Category Archives: Ministry

The Unfairness of God

During our Sunday morning gathering today, the discussion wandered into the subject of the unfairness of life. I don’t know about you, but even though life has been good to me, it has not been fair.

Many years ago, when my mind was quicker and my decision-making ability keener, I was hired to work in communications at the police department in the northern suburbs of Denver. It was the place where they answer the 911 calls and talk on the radio to police and other emergency responders. They were desperately seeking someone with my skill set and experience, so to entice me to leave the job I already had, they offered me more money than normal. That kind of opportunity does not come around very often, so I took the position.

However, it created a rather awkward situation where I was making more money than my supervisor. I was sworn to secrecy, and I did my part to keep my salary to myself. After several months, somehow, she discovered how much I was being paid and, needless to say, she did not take the news well. For some reason, she chose to take out her frustration on me.Unfairness of God

Her salary had nothing to do with me. Before I arrived, she was content with her wages. When she discovered that I was making more money, all of sudden she felt that she was being treated unfairly. Although she and I never discussed the situation, it was not a good environment. She blamed me for the fact that she was treated unfairly.

I have thought about this experience many times over the years as I have seen how people like to compare their income with the incomes of those around them. Many of us like to determine our value by the wages we earn, so when someone makes more money, they must be a better person in some way. Jesus told us that money is a powerful force.

However, the real issue for my supervisor was fairness. It was not fair that she was paid less even though she was in charge and had seniority. We like to speak of being treated fairly. That is all that we really want – just give us our fair share. The word “fair” means to be just, reasonable, or impartial.

Jesus spoke a parable about this kind of fairness (see Matthew 20). A landowner hired a group of laborers to work his field all day for an agreed upon price. The task was larger than first thought, so he returned every few hours to secure more laborers. This process continued all day, until the eleventh hour, just sixty minutes before the end of the day. The early morning crew must have been curious all day long, wondering how much the late arrivers were going to be paid.

They did not wait long to find out since the ones who arrived late were the first to be paid. The early risers must have been very excited to note that the late arrivers received a full day’s pay. That must mean they would be paid extra, the only fair thing to do. However, their excitement turned quickly into despair and then anger when they realized they would only receive the agreed upon price they had negotiated at the beginning of the day. Those who worked one hour were paid the identical amount as those who labored all day. That does not seem fair!

However, what the laborers defined as “unfairness,” the landowner called it “generosity.” He was completely fair since he had kept his word and paid them as promised. Their problem was his generosity toward others.

If you have lived more than a few years with your eyes open, you have discovered that we do not live in a fair world. We are all distinguished by a unique set of physical characteristics, mental capabilities, and life experiences. I have been blessed with abundance in many ways, but it is not fair that I have never been able to simply stand up and walk across the room. As long as we reside in this world, unfairness will be a part of our experience.

An equally important truth is that we really do not want fairness from God. I don’t want God to give me what I deserve; what I earn. I hope and pray that He is generous. That is why we should never begrudge His generosity toward others.

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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 Heartbreak of Exposed Sin, or What’s With All this Blackface Stuff?

I grew up in Denver, not in the racially divided south. I remember all the race riots in the late ’60s but racism wasn’t really a part of my world. My first real job was at a radio station in downtown Denver. The station played what was known then as “soul music.” Today, it would probably be “hip hop,” although I know little about music genres. I reported the news. Along with a guy called “Funky Frank,” we were the only two white guys who worked at the station, and I never gave it any thought. The only roommate I had in college was black.

When it was time to go to seminary, Sharon and I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and I experienced my initial encounters with segregation. One experience that stands out clearly was when a friend went to interview with a church in Georgia about being their pastor. He told me that the only question he was asked was what he would do if a black man wanted to join the church. This was about the time that Jimmy Carter’s church in Georgia was in the news because black people wanted to join.Blackface

I was flabbergasted that my friend wasn’t upset about the question. He was from Georgia, so he wasn’t surprised. I told him that it would have been the only question they would ever ask me because I would immediately leave. I’ve always been kind of hot-tempered that way.

They did invite him to be the pastor, and later when we visited, I came across something else new to me. All the white people in town sent their kids to private schools, so they didn’t have to attend a segregated school. Although his only child at the time was young, the church promised to provide the funds for private school when he became school age.

