Liberals, Conservatives, and Defining Terms in Political and Theological Life

Ever since the late 1990’s and the discussion of the definition of “is”, as well as the meaning of a few other words uttered during Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, one need has become more and more obvious. I am speaking of the need to define terms. Not only do people have limited vocabularies, we also have a vocabulary that is constantly changing.

By change I am not merely referring to the fact that some words become “dead” due to overuse while new words are being added every day. I am more specifically pointing out that certain words occasionally change meanings with various contexts. Therefore, not understanding a specific context in which a word is used can cause one to skew its meaning and perhaps incorrectly judge the political or religious position someone is taking.

So let’s try to clarify a few terms which have been known to cause a little confusion.

We will begin with the word conservative. Almost any thesaurus will list words like traditional and moderate as being synonymous with conservative. However, on the political spectrum, a conservative is someone who is clearly to the right of a moderate on most issues.

I actually see more confusion when conservative is erroneously equated with traditional when it comes to religious life.

Theologically, I am a conservative. By that I mean that I believe that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God who literally died for our sins and physically rose from the grave. I believe that salvation only comes through faith in Christ, that there is a hell to shun and a heaven to gain, and that Christ is returning one day to make all things right.

As a conservative, I accept as authoritative all the Bible teaches us concerning creation, miracles, angels, the roles and differences of men and women, marriage and family, human sexuality, and the mission of the church in the world.

But the word conservative does not necessarily mean the same thing as the word traditional when speaking of the church. A church can be conservative theologically and very contemporary stylistically. On the other hand a church can be extremely traditional in style and at the same time be liberal theologically.

Let me illustrate. Years ago a lady shared with me that her church was much more conservative than the church that I pastor. I was surprised to hear her say this. I happened to know that at that time her pastor did not believe in the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ, the infallibility of Scripture, or the reality of an eternal hell. The church was lacking in godly male leadership in most ministry areas. They had rejected so many conservative ideals which our church had always embraced. Yet she assumed we were more liberal by comparison?

Actually it quickly occurred to me what she meant. The style of worship at her church was more traditional. They were going to sing songs from a hymnal usually accompanied only by a piano and organ. They were going to hold tight to traditional Baptist programs. So in her eyes that made her church more “conservative” than ours. I would have described her church as more traditional, but far more liberal theologically. She was focused on style while giving little thought to doctrine.

To reiterate, it is possible to be conservative theologically while at the same time contemporary or innovative stylistically. And it is also possible to be liberal theologically and very traditional in style. While conservative evangelicals actually took the lead in the modern contemporary style movement, style can no longer be an indicator of a church’s theology. You will have to dig a little deeper than outward observations to see where a church stands theologically. Neither musical preferences, elements of worship, Bible translations used, nor the appearance of the facilities serve as clear indications as to where the church stands doctrinally.

Let’s look further at the word liberal. Again, context will determine connotation. The Bible encourages us to be liberal in areas such as giving to meet needs, offering forgiveness, and showing love. The Bible says that God liberally gives us wisdom when we ask for it without doubting (James 1:5-6). But that is not what we are referencing when we refer to a theological liberal.

A theological liberal is one who usually rejects the infallibility of Scripture. Often having been influenced by Darwinism and higher criticism of the Bible, theological liberals reject doctrines like the exclusivity of the Gospel, a literal eternal hell, and the virgin birth of Christ. A theologically liberal church may have a worship style that is traditional and often very liturgical.

In politics, and occasionally in religion, liberals embrace the title progressive which is a reference to certain social reforms they deem necessary for making progress. The assumption is planted in the minds of young students that political conservatives do not like progress. However, conservatives and liberals both believe in progress. They just bring different sets of values and convictions by which progress is defined and measured. What one calls progress, the other sees as disruptive of progress because we have vastly different goals, standards, and visions of which we are in pursuit.

The word moderate is also a biblical concept. The Bible speaks of moderation as being a healthy thing when it comes to certain areas of diet or exercising religious liberties. But when the word moderate is used as an excuse not to take a stand on an issue in order not to offend someone who is more conservative or liberal on the same issue, we need to be reminded of the many biblical admonitions to have convictions and standards. I would not want to use the concept of moderation to excuse the lukewarm condition Jesus rebuked in Revelation 3:16!

What’s my point? In today’s world we must do more than embrace labels or judge others by the labels they embrace. We need to find out what they mean by these terms, if they even know for themselves. And we need to clearly articulate what we mean when using the same terms… as I’ve tried to do here. I sure hope it helps!

