Month: April 2023

Prayer is the game!

One of my favorite hobbies as a parent is watching my kids play sports. If I’m honest, I probably love it more than they do. I rarely miss a game. 

In fact, I love getting to the games early to watch the pre-game activities. I have learned you can tell a lot about a team by the way it approaches the pre-game. This routine is intended to give players time to warm up and get focused for the action of the game. It allows players to go through game-like activity without game-like intensity. It’s not the game, but it is intended to prepare a player for the game. 

I fear many Christians have unintentionally minimized prayer to a type of pre-game activity that gets us ready for the action of life or ministry—failing to see prayer as the action itself. Prayer in many ways has become perfunctory or preparatory for whatever activity we have before us. I’m embarrassed to admit that at times prayer at my church has been used as a placeholder for transitions in our services. No wonder our prayers are so small and churches are so powerless. 

"Let’s pray game-time prayers! Let’s pray like people who understand the real battles of the Christian life are won on our knees in prayer."

We must make a paradigm shift in the way we think. Prayer is not the pre-game—it’s the game itself! Prayer is the action. As my friend Jason Paredes said at the Empower Conference this year, “Prayer isn’t preparation for spiritual war. Prayer is warfare itself.” Spiritual victories are won and lost in prayer. As a pastor, it is crucial that I prepare my messages with great care and diligent study. But more important than a well-prepared message is a well-prepared messenger. If the messenger isn’t prepared, it really doesn’t matter what the message is. On the flip side, if the messenger is prepared, the Holy Spirit will prepare the message through Him. 

The truth is, the enemy doesn’t fear prayerless preaching, he doesn’t fear prayerless ministry, he doesn’t fear prayerless Bible study or prayerless programs. What he does fear is praying pastors, praying Christians, and praying churches. He trembles when we pray because he knows we have moved beyond our own strength, gifting, creativity, and efforts. He sees us fully dependent upon the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. R.A. Torrey once said, “When the devil sees a man or woman who really believes in prayer, who knows how to pray, and who really does pray, and, above all, when he sees a whole church on its face before God in prayer, he trembles as much as he ever did, for he knows that his day in that church or community is at an end.”  

Let’s pray game-time prayers! Let’s pray like people who understand the real battles of the Christian life are won on our knees in prayer. Let’s stop pretending prayer is merely preparing for the action and let’s see it as the action itself. 

The worship song is theologically sound … but what about the artist singing it?

A friend of mine recently shared a great quote from a worship leader: “When you preach, you’re putting words in people’s ears. When I sing, I’m putting words in people’s mouths.” What a profound statement on the weight of the words we sing! As I’ve sat beside a dear saint on their death bed, I find that they rarely quote their favorite theologians, but they do sing their favorite hymn or worship song.

I’ve seen calls for pastors to exclude songs from ministries and artists who hold theological stances that many evangelicals might disagree with. While I don’t have the space here to dig into the theology or practice of each of these artists, it’s worth simply asking the question: should we, as pastors, narrow the spectrum of artists whose songs we sing corporately?

My elder team and I recently discussed this question in-depth. My hope is to present both sides fairly. We’ll start with three brief arguments for including songs from artists like those I just mentioned, then move to three brief arguments for exclusion of some artists. I’ll conclude by sharing what my elders and I decided for our church.

Three arguments for inclusion

1. Is the song is theologically accurate?

The most important thing is that the songs we use in corporate worship are theologically sound. Horatio Spafford, author of the hymn “It Is Well,” held theological views that many would take issue with. Yet there aren’t calls (yet) for boycotting this well-known hymn. As long as the words we’re singing are theologically accurate, we need not forbid certain artists from our repertoire.

2. The vast majority of congregants won’t be led astray by artists.

Through our teaching and discipleship of the congregation, our church should be able to separate between the truths we sing and possible error artists espouse in their churches. In fact, by singing and discussing these songs openly with our congregation, it can help them grow in their discernment when they ask about the artists who composed them.

3. It’s virtually impossible to draw a line consistently.

With the increasing collaboration between artists today, it is extremely difficult to police which artists are theologically sound and which are not. Where do we draw the line? Or is it really even possible to draw these lines? And how much time would it take to try and keep up with all these collaborations between artists as they constantly change?

