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.

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).

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.

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.

Let’s Get Back To Church!

After the initial freak out over the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be scary for a pastor to lead his people back to church. Because there are many opinions and so much information out there, the process of how to get back to church is not clear.

While every church is different, I believe we have put together a solid strategy to bring our people back to church. We are going to get back to the church in three phases that will coincide with our government’s plans to open the state. Thus, we will move between phases as information becomes available, and the situation is deemed safe.

I provide this to you as a resource to customize for your church. I know this time is difficult for many pastors, and I know that this time is vital for pastors to lead well in wisdom and faith. So, make this resource right for your context and let’s get back to the church!

Let’s Talk about Planning Events for the New Year

As the calendar year or the church year draws to a close, every minister is faced with the question in the next year: What are we going to do? This is a question that very well may cause anxiety on the part of the minister, but in a church walking through a revitalization process, this may be an especially anxiety-inducing time. Walking through revitalization, church leaders are often forced to balance exciting new initiatives and events with programs from the past. When planning out the church calendar of events in a revitalization context there are three key things to remember: aim, audience, and action.

Aim

As you begin planning your event calendar, begin by considering what the aim of your events is for the year. In most congregations, the aim of events should fit into one of four categories: praying, playing, partnering, and proclaiming. The first two aims, praying and playing, are taken from Eugene Petersen in his book, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. In this text, Petersen writes, “Playing and praying are like the musicians’ art that combines discipline with delight. Music quickens something deep within us. . . . This discipline, while arduous, is not onerous, but is the accepted means for taking us beyond our plodding exterior selves into perceptions and aspirations that stretch us into beauty. And any time we are beyond ourselves, by whatever means, we are closer to God.”

The first aim, praying, should be considered more as a concept than as a task. Events focused on praying are events that are oriented and focused on church members growing in their knowledge of God and his will. These events may be focused times of prayer, times of quiet reflection and fasting, or organized readings and reflections on passages of scripture, but each of them are aimed at knowing, experiencing, and following the Lord.

The second aim, playing, is an aim that has been lost in many churches. With the rise of the church growth movement, churches have often sought to eliminate anything from their schedules that does not directly lead to the achievement of a desired outcome usually centered around a discipleship process. Though I am certainly on board with churches focusing the majority of their time and resources on discipleship, these efforts to bring focus to their ministry processes have forced fellowship and social events off the calendar of many churches. Gone are the days of fellowships, events, and activities focused on the church members growing deeper in their relationships with one another. A church that isn’t connected socially is a church foreign to the New Testament pattern where “all who believed were together and had all things in common…attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:45, 46).

As you plan your event calendar, don’t forget to bring opportunities for fun and fellowship into the church calendar.

The third aim, partnering, often is an outcome of the second aim. As members in your church create personal relationships through playing they often see the need for partnering together in discipleship relationships and the work of the ministry. Titus 2 seems to indicate the type of partnership that is necessary for the life of the Church: older members teaching younger members how to be faithful to the Lord. Many churches aim their events and connecting like age groups together, however it is helpful in the revitalization process to think through how you can encourage intergenerational relationship through events and activities for the sake of discipleship. Events aimed at partnership are events focused on establishing and celebrating discipleship relationships in your congregation.

The fourth aim, proclaiming, are events aimed toward the church living out the Great Commission and taking the Gospel to their Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Many churches going through the revitalization process have lost their focus on reaching anyone, but have especially lost their focus on reaching their own Jerusalem, their community. Events aimed at proclaiming will look different from church to church, but a great way to get started in looking for physical needs in your community where your church can shine a light. Many times, ministry leaders feel they must be the ones to uncover these opportunities, but the members of your church are probably far more in tune with the needs of the community than you are. Ask around, look for areas of need that are clear to your congregation and start there. Though you may be seeking to meet a physical need, be sure your people are prepared to proclaim the truth of the gospel to meet the spiritual need of those they encounter.

Audience

After you have thought through the aim of your event be sure to consider the audience for your event. Is the focus on a certain group of church members, the church as a whole, the community as a whole, or a certain group within the community? How you answer this question will impact how you execute your event. Determining your audience will help you determine a lot of the practical event matters such as time, location, and logistical needs. Thinking through the audience of your event will also help you determine what level of involvement you will have to have in the event as a ministry leader. As ministry leaders, it is easy to feel like every event requires your direct involvement. However, Scripture reminds us that the church is one body with many members and one group with many gifts. The great news is you don’t have to be in charge of everything. However, as a shepherd of the flock, you do have to be sure everyone in your flock is cared for. As you think through the audience for events in your church and your community be sure every audience is receiving proper investment.

