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.

John Allen Chau–An Introspective Look

John Allen Chau was martyred while trying to bring the gospel to the Sentinelese people sometime between November 16 and November 19.  There have been numerous stories written about Chau’s martyrdom. Baptist Press wrote this story if you’re not familiar with Chau’s death.

I’d like to take an introspective look at Chau’s martyrdom.  Instead of asking questions about his methodology, we should examine our hearts.  Here are five questions:

 

  • Are we willing to be martyred for Christ?  That’s the obvious question, but it’s a tough question.  Every believer should answer in the affirmative. It’s easy to answer “yes” when sitting in a climate controlled sanctuary, a seminary classroom, or a weekend retreat surrounded by ebullient millennials.  What if Chau had asked us to accompany him? What would we have done? Would we have lectured him on wisdom and prudence, or would we have gotten in the boat with him?
  • What is our responsibility to others?  While I write this post, two sets of eyes are staring at me.  I’m responsible for them, my wife and three other kids. At what point should I be responsible, knowing that my martyrdom would leave a widow and five fatherless children? In 2010, I was preparing to go on a mission trip to Guatemala.  My wife was pregnant with our third child and several well meaning Christians counseled me not to participate because if something happened, my children would be fatherless. I was even told, “There will be time for missions later.” I was horrified and sad.  Jesus had an answer for this question. He was very blunt. He told His followers to hate their families. He used the word hate. We don’t use the word hate around our house, but Jesus unambiguously called us to surrender anything and everything that is valuable to us.  This includes our families. My answer to this question: I’d rather my kids grow up knowing their daddy was a martyr than never knowing the true cost of following Christ. I hope I never have to make that choice.
  • How are we doing in our missions efforts?  There are far too many unreached and uncontacted people groups.  Why aren’t we reaching them? Are we even trying to reach them? After Chau’s death, the Twitterverse was ablaze with disparaging comments, some from pastors and church leaders.  The question is not, should John Chau have gone to that remote island? The question should be, why, in an era of unparalleled technology, was he the first missionary to share the gospel with these people?  Also, why are there still some 3000 plus unreached people groups? We have the most powerful weapon of hope in history. David Platt said at the 2015 Southern Baptist Convention’s Pastors conference, “When will we stop telling the world to go to hell?”  

 

  • When does the gospel override planning and structure?  Do we need structure?  Yes we do. Do we need careful and diligent planning?  Yes we do. But more than planning, structure, and sound methodologies, we need passionate gospel proclaimers.  We need to be passionate gospel proclaimers. The gospel is not beholden to any structure, denomination, or organization.  The gospel and the gospel alone has the power to save. Paul wrote in Romans, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news.”  John Chau’s feet are beautiful. How do our feet look?

 

  • Will we see a fresh commitment to reach the lost?  There are unreached people groups in the farthest corners of the world, but there are also unreached people in groups in our own towns.  Will we see a fresh commitment from Christians to reach everyone with the gospel of Christ? Or will John Allen Chau’s martyrdom be a cautionary tale in how not to engage a hostile people group?  If John Allen Chau can kayak two miles in the hopes of sharing the gospel with an unknown people, then we should be able to cross the street and engage our neighbors.

 

These are the questions we should be asking ourselves.  It’s easy to play armchair quarterback to what seems, on the surface, to be a fool’s errand, but I like John Allen Chau’s method of evangelizing over and above my method of not evangelizing.  The unequivocal truth is this: A twenty six year old man dared to bring the gospel to a people he was almost certain would kill him if given the chance. He died sharing his faith. Do we even live sharing ours?

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.