Setting the Right Moral Tone
I have been amazed, as I’m sure many other pastors are, to witness the moral decline in our society over the last decades. As a pastor, I want to set the right tone in what is ministered in our congregation. For example, I know that we have many visitors and even attenders who are living together without being married, and some think absolutely nothing about it. It seems to be a social norm. I don’t want to be known for what we’re against, but what we’re for. At the same time, I want to help people move toward godly, biblical values and standards. I understand that people coming out of the world are going to have worldly perspectives, but what especially troubles me is long-standing Christians who seem just fine with ungodly standards. For example, it seems like some Christians who should know better have bought into the world’s mentality that sex before marriage is perfectly acceptable. Two questions: (1) How do pastors minister the love of God to people, and yet still promote godliness?, and (2) How do pastors help mature Christians and leaders not buy-in to compromised, worldly standards?
Reaching the lost doesn’t always require very long arms. Sometimes, finding people who are far from God can be accomplished by simply looking around the room during a staff meeting! Creating a culture of purity and holiness isn’t always a popular agenda, but we know that helping people grow as disciples demands that we address specific issues head-on and without apologies. However, without creating the proper environment, our instruction and leadership often produces very limited results. Seeds planted in the right soil, though, can be amazingly fruitful.
It’s painfully obvious that today’s culture is addicted to comfort and convenience. Without a strong voice of sanity and insanely clear expectations, our society trends to drift into the arena of “anything goes.” One wouldn’t think that we’d need to constantly speak about basic biblical fundamentals, but we do. We have to be very clear regarding what a biblically based family looks like: one man and one woman doing life together as a married couple. If we aren’t clear, partnerships of various shadows and sizes can pop out everywhere!
I think one of the best approaches to handling this dilemma is through the development of an amazingly strong culture within our churches. I speak into that with my team in many ways, one of which is as follows.
I break the whole of our body into three parts: the crowd, the called, and the committed. I teach our core that when I’m speaking to the whole group on a Sunday morning, I’m usually addressing the crowd. For example, I might say, “Hey! I know it’s summer time. Lots of you will be taking vacations, attending graduations and weddings; I realize that there will be a few weekends you’re not going to be able to join us in services. Just make sure to get a selfie of you and your family, wherever you are, and add worship to your travels. Find a church—join us online—SOMETHING! Just remember to keep God right in the middle of what you’re doing and share your pic with us here back at home!” I’ve reminded my core that when they hear that from the platform, I’M NOT TALKING TO THEM! I’m talking to the crowd. This isn’t an invitation to the committed to take the summer off! So, they know I’m expecting MORE from them than from the crowd. Even the called have learned to raise their standard. THEN, I teach the called and the committed how their lives influence the crowd, and I clarify the expectations of the called and the committed: we live a biblically based lifestyle; purity and holiness aren’t options. I try to constantly remind my influencers that their “lowest level of life” will mark for the crowd the “top of their game.”
I consistently communicate with everybody above the crowd that it is “their role” to elevate the crowd and pull them up to higher and higher levels of Christian lifestyles and true discipleship. I’m not saying that I don’t address these issues from the pulpit. I’m just implying that without a developed culture within the house, I can teach anything I want, but it won’t carry much weight if key members of the congregation aren’t living it out front and out loud. Many have had tastes of sin—learning to spit it out rather than turn it into their stay diet is the goal. It’s hard to convince people living on a steady diet of sin to build an appetite for holiness if the people leading them aren’t conditioned to live pure themselves. It’s a different story when the entire community is committed to living life God’s way!
If the called and the committed personally own the culture, THEY will have the ability to hold the crowd accountable. They simply need to be empowered to elevate others.
I’ve noticed something about the way John the Baptist preached that has been a good model for me. His messages came with two things: warnings and good news.
Luke 3:18 (NLT)
John used many such warnings as he announced the Good News to the people.
