Blog Archives

Through the Church

“To me, the least significant of all the saints, this grace was given to declare to the nations the incomprehensible riches of Christ and to give light for all of the plan of the mystery hidden from the ages in God who created all things, in order that the manifold wisdom of God through the church may now also be made known to the authorities in heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord in whom the boldness and freedom to enter with confidence through faith in him.”

(Ephesians 3:8-12)

How does God make his mystery known to the world? Paul states very clearly that it is “through the church.” How that statement needs to be heard today and echo through the ears and hearts of every believer. Because of the errors the church has made, many have abandoned the church and sought to find their spirituality elsewhere. Yet, that is not Christianity. People will say, “But I don’t need the church to be spiritual.” Indeed, that is true. You can be a new-ager and define your own spirituality outside of the church, but you cannot be a spiritually mature Christian outside of the church. The church is the body of which we are a part and it is the body that is established upon the testimony that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. 

Now mind you, church is not a building nor is it an institution as it is often understood today. Church comes from the word, ἐκκλησία (ekklasia), which refers to an assembled body or gathering of people. By the very definition of the word, it means that we are a people that must gather together. Now, whether we gather with one another in a larger group or in a smaller, house-church model is irrelevant. A gathering is taking place. The gathering, too, shares a common purpose — to be a pillar and buttress of the truth, to tear down the strongholds of hell in our midst, making every thought captive to obey Christ, and to worship. The church gathered is a holy convocation as is often mentioned in the Old Testament.

The challenge today is that too many congregations of people that call themselves Christian churches are not so. That may be a hard word for some to stomach, but it is very much true. Historically, there are three marks that identify the true church from the false church. The first is the “pure doctrine” of the Gospel is preached. If the word of God is watered-down, if it is only taught in part, or if the whole Council of God is ignored (or misapplied for one’s own purposes), then it is not pure. So, ask yourself when you listen to a sermon: “Is the pastor teaching us from the Word of God or is he just talking about his own ideas?”

The second mark of the true church is that the sacraments are administered as instituted by Christ. One must ask, what are the sacraments meant to do and how are they received? Are they seen as a mark of the Covenant of God with the congregation or just something that the congregation does? Books can be and are written on the nature of the Sacraments; the question here is whether they are practiced and understood in a manner faithful to the Scriptures or whether they are being conformed to the ideas and preferences of men.

The third such mark is that church discipline is practiced for the correction of sin. Here’s the rub in many cases. It is not just good enough that the pure doctrine be preached; it must be lived out by the believer. Church discipline is designed to train and encourage people to live out their faith faithfully. If sin is ignored in the life of the church and if some are given a “free pass” due to their money, influence, or family relations, then the church is not a true church. The confessions call upon us to flee such places and to seek out a true church.

The sad reality is that many churches function more like social clubs — an expensive one at that! Churches also tend to exist to meet their own needs rather than to build the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Even the worship of many of these churches is more driven by the whims of men than by the direct command of God. People think that things are open game, so long as they are not overtly sinning, but when it comes to worship, if we do not worship as God tells us to worship, are we not in open disobedience? And is not disobedience another way of talking about sin? God has told you, oh man, what he expects from you… Will you do it? The true church is God’s agent to share the mysteries of God with the world. 

Saturday Word Study: To Teach Systematically

Teaching in the Church: κατηχέω

It is never good to jump to conclusions, but after last weeks beginning word study on how the New Testament uses the idea of preaching, I think that it is fair to show my hand. In short, I think that the Scriptures tend to apply preaching more in the context of evangelizing the lost while teaching is reserved largely for the church. Don’t get too excited, we still have more words to explore in the Bible before any serious conclusions are drawn, but if my premise is correct, it shapes how the sermon ought to be structured depending on your context — for example, the difference between the street preaching I did at the homeless shelter in Jackson, MS and how I approach a congregation of confessing believers. It is something to think about at least.

Rather than start with διδάσκω (didasko), which is the ordinary Greek word for teaching, I thought it appropriate to begin with κατηχέω (catecheo), which is the word from which we get the modern word, “catechism.” Literally it means “to teach or instruct” but it also implies that instruction is given in a systematic manner. It is also found 7 times in the New Testament.

Luke 1:4 — Luke’s purpose in writing: “so that you may have certainty in the things you have systematically been taught.”

Acts 18:25 — Paul speaking about Apollos and how he had been “systematically instructed” in the way of the Lord.

Acts 21:21 — The accusation against Paul that he is “systematically instructing” the Jews to put aside their customs.

Romans 2:18 — Paul is focusing his accusation against the Jew who insists on teaching others but will not apply the Law of God to himself. Yet, here, an idea should be noted, as Paul connects the idea of systematically teaching the Law with knowing the will of God, an idea he will return to in Romans 12:2. It is just one more reminder that the Law should be systematically taught in the church, and as John writes, “lawlessness is sin” (1 John 3:4).

1 Corinthians 14:19 — Paul’s famous statement that in church he would rather speak five words with his mind than 10,000 in a tongue. Not only is this a devastating blow to pentecostalism, which glorifies what they call “tongues,” but it clearly teaches us that in the context of the church life, systematic teaching is essential.

Galatians 6:6 — Here is one of the spots in Scripture where we are reminded that those who are systematically taught the Word of God should bless those who teach then by sharing their resources (this verse uses κατηχέω twice). This is more clearly articulated in 1 Corinthians 9:13-14.

An Inference: To be able to “systematically instruct” means you need to have a body of information to teach — arguably, a body of information that is consistent with Scripture and approved by the church. We see this developing in Acts 15 and in 1 Timothy 3:16. Nevertheless, I would also hasten to add that it is upon this principle that Church Councils were formed and Canons were written to address issues in the church. It is also the principle from which Creeds and Confessions are drawn.

Aliens and Outsiders

“Thus, we are no longer aliens and outsiders but we are fellow citizens with the saints and the family of God,”

(Ephesians 2:19)

Anyone who has traveled abroad and finds themselves alone in a country or land where the culture and customs are very different from his own understands how disconcerting it can be. My first time traveling to Ukraine found me navigating my way through airports in languages that I did not know and amongst a people who were not overly friendly toward Americans that did not know their way. Even though I did not look that different than most of the people around me, the fact that I was an alien stood out like a red flag. It was awkward and uncomfortable and I am grateful for the little graces that allowed me to navigate successfully.

As Christians, that is how we should feel in this world. We are outsiders and have a custom that is not common in the land in which we live. What Paul is stating is that in Christ, we have been made fellow citizens and part of a family — that family and citizenry is expressed in the context of the church. And, as we reach out to one another, as we cling to one another for safety and sanity, we find ourselves making our way through this world toward our eternal home. 

What is sad is that oftentimes, the professing church has become at home in the world. They have adapted their ways and synchronized their habits in such a way that they don’t stand out quite so much. For instance, they may attend church in the morning but the whole day is not set apart for rest and worship. They may have mastered their tongue at home and amongst other Christians but not in the workplace. They may live in accordance to the Law of God when convenient, but when it is inconvenient, it is put to the side.

No, beloved, the world should not feel comfortable with us any more than we feel comfortable with the world. In fact, a sign that we are doing the right thing is that the world will hate us, not love us. A mark of Biblical fidelity is oftentimes persecution not only in the world, but also in the secular church. Yet, we rally together with the True Church as we make our way through this world, seeking to take dominion over it through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do this together, as fellow citizens and as part of the family of God (and note that all humans are not God’s children — that is a lie and it comes from the fires of hell — consult 1 John 3:4-10 for clarification on this notion).

Hourly Wages

At this stage in my life, I have pretty much worked under just about every form of remuneration that is out there. As with many, I began work collecting an hourly wage. As a manager for Domino’s Pizza, I was paid salary plus commission, where my salary was modest, but I was able to earn an additional commission based on the profitability of the store I operated. When I was a mechanic’s apprentice, I was paid by “flat-rate,” which meant every job was assigned to it an “hourly value” and thus, if I was efficient, I could be paid for 60 hours of work in a 40 hour week. Then again, I had to be present for those 40 hours whether there was work or not. When I installed carpet, I was paid piece-rate, which meant that I was paid for every square yard of carpet I installed, no matter how much time it took, and, when the work was done, I went home. Then, as a teacher and a pastor, I have been paid a salary. About the only way I have not been paid has been on straight-commission. 

The reality is that most of us don’t have a choice in how we get paid. If we want to go to work for so-in-so company, we will accept whatever arrangement of payment that they offer. At the same time, I must be forthright that the way I have most preferred to be paid has been via piece-rate. In this model, you get paid for what you produce, so there is a clear correlation between the paycheck and the work you have done. Also, if you happen to have extra expenses or financial needs, you can simply do more work (assuming that it is available) to earn the extra pay. It is the closest thing you will get to being self-employed…and in fact, for much of the time I spent being paid piece-rate, I was self-employed. 

My least favorite forms of payment have either been salary or hourly wages. The benefit, of course, with salary is that you always know what your paycheck will be — week in and week out — and thus, it is easy to budget. The drawback is that your time is never truly your own and you never really have the opportunity to make extra money by working more hours (unless you go to work for someone else!). It is assumed that busy weeks and slow weeks will balance themselves out and thus there is no “over-time” for busy weeks and there are no lean weeks.

My problem with hourly wages is that it causes me to watch the clock. I recognize that this is my own weakness, but I have known many who have shared similar experiences. Yes, you do get paid over-time for additional work done and thus there are avenues to make more money when you need it in the family budget (assuming there is work to justify it), but when it is slow, especially, my attention is regularly drawn to wondering, “what time is it?” or “how much longer before I can go home.” And, frankly, I don’t like thinking like that. We should thrive in the work we do and we should view it as a God-given task by which we are commissioned to build Christ’s Kingdom. And, it’s on this aspect of the hourly wage that I want to build my analogy.

It is my fear that too many Christians have become “clock-watchers,” just biding their time until Jesus comes again. If you have spent any time reading these missives, you know that one of my complaints about the “pop-theology” of our culture is that people have a defeatist attitude and assume that the only thing that will right the wrongs of this world is the return of Jesus and the best we can hope to do is to hold onto our faith and survive until that day. People are essentially “watching the clock,” waiting for Jesus’ return, so they can go home and be done the work that makes them miserable. 

Yet, Jesus says that we are to “engage in business until I come” (Luke 19:13). The King James, more famously, translates this phrase as “occupy until I come,” emphasizing the Dominion Mandate that is continued in the Great Commission. In fact, repeatedly in Jesus’ parables, the faithful servant is described as working to build the Kingdom while the lazy and wicked servant is simply biding his time. The thing is, we are not supposed to just watch the clock or bide our time; we are called to work, to do business, to take dominion of the world by making disciples of the nations. 

