Month: April 2015

Must “good business” be amoral?

The Texas Association of Business (TAB) is apparently pretty spooked by recent events in Indiana and Arkansas. After those states passed laws intended to protect religious freedom for all their citizens, and similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by the first President Clinton, various outsiders decided to threaten the states. Angie’s List, the City of Seattle, the NCAA and the state of Connecticut each promised boycotts or some similar punitive measure against the Hoosier state. Arkansas’ own 500-pound gorilla, Wal-Mart, made low, rumbly noises after that state’s legislature passed its own RFRA. That’s all it took. What was a few minutes ago a matter of conviction became a “catastrophe” for those two governors. So they blinked; they began apologetic rewrites of the laws to make sure that no one is offended or inconvenienced by the notion of religious liberty—especially that the states’ bottom lines were not inconvenienced. 

Well, TAB is concerned that our own state’s law, which they say allows for all kinds of mistreatment of our sexual minorities, could open us up to threats of financial loss. I have a couple of observations on that subject. 

First, I have to wonder what would happen if Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Texas and every other state with a RFRA stood firm. OK, maybe the city of Seattle could get away with banning travel of city employees to all but coastal states. Maybe the state of Connecticut could limit its own endorsement to states that have, perhaps coincidentally, legalized the recreational use of marijuana. But would Toyota, Angie’s List, Dell and the Dallas Mavericks move out of state for the sake of conscience? Where? California? It would be the opposite of the dilemma for pro-family folks who want to boycott those who disagree with us on important issues. Nearly all airlines, telecomm companies, tech companies, department stores and television networks would be off limits for us. Boycotts have that limitation; they can sometimes become as impractical as boycotting idol worshippers was in the first century Roman Empire. If these states had kept one day to the convictions they held the previous month, without regard for the threats of billionaires, the threats would have dissipated as the companies faced the choice between business-friendly states and those less so. 

Second, I doubt there is any reason to think that Texas law has resulted in people left homeless, battered and starving because of their sexual behavior. None of the 20 or so laws targeted by LGBT advocacy groups would decrease the quality of life of any Texas citizen; they are, rather, intended to protect the minority opinion of biblical Christians. 

I also doubt there is any reason to think that Texas will crash and burn economically if we overtly protect religious liberty for even conservative Christians. Texas Competes, which might be described as a more aggressive spin off of the TAB, has a couple of charts on their site to support the assertion that companies with “anti-discrimination” policies perform better than do companies without. This is a way that statistics are misused—correlation is not always causation. Did they, for example, compare Apple’s performance with that of Radio Shack or maybe Chik-Fil-A with Long John Silver’s? No experienced consumer believes that those companies are on their present trajectories because of what they have said, or did not say, about a person’s sexual behavior. And again I raise the specter of California. Is California broadly perceived as less business friendly than Texas because Californians are less affirming of unusual ideas than are Texans? No, so progressive social mores are apparently not the same as progress, growth or even financial solvency. 

As simply as I know how, for the sake of the billionaires in the audience: people gathering in various places for religious purposes is freedom of assembly; what people do in those assemblies is freedom of speech; what those people do when they disperse into their neighborhoods, schools and workplaces is freedom of religion. Texas will be a better place for all Texans and for their vocations if its citizens are free to believe what they believe, and to live by those beliefs until the state can show a compelling reason to limit that religious expression. 

Finally, I don’t understand all the ways that philosophy, religion and conviction fit into the quality of a community’s life, but I do think they are more important than do some of the CEOs of Texas’ largest companies. If you change your convictions about man and God in an effort to stay ahead of a market, you’ll do it pretty often. “Conviction” becomes an absurd concept if you change it for pragmatic reasons. That applies to billionaires and governors, even as it does to you and me.

Richards: Racism has no place in Bible-believing church

Not only is racial reconciliation biblically based, but it is biblically mandated, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Executive Director Jim Richards said at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s leadership summit, March 27. As one of nearly 40 speakers at the summit, Richards called for a commitment to intentional efforts toward racial reconciliation for the sake of the gospel.

