The Future of the Local Association Part 1: Pastoral Training

In order for any organization to survive it must adapt. Walmart for example adapts all the time. They do not leave even the simplest things the same if increased productivity is possible.  If the local associations are going to survive, they are going to have to adapt. I choose the word adapt intentionally. Change is dangerous because it can be done with out purpose or only to accommodate the latest fad. Adapting however is intentional and meets a specific need. The local associations don’t need to go changing what they do, only adapting what they do in order to meet the current needs in the churches they serve. Below is the first way I believe the local association can adapt to not only survive but to lead our churches into the future.

Pastoral Training 

One of the strongest aspects of the local association as they now stand is the fellowship of pastors, as I wrote previously. Some say to become better you should focus on your weaknesses to make them stronger, and there is some truth to that. However, it seems even more productive if you improve something you are already doing well. If associations can take that time of pastoral fellowship and adapt it or build upon it to form some kind of pastoral training, great things would happen in our associations and our churches.

Many associations serve churches were very few pastors have formal theological training. This is the case not because the pastors don’t want training, but because they don’t have access to it. These men crave the knowledge and experiences some of their colleagues received in seminary. I am extremely confident that the local association can secure its place in the future of Christian life if they would become training outposts for pastors all over the nation.

My experience here in the Cross Church School of Ministry has taught me that training, even formal training, is possible in any setting, and seminaries are ready and willing to work with churches to provide it. The only issue is finding funding and qualified teachers, but I’m willing to bet both of those things exist in almost every association. Not every church has the resources to start a pastoral training program, and not every church has enough men desiring training to warrant such a program anyway, but the association as a whole does.

If the association partnered with a seminary such as Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary they could take advantage of the EQUIP program and other programs like it. In this program a student can earn as many as 30 hours toward his Mdiv without ever entering a classroom. The best part is that these classes can be taught by anyone with post masters level work. The seminary provides the curriculum and does all the accreditation, but the teaching is done by men who have faithfully served in the trenches of ministry. On top of that, the teachers actually receive a stipend from the school instead of paying in to the school. The future of theological education is found in programs like these.

Imagine if there was a localized organization that serves as a hub for an area of local churches where such a program could be hosted. Oh wait, such a place already exists… the local association.

 

Pastoral Fellowship Leads To Church Health

Every Tuesday morning the pastors of the North Canadian Baptist Association (NCBA) gather for a time of fellowship, encouragement, and prayer. These men actively pray for each other and share about what is happening in their local churches, but the most beneficial aspect of these meetings is simply hanging out with other pastors. One of the greatest benefits provided by any local association is the fellowship of pastors. Most churches do not have large staffs, so the work can become quite lonely. Providing some sort of fellowship for the pastors can help alleviated some of that stress and consequently improve the health of the pastor and his church. These fellowships will help…

Prevent Pastoral Burnout 

My pawpaw once told me the story about the pastor who used to watch the train roll through town every day. When asked about the unusual habit, he would simply reply, “I watch the train because it is the only thing in this town that I’m not pushing or pulling.” Sadly, the load carried by many pastors is heavier than anyone in his congregation realizes, and in most churches the pastor is carrying that load by himself. He has no one to talk to about his problems, and if something goes wrong, he is the one to call. Overtime, this can lead to pastoral burnout. However, the local association and the pastors who participate provide an excellent remedy for burnout. Simply being around other pastors and hearing that they are dealing with many of the very same issues can really help reduce burnout.

The Tuesday morning pastors’ fellowship at the NCBA is usually followed by lunch and, if the weather permits, golf. Some of the greatest learning experiences I have had in the ministry have happened around the lunch table. These lunches are about much more than just good food, it is an opportunity for the pastors to build one another up. Never underestimate the power of a lunch or a round of golf to lift the spirit of the pastor. Regularly participating in these simple things is like staying up to date on vaccinations to prevent pastoral burnout.

Increase Pastoral Tenure

I know this information is only anecdotal, but I do believe there is something to it. The pastors in the NCBA seem to stay at their churches longer than the national averages. The average is around 4 years, but in that particular association many of the pastors have been there since I was in high school, and some even longer than that. I think one of the major contributing factors to the extended tenure is the quality of the fellowship provided by the Director of Missions and the pastors of the association.

