Thursday, February 28, 2013


If we want to be effective among the poor we need to be in pursuit of relationships, structure, and purpose; with the personnel to work, build, and direct each one and the resources to oil the flow.  One of the fundamental aspects of inner city ministry is being able to meet people in their need and love them into positive solutions.  As a local church is built that seeks to minister to the poor it will need to remember each of these aspects, and work to maintain them in strength.
    A lady comes into the church office and meets the Deacon.  He interviews her and finds out about her life, her present need, and hears her request.  He begins to speak to her of life changing and life time solutions, of coming to Christ, of coming to and becoming part of the church.   He is speaking to a young mother with a bunch of children, several different fathers and all the dads in prison.
    She seems to be interested, she says she wants to come to church, and asks for someone to come and pick her and her children up.  This is the place where the Deacon comes up short, and it is a moment of frustration. 
    When inner city ministry begins, with someone who decides he or she will minster to those in poverty, they begin to form relationships.  Often these relationships grow into extended families; one sibling, one parent, grandparent, one child, one cousin after another as the web of friendships develop.  Some of these relationships will end in a ride to court or prison, some will end in the funeral home, some will carry on for years and decades, and some will produce disciples of Jesus who will live out their lives in faith.
    Some of these friendships will carry with them discouragement and despair as young girls get pregnant and keep the poverty cycle going, teens drop out of school, fall into gangs and thug life.  Some of these friendships begin with children who are bright eyed and full of promise, moldable, eager to learn new things.  Some of these same children will grow into young adults that become truculent, distant, caught up in a world of easy sex, crime, drugs, and instability and no longer responsive to the friends that once carried them here and there and told them of Jesus.
    Many inner city ministries begin with one person or one family beginning, developing, and building intense relationships with inner city residents.  When one is a Gospel minister this situation can make the servant of God feel extremely important to that particular person and family.  There are temptations in this relationship; to feel like a hero, indispensable, messianic.  Another temptation is to think that these intense relationships are the be all and end all of ministry.  It can often lead to anger and burn out as the needs of even a few close friendships of the poor can be overwhelming.  The urban worker resents the fact that no one else sees how important this work is and won’t come and help them.
    Sometimes, in the hubris of good work and the feeling that no one can do it like them, the urban worker can resist building a team, or even more strategic, a church.  Sometimes when a church is begun it never grows further than the few intense relationships that the urban pastor or church planter can maintain.  Sometimes when a church is built the development of intense relationships with the urban poor is abandoned for programs and activities, which don’t always maintain the momentum of relationships in the same intimate way.  There is loss in either direction.
    This is why it is so important that the workers be increased so that relationships can be maintained, and begun with new people.  It is also important that the number of workers be increased so that effective structure can be established for the programs, ministries, and services that enable what happens in relationships to evolve into the personal development of those the urban minister is seeking to love.  Without an overall purpose to the ministry, without structure to take people beyond what a friendship can provide, we are left with relationships and friendships which are meaningful, but don’t produce long term community change.
    Recruiting, training, and deploying effective urban ministry workers is something the urban pastor has to have constantly in mind.  He can raise his own through discipleship of indigenous folk, and this should be his highest goal.  He can also seek to “radicalize” the middle class, teaching them cross cultural skills, and along with indigenous folk, teaching them to develop a humble servant like Jesus attitude.
    This is what the Deacon needed to help the single parent mom.  If he only had one family to help maybe he could give all his time to help her, to provide the transportation she needed.  Since he has many to help he needs someone else, or better yet, a team of folks to come alongside that woman.   Her needs are immense, and a ride to church won’t get it done.  Yet, a ride to church is a beginning and someone to do it faithfully would have been a blessing.  A church bus with a faithful driver would have been a blessing.  Yet without building a structure to have those resources ready the Deacon is left frustrated. 
