Thursday, October 25, 2007

The most important thing

"The game of football is the most important thing and we can't lose focus on that."

Tomorrow I am scheduled to deliver a devotional to the players on our local high school football team, the West Brunswick Trojans. Earlier I was googling around for something for the devotional when I stumbled upon the quote above. According to an article at, Roger Goodell said on the day he became the commissioner of the National Football League 14 months ago that the most important thing is the game of football.

I am a big football fan, but I certainly don't think "the game of football is the most important thing." I know some football fans so passionate about the game that I have sometimes wondered if football is the most important thing to them, but none would say this is the case even if it is. Goodell is the NFL commissioner and one would expect him to assign a high priority to the game of football. Yet I was still a bit surprised that even one in Goodell's postion would call the game of football the most important thing.

Maybe it is not so unusual for NFL big wigs to think football is supreme. A few days before the Super Bowl this year I read an article in which Tony Dungy, coach of the world champion Indianapolis Colts, relayed the story of an instance when he was being considered for another head coaching job while he was still a coordinator. During the interview Dungy says that he was asked, "If you get this job, is this going to be the most important thing in your life and are you going to treat my team as the very most important thing." Dungy says that he responded, "No, I'm not." He said that his Christian faith comes first and along with that his family. Football would not be the most important thing to him.

Dungy did not get the job.

I intend to encourage the young football players that I will address tomorrow to have priorities like Tony Dungy's rather than Roger Goodell's. Indeed, those are good priorities for us all, football players or not.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Taking spiritual pearls home

Years ago I heard Billy Hanks make a case for taking notes on sermons. I may not have the numbers exactly right, but I think he said that, after 48 hours, we forget around 95% of we just hear. If we hear something and write it down we retain about 50% of it after 48 hours according to what I remember about Hanks' numbers. (I did write the numbers down, but its been way more than two days ago that I heard them.)

Hanks referred to the verse in which Jesus spoke of casting pearls before swine. He said that he is convinced that if we could look with spiritual eyes around our church facilities we would see all these spiritual pearls laying about that the congregation failed to take home with them.

I am not at all comfortable with the notion that the members of the congregation are swine in the Hanks' analogy. However, his overall point is valid.

Most of my undergraduate college days were spent in the field of education and what I learned there confirms what Hanks' says. The more senses we involve in learning the better we retain the material. That's why I have have for years inserted in our church bulletins "listener guides" which include key statements from the sermon with key words left blank in each statement. As congregants listen, they fill in the blanks. Not everyone in the congregation uses the listener guides but many have told me the guides help to focus their attention and to remember what they have heard.

Almost two years ago we added a contemporary service that meets in our fellowship hall and, from day one, we used a PowerPoint presentation not only to display song lyrics but along with the sermon as well. We provide the same listener guides in this service as those used in the other services, but, in the contemporary service, the listener guide statements are projected onscreen as they come up in the sermon. I also add other PowerPoint slides with pictures along with a movie clip now and then.

In the contemporary service, then, even more senses are involved in the learning that takes place during the sermon. The congregation hears my words, sees some of them onscreen and writes some of them on paper. Now we are working on adding video capability to our sanctuary allowing us to use PowerPoint with the sermons preached in our two traditional services so that those worshippers may have enhanced opportunities to retain what they hear and see.

PowerPoint presentations do add to sermon preparation time, but I enjoy the process and I believe the slides aid learning. Hopefully hearing the message, seeing the message and writing the message combines to assist worshippers in taking a few spiritual pearls home with them.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hunger: Needs up; funding down

Last night at a church business meeting Jim Brown reported on the community food pantry called Loaves and Fishes that is housed in our facilities. Numerous local churches, business, and community organizations assist in this effort to help those at risk for hunger in our area who are . Lately we have seen a dramatic rise in the number of folks requesting food.

In May we assisted a record 417 households by giving them 1,806 bags of groceries. In September we helped 781 households with 3,141 bags of groceries. In case you're wondering, the numbers were up in each intervening month too: 518 households in June, 575 in July, and 630 in August.

