In or Out?

Many of us just do church. We do church like we do sports, school, work, hobbies, and other activities. Christianity gets put on our checklist of things we should do.  It gets bumped up and down on the list depending on the priorities of the things we want to do and the urgency of the things we have to do. Daily we make choices on what to do with our time and in the end I think we would be surprised at just how little time we spend with God, with His people, and at His church.  This seems a brazen contradiction for people who are heirs to the Kingdom, fellow heirs with Christ and children of the Almighty God.  Shouldn’t we desire to spend the majority of our time with God and with the people of God carrying on the work Christ came to do in this world?  Shouldn’t we desire to be people of the truth who grow up to be mature disciples in unity, maturing in our relationship with one another and with God and going out together to engage the world with the Gospel message?

Shouldn’t we be so enamored with doing the work of Christ in our world that it consumes us to the point that everyone that knows us and knows our passion would always know what we are doing and where to find us?

Jesus himself seemed frustrated at the idea that the people around him acted as if they did not know where to find him.  When his parents finally located him in the temple, after he had turned up missing as a boy, he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” When Jesus was in the garden, he said to the guards who came to arrest him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?  Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me.” Who Jesus was, dictated what Jesus did and where Jesus went. His passion to do the will of the father weighed so heavily upon him that it consumed all that He did. We should all desire to have this kind of passion for the things of God.

In Ephesians 5 we are called to be imitators of God.  “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Imitate Christ.  Walk like He walked, love like he loved, give the way he gave. It’s a call to sacrifice. Are we willing to take this challenge on?  Are we willing to step up and be imitators of God in a world that is opposed to such ideas?

Imagine if we began to understand that discipleship is not a class, its a lifestyle!  Imagine if we all began to understand that Christianity isn’t something we do, it’s who we are.  Imagine if we had such passion for Christ that the priorities in life would fade into the distance in comparison to the weight of the glory of knowing Christ and making Him known. Maybe then we would truly understand what it means to be a disciple.  For believers, I think it’s time we stop imagining and start living.  Are you in or out?

“No one can sum up all God is able to accomplish through one solitary life, wholly yielded, adjusted, and obedient to Him.”    
    — D.L.Moody

Falling Through The Cracks

I’ve heard it said that one of the biggest frustrations with larger churches is the inability to keep up with one another.  When there are multiple services and hundreds of people in and out of the building on a weekly basis, it is quite difficult.  If you go to one service then you miss the people in the other service.  There may be members of the church that you’ve never met or talked to.  It becomes increasingly difficult for the pastors of the church to keep up with everyone.  This type of church dynamic makes it easy for people to fall through the cracks.

This can be one of the most frustrating things for me as a pastor.  There are some folks who are members of the church but don’t have family at the church.  At some point they may get sick or have something happen, but given the fact that no one at the church had much connection to them, we might never hear about it.  These people are eventually forgotten.

I got a call from a family wanting me to officiate the funeral of a man who was a member of our church. When I was a young minister, starting out in youth ministry at TBC, I began to walk around on Sunday mornings shaking peoples hands during the services.  This man was one of those guys that I would always go talk to.  I loved talking to him in the mornings, and he was always glad to greet me with a friendly handshake and talk about how things were going.  He probably didn’t know how much that encouraged me.  Along the way he became too sick to come to church and I’ll admit that it has been years since I’ve seen him.  When he was sick and in the hospital, I was unaware.  It wasn’t until his family called to ask me to do the funeral that I realized I’ve missed him.  While I was happy to do the funeral, I was sad to know that I didn’t get to see him before he was gone.

So, what went wrong?  I think the simple answer is he wasn’t connected.  He came to the service, he was a member of the church, but he wasn’t connected to any group within the church that took care of him or knew where he was.  In fact, I did the funeral and I was the only member of our church that showed up.  He was a member here for nine years, yet without being connected to any other people he simply slipped through the cracks and was forgotten.

To be honest I hate this.  I hate having someone who gets overlooked.  This is why I believe that it is important for larger churches to have a small group ministry in place that exists as the arm of the church which reaches out to the members and connects them to the family.

Every member on the role of the church should be assigned to a small group.  That small group should understand their purpose to be more than just meeting together for Bible study.  That group should understand their purpose to be taking care of one another, both the physical and spiritual needs of the people who they are together with in their group.  It’s far more practical for a small group to check on and know the whereabouts of 5 or 6 inactive people in their class than for one man (the pastor) to have to check on and know the whereabouts of 50 or 60.

