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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

How Our Elders and Deacons Work Together

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“I just don’t feel like the church cares about me.” This is hard to hear as a pastor, yet most of us have heard it. Sometimes we write it off as coming from an overly needy member who has unrealistic expectations of the pastor’s time. Sometimes, though, it’s a real problem.

The church has two offices: elders and deacons. Each local church should not only have these offices, but have them work together. However, too often elders and deacons don’t complement one another but instead contradict, overlap, or ignore one another altogether.

A measure of structure can help remedy this, but it has to foster caring relationships, not merely task-driven organization.

When I arrived at University Baptist Church in 2006, one of the first things that needed addressing was member care. The church had been through a very difficult season. There had been fractured relationships, broken trust, and a burden of financial debt. My desire in coming to a church in need of healing and reform was to first establish expository preaching and, eventually, a plurality of elders. I was content for this to take the first five years to complete, but the church was in need of care—now.

After meeting with the deacons several times, it was apparent that these men really wanted to be deacons. These were not elder wannabes or a baptized labor union. They were men longing to be led and organized to care for the church, so that’s what we did.

First, we divided up the church membership by households and assigned those households to the deacons. At the time, each deacon had about fifteen households to care for. In the early stages, we contacted all inactive members. This “family plan” helped us tremendously as we sought to reconnect with our members and, where necessary, remove from our rolls those who were unable or unwilling to reconnect.

Once the inactive members were all but removed, we focused care on the present members. Our deacons were tasked with a plan to contact their households via personal visits, phone calls, emails, and/or texts. After several relational hits and misses, we finally settled on a more balanced approach to entrusting the deacons primarily with families they had natural relationships with, some families they did not know at all, and at least one widow. This made caring for the members measurably more natural, though still daunting.

Once we established elders in the church, we implemented a second phase of care for the body, shepherding groups. These shepherding groups are led by an elder and consist of four or five deacons. Each deacon is responsible for ten or so families, therefore each shepherding group represents approximately 50-60 households.

Shepherding groups meet every 6 to 8 weeks for discipleship, family reports, and prayer. These reports alert the elders to practical needs. If there are deeper spiritual concerns, including potential discipline issues, the elder leading the group takes the concerns to the elder body at the next elders’ meeting.

This organization of care for our church has helped us meet the needs in our body, understand member concerns, and strengthen the relationship between elders and deacons. While we do not currently have deaconesses, if we moved in that direction, we would separate deacon tasks between those with household assignments and those with more administrative responsibilities. Out of prudence, only men would be assigned households.

There are many ways to organize ministry. We have found that this model of shepherding groups gives us the best chance of fulfilling the responsibilities and relationships necessary to the offices of deacon and elder in member care. It is just one way, be we have found it to be a very good way.

Mike Lumpkin is the pastor of University Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Book Review: Understanding Biblical Theology

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What is biblical theology? The question is unfortunately not as easy to answer as many would like. For some, biblical theology may activate memories of seminary assignments demanding careful historical reconstructions and taxing lexical studies. For others biblical theology evokes anything from the works of Geerhardus Vos to the preaching of Tim Keller to academic debates over theological interpretation of Scripture.

In light of this confusion, Edward “Mickey” Klink and Darian Lockett are on target when they suggest in their new book Understanding Biblical Theology that “biblical theology has become a catchphrase, a wax nose that can mean anything from the historical-critical method applied to the Bible to a theological interpretation of Scripture that in practice appears to leave history out of the equation altogether” (13). Or as Carson wryly quips, “Everyone does that which is right in his or her own eyes, and calls it biblical theology” (78).

THE SPECTRUM OF BIBLICAL THEOLOGY

Thankfully students and pastors now have a reliable guide to the various types of biblical theology on offer in today’s theological market. Klink and Lockett’s Understanding Biblical Theology defines and analyzes five major types of biblical theology along a spectrum from those more concerned with matters of history to those more focused on matters of theology.

The authors separate their work into five parts. Each part consists of one chapter defining the biblical-theological method and then another chapter analyzing the works of one of its foremost proponents. Chapters which define biblical-theological methods generally follow the same outline and address the “perennial issues” associated with biblical theology: the relationship between the Old and New Testament, the historical diversity and the theological unity of the Bible, the scope of biblical theology and whether the sources should be restricted to the Christian canon, and whether biblical theology is a task for the church or for the academy (20-21).

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I Was a Pragmatist

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Hi, I’m Jeramie. And I’m a recovering pragmatic pastor.
 
I graduated from seminary seventeen years ago and became the senior pastor of South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts about two years later. Seminary gave me a solid theological foundation, sharp exegetical tools, and a firm grasp of the Bible’s storyline. That education fuels my ministry to this day. 
 
