Tuesday, February 28, 2012

This material is not very Christ-centered...Now what?

It is a good to thing to stumble upon material that is gospel centered. What I mean by that is that Jesus' finished work (Life, Death, Resurrection) is our means and motivation to follow Him. Instead of what I call a "Nike message" (just do it), good material will point to the truth that Jesus has already done it FOR us and now is going to start doing it IN and THROUGH us. That's much different than a "Nike message." Such messages lead to pride (I did it) or despair (I can't do it). Well trained teachers saturated with the gospel thinking will tend to pick up on "Nike" material as they can smell moralism and legalism a mile away. 

However what should a teacher do when he/she comes upon such material or a small section in your teaching materials that doesn't appear to be gospel centered?

1.) First of all, we need to realize that NO material comes to us from Mt Sinai, with the exception of the Torah (first five books of bible) literally speaking and the rest of the scriptures spiritually speaking (the rest is also inspired by God). As a result this is the only material where the problem is never with the material but with the teacher. But when you teach the books of the bible, you still have to interpret and apply the passage within the overall story of the bible. For instance, the bible clearly gives commands. But we interpret those commands with an understanding that Jesus has fulfilled those on our behalf. Now he empowers us to live those commands out. You can't skip the first part. Sally Lloyd-Jones does this so well in her Jesus Story Book bible. She writes more about it here, explaining why children need to understand the bible is not ABOUT them, but Jesus.

2.) When you look for Christ-centered application within the passage, you can usually find it implicitly if you look at the larger context. When Paul writes "practice these things," he also says the "God of peace will be with you (Phil 4:9)." Jesus has established that peace and we need to realize this, particularly when we fail to "practice these things." That's very clear gospel centered application. Other times, you'll just have to look at the overall book, or overall story of the bible to help frame your application. 

3.) When you come upon material that is in general very Christ-centered, don't hold it to a standard higher than you hold the bible. What I mean is that not every command in the bible reads, "Because Christ has done this, then...." (though many in essence do say something like that). And the bible doesn't have to say that for EVERY command. We know the story of the bible and why Jesus had to come and die; if we could do the commands without his power, motivation, forgiveness, He wouldn't have needed to die! So it's important to not over-scrutinize generally Christ-centered material. We shouldn't put on it an expectation that even the bible does not meet.

4.) The bible does instruct us to DO. It really does (James 1:22). Of course the way to change what we do is change what we believe-go back to the gospel and really start believing more than we have. But if we do believe, we will DO. The goal of bible study is not simply to learn what Jesus did, but how He's working that out in you today. Sometimes we (I don't think it's just me!) who love gospel centered teaching can forget to tell others the implications of our belief. For instance if our conversation is to be seasoned with salt, full of grace-and I trust that I'm now only judged by Jesus' speech (which was perfect)-I need to recognize the implications of that truth when I hang out with my friends, classmates, neighbors, etc....

5.) Sometimes specific lessons within generally gospel centered material will seem a bit more legalistic (making God like you more by what you do) or Pharisaical (making up stuff to do to make God like you more). In this case you the teacher can decide how much of the material that you need to use. I always say, unless its the bible, you can Take it, Toss it, or Tweak it. More often than not, the teacher can simply use statements like the following:

  • How has Jesus fulfilled this perfectly? Consider what Jesus did and how we are now declared righteous for His work.
  •  If this we believe this is true, how WILL our lives really look? What is the implication of our gospel rooted belief?
  • Because Jesus has given his life for us, how can we follow Him more in this area?
  • Because we have been set free from sin's enslaving power by Jesus, how will we pursue and follow Him as a result of believing the truth in this passage?
  •  We don't need to fear failure anymore. We will and that's OK, and Jesus loves us just as much when we do. But let's figure out how he can imperfectly reflect Him in this area.
You don't have to use these or similar expressions every time, and shouldn't demand them from your material. However, if you rarely couch your applications with the underlying gospel truth (what Jesus has done), then folks will begin to hear "just do it." So keep a few in the back pocket.

Since I have teachers that are gospel centered, I don't fear material that may have some legalistically formulated applications. When you cherish the gospel truth, you can tweak any material to point them to Jesus work and His work in and through us.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Thoughts from the 2020 conference

This past weekend, several close friends and I drove up to Butler PA to attend the C.E.P. 2020 Conference. The overall ministry projection, desire, and prayer was for the church to make disciples who make disciples. Several speakers specifically described such disciples as Kingdom disciples and further defined them as having 1.) Heart that loves King Jesus 2.) Mind that thinks like King Jesus 3.) Lives of service to others. Basically it was the same vision we already have put in place at Redeemer with the Head, Heart, Hands model.

