To Christians Who Talk, Type or Text

To Christians Who Talk, Type, or Text

Oakwood has a Publix!! Well not exactly, but the food store did recently open within walking distance of the school. (The fact that I am so excited about the opening of a grocery store is either a reflection on Huntsville or a childhood issue I have yet to confront…. either way, there’s reason for concern.)

I was at the cash register, when a magazine caught my eye. There they were.  Kanye and Kim West, aka Kimye, on the cover of In Touch Magazine, the kissing cousin of the National Enquirer. The caption read, “It’s Over! Kanye Leaves Kim After Massive Fight.”

Now I have to tell you, I’m not a fan of the Wests, and I am even less a fan of gossip magazines. But a quick glance at other media reveals that the Wests are not only together, they are building an economic empire that could rival a small country. Now all of that could change by next week, but as of today, they are together.

What’s the point? That magazine is trafficking one of the most profitable but destructive commodities in popular culture. Rumor. Gossip. It’s big business. Unfortunately, it’s no stranger to the church. The Adventist church at times seems to be a rumor mill of “Jesuits”, affairs, and apostasies.

Gossip, rumor, and tale-bearing have always been a problem in the church. James 3 makes it clear that the tongue is the single part of our anatomy that is totally beyond our power to control.  Of the 6 things that God is said to hate in Proverbs 6, half of them have to do with the tongue.

But destructive words have gone viral in recent years because of the explosion of social media.  A piece of gossip or half -truth, traditionally died before it could get across the church. Today those same words can get across the world with the stroke of a key.

We Are Christians On and Off-Line

This is a point that’s easy to forget. We are no less Christian when we type than when we talk. We should be always courageous enough to speak truth to power. There is no shortage of corruption and dysfunction in the church to address. But Ephesians 4:15 instructs us to speak the truth in love. It’s not always what you say, but how, when, and where you say it.

These are 3 basic Christian communication principles that I hope to master some day!

Watch What You Say!

Ephesians 4:29, “Don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Proverbs 17:9, “Whoever covers or forgives an offense seeks love, but whoever repeats or gossips about a matter separates friends.”

Easy to type. Impossible to live- in our own strength. Whenever you talk or type, make it your goal to inform and uplift. There are appropriate times to challenge and protest. Actually, there’s no real growth without conflict. But fight the right way.

Limit What You Say

James 1:26, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”

The unfortunate truth is that most of us just talk too much. The permanence of what we post on- line makes the problem even worse. Every week we hear another politician, or athlete, or preacher forced to explain words they wrote years, sometimes decades earlier. Generally, the less one says, the better.

Popular society seems to define strength as conquest. Who can talk; cruder, louder, longer, and over the other. Our nation is polarized around issues of race and politics and religion. But Christ reminds us in Mark 10:43, “But it must not be like that among you…” We are held to a different standard.

This week I posted some thoughts about the “Me Too” movement. I’m a strong supporter of the movement, but I was sloppy with some of my comments and they were misunderstood. It was my fault. It reminded me that in some sensitive areas, it’s better to let your actions demonstrate your support than your words.

Do What You Say

As Christians we are agents of transformation. Our limited but well-chosen words must be followed by something even more rare and important. Actions. At times it’s easier to talk the talk than walk the walk.  Another reason to be careful what you say.

So, watch what you say, limit what you say, and do what you say. What do you say? Ever been the target of gossip or misinformation? How did you handle it?

3 Often Ignored Reasons That Churches Don’t Grow

3 Often Ignored Reasons Churches Don’t Grow.

I had a fantastic time in Las Vegas earlier this week!…..wait, that didn’t come out right. I should explain. I was there with Jose Cortes and the North American Division Evangelism Advisory. We had a fascinating time together addressing the challenge of church growth in the stagnant States.

We looked at the few bright spots and believe me there were few. A creative small groups program here. A church revitalization program there.  A successful evangelistic campaign over there. But in the main, things seem to have slowed to a snail’s pace. Most of our churches are struggling to grow.

And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to explain many of our growth challenges. We share them with other evangelical churches in the U.S.:

  • Materialism
  • Lack of prayer
  • Loss of mission
  • Theological battles
  • Isolated Christians
  • Outdated methodologies

These problems can certainly be the kryptonite to church growth. But while driving from my hotel this week, some other practical reasons came to my mind. So here are 3 often ignored reasons that many churches are not growing today.

The Location of the Church

Our Las Vegas meetings were actually held in Henderson, Nevada. Henderson is a suburb of Las Vegas and it’s at the front of Nevada’s growth spurt. Neighborhoods are going up everywhere. Schools are filling up as fast as they finish construction.

