My PhD Journey at SWBTS

Entrance Exams

The Texas sky threatened an ice storm. My wife and the storm radar confirmed it. However, my entrance exam for the PhD program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was scheduled early in the morning. So I reasoned that I could leave early, stay ahead of the storm, and make it to Fort Worth from College Station before it got “too bad.”

Two semi-trucks flipped over in front of me. One tried to pass another going up an ice-covered hill and I was stuck in my car for a period of about 10 hours. Although freezing, I had to turn the car off to conserve gas. I missed my interview. I was so worried and anxious in the car. “What will they think of me?” My future supervisor and the interview committee were very understanding.

While stuck in the car, I decided to read my Greek Bible, attempt to memorize some Scripture in Greek, and translate (I had plenty of free time). When I was able to reschedule my interview and entrance exam for the following day, the essay question asked me to exegete the passages I memorized. God knew what he was doing; my anxiety did not.

Reading Phase

The reading seminars out gunned me immediately. Surrounded and overwhelmed by material, my first reading seminar asked me to summarize a portion of Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma for the class. I read this work while on a mission trip to South Africa with my students from FBC Bryan. Needless to say, I wasn’t very careful with my reading. I stumbled over my entire summary. The professor “requested” I read closer and come better-prepared next time. I thought, “I’m failing God in this task he gave me.”

Years later, I was asked by a person to help them better understand Catholicism and how to share Christ with their family member. I was able to walk them through Catholic theology and show them how to carefully share the need for a personal faith in Jesus Christ. God knew I needed a better mastery of the subject. He knew what he was doing; my feelings of failure did not.

The Latin Debacle

As a prerequisite to the PhD program, competency exams in German and Latin were required. German went well (I studied it previously in college); Latin did not. The Latin professor passed away the semester before we were to take the exam. Since Latin was a prerequisite, the school left us to learn it on our own. My friends and I taught ourselves ecclesiastical Latin.

I failed my Latin exam three times, once missing the mark by a single percentage point. I was so frustrated. So worried. “What will my supervisor think?” I lost a lot of sleep over the anxiety of failing. “I don’t fail tests,” was the mantra of pride.

Failing the Latin competency exam forced me develop a means of studying. I began by reading my Bible in Latin every day. I translated a large portion of Augustine’s Confessions for my own practice. As it turns out, my dissertation topic required an ability to read Latin well. As it turns out, my children are studying Latin in school, and I help teach them. God knew what he was doing; my pride did not.

Research Seminars

Research Seminars had their own speed bumps. My first attempt at reading a research paper ended in a fellow student—a “friend”—declaring me a heretic in class! There is a punch to the gut! I wasn’t very careful with some of my phrasing concerning the Trinity. I was so embarrassed. My supervisor (and professor of the seminar, yikes!!) was very kind and gracious. He walked me through the process of being clearer in my thought. He challenged me to start writing theology for myself to develop concise thought.

The tools he taught me and the personal project of writing my own theology culminated in a video project called Two Minute Doctrine. The work itself has been rewarding in our church in Summerville, Georgia. God knew what he was doing; my embarrassment did not.

Oral Exams

Oh! And the PhD comprehensive exams! What happened can only be told as a piece of theatre. Allow me to set the scene for you:

One oral exam slated after dawn,
in fair Fort Worth, Texas we lay our scene.
From forth the fatal mind of three examiners,
a young blissfully ignorant student speaks;
whose misadventured piteous overthrows
do with his incompetent answers
bury his schooling in obscurity.

Scene 1: Interior. Night. Student’s parent’s home in Denton. Only the student and the cat are present. The cat thinks the student is an intruder.

My Mom’s Cat
Do you study to offend me, sir?

No, sir, I do not study to offend you, sir.
But I do study, sir.

Mom’s Cat
Do you quarrel with me, sir?

*Cat knocks study materials onto the floor*

Quarrel, sir! No, sir.
But you’re keeping me from studying, sir!

Scene 2: Interior. Night. Bedroom of Parent’s House.

My Mom’s Cat
You closed this door!
I will bang on it until it opens.

*The door opens*

My Mom’s Cat
If you fall asleep,
I will jump on your head.

Our student awoke exhausted,
the cat triumphant.
Thus, he doubled up on coffee.
Better to be juiced and ready to go, right?
The exam went pretty well, at first.
Until the Dean of the School of Theology
started throwing softballs.

Scene 3. Interior. Morning. PhD oral exam room, second floor of Fleming Hall. Across the table from left to right of Student, the Major supervisor, The Dean, the Minor Supervisor sit.

The Dean
Define the aseity of God.

Our PhD hopeful just finished as an assistant
teachers for the Dean’s online Systematic Theology class.
He answered this question for the Dean’s own online students.
He knew the Dean would ask this question.
He prepared for this question.
He wrote down an answer with quotes.
He memorized his answer before the exam.

Slide reads: *footage of student’s definition of aseity not found*

Would you like to try again?

Ah, no?
I mean, that was the definition, right?

You tell us.

Our floundering PhD student’s minor
is in American Church History.
He loves studying American church history.

Minor Supervisor
Can you name one evangelical American theologian
in the twentieth century?

Ah, no.

Major Supervisor
Surely, you know one.

The Dean
How about Carl Henry?
Can you tell us about him?

Now, Carl Henry is one of most
famous American theologians
of the twentieth century.
Our student’s friend wrote
a dissertation on Henry.
Our student discussed several chapters
of said dissertation with his friend.
Our student recommends
Henry’s “Christian Personal Ethics” to you.

No… um… I mean… Who?
I don’t know that name.

No, if you are blissfully unaware,
is the wrong answer,
for someone trying to prove they are an expert.
To understand our student’s failure,
you may imagine the following
conversation with your own doctor

Can you tell me what a virus is?”

No… um… I mean… I don’t know any viruses?



At this point in the exam, I’ve proven either my incompetence or laziness. When incompetence is the better of two monikers, you’re not doing well.  A recommendation for you reader, don’t put your supervisor in the position of apologizing to his superior for your complete ineptitude, by blaming nerves and coffee.

The results of the comprehensive exam? The committee thought I might need a second opportunity. They assigned me to write a brief comprehensive systematic theology.

