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.

Why Dave Ramsey Was Not a Waste of Time at the SBC

My wife and I made sure we made it back into the convention hall Tuesday afternoon to hear Dave Ramsey speak.  When we came in, he had already begun speaking.  I was excited to hear him.  I’m always excited to hear Dave speak; I’ll admit I see him as a bit of a hero.  My wife and I are Dave Ramsey fans and as soon as we get our house paid off, we’re going to Nashville to do our debt-free scream.  My kids even have the introduction to his radio show memorized.

I was disappointed to hear grumbling in my section, and then murmurings afterward about his appearance.  There were those who thought his speech was a waste of time.  I’d like to give a few reasons as to why his speech was not a waste of time and some benefits to partnering with Ramsey Solutions.

  1. He spoke God’s Word: As far as I know, Dave confines his thoughts on scripture to those passages having to do with money and stewardship.  He does not try to be an evangelist or a preacher.  Any time we hear God’s Word, we are not wasting our time.
  2. He speaks on a difficult subject: He’s not afraid to speak on one of the most difficult topics in scripture.  He’s not afraid to kick our behinds in the right direction when we need it, and let’s face it, with so many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, many of us need our behinds kicked in the right direction.  I know I did.  I suspect that some of those who think hearing from him was a waste of time think so because he spoke uncomfortable truths.  He makes us squirm, and we need to squirm.
  3. His program benefits our churches: When pastors and members learn to handle God’s money God’s way, then they have more money to give.  Dave teaches the tithe, and he also teaches generous giving.  How much money would we have for missions if we taught our people to tithe, get out of debt, and give generously?

What are the possible benefits of partnering with Ramsey Solutions?

  1. Financial health: A pastor once told me when I was negotiating salary with a search committee to tell them, “You don’t want me sitting at my desk every Monday morning wondering about how the bills are going to get paid.”  That statement could not be more true.  How many pastors out there go to the office on Monday morning wondering how they’re going to pay their bills?  Financial health allows a pastor to focus on his job.
  2. Fewer funds needed for Mission Dignity: I love Mission Dignity.  I think it’s a great program.  Some of you are going to think that I’m accusing all recipients of Mission Dignity funds of bad financial management.  I am not doing that.  Some of the Mission Dignity participants are victims of churches that did not steward God’s money God’s way and thus could not provide adequately for their pastor and his family.  Mission Dignity is a great safety net, but what if we could move that safety net up 20 or 30 years?  What if we could save pastors and their wives from having to use Mission Dignity funds?  There would be more money for missions.

The Ramsey Solutions group is very open to working with churches.  I hope more leaders use their programs because we have an opportunity to intentionally move the safety net forward for our brothers and sisters in Christ — our pastors and our members.  If more members of the SBC had financial peace, how much more could we do with the Cooperative Program? How many more missionaries could we support? How many pastors could devote their time and mental energy completely to prayer and ministry of the word?