But what was new was the tangible expectation of producing disciples from our children who would be discipling others. The plan is a 10 year plan. Not a 20 year plan. A 10 year plan. That means that if parents and church partner together, that by age 14, he/she would be ready in some way to make disciples. I've always believed that youth will only rise to the level that is expected of them. As a result, I've conceptually raised the bar, and begun to practically put in place opportunities for them to serve. But I'm not sure that I've practically put structures into place for them to actually disciple others. 

Much of discipleship is informal. Philippians 4:9 shows us both content (what you've learned, heard), but also informal (what has been "seen in me.") This stuff was already on my heart due to a timely text message from a parent the past week, so now the fire to practically put something in place is scorching my back side.

Straight shooter Sue Jakes reminded us of a very simple application of the scriptural truth: children are a blessing. If that is the case, how are we as a covenant community ministering together to our covenant children? Not YOUR kids, but YOUR CHURCH's kids. I've heard several times in my ministry over the years, "I just don't like kids." Sue Jakes shared with us a simple response: "Repent." If children are a blessing, then we can't just "wash our hands of them." That children are a blessing is not specific or particular conviction, it is a timeless truth. That we disciple our covenant children is not specific or particular conviction, it is a timeless command. 

What that command looks like can be all across the board. Nursery or 2-3 year old church (we start discipling these kids at age 2), children's church (4-1st grade), Sunday School, youth group. These are formal structures in place for passing on "what we've learned/received/heard" but much of discipleship is informal ("seen in me.") At the conference, I could tell many folks' answer to discipleship was simply "do Sunday School and do it better." But the speakers challenged us all with the plethora of informal ministry opportunities to disciple our covenant children. 

To be regularly involved in Sunday School requires some teaching gifts. To be regularly involved in youth ministry requires a certain amount of, well, maybe insanity. But to be involved in some sort of informal relationship with children/youth requires a pulse and a love of Jesus. That's it.

Do things with them. Even the introverted sound guy, can bring a youth along with him to help set up, troubleshoot, etc... When you pass out bulletins, pass them out with a child. When you greet, don't just greet with a smile; greet with a kid.

Talk to them. Simple things like getting to know the names of other children/youth in the church. Talk to them. Ask questions about them and their lives. None of this stuff requires you to be "marooned" in a nursery or class room for an hour and half. It involves you simply taking time to look at those children/youth and around you and move towards them. That's it.

In the end, if you don't make any effort to somehow involve yourself with our covenant children, you don't have a problem with kids/youth; you a problem with God. They need you and you need them. I don't want to see more kids go off to college and not come back to the church. More than that, we want disciples that are salt and light outside the church. Be a disciple and make disciples. It's for the church. It's for you.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Craft, Heart, and Holy Spirit: putting them in their proper order on Sundays

This past Sunday Redeemer held our "official" thanksgiving service for yet another one of God's gracious gifts to us: our new building. We intended on having our official thanksgiving service several weeks into the month of February because it would give us a few weeks to "work the kinks" out. The service was wonderful, well attended with plenty of visitors, and the Spirit seemed to really be moving in folks.

However, the kinks were definitely not "worked out." Our senior pastor Barret did not have a fully functioning microphone (that's what he gets for giving me the cheap one!); it gave so much feedback that he preached "unplugged." But it was OK, and many left encouraged and several visitors have expressed desire to come back.

Here are some reflections on the role and place of Craft, Heart, and the Holy Spirit.

1.) Craft. A worship service is not designed for entertainment or to give off the "wow" factor. However, we do all things for the glory of God and therefore do the best we can to hold a worship service with excellence. For instance, we don't want people leading us in song with bad voices that can distract (like mine), untrained folks who can't preach well about Jesus, musicians who can't play instruments well, sound techs that were English majors, etc...In addition, we pick out songs with intent, place them within a simple liturgy designed to take worshipers through the story of the gospel: God calls us to worship Him, we praise God for who He is, confess sins, hear of the forgiveness in Christ, respond to God's instruction for us in His Word, sing more praise and thanksgiving, and leave with the hope of God's blessing. All that takes time, thought, effort. Sometimes it flows smoother than others, but if you look for it, you can see how the pieces fit together.

Music takes practice. If you're not willing to practice,  you probably don't take into consideration the weighty task at hand: leading people to worship the Holy and Gracious God. 