It is much easier to stay somewhere when hard times come if you have such a solid support system. When I had a hard week, I always knew that there would be a circle of great men waiting to encourage me and push me forward at the associational office on Tuesday morning. That group of men made my first years in the pastorate, mistakes and all, a truly wonderful  experience. If that was true for me, I am sure the others feel the same way, and I am quite confident that this reality helps them stay in their churches much longer than the statistics suggest.

Promote Church Health 

Healthy pastors lead healthy churches. The association has a direct impact on church health every time they schedule a pastors’ breakfast or a mere round of golf. If pastoral fellowship has such a strong effect on the health of the pastor, and I believe it does, than every step taken to help him is helping the church as a whole. If pastors are staying in churches longer and they are not dealing with the issues associated with burnout, than  our churches will be the better for it. The good news is that any local association can provide opportunity for pastors to fellowship. Which means that every association can take great steps toward promoting healthy churches with even the smallest of means. Let the North Canadian Baptist Association serve as a positive example of how this can actually work out.

 

 

Is The Local Association Finished?

A lot of people are asking if there is still a place for the local association in SBC life, and my answer is a firm YES. I am not going to deny the reality that many local associations are virtually lifeless, but I am also not ready to write them all off as obsolete organizations of antiquity. Churches could be greatly benefitted by having a healthy association in their corner.

I pastored a small church in small-town Oklahoma that, when I arrived, was having some very difficult conversations. The goal was to just keep the doors open one week at a time, but when I left, the church was in an entirely different situation. There were several factors that fueled that turnaround, and one of the largest was our local association and director of missions. He believed in me and in our little church. When everyone else thought we were done, he was ready to invest more. He gave us his time and attention. For example, on more than one occasion the association chose to serve our church for their summer mission trip. One summer, groups from the churches came to our facilities and helped us demolish an old parsonage that was becoming a hazard to the community. This was a project that would have cost our church thousands of dollars that we did not have, but the whole thing was done free of charge. Nothing gets a church excited like having heavy machinery on the property. In fact, the local newspaper came out and took pictures of the project and published a story in the paper informing the community about the progress of our church. The community knew that our church was not out for the count, because of the work of the local association.

We need to revive local associations all over the country, because there is no other organization out there that is on the ground serving our churches on such a personal level. Sure there is work to be done, and the system is not perfect, but it will definitely be worth the investment. My story is not unique, and I know there are churches out there who are crying out for help and a dedicated local association might just be the answer they have been looking for. Over the next few weeks I am going to be addressing some issues concerning local associations and my vision for their future. I also want to dedicate these blogs to DuWayne Colvin the director of mission for the North Canadian Baptist Association in Oklahoma.

Hermeneutics?

One the biggest issues I have faced in my short life as a pastor is the widespread practice of bad biblical interpretation. The hermeneutic of even the most conservative churches is lacking to say the least. We say we believe that the Bible is totally inerrant and infallible, yet our practices communicate something far different. I am not innocent when it comes to this issue, and I have made my fair share of borderline heretical interpretations. However, there are simple principles that can and should be taught in local churches to promote a healthy hermeneutic.

  1. Authorial Intent

There has been no other principle that has helped my hermeneutic more than the principle of “authorial intent.” This is the principle that seeks out the intention of the original author before making personal application. Most errant interpretations can be avoided by applying this practice. Here is a simple phrase that helps when looking for the author’s intent, “The author cannot mean what he did not mean to mean.” In other words, the Bible reader does not ask the question, “What does this mean to me?” until he first asks, “What did it mean to the author and his audience?” Applications may change, but the author’s intent remains the same, and as long as application is closely tied to and informed by the authorial intent you can guarantee an accurate interpretation and application.

2. Chronological Bible Storying

Most people are quite familiar with the stories of the Bible. They know about Noah’s ark, Abraham’s obedience, David’s kingdom, the Christmas narrative, Jesus walking on the water, and the resurrection, but do our people know the Story of the Bible? The stories in the Bible and the Story of the Bible are two different animals. There should be knowledge among our churches about God’s story as a whole. There is no reason why they should not all know the events within the story and how they fit together chronologically and theologically to form the greatest narrative in history. Interpretation is greatly aided by understanding where the events in the text fall chronologically within the overarching story. This principle provides clarity to texts Jeremiah 29:11 or Acts chapter 2. Simply recognizing where you are in the Story puts up some safe guards to promote proper interpretation.

