By / Jul 17

Facebook recently announced they’ve hit the milestone of two billion users. There are more Facebook members than members of any religion except Christianity. (Just barely. There are 2.4 billion proclaimed Christians globally). That means that worldwide, one in four people now use Facebook every month. I should probably fess up that I am among the few billion people not on Facebook. I’ve written about why here if you’re curious. But I’ll be the first to admit, that Facebook itself isn’t “bad” or “evil.” I’ve seen it used for a lot of good. Whether or not you should have Facebook is not a hill I’m willing to die on. Whether or not you look to Facebook as your church is.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is upfront about the company’s plans to do more than simply connect people online. He wants to:

  • Stop our growing sense of disconnectedness.
  • Weave strength into the social fabric.
  • Bring the world closer together.

It’s hard to argue with that. Those are good goals. But he lost me when he suggested that Facebook could plug the holes in our lives left by declining church attendance. “A lot of people now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else,” Zuckerberg said.

The First Church of Facebook can only temporarily spackle the holes in our hearts and lives, never fix or heal them. We need Jesus for that, and Christ’s Plan A for our sanctification and the world’s redemption is the local church. Not the cyber church. Not the podcast church. Not the blogosphere church. Not even the Facebook church. Here are three reasons why.

The First Church of Facebook can only temporarily spackle the holes in our hearts and lives, never fix or heal them.

1. The Church is physical

Acts 2:42 describes the early New Testament church. This is the model instituted by the disciples under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit after Christ’s death and resurrection. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is a simple and effective mission statement for the local church.

  • We learn God’s Word together.
  • We connect with other Christians.
  • We share communion together.
  • We pray for each other.

Some of these goals can be accomplished online, but usually only as a cheap substitute. How does an online devotional written by someone you’ve never met compare to a Bible study in your living room hosted by an older woman who loves you and knows about your life? How does connecting online compare with connecting over coffee? How can we bear each others’ burdens (Gal. 6:2) when our profiles are all polished up to a high shine and no one knows we’re struggling? How can you take communion across a computer screen? How can you kneel side by side and hand in hand via Facebook?

So much of the nitty gritty of what happens in the church happens in a physical building, physically standing side by side with other believers.

2. The Church has shepherds

Facebook’s founder called for “great leaders” to shepherd the growing Facebook flock. He even compared these leaders to pastors. Great idea! In fact, it’s God’s idea.

As Paul planted churches across Europe and Asia, he directed church leaders to appoint elders for each church (Titus 1:5). Paul made it clear that elder selection shouldn’t be random, nor should it be a popularity contest based on votes like an episode of American Idol. Elders are to be chosen based on evidence of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Specifically an elder should be:

  • Above reproach
  • Faithful to his wife
  • Discipling his own children
  • A man of self-control
  • Obedient to God and respectful of others
  • Not arrogant, quick-tempered, drunk, or violent
  • Hospitable
  • A lover of good
  • Upright
  • Holy
  • Disciplined
  • A hearer and doer of God’s Word
  • A teacher of wisdom
  • An enforcer of Godly discipline (vs. 5-9).

Are these the qualities we see online? Or do the loud and obnoxious prevail more often? Can godly men and women supervise the Internet? If so, who would appoint them?

Matthew 18 outlines a plan to bring believers back to godly living when they are in sin. James 5:16 encourages us to confess our sins to each other. Spiritual authority is a tremendous gift given to us by a loving God who knows our sinful hearts. The church is a safety net woven by God because of our tendency to choose sin and then find ourselves in a freefall. It cannot be replicated online. We need our pastors. We need our elders. We need the men and women sitting beside us who are brave enough to ask us if we’re struggling and hold us accountable.

3. The Church needs you

God has designed it so that you and the church need one another. Let me show you what I mean.

In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus gave believers through the ages the Great Commission. We are on a co-mission with Christ to make disciples and teach the Word. This calling is unique to the Church. It cannot be replicated, duplicated, or delegated. As a Christian, you are expected to join this mission.  

Ephesians 4:10-12 tells us that Christ gave us the church  “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” It’s the Church’s job to equip you so that you can get to work for the Kingdom. Christ has personally called you (and me) to do everything we can to build up the Church. We’ve got work to do!

