I grieve for the Lord’s church. Here’s why…

“Is Ephraim my dear son?  Indeed, as often as I have spoken against him, I certainly still remember him.  Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will certainly have mercy on him, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:20).

“How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not.  Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:37-38).

Almost daily, I hear of churches firing their preachers, engaged in lawsuits, and struggling with inner conflict.  I know churches that were strong a generation ago but are fighting to survive now.

These are difficult days for churches, which makes these challenging days for church leaders.

Believers who are not grieving for the Lord’s church these days must not be paying attention.

Let us care for what is happening, and pray for the Lord’s people….

–I grieve for the trendy church which is drawing people in from the smaller surrounding congregations and bursting at the seams, but leaving the smaller ones to shrivel and die.  The huge church may convince its members that they are doing big things for the kingdom since they deal with such large numbers. Churches can be so self-centered. Pray your church will be loving toward other congregations. 

–I grieve for the church which is having mind-staggering growth but becomes secretive about what it does with the millions of dollars it takes in, protective about the pay it gives its leaders, and dismissive about the questionable personal lives of its leadership.  Churches can be carnal. Pray your church will be led by men and women of integrity. 

–I grieve for the smaller church which turns an envious eye toward the growing congregations in its community and, desiring to be like the others, dismisses its faithful pastor and worship leaders because “we have to stay current with modern trends.”  Churches can be wrong-headed. Pray your church will look to Jesus for affirmation and not at their neighbors. 

–I grieve for the church which keeps pastors no more than three or four years, then manufactures crises to justify sending them packing so they can bring in another who is destined to become a victim himself in due time.  Churches can be cruel. Pray your church will be Christlike. 

Continue reading

10 biblical truths God’s people probably do not believe

From the beginning, the Lord’s people talk a better game than we live.

So many biblical truths look good on paper and sound great when we’re spouting them.  And yet, judging by the way we live, the Lord’s people probably do not believe the following…

One.  God sends the pastor to the church. 

Churches survey their congregation to find the kind of pastor everyone wants in the next guy.  People lobby for a candidate they like and rally against one they don’t.  And they vote on the recommendation of their committee.  And after he arrives, when some turn against him, they send him on his way.

Do we really believe God sends pastors to churches?  They are God’s undershepherds (see I Peter 5:1-4) and appointed by the Holy Spirit as overseers of the church (Acts 20:28).

Two.  God hears our prayers, cares for our needs, and answers our prayers.

In the typical congregation, what percentage of the people are serious about their prayer life?

If we believed that God hears, cares, and answers, we would be praying over every detail of our lives.  “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17) would define our very existence.

Three. It is more blessed to give than to receive.

God wants His people to be givers, generous in every area of life.  As a member of the church, He wants us to be sacrificial givers.  (See I Corinthians 8:1ff).

Think how hard it is to get God’s people to turn loose of the almighty dollar.  I know pastors who no longer preach on giving because they cannot take the criticism.  (Acts 20:35, Luke 6:38, and Matthew 6:19-20)

Four.  We will stand before the Lord and give account of all we have done.

If we believed that, imagine how differently we would live.  A lot of church leaders would deal with their pastors a lot more carefully than they do now.  The tyrants who rule their churches clearly do not know, believe, or care that they will be brought into judgement for their actions.  (See Matthew 12:36, Romans 14:12 and I Peter 4:5.)

Five.  God’s people are to obey their leaders.

The very idea, I can hear some saying.  Even if they know Hebrews 13:17, they conveniently ignore it.  They do so to their own detriment.

The fact is our members obey their leaders so long as they agree with them.  But let the leader ask of them something they don’t want to do, and they bail out.

Continue reading

The power of a good story. You’re going to love this!

Without a story He did not speak to them  (Mark 4:34).

(Don’t miss my note at the end.)

