Saturday, April 30, 2016

What's the Problem?



The church has been designed by God to be full of humility, unconditional love, and unshakable faith.  When the church is working right, it is the hope of the world.  When the church is healthy it is a greenhouse of growth. 

When the church is on mission it is a hospital for sinners; a haven for saints; and, the house where God dwells. 

The church, at its best, is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (united, righteous, diverse, and outreach-oriented); it reflects the ancient Nicene Creed, as well as relevantly bringing truth to contemporary situations.

The problem is that neither every church nor every Christian lives up to their calling by Jesus. 

Every follower of Jesus must take up their God-given responsibility to do their part in helping the church to function the way it was intended to work.

When the church is powerless and ineffective, God is not the problem. 

God’s purpose is still the same: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10).  God still cares about permanent things – people and relationships – and not temporary things in the church like dress codes, music styles, and particular ministries.  God’s promise is still the same.  “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).  God’s power is still the same, “For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).  The world is not stronger than God, no matter how evil things are or become.  God’s presence is still the same.  “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  So, then, if the church is not working as it ought to be, it is not the fault of Jesus.

            What is more, there is not a problem with the message.  The gospel is still the good news that Jesus Christ came to save sinners and grant grace to the humble.  Christ’s redemptive events of cross and resurrection are still effective to bring forgiveness and new life. 

God’s Word still has the power to change lives.

            Even the world is really not the problem in the church because the deeper the darkness, the brighter a small candlelight will shine.  As bad as things might get in the world, it still has an awful long way to go to match the Roman Empire in which the early church grew, thrived, and flourished. 

            An inability to realize healing, to become humble, to welcome others into the fellowship, and to really follow Jesus is not God’s fault, the fault of the message, or the world’s fault – it is us. 

We are our own worst problem.

            A hurting father brought his broken son to Christ’s disciples for healing (Luke 9:37-43).  He put himself out there and dared to hope again.  I can relate to how he must have felt.  Sometimes it can look pretty bleak after going to doctor after doctor and cycling through medication after medication looking for my grandson’s epilepsy to go away.  In the Gospel story, the Dad’s hope was shattered yet again as all the disciples took a crack at healing the boy.  What was the problem?

            The disciples were seeking to represent Jesus in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons.  They were trying to heal in their own strength, and to show off about was the greatest and most spiritual disciple.  The disciples could not heal the boy because healing is not a competition.

It is quite possible that we do church ministry the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. 

What I mean is this:  Maybe we have been selfishly doing church the way we like it and want it, or the way we believe it should be done.  Church is not a competition about who gets their way.  Maybe we need to be reminded that we are the only Jesus that some people will ever see.  Maybe we have forgotten that eternity is hanging in the balance.  It could be that there is no power because we are busy doing everything on our own, worrying about which people get the credit, and playing power politics to angle for greatness and significance.

--Do our church traditions, worship services, and ministries make sense to outsiders?  If not, how will we address the situation?
--Are there changes that you believe need to occur?  If so, what would it look like for you to ridiculously own leading in and through such a change?
--Is there a crucial conversation that needs to take place among a person(s) or group(s) of people?
--How will you connect with God so that ministry flows from knowing Him and not in your own thoughts and strength?
--How might I pray for you?


            I’m just a fellow servant, like you, trying to figure out the will of God and live into it in my context.  Let’s encourage one another in the journey so that God is glorified, Christ’s church is edified, and the world is blessed.  May it be so.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Authentic, Not Hypocritical



            “You can be certain that in the last days there will be some very hard times. People will love only themselves and money. They will be proud, stuck-up, rude, and disobedient to their parents. They will also be ungrateful, godless, heartless, and hateful. Their words will be cruel, and they will have no self-control or pity. These people will hate everything that is good. They will be sneaky, reckless, and puffed up with pride. Instead of loving God, they will love pleasure. Even though they will make a show of being religious, their religion won’t be real. Don’t have anything to do with such people” (2 Timothy 3:1-5, CEV).

The church is meant to be authentic, not hypocritical.

            Paul was talking to his young protégé Timothy.  He was not talking about unchurched people, but churched people.  If we miss that point, we miss the whole point of the book of 2 Timothy.  The bad stuff is all church crud.  This is why, when I was a teenager, I was so sour on the church.  My Dad was an elder and served in every capacity within our local congregation.  Even though he wisely did not talk about all the crud at the dinner table, occasionally someone would drop by and talk about the pastor to him, or about another member.  It was always negative.  No church member ever came to our home to encourage my Dad or my family, or to talk about how they might pray for the pastor.  They just belly-ached and made crazy accusations.  And all the while I knew what was going on in their lives (which was more messed-up than anything they were talking about to my Dad).

