Re-gathering the Church

Louisiana Pastors and Church Leaders.,

We have received a number of requests to help churches interpret the phasing aspects related to the re-gathering of congregations. A wise Seminary professor once lectured, “The definition of a fool is he who tries to guess what is going to be on the test.” Therefore, we have intentionally remained silent on what re-entry means to the churches of Louisiana until we heard from the Governor. As you probably know by now, on April 27 he extended the stay-at-home order until May 15 with an update tentatively targeted for May 11.

Suggestions, information and links are currently on our website. You can access them by clicking on the Resources slider and the Re-entry slider.

We have intentionally not passed along every article and post we’ve run across. Much of the information is redundant and we’re hoping to avoid information overload.

While we’re waiting for specifics from the governor’s office, let me offer several words of general guidance as you peruse the mountain of other suggestions.

  1. Re-gathering the church, just like all aspects of our society right now, is likely going to happen in several phases. The governor indicated that congregations may initially be limited to 25% of their seating capacity. Masks and social distancing guidelines will likely be part of the initial phase. Again, these are not the official guidelines, just hints he dropped during his press conference on April 27. Therefore, prepare your congregation now for multiple changes over the next several months. Though not Scripture, the adage, “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be broken” is going to be necessary for a while.
  2. We are a long way from normal. Just because we anticipate some possible dates and processes that will enable us to come together, re-gathering your church may not be the best option right now. You need to reassess your volunteers. You’ll need to determine your ability to be effective given the guidelines. Some churches may determine that a few more weeks of remote meetings is more effective than immediately gathering given the anticipated guidelines. There is “no one size fits all” approach in determining your response to re-gathering the church.
  3. Understand that not everyone will follow the decision to re-gather. Some will decide to re-gather under strict social distancing guidelines, but others will not. On the flip side, my experience as a pastor reminds me that church members can be an independent bunch. They often make their own guidelines. When this happens, how are you going to respond? Others are going to stay home because of individual health concerns, at least for a while. How are you going to minister to those who make such a decision?
  4. The decision to re-gather is not so much a decision of rules and regulations, but of wisdom and responsibility. Our testimony in the community is far more important than our decision once the stay-at-home order is lifted. If we are asking the question, “Can I do ________________ and still be in compliance?” we are asking the wrong question. The right question is “Is our response the right message to send to our community about our love for God and our love for them?”
  5. There is no manual for leading through a pandemic. No, you did not miss this class in Seminary. Because there is no manual, we are likely to make some mistakes. You are likely to do something different than what you see the church across town is doing. You are likely to be criticized regardless of your decision. Such is the nature of leadership.

Pastor, we are here for you. We are available to pray with you . We’re here to talk through your particular situation, so please contact us if you desire to do so.

We are praying that God gives you the wisdom to understand these times and gives you the courage and grace to minister effectively now and always.

Keep looking up!

Positioning Ourselves for God to Answer Our Prayers

Second Chronicles 7:14 is one of the most often cited Scriptures on prayer. Often times, this passage is examined as a prescription for prayer. This is not a prayer prescription. This is God’s response to a prayer that Solomon prayed at the occasion of the dedication of the Temple. We read Solomon’s prayer beginning in 6:12. Beginning in 7:12, we read God’s response to Solomon’s prayer.

While we are still learning much about prayer and when God answers prayers, we can draw several conclusions about answered prayer.

I note these “Four Keys to Positioning Ourselves for God to Answer.”

  1. Humility

We can never pray as we ought without humility. Humility is the essence of saying, “I can’t do this by myself. God, I need you.”

Later in this same book (chapter 20) we read about the days of the reign of King Jehoshaphat. Word comes to the King that “a vast number” has assembled against Judah. Jehoshaphat calls the people to pray. In his prayer he says this: “For we are powerless before this vast number that comes to fight against us. We do not know what to do, but we look to you.”

Prayer begins with authentically telling God in word and action, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.”

But then God answers. “Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast number, for the battle is not yours, but God’s.

