Friday, August 11, 2017

When Hate Comes to Town

One of my favorite songs is the collaboration between Irish band U2 and the late blues legend, B.B. King on the song “When Love Comes to Town.” It is a tremendous song about the transformative power of love. The fourth verse of the song points unequivocally to the day that Jesus was crucified as the day when love came to town. And, that love changed everything.

On two Saturdays in the summer of 2017, in the usually sleepy little town of Charlottesville, VA, it is expected that hate will come to town. Specifically, on July 8th, a KKK group from North Carolina conducted a rally at a downtown park and then, on August 12th, Richard Spencer is to headline the so-called “Unite the Right Rally” in the same park. How exactly are Christians supposed to think about and respond to such events?

First and foremost, Bible-believing Christians cannot endorse the attitudes, beliefs and actions of groups like the KKK or Richard Spencer’s so-called “Alt-right.” Both groups embrace a demonic ideology that undermines the clear teaching of the Bible that every human being has inherent worth because every human being is made in the image of God. Any teaching that claims inferiority for those who are of a different race or ethnicity than “we” are is sinful. In short, racism is a sin; a sin for which Jesus died, but a sin nonetheless.

The gospel confronts racism because in the gospel we learn that every person has inherent value because every person is made in the image and likeness of God. In the gospel we learn that Jesus died for people of every race and ethnicity, and calls upon every single person to repent and trust in his finished work. In the gospel we learn that, in Christ, Jews and Gentiles – and all other racial and ethnic categories – can experience genuine reconciliation with God and with each other (Eph 2:11-22). As such, racism, in any form cannot be fostered or tolerated among Bible-believing Christians.

While all of the above is true, the question remains how Christians ought to respond when hate (in the form of racist groups) comes to town. Up to this point I have said little publicly about the rallies in my newly adopted hometown. And, although I have attended one meeting of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, I have not participated in the counter-protests they have sponsored.

In this circumstance, there are several biblical models that I am following in my lack of participation in either rally. The first is Nehemiah, who refused to be distracted from his calling by those demanding that he engage with them. To the contrary, in Neh 6:3, Nehemiah sent them a message, “I am doing a great work and cannot come down.”

A second example comes to mind as well. That is the example of the angel of the Lord who met with Joshua prior to the battle of Jericho (Josh. 5:13-15). In that passage Joshua wanted to know who the angel was for – on whose “side” was the angel fighting? The angel’s answer is instructive: “Neither. But as commander of the Lord’s army I’ve now come.” I am more convinced than ever that the same answer would be given if the angel of the Lord’s army were to appear in downtown Charlottesville during one of the aforementioned rallies. Both sides claim – to one degree or another – that the Lord is on their side. Yet, I am convinced that the Lord would tell both sides that they are in error. God does not look for which side of our sinful arguments to take his stand, rather, he demands that we repent from our selfishness and shortsightedness and that we align our values with him.

Finally, I take the example of Jesus (Mk 12:13-17) when the Pharisees and Herodians sought to trap him with a political question. In that case, they asked whether they should pay taxes or not. Jesus refused to be drawn in to their trap. Quite honestly, I think there are a lot of folks in Charlottesville who feel much the same way. We despise the views of the KKK and of Richard Spencer, but we are not too fond of the views of “the other side” either. Yet, we seem to be pushed toward taking a side. For lack of a better description, the demand (from some) that we take a side feels a lot like a trap.

In addition to the biblical examples that I have referenced above, the answers to the following three practical questions have guided my thinking over the past several months as I have wrestled with exactly how to respond to the events going on in my city:

1. Will there be a chance to engage in a proclamation of the gospel at these rallies or counter-protests?
The only way for the sin of racism to be biblically confronted is for the gospel to be clearly proclaimed. Mere presence is not sufficient because presence alone does not indicate the reason for opposition to hate groups. I am not yet convinced that groups of people engaging in alternative rallies accomplish the task of clearly proclaiming the gospel. Indeed, given the vast spectrum of those engaged in “counter-protests,” it is not possible to separate those whose opposition is rooted in the gospel from those who are professional protestors, Antifa groups, and left wing fringe groups. In short, I see no opportunity to clearly engage in gospel proclamation that is clear, unequivocal, and distinct.

2. Will a large crowd give those engaged in hate more attention?
Here I am thinking about the way the news media is attracted to events. The larger the crowds – especially opposing crowds shouting at each other – the more coverage the event gets. And, unfortunately, attention is exactly what hate groups crave. (And, here I am not thinking of the “alt right” groups exclusively, but am convinced that those behind the professional protestors, the Antifa groups, and several other groups planning counter protestors are driven by hate as well.) Certainly the hate groups will be covered by the news, but there can be no doubt that the more conflict there is, the more coverage there will be. Indeed, hate groups thrive on conflict and opposition. They are the living embodiment of Dr. King’s reminder that “hate begets hate.” In the absence of an antagonistic opposition crowd, the hate group has no fuel to feed their inferno of hatred.

