Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Brief Prayer of Affirmation for Worship Visitors

For most people, visiting a new church for the first time almost always entails great trepidation. We might just as soon meet potential in-laws, or our new neighbors the Addams family.

I always include a short prayer for our visitors in each of our worship services, asking God to bless them and to make their time with us full of peace and joy. The prayer, however, comes after a doing some things to help matters.

  1. We try to ensure parking is available and clearly marked.
  2. We provide good signage to help visitors find their way to the sanctuary and restrooms. Few things are more awkward than accidentally walking into the front of the sanctuary.
  3. Our greeters know who our members are, and who are visitors, and we train them to engage them accordingly.
  4. Our greeters alert key members to the presence of visitors.
  5. I try very hard to introduce myself to visitors prior to the service, if there is time. This short greeting always entails a blessing such as, "Thanks for being here. I pray that God will really fill you up with his joy and peace."
At an early juncture in the worship service, we make a point to welcome visitors. We don't actually point them out or have them stand. We simply speak generally to our visitors. We express appreciation for the fact that they could have chosen to be somewhere else and that visiting a new church can be difficult. If there is something special or different about today's worship service, such as Communion service, or a guest speaker, I will give visitors advance notice.

After all this, without making a fuss and without printing it into the bulletin's order of service, I say, "Shall we pray." Here's a random prayer blessing for visitors: "Father, we thank you for sending us each visitor here today. Please grant them peace and solace for choosing to come for worship. Whatever challenges they may be facing, we ask that you would grant them wisdom and grant them courage to do what they need to do. May they see that despite the fierceness of our present day conflicts, Jesus is Lord. Amen."

Be aware that often there is some precipitating event or issue that has compelled the visitor to come to church. Sometimes visitors come to worship in a state of lament or disorientation about life, and God has used such circumstances to lead them to invest their time to visiting a church. No need to speculate on the specifics of why a visitor might be there, but congregations should be aware that below the surface issues may be simmering, and that the visit may mean opportunity for ministry.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Baptists are Evangelical, But Why? and What Does It Mean?

Because the Baptist church is a "believer's church," we Baptists are by nature Evangelicals.

Up to the Reformation era, church membership depended largely upon the accident of geographical location of one's birth. If you were born in a town under the authority of a Christian magisterium, or in a Christian kingdom, you were baptized as an infant, and you grew up Christian.

In contrast, Baptists contested that baptism should only be for those who profess Christ as their Lord and Savior (which infants could not). In order to belong to a Baptist church, you had to convert from your sinful ways, confess your sins, and publicly acknowledge and claim Jesus as Lord. If you did so, you demonstrated it symbolically through "Believer's Baptism."

For this reason, Baptists are evangelical. The National Association of Evangelicals provides a brief, but helpful description of Evangelicalism here. Baptist historian Prof. David Bebbington of Oxford University identifies four core characteristics of Evangelicalism that is universally applicable:
  • CONVERSIONISM: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus.
  • ACTIVISM: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • BIBLICISM: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • CRUCICENTRISM: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.
All four characteristics are closely linked with the Believer's Church commitment of Baptists. Conversionism is core to a Believer's Church. Because Baptists think that conversion is necessary to come into Christ's Church, Baptists are, of course, committed to Activism. Baptists readily accept and promote Biblicism simply because it is a core commitment of the Apostolic Faith--contending for the faith passed down to the saints through the apostles as Jesus taught them. Finally, Baptist are also Crucicentric since it is Christ's sacrifice on the cross that makes conversion possible.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

What to Call Your New Pastor

Rev. Leonard. Pastor Leonard. Dr. Leonard. Bro. Leonard. Minister Leonard.

Here are some protocols for the use of titles for Baptist ministers--not that it matters, but just in case you'd like to know.

But preliminarily, the whole discussion must be nuanced by Baptist commitments to equality within the congregation. The indwelling of the Spirit upon every believer emphasizes that God can use even the least maidservant to help lead his people as anyone. Thus, there are no rankings within the Baptist church--at least there shouldn't be.

