VISITORS—HANDLE WITH CARE!

Neal Pollard

I’m not sure where the phrase, “handle with care,” originated. It’s usually reserved for advice regarding that which is fragile or even volatile. It really is applicable to those who visit our assemblies because of their value and importance. They came through the doors of our church building intentionally and with a purpose. Initially, we cannot know why or how sincere their purpose. That process of discovery could not be more important. Consider some reasons why we should handle every visitor with care:

  • Each has an eternal soul (cf. Mat. 25:46). 
  • God could not love that visitor any more than He does (John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:6).
  • God loves that visitor as much as He loves you and me (Acts 10:34-35). 
  • That visitor is likely seeking spiritual guidance (cf. Mat. 7:7).
  • Each visitor is subjected to a first impression, being left by you and me.
  • That visitor is going to make judgments about the church, the Bible and Christ based on what he or she sees (or fails to see) from you and me.
  • The smallest gesture of kindness toward such a one could lead to the salvation of a soul.
  • We cannot know what anyone else is doing to make their first visit a good one.
  • Each one is being exposed to the Bible and to New Testament worship, and follow up can lead to further interest.
  • That soul is connected to many others, who might subsequently be reached (2 Tim. 2:2). 
  • You and I are official ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20).
  • The Golden Rule should prompt our warmth, helpfulness, and sensitivity (Luke 6:31).
  • We are each part of a team, trying to connect each of them with what only Christ can offer them (1 Cor. 12:18; John 14:6).
  • There is no guarantee that there will be a next time (Prov. 27:1).
  • Statistics tell us that most visitors find the churches they visit to be unfriendly toward “outsiders” (see, for example: Thom Rainer).
  • Loving others is commanded, and visitors are included in “others” (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8; etc.).
  • Visitors constitute perhaps the easiest inroad to developing interest in a Bible study, as such have reached out to us by attending.
  • Our excuses (“I’m shy,” “That’s not my job,” “I’m not good at it,” “I’m busy”) ring hollow when carefully examined. 
  • We love the church and believe in its relevance and importance.
  • Each contact is a valuable way you and I can contribute service for our Servant-Savior (cf. John 13:12ff; Mat. 20:28).

The list is far from exhaustive. I am convinced that none of us neglects a visitor out of contempt or even indifference. Yet, it is good for you and I to encourage each other, to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” especially as it pertains to assembly-related matters (Heb. 10:24-25). Wouldn’t it be exciting to be the friendliest church around, especially if our message and practice is faithful to God’s Word? What a powerful combination! Let’s help each other earn such a reputation, for reasons such as the above. 

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“I Praise, I Participate, I Proclaim”

Neal Pollard

Yesterday afternoon, the Bear Valley eldership stood before us one by one to talk about their priorities both for themselves and for us. They distilled them into five simple words that describe five profound concepts: (1) Worship, (2) Communication, (3) Fellowship, (4) Accountability, and (5) Leadership. They told us that as the religious world is growing more homogenous in their worship style (a la community church model; rock concert-ish), distinctive New Testament worship has a chance to stand out even more. Yet, we need to always be improving our efforts in leadership and participation. They emphasized that communicating news, ideas, and needs is a process that will always need work and priority. No church ever arrives in this regard. They spoke of the importance of building a closer church family, knowing each other through age-related opportunities and entire congregation opportunities. This happens when we’re all together, in the classroom, and away from the building. They stressed the importance of holding one another accountable, for faithfulness, commitment, and support. Otherwise, there is no way to move from ideas to action. They told us that all of us exert leadership in some area. There is formalized leadership positions, as outlined in the New Testament (elders, deacons, preachers, teachers). But, inasmuch as we all have a sphere of influence (cf. Mat. 5:14-16), God expects us to lead. Throughout their entire presentation, they were specific about strategies aimed at helping us be successful. I appreciated the great challenge this was for us to work and grow. There were so many quotable sayings from their collective lesson, but the one that struck me most was made near the end. As we have adopted three planks of emphasis as a church, based on Acts 2:42-47 (praise—worship, participation—fellowship, and proclamation—evangelism), we were challenged to think: “I praise,” “I participate,” and “I proclaim.” It can be so easy for us to approve the church’s need to grow and improve in these areas or to expect the elders to do these things. But, no matter who we are, we can and must ask, “What can I do?” The key to being a great church is the willingness of every member to make personal application. It’s not, “What are they doing?,” “what are you doing?,” or even “what are we doing?” No! It must always primarily be, “What am I doing?” I’m thankful that our elders spoke with confidence and clarity about the fact that there is plenty of opportunity to be involved in making Bear Valley a strong, relevant church, a city set on a hill shining a light in spiritual darkness. Thank God for strong leadership, which encourages me to say, “Here am I, send me!” (cf. Isa. 6:8).