Action

As you come to the end of event planning within your congregation you must ask yourself one question: What’s next? Each event in your congregation should lead naturally to something else. Every church event should lead to a specific action step for your congregation or community. For example, if you have an event aimed at prayer and finding God’s purpose schedule a time of testimony for a month following to discuss how people are living out the purpose God is calling them to. If you have a potluck event focused on getting to know other church members, encourage each person present to schedule a dinner or coffee outside of the church with someone they didn’t know previously. If you have an event focused on partnership, plan a start date for people to form discipleship mentoring relationships and groups, encouraging them to meet regularly for a specific amount of time. If you have an event focused on proclaiming the Gospel to your community such as a fall festival or Easter egg hunt, be sure they know the next action step is that they are invited to your church service, and more importantly that they are invited into God’s family through a relationship with Christ. Often churches host events without any anticipated action step to follow. An event for event sakes are fine, but events with action steps can lead to eternal implications in the life of your church members and community.

So when you plan your calendar for this year ask yourself: What’s our aim? Who is our audience? What is our intended action step?

Let’s Talk about Planning Church Evangelism for the New Year

All pastors know that they need to lead their churches in some form of evangelism. The issue that I find is that many pastors lose the effect of evangelism by forgetting to plan for it. Pastors are busy, and church life can be busy. Between all the pastoral duties and church events, church-wide evangelistic efforts can fall to the back burner of priorities. So, in this post, I want to offer a few things to think through this month as you are planning out the New Year to keep an evangelistic emphasis in 2020.

Plan 2 Big Outreaches for 2020

Pastor, you set the agenda for your church. If evangelism is not happening, maybe you should get it on the calendar. I realize churches are good at serving their communities, generally speaking, so this may not be a stretch for your people. But let me ask, are these events being used for evangelistic purposes? For our church, we make sure to leverage our activities for the Gospel by planning a Gospel emphasis at each event or at the least plan for a robust follow-up process for all the visitors.

If your church is not great at reaching out to the community, you have a clean slate to work with. Begin to plan at least 2 evangelistic events to help your members get involved with sharing the Gospel in the community. Maybe you could host a Fall festival, a Christmas Presentation, or a Community Meal. The point is to plan 2 events your people would get excited about inviting their friends to and plan an evangelistic focus around them.

Plan 2 Opportunities for Training in 2020

Pastor, your role is to equip the saints. A major part of your job is to help your congregation share the Gospel. This is good news for you; it means that you don’t carry all of the weight of sharing the Gospel with the entire community. You are not responsible for reaching every man, woman, and child with the Gospel. You have a congregation of fellow-Christians to help you reach the lost, but you have to train them.

Do this. Pick some methods and share them with your people. There are a ton of evangelism methods and programs on the market today. While some can get caught up trying to discern which way is best, I have found that equipping my people in multiple evangelism approaches has been the most successful. So, I lead my people through 2 different evangelism training opportunities a year. In some cases, this can be done through a sermon series on how to share the Gospel. In others, it may mean an in-depth Bible study class. However you choose to do it, train your people to do the work of evangelism.

Plan to Get Involved in 2020

You are the leader of the congregation and you have to lead by example. The adage is true—congregations model after their pastor. If the pastor is a compassionate shepherd, the people will be compassionate. If the pastor is a devoted student of the Bible, the people will be devoted students of the bible. If the pastor is excited about sharing the Gospel, then the people will get excited about sharing the Gospel.

The point is that the congregation must see you, their pastor, sharing the Gospel with lost people. The congregation must hear your stories of evangelistic encounters and the congregation must see your vision for reaching the lost in your community. The people must see you doing the work of evangelism before they will do the work of evangelism.

So here are your marching orders as you plan out 2020.

  1. Plan at least 2 evangelistic outreaches
  2. Plan 2 opportunities to train your people how to share the Gospel
  3. Plan to get involved in the work of evangelism

May God bless your efforts and your church for His glory and His great name!

How to Read Authors and Theologians with Whom You Disagree

In light of recent conversations spurred on by the Founder’s cinedoc, By What Standard?, I thought it might be of some service to offer a brief post expressing my thoughts on reading authors and theologians with whom you disagree.

Frankly, I could be more specific in the title, I suppose. “How to Read James Cone,” or “How to Read Karl Barth,” or “How to Read Martin Luther King, Jr.” or even “How to Read Wayne Grudem” might offer a few more clicks, but my goal isn’t to get lost in the specifics. Instead, what I hope to impart are some thoughts on reading any author or theologian that the reader enters into the endeavor knowing that there will be major points of disagreement.

And I suppose that is where we should begin: Should you read authors and theologians with whom you disagree?

