Christ to Critics: Stop Attacking My Wife!

Christ to Critics- “Stop Attacking My Wife!”

Here’s the thing.  Some people are going to read the title of this blog and totally miss the message of this blog. What do I mean? This is what I mean. It is absolutely appropriate to criticize the church. Frankly, we probably don’t criticize the church enough. We are counseled in Ephesians 4:17 to speak the truth in love and that passage is in the context of the church.

But we must not only speak the truth in love, we must speak truth to power. Walter Brueggemann, one of the most prolific theologians in the modern era, reminds us in his book, Truth Speaks to Power, that Jesus was a persistent thorn in the flesh of unethical power brokers inside and outside the church. Church criticism is critical for church development.

But there is a difference between criticism and attack. Frankly, they feel about the same. For most of us the difference between constructive and destructive criticism is pretty clear.  Constructive criticism is the criticism you give. Destructive criticism is the criticism you get!

But attacks are more personal and generally counterproductive. They rarely offer a solution and they are often too cowardly for face to face confrontation. Attacks are rarely looking for real answers. In fact, when you offer answers they find more questions. Attacks come from the left and right, from conservatives and liberals.

I don’t have any steps or keys or laws or secrets for addressing church attacks but let me offer some observations for those who are prone to attack.

Observation #1: Examine Your Own Motives

Church attacks often say as much about the attacker as they do the church. Why do you return to this spot over and over? Why is the topic so sensitive to you? Make sure that the church has not become a convenient platform for you to project your own issues. Mad people are often hurt people, and hurt people hurt people. I’m not dismissing valid criticism but attacks are often coming from a damaged place.

Observation #2: The Good Old Days Weren’t All That Good

People who are constantly calling for that “old time religion”, have selective amnesia. The church has always had problems- big problems. And I’m not just referring to your local church or the contemporary church. Just look at the “glory days” of the precious New Testament church.

  • The Church at Corinth had so many divisive issues that Paul addressed them in 2 long letters. Members were sleeping around. The worship service was out of control and members were regularly suing each other.
  • The Church at Galatia battled over the nature of the law, the role of the law, and freedom of conscience.
  • The Church at Ephesus struggled with the nature of the church, the function of church leaders, had problems with domestic relations, and the nature of spiritual warfare.
  • The Churches at Colossae and Thessalonica struggled with the nature of Christ-which incidentally was an early issue in the Adventist church. There was confusion about the second Advent and some of the members had retreated to a mountain to wait for Jesus to come!
  • The Church at Phillipi had fights at “business meetings” that were so intense that Paul called out the trouble makers by name.

So if you’re looking for a return to the good old days-don’t.

Observation #3: Make Sure You Have The Whole Story

I can’t tell you the number of times my perspective has changed after I’ve heard the whole story. I look at the number of posts online of Christians complaining about how they’ve been mistreated by the church.  I’m sure that a large number of them, if not most of them, are true.  But I remember the members I’ve pastored over the years who practically lived off of the special assistance of the church but complained to outsiders that the church “never helps members in need.” Really? Get the whole story.

Observation #4: Church Attacks Damage You and Yours

Now this one is fairly obvious. The church is not brick and mortar, the church is you and me.  When you unfairly attack the church, you attack yourself.  You could be undermining the very hospital you’ll need for your own recovery. And it gets worse. The next generation is watching and listening.

As I said earlier, the church needs more thoughtful criticism. We are paying a steep price for being painfully political or downright unchristian.  Some of our conference constituency meetings and decisions by our conference committees have had university classrooms buzzing. But the way we address these church problems can either raise a generation of constructive critics or hopeless cynics.

Observation #5: If You Can Identify A Problem, You Can Probably Identify A Solution

Here is where you see the value of criticism versus the damage of attack. Every great church reformation has begun with criticism. The prophets leveled blistering criticism at Israel. Jesus was not a bit bashful about bashing the religious right. But it was all done with an eye toward reformation. It was done with a clear solution in mind.

And here’s another critical distinction between attack and criticism. Attack generally functions from outside in. Criticism generally functions from inside out. In other words, you are generally in the best position to make lasting change if you’re operating from the inside. If you are a part of the group. Not always, but more often than not.

I hear it all the time in one form or another. “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.” “ People love Jesus, but they don’t like the church.” Think about it. That’s like you saying to me, “ I love you man, but I frankly can’t stand your wife!”  My wife and I have been married for more than 33 years. That statement is not going to go over very well with me.

