The Good, the Not-So-Good, and the Hoped For

I wanted to say a few words about our annual business meeting last night, and share some thoughts it prompted.

First, the good news is that all deacon candidates were overwhelmingly affirmed, and all matters put to a vote passed by similarly overwhelming matters.  Even our constitutional amendment, which was questioned by a number of people (legitimately and respectfully, I might add), passed with an 84% majority.  With all the prayer and preparation that the staff and deacons put into this process, it is encouraging to have the strong affirmation of those members voting.

I also want to thank everyone for making this another peaceful business meeting.  That doesn’t always happen, especially when people may have differing viewpoints, but this was a very good meeting dealing with issues where differences are to be expected.

The “not-so-good” aspect, for me, is that out of 587 local, active, voting members, 185 were present to cast ballots.  There are 400 members out there who didn’t make it.  Now, I know from talking with some that unavoidable conflicts kept a number away.  That is understandable.  But 400?  That would be a lot of conflicts!

Congregationalism is a form of church government that relies on the people of God praying and then weighing in on those matters where they are asked for a decision.  The belief is that God’s will and wisdom is manifested through the Spirit’s work among the body.  We have rejected the idea that a special hierarchy possesses this wisdom and authority, and even though we select leaders and ask them to lead, that selection itself, as well as some key decisions, are left to rest with the congregation.  Many of you chose not to participate, and that means we don’t really know what you think, or more importantly, how God’s Spirit may have led you to vote after prayerful consideration of the issues.  Maybe outcomes would have changed, or maybe affirmations would have been much stronger.  We just don’t know.

What I “hope for” is a greater sense in the future that we all need to be a part of congregational processes, because in a very real way this expresses our commitment to each other and to a particular means of determining God’s will in our midst.  If all those not providentially hindered were to participate, we could feel a much larger sense of consensus and direction.  That would be a good thing for us all.

Published in: on November 20, 2008 at 11:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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Congratulations to Jonathan Kleis!

Jonathan, who along with his wonderful wife Noella and their children serve as our missionaries in Italy, just completed his ordination council here at Grace.  He was unanimously affirmed and recommended by the council to the Deacons and church for ordination.  All the council members spoke highly of both his presentation and his demeanor.  He showed great skill in answering questions from the Scriptures, and we rejoice in this step in his continued service to the Lord and the church.

Published in: on October 16, 2008 at 2:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mini Mid Week Series

For the next two weeks, I’ll be taking some time in our midweek prayer service to talk about (and lead us in praying about) the biblical concept of peacemaking–not in terms of global conflict, but in terms of personal relationships.   While I don’t normally do this kind of thing, I thought that it might be timely for us to consider how to be agents of reconciliation and how to avoid giving offense and dealing with it if we have offended someone.  So, join me if you are free for these next two weeks, Wednesday night at 6:45 p.m. in Moffat Hall

Published in: on September 4, 2008 at 2:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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Acknowledging the Elephant in the Room.

Preaching through Mark has been an eye opening exercise for me, as I face familiar texts and learn so much more than I anticipated.  As I let the text speak to me (and then, prayerfully, to all of us), I find Jesus such a desirable and yet convicting King. 

Over the last few Sunday mornings, as I have shared my sadness over instances of God’s people not treating each other as family (the way Jesus viewed His followers and views us), or about the danger of professed faith without fruit, I know that some may have thought about the university controversies that currently surround us.  Some even asked if I was addressing the conflict generally or one of the “sides” more directly.  It seems like the difficulties have become the “elephant in the room” here in Cedarville that either we avoid talking about, or we can’t stop talking about. 

I want to make a few points clear.  First, in my preaching and in my ministry here, I am not trying to “take sides” in a dispute over words such as truth, certainty, and assurance.  When I use one of these words, I’m not trumpeting a position.  I’ve made my understandings of these words clear when asked in the past, and I do not want to join arguments over what seem to be nuances related to whether we use these words in their “common language” meaning, within philosophical speech, or as part of the vocabulary of an epistemological school of thought.  Here is my position, in case you have not heard me state it in other venues.  Truth exists–objectively, outside our perception.  It is an attribute of God, and because he is a communicating God, He has made us able to receive and know truth.  Our finiteness means we never comprehend the truth of God exhaustively.  Our fallenness in sin means our perceptions of truth are sometimes twisted and prone to error.  By His Spirit, God allows all sinners some comprehension of truth (within common grace), and He gives redeemed sinners sufficient comprehension through the Spirit of spiritual truth (through special, saving grace).  He has spoken through the Word, and we, as redeemed people with new natures and the indwelling Spirit, can achieve and have assurance, certainty, trust, confidence, and any other such word you want to use in its message.  In my conversations with various parties, no one disagrees with the heart of what I have said, even if they might choose different words to express it.

