Sunday, December 27, 2009

How Reliable Are the Ancient Manuscripts of the Bible?

Many young people I work with wonder how reliable the ancient manuscripts of the Bible really are. After all, the Bible was written a long time ago in a different language and in a different cultural context. Though sometimes these young people are just trying to be hard to get along with, most of them genuinely want to know the answer to this question. Recently I found the following helpful information about the reliability of the ancient manuscripts and I thought I would share it with my readers.

The Bible is unquestionably the world's all-time bestseller with an estimated 2 billion copies in print. The Bible was completed in its entirety nearly 2,000 years ago and stands today as the best-preserved literary work of all antiquity. There are over 24,000 ancient New Testament manuscripts discovered so far. Compare this with the second best-preserved literary work of all antiquity, Homer's Iliad, which only 643 preserved manuscripts discovered thus far. The printing press wasn't invented until the 1450's, but we have hand-written copies of the Old Testament dating back to the 200's BC. Remarkably, these ancient manuscripts are nearly identical to the Bible we read today.

As far as the New Testament, the Bodmer Papyrus II contains most of the Gospel of John and dates from around 150-200 AD. The Chester Beatty Papyri contains major portions of the New Testament and dates back to about 200 AD. The Codex Vaticanus, the oldest complete New Testament manuscript we've discovered so far, dates from 325-350 AD. The apostle John, who lived with Jesus and learned from Jesus, penned five New Testament books and died in 100 AD. We have fragments of John's Gospel that date from 110-130 AD, within 30 years of his death. When compared to other ancient works such as Plato, Homer or Tacitus, that short time period between the original and the most recent copy is dramatic!

Clement of Rome was martyred in 100 AD. In his writings, he quoted from Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, 1 Corinthians, 1 Peter, Hebrews, and Titus. Clement's quotes totally correspond with the Bible we read today. In fact, even if we lost all of the 5,300 early Greek manuscripts, all of the 10,000 Latin vulgates, and all of the 9,300 other ancient manuscripts, we would be able to reconstruct all but 11 verses of the New Testament from the writings of the early Church leaders who quoted from them extensively. We have over 36,000 preserved quotes from the New Testament. In a nutshell, the Bible stands today as the best-preserved literary work of all antiquity and its overall reliability is without question! (This material was adapted from:

Honest questions deserve honest answers and I hope this material will help my readers who are struggling with this issue.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Focusing on Jesus While Discussing Faith

I know many people who do not consider themselves Christian. Many of these people do have a belief in God and a surprising number of them have a deep respect for Jesus. Though they may not be Christians, I often have engaging conversations with them about Jesus. Such people are often interested in talking about Jesus because of the great respect they have for Him.

For example, Jews believe in the same God as Christians. Though most Jews do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah for whom they have been waiting, many Jews do have respect for Jesus as a great religious teacher. When talking about Jesus to Jews, we can focus on what Jesus says about Moses and other prophets whom laid the foundation for the Jewish faith.

Muslims believe in a god named Allah. Some Muslims say that Allah is the same God as the Christians, though other Muslims say it is a different god. Since I am not Muslim, I'll let them debate that question between themselves. But nearly all Muslims respect Jesus as a great prophet and religious teacher; even if they don't think Jesus is the Savior of the world. When talking to Muslims about Jesus we can focus on the prophetic words that Jesus spoke since they respect Jesus as a prophet.

Many Buddhists even believe in Jesus, they just think He is a reincarnation of one of the Buddhas. Though I don't share that viewpoint, I do appreciate their respect for Jesus. When talking to Buddhists we can talk about what Jesus said about inner spirituality being superior to outward appearances since that is also important to Buddhists.

Gandhi, who was Hindu, had great respect for Jesus. Gandhi once said that if people in his nation actually lived like Jesus, all of India would be Christian. When talking to Hindus about Jesus, we can focus on the actions Jesus told us to emulate.

Many atheists even respect the way Jesus talked about social justice issues and agree with how Jesus chastised established religion for neglecting the poor and needy. When talking to atheists about Jesus we can focus on the relational aspects of how Jesus told us to treat each other.

The point I am trying to make is that talking to others about Jesus is a good thing, even if those individuals are not Christians. Those of us who are Christians should try hard to make sure we don't mess up our discussion about Jesus by failing to act like Jesus. We are the ones who claim to be the followers of Jesus but when we fail to actually follow His example and teachings, it makes our verbal sharing about Jesus weaker. As 2009 draws to a close and we begin to focus on a new year, may those of us who claim to be Christians make the resolution to live out our faith in both word and deed this year, both to each other and to those who do not consider themselves Christians.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar and the Incarnation of Christ

Trying to explain deep theological concepts to young adults who did not grow up in church can be a challenge. One of the most important concepts in the Christian faith is the incarnation of Christ. Entire books have been written on the incarnation. To boil it down to its most basic element, the incarnation is the idea that God became a man and lived among us. God did this so that we could understand Him in a personal way through the person of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately most of us still fail to grasp the full impact of the incarnation.

Since Christmas is all about the incarnation of Christ, I thought I'd tackle this subject during this season of the year. Many of us, who are sci-fi fans, have seen the new movie that recently came out called Avatar. This movie has the incarnation theme all through it. The story line revolves around a group of humans who are mining ore on a distinct planet. They are trying to communicate something important about this process to a race of blue aliens. But the aliens just don't get it because they have a completely different way of looking at the world than the humans do. Some human scientists decide to grow a human/alien hybrid in a lab and then let humans mind meld with these creatures. The creatures then go live among the aliens for the purpose of being able to communicate this important information to them. During the course of the movie, much is learned about the culture of the blue aliens that could not have been learned except by living among them and experiencing life as they experienced it.

Though the illustration is far from perfect, this does give a basic understanding of the incarnation of Christ. God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ came to live among us because we could not really grasp everything God was trying to say to us without the Creator of the universe walking among us. By seeing how Christ lived and related to those around Him, mankind learned important truths that God wanted us to know. The writers of the four Gospels wrote down the actions of Jesus and scholars have spent 2000 years learning from them. The incarnation is important because we would never have been able to understand God in a personal way had He not come to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

During this Christmas season, perhaps we should each spend some time asking how much we have learned from our relationship with Jesus. As the New Year approaches, perhaps one of our resolutions might be to invest more time, energy and effort into getting to know Jesus better in the year to come. He came to earth to show us important truths, the least we can do is learn those lessons and apply them to our lives in order to better understand the universe in which we live.

Who knew we could learn all that from a sci-fi movie?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Having I Trouble?

Have you ever noticed how the middle letter of the word "pride" is an "I"? It's that focus on "I" that often gets us in trouble.

I was talking about this subject with a friend who is relatively new Christian. He shared with me that one of his greatest struggles with his new found faith is the level of pride that exists in the hearts of many long term Christians. As he has become more involved in his church, he has had more opportunities to interact with people who have been Christians for a very long time. Though some of those long term Christians set an example for him in how faith and godliness work out in real life, a great many others just seem to ooze spiritual pride from their very pores.

These Christians seem to think they have got it all together spiritually, emotional and relationally in their lives, when in reality, they have as many problems as everyone else. My friend may be young in the faith, but he is not stupid, nor is he blind. My friend knows that Christians are still human, and he does not want to stand in judgment of others who have been in the faith longer, but you can imagine how frustrating it is for him when the ones he looks to as an example are full of themselves more than they are full of the Spirit.

Though my friend happens to be an adult, I have met many young people who have similar struggles. Many young people who have grown up attending church and learning about Christ turn away from their faith once they leave their parent's nest. Many of those young people lament that they would have stayed in the church if it were not for all the prideful Christians they met at church!