One of the devastating effects of the Evangelical sub-culture which has retreated from society is that the world is not being subdued and the strongholds of hell are growing rather than being torn down. Every thought is not being taken captive and the fools, who reject the knowledge of God, are rising to power. It is not our job to simply “survive with our faith in tact” until Jesus comes again to defeat his enemies, it is our job to destroy those strongholds with the weapons of our warfare (2 Corinthians 10:4-6). Do we not believe that we will be given victory in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57)? Do we not believe that our faith is the victory that has overcome the world (1 John 5:4)? Do we not believe that Jesus has disarmed the rulers and powers of this world so we may triumph over them in faith (Colossians 2:15)?

Where is the triumphant faith that turned the world upside down in the first centuries AD? Where is the bold and victorious faith that reshaped the mind and worship of Europe and then the world during the Reformation? Yes, it remains present in segments, but so much of the church has fallen into the trap of seeking an hourly wage and nothing more. Instead of living bold and triumphant, transforming the culture, too much of the church is subsistence-living, seeking entertainment that dulls the senses of one’s faith. How long will the Lord allow his church to sleep and what will he say to her when he stands in judgment and she returns but one “talent” of faith that she has kept hidden underground?

What Do I Look For in a Church?

That tends to be the question that we ask, isn’t it? This question drives the person who is “church shopping,” but it also drives the person who has chosen to remain in a church despite disagreements with the pastor or with the church’s leadership. Many surveys and polls that I have seen suggest that the main reason people stay in a church is because of friendships there. If such is the case, then that indicates what a person is looking for in a church — a place where friendships hold a person fast. The same could be said about family in the church or about having attended the church since childhood (or for generations) and the same could be said about influence — often people look for a church where their voice will be heard…and listened to.

Now, mind you, none of these things are necessarily bad to have in a church that you attend. It is a wonderful thing when children go to church with their parents and grandparents, when people have friendships in a church, or when they feel as if they have a voice in the life of the church. Indeed, these are all good things that makes being part of the church more pleasurable and meaningful. Yet, these are secondary reasons.

What is the primary thing that one ought to look for in a church? It is Biblical fidelity. Here’s the thing folks, if the life and practice of the church is not first and foremost aligned with the Word of God, of what will it avail you? If the life of the church is geared toward pleasing anyone other than God, then it will avail you nothing…in fact, it will lead you into a form of man-centered idolatry. Yes, you may have friends there. But being part of a church of friends will avail you nothing before the judgment seat of Christ. Yes, you may have family there, but family will avail you nothing before Christ’s judgment seat. And indeed, you may have the ear of the church leadership, but that will only mean you will be doubly accountable before Christ on judgment day.

Biblical fidelity is everything in the life of a church. It must do what is commanded by the Scriptures, it must believe what the Scriptures teach, it must love what God shows us he loves in the Scriptures, and it must hate that which God hates as is related in the Scriptures. And where there is disagreement and uncertainty as to how to apply a passage of Scripture to a new situation or setting, it must look back to the Creeds and Confessions of the church to understand how Biblically faithful people have understood and practiced the principles through the ages. 

Seeking a Biblically faithful church may force you to leave behind friends. But you can still remain friendly outside of church. Seeking a Biblically faithful church may cause you to leave behind family, but family will remain family outside of church. Seeking a Biblically faithful church may mean that the leadership does not give you the ear that you are used to, but if they are being Biblically faithful, that suggests that the ideas you are trying to bring to the table ought not be brought. And so it places us in the position that we need to conform to the faithful practice of the Scriptures, not try and draw a Biblically faithful church away from their Scriptural moorings. In reality, leaving behind a church of family and friends for a Biblically faithful church costs you nothing — maybe it will cost a little bit of pride — but it will cost you nothing in the eternal sense and gain you everything.

Does that mean you can’t go to heaven unless you attend a Biblically faithful church? Not really. I expect that many will be in glory in spite of the errors and man-centered ways that their churches have embraced. In fact, I relish the notion that such will be the case as none of us get things completely right. But the question shouldn’t be, “will I go to heaven if I stay in this church?” The question should be, “will my spiritual life thrive in this church?” And, if you are not in a Biblically faithful church, your spiritual life will not thrive as it could. And isn’t a thriving spiritual life what we all should most desire as we live out our faith in this world? Something to think about…

Rights and Privileges

In America, it is not an uncommon thing to hear discussions about rights and privileges. As a young man, I remember my father instructing me that I ought always to honor those who have sacrificed to protect the rights I had because even those rights that we believe to be unalienable can be lost if wicked people come into power. I also remember him instructing me that it was my duty to live in such a way so as to not squander the privileges that those rights afforded me — and further to never confuse the two.

In America, we go as far as to distinguish between those rights that are moral and those which are legal. Moral rights are considered “unalienable” as they cannot be lost, sacrificed, or even willfully forsaken except in certain extreme cases. This is famously summarized in the Declaration of Independence which states that we have been endowed by our creator with the right “to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” All of this is founded in the principle that we are made in God’s image and such rights properly belong to image bearers. Legal rights are fleshed out what we call our “Bill of Rights” found in the first ten amendments to the Constitution — principles like freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, freedom to worship as we so choose, freedom to own and bear arms, the right to a speedy trial made up of a jury of our peers, etc…

Privileges, then, are those things that flow out of our rights. I have the privilege of driving an automobile as it enables me to pursue and exercise my rights. Yet, privileges can be lost if we abuse said things. And examples of said privileges (as well as rights) can fill pages and books, and that is not my purpose here.

My purpose is to challenge you to think of rights and privileges outside of the American Constitutional and legal context. That is important, but most of us are well versed in these matters. Some of you reading this may be better versed in them than me. What concerns me is that while most Americans are quick to talk about their rights as citizens of America, they are want to talk about their rights as citizens of heaven in the church. In fact, what should be said is that most professing Christians are completely oblivious to their rights and privileges as citizens of heaven as if said rights had no bearing on the way they live their lives. 

What are said rights and privileges? The most fundamental right that citizens of Heaven have is that of access to the church. Just as an American citizen has the right to flee to an American embassy when he is traveling through a foreign land, so too does the Christian have the right to flee to the church in this foreign lands where we live and travel. How people take access to the church for granted. How people treat the church as a social organization rather than as the living and breathing assembly of the people of God. How people see church as a comfortable and welcoming place that demands nothing rather than as the schoolroom of Christ which instructs us how to live. And how rarely, when people travel, do they seek out a Biblical church to which they can flee for worship on Sunday mornings — let alone, on Sunday evenings. Membership may be a privilege granted to those willfully covenanting together, but access to the church is our right.

Yet, let us not stop there. For as Christians, we also have the right to be instructed in the things of God by the church. Indeed, this does not mean that we do not have the responsibility to read and study on our own, but what a remarkable gift it is that God has given us a place wherein we can be taught the Word of God and how to think rightly about it. I fear that instruction in our land has been so undervalued that many Christians would not recognize it if they actually experienced it — they would simply see it as teaching that was over their heads and too high to understand. What is worse, as many no longer value such instruction, even many seminaries downplay its importance. Why train men to teach the deep truths of God’s Word if their future congregations are more interested in practical advice from the pulpit and services that entertain rather than instruct?

Yet, instruction is our God-given right and we ought to demand it. Can you imagine what it would look like if people took to the street and rioted because the church was not instructing them in the Word of God well enough? Can you imagine what it would look like if there was a group like the National Rifle Association that was dedicated to the defense of the right of Biblical and Theological instruction? Can you imagine the character of our community if every church was a seminary unto itself and every member was actively committed as a student in the classroom of Christ? 

And, note well, Christian instruction must not be limited to children and those preparing for confirmation into church membership. It is a fundamental right that the Christian has. You don’t lose unalienable rights once you get to a certain age and you do not cease to pursue and protect those rights when you get to a certain level in your life. No, as we grow older and more mature, those rights become more dear to us and the exercise thereof becomes more consequential. How it should be with citizens of Heaven as well. The more we learn, the more we should wish to learn more. The challenge for the preacher should not be to bring God’s word down to our level, but it should be to rise to a high enough level to satisfy our hunger to learn. In the days of the Reformation, instruction in the Bible and theology was available every day of the week; what a transformation it would bring to our communities if such instruction were still available, where people from the congregation would gather in the church at various times during the day to be instructed in the Word of God before they head off to their daily vocations.

Along with instruction comes church discipline. Many fear its practice because they only see church discipline as something that offends people out of the church. We ought to be offended by a church that does not or will not practice church discipline because that means there is no desire to grow and mature in the practice of Biblical godliness. While instruction is designed to teach our minds how to think right about the things of God, discipline teaches our hearts how to live right as people of God. One goes hand in hand with the other. If people in a church desire to live faithfully, they should desire the sagely counsel from the Word of God when they err in the practice of their faith. And, when a church witnesses utter unrepentant within its midst, it is a sign that such a person is most clearly not a part of the body and should be removed from the privileges of the church for the sake of the health of the body. People often charge that such behavior is malicious and “mean,” yet is it malicious and mean to have a tumor removed from your body when it is threatening the health of the whole?

Can you imagine what it would look like in our communities if professing Christians went to the church Elders with civil and family disputes rather than to the courts? That may sound strange to us in modern times, but this is how the Apostle Paul said that the church should function. Why trust a pagan to rule rightly in a lawsuit when you can go to one who understands the Word of God for justice? Of course, that presumes that the church leaders do understand the Word of God and are trained in doing so. Do you see how our apathy for Christian instruction has deleterious effects on all areas of our life? Do you see how our abandonment of our Christian right to be instructed by the church has secularized not just the community but the church itself? Do you see how this right protects the other rights you enjoy in your civil realm? 

Indeed, the moral rights guaranteed to Americans make no sense whatsoever unless you understand that you are made in the image of God — but folks, that part comes from Biblical and theological instruction. Do you see that as we move further and further away from such instruction in the church, society becomes more and more godless. And, as society departs into what the psalmist would categorize as the thinking of the fool, we forfeit both our moral and civil rights as Americans. As my father would say, we need to honor those who sacrificed to bring us such rights — and the one who sacrificed the most, of course, was Jesus the Son of God himself.

The Art of Dissection and High School Biology

If I ever had any aspirations of going into the field of medicine, High School Biology class dashed them to the wind. Now, mind you, I attended a little Public High School in rural Harford County, Maryland and so “state-of-the-art” was little more than a series of spelling words for us. Nevertheless, we had biology class and in biology class, we dissected dead animals.

Mind you, we didn’t get to dissect anything exotic. Our teacher was a fisherman by avocation and so most of what we dissected related to that hobby: worms, crawfish, small fish, etc… Needless to say, for a teenage boy having grown up in the Boy Scouts, dissecting critters like this was not a huge draw.

What made things worse was the fact that those were the days when pretty much every boy carried some sort of knife in his pocket to school, but the School Board did not trust us with scalpels to do the dissections. Instead, we were assigned this little, rounded scissors — kind of like what we had used for crafts back in Kindergarten — to dissect these animals. 