Second, I am not trying to tell people how to administer a ministry over which God has given them oversight (after all, it is God who raises up and takes down, who appoints and removes, according to numerous Scriptures).  I am the Pastor of Grace, and that is more than enough leadership responsibility for me.  My understanding of Scripture leads me to the conclusion that constituted authority is to be submitted to joyfully, as Paul did to Nero, and as he urged slaves to do to masters who may or may not be kind.  I need not be in agreement with my leaders, but I do need to recognize and submit to their authority.  In a democracy, I carry the dual role of citizen and authority (as a voter).  In the church, we submit to the authorities God places over us, and in the world of business and organizations, we submit to those over us and lead in godly fashion those under us.  Trying to undermine our bosses, stirring discord among peers,  and mistreating our subordinates are equally sinful behaviors.

It is my conviction that Christians can and will disagree (Paul and Barnabas), and sometimes be wronged by other believers (Paul, by those in Philippi who sought his harm–Phil. 1:15-17), but our responses must reflect the values of a Christian family–we do not return evil for evil, we do not let one side’s actions determine our reactions, and we do not use worldly weaponry to accomplish spiritual goals.  If we disagree, we must talk, then talk some more, taking witnesses and mediators, and do everything we can to arrive at clarity about the issues and then seek resolution that honors God.  His honor is more important than our own, and he is most definitely NOT honored by the use of the media, the internet, and publicly released statements that escalate conflict, cast aspersions on people’s character or motives, broaden the circles involved in private disputes, and take these issues far beyond their proper spheres.  Paul’s clear words to Christians at Corinth who thought about suing fellow Christians was, “why not rather be wronged” than create the kind of spectacle that is already a defeat for us all? 

I have seen and heard enough during these past months (and years) to become convinced that no one side can rightfully claim the moral or spiritual high ground for itself.  While I can understand, and sometimes sympathize with, concerns of both sides (if there are only two), I do not think that either side has always acted and spoken in ways that honor Christ and show Christian charity toward those who disagree.

I am praying that we will see the current conflicts resolved and peace restored.  In the meantime, I ask the people of Grace to do all we can to be peacemakers, forebearing with one another, forgiving one another, speaking gracious words to one another, slow to take offense and quick to deal with any hurt that we have caused.  As we listen to Jesus through Mark, let’s take it to heart.  And let’s be careful that we don’t hear His words and find ourselves most concerned that someone else listen.  The hearing that pleases Jesus is the hearing that applies to ourselves. Perhaps if each of us can apply His words to our own hearts and actions first, we can keep from degenerating into camps with separate agendas, begin and maintain reconciliation between family members, and show elephants in the room the extra large exit door.

Published in: on May 22, 2008 at 3:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Our money and our lives…revisited

Pastors have more than a few reasons to be humble.  One is that we are constantly talking about things that we cannot possibly do or live up to, at least to the level that we know we should and to which we call everyone to aspire.  Another is that we often find ourselves preaching about matters with passion, only to discover that no one really seemed to get what we said.

A more nuanced way in which we are humbled is when God uses our preaching as a tool to bring about some needed change or response.  “Great,” we think.  “The word has done its work.”  Then a few months pass, and the change we believed our preaching had inspired proves not to have the staying power we hoped.

I’ve felt a little humbled like that recently, as I’ve considered our church family’s giving.  Right after our series on stewardship there was a tremendous “bounce,” both in our regular giving and in our Harvest Offering.  As the new year began, I had visions of the trend continuing and new opportunities being opened up to us in missions and outreach; maybe even some staffing issues.  Then I watched as the January numbers came in, and then took in the February numbers.  Now I find us $22,000 behind our annual budget already.  Should I be dusting off my stewardship messages for a “rerun” already?

I know that this kind of thinking about the power of my preaching is foolish–after all, any real change that comes to us is through the Word being applied to our hearts by the Spirit of God.  I’m not ultimately the cause of anything good that comes from anything I do, no matter how pure my motives and right my actions.  Neither am I ultimately responsible when nothing happens if I have been as pure and right as in the other case. 

The lesson I draw from the relatively short-lived change is this: we need to contstantly remind ourselves of basics, and not let either the passage of time or the excitement of the moment cause us to lose sight of them.  The Bible is my source of truth.  Read it.  Prayer is my communion with God.  Pray.  God’s people are his tool in my life and my target for ministering my gifts.  Serve the Body.  People all around me are lost if they don’t believe the Gospel.  Witness.  Everything I am and have is God’s and is to be used for his glory.  Invest in eternal values. 

If last year’s messages caused you to reevaluate how your giving needed to reflect God’s blessing and your need for sacrifice, may I encourage you to revisit that moment in your mind, and reenergize your decision.  If you, like me, recognize that it is a constant battle to stay generous, ask God to help, and do what you know you need to do.  Tell someone to hold you accountable if you need to.  If you would want to, you can review the messages in our message archive on the website.

