What Kind of World Do We Live In?

As reports of this Sunday’s Texas Church Shooting continued to unfold into the evening and on into this morning, I have been compelled to consider the tragic state of our nation and world. It is far too soon to react to any of the specifics or to make judgments as to eventual outcomes or implications, but I have little interest in this sort of socio-political exercise and generally feel unqualified to do so anyway. However, before this tragic event is added to the list of topics to be politicized and argued about all over news networks and social media, it stands as a striking symbol of all that is sad and tragic and evil. The senseless loss of life has led many to ask, “What kind of world do we live in?” Considering yesterday’s tragedy alongside the act of terror in New York City earlier this week and the mass shooting in Las Vegas last month, it certainly seems like a valid question: just what kind of world do we live in? This is a question for which everyone ought to know the answer; however, I feel it is particularly important that every Jesus follower understand and consider the answers to this question in light of biblical truth.

We live in a fallen world.

Though most of us enjoy a life surrounded by goodness and kindness only occasionally touched by darkness and tragedy, we must remember that our world is fallen because of sin. No excuse should be made for these evil men who are filled with such hatred, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that the ultimate responsibility lies with the sinful, wicked condition that befell us when Adam and Eve chose to rebel in the garden. The only answer for this sinful condition is Jesus, so in this fallen world we must live holy lives that point people to the righteousness of Jesus that can lift us from our fallen state. Do not return evil for evil, thus nullifying the message of hope that Jesus should bring to these situations. Even when evil is all around you and the wickedness of this fallen world is on full display, choose to do what is right in the sight of God.

We live in a blinded world.

Satan has spiritually blinded the hearts of those in this world so that we cannot see good and evil for what they truly are. While we should certainly hold accountable those who commit such atrocities and the perpetrators of these violent crimes should be actively opposed, our hatred should be reserved for the Evil One who has blinded the hearts of so many in our world. These evil men are small pieces in Satan’s attempt to thwart God’s plan of redemption for mankind, thus the true enemy is supernatural and we must fight against him with spiritual warfare. We must lift up our blinded world in prayer that they may receive the light they need to see the truth. Instead of being blinded by hatred and anger, show grace and mercy by praying for those who have been so terribly affected. Additionally, pray for those enemies who have sinned so terribly against their brother. This is how we can bring light into a spiritually dark and blinded world.

We live in a broken world.

Because of the affects of sin and spiritual blindness in our world, it is broken. It does not function as God intended. There is evil and hatred and sickness and death, all things He never intended for our world. Knowing this, we must look for opportunities to bring healing. We must resist behaviors that further break us apart as a human society. We must resist the urge to divide and accuse and generalize. We must resist the temptation to politicize these evil acts. We must instead focus on providing healing through our words, our prayers, our grace and mercy and our forgiveness.

We live in a hurting world.

It is simply the reality of the sinful state that this world is filled with pain and suffering. We feel it quite pointedly when events such as yesterday occur, but it is always true. People everywhere are hurting and we should be actively pointing them to the true Comforter. Our God is the God of all comfort. Jesus offers peace and comfort and even gave us His Holy Spirit to fill us and comfort us further. Through our actions of compassion and mercy we can draw a hurting world toward a God that can give them the comfort they so desperately need.

We live in a lost world.

While this should go without saying given the conditions we have already considered, the unfortunate reality is that many believers live their lives as if they have forgotten that this world is lost and without hope, separated from God because of their sin. I say we live as if we have forgotten it because most believers focus on social, political, and legal solutions rather than spiritual ones. When we see evil on display, we must remember that the solution is Jesus and embrace the opportunity to lovingly point people to Jesus.

We live in a loved world.

As dark a picture as we have painted, it would do us well to recall one of the most popular and well known verses from the Bible: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This world may be fallen, blinded, broken, hurting and lost; but it is also loved by its Creator God. And if a completely holy and righteous God can love this world enough to let His own Son die to save it, then we can and must love it too. I think we are moved to loving compassion for the victims of these terrible crimes, but we must also have love toward the murderous villains themselves. We cannot reserve our love for those that we like and agree with who happen to look like us and believe as we do. We must love those who look, live and believe differently than we do. We must love those who are sinful and unlovable; even those who hate us and wish us harm. In our responses to these senseless acts of violence, we must do everything out of love.

As we mourn those lost and injured at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, I call on my fellow Christian believers at this time to consider the words of Paul in Romans 12:9-18, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection…Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” What kind of world do we live in? One that needs us to live the truth of those verses every second of every day!