As I drove through Henderson it occurred to me that you could put an Adventist church practically anywhere in Henderson and it would grow. Or a Baptist church, or a Methodist church, or an Independent church for that matter. Why? Because the area is exploding with new growth.

Churches tend to grow in areas of new growth. And church growth tends to slow when neighborhood growth slows. Period. I’m certainly not minimizing God’s power to raise a great church in an unlikely location, but that doesn’t often happen. Many of our historic churches were once large and thriving but now they are small and dying.  At times, it has less to do with waning spirituality and more to do with shrinking neighborhoods and changing demographics.

We would be wise to avoid spiritualizing away practical reasons for struggling evangelism. It’s hard to grow an Asian church in a now Hispanic neighborhood. It’s hard to grow a working class black church in a gentrified white neighborhood. It’s even harder to grow a church-any church- in a neighborhood where there are….no people.

The Condition of the Church

The longer we remain members of a local church, the more comfortable we become with our surroundings, good or bad.  We get comfortable in church buildings that many visitors would find uncomfortable. Insufficient lighting. Incomplete repairs. Uneven pavement. Absence of fresh paint. Ancient sound system.

And for parents of young children, the church facility can be an immediate deal breaker. If they find the building unappealing or unsafe, they will probably not be as patient as the congregation. Parents are literally driving away from the churches of their childhood to find a better place for their kids. Same for potential members.

The Reception of the Church

How does your local church receive visitors?  What is a visitor’s initial impression of the church? Not the building but the people.  It’s cliché, but we never get a second chance to make a first impression. Surveys still indicate that the primary reason people attend a church or leave a church, is the people.

Church members need to understand that they are walking advertisements for their church, especially on Sabbath or Sunday morning. Their attitudes can make or break a visitor’s experience.  A smile or warm handshake can mean the difference between a single visit and a potential member.

So, those are 3 reasons that many churches are struggling to grow. How is your local church doing in those 3 areas?

Non Adventists in Adventist Pulpits?

Non-Adventists in Adventist Pulpits?

It’s amazing what 4 little words can do.  They can pave the way for a pastor’s removal. They can make conference presidents drive hours to referee a business meeting. They can even change a religious community’s attitude about an Adventist church. The 4 little words, “Non Adventist Pastors in Adventist Pulpits” have done all that and more.

The battle has raged for years. It ebbs and flows. But don’t be fooled, it’s a sensitive topic in many circles. In his 2014 Annual Council address, President Ted Wilson discouraged Adventist pastors from inviting ministers of other denominations into their pulpits. He noted that this was his counsel and not an order, but he raised strong concerns against “ecumenical entanglements purporting to bring unity.” (1)

He’s right about the danger of pursuing a false unity. He’s right about acting as if differences don’t matter. He’s right about ignoring the important distinctives and contributions of the Adventist Church. But he misunderstands the motivation of most pastors for inviting non Adventists into their pulpits.  He also underestimates the benefits.

Listen. We should be cautious when inviting ANY guest into our pulpits. Adventist or non Adventist. But let me give 5 reasons it’s dangerous to prohibit non Adventists from preaching from our pulpits.

Because Relationships Matter

Ministers have incredible influence. Even in this age of suspicion and leadership distrust, pastors impact the lives of millions in our communities. As Christians, we are in the people business.  It makes sense for us to establish relationships with people who influence people. When pastors forge friendships across denominational lines, they not only discover common concerns, but the potential for theological dialogue is real.

A number of years ago I was able to share my understanding of glossolalia – tongues- to a group of prominent Pentecostal pastors in Southern California. They initiated the conversation because they trusted me. I was a friend. And there is probably no greater sign of trust, than when a pastor invites another pastor to share the pulpit. I had preached for them and they had preached for me. All of them? No. Just the ones I trusted.

Because It’s Arrogant 

“Some of them (ministers of other denominations) who have rejected the light may be dishonest, critical and sharp…… but there are others who have lived up to the best light they had upon the scriptures.”  (2)

Interesting insight from Ellen White over 130 years ago. Spoiler alert! Adventism is not the only faith community that trusts and believes the word of God.

  • Adventists are not the only ones who love Jesus.
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe in holiness
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe in the Sabbath.
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ.
  • Adventists are not the only ones who believe that worship can get out of hand

A quick glance at our fundamental beliefs reveals very little that Adventists believe that is not shared by most mainline denominations. Our history and theology have a prominent Methodist influence. When a godly minister of another denomination preaches on a belief we share, it’s a blessing.

Because It’s Dangerous

Something interesting happens when the only voices you hear are familiar voices.  You don’t realize it, but you go through life talking to yourself.  You live in an echo chamber. You say something and the words come right back at you. No opposition. No contradiction. No change. That’s dangerous!