You hear it, see it, read it, or experience it. All your senses come alive. “This is one I’ll remember a long time,” you think, and sure enough you do. For a long time afterward, your mind reels with the possibilities. What can I do with this great story? What sermon will it fit? How can I work it in?

I’ve sometimes facetiously said that a great story will fit my sermon next Sunday. The sermon may have to be reworked, but if it’s a great story, it will fit.

Like the time my wife and I were dining in Baby Doe’s restaurant on the mountainside in Birmingham, Alabama. I noticed our waitress’ name was Auburn.

That’s when I decided to get cute.

“Your name is Auburn,” I said. “I’ll bet you have a sister named Alabama.”

She said, “I have two sisters, Tulane and Cornell.”

I said, “Yeah, right.”

She said, “I have four brothers — Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Duquesne.”

I said, “Lady, I don’t believe a word of this.”

She said, “My father’s name is Stanford and my mother is Loyola. They were engaged before it occurred to them they both had colleges as names, and decided to do this to their children.”

I was speechless. But she wasn’t through.

“When we were little, we were on the cover of Parade magazine, in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and on Art Linkletter’s Houseparty (a delightful daytime television show from years past some will remember).”

She was married and had two children, she said. I said, “Let me guess. You’re married to Gardner-Webb. Or Truett-McConnell.”

She said, “My husband’s name is Ron Harris, a good old American name. But my children are Slippery Rock and Agnes Scott.” She smiled and said, “I’m teasing about that.”

Auburn formerly worked as a flight attendant on Southern Airways, the airline that serviced our home airport back in Mississippi. A few months later, flying back from Dallas, I asked the flight attendant, “Did you ever know a stewardess named Auburn?” She laughed. “Auburn Bardwell — had all those weird-named brothers and sisters!”

Auburn’s story made my sermon the following Sunday. I forget what I had been planning to preach, but the message ended up dealing with the significance of names in our culture, in the Bible, to God, and in Heaven (where we will receive a new name; see Revelation 2:17 and 3:12).

Continue reading

What we wish for the people of your church as they open God’s Word

Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things from Thy law.  (Psalm 119:18)

If I could do one thing for members of your congregation, I would give them fresh eyes to see the Word of God as though for the first time.

I would give them a new appreciation, a deeper enjoyment, a delight in the Law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2).

We sometimes envy those who have come late to the Kingdom and are reading God’s word for the first time.  They are enchanted by its stories, excited by its champions, enthralled by its riches, thrilled by its insights, and elated by its promises.

No doubt you have noticed that when Jesus taught, people were amazed and astonished.  Scripture tells us that in so many places.  Check out Matthew 7:29; 9:33; 12:23; 13:54; Mark 1:22,27; 2:12; 5:20,42; 6:2,51; 7:37; 10:26; 11:18; and Luke 4:32,36; 5:9,26; 8:25; 9:43; 11:14; 13:17; 20:26. In John, the wonderful statement of 7:46 (“Never man spake like this man!”) seems to be the closest thing to this.

I have two questions concerning this:

(1) Why were the people amazed at Jesus’ teaching?

(2) And, why aren’t we?

Continue reading

Watch out for the bad guys. And also for the good ones.

“And one will say to him, ‘What are these wounds in thine hands?’ Then he will say, ‘Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends’” (Zechariah 13:6).

I was guest speaker at a men’s meeting held 70 miles away from the host church at a retreat center owned and run by the Baptists of that part of the state.  My drive there required 115 miles–up the interstate, onto the U.S. highway, followed by a state road, county road, and finally something resembling a squirrel trail.

That night, as we left the large room where we had held our evening session, I asked a leader, “Will someone lock up?”  Our materials still lay on the tables.

He said, “This place is so remote that thieves would never find it if they were trying.”  We laughed.

He was right, except for one thing.

Sometimes, the thieves are among us.  We bring them in with us.

Administrators of religious retreats say their biggest threat is not from thieves or burglars who come onto their property and break in.  Their guests give them all the trouble they can handle.