And if I am all wet and no one needs to make any changes, then just forget I said anything!

Published in: on March 7, 2008 at 4:37 pm  Comments (1)  

Rejoicing in the Harvest Offering

The family of Grace responded with great generosity to this year’s Harvest Offering last Sunday.  We received over $79,800.00 in money and commitments thus far.  Our plan is simple:  half of what we receive we will give to the Lord by giving it away–through missions projects and community projects we hope to bless God’s people and expand the reach of His love through the gospel.  The other half will be used to deal with pressing needs for the ministry here that were not able to be funded through our regular giving this year.  A task team of deacons has been chosen to work on finalizing these details, and the full proposal for disbursement will come before the congregation before the end of the year.

We are also thankful that the church family has exercised its faithful obedience in regular giving as well–the past two weeks have been the best start of a month we have had this year.  If God is moving in our hearts to make us more generous, that is not only a blessing, it means we can be a greater blessing to others, too. 

Published in: on November 13, 2007 at 10:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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Why We Aren’t Supporting Mission Agencies

A number of concerned supporters of missions just noticed that beginning with this year’s budget we changed our support structure–specifically moving monies from home office general funds to either the “new support” line or missionaries supported by those agencies.  We announced this last year, and the new budget was designed this way, but for whatever reason it apparently was not understood by all.  The question, of course, is “why?”

The short answer is one of priorities.  Missionary support is a higher priority for us than agency support.  We do give to a number of agencies whose work is as an agency (Shepherds, Baptist Childrens Home, etc.).  Limited resources force us to make uncomfortable decisions.  Current missionaries are still undersupported and our ability to take on new missionaries is very limited, even though new ones are on the horizon.  Home offices of all missionaries we support require their personnel to raise a percentage of support to be given to the home office, so some of our missionary support does go to them.  We also have responded to home office special needs during this year. 

This, however, is not something we are happy about.  We had to decide where to free up money that could go to new missionaries who were doing work in line with our newly minted strategy, and could help missionaries facing significant deficits.

This temporary situation will continue until we are able to increase our missions budget to the 20% of budget that was targeted many years ago as the ideal for our church.  We also will not automatically restore all agencies, but will choose to support those that are in line with our vision and committed to true partnership with local churches in sending missionaries.  Some agencies say they are committed to partnership, but in their practices they exclude local churches from any significant role in making decisions.  Just as we evaluate missionaries and fields, we will evaluate agencies.

So, please be patient, and know that generous giving makes a difference in lots of ways, including how much becomes available for missions and missions agencies.

Published in: on October 31, 2007 at 5:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Missions Support Decisions…

Sometimes I hear from people who are unhappy that the church is not addressing the support deficits of a missionary that Grace supports.  Why, they wonder, do we not help these wonderful people doing such a great job on so little money? 

That is a tough question.  The short answer is, we don’t have the money.  Give lots more, and missions gets a hefty increase.

The longer answer is, what money we do have has to go to 29 missionary units (families or singles), plus agencies we support (Baptist Children’s Home, Shepherds, and others), all of whom have support needs, save one missionary family reporting support at 100%.  I did a recent calculation, and all of our missionaries have a combined monthly deficit of $22,170 a month!  The total amount we have to disperse to all missionaries over the next year is going to be around $1,100 per month, based on early budget estimates for next year.  If we just give everybody an equal share, it works out to less than $30 per missionary and agency, and that doesn’t do much for anybody.

It gets even more complex, when you begin to think about priorities.  For us to function as we believe God is directing, we want to honor the following priorities.

1.  All else being equal, we want to meet GBC commissioned missionary needs first.  That is, if we are the sending church, we have taken on the primary responsibility for sending this missionary and keeping him/her on the field.

2. We place a higher priority on evangelism among unreached, unevangelized areas.  This may be through direct witness or strategic support of the evangelistic effort through partnerships with internationals.  This is because this is the primary thrust of the Great Commission.  What this means when it comes to choices with our limited resources is  that evangelism among Muslims in North African countries (0.00001% Christians) would be a higher priority than sending a missionary to plant a church in the suburbs of Dallas, TX (which has one Bible preaching church for every 5 people–OK, not quite, but you know what I mean).

The Missions Team is developing a grid based on these priorities, through which to filter prospective missionaries to help us make choices, and also to help us guide those in our congregation who may want to become Grace missionaries.   When it is done, we’ll show it to everyone with much fanfare.  Until then, no fanfare.  In fact, with the amount I shared above, if we try to take on one more missionary at an average level of support (about $400 a month would help us be at 10% support for most), then we have even less to distribute among our current missionaries. 

So, the next time you wonder why we are not helping your favorite missionary, don’t think it isn’t because we don’t want to do so.  It probably has something to do with having no money in our budget to make a commitment.

Published in: on September 19, 2007 at 11:27 pm  Leave a Comment