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Five Lessons I Learned from the Life and Ministry of Billy Graham

A flood of mixed emotions came to me Wednesday morning when I received the news of the home-going of Rev. Billy Graham. I was overjoyed to think of him in the presence of our Lord. I was saddened to think of our world, for the first time in my lifetime, without him in it. Our hope is always in Christ, not in a mere mortal. However, Billy Graham communicated that hope to more people than ever before.

While I, and most of you, could write a book (as many have) on the influence of Billy Graham’s life on each of us personally, I will take time instead to share 5 lessons that were driven to the heart of this pastor by observing the life and ministry of Billy Graham.

  1. Be Resolved in Your Conviction of Scripture and The Gospel. Billy Graham’s tree stump confession represents a crisis point that every preacher and believer should experience. “The Bible says” is a phrase that echoed through every sermon. May we be convinced of the authority of God’s Word and never be ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:16)
  2. Be a Man of Integrity. Spiritual Leaders are to be blameless (1 Tim. 3:2). In the early years of my calling the word televangelist became a punchline as people began to lose faith in spiritual leaders. The commitment of Billy Graham and his team to be accountable and avoid scandal, especially in the areas of money and women, made this man a bright light in the darkness! The Gospel of Grace was never used as a license for sin.
  3. Be Driven by a Biblical Mission and Vision. Preaching the Gospel to all nations was his call, and he avoided being side-tracked. Even his political ties were leveraged to open doors to share the gospel in places closed to many others at the time. May we know our calling, and may we be empowered to remain focused on doing what God called us to do.
  4. Don’t Be Afraid of Ingenuity. Media can be used for evil or good. Billy Graham used it for the sake of the gospel. While many preachers cursed the evil of a television set in every home (and the potential for evil was real), Billy Graham saw the opportunity to preach Christ in every home. While he preached to hundreds of millions of people in person, he likely connected with close to a billion people through TV and radio. In the same way we must avoid the evils of social media and other channels of communication while saturating these same streams of information with good news.
  5. Be Gripped by Christ-centered Compassion. Billy Graham was a gentle giant. Like Jesus, he saw the masses and felt compassion for them (Matthew 9:35-38). He stood against racism and communism in places and times that his stand was not popular. He loved all people. He was willing to meet and pray with political leaders, with whom he disagreed theologically, in their times of brokenness. After the 911 attacks I remember how comforting it felt to hear from “our pastor”, America’s pastor, as he spoke to the nation from the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.

So many more thoughts and memories will come to our minds over the next several days as we remember this man of God. Please take a moment to share your thoughts with me and others.

There will never be another Billy Graham. But as we live the Gospel he proclaimed, his mantle is passed on to many!

Standing in Agreement When We Disagree on So Much

Endorsing or standing in agreement with people of influence, when we do agree, doesn’t mean that we endorse everything about that person’s beliefs or character.

Can I confess a great struggle to you? This is a subject that I am learning to navigate my way through, both spiritually and intellectually, with more grace as I get older. Its the struggle of applying Romans 12:18 and “as much as depends on [me], live at peace with all men.”

I am speaking primarily of the ability and need to stand in agreement with those with whom I find so much to disagree on.

There seem to be a couple of extremes to approaching this subject. The sanctification of the church and the defense of the faith says, “Come out from among them and be separate!” (2 Cor. 6:17) And often the “them” I speak of are folks with whom I disagree on many things. But not necessarily everything. At other times I find myself in strong disagreement with “them” that are a part of the church. So I want to be clear where I stand by whom I identify with.

On the other hand, Romans 13 suggests that even pagan governments can stand for what is good at times, in which case I should support them and cooperate with them unless their statutes are clearly contrary to God’s Word (Acts 5:28-29). We are also warned that there should not be factions within the church (1 Cor. 1:10-13).

When you consider the whole of Scripture, we should come to a place where we stand in agreement in areas where we find agreement, but clearly communicate where there is disagreement on things that are sacred and of utmost importance. No need to sweat the small stuff and make a big deal of little things… which is another discussion all together.

So let me give you a few areas where I have to address this issue with wisdom, grace, and (hopefully) maturity.

The Sanctity of Human Life. While I have significant theological disagreements with Mother Theresa, I know she was one of the greatest advocates ever for the unborn. I stand with many Roman Catholics on this issue of abortion, but reserve the freedom to disagree with their understanding of the sacraments, prayers to saints, and other beliefs that I perceive as extra-biblical.

