Category Archives: Church

Will Your Church Pay Off Your Debts?

There’s an interesting trend in churches today that is designed to help struggling families pay their medical debt. You’ve probably seen the headlines—a church in Kansas eliminated $2.2 million, another in Illinois covered $4 million. Even a small church in Maryland paid off $1.9 million. It’s a movement that is picking up steam.

This is a good thing. Helping the poor should be a primary mission of the church. For most of my life, it has been a back-burner concern for the church, so it’s nice to see it given the attention it deserves. Or is it? What is this all about.

When a person has medical debts they can’t pay, they are cycled through a series of collection agencies. When a collector is unsuccessful, they will sell the debt to another collector at a reduced rate. This might happen a half a dozen times before it is finally considered a lost cause. All of this is after the original creditor has written off the amount as a loss.Medical Debt

All the while, the person who owes the debt must deal with harassing phone calls, angry letters, and threats to sue. As you can imagine, their credit is trashed as delinquencies are added to their report each month. By the time the collectors give up, the debtor has ruined credit and lost hope of ever paying it off.

Along comes one final attempt. An enterprising company swoops up the unpaid notes by paying pennies on the dollar. They then bundle it up and sell it in huge chunks. If you want to cancel a person’s debt, give this company $100, and they will wipe out a $10,000 note. In other words, the debts are being settled for 1% of the debt. I’m not sure, but I suspect the debt was reduced substantially before being sold off, so the reality is that it is far less than 1%.

Churches realize they can “help” hundreds of families by paying off millions of dollars in debt with a small amount of money. For every $10,000 raised, they can wipe out $1 million of debt. It sounds like a win/win. Everybody should be happy.

There are winners in this scenario. The companies that organize this whole thing are probably the biggest winner (check out www.ripmedicaldebt.org). The church garners great publicity and members feel good about themselves. Perhaps even the debtor might feel better getting rid of an albatross that was given up for dead years ago.

However, if the church really wants to help the poor, there is a much better way. The first and most obvious suggestion I could make is to stop fighting against every effort to make health care affordable. In case you don’t understand what I’m saying, you Republicans need to come up with a health care plan that benefits the poor instead of stonewalling every effort made by others. Many of you are in the church, so you should understand God’s concern for the poor.

A second suggestion is to assist the poor before their credit is trashed, and they are beaten down by collectors. Latch on to these folks when they leave the hospital, not after they’ve been struggling for years to pay the debts. Help them when your help is still valuable. It might not be as flashy, and it certainly won’t show up in newspaper headlines, but it will be more practical and helpful.

A third idea is to not give your money to an organization that is buying up this debt and selling it for a substantial profit but give the money directly to the people who need it. The Rip Medical Debt folks have a debt elimination counter on their website that is moving faster than the federal debt counter. I’m not an accountant, but the best I can tell by looking at their 2018 tax report, they purchased approximately $2.3 million of debt and raised $5.4 million in contributions. There’s money to be made somewhere in this.

I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing; it’s just not the best thing. It is encouraging to hear about churches expressing concern for the poor, but let’s make sure that it is true concern for the poor and not just a publicity stunt.

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When Heroes Disappear

I was a fervent lover of baseball as a kid. Growing up in Colorado meant we had no access to Major League Baseball games, so I never attended a game until many years later. The nearest team was in St. Louis, and I can remember listening to games at night on a transistor radio. It wasn’t always a clear signal, but through the static, I could usually pick up KMOX, and they broadcast the Cardinals’ games. Normally, I hid under a blanket because it was past bedtime and if my mother heard the radio, she would make me turn it off.

You might think I cheered for the Red Birds, and I did like Stan Musial, but for some reason, I was a die-hard Yankee fan. Like half the boys in my generation, my hero was Mickey Mantle. In 1962, when my brother was born, I lobbied hard for my parents to name him Mickey Roger Austin because of the epic home run duel Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were involved with the previous summer. My efforts were in vain, and my brother carries the name Steve Austin (not the famous one).

