in communities that are not growing.

Those words, “thriving but not growing,” made me think of churches that are numerically small but still have vital ministries. One is Vieux Carre Baptist Church in New Orleans' French Quarter. Their geography puts them in an are of need but not growth. They converted some Sunday School space into dorms and installed showers. They serve the homeless community and provide lodging for mission teams visiting N.O. They have a vital ministry and are thriving but not growing.

Many downtown churches provide a vital ministry to their communities. They no longer have the large numbers and sizable contributions as they did in their hey day but they are still a relevant symbol of God's love and grace. They minister to their aging congregations, minister mercy to their neighbors and share their now excess space with others who benefit the community. First Baptist Church of Bennington,Vermont, is a church that is thriving but not growing. They rent space to non-profits and find ways to minister to their clients. For example, they offer cooking classes to the teen moms that come to one program that rents space.

Baptist Temple is experiencing some numerical growth but more important we are thriving. We have hundreds of people in our building almost every day of the week (Saturdays are still a little slow). The hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the lost are saved. Our church has become, once again an important part of our community.

Gideon's reduced force of 300 were able to defeat the larger Midianite Army and a young David was able to defeat the giant Goliath. “'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty” Zechariah 4:6.

Not every plateaued church is dying and not every fast-growing church is living.

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Matthew 18:20 (NIV)

Monday, August 06, 2012

Being Baptist: Local Church Autonomy

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_CczI3LO4CjM/TU3n12AEw9I/AAAAAAAACOo/7noDjAlXFwo/s400/aca-logo-cropped%255B1%255D.jpgYesterday, the Bishop Seabury Anglican Church held its last service on the property where they had worshiped for 135 years.  In 2006 the church was one of six Connecticut congregations that decided they could no longer be a part of the Episcopal Church. The six congregations disagreed on biblical grounds with recent decisions by the national body. The Episcopal Church moved to evict them. Bishop Seabury Anglican Church appealed all the way to the SupremeCourt but lost a six year struggle. The US courts decided that the Episcopal Church owned the 165 acres and buildings that the congregation paid for, improved and maintained for over a century.

On that same Sunday I preached on the Baptist principle of local church autonomy. The Baptist movement was born out of similar conflict with the Anglican Church over 400 years ago. Some members of the Church of England believed that the Reformation had not gone far enough to correct the errors and abuses that had crept into the Church of England. The Puritans wanted to change the church from within but were frustrated because the bishops refused. Some who felt strongly about this left the Church of England and became known as Separatists. Baptists were among these Separatists. Baptists believe that, since churches in the New Testament were autonomous, each local church is a complete organization that is self governed and self supporting. Baptist churches own their own property, decide who their pastor will be, how their money will be spent, and how and if they will relate to other churches.

The rise in the number of “non-denominational” megachurches combined with the ubiquitous independent churches found in storefronts and converted homes bears witness to the growing consensus on this doctrine. Lutheran church historian, Martin Marty, called this part of the “baptistification” of the American church in a 1983 Christianity Today article.

Hierarchical forms of church government (run from the top down) gave birth to the Protestant Reformation and other church renewal movements. Political control of large numbers of people and resources are a temptation that is attractive to people who are power-hungry and lacking in scruples. Moreover, the leadership of hierarchical denominations tend to be out of touch with the people in the pews and are often more concerned with protecting the status quo than the concerns of their parishioners.

Free churches are able to choose the best programs and materials from a variety of para-church groups, Christian businesses and denominational sources. They can partner (or not) with other churches and para-church groups without losing their autonomy. They can apply biblical truth in their own context and reject teachings from national leaders whom they deem to be in error.

I commend Bishop Seabury Anglican Church for standing up for its principles and pray for their continued prosperity

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then,
and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1

Friday, August 03, 2012

Being Baptist: The birth of the Baptist movement

The Baptist movement began nearly 100 years after the birth of the Protestant Reformation and embodied the spirit of ecclesia semper reformanda est (Latin for “the church is always to be reformed”). This was one of the tenets of the Protestant Reformation.

There were Anglican Christians who believed that the Church of England had not gone far enough to correct the errors and abuses that had crept into the church. Some who felt strongest about this decided they must leave the Church of England and became known as Separatists.

