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 was 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.

Gospel Intentionality

“Christians today increasingly find ourselves on the margins of our culture. In fact, we live in a post-Christian culture. The majority of people in the West have no intention of ever attending church. Most only utter the name of Christ as a swear word. Some prominent churches are growing, but much of this is transfer growth rather than true evangelistic growth. Yet many of our approaches to evangelism still assume a Christian mentality. We expect people to come when we ring the church bell or put on a good service. But the majority of the population is disconnected. Changing what we do in church will not reach them. We need to meet them in the context of everyday life” (emphasis mine; Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Everyday Church, p. 10).

The paragraph above is both discouraging and compelling at the same time. It is discouraging because it highlights a truth regarding the lack of influence the church seems to be having in the culture. It is compelling because it inspires the follower of Christ to be intentional with the gospel message. As a believer, I must take the gospel with me, both in word and deed, wherever I go. I must be prepared to meet people where they are “in the context of everyday life” if I am to have any hope of reaching them with the power of the gospel. What do you suppose it would look like if every believer within the body of Christ became intentional and took this idea seriously? I am talking about local churches everywhere becoming serious about the Great Commission by living and sharing the gospel of Christ. I have to say I get excited just thinking about the possibilities.

Mack Stiles wrote a powerful, little book about the importance of developing a culture of evangelism within the local church. “Evangelism: How the whole Church speaks of Jesus,” is a brief but potent volume that highlights the importance and necessity of individual Christians being intentional in their efforts to engage in conversations with those within their sphere of influence. In the foreword, David Platt explains, “It is a culture of evangelism that is not ultimately dependent on events, projects, programs, and ministry professionals. Instead, it is a culture of evangelism that is built on people filled with the power of God’s Spirit proclaiming the gospel of God’s grace in the context of their everyday lives and relationships” (Evangelism, p. 14-15).

Stiles points his readers to the relationship between personal evangelism and cultures of evangelism, describing the way in which it should be a “both/and” arrangement rather than an “either/or” arrangement. He clarifies, “I appreciate personal evangelism, and we need to be equipped for it. But since I believe in the church as the engine of evangelism, we need to develop cultures of evangelism in our local churches, too. We want whole churches that speak of Jesus…It just makes sense to share our faith alongside friends” (Evangelism, p. 42-43).

Matthew’s gospel describes the way in which Jesus was moving “throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” (Matt 9:35). The very next verse, however, describes the compassion Jesus felt for the people which should supply every believer with motivation for evangelism. Scripture tells us Jesus saw the people as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). It is at this point Jesus emphasizes the dire need for laborers in the ripened harvest fields. We should “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt 9:38). It is not so much a matter of believers doing different things as it is a matter of believers being intentional with the gospel as they continue in their current activities. As Chester and Timmis remind us, “Most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality” (Total Church, p. 63).

What will it take for the local church to develop an intentional culture of evangelism? I believe a good starting point is cultivating a deep love for Christ and His gospel. That is something every Christian can do. That is something every Christian MUST do for the glory of God and the glory of the gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth.

Lord, send revival and let it begin with me. For the glory of Christ, Amen.

Mike. Out.

God of This City

About twelve years ago Chris Tomlin recorded a song entitled, “God of This City.” The song has a very simple but profound message. The lyrics describe the God of the Bible as One who is incomparable and One who has a missionary heart. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard this song. The year was 2011. I was a passenger in a van riding through the Andes mountains of Peru. It was evening. Three Christian brothers (one who had traveled with me from the U.S., one driver, and one translator) accompanied me. We were moving from one village to another where we would meet with a new believer in order to begin a discipleship process.

As we carefully traversed the mountain road, the driver of the van was playing music from his phone through the sound system in the van. It was dark. The road was treacherous. I was in completely unfamiliar territory. Then it happened. This song began to play. I heard these words for the first time:

You’re the God of this city, You’re the King of these people,

You’re the Lord of this nation, You are

You’re the light in this darkness, You’re the hope to the hopeless

You’re the peace to the restless, You are

There is no one like our God, There is no one like our God

Greater things have yet to come and greater things are still to be done in this city

Greater things have yet to come and greater things are still to be done in this city

Needless to say, given my situation and surroundings at that moment, the words of this song made a tremendous impact on me. I began to weep. I was overcome with the truth of who God is and the reality of the darkness in the world. I was also reminded of the fact that, regardless of what I may see with my physical eyes, God had bigger plans for the people of these villages, these cities. He is God. He is King. He is Lord. God is who He is regardless and irrespective of whether or not we choose to acknowledge Him as such.