Why the sharp increase? It is not that Loaves and Fishes is a new ministry that folks are just finding out about--we've been doing this for about 10 years. Here in Brunswick County, North Carolina our economy in recent years has been heavily dependent on construction and real estate and both are down--way down. Last night a real estate broker and deacon in the church said of the local economy, "These are hard times."

So contractors and related businesses have laid people off or cut back on hours and many workers are feeling it and the lines get longer at local food pantries. Complicating matters in the case of Loaves and Fishes is that one of our important funding partners experienced a funding shortfall and was forced to cut back on grants to our food pantry and many other hunger relief ministries they assist. It is never a good time for any ministry to get the news that it will be receiving less money, but with Loaves and Fishes seeing record numbers of people requesting food every month lately it is a particularly bad time for us to get such news.

With our local economic downturn many local supporters are not in a position to dig a little deeper to make up for the grant reduction and to respond to the increased hunger needs in this community. Our Loaves and Fishes reserves are critically low. We are staring at the real possibility of turning away large numbers of needy people. We've never had to do that before.

We have made the congregation aware of the situation and we have asked that folks give more attention to bringing nonperishable food items and place them in a container in the church set aside for that purpose. Of course we have made an appeal to members to make designated offerings to Loaves and Fishes.

Today is distribution day for the food pantry. We'll have a bunch of volunteers from several churches running a well-oiled hunger relief machine--it is a sight to behold. Jim Brown, a Loaves and Fishes leader, is concerned. How many hungry people will show up today? Will we have enough food for them? What about next month?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Homosexuality: A bigger problem than we thought

Don't get the wrong idea from the headline above. I am not saying that homosexuality is more widespread than we may have believed. I am saying that the response of some Christians to homosexuality may have a much larger potential to harm churches than many church folks think.

According to an article in USA Today, new research published by the Barna Group indicates that young people, ages 16-29, overwhelmingly see Christianity as anti-gay. The numbers are startling: 91% of non-Christian young people and 80% of Christian young people view Christianity, first and foremost, as "anti-gay."

Many in the Christian community, especially in the evangelical Christian community and particularly in the Baptist community, have obviously not seen an anti-gay position as something that would adversely affect their churches. They see gays as comprising a relatively small percentage of the population. So, many Christians seem to feel free to strongly and repeatedly denounce gay people without hurting the overall outreach of the church. This new study suggests otherwise.

According to David Kinnaman, Barna Group president, "The anti-homosexual perception has now become sort of the Geiger counter of Christians' ability to love and work with people." So it isn't that the anti-gay position of many evangelicals has hurt their outreach only to gay people. Rather the anti-homosexual stance of many Christians leaves 91% of non-Christian young people thinking that we cannot love and work with people generally.

Can you see what these numbers could mean for the future of the church? We say we want to reach young people, but more than 9 out of 10 non-Christian young people believe that we are not loving and they think that way because of the hatred that many Christians have expressed toward gay people.

Evangelicals tend to respond to homosexuality in one of two ways: (1) They talk about gay people pretty regularly in extremely negative terms, or (2) They avoid talking about homosexuality as much as possible. This study suggests that Christians are going to have to talk about homosexuality a lot in their outreach efforts and they are going to have to consider ways to talk about the matter such that they do not appear anti-gay. Of course, before we can do that, we may have to figure out how to stop being anti-gay in the first place.

Yeah, the thing is, the overwhelming majority of the young people in that survey are right. Many Christians, especially in evangelical and Baptist circles, are, in fact, anti-gay. We are reaping what we have sown. When Jesus said that the greatest commandment includes loving your neighbor as yourself he did not say "except when your neighbor is gay." We have done a lousy job of loving gay people in violation of the command of our Lord and now we are paying for it because the future of the church is calling us on it. So, what are we going to say in response?

Believe it or not there is more bad news in this study than I have talked about, but I'll stop here for now.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

My life as an arson suspect

Did I ever tell you about the time that I came upon a scene of arson while the building was still burning and the apparent arsonist was still there?

