Headlines from First Thoughts

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Great VBS Week

Parker at VBS

Parker at VBS

More VBS

More picts

VBS 2006

We're having a great week of Bible School at First Baptist-- complete with camel rides.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Missions: Experiences, Relationships, Lifestyle

USA Today says that Mission trips may do more harm than good. I'm sure that's the same argument people made before the idea of "partnership missions" became so popular. During the great missions movements of the 40 and 50s, people empowered individuals to leave churches and "Rescue the Perishing" in foreign lands. With the global village at our doorstep, we have grown in our understanding of missions. Everyone is a missionary. Each Christian has the apostolic call. Macedonia is Main Street.

Partnership missions or short-term mission trips have been the primary catalyst driving international service since the 1970s. We should distinguish between experiences, relationships, and lifestyle missions, however.

USA Today describes the dangers of experiential mission trips. These are designed to give individuals who have never been exposed to the problems of the world a chance to see it firsthand. It's hard to believe that Americans would not understand how impoverished other parts of the world are. No, it's really not hard to believe. Hence the reason for taking blessed Americans to places not nearly as blessed materially. These once in a lifetime experiences raise awareness and cause individuals to be more sensitive to needs in their homes. The downside is that some groups merely return with a great powerpoint show for their churches, and churches risk becoming God's travel agency, offering great discounts to faraway lands. The article fails to note, however, that most of the Katrina recovery process has been placed on the backs of churches and religious groups taking experiential trips. And they have risen to the challenge.

Relationship trips are ongoing ministry opportunities designed to do more than simply benefit the traveler. These collaborations take churches and groups to parts of the world that over the long haul, prove beneficial for both parties. Not only do you see the individuals in a particular place, but you see their lives (and yours) change. The risk of course is that the host becomes dependent on the visitor. The opportunity, however, goes far beyond the risks.

Third is the lifestyle of missions. This is the ultimate end of the journey, when a person sees her life as one called to a place, to serve a people, wherever the road takes her.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Mission Trips-- Do they Work?

I'm a mission trip veteran. If mission trips had ranks, I'd at least be 2nd Lieutenant. I've swung more hammers, weed-whacked more yards, and enjoyed more Kool-Aid from yellow igloo coolers than I can count. But after all the work, do they do any good? A recent article in USA Today questions the value of short-term mission trips.

I'd like to explore this idea over the next few posts. First, the article....

"On a mission — a short-term mission"
Posted 6/18/2006

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Special for USA TODAY
As a single mother and elementary-school music teacher in Alamogordo, N.M., Cheryl Dockray usually umpires all the summer softball games she can to make ends meet.
But in early June, she took a rare week off — and worked even harder than usual. With eight other adults and 13 young people from Alamogordo's Grace United Methodist Church, she helped gut a New Orleans home that had been rotting in floodwaters for nine months.

"I can't give huge monetary donations, but I can give of myself and my time," Dockray says from Kenner, La., where the group was sleeping on air mattresses at a church.

Short-term mission trips (less than two weeks) are enjoying a wave of popularity with Americans eager to put faith into action and make vacations meaningful. About 1.6 million Americans took such trips abroad last year, according to a survey by Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University sociologist of religion. Domestic trips, which peak in the summer, are even more popular.

Popular as they are, critics say, short-term mission trips can be counterproductive — or worse. Concerns surface especially with international trips.

Judd Birdsall, former managing editor of The Review of Faith & International Affairs, a Christian journal, grew up in Japan in an evangelical missionary home. Too often these days, he says, untrained short-term missioners — or "vacationaries" — offend indigenous populations and undermine hard-earned relationships cultivated by long-term missionaries over many years.

"At this point, it really is an out-of-control phenomenon," Birdsall says. "Americans come in with good intentions, but they couple zeal with ignorance, and that can be a deadly combination for the folks who are on the ground slogging it out year after year."

All too often, groups set off with scant foreign-language skills and minimal cross-cultural training, says David Livermore, author of Serving with Eyes Wide Open. Their construction projects sometimes take work away from locals or come at the expense of more pressing needs, Livermore says, but impoverished hosts dare not protest.

"Often there's too high a price for them to say no to this because often (hosting a group) is the means to getting the check that will help support them."

Volunteers also run the risk of duplicating efforts in today's decentralized mission environment, says Mark Oestreicher of Youth Specialties, an El Cajon, Calif.-based training firm for church youth leaders. One slum in Tijuana, Mexico, for example, now expects regular visits from mission-driven groups from Southern California.

"Each of these groups will come in, do a vacation Bible school and lead the same kids to Christ over and over again," Oestreicher says.