This would have been in the mid-’70s. In my own naive world, I thought racism was a thing of the past. It wasn’t, and it still isn’t.

Now, here we are in 2019 holding people from the south accountable for things they did back in those days. It certainly doesn’t surprise me that people were doing racist things at that time, it was their way of life. I doubt if you must look very hard to find a politician in Virginia, or Georgia, or Alabama, or a myriad of other places in the south who grew up believing they were better than blacks.

To be honest, I’m a bit conflicted about whether dragging up the embarrassing past is a good thing. All of us have done things in the past that were stupid, and we don’t want them to be used against us now that we have more sense. If you didn’t do something stupid when you were young, then you were probably boring and had few friends.

On the other hand, if what you did was something that continues to cause hurt and embarrassment then you probably need to do something about it. For example, if you made an unwanted pass toward a girl when you were in college, it might be a good idea to apologize and seek her forgiveness before you are forced into contrition by outside forces. In other words, don’t wait until you’re caught before making something right.

A politician today has known for years that dressing up in blackface is wrong and hurtful to many. The apology should have been made years ago. Since it wasn’t, now they must face the music. Admittedly, some who turned out to be good people when they finally matured are going to be dragged down by all of this. However, if they really are good people, perhaps a confession prior to getting caught would have been helpful.

James 1:16 provides some helpful guidance about the value of being honest within a community: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

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The Silence of God

During my first few years of college, my father changed jobs. He went from being pastor of a local church to what was called, an “Associational Missionary.” Old-time Baptists will know what that means. For the rest of you, he was essentially a resource person for the Denomination to help churches in the state of Colorado.

He moved his office to the basement of our house. This meant bookshelves filled with interesting books, a virtual playground for a young man who had always loved to read. I distinctly remember one of the books that captured my fascination. It was a book of sermons by a German pastor, Helmut Theileke, titled, “The Silence of God.” Theileke was a pastor during the war, and the book was a collection of sermons preached to a congregation trying to survive Allied bombing.the_silence_of_god

The sermons are thoughtful, and I’ve re-read the book several times (I see it on a self as I write these words). However, I think it’s the title that made the book stick in my mind. In the five decades since I first read that book, I have heard the silence of God many times. If I’m honest, the silence of God is more common than the voice of God. In fact, even when He speaks, it’s often little more than a whisper.

I’ve heard the silence of God several times recently.

Yesterday afternoon we drove the few blocks to the nursing home where my mother lives. She’s soon to be ninety-three years old. After breaking her hip a year ago, she only gets around via a wheelchair. Other than that, her health is remarkable for a woman her age. If only her mind were as healthy, then I would not be writing about the silence of God.

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Faith Healers

Anyone who knows anything about me is aware that I am physically handicapped. As a consequence of a bout with polio, I have spent my entire life walking on crutches or sitting in a wheelchair. I’m not saying that because I want sympathy—I don’t need or want it. I refer to my physical condition to indicate that I have some experience with the subject at hand.

My mother told me a long time ago that it would break her heart when I saw a preacher named Oral Roberts on TV healing people. She told me that she couldn’t help me understand why that kind of healing never happened for me. If healing was the result of prayer, then something was wrong because I know my parents prayed endlessly for me.

When I was a teenager, a group of friends insisted that I go to a revival meeting with them in downtown Denver. The preacher was a man named Morris Cerullo. I had never heard of him, but apparently, he had a reputation for healing people. I wasn’t too excited, but I went with them. When we arrived at the arena, we couldn’t get in because the crowd was too large. Perhaps if my friends had been more like the men who cut through the roof to get their friend around their crowds to see Jesus, things might have turned out differently for me.Faith Healers

As I came to recognize God’s call to the ministry, one of the biggest challenges I faced was my physical limitations. Friends encouraged me in different ways. Some assured me that God would provide and make it possible. A few others suggested that it meant God was going to heal me and allow me to walk. That would have been quite a jump start to ministry.

While in college to prepare, some well-meaning friends organized a special prayer meeting for my healing. They gathered around me as I sat in a chair and we all prayed. I can honestly say that as far as possible, I believed. I remember thinking it was important that I take the first step, so I mustered up as much strength as possible in my legs and tried to stand. Instead, I fell to the floor.

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