Finding Joy

By Derek Earl, Guest Author

[This article originally appeared on Kingdomslc.com.] 

The movie turns on, the Pixar intro begins to play, and my son John runs into the room yelling, "Dory! Dory! Nemo! Nemo!" He knows what movie it is even before it's begun. I have probably seen Finding Dory 10 times, or at least caught glimpses of it while he watches. He's too young to remember the original Finding Nemo, but I certainly remember the first time I saw it. I loved that movie. I loved the concept and plot of a father searching for his lost son.

Now, as much as I would love to draw a big theologically-tasty parallel between a father (Marlin) searching for his son (Nemo), and God searching for His lost sons and daughters, I'll refrain. Instead, let me pose a question about these particular Pixar movies that you've probably never asked yourself.

Would Marlin and Dory have been content if they had never found what they were looking for?

We all smiled when Nemo made his way down the dentist's drain and into the sea. We laughed as Dory forgetfully made her way back to her parents. And we were overjoyed when all was well again for both of them. Would we have been happy if it hadn't ended this way? Would we have had joy in that kind of ending? These questions are a bit silly given that they are about a fictional story, but what about our own stories? What happens when we don't find the job we're looking for? What happens when that special someone leaves or never shows up in the first place? What happens when our world falls apart? 

You see, happiness and joy are two very different things. 

Happiness is fleeting and cheap. It's like a sparkler on the 4th of July. It's lit and begins to crackle and spark, all in a variety of wonderfully different colors. And in about 30 seconds, it's gone. 
Joy, on the other hand, is like slow-burning ember or coal. It is not always the flashiest of things to gaze at, but its intense heat will continue to burn long after the sparklers have all gone out. Not only that, but if you care for the ember well enough and add just the right kind of tinder or fuel, you can create a fire so great that others will be able to see its light from miles away. And even when the rains come and the great fire dies down, the ember will continue to burn steady, waiting for its next chance to ignite. 

All this to say, life does not always turn out like we think it ought to. We do not always get the Pixar ending to our day, week, month, or year that we sometimes believe we deserve. However,

James 1:2-4 tells us to, "COUNT IT ALL JOY, MY BROTHERS, WHEN YOU MEET TRIALS OF VARIOUS KINDS, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." As Christians we have the source of all joy, "since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:1-5). 

So get out your sparklers, turn on some Pixar, and enjoy all of the little things that bring us happiness, but let us never forget about the deep burning joy we have because of what God, through Christ, has done for us! 

Building Walls

jonathan-bean-95090.jpg

By Nicole Ricley, Guest Author

[This article originally appeared on DisplayTheGospel.com.] 

So, here's my confession: I build walls. Big, heavy, stubborn, impenetrable walls. Walls built with the stones of pride and fear that I have for so long allowed to become the prominent building blocks in the construction of my life. And if I'm really being honest, this wall-building is nothing more than a defense mechanism designed to give me a false sense of safety within the boundaries I have established. For years, these walls have dictated how I interact with and love others. They have hurt me and hurt others, and it's not a fun way to live. It can be exhausting, lonely and honestly, just pretty darn miserable. This has been what I like to call my Quarter-Life Crisis. 

In the midst of all of it, I have started to realize the greatest irony of it all; while I envision these walls protecting me and keeping me safe from possible pain, judgment or heartache, these walls are simultaneously keeping out so many good things. Friendship, joy, intimacy, complete and freedom-giving "known"ness. And that is where God has been challenging me for the last couple of years. 

WHEN I BUILD WALLS, I AM OPERATING IN AN ANTI-KINGDOM PARADIGM. 

It is in this struggle, and in all the other areas that I find myself most fearful, Christ calls me to lay my life down and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). To follow Him into vulnerable territory, the world of openness and freedom. Because our God is the God who breaks down walls. He destroys physical Jericho-sized barriers (Joshua 6:1-27). He obliterates invisible social and racial walls between those "chosen" and those deemed "unclean," destroying and dividing walls of hostility (Ephesians 2:14). And as if that weren't enough, He rips heavy curtains from top to bottom, removing barriers that once separated people from His Holy Presence (Matthew 27:51). 

He brings them all to rubble. 

He is the God who brings people in and draws them closer. And just like He did for them in the stories we find in Scripture, and just like He continues to do for His people today, He is my Father who sees me and gently whispers,

"Surrender your pride"
"Trust Me enough to open up your heart."
"Let go of thinking you can control "

But sometimes those gentle love-drenched whispers to my soul are drowned out by the nagging voice of the enemy.

"You're not good enough."
"There is something wrong with you."
"This is the way it should and always will be."

Lie after lie after lie. The broken, prideful, lonely woman that emerges when I listen to this nagging accuser is not the woman I want to be. At all. And more importantly, it's not the woman God has created me to be. So, I'm fighting back. Fighting to believe that what is really true. 

He's constantly beckoning me to return to Him and find my true identity in Him and in His Word. That's a beautiful grace I still have trouble understanding. But still, as a loving Father with arms open wide, He embraces me. At the altar. 

By faith, I will come and I will trust that He will help me break down my walls. 

Stone by stone.

- Nicole

A Different Acts 1:8 Strategy

man-1188012_1280.jpg

Why did Jesus say we would be his witnesses in Samaria rather than someplace like Galilee? And why do we often act like he said Galilee rather than Samaria?   Acts 1:8 reads, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."  

One way we look at this (and I'm not saying it's wrong) is that Jerusalem is our community or city; Judea is our state, Samaria is the nation, and the end of the earth is the other nations. But what's strange is the reality that the disciples weren't from Jerusalem and that wasn't even their home.  They were mostly from Galilee.  Yet, Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem.  Why?

I believe there's another way to look at this mission plan.  

Jerusalem was a place were spiritual discussions were the norm.  There were already many people expecting spiritual things to happen.  There was a spiritual infrastructure with the temple and all the other religious systems. In addition, it was the place everybody was traveling to for spiritual activity and festivals.  There were already spiritually ready people when Acts 2 hit the scene.  You could say that Jerusalem was low hanging fruit.  And maybe that's why the Apostles struggled to leave and God had to bring on Acts 8:1 persecution.  Jerusalem might have been the starting place so the gospel could get a foothold and establish a hub of operations.  

Judea is the surrounding area, like a state, but it might have been more than that.  It was the highways and byways.  It was all the smaller communities that could easily be reached from the base of operations.  The idea might have been to start with any receptive people in Jerusalem and start working out.  Nonetheless, take some ground and get moving.  

Next comes Samaria.  

Samaria didn't have the best reputation in the Old Testament.  Sure, it was a home and burial place for kings, but Amos rebuked Ahab for building a elaborate palace.  Then Jezebel convinced her husband to make Samaria the epicenter for Ba'al worship.  And if that wasn't bad enough, she had God's prophets killed there.  In 2 Kings 6, the city is besieged and two women are fighting because they agreed to eat their babies, but after eating one of the babies the other women hid her baby.  The city didn't fall that day, but eventually it did.  The Assyrians end up exiling anyone of any significance, leaving a little more than 27,000 nobodies in Samaria.  Then the imported other concurred countries.  The people started inter-marrying and adopting false Gods.  It was so bad, that when it was time to rebuild Jerusalem Ezra and Nehemiah wouldn't let the people of Samaria take part.   