About a year after the exam, my own son was struggling with a test. He was learning math for the first time. He wanted to do perfectly. His exam didn’t go well. He was very upset. We sat together and talked about how dad likes to do well too, that it is frustrating to work hard and fail. He was shocked to hear how often his own dad failed. Together we decided that failure, whether it is our fault or not, is inevitable. That ultimately, we are fully reliant on the grace of God for our entire lives. The best we can do as his creatures is learn, adapt, and keep working hard. Whenever my son is frustrated, fails, or go through trials, he and I have a question and response time. It goes like this:

Who has failed the most in this house?


And who will keep working to the glory of God?

We will.

God thought my four sons needed an object lesson in humility and perseverance. Here I am Lord, send me.

Dissertation Phase

My first thesis was trash. My second thesis: rejected. My third thesis needed revision. The final thesis accepted. In 2019 I was ready, so ready, to hammer out my dissertation and finish. Then the pandemic hit. During the pandemic of 2020, I got a viral pneumonia; it completely wiped me out. For about a month, I couldn’t upkeep most of my spiritual disciplines. My ministry boiled down to bedridden praying for my flock.

What ought to have taken about a year took two.

But I found I was far less anxious and worried. God not only saw me through every phase of the PhD process, he also was faithful to use every experience to his glory.


What did I learn? At the beginning, I was very concerned with my own glory. Even if I verbally and mentally denied it, pride ran in the background of all my programing. Yes, my desire was to learn, know Christ better, glorify God. But I also wanted to prove myself to God, to my supervisor, to myself. I wanted to no longer feel imposter syndrome. To echo Eberhard Jüngel, I was ruled by the imperious ego.

Early on in the PhD program my supervisor wrote me an email. He concluded, “God can humble you too, boy.” His pastoral words were prophetic and, in a word, necessary.

Shouldn’t you desire to prove yourself? You’re created in the image of God! You have nothing to prove. God proved your worth by sending his Son. Often the male quest to test one’s own tenacity is little more than an idolatrous question, “Can I do this on my own?”

No, you cannot.

With my defense scheduled for some time February/March and (Lord willing) graduation in May, all I can say is that what began with an ice storm ended with a pandemic. And in it all, God was glorified.

Christ must become greater; I must become less.

Soli Deo Gloria.

On Lottie Moon’s 181st birthday

Each year around Thanksgiving, Southern Baptists around the nation are reminded once again of her name. Charlotte Digges (or “Lottie”) Moon’s name has been associated with the annual missions offering taken in December since 1918. She may be the most famous woman in Southern Baptist history. And yet, most of the people who write a check each year to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions have no idea who she was.

I think that’s how she would have preferred it. She didn’t seek fame or notoriety, though she certainly could have. She was born to a wealthy family in Virginia on December 12, 1840. (That’s right. Today would be Lottie’s 181st birthday.) How wealthy was her family, you might ask? She grew up on the “Road of the Presidents”— the old route that passed the homes of James Madison, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson. When Thomas Jefferson died — the author of The Declaration of Independence, the second vice-president, the third president of the United States, and the real star of the Broadway musical, Hamilton — when he died, Lottie’s uncle bought Monticello — the famous mansion depicted on the back of the nickel. She grew up playing in the fields and on the estate of a former president.

Despite the fact that young women weren’t encouraged to pursue education beyond a certain point—they were to be prepared for marriage instead— her family’s wealth enabled her to study with tutors on the family plantation before being sent to a girls institute, and then after that to a woman’s college, eventually becoming one of the first women to receive a masters degree in the South. She had studied Greek, Hebrew, and Latin and had become fluent in Spanish and French. John Broadus, who was the pastor of Charlottesville Baptist Church and who would later go on to co-found and serve as the second president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, claimed that she was best-educated and most-cultured woman in the South.

She could have sought to make a name for herself had that been her aim.

Three years before earning her masters degree, however, something in her life had changed. She had been a precocious and rebellious child. Her parents were devout Baptists, but she rejected their faith. When her cousin, Sarah prepared to go to Jerusalem with Lottie’s aunt and uncle as missionaries for the newly-formed Disciples of Christ — a new denomination that was forming as a break from the Baptists in America — Lottie scoffed.

All Christians do is argue, and the Bible is just a storybook. It’s a long way from Virginia to Jerusalem just to waste your time telling people fairy stories!

When classmates at her school noted that she was absent from church one Sunday during the school term, she replied that she was reading Shakespeare while lying on a haystack that Sunday morning. The bard, she believed, was much more to her liking than some dry, dusty ol’ sermon.

But in 1858, she was invited to attend a student revival, and in God’s providence she went for the purpose of making fun of it. But that night, the Holy Spirit would not relent. She was kept awake by a barking dog and discovered that she could not sleep. But the dog wasn’t her biggest problem. She began to worry about her spiritual condition and prayed. That prayer lasted all night. And eventually, she relented and trusted in Christ for salvation.

Lottie wasn’t able to sleep until she had found salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.

She was baptized and was immediately drawn to the international missions effort. At that point, Southern Baptists had only ever sent one unmarried woman as a missionary and that had not gone well. In fact, Southern Baptists had determined never to do it again. If she wanted to go to the missions field, it seemed she would first need to marry.

Instead, she rode out the Civil War teaching her younger sister and helping her older sister — one of the first two Southern women to earn a medical degree — tend to wounded soldiers. After the war, she joined the faculty of a school in Kentucky and gave large portions of her income to missions through the Southern Baptist Convention. She taught in Georgia briefly, but in 1872, once the doors were re-opened for unwed women to serve on the mission field, it was only a matter of time before she took her opportunity.

For forty years, she made her home in Tengchow, China, teaching women and girls. But teaching was only her excuse. She wrote:

“Could a Christian woman possibly desire higher honor than to be permitted to go from house to house and tell of a savior to those who have never heard his name? We could not conceive of a life which would more thoroughly satisfy the mind and heart of a true follower of the Lord Jesus.”

Her gift was teaching. Her passion was evangelism — one-on-one, direct personal evangelism. She wrote letters — so many letters — to the president of what was then called the Foreign Mission Board (now the IMB) describing the life of a missionary in a foreign field, detailing the need for more workers, more teachers, more missionaries for the Gospel effort. But the board struggled with funding.

So Lottie took to her pen and wrote to encourage Southern Baptist women to organize mission societies in local churches to help support missionaries. It was her recommendation in 1887 that Christmas be designated as a special time for giving to the foreign missions effort.

“Need it be said, why the week before Christmas is chosen? Is not the festive season when families and friends exchange gifts in memory of The Gift laid on the altar of the world for the redemption of the human race, the most appropriate time to consecrate a portion from abounding riches and scant poverty to send forth the good tidings of great joy into all the earth?”