3. Literary Background

Literature is a subject that gets people super excited, but when we are talking about the Word of God we are talking about written words collected in a book. Therefore, we must use some literary principles in hermeneutics. One such principle is genre. There are different styles of literature in the Bible, there is poetry, prophecy, and letters to name a few. Understanding genre is greatly beneficial because it can add clarity to some difficult passages. For example you cannot read a letter the same way you read a poem. Letters are situational and they are part of correspondence, and poetry is artistic and expressive. Both communicate truth and both are inspired by God, but they are not one in the same. Interpret the text with knowledge of the genre.

Another literary principle is called immediate context. A proper interpretation can only by found in reference to the surrounding text and the book as a whole. No one reads a book this way, but we do it all the time with the Bible. A verse means what it means because it is part of a larger paragraph, a book as a whole, and the entire story of the Bible. The best corrector to this issue is expository preaching!

4. Historical Background

Knowing the historical background is not as easy to find as the other principles, but it is equally as important. New Testament letters are the easiest example to prove the necessity of historical background. As stated above, a letter must be read like a letter, therefore there is an author and a recipient. The best interpretation of a letter can be found when the reader gains as much information about the historical situation of both the author and his audience. For example, the term “antichrists” in 1 John 2 is far less threatening when you understand the situation the audience finds themselves in. The best part about this example is that the historical information can be found within the text itself. There are those in this particular church that are leaving the fellowship and not only that, but they are promoting a false doctrine trying to take others with them. This knowledge makes it quite clear that they are the antichrists that John is talking about, not some eschatological figure. Historical background information should be gathered to the fullest extent possible, avoiding speculation and not banking on extra-biblical sources, but nonetheless taught in our churches to help promote good hermeneutics.

5.  Context!

Context is king in biblical hermeneutics. All of the other principles flow out of this one. Isolated biblical proof texting has done great harm to the church, because it does not teach people how to read scripture. It promotes selfish hermeneutics wherein, if the reader cannot see what a verse means to him or her, he or she simply skips over it to find another one. Therefore the book of Leviticus becomes completely obsolete in every regard. However, understanding context by finding the authorial intent, recognizing where you are in the story, and researching the literary and historical background can give insight into the interpretation and promote the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

In conclusion, the church may struggle with biblical interpretation, but it is a fixable problem. We MUST teach our people hermeneutics because of what we believe about the Bible. I believe in the 100% inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, I believe that it is the literal Word of God, therefore I commit to practicing and teaching good hermeneutics.

 

 

 

 

4 Necessary Factors of Church Music

After discussing some general thoughts and observations about church music I am now going to provide some practical application.

  1. Our Music Must Be Singable

If the purpose of our music is for congregational singing, than practically speaking the congregation must be able to sing the music. I have noticed a few trends in worship services that actually discourage congregational singing. The first is what is often called the wall of sound. It isn’t necessarily about the volume, although that is a factor, but it is about the amount of energy and sound coming from the front of the room. The guitar riffs are cool and I’m glad we have them in our services, and the drums keep the music from being just unbearable boring, but sometimes the worship band produces so much sound that you can’t hear anything around you. While in some pews that may be a blessing, it defeats the purpose of the music in the first place. The goal is to sing as a congregation and to do so we must be able to hear each other. The wall of sound should be coming from the pew to the front not from the front to the pew.

Another factor that is discouraging congregational singing is the register in which the songs are played. I have been in services that have just completely worn my voice out because the songs are so high, and I am a natural tenor. The people on the stage are up there for a reason, they are highly talented, but not all of us bear those same gifts. I believe congregational singing would greatly increase by just lowering the keys of some of our songs.

The third factor that is discouraging congregational singing is the room itself. We turn off all the house lights, paint the ceilings and walls dark colors, and then put blindingly bright lights pointed toward the stage. We are designing and setting up our worship centers in ways that communicate something entirely different than our message. We are telling everyone to focus on the front of the room rather than congregational singing.

I am not just going to be negative about the singability factor, because I have also seen some great things happening in worship services. I am thrilled to see the return of hymns, not because I’m stuck in the mud and think we need to return to the good ole hymnals, but because hymns are meant to be sung. The hymn does nothing but promote congregational singing. The new hymns being written are going to one day find themselves among the great classics we all know so well.