But despite my schooling, I launched into pastoral work lacking something critical: a biblical approach to local church ministry. I didn’t have what Tim Keller calls a theological vision: that philosophy of ministry that connects one’s doctrinal beliefs to one’s practical day-to-day ministry.[1]
 
Well, that’s not exactly true. I actually did have a theological vision, albeit unconsciously. It was the same ministry philosophy that serves as the default setting for so many pastors. I was a pragmatist.
 
PRAGMATISM IN PRACTICE
 
Let me define what I mean by “pragmatist.” It’s the approach that says a church can use any effective means to win people to Jesus, make disciples, grow the church, or build the kingdom. A church may adopt any structure, program, or strategy that “works” to reach people for Christ as long as the initiative isn’t obviously sinful. 
 
So that means no men’s ministry kegger and no Ponzi scheme for funding the youth mission trip. But besides dubious programming like that, a church’s ministry is only limited by its creativity. As long as you agree on a short list of core doctrines, or a handful of biblical purposes, the actual shape of evangelical ministry is up to you.
 
Pragmatism has proverbs like, “The church’s methods change but its message stays the same” and “There’s no one right way to do church.” Like most proverbs, those sayings contain a kernel of truth. But for the pragmatist, these are the rallying cries for an entrepreneurial, results-oriented, whatever-it-takes way of “doing church.”
 
Pragmatism served as the operating system for the first seven years of my ministry. I played around with lots of different ministry apps on that platform: drama, a third worship service, coffee houses, and of course lots and lots of programs. If someone had a ministry idea and energy to lead it, I tended to back it because, hey, it might just work! I’m not suggesting all of those ministry initiatives were bad, or that churches should squash new ideas, or that we shouldn’t be passionate about reaching people. But the programmatic hodgepodge that formed in the church was indicative of a pragmatic theological vision.
 
During that first seven years of ministry, the church grew steadily in numbers. People came to faith and got involved. Whatever we were doing seemed to succeed. And that’s what matters, right? But even as the church grew, something else was growing in my heart: a nagging discontent and disillusionment with how we did church.
 
FULL CHURCH, EMPTY PASTOR
 
Despite our church’s apparent success, the pragmatism left me empty and disoriented. This model for church ministry felt increasingly hollow. In retrospect, there seemed to be several reasons for my response, stemming from pragmatism’s inherent weaknesses:
 
Pragmatism Is Exhausting 
 
First, pragmatism is exhausting. It takes a lot of work to be a pragmatist. You have to keep abreast of the latest ministry trends, read the newest how-to books, and attend the conferences of the most successful churches. 
 
You must also keep your finger on the pulse of people inside and outside the church to discern what will reach them. And let’s not even talk about how draining it is to shift church paradigms every couple years. The pragmatic pastor must be part organizational change guru, part cultural analyst and futurist, part salesman, and part start-up specialist. It all left me very soul-weary.
 
Pragmatism Is Man-Centered 
 
Further, pragmatism is man-centered. I found this to be true in at least two ways. First, focusing on results inevitably means focusing on people’s in-the-moment status. Are they coming, staying, converting, giving, participating, or serving? If so, then keep doing what you’re doing because something is working. 
 
Of course good pastoral leadership involves humbly listening to the congregation. But pragmatism propelled me beyond pastoral sensitivity into the fear of man. Conversely, it didn’t lead me into theological thinking or the fear of God.
 
Second, pragmatic ministry tends to be man-centered in the way it celebrates successful practitioners. Those pastors who have cracked the code to reaching baby boomers or millennials or post-moderns or urbanites draw throngs of pastors searching for help. Even at a local level, when regular pastors get together they inevitably want to know: one, who in the group has the thriving ministries, and two, what those pastors are doing that works so well.
 
Pragmatism Is Subjective 
 
Finally, pragmatism is subjective. Pragmatism rests on a disturbingly relativistic, arbitrary foundation. Why should the church follow my ideas instead of someone else’s? Just because I am the senior pastor? Why implement this best-selling church model instead of that best-selling model? And how do we define “success” or know when something “works?” Who sets those metrics and on what basis? I sometimes had the sinking feeling that I was making ministry up as I went along.
 
RIGHT UNDER MY NOSE
 
At the end of that first seven years, my church generously granted me a three-month sabbatical. I told the elders I planned to spend the time hunting for the “right model” for our growing church. My plan was to visit over a dozen churches all over the country to find the best ministry template. It was the ultimate pragmatist pilgrimage.
 
