Archives For Heartland

Exterior of Modern Church with Large Cross

A bill in the Illinois Senate that would have required pastors to take state-regulated classes in child protection raises important questions: Shouldn’t pastors do all they can to protect children, one colleague asked. Yes, obviously, but at what risk to religious communities’ First Amendment rights?

And, as important is this question: Why aren’t clergy engaging in stronger self-policing using a mechanism most already have in place, the ministerial code of ethics?

Sen. Melinda Bush of Lake County withdrew the bill last week, after objections from pastors on First Amendment grounds: If the state requires pastors to receive certification in this well-intended and altruistic concern, then what’s next? There aren’t many steps from this bill to government licensure of clergy and churches. “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” isn’t a sufficient argument to allow government regulation of pastoral work.

And, there’s a better way.

As a seminary student, I was required to write for myself a ministerial code of ethics. I studied a dozen examples and came up with a list of biblical and ethical ways for dealing with people, issues, and sticky situations.

A year or two later, I was the grader for that class, and I read scores of codes of ethics submitted by students. Most of these aspiring pastors took the assignment seriously, considering how they should handle counseling and confidentiality, reporting of abuse or neglect, the pastor’s relationship to the law and enforcement agencies. Some addressed euthanasia, and a few spoke to sexual identity and relationship issues just entering public discourse at the time.

Some of these students laid a good foundation for engaging and regulating their future work, so when hard questions arose, they already had biblical ways of processing the issues not based on emotion and reaction.

A good ministerial code of ethics guides pastors in their ministry to children and families in jeopardy. It requires that pastors stay up-to-date on the issues and the law. Through such personally adopted codes, pastors police themselves. They may join in voluntary association with other clergy in their enforcement.

Our Baptist polity—respecting the autonomy of the local church—doesn’t allow the denomination to enforce rules on pastors. Neither does the U. S. Constitution. That’s why we must take responsibility to govern ourselves.

For the sake of the children.

– Eric Reed

Surrendered life

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century. He pastored the Westminster Chapel in the heart of London for nearly three decades, and by the end of his ministry he was one of the most influential ministers on earth. But before Lloyd-Jones was a great preacher, he was an accomplished physician. After earning his medical degree, he came under the tutelage of Lord Horder, caregiver to His Majesty, King George V, and enjoyed one of the most promising medical careers in all of England.

In considering God’s call to ministry, Lloyd-Jones wrestled with his “physician’s dilemma”—giving up medicine to pursue preaching. Ultimately, it was a war of desire, and his desire for ministry won out:

“We spend most of our time rendering people fit to go back to their sin! I want to heal souls. If a man has a diseased body and his soul is all right, he is all right to the end; but a man with a healthy body and distressed soul is all right for sixty years or so and then he has to face eternity in Hell.”

From his book, “Discerning Your Call to Ministry,” Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Jason K. Allen offers insight on ministry, calling, and Christian education.

Are you willing to surrender?
A generation ago, “surrendering to ministry” was a common phrase in evangelical churches. It was certainly common in my childhood church. Most every sermon ended with an invitation to surrender to ministry. This immediately followed our pastor’s appeal to follow Christ, be baptized, or join the church.

Like Moses at the burning bush, you can persist in your excuses, or surrender to the call of God on your life.

As a boy, the phrase “surrender to ministry” both mystified and unnerved me. It sounded as though one was embracing an unwanted life, a call to a distant land for an undesired work. It seemed like a call one intuitively resisted—as long as possible—until finally buckling under the Spirit’s pressure and embarking on a life of ministry that, albeit noble, would be marked by sacrifice and hardship.

In hindsight, I do not think that is what my pastor meant, nor do I think that is what the New Testament implies. As I found in my own life, surrendering to ministry is not caving to an unwanted vocation; it is embracing what becomes increasingly irresistible: gospel ministry.

In other words, if by surrendering to ministry we mean engaging in an undesirable work, then jettison that phrase now. But if we mean surrendering to minister as unto the Lord and self-consciously choosing to forgo other life opportunities, conveniences, and ambitions, then surrendering to ministry is a good, healthy phrase. In fact, I am convinced “surrendering to ministry” is a phrase the church needs to recover and ministry-posture the church needs to cultivate. Every faithful ministry begins with a surrendered life, and that submissiveness shapes every aspect of one’s ministry, including why, where, and what one preaches.

What surrender entails
Surrendering to ministry rightly establishes the pastor’s motivation. After all, the pastor’s incentive should not be material gain, the applause of men, or any other earthly enticement. Rather, the preacher should, like the apostle Paul, know in his heart, “If I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).