Adventists face the dangers of living in a bubble. We have our own everything. Adventist academies. Adventist universities. Adventist television.  Adventist music. Adventist hotdogs and ham! But its’ difficult to see the problem when the problem is you. Outsiders can be our salvation if they help us appreciate our strengths and confront our weaknesses.

Because It’s Inconsistent

Saturday morning, Adventists across the world will gather in local churches and sing hymns that have strengthened their faith through difficult times. Some will complain that the problem with the church today is that we don’t sing enough of these great hymns. They not only inspire us but teach us. We’ll sing:

  • Amazing Grace
  • How Firm a Foundation
  • Lift up the Trumpet
  • When We All Get to Heaven

All written by amazing musicians. Not one Adventist in the bunch. There are certainly impressive works by Adventists, but not on that list. So, we sing non Adventist hymns with no problem. But we can’t listen to a non-Adventist preacher without a problem? That’s a problem. Hymns teach. Books teach. Teachers teach. Preachers teach. We must be careful and use our judgement with them all.

Because It’s Judgmental

For Ted Wilson, his opposition to non -Adventists in Adventist pulpits goes to the idea that we don’t want false unity and weakening distinctives.  I get that. But what I don’t get are Adventist Christians who claim that ministers of other denominations are false prophets- all of them. It’s insulting, judgmental, and frankly incorrect. Ellen White again. “Ministers (of other denominations) have been treated by some of our laborers very much as if they were heathen-and they feel it.” (3) It’s wrong.

Finally, for the local pastor who has the liberty to invite non-Adventists into the pulpit, be careful. First, you need to be super critical about whoever feeds your flock. Period. Adventist or non -Adventist. Some churches are not mature enough to handle a non -Adventist voice.  You shouldn’t allow your liberty to become a stumbling block, even as you are helping them to mature.

And then, everything rises and falls on the preacher you pick. I’ve been blessed over the years to hear giants like Gardner Taylor, Charles Adams, and Sandy Ray bless Adventist congregations. The tradition continues today with the likes of Ralph West, William Curtis, Charles Booth and others.  Frankly, I’ve had few problems with guest Adventist preachers in my pulpit, and never a problem with a non-Adventist guest. Perhaps it’s because I vet them all, and outsiders more carefully than insiders. That’s good counsel and an even better place to stop.

So what are your thoughts? Share this with everyone you can, because it’s a conversation we need to have.

5 Lasting Lessons from Aretha’s Funeral

5 Lasting Lessons from Aretha’s Funeral

Aretha. The first name is enough. Like Martin and Malcolm, they stand as originals in an age of copies.  Songwriter, civil rights leader, amazing singer, women’s rights advocate, loving daughter, strong single mother. Little wonder that her funeral was a cultural touchstone. An event for the ages.

It was attended by the famous and infamous alike. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Sharpton, Tyler Perry, Jesse Jackson, Omarosa and Farrakhan. It was a many-colored affair at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.  But one thing was absolutely clear. It was a black funeral!

Now if you’ve never attended a black funeral, it’s important to do your homework. If you’re looking for staid, somber, super-serious service, you’re probably in the wrong church. That would be the John McCain funeral. Go straight on Martin Luther King Blvd, right at the Masonic Temple, and 535 miles to D.C.  You’re welcome.

But if you’re looking for a celebration that’s colorful, spiritual, irreverent, cathartic, lengthy, loud, and at times tacky-welcome to a traditional black funeral. Franklin’s funeral was certainly not representative of all black funerals, but more than some would like to admit. They are called “home-goings” for a reason. For many they are a celebration of family members crossing over into a better place. And yes, there may be dancing!

So, let me identify 5 lasting lessons from Aretha Franklin’s funeral, especially for those black funeral novices.

Number One: If you’re attending a black funeral – bring a lunch.

I’ll spare you the anthropological and cultural distinctions of African time consciousness. Let me sum it up it up in 4 words. We-take-our-time! And we don’t mind taking your time either. That 8-hour funeral was long, but not uncommonly long.  I routinely attend funerals that exceed 4 hours. So, I am familiar with the local Subway shops and take my own intermission if necessary. So, bring a lunch…and maybe some Depends.

Number Two: If you’re singing at a black funeral –  bring a dress.

Black folk are funny. They might be sitting in church looking like they just left the club or an Easter parade, but they have “standards’ for those up front. I’ll get to Bishop Ellis in a minute, but Ariana Grande’s outfit was too revealing. Too short. I’ve NEVER seen Minister Farrakhan smile that much!  And spare me the “victim shaming” comments. Was she a victim? Yes! Was she inappropriately dressed? Yes! The two are not mutually exclusive.

Number Three: If you’re feeling touchy-feely at a funeral – bring your wife.