“As we show our love one for another, the world—a lost and dying world that is in need of the gospel and in need of Jesus Christ—will see that Jesus and our love for each other, and because of that our testimony will even be stronger,” Richards said, pointing out that Jesus said the world will recognize his disciples by their love, one for another.

With a desire to help churches portray that love without respect to skin color and to undergird a reflection of the diverse throne room of heaven in earthly churches, Richards said SBTC launched its Look Like Heaven campaign in 2013. 

“When the Look Like Heaven campaign came up, we definitely had to have a biblical basis,” Richards said, pointing to Revelation 7:9-17, which served as the foundation of the effort. “In that passage of Scripture you find the biblical basis for our churches to look like heaven. In that passage we see that there are nations and people and tribes and languages around the throne of God worshiping God and giving him glory and exalting his name.”

Those heavenly realities need earthly applications, Richards said. He explained that despite physical differences, humans share the same creator, are saved by the same Christ, share the same struggles and are to serve in the same calling of preaching the gospel to all nations. The gospel, he said, should be the commonality that causes people to flock together—not skin color or ethnicity.

Reflecting that heavenly unity on earth, he said, requires intentionality.

“That means we have to get out of our comfort zones and engage those that perhaps we don’t know,” Richards said.

He offered several practical steps churches and individual Christians can take to move toward racial reconciliation including repenting of racism, diversifying church leadership and observing racial reconciliation Sunday each year, among other things. 

“I grew up in the segregated South,” Richards said. “God saved me, called me to preach, and he has allowed me to see miracle after miracle after miracle in race relations. But it’s never going to end this side of heaven. So, it is a constant work that we’re committed to on this journey together to use the gospel to bring about racial reconciliation so that we can help our churches look like heaven.”

Watch Richards’ message here.

Pastor shuffles life, ministry priorities in wake of cancer diagnosis

For almost 30 years, Bill Simmons has been “running hard” and “getting after it” as pastor of River Hills Baptist Church near Corpus Christi. His answer to people and projects was a regular and dependable “yes.” 

But after a year of not feeling well led to a diagnosis of renal cell carcinoma that had metastasized to both lungs, a lymph node near his heart and an adrenal gland on his left kidney, much of this activity came to a grinding halt.

“After my diagnosis, I wondered if I still had a purpose or point in life,” Simmons recalled. “I had never felt this way before.  After I was diagnosed, I just wanted to pull inside myself for a couple of days.  However, God, in his still, small voice spoke to me and let me know that people are watching me and wondering if I am going to be able to live out what I have been preaching all these years.”

Simmons visited a Christian counselor who told him that he had an opportunity to prepare the church for his leaving, whether leaving meant retirement or death. With that clarity, Simmons recognized that the Lord was giving him “his marching orders and a new lease on life.”

“Dealing with an incurable disease, the Lord has taught me that priorities change,” Simmons said. “Things that I once thought were important don’t seem so important anymore and vice versa. God’s sovereignty is more evident to me now, and this comforts me.”

As the pastor’s health declines, the church has rallied around him. Between staff members taking on more responsibilities to lighten Simmons’ load and a prayer team dedicated to meeting with him weekly, support from the church has been plentiful. A married couple in the congregation who are both medical doctors even helped Simmons get scheduled for the tests that led to his diagnosis.

With his “new normal,” Simmons’ ministry to those in his church continues, albeit in a different form. Delegation has quickly become a key and vibrant aspect in leadership of the church as staff members step up to share a greater piece of the ministry load. While the pastor can no longer physically do all he previously did, he now has more time to prepare sermons and disciple people—especially the younger people such as the RHBC interns.

Simmons, who will soon celebrate 41 years of marriage to his wife, Susan, says her help in recent months has been incalculable. While she has always been a wonderful wife, he said, her care for him during such a difficult time has been beyond valuable. 

“My whole family has been strong through this journey, and this has been very helpful and encouraging to me,” Simmons said.

Simmons has also found several books to be a great source of encouragement to him and specifically recommends two of them to others who find themselves in similar situations. He suggests A Bend in the Road by David Jeremiah, which he now sends to others in his church or community who are diagnosed with cancer, and John Piper’s booklet Don’t Waste Your Cancer.

