Saturday, August 29, 2009

Communion is more than the bread and the cup

The celebration of communion became a deep worship experience for me when I was deployed to Kuwait a few years ago. I could not go to church every Sunday and appreciated every worship opportunity that was provided.

I went to the “contemporary” service first but discovered that, when stripped of its entertainment value a good band and a dynamic preacher, this style of worship left me empty. I went to the liturgical service where the scriptures, litanies and hymns reminded me of the transcendence of God. For a brief period the war was forgotten and I had respite from the burdensome worries that beleaguered me.

The highlight for me was the celebration of communion. Scholars have argued for centuries over the theology of the Lord’s Supper but all agree that it is important. Most of us understand that there is something more than just the bread and wine present during this ritual instituted by our Lord.

This Sunday I will be preaching on some of the biblical teachings of this ceremony and will podcast the message on this blog.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Internships that build the Kingdom

When I was in seminary, I was told that nearly 50% of seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years of graduation. There are many reasons for this but a lack of a need for trained ministers is not one of them.

Many drop out because they can’t find a paying job or an adequate salary. Others burn out from the stress of ministry or family pressure. Most, I believe, drop out due to inadequate preparation. Seminaries and Bible Colleges do an excellent job of academic preparation but it is not enough. Head knowledge is no substitute for practical experience.

Compounding the problem is the reality that churches today have higher expectations of their pastors in regards to business, technical and leadership skills than in the past. Yet, these are not part of the standard seminary curriculum.

What is needed is a partnership between the academic institutions and the local church that gives students real ministry responsibilities under the mentorship and coaching of a pastor. Ideally the ministry student will learn how to work with church leaders to get things done (the most important task not taught in seminary), how to handle conflict, and recovering from mistakes. Even such seemingly mundane tasks as follow up phone calls and other administrative duties show a side of ministry not available in the classroom

The church gets some benefits in having a student increase the ministry’s impact. More important, however, is supporting the Great Commission by producing highly trained workers for the harvest field.

Baptist Temple has one such intern in April Puckett and is working with the Baptist University of the Americas to recruit others. BUA Professor Mario Ramos and VP of Student Development Marconi Monteiro both strongly believe in the power of mentoring to develop tomorrow’s church leaders. They are eager to work with local churches and other groups to better train their students and impact the community for Christ.

The secular world also sees the value in work experience as part of the learning process. In his book, Recession Proof Graduate, Charlie Hoehn recommends recent college graduates work for free at a major company. Doing so, he says, gives you solid experience to put on your resume and starts building the network you will need to find a paying job.

When counting the cost Hoehn suggests that a person might spend $100,000 on an MBA and still not have the type of experience needed to land the job they want. Free work, he argues, is cheaper and has a greater impact on your job prospects.

There are plenty of churches out there for ministry students to find a place of service, but that service must be meaningful if the internship is to be successful. Interns need to have some sort of recognition of their office and their tasks must have a direct impact on the church’s ministry.

It is the ministry students who start well by finding places of service where they can gain experience that will finish well. They will, also, have the greatest overall impact on the Kingdom.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nic at Night

Sunday's message:Nic at Night.mp3 (John 3:1-8)

Salvation requires a radical change that can only be brought about supernaturally by the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Crossing cultural divides

I had an opportunity to talk to some seminary students about cross cultural ministry today. They are working in a church where the members are primarily middle class Anglos but the transitioning community is primarily poor Hispanics. They are tasked with the community outreach ministry. They have had much success with ESL and youth sports programs but cannot get the community folk into Sunday school and worship.

Their frustration highlights the complicated nature of multicultural (and transitional) churches. Although the Anglo church has taken steps to reach out to the community there are still some challenges to overcome.

There are language barriers, cultural differences, socioeconomic disparity and more. While church members may be willing to make adjustments, the unchurched have no compelling reason to come to worship. So, the big challenge is the fact that the unchurched are…well…unchurched.

Just because a person comes for English classes and brings their kids for soccer doesn’t mean that they are agreeing to Sunday worship. It does, however, offer an opportunity to build a friendship. Multiple contacts over time and the working of the Holy Spirit are the keys to soul-winning.