While on the subject of the sanctity of human life, we must not neglect the speaking out against racism. As with Mother Theresa, I also have theological disagreements with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but I can stand in agreement with powerful and truthful statements against discrimination.

Endorsing or standing in agreement with people of influence, when we do agree, doesn’t mean that we endorse everything about that person’s beliefs or character. For we all have flaws.

Speaking of that, is there a more polarizing subject than President Donald Trump? If I agree with a statement he makes on religious freedom, the economy, or the sanctity of life it doesn’t mean I endorse everything he says or does. I can vocally disagree, and have, with many other statements he has made as well as language he has used. Discerning people commend that which is good and reject that which is vulgar.

I can’t recall a president in my lifetime with whom I agreed with on every issue. My support of George W. Bush did not prevent me from warning people of the dangers of the strings attached to some of his faith-based initiatives.

It seems that with famous people, you are supposed to love all they represented or reject them completely. I don’t get that. Only Jesus was perfect all of the time!

What about various denominations of the Christian faith? I am not one of these pastors who believe the very existence of denominations is evil, anymore than Israel having various tribes or Sunday School programs having a way of organizing people according to age or subject matter would be considered evil.

Denominationalism, or the worship of a denomination, on the other hand is a problem. But when we realize that our denomination is not the equivalent to the Kingdom of God (I hear a Baptist gasping, “It’s Not?”), denominations can actually promote unity by keeping us from arguing over many secondary issues while we unite for missions, evangelism, and theological training.

Therefore, when we a major on the majors with other denominations, we need to lock arms with them and stand in agreement for the sake of God’s glory and His church. I have dear friends from a variety of denominations, including that denomination of non-denomination, who agree with men on things like:

  1. The authority of the Bible.
  2. The virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death, literal resurrection. and certain return of Jesus Christ.
  3. The Holy Trinity.
  4. The exclusivity of the Gospel.
  5. Our call to win the world to Christ.

Certainly many denominations are forsaking these convictions. But with those who haven’t we can and we must stand together in agreement on such convictions. Even then, however, I reserve the right to disagree with them on polity, hermeneutics, and strategies for which I personally find it difficult to support with Scripture. Perhaps that is why you attend the church you attend. Interestingly, there are more Southern Baptist churches than of any other evangelical denomination. Yet you are not likely to find two of them very much alike in style and structure in a given geographical area.

One more popular conversation in this area has to do with church music. I recently read a post about old hymns that we sing which we “didn’t realize had bad theology.” I agreed with some of the observations, and disagreed with others. But I had a problem throwing out solid songs with good lyrics even when the author had been exposed to bad theological foundations.

As theology professors have often said, “All truth is God’s truth wherever it may be found.” If I were to go all David Koresh or Jim Jones in the future, it wouldn’t make the truth I have proclaimed in the past any less true.

In the same way, there are modern worship movements whose theological foundations I question. But as the old adage goes, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then.” Occasionally a powerful and truthful song (sometimes even the simple recitation of Scripture and creeds) comes out of a movement that embraces some things with which I disagree. If they proclaim “Christ is risen” while asserting some weird stuff in other songs and sermons, we do not have to avoid singing “Christ is risen!” Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

Bottom line? Use discernment. Learn to stand in agreement when you agree. Don’t interpret one’s agreement with someone else on an issue as a total endorsement of all they stand for.

If various denominations and political parties can gather in a stadium to cheer on the same football team, surely we can stand together on a few other things of greater relevance.

 

Seasoned Words

There has been a lot of talk about free speech over the weekend. Whether referencing the protests of a large number of NFL players or the comments of the president of the United States, our nation has once again proven to be very polarized. And while arguments abound, Christians will seek to find a biblical balance in areas of patriotism, respect for all, empathy, compassion, understanding, and common sense.

I thank God for the freedoms we enjoy, especially the freedom of speech and expression. I disagree with the logic of appearing to protest what is good and wholesome when one has issues with other areas of concern.  I question the wisdom and strategy of offending those who have fought and lost comrades so that we can enjoy the freedom of speech. Surely there is an approach that unites us rather than further dividing us.

But that is not the point of this post. There is another issue for Christians, regardless of the side we take on issues.

The TONE of our speech and the language we use are just as important as the issues we address.

