21 battle-tested truths I’ve learned about the Church

I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. (I Timothy 3:15). 

Church was always a part of our family’s life, starting with the New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church near Nauvoo, Alabama, continuing with the little Methodist Church in a mining camp near Beckley, West Virginia, four years later back to Nauvoo, then college chapel at Berry College near Rome, Georgia.  Then, at West End Baptist Church in Birmingham God did a dozen great things in my life forever changing my earthly and heavenly fate.  When I left West End, it was to pastor God’s churches.

The Southern Baptist Churches I was privileged to serve have been so faithful, so foolhardy, so daring, so wonderful–

–Unity Baptist Church, Kimberly, Alabama. (1962-63) They were the first, bless ’em.

–Central Baptist Church, Tarrant, Alabama (first six months of 1964, then off to seminary in New Orleans)

–Paradis Baptist Church, Paradis, LA (1965-67 My seminary pastorate. We lived in the back of the building.)

–Emmanuel Baptist Church, Greenville, MS (1967-70)

–FBC Jackson, MS (minister of evangelism) (1971-73)

–FBC Columbus, MS (1974-86)

–FBC Charlotte, NC (1986-89)

–FBC Kenner, LA (1990-2004)

–And finally, as a member (once again) of the great FBC of Jackson, MS, where Bertha and I are members in retirement.

Here is what I have learned–my TWENTY-ONE battle-tested, tried-in-the-fire-and-found-to-be-authentic, strongly held convictions about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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A good story will make my day. And your sermon.

The only thing I love more than hearing a great story is to be the one telling it.

I have good company in my devotion to the story. It forms the outline of every television soap opera, sitcom and cop show and most of the movies. It fells forests to supply paper for an unending outpouring of novels, all with a story to tell. It connects with people as nothing else does.

In My Reading Life, novelist Pat Conroy drops story upon story upon the reader, more than any single book I’ve read in a year.

Conroy tells of the time an agent for his publisher took him as a young, up-and-coming author to call on booksellers and attempt to market their latest line. The publisher wanted the budding author to see how difficult it is to get bookstores to take their publications and display them prominently. On the third day out, the agent suddenly turned to Pat and said, “You’ve seen me do this. Now, let’s see if you’ve got what it takes…. We know you can write a book; now let’s see if you can sell one.”

Conroy was game. He gave it a try. Addressing the bookseller, he launched into the chatter he’d heard from the agent, making the case for each of the new works coming from the publisher. Then he came to his own book, The Water is Wide. He described it.

The store owner said, “Who gives a d–n?”

Conroy was stunned. The man said, “What should my readers care what happened to a bunch of black kids on an island no one’s ever heard of?”

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Integrity in the ministry

We turn now to the ministry.

That’s my greatest concern. That’s the thrust of practically everything on this blog. After nearly six decades in the ministry, my strong hope is to say something to help church leaders do a better job in serving God’s people.

“Be on guard for yourself,” Paul told the leaders of the Ephesus church in Acts 20:28.

The Apostle Peter reminded another group of such leaders that “your adversary, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Therefore, they were to “be self-controlled and alert.” (I Peter 5:8)

Here are my top ten suggestions for pastors and staffers of local churches. In fact, they are more than suggestions. They are great concerns.

1. Learn to live within your income and do not fall prey to the lie that “pastors of my stature are expected to live at a certain level.” It’s not so much the love of money that has driven many a pastor to cross the ethical line, in my opinion, but a need for money to sustain the way of life they have chosen for themselves.

Learn to live simply.

2. Set the example for the rest of the staff and the church leadership.

The inimitable Tony Campolo has infuriated a lot of preachers by saying, “No pastor should ever drive a Mercedes.” He’s not picking on a particular car, but making a point about materialism and our example.

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Heaven: One surprising thing we will do there

A friend gave me a small reminder of what Heaven is going to be like.

