There's a lot to untangle in the connection with FBC Jacksonville and FBC Fairview Heights. For starters, both Heath and I are from Louisville KY. We attended the same middle school. We were at rival high schools (duPont Manual and Louisville Male). We both attended Southern for our masters and doctoral degrees. We both out kicked our coverage in marriage. We both love our families. Heath has the lead in brain surgeries though, and I'm not interested in competing with him on that!
FBC Fairview Heights has a lengthy history as well. It's not nearly as star-studded or influential within the Convention as FBC Jax, but it's been a constant in the Southern Illinois area since before Lincoln was born, and in its current identity for almost 175 years. Its history and influence has been more local and regional than national, but it's a church with a worthy heritage. We were blessed during the season before our arrival with an incredible amount of assistance and support from the Illinois Baptist State Association, in no small part because they also recognized the strategic importance of FBC Fairview Heights moving forward and the historic importance the church has served in the state.
One of the areas where FBC Jax and FBC Fairview Heights overlap is a long period of decline. Most churches will experience periods of decline at some point. Even during their heyday, it's hard for a church to sustain year over year growth for long periods of time. That's why so few churches sustain multigenerational growth trends. They come. They go. They ebb. They flow. They reflect economic trends of jobs in the community, they're often tied to a visionary leader (Homer Lindsay at FBC Jax and Charley Westbrook at FBC Fairview Heights), and they come through a blend of conversion and transfer growth. People are coming to Christ and joining, and people are moving to the area and joining to share and participate in the church's mission. Much like a movement of revival or a really special point in history, it's rarely sustained.
Those names requesting to leave their membership, who moved away, who left because of decisions or conflict or discouragement or who never gave a reason, all of them were friends with people who stayed. And those who stayed through all of the hardship have stories of heartbreak, sometimes even within their own family. That discouragement wasn't abstract, it was real and personal. My heart sank a few weeks ago when a teenager in our church shrugged and said "Who cares? It's not like anyone stays." FBC Jax, a stalwart in Florida and a miracle in downtown Jacksonville, experienced much of the same. And their decline started during a season where everyone felt like things were going well. Heath talks about a picture that arrested him because he realized the church was already several years into its decline and people still thought of it as the heyday. FBC Fairview Heights likely has a similar picture from 2006 when its decline was picking up steam but wasn't noticed.
I've been blessed to come into a situation where the sense was more optimistic to the future of what could happen at our church. We still have a larger facility and deferred maintenance we're catching up on, but thankfully we don't own 12 blocks with parking garages. That optimism didn't come because of us or the search team, it came because the church finally had enough of decline and had enough of the way things had always been. They got serious about it and put together a Re-Focus Team, working with the state convention and key leaders to work through where we'd been and what could happen in the future. They identified 5 key findings:
1. A broken culture and structure that needed to be overhauled
2. Communication had been lacking which stirred questions and information vacuums
3. A lack of engagement across generations and seasons of life
4. A lost sense of purpose
5. A need for leadership to show the way towards church health, spiritual maturity, and growth
We have our struggles ahead of us. In fact, as I'm writing this, I'm mapping out what it will look like in a few weeks when our Re-Focus team shares its work with the whole church and I'll lay out a vision for what 2030 could look like if we'll commit ourselves towards a renewed sense of purpose, health, and structure. Difficult decisions will undoubtedly come. You don't get change without pain, and you don't get growth without change. That's why the aches a teenager experiences are called "growing pains," they're an inevitable companion. Much like FBC Jax, we at FBC Fairview Heights will have to look long and hard in the mirror and be willing to put aside "the way we'd always done it" to recognize the necessity of change, not for change's sake or to offer a quick fix, but because if we're going to course correct our past we have to embrace a future that looks different than the way we've been doing things.
FBC Jax had to make difficult decisions to pull back its footprint in downtown Jacksonville. They had to right-size a staffing structure that was unsustainable. They had to recapture an outward focus to take the Gospel to their neighbors and communities rather than act like it was Field of Dreams (if they built it, the people would come), and they had to be willing to put aside their own personal preferences and personal perspectives for the sake of the Body and for the cause of the Gospel. Heath modeled that by yielding preferences for wisdom. It's an example worth following.