I know that pride is an issue I have to deal with constantly in my own life. I have come to believe that the longer we are Christians, the more prone to pride we become. This was the problem the Pharisees had in the New Testament, and not much has changed about the human condition since then.

If we want to invest ourselves in helping young people find a meaningful faith in Christ, we must learn to let go of our "I" problems and live humbly before God and man.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It’s All About Me, Isn’t It?

Lately it seems that I have found myself giving a lot of counsel to people who have high levels of bitterness in their spirit. Usually they come to me upset because someone has said something about them or offended them in some way. When I begin to ask questions and try to understand their feelings, the conversations often seem to revolve more about how they feel about themselves than about the person who supposedly hurt them.

Not long ago one friend of mine was highly offended by a joke that another person told. Dozens of people were in the room, but the person who was offended was so sure that the joke was pointed specifically at them. To be honest, in my own mind, I could not see any connection between the joke and the person who was offended and the joke teller clearly had not intended the joke to be aimed at anyone. But to the person who was upset, it was obviously all about them. Then there was the time that someone put a movie quote as their Facebook status, and half a dozen people were sure it was some kind of veiled jab at them, but it wasn't, it was just a movie quote from a movie the person had seen earlier in the day.

It seems that people are just more easily offended now than ever before. Our culture has somehow created a hyper-sensitive emotional state where everyone is convinced that the world is out to get them.

Though I am not a psychologist, it seems to me that this is a result of our own low self esteem. We feel bad about ourselves; therefore we think others feel bad about us too. Since we think that everything feels bad about us, then we interpret anything they say or do as a "bad" intention toward us.

And once we get angry and upset about one "offense" that someone did to us, and then we transfer that anger over into other relationships too. Instead of finding joy in our friendships, we just find pain and hurt. The pain and hurt cause us to end friendships that are really important to us, which just brings more pain and hurt. The end result is that we spend a lot of time angry and upset about stuff that often only exists in our own mind.

I am guessing that right about now half the people reading this are mad at me because you are sure that I am talking about YOU in this post! News flash, the world does not revolve around any particular one of us! People do not really sit around dreaming up ways they can hurt us. People are too busy trying to make a living, trying to pass the 10th grade, trying to find a job or be a good spouse to spend time being obsessed with us. The only person obsessed with us, is US. Maybe we just need to relax a little and stop creating drama that does not exist. We will all be a lot happier if we stop taking everything everyone says or does personally.

Take a deep breath. Relax. It's not all about us. And that's a good thing.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holy Cows and Godly Grilled Cheese

A farmer in Rhode Island is excited because a cow was born on his farm that has a white marking on its forehead that vaguely resembles a white cross. A few months ago someone thought they saw the image of the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. A couple of years ago someone got a french fry from McDonalds that they swore looked like Jesus kneeling in prayer. While it is indeed possible that these types of things really are God's way of reminding us that He is still here, it is also possible that people are seeing what they want to see in an effort to feel connected to the divine.

As our culture has become more secular in nature, many people feel less connected to the divine than they once were. This sense of disconnection is a cause of great anxiety for many people because deep down inside we know that something is up there somewhere. Scientific studies on prayer show that prayer actually works. Surveys in both Britain and America show that deeply religious people are happier than non-religious ones. Both the personal experience of millions of people and books such as "When God Winks" by Squire Rushnell provide compelling evidence that God is indeed still involved in our everyday lives.

But knowing that there is something up there somewhere is vastly different than being "connected" to whatever is up there. In the past, people tended to connect with the divine by going to church, praying, singing religious music and other traditional methods of spirituality. But as our culture has gotten busier and more secular, fewer people are developing those traditional methods of spirituality. However, since we know something is up there somewhere, we tend to look for spirituality where ever we can find it. Thus, we see crosses on cows' foreheads and images of Mary in grilled cheese and Jesus in French fries.

Instead of seeking the divine in these somewhat unorthodox ways, maybe we should just go back to church? Though going back to church may seem like a radical suggestion to some, from my perspective it sure seems more logical than hanging out at the local McDonalds hoping for a holy french fry. People often tell me they are too busy to go to church. I respond that we find the time to do the things that we want to do. People often tell me that they don't like church. I remind them that a wide variety of churches exist in America and surely one of those churches will work for them. Just think about it, in America today people can choose a church that has a pipe organ or one that has a full band with modern music. People can choose a church where the pastor shouts or one where the pastor sounds like he is giving a college lecture. There are churches that use ancient confessions and prayers and also churches that use modern confessions and prayers.

The simple reality is that there is a church somewhere that will help us reconnect with the divine. When problems come in life, a room full of praying people who have similar beliefs and values is a lot more comforting than a French fry that vaguely looks like Jesus or a cow with an odd white spot in its forehead. So thank God for the cow because it might be a message from Him, but this Sunday morning, pack up the family and head to a nearby church, it really will help us feel more connected with the divine.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Modern Day Parable about Faith

There was once a little boy name Josh. He was fascinated by science and wanted to know how everything in the universe worked. Even as a little boy Josh drove his parents and teachers crazy by asking complicated questions that had complicated answers. When Josh grew up, he got a job in a scientific laboratory working for the famous Dr. Reason. Dr. Reason was well known for doing excellent research and producing scholarly reports on that research. Josh enjoyed working for him and as the years passed he was able to be a part of exciting research that answered so many of his questions about how the universe worked. When Dr. Reason would finish a major project, he would always publish an article in a well respected scientific journal about his work. Josh loved reading those articles. They made sense to him. The research was meticulous and the conclusions were rational. Dr. Reason was so careful in his research that no one had ever proved any of the conclusions in his articles wrong.

Josh respected Dr. Reason for the research and conclusions that those articles represented, but the longer Josh worked for Dr. Reason, the more their relationship evolved. In time, they became great friends, perhaps even best friends. Dr. Reason would remember little details about Josh and use those details to make Josh's life more joyful. For example, Dr. Reason remembered that Josh liked chocolate cake, and so he would bring chocolate cake in when it was Josh's birthday. Though Josh did not have quite as good a memory as Dr. Reason, over time he realized that Dr. Reason like baked chicken. So Josh would often bring a whole baked chicken to the lab for lunch and share it with Dr. Reason. Dr. Reason was also willing to help Josh when Josh needed it. When Josh's car broke down, Dr. Reason gave him a bonus so he could get the car fixed. When Josh's grandmother passed away, Dr. Reason came to the funeral and sat next to Josh and they cried together and found comfort in each other's friendship. Though the scientific articles that Dr. Reason wrote meant a lot to Josh, it was only a piece of their relationship. It was all the other things that really made them friends.

One day Dr. Reason published an article in a journal about a project that he had been working on in a different laboratory. Josh had known that Dr. Reason had a number of other labs where he was doing research. Josh was vaguely aware of what was going on in those labs but did not know all the details like he did in his own lab. When the new article came out, many people did not like Dr. Reason's conclusions. People began to come to Josh and ask him how he could continue to work for Dr. Reason when his conclusions were so faulty. Josh did his best to defend Dr. Reason's work, but since he did not know all the details of what was being done in those other labs, he was not able to give as good an answer as he might have liked. Josh did ask Dr. Reason about it, and though Dr. Reason explained it to him, the research and work was so complex that Josh really could not fully understand it. But Josh tried to explain it the best he could to those who asked him about it.

