Seasonal Worship

I love the summer. More specifically, my children love the summer. They seem to count down the days leading up to the final school day of the year. They look so forward to sleeping later and being free from homework. There are no tests or exams for which they must study. They are carefree and all is right with the world. Unfortunately, summer vacation is not eternal. Summer may have begun with a bang, but it will end with the loud cries and lamentations of students everywhere. There may be weeping and gnashing of teeth. They may count down the days, but it will not be a pleasant event, I assure you.

Speaking of summer vacation, there is an interesting parallel that occurs in the many churches. It seems many church members assume the average student’s mindset when the summer season approaches. Attendance for Bible Study and worship gatherings tend to take a moderate dip during the summer months. Financial gifts also seem to experience an interruption as the outside temperature begins to rise above 88 degrees. I have often wondered why this happens, as if there is something inherently special about the months of June, July, and August that would cause many professing followers of Christ to suddenly be missing in action. I realize I may hold a minority position, but I simply fail to understand what causes spiritual priorities to shift with the seasons.

Several years ago I was teaching a Bible study class which met every Sunday morning at 9:15. We had begun a survey of the Minor Prophets, the final twelve books in the Old Testament. We began with the book of Jonah because it is both short and familiar. I felt like this would give us a good entry point before getting into some of the heavier prophecies. One of the other Minor Prophets is named Amos. He was a contemporary of another well-known prophet by the name of Isaiah. Well, Amos had a message from God for those who would pay lip service to the Lord while failing to live lives that reflected their professed beliefs. God told His people, “I hate, I despise your feasts! I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies. Even if you offer Me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle. Take away from Me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:21-24, HCSB).

God’s message then was much the same as it is now. God desires fully devoted followers who not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk. He wants our lives to demonstrate how much we love Him and desire to serve Him. He is not interested in “artificial” worship. He does not delight in “lip service.” God takes no pleasure in a people who can talk a good game, but who are unwilling to back it up with actions. Unfortunately, I’m afraid there are more and more church-goers who are drifting toward this latter category. I pray we will recover from the harmful habit of taking a vacation from worship. In the attitudes of our hearts as well as the confessions of our mouths, may we pray, sing, give, and study always to the glory of God…regardless of the season.

Mike.  Out.

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A Burden for Gospel-Centered Conversations

A few thoughts on a Monday.

The life of a Christ-follower is meant to be distinct. Observing the life of a disciple of Jesus, by its very nature, should stir some measure of confusion in the mind of the observer. Confusion to some degree is inevitable when the observable behavior of another fails to agree with the culture in which they exist. Not only might there be a failure to agree, but there may seem to be an outright contradiction. In his book, The Mission of God, Christopher J.H. Wright explains, “Having been chosen, redeemed and called into covenant relationship, the people of God have a life to live–a distinctive, holy, ethical life that is to be lived before God and in the sight of the nations.”

Why does this task seem so difficult? It is my perception that many Christians struggle to live holy lives that are distinctly different from the culture in which they live. It has certainly been my experience that “the struggle is real.” The problem appears to exist not necessarily due to a lack of knowledge, but due to a lack of truth application. Perhaps the struggle is amplified by a deficiency in Scripture reading, Scripture meditation, prayer, and accountability. Nevertheless, attempting to live a holy, godly life in one’s own strength proves to be an insurmountable task. It would seem appropriate, then, to remember the words given to the Apostle Peter as recorded in 2 Peter 1:3, in which he explains, “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.”

This reminder proves particularly helpful because it points the reader back to the truth of God’s provision. He has granted to His followers everything needed for salvation as well as sanctification. Thankfully, the disciple of Christ need not attempt the Christian life in his own strength. This news is especially encouraging given the commission of God’s people to take the gospel message to the ends of the earth for the glory of Christ. It is this commission for which the Christ-follower must be burdened.

So whose task is it really? Does it belong to all of God’s people or only a select few of them? Consider the words of J.I. Packer:

“The commission to publish the gospel and make disciples was never confined to the apostles. Nor is it now confined to the Church’s ministers. It is a commission that rests upon the whole Church collectively, and therefore upon each Christian individually. All God’s people are sent to do as the Philippians did, and ‘shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life.’ Every Christian, therefore, has a God-given obligation to make known the gospel of Christ. And every Christian who declares the gospel message to any fellow-man does so as Christ’s ambassador and representative, according to the terms of his God-given commission. Such is the authority, and such the responsibility, of the Church and of the Christian in evangelism.” (Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God, 45-46.)