The founding of the WMU — the Women’s Missionary Union — in 1888 was, in large part, due to Lottie Moon’s influence through her letters. That year, the first Christmas offering for missions was collected and over $3315 was raised — enough to send 3 new missionaries to China.

Her ministry gives us a helpful insight into the missions effort as a whole. She was studied in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin which were all beneficial in her study of the Bible. She was a gifted linguist in both Spanish and French, which were not necessarily helpful in her learning Chinese, but were beneficial in that she knew how to learn a language. And so, it’s unsurprising that she developed a keen command of the Chinese language that other missionaries and workers on the mission field envied. She become almost obsessed with honoring Chinese customs insofar as they were compatible with Christianity. She understood that the Gospel itself is an offense to the unbelieving. She did not need to be offensive in the manner in which she lived or behaved in their presence. And so she took on a posture of humility.

Along similar lines, she learned to live among the Chinese as the Chinese did. No doubt she had grown up accustomed to a particular way of life in the Virginia plantations, but she disciplined herself in such a way as to survive in primitive conditions among the lower-classes in China. She learned how to keep her composure under threats and confrontations and false accusations.

She exercised regularly in order keep her body strong. She ate a clean and balanced diet. She advocated that missionaries take regular furloughs to prevent burnout or premature death due to ill health and poor conditions and so extend their time on the mission field. The place she served in that particular part of China was known as a killing place. Numbers of missionaries suffered ill health and were taken home or died on the field.

Toward the end of her life, as she gained more influence among other missionaries in China, Lottie Moon cared for many of the missionaries and villagers who struggled out of her own personal expenses. It was a time of war and famine. She never carried much weight on her 4’3” frame, but in 1912, it was discovered that she was silently starving to death and weighed as little as 50 lbs., going without food in order to make sure others had enough. Fellow missionaries arranged for her to be sent home for medical care, but on December 24, 1912 she died in a Japanese harbor.

Had Lottie Moon sought to make a name for herself, she was well-equipped for the task. But her name is remembered specifically because she didn’t seek fame, but instead she was single-minded in one pursuit: “to tell of a savior to those who have never heard his name.”

This echoes the words of Isaiah 26, don’t they?

Yes, Lord, we wait for you in the path of your judgments. Our desire is for your name and renown (Isaiah 26:8, CSB).

More than fortune or fame, our aim and desire is for his name to be on our lips and etched on the hearts of those who have not heard. Whether your neighbors know the name of your church matters little. One hundred years from now, the only thing that matters is where they stand with Jesus. Do they know his name?

I could not offer you a better reason to give to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. Every penny of every dollar goes directly to the missionaries on the field. One hundred percent of your gift supports men and women who are living in foreign lands declaring the name of Jesus — the only name by which we can be saved — to those who have not heard. What did the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering accomplish last year?

Last year (in the midst of COVID!, mind you), Southern Baptist churches cooperated together and, through their generous giving:

  • sent 422 new missionaries to the field,
  • planted 18,380 new churches,
  • led 144,322 people to salvation in Christ,
  • baptized 86,587 new believers,
  • and shared the Gospel with 769,494 people.

So I want to encourage you to participate this year in the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Pray about it. Ask the Lord what he would lead you to give for the sake of the Gospel in places where the name of Jesus Christ is not known.

In light of Lottie Moon’s life, I want to encourage you to participate in the missions effort in your local church. There are men and women and children in the neighborhoods around your church and around your home who do not know Jesus Christ as their Savior. As one of our church members shared with me just a few weeks ago, she told a boy she was going to church and his response was, “What is church?” Yes there is work to be done abroad, but there is work to be done here. That’s why I want to encourage you to continue returning the tithe and investing in the ministries of your local church, but also to be talking to your neighbors, your co-workers, your classmates, and anyone else you come into contact with. Explaining the difference that Jesus has made in your life should come as naturally as your next breath.

I used to think that talking about Jesus would come across as weird. As it turns out, it only came across as weird when I was being weird about it. It should be natural. And it will come more naturally if you’ll just speak freely about him. We find no difficulty speaking about our children or our pets or our favorite sports teams. Our words reveal our affections and our hearts. So speak of Jesus. It’s Christmas. His name is literally in the word. It’s all about Jesus!

Don’t shy away from telling others about the child in the manger. He is the Second Person of the Eternal Triune Godhead. He is the active agent of all creation — the one by whom and for whom all things were created — the one in whom all things are held together. And apart from him not one thing has been made that was made. He added humanity to himself and wrapped himself in flesh and was born, not as the king, but as the child of a young couple for whom there was no room in the inn. He would live a sinless life and die at the hands of sinful men. But in his death, he took the penalty of our sin and nailed it to the cross. He died, but on the third day rose again and ascended to the right hand of the Father. And there he intercedes on behalf of his children and invites every single person to experience forgiveness, redemption, and salvation through faith in him.

The Critical Difference between Error and Heresy

Cold, clammy, and shaking, my hands revealed more about my nerves than my face let on.  Sitting in a small room at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, surrounded by bright young minds and the brilliant but piercing gaze of my PhD supervisor, I presented my first exegetical paper in a seminar on the Trinity.

Yes, we had to read our papers aloud.

In my paper, I sought to exegete 1 Corinthians 13:14, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” The task was to theologically reflect on the Trinity from our paper. I had the pleasure of flaunting my erudition second.

The student presenting first was brilliant. My supervisor, the leader of our discussion, praised him highly, calling the paper insightful and practically flawless. I remember his short phrase, “I find no error in it.”

So while I was anxious, I too craved ‘wow-ing’ our teacher. I read my paper confidently, sat down triumphantly, and waited for the approval, exultation, and adoration to follow.

It didn’t.

The student who presented his paper on the Trinity before me spoke first, exclaiming flatly, “that’s heresy.”

Silence hung in the air and the teacher did not speak.

I had expounded both the unity and the uniqueness of the three persons of the Trinity. One sentence became my noose. I had noted that each person of the Trinity had their own unique personality. Three persons means three personalities—this is a no-brainer folks (or so I thought)! Having a flare for poetry and illustration, I even likened my ‘three personalities’ conclusion to fashion designers on the runway. The question “who is she wearing” can be answered by seeing the hand of the artist on the dress. It was a perfectly lovely, albeit heretical, illustration (if I do say so myself).

The student who decried me for a heretic (my supposed ‘friend’ turned Judas) was asked to explain his denouncement.  He did so ably. I was then asked to respond to his objection, but I was still in a bit of shock. My best reply went something like, “nuh-uh.” I made some feeble attempt at explaining how my first paragraphs on unity permit me some leeway to conclude three personalities. The apology failed.