I loved everything about Mickey Mantle. One of the first things I did every morning was tear through the sports page and find the box scores just to see how he did the day before. I never saw him play except for the occasional Saturday Game of the Week when the Yankees happened to play. I knew everything a 12-year-old boy could know about someone back in those pre-Internet times.heroes

Many years later, I learned the Mickey had an alcohol problem and that he liked to party, getting by on the verge of constantly being disciplined by the team. I didn’t know that, and I might not have believed it at the time. He was my hero. By the way, heroes will always disappoint us.

I have had other heroes over the years.

When I was a pastor far away from colleagues and libraries, I stumbled across a radio program called “Grace to You.” I loved the music at the beginning and end of the program— “Oh How He Loves You and Me.” I still catch myself singing it at times. The heart of the program was the preaching of John MacArthur, and for a young preacher thirsting for good Bible study, he was a life saver. I bought his books, followed his notes, used his material for my own sermon research. If I’m going to be totally honest, I’m sure I even preached a few of his sermons. He wasn’t a great preacher, but I thought he was an amazing teacher. He was a hero for me. Continue reading

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My Church Started Speaking Another Language (and it wasn’t unknown tongues)

Rodolfo has been taking care of my yard for three or four years. He does a great job and is one of the hardest working guys I know. I see him all over the neighborhood, mowing and trimming grass. He tends to residential lawns as well as commercial property. We got hooked up because he was doing my next-door neighbor’s yard and I needed someone. I caught him one day and suggested he could make us both a good deal since our yards were essentially one. He agreed.

He no longer does the yards of any of my immediate neighbors, but he still does mine. I’ve increased what I pay him, not because he has ever asked for more but just because I thought it was more fair.

Rodolfo is probably about 50 years old, has a couple of daughters in college, and a wife who sometimes works with him. He has long hair that hangs in a ponytail halfway down his back. Also, he speaks less English than I speak Spanish. Yet we communicate. If I need him to do something that requires complex explanation, I’ll leave a message on his phone and his daughter will call back and explain to her dad what I need. Done, it’s taken care of.Language

I like Rodolfo, and I think he likes me. We try to communicate beyond, “Buenos Dias,” and a few arm waves, but we don’t get much further. Until one of us bites the bullet and learns the language, Rodolfo and I will never be close friends. Communication is an integral part of relationships.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who build a relationship strictly on language and very little else. I guess the clearest example of this is our Facebook friends. I have 1,143 Facebook friends. I know that a few of that number have died, and a high percentage of those still living have never been in the same room with me at any time in our lives. We are friends only in the sense that we speak a common language.

I’ve lost many Facebook friends over the years because of the language I speak on Facebook. To be honest, none of my siblings are on my Friend’s List. They’ve never said anything, but I don’t think they like my politics. Since we speak a different language, we find it challenging to be Facebook Friends. (Don’t worry, in real life we are good.)

Only relating to those who speak the same language would be boring and unfulfilling. Who would do my yard for me? I guess I could hire some high school kid to mow the grass, but I’m not sure we would communicate any better.

If you only relate to those who speak the same language, you will find yourself isolated from much of the world. Do it long enough, and you essentially become useless to the world, since the only thing you know is the same things your friends already know. That’s why it’s dangerous to get all your news and information from one source and surround yourself with only people who see the world the same way you do. When that occurs, you don’t actually have a relationship; all you have is a common language.

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Bread

It is a fundamental New Testament principle that for a church to function properly, every member has a role to fulfill. For a period of time when we were a part of a group of believers calling ourselves, “Bread Fellowship,” I had several responsibilities, not the least of which was to provide the bread for our weekly communion observance. During our history, we tried several different approaches, but it seems the one that worked the best was for me to simply bring a small loaf of bread.

I am not unfamiliar with the workings of the Lord’s Supper. When I was a young child after our church observed the Supper, my sister and I would finish off the juice and bread that was leftover. I’m sure we were allowed to do this because my mother has never thrown away anything in her life. We always considered it a treat to be able to recreate the event before being hustled off to bed on Sunday night. I will confess now that I always hoped for a small crowd at church since that meant more leftovers for us later.

