The Greatest Miracle of Christmas

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

This prophecy by Isaiah was given over 600 years before the birth of Christ.  The titles listed for the “son” that would be born have eternal ramifications.  Each one of the titles are divine in nature and point to a most significant event in which divinity and humanity would collide.  It is the most important prophecy in the Old Testament Canon because it points to both the incarnation of the birth of Christ and the redemption he provided by his death on Calvary.  Isaiah says of this “son“, that “…the government will rest upon his shoulder.”  The Hebrew word used here is misrah which could also be translated kingdom or empire.  In other words,  the burden of a kingdom would be placed on the shoulders of this “son”.   The cross was violently thrust upon the shoulders of the Son of God along with the burden of fallen humanity.  Thus the burden of the misrah or Kingdom rests solely on the atonement he provided for us.

Before the burden was thrust upon the shoulders of Christ at his death we are faced with the significance of his birth.  “A child is born, a son is given...”  Yet, not just any child or any son.  He would be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.  As a wonderful counselor He is the great High Priest who “understands our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15).  As Mighty God He came to us through the miracle of the virgin birth and incarnation. (John 1:14).  As Everlasting Father His birth was not his true beginning and his death would not be His end. (John 8:58 & John 1:1).  As the Prince of Peace He would reconcile forever the enmity between God and Man. (1 Timothy 2:5).

The greatest miracle of Christmas is found in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, John starts his narrative long before the birth in Bethlehem.  He looks back through eternity with the opening statement of his Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1).  Three different times John uses the word “Logos” to describe Jesus Christ.  This Greek word encapsulates the full meaning of all thought, ideas and reason.  It is a BIG word.  The Logos was God.   If there was ever any doubt of the deity of Christ, Isaiah’s prophecy in 9:6 ought to quiet the critics.  He would be born “Mighty God“.   The Word was God and John says, “So the Word (Logos) became human and made his home among us.” (John 1:14 NLT).  God made his home among us!  There it is!  That is the greatest miracle in history.

The fall of mankind occurred in Genesis 3 and from that time to the moment the angels announced the birth, there were only futile attempts of restoring the broken relationship. The Tower of Babel could not reach high enough,  no amount of slaughtered oxen could suffice and even the law could only reveal humanity’s need of reconciliation.  In Genesis 3, God cast humanity out of his presence,  yet in the Gospels he interjects himself into humanity.  John says, “He made his home among us.”  HE came to US.  We could never have come to him, but he came to us.  The uncorrupted seed was placed in the womb of Mary through immaculate conception and heaven came near.  In every religion there is a group of committed people who are seeking to find a way to “get to God.”  Yet the miracle of the Advent reveals God coming to us.  Deity did not only come to live among us, He came to die for us.  No wonder Paul said of this message, “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.” (1 Cor. 1:23)  It may sound foolish to some but to me it sounds like salvation. The angels announcement was very clear, “For there is born TO YOU this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11).   That announcement resonates through the halls of human history and in the hearts of broken humanity.  The Kingdom has been restored, the burden of our sin rests upon his shoulders and eternal life has now been made possible.  The story of Christmas is, “God became man so that man could come to God.”  On a very dark night 2,000 years ago light came and that light “gives light to every man coming into the world.” (John 1:9).

This Christmas I hope you enjoy being with family. I hope you eat lots of good food and exchange gifts with those you love.  In the midst of this busy season,  I hope you will recall the greatest miracle of all.  God came to us, died for us so we could one day live with Him.

Five ways to make your church”Guest Ready”.

 

Is your church “guest ready”? Most church members never consider this question because they assume the answer is YES!  However, after visiting a number of churches over the past few years it is my observation that most churches are not very “guest ready”.  The best advice I have seen pertaining to this subject is actually found on an old shampoo commercial, “Your never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  That is true in the dandruff world but it is also true for your church.  First impression is everything.   When guests visit your church they begin making decisions regarding a return visit long before the sermon is over.  Actually, many will make their decision shortly after they drive on to your campus. (I am not saying I agree with this mentality but it is a simple fact.)  What they see or don’t see may be as important as what they experience in your church service.  It is a good idea for church leaders to consider the following points to make sure you are prepared for that family that visits this Sunday.