Perhaps herein lies the rub. I am commanded to share the gospel. However, every time I share the gospel I am presuming to speak on behalf of Christ as His ambassador. Therefore, I must live a holy life so as not to bring reproach upon the name and reputation of Christ. Yet, my salvation and forgiveness notwithstanding, I am a sinner by nature and I am incapable of perfection while in this earthly body. I must, at this point, call to mind 2 Peter 1:3. My Savior has granted to me “everything pertaining to life and godliness.” I am not alone. I must trust in the divine power of my Holy God.

So take heart, Christian. Read God’s Word. Pray for strength. Trust the Savior. Preach the Gospel.

God never fails.

Mike. Out.

The Gift of Being Led

Leadership is a fascinating subject. Leaders often find themselves in precarious positions due to the very nature of their task. They must aggressively point the way forward in such a way as to inspire others to action. They must also be sensitive, deliberate, and patient enough to allow their followers the opportunity to keep up. Leadership is a delicate balance.

An additional challenge exists, however, on the “follower” side of leadership. This challenge seems to be especially evident in the context of the local church. Let me explain. Members of local churches come from all different backgrounds. They come from all different socioeconomic settings. They serve in a wide variety of vocations. Despite this diversity, there is one similarity. People, in general, find it difficult to submit to spiritual leadership. People, in general, seem to view the church as the one place where everyone should have a voice and no one should be expected to yield their opinions or wishes to anyone else. Certainly this must be true to some degree, but can this sentiment be true unilaterally?

I have a theory on the subject. I believe many people are in positions in life where they do not lead. There are far more employees in the workforce than there are employers. There are certainly more students in the public school system than there are teachers and administrators. Therefore, there are exponentially more followers than there are leaders across our communities in a given 5-day work week. In light of this truth, I believe many people come to the gathering of the local church with the expectation they will finally be able to supervise others instead of being supervised by others. They will finally be able to give directions instead of take directions. Ultimately, they will finally be able to lead instead of being led. There is, however, a problem with this thought process: it gives no consideration to the calling of God.

God calls the spiritual leaders of His church. He not only calls them to serve; He calls them to prepare and to be equipped. In addition, God proclaims that spiritual leaders are a gift He gives to His church. Observe the language inspired by the Holy Spirit and written by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:11-13:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Leaders (Pastors) in the local church are given (called) by God in order “to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” It is difficult to equip someone else if you yourself have not first been equipped. This explains the call of God to ministry as also being a call to prepare, to be equipped for the task.

The challenge comes when those who have been called and equipped to lead actually attempt to lead those under their spiritual care. What if they do not want to be led? Most people of adult age have experienced both good and bad leadership. They have been encouraged and motivated by some while being disappointed and let down by others. I believe this truth contributes to the reluctance of some to submit to godly leadership. Everyone fails at some point. Every leader will let you down eventually. No one is perfect. But, please hear me when I say this: refusing to joyfully submit to the spiritual leadership of the one God has called to His church is certainly not the way to guard against the potential of being disappointed.

I have failed personally as a leader at times in the course of ministry. I have made decisions that proved to be less than ideal. I have faced challenges and difficulties in the context of the local church. I must accept full responsibility for the errors I have made throughout my pastoral ministry. However, there are also countless times when I have made the correct decisions. I have succeeded as a leader. I have faced challenges and handled them appropriately. So….what is the point of this personal reflection?

Here it is. You cannot afford to judge spiritual leaders by one moment or one instance when they let you down. Would you want someone to judge you by one moment or one instance in your life when you were not at your best? I didn’t think so. God calls pastors/teachers/elders to lead His churches. He also calls them to be equipped for their task. Believers (church members) are instructed to follow the leadership God provides for His churches. Hebrews 13:17 reminds us:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

The bottom line is this: pastors and teachers have an obligation and responsibility to seek God’s face, maintain a growing relationship with the Lord, and to lead according to God’s will for His church. In the same way, all believers have an obligation and responsibility to seek God’s face, maintain a growing relationship with the Lord, and to joyfully submit to the spiritual leadership given to the church as a gift. Practically speaking, if your pastor is doing nothing illegal, immoral, unethical, or unbiblical, then personality conflicts and other petty matters do not constitute grounds for you to undermine, ignore, or subvert God-given pastoral leadership. Do the body of Christ a favor and follow the leader.

