Josh_Laxton_Aug21COMMENTARY | Josh Laxton

For the last eight years, I have been working in churches that were in need of revitalization, or breakout. I know this doesn’t make me an expert, but it has given me field experience. In addition, for the last three years I have been intensely studying the condition of the American church and her impact in contemporary culture.

I have come across many success stories of pastors who led their church to positive breakout. But it seems that for every story of success, there are nine stories of struggle and heartache. In all honesty, leading a church to breakout is like trying to climb Mount Everest. It’s daunting and extremely difficult.
In my last column on Nehemiah, I explained how his breakdown laid the foundation for the breakout of his people. But that’s not the end of the story.

Nehemiah also faced many obstacles in leading the breakout. The king (his boss) had already stopped the rebuilding of the wall years earlier. Nehemiah hadn’t led this kind of work before. He faced a long, dangerous journey to get to the people, and once he arrived, he met a discouraged people in need of motivation and organization.

Just like Nehemiah, those who want to lead a church to breakout will face a variety of obstacles. As leaders, we face obstacles of perceptions, practices, poor theology, and people’s resistance to change. For many, the perception is that the church is fine—we’re paying the bills and ministries are still running. When it comes to practices, over time churches tend to focus on insiders, not outsiders, which can lead to neglecting the building, failing to create hospitable environments, and lacking a defined process for connecting new people.

Poor theology also can be an obstacle. Without being aware, a congregation can lose their passion for the centrality of Jesus and his gospel, their urgency to call people to repentance and salvation, and their missional posture towards the community and the nations.

One of the toughest obstacles is leading people to embrace change. I have found many church members want growth (or, at the very least, they don’t mind it), but don’t want things to change. In short, leading breakout isn’t easy, especially in light of the various obstacles. Nehemiah knew this as well. He navigated through the obstacles by way of breakthrough—an “aha moment.”

His prayer, starting in Neh. 1:4, gives us at least three principles of breakthrough that have implications for our ministry today:

God is the breakthrough power. Immediately after hearing the condition of the people, Nehemiah went to the Lord. “Let Your eyes be open and Your ears be attentive to hear Your servant’s prayer,” he says in verse 6. “…I confess the sins we have committed against You.”

This is paramount for church and denominational leaders to understand, especially given the fact that we live in a self-help culture where there is no shortage of books, conferences, leadership podcasts, and workshops about how churches can breakout from their unhealthy condition. While there’s nothing wrong with many of these resources, I have to constantly remind myself that these are supplements to breakout, not the source.

Humility is the breakthrough position. Nehemiah’s prayer reflects his understanding of God’s position and power, and that he and Israel are His servants (Neh 1:5, 6,10). Our prayers should reflect God’s transcendent position in relations to us—how great, gracious, awesome, faithful, and powerful he is. In addition, our prayers should reflect our humble position to God—a position that’s here to serve him and be used by him to do what he has put in our hearts.
When it comes to leading our churches to breakout may we never confuse our role with God’s—we are simply conduits by which He works to bring his people where He wants them to be.

Faithfulness is the breakthrough pattern. In Nehemiah’s prayer, we see that his going to the Father wasn’t a one-time deal; he did this “for days.” Scholars note that four months passed between chapter one and two. Thus, for over four months, Nehemiah faithfully goes to the Lord, humbling and submitting himself to God’s will and leading. His continued faithfulness reflects both the seriousness of leading a breakout and his belief that only God could do it.

If we desire to lead our churches to breakout, not only must we have a breakdown, but we must have a breakthrough—an “aha moment” were we realize God is the only one who can breakthrough the obstacles we face.

Josh Laxton is lead pastor of Western Oaks Baptist Church in Springfield. His first column on Nehemiah appeared in the July 28 issue of the Illinois Baptist.

THE BRIEFING | A group of church planters worked together Aug. 13 to help clean up Ferguson, Mo., a St. Louis suburb rocked by rioting and protests since 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by Police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.

The_BriefingJoe Costephens pastors The Passage Church on the border of Ferguson and Florissant. “We bring in anywhere between 8 to 15 mission teams every summer to serve the cities of Florissant and Ferguson—putting on block parties and reaching out to the community,” he said. “So when this came up, I called some church planting buddies, and said, ‘Hey we want to bless our city, let’s do a cleanup day.’”

Costephens and other church planters mobilized between 100 and 200 people to pick up trash and clean up looted storefronts. The group also attended a citywide prayer service at First Baptist Church in Ferguson. According to a Baptist Press report, Pastor Stoney Shaw said the interracial prayer service exuded a spirit of reconciliation, with participants recognizing the need to love and understand one another. Read more at BPNews.net.

