A Broken Heart in Eastern Kentucky

Note: I originally wrote this post as a guest blogger at kychurchplanting.com.  I am re-posting it on my site as well.  This post is longer than usual for me, so please accept my apologies in advance!  Thanks for reading.

Allow me to introduce myself.  I am a Kentucky Baptist.  Specifically, I am an eastern Kentucky Baptist.  Even more specifically, I am a native eastern Kentucky Baptist.

And my heart is broken.

My heart is broken because of the vast amounts of spiritual darkness that are found across the entire region where I was born and raised and where I now serve the Lord as a Director of Missions.  Imagine a place where 2 out of every 3 people do not even claim to know Jesus Christ.  Imagine a place where 3 out of every 4 people are not a member of any church of any denomination.  Imagine a place where 11 out of every 12 people will not be attending a worship service this Sunday.

Once you imagine such a place, you would probably guess that this is a description of a large metropolitan area such as Baltimore, Chicago, or Los Angeles.  While the percentages of lostness are similar to those three cities, I have just described the spiritual landscape in Pike County, the easternmost county in the great commonwealth of Kentucky.

And the spiritual landscape is similar all across eastern Kentucky.  In fact, according to the 2010 Glenmary Report, 21 out of the 25 most lost counties in the state of Kentucky (based upon percentage) are located east of I-75.  Two of the remaining 4 counties (Jessamine and McCreary) are located just west of I-75.  This means that 23 out of the 25 most lost counties are located near or east of I-75.  Among these is Elliot County, where 95% do not claim to be a Christian and 98% of the 7,852 residents are unchurched.  My brothers and sisters, that’s a mission field!

As I think about these heart-breaking realities, the words of Jesus in Luke 10:2 quickly come to mind: “The harvest is plentiful.”  These words were true in the first century, and they are certainly true today.  But, the second phrase in Luke 10:2 is equally true: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

I praise the Lord for the churches all across eastern Kentucky who are striving to penetrate the darkness with the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  However, I have discovered two major challenges: (1) we do not have enough churches, and (2) many of our established churches are plateaued and declining and in need of revitalization.

Challenge #1: Not enough churches.  Let’s take my native Pike County as an example.  According to the latest estimates, there are 63,034 people living in Pike County, of which at least 43,052 are lost and at least 57,676 are unchurched.  And we have only 23 Kentucky Baptist churches trying to reach all of these people.  That’s 1 Kentucky Baptist church for every 2,826 people in Pike County.  Compare that to the Kentucky average of 1 Kentucky Baptist church for every 1,708 people.  That means that in Pike County, we need 15 more churches right now just to reach the average KBC church to population ratio.

Challenge #2: Established churches need revitalization.  Again, let’s use Pike County as an example.  According to data reported on the most recent Annual Church Profile, Kentucky Baptist churches in Pike County baptized a total of 113 people last year.  While we certainly praise the Lord for even one person who experiences salvation, the reality is that this is the lowest annual total ever recorded in the 57-year history of the Pike Association, and it represents less than 0.3% of the lost people in Pike County.  That’s less than half of one percent.

So, I hope that you can begin to see why my heart is broken.  My prayer is that your heart will begin to ache for eastern Kentucky as well. Especially in light of the fact that while 21 out of the 25 most lost counties in Kentucky are located east of I-75, all 50 church plants in which the KBC is currently engaged are located west of I-75.

Yes, you read that correctly.  While the vast majority of the most lost counties in Kentucky are located east of I-75, none of the 50 current KBC church plants are located in this region.  I hope that you’ll agree that this must change, and it must change quickly.

So, where do we go from here?  I believe the Lord tells us where to start in Luke 10:2: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  Would you join me in praying for a mighty army of laborers to be sent throughout eastern Kentucky, equipped with the life-changing message of the gospel?  Would you join me in begging the Lord for more laborers to be sent so that many more churches can be planted throughout eastern Kentucky?  Would you join me in praying that there would be a great spiritual harvest sweep across eastern Kentucky unlike anything that we’ve ever experienced before?

After praying, you may sense that God is leading you to do more.  I certainly hope so.  Perhaps God is leading you to financially invest in the planting of more churches in eastern Kentucky.  Perhaps God is leading you to plant a church in eastern Kentucky yourself.  Whatever He leads you to do, I pray that the Lord will be glorified through your obedience.

A Wordless Gospel?

