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5 Things Kirk Franklin “Said” to Us

Life-lessons come in strange packages. These lessons came in the form of a 5-foot 4-inch dynamo from Dallas, Texas by the name of Kirk Franklin. The top selling urban gospel artist of all time, Franklin has won 12 Grammys and a host of Stellar, B.E.T., and Dove awards. He was at the Oakwood University Church last week taping a Christmas Special for Breath of Life Television.  “King of Kings” will be broadcast nationally Christmas Eve on ABC Television.

Over the years Kirk Franklin has visited Oakwood 5 times.  But this particular visit was special. The things he shared were priceless. Now, Kirk Franklin has every reason to be at least irritated with us. His experiences have not always been positive.  But he is clearly a fan of Adventism in general and Oakwood in particular. Why? Well, let me share some things his words and his visit “said” to us.

The Church Is Not A Building

Kirk Franklin was abandoned as a baby by his mother and raised by his aunt Gertrude. He was a musical prodigy and was offered his first contract at the age of 7. His future was bright, but life happened. His girlfriend got pregnant, he was expelled from school, and eventually found himself homeless with a young son.

In the Oakwood sanctuary he told of an Adventist gentleman who took him into his home and loved him. In that home he got his first taste of the church. But it was clear that as he spoke of his fondness of Adventism, he wasn’t speaking about the importance of an institution. He was speaking about the impact of an individual. Good or bad, that’s how it works. We are the church that people remember

Cultivate creativity

Franklin told about his years serving as a musician in Adventist churches. He was a Dallas/Ft. Worth legend. But it wasn’t always pretty. Some members struggled with his over the top energy. Others thought the music was too worldly. But there were certain saints who shielded and supported him. They fought for him and it payed off. It’s still paying off.

Creativity has to be cultivated. The atmosphere must be supportive. Artists must have the freedom to make mistakes and survive, because those mistakes often provide the most lasting lessons. But if every mistake is fatal, if every sin is unpardonable, then we kill off the next generation of creative genius.

Things Change

It has been more than 15 years, but it seems like just yesterday. Kirk Franklin was about to release his “The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin” project and was invited to Oakwood’s A. Y. service for his testimony. After his testimony he began to play tracks from the new urban gospel album. At some point, the administrators in attendance had heard enough. The story fluctuates a bit at this point, but this one fact has lived in infamy.  The concert/testimony was stopped, the students were furious, and Kirk Franklin was done with Oakwood…. or so many people thought.

But years later, he’s back.  He jokes about the cancelled concert and tells about the tons of Adventists who have apologized for that fiasco over the years. Now don’t get it twisted. I’m sure a huge check had a lot to do with his return to Oakwood, but don’t miss the obvious.  Some things in the church just change over time. Some things that we stress about today, we laugh about tomorrow. Some things that look like sin today actually look like our salvation tomorrow. Insert women’s ordination here.

Celebrate Yourself

When the leading figure in gospel music says that your music is “the best sound I’ve ever heard’, it should get your attention. That’s exactly what Kirk Franklin said about the Oakwood Aeolians. Now this comes as no surprise to most of us. The Aeolians have been amazing for years.  In 2017 the Aeolians won the coveted Choir of the World Pavarotti Trophy and in 2018 they won the World Choir Games in South Africa.

At times it seems that the excellence of the Aeolians is celebrated by everyone but their own. Same for Oakwood University. The University produces an amazing product, on a limited budget, with a student body that is in large part financially challenged. We get what we celebrate. What we take for granted, we often lose.

We Have A Unique Mission

Finally, Kirk Franklin said that his visit to Oakwood and the music of the Aeolians made him value even more his culture. He was speaking generally about the African American musical culture, but it was more than that. It was a commentary on the Adventist contribution to black culture. It is a contribution of discipline, spirituality, and excellence. You hear it in the music. You see it in the students. You experience it in the worship. You notice it in our graduates.

It’s a necessary wake up call for some Black Adventists. It is a reminder that we have a mandate to love everyone, but we have a unique mission to people and communities of color. Thanks Kirk.

Those are my thoughts, how about yours? Kirk Franklin fan? No? How can we do a better job of celebrating and supporting our own?

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Trick or Treat!  What About Christians and Halloween?

It’s literally impossible to avoid Halloween these days. In a few days, everyone from Donald Trump to Maxine Waters will be knocking on our doors looking for candy. There will be parties and movies and fright nights in the woods, and haunted houses. The celebration seems to have expanded from a single day to an entire month.

According to the National Retail Federation, almost 70% of Americans will be celebrating Halloween this year. It is second only to Christmas as a commercial holiday. A quarter of all of the candy sold this year will be sold this season. And adults across the country will be eating that same candy for months.  Americans will spend over 8 billion dollars during this Halloween season. That’s billion with a B!