If the prospects won’t come to church, they might attend a home-based Bible discussion group. They primary objective ought to be community building with light Bible discussion. As the group develops cohesiveness, more serious Bible study can be introduced.

There’s no guarantee that they will come to the Sunday morning main event but it does provide an opportunity for witness and discipleship.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Why I came back to Sunday school

I strayed from Sunday school for many years. I was told that the Sunday school era was over. It confined people to a certain hour on a certain day; growth would be limited by the size of building, etc.

Small groups were the thing. The unlimited space and scheduling options promised the potential for megachurch results. There were rumors of super churches in Korea and other far away places. Furthermore, this model was used successfully by AA, Campus Crusade and other parachurch groups.

As a church planter (usually lacking buildings) this was good news. I read all the books I could find, I went to a few training events and I diligently started small groups that multiplied. I even used home-based small groups when I had church buildings.

I had as much success as anyone in my corner of the world but I was growing weary of stagnant groups, absenteeism (work, school, sick, etc.), and childcare issues. I noticed that our local megachurch was doing things a little different. Their groups met on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the church. This not only provided a consistent and familiar location but also childcare. AND they were showing remarkable growth.

I took this to be a revelation and moved our small groups to Sunday morning. People were already there for worship and there was childcare available. The results were immediate: reduced stress, increased attendance and new members.

I believe that small groups are essential to a healthy, growing church and can be done just as easily (perhaps, easier) on Sunday morning as they are on any other day and time. On Sunday you have the advantage of mutual supporting activities. This doesn’t rule out other small groups but Sunday school is far from dead.

Read more about Basic Christian Community.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Do You Want To Get Well?

Offering help is complicated. Jesus once encountered a paralytic by the pool at Bethesda (John 5:1-15). He had been in this condition for 38 years but no one would take him into the healing waters. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

Is this an insensitive question to ask this poor man? It may have addressed some other questions people had but would not voice.
“Why doesn’t he crawl?”
“Why didn’t his friends help him?”
“Where is his family?”

Jesus’ question cut to the very center of the man’s heart and exposed the motives that lay deep within. He had relied upon others to make his way in life. He would no longer have an excuse for the condition of his life. Healing would mean he would need to work and assume responsibilities.

Questions bring clarity and help us to understand the real need. Jesus asked many questions.
“Who do you say that I am?”
“Why do you call me good?”
"Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?"
“Do you want to get well?”

Jesus often involved the person in the process of healing. He told a blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam (JN 9:7) and ten lepers to go the priest (LK 17:11-19). It seems to me that an individual seeking help needs to work harder than those who are offering help. Otherwise, wouldn’t our “help” actually be enabling. Jesus the told this man, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

Another wrinkle is added when Jesus tells the man, “See, you are well. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”

Jesus is reminding us that crisis situations tend to have a spiritual dimension. To another paralytic Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven,” before healing him (MT 9:6).

A person seeking help has opened up a door for ministry. The church, both gathered and scattered, is a source of blessing to everyone who is in need. We must be good stewards not just of the resources provided to us by God through His people but, also, of the opportunity to have a life-changing impact on a person’s life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Offering help is complicated but asking questions, empowering the person to help themselves, and being mindful of the person’s spiritual condition can lead to a blessed outcome.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. Acts 2:44-45

The second chapter of Acts is the model that everyone wants to emulate when it comes to being the church. The idea of helping each other in time of need is one of the core values of Christianity that goes back to the Old Testament.

For the poor will never cease from among the land; therefore I command you, saying, “you shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.” Deuteronomy 15:11

The harmony of Acts 2 is disturbed by the discord of Acts 6. It seems that there was a perception that the food distribution ministry was being mishandled (v.1). There were also some apparent abuses because Paul had to declare, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10b).

The early church selected some church members to manage the benevolence ministry so that the people’s needs could be met with the level of care that they deserved. Thus the deacon ministry was launched.

Two important principles emerge:
1. We need to support church members in a time of need.
2. The ministry needs to be organized so that people’s needs are met in a timely and appropriate manner.