It only makes sense that if this man had been connected to a group whose purpose was to reach out and take care of him, we would have known where he was, we would have known he was sick, and maybe we would have been there for him.  Maybe some folks from the church would have attended his funeral.  Maybe we could have reached out to some of his family.  Maybe less people would fall through the cracks.

While I’m not angry at anyone, nor do I think we have any finger pointing to do in regards to the situation, I do believe this is just another sign of growing pains.  The more we grow, the more we are going to have to adjust everything we do in order to meet the challenges that accompany growth.  Our small groups have to become the means by which we stay connected.  They have to be the way we keep others from getting lost in the crowd.  They have to be our means of reaching out and building one another up in love.

It’s been said that “a problem well defined is a problem half solved.”  Knowing our difficulties is only half the battle.  The next step is dealing with them.

Biblical Illiteracy Among Christians

“An old preacher used to say, ‘the Word has mighty free course among many nowadays, for it goes in at one of their ears and out at the other; so it seems to be with some readers–they can read a very great deal, because they do not read anything.  They eye glances but the mind never rests.  The soul does not light upon the truth and stay there.  Such reading is not reading at all.'” – Charles Spurgeon

I often wonder how we can claim to know and love that which we do not pursue?    When my wife and I were dating, one of the most exciting things about our relationship was discovering who we were.  We talked for hours, we relived our childhood, we discussed our dreams, and mulled over the things we liked and disliked.  Our relationship grew because we began sharing our lives with one another.  People would find it strange indeed if I asked a girl to marry me that I didn’t know or had only briefly heard about from someone else.  Stranger still would be for me to profess my love and desire for her, but refuse to live with her, talk to her, learn anything else about her, or even allow her to be a part of my life.  That would not only be dysfunction with a capital D, we might consider it a bit psychotic or abusive.  So why don’t we find it strange that many Christians today enter into a “relationship” with Jesus and claim to love and desire him and yet spend so little time reading the word?  I believe it to be a strange thing that you can find some of the most biblically illiterate people standing in the church singing songs like, “Standing on the promises of God”.

Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College wrote an article entitled “The Greatest Story Never Read: Recovering biblical literacy in the church” in Christianity Today.  He claims “Christian faith is not being built on the firm foundation of hard-won thoughts, ideas, history, or theology. Spirituality is being built on private emotional attachments.”  Thus claiming that Christians base their religion not on their understanding of the Bible but on the emotions they experience centering around the religion itself.  Can we really call this true Christianity?

Researcher George Barna, in his book “Boiling Point”, reports that “The average born-again, baptized, churchgoing person has embraced elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Scientology, Unitarianism and Christian Science—without any idea they have just created their own faith.”  Therefore he says, “we cannot really call the faith of American Christians a Bible-based faith. It is a synthetic, syncretic faith.”  Biblical illiteracy has led American Christians down the dangerous path of accepting and combining many different ideas from other religions and worldviews and thus creating their own religion.

Now, more than ever, it is essential that American believers actually pick up their Bibles and read it to discover if their beliefs match up with the truth found in the Word of God.  The Bible is filled with knowledge and wisdom from God.  We read about God and how He relates to humanity.  If the wealth of information never gets from the pages of your Bible into your mind, it is of no value.  We cannot simply rely on listening to sermons and Bible studies.  It’s not sufficient to simply attend church, listen to Christian music, and take notes during the messages.  This type of Christianity is not a good example of “meditating on God’s law day and night” (Psalms 1:2; 119:15, 48; Joshua 1:8).

Psalm chapter 19 declares that God’s instruction is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, reliable, and righteous.  It also says that it revives the soul, makes us wise, makes the heart glad, and teaches us how to live.  The Word of God is an invaluable treasure greater than gold and honey.  Yeah, the Bible is more valuable than money and food…two of the most sought after items of all time.  Think about what people do for money!  Steal, cheat, kill, and even go on reality TV to eat some nasty 100 year old rotten egg to attempt to win cold hard cash.  Yet, in the end money will be gone and it’s value will be altogether worthless.

Would Christians go so far as to do crazy things for Jesus?  Here is an unpopular question: Which would influence you more?  If I asked you to read two chapters out of the Bible everyday for a year because it is the most valuable book in human history would you be motivated to do it?  What if I told you that I would monitor your progress and if you actually read the Bible everyday for a year then I’ll give you $1,000,000.  Would your motivation change?  In the end I believe more church goers would be willing to read their Bibles more if they were getting paid for it.  Why is that?  Isn’t it because there are many evangelical Christians who don’t really believe that the Bible is more valuable than all the gold in the world?  Yet the Bible claims, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world and yet forfeit his soul.”  – Matt 16:26.