Early in ministry, it was necessary for me to begin developing a theology of the Lord’s Supper. I grew up in Colorado where my father had been a tenured pastor and a highly influential patriarch in the denomination. After graduating from college in Texas, I enrolled in seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The expectation was that upon completion I would return to Colorado to serve as a pastor. Daddy was in a position to make that happen.Bread

As seminary graduation approached, Daddy called and asked if I wanted to pastor a church in Colorado. After assuring him that was my plan, he mailed an information form that he would share with some available churches, and everything would be smooth. In addition to personal information, the form asked for my opinion on two issues—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

I knew that my position on the Lord’s Supper differed from my father, but he had also taught me to stand up for what I believed. I did and mailed it back to him. Since I was writing papers and reading textbooks, I didn’t give the information form much thought until it came back to me via the mail, along with a handwritten letter from my Dad. He asked me to change my answers to the two questions, and he would find a church for me. When I tell this story, people think I should have been surprised or offended or perhaps even insulted, but I wasn’t. Not only did Daddy teach me to stand up for what I believed, but he also taught me to expect the same from him. After I told him I couldn’t change my answers my fate was sealed. I never did serve a church in Colorado. The good news is that neither Daddy nor I had a problem with the interaction. Our relationship was not affected.

Instead, my incorrect Lord’s Supper theology led me to the Texas panhandle where I held the position of pastor for thirteen years. Being the pastor of the same church for thirteen years, I organized the Lord’s Supper in every way imaginable to avoid falling into a meaningless routine. One of the most memorable times was provided by an unexpected source. We had a young mother, Rosalinda, who gave her life to Jesus one evening in her home. She and her children began attending church every week, always sitting on the front row. She was growing in her faith every Sunday.

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Don’t Label Me a Heretic Until You Give This Some Thought

I wrote the following words in September of 2010, nearly nine years ago. Since that time, my path has led me away from what you might call the traditional church and to involvement with a home church. When I discovered this article, I thought it was interesting because it provides the seed that germinated into what I do today with church.

I have been in church all my life. My father was a pastor, and back in the early days, the church nursery was in the sanctuary, on my mother’s lap. The first church building, very early in my memory, was in a Quonset hut that doubled as a mechanic’s garage during the week. In case you don’t know, a Quonset hut was developed by the Navy during World War II as a prefabricated structure that could be erected by unskilled labor. After the war, the surplus buildings were sold for $1,000 each, and many are still standing to this day. If you remember the barracks buildings on the old Gomer Pyle television show, you have seen a Quonset hut.

I was taught from the beginning that church was a special thing, a very good thing, regardless of the meeting place. Church has always been where I found my friends. It has always been church folks who have most cared for me, prayed for me, provided for my needs, and helped me to grow up, and continue to help me grow in my faith. I met my wife at church and together we have spent countless hours serving Jesus by serving the church.wyliffe

For many years I was the pastor of a church, and for many years I have worked as a church consultant. I have been in numerous churches of all types and sizes. Just a couple of weeks ago I met a young seminary student named Jeremiah from Colorado. When I asked about his home church, he spoke of one that my parents had helped to start several years before he was even born. I have preached in his home church and told him that I knew their building originally was constructed as a duplex and later transformed into a church meeting place. It is a small world sometimes.

I have worshipped with churches that met in storefronts, former restaurants, school auditoriums, a daycare center, homes, tents, a former shopping mall (I’m not kidding), a high rise office building, the back of a print shop, and just about any type of structure imaginable. Christians have been very creative, and that is a good thing. I have also worshipped in beautiful, elaborate structures, filled with Christian symbols and stained glass windows. I have preached in large auditoriums where most folks watched me on a screen, and just recently I preached in a church that had no need for a sound system of any kind. Once I even preached to more than 7,000 people in a convention center.