The teacher, after a long silence, spoke to my accuser, “He isn’t a heretic.”

HA! I knew my supervisor had my back. He will vindicate me, or so I thought. With his words, my victory was sure to be won!

“He is not a heretic, yet,” he added. The hush in the room nearly crushed my spirit.

He then explained the difference between error and heresy. Error, he explained, is when a brother in Christ speaks something contrary to the Word of God but is willing to receive correction. Heresy is persisting in that error, even when the church has lovingly corrected him. “So,” the professor looked at me and paused, “do you recant of your error?”

He didn’t let me answer. The lesson had been learned. Instead, he picked out some gracious elements in my work, encouraged me, then allowed me to change my conclusion. He spoke the truth in love.

This story came to my mind after attending the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) last week. A question was raised from the convention floor as to the president elect, Ed Litton’s theology. Particular reference was made to Litton’s church website, wherein the persons of the Trinity were described as “parts” of the Trinity. The term ‘parts’, like personalities, implies a separate and distinct entity within the Trinity; in brief, it destroys the simplicity, the oneness, of God. The term “parts” could be understood as the heresy of modalism or even tri-theism.

The implication was that President-elect Ed Litton was heretical. The question of Ed Litton’s heresy was addressed to Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, during his seminary report. If anyone in the SBC is Heresy-Finder General, it must be Dr. Mohler. Long-recognized as one of the best scholars in the SBC, surely he was able detect and root out the heretics in our convention!

This was Dr. Mohler’s chance to tear down a “political rival”—to declare Litton a modalist or tri-theist, win the room, get a recall on the election, and maybe just maybe even win the presidency!

Cry heresy and let slip the dogs of war, Dr. Mohler!

But Dr. Mohler’s response was gracious. Kind even!

Dare I say, Christlike.

He calmly assured the messengers of the SBC that Litton holds to an orthodox view of the Trinity. Noting that he could not speak for Litton directly, he emphasized Litton’s fidelity to Christ and the cross. Litton’s response at the microphone was just as gracious and humble, praising Mohler for his service and love of Christ.

Some saw this brotherly love as a sign of deflection. Why not answer the heresy witch-finders directly? Others noted that shortly after his election, the statement on Litton’s church was edited. Critics of Litton cried, “Cover up!”

Can a person be a heretic who, after receiving correction from his brothers and sisters, removes his error?

It shows a great integrity for a man who stands accused to love in return.

I learned from my time in the PhD program at Southwestern Baptist Theological  Seminary that reactionary cries of heresy often overlook the heart of the accused. Worse, when these slanderous cries come out of jealousy, envy, or love of discord, they slander the name of Christ.

Error is the more loving term.

Error is the word we use to lovingly-correct a brother, not heresy.

There are many hopeful things to be drawn from this year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville. But one of the most concerning things about the SBC right now is that a lot of folks are looking for blood in the water. They want to see error as chum—sufficient justification to snarl, snatch, and swallow their brothers and sisters whole.

The highly-polemical and emotional outrage that is used by members of the SBC on Twitter and other social media channels is abhorrent. None are given the benefit of love. None are granted a generous interpretation.

Highly-critical eyes and toxic lips reveal a heart of bitterness.

Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
Luke 6:45 (ESV)

If one discovers a brother or sister in error theologically, don’t ring the heresy bell. Perhaps, Chicken Little, heresy isn’t falling from the sky. Maybe another more loving explanation exists.

Error should be given a chance to correct itself.

The serpent of old speaks in truth or love, but never does he do both. In Genesis 3, Satan is not lying when he says “you will not surely die,” but he wasn’t speaking out of love for Eve either.

Rather than witch-hunting Ed Litton for every mistake and error he has ever made in his career, may I suggest that we rally behind him in prayer? That we see his heart for evangelism and missions and join behind him? Maybe then we can stop being Great Critical Baptists and catch the vision of the Great Commission Baptists set before us.

I appeal to you then, in this one way: let the measure that you use to speak about any brother or sister, be measured unto you.

Meditating on death: a memorial for 2020

I could come to terms with loss,
if good-bye only meant see you next summer;
if the cold sting of death’s winter was blunted by whispers of spring’s tiding.
But this past year heaps snow upon snow, loss upon loss;
I feel like it is always winter and never Christmas.

On April 11 we held a large memorial service for all of the members of Summerville First Baptist who lost a loved one this past year.

So, I find myself still musing over death: the impact, the loss, the sorrow of never seeing precious loved ones again.

What bothers me is the finality of it all: the final haircut, final meal, final Christmas together. Worse still, the final Easter. Drumming up a grateful chorus when death marches down the isle is difficult. The hope of an unseen resurrection feels paralyzed by death’s never ending refrains: never again a father’s good morning, never again grandmother’s how are you, never again a brother’s familiar smile, never again a mother’s loving voice.

I find each funeral makes me meditate on my own death as well. With over two dozen funerals, a year long convalescence from viral pneumonia, and the family dog getting hit by a car, thoughts of death creep through my house at night and wake me up early morning.

Here is how my 3am musings play out: Verus (9mo), my son, will likely be a grandfather one day, but I will never be around to see it. The future generations of my family, infants whom I would love so dearly, care for so powerfully, regard so highly, will not know me. The grave swallows up my love so entirely that my great grand children will only wonder, ‘who was he,’ if they care to ponder at all.

And my thoughts threaten to swamp me certain days of the year. I wake up every year on January 28th realizing I don’t share a birthday with my great grandfather any longer. Two and a half decades flew away without him; now only two or three people even remember the connection.

Only one of my grandparents knows I got married; only one knows and cares that I was born. My father’s father never saw the man I’d become, because he never even knew I was born; 40s-something is far too short a time to see saplings grow into fruit bearing trees.

Amidst these thoughts, I read a tweet from one of my highly regarded mentors that simply says, “love never ends.” Out of the wells of my grief, sarcasm threatens to reply, “what a beautiful sentiment for romantics.” I want to scream at him, of course love ends! Almost every week from April to December, I buried love in a box under six feet of dust and ashes.

Then another person tries to comfort me by saying, “they live on in your memory.” I ache for the hale stalwart strength of my grandfather’s hands embracing me, not the reanimated Frankenstein of my ever decaying memory. I yearn to hear voices at the door, not echoes in the dark! “They live on in your memory” offers so minuscule a comfort, I’d rather it not be said at all.

