July 2019

The Cooperative Program makes more sense now than ever

July 31 2019 by Steve Scoggins, BSC president

One of our younger leaders in North Carolina recently told me about discussions he has participated in with other young ministers interested in church planting. He said the conversations often feature a popular missions and church planting network with several hundred churches globally and a budget of around $5 million.

Our leader said he usually raises a question. “Wouldn’t you be excited if there was a missions and church planting network with the organizational tools to mobilize tens of thousands of churches and harness a budget of a few hundred million dollars for the sake of the gospel?”
“We already have that,” he explains. “It’s called the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Our International Mission Board (IMB) and North American Mission Board (NAMB) focus almost exclusively on areas where there is least gospel presence. This year Southern Baptists will give $260 million to the IMB through the Cooperative Program (CP) and through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. The North American Mission Board will receive over $100 million through the CP and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.
Yet, not all missions and church planting among unreached people groups takes place through the IMB and NAMB. Reaching the unreached in North Carolina falls almost exclusively on the shoulders of our state convention and its churches.
We have 1.5 million people in North Carolina who were born outside of the United States. There are pockets of lostness in our state that rival those of any major area in the world. Our N.C. missionaries are targeting those pockets by working with our churches to reach people.
The young leader had one more thing to say about funding missions and church planting: “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The Cooperative Program is still effective and relevant.”
I believe the Cooperative Program makes more sense now than ever. It is more effective because we can do more together than any church can do by itself. Few churches could afford to sustain just one missionary by themselves. But even the smallest Southern Baptist church can accurately say that they have over 4,000 missionaries internationally and they help start hundreds of churches every year in the U.S.
Because of the Cooperative Program, missionaries can go without the burden of raising their own funds. It takes months or years for a missionary in other evangelical mission organizations to raise their own support. We fully fund our international missionaries. They can concentrate on reaching the lost without having to worry about raising money to stay on the field.
Students at our seminaries can go at half the price of other evangelical schools because of the support given by the CP. We don’t want future pastors to be handcuffed by unnecessary debt to finance their education.
The Cooperative Program not only sends out a vast mission force, and not only trains a constant stream of new Christian workers, but it also meets so many practical needs in our nation. As a pastor I receive appeals to take care of orphans or feed those who are hungry on a regular basis. We are caring for thousands of children in our children’s homes. We are there with our food trucks to feed people when disaster strikes.
If you are looking for a balance of both Great Commission and Great Commandment ministries, then support the Cooperative Program. You will reach the lost, disciple the saved and love your neighbors.
Many of our churches will soon begin their budgeting processes. While you are looking for ways to impact the world and our nation, don’t forget a proven way that has been changing lives since 1925.
Include a commitment to the Cooperative Program as your first effort in missions. You can still find other ways to tailor mission efforts for your church. But start by funding the CP. It is the lifeline of all we do as Southern Baptists.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Steve Scoggins is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Hendersonville and president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.)

7/31/2019 10:44:10 AM by Steve Scoggins, BSC president | with 0 comments

Does church membership matter?

July 30 2019 by J.D. Greear

There was a time when the question of church membership was not much of a question at all. Jump back a generation or two, and nearly every church in the country had a roster of members.