Our gifts belong to each other. “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10). You have irreplaceable gifts God wants you to use to serve other Christians. I have irreplaceable but different gifts God wants me to use to serve you. Part of the reason we were created was to serve the local church body. Maybe your needs are being met online, but what about ours? We cannot do this without you.

The Christian life is a life of service. We bring our “firstfruits,” the best of our time, talents, and resources and lay them on the altar in front of God’s people, asking him to use them to build his Kingdom. You can’t serve in the Facebook nursery. You can’t sing in the Facebook praise team. You can’t teach a Facebook Sunday school, take a Facebook mission trip, or visit the sick, discouraged, or grieving on Facebook. You can’t grow as deep in Christ without close proximity to others.

Social media platforms will likely continue to grow. The web will remain a worldwide hub for connection, but it can only enhance, never replace the gift God gave us when he created the Church. Facebook will pass away, but the Church will endure forever (Dan. 2:44).

By / Jul 21

The gates of hell will not prevail against the church, but lawsuits can be awfully expensive, distracting, and even detrimental to the work of a local congregation. A little over one year ago, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges held that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry. We saw it coming, but there was nothing like waking up to our newly transformed legal reality.

Churches presently enjoy a number of significant protections, but there is reason to believe that churches will be vulnerable to a variety of legal challenges in the years ahead, as anti-discrimination laws are updated following Obergefell. Thankfully, there are some simple things we can do to protect our gospel work against some charges of discrimination.

I’m writing this as a pastor on staff at Desert Springs Church, where our elders recently completed a four-month process of research, discussion, and writing. Our purpose was to make explicit in our employment, wedding, and membership documents what is assumed in our commitment to Scripture concerning gender, marriage, and sexuality.

Our aim was twofold: to shepherd our flock well, clarifying our teaching and strengthening our congregation’s unity on these matters; and, second, to protect our church against “easy” lawsuits claiming discrimination while strengthening our position should we encounter a legal challenge. Challenges may come, but the good news is that the more explicit a church is about what they believe, the stronger their defense against an accusation of discrimination. Churches that try to be faithful but discrete will actually be more vulnerable.

In this process we were helped immensely by a critical resource put out by Alliance Defending Freedom and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Lawsuits. This guide is written for churches, schools, and ministries, and addresses issues specific to each type of organization.

Here are the four things we did:

First, We Updated Our Statement of Faith

Our Statement of Faith, to which all of our members subscribe, is purposefully limited to basic Christian orthodoxy. As we say, it’s about as wide as the door to the kingdom. But we decided to make explicit in our statement what is assumed in our commitment to Scripture on the specific issues of gender, marriage, and sexuality.

We believe that God created human beings in his image in two embodied sexual kinds—male and female (Genesis 1:26-27). We believe that God designed men and women to unite in marriage, which is complementary, involving one of each sexual gender, exclusive, and permanent (Genesis 2:18, 24; Matthew 19:4-6; 1 Corinthians 7:39; Hebrews 13:4).

Whereas convictions about lying, murder, and stealing remain assumed and yet our members are accountable to the Bible’s teaching on these matters, our present context requires us to make matters concerning sexuality and gender explicit. In as much as “we believe that the Scriptures … [constitute] the only infallible and sufficient rule for life and godliness,” we believe their clear testimony concerning gender, marriage, and sexuality. While we could say more than these topics, we concluded that we could not say less in the context of our Statement of Faith.

Second, We Published an Expanded Statement on Gender, Marriage, and Sexuality

It seemed appropriate to provide our congregation with a fuller explanation of what the elders believe and teach on the basis of our addition to the Statement of Faith. The assignment of this writing project fell to me, and the following statement is the result of that effort. The statement is divided topically into six parts.

Concerning Gender. We believe that God created human beings in his image in two sexual kinds—male and female (Gen. 1:26-27). Gender is a part of God’s good creation and is bound to its roots as a biological reality. It is identifiable at birth and is to be evident in the course of everyday life in expressions of masculinity and femininity.