Preaching takes practice. I spend time trying to memorize and practice several hours on Saturday before preaching. On Monday or Tuesdays I usually listen to all or part of my sermons to better the craft: pauses, diction, voice inflection, connection to Jesus, was it challenging where it should have been challenging, encouraging where it should have been encouraging, etc...That is all part of the craft of a worship service.

2.) Heart. More important than craft though is the heart behind it. God doesn't care as much about craft as he does heart. The heart of the musicians is just as important if not more important than their skill. The heart of the preacher is just as if not more important than his craft. The heart of the sound person is more important than the sound quality. Those who put time into the craft and quality of the worship service in essence waste their time if their heart is not "tuned to sing thy grace," as reminded by the hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. If singers or musicians are "off," we can still worship.

And for fellow worshipers (everyone who is there), the evaluation should more often be aimed at the individual heart as opposed to the craft of the preacher, prayer, musicians, sound technicians, etc....We are all good at evaluating others, but seldom are good at evaluating our own hearts in worship. That's because we don't practice it very much and instead leave the focus on the performance of the preacher or musicians, or whether or not we liked the songs.

The heart behind the worship leader, preacher, person leading in prayer is more important than his craft. Skills don't pay the bills when it comes to worship. Hiding behind skills and craft is like hiding behind a glass door.

 3.) The Holy Spirit. When Jesus dialogs with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), he tells her that God is looking for worshippers who will worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. Location is not the main thing anymore (Jerusalem used to be THE kosher place for worship service), because God is Spirit and His Spirit will soon dwell in hearts of believers. Craft is also not the main thing-and never was. The individual heart of the worshiper and worship leader is most important. However, the great thing about The Holy Spirit is that he can trump both craft and heart. For instance, he can move and work when the sound is off, the music is sub-par and the preacher's craft has seen better days. I've listened to my sermons where my craft is embarrassing (and it's hard to listen to yourself) but people have said, "That sermon spoke to me." In my pride, I'd like to have done a better job. But much of that is simply because my focus is on the craft-not my heart or the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit can even work when our hearts are in the wrong place. How many times have you come to worship begrudgingly? Has not the Holy Spirit overridden your heart? That's why you should never make your motivation or lack thereof a reason to skip out on worship. The Holy Spirit can do some great things with not only bad craft but bad hearts. And I'm thankful.

So in the end, if you find yourself disappointed or angry about your craft, simply learn what you can from it. I encouraged someone recently by saying, "You tried your best, but things just didn't turn out like we'd hoped. Yet the Holy Spirit showed up, so just relax!" But if you become neurotic and driven not to fail again, remember, that God loves you too much to let you "succeed." He will let you fail until you realize that you are probably emphasizing craft over the heart and the work of the Holy Spirit.

There are no direct parallels in life to a Sunday worship. It is unique. It is not a performance. So throw out the grading system you use to evaluate everything else. Come to worship, sing, lead, preach, learn, be challenged, be encouraged, evaluate your heart for the glory of God. And enjoy every bit of it. We the redeemed should humbly bask in that glory so that the Holy Spirit, the heart, and the craft are placed in their proper order. That order.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Application questions: the solution to teaching familiar passages/material

The other day I found myself teaching material that was somewhat familiar to my "pupils." I had been prepared from previous teaching opportunities on the same material, but had forgotten my "lead sheet" where I had stuff underlined and several prepared questions. 

On a previous occasion, I went through the same material with another individual and simply thought of questions on the fly. These were primarily observation questions (what is there in the passage or material) and some interpretation questions (what is the meaning of the passage or question). It went well and we had some nice discussion.

But on this particular occasion, observation and interpretation questions didn't seem to stimulate the same kind of conversation. Perhaps they were simply having one of those days where people will just not talk. That happens sometimes no matter how prepared you are. However, I think I know what was going on. The material was familiar with them and so my questions were not as engaging.

What then is a possible solution? Application questions.

No matter how familiar material or a passage is to someone, application questions can really make the difference in not just good discussion, but the ultimate goal in discipleship=application/life change. For instance someone can know that the gospel saves us from sin AND from sin's enslaving power. I can know that by asking questions that reveal a grasp of the content. However, the goal is to see how well we are REALLY believing that, and what that really looks like when we believe or disbelieve that in our lives. The gospel has to go from our head to our heart to our hands.

Some teaching materials come with great application questions. Some don't. However, asking these questions prevents or crushes the whole "familiarity breeds contempt" mentality. It keeps familiar material and familiar passages from becoming stale because you are asking questions that no longer stay on the static conceptual level but come down to the dynamic practical level of everyday life. I can lead someone through a passage or book he/she may have studied last year, but life may have completely changed. Life is dynamic and changing. The gospel is not, and so it takes regular thought and discussion to apply that which is constantly true to life which is constantly changing (and to make sure our belief in the gospel isn't!). As a result, application questions foster discussion that delves deeper into the heart, and opens the door to real life change.

