What Should I do: Thoughts on Political and Cultural Engagement

I’m struggling.  I’m struggling with how to engage culture for God’s glory.  The recent nomination fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh forced that struggle to the front of my conscience.  There are five realities guiding my decisions on cultural engagement, and five action steps I’d like to take in the future.

5 Realities

  1. I have friends who I want to influence with the gospel:  This reality hits me hard.  I have many friends who don’t think like me, vote like me, share my background, etc…  I want be a Christ like influence in their lives.
  2. I see our society moving in a counter gospel direction:  I’m concerned about the direction of our culture.  We’re not moving toward the gospel.  We’re not moving toward Christ.  We’re moving away from Christlike values.
  3. I have opinions:  I have opinions on politics and on other aspects of our society.  I have biblically informed opinions that I’d like to share. I’d like to be a part of the conversation.
  4. My political party does not always align with my opinions:  This has become abundantly clear in the past two years.  The Republican party has moved farther to the right, and has left me feeling like a man without a party.
  5. God is neither republican or democrat:  I may feel like a man without a party, but I am never without God.  There will be democrats who spend an eternity with Christ.  There will be republicans who do not.  This is the most important reality.  It connects back to the first reality.  My heart’s desire is to see all my friends spend an eternity with God and His Son, Jesus Christ.

What am I to do?  These realities are difficult to navigate.  I’m not the only Christian struggling with the correct biblical posture for cultural engagement.  Here are five action steps I’d like to recommend to those who are struggling with this issue, both democrat and republican.  I’m committed to following these steps in the future:

  1. Do not be a stumbling block:  When Southern Baptists met for our annual meeting  in St. Louis in 2015, the messengers debated a resolution supporting a ban on the display of the confederate flag on public property.  There were emotional speeches on both sides of the issue.  Dr. James Merritt said, (I’m paraphrasing here) “If the confederate flag causes my brother or sister to tune out the gospel, then the confederate flag must go.”  If the voicing of my political opinions causes my brother or sister to miss the message of the gospel, then I should keep my political opinions to myself.
  2.   Engage with purpose and grace:  I always need to ask myself, why am I engaging this person on this issue?  Am I just looking for a fight?  Am I just looking to prove someone wrong?  Christ never engaged just to fight someone or prove someone wrong.  He always engaged with purpose and with grace.  The message of God’s grace was always on his lips, and He offered forgiveness while simultaneously standing against sin.
  3. Cultivate more relationships with people who do not think like me:  I can’t engage in meaningful discussion in an echo chamber–see reality number one.  I want to cultivate more of those relationships.  I want to genuinely listen to arguments.  Those arguments may not change my mind, but they give me an insight into people and their thoughts.
  4. Those who have different values are not my enemy:  There are too many conservative Christians who treat non-Christians as enemies.  They are not our enemy. The Bible says our fight is against the ruler of this atmospheric domain.  I want to always be careful not to treat those who ideologically oppose me as my enemies.
  5. I will not belong to either political party:  I’ve found myself in the position of not belonging to either political party.  I will still vote for a certain type of candidate, but I will not vote republican just because I’m a Southern Baptist Pastor.  The Republican or Democratic, or whatever party will have to earn my vote.

This is where I’ve arrived in my struggle.  Paul wrote in Philippians 3, verse 12 and following, “Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus.  Brothers I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do; forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.

Have We Taken God out of School?

I fell for it.  I fell for it, hook line and sinker.  I parroted this critique of the liberal public education establishment:  they’ve taken God out of our schools.  That was before I became involved with our local school.

There are many who believe that the cause of our societal decline began when The Supreme Court outlawed prayer in public schools.  The Supreme Court’s decision in Engel vs. Vitale has become an easy scapegoat for the moral decline in our nation.  It’s convenient to blame nine dead justices for everything we revile about our society, but in our righteous” anger, we’re exacerbating the problem.

When we declare God’s removal from public schools, we’re declaring that The United States Supreme Court has the power to move God.  We proclaim the sovereignty of God from our pulpits, but in our conversations we intimate the sovereignty of a human institution.  The court didn’t push God out the door of our schools in 1962.  They only forbade government sanctioned recitation of prayers.  God was never taken out of our schools, and He never will be.

When we propagate this untruth, we’re insulting our teachers.  There are three public school teachers in my congregation who pray for their students.  Are their prayers not heard?  Do their prayers not count?  If God has been taken out of our schools are the prayers of Christian teachers useless?  I’ve found most teachers to be courageous, humble, and selfless.  Christ encourages and pronounces blessings on people with those qualities.  If God was not in our schools anymore, we wouldn’t have so many quality educators.

I also pray for my children every morning as they get on the bus.  I used to pray only for my children, but now when the bus drives by my widow, I pray for all the children on the bus.  If God were absent from our schools then my prayers would be useless.  I know there are other parents who pray for the school children.