Here are a few things to consider (along with thought provoking questions) in making your church “Guest ready”:  

  1.  Carefully consider your “first impression.”  Often times a simple work day and a small amount of budget money can go a long way in making a guests “first impression” more pleasant.  I think a church’s campus ought to be one of the most beautiful campuses in town.  After all, you are the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. (I realize the church is the people not the building, but I didn’t want to speak on the attractiveness of your members) A run down campus sends a strong message to potential guests.  They will make initial judgments in regards to how aesthetically pleasing your campus appears.  Questions to consider: Is the campus attractive to prospective guests?  Do repairs need to be made to the parking lot?  Is there a covered drop off area in case of weather issues?  Are there simple repairs to your building that need to be done such as paint, pressure washing, brick repair, disheveled steps?
  2. Carefully consider your parking.  The parking lot is usually the most overlooked part of the campus even though it is the first thing your feet touch when you come to church.  I remember as a pastor of a growing church my frustration when we hit an attendance wall.  We could not seem to bust through a certain attendance number.  After inviting a pastor friend of mine to church one Sunday I realized why we were not able to eclipse a certain attendance number.  After circling our parking lot for over 10 minutes looking for a spot he said to me, “You need more parking.”  A light went off in my head!  That was our number one attendance inhibitor.  But it is more than just having adequate parking, you should also consider the condition of your parking lot.  Questions to consider: What is the current number of parking spots on your campus?  Estimating 3 people per car, what is the total number of people that could park on your campus? Are there dedicated parking spots for guests?  People with disabilities? Is there a proper flow of traffic in your parking lot when entering and exiting the campus?  Do the parking lines need repainting or are they clearly visible?
  3. Carefully consider your signage.   Directional signage should be visible to guests as soon as they enter campus.  Arrows should point to the most important areas such as the sanctuary, nursery and children’s areas and welcome center.  Doors should be clearly marked along with areas of intersecting hallways.  There is never a situation when churches have “too many directional signs.”  In this case too much information is actually a good thing.   Questions to consider: When guests enter your parking lot are there signs pointing them to dedicated parking areas?  Is there clear signage pointing guests to nursery, children’s space, youth areas and sanctuary?  Are the signs easily readable?  Are they outdated, faded or scratched?  Are they highly visible?  Is there a low likelihood that guests would ever ask the question, “Where do we go?”
  4.  Carefully consider your accessibility.  Many churches, particularly older buildings, are simply not handicap accessible.  If your church isn’t prepared for those with disabilities you are inadvertently saying, “If you have a disability you are not welcome here.” Questions to consider: Is your church accessible to everyone who would come?  Are handicap parking spots close to level entrances or ramps?  Are bathrooms and sanctuary accessible to those with disabilities or the elderly?
  5. Carefully consider how you greet your guests.  The majority of churches I visit have a couple of men handing out bulletins at the door of the sanctuary.  While this is always a nice thing to do, IT ISN’T ENOUGH! I have been shocked at the number of men who have handed me a bulletin without looking me in the eye and giving a simple “welcome, glad to have you.”  Greeters are not the same as ushers. (Go back and read that last statement again for clarity).  Greeters must GREET.  The most effective churches have a mix of demographics that make up their greeter ministry.  Men, women, teens and even children can take part in this important ministry.  Greeters should always hold out a friendly hand and share their name as they ask the name of the one they are shaking hands.  Name tags are critically important as well.  In the 1980’s Walmart began monopolizing the shopping store market with a similar approach.  If it works at Walmart, I am pretty sure it will work at your church!  (Blue vests are optional).  Place greeters in the parking lot and every entrance so guests are welcomed more than once.  Remember, guests will likely not leave complaining that too many people said, “Welcome, we are glad you’re here.” Questions to consider: Do greeters do more than just hand out a bulletin?  Are greeters intentionally warm and welcoming to those who come to your campus?  Does the first touch come before the guests or members enter the facility?

What are you waiting for?  Walk through these questions as a “guest” of your church.  Take a notebook, pen  and a copy of this article and evaluate how “guest ready” your church is for Sunday.  The guests are coming, are you prepared?  Remember, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiritual Warfare and Ministry

Over my 25 plus years in ministry there has been one consistent theme, intense spiritual warfare.  And yes I mean, INTENSE.  Every person born of the Spirit will experience spiritual warfare, but I think it is safe to say that those serving in ministry will receive the fiercest of the enemy’s might.  If Satan can cause a Christian to stumble, there is cause for him to celebrate.   If he can cause a pastor or minister to stumble, then he can bring division to an entire body of believers.  Make no mistake about it, that is his ultimate victory.  When a pastor loses a spiritual battle all the demons of hell rise in triumphant exuberance.  It is hell’s aim to keep the church of Jesus Christ distracted and divided and if he can use a church leader to accomplish his will, that is even greater.   Brothers and sisters in ministry, we must understand the power against us and daily put on the “whole armor of God that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (Ephesians 6:11).  There have been times in my ministry  where the spiritual oppression was so great I didn’t feel I could stand under it.   This article is in response to a dear pastor friend who encouraged me to write about this subject.