Now the question, however, is much more persistent. Many contemporary churches have membership but don’t place much emphasis on it. Others don’t have membership at all, encouraging their people to get involved and engaged without a more formal process.
So should believers join their local church?
When you look at scripture, you won’t find the word “membership.” But that’s not much of an argument against membership, since the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible either. The concept is.
The core concept of membership is having a covenant community where you belong. We see that evidenced in multiple places in scripture.
In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul mentions a case of removing someone from the body of believers, which implies a formal category. In Acts 6, the believers have an election, again implying an “in/out” category. And in 1 Timothy 5:3–16, we see a clear teaching on how to handle widows in the church. In that latter passage, there’s even language of creating a roster so the leaders would be able to care for these women well.
The New Testament writers never say, “You need to become a member of the local church.” But every letter in the New Testament assumes that believers are an active part of a local church gathering.
We see this in the how the writers give instruction on submission to church authority, how believers ought to handle sin within the church, and the elders’ responsibility to shepherd the flock under their care (1 Corinthians 5, Hebrews 13:17, Acts 20:28). If we are to take these commands seriously, we have to be joined to a local body to know who our leaders are.
In my experience, many people resist joining the church because they approach the church with a consumer mindset. They don’t want to belong. They don’t want expectations placed on them. They want to receive something. It may be a good something – biblical teaching, for instance – but the overall approach is consumeristic.
I’m not always opposed to consumer relationships. They’re fine if you’re talking about fast food. But apply that kind of thinking to relationships like your marriage or your children, and you will create major problems.
The church is not a consumer relationship. The church is a family. And families are committed to each other.
The biblical metaphor that shows this most clearly is that of being “one body” (1 Corinthians 12). Can you imagine your physical body with “non-committed” body members? What good is a hand if it’s not actually connected to the rest of you?
It’s just as silly for Christians to think they can follow Christ without engaging in the life of the local church body. How do you use your gifts and experience the gifts of others if not in the local community? How do you fulfill the “one another” commands of Scripture unless you are, well, with one another?
Generally, though, when I encounter someone who is reluctant to join a church, the issues aren’t predominantly theological or ideological. They’re usually more a combination of preference and personal history. Those of us in ministry should be sensitive to that, but we can also help disciple our people by letting them know that it is a categorically good thing for them to become members.
For instance, I frequently have conversations like this with college students. They are plugged into their college ministry, relatively involved in church, and just don’t see much need to join.
But rather than bashing them with guilt (“Jesus died so you could join His church! Don’t spurn His sacrifice!”), I try to remind them that the local church is a tremendous gift. In the local church, college students can find multi-dimensional discipleship and be led by elders whose very role is to shepherd them. In the local church, college students can practice love and service in ways that set them up for a lifetime of faithfulness.
If you’re hesitant to join a local church because it’s full of imperfect people, you’ll be waiting a long time.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said there are three stages of growth when it comes to Christians engaging in the church. The first is disgust at the sins of others. The second is disgust at your own sin. On their own, those first two stages push us away from the church.
But the third stage is where we recognize that we can re-enter the church as an instrument in the hands of the Redeemer – a Redeemer who has, in fact, redeemed us from being the self-righteous Pharisee committed to judging everyone else.
Don’t wait for the perfect church. It simply doesn’t exist. And if it did, the moment you joined it, it wouldn’t be perfect anymore.
Instead, find a church with good biblical preaching, that emphasizes community and practices accountability, and that propels you into ministry. Then join in with everything you’ve got.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – J.D. Greear is president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. This column was adapted from his jdgreear.com website.)

7/30/2019 11:20:23 AM by J.D. Greear | with 0 comments

Is Sunday still special?

July 29 2019 by Brian Hobbs

According to LifeWay Research, 77 percent of churchgoers say they take an intentional day of rest, with most doing so on Sunday. This idea of a Sabbath dates back to the Old Testament, even to the creation week itself.
Societies and nations impacted by Christianity almost always have viewed Sunday as special. In America, however, Sunday has increasingly been treated like any other day.

We see this through little league sporting events scheduled for Sunday and most businesses being open. So much of this is the case that when a business (like Chick-fil-A) stays closed on Sunday, the world remarks about the difference.
Previous generations of Baptists might be surprised to see the way today’s Christians live, shop and work on Sundays. While some blue laws remain on the books, the rest of our culture has pretty much given up on the idea of Sunday as special, as a day dedicated for worship and rest.
Some years back, an international movement was born as a backlash to this societal creep into Sundays. The European Sunday Alliance, which is not specifically Christian or religious, has pushed for laws to protect Sundays. It proposed that Sunday “shall not be sacrificed for economic interests. It needs to be protected as the day of rest and of social gathering.”
Thinking about America, what are some benefits of trying to reclaim Sunday as special?

A day of rest

In the Bible, the Sabbath was given as a gift to man (Genesis 2:2-3). Former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman even wrote a book on the topic called The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath. In our hustle-and-bustle world, a dedicated day of rest would be a huge blessing.

Dedicated worship time

“Super Bowl Sunday” is not the only time of year the world competes for a slice of Sunday. Closer to home, little league tournaments, for example, have many Christian families away from church on Sundays. In times past, secular groups understood Sunday was off-limits, that it is a day for worship. Each week, the ringing church bells and quieting of commerce were a testimony to our desire to turn aside for dedicated worship of God. It is not too late to realign our habits in this way.