    The resources to have a full time Deacon, to have a church bus, to pay a driver are all needed.  The resources to supplement this woman in her rent, utilities, food, etc. are all going to be needed over time.  Men to mentor and coach her children will be needed.  Older women to counsel, coach, and encourage her are going to be needed.  Job training, job placement, job creation or whatever it takes to give her a new life and new direction are going to take people, programs, and money.  Inner city churches need an army of saints recruited, trained, and deployed to effectively minister in a place of great need.
    In spite of all that the Deacon doesn’t have, or doesn’t have yet, he still has the hope that the Gospel is powerful. That a single parent mom coming to faith can experience the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in her life, and give her the tenacity and hope to rise above the hole she is already in is surely a miracle, but one that has happened many times, and by the grace of God will happen again.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Drift Toward Elitism

    I would venture to say that most Reformed Presbyterian Evangelical types don't think of themselves as elitists.  In fact every once in a while they sound as if they are an oppressed minority, being marginalized by the liberal media, culturally ridiculed by the atheistic/agnostic academy.  While there is some truth to the idea that Evangelicals as a whole are often mocked and disdained by the liberal intellectuals and left wing cultural power brokers, there is also truth that the disdain also flows in the opposite direction.
    Recently I have read how the privileged, the educated, the intellectuals tend to self-segregate, and how this is documented by demographics that reveal how they have chosen to live in a few geographic areas where the top universities and media centers are located.  Purporting to care about the poor and the marginalized ethnics they are more and more leaving those people physically behind while embracing them in study papers, documentaries, and as theories.  In short the well off like to live with the well off, they like to live where the jobs pay well, and where their children can get the best opportunities in schooling and enrichment.
    My concern is not for them, or their hypocrisy.  My concern is for our hypocrisy.  I am concerned that the efforts of Reformed and Evangelical folks to raise their Covenant Children and give them a Christian education, to home school them, to build an intellectual bastion of Reformed thinking in our schools and colleges, and to self segregate in where we live and where we build our churches  has also left the poor and marginalized ethnic communities behind.
    We have the amazing ability to talk about integrating our faith into our vocational disciplines so that Christ is Lord in all of life, and yet make the life we are living one of self-indulgent isolation from the rest of the world.  I am impressed with the education of Christian children, I am impressed with the competence they exhibit and certainly they are some of the most affluent, talented, and creative people.  I just wonder why we did it, what was it all for, and what has been its result?   Did we give our children all of this for them to enjoy a good life, did we do it so we would feel successful as parents that we hadn't failed our children but gave them everything we could think of so they would materially thrive and we wouldn't feel guilty?  It seems to me that if our children aren't taking the risk of sacrifice for the Kingdom of God, after we have given them all of this great Christian education, then we didn't really give them a Christian education.
    The way things are going it looks like the Liberals will murder their children in the womb, and their birth rate will continue to go down.  They will refuse to get married, wait too late to get married, or marry as homosexuals and not produce children.   The religious right will continue to have babies and we will educate them well.  The wealthy liberals will still have Harvard, but sooner or later it will be irrelevant because there won't be anybody to go there. 
    What bothers me is the folks both of these aforementioned groups leave behind.  While Liberals have a rhetoric about justice it seems to me we have a theology of missions, mercy, and justice.  That theology is not one that challenges the poor and nations of the world to do their best to achieve so they might join our ranks, but challenges us to give up our lives for them.  How are our families doing that, how our Christian educational institutions doing that, how are our churches doing that?
     It is one thing to have great intellectual discussions about the Kingdom of God and it is something else to seek it, and to live it out.  I'm just wondering how much elitism we can create before we have "elite-ed" ourselves into irrelevancy by failing to preach the Gospel to the poor, and winning the lost?

Monday, February 11, 2013


   Tomorrow my wife and I go down to Atlanta to assess a dozen couples or so as to whether or not they should be recommended for church planting.  These folks have already taken a psychological profile, they have been evaluated by their peers, they have done a self evaluation.  Now it will all come together as these assessors interact with them, and finally give them feedback as to whether or not this is a good idea for them.