By the time of the New Testament, the strain between the returned Jews and the left-behind Samaria was so bad Jews had nothing to do with Samaria.  They went the long way around to avoid traveling through there.  

But Jesus had a heart for Samaria.  He not only traveled through Samaria, he stopped and talked with a Samaritan woman at a well, even telling her he was the Christ (something he didn't often do with the Jews).  He not only traveled through, he stayed there two more days. And remember when Jesus was sharing a story with the religious Pharisees about what it means to be a good neighbor? The goats in the story were religious Pharisees and the hero is the guy we call the Good Samaritan.  Jesus even rebuked James and John for wanting to call down fire from heaven to burn up Samaria (see Luke 9:55-56).   

Maybe our Samaria is the place our heart really doesn't want to see saved?  Samaria is the place we avoid.  It's not the sexy mission trip. Samaritans are those we look down on.  And maybe we don't want them in our churches but they rarely come anyway.   Samaria is on the "other side of the tracks."  

Jesus could have said go to Galilee, but I believe he needed to say as you're taking the gospel out from the starting place, don't bypass Samaria.  Go even where you don't want to.  

The end of the earth is when you've circled the globe and there's no place left.  Start where you can get a foothold and start working your way outward, never stoping.  

I wonder if every local church in the world did this, not neglecting Samaria, what might happen?  Share the gospel anywhere you can get something going, then keep working outward.  Help other churches where they're at.  When you go into a new place, get something going and keep working.  But by all means, don't forget or bypass Samaria!           

The 2nd Hardest Question in Church Revitalization

ben-white-128608.jpg

By Scott Catoe, Guest Author

What is the second most common question I hear as I talk to folks about church revitalization? (We’ll save the most common question for a later post.  How's that for a teaser?) 

The question: What is the hardest part of church revitalization?

In truth, my first response is often to paint with a broad brush and say “everything.” To some degree, that really is true. If God calls a man to revitalization, He is calling him to go into an environment where nearly everything is at best confused and at worst falling apart. For most of us, the building is in disrepair, the people are tired and discouraged, and the leadership is overwhelmed. And it takes years, in many cases, to turn things around. So, my temptation is to say “everything.”

But, I realize that’s probably not helpful, and it certainly won’t do much to actively recruit people to consider pouring their lives out for the sake of a dying church. So, here is my answer now, I think:

It depends.

I know, that seems even more noncommittal than the previous answer. But bear with me a minute and let me explain. Over time, the hardest thing changes. So the hardest thing depends on where you are in the journey of revitalization. Different leaders are equipped and gifted with different strengths, so what may be a real struggle to me may not show up on another pastor’s radar.  So it depends. 

For me, it's, 'Where in the world do I start?'

With so many different things that seem to be in need of leadership, guidance and repair, where do you even begin in revitalization? 

You must start with prayer.

In the context of Southern culture, prayer is a catch phrase for many, but in this case I really think this is truth. In order to effectively lead by the power of the Gospel, you simply have to be a person committed to deep, long, wide seasons of prayer on behalf of the community, on behalf of the people of the church, and on behalf of your family. As God grows a church in revitalization, opposition is imminent. The constant reminder of this truth, along with the constant petition the pastor lays before God for strength and wisdom as he faces that opposition are critical keys to long term tenure in church revitalization. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a pastor who is not deeply committed to the discipline of prayer has little chance of staying long term in a revitalization situation.

The hard truth that I must constantly remind myself is this: I don’t revitalize a church. I can’t. I am not clever enough, strong enough, smart enough. Only God revitalizes churches. If that is true, then my first and greatest priority in the work is not even to work. It’s to beg God to do the work. So, it simply has to start with the personal prayer life of the leader. And it should begin long before your boots hit the ground, if you can. Before you ever preach your first sermon, saturate your community in prayer. Pray for the people God has entrusted to you. Don’t be distracted by simply praying for the people you wish you had. Pray for the people God has entrusted to your care now! Thank God for those faithful people, who have given you the opportunity to lead them. Pray for God’s strength to lead them well. Don’t simply pray for God to “grow” the church; pray for Him to grow you! Pray for wisdom in leadership, for insight and guidance into the people you have, for clear vision about what applying the Gospel to your community looks like.

In short, cultivate a prayer life that will model for the people of your church body what a joy the discipline of prayer is in the life of a church. To do so lays a foundation that will help provide you, and your people, with a measure of spiritual stability that will help you establish a foundation for long-term work.

When I had been at Slater (the church I am serving) about six months or so, I was beginning the process of making some changes that, though they seemed small to me, were nonetheless tectonic for many of our senior members who hadn’t seen change in years. Some were none too happy with it. One of the most substantial moments of my first year came when one of the members approached me to share their uneasiness with the changes. I’ll never forget what they said. “Preacher (which is what almost everyone called me the first year), I don’t understand what you are doing. I don’t even know why you are doing it. But here is what I know: I know you love Christ because we hear you pray, and we see you pray, and we know you are praying for each one of us. And I know that you are listening to Jesus, so I am going to try to listen to you.”

Listen to Jesus, pastor. And then wait patiently for others to listen to you. 

Gospel Story Telling

wood-1786472_1920.jpg

By Brett Ricley, Guest Author

[This article originally posted at DisplayTheGospel.com]

I'll be the first to admit that I'm terrible at story telling. Maybe it's because there's an art to it and I'm not the "artsy" type?

Nonetheless, over the past few years I've observed that the art of gospel story telling has become something the Church has begun to engage in and embrace more. I think this is a good thing.

In Jesus' day, much of the gospel story was communicated orally and even transmitted from one generation to another, orally. Today, we live in a visual world where everything is communicated through graphic design, websites, blogs, television, etc. It's not common that people sit down to communicate gospel truths to each other anymore...unless we're sitting in a church service listening to a sermon. However, I think there is immense value to followers of Jesus being able to communicate the gospel in their own words.

This hit home for me a few days ago when my six year old recently began asking me to tell him Bible stories in the car during our 45 minute commute to school. At first it took me a minute to skim through the mental files of Bible stories to find one I was familiar with enough to confidently tell him. It was a little rough at first but when I finished the story my son immediately wanted to hear another one!

After a few days of this, it dawned on me that I didn't know as many Bible stores by memory as I thought I did. It also dawned on me that there were multiple benefits to this oral gospel story telling thing, whether it's with our kids or other people in general:

  1. People get to hear true stories about God's creation, love, wrath, justice, mercy, and redemption in our own words.
  2. We get to basically lead an oral Bible study with people if we're communicating the timeless principles of the Text along the way and pointing them to Jesus.
  3. It forces us to know our Bibles better. Who doesn't need to know the Bible better?
  4. It serves as a springboard into an endless possibility of conversations about God, theology, and Truth in general.
  5. It (hopefully) shows people far from God that following Jesus is more personal than some religiously organized thing it often gets criticized for being.

Regardless of how good you may or may not be at telling the timeless stories of the Bible, keep pressing on to communicate the greatest story ever told: the gospel!

For the Kingdom,
Brett Ricley

5 Signs Your Church is Dying

abandoned-church-337768_1920.jpg

By Scott Catoe, Guest Author

[A variation of this article originally appeared on The Pillar Network.] 