Consider these commands from Scripture:

Your speech should always be with grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6 HCSB)

Grace is unmerited favor. Salt speaks of palatable influence. We should address those with whom we disagree with a gracious tone, better than we think they deserve. And then we should add some salt (palatable influence) to our words with the desire to be winsome even when speaking a word of confrontation and conviction.

Grace. Better than they deserve. ALWAYS. Wow! Whether you are speaking about the president or speaking as the president, that is God’s standard. This means genuine Christ-followers will often have to take a higher road than either side in many arguments… by seeking to change the tone of the conversation.

I feel certain that all kinds of foul language and malicious tones will be used to describe the president of the United States. And, without a doubt, President Trump will continue to use language and tones that I would have spanked my kids for using. The world we live in is quite, well, worldly.

But dear friends and fellow believers, as we seek to find the biblical balance on so many hot topics at hand let us no forget the warning from our Lord:

I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak.” (Matthew 12:36 HCSB)

 

Supreme Court Vetting and Biblical Hermeneutics

We need a generation of preachers who will study, interpret, proclaim, and apply the Holy Scriptures without trying to change their meaning in order to make them more acceptable.

President Donald Trump has made his first nomination to SCOTUS. You can be sure that Judge Neil Gorsuch has already endured a certain amount of vetting by the president’s staff. But this is likely nothing compared to the questioning he will endure from the members of congress.

Why the process? Why such interrogation? Obviously this is an important step in confirming someone to become a LIFETIME member of the highest court in the land, which could result in this individual being involved in more significant decisions than any 2-term president.

The purpose of the process can be two-fold. The early vetting should reveal certain philosophical foundations regarding the Constitution of the United States. Is this individual a strict constructionist or does he lean toward judicial activism? Of course a loose constructionist would never embrace the title of “judicial activist.”

A strict constructionist will embrace the responsibility to interpret and apply the law according to the language and intended meaning of the authors. If the Constitution needs to be changed, it’s not up to the judge to reinterpret it to make it more palatable or relevant. That is the job of Congress. Congress makes and amends the law, even the Constitution when necessary. Judicial activists, though using refreshing terms and phrases like “progressive” and “the Constitution is a living document”, ultimately usurp the role of lawmakers and defy the wisdom in our system of checks and balances. A loose constructionist approach turns the Supreme Court into an oligarchy. In this case there is no need for Congress to make, amend, or repeal laws. The interpretation of such laws would become so unpredictable and inconsistent that language would be meaningless and the nation would be left to the whims of this nine member ruling body.

If a nominee gives all evidence that he or she is a strict constructionist conservatives could assume that there needs to be no vetting process, right? I mean it doesn’t matter what they believe, or feel, or think about any given issue. After all, they only have to concern themselves with the language and intent of the lawmakers and the Constitution. But it isn’t quite that easy, is it?

Nominees are, and should be, further vetted and interrogated because we don’t really trust people to be objective. And we dig for all the evidence we can find to prove that someone we disagree with can’t be trusted to be objective. Did you notice the NCAA Football National Championship game between Alabama and Clemson had a Big 12 Conference officiating crew, not a crew from the ACC or SEC. Why was that? The officials do not play the game do they? They just enforce the rules. Can they not be objective regardless of conference? Who knows? How can we be sure?

Bottom line: As difficult as it may seem, I believe we need justices who do not overstep their responsibility by becoming an activist to promote a personal or partisan agenda. While he or she may be aware of his or her own biases, they should lay those aside, interpret the law, and rule as objectively as they can on the decision before them. Leave the writing and passing of law, including amendments to the US Constitution, to congress.

What does this have to do with biblical hermeneutics? Everything! Theological progressives, much like political progressives, treat the Bible the same way an activist judge handles the Constitution. They often ignore the language and intended meaning of the authors, as well as the Divine Author, in order to make it more palatable or relevant.

We have often programmed people to think this way, even in Bible-believing evangelical churches. We open our Bibles to a text and go from person to person asking, “What does this mean to you?” While there are many applications of a given text, such a question can imply that the Bible is open to any interpretation you like.

Peter reminds us, however, that “no prophecy of the scripture is of one’s own interpretation.” (2 Peter 1:20) If we can’t assume that the Bible is God’s communication and revelation of Himself to us, then it is pretty much a meaningless collection of man’s ideas. The doctrine of inspiration reminds us that the Bible was given to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as its human authors were literally “carried along” by the Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16 & 2 Peter 1:21). This is a supernatural work!