A few observations from many years on the “front lines” of spiritual warfare:

  1. Spiritual warfare precedes spiritual victories.  The last week of July 2016 was especially difficult for me.  Each day of that week it felt as if a cloud of discouragement hung over my head.  Nothing went as planned, I was continually frustrated by work, family, ministry and life in general.  I couldn’t point to one particular thing that caused my downward spiral.  It just seemed that Satan had intensified his attacks on my spiritual life, work life and family life.  One night after working late, I sat in my truck with my head hung low, downtrodden with a load of care.  Through much prayer I was able to overcome the attacks, but it wasn’t without intense spiritual battle.  Was it a coincidence that the following week I was scheduled to preach a series of revival meetings?  Probably not.  That revival week was marked by a special anointing of God’s power.  The church was packed, decisions were made and the altar was full each night.  Satan had tried to discourage the preacher, but the Power of God in the preacher eventually won.  Is it also a coincidence that the meanest church member usually spouts venom to the preacher on his way to the pulpit?  Is it a coincidence that our greatest ministry victories are sometimes preceded by difficulties?  Even Jesus spent 4o days in the wilderness with Satan before beginning his ministry.  In the garden, Jesus experienced a night of intense spiritual battle preceding the atonement.  Be prepared!  Satan will do his best to usurp the plans of God being carried out through you.
  2. Spiritual warfare is Satan’s greatest compliment. He is not oppressing those who do nothing great for the Kingdom.  He would rather them continue in their spiritual malaise than awaken them to the spiritual realities around them.  The Devil doesn’t persecute those who aren’t making a Kingdom difference. So if you find yourself under the weight of spiritual persecution it is likely because you are being used of the Lord and making a difference.  Only those on the battlefield will experience warfare.  If you never find yourself battling the enemy it may be time to take deep introspection at where you are in your spiritual walk.  In Jesus’s upper room discourse he spent time preparing his disciples for the upcoming battles.  “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.  By “world” he meant the people of the world and also the power of his world.  In Him, the battles would be won because he overcame the world.  If you find yourself in the midst of a spiritual battle today, I have good news.  You may be on the verge of great ministry victories!  Fight through it!
  3. Victory is yours!  You are fighting a defeated opponent!  Three words from the mouth of Christ cemented our victory.  When he exclaimed “It is Finished“, the enemies fate was eternally sealed.  “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” Romans 8:37.   “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31.  However,  that doesn’t mean that Satan is giving up.  Quite the contrary, he is fighting more and more intensively against us as the day of the Lord draws near.  Take up your sword (Bible),  get the battle plan (Study), stay in communication with your commander (Prayer) and stand in the victory that has already been provided for you.  John wrote of the believer’s victory over Satan, “Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, “Now salvation, and strength, and the Kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down.  And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony…” Revelation 12:10-11.  As you battle the enemy,  remember that you are covered by the blood of Calvary and living within you is the Spirit of God.  You have within your very soul the most powerful force in the universe.  Victory is yours my friend!

The next time you feel exhausted by the battles of ministry, remember that you have two unseen forces battling to define your ministry as a success or failure.  It is Satan’s goal each day to oppress you, tempt you, trip you and disqualify you.  However, There is also an army of angels around you and the Spirit of the Lord fighting for you.  If you will see spiritual warfare for what it is, you will be able to stand during the day of trial.  Ministers, grab the sword and stand in victory, we have battles to win today.

Is There Still a Need for Denominations?