Mike. Out.

Depart from me…I never knew you

I observe. I reflect. I analyze. I ponder. Typically, I am slow to conclude. In other words, I often see things and develop a particular opinion, but sometimes I hesitate to settle on a final conclusion due to the necessary implications of that conclusion. Perhaps I do not want to believe the inevitable. Perhaps the obvious truth causes me discomfort. I know what you may be thinking as you read: “What in the world are you talking about?” I’m glad you asked.

I have a growing concern as I observe the culture of Christianity around me. I once heard a statement attributed to Billy Graham saying he believed as many as fifty percent of the people attending local churches on a given Sunday were not truly followers of Christ. This is not to say they lacked the outward appearance of “good church folks,” but it speaks more to the idea that many people may be trusting in something or someone other than the finished work of Christ for their salvation. Now, they may never admit such a charge outright, but their behavior may paint just such a picture. This begs the question, “What does true biblical Christianity look like?”

Almost three years ago I teaching through the book of Colossians for the student ministry of the church I served. One particular evening we were considering the first portion of chapter two in which we read the key verses of the letter. “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority” (Col 2:9-10). Paul’s central theme here is the supremacy of Christ over all creation. It is this supremacy to which followers of Christ must appropriately respond. A truth central to Christianity surfaces in this passage: a Christian must BELIEVE Christ in order to FOLLOW Christ.

There is, in my opinion, an apparent disconnect between the way Scripture describes a true follower of Christ and the way the American church describes a true follower of Christ. In fact, there appears to be disagreement on what constitutes true biblical conversion. I believe there is no other logical explanation for the growing cultural perception of the church as both impotent and irrelevant. David Platt explains:

According to research (Barna Group, April 10, 2009), many “Christians” no longer believe that God is the supreme Creator and Ruler of the universe. Such “Christians” believe that everyone is god or that maybe god is simply the realization of one’s human potential. Over half of “Christians” don’t believe that the Holy Spirit or Satan is real, and tens of millions of them don’t believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God. Finally, almost half of “Christians” don’t believe the Bible is completely true.

I put Christians in quotation marks for what I hope by now is an obvious reason: such “Christians” are not Christians. It is impossible to follow Jesus yet disregard, discredit, and disbelieve his Word. Simply put, to follow Jesus is to believe Jesus (emphasis mine) (Platt, Follow Me, 77).

Jesus has never lied. His Word is always completely truthful. In addition, the Word of God is the standard by which all truth is judged. This is the critical point which I labored to drive home for those students that night. There is practical value for this truth as well. Friends, we are called to be true disciples of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we cannot afford to cling to any beliefs that are inconsistent with Scripture. It matters not whether we must struggle in order to process certain portions of biblical truth. It does, however, matter whether we are willing to submit to the complete Lordship of Jesus Christ.

This lesson is difficult. I am still in the process of learning this lesson myself, but it must be learned. If I am to claim the name of Christ, then I must submit to His Lordship in every area. This includes, not only my actions, but also my beliefs concerning salvation, justification, sanctification, discipleship and so on. I must always remember that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). I do not know better than Jesus, nor will I ever.

Mike. Out.

Whatever Happened to Holiness?

I have noticed lately that many churches and Christians seem to embrace a Christianity void of any genuine, transforming life change. I believe there are churches all over the state in which I live suffering from a lack of revival, a lack of evangelistic energy, and a lack of believers bothered by either one. People seem to be content to attend church services on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and possibly even Wednesday night. They are willing to serve on this committee or that ministry team. They even (grudgingly, it seems) put some money in the offering plate as it passes by. According to their own self-imposed standards, they are doing their part to sustain the kingdom work of God’s church. The problem is their lives seem to be no different from what they were before allegedly encountering the Creator of the universe.

What can be learned from people who will stand up and be counted when they are in the assembly of the righteous, but are content to fade into the crowd of carnality when going about their business in the community? I believe we can learn a great deal from this all too familiar phenomenon. The words of Christ are recorded in Matthew’s gospel account as He reminds us how to recognize false prophets. Jesus warns, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15-20, NASB). It seems logical that this litmus test could also be used for recognizing false Christians.

I am saddened that evidently many churches have decided to choose comfort over commitment, moderation over maturity, and satisfaction over surrender. Many seem to have traded in the concept of holiness for the much less controversial virtue of tolerance. I recall, however, English poet G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Tolerance is the virtue of a man without conviction.” There is indeed a clear distinction between holiness and legalism. Legalism demands we become more like certain people. Holiness demands we become more like Jesus.

