Love God Supremely; Love Others Deeply (What I’ve Learned in 15 Years of Pastoring, pt. 5)

In this series, I’m considering some things that I’ve learned while pastoring over the last 15 years. You can check out the previous posts and a series introduction here:

Part 1: Not everybody will like you, and that’s okay.
Part 2: Pray for people and let them know that you’re praying for them.
Part 3: Discipleship is easy, yet hard.
Part 4: Encourage your wife to serve where she feels led

In this post, we’ll consider Lesson #5: Make your vision, purpose, and mission to lead people to love God and love others.

Your church needs a vision statement, mission statement, and purpose statement. These three things relate to each other but are different. They will help keep your church on course. At least, that’s what one church growth expert said. Wait… Scratch the vision and mission statements, your church only needs a purpose statement. At least, that’s what another expert said. No, wait… Don’t worry about statements at all, they’re superfluous. Yep, another expert.

Maybe the last guy is actually right. It’s amazing what the early church accomplished without statements, buildings, or a church van.

Actually, I’m not completely against church purpose statements. My church has one. When I first arrived, it was a relic of the 90s, alliterated well: We exist to exalt the Sovereign, to edify the saint, and to evangelize the sinner. We actually changed that in my first year on the field. We now exist to live the truth, build community, and pursue missions; or TCM: Truth, Community, Missions.

But as time has progressed, I don’t even talk about TCM as much as I used to. Somewhere along the way I wrote down on a tiny scrap of paper: Love God supremely; love others deeply. That has become my vocabulary.

Really, whether we have purpose or vision statements or not, that should be our aim. Those two phrases are really what the Christian life is all about. Jesus was asked in Matthew 22 about the greatest command in the Law. Would he choose one of the Ten? Would he choose one of the hundreds of applications and situational clarifications of the Ten? Would he say something different?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus called these the first and second greatest commandments and said everything else is just an application of them. Love God supremely; love others deeply.

In the purpose driven model made famous also in the 90s, we’re given the idea that the Great Commandment and Great Commission are two separate things but go together to define the five purposes of the church. But really, the Great Commission is just the Great Commandment lived out: Love God supremely then love others deeply by helping them to love God supremely and love others deeply. Even when you think forward to the far future, pondering our eternal purpose, it will be the same—we’ll love God supremely and we’ll love others deeply, but we won’t have to encourage others to do the same because we’ll all do so perfectly forever.

It’s so simple and straightforward.

And in the end, it’s really all that matters. The Bible even tells us that we brought nothing into the world and we’ll take nothing out. Naked we came; naked we go. When we’re passing from this life, relationship will be all that matters—did we love God and did we love others?

A lot of clutter gets in the way of this. What I’ve learned over the past 15 years and am still learning is how to fight through this clutter. It starts with keeping it forefront on and everyone’s mind. This is why we preach and teach and disciple—to love God supremely and love others deeply.

Whoa, who saw that coming?

Whoa, who saw that one coming?  Nick Saban’s teams do not catch a beatdown very often.  The Alabama fans didn’t see it coming.  They moaned and wailed every time Clemson scored, and sounded like they were on the Titanic.  (People dying from hypothermia is not funny, but the sounds emanating from my television were akin to the sounds from James Cameron’s epic) Dabo Swinney didn’t see it coming.  Did you see his face at the post game interview?  Guy looked like he just won the powerball jackpot.

Dabo Swinney expressed his love for Jesus Christ and his belief in the sovereignty of God over his life’s trajectory.  He said, “God planned this.  This doesn’t just happen.  God planned all of this.”  What are we to make of Swinney’s acknowledgment of faith?

A friend of mine, whom I respect, suggested Dabo’s Christian joy was an attempt to placate his freshman quarterback who is also a man of faith.  There are three problems with this assertion, and we’ll skip the obvious fact that Trevor Lawrence said nothing about Jesus or God in his on field interview immediately following the game.

First, if Coach Swinney were dead set on pleasing his quarterback, why did he wait until the fifth game of the season to start him?  Lawrence was a high school legend.  It seems the easier way to please him would be with playing time rather than fake faith.

Second, Coach Swinney seems to be the most genuine coach in college football, unless you count Les Miles who said, “Death Valley is where championship dreams come to die.”  The University of Kansas football program got ten times more interesting when they hired Les, but I digress.

Third, who’s to say that Trevor Lawrence couldn’t inspire his football coach to grow closer to God?  I’ve heard Tim Tebow had a positive effect on Urban Meyer.  Why couldn’t Trevor Lawrence have the same effect on Dabo?