The pastor said a church member gave him a sign that he hung on his office wall that offers a daily dose of encouragement to keep pressing forward. It reads: “No matter how you feel, get up, dress up, show up and never give up.”

In keeping with that mantra, Simmons is certain that the Lord has a purpose for every person for every day of life, until death. Convinced of this, Simmons says he will continue to fulfill the work the Lord has given him so long as he allows and however he directs.   

A Friend Closer Than a Brother

How many friends do you have? No, I’m not talking about the number of Facebook acquaintances. I’m talking about close personal friendships—the people that you talk with at least once every couple of months. It could be neighbors, coworkers, church members or lifelong friends.

Now, how many of those close friends are solid, biblically grounded Christians? These are people in whom you see a genuine, vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ. Of course, this criteria likely narrows your pool of relationships. For me, this smaller list includes friends from college and seminary as well as individuals in my church small group.

Now, let’s drill down another level. Of these close Christian friends, how many of these relationships go beyond the surface level, past generic discussions about weather, sports, mutual interests, children, etc.? These are people with whom you can share the most personal details of your life, both good and bad. They reflect the type of person referred to in Proverbs 18 when it says, “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” They encourage you when you’re down and challenge you in your walk with the Lord.

Taking it a step further, are there people not just whom you can talk with but whom you actually do talk with about these things? You don’t just have them on speed dial in the event of an emergency, but you are regularly walking in close community with them. 

I’ll admit that in my busyness, I’ve neglected this deepest level in recent years. Yes, I have good friends in our church small group, and I know most of them would be willing to help at a moment’s notice. But other than a few prayer requests here and there, I haven’t intentionally shared my life with them. I say hello and make small talk on Sundays, but I haven’t personally invested the time and energy into sharing my personal struggles and getting to know theirs as well.

Two scenarios have reawakened me to our need as Christians for a few close godly friends. 

The first is a husband and wife I know who have faced difficulties in their marriage and recently filed for divorce. This came as a shock to friends and family because they never saw it coming. When asked if they had any close Christian friends with whom they’d shared their struggles or who could walk through this with them, offering counsel from God’s Word and praying with them, this couple said “no.”

Now these are not fringe church attenders. They are active volunteers in their church and teachers in the children’s ministry. But they have never developed close personal friendships with strong believers in whom they could have shared their marital struggles and received godly counsel and encouragement.

The second is a friend who battles with bouts of anxiety and depression. He is a strong Christian and a leader in his church. For a time, he kept his struggles to himself because he was embarrassed and did not want others to think he was “crazy.” Eventually, though, he shared this struggle with a few close friends who were able to listen, pray and encourage. He admits that sharing his weaknesses was difficult but freeing. Now he’s on the road to recovery with friends by his side.

I fear that too often in churches the first scenario is more likely than the second. Scores of church members are hurting but have isolated themselves from other believers. Facing financial crises, troubled relationships, spiritual dryness, etc., they slap on a happy face and attempt to fight these issues alone.

Maybe that somebody is you. 

The writer of Ecclesiastes said it well: “But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up” (Eccl. 4:10).

We were not meant to walk through life alone. Even in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, God said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Yes, this has implications for marriage, but it also demonstrates how we are created for community. Throughout the Bible, God gathers his people in community.

If you’re like me, God has already surrounded you with at least a few close personal friends with whom you could dive deeper. Give them a call this week, invite them for dinner or coffee, and open up about your life. You may just find a friend closer than a brother. 

Houston woman”s refusal to hate based on race led to pastor”s salvation

Afshin Ziafat, a Frisco pastor whose family disowned him when he renounced Islam to follow Christ as a teenager, was among dozens who spoke at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Committee’s leadership summit on racial reconciliation. In his 30-minute address, Ziafat told attendees his salvation is thanks to a Christian woman in Houston who loved him, gave him a Bible and told him to read it despite his being Iranian. The woman, whom Ziafat’s family paid to teach him to read English during elementary school, did indeed teach him to read. She also taught him the value of being willing to love and take the gospel to everyone—even enemies.

