Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Natalie Grant, Mandisa, and Being Light in Darkness

If you are a social media following Christian, by now you have read about Natalie Grant (and her husband)’s early departure from the 2014 Grammy Awards. (You can read Natalie’s comments on her Facebook page here.) You’ve likely also read that Mandisa decided to forego the entire proceeding. (You can read about Mandisa’s decision here.)

For her part, Natalie Grant was at the Grammy’s because she was nominated for a couple of awards. A high honor, indeed. After sitting through several hours of the “pre-show” (since 70 of the more than 80 Grammy’s were awarded before the telecast), she decided to head home. To be fair, Grant did not express exactly why she departed early, but did suggest that it had to do with the content of the show. To be fair, she did not express exactly at what part during the show she decided to depart. It could have been during Beyonce’s “performance” with husband Jay-Z that left little to the imagination – both in Beyonce’s wardrobe and in their behavior toward one another. Or, perhaps it was Katy Perry wearing an illuminated Knight’s Templar cross in a way that few during the Middle Ages could have envisioned. Indeed, it is ironic that Perry was sporting a cross most closely associated with the Crusades….she’s so politically incorrect!  Regardless, by the time Madonna got around to singing at Rev. Latifah’s church-inspired wedding ceremony, Grant and her husband were long gone.

And then there is Mandisa. Although Mandisa was nominated for three Grammy’s (and won two!), she chose not to attend. Obviously it is debatable whether she might have attended had she known she would win. But, I take her at her word: she was not attending for other reasons. Spiritual reasons. Not a push-your-religion-on-others spirituality, but the very personal challenge every Christ follower faces to be in the world but not of it. Mandisa expressed that, because of where she is at in here walk with Christ, it was not good for her to submerge herself in an environment that celebrated "the allure of pleasure, the passion to have things, and the pompous sense of superiority" (1 Jn 2:15 The Message): the very things she is seeking to reduce in her life.

The reaction has been interesting. Some took the social media low road by attacking these two for their “hatred” of homosexuals, being judgmental, and being hypocritical. Such is to be expected in a culture that has been taught that the new Golden Rule is to treat all people equally by affirming their behavior regardless of your own convictions. Others, though, had a different question. A fundamentally evangelical question: wouldn’t it have been better for Grant to stay (and Mandisa to attend) so they could be light in darkness? It’s a good question and one that demands an answer. Let me share a few ways to think about the question:

First, the question assumes that being present is enough in evangelism. It is true that God calls us to be light in darkness. And, unfortunately, the Church has done a better job convincing believers to “stay away” form lost folks than encouraging us to interact. Obviously if we are going to be a witness for Christ, we have to be “with” unbelievers. But the simple fact we are present with unbelievers does not – by itself – constitute being light. If that were the case, our men’s ministries could visit the local strip clubs under the guise of “being light in darkness.” I realize the example is exceptional, but it makes the point – just being present is not enough to constitute being a witness. We actually need to share our faith verbally to truly be light in darkness.

Second, the question assumes that those attending the Grammy’s are open to a gospel witness. I realize this is moving into risky territory. Only God truly knows what is going on in a person’s heart and life. And, it is very possible that a person attending the Grammy’s is doing so during a time of great spiritual searching. But, the environment is not terribly conducive to probing a person’s deepest spiritual concerns. In reality, the Grammy’s show is about flaunting the trappings of success and pushing the boundaries of convention (usually by seeking to be edgier than last year’s show). The simple fact is that there are some environments that are more conducive to sharing our faith than others. That does not make us unevangelistic, it makes us wise.

Third, the question ignores that the cultural drift away from basic moral standards has practical implications for the discerning Christian. Too often we ignore the fact that Christians are, well, people. People who struggle with sin and wrestle with pride. Simply put, not every activity is beneficial for us. Depending on where we are in our walk with Christ, attending a show like the Grammy’s may do us more spiritual harm than good. Mandisa alluded to this as she shared her struggle to be in the world, but not of the world. An event that celebrates “the world” is not the best place to engage in that struggle. While Grant was wisely circumspect in her wording, it is safe to say that watching various women parade half naked on a stage, gyrate their bodies to music and – in some cases – imitate sexual acts with others is not the best way to move toward spiritual maturity.

