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.