The church is meant to be a place where real people can share real hurts, real joys, real pain, real answers to prayer, real thoughts and feelings, so that they might find grace and healing for their lives. 

The church is meant to be authentic.  While Jesus was ministering on this earth, he was constantly chided for spending time with real people sharing real hurts because the religious folks did not want problem messy people around their religious establishment.

            If we keep hiding our emptiness and our pain, then pretense is always the result; this is just another way of saying “hypocrisy.”  Yes, when we pretend to be one thing on the outside but on the inside are another thing, then we are wearing a mask and playing the hypocrite.

            Let me be real with you:  I actually cry every day for the church.  I carry the weight of the souls of my own congregation on my shoulders.  I admit to you that Christ’s easy yoke doesn’t seem so light on many days for me.  I admit that there are times I grow tired and weary of the pretense, the negativity, and the lack of grace that so many believers today exhibit, especially on social media.  Today there needs to be repentance, revival, a commitment to biblical renewal, and loads of authenticity.  Today is the day to be real.

            People are messy, both physically and spiritually.  If there aren’t any cows in the barn, there’s no manure to shovel.  Dealing with messes means there is life happening.  Everything that is always nice and clean has no life happening.  Hospitality is messy.  Church ministry is messy.  When people share real feelings, it often is not pretty.  But the alternative is making a pretense and show of religion to appear we are upstanding Christian citizens.


            The church is the hope of the world when it is authentic, not hypocritical.  Growing up as a kid in my church I thought religious activity and right belief were the important things.  But I came to the point in my life at age seventeen recognizing that I did not have a real relationship with Jesus Christ.  I only attended church, and was not committed to knowing Jesus.  I was only a fan of Jesus, not a follower.  I wore a mask, and God had to unmask me.  I had to see that the Bible was relevant.  I had to repent and believe the gospel:  I needed to know that I was lost and that Jesus gives me forgiveness and new life.  That is the church’s message:  Forgiveness and new life in Jesus.  It comes through real genuine authenticity.  Hypocrites need not apply.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Making of a Leader



            If you are in a church, no matter whether a pastor, an elder or deacon, a member, and/or a regular attender or friend of the church – other people are making an example of you.  Yes, people are watching; they see what you do, what you say, how you act, and your attitude toward most things.  Church leaders, especially, are to be good examples to the Body of Christ (1 Peter 5:3).  Maybe you don’t think of yourself as an example to others, or think that more ordinary parishioners have that kind of influence.  But leadership isn’t really about having a position or possessing power; it is about the actions and/or inactions you take.

            No matter your position in the church, you have to take responsibility for the quality of your Christian life.  If you are in any kind of leadership role, you have to decide how good a leader you want to be.  Before you get too uppity about this and get your clerical robes (or skinny jeans and v-neck t-shirt) in a bunch, know that I am in this with you.  I am not speaking as an expert, but as one who is in continuous education every day through actual practice and constant learning.  If you desire the proficient expert, I’m not your guy.  But if you want a perspective from a common pastor in a non-descript congregation, then keep reading.

            I used to get discouraged about the reality that I wasn’t a born leader.  But then I came to my senses and remembered that I was born.  I’m here, so my mother must have given birth to me.  Everyone is born.  Rather, it’s a matter of what we do with what we have before we die that makes all the difference.  There is no evidence that people are predisposed with a leadership gene imprinted on their DNA.  Yes, in the church there are gifts of leadership given by the Holy Spirit.  But that doesn’t get any of us off the hook of leadership any more than not having a gift of teaching means we don’t have to instruct our kids.

            What I’m getting at is this:  leadership can be learned.  It is a skill and ability like most anything else in life.  Therefore, it must be developed and honed, even if one seems prone to be a leader.  If I’m right, or at least you think I’m on to something here, then good leadership means being a good learner.  The thing that really exemplifies good leaders is lots and lots of practice.  It’s been estimated that about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over a period of 10 years is what it takes to achieve the highest level of proficiency.  Okay, now maybe I’ve lost you.  But this is the price of leadership.  It doesn’t just happen.  Men and women of God don’t just get zapped by the Spirit like some divine magic trick and become automatically great leaders.  God calls, molds, develops, mentors, and shapes individuals of all kinds for his purposes for leadership.  That’s why there are so many exhortations in Scripture to be examples, follow godly examples, and mimic sound doctrine.  Making disciples isn’t like making microwave popcorn.  It’s much more like the outdoor smoker; go low and slow and let the meat cook just right.