As the controversy intensified, many people said that Josh had "blind faith" in Dr. Reason because Josh kept defending something that he could not fully explain. Others said Josh had made a "leap of faith." But Josh was not moved from his belief in Dr. Reason's abilities or intelligence. Josh patiently explained to others that while he was indeed exercising faith in Dr. Reason in this work that he did not fully understand, it was not "blind" faith, nor was it a "leap" of faith. From Josh's perspective, it was only a step of faith, not a leap of faith. From Josh's perspective, it was not blind faith, but informed faith. Josh had this perspective because Josh knew Dr. Reason really well. Dr. Reason had proved himself to Josh, not just in the scholarly research and well written articles that had been published, but also in the friendship itself.

Josh was informed enough about Dr. Reason's work and life and that he felt comfortable continuing working for Dr. Reason even though he did not fully understand this particular situation. Others kept using words like "blind" and "leap" and Josh kept explaining that it was an informed step of faith, not a blind leap, but many people just could not understand Josh's perspective. At first Josh was frustrated with these people, even a little angry at some of them. He even said a few things he shouldn't have in his frustration. But in time Josh realized that these people could not understand because they did not know Dr. Reason the way he did. Though Josh really did want to know all the details and all the answers about this project that Dr. Reason was doing, he knew Dr. Reason enough to realize that in time, all would be revealed. Josh was comfortable in his informed step of faith and remained Dr. Reason's lab assistant. Many people did not understand Josh's choice, but Josh knew it was the right one and so he was at peace with his choice even if others did not understand.

Moral of the parable:

Many people say that Christians blindly follow a God that is only revealed in the Bible. But for Christians who have built a relationship with God, He is not just revealed in the Bible, but also in their experiences with God. The Bible shows God's work and parts of it are very easy to understand and explain to others. Other parts are more difficult to understand and explain to others. Those who are not Christians call it blind faith or a leap of faith. But for Christians who have a personal relationship with God, it is not a blind leap of faith at all. Yes, it is faith, but it is more of an informed step of faith than a blind leap. They understand parts of the Bible very well, and they know God well through their personal experiences with Him. Their friendship with God and the parts of the Bible they do understand give them the faith to believe the parts of the Bible that might not be as easy to explain. Faith is required, but from the Christian's perspective, it is a faith that is well founded and makes perfect sense. Others may lack the ability to understand the informed step of faith that a reflective Christian might make, but to the Christian, it makes perfect sense.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Church for the Unchurched

In my role as a church starting missionary for my denomination I visit many different churches. I visit churches both in my own state of Vermont, where I help start new churches, as well as churches across the nation where I encourage those churches to become partners in helping us start new churches in Vermont. Most of the new churches I help start are focused on reaching the unchurched. I understand that there are many different kinds of churches, and that some new churches will appeal primarily to those who are already Christians who are just looking for something fresh and exciting. I acknowledge that this is a valid reason for starting a new church; it is just not something I am particularly burdened to be involved in. I want to start churches that God can use to draw to Himself those who are not in already in church.

In my quest to accomplish this God-given mission I have met people who have said that we should not focus on inviting people to church, but that we should take the church to them. While I agree with the idea behind this statement, which is that we should be outwardly focused instead of inwardly focused, I think the New Testament is clear that when God's people went OUT to witness, the result was the formation of new churches that people could come IN to. Therefore we must have an outward focus that touches people OUTSIDE the church with the Gospel, but we also must have a church for them to attend once they begin their journey toward God. And to be honest, many existing churches are difficult places for the unchurched to come to in an effort to continue their journey toward the Lord.

For example, I recently visited a fine and successful church in the Bible belt. I was able to interact with a number of their members and clearly they love Jesus. Nearly 2000 people worship in this church on a typical weekend, so apparently many Christians find their services quite helpful. But as I sat in the large sanctuary and looked around, I could not help but notice that everyone around me was dressed up. I don't just mean they had a clean shirt on, I mean they were dressed up like they were going to a wedding. Though I did not meet every individual or investigate every corner of the building, I did not see anyone who appeared to be poor. Don't misunderstand me; there is nothing wrong with dressing up to go to church, but clearly, if I had been a poor person who had stumbling into the church trying to find faith, I would not have felt comfortable at that church. I would not have returned to continue my spiritual journey toward Christ. Even if I had not been poor, but just didn't realize that a person was supposed to dress up in order to go to church, I would have been embarrassed when I looked around and realized I was significantly under-dressed. Would I have been able to overcome my embarrassment and return the following week with nicer clothes on?

As the worship service progressed in that particular church, it was clear that everything was pre-programmed. Right down to when the various people would walk to the platform and oversee their portion of the service. Again, don't misinterpret what I am saying; I am not against a well planned service. Administration is my primary spiritual gift, I LIKE organization! But this service was so programmed, that I did wonder where the Spirit was. Not only did nothing spontaneous happen, but it did not seem like anyone around me was expecting anything spontaneous to happen. It seemed to me, as a visitor, they those around me were expecting "business as usual" and that is exactly what they got. Again, don't misunderstand me, I realize that spontaneous is not the same as Spirit filled, but even to my very organized way of looking at the world, that particular worship service seemed to lack the Spirit in its effort to follow the program so closely. If a non-Christian had been present, would they have "felt" anything? Would anything about the service have shouted "God is here!" to them?

As the worship service continued, the music that was used, the prayers that were prayed and even the sermon that was preached all seemed focused on helping people who had been in church a very long time have a better understanding of their faith. For example, a key point of the sermon was for the listeners to ask "How can God get the glory for whatever is going on in my life?" I happen to agree with that point. And the pastor did a great job explaining to people who already know God and already live a fairly godly life why that is an important question to ask. But had I been a non-believer, I would have wondered what the word "glory" means? That was never explained. And without understanding that key word, the whole statement just falls apart. Another point in the sermon was "True repentance is never too late, but late repentance is seldom true." Again, having been a Christian since I was a young child, I was able to realize that the pastor was implying that a person who thinks they are going to wait until the last five minutes of life and then turn to Christ is probably not going to make a real commitment to Jesus and will die in their sin. But that was never really explained. Had I been an older person who had not yet trusted Christ, what I probably would have "heard" the pastor say was "Don't bother turning to Christ now, it's too late." I am absolutely positive the pastor did not mean to imply that, but to the unchurched people I spend so much time with, that is exactly how they would have heard it. Would we really have expected such a person to return the next week to learn more? After all, they were just told it was too late anyway.

But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the entire service was the invitation to action that was given at the close of the service. The sermon was about how God can get glory no matter what happens in our lives, but as the sermon came to a close the final challenge was to "join the church." The pastor waxed eloquent about how some people were looking for a great church and he believed they had found it, so it was time to join up. I am still at a loss as to figure out how "joining the church" was an adequate conclusion to a challenge on how God can get glory by what is happening in my life. As a Christian, I went away somewhat baffled, had I been a non-Christian, I would have went away quite confused.

There are some reading this post who at this point are thinking that I am being judgmental about this pastor and this church. That is not the case at all. This was clearly a strong and healthy church that is doing a great job of reaching people who are already in church. Christians who are looking for a large, well programmed, well dressed congregation with a deep understanding of theological terms would be hard pressed to find a church better than the one I described above. I commend that church for their success in reaching such people. And most churches that I visit across the country are just like the church described above. I could have written this blog about almost any of the churches I have visited in the last two years and just happened to pick this one because it was one of the better examples of how to do church well in order to reach those who are already churched.