But instead of finding the right church to imitate, I found something else on my sabbatical: the Bible.
 
To my surprise I discovered that the Bible actually had a lot to say about how to do church, far more than pragmatists want to admit. The Bible gives us more than just core doctrines or a few overarching ministry principles. It lays out a robust theological vision for local church ministry, centered on the gospel, with very practical implications. 
 
And so began a slow process of learning not to ask, “Will it work?” and instead asking questions like, “Does Scripture speak to this?” and “How should the gospel shape this decision?”  For the last seven years I’ve been reprogramming myself to think theologically about local church ministry. 
 
What has a biblical and theological vision looked like in practice for us? It looks like the primacy of expository preaching so that God’s Word sets our agenda. It means our elders transitioning from a board of directors model to a shepherding mentality. It has looked like two worship services adopting a single blended style to reflect the unity we see stressed in the Bible. It has meant (for us, at least) morphing our building project from a gym to a sanctuary.
 
As I write this, our elders and pastoral staff are wrestling through whether to continue conducting two Sunday morning services or combine them into one. Rather than simply being pragmatic and listing pros and cons for one service vs. multiple services, we’re also looking at what the Bible says about the very nature of a congregation. Can we be a body that doesn’t assemble, a church family that doesn’t gather as one, or a people in communion who don’t take the Lord’s Supper together? What does it mean, biblically, to be a local church?
 
MY COPERNICAN REVOLUTION
 
This rediscovery of a biblical vision has profoundly changed my ministry. I no longer feel adrift in the sea of pragmatism, but can chart a course using Scripture as my sextant. People’s reactions don’t throw me for a loop because I see how ministry decisions flow from a theological basis, enabling me to trust God even when people aren’t happy. But most satisfying of all, God and his Word have returned to the center of my ministry and our church’s life. It is so worshipful to open the Bible and ask, “What does God have to say about his church?”  
 
To my fellow struggling pastors trying to figure out ministry: Take heart because there is wisdom to be had. And it begins with the fear of the Lord and his Word.
 
[1] Tim Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 17-19.
 
Jeramie Rinne is the senior pastor of South Shore Baptist Church in Hingam, Massachusetts

Wendell Berry and the Beauty of Membership

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Once each quarter I teach a new members class for people interested in joining our church. It’s become one of my favorite responsibilities as a pastor. I’m a believer in church membership, no question. But I’ll be honest: every time I teach the class I cringe a bit along with my audience at some of the things we discuss.

Concepts like authority, exclusivity, and discipline just don’t sound right on a pre-reflective, aesthetic level. They evoke a yuck factor ingrained in us by the often unnoticed influence of our western culture—literature, film, music, pop psychology—and its celebration of the unfettered individual. (Chapter 1 of Jonathan Leeman’s The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love is helpful for tracing out examples of this influence.)

Now, I know that some of these ideas have always been distasteful to fallen humans. Self-denial is nauseating to the self-centered. That said, I don’t think we’re guilty of ear-tickling if we look for counterbalancing images, images that make sensible the beauty that’s in a community defined by the goals of membership. And to that end I’ve really come to appreciate the world created in the novels of Wendell Berry.

Berry is not the sort of author to whom you turn for help crafting your church’s statement of faith. His works aren’t the right genre and he isn’t the right author. But novels are especially well-suited for retraining our aesthetic tastes, for putting flesh on ideas that otherwise may remain sterile and abstract.

Set in an isolated Kentucky farming community called Port William, Berry’s works portray the beauty of a bounded life, a death to the options of Elsewhere, the embrace of a concrete place and its people. It’s no accident that Jayber Crow, my favorite of Berry’s novels, is subtitled The Membership of Port William. Like all common graces, a community fostered by the willing limitation of one’s horizons can turn idolatrous, breeding an insularity Alan Jacobs has recently described as unchristian. And it’s also true that there is a darker side to small town life. Those familiar with the works of William Faulkner will find the world of Port William to be an ideal world by contrast. And yet Berry’s novels are especially useful for illustrating the liberating submission that’s always involved with membership.

In Jayber Crow, Berry’s characters show what it is to belong to a community, by which I mean more than the welcome and affirmation typically communicated by the word today. To belong to a community is to be at its disposal, to have given over all you have to be used for whatever your community needs. It is to be implicated substantively, not just sympathetically, in the ups and downs of a place and its people. It is a submission of yourself—your identity, your interests, your ambitions—to the needs of those to whom you’re bound.

The book’s heroes reject the notion that you make your own identity rather than receive it. They know and embrace who they are through their connection to things larger than themselves: their community, the land, the march of history, the mysterious purposes of God. They find joy, peace, and freedom in accepting their subsidiary status.