3. Can I express my disdain for hate groups without partnering with groups that compromise my convictions?
This is the thorniest question of all for me. In my city a group of well meaning “clergy” are planning a counter-protest to these rallies. They are a decent group of people representing everything from mainline denominations to meditation centers, which is why I put the word “clergy” in quotation marks. I have been asked to join them, but have politely declined. Yet, I was recently asked, “what’s the harm in praying together?” Although I appreciate that sentiment, I am not sure, for example, who a “spiritual teacher” at a meditation center is praying to. And, I am fairly certain that a Jewish rabbi is not praying to Jesus. My statements here ought not be interpreted as insults, they are not. Quite the contrary, I am acknowledging genuine differences in fundamental beliefs. So while I agree with the clergy group in their opposition to hate groups coming to town, the reason(s) for my opposition is quite different from many of those in the group. Yet, there is really no way to make that distinction “in the moment” (apart from a blog post like this, I suppose).

Let me add that I do not think my thoughts on this issue are the final word for all Christ followers. I do not even consider it the final word for the members of the church which I serve as pastor. I know there are plenty of Christians and people of “good will” who will think differently and feel compelled to attend the anti-protests. Although we may choose to express our opposition to hate groups in different ways, my prayer is that every follower of Christ will be driven by the Scripture to oppose any and all anti-gospel, dehumanizing, racist ideologies and that the love of God for us expressed by the death of Jesus on the cross would radically transform us and our city.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Three Principles for Christian Leaders Engaging in Social Media

The bulk of this post was written in January 2014. In the two and a half years since, much has changed in our world and culture, and I have never been more thankful for the changes that I made to the way I engage on social media. When I joined Facebook and Twitter in the late 2000's, 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 made changes in the way I handle social media and I have learned some principles for public leaders - especially pastors - that I think are worth sharing.

1. Establish Boundaries. 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 contended was a way to stay in touch with family was little more than a way to feed my own ego by sharing my opinions 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.

My boundaries. After some gut level conversations with good and trusted friends, I have 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 or political commentary. 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.

2. Avoid Debate. 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 like 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.

Those who "follow" my Facebook or Twitter feed will find that most of the updates posted to Facebook come through Twitter. I determined to do that because I am less inclined to post trivial items to Twitter, which provides a built-in filter for me to determine what is worthy of sharing on social media, I also determined that I will not answer every question posed to me on Facebook (or Twitter), nor will I engage in debate on theological or political issues on Facebook.

3. Starve the Caricature Monster. 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, we get a caricature. 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 (I may be guilty of this! LOL). 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 caricature 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 at the level of "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. When I reviewed my social media interaction from 2009-2013, I realized I presented the picture of a really angry conservative. That was not, of course, what I intended, nor what I am. I am conservative, yes....but I am decidedly not angry.  But, the monstrous caricature I built on social media certainly gave that impression. Rather than feed that monster, I will present my understanding of challenging issues, biblical texts, and the like 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.

So, these are a few of the principles I've learned and put into practice regarding social media. 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."

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Three Benefits of an Annual Sermon Plan

As a young pastor I had the incredible benefit of having a mentor who taught me the benefits of sermon planning. Until that point, I did what many pastors do: wait until Monday to think about what to preach on the next Sunday. Not only did that lead to tremendous stress every Monday, but it also resulted in my sense that the overall teaching plan of the church was disjointed. I began using an annual sermon plan 18 years ago and have found at least three practical benefits for me and to my congregation.

1. Relieves Stress
Alistair Begg once described preaching as akin to giving birth. His point was not to denigrate the real physical and emotional toll that women face in childbirth, but that the emotional (and sometimes physical) toll on a preacher is absolutely draining as he shares from God’s Word the truths that have come out of the study. It is hard to describe the process of returning to the study the day after preaching knowing that it all begins again. Now, frankly, there is nothing – nothing – that eliminates the stress of a pastor knowing he has to prepare a message from God’s Word for God’s people. Nothing. But, the lack of an annual sermon plan does add to that stress by the pastor not only having to prepare the message, but he also has to spend time in prayer and reflection to determine what to preach that week. Going through such a routine every week is emotionally and spiritually exhausting.

The simple truth is that God can lead us in planning several months in advance just as well as he can on a weekly basis. By planning in advance, however, the pastor can help alleviate a bit of the stress associated with preparing that week’s sermon.