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A Warm And Welcoming Church

Neal Pollard

Once, I received a call from a woman who watched our TV program. She shared her religious background with me, including the fact that she was raised in a church of Christ. While she was baptized many years before, she committed fornication, became pregnant, and had a child out of wedlock. She said that she publicly repented, coming forward to ask forgiveness. While some forgave, one prominent member wouldn’t let her forget her past sins. Ultimately, she left that congregation and soon after left the Lord’s church altogether.

She joined a large denomination in the area in 1985. She gave some interesting reasons for joining them. Reflect upon them for a moment.

(1) She received personal visits from church members.

(2) She was warmly welcomed by many who greeted her when she attended the services.

(3) She was quickly put to use in the church’s works.

Very simple formula, wouldn’t you agree? Some fundamental needs were recognized by that religious group: Approach. Accept. Assimilate. While their doctrine was wrong in vital areas, their practical wisdom was on target! While she traded truth for error regarding their teaching, she sought but didn’t find among God’s people the very things many seek today. None of the things she sought were wrong.

In the church, the main emphasis should be serving rather than being served. But look at what she sought. She sought personal contact from concerned people. The denomination responded. She sought acceptance, not of sinful choices, but of herself—the sinner. She received that. She sought ways to be involved, ways to serve. She was given opportunities despite some physical handicaps that restricted her.

There is much to do, much more than is being done, though we are doing much. Some bare essentials that all of us can be doing is visiting our visitors, making visitors feel like honored guests, and finding ways to include those who become members in the work of the church.

We have opportunities every week that walk through our doors. Are we doing our part to make ourselves a warm and welcoming congregation? People will form lasting opinions about the Lord’s church by what we do to make them feel welcome. Each individual Christian is accountable for visiting (Mat. 25:34ff), accepting (Js. 2:1-13), and including (1 Th. 5:11).  Let us glow with the warmth of Christ! Who knows who we will turn onto the narrow path or who we will help stay on it?

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Biggest Misunderstandings About Public Responses

Neal Pollard

There are a couple of examples of public responses to the gospel message in the Bible, both in Acts.  One is positive and the other is negative.  As Peter was preaching that God has made Jesus Lord, the Pentecost crowd interrupted him with the question, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).  As Stephen was delivering a similar message, his audience stopped listening and they cried out with a loud voice before putting the preacher to death (Acts 7:54ff).  Mention is made of a one another response that could apply to the corporate assembly, confessing sins (Jas. 5:16; 1 Jn. 1:9).  How public the setting was when Peter called for Simon to repent we do not know for certain (Acts 8:18-24).  So, why do we end our sermons with a call to publicly respond?  Is this simply borrowed from the denominations or is it just a rote tradition devoid of deeper purpose?

Often, we have explained the invitation as being an “expedient,” which I think it is.  When we speak of an “expedient,” we refer to a practice that is thought convenient, practical, suitable or appropriate but neutral (neither right nor wrong) and a-biblical (not found in the Bible but not unbiblical).  It is a sensible activity.  Hopefully, the sermon contains a call to change and is persuasive in nature.  Maybe, the person comes in the door that day convicted of his or her need to become a Christian or repent of public sin.  Affording a moment that makes it easy for one needing to obey Christ in one of these ways to do so is appropriate.