            Since leadership is a learned art, then failure is inevitable.  We practice anything to get better at it.  We do it, blow it, learn from our mistakes then try it again – over and over and over again.  Grace comes into the equation because we must allow people the freedom to try and fail without beating them up over their mistakes.  No one wants to even try if they know they’ll get slapped if they fail.  Of all the places on planet earth, the church really ought to be a place where folks can experiment, try, implement ideas, and learn from their failures.  The fact that we don’t typically think of the church this way says a lot.


            Intelligence is helpful; talking a good line never hurts; confidence is beneficial; but taking the time to practice the skills of leadership with dedicated work and focused motivation is the one thing that anyone can do.  Be encouraged to know that Christian sanctification is a process; church leadership can be developed and learned.  If you desire to be a better example, work at it with all your heart.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What Do You Want?



Let’s make a very important observation about how Christ’s church is designed to function:  The church is meant to operate on desire, not duty (2 Corinthians 9:7).  “Each person should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  Paul was a cheerful giver.  What kept him going was the love of Christ:  “For Christ’s love compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).  We are to be motivated in the Christian life and in the Christian church by desiring Jesus, and not by sheer duty.  Desiring God is the only thing that will keep us going over the long haul.  Sustainable spiritual health can only be had through love and desire.  Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).

            As Christians, we do not obey in order to be accepted and loved by God because we already have love and acceptance.  Rather, we obey because we love.  God would rather have us give a dime out of desire than give a thousand dollars out of duty.  Jesus is looking for love.  He doesn’t need our money because he already owns everything.  God wants our love.  Why do you do what you do?  Is it out of desire, or duty?

            You are what you love.  It is our desires that define us as Christians and as the church that Jesus is building.  What do you want?  That is the question which every Christian and church must ask ourselves.  It is the first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship. Jesus asked it.  It is the first question he ever asked of someone in the Gospels:  “What do you want?” (John 1:38) he asked the first two people who were following him early in his ministry.

            Jesus is still asking that question “What do you want?” because what you want determines where you will aim your love.  Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity.  We are to hunger and thirst for righteousness, we are to desire right relationships with God and others.  This is very different than being told that we have a duty to believe and do what is right.  Duty will not last forever, but desires will be diligently pursued and fulfilled.  Sheer duty will not get me very far as a husband.  But desire will cause me to cross land and sea, to scale mountains and walk through valleys, in order to be with my beloved wife.  So, the real question is:  “What do you want?”  Is your love aimed in the right direction, or is your love directed toward things which will never satiate your hunger and thirst?  Are you looking for love in all the wrong places?

            Philosopher and theologian James K. A. Smith of Calvin College has said, “To be human is to be animated and oriented by some vision of the good life, some picture of what we think counts as ‘flourishing.’  And we want that.  We crave it.  We desire it.  This is why our most fundamental mode of orientation to the world is love.  We are oriented by our longings, and directed by our desires.”  Do we really love Jesus?  What do our actual desires and actions tell us?  In which direction are our hearts really aimed?  The church is meant to function in desiring God, and not dictated by religious duty.


            If what churches want is full auditoriums and sanctuaries so that they can meet large budgets to support growing building needs, then that says something about who/what they really love.  If what churches want are faithful followers of God who learn to live and love like Jesus, then that says something about who/what they really love.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take over the world; it’s the reasons why and the methods we employ that are the real issue.  Here’s the deal:  believing all the right things, having wonderful programs and ministries, and uplifting worship services doesn’t mean much if the basic orientation of it all is trying to fill-up our religious quotas and keep score.  If we have a scorecard at all, then we’ve gotten on the wrong ship.  The grace boat is still sitting in the harbor waiting for us to get on.  But we have to want it.  

Monday, April 11, 2016

Love, Not Hate



            Jesus will build his church (Matthew 16:18).  The church has been designed from its inception to be the hope of the world.  God the Father sent God the Son to this earth to live a holy life, to teach us how to live, to die on a cruel cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, to rise from death, to ascend to heaven, to send God the Holy Spirit for us as we engage in the mission of proclaiming in words and actions that there is new life in Jesus. 