If your teaching material doesn't have good application questions (and if you know the group well, yours will probably be better), here are some generic application questions I keep in the back pocket and should have broken out during my last meeting time.

1.) If this is true, what will that look like for YOU when YOU'RE  in __________ (school, relationship) family, church, neighborhood, sports) situation?
2.) When do you feel the most struggle to believe this?
3.) What do you believe instead of the gospel when YOU are in ______ situation? What do you believe instead of the gospel when you struggle with ____________ sin (any particular sin)

Hope these help. Remember, material that is familiar does not have to breed contempt. Some things need to be taught and re-taught. And these types of questions will work well for those in a group who may not find the material very familiar. Application questions help "level the playing field" and put everyone on the same plane: broken folks who need Jesus to live out what they know to be true.

And if we're honest, the gospel is never familiar enough as we need it to be. It is something that must saturate every fiber of our being or else another false gospel (prosperity, works-salvation, suburban/American dream) will begin taking its place and keep us from honoring Jesus in all the particulars of life.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Just admit you don't love everyone

Kevin DeYoung has a nice little post today. He is not usually a fan of "little" ones, so I don't read them as much as I would if they were shorter. But regardless, this is a solid one. He starts off with the statement "But I don't really hate anyone..."

Oh really?
Few husbands think they hate their wives. Few Christians think they hate their fellow church members. Few children think they hate their parents. Few non-Christians think they hate anyone. I’ve never met a single person who considered himself a thoroughly hateful individual, though I know many who consider themselves quite loving. But if hate is the opposite of everything love is, where does that leave us?
Hate is impatient and unkind; hate is jealous and proud; hate is arrogant and rude.  Hate always insists on doing things its way; hate gets upset over every offense and keeps a close record of every wrong.  Hate does not delight to see good things, but rejoices when people screw up or get what’s coming to them.  Hate complains about anything, is cynical about everything, has no hope for anyone, and puts up with nothing.
Kyrie eleison.

Praise God, he already has (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:9-10).

One thing that a disbelief in the gospel does is make us dishonest. We're often scared to tell people the truth of how far we really fall short of God's standard, particularly His high standards of loving others (Luke 10:33-37; I John 3:18). It's fairly irrational since all of us hold to the truth that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We can say that generally, but we're often fearful to actually admit we STILL specifically fall into that camp. The reason is that we still disbelieve the gospel in part.

One of the most common misconceptions among Christians is that we love people all the time, or even much of the time. It's not "kosher" to admit we "hate" anyone, or "don't like someone," but we do, don't we?

If we won't admit that we actually hate or don't like people (and such is the case if hate is the opposite of love), that we regularly fail to love spouses, neighbors, friends, co-workers, rivals, enemies-all of which may at times be present in our own congregations-then we will never actually love them. Put aside the myth that you love and like everyone, and hate no one. It's a lie that keeps you from loving others. Now don't be OK with hating others, but know there is One who empowers us to love better and forgive us at the same time when we fail. If we don't admit our need to love others-because we stink at it-we're going to be ever treading water in a lukewarm pool of culturally acceptable, dishonest niceness.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Some helpful tidbits for defending the bible

Most of the bible related questions I receive deal with location: where is such and such verse or passage in the bible. On other occasions, primarily when I'm dealing with youth and "non-electronic" bibles, the question is not asked but needed; many times the N.T. epistles will be sought in the O.T. So must of the time it is a question of where something is.

Sometimes it is a question of why it's there, or what does it mean? The rarest question I get is how can we be expected to believe what's there? In other words, can the bible be trusted?

For some of you this question may come up more regularly with your kids, parents, co-workers, classmates, neighbors. Or it may come up with you. And all of these are OK. That's a good question to ask. We don't question the authenticity (though some folks do) of Shakespeare or the Iliad or Odyssey all that much. And we shouldn't because most people don't find truths in these ancient documents that they base their whole existence upon. The bible deserves more scrutiny.

But the good news is that we have great reasons to believe that what we have today is what was inspired so long ago. Ed Stetzer discusses reasons for placing confidence in the fact that what we have today is what was passed down to us from the good old days.

Sometimes we need to hear this. Sometimes others need to hear it from us. Unless you regularly engage in apologetics defending the bible, you probably forget some solid evidences for why we can trust that what we have NOW is what they had THEN. I know I do. If you go here, you'll be able to see 12 reasons for trusting the bible from the Holman Study Bible. 