Even church people can be thieves.

Judas was a disciple and a thief.

A young mother told me she had started teaching her four-year-old son to protect himself from molesters.  She talked to him about inappropriate touching and prepped him on how to report such behavior to mommy and daddy.

The child said, “Mom, if a bad guy tries to do something bad to me, I will tell him about Jesus.”

I said to her, “It is true he has to watch out for bad guys. But in my experience, the biggest threat to your son will come from people he knows and trusts. Uncles, cousins, best friends, ministers, teachers. Even dads and grandpas.”

I know fathers who are in prison at this moment for molesting their own children.

Continue reading

The two times a pastor is most vulnerable

“Guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us the treasure which has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14).

We’re all vulnerable.  Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (I Corinthians 10:12).  The brother who gave us that reminder was himself constantly being knocked down, but getting back up.  If anyone knew the subject of vulnerability, Paul did (see 2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

After telling young Pastor Timothy of a coming time when people would not stand for sound doctrine and strong preaching, but would “turn away their ears from the truth and will prefer myths,” Paul said, “But as for you, be sober in all things (that is, clear-thinking), endure hardship (expect it, and plan to get through it), do the work of an evangelist (keep telling Heaven’s good news), and fulfill your ministry (do not let any critic pull you off course).”  (With my interjections, that’s 2 Timothy 4:5).

I find it amazing and truly heart-warming how such reminders to a minister twenty centuries ago fit us so perfectly today.  That’s one more reason, out of ten thousand, why you and I love and live in this Word. There is nothing like it anywhere.

Now, returning to our subject of the minister’s vulnerability….

The minister is most vulnerable at two times: in the few minutes before the morning service begins and in the half hour after it ends.

A wise minister will take steps to guard himself in order to give his best to the Lord and the people.  (Proverbs 4:23 “Guard your heart.”  Acts 20:28 “Be on guard for yourself and for all the flock….”)

A caring membership will protect the pastor at the same time for the same reasons.

Continue reading

My candidate for hypocrite of the year

“Evil people and imposters will become worse (in the last days), deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13).

Can we talk about imposters?

Specifically church-dropouts who say they love the Lord.

Nothing of what follows is intended to be mean-spirited. I will labor to make certain it doesn’t come across that way.

I’m not angry, just perturbed. I don’t want to banish anyone from heaven, from church, from “the island,” or even from this room.

I just want to say to certain ones, “C’mon, people. Get real.  You don’t mean that, so why do you keep saying it?”

I was in a group which was having a lively discussion about church leadership and whether divorced people–specifically someone with a whole cluster of divorces!–should be considered as deacon.

Most in the room were sweet-spirited, godly, well-informed scripturally and solid doctrinally.  But some were angry for reasons I doubt if even they know.  They want to banish all divorced people from anything.  But they are not the hypocrites I had in mind. It’s another group.

People like you are the reason I no longer go to church.

That’s what they say.

And they are my candidate for “hypocrites of the year.”

Continue reading

7 laws of service in God’s kingdom

“I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27).   “A disciple is not above his teacher or a slave above his master” (Luke 6:24). 

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, Rudy and Rose traveled to New Orleans to help.  Unable to find a place to plug in, Rudy walked into the kitchen of Williams Boulevard Baptist Church and volunteered.  That church was strategically situated next to the Highway Patrol headquarters which was hosting hundreds of troopers from the nation, as they protected the darkened city. The church had become a hotel for the troopers and the women of the congregation were serving three meals a day.  They welcomed Rudy and assigned him to the garbage detail.

Not exactly what he had in mind.

Rudy had been pastoring a church in southern Canada.  When he saw the suffering of our people on television–entire neighborhoods flooded, thousands homeless, people being rescued off rooftops–he resigned his church, sold his gun collection to fund the move, and he and Rose came to help.

Now, he ends up emptying garbage cans.  By his own admission, Rudy was developing an attitude problem.