 

 

 

photo By Sasha Wolff CC BY 2.0

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Real Life Parenting

Not long ago, I was lamenting to my wife about one of my children. As I passionately articulated my frustration with some particularly annoying behaviors she began to smile. Then she laughed and said, “You do know who that sounds exactly like, don’t you?” I somehow got the impression she didn’t mean her.

Unfortunately, I am all too often faced with the reality that my children generally reflect my behavior rather than my oh-so-wise parental instruction. Obviously this challenges me to make sure that even at home my behavior is consistent with what I would like to see in my children and, more importantly, with what is befitting a follower of Jesus. It also challenges me to find better ways to combine the teaching of biblical truth with real life in a way that impacts my kids and affects their behavior. As counter intuitive as it may sound, I believe that to genuinely impact our children’s behavior we have to actually focus less on their behavior and more on their heart.

Consider the words of Deuteronomy 6:7-9. “You shall teach [God’s commands] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” These verses convey two eye-opening principles. First, my goal as a parent should be to shape the heart of my child toward God. If this is my goal, the primary focus of my parental instruction is biblical truth about God and His Word rather than behavior modification. Secondly, These verses tell me that the context of my parental teaching is not primarily church, special “family devotion” times, or fatherly lectures – it is real life. Whatever my family and I find ourselves doing together provides a platform for shaping the heart of my children toward God.

Not surprisingly, this is the approach that Jesus took with his disciples – and what is parenting if not intense discipleship! A quick perusal of the gospels shows that Jesus trained these undisciplined, uneducated men into the foundation of the Christian church by simply spending intentional time with them. They took road trips together; went to dinner and parties together. They ministered and served together. They visited sick people and went to funerals. They managed finances, went grocery shopping, and harvested crops. They went fishing, they told stories, they hung out around campfires and even went to church. In short, Jesus shaped the heart of his disciples toward God through real life personal interaction. As simple as it may seem, this is still the best way to shape the heart of a disciple (or child) toward God. Notice that there are two essential elements to this approach: intention and time.

We have to spend time with our kids doing the kinds of things they do on a regular basis. It isn’t a waste of time to play, color, read, take walks, and have meals with our kids. Additionally, we also have to find ways to include them in the things we do. Let them help you with chores, take them to work, serve together as a family. Of course it’s easier to do these adult things without kids, but when possible we should include our kids.

As we spend time with our kids, though, we must sure to be intentional about using these experiences to connect our kids and their lives to God. You don’t have to preach. Just use casual comments. Isn’t it cool that God made us with the ability to play? Didn’t God give me a neat job? God sure is amazing/powerful/wonderful/etc. Or you can pray together. Ask spiritually minded questions. You will need to find what works for you, but just be intentional about connecting real life to God’s truth.

A discipleship approach to parenting will take some thought because most of us are used to reacting to bad behavior rather than focusing on proactively shaping our child’s heart toward God. I know from experience that it is tempting to chase down every bad behavior and counter it with teaching about why it’s bad, but I also know from experience that this is generally futile. Instead, we must commit ourselves to a lifestyle of intentional discipleship. It will likely prove to be long, hard, tiring, and inconvenient at times; but it will also prove worth it!

Choose What Matters

As a parent and as a pastor, I frequently find myself in discussions about the busyness of life – when my wife and I try to pick a date to have friends over and can’t find an opening for weeks; when counseling appointments are continuously moved; when meetings have to be rescheduled; when church programs seem to be competing with sports and entertainment. Over and over again, the conclusion is reached: “man, life is just busy.”

When life is this busy, we are faced with an almost constant need to make choices as to how we will spend the little time we have. How will we fill our day? What will we do with our “free time”? What activities will the kids participate in? Which invitations should we accept? What obligations will we take on? These are legitimate and realistic questions that I would estimate each of us face on a very regular basis – more than likely multiple times a day.

The temptation is to simply field each of these questions as they come. Here I decide to do what is easiest and there I decide to do what feels good. Convenience, feelings, urgency, preference – each becomes a standard of decision making in the busy family. While it may feel like it cannot be helped, I think this style of decision making can lead to inconsistency, frustration and even the promotion of values that are not our own. What we need is one standard for decision making that always trumps all other standards.

Fortunately, God has given us the standard in His Word in Matthew 6:20. Jesus says, “… store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” We often think of this verse in relation to money, but I would suggest that the point of this verse is of larger scope than that. Far from merely being instruction on how to spend money, Jesus’ words were an admonition to make the kingdom a priority in your life. Later in the same chapter he supports this understanding by admonishing his followers to “… seek first the kingdom of God.” What does all of this have to do with making decisions amidst the busyness of life? Everything! Our quest for a singular standard against which to weigh all of our decisions ends here at this verse. When we are sorting through all of the options for our time and energy and even finances, we must choose the things that matter for the kingdom – for eternity.