Others concede that the trips aren't perfect but say they do a lot of good. Dana Robert of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University points to improved standards of living and broadened perspectives of those who travel, interact and serve.

"A lot of people come back from these trips humbled," Robert says. "I think, on balance, it's more worthwhile than not."

This year, short-term missions are getting a prominent stage as thousands of teams focus on hurricane-damaged regions of the USA. For the first time since Katrina hit last August, volunteers this month are using every bed available from the Louisiana United Methodist Storm Recovery Center as 2,400 teams arrive in the New Orleans area.

Whether the destination is the Gulf Coast or the Persian Gulf, the Internet has made short-term mission trips relatively easy to arrange, says Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. He says fast-growing independent churches have "absolutely transformed" short-term missions over the past decade into an arena where congregations, rather than established agencies with a long-term presence in a region, define trips' goals and parameters.

Pamela Brown of Richmond, Va., says unmediated connections between religious communities help relationships flourish. When her Presbyterian (U.S.A.) church first established a direct tie with a local church and orphanage in Morelia, Mexico, in the late 1990s, "everything we did was fine with them because we left it a better place than we found it."

Based on this model, with "no red tape involved," her church now sends teams quarterly to Kazakhstan to help with dental care, management consulting and other humanitarian ministries.

Proponents of short-term missions generally agree that missionaries need cultural training to be effective, whether their goal is to alleviate physical suffering, win converts or both. The Alamogordo group opted to work within Methodist channels, which provide an orientation and prohibit proselytizing, because no one in the group knew the landscape or needs of New Orleans, says group leader Heath Husted.

For others, the days of seeking guidance from denominations or established agencies are a distant memory.

At the 4,000-member Word of Grace Church in Mesa, Ariz., regular mission trips to Central America, Africa and the Middle East rely on the church's own local connections and in-house training.

"We're not dependent on an agency. ... We don't have a middleman," says the Rev. Andy Jackson, pastor of discipleship and leadership development. "Just because a group calls itself a mission agency, that doesn't mean it provides good quality control."

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Farewell to an Old Friend

The most significant news in Baptist life in Knoxville last week was not the election of a new president of the Southern Baptist Convention. We’re pretty removed from politics now at 510 W Main. The most significant story ran the same day in the local paper. Baptist Hospital is being sold.

Baptists have never been very good at parting ways with their institutions. Like an overprotective parent, we keep a pretty tight rein on our hospitals, universities, and children’s homes. When the rumors started circulating late last year that our old friend Baptist Hospital was officially on the market, the First Baptist family felt a collective sense of loss. East Tennessee’s Baptist Hospital would not exist were it not for Fred Brown and the leadership of First Baptist. Some have even said that Dr. Brown announced in the pulpit of FBC that they needed more money for the hospital and passed the plate until he collected enough. Over the years, First Baptist members have had a strong presence on the board and given time and money to make it possible for everyone to have access to healthcare.

With this week’s news of Triad Health System’s purchase of our baby, we say farewell to an old friend. Long ago, Tennessee Baptists removed themselves from positions of monetary influence. As healthcare costs soared, Tennessee Baptists contributions did not. That’s life today, and we’ve seen this story repeated around the country as various Baptist institutions have grown up and moved on. We have church members today that serve on the board and as employees in each of the healthcare systems in Knoxville. It’s truly a new day in healthcare.

The board and employees of Baptist have been in my prayers the past months. Each person knows the agony of the decision at a personal and private level. We have seen good church members relocate; we have encouraged board members who have made tough, difficult decisions. We will walk beside each person as they face inevitable transitions in the coming days and hopefully welcome new members who are part of Triad’s group.

Several lessons can be learned as people of First Baptist.

(1) The Baptist name is still popular in some circles. Ironically, one of the things Triad wanted to maintain is the name. Isn’t it interesting that the only area where Baptists get good reviews is in healthcare? This should be a lesson to all of us. Baptists as a brand and as a people are at their best when they minister to people in the crisis moments in the name of Christ.
(2) We can still have a prophetic voice. The News-Sentinel’s editorial alluded to a looming crisis if charity cases are not covered in the new system. UT and St. Mary’s can’t do it alone. We need to refocus our efforts to caring for those who cannot afford the benefits that most of us take for granted. We must accomplish this beyond pious rhetoric. Our wallets and actions must match our words.
(3) Institutions grow and change. We should apply the principles of the Baptist experience to Belmont, Carson-Newman, and other institutions. We should allow them freedom to be the best they can be, raise money from as many sources as possible, and help them maintain a Baptist identity in the best sense of the word.
(4) We will always be there for Baptist. First Baptist will continue to send employees and volunteers across the river and out west. Baptists are everywhere. Let’s welcome our new friends, encourage those who remain, and pray for people who will seek new employment.

