Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Is Church Death a Part of Church Life?

We had one of those "teachable life-lesson moments" at our home early this morning. Our beloved cat, Lizzie, passed away quietly on the sofa in my study around 6:00 AM. Over the years, Lizzie had become, almost exclusively, my daughter Laura Beth's cat. Laura Beth had a very strong connection with Lizzie. They spent a lot of time together. Lizzie slept with Laura Beth every night.

Laura Beth was with Lizzie in that moment when she drew her final breath. It was heartbreaking, and there were many tears. But a little while later, after we buried Lizze under the shade of the pines in our yard, I got a chance to talk to Laura Beth alone. I shared with her a simple reality. The older you become, the more that death becomes a more common ... even an expected ... part of life.

So, what does this have to do with Church Planting, especially with regard to students? A lot! I found an interesting article written by Frank Walton of the Northside Church of Christ in Tucson, Arizona, entitled "The Life-Cycle of a Church." In that article, he proposes that there are three stages in the life of the church. They are:
  1. The Risk-Taker Stage - A stage of zealous ministry and growth.
  2. The Caretaker Stage - A time of comfort zone and "status quo."
  3. The Undertaker Stage - A time of "living in the past" and death.
Insightful stuff ... We need to help our church members, our students, even our denominational leaders, understand that death is a natural part of life, even in the life of the church. I don't know the exact statistics, but the last time I looked, we were closing the doors on 5,000+ churches a year in the United States. Churches are dying. In my denomination, I would venture to guess that the vast majority of our chruches are in the "Caretaker" and "Undertaker" stages. I'm guessing that we are about 10-15 years of funerals away from a drastic demonstration of church closures and death in the Southern Baptist Convention.

So, what's the answer? We need more "Risk-Takers." We need more new churches. We need a new, risk-taking generation of church planters. That's what our ministry is all about. Find out how you can involve students and help train this next generation at Mission M Possible.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

To Vote ... or Not to Vote ... That is the Question

I had a great conversation this afternoon with a new friend that I met on a mission trip this summer. His name is Paul. Paul feels called to Church Planting. He is currently furthuring his education. He "interviewed" me today as part of his research for a school project. He wanted to find out more about the system of government in my church. It seems that he is comparing and contrasting elder-led and congregational structures. I commend Paul for so thoroughly investigating this issue. It's going to help him a lot someday when he dives into the adventure of Church Planting.

Of course, the issue of church governance has dramatic implications in the practice of Church Planting. There has been much discussion, especially in the Baptist media, about the growing trend toward elder leadership among Southern Baptist Churches. Hannah Elliott wrote a very thorough article on the subject for the Associated Baptist Press entitled, "Elder Rule is Increasing in Baptist Life, and So is Controversy Over Role." I recommend this article. It presents proponentsfor and thorough defenses of most views.

We chose, during the early days of the life of our church, to go with an "elder-led congregational" form of church governance. Our elders and staff (who are, by definition, elders) lead the direction of the church. We gather regularly to pray, share our burdens and joys, and seek God's direction. Our ministry teams manage their ministries. Our financial team manages our finances. We do not have business meetings, because we do not want to introduce disunity into the body by forcing people to "choose sides" over every issue. Instead, the leaders lead, and the people minister. It works really well for us. We will actually vote on only four things in our church life: (1) the yearly budget and corporate trustees, (2) real estate purchases or sales, (3) changes to our constitution, and (4) calling or dismissing the senior pastor. There have been other times when we have gathered the church family to discuss other issues, namely specific church discipline situations.

We have deacons, though we do not call them such, because the role of deacon is so grossly misunderstood in Baptist culture where I live. Instead, we call the men in the deacon role our "Life Group Shepherds." They serve to minister regularly to a small group of people.

So, what about your church? Elders or deacons? "Presbyterian" or congregational. Vote or no vote? What is the best system for effective ministry in the 21st century? Does it matter? What are the implications for church planting? Should it affect the fellowship among our churches? I have another to story to tell about that in another post. :)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Baptism Issues - Part 2

It seems to me that there is much discission, argument, and bitterness regarding last year's IMB policies regarding Baptism. The main "sticking point" is the policy's statement that true baptism is a "church ordinance," as opposed to a Christian ordinance. The root of the issue is authority.

In his recent SBC LIFE article entitled, "Understanding Baptism," Tom Elliff addressed this issue under the heading, "When is Baptism Properly Administered?" In one paragraph of this discussion of the proper "authority" for baptism, he states,
It is obvious in the Scripture that, in additon to the profession of the candidate, there is an obligation on the part of the church.