Two struck me as particularly apropos:

Eighth, the so-called hard sayings of Jesus support their authenticity. If the Gospel writers felt free to distort what Jesus originally said in order to increase the attractiveness of Christianity, why would they preserve unmodified His difficult and easily misunderstood teachings about hating family members (Lk 14:26) or not knowing when He would return (Mk 13:32)? The fact that they let these teachings stand indicates their faithfulness to recount true history.

Ninth, the fact that the NT does not record Jesus speaking about many of the topics that arose after His earthly life, during the time of the early church, supports its historical accuracy. For instance, early Christians were divided over how or whether the laws of Moses applied to Gentile converts (Ac 15). The easiest way to settle the controversy would be to cite Jesus' teachings on the matter, but the Gospels record no such teachings. This silence suggests that the Gospel writers did not feel free to play fast and loose with history by putting on the lips of Jesus teachings that could solve early church controversies.

Neither of these prove that a God inspired their writings. But one pre-supposition that has often been used to discredit a God inspired bible is the role of individual agents with individual agendas, recording specific events that fit the writers intent. I'm fine with that. I don't expect writers like Ellie Weisel, who lived and wrote about his concentration camp Hell in Night, to record anything but that which expresses the evil of the Nazi regime. We don't question his account because of his bias.

But another pre-supposition made popular by German scholarship in the early 1900's was that of sitz im leben ("situation in life"). The accounts of the gospel were crafted so as to address a situation in the early Church. As a result, we shouldn't accept these accounts as "gospel." However, this Ninth "reason" or "clue" as Tim Keller may call it, addresses and challenges that pre-supposition. It would have been fairly easy to include Jesus' teaching on every issue that came up in the early church-particularly since some of the gospels were likely written after some of the epistles (which addressed problems in the early church). Why not include Jesus speaking to these issues? It would have been quite helpful. I mean Paul wouldn't have had to say, "to the rest, I (not the Lord)" in regards to different not divorcing your unbelieving spouse (1 Cor 7:12).  It would have made life much easier for church leaders to insert Jesus addressing circumcision, food offered to idols, baptism, etc...They didn't insert Jesus saying those things because he obviously didn't say them (or no one was inspired to record them).

Anyway, it is good to remind yourself of the many clues pointing to the authenticity of today's bible. Provided you don't insulate yourself from non-Christians or struggling Christians with honest doubts and questions, you never know when you may have the opportunity to defend the scriptures. So brushing up on your apologetics (defending the faith) is always a good idea.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Valentines Nursing Home Trip

I never was a fan of Valentines Day primarily because I rarely had a "valentine" to spend it with. In the chance I was "dating" it never seemed to coincide with the Hallmark Holiday. Now after having a "valentine" who doesn't like Valentines Day, my sentiment hasn't changed. I'm still not a fan.

One person at the nursing home yesterday felt the same way and refused a flower and card and from one of our youth. Fortunately she was an anomaly. Redeemer's youth spent some time at the nursing home, seizing an opportunity and excuse to take the focus off youth dating and on to loving others.

Here are some thoughts:

1.) You don't have to like it to do it every so often, but don't forget Jesus likes it when you do

Visiting nursing homes is not my favorite thing to do. It doesn't crack my top 10 ministry favorites. I'll be up front about that. Nevertheless, I'm convinced it is one place Jesus would have stopped by had he come 2000 years later. He spent time with the poor, lame, sick, smelly, outcast, lonely. So if we follow Jesus, following in His footsteps is probably a good place to start. Regardless if that's our preference. Going several times a year is really not all that hard to do.

2.) Have a mercy target

If you don't aim for something specific, you'll surely miss. For instance, "I want to minister to the community," is a popular sentiment. It really is. Visiting nursing homes takes a lot of guess work out of what to do or where to go. You just show up and you're more often than not a celebrity. If you choose a different route to display mercy, make sure you choose something specific and go for it. More often than not, we can say, "I want to show mercy, just not that way." That is fine provided you choose A way. Most of the time, for me, the emphasis is more on "not that way" than on actually showing mercy. Mercy then remains a sentiment we soon drop.You don't need to feel bad if you don't like going to nursing homes. But you should ask Jesus where He's up for sending you.

3.) Visiting nursing homes is not the only way to BEGIN to look after widows and orphans (James 1:27) but it is a START. 

Just going may not change the culture, but it does bring hope to a number of people when you inquire about the residents, give hugs, and pray for/with folks.