It may seem innocent enough to skip church to play sports or to go to a movie rather than serving in a ministry. Perhaps it isn’t wrong to chill out and watch tv rather than put the effort into conversation and family devotions. And that is exactly the point! So many of the decisions we face are not necessarily between right and wrong, but between things that matter and things that don’t. I challenge you today to choose the things that matter. As you parent your children and lead your family, consider the lesson you are teaching with every decision you make. Consider the values you are instilling and the priorities you are strengthening. Toward those considerations, here are some choices you should make to ensure you are choosing the things that matter.

  • Choose important over urgent. One of the most common barriers to making decisions that matter for eternity is the myriad urgent matters that materialize over the course of a day. Urgent and important aren’t the same thing, yet urgent generally trumps important for most of us. Especially in a family, there seems to always be something that has to be done “right now.” Take the time to step back and ask the question “Is all of this urgent stuff demanding my attention actually important?” Important tasks contribute to long term mission and goals, so make sure that what you are spending time on is something you would consider important to your family health and priorities.
  • Choose productivity over entertainment. One of the constant complaints in my house is that “this isn’t fun.” This always leads to the never-too-soon-to-be-learned life lesson that “life’s not all about fun.” Unfortunately, this expectation is not restricted to children only. Our society seems addicted to entertainment. Though I am certainly not anti-fun, we should be cautious about over prioritizing it. I believe that the majority of what we do should have some productive value. It should contribute to our overall life priority of pleasing and following God. This does not eliminate fun, it merely requires that we think more strategically about the kind of fun we have. It’s tempting to sign our kids up for every sport, camp and activity that they might enjoy, but enjoyment doesn’t make something necessary or even beneficial. Again, each of these decisions must go back to your over all priority to put the kingdom of God first. We must consider what value all of this endless entertainment truly has for the follower of Jesus. I am not at all saying that all entertainment is wrong, but I think we should choose productivity over empty entertainment and choose entertainment that adds value to our families.
  • Choose relationships over amusement. Though very similar to the previous point, this choice is primarily regarding wasted time. We spend countless hours watching tv, scrolling through Facebook, playing video games, and wasting time in a wide variety of ways. I challenge you to choose to spend your time building relationships rather than merely amusing yourself. I know that we greatly value our downtime, but I would challenge you to limit this wasted time so that you can intentionally invest in relationships within your family. Ask questions, read and study the Bible together, enjoy each other’s company. I certainly can relate to the desire to “just relax,” but we should make the choice to prioritize activities that build and strengthen relationships.
  • Choose service over selfishness. Our children are growing up in a culture that is increasingly self-centered. Despite our desire that our children not be selfish, we regularly make decisions that instill in them the belief that the world revolves around them. We give them everything they ask for, shower them with toys and treats, drive them from practice to game to class without regard for the impact on the family, provide endless entertainment with little responsibility and spare them the consequences of bad decisions. We must stop choosing to conduct our families in a way that promotes selfishness. Instead, choose to model, promote and prioritize service. Choose to deliberately allow your children to sacrifice for the well-being of others. Choose to serve together as a family. Choose to prioritize serving in church and the community. Consider the lessons you are teaching when you insist your child make their soccer game, but skip your turn to serve in your church ministry. If you want to make choices that matter for God’s Kingdom, start by choosing service over selfishness.
  • Choose character over convenience. With the busyness of life and the hectic pace that many of us face, it is quite easy to make decisions based merely on convenience. While there are certainly times that convenience is an appropriate standard for decision making, it cannot become our primary method. We cannot expect to always take the easy way through life and arrive at God’s intended destination for us. It might be easier to give in to the demands of our children, or to let them do whatever they want; it is often easier to do things for our children rather than have them do for themselves. It might be easiest to park them in front of tv or video games to keep them occupied. It may be easiest to stay home from church to sleep or study. Unfortunately, easy is not always best and it is through intentionally choosing to do what is difficult that we can actually choose to develop character. As you sort out your life and schedule, I encourage you to evaluate whether or not you are simply choosing convenience. You might be doing so at the expense of character development.
  • Choose eternal over material. In the interest of choosing things that matter for the Kingdom, you will of necessity need to reject the countless opportunities to make material things the priority in your life. Even for professing followers of Jesus, material possessions are often a never-ending pursuit. It is hard to defend the claim that God’s interests are our greatest priority when we make decisions based solely on accumulating finances and possessions. Consider what values you are teaching when you choose to buy that new car or boat; when you have to have the newest and nicest of everything. I urge you to make choices to live on less; to avoid excess and extravagance. Choose to live and give sacrificially. Deliberately choose to go without certain conveniences for the sake of being able to be generous to others. You should look for ways to invest in the kingdom even if it seems to negatively affect your own wallet. Jesus’ followers must intentionally and passionately pursue eternal interests rather than material ones.