As the title of the post suggests, I certainly think so. Honestly, I think anyone who agrees with everything any given author writes (outside the boundaries of Holy Scripture) is doing so unthinkingly. So, in order to gain insight from those believers and scholars who have walked before us, we must learn how to read those with whom we disagree.

Read Broadly

We are all drawn to those with whom we agree. Each of us find comfort in the echo chamber. It’s safe. It’s cosy. So, we all share the tendency to read the same authors and theologians from the “approved list” of our own particular theological tribe.

But dialogue does not exist in the echo chamber.

Nor does growth.

In my studies, I was encouraged to read the best arguments available in order that I understood the argument in its clearest and strongest form. And as Dr. James Leo Garrett would regularly remind his students, “until you’re able to present the view of your opponent in such a manner that he would claim it to be his own, you are unprepared to engage his argument.” And so I read Gustavo Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation; I read Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant to Be; I read Rogers and McKim’s The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible; I read Moltmann and Barth and Wesley and Calvin and. . . .

The list goes on and on.

I have found many authors to be extremely helpful. I have found others to be tremendously frustrating. But in order to understand the landscape of thought, it’s important that we read broadly.

Read Humbly

When I was a student at East Texas Baptist University, Dr. Bob Utley would describe the context from which we approach the Bible as a set of lenses (think eyeglasses) marring our interpretation. (In this case, the glasses hinder, rather than help, the clarity of the text.) My particular lens reflects the fact that I grew up during the end of the 20th century as a white male raised in a Christian home. As such, I may read and interpret certain passages of Scripture differently that would a Jewish girl raised in the 6th century on the opposite side of the world.

Does that nullify my reading of the text? No.

Does it nullify her’s? No.

Some scholars would rather I simply exchange my context for their’s—whether that be exchanging my color or nationality or socio-economic status for their own. But that is simply to exchange one biased reading for another. The problem is that, even were I to do so, I would still be looking at the text through a context foreign to Scripture in order to discern the meaning of Scripture.

It just doesn’t work that way.

The text has one meaning and it is not defined by my particular time and place. And by reading the insights and perspectives of others who may differ from my own, I am given a helpful means to discover the leanings of my own context and to seek to offset them—to mitigate the manner in which they influence my reading.

The goal, then, is not to exchange my context someone else’s perspective.

The goal is to rightly divide the Word of God.

The goal is to discover how my context influences my reading in order that I seek the meaning of the text apart from that bias.

So yes, you should read authors and theologians with whom you disagree, and you should do so humbly. But you should also read them critically—keeping an eye on God’s Word.

Read Critically

While we must read broadly and humbly, we need to subject every thought—every point—to the teaching of Scripture. (In order to do this, it is imperative that you are well-versed, as it were, in Scripture). Rather than submitting the text to the particular ideology of the author—or even his conclusion regarding theology—we must submit the author’s views to the text of Scripture.

One could even say that the Bible is a powerful “analytical tool” in discerning which authors and arguments are worth embracing. But I digress.

Personally, this means “prejudicing” the books I read. Whenever I read a book (that I own; don’t do this with a library book), I do so with a pen in-hand. I use that pen to underline points that I believe to be critical to the author’s argument or particularly insightful. I use the pen to emphasize points of disagreement I may have with the author. I often write notes in the margins, noting my disagreement and, sometimes, amazement with their argument. I’ll summarize their argument in logical form, to demonstrate the fallacy of their argument. Sometimes, I will just write questions raised by the author. Be warned, however, that if you practice this and loan your books to others, it can sometimes make for interesting conversations—especially if they view the author or the argument differently than you do.

Conclusion

Should you read authors and theologians with whom you disagree?

Unquestionably. But be sure to do so with a humble spirit and a critical eye.

Postscript: Read Charitably

While this is only tangentially related to this post and, were it long enough, I might offer it elsewhere on its own, I felt it worthwhile to tack it on to this post.

Don’t hate-read.

There’s a practice—and not one with which I am entirely unaccustomed to having done in the past—of reading a book or author about whom you have already drawn strong conclusions for the simple purpose of ripping it to shreds in a review or on social media. While this may have the appearance of a critical reading, in reality, it accomplishes little more than posturing to your echo chamber. It doesn’t approach the argument on its own terms, but merely seeks to disprove or discredit the author. It is often most clearly seen when a pastor or minister of a particular tribe or theological subset reads the work of someone of the opposite conviction—whether that be an ardent Calvinist reading an anti-Calvinist (or vice versa), an avowed cessationist reading a continuationist (or vice versa), a convinced dispensationalist reading a covenantal theologian (or vice versa), or any other major delineation of views.

