A Prayer for Independence Day 2016

God of all grace and goodness, as we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, we are beaming with gratitude. From the beginning you have revealed yourself to be a freedom loving God. Throughout history you have taught your people to pursue and cherish freedom.

This week as we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, we are thankful for our spiritual and national heritage, yet we are also concerned for our future.

We are thankful for the privilege of living in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We are grateful for unequaled liberties that allow us to freely make choices about our work, our worship, our ideology, and lifestyle. We are indebted to past and present veterans who risked life and limb in the pursuit and protection of these liberties.

From the “mountains to the prairies” we are inspired by some of the most spectacular and diverse landscapes on our planet. From “sea to shining sea” we are privileged to draw from a treasure trove of the world’s natural resources. We have access to comfortable housing, the best in healthcare, a more than adequate wardrobe, and an abundance of favorite foods. We are blessed far beyond our deserving.

During this season of celebration, we must also confess to you our concerns and appeal to you for guidance. Regardless of our personal ideology or perspective, we are concerned about things like the abuse of political power, the threat of terrorism, the divisiveness of harsh and misleading rhetoric, the lack of civil discourse, a growing sense of moral anarchy, and the possibility of another natural disaster. These concerns lead to an elevated sense of anxiety about the integrity of our government, the stability of our economy, and the future of our world.

And we confess that these anxieties all too frequently divert us from our mission to “minister to the least of these,” and to “love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly” with you.

These concerns and anxieties also remind us of our need to confess our sins, personally and corporately. We confess that we have too often taken our freedom for granted and we have too frequently been negligent in living up to the responsibilities of our citizenship. We confess that at times we are too quick to judge and quicker to criticize. We confess that we are slow to intercede and slower to trust in your providential care.

We confess that our self-interests have too often taken priority over the best interest you have in mind for our nation and for our world. We confess that we have been irresponsible in our stewardship of “our space and our stuff,” often consuming and storing compulsively without conscious regard for sharing. We confess that we have too often trusted in our own initiatives and ingenuity more than we have trusted in you.

You tell us in time-tested scripture that, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (II Chronicles 7:14)

As we celebrate this Independence Day, we ask you to forgive our sin and to heal our land.

On this day, we pray for the leaders of our nation, our state, and our community that they will lead with wisdom and courage.

We pray that in the upcoming election we will vote with discernment and conviction, and that we will support and pray for all who are elected.

We pray for the men and women who serve in our military that they will fulfill their humanitarian mission and return home safely and soon.

We pray for our enemies that their swords will also be “turned into plowshares,” even as we long for that day when the “lion will lie down alongside the lamb.”

We pray for the churches, cathedrals, and temples of our community and our world that they will be lighthouses of grace and peace, ever pressing toward the mark of our high calling.

Because you are the freedom-loving God, lead us to exercise our freedom responsibly and to pursue “liberty and justice for all” people around the globe.

We pray in the strong name of the One who came to deliver us from evil and to make us free indeed. Amen.

(Barry Howard serves as Lead Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)

Celebrate Religious Liberty: Exercise Your Freedom to Worship

by Barry Howard

Fire up the grill. Crank up the ice cream churn. Prepare for the fireworks show.  Hum along to a little John Phillips Sousa. It’s Fourth of July weekend.

July 4th is a time to give thanks for our unrivaled freedom, and a great time to highlight and celebrate our religious liberty. Religious liberty refers to the right to worship freely without fear of persecution. Yet religious liberty also protects citizens from compulsory religious participation. In other words, our government is to neither compel nor dissuade our participation in worship.

Noting the catastrophes that had occurred historically when the government becomes the guardian of the church, our nation’s founders strategically planned their new government with a wall of separation between church and state.  When tempted to tear down that wall we should not forget the words of Isaac Bachus, a noted Baptist minister who served during the era of the American revolution: “When Church and State are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other; but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.”

While many of us plan to celebrate our nation’s independence with picnics, barbeques, and ballgames, I hope we will also seize the opportunity to celebrate religious freedom by exercising our freedom to worship. Since religious liberty is a core distinctive among Baptists and a core motive in our country’s founding, gathering with a faith community to participate in worship is a particularly appropriate way to celebrate.