 

All of these choices can really be summed up in one ultimate choice we must make: choose God over everything else. As a believer, it is your responsibility to raise your children to love and serve God. I believe that most Christian parents want this for their kids, yet regularly make decisions that instill and encourage values contrary to this end.  I urge you right now to evaluate your busy schedule against the standard Jesus set for us and choose the things that matter!

 

Photo by Jagbirlehl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Thoughts On Middle School Ministry

I recently had the privilege of being part of a small-scale survey of local church middle school students. Our desire was to gauge the spiritual mindset of these young students in regard to church, God, the Bible and worldview. The survey was anonymous and designed to allow students to express doubt rather than only choose an absolute right or wrong answer. Keep in mind that 95% of these students claim to know Jesus as their personal Savior, so our thinking was that they mostly would know the “right” answers and would be tempted to give the “right” answer rather than the “wrong” one if forced into a corner. We wanted them to feel as free as possible to let us know what they truly thought about these spiritual issues. Though this was a pretty small group of students, I found the responses quite interesting and thought that I might make some conclusions that could potentially prove useful to others.

The first thing we discovered is that these students still enjoy going to church. Though about 20% of them felt like church was mostly for adults, over 90% like going to church, would go even if they didn’t have to and plan to go when they are adults. With so many teens and young adults dropping out of church and developing some pretty serious disillusionment with the established church, I was thankful (if not a little surprised) that these young students still find church attendance an enjoyable part of their lives. This could certainly vary from church to church, but I do think that middle schoolers in general are still open to the idea of church being a normal, enjoyable part of their spiritual lives.

We also discovered that despite their claims of a personal relationship with Jesus and enjoyment of church attendance, they struggled with some fundamental truths about God Himself. Perhaps the most alarming find was that 60% wondered if God was even real. With that doubt in their minds, it isn’t surprising that 65% wonder if God hears and answers prayer and half don’t regularly read their Bibles or see how the Bible is relevant to their daily lives. In fact, the Bible seems to be a significant hang up for many of them. Over 30% doubt the creation account or think some parts of the Bible might be untrue and admit that what their friends think shapes their decisions more than what the Bible says.

While these struggles should be taken seriously, I think that we must resist the temptation to panic. Remember, these questions were asked to determine doubt, not an aggressively oppositional attitude. These students are not hardened against truth or firm in disbelief. They simply have questions; and the good news is that they want the answers. In fact, every single participating student said they would like to know more about how to grow closer to Jesus.

To me, that is the biggest take away from this student survey: my middle school students (and probably yours, too) have big questions, but they are willing to hear the answers. It is up to us as parents, teachers, pastors, and church volunteers to step up and offer the truth. For too long, we have treated our younger students as if they weren’t ready for the truth. Not the real truth, anyway. I’m not saying that we routinely lied to our students, but the church as a whole has traditionally kept pre-high school students on a steady diet of Bible stories, morality tales and soft “do the right thing” principles. When they have big questions and we give them small answers – or worse, deflect and refuse to answer – they begin to decide that church and God and the Bible must not have all the answers. So they go somewhere else. Don’t believe for a second that they quit asking the questions. They just ask them until someone answers and too many times that answer is found in a secular, anti-God school curriculum or a television show or a well meaning friend with the same struggles.

I am becoming increasingly certain that the middle school years are crucial for determining the faith a person will have as an adult. Obviously, faith is always a personal decision, but I believe we need to be aware of how susceptible these middle schoolers are to falsehood. Additionally, we must be intentional about engaging them with real, practical, substantive truth about God and His Word. They need to understand that the church is a place where they can belong. They need community of their own. They need to see adults living out their faith outside of church. They need safe places to ask their questions about God and life. They need teachers and mentors who can explain how the Bible impacts real life. And they need it now! As they grow closer to high school and adulthood, the window of teachability closes. We the church need to embrace this opportunity and begin urgently engaging our young students with God’s love and truth.

You can start today. Get involved with middle school ministry at your church. Talk to a middle schooler (gasp). Ask them questions and listen to their answers. Join a conversation like this one. Share your ideas about how you are reaching students or ask how others are engaging them. Above all, begin praying for middle school students you know and their parents. And as you pray, listen to the Holy Spirit as he tells you how to make a difference. God loves each one of these students and would be happy to use you to draw them to Himself.