Three arguments for exclusion

1. In our digital age of accessibility, members can be led astray.

When artists have clearly questionable teaching and practice, singing their songs can inadvertently lead people astray. Admittedly, there are plenty of artists whose teaching and/or practice are not known to us. It’s virtually impossible to implement these limitations with perfect consistency. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, especially for artists and groups who have such large platforms and influence. We’re not just singing songs our church members will remember; they will go home and Google artists they hear and like.

2. By singing their songs, we are supporting these artists and their ministries.

Even though it’s not a verbal endorsement of all their ministries, using songs from questionable (or straight-up heretical) artists not only supports them, but spreads their influence. Churches are required to pay license fees through organizations like CCLI when they sing copywritten songs, so there are financial implications every time you report usage of a worship song you sing corporately. That alone should cause us pause.

3. There are so many great worship artists we align with theologically.

We’re not going to run out of great worship songs to sing in our congregations. It doesn’t put us in a bind to limit which artists we use. Perhaps expanding our repertoire can be a good thing, especially if it points congregants to artists with whom we have no hesitation on their theology and influence. With so many great songs from great artists, why not focus on and support theologically solid artists?

Where our church landed

There could be many more arguments and nuances given here on both sides of the issue. For us, we decided to steer all church ministries away from using songs written by theologically questionable artists who have an active influence on Christians.

We don’t have a problem with our congregants listening to these songs on their own; in fact, some of our own favorite songs come from these artists. However, for the shepherding of our church, for the support of orthodox and faithful Christian worship artists across the world, and due to the biblical mandate to have nothing to do with the “fruitless deeds of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11), we’ve decided it is best to avoid these artists in all corporate gatherings and ministries.

With so much confusion in our world about biblical truth and what it means to be a Christian, we need to take seriously our task of shepherding our flocks in the truth. No matter where you land on this important question, I would encourage you to do your research and ask the hard questions. No matter what you decide, this is a weighty task. Why? Because we’re not only putting words in people’s ears when we preach. We’re putting words in people’s mouths when we sing.

25 years of answered prayer with George Harris

In November, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention will mark 25 years of answered prayer at its annual meeting at Cross City Church in Euless. Each month until then, the Texan will feature a brief conversation with past SBTC presidents about how they have seen God answer their prayers for the convention over the past quarter century and how they are praying God will bless the convention moving forward. This month, we feature past SBTC President George Harris (2001-2003). 

What were some of your earliest prayers for the SBTC?

I remember praying for our first executive director and God leading us to Jim Richards. He was an unheard of preacher in Arkansas. I had serious reservations at the time, but those were all eradicated as I prayed. 

Our church was divided down the middle [about being] part of the new convention. I was strongly in favor of the new convention but had to get our church unified first. My greatest prayer was [that God would] keep our church from splitting over the issue. Prayer was our only hope. There was a group of men who joined a doctor and myself in a covenant to pray for unity and the right time to push for a vote to make the change. We were given the go-ahead after the convention had its first anniversary. The church voted without a dissenting vote to become part of the SBTC. All of our mission churches followed behind us and the rest is history. Prayer is the only thing that kept us together.

When I look back, it is with deep gratitude to God for leading in that direction and letting me have a small part in such a colossal movement. It was the single most important thing I had a part in over my nearly 30 years at Castle Hills First Baptist Church.

“I have seen God answer those early prayers by doing more than I ever asked Him to do.”

During your service as president, how were you praying for our convention?

I saw God adding to the convention numerous churches of a small size. I wanted to see more large churches that were conservative come into the convention, and that began to happen in the third year. Larger churches began to attract others of like size. That is when we began to be noticed as an organization worth paying attention to. A group of people with a purpose and a vision, not just a bunch of disgruntled people.

How else have you seen God answer some of your prayers regarding the convention?

I have seen God answer those early prayers by doing more than I ever asked Him to do. The outreach in missions, Cooperative Program gifts, and Christian education affiliations crowned our efforts and brought respect nationwide.

What is your prayer for the next 25 years of the SBTC?

My prayer for the future is that we will not lose our missional vision and our zeal for winning people to Christ and that we never compromise our stand on the Holy Scriptures. These are the things that have brought us where we are. We must not lose them.