“[For me] it all goes back to one lady who understood the gospel and said I’m going to love this Iranian kid when it’s en vogue to hate people from Iran,” said Ziafat, who serves as lead pastor at Providence Church. “When we step out, and we cross divides, and we go out with the message of reconciliation to people who don’t look like us, who don’t talk like us, who don’t dress like us, who are separated from us, we are living out the gospel. Why? Because the greatest divide isn’t a racial divide; the greatest divide of all time is the divide between holy God and sinful man.”

Ziafat said that because of that great divide and the solution Christ provided to appease that divide by dying once for sin and rising from the grave, those who follow Christ and who have been reconciled to God have been given the ministry of reconciliation. That ministry, he said, is to be taken to every race and ethnicity.

“Truly racism and any kind of racial superiority is an affront to God because it strikes against the very heart of the gospel, which tells us that we’re all sinners separated from God and that God is redeeming and reconciling a people to himself from every tribe, tongue and nation,” Ziafat said. “Racial reconciliation is not just a good idea because racial equality is a politically correct idea but because the message of the gospel is at stake. The name of Jesus is at stake. The Bible tells us that it’s by grace alone that we can be restored to God—not by our own effort and certainly not because of our lineage or skin color.”

Ziafat said that as tension and hostility between Muslims and Americans mounted during his childhood, so it does today in a post-9/11 world watching the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That situation, he said, is similar to the one to which the Lord commanded Jonah to minister. Jonah did not want to see the Lord have mercy on his enemy, but the Lord was calling Jonah to offer that exact thing to them in exchange for their repentance. Ziafat said when he remembers that Christ loved him when he was an enemy of God, he must love his own enemies for the sake of the gospel. Many of those enemies, he said, are moving into American neighborhoods, presenting Christians with a challenge and an opportunity to present the gospel.

“The gospel calls me to step out of my comfort zone and go out to people who don’t look like me, who don’t dress like me, who don’t talk like me, who are not of my skin color, but on top of that especially those who are my enemies who I am expected to hate. When I show them love, the Gospel is revealed,” Ziafat said. 

Watch Ziafat’s message here.

The Six Phases of Church Revitalization

In working with churches in revitalization, I have observed some attitudes that are outlined below as six phases of revitalization or six stages a church and pastor may go through on the path to revitalization. Not every church will go through all six phases, and some will spend longer in one phase than others. A church in decline does experience several of these phases on their path to recovery.

Phase 1: Disbelief

I often hear from pastors, “We are not in decline; God is simply pruning us for future growth.” The Gospel of John is clear on God’s pruning work, but I usually ask, “How long do you think God needs to prune?” I’m no horticulturist by any means; however, I understand pruning happens during a particular time of the season. Once pruning has occurred, progress happens during that plant’s growing season. 

In Southern Baptist Convention life, we simply look at the Annual Church Profile of the congregation to see the “years of pruning.” If this period has lasted more than five years, the pastor and church need to acknowledge this is probably more than a season of pruning; it’s likely a church in decline.

Phase 2: Anger

Anger is also known as the blame game. The pastor blames the congregation for not being missional and open to the community. The congregation blames the pastor for “not doing his job and witnessing to the community.” It does not matter who is at fault here, action is needed. Anger and blaming one another accomplish very little. Pastors and congregations need to focus on the unity of the church and come together to address the present issues.

Phase 3: Depression

This begins the “emotional slump” that is experienced. Sometimes “depression” sets in over the pastor and members, impairing their ability to see light at the end of the tunnel. Looking over the few people left, they ask, “How will anything ever get accomplished?” This emotive slump leaves many in the church feeling a sense of hopelessness and sometimes a desire just to limp along for as long as they can.

Phase 4: Acceptance

This phase truly begins the revitalization mindset that starts with the pastor acknowledging there is a problem and analyzing options for recovery. The pastor researches factors in the decline and determines a path to overcome the obstacles without placing blame. He begins discussions with key leaders to acknowledge the situation and develop executable steps for change and growth.