Of all the things we have euphemisms for, death is at the top of the list. “Passed,” “passed away,” “moved on,” and many others, serve as sanitized phrases to convey what we are truly talking about here:

Death.

Likewise, when we speak of dying churches, we often sanitize our language in much the same way: “we’ve had better days,” “we’re in decline,” or maybe even such well-intentioned statements as “our vision just isn’t clear” all serve much the same purposes. We just don’t like to talk about churches dying.

 Yet, no topic could be more relevant to the state of our contemporary church. Most churches in the South and especially in the rural south, are currently in a state of decline. For most of them, the signs of that slow death were starting long before anyone noticed. What are these signs? How can a church tell if it is in decline, aside from the obvious lack of attendance or decline in giving?

In what follows, I hope to offer 5 signs that can help a church identify if it is headed for death. The intention is not to kick a church while it’s down; it is, rather, to help others see some signs that things are seriously wrong. What are some subtle signs of a dying church?

1. Few people know what they are doing – many in the congregation couldn’t tell you why church matters, what the church does, or why their particular gifting or role is significant. Ultimately, this is the long-term result of one major deficiency in the life of the church: a lack of discipleship. In fact, it is not uncommon in my area to talk to others in church life, including pastors, who will say “I know discipleship is important, but I’ve never done it. In fact, I don’t know for sure that I’ve been discipled myself.” This leads to a litany of problems, all of which will lead to the ultimate erosion of the church.

2. Few people know why they are doing it – purpose. The church exists for the Gospel. The church’s purpose is the propagation and proclamation of the Gospel, in the lives of individuals, communities, and around the world (Matthew 28:20). If a church, or a ministry for that matter, loses sight of the fact that it’s primary purpose is centered on the Gospel, death is imminent. Purpose is critical in the life of any organization, but for the church, it isn’t just any purpose: it’s the purpose of the Gospel.

3. Few people in the church reflect the community around it – the sense of purpose is, to some degree, reflected by the demographics of the church. A simple question, but a helpful one to ask is: does the church look like the community? Does the ethnic and cultural demographic match the community? If not, it is highly likely that the church is headed for precipitous decline and, ultimately, death.

4. More people look backward than forward – it sounds so well intentioned. “We want to restore this church to its glory days.” We package that in many different ways, but most often it is some nostalgic memory that, quite often, has been embellished, albeit unintentionally, over time. Nostalgia in a church that needs revitalization can be a strong ally or a powerful enemy. The church that looks at its past and longs for the day when it looks just like it did 50 years ago is often headed down a painful path.

5. Hope is hard to find – I saved this one for last. The lack of discipleship in the church leads to a lack of understanding about the content and priority of the Gospel. The lack of Gospel focus leads to lack of Gospel fruit. The lack of Gospel fruit leads to lack of hope. Hopelessness is an impending reality for the church that is in decline. These churches, in many cases, feel there is no hope for them, that they are destined for death. Some may be open and frank about this hopelessness, but it is almost certainly palpable, if not on Sunday morning then in vision meetings or calendar planning or budget meetings. Any church that wrestles with feeling as though there is little hope for its survival has, quite simply, accelerated the process of its own demise.

 I want end on a hopeful note. These signs are all reversible. The Gospel is sufficient. Christ loves His church. I have had the blessed experience to watch God take a faithful group of men and women who love a church and snatch it from the jaws of death to become one of the most vibrant churches in its community. Signs of death are signs, not promises. We serve a Christ who beat death, and that victory can, and often does, empower churches to be raised from death or near-death by the power of the Gospel. May we be people who are willing, however, to take a hard look at ourselves and the churches we love and evaluate their condition with honesty and clarity.

*Scott Catoe pastors Slater Baptist Church in Slater, South Carolina. 

THE DEEP THINGS OF GOD By Fred Sanders

By Jared Jenkins, Guest Author 

[This review originally appeared on www.EnturstedWithTheGospel.com]

Any discussion of the Trinity tends to be deep...or nonsensical. Furthermore, deep discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity leaves many Christians with unanswered questions and a nagging desire to know why the doctrine of the Trinity matters at all. The doctrine is touted as central to Christian belief and yet it does not seem to work itself out in day-to-day reality as the Christian life is lived. Or does it?

In The Deep Things of God Fred Sanders makes a call for Christians and Evangelicals, in particular, to “embrace the doctrine of the Trinity wholeheartedly and without reserve, as a central concern of evangelical Christianity” (7).  This is because, according to Sanders, “the Trinity is the Gospel” (10). The more we understand the Trinity the more we understand the Gospel and the more we understand the Gospel the more we understand the Trinity. The Trinity and the Gospel are “internally configured toward each other” (9). The Gospel is actually an invitation to participate in the relationship that resides within the Triune God from all eternity. The Trinity contains within itself God’s character, rooted in love, which is worked out naturally in the Gospel.

According to Sanders there is no stream of Christianity more fitted to live in, experience, believe in, and display the Gospel in the Trinity, and the Trinity through the Gospel, than Evangelicals. Trinitarian theology forms the roots and contours of Evangelical Christianity and this tacit belief “must be coaxed out, articulated, and confessed” (12). When the contours of the doctrine are seen to be the very essence of the Gospel, these deep things of God change everything about our Christian lives.

Sanders works out his argument by setting the stage for the discussion at hand with introductory matters in chapters 1-2, then moves into a discussion concerning the Trinity and salvation in chapters 3-5, and chapters 6-7 consider the Trinity and its place within the important Christian practices of Bible reading and prayer. Of note, chapter 4 entitled “The Shape of the Gospel” is a must read. Here Sanders brings such clarity to the Trinitarian shape of the Gospel that salvation shines in new and bigger ways. Salvation history is shown not only to be a plan of salvation for the world but the very way in which God reveals himself (133). Through this revelation we are being invited to participate in the very nature of God as sons through adoption.

Sanders work is loaded with historical theology from known scholars and lesser know theologians that only add to and illuminate the very argument Sanders is making, and sometimes in very colorful ways. Sanders book is also helpful in the ways that it gets at some of the problems of Evangelicalism such as shallowness in theology and the reductionist tendencies of Evangelicals to only focus on the cross and salvation missing the life of Christ before and after the cross. His application of the doctrine of the Trinity provides phenomenal answers to these profound issues.

Sanders work is geared toward anyone with an interest in the Trinity and is aimed at deepening a Christian’s walk with the Godhead. Sanders book is profound and has changed the way I see everything. I highly recommend The Deep Things of God.

Here are few quotes to taste the deep things of God:

“Behind the missions of the Son and the Spirit stand their eternal processions, and when they enter the history of salvation, they are here as the ones who, by virtue of who they eternally are, have these specific relations to the Father. For this reason, the Trinity is not just what God is at home in himself, but that same Trinity is also what God is among us for our salvation.” (155)

“[Evangelical Trinitarianism] changes everything, not by introducing you into something that was not previously true but by showing you the significance of something that has been true all along. Salvation is Trinitarian, whether you know it or not…” (184-185)

“Salvation is not an experience; experience is only a gateway by which salvation comes into our conscious lives. We have to preach the great thought of God behind the experience.” (186)

“…We have an invitation to pray…to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. This is not just the ‘theologically correct’ way to pray but a way of praying that draws real spiritual power from being aligned with reality. The reality is that Christian prayer is already tacitly Trinitarian, whether we recognize it or not.” (212).