 

Much has been written on this subject in the last ten years likely due to the fact that this question is being asked more and more by the “don’t label me” Millennial generation and post-modern thought. As a life-long Southern Baptist,  I have enjoyed the benefits my denomination offers such as educational opportunities, resources and networking with other like-minded believers.  I recognize that I write with a bias as a former state convention pastor’s conference president, trustee and employee of a Baptist entity.  The religious landscape of America is changing dramatically and rapidly.  Not only are we moving into a post-denominational mindset, but I would argue a post-Christian mindset with the consistent rise of “nones” (22%) in relation to religious affiliation.  The latest Pew Research reveals interesting statistics in relation to denominationalism in America.  Of the 70% of Americans who identify as Christians,  a little over 6% belong to a non-denominational church. While that number doesn’t blow you over it does represent a growing trend and, I believe, it will continue to gain momentum.  In 1955 only one in 25 churchgoing Americans tended to change denominations over a lifetime. In 1985, one in three did so. In this current decade, that number has risen to more than one in two, or about 60%. (Dr. David Dockery, The Changing Face of Denominationalism) I have noticed (at least in my state) an increase in non-denominational involvement.  One such non-denominational church is Church of the Highlands here in Alabama. The church is growing and expanding all over our state and, best I can tell, doing good things.  Recently a friend  emailed me asking for help in finding another place of service due to the fact that a non-denominational church placed a campus near his ministry and he had lost so many members that his position was no longer financially sustainable.  While Non-denominational churches still represent a small percentage of the Christian faith, there is little doubt of the growth of this movement and its future impact of traditional denominations.

Even among Baptist circles there are a few churches who have dropped the “Baptist” from their church signs. They may still identify as Baptists and give to Baptist causes but they have chosen to not highlight their Baptist identity.  When you ask the church leaders why that decision was made you find it to be a part of a strategy to broaden their reach to younger people who don’t visit churches based on denominational affiliation.  (I may write another article about that strategy at some point soon.)

There are more than 12 million people who belong to non-denominational churches in America with over 35,000 congregations in existence.  Last year Thom Rainer released his findings on why people are leaving denominations to join non affiliated churches.  The results can be found here.  One of the reasons people listed for leaving their denomination was simply, “They could see no perceived benefit for belonging to a denomination.”  Looking over Dr. Rainer’s list of responses from a Twitter poll, I see superficial and misinformed responses on denominational life.  It is true that most traditional denominational bodies are on the decline and have been for over a decade now. However, (some may call it Utopian thinking) I have a strong belief that denominationalism in America is not dead.  Some traditional groups have ventured off into liberalism where the message has been so watered down that it is hardly recognizable.  This is why many denominations have declined, but the ones who remain true to the Gospel, strong in their convictions and intentional in their mission will make a come back.

Contrary to the responses from Rainer’s poll, I see several “perceived benefits from denominational life.  Here are a few: 

  1. Denominations keep us anchored in doctrinal statements and Christian orthodoxy. In short, denominational statements of belief places fences around doctrine and keep believers focused on a coherent system of beliefs. Denominations are formed with clear doctrinal guidelines.  The Baptist Faith and Message is the doctrinal (not creedal) beliefs on my denomination. Created in 1925 it was based on previous “Baptist statements” of doctrinal orthodoxy and has seen minor adjustments since its creation.  While there is some doctrinal disagreement in the SBC pertaining to certain statements in this document, the BF&M gives SBC members guidelines on our generally accepted beliefs.  This helps to safeguard our churches from falling victim to outlandish heresies and practices.  Some non-denominational churches are vague on their doctrinal stances regarding historical Christian doctrines and the membership they attract becomes a mix of eclectic beliefs with little uniformity of doctrine.  There doctrinal beliefs (if stated) usually reflect the orthodoxy of the founding pastor.  However, when there is a change in leadership those foundational doctrines are subject to change based on the preferences of the next leader.  Even if the church has adopted certain core beliefs, they are likely much more fluid during leadership changes in comparison to denominational churches who are generally anchored in doctrine.
  2. Many denominations have a cooperative streamlined approach for missional support. If doctrine is the anchor that holds our feet to the ground, then our missional togetherness becomes the bridge that allows us to take our deeply held convictions to a lost world. I  believe the Cooperative Program of the SBC is the best example of this.  It is a system of focused missional giving and sending. One church can’t reach a nation, but one church partnering with many others can accomplish wide-spread gospel globalization much more effectively than a non-denominational church.  Any system that brings together like-minded missions giving and support has the potential of changing the world for Christ. Denominations have a long history of effective cooperation in this regard.
  3. Denominations encourage interaction and intentional networking between churches. If we don’t have some type of intentional glue that holds churches together then all churches would work independently and historically that has not been the best system for Kingdom work.  Denominations provide a dedicated platform for cooperation and collaboration between congregations.  Christians have always been more effective when they work together.  In 2 Corinthians 8 Paul describes how the churches of Macedonia had joined together to provide for other churches in their time of need.  Paul could not have traveled as he did without the support of many collaborative churches working together to assist him financially.
  4. Denominations encourage fellowship among like-minded people. Generally people are naturally geared toward certain affinity groups.  If I were to put 500 random people in a large room for a certain length of time you would eventually see groups begin to form.  Conversations would flow naturally as people mingle to find others with similar tastes, likes and ideology.  If you don’t believe me stop by your local high school lunchroom. If we were to do away with every denomination, eventually they would organically re-organize based on doctrinal, ecclesiastical and polity affinity. There are countless historical examples of the truth of this statement.  The East-West split of early Catholicism, the protestant reformation and the Great Awakenings of the 1700’s-1800’s in America all reveal sociological shifting of certain affinities into groups or denominations.  This is more than just history, this represents basic human action.