To surrender to preach the ministry is to be so gripped by God’s call, and so moved for His glory, that one shares Jeremiah’s burden: “If I say, ‘I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it” (Jer. 20:9).

The urgency with which one preaches may ebb and flow based on a multitude of factors, including the receptivity of the congregation, the preacher’s spirituality vitality, and the tenor of the text itself. But, for the man rightly surrendered to ministry, the “why” of the ministry is settled—it is for Christ and His glory.

Additionally, surrendering to ministry includes a determination to follow God’s call wherever it may lead. This may include a willingness to leave family and friends, go to a distant place, and undertake a new work. After all, Jesus reflected, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20).

Too many ministers are perfectly willing to follow God’s call as long as it does not lead out of their hometown. Such kingdom restrictiveness is alien to the New Testament and stymies one’s availability to be used by God. Practically speaking, you can know if you are limiting God’s call if you’ve already placed—perhaps even unconsciously—limits on where you are willing to serve Christ.

A willingness to go wherever includes a willingness to minister to whomever. There are churches across the land poised for anything but numerical success. Challenging demographics, an unreceptive audience, or a dilapidated neighborhood might make God’s call unattractive, but if it is God’s call, it is a glorious one—regardless of the zip code. After all, struggling churches and dying communities need ministers, too. God typically calls more to a people than a place. If God calls you to minister to a church in a challenging area, are you willing to go?

Don’t settle for the path of least resistance or the best payout. Seek God’s will and surrender to it.

Surrendering to ministry also means operating under the authority of God’s Word. Most especially, this relates to the act of preaching itself. The role of the preacher is not to cobble together anecdotes with human insights and then sprinkle in a couple of Bible verses to produce a “homily.” The faithful preacher tunes his ear to the Spirit of God, not the critic’s grumble. His finger is on the text, not in the air, gauging the wind. His voice is given to preaching the Word, not peddling shallow sermons for shallow people.

Too many pastors are textual acrobats, contorting their preaching to avoid Scripture’s sharper edges. Such preachers have become adept at explaining away difficult texts and dodging confrontational verses. From the earliest days of ministry you’ll have to guard your heart from pleasing anyone other than the Lord. Fearing combative personalities, overreacting to legitimate criticism, or stubbornly desiring man’s approval can all compromise your message and disorient you from paramount loyalty: loyalty to the One who called you—God Himself.

Two stories of surrender
The Bible offers no better case study of surrendering to ministry than the Old Testament prophet Jonah. God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, and preach repentance so the people there might be saved. It’s crystal clear that God was concerned about the why, where, and what of Jonah’s message.

Tragically, Jonah resisted God’s call in spectacular fashion. When God called Jonah, he was in Israel. God instructed him to go to Nineveh, which was about 550 miles east of Jerusalem in what is now modern-day Iraq, but Jonah did the exact opposite. He struck out for Tarshish, located in modern-day Spain, some 2,000 miles in the opposite direction!

Why did Jonah resist God’s call to preach repentance to the Ninevites? The Ninevites were the sworn enemies of the Israelites. The last thing Jonah wanted was to see the Ninevites repent and escape God’s impending judgement. In fact, Jonah actually confessed that he fled to Tarshish because he knew God was “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

God’s ministers are not spiritual free agents. We are not ecclesiastical entrepreneurs who strike out on our own and minister in accordance with our own desires. As Jonah’s sin was running from God’s appointed place of ministry, a more common twenty-first-century sin might be running to a preferred place of ministry.

On the contrary, aspire to be like John Piper, who went to Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1980 despite a small, aging congregation in dilapidated facilities located in a transitional neighborhood. He sensed God’s call, followed it, and has been used by God like few others in our generation.

A number of years ago I faced a similarly challenging decision. A church reached out to me about helping them through a season of challenge and transition. I felt God’s leading to serve the church, but several friends sought to dissuade me. I vividly recall one friend telling me, “Stay away. That church will ruin your resume. It’s a troubled congregation in a troubled part of town. Billy Graham couldn’t grow that church. You’ll have plenty of great opportunities in the years ahead. Don’t settle for anything less than God’s best for you.”

Though well intended, that counsel was altogether unhelpful and disorienting. For a while it confused me, until I remembered that God’s will for my life is God’s best for my life. By enlarging my circle of wise counselors, reflecting on the church’s needs, and my wife and I seeking the Lord and gaining His peace, it became clear that God was indeed calling us to that church.

The bottom line is, if you had a million lives to live you could not improve upon the life God has called you to live and the ministry to which He has called you. Don’t settle for second best by choosing the path of least resistance or the ministry that promises the best payout. Seek God’s will and surrender to it.