Fast forward five years. It was late in the evening on Friday, September 30, 2016. I was sitting in a hotel room in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was attending a conference about biblical discipleship sponsored by 9Marks and SEBTS (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). I had bumped into a good friend earlier that day who was also attending the conference. He serves a church in Roanoke, Virginia. He loves the Lord, he loves the Gospel, and he loves the people in the community he serves. You may be wondering why I am telling you about my friend. I’m glad you asked.

One striking similarity ties these two stories together. Every time this brother of mine posts something on social media regarding his ministry in the city of Roanoke, he types this statement at the end: “Roanoke belongs to Jesus.” Again, what a simple but profound statement. I took the opportunity that afternoon to tell my brother what an impact his statement has made in my life and ministry. What I neglected to tell him was how his statement had taken me back to the mountains of Peru. It had also given me great encouragement for ministry in general. It still does today.

Here is what I know. It matters not the geographical location where you serve. It matters not the particular people group you serve. What matters primarily is the God you serve. When you understand it is the Creator of the universe, the God of the Bible, whom you serve, things change. When you understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ, things change. When you understand the mission of God, things change.

Wherever God sends you to proclaim His gospel message, take heart and remember this:

Your city belongs to Jesus.

Mike. Out.

In Step with the Spirit

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  -Galatians 5:16-24 (ESV)

The life of a Christ-follower proves to be filled with challenges. One could make merely a cursory review of the Apostle Paul’s epistles to see some examples of these challenges. Perhaps the word “battles” would be more appropriate. Paul, in the seventh chapter of Romans, speaks of “another law” in his members “waging war against the law of [his] mind” (Rom 7:23). He refers to this constant struggle against sin whereby he labors to do good in the face of fierce opposition. I must confess: I can sympathize with his struggle. I often find myself engaged in a battle wherein I know what is right. I know what is good. It is precisely at this moment, however, that I am opposed most vigorously by the enemy of my soul. So how does one navigate through this battlefield victoriously?

Paul poses this important question in verse twenty-four. He states, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Paul then answers his own question in the first portion of verse twenty-five. He concludes, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” He elaborates in the first two verses of Chapter eight, saying, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (emphasis mine). This mention of the Spirit becomes crucial to the believer’s spiritual battle plan. This plan is brought into specific relief in Paul’s inspired words to the Galatians.

How can one say no to the sinful desires of the flesh in favor of the glorious desires of the indwelling Spirit of God? The believer must walk by the Spirit. In other words, the believer must daily, hourly, even minute by minute, make a conscious decision to submit to the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit. This is how one is able to “walk by the Spirit,” as Paul says in Galatians 5:16. This volitional act is facilitated by continually and consistently feasting on the riches of the Word of God. Foolish indeed would be the believer who presumed he could “walk by the Spirit” without daily taking up the “sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph 6:17). I firmly believe a direct correlation exists between one’s personal devotional habits and one’s ability (or empowerment) to “walk by the Spirit,” thus experiencing the victory secured by the blood of Christ on their behalf.

I base this firm belief on the truth of Scripture, but also on my own personal experience. I have found, in a very real and practical sense, I am most equipped to face the daily battles with sin when I have spent the most time feasting on the abundant riches of Scripture. Conversely, I have found I am ill-equipped to face the daily battles with sin when I have spent the least time in the Word of God. I can tell you from personal experience how heart-breaking and gut-wrenching it is to choose the lie of sin over the truth of Christ. I suspect, while reading this blog post, you have called to mind unfortunate instances in your own life in which you “have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Moments such as these are no fun.