One day he was lifting a large bag of garbage into the dumpster.  The kitchen workers had been told not to put liquid garbage into the bags, but evidently they didn’t get the message. Suddenly, as Rudy was hoisting it up, the bag ripped and all kinds of kitchen leftovers poured down over him–gumbo, red beans and rice, gravy, grease, whatever.  

Drenched in garbage from head to foot, Rudy stood there crying like a baby.

“That’s when the Lord broke me,” he said later.  “I told the Lord, ‘If you just want me to empty garbage cans for Jesus, I’ll do it.’”  

That was a Thursday.  That Saturday night late, a minister from that church woke him up.  “Rudy, our pastor is sick. They tell me you are a preacher.  Can you preach for us tomorrow morning?”

Continue reading

What’s a pastor to do when church isn’t fun any more

My journal records one of those pressurized times in my last pastorate, some years ago.

Consider that the church was still in recovery from a split five years earlier, leaving us with a diminished congregation handling an all-consuming debt.  Consider that some of our people still carried guilt over their actions during that fight, while others nursed hurts and anger from the same tragic event.  I’d not been around during that catastrophe, I’m happy to report, but the Father had sent me in to help the congregation pick up the pieces and return the congregation to health and usefulness.

It was hard.

I was weak personally, having just emerged from a brutal three-plus years trying to shepherd a divided congregation with toxic lay leadership.  So, I came in gun-shy, hoping to avoid conflict and for everyone, myself included, to have time to heal.

Naïve, huh?  Probably so.

Daily I was being undermined by the angry, criticized by the hurting, ostracized by the pious, and scrutinized to the nth degree by leaders, self-appointed and otherwise.  When I tried to lead the church to take steps I considered normal and healthy, these also were thrown back in my face.

The journal records my efforts to bring in community leaders for a Sunday night forum during which the guest would speak and take questions.  Our people could not understand why in the world I would want to bring a congressman, for example, to our church.

I was stunned.  They don’t see the need? Aren’t they citizens who vote and who are affected by the actions of political leaders? Do they not care?  Where have these people been?

If it didn’t involve evangelism or preparation for the rapture, the leadership wanted no part of it.  Not that they were doing all that much about either.  These were merely points to check off in rating anyone invited to speak in their church.

Walt Handelsman was the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  I admired him greatly and was delighted when he gave me an autographed collection of his editorial cartoons.  When I asked if he would be available to visit our church some Sunday evening in the hour preceding worship, he quickly agreed.

Continue reading

Not everyone wanting to go to Heaven would fit

Some people would not be happy in Heaven. Nothing about it appeals to them. They would be forever out of place. So, we have good news for them….

God is not going to make them go.

The biggest slander I know is that Heaven is going to be one unending church service. Every pastor, every song leader, and every pew sitter groans and thinks, “Lord, I hope not.”

Not to worry. It will not be like that. Or, like anything else you know or have prepared for or imagined in your fondest dreams.

Throw away the categories. Nothing pertains any more. Jesus said in Heaven there’s no marrying or giving in marriage. He said angels are rejoicing each time a new person comes into God’s eternal family. He told us the angels of certain “little ones” do always behold the face of the Father.

The thing to keep in mind is that Jesus Christ is the authority on Heaven. He’s a native. He told Nicodemus, No one has been to Heaven except the One who came from there, referring to Himself (John 3:13).

The old line goes, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven but no one wants to die.” And, according to polls we see published from time to time, most people expect to go to Heaven.

My contention is most people not only are not going to Heaven, they don’t even want to go. They just want not to go to the other place. And since Heaven seems to be the only alternative, it wins by default.

I’d like to interject a question or two into the next poll someone is taking on who expects to go to Heaven. After the interviewee attests that, “yes, I expect to go to Heaven,” I want to ask, “For what reason? What do you expect to happen in Heaven?”

Continue reading