These days the phrase “surrendering to ministry” seems a vestige of the previous generation of church life. This is more than unfortunate; it is unhealthy, and the church is the big loser.

Surrendering to ministry means you’re willing to go to anyone, anywhere, anytime. But don’t be confused; as you surrender you will enter more fully into God’s joy and blessing. A surrendered life is integral to a healthy ministry.

– Reprinted by permission

O, Death

ib2newseditor —  April 10, 2017

Rolled away stone.

Several years ago, my father died on the first of April, just a few days before Easter. And so each year now, April and Easter roll in and bring me an emotional mixture of grief yet hope, sadness yet joy. At this time of year, I acutely feel both the promise of life, and the inevitability of death.

When I returned home from my dad’s funeral, the church I was serving as interim pastor sensitively asked if I would be ready to preach as soon as Easter Sunday. I assured them I wanted to. I believed, deeply, in resurrection and eternal life, and I was eager to declare that boldly from the pulpit, both for the congregation and for myself. I wanted to publicly join the Apostle Paul in defiantly asking death where its victory and sting are, now that Jesus has conquered it.

But I was also still feeling immersed in the reality and pain of my dad’s death, and my sermon outline showed it. My first three points were simple, and somber. Death is definite. Death is designed. Death is difficult. I preached those first three points through the misty eyes of fresh grief.

If I could get through this sermon, maybe, just maybe I’d find hope.

Of course, I was working my way to a fourth point, and a hope-filled conclusion. Yes, death is definite, and designed, and difficult. But death is also defeated! I knew that to be the ultimate truth, the ultimate promise, the ultimate miracle. Yet during those painful days, it was as if I needed to admit those first three points as much as I needed the assurance of the fourth.

I needed to acknowledge, in fact to proclaim, the inescapability of death. Everyone needs to understand that everyone dies. I also needed to place the providential plan of death squarely at God’s feet. Because of our sin, it is God’s good and merciful design that everyone dies. And I needed, from my own deeply personal experience that year, to acknowledge how terribly painful death is, especially for those who lose someone they dearly love. If we do not have a sound theology of death, we will not have a sound theology of eternal life.

I learned that year that death is like a terrible, dark canvass, but a necessary one on which the story of resurrection and life can be brightly and beautifully painted. Without the reality and severity of death, the promise of resurrection and new life means very little. It is the depth, and finality, and “no exceptions” nature of our mortality that makes resurrected life so supremely valuable.

In other words, I had never valued Jesus’ resurrection more profoundly than when my dad died. The true victory and joy of Sunday is for those who have experienced the loss and despair of Friday.

So if you are entering April or Easter this year with a fresh experience of death, don’t be afraid to feel that pain deeply, with a holy grief. Only through death could Jesus remove the penalty of our sin. Only through death to our old selves can we be raised to a new and abundant life. And only through the death of our earthly bodies can we receive our new heavenly bodies.

As I learned eleven years ago in a profound new way, Easter is of necessity a matter of both life, and death. But because of Jesus’ resurrection, we can stare death right in the face and ask where its victory and sting are. Death is simply a role player in the Easter story, a story that ends with the greatest victory in all of history—victory in Jesus.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.

Praying at sunset

In the past year, I have recovered a lost word and a lost practice. With all that has happened in global events, national politics, and on a personal level, “praying” hasn’t seemed enough. I’m learning to beseech.

The word is not often used these days. Its popularity in print peaked in 1827, then began a steady decline until 2000. In 2001, the people who count these things noted a slight uptick in published usage that continues until today. And while they did not note a reason for increased beseeching, it seems right to point out that 2001 is the year marked by the September 11 terrorist attacks. If only for a short while, we Americans fell to our knees to plead with God on behalf of our nation. Praying became pleading, pleading became begging, begging became beseeching.

Shakespeare used the word so often that when literary scholars were trying to determine a link between his writing and Christopher Marlowe’s, they searched “beseech” as a marker of Shakespeare’s hand. (For Marlowe, they searched “glory droopeth.”)

Beseech is commonly used in the King James Version of the Bible. It means a variety of “asks” from simple plea to intense begging.

“O Lord, do save, we beseech You…”

Psalm 118:25

Paul urges, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God,” while Jonah pleads, “Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.”

But more recent translations have minimized its use. The New American Standard Bible, still touted as the most literal among English language translations, uses beseech 10 times to indicate something more than simple asking. In most instances, it’s life or death:

Faced with death, Hezekiah beseeches the Lord. Seeing the decline of his homeland, Nehemiah beseeches the Lord. A leper, suffering and shunned, beseeches Jesus for healing. Jesus tells his followers to beseech the Lord of the Harvest to send workers into His field. And a few times in the Psalms: “The cords of death encompassed me, And the terrors of Sheol came upon me…Then I called upon the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I beseech You, save my life!” (116:3-4).