            So, the church is being the church when:  lives are changed; hatreds are overcome; failures are forgiven; grace overwhelms and melts hard hearts; selfishness is diminished; compassion grows into an immense hope that Christ is doing just as he said he would do – build his church.  When the church is working right it is the hope of the world because it is:  experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit to rejoice with those who rejoice and cry with those who cry; lifting holy hands in prayer and praise to the God who loves us; and, reaching-out with heartfelt mercy to those who desperately need this good news that Jesus has graciously forgiven all our sin through his once for all death on a cross.

The church is meant to love, not hate (1 John 3:14).

            “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers and sisters.  Anyone who does not love remains in death.”  I need to ask this question because the Word of God demands it:  Do you hate anyone?  The Scripture tells us that hate means we are still dead, not alive.  Love is the distinguishing mark of the believer in Jesus Christ.  The person with hate has so many barnacles built up on their underside that they cannot move at all through the water of life with any joy or fulfillment.  What is more, they are dragging down the rest of the fleet that seeks to move in concert together in the love of Jesus.

            Jesus Christ did not die on the cross so that we could hate someone, or a group of people.  Christ died so that you could love.  If love does not characterize your life, you are dead.  That means you are separated from God.  That sounds serious, and it is.  Hate has absolutely no place in the church whatsoever.  “Anyone who hates his brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him” (1 John 3:15).

            As followers of Jesus, we not only should love, but we should not put up with hate in the fellowship of believers.  You are under no obligation whatsoever to listen to hateful speech and allow hateful actions because the church is meant to be a reflection of God’s loving and healing acceptance of people.  It is not the loving thing to do to let others spew hate in front of you, no matter who they are.  Maybe you could respond to hateful words by saying, “Sounds to me like you need to let God pressure-wash some barnacles off your heart.”

            If you keep having the same conversation with someone over and over again; if every time you raise a new idea, the same person lists three reasons why it will never work; if fondness for the past exceeds passion for the future; if small things always become big things; if someone chronically complains to you; and, if there is never any love behind what someone says to you; then, there is hate behind it all and it just might be that such a person needs to hear the gospel of grace and be delivered from their life of sin.


            Every church on God’s good earth must have a zero-tolerance policy toward hate, and a 100% commitment to love.  God has not called us to hate anyone, but to love.  The church is only the hope of the world when it loves others.  The world will know that there is a God in heaven, and a Christ in the church, when people within local congregations love one another, when particular Christian denominations go out of their way to bless others, and when the love of Jesus compels us to drip grace on the most unlovely of people. Indeed, they will know we are Christians by our love.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Internal vs. External Motivation


  
            It isn’t unusual for me to ask someone in the church to do a particular job or ministry.  I almost always ask them to not give me an answer right away but to think and pray about it.  Most of the time, I get a pretty straightforward answer, either yes or no.  Every once in a while I get a “yes” only to discover down the road into the project or ministry that nothing is really being done.  It is at such times that I begin to question the motivation behind the initial “yes” to my request to serve.  This gets at what the real motivation is behind what we do or don’t do.

            We all have times of not feeling like doing something.  That is completely normal.  But if we have a habit of never saying “no” and always saying “yes” then resenting that we are not getting enough appreciation or acknowledgment for our service, we have a real problem.  This gets at the heart of what really motivates us.  It was Jesus who said, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).  If we say “yes” knowing in the back of our minds that we don’t really want to do it, then this does not come from a place of spiritual health. 

            If we simply comply with what others expect of us, fearing what they will think of us, or too afraid to say “no” we are being externally motivated and it will not last.  What is more, someone might ask with a manipulative tone and try and guilt us into serving and/or doing what they want us to do.  If we acquiesce to this, we are being pressed into an external motivation which will also not stand up both in this life and in the life to come.

            Saying “yes” really ought to come from an internal place.  Plenty of people do things because of external controls – the possibility of some reward if they succeed or some punishment if they do not.  Either we do things to please ourselves and God, or we do things to please another person.  It doesn’t take a genius to discern which approach is going to produce the better results.  The Pharisees are the biblical Exhibit A of externally motivated people.  “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them,” exhorted Jesus.  “If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).  Instead, we simply ask and seek, love and serve, and find that God notices and responds (Matthew 7:7-8).

