Friday, June 26, 2015

A Free Church in a Free Society

For most of us who have been aware of cultural and political developments in recent years, there was little surprise in the Supreme Court ruling announced today. Personally, I was disappointed, but not surprised.

Our nation is an incredibly diverse one. Further, this nation has almost 240 years of experience in the grand experiment crafted by our Founders. This country has been an experiment in freedom. In spite of many shortcomings in our history (e.g. slavery, subjugation of women, child labor, etc.), the idea of freedom has captivated our national consciousness. Liberty is a long-held, much-treasured component of the American ideal. Often this ideal is expressed with pride when we say, "This is America!"

Seeds of liberty were sown across the spectrum in American life from the nation's inception. It took some time for the fruit to be borne both legally and socially. However, in spite of ourselves sometimes, we actually matured into a nation where institutional racism is illegal, equal rights are extended to people of all races and genders, human rights are protected and legal provisions are in place for the impoverished.

It is not--nor has it ever been--a perfect society. However, it has been a grand experiment. The impulse of freedom has penetrated urban, suburban and rural communities in historically-unprecedented fashion. Our national story is replete with untold numbers of people who have risen above their circumstances to achieve "The American Dream." In business, in political life and on the athletic fields--there have been too many inspirational stories to count. At the heart of it all is the concept of freedom. In this country we don't have to ask permission to dream. We don't have to wait on a government-assigned job. We are not subject to institutional limitations that maintain societal divisions.

So -- I would argue the experiment is working. America is a free society. People walk through their day in freedom. A typical American's day is filled with choices. Some of those choices may have a profound impact on their future. It is an amazing country that attracts millions of immigrants each year.

The other aspect of the grand experiment was to all freedom of religion. The Constitution was ratified as amended in 1789. The First Amendment guarantees the practice of religious liberty across our land. This was an unprecedented move. Our Founders were people of faith (not all of them were orthodox Christians). From the very beginning, America was to be a free society inhabited by a free church.

From a church history point of view, this proved to be an unprecedented decision. Throughout the history of Christianity there have been all kinds of relationships between Church and State. The American experiment was truly new. There was to be no persecution, no favoritism and no establishment of religion. Religious expression was to be lived out freely in the context of a free society.

So - how has that worked out?

Again, I would argue the experiment is working. It is not as clear as the State Church model. It is not as pure as the persecuted church experience. However, religion in general and Christianity in particular, has flourished in the grand American experiment.

Just as the seeds of liberty have borne the fruit of diversity in the broader American society, the resulting fruit of religious liberty is a very diverse religious family in America. It is truly the most religiously pluralistic free society on earth. Without government compulsion, but with government protection, religion has grown across America.  As already stated, Christianity in particular has truly flourished.

Today, however, we have been reminded of just how difficult it can be to live as a free church in a free society. The highest court in the land has just issued a decision that signals a major societal shift for the American culture. One of the core institutions inherited by American society from much older cultures has just be re-defined by the decision rendered by nine people.

The announcement of this decision has already given evidence of the diversity of religion in America. Christianity is not monolithic across our land. The Christian family is broadly divided across a spectrum known commonly as the right and left. Those who are more liberal in our family (the left) tend to be more embracing of a decision like this. Many of them no longer hold to the authority of the Bible in the traditional sense and thus the message they often proclaim tends to be more of a cultural echo than a prophetic voice. Those on the far right of the spectrum (fundamentalists) tend to demonstrate their anger over these types of decisions and use these times to denounce the American culture. There will be many angry voices heard across America on Sunday morning. I understand their pain and would only caution -- it is okay to get mad, rarely is it ever okay to stay mad.

However, there are many folks like me who tend to hover somewhere in the middle of that theological and religious spectrum. We are not as newsworthy, so you will hear very little from us on a day like this. Our voices are muted by the louder voices on the extremes of our family. 