So while the Bible contains the words of men who were writing from personal experiences, various backgrounds, and with differing objectives, Scripture still ultimately “has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter (BF&M 2000).” 

Good hermeneutics concerns itself with exposition which is informed by the careful exegesis of a text which asks, “What is the author’s intended meaning?” Or as my former preaching professor, Dr. Wayne McDill, often repeated, “A text can’t mean what it never meant!” Like a justice of the Supreme Court with the Constitution, preachers of the Gospel are to concern themselves with the simple explanation and proclamation of what the Bible says.  In other words, we should be strict constructionists when it comes to the Bible.

In addition, Bible teachers and preachers should put themselves through a bit of a vetting process even if they are strict constructionists, uh… I mean biblical inerrantists. We all have agendas, passions, preconceived notions, frustrations, hurts, and experiences that can cause us to read something into a text that simply isn’t there. We can twist and manipulate a text while forcing it to suit OUR purposes. That’s why Paul encouraged Timothy to give diligence as an approved workman who correctly handles the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

Bottom line (of greater importance than the aforementioned “bottom line”): We need a generation of preachers who will study, interpret, proclaim, and apply the Holy Scriptures without trying to change the original meaning in order to make it more acceptable. We must resist the temptation to make the Bible more acceptable to culture, and return to lovingly engaging and confronting culture with the unchanging truths of Scripture.

When we compromise the Word of God, we compromise the very power that brings the redemptive change that our world and every human soul so desperately need. May Romans 1:16 and Hebrews 4:12 take hold of the heart of every Christian preacher, teacher, and witness. Let us not be ashamed of the Gospel for it truly is the power of God unto salvation, as we demonstrate that the Word of God is alive and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword!

Faith and Travel Ball: 10 Survival Tips for Families and Churches

“Appearing insecure and angry because of a drop in attendance will only cause us to sound manipulative rather than extending the voice of a loving shepherd to the flock.”

It is that time of year again, already! I know. The Falcons are gearing up for the Super Bowl, and you aren’t quite ready to talk baseball yet. But I love baseball. It is the sport I grew up playing. I love the smell of an old ball glove, hearing the leather pop and the bat crack, and watching games at every level. I enjoyed coaching youth baseball and teaching kids the fundamentals of the game.

One of my all time favorite movie lines comes from a scene in The Rookie. Dennis Quaid, playing the role of Jimmy Morris, approaches a fellow (much younger) minor league teammate and says, “You know what we get to do today, Brooks? We get to play baseball!

Passion for baseball is still strong here in Georgia. While fewer young people may play the game, those who do play take it more seriously than ever. At least compared to my little league days when our teams wore jeans, a t-shirt with a number, sponsor, and Little League patch, and shared four batting helmets and five bats among all 12 boys.

Greater passion among fewer players has also brought about the nation-wide phenomenon known as travel ball. I realize that travel ball is a term that applies to other sports today. But baseball, along with girls softball, seems to be experiencing the greatest participation among the kids and parents that I know personally. However, you can apply these tips to any sport or activity.

As a pastor, I expect to stimulate a little thought among two camps with different feelings. I have friends, especially ministry colleagues, that will not appreciate me writing about the possibility of surviving travel ball. To be fair, they have seen many of their members create habits during the travel ball seasons that have been detrimental to the respective families in their walks with God. They have seen spiritual momentum squelched in their churches as families disappear for months, sometimes never to return. Gone are the days of perfect attendance pins and guarding the sacredness of Lord’s Day worship. There is some merit to these feelings.

These pastors, church leaders, and friends will likely find very little redeeming value in what I am about to share as tips for survival. They will see it as unrealistic or caving. They have a perspective that should be heard, for they can point out concerns and blind spots that must be addressed.

The other camp of believers will be those who are already applying some of these tips. They are so tired of what they perceive to be legalistic criticism of what has become a wholesome family activity as far as they are concerned. They’re not at church on those low attendance Sundays and are unlikely to feel or understand the frustration the first group experiences. And, they might reason, why should travel ball get picked on when others are going camping, leaving early for lunch at grandma’s, going to work, or sometimes not attending worship because they were simply too lazy to get out of bed.

The following tips are not meant to endorse one group or the other. But I do believe they provide biblical wisdom that could bring about balanced and informed decision making. I hope they will be a help to both churches and parents. Ultimately all involved in this growing passion are either believers who need the tips to be better equipped or are lost people who need our church members to reach them.

With that said, let me know which ones you find to be most helpful.

