Awaken-America_FINAL_BlogAfter finishing up the second service last Sunday, I raced off the campus for home to grab the sandwich Gayla had ready for me. With bags in hand, we jumped into her car and Gayla drove us to the airport for a 3:00 flight. Although it ended up taking a couple of tries to make it to Houston (that’s a whole other story), we finally made to St. Louis just after midnight. As we made plans for this trip, we had made contact with Warren and Pat Greenwalt, former members of our church. Warren would pick us up at the airport, since Pat was flying from Dallas on Sunday evening. As it turned out, Pat’s flight had also been delayed, the Greenwalts still took us to our hotel. (And by the way, the four us sat together on Wednesday evening at a Cardinals game!)

Gayla and I attended the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors Conference on Monday. The music and preaching touched our souls, especially as Passion led the worship on Monday evening and Pastor Greg Laurie delivered us to the Word.

The SBC Annual Meeting began on Tuesday and concluded on Wednesday. With a  theme of “Awaken America: Reach the World,” I want to report that this convention encouraged me in so many ways. Our convention took steps to reaffirm biblical principles and to recommit its passion for personal evangelism. Three words describe the overall thrust of the meetings: agree, unite, and pray. We did much together to make these happen.

We also had an election for convention president. Ronnie Floyd of Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas was completing two years as president. Three pastors were nominated: David Crosby, FBC New Orleans; Steve Gaines, Bellevue Baptist, Memphis; and J. D. Greear, Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham. None of these godly men received the needed 50% plus 1 to win. Gaines and Greear were in a runoff.

The vote result was not announced until just ahead of the Tuesday evening time of worship and prayer for spiritual awakening. Gayla and I happened to be seated just behind Gaines. Only in a Baptist meeting with only two candidates would it be possible for neither to get a majority. Gaines received 49.96% of the votes while Greear received 47.8% because 108 votes were declared “illegal.” The bylaws require that all votes be counted towards the total, so Gaines was 3 votes short of a majority. We watched how Gaines reacted and how he would tell his wife as she joined him. We had the opportunity during the service to pray in a circle that included several of the Gaines family.

Later Gayla and I prayed that Greear would drop out, since Gaines was so close to winning the ballot. We also watched as someone tapped Gaines on the shoulder so that they could talk. Then Gaines returned to his seat and talked briefly with his wife before slipping out.

The time for next runoff ballot would occur just before 11am on Wednesday. As the convention hall began to swell with messengers as that time neared, we could feel the anticipation of something big. That something big came when Ronnie Floyd announced that he would recognize both J. D. Greear and Steve Gaines so that they could speak. Greear told the convention he prayed the night before and believed “we need to leave St. Louis united.” He made the motion for Gaines to be elected by acclamation. Gaines said, he, too had decided internally Tuesday night to withdraw but agreed to serve as president after a conversation with Greear. “There’s no way God is not doing something in all of this. I just wanted Jesus to be lifted high and the convention to be united.”

Just after Gaines had been elected by acclamation, Ted Traylor, pastor of Olive Baptist Church, Pensacola, preached the convention message from Psalm 133, the very passage to which the Holy Spirit drew Gaines and Greear the night before. The Lord gave us great unity.

I am so hopeful about our future. Would you join me in praying our church and our convention of churches as Gaines leads us to emphasize spiritual awakening, soul-winning, and stewardship?

Most every week I pray with each of the three high school principals in Mandeville. I have a standing appointment on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at the Fontainebleau, Lakeshore, and Mandeville. During these times of prayer, I listen to each of these men as they talk about their students and faculty. We often talk about our church and how things are going. At the end our brief time together, I will pray for the principal, the students, the faculty, and any specific prayer request that has been voiced.

This week was different. Having already heard about a Mandeville High School student who had taken his life on Monday, I received a text message early Thursday morning informing me that a second student from the school had taken his life. While it’s not unusual to have a difficult time finding a place to park at the school, I decided to park in a “staff only” space. As I approached the school’s administrative offices, I walked past more than a half dozen police officers. Once inside, I waited for a while as the office staff answered the phone, taking time to address concerns raised.  Grief counselors had been summoned. A couple of student assemblies had been planned.

While I did not get to pray with the principal, I did pray for him and his staff and students as I left the campus. Without a doubt, this would be a difficult day and week for the school. The families affected by these tragedies need our prayers and our comfort. The hurt is deep. The anxiety caused by these losses can be devastating.

What can you do? Pray. Then pray some more. If you are close to the family, then do not stay away. If you are not close to the family, it is probably better to pray from a distance. The truest friends are those who wait. This loss is so unexplainable, so difficult to grasp. You need to wait for the griever to grieve. Don’t pressure them to “get back to normal.” Their normal has been rocked. Embrace them with love. Don’t try to offer answers. Eventually, you can point them to the hope and joy and victory that can only be found in Christ.

