Perhaps “normal” is not a good goal

I stopped myself today when writing up a plan for phases for our church to move back toward “normalcy.” I see on social media a lot of people talking about “the new normal.” I wonder if that is even a thing.

Perhaps making “normal” a goal misses a few things:

  • that there are way more abnormal needs to pray for on any given day than we realize
  • that there are way more abnormal opportunities to minister to people on any given day than we realize
  • that God has way more grace on our unique shortcomings each day than we realize
  • that on Sunday mornings, the goal should never have been to get a “normal” rhythm, but rather to receive grace from God through “ordinary” means
  • that meeting in a playground, with a shorter liturgy, spread out a couple more feet from each other, does not glorify God any less than a longer liturgy in a church building
  • that most of the programs and ministries that go on in most churches on most Sundays have always been accommodations, modifications, and cultural applications (IMHO, sometimes they are compromises to obedience).

I realized today that with social distance worship gatherings in place in my life, I now have EVERYTHING at my disposal for a full, vibrant, and happy Christian life. A lot of the old “normal” were nice things that I might hope to get back at some point, but at the end of the day, we have Christ, we have each other, and we can worship Him together (physically, in the same space and time, but don’t get me started). What more is there to aim for?

The Live-streaming Communion discussion

There is a ton of debate about what churches should or should not do during this COVID-19 season. As you can imagine, the debate has extended to whether or not churches should or should not practice Communion during this season. And in relation to that, the real debate is whether or not you should practice online Communion, meaning churches who are offering some kind of online worship having Communion be a part of that (as opposed to everyone practicing Communion at home within their own families, which is a whole other debate).

Some good articles are already written. For a perspective on why we should practice during this strange season, go here. For a perspective on why we should not, go here. For a sacramental perspective, go here.

Just a few more thoughts to hopefully give light, not heat:

  • For most of the Reformed churches, the issue is not whether we should or should not practice Communion online, but whether or not it is possible. I was cutting the grass yesterday, and it dawned on me that technology has really helped me with gas-powered lawn mowers and weedeaters. Praise God for technology. But it has not advanced to the point that I can cut grass without physically being present with my grass. Some have argued that we should thank God for computers, and much like we can preach online, we should practice Communion online. I would simply argue that preaching online is possible because of the nature of the activity. Practicing Communion online is a bit like trying to cut grass through a computer. I wish I could. I just can’t. Just know that is the perspective the Reformed would come from. And if you disagree with the nature of Communion there, then it is understandable why you would think you can do it online.
  • If you are interested in investigating this line of thinking, then keep reading. Many have likened our current situation to how we would handle an earthly marriage. And I appreciate the comparisons so much. If a husband were deployed, he would not cease to be a husband. If technology allowed him to talk to his wife, he would (and should!) do it. So churches who are attempting to do things online are simply trying to fulfill their covenantal obligations to each other in whatever way God allows. Praise God. But can we fulfill all our obligations online? Can a married couple do all marital duties online? Obviously not. You can love one another and speak to one another through a screen, but you obviously cannot have physical affection through a screen (do I need to explain myself?). You should think about whether or not Jesus is doing something in and through the church gathering around the Lord’s Table. It seems that through the physical eating and drinking, Jesus really is doing something that’s closer to marital consummation, or if you like, kissing His Bride. He is certainly doing something that is meant to be a foretaste of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, where we will physically gather around the Table together. He is not merely speaking to us with words (as in preaching) but physically communicating to us. As many great theologians have said, the Lord’s Supper is the visible gospel word to us.
  • If you disagree with that, then you really empty the bread and the cup of all meaning. In other words, you might call it a “memorial view” or whatever, but you have really emptied the actual practice of Communion of all spiritual meaning by saying there is no physical component to it. In even more words, do you believe you must eat bread and drink wine/juice in order to receive the benefits of the Lord’s Supper? If you say yes, then you believe in some spiritual presence view whether you like it or not (you’d be arguing that God does mysteriously use bread and wine to mediate some kind of grace to us; hence they are means of grace). If you say no, then you have made bread and wine completely incidental (you’re actually arguing that you don’t even need to practice Communion in order to receive the benefits of Communion; you could just preach the gospel, or preach the gospel and eat bread and wine, and the result is exactly the same). So consider where you stand on that.
  • If you largely agree with me on the nature of Communion, but wonder now why each family preparing their own bread and wine at home, and Communing all at the same time on a screen– why isn’t that Communion? That is a good question, and I totally understand the struggle. Again, from a Reformed perspective, we do believe ordained ministers of the gospel must distribute the elements. But even if you wanted to argue the elders could, in an extreme situation, allow fathers to distribute to their homes, a few things to still consider:
    • do you like the idea of singles distributing to themselves?
    • do you not see one loaf (or if you have a big church, at least one batch of loaves from the same batch of dough) as a significant aspect of the unity of the Communion?
    • do you not see a danger toward gnosticism when you say physical presence with each other is not necessary for real Communion with each other?
    • do you see the Lord’s Supper as an ordinary means of grace, or an extraordinary means of grace? If you see it as ordinary, then there is no real reason to think you should go off of the ordinary practice of it (which is impossible to do right now). The desire to practice it at all costs appears to me to be more sacerdotal (mystical grace in the elements themselves) than sacramental (mysterious grace in the correct practice of it).
    • this would seem to create a worse pastoral problem– deciding what is an extreme situation and what is not. It’s funny, because I’m sure many would think I am being legalistic for my view on the Lord’s Supper. It appears to me that if someone believes God commands us to take the Lord’s Supper at all costs, that is the more legalistic view (like a Pharisee who believed the Jews must observe certain Sabbath regulations even if a man was crippled). It seems wiser to look at how God describes the Lord’s Supper in the Bible, and if providence hinders you from worshiping Him in that way, then trust His wisdom.