So what are we to make of all this? Simply that Natalie Grant and Mandisa are not that different from you and me. They are Christian ladies who are seeking to live out their faith in a very bright spotlight. In so doing, every action they take (i.e. leaving the Grammy’s early) or don’t take (i.e. skipping the Grammy’s altogether) will be utterly scrutinized. Because both women have handled themselves with tremendous grace and Christian maturity, I suggest we follow that model. Could they have been light in darkness? I suspect they are. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pastors, Meet with Your Key Lay Leaders

A few years ago one of the lay leaders in our church suggested that it would be a good idea for me to call together all of our key church leaders for an annual direction-setting gathering. Frankly, I did not like the idea very much. I was raised in a blue collar, working class family that prided itself on the notion of treating others equally. The idea of calling together a select group of people just did not set well with me. I was wrong.

Although I was hesitant at first, I am fully convinced of the value of these gatherings now. There are good reasons and significant benefits to calling key leaders together to set (or reset) direction. In fact, January of 2014 marked our fourth key leaders gathering. During that time, we have learned some things along the way that might be useful to other pastors or church leaders considering creating such a gathering. Below are three benefits of calling an annual leader gathering and one cautionary word about your process of so doing.

The first reason to call leaders away from the larger group is that Jesus modeled this practice in his ministry. In Jesus’ ministry there were at least four levels of involvement. If you think of four concentric circles, the largest group (the outer ring) was the crowd. That included followers, inquirers, doubters and skeptics. The next circle toward the center was those who were following Jesus. The Twelve represent the next circle. They were select from the larger crowd of disciples. The innermost circle – indeed, the inner circle of Peter, James and John – operated at another level of intimacy with Jesus. Apparently, Jesus had no issue with recognizing deeper levels of commitment and investing in those who were closest to him and his ministry.

A second reason to call leaders together is they need to hear the heart of their leader. John Maxwell has made famous the phrase that “everything rises and falls on leadership.” In a perfect world, your key leaders would have deep commitments to Christ and the work fo the local church and would pursue those commitments with reckless abandon. The reality is that the key leaders in a church are, well, human. That means that, regardless of their commitment to Christ and the church, they need someone with skin on. They need to be invested in their leader. By calling key lay leaders together, they gain the benefit of hearing the direction the leader believes God is guiding the church to go. They also have the opportunity – that safe environment – to offer feedback, encouragement, and push back (if necessary).

A third reason to call leaders together is to communicate to them the message you intend to communicate to the body during the year. As the Senior Pastor in a local church you are responsible to have your ear bent toward the Heavenly Father, listening for how He wants you to lead His church. As you hear from God, it is vital that you share that message to the lay leaders in your congregation. In all likelihood they will be the ones sharing, explaining, and possibly defending the direction you sense God is leading the body. You owe it to your leaders for them to hear from you before they have to answer questions from the rest of the congregation.

If you decide to begin hosting an annual key leaders gathering, you will inevitably deal it the question of “why wasn’t I invited?” At our first gathering, we did not have intentional, objective criteria for who was invited to the gathering. A couple of us poured over a list of members and just picked some folks. That was a bad idea and we realized it quickly. We realized we had to create criteria that made sense and was defensible. In our context, we settled on inviting the Overseers (i.e. Elders), Deacons, Personnel Team, Stewardship Team, Ministry Staff, and Generosity (i.e. Giving) leaders – as well as their spouses – to the gathering.

By creating an objective set of criteria, the Senior Pastor and the lay leaders remain above reproach in the process. That is, the criteria are not subjective. An invitation is not based on friendship. Rather, it is based on one’s level of service in the life of the local church. That, in and of itself, sends a subtle message about the importance of and the benefits of committed service in the church.