One of the barriers to this sort of belonging, of course, is the selfish ambition that dwells deep in all of us. Rather than submitting ourselves to community, ambition drives us to subordinate all things to our personal gratification or our relentless effort to build a name for ourselves. Berry’s villains in Jayber Crow depict this impulse vividly. They’re not the sort of villains who steal, kill, and destroy. They’re characters like Cecilia Overhold, a woman who marries into Port William from the upper crust of the town next door and can never forgive “the failure of the entire population of Port William to live up to [her] expectations” (209). She’s described as a woman who “thought that whatever she already had was no good, by virtue of the fact that she already had it” (209); she lives as if “there is always a better place for a person to live, better work to do, a better spouse to wed, better friends to have” (210). In the midst of a vibrant, gracious, and happy community she is discontented, angry, and lonely.

Troy Chatham is perhaps even more to the point. His character emerges in detail as a young farmer who rejects the old ways, never imagining that “the reference point or measure of what he did or said might not be himself,” never belonging to the place but convinced the farm exists “to serve and enlarge him” (182). Throughout the story, Chatham leverages the present for the future in his all-consuming desire to “be somebody,” using and abusing all the resources he could claim in service to his exalted self-image. He is a man who utterly fails to recognize his limits or his dependence on what is outside of and bigger than himself.

Jayber Crow is a nostalgic book, and—for all its beauty—a sad one. The world it describes is for the most part a lost world. It was held together by traditions no longer valued and an isolation no longer possible. Which is to say much of its staying power rested on personal preference for its traditions and to some extent an ignorance of alternatives.

Bound in time, Berry’s world offers but a pale reflection of the local church ideal, a community where members’ submission to each other is rooted in the message of the gospel and the power of God’s Spirit. Against his redeemed community, Jesus has promised us, even the gates of hell are no threat.

But Berry’s stories bring to life truths at the heart of the community we’re aiming for when we emphasize church membership. A thriving, covenant-shaped local church requires precisely the sort of self-abnegation Berry celebrates and is opposed by the same self-exaltation he portrays in all its ugliness.

Too often we try on new churches like we try on new clothes and for much the same reason. We’re looking for style and fit, for what meets our needs and makes the appropriate statement about who we are. We put our churches in service of our desire to be somebody and our commitment doesn’t outlast the better options of Elsewhere. But this posture—beside its offense to the cross—leads to self-absorption, restlessness, and isolation.

By contrast, there is freedom in coming off the market. There is sweet rest in belonging to one people, for better or worse, and there is the opportunity for displaying costly, Christlike love. We’re called to die to our narrow interests and to what we might hope to enjoy or become on our own. But we’re called to a truer life in our identification with Christ and his body on earth. On the terms of 1 Corinthians 12, we must embrace our status as a mere hand, ear, or foot, helpless apart from the other members and happy so long as Christ is exalted and the body is thriving. This is boundedness, for sure, but it’s liberating and it’s beautiful.

Matt McCullough is the pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee and the author of My Brother's Keeper: Christian Nationalism, Messianic Interventionism, and the Spanish-American War of 1898 (University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming)

Five Reasons We Don’t Disciple (Part 2)

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Last time, we looked at the biblical rationale for making disciples and asked the question, “Why aren’t we obeying the Lord’s command?” I suggested that “cheap grace” was one of the prime suspects.

TWO MORE REASONS WE DON’T DISCIPLE

Let me suggest two more reasons our discipleship is so shallow.

1. Our Churches are Seeker-sensitive, but Believer-insensitive.

First, our churches are seeker-sensitive, but believer-insensitive. No church has done more to research and develop seeker-sensitive services than Willow Creek in Chicago. They first started tailoring their church services specifically for seekers 30 years ago.

But in 2008 they published the results of a four-year survey on how effective they had been in fulfilling Jesus’ call to make disciples (Matt. 28:19). Their conclusion was that after three decades, they needed to shift from seeker-sensitive services to services which focused on enabling believers to grow in their faith: from seeker-sensitive to believer-sensitive.

What Willow Creek realized (the hard way) is that we cannot serve two masters. If our focus is always on trying to please seekers, we will not be growing disciples. Our diet as a church will be restricted to milk, and our growth will be stunted because we’ll never get to consume solid food.

The writer of Hebrews castigates those believers who have never progressed beyond “the elementary truths of God’s word”:

…though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Heb 5:12-14)

To be clear, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for one-off services which focus on the outsider. Carol services, for example. But if that’s our general approach every week, Christians will not be hearing the deeper things of God, their discipleship will remain shallow, and as a result they’ll be practically incapable of discipling anyone else.