I hope this at least explains some of the Reformed perspective. And I pray this becomes a moot conversation very soon

Memoirs of a Church Cultivator, part 7: the Shocking Letter

When I last wrote about the cultivation of Kailua Baptist, I said we received a shocking letter in the mail in late 2013. It was probably a couple months or so after our terrible members meeting. After that terrible meeting, and then at least a couple more hard meetings where we let members “air out” their differences, I said we would have a vote to simply decide ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether we would even go in the direction of having a plurality of elders in our church. Just yes or no. Not voting on specific men for eldership. Not voting on a revised version of the bylaws. Just yes- we will go in the direction of eldership, or no- we will not.

Shortly before that meeting to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I received a letter in the church office from the Attorney General’s office of Hawaii. I did not know we had such a thing before that day! The letter stated that we had an anonymous member complaining about the way we were operating, that we were about to make changes that were not in line with our bylaws. I was accused of saying we were going to change our bylaws at the next meeting– which again, we were not going to vote on any change to the bylaws, but simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on direction.

The Attorney General asked for the minutes from our different members meetings (before that day, I didn’t think it was important to have minutes for your meetings– before that day), and any other things that could show what kind of things we were communicating to the church. Apparently, in cases like this, if you are not operating according to your own bylaws, you could be in danger of losing your non-profit status, or be fined, or who knows?

Regardless, we knew we weren’t doing anything wrong, so we sent in minutes from the members’ meetings over that previous year, and emails that had gone out about what was happening. We never heard back from the AG office on that issue (I came to find out later, we satisfied the complaint from the AG’s perspective, though she never wrote back to say anything. Why couldn’t she have told us that?!)

After that, we had to address it with our members. We were not, and to this day are not, 100% certain who wrote that letter. We had a big, big hunch, and Pastor Reid actually asked our suspected couple point blank! They denied it, but continued to act mischievously to keep the suspicion raised in our minds. Whoever did it directly violated God’s Word in 1 Corinthians 6, where God commands saints to not go to outsiders to settle disputes within the church.

I brought up to our members 1 Corinthians 6, and pleaded with the anonymous member to confess. I offered forgiveness for whoever it was. No one ever came forward. Out of the few members we suspected, every single one left our church over the next year. Besides 1 Corinthians 6, there are all kinds of things wrong with whoever wrote that letter, a mindset that violates principles of godliness like the family aspect of the church, obeying your leaders, gossip/slander, and a whole host of other things. Because of all that, I am so deathly afraid to this day for whoever wrote that letter (by the way, two months later a second letter came from the AG with another false accusation from the same person, still anonymous, and we had to produce more paperwork to resolve that one).

I still, today, would forgive that person if they would repent. May God have mercy on their souls.

One last hard thing that I can remember happened at the end of 2013, something that really shaped me for the good. To this point, I believe I had been largely “in the right.” I was working patiently and courageously as far as I could tell. That is, until I got a little impatient and cowardly. Who knew what clicking “send” could do? Well, I found out soon enough.

Why ever do a live-stream sermon?