The origin

Where did Halloween come from? It seems that the celebration actually began with the Christian church. As early as the 4th century, according to church historian John Chrysostom, the church celebrated a festival in honor of martyred saints. It was called All Saints Day and originally held in May. The day before All Saints Day was called All Hallows(Holy) Day and eventually morphed into All Hallow E’en and eventually Halloween. Pope Gregory 4 shifted the original All Saints Day to November 1 to combat the popularity of the pagan Samhain Festival, and the rest is history.

The issue

So now the issue is, should Christians celebrate a pagan festival, or at least a festival with pagan origins?  It’s a good question. Halloween is circled on the calendar of the occult community. During the Halloween season:

  • There will be countless attempts to contact the dead.
  • More spells will be cast than at any other time of the year.
  • Animal shelters will refuse to offer black cats for adoption for fear they will be used in a bloody sacrifice.

It is the pagan high and holy day. Nothing else comes close. How should a Christian handle Halloween? Here are some thoughts.

What about Christmas and Easter? Jesus wasn’t born on December 25 and there were no eggs and bunnies at Calvary. Both of these celebrations have pagan origins, but Christians have chosen to infuse them with spiritual meaning. Of course, Halloween is worse.  But if you’re going to use pagan origins as your argument against Halloween, at least be consistent.

And don’t stop with Halloween and Christmas and Easter. If you’re having problems with pagan origins, you’ll have problems with the names of weekdays and months, church steeples, clergy robes, wedding bands, and even flowers at funerals. And don’t forget about those pagan symbols on our currency, or money. Just saying.

We might not agree – What does the Bible say about celebrating Halloween? Nothing specifically, but a lot in principle. Leviticus 20:27 and Deuteronomy 18:9-13 are among a number of passages that warn Christians about the danger of flirting with the occult. Many Christians quickly respond that they are not celebrating the Kingdom of darkness, and that they are not impacted or impressed by the history. Halloween seems to fall under the banner of disputable matters, Romans 14. Matters that good Christians can disagree on.

Here’s a good example

It reminds me of Paul’s response to a disputable matter in I Corinthians 8.  Jewish Christians were upset because Gentile Christians were eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. (Sounds kind of Halloweenish to me.) It was causing such a stir in the church that Paul’s eventual advice to the members was to stop it.  It wasn’t worth the trouble.

But Paul described the Jewish Christians as immature. “Weak’ is the word he used. The idol, he reminded them, was nothing but a piece of stone. No matter what the original idol worshippers intended, that idol is “nothing”, he says.  He makes the point that if your conscience is bothered because of the origin and history of the meat, then it’s wrong for you to eat it. But if another Christian has none of those issues with the meat, he’s free to eat it. Seems like good counsel for Christians who don’t see eye to eye on Halloween.

Don’t celebrate like a pagan.  If you choose to celebrate on Halloween, be careful how you do it. As I said earlier, Halloween is a high and “holy” day for the occult community. Each year around this time I receive a number of articles from former witches and warlocks who caution Christians not to be naïve about the spiritual and physical dangers of Halloween.

The Devil is real and so are his followers. Christians partying as demons and vampires are out of place any time of the year. Christians celebrating inappropriately or to excess are wrong any time of the year. Christians entertaining themselves with occult books, and motion pictures, and television series are playing with fire any time of the year. It is absolutely wrong to celebrate Halloween as a pagan tribute to the kingdom of darkness.

Take the day back! Halloween actually has its roots in the church. It began with good intentions, but the Devil absolutely defiled it. Ephesians 5:11 says, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather, Expose Them.” One of the most powerful reasons for Christians to celebrate on Halloween is to expose the tricks of the Devil.

Halloween, with all of its baggage, is a great teachable moment. It’s an opportunity to expose the Devil and his devices. So instead of screaming at the dark this Halloween, turn on the light. How?

  • Sponsor a Harvest Festival. Have a Halloween replacement celebration at your home or local church. Make sure that there are plenty of “treats” that will make the kids forget what they might be getting at a stranger’s door. Some churches encourage the kids to come to these events as Bible characters and they have contests for the best custom. Be creative. Get the kids involved in the planning.
  • Have a brief but inspiring message.  Teach the kids that there is literally a Great Controversy raging between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. Teach the kids that life with Christ is a life of power over darkness. I John 4:4. Bring in an age-appropriate speaker who can connect with the kids or go to the Christian bookstore and choose from a number of powerful videos and resources for just that purpose.
  • Create a space for creative Christian fun.  This isn’t rocket science. This isn’t brain surgery. Many Christian kids are already disappointed that they are missing one on the most enjoyable days on their school calendar. They already feel a bit awkward explaining why they don’t celebrate Halloween like their classmates. That’s understandable. But it seems inexcusable for a local church to make a challenging holiday even worse by not scheduling some good clean Christian fun.

Halloween will always be a hot topic with Christians. It’s one of those issues that will never be settled, but it’s too important an issue not to discuss. I think the answer is this. Don’t celebrate Halloween, but celebrate on Halloween. But that’s me.  What do you think?