It was the talk of the funeral. The way- too-close encounter of Bishop Ellis and Ariana Grande. It was already bad enough that he insulted the Hispanic community and embarrassed his daughter with his Taco Bell joke. What happened next dropped it another level.

I have observed Bishop Ellis for years. He is the son of an amazing pastor, charismatic leader of a Detroit megachurch, passionate community activist, and formerly the President of a Pentecostal denomination in the holiness tradition.

But his comments and cuddling of Ariana Grande were inexcusable. Forgivable, I believe, but inexcusable. His actions laid bare a long-ignored culture in black churches that at times explains away unacceptable familiarity between clergy and members. We have our own “Me Too” movement, but our collective pathology at times blinds us into believing those are “white folk” problems. This is a teaching moment.

Number Four: If you are a pop-star at a black funeral – step up your game.

Two words. Faith Hill. It was painful! I was happy she attended. Appreciated her effort. But it was a swing and a miss. What Faith Hill and other “super star” singers don’t realize is that at a black funeral, there are probably better singers in the choir than they will ever be! Where do you think Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, the Clark Sisters, and Jennifer Holiday learned their craft!

And in case you think I’m being hard on Faith Hill because of her race, someone please forward this advice to Chaka Khan…and her fan.

Number Five: If you are eulogizing at a black funeral – bring a eulogy.

I could see it coming. I’ve listened to Jasper Williams for years. He’s a classic old-school whooper in the tradition of Aretha’s father, C. L. Franklin. Distinguished pastor and passionate champion for underserved communities. But he’s a child of his era. Much of the “counsel” he offered the black community in his message was well-intentioned but painfully simplistic. It advanced the short-sighted myth that the dissolution of the black family and black businesses is solely the fault of black people. Ridiculous. I know his time was limited and the hour was late. But if you can’t appropriately develop an argument, don’t deliver it.

And worse, it was a personal platform masquerading as a eulogy. The Franklin family said as much. If you’re doing a eulogy, do a eulogy. It is a fond remembrance of the life of the person who died. It is a spiritual encouragement to the bereaved family. It is not a launching pad for personal advancement or opinion no matter how important they may be. It’s not the place.

So, there you have it. My reflections on the Aretha Franklin funeral.  Those are my top five. Comments? What about your list?

Young Pastors: The Church’s Scapegoat

Young Pastors: The Church’s Scapegoats??

Let me state my bias up front. I love pastors and I loved pastoring. For close to 30 years I pastored churches large and small. Churches so large that I had multiple pastors and staff. Churches so small I had to wash my own feet at communion! And today I spend a significant amount of my time training pastors, from undergrad to grad school to continuing education.

Complaints about pastors are nothing new. Like death and taxes, they can’t be avoided. But over the last several years, complaints about young pastors -and “young” can be relative- have been growing. If I had a dollar for every time I heard some of these complaints I’d be rich:

  • “All they want to do is preach.”
  • “They don’t do evangelism.”
  • “They don’t visit.”
  • “They don’t preach the doctrines.”
  • “They change EVERYTHING!”

Any truth to the charges? Of course. There is not one of these criticisms that is not true of certain young pastors. And perhaps they are truer of this current generation than past. I don’t know. But frankly, many of those charges are standard fare. I’ve heard them for as long as I can remember. Every generation has its own particular challenges, but there’s nothing new here.

And to be fair, young pastors make up a fairly small percentage of our pastoral workforce. A recent review of pastoral demographics reveals that 50% of Adventist pastors are within 10 years of retirement. So, if you’re having a problem with a pastor, it’s probably not a young one. And frankly most of the challenges our churches face, have been in place for years before most of these pastors were born:

  • Our members left the neighborhood, years ago.
  • Our evangelism fell off a cliff, years ago.
  • Our young people started leaving the church, years ago.
  • Many of our members were mean, years ago.

So, this idea that the problem with today’s church can be laid at the feet of young pastors is quite simply, scapegoating. And it’s interesting that often the same leaders and churches who complain about young pastors are generally requesting those same pastors for their camp meetings and open churches. And the same leaders who complain about young pastors, complain that their older pastors are just floating to retirement.

Now some of the complaints are absolutely on point. Many times young pastors are unaware of how much they mirror the characteristics of this crazy generation. So here is some quick counsel to young pastors:

You Don’t Know Everything

You may be the leader the conference sent, but you’re not automatically the leader the people follow. That comes with time and relationships. Every officer in that church has been there longer than you. They have a perspective that you don’t have and sorely need. Resist the urge to make changes before you’ve taken the time to understand the church and the community.

Prioritize Pastoring

A common complaint about this generation of pastors is that their priority is preaching. That’s often true. There are a number of reasons for that, including the instant access to powerful preaching online. But in this impersonal, broken age, people need shepherds more than they need speakers.