Hate-reading accomplishes nothing more than signaling to those in your tribe or echo chamber that, at the very least, you think you belong there. But hate-reading is neither critical (in the positive sense) nor humble.

Frankly, it’s uncharitable. Don’t do it.

Planning Worship Services for the New Year

Eleven plus hours on a plane is a long time! Along with the deluge of thoughts, experiences, and conversations from my time in the Horn of Africa, I was overwhelmed with the reality that a new year was quickly approaching.

I was leaving a context that did not have a complete Bible translation; a context that did not have a complete New Testament translation. I was leaving a context where God is at work, void of resources, and returning to a church revitalization context with a new appreciation for resources and a fresh desire to see God’s work.

While cruising at 37,000ft, I thought, “How can we (lead pastors, teaching pastors, and ministry leaders) have a solid plan for ministry as the new year approaches?” The idea of a new slate of 365 chances to have a meaningful impact, the roughly 150+ opportunities to teach strategically, and the opportunity to take full advantage of key holidays and engage our communities obediently certainly creates mental turbulence.

However, ministry planning doesn’t have to be that way. The way in which we can approach developing a ministry plan for the new year is fourfold.

Pray

I know. The words “prayer” and “pray” are devalued and cliché today. We litter our lives with the words, but our life and ministries reveal the glaring void of the power of Christ. Dr. Dan Crawford, Senior Professor Emeritus of Evangelism and Missions at SWBTS, and a personal friend says it this way: “We’ve mastered prayer when all else fails. How about this? Let’s master prayer before all else fails.” Take some time to get away and pray before the first decision or plan for the new year is made regarding our Lord’s bride. You’ll be glad you did. As you pray, you’ll better process, with clarity, both the upcoming year and the year that’s winding down.

We’ve mastered prayer when all else fails. How about this? Let’s master prayer before all else fails.
–Dr. Dan Crawford

Process

To make a plan you need to know where you are going. More importantly, you must know where you’ve been. Each year I evaluate everything. Sermons, groups, community engagement, outreach, discipleship, first experiences, overall vision, etc. . . . are open and fair game for evaluation. The tool I use is called a SWOT evaluation. It’s an approach whereby the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats of areas of ministry can be analyzed. For example, start with a general evaluation of your church family. Analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats the church faces. After a thorough and fair evaluation, celebrate strengths, but focus-specific ministry plans for the new year on how to improve weaknesses and take advantage of new opportunities.

Without a way to process where you’ve been, knowing where to go can be a daunting task. Once you take time to intentionally evaluate where you’ve been, a framework for determining a purposeful plan for the new year develops quickly. After you’ve taken time to process where you are and where you want to go, start planning.

Plan

When establishing a ministry plan for the new year, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats tend to be the key areas for strategic planning. However, don’t neglect to plan around the strengths. Think through key touch points of the church’s ministry.

For example, once you’ve processed where your people are and where you want to lead them, take time to plan your preaching/teaching schedule for the year. Look at your preaching schedule as a process through which you provide a path for your people to grow in truth, spiritual disciplines, doctrine, and obedience. This is a key opportunity to think through strategic sermon series and book studies.

As you plan your preaching, be sure to focus on key holidays. While Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter tend to be the holidays we think people will pack the place out for a service, Mother’s Day and holidays that honor service members are opportunities that are growing in impact over the traditional holidays. Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day are key occasions when community impact can be maximized, especially in a church revitalization context. As you think through holidays, be sure to pay close attention to the demographics of your community as you plan.

In addition, as you plan ministry to equip your people, be sure you strategically plan opportunities for them to put into action what they are being taught. For example, think through ways you can provide opportunities for your church to engage the community throughout the year. Take time to sit down with community leaders and seek ways the church can assist needs in the community. You may be surprised at what you find.

The process of putting a solid ministry plan in place can overwhelm. Remember, pray, process and then plan. When the thought creeps in, “Is planning worth it?,” know that it is. As it has been said, “He who fails to plan plans to fail.” Once a plan is established, pursue it.

Pursue

Often people grimace at the thought of a plan, especially in ministry. Remember, the Lord has entrusted a flock to you for you to shepherd. To shepherd well, a plan is essential. For those who think, “What about being led by the Holy Spirit?” It’s healthy to remember Proverbs 16:9, “A man may plan his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” You plan and trust the Lord with the plan. If He needs to deter the plan, He’ll direct your steps.

As shepherds, we are called to do everything we do as unto the Lord (1 Cor 10:31). We are called to die to self while knowing that as we do, the Lord is producing life in others (2 Cor 4:12). Pray, Process, Plan, and Pursue. It will cost you time and effort, but it is well worth the cost and time for you and your people.