  1. Keep the Glory of God your primary purpose in all of life’s pursuits. For some, sports will be an outlet for bringing God glory. For others, sports robs them of and replaces their passion for Christ. So ask, “Are my kids learning from me and for themselves that our primary goal in life is to make sure we exalt Jesus Christ?” (Mt. 6:33)
  2. Don’t overlook the significance of Lord’s Day Worship. A sports mom recently argued in Christianity Today that corporate worship is the greatest need young Christian athletes have. The biblical principle of corporate worship (originally a Sabbath practice in the OT) becomes a prescriptive pattern in the New Testament as the church gathers on the first day of the week for prayers, preaching, teaching, fellowship, and celebration. This can’t be accomplished with a 10 minute devotion, and we are warned not to forsake this time together as the body of Christ. (Heb. 10:25) Jake Westbrook, former major league pitcher with the Cardinals and Indians and active member of our church, recently shared with me the importance of chapels and hotel room Bible studies with other believers. There are evangelistic chapel services in the ultimate of travel leagues. No reason it can’t be happening at every level, which leads to the third tip…
  3. Be Missional. If we combine the first two tips, the next step for some could be to offer an evangelistic chapel service when you are away for travel ball. After all, we do not give the itinerant evangelist or short term mission trip folks a hard time when they aren’t with us on Sunday. Why not? Because they are on mission and experiencing corporate worship elsewhere. We are called to make disciples while we are going. (Mt. 28:19-20) This also communicates the importance of corporate Lord’s Day worship. From my observation, the ones who are most genuine in applying this tip also go out of their way to not miss Sundays at their home church except for a brief season of travel. And they are usually bringing more kids with them to worship! Being “missional” isn’t merely an excuse to be away when and if they demonstrate a heart for souls throughout the year. Obviously this doesn’t apply to the majority. But some have embraced this tip.
  4. Be Careful of Burnout. The world is throwing more opportunities at us than ever before. The spiritual discipline called simplicity is almost completely neglected. There is another Sabbath principle not completely fulfilled in Lord’s Day worship. That is the principle of rest. Many parents are running themselves ragged and wearing their kids out through over involvement. Both of my children have lettered in two sports in high school, something I didn’t accomplish. So I am all for sports for fun, exercise, and teaching leadership and team skills. For some of us who sit behind the desk, a steering wheel, or in a cubicle, the ball field is a refreshing haven of rest and recovery. But for others it becomes an altar of idolatry where they sacrifice their kids. Many have written on reasons they had to pull away from travel ball because of the stress it placed on their family.
  5. Conquer a little territory. Many will play on Sundays because this has become a major money-making opportunity for hosts all over the country. Seems like every state in the south has a number of champions crowned for several weekends in a row. You could become the host with Christ-centered motives. Christians have begun to host Friday-Saturday only leagues while communicating the importance of protecting Lord’s Day worship and rest. In his book The Matheney Manifesto (Crown Publishing, 2015), Cardinals coach Mike Matheney discusses how he made faith and family a priority when he reluctantly coached travel ball by keeping tournaments close to home without having to sacrifice the level of competition. By the way, this book is a great read for all parents and youth league coaches.
  6. Cover your bases! We are all called to be an active member of a local church, not just a pew warmer. We are called as members to use our spiritual gifts to help the church fulfill its mission. (Romans 12:4-7) Just as the second baseman and short stop must communicate and make sure they know who will cover the bag, church members should make sure that someone is covering the base when they are out… for any reason. Whether you are a teacher, a greeter, an instrumentalist, or a nursery worker, make sure you know who is covering your base when you are not there. Be sure and pass that name along to a ministry team leader. Obviously this principle has much broader application than the current subject. Of course it may be difficult to get someone to tithe for you, but there are creative ways of handling that now too.
  7. Take advantage of Mid-week ministries. In rural and some suburban areas you can still find vibrant mid-week services. Our mid-week opportunities at Trinity are extremely vital to our mission. Children and students are in the Word of God, enjoying fellowship, and learning how to serve, worship, and grow as believers. Men and women are getting the same opportunities in a small group setting. If your church offers these services or something similar, take full advantage! While mid-week services are intended to supplement Lord’s Day worship rather than replace it, I know of many who work on Sundays that are extremely grateful for this mid-week ministry.
  8. Consider the costs. For some families, money is no object. They are able to meet their obligations, invest in the Kingdom of God, and pay extravagant amounts for recreation. Others will neglect their personal obligations and biblical stewardship to pay tournament fees and hotel bills. Obviously travel ball is only one of many passions where people can live beyond their means. But many parents have invested three and four times the amount of the average college tuition rate in order to hopefully help their child earn an athletic scholarship. While I know several youngsters that will play at the next level, the majority will either not make the cut or lose interest along the way. While I enjoy collegiate and professional sports, many parents have lost the ability to allow their kids to play for the exercise and for the love of the game. They become obsessed with living out their dreams through their kids.
  9. Teach Humility. With so many leagues referred to with words like “elite” and “premier” one wonders if the words will lose their meaning. I know I am biased, but we have some remarkably talented kids in our church. A handful of our kids will actually play on the next level. The majority will not. Local Little League organizations are struggling with numbers while travel teams surge. In other words, “elite” and “premier” are no longer words used to describe the top three to five percent. As with all sports, kids should learn skill and confidence. But they should learn to play and interact with kids at school and church who may not share their talent and resources. Confidence and security is expressed in humility and the extension of grace, a hard lesson for even grown-ups to learn. Several college athletes attend our services regularly, but because of their humility few in the seats around them know that they are competing in collegiate sports.
  10. Be careful of building an unhealthy tolerance of mediocre commitment to Christ. This builds on the first three tips, but is probably of greatest concern to me. Here is a principle I discovered as a student minister years ago: What parents and leaders tolerate in moderation, children will usually grow to tolerate in excess. Social drinking by parents justifies allowing the beer to flow freely in the mind of a teen. An ever so slightly revealing outfit by mom provides a daughter with a rationalization for complete immodesty. In the same way, missing 30% of Lord’s Day worship opportunities (especially if tips 1-3 aren’t embraced) usually signals to the next generation that active membership and service in the local church is not really all that important. And while I know there are some solid adults in my church who are capable of heeding all of the previous tips, they must keep a spiritual eye on their child while asking, “Does he or she also get it?” The dad may sincerely tell me, “I really miss it when I’m not here, but I cover my bases, reach out missionally, and later listen to your sermon online.” But does dad notice when that child they’re called to bring up to love Jesus, his church, and his mission isn’t missing corporate worship so much anymore? If they’re losing their passion for Christ and His church it is probably time to pull back and refocus on the most important things in life for believers.