 

Nigerian cities threatened by terrorist group
A Nigerian relations expert said the crisis precipitated by the Boko Haram terrorist group has reached a “new dimension.” Adeniyi Ojutiku told Baptist Press the group has started using tactics associated with ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), the militant group responsible for recent persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. Boko Haram’s takeover of the town of Gwoza has resulted in nearly 1,000 deaths, rather than the 100 reported by some sources, Ojutiku said.

 

“They attack, they occupy, they hold the town,” he said. “Now that they have started adopting ISIS methodology, they should be receiving the type of treatment that ISIS is receiving.”

 

Read more about the persecuted church in the August 18 issue of the Illinois Baptist, online now.

Pew: In 30 nations, specific religious affiliation is requirement for head of state
Analysis by Pew Research found that 15% of the world’s countries require their head of state to be affiliated with a certain religion. In 17 of those nations, the head of state must be a Muslim, while two countries (Lebanon and Andorra) require the person who holds the post to have a Christian affiliation. Interestingly, Lebanon also requires its prime minister to be a Sunni Muslim.

 

Gay songwriter urges church to rethink views on sexuality
Vicky Beeching, author of popular worship songs like “Glory to God Forever,” told culture writer Jonathan Merritt that “the church needs to become more comfortable with people not being on the same page about everything.” Beeching, who came out as gay in an interview with The Independent Aug. 13, told Merritt, “God loves us unconditionally, so we should aim to model that to those who see things from a different angle, even if that’s really hard to do. I’m trying my best to keep extending that love today to all the conservative Christians who are telling me I am ‘siding with the devil’ because they are still my brothers and sisters in Christ.”

 

Blogger and professor Denny Burk responded to Beeching’s comments, referencing Matthew 12:46-50. “Jesus draws a line between those who are his brothers and sisters and those who are not. The line runs between those who are allied to God’s will and those who are in open defiance against it.”

LifeWay exploring sale of corporate offices
LifeWay Christian Resources is studying the advantages and disadvantages of selling part or all of its property in downtown Nashville, President Thom Rainer told staff in an Aug. 1 letter. Citing demand for property in the area and fewer employees working at the downtown location, Rainer said, “…It would be poor stewardship for the organization not to explore the possibilities this situation could present for our ministry.” About 1,100 employees currently work at LifeWay’s corporate offices, Baptist Press reported. LifeWay spokesman Marty King estimated nearly one-third of the building is vacant or leased.

HEARTLAND | Nate Adams

Last month IBSA hosted a pilot mission project at Judson University in Elgin, one that linked student groups from all over Illinois with church planters in Chicago. We called the experience “ChicaGO,” and welcomed to it over 60 students from 11 IBSA churches. For a couple of the days, the IBSA All-State Youth Choir joined us, bringing our total to over 100 that helped a half dozen church planters.

After leading a brief devotion with the larger group each morning, I was able to follow individual groups to their work sites. Here’s a brief journal of what I saw:

It’s Monday, and I pull in to Transformation Church in South Chicago Heights. Alex Bell is the planter of this restart in a church building that has been there for years. The property had been somewhat neglected under the previous, older congregation, and Alex has the students hard at work sprucing up the grounds for their first outreach Vacation Bible School.

Nate_Adams_Aug18Alex is cutting down small trees, and I join in with a group hauling the branches to the curb. The bus full of IBSA All-State Youth Choir members pulls in, and I walk over to it with Alex and listen as he hops aboard and quickly gives the new arrivals their instructions. I’m impressed with his concise, passionate orientation to their mission field, and the people’s most pressing needs there.

He tells the students that, for today, they are missionaries from his church out into its community, and asks them to represent them well. He sends them out with invitations to Vacation Bible School, and asks them to pray as they deliver them, and to return with any prayer requests they discover.

It’s Tuesday, and I follow a group out to the Avondale neighborhood, where Dave Andreson is the planter. There is no church building, except the rented flat where Dave and his wife and their toddler and baby live.

After orienting the group to his mission field, he leads us down the street three blocks to the school where he is seeking to build relationships. Politics and budget shortages have kept the school grounds from receiving any major maintenance for three years. We cut tree branches so the school’s sign can be seen. We pull weeds from the cracked asphalt playground. We trim bushes and drag away debris.

It’s Wednesday, and I follow a group out to Garfield Park, a neighborhood second only to Englewood in its annual murder rate. Heroic planter Jamie Thompson has been seeking to establish a church there, though it is really an urban ministry center as well. They meet in a rented building that used to be a Chicago fire station.