2. Whole Team On Board
A second value of annual sermon planning is that it allows the pastor to bring his entire team on board. When I served in a small church, that “whole team” was my secretary and a music leader. Now, that team includes a few associate pastors, ministry directors and administrative assistants. The issue is not how many people the team involves, what does matter is that you are able to share with key ministry leadership the direction that the preaching will be taking. In my case, my annual sermon plan is in the form of a spreadsheet that includes date, series title, sermon title, passage, main idea of sermon, and any special notes (i.e. holiday weekend, etc). Once the whole staff has this info, they have a better idea of weekly themes and of sermon series themes that will be coming over the course of the year.

A quick note at this point: you may have noticed that “main idea of sermon” is included with the plan I use. Usually that means a pastor needs to take a day or two away to develop the annual sermon plan. In the early years, I took two days to work through a full 12 month plan. Because I have gotten in a “rhythm” of planning, I now spend time in the fall planning for January through June and in the spring planning July through December.

3. An Annual Preaching Record
The final benefit I have found to having an annual sermon plan is the ability to go back and review sermon themes from previous years. It also allows me to evaluate total number of Sundays I have been in the pulpit. In my case, I have found that I need to have one week out of the pulpit every quarter to clear my head a bit. Because I have kept an annual sermon plan for 18 years, I can point back to exactly how many Sundays I have been in the pulpit every year. For example, I know that in my earlier years, I was in the pulpit an average of 49 Sundays per year. Frankly, that is way too much. Over the past 10 years, I have averaged 44.5 Sundays per year. That number is much more manageable.

I’ve been fortunate that the two previous churches I have served have set 42 as the minimum and 46 as the maximum number of days that the pastor is expected to be in the pulpit. This is a very wise approach, especially because those churches did not offer a sabbatical. In those ministry settings, the church did not offer a sabbatical, so I made sure to utilize vacation time in the summer as a mini-sabbatical (2 to 3 Sundays in a row, including one holiday Sunday). Regardless of your setting, an annual sermon plan allows a pastor to know exactly how many Sundays he has been in the pulpit and to share that with church leadership.

After 18 years of using an annual sermon plan, I have found these three benefits to outweigh any extra work in the preparation of the annual sermon plan. If you use an annual sermon plan, what additional benefits have you found?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Few More Things I Wish I Had Known As a Young Pastor

In February 2013 I wrote a short article entitled “To the Young Pastor: Five Things I Wish I Had Known.” Four years later I think it may be time to add a few to the list. For, it seems, we never stop learning how to do this thing we call “pastoral ministry.” We never stop experiencing surprise at the way God uses us to impact the lives of people or the way in which we can be hurt by people. All of that to say, “Hey, young pastor, here are a few more things you need to know.”

1. You are Pastoring an Established Church.
When I was young(er) I used to think that I wanted to lead a hip, modern, contemporary church that was always thriving on innovation and change. Note: That church does not exist. The reality is, unless you are making major, foundational, fundamental changes to the church you lead every 12 to 18 months, you will lead an established church. (BTW, very few people can make those kinds of fundamental changes and not lose most of the congregation along the way.) Don’t let the fact that the church has a cool band or doesn’t ask that you wear a suit lead you to believe they are not “established.” They are. All churches are. All churches have systems, structures, traditions, and expectations. Learn them; and then leverage them to bring positive transformation. Once I embraced this reality, I have experienced far more joy and satisfaction in ministry and much better results in leading change.

2. You Cannot Lead People Well Until You Love Them Well.
A good friend of mine once told me, “I need to see your heart.” The comment came in the midst of a contentious conversation about leadership. He was pointing out come shortcomings and I was getting defensive. He rightly identified the problem: I was not loving people deeply. Somewhere I had picked up the notion that if you lead people well, that will result in a loving relationship. I’ve come to believe that you have to love people before you can lead them. And, not only love them, but love them visibly. They have to see your heart. Naturally, that comes with great risk that they can break your heart. But, the risk is worth the reward.

3. It’s the Body Shots that Will Do You In.
We have all heard the statistics about pastors leaving the ministry. Though many of these are inflated, the truth is that many pastors do leave the ministry. We tend to be most aware of the ones who do so via the “knockout punch” of a disqualifying moral failure. I’m convinced, however, that the vast majority of pastors leave the ministry due to a relentless number of “body blows.” There is an old adage in boxing, “kill the body and the head dies.” The idea is that you “soften” someone up for a knockout punch by pummeling their body. In ministry, that pummeling comes via unrealistic expectations, unfair criticism, and snide remarks. Even when serving in a church where everything seems to be going well, these body blows can take their toll on you, whether they occur during your ministry or after you leave. Be prepared for it and learn to not only “keep your left up” (protect against the knockout punch), but steel yourself for the body shots.

What other lessons might you add to help a young pastor in ministry?