Family time

The Baptist Messenger here in Oklahoma once published an in-depth series exploring family breakdown. One of the leading indicators of family health was the amount of time a family spends at the dinner table together. In America, through our fast-food reliance and disconnected culture, many of us have done away with the blessings of shared meal times and Sunday as “family day,” all for the sake of a little more efficiency and alleged productivity.
While no good Baptist wants or would dare suggest a return to legalism that demands strict Sabbath observance, this can be one of those issues where Christians reexamine our habits and attitudes on Sundays.
In Christ, we have freedom in how to live. As the apostle Paul stated, “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord” (Romans 14:5-6).
Yet taking back Sundays could yield some important benefits for you, your family and society as a whole. Whether it’s making church attendance a bigger priority or simply taking a break from social media, each of us can be better blessed when we treat Sunday as special again.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Brian Hobbs is editor of the Baptist Messenger, baptistmessenger.com, news journal of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.)

7/29/2019 11:10:46 AM by Brian Hobbs | with 0 comments

Carrying your cross

July 25 2019 by Clara Molina

There are Christians who say, “What a cross to bear! How long am I going to suffer?” They might think that carrying their cross means surviving a long-standing difficult situation, enduring abuse by another person or suffering from a long-term disease.
Carrying your cross, however, is not enduring an abusive mate, putting up with a partying neighbor who doesn’t let you sleep on weekends, dealing with a coworker who makes your life miserable or suffering a prodigal son who does not follow after God.

For the Christian, it goes much further.
To carry the Christian cross means dying to your own desires and suffering persecution because of your faith, even to the point of losing your life for following Jesus Christ.
Although carrying one’s own cross is unique to every Christian, we all have the same goal of sharing the gospel. Although it can prove dangerous in many countries, Christians can suffer persecution anywhere in the world. Carrying the Christian cross is not easy because it requires sacrifice. As our Lord Jesus, the one who suffered the ultimate persecution, said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24, CSB).
To prepare to carry his cross and follow Christ, the Christian needs to:

Turn from selfishness, start seeking holiness.

Deny yourself and put Christ first (Romans 12:3, 2 Corinthians 5:15, Hebrews 12:14). The self-centered person cannot love, follow or obey God properly and pursue holiness. The Christian cannot think of me, myself and I. The selfish person only cares for himself, puts his desires and needs first, and even hurts others to fulfill his goals because he does not have “ambition for the mission.” The mission is to love and obey God while sharing the gospel regardless of the circumstances.

Learn to serve with a clean heart and no personal agenda.

Serving is a sacrifice of worship and a way to imitate Christ who said, “… the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:18). The Lord knows our heart and the reason behind all we do (Psalm 51:10, Psalm 27:8).

Offer his/her time to God.

The Christian must spend time in prayer, reading and meditating in His Word, trusting and waiting on God in order to discern His will. As the psalmist wrote, “I have asked one thing from the LORD; it is what I desire: to dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, gazing on the beauty of the LORD and seeking him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).

Wait and trust in God.

If the Christian does not wait by faith (Proverbs 3:5-7, Hebrews 11:1), how can he discern where God is sending him and carry his cross? He who wants to follow Christ and carry his cross cannot rely on his own understanding.

Obey and not complain.

Obeying without complaining (Philippians 2:14) shows love toward God and His Son. Carrying your cross does not include amenities. Follow the apostle Paul’s example: If you are going to serve God and carry your cross, do not complain about lodging, weather conditions, the food you are given to eat, etc.

Love God wholeheartedly and above all things.

God’s love for us (John 3:16) and Christ’s genuine love for the Father (John 17:1-3) is why the Christian exists (Deuteronomy 6:5). He who is a Christian will not be able to bear the weight of the cross when the weight of his sins is greater.

Share his/her faith confident in the Holy Spirit’s help.

Christians who carry their cross share with others the One who died on the cross for them (Matthew 28:18-20, Romans 10:9-10). As Christians, we need to share our faith without fear of what to say, knowing that Jesus said, “For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what must be said” (Luke 12:12).
I once read the following, “Decide what you are going to believe and believe what you decided.” If you decided to follow Christ, deny yourself, carry your cross, believe what you decided, and stay close to your God who guides you.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Clara Molina, a member of the Southern Baptist Hispanic Leaders Council, is a conference speaker and author of A Legacy of Wisdom: Wisdom and Encouragement from Women in the Lives of Adam, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon, and from the Ministry of the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul and Oh No! My Husband Is the Pastor.)

7/25/2019 3:54:49 PM by Clara Molina | with 0 comments

Hotel-heightened hospitality

July 24 2019 by Anteneshia Sanders

I didn’t think much about hotels until I started working at one.
Crisp linens, a TV, hopefully breakfast and some of those tiny lotions – what else was there to think about?