Warnings and good news don’t seem to go together. But the reality is, without the warning, the good news is just news. If I tell you I have a place of safety for you and your family, it’s just news. But if I tell you there’s a tornado coming with an earthquake following it, than this place of safety becomes good news!
It’s imperative in a culture that is filled with moral rot that the Church communicates the message of Good News! In a culture filled with bad news, we need to be the voice that gives the good news. And yet with that, let’s not neglect the warnings that need to come with that good news. I would encourage you to include both in your messages.
For example, earlier this year, I was speaking on the message of the cross. Paul said the message of the cross—this goods news of salvation—is foolishness to those that are headed for destruction, but it is the very power of God for those that are being saved (1 Cor. 1:18). This gave me a great opportunity to give the warning that some are heading for destruction and they don’t even know it. The reality of eternity in hell is a strong warning, but it was coupled with the message of the cross—this good news that has inherent power in it.
Much of Paul’s letters to the churches were filled with this example—warnings and good news. He talked about the things that we need to put off, run from, flee. He taught that people who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God. He also talked about the beauty of God’s amazing grace—this good news that we cannot earn our way to Heaven. He taught that the “works” plan doesn’t work, but there is a grace plan that people should want to get on.
Remember, the messages of how to be happy, how to have a great marriage, how to bring increase to your finances, are all good—but they have no power in them unless they are coupled with the message of the cross! That message always comes with both warnings and good news.
In answering these questions, I remember the words of Brother Hagin when he said, “the Church seems to get in the ditch on one side or the other when it comes to biblical issues.” Right now, some of the body of Christ is in the ditch on grace and others who are not wanting to be seen as getting in that ditch, head to the other ditch. As Brother Hagin concluded, we should look to stay in the middle of the road.
We must create an environment that promotes and encourages spiritual growth. Most issues are solved through a person’s spiritual development. We’ve seen this work both ways where people are not fully living a godly life. We have watched those who grow and change while others who are in the same situation, would reach a point of decision (growth) and they chose not to respond to God. Many times the second group will end up leaving church thereafter. I have learned to continue to love them and let them go until they are ready, and to also know it wasn’t due to a failure on our part.
When we look at the ministry of Jesus, the issues that people are concerned about today as a result of people getting in the ditch on grace, were not topics that Jesus spent a great deal of time on.
The phrase that I use when talking to individuals and the Church collectively is basically: “If something is a sin, I will always say that it is; but my focus will be on helping you to grow because your growth is what will help you overcome.” Usually healing is needed in some area. If we can get someone healed on the inside (their soul) and help them grow, God will continue to take care of the things they need as a child of God.
After being a pastor in the Midwest for many years, the Lord led us to Southern California in 2005 to take over an existing church. It was real culture shock to me! Church people living together with several children, and in many cases, even grandchildren; three generations and not one married couple in the mix!
Question number one: I already knew from experience that, “deceived people never know they are.” So beating them up with the Word and throwing condemnation at them would only run them away and then I could never help them see biblical truth. So my successful approach (we’ve done a whole lot of weddings the last twelve years) has been, I confess Jeremiah 3:15 over myself and work it into my sermons from time to time. It says, “God will give His people pastors with His heart that will feed them with Bible knowledge and understanding.” I don’t think I’ve ever really did a hard hitting sermon on sexual sin, but frequently I hit bunny trails about the blessings of marriage God’s way. And when a Bible passage has references to different types of sexual sin, I explain what it’s talking about. John 8:31-32 says, “then the truth (the Word) they know sets them free!”
Question number two: We put in our bylaws and statement of faith many years ago the biblical definition of marriage and in membership classes go over it in detail. Then in order to become a member, we have them sign a paper on human sexuality. It states that they have read and agree with the biblical definition of marriage between one man and one woman and sex is reserved for the marriage bed. Of course, no one can be in a leadership position without first being a member. We also have ministry of helps guidelines and they must be a member here also. We know our people and their lifestyles pretty well, so with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we are going to keep loving and feeding His sheep and continue to have a godly influence on the people in our assigned region of Southern California!