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How to Criticize the Church

Some weeks it’s easier to be a Christian than an Adventist. This was one of those weeks for me. It began with Annual Council delegates forgetting that Halloween is still a week away and deciding to dress like extras from Little House on the Prairie…or Django. To many of us, they were a reminder of a patriarchal, racist chapter in our nation’s history. Can you say tone deaf?

Next the President of the General Conference went after music, worship, and social justice in the same message – just hours after the costume party. It gave rise to criticism that he was attempting to Make Adventism White…I mean, Great Again. I understand his call for moderation, and in context it makes sense. But what are the words I’m looking for? Oh, yeah. Tone deaf.

And then there was the “Unity” document. An attempt to rein in parts of the church that have been deemed, “out of compliance.” (Hint: That’s about 80% of you.) Again, it makes sense in principle. This is a 20-million-member denomination with more off shoot groups than we can name. But the unmistakeable backdrop is women’s ordination. And in my opinion, it’s another attempt to legislate a matter of conscience, context, and Union control.

So, what’s a frustrated Adventist professor to do? Well, I think its time to criticize. What? Yes, criticize. Is that appropriate? I think so. Ever heard of a prophet named Jeremiah? What about Ellen White and her Testimonies to the Churches and letters to leaders? What about Jesus and his letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3?

Is church criticism appropriate? I would argue that it’s not only appropriate but essential. It all depends on how it’s done. Let me give some suggestions on how to appropriately criticize the church.

Criticize biblically

There are some church issues that don’t need to be made public. As a matter of principle, we should attempt to resolve issues as quickly, quietly, and as close to the source of the problem as possible. Matthew 18 provides concrete counsel for most church conflicts. But that counsel is best applied to personal conflict. Not a perfect model for criticism of institutions.

Criticize accurately

One of the absolute requirements for going after an institution or an individual, is getting your facts straight. Don’t accept what you hear or what you read at face value. The internet is fast becoming a fact free zone. Ted Wilson is not a Jesuit. The church logo wasn’t designed by a warlock. Get your facts straight before you criticize the church.

Criticize constructively

Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:15, that speaking the truth in love is a recipe for Christian growth and maturity. It’s also important for those who criticize the church. Check your motivation. Watch your attitude. Be conscious of how your criticism impacts and influences others. You can’t use the Devil’s tools to build the Lord’s house.

Criticize courageously

If you don’t have the courage to speak truth to power, step aside and support those who do. Our church structures are presidential to a fault. It’s great for efficiency, but it comes at the cost of collaboration and diversity. The warning against “kingly power” is more than cliché counsel. We have a real problem. We have literally enabled leaders to hurt themselves and us. For all the talk of free exchange, many of our leaders are surrounded by other leaders who won’t speak up because it’s contrary to their own self interests. I get it. But it’s not working. And it runs counter to the sensibilities of the generation that will be leading us next.

Criticize consistently

Finally, if you’re going to criticize, start with that person in the mirror. Don’t require something of me that you don’t value yourself. No one is perfect but have some integrity. Be consistent. And let me leave you with perhaps the greatest test of your integrity. How do you respond to a friend that’s incorrect or out of order? Not an enemy but a friend. Are you prepared to correct them?

So, there they are. Some simple suggestions from a professor who has been in a few battles. What do you think? Is it ok to criticize the church? Any observations or suggestions?

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5 Reasons People are Skipping Church

Something is going on. I’m not a believer in the secret rapture, but a lot of church members are missing! The problem isn’t confined to a particular region or religion. People just don’t seem to be coming to church like they used to.

An important Gallup Poll in 2016 said that 55% of Americans are members of a church, synagogue, temple or mosque. That’s down from 70% in 1999. And if they took that survey today, it would certainly be worse. Of course, there’s a difference between church membership and church attendance, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I noticed in that same Gallup Poll that even though church attendance and membership are down, 89% of Americans still say they believe in God. Interesting. People seem to be saying, “I believe in God, I just don’t believe in the church.”

I did my own unscientific survey around Oakwood’s campus and the reasons people give for skipping church vary:

  • The services start too soon.
  • I’m just tired.
  • The services are boring.
  • I can go to church online
  • I don’t want to get dressed up.

No surprises here. But as I review the data and study the surveys- especially the Barna Group national poll in 2014- there are a number of reasons that seem to keep coming up. Let’s look at 5 of the reasons people consistently give for skipping church.

The Church is irrelevant.

Always an issue. It can seem like the church is stuck on 8 track issues in an I Phone age. Social justice, income inequality, global warming, and police misconduct are dominating the airways and we seem to be stuck on cheese and drums.

To be fair, the church offers eternal principles that address all of these issues. The church shouldn’t be a slave to contemporary trends. But if people don’t get the sense that church matters or makes a difference in their everyday lives, they will vote with their feet.