A Change of Heart

I recently heard a godly, well-meaning older gentleman tell a young father that raising kids was just like training dogs. He explained that you just need to develop a routine of simple, specific commands that you repeat regularly and you can train them to respond on command. While most people don’t state it in that fashion, this advice reflects a behavior based understanding of parenting that is extremely common – even within the church. As parents, it is incredibly easy to make our children’s behavior the focus of our parenting. Raising “good” kids that behave “properly” is the assumed end game for many parents. While there is nothing wrong with desiring and working toward good behavior in your children, this should not be the goal you are working toward as a parent.

The responsibility of a Christian parent, the very heart and soul of all we do, is to shape our children’s heart toward God so that they will have a thriving personal relationship with him. In a word, it is “discipleship.” The focus of our parenting should be discipling little followers of Jesus so that one day they become grownups that genuinely and faithfully follow Jesus.

It should be overwhelmingly obvious that the task of discipling a child – shaping their heart toward God – has to be all about the condition of their heart. Unfortunately, this is something that many Christians miss in their personal walk with God as well as in their parenting. We are always trying to make the Christian life about performance, rather than about identity in Christ and personal relationship with the Father. God himself spoke of this problem, condemning his own people because they “…come near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught (Isaiah 29:13) .” In this instance, the problem wasn’t their behavior – it was their heart. They said the right things and did the right things, but it was merely outward conformity to a bunch of rules.

Tragically, this outward conformity to religious standards that God hates and condemns is precisely what many parents are encouraging through parenting that focuses on behavior modification. Yes, you can train your child like a dog to follow your rules and do what you want them to do, but without a heart that is chasing after God they are no better off simply because they’ve followed the rules. Instead of always focusing on changing and curbing bad behavior, we must use bad behavior as an opportunity to look into our child’s sinful heart and shape it toward God.

The shortest answer as to how to do this is simply to give them the gospel.  We must give our children the gospel faithfully, constantly and relentlessly because a man-made training program of rules and commands might change behavior, but only the gospel can change a heart. When sinful behavior presents, take a step back and remember your goal. It is not conformity; it is genuine heart change. So you need to take the time to understand why they misbehaved. You need to empathize by sharing your own struggle with sin and then explain that this is a universal problem for all of humankind. Give correction and help them understand why consequences are good and necessary. Also, make sure to share the good news that God offers forgiveness and He offers to help us have victory over sin. Over all, you should place drastically more emphasis on God’s goodness than on your child’s badness.

Of course all of that takes time – much more time than a harsh word of reproach and a swift punishment. And the results take more time to. You may not get immediate conformity, but that’s ok because the goal is not to shame them into conformity but to drive them toward God’s heart. Make this the central focus of all you do as a parent. I urge you to make your child’s relationship with God more important than their behavior. Work toward shaping their heart toward God more than you work at changing their actions. Make discipleship your aim because if good behavior is your goal, you may one day reach the finish line and find you have run the wrong race and lost your children in the process.

3 Signs of Selfish Service

One of the great privileges and responsibilities of the Christian life is service. Different individuals and churches may call it volunteerism, ministry or some other title, but the idea is the same – we show our love for God and appreciation for his blessing by doing acts of service in his name. Unfortunately, there is always the possibility that what appears to be service for God is actually service for ourselves. This may not always be easy to detect, but there is an interesting verse of scripture that gives us 3 signs our service might be selfish.

The verse is John 3:26 and it describes a relatively minor incident with John the Baptist’s disciples. Speaking of Jesus, they come to John and say, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” This brief statement and John’s response clearly indicate that these men were struggling with some jealousy over Jesus’ ministry and were, at least for the moment, serving for selfish reasons. Before I articulate these signs, I do want to be clear that the presence of these signs in the lives and ministry of these unnamed disciples does not make them bad people. It just makes them human and I would suggest that each of us be aware that we are indeed susceptible to falling into selfish service in our own ministries from time to time. The following signs of selfish service should help us in determining our own motivations for serving.