I have been in assemblies in this country and overseas that do not have such a time set aside or that do so at other times during the gathering—some do so at the beginning of the service so that a person can worship without being alienated from God (cf. Mat. 5:24), some invite anyone who needs to publicly respond to remain standing after the lesson and a song, some encourage people who need to respond to write their need on a card or piece of paper and hand it to an usher, the preacher, the elders, or someone designated to collect such communication.

While I think it is good for us to consider that there is more than one way to do this and that we are not mandated to do it at all in the assembly, I believe our current arrangement is a fine way to try and help people who need to make spiritual changes and improvements.   Yet, someone who feels the need to make such a response often hesitates or decides against it.  Certainly, the problem on such an occasion might be fear or delay, but is it ever due to some misunderstanding such a one has?  Here are a few of the biggest misunderstandings people have about responding to the invitation:

  •  Nobody but me is struggling with sin in their lives.  Truth: Romans 3:23.
  •  It is a sign of weakness to respond publicly.  Truth: Luke 15:10, 17
  •  Everybody will look down on me, judge me, or gossip about me if I respond.  Truth: Luke 15:28-32
  •  People will distance themselves from me if I respond.  Truth: 1 Corinthians 12:26-27.

Maybe you are thinking this or something similar.  May I assure you that every righteous person on earth and all the inhabitants of heaven would like nothing better than to help you be right with God.  Death and the Judgment loom, and we cannot let anything keep us from making proper preparation for them.  So, if you need to respond today or any day, won’t you come?

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A Family, A Fraternity, And A Fellowship

Neal Pollard

A little over a week ago, my son Dale called me to tell me one of his elders gave him tickets for the Georgia-Missouri football game. He asked if I could swing coming. Thanks to a generous travel voucher from American Airlines, I was able to go on short notice on their nickel. The best part of this trip was getting to see one of my adult children for a couple of days. We made the most of those moments, and that game between the hedges was not a disappointment. Though Dale had watched games with me on TV, he was not the diehard fan I have been since 1979. We made the drive from Valdosta to Athens. Once on campus, he got his first glimpse into “Dawg Nation.” By the time we left the game, he was hooked. Georgia has another diehard fan. What did the trick? Perhaps the camaraderie between people who otherwise would not come into contact with each other. There was the shared lingo, shared knowledge, shared passion, and even shared clothing color schemes. There were traditions to partake in. People were excited for every play and intensely interested in the outcome. That was infectious! It was an unforgettable experience we plan to duplicate in the future.

As I look back on that great memory, I got to thinking about an infinitely stronger bond I have. Even regarding this game, I think about the part they played. I’m talking about the Lord’s church and the Christians who make it up. There was Doug Jones, the elder who gave us the tickets. There was Wes Hazel, who let Dale borrow his car so he didn’t have to pick me up from the airport or carry me around on the back of his motorcycle. There were Lance and Susan Leavens, who opened their home to allow Dale and me to take a nap before I caught a flight back to Denver yesterday morning and Dale drove back to Valdosta. While I was in Georgia, Kathy was in Texas doing a ladies day, and Carl was experiencing major trouble with his truck, an overwhelming, generous response from literally dozens of Christians helped make it possible for our youngest to resolve that heart-sinking trouble.

All too frequently, I see people who major in pointing out the perceived problems and seeming shortcomings of the saints. To listen to them, we do nothing right and even do those things from sinister motives. As a preacher’s kid who’s lived a life of a full-time preacher for more than a quarter century, I am far from naive. The church, without exception, is comprised of flawed, faulty, and finite folks. I have been extremely disappointed in the actions of church members, from the leadership to the membership. I have tearfully witnessed Christians abandon the church for the world, breaking many hearts in the process. But, the church is special. It is unique, from the doctrinal standpoint, dedicated to speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where it is silent and seeking to replicate New Testament Christianity.