The hypocrisy of members and moral failings of leaders

It’s true that the church is a hospital for sinners, but to the outside world the church just looks sick! Every headline of another pastor or priest who stumbles is more fuel on the fire. Every member who sings on Saturday and stumbles on Sunday is more fuel on the fire. People aren’t looking for perfection as much as they are looking for authenticity.

One of the positive developments in the Adventist church has been a strong emphasis on grace. It has continued now for several years. Great. But for some it has come at the expense of holiness or godly living. The two are not mutually exclusive. God is the source of both. And frankly, outsiders can’t see grace, they see how grace lives.

God is missing in the church

This is an age where people are looking for something real. Something they can experience. Something they can feel. Nothing wrong with that.  Can it go to extremes? It can, and it has. But if the church would consult the Bible instead of opinion on legitimate worship practices and the power of the Holy Spirit, there would be no problem here. People would experience authentic emotion and real change.

I feel lonely in church

This one really leaves a mark. How can an institution that talks so much about the value of fellowship, seem to provide so little of it? And cliché’s like,” To have friends, one must be friendly” may be helpful in the world but they don’t make sense in the church.  

Technology has connected us in ways that we never could have imagined, but we are probably more personally disconnected today than at any time in history. The church must provide fellowship on more than a superficial level. It can’t force relationships, but it can provide the space and opportunities.

The church dismisses legitimate doubt

Many churches and church leaders are totally uncomfortable with doubt. They can’t tell the difference between an honest question and an attack. And frankly, both of them are valuable, because they reveal the heart. I would argue that if Christians don’t struggle with legitimate doubt from time to time, they probably have a superficial faith. We should welcome the conversation.

Those are 5 reasons people are skipping church. What do you think? Do you ever skip church? If so, why?

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That’s not what the Bible said!

This is an interesting season in the life of the Adventist church. We seemed to be polarized over many of the same issues that polarize our nation: social justice, race, police misconduct, etc. And then there are the endless debates over issues like women’s ordination, GC commissions, grace, perfectionism, and the role of the remnant.

I don’t want to minimize these problems, but most of them are extensions of a larger problem-how we read and understand the Bible. Hermeneutics is the culprit. It’s a 50-dollar word with a 5-dollar definition. It’s the science of interpreting scripture.

It’s not enough to know what the Bible says. It’s more important to know what the Bible means!  A wooden reading of the Bible, with no regard for interpretation or context can be disastrous.

  • Churches ban instrumental music because they don’t interpret the Bible.
  • Women wear bonnets and refuse pants because they don’t interpret the Bible.
  • Christians are crushed when God doesn’t make them healthy or wealthy, because they don’t interpret the Bible.

Now when I use the word hermeneutics and talk about the “science” of interpreting the Bible, don’t be the least bit intimidated. Most of its common sense. Let me give you a couple of guidelines that I learned years ago from the late R.C. Sproul, in his book, Knowing Scripture. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it’s helpful.

Number One: Read the Bible like any other book

The Bible is the word of God and we should solicit God’s guidance as we read. But the words and sentences and paragraphs you read are bound by the same laws of grammar and literature as any other book. A verb is a verb. An adjective is still and adjective. A metaphor is a metaphor. In other words, a passage should be understood according to normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax, and context.

Number Two: Some passages are prescriptive, and some passages are descriptive.

In Matthew 17, Jesus instructed Peter to get his tax money from the mouth of a fish. Unless you plan on spending some time in jail, I wouldn’t advise you to plan with that in mind. That was Peter’s fish, not your fish. You can get mighty confused when you don’t know the difference between a historical event and a teaching passage. Every word in the Bible is a word TO you, but it might not be a word FOR you!

Number Three: Interpret what is confusing or obscure by using what is clear and obvious.

A theology that is built on a single text or limited texts is built on shaky ground. Mormons have built their entire theology of the baptism of the dead on an obscure passage. And they are not alone. An age-old recommendation is to study carefully all that the Bible has to say about a passage before you decide what it means. And the Bible itself is always its best interpreter. What is unclear in one passage will be clearer as you study related passages.

Number Four: Respect literary forms and figures of speech

Many of the writings of the prophets as well as much of Psalms, Proverbs, and other books of the Bible is poetry. Much of the language is symbolic. It must be read with poetry guidelines in mind or you’ll be looking for literal beasts and characters that don’t actually exist.

Number Five: Ask God for an accurate understanding of His word.

The same Spirit that inspired the writing of God’s word will inspire your understanding of God’s word. Ask God what He meant.

I hope these quick guidelines help you with your Bible study. So what do you think? Having trouble understanding the Bible? What’s your favorite book? Which book is hardest for you to understand?

Don’t miss the “Adventist Church at the Crossroads” online conference. Monday, October 8, at 9am.  Register today at www.bcbleadership.com. You’ll receive unlimited access to the conference recordings and free resources.

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To Christians Who Talk, Type, or Text

Oakwood has a Publix!! Well not exactly, but the food store did recently open within walking distance of the school. (The fact that I am so excited about the opening of a grocery store is either a reflection on Huntsville or a childhood issue I have yet to confront…. either way, there’s reason for concern.)