There are also children who pray for one another.  What are we telling those children when we tell them that God has been taken out of school?  We’re telling them that their prayers don’t count either.  That subtle lie does more spiritual damage to our children than we’ll ever realize.

When we insinuate the uselessness of prayers from teachers, parents, and students, we’re operating from a defeatist mindset.  Christ has admonished us to not be afraid because He has overcome the world.  There is no reason to operate as though we’ve been defeated, and when we act as though prayers for our school, we are slowly conceding the battle to the enemy.

There are also parents who use this battle cry to pull their children out of public schools.  We’ve removed a large chunk of Christians and children from Christian homes from our schools, and that has done more to erode the potential spiritual impact than the Supreme Court’s decision in 1962. We should never use our children as missionaries in our public schools, and there are situations where it is necessary to remove children from a public school.  However, by removing so many Christian children from our public schools, we have removed a large Christian influence from a public institution.  The secularization of our schools should come as no surprise when we remove Christian influence.  When we remove our children from public schools, we also remove our influence from them as well.

I’ve made some of you angry.  I can hear you furiously pecking at your keyboards with accusations such as:  how dare you insinuate that I’ve done more to remove God from our schools than The Supreme Court.  You’re going to accuse me of sending my kids into a secular public school just to be missionaries.  You’ll probably tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m only 38.

My family is blessed to live in a small town with an outstanding school.  We know and love our teachers and administrators.  There are many of you who are not that blessed and have made the decision to not educate your children in the public school.  I respect that decision and know that education, both public and private is complicated.

What’s indisputable is God’s presence in our public schools.  He never left because God does not dwell in a building.  His Holy Spirit lives in each one of us.  If we kicked God out of school, which we could never do in the first place, then every teacher who is filled with The Holy Spirit would have to leave.

I’m never going to utter the phrase, “we kicked God out of school,” again except to point out the absurdity of that notion.  God bless all of the courageous teachers who dedicate their lives to the education of our children.

Encouragement for Churches?

Statistical data among churches is on an up-swing.  Yes, you read that sentence correctly.  There are many key statistics that should encourage beleaguered churches and pastors.

The focus of this post is a summary of Dr. Thom Rainer’s podcast interview with Tony Morgan, head of The Unstuck Church Group.  You can find The Unstuck Group here, and you can listen to Dr. Rainer’s interview here:  NINE KEY STATISTICAL INSIGHTS FROM CHURCHES IN 2018.

Without giving away the entire podcast, here are 10 encouraging statistics for pastors and churches:

  1. CP giving:  William Thornton has documented here that CP revenues will be up for the fiscal year.  It’s encouraging to see churches giving more towards our cooperative efforts.  State CP revenues are down and local associations are struggling, but that could be just a sign of the times.
  2. Increase in worship attendance:  The Unstuck Church Group reports–in data compiled for the past twelve months–and increase in worship attendance among survey respondents.  This makes sense; if the millennial generation is beginning to come back to church, there should be a corresponding statistical bump in worship attendance.  I wonder if there was a statistical bump when the boomer generation began returning to church?
  3. Increase in participation:  The Unstuck group also reports an increase in church life participation.  Do you remember the saying, “20 percent of church members do 80 percent of the work?”  In 20 years that saying might be revised to say, “50 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.”  That statistic is very encouraging.  I’ve noticed in my church a decrease in the amount of pew sitters.  When we add a member, that member typically finds a place of service.
  4. Increase in part time staff:  There was an increase in the number of churches reporting part time ministers.  This may not feel like an encouraging statistic for many pastors, but it means that more churches are understanding the need to leverage the community involvement of part time staff for the purposes of Kingdom growth.  When I was hired, I asked my deacons, “What’s the number one priority you think I should have?”  All my deacons said, “We want you out in the community.”  They’ve allowed me to substitute teach, and participate in various community activities.  That’s meant that I have less time to visit members in their homes, but the trade off has been worthwhile.  Every church should encourage their pastor and staff to be involved in the community.  If that means less personal attention for the sake of building relationship for Kingdom growth, then that’s a sacrifice every church member should be willing to make.  I hope the increase in part time staff does not mean that more pastors are being paid a part time salary, but have full time demands.
  5. Giving is up:  Is this statistic a surprise?  It makes sense from a statistical standpoint.  If the millennial generation returns to church, and our earnings increase, then giving per-capita should increase.  Couple the giving per capita increase with the increase in part time staff, and you have more money for ministry.  This statistic may also reflect the current economic conditions in our country.
  6. More multi-site churches:  The multi-site church movement is only going to gain momentum.  Churches can do multi-site with a smart phone and high speed internet connection.  This may also mean more money for ministry and may be a reason why state CP and local association revenues are down.  Some churches are just creating their own associations and networks.
  7. Fewer plateaued or declining churches:  I don’t know the exact location of this statistic, but sometime in the past year I heard the statistic that somewhere between 66% of churches are now plateaued.  That’s down from the 85% statistic we hear.  This is probably enhanced by the recent focus on church planting and the deaths of many declining churches.
  8. Another 80 percent rule–Surveys indicate that 80 percent of non-Christians will come to church if invited by a friend.  That should encourage all of us, especially pastors, to engage with non-Christians and invite them to church.
  9. SBC Harmony–This one is for the SBC pastors.  We should be encouraged at the relative harmony that was shown at the annual meeting in Dallas.  The expected disunity did not materialize and all suspected controversial votes passed with an overwhelming majority.
  10. Jesus is Lord–I want to encourage my fellow pastors today with the profound phrase:  Jesus is Lord.