4.) If we want to produce merciful disciples, mercy has to be both TAUGHT and CAUGHT.

If a church teaches mercy, it has to take advantage of local mercy opportunities. There are many ways in which believers can show mercy, this is but ONE of them. The best way to teach mercy is to model mercy.

5.) Youth may just end up liking it. 

After we debriefed, it became clear through their stories that many of them actually liked it. They actually enjoyed it. My wife Amy has to be pried away from talking to folks at a nursing home. Some of the kids weren't much different. You never know if something will click unless you give people a variety of opportunities (raking leaves in Fall, nursing home, food drive at Xmas, Bible clubs in apt complex). One youth said before the trip, "I like old people." Many others came to the same conclusion after given the opportunity and almost all wanted to return. Providing a variety of opportunities may allow for youth to find their mercy niche. But we should never assume they won't like it. I was surprised yesterday for sure.

6.) Youth often only fly when pushed out of the nest.  

My wife is a better youth worker than I am. I divided our group into 3 different teams. When my wife noticed (after one room!) in her team that the youth would be content with just staying in the background, she said, "Ok, you two go, ask these questions, take these cards, and start visiting folks." She divided her team into two other teams of two and sent them out. Sounds a bit like something Jesus would do I guess....(Mark 6:7) They were pushed out of the nest and had to learn how to fly. And some fairly introverted youth did just that. But they would have "flown"only if pushed. I let my two youth hide behind myself and the other leader, and so deprived them of a great "Jesus help me" opportunity. I'll be ready for next time around.

We did learn a few things for next time. Don't bring chocolate and keep my 16 month old son Cade away from the cafeteria. He became very angry that he wasn't allowed to eat the peas on resident's plate.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why can't this be love?

My three year old has recently started saying, every so often, "I love you Daddy," in response to my saying "I love you Connar." It's pretty cool when he does it. For a while, he would just say, "Ok." I prefer "I love you" a bit more. It's a bit more personal.

For a little while I even thought about instructing him. Connar, when someone says, "I love you," you say, "I love you too" back to them. But then again, I thought that was quintessence of in-authenticity. I wanted my son to say, "I love you" back to me, but I wasn't about to force him, or even teach him that's what you're supposed to say. I realized that in time, whether by social convention or true love, he'd say, "I love you" back to me. Why force him when he'd eventually come around?

That kind of thinking makes sense for a growing boy. He'll get it eventually. Yet for many who have problems with predestination and God's sovereign call over someone, this parental conundrum seems to trump sound exegesis. On the surface we may think, "Do I want a Father who makes me love Him?" Is that really loving on his behalf? Is that really love at all? Shouldn't God just wait for us to say, "I love you too?"

The problem is that all of us are spiritually still born (Ephesians 2:1-5). We're not growing boys and girls who eventually hear God saying, "I love you," and then respond in time. We're dead in sin and incapable of a response. It is in this context that we are "made alive." We can't love Him without His first making us alive. So it's not out of arrogance or an overbearing Father that is impatient and needs affirmation from His children. He sees people who can't say I love you. He sees people who can only say, "I love myself." And He has compassion on such people. In fact is "because of His great love" that we are made alive.

Once we have been made alive, and are freely chosen, we freely choose-we want to. They now can, for the first time, hear "I love you" from their Heavenly Father.  That's what theologians call "irresistible grace." Of course we choose. But we've first been chosen. And when we hear our Father's voice for the first time say, "I love you," can we choose anyone or anything else? No of course not. No one else will do or suffice.

That is still love to me. In fact, as Van Halen once sang, "It's got what it takes, so tell me why can't this be love?"

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On Gisele, motivations, and the church

This is a great example of praying for something and then not getting it.

Tom Brady's wife Gisele Bundchen, who may be getting the gag order next time that joker plays in a big game, urged people to pray for her husband Tom to win the Super Bowl.

Unless you've been in a cave the last day or so, you probably know that the Pats in fact did not win the Super Bowl. As a result she did what any "normal" high profile Q.B.'s wife who had asked for national prayer via twitter would do: blast the F%#@ing receivers for not catching the balls thrown to them. An ESPN article says:

After her prayers for a Patriots' championship went unanswered, Bunchen lashed out at the team's receiving corps for failing to haul in her husband's passes. While waiting for an elevator at Lucas Oil Stadium, Bundchen was being heckled by Giants fans when she spoke to people in her group.
"My husband can not f------ throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time. I can't believe they dropped the ball so many times," Bundchen said in a video captured by theinsider.com, a gossip website.