    The whole idea of assessment can be scary, and even controversial.  Some Presbyteries and Presbyters seem offended that this group of "experts" gets to make such a recommendation, rather than the Presbytery.  Of course the role of each is different.  The courts of the church decide on someone's knowledge, theology, and hopefully character.  They hear a sermon, they read recommendations, they know the candidate's views.  They decide on someone's fitness to be ordained, as they should.  Assessment makes no claim to do such a thing.  Neither do Presbyteries actually do much parsing of gifts and personality for a rather unique job in the ministry, and that is planting a new congregation. 
    Can any pastor in the PCA duly ordained plant a church?  Any of them can try of course, and certainly the Lord can use anyone to do his will if he so chooses.  However, the reality as shown by experience is that certain men have stronger gifts, stronger marriages, stronger emotional stability that will help them have a stronger chance at success.  Presbyteries do not readily judge these things.  So, as a tool of the denomination, and thus the Presbytery, we have assessment.  Is assessment always dead on accurate?  Of course not, but the percentage is pretty high in being able to predict who has a better shot at getting it done.  Is it possible that some recommended will still fail?  Oh yes, it is all too possible.
    That is one reason I admire these folks so much.  It is very possible that after lots of money spent, lots of uprooting and changing for a family, lots of effort, great amounts of prayer, and lots of mentoring, coaching, and training, the work might still collapse.  The fear of failing assessment is nowhere near as big a problem as seeing a new church plant collapse around you.  Reality teaches that failure is always a possibility, and that is one reason many choose not to try, not to respond to the need of people, even the call of God.  So, are these people arrogant, are they over confident, or clueless about how hard it might be?  Well, some of them are of course, and maybe the Lord can use that as well.
    We hear the statistic that one of the most effective ways to win people to Jesus Christ is to plant a new church.  When you have a church planter, who is hungry for new people, who goes after them like an Evangelist should, new people come into the Kingdom.  One of our great handicaps in the Reformed community is the dearth of evangelism in our churches.  Not many of our pastors are mentoring young people in personal evangelism, or even programmed ministry in which the Gospel is shared and people are called to faith.  We have candidates who finish seminary, are ordained, and come to assessment and tell us they have never led a non-believer to Christ.  Frankly we have applicants for church planting who don't seem to know how to weave the Gospel story, and its call to faith, in their sermons. 
    This work, for which they are aspiring, is hard.  Let no one doubt that the process of raising support, of finding the right city and neighborhood, of having your wife and children on board with the idea, on finding a building or location to meet, of figuring out how to meet new people, of patiently discipling, mentoring, and training new Christians to become leaders, or handling all kinds of objections that are cultural, political, religious, and sometimes just unbelief is arduous.  Let no one doubt that Satan intends to stop them.  If he can he will destroy their faith, their marriage, their children, their self-confidence, and tear the new congregation apart as well.
    It is wisdom to make sure they are as prepared as they can possibly be, it is wisdom to give them feedback as to areas of weakness.  It is wisdom to call them to repentance, marital unity, and self understanding before they enter the heat of battle.  We cannot guarantee their success, that lies in the hands of God alone.  Yet, if we go in faith, if we go trained, if we go prepared, and if we remain faithful, and still is okay.  Our obedient and faithful efforts done in wisdom, with skill, in the power of the Holy Spirit should look only for the approval of God not to comparison with someone else who seems to have made it. 
    It is scary to think that we might fail, but if our commendation is from God then we cannot be said to have failed at all, even if results are denied us, or others seems to have made so much more progress than ourselves.  Without the possibility of failure there is no real risk, and without risk the nations will not be discipled, the lost will not be found, and preachers will not be sent.  The world needs men who will seek the Kingdom of God over all things, who will risk all for the sake of Jesus.  Lord, give us such men!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Being Nice While Preaching Judgment.