Sanders, Fred. The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes EverythingCrossway, 2010.

The Missional Language of Poker

When Christians think of the mission to take the gospel to every pocket of the earth, two conversations emerge.  The first is centered on learning a foreign language and going to places where the gospel has never been preached.  Or if not ever preached, hardly preached.  We call this going to an "unreached people group."  

The second conversation says, "you are a missionary right where you are."  This means, as Scripture rightly says, that God has given you specific opportunities to take the gospel to the pockets where you live, work, and play.  The Christian life doesn't depend on the 'professional' to reach your co-workers with the gospel--God sent you to those people.  After all, the pastor has zero chance of working side-by-side with your co-workers for eight hours a day, every day.  Why?  Because God has called you to reach your co-workers.  If God wanted your pastor to reach them, he would have given your pastor your job.  But God gave you the job of reaching your co-workers.  Your neighbors too.  And your family.  And your friends.  

Both of these missional conversations are correct.  We have no need to argue one over the other.  Christians should go into all the world as God calls them.  And we should be the sent ones where we live, work, and play. 

But could there be more mission fields around us that we simply miss?  As we are fishers of men, might there be more fishing ponds that nobody is reaching?  I think so, and I've recently found an unlikely one.  Bar poker. 

Before you jump to conclusions, I urge you to continue reading. 

Me and my co-laborer in the ministry, Brett Ricely were struggling to reach the lost in our community this winter.  We live in Utah, a place where winter play can be expensive.  Neither us go to workplaces where there are lots of lost people (the challenge of the pastoral life), so we usually engage with people where they work (i.e., coffee shops, auto shop, the gym, etc).  But play is usually limited to free, outdoor activities.  Our engagement with the lost was slowing down thanks to sub-freezing temperatures and heaps of snow.  So we began praying and exploring places were people play indoors.  Could we adopt a new mission field by adopting a new hobby? Could we simply be missional by changing where we play?

Through prayer and keeping our eyes open, we discovered that a group of unreached people were playing Texas Hold'em poker at a local bar.  This is Utah, so they don't play for money; they play for points.  The point leaders win an entry to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Nevada.  There's no buy-in and no cash incentive.  It's really just a way to get people in to the bar to eat and drink.  Through further exploration, we actually found a large community of people who play bar poker, and poker is their community.  There are more than 4,000 people around our community that play.  As many as 80 or 90 pull up a chair to the felt tops, and most play once or twice a week at the specific 'poker club,' as they're called.  There's usually more than 50 players at every tournament at the club we had our sights on. More significantly, the other poker players in the club are 'family,' and it seems others players around the valley are treated like 'extended family.' 

We spent some time in prayer, sought wise counsel, and set some rules.  We would not ever be in the bar alone.  We would not drink.  And when the game became more important than the mission, we were done.  We also started praying that God would open the door to a Bible study over dinner before the tournament started.  

After a lot of prayer, we walked through the doors on our first night.  I quickly learned some things.  First, poker has its own language.  Second, the longer you stay in the tournament, the more time you have to sit next to people and chat.  Third, people in the bar are very lonely and deeply long for community with others.  And finally, nobody was hostile when they found out we were Christians.  It was the opposite, actually.  Doors were open on our very first night to start a Bible study over dinner before the tournament, just as we asked God to do. We prayed for people right there in the bar.  And we were asked to share what we believe. 

During the week before the next poker night, I downloaded a poker app on my phone and played about 5,000 hands of free poker with people online.  I read some blogs about how to play.  I watched the World Series of Poker from the previous year.  I did an internet search of every strange word and term I didn't understand. I had to learn the language of the mission field.  And I prayed my face off.

The next Monday night started with a Bible study.  There we were, in a bar with open Bibles, talking about Jesus with lost people.  We prayed for our server.  We prayed for some of the players that we met the previous week.  And we enjoyed some really good Irish food.  We weren't weirdos (I hope), we were just regular guys who love Jesus and like poker.  And we were ambassadors of the Light of Jesus in a place where his light was not previously shining.  We were engaging our city with the mission of God, one fishing pond at a time.  

In the following weeks, the Bible study grew.  God gave me good enough cards and some wisdom to win second place on the side-table, meaning credibility with the other players.  I've since made it to 14th place out of about 60 people on the main game.  More credibility.  I'm learning the language and making friends.  Connections are happening.  I'm praying for the players and dealers throughout the week.  I'm having fun and being missional at the same time.  We've shared the gospel many times and invited people to join us at Church on Sunday morning.  Brett and I started bringing our worship pastor, Derek, with us. . . and it turns out he's good at poker and even better with the missional part.

We've also got a monthly 'church game' going at our church building.  There's no money involved, no drinking, cussing, smoking, or anything else that's often associated with the game of poker.  We do, however, eat good snacks and laugh a lot.  There is a large trophy we bought at a second-hand store that's ugly enough to make second place look really good.  And we have fun.  It's usually about a 50-50 split of Christians to non-Christians.  We also offer a chip incentive to anyone who brings a guest and the guest gets the incentive too for being a first timer. 

Being missional means we are missionaries where we live, work, and play; but it also means sometimes we change were we live, work, or play to be more intentional for the advancement of the gospel.  And who knows, you might just pick up a new hobby along the way. 

When Milk and Ministry Collide

I've never lived in the Bible belt.  I've never attended a church with more than about 400 members.  I pastor a very young church with far fewer folks.  Resources are slim--slim enough to make me often think about what it's going to take to get our feet under us while we still have so many Christians from other parts of the country helping hold us up.  It's tough work.  Sometime is so tough that I wonder how in the world Salt Lake will be redeemed by the power of the gospel.  How can our little church be a blessing to our community?  How can our small band of "salt and light" be salty enough?  Bright enough? 

That's were milk comes in.  Well, not milk, but a love for selling milk and other groceries.

"I want to serve God but I love the grocery business," the young man basically told me.  He probably didn't use those exact words, but he has a barcode belt buckle and gets excited about stocking cheese.  He's also serving as an intern in our children's ministry and does a fantastic job preaching children's sermons.  (This young man is pictured above with my children, who love him as their childrens' pastor.)  He's basically a bi-vocational minister; and shouldn't we all be?  Yes, yes we should.  Maybe not in the exact way we think of bi-vocational ministry, but we all should serve God well in all he has equipped us to do.

As we go into our places of work, we should do the best we can to serve the community as we serve God.  Church and state are not mutually exclusive.  We should be light in our workplace, and salt too. Our presence there might just be God's way of blessing our work places and our communities. These things we're doing don't keep us from serving God, they enhance our service to the Lord.  And the same should be completely true of our hobbies too.  Our places of work and play should be just as much mission fields and places of service as any place we go 'to do ministry.'  There need not be any difference.  We can and should be a blessing to our employers and our communities.      

Martin Luther said it this way, 

"The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor. [...] The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living" (1)

I regularly meet with another young man.  He too is on our staff where I pastor and he's bi-vocational.  We spent a great deal of time discussing the difference between the sacred and the secular when it comes to work and play.  As soon as he realized that this idea is a false dichotomy, he was free to be a minister, that is to be salt and light, everywhere.  What amazing freedom!