I was at the cash register, when a magazine caught my eye. There they were.  Kanye and Kim West, aka Kimye, on the cover of In Touch Magazine, the kissing cousin of the National Enquirer. The caption read, “It’s Over! Kanye Leaves Kim After Massive Fight.”

Now I have to tell you, I’m not a fan of the Wests, and I am even less a fan of gossip magazines. But a quick glance at other media reveals that the Wests are not only together, they are building an economic empire that could rival a small country. Now all of that could change by next week, but as of today, they are together.

What’s the point? That magazine is trafficking one of the most profitable but destructive commodities in popular culture. Rumor. Gossip. It’s big business. Unfortunately, it’s no stranger to the church. The Adventist church at times seems to be a rumor mill of “Jesuits”, affairs, and apostasies.

Gossip, rumor, and tale-bearing have always been a problem in the church. James 3 makes it clear that the tongue is the single part of our anatomy that is totally beyond our power to control.  Of the 6 things that God is said to hate in Proverbs 6, half of them have to do with the tongue.

But destructive words have gone viral in recent years because of the explosion of social media.  A piece of gossip or half -truth, traditionally died before it could get across the church. Today those same words can get across the world with the stroke of a key.

We Are Christians On and Off-Line

This is a point that’s easy to forget. We are no less Christian when we type than when we talk. We should be always courageous enough to speak truth to power. There is no shortage of corruption and dysfunction in the church to address. But Ephesians 4:15 instructs us to speak the truth in love. It’s not always what you say, but how, when, and where you say it.

These are 3 basic Christian communication principles that I hope to master some day!

Watch What You Say!

Ephesians 4:29, “Don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Proverbs 17:9, “Whoever covers or forgives an offense seeks love, but whoever repeats or gossips about a matter separates friends.”

Easy to type. Impossible to live- in our own strength. Whenever you talk or type, make it your goal to inform and uplift. There are appropriate times to challenge and protest. Actually, there’s no real growth without conflict. But fight the right way.

Limit What You Say

James 1:26, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”

The unfortunate truth is that most of us just talk too much. The permanence of what we post on- line makes the problem even worse. Every week we hear another politician, or athlete, or preacher forced to explain words they wrote years, sometimes decades earlier. Generally, the less one says, the better.

Popular society seems to define strength as conquest. Who can talk; cruder, louder, longer, and over the other. Our nation is polarized around issues of race and politics and religion. But Christ reminds us in Mark 10:43, “But it must not be like that among you…” We are held to a different standard.

This week I posted some thoughts about the “Me Too” movement. I’m a strong supporter of the movement, but I was sloppy with some of my comments and they were misunderstood. It was my fault. It reminded me that in some sensitive areas, it’s better to let your actions demonstrate your support than your words.

Do What You Say

As Christians we are agents of transformation. Our limited but well-chosen words must be followed by something even more rare and important. Actions. At times it’s easier to talk the talk than walk the walk.  Another reason to be careful what you say.

So, watch what you say, limit what you say, and do what you say. What do you say? Ever been the target of gossip or misinformation? How did you handle it?

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3 Often Ignored Reasons Churches Don’t Grow.

I had a fantastic time in Las Vegas earlier this week!…..wait, that didn’t come out right. I should explain. I was there with Jose Cortes and the North American Division Evangelism Advisory. We had a fascinating time together addressing the challenge of church growth in the stagnant States.

We looked at the few bright spots and believe me there were few. A creative small groups program here. A church revitalization program there.  A successful evangelistic campaign over there. But in the main, things seem to have slowed to a snail’s pace. Most of our churches are struggling to grow.

And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to explain many of our growth challenges. We share them with other evangelical churches in the U.S.:

  • Materialism
  • Lack of prayer
  • Loss of mission
  • Theological battles
  • Isolated Christians
  • Outdated methodologies

These problems can certainly be the kryptonite to church growth. But while driving from my hotel this week, some other practical reasons came to my mind. So here are 3 often ignored reasons that many churches are not growing today.

The Location of the Church

Our Las Vegas meetings were actually held in Henderson, Nevada. Henderson is a suburb of Las Vegas and it’s at the front of Nevada’s growth spurt. Neighborhoods are going up everywhere. Schools are filling up as fast as they finish construction.

As I drove through Henderson it occurred to me that you could put an Adventist church practically anywhere in Henderson and it would grow. Or a Baptist church, or a Methodist church, or an Independent church for that matter. Why? Because the area is exploding with new growth.

Churches tend to grow in areas of new growth. And church growth tends to slow when neighborhood growth slows. Period. I’m certainly not minimizing God’s power to raise a great church in an unlikely location, but that doesn’t often happen. Many of our historic churches were once large and thriving but now they are small and dying.  At times, it has less to do with waning spirituality and more to do with shrinking neighborhoods and changing demographics.