I'm listening intently to the FBC Jax podcast because there's much to parallel with my own situation. We're a church who wants to be healthy, who wants to reach people, who wants to make an eternal impact. And step-by-step, Sunday by Sunday, we'll get there. I have full confidence in that because it's much easier to steer a ship when the engine is running than it is to steer one sitting still. FBC Jax is several years ahead of where we are in the process and in the turnaround. We're still navigating what a pared down normal looks like in terms of volunteer expectations/capacity, giving/budgeting projections, and ministry restarting. Through those, I'm seeing glimpses of where God is at work and what good will come from this season of difficulty and hardship. It's a small blip. But I've zoomed in many times to the 2022 & 2023 increase in people as a testimony to God's faithfulness. If you're reading this and you're a long-time FBC Fairview Heights member, I want you to be encouraged that things are slowly starting to turn around. We're seeing good things. We're seeing signs of life. We're seeing an attitudinal shift towards optimism and joy. It's there. We're getting there.
Most of all, I'm listening to the podcast because it's a reminder that if a church will commit itself and not give up its mission, the lamp will stay lit and the best days can be ahead. Here's hoping what God has done on Ashley Street can happen on Lincoln Trail.
This is a cool video put together by IBSA to highlight the work happening at FBC Fairview Heights and what it's been like since we arrived. They did a great job!
That's what made today's conversation with the drive thru staff so impactful. Here's how it goes:
"Order for Scott, egg white grill with jelly. I hope it's ok, we're actually out of jelly right now."
"Oh yeah that's fine. It happens!"
"Thanks for saying that. I just got cussed out for not having jelly. Lady screamed at me that she wouldn't have ordered had she known."
"You mean someone got that angry and screamed and cussed you out... over jelly?"
"Yeah. It happens way more than you'd realize."
How sad. How disappointing. And of all people to have that happen to someone who still has to serve with a smile and a "my pleasure." On what planet is a plastic packet of jelly worth losing your bananas over? The worst part was that for that CFA employee, it was just another Thursday for her.
It's no secret in the restaurant industry that servers and staff least want to work one shift (hint: it's not Friday night happy hour or Saturday double shifts). It's Sunday lunch. Don't believe me? Ask anyone who works in the restaurant or service industry. The same people who sing about the goodness of God and how grace is amazing are the same people who have a reputation for berating waitstaff, being overly difficult with their orders, and leaving corny tracts in place of tips.
One of the undervalued fruit of the Spirit is kindness. We focus on the others, but in the middle of a list of fruits that result from new life is a simple word: kindness. It's a lacking fruit among far too many of us who claim the name of Jesus. None of us are immune. In fact I'd say I'm not the only one who's had a frustrating experience and then had to walk it back with an apology. That's some humble pie to have to eat. But when we fire off comments on Facebook that function like a knife rather than an edification, when we rudely dismiss someone serving us for lunch, or when we blow off someone we pass by, we're serving rotten fruit.
The heart of kindness goes all the way back to Eden. There we're told that humanity is created in the image and after the likeness of God. There is, as theologians have described, a "spark of the divine" in each person. That image bearing doesn't cease. It doesn't cease when you get Diet Coke instead of Coke. It doesn't cease when you get cut off in traffic. It doesn't cease when you don't get grape jelly with your chicken biscuit.
Mark out your life this week with kindness. Kindness isn't fake and kindness isn't over the top. The subtlety of kindness is that it's found in the simplest ways of courtesy and dignity. It's honoring the "spark of the divine" in someone else and speaking to them in a way that magnifies that dignity, not belittles it. It echoes the words of Paul in Colossians 4 that the way we speak be "seasoned with grace."
You never know, the person you show that kindness to might have just been cussed out for something as simple as not having jelly.
A few years ago while we were still living in Florida we discovered that for the price of a couple Starbucks drinks a week we could outsource getting our yard work done. I guess there were some perks to having a small yard! While the idea of letting someone else mow and weedeat in the oppressive humidity of a Florida July sounded awesome, we ended up deciding not to. It wasn't a financial decision, it was a sanity decision.
I need to mow my grass. Not because I can do it better, or that I can do it faster. But I needed to do it as a way of replenishing my soul and decompressing for a bit. All of this is fresh too as I stare out my living room window at the yard I mowed and the fence I pressure washed. Pastors, can I offer this bit of counsel to you? If possible, cut your own grass.