So as I think about how our little church will impact my huge community, I see that it is through the very interests, hobbies, skills, and crafts of God's people.  Could it be that he gave us those interests, that job, and a specific set of skills for just such a reason?  I believe so.  

____
References:
1. Martin Luther, “Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar” (25 October 1522, Saturday after the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity), in D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 60 vols. (Weimar: Herman Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1883–1980) 10/3:382.

Partnering with a Domestic Mission Field

slide-52.jpg

As a pastor in a pioneering mission field--for us that means a place that has less than 3% Evangelical Christians living here--churches send mission teams to Salt Lake City just as if they were going to Guatemala or Ethiopia. Or do they?  

When I was on staff at a larger, long-established church, one of my duties was to oversee our mission work.  We sent teams to Guatemala, among other places.  In some respects, it was easy to see the need.  The partnership was a little more obvious to me.  But now that I'm on the receiving end of mission teams, I wonder if I was really a good partner. 

Our church plant has some great partners.  We've had some great mission teams come and help us as we've been desperately trying to plant the Gospel on the west side of Salt Lake, North Salt Lake, Centerville, and Bountiful.   But being a pastor in this context, I've learned some things along the way.   If you or your church is considering a partnership with a domestic church plant in a difficult mission field, I hope you will consider the following advice from a church planter who has been on both sides of this thing.

1. Do What Is Truly Needed.  Be willing to do whatever the church planter or pastor needs.  How many times do mission teams come to do created events and projects that the planter or pastor really wouldn't do if not but to keep the mission team happy?  So don't come with desires to do what you like; instead, do what's truly needed in the mission field.

2.  They Know Their Context.  Don't compare your ministry to the ministry you are headed into to serve.  If their context was your context they probably wouldn't need your help.  In addition, they probably know what their community needs.  Trust them.  They are the experts of their call and mission area, not you.  Constant comparison often feels a little like judgement.  And the size of the church is not an indication of better, smatter, or wiser.  It's usually harder to do ministry with a smaller church than a larger, and locational context is very different from one place to the next.    

3.  Don't Be a Burden.  If the pastor in the mission field is more exhausted when the mission team leaves, the mission team may have hurt the ministry.   It might be that the pastor needs days to recover or play catch up to the emails left unseen for the week or get caught up with sermon preparation.  One thing the team can do is to offer to send someone to get the pastor's oil changed or mow his lawn or do some of the other things that might buy the pastor more time.  It might also be good not to place expectations to have all of the pastor's time while you are there.  Would you give every minute of the week to someone at your church while there are still so many other needs going unfilled?   

4.  Overwhelm with Encouragement.  Often the little things can be greatly encouraging.  For example, we have a team that comes and babysits our children so my wife and I can get out on a date.  Many times a planter has no friends or family as they get started, which often means no babysitters.  That means very few dates.  That team even gave my wife and I some cash for the date.  This is good because planters usually have very little personal funds.  In another example, that same church sent my daughter a birthday card.  When you're on the front lines of the mission field, it's easy to feel alone.  These little acts of support go a long way!  Even a $5 gift card to Starbucks and a note reminds the planter family that you're thinking about them.  They are not forgotten or alone.    

5.  Do Your Part.  When it comes to logistics, let the planter tell you what they need in the mission field, but don't burden him with how you'll get there.  Don't put the travel and planning burdens on the the planter or pastor.  The team should be able to work out travel plans, and probably housing plans too.  Do some homework.  This kind of thing takes time.  If you need to get answers to questions, do; but don't expect the planter to do all the leg work.   If the planter has the time to work out your flights and lodging, he probably does not really need your help.  

6.  It's Not a Vacation.  The best teams I've worked with came for the ministry, not the sight seeing and vacation aspects of travel.  Of course people want to see an area when they spend money to travel there, but what's the reasoning behind coming?  Some of the best teams I've worked with have done "fun" in ways that incorporate the local church family.  Rather than trying to see the community through the eyes of a tourist, they've seen what Utah has to offer through our eyes.  For example, we've joined teams in the beautiful mountains of Utah.  The incoming team is often awestruck and the church gets to enjoy the day too.  Or we go hiking, or we enjoy a campfire together.  It could be any number of things.  Any any case, don't expect or even ask the pastor to play "tour guide."  This generally just kills a ministry day for the pastor, which takes us back to Number 3 above.  

7.  Pray.  Finally, remember to pray for the mission filed often.  Stay in contact with the pastor through the year.  This helps foster a better relationship rather than a mission-vacation destination.

I hope you've found this helpful.  If you haven't considered partnering with a domestic mission field, I want to encourage you to do so.  And I hope you'll consider partnering with a planter in Utah.  (If you're interested in partnering with me and Redeeming Life Church, you can start that journey here.)

For the Kingdom!
Pastor Bryan  

Salty Believer Unscripted: "A Gospel Spin"

If 2015 was categorized as the year everybody was offended, 2016 was the year everyone hand an angry agenda.  It was a tumultuous year.  The election certainly didn't help, but  politics don't hold the blame alone.   Race, abortion, social media, and hard hearts have their place too. 

It wasn't easy, and really not much fun, but Brett Ricley, Jared Jenkins, and I spent 8 weeks looking at hot issues through gospel lenses.  What does the gospel have to say about what we see in the world around us?  Is it relevant?  Does it apply?  Is there anything we can learn from an old revelation from God?  Of course! On all counts!  

As you reflect on 2016, I'd like to encourage you to think about it through the lens of the Bible.  It's not always an easy task, but these 8 podcasts from "Salty Believer Unscripted" might help.   (And it's a great opportunity to hear our thoughts on the issues!) 

A Gospel Spin: A Look at Current Issues
-- An Introduction audio 
-- How to Think About Government (Part 1) audio
-- How to Think About Government (Part 2) audio
-- Christian in the Voting Booth audio 
-- The Tensions Among the Races audio
-- Post-Election Thoughts audio
-- Abortion vs. Right to Choose audio 
-- When We Get it Wrong audio

Subscribe to the Salty Believer Unscripted Podcasts:
iTunes  | Non iTunes

Follow "Salty Believer Unscripted" on Facebook. 

Join me in prayer for 2017.  May it be marked by a great revival among Christians and an awaking among those who don't yet know Jesus! 

 

Making Disciples by Ralph Moore

"If you are serious about discipleship," Harrington said, "you've got to go meet Ralph Moore."  I had never heard of the man, but Bobby Harrington said he's the guy to meet. I was at a conference and Moore was there too.  I googled him.  Then I flipped through his books on a showroom table.  They were kind of tucked behind the better known names.  I put them back on the table.  

His breakout session was simple.  Ralph Moore is an easy going guy, almost more comfortable with small groups rather than standing on the stage.  His methods seemed refreshingly honest and kind of confirming, yet pastors were walking out of the session.  "It's too simple" they muttered.  Anybody can do that. I need something more."  

Then he said it.  It went something to the effect: "I was worried I wasn't accurate when I shared that we'd planted just over 1,300 churches since 1971.  But then with a little help, I've learned that we've actually surpassed 2,300 churches planted."  

Now he had my attention.  