Yes, contrary to some people’s thought I am crazy enough to believe in the future of denominations and especially my own. Denominations must continue to be culturally relevant, consistently resourceful, but most of all intentionally missional with the good news of Jesus Christ.  

5 Qualities of Effective Church Leaders

 

It seems these days I have become a professional observer.  For years as a full time pastor, I was totally engrossed with my own church.  I was aware of other great ministries and admired many great pastors, but I never had the opportunity to study them and find out what made them effective.  When I came to Samford all of that changed.  I now, through the day-to-day obligations of my job,  have the opportunity to see healthy churches and effective leaders up close.  Yes, I am a professional observer.  When I find a church that seems to be doing effective ministry, I ask a lot of questions of the leadership.  I want to know what it is that is working and the qualities possessed by the pastor and leadership that bring it all together.  Based on hours of observation and tons of conversations with the top church leaders of my denomination I have noticed a pattern.  Five distinct qualities have emerged:

  1. Passion–  I am not talking about a manipulative enthusiasm that works church members into a frizzy.  These leaders are so passionate about their faith, calling, ministries, and future opportunities.  It is an authentic passion that comes across through normal conversation and everyday activity.  They are generally positive, optimistic and excited about God’s work in the churches they serve.  When I speak with other people about these church leaders I consistently hear, “I love their passion.”  People are naturally attracted to leaders like this because they feed off the passion these leaders project.  So many of our churches do not have passion because the pastor and church leaders are simply going through the weekly grind, marking off spiritual check lists.  Passion in the pulpit, passion in prayer, passion for disciple making and a passion to see Jesus Christ do a work in their midst each week. These are a few of the marks of effective leaders.
  2. Dedicated learners– Almost all of the effective church leaders I know are voracious learners. They read copious amounts of books, frequently listen to podcasts, regularly attend seminars or workshops, visit websites and blogs and are dedicated to knowledge.   They might not always agree with the authors or follow the latest ideas, but they certainly want to hear about them.  I recently spoke with one church leader who makes it his goal to read 2 books a month.  As director of the Ministry Training Institute at Samford I am always amazed at pastors who have terminal degrees that enroll in our online courses.  They don’t register because they need more credentials, they do it because they have an intense hunger to learn.  I am convinced that when church leaders stop learning they stop growing.  If they stop growing the church they lead suffers.
  3. Fresh Vision–  These leaders are never satisfied with the mundane or content with the status quo.  They are continually striving for freshness in their preaching and leading.  Many of them have impressive pastoral tenures, yet they have managed to not grow stale or fall into a rut.  They annually hit the reboot button and cast a new exciting vision for the future of the church.  Their souls are ever before the perpetual spring of living water asking God to replenish and refresh them with a new passion and vision from heaven.  They rarely use old sermons because they have such a freshness and excitement about what God is doing among their membership.  Contentment is the enemy of freshness and vision.  You will never see these leaders in a state of contentment.
  4. Investing in Relationships–  They genuinely love being with their congregation.  There is a joy in the relationships they have established in the church.  Most of these leaders regularly meet with a small group just to have the chance to equip and invest. Being with church members is not a chore, it is a joy.  They also heavily invest in relationships with other church leaders.  Effective leaders regularly network and share ideas with other church leaders.  Nothing thrills them more than investing in another minister or mentoring a younger leader.  There is an underlying belief that Jesus Christ invested in relationships and unless they are doing the same, there is something lacking in their ministry.  However, without a doubt the number one relationship they invest in is their family.  Every effective leader I know takes off days and time away to be with kids and spouse.  They have fun vacations, movie nights, golf outings or just evening walks with their spouse.
  5. Vibrant Spiritual Walk– These effective leaders feed their church members from the overflow of a vibrant walk with Christ.  Accountability is always evident with other believers and they spend much time in quiet places with the Lord.  Every effective church leader I know inspires me through their genuine walk with Christ.  Acts 4:13 tells us how the Sanhedrin recognized the Apostles as “men who had been with Jesus.” I could say the same about these church leaders.  It is obvious that they have spent much time with Christ.  They take Paul’s words in Philippians 3:10 as a call to arms, “I want to know him and power of his resurrection.”  The vibrancy of any church is usually connected to the vibrant faith of the leaders that spend hours in communion with the Lord.