I don’t know what the School Board members were thinking (probably about liability), but if you are unsure as to the results we got, Kindergarten shears do not serve the budding biologist well in this task. I remember looking at all of the diagrams in our biology book, depicting what we were supposed to be seeing and all I remember ever seeing was mush. There is a rule of thumb principle in this — imprecise tools in the hands of a novice does not yield precision in any meaningful sense of the word. 

So, why the recollection about High School Biology? In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul gives us one of the great analogies of the church — that of the body of Christ. Not all are eyes or hands but both eyes and hands are needed. You know the language. Yet, often, when pastors and theologians handle this idea and apply it to the church, I think that they handle it much like we handled dissection with Kindergarten shears. They make a mess and the body of Christ ends up looking like all the same stuff: mush.

Let me offer an example. In many denominations, if someone is identified as having a call to serve on the missions field or perhaps to go and plant a new church for the denomination, they are sent out to start raising money. True, the benefit to that model is that by the time the man is in the field, he has developed a large network of churches and Christians to help pray for and support his work — though most often, those churches and Christians are not anywhere near the field in which the man is working. Furthermore, it makes the assumption that the calling to be an evangelist brings with it the gift of being a fund-raiser. And the two do not necessarily go hand in glove.

A better model would be to say that if the church identifies a man as having the calling to serve as an evangelist, the church should send him and let him commit fully to said work while assigning the task to others in the body (who have a gift for and love of fund-raising) the task of making sure the evangelist’s financial needs are met. Different parts of the body have different roles, tasks, and giftings so that the whole body can function effectively.

It is true that we are fed by one Spirit and that we have one head in Christ Jesus. And so, there are some things that the whole body shares in common — a circulatory system and a nervous system, for example. Thus, there are things that the whole body does together. We gather for public worship, we commit time to prayer, and we study our Bibles. But, when it comes to the good works that we are called to do, we are most effective doing those works for which God has designed us. Not everyone is called to teach, but we need teachers. Not everyone is called to labor in mercy ministry, but we need those who do. Not everyone is called to organize events, but if we are going to put on an event of sorts, we need people to organize them. Not everyone is called to raise funds for projects, but we need people who raise funds. Not everyone is called to be at every mid-week prayer meeting, but they are good and healthy for the body (think of them like a vitamin tablet!). And, when you assume that every believer should be involved in every area of the work of the church (as many do), then you are making mush of the body with those kindergarten shears once again — rather than seeing the beauty of God’s design in the elegant complexity of the body.

Here’s the trick though. Each part of the body needs to be committed to a common end and each part of the body needs to trust the other parts of the body to act and work in the way in which they were designed. Just as in the human body, parts do not act autonomously, so too, all is meant to work under the headship of Christ that is expressed through the teaching of the Word of God and is moderated by the oversight of the Elders. Yet, the hand can do best what the hand was made to do and the other parts likewise. 

And so, leadership in the body is not simply a matter of maintaining systems (your body can be physically healthy but your person can still remain utterly unproductive). Leadership is about equipping hands to be hands and eyes to be eyes and knees to be knees — and then letting those parts function at their full capacity (getting out of their way) so that the body as a whole can achieve its God-given mission of making disciples of the nations and being a buttress and pillar of the truth. 

Now, part of Paul’s analogy is the principle that when one part of the body is hurting or in need, then other parts compensate. I stand amazed, for example, at people who have learned to do with their feet what most of us commonly do with our hands, and vice versa. Having had a stroke several years back where my left hand no longer wanted to work right, I had to learn to compensate and then to retrain my brain to make my hand work like it was supposed to do. And thus, in the church, sometimes we step out of our normal areas to assist the whole body in its time of need, but that too, only happens when the body is committed to a common end. 

And so, we have a choice, as we look at the church, the body of Christ, we can lump all of the gifts together, dissecting the body with kindergarten shears (and ending up with a gooey mess) or you can expose the elegant diversity of God’s design for the church, celebrating the diverse gifts while knowing that all of those gifts came from one Spirit who calls us to serve to one end — the building of Christ’s kingdom. 

I Smell Hell!

It is said that the American evangelist, Peter Cartwright (1785-1872), would pronounce these words when he arrived in a new town to preach: “I smell Hell!” And, much like the other revivalists of his era, he would find a place to set up and he would preach to whomever would listen. And indeed, people would come to listen. That was the culture in America during what people sometimes refer to as the “Second Great Awakening” or what others would simply call the close of the “Great Awakening” in America. Dates and labels I will leave to other historians to catalogue.

What I find to be a sad testimony as to the nature of the culture is that the language of preaching has changed. If Cartwright were alive today, his message might sound more like Billy Graham’s, “God wants you to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior,” or even worse, like Joel Osteen’s, “God wants you to be happy and to have the desires of your heart!” Whatever the popular preachers and evangelists may sound like, it seems that wrath and hell, fire and brimstone, and repentance from sin has been all but forgotten — or is only mentioned in passing and not stressed. Indeed, people want a God who will love them just as they are, not a God that is angry with them as a result of their sin.

Yet, what people want and what the Bible teaches in this case are two different things — surprise, surprise. Yet, rather than be a steward of the oracles of God, the church has largely become a steward of modest worldly blessings and blind promises. G. Campbell Morgan used to say that it is the duty of the church to correct the spirit of the age rather than to follow it; sadly, too many congregations look around at dwindling numbers and opt to follow the spirit of the age, watering down the message of the Gospel until it is no Gospel at all, in the hopes of drawing more people in with a “more loving” message.

Folks, if someone defines “more loving” as being warm and fuzzy, tell them to go buy a nice sweater or a dog. A friendly Alaskan Malamute or an over-sized turtle-neck sweater from Alpaca wool will give you all of the warm, fuzzy loving that you need at a fraction of the cost and inconvenience of going to a popular church service or crusade meeting. But if that was truly love, then you wouldn’t need either God or the Bible.

Love is being told how to see the world accurately and in a way that is eternally truthful. Love is being made aware that there is a judgment coming one day and that unless we approach the Father through Jesus Christ the Son, we will be eternally condemned to righteous torment and wrath. Love is being told clearly that our works cannot make God happy with us and they amount to little more than dung in the eyes of a holy God. Love is telling a person that unless they repent of their sin and believe in Jesus Christ, nothing but sorrow will fill their lives, but if they do, even the greatest joys of earth cannot compare to the joy of heaven. Love is being honest and clear that if you were able to smell it, you would smell Hell on every American street corner and that most people have gotten so accustomed to it that they do not even notice.

Cartwright and I might disagree on a number of points of our theology and we also might disagree on our approaches to evangelism (he used a number of high-pressure tactics rather than trusting in the Holy Spirit for true conversion), but we are agreed on this starting point. Hell is in our midst and it is in the midst of our churches. The kind and culturally accommodating approach to evangelism has not done anyone any favors. Indeed, God will still call his own to himself despite their methodology, but ought not we seek to hold fast to the Gospel as presented in the Scriptures? Ought we not say that there is no way to the Father but through Jesus Christ the Son? Ought we not proclaim that unless you repent and believe in Jesus you will perish eternally? And ought we not trust the Holy Spirit to prepare soil in men and women so that they will bear the fruit of repentance in their lives? Ought our message not begin with vague promises or warmth and love, but instead be warnings to repent and believe? Like Cartwright, when I look at the world around me, “I smell Hell.”

The Nations as an Inheritance

“He declares the power of His works to His people;

He gives to them the nations as an inheritance.”

(Psalm 111:6)

I had the joy of bringing the word this past weekend to Ministerios Betesda, a Hispanic congregation in south Florida. This was our second time together for a conference and I was invited to speak of the topic of finding delight through the Study of the Bible as an essential part of the Christian life. As always, the grace and hospitality of these saints was a great blessing (not to mention their cooking!) and I pray that the seeds planted during my time with them will bear good fruit.

It never ceases to amaze me how God brings people together and how radically similar we are once we get beyond superficial matters like the color of one’s skin or the cultural “personalities” that differ from region to region. At this stage of my life, this country-boy from north-eastern Maryland has been privileged to minister to homeless men on the streets of Jackson, Mississippi, to easter-European pastors in Ukraine and in Russia, to pastors in Kenya, and now to Hispanic Christians in south Florida; plus I have worked to mentor pastors in Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, and India to name a few other places. My point is not to say, “look at me…” No, just the opposite. My point is to say, “Look at Jesus! And look at Christ’s Church!” 

Now, all border and immigration politics aside, what I find wonderful is the nature of Christ’s church. It exists beyond national boundaries and it exists beyond language boundaries. The church may look a little different and sound a little different based on where you are, but Christ is being glorified as men and women, redeemed from the power of sin and death, come together for worship. 

I remember the first time that God impressed this great truth upon me. I was in eastern Ukraine with a group of Russian-speaking Christians and we went to church. It was my first real trip out of the United States, so I was feeling pretty overwhelmed by the language barrier, but then, all of a sudden, I recognized the tune to the hymn these Christians were singing. Right there and then I was struck with the reality of the words of praise that these Christians were lifting up in a language not my own. America is not the salvation of the Church; Christ is — I truly understood that wonderful truth there and then.

The Bible talks a lot about this phrase “the inheritance of the nations” or “the nations as an inheritance.” Too often when we see these words, we think only in terms of land and territory and natural resources…yet this not of which the Bible is speaking. It is speaking of people who are being “shaken out” of the nations to fill the church. And, so, if you want to see God actively fulfilling this promise in Christ — spend some time doing cross-cultural ministry. 

My concern, at least pastorally, is how often people don’t look outside of their context. In the church where I was raised, I heard about missionaries but I never met one — money was just sent to the denomination and they dispersed it as they saw fit, sending missionaries as they saw fit. The idea of anything cross-culture was seen as a novelty and not emphasized. Also, I have known churches to get so focused on their own challenges and problems that they begin to act as if they are the only thing that matters. Yet, the church is far bigger than one regional location.

In addition, I have found that the bad teachings and heresies that we see here in our American context are often the same bad teachings and heresies that plague the church elsewhere. The “prosperity” and new-age movements abound and attack the church not just here but all over. The errors that come along with the hyper-pentecostalism of people like Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer are also leading many astray in other cultural contexts. The goal of church leadership is to build the church up to maturity to ensure that it is not swayed to-and-fro by the winds of human cunning and false doctrine. One thing we have in America — that our brothers and sisters elsewhere do not have — is an abundance of resources — not just money, but good theological literature. If we would strengthen Christ’s church we must not limit our work to our own cultural context — but extend the work to the whole of the Christian church so that men and women of every tribe and language would know the greatness of our God as is taught in our Bibles.