Pray, plead, beg, beseech. To ask someone to do something in a serious or emotional way, Merriam-Webster says. The Cambridge English dictionary adds: Ask in such a way that shows you need it very much.

Like the needy people in California about to be put out on the street: “Hundreds beseech East Palo Alto council to end evictions,” the October 2016 headline read. Or from war-ravaged Aleppo: “‘Help us pull our country back from the brink of the abyss,’ Syrian Christians beseech.”

In California it worked; in Syria the few who remain are still beseeching.

And if we need another picture: there’s Jesus at Gethsemane. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to his closest disciples. And to his Father, “if You are willing, take this cup away from Me—nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.” And “in anguish, He prayed more fervently, and His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground.”

The word beseech is not used here, but its meaning was never clearer. Faced with the impossible, he prayed more fervently, and so too should we.

Eric Reed is editor of Illinois Baptist media.

Church pews with hymnalsI’ve never really had a moment in my life—39 years—when I wasn’t going to church. My parents got engaged and married in the church. I was born into, raised in, and baptized in church.

My parents, first-generation Christians, were devout church-goers. We went every time the doors were open—and many times when they weren’t. My father, a plumber, volunteered thousands of man-hours helping build church buildings. My mother volunteered, worked as a secretary, and later served as a preschool teacher.

Since age five, I sat in services: Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday night prayer meetings. I wasn’t allowed to draw. I was required to sit up straight—no fidgeting. And I wasn’t allowed to fall asleep.

Up through my teenage years, I thought of church as a bit boring. Sure, there were some life-changing, soul-stirring messages at summer camp or a special service. But for most of my life, including my years as a pastor, I did pretty much the same thing every week: singing familiar songs, reading Scripture, listening to a sermon.

Ironically, one axiom of my childhood evangelical faith was this: Church is more than the service or a building; it is the called-out people of God, living on mission every day. Church, I was told, will not get you to heaven. Only a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ will do that.

Tantalizing ways to excite people, or timeless rituals that shape our hearts?

I still believe this, more strongly now than ever, but I also believe that in some ways church does—or did—save me. It didn’t save me in the ways you might expect: a spectacular Sunday service, a home run sermon, or a gripping worship set. God’s primary tool to transform my heart was not the conference speaker or the traveling revivalist or the worship concert. Those events were important, but now I realize that, more often, God changed my life using routine worship services in which I sang hymns I didn’t quite understand and heard messages I didn’t quite grasp.

During times of fear and anxiety, I drift back to the words of hope from Martin Luther’s epic hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:

And though this world, with
devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.

When I feel insecure, I recall the lines of the Methodist hymn:
I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene,
And wonder how he could love me,
A sinner, condemned, unclean.

The hymns of the blind poet, Fanny Crosby. The majestic lines from Isaac Watts. The simple melodies of Bill Gaither. These are just a few of the hundreds of hymns that were cemented in my heart from week after week of “boring” church services. As a young child enduring the routines of our Baptist church, I didn’t realize what was happening to me.

In his book, “You Are What You Love,” James K. A. Smith talks about the way our hearts are formed:

“There is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life— to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?”

This repetition built in my heart a deep reservoir of theology. And now, as a husband and father, and pastor, whenever I stand and sing these hymns, I can barely contain myself. Some choruses evoke memories: My father serves communion while “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” plays faintly in the background. Dad fights back tears as we sing “Jesus Paid It All.”

These rituals train our hearts. We sing to ourselves songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. We hear the gospel preached to us over and over. We lift the cup to our lips and the bread to our tongues remembering, again, our place at the King’s table. Through these practices, God takes our hearts and seals them for his courts above, to paraphrase another hymn writer, Robert Robinson.

Don’t get me wrong. We shouldn’t eschew creativity in the church. We are, after all, “new creation” people. But our creativity should not seek to tell a new story. It should be designed to communicate to our hearts that same, old, wonderful story of salvation.

When I think back on the simple routines that changed my life, I’m encouraged in my own pastoral role. I’m reminded afresh that the work of ministry is not so much about finding new, tantalizing ways to make people excited about Jesus, but about the timeless rituals that shape their hearts.

Daniel Darling is the vice president for communications for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Previously, he served as a senior pastor in the Chicago suburbs. This column is excerpted from Baptist Press.