Have you ever heard the old saying, “Preach the gospel always; if necessary use words”?  It’s a catchy phrase that has been quoted in churches and small groups for many years.  While I understand the point attempting to be made that Christians need to walk the walk if we are going to talk the talk, this catchy saying needs to be retired.  Permanently.

In his book Gaining By Losing, J.D. Greear explains why:

Our ministry begins with, and focuses on, testifying to what Christ has done.  Any “service” to our community that does not make that message clear disserves them. Acts of kindness apart from the gospel only make people more comfortable on their way to hell.

Maybe you’ve heard the old adage attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel; if necessary use words.” Quaint and tweetable, but very wrong. You cannot preach the gospel without words. The gospel is an explanation about an act that occurred in history once and for all. We testify through words that Jesus did for us what we could never do for ourselves by living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died, in our place, so that others can believe that message and trust in it. Saying, “Preach the gospel; if necessary use words,” is like me saying, “Tell me your phone number; if necessary, use digits.”  Apart from digits, there is no phone number. Apart from words, there is no gospel.

Amen!  If there are no words, then there is no gospel.  That’s basically what Paul said in Romans 10:13-17: “For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

Amen! Faith comes from hearing words.  In particular, the words of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, you cannot preach the gospel without words.

Still, we cannot ignore the intention of the saying above.  We must preach the gospel using words, but our lives must reflect the message that we proclaim to others.  It’s not either/or, but both/and.  We must proclaim the gospel AND live a life worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).

The best definition of evangelism that I have ever heard comes from my former seminary professor Chuck Lawless, who said this: “Evangelism is being, doing, and telling the good news of Jesus Christ. Evangelism is never less than the telling of the good news, but assumed is a lifestyle that supports the message.”

Preach the gospel; words are necessary so use them as you live your life on mission for Him!

Engaging Your Church in Local Missions

LoveLoud 2015

In my role as a Director of Missions, I work to engage the churches of my local association in an intentional Acts 1:8 missions strategy.  Recently, we conducted a local missions event called “LoveLoud Pike”, which included 3 days of missional service by members of our local churches serving our local communities.  Our projects consisted of 3 types:

  1. Evangelism & Outreach
  2. Community Service
  3. Construction

Our biblical motivation came from 1 John 3:18, which states “Little children, let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth.”  In other words, we did not just want to say that we love our local communities, but we wanted to prove it by our deeds.  I have listed below some of the projects that our teams participated in.  All of these can be easily reproduced in your church or local association:

  1. Light bulb giveaway – It’s probably a safe guess that you have at least one blown light bulb in your house. The same is probably true for your neighbors as well. Purchase some light bulbs and pass them out to folks, free of charge.  It may just open up an opportunity for you to tell them about the light of the world as well!
  1. Water bottle giveaway – This is especially effective on hot, summer days. Go to a local park or any place where people are gathered outdoors and pass out free bottles of water.  And look for an opportunity to tell them about the One who can give them Living Water!
  1. Free car wash – Grab a bucket, some sponges, a water hose, and some signage, and get to work. This project takes very little prep work, but can be very effective, especially when people find out that it’s free!  People will ask you what the catch is, and they will all but throw money at you, but do not accept money under any circumstances.  Simply explain that God’s grace is free, and so is the car wash!
  1. Community service projects – Contact your local school board or government officials and ask if there are any projects that you can do around their schools, businesses, or parks. Our teams painted, cut weeds, filled potholes, and did lots of landscaping, simply because we asked how we could serve our neighbors.
  1. Neighborhood landscaping – Grab some weed killer and start walking through neighborhoods. Once you see a home that could use a little help, simply knock on the door to ask the homeowner if you can spray or pull up their weeds.  Again, do not accept payment!  (Note: we ran out of weed killer on other projects before actually engaging in this project, but we look forward to doing it next time.)

The possibilities are endless, but these are just 5 examples to get you thinking about ways that your church can engage in local missions.  It’s not rocket science; it just takes a little gospel intentionality!

What are some ways that you or your church engages in local missions?  I’d love to hear from you!

Top 5 Book Recommendations on Church Revitalization

Healthy Heart

If the various studies are accurate, the majority of churches in America are plateaued or declining.  And that means that many are in need of revitalization.  Perhaps your church is as well.  That’s why I’m so encouraged that over the past few years, there has been a renewed emphasis on church health and revitalization.  With this renewed emphasis, there have been several books written to address this topic.

