Stuff I Learn from New Believers

May 21, 2015 Category :Blog| Leadership 0

I love to preach. I don’t travel and preach as much as in the past, but communicating God’s Word — either as a guest preachers or teaching our Young Pros weekly — brings joy and satisfaction like few things do. If you are a preacher, you know exactly what I mean.

Last Sunday I preached for a friend, Pastor Rick Byrd, to the great folks at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro. I’ve preached there several times over the last decade or so. Sunday night I preached for one of my mentees, Nathan Brown, who is the new pastor at Raleigh Road Baptist Church up in Henderson. I’ve also preached there a couple times previously and enjoyed being back with the fine folks there.

Beyond the joy of preaching the Word, one reason I love to do this as an itinerant preacher is because of the people I meet. Like Joe. I met Joe at Cornerstone Sunday, and had lunch with he and a couple of staff to talk about life and godliness. Well, they sat there while Joe and I talked the whole time.

Joe came to Christ less than a month ago. He’s 45 years old and perhaps the most fit man physically I have ever met. We sat at lunch, me proudly eating my healthy salmon and vegetable medley, and he drinking his protein shake. Joe showed me something that day.

Discipline. Discipline like I have rarely seen. Physical discipline like I have never seen in a preacher.

Joe, this new baby Christian, talked with genuine humility. He talked of his struggles he now faced as a Christ follower. He spoke of his goals, of his training, and he inspired me. I hope I helped him as well. I challenged him in some ways in terms of spiritual discipline.

Then Joe taught me. He spoke of how the Bible teaches our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and how we should take care of them as part of our witness. Again, he spoke humbly, not with some athletic bravado (and he had earned the right if anyone had). He spoke logically: if we seek the Lord throughout the day in prayer, and seek to walk with Him and please Him, should we not show the same discipline in our diet and other areas of life?

I’ve met too many preachers who mock gluttony by word and deed as if it were an entitlement. I’ve been guilty myself. Here, a baby Christian shamed my tribe with his genuine yearning to know God and his sterling example of discipline. He reminded me:

Longevity does not necessarily mean maturity. Longevity in ministry can lead to lethargy in discipline. Being a Christian 40 years does not make you superior to an infant in Christ.

Spiritual infancy does not necessarily preclude one from teaching others. Sometimes a young believer sees things clearly through the eyes of simplicity.

–A title, including a spiritual title, does not necessarily make one a spiritual model in all of life.

I’m convinced that a key to our spiritual growth, whether we’ve been saved a year or half a century, involves some key relationships. Yes, as Howard Hendrix noted, we all need a Paul, a Timothy, and a Barnabas in our lives. But we need two other people as well:

First, we need unbelievers in our lives to love, to grow in friendship, and to remind us of the world around us we can easily escape from into our Christian subculture.

Second, we need new believers with a white hot zeal in our lives. We need to be reminded of when we first met the Lord, and reminded how not everyone is where we are spiritually. Because, in some cases, brand new Christians are at a better place than we are.

By the way, Joe is coming to see me in June, to push me in my physical discipline even as I push him spiritually. It’s the beginning of a friendship for which I am extremely grateful.

Because I still have much to learn.

A Few Thoughts on the Pew Research Study

May 12, 2015 Category :Blog 0

The Pew Research Center just released a major study of “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” I highly encourage you to read the report. Here are a few of my initial thoughts on it.

1. Don’t freak out. You might read this and feel a bit nervous: “But the major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014.” And, you may get even more concerned when you read this: “Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014.”

But look a little closer before you predict there will be no more followers of Jesus in a decade. First, does anyone really believe there has ever been over 70% of the population who were truly Christ-followers? If that were the case we would live in a different country than today’s version. No, if you notice, the major decline in the “Christian” category is in the “Mainline” category, which represents more liberal Christianity which tends on the one hand not to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and on the other has been in decline for a lot longer than the seven years represented in this study. The Evangelical numbers are less than a 1% decline. Not good, but not cause to freak out. We can also rejoice that our numbers are increasingly diverse ethnically.

2. I’m grateful for a pretty thorough study like this from the outside of the Christian world. We have so many numbers being thrown around it’s easy to wonder what the truth is. The folks at Pew have helped us with this study. Leaders should take note of it.

3. While I don’t think we should freak out (see # 1), we should by all means wake up. The largest area of growth is the unaffiliated, or the Nones. The largest change by any sub-category, those who have no religious view in particular, grew 3.7%. It should in particular give us pause that “the unaffiliated are comparatively young – and getting younger, on average, over time.” At some point church leaders are going to have to wake up to the fact that our churches are generally geared to the middle aged and older population, and confess we don’t care nearly as we should for the younger generation. For those of us who stand on an unchanging Word, who care for the spread of the gospel, it should cause us pause to note that people—especially younger people–are more likely not to care about their religion than to convert to Christianity. What does that say to the church today? A few thoughts:

First, the huge crowd of believers today who simply think the status quo of Christianity–show up at church regularly, live morally, and be a good citizen—is compelling to just about no one. I would argue it’s actually turning away a lot of younger adults. Nor should it be compelling to us, because that’s never been why Jesus died. In our increasingly hostile world toward the faith, we shouldn’t be surprised at the numbers of nominal “Christians” who walk away. But we should be surprised at our inability to engage people in our time with a compelling vision of the Gospel. It’s not time to panic, but it’s certainly time to pray. We need to wake up.

Second, let me offer a little historical perspective. Plenty of times in the past the church has declined in a given context—in England in the early 18th century, in America at various times—followed by a spiritual awakening. That’s no guarantee we will experience this today, but it should give fuel to our prayers and compel us to live out our faith in a public way.