One final thing to note: if you are going to call for an annual gathering, be very intentional with how you spend your time together. Nothing will frustrate leaders more than to think they are coming to a gathering designed for leaders that turns into something far less. In our gathering we ask each family to bring either a food or dessert item to share. That allows us to begin the night with light fellowship. In some churches – ours included – this gathering has proven to be the place where leaders meet other leaders for the first time. The fellowship time allows the beginning of a relationship to form.

Once we move beyond the fellowship, we call all of the leaders to gather in a central room. At that point, the Senior Pastor (in our case, me) makes a presentation that emphasizes God’s faithfulness in the past and anticipation of the future. Whatever you do, make sure to leave the leaders with a challenge. Leaders thrive when challenged, so do not hesitate to set the bar high.

While I was originally hesitant to call for a key leaders meeting, I am glad I did. Our church has benefited and our leaders have benefited from this annual gathering. And, I would like to think that it has helped shape me into a better leader, as well.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Comedy that is Really A Tragedy

TV Land is now in the business of developing and creating “original” programming. One of their newest series is called “Kirstie.” The series features long time comedic favorites Kirstie Alley, Michael Richards and Rhea Perlman. The general premise of the show is the search by Arlo Barth (Eric Petersen), a young man who was given up for adoption 26 years earlier who is now trying to connect with his birth mother Maddie Banks (played by Alley). Arlo begins his effort to reunite with his birth mother after his adopted mother has died.

In addition to original programming, TV Land still, occasionally, runs some old favorites in syndication. The juxtaposition of the values evident in the old favorites and in TV Land’s original programming can cause the equivalent of moral whiplash. In fact, my neck is still hurting.

I was minding my own business watching Gilligan’s Island. TV Land has decided to feature a marathon of the 1960’s era sitcom in the wake of the death of the Professor, Russell Johnson. My enjoyment of Gilligan’s Island was interrupted by a commercial for an episode of the aforementioned Kirstie entitled “Like a Virgin.” In the previews for the episode, Maddie learns that her son Arlo is a virgin. Horror of horrors! The entire cast caught up in trying to “fix” this situation. Finally, Maddie enlists her understudy Brittany (Kristin Chenoweth) to deflower him in exchange for a chance to go onstage.

Welcome to Kirstie’s world. A world where sexual purity is mocked and jeered. A world where the worst thing that can happen to an unmarried young man is to remain a virgin. A world where – we are led to believe – it is a mother’s job to make sure her son has a sexual experience. Any sexual experience. With anyone. Just do not remain a virgin. That, after all, is the worst (and funniest) thing that can happen to a young man.

I find it tragic that the same Hollywood types that write this kind of “comedy” would defend to the death a woman’s right to “choose” abortion. Yet, they choose to write comedy that makes light of non-committed, sexual promiscuity for the sole purpose of conquest. I find it tragic that a comedy whose premise is a woman whose own sexual exploits led her to give her child up for adoption (which is to be applauded), now wants to encourage the same kind of reckless behavior in her son.

For those of us who embrace moral values – especially biblical morality – this kind of comedy is really a tragedy. It is tragic because it reveals the truth that, once we abandon absolute moral standards, the only thing that remains to determine right and wrong is what makes the most people the most happy. Francis Schaeffer once wrote something like that back in the 1970’s. He was right then and he remains right today. In the absence of a biblical moral standard, people do not experience moral freedom, but the complete loss of moral direction. And when that happens, comedy becomes tragedy. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Label Factory

Religion and politics. There are few things that can incite emotions like those two subjects. Unfortunately, some of the give and take is less than charitable. Indeed, too often, in the midst of the give and take of ideas and viewpoints, it seems inevitable that one side with assign a label to the other. In fact, label making has become something of a preoccupation these days.