I know the comforting words the Bible gives us. And most days I can jump right to the page of Romans 8 and declare, “death cannot separate me from the love that is mine in Christ Jesus.” There are just some days that if I jump too quickly to this chapter, I find it lacks some potency.

There are days I just need to weep bitterly, days when triumphalism resounds on deaf ears.

Thankfully the book of Lamentations validates those days.

“How lonely sits the city that was full of people!” Lamentations 1:1.

Yes! That hits the nail on the head. I see children playing outside on my way back from burying someone’s father and say, “is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.” Doesn’t anyone understand that today isn’t normal! Everyone goes about like its a normal day. It isn’t a normal day. Normal was when all the picnic tables at the family reunion were full.

I don’t always think about loss, death, and sorrow. But something always snaps me out of the haze of that dream. “Remember my affliction my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me,” I lament to God.

Lamentations teaches me that I cannot skip the lessons learned in the valley of the shadow of death. That “it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”

When I wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord, the keenness of cross of Jesus Christ cuts through my sorrow. Then the cross is not nice sentiment, not merely a symbol, a piece of artwork, a fabricated necklace. The cross of Jesus must mean the Son of God’s humiliation unto and sorrowful identification with death. Isaiah’s verse, “He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” speaks to me.

Then I read, “Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust– there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his stead fast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.”

Death hunts me like a bird of prey. Sorrow flings me alive into a pit. Despair like water closes in over my head. But God does not willingly afflict or grieve me without purpose. God did not wound the Son without purpose either. The cross, the cross of Christ, is where God answers the cries of human sorrow. He replies to me, “it is finished.”

Yes, the triumphant picture of Jesus the Lion of Judah help me avoid despair. But the slain lamb, the crucified God, the resurrected Jesus, I identify with these days. Him I hear say, “behold, I make all things new. Write this down for these words are trustworthy and true. It is done! To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”

When I read these words I realize just how thirsty my tears make me. Through anguish I realize something I didn’t before. I thought the desires of my heart longed for my loved ones to return back in this life. I was wrong. I do not want them to come home to suffering, decay, and a second death. No. I want the new earth. I want my tears stored in forgotten bottles, relics of an ancient past age. I want all things new! I want the resurrections, the love that never ends.

The cross of Christ crucified death. His resurrection promises new birth. Yes, that is what the miseries of my heart desire, all things new. Jesus alone suffices to give me hope.

In the bleak mid winter
frost wind made moan
earth stood hard as iron
water like a stone

Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow
in the bleak mid winter
long, long ago

Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign

In the bleak mid winter
a stable place sufficed
the Lord, God, Almighty
Jesus Christ

Sinning in the Name of Christ: Ravi Zacharias, Paul Tillich, and the Skeletons under the Altar

Christian Apologist Ravi Zacharias (1946–2020) and Liberal Theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965) share several things in common:

  • Both men were considered premier Christian apologists.
  • Both men rose to fame later in life.
  • And both men used a superior position to prey upon women.

Allegations against Zacharias first came to public attention in 2017, when Lori Anne Thompson claimed Zacharias pursued her for phone sex and sexuality explicit photos. RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries) countersued Thompson for defamation of character. Zacharias wrote to Christianity Today defending himself stating, “in my 45 years of marriage to Margie, I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior of any kind. I love my wife with all my heart . . . and have exercised extreme caution in my daily life and travels, as everyone who knows me is aware.” Zacharias attempted to shame Thompson by noting her attack on a sick man battling cancer.

Evidence for Ravi Zacharias’s abuse came as a shock to many in the past year, when RZIM (once considered the largest apologetic ministry in the world) launched a full-scale investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct of its founder in February 2020. RZIM published a twelve-page report revealing that Ravi Zacharias had received sexual favors from over 200 massage therapists, that he kept several hundred nude photos of women on his phones, and that he had received sexual photos, texts of a sexual nature, and sexual favors up until a few months before his death.

Perhaps the most astounding part of this investigation is the extent to which RZIM and Zacharias went to coverup and rationalize his own sin. In 2018, one woman reported to Christianity Today that he “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received.” Multiple victims reported that he called them his “‘reward’ for living a life of service to God.”

As of February 2021, RZIM CEO Sarah Davis (Ravi Zacharias’s daughter) said that RZIM would be severing ties with Ravi Zacharias and his writings and would reconsider the abusive structures which led RZIM to cover up Zacharias’s sin. Davis notes that RZIM will no longer continue to be a ministry of apologetics, stating, “RZIM cannot and should not continue to operate as an organization in its present form. Nor do we believe we can only rename the organization and move forward with ‘business as usual.'”

Davis’s canceling Zacharias’s works is similar to Paul Tillich’s own existential dread; Paul Tillich feared that if the sexual exploits of his private life were ever uncovered, his works would no longer be read.

In order to preempt any future ‘discovery’ of his sin by the public, Tillich blessed Wilhelm and Marion Pauck to write his biography and to tell the truth of his life. Just prior to his own death, Tillich expressed to Pauck his gratitude, “I am in safe hands.”

Pauck’s Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought published much of the private life of Paul Tillich posthumously. The book reads like a ‘tell-all’ of Tillich’s personal sin: plagiarism, a love triangle, divorce, his second marriage (an open relationship), and preying on his female students. Speaking of Tillich’s ‘unconventional’ sexual ethic toward women, Pauck writes, “he openly admired women—all women. It made no difference whether it was a waitress in a French restaurant or a student in the classroom, the wife of a colleague, or a sophisticated worldling who conducted a salon.” Pauck concludes, “[Tillich] urged them to remain open, even as he was, to the infinite experiences of life.”

The details of Tillich’s second marriage are grim. Already engaged when they met, Tillich’s future second wife, Hannah Werner, was ten years his junior. Tillich attempted convinced Werner to leave her fiancé and become romantically involved with him. Since Tillich was still married (his divorce not yet finalized), Werner rejected Tillich’s advancements and married her then fiancé. She continued a secret romantic entanglement with Tillich into marriage. But Tillich wasn’t satisfied as Werner’s cuckold; he pursued Werner even after the birth of her first child. Tillich’s advances charmed her. After giving birth, Werner abandoned her husband and child for Tillich, leaving her infant in a nursing home. Pauck reports that the child died from neglect shortly after.