The title of one article read "Gisele Bundchen (Mrs. Tom Brady) goes from asking for prayers to dropping the F-bomb in 24 hours!" Most people found this a little ironic, if not hypocritical. I did too.

Here are a few questions and takes:

1.) What God is she praying to? Probably not Allah, but was it the Judea-Christian God? Was it the impersonal force that we all know and love called Karma? Since she didn't just want "positive thoughts (I love that one, whatever thoughts can do....)" but actual prayers, I'm a bit curious who I was supposed to pray to. And if I did run into Gisele, I'd have to be straight up with her and tell her I did actually forget to pray. That's what happens when you don't write prayer requests down....I'll be ready for it next year.

2.) What to do with unanswered prayers? We often don't get a "That's why I didn't answer the prayer the way you wanted me to" from God. But He does give us a little bit of insider information in James 4:3: "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions." Sometimes our motivation for specific things like a bigger house or better spouse can reveal an underlying selfish motive. God wants us to change even if our house doesn't get bigger or our spouse better.  What is often overlooked is that our behaviors and responses to things like "unanswered" (they were answered, just with a "no") prayers and desires often reveal the selfish motivations behind the requests. You can examine your heart till the cows come home, but often the only way to truly know the heart attitude is by how we respond when God tells us no.

We just had the blessing of a new building. He said yes. And so we thanked Him and will thank Him more formally in a few weeks with a thanksgiving service. However, how we responded when God said "no" along the way was in fact a greater indicator of our heart's true allegiance.

3) Gisele, like it or not, reminds us of the Church. How many stupid things have Christians said or done that has made her bridegroom look bad? We say and do just as many dumb things as Gisele, and we (I'm assuming I don't have any supermodel followers) aren't even models, much less supermodels. Yet Jesus still loves His bride. I'm very curious how Tom Brady is handling this situation with his own wife. Hopefully behind closed doors and not via the media, social media, or internet, as is often the case with high profile pastors and other Christians.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A thinking message or an altar call?

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the chapel of a local Christian school. I spoke on one of my favorite passages, Mark 9, explaining that Jesus can do something with our unbelief when we bring it to him. Before the chapel started, the bloke in charge asked me if there would be an "altar call" or if I was planning on "leaving them something to think about?" An altar call or a thinking message...

Who knew those were my two options?

Instead of explaining my take on altar calls, I politely (maybe I'll get asked back) said, "It will be a 'thinking message.'"

I won't go into my thoughts on the 19th century invention of the altar call, as I've already done so here. But I do want to explore the question this man asked.

Should a sermon or a talk leave people with something to think about or should it call them to action? I think the answer is probably a qualified "yes."

1.) Thinking. Of course, leave it to a Presbyterian to affirm the thinking part of a sermon...But people do need to understand what the passage in context really says, what it means, and why believing that passage makes a practical difference in life. Ideally, I want folks leaving a sermon thinking more and more about the passage, how it points us to the gospel, and how our lives will change because we've personally embraced that truth. You never want a, "Well now I know all there is to know about that passage and how it relates to Jesus and how I've already changed...." If the roots keep getting deeper, the fruit will become that much more evident.

2.) Response. One of my favorite pastors, and former professor Steve Brown, always (I think he still does) concludes his sermons with "you think about that." He doesn't mean for you to simply think, but to respond to the gospel. A good sermon always calls for some response. Now perhaps that response is one that no one sees. Perhaps it is a call to awe and wonder at the majesty of God. That is still a legitimate response, and one that is quite necessary when preachers like myself can emphasize God's immanence at the expense of His transcendence. Now I can call people to come down an aisle and commit to being more in awe of God, or I can preach about His faithful character and say something like, "Now doesn't this move us to awe?" I choose the latter.

Our sermon passage yesterday was on Psalm 92, which is a thanksgiving psalm. The main application Barret left us with was to make sure we focus on the giver more than the gift. No one may necessarily see that, but if by faith we respond, folks will eventually see a difference. They will never see us become angry if the building isn't being used exactly as we want it. 

Sometimes the response to a sermon may appear more active. It may mean that after you understand the "why," you feel the need to respond by seeking forgiveness from someone you have wronged. It might mean that you spend time with your spouse next Friday night. It might mean that as a result of believing the gospel, you consider tithing, or supporting a missionary. It could mean that you become part of a church plant or stay at your existing church.  Both are active responses. You don't need to "come on down" in order to respond. 
But neither should you simply think about what's been said and conclude with, "That was a good sermon. I liked it." 