Our Baptists ancestors were among the many who contended for religious liberty for all faiths. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States confirms that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As citizens of these United States, we enjoy more comprehensive freedom than any other nation on earth, but let us never forget that with great freedom comes great responsibility.

In light of our religious liberty, let us pray fervently for those who live in regions of the world that are subject to harsh religious persecution. As we freely choose where and when to worship, let us remember our brothers and sisters who will gather anxiously but faithfully in underground churches, taking risks unfamiliar to most of us, in order to worship God and gather with their fellow believers.

In my years of experience as a pastor, I have noted that joining regularly with other believers to worship nurtures spiritual growth, fosters moral character and encourages humanitarian service. Hebrews 10:25 reminds us, “Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting for worship, but we must not do that. We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer” (CEV).

To neglect the opportunity to gather for worship and Bible study is to trivialize the tremendous price paid for our freedom to assemble without fear of reprisal or repercussion. Perhaps the most detrimental symptom of historical amnesia is the tendency to take freedom for granted.

You and I can best celebrate and preserve our liberty by exercising the privileges that accompany our extraordinary freedom. This month is a prime opportunity to celebrate. Whether you spend the time at home or on the road, make plans for a fun and festive day with family and friends celebrating our nation’s independence. Take time to give thanks for our great heritage and to pray for our nation’s leaders.

Most importantly, celebrate religious liberty by exercising your freedom to worship. And respect the freedom of others to choose when, how or if they worship. For if one group among us loses their religious freedom, religious liberty will be in jeopardy for us all.

(Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida)

12 Healthy Trends Emerging in Revitalizing Churches

by Barry Howard

There are a lot of adjectives that can be used to describe churches: Vibrant churches, mega churches, healthy churches, dying churches, transitioning churches, and emerging churches, just to name a few.

While some may propose that vitality and relevance only exist in new church starts, there are many churches typically considered to be traditional churches, flagship churches, or big steeple churches that are undergoing a healthy process of revitalization.

There are a multitude of reasons that contribute to the need for revitalization.  Almost every church is faced with generational attrition, a more mobile constituency, cultural shifts, increased diversity, and adjudicatory or denominational restructuring.  Additionally, many churches have been adversely affected by natural disasters, congregational conflict, unpleasant leadership transitions, and changing neighborhoods.

Churches should be careful not to fall prey to “quick fix” strategies of church growth, “canned programs” that often cause more harm than good. Most churches actually need to focus on church health, which leads to the right kind of growth. There are no shortcuts to revitalized church health. I have observed that healthy congregations grow in healthy ways, and unhealthy congregations tend to grow to be more and more unhealthy. Revitalizing is the process of restoring a healthy vision, good congregational morale, and a sustainable model for engaging in mission and ministry.

What is a revitalizing church? A revitalizing church is a congregation wisely and discerningly upgrading its mission and methodology to contextually engage and serve its culture and community. A revitalizing church recognizes that the matrix for assessing effectiveness is no longer based on “budget, buildings, baptisms, and butts in the pew,” so a revitalizing church is in the process of devising a “new scorecard” for evaluating mission and ministry.  Although every church is unique, there are some common characteristics that seem to be prevalent in revitalizing churches.

Here are twelve healthy trends that I am noting in revitalizing churches across a diverse spectrum of denominations and geographic locales:

  • A revitalizing church is cultivating a strong sense of spiritual community, while simultaneously experiencing declining interest in church as institution.
  • A revitalizing church is notably trending toward serving rather than being served.
  • A revitalizing church is nurturing a worship culture that promotes engagement more than entertainment.
  • A revitalizing church is becoming more readily identified by its location than its denomination, often revising its name or brand to enrich its welcome.
  • A revitalizing church embraces the full giftedness of men and women in service and leadership.
  • A revitalizing church is developing ways to streamline decision-making by empowering committees, councils, ministry teams, and ministers with specific responsibilities on behalf of the larger body.
  • A revitalizing church is developing a high tolerance for healthy change, maintaining its core message, but upgrading it methodology.
  • A revitalizing church is strategically multigenerational, valuing the perspectives of multiple generations rather than being mono-focused on a single demographic.
  • A revitalizing church respects diversity, and is becoming more comfortable with diverse ethnic, economic, political, and theological streams within the community.
  • A revitalizing church is adapting to a culture of mobility, offering a variety of worship and study opportunities on campus, off campus, and online.
  • A revitalizing church treasures the past but is invested in the present, and does not waste energy competing with images of its former glory or being haunted by its past mistakes.
  • A revitalizing church develops strategic ways to cultivate and mentor future leaders.