  1. Ministry is competition. To John’s disciples, ministry was a competition. John was their master and their ministry was the right ministry and they didn’t like Jesus messing with it. Anyone that followed Jesus was someone not following John and was thus a problem. While this seems ridiculous when thinking of Jesus, it is a big problem in today’s church. If you are involved in serving in any capacity, I want to urge you not to let ministry become a competition. That means, don’t view everything different as wrong. Don’t compare results, leaders, accomplishments, etc. – this can lead to jealousy. Don’t view your personal ministry as “the good one.” Your church isn’t the singular light in your community. Your ministry isn’t the only good one within your church, either. This kind of competitive spirit is a sure sign your service is taking a turn toward selfishness.
  2. Ministry is about numbers (26). Remember what John’s disciples said about Jesus: “all are coming to Him.” They exaggerated; John was still baptizing people and over-all Jesus was rejected. However, the point is that they were watching the numbers. They were measuring Jesus’ success by the crowds and this made them feel less successful. The world and fleshly believers equate success with numbers. The size of the crowd doesn’t necessarily indicate the success or validity of a ministry. However, selfishness causes us to measure success with the wrong standard. Any attitude that equates spirituality with numbers is dangerous. A large ministry might offer the temptation to discount the significance of a smaller one. In a small church, we might accuse all big churches of compromise so we can feel better about ourselves. We might feel our ministry is better because more kids show up or begin to feel insecure if our church event is not as well attended as another church’s similar event. This emphasis on numbers is a common indicator of a selfish view of ministry and we must guard against it.
  3. Ministry is self-serving. The very idea of ministry is that we should be serving something other than ourselves, but selfishness can cause us to lose our way. Slowly, our service becomes about self-glory, fame, importance or any other of a number of wrong points of focus in our work. We are left ministering for our own purposes rather than for God’s. As servants and ministers, whether by profession or volunteer, we must resist ever serving out of a desire for what we might gain from our service. Though service for God naturally comes with a variety of immediate and eternal blessings, we should never serve because of what we might get out of it.

Service for God is an incredible privilege and can be a genuine act of worship when done with the proper motives. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to slip into a mindset of service that is partially or totally selfish. I would encourage everyone who serves in any capacity within the church to examine their heart as to what their motives for service actually are. Confess any selfish motives and pursue once again a posture of humble, sacrificial and selfless service.

Respectful Disagreement

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Anyone who pays any attention at all knows the socio-political climate has been tense lately. In the days surrounding the presidential inauguration there have been protests and controversies and celebrity statements all over the media. On social media it looked like election season again as people battled each other over who supports who. But today, this headline wins over all the others I have seen: “Man bites ear off another man during argument about Trump!” I don’t even care about politics, but I had to click that headline. The article didn’t give much more detail than that – not even who supported Trump and who opposed. Honestly, I don’t think it matters. The fact is that we have gotten crazy enough over politics that people are biting each other’s ears off! Whatever happened to reasonable disagreement? What happened to civility and respect? Have we lost our collective American minds?

I think it is high time that we stop arguing like spoiled little children who name call and bite each other and start discussing issues like adults. Regardless of your political persuasion –or even if politics isn’t your thing at all- conflict and issues can only be resolved through profitable discussion. Disagreement is inevitable, so when it happens, stay respectful. Do not name call. Do not make personal attacks. Disagreement can always be done in a kind, loving, and respectful manner. When this happens, the door is often open for genuine dialogue about real issues – and this is what has to happen. Whether it is a social issue like racial injustice or more personal issues like who’s not replacing the toilet paper roll when they finish it – problems are only resolved when the real issues are discussed.

Because of this, I want to ask all grown up Americans to stop bickering and arguing  and begin the process of healthy, respectful communication with those who hold opposing views. You can start today by offering kindness instead of cruelty and love instead of hate. With that change of perspective, go out and enter into genuine, respectful disagreements with people so that we can make this world a better place. And for heaven’s sake, don’t bite anybody!

Exercise for a Healthy Body

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I recently read that almost half of Americans say they want to lose weight, but only about half of those people are actually making any attempt to do anything about it. While the lack of follow through is disturbing, I think this desire for physical health is great because God has given us these bodies and a healthy body is a good thing! However, of far more importance than a healthy physical body is a healthy spiritual body and far more disturbing than a lack of effort at physical health is a lack of effort at spiritual health.

THE CHURCH; THE BODY OF CHRIST

Interestingly enough, God frequently uses the physical human body as a metaphor for His body – the church. While this term can be accurately used to refer to both the universal church (the entirety of believers in all times and in all places) and the local church, the majority of the New Testament emphasis on the church is referring to individual local churches. That’s because the local church is of great importance to God. It is through the local church that He plans to spread His gospel. It is through the local church that He intends to cultivate mature believers. It is through the local church that He intends to provide accountability, support and opportunities for ministry. It is, in fact, the local church that He has chosen to represent Him in a world that has rejected Him. With this tremendous responsibility in mind, the health of the local church should be of great importance to each of us who claim to be followers of Christ. Since the church is made up of people, a healthy local church is really just believers living the way God expects – and a big part of that is how we get along with each other. Just as weight loss cannot take place without working at it, a healthy church won’t just happen without some intentional effort. So, here are three spiritual exercises that will lead to a healthy church body.

