Please Forgive Me
Let me take a moment to ask forgiveness for a statement that I cannot verify. In my first post I said, “No matter how they try to change the subject…” It infers that the timing of the social justice series is a diversion from the WASC report. It’s an unnecessary and unverifiable leap. I wish I had never used that phrase. It has caused some to dismiss the entire post, which is unfortunate. I ask forgiveness from Dr. MacArthur, Grace to You, and all others who may have been offended by that assertion.
Grateful, But Wrestling Heart
How do I even begin to summarize the impact TMUS has had on my life. I remember when Dr. MacArthur was asked at a Q&A, “What is the one thing you want students to have when they leave?” Without hesitation the answer was, “I want [the students] to believe the Bible is true and can be trusted.” I do believe that with all my heart! Mission accomplished! I will never forget the humility of Dr. Irv Busenitz, the prayer life of Dr. Jim Rosscup, the servant-hood of Marcia Griffin, the empathy of Ray Mehringer when any student faced a trial, the joy of Dana Waller, the preaching and pastoral wisdom of Dr. Alex Montoya, the vision and love of Dr. Mark Tatlock, the winsome leadership of Hollie Jackson, the friendship, discipleship, and work ethic of Dr. Paul Felix. Space does not permit me to name everyone, but I’m blessed to have met them.
Yet if you have read Part 1, you know that cloaked within these many positives were some undeniable negatives. It was quite the juxtaposition. It was like two worlds colliding. One world gave me life and hope. The other caused myself and others to doubt who we were, to question helpful things we learned before seminary, our gifts, and the validity/relevance of the community from which we came and were determined to one day return. If these sentences make you tired, imagine navigating it. The storm raged between these worlds with intensity in the areas of placement, preaching, and worship.
You Can Come, But We Can’t Place You
Placement is a unique hallmark of The Master’s Seminary. Not only do they train you to be a pastor, they also serve as a bridge between graduates and churches/ministries around the world. Churches can upload their information and available positions, while students can upload their résumé as they near graduation. When I was a student, the seminary boasted of having a 90% placement rate. This meant that within 6 months of graduating a student could expect to find a staff position within a church/ministry somewhere or enroll in another degree program. What wasn’t discussed with African American students was that we were a part of the 10% that could not be placed in a ministry position. I put my head together with faculty and admissions staff members to figure out the numbers. We determined that by the time I graduated in 2011 the school had only facilitated the placement of approximately 3 African American students in 25 years. According to people connected to TMS since 2011, not much has changed.
The rationale given to me as to why this problem existed was, “black churches don’t want sound doctrine.” What??? Black people do not have a monopoly on bad theology. I can think of several heretics of different ethnicities. Furthermore, I have preached theologically sound and convicting sermons in a variety of predominantly African American settings from Georgia to California since 2005. Not once have they rejected what “Thus saith the Lord.” On the contrary, they were drawn towards God’s word. Might I suggest that this is not a new phenomena. There have been people of African descent since long before I was born who have craved the word of God.
I relentlessly recruited potential minority students while enrolled. In an attempt to help draw them, I once traveled on behalf of TMS to a conference where Dr. MacArthur was preaching to an audience that was largely African American. This was in spite of the fact that I didn’t even work for admissions. When I pushed for more placement solutions, our admissions department started telling African American students that there was little hope of them being placed through the current system into a ministry position upon graduation. On initial visits my recruits would hear, “You can come, but we can’t place you.” I cringed every time I heard it.
“You can come, but we can’t place you” is not a solution. I appreciate the honesty. It was certainly better than finding out later. However, what should have happened were meetings, strategies and measurable action steps to give African American brothers the same fighting chance as other students. If color doesn’t matter, why were there only a couple of placements of African American students in 25 years, while the rest of the student body enjoyed a much higher placement rate?
When I was a student, this was the perfect time for an Acts 6:1-7 type of moment. A 25 year old social concern of fellow students and brothers in Christ had been identified. How beautiful it would have been if our seminary would have appointed a group of men with good character who were connected with the culture (i.e. the men chosen in Acts 6 all had Greek names signifying their connectivity with the neglected Hellenistic widows) and empowered them to remedy a very fixable problem, as the school continued its focus with their primary mission of “training men as if lives depend on it.” Others may interpret this passage differently. However, it’s not about redistribution or even provision, but signifies impartial inclusion into the Covenant community and membership of God’s household (Eph 2:11-22).