We needn’t fear that in making a shift toward more believer-sensitive services our churches will no longer speak to non-Christians. We will still, after all, be preaching the gospel. And the gospel that sustains and grows believers is the same gospel that got us started.

As a result, for the benefit of believers and unbelievers alike, we should be preaching the gospel every week—in every service, whatever our text. Jesus spoke of the whole Scripture as testifying about him (John 5:39). So even if we’re lurching through Leviticus, let’s preach it the way Jesus did: as pointing to the redemption that is in him.

Of course, if we’re fixated on trying to be seeker-sensitive, there’s a good chance we won’t ever preach Leviticus anyway—or any other part of Scripture we think might startle the unsuspecting. This is not good. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reminds us:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In other words, we need all of Scripture to make disciples. If we neglect certain parts of it because we’re worried we’ll drive away non-Christians, the quality of our discipleship will sharply decline.

2. Our churches are less converted.

Second, our churches are less converted. That is, our churches have fewer Christians in them, so there are fewer people able to disciple each other. No doubt the reasons for this are complex, but let me suggest two.

Firstly, it used to be that to be known as a member of the body of Christ, you had to be a Christian. That’s the assumption of the New Testament.

But now, in many churches—even in some large, well-known evangelical churches—you can become a member simply by ticking a box on a welcome card. There is little or no attempt to examine the person spiritually to try and ascertain that they are truly followers of Christ. How can we expect people who aren’t disciples themselves to be discipling others?

Secondly, the practice of church discipline has been all but lost.

This was the standard custom of the New Testament church, or at least the obedient New Testament church. In 1 Corinthians 5, for example, Paul says that we are to expel unrepentant sinners from membership in the church.

Our failure to obey Paul’s command here is spiritually deadly. It results in members who are not disciples. Indeed, they may be showing signs of being actively opposed to Christ, to the great dishonor of the Lord and his gospel. Again, we can’t expect people who aren’t disciples themselves to be discipling others.

Why have we neglected these two things?

I think there are several reasons, but here’s one of the main ones: numbers have become so important to us that we will do anything to boost them. We are desperate for people to enter, and desperate for them to stay. We have lowered the cost in the hope that more will buy.

What happens when we duck the biblical practices of church membership and discipline?  We end up with a church culture that becomes increasingly de-Christianized, denuded of its salt and light. A culture of discipleship in our churches is impossible when so many of our members are not disciples themselves. And the influence of those non-discipling church members on those church members who are genuinely seeking to follow Christ will not be benign.

To put it another way (and to borrow Mark Dever’s analogy), it used to be that the front door of the church was protected carefully, while the back door was wide open. That is, churches were careful about who they let in, and they diligently disciplined those whose lives contradicted their professions. Now, however, we leave the front door swinging wide open, and we jam the back door tight shut because we’re so afraid of anyone leaving.

If this is our mindset, then sadly we can expect to see congregations who are not discipling one another.

Next time, I’ll suggest a fourth reason we don’t disciple.

Barry Cooper is the author or co-author of Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored, One Life, The Real Jesus, and If You Could Ask God One Question. He blogs at Future Perfect, Present Tense and is helping to plant Trinity West Church in Shepherd's Bush, London.

Click here for part one of the series. 

When Disaster Strikes...Again

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About a week ago, we posted Toby Jenkins' article on how a number of churches in his county and state rallied around his church when his community was struck by a tornado last Spring. A few days after posting, the tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma.

So if you missed Toby's article, take a look. (We asked him to re-write the intro.) It might encourage you to look for ways to serve churches in Moore or other disaster-affected areas. 

When Disaster Strikes: How Other Churches Helped Ours

Seeing an EF-4 tornado zero in on your town is terrifying. Living in the devastation it brings is horrifying. Responding with the gospel is liberating.

On March 2, 2012 this is exactly what I faced as a pastor of First Baptist Church of Henryville, Indiana. The town that I love was reduced to rubble, as were the homes of the people I love. It was beyond imagining. As I drove through our community, I was brought to tears by the destruction around me. I remember asking my wife Sonia, “What are we going to do?”

PASTORALLY UNPREPARED

I felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and insufficient for the work God had dropped in my lap. My fellow pastors and I knew we needed to reach out both to the needs of our church and to the community around us, and to speak the gospel through it all. But how?

I was not prepared. For far too long my ministry vision was nearsighted. Whether your church is thriving or struggling, it is easy to become self-focused. Before the tornado hit, I had not valued church association, because I was more concerned about us and ours.