A whole lot more, I’ve learned.
Aside from the preparation involved in making sure everybody has a comfortable place to rest, we also learn to practice empathy. Our guests come from all over for all kinds of reasons.
I’ve watched families come together for every event possible – weddings (so many weddings), funerals and reunions. Business travelers who spend the week away from their families darken our sliding doors weekly and settle into home away from home. The nations come to us. Sometimes people will stay for months at a time. Those guests often become friends, knowing us by name and shift.
When I recognized what my job really was, it changed the way I saw work. As a believer, hospitality could never just be an industry to me. Hospitality is wrapped up in Christ’s call to love my neighbor. The goal to make people feel welcomed and valued is prefaced by their dignity and value as image-bearers of God. Work, then, has become a joy as God has allowed me in on sharing His heart for us through genuine service. This is a gospel gateway disguised as career.
Compartmentalizing my “work life” and my “real life” is hard to do, especially in hospitality. My love for God and for people should flow naturally into this specific line of work. Knowing that work is never “just work” keeps me working unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23), serving those He brings past our desk and giving them a glimpse of the divine hospitality of God. He is the one who invites us into true rest.
I often think of Hebrews 13:2 when I’m working: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” I’m not sure if I’ve ever encountered any angels, but I have been blessed plenty of times. Believing guests have encouraged me in the Lord. Guests have told me their stories, their eyes filled with tears. I’ve done a lot of listening and a lot of praying. What a grace to be able to petition God for a stranger. I may never see any of these people again, but I don’t want to miss the opportunity to be a part of what God is doing in their lives, nor do I want to miss a blessing.
Yes, we have difficult guests, and that’s hard. But it doesn’t take long to find out they just had a rough week at the office or are about to bury a loved one. Even still, sometimes people are just difficult for difficulty’s sake. God has been gentle and patient with me in my worst moments, so I can extend that same kind of courtesy for a moment.

Managing hospitality

I’ve recently been afforded the opportunity to step into a management position. While the promotion has given me a new level of responsibility, I also have new opportunities to practice hospitality.
Supervising a team of people can be challenging. However, my coworkers need my empathy just as much, if not more, than our guests. Hospitality can be hard enough by itself, let alone when it’s your 9-to-5, remembering when it’s good to say:
“Thank you.”
“Great job today.”
“I know this is hard, what can I do to help you?”
“How are you?”
“How is _____ going?”
“Take a break.”
“Have you eaten today?”
“Do you have everything you need?”
I get to open my door and my life to those with whom I work. When conversations extend past room status and elite guests, I have the opportunity to share the reason for the hope I have. I get to let them in on a peace that is unshakeable, regardless of the day’s pressures.
Christ went out of His way to serve us. He left glory to come and wash our feet. He was obedient to death – death in our place – and has gone to prepare a place for us. That, friends, is hospitality. This is our example of kindness and sacrifice.
While our human acts of kindness are just a shadow, they echo the divine. Yours may not be a career of crisp linens and tiny lotions, but God calls us all to hospitality. How can you leverage your job in a way that welcomes people in? Do your employees find you approachable and safe? Are there changes you can make or conversations you can start that will make these things so?
God is faithful. His hospitality toward us is a perfect supply – enough to give to those around us.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Anteneshia Sanders is a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary pursuing an M.A. in ministry to women and author of I Still Can’t Swim. This article first appeared at the seminary’s Intersect Project website, intersectproject.org.)

7/24/2019 10:52:02 AM by Anteneshia Sanders | with 0 comments

SBC decline: Is it really as bad as it sounds?