 I went straight from that session to the vendor table and bought Making Disciples: Developing LifeLong Followers of Jesus by Ralph Moore (Baker Books, 2012).      

I'm not sure how to approach this post; but I can say it's not really a book review.  If it were, it wouldn't be a good one.  This is more of a recommendation.  I highly recommend that every Christian read this book.  Or at least the Christians that aren't making disciples who make disciples who make disciples. 

Making Disciples probably won't teach you anything you don't already know or couldn't figure out on your own.  It's simple.  Really simple.  But that's the problem.  We often over-complicate everything.  Moore cuts through all that and brings it back to the simple process of making disciples of Jesus through a series of stories, explanations, and easy-going illustrations.  If nothing else, the book should encourage you to follow Jesus' command to make disciples. 

"Disciplemaking" writes Moore, "is the intentional friendship with another person, with Jesus at it's core" (42).  But this isn't a book about making friends and waiting for years before you share with them that you are a follower of Jesus.  Moore is upfront about his faith and the Bible is central to everything.  So is the tranformative work of the Holy Spirit.  It sounds too simple, right?  Because it is.  But 2,300 church planted through the process of making one disciple at a time should encourage you to pick up this book and read it.   What's holding you back?

I read this book in a day.  I couldn't put it down.  I found myself nodding and wondering how this would have gone over in seminary.  I felt convicted about my friendships (or lack-there-of).  I wanted to pick up long forgotten hobbies.  I felt better about living my life, on the hunt for 'fishing pools' as Moore calls them.  And I bought copies for the staff of the church I pastor.  

It's a good book, really.  And I encourage you to read it.  

Follow this link to purchase Ralph Moore's book, Making Disciples: Developing LifeLong Followers of Jesus.  

*I have no material connection to Ralph Moore or this book. I just really think it's worth the read.     

If It Happened Today?

Luke 2:2-20 is a remarkable story for many reasons.  The faith of a young girl is amazing (not that she had much choice).  The faith of Joseph, Mary's betrothed, is amazing.  His bride-to-be ends up pregnant and tells a story that millions around the world today still do not believe.  Joseph didn't believe it either and planned to divorce her quietly when an angel, one of God's messengers, has a conversation with Joseph.  (You can read about this in Matthew 1:18-25.)  But what I really like is the faith of the shepherds.  

What would happen if this event with the angels and the shepherds (recorded Luke 2:8-20) happened today?    

I hope I'm wrong, but first, I suspect that after the shepherds heard the message from the angels, they would form a small group to discuss what it would look like to go and see this thing that has happened.  This group would probably meet for months with all kinds of time to do life together in missional community as they pondered what could happen if they went to Bethlehem to see this thing they heard about. 

Next, they would form a committee and sign a document stating that they believed the angels were from God and telling the truth, without error.  Of course, there would be some debate on this, so a symposium would be necessary to discuss this endlessly.  

After the symposium, they would need to debate the transmission of God's message.  What was the intent behind the intent?  How can the message be trusted?  Was the call to go see the baby Jesus literal or figurative?   Was it only for the shepherds or for others too?  These debates would probably never end.  They would play out in social media and blog posts well beyond the lifetimes of the people who hear the original message.  

Books would be written about this angelic message from God.  They'd also be written about the shepherds, the angels, the field in which the shepherds heard the message, the sky, the science, the emotion, and much more.  Pages and pages would be written and published well beyond the market's capacity to purchase and read.  

Movies would be produced and people would argue about them.  Some might even boycott the movies because the directors missed a detail.  Others would host big outreach events in their churches centered around the movies.  

A satire post would be written.  More people would hear about the event through the satire than from anywhere else.  Many Christians would be embarrassed about being Christians because of the satire so they wouldn't say anything at all. 

We would have to ask how millennials would rather hear the message.  Debates about if we should rewrite the angel's message in a more contextual way might be necessary.  

Churches would split.

Entire seminary classes would be written to study this amazing event.  Dissertations would be written on every aspect of the message, the shepherds, the angels, the responses, the timing, the historicity, and so much more.   Many scholars would start denying the event, even in the seminaries.  

But even after all this, one question would still remain.  Would anybody actually go see Jesus and worship him?  All joking aside, the message of the angels to the shepherds is still just as important then as it is today.  When we hear God's message (through his Word, pastors, other saints, prayer, books, music, and so-on) do we obey or do we do something else.  Are we more serious about the Bible or about the message contained in the Bible?  Are we more serious about the message or the King and Savior the message directs us too?  If you were in that field that night, what would you do?  It's no different when you hear God's message today.  So what are you going to do?  

Christmas on Sunday? Oh no!

As a pastor, I've heard many opinions about holding services on Christmas. They differ widely.  If you haven't noticed, Christmas falls on a Sunday this year.  Various authors, pastors, and speakers are weighing in.  Many different ideas are being put forward on both sides of this arguments.  Unfortunately, some of these arguments are written from a position of superiority, criticizing other churches for their decision (on both sides of this argument), or simply personal preference.   How should we think about this problem?  Before getting into that, here are some things to think about as you evaluate the various opinions. 

1.  The 'We should celebrate as a family' argument.  I've heard that because it's Christmas, it should be a church celebration.  Interesting that we don't usually hear this argument when Christmas falls on a Tuesday.  In that case, church services remain on Sunday and Christmas is celebrated on Tuesday, or any other day other than Sunday.  In addition, how come we don't read about churches gathering on Thanksgiving night, so church families can celebrate as a family? 

2.  The 'Church services are an important part of Christian worship and shouldn't be canceled' argument.  This argument should also apply to vacations and camping weekends, too.  If someone is going to say we shouldn't cancel a worship service because Christmas falls on a Sunday, he or she should also say, we shouldn't miss a single worship service because our vacation falls on a Sunday.  But then, the conversation should probably move to something about how the perfect church attendance award does not earn you a spot in heaven.  

3.  The 'Staff and volunteers need to be able to celebrate with their family' argument. This one pleads for the volunteers and staff who come in early and stay late to put the service on.  Others have a day off (like almost everybody) so why not this group?  It is often made by those who have family, especially little kids.  It's also made by pastors who don't have enough available volunteers to help put on a service with those with families not attending.  If this is the case, those who do want services on Christmas should offer to help so the burden is lighter on those who typically serve.   

4.  The 'School or community center isn't open' argument. This would have been my problem last year.  We used to rent space in a county community center.  Holding services would have meant a couple county employees would have had to work.  That is, if the center would have rented us space on Christmas day.  Let's not be too hard on mobile churches that have to deal with this issue. 

5. The 'It's an outreach' argument.  Okay, what?  If we're wondering if our church members are going to attend on Christmas, what are the chances unchurched, non-believers are going to attend on Christmas day?   It may be a good outreach in your area; I don't know.  Give it a try and see how it goes.

6. The 'Families should know how to do worship in their home' argument.  This argument should cause us to wonder if the families in our churches have been taught to do this, and if they do at any other times.  This is probably a good conversation 52 weeks a year, not just when there's a difficult scheduling day.  In any case, technology does help much more now than ever before. 

7.  The 'I just want my church do be more holy or set apart than the community' argument.  I wonder what the motivation is behind some of these arguments?  Especially if people argue for their church to hold services and then they don't show up.  I also wonder if it's about being 'set apart' like the Pharisees repeatedly argue with Jesus in Mark 2.  And what should we think when we read, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  So the son of Man is lord even over the Sabbath" when the Sabbath happens to fall on Christmas?  