But here is my problem, most of my friends are not all that well dressed, nor do they have a deep understanding of theological terms, nor does a well programmed "event" speak to them of the power of Almighty God. Many of my friends are not even sure if they believe the whole "God" thing yet. They are curious and they do want to learn more about God on the spiritual journey they are taking. My own theological commitment to the sovereignty of God in all things tells me that they would not have this spiritual interest unless they were of the elect and were being drawn by the Spirit toward Christ. But if most churches are like the one I described above, and that just does not meet the spiritual needs of so many of my friends, then where will they go to church? Now you understand my deep commitment to starting churches that speak to the unchurched. It is a long and difficult process, but one to which I have committed my life.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Church as a Spiritual Hospital

When Jesus walked among us He was often criticized by the religious elite for spending too much time with sinners. The way Jesus responded to these criticisms was to use a metaphor about health and sickness. Jesus said that the healthy do not need a doctor, but the sick do. The clear implication of His metaphor was that He had come to seek and to save those who were lost. Yet, in our modern North American culture, most churches actually spend the bulk of their energy trying to attract those who are already Christians. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most obvious is that Christians are the easiest to reach. They speak our church language and agree with the primary principles of our theology.
Reaching those who are not yet within the Christian fold is much more complicated. It takes a lot of energy and effort. It often takes a much longer period of time than we anticipated. It is almost always "messy" in a variety of practical ways. The church where I am an elder has put a lot of energy into reaching out to those who are not yet Christians. By the grace of God, many non-Christians are responding and finding new faith in Jesus Christ. But the process of helping our friends make the journey from a sinful nature toward a godly nature is not without its bumps along the way. Our church was reminded of the messy aspect of reaching non-Christians at our recent Thanksgiving Eve service. We had a large crowd for the worship service and about half the crowd were teenagers who we have reached through our youth ministry. Though the bulk of the teens were very focused on what the Spirit was saying to the group, a small group of young men were sitting over to the side of the sanctuary and were talking during the entire service. Two of the ladies who have strong friendships with the group had already gone over and attempted to quiet them, but the boys did not comply with their request. Though I was sitting on the platform, another man was preaching, so I was watching the entire affair. About half way through the sermon they got so loud that it was becoming difficult to pay attention to the young man who was preaching. I left the platform and made my way over to where they were sitting. It was my intention to send the "leader of the pack" to a different seat and then sit with the rest of the group for the remainder of the service. Needless to say, my plan did not work out so well. The leader of the pack, whom we have had difficulty with before, decided to make a scene. He said a few obscene words. At that point I called for the deacons to come and they escorted him out of the building. I wish I could say the situation ended there, but it did not. The young man became even more belligerent in the parking lot and the deacons regretfully had to call the police to come and help resolve the situation. I suppose I should point out that this is the fourth time in two years that the police have had to come to our building to assist us in situations involving difficult people. Like I said, reaching out to non-Christians is messy. I understand why most churches don't bother to do it. But if churches are not willing to get their hands dirty and reach out to people with problems, then who will help non-Christians find Jesus?
I did not go home with an uplifted spirit that night, but I did go home with an even firmer commitment to reach out to the lost. I don't know if we will ever reach that particular young man or not, but there are many other young men just like him whose hearts are not yet hardened to the Gospel. Those are the kind of people Jesus would be reaching out to, and so we must walk with Jesus in this journey, even though it is often painful and messy. We must avoid the temptation to do it the "easy" way and just reach out to the religious elite who already think they have it all together. We must continue to be a spiritual hospital reaching out to the spiritually sick. I am thankful that the Great Physician is the leader of our church, for He can heal those who are sick. I commit myself afresh and anew to do what I can to assist Him in His great work.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Important Thoughts About Baptism

Baptism has been a key component of the Christian faith since Jesus Himself walked into the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus was baptized to set an example for us and to bring glory to His Father. We know from the Scriptures that God the Father was pleased with Jesus when He was baptized.

There are many different ideas of what baptism means and when a person should experience this wonderful spiritual moment. According to the New Testament, baptism is the way that Christians publicly proclaim their faith in Christ. In the New Testament people were not baptized until they were old enough to make the decision for themselves and they were always baptized by being immersed or dipped completely under the water.

Baptism is a picture of how Christ died for us, was buried for us, and rose again for us. When we stand in the water we are saying that we are taking our stand for Christ. As we are dipped under the water it symbolizes us "dying and being buried" to our old way of life and when we come up out of the water it symbolizes how we are raised to "new life" through our faith in Christ.

Baptism does not save us from hell, instead it does show the world that we have already been saved from our sin and received new life in Christ. The New Testament makes it very clear that every person who has trusted Jesus as their Savior and made a commitment to follow Him should be baptized after making that decision. Obviously, if a person has never been baptized at all, then it makes sense that they would be baptized after they make a sincere commitment to Christ. If we realize we are in this category, we should pray about getting baptized out of obedience and devotion to Christ. It will enhance our connection to God and improve our personal spirituality.

Sometimes parents have their infant children baptized before they are old enough to understand what it was all about. While that is a very lovely ceremony to watch, we cannot find any examples in the Bible of an infant or small child being baptized. There are some examples in the Bible of children being "dedicated" to the Lord and that is definitely appropriate for parents to do for their children, but we should not confuse a baby dedication with the rite of baptism.

When people who were baptized by their well meaning parents make their own choice to become Christians, they should get re-baptized as a testimony of their own faith. It does not mean they didn't appreciate what their parents did for them, nor does it undo their previous baptism, it simply means that now they are making this decision for themselves.

Parents should rejoice when our children come to a place of committed faith in Christ. Parents should support our children in making their own faith decision, even if it means they want to get re-baptized as a symbol of their personal faith in Christ. One reason that it is important for parents to show this support is because children who were baptized at their parents request when they were infants might decide to drop out of church altogether when they are older if they feel forced by their parents to be a part of a church that really does not meet their needs. It is better to have our children be active in a Christian church of a different denomination than to be inactive in a church that the parents had them baptized in as an infant. Though this is a difficult thing for parents to work through, our child's spiritual health is at stake. If you have a teenager or young adult child or grandchild and they express interest in being baptized, please encourage them to follow through on this important spiritual experience. Even if they were baptized when they were an infant or small child, don't discourage them from making their own choice to be baptized. This is a very special moment in their lives and they deserve encouragement and support, not discouragement and judgment.

In many churches when a person is baptized, they automatically become part of that church or denomination. While there are a number of scriptures in the New Testament that do seem to link baptism and church membership, there are also many that separate these two issues. For example, the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 came to personal faith in Christ and was baptized in the middle of the desert. There was literally no church for him to join. Philip baptized him anyway, resulting in him being a baptized Christian but not a member of any particular church. He most likely became part of a church at some future date, but not at the moment of his baptism. This passage indicates that baptism and church membership are NOT automatically connected. Please understand; I am not against church membership. It is very important for people to make a commitment to a specific church so they can serve the Lord with their spiritual gifts and be accountable to the Biblical authority of that church. But the Bible does not teach that baptism and church membership should be as closely connected as many churches have made them. There are going to be people who get baptized as an expression of their faith in Christ but will not join a specific church until later. Churches must learn to accept the reality of this.

If the link between baptism and church membership has been keeping us from obeying the Lord's command to be baptized, then we must prayerfully consider the Biblical teaching on these two issues do not have to be automatically connected. We should seek baptism as soon as possible after salvation. It was clearly commanded by Jesus. Then we should prayerfully seek a church we can join that helps us grow in our faith. It may indeed be the same church that we were baptized in, but it may not be. The goal is to grow in faith, not just add our name to a church membership role.

There is something powerful about being baptized. It gives us a sense of spiritual cleansing. It makes us feel close to God. It is also a step of obedience to God, since He is the one who told us to do it once we had trusted His Son as our Savior. If we have not been baptized at all, we should do it as soon as we can. If we were baptized as an infant but it had no real meaning to us, then we should consider being re-baptized as our own expression of faith in Jesus Christ.