As Tillich’s close friend and confidant Pauck concludes, “Tillich entered each friendship with a special anxiety of which he was never altogether free. Those who knew of his fatal weakness [speaking of his serial adultery], accepted him as he was. . . . His overriding fear was that his story might one day be made public and bring ruin upon his work, if it were misrepresented and misunderstood. . . . He sought to assuage his feelings of guilt by a rule which he developed over the years: it did not matter so much what happened between two people so long as agape was not absent from the relationship.” Unlike Zacharias, Tillich didn’t want his leave his sin to be uncovered by an investigative report.

Since they both leveraged their fame and authority to exploit women, what are we to make of these premier Christian apologists? I offer two thoughts on the matter.

First, there is one seminal difference between Zacharias and Tillich. Zacharias openly condemned sexual exploitation as sinful. Paul Tillich never viewed preying on female students as wrong, just ‘unconventional.’ While Zacharias’s approach to his own sin is hypocritical, his message remains true: sin is wrong and salvation is found in Christ alone. RZIM recognizes this by setting up call centers for Zacharias’s victims.

The same cannot be said for Paul Tillich. Although one might find it admirable that Tillich sought transparency (albeit posthumously), their is no measure of repentance in his legacy. Tillich’s biographers, the keepers of his secret sins, conclude that he was a “genius of friendship” and a “premier theologian.” They dismiss Tillich’s plagiarism, predatory practices, and familial neglect as the burden of his genius. “He clung to his new way of life, for he had convinced himself that his work suffered when he was deprived of the experience of the erotic.” Paul Tillich’s approach to ethics undermined his own teaching—his ethic enslaved his conscience to the anxiety of exposure, but never moved him to repent or express such behavior as wrong.

Second, both men sinned in the name of Christ. Both men committed blasphemy. Blasphemy is a horrendous sin because of its vertical and horizontal impact on the kingdom of God. Vertically it ascribes sin to the Divine. When the life of a Christian leader blasphemes the name of God, they lie about the character of God. But the One God who is Father of all women does not offer his daughters as tribute to glorified predators. Horizontally it defames the name of God across the world. Blasphemy impedes men and women from coming to the cross as they view its power on the Christian renowned as ineffective at best and perverse at worst.

How ought we respond?

The common clay from which all men are formed unites us to Tillich and Zacharias. “So, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor 10:12–13a). The sins of Tillich and Zacharias are monstrous but not exceptional. Everyone who takes up the mantle of Christian apologist, theologian, pastor, or leader, must observe more carefully not only what they teach but how they live. The Bible expresses the call of every Christian to “be holy as God is holy” (1 Pet 1:16).

A (Very) Short Defense of Close Communion for Baptist Churches

For churches that have adopted the Baptist Faith and Message as their confessional document or statement of faith, there is a simple defense of close communion — the practice of restricting access to the Lord’s Table to those who have been baptized in accordance with Scripture.

Article VII reads as follows:

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.

So, the defense consists simply of two lines from article VII.

  • Baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  • It is a prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.

That’s it.

For clarification, these same sentiments are expressed in the initial 1925 edition and the 1963 revision.

Now, some may object that our shared confession does not bear the authority of divine Scripture and they would be absolutely correct in that assertion. In fact, the preamble of the confession itself states it most clearly: “the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.”

Nevertheless, this confession represents the consensus of Southern Baptists as adopted in 1925, 1963, and 2000. This reality, at the very least, means that Baptists need to take its conclusions seriously and that those holding views contrary to those expressed therein must acknowledge their own views as outside of those most commonly held.

Author’s Note: I have offered a more fully-orbed defense in four parts here.

Ministry in the Dark Winter

It’s common knowledge that the holidays are an especially-sensitive time. As we approach late-November, families wrestle with increased stress and anxiety. Money gets tight. The schedule gets full. The days grow darker and the nights grow longer. For many, the holidays aren’t the most wonderful time of year. Instead, they’re a time of increased stress, anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

And that’s true in years without a global pandemic and stay-at-home orders.

And the very fact that we’re supposed to feel joyous and celebrate, for many, creates an increased dissonance—they feel more stress about feeling stressed, and depressed about feeling depressed. The cycle is as relentless as it is vicious.

In recent conversations and in my own experience, it seems somewhere between 35–40% of congregations are still worshipping at home in order to minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Which begs the question:

What are you doing to help them navigate the dark hours of 2020?

How are you ministering to them?

How are you serving them?

How are you protecting them from the encroaching sense of loneliness and despair?

This week, I sent an email to those families that we’ve identified who are worshipping remotely at home and have not yet returned to on-campus worship services. The email was a simple invitation to let us know if they’d like to schedule a time to speak with me via Zoom or the phone. From a pastoral perspective, I want to take the initiative to reach out to those most susceptible to depression.

Here’s the text of the email. If you would find it helpful in your church, please feel free to copy and edit it for your church’s use.

GUEST POST: Preparing for Ministry in a Post-Truth World, Part Two

Having clarified what a post-truth society looks like and addressed some of the particular challenges inherent therein, we must turn our eyes to practical engagement with it.

Prepare for a long-haul

Stamina, energy, and strength are required for ministry in any environment; this doesn’t change when serving in a post-truth culture. At times, the challenges will be similar, but in many (perhaps most cases) very different. In order for one to prevail and endure the discouragements, depressions, difficulties, and desperate situations the strength required must be other-worldly.

Be strong in the Lord and the strength of his might. (Eph 6:10)

Sometimes you will feel as though you have reached the end of your tether.

Having done all, stand firm. (Eph 6:13b)

Ministry was never meant to be a beach on which to sleepily sun yourself; it’s a battleground on which to sacrificially spend yourself. With that in mind, if in or preparing for ministry in a post-truth society, be prepared for long-term investment. Some principles to have in mind:

  • People lack trust, so you must build trust and show yourself trustworthy.
  • People lack truth, so you must expose lies and exhibit truth in word and action.
  • People lack time (or think they do) so you must be flexible with yours for them.

If you desire to see work accomplished in a post-truth environment you must be prepared for an at times uncomfortable long haul experience. Think ultra-obstacle course run as opposed to 100-meter dash.

You will trust people as you desire to be trusted and will have that trust betrayed and brutalised. You will do all you can to expose lies with love and compassion and live out truth only to be rejected or ignored. Other people’s time is precious (how all that time is spent in any meaningful way is questionable), but your time will always be considered as up for grabs. Though you will set boundaries, there will be occasions that you have to suspend those boundaries. You will be used and abused at times, but at the end it will all be worth it.