In March of 2014, a year after the devastating loss of his twenty-seven-year-old son who took his own life, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church was asked, “How have you made it? How have you kept going in your pain?” His answer? “Easter.” Warren went on, “You see, the death and the burial and the resurrection of Jesus happened over three days. Friday was the day of suffering and pain and agony. Saturday was the day of doubt and confusion and misery. But Easter—that Sunday—was the day of hope and joy and victory. And here’s the fact of life: you will face these three days over and over and over in your lifetime. And when you do, you’ll find yourself asking—as I did—three fundamental questions. Number one, ‘What do I do in my days of pain?’ Number two, ‘How do I get through my days of doubt and confusion?’ Number three, ‘How do I get to the days of joy and victory?’”

The answer is Easter!

KenThe answer to all the fundamental questions in life is the same. The answer…is Easter.

Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, together with his wife, Kay, went through a devastating loss when their twenty-seven-year-old son, Matthew, took his own life after battling depression and mental illness for years. About a year after this tragedy, Rick said, “I’ve often been asked, ‘How have you made it? How have you kept going in your pain?’ And I’ve often replied, ‘The answer is Easter.’”

“You see, the death and burial and the resurrection of Jesus happened over three days. Friday was the day of suffering and pain and agony. Saturday was the day of doubt and confusion and misery. But Easter—that Sunday—was the day of hope and joy and victory.

“And here’s the fact of life: you will face these three days over and over and over in your lifetime. And when you do, you’ll find yourself asking—as I did—three fundamental questions. Number one, ‘What do I do in my days of pain?’ Two, ‘How do I get through my days of doubt and confusion?’ Three, ‘How do I get to the days of joy and victory?’

“The answer is Easter. The answer…is Easter!”

Your loss may not have been like the Warrens, but your loss—no matter its form—brought you pain and suffering. At the time of the crisis, you hurt deeply. Whether the loss was a loved one or a marriage or a relationship or a job or a home, your loss brought doubt and confusion. And the only way anyone can overcome these kinds of losses comes in faith resting on the ultimate provision through Jesus Christ.

Let me be clear. I’m not simply talking about believing the facts about Jesus—the virgin birth, living a perfect life, dying on a cross, and rising from the dead. I’m talking about believing this AND receiving Jesus into your life. Receiving Him means to welcome Jesus into your life to take control of your life. It means turning from your sin and turning to Christ. When you rest your life on Jesus, you can face the losses in life knowing that God has not forsaken you and that He will ultimately bring you to days of joy and victory. If you have never placed your faith in Christ by welcoming Him into your life, I urge you to do so today.

images-3At the Midweek Service on Wednesday, I told about an article written in the New York Post. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the coast of the Northeastern United States. (The article called the storm “venti-sized” which I prefer to the media referring to it as a superstorm, but that’s another story.)  By the time Sandy subsided, 286 people lost their lives along the storm’s path in seven countries.

As the hurricane bore down on New York City, almost everything shut down — except for one rogue Starbucks near Times Square. Desperate but highly committed Starbuck junkies fought high winds, dangerous rains, and dire warnings just to get a latte or a cup of coffee. Bethany, 28, walked 10 blocks with her one-year-old daughter for a fix. “I saw on Facebook that they were open,” she said. “It was scary not having Starbucks.” Her neighbor and friend, twenty-nine-year old Chris came along and later said, “When she said they were open, I said, ‘Pack up the baby. Let’s go!’ I didn’t know they were all going to close. I started panicking. There’s nothing else I would’ve gone out for. This makes my day complete.”

They were a part of a daylong stream of customers that packed the store, standing shoulder to shoulder and waiting at least ten minutes to order. Alex, 25, walked more than twenty blocks looking for an open Starbucks. He told reporters, “It took half an hour. But I’m a Starbucks fanatic. I go four or five times a day.” David, also 25, said he went to three closed Starbucks before learning the store was open. He said, “I’m really happy these guys are open. I can’t get a pumpkin spice latte anywhere else. The ten-minute wait was worth it.”

People will make sacrifices for what they value. If we value Christ, we will lay down our lives for Him. The people in this true news story were nuts, but you have to say that they weren’t lukewarm or uncommitted about following their deep desire for a pumpkin spice latte. They willingly risked the safety of their homes to pursue what they valued.

When it comes to serving the Lord, He calls us all to the same level of commitment. “If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). That’s a definitive call and that call is not based upon what is comfortable. It’s a call to self-denial.

images-2Without a doubt, 2016 will be filled with plenty of adventure as well as plenty of the ordinary. Sometimes we think that “the ordinary” seems “too ordinary.” That’s what happened to William Cimillo back in 1947. Since you may not know about Cimillo, let me tell you about it. On Friday, March 28, 1947, Bronx bus driver, William Cimillo, got into his bus to start his daily route. Suddenly, Cimillo decided to take a crazy leap. Fed up with the New York traffic, he decided that he had had enough. So instead of sticking with his daily routine, he headed his bus south, going nowhere in particular. He stopped in New Jersey for lunch and parked in front of the White House and took a look around D.C.