I was having lunch with Pastor Michael and Jane Perry after the morning services in the First Baptist Church of Moss Point, Mississippi, where they serve. We got started talking about families or football or something, and they said Jane’s father–now in Heaven–was the biggest Alabama fan on the planet.

“He had Bear Bryant pictures all over the house,” she said. “He’s gone but they’re still there.”

That’s when I related my little tale of the 1980 game between Bama and Mississippi State. As I began talking, Michael started smiling. I said, “Have I told you this story?” He said, “No, but I remember the game. Go ahead, and I’ll tell you when you finish.”

Okay. The story—

We had driven from our home in Columbus, MS, to Jackson for the game. Alabama had a 17-game winning streak going and State was a perennial doormat for the Southeastern Conference. Even though we liked both teams–Columbus is located between both universities on U.S. 82–we were rooting for Bama that day.

When the game ended, the score was State 6, Alabama 3.

Three hours later, arriving home and pulling into the driveway, we saw people inside our garage. Several of our neighbors were painting a large sign for my house, no doubt rubbing in the loss.

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My favorite sin: Gluttony

Diamond Jim Brady, a character in American life a few generations ago, was said to have loved food so much, his stomach was six times the size of a normal belly.

Now, that, is a glutton!

How ironic that the season during which we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus provides us the perfect excuse to over-indulge.

Like the megalopolis that now stretches from Washington to Boston or from Dallas to Fort Worth, this eating holiday dominates our calendar from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.

Walk through any modern large-box store, and study the edibles they’re offering during this season. It’s not just turkey and dressing and yams and egg nog any longer. It’s chocolates like you would not believe, in every kind of assortment and combination. It’s cookies and cakes and pies coming out your ears. Books pour off the shelves telling homemakers of new recipes for the latest taste sensations for these holidays. Restaurants offer special smorgasbords for the holidays with prices approaching $100 per person.

The wonder is that Americans are not all 400 pounds.

What’s that? We are? Well, far too many of us are overweight.

What position should the disciple of the Lord Jesus take regarding this little crime-against-one’s-body we call gluttony?

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When to walk out on a sermon

On the morning of Sunday 19 May, 1940, Clementine Churchill returned early from a church service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in central London, having walked out when the preacher delivered a pacifist sermon.  Winston told her, ‘You ought to have cried, ‘Shame!’, desecrating the House of God with lies!’”   (Darkest Hour, by Anthony McCarten, p. 154)

Easter Sunday, 1968. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, all of us–white and black alike–were hurting and confused, disturbed and concerned.  That Sunday I preached a sermon addressing racism in America. I was 28 years old and in the first year of pastoring Emmanuel Baptist Church of Greenville, Mississippi in the heart of the Delta, a section of our state with a long and sordid history of race relations.  I’ve long since forgotten the sermon but will never forget a phone call I received that afternoon.

Mrs. Glenn Powell called. (Yes, her first name was Glenn.) She owned a beauty shop which I had quickly learned was gossip central for our town.  Mrs. Powell had made no secret of her unhappiness with my sermons or with me personally.

“Brother McKeever, what will you be preaching tonight?”

I told her.

“The reason I asked,” she said, “is I guess you noticed I walked out on your sermon this morning.”  I had to admit that I had not noticed.  Margaret used to say you could dynamite the back of the building while I was preaching and I would not notice.

She went on. “We get enough of the bad news all week.  When we come to church, we expect some peace and quiet.”

I have no memory of how I responded to that strange statement.  But she stayed in the church and life went forward.

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If you would serve the Lord, expect obstacles

“A great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (I Corinthians 16:9). 

“We exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance…” (Romans 5:3). 

This is a quiz.  Name the enemies George Washington faced in the Revolutionary War.

If you answered, “The British,” you’d be only partly right.

Washington did fight the British, as the thirteen colonies asserted their independence from the Mother Nation.  But Generals Howe, Cornwallis, and Clinton and their armies were only the most visible of the forces Washington had to contend with.