If you are church planting in a post-truth environment, do not assume anyone you are reaching initially understands—much less accepts—basic Bible beliefs and behaviours. For some, the Bible hasn’t even appeared on their radar.

Assuming Bible knowledge of even the most basic sort in a post truth environment would be like someone assuming Bhagavad Gita knowledge in rural Arkansas (the place of my childhood). Such assumption would be rather foolish and probably fruitless. Unlike Bhagavad Gita devotees, Bible believers—Christ followers—have the responsibility to make the Bible’s truth claims known while calling people to actively trust the same truth claims with their lives.

By how does one go about this?

By preaching.

Paul reasons in his letter to the Romans:

And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher? (Rom 10:14)

The message of salvation at the heart of preaching must always be the same and consider that which is of primary importance. Paul reminded the Corinth church of this primary message:

For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3–4)

As people come to faith and as they grow in the faith, then other matters can be addressed and more difficult passages and Biblical concepts expounded. This gradual process is at the heart of disciple making—where a person grows from learning the truth to believing the truth to following the truth to teaching the truth themselves (Heb 5:12).

It being clear that preaching is the means and the exclusive Gospel of Christ is the message it should be specified that preaching should not be approached using the same method in every instance. “Cookie-cutter” preaching, wherin you go to post-truth unbelievers in the same way you would cultural Christians or along the lines of giving a conference sermon, can certainly be used by God to show his strength through our weakness, but generally wouldn’t be considered wise or helpful. Make sure the message is simple, clear, and prepared with prayer and people in mind.

Chip away at underlying post-truth presuppositions

Preaching is not always accomplished in the pulpit. Conversations are a particularly effective way of discipleship and gospel communication. They provide a useful outlet to chip away at false ideas and attempt to lead people to see what is good, right, and true.

One feature of post-truth culture is how it champions diversity and inclusivity—often at the cost of moral and intellectual objectivity. With emotions and feelings overriding anything objectively true, religious pluralism—the belief that all religious beliefs and traditions are equally true and valid—is embraced, at least verbally. Any claim to absolute, exclusive truth is seen as bigoted, prejudiced, intolerant. In some cases, attempts will be made to shut down dialogue and discussion.

Doubtless, Jesus’s claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” is a claim to absolute, exclusive, objective truth, and does not sit well with a post-truth society. The best response is not to shrink back and offer border-line apologetic qualifiers or to attempt to steam-roll over others with the validity of Christ’s claim but graciously and clearly to attempt to reason and win over the individual or individuals being addressed.

For example, when dealing with the pluralism espoused by post-truth ideology one can highlight that:

  1. Post-truth pluralism is ideologically inconsistent. Pluralism proclaims tolerance and acceptance but cannot leave those who differ and uphold absolute truth alone, showing intolerance and hate.
  2. Post-truth pluralism is logically impossible. Truth does exist and must be absolute. It must be or society could not function. It must be or there would be no basis for morality. If truth exists, so does falsehood. There are different stories that claim to be true accounts of man’s creation, presenting different ideas concerning the purpose of mankind, the nature of mankind’s problems, and where to find help and hope. While there may be some common ground between these ideas, logically opposites cannot be considered the same. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all say different things about Jesus. They cannot all be correct.
  3. Post-truth’s pluralism is theologically incongruent. Hinduism believes in many gods. Buddhism believes there is no personal god and life itself is illusory. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all believe in one God. Judaism says Jesus is not the Christ. Islam says Jesus was only a prophet and one who certainly did not die on the cross. Christianity says Jesus is God made flesh who had to live and die to be resurrected so that we could be made right with God. These differing views are not equally rooted in historical, credible fact and, as such, cannot be equally true. The differing claims are completely incompatible. Like oil and water, these cannot coexist as one.

Chipping away successfully at these post-truth presuppositions occurs best in the course of organic person-to-person conversation (dialogue, not monologue!). Such conversation will usefully

  • Show a healthy toleration of other religions as consisting of adherents made in God’s image, seeking to find their way towards God.
  • Acknowledge elements of truth in other religions, while clearly and unequivocally indicating areas of difference.
  • Be honest about Christ’s teaching as the one and only way to rightness with God.
  • Be unapologetic in showing and proving how Christ and His way is better than anything else this world has to offer.

In the next post in this series, I will offer some practical issues pertaining to church planting in such a context.

When Things Don’t Go According to Plan: Attendance

I can remember my first six months as a student pastor so clearly. It was my first full-time staff position at a church. I was ready to do the hard work of ministry and see God move in powerful ways, or so I thought. One month in, we had thirty students in Sunday school. To my knowledge, that was the largest number of students our church had seen on a Sunday in a long time. We could not be more excited. But that was all about to change. Within a few months, our attendance slumped to 12–15 students, with several students completely walking away from church altogether. I spent some of the darkest days of that season wondering how this could happen or if something was wrong with me.

The reality is that every pastor will experience attendance decreases and struggles at some point. Healthy churches will grow in the long run, but seasons of plateau and decline are a natural part of life. Furthermore, many young pastors are tasked with revitalizing unhealthy churches, where attendance growth is even harder to find. Instead of panicking over low attendance, here are six steps pastors can take to address low attendance numbers.

1. Don’t Make Attendance your Identity

Too often, pastors react to lower attendance by blaming the man in the mirror. We make attendance a part of our identity as a servant of the Gospel. When numbers are down, we assume that we failed or even doubt our calling as ministers. What’s worse, we may even blame others around us for creating the problem. Some pastors may experience depression because they question their own worth. We can only step back and address the real problems when we understand our identity as unconditionally loved, and called by God.

2. Pray for a Movement of God

The church has never experienced a movement of God without prayer. The first disciples spent weeks in prayer before Pentecost. The modern missions movement hinged on the earnest prayers of men like William Carey, Andrew Fuller, and those five students at the Haystack Prayer Meeting. Pastor, pray for a movement of God in your church! In my own ministry, I saw a major change when I decided to dedicate the last thirty to forty minutes of my Wednesday to prayer walk our youth room, begging God to change our students. If we will humble ourselves and pray, God is faithful to respond.

3. Count the Numbers (All of them!)

Pastors in SBC life normally care about three numbers: Sunday school attendance, worship attendance, and baptisms. Those numbers are surely important, but they cannot explain where the problems start. Pastors need to track all of the numbers. How many visitors did the church have in the past year? How many were assimilated into membership? How many people made professions of faith? How many actually followed through in baptism? What are the church’s age demographics? Does your church have a way to track gospel conversations or discipleship focused relationships? What is the frequency of individual attendance? All of these questions will give you a more nuanced picture of what’s going on.