  1. Habitual

The second key to positioning ourselves for answered prayer is habitual prayer. God’s response to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7 is that the prayer of dedication is not to be the last prayer offered in the Temple.

Prayer, above most every other thing, is a relationship. We desire answered prayer. God desires relationship. God is the parent who longs for His children to call Him. When children call their earthly parents, sometimes there is a lot to say and sometimes there is not much to say, but parents still want to hear that voice. God wants to hear His children’s voices.

  1. Hunger

And we are to seek His face. Isn’t that a powerful description of prayer? I am seeking God, but at the same time, I am seeking the will of God. I hear in this phrase that there is a passion to our praying. This is much more than asking God about our “list.” We hunger to see Him. Remember the beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Later in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:33, we read “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be provided for you.” In the context of praying about our needs, our first obligation is to seek Him.

  1. Holiness

Finally, we position ourselves for answered prayer by “turning from our wicked ways.” You can search the Scriptures and you will note this: There is a connection between obedience and answered prayer. In fact, we see this link in this passage in verses 17-22.

James (5:16) said that we should confess our sins one to the other because, “The prayer of the righteous man is very powerful.”

Some things about answered prayer will always remain a mystery, but we can position ourselves for God to answer. In fact, we can also position ourselves for God not to answer.

If my people….then I will hear, will forgive, and will heal. What wonderful words from our all sufficient God!

The Fifth Miracle of the Cross—The Response of the Soldiers

We have examined so far four supernatural events of the cross—the darkness, the torn veil, the earthquake, and the resurrection of the saints. Today we come to a final supernatural happening. Some may not think the response of the centurion and other soldiers is supernatural. However, any time someone has the faith to see Jesus for who He really is, God is at work!

This would not be the last time that someone would come face to face with the power of Christ and the cross and respond in faith. The confession of the soldiers has been spoken over and over again throughout history. Dan Leach, who lived just outside of Houston, Texas, made this same confession after being presented the evidence about Christ. On January 19, 2004, Dan Leach pulled off the perfect crime. By getting ideas from a popular television crime show, he murdered his girlfriend, but made it appear a suicide. The authorities ruled the death of the girl a suicide. But on March 7, 2004, Dan Leach walked into the local Sheriff’s Department and confessed to the murder giving very specific details that detectives said only the murderer would have known. What made Dan confess? Earlier that day, he went alone to a showing of the movie, The Passion of the Christ. After seeing what he called the death of an innocent man, he realized that he could not truly repent of his sin unless he turned himself in for the murder. A miracle occurs anytime a person turns from sin to the Savior.

 As his title suggests, a centurion was commander over one hundred soldiers. “Those with him” suggests regular soldiers. The important thing to understand is that these soldiers were just doing a job. They had presided over countless other crucifixions. The crucifixion of Jesus was no different than any other crucifixion. These soldiers had no emotional attachment whatsoever to what was going on that day. That’s what makes this confession so amazing. They were not looking to follow Jesus. They had not investigated Jesus’ works or His words. But, when confronted with what they saw that day, they had no other choice but to exclaim, “Truly this was the son of God.”

Let’s remind ourselves of a few things in the context of this confession. The centurion and other soldiers made this confession in light of the works of God. The darkness, the torn veil, the earthquake, and the resurrected bodies certainly must have made an impression on the soldiers. Second, the soldiers made their confession in light of the way that Jesus died. We sometimes talk about someone dying with dignity. Never has anyone died in a more humble, yet dignified way as Jesus. Finally, the soldiers made their confession in light of the words of Jesus. Remember that Jesus spoke seven phrases from the cross. Two of these phrases must have stood out to the soldiers. First, Jesus said specifically about the soldiers, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Second, Jesus said to one of the criminals, “Assuredly, I say unto you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Certainly in the midst of the works of God and the way the He died, the soldiers must have been amazed at the words of Jesus.

Most of all, we need to draw some conclusions from this confession. First, God desires that all would be saved. Consider the heart of God:

  • There is no past so problematic that God will not pursue.
  • There is no heart so hard that God cannot soften.
  • There is no sin so sinful that God cannot forgive.