Titles serve merely a practical function. By referring to someone with the title "Pastor," Baptists simply recognize that Jim Leonard is the pastor of the congregation and not some other person. There might be a modicum of respect being expressed, but no more so than addressing your child's teacher as Mr. Smith, rather than as John. Moreover, sometimes titles are important when signing documents or writing formal letters to the city council or to the newspaper, for example. For this reason, Baptist aversions to titles should not be absolute.
  1. Not your own pastor: Rev. Leonard
  2. Your own pastor: a) Pastor Leonard; b) Pastor Jim
  3. Any pastor in an academic setting, assuming he has a doctorate: Dr. Leonard
  4. Any pastor outside a religious context with whom you do not enjoy familiarity, assuming he has a doctorate: Dr. Leonard (or anytime that you'd otherwise refer to him as Mr. Leonard)
  5. Citation in public writing: a) Rev. James M. Leonard, PhD; b) the Rev. Dr. James M. Leonard

For Baptists, it is always appropriate to call your pastor "Brother Leonard" or "Brother Jim." Pre-Reformation, "brother" and "sister" were ranked positions in the Catholic Church. It was a lower level rank, but still miles above the ordinary parishioner. Baptists democratized church rankings, based on their emphasis of the indwelling of the Spirit on every believer, and started calling each other brother and sister, thereby ranking every believer.

As an interim minister, I heard one church member complain that a prospective pastor did not address an older saint in the church with the polite title "Mrs." In that unique context, no one dare address elder church leaders without some title. I'd prefer to use a more distinctively Christian title. For this reason, I am in the habit of referring to our church members as Brother Smith or Sister Jones.

Jesus' warns about taking titles too seriously, emphasizing the importance of humility. Fair enough. Of course, Paul is not shy about assigning titles to himself and to his colleagues. In some contexts, he is nothing less than Paul the Apostle, even if he also self-identifies as a slave of Christ. He's happy to refer to Phoebe as Deacon of Cenchrae. He addresses deacons and elders in his letter to the Philippians.

So, it is important to recognize that whatever title that is bestowed on us Baptist leaders, we accept it in humility, understanding that all good things that comes our way is a gift. We should also note that if we've been given much, much will be expected.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Pastoral Advice for the Pastoral Search Committee

Pastoral Advice for the Pastoral Search Committee
Rev. James M. Leonard, PhD

Ministry Is Hard Work
Members of the search committee have been entrusted with a task that is huge, time-consuming, and often frustrating. They usually work very quietly; the congregation generally does not know the many hours of labor their committee members must sacrifice to complete the task. Members can often feel underappreciated, and these feelings can be exacerbated when the congregation starts getting impatient about the pace of the committee work.
For this reason, as an interim minister, I want to encourage committee members. I understand a little about how hard the task is. I pray for you, and at nearly every church meeting, we encourage the whole church to keep you in prayer. There will come a time when all your hard work comes to fruition. Be faithful, then, and do not be downcast. Your reward is great.

Close Contact Leads to Closer Personal Relationships
As you spend hours each week with your fellow committee members, and as the weeks turn into months, and even years, you will get to know each other incredibly well. You will discover that each member has different abilities, gifts, perspectives, and urgencies. I ask you to appreciate these diverse gifts and these diverse perspectives. Rely on God’s gifting, so that the members carry the burdens equally. Don’t let any one individual carry too heavy a load.
Recognize that discernment is actually a charism—a spiritual gift. All of us have some measure of discernment, largely determined by the wisdom that we’ve developed over the years. Yet God gives to the church a Spirit-anointed discernment through individual church members. This is a supernatural gifting that goes well beyond natural wisdom. After working so closely together as a group, you may perceive that God has gifted one or more people with this Spirit-empowered gift. The members of the committee should recognize this over time, and judiciously lean on such individuals as God leads.
The crucible of the search committee has a way of yielding contention, arguments, and impatience. It has a way of bringing out idiosyncrasies and untamed character traits. For this reason, we must remember that love covers a multitude of sins. Or, in the case of church members, love covers a multitude of idiosyncrasies. You must deeply love one another, or else you will get on each others’ nerves! But if love covers a multitude of idiosyncrasies, then you just have to smile when any unseemly characteristics rear their ugly heads. Everyone is normal until you get to know them!