It gives your mind a break - So much of what we do in ministry is mentally taxing. It's not necessarily physically taxing, although the hours and days can be long. As I heard one pastor say about counseling young men to ministry "It has its advantages, it's an inside job without a lot of heavy lifting." The weariness of a week in ministry often comes from the mental toll. Sunday preparation is tough and is an all-consuming mental (and emotional and spiritual) exercise. Don't believe me? Try preaching the minor prophets sometime. Cutting your grass helps give your mind a break. I love it. Go one way in a straight line, turn the mower around, and come back the other way in a straight line. Repeat as necessary.
It engages your body - Again, a lot of this I say as someone who's in full time vocational ministry. It can be a largely sedentary job, a lot of sitting. Getting a sweat, getting some steps in, and exercising your body for a while does nothing but good to your heart. And sweat I've found often has a healing property to it, that we can sweat out our stresses and the weights we carry around us.
It's a job that can be finished - This was the biggest thing I remarked about when we were trying to decide to outsource yard work or not. I don't love it. But I need it. So much of ministry is unfinished business. Sure Sundays come and go and you have to have your message ready in the can. But you'll never "finish" preaching. You'll never finish staffing. There will always be things to deal with. You'll never finish counseling. There will always be crises. You'll never finish discipleship. There will always be growth opportunities. You'll never finish financial management. There'll always be something that breaks. What I love about cutting my grass is that when it's done, it's done. I can step back, see the lines in the yard, and be done. It's a project. And I can finish it.
What do you do that helps you disengage your mind for a bit? Is it woodworking? Is it golf? Is it something else? Or do you find the same satisfaction I do in seeing a nicely mowed lawn?
A while back I was talking with a colleague in ministry and we were talking about lessons we've learned in pastoring and serving in churches. I quipped "I feel like of all the things I've learned is that 75% of pastoring is just not being a jerk." I'll be honest, it was a throwaway line. I didn't think much of it except that I've seen way too many jerks in churches shipwreck their ministries, discourage and damage the church, and leave ripple effects that are still there long after they've left.
Since then I've reflected more on it, and really believe there is something to the simple statement of "don't be a jerk." Most of the wounds that we take in ministry, and I say this from firsthand experience, are self-inflicted. It's not that someone is taking shots at us, it's that we're punching ourselves in the face and then wondering why our nose hurts. One of the easiest ways is just not to be a jerk.
Jerks use their sermons as a cannon, not a banquet - The time we're preaching is an opportunity for us to bring spiritual food to the church. We've spent all week preparing and studying, we've crafted the menu and we're lifting the lid to present them with a spiritual meal to sustain them, help them grow, strengthen them, comfort them, challenge them, and help them be more like Jesus. Jerks use their sermons as a chance to take shots at people, or passive-aggressively deal with things without naming names or using vague illustrations.
Jerks view their team as disposable, not resources - I say this primarily to those who are in first chair positions, the ministry team (staff and volunteers) around you are an asset, a resource, and a blessing. I think about the times I've been the new guy and how helpful those established staff members were to navigate things as simple as "where's the nearest Chick-Fil-A" to more complex things like "Why don't those two people get along?" Jerks look at their team as disposable pieces who are at best a tolerable nuisance and at worst a threat to their position.
Jerks view sheep as a threat - The image of a pastor is that of a shepherd, one who provides for and cares for the sheep. Sure the sheep may bite occasionally and nip our hands, but by and large our calling as shepherds is to come alongside the sheep and invest ourselves in them. Good shepherds are willing to get dirty, to do hard things, and occasionally get nipped by a sheep because they love the sheep and want the best for them. Jerks look at the nipping sheep as a threat, and the non-nipping sheep as a potential threat. They're not concerned with providing for the sheep or caring for them, they want the sheep to serve them and view people as a roadblock to ministry.
Jerks think everything is a nail and hammer accordingly - There are times that a pastor's toolbox needs a hammer, and times that we exercise strong leadership, even confrontational leadership. But a good shepherd sees what tool is required and uses the right one for the purpose. Jerks look at fragile glass as a nail and themselves as the hammer. Of course what happens is destruction. Hammers aren't meant for fragile glass.
Finally, jerks don't see themselves at fault, it's always someone else - The street prophet Taylor Swift nails it when she sings "It's me, hi, I'm the problem. It's me." There's a lot of wisdom to take from that to own up to our faults, to own our mistakes. Sometimes an event that we plan and pour ourselves into tanks. It just happens. A good shepherd will look at that and learn from it, recognize their own faults and mistakes, and grow from it. A jerk is going to look for someone else to blame because it couldn't possibly be them.