I have worked with churches that were pastor-led, deacon-led, family-led, and poorly led. I have been immediately challenged about a point I made in a sermon, thrown out of a funeral, had a chicken slammed on my desk in the pastor’s office, listened to name calling and accusations during committee meetings, lied to, threatened, asked to referee a business meeting and a bunch of other stuff I can’t even remember. I have even left a church service early because I was afraid they were going to drag me up front and try to heal me. Just about the time I think I have seen everything at church, something else happens.

Through it all and in spite of it all – I love the church. I have given my life to the church, and it saddens me to ever see a church struggle. I cannot comprehend how disgruntled pastors or angry church members can viciously destroy a church.

I say all of the aforementioned things because I have a lingering question in my mind about the church that I think is important. First, I will state the question and then I will explain why I am asking. The question – should we invite lost people to church?

Your first reaction will be the same as mine, “Of course we should, that is what it is about.” That is what we have always been taught. The church has been given the Great Commission, to go into the entire world and preach the Gospel. Since I can first remember, I have understood the importance of inviting my lost friends to attend church with me. If they come, they will hear about Jesus and get saved. Even if I can’t muster the courage to bear a personal witness, at least I can invite them to church with me on Sunday. Church is where people go in order to be saved.

But, is that the way it should be? When the church gathers on Sunday morning, is the purpose to provide an evangelistic event?

That seems to be the way it is in most evangelical churches. I know some preachers who refuse to close a service without offering an invitation for salvation, even if nothing in the entire gathering led up to such an invitation. The reason this has become an issue for me is I have been doing considerable thinking about the way we do church nowadays. There are some trends in the church that disturb me, and probably you. Especially disconcerting is the move toward making church entertaining. Simultaneously, we have emphasized the importance of making church a comfortable place that meets everyone’s needs. For example, the idea of having church without state-of-the-art childcare is considered heresy.

Don’t bail out on me yet because I want to offer a thought. We all would agree theologically that the church consists of believers, followers of Christ. We have been told from childhood days that the church is not a building, it is people. When believers get together, it is essentially a gathering of the church, or in modern terminology – a church service. As believers, we desire to gather with other believers for the purpose of encouragement, prayer, strengthening, admonition, and just because we like to be with people we love.

I frequently wish the New Testament recorded more of the history of the early church, so I wonder what the gatherings of those first believers were like. They were a persecuted lot, so they often met in secret. To attend one of these meetings meant that you were serious about your commitment to Christ. They probably did not bring non-believers. First, why would they want to come and risk potential persecution? Second, it was probably not possible to trust unbelievers. Evangelism most likely took place in their homes, markets, street corners, and other gathering places.

Consequently, when the church (believers) gathered, it was for the purpose of worship, sharing the Lord’s Supper, instruction, fellowship, giving an offering (I had to get that one in there based on 1 Corinthians 16:2), and encouragement. If it was a gathering of believers, there was no need for evangelism. If I am correct that it would have been rare for non-believers to attend a church gathering, there was no need for evangelism. If that is the purpose for the gathering of the church, why do we structure our current church gatherings around the purpose of evangelism?

Before you go off screaming and accusing me of being some type of liberal heretic, let me hasten to add that I believe evangelism is an extremely important, even crucial task of the church. My question concerns the evangelism that occurs when the church gathers for what we normally call “worship,” the term we generally use to describe our Sunday morning gatherings. Is that the place for evangelism? If it is, when do believers get to experience the things that are only for believers – worship, Lord’s Supper, instruction, fellowship, giving an offering, and encouragement (see previous paragraph).

Perhaps this is why we have “worship wars” and worry about being offensive by passing the offering plate. I am not suggesting that we do not have evangelistic gatherings. However, they will probably look much different than gathering as the church. At such a rally it would be appropriate to be entertaining, relevant, non-offensive, motivating, exciting, and appealing. We could blanket zip codes with postcards, advertise with slick campaigns, preach sexy sermons, and all those things that are not necessary for the existing church family.

The church gathers because we are the church. Sometimes we will want to conduct special evangelistic events. However, we will probably discover that evangelism is more effective in our homes, markets, street corners, and other gathering places (again, see previous paragraph).