2. Our Music Must Be Sustainable

As I said previously I am optimistic about the trend toward singable songs, and I love to listen to new ones as they come out, but there is something trulls special about singing a song that was sung by the great-grandparents of my grandparents. If our music truly does provide a common heritage as I wrote in a previous post, than the music we sing in church must have some element of sustainability. The song “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” has been song for going on 500 years, yet the song “Into Marvelous Light I’m Running” has disappeared into an oblivion never to be sung again. This factor must be considered when selecting songs for congregational singing. Just because a song is new and popular doesn’t mean you should sing it in your church, we must sing sustainable music, and lots of na na’s and la la’s just aren’t going to cut it.

3. Our Music Must Have Sound Theology

No one can deny the fact that music is memorable and music is a great teacher, that has already been covered. The practical outworking of this is that our music must have sound theology. I think this is one of the factors that not only makes a song sustainable, but even singable. The people can hold on to the words because they are so dear and true. For example, I cannot sing the words, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, Lord take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above,” without being overcome with reverence and worship for my God. Likewise, the newer song Hallelujah! What a Savior stir me in the same way. Here is a sample from one of the verses,  “O Guilty, vile, and helpless me; Spotless Lamb of God was He; Full atonement! can it be? Hallelujah! What a Savior! Lifted up was He to die; ‘It is finished!’ was His cry; Now in Heaven exalted high Hallelujah! What a Savior!” Our songs MUST have good theology, there is no exception to this rule. Artistry is necessary, but not in place of sound theology. Nothing will improve the congregational singing more than the people singing good theology!

4. Our Music Must Be Excellent

Lastly, and most practically, our music must be done with excellence. We cannot sacrifice quality for style or trends. It would be better to do old music well than new music poorly. There is no point in doing bad music. I’m not saying every church needs to higher professional musicians, but I am saying that if worship is as important as we say it is, than our musicians shouldn’t be out of practice or ill-equipped. A little practice goes a long way, and choosing music that fits your group’s abilities can make it sound so much better.

By the way, the excellent factor has nothing to do with church size. I have seen some bad music in large churches and I have seen some trulls great music in the smallest of churches. The point is not to become more performance based, but to honor the Lord with the best of our abilities. Our congregations will be the better for it. What ever it is that your church does musically, do it well!

 

-Brayden L. Buss

Church Music Part 2

Church music is often called sacred music. It is given the title sacred because it is set apart from all other music. In this second post on church music I am going to discuss a few things that make church music distinct. These are just general observations and are in no way exhaustive, but they show why church music is sacred.

  1. Church Music Provides a Common Heritage

Music changes frequently from year to year, styles come and styles go, but church music has some elements that are quite constant. Sure the expressions of sacred music have changed over the years, and that is needed. However, there is something great about our music that is passed down through the generations. In other words, our music has provided a common heritage for our people. My great-grandparents and I sang some of the very same songs. Of course there are some church songs that come and go, never to be heard again (i.e. Into Marvelous Light I’m Running or God of Earth and Outer Space), but there are songs like A Mighty Fortress is Our God that we have been singing for almost 500 years. There is something to be said for the fact that the young and the old can gather together and sing songs together from memory. There will always be a need for new music, but only the church has music that can be treasured by generations of the past and the generations to come.

2. Church Music is Corporate

One of the key factors that sets our music apart is that it is written to be sung by groups of people. The sound of the coin hitting the bottom of the offering plate is not the sweetest sound to our Lord, but rather I believe that He is greatly pleased by the sound of the unified voices of congregational singing. When the church gathers and sings a song from our common heritage, the sound that follows is unmatched anywhere else. Our music is not just preformed, it is not just well written notes and melodies, it sung. It is all about the voices of the people working together to glorify God.

If you ever get the chance to attend chapel at Southeastern Seminary you should definitely take advantage of that. I quickly found that the preachers are exceptional, including some of the greatest preachers in the nation. However, it was the music that really set the chapel experience apart. It isn’t the quality on the stage that will stand out to you, but the voices of the seminarians that will really let you know you are in a special place. Obviously the crowd is primarily men, who for the most part are the gender of silence when it comes to congregational singing, but this is not true in chapel. These young preacher boys, talented or not, sing loud for the Lord. The whole crowd sings, and there is truly nothing like it. I wish everyone could hear the sound of hundreds of preachers and theologians singing loud the words, “Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise.” That sound is proof that our music is sacred, and that is the sound heard every time the church gathers.