Does the placement disparity speak to the quality of African American students who graduated from TMS? Certainly not! Were we not equally deserving of ministry opportunities based on performance alone? Of course we were qualified! The reality was the color of my skin meant three things. First, my school had no strategy to help me obtain a ministry position to be the pastor I was trained to be. We were like soldiers with no beach front to attack. We were like trained Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots with no one willing to trust that we could lead them into battle. Secondly, none of the churches calling the school were looking for a person with my skin color. This has to be the case when African Americans I recruited were told to “come, but we can’t place you” before they ever took a class. Thirdly, African American churches were not calling TMS looking for pastors either. I can give several thoughts as to why that is the case, at a later time.
Jesus is my résumé
Lest I be accused of whining again over a lack of ministry opportunities, let me state my strange personal conviction. I didn’t attend TMS with future employment in mind. I personally think résumés for ministry are unnecessary. The lives God has touched through me are my letter and I believe the gifts God gives will make room for me. If those two things cannot convince a ministry that I’m the person they are looking for, then I’m not their guy. However, many students eagerly anticipated a system that would facilitate future opportunities. That’s why the placement system was created. It was to be a blessing to students and to churches. I simply believe that blessing should also extend to African Americans, and up to this point it hasn’t happened. I offered several ideas to help change this reality, but they weren’t taken seriously. Unfortunately, if expressing concerns is perceived as playing the victim card by the highest level of leadership, which Dr. MacArthur says here, then there isn’t room for real improvements.
Many have accused me of making too big a deal of skin color. Most of them know full well that the average (I hate to even use the terms) predominantly “white church” would not seriously consider my application for a senior pastor position as soon as they see my family photo. Nor would the average “black church” consider the application of a white brother. Similarly the English speaking “Asian churches” often desire a pastor with their specific heritage. We fail to realize that while we desire to convince others and ourselves that the church operates without seeing color, the facts prove otherwise. Pause, and consider this article from a very credible author. In the movie “Remember the Titans” there is a scene where Coach Boone is given Coach Yoast’s head coach position. Boone tries to convince coach Yoast to come work under him by saying “the best player will play! Color won’t matter!” However, coach Yoast looks at coach Boone and replies, “from the looks of things I’d say it’s about the only thing that does.” I wish churches in diverse locations were diverse but they are not. I’m hopeful we will apply the gospel better in the near future.
I promise to address the topics of preaching and worship at the beginning of the next post. If my words open wounds due to the things you have endured, know that I speak up with you in my heart (Prov. 31:8-9). I challenge you not to become bitter in your approach to people who don’t get it. God hears the cries of the voiceless and he fights for us (Isa 10:1-3, 30:12-13; Psa 146:7-9). Go ahead and be all God desires you to be. The world needs you. If you have read my posts and feel convicted and heartbroken over the things described, do not be discouraged to the point of despair. Even if you have facilitated the continuation of such activities knowingly or unknowingly, your listening ear and brokenness give me great hope. Become a learner and an even more attentive listener. God’s grace is sufficient for you. I certainly hold no animosity towards you. Speak up graciously where you are and insist on change. Insist because God calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:37-39). If my words upset you or throw you into fits of anger and frustration, know that my eyes are focused on the real enemy, Satan himself (Eph 6:10-20). I graciously ask you to open your eyes and reconsider. Christ died to reconcile us to God and each other (Eph 2:11-22). Christ died that we would be one as He and His Father are one (John 17). What’s the hold up?
I’m far from perfect. I have made many mistakes in my life, both before and after Christ. If perfection is the requirement to sound an alarm then you should stop reading now. I have not met that standard. I stand only because of the grace of God and the perfect record of the spotless lamb, Jesus Christ, who died for my sins (past, present and future).
I also want to affirm that I will never forget my time at The Master’s Seminary. The things I’m about to say, do not negate the reality that I was shaped and molded for four years of my life in this environment. I cherish many memories and the example of many individuals. By God’s grace, the dividends are numerous and the impact will have lasting effects for the years to come. I’m grateful for Dr. MacArthur, the staff of the seminary and college, the local churches my wife and I were a part of, and the multitude of friendships that were forged through the ups and downs of that season of life.
However, the presence of true and real blessings does not mean the absence of some alarming realities. Unfortunately, people who can’t wrap their mind around the previous statement will struggle with the criticisms I levy in this post. They will only see the “heads” side of the coin, unable to comprehend that “tails” even exists. They will use phrases like “how dare you speak negatively of our great president” because of all the “good” that TMUS, Grace To You, and Dr. MacArthur have done over the years. Life should and must be examined from multiple angles from which we can appreciate elements that are helpful and reject the things that are not. We should be able to affirm both Peter’s miraculous preaching in Acts chapter 2, and his need for correction in Galatians 2 for being out of step with the gospel. As the saying goes, we have to be able to “eat the meat, but spit out the bones.” People who live among minority cultures understand this reality because much of life around us is facilitated by majority culture systems and individuals. Being a minority operating in majority culture can be like trying to build a house using the Imperial system of measurement (i.e. feet, inches, and pounds) when you have been trained your whole life with the Metric system of measurement (i.e. meters, grams).