How should we react when a coach, or an athlete gives credit to God after a championship win?  I’ll end this post with a few suggestions:

  1. We should evaluate what they’re saying.  Are they pointing to God as their leader, or are they pointing to God as their helper?  Are they acknowledging God for being great or are they telling us that God has made them great.  There’s a big difference.
  2. We should not be jealous.  Let’s face it guys, which one of us would not love to be standing on the podium hoisting the Lombardi trophy or that weird looking National Championship stick?  I like the crystal ball personally, but I hear Alabama broke it.  I’ll be honest.  I would love it, but God did not create me to coach college football.  If I were the head coach at Clemson, we would not be bowl eligible.  We might beat teams like Iowa and Oklahoma, but those would be our lone victories.
  3. We should cut them some slack for two reasons.  First, these guys have just come off winning a championship, and they are amped up.  Second, most of these guys are not seminary trained.  The rampant emotions and the shallow theological understanding combine to make for some uncomfortable statements.  Let’s cut them some slack and look beyond their post-game interviews to how their faith is expressed in their actions.  Many of these coaches and athletes are heavily involved in FCA, their churches, and other Christian organizations.  They’re making a lasting difference in their communities.  Their post-game statements will fade into obscurity, but the tangible impact they’re making on those around them will be their legacy.
  4. How do they react when they lose?  Tim Tebow, after his team lost the SEC Championship game to Alabama said, “to God be the glory”.  I’ve not heard how Tua (I can’t even begin to spell his last name) reacted, but I hope his faith is stronger than one lopsided defeat.  We should pay attention to how these athletes and coaches react when they’re on the wrong end of the score before we make a judgment about the authenticity of their faith.

We need athletes and coaches proclaiming the name of Christ.  They’re going to fail at times (cue the Hugh Freeze comments) but we should be pleased whenever Christ’s name is mentioned.  In Philippians, Paul was faced with those who had ulterior motives for proclaiming the name of Christ.  He responded, “To be sure, some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.  These preach out of love for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment.  What does it matter?  Only that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.  Yes, I will continue to rejoice.”  When we hear Christ’s name proclaimed, let’s rejoice.

What I’ve Learned in 15 Years of Pastoring, pt. 2 (on prayer)

In this series, I’m considering some things that I’ve learned while pastoring over the last 15 years. You can check out the first lesson and a series introduction here:

Part 1: Not everybody will like you, and that’s okay.

In this post, we’ll consider Lesson #2: One of the most important things you can do for your congregation is to pray for them regularly and let them know that you’re praying for them.

Prayer and engagement with scripture are the two foundational spiritual disciplines, and they’re the foundation of pastoral ministry as well. In Acts 6, the Twelve responded to a congregational problem by delegating a specific responsibility to seven men chosen by the church, so that they, as the pastoral leaders, could devote adequate time to the word and prayer. One of my favorite verses on this subject is 1 Samuel 12:23 where Samuel tells the people: “Far be it from be that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way” (ESV).

Prayer… it’s that important.

A few years ago I wrote about the method that I have chosen in order to pray for those in my church, and I’ll detail it again in brief here. Not including Sundays, I typically have four days each week with time in the office. In my office prayer journal, I keep a monthly calendar that divides the households of the church into 16 days (4 days times 4 weeks). So, each day in the office, I typically pray by name for 4 to 5 households.

Then, I have my list divided into thirds. Every three months I send a hand-written card to each household letting them know that I prayed for them, encouraging them with a verse from scripture, and providing a prayer request slip they can return to me. Each family/household receives four of these cards during the year.

On the front of my prayer journal is written the line, “Pray specific prayers.” This is where those return slips are important. I already know certain prayer needs from knowing and visiting those involved with the church; but the slips give people opportunity to share specific needs that may not be publicly known. (There’s also an area on each slip that can be checked indicating whether or not the person would like their request to remain private with me, or shared on the church’s prayer list.)

But, we know human nature—not everyone is going to provide specific prayer requests. You can even ask them face-to-face and receive back only general answers. This is why I wrote that line on the front of my journal. Too often I found myself going the lazy route in response to the lack of requests: “Lord, I don’t know what they specifically need prayed for, but you know their hearts.”

That notion was challenged by a Sunday night study we did once by D. A. Carson called Praying with Paul. Carson scours through the congregational prayers in Paul’s letters. These are prayers typically about spiritual growth, knowing God more deeply, fighting for purity, remaining steadfast, having a faith that encourages others, etc.

Now, each month I choose a section of scripture and list three or four items to pray for those involved in the church. This means that even if a person is unwilling to share requests, I still have specific things to regularly pray about their faith and spiritual growth.

Obviously, I don’t have empirical evidence to support this, only what I’ve experienced, but I believe that letting the church know that I pray for them regularly has helped enhance my relationship with the congregation and the unity they experience with each other. Honestly, I still don’t think that I pray as much as I should. I have been trying to devote more time to prayer throughout my week. However, prayer is a powerful part of the life of the church and the spiritual warfare in which we’re involved. I have little doubt that spiritually healthy churches have pastors who make prayer a priority.