While I am sure there are other factors that describe and shape churches that are on a journey of revitalization, these twelve healthy trends seem to be emerging in the churches I am observing and the church I am serving.

Churches that become satisfied with a mythical status quo and who remain highly resistant to new winds of the Spirit can easily become entrapped in a time warp, and they risk being vacuumed into a black hole of irrelevance. Churches that undiscerningly “throw out the baby with the bathwater” and sell their soul to popular culture lose their capacity to be salt and light, and their kingdom influence goes down the drain.

However, churches who are committed to living out the time tested values of scripture with a passionate sense of mission will find ways to share the good news with fresh relevance and to dialogue cross-culturally with transformative grace and radical hospitality.

Revitalization is a challenging and ongoing process. And most churches need an experienced and trustworthy networking partner to walk alongside them during the journey of revitalization. If your church needs to begin the process of revitalizing, I recommend contacting The Center for Healthy Churches to discover more about the resources they can provide to equip clergy and congregations for healthy revitalization.

We live and serve in an opportune season for missional innovation and cultural engagement. Rather than being anxious, this season calls for courage. “For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (2 Timothy 1:7).

If a church wants to thrive and not merely survive, a continuing revitalization process is essential.

(Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

10 Things I Learned in Vacation Bible School

match stick cross

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.                                                           -Romans 10:17

Of all the fond memories I have from childhood, Vacation Bible School was definitely one of the most influential and formative experiences of my “growing up” years. It was in VBS that I learned many of the lessons that have shaped my life and faith.

In my home community, Vacation Bible School was one of the biggest weeks of the summer. Of course it looked a little different in my day. There was no digital music, only piano. Refreshments consisted of cookies and a different color of Kool-Aid every day. Recreation revolved around playing Red Rover in the churchyard. And during craft time, we learned to make picture frames with popsicle sticks, crosses with match sticks, and all sorts of things with pipe cleaners.

I remember the teachers and workers with gratitude and clarity, and can still see their faces and recall their names. In fact, I don’t remember having a teacher I didn’t like. I’m just not sure they understood the significant impact they had on my life and the lives of countless other children.

Though Vacation Bible School is primarily tasked with teaching the Bible, in my experience the Bible lessons became life lessons. Here are ten of the things I learned by participating in Vacation Bible School when I was a child:

#1 I learned the great stories of the Bible.

#2 I was introduced to the great characters of the Bible.

#3 I learned to love the church.

#4 I first licked the middle of an Oreo cookie.

#5 I experienced group participation in crafts, projects, and recreation.

#6 I learned about God’s love.

#7   I heard about God’s gift of salvation on a level I could understand.

#8 I learned to pray for missionaries.

#9 I learned about the importance of stewardship by bringing my VBS offering every day.

#10 I learned about my first lessons about leadership by carrying the flag, and by reading scripture and leading in prayer.

Today is the first day of Vacation Bible School in our church. I hope and pray that the things our children learn this week will prove to be formative and foundational for years to come.

(Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

 

Practicing the Discipline of Remembering

To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward.     -Margaret Fairless Barber

There are some things we want to remember, and some things we want to forget. But what do we do when the things we want to forget are also the things we should remember?

Last week as I shared another eulogy at Barrancas National Cemetery at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, I remembered. As a jet flew over the pavilion just as I began my remarks, I remembered the sounds of freedom. As I scanned the landscape dotted with thousands of white grave markers, I was reminded of the costs of freedom. As I looked into the faces of a veteran’s family, I remembered the tremendous sacrifices made by the men and women who served to preserve our freedom.

As a pastor serving in an active military community, I am privileged to serve alongside those who serve or have valiantly served our country. But I also serve in a community where an extraordinarily large number of residents have lost a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister, friend or neighbor on the field of battle.