But the easy way of selfishness is anti-gospel. The Bible calls us to a caring, cooperating, serving, and giving ministry that puts action to our affirmations.

PAUL’S CALL

In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul calls the church in Corinth to a ministry of cooperation and giving. He was working to send an offering of relief to the church in Jerusalem. They were suffering from a devastating famine. The book of Acts tells us the Jerusalem church had made great sacrifices to meet the needs in their midst, but then found themselves needing more help than they alone could provide. So Paul called the Corinthians to model Christ to the world by using their abundance to meet the needs of other congregations (8:13-15).

In so doing, he teaches us that using the gifts that God has given to meet the needs of other churches is a reflection of Christ’s own love for us (8:9). We do this work knowing that God is the one who provides the resources for our ministry (9:8-10). And we do this, ultimately, so that God would be glorified as his gracious character is made known: “The ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (9:12; cf. vv. 11-15).

The home of one of First Baptist Church of Henryville's deacons after the March 2, 2012 tornado. 

HELP CAME

Our church surely needed help after the tornado. The day after, I woke up not knowing whether help would come. The phone towers had been destroyed in the storm, and only a few calls had come through. But then the calls came, churches responded, and believers joined together to bring us gospel-fueled assistance:

  • First Baptist Church Fairdale showed up Saturday morning and started boarding up the church’s windows and putting tarps on the roof.
  • Bethel Baptist, which is three miles away, housed hundreds of volunteers that helped me love my people for months.
  • Local churches all across our country deployed volunteers and overwhelmed us with financial gifts.
  • Victory Memorial Baptist Church sent a stack of Wal-Mart gift cards for us to give to our neighbors in the community with personalized stickers that read, “From FBC Henryville with love.” 
  • Our state association of churches rushed to our aid with disaster relief. Our SBC State Executive Director Cecil Seagle called to assure me: “Don’t worry. Love your people. Meet needs. Preach the gospel. Money and materials are on the way.” So we did. The next day he shows up with a stack of $500 gift cards.

The stories are too many to tell. This last year, because of the generosity and love of sister churches, we have been able to love our community. We have been able to meet needs, bind up wounds, and most importantly preach the gospel to the people of Henryville. And God has worked mightily! Many individuals have believed. The wind of God’s Spirit has blown and is still blowing, a mighty gust stronger than any tornado.

CARE FOR SISTER CHURCHES

I want to encourage you to turn from a selfish inner-focus to an outward-looking mission focus. This demands a vision for leading churches to care for the needs of their sister churches. It took a tornado to teach me this ministry-altering lesson.

We are co-laborers in the gospel. Many are hurting. Many are in need, and God has given us the resources to assist, to equip, and to evangelize. Let us center our cooperation on the cross and work together for the good of our churches and the glory of our Savior. As we join together in this way, we will be led to declare all the more: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15).

Toby Jenkins is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Henryville, Indiana. Cade Campbell is the associate pastor for teaching and discipleship of FBC Henryville. 

Churches Cooperating in Discipline

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Yes, autonomous local churches really can cooperate in church discipline. No, they typically don’t. But, yes, they should!

The first step my own church takes to cooperate with other churches in discipline is to ask everyone joining the church, have you ever been disciplined from a local church? If the person answers “yes,” more questions will follow, and possibly the pastors will reach out to the former church.

Read Greg Wills’ book Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900, and you will discover that, once upon a time, it was harder for excommunicated individuals to float from church to church because pastors asked those kinds of questions. Yes, it is rarer today. But what if more and more church leaders—like you?—began doing that again? How might that affect the evangelical landscape? My guess is that it would deal a hard blow to nominal Christianity and that our witness to outsiders would improve.

If you are a Baptist or believer in a free-church polity generally, say it out loud with me: cooperate.

Here are three illustrations from my own church’s experience of cooperating with other churches in discipline:

1) In a membership interview, a woman admitted that she had been excommunicated from a church in another part of the country for non-attendance. She had stopped showing up, and the church faithfully excommunicated her (see Heb. 10:25). When pressed, she admitted that she had never reconciled with her past church, but that she wanted to. The elder conducting the interview therefore called her former pastor and asked about the situation. The former pastor said that, in light of the fact that she now lived in another part of the country, her repentance would be shown in joining our church. His congregation then formally and publicly expressed its forgiveness toward her, and she joined our church.

2) Another woman joining our church admitted to having been excommunicated from her church (again, in another part of the country) for rebelling against her parents and the pastors. Our pastors, no doubt, took such a charge very seriously and wanted to respect and honor that church’s action. Therefore, they researched the incident carefully through phone conversations with her former pastors and family members. In the final analysis, however, our pastors decided that her former church had been mistaken in its decision to excommunicate her, and they decided to recommend her membership to the congregation.