Sorry for the longest cliff-hanger ever with the “church cultivator” series. None of you are even hanging anymore. You’ve probably climbed up and forgot about that cliff. Sorry, I will return to that in the coming days, Lord willing. I just wrote this up for my church, and wanted to share, with the current strange season we all find ourselves in. I had to cancel our worship service tomorrow, but will plan to do live-stream preaching. Here is why:

For those who know me well, you know I am against video preaching on Sunday mornings. The reason I am against that is because the word “church” simply means “assembly.” And you are not a true NT local church unless you are gathered physically. On top of that, there are elements of worship like singing to one another (Ephesians 5.19) and praying together (Matthew 18.20) and partaking of the Lord’s Supper together (1 Corinthians 10.16-17) that are essential to what it means to be a real assembly of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the ignorance of these things today that has led to so many professing Christians believing that they can be a faithful Christian without being a committed member of a Christian church.

On top of all that, video preaching (which happens in TONS of churches across the land) feeds into all kinds of bad things (including, but not limited to): it doesn’t matter if the preacher really knows you or not; celebrity culture; over-dependence on one man in any ministry; pragmatism in general. So for all those reasons, please know that video preaching is not what the normal Christian life is supposed to look like.

Obviously, with coronavirus, or any other pandemic, we are not talking about the “normal” Christian life. My motivation for streaming a live sermon at the normal time each Sunday for the next few weeks: because God has called me to feed the flock. I love doing it. I believe it’s my job. I believe KBC loves my preaching (as a rule of thumb, maybe, most weeks? At least most of them?) And by God’s grace, we have the technological capability to do live-stream preaching!

Some public voices have said: “We ought to encourage family worship at a time like this! Not video preaching!” “It’s bad if the church has to depend on you at a time like this! Fathers ought to be equipped to lead their families in worship!”

I get it. But I don’t think that thinking is correct. We ought to encourage family worship six other days a week. This is not about depending on one man to feed the flock; this is about me standing before God and giving account for whether I tried to feed the flock night and day with tears, even in the midst of a pandemic. The Lord’s Day is not just another day; so if there is a way to salvage elements of church life in the midst of a pandemic, why not?

I want to be clear that this is not going to be an option for our members (or anybody else) in the future, during normal times. What we will be doing for the next few Sundays is not replacing our normal Lord’s Day gathering. KBC’s Lord’s Day gatherings are cancelled for the time being. What we will be doing for the next few Sundays is allowing our members to still hear faithful preaching by their pastor. That’s not sinful. But that’s also all it is.

It’s not ideal for me to preach to a camera! But I am preaching with the knowledge that all our members (who can get on the internet at 10:45am on a Sunday) will be listening. I will be preaching with them in mind as I do every Sunday. When other churches normally do video preaching and call it “church,” they are missing out on some essential elements of church life. The fact that Kailua Baptist is a church frees us up at a moment like this to go off the norm with preaching and still get a lot of benefits that we would normally get on Sunday mornings through preaching. Because I know the people I am preaching to. They know me. This is my ministry to them.

So please pray as you normally would for preachers on Sunday to preach the Word in power. And thank God that we live in a time that not even the worst parts of the Curse can stop the proclamation of the gospel from feeding your souls. Satan cannot even stop pastors specifically from feeding their specific flocks.

Memoirs of a Church Cultivator, part 6: the Explosive Meeting

August 11, 2013 is a date etched in my memory. I don’t want to be over-dramatic, but maybe the reason I have never been able to forget it is because it was perhaps the first time it became publicly clear that we had severe problems at our church.

The meeting was a regular quarterly members meeting. Six months earlier, at the first quarter meeting, I had presented to the congregation new bylaws and (according to those new bylaws were they to pass) the first set of elders and deacons. I told them at that meeting we would vote at the third quarter meeting. There were many conversations along the way, quite a few disagreements, but overall it seemed everything was headed in a good direction. I thought I had been as much of an open book about all the issues along the way, including revising the bylaws page by page and allowing the members feedback after each page was revised.

What also added to the drama of the afternoon was we had several new members join that year, Christians who had never been in a healthy church and I was eager for them to see what biblical, Reformed, healthy church life could look like at our church.

Three months leading up to the meeting we had our second quarter meeting. I again told everyone we were going to vote on the new bylaws and potential officers at the third quarter meeting. No real issues came up.

August 11, 2013. Third Quarter meeting. I opened by saying we were voting on the new bylaws and new officers (potentially). I handed out all the ballots. Then I asked if there were any final questions. And a long time member made her way immediately up to the front with papers in her hand.