For 11 years (4 as a student/staff at TMUS & 7 as an alumnus/church planter) I have kept my concerns mainly to myself, daring to share them with only a small group of people who’ve encouraged me to keep moving forward or whom I felt could actually bring about change. For many years I have “bitten my bottom lip” publicly, so to speak. In an attempt to honor those who have impacted my life, I have applied such force and pressure to that lip as to cause the shedding of blood. Yet quietly over the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult to keep biting that lip and wiping away the blood, and tears.
Since leaving seminary and planting a multicultural church in the inner-city of Montgomery, AL, my appreciation for the gospel and how it impacts racism and justice has only grown. As I watch the perseverance of my neighbors, live among them, and see the tangible struggles of their lives, Christ in me rises up and issues a call to action. As I see believers from various cultures and economic backgrounds forge real gospel community, deferring to one another and believing the best of one another, my appreciation for the gospel in action strengthens. To hear Dr. MacArthur and Grace To You say/write narrow-minded, inconsiderate, and frankly unbiblical things about the intersection of the gospel and racism has had a profound effect on me. It has impacted me to the point of saying, “Enough is enough.” I no longer care that I’m a low level nobody challenging a giant. I no longer care if, like others before me, I’m labeled a “black sheep” by TMUS for lovingly articulating concerns. As a matter of fact, the cavalier attitude of Phil Johnson (executive director of Grace to You), and Dr. MacArthur make it perfectly clear that even if I remain silent, I’m already a “black sheep.” Their comments/writings do nothing to consider the circumstances of anyone other than upper middle class, Republican-leaning white men (I’m neither republican nor democrat), and minorities who are accustomed to that culture. So in reality, my comments today cannot make me what I already feel like, “a black sheep”. I’m just graduating from a “black sheep” to a “blacker sheep.” It’s a promotion that I’m finally willing to accept.
Therefore, no matter what Dr. MacArthur says about the gospel and social justice in his current series hosted by Grace to You, certain truths will not change. No matter how few people hear or agree with what I have to say, the reality of the difficulties many have experienced at TMUS will remain. No matter how they try to change the subject from the real elephant in the room (probation and the potential loss of accreditation by WASC for a lack of integrity mixed with a culture of fear and intimidation) to the issue of social justice, the truth doesn’t change. It is worth noting that the vast majority of the data of the WASC report was given by my white brothers and sisters who are also hurting. I’m speaking up to encourage them, and to let them know they are not alone. I leave my thoughts with you not to change your mind, but to ensure that before God I can sleep at night knowing that I didn’t shrink back from saying hard things about beloved institutions and individuals. I write and make my thoughts public to fight for many others, who have not yet been heard or who, for a host of reasons, do not believe that they can speak up. The truth is Dr. MacArthur’s own leadership and institutions show little concern for the African American community and other minority students who grew up in a African American minority context. Every time Dr. MacArthur tells his 50 year old civil rights story about “his good friend” John Perkins and visiting the murder scene of MLK, I often wonder why those experiences have translated into very little consideration towards marginalized people. Please consider the following realities.
In the entire TMS curriculum, which is 98 credit hours and approximately between 100 – 150 required books to read, not one book is written by a person of African heritage. Additionally, very few people of African descent are even explored within the historical theology classes. We traced the history of Christianity from 100 A.D. to our present day. Of all the historical figures we studied, I only remember Athanasius being identified as someone from African origins. What majority culture Christians don’t realize is that their world is dominated by Christians of European heritage. Minorities are often looking for faces and contributions of people who share their ethnic identity. Not for the sake of being superior. We simply long to understand how people of a similar ethnicity have contributed to redemptive history. You would think that since Dr. MacArthur is such “good friends” with John Perkins we would have read at least one of Dr. Perkins books or even learned about his legacy. However, even our classes that covered the history of Christianity in the United States were void of African American contributions.
Why does this matter? It sends a not so subtle message that the only great thinkers are European thinkers. The only great thoughts are European thoughts. Thus, Christianity is inadvertently portrayed as the white man’s religion. It’s heartbreaking and hurtful. When African Americans or people of color are in fact mentioned, it’s usually in a derogatory way for having bad theology, etc.