The concern I have for the church is that we are building these huge churches (I don’t know, but there are probably 25 mega-churches within Sunday morning driving distance of my house), but the number of people actually attending church each week is decreasing. Go figure! If it is true that true believers will gather with other believers and the number of folks gathering together is decreasing, our evangelism is not working. We are probably just reshuffling the deck and losing cards in the process.

It is hard, probably impossible, to plan a worship experience that is meaningful for believers and also appealing to non-believers. It is stressful as a pastor to create a sermon that speaks to the saved and lost at the same time. It is unlikely that we need to communicate the same things to folks who have different priorities, different destinies, and different lords. It may be time to rethink how we are doing this whole thing; at least I am going to continue thinking about it myself.

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My Inability to Mind My Own Business

Does anyone really know what LinkedIn is all about? It’s kind of like Facebook with less stupidity as near as I can tell. It seems that members are people who are either really proud of their occupation or else looking for an occupation that could be proud of. I set up an account years ago and only occasionally click over to see what’s happening.

I frequently get notifications of congratulations for the anniversary of my job, but I don’t know what that’s all about. The last few jobs I’ve had I just kind of gradually made a change from one job to the next that I have no idea what the anniversary would be. I feel like a married couple celebrating a wedding anniversary even though they lived together for years prior to the wedding. What’s the point?Gateway_Church_114_Campus

The other day I clicked on the LinkedIn site and at the top of the Home Page articles was a video posted by a young man on the subject of stewardship. Because of my long history of work on that subject, I gave it a view. He spoke of a book he was writing based on the stewardship teaching of Jesus. While reading through the Gospels, he was marking every verse that applies to stewardship and the book will be called “Jesus on Money.” He has 1,000 verses highlighted, and the plan is to categorize them so he can present them us in a way that help us understand stewardship.

The young man is an Executive Pastor at a megachurch in our city. Nearest I can tell, stewardship education is a part of his assignment. The church has a deep history of stewardship. Years ago when I was responsible for teaching stewardship to the 5,000 Baptist churches in Texas, I met with this man’s predecessor. One of the surprises was that he had a larger staff than I had and he was responsible for one church.

I know a few things about stewardship. The first book I ever wrote was on the subject, and it sold more than 300,000 copies. I also wrote numerous other books and material over the years. For a short time, all of the stewardship resources developed by the Southern Baptist Convention had evidence of my influence. However, it’s no secret that my views on church stewardship have radically changed over the years and what I believe now is nothing like what I believed then. But I do know what I’m talking about.

Given my stewardship background and my inability to ignore an opportunity to speak up, I typed a comment about his video: “An interesting first chapter for your book would be on what Jesus might say about churches that spend millions of dollars on buildings and staff salaries rather than giving to the poor.”

Not surprising, he responded: “If a church is only self focused then I’d say it isn’t very healthy. Terry Austin, have you written anything on this subject? I’d be interested to hear your personal generosity story and the exciting things God is doing through you to serve the poor.”

Of course, I had to say something: “I’ve written a great deal of material on Christian stewardship and my stewardship theology has evolved significantly over the years. I developed a capital fund raising program that generated a quarter of a billion dollars for church buildings and another that focused on church budgets. However, much of that theology has changed for me. My two latest books on the subject are “Authentic Stewardship” and “Why I Quit Going to Church” can be found at Amazon. Don’t let the title throw you off as there is an important emphasis on Christian stewardship.”

Before he could respond, I added: “Something else to think about. I have no idea how much money you give to your church but try to figure out how much of it makes its way to the poor. Last week, I gave cash and several large bags of clothes for refugees from South America and made a cash contribution to a woman in our neighborhood needing money for surgery her insurance won’t cover. It wasn’t a large amount, but probably more will go to the poor than what makes its way through most churches. The typical church spends 50% of income on staff salaries and 25-30% on building costs. The rest is used for things like childcare, youth activities, curriculum, denominational expenses, etc. Some churches have a food pantry, but most of those are stocked by non-profit money, not church donations. If you’re serious about wanting to help the poor, the church is not the place to go.”