I guess it has been almost 12 years ago now. I was headed down route 17 South toward my office very early on a Sunday morning--it was still dark. Near Bolivia, NC I noticed that the building of Faith Baptist Church was on fire and there was a man standing near the fire watching it. I whipped into the church parking lot, rolled down my window and shouted to the man: "Did you call the fire department?"

I seemed to break some trance he was in and he jerked his head in my direction. "There's a fire in the house of the Lord!" he yelled back.

I could see that.

I repeated my question, "Did you call the fire department?"

He replied, "There's a fire in the house of the Lord!"

This conversation was going no where.

I did not have a cell phone so I zipped out of the parking lot headed for a pay phone less than a mile away. As I ripped out of the parking lot I noticed another car headed south on route 17 that had stopped, the driver no doubt noticing the fire. As I came out of the parking lot, this car fell in behind me. I knew what they were thinking so I quickly pulled off into the median and walked back toward the other vehicle that had pulled over behind me.

There were several men who appeared to be businessmen in the car. One of them had a bag phone that was standard for the few people who possessed cell phones at that time. He was already on the phone with 911 dispatch talking about the situation. As I suspected these men assumed that the operator of the vehicle tearing out of the parking lot (me) was the arsonist. They had not noticed the man standing in front of the church watching the fire. After I pointed him out the man on the bag phone told the dispatcher about the fire watcher.

Soon the businessmen (if that's what they were) and I were sitting in our cars in the church parking lot watching the man who was transfixed as he watched the burning church building. It wasn't long before both firefighters and sheriff's deputies arrived. The firefighters set about putting out the blaze and the deputies took into custody the man staring at the fire. He didn't try to escape. He stood there in his trance until he was peacefully led away.

In the end the fire was ruled an act of arson and the damage from the blaze itself was confined to a small area of Faith Baptist Church. However, the smoke damage was extensive throughout the facility. For months the folks at Faith had to meet in their fellowship hall which was in a separate building. I never heard what became of the man who stood and watched the burning church.

Of the lessons that might be learned from this event, one lesson is related to this fact: For a few moments I was an arson suspect. The men in that car saw a church on fire at the same moment that they saw a car tearing out of the parking lot. They got on the phone telling authorities about the fire and describing my vehicle as they tried to get close enough to get my license number.

Sometimes I have wondered what would have happened if the fire-watching man had run into the woods surrounding that church after I spoke with him. One day in the week after that fire I spoke with someone in law enforcement who told me that the man who was arrested was a drifter who was not from this area. If he had run into the dark woods and had waited out the excitement and continued to wander somewhere else, what would have happened to me?

What if, when I went to point out the man watching the fire to those apparent businessmen, he was gone. I might have said something like, "Well there was a man there a minute ago." What would those businessmen have thought about me then?

What if, when the deputies arrived, those businessmen had told them what they saw and then I had told them about a strange man who was now no where to be seen. No one in the area had heard of a man who fit his description. If that man had run away witnesses would have been able to put only one person at the scene of that fire: me. And I would have been hurrying away from the scene at that.

Would I have been arrested? Would I have been charged? Would I have been convicted? If I had managed to convince the authorities or a jury that I had nothing to do with that fire, would many in this community have nonetheless thought of me as an arsonist anyway?

I had only been the pastor of the church I now serve for a little while when this incident happened. If I had been suspected or accused in that crime, what would it have done to my standing in the congregation? What might have happened to my future as a pastor in any church?

Because of this experience I tend to take a little more seriously the legal principle of "innocent until proven guilty." I try hard not to rush to judgment. Jesus' injunction in Matthew 7:1 that we judge not lest we be judged took on new meaning for me 12 years ago.

I suppose the thing that bothers me the most is that, if I had been in the position of those businessmen, I would have drawn the same conclusion they did. If I had seen a church on fire just as I had seen a car tearing out of the church parking lot I would have thought an arsonist was speeding away in the car leaving the church.

That thought scares me as much as the thought that I was falsely suspected of committing a terrible crime.