The Bible makes it clear that Christ loves the church. That Christ is married to the church. For better or worse. For richer or poorer. In sickness and in health. Even through death. Be careful how you treat His wife.

So what do you think?

Chick-fil-A: What Your Church Can Learn II

Chick fil A: What Your Church Can Learn – Part II

What can your local church learn from a chicken store? Apparently, in the case of Chick-fil-A, quite a bit. I thought I was done with this story, but obviously there’s still meat on the bones! (I know. I couldn’t stop myself.)

It seems that there’s no middle ground when Chick-fil-A comes up. People either love them or hate them. And the issue is not the food, which receives consistently great reviews. The issue is the statements that they’ve made about traditional values. The management’s understanding of marriage being between a man and woman, is not exactly winning them friends today. And the fact that they’ve decided to close on Sundays has made them even more controversial.

But whether you agree with them or not, their success in the market and popular culture can’t be argued. They are the most successful fast food restaurant in America by a long shot. They make more sales per store in 6 days than the others do in 7. So, what are they doing?

It begins with the founder, S. Truett Cathy. Last week I wrote of his challenge to the Chick-fil-A board of trustees who were obsessing over getting “ bigger-faster!” His response to them was good advice for his business and even better advice for the local church.  He said, “I am sick and tired of you talking about getting bigger.  What we need to be talking about is getting better! If we get better, our customers will demand that we get bigger!”

I love it! Church ministries and church growth is what I do. I love bigger! But quantity without quality is a disaster in the making. Bringing new believers into some of our churches is like bringing babies into a nasty nursery. They won’t be there long.

But what more can we learn from Chick-fil-A? Let’s begin with the “Core Four” counsel that they give to all employees:

  • Make eye contact– That works at a chicken store or at church. People who make eye contact are usually seen as more reliable, warm, and sociable.
  • Smile – Enough said.
  • Speak enthusiastically – Often it’s not what you say but how you say it. Enthusiastic communication is persuasive communication.
  • Stay connected – Chick-fil-A encourages their sales force to establish relationships with customers. The founder of the church encourages the same.

Great advice. But the core four are only extensions of the 5 Core Values of Chick-fil-A. Here we pick up the key to their success and the best lessons for the local church.

Core Value Number One: Customers First

This is the foundation of good customer service. The customer might not always be right, but the customer is always first. Think of the visitors who leave local churches complaining that no one spoke to them or greeted them. It’s cliché, but you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

I remember being introduced to a local church when my family was young. While I was in the office with the conference president, preparing to come out, my wife had taken a seat with our babies. A long-time member came down the aisle prepared to sit in her usual seat, only to find my wife and kids “innocently” sitting in her seat.

Two people got embarrassed that day. My wife, when the lady told her that my family was in her seat. And the lady when she later realized that I was the new pastor…and the intruder was the new pastor’s wife….and the kids were the new pastor’s babies! Incidentally, my wife waited for over a year to tell me that story, because I get mad to this day when I think about it!

Core Value Number Two: Personal Excellence

Christians should be recognized for the quality of their work. This should be the case at church, but most importantly, at the workplace. The greatest witness to the power of Christianity in the workplace is an excellent Christian worker. Christians don’t go to work to proselytize or to witness, but they go to work…to work! The excellence of their work should reflect the excellence of their God.

Paul put it this way, “Whatever you do, work at it with all of your heart, as working for the Lord and not for human masters; since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.”

Core Value Number Three: Continuous Improvement

Chick-fil-A calls it continuous improvement, the church calls it sanctification or Christian maturity. In the Christian life, we are either going forward or backward, but we’re always moving. Ellen White reminds us of how important continuous improvement is:

“Our first responsibility toward God and our fellow beings is that of self-development.”

Temperance pg. 137

Core Value Number Four: Working Together

Resources are wasted and talent is squandered when church members don’t work together. In some churches, especially churches of size, the ministries and departments seem to operate as silos. Competition for resources and spots for “special days” can be fierce. Of course, this is a reflection of how little the members understand and own the primary mission of the church.

The church has been uniquely gifted for growth. Ephesians 4:11-16 states that each Christian has at least one gift and when those gifts operate together we are no longer children influenced by every shiny fad or face, but we grow into mature believers. This only happens when the church works together. Chick-fil-A is on point again.