On this day, I have been more reflective than reactionary. I am mulling over how to lead my particular congregation to a reasoned and Biblically-based approach to the free society around us. I am seeking wisdom from God once again as to how to embrace and love people with the love of Jesus Christ without surrendering a deep commitment to the truth He embodies. I have been driven to the Bible again for direction.

I am not given to public political opinions. I am not a politician. And--I have lived long enough to learn how fleeting political power can be. And--I have studied enough history to know how short-lived political victories can be.

I am a spiritual leader. I am a pastor. I am a follower of The Jesus Way. I am seeking God's wisdom as to how to follow faithfully and proclaim graciously the message of the Gospel in a compelling fashion that honors my belief in freedom.

I still believe in a free church in a free society. May God give us His wisdom today as to how to best be the Church for this era!


Friday, June 19, 2015

Murder in the Church

It is shocking. Just to have those two words in a sentence or title: Murder - Church.

We are all still reeling from the events in Charleston, South Carolina this week. A crazed young man interrupted a prayer meeting at a local church with unspeakable violence. How could this happen?

I will never forget March 3, 2011. It was a Thursday afternoon. I was home preparing for a Men's Retreat and my phone rang. One of our staff members informed me that something terrible had happened at NorthPointe Baptist Church. NorthPointe is a mission of our church and one of my seminary students, Clint Dobson, was serving as pastor there. I dropped everything and jumped in my car and headed to NorthPointe.

I drove into the parking lot at our mission and was met by a couple of staff members. Police cars were literally everywhere. A helicopter was overhead. SWAT police officers were surrounding the building. To say that it was surreal is an understatement.

Finally, the details emerged. The unspeakable had happened. At CHURCH. A young black man had entered our mission church and murdered our young, white pastor. He also had left the church secretary for dead after severely beating her. Miraculously she survived.

I remember thinking -- How could this have happened? At CHURCH? Is nothing sacred anymore?

Obviously, Clint's family, friends, church - and our church - have never been the same since that day. The violence perpetrated in that church has changed all of us.

When I heard about the shooting at Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church in Charleston, I couldn't help but re-live our experience just a bit. Similar emotions emerged. Similar questions surfaced. How could this have happened? At CHURCH? Is nothing sacred anymore?

This time, a crazed white man murdered several black Christians. Evidently he was motivated by his racist hatred.

When Clint was murdered, as best we know, racism was not a motivating factor. Evidently, his murderer was a young man who lived in a violence-ridden and drug-crazed environment. He needed a car, some money and a few things to sell. He killed a brilliant young pastor to satisfy his wants.


As I have reflected on it all for a couple of days, I have just been reminded of the darkness of evil and the impact of sin. Clint's murderer was (and is) a broken, sinful individual. We discovered at his trial that his days were marked by senseless acts of violence and drug use. He had no problem with abusing others to get whatever he wanted. He was even willing to kill another human being if that was what it took to meet his demands. He was even willing to walk in a church in broad daylight and murder a pastor at his desk working on Sunday's sermon.

This young man in Charleston seems to have nursed a racist perspective over the course of a lifetime. I have only briefly read about his propensities, but they are the product of a sinful mind encased in the evil of racism. He was willing to walk into a church prayer meeting and presumably kill the pastor and other parishioners just because they were black.


There are no easy answers today. There weren't any easy answers when a church was bombed in downtown Birmingham in the early 1960's. There weren't any easy answers when a crazed individual walked into a youth prayer meeting at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas back in 1999 and just started shooting. There were no easy answers that day in the parking lot at NorthPointe. 

In the face of such evil, we grieve. We grieve over the senseless loss of life. We grieve over the incredible darkness that can live in a human heart. We grieve over the reverberating pain felt by family members and survivors.