Think about the advice of Deuteronomy 6:6-7 “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” The American Christian might say, ‘surely that isn’t literal.’  I would venture to say this is the type of foolish, lazy reasoning that accentuates our problem.  Many Jews have taken this to be quite literal and have bound boxes containing the word upon their arm and forehead or attached it to their doorposts.  While I may not go as far as to say that we should all get Deuteronomy 6:4-5 tattooed on our arms and foreheads (though I am not entirely opposed to this), I would say that we should go so far as to making the Word of God a part of our everyday life so much so that it becomes permanently attached to all that we do and all that we are.  Grudem points out that “The nature of opposites in these verses (sit/walk, lie down/rise) suggest any and every time, place, and activity.”  The Word of God should, quite literally, become our greatest and most prominent priority and therefore it should interrupt our everyday lives as it might if we were literally wearing it on our foreheads.

The Altar Call

“We are to preach the Word, and if we do it properly, there will be a call to a decision that comes in the message, and then we leave it to the Spirit to act upon people”

Early in the 1970s Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones was the speaker at a ministers’ conference in the USA and at a question session was asked the following question:

Question: During recent years, especially in England, among evangelicals of the Reformed faith, there has been a rising criticism of the invitation system as used by Billy Graham and others. Does Scripture justify the use of such public invitations or not?

Answer: Well, it is difficult to answer this in a brief compass without being misunderstood. Let me answer it like this: The history of this invitation system is one with which you people ought to be more familiar than anyone else, because it began in America. It began in the 1820s; the real originator of it was Charles G. Finney. It led to a great controversy. Asahel Nettleton, a great Calvinist and successful evangelist, never issued an “altar call” nor asked people to come to the “anxious seat.” These new methods in the 182Os and were condemned for many reasons by all who took the Reformed position.

One reason is that there is no evidence that this was done in New Testament times, because then they trusted to the power of the Spirit. Peter preaching on the Day of Pentecost under the power of the Spirit, for instance, had no need to call people forward in decision because, as you remember, the people were so moved and affected by the power of the Word and Spirit that they actually interrupted the preacher, crying out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” That has been the traditional Reformed attitude towards this particular matter. The moment you begin to introduce this other element, you are bringing a psychological element. The invitation should be in the message. We believe the Spirit applies the message, so we trust in the power of the Spirit. I personally agree with what has been said in the question. I have never called people forward at the end for this reason; there is a grave danger of people coming forward before they are ready to come forward. We do believe in the work of the Spirit, that He convicts and converts, and He will do His work. There is a danger in bringing people to a “birth,” as it were, before they are ready for it.

The Puritans in particular were afraid of what they would call “a temporary faith” or “a false profession.” There was a great Puritan, Thomas Shepard, who published a famous series of sermons on The Ten Virgins. The great point of that book was to deal with this problem of a false profession. The foolish virgins thought they were all right. This is a very great danger.

I can sum it up by putting it like this: I feel that this pressure which is put upon people to come forward in decision ultimately is due to a lack of faith in the work and operation of the Holy Spirit. We are to preach the Word, and if we do it properly, there will be a call to a decision that comes in the message, and then we leave it to the Spirit to act upon people. And of course He does. Some may come immediately at the close of the service to see the minister. I think there should always be an indication that the minister will be glad to see anybody who wants to put questions to him or wants further help. But that is a very different thing from putting pressure upon people to come forward. I feel it is wrong to put pressure directly on the will. The order in Scripture seems to be this – the truth is presented to the mind, which moves the heart, and that in turn moves the will.”

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 1899 –1981

I’d Rather Have Jesus

Many people are familiar with the song “I’d Rather Have Jesus”.  Originally a poem composed in 1922 written by Rhea F. Miller.  The tune of the song was written by George Beverly Shea after his mother left the poem on the piano in their home.  The message this song portrays is quite compelling and powerful and yet I have to wonder, can this really be said of us in America?  Somehow American Christians have gotten the American Dream confused with the will of God to the point that many assume religion is simply another element of the dream itself.  We have our stuff, our health, our money, our insurance, our retirement, and our religion.  Notice these things appeal to our security.  We feel most secure when we’re healthy, wealthy, and protected.  In fact religion can merely be just another insurance policy and retirement plan in the eyes of many.  These things become our idols. When all is well we are grateful to God for all that he gives us and when these things are threatened then we pray harder than ever that God might restore them.  God becomes nothing more than a means by which we attempt to acquire these things.  It’s as if we somehow believe that God has moved history in such a way that Jesus died on the cross so that his people can live the dream, be happy, do what they want and tip their hat to him every now and then.  This song is a plea to believers to realize that Jesus is far more precious than any of these things.  Jesus should be our dream, our aspiration, and our desire.