Our group is helping Jamie host a week-long Bible club for the neighborhood’s kids. While they clean up from the previous day’s club and get ready for the kids to arrive, Jamie tells me how hard it is to build a church in the midst of violence and poverty, and how hard it is to disciple new Christians when they need jobs and freedom from addiction.

It’s Thursday and I don’t get to visit a work site. Instead I help interview a prospective new staff member, to fill a position that’s been vacant for over two years. He will help us start new African-American churches in Chicago. I leave the interview excited that we’ve finally found the right guy.

Friday the groups head back home. Later we will learn that the Friday night we departed, 11-year-old Shamiya Adams, who attended the Garfield Park Bible Club that week, was shot and killed by a stray bullet that entered her apartment and passed through two rooms to strike her. Pastor Jamie tells us she knew Jesus as her Savior.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

COMMENTARY | Chip Faulkner

As a missionary with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, I served among people groups in which genuine Christ-followers made up a very low percentage of the population, and where governments were not supportive of evangelical churches or the public proclamation of the gospel. The level of persecution, while not extremely severe, was certainly more intense than what the majority of evangelical churches in America are facing.

Still, it doesn’t take much of a spiritual barometer to sense the cultural storm building here towards those who preach and apply Scriptural standards.

Callout_Aug14_edited-1At a recent meeting of pastors and Christian leaders in our area, we discussed how many politicians and governing bodies in our nation and state are taking a strong stance against Christian values—such as biblical marriage. The pastors and ministry leaders did not express fear or panic at the awareness of growing persecution, but there was concern that we must be better prepared to respond correctly to mounting attack.  

After that meeting, I came back to the office and began making notes that turned into a Bible study on persecution. Authentic followers of Christ Jesus that “desire to live a godly life” will be persecuted for their faith (2 Tim. 3:12). Since the New Testament was written to believers and local churches in a sensual society similar to that of modern America, we can appreciate the relevance of the Word in an era of mounting persecution.

First, we should be prepared. Jesus forewarned of persecution by saying that his disciples would be “delivered up” by their relatives and close friends (Luke 21:12-16). So, let us “not be surprised” at the fiery trials that come our way, and we should “rejoice and be glad” to suffer for the name of Christ (1 Peter 4:12-16).  

As Christian facing inevitable persecution, we also should be prayerful. Our human nature is to desire revenge and retaliation, but Jesus commands that we “pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44-45). Remember that the weapons at our disposal are “not of the world” (2 Cor. 10:4). Trials develop spiritual maturity in intercession. Suffering for the faith increases our empathy and specifies our prayer.

It is important that we be proactive. Since persecution is new to most American believers, we need to sharpen our skills in strategically and fearlessly going on the offense with the gospel. Churches are feeling threatened by the rapidly changing culture. There will be a temptation for churches to react with a “fort” mentality and seek safety behind closed doors.

However, similar to the Christians in pagan Rome, we must take the initiative in “blessing those who persecute you” (Rom. 12:14). Just like the Father sent the Son into the world, we are sent into the world as salt and light (John 17:18; Matt. 5:13-16).

As children of God, we are to be pure. Granted, wickedness is getting darker in our society, but if we are “blameless and innocent” we have the opportunity to “shine as lights” (Phil. 2:14-15). The distinctions of our Christian worldview, values and morals certainly draw attack, yet this persecution will result in a purer church. God does his best work through clean vessels.

In seasons of persecution, it is vital that genuine believers and true churches draw closer together and be in partnership (Phil 1:6). Persecution will sadly reveal that the majority of members on church rolls are phony professors. Likewise, persecution will expose the startling number of false prophets currently serving as church leaders. When it costs everything to follow Christ, many will deny the gospel and join the ranks in assailing the saints. As church attendance wanes and income falls, it will be imperative to pool our resources and draw encouragement from one another (Phil. 1:3-6).

May we Christians also be positive. The apocalyptic literature in the Bible is there to encourage us. Read it and rejoice because God wins in the end! Jesus actually said we are considered “blessed” to be persecuted and that you will receive the “kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10-11). Even if we “suffer for righteousness’ sake” we should not be fearful or troubled as we positively defend our hope with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:14-15).

Finally, we should persevere in the surpassing power of our Savior. If we remain “steadfast under trial” and “faithful unto death” we will receive the “crown of life” (James 1:12; Rev. 2:10). Echoing the testimony of Paul: “When persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat” (1 Cor. 4:11-13).

The first waves of persecution are only beginning to wash across our country. Even though the price of proclaiming truth will prove enormous, may we go with our Savior “outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Heb. 13:12-15).

Chip Faulkner pastors First Baptist Church, Bethalto.