There’s Something Missing from Our Conversation on the Body

In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul makes an impassioned plea for the unity of the body…a unity that can only built up in love, when the body itself is functioning properly (Ephesians 4:16). Love in the body is indeed the “better way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) toward which we should strive. To make his point, Paul reminds us that a body has many parts…there are eyes and hands and ears, etc… Because the body needs all of the parts to be whole, unity is that which must be striven for. Amen. For most of us who have grown up in Christian circles or in churches, this is an idea that is pretty basic to our existence. No matter what our personal gifts and passions may be, we need the whole to live out the Great Commission in this world.

I fear, though, in a society that has become as specialized as ours has become, Paul’s analogy is often misapplied. In today’s world, it seems, that there are specialists in just about every field. Medicine, Law, and Mechanics are all examples of areas where people specialize in a narrow field. Certainly, there is a base of knowledge that all specialists share in common (I’ll come back to that idea), but there are Dermatologists, Hematologists, and Cardiologists; there those who specialize in Criminal Law, Civil Law, and Business Law; and people also specialize in Motorcycle Mechanics, Heavy Machinery Mechanics, and Auto Mechanics — many even specializing only one a particular make of automobiles.

Even in my former trade there were specialists (I installed carpet for 11 years before entering the ministry full-time). My specialty was Residential Flooring and in that, I did a lot of custom work (borders, inlays, etc…). For several months, just after arriving in seminary, I worked for a Commercial Flooring company, laying tile and glue-down floors. While I knew the basics, the guys who did that kind of flooring for a living could work circles around me. At the same time, most of them had never used a carpet kicker before…something that is a mainstay of residential work. We were specialists — we had areas in which we overlapped, but there were things in which we each did particularly well, and it is in those areas that we each tended to stay.

So, how does this apply to the church? Certainly, there are specializations in the church. To some, God has given the gift of administration, and we need those who can wisely manage the resources that God has entrusted to the church. To others, God has given the gift of helping, which extends well past the work of the Deacons to the whole church body, who cares enough to reach out and meet the needs of others (as I write this, we have a team of people traveling home from Houston, who spent the last week doing just that). To others, God gives the gift of teaching, something that is essential in the process of discipling Christians as they grow in faith. Still, to others, God has given a heart for evangelism, and these members are wired by God to look for people with whom they can share the Gospel. All of these are specializations — we share a common basic set of skills (every Christian ought to be able to share the Gospel, but some are that much more zealous for it, etc…). And again, Paul’s analogy carries, we all are not gifted in the same way and so we need one another.

At the same time, there are things in the life of the body that keep the whole body healthy. For example, as I am closing in on 50, my family doctor has insisted that I start taking vitamins and be more intentional about daily exercise. And so, I take my “One-a-Day” and I ride my stationary bike 5 miles (or walk a mile) pretty much every day (pretty much, life gets busy). These actions do not just benefit my stomach or my heart, they benefit every part of my body, helping it to be more healthy overall. Further, I pray and spend time reading and reflecting on God’s Word, every day. This again, benefits my whole being.

Likewise, in the life of the Church, there are things that we do that benefit the whole body — they act like vitamins for our soul. Spending time reading and reflecting on the Bible is not an activity that belongs just to the specialist, every part of the body must engage in this to keep the body well. Some often say that they are not good at prayer. Of course, if you can talk or think, you can pray and it again is an essential part of the Christian life, something not reserved for a specialist. Sometimes people say that they don’t really need Sunday School, but being discipled is again something that is to be a part of every Christian’s life and without a commitment to discipleship (personal and corporate), the body will not be healthy. They are exercises and vitamins for our overall health. True, my ears may not directly benefit from time on a stationary bike, but that time strengthens my heart which circulates blood all over my body, which in turn not only helps the blood flow to the ears, but it improves the health of the body to which my ears are attached. And so, they benefit indirectly, but they benefit nonetheless.

Sometimes Christians think that they don’t need corporate worship. Here, the analogy changes a little bit because our worship is not so much something we do to strengthen our body (though our body is strengthened as a by-product), it is our service to God. Our worship is our drawing near to our Almighty God and Savior according to His Word and giving him the praise and honor for who he is and for what he has done. This is a big part of what the church was created to do.

So, to say that you don’t need to worship as part of the church body is really to say that you are not part of the body at all. You exist, perhaps, in connection with the body for your own reasons, but that is to be like a parasite, not a functioning organ. Jesus speaks of this as well when he describes the church growing like a large tree from a small seed (see Mark 4:30-32). Once the tree (the Kingdom/Church) has grown and developed branches and leaves, the birds of the air (which often represent the unbelieving nations), make their nests in the midst of the tree. The birds benefit from the tree’s presence, but are not part of the tree and are not fed by the root of the tree. And, they will only nest in the branches of the tree for a season. Worship — being fed by the tap-root of the Spirit — drawing near according to the Word — is what distinguishes the tree from the bird in its nest.

Thus, in things like worship, the study of God’s word, and prayer, it is not a matter of specializing. It is a matter of being and being healthy. What is the goal of this healthy living? It is being united and built up in love. How is this love achieved? It is achieved through the growing mature in our doctrine so that we are not blown to and fro by the winds of human cunning and deceit (see Ephesians 4:13-16). This cannot happen apart from the whole body attending to the Word of God. Yes, we specialize, but we are also a part of a whole. To understand Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 12, you need to preserve this balance…how often, though, we miss the second while over-emphasizing the first.

The Fortified Palaces

“In her fortified palaces, God is made known to be a place of refuge.”

(Psalm 48:4 [verse 3 in English])

This the city of God…the palace that has been fortified and protected and situated on Zion, she is a place of refuge. While this was meant to be true in the most literal sense of the word — Jerusalem was walled in and protected — it is also clear from the context of this psalm that the sons of Korah have something even greater in mind. God himself is the ultimate place of refuge from those who will seek to destroy us, for indeed, “the sons of Korah did not die” (Numbers 26:11).

We have often reflected on the tendency of the believer to seek to find refuge in human works rather than in trusting God for refuge, but I wonder whether or not part of the problem is that the pattern of life and faith exhibited by the church as an institution in today’s era lends it to communicating that great truth. Allow me to explain. Jerusalem was a shadow of the greater Jerusalem that is to come just as the throne of God over the mercy seat was a shadow of the throne room in heaven. Similarly, Jerusalem was walled in — was referred to as the most fortified city in the Roman empire, though, again, these human walls were only meant to symbolize the greater truth that it was to God that we can run to find refuge.

Our churches, then, as shadows again of the worship in heaven and of the refuge of God’s presence (there is a reason we refer to the heart of the church as a “sanctuary”), what do they communicate? Do they communicate that God is a place of refuge or otherwise? And here I am not so much talking about the walls or the tower, etc…I am talking about the people. Is church a place to which people can fly when the winds of this life buffet them to and fro? Or, is your church a place where people need to hide their hurts lest someone seek to bring further injury. Sadly, I think that churches are often more the latter than the former…yet when that takes place, what are we communicating about the character of God? About his city? About his worship?

Loved ones, this is a principle that we must take very seriously, for what we do in this life and how we worship reflects what we truly believe about the character of God. If we believe that God truly forgives, then we must forgive. If we believe that God is a place of refuge, then our gatherings and gathering places also need to be places where people can find refuge from the ravages of this world. If we believe that God is love, then we must express that love to one another. And if we say that God is one way yet do not live it out, then we become hypocrites and our testimony will be rejected in our community and in this world.

Food for the Soul and Guidance for Your Life

“Having said this, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write this to you is not something from which I shrink, on the other hand, for you it is firm ground.”

(Philippians 3:1)

This verse is a little bit idiomatic, but should not be too hard to sort through. It begins with the phrase to\ loipo/n (to loipon), which literally means: “the rest.” In other words, Paul is changing gears here with this statement. We are not just at the middle of the book, per say, but it is as if he is saying, “okay, I am done talking about the sickness that Epaphroditus has suffered…it was mentioned because it needed to be mentioned, but now I am getting back to the real reason that I am writing to you, and that is to offer counsel to your souls.” That, at least is the notion that is being conveyed.

So, having said all of this about his sorrows, Paul turns to words of counsel and begins with the statement, “Rejoice in the Lord!” But, Paul, what about all of the sickness and suffering of you in prison and Epaphroditus on the sickbed? Paul is saying to us that while those things are earthly realities, our God is not earth-bound and there is glory waiting for those who are faithful to the end. So, why our long faces? Rejoice!

In light of this…something that Paul will soon repeat…what I am going to say may very well frustrate some of my Reformed brethren…but they will get over it. Sometimes Christians hear and even affirm this language that we are to rejoice in the Lord, but we hardly communicate that when we gather to worship. We often find ourselves gathering with long faces and somber attitudes, like one would expect at a funeral, not like one would expect at a celebration of the Resurrection (which is every Sunday, by the way!). Even people’s attitudes before they arrive have not been helpful to their demeanor…how many times have we heard, “Do I really have to go to church today?” As if it is a chore!

Folks, don’t misunderstand me…I am not talking about dancing in the aisles or charismatic kinds of things. I am simply saying that when we gather to worship, everything from our thoughts to our actions ought to communicate what a wonderful salvation that we enjoy in Jesus Christ our Lord. Our obedience to God ought to reflect the joy it is to serve the Lord we serve. And when visitors join our midst and see everything done in good order, they should not see that order as a bored routine, but as a glorious way to guide and train our affections toward an attitude of worship…genuine worship in Spirit and in Truth. We should look forward to Sunday worship for indeed, it is meant to be a taste of heaven…or at least practice for heaven. Yet, in how many churches was Mark Twain correct in saying, “They talk about heaven where they will worship God eternally but they dread doing so for an hour a week here on earth” (Letters From The Earth)? So, brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord, and again I say, rejoice! But I get ahead of myself.

Finally, Paul begins a transition back to practical points of spiritual counsel. Again, the phraseology is a bit awkward in English, but what it seems to be that Paul is saying is that counsel is something from which he does not shrink. Sometimes it can feel awkward to say, “You need to do this or that,” but Paul recognizes not only that offering such counsel is his calling (so he does so) but that it is also good for the people of Philippi to receive this counsel.

How often professing Christians are faced with such counsel in scripture and act as if it were optional for them. “I can do this or that,” they think, but then they ignore the other things. Yet, Paul is making it clear that this counsel is a solid foundation on which to base their lives. And if it is good for the church in Philippi, it is good for our churches today. Take heed, beloved, to the words of the Apostle (as well as to the words of all the Scripture!) for they are food for your soul and guidance for your life.

Genuine Fellowship

“Thus, I therefore hope to send him at once after I determine what will happen to me and I trust in the Lord that I too will come shortly.”

(Philippians 2:23-24)

What we don’t know for sure is whether or not Paul ever made it back to Philippi. Some scholars argue that he was released from his chains and given freedom to travel again and later arrested and executed (some even argue that Paul made it to Spain during this time). Others argue that this is later in Paul’s life and that he would remain in chains until the day that he was put to death. We simply do not know for sure.