Phase 5: Resolve

In this phase, the pastor and church decide they will do whatever it takes to see the church turn around. This is the most difficult phase of revitalization. When it comes to doing whatever it takes, some are simply not willing. Sometimes past efforts were unsuccessful, or they feel too old and too tired to continue. There could be any variety of factors. However, if a pastor does not lead his church to adopt the mindset of doing whatever it takes, then the church will not be revitalized. 

Phase 6: Revitalization

In this phase, the church moves forward on a strategic process to see new life. Determining if a church is revitalized is subjective at best. I have worked with churches that did not see numerical shift but have seen culture shift, which is more important. I believe longevity is the key to determining a revitalized situation. Even if there is not any present numerical shift, if the culture shift is becoming more missional, it will ultimately result in a numerical increase. Some churches experience numerical growth, but without a coinciding culture shift, the future of the church may have a shortened life expectancy. A strong leader can step in and grow a church, but church growth and church revitalization are different. This culture shift is the key. If the church only grows, and the culture does not change, then when the strong leader is called to another church, the present church will likely experience decline again.

—Kenneth Priest serves as the Director of Convention Strategies for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of The Church Revitalizer Magazine.

Petition falls short in bringing Houston Equal Rights Ordinance to voters

HOUSTON—After two months of post-trial deliberation about the law and signature legibility, District Judge Robert Schaffer ruled April 17 that plaintiffs seeking to reverse the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) fell short in securing the minimum number of petition signatures. Though disappointed with the judgment, plaintiffs and their supporters said their resolve to continue the legal and cultural battle is only strengthened.

Hernan Castano, a member of the racially diverse coalition of pastors opposing the ordinance that gives protected class status based on sexual orientation and gender identity, told his congregation Sunday, “We are going to stand stronger on justice and truth.”

The pastor of Rios de Aceite encouraged believers to pray, to remain active in the cultural debate surrounding the ordinance, and to speak God’s truth in love.

Last May, the Houston City Council passed the Equal Rights Ordinance following contentious public debate. Those opposed to the ordinance—led by the Houston Area Pastors Council (HAPC)—gathered more than 50,000 signatures on a referendum to repeal it only to have their efforts thwarted by Mayor Annise Parker and then-City Attorney David Feldman. Thousands of signatures were dismissed, and the city declared the petition failed.

The coalition of pastors sued but lost the first legal round when a jury ruled in February the petition failed to meet the signature requirement of 17,269. A post-verdict ruling by Schaffer allowed once-disqualified signatures to be reconsidered as valid. Two months later, after back-and-forth disparate briefs were filed by both parties, Schaffer ruled the plaintiffs fell 585 signatures short. The petition failed, and the ordinance, which had not been implemented during the referendum effort and trial, would now be in force.

“We have a HERO!” Parker wrote on her Twitter feed. “We passed a good ordinance. We were right to reject repeal petition; jury agreed with us, judge agreed with us!”

During the public debate over the ordinance Parker, a lesbian, said its passage was personal to her and she would not allow anyone to vote on her civil rights. Schaffer’s ruling ended the opponents’ effort to put the ordinance to a city-wide vote in November. And Parker, in a brief statement on the city’s website urged against an appeal adding, “Now all Houstonians have access to the same protections.”

Also included in the protected characteristics are sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, genetic information and pregnancy. Federal law affords protections based on race, sex and disability, making the Houston ordinance redundant in those areas.

In response to the verdict, newly appointed city attorney Donna Edmundson mischaracterized the coalition’s efforts as “pro-discrimination.” On the city’s website she stated, “This is a great victory in the courts and a great day for civil rights in Houston, Texas. I am gratified that the judge signed a final judgment rejecting the plaintiffs’ claims and confirming that their pro-discrimination referendum petition failed.”

But Castano, interviewed throughout the trial by Spanish-language television stations Telemundo and Univision, said, “The people’s right to vote has been ignored and rejected. The mayor has been trying to force her agenda on the people at all costs.”

As of Tuesday, plaintiffs had not publicly stated their appellate plan, but HAPC Executive Director Dave Welch told the TEXAN, “We will appeal, and we will fight for justice, what is right before God, and for the rule of law all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.”

Once filed, the appeal would be heard by the 1st or 14th Texas Court of Appeals in Houston.