Concerning Marriage. God designed men and women to unite in marriage, which is: complementary (involving one of each sexual gender), comprehensive (involving all of life, including physical sexual union), exclusive (monogamous and faithful), permanent (until separated by death), and a generative union (designed for and oriented toward the bearing and rearing of children) (Gen. 2:18-25). Through this union, a husband and wife picture for humanity the relationship between Christ and his church (Eph. 5:22-33).

Concerning Nature. A part of God’s benevolent design, marriage is basic to human flourishing and arises in cultures across history from realities that are discernible in creation (Rom. 1:18-27): the anthropological reality that men and women are different and complementary; the biological reality that they unite to create new life; the sociological reality that children deserve to be with the mother and father that created them. Only a man and a woman can unite in marriage since only a man and a woman can unite in a way that honors the nature of human sexuality.

Concerning Sexual Sin. Sexual intimacy is the exclusive privilege and responsibility of a husband and wife (1 Cor. 6:18; 7:2-5; Heb. 13:4). Because of Adam’s sin, every human being is born sexually perverted, creatively and destructively seeking sexual fulfillment in ways that ignore the Creator, reject his design, and distort his intent. Any form of sexual immorality (including adultery, fornication, homosexual behavior, incest, and use of pornography) is sinful and offensive to God (Matt. 15:18-20; 1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Concerning Redemption. While all people are sinners, God offers redemption to all who confess and repent of their sin, seeking His mercy for forgiveness through Jesus Christ. By means of God’s Spirit and his Word, in the context of the church, real transformation is possible for sinners of every kind, even though final glorification (and total victory over every sin) awaits us in the new creation.

Concerning Public Witness. All persons—regardless of what they may believe or practice—are worthy of kindness, dignity, and respect because they are made in the image of God. Love for God and people requires that Christians speak clearly about these things and that they do so in a manner consistent with the compassion and conviction of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Anyone familiar with the work of Ryan T. Anderson will recognize his influence over the paragraph “Concerning Nature.” This statement is helpful for our own membership, but will also be useful for anyone interested in visiting our church. While this statement is not binding in the same way as the paragraph we added to our Statement of Faith, this public statement helps us shepherd our membership while adding more strength to our position if challenged in court.

Third, We Updated Our Employment Policies

While churches and non-profits have historically had the freedom to hire according to their beliefs and the moral commitments of their faith, there is reason to believe that this may become more complicated should the definition or scope of “religious” work be narrowed in the future. There are indications that the government may distinguish between explicitly religious roles in a church and roles that are not spiritual in nature. Such roles, presumably, would not be protected in the same way.

For this reason, we made a few things explicit in our hiring process and employee handbook that have been assumed. For example, all employees are now required to sign the church’s statement of faith. All employees are expected to provide spiritual counsel from the Scriptures over the phone or in person as needed. And all employees are expected to exercise leadership, from time to time, by praying in staff meetings. In other words, every employee of our church represents Christ in their role and does so in concrete ways.

Fourth, We Updated Our Facility Use and Wedding Policies

Concerning the use of our facility, we wanted to avoid any scenario that would require our church to refuse or deny a request on the basis of any consideration tied to marriage or gender. Whereas previously we accepted and evaluated a variety of requests for our facility, today our facility is only available for ministries of our church or for ministries we formally partner with. For example, our elders have officially recognized the local Crisis Pregnancy Center as a strategic ministry partner and our facility is available to them as needed.

Weddings require a similar approach. Denying requests on the basis of sex could be considered a form of discrimination, therefore, we have adopted a new policy on performing wedding ceremonies. Our staff will only perform wedding ceremonies for members of our church. This eliminates the opportunity for charges of discrimination since members are required to adhere to our doctrinal statement. Likewise, our facility, property, and services are not available for other weddings or events. With these new policies in place, ministers in our church retain the freedom, as persons licensed by the state to perform weddings, to accept personal requests for weddings off site.

Yes, Christ will build his church, but sometimes that will include dealing with membership documents and facility policies. Churches and ministers would all do well to consider what steps can be taken to protect our ministries. This is what we did to protect our church, and it is our hope that it may help you protect yours.