What we do know is of Paul’s longing for fellowship with these believers. And how important that fellowship is. God has not created us to stand alone as Christians; he has created us to stand and be in fellowship with other like-minded believers. And how often we rob ourselves of those blessings.

Yet, Christian fellowship is not just a matter of mutual encouragement and instruction in God’s word; Christian fellowship is meant, in a small sense, to turn back the effects of the Fall. The Fall brought separation and social strata and isolation. Yet in the church there is no black or white, no rich or poor, no weak or powerful; we are brothers and sisters in Christ. In the church one need not struggle with sin alone, but one has other brothers and sisters who will walk alongside you during times of trial. And, when Truth must be upheld and battled for in the culture and community, one does so not as a single person against the world, but as part of a larger body that will battle alongside of you for what is true and right.

With this in mind, several trends in church life have come to grieve me a great deal. The first is a lack of transparency and genuineness amongst the larger body. The second is the trend of people to “church hop,” bouncing from church to church because one person’s preaching is more interesting (or less offensive!) or because one is frustrated with a decision made by the church leadership. And the third is the tendency of people to “pick and choose” what parts of scripture they wish to submit to. People often say, “yea and amen” to a given text, but often do not apply it to their lives and get mad at the church leadership for holding them accountable to the scriptures and to church membership vows. When these things happen, fellowship and what fellowship is meant to point to is undermined.

Like Paul, may we long to nurture a sense of anticipation of the fellowship we have with one another in the body of Christ. May we look to Sunday mornings with anticipation, for here the whole body gathers to worship our great and glorious King, Jesus. And may we yearn for this fellowship to be sincere, striving to live it out in our own practice.

Mentoring, Paul’s Way

“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon in order that I may be encouraged by the knowledge of you.”

(Philippians 2:19)

On one level, this is a continuation of the spirit that Paul has been expressing toward the people in Philippi. He holds them in high esteem and with great affection, so surely firsthand news of how they are going, brought to him through Timothy, will encourage his heart while he is in prison. How one mark of the believer is that he (or she) has a sincere desire to know how the church is doing, and a desire to rejoice with the saints (if even from a distance) with their successes. How sad it is when there is either no interest or, the interest is more of a competitive nature where one takes some degree of satisfaction in the struggles of another congregation.

On another level, we might also speak of the language that Paul uses when he speaks of how he hopes to send Timothy to them. He does not speak generically of hope, but places his hope in the Lord Jesus. This echoes James’ language when he speaks of doing this or that, “Lord willing” (James 4:13-15), remembering that God is sovereign not over our salvation, but over all of the occasions of our lives and over the opportunities that we may or may not receive. He numbers our days and we cannot move either to the right or to the left without God’s sovereign permission in our lives.

Yet, I do believe that the most significant notion in these words is that of Timothy’s role as a surrogate visitor for Paul to Philippi. We have already seen that Timothy has been mentioned as being present with Paul while he is here in prison and most of us know of the close relationship that these two men had as mentor and student. Even so, Paul is willing to send Timothy to the church, depriving himself of the comfort of Timothy’s presence, so that news might be brought from the church in Philippi.

Remember, these were times when news (and people) did not travel as fast as it does today. A departure by Timothy would not be a short event but likely would have lasted even for months (depending on the seasons and storms brewing). Yet, Paul was willing to make such a sacrifice for said knowledge. But more than that, for Timothy was essentially the one into whose hands Paul’s ministry would fall. Here Paul is preparing to send Timothy out to this church to minister to them on his behalf, essentially placing this responsibility on Timothy’s shoulders.

And that is the heart of mentoring. How often as leaders, employees, coaches, and even as parents we want to micromanage the lives of those we are leading or mentoring along so that everything goes smoothly and that they don’t make the mistakes that we made as we learned. Now, while I agree that I do not wish for my children (for example) to make many of the mistakes that I made when younger, we must always recognize often we learn more through our mistakes than we learn through our successes. Many of the mistakes we made getting to where we are now are mistakes that, in God’s providence, have guided us to where we are now. Certainly, there are mistakes that no one should make and only by the grace of God were we brought through them — these we should guide others away from — but other mistakes, when made, do not need to be the end of all things, but can be turned into a learning experience from which maturity can develop. Paul does not micromanage Timothy; similarly, we should not micromanage those whom we mentor.

Feeding One Another

“Considering not only your own things but also the things of each other.”

(Philippians 2:4)

Clearly, this statement goes hand in hand with the words that have come before it…that of considering others as more significant than yourself. We have become very much a “me first” generation. We focus on taking care of our own needs first then the needs of our families. Then, after we take care of our own needs, we look to the community and to the church with whatever happens to be left over. Such is not the definition of sacrifice; it is the definition of selfishness. Abel offered to God that which was best while Cain offered to God that which was left over…which did God accept? Whose offering does our offering look more like? Cain’s?

Paul gives us the definition for a humble Christian lifestyle right here in these few words: count not only your own needs as important, but also look to meeting the needs of your neighbor…particularly those neighbors who happen to be born-again believers. If we, as a church, want to be seen once again as a vital member of our community, then this is how it will take place…we will serve the needs of others and not just needs that we perceive we have for ourselves.

Loved ones, God has a habit of using a life that is not interested in his or her own glory, but gives all of the glory to God. One of the ways we learn to have that mindset is by counting the needs of others as more significant than our own. Truly, that does not come easily to us; our sin nature resists it; but it is that for which we should strive. And like the verse above, when I meet with people in counseling situations (especially marital counseling situations) 9 times out of 10, the source of the problem is selfishness. Each party wants needs met before they will be willing to meet the needs of their spouse. Until we adopt the mindset that we are interested in our spouse’s needs (regardless of whether she meets ours) and we trust in God to meet all of our needs through prayer, then we will be stuck in frustration. Joy comes when we care for each other.

A story is told of a man getting a tour of heaven and hell. In Hell he found that people were all skinny and emaciated and then he saw why…they all had arms that were fused straight (no bending at the wrist or elbow). They could not feed themselves. Then the man went to heaven and found that people’s arms were fused straight as well, yet people were well fed and content. Then he saw why: everyone fed one another, not themselves. That is a picture of what Paul is speaking of here but I would put forward another thought — not only ought we expect the body of Christ  to feed each other (not themselves) in heaven, should we not expect that on earth as well? If we don’t strive for this, we rob ourselves of true blessedness.

My Fear…

“For God is my witness how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.”

(Philippians 1:8)

What a beautiful line this is as he expresses his desire to be with the Philippian believers. His desire is to be with them and the desire is great. This is more than a man simply being homesick while he sits in chains, wishing to be out of bondage. Were this simply an expression of Paul’s homesickness, we could write this statement off, but such would not be consistent with the character of the Apostle Paul who has discovered (as he will later write) that he has discovered how to be content in all things. Here is a man with a genuine affection for the church of Jesus Christ.

As we reflect on the nature of Paul’s affection for the church, it ought to cause us to ask whether we share the same affection for Christ’s church in our midst. Do we love the people of Christ’s church in the same manner or with the same intensity as Jesus loves them? Would we gladly be willing to suffer for the church? Would we gladly be willing to die for the church? If not, are we ready to repent? For is this not the model to which we are called? And if we are not able to love other believers, with whom we will spend eternity and with whom we are counted as one body, then how will we show the love of Christ toward unbelievers?

Loved ones, my fear is that the church has fallen into the trap of living with a wester-self-centered mindset. My fear is that the church has fallen into the trap of living for itself rather than sacrificing itself for others. My fear is that the church would not be able to say with the Apostle Paul, “how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.” And if my fears are true, what of our witness to a watching world? May the world look upon us as a people that seek to serve Christ and not ourselves nor our institutions. And as the world looks at us, and sees the love of Christ in us for one another, may the world desire to partake of that which God has done in us.

A Military Model

“I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always and every prayer of mine for all of you, making prayer with gladness because of your fellowship in the Gospel from the first day until now.”

(Philippians 1:3-5)

In the military, there is something that they refer to as a “Tooth-to-Tail Ratio (T3R).” This is a measurement of the ratio between combat troops who are fighting on the front lines and the support personnel. While this ratio has varied between different wars and at different points in history, the idea that if someone is going to be on the front lines that they need people who can support them, is a practical one that dates even back to Roman times.

As Christians in the west, we often struggle to think of the church according to military terms. Things seem to be at peace and we have relative freedom to worship in the way we wish. At the same time, our real enemy is not flesh and blood. Our enemy is found in the spiritual forces of evil that are at work in this world and if we are going to tell ourselves that such forces are not at work in the west, we are deceiving ourselves and hiding our heads from reality. Indeed, those forces may be more visible in the oppression that Christians face elsewhere, but Satan is indeed at work in our lives, tempting us with sin and placing stumbling blocks in our midst while at the same time, twisting and warping the culture in such a way that people around us celebrate death and Satan rather than celebrating life and God. Whether we like it or not, the church is a church at war.

And since we are at war, it is useful to remember once again that soldiers on the front lines need teams to support them. How then does this apply? First of all, in many cases our missionaries are on the front lines…and not just our missionaries on other continents, but local missionaries in our communities that focus on reaching the poor, addicts, or perhaps a hard-to-reach group of people. Yet, let’s not stop there. The primary task of church leadership is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. That means the saints (all the saints) are given a job to do. Those who are still at work or in the community are again on the front lines in a sense and the job of the church leadership is to make sure that they have the tools they need to lead Bible Studies or evangelize co-workers, family members, and people in the community. Many of our older members may not feel that they are engaged on the front lines any longer (though often a nursing home is a great field for evangelism!), but here they are given the wonderfully blessed task of committing time to prayer for specific believers and teams of people who are on the front lines as it were — not to mention for the wisdom and equipping work of the church leadership. Our children, who are being prepared for the front lines can also be taught to pray for those in the church as well. Done well, in a multi-generational church, this creates a huge pool of “support personnel” for those on the front lines.

As Paul is reflecting on the Philippians, he recognizes how significant their support has been to his ministry and that recognition causes him to celebrate and to thank God for the gift of those who have assisted him in ministry through their financial gifts, through their presence, and through their prayers. That said, I wonder how often, when we face trials on the front lines of spiritual battle, we recognize that we have a large group behind us, strengthening and supporting us with their prayers and sometimes even, with their resources. As a pastor, I am truly grateful not only for the commitment of my people to supporting my family so that I can focus my attention on equipping the body for ministry as a full-time vocation. Having been bi-vocational before and having many pastor-friends who are bi-vocational, this is a privilege I do not take for granted. In addition, I am thankful that the leadership of my congregation also recognizes that while my ministry begins on the hill here in New Sewickley Township, PA, it does not end on the hill here, but through technology, can extend to other places in the world through blogs, books, and other forms of communication. And indeed, I make my prayers with gladness for the support personnel that stand behind me in prayer and provision. Let us all not think of ourselves as lone-believers on the battlefield, but as members of a larger body — a network of believers brought together as a church to do a task: make disciples and tear down the powers of Satan in our world. We are a people at war, let us not forget that.