We too have noticed that more and more couples are living together and seem to think absolutely nothing of it. Our approach has been to teach and educate our congregation what God’s Word instructs on this and other ever-evolving cultural norms. We are intentional about it.
When we teach on dating, relationships, and marriage, we discuss the issue head on. However, we don’t just share that it’s wrong and it’s sin (although we don’t shy away from that), but we also teach why (often times supporting the ‘why’ with statistics that show the down side of “test driving” before marriage). We feel this generation needs the ‘why’ question answered. We have also found that this generation does not have the biblical knowledge needed to be able to take a stand for the Lord in this area, and when they are taught and challenged biblically, they often respond in God honoring ways.
Additionally, we have strong youth, young adults, and singles ministries that regularly teach the truth of God’s Word to our people so they have a biblical roadmap for how to succeed in this area. I understand the tension between being known for what you are for versus being known for what you are against, but I believe we ought to be known most of all for preaching and teaching the Word of God. I believe when we do that, our people will live victoriously—God’s best!
This is a great question, and I think it is probably more challenging for our generation than any in the history of the USA.
Ephesians 4:15 has been a great help to me. There, Paul instructs us, as God’s representatives, to speak the truth in love, and He promises that if we do that, we will see real growth in people’s lives.
It is interesting to me that Paul didn’t tell us to speak the truth OR love; that is the trap so many fall into. Paul said that true love shares the truth. Why? Because sin leads to bondage and curses. How can we love somebody and not steer them away from that? Obviously we can’t. So we must be truth speakers, and as pastors, like we do as parents, we must never say anything against the truth. We must only speak for it.
However, it is interesting to me also, that Paul did emphasize we must speak the truth IN love. If something is in another thing, the object it gets in must be larger than it. For instance, a basketball could never get in a hoop if the hoop was smaller than the basketball. That tells me we must always speak God’s truth in a way that the love they feel is even greater than the truth they learn.
I think that’s one reason Jesus made the statement, to His disciples that, ‘he had many things to say, but they weren’t ready for them yet.’ He modeled for them the reality that telling people the truth can be relatively easy, but we have to share it the right way, and sometimes at the right time, if we want to see hearts drawn to God’s love.
Though the church universally is two thousand years old, it still deals with the same old dysfunctions that came through the fall. Through the years I have reminded our congregation that, when one gets saved, “he brings his culture into his Christianity;” which gives greater meaning to what Paul wrote to the church at Rome.
Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
When you receive Christ into your heart, the inward you is born again, but the ‘outward’ you is unchanged and remains the instrument through which all your short comings are expressed, and the fleshly temptations come through. So, it’s not hard to adapt to the culture around you if you’re not in the Word and allowing it to renovate your “stink’n think’n.” If you don’t manage your soul and body, you will carry on your ‘old life’ as if unchanged on the inside. I’m sure every pastor has wanted to ‘purge his church’ of the Christians who ‘live together,’ cuss, lie, do a little dope, drink a bit of wine, etc. Yet, by the time you were done, you’d have a very small congregation; and possibly as pastor, you might have to leave with the rest of them.
We deal with the same challenges. My personal conviction after 36 years of pastoring is, I never avoid addressing what the Bible teaches about these things; however, I do it in love and trust that the Holy Spirit will do what He does best and that’s convict and convince the believer that it’s time to surrender what he’s been holding on to. Please allow me to give an example. We have a precious couple in our church who together have four children. They lived together for about ten years. I never avoided addressing what the Bible says about it, and preached often about what the Scriptures say about such behavior; yet, I had to trust God with this situation. Finally, they called me one day out of the blue, and said, Pastor, it’s time we obey God and get married; and they are some of our most loyal, faithful, and subservient couples. God is faithful to do in us what only He can do – and that’s clean us up. He really is ‘longsuffering’ when it comes to His family, and I personally am so grateful for that.