            Holy Scripture, common sense, and contemporary research all agree:  external motivation is more likely to create conditions of compliance and/or defiance, whereas internal motivation will keep a person working and serving even if there is no immediate outside reward.  Externally motivated people only serve when the rewards and punishments are in place – once they are taken away, there is no service.  This is the very opposite of a life centered in and motivated by grace, which is why it is so heinous in the view of Jesus.

            Gracious and exemplary church servants and leaders have a passion for something other than their own recognition and fame.  They care about making a difference for God.  They deeply desire to give back something for the gracious and costly gift of salvation and new life given to them through Jesus Christ.  They really don’t care who gets the credit as long as God is glorified, the church is edified, and people come to know Jesus. 


            So, what motivates us is quite important because it demonstrates the true state of our hearts and makes all the difference in how things get done in the church.  This is why the Apostle Peter said, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, be because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  May Peter’s tribe increase!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Eastertide



            It could very well be that you have never heard of the word “Eastertide,” and maybe not even in your church.  In my judgment, that is quite unfortunate because Eastertide is a significant season in the Christian Year.  It spans fifty days until Pentecost.  Yep, that is seven weeks of bringing the new life we enjoy to the forefront.  Eastertide’s intentional focus is to recognize and celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and, thus, exulting in our own new life in him.

            Now, you might be saying to yourself something like this: “Why do we need to have some liturgical season about Christ’s resurrection?  Shouldn’t we be living like we recognize this every day?”  Yes, of course we should.  But consider this:  If you only sing songs of resurrection on Easter Sunday in your church; only occasionally, at best, think of Christ’s resurrection outside of Easter Sunday; then, perhaps it is wise to bring a highlighted focus to the resurrection in a special season.  Just as we would likely not think of taking only one vacation day in the year for renewal, so it is necessary to take more than one day to enjoy Easter.  If nothing else, Eastertide gives believers an opportunity to let Christ’s resurrection percolate in our hearts so that we end up becoming people in real life who exhibit an alive-spirit.  And God knows we could use much more of that in our congregations!

            If life, eternal life, and the necessity of being alive are all needs we have within particular congregations, then it only makes sense that we would want to take advantage of what Eastertide has to offer us:  a deliberate look at Christ’s resurrection, exploring its implications and impact for us and our churches.  Simply assuming that we all know about the resurrection will not do, any more than my wife simply assuming I love her without looking her straight in the eye and telling her so.  

            If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17) and we can only expect a sin-as-usual kind of approach to life with a sort of shoulder shrug that says, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?”  But, instead, we have the hope of life everlasting because Christ has risen from death.  We have the hope of individual renewal and corporate revitalization since we serve a risen Savior.

            Therefore this is the perfect time of year to engage in some renewal practices or even make a few simple changes that show signs of life within the congregation.  Here are just a few ideas for lifting Christ’s resurrection into the next few months:

Pray for revival.  Wherever there is deadness there is no Jesus.  Christ brings life, so praying to God for revival is a deliberate way of connecting with the Lord.

Squarely address things in the church which are death-dealing.  Gossip, back-biting, slander, and an entire host of sins of the tongue kill and murder people.  It brings death.  Simply sluffing-off someone’s acerbic speech as “that’s just the way they are” will not do in the church, unless you want Jesus at arms-length.

Promote things which are life-giving.  If sins of the tongue bring death, using our speech for encouragement, love, mercy, forgiveness, and building up one another in the church promotes growth, health, and life.

Preach a sermon series on new life.  The church is the hope of the world because Christ is the risen Lord.  Boldly proclaim the truth of the resurrected Christ and how it works in reaching the world.

Start that new ministry that you always believed would make a difference.  It is the season to take a risk.  After all, if you have eternal life can you really fail?  Host a new small group in your home.  Transform that unused space in the church building.  If you are a layperson, blow away your pastor by asking him/her in what ways you can bring life to your church (believe me, your pastor will have ideas for you!).

Focus on daily habits of spiritual health and life.  If you would not think of skipping meals for days at a time, then think about the erosion to your church that occurs when many individual parishioners do not read their Bibles on a regular basis or pray with any kind of consistency.  Make a plan and stick to it.  It will not only bring growth to your own life, but will impact those around you.


            Just keeping the word “Eastertide” in front of you for the next few months can be a simple yet powerful way of reminding us that God has called us to new life.  Let the reality of Christ’s resurrection take root in your heart to such an extent that Jesus becomes the greatest influence to all your thinking, speaking, and acting.