The truth is that Christianity would have struggled to survive tremendously without Northern Africans and even African Americans. I just had to learn of them on my own time. My seminary didn’t think those contributions were worth mentioning. I was furious when I was made to write a review of my almost 700 page American Church History book. I read the book intently looking for black or brown people and their contributions. I did not find them. But I did find that Bob Jones was included in the book as a hero of the faith. Bob Jones University refused desegregation until the early 1970’s, and then only conceded at the threat of losing their tax exempt status, which occurred in 1983. They did not overturn their rule banning interracial dating until the year 2000. This was also selfishly motivated to help the then candidate (George W. Bush) win the presidency, who took heat for giving a speech at a university that had a ban on interracial dating. (I reluctantly visited Bob Jones University in April, 2018 and I was pleasantly surprised by their repentance in living out the gospel among all people).
Again, I was furious. I noted my frustration in a blistering review of the book that could devote pages to Bob Jones’ positive contributions to Christianity and could not so much as include a couple of paragraphs on any black person with significant Christian contributions even if they were not perfect. Clearly, Bob Jones wasn’t perfect. I’m sure the professor remembers the book review because I doubt he has received many like it. You can also ask Dr. Paul Felix (the only full-time African American Professor who is now retired). I ranted in his office behind closed doors many a days with many tears. If not for him and his care for me as an African American student with a heart to one day impact the African American community, I would have surely quit. I specifically remember him telling me after ranting, “Calm down before you get kicked out of school.”
Imagine that…being in such a state of anger over how whitewashed your seminary education is that you say things that flirt with the possibility of getting you kicked out of school. I know if myself and many of my African American brothers felt this way, some of my brothers of Asian and Latino descent felt the same way or worse. I pray they will tell their stories too. Their perspectives are often left out of these conversations, but their voices are much needed.
It is hypocritical for Dr. MacArthur or anyone to say “just preach the gospel” thinking that will solve all issues. It doesn’t even work in his own church and the institutions he leads. It certainly will not work in your communities and churches. Hear me well. The true gospel is sufficient. The true gospel makes peace and destroys dividing walls of hostility. The true gospel looks racism and partiality in the face and condemns it to the pit of hell from which it came. It does not build barriers. We have a gospel that gives dignity and value and worth to all peoples. Shouldn’t our institutions that train us to take the gospel to all nations do the same? I distinctly remember when Peter, a Jew, first preached the gospel to the Gentiles in Cornelius’ home. Peter was awestruck by a divine revelation. “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). Then why is there so much partiality at TMUS under the leadership of Dr. MacArthur in curriculum decisions? In my next post I will continue making my argument of partiality in their preaching/worship curriculum and much more.
At first glance you will notice abandoned buildings, unkept lawns, trash, poverty, and decay. There is a certain sense of hopelessness and heaviness that naturally sets in when you see this neighborhood through the eyes of a visitor.
Yet, after 3 years I see it as home. And what a lovely home it is! Think about your neighborhood. Do you see people on their front porches? Do homes even have front porches where you live?
Many outwardly beautiful neighborhoods in America have completely abandoned a “front porch” concept both in the way homes are built and the way neighbors interact. Here, front porches are everywhere! My neighbors expect to see me. They expect that we will talk for a while when I get out my car. They give full reports of visitors to my home in my absence and even if the mailman left a few envelopes on his route.
We are like family. We laugh together. We cry together. We live … together! Our sense of community travels well beyond mandatory association dues.
It’s an amazing thing to drive down streets for several blocks and wave at people you know on a first name basis. I love leaving home for an early meeting and pick up a few kids I know and give them a lift to school. When they get in my car I can ask about their mom and her boy friend because we know each other. It’s cool to see an elderly lady on her way to work and to know if I ignore her and her need for a ride, I will get an ear full the next time I see her. Because in this neighborhood there will always be a next time, when it comes to seeing people. The sound of a yard full of kids from at least 5 different homes on my street is second to none.
For the many ills we face on a daily basis in this community, I have so much hope because it is just that … a community … a neighborhood.
The story of pastor Juan McFarland and Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church continues to make national news. He has confessed to having AIDS and having sex with members of his congregation. It would be easy, even tempting at times, to commentate on the details of this situation. However, that is not the point of this article or the reason why I’m writing. Though my current church is independent in affiliation, I grew up in a Baptist church. I’m the son of a Baptist preacher. And my first 7 years of being a Christian, from ages 19-26, were under the protection and guidance of a Baptist church. Probably more importantly, I’m simply a concerned Christian in the city of Montgomery.