Many churches have benevolence policies that address the disbursement of funds but the real need is spiritual. The easy thing to do is have a policy with a set spending limit and tell the person not to come back for six months or a year. Now, the church can’t be accused of not caring but has this person been helped?

People who fall into financial distress and turn to the church may be lacking a social support network. Acts 2 is all about that social support network. The early Christians were a tight knit community. You probably didn’t need to ask for help because everyone knew your situation.

True help does not come from the church or a well-written policy. True help comes from people. True help will come as a caring person (deacon, Sunday school teacher, etc) who will sit down, listen and ask questions to get to the root of the problem. What are all the needs? What are the available resources? Is this going to happen again? How can we help you help yourself?

Money is rarely the solution. Caring church members who will make some phone calls, do some internet research, and think through the situation can turn a person’s life around. Sunday school classes that offer support and follow up are worth much more than paying a bill.

Every situation is different and needs a personal touch. The issue can be complicated but we need remember that the type of help a church offers must be different than a secular social service agency. Our primary offering is Jesus.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The myth of Hispanic family values

Everyone knows that Hispanics place a high value on family. However, no one goes on to explain what that means. Some Hispanic immigrants value “family” so much that they have two; one in the States and one back home. Perhaps family values explain why nearly 50% of all children born to Hispanic mothers in the U.S. are born out of wedlock.

The myth is so strong that facts will not shake it. I was sitting with a group of Anglo and African American ministers in a class about the role of ethnicity in ministry. When I challenged the statement that Hispanics place family above everything, they looked at me like I had challenged the Virgin Birth. They refused to believe me. What could a Cuban-born pastor of a Hispanic church in New Orleans know about Hispanic families?

It is extremely troubling that ministers (especially Hispanic ones) have bought into this. They myth leads churches to ignore the fact that a great number of Hispanic families are dysfunctional. I was a pastor in a predominately Hispanic area (77%) north of Chicago. There were ministries for crisis pregnancy, teen mom support groups, court mandated parenting classes and gang prevention whose clients were almost all Hispanic. They were all run by Anglo churches.

It wasn’t because the Hispanic churches were not capable. There were 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants in the community; there were doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians and wealthy businessmen. Perhaps perpetuating the myth that Hispanics value family more than Anglos do requires that we Hispanics shun the divorced, hide the teen moms and never speak about child abuse or domestic violence.

The Spanish-language ministry of Baptist Temple is reaching out to single moms and blended families. We don’t expect a lot of competition from other churches. This is unfortunate because dysfunctional Hispanic families need support and the peace that only Jesus can provide.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

We are more than conquerors

When some people see a light at the end of the tunnel, they assume it’s an oncoming train. Their autopilot function is instant negativity. This beyond a glass is half full or half empty. This is a fatalistic world view that impedes progress in both individuals and groups.

People living in chronic poverty (both economic and spiritual) are trapped not only by external circumstances but also by their own disbelief that life can be any better. There is a reason why the message of Jesus Christ is called “Good News” (gospel means good news).

Paul about the Christian’s attitude:
“…in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)

Christian leaders need to bring a message of hope to a people who are depressed and defeated; a message that echoes the Word of God: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2 & Matthew 4:16)

Both hope and despair are contagious. Leaders can influence which attitude will control the future. Lead from the front by encouraging people who are excited about their faith and are making things happen. Avoid spending too much time trying to please negative people. You can wind up losing focus on the mission.

I’m not saying that complaints ought to be ignored. Leaders need to listen carefully and act appropriately but it is the people with positive attitudes who have the vision and capacity to make whatever adjustments might be needed. The chronically negative, on the other hand, will never be satisfied.

Chronic negativity is a spiritual problem. It demonstrates a lack of faith that God is winning. It doubts that, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Only the Holy Spirit can defeat the spirit of pessimism that impoverishes the souls of people who give in to despair.

Leaders that God uses have a Holy Spirit driven vision of a future where God is in control and expanding the Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. They believe in the power of prayer. They see setbacks and obstacles not as defeat but as challenges to overcome and problems to solve. They believe, “I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31