Pastors, be a good shepherd. Don't be a jerk. And if you are a jerk, there's no better time than now to do a heart check and get help to be the shepherd and leader God wants you to be.
Every now and then we’re posed with existential questions that cause us to dive deep into the meaning of a word. Haddaway asked us “What is love?” in the 1990s. Tom Brady in 2001 asked us “What is a fumble?”
All levity aside, these questions are a way of bringing out a conversation and a question arising during the SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim this week. Sadly we weren’t able to make it out to California for the meeting this year. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to have plenty of beignets to go with our ballots.
The existential question coming from the meeting centered around a recommendation by the Credentials Committee to look at the issue of women pastors, particularly as it relates to Saddleback Church. Yes, they are SBC.
And that’s where it gets weird. In our convention of churches, you’ve got Saddleback and the Purpose-Driven model. You’ve also got Grace Church in Cape Coral Florida which is the home of the Founders Ministries. You’ve also got Steven Furtick and Elevation Church in Charlotte. And then you’ve got my church and (if you’re SBC) your church. You have Clifton Church in Louisville that has elders with more PhDs than you can count. You have multisite churches like Summit in RDU and you’ve got Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington DC. You’ve got traditional churches that sing all four verses in the hymnal and you’ve got churches that set off fire alarms from the smoke machines. You also have divides over things like politics and promoting candidates (looking at you FBC Dallas) and what the extent of the atonement is.
It’s long been said that if you put two Baptists in a room you’ll have three opinions. And there’s no shortage of opinions on SBC Twitter or on the floor of the annual meeting. One of the reasons for this is the very question of what it means to be Southern Baptist. If you look on the SBC website you’ll see a phrase “The SBC is a collection of like-minded churches working in cooperation with one another to impact the whole world with the Good News of Jesus Christ.” Before any discussion of what it means to be like-minded, it’s key to begin with Article 3 of the SBC constitution that defines what it means for a church to be in “friendly cooperation” with the convention.
One of the cherished and historic Baptist distinctives from our early days (however early is up for debate) has been religious liberty and soul competency, but above all the autonomy of the local church. In other words, our churches cannot be compelled to do anything by an ecclesial office or person. Each church sets its own name, owns its own property, and has the authority to govern itself without influence from Nashville. That includes determining a church’s statement of faith. Our own governing documents at Emmanuel has an explanation of our beliefs with a statement that we are in general agreement with the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. Your church may have something slightly different. Some copy/paste the BFM. Others add the 1689 London Confession. Some use the 1963 BFM. I bet there’s a few out there who use the original 1925 BFM. Others may add additional statements that have come into usage in the last few years, whether those be the Danvers, Nashville, Chicago, the Statement on Social Justice, or more. The point is that in any of these, the local church alone has the authority to determine its own statement of faith.
The question of “What makes a Southern Baptist” isn’t so much its statement of faith. That’s important. But it’s not the defining issue. The defining issue is a joining of mutual, voluntary cooperation between churches for the sake of the Gospel to the nations. That nature of cooperation works both ways. The Convention has the right to determine who is and who isn’t deemed in the convention, and churches have the right to decide if they want to join or withdraw. We are a confessional people. What we believe matters. But we are not a creedal people. Our churches cannot be compelled to affirm the BFM 2000 in order to be deemed in friendly cooperation. Our entities, however, can be compelled. They are not churches. They are separate legal entities which operate by the will and for the service of the churches. They can require employees, faculty, and trustees to affirm the BFM 2000. They can expect faculty to teach in accordance with and not contrary to its governing documents and statements of faith. Faculty at our seminaries are bound by Christian integrity to hold to these positions without mental reservation. Why? They’re not churches.
The SBC has always been a bigger tent than some would like. And maybe it hasn’t been big enough for others. The reality is when you put almost 50,000 churches across a spectrum of what we believe about a number of secondary issues in the same tent, there’s going to be some clowns. Our fellowship of churches and our cooperation has always existed with a very tenuous unity. I think about the scene from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly where everyone is in a standoff. No one’s firing their guns…. yet.