The_BriefingTHE BRIEFING | Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Commission, urged Christians to “pray fervently” for believers facing persecution for their faith.

“As Christians, we should pray for the president and our military leaders to wisely administer the sword of justice (Romans 13:1-3),” Moore said in a written statement. “As part of the global body of Christ, we must also pray fervently for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Iraq and across the Middle East (Hebrews 13:3).”

His comments came after President Barack Obama authorized U.S. airstrikes and humanitarian aid to help Iraqi religious minorities under attack from militant groups in the country.

Obama “is right to take action to protect religious minorities, including Christians, in Iraq from ISIS,” Moore said. “He has my prayers.”

Read the full story at BPNews.net, or click here for an overview of the recent onslaught of persecution around the world.

Other news:

Amid controversy surrounding Driscoll, LifeWay stops selling Seattle pastor’s books
A day after the Acts 29 church planting network removed Pastor Mark Driscoll and his churches from their membership, LifeWay Christian Resources stopped selling Driscoll’s books online and in stores. “LifeWay Stores and Lifeway.com are not selling Mark Driscoll’s books while we assess the situation regarding his ministry,” communications director Marty King told Christianity Today.

The Acts 29 and LifeWay decisions came after a string of controversies and charges surrounding Driscoll, founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.

Gungor stands by beliefs about Adam & Eve, biblical flood
Christian musician Michael Gungor’s admission that he no longer believes in a literal Adam and Eve or flood sparked controversy when the comments were published in a WORLD magazine online report this month. Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum, called for Gungor to apologize for the statements, while the musician responded to the controversy on his blog.

Marriage rates in decline among Millennials
Millennials are less likely to marry by 40 than any other previous generation, according to data from the American Community Survey analyzed by the Urban Institute. For example, in 1990, 91% of women age 40 had married; currently, only 69.3% of women age 40 have married. The rate for men is approximately 4% lower, Baptist Press reported.

Coming to a theater near you: “Christian Mingle The Movie”
Girl creates fake faith profile on Christian dating site, meets potential Mr. Right. Girl admits phony faith and loses Mr. Right, but gains a relationship with God. “Christian Mingle The Movie” is due in theaters in October. Read more at ChristianPost.com.

Rob Schenck (front, red scarf), president of Faith in Action and the National Clergy Council, prays Aug. 7 for the Yazidis and Christians suffering in Iraq. IMB photo

Rob Schenck (front, red scarf), president of Faith in Action and the National Clergy Council, prays Aug. 7 for the Yazidis and Christians suffering in Iraq. IMB photo

Christians around the world face heightened persecution

NEWS | From Baptist Press and IMB reports

An unfamiliar symbol began showing up on social media pages late last month. The curved line under a single dot is the Arabic letter “Nun,” reportedly used by militants in Iraq to mark the homes of Christians in the country.

“Nun” stands for Nazarene, or Jesus.

Extremists with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have forced Christians from their homes under threat of death. The Iraqi believers and other religious minorities joined millions of Syrian refugees already displaced by civil war. In a region rich with Christian history, many have noted, very little evidence of Christianity is left.

The onslaught of persecution this summer has awakened many in the Western church to the needs of Christians around the world. Many pastors and Christian organizations in July changed their Twitter avatars and Facebook profile photos to include the letter “Nun.” They also used the hashtag #WeAreN as a show of solidarity with the persecuted believers.

“The Islamic militants mean it for evil when they mark homes with ‘N’ for ‘Nazarene,’” wrote Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “They assume it’s an insult, an emblem of shame. Others once thought that of the cross.

“But in that intended slight, we are reminded of who we are, and why we belong to one another, across the barriers of space and time and language and nationality. We are Christians. We are citizens of the New Jerusalem. We are Nazarenes all.”

Iraqi refugee crisis

“There are no Christians left in Mosul.”

That’s how religious freedom advocate Nina Shea described conditions in Iraq’s second largest city in July.

Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told CBN News that Islamic militants have eradicated virtually every trace of Christianity from Mosul, the center of Iraq’s Christian community for 2,000 years. Mosul is located on the site of the ancient city of Nineveh.

In June, militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extended an offer to let Christians in Mosul practice their Christian faith behind closed doors, after they paid a hefty tax and agreed not to proselytize. However, multiple sources in the region said that offer was later withdrawn and all Christians were told to leave or face execution.

Members of Assyrian Christian and Chaldean Catholic groups left empty handed, Shea said. Militants confiscated all of their possessions, including homes, cars, clothes “and even their wedding rings, sometimes with the finger attached if it would not come off.”