Core Value Number Five: Stewardship

“To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.” That is the corporate purpose of Chick-fil-A. It should be the stewardship statement of every Christian.

That’s it. For sure, churches and for-profit businesses are not the same. There are significant differences in mission, compensation, administration, and motivation. But there are certain things that the church just ought to do better than a chicken store!

What do you think?

Chick-fil-A: What Your Church Can Learn

Chick-fil-A: What Your Church Could Learn

Since 2010, Chick-fil-A has been the most successful fast food restaurant in America. It leads the fast food industry in sales per store by a large margin. Like most “overnight success stories”, Chick-fil-A labored for more than 20 years before it opened its first store in the Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta. From there the explosion began.

Experts point to a number of reasons for the store’s success. But the unmistakable force behind the popular franchise was the founder, S. Truett Cathy. Born in 1921, he was a picture of hard work and traditional values. (His critics would argue, too traditional.) For more than 50 years he was a Sunday School teacher at the First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Not unlike a former Sunday School teaching peanut farmer in Plains, Georgia by the name of Jimmy Carter.

When Cathy died in 2014, Chick-fil-A was worth close to 3 billion dollars and he was one of the most generous philanthropists in American history. He was sought out by industries, governments, and universities worldwide for his counsel on business, stewardship and education.

But in the nineties, S. Truett Cathy unintentionally gave some counsel to the local church that’s revolutionary.

After years of explosive growth, Chick-fil-A was facing pressure from a new kid on the block, Boston Market. The newcomer was in most of the same markets as Chick-fil-A and growing by leaps and bounds. Boston Market also announced huge expansion plans for the future. Chick-fil-A’s corporate managers were shaken.

At a regular meeting of the board of trustees, one board member after another expressed concern. “We are still the market leaders but Boston Market is closing fast” they complained. According to Andy Stanley who related this story in his leadership blog in 2013, everyone seemed to be saying the same thing. “We need to get bigger- faster! Bigger-faster! Bigger- Faster!”

S. Truett Cathy, who was usually the quiet presence in the board room, listened until he could take it no more. He pounded the desk until the room got quiet. And then he made this amazing statement.

“I am sick and tired of you talking about getting bigger! What we need to be talking about is getting BETTER! If we get better, our customers will Demand that we get Bigger!!”

Now that’s a word! Not just a word for Chick-fil-A, but a valuable word for the local church. It is important for the church to get bigger. Despite the constant criticism, personal and public evangelism is not a numbers game. When we realize that those “numbers” represent our lost mothers and fathers and sons and daughters, we understand why Christ called the church to be more than faithful. The church must be fruitful. (Luke 13)

But you don’t get bigger by obsessing over size. You get bigger by obsessing over substance. The church has to get better before it gets bigger. Better at what?

Better at the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The gospel is by definition the good news of what Jesus did to restore us to God. Broadly speaking the entire Bible contains the gospel, but not everything Is the gospel. At times, what seems to be missing from the “gospel”, is Jesus. We are fairly comfortable with expressions of the gospel. Things like diet, education, and service. But I sense a need for a more specific understanding of what Jesus did and how that should influence our daily living. I say it often, but it’s impossible to share the gospel if the good news is not good to you.

Better at making disciples

The great commission is to make disciples. Matthew 28. That’s a lot different from making converts. Making baptisms. Our goal is a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. We have to bring them in, build them up, and then send them back out. It’s a lifetime commitment that demands the full investment of the local church. If the local church is shallow here, as most churches seem to be, then the front door will rarely open and when it does- the back door will swing. In short, they’ll go out as quickly as they come in.

Better at demonstrating love

I love the church. But at times it can be a mean, mad, unforgiving place. We should regularly remind ourselves that it’s our love that distinguishes us as Christians. (John 13:35.) In an earlier blog, “What Do They See When We Say Adventist,” I spoke of a word association game that I’ve played for years across the globe. “What word comes to mind when you hear Adventist?” I’ve never heard love. Clunky game? Sure. Does it illustrate a problem? Sure again.

S. Truett Cathy was right. If we focus on getting better, our customers will demand that we get bigger. The customers of the local church are the non-believers that surround the church building and the church members. That’s great advice from a chicken salesman. It’s probably no coincidence that the corporate purpose statement of Chick-fil-A is:

“To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us, and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.”

Sounds like a church to me. What do you think?