These are some good questions and areas that I am sure every pastor has had to deal with in their ministry. Remembering that the Word of God is the only absolute and moral truth, it must be our guide in doctrine, practice, and our faith. Paul told Timothy, “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith in purity.”
We also need to remember that those who do not belong to Christ will not like our morals, ethics, and way of life. It amazes me that so many Christians are surprised when unbelievers don’t like the way they live and will try and get them to compromise their lifestyle. I have told my congregation many times that, “it is the beauty of holiness” that will attract, and we do not have to become like sinners to win sinners.
We teach our leaders that we are to love all people, but we don’t condone an ungodly lifestyle. We are to preach the truth in love, but not back down on moral issues, such as fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and a host of other immoral issues. All people are accepted at our church because ministry is about helping hurting people. If they are living together before marriage, we gently and kindly let them know this is wrong without driving them away from the Church. I will not allow anyone that is living an ungodly and/or immoral lifestyle to serve in positions of leadership within the church. Once they repent and change their lifestyle, they will still have to prove themselves.
Concerning the question of, “How do pastors help mature Christians and leaders not buy-in to compromised worldly standards?” I always take them back to the Word of God, and what does the Word of God say on these particular issues? I would encourage any pastor to study Ephesians 5:1-13, as it is very clear that we are to flee these things as we were once in darkness and now we are the children of the light. Ephesians 5:7 says that, “we are not to be partakers with them.”
I would also add—to any young pastor, be ready for persecution; and some may leave your church when you take a stand on the hot button topics of our culture. It will not be popular, but as Paul says, “Am I now trying to please God or men?”
There is a passage of scripture that I have leaned on during my tenure pastoring in Cincinnati that guides my way of leading and teaching.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (NLV)
Christian brothers, when I came to you, I did not preach the secrets of God with big sounding words or make it sound as if I were so wise. I made up my mind that while I was with you I would speak of nothing except Jesus Christ and of His death on the cross. When I was with you, I was weak. I was afraid and I shook. What I had to say when I preached was not in big sounding words of man’s wisdom. But it was given in the power of the Holy Spirit. In this way, you do not have faith in Christ because of the wisdom of men. You have faith in Christ because of the power of God.
- We try to emphasize our dependence upon and love for the Word of God. I often tell our church that if I could convince them to create any habit, it would be to spend daily time reading through the Scriptures. We also give practical help to our people by printing Project 3:45 Daily Bible reading plans and providing free matching wrist bands to encourage them to spend time in the Word. I wear my wrist band at all times and often refer to this simple practice in many weekend messages. With all of the stuff I promote from the stage, this (Daily Bible reading) is the one flag I always wave as a pastor.
- We also purposefully endeavor to preach in a way that “keeps the cookies on the lowest shelf” so that everyone can reach them. Our weekend messages are simple but not simplistic. We have found through our own research and surveys of our people that their top two desires are to understand the Bible and to be challenged. I have found that simple messages that have one clear challenge point are far more impactful than a lecture with profound truths and multiple challenges.
As people that speak every week, we know it is more difficult to teach a clear and compelling message in 30 minutes with ONE takeaway than to preach for 45 minutes with multiple complex theories. The former appears simple and points to Jesus and the latter often points to the intellectual prowess of the pastor. I want our people to leave each weekend with a fresh love for Jesus and “handles” they can use on Monday. Like all pastors, I have to fight the tendency to prove to people how much I have studied and how much I know the background of the text. I pray that they would be stimulated intellectually and challenged to think—yes—but even more, that the Holy Spirit would touch their hearts and they would be challenged to change. Like all pastors, I have this deep conviction that I must study to show myself approved. I must rightly divide the word of truth. However, to enjoy a good meal, one need not know every step the chef took in preparation. My work is to prepare a nutritious, well balanced meal that whets the appetite in all the right ways. We want to prepare the table in a way that creates in people an appetite for more of the Word—not more of me.