Andy Taylor, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, stated repeatedly throughout the trial and post-verdict deliberations that the appellate court typically weighs its judgments more favorably on the side of voters’ rights, something Taylor said the defense and Schaffer obfuscated.

“I think Schaffer made our job on appeal easier,” Taylor said Friday following the judgment.

Taylor criticized the judge for accepting the defense argument requiring all petition circulator signatures be legible. In doing so, he opened the door for the defense to broaden its scope of “illegible” signatories; if the circulator’s signature at the bottom of a page was illegible, then all voter signatures collected on that page were invalidated.

Taylor said the defense’s number of invalid signatures tossed out on that point more than tripled from 2,500 at the end of the trial to 8,500 in its final judgment statement.

“So that’s what the case ended up turning on,” Taylor said.

The legibility argument sets a “dangerous” precedent, making the judge the sole arbiter of legibility and, ultimately, which voter signatures will be counted on the petition. Taylor argued the dismissal of voter signatures based on circulator penmanship establishes a de facto challenge to an individual’s right to vote.

Taylor said he was confident thousands of voter signatures will be reinstated on the petition by the Texas Court of Appeals. But the loser at that level could appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, where plaintiffs already filed a Writ of Mandamus last August seeking an expedited ruling in the case.

ESL Institute planned for Southwestern Seminary

FORT WORTH—Trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary approved an English as a Second Language Institute, passed a nearly $36 million budget, hired five new faculty and elected officers during their April 15 spring meeting.

The ESL Institute will assess international students’ skills in English for undergraduate and post-graduate work and develop an Intensive English Program to achieve written and oral English competency. In addition, a newly approved BA concentration in ESL teaching certification in the College at Southwestern will equip students to teach ESL in a missionary context.

Describing it as an “aggressive ESL program,” Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson said, “It will help us in a number of ways with student recruitment, ministering to the wives of many students who come here with no English language at all and ministry to the community.”

Trustees elected to the seminary faculty Madison Grace as assistant professor of Baptist history and theology, Ross Inman as assistant professor of philosophy and Dale Johnson as assistant professor of biblical counseling. Newly elected to the College at Southwestern are Mark Janzen, assistant professor of history and archaeology, and Stephen Mizell, assistant professor of humanities.

The Board modified the bylaw article outlining the composition of the student body to allow a “modified criteria for admission” for “limited special circumstances” such as those involving online education and the Darrington prison extension program. Current policy requires that students profess a divine call to Christian ministry and show church endorsement.

Previously, an exception was granted by the president to allow a Muslim student to study archaeology in the Ph.D. program after having worked with the school’s Tel Gezer dig in Israel.  Patterson apologized to trustees and Southern Baptist Convention messengers to last year’s annual meeting for having assumed he had the authority to allow exceptions.

New bylaw language clarifies that trustees must approve any modified criteria for exceptional cases. Patterson will refer to the action during his report to SBC messengers in June.

Newly elected officers include Chairman Lash Banks, pastor of Murphy Road Baptist Church in Murphy; Vice-chairman Tony Mathews, pastor of Garland Baptist Fellowship in Garland and Secretary Danny Johnson, director of missions for Pulaski Baptist Association in Bryant, Ark.

In other business, trustees reduced requirements for the doctor of educational ministries degree from 44 to 36 hours, approved candidates for spring and summer graduation, and authorized construction of Mathena Hall once funding reaches a level of 90 percent of costs.  The facility will house the College at Southwestern, Roy Fish School of Evangelism & Missions, and the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement.

Trustees upgraded the security force to establish a police department and granted authority to sell E.D. Head apartments as well as a house located beyond the campus area. Student Services Vice President Steven Smith was granted a year-long sabbatical as recommended by the president.

In his report to the Board, Smith spoke of 100 students and professors preaching a collective 500 sermons in churches across the United States during spring break. The annual Revive This Nation effort yielded 71 professions of faith and 235 other spiritual commitments.

The Board also heard a report from its Executive Committee that Patterson received “an exemplary commendation” in his annual performance based on appraisals submitted by trustees.