A pastor friend of mine recently asked what books I would recommend to someone who wanted to read about this topic.  Although I certainly haven’t read everything on this subject, here are my top 5 books on church revitalization (in no particular order):

Autopsy of a Deceased Church by Thom Rainer

One of the first steps to revitalization is recognizing that there is a problem.  In this short book, Rainer examines churches that have died and offers 10 common characteristics of those churches.  Questions are included at the end of each chapter for reflection and discussion with others.  This book doesn’t offer a lot of solutions, but it does help the reader to identify if your church has some of the symptoms of a dying church.  If you find that it does, then you will definitely want to read some of the other recommendations listed below.

From Embers to a Flame by Harry L. Reeder III

Like Rainer’s book, the opening chapter of this book also lists characteristics of sick and dying churches. However, the majority of Reeder’s book explains 10 biblical revitalization strategies, which the author has found to be very effective in his own ministry.  This book is saturated with biblical examples and principles to create an environment for God to revitalize your church, and it is certainly worth your time to read.

There’s Hope For Your Church by Gary McIntosh

As the title indicates, this is a book full of hope.  Gary McIntosh writes in a very practical and positive manner, and he offers 13 revitalization steps to help struggling churches.  This is a helpful introductory book to the topic of church revitalization.

Comeback Churches by Ed Stetzer & Mike Dodson

Based upon research of 324 churches throughout North America that have experienced significant revitalization, Stetzer & Dodson offer common characteristics among these “comeback churches”.  Unlike the books listed above by Reeder and McIntosh, this book is based upon research.

Transformational Church by Ed Stetzer & Thom Rainer

Stetzer & Rainer begin this book by discussing how churches have long measured success by “bodies, budgets, and buildings”.  However, based upon a survey of over 7,000 churches throughout North America, this book identifies and promotes a new scorecard for churches including a missionary mentality, vibrant leadership, relational intentionality, prayerful dependence, worship, community, and mission.  This book is one of the most helpful on the topic of revitalization, and there is an accompanying survey and DVD study that church leaders can participate in.  There have also been spinoff books such as Transformational Discipleship and Transformational Groups.

These are my top 5 books on the topic of revitalization, but what would you add to the list?  What books have helped you in this area?

(Post image by digitalart at freedigitalphotos.net)

When Good Intentions Are Bad

Spinning Wheels

(Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Is there ever a situation when good intentions are actually bad?  Absolutely!  Good intentions are bad if you never act on those intentions.  You’re left running on a spinning wheel, going nowhere.  This is true in your personal life, your personal spiritual development, and your personal ministry.

The solution to this problem is simple: Don’t just have good intentions; be intentional.

This is true in so many areas of our lives.  You may have good intentions to show up at your job each day, but unless you actually show up, you won’t have a job very long.  You may have good intentions to pay your taxes, but unless you actually pay them, you’ll be hearing from the IRS.  You may have good intentions to spend time with your family, but unless you actually make the time, your family will suffer for it.

Don’t just have good intentions; be intentional.

The same is true in our practice of the personal spiritual disciplines such as Bible study, prayer, evangelism, worship, etc.  You may have good intentions to study the Bible, but unless you develop a workable plan to do so, your Bible will begin to collect dust.  You may have good intentions to pray, but unless you intentionally make time to do so each day, your prayer life will likely stagnate. You may have good intentions to share the gospel, but unless you get the proper training and devote time in your schedule for this purpose, it probably won’t happen.

Don’t just have good intentions; be intentional.

This is also true in the ministry of the church.  Pastor, you may have good intentions to make disciples in your church, but unless you develop an intentional plan to do so, your church will probably include many spiritual infants.  You may have good intentions to train leaders in your church, but unless you take intentional steps to do so, you may face a large leadership void.  You may have good intentions to lead your church to be more actively involved in missions, but unless you intentionally lead them in this direction, it probably won’t happen on its own.

Don’t just have good intentions; be intentional.

James says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22)  Although James’ focus is specifically on the Word in this verse, the same principle applies.  After you encounter God’s Word, you should have good intentions to live it out.  However, if those good intentions don’t lead to tangible actions, James says that you are deceiving yourself.

Don’t just have good intentions; be intentional.

So, are there areas in your spiritual life or ministry where your good intentions have not led to tangible actions?  If so, what is one step that you can take today to act upon your good intention?

Remember, don’t just have good intentions; be intentional!

Cultivating A Culture of Evangelistic Prayer in Your Church

MEDION DIGITAL CAMERA

Making disciples.  That’s the Great Commission in a nutshell.  And yet while it can be summarized in two simple words, countless books have been written to describe the many facets of the Great Commission.  It’s not my intent to address all of those facets in this post however.  My purpose in this post is to address what I believe to be one of the Great Omissions of the Great Commission and that is compassionate, intentional, evangelistic prayer.