Budding Trees

“They are planted in the house of Yahweh;

In the courts of our God, they sprout.”

(Psalm 92:14 {verse 13 in English translations})

How often we find that we do not blossom in life because we do not plant ourselves in the right place. To plant yourself (keeping the analogy of the righteous being like a tree) in the house of Yahweh does not mean that we all need to be pastors of churches; it simply means that we must find our foundation in the Word of God — in a relationship with him — seeking to be in his presence as you do all you do in life, whether that be farming or banking or working in the services industries or being a pastor of a church. Everything we do must be rooted in God and in his word. When we seek to do that, indeed, that is when we will bud and sprout.

Remember, too, that there no longer is a physical temple to travel to; that temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and God has kept its foundations bare even to this day by placing an Islamic Mosque on its location. Why is this significant? First and foremost, because Jesus is the greater temple. His body is the temple of which he spoke when he said, “tear this down and in three days I will raise it up again” (John 2:21). Thus, in his resurrection, this temple is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth — as the creed would word it.

Even so, there are “lesser temples” in this world — the bodies of believers (1 Corinthians 6:19). For we are the Temples of the Holy Spirit, walking and talking and working our way through this world. It is the Holy Spirit in us that fulfills the role that the Old Testament Temple played (to be a sign of God’s presence to the world). Yet, indeed, how can we genuinely be Temples of the Holy Spirit if our roots are not sunk deep into the living water of God’s Word.

A challenge for those who are skeptical. Commit to immersing yourself in the Scriptures. Seek out scriptural counsel before you do anything you do — not just the big things but the little things as well — and discover whether or not you find wisdom there. I believe you will. I also believe that the more you sink your spiritual teeth into the scriptures, the hungrier you will become, for you (again the tree analogy) will sprout forth and will bear the Fruit of the Spirit.

A Man Under Authority

“And he said, ‘I am a servant of Abraham.’”

(Genesis 24:34)

“‘And I am also a man under authority having soldiers under myself. I say to this one, “Go,” and he goes and to another one, “Come,” and he comes. And to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’ And Jesus hearing this marveled and said to the ones following him, ‘Amen! I tell you that you will find no one with such a great faith in Israel.’”

(Matthew 8:9-10)

Rightfully, Eliezer begins by explaining that he is a servant, an emissary of sorts, sent by Abraham to meet with Nahor’s family. From the very start of this conversation, he makes it clear that he is not acting on his own authority, but under the authority of his master. All that he says from this stage out is said out of the context of that relationship — he is servant, Abraham is master. And a servant takes no liberties with the responsibilities that his master has given him.

Jesus, too, encountered such a man who understood the role of those under authority. A Roman Centurion sought to have a household servant healed but when Jesus offered to come to his home and do just that, the Centurion refused, stating that he was unworthy to have Jesus enter his home but that instead, if Jesus would speak the word, he knew his servant would be healed from afar.

The Centurion grounded his faith on the principle of submission. Because Jesus was God, the things in the world, by definition, had to be in submission to him. Jesus spoke and the storms were calmed. Jesus willed it and fish filled the nets of fishermen. Jesus blessed the fish and the loaves and they miraculously fed 5,000 men plus their families who were with them. Jesus cast out demons and healed diseases — he even raised the dead! Surely proximity means nothing to the God who can work all of these things. Surely the world was in submission to Jesus the God-Man. This, the Roman Centurion understood. The Centurion also understood that the reason he himself had authority over others (his servants and soldiers) was because he too was under the authority of one greater than he (Caesar) who had commissioned and sent him. Similarly, Jesus was under the authority of God the Father who sent him. This, Jesus commends over the faith of those around him in Israel.

Submission is not a popular term in our world today; neither was it a popular term in the Israel of Jesus’ day. Sadly, all degrees of sin have come from our unwillingness to submit to the authority and rule of God. C.S. Lewis used to say that one of the things that held him back from becoming a Christian was the realization that if there was really a God (as the Christians describe him) that God had the power to place expectation on Lewis’ life whether Lewis liked it or not. The fallen nature hates the idea that man is under the submission of a Holy God…yet we are.

Even in churches, we are used to people acting and speaking on the authority of men, not on the authority of God. Pastors often quote litanies of views by different commentators and theologians to make their point rather than standing on the authority of God. Church leadership meetings are often conducted along principles of pragmatism rather than Scripture. How often we find church business meetings that might begin or end with a few verses of scripture and prayer, but where 96% of the energy is spent debating on how money should be budgeted or spent? Is this faithful to 1 Corinthians 14:26? How often even pastors insist on their own agenda rather than speaking prophetically from the word of God (prophetically in the sense that the preacher’s role is to apply the Scriptures with directness of language and reason to the people in their own culture and era)?

While we like “doing our own thing,” as Christians we are called to be like the Centurion and the Servant of Abraham. We are called to be men and women acting in submission to God as he has revealed in His Word. It is then that we will begin to see God use us because it is only then that people will see God through our works and not us. One praises the master, not the tools in his hands; may we seek always to be sharp and ready for the master’s employment.

Destructions and Treachery

“Destructions are planned by your tongue;

As a sharpened razor, you work treachery.”

(Psalm 52:4 [verse 2 in English translations])

 

Normally, we are not used to seeing the word “destruction in the plural.” Destruction is more or less total and the idea of repeating a destruction over and over seems rather redundant. At the same time, as David writes these words, he is communicating a great and deep truth when dealing with wicked people: wickedness feeds on itself. The wicked do not simply find their satisfaction in tearing you down once, but repeatedly they delight in kicking you down as you try and stand up. The question does not so much lie in whether they will be there with a boot to kick you in the head, but whether you are going to continue trying to stand as they continue trying to beat you down. Jesus said:

If the world hates you, know that it hated me before you. If you were from the world, the world would love as one in the same. But because you are not from the world—rather I chose you from the world—for this, the world hates you. Remember the word which I spoke to you—a slave is not greater than his lord. If they drove me out, they will also drive you out. If they treasure my word, they will also treasure yours. 

(John 15:18-20)

To drive the word-picture home, David continues by speaking of the tongue’s work of planning destruction as being like a sharpened razor, slicing away all that it touches and being the tool of treachery. The word that we render as “treachery” comes from the Hebrew root hAm∂r (ramah), which means “to abandon” or “to betray.” Of course, the ultimate betrayal of all time is that of Judas betraying our Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time, how often the actions of the world are marked by betrayal when dealing with believers in Christ Jesus.

More importantly, the contrast between the world’s oppression and the faithfulness of God should be made. While the world seeks destruction and betrayal, God builds up his own and promises never to leave or abandon us. It is sad that so often when people desire to be nurtured and treasured they turn only to those places that will betray and destroy. Of course, it is also sad that often the Christian church follows the world’s lead and betrays its own rather than demonstrating the love and faithfulness of Christ even when such things are difficult. Jesus said that the world will know that we are his disciples on the basis of our love for one another (John 13:35) — when we choose not to live out that love in fellowship, what does it say about the quality of our witness?

The Church as Blessing in the Midst of a Pagan World

“And the Sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying, ‘Hear us, my lord, you are a prince of God in our midst; in the choice of our graves bury your dead. Not one of us will withhold his grave from you for the burial of your dead.”

(Genesis 23:5-6)

 

At the onset, the offer that is made sounds quite generous and Abraham’s insistence on purchasing the plot of land may seem a bit rude. Yet, as with other things in God’s design, there is a reason and a purpose behind Abraham’s refusal, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. It should be noted that some modern translations render “The Sons of Heth” as “The Hittites” in this passage. Simply that is a result of scholarly inquiry which has suggested that the nation we now refer to as the Hittites has their origin with this particular Canaanite tribe. Literally, their name means, “The Sons of Terror,” which is an appropriate name for any ancient pagan tribe, needless to say, it is with these that Abraham is now negotiating.

What we ought to take note of, though, is the attitude that these “Sons of Terror” have taken with Abraham. They refer to him as a “Prince of God” and generously offer to him any choice grave site that they have prepared and reserved for themselves. There is nothing left over to doubt that these pagans can see that God has given favor to Abraham and that they (even as pagans) have been blessed by Abraham’s presence.

Such an attitude in the life of unbelievers is a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3, that the nations of the world will find their blessing in the children of God. How far, it seems, that we have fallen from that mark. How rarely do the unbelieving neighbors of our churches speak of our presence in their community with thanksgiving. Biblically, our churches should be seen as a place of good blessing to all around us. How far so many of our churches have fallen. How easy it is to begin turning our focus on ourselves (building our programs, our membership, our buildings, and our resources) instead of being focused outwardly on the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. How often we fear taking a stand for the Truth for fear that people won’t like what it is that we have to say, where if we were to speak truth in love and grace we would instead be respected for holding with integrity to our views. When we compromise the gospel we also compromise the blessing we are to be to the non-believers in our midst.

Loved ones, may we live intentionally in such a way that the pagans in our midst would say, like the Sons of Heth, that we are “princes of God” and that they would sacrifice to preserve our presence in their midst. How differently our communities would look were we to live in such a way that it produced this response amongst unbelievers? How different the work of evangelism would look were this the case as well.

The Culture Wars

In Christian circles, we talk a lot about the culture wars and at least vaguely, I think, most people have some sense of what is meant by that. As we look around us, the western culture has grown more secular and less markedly “Christian” as a whole and the culture war is the crusade that many have engaged themselves in to turn back the cultural influence toward one that is more markedly Christian. And, as one who has spoken and written on the importance of Christians living out their faith in every aspect of life (both inside of the church and outside of the church), this cause is one toward which I am very sympathetic. Having said that, can we talk?

First of all, I am not entirely convinced that we are going about things the right way in terms of what we are trying to achieve. Is it the culture we are called by Jesus to redeem or is it the people we are called to evangelize? One might respond that both go hand in hand, and they do, but which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The group that would broadly be defined as leading the culture war would argue that as we see a change in the culture, we will see a change in the people. There is a certain degree of truth to this line of thinking as it would seem that most people will go with the flow and do what is acceptable to the culture.

When the “Blue Laws” were in place, people’s lives revolved around church because there was little else to do. There is no question as to the sociological benefit of these laws as even the most basic moral teaching of the Bible affects people’s lives and behavior. Yet, when the Blue Laws were repealed, church attendance dropped, which indicates that the percentage who left were only there because of the cultural expectations upon them and not because they had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus did say that in the final judgment there will be many who will cry out, “Lord, Lord!” and to whom Jesus will say, “Get away from me, I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). So, did the “Christianization” of the culture build the church? The church as an institution perhaps was built up, but the word “Church,” in a Biblical sense, normally refers to a body of believers that have been called out from the world and into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Arguably, then, the church was not built up by simply existing within a Christian culture.