The second conclusion to draw from the confession is that God demands a decision. Just as the cross demanded a response from the soldiers, Jesus, through the cross, demands and deserves a response from us.

In Bach’s oratorio, St. Matthew’s Passion, he designed the finale to make a very specific point. The finale musically dramatized the confession of the centurion. Bach felt that it was not enough to reflect only the confession of the centurion. He knew that every person must be willing to make this confession their confession. So, instead of the line being a solo, the entire choir sings this part. In addition, in the musical score accompanying this phrase, Bach musically wrote in his name for the bass line. This was Bach’s way of saying, “I believe that Jesus is the son of God.”

Can you put your name on this line? You must! For, God desires that all would be saved.  God demands your decision today.

The Fourth Miracle of the Cross: The Resurrection of the Saints

We’ve examined so far three miracles of the cross—the darkness, the torn veil, and the earthquake. Today we come to the fourth and most mysterious miracle of all—the resurrection of some who had previously died. A miracle like this screams for our attention. What was God saying through the resurrection of these saints?

Once I e-mailed seven of my ministry friends to ask them their thoughts on this miracle.  Four were pastors; the other three were Professors of either New Testament or Theology at Baptist Seminaries or Colleges. Out of the seven, only one responded. The first sentence of his otherwise very brief response was, “You picked a good one.” He offered a comment or two before closing his paragraph by saying, “Let me know how you decide to preach on this passage.” In other words, “Good luck.”

Obviously, there is much that we do not know about this passage. The recording of this miracle leaves us with more questions than answers. Here are just a few of the questions we want to ask:

  1. Who were these resurrected people? Was Abraham raised? Moses? Noah?
  2. Did they continue to live?
  3. What kind of bodies did they have?
  4. Why didn’t the other Gospel writers mention this miracle?

Though, we do not have the answer to these questions, we can be certain about a few things.

First, these bodies literally came to life. Whatever else you understand, please accept the absolute literal nature of this miracle. I am not sure quite what to make of this miracle, but this much I know—it happened. It would not have been recorded in the Gospel if it had not happened.

Second, like the other miracles, the resurrection of these saints emphasizes the importance of the activity taking place on the cross. The whole context is suggesting that everything in the world was affected by the death of Jesus. In fact, there seems to be good evidence from major sections of Jewish thought of the day that a bodily resurrection of Old Testament saints would occur when Messiah came. Jewish rabbis of that day taught to expect a bodily resurrection to occur at the revealing of Messiah.

We must draw our conclusions from what we know to be true. So, to what does this miracle point us?

The resurrection of these saints reinforces the unlimited power of God and the ultimate purpose of God. Don’t forget the background. The text tells us that many accusations were being made against Jesus. Those who passed by were mocking Him. Some shouted, “Save yourself.” Others called for him to come down from the cross if He really was the Son of God. Through all of this harassment, Jesus remained silent, but His answer was coming.

Jesus did not answer them until the tombs came open. Just because God is silent does not mean that He is incapable. The reason for His silence became evident when the soldiers declared that He was the Son of God. Do You think God ever wants to “answer” some of the critics today? He doesn’t answer them today for the same reason He didn’t answer on that Friday. He wants more people to be saved! This is not the first time that Jesus has delayed one request for a greater miracle. What if Jesus would have answered more immediately His critics? Would the soldiers have believed?

Maybe the silence of God seems too much for you right now? Do not lose heart. God may be about to speak in a way that you never expected.

The Miracle of the Earthquake

Five miracles happened as Jesus hung on the cross. The day became night, symbolizing Jesus taking the sin of history upon Himself. Next, the temple veil was split from top to bottom, symbolizing a new covenant of salvation available and accessible to all. Today, we examine the third miracle. Matthew reported an earthquake. I believe that this “splitting of the rocks” points back to a statement Jesus made to the Pharisees as He was welcomed into Jerusalem on the Sunday before that Friday.