We would be wise to avoid spiritualizing away practical reasons for struggling evangelism. It’s hard to grow an Asian church in a now Hispanic neighborhood. It’s hard to grow a working class black church in a gentrified white neighborhood. It’s even harder to grow a church-any church- in a neighborhood where there are….no people.

The Condition of the Church

The longer we remain members of a local church, the more comfortable we become with our surroundings, good or bad.  We get comfortable in church buildings that many visitors would find uncomfortable. Insufficient lighting. Incomplete repairs. Uneven pavement. Absence of fresh paint. Ancient sound system.

And for parents of young children, the church facility can be an immediate deal breaker. If they find the building unappealing or unsafe, they will probably not be as patient as the congregation. Parents are literally driving away from the churches of their childhood to find a better place for their kids. Same for potential members.

The Reception of the Church

How does your local church receive visitors?  What is a visitor’s initial impression of the church? Not the building but the people.  It’s cliché, but we never get a second chance to make a first impression. Surveys still indicate that the primary reason people attend a church or leave a church, is the people.

Church members need to understand that they are walking advertisements for their church, especially on Sabbath or Sunday morning. Their attitudes can make or break a visitor’s experience.  A smile or warm handshake can mean the difference between a single visit and a potential member.

So, those are 3 reasons that many churches are struggling to grow. How is your local church doing in those 3 areas?

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Non-Adventists in Adventist Pulpits?

It’s amazing what 4 little words can do.  They can pave the way for a pastor’s removal. They can make conference presidents drive hours to referee a business meeting. They can even change a religious community’s attitude about an Adventist church. The 4 little words, “Non Adventist Pastors in Adventist Pulpits” have done all that and more.

The battle has raged for years. It ebbs and flows. But don’t be fooled, it’s a sensitive topic in many circles. In his 2014 Annual Council address, President Ted Wilson discouraged Adventist pastors from inviting ministers of other denominations into their pulpits. He noted that this was his counsel and not an order, but he raised strong concerns against “ecumenical entanglements purporting to bring unity.” (1)

He’s right about the danger of pursuing a false unity. He’s right about acting as if differences don’t matter. He’s right about ignoring the important distinctives and contributions of the Adventist Church. But he misunderstands the motivation of most pastors for inviting non Adventists into their pulpits.  He also underestimates the benefits.

Listen. We should be cautious when inviting ANY guest into our pulpits. Adventist or non Adventist. But let me give 5 reasons it’s dangerous to prohibit non Adventists from preaching from our pulpits.

Because Relationships Matter

Ministers have incredible influence. Even in this age of suspicion and leadership distrust, pastors impact the lives of millions in our communities. As Christians, we are in the people business.  It makes sense for us to establish relationships with people who influence people. When pastors forge friendships across denominational lines, they not only discover common concerns, but the potential for theological dialogue is real.

A number of years ago I was able to share my understanding of glossolalia – tongues- to a group of prominent Pentecostal pastors in Southern California. They initiated the conversation because they trusted me. I was a friend. And there is probably no greater sign of trust, than when a pastor invites another pastor to share the pulpit. I had preached for them and they had preached for me. All of them? No. Just the ones I trusted.

Because It’s Arrogant 

“Some of them (ministers of other denominations) who have rejected the light may be dishonest, critical and sharp…… but there are others who have lived up to the best light they had upon the scriptures.”  (2)

Interesting insight from Ellen White over 130 years ago. Spoiler alert! Adventism is not the only faith community that trusts and believes the word of God.

  • Adventists are not the only ones who love Jesus.
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe in holiness
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe in the Sabbath.
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ.
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe that worship can get out of hand

A quick glance at our fundamental beliefs reveals very little that Adventists believe that is not shared by most mainline denominations. Our history and theology have a prominent Methodist influence. When a godly minister of another denomination preaches on a belief we share, it’s a blessing.

Because It’s Dangerous

Something interesting happens when the only voices you hear are familiar voices.  You don’t realize it, but you go through life talking to yourself.  You live in an echo chamber. You say something and the words come right back at you. No opposition. No contradiction. No change. That’s dangerous!

Adventists face the dangers of living in a bubble. We have our own everything. Adventist academies. Adventist universities. Adventist television.  Adventist music. Adventist hotdogs and ham! But its’ difficult to see the problem when the problem is you. Outsiders can be our salvation if they help us appreciate our strengths and confront our weaknesses.

Because It’s Inconsistent

Saturday morning, Adventists across the world will gather in local churches and sing hymns that have strengthened their faith through difficult times. Some will complain that the problem with the church today is that we don’t sing enough of these great hymns. They not only inspire us but teach us. We’ll sing:

  • Amazing Grace
  • How Firm a Foundation
  • Lift up the Trumpet
  • When We All Get to Heaven

All written by amazing musicians. Not one Adventist in the bunch. There are certainly impressive works by Adventists, but not on that list. So, we sing non Adventist hymns with no problem. But we can’t listen to a non-Adventist preacher without a problem? That’s a problem. Hymns teach. Books teach. Teachers teach. Preachers teach. We must be careful and use our judgement with them all.

