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.

Thoughts on Depression Among Pastors

I talked to a friend a few days ago, and our conversation turned toward his pastor.  His pastor is a mess, and not your typical everyone’s a sinner mess, but a dangerous mess.  I immediately thought of Andrew Stocklein, the California pastor who took his life a few weeks ago.

Two years ago, I struggled through a bout of situational depression.  I didn’t want to get out of bed, and I wasn’t excited about anything.  I remember feeling like everyone would be better off if I just left.  There were some other mitigating factors to this season of my life, but after several visits to the therapist, his diagnosis was situational depression.

Situational depression, as it was explained to me, is not like chronic depression.  Chronic depression can last for years, even decades.  Situational depression is sometimes diagnosed as a case of the blues, or a sad season in life.  Situational depression is just as dangerous as the more familiar chronic depression, and if left untreated can cause just as much damage.  Situational depression is not just a case of the blues.  A case of the blues resolves itself within hours or days, or maybe a week.  Situational depression brings on the same symptoms as chronic depression.

I think many pastors suffer from situational depression.  What did I do?

  1. I sought help–I did not want to talk to anyone.  My wife made me see a Biblical counselor.  If you are suffering from either type of depression, you need to seek help.  There are gifted Biblical counselors who will help.  Many of them will give you a discount for their services because they are former pastors.  My counselor was a former pastor and he has a heart for helping other pastors.
  2. I remembered that church is just church–In the course of my counseling, one of the brought up was me tying my self worth to church growth.  He told me, “Tony, it’s just church.”  What does that mean?  Here’s what I came up with:  God knows who will and who will not be saved.  He even knows how His children will be saved.  God knows who’s church will grow and who’s church will decline.  My obedience or disobedience will not doom someone to hell, or send my church to its demise.  It’s just church and when my life is over, the most important legacy I will leave behind are the relationships I’ve invested in, not the church I’ve served in.  My counselor meant for me not to take church so seriously.
  3. It’s all about relationships–This goes with point number 2.  The most important relationship is with God, and then with my family.  100 years from now, no one is going to care that I was the pastor of First Baptist Rich Hill, but some great great grandchild, during his baptism, will be thankful for his heritage of faith.  He probably won’t know my name, but just the thought of investing in future generations of my family puts an extra bounce in my step.
  4. I bought into Financial Peace University–Did you know the number one cause of divorce in America is financial troubles?  There are so many pastors who have made poor financial decisions, and those decisions lead to worry, anxiety, and situational depression.  Pastor, if you are under mountains of debt, go to Dave Ramsey’s website and get Financial Peace University.  It will make a world of difference.
  5. I stopped weighing my deeds–We tend to life with a scales mentality.  We measure our good works verses our bad works, and if we’ve done enough good for the day, then we proclaim the day good.  I looked at my day, some the good works I had done, and I said it was good, and there was morning and evening on the 28th of May.  There are no scales in heaven.  There is no system of weights and measure.  There’s only grace, God’s abundant grace, poured out on us every day.  Our Heaven;y Father is our biggest fan.  He doesn’t hold a set of scales in His hand waiting for your bad works to outweigh your good works so He can zap you.  I’ll write a full post on this in the future.

I’m still processing how God led me though that very dark time in my life.  I don’t want to go back there ever again.  It was scary.  I may write a part 2 to this post, but for now, if you are struggling with any kind of depression, anxiety, stress, or nervousness that’s beyond the scope of everyday life, please reach out to someone.

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.

We Can Do Something – Thoughts on Protecting our Churches from Sexual Predators

When I was 16 years old, our church hired a new pastor.  I was excited and intrigued because this was the first time I could remember our church hiring a new pastor. (Turns out there was a good reason for that, as the previous pastor had been there for 19 years.)

The new pastor was awesome.  He was young and full of energy.  He preached outstanding sermons, and he even counseled me when I wanted to surrender my life to the ministry.

Then came the phone call.  My father is a deacon and one night he was summoned to church for an emergency deacons meeting.  The new pastor had been caught talking to his girlfriend on a cordless phone.  During the 90’s, if you had a police scanner, you could pick up the frequency of a cordless phone if you were in the vicinity.  Subsequent investigations revealed that he had engaged in this behavior in three other churches.  I was beside myself because, even as a 16 year old, I knew that the other three churches should have told our church something about his behavior.

Fast forward to ten years later, and the deacons are meeting again, this time to address the pastor who has just had charges filed against him for harassment. The victim was a female whom he had been having an internet affair with.  How does this happen twice in the span of a decade?  In the following paragraphs, I’d like to suggest some practical steps that churches can take to prevent this sort of can kicking, and then some suggestions for the SBC in general.  We have got to get a handle on this, and while we can’t prevent every instance, we can certainly make our churches safer for the next generation, and make it harder for leaders who have a history of sexual promiscuity and abuse to continue working and leading our churches.

Individual Churches

  1. More training—Pastor search committees should undergo a period of training before they commence their search.  Most search committees are not trained in what to look for, how to go about a thorough background check, or how to ask the tough questions that ought to be asked.  I can see a day coming when church insurance companies will require search committees to be trained or they will not cover any litigation that is brought against the church for the actions of a pastor or staff member who was hired but not properly vetted.
  2. Deeper, deeper, deeper background checks—While most search committees obtain criminal background checks, most stop the deep dive at that point.  The criminal background check should be the beginning of the deep dive, not the end.  Search committees should ask the candidate if he would submit to an audit of his finances; bank statements, credit card statements, and the like.  This should be done by an independent third party, and the search committee members should only be given the results if there something malicious or disqualifying.  Why search through financial records?  This search will probably reveal whether or not the candidate has been involved in pornography.  The type of predatory behavior we’re trying to prevent usually has its roots in pornography.  The committee should also ask the candidate to submit to an audit of his personal computer.  This again might reveal any involvement in pornography which would in turn disqualify the candidate.  Is this an invasion of privacy?  Yes it is, but God help when we’ve come to the point where we check out our candidates for political office with more scrutiny than we do the men who are supposed to lead our churches.
  3. Spies—My home church, to my knowledge, sent people to the towns of their candidates to ask around about them.  This didn’t prevent what happened, but I think if more churches would take the time to do this, there would be some grief saved.
  4. Speak up—My father noticed a few eccentricities and odd behaviors on the part of the first pastor I mentioned above.  His wife was hardly ever at church.  He kept having to go to the hospital in the middle of the night.  He would cancel services.  He probably should have raised the flag on those issues.  We need to foster a culture in our churches where there is safety in speaking out.

The SBC

I have one suggestion for the SBC moving forward, and I think it would show how serious we are about our #metoo problem, and go a long way to creating a safe environment for victims to speak out.

We should create a separate entity, or a branch of an existing entity, headed by a trained investigator, whereby victims of abuse or misconduct could report their situation.  That investigative service would then investigate the report and take appropriate actions.  Those actions would include informing the authorities if there has been criminal behavior, or informing the church if there has been immoral behavior.  That investigative unit would have branches in all of our state conventions so as not overburden one person or one team with a litany of investigations.  Those state branches would all be led by trained investigators, and if we wanted to go a step further, those trained investigators would be non Southern Baptists.

Would the cost of such an undertaking take away money that could be used for missions?  This is missions.  James writes that true and undefiled religion is taking care of the vulnerable among us.

Those are my suggestions, and they may or may not have prevented my home church from hiring the two pastors, and they may or may not have kept Mark Aderholt from serving in other ministry positions.  There wil always be someone who knows how to game the system and who slips through the cracks.  The key word in that last sentence is cracks.  Right now, our system looks more like a sink hole when it should be the size of a crack.