The 5: Fasting can help our weaknesses find strength as we focus on Jesus

Over the last few months, I’ve written about spiritual disciplines like Bible study and prayer. This month, I’m tackling the topic of fasting. Here are some reasons we should be fasting, followed by a simple way to get started with this discipline. 


The Bible assumes believers will fast. 
Jesus expected His disciples to fast after He returned to the Father (Matthew 9:14-15), just as much as He expected them to pray (Matthew 6:5-7, 16-17). The early church fasted before sending out missionaries (Acts 13:1-3) and before appointing elders (Acts 14:23). We fast while we wait and long for Jesus to return for His church.


Fasting leads to us to slow down and reflect. 
The task of church leadership usually brings with it busyness. There is always something else to complete, somebody to visit, or a meeting to conduct or attend. In fact, we sometimes equate busyness with faithfulness and leave behind our intimate walk with God. Fasting is a means to redirect our attention to Him by pushing away from our table to feast at God’s table. 


Fasting reveals who we really are. 
Fasting exposes whether we believe encountering the Eternal One is more significant than getting temporary satisfaction from food. At the same time, fasting brings our true self to light. When our hunger while fasting leads us to be grumpy, short-tempered, anxious, or faithless, we can instead use those opportunities to focus on God. Fasting often leads to repentance and renewal.  


Fasting can be an honest expression of desperation for God. 
Jehoshaphat and his people fasted and cried out to God when three armies rallied against them (2 Chronicles 20:3). The people of God mourned, prayed, fasted, and sought God after Ezra read them the law (Nehemiah 9:1). We, likewise, have desperate moments that call us to fast because we long for Him.


Fasting is a reminder we are not as strong as we think we are. 
Leaders are often tough, persistent, and resilient. We push hard, replenish our strength through food, and then push hard again. Fasting, however, quickly reveals our limitations—we are finite people who need food. Even a short fast uncovers our struggle to deny self. The self-denial of fasting is seldom the direction we lean, but we must.

Need a way to start? Perhaps fast for one meal this week and focus on God during that time. You can later extend the time, but fasting even once can be a great starting point as you develop the habit. During your fasting time, read the Word more, pray more, and focus on Him more than anything. You won’t regret it. 

Chuck Lawless is dean of doctoral studies and vice president of spiritual formation and ministry centers at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. For more from Lawless, visit

Health scare leaves East Texas pastor ‘grateful’ for how the Lord changed him through it

A setback, followed by a God-inspired


In February 2022, Michael Criner—lead pastor at Rock Hill Baptist Church in Brownsboro—experienced an episode of stress-induced Bell’s palsy that caused temporary paralysis on the left side of his face. In the months following the diagnosis, Criner sought the Lord as he recovered and re-evaluated his work and life habits. Through prayerful adjustments, he was able to make a full comeback to his church and shares his story with the Texan in hopes that it will be an encouragement to pastors.

What was happening in your life and ministry leading up to your health scare? 

MC: Coming out of COVID, we had several guys on our staff who felt called to be a senior pastor … and others who were ready to retire. So as 2020 was winding down, we just had a number of what felt like gut punches—even though a lot of it was healthy—leaving us asking what we were going to do. At home, our family was in the midst of foster care as well, and it was difficult. It was all just overwhelming. 

So in the midst of trying to search for a worship pastor, trying to figure out students, trying to figure out pastoral care, and then having all that was pent up during COVID, it accumulated into this snowball effect in my personal life. I was not getting the rest I needed physically because I wasn’t getting the rest I needed spiritually and I was unwilling to ask for help from our team. My body was shutting down and I wasn’t listening. All that just kind of piled up and my body broke.

I had had a string of about 10 days when I had a migraine in the back of my head behind my left ear. My wife, Abby, was coming back from being out of town and called to ask how things were going, and as I was responding to her, I started noticeably slurring my words. We went to the emergency room that night and they said I was having left facial paralysis—basically, Bell’s palsy. It wasn’t life-threatening, but my neurologist said it was stress-induced and told me, “If you don’t take this seriously, this could become permanent. Because your job includes public speaking, you may not be able to pronounce words the way you need to. So figure out what’s causing the stress, stop doing it, and adjust your schedule.”

“I was not getting the rest I needed physically because I wasn’t getting the rest I needed spiritually and I was unwilling to ask for help from our team.”

How did you communicate this to your church and what was the response?