Because It’s Judgmental

For Ted Wilson, his opposition to non -Adventists in Adventist pulpits goes to the idea that we don’t want false unity and weakening distinctives.  I get that. But what I don’t get are Adventist Christians who claim that ministers of other denominations are false prophets- all of them. It’s insulting, judgmental, and frankly incorrect. Ellen White again. “Ministers (of other denominations) have been treated by some of our laborers very much as if they were heathen-and they feel it.” (3) It’s wrong.

Finally, for the local pastor who has the liberty to invite non-Adventists into the pulpit, be careful. First, you need to be super critical about whoever feeds your flock. Period. Adventist or non -Adventist. Some churches are not mature enough to handle a non -Adventist voice.  You shouldn’t allow your liberty to become a stumbling block, even as you are helping them to mature.

And then, everything rises and falls on the preacher you pick. I’ve been blessed over the years to hear giants like Gardner Taylor, Charles Adams, and Sandy Ray bless Adventist congregations. The tradition continues today with the likes of Ralph West, William Curtis, Charles Booth and others.  Frankly, I’ve had few problems with guest Adventist preachers in my pulpit, and never a problem with a non-Adventist guest. Perhaps it’s because I vet them all, and outsiders more carefully than insiders. That’s good counsel and an even better place to stop.

So what are Your thoughts? Share this with everyone you can, because it’s a conversation we need to have.

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5 Lasting Lessons from Aretha’s Funeral

Aretha. The first name is enough. Like Martin and Malcolm, they stand as originals in an age of copies.  Songwriter, civil rights leader, amazing singer, women’s rights advocate, loving daughter, strong single mother. Little wonder that her funeral was a cultural touchstone. An event for the ages.

It was attended by the famous and infamous alike. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Sharpton, Tyler Perry, Jesse Jackson, Omarosa and Farrakhan. It was a many-colored affair at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.  But one thing was absolutely clear. It was a black funeral!

Now if you’ve never attended a black funeral, it’s important to do your homework. If you’re looking for staid, somber, super-serious service, you’re probably in the wrong church. That would be the John McCain funeral. Go straight on Martin Luther King Blvd, right at the Masonic Temple, and 535 miles to D.C.  You’re welcome.

But if you’re looking for a celebration that’s colorful, spiritual, irreverent, cathartic, lengthy, loud, and at times tacky-welcome to a traditional black funeral. Franklin’s funeral was certainly not representative of all black funerals, but more than some would like to admit. They are called “home-goings” for a reason. For many they are a celebration of family members crossing over into a better place. And yes, there may be dancing!

So, let me identify 5 lasting lessons from Aretha Franklin’s funeral, especially for those black funeral novices.

Number One: If you’re attending a black funeral – bring a lunch.

I’ll spare you the anthropological and cultural distinctions of African time consciousness. Let me sum it up it up in 4 words. We-take-our-time! And we don’t mind taking your time either. That 8-hour funeral was long, but not uncommonly long.  I routinely attend funerals that exceed 4 hours. So, I am familiar with the local Subway shops and take my own intermission if necessary. So, bring a lunch…and maybe some Depends.

Number Two: If you’re singing at a black funeral –  bring a dress.

Black folk are funny. They might be sitting in church looking like they just left the club or an Easter parade, but they have “standards’ for those up front. I’ll get to Bishop Ellis in a minute, but Ariana Grande’s outfit was too revealing. Too short. I’ve NEVER seen Minister Farrakhan smile that much!  And spare me the “victim shaming” comments. Was she a victim? Yes! Was she inappropriately dressed? Yes! The two are not mutually exclusive.

Number Three: If you’re feeling touchy-feely at a funeral – bring your wife.

It was the talk of the funeral. The way- too-close encounter of Bishop Ellis and Ariana Grande. It was already bad enough that he insulted the Hispanic community and embarrassed his daughter with his Taco Bell joke. What happened next dropped it another level.

I have observed Bishop Ellis for years. He is the son of an amazing pastor, charismatic leader of a Detroit megachurch, passionate community activist, and formerly the President of a Pentecostal denomination in the holiness tradition.

But his comments and cuddling of Ariana Grande were inexcusable. Forgivable, I believe, but inexcusable. His actions laid bare a long-ignored culture in black churches that at times explains away unacceptable familiarity between clergy and members. We have our own “Me Too” movement, but our collective pathology at times blinds us into believing those are “white folk” problems. This is a teaching moment.

Number Four: If you are a pop-star at a black funeral – step up your game.

Two words. Faith Hill. It was painful! I was happy she attended. Appreciated her effort. But it was a swing and a miss. What Faith Hill and other “super star” singers don’t realize is that at a black funeral, there are probably better singers in the choir than they will ever be! Where do you think Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, the Clark Sisters, and Jennifer Holiday learned their craft!