These 4 Things May Be Limiting Your Worship

Christ is the one through whom God created everything in heaven and earth.  He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see, kings, kingdoms, rulers and authorities.  Every thing has been created through Him and FOR HIM”. Colossians 1:16

Through Jesus everything has been created.  Everything has his touch on it, everything.  The things we can see, the things we can’t see, even the rulers and authorities have been created through him.  Not only through him, but FOR HIM.   That is a big statement.  Those two words are critical to understand because they inform our biblical worldview like few other statements.  Everything exists because of him and for his glory.  During the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, the religious rulers told Jesus to stop the people from praising him, to which he replied that if they did the rocks would cry out.  Everything is created to worship.  The birds of the air sing for his glory. The flowers of the field express his glory. The Psalmist says in Ps. 19: 1-2, “The heavens tell of the glory of God.  The skies display his marvelous craftsmanship.  Day after day they speak; night after night they make him known.”  All of creation is pointing to a creator and all of creation exists to praise Him.

You were created to worship.

Some of us have lost our main purpose.  When you do not regularly encounter the living God, commune with him and have intimacy with him, you become miserable.  Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart….”  Deep in your heart is something that cries out to the Lord.  He has deeply planted eternity in your heart. To not respond to that deep longing will make you miserable.  When you are not having regular worship encounters with God, you will lose your sense of purpose. It all begins with the condition of your heart. “Who may climb the mountain of the Lord and stand in his holy place? Only those whose hands and heart are pure.” Ps. 24: 3.

These worship hindrances may be limiting your encounters with God and thus diminishing your sense of purpose:

A Disobedient Heart. When you live far from God’s will you will feel far from his presence.  It is impossible to have a powerful worship encounter with the living God when you are living out of his will.  In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel is confronting King Saul on his disobedience. God had given Saul clear direction on the destruction of the Amalekites and he had neglected his duty. When Samuel seeks him he finds him on Mount Carmel setting up an altar to himself and the animals that were supposed to be sacrifices for the glory of God were walking around. Saul gives lame excuses on why he didn’t follow through with the Lord’s will and Samuel’s response is something we all need to hear:

“What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Obedience is far better than sacrifice.  Listening to him is much better than offering the fat of rams. Rebellion is as bad a sin as witchcraft, and stubbornness is as bad as worshiping idols.” 

Worship is a lifestyle. It is something you do everyday.  It is not something you come and do, it is something you live and be.  “Obedience is far better than sacrifice.”  In speaking of the Pharisees Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man made teachings.”  Matthew 15: 8-9.  Powerful words.  God is not listening to the words coming out of your mouth when you worship.  He is listening to the music of your heart.  You can raise your hands, you can sing loud, you can bow down, you can appear to be a great worshiper of God, but if your heart isn’t in submission to his Holiness, your mouth will never sing songs that will be pleasing to him.

Worship begins or is limited through your heart condition. True worship is your spirit and his Spirit connecting in a deep intimate encounter and that absolutely can’t happen if you are living in blatant disobedience.  Disobedience and praise cannot sustain one another. Either rebellion will dissolve into repentance resulting in true worship, or the hardened heart will win out and attack the things of God.

An Unforgiving Heart. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus deals with various conditions of the heart.  He literally gets right to the “heart of the matter.”  Notice the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:23, “If you are standing before the altar in the Temple, offering a sacrifice to God, and suddenly remember that someone has something against you. You should LEAVE.”  Jesus is literally saying you should leave a worship service and stop worshiping Him.  The context of this verse is couched in a discussion on holding anger in your heart toward someone.

If your horizontal relationships are bad, it will affect your vertical relationship with God.  If your heart is divided through anger, hostility, bitterness and rage you will be unable to worship the Lord in purity and honesty.  Hatred in your heart will limit your connection with a loving God.