The Sharpton I Know

The Sharpton I Know

As soon as I saw the flyer I knew there would be a fight. “Special Worship Experience with Carlton Byrd. Special Guest- Al Sharpton.” It was a much-needed community rally sponsored by the Oakwood University church. Dr. Byrd began the assembly with an address on unity in diversity and Sharpton followed.

By most accounts Sharpton’s message, that ranged from voting rights to immigration policy, was thoughtful and well received. But I was right. The critics were out in force. Online and in person they blasted the church and Sharpton before, during, and after the presentation.

Sharpton is the founder and director of the National Action Network. Founded in 1991, it is a major civil rights organization with chapters throughout America. From his earliest days as an activist in New York, Sharpton has always been a polarizing figure. Sharpton’s supporters hail him as a champion for the oppressed. Sharpton’s detractors blame him for deteriorating race relations in America.

But issues like police misconduct, civil rights, and civil rights leaders look different depending on who you are and where you are. As Nelson Mandela was fond of saying, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” And in early 1999, Al Sharpton and I were sitting in a Marriott hotel in Riverside, California discussing ways to calm a community that was about to explode.

On December 28, 1998, a young lady by the name of Tyisha Miller was driving her aunt’s car in Riverside, California and her tire went flat. As she waited for help in her locked car, she had a seizure. Officers were alerted, came to the locked car, and found her foaming at the mouth and shaking. She had a gun in her car for protection and the officers claimed that she reached for it when she came out of her coma. They opened fire 23 times. 12 of the bullets hit Miller- 4 in the head.

The city exploded. Long standing tensions between the minority community and law enforcement resurfaced.  I was asked by the family and religious community to lead a steering community to address the volatile issue. Months of press conferences, marches, and court cases followed. The full story is for another day, but it brings me back to the hotel room with Sharpton.

Over a two year, period, I came to know civil rights leaders from Martin King III to Jesse Jackson to Dick Gregory to the late Johnny Cochran.  Each of them was helpful, but none of them made the difference that Sharpton did. These are some of the things I came to know about him.

He’ll come when you call him

Many of the critics of Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and others accuse them of being ambulance chasers and publicity hounds. The accusation is that they troll for racial and social problems and then make them worse when they show up. The reality is that most of the time both Jackson and Sharpton are invited by the immediate family to come and help.

As tragic as Tyisha Miller’s death was, it remained a fairly local issue until the family got Sharpton and his crowd involved. When he came the national media came with him and issues of police misconduct in Riverside became national news. He was hard working and very sensitive to the needs of the family. And none of his efforts cost the family or the steering committee a dime.

He might get you arrested

Even before Sharpton hit the ground in Riverside, there was talk of civil disobedience -going to jail as a form of protest. People had been marching by the thousands but the police officers who shot Tyisha Miller had still not been fired or even disciplined. The community was getting restless and dangerous. Sharpton suggested that we conduct a major march to the downtown police headquarters, block the entrance, and force our arrest. The publicity would force the city to move.

Well, I quickly found out that the clergy in Riverside was not as eager as the clergy in Birmingham and Montgomery to go to jail. Some of them reminded me that this wasn’t the 60s. Some of them reminded me that they had unpaid traffic tickets! But there I was, leading from the front. In charge and eventually in jail.

He’s not always consistent

It could have been my ears, but I thought I heard Sharpton and Dick Gregory say, “Don’t worry brothers and sisters. We’ll be the first ones in and the last ones out! We’ll be the first ones arrested and the last ones released!” That was particularly encouraging to a reluctant band of leaders, some of whom weren’t sure if they could get out of jail as easily as they could get in.

True to his word, Sharpton was the first to be arrested. I was in the next wave, about 15 minutes behind. As I walked into the holding area with my friend Robert Edwards, who did I see walking out of the holding area but Al Sharpton and Dick Gregory. It’s probably not appropriate to reveal what I thought or said, but so much for the first being last and the last being first! He’s human.

He was always courageous

The quality I respected most in Sharpton was his courage. He was absolutely fearless. Under constant attack from law enforcement. Misquoted by the media. Second guessed by even some of the victims he attempted to help. He never wavered. He came early, worked hard, and stayed late. You don’t really understand or appreciate the Sharpton’s of the world until you need their help.

Sharpton and I disagree on some significant subjects. But we need more people willing to publicly stand for what they believe. People with the courage to speak for those who can’t effectively speak for themselves. Because at some point, you might very well need someone to advocate for you. Martin Niemoller, a pastor who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp put it this way.

First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.