I’d Rather Have Jesus
I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands,
I’d rather be led by His nail pierced hand.

Than to be a king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin’s dread sway,
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.

I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause;
I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause;
I’d rather have Jesus than world-wide fame,
I’d rather be true to His holy name.

May the words of this song echo in our heads as we drop more money in our retirement, sign our insurance policies, pay our car payments and plan for many more years of self pleasure and indulgence.

Matthew 16:24-26 “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?’”

Philippians 3:8 “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.”

God help us adjust our priorities in this life to reflect the Kingdom of God that the Gospel might be proclaimed through the lives of people willing to give up the American Dream for the sake of the the Kingdom!  May our dream become the advancement of the Gospel by any and all means possible.

Is Divorce The Key To Happiness?

Let’s start by pointing out that divorce can be a difficult and painful subject to discuss from a personal point of view because people in the midst of divorce, or those seriously considering it, are often times irrational and emotionally out of control.  However, the subject of divorce from a spiritual and Biblical perspective is quite clear and simple to discuss. But that’s the rub. Does someone who is in the midst of this situation really care what God’s word says?

Sometimes when we are unhappy, caught up in sin, and out of control we can allow ourselves to get wrapped up in lies, so much so that we attempt to convince ourselves and others around us that we are right and justified in the decisions we make, no matter how misguided those decisions may be. What can make a man turn from the truth and embrace a lie? What can make an otherwise rational Christian become bitter and indifferent to God’s word?  What can make us twist Scripture to make it say what we want it to say and embrace the things God calls sin all the while claiming God’s acceptance of our rebellion? And how can we ever convince ourselves that these things will make us happy or that God just wants us to be happy?

Marriage was instituted and founded by God when he created Adam and Eve.  He created them “male and female” – Gen. 1:27 and said that the two shall become one flesh.  This bond of becoming “one flesh” was never meant to be broken.  Jesus affirms this in the New Testament when he quotes Genesis 1 to the Pharisee asking about divorce and responds with this statement, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  What God has joined together, let no man separate” – Matthew 19:6. The two became one flesh in marriage, but God joined the couple together.  From the beginning of time God designed marriage to be a union between man and woman and thereby ordained the concept of two people becoming one flesh and the idea that this union should not be broken.  How is it that we can convince ourselves that at some point in our lives God, for the sake of our happiness, wants us to divide this “one flesh” union?

Marriage is a vow and covenant between the man and the woman with God as the witness.  This is made clear in the Book of Malachi.  God refused to accept the offerings of the people because he was standing firm as a witness against husbands who were being unfaithful to their wives.  You might find it interesting that these men refused to remain faithful to their marriage covenant and yet they still expected God to remain faithful to them. They even ask the question “Why isn’t God accepting our offerings?” God’s response is found in  Malachi 2:14 “Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. I believe the marriage covenant is linked to our spiritual well-being and when this covenant is threatened or broken it disrupts our spiritual life.  However, I also have to take into account the idea that a broken relationship with Christ is likely a factor in the marital problems to begin with.  Malachi’s emphasis on the faithless husband is just one of the numerous symptoms of a people who already had a broken relationship with God.

The Bible tells us to be imitators of Christ and to have the same mind as Christ.  It says husbands should love their wives like Christ loves the church and the Bible speaks often of marriage being a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church.  In the metaphor, Jesus is understood to be the groom and the church is His bride.  If we are to be imitators of Christ as the Bible says, then the relationship of Jesus Christ to the church becomes our example for the marriage relationship.  Jesus is faithful to his bride, the church, even though the church is a whore who is continually unfaithful to him.  He was faithful to the point of death.  That’s the example we are to follow.

Divorce is a sin.  It’s wrong.  It’s outside of God’s will.  It’s selfish, self-seeking, and does not honor God.  It was not meant to be.  Even Jesus says in Matthew 19 – “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” He goes on to say that anyone who divorces his or her wife and marries another woman commits adultery.

Jesus gives only one reason for divorce, sexual immorality.  This, however, is not a command nor is it meant to be used as an excuse for divorce.  Divorce is allowed in this case but is not desired by God nor required by Him.  In fact, if Jesus is our example then forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration of the marriage should always be the first option.  Even though the church is unfaithful to Christ and he could rightfully “divorce” her, he chooses to pursue his bride instead, seeking reunion.