MC: I met with all our leadership, and I was making pronouncements that I would be back in the pulpit the next week and that they didn’t need to worry, that I was going to tackle this. And a lay leader in our church said, “Man, I don’t care what you just said. … You’re not going to be back in this pulpit for at least five or six weeks until you get healthy. You’ve led us well through COVID and all the changes happening at the church, but it has had an impact on your body. If you don’t do what your neurologist told you to do, we won’t have a pastor.” So they gave me time away, and I’m so grateful for that.

What did you do during that time off?

MC: I slept. I changed my diet. I began to evaluate the pace I was going and realized it wasn’t sustainable. During that time I went on a little retreat to this place in Big Sandy, and while there, the Lord just really ministered to my heart. He was very clear to me that some things needed to change. In 1 Kings 19, you see that Elijah’s just burned out. He gets word that Jezebel is going to kill him, so he flees. The Lord doesn’t rebuke him for fleeing. The Lord tells him to eat and sleep.

Criner, seen here with his wife, Abigail, following a recent run. Submitted Photo

How did the Lord specifically speak to your heart through this season?

MC: The Lord really taught me three things. The first was that I needed physical rest. I was not sleeping well, and it was evident, so I had to change my sleeping habits. Also, I was eating like a preteen boy at camp. It just wasn’t good, so I had to change my eating habits. I needed physical rest. I had to prioritize it.

The second was soul rest. My soul needed rest. I was dishing out of a bucket that had a hole in it. There was nothing going in. I needed not just a few minutes in the day, not just an hour in the day—I needed periodic, extended time when I was doing nothing other than just sitting with the Lord.

One of the other things was I had to realize my limits. At a smaller church, I could do more. But navigating a church of our size, I needed help. I think what this momentary setback did for me was it helped me hear the Lord say to me, “You can’t make it at this rate that you’re going. You’re limited, and you need to figure out what kind of help you need and go get it.”

So I began asking myself, “What are the things I need help with at the church? What are my deficiencies where I need somebody else to step in?” And since then, God’s been so kind. I’m so grateful that God has allowed me to walk through this season.

Criner interacts with members at Rock Hill Baptist Church in Brownsboro, where he serves as lead pastor.

What are some of the practical adjustments you’ve made in your ministry and your personal life as a result of this season?

MC: I now have a new rhythm of doing my sermon prep at home. I’m able to get more done in four or five hours at home than I was in 12 hours at the office. The book Deep Work has been really influential to me in terms of blocking out time for the things in my life I need to get done. I now have a time block when I’m going to do counseling, when I’m going to do one-on-one meetings …. Having all of that planned out for me has really helped me know when I need to say “no” and when I need to say “yes.”

Personally, when I look back on those who modeled ministry for me, they all had an outlet, something they did for fun. Whether that was bow hunting, exercise, or whatever. I think for me, my ambition and desire to prove that I am a worthy minister called by God … made me think I couldn’t have fun. So since then, I’ve engaged in ultra-marathons and trail runs, and God has used that to get me to the health that I have today.

The Criner family consists of (from left) Ruth, Michael, Talitha, Adele, and his wife, Abigail.

“I would encourage [pastors] to think about three buckets. The first bucket would center around how their physical life is going. ... The second bucket would center around their spiritual life. ... The third bucket would center around the need for help.”

If given the opportunity to speak to a group of pastors about your experience, what would you say to them?

MC: I would encourage them to think about three buckets. The first bucket would center around how their physical life is going. Are they exercising, even if it’s a 20-minutes walk?? Are they getting enough rest? What are they eating? When I eat like junk, I feel like junk. The second bucket would center around their spiritual life. Are they really spending time with the Lord, or are they just doing sermon preparation? Are they in a rush to get to the next thing, or are they genuinely pausing in large blocks of time in prayer and study of God’s Word? The third bucket would center around the need for help. Are they asking for help? Are they doing things they shouldn’t be doing that somebody else could do and maybe even do better? Most bottlenecks in my church are my fault. Ask for help!

 We may not fully know for another 10 years the effect the last two years have had on pastors. I mean, just look around—a lot of pastors are worn out and weary. But please don’t forget what a privilege it is to pastor a church. Steward what you have been given now so that more of those who are far from God might become followers of Jesus.