So for me, Memorial Day prompts more of a sense of reflection than celebration. Memorial Day is not just another “day off” but a day to remember those who have lost their lives in the military service of our country. This is a day to remember those who, according to Henry Ward Beecher, “hover as a cloud of witnesses above this Nation.”

In a culture that is increasingly attention-deficient, remembering is a painful but necessary discipline. Memorial Day provides a designated occasion “to look backward for a while to refresh the eye.”

Remembering stories from the battlefield may keep us consciously aware of the harsh realities of war and lead us to be more aggressive peacemakers. Revisiting the historical narrative of our major conflicts may enable us to learn from both the successes and the failures of our ancestors. When we remember the fallen we keep alive the individual and corporate legacies of valor and courage that inspire and challenge us to be responsible citizens of the free world.

When we fail to remember the sacrifices of those who came before us, we succumb to a convenient amnesia that eventually robs succeeding generations of acquaintance with our national heritage. To fail to remember creates a contagious apathy that leads to a neglect of both our freedom and our citizenship.   To fail to remember can produce a false sense of security and an inaccurate perception that we are exempt from future warfare. If for no other reason, we should remember in order to guard against what George Washington called “the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

Remembering our unabridged heritage can invoke in us both a gut check and a reality check. The kind of remembering we need to do on Memorial Day is an uncomfortable but necessary discipline, a practice that forges vision from memory and distills wisdom from history.

This year as we observe Memorial Day let us take time to remember the men and women who served with honor and distinction to establish and preserve our freedom. By remembering our heritage, we may be better equipped and motivated to engage our adversaries with discernment and determination.

(Barry Howard serves as the Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

Monday Morning Review: 10 Things to Help Us Get Better Acquainted with the Spirit

The Holy Spirit seems to be the most misunderstood and underrated member of what is often referred to as the Trinity. Yet the primary way we experience God in this life is through the Spirit.

Yesterday in our worship services I shared a message about “Getting Better Acquainted with the Spirit.” As Jesus was preparing his disciples for his departure from this planet, he shared with them about the coming of the Holy Spirit:

25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”   John 14:25-27 NIV

In case you missed the message yesterday, here are 10 summary points aimed to help us get better acquainted with the Spirit:

  1. The Holy Spirit is the presence and power of God in our world, best known through the personality and teaching of Jesus, who longs to reside and preside within the life of every human being.
  1. As followers of Jesus, our body is the temple, or primary residence of the Spirit. In other words, God’s address is the same as yours.
  1. Christians use a variety of language to describe their experiences with the Holy Spirit.
  1. Our experience with the Holy Spirit never makes us spiritually elite or superior to any other human being. (One sure sign you’ve got the wrong spirit is that you have an inflated ego, or that you are condescending or judgmental of others.)
  1. The Spirit will never lead us in a direction contrary to what the Bible teaches.
  1. The Spirit engages the best of our cognitive and emotive capacity to communicate with us and to minister to us. We should be careful not to rely merely on our feelings to perceive the presence and power of the Spirit.
  1. The Spirit works in us to accomplish many purposes including the following: 1) To convict us of sin (John 16:8), 2) To confirm our faith (Romans 8:16), 3) To comfort our grief (John 14:16), 4) To calm our fears (John 14:27), 5) To communicate truth (John 16:13).
  1. The Spirit works in mysterious and unpredictable ways, and cannot be domesticated or manipulated.
  1. The Spirit encourages, equips, and empowers us for the challenges of life. If you hear a voice in your head condemning you, berating you, telling you that you are worthless and that there is no hope for your future, you can be sure that voice is not the Spirit of God.
  1. The Holy Spirit aims to unify and motivate God’s people to serve cooperatively and courageously, and with fresh relevance, in our world and in our community.

As we prepare to live in the power of the Spirit this week, consider the counsel of my colleague Chuck Queen:

If you want to participate in the work of the Spirit in the world, it’s really very simple. Just look for ways to love people. Look for ways to take care of our planet. Look for ways to bring healing and hope to those struggling with sickness and despair. Look for ways to lift the poor out of their poverty. Build bridges, tear down walls and extend boundaries. The one who is filled with love is filled with the Spirit. The language of love is the universal language of the Spirit.

