The letter I mentioned this morning from March 2011 is below............if you wondered what was behind my comments/concerns and open letter to Bart Millard a few months ago, this will provide some background. We MUST be concerned about ANY message or ANY practice or ANY ministry philosophy that feeds the tragic lie that faith in Christ can flourish (exist?) apart from Christ's people, the church! THIS is our context, CF family.....THIS is our people group......people who have been duped into believing you can love Jesus and not love (walk with/know/be known by/be accountable to) His people.
The contemporary church NEEDS the galvanizing message of Hebrews. Our context needs it. Your neighbor needs it. Your friend and family needs it. 17 in and 24 out? You bet we need it!!!
If you would like to talk about this letter or have questions or concerns, PLEASE feel free to ask/express.
Dear Jim and the Pastors of Hunt Baptist Association,
Before I get to the purpose of this letter, let me begin by sharing with you that we, the people of Crosspoint Fellowship, truly want great things for His glory in your churches. So for the past five years we have prayed together for your marriages and your families and your churches and your worship as part of our corporate worship gatherings each week. You are publicly prayed for by name and by church for His glory. We desperately want many and strong disciples to be made in and through your ministries in Greenville and the surrounding areas.
Now, as to the purpose of this letter, Ken Freeman’s recent visit crystallized for us some concerns we’re burdened to share with the pastors of the association. I’ll come back to this, but first let me provide a little context. Almost eight years ago I was called to Greenville to pastor a new church plant. It didn’t take a thorough review of the area to realize Greenville is what many could call supersaturated with churches. It’s a wonder why anyone in his right mind would try to start a new church here or what might possess him to think it’s even needed here. My early counts from the Chamber of Commerce website indicated there were at that time 98 Christian churches serving the 25,000 residents of Greenville and about another 75,000 in the surrounding area. The alarming rough figure was that only 3-5% of folks in Greenville and the surrounding area were REALLY part of a local church. I don’t mean occasional attenders or Easter worshippers……..but folks who were consistently walking with a body of believers. These stats led me to believe faith was on the decline in the Greenville area and might even be considered post-Christian. So we decided to move to Greenville and be part of this new work in this uber-church-saturated context trusting that God must have a good reason.
Starting with only a few families at first, it was important that we connect to those in Greenville who weren’t part of a local church. So the first few years we were in Greenville we attempted to visit every home south of I-30. This effort fostered many conversations with folks about their faith. The startling result of these many visits was that we found most of the people we talked with had experienced some sort of salvation event. Many could name the date, place and hour they made a decision and could even name the church and the pastor or the revival and the evangelist. The really alarming detail was that most of these people were not part of a local church…….and they hadn’t been in years!?!? Yet they had made a decision for Christ at some point in their lives!?!? They were likely counted and celebrated on someone’s decision tally at some point in the past yet they had no use for God or His people. They had no use for His word or the journey of faith. For them, the summation of their faith appeared to be an emotional experience they could recount with fondness and at least some spoken affection for Jesus. This early effort at connecting with our community became a sort of fruit inspection.
In the mean time, we as a church were working our way slowly through the book of John. God, it seems, orchestrated our fruit examination, when we really began to process what we were hearing from folks, with the exposition of John 8. Here Jesus preaches on being the Light of the World. He speaks of judgment and of His imminent cross and of sin and death. He speaks on the Father’s authority and it seems many believed in Him (v. 30). So far, it’s a wonderful revival and I’m sure the disciples were thinking to themselves “we’re really part of something great……look at the masses.” Yet by the end of the chapter those many, the ones who had believed in Him, picked up stones to stone Him (v. 59)?!?! That surprise ending because He continued preaching after they supposedly “believed.” He said “if you’re truly my disciples, you will abide in my word and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Jesus is saying that true believers go the distance with Jesus and His people. It seems as wool is to the sheep, abiding is to true belief. This passage, among others, caused us to take a really hard look at our pursuits as a church. We could continue to pursue the verse 30 decisions or we could seek to make the verse 31 believers who were true and abiding.
In the months and years since John 8 and our fruit inspection, we’ve settled into a pursuit of the latter......making disciples. We’re starting with those among us and trying to raise up fathers (or single mothers) who’ll train their children in the faith as their primary disciplers. We’re seeing tomorrow’s church in our kids and young people and don’t want what seems so common today, for the youth to leave the church once they leave home. We’re begging for and discipling toward the great privilege of marrying our children in the church and baptizing their children and their children’s children. At the same time, we are burdened to connect to those who don’t know Christ. Instead of pressing lost people for a decision, we’re teaching them the law so that they can sit with the tutor that leads them to Christ. We’re teaching for brokenness so that the good news will be really good…..and not just news. We’re holding forth the holiness and justice and wrath of God in the backdrop of the good news of grace and mercy in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. This takes LOTS of time and for us may take months or years. But the back door of our church is getting increasingly smaller with fewer and fewer families and individuals slipping back into the world. He seems to be blessing a slower, more intentional and deliberate pursuit of disciple-making. For us, it seems to be a slow-bake oven…..not a microwave.