Let us not forget, Christians all around the world are really one church. Thus, those who love God and His church should be moved to action. We should be asking introspective questions, devising personal and church community applications, and praying for the believers at Shiloh. We need to be praying for those who have been given HIV through contact with Pastor McFarland. We need to be praying for distraught members who are trying to make sense of the whirlwind that now engulfs their faith community. We also need to be praying for Pastor McFarland. I’m sure when he started in ministry over 20 years ago, he did not aim to end up in this place. He is a man in need of much mercy and grace. As a young minister, I’ve been looking for pastoral responses to this dilemma. In the absence one, I have decided to provide a response based on biblical truths. There are a few crucial responses for Christians all over the world to consider and one response for those not affiliated with Christ.
Having already reminded us of the fundamental need to pray, the first thing Christians all need to do is to “take heed lest we fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). We can look down our noses upon this situation all we want. At the end of the day we all have to come to grips with the same reality that the members of Shiloh are having to come to grips with in devastating ways. That reality is: SIN IS REAL, TEMPTATION IS A BEAST, and OUR FLESH LONGS FOR EVIL. Daily these elements wage a war against me. I’m fully convinced that apart from the prayers of the saints and the grace of God, I can be the next Pastor McFarland. My flesh tells me to do things that simply are not right. It nags at me to do things that fly in the face of the God who saved me! My flesh lives for the pursuit of the glory of creation rather than the Creator. I could very well have penned myself the words of the 18th century hymn, “Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing,” written by a pastor and hymn writer.
“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.”
Wake up! Your heart can wander too! The minute we believe this can’t be us, is the minute we begin to travel the road of our own destruction! May we daily beg Jesus for his provisions of mercy and grace, so that we may walk upright before Him! Only with Christ is it possible to live a blameless life.
Secondly, I would like to address pastors specifically. It’s past time that we collectively stop playing games with God! I have been standing in groups of older pastors who don’t know me very well at pastors’ meetings. I have shown up to some of these gatherings to build fellowship, to learn, and to be mentored only to find the things I heard and seen were particularly overwhelming. These events have often drawn strong emotions from the heart of this young minister. I want to do everything from bursting out in tears, to screaming, to fighting. Ministers “sleeping around” has become some type of status quo in some circles. Standing around and joking about sexual perversions seems to be in season. After all, who in their right mind could honestly expect a pastor not to have a little lady on the side that he can spend time with? Hello! Maybe your wife, your church, and the Bible? Truth be told, some pockets of our denominational gatherings can be characterized by all manners of loose living. THIS SHOULD NOT BE SO!
My brothers the Bible is clear on the qualifications of elders and pastors. Titus chapter 1 and 1 Timothy 3 are the chief texts in scripture of what our leaders must be! Notice the “must be.” This is exactly what Paul says in 1 Timothy 3. Those characteristics are not the product of wishful thinking. They are the words of the living God. Call me young. Call me legalistic. Say that I’m riding a fire that will eventually cool off. However, those are not my words. Those are God’s words. To reject them is to reject Him. One twitter comment I recently read, quoting a pastor’s sermon said, “I’m not judging you, and you’re not judging me, the Bible judges us. Don’t hate the mouth-piece.”
May we stop using, “Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm”, as a pastoral license to sin (1 Chron. 16:22; Psalm 105:15). According to the context, those scriptures represent the words of God to other nations and other kingdoms who wanted to hurt Abraham and his descendants when they were few in number. Those words were not written so that Christians would not question their leaders or hold them to a moral standard. May we stop torturing God’s people with reckless lifestyles. And if the day comes when we do not meet the biblical qualifications of a pastor, for the Lord’s sake, may we humbly step down without forcing the sheep of God to contend with under-shepherds.
Thirdly, I challenge Christian congregations. We must stop aiding and abetting disqualified leaders. I know you love your pastor. I know you have your own sin. I even know the hurt of opposing spiritual leaders you admire. I was once relieved of my duties at a church because I had the grand idea that pastors who fornicate should step down from their position. When our pastor got a girl pregnant and I opposed him, I was the one who was asked to leave. I’m going to step out on a shaky branch and suggest, that’s backwards. I have also lost dear friends, who serve as ministers, for questioning their character. So I genuinely understand the pressure, heartache, and dread associated with confronting leaders. This is not easy. Yet, people of God, listen. Leaders who walk in blatant defiance to the spiritual qualifications of pastors are not born overnight.