The stark contrast Paul describes between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:19-23) should give us sufficient motivation toward obedience. The works of the flesh only result in condemnation and separation from God. Paul explains, “Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21b). There is no law, however, against the fruit of the Spirit since there is no law against living a godly life. The bookends framing this passage of Scripture are quite instructive toward keeping in step with the Spirit. To walk by the Spirit provides a great benefit to the believer. Paul explains, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). God calls each believer to demonstrate their faith and repentance in word and deed. While this sounds like a herculean task, we must remember by whose power we are strengthened to walk by the Spirit in the first place.

Paul ends this passage by reminding the believer of the forensic truth of Christianity. He concludes, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24). You may be wondering, “When have I ‘crucified’ my flesh?” I am glad you asked. Paul already reminded the believer of their standing before God in Christ. He declares, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

Take heart, believer. You have been crucified with Christ.

Walk by the Spirit. Live in His victory.

By His grace and for His glory,

Mike. Out.

The Peril of Spiritual Immaturity

There is a condition found in some infants called “failure to thrive.” It can be extremely dangerous if left unaddressed. Johns Hopkins Medicine defines this condition as “decelerated or arrested physical growth and is associated with abnormal growth and development. The reason for failure to thrive is inadequate nutrition…Failure to thrive has many different causes, and sometimes more than one cause may contribute to the condition at the same time. If an infant is not offered enough food or is not willing to eat enough food, or vomits repeatedly, there will not be enough calories to support growth. A child who is unable to absorb enough calories will also not grow as expected” (http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/pediatrics/failure_to_thrive_90,PO2297/). I have come to realize this is not just a physical ailment. This alarming condition affects the spiritual realm as well.

Consider the text of Scripture found in Hebrews 5:11-14:

About this we have much to say and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

The author of Hebrews introduced the idea of Jesus as our great high priest “after the order of Melchizedek.” The author had much more to say about this priestly comparison (which will resurface again in Chapter seven), but was reluctant to continue with the explanation because of the dull hearing of the audience. Evidently, the readers had not made sufficient progress in their faith because the author accused them of still needing to be taught “the basic principles of the oracles of God.” Two important principles surface in this passage, principles to which believers today would do well to pay attention.

First, believers should be good listeners and thereby, good learners. The audience to which the letter of Hebrews was written was not following this principle. Their hearing was “dull,” meaning it was lazy and sluggish. A.T. Robertson characterizes the readers as having “no push in the hearing, slow and sluggish in mind as well as in the ears” [A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933) Heb 5:11-14]. For this reason, the audience had not made reasonable spiritual progress. Sadly, they still needed to be taught rather than being able to teach others. They were still nursing a bottle rather than cutting into a steak. Again, Robertson laments, “Alas, what a commentary on modern Christians…Because [they are] still babes and not able to chew ‘solid food,’ without intellectual and spiritual teeth” (Robertson, Word Pictures).

Second, believers should not be babies. Certainly all believers begin their spiritual walk as infants, but they should never remain at that level. That would make about as much sense as parents never feeding their newborn child and expecting them to be able to function in life without proper nourishment. Just as one must grow physically, one must also grow spiritually. The author compares different kinds of food which are appropriate for different levels of growth and maturity. Solid food is for the mature. Mature adults can distinguish good from evil. Children, however, must learn this skill as they are taught by someone older and more experienced. The author employs here the perfect passive participle form of the Greek word γυμναζω in order to demonstrate the manner in which the mature are able to discern good from evil. We derive the English word “gymnasium” from this Greek word. The senses (powers of discernment) of the mature have been trained by means of constant practice or exercise.

Spiritual growth does not just happen automatically because of the passing of time. Each individual believer, upon being rescued by the wonderful grace of God, is given the opportunity to begin to grow in their knowledge of Christ and his Word. This only happens by reading, studying, and meditating upon the Word of God. Robertson explains, “By reason of use one gains such skill” (Robertson, Word Pictures). Many Christians today seem to have neglected their own personal spiritual growth by delegating that responsibility to the pastor of the church they attend. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Each one of us is personally responsible and accountable for their own spiritual growth. It is time to take ownership of our faith. It is time to press forward, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Mike. Out.