I remember the first time I experienced this personally. I was a student at a Reformed Presbyterian seminary in the Midwest. I also happened to be attending an Independent Fundamental Bible Church. What I found interesting was the reaction of the people in each place to the other. It was a lesson in label making that I will not forget.

The people at the church wondered – aloud – why I would attend a “liberal” seminary. In their mind, it just was not possible for there to be a bible-believing seminary that did not conform to their particular understanding of Scripture. Indeed, anything less than fully embracing a dispensational framework for the Scriptures (including a pretribulational, premillenial view of eschatology), was liberal. Now, mind you, the seminary in question was far from liberal, in the strictest sense of the word. The school embraced an inerrant, infallible view of the inspiration of Scripture. They embraced the virgin birth, miracles, sinless life, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and personal return of Jesus. Yet, they were “liberal” because they disagreed on their understanding of eschatology.

By the same token, some of my classmates at seminary wondered why I would go to a fundamentalist church. They were not using “fundamentalist” in a technical way, either. My classmates most certainly were not referring to an embrace of the historic fundamentals of the faith. Rather, they had in mind a caricature of fundamentalists humorously described as “not much fun, too much damn, and very little mental.” My fellow students could not understand how I could willingly worship with such narrow minded people (although apparently not recognizing their own narrow mindedness).

I am the first to admit that I have – on more than one occasion – utilized the pejorative form of labels. Indeed, I have been a first rate label maker, sadly forgetting the pain and frustration of those seminary days nearly twenty years ago. I remember being so frustrated with the folks at our church for labeling me as a liberal for attending “that kind” of seminary. And I remember the frustration of having my classmates surprised that I knew the music of R.E.M., considering I was a “fundy.” I remember thinking: “I am the same guy. My beliefs haven’t changed.” Yet, one group labeled me a liberal, while the other labeled me a fundamentalist.

John Calvin (please do not label me a “Calvinist” because I am quoting Calvin) once described the human mind as a perpetual factory of idols. While I do not disagree with Calvin, I would like to suggest that the human mind is also a factory of labels. Conservative. Liberal. Fundamentalist. Evangelical. Dispensationalist. Covenantalist. Reformed. Congregationalist. And, yes....Calvinist and Arminian. Certainly some of these labels are useful and helpful. They are, however, easily transformed from a useful and helpful shorthand to a form of pejorative insult when used inappropriately.

I would like to suggest that we strive to utilize labels in their technical form, and not as a pejorative way to describe those who disagree with us. I am not suggesting we not use labels. To do so is silly and unproductive. Labels do have their place. But, let us endeavor to use them accurately and not as a tool for attacking those with whom we disagree. In addition, when someone "labels" us, rather than respond defensively, ask them, 'what do you mean by that?' or 'What does (fill in the label here) mean to you?' I think you will be surprised that many people who use labels do not even know what they mean. They are simply parroting something they heard someone else say. In all honesty, the only label I unreservedly want to have attached to me is "Christ-follower."

Let me know what you think. Have you been a victim of label-itis? Are you guilty of being a label-maker? 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Like a Box of Chocolates

            January 2014 marks 18 consecutive years of serving as the Senior Pastor in the local church. As you can well imagine, over that period of time I have had a few experiences that could best be described as “interesting.” When I reflect on the variety of encounters and experiences, I am reminded of the line from Forrest Gump, slightly modified: “Ministry is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are gonna get.” And, it is true. The range of emotions runs from the highs of seeing people give their lives to Christ, seeing marriages restored, and babies born to the lows of the ravages of addictions, the effects of self-centered living, and broken lives – to name a few. I thought I would share a few of the lighter moments over the past 18 years.
            Occasionally I share some of these experiences with church members. I enjoy seeing their reactions to the kinds of things that pastors see and hear in the course of engaging in ministry. Some of these experiences were amusing, some left me speechless (which is no small task), and others simply left us shaking my head.  