Luke provides the details of the entry into Jerusalem as recorded in Luke 19.

36And as he went, they spread their clothes in the way. 37And when he was come nigh, even now at the descent of the mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen; 38Saying, Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest. 39And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. 40And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.

When we collaborate the accounts from Matthew and Luke, we find an interesting detail. “If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.” At the cross, we find the disciples at their worst. I remind you that it is not just Judas that betrayed Jesus. Likewise, it is not just Peter that denied Jesus. In one way or the other, is it not true that all of the disciples deserted Jesus? Is it not true that the “these” of Luke 19:40 did in fact become silent? So, what was the response? Matthew tells us that the stones cried out!

I give you as a hypothesis that the earthquake and the splitting of the rocks were the prophetic fulfillment of Jesus’ words recorded in Luke 19. If this hypothesis is correct, then we have some certain conclusions from the earthquake. First, the earthquake establishes that Jesus is worthy to be praised. The precise reason that He is worthy to be praised was established at the cross.

Second, the earthquake establishes that Jesus will be praised. The fulfillment of this prophecy makes clear that Jesus will always be praised. The whole world may fall silent, but His name will be praised forever.

So, what’s the reason for our silence? Why do we not always praise Him as we should?  Some fail to see the significance of the cross. Do you really realize that would it not be for the cross, all of us would be stuck in our sin and bound for Hell? But, because of what Christ did, we are forgiven of sin, have the ability to be free of sin, and are on our way to Heaven at the exact moment of our death. That alone should keep us praising Him every moment of our lives.

Others are limited in their praise because they focus on what is seen rather than on that which is not seen. Here is the problem of the disciples. The disciples could only see Jesus’ death. They could only see the cross. They hadn’t understood Jesus’ words that He would only be three days in the grave. They could only see with human eyes. We do the same. We get distressed by our problems and forget that God is working all things together for our good.

So how should we praise Him? We should praise Him with our lips, of course, but do not forget, we should also praise Him with our lives.

The Miracle of the Splitting of the Veil

At the cross we see five miracles. Each of the miracles has a distinctive message. The first miracle, three hours of darkness in broad daylight, symbolized that Jesus took upon Himself the sins of the whole world. The second miracle, the miraculous splitting of the veil, symbolizes that we are all welcome into the presence of God. This is how God always wanted to relate to us.

Each year millions of people go to the holy Indian city of Haridwar to bathe in the River Ganges. These multitudes come believing that this Hindu ritual will wash away their sins.  Such extreme measures may be uncommon, but people try all sorts of things to build a relationship with God. The splitting of the veil reminds us that the death of Christ upon the cross gives us a way to have a relationship with God.

Matthew reported that the tearing of the veil happened simultaneous to Jesus breathing his last breath. (Matthew 27:50-51) Scholars debate which veil is being referenced. The temple would have had two curtains or veils—one separating the outer court from the Gentiles and another separating the inner court from the Holy of Holies. Since none of the Gospels indicate which veil, we do not know exactly, but in either case the issue is one of separation. The veil reminded that there was a barrier between sinful humanity and Holy God.

Understanding the purpose of the veil helps us to see the significance of this miracle.  The tearing of the veil symbolizes several aspects of the nature of our salvation.

First, we see that salvation involves the removal of a barrier. The veil in the temple was a barrier. The first veil kept non-Jews from entering the inner courts. The second veil kept all, except the most High Priest, and this only once a year, from going into the Holiest of Holy Places. Sin is our barrier, but at the tearing of Christ’s flesh on the cross, the temple veil miraculously tore apart, thus symbolizing the removal of the barrier.

Second, in the tearing of the veil, we are reminded that God initiates salvation. Salvation is God’s idea, not our idea. Some have remarked that the Gospel writers were sure to indicate that the veil was torn from top to bottom. Perhaps this imagery is symbolic of God from Heaven ripping down the curtain.

Third, in the tearing of the veil, we are encouraged that God invites all to be saved. The temple being torn dramatically announces that access to God is open to all.
Finally, the tearing of the veil insists that God is the only way of salvation. The simultaneous tearing of the veil with His death announces that we gain access to God only through the cross.