It may have been one sheet of paper, I’m not sure. But she proceeded to read a letter to the members and stated that I had deviously changed the bylaws, that I did not give the members enough opportunity to give input, and that I was doing harm to the church by changing the leadership structure.

She probably spoke for about five minutes, but I had thousands of thoughts running through my mind all at once, and can’t remember much else of what she said or what I was thinking. All I remember at that point, when she got done, I asked if there were any members who wanted to respond to her statements.

One of the men I was recommending for eldership stood up immediately, and instead of addressing her concerns, he simply said, “we should submit to our pastor.”

Then another man stood up immediately and said, “I need to address that. If we just blindly follow our leaders, that’s how you become a cult…”

With the quick loss of control that I now had in my hands, and with that last offensive comment, I spoke up from up front–interrupting the last speaker!– “alright, brother, I gotta stop you there. That cult statement is simply offensive. We believe cults are going to hell. So you cannot compare us to a cult.”

I don’t remember what happened from there. There was probably about five more minutes of discussion and I tabled the vote. Many who were for the changes were surprised that I tabled it. But I simply did not want to “win” a vote with so much divisiveness in the room.

I totally believe it was right to table at that moment. I am not sure if I was right to interrupt the cult commentary the way I had (a move for which his wife never forgave me as far as I can tell). I am not sure if the process I went through to change the bylaws was correct. But this was where God had us providentially. And we clearly had some major problems on our hand.

Our new members were so confused. Our old members who were for the changes were so offended by the first woman’s comments. And lots of people were angry at me and each other for what transpired in that meeting.

I decided to go even slower than we had been going. We had more members meetings to talk about issues, attempt to reconcile relationships, while still trying to move toward biblical change. We eventually got around to creating a bylaws committee to work from scratch to re-write our bylaws.

I did learn that it is possible to look like things are going in the right direction, but unless you really get every member to buy in, every member to understand, every member to have affection for your teachings, you are just one meeting away from ecclesiological disaster.

I also learned that no matter how patient and loving you are toward the sheep, the reality is in a fallen world, on this side of the Second Coming, and in this world where “many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,” but not enter the kingdom– the reality is sometimes there are false sheep among the flock. Sometimes wolves. Sometimes simply false sheep. And one more terrible action by a false sheep awaited, which we found out when we received “The Shocking Letter.”

Memoirs of a church cultivator, part 5: the Failed Vote

From day one I tried to teach the importance of church membership. Baptist churches– particularly Southern Baptist churches– are famous for having meaningless church membership practices. Case in point: I just saw a list of Southern Baptist churches on Oahu, and I saw one church with over a thousand members!!! Let me assure you there are no mega Southern Baptist churches on Oahu. (from what I hear that church has more like 100-150 active members)

When I got to KBC I actually had no idea if there was an official roll besides our membership directory that has the pictures and contact info of all the Christians who gathered regularly with us (I’ve since found out there is a roster in our office kept since the 50’s, but no one ever used it; we still log stuff in there, but just for legal records). I chose to operate from day one with the directory as our official membership roster, and everyone was happy with that.

At some point in the first two years, I had talked about removing a couple who had stopped coming for a while. The deacons agreed with me. I did not moderate the meetings at the time; one of our deacons did. He led the members meeting in which we voted to remove that one couple. I believe I did some explanation of why they were going to be removed (I actually can’t remember how the whole process went down; all I know is at some point I talked to that couple on the phone and told them they needed to come back but they were unwilling, and I told them if they didn’t we would remove them).

At the meeting, the deacon brought up the couple’s names, asked for a vote, and it passed. No problem. (I bet you thought it wasn’t going to pass)

Later I realized that even though I thought I did my due diligence (and I may have), there were many that were still not clear on that situation.

About a year later, we baptized a young couple. I was thrilled. It was one of the first baptisms that I ever did. But then about six months later they stopped coming to church. After many conversations it was clear they were forsaking the fellowship of believers. After I met with them, then after one or two others tried to meet with them, I decided to put them forward for excommunication. It seemed like a no brainer to me, especially after I thought we were already prepped from the first couple that was removed.

On the day of the vote, there were 30-40 voting members present from what I could tell. I asked for a raise of hands. About 10-15 raised their hands to vote to remove. Then I asked for those not in favor to raise their hands. No one raised their hands. Then I asked for abstentions (which I don’t do anymore) but only one person raised her hand. I had a hundred thoughts running through my mind all at once; I am not even sure how accurate I am with these numbers right now because of how many thoughts were racing through my mind.