(Barry Howard serves as Lead Pastor at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

“Flowering the Cross: The Message of Spring”

On Easter Sunday at FBC Pensacola,  we invite worshippers to bring freshly cut flowers for the flowering of the cross.  This colorful floral symbol is usually displayed on our north lawn, but this year, due to the forecast of inclimate weather, the flowering of the cross is being relocated to the church atrium.

As we prepare for Easter, I am sharing an article entitled The Message of Spring, written by Rebecca Andrews Adrian, one of our home-grown ministers who now serves as a chaplain in the Dallas area. The Message of Spring was published a few years ago in the newsletter of the Baylor Health Care System:

Spring is my favorite season. The air warms and the earth begins to come back to life after a long winter’s sleep.

My hometown of Pensacola comes to life. The grays and browns of winter are giving way to the vibrant pinks, reds and orange of azaleas, white and red dogwoods, yellow daffodils and a host of other flowers. All of nature is coming into full bloom, and fills me with a sense of hope, new life and new possibility.

This spring, the Christian church celebrates the Easter season, the story of how God brought life out of death. At my home church in Pensacola, we started a tradition several years ago. A 12-foot cross made of wood and covered with mesh wire is placed on the lawn of the church a couple of weeks before Easter Sunday. The cross is shrouded in purple until Good Friday, when the royal purple is replaced with the black cloth of mourning. The black shroud stays in place until Easter Sunday morning. 

Before sunrise, members of the congregation gather, sing hymns and place flowers they have brought from home at the foot of the cross. As the families stand around and sing, the flowers are placed in the mesh wire. The sun comes up shining not on a shrouded cross, but on one covered with all the brilliant colors of spring.

This ritual is a powerful symbol of what God is doing in our lives and in the world each day. We serve a God whose joy it is to bring life out of death. The death and resurrection of Christ is a reminder of that. We see it clearly in nature as the pinks, yellows, reds, and greens of spring begin to burst forth. We can also see it in our lives if we look closely. 

In Isaiah 43:18-19, God tells us, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old; I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

So, the next time you see a flower beginning to bloom or new leaves budding on the trees, be reminded that each of us is part of the new life and beauty set in motion by the God who is able to bring life out of death.

Come rain or shine, Easter reminds us that we can spring to life because Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!

Flowering cross

5 Things to Remember on Election Day

As voters head to the polls this year, some are elated, some are frustrated, and some are just downright angry. Some citizens question the honesty of the candidates, others are concerned about hidden agendas, and still others are disheartened about the personal attacks between candidates within the same party.

Let us not forget that voting is a privilege and a responsibility.  No matter who I agree with or disagree with, I have an obligation to vote my convictions, and to encourage others to do the same. Larry Sabato reminds us that “Every election is determined by the people who show up.”

As you prepare to cast your ballot, here are five things I hope you will remember:

  1. Polls can change quickly.
  2. Your vote counts
  3. Character and integrity really do matter.
  4. Faith talk is not the same as faith walk.
  5. Think for yourself and don’t let others tell you how to vote.

Vote wisely, my friends.

(Barry Howard serves as Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida)

Lessons from Storms Past and Present

by Barry Howard

Early this morning, I drove north on Scenic Highway, one of the most beautiful coastal drives in America. And yet, as the sunrise glistened over Escambia Bay, the picturesque Florida scenery was scarred by nature’s whim.  Stately oaks were uprooted, townhomes were blown from their foundation, homes stood minus their roofs and windows, and neighbors were helping neighbors sift through the debris.

The scene is far too familiar to me. In 1994 I was serving at the First Baptist Church of Williams near Jacksonville, Alabama when a tornado touched down on Palm Sunday near Ragland, Alabama and cut a trail to Rome, Georgia, demolishing hundreds of homes, destroying five church campuses, and taking 29 lives before leaving that area.

In 2005, when I began serving at FBC Pensacola, we dealt with a series of destructive storms including Hurricanes Ivan, Cindy, Dennis, and Katrina. Later, we sent teams to assist with repair and rebuilding after tornadoes in Enterprise, Alabama and Sipsey, Alabama.