8. The 'Christmas shouldn't be about gifts' argument.  This one is basically argues that we shouldn't be about stuff, and instead be about worshiping God.  That's really true, but we should extend this argument into the rest of the year too.  If this truly is the argument, people should tithe more because stuff is less important than ministry.  People should work less so they have time to worship more.  Working on Sunday?  Well maybe stuff is too important to you?  If this is indeed the argument.  Maybe we shouldn't give gifts at baptisms and forget about pastor appreciation gifts.  Let's just worship more.  And if we're not about anything corporate, we probably shouldn't be about any thing else that has a corporate inclination or anything associated with money either.  Let's apply this argument to every other other holidays or the Super Bowl, or presidential debates, or March Madness, or any other thing that we celebrate corporately and spend money on.  Or we could relax a hair and celebrate the one who gave the best gift of all by by generously giving gifts to others. 

With all of this in mind, as well as the many other arguments on this topic, you can probably see that this is as much like worship style or Bible translation.  It's going to be different for every church and arguments on both sides are not necessarily unbiblical.  It seems like a matter of preference.  And it's possible that whether you have a service on Christmas or not, the sky is probably not going to fall.  Therefore, I suggest in the spirit of Christmas, we simply allow this to be a matter for each church to determine for themselves, just as families around the nation are making decisions about how they will celebrate Christmas. Whether you attend a service or not, I pray you have a wonderful, Christ-centered Christmas.   

Leviticus 24:10-23 and the Code of Hammurabi

At the church where I pastor, we are working our way through the book of Leviticus.  It's no easy task, I assure you.  Most of the time, the book shocks our sense of reality, justice, and feelings about God.  Yet as we look, it's usually what we think we see that's the problem.  But as we dig in, reason through the text, and work at it, we find what's actually there are we are amazed.

Take  Leviticus 24:10-23 for example. 

It would seem that two men got into a fight and one of them "blasphemed the Name and cursed" (verse 11).  The people brought the man to Moses and they wanted to see what the will of the Lord should be for his man.  

God said, "Bring out of the came the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let the congregation stone him" (verse 14).  This is serious business.  However, God dictated, "whoever curses his God shall bear his sin.  Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death.  All the congregation shall stone him.  The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death" (Leviticus 24:16).    

Oh man, this seems really harsh.  Is God an unfair, harsh God?  Does this punishment fit the crime?  

God goes on to talk about a fairness code.  He sets a maximum amount of punishment allowed for the crime and it should fit.  Scholars call this principle lex talionis.  We often call it an "eye for an eye" which God mentions too.  I don't think and eye for an eye was specifically about eyes but about this principle.  

And most law students and historians will quickly notice a similarity between Leviticus 24:17-23 and the Code of Hammurabi.  

Hammurabi was the 6th King of Babylon.  And while he wasn't the first king to set out laws for the people, he is one of the most famous early law-makers because his code was inscribed on stone (which means we can still read it today).  His goal was to set some level of fairness in criminal matters, issues of divorce, contracts, and other legal matters.  He wrote 282 laws called the Code of Hammurabi.  

What does the Code of Hammurabi have to do with Leviticus 24:17-23?  

The 196th code mentions matters of an eye for and eye.  Code 200 is a tooth for a tooth. And 197 is a broken bone for a broken bone.  (You can read all 282 codes here.)  A good argument can be made that Leviticus was written before the Code of Hammurabi, but that's not the point.  The two agree.

The point is that God is a fair God.  God's code and man's code have much in common on this one. 

The point is that the punishment should fit the crime.  God has set the lex talionis and it's the same one set by a king of the same time period.  

The point is blaspheming God, that is, using God's name as a curse word is very serious.  Deadly serious.  This kind of disrespect is so serious that the punishment is death.  

Now, it's not the act of using someone's name as a curse word that's the problem.  If you were to use my name as a curse word, not only would you not die, you might get a laugh or two.  The reason this is so serious is because of the magnitude of the name being cursed.  That is why the punishment fits the crime here.  That is why God is fair.  That is why this is not as harsh as we might initially think.  Because God is that magnificent.  God is that powerful.  God is such that he demands that much fear, reverence, and respect. 

Any Given Sunday

It can be difficult to really know what's going on across the nation when the loudest voices rise to the top.  The evening news features the stories that elicit the most negative emotion.  Social media is usually like the stuff swirling around a tornado-- loud, dark, and something that causes sane people to stay out of.  Popular media, art, and entertainment seem to avoid emulating what is in favor of what could never be.  So how does anyone know what's happening across the nation? 

As Christians, we sometimes wonder if the Bible is fading into dust.  Are people still preaching God's Word?  What's going on in Wisconsin?  How about Kentucky?  Oregon?  Is anyone still seeking God?  Do we, as a nation, cherish God's inerrant revelation?  Or are we alone?

In an effort to provide encouragement in our divided and difficult times, an organization called Unlocking the Bible selected a single Sunday and went looking for gospel preaching in all 50 states of the United States.  As it turns out, God's Word is indeed being preached across the nation.  

 

I am honored that they found and selected a sermon I preached to represent Utah.  Redeeming Life Church, where I pastor, is a church that loves Jesus.  They desperately seek to know God through is Word and his people.   I'm blessed to have the opportunity to pastor this church and preach God's Word there.  If you're reading this, I hope you watch the above video and I'd like to invite you to be our guest at Redeeming Life Church.  We meet for prayer and communion at 10am and a worship service at 11am.  2070 N. Redwood Road, Salt Lake City, Utah 84116.  See you Sunday! 

You can listen to the entire sermon from September 18, 2016 here.  It's the first sermon from our Leviticus series. 

What, No Worship Leader Today?

I'm a pastor of a little church.  We're a newer church.   A young church.  A church plant.  We are blessed to have any person with musical ability, but we are short on skilled worship leader types.  So we are thankful for the ones we have. 

But I knew our Sunday morning worship service would be a little difficult with all our faithfully serving men up at a men's retreat.  However, I didn't anticipate what could have happened when I woke up Sunday morning.  We planned to do what we always do on Sunday and see others would fill in as God called upon them. It wouldn't be the normal team, but it would still be great.  

And then I received a text message at 7:30am, Sunday morning.  The worship leader and her son were really sick.  No worship leader? Nope, they were all up at the retreat.  Hours away.  Okay.  Anybody else available to sing?  No, not as a leader. What were we going to do? 

A year ago, I probably would have freaked out.  But not this time.  The truth is, church is not our order or worship.  Our church is not a welcome, three songs, and so-on.  No church should be.  Our Sunday morning is not about dong stuff and doing it right.  It's about being the Church.  Sadly however, many people have turned Church into an event.  It's a service.  A thing you go to an enjoy or not enjoy.  A moment in time from which to consume or give.  

So when it was the time when we normally stand up and sing worship songs, I stood before our church and shared this short message.  I preached a sermon later, but I think God wanted us to think about the question, "What is the Church?"

It's one thing to talk about being the Church, it's another when you don't have a worship leader.  I know many churches that would rather cancel services than be the Church. 