July 22 2019 by Steve Scoggins

If you only read the headlines that appear in the media, you would conclude the sky is falling on American Christianity. That is not true. Glenn Stanton has summarized several legitimate studies of religion in America to give us a hopeful assessment in his new book The Myth of the Dying Church. Here are some of the facts not being reported.
The percentage of Americans who are evangelical has grown by 5 million since 2007. Evangelicals could be defined as those who believe the Bible is inspired and true and emphasize a “born again” experience.
Where are the losses in church attendance mainly occurring? Liberal mainline churches lost 5 million members over the same time period.
Since 1972, the liberal churches have declined from 32 percent of America’s population to 12 percent. The rise of the “nones” has come almost exclusively from those who are leaving those denominations.
Stanton has reported that the only evangelical denomination that is reporting a loss is our Southern Baptist Convention. Why are our numbers declining when the rest of evangelicalism is growing?
I believe a clue to this transition comes from another factor Stanton documents: the rise of the number of evangelicals who now attend “non-denominational” churches. One out of five evangelicals attend what they believe to be a non-denominational church. They are still evangelicals, but they have left denominational nametags behind.
I believe the growth of non-denominational churches is one of the factors influencing our numerical decline. Here are some things to consider about this new trend.
Many of the non-denominational churches are baptistic. They practice believer’s baptism. They believe in the full inspiration of the Bible. Doctrinally, Southern Baptists find themselves at home quickly in these churches.
Some of our people may think they are attending non-denominational churches when they are actually attending SBC churches. Most of my children attend churches affiliated with the SBC that do not have Baptist in the name. Some of our strongest churches and leaders use mission or values-oriented names, rather than traditional or descriptive names.
They are strong churches that actively participate in Southern Baptist missions and ministries, but do not emphasize their ties to the SBC. Their goal is to attract people who may not attend a Baptist church because of what they feel is the baggage attached to that name. When pollsters like those used in Stanton’s book contact them, they may identify as non-denominational.
Let me throw out one more possible factor in our numerical decline. Some of it may be due to the fact that fewer SBC churches are taking the time to fill out the Annual Church Profile. This report is the only way we have of knowing how many people attend our churches, how many we are baptizing and so on. To be honest with you, the report is long, and takes valuable time to fill out. It is concerned with many programs that were more a part of our past than our present.
We have around 800 churches in North Carolina who give to Southern Baptist causes through our state convention, yet did not fill out the Annual Church Profile. How many baptisms took place in those churches? Are we underreporting our attendance and membership because we lack the data?
What can we do in response to these trends?
1) We should make it simpler to report the major facts about a church each year: number of baptisms, attendance and more. I would recommend a post card sized Annual Church Profile. If more churches reported data, we would have a better grasp on the facts.
2) We need to help people understand the value of giving to Southern Baptist missions and ministries. An evangelical church will want to give money to missions. When a church gives to missions, they try to find causes they agree with. The Mormons send out many missionaries, but I will not support them because I strongly disagree with their teaching. If your financial support goes through Southern Baptist channels, you can know the doctrinal bedrock underneath that mission work will include a strong belief in the Bible and an accurate witness to the gospel.
3) We need to do a better job in communicating what we are doing through the lifeline of Southern Baptist missions – the Cooperative Program (CP). The CP gives every church a way to impact the world. It involves every church in a balanced set of ministries that go from reaching the nations, reaching our state, helping make people’s lives better through benevolent causes and training future leaders.
I will attempt to explain the great work being done by the Cooperative Program in a future article.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Steve Scoggins is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Hendersonville and president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.)

7/22/2019 3:15:06 PM by Steve Scoggins | with 0 comments

Thankful for FUGE

July 18 2019 by Nathan A. Finn

Sitting in a rocking chair on a balcony at Ridgecrest Conference Center near Black Mountain, N.C., I listened to teenagers below sing the popular worship songs “What a Beautiful Name” and “No Longer Slaves.”

I love Ridgecrest because I find its beauty to be peaceful. But rarely quiet. I was moved as campers voiced praises to the Lord during a FUGE summer camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains that He created and crafted for His glory. It reminded me how thankful I am for FUGE.
I’ve stayed at Ridgecrest many times before, both by myself and with my whole family, but this is at least the third time I have stayed there while a FUGE summer camp was in session.
FUGE was launched 40 years ago in 1979 by what was then the Baptist Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention – now LifeWay Christian Resources.
The original version of the camp was Centrifuge, a youth discipleship camp that remains very popular (and is the source of the “FUGE” name). Over the decades, the FUGE family of camps has expanded to include CentriKid, for third- through sixth-graders, and MissionFuge, which emphasizes personal evangelism and service.
While one might expect Ridgecrest to host all the FUGE camps, most are hosted by Baptist-related colleges and universities. My own institution, North Greenville University, is hosting FUGE camps all summer.
I love watching campers bounce around our campus during the day, meeting some of them in our dining hall during meals, and occasionally worshiping with them in our chapel during the evening. I also love meeting the sleep-deprived chaperones who’ve taken time away from busy schedules to invest in their church’s young people.
My own life has been richly blessed by FUGE. It was at Centrifuge at Carson-Newman University that I first had extended conversations with a youth minister about whether God might be calling me into full-time vocational ministry.
It was at Centrifuge at Palm Beach Atlantic University where I first led another individual to saving faith in Jesus Christ. The following year I had my first summer camp experience as a leader when as a summer youth minister, I took a youth group to MissionFuge at University of Mobile.
Most important, it was at Centrifuge at North Greenville University – where I now serve as chief academic officer – that I prayed to accept Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. I’m not just thankful for FUGE; I’m eternally grateful.
This summer, tens of thousands of FUGE campers will be served by hundreds of staffers at dozens of locations around the country. The theme for the summer is “Restored.” (You can watch the promotional video online.)
Join me in praying that the Lord would be at work through FUGE and other Christ-centered camps to bring a multitude of young people to faith in Christ, to strengthen the faith of many others, and to “call out the called” to vocational ministry and missions.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Nathan A. Finn serves as provost and dean of the university faculty at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C.)