3) A man was excommunicated from our congregation for a public sin. He then attempted to join another church in our metropolitan area. Somehow (I don’t know how) the new church caught wind of his excommunication. Since their pastors are friends with our pastors, they immediately called us, asked for our counsel, and told us they would delay on any membership decision, seeing that the man had unfinished business with us. 

As a small “c” congregationalist, I believe that churches are autonomous, meaning that they rule themselves under God’s Word and King Jesus. But no church should be entirely independent. Indeed, we should be inter-dependent, even in matters that go to the heart of a church’s authority such as membership and discipline. 

That means (i) another church’s decision in a matter of discipline and membership never formally binds your church, but (ii) you should give other churches the benefit of the doubt, assuming they have acted wisely until you have concrete reasons for thinking otherwise. Also, I hardly think churches should conduct manhunts for excommunicated members, following them everywhere they go and putting in phone calls to the pastors of any church building they walk into. But you should do what you can, with prudence, to aid other churches whenever they ask you about members who once belonged to you. 

Finally, there is no reason why Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican and other churches might not informally cooperate in such matters. Every church has a gospel-interest in seeing the others succeed in gospel health and faithfulness. 

Jonathan Leeman, a members at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, is the editorial director for 9Marks and is the author of Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus

 

Churches Cooperating in Missions

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I know this Christian named “Guy.” An out-of-town friend once sent him a thank-you note that read something like, “Hey, Guy, I’m so glad you were willing to help support the missionaries from my church when they came through your town. You know, we ought to support missionaries like them because when we do we partner together for the gospel.”

What do you think of that note and the sentiment it expresses?

I admit that talk of “partnering together” makes me a little cynical. It’s a common phrase in the missions world, especially among workers who raise their own support. When I hear someone say “monthly partners,” “financial partners,” or “strategic partners,” I feel like they just want me to “part” with my money or time.

But then again, I have found that the cynic in me is frequently wrong, and quite often sounds like the voice of Satan.

The Apostle John, at any rate, would not agree with the cynic in me. After all, he is the one who penned those words to Guy, or Gaius, as he’s better known. John writes in his third epistle, “You are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you…Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 Jn 5, 8).

WHY COOPERATE IN MISSIONS?

Cooperating in missions among local churches is a big-time important deal. It was during the New Testament era, and it still is today. The books of 3 John and Philippians are especially clear on this point.

In recent days, churches have increasingly recovered a sense that they—not fundamentally a denomination or missions agency—are biblically responsible to send missionaries. That’s good. But there is a danger: churches can loose sight of the fact that Bible encourages churches to cooperate with one another in the missionary endeavor.

So as better theology, technology, and transportation encourage many churches to take a more personal, hands-on approach to missions, we don’t want to stop joining hands with other churches. Such cooperation is both humble and gospel-clarifying, as we publically affirm the work of other churches by joining with them in it.

TESTIMONIES OF CHURCHES COOPERATING IN MISSIONS

We have seen this kind of cooperation in a number of ways in our own church. In every case it has begun by getting to know other like-minded churches that are invested in the same areas of the world where we are.

In one case, a church in another state was sending a team to a country in Central Asia where we also have members serving. The team had only one single woman, so they needed another woman to live with her and to provide accountability and fellowship, but no one from their church was available. So what did their pastor do? He humbly called us and a couple of other likeminded churches to see if we had a woman who might join them for the two-year post.

In another case, our church had committed to providing short term-workers to help host a meeting for missionaries in a city overseas, but the needs of this missionary meeting outstripped our church’s volunteer pool. So I called another church also invested in that part of the world. It was a delight to see them joyfully jump onboard and outdo us in their good works. They sent childcare workers, a dentist, and even a hairdresser to serve the workers extravagantly.

HOW CHURCHES CAN COOPERATE WELL IN MISSIONS

But cooperating in missions is not always easy. Here are a few reflections on how to cooperate well in missions with other churches.

1. Only partner deeply with likeminded churches.

First, only partner deeply with likeminded churches. Churches can grow discouraged from trying to partner in missions with other churches that see the work too differently. Life is too short, and the return of Christ too imminent, to spend too much time trying to bridge too many gulfs. Anything that would make you think twice about planting a church together in your home town should probably give you pause about partnering for foreign missions, particularly if planting churches is the end goal. But where you agree on the fundamentals of church life, you have a good foundation for most missions partnerships. As for the rest of Christ’s churches, thank God for them and then get back to work with likeminded churches.