We also continue to turn to a loving God who grieves more deeply than we ever will. We turn to a loving Father who has promised us that love will outlast and overcome hatred. We turn to a loving God who personally visited our planet and entered into the suffering of humanity. We turn to a loving God who can and will bring comfort and peace to troubled souls. We turn to a loving God for strength to enable us to walk through our grief and loss with hope. We turn to a loving God who can enable us to continue to be beacons of light in the face of such darkness. We turn to a loving God who alone can bring about the transformation of human beings and deliver us from the darkness of evil in our own lives. We turn to a loving God who alone is the hope for a future where the light of His love will overcome the darkness of a broken world. We look forward to the new heaven and the new earth where there will be no more evil or death.

Until that day comes -- may God use us as His ambassadors to share His love and His hope in our own corner of the world. May we be able to share the love and hope of Jesus with others so that hatred, racism, violence would be overwhelmed. 

I also must say that we acknowledge that evil has penetrated the walls of our churches. Yes, there have been murders at church. But, the church itself has not been murdered. In fact, the church opens its doors for murderers, drug abusers, racists and all sinners ----- yes, the church is open for business in Arlington, Birmingham, Ft. Worth and Charleston today. The church is open and at work. The church continues to say to everyone, "Come inside. Find hope for your life. Find rest for your soul. Find answers for your questions. Find beauty in your ashes. Find healing for your pain."

May God have mercy on all of us today.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Churches and Transition (4)

Our conversation continues. Churches must learn to deal with transitions. As I have written earlier on this blog, churches are not trying to "keep up with the Jones" (or the Kardashians) -- but they must recognize the reality of change all around them.

Let me remind you of what we have already learned. Churches that are learning how to proclaim the unchanging message of the Gospel in the face of changing times have engaged themselves in the following:



Now -- let's look at a third exercise:


Thing of your church as an arena of ministry offerings. How well do you (as a leader) understand these ministries? Why is your church engaged in them in the first place? Do they match the giftedness and identity of your church? Is the history of the church an issue? What kind of staff do you have in place? What kind of staff do you need? Who are the leaders of the church? What kind of training do you offer for your leaders?

I usually encourage new pastors to take some time to become familiar with the congregational "atmosphere" of a congregation. Before you can make strategic and substantial changes in a church, you need to understand the true makeup of the church.

Remember -- if you are new in particular -- those members have been there a while. They have a certain perspective of their church. It is an "understood" reality for many of them. The general atmosphere simply flows through the ventilation system of the church! Everyone is breathing the same air!

At one church where I served, I asked the leaders of the church to describe the church to me as if it were a person. They took their time to evaluate their response. Finally, this is what they told me: Our church is a middle-aged, balding accountant. He started his own business a few years ago and was really excited about the possibilities. The early expansion of his business exceeded his expectations and the experience was thrilling. However, in the past 15 years or so, business has flattened out and the enthusiasm has waned. He is a bit more cautious now and somewhat content with reality.

Wow! That was insightful! It helped me understand how these leaders viewed the church.

One church where I served had an air of formality about it. It was like a well-pointed dinner with nameplates at each setting. The folks at the table were well-dressed and well-mannered. It just had a "proper" feel to it. I had to learn to lead the church appropriately.

Where I serve today, our church is more like a family picnic. There are paper plates and barbecue everywhere. There is more of a festive atmosphere and everyone is welcome!

My point? You need to explore the arena of your own congregation. What are the primary gifts of the people in your place of ministry? How are you using those gifts? Who are the people in your church? Do they match the overall makeup of the community as well? How can God more effectively use the gifts of the people in ministries that serve the interests of God's Kingdom?

Take time to evaluate and assess the budget of your church. How are you spending money? What priorities are reflected through those expenditures? What does the budget communicate? What are some ways to adjust the budget? What changes might be made to bring the ministries more in line with where God is leading you?

I guess what I am after here is this -- take some time to explore who your church really is. Take your history into consideration. Talk to some long time members. Ask them to help you figure this out. Ask them how they have handled change in the past.

Once you understand the DNA of the church, you are much more equipped and prepared to lead it into the next era of ministry.