Pray for your church regularly, pastors. Pray specific prayers, pray the scriptures, and let your church families know that you are praying for them.

Fort Worth Star Telegram Report on Sexual Abuse

The Forth Worth Star Telegram has published a four part series detailing a culture of sexual abuse within the Independent Fundamental Baptist Network.  The series was written by Sara Smith.  She reported on the Paige Patterson situation earlier this year, and, from my research, has been a leading journalist in exposing abuse in religious institutions and denominations.

If you have time, go read the series.  It is scary.  The Star Telegram interviewed over 200 people who were subjected to all kinds of abuse including rape, intimidation, and underage sex.  The perpetrators, in most cases, were never prosecuted, but were quickly shuffled to another church within the network.  This is not the Catholic church, these are our distant cousins and the accusations are coming closer and closer to home.  What should we do?  I have five suggestions:

  1. Pay attention:  The #metoo movement has impacted various personalities within our denomination, not our denomination as a whole.  that doesn’t mean our denomination has no secrets, or that a culture similar to the Fundamentalist Baptist Network cannot develop within our churches, conventions, and associations.  When I was a teenager, our church hired a pastor who had cheated on his wife at three different churches.  When he was discovered having an affair, he would shuffle off to the next church, rinse, and repeat.  We have to pay attention to this issue.  Satan would like nothing more than to catch us off guard.
  2. Be on Guard:  I was reading the report and was amazed at how many of the perpetrators and their enablers were allowed private audiences with underage female church members.  We cannot take that risk.  I know pastors who continue to meet alone with females.  That is never wise, and in today’s culture it’s foolish.  How many stories like this do we need to read before we stop putting ourselves in compromising positions.  We make Satan’s work easy when we take foolish risks.  If you’ve been meeting alone with a female who is not your wife or a family member, cut it out.
  3. Update our policies:  I have a friend who led his church in updating all of their policies concerning sexual abuse allegations.  He also updated various counseling policies for his own protection.  He has set the example for me, and in 2019, I’m going to lead our church to update our policies.  Updating our policies facilitates discussion amongst the rank and file in our pews.  They also protect the accuser, giving them a safe process and outlet to share their accusations, and they protect the accused against false accusations.  We need to update our policies because discussion brings accountability, gets things out in the open, and puts this issue on the radar.  The overwhelming issue with The Fundamentalist Baptist Network, according to the Star-Telegram, is a lack of accountability and a culture of intimidation and silence.
  4. Listen:  When we hear an accusation, we need to listen and take the accuser seriously.  That doesn’t mean we jump to convicting the accused, but The Star Telegram gives details of a shaming culture.  the accusers were shamed into silence, and in several cases, the Bible was used to shame these accusers.
  5. Stay away from the Pedestal: The Fundamentalist Baptists have a pedestal for their pastors.  Their pastors, according to the Star-Telegram report, are seen as next to God.  The wield unquestionable authority. We cannot put our leaders on a pedestal.  I appreciate Dave Miller’s series on criticism.  Earlier this year, our denomination experienced what happens when one of our leaders falls off his pedestal.  We should always feel free to Biblically criticize our leaders.
  6. Communicate:  The Star-Telegram reports a culture of sweeping accusations under the rug, and transferring accused ministers out of state to other churches, often in the same ministry positions, given alleged perpetrators access to underage girls and children.  This can happen in our denomination as well.  It probably has happened.  For example:  a youth minister is accused of improper conduct with one of the youth.  The pastor is informed.  The pastor speaks with the youth minister and determines the accusations are false, but he advises the youth minister to resign.  The pastor, not wanting to ruin the ministry of a dynamic youth minister, recommends him to another church as their youth minister.  Or worse yet, the pastor calls the authorities, and they find the accusations credible, but the youth and her parents do not press charges and the pastor, not wanting to ruin the ministry of a dynamic youth minister, recommends him to another church as their youth minister, and the cycle begins again.  How can we stop this?  There should be a denomination wide group, organization, database where churches report and receive reports about verified incidents of sexual misconduct.  Yes, I said verified, not alleged or rumors.  there has to be something we can do to better communicate with each other.

This report scared me because it had the word Baptist in it.  If you think this kind of culture does not exist in our own denomination, you have your head in the sand.  It exists in our denomination.  It may not be as wide spread as in the Fundamentalist Baptist Network, but it is there.  Sara Smith, and other journalists like her are doing an outstanding investigative job.  They are uncovering a culture of sin, and holding our leaders accountable.  This report and others like it should serve as a warning to us.