A good sermon challenges the head, the heart, and the hands. However, the preacher may emphasize a response aimed at one of these areas more than the other.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

On critiquing and being critqued

A blogger I follow, some Canadian I've never met but have been very impressed with his gracious writing, Darryl Dash reiterates some of Tim Keller's address to some UK churches. His post is here.

  • To respond [to critiques], evangelicals must understand and practice biblical repentance as a result of believing the gospel. This will allow evangelicals to admit their sins, even if they disagree with 80% of the criticisms … and even if the remaining 20% is expressed poorly. To the degree that we understand the gospel, we will be able to freely admit our shortcomings as an evangelical movement.

  • To the degree that we understand the gospel, we are free to admit the worst about ourselves finally. Repentance isn't how we get right with God; it's just the right response. It gives immediate assurance.

  • Don't ever think that we can respond to legitimate criticisms of our practice by defending our doctrine. In defending our doctrines, we have not responded to the criticisms of our practices. Orthopraxy is part of orthodoxy.

  • It is necessary to draw boundaries. What really matters is how we treat the people on the other side of those boundaries. People are watching. We're going to win the younger leaders if we are the most gracious, kind, and the least self-righteous in controversy. The truth will ultimately lose if we hold the right doctrines, but do so with nasty attitudes and a lack of love.

  • We need to approach the controversies with a repentant heart corporately and say, "Despite all the bad things that are being said here, there's a core of truth here and we need to deal with it."

 Then finally he concludes with this priceless snippet

My dear friends, most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus' costly grace. The number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses, because you don't need any now; the most easily without bitterness; the most publicly and the most joyfully. They know their standing isn't based on their performance.

I tried to add some of my own thoughts, but I just couldn't improve on what had already been written. Great stuff here, applicable for those in any area of leadership: pastor, elder, deacon, parent, teacher

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why have small groups in the homes?

Several people have asked me, "Since we have a new building, will we move our CD groups into it?" My answer is an unequivocal "no." Let me explain. First of all, there is no command in scripture on where to have a CD/community/fellowship group or bible study. So they could gather in the new church building, and there may be some which eventually take place in the church. But here's why I think its best to have CD groups in homes.

1.) Homey. There is a much more, well, "homey" feel to a home. That's obviously impossible to argue. People tend to feel more comfortable in homes. You can get to know someone at church for a bit, but there is a difference when you get to know someone in a home. It just goes deeper. To me its the difference between knowing someone at work and doing something with that co-worker outside of work. It's just a different environment and that makes for a more personal relationship. I was also asked once,"We'll keep the groups in the homes when we get the building, right?" Those who meet in homes usually don't want to stop. Even one youth was sad to hear that we wouldn't keep having youth group in homes. I assured her that we would have youth group in the youth house. I guess that sufficed....But it just showed me that even some youth like that "homey" feel.

2.) Where do pastors want folks to live out their faith? We want people to live out their faith where they work, play, live. Everyone's home should be a place of discipleship. Parents are the primary instructors of their children. Parents read their bibles in their homes. Most of life happens outside the church building, and that is good. So this is but another opportunity to apply the gospel IN a place where life happens. What better way to expound and apply the gospel truth than by literally bringing fellowship, prayer, study of God's Word INTO the home?

3.) Mature disciple. The mature disciple is not someone who spends 7 nights a week at the church building. That is not maturity-that is a flight from loving your family, neighbors, non-believers. The benefit of not having a church building is that people can't be "at church" 24/7.  As a result, it is sometimes necessary to make sure folks aren't at the church building 24/7. A mature disciple cares for his/her family, cares for his/her neighbors, shows mercy, reaches out to lost, and makes other disciples, etc...These things just simply can't be done if one is at the church building all the time  (though I'm incredibly thankful for those who've spent almost whole days here getting the building ready for worship!). Having CD groups in church building doesn't mean this will happen, but simply can open the door for that mentality.

4.) Invitation A home makes it easier to invite people, particularly those who may be hesitant to come to your church. 

5.) Limitation. Having a group study in your home limits the size. CD groups really operate best when they have 8-14 people. When they get too big, it's best to multiply them. A large building offers the opportunity for a large crowd. But again, having 25 in a bible study is not the same as a well functioning small group that can seriously share prayer requests, give ALL people a chance to answer and participate in discussion. Many folks clam up when the number gets too big.

These are just some reasons why I think its best to have CD groups in homes as opposed to a church building. Some large bible study groups, lectures, seminars, training times might best occur in the church building. But I think the home is the best (I don't say only) place, in general, for a small group to thrive and eventually multiply.