Monday, November 16, 2009

If the North American Church is in Trouble, No One Sent Young People the Memo

My church planting ministry takes me to many places not only in my beloved adopted state of Vermont but across the nation as I recruit church planters, sponsoring churches and raise prayer and financial supporters for these new church plants. In my travels I attend a lot of meetings where it is common to hear people complain how few young adults they have in their congregations. The 18-24 year old age group in particular seems to be missing in many churches. If you listen to what is said in these meetings, it would be easy to believe that the North American church is in trouble and may even cease to exist in another 25 years. But I find myself asking if all this "doom and gloom" is an accurate portrayal of the "big picture" or just the reactionary comments of people who have lost touch with young adults.

In my own interactions with young adults, I find them very interested in spiritual things. They seem eager to experience the reality of God. They are interested in investing time, energy and effort in making the world a better place through a practical expression of their faith. The church where I am an elder is reaching many teenagers and a growing number of young adults for Christ and from our perspective, the future looks bright for the church. But much of what we have done in our own church was more of an "accident" than intentional. I have been looking for some models where churches set out intentionally to make a significant impact in the lives of young adults.

Recently I was blessed to attend Midtown Fellowship in Columbia, SC. This four year old congregation has several hundred young adults who attend one of five services each Sunday. As a 42 year old, I was clearly one of the "old people" in the group. I watched as college students and young professionals worshipped God with passion. While their music was much more energetic than most churches, the focus of the music was on Jesus, not entertainment. I was amazed at how forcibly the congregation was challenged in a biblically based sermon to grasp God's concepts of stewardship and what that meant in the lives of those present. The preacher may have been dressed in blue jeans, but the sermon was not some watered down version of the Gospel, it was a radical call to live like Jesus. After the worship service, several of the staff members took time to go to dinner with me and share what drew them to be a part of this exciting venture. One thing that really drew them was the ability to actually serve the Lord in a key leadership role as a young adult. One young man said, "I'm 25 and my wife is 24 and we wanted to be part of leading ministries to others. That was just not acceptable in most churches, but at Midtown they let us use our gifts in a huge variety of ways." Another young man said that what drew him to the church was the sense of "family." He had attended a very traditional church while growing up that went through a painful three way split when he was in high school. He felt that if people in that congregation had actually known each other, loved each other, and treated each other like family, then the split would not have happened. Midtown has created that family atmosphere. What I took away from that dinner discussion is that two keys to reaching young adults are allowing them to serve in leadership roles and creating a family atmosphere in the church. WOW, that sounds easy!

While the people at Midtown clearly enjoy their faith and have a lot of fun being together as family, everything is not fun and games at Midtown. They shared, with much difficulty, how painful it was to exercise church discipline on a couple who had been part of the core group and how hard it was to have 20 people leave their new mission as a result. But they agreed that their church was stronger today because of their commitment to make it clear that they actually expect their members to live according to biblical principles. That is a concept that many older traditional churches may need to consider.

What blessed me most about this group is that they are not just starting a church for their own enjoyment. They are a church planting church and have multiple interns in the congregation who they are sending out to start new churches in other places. These are young, Spirit filled, biblically based followers of Jesus who are absolutely convinced that God has called them to use their gifts and abilities to change the world with the Gospel. And I believe they can do it. If the North American church is really in trouble, clearly someone forgot to send the young adults at Midtown the memo!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Godwink Experience

Recently I was talking with a friend who is an agnostic about how I know for sure there is a God. Though he is still young, he is widely read and quite articulate about his agnostic faith. Though I could have given him a long list of Bible verses for why I believe in God that would have been pointless since he does not accept the Bible as truth. Therefore I shared with him some experiences that I have had in my life that proved to me that God is real.
I had my first supernatural experience when I was in the 8th grade. The church that I attended at the time did not believe that God did those things any more so I was left to sort out the experience on my own. As the years have gone by, I have had numerous experiences that can only be described as supernatural. One example is what I call the Green Bean Miracle. When I was a young father my daughter pulled a pot of boiling green beans off the stove. She should have been horribly burned. The green beans were in a circle around her body, with hot boiling water running all over the floor around her. But not a drop of boiling water or a speck of hot green bean was on her. It was a miracle. It is scientifically impossible for such a thing to happen, and yet it did. The Green Bean miracle is not based on faith because the miracle is a FACT. It actually happened. It was a real experience. I could make a list of similar experiences that have happened to me during my life just like the Green Bean miracle that proves to me that God is real. But to be honest, I don't need multiple experiences, because just ONE would have been enough. Each time I have another such experience; it just reinforces the FACT of God's existence in my mind.
Such experiences are actually quite common in our society. I asked a group of teenagers who attend the youth group at our church if they had any such experiences. Most of the teenagers in the group did not grow up in Christian homes and very few of them would be able to articulate their faith using theological terms. Yet, one by one they went around the room and shared stories of brain tumors shrinking, marriages being put back together, victory over various addictions, as well as a variety of physical healings. Though some of those teenagers have not yet made a commitment to become a Christian, the vast majority did believe there was a God because of the FACTS of their experiences.
I was pleasantly surprised to recently hear that a man named Squire Rushnell has written a book called "When God Winks." This book is filled with stories of these kinds of experiences which Rushnell has gathered from all over America. He calls these experiences "Godwinks." I like that term. Rushnell believes that when we have an experience that can only be described as supernatural, it is actually God winking at us to remind us that He is there and that He is involved in our lives. Rushnell is not some half crazy television preacher trying to make a quick buck off of naïve old ladies. He is a veteran ABC network television executive. Under his leadership the program "Good Morning America" rose to number one in its time slot and its ratings increased by 140%. He was also the person who developed the acclaimed Schoolhouse Rock series and the ABC After School Specials, which earned 75 Emmy Awards during his career. He left that lucrative and powerful career to travel the nation sharing how we can know for sure that God is real. You can order his book and read more about his life at his website:
Perhaps it is time for all the skeptics among us to stop using the "I can't just take it on faith" argument and instead start looking at the FACTS of both God's existence and His involvement in our lives. If God has winked at YOU lately, leave a brief description of your experience in the comment section below. I will rejoice to read your story of your belief in God is based on the facts of your experience with Him.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dishonest Skeptics

Over the course of the last two years I have had many opportunities to discuss spiritual matters with young people. I find most of them open to learning about spiritual issues and have learned many things myself from these discussions. Though we do not always agree with each other's theology or conclusions, most of the young adults I engage in conversation with enter into the discussion with the honest intention of having an open mind, and I try to do the same.

But occasionally I encounter what my friend Adrian Despres refers to as a "dishonest skeptic." These are people who claim to be looking for truth but actually have already made up their minds about whatever it is they believe in. They are not really interested in learning the truth; they simply want to argue with anyone who will listen. Perhaps they like the attention or perhaps they think they will win people to their cause through their aggressive actions. Adrian calls them dishonest skeptics because they have lied to themselves about being open minded. Dishonest skeptics are narrow minded and have closed themselves to learning and growing. They frequently accuse Christians of ignoring the facts, yet when Christians show them the facts, dishonest skeptics choose to ignore them. It is clearly a hypocritical position for them to take, but they feel self justified in taking it. It is clearly a judgmental position for them to take, but they feel justified in taking it.

One reason it can be frustrating to talk to people like this is because they tend to change the rules mid-conversation. For example, they may say they cannot accept the Bible as truth for a certain reason, but when you show them a logical way to resolve that particular conflict, instead of accepting the logical reason, they discard the logic you showed them and simply come up with another reason for not accepting the Bible. And if you show them the answer to that objection, they just come up with yet another reason. The reality is that they have already decided they are not going to accept the Bible as truth and no amount of logical discussion will convince them. Whether the Bible is true or not is just one example of the many issues about spirituality that dishonest skeptics have closed their minds to learning about.