One of the tension points that we must understand as Southern Baptists is that we will be in partnership and cooperation with people who don’t do things the way we do in our church. Look at the affinity groups that meet at the SBC annual meeting. There are so many different groups, different backgrounds, different perspectives. And they all physically gather in the same meeting space as a visible reminder that we are all on the same team. Yes, I even would argue that there is room in the SBC for groups like Founders and the CBN. I don’t like either of them. I think they’re fringe and they have an agenda to proxy coup. But, provided they’re willing to voluntarily cooperate for the sake of the mission and for the Gospel to get to the nations through our convention mechanisms (ie the Cooperative Program) then while I wouldn’t attend any of your events I would affirm you as a fellow Southern Baptist. The key element in this is that we must be willing to cooperate with those different than us. It’s a two-way street. Some won’t cooperate or won’t play ball unless they get their way. That’s not the Baptist way. It’s not even the Christian way.
The second tension point is that we’re going to look at “closely identifies” and have to wrestle with what that means for a church to closely identify. We’ve been pretty clear by protocol, practice, and governing documents that a church which affirms the LGBT lifestyle is out of cooperation with the Convention, and recently that churches which harbor and retain sexual abusers as pastors/leaders are out of cooperation. Since the 2000 BFM adoption we’ve been pretty clear that a church with a woman lead pastor is out of cooperation.
Once we get past those, we’re in the Saddleback situation. In article VI of the BFM 2000 we read “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” And here we need charitable clarity to move forward within our tension points. As said on Twitter by two seminary presidents, words matter.
A recommendation by the Credentials Committee was presented to the messengers to put together a study group to present to the 2023 SBC in New Orleans additional clarity regarding the “office of pastor.” Their reasoning was that there are many different offices within Baptist churches which include “pastor” in the title, though often with very different responsibilities and authority. I had hoped it would pass, and a study group could be formed. I was disappointed it was rescinded by Credentials after some passionate discussion. Not because I think it was a back door attempt to legitimize women pastors (it’s not, and I was disappointed to see some run with that) but because it is a legitimate issue that demands greater clarity so the messengers and our churches can be better informed. It’s long been debated that the “office of pastor” is the lead/senior pastor, or in a church that has them, the elders. It’s opened debate on the nuance of office & function of pastor, especially in relation to the pulpit and whether or not a woman can address/preach/teach the Body in corporate worship. The Greenway amendment to add to the study group to define what it means for a church to have a confession of faith that “closely identifies” was wise, and I was again disappointed to see it voted down.
Many of our churches use pastor and offer a qualifier not found in Scripture to add to the office. There’s no biblical office of youth pastor, music pastor, small groups pastor, pastor of experience, pastor emeritus, or any combination role you can think of that has pastor in it. There is one biblical office of pastor, pastor. So what does that mean? How do we best practice our ecclesiology within our confessional statements and how we identify leadership and the scope of authority/responsibility? How we’ve handled this at Emmanuel is that we have made a distinction between paid/vocational ministry staff and those whom we use the word pastor to describe. We believe that elders/pastors are qualified men, but we do not believe that all ministry leaders have to be pastors. For those who are given the title of pastor (myself and before they moved away our volunteer associate pastor and our bivocational music/kids pastor) there is a greater expectation and responsibility. Pastors preach. Pastors shepherd. Pastors care for the body. Pastors are personal examples of being above reproach. Maybe your church does it a little different. And that’s fine. You do you. We’ll do us.
I have three hopes for the next 12 months:
Should Saddleback remain in the SBC? Here’s my two cents: No, they probably shouldn’t. And they should be the one to make the break. It’s ok. There’s no harm in saying “Hey guys, we’ve moved away from where we were on these issues. And we know you have your convictions. We love you. We’ll pray for you. And we’ll be cheering you on as we go our separate ways.” Rick Warren is a peacemaker, and has treated those with whom he disagrees with kindness though remaining firm in his convictions. Psalm 133 tells us it’s good when God’s people live together in unity. There’s some fractures in the relationship. Maybe it’s best before New Orleans for the break to happen. I know some won’t like that or agree. That’s fine. We’re Baptist, we have to be fine with not agreeing!
In the preamble to the BFM 2000, we read “Baptist churches, associations, and general bodies have adopted confessions of faith as a witness to the world, and as instruments of doctrinal accountability. We are not embarrassed to state before the world that these are doctrines we hold precious and as essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice.” Let’s hold our cherished beliefs dear, let’s hold them firmly, and let’s move forward towards charitable clarity as we continue to do the work of defining how it best we live out our cooperative relationships and our shared faith.