In Matthew 9:35-38, Jesus sees the crowds all around him, and he has compassion for them for they are like sheep without a shepherd.  His compassion for them is what leads him to say to his disciples in verses 37-38: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  Commenting on this verse, David Platt says:

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Here’s the harvest, now go!’ Instead, He says, ‘Here’s the harvest, now pray.’ Jesus will eventually get to the ‘go’ part, but first His followers must be on their knees, asking and pleading with God to send out workers.  This is precisely what we should be doing in our churches as we seek to send people out regularly into this dark world to proclaim the gospel.

And yet this type of prayer is often missing in a typical church prayer meeting.  I’ve heard it said that churches often pray more to keep saints out of heaven than to keep sinners out of hell.  So, the question is how can you cultivate a culture of evangelistic prayer in your church?  Here are some quick ideas to get started:

  1. Teach on the topic of prayer. Specifically, teach on the need for compassionate, intentional, evangelistic prayer.  Use passages like Matthew 9:35-38 or Luke 10:2.
  2. Model evangelistic prayer for your church. Your church members will follow your example.  If they hear you regularly praying with an evangelistic emphasis, they will be much more likely to do so as well.
  3. Be disciplined in your prayer meeting. Set aside a portion of your regular prayer meeting to pray specifically for the lost by name.  Stay disciplined and do this before allowing anyone to share “normal prayer requests” such as health, financial, or emotional concerns.
  4. Conduct a commissioning service. In the words of Charles Spurgeon, every member of your church is “either a missionary or an imposter.”  Indeed, God’s people are a sent people (John 20:21).  With that thought in mind, consider holding a special commissioning service for all of your church members.  Pray over them and send them out into your community!
  5. Utilize technology. Technology is your friend. Part of NAMB’s TenTwo prayer initiative is for believers to pray Luke 10:2 at 10:02 each day.  Utilizing your smartphone, you can set a daily reminder to help you to remember to pray for more workers.  You can also utilize social media to periodically remind church members to pray evangelistically as well.

These are just some ideas to get you started.  What are some other ways to cultivate a culture of evangelistic prayer in the church?

Does Your Church Pay, Pray, and Stay Out of the Way?

Is your church missions-minded?  If you are part of a typical church, the answer may very well be that your church is more missions-minded than you think, but not in the way that you think.

In his book The Sending Church, Pastor Pat Hood said this about his church:

We were missions-minded because missions was on our mind, but that was about it. We thought about missions, but we didn’t do missions. We became painfully aware of the fact that giving money so others can do missions is a good thing, but it’s a bad thing if it becomes the only thing…somewhere along the line, many churches basically abdicated their responsibility to do missions to a mission sending agency. The churches responsibility was reduced to “pay, pray, and stay out of the way.”  (108-109)

Does this sound like your church?  If so, you’re not alone.  Most of the churches that I have worked with find it much easier to pay, pray, and stay out of the way rather than personally getting involved in the mission.  The church that is actively engaged in praying, giving, and going is certainly the exception, not the rule.  But my prayer is for a few more exceptions, and I hope that is your prayer as well.

So, how can you lead your church to pray, give, and go?  Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?  (Some of you may get the reference; I had to look it up!)  The fact is there is no easy answer to this question.  But, one of the goals of this blog will be to revisit this issue again and again in order to start a dialogue among pastors and church leaders.  My hope is that as others share, you may learn something that may help you in your particular ministry situation.

This is certainly not the silver bullet, but here are some quick recommendations.  (After #1, the rest are in no particular order.)

  1. Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers from your church into His harvest (Luke 10:2). Start here, but don’t stop here.  Keep praying!
  2. Begin to cast a vision in your church for the lostness in your community, town, city, or state as well as North America and the world. Utilize any available denominational resources as well as Census Bureau data to help discover these numbers.
  3. Identify church members who are passionate about doing missions. Find these people and get them in a room together.  Amazing things just might happen!
  4. Start small. Consider involving your church in a local ministry such as a homeless shelter, pregnancy care center, or food pantry.  Just give your members the opportunity to go outside the four walls of your church building, and see how God stirs their hearts for something greater!
  5. Be patient. The culture of your church won’t change overnight. Be patient and celebrate the small victories!

What would you add to this list?  How have you led your church to pray, give, and go?