Now, back to Ken Freeman’s recent visit. In the few weeks since his time here, we became more and more burdened that our efforts to make disciples didn’t line up with a myopic focus on decisions. Our concern is that the stats you so zealously enjoy and laud only serve to feed the monster of a community full of people who think they’re square with God yet have no use for His word or His people. We felt it especially repugnant that the perceived yield of Ken’s short visit was compared with the number of baptisms recorded by the churches of HBA. For the past few years, we’ve just tolerated this sort of head-counting and gun-notching considering it benign, but now we see it clearly as counter to our pursuit of making true disciples in an over-revivaled and hyper-decisioned context. We find that in practice, those we call to discipleship often respond with a spiritual shoulder shrug saying “why do I need that…..I’m already saved.”
Please know I’m not afraid of or opposed to stats. I understand behind every number is a person with a heart and a soul and if He’s numbered the hairs on our heads, numbers dealing with the saints certainly must matter. But if we are to celebrate figures, we should let the word identify the stats that really matter. Other than the initial birthday and beginning weeks of the life of the church after Pentecost, there doesn’t appear to be ANY development of head-counting. If anything, the tone of the epistles and pastoral letters and letters to the churches in Revelation suggest a more protracted development of disciple-making with a glaring absence of decision counting. There’s a stark absence in Paul’s writings to Timothy and Titus of a press for decisions or head counts. Paul’s encouragement to young Timothy is to put elders in place, good ones that are qualified. And appoint deacons, solid ones that will do their jobs so elders can pray and study and preach. He seems to be charging Timothy to preach the word and to put the church in order to be the pillar and buttress of the truth. And to Titus there’s no mention of decisions or head counts. Rather than counting decisions, he is to warn and if necessary remove the divisive person from the church. Then there are the letters to the churches in Revelation. None of the seven letters indicate there’s any emphasis on head counts or decisions, but rather their report cards are based on faithfulness and purity of the message and the body. If the stats heralded by the association were to reflect these types of things we could celebrate together how many of the association churches exercised church discipline on "Jezebel" and how can we partner with each other so that "Jezebel" doesn’t dump on our church next. Given Paul’s charge to Timothy, the stats that matter would be regarding the number of quality deacons appointed and how much of deaconing they’re actually doing so pastors can actually prepare life-changing sermons instead of personally caring for every widow and personally tending to every orphan. Or given Paul’s instruction to Titus, how many divisive people were removed from association churches. That would make for an interesting statistic. If the stats of the association are to agree with our bibles, it seems God cares far less about the size of our churches and the number of decisions and more about the fidelity of the message, the order in the church (with elders eldering and deacons deaconing), the equipping for the work of ministry and the faithfulness of the people of God. If we wanted to REALLY get at something that matters to God, we could also try to quantify how well we’re doing at caring for orphans and widows in their distress. After all, THAT’S pure and undefiled religion, right?
What may be better than ANY of these counts or figures or stats is the church just being the church. The people of God being ordered with deacons caring for the body in such an otherworldly way that lost people can’t believe how well “those Christians” are cared for. With elders/pastors actually studying and praying and reasoning together over bone-penetrating truths so that God’s people groan together at the greatness of this redemption story each week. So we’re great together at enjoying the gospel and walking in oneness and equipping the saints……this becomes the long arm of evangelism. The evangelist then, as a gift given to the church along with the pastor, has a living vibrant body to escort new life into as his gifts are exercised as an expression of the local church. Not as a hired gun we bring in to get some numbers on the board while we hope and pray new life will find shelter and clothing in a local body.
Men, we don’t for a moment presume to have a handle on how all the churches of the association are doing making disciples. We hope and trust some are more focused on that than on decisions. But it seems the mantra of the association at large is to “get ‘em saved” not realizing a press for decisions can and will likely yield many who just don’t want to go to hell. Men, we haven’t had a difficult time finding people who don’t want to go to hell. However, it has been an arduous work identifying people who are hungry for His word, abiding in it and wanting to walk with the people of God in a meaningful and accountable way.
We as a church and I as one of our elders have MUCH to learn about Kingdom work and we don’t for a moment think we have it all figured out. We’re serving Christ in this community with clay feet and feeble hands. We just want to be salty and bright and aromatic in a context where it seems many have no use for God unless someone is sick or has lost a job or has a marriage on the rocks. We simply want to cast a good and robust seed of a finished work and an especially vacant tomb. We would love to reason together with you on these matters and would be willing to host or attend a time to talk through some of these concerns.