“If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people whom we can see, how can we love God, whom we have not seen. And God himself has commanded that we must love not only him but our Christian brothers and sisters.”  1 John 4:20-21. 

Forgiveness can be difficult and costly.  But the price of unforgiveness is even more.  It is a boulder you carry around on your back. It is limiting your worship and hindering your relationship with God. It has been said that holding unforgiveness in your heart is like drinking poison while expecting it to hurt the other person. Some of us need to heal  relationships before we truly experience the joy of the Lord’s presence.

An Unbelieving Heart. In Mark 6 Jesus comes to a much anticipated place to preach, teach and perform miracles. Nazareth was his own hometown.  A place that desperately needed the same touch that other villages had received.  A place that was despised by those around them.   It was in need of the power of God.

Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches the people. They were amazed at his wisdom, astonished at his knowledge of the prophets. Mark 6:3 changes everything.  “Where did he get all this wisdom and the power to perform such miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.”

Imagine having the presence of God and the power of God in your midst and seeing no miracles take place. Familiarity led to apathy and led to their unbelief. “This is just Mary’s son.”  “We know Jesus, he lived among us.”  He is nothing special.  They refused to believe.  With familiarity and apathy came a disconnect from the power of God.Familiarity led to apathy and apathy led to unbelief. “And because of their unbelief, he could not do any mighty miracles among them.” Could it be that so many churches are not experiencing the power of God due to the unbelieving hearts sitting in the pews?

What if God did something in church Sunday that you didn’t expect?  For many of us if God does something without it being in the bulletin, we get disillusioned.  Many of us will go to church this Sunday and hear the preacher, sing the same songs we have sung a million times, sit in the same pew, shake the hands of the same people we did last week and leave feeling good about coming to church.  The potential is there for us to miss out on the presence and power of God.  To the people in Nazareth, Jesus was just Mary’s boy, the carpenter.  Who is he to you?  Have you become so comfortable, so familiar with the stories, the songs, the sermons, the scriptures, the invitations that they have all lost their power?  When was the last time God amazed you? We often sing that great song, “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene” but I will honestly tell you that I don’t see too many church folks standing amazed in the presence of God.  I pray that we will not become so familiar that we lose the power of it.  Some of us have lost our belief that God is going to do something amazing in our midst.  We are merely going through the motions of worship.

A Cluttered Heart. Psalm 66: 16-20. Many of the Psalms reflect the troubles and spiritual struggles that David experienced.  Yet, one event changed his life, he finally confessed his sin and repented of his past.  He became prideful and his pride let to lust which led to adultery and murder. His heart became cluttered with ungodly things so that he lost his focus of God.

If you came to my house today my wife would not let you come through our garage to come into our house.  It is overdue for a good cleaning out.  Over the time we have lived there we keep placing stuff on top of stuff.  I was noticing last week that there are parts of the garage I cannot see anymore due to all the stuff we have stacked over the years.  Cleaning out the clutter of my garage is certainly in my future plans.  What my garage has become is what some of our hearts are now.  Over years, we have stacked up our disappointments, our defeats, our distractions and mistakes to where our hearts have become cluttered messes.

Look at the words of these verses in Psalm 66. “Listen to what he did for me.”  Essentially David says, “I cried out in praise, I confessed the sin in my heart, God listened and paid attention.  And afterwards I experienced his unfailing love for me.”

“What joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of sin, whose lives are lived in complete honesty.” Psalm 32:2

I think much of the worship Psalms of David found in Psalms is a result of the amazing forgiveness he experienced from the graceful hand of God. Unconfessed sin serves as concreted on our ankles, chains on our souls, leeches on our heart.  It will suck the spiritual life out of you.

Cover your sin and God will expose it, but if you expose your sin God will cover it.

Dwight L Moody said, “God has cast our confessed sin into the depth of the sea and put a no fishing sign on that spot.”

“Search me O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” Ps. 139:23-24.

Are you a Spiritual Tourist?

 

I wish I could say that I thought of that title but I didn’t.  Recently I was speaking at a pastor’s conference and one of the pastors in the room spoke of the frustration of church members moving to the church down the street in search of a “greater experience.”  He referred to them as “spiritual tourists.”  I thought that was a pretty good term.  A tourist by definition is someone who visits a place temporarily in order to get the most out of the experience before moving on to the next stop.  Unfortunately that explains the church experience of too many Christians and the watered down commitment toward church membership today.