Separatist John Smyth organized the first Baptist church in 1609. The name was given to them because of their practice of only baptizing believers. If salvation is by faith than the person being baptized must have faith. This is known as soul competency. Each person is free to accept or reject Christ.

These early Baptists contributed other significant reformations to the Christian faith. They believed in the autonomy of the local church; the Bible does not dictate any authority over the local church other than Jesus Christ. Baptists also championed religious liberty for all; the state should not interfere in the affairs of the church.

Other groups held these beliefs but it was this unique combination along with tenets inherited from the Protestant Reformation that continue to define Baptists. Following the principle of ecclesia semper reformanda est, Baptists throughout history have used the Bible to ensure that there doctrine and practice was pure. This led to many divisions among Baptists ever the years but the freedom to examine the scriptures and act accordingly still continues. This may explain why whenever you have two Baptists you get three opinions.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1

Monday, July 30, 2012

Being Baptist: the five solae

    The five solae refer to 5 Latin phrases that summarize the Protestant Reformation. They are:
  • Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone)
  • Sola fide (by faith alone)
  • Sola gratia (by grace alone)
  • Solus Christus (through Christ alone)
  • Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone)
Sola scriptura is the foundation of the others and was covered in a previous blog. Together they describe the way to salvation.

Three of the solae are found in Ephesians 2:8: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (NIV).

That's it. There are no rituals; no rules to follow; no symbolic acts. 

Many Baptist churches have traditions surrounding the salvation event. These include the invitation where people are invited at the end of the service to come forward and make a public profession of faith. Sometimes they are prompted with instructions to bow their heads and close their eyes. Many times the preacher will pray a model “sinners prayer” that people can repeat. These activities are not essential to salvation. All that is needed is grace (God's) and faith (in Jesus Christ).

Baptism follows a profession of faith in Christ. This is not needed for salvation. The thief on the cross made it to heaven without baptism (Luke 23:39-43). Baptism is an outward expression of an inward change.

Certainly a person who is “born again” exhibits different behavior after salvation. The Bible tells us, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Changed behavior is evidence of salvation, not a prerequisite.

Friday, July 27, 2012

VBS is the highpoint of the year for Baptist churches


I remember my first Vacation Bible School. I was on a mission trip to Miami and we were conducting a VBS at an inner city church. Veteran city missionaries Rosemarie & Mildred taught me the ropes. We began each morning with a parade down the sidewalks of our neighborhood and gathered the children.

At the church we pledged allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible. We sang songs and broke up into age groups for Bible stories and simple crafts made from a recycled margarine tubs, egg cartons and greeting cards that were held together with glue and pipe cleaners.

In the afternoon we conducted an outdoor VBS at a low income housing project on Miami's north side. And so I was introduced to a tradition that dates back to the 19th century.

Early on VBS was longer (six weeks) and found in inner city areas (New York, Chicago and Philadelphia). By the beginning of the 20th Century the Baptist Mission Society helped spread the VBS idea across America. The movement had such momentum that Standard Publishing began producing printed material in 1923.

Today VBS is the highpoint of the year for Baptist churches. It is used to bring new families into the church and expose children to the gospel. The results for most churches are increased Sunday school enrollment and new believers.

The workers get to put their faith into action. For many it is their first opportunity to serve. Some are new to the church and have a chance to get to know their fellow members while working with the kids. There is always something to do. If a church has all the teachers they need, there are opportunities in set up and take down, transportation, refreshments, publicity, etc.

It can be small and simple (some are done in back yards with less than a dozen children) or it can be an elaborate production. You can put it together yourself or you can buy elaborate kits from a variety of sources. Big or small, every church will receive a boost.

Although Baptist Temple is an inner city church with a tight budget, we were able to put together a big production thanks to some help from friends. Our VBS involved 115 children, 62 adult and youth workers from our church, and 26 young adults on a mission trip from Mimosa Lane Baptist Church. The mission group provided a big boost with their worship band, light show, movement team and recreation team. They greatly increased our worker to child ratio. Another key to the spectacular look of this year's VBS was Lifehouse Church passing down their VBS decorations to us.

More than a quarter of the children enrolled do not attend church. We expect a good number of them to join our Sunday school. Fifteen of the older children responded positively to a presentation of the gospel. Just as important was the fun the children had as they learned the Bible. The adults had fun, too (although they put in long hours). Who could ask for more?

Here are links to some great pics: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5.