Yes, there are some things that only the “foolishness’ of preaching can do. But there are some problems that preaching can’t solve. If you prioritize pastoring, even your preaching sounds better to the members.

Love the People

Paul told Timothy in I Timothy 4:12 not to let the members “despise” or think less of him because of his youth. But his remedy for that was not to be a better preacher or more skilled leader. His answer was to be intentional about his integrity and demonstrate real love for the people.

Now that I’ve addressed the young pastors, let me offer some counsel to the members of young pastors.

Be Prayerful– Always make your pastor and family the object of prayer.

Be Patient – It will take time for your pastor to learn to juggle all the responsibilities of ministry. Some things just take time.

Be Respectful – Your pastor may be significantly younger than you, but both of you are younger than God. And God says if you disrespect the pastor, you disrespect the office he holds and the God he represents.

Be Supportive – You might not like the young pastor’s plan, but practically any plan will work if you work it. Support the pastors plans and ideas as long as they are biblical and ethical. And where there are disagreements, take them behind closed doors.

Be Protective– Think of the pastor as you would your son or daughter. Get in front of issues that might hurt. Protect the pastor’s family. Members will tell the pastor to put his family first but expect the pastor to put their family first. When you protect the pastor and family, you literally protect yourself.

So, there it is. What do you think? Are we supporting our young pastors enough? What can we do? How do you deal with the ones who won’t listen?

How To Be A Christian At Work

How to Be A Christian At Work

Let me begin with a fact that might not be obvious to all. Work consumes the time of most Christians and non- Christians alike. Most of us spend 60% to 80% of each weekday in some work-related activity. We are either going to work, working, or coming from work. And if you have a job you don’t like, you can hardly enjoy the weekend for thinking of Monday morning.

Given the amount of time that Christians spend at work, you’d think the church would offer more training on how Christians should conduct themselves in the workplace. Nope. The church will provide regular training for members who sing, pray, and teach for a 2-hour worship service one day a week. But the same church will provide little guidance on how to best function as a Christian from 9 to 5, five days a week.

So, let’s explore a few important keys to being a good Christian at work

Be Excellent

It’s important to remember that when Christians go to work…. they go to WORK! They don’t go to preach, to pray, or to proselytize. Do that on your own time. The greatest witness to the faith that you have, is the job that you do. Do it with excellence and it will reflect the excellent God you serve. People will notice.

Be On Time

That’s the first step to an effective witness in the workplace. Make sure you set a tone of excellence by being punctual. It will endear you to your supervisor and set a great example for your coworkers.

Be Nice

This one falls under the banner of common sense, but common sense is not as common as it used to be. It’s impossible to be a good witness with a bad attitude. Remember that your unseen employer is God himself. So, act right, even when you don’t feel right.

Be Dependable

You should attempt to set the standard for dependability at your job. The willingness to do a good job, when no one is around. You might not be the most gifted person in your workplace, but you can be the most dependable. Develop a reputation for follow through and dependability. A lazy worker is a bad witness.

Be Ethical

Stealing office supplies and removing copy paper might be ok for a child of the world, but it’s off limits for a child of God. Clocking in on time but then relaxing in the locker room might be fine for others but it’s not fine for God’s children. Covering up for dishonest co-workers might be a sign of loyalty to your buddies, but it’s a slap in the face of a righteous God.

It’s not easy living ethically in an unethical world, and sometimes things are not always crystal clear. But it’s worth the struggle. For years surveys have shown that the quality that most people desire in leaders, is integrity. Same for the marketplace.

Be Prayerful

“As long as there are tests there will be prayer in the schools.” That old saying is true. You can’t prevent private prayer in schools and it can’t be stopped at work. Private prayer is powerful prayer. I Thessalonians 5:7 says that we should pray continually. In the sanctuary of your heart you can send up prayers for your co-workers and workplace every chance you get.

Be Quiet

James was right when he wrote that the tongue is a small but it’s out of control. More damage has been done by the tongue to churches and workplaces than we can every imagine. Develop a reputation for a tame tongue at your job. Develop a reputation for confidentiality. Develop a reputation as an encourager. Resist the temptation to speak and spread gossip. The best approach is to: limit what you say, watch what you say, and do what you say.

Be Prepared

You might not be able to publicly share your faith at work, but you can answer questions. People are watching you and the Spirit is moving on them. If you pray, God will make your paths cross with people who need your witness. The more prepared you are, the more competent and comfortable you are when your respond.

So, there you have it. Some ways to be a good Christian at work. What do you think? Is it harder or easier these days for Christians in the workplace? Has anyone ever asked you a spiritual question at work?