            There was the time that my family and I decided to “spring forward” rather than “fall back.” As a result we arrived at the church a full two hours earlier than we should have. To make matters worse, that particular day was a big homecoming celebration – a big deal in the life of a small, rural church. We, however, were dumbfounded at how the people in the church decided to blow off such an important service. Well, no such thing had happened. The majority of the church seemed to understand the concept of “fall back” and they arrived right on time. Indeed, that day was a great day in the life of the church. We had one of the largest crowds during my tenure there. Needless to say, I went to bed early that night.

            On another occasion we decided to accompany our students to the annual youth rally put on by our state denomination. Well, we didn’t really “decide”….when you serve as the pastor of a small church, there is typically no one else to do it. At any rate, one of the boys we took along had never traveled out of our small, rural community. Anywhere. Ever. We decided to treat the kids to supper at a Chinese restaurant. Needless to say, the young man could not find a thing on the menu that looked even remotely familiar to him. The closest thing was “green pepper steak.” Apparently, the word “steak” appealed to him; the appearance of the dish, however, did not. When it arrived he just stared at the plate, wondering why his steak was in little strips and there was no baked potato beside it. I think he decided to fast during most of that youth conference.

            Performing wedding ceremonies is usually a blessed event that pastors enjoy very much. Of course, there was that one time when a strange car pulled onto our small church parking lot. I happened to be walking toward the front door of the church, in clear sight of the driver. He got out and asked, “You the pastor?” I said, “That depends, what do you need?” “I want to get married today,” he responded. “You got a girl picked out?” I asked. “Yeah, the old lady’s in the car,” he said. At that point, I figured this had the potential to be a unique experience. And, boy, was I right.

            It seemed that the man was headed to prison and needed to “get married” so that his live-in girlfriend could receive assistance for herself and their children while he was incarcerated. In fact, the bride giggled through the entire exchange of vows. The guy was a bit more serious. The kids were, well, kids. My wife served as the maid-of-honor; the best man was a friend of the groom. The ceremony did not make the social pages of the local paper. Of course, we did not have a local paper.  

            Now before you start getting all judgmental about my wedding policy, that was an isolated incident. In that situation I deemed it an act of mercy to make sure the family of the soon to be incarcerated man was provided for in his absence. Sometimes that is what ministry is about, making the best decision we can in terribly difficult – or incredibly “ridiculous” – circumstances.  

            Shortly after moving to NC, I remember telling our staff that “I don’t cancel services for snow and ice. I am from the Midwest. I never cancel.” Well, you remember that old adage about “never saying never?” About two weeks after my bold pronouncement, our region was hit with a freezing rain and ice storm. The whole area was covered with a layer of 1-2” of ice. Naturally, the storm came in late on a Saturday afternoon, and, yep, you guessed it, we had to cancel services the next day. Well, I suppose we could have “not cancelled,” but no one, including me, would have been there. I’ll never forget going into the staff meeting the Tuesday after that. One of our Administrative Assistants turned to me and said, “what was that again? I never cancel.” The whole room erupted in laughter; myself included.

             After 18+ years on ministry I have decided the best approach to life in the ministry is to expect the unexpected. Whether it is mistakes with clock setting, adventures with students, or strange weddings and weather, ministry is filled with the unexpected. When those unexpected circumstances arise, be sure to not take them too seriously. After all, a few years later you will likely find yourself laughing about them. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

My (Failed) Social Media Experiment

I began with the best of intentions. My goal was to create a social media presence in order to share my thoughts on the issues of the day as well as give people a glimpse into a pastor’s life away from the church. Unfortunately, my experiment failed. By “failed” I mean that I did not accomplish my goal in a constructive way. Quite the opposite, actually. Rather than equip believers with the tools necessary to engage in the culture war, they were provided sarcastic, condescending and often unhelpful commentary on the issues and events of the day. Rather than provide a winsome look into the life of their pastor, a one dimensional lens was provided to view their pastor. In short, what they saw (and read) was not what I had hoped or intended. As a result, I have since made some changes in the way I handle social media and I have learned some principles for public leaders that I think are worth sharing.  