Perspectives on Leadership

One Sunday afternoon about two years ago I was reading a post on social media from a friend. He had spent many years in ministry serving local churches. He recently took an extended leave from ministry after a challenging situation. I sifted through the details of his post and was shocked by what I was reading. At one point, this brother of mine spent three days in the hospital undergoing a battery of tests to understand some significant physical symptoms he had been experiencing. After receiving normal test results, he was told by his doctor his physical symptoms were stress-induced.

Upon returning home, he received a phone call from a deacon in the church he was serving. This gentleman asked him how he was doing and then proceeded to berate him for having missed three days of work. Yes, that’s right. You heard me correctly. A deacon in the church called the pastor specifically to chastise him for having spent three days in the hospital. The irony of this story is that the behavior of this deacon was representative of what was causing the pastor’s health problems to begin with.

Unfortunately, this type of story is all too common. Pastors deal with a variety of issues and challenges about which the average church member knows nothing. This particular story prompted the writing of this blog post. Why would pastors and churches hurt each other? I mean…aren’t believers supposed to be on the same team? While a variety of answers exist for this question, the two most likely explanations are unbiblical leadership or unregenerate church membership. These are not new concerns. Unfortunately, churches have been dealing with the problem of unsaved church members and unbiblical leadership for quite some time. I am stating this as a reality rather than a supposition because of personal experience and observation. Let me explain what I mean.

I know there are non-Christians masquerading as Christians in local churches all across America. I also know there are pastors who are not following Scripture and the Holy Spirit as their primary sources for leadership in God’s church. How do I know this? I’m glad you asked. It is really quite simple if you think about it. The very fact that conflict exists between pastoral leadership and church congregations demonstrates one of two truths: either the Pastor is not leading biblically and is, therefore, sinning, or the congregation is not following biblical leadership and is, therefore, sinning. Someone is sinning against God in either scenario and it could actually be a combination of the two.

The first scenario looks like this: the pastor is doing everything in his power to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit of God. He is trying to lead the church to be biblical in every way and to be obedient to Scripture. He meets opposition at every turn because not everyone in the church belongs to Jesus. Therefore, they ultimately don’t follow Jesus’ plan for His church. This explains why they would oppose the leadership of a pastor who is trying to lead them to follow Jesus.

The second scenario looks like this: the pastor is not following Jesus or His Word. Perhaps he is following some clever “church growth” strategy that looks more like friendship with the world than biblical theology. Perhaps he means well, but is simply being tempted by sinful behavior. In this scenario the people of the church desire to follow Jesus and follow the Bible, but their leadership is not heading in that direction. The pastor is possibly more concerned with his own well-being or his own glory than he is with the glory of God and His church.

Both of these cases represent opposite ends of a spectrum. Granted there are a myriad of potential combinations of these two extremes lying in the middle of this spectrum, but it seems the first scenario tends to be more prevalent. In my personal observation (so take it for what it is worth), churches tend to seek pastors who have been seminary trained and educated. Churches also tend to seek pastors with pastoral leadership experience. Finally, churches tend to seek pastors with personalities and backgrounds that fit the culture of the church. It is only after a pastor is called and arrives in his new ministry field that he discovers the “dirty little secret.” The members of the church want him to lead them as long as no changes are required. The subtle truth here is churches call pastors who possess the education, experience, expertise, and spirituality to exert biblical leadership over them, but then they spend a considerable portion of their time opposing the very leadership God has provided.

The bottom line, I believe, is this: every human being is in desperate need of Jesus. Sin causes division regardless of where it is found. Jesus is the solution to the problem of sin. The answer to the Pastor who is not leading according to Scripture is Jesus. The answer to the congregation who is not following God’s ordained leadership over them is Jesus. So the answer to either problem is praying for Jesus to have His way in the hearts and lives of people to the end that the church begins to look and act like the church.Think of what that might look like. Any time a pastor, fully trusting God’s Word and following the leadership of the Holy Spirit, comes to his congregation saying something like, “Brothers and sisters, the Bible teaches us we are to be actively engaged in making disciples of all nations. We need to take that more seriously as a church. I believe we should structure our staff, our facilities, our ministry activities, and our budget to reflect this gospel priority,” the congregation would respond by saying something like, “Amen! Let’s do whatever it takes to reach people with the gospel and help them grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ!”