If you'd like to listen to that seven-minute message in place of our songs, you can listen on the player below or you can listen here.  Following this message, we listened to Emily and David play and we prayed and meditated on the Lord.  

And guess what?  Church was still there because we are the Church.  We gathered.  We prayed.  We opened our Bibles and heard from the Lord.  We praised our King. We remembered that the Church is a family and it was good.  Nothing blew up.  Nobody died.  And it we worshiped Jesus. 

God used our morning without a worship leader to remind us of who we are.  And we celebrated that. 

"To See What They Saw"

I was blessed to preach at Forest Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.  They are a partner church to the church that I pastor, Redeeming Life Church.  They are a wonderful partner, and for them, I am extremely thankful.  I am also humbled that Pastor Sam Boyd would let me step before his congregation and preach on Acts 17.   If you're interested, you can watch the sermon here. 

*In addition, there is much in this sermon that was influenced by giants upon who's shoulders I stand.  For this sermon, Dave Earley pressed many of these same ideas on me, and I am in his debt.

More Churches Need Graveyards

It's unfortunate that we don't build churches connected to graveyards anymore.  What a profound reminder of the reality of the gospel.  Pastors are in the business of death and life.  But more so, I think a graveyard might be a helpful reminder for pastors like me.  

After cleaning up the lifeless paper coffee cups, collecting all the left behind items, and locking  up two hours after the worship service concluded, "nice to see you again, pastor" echoing from the community of tombstones puts things back into the right perspective.  It changes the conversation on the lonely walk to the car.  Start and stop dates carved in old stone has a powerful ability to  cause a pastor to consider his personal vital signs of health as he's getting ready for another emergency counseling session with a couple that probably won't change but "really need to talk with the pastor."  And every time I might ask, "what's the point?", encouragement to keep going would whisper in from the outside yard. 

A graveyard really puts things into perspective.  Paint colors don't mean much when there's a graveyard on the other side of the wall that needs painted.  Those five extra minutes the pastor robbed when he preached long might be forgiven as families rush past a graveyard trying to beat the Methodists to Cracker Barrel.  The topics like salvation and hell may be more meaningful in the shadow of death.  And nobody can say death is a punishment for sin is just metaphorical when tombstones lean over to get a better view into the windows. 

The other thing we miss when we worship in a warehouse instead of a graveyard is the reality that many great saints have gone before us.  The cloud of witnesses is a large cloud; and when there's a graveyard outside the front door, we can see that some of that cloud lived and died in our communities.  We stand on their shoulders.  If we are church planters, we are not likely the first.  Someone had to plant that 75-year-old church.  That should force us to be grateful.  No wonder Christians forget how to be humble!  It should be no mystery why we believe we are the best and most special Christians in our community.  Some of us could stand to have an ol' timer walk us over to a grave marker and say, "This guy here gave a lot of prayer, money, and time to set a foundation with the hope that you'd be a believer today.  Maybe his out dated methods, songs, and flannel board deserve a little respect?" Having a graveyard outside might change the way a lot of Christians act and think. 

I pastor a church that just finished converting a warehouse office into a worship space.  We lease it and there's no graveyard outside.  We don't even have a steeple or a prayer garden.  No stained-glass.  Nope.  None of that.  Just a bunch hip stuff wrapped in brick and commercial steel.  But I don't need the steeple or the stained glass.  Those things are really nice but they might be a relic of the past.  However, I sure would love having a graveyard right out side.  I think that would dramatically change the way I care for God's people.  And I have to imagine it might help the church take the gospel a little more seriously each and every time they walk past that graveyard on their way to church services.     

Defending our Idols

Maybe I'm getting old, but I don't remember everybody hating everybody else.  When I was younger there were people who got hot, but I don't recall people being so nasty.  Spend any time on the social media outlets and you will find people angry about something.  They hate what they don't think is right and hate the people who disagree with them.  And then a few minutes later, they hate the people who don't necessarily disagree but don't completely agree with every point. A few more minutes and they hate everybody and everything. . . except themselves and their own thoughts.  

Sometimes this hate is hidden behind a cloak of complaint.  There's always something wrong.  There's always an injustice.  There's always an enemy of some kind.  There's always a need to vent publicly and then say, "it's just venting" when people call it out.  

Just this week I saw an Olympian use her platform to make a statement against the police in the US.  Then others complained about her statements.  Still others argued against the complainers.  I also saw a string of people complaining about the coverage of women in the Olympics.  Of course I've seen way too many people arguing politics.  Name calling.  Gun rights. Abortion rights (if there truly is such a thing). Problems with education.  Problems with cable companies.  Problems with people.  Problem with systems.  Problems with problems.  (Even now I'm pointing out a problem.  I'd like to think I'm different, but I'm not.) 

Why do we have such a problem?  Why do we hate anything that's against our ideas.  Why is anything that is no "me" so intolerable?  

I would like to offer than we are defending our idols.  People seem to get the hottest when what is most important object of our worship is in jeopardy.  I'm not saying that gun rights or who can use which bathroom or any particular candidate is what's important.  These things are not the idols.  Not politics.  Not guns.  Not sexual behavior.  If we cut through it all, what we'll find is our actual idol.  The one we whore ourselves to.  And just what or who is our idol?  Ourselves.  Yup.  The god of "me." 

We argue and complain because like the people in the time of the book of Judges, we are doing what we think is right in our own eyes.  And it's not what we are doing that's important to us, but that we get to sit in the place that says what is right, what is worthy of praise, and what all others should bow down and worship.  Most the people I know (and sometimes even myself) want people to worship the god we worship--ourselves. 

Is this why people get so bent out of shape when they drive?  Is it what motivates our actions on Facebook?  Is this what's behind it all?  Even as I'm writing this for my website, I have to question if I want people to value this post in such a way as to value me as a false god?  I hope not, but it's possible.  I'm sinful like the rest of creation.  

Interestingly, Romans chapter 1 deals with the ramifications of self-worship.  It's bad.   People exchange truth for a lie and trade in God for a false god.  Then Romans 1:28-32 points the finger at us today, saying, 

"And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not be done.  They were filed with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.  They are gossips, slanders, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them."  

That sounds about right.  What's the answer to this problem?  

The Bible speaks of mortifying sin.  Killing it.  There's lots of talk of repenting from this evil way and turning to Jesus. And then there's the picture we see in Gideon.  In Judges (that book where everybody was doing what they defined as right), Gideon is called to destroy the false idols in his father's house.  You can read about it in Judges 6.  When the town woke to find their idols tore down, they were mad. Really man.  But in the end, the false gods were left to defend themselves.  Nothing happened because the false gods are no gods at all.  

I wonder if this is what we are doing.  As we simultaneously identify ourselves as god and then worship the false god of "me," we take up a defensive position.  We are actually trying to defend our position as our own idol as others try to do the same by cutting us down.  Is this what we see on Facebook?  Twitter?  So the answer might be that it's time to stop defending and start killing.  It's time to tear down the false idol of self. It's time to worship the one, true God.     

I suspect when we do this, we'll find the peace and joy the god of self seems to withhold.  We'll find the power for real transformation into the image of Jesus that the god of self is powerless to deliver.  And in the end, we'll find life, real life in Christ's name.  Because there is no other name and no other God able  to giving us life and life to the fullest.