They are the summation of continual small compromises. They are the summation of members who join in their sins; church members who willingly ignore what they see; and worse, Christians who see the flaws and applaud instead of lovingly rebuking their leaders. According to Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, the church is commissioned by God to practice church discipline. These passages show that the confrontation is not for their damnation, but salvation. You will hear all kinds of arguments as to why discipline is ungracious. Let me encourage you with Hebrews 12. In that chapter you will find God as a loving father who graciously disciplines all His children out of love for them. You can also go back to Genesis 3. In that chapter as Adam and Eve sin, you will find a beautifully woven tapestry of grace and discipline. Though God gave discipline after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, He also promised Christ in Genesis 3:15 who would remedy all their sinful deeds. From the beginning these qualities have worked in concert with, not against each other. Stand firm.
If you are a member of a church that does not teach and practice church discipline, consider sparking a revival in this area, or finding a church that understands its importance. Paul warns that to not practice church discipline is to put the entire church in jeopardy of being corrupted (1 Cor. 5:6). Hold Christian leaders to the standard of the Bible. While it may be inappropriate to cast “final” judgement on a person, it is equally inappropriate not to administer appropriate discipline. This sounds a lot simpler than it is when you are dealing with a charismatic, winsome, poetic, lovable leader, who knows more Bible verses than you do. Yet, I’m convinced that with the grace of God you can stand and fight the good fight. If God is for you who can be against you (Romans 8:31)?
Lastly and certainly not least, I appeal to those who are not Christians, and those who have been wounded by the church. Don’t give up on God! Oh God in heaven, please forgive your church and her leaders! People on the outside looking in please forgive us (His children)! Our list of shortcomings is long and atrocious. “Hypocrites,” at times, has been an extremely accurate term for us. Yet, please understand that the authenticity of God and Christianity does not rest in the performance of His children. It rests in an infinite and all powerful God who knew we were severely messed up!
Therefore, God took it upon Himself to do for us what we could not do for ourselves, namely walk in perfection and satisfy the requirements necessary to save a people for Himself. So, God the Father sent us Jesus! He was tempted in all ways as we are, but He did not sin! He walked in perfect obedience to God and did not leave man any good excuse to ignore Him. He was crucified and raised from the dead with all power and authority. One day you will have to stand before God and give an account for your own lives. “I saw some Hypocrites”, will not be a sufficient reply. Also, at all times, God has left for Himself a group of people who live out biblical principles in a way that is winsome. I pray you find them. Most importantly, I pray that you find Christ. Your life depends on it.
Christ promised to protect and build His church from the attacks of hell, so we shouldn’t be surprised by vicious attacks (Matt. 16:18). Evil will be with us in this world, until Christ returns. God has always used evil for His own good purposes. He used the greatest evil of all time, the crucifixion of His perfect Son, to save many! So even at a time like this, when the world mocks the church, and we are in the news for all the wrong reasons … God is at work!
There is something missing with our traditional approach to urban ministry. Our target priorities are disproportionately backwards. We must change them for the long term health of the communities we serve. This shuffle in priorities will be even harder and cause even more sleepless nights than after school programs, summer camps, stores, housing, core group development, clinics, schools, etc. I know it sounds outrageous, but I believe it’s worth your strong consideration! As a matter of fact, I believe so strongly in what I’m about to say, that I stake my entire ministry on it, because I’m officially changing my target priorities.
When you minister in the urban context you are hit on every side with pressing needs and possible areas of focus. Yet, I believe there is one target that stands above them all. I’m convinced that with all our heart we need to target the men in urban communities.
Most people would agree that targeting urban men is extremely difficult. It’s why the majority of urban works seem to have an unapologetic bent towards women and children.
In January, 2014 I attended an urban ministry class where Carl Ellis said, “he has talked with countless urban ministries who target women and children, but very few who target men.”
Why is this the case? Kids are the “low hanging fruit” in the inner city. They are the most trusting and forgiving. They are the most impressionable. They are the least entrenched in street culture. They are the most attracted to the outlets that christian ministries offer-like a safe place to play, organized sports, food, fun, trips, education, etc. Mothers are next in this continuum…they often serve as both provider and primary care giver on very limited incomes. Therefore, when you offer services that enrich their children, or lighten financial burdens, mothers are usually receptive. These acts of kindness and love to women and children build strong bridges for gospel ministry. It is for this reason, I applaud those ministries that provide these services with integrity, and Christ centeredness.