Your Ideal Pastor Profile Is important
You should review your list of characteristics you want in a new pastor, mostly as a reminder. Have confidence in that profile. It was created with great care by the collective wisdom of your entire committee. Keep it in focus. Every once in a while it might need to be modified, but mostly it should serve you well.
There are many characteristics that might be emphasized in any pastoral search, but among those that you should not overlook are high energy and creativity. Donald Trump sand bagged Jeb Bush with the moniker “Low Energy Jeb.” A low energy pastor might not sink a church, but a church is hardly capable of changing directions without a high energy pastor.

A Prophetic Minister Is Key
By prophetic, I mean that your installed minister should be cut from the same cloth as the biblical prophets who did not do so much foretelling. Rather, the biblical prophets preached the Mosaic covenant with great persuasion, and in ways that were relevant to their contemporaries.
The corollary to this point is that you should not seek the preacher whose sermons are easily “amen-able.” There is a whole crop of preachers whose preaching elicits quick and easy amens. It is not enough for your preacher to say, “Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor.” The preacher needs to be more specific, and some of those specifics should involve some stepping on your toes from time to time. The faithful minister will preach the truth, and the truth should hurt—at least every once in a while. The best sermon compliment is to tell the preacher that his sermon hurt, but that you needed it.


Be strong in the Lord, confident of his presence and guidance. Do not faint or grow weary, but press on toward the conclusion. There is such a thing as following the Lord’s leading.

Friday, 1 July 2016

A National Prayer for the Fourth of July

A National Prayer for the Fourth of July
for Three Choral Readers
Rev. James M. Leonard, PhD

Preamble (Unison)
Our Father who holds the destiny of nations in your hands, we thank you for the way you have guided our pilgrim forebearers and founding fathers in establishing our country. We recognize that we have not always been faithful followers, and we confess our national sins and failures. We ask that you renew our commitment to the Christian principles behind our nation’s founding so that our society would be free to pursue your calling, so that we may be a blessing to all the neighboring countries of the world.

#1 Our Land
Father, we praise you for our beautiful country, that it is blessed beyond measure in resources and natural wealth. We confess that there have been times that we’ve taken our land for granted, that we have sometimes abused it and harmed our environment. We thank you that much has been done in recent years so that we usually have plenty of clean air to breath and clean water to drink. We pray that you would help us be good stewards of our land.

#2 Our Freedom
Father, we praise you that we live in a country that cherishes freedom, that our forefathers recognized that you endowed all people with the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and to pursue the life to which you call us. We thank you for those who have served to defend these freedoms, and we pray that we would live lives worthy of their sacrifice. We confess that we ourselves have often abused these freedoms and have sometimes denied them to others. Forgive us of such sins. We pray that you would preserve these freedoms for our children, and for our children’s children, so that they too may pursue the life to which you call them.

#3 Our International Relationships
Father, we thank you for granting to us an auspicious status in world affairs. We tremble at such a weighty status, knowing that we will be judged according to the way that our nation conducts its international policies. We thank you for our past international accomplishments that have paved the way for a more peaceful world. We ask forgiveness for our nation’s self-serving meddling that has led to hardships in other countries. In our efforts to preserve the interests and security of our fellow American citizens, we pray that you would teach us how to be good to our world-wide neighbors. Make us a channel of blessing, a beacon of light, and a city set on a hill for all the nations of the earth to emulate.

Conclusion (underscored by organ playing the hymn)
#1 God of our fathers, whose almighty hand
Leads forth in beauty all the starry band
Of shining worlds in splendor through the skies,
Our grateful songs before Thy throne arise.