4. Evaluate Where the Problem Starts

At HBC, every ministry has a written discipleship path. The idea is to create a picture of what it looks like for an unchurched, unsaved individual to turn into a faithful, multiplying, Jesus-loving disciple. When you have tracked all of the numbers, you can see where you are falling short on the discipleship path. It may be that your church is not doing evangelism well. It may be that you have a lot of unchurched or newly saved attendees, but you are not discipling well. Those are two vastly different problems. Know where your church’s struggles start. Otherwise, you will continue to stick a square peg in a round hole.

5. Focus on the People in the Room

Now that you have looked at all the numbers and have a good idea on where the problems start, it’s time to focus on the people in the room. Programs will not change a church. The Senior Pastor, by himself, is not enough to change his church. The people in the room create the movement. Pastors who shepherd their people well can lead change effectively. The people trust him because he has been there in their struggles. On the other hand, a congregation can tell when they are not good enough for their pastor. They will not follow him if they think he is only interested in building his kingdom, instead of God’s.

6. Equip Your Leaders to Help

A huge part of focusing on the people in the room is identifying and equipping leaders. When pastors spend time to specifically equip leaders, they will multiply their influence and increase their bandwidth to do more ministry. That means taking leaders through steps 3 and 4. Every leader in the student and college ministries at HBC knows our discipleship path. They also know where every student is on that path. We meet regularly to discuss how we can help students take the next step on the path. Leaders who know the what, why, and how of ministry will help the pastor implement effective change.

Pastors, you can implement effective change, even in your darkest days. Get rid of your insecurities and place your identity in Christ. Pray earnestly for his movement. Examine and evaluate every number and every aspect of your church’s ministries. Do the difficult part of ministry: shepherd the people in the room and equip your leaders to lead. Then rest and leave the results to God.

When Events Don’t Go According to Plan

We’ve all been there. Your ministry team worked hard to put an event together. You prayed it through and knew that God would bless it. You dreamed about how many would come to know Jesus and join the church through the event. But when the time came, the event flopped. No one from the event connected to the church. No one from the event showed up the following Sunday. The event did not go according to plan.

Honestly, You Shouldn’t Be Surprised

  1. Big Event Capture Rate is Very Low
  2. The number of people that will connect to your church from a large community event is very low. In fact, the capture rate of visitors is so low that for our church, the metric of success at big events has been changed to the community’s perception of who the church is.

    In the past, churches could put on events and people would just come to them because that was the only social event going on. Now, church events are just another of many social events going on in the community. As the competition among social events has increased in the community, many churches have opted out of doing events at all. The church’s lack of involvement in the community, then, has led the community to believe that the church is out of touch and/or dying. Thus the church becomes a place where grandparents go and people who are busy and social only go when they are invited or a really fantastic event is going on.

    I say all this because big events are better for marketing to the community than connecting people to the church. Because the community has the perception that the church is dying, the church needs to change its perception in the community. Therefore measure the success of your events by the way in which it ministered to the community and who was ministered to, instead of thinking about how many people will connect to the church because of this event.

    Questions to ask after a big event:
    How will my community think about our church differently because of this event?
    How will family ______ think of our church differently?
    Will these people be more inclined to give our church a try because of this?

  3. Invites Must Be Personal
  4. You did all the things the marketing program told you to do to be a success. You sent an email, you sent a postcard mailer, and you sent a fancy text with a graphic. But none of it worked.

    Let me share with you a little secret. Those methods have very low capture rates and are way too general for the church. Think about it for a second. Those are widely used in the secular marketplace. Most of your people get the same treatment from their dentist who they see every six months. So don’t get surprised when you see the same results with the same tactics. In truth, the recipient probably saw all of those efforts as spam and junk mail.

    I say all this because invites must be personal. People are bombarded with general information about everything and they have learned to tune it all out. Churches must learn how to invite people. This means, calling them, texting them as a person, visiting them, and ultimately letting them know that you personally care if they are there.

    Questions to ask about your big event marketing:
    How would you react to your church’s marketing?
    How would you feel if someone personally invited you to the event?
    What would you want a church to do to invite you to church?

  5. Event Competition is Fierce
  6. Let’s face it, this is a fast-paced society and everyone is going fast. There are a ton of things happening at school, with sports, with friends and other stuff. Maybe the reason your event did not go according to plan was that some other event was going on and the people chose that event over your event. This should not surprise us. People are consumers and they want the best product. If the church’s choir cantata is on the same night as the school’s big student presentation, no one is showing up at the church. This should not surprise us.

    Questions to ask about your big event’s schedule:
    Are there any other events going on in the community?
    Is this event drawing a non-churched crowd?
    Is this event better than staying home and watching the TV?

What Do You Do Now?

  1. Don’t Get Down
  2. Just this past week I was talking to another pastor about their recent event and how it did not go to plan. He was really discouraged about it. When an event does not go according to plan it is taxing on a pastor. Pastors wonder how it will be perceived among the church members. They wonder what it will cost them in leadership influence. He will even wonder if their volunteers are discouraged. When things don’t go according to plan, the effects can last longer than just the event and pastors know it. Pastor, you also need to know that your people will know if you are down about it.

    Find the silver lining and focus on that. Did you minister to the community? Yes! Awesome! Did you minister love others as Jesus commanded? Yes! Awesome! Did you set the example of service to your church body? Yes! Awesome! Did people have a great time? Yes! Awesome! Did you get to know some people that you can reach out to in the future? Yes! Awesome! Pastor, don’t allow yourself to get down about the event not going according to your plan. Know that God has a plan and He is seeing you through it.

  3. Encourage Your People
  4. Let’s face it, your team put in a great effort. Congratulate them on that! For some of your people that may have been the first time that they have served and it may have required a faith step for them. For others, they may have served outside of their normal comfort zone. For all, the event was an opportunity to serve like Jesus calls them to. Therefore, encourage your people! Send out handwritten thank you cards for their efforts. Get gift cards for the key volunteers. Put on a luncheon to thank them. Pastor, encourage your people for stepping out and serving.

  5. Get Personal with Visitors
  6. Follow up requires conversations. People want a pastor who knows them and their family, not a person that puts more events on their calendar. You want people to connect with your church body, you must connect with them. So think back to the event; Who did you talk with and connect with? Who can you connect with now over coffee? Start small and grow. Who are the top 5 or 10 families you could really connect with? Pastor, get to know some new people.