It should be noted that we use the term “culture” in a variety of different ways. In addition, we talk about cultures and sub-cultures within a given culture. There are also various “cultural expressions” that people may embrace as well as the “culture” of certain pieces of music, art, or literature. In addition, when you are sick and go to the doctor, he or she may take a swab and apply it to the back of your throat to take a “culture” to see what kind of bacteria may be developing in your body. So, when we talk about a “Culture War,” what kind of culture are we talking about and is that even the proper term that we ought to be throwing about?

Typically, when speaking of a “Culture War,” we are referring (as do sociologists) to those shared norms, ethics, linguistic expressions, histories, folk-stories, values, and beliefs that bind a group of people together. We might talk broadly of the “Western” culture that has been dominated by the thought of the Greek Philosophers and Latin thinkers, the European Renaissance, and the Christian religion (as this was the dominant influence in the development of Europe for well over 1,000 years.

We might narrow the discussion down further and talk about the “American” culture or even about the evangelical sub-culture within America, but bottom line, it still gets back to these shared beliefs and histories that bind a people together. But how do these beliefs get propagated? Certainly they are not innate as cultural expression varies widely throughout the world. They are taught then, by one generation to the next, either intentionally or unintentionally, by those who hold said beliefs. And unless one makes a deliberate effort to “break out” of a cultural norm, that culture will continue into another generation.

Interestingly enough, the word “culture” comes from that Latin term colere, which means “to cultivate or tend,” and was originally used to describe the way that a farmer would work the ground and tend to the crops that he has planted. This is a valuable note because there is nothing unintentional about the way a field is cultivated. The farmer chooses how he prepares and fertilizes the plot of land, the kinds of seeds that are sown, and the way those plants are tended and harvested. Similarly, culture is created by those within the community.

Yet, if culture is created by those within the community, does the idea of a “culture war” really make any sense at all? It presents a picture of workers in a field warring over which seeds to plant — one side fighting to plant corn and the other fighting to plant wheat. Does it not make more sense to focus on changing the hearts of the planters?

Prejudice is one of the things that people have been trying hard to change in our culture (and rightly so). And in many areas, the work has been very successful. But what is bringing the most success? Is it laws that are written outlawing prejudice or is it people’s hearts being changed and choosing not to propagate the prejudices of their parents in the lives of their children? I would suggest that the latter is the tactic being used with success. I would also suggest that the families where people marry across ethnic lines is where you will see the most pronounced removal of the prejudices because hearts change when people are in fellowship with one another.

Does this mean that Christians should not engage the culture? Of course not, we are called to tear down the strongholds of Satan in this world (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). As Christians, we should express the faith that we hold in every area of life. That being said, we will not fulfill the Great Commission by once again having Christian thought and principles dominate the cultural norm; the Great Commission needs to be fulfilled by discipling people. And for people to be discipled, their hearts must first be changed by the power of the Gospel.

One final note on this line of thinking from the five years that I taught Bible in a Christian Academy. It was amazing how often I had students who could answer all of the questions correctly on a Bible or a Worldview test but when left on their own, would live as an unbeliever. The culture at the Christian School was intentionally Christian. The curriculum was also designed to foster a Christian worldview. As teachers and administrators, we had won the “Culture War” at our school (at least on the surface). Yet, we had many kids who could live in the Christian culture, yet were not being discipled because the Christian culture was not the culture that they had embraced as their own. The solution for the school environment was not to institute more rules or to offer more Christian “cultural” experiences. The solution is to get to the heart of the student and apply the Gospel in the hopes and prayers that God would regenerate their dead hearts and give them life.

The school tends to be a microcosm of the community and the Christian school is a microcosm of a community that is dominated by Christian culture. If we aim to change hearts by changing the visible culture, we will likely lose both. Yet, when hearts are changed, the culture will be changed by default. The “Culture War” as described is at best a crusade that will change small pockets of life — we may take the promised land by force, but for how long will it be held? Instead, let us wage war against the powers and principalities of Satan, seeking to evangelize the hearts of men, for this will be the “Holy War” that will bring long-lasting and spiritual fruit.

Turning the Model Around: Mentoring Evangelism

For about 5 years I have been teaching High School students how important it is to have a mentor and how to go about seeking someone to mentor them. We talk about setting goals, knowing what you would like to achieve, and about looking for a man or woman who has achieved those goals already who might be willing to serve as a mentor. We also talk a great deal about the character of the person sought as a mentor and how that character reflects that person’s commitment to Christ. And we also talk about how to approach such a candidate for mentoring purposes without making that person feel like they are tying themselves into a long-term relationship.

All of this is fine and good. We need mentors at every level—I seek out mentors myself. Of late, though, I have realized that I have concentrated primarily on the ascending relationship of finding mentors and that I have not focused much on looking downward (if you will allow me the analogy)—the looking for someone to mentor. And, to be more specific than that, as a Christian leader, I have been reflecting on the principle of looking for people to mentor for the express purpose of evangelism, not just to replicate the successes you have had in the lives of others.

Usually, as we walk though life, we are all pretty self-centered. Sorry to offend if I have stepped on toes, but all of us can be pretty-self serving if left to our own devices. We want people to mentor us so that we can get ahead in business or in other personal goals. We even want to mentor others so that we can replicate ourselves in them…sometimes even living vicariously through the person we have sought to mentor. We do it as Christians and we even do it in the Christian church. How often we attract people to the church by attracting them to the pastor (his messages, his vision, etc…). I am suggesting that the model needs to be rethought.

The Apostle Paul told the church that they should seek to imitate him, but he did not end there. Paul said that the church should imitate him so that they may imitate Christ as they see Christ in him (1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). In addition, both Paul and the writer of Hebrews affirmed that we ought to watch believers who are more mature than we are to learn about Christ from them (Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 13:7). The principle is that we attract to ourselves with the purpose of turning to Christ.

So, what model am I proposing? To begin with, I propose a mentoring model that is driven from the top, not from the bottom. Highly motivated people will always seek out mentors above them; those who are Christians and leaders in the community ought to start aggressively looking for those they would like to mentor and then invest time and resources into that person. Take them out to lunch several times, learn their goals and aspirations, and build a relationship with that young man or young woman. Then, use that relationship as an opportunity to evangelize those who you are mentoring.

To take that and apply that to a church context, pastors ought not stop at attracting people to themselves, but should attract people to themselves for the purpose of pointing people not only to Christ but also to those in the congregation who are mature in their faith. Thus the pastor functions as one who creates mentoring opportunities between two others within his congregational context.

To a degree, churches that are building small groups are accomplishing something like this model—groups of people living life together. I am not knocking small groups, they are necessary for building community, but where the small group model can fall short is in two ways. First, small groups typically do not exist to spawn other small groups; the purpose of a small group is to live life-on-life together in a relationship that grows deep over a long period and is not necessarily focused on growing wide. The small group model essentially takes a group of people who are at roughly the same point in their spiritual walk and grows them together. Sometimes small groups will grow and spin off other small groups; this happens best as an organic division (a younger leader is rising up and is ready to “spread his wings”) and not as a programmed split (if you tell people that they will be part of this small group for two years and then split off, the relationships will never grow vulnerable, transparent, or deep).

Mentoring, though has a different goal in its sights. Mentoring’s purpose is to take someone and assist them in reaching a specific goal. There are markers and the relationship is designed to be temporary. My role as a mentor, typically, is to help identify untapped potential in you and to help you grow in your gifts to a certain end; either to accomplish a specific goal I have already achieved or to exceed the plateau that I have reached. Mentoring relationships are deep, but in a very limited respect in that the depth is focused not on life in general, but upon the specific goal and purpose that is in sight.

The second area in which the small group model sometimes falls short is that small groups can become disconnected from other small groups within the church body—especially when the church is larger. There may be unity within groups “x” and “y” respectively, but many times, not unity between those in groups “x” and “y.” Some of this “inter-group” unity can be achieved through group projects or if co-workers, family, or friends are spread between multiple small groups. Also, said connections can be found when people in various small groups serve in the larger church fellowship—fellow Sunday School teachers, on the music team, etc…

Yet, to use the analogy that Paul employs in 1 Corinthians 12, the body is not made up of a bunch of isolated parts or parts that only occasionally come together. In the body, all of the parts exist organically together and in harmony. We are accustomed to reflecting on this passage in terms of individuals, but the analogy also applies to small groups. The reality is that none of us are a hand or a foot or a kidney unto ourselves, but we are individual cells that are part of the hand, foot, or kidney. In a small group model, the groups as a whole are the body parts and need a means by which they can be bonded together. The “coming together” of the church body on Sunday is part of that equation, but body parts do not occasionally come together; they exist together in connection as a whole.

The model that I am suggesting pictures the church body as a giant, interconnected network—a giant constellation per say—where everyone is connected to one or two mentors and one or two people they are mentoring. This is not meant as a replacement for small groups, but an addition to. To continue with the body analogy, the network of mentoring relationships being like the network of nerves or capillaries that transport life-giving blood to every body part and provide an inter-connected network by which the small groups never become isolated from the whole. And that the mentoring process be used for the intentional purpose of evangelism and discipling (Great Commission) as well as be designed to grow intentionally outward into the community around us and not inward. In other words, while typically small groups exist to serve the church, the mentoring network not only connects the church parts internally, but connects the church externally to the community.

If this model is done well, you will even find mentoring relationships between local church bodies. This is not for the purpose of stealing people from one local fellowship to another,  but to build up the kingdom. Remember, Christ has one body (now we are applying this to inter-Church relationships), there needs to be an interconnectivity between Bible believing churches that runs deeper than the local pastors’ association. Surely we would all agree that any one of our towns or cities are large enough that no one church is big enough to effectively be salt and light for the whole. Getting on mission means getting out and being that witness in our community, but it also means that those who are not against us are for us (Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50).

In this context, part of the role of the pastor is to know existing members well enough that new people to the church can be introduced not only to small groups, but to members that will reach out to them and provide them with mentoring. Also, it is his job to know the community well enough that he can connect mature Christians in his church to those who could use mentoring (and evangelization) in the community…kind of like a spiritual match-making service (though I detest the analogy).

It should be noted that this model is almost impossible to monitor. In a church that is large enough to support a connectional pastor, perhaps he can facilitate such relationships, but for most of us who pastor either single or small-staff churches, it is not realistically feasible to know who is mentoring whom throughout your church network. At the same time, that is the organic nature of the church. We are not simply a mechanical organization with rules and guidelines that can be easily charted, but we are a living and breathing entity—structured indeed, we are not a blob from outer-space—and just as a medical doctor does not always know everything that is going on within you, but will have a good sense of your overall health, so too the pastor and leadership of the church will have a sense of what is going on, but may not be able to map out the ever changing network of mentoring relationships.