But why are men neglected? Urban men are some of the most feared people on the face of the planet. Honestly, some of that fear is well placed. Urban men can be linked to the majority of the crime, drugs, and destruction in these communities. I know that there are many factors that go into those realities, but personal responsibility has to lead the list. However, media perpetuates and highlights only the negative. All we see about them is murder, crime, and extreme selfishness. When will the media highlight some of the indigenous fathers and/or step-fathers who have been there for their kids from day one? When will they celebrate those who own their own businesses, or those who love to work? Don’t hold your breath! Another reason for the neglect of these urban men is that their exterior is much harder…and to just approach them takes a certain amount of courage. They are also not overly impressed by the acts of kindness we use to engage women and children. Contrarily, pouring resources and time into their children and women devoid of their opinion (and participation) can have a crushingly negative affect on men. Those good intentions become an insult by reminding the men of what they are not able to consistently provide for their kids and women, though many desperately desire too. Men would rather turn to rage and isolation than to accept handouts or to be humiliated. Therefore, we have written them off as not worth our time, and unworthy of our attention. It has been said that it’s too much work with far too little return on investment. I say, that we have made a terrible mistake.
I know targeting men isn’t easy. I have invested in men at times with very little return. Therefore, I’m not pleading with you for a “broad net approach” to men’s ministry. I’m asking you to target a subset of the whole. It’s what I have termed the, “Urban Synagogue.”
As the apostle Paul spread the gospel and planted churches from city to city, it was his custom to go to Jewish synagogues first and reason with the Jews (Acts 17:1-5). If they received him…great, if they did not, he would move on to the Gentiles. There is a gold mine in the urban context amongst a subset of men. It is a place where community transformation efforts should begin, or at least be strongly emphasized, an “urban synagogue.” It is a place where you put your head down and pour your life out for 3-5 years ignoring all road blocks and failures before you look for serious results. It’s a not a large group of men (maybe 5-10 max, initially). It’s not going to be immediate newsletter material! It’s not going to be a part of your support raising technique. These guys can smell a rat a mile away. Exploiting them is not something that will go unnoticed or unaddressed. Furthermore, if you place them up on a pedestal or in front, too quickly, you will ruin them. And worse, it may also come back to bite you.
So what do these men look like? They are usually 25 or older. These men live with their wives, or longterm girlfriends. These relationships are not the frivolous, “Here today. Gone tomorrow” type of relationships. They have existed anywhere from 5-25 years. These relationships are laced with many wounds and scars that will have to be redeemed, yet they press forward together. These men take working very seriously. Not working (for them) is not an option. Whether it’s odd jobs, stable employment, or even their own small business, these brothers work hard. And have little tolerance for “lazy men.” Children are also present that these men love dearly. They may be biological, children of their wife/girlfriend, or even children of extended family members that they are trying to help. I have seen these grown men cry, and make tremendous sacrifices for these kids. Sacrifices, that would rival men from any community. If engaged, these men will engage you. They are also social commentators. They have in-depth opinions about the state of youth, education, the justice system, church, marriage, family, and the economy. These brothers are also not bent towards violence. They will bury you if you are a real threat to their family, but otherwise they keep low profiles. They also look for tangible ways to bless the youth outside their home, and their communities.
Why target these men? First, created order tells us of the importance of the role of men to God’s plan. Adam was the one to whom God looked when things came undone in the garden. If God held Adam primarily responsible by calling him into account first, after the fall, why do we first appeal to Eve? I love women and children, I just think our approach is backwards. Secondly, no one would argue against the deterioration of families and the absence of fathers being foundational in the demise of the urban communities. If then, men are at the core of the problem, why are they not at the core of the solution?
I’m profiling this subset of men, not because I don’t believe in the power of the gospel, but because there is a lot (there) to work with. These men readily display reflections of the character of God all the time in how they treat their kids, work, provide, sacrifice, etc. They do so in an extremely counter cultural way. They are usually men who never knew their fathers or fatherly examples, yet they are fathers. No one ever took them under their wing to teach them how to be men, yet they walk in manhood against all odds. These men are at a stage in life where they genuinely care about their community and simply need people to walk beside them. Ultimately the gospel and discipleship are necessary to take these snapshots of hope and build pillars in the community.
I’m proposing that we spend much time, talent and resources with these men. I believe that God has placed within them the solutions and road map to lasting change in their communities. I believe that deep down inside they are waiting for someone to see them as the key to long-term systemic change. I believe that when this, Urban Synagogue, group of men, is reached, they will breathe life into the women and children in their homes. They will breathe life into their communities. They will breathe life into the younger men in their communities by being examples of what they too can accomplish if they place God at the center of their life.
What are we waiting for? Let’s get busy!
Let me begin by saying, “Praise God for the Civil Rights Movement.” I, along with every African American in this country, stand on their shoulders, whether we acknowledge it or not. Our lives have been easier and more prosperous because of the sacrifices of many great men and women, both black and white, during that crucial time in history.