PURSUE UNITY

First is unity. In order to have healthy relationships with your church family, you must make unity a priority. I don’t mean unity as in everybody being the same and I certainly don’t promote a lack of diversity. Too many churches think that the fact that they look the same, like the same things and agree on everything is unity. That’s not unity – that’s laziness. Unity is being different and even having disagreements and still being able to have mutual love and respect because of Jesus. Unity is working through differences for the greater purpose of God’s Kingdom. Unity is the deep and genuine joining together of the hearts of believers to each other through a mutual pursuit of Christ. True unity is only achieved through pursuit of Christ above all. You must stop pursuing your ideas, your desires, your comfort, your convenience and start pursuing unity through Christ!

RESOLVE TO PRACTICE HUMILITY

That type of unity requires humility, a quality that is foreign to our natural selves and is only through achievable through God’s grace. As Paul points out in Philippians 2, practical humility is basically a selfless concern for others. We reject selfishness and pride. We do not strive for our own glory or positions of power. We do not try to manipulate to get our way because we truly believe that other people are more important than us. A healthy church consists of believers that live out the creed: “others matter to me more than I matter to me.” Too many churches are filled with believers who just care about themselves. We must renounce this kind of selfishness and embrace a Christ-like humility.

RESOLVE TO PARTICIPATE IN SERVICE

The final characteristic of healthy church relationships that I would like to mention is sacrificial service. Service costs something. It costs something in terms of effort, money or time. It might also cost in reputation. It certainly costs in pride. The cost might be different for each of us, but serving others will cost something – though in the long term those costs are meaningless. After all, what is money and time and energy other than currency to be spent for the kingdom?! When that is our mindset we realize that though there is a temporal cost to serving others, there is also an eternal reward. God honors His humble servants. Additionally, there is also a very real benefit here and now. When we commit to serving and caring for others we find ourselves cared for beyond our wildest imagination.

God’s plan for His church is designed to be best for all of us. His plan is that individual believers will function as a single local community that loves and cares for each other. This won’t happen if each of us is only concerned with what we can get out of church or how our interests can be served. It is time that we stop doing lip service to the idea of a healthy church and begin exercising the principles that will actually make it true.

 

Photo Credit Dwight Burdette. Original here.

Christ-follower or Blessing-follower?

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“2016 – the year without presents on Christmas.” This (accompanied by a few masterfully timed sighs) was the dramatic exclamation of my ten year old a few days before Christmas. His over-the-top theatrical outburst was due to the fact that we decided to move our traditional family Christmas activities (including presents) to Monday and intentionally focus on celebrating Jesus on Christmas Day. In the interest of full disclosure, this was primarily due to the busy nature of a Sunday Christmas rather than any super-spiritual aspirations on our part. However, this decision has taught me at least one thing: regardless of my best efforts and intentions, to small children Christmas is about one thing – getting presents!

A Fatal Flaw

In children, this is generally cute and eventually outgrown along with many other childish attitudes and behaviors. However, it does reflect one universal and fatal flaw in the human condition – we make everything about us. This includes the gospel and salvation. A common focus of gospel presentations and personal testimonies is all of the good stuff we get from God. We get joy. We get peace. We get a savior. While each of these is good and true, this is essentially a reversal of emphasis between two aspects of a single truth. The truth: God sent Jesus to earth and provided a way of salvation for all mankind. Our distorted perspective focuses on the benefit we gain from receiving this gift, while the true emphasis is on an awesome God giving a gift that we need.

 

A Self-centered Gospel

This may seem like the proverbial splitting of hairs, but as we build upon this faulty foundation our faith can take a very self-centered turn that was never intended. If the focus of the gospel is all about us getting joy and peace and salvation rather than about a great God giving us those things, than our life of faith becomes all about what we can get from God. The Christian experience becomes all about personal needs and desires. Following Jesus becomes nothing more than a means of getting what I can from God, from faith, and from the church.

This type of self-centered faith is why there are so many professing Christians who seem to live like nothing more than moral unsaved people. You know the ones I’m talking about – the “Christian” who might cuss more mildly, drink a little less, and go to church several times a month. But when it comes right down to it, these professing Christians are just living for themselves and have found a way to add God into their life on their terms. They want the blessings of being a Christian without any of the personal sacrifice or inconvenience.

The Heart of the Gospel: Sacrificial Love

I am not denying the tremendous blessings that come as a result of salvation. I am simply saying that the American church tends to overemphasize the getting to the neglect of the giving. You see, at the very center of the gospel story is God Himself giving up His place at the right hand of the Father. God gave up His high position in heaven to become human in order to redeem us. The very heart of the gospel is that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” The heart of the gospel is sacrificial love!