7 Gospel Concerts I Won’t Forget: Part 2

7 Gospel Concerts I Won’t Forget: Part 2

Last week was fun. We took a stroll down memory lane and re-visited some classic concerts by the Blendwrights, Dannibelle Hall and the Midnight Musicals at the annual COGIC Convocations. Let’s close with these four.

The Edwin Hawkins Singers at the WEUP Radio Station

If you’re an Oakwoodite, WEUP needs no introduction. For years it has been the top gospel radio station in Huntsville. Back in the day they would have live concerts at the station featuring some of the nation’s top gospel artists.

Now this was literally music to our ears because the Oakwood Church wasn’t exactly fond of gospel music. As far as they were concerned, if you looked up the word “Devil”, you’d probably see a picture of a drum! These days when I hear folk like Travis Greene and J.J. Hairston, and Kierra Sheard in the sanctuary, I’m still looking around for Elder Ward to cut the mics off.

The night the Hawkins family was at WEUP, I was there early, but I was already late. Why? Because the auditorium was the size of your living room….and I don’t even have to know how large your living room is! The place was packed but the music was wonderful. Tramaine, Daniel, Lynette, Walter, Edwin….” Oh Happy Day”, “Come and Go with Me”, “Early in the Morning”, “Here’s the Reason” and on and on and on. Enough said. That one I won’t forget.

James Cleveland in Columbus, Georgia

Pastoring in Phoenix City, Alabama and living in Columbus, Georgia was an experience. The people were great, but the area was isolated. Nobody was “coming through” Columbus on the way to someplace else. So, I literally could not believe the radio announcer when he said that James Cleveland would be in concert in Columbus. The city was a decent size, but Cleveland was by far the biggest thing in gospel music at that time.

I got an even greater shock when they announced the location, a church just about a mile from our home. I squeezed into a pew and I wasn’t disappointed. No praise and worship back then, they prayed and gave him the mike. For 2 solid hours he took the Cleveland Singers through his hits and classic hymn arrangements. He was a master. To this day, his Gospel Music Workshop of America is the largest annual gospel music convention in the world.

Thomas Whitfield in Orange County

Thomas Whitfield was a musician’s musician. Michael O. Jackson, one of my former Ministers of Music, traveled with him for a period and had amazing stories. Frankly, early on I didn’t particularly care for him. Some of his music reminded me of the progressive jazz albums my father loved, but that I couldn’t quite get with. Too dissonant for my taste. Strange chord structures. But the more I listened the more I understood.

In 1977 he formed the Thomas Whitfield Singers in Detroit and they changed a generation. Over the years, groundbreaking gospel artists like: Kirk Franklin, Donald Lawrence, Fred Hammond, Richard Smallwood, Yolanda Adams, Ricky Dillard, Kim Burrill and others have been asked about their musical influences. There was at least one name that appeared on everyone’s list. Thomas Whitfield.

I heard him in concert in Orange County California in 88 or 89. They opened with a strong praise and worship set by the host church and house band. Whitfield came on with some of his Detroit based background singers-Michael Fletcher, Gwen Morton, Larry Whitfield-but they added some local singers. It was seamless. They moved through all of his classics and more. Songs like:

“We Need A Word From The Lord”
“Hallelujah Anyhow”
“Oh, How I Love Jesus”
“Nothing But The Blood”
“Precious Jesus”

Two words kept coming to mind as I listened. Excellence and genius. I won’t forget that concert.

John P. Kee at Academy Cathedral in Inglewood

Some people collect rocks and coins. I’ve always collected concerts. There’s nothing like the energy and creativity of a live concert, and for years the king of live concerts was John P. Kee. Kirk Franklin and others patterned their concerts after his. The energy, the excellence, the humor, the dancing, the give-a-ways. All of these were John P. Kee standards. He was dubbed the Prince of Gospel Music for good reason.

Now, if you’re going to be a collector of concerts, you must master the fine art of sneaking in. Money is not the issue, it’s the space. That’s how I heard John P. Kee in back to back concerts at the Academy Cathedral in the early 90s. The 5pm concert was crazy, and I was determined to stay for the 7pm concert. My only problem is that security cleared the building between concerts. Somehow, they thought I was a part of the band and let me stay in…probably because that’s what I told them. Pray for me. It was a great concert.

So, those are my 7. What about concerts or artists that you remember? Who are the artists you enjoy today?

7 Gospel Concerts I Won’t Forget- Part I

7 Gospel Concerts I Won’t Forget- Part I

Atlanta has been the Disneyland of the gospel music world this week. The Gospel Music Workshop of America is holding its annual convention in Atlanta and the city is buzzing. GMWA, founded by the late James Cleveland, is the largest music convention of its kind in the world. Everyone in the industry is in Atlanta.