Now, here in Escambia County, we have once again experienced two destructive storms within the same week. As we help others put life back together, let us employ the lessons learned from storms past as we help our neighbors rebuild after the storm.

Once a storm passes, residents are faced with a haunting reality. Life will never be the same.  For many, friends have been injured, homes have been destroyed, and irreplaceable family heirlooms lost. A sense of despair prevails.  But for most, at least, life will continue. In fact, this week’s storm cut an 8 mile path damaging over 300 homes, yet there were no fatalities and only minimal injuries.

Following the Palm Sunday tornado and the coastal hurricanes, the communities I served learned a lot about patience and perseverance. We learned a lot about grace and hope. We learned the importance of looking forward and not backward.  We learned that our dreams trumped our nightmares. We learned a lot about faith and life.

At least seven crucial lessons learned from storms past have helped us to heal and move forward, slowly and progressively:

  1. Life goes on after the storm. Once the initial shock of the devastation has been absorbed, it’s time to channel all of your energy to re-building and moving forward. Despite the grief over things lost, there is a unique kind of joy that arises when you begin dreaming of the new things you can build…together. And interestingly, the challenge of re-building had a healing effect and can be a healthy way to process the grief of storm-associated losses.
  1. When a storm hits, no one is exempt. Storms result from a chaotic weather pattern and they tend to strike indiscriminately. Contrary to religious superstition, storms are not typically God’s way of punishing the most wicked of sinners. Storms affect everyone in their path, whether you are rich or poor, young or old, faithful or faithless. As Grady Nutt used to remind us, “It rains on the just and the unjust, and not always just on the ‘just’.”
  1. When the going gets tough, people of faith mobilize and work together cooperatively. After each of the aforementioned storms, a variety of churches and missional partners organized, rolled up their sleeves, and went to work. Volunteers from faith-based groups often organize quickly and dispatch to the scene, while professional and government groups are often slowed by paperwork and red tape restrictions. I distinctly remember many of the professional workers who partnered with us telling me how they admired the work ethic, the productivity, and the cooperative spirit of the volunteer teams from churches and faith-based organizations.
  1. All kinds of talents and skill levels are needed for clean-up and re-building. We were fortunate to have a huge corps of skilled personnel who managed chain saws, dozers, cranes, and front-end loaders. However, we also needed folks to cook food, drive trucks, pick up debris, run errands, care for children, visit the elderly, sweep the floor, manage communications, and do household cleaning. In disaster relief, every job is important and every volunteer has something to offer. Never underestimate the importance of doing all the good you can, where you can, when you can.

If you want to volunteer, always connect with a group such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, BRACE, or a church group. Don’t just strike out on your own. Our staff is currently exploring the best ways for us to connect in Century and Pensacola.

  1. Relief work builds community. We learned that remarkable bonding occurs in the field. The sense of community born among those who work together following a storm forges a spiritual kinship that lasts for a lifetime… or longer.
  1. You are wise not to live in fear of the next storm. Those affected by storms may be inclined to experience storm phobia, a fear of storms. Many begin to live in such a heightened state of anxiety, that every cloud invokes a near panic attack.  One alternative to living in fear is to be better prepared for the next storm. Perhaps that means creating a storm preparation checklist.  Or possibly that means better implementation of a storm safety plan.  Time and energy spent worrying about something as unpredictable as a future storm is wasted energy. It is best to find creative ways to transform that energy into constructive preparation.
  1. The process of going through a storm can deepen your spiritual faith. For some, simply the experience of having a “close call” with death provokes a profound sense of one’s mortality. For others, there is a sense of a “new lease on life,” that translates into a commitment to live in a deeper and more meaningful sort of way. For still others, during the rebuilding process they discover a community of friends who inspire them toward a more authentic and honest understanding of faith, a faith they want and often claim for themselves.

This week many of us have grieved with and prayed for friends and neighbors after storms have wreaked havoc in local neighborhoods. I am sure the local residents are feeling shock, anger, and a nearly overwhelming sense of despair.