7/18/2019 12:25:31 PM by Nathan A. Finn | with 0 comments

Those who weep

July 17 2019 by Erich Bridges

Recently I spent time with two old friends. Both are grieving.
One just lost his mother to cancer. The other lost his wife – also to cancer – three years ago. His best friend died of a massive heart attack a few weeks ago.

I knew that mother, that wife and that best friend. So I grieve their passing as well.
How do I comfort my friends? By keeping my mouth shut. When Jesus, for example, learned of the death of his friend Lazarus and heard the wails of Lazarus’ sisters, He didn’t say much. He wept.
Words can wait. Tears come first. Then silence. Then listening – if the grieving one wants to talk. If they want to hear what words of comfort you have to offer, they’ll ask.
That’s hard to do – staying silent. You want to say something, especially if you have experienced your own loss. You want to salve the wound with words. Don’t. Follow Jesus’ lead. He knew when to cry, when to speak and when to be quiet. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Experiencing grief can prepare you to bear the griefs of others, but only if you allow it to do its good work in you first.
Grief is the price you pay for love, the saying goes, but it can become too high a price. Some people let grief overwhelm them and never start on the road to recovery. Some spend the rest of their lives in despair, anger or bitterness.
“Sorrow removes a great deal of a person’s shallowness, but it does not always make that person better,” Oswald Chambers wrote in My Utmost for His Highest.
“Suffering either gives me to myself or it destroys me,” Oswald noted. “You cannot find or receive yourself through success, because you lose your head over pride. And you cannot receive yourself through the monotony of your daily life, because you give in to complaining. The only way to find yourself is in the fires of sorrow. Why it should be this way is immaterial. The fact is that it is true in the scriptures and in human experience.”
I have lost loved ones through the years, but I didn’t know grief – really know it – until my wife died in 2017. I soon discovered how shallow I was. My heart had to expand to contain the tears or drown. It’s an ongoing excavation project.
That doesn’t qualify me to comfort someone else, however. Everyone mourns differently. To enter into someone else’s grief, you don’t necessarily need to understand it, but you need an invitation. When the invitation comes, be ready. Be available. Be generous.
“You can always recognize who has been through the fires of sorrow and received himself, and you know that you can go to him in your moment of trouble and find that he has plenty of time for you,” Chambers promised. “If you will receive yourself in the fires of sorrow, God will make you nourishment for other people.”
Blessed are those who mourn, Christ says, for they shall be comforted. He might even use you to do the comforting.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is a writer based in Richmond, Va., with 30-plus years in Baptist journalism.)

7/17/2019 4:46:27 PM by Erich Bridges | with 0 comments

What War Did and Will Do for the Church in the Middle East

July 15 2019 by Nicole Leigh, IMB

In a small village in the Levant, ISIS is gone. The bombs have been silenced. The violence has passed. In its place is a stillness – a darkness that hovers, testifying to what happened here. Some call it terrorism, some call it religion, some call it politics. Villagers know it as a darkness whose far-reaching tendrils choked out life.

IMB Photo
Children in Kabul.

Here, ISIS had dragged men and women from their houses to be beaten, crucified, and beheaded. Children, forced to watch things too horrible to speak of, were trained to be warriors and zealots.
Now, where homes, churches, schools, and playgrounds used to be, there is only rubble. And below those piles of rubble are tunnels where men crawled beneath the skin of this once peaceful village, doing damage from within its very core, infiltrating the hearts of people with fear while celebrating violence, hatred, and death.
The air itself seems heavier after those days. Believers say they can physically feel this weight as they walk the streets marked by garish graffiti, bullet holes, and ash. But knowing One who is greater and stronger than any other gives them the courage to come and minister to those left behind, all while praying from Genesis 50, what had been intended for evil, God might use for good.