In addition to that, there is the common bond we share. What a fellowship! What a family! What a fraternity! You read it when you open up the New Testament. As importantly, you experience it today when you open your heart and life to all the others who make up this special group. We’re incurably imperfect. We should strive to be more patient and gracious. But, God’s people are the greatest in the world! Thank God for that blessing today and every day.

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REDUCING RIOTOUS RACE RHETORIC

Neal Pollard

At various times when I was growing up, I called Hawkinsville, Rockmart, Cairo, Sylvester, Franklin, and Hinesville, Georgia, home. While my dad was once fired from a congregation for converting a black woman, race relations in those rural towns—at least among us children—were excellent. While High School was very cliquish (along a great many lines more significant than racial ones), many of us had close, great relationships across racial lines. Certainly, there were instances of prejudice—from every race toward every race—but it was not characteristic. Perhaps it was because we were not constantly obsessed with it. We just got along.

Are you getting sick of hearing politicians, the media, and even social media (including from some members of the church) fanning the flames of dissension on this topic? I am. From my imperfect observations, I see the following:

Less Productive:

  • Placing blame on any one side
  • Having our minds closed to discussion
  • Stereotyping and pigeon-holing
  • Guilt-tripping and manipulating
  • Living in the past rather than dealing with the present
  • Categorizing everyone on the basis of their skin color
  • Blaming or praising based on geographic or political boundaries
  • Cherry-picking historical incidents to validate one’s point of view or assertion
  • Thinking our personal experience is indicative of everyone else’s

More Productive:

  • Eradicating concepts like “predominantly white” or “predominantly black” congregations
  • Showing Christ-like love and acceptance to people who look and sound different from us
  • Showing hospitality and associating with people of every race and walk of life (publicly and privately)
  • Getting to the point where we don’t associate anyone with their race or ethnicity
  • Teaching our children to choose friends and spouses based on the content of their character rather than color of skin
  • Extending the “Golden Rule” to race relations like we should every other issue
  • Selecting preachers, deacons, elders, and other church leaders with no regard to anything so superficial as skin color

The Bible says that God made every race (ethnos—nation, culture) from one man (Acts 17:26). The Bible says the whole earth was populated from Noah’s three sons (Gen. 9:19). The Bible speaks of the “human race” (Jas. 3:7), and doesn’t emphasize a red, yellow, black, or white race. The Bible says that heaven will be populated by people of “every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” (Rev. 7:9). Let us make sure, especially as Christians, that we are not fanning the flames of division, animosity, controversy, and hatred by treating this important subject in a way that takes people’s eyes off of Jesus or the church’s true mission! Surely this will reach more people of every nation, tribe, people, and tongue.

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Traditions Of Men Versus The Word Of God

Neal Pollard

For as long as I have been preaching, I have had at least one copy of the Alvin Jennings’ book bearing the title above. The book was originally printed in 1972, but it has been reprinted several times. Jennings clarifies the way he uses the word “traditions” in his title. Rather than the sense of being a writing handed down from God (2 Th. 2:15; 3:6; 1 Co. 11:2), he used the word to refer to “religious laws and traditions originating from the minds of men and handed down orally and/or in printing from generation to generation” (iv.). He rightly points out that such traditions were condemned by Christ (Mat. 15:2-3,6; Mark 7:3,13; Col. 2:8; 1 Pet. 1:18; Gal. 1:14). Some of the problems with these traditions were that they got in the way of obedience to what God commanded, caused negligence regarding and the setting aside of God’s commands, enslaved one to something or someone other than Christ, and created a zeal that could lead to unhealthy consequences. The traditions Jennings examines substituted  false, human ideas for clearly revealed, divine truth. Anything that binds where God has not bound or gives permission where God doesn’t permit must be rejected. It’s a tradeoff with the gravest consequences (cf. Rev. 22:18-19).