Those are my encouragements for today.  If I have erred in any of the statistical data, please share your corrections and insights, and I encourage you to go listen to Dr. Rainer’s podcast.

The Best of Enemies

Do you know the names Ann Atwater, CP Ellis, and Howard Fuller?  I didn’t until I read the book “The Best of Enemies,” by Osha Gray Davidson.  The book chronicles racial relations in Durham, North Carolina in the 1960’s.  I heard about the story of CP Ellis and Ann Atwater during this year’s pastors’ conference when Dr. Tony Evans used their story as a sermon illustration.  I decided to research the story and found Davidson’s book.  I’ll give a summary and then three strengths and three weaknesses of Davidson’s work.

Summary

During the first half of the 20th century, Durham, North Carolina was known as a progressive jewel of the south which had great race relations.  This, of course, was not true.  Durham did boast a class of black elites which was more than most southern cities, but the living conditions for the lower class black population were just as squalid and unfair as other Southern cities.  The book chronicles the rise of both Ann Atwater, a poor, single black mother and CP Ellis, a poor white man who found a sense of purpose in the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.  He would eventually become The Exalted Cyclops of the Durham chapter.  Ellis and Atwater clashed at many city meetings and became bitter enemies.  In 1971 the Durham schools were forced to integrate and this caused considerable turmoil.  A man named Bill Riddick came to town and suggested the city hold what is called a charrette.  A charrette is an intense meeting over several days, in Durham’s case 10 days, where an entire community is invited to come together to solve a particular problem.  The charrette began by naming a steering committee.  Guess which two people were elected to chair the steering committee.  Ann Atwater was not even in attendance when she was elected a co-chairwoman of the steering committee and her fellow chairman was none other than her worst enemy, CP Ellis.

During the meetings, Atwater and Ellis found that poor black families and poor white families struggled with the same problems.  Ellis came to believe that blacks weren’t what keeping poor whites impoverished, but the ruling elites, both black and white.  There’s a moving scene in chapter 13 which describes Ellis and Atwater talking alone in the auditorium when reality finally poured in on Ellis and he began to cry.  The charrette ended with Ellis renouncing his membership in the Klan and reportedly tearing up his klan membership card in front of the community.

Ellis and Atwater became lifelong friends, and when he died in 2005, Atwater delivered a eulogy at his funeral.  The introduction includes a story about Ann coming to the funeral home before CP’s service, and, while sitting there was asked to leave by a white man.  She finally stated that CP was her brother.

Strengths

  1. Davidson does a remarkable job of setting the scene for the charrette.  He plows through a century of racial history in Durham and relates the events in Durham that coincided with the larger national struggle regarding race relations.
  2. Davidson gives equal pages to both the histories of Ellis and Atwater. Davidson is a career journalist and when I began reading the book, I assumed he would major on Atwater’s story, but his work is non-biased and fair.  He notes the high price Ellis paid for his actions during and after the charrette.
  3. His character descriptions of Atwater, Ellis, and other minor characters are moving.  I felt as though I could close my eyes and hear Atwater or Ellis talking with me.

Weaknesses

  1. Davidson only devotes two chapters to the seminal event, the charrette. He spends 11 chapters covering background material, but only two chapters dealing with the event that shaped this unusual friendship.  I would like to hear more about the charrette itself.
  2. He ends the book with a retelling of Ellis’ suicide attempt in 1972. and the psychological price he paid for his actions.  I would like to have known more about the friendship that developed after the charrette, but so much time was devoted to background material that a detailed description of their friendship would have made the book very lengthy.
  3. This may not be considered a weakness, but for a novice in black history, such as myself, Davidson includes the action of too many activist groups.  I was difficult to keep up with who belonged to which group and which groups were militant and which were peaceful and so on.

What I learned

What does this have to do with the Southern Baptist Convention and SBC Voices in 2018?  We’re having our own struggles with diversity and race relations.  I learned a lot about the history of race relations, and I learned about some influential people that many of us have never heard of.  Incidentally, I wonder if our own Dwight McKissic is related to the Floyd McKissic mentioned in this book?  I learned that there’s a lot I don’t know about a critical period in our nation’s history which still affects us today.  Before we go patting ourselves on the back for including minorities in leadership roles, we would all do well to read the story of Ellis and Atwater and remember that there are men like CP Ellis who paid a high price for doing what was right.  Are we willing to pay that price?