However, as I look out over my city today, I see some strange things. Things that cause great pause and concern. I live in a city that was, if not the heart of the civil rights movement, at least the lungs! Rosa Parks was living in my neighborhood when she refused to get out of her seat on the bus. The Montgomery bus boycott was organized and orchestrated from many of the churches in my neighborhood. The marchers, who walked from Selma to Montgomery, spent their last night in my neighborhood before making their final push to the steps of our State’s Capitol.
Yet, when I look at my neighborhood today, I see monuments and no movement! I see Historical Preservation Markers in front of buildings that are so dilapidated you couldn’t walk inside without fear for your safety! I see a wreath on the door of Rosa Parks’ apartment…in the projects with drug dealers on the corner, children who have dropped out of school, and people being killed…like they are no more than animals, just steps away from her front door. I see homes so destroyed along the Historical Route of the Selma To Montgomery March, that you would think you were in a third world country rather than in a community that once thrived with leaders like Martin Luther King. He was a regular contributor and champion of this community. Instead of this community being one of the best communities of the city, it is one of the worst. It has been largely abandoned by those who could truly make a difference.
If this was not enough to make you cry, it seems like the majority of the people who do care about the Civil Rights Movement today, are more concerned with preserving what happened, as opposed to improving upon it.
If MLK had to choose, would he want thousands of dollars spent remembering him or advancing the causes he believed in? Since he risked his life for great causes, surely he would choose to invest in advancing those causes today. He would tell us to invest in the community! He would tell us to value life. He would tell us to invest in the children, and in education. He would tell us to come together around the issues we face and demand continued progress. He would tell us to stop cowering behind the prospect of persecution, or worse death. He would tell us to stand. He would tell us to stand “until justice roles down like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
I’m all for remembering from where we have come, just not at the expense of refusing to make a better tomorrow.
I’m praying that the Lord would continue to raise up a generation of people who feel the same way. I’m praying that the effects of the Civil Rights Movements won’t just be captured in museums downtown, but on the streets where people fought, so fiercely, to make changes.
I remember (very vividly) the layers of meanings behind the words my wife spoke exactly 30 days ago. Her tone was even keel. Her mannerisms were very mild. She even said the words in passing, rather than in the middle of a deep conversation. Her words were, “We have got to do something.”
Yet beneath the words, I detected some major heart wrenching activity. I detected desperation. I sensed sincere concern. I saw anxiety and doubt that things were actually going to be okay this time. I could feel that the broken record of us meandering through another month financially had played one too many times.
I knew from the moment she finished that sentence that a complete financial overhaul was necessary. I knew we needed to be seriously educated, unwaveringly intentional, and unshakably unified when it came to our finances. Yet, I was lost on how to make those things a reality. We had been trying for almost two years to consistently live by a budget. We are not excessive spenders. We don’t have school loans. We have very little credit card debt. Yet, we often felt like our money was controlling us, instead of us controlling our money.
God, in His great love for us, heard my wife’s internal frustration. He saw my assessment of my wife’s struggle and my cluelessness as to how to improve our situation. In His kindness He allowed me to providentially sit down with a friend who had recently finished a Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University Course. He said, “You really should check this out.” I knew at that moment that the Lord was throwing me a lifeline. Later that day I went to Dave’s website. I saw a class in my area that was only a few days from starting. I saw the fee for the course was 99.00. I believed in my heart that the 99.00 investment in this course was going to quickly pay for itself with the things the Lord would do in us and through us as a result of this class. Without consulting my wife (hopefully that’s the last solo financial decision I make), I spent the money for the course and signed us up. Quickly, she jumped on board to attend the course. Oddly enough, her prayer was that we would sit down with someone who would intentionally teach us about money and hold us accountable to managing our finances God’s way.
The first night of the course set a fire in our hearts that had never been there before. We did not desire to be rich. We did not desire a shortcut for success.
A fire was lit that we would be good stewards of the resources God has given us!
That was exactly 30 days ago. We have finished the first four lessons in our class. Earlier this evening, we attended the class on debt and we created our second monthly cash flow plan. In just four weeks, it is not an exaggeration to say that we are new people when it comes to how we view, money. If I hear the phrase “90 days same as cash” one more time, I may vomit! Before the class I would have thought that was a bargain. In just four weeks the Lord has allowed us to save and pay off enough debt to pay for this class 7 times!
I’m eternally grateful that the Lord heard my prayer! Dave Ramsey is not the only biblical financial adviser in the world. Nor is every thought perfect. Some things will look differently as they are applied to each family’s situation. However, the overall point is that we need to be taught about how to handle money. Dave Ramsey is an excellent resource. If his principles are applied consistently, your family will reap positive results! I intend to write about all the positive we have seen because of this class. The sun is rising on our financial outlook and we are excited as this new day is just beginning.