A new Bible

ib2newseditor —  March 20, 2017

Like most Americans, I’ve always respected founding father Thomas Jefferson. But I was surprised, and frankly disappointed, to learn recently that in the latter years of his life, Jefferson actually constructed his own version of the Bible. He did so by literally cutting and pasting, with razor and glue, numerous sections of the New Testament, intentionally omitting the miracles and any mentions of the supernatural, including the resurrection of Jesus.

To be fair, Jefferson apparently didn’t refer to his reconstruction as a Bible, but rather titled it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” Yet over the years it has come to be commonly known as “The Jefferson Bible.”

In fact, from 1904 into the 1950’s, the Government Printing Office gave all new members of Congress a copy of the Jefferson Bible, and that practice was resumed by a private publisher in 1997. The American Humanist Association published its own edition of the Jefferson Bible in 2013, adding passages from the Quran, the Buddhist Sutras, the Book of Mormon, and other works, and distributing it to members of Congress as well as President Obama.

Bible readership

We as Southern Baptists should be truly grateful that, since 2004, our own LifeWay Christian Resources has stewarded its own original Bible translation from the original languages, the Holman Christian Standard Bible. And now, this month, LifeWay is introducing a revised and updated version, renamed simply the Christian Standard Bible (CSB).

Recently I was invited to LifeWay, along with other state executive directors, for an overview presentation of the new translation. In fact, it was there that the Jefferson Bible was used as an illustration of what can happen when God’s Word is not stewarded carefully, and faithfully. In the CSB, LifeWay has sought to balance the two most important aspects of Bible translation: accuracy and readability.

I came away from that presentation greatly encouraged, but also greatly challenged. You see, I also learned during this presentation that Bible ownership is not really the main problem today. 88% of American households own a Bible, and the average number of Bibles per household is 4.7. The real problem is that only 37% of Americans read the Bible once a week or more. With the CSB, LifeWay’s goal is not to sell more Bibles; it is to grow the number of people who read the Bible, and are spiritually transformed by it.

LifeWay has carefully studied the activities linked to true spiritual growth. And the number one activity contributing to spiritual growth is Bible reading (91%), followed by church attendance (87%), personal prayer life (85%), and being mentored by another mature believer (81%).

By providing a freshly updated translation, LifeWay is seeking to grow the number of people engaged in the activity that most often leads to spiritual growth—reading the Bible. In doing so, they have relentlessly preserved accuracy, calling on some of the world’s finest Bible scholars to serve on the translation committee. Yet they haven’t sacrificed readability. Rather, they have sought to carefully balance the two.

So I came home from LifeWay with a new Bible. I don’t really need one. I’m the son of a pastor and a school librarian, and I worked in Christian publishing for almost 20 years. I already have way more Bibles than the 4.7 average per household.

But this new Bible gives me a fresh incentive to delve more deeply and more frequently into God’s Word. It gives me a renewed appreciation for our friends at LifeWay who faithfully steward this translation. And it gives me a reason to give others a new copy of the Bible, and to pray that our reading of it will bring the true spiritual growth that God desires.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.

VBS Concept Metal Letterpress TypeIf you’ve ever planned a big event, you know how it feels when it’s over. All the work and energy and trial and error that went into planning and executing the project can be exhausting, and when it’s finally over, all that energy seems to fly out the window too.

But for church leaders, the end of an outreach event is only the beginning.

This is heavy on my heart as we enter Vacation Bible School season, and I’m reminded how crucial a church’s follow-up process is to their overall VBS strategy. That’s why I advise churches to recruit a follow-up director. His or her only job is to connect people from VBS or any other outreach with other people and opportunities at the church. Encourage the director to have their follow-up strategy before the first person ever walks in the door, including:

Effective registration. The follow-up director will likely work with other VBS leaders to accomplish this. The truth is, you can’t follow up with someone you can’t find. Make sure you have the full name and contact information for every person who attends your VBS. It’s important to know these things not only for follow-up, but in case you need to get in touch during VBS with someone related to the child.

Follow-up teams. Ask the director to recruit pairs or small groups of people who can make personal visits to families. The church I previously served sent our deacons two-by-two to follow up after VBS. We found in-person visits to be most effective, but some of our teams felt more comfortable making a call first to set up a time to visit.

Connection points. When our follow-up teams made their visits, they made it a point to take something that would forge a connection with the family. For example, one year the children decorated frames during VBS and we attached a calendar of church events for the deacons to deliver.

Above all, remember that a follow-up strategy doesn’t have to be complicated; it just needs to allow you to make significant contacts with people who otherwise may only encounter your church through one event. The goal of any VBS or outreach effort should be to connect unchurched people with the church for the purpose of expanding God’s kingdom. We can’t do that if we don’t follow up.

Jack Lucas is IBSA’s director of next generation ministry.