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.

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 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.

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.

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.