What happened to the coming judgment?  What happened to preaching judgment?  It seems more appealing to preach justice, since everyone seems to be able to define that for themselves and can more or less agree that there should be justice.  Judgment is a necessary part of justice, without it there is no retribution, no payment for sins, no restoring of balance, no making sure the oppressor gets what coming to him. 
   What has happened to our Gospel where it is embarrassing to hear anyone conclude that this disaster, that slaughter, that storm and drought are all signs of the impending judgment of God?  The chatter on social networks after some prominent preacher tries to connect the dots of trouble with previous sins and the justice of God is almost universal in condemnation, and that mostly from Evangelicals.  Quite often the conversation is to rebuke the rare preacher who raises his voice and to point him to a more loving, compassionate, appealing Jesus who would never say such things.  This kind of hell, fire, and brimstone should be reserved for backwards and backwoods Fundamentalists it seems. 
    Our present American culture seems to respond favorably to those who preach justice especially if it is for their current preferred victim.  These days those most in favor seem to be homosexuals and women.  We have come to the point in American society where the President of the United States publicly advocates for the Boy Scouts of America to open their ranks to homosexuals, and there will be barely a whisper from pulpits or pundits about it.  Opening the "opportunity" in the military for women to go into combat, so that they might kill and be killed as their primary military specialty, is painted as justice.
    I remember when Billy Graham included warnings of judgment as part of his evangelistic preaching.  Most of the preachers I know in this present generation would never do that, especially those among young urban professionals.  It just doesn't seem nice to draw any kind of definite connection to "natural" events and God's anger, and God being angry is not something someone mentions to sophisticated, politically aware, non-Christians when attempting to share the love of Jesus with them.  How can one speak about God being angry and being loving at the same time?
    Is it a loss of courage?  Is it a measure of wisdom in evangelistic technique?  Is it unbelief in God being a God of justice in the fullest sense implying that he brings justice and will execute it?
Is it a choice to choose a future (and now evidently debatable) distant hell over the Biblical declaration that judgment has already come and will surely come in universal terms for everyone who doesn't hide themselves in Christ?
    Obviously politics is part and parcel of the problem.  Those hysterical vitriolic haters of President Obama and the Democrats post the most extreme and sensationalized diatribes and it becomes difficult to make any meaningful and legitimate criticism without seeming to be thrown into the same crowd as them. 
    "So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter.  Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey."  (Isaiah 59:14-15)
    But..."The lion has roared-who will not fear?  The Sovereign Lord has spoken-who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:8)
    I want to be a preacher of justice, and I have tried to faithfully proclaim God's love for the poor, his call for all of  us to stand against injustice and for mercy.  Often this has been directed at the issues of racism, materialistic greed and selfishness, the failure to evangelize among the very people Jesus had been anointed to preach to while becoming so self indulgent.  Advocates of justice have said "amen" when they have heard these salvos delivered against the white majority, against the rich.  They become uncomfortable when I declare that homosexuality is not only a sin, but an evidence of the judgment of God against an immoral society such as ours.  Judgment has already fallen and in our compassionate witness to those in the "gay and lesbian community" it needs to be said, while absolutely holding out the mercy of a forgiving, cleansing, and delivering God.
    If Romans 1:24 and context is true then homosexuality is an evidence that God "gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another."  He says it again in verse 26-27.  All the arguments about others sins being equally bad, deserving of judgment are true, but in this case God specifically describes a particular sin as a judgment in itself.    This has nothing to do with despising homosexuals or running away from engaging them with the Gospel, or in not standing up of human rights when and if they might be horribly treated.  It does have everything to do with being honest with them, and with our nation, about what the God of the Bible actually is saying, and He is speaking, now, in this current moment so that we might hear the warnings before it is too late; too late for individuals, and too late for a nation that in a rather schizophrenic way sees itself blessed by God, and teetering on the lip of hell.  It has everything to do with truly loving people by not letting them avoid unpleasant truths that are the source of their salvation.