If the church is to return to a position of influence in the culture, then I believe we need men and women of God who are not afraid to plant their feet, square their shoulders, and declare, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ I believe we need Pastors who will stand with boldness, taking up the mantle of the prophet of God, and call sin, sin, and righteousness, righteousness, leaving the consequences in the capable hands of Jesus.

A.W. Tozer, in his book We Travel an Appointed Way, writes, “It is time for Bible-believing Christians to begin to cultivate the sober graces and to live among men like sons of God and heirs of the ages. And this will take more than a bit of doing, for the whole world and a large part of the church is set to prevent it. But if God be for us, who can be against us?”

If God is for me, then who can be against me? That just may be all the motivation I need.

Mike. Out.

Discipleship vs. Selfishness

What is the essence of discipleship? What did Jesus intend when He gave us the great commission? I have been feeling for some time now that the church at large has somehow gotten sidetracked from its original purpose. I suspect there could be a variety of reasons for this happening. However, among all the potential causes for the church’s derailment, my gut instinct tells me there was a chief culprit. It is no small coincidence the prime suspect is also the root cause of most, if not all, sin. Selfishness. Somewhere along the way, a little bit at the time, the church has gradually become more and more selfish. Individuals in the body of Christ have gradually given in to the temptation of thinking more and more about themselves and less and less about others. This paradigm shift has many consequences, but there is one aspect that seems to have become more prominent of late. That one aspect is the selfishness that breeds spiritual immaturity and delayed growth. The reason this one aspect of selfishness has become more prominent, in my opinion, is because it affects many other aspects of the church. Let’s examine for a moment how this works itself out in real life.

Have you ever heard of any churches having issues with their music style? Why do you suppose this happens? I’m glad you asked. Every generation has a particular style of music that is contemporary to that particular generation. Many years ago, a church attempted to introduce an instrument into the church to aid in the music program. It was called an organ. This instrument was met with such opposition that after the organ was installed, a group of people sneaked into the church, dismantled the organ from its place in the sanctuary and dumped it into the river. This, by the way, is the same instrument so many people in recent years have fought so vehemently to keep in its place in so many churches. The irony is rich. With the passing of each generation, there is a shift in position. One generation tries to innovate and realize progress while the previous generation fights to keep things as they are. After a few years pass, the generation that was once innovative and progressive becomes the generation fighting against those very things. Why does this happen? Selfishness. People may refuse to let go of things that don’t even belong to them because they would rather be comfortable than reach people with the gospel of Christ in new ways.

Have you ever heard of any churches having issues with their Pastor or staff because they decide to make some changes in the way the church does certain things? Why do you suppose this happens? I’m glad you asked. Whether or not a church is intentional about it, every church is in danger of developing rituals or routines in the way they do things. The true danger here is the longer something is done a certain way, the harder it becomes to evaluate it objectively. When this happens, people get attached to the particular method of ministry instead of getting attached to the mission of making disciples of Jesus. This attachment becomes something of a security blanket of which many people simply refuse to let go. When changes are either proposed or implemented in an area to which they are personally attached, things suddenly become very heated very quickly. Selfishness, in this case, prohibits objectivity in evaluation. Therefore, people begin resorting to rumors, gossip, or personal attacks in an attempt to protect their “pet” ministry because they are simply too selfish to let go of something regardless of how ineffective or out of date it may have become. It is always unfortunate when leaders who have been called and ordained by God are painted as the “bad guys” simply because some people are too spiritually immature and selfish to see the big picture. On the flip side, however, it is equally unfortunate that there have been many ungodly pastors over the years who have gone about making changes in the wrong ways. They have not taken time to build relationships and love people. They have communicated poorly or not at all. The unintended consequence is that now it is sometimes difficult for God’s people to trust their leaders.

These are just two examples, but let me go back to where I started. I began with two questions. What is the essence of discipleship? What did Jesus intend when He gave us the great commission? I believe their answers are inseparable. The essence of what Jesus intended when He commissioned the church was exemplified with crystal clear clarity by the Savior Himself during His earthly ministry. He chose twelve men. In Lecrae’s song “After the Music Stops” he puts it this way: “The teaching is a process it’s not overnight, and it’s not a stage and a mic, it’s life on life. Christ walked with twelve, ate with twelve, taught the twelve, shaped the twelve, invested in them well, you could say that He made the twelve, who made many more, who made plenty more, now it’s on you and me if there’s any more.” You see, the great commission is not about making converts to Christianity. It’s about making disciples of Christ. This means conversion is not the destination, it’s the origin.