Though I encounter dishonest skeptics of all ages, in my experience they are most often young adults with little experience in life and often incomplete college educations. They should be at a point in their lives when they are learning new things and expanding their understanding of the how the world works. Regrettably, they think they already know it all. As frustrating as it can be to engage dishonest skeptics, it is something that Christian leaders must remain committed to for the sake of the Gospel.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Religious Faith Increases Happiness

In a conversation I recently had with some spiritual skeptics they asserted that people who were religious were unhappy due to a sense of guilt that faith unfairly pushed on them. I challenged their assumptions based on my own life experiences but they insisted they were right and said they had "facts" to prove their claim. Despite their adamant insistence, they failed to cite a single scientific study or survey that backed up their outrageous claim. So I decided to do some research on my own. I discovered a report on WebMD that said that "people who attend religious services, or who feel they are spiritual, experience lower levels of depression and anxiety; display signs of better health, such as lower blood pressure and fewer strokes; and say they generally feel healthier."1 That same website revealed that not only are religious people healthier, they also live longer. In a study of over 4000 people, Dr. Harold G. Koenig, of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, reported that "people who attend religious services at least once a week are less likely to die in a given period of time than people who attend services less often."2 I found a number of other studies that said similar things and a simple Google search will reveal them to anyone interested in checking those claims out on their own.

But does being healthier and living long actually make religious people happier? In February 2009, Andrew Clark, from the Paris School of Economics, and Dr. Orsolya Lelkes, from the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research, analyzed a variety of factors among Catholic and Protestant Christians and found that life satisfaction seems to be higher among the religious population. The authors concluded that religion in general, acts as a buffer that protects people from life's disappointments.3 The connection between happiness and faith is not just true for our European friends. The highly respected Pew Research Center discovered that in America "people who attend religious services weekly or more are happier than those who attend monthly or less; or seldom or never. This correlation between happiness and frequency of church attendance has been a consistent finding for years."4

People who are deeply religious don't need a survey or study to tell them they are happier than their non-religious counterparts. They already know this because they experience that happiness on a regular basis. That does not mean that religious people don't have bad days or have periods of life in which they feel depressed, but it does mean that as a general rule, they do live happier lives than those who are not religious. This may not be politically correct in today's pluralistic culture, but it is scientifically accurate. Though some people may not like religious faith, there is simply no denying that faith improves a person's quality of life. We may all be entitled to our own opinion on the subject, but we are not entitled to our own facts. Facts are facts regardless of what our opinion is. And the facts are clear, religious faith makes us healthier, happier and results in us living longer. Perhaps it's time for more people to get back into church and discover what they are missing!





Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Faulty Logic of Deconstructing Christianity

Recently I have been reading several books that seek to “deconstruct” Christianity. I am reading these books in order to understand first hand why some people are so anti-god. I have noticed a number of similarities in these books. They are all written by people who had a connection with some type of highly formal church during their childhood but dropped out of church in their early adult life. They dropped out because that highly structured and often overly ritualistic church experience did not meet their spiritual needs. They falsely believe that their church experience is the norm for all churches and therefore conclude that no church can meet the spiritual needs of modern people. There are hundreds of millions of Christians around the world from a variety of religious backgrounds that would testify to the wrongness of that idea.

Another similarity is that they tend to find extreme examples of religious abuse and then try to make the case that the extreme is actually the norm. For example, most of them will refer to violence that has happened somewhere in the world due to religious extremism. They then wrongly conclude that all religious people are prone to violence. This could not be farther from the truth. This simply ignores the reality that the vast majority of the followers of all religions are non-violent. While there will always be some crazy person somewhere who uses religion, or money, or politics, or education, or legal technicalities to force their will on others, it has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the quest for power.

Another similarity is that they omit any discussion of the weaknesses of non-religious people. As mentioned above, they will discuss in great detail the violence of a handful of religious extremists but fail to mention the violence of atheist governments such as China, Cuba or the former Soviet Union. These nations did terrible things to their own people in the name of atheism. And they were not led by a handful of extremists; they were led by large numbers of officials that enacted policies for the entire nation. Yet, somehow this fact escapes the notice of those who want to portray only religious people in a negative light.

But perhaps the saddest similarity I found in these books is their false assumption that their ideas are “logical” while religious ideas are “illogical.” The train of thought these anti-religious people create usually goes something like this:

1. There is evil in the world.
2. If God is real I feel that He would stop evil.
3. Since God has not stopped evil I feel that He either must not exist or if He does exist I feel He is not worthy to be followed.
4. Since I feel this way, everyone else should feel this way too.
5. If you don’t feel this way, you must be ignorant.

There are obvious variations on that flow of logic, but the basic ideas are the essentially the same. Anti-religious people say this is a logical conclusion based on reasoning and facts. But if you look at the flow of ideas carefully, it is not based on logic, but on feelings. They feel a certain way about God. They feel a certain way about people who believe in God. They think their feelings are “right” and everyone else’s feelings are “wrong.” But the whole argument is based on feelings. Feelings are not the same thing as logic, no matter who has them. In a pluralistic society, anti-religious people have the right to feel however they want to. But they do not have the right for force their feelings on other people under the guise of a thinly masked “logical” argument.

As I read through these books I have a great sense of sadness in my spirit for anti-religious people. Their books are filled with anger, frustration, misunderstanding and sometimes even depressing conclusions that would lead a person to despondency and despair. I am thankful that I have found a faith that satisfies me. I pray that those who have embarked on this journey toward emptiness will have a change of heart and discover the joy that faith brings to life.

Dr. T

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How Do Baptism and Church Membership Connect?

I have a very high view of the importance of biblical baptism. Baptism is how we publicly proclaim our faith in Christ. Baptism is also a powerful symbol of how Christ was crucified, buried and rose again for us. The Bible teaches clearly that baptism should always come after a person has trusted Christ in a personal way. Regretfully many churches get the order of baptism backwards and baptize people who are too young to make a personal decision to follow Christ. In my experience, this usually hinders that person’s spiritual development instead of helping it.

One reason pre-mature baptism is such a hindrance is that it is often closely tied to church membership. In many churches, when a person is baptized they automatically become part of that church or denomination. The problem with this is that often when people grow up they want to change churches in order to grow more in their faith. But they are often hesitant to do so because they feel guilty about leaving the church they were baptized in. Over 40% of American adults have changed their denominational affiliation, so this is a bigger issue than most people realize. When people want to change churches, but feel guilty about doing so, the frequent result is that they simply drop out of church altogether. The church they were baptized in as an infant no longer meets their spiritual need but they feel guilty about changing churches so they just don’t go anywhere. Obviously that is not good for their ongoing spiritual development. Therefore, what well meaning parents thought was a help, actually became a hindrance.

Even if a person was not baptized as an infant, we must still be careful about how closely we connect this wonderful Christian rite with church membership. While there are a number of scriptures in the New Testament that do seem to link baptism and church membership, there are also many that separate these two issues. For example, the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 came to personal faith in Christ and was baptized in the middle of the desert. There was literally no church for him to join. Philip baptized him anyway, resulting in him being a baptized Christian but not a member of any particular church. He most likely became part of a church at some future date (google him, there is a whole legend about the church he started which still exists!), but he did not become a member of a church at the moment of his baptism. This passage indicates that baptism and church membership are not automatically connected. Please understand; I am not against church membership. It is very important for people to make a commitment to a specific church and join it so they can serve the Lord with their spiritual gifts and be accountable to the biblical authority of that church. But the Bible does not teach that baptism and church membership should be as closely connected as many churches have made them.