Hershael York went a bit deeper on his blog, where he stated,
...baptism is a church ordinance. To whom did Christ give the authority to baptize? Did He authorize his followers individually, a denomination collectively, or the institution of His church? Baptists have long understood baptism as a church ordinance.
This entire discussion begs the question, "What is the church?" Is it a group of believers ... people who follow the Savior, Jesus Christ? Or is it an ecclesiological structure?

What do we do with Acts 8:36-39, when Philip (alone ... no church present) pulled over on the side of the road and baptized the Ethiopian he had just led to the Lord?

This stance on the authority of the church (and, by policy, denomination?) in the baptism process presents a series of significant dilemmas for church planters and new churches in our denomination. Who might we accept as being "Scripturally baptized?" We must sort through the complexity of this issue.

What do we do with:
  • People baptized by immersion in churches of other denominations (or non-denominations) which also baptize by other modes? Does the mere availability of other modes invalidate any and all baptisms in that church in the eyes of the SBC?
  • Young men and women baptized by chaplains in our military? Perhaps they have been baptized aboard a naval vessel, or in the desert of Iraq, or on an army post in Texas. Does the denomination of the administrator come into play? What about the authority of the church? Does the group of believers gathered to witness constitute the church?
  • Young people baptized at summer camps? I, myself, once witnessed a new convert baptized by a youth leader in the river that ran alongside our camp. The teen-ager's pastor was not present, though many from his church were. Is his a valid baptism?
  • Children baptized by their parents? This is a common practice in my church. I encourage our parents to lead in the baptism of their own children after their children have made decisions to follow Christ. Would our current IMB policy recognize their baptisms? On a side note ... I know of an IMB missionary who baptized his own child in the sea on the day his child made a profession of faith in Christ. No church was present, only the missionary family and the public witnesses. Will this child be able to someday serve with the organization that has commissioned and sent out his parents? Is his a valid baptism?
  • People baptized by anyone who is not ordained? Do we really believe that there is a "power of the priesthood" which requires an ordained minister to perform the actual immersion ceremony?
So ... how will we define the "church?" Who will we accept as members when these issues of baptism arise? Are our churches filled with members who are now ineligible for service through our own mission board? Church planters will surely face such dilemmas, and many other that we have not even thought of ... yet!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Baptism Issues - Part I

There is a feature article in the latest issue of SBC LIFE entitled "Understanding Baptism." It is written by Tom Elliff. Baptism has recently emerged as a "hotbed issue" in Baptist life. It seems that this article was written in response to these discussions.

I will be pointing out some of the matters mentioned by Elliff in his article through my next few posts. Some of his analysis offered helpful clarification. Other parts of it actually left some unanswered questions. I'm wondering how other Baptists feel about these issues.

Today's Discussion: "Like Faith and Practice (Order)"
Elliff devoted a mere two paragraphs to what may be the biggest "bone of contention" regarding baptism in Southern Baptist life. Elliff states,
"Most Southern Baptist churches and each of our agencies use "like faith and practice" (or, "like faith and order") as the litmus test for fellowship, membership, and service. This means that our members (and ultimately those involved in ministry or missions through our mutually-supported entities) have been baptized in Southern Baptist churches or under the authority of churches of like faith and practice."
But what, exactly, does "like faith and practice (order)" mean? I fear that the definitions of this phrase are as numerous as our churches. Indeed, in the area where I live and minister, most of the churches interpret this phrase as meaning, specifically, "Southern Baptist" or "Baptist" churches. In my own county, this meaning includes the requirement that the word "Baptist" be in the name of the church. I pastor a Southern Baptist Church called Crossroads Fellowship. We cooperate with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Yet, we have been denied membership in the local association based upon the lack of the word "Baptist" on our sign, and we have had a local Southern Baptist church refuse to grant letters of membership to us, stating that they could only grant a letter to a "church of like faith and order."

I am quite sure that there are Southern Baptist churches nearby which would not accept as members anyone who had been baptized within our congregation because of this "like faith and order" interpretation issue. Surely, ours would be dubbed an "alien baptism" by some. This issue of accepting members by statement of immersion baptism from outside the SBC has led to the "disfellowshiping" of churches in a nearby association.

Do such definitions have implications in Church Planting? You'd better believe it! Do they have implications in Baptist life? Absolutely! Here is the simple reality. If there were members of my church called of God to serve in international missions through the IMB, they might face an approval process populated by Baptists who would not even recognize them as legitimate "Southern Baptist church members."