The first principle is to not create a Twitter or Facebook presence without a specific set of guidelines for how to use it. That sounds simple and obvious, but it is remarkable how few of us think intentionally about what we are putting into the world of social media. If you have not established a set of guidelines for social media, ask yourself why you think you use it. If you had asked me I would have told you that I had a Facebook presence in order to keep in touch with my family (who live over 900 miles away) and to comment on issues of interest to me. However, in going back through nearly three years of posts, I discovered that very little of the content I posted had anything to do with family. Indeed, most of it appeared to be nothing more than my reaction to and commentary on the events of the day. Thus, what I thought was a way to stay in touch with family was little more than a way to feed my own ego by commenting on the news and events of the day. Once you determine what you think your reason(s) for engaging in social media is, try this, go back through a year’s worth of your posts and evaluate them in light of your guidelines.

After some gut level conversations with good and trusted friends, I have now established a framework for intentional social media interaction. My purpose in engaging in social media is threefold. First, I want to advance the ministry of the church I serve by posting information beneficial to our members. That information may be links to ministry opportunities, updates or details about church events, links to ministry resources, and the like. Second, I do want to give people a glimpse into a pastor’s life outside of the church. I simply want to be more gracious and holistic in how I do that. So I intend to provide more family oriented posts and pictures and less snarky remarks about the outcome of ball games. Third, I want to point people to articles and resources that will help them in their walk with Christ. In the past I would post most anything, now I use this framework to weed out much of what I would have posted in the past.

The second principle is one I owe to my good friend David Prince. During a conversation with David about my (unfortunate) tendency to engage in Facebook debates, he made a remarkable observation. David said, “Rob, you cannot have a meaningful and substantive debate in a medium that is neither meaningful nor substantive.” There is far more truth in that than I would have liked to admit. The truth is, going back and forth with someone in a Facebook thread is not productive. Such an exchange does not allow for an exchange of ideas that may persuade. Instead, it tends to entrench previously held ideas and create animosity toward those advocating other views. Facebook is a great place to share pictures from a family vacation and updates on where you are having lunch, but it is not a forum for engaging in debates that require careful thought or a nuanced exchange of ideas.

Having said that, I know that my tendency is to engage in debate. Indeed, I love to debate. To avoid the temptation to engage in a back and forth, I’ve determined to share status updates via my Twitter feed (which is linked to Facebook). For me, Twitter presents far less of a temptation to engage in a back-and-forth debate than does Facebook. Plus, I am less inclined to post trivial items to Twitter, which provides a higher standard to determine what is worthy of sharing on social media.

My third principle for social media is that social media never presents the whole picture of a person’s life, values, or personality. It is not even possible to determine tone of voice through social media, unless one is using all caps, of course. As a result, we get a skewed picture of what a person believes, what they value, how they think, etc. That is true, by the way, regardless of how much a person posts on social media. For example, we all know the “excessive” poster…..the one who tells you every restaurant they are in, at every meal. Obviously, there is more to the person than where they eat a meal or what they had for lunch. Even when posting on social or political issues, the nature of social media presents a skewed perspective of one’s beliefs and values.

As a Christian leader I have determined that it is not productive to present deeply held – and sometimes controversial – beliefs in sound bytes on social media. The opportunity for misunderstanding is simply too great, particularly in a culture that often views biblical beliefs as bordering on hate speech. Instead I will present my understanding of issues, biblical texts, etc through blogs, articles and books. While it is true that doing so is a more one-dimensional approach, it will allow a more detailed examination of issues than a 140 character tweet or a status update.

My goal here is to help other Christian leaders and believers in general to be more intentional and productive in their social media interaction. Social media can be a great servant when it is accomplishing the purposes for which you intend it. But, it can be a brutal master when it takes on a life of its own. In that regard it is wise to consider Paul’s words from Ephesians 5:16-17: Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.