During my time as a student pastor, graduation season was always a bittersweet experience. It was a joy to see students we'd invested years in cross the stage and receive their diplomas. Leading up to that I'd often be asked to write recommendation letters for college applications and scholarships. But it was tough because for some, that would be the last time they'd be involved in a local church, or it would be some of their last participation in our student ministry.
Over the weekend, one of my favorite Twitter follows, The Wrestling Pastor, put out a tweet that was hilarious if not for its accuracy. One of the realities that comes with graduation season is that for some student ministers, they'll be handing graduation recognition to students they've never met. Maybe it's their grandparents who want them to be recognized, or they were nominally involved in the life of the ministry so you didn't get the benefit of getting to know them. It can be frustrating if we're honest. I know I had that many times handing a gift and recognizing graduates I didn't know.
But I think we should still recognize our graduates. And I think it's important for churches to carve out time in a worship service to celebrate their accomplishments.
1. It's Good to Celebrate - It's been a really lousy last few years, hasn't it? Think about it for your graduates. Their life for the last two years has been completely thrown off. The things that they normally would have like homecomings, proms, senior celebrations, are all either cancelled or dramatically altered because of COVID. They've lost a lot in a short time. So celebrate something good happening.
2. Milestones are important in faith formation - We do this with other milestones in the local church. We celebrate baby dedication (which is really parent dedication, but the parents aren't the cute ones) where the church and the parents commit to investing in the child. We celebrate professions of faith and baptisms. We recognize God's work in people's lives when they commit themselves to Him, follow His call to ministry/missions, and other benchmarks in their lives. Graduation does the same thing, in many churches it signifies the transition out of next generation ministry and into "spiritual adulthood."
3. It's a chance to invest - Student pastors, don't get cute, cheesy, or lame with the gifts for graduates. Give them something they can take with them. Give them good books that will challenge and sharpen their faith. Feel free to leave a comment of what you give your graduates. There are so many good resources out there you can give that will help them in their spiritual growth. For the graduate who is nominally connected, you might be giving them a resource that helps change their life.
4. The church gets involved - Older believers get the chance to recognize and honor the accomplishments of students, and younger believers get the chance to see what their future holds. Making it a part of the worship service shows that no one goes alone. Even for the students whose parents aren't part of the church, they're part of a faith community that is committed to and interested in their best.
5. It provides a needed transition - Churches do well to recognize the accomplishments of graduates, and to build this into an ethos that reflects Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13:11 of the distinction/break between childhood and adulthood. Graduation season gives that chance to challenge, encourage, and push those students into the reality of spiritual adulthood and what it looks like for them in the local church. If they're going away to college, help them connect with a local church and a parachurch college ministry. If they're staying in town, help them connect with adult groups within the local church. Encourage them to serve, to use their spiritual gifts, and help build up the Body.
If you’ve done any look into the history of Southern Baptists, the sacred effort hasn’t always been a neat and tidy one. Our convention’s founding was under the auspices of allowing and protecting slave owners during the contested period of abolition. Many of the early statesmen in the SBC actively served in their states’ secession from the Union and actively served in the Confederacy (Williams and Jones book Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention goes into much detail about the worldview of white supremacy and slavery). Since then, whether it’s been embezzlement, theological controversy, a Disney boycott, accusations of liberalism (and actual theological liberalism in the 1950s-1980s), near bankruptcy, and more conflict. If there’s anything that our Convention enjoys as much as the Cooperative Program, it must be drama.
President Litton’s announcement wasn’t surprising, and I for one am glad that he has served this year as SBC president. He oversaw the formation of the Sex Abuse Task Force, advocated for the will of the messengers with the Executive Committee, will leave his footprint in his appointments that will be felt for years, and most of all has allowed Southern Baptists to get to know the better Litton, his wife Kathy. I’m also glad that he chose not to stand for reelection. I would gladly raise a ballot for him in Anaheim, but his decision puts the Convention ahead of himself. I don’t believe his decision was a capitulation to the Twitter mob, but rather an earnest desire to not be in the way of the SBC moving forward.