Even in churches that only practice believer’s baptism, if we automatically link baptism and church membership, we may well be hindering instead of helping people’s spiritual growth. In the particular church where I serve as an elder, baptism makes an individual eligible for church membership, but does not automatically add them to the membership role. After they are baptized, if they want to become a member of the church, they go through a separate process. Though this approach goes against the tradition of most churches in our own particular denomination, we feel that it more accurately follows the biblical model. Church traditions have their place, but when they go against the Bible or they come between a person and their spiritual growth, then it’s time to cast aside tradition and embrace the Bible’s path to spiritual maturity.

If the link between baptism and church membership has been keeping us from obeying the Lord’s command to be baptized, then we must prayerfully consider that the biblical teaching on these two issues do not have to be automatically connected. We should seek baptism as soon as possible after salvation. It was clearly commanded by Jesus. Then we should prayerfully seek a church we can join that helps us grow in our faith. It may indeed be the same church that we were baptized in, but it may not be. The goal is to grow in faith, not just add our name to a roll. Let's press onward toward the goal of our high calling in Christ Jesus.

Dr. Terry W. Dorsett is a church planter in New England. He also writes books and leads seminars on how to help churches be more effective in their ministries. Check out his resources at:

Monday, October 12, 2009

How Do We Know If We Are Called To Vocational Ministry?

One of the most rewarding aspects of my ministry to teens is that I get to interact with some of the most Spirit-filled teenagers that I have ever met. They may not be perfect, but they are fired up about Jesus. In this world when so many teens are going astray, getting to interact with some that are right on track is refreshing. It is not uncommon for teens who are deeply involved in the church to wonder if they might be called to ministry in some vocational way. When assisting teens in discerning God's calling on their lives, I encourage them to think through these seven principles regarding vocational ministry.

1. There is a special calling for vocational ministry.
God calls every Christian to minister using the spiritual gifts He has given them. Therefore every Christian ought to be involved in some type of ministry in whatever church they attend. But God has also called some people to the special role of serving in ministry as their profession. That is what it means when we talk about "vocational ministry." A vocation refers to the job that allows a person to make a living. While every Christian ought to be serving the Lord in some way, some Christians will feel led to completely immerse themselves in service to the Lord by serving as a pastor, missionary, music minister, chaplain, Christian school teacher, youth worker, seminary professor, church planter, or some other vocational ministry role. The first step in determining if a person has a vocational call to ministry is to pray and seek confirmation from the Lord if this is what the person should be doing as their vocation.

2. Seek wisdom on what type of call God may be issuing.
As mentioned above, there are a variety of different ways a person can serve the Lord in vocational ministry. Often the Lord calls a person to serve in a particular role because of their personality or talents. Sometimes that calling even shifts some as a person moves through life. They may start as a youth worker in a church but eventually become the pastor. Or they may start as a teacher in a Christian school and later sense led to become a missionary. There are many ways in which to serve and a person must ask God to show them which one is right for them at that particular stage in their life. Then they must be willing to obey whatever God leads them to do, even if it was not what the person had in mind when they first felt called to vocational ministry.

3. Seek advice from a trusted minister.
A great help in determining both the calling to vocational ministry and which type of ministry a person might be called to is talking to a person who is already serving in vocational ministry. Ask what it is like to serve in that particular ministry as a profession. Discuss the many different types of ministry careers that are available. Discuss what type of training might be required for different types of ministry. Ask the person to pray with you and help you walk through this exciting time of decision in life.

4. Develop personal spirituality.
If a person wants to be in successful in ministry, they are going to have to be a spiritual person and live a righteous life. Reading the Bible, having a strong prayer life, and eliminating unholy habits are important. No one is perfect, but it is important to start living a holy life as soon as a person thinks he or she may be called to ministry. God can use anyone, no matter what their background, but obviously it is more difficult for people who lacked personal holiness in the past and are carrying a lot of baggage around with them to serve as effectively in ministry as a person who has been focused on a living a holy life for a long time. Begin focusing on being a spiritual person, a righteous person, a holy person. Even aspiring ministers will make mistakes, but if personal spirituality remains the focus, it is possible to avoid making any mistakes that would significantly hamper future ministry.

5. Prepare for ministry through training.
Don't just read the Bible, start studying the Bible intently. Invest in some good commentaries and other Bible study aids that will aid in explaining the Bible in order to teach others. Attend programs, classes or conferences aimed at improving ministry skills. If possible, enroll in a Bible college or seminary for professional training. God does use people who have not been to Bible college or seminary, but most ministers affirm that what they learned in Bible college or seminary was a significant help to them in ministry. Therefore it is good for a person who feels called to ministry to plan to attend an accredited school for ministry training if at all possible.

6. Ask the local church to examine your calling.
Every church has different methods of helping a person confirm their calling to ministry. Find out how your church does it and then start the process. If a person is really called by God to ministry, then the church will recognize that calling and affirm it. If the church is unwilling to affirm that calling, it is important to examine your heart and make sure you have heard from God correctly about your calling. In some ministry roles a person needs to be licensed or ordained. There is normally a process that needs to be worked through in order to receive those credentials. Take the time to work through that process as the church requires. It will be worth it in the end.

7. Begin looking for ways to serve now while preparing for the future.
When a person first begins to feel a call to vocational ministry, they should look for ways to serve in volunteer ministry. It may be several years before the person has received enough training and been through whatever processes are required to actually serve in a vocational way. But that person should immediately look for smaller ways to serve. If a person cannot teach Sunday School faithfully, how will they ever be able to preach regularly? If a person cannot lead music once a month in church, how will they ever become a music minister? If a person cannot teach for one week in the summer Vacation Bible School, how will they ever be able to teach daily in a Christian school? The reality is that the quality of service a person does for the Lord right now is a reflection on the quality of ministry they will do in the future. And if a person is not serving the Lord right now as a volunteer, it is unlikely that person will be able to serve Him in the future in any vocational way.

Like any other profession, ministry has it's challenges. But serving the Lord is very fulfilling. Helping people find peace, hope and joy in their lives is a wonderful thing. Helping people find faith in Christ and security for eternal life is the most rewarding of all. If you are feeling called to vocational ministry, be prepared for a challenging but extremely rewarding life.

Friday, October 9, 2009

What Can Churches Do To Reach Teens?

Many churches today are having a very difficult time reaching teenagers with the message of Jesus Christ. Not only are they struggling to get teens from outside the church to discover Jesus, they are also not having much success keeping the teens who grew up in the church and should already be committed to Jesus. While the majority of churches are struggling to reach teens, some churches are succeeding in this area. What is the difference between those churches that are effectively reaching teens and those that are not? I have spent a lot of time reflecting on this question. Based on my experience in reaching teens and in working with a variety of churches, I have come up with these suggestions for how churches can reach teens more effectively.

1. Teens will attend a church that makes them feel loved.
This does not mean the church has to agree with everything teens do. Nor does it mean that churches cannot preach strong messages about sin that apply to teens. But it does mean that churches demonstrate love and acceptance to teens. Teens are struggling with a lot of issues. Their lack of emotional maturity will result in them doing things they should not do. Knowing there is a group of people that love them no matter what is very important to teens. They will go to a church that shows such love.

2. Teens will attend a church that proves love by its actions.
Teens are used to being told that someone loves them, but they see very little actual evidence of that love. Parents tell teens they love them, and then proceed to get a divorce because they love their new girlfriend or boyfriend more. Teens go too far sexually in a relationship because they are told they are loved, but once the other person gets what they want from the teen, the relationship ends and the teen is left wondering what happened to love. Churches say they love teens, but then fail to do anything that proves that love. If churches really love teens, they are going to have to put actions behind their words.