There you have it. If these tips better equip and encourage you to make wise decisions in the days ahead, wonderful! If you are one of the two groups I mentioned to begin with and you feel a little irritated, keep a couple things in mind.

For those who say there is zero redeeming value in families being involved in Sunday sports, remember that we too are on mission. This means we have to meet people where they are. And this is where many are. Appearing insecure and angry because of a drop in attendance will only cause us to sound manipulative rather than extending the voice of a loving shepherd of the flock.

For those who are all in to the travel ball movement, remember each of these tips also serve as reminders of the difficulty of finding balance. In Paul’s admonitions concerning “meats sacrificed to idols” some could eat and be okay with God and the church, while others clearly could not. The determining factor boiled down to asking, “Will this activity cause someone to stumble spiritually?” I can’t answer that for your family. But its a serious question when you consider that Jesus gave us the strongest warning about causing a child to stumble spiritually by not giving them easy access to Him! (Mt. 18:6 & 19:14)

DON’T Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart!

Don’t stop asking Jesus into your heart! But, by all means, clearly communicate what is meant by such statements.

In case you’ve been out of the theological loop, there has been a discussion in recent years about whether or not it is “biblical” for someone to “ask Jesus into his or her heart.” Actually, the conversation has likely been around as long as the language. I remember discussing the issue with an evangelist friend twenty-five years ago. He had a problem with the phrase, and I agreed with his reasoning.

Let me make a few acknowledgments before I offer a counter perspective.

First, I am extremely grateful for the ministries of men like David Platt and J D Greear. These men, and many others who have voiced concerns over this phrase, have a heart for God and a desire to see the Gospel articulated with clarity and conviction. Their books, sermons, and denominational leadership in the areas of missions and evangelism have been invaluable resources to me. I learn from these young men.

Next, I get it. I understand the danger of a child, or even an adult, hearing the phrase “just ask Jesus into your heart” without a clear articulation of the Gospel. Subsequently, It’s possible (even likely) that many have prayed such a prayer without appropriating faith, repentance, and a certain embrace of core essentials of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Finally, I have also been very reluctant to use the phrase. Why? Not because I think it is unbiblical. I usually choose to move beyond some biblical imagery, whether in personal evangelism or from the pulpit, and go straight to the explanation of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ’s perfect work from the cross to an empty grave!