3. Church Music Praises God

The most obvious distinction about church music is the worship factor. Our music is written to bring praise to God — we sing with purpose. Just look at the lyrics from a few of our sacred songs, Lord I lift your name on high, Oh praise the name of the Lord our God, bless the Lord oh my soul, how great thou art, holy, holy, holy, Jesus Lamb of God worthy is your name, etc. The words of our songs are very intentionally written to praise the Lord. However it is not just the words themselves that are worshipful, but the music itself. In Psalm 33 the psalmists declares that the Lord is to be praised with singing and with various instruments. The Lord is worthy to be praised, and it should be done with in as many different expressions as possible. Our music is sacred because it praises God.

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
    Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
    make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
    play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

-Psalm 33:1-3

 

Church Music

Music has always been and will always be a major component of the Christian faith. The styles of that music, and even the way it is used has changed dramatically over the years, but nevertheless there has always been music. When Jesus and his disciples left the upper room after the Last Supper they sang a hymn together; Paul charges the Ephesian church to sing hymns, psalms and spiritual songs; and even in the Old Testament we have the vast collection of Psalms, some of which were written for the choirmaster. The Jewish religious system had an entire office devoted to music. Our modern churches do the same thing, the second hire every church makes after the pastor is a minister of music, song director, worship pastor, or whatever you want to call it. The point is, that music is VERY important!

Over the next several weeks I am going to be writing on the issue of church music. I am going to cover the practice of church music and the theology/philosophy that is behind it. First, I want to just point out some of the reasons why music is so important to the faith.

  1. Music teaches the theology

The first reason music is so important to our faith is that it teaches theology. I am an analytical person, which at times makes me a little less than artistic, so this first point comes from that perspective. Most people think of music in strictly artistic or even emotional terms, but we cannot limit it to just those realities. Music speaks to multiple aspects of our persons. Music is artistic, but it is also didactic.

I am not naive, I know that most people don’t learn their theology from my sermons, they learn it from the songs we sing. The lyrics, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, ” forever shape our doctrine of grace. It teaches us that our salvation comes to us not because we deserve it, but because we are wretched without His grace. Also reflect on the lyrics of this classic children’s song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.” That song has been used for many years to teach children the story in Luke 19, and you may think it is cheesy, but I come back to it every time I read teach that section of scripture. Whoever is picking the songs, must recognize that he or she is actually informing the theology of the church, whether he knows it or not.

2. Music stirs emotions

Teaching and preaching are my passion, but music does something words cannot do–it stirs emotions. A song, with or without words, can make you stop whatever it is your doing and just think, reflect, or even cry. I know it isn’t manly to talk about such things, but it is true. Only a song can take you back to “that moment” whatever it may be, only a song can make your mind be silent to hear your heart think. Think about just how different it would be to watch Rocky run up those stairs without the music in the background, or how boring Star Wars would be to watch with out the genius work of John Williams. As a communicator I am almost envious of the power that can be communicated with even the most simple song.

For this reason, music is of the upmost importance. We are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and music helps us do that. Even the most intellectual, heady type person needs music to help him or her relate to God. If not, we are leaving out a vital part of our worship, and neglecting a large part of God’s design for humanity. We are emotional beings, and there are some things that can only be communicated through song.

3. Music is memorable

Thirdly, music is memorable. Think about all the songs we can quote word for word, even the ones that we haven’t heard for many years. For some reason, the lyrics to songs just stick with us forever. I can flawlessly quote almost all the worship songs from the 90’s and early 2000’s because that is the music we sang week after week in the church a grew up in. I know the words of almost all the hymns because those are the songs we sang at the first church I pastored. I will always be able to know those songs, and know them well. Church music is important because when the people leave, they may forget the words to the sermon, but they cannot forget the words to the songs. They may be able to quote the pastor on Sunday afternoon for their twitter accounts, but people can sing the songs for the rest of their lives. If we can remember the songs so well, we must be more intentional about the music of the church.