But the people of Escambia County are resilient. In the next few days, relief agencies and churches will mobilize labor pools and resource centers.  And residents will be drying their tears, rolling up their sleeves, and getting ready to repair and rebuild, because there are some things deep inside that the strongest storm cannot destroy.

(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

Politics in the Pulpit: One Pastor’s Approach

by Barry Howard

Election years can be volatile, unpredictable, and filled with heated political rhetoric. And these days, it is not unusual for prominent pastors and local clergy to join the fray of bombastic oratory. While I do not think pastors should be silent, I do think a pastor’s tone and message should be helpful, encouraging, and non-partisan.

Especially during election years, pastors are faced with the dilemma of how to address political issues fairly, legally, and biblically from the pulpit. While some on both the left and the right attempt to hijack the pulpit in order to support their cause or their favored candidate, many of us in ministry strive to encourage members to participate in the political process but we refuse to endorse any specific candidate.

This year marks the ninth presidential election since I began serving as a pastor. Additionally, during my ministerial tenure, I have observed numerous local elections and dozens of referendums. Early in my ministry, thanks to wise mentors, I committed to a strategy for dealing pastorally with political issues from the pulpit.

This strategy is based on four objectives: 1) To maintain a non-partisan pulpit. 2) To protect the separation of church and state. 3) To respect the diverse political convictions within the congregation. 4) To highlight the biblical texts concerning respect for our government and our governmental leaders.

When I hear accounts of ministers who publicly endorse candidates from the pulpit, of churches who provide biased or partisan voters’ guides and of churches who have invited political candidates or their spokespersons to speak in Sunday worship services, I am troubled. From a historical Baptist perspective, for a pastor to engage in partisan politics would be considered an abuse of pastoral privilege and a violation of a pastor’s civil and spiritual responsibility. Historically, when the church and state become intertwined, the church doesn’t fare well.

If blatant partisan political activism in the pulpit is inappropriate, what is an appropriate and proactive strategy for addressing election-related issues from the pulpit without violating the wall of separation? Here are four things that a pastor can do to encourage good citizenship:

  1. Encourage members to vote. Words like these have frequented my sermons as election time nears: “We are blessed to live in a country that values political and religious freedom, and you have both the opportunity and responsibility to participate in the electoral process as you vote your convictions.” I have never suggested to a church member, either explicitly or implicitly, for whom they should vote, only that they should vote. In fact, I have never revealed to a congregation the name of the candidate I intend to vote for. (Actually, I seldom tell my wife which candidate I plan to vote for.)
  1. Challenge church members to pray for candidates and for those elected to leadership. I believe that persons of faith should pray for their political leaders, whether they approve of a leader’s performance or not. Additionally, I also encourage church members to pray for candidates seeking office. Choosing to seek public office requires tremendous sacrifice and takes its toll on a candidate’s entire family whether they win or lose. The average citizen cannot fathom the wear and tear of the political process for all candidates, no matter their political party.
  1. Encourage members to participate in the political process. Challenge members to listen carefully to the candidates, to engage in civil dialogue about the important issues, and to consider campaigning for their preferred candidate. When considering which candidate to support, it is fair to evaluate the competency, character, and ideological convictions of the candidate. However, I strive to remind others that name-calling, broad-brushing, and dishonesty, though prevalent at times, do not enhance the political process.
  1. Finally, I invite church members to consider running for public office. Just as I invite members to consider a vocation ministry, mission service or a host of other careers, I also invite members to consider political service as a part of their spiritual calling. I have been privileged to serve as pastor to candidates on the local, state and national level, many of whom were elected and enjoyed multiple terms of effective service. Although an individual should never enter the political arena naively, many individuals find political office to be a significant avenue of service for the common good of society.

Although the Bible instructs believers to “render unto Caesar,” the Bible does not seem to anticipate a democratic process wherein citizens participate in choosing “Caesar.” Therefore, there is not a specific “how to behave during an election year” passage in scripture. However, many of the texts that equip us for life, verses such as “let all things be done decently and in order” (I Corinthians 14:40), “pray for your leaders” (I Timothy 2:2), and “do not slander one another” (James 4:11), are especially relevant and applicable for an election year.

The pulpit is a place to accent the privilege and responsibility of choosing our leaders, not a place to dictate the decision.

(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

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