And in case you think I’m being hard on Faith Hill because of her race, someone please forward this advice to Chaka Khan…and her fan.

Number Five: If you are eulogizing at a black funeral – bring a eulogy.

I could see it coming. I’ve listened to Jasper Williams for years. He’s a classic old-school whooper in the tradition of Aretha’s father, C. L. Franklin. Distinguished pastor and passionate champion for underserved communities. But he’s a child of his era. Much of the “counsel” he offered the black community in his message was well-intentioned but painfully simplistic. It advanced the short-sighted myth that the dissolution of the black family and black businesses is solely the fault of black people. Ridiculous. I know his time was limited and the hour was late. But if you can’t appropriately develop an argument, don’t deliver it.

And worse, it was a personal platform masquerading as a eulogy. The Franklin family said as much. If you’re doing a eulogy, do a eulogy. It is a fond remembrance of the life of the person who died. It is a spiritual encouragement to the bereaved family. It is not a launching pad for personal advancement or opinion no matter how important they may be. It’s not the place.

So, there you have it. My reflections on the Aretha Franklin funeral.  Those are my top five. Comments? What about your list?

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Young Pastors: The Church’s Scapegoats??

Let me state my bias up front. I love pastors and I loved pastoring. For close to 30 years I pastored churches large and small. Churches so large that I had multiple pastors and staff. Churches so small I had to wash my own feet at communion! And today I spend a significant amount of my time training pastors, from undergrad to grad school to continuing education.

Complaints about pastors are nothing new. Like death and taxes, they can’t be avoided. But over the last several years, complaints about young pastors -and “young” can be relative- have been growing. If I had a dollar for every time I heard some of these complaints I’d be rich:

  • “All they want to do is preach.”
  • “They don’t do evangelism.”
  • “They don’t visit.”
  • “They don’t preach the doctrines.”
  • “They change EVERYTHING!”

Any truth to the charges? Of course. There is not one of these criticisms that is not true of certain young pastors. And perhaps they are truer of this current generation than past. I don’t know. But frankly, many of those charges are standard fare. I’ve heard them for as long as I can remember. Every generation has its own particular challenges, but there’s nothing new here.

And to be fair, young pastors make up a fairly small percentage of our pastoral workforce. A recent review of pastoral demographics reveals that 50% of Adventist pastors are within 10 years of retirement. So, if you’re having a problem with a pastor, it’s probably not a young one. And frankly most of the challenges our churches face, have been in place for years before most of these pastors were born:

  • Our members left the neighborhood, years ago.
  • Our evangelism fell off a cliff, years ago.
  • Our young people started leaving the church, years ago.
  • Many of our members were mean, years ago.

So, this idea that the problem with today’s church can be laid at the feet of young pastors is quite simply, scapegoating. And it’s interesting that often the same leaders and churches who complain about young pastors are generally requesting those same pastors for their camp meetings and open churches. And the same leaders who complain about young pastors, complain that their older pastors are just floating to retirement.

Now some of the complaints are absolutely on point. Many times young pastors are unaware of how much they mirror the characteristics of this crazy generation. So here is some quick counsel to young pastors:

You Don’t Know Everything

You may be the leader the conference sent, but you’re not automatically the leader the people follow. That comes with time and relationships. Every officer in that church has been there longer than you. They have a perspective that you don’t have and sorely need. Resist the urge to make changes before you’ve taken the time to understand the church and the community.

Prioritize Pastoring

A common complaint about this generation of pastors is that their priority is preaching. That’s often true. There are a number of reasons for that, including the instant access to powerful preaching online. But in this impersonal, broken age, people need shepherds more than they need speakers.

Yes, there are some things that only the “foolishness’ of preaching can do. But there are some problems that preaching can’t solve. If you prioritize pastoring, even your preaching sounds better to the members.

Love the People

Paul told Timothy in I Timothy 4:12 not to let the members “despise” or think less of him because of his youth. But his remedy for that was not to be a better preacher or more skilled leader. His answer was to be intentional about his integrity and demonstrate real love for the people.

Now that I’ve addressed the young pastors, let me offer some counsel to the members of young pastors.

Be Prayerful– Always make your pastor and family the object of prayer.

Be Patient – It will take time for your pastor to learn to juggle all the responsibilities of ministry. Some things just take time.

Be Respectful – Your pastor may be significantly younger than you, but both of you are younger than God. And God says if you disrespect the pastor, you disrespect the office he holds and the God he represents.

Be Supportive – You might not like the young pastor’s plan, but practically any plan will work if you work it. Support the pastors plans and ideas as long as they are biblical and ethical. And where there are disagreements, take them behind closed doors.

Be Protective– Think of the pastor as you would your son or daughter. Get in front of issues that might hurt. Protect the pastor’s family. Members will tell the pastor to put his family first but expect the pastor to put their family first. When you protect the pastor and family, you literally protect yourself.

So, there it is. What do you think? Are we supporting our young pastors enough? What can we do? How do you deal with the ones who won’t listen?

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