- I also use our staff prayer times each Tuesday morning to “go a little deeper” with our staff. Since they are the ones that are responsible for all of the classes, groups, and discipleship ministries, I know that if I can help them grow then I am helping the church grow too. In this way we are helping the masses on the weekend take small steps while offering classes, groups, and discipleship settings away from the weekend that will hopefully satiate those believers that want to go deeper in their walk with Jesus.
- Lastly, we teach full of grace AND truth. Jesus loved us while we were sinners. Jesus still loves people while they are sinning. Jesus healed people before they made a confession of faith in Him. Jesus loved us while we disagreed with Him. We want our church to know that we don’t have to agree with folks in order to love them. We hold fast to the standard of the Word of God while loving and respecting people who differ from us. There has never been in our culture a time where this idea is needed more than right now—I can love you and accept you as a person without agreeing with the way you live.
Accepting people and loving people is not the same as condoning their lifestyle and choices. One great example of this is the way we care for people who are living together outside of marriage. Without condemnation, I mention every so often the sin of living together outside of marriage. TRUTH. Then I put my email on the screen and encourage them that if they will get their marriage license I will perform FREE OFFICE WEDDINGS. Every Thursday for those who want to live the way that God wants them to live, we make time to perform simple office weddings. What a joy to see so many people come to the office and honor God in marriage. There are always tears and a precious sense of the Holy Spirit’s affirmation of their choice to honor God. The truth is that they were living in sin—and grace gives them a way to be obedient without condemnation. Hope this helps.
It’s a good thing you have the lost coming to your church. When they come, people need to hear the truth or they will stay lost. Only God’s Word is life giving. We preach the gospel (all of it), then it’s up to each individual to either respond or not. The culture does not set the tone for the Church. The Church is the moral compass to a lost world. So to be known for preaching and believing the truth in a kind way—not mean spirited—is what we should be known for. If we don’t tell them, how can they change?
I preach the whole council of God; and because of that, people choose to experience life change. They commit to following Jesus, and then we get to be a part of watching what God does in their life. Because of this, we do a lot of office weddings. People hear that living together outside of marriage is wrong, so they want to do what God wants so they get it right. We teach that God loves people but if you want His help, you must do what His Word says. We have to tell people the truth so that they can decide for themselves. The world will say that this person or that person is a good person, but if they are lost, they are lost. See, the world wants to compare themselves to the standards of the world but our actions will be compared to God’s standards. We tell them the truth—that is our responsibility. So preach the whole counsel of God and let the chips fall where they may. It’s much easier that way.
The Bible says you will know them by their fruit. Christians need to develop a biblical world view. This means that everything we do (for example, how we vote) is measured by God’s Word. I have found that people who are truly born again will be convicted in their hearts when they sin. Those that don’t experience any conviction when they knowingly go against the Word of God are not truly born again at all. God corrects those who are His. The only thing He deals with in the unbeliever is the need to repent and receive Jesus into their hearts. So the answer to your question is this: if they are truly right with God, they will accept His word as final authority. The word of God becomes greater than their feelings. If they recently became a Christian, it is a matter of renewing their minds. But so called Christians that have supposedly been saved a long time who believe it is okay, have hardened their hearts to God’s word. God cannot teach the unteachable. God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.
I try to minister the love of God to people and promote godliness to them in almost every message I preach or teach dealing with the subject of sin, morality, and godly character. I believe that the Body of Christ—His Church—is the ground given to us to plant the seed which is necessary to produce a good crop (plant corn, get corn; plant carrots, get carrots, etc.). It gives us a good return for our effort. Give them what they need, not what they want to hear.
My son has been in the landscaping business for many years and is a contractor for the military. One day I was driving with him on base and we noticed another contractor planting some Fir trees. My son said that he was planting them incorrectly and all would die in six months. Sure enough, they did. My son said something very profound to me, “If you know how to plant the trees and prepare the ground you are planting them in, they will survive and grow.” Immediately Mark 4 came to me. The seed is not the only problem; it is the ground that determines the outcome as well. Notice verse 16, the word receive (Gr. lambano); they just happened to be at the right place at the right time and it fell on them and received it with joy. Because they did nothing to the ground, the seed could not take root and the Word became an offense. But notice in verse 20, the word receive (Gr. Paradechomai ); To deliberately go to a certain place to receive the seed by placing it along side of you in the ground to take root and grow 30, 60, 100 fold.