2. Network within your network.

Second, network within your network. Inside whatever groups or entities you may use to go about doing missions, work to create a more closely-knit group of especially like-minded churches. Our church cooperates with the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to pool resources for missions. But inside that larger group of churches we have cultivated a much smaller group of churches with whom we more directly cooperate. These are the churches with whom we have a personal history of trust and are most eager to partner with, to share members for teams, and to join with in short-term projects.

3. If you don’t have a network, build one.

Third, if you don’t have a network, build one. Talk to pastors of churches with similar theology and find out what they are doing in missions. See if there might be ways that you could join with them in support and encouragement. Just a phone call or an email a few times a year may be enough to get something started. Let other sister churches know what you are doing, and even be willing to invite some of their members to join with you. Or, join with them and learn a few things yourself.

4. Keep it simple.  

Fourth, keep it simple. Sometimes well-meaning churches may bite off too much too soon when they start cooperating for mission. But this doesn’t need to be complicated or take a ton of time. You can open a door to fruitful cooperation just by sharing plans over lunch with a fellow pastor once a year. Another good place to start is to send an email a couple of times a year inviting another church or two to join you on some project. Then, as you get to know the culture of another church, you may find it’s possible to cooperate more deeply and permanently—maybe even sending a team of members from both churches to labor long-term overseas.

TO EXALT AND CLARIFY THE GOSPEL

In a special way, cooperating in missions can serve to exalt and clarify the gospel. It helps to show that your church is about more than just your own programs and projects. It shows that you care about the spread of the gospel, even if another church is doing most of the spreading and reaping. And maybe it will help you to find “fellow laborers for the truth” that will bless you and your congregation for years to come.

Andy Johnson is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.

Why I Pray Publicly for Other Churches

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Every Sunday morning, I lead the congregation of Third Avenue Baptist Church in what we call a “pastoral prayer.” I pray for many things during that time—congregational events, members who are suffering, evangelistic opportunities, various officials in government, missions opportunities, and even events that have been in the nation’s headlines. The part of that prayer that elicits the most comment, however—both positive and out of sheer confusion—is when I pray for another evangelical church or two that is meeting in the city of Louisville.

Each week, I choose one or two churches and pray for their services that day. I pray for the church to be attentive to the Word of God. I pray for the pastor to speak boldly and accurately from the Bible. I pray for people to be convicted of their sin, for Christians to be encouraged in the faith, and for non-Christians to be converted. I also thank the Lord that we live in a city where we are not the only church in which the gospel is preached!

Believe it or not, the practice of praying for other churches is so rare in many Christians’ experience that many don’t know exactly how to process it. More than once during my pastorate, a visitor to Third Avenue has walked up to me with a very concerned look to express surprise that such-and-such church is having troubles. After all, why would the pastor of one church pray for another church if there weren’t serious problems afoot there?!

I think there are many benefits to doing this sort of thing week after week. For one thing, it helps me in the work of crucifying my own spirit of competition. It’s so easy for pastors to subtly (if not less than subtly!) begin to think of other churches as “the competition” instead of as fellow proclaimers of the gospel in their city. I want to go on record, in the most public forum I have, as praying for the success and faithfulness of those churches. We are not in this to make a name for ourselves; we are all in it to make a name for our King.

Not only so, but I think those prayers do the same work of crucifying a spirit of competition in the members of Third Avenue. Pastors are not alone in struggling with feeling competitive with other churches. Members do too, and it is good for them to see their leaders working publicly to counteract that tendency so that it doesn’t take root in the life of the church.

Praying for other churches also communicates an important truth about the various churches in a city: We are all on the same team! We all have the same mission, and it is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and make disciples of him. The last thing we should want as pastors is to communicate a provincial, myopic spirit among our members that recognizes good only in our church, and cannot see what God is doing more broadly. We serve a massive God, and an important way to show that to our people and teach them to rejoice in it is to teach them to care about God’s work in the lives of other churches.

I have found that praying for other churches also helps me to cultivate friendships with their pastors. It reminds me, week after week, that there are other men engaged in this same work that so consumes me each day, and challenges me to strain against any tendency I might have to isolate myself in the work.

In our church covenant at Third Avenue, one of the promises we make to one another as members is that we will not “omit the great duty of prayer both for ourselves and for others.” At its heart, that is a promise that we will remember not only God’s great delight in answering prayer and his unstoppable power to do so, but also the great truth that He is glorifying his Son through the work of churches all over our cities and the world.

Greg Gilbert is the senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church and is most recently the author, with Sebastian Traeger, of The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs (Zondervan, forthcoming).