A Light in the Darkness

Many former residents don’t have the peace and comfort that comes through God’s Word. They can’t bear to see the places where loved ones were killed and tortured, and they choose instead to remain in exile forever. Others are slowly and cautiously returning, knowing past lives will never be reclaimed but hoping they can build something new. Christian workers want to help them build on a solid foundation.
When Luqa,* a local believer, and his family fled their village, it was with only the clothes on their backs, gunfire echoing in their ears, and tanks chasing them. The family was separated at the checkpoints, and he feared he would never see them again. Relief was palpable when his brother contacted him by phone. The family reunited and waited for the nightmare to end.  A year later, they returned to the shadow of what had been their home, and they began to rebuild. Luqa doesn’t feel despair at the hard work ahead because he sees it as an opportunity to be a light in the darkness. He feels hope and urgency as he engages people and shares the gospel.
Christian workers, Luqa, and other local ministry partners are working together to bring the hope of Christ into this once terrorized village and the surrounding camps that house many internally displaced peoples. Many of those in the camps have tried to get back home but were unsuccessful. One family the Chistian workers met in the camp returned to their liberated village only to find their home was booby-trapped by ISIS. The grandfather of the family came back to the camp with only one leg and a heart full of despair.
Hopelessness is the most common emotion shared by these survivors, and when they hear that the Christian God is the God who sees, knows, and wants to redeem, they are amazed and very receptive to the gospel, unlike in the years before ISIS came to power.
Christian workers say that’s the one positive thing that came from those years: many heavy hearts became open to hearing the truth of the gospel and willing to leave their former Muslim beliefs. Christian workers have seen several people trust Christ, and many, many more Muslims have heard the message of Christ with openness.
The overwhelming love of God is what compels this change. These former Muslims have never known a God who loves them, forgives them, helps them, and promises a future.

A Light from the Past

Christians in 2019 aren’t the first to reach this population. In the first years after Jesus’s death, Thomas the apostle may have traveled to this part of the world, bringing good news of a resurrected Savior. The Christian church has had a continuous presence since that time, but it has been a target of persecution for centuries.
More recently, before the war began in 2003, there were 1.5 million people who identified as Christians. Their presence was a good witness to the Muslim majority. In fact, the country’s top leader employed Christians as his advisor and cooks because he trusted them. Villagers knew Christians as upright in business practices, generous to help their neighbors out, and kind, as opposed to local Muslim culture that is very tribal in its allegiances and shrewd in business. Today, after the war and the work of ISIS, it is estimated that only 250,000 Christians remain.
But God in his sovereignty has broken down barriers through the years, both spiritually and physically. Whereas this area was closed to outsiders before 1990, now Westerners are a welcomed sight as they bring aid and comfort. Christian workers spend their afternoons in the tents of survivors, drinking tea and listening to stories. That seems to be therapeutic and a simple way to show love, though it takes a toll on these workers. They have found that it’s not possible to carry the weight of those stories alone, but they prayerfully entrust each one to God.
Graciously, God is a trustworthy custodian. He keeps track of our sorrows and collects our tears in his bottle (Psalm 56:8). He’s been doing it since the beginning of time, since Adam and Eve left their perfect home in Eden to struggle and strive in this same patch of land, since the nation of Israel was carried into captivity in Babylon, since three young Hebrew men stood in the fiery furnace. All of these things happened near where Christian workers live and work every day. The history is deep. God’s compassion is deeper still.
Christian workers in the region today aren’t the first to bring the gospel message; the Father has been at work in that place long before he ever called them to lived there. But now He’s equipping and using them to further explain this good news.
Let’s pray for Christian workers who work to rebuild homes and hearts after wars in the Middle East. ISIS isn’t gone for good. They still control the hearts and minds of many. They have been run out of towns and villages, but they’ve regrouped in the countryside. Pray for peace and for salvation for these ancient peoples who have discovered a new reason to hope.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Nicole Leigh is a writer with IMB. She lives in Europe. This article was originally published at IMB.org. Used by permission.)