We must learn how to communicate to the different types of ground with the seed we are sowing (Mark 4:16 & 20).
The characteristics I look for in church members to promote are: faithfulness, diligence, perseverance, and endurance. Anyone can start a race, but few have the characteristic to finish the race. A person’s faithfulness leads to diligence and perseverance, and endurance will lead us to promotion.
Go and make disciples = disciplined ones.
We were all children once and we did childish things. But in the Lord, we need to grow up and mature spiritually to be an asset to the Body of Christ. Genuine spiritual maturity is evident when those closest to you can testify that you have truly been transformed! We can say we’re mature, but it’s what other spiritual people say about us that counts. The people noticed that the disciples, “had been with Jesus.” Like the Apostle Paul, “follow me as I follow Christ.”
We as leaders can develop the character of our people by being the best examples we can be. When they see our commitment to Jesus, their character will change and so will their hearts.
May we all continue to grow up spiritually in Jesus.
These two questions are a challenge. Here are a few thoughts before I try to answer Setting the Right Moral Tone:
- Often in the case of divorce or the death of a spouse, there are stipulations concerning funds (to the spouse or the children) if the divorced or surviving spouse remarries. I do not know all of the details, but I do know that often funds will be cut off if the spouse remarries. This often forces those in the new relationship to live together.
- Encouraging a couple living together to marry is always proper. The challenge is how much to encourage the couple to marry without offending them so that they leave. We want them to stay to help them in their walk with Jesus, believing they will mature spiritually and do the right thing.
- It is a blessing to be able to extend the love of Jesus to a young woman who becomes pregnant and is not married. By not being judgmental, it helps to remove any guilt or shame that may be present. Christianity is not religion.
- We do not allow couples living together to be members of the church. They cannot serve. We endeavor to explain the reason kindly and have not had anyone leave the church because of this.
- Whenever we speak to those living together, if they have a child, we always tell the child that they have a good father or mother. Hopefully this encourages the couple in some way to marry.
I have kind of lumped the two questions into one response. I pray that some of this may be a benefit. We speak these things generally from the pulpit when we can and to those couples living together if we have the opportunity.
Setting the Right Moral Tone
- Sheila and I have been married 46 years+. I try to exemplify a loving husband when I speak about her—she does the same. I am not perfect, but my prayer is that by projecting a loving relationship, as God would have it to be, it would be an example to the entire congregation, including those living together.
- We have accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Since we have done this, our desire should be to live in a manner that is in line with the Bible. Marriage—not living together—is the biblical standard.
- We teach that what the world teaches, if it is not in line with the Word of God, has no lasting value and ultimately will fail. If a relationship is to last, it has to be in line with the principles of the Bible. Marriage is the biblical principle.
- Similarly, we are in the world, but not of it. We have been bought with a price and are to glorify the Lord with our body that is His. The world’s standards no longer apply to us.
- One of my favorite ways to teach is that Jesus Christ not only came to redeem us, but to be an example, showing us how to live. He did not judge the woman caught in adultery, but told her to sin no more. I believe His kindness and non-judgmental attitude made an incredible impression on her. We try to copy His example. The Lord did not call us to condemn others, but we can encourage others to live right. This includes being married.
- God’s Word is a mirror and reflects what we should be. Anything less will hinder your growth and could become a stumbling block. Marriage looks back from the mirror of the Word into the face of those living together.
- Jesus said “if you love Me, obey Me.” There are blessings in marriage that are not realized by living together.
- The analogy of Jesus being the Husband and the Church being the wife references marriage. Love, commitment, care for each other are all based on a marital relationship.
- Simply put, life goes better when you do things God’s way—the Bible way.