However, I hope that as we strive to follow the pattern for New Testament Christianity we will be careful about elevating any tradition to be on a par with Scripture. There are some traditions we may choose to observe (or not):

  • Offering an invitation after every sermon
  • Having worship leaders, including the preacher, wear suits and/or ties
  • Women wearing dresses to church services
  • Songs or songbooks reflecting a particular time period (whether old or new)
  • Mandating a specific Bible version be utilized in the public assemblies
  • Choosing to have an evening assembly
  • Replicating the format of the morning assembly (in lieu of using the time for class, for example)
  • A particular order of worship (including whether the Lord’s Supper precedes or follows the sermon)
  • Offering the Lord’s Supper on Sunday evening
  • Any practice or tradition that arises from expedience or the realm of judgment, but that is not specifically mandated in Scripture

The church finds itself at a crucial crossroads. Undoubtedly, there is nothing new under the sun, but we do find ourselves at a unique place in cultural history. Since we live in an argumentative, rancorous atmosphere fueled by everything from cable news to social media, we should be careful to maintain a spirit of love and kindness whenever we sort through matters like these. We should never cherish non-binding traditions more than we do people. Those of us who are older and presumably more mature should consider carefully where and when we might compromise regarding matters not tied down in Scripture. More than that, we should foster rather than fear an environment that allows for such discussions to occur—without animosity or distrust. This will mean spending much more time developing our relationships with one another on the local church level (across generations). The better we know each other and the more we grow our love for each other, the better equipped we should be to sort through such things. Coupled with serious Bible study, this will hopefully sharpen our ability to distinguish between traditions and truth. May we have the grace to listen to each other without prejudice or minds already made up. Instead or ridiculing or caricaturizing the church in demeaning ways, let all of us “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone…” (Col. 3:12-13a). 

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Sharing Trade Secrets Or Sharing The Wealth?

Neal Pollard

Last month, Von Miller gathered some of the NFL’s elite sack specialists at Stanford University for what he called a “pass rush summit.” The participates were star defensive players from around the league, with several different teams represented. Addressing concerns that each man was sharing his trade secrets, Miller replied that it was more like sharing the wealth. He said, ““A sack is a sack. I’m going to get sacks, they’re going to get sacks. You really can’t stop that. You really benefit more from really just sharing that knowledge and just trying to be the best players that you can possibly be” (Denver Post, Nicki Jhabvala, 6/29/17). Do you find that surprisingly magnanimous and unselfish? Yet, don’t you find it refreshingly classy and helpful?

When I think about the spiritual battle God calls us to, I often think about the outposts God has in towns and cities throughout our state, country, and world. These individual congregations of the Lord’s church are facing struggles with a formidable foe (cf. 2 Cor. 10:2-4; 1 Pet. 5:8-9; Eph. 6:10-17). God has endowed us with a mission and purpose, reaching those outside of Christ, showing charity and compassion to the world, and helping to strengthen those already in Christ. We seek to achieve this through various ideas, ministries, programs, efforts, and events. We bring in speakers, host activities, organize, and create. When we find ways to be productive and get results, we should be ready to help. When he hear of such things, we should be eager to hear. At times, we may inadvertently develop a sense of competition rather than a spirit of cooperation. But this ought not to be so.

What is our goal with every benevolent outreach, every evangelistic attempt, and every edifying work? Isn’t it to get more people to heaven, to shine the light of Christ into a world of ever-deepening darkness? Why do we host camps, have lectureships, train preachers, hold fellowship activities in homes and at the building, reach out to our homeless community, stock pantries, build a robust youth program, minister to young professionals, young families, and seniors, do evangelism training, have marriage seminars, worship leadership training, and the like?

What about works our brothers and sisters are doing all over the country? Polishing the Pulpit, Focal Point, Fishers of Men, Gospel Broadcasting Network (GBN), Truth.fm, Mission Printing, World Video Bible School, Bear Valley Bible Institute’s Extension Program, World English Institute, House to House, Heart to Heart, and many, many others are what our larger church family are doing to grow the church and build its strength. Yet, there’s much more that could be done by so many more of us, working together to accomplish the mission. But we must see ourselves as cooperators rather than competitors. Obviously, there can be impediments making this impossible in specific situations, but as we acknowledge that are we missing opportunities. Meanwhile, countless souls are rushing toward eternity. Let’s band together to find out how to more effectively reach more of them. That will mean more saved souls and more glory to God!