Tuesday night, J. J. Hairston and Youthful Praise were in the middle of an incredible set. I began to reflect over the countless gospel concerts I’ve attended in my lifetime; some good, some bad, some unforgettable. I began to think about the concerts that, for different reasons, I remember clearly to this day. These are some of the gospel concerts that have stuck with me over the years,

The BlendWrights Concerts- Memphis, Tennessee

Every contemporary Adventist artist owes a debt of gratitude to those amazing ladies from Ohio. They fought the music battle in the heat of the day. They were singing passionate and creative gospel music in Adventist churches when you could get thrown out for singing, “ Elijah Rock!”

As a youngster, Pastor Robert Willis would bring the BlendWrights to Memphis, Tennessee each year and every concert was an event. Their instruments alone were banned in many Adventist churches. I enjoyed so many of those concerts, it’s impossible to pick a favorite.

As impressive as the singing and instrumentation, their lyrics were what changed lives. Songs like, “ Let Down the Ladder”, “All the World Is Mine”, “ How Many Steps to Heaven”, “ Courage”, “ Heaven Came Down”, and Eleanor Wright’s classic, “ Naaman the Lepar” could turn a concert into a full out revival. Unforgettable.

The Midnight Musicals- COGIC Convocations

It was understood that for a solid week each November, you could always find me and my buddies at the annual COGIC Convocation. Memphis is the headquarters for the Church of God in Christ International, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world. It’s fair to say that no organization has had a greater influence on gospel music than them.

Groundbreaking artists such as Andrae Crouch, the Clark Sisters, the Winans family, the Hawkins family, and others all have their roots in the Church of God in Christ. Each year at the convocation, midnight musicals were held at Mason Temple. Many of the artists never became household names, but they are legends to gospel music fans. There would never have been a Hezekiah Walker or Ricky Dillard without an Institutional Church of God in Christ Choir. There never would have been a Kim Burrell without a Betty Nelson. I remember those concerts.

Danniebelle Hall – Memphis State University

I came to hear Danniebelle that night in 1978, because she was a popular lead singer for Andrae Crouch and the Disciples. But what I heard that night at the University was different from what I’d experienced before. She wasn’t just singing her hits, but she was leading the congregation in familiar gospel choruses. Some of them I was familiar with, others I wasn’t. But all of them were easy to sing and even easier to remember.

I was amazed at how the atmosphere changed as she wove her testimony through a series of simple, singable songs. I realized later that she and others were pioneering a worship form that’s familiar to everyone now-praise and worship. Before then it was either the deacons droning through a devotional service on Sunday, or “Father Abraham” and song service on Saturday. This was different and it caught on like wildfire.

Next week: James Cleveland, Thomas Whitfield and more. But enough about me. What are some of your favorite gospel concerts and concert memories?

It’s the KIDS…Dummy!

“It’s the Kids…Dummy!

Intro: Don’t take it personally, I’m talking to myself too. Church Growth and Discipleship is my thing. From Oakwood College to Andrews University to Fuller Seminary-ground zero for the church growth movement-it has been my passion. So I still shake my head when I think of how long it took me to fully appreciate how invaluable children’s ministry is to the growth and development of the local church.

It’s common sense, but common sense ain’t as common as it used to be. If you want to start a church, prioritize the kids. If you want to grow a church, prioritize the kids. If you want to resurrect a church, prioritize the kids.

Church growth books are like death, taxes, and diet books- they are always with us. Experts abound. Everyone has the special steps, the secret sauce. Everyone has the secret to doubling your membership, even if that secret has escaped their own church. But here’s a tried and true method for growing your church numerically and spiritually. Prioritize the kids.

Let me give you some reasons why, if we’re concerned about the present and future of the church, we’ll prioritize the kids,

If You Get The Kids, You Get The Parents

Now this isn’t the most important reason for reaching out to kids, but since our theme is growth, I’ll start here. “Parents who can be approached in no other way, are frequently reached through their kids.” Testimonies Volume 4 pg. 70.

Ellen White was on point. Seems like before my kids made it home from the hospital, I was already scheduling their baby blessing and baptism. I was literally more concerned about my kids than myself, and especially their salvation. I’m not claiming that I was right, but I am claiming that I was not alone!

The best way to get to most parents is through their kids. When you attract the kid, you attract the parent. And when the parents are made to understand how important their role is to the salvation of that kid, you will usually get both.

If You Get The Kids, You Get the Grandparents…and Aunts…and Uncles…

I was visiting a church one Sabbath that had seen a tremendous drop in membership. I was bracing myself for another disappointing look at a church that literally died over the last 30 years. But to my surprise, rather than having any pew to myself, as was usually the case, the place was pretty full. It didn’t take me long to see why.