Three days later, he was in Hollywood, Florida, where he stopped for a nighttime swim. Now strapped for cash, he telegrammed his boss and asked for $50. The cops showed up soon afterwards. Two New York detectives and a mechanic were sent to fetch the runaway driver and his bright red bus, but according to Cimillo, the mechanic couldn’t really drive the bus, so they had Cimillo drive them back to New York. Upon their arrival, Cimillo discovered that he had become a legend. People from across the country sent him fan mail, newspapers portrayed him as a working-class hero, and his bus-driving buddies raised enough cash to cover his legal expenses.

Realizing they were “the bad guys” here, the Surface Transportation System decided not to prosecute. In fact, they gave Cimillo his back back. For the rest of his life, Cimillo never pulled any more wild stunts. Instead, he kept on driving that bus for 16 more years and passed away in 1975. Those few crazy days in 1947 were more than enough adventure for him. Asked why he did it, the bus driver explained: “This New York traffic gets to you. It’s like driving in a squirrel cage….I just wanted to get away from everything.”

Do you ever feel like the stress is too much and you just want to get away and start a fresh life somewhere else? There’s a better way — trust the Lord, take a Sabbath, be faithful to your tasks.

God has called us to trust Him and to remain faithful to our calling in Him. In the mundane and routine and in the challenging and new, we must look to the Lord as He guides us while serving Him with our hearts and hands.

Last Sunday, our church voted to replant a church in Barker’s Corner. We acted in faith, trusting in God to guide us. I want to report that upon hearing the official word that we would take them on, the congregation there expressed joyful praise and anticipate that the Lord will bless our efforts in replanting a vibrant church there.

We’ve begun the process of the merger, but it will go slowly. I’m asking that we all join together in much prayer for the those working closely with the replant. Legal matters and the naming of a campus pastor are among these first steps. We hope to name a campus pastor soon so that core group development can begin.

We also expect that the Lord will move some from our church to become a part of the core group. I ask that we join together praying for those who will do so in the spirit of Acts 13:2-3. However, until the core group development begins, no one from our church needs to begin attending at Barker’s Corner.

The beginning of the year is a great time to begin reading through the Bible. There are a variety of plans available. Some of these can be found in the devotional guides that are available in our magazine racks. One that I have found to be particularly valuable to me is produced by The Navigators. This simple plan has “grace” built into it, because the monthly plan only has 25 days in it. This gives me the “grace” I need when I invariably miss a day. So as long as I don’t miss too many days in a month, I can stay on a schedule that enables me to read the entire Bible in a year.

The other evening while meeting with some men from our church, the subject somehow moved to the “Dollar Shave Club.” Surprisingly, I found the idea quite fascinating, so I have looked into a bit. Here’s the premise for the company (tongue in cheek!):

A man goes into a store to buy some razor blades, but they are locked up. He tries to get in, but it’s like robbing Fort Knox. No one is around to help, so he tries harder, which sets off alarms that lead to him being assaulted by the staff. Blow darts, punches to the stomach, and so forth. Then the tag line: “It’s like they don’t want you to buy razor blades.”

So when someone came along and offered a different way to buy razor blades, it struck a chord. According to the Wall Street Journal, web sales of razor blades though such companies as Dollar Shave Club, have doubled in the last twelve months alone. They have gone from no slice of the market to nearly ten percent, with little sign of slowing down. Through the first six of 2015, salves have already doubled over all of last year’s totals.

So how did a company like Dollar Shave Club, which did not even exist three years ago, storm onto the scene and take such a big bite out of a company like Gillette that has been in existence since 1901? That’s easy. Gillette and its distributors looked at things from their perspective and not the consumer’s. They made the experience of buying blades negative for shoppers. So when someone came along and listened to the consumer and then thought like a buyer and not a seller, they got a lot of buyers lining up to buy from them. You can only imagine the Dollar Shave Club people thinking, “Okay, people hate the way razors are sold, but stores don’t want them stolen. Let’s just rethink how to get them in people’s hands!” And they did.

In an article entitled “The Church Shave Club” in Church and Culture last month, Pastor James Emery White argues, “Too many churches look at things from the perspective from the inside.” But we need to take the time to look at things from the perspective of those who don’t know Christ. If we will make a forever difference in people, then we must learn to see things — not as seasoned church members and attenders — but as people who do not know Christ. After all, we don’t want to make it hard for people to come to know our Savior.

imagesWhat I’m offering today may not set well with many, but I believe it must be said. I’m a pastor who is becoming increasingly frustrated. I’m not frustrated in my ministry. In fact, God has privileged me to serve in a gracious fellowship of believers that affords me the opportunities to preach and to lead the congregation to fulfill its particular mission in our community and beyond.