Let’s be honest about church growth, statistics consistently show that much of it is transfer growth.  Church growth expert George Hunter estimates that 80% of church growth in evangelical churches is transfer growth.  In other words, as Great Commission churches we are called to reach the lost in our communities, but often we mostly reach members of other congregations.  Not to say church leaders are intentionally trying to steal sheep, most do not.  Much of the problem is rooted in a consumer mindset that has taken hold of so many Christians.

In 2009, a Lifeway research study of Protestant church pastors revealed “49 percent of new attendees during the last five years have transferred from other congregations, while 32 percent were unchurched and 19 percent were children born to adults attending the church.” (http://www.lifeway.com/Article/LifeWay-Research-finds-ministry-expansion-doesn’t-automatically-lead-to-attendance-growth).  Based on this research, much of the church growth comes from transfer growth and organic growth (68%).   This trend is not healthy for the church and is actually working against us.   For instance, in the SBC baptism and membership numbers are at the lowest level in years and consumer Christianity isn’t helping to reverse those numbers.  Church leaders are putting most of their energy into keeping the sheep in the pen and less energy on reaching the lost sheep. The prevailing question today is “How do we keep members happy and satisfied with their church experience?”  It should be, “How do we reach more unchurched and unsaved people in our community?”  Thom Rainer has written prolifically on this subject, but most of his writings have a consistent theme worth restating, “church membership is not about me.”  I will admit as a pastor, much of my frustration comes from this mindset in members.  I am amazed at how quickly someone will leave a church that God has used mightily in their life.  If there is an issue that arises rather than staying and working with church leaders to overcome, they simply jump ship.  Nothing frustrates a pastor more than spending much time reaching a family only to see them leave the first time they disagree with a decision. Even worse the next week they are on Facebook bragging about their new found church down the street. (Seriously, please stop doing that.)  If they only knew how it discourages the heart of the pastor and church leaders.  It is crushing.

My parents have been members of the same church since I was in the nursery,  I am now 44 years old.  I have watched their church go through struggle after struggle, yet there stands Terry and Jean Blackwell serving, giving and helping.  I have always respected their unwavering commitment to Cottage Hill Baptist Church.  They will not leave their church, because they realize that it is not about them.  May their tribe increase!

I realize there are legitimate reasons to leave a church, no doubt.  

  1. Major doctrinal issues or the church is practicing things that are unbiblical.
  2. When the vision of the leadership and the direction of the church doesn’t match God’s calling in your life.
  3. If you are moving to another town, county, state.
  4. When your church is consistently stuck in tradition and is being disobedient to the Great Commission and you see no hope for change.
  5. If your preacher begins handling dangerous reptiles or takes you to the beach on a retreat and announces he has created a new kool-aid recipe.

Even if any of these describe your church (Except #5) you should exhaust every opportunity to bring positive change before leaving and spend much time in prayer about the decision.

Ultimately, it comes down to this question, “Am I a consumer of my church’s ministries or a contributor to my church’s ministries?”  That is a great question.  Think twice before leaving your church.  I was profoundly saddened after I left my last pastorate to see how many people left after I went to my next assignment.  It has been one of the most crushing experiences of my life. The change in pastor is no reason to leave your church.  Here are some thoughts to consider:

Your church membership is part of your testimony.  Part of your testimony of God’s work in your life is a direct result of how God is using you in your church.  If you are a spiritual tourist, you are hurting the integrity of your testimony.

The Bible teaches us that God places us in a church for a specific purpose. “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” Eph. 4:16.  He is the one who joined you to that congregation to do your part through the spiritual gift he has placed in your life. When you change your church membership, you strongly need to consider this biblical fact.

Every church has issues, the only perfect church is found in heaven.  Sometimes the grass seems greener on the other side simply because it has more, well you know, to fertilize it. (If you catch my drift or smell). If you are leaving your church because of an issue it may be that you will find the same issue at you next church (or worse).

Your first question of church membership should be, “How can I serve?” and not “How can this church serve me?”  Consumer mindset vs. Contributor mindset

Think twice before you leave your church.  You may be the very one God has placed in that church to enact change and renewal.  Spiritual tourists visit and consume.  Spiritual giants stay and contribute.  Spiritual tourists seek to get the most out of a church experience. Spiritual giants pray that their church will get the most out of them.