Farewell, old friend, East Tennessee Baptist Hospital. May the new Baptist carry on the legacy that we have built together.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

No Left Turns-- Something for Father's Day

Michael Gartner wrote a great Father's Day tribute in this weekend's USA Today. Enjoy.
"A Life Without Left Turns"
Michael Gartner

My father never drove a car.
Well, that's not quite right.

I should say I never saw him drive a car. He quit driving in 1927, when he was 25 years old, and the last car he drove was a 1926 Whippet.

"In those days," he told me when he was in his 90s, "to drive a car you had to do things with your hands, and do things with your feet, and look every which way, and I decided you could walk through life and enjoy it or drive through life and miss it."

At which point my mother, a sometimes salty Irishwoman, chimed in:

"Oh, bull——!" she said. "He hit a horse."

"Well," my father said, "there was that, too."

So my brother and I grew up in a household without a car. The neighbors all had cars — the Kollingses next door had a green 1941 Dodge, the VanLaninghams across the street a gray 1936 Plymouth, the Hopsons two doors down a black 1941 Ford — but we had none. My father, a newspaperman in Des Moines, would take the streetcar to work and, often as not, walk the 3 miles home. If he took the streetcar home, my mother and brother and I would walk the three blocks to the streetcar stop, meet him and walk home together.

Our 1950 Chevy

My brother, David, was born in 1935, and I was born in 1938, and sometimes, at dinner, we'd ask how come all the neighbors had cars but we had none. "No one in the family drives," my mother would explain, and that was that. But, sometimes, my father would say, "But as soon as one of you boys turns 16, we'll get one."

It was as if he wasn't sure which one of us would turn 16 first.

But, sure enough, my brother turned 16 before I did, so in 1951 my parents bought a used 1950 Chevrolet from a friend who ran the parts department at a Chevy dealership downtown. It was a four-door, white model, stick shift, fender skirts, loaded with everything, and, since my parents didn't drive, it more or less became my brother's car.

Having a car but not being able to drive didn't bother my father, but it didn't make sense to my mother. So in 1952, when she was 43 years old, she asked a friend to teach her to drive. She learned in a nearby cemetery, the place where I learned to drive the following year and where, a generation later, I took my two sons to practice driving. The cemetery probably was my father's idea. "Who can your mother hurt in the cemetery?" I remember him saying once.

For the next 45 years or so, until she was 90, my mother was the driver in the family. Neither she nor my father had any sense of direction, but he loaded up on maps — though they seldom left the city limits — and appointed himself navigator. It seemed to work.

The ritual walk to church

Still, they both continued to walk a lot. My mother was a devout Catholic, and my father an equally devout agnostic, an arrangement that didn't seem to bother either of them through their 75 years of marriage. (Yes, 75 years, and they were deeply in love the entire time.) He retired when he was 70, and nearly every morning for the next 20 years or so, he would walk with her the mile to St. Augustin's Church. She would walk down and sit in the front pew, and he would wait in the back until he saw which of the parish's two priests was on duty that morning. If it was the pastor, my father then would go out and take a 2-mile walk, meeting my mother at the end of the service and walking her home. If it was the assistant pastor, he'd take just a 1-mile walk and then head back to the church.

He called the priests "Father Fast" and "Father Slow."

After he retired, my father almost always accompanied my mother whenever she drove anywhere, even if he had no reason to go along. If she were going to the beauty parlor, he'd sit in the car and read, or go take a stroll or, if it was summer, have her keep the engine running so he could listen to the Cubs game on the radio. (In the evening, then, when I'd stop by, he'd explain: "The Cubs lost again. The millionaire on second base made a bad throw to the millionaire on first base, so the multimillionaire on third base scored.") If she were going to the grocery store, he would go along to carry the bags out — and to make sure she loaded up on ice cream.

As I said, he was always the navigator, and once, when he was 95 and she was 88 and still driving, he said to me, "Do you want to know the secret of a long life?" "I guess so," I said, knowing it probably would be something bizarre.

"No left turns," he said.

"What?" I asked.

"No left turns," he repeated. "Several years ago, your mother and I read an article that said most accidents that old people are in happen when they turn left in front of oncoming traffic. As you get older, your eyesight worsens, and you can lose your depth perception, it said. So your mother and I decided never again to make a left turn."

"What?" I said again. "No left turns," he said. "Think about it. Three rights are the same as a left, and that's a lot safer. So we always make three rights."

"You're kidding!" I said, and I turned to my mother for support. "No," she said, "your father is right. We make three rights. It works."