He had to fight the weather.  Think of Valley Forge and even without knowing the full story, your mind immediately conjures up images of a harsh winter with all the snow, ice, sleet, and freezing temperatures that includes.

Washington had to deal with starvation and deprivation.  No one knows how many thousands of his soldiers perished from the cold and starvation at Valley Forge and how many deserted in order to save their lives.  Many surrendered to the British at Philadelphia in the vain hope that the conquerors would feed and clothe them.

Washington had to deal with a Congress that was either ignorant, misinformed, or outright hostile to his situation. He wrote letter after letter detailing the misery of his army and pleading for help.  Finally, a delegation came from the national capital, temporarily at York, PA, to see for themselves, after which congress began to act.

Washington fought disorganization, a country that made impossible demands but gave minimal support, and criticism on every side.

Still with me?

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Ten things to pray for your pastor–and one big thing to do

“Pray for me, that the message may be given to me when I open my mouth to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel” (Ephesians 6:19). 

You and I would do well to pray for our pastors.

So much depends on our spiritual leaders functioning well, staying close to the Lord, thinking clearly, and maintaining good health.

Here are ten requests we should be asking of the Father for our pastors….

One.  A strong sense of God’s calling on the pastor’s life.

“It is the Lord Christ whom ye serve.”  (Colossians 3:24)

The pastor is not his own, nor is he “ours.”  He has been bought with a price.  So, we pray that He may always have a clear sense of where his allegiance begins and ends.  This will produce a far greater intensity in his faith and dynamic to his work ethic than anything the deacons or finance committee can impose.

Two.   An increasingly deeper love for the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

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No place for sarcasm in the Lord’s work

“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

Mary Todd Lincoln was gifted in the dark art of sarcasm. Her sister Elizabeth said of her, “She was also impulsive and made no attempt to conceal her feelings; indeed, it would have been an impossibility had she desired to do so, for her face was an index to every passing emotion.  Without desiring to wound, she occasionally indulged in sarcastic, witty remarks, that cut like a Damascus blade, but there was no malice behind them.”  Lincoln’s biographer notes, “A young woman who could wound by words without intending to was presumably even more dangerous when angry or aroused.”  (Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln by Douglas L. Wilson).

Woe to the person bound in marriage to one gifted in sarcasm.  Lincoln bore many a scar from the blade his wife wielded.

Pity the church member sitting under the teachings of a sarcastic pastor week after week.  Such ministry will bear bitter fruit.

These days, Christian leaders are finding themselves apologizing for public pronouncements–in the media, on cyberspace, in print, on radio or TV–in which they were sarcastic toward someone who criticized them or opposed them or questioned them.

We even have websites given to satire and sarcasm. And some claim to be Christian.

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Ten scary times in a pastor’s ministry

Sometimes I sit there listening while my pastor friend tells what’s happening in his personal life and/or church. And, once in a while all the alarms go off. I realize he is in a dangerous place in his ministry.

If I sense a leading from the Holy Spirit or if he and I already have a close enough relationship, I’ll interrupt him.

“Bob, can we pause here a moment? I need to point something out to you.”

“My friend, you are exposed. You are a sitting duck. Life has drawn a target on your back. Satan has you in his cross-hairs.”

“You’d better do something big in a hurry or you’re going to get in bad trouble.”

He sits there stunned, without a clue.

“What do you mean? I’m doing everything I know to work my way through this.”

I say, “I’m not talking about what you are going through. I’m talking about where you are personally at this moment. You are in a vulnerable spot and you need to move before something bad happens.”

Older, veteran pastors have learned the hard way to tread softly through this dark valley they have entered. They have seen the carcasses of their peers strewn about, brought down by ego or depression or temptation or carelessness.

It’s the young minister who is more likely to try to brave it out alone. It’s the young pastor who is more prone to end up a victim instead of a victor.

Here are 10 danger zones for the pastor to watch out for.

On the highway, signs alert motorists to drive carefully, to slow down, to watch for obstructions.

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