As we build upon this foundation, we will certainly receive blessings, but we will also live a life intentionally focused on imitating the kind of sacrificial love we see in Jesus. My faith becomes about responding in worship to a God to whom I am eternally grateful. My Christian experience becomes all about opportunities to sacrifice my wants and desires for the sake of serving Jesus through service to others.

A Practical Impact

This change of perspective will have tremendous practical impact on one’s daily life. You will be less offended when your rights are violated. You will be less hesitant to help someone in need. You will be more willing to go out of your way to serve someone. You will certainly be less concerned about getting your way all the time.

There will also be an impact on your attitude and behavior toward the local church. You will view church as an opportunity to use your gifts for the blessing of others. You will be more willing to sacrifice your preferences, like music, and decorations, and preaching styles. You will be less determined to make everyone cater to your comfort and desires. In short, you will desire to serve in the church rather than simply be served by the church.

Life as God Intended

I am not proposing that we do not receive blessings from God and I am certainly not saying that we shouldn’t enjoy them. They are a real and special and important part of what God has done for us. However, just like presents at Christmas, we cannot let these benefits and blessings become our primary focus. They are not the whole story. My prayer and desire for every true Christ-follower is that while enjoying the blessings of faith, you will live a life in passionate pursuit of the God of the blessings rather than the blessings themselves. That is living the way God intended; that is living in the manner that Christ lived. I challenge you to examine your own heart. Are you a Christ-follower or a blessing-follower? Prayerfully consider the answer and remember, it isn’t too late to make the change today!

Some Reasons to Go to Church on Christmas

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Browsing the internet today, I was reminded of one of the more shocking and ironic practices in the Christian world. No, I’m not talking about some obscure ritual like snake handling or drinking poison. And I’m not talking about some strange, random practice by some small and insignificant group of nut jobs. I’m talking about the increasingly mainstream practice in some of the largest and most prominent evangelical churches in the country of canceling church on Christmas Sunday. For a variety of reasons I think this is ridiculous. I mean, seriously?! It’s Christmas. The day we celebrate Jesus’ birthday. And we think it’s a good idea to not go worship on that day? That baffles me.

Now, I feel that I must stop and acknowledge that many of these churches are wonderful, gospel preaching churches that love God and His people and want to do what is right. I am also aware that missing one Sunday of church is in all likelihood not going to send a church careening headlong into apostasy. I am not even saying that this decision is necessarily wrong and I have no desire to condemn the churches that are canceling their services this Christmas. I am simply saying that I don’t understand the reasoning behind it. In light of that fact, I want to offer some reasons why I think going to church on Christmas Sunday is a wonderful idea.

  • Going to church on Christmas Sunday is a great way to celebrate our Savior’s birth. Not to be too obvious, but it is Christmas. And Sunday. Seems like a good day for some church.
  • Going to church on Christmas Sunday affirms the belief that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Not that we cannot make Christ the center of Christmas from home, but it seems appropriate to set aside a little time to go to church if it’s really all about Him.
  • Going to church on Christmas Sunday is a testimony to what is most important to you. Like it or not, your actions do speak louder than words. By going to church, your actions loudly declare that church, worship, God’s Word, and other believers are important to you. More important than, say, presents or sleeping in.
  • Going to church on Christmas Sunday can be an act of sacrificial love toward God. There are things that are inconvenient about a Sunday Christmas, but we can sacrifice our conveniences out of love for God and appreciation for all He gave up for us.
  • Going to church on Christmas demonstrates a genuine understanding that church is about worship and not personal gratification. It really is all about Him, not me.
  • Going to church on Christmas is a proclamation that Christmas is not just a cultural celebration. It is a religious observance that commemorates the coming of a Savior, the forgiveness of sins, and redemption for all mankind.
  • Going to church on Christmas acknowledges the importance of the faith community in our individual lives. Though many churches cancel services to provide for family time at home, going to church affirms that our church family is equally important.
  • Going to church on Christmas can be an opportunity to serve. Many people will go to church on Sunday, some for the first time. When you show up ready and willing to serve, you can have an impact in their lives.
  • Going to church on Christmas can create a great foundation upon which to build the rest of your Holiday festivities. You don’t have to give up family time, special dinners, presents, or other traditions to go to church. You can go first and then enjoy a special day of celebrating that is truly focused on Jesus.

I know that we all celebrate in different ways, but I hope that you will consider joining many of us who will be at church Christmas morning. I personally can’t think of a more appropriate way to start the day than gathering in the name of Jesus with a group of his followers to praise Him on His special day. Merry Christmas!