However things shake out in Anaheim, and the messengers will speak and their voice will be heard, the one sacred effort will continue as we see churches planted, missionaries sent, and the Kingdom expanding. These are the five things I’m hoping and praying will happen out of our time in Anaheim:
Convention breakfasts are usually way too early after a long day and before another. But one of the perks is that you can often get some cool swag from them. Hat tip to Southern Seminary for including this little gem in their giveaway for the SBTS breakfast at the Florida Baptist Convention last fall!
During my time as a student at Southern, I was so fortunate to have a few classes with Dr. Pennington and see his passion and devotion to the Word impact students for more faithful ministry. Reading this book was almost like being transported back to New Testament survey and seeing the combination of scholarship, worship, and some good learned British wit all brought back. Thanks for putting this together to help us be better in the pulpit.
I would recommend this book to any of you in pastoral ministry, no matter where you are in your ministry journey. Sometimes I fear that education and experience give us a sense of teflon where we forget that we need to circle back around to elementary principles time and time again. As Pennington says about our own need for evaluation and growth, entropy is the default rather than growth. So we have to be intentional. Intentionality in preaching begins with our own preparation and our own spiritual growth and engagement in preaching. Only once we have been enwrapped in the text and been changed by it can we even begin the creative process of crafting the outline (or manuscript) that we use on Sunday.
Two things that particularly jumped out to me:
1. Encaustic Preaching - Gosh this essay was so good. Our job in preaching isn't to every Sunday have to recreate the Sistine Chapel, but to add a new layer to the canvas before us in God's people. Every week we're adding something more to the work of God, one more layer that makes the people before us more like Christ, one more color in the beautiful work of redemption, and one more step closer to the finished product. Preaching and shaping the image of Christ in others is the long view, it's a journey of decades one Sunday and one message at a time.
2. The First and Last Minute - The art of homiletics is often like flying a plane. The tricky parts are the takeoff and the landing. Everything else is cruising. My friends who are pilots may not agree, but be kind in the comments. For most of us, especially those who have given years of study in seminary and have a bent towards the academic, exegesis and theological analysis and explanation are pretty natural. For us, they're cruising altitude. And our default can be to want to get to that point without doing the work of takeoff, and we can want to get done so quickly from our exegesis and analysis that we crash instead of landing the plane. The first and last minutes of our preaching are, for better or worse, what will stand out in people's memory, so let's commit to making sure they are done with excellence, clarity, and will help take our people to Jesus.
For pastors, far too often we can get tempted to have the same attitude that took over baseball in the 1990s. Then it was made famous by the phrase "chicks dig the long ball" as record home run years were the news. Now it's an attitude of "churches dig the awesome sermon." Every week we feel the pressure to deliver, to really drive, to make this week better than last week, and if we're really honest with ourselves we're maybe even looking for the viral soundbite.
If you'll let me use the baseball analogy a little more, may I propose a shift? Maybe it's not that God wants us constantly swinging for the fences every week, but that our faithfulness in ministry is consistency with a long view in mind? Maybe it's that God wants us to be like Tony Gwynn more than he wants us to be Aaron Judge?
Aaron Judge, slugger for the Yankees, looks every part of a video game character. He's huge. And strong. And when he hits the ball it comes off the bat just sounding different. Except when he strikes out. Which happens, a lot. In his career since 2016 he's had 2,068 at-bats and has struck out 733 times. Sure he's hit 158 home runs in that same space. But more often than hitting it out he's walking back to the dugout.
Compare that with Tony Gwynn, who looked nothing the part of a video game character. In fact, on appearances he looked like the computer team you'd beat up on in the practice version. But when he stepped into the batter's box, everything changed. He came the closest to hitting .400 since Ted Williams, and his lifetime average of .334 is 16th all-time. Even more surprising was his strikeout rate. In 9,288 at-bats, he struck out a total of 434 times. He may have only hit 135 home runs in his career, but rarely did he walk back to the dugout from striking out.
Thank you Baseball Reference for the stats here.
Pastors, here's what I want you take away from this:
1. Every week, stand in the pulpit and take your swings - Don't be afraid to step up, don't quit (especially on a Monday), and don't make excuses. When it's your time to go, get up there and go. Trust in the leading of the Holy Spirit and the work of preparation you've done before standing before God's people. Hitters become hitters by hitting.