Yes, I think much more was happening than just a tearing of a veil. God was announcing through this miracle, as the writer of Hebrews declared, “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” (Hebrews 9:12) Hallelujah to the Lamb!

The Miracle of Darkness in the Day

Every Christian will agree that a great miracle occurred that Friday that Jesus took upon Himself the sin of the whole world. Actually, as Matthew related that scene, as recorded in Matthew 27:45-54, one can count as many as five miracles: the sun turning to darkness, the splitting of the temple veil, the shaking of the earth, the resurrection of dead people, and the response of the soldiers. In these miracles is the message of the cross. In the noonday darkness, we learn the first lesson of the cross. Though Paul did not refer to the darkness, his commentary on the cross in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is a good synopsis of the lesson from the darkness. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

Reason for the Darkness

Have you ever stopped to ponder the reason for the darkness? Considering the imagery of darkness in other moments of Biblical history, perhaps God was saying something in the darkness of Crucifixion Day. God seemed to use darkness in the period of the Exodus to indicate a significant moment. The ninth plague was total darkness for three days. Right before the plague of death, which was the tenth plague, was the darkness. God was announcing through darkness, “I’m up to something.” The darkness at the Exodus and at the cross announced, “Look, this is a Divine moment! Don’t miss it!”

Does your way seem kind of dark right now? Don’t be in despair! God may be about to make an announcement about your life! Darkness often comes before Divine moments.

In addition to the darkness signaling a Divine moment, the darkness symbolized that the cross was a defining moment in human history. All throughout Scripture, evil and sin are referred to in terms of darkness. Good and righteousness are referred to in terms of light.  The darkness of verse 45 is linked to the declaration of verse 46. Christ took upon Himself the sin of the whole world. In that moment, all sin—past, present, and future—fell upon the Savior. No wonder the sky grew dark!

The Theological Relevance of the Darkness

Out of this darkness, we sense some theological truths. First, we are reminded that sin separates us from God. Second, the depth of God’s love is revealed. Stop and think about it. The Bible describes Hell as a place of darkness, a place of torment, and a place of separation from God. Jesus, in those hours of darkness, went through all three so we would not have to go through these ourselves. Sometimes, people get into great debates as to who put Jesus on the cross. Was it the Jews, the Romans, Pilate or Judas? Let’s be clear about the answer. First, all people put Jesus on the cross. Second, Jesus placed Himself on the cross. He wanted to save people from sin.

What should be our response to such a display of love? We must join the centurion in saying, “Truly this {is} the Son of God.”

Crying out to God in the Midst of the Crisis

Here I raise my Ebenezer
Here there by Thy great help I’ve come

We sing these words in the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I’m sure many of us sing these words without realizing exactly why we are singing them.

Do yourself a great favor and go read 1 Samuel 7:1-12.

As usual, the Philistines are causing trouble for Israel. As usual Israel is scared. As usual, Israel cries out to God through their leader at the time to “make it stop.” This time the leader is Samuel. As usual, God hears, and Israel is victorious.

What Samuel did and said next give us the words of this beloved hymn.

Afterward, Samuel took a stone, named it Ebenezer, explaining, “The Lord has helped us to this point.” (1 Samuel 7:12)

Meditate on those words today. Another translation renders it, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

When we began this journey, we had more questions than answers. We had fears. Who are we kidding? Today, we still have more questions than answers. We still have fears.

But, we can also say, “The Lord has helped us to this point.”

We have seen churches learn to do worship through technology. We have seen people have Sunday School through ZOOM. We have heard amazing stories of people stepping up in a variety of ways.

Yes, we can say, “The Lord has helped us to this point.”

And, believe this, dear friends, one day we will be on the other side of this global crisis and still be able to say, “The Lord has helped us to this point.”

Go Raise an Ebenezer Somewhere Today!