The observable fact that this is not the norm demonstrates how far the church has drifted from the biblical ideal. We need to work together for the glory of God and the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

Selah.

Mike. Out.

The Intentional Pursuit of Holiness

In his helpful book, The Great Omission, Dallas Willard argues, “It is a simple fact that nowadays the task of becoming Christ-like is rarely taken as a serious objective to be thoughtfully planned for, and the reality of our embodied personality dealt with accordingly. I have inquired before many church and parachurch groups regarding their plan for putting to death or mortifying ‘whatever belongs to your earthly nature’ or flesh (see, for example, Colossians 3:5). I have never once had a positive response to this question. Indeed, mortifying or putting things to death doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing today’s Christians would be caught doing. Yet there it stands, at the center of the New Testament teachings” (Willard, 84).

Does this strike anyone else as odd? I realize I may still be a bit naive, but I was under the impression that devoted followers of Jesus should actually make it their goal to be more like Jesus. Call me crazy, I know, but what are we to do about this spiritual dilemma? I’m glad you asked because I just happen to have a few suggestions. As is usually the case, these suggestions are not original to me. Most profound things that proceed from my mouth (or my computer keyboard) are things I have read from people far more scholarly than I. However, I feel compelled to pass along these nuggets of wisdom as I discover them with the hope they may assist someone else as they have assisted me.

I am currently leading a small group of believers through a process by which they will understand (and prayerfully implement) a helpful accountability resource called a “Life Transformation Group.” Let me explain. “A Life Transformation Group (LTG) is a simple way to release the most essential elements of a vital spiritual walk to people who need Jesus to change their lives from the inside out. It is a grassroots tool for growth which encourages and supports people to follow Christ by fueling internal motivation rather than applying external pressures and ploys. This tool empowers the common Christian to accomplish the uncommon work of reproducing spiritual disciples who can in turn reproduce others” (For more information on LTG’s and other helpful resources, visit www.CMAResources.org).

The most interesting thing happened during our last meeting. We were discussing the “Character Conversation Questions,” which comprise the accountability portion of how each group is designed to function. As we discussed these five questions, we realized each of these questions also serve another purpose in the life of the believer. I asked the members of the group to summarize a theme they noticed in the five questions we had just considered. The first answer given was one simple word: intentional. We had just uncovered the two-way street of the accountability structure found in these groups. Not only do these questions allow us to reflect on the past week to see how God has worked in our lives, they also provide a framework through which we can distill our purposes for the coming week as we strive to follow Jesus.

Consider these five questions:

  1. In what ways have you been a testimony this week to the greatness of Jesus Christ with both your words and actions?
  2. How have you experienced God in your life this week?
  3. How are you responding to His promptings?
  4. Do you have a need to confess any sin?
  5. How did you do with your Scripture reading last week?

As you probably have noticed, the questions seem reflective at first glance. However, one can also see clearly how each question could be understood as a goal for which to strive. Imagine if we rewrote the list in the imperative rather than the interrogative.

Consider these five commands:

  1. Actively look for ways this week to testify to the greatness of Jesus Christ with both your words and actions.
  2. Be sensitive to the presence of God in your life this week.
  3. Be prepared to respond obediently to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
  4. Be alert! Be on your guard against temptations to sin against God.
  5. Intentionally schedule time for Scripture reading every day.

Isn’t this interesting? We can now use these accountability questions as a guide to assist us in our daily pursuit of godly living. These questions can serve as daily reminders to maintain Christ-centered priorities as we strive to follow Jesus. What a tremendous resource for the Christian life! I am so thankful to Neil Cole and the folks at Church Multiplication Associates for their helpful resources. But I am supremely thankful to my great God and Savior Jesus Christ who continually guides and directs me in His path for His glory and for my good.

Growing as Christ’s disciple isn’t easy, but it’s possible in the community of God’s people. Be intentional. Submit to the Lord’s leadership. Be amazed at the results.

Mike. Out.