His response was to invite me to come to his church and see all the great stuff happening. Obviously, he was not understanding what I was trying to say. If I’m misunderstood, I always assume it’s my fault.

So, I tried to make it clearer: “I’ve been to Gateway and 100’s of other churches just like it around the country. I met with the guy who I assume was your predecessor years ago when I was doing church stewardship. I’m not looking for a church doing “healthy ministry, many people coming to Christ and giving generously…” I know tons of generous givers, there is no shortage there. My concern is what the church is doing with their generosity. The church approach is to teach people to be generous and then turn around and use their generosity on themselves. Church are not giving to the poor, they are spending it on their own comfort. How many lives could be impacted with the millions of dollars Gateway spends on buildings and salaries each year?”

At this point he got angry and accused me of attacking his church and wanting him to quit his job. For some reason, he later deleted this comment.

In reply I said: I think you’re jumping the shark here. I began the conversation to encourage you to take biblical stewardship seriously and hopefully learn something that took me 30 years to learn. You’re the one who brought up your church. I have no reason to attack your church nor do I care if you quit your job or not. Neither do I have any interest in closing down churches. I simply think there might be a way to be the church that doesn’t require massive amounts of money. In your video, you expressed interest in identifying all the biblical passages about stewardship in the Bible, a concept that was first done by Larry Burkett. I worked with Larry for many years and when he came to the end of his life, he also came to the point of believing the way churches do things with stewardship needs serious alteration. If you stick with God’s Word long enough, you’ll probably come to that same conclusion yourself someday. My intent was to plant a seed and give you a head start. I apologize if you are offended, however, I’m not sorry for challenging you to think outside your own box.”

He admitted that he might have overacted but ended his part of the conversation with an additional statement about the greatness of his church.

The irony of all of this is that his church recently built a $35 million building in addition to multiple sites where they broadcast their Sunday services around the city. I don’t know for sure but I’m confident the number of paid staff members is in the hundreds if not more.

What will this young Executive Pastor find in the words of Jesus that speak to this use of money given by God’s people?

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The War on Christmas is Over

The U.S. war with Japan came to an abrupt end when two powerful bombs were dropped on the island nation, and thousands were killed. It was unmistakable that the only alternative to surrender was death. Some wars end that way—with a big bang. Other times, wars just kind of fizzle out. People look around and realize there is no longer any reason to fight.

There has been an enormous amount of talk the past few years about the War on Christmas. To be totally honest, the only ones I hear talking about it are a few sour headed Christians who seem to be upset that the rest of the world doesn’t celebrate Christ at Christmas. Apparently, Happy Holidays don’t belong in their world.War on Christmas

I started to think about this so-called “War on Christmas,” and it dawned on me that the war is already over. I looked around and paid attention to the evidence, and sure enough, it appears the Christians have lost the war.

As an observer of culture, this is my list of evidence that Christians have lost the War on Christmas:

  1. Christmas Eve services at church begin as early as 1:00, or in some cases this year, on Sunday the 23rd. If I’m not mistaken, the word “eve” refers to the evening before an event. Anything that happens before 6:00 pm on the 24th is not an evening event. Of course, the reason we start so early is that people have too much other stuff to do on Christmas Eve—Santa is on the way. A Christmas Eve service in the early afternoon is like an Easter Sunday service on Saturday—oh wait, some already do that as well.
  2. The highlight of Christmas is not Christ but giving gifts to one another. Use all the metaphorical language you like, but the bottom line is that giving gifts to one another at Christmas is not a representation of God’s gift to us.
  3. Jesus is an extremely minor part of the way we do Christmas. Most of our attention is given to family, decorations, food, gifts, shopping, and all the other stuff that fills our malls our family rooms.
  4. Church Christmas programs are over in early December because people don’t have time as Christmas day draws near.

If you think that Christians haven’t already lost the War on Christmas, you are like the Japanese soldiers found hiding in island caves two decades after Hiroshima. You haven’t heard the news that we surrendered years ago. Before you post that next meme about the War on Christmas, make sure Christ is more than an afterthought during your celebration.

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