We want to invite you to join us for a statewide online prayer meeting Thursday, April 2, at 7:14 p.m. on our Louisiana Baptists Facebook page (facebook.com/louisianabaptists).  The writer of Hebrews encourages us to boldly approach the throne of grace so we can receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Heb. 4:16). I think you’ll agree that we are in a time of need, so please join us as we unite our voices and our prayers, surround the throne and cry out to God.

How I Would Do Live Streaming If I Was Still a Pastor?

I find myself saying a lot these days, “If I was still a pastor.” So, for what it’s worth and if it helps some of our pastors think through some issues, here are several things I would do with live streaming or producing a recorded version of a worship service during this COVID-19 crisis.

  • I would be a minimalist. Pastor, this is not the time to be fancy. Your congregation needs a word from God far more than a need professional broadcast. In addition, having a minimum number of people involved also helps slow the spread which is way more important right now than the quality of your production.
  • I would seek to make the remote worship gathering as normal as possible. The order of service would look the same. I would welcome guests inviting them to send a text or email to tell us that they were watching. I would have a pastoral prayer. Congregations need to be comforted by hearing their pastor pray for them. I would sing. Well, I would have someone else lead in musical worship. I would receive an offering at the usual spot in our worship. I would use that moment in worship to ask people right then to electronically send in their offering or prepare their gift for mailing. This seems much more worshipful and Biblical than the appeal that the bills won’t be paid if the people don’t give. I would preach. And, I would extend a Gospel invitation and extend an opportunity for people to email, text, phone, or mail their commitment. I would conclude with a benediction—a good word. The point is that we are far from anything that is normal right now, but I would try to be as normal as possible in leading people to worship.
  • In my sermon I would ask people to do something. In my last few years of preaching, I have fallen into a practice of concluding my sermons with the question, “So what?” The idea is to make sure that we were moving from the information to transformation, from the theological to the practical. I would certainly not deviate from that practice during this crisis. Now, more than ever, folks need something to do. I would make sure that the message calls them to do something.

Pastor, I am praying for you as you prepare to preach each Sunday and as you redesign ministry for the weeks and months ahead.

A Remote Ministry

On Sunday, March 22, Louisiana’s Governor John Bel Edwards gave the grim news that Louisiana has the fastest rate of confirmed cases for the COVID-19 virus than any state or nation in the world.

Along with that foreboding news, Governor Edwards implemented a “stay at home order” until at least April 13. The Governor’s Sunday proclamation makes it official that we are in this for the long haul. And, “this” seems to be changing on us daily.

So, the thought occurred to me that much of the Apostle Paul’s ministry was remote. Because of his imprisonment, much of his ministry became remote instead of in person. Paul could have said that there’s nothing that he could do, but instead, he stayed connected to the churches through a ministry of writing.

Think about the book of Philippians for example. The contents might help us to understand how we do ministry in these “remote” days.

  • Paul engaged in a ministry of prayer. (1:3-11) If our prayer life doesn’t grow in these days of our “confinement,” we must confess that we are really not all that interested in praying.
  • Paul expected a new wave of evangelism. (1:12-20) Paul, in his confinement looked for evangelistic opportunity, and to his no great surprise, it was right in front of him. I believe the same is true for us if we will open our eyes. May we, as Paul did, understand that opportunities for Gospel advance now exist that did not before the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Paul elevated that which was most assured in his life. (1:21-30) Every day we live with this truth that to live is Christ and to die is gain. Every day we live with this truth that whether we live or die, as Christians, we truly win. This crisis causes us to face this truth in a brand new way. We are going to be tested as to whether we believe the message we have been preaching.
  • Paul exhorted true Christian doctrine. Paul spoke of humility, the importance of our Christian witness (shine like stars), and the power of the Gospel over everything else.
  • Paul experienced joy and contentment. (4:1-18)
  • Paul expressed hope for the future. (4:19-20)

“And my God will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

So, while we engage in this remote ministry, know that God is up to something! Just imagine where we would be without Paul’s remote ministry. For starters, we would be missing a lot of the New Testament.

Stay encouraged!