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Vanguard Sports photo of the Pass Rush Summit

Pilgrims And Strangers

Neal Pollard

The two Sundays Kathy and I spent in Israel were with the church in Nazareth, about two hours north of where we are staying near Jerusalem. An interesting fact in a nation where an overwhelming majority of citizens are either Jews, the largest group, or Muslims, still a significant, but smaller group, is that there is a fairly small number of those professing to be Christians. The congregation in Nazareth, which has around 40 members, is comprised almost entirely of Arab people. As I spoke with one of the men yesterday, he said something that will stay with me a long time. He talked about how Arab Christians are viewed by their fellow-citizens. If Jews sees him standing beside a Muslim, they think he’s a Muslim. As most Arabs in Israel are Muslim, that seems logical. They see him as a potential threat and enemy. But, Arabs who find out he’s a Christian, and there are so many ways to readily see he’s not a Muslim–clothing, customs, etc.–see him as infidel or even a traitor. His remarks were in response to the sermon I preached from 1 Peter 2:21-25 on how Jesus handled persecution. He says that the Arabic Christians can tend to feel like people without a country.

Now, while you and I do not share the unique circumstance of Arab Christians in Israel, there is a similarity we see from earlier in 1 Peter 2. Peter tells Christians, “ Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (11-12). We’re going to “look” different, abstaining from fleshly lusts. We’re going to “act” different, keeping our behavior excellent doing good deeds. Whether we physically look like the people who observe us or we look different from them, our Christianity will be noticeable and observable. That’s not the same as doing your works in order to be seen of men (Mat. 23:5). Instead, living the Christian life–no matter what–will inevitably catch the attention of the people around us. 

I’m grateful for the object lesson I received. Pray for our Arab brethren, men and women in a spiritual sense who are “without a country.” Pray for our brethren in places where their faith in Christ is scorned and more overtly persecuted. Pray for us, that we will be salt and light which stands out and stands up for Jesus in our daily places where darkness persists.

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John and Carla learning a few Arabic words and phrases from the local Christians.

THE HUMAN CHAIN AND SALVATION

Neal Pollard

Incredibly, nine people in one family were in serious danger of drowning as they were swept into a riptide in Panama City Beach, Florida. It started with some little boys, but soon included would-be rescuers that included their mother and some other relatives. All of them were floundering in about 15 feet of water. The USA Today story seems to indicate that Jessica Simmons and her family thought of the idea of creating a human chain out to the imperiled family and towing them back to shore. About 80 people “started a football field-sized human chain to help bring them back to shore” (Mary Bowerman, 7/11/17, online ed.). The mother, Roberta Ursrey, summed it up well when she said, “I owe my life and my family’s life to them. Without them, we wouldn’t be here” (ibid.).

What a great story! It reveals the possibility of unity for profound purpose. It shows the power of working together. It says something about the best part of the human heart. It also illustrates the power of rescue and salvation.

The Bible makes it clear that God is the one who saves (Titus 2:11). His Word is His power to save (Romans 1:16). His divine plan is the means of salvation (Acts 16:30-31; Romans 10:9-10,13; Ephesians 2:8; 1 Peter 3:21). But, the Bible makes it just as clear that He does His saving through the preaching, teaching, influence, and efforts of His people, sharing the good news with those who are languishing in the waters of iniquity. That’s suggested in “The Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47). It’s demonstrated in the constant efforts of New Testament Christians, taking the message of Christ with them throughout the world to those lost in sin (cf. Acts).

Think of the church as the God-given human chain, reaching out to the struggling, needy soul. They are drowning in sin and in desperate need of help. Unreached, they will drown (see the imagery of 1 Timothy 6:9). God wants you and me, as those who ourselves have been saved, to join hands and help others who need to be helped onto the shores of safety! We cannot delay! We must act while there’s time. Lives—souls!—depend on it.

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