But then she added: "Except when your father loses count."

I was driving at the time, and I almost drove off the road as I started laughing. "Loses count?" I asked. "Yes," my father admitted, "that sometimes happens. But it's not a problem. You just make seven rights, and you're okay again."

I couldn't resist. "Do you ever go for 11?" I asked.

"No," he said. "If we miss it at seven, we just come home and call it a bad day. Besides, nothing in life is so important it can't be put off another day or another week."

My mother was never in an accident, but one evening she handed me her car keys and said she had decided to quit driving. That was in 1999, when she was 90. She lived four more years, until 2003. My father died the next year, at 102. They both died in the bungalow they had moved into in 1937 and bought a few years later for $3,000. (Sixty years later, my brother and I paid $8,000 to have a shower put in the tiny bathroom — the house had never had one. My father would have died then and there if he knew the shower cost nearly three times what he paid for the house.) He continued to walk daily — he had me get him a treadmill when he was 101 because he was afraid he'd fall on the icy sidewalks but wanted to keep exercising — and he was of sound mind and sound body until the moment he died.

A happy life

One September afternoon in 2004, he and my son went with me when I had to give a talk in a neighboring town, and it was clear to all three of us that he was wearing out, though we had the usual wide-ranging conversation about politics and newspapers and things in the news. A few weeks earlier, he had told my son, "You know, Mike, the first hundred years are a lot easier than the second hundred." At one point in our drive that Saturday, he said, "You know, I'm probably not going to live much longer." "You're probably right," I said. "Why would you say that?" he countered, somewhat irritated. "Because you're 102 years old," I said. "Yes," he said, "you're right." He stayed in bed all the next day. That night, I suggested to my son and daughter that we sit up with him through the night. He appreciated it, he said, though at one point, apparently seeing us look gloomy, he said: "I would like to make an announcement. No one in this room is dead yet." An hour or so later, he spoke his last words:

"I want you to know," he said, clearly and lucidly, "that I am in no pain. I am very comfortable. And I have had as happy a life as anyone on this earth could ever have."

A short time later, he died.

I miss him a lot, and I think about him a lot. I've wondered now and then how it was that my family and I were so lucky that he lived so long.

I can't figure out if it was because he walked through life.

Or because he quit taking left turns.

Michael Gartner has been editor of newspapers large and small and president of NBC News. In 1997, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Thanking Public School Educators

On Monday, several East Tennessee Baptist churches published an advertisement in the Knoxville News-Sentinel. To view the ad, click on this link. Thanks, educators.

To view other resources for Baptists who support public schools, visit Ethicsdaily.com.

Does a New President of the SBC Really Matter?

Amidst all the things going on in our world today: a new hurricane season, ministering to immigrants, and handling the Iraq issues, the Southern Baptists made headlines again.

In our annual 2nd week in June pilgrimage to a Civic Center near you, the SBC voted for a hometown guy to be the president. A native of Greensboro, Frank Page squeaked by with some home cookin' and some local voters.

What made this so interesting to the New York Times and even local news here in Knoxville is this guy is not one of "the boys." He wasn't hand-picked in a back room. He was voted on by the people.

Here's the real story. Dr. Frank Page is the SBC's first blogging president. A pastor in Oklahoma used his blog to run Frank Page's campaign. The big stink over Dr. Page among the other candidates is not only his age (he's a young buck-- 51), but also he supports only the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. This is the new document voted on by the SBC to replace their old confession of 1963. (My church still adheres to the 1963 document, not the 2000.) But the 2000 is the criteria for hiring in the new SBC. Lately, the International Mission Board has been in a tailspin because some of their missionaries who want to pray as they feel led. The International Mission Board trustees have been debating whether or not it's ok for their missionaries to pray in tongues. I'm not kidding; this is the stuff they debate in board rooms. And of course, prayer or the said language in which one prays is not covered in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. So.... Dr. Page is in the camp of "let 'em pray as they feel led." Or in other words, don't go beyond the hiring document that they already have.

If this is confusing to you, it should be. While the rest of the South waits for more hurricanes, we're debating who and how people should be praying. Baptists are fiercely independent, and they really don't like to be told how to pray.

So...good luck to Dr. Page as he sorts things out in the prayer closet. As for me, I'm going to try to stay focused on sharing Christ's love with the people affected by paragraph 1. I'm sure we don't need a vote or a blog to do it. And these are the things that really matter.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Money Talks

One of the best kept secrets about First Baptist Knoxville has been our Pastoral Counselor who has been here for nearly 30 years. He writes a regular column on my church's website entitled, "Money Talks." Here's his latest entry. To read more, go to the Money Talks link on my church website.