7/15/2019 5:07:44 PM by Nicole Leigh, IMB | with 0 comments

‘My heart’s primary focus’

July 15 2019 by Gary W. Hawkins

My Native American family of Creek and Cherokee descent was at best a nominal Christian family, but as a child I have fond memories of Vacation Bible School and going to church on rare occasions.
Although I wasn’t taught the Word of God during my formative years, at the age of 6 I made a profession of faith at the conclusion of a Vacation Bible School, but throughout my teen years I never felt secure in my relationship to Christ.

As a teen I fell victim to drugs and alcohol, which caused many heartaches. In spite of that, I graduated from high school and started college seeking a degree in education. In my second year of school, I married my high school sweetheart, Paula. I wanted to have a successful marriage, raise a family and just be happy, but I continued to be my own worst enemy.
Toward the end of that year, a pastor’s wife from a small Choctaw Indian church visited our home and shared John 3:16, inserting our names where it stated, “for God so loved the world,” to read, “for God so loved Gary and Paula Hawkins.” I didn’t know of God’s unconditional love; I thought that God only loved “good people” and I certainly wasn’t among them.
It was hard to believe that such a thing as “unconditional love” existed and that it could apply to me because all I could see about my life was hopelessness, helplessness and someone so undeserving of God’s love.
In attending a revival at Little Coweta Indian Baptist, I felt God’s Spirit speaking to me on the second night to receive Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. At the age of 21, my entire life changed; I felt the weight of the world lifted and true happiness became a reality for me and my wife, who also had placed her faith in Christ.
Pastor Ernest Best mentored me on how to grow daily in my walk with the Lord. Early in my Christian life, he taught me the importance of sharing my faith. I had few Christian friends so I shared Jesus to any who would listen, though many didn’t want to hear about my new life in Christ or their need of salvation.
After five years I became a minister of the gospel and served as a youth minister alongside Pastor Best for two years, until he felt the calling of God to enter full-time evangelism to Native Americans in North America traveling across the country and into Canada and Mexico sharing God’s Word. Bro. Ernest was very missional-minded in doing God’s Kingdom work, and he helped me understand the Great Commission.
When Little Coweta asked me to become their new pastor, I spent much time in prayer before accepting the duty of pastoring my home church. It was quite a learning curve, but I applied my life to the study of God’s Word, reliance on the Holy Spirit and prayer. I also learned the value of receiving coaching by some godly men and women of faith.
A few years later I sensed the call to missions among Native Americans. I became aware of needs in Montana through a challenging sermon by Russell Begaye who at that time served as the national Native American missionary for the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board). I agreed to view the mission field and shortly thereafter agreed to serve in Montana. It was a tremendous culture shock as I moved my family 1,700 miles to a tribe I had little knowledge of and a climate that took quite some adjusting to, but to God’s glory Glacier View Baptist Chapel was successfully restarted and the Lord added to the church.
Along with pastoring among the Blackfeet Indians in northwest Montana, I have pastored among the Central Plains tribes of Oklahoma at Shawnee First Indian and the Pueblo Indians in Espanola, N.M. I have been blessed to preach and teach God’s Word among indigenous people that I never would have thought possible in Mexico, Canada, Honduras and Australia.
I subsequently served as a church planting missionary jointly with the North American Mission Board and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma for nearly 10 years and ministered among the 39 tribes of Oklahoma.
In January 2012, after much prayer I became the first executive director of the newly formed Fellowship of Native American Christians (FoNAC), a faith-based ministry whose primary focus group is Native Americans and First Nations of Canada.
I also serve as the church planting pastor of Native Stone Baptist Church near Tulsa, Okla. Our focus is the pan-Indians of greater Tulsa, which according to 2010 Census encompassed nearly 36,000 Native Americans.
And I serve as the church planting mobilizer with the North American Mission Board for Native Americans, which has become a great partnership. We have space at the Many Faces exhibit at the Southern Baptist Convention, which has provided a tremendous amount of exposure to people. FoNAC holds our annual meeting in conjunction with the SBC annual meeting and we’re always open to visitors desiring to attend.
The motivation for my life’s journey has been Christ’s love for me and for all mankind. All people need a personal relationship with Jesus. I share the gospel with whoever will listen, but my heart’s primary focus is and has been to the unreached and under-reached Native people of North America.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gary W. Hawkins is executive director of FoNAC, the Fellowship of Native American Christians and pastor of Native Stone Baptist Church near Tulsa, Okla. This column is adapted from the FoNAC resource, “Jesus Made the Difference: Native men telling their personal story of how Jesus made the difference in their lives.”)

7/15/2019 5:00:23 PM by Gary W. Hawkins | with 0 comments

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