I asked for another vote and asked every voting member to please vote. All in favor? About 10-15 again. All opposed? 0. Any abstaining? 1.

People were confused. I was confused. I said we would table the issue. Church life went on. I continued to preach the gospel. And we were going to be fine. But it was clear a lot of work on my part needed to be done. In fact, as I remember, I think I said, “I will just take it as me failing to teach on this issue; I take the blame for any confusion here.”

I came to find out later that many were unsure of why we were voting out someone who simply stopped coming to church. I found out the first vote was not all that clear to everyone. We had actually just done an “aye” vs “nay” vote the first time. And if 10-15 people say “aye” and no one says “nay” it sounds like a successful vote. And at the end of the day, the first vote just may have felt more like a formality to many instead of actual, serious church excommunication.

Some lessons learned:

  • Many members will not want to vote against the pastor. There is good in that. But teaching members even what voting means can help. I suggest doing away with ‘abstentions.’ If a member of the church chooses not to follow their pastor(s) they ought to be very clear that is what they are doing. And there are many cases where they can have very good biblical reasons for doing so. But to abstain is to not obey your leaders and submit to them. Again, there are good reasons to not follow your leaders for conscience sake. You just better have good reasons
  • Teach, teach, teach on church membership. And keep teaching it. And never stop. The first vote “succeeded” because I didn’t teach enough. The second vote failed for the same reason. Unless Christians understand what church membership is biblically, there is no sense in doing anything to your membership rolls one way or another. (I hear of lots of new pastors wanting to “clean up their rolls”; there is not biblical success in any cleaning up of rolls if there is not biblical understandings of church membership; I fear there is a facade of success in many “church revitalization” situations when it comes to “cleaning up rosters”)
  • Whether I went in the wisest order or not, it definitely helps when a pastor can say “we, the elders, recommend…” instead of “I recommend.” I knew having a plurality of elders would help with things like this. To that process of moving the church toward plural elders I now turn. But that process had lots of bumps along the way. First bump: the Explosive Meeting

Memoirs of a church cultivator, part 4: the Bible as final authority

It has been too long for me to remember all my thoughts about the church when I first started. I knew there were going to be things that I wanted to change, but I doubt I could have named them all for you on day one, nor would I be able to tell you today what the best order of priority is for cultivating health in a local church. But this I can tell you: if we say the Bible is our final authority, then no one should complain about change. Ever.

From 2010 to 2017, here are some of the changes: I taught on robust church membership and church discipline and implemented a membership process where I interview prospective members before presenting to the congregation; I taught on the biblical model of multiple elders leading the congregation; I taught on biblical complementarity and got more men leading music and only men teaching adults; I taught on the Regulative Principle of worship and got more involved in selecting songs on Sunday morning, got more Scripture readings and more prayer in the service; I taught how the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace and moved us to weekly Communion; I taught how God likes children being involved in worship and family worship. I’m sure there were other major things taught and changed, but hopefully that gives you a taste of some things we worked through.

At some point in 2014, a lot of people left the church mainly because we were pushing toward a plurality of elders. I heard secondhand that someone said: “I don’t understand why Todd is at this church; he’s not really Baptist.”

What they meant was it seemed wrong that I was pushing for a plurality of elders in a Baptist church, where most Baptist churches didn’t believe in plurality of elders. One lady even asked me once (in a very kind spirit), “did you ever consider planting a church instead of coming here to change things?”

A few thoughts in response to these things:

  • All I know is what was in front of me. I got hired to teach and preach. So that is all I tried to do.
  • Only in the last 60 or 70 years have Baptists largely not held to plural elders in each local church; Baptists in the 1600’s largely believed in the plurality of elders. But at the end of the day, who cares what most Baptist churches today believe? The Bible is the final authority, so if that is what it teaches that is really all that matters.
  • It is amazing how many people actually have “this is how we’ve always done it” as their final authority
  • If you are a Christian, then you already believe you are not a part of a perfect church. So if someone comes along and teaches something you’re not used to, but it seems biblical, you should thank God. He loves you and cares for you and wants you to grow in the knowledge of Him. When a new pastor comes along teaching the Bible, you should expect good change to happen.

For the rest of this series I will highlight a few significant events over these first 10 years at KBC. I don’t know how much these things have shaped me, but they are things that stick out in my mind as God’s good and wise providences. First significant event: the Failed Vote.