It was Children’s Sabbath. The kids were front and center. They taught, they sang, they preached. And it seemed like every kid brought a cheering squad. Proud relatives were everywhere. Many of them probably had only been in a church for weddings and funerals. But they were there in numbers that day. And my church growth imagination was thinking of a hundred ways to get them back.

Get Them Early, Or You Might Not Get Them At All

Most of the research that I’ve seen over the years seems pretty consistent. Easily 75% of Christians come to Christ before they reach the age of 18. And the longer it takes, the longer it takes! Experts identify a 4-14 age window when kids are most open to the gospel. And we need to make it our business to cultivate that spiritual seed and then be prepared to harvest it.

“When Jesus told the disciples not to forbid the children to come to Him, He was speaking to His followers in all ages, –to officers of the church, to ministers, helpers, and all Christians. Jesus is drawing the children, and He bids us, Suffer them to come; as if He would say, They will come if you do not hinder them..” Desire of Ages, p. 517

And I Could Go On!

Here are some other reasons that local churches should put a greater investment in Children’s ministry.

    • It Passes On Our Faith.
    • It Begins To Train Future Leaders.
    • It Gets Men Involved.
    • It Makes The Church More Mission Minded
    • They Bring Joy!!

So, there you have it. Over the years I’ve hired more church employees than I can remember: custodians, drivers, teachers, day care workers, youth pastors, associate pastors, secretaries, administrators, musicians…musicians…. musicians…. more musicians! If I had it to do over again, at the top of that list would probably be children’s pastor.

That’s me. What about you? How is your church doing with the children and youth? Any suggestions?

How To Save Your Relatives

How To Save Your Family! Evange-Living Series

Question. How can I save my family? Answer. You can’t. But since it’s probably not a good thing to end a blog after just 10 words, let’s talk about it.

Nothing is more heart-wrenching and helpless than looking at a loved one who seems to be wasting life away. Disconnected from God and themselves.  But one thing is absolutely certain. As much as much as we love our family members, God loves them more. Matthew 7:11; Psalm 27:10.

That’s a good word for that loved one whose life seems to have run off the rails. Not only does God love them, but God is chasing them. No, you can’t save your family, that’s God’s job. And He’s working on it as we speak. John 6:44 says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…” God is drawing, pulling, pursuing.

David acknowledged as much in Psalm 139:1, 2 and 7. “O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away…I can never get away from your presence!” Frances Thompson called Him, The Hound of Heaven!

Matthew 18 puts it another way. It’s clear that God has no problem “leaving” 99 safe saints to search for that one lost cousin, or mother, or aunt, or grandparent of yours. And Luke 15:4 says he pursues, “until He finds it!”  That’s good news.

Now the fact that God is both pursuing and protecting our unsaved loved ones, provides comfort, but it’s no panacea for the pain. It helps to understand the role God gives us to play.

Pray Every-day!

Nothing focuses our prayer life like praying for relatives that are in trouble. Pray with the confidence that God hears and answers prayer. He also understands tears and wails and groans and anger and laments. So come straight. Because when you pray, things happen.

And get other folk involved also.  “If any 2 of you agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where 2 or 3 are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:19,20.

This is powerful counsel. Don’t stop at your prayer closet but enlist others to pray for your family. If you have a prayer team at your church, get them involved. When other ideas fail, you can be sure that prayer makes a difference. It might not work as we planned, and it might ignore our time tables, but prayer always works.

Be Consistent

One of the reasons relatives seem reluctant to follow us to God is because our Christianity can be painfully inconsistent. It’s not easy to be at your best all the time, but we must recognize how important a consistent lifestyle is to a non-believing relative.

It’s not fair, but often they are looking for any flaw they can find in our Christianity, to give them an excuse to continue their lifestyle. They are desperately trying to ignore the pleas of the Spirit to change their ways, and they will pounce on any inconsistency they see.

Peter’s counsel to wives is good advice for anyone trying to reach a reluctant family member: “Wives in the same way submit yourselves to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” 1 Peter 3:1-2.

But here’s a little secret. Your lost relatives generally know the difference between consistency and perfection. Don’t hold yourself to an impossible, man-made standard that you can’t keep now, and they won’t keep later. Let the word of God, not someone else’s books, sermons, or opinions be your guide.

Don’t Give Up!

Pray and keep on praying is the message of Matthew 7:7-11. The rescue process can seem painfully slow. At times it doesn’t seem to be moving at all.  Years can pass with no change or hope in sight. That’s why Paul encourages us in Galatians 6:9, “And let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” Don’t Give Up!

So, what do you think? Are you praying for your loved ones and relatives?