Having said that, I find it an overreach to call such language unbiblical or to be critical of those who still use the words “ask Jesus into your heart.” But if you choose to use this language, it must be accompanied by explanation and clarification. Most of the ministers and church leaders that I know do a superb job at this, but I can’t speak for all of them.

So before you are too critical of those who use these words in their communication of the Gospel, keep the following in mind.

  1. “Christ in your heart” IS biblical language and imagery. While we have to be careful of children imagining a two-inch Jesus walking into a literal heart’s door while taking Revelation 3:20 out of context, the language of Christ in your hearts is still biblical. Peter challenged the persecuted church to “sanctify (lit. set apart, honor) Christ as Lord in your hearts (1 Peter 3:15).” That word is kardiais, literally “hearts”, though the picture is figurative. Oh, but that’s a verse about sanctification, not salvation! True. However, most of those who argue against the language also argue, as I do, against a false dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship. We are to lead people to become sanctified Christ followers. It begins and continues with the heart. YES, FAITH! But how has God communicated to us the inward expression of faith? Romans 10:9 speaks of confessing with the mouth and “believing in the heart.” The context clarifies the heart imagery.
  1. The idea of inviting Christ “into your life” is also a biblical concept. In the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel the woman at the well discovers that the life Christ has to offer can become the Living Water that overflows in us. The New Covenant is superior to the Old in part due to the fact that the Spirit of Christ dwells in us, fills us, and seals us for the day of redemption. The Holy Spirit is not a “force.” He is a person, the third person of the Trinity, the very Spirit of Jesus Christ. Once again, the context of the John’s Gospel and the rest of the Bible help one to more clearly draw the analogy of Living Water and the life of Christ in us.
  1. All biblical language used in communicating the Gospel requires some explanation and clarification. Call it “exposition” if you will. Obviously, the Spirit of God brings about illumination often allowing the simple reading of Scripture to bring one to faith in Christ. But when we proclaim these rich inspired texts with statements of principle, we usually provide explanation. Even when we avoid the allegorical language like “you must be born again” or “ask Jesus into your heart” we still have to offer explanation. We explain the meaning of words like “faith”, “believe”, and “repent.” So I have no problem with the fact that if someone uses a statement like “ask Jesus into your heart” they will have to explain what they mean by that. Even Jesus had to interpret (do hermeneutics) and explain the Scriptures concerning himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27).Whether you use the words like “you need to believe on the Lord Jesus,” or “take up your cross and follow Christ,” or “call on the Lord Jesus Christ”, or “ask Jesus into your heart and life,” you must still expound on the core essentials of the Gospel. The Gospel writers, the writers of the Epistles, and even Jesus used a variety of terms and phrases in clarifying the Gospel. Imagery is used on occasion, but full context and the whole of the New Testament keeps us from making oversimplifications.
  1. The concept of “asking” is also biblical. I understand the danger of communicating that there is some “magical” prayer or formulation of words that provides one with a secure eternity. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Our faith does begin with a confession. A confession of our sinful condition is accompanied by a confession that embraces the Lordship of Christ and his Gospel. The Gospel is expressed in words. While there is no magical prayer that can save by mere rote repetition, prayer is still a wonderful way to help people articulate their confession to God and their confession of Christ. A “sinner’s prayer” is often the verbal expression of sincere faith that communicates in words that there is comprehension of and response to the Gospel. It’s the Romans 10:13 moment of drawing it all together and nailing it down! And those who lead such prayers almost always make the comment, “It’s not the words of the prayer, but the response of the heart to the truth of the Gospel.” Ironically, many who seem most concerned about this prayer also remind us constantly that salvation is the work of God. Seems odd that we would place so much emphasis on the respondent to irresistible grace (to whatever degree you embrace this doctrine) to “get it right.” Isn’t God the one getting it right?

Obviously, we must all heed the admonition to “earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).” But when we communicate the Gospel by expounding the Scriptures the best we can under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and the hearer responds with faith and repentance as best they know how to the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ, we can rest assured that God will do the saving work!

Doctrine matters. Words matter. And, yes, some are placing false hope in perverted forms of the gospel. But there are also many rock-solid Christians leading people to become Christ’s disciples for life beginning with a prayer that includes many elements in addition to the phrase “ask Jesus into your heart!”