Yet, is this not the relationship we find in the Bible and in the early church (one where having large buildings and facilities was not possible ala Roman law). Barnabas saw what God was doing in Paul and facilitated Paul’s connection with the Apostles in Jerusalem. Paul identified Timothy for the purpose of mentoring him. Timothy was instructed to find others to mentor who would hold fast to the faith handed down from person to person, generation to generation. We are part of that giant mentoring network through history and mentoring happens within our churches in ways that none of us are aware. But where I believe our churches need to go is to the next step where we become intentional about creating the network of mentoring relationships inside and outside of our church body with a specific aim of evangelizing those whom we have sought out to mentor.

Strengthen What is About to Die

You must become alert!  And you must strengthen the ones who remain, who are waiting to die, for I have not found your works to be fulfilled before your God.

(Revelation 3:2)

The seven letters of Revelation contain some devastating rebukes for those in the churches of Asia. Out of the seven churches, two receive no commendation and only rebuke; the church in Sardis is one of those two and is the church that receives these words of condemnation: your works are wanting, so strengthen what is about to die.

As a pastor, I must confess that this is about the last charge that any of us would want to hear. I suspect that all of us yearn to serve a church that is thriving and healthy and filled with spiritual life, where everyone who attends is hungry to be taught the word of God, to be engaged in worship, and desires to apply God’s word to every area of their life. I suspect we all dream of serving a church where God’s people will come together and act like God’s people, loving one another and not deteriorating into bickering and where marriages would be seen as a permanent covenant and children would grow up in humble submission to their parents’ teachings. And we hunger for the church body that lives out their faith in such an infectious way that they are constantly pointing others to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, when going through the various ministerial resource catalogues, we find book after book written by a pastor of some “mega-church” somewhere who has found a way to bring people into the church by droves. My point is not to disrespect or arbitrarily write off such movements, sometimes these books contain some useful insights, my point is simply to say that such is not the model of church that most pastors have been called to. A rural church pastor, for example, may not even have 5,000 people in his town, let alone that many people in his church. In fact, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, nearly 60% of protestant churches in America have fewer than 100 people in them on Sunday mornings.

In addition, many of these churches scattered across the countryside are predominately made up of older members where there may not be the energy, resources, or interest in many of the things that seem to attract the droves of people that may or may not be in their community to come to worship.

Again, my point is not to extol one model of worship service and put down another; those of you who have read my blogs for any amount of time know that I have some strong opinions in some of these areas, but that is not my objective today. My point is to reflect on the nobility of this call to strengthen what is about to die and to apply it in a way that we may not have otherwise considered. My purpose is also to honor those many pastors who may not have had ministries that the church culture would consider “glamorous,” but have faithfully served God’s people, often in churches that are dying whether due to age or due to an unwillingness to change in a way that communicates the truth of the gospel to a new generation. Many, many of God’s most faithful servants labor for decades in this context.

In some ways I have had the privilege of looking at this picture from both sides of the fence. For most of my pastoral ministry, I have served either full or part-time in small, rural churches dominated by septuagenarians and octogenarians. I have also spent time working amongst drug addicts and homeless, a group that may not be dying due to their age, but are just as near to death as the octogenarians due to the lifestyle they have chosen. I have also spent quite a bit of time doing nursing home ministry, again a group of people who are very much about to die. At the same time, I also spent several years as a chaplain of a Christian school working mostly with teenagers, a group who biologically are on the other end of the spectrum. They are filled with life and energy, but also bring with them a new body of issues and problems due to the frenetic lifestyle that many of them consider quite normal. It is true that the school is not the church, but life on life ministry takes place anywhere God places us and the relationships often bear a great deal of similarity.

All of that being said, I would like to apply this statement of Jesus’ in three ways. The first, in the context that it is given, and the latter two in perhaps a little different way, while at the same time trying not to do an injustice to the text.

In the context of the passage, Jesus is giving a rebuke to a church that has been unfaithful in its calling. Their works have a reputation for having life, he states in the previous verse, but they are really dead. The church puts on a good show and they do all of the right things, but what they do is simply going through the motions. Their good works are not done as a response to God’s saving work in their lives, but they are done out of a sense of misguided duty. Later on in the passage, Jesus speaks of those who have not soiled their garments, implying that most of the congregation members have given themselves either physically or spiritually to idolatry. In the midst of that, Jesus makes two statements: first, that he is going to destroy the church and second, that the pastor there needs to strengthen the church that is about to die.

There are many churches today that have fallen into this context. They are dominated by extremely influential people (often who have money) who decide what the church will and will not do, typically on the basis of preference and not on the basis of a heart committed to the Gospel ministry. Sadly, many pastors do not discourage this, either preaching in a way that keeps this dominant group satisfied or never rebuking the people for their actions. How often I have heard stories of ministry works being cut for the purpose of paying the pastor’s salary. It is a shame when the pastor becomes little more than a pawn in the game of church influence. Yet even in these churches, there is normally a remnant that is spiritually alive and who yearns to see the church break free from the bonds of the status quo and live. It is for those in this latter group that Jesus gives the command to strengthen the church. The institution is dying; it has a disease that is killing it from within like a cancer, but through the preaching of the Gospel and the teaching of God’s word, those healthy body parts are strengthened in the midst of a great and agonizing collapse. Though this is not the calling to which most seminary students dream of going, there is a nobility to such a call and such a call, more-so than a call to a vibrant church I would argue, that will teach the minister how to pray and how to confront sin in the lives of people. This is the call to which the minister of Sardis was called, and this is the call that many pastors have had to labor through as we have sought to do ministry in this fallen world.

The second context I have already alluded to. There are times when the death of a congregation is not so much about the indwelling sin a body has, but has to do with the increasing age of the body without a younger generation that will come and accept the baton of leadership. Again, my interest in this reflection is not to attack one style of service over another, but there is a reality that many young families would rather not go to their grandparents’ church, but want to take ownership of something uniquely theirs. And we must understand that the mindset works the other way as well; many older congregations would rather not have the noise and activity that comes with young families filling the sanctuary. I suppose that I could go on and on in that area, but that is not the aim of this reflection.

The aim of this reflection is to state that there is a huge need for ministry in these areas. Our older/dying churches are likely not the churches that will be building numbers rapidly through evangelistic ministries, etc… Typically they will dwindle slowly until there are so few that the church closes or until there are so few that the influence of the older generation ceases to be a driving force and the church experiences a transformation and rebirth led by a few younger families with a clear vision of what the church could be. Just because someone is older or dying does not mean that they no longer need pastoral care or that the pastoral care they get should be second-class. Nursing home ministry for pastors should not be an afterthought when it is convenient, but it ought to be something of primary concern. Men and women, as image bearers of God, deserve the dignity and grace of such care and they deserve to have the kind of pastoral teaching and care that strengthens them in their faith up until their dying day. My own hat is tipped in respect to those who serve as Hospice chaplains and whose entire calling is devoted toward strengthening those who are about to die.

The third application is a very broad one, though I would argue comes very close to the context of Jesus’ original letter to those in the church of Sardis. Many are lamenting the downfall of the church in western society. Europe is all but a spiritual wasteland, though there are some wonderful (but isolated) renewal movements at work (for example the one I am involved with in eastern Ukraine). America is following suit. Many in America still think of themselves as Christians, but given the state of our culture, comparatively few are living out their faith in all of life.

The question has often been posed to me as to whether I expect that God is bringing judgment on America or preparing us for revival. There is an old axiom that you hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Of course, in some ways, I do not think that judgment and revival are mutually exclusive ends. Does not God know how to judge the wicked while preserving his own (2 Peter 2:9-10)? With that being said, I do pray for revival, but I know that with true revival there must be true repentance and typically there is not repentance until the sin to which we cling hurts too much to keep it within us.

At the same time that I am praying for revival, my heart tells me that we (as a nation and as a church) are facing judgment. Typically the church is healthiest when it faces the greatest persecution (the seven churches in Asia are an excellent illustration of that). When persecution comes and it begins to cost us something to call ourselves Christians, then the “convenience christians” will fall away and the true church will find itself being refined under fire and made strong. And it is in the presence of such a reality that pastors need to hear these words to the church in Sardis all the more: strengthen what is about to die.

I suppose that there is always a temptation to spiritualize a text, and that is not what I mean to do here, but I think you will find that history bears out a remarkable truth. Just as there is a promise of death and resurrection for our physical bodies, there is a kind of death and resurrection for the localized Christian bodies here on earth. God always preserves for himself a remnant (Romans 11:4-5); that is God’s way. He may permit a church to close its doors, but in doing so, he raises up a new witness and testimony for himself. It is right for us to lament the death of a congregation just as we lament the death of a person, yet we still move on. Our God is the God of the living, not of the dead, he will not permit a dead church to play act at being alive indefinitely but will preserve a remnant. And we who have been called to the Gospel ministry will often find ourselves in the midst of such a context where we are commissioned by God’s word to strengthen that which is about to die. Doing so won’t get us a book deal with a big publisher, but faithfully laboring in such a call will receive a “well done my good and faithful servant.” I daresay that I do not need to explain which one is more valuable.

Building Museums or Kingdoms


Museums can be a lot of fun to visit. They contain relics and artifacts from which we can learn a lot about our past. They are monuments and testimonies to where we have been as a culture and from where God has brought us as a civilization. They serve a very important role in our culture as they help us to appreciate the sacrifices and successes of those who have gone before us in the hopes that we do not become proud and arrogant as a culture and they provide useful instruction in terms of the mistakes of the past in the hopes that we do not repeat them. There are many kinds of museums, but they all have one thing in common…they do not contain any life.

Sadly, churches can also fall into the trap of becoming museums instead of being the living, breathing marks of the Kingdom of God that we are meant to be. This does not mean we oughtn’t look back and celebrate the blessings of God that have been brought in the past and not learn from our errors as well, but if we spend all of our time dwelling in the past—dwelling in the museum of antiquities—the life that we are meant to have will be sapped from us and we will decline into a testimony of what once was, and not to what is.  Remember, God is a God of the living, not of the dead (Luke 20:37-38; 24:5).

Instead of a museum, we are called to build a kingdom (Matthew 6:33; Mark 1:15; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12). Our great commission (Matthew 28:19-20) is to make disciples of all of the nations—that begins here at home. Our call within our church is to be at the task of disciple-making. Those who are not believers need to have the Gospel proclaimed to them and those who are believers need to be built up in the faith. We should learn from and celebrate the past, but we must never be tempted to dwell there.  Like that favorite hymn by Sabine Baring-Gould:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,

With the cross of Jesus going on before.

Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;

Forward into battle see His banners go!

Like an army, we are to march forward, and for that to take place, though kingdoms rise and fall around us, we must always keep our eyes fixed upon our great and glorious captain, Jesus Christ, who leads us on. Let us never lose sight of the goal that the church is to march onward, breaking down the strongholds of hell in this world around us.

Also, let us count Jesus’ own words to one individual as a warning against dwelling in the past:

“And he said to them, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead;

but you, go and preach the Kingdom of God.’”

(Luke 9:60)