As Church Planters, we must sort through these issues before planting, rather than try to "figure it out as we go." What has been your church's stance / experience regarding this issue of "like faith and order" and acceptance of baptized members from outside the SBC?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Sharing A Passion for Baptism

Recently our church baptized several new Christ-followers in the pool of one of our church members. It was a joyous celebration and made even more joyous by the fact that we gave people the opportunity to participate in the ordinance. If you want to create a passion in your church plant for seeing people baptized, follow Jesus' pattern for engaging others in both the dunking and the discipling.

It was in Maine that I first read Jesus' words in John 4:1-2 with new eyes:

Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, "Jesus is baptizing and making more disciples than John" (though Jesus himself didn't baptize them—his disciples did). So he left Judea to return to Galilee.

I was a new pastor and had just baptized people for the first time. It was an incredible experience for me and I wanted our other church members to have that experience. When I read these words, I realized that you did not have to be a certified, card-carrying pastor to baptize folks. Here Jesus was giving the thumbs up to regular disciples baptizing their friends, neighbors, family members and anyone who came to a relationship with Christ. We began to follow this practice in our new church, and within a couple of years had over a dozen people who had baptized new believers. When someone came to a relationship with Christ and was ready to be baptized, we would simply ask them who they would like to do the baptism. Who was it who had first shared Christ with them or brought them to church? Who had exemplified Christ to them? After they told us, we would ask that person (or persons) if they would be willing to baptize and we would instruct them on how to do that. Often there were 2 or 3 of us doing the dunking for each new convert!

We had single moms baptizing their children, older brothers baptizing their younger siblings, small group leaders baptizing folks in their group, and friends baptizing their friends. It was amazing to watch and still is. We have the same practice in the church I serve now. In fact, a few weeks ago we baptized a whole family, or I should say, they baptized each other! And one of our college girls had her 85-year old grandfather come and baptize her. It was a magical day and I know those who did the baptizing will be far more likely to feel a commitment to disciple the folks they dunked. Not only that, but it is so exciting, oftentimes the baptizers can't wait to share Christ with and baptize someone else!

What are other ways to create a passion for baptism in your church?
- make the service a celebration. We have a potluck or watermelon or ice cream and a pool party after the service. The church enjoys the fellowship and it reminds us that we should celebrate when the lost are found.

- Ask the congregation for a response during the baptism service. We ask all those present to verbally affirm that they will pray for the new believer and hold them accountable to follow Christ. That way everyone gets to participate.

-Ask people to tell the story of how they came to Christ. Either the baptizee or a close friend or family member can tell the story to those gathered. This reminds the church how these things happen and how they can share the love of Christ with others.

- Invite lost people to come. Bringing family members or friends who do not yet know Christ is a great way to remind the church that there are still many who have not yet heard. And this may also have dramatic results: once in Maine we did a baptism service at a park on the ocean. Two boy scouts visiting from Pennsylvania came over to watch and asked one of our men what it was all about. He talked with them and led them both to Christ while the service was going on! That was a day of rejoicing!

Anyway, the application is this: sharing every aspect of ministry, especially the joyful experiences, with other believers builds leaders, creates passion, and shapes the hearts of the church. That is our philosophy at Mission M Possible, and why we believe that students should engage in every aspect of church planting. The deeper their experience, the deeper their passion for missional living and for seeing others come to know Jesus. And there is no reason (besides selfishness or ignorance) for not letting them participate in this way. Following Jesus' pattern in this is the best ministry decision I ever made.

How does your church engage people in baptism? How do you creatively engage people in other practices in your church plant? How are you mentoring others to have a passion for the work of redemption?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ministry -vs- Business Meetings

Can structure inhibit ministry?

That is a question that church planters often face. In order to provide a guiding document, and in order to protect our churches under corporate law, we must each develop a "Constitution and Bylaws." But the question is, "How detailed should such a document be?"

It has been my experience that our founding and organizing documents, if they are too detailed and defined, can actually serve to inhibit ministry in the church. But a more generalized document can serve to facilitate ministry.

Case in Point: A small disaster struck a small southern community. Several families were affected by the disaster. A couple of local churches immediately came to the aid of some of the families involved. They provided immediate financial assistance and "adopted" families in order to provide housing and care. However, the majority of the churches in the community could not provide such aid. Why? Because pastors and leaders were "hamstrung" by their constitutions and business procedures. They could not make any financial commitments without first "bringing it to the floor" in a churchwide business meeting. Some churches experienced an even more difficult time when their constitutions required the announcement of a special business meeting for such a purpose at least twice during regular church meetings prior to a special "called meeting." But by the time three weeks would roll around, the opportunity for ministry would be gone.

So, what should we do about our structures? How detailed should our church constitutions be? What must we do when our procedures, bylaws, and rules get in the way of ministry? How can Church Planters avoid these pitfalls?