Third, an even bigger perspective: God still rules history. His Kingdom is advancing, His will will be done. We should seek His face, strategically advance the gospel, and demonstrate His love, but we should do so confident in Him. As I read recently in Oswald Chambers, we should be marked by certainty in God even while living in uncertain times.

Finally, a much more personal and specific perspective. It’s easy to read a survey of multiple thousands and see a big picture view and lose our focus. God has called you and me to walk with Him daily. Our call is not to change the world or change the stats on a page. But we are to be daily allowing our God to change us more into the image of His Son. I’m a big picture guy, but we need to start with the bottom line of our own personal devotion to Christ. Am I serving to advance the gospel or am I turning people away? Am I glorifying God in my words and actions or do I demonstrate a spirit of self-preservation?

I choose to let the findings of this study spur me to greater love for Christ and others, and to pray for a God-sized movement in our time. I do not have confidence in our structures and strategies, but I have great hope in our great God.

UPDATE: Be sure to read Russ Moore’s excellent article on this HERE.

Imitate This: Living a Teachable Life

May 6, 2015 Category :Blog 0

Last night I finished teaching my spring evangelism class, the last class I will teach before exams. This marks the completion of 20 years of teaching at SEBTS, 23 years of full-time teaching, and now 28 years of teaching at least a course or two a year somewhere. I’m excited about the future!

This class had another special feature: a man gave students the example of someone who later in life yet yearns to learn. Dr. Bill Mackey, my friend for over 25 years now, audited the class this spring.

Dr. Bill Mackey and me

Dr. Bill Mackey and me

Brother Bill and I met in 1989. I was a PhD candidate starting my work on the Jesus Movement. He was already a veteran pastor now serving as evangelism director for the South Carolina Baptist Convention. He later became the Executive Director for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Now in his 70s, Bill has forgotten more about ministry than I know.

Yet he took my class, and not only mine. Why? He loves learning. He is still growing. Always a very disciplined man, Bill demonstrates what it takes not only to start well and serve well in ministry, but to finish well.

I often turned to Bill this semester and asked his viewpoint on subjects we covered in class. He always responded with humility and with helpful insights. Students in the class are better because of his presence. But for Bill, he just wanted to learn.

I want to stay like that. Hungry to learn. Ever growing. Never slowing. Always going in the direction of knowing Christ more so that I may make Him known more effectively.

Do you want to be a growing Christian? Be teachable. In fact, be FAT: Faithful, Available, and Teachable. Be a learner before being a leader. Then, the leading will take care of itself.

My spring EVA class.

My spring EVA class.

We Need Great Thinkers — But Not Only Scholars

April 28, 2015 Category :Blog 0

I teach at a fantastic seminary with some of the great minds in the American Church today. This morning I had a meeting with a group of them; I thank God both for their expertise and their practical love for our students. Brilliant Greek scholars, theologians, philosophers, ethicists, and historians among others challenge and encourage many, including me.

We need great minds for our times. We make a mistake, however, when we assume the only great thinkers are scholars in the academy. We need them – their books, their wisdom, their theological and cultural acumen.

But beyond scholars in the academy, there is another group we should read who make us think. We also need thinkers outside the world of the academy who help us to think, who push us, and yes, who even agitate us.

One of these who has pushed me is Jon Acuff. You likely know who he is and have perhaps seen his blog Stuff Christians Like or his books which include one bearing the title of his blog, the books Quitter, Start, and his new one, Do Over.

I met Jon in March and had a brief but extremely exhilarating conversation over subjects such as Seth Godin, Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art, and evangelism. I told Jon I have encouraged scores of young people (including one just last week) to read Quitter. It and The War of Art are the two books I recommend aspiring writers. We talked about Pressfield’s (and from him, Godin’s) view of Resistance and the battle for excellence as writers and how they talk about depravity without actually realizing it.

Jon has a wide audience in the business world. I have a much narrower audience and niche, but we seek to do a lot of the same things. We want people to see the beauty of Christ and the world He made; I, however, focus on church leaders, he focuses on pretty much everyone but them.

We need to read great Christian scholars who help us think well about doctrine, about the gospel, and about applying God’s Word to our world. As my friend Jay Strack said to me recently, we can’t talk about thinking outside the box if we don’t know what’s in the box, and that’s the work of theology and seminaries.

But we also know those who love Jesus who help us think outside the box. I interviewed John Bisagno, longtime pastor of First Baptist Houston and one who embraced and advanced the Jesus Movement in the early 1970s. John admitted his background in music and playing in clubs before becoming a pastor helped him be more open to God’s unusual work through hippies at a time when many pastors just wanted them to cut their hair. We need people to help us think about how we apply God’s Word to God’s world. I’m not talking about heretics, but I am talking about people who don’t always see every iota like us.

The religious establishment did not get Jesus. Or the early church. Or John Wesley and George Whitefield in the Great Awakening. Or MLK, or Chuck Smith in Calvary Chapel’s early days. We need some folks not in the establishment to help us separate the Word from our preferences.

There is a third category of thinkers we should read. We also need people who are not believers to help us think. I mentioned Seth Godin. He is an evolutionist, but he says things in books like Tribes and Linchpin that demonstrate the image of God yet resides in him, for there are truths he shares that can help us all. I don’t buy his lizard brain discussion; I do buy a lot he says.

Right now I’m reading James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. This book has thinkers of the first category above (Christian philosopher Smith) and the third (Taylor). It has pushed me, I need that.

Jonathan Edwards read voluminously, including books authored by those with whom he disagreed in order to sharpen his own thinking.

Who are you reading who makes you think?