Christians aren’t the only religious minority targeted by ISIS. On August 3, militants seized the city of Sinjar, forcing the Yazidi Kurdish population to flee. Many escaped to the nearby Sinjar Mountains, a barren heap of rock where daytime temperatures can top 120 degrees.

More than 150 Yazidi immigrants rallied in front of the north lawn of the White House August 7 to plead for American involvement in the growing crisis. (President Obama announced that evening he had authorized military airstrikes on Iraq.) The protestors came from across the U.S. to rally on behalf of the Yazidis, who do not practice Islam but instead follow an ancient religion ISIS equates to “devil worship.”

Christians and religious minorities in other nations also have faced recent persecution due to war and religious hostilities:

Syria | The recently released International Religious Freedom Report included a daunting sentence about the country that shares Iraq’s northwestern border: “In Syria, as in much of the Middle East, the Christian presence is becoming a shadow of its former self.”

A three-year-old civil war has resulted in millions of refugees and increasingly persecuted religious minorities, including Christians caught between the regime currently in power and militants fighting against it. The report, released annually by the U.S. State Department as a picture of the state of international religious freedom the previous year, found that in the city of Homs, only 1,000 Christians remain. There were approximately 160,000 Christians there before the war.

Nigeria | Approximately 1,505 Nigerian Christians have been killed for their faith this year, as the Boko Haram terrorist group and other extremists continue their campaign of religion-based violence in the West African nation. Boko Haram and other groups have killed nearly as many Nigerian Christians in the first seven months of this year as were killed in all of 2013, the advocacy group Jubilee Campaign reported July 29.

Christians killed to date include seven fathers of the 223 Chibok school girls still missing after Boko Haram kidnapped more than 300 students in mid-April. (The group is dedicated to fighting the influence of Western education.) The fathers were killed July 20 when Boko Haram attacked the city of Damboa and hoisted a Boko Haram flag there, the Associated Press reported.

Response from the West

David Curry is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which offers assistance to persecuted Christians around the world and lobbies repressive governments to cease religious persecution. In July, he called the plight of Christians in Mosul and the remainder of northern Iraq “unprecedented in modern times.”

“This latest forced exodus of Christians further shows why Western governments and the people in the West need to cry out in support for religious freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere,” Curry said in a statement. “If this does not move us concerning the near extinction of Christianity in the Middle East, it’s likely nothing else can.”

Since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein, nearly one million Christians have fled the country for safer surroundings.

In an editorial this month for The Christian Post, Curry expressed doubt that the persecution of Christians would ever be treated as “a major humanitarian crisis” by governments and secular media. “However, we should be able to count on our own family,” he wrote.

“The persecution of Jesus followers should be preached from every pulpit and prayed for at every kitchen table. One day soon it may be your faith that is under attack and you will be hoping that others will be praying for you…or even notice that it is happening.”

The International Mission Board and its ministry partner Baptist Global Response are coordinating relief efforts among Iraqi refugees. For more information about how to help, go to www.IMB.org.

Daniel_WoodmanHEARTLAND | Daniel Woodman

Editor’s note: This column first appeared on Baptist Press (BPNews.net) as part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s call to prayer.

If you attended the Southern Baptist Convention in Baltimore or watched online, you know prayer played a big role in this year’s annual meeting. Messengers spent time praying together in the convention hall, and also adopted a resolution on praying for other churches that are struggling, “so that together…we can more effectively reach our neighbors and our nation with the Gospel.”

The resolution was a response to a growing number of churches taking action and praying for local sister churches. Emmanuel Baptist Church in Carlinville, Ill., is one such church.

Noticing the need for unity among local churches, Emmanuel began praying for sister churches in its local Baptist association on a weekly basis. The church prays for three churches and their pastors each week, rotating the list to pray for all 27 churches in the association multiple times each year.

Church members and leaders alike began to observe a noticeable, positive impact from this prayer focus. Taking note of the cause/effect relationship of the power of praying for local churches, Emmanuel recently expanded its regular prayer list to include two church plants outside of the association.

The church prays a specific, scripted prayer for each church and pastor each week: for “the physical and spiritual protection of the pastor so that he would deliver the message that God has given them, and to lead the people with passion to reach the lost in their community.”

This scripted prayer addresses an eternal need for each church, according to Cliff Woodman, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church: “I wanted it to be a specific prayer that could apply to any church. The mission of every church is to reach the lost and make disciples.”

If more Southern Baptist churches take this kind of initiative to pray for each other and unify under the banner of Christ, then communities will come together spiritually and the Kingdom of God will expand as a result, Woodman said, citing Jesus’ words from His high priestly prayer: “I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).

Daniel Woodman is an entering freshman journalism major at the University of Missouri and a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Carlinville.