So why am I frustrated? I am frustrated because all around me I hear of the increasing number of declining and dying churches that represent only a portion of the churches in the Southern Baptist Convention have stopped growing. To be sure, some churches will decline because the communities in which they are have declined in population. However, this is not the case for most of the ones I know. And if something does not change within these churches that they will continue to decline and will eventually cease to exist. This grieves our Lord, and it should grieve all believers.

Recently our denomination has focused much attention on church revitalization, and I am glad that we have done so. However, some have the mistaken idea that if we can infuse a declining church with some financial aid, some minor adjustments in their programming, and maybe even sending some people to them, then they will experience a turnaround. Generally when this method is used, the church might survive a bit longer while sometimes a spike may indeed occur. However, without significant changes in the way the church carries out its work, the infusion only serves to prop up a congregation for a short period. Often a declining church needs more than an adjustment, but rather a complete shift from the way church functions.

My bigger frustration comes from a pervading attitude that implicitly says, “We’d rather die than change.” Whether this viewpoint comes from the pastor or from the congregation, it often will serve as the church’s own death sentence.

For the past several years, I sensed the need to prepare our congregation for a strategy that would maximize our giftedness to reach more people. We sensed that the Lord wanted us to plant another church in our area. The experiences we gained from the planting a Hispanic congregation, which meets simultaneously on our campus, guided our preparations. As we sought the Spirit’s guidance on strategies for church planting, we were drawn to the multisite church strategy. We identified several reasons for moving to such a strategy.

    1. Multiplying the resources of God had entrusted to our church. God had equipped our staff and congregation to carry out Great Commission ministry. We had committed every aspect of our ministries to developing maturing follower of Jesus Christ.
    2. Being able to utilize people resources within our congregation. Not only had our pastoral staff grown to take on greater responsibilities, but God showed us people from within the church to consider calls to ministry positions. In the last four years, two laymen have been added to our pastoral staff. We see this as a trend for the future and one that can be further developed as God adds ministry locations.
    3. A perception that the unreached want a personal touch. Building a larger auditorium to accommodate a larger number of people did not make sense when people kept telling us that they chose our church because they sought after a “smaller church.” Having multiple locations made more sense because we could take the church closer to where they lived, while providing a “full menu” of ministry offerings through centralized administration.
    4. The possibility of coming alongside struggling congregation and reinvigorating them for kingdom ministry. Admittedly, this reason came about as a result of how the Lord has equipped and shaped me for ministry. Throughout my ministry, I have reached out to pastors within our convention and beyond to help them lead their congregations. But now I sense that by engaging these congregations by including them in a multisite approach, we could utilize kingdom resources and do an even better job in reinvigorating them. We have since learned that more than one in three multisite churches began a new campus as the result of a merger.

In anticipation of what we sensed the Lord wanted us to do with regard to church planting and specifically, with developing a multisite church mentality, I led our pastoral staff and congregation to alter the way we approach the weekend services. In particular, I knew that our staff had to prepare for carrying out multisite church model at a single-site so that we could transition more readily when the time came to multiply the ministry.

For years, I knew that one of the most effective ways to lead the church comes through better planned Sunday morning experiences which translates to more meaningful experiences for everyone. Throughout my pastoral ministry, I had developed the habit of planning my preaching either weeks or a few months at a time. However, now I knew that we needed to shift to a more elaborate planning model. This would make it possible for our creative team (which also had to be developed) to formulate the creative elements for each sermon series such as this music, set design, graphic design, promotional materials, drama skits, and videos. The shift also necessitated forming a teaching team to share the preaching responsibilities. For years we had utilized the giftedness of others on our staff to fill the pulpit in my absence. But with the teaching team approach, we have more consistency in preaching the sermon series. Not only does this permit us to develop and preach better sermons, we have grown together in our ministry while developing a strategy for growing campus pastors.

Having personally observed and studied other multisite mergers in Tennessee, Missouri, and Louisiana, I know that extending the kingdom reach and maximizing our mission efforts can be accomplished by utilizing such a strategy. I have witnessed how the Spirit of God has infused new life, and the church now reaches new people.

Yet I also realize the heart wrenching difficulty that declining churches have in coming to terms with their futures. I know that no one readily wants to admit, “We need help” or “Our church is dying.” These congregations have made sacrifices for the cause of Christ in ministry and missions; however, they now come to the critical crossroads of the future. Therefore, I urge the leaders in these congregations to consider prayerfully seeking out a strong congregation in their area help them to breathe new life and to continue the legacy of their church’s contribution to the spread of the gospel. After all, it’s really not about you and your church. It’s about our great God receiving all the praise that He is due.