Here are the fundamentals of the great commission. Jesus doesn’t command us to go anywhere. He presumes His followers are already going to be on the move. This is explained by the word translated “go” being an aorist participle, which means “having gone,” that is related to the main verb of the sentence. The imperative command of the great commission is to “make disciples of all nations.” Once this is established, Jesus delineates how we are to go about fulfilling His command. We are to baptize those who have professed Christ as Lord in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are then to teach them to observe all that He has commanded us. He gives us the confidence we will need to carry out this task by reminding us He is with us always, even to the end of the age. Having a clear understanding of the specific task given to the body of Christ, I should draw a few closing conclusions.

First, the blame for the presence of baby Christians in the church must be laid squarely on the church itself. We have become so preoccupied with making converts (and sometimes not even concerned about doing that) that we have neglected to make disciples. Second, something can and must be done to intentionally re-engage the disciple making process. Finally, the primary solution, I believe, for a problem of this magnitude is the powerful Word of God. I am reminded in Hebrews 4:12 that “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” I am further told in Hebrews 5:13-14 that “everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”

I believe it’s time for a change in the menu of the church. I believe it’s time for believers to pray earnestly for the church that it would be actively engaged in fulfilling its divine purpose of disciple-making. Ultimately, I believe it is time for people everywhere who claim the name of Jesus to start feasting on some solid food and grow up. One way this can happen is if men of God will plant their feet, square their shoulders, and proclaim “thus saith the LORD.” In other words, I believe it’s time for Pastors everywhere to preach and teach the whole counsel of God without backing up or backing down.

I have decided…I will.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Mike. Out.

The Pitfalls of People Pleasing

I received an email with a brief devotional encouragement from Dr. Paul Tripp. This particular devotional made quite an impression on me and I suspect it may strike a chord with others as well. So rather than attempt to reinvent the wheel, I am sharing this wisdom with you just as it was shared with me. I pray you are blessed by it just as I was.

“I was a young pastor. I was doing everything I could to develop the teaching gift that God had given me. I knew my preaching wasn’t perfect, and I knew I needed to gain experience, but I wasn’t that bad of a preacher, right?”

“Wrong, at least for one. There was a critical man in our congregation who never seemed to be satisfied with my sermons, no matter how I approached them. One evening he came up to me and said, ‘Paul, your preaching is killing us.’ What a way to start a conversation!”

“It got worse. He handed me a set of tapes and said, ‘I suggest listening to these. Just mimic the preacher on the tapes and that will be better than what we’ve been getting.’ I was crushed. I thought my ministry was over.”

“In the weeks that followed, my preaching got worse. I was fearful and nervous. I stumbled over my words and had little confidence in my content. I would look out on the congregation, and this man was the only one my eyes could see. It seemed impossible for me to ignore his disapproving reactions and avoid his critical gaze.”

“What had happened to me? I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had fallen into the snare of pleasing people. The Bible also refers to this as the fear of man. Proverbs 29:25 says, “‘The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.’”

“It was clear – I had become trapped by my fear of this one man’s opinion. Finally, the oldest lady in our church had had enough. She came up to me after a sermon and said, ‘Paul, I’m convinced someone has gotten to you, and you’re preaching to please that person and not the Lord.’”

“Then she said, ‘Tomorrow, get up, forget that person, and study God’s Word. Preach what God has given you with confidence and joy or we’re all in trouble.’ And with that, she turned and walked out of the church.”

“I was so thankful for her honesty, and obviously am still thankful to this day. Why? Because this little old lady revealed something significant about my heart: under pressure of criticism, I fell into the snare of pleasing people instead of trusting in the Lord.”

“What about you? When you’re mistreated by another person, do you get angry and try to prove them wrong? Do you get intimidated and blindly follow their orders? Do you get wounded and attempt to avoid all future encounters with them?”

“There’s only one place where your heart can be healed, satisfied, and protected. It won’t be healed by exacting vengeance. It won’t be satisfied in human approval. It won’t be protected by hiding.”

“No, your heart will only be healed, satisfied, and protected when you trust in the Lord and follow his Word.”

“God bless,

Paul Tripp”

I could not have said it any better myself.

Mike.  Out.