These are the things I know to be true because I believe the Bible to be true. The problem still lies in the question, do Christians in this situation really care about what the Bible says or what God thinks?  Does the urgency of their present situation trump the authority of Scripture?  Does our culture’s acceptance of divorce as a common practice make the Bible’s teachings on divorce a moot point?  The obvious answer is no.  Yet is that how we live?  It’s unfortunate that divorce is rampant within the Christian community.

Part of the problem may be that we get caught up in the lie that says “I need to start thinking about me and caring for myself and doing what makes me happy.”  When we come to the point where we believe life is about us and our own enjoyment then I must assume that Jesus is no longer in the picture, since he would teach and live the exact opposite.  Jesus says that in order for us to follow him we must take up our cross and deny ourselves.  Paul says in Romans that we are to sacrifice ourselves daily as our spiritual worship.  Denying ourselves and sacrificing ourselves is the opposite of living for our own happiness and pleasure.

That’s the truth, plain and simple.  So why can’t we just call it what it is?  If someone is going to get a divorce then why do we need to sugar coat it, look over it, and make it ok when it isn’t? It’s sin, let’s call it what it is.  But in the same respect, staying “married” in name only just because it’s something you’re supposed to do and then avidly chasing other things or other people isn’t right either. If you are looking to do the right thing as far as God is concerned there is only one answer, follow the example of Christ.  You have to choose to passionately love your spouse and unconditionally pursue him/her regardless of his/her faults.

Giving up on Christ and seeking after your own pleasure and enjoyment is unfulfilling and you’ll never truly be happy apart from Him.  However, it is just as unfulfilling and wrong to “do” Christianity because you think it is what your supposed to do.  The only right thing in the Christian life is to passionately love Christ and unconditionally pursue Him regardless of your own sins, faults, and weaknesses, knowing that he has passionately pursued you. Christ is the key to happiness.  Divorce is just a symptom of a much deeper problem.

“Men Work Wickedness Under The Notion Of God Service, And So Sin Without Restraint”

For the second time I’ve picked up Jonathan Edwards “The Religious Affections” and started reading it.  I’ll admit that reading the puritans can be a difficult thing and there are times it’s hard to get through certain parts.  “The Religious Affections is a book that focuses on distinguishing the difference between true and false religion.  Even though it can be a rather difficult read, I think there is a valuable message contained within the words of Edwards that would be valuable to every Christian.  In fact, this might be one book you should put on your reading list.  I’m always in awe of how much the church in our day and age relates to the status of Christianity back in the 1700’s when Edwards penned this.  It reminds me that God’s Word is timeless,  and the deception of the enemy remains virtually the same over the years.  The following is an excerpt from the book that talks about the devil’s master plan of deceiving people through the lens of advancing religion.

“And so it is ever likely to be in the church, whenever religion revives remarkably, till we have learned well to distinguish between true and false religion, between saving affections and experiences, and those manifold fair shows and glistering appearances by which they are conterfeited; the consequences of which, when they are not distinguished, are often inexpressibly dreadful.  By this means the devil gratifies himself, by bringing it to pass that that should be offered to God by multitudes, under a notion of a pleasing acceptable service to him, that is indeed above all things abominable to him.  By this means he deceives great multitudes about the state of their souls, making them think they are something when they are nothing; and so eternally undoes them; and not only so, but establishes many in a strong confidence of their eminent holiness, who are in God’s sight some of the vilest of hypocrites.  By this means he many ways damps and wounds religion in the hearts of the saints, obscures and deforms it by corrupt mixtures, causes their religious affections woefully to degenerate, and sometimes for a considerable time to be like the manna that bred worms and stank; and dreadfully ensnares and confounds the minds of others of the saints, and brings them into great difficulties and temptations, and entangles them in a wilderness out of which they can by no means extricate themselves.  By this means Satan mightily encourages the hearts of open enemies of religion, and strengthens their hands, and fills them with weapons, and makes strong their fortresses: when, at the same time, religion and the church of God lie exposed to them, as a city without walls.  By this means he brings it to pass, that men work wickedness under a notion of doing God service, and so sin without restraint, yea with earnest forwardness and zeal, and with all their might.  By this means he brings in even the friends of religion, insensibly to themselves, to do the work of enemies, by destroying religion in a far more effectual manner than open enemies can do, under the notion of advancing it.”