Differences are Attractive but Difficult

Differences are so attractive but they are so difficult. Relationships are often created by differences. Those same differences challenge, divide, and test us. For example, in marriage, marital researchers convince us that differences attract. When we look for a marital partner, we do not look for someone like us. We look for someone to complete us.

Sydnor and I often talk about our differences and how they attracted us to one another. For example, Sydnor grew up at 1423 Madison Avenue. I grew up on Route 3. Sydnor grew up with two siblings. I grew up with eight. Sydnor grew up with much travel. I traveled to two other states—Georgia five miles away, and Florida, 80 miles away—till I was 20 years of age. Sydnor grew up with the expectation to finish college. I grew up with the expectation to finish high school. Sydnor grew up with banking. I grew up with farming.

The major difference that attracted me to Sydnor was that she was extroverted and comfortable with people. When I met her, I was looking for a wife. I was also looking for a wife that would compliment my call and profession. I needed her social skills. Her skills would make up for mine. And I married well!

That difference showed up on our marital screen when we moved back to South Carolina, to Darlington, which was only ten miles away from her hometown of Florence. Suddenly we were invited to many parties, many weddings, many family occasions; and my social appetite, that ate sparingly, was being overly fed. I found myself resenting the very piece that I needed and liked most about her.

Differences are a gift but at the same time they require hard work. Dealing with relational differences has been one of the defining issues of the church since Jesus created her. Over against his own heritage, Jesus created one of the most diverse communities imaginable. It was a community made up of Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. Those differences that Jesus sought to build into the tapestry of his New Kingdom became the very core of Paul’s teaching and ministry. They challenged the early church and eventually defined it.

What we do with differences, whether church or marriage, will have much to do with both who we are and who we become. Enjoy the gift but work hard!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Between 11/9 and 9/11 (Last post on Baptists of the Future)

In May 1989, 6 months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dayna Curry graduated from high school to attend Baylor University. This generation X-er attending a Baptist school would have been the average girl next door, except she felt God’s call to service and missions. She did not go through the standard boards or agencies. She volunteered with Shelter Now International, a German relief group. She and her friend Heather Mercer were caught in the crossfire of 9/11. They were missionaries to the Taliban in Afghanistan when the United States invaded.

What drives these women to serve? As we discover from Generations X and Y, this is part of their culture. They represent the generations of the future for Baptists. They are living between 11/9 and 9/11.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

More Implications

3.) Expect more. These generations volunteered to be missionaries among the Taliban and fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. They will do the unthinkable; it might as well be through your organization.

4.) Collaborate with parachurch ministries. Church is one of many spiritual vendors in society. Young Life, Campus Crusade, etc., are all part of the spiritual formation of these students. Don’t resist it; affirm it. Buy into it; work with these organizations. Learn from them, and build community with them.

In a recent article on youth ministry, The New York Times suggested that students are going to one church for worship, another church or parachurch for Bible study, and another to assist in the community. I anticipate this trend to carry into adulthood. If you are not the worship place for students, provide another way to connect with them.

5.) Release control. One thing we’re learning is that these students not only want to attend worship, they desire to own the experience. If it is right for your context, start a service to reach this generation. If it is not, know that many in this generation will appreciate the ancient traditions of the faith if they connect with you and own part of the church. We cannot expect this group to be a part of something they have little input into. They need to feel ownership in the church and its ministries. It’s not about style, it’s about ownership and authenticity.

6.) Be the faith family for these generations. Multigenerations are back. Community is important. One college student said, “Be the community I never had at home.” Where Willow Creek and Saddleback pioneered niche market churches, now young people want to connect with spiritual grandparents. Pair senior adults with college students for mission projects. Create opportunities for mentoring and service. Adopt a college student, share life, and learn from each other.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Future of Baptists-- Implications

One part of our future as Baptists relates to how we will work with other churches. Here's one example from our context in Knoxville. This recent article in Knoxville Magazine tells the story better than I can.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Baptists of the Future-- Implications

Implications for Church Ministry
Because most Baptists are members of institutional churches, we are affected by these trends and should take note of several things that affect us as we move forward.
1.) Keep it real. The best advice that I continue to hear from younger people is whatever you do, be authentic. Ministers should have face time with these generations. Go to Starbucks. Hang out. Be accessible. Give your current students a safe place now to ask tough questions. Martinson says that one of the key factors in students' returning to church is that they had a safe place in young adulthood to ask questions and a place where they could come “home.”

2.) Give opportunities to serve. Service is an entry point to the church. We saw this especially during our Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. We had volunteers from UT who had never been to worship or Sunday School.

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