#2 Thy love divine hath led us in the past,
In this free land by Thee our lot is cast;
Be Thou our ruler, guardian, guide and stay,
Thy Word our law, Thy paths our chosen way.

#3 From war’s alarms, from deadly pestilence,
Be Thy strong arm our ever sure defense;
Thy true religion in our hearts increase,
Thy bounteous goodness nourish us in peace.

Unison: Refresh Thy people on their toilsome way,
Lead us from night to never-ending day;
Fill all our lives with love and grace divine,

And glory, laud, and praise be ever Thine.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Ordination or Commissioning Charge: a Remix of Paul's Charge(s) to Timothy

Remix of Paul’s Charges to Timothy
(Culled from 1 and 2 Timothy)

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.  
            But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.   Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.  Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

            In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction.  Keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time--God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

Monday, 16 May 2016

IMPLICATIONS OF A BELIEVERS' CHURCH: Membership Comments for 130th Church Anniversary

We are a community of believers covenanted together for Christian ministry. We celebrate our Baptist heritage and our Baptist distinctives. We are not contentious toward other denominational traditions, but we affirm and commend our Baptist ways as an authentic expression of the evangelical faith passed down to us by Christ through his apostles. I want to emphasize two elements of our Baptist covenant which we celebrate.

First, we are a covenanted community of believers. We seal this covenant through the waters of believers’ baptism. That is to say, believers who wish to join in covenant with us do so through the waters of baptism. We baptize only those who publicly profess their faith. This distinguishes us from those churches that offer baptism to infants. We hold sacred this rite, and only offer it to those who are able to assent or confess that Jesus is Lord. While we are committed to loving our youngest children and raising them in the fear of the Lord, we withhold baptism until they embrace Jesus in a genuine confession of faith. This is a doctrinal principle, and not a matter or preference. While we are happy to cooperate in ministerial endeavors with other denominations that baptize non-believers, we think that this doctrine is important enough to make it a defining issue for our covenantal community. Thus, we celebrate our community as a Believers’ Church.

Secondly, we think that covenant is best kept when the members of the congregation know each other. The first Baptist creed, or first Baptist statement of faith, included these words:

We believe and we confess…that the members of every Church or Congregation ought to know one another that they may perform all the duties of love one towards another both to soul and body. And especially the Elders ought to know the whole flock…. And therefore a Church ought not to consist of such a great multitude as cannot have particular knowledge one of another (Thomas Helwys’ A declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam, 1611, art. 16).

While we appreciate the impact and ministry of the large and mega-large churches, we do not envy them. Indeed, we affirm that the healthy smaller or mid-size church can accomplish God’s mission better since its members know each other and hold each member dear in their hearts, and therefore can keep covenant with one another much better than they can with strangers. For this reason, we commit ourselves to know each member. We work hard to make sure our children and youth know the names of our older members. We concern ourselves with learning names of our members which otherwise might be difficult or sound foreign to us. We spend time in intergenerational ministries, with our older members mentoring our younger members. We strive to know each other by name, and we aspire to recount the joys and sorrows of each member of our fellowship. These are the joys of a covenantal community that is small enough to share one another’s burdens. We think it is the model envisioned by the New Testament, and we celebrate our intimacy. Should we, as a healthy church, grow beyond this ideal, we look for God’s guidance to plant new churches so that we may minister the Gospel as effectively as possible.

As a covenanted community, we have a shared covenant, one which we recite on Communion Sundays when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This covenant obligates us….

We are thankful of our long term members who have faithfully kept covenant with us over the years. They have poured out their lives in ministry to our own members, to our local community, and to world-wide ministry through sacrificial giving and ceaseless prayer. I recently heard an 82-year-old pastor say, “If anyone knows the retirement age for God’s kingdom workers, I wish they’d let me know.” We now honor our long term members; please stand and remain standing as your name is called.