2. Don't aim for the fences, give your people consistency - Keep giving in your preaching a steady diet of Bible exposition and application. Tell them what the passage says, what it means, and how it applies to them. Challenge them. Encourage them. Love them. Bless them. Plead with them. And do it consistently. Over time, you'll see a difference in them and in the church.
3. When it happens, swing hard - Every now and then everything just feels right. You know what this is, it's "the groove." Don't forget Tony Gwynn still hit more than 100 home runs. Every now and then he connected on one that was perfect. When you as a pastor get the chance to swing for the fences and you're in the groove and you're feeling the Spirit pushing you, go for it.
4. Trust God - The difference in hitting and preaching is in hitting you're in (relative) control of what happens. In preaching, you're not. So pastor, trust God. Give it all you've got, and leave the results up to God. You never know, God may be using a message you preached where you felt like you absolutely whiffed. Or He may take a point you didn't think much about to leave an impression on someone that draws them closer to Jesus.
Not only as a pastor but as a dad, I love the impact of a kid-friendly church. It's a church where kids aren't just tolerated but loved, a church where kids aren't just seen but are heard, and a church where children are discipled and formed to love Jesus. By God's grace our boys were both born into a church that was super kid-friendly and part of preschool & children's ministries that were so crucial for their faith development. We could think of so many people surrounding our family and our boys that helped point them to Jesus and we believe were used by God to help them both find faith in the Lord Jesus.
As a pastor, it's something near and dear to my heart to cultivate a kid-friendly church. I'm personally invested and driven in this. My boys are those kids who need a kid-friendly church. They're on my heart every moment in making decisions and seeking what God would do with our church. As a dad, I want them to love the church, to see her as the Bride of Christ, and to look at it as something beloved and precious. As a pastor, I want kids like them to do the same.
Cultivating a kid-friendly church is tough, but if we're going to reach the next generation and embrace them fully into the fellowship of the local church, we have to do the hard work.
1. Carve out space for them - Creating a kid-friendly church means carving out dedicated space for them. If they're meeting in the "last possible option" of meeting space, you're treating them like leftovers. Creating space prioritizes the ministry to and for children. Let's face it, we're all dealing with limited physical space. What better way to say we prioritize children than giving them space! Space that's safe, space that's easily accessible, space that's clean, space that's welcoming, space that's adequately resourced and staffed, and space that communicates we care about children. If you've got open grassy space, get a playground. If you've got a parking lot, it can hold a basketball goal. You don't need a rock climbing wall or a slide in your children's area, but these things communicate that you care about kids & families.
2. Embrace them - Kids are going to make noise. They're going to sometimes be a little rambunctious. They're going (GASP!) wear shorts to church. When Jesus said in Matthew 19:14 "Let the little children come to me" there wasn't a condition on it. He never said "as long as they sit perfectly still and are quiet" or "so long as they act right" or "as long as they're not in anyone's way." Nope. It was simply let them come. Obviously parents have a responsibility to make sure their kids don't roll through a crowd of people standing in the foyer or use the flagpoles as lightsabers, but kids don't always do exactly what we want them to do. And please, whatever you do, don't become the "Kid Police" making them feel unwelcomed and unloved by shushing and scolding them. No matter your (or whoever is doing it) intentions are, you are not the parent.
3. Involve them in the Body - I know my first point was carving out space for kids, but if we put them in the back of the church and sequester them from everyone else, we're not truly involving them in the Body. It doesn't have to be intricate, it can be the "children's message" during the service, or having older kids pray in service, or if your church has a children's choir or drama team to involve them in the worship service. One of the best things our former children's minister did was "Cross Generational Fellowships" where our senior adults spent the morning with our kids ministry. By simply putting them in the same room there was an opportunity for both groups to invest in and love one another.
4. Minister to Parents - The three things parents look for with their kids are safety, Jesus-focused, and fun. But so often in parents' lives they are left behind because of all the focus on their kids. And at some level, all of us who are parents are ok with that. We'll give our kids the last cookie on the table or make sure they have new shoes before we do. But parents need ministry too. If your church is connecting to families, where do parents go? Do you have groups for them? Do you have resources in your church to help equip and encourage parents? One way to do that is to point them out in your preaching or announcements. A children's ministry that ministers to parents will stay on top of what's being written and produced to help parents navigate the difficult waters today.
What would you add to cultivate a kid-friendly church? Leave a comment!
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.