3. Teens will attend a church that speaks their “language.”
Teens have a number of ways in which they communicate, but the two that adults misunderstand most often is their love of music and their love of technology. Teens love music. Teens communicate in music. Teens use lyrics for their Facebook status and MySpace updates. Teens use music to communicate their feelings about relationships and events. Teens generally like music that is more upbeat than most adults, but more important than the beat is that music has deep meaning and communicates something important. In church related music, teens want to talk “to” God, not just “about” God. Churches that want to reach teens will probably need to speed the music tempo up, but they will also need to select songs that speak powerfully about how God can interact in their daily lives.
Teens also love technology. They have been immersed in various video gadgets almost since birth. They have a hard time learning and communicating to others without the aid of technology. Churches that want to communicate with teens are going to have to learn to use technology both to reach out to teens and to help teens worship and learn.

4. Teens will attend a church that lets teens be involved in leading.
Teens are not interested in just sitting in the back pew and watching. Teens want to be involved in leading the music, taking the offering, saying the prayers and teaching the classes. Though they will need guidance in these types of leadership areas due to their maturity level, teens can lead effectively in the church. Churches that do not let teens lead will not keep teens very long.

5. Teens will attend a church that makes sermons and Bible studies relevant to their real life experience.
People of all ages find it difficult to be faithful to church when the sermons and Bible studies do not seem relevant to real life. Teens find it almost impossible. This is why many churches cannot keep the teens that grew up in their churches. The topics covered during times of worship and Bible study seem to have little bearing on real life experiences. Pastors and Bible study leaders need to think carefully about how they teach the truth of the Word. They do need to give solid doctrine and historical Biblical context, but they also must have up to date applications of how that teaching impacts real life. Churches that fail to do this will not only lose their teens, but will eventually enter into a state of decline as people of all ages look for a church that is more relevant to life.

By following these principles, churches can reach out more effectively to teens and help them discover a life changing relationship with Jesus Christ.

Learn more about reaching young people in Dr. Terry Dorsett's book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Secret to Financial Security

Sometimes we feel like we work as hard as we can in our jobs but still have little to show for it. Sometimes it seems like we try and try and try to make our personal finances work out but still hit a brick wall at the end of the month. When we feel like that, we might consider reading some of the passages from the Old Testament books of Haggai and Malachi. These books are not the most popular in the Bible, but they do have some powerful things to say about how to have greater financial security. I was first taught these concepts in my 8th Grade Sunday School class. They have had a significant positive influence in my life.

Consider was the prophet says:

Haggai 1:6-7 “You have planted much but harvested little. You eat but never have enough to be satisfied. You drink but never have enough to become drunk. You put on clothes but never have enough to get warm. The wage earner puts his wages into a bag with a hole in it. The LORD of Hosts says this: Think carefully about your ways.”

Does that describe how we feel sometimes? We plant and plant but harvest little. We put our wages in a "bag" but it seems like the bag has a hole in it. Wow, that just sounds like real life to me!

Why does all this happen to us financially? Consider another prophets words:

Malachi 3:9-11 “You are suffering under a curse, yet you—the whole nation—are still robbing Me. Bring the full 10 percent tithe into the storehouse so that there may be food in My house. Test Me in this way, says the LORD of Hosts. See if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out a blessing for you without measure. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not ruin the produce of your ground, and your vine in your field will not be barren, says the LORD of Hosts.” (For a complete study on Malachi, see: "Malachi: Finding Hope in the Midst of Adversity.)

These are sobering thoughts. We don't like to think about robbing God, yet many of us have done exactly that when we have failed to honor God with our tithes.

The scripture is clear that if we do not tithe to the storehouse (the local church) then we cannot be blessed by God in our finances. If our financial situation has been not as prosperous as we had hoped, we should consider our commitment to tithing. Once we begin to tithe faithfully, then we can watch the miracles that God does in our lives.

It is important that our commitment to tithing does not come from a heart that wants to gain something in return, but from a heart that simply wants to walk in obedience to the Lord. God looks on our hearts and knows our true motives. Even though receiving back from God may not be our motive, God has said that He will indeed bless us for giving. What a great God we serve.

We may think that we cannot afford to tithe, but we need to read those verses over again. They indicate that we cannot afford NOT to tithe. God protects us from financial harm when we tithe with a right heart attitude. God keeps the devourer away. When we fail to tithe, then we suffer the devastating effects of real life without the blessing of God to protect us.

When thinking about tithing, it is important to remember that the church’s expenses continue whether we happen to be present on a particular Sunday or not. Even if our schedule keeps us away for a couple of weeks, the church's electric bill still has to be paid. The pastor's salary still has to be paid. The benevolence programs for the poor and the outreach programs to the community are an ongoing need, even if we happen to miss church from time to time. Learning to tithe is also about learning to be faithful. God cannot bless unfaithfulness. We must learn to tithe consistently. The reality is that if we want the church to be there for us when we need it, we must be faithful to tithe even when we are not there.

Statistics tell us that senior adults are the most likely to tithe and many have done so for most of their adult lives. Statistics also tell us that only 1% of young adults under the age of 25 tithe. If we do not turn this trend around, many churches will not exist when young adults need them. Let each of us examine our own hearts and lives on this issue and respond in obedience to the Lord.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Importance of Meaningful Relationships

My wife and I were watching a movie the other day about a young man who decided to move to Alaska and live all by himself in an old bus in the middle of nowhere. He felt was able to survive by himself without the companionship of other people. The movie portrayed a number of relationships that others tried to have with him but that he walked away from. He walked away from those relationships because he had been hurt by a close relationship he had in his childhood. That made him afraid to have another deep relationship. The movie then gave a very moving depiction of how he made a mistake in reading his book on plant life and accidentally ate a poisonous plant. Regretfully, that led to his death a few days later. He died as he had lived, isolated and alone. The movie was based on a true story that was portrayed in a popular book written by the young man’s family after his body was found several weeks later by hunters.

As I have reflected on that movie over the past few days it occurs to me that it is a picture of the lives of far too many young people. Many young people have been hurt in their lives and that hurt has caused them to emotionally isolate themselves from those around them. They think they can make it all on their own without other people. But God has designed us to need each other. We need relationships with others. Even though we can be hurt by relationships, we really cannot live without them. Had that young man in the movie had some other people with him, they might have noticed when he mistook a poisonous plant for an edible one. Or perhaps they would have been able to help him hike back to town and seek medical help. Even if he felt he really needed some time alone, had he been willing to share his life with others, they would have known where he was and could have come looking for him when he did not return. Unfortunately since he told no one where he had gone, no one could come rescue him. The story had a sad ending, but what made it even sadder was that it did not have to end that way. He did not have to die alone and isolated far from home in an abandoned school bus. But he was not willing to open himself up to other people and trust them. His determination to do it all on his own resulted in his untimely and tragic death.

As I think about how all this relates to the young adults I minister to, it becomes obvious to me that I must help young adults be willing to trust. I must help them be willing to open themselves up to having deep and meaningful relationships. Even though we may have been hurt in the past, and there is a chance we may be hurt in the future, the reality is, we cannot live happy productive lives without relationships. Relationships are a risk, but we must realize that relationships are a risk worth taking.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Biblical Baptism

The church I serve in Vermont has a large number of people attending who did not grow up going to church on a regular basis. Many of the people either have no affiliation with a church or have a very loose connection to some church that they were never really very connected with and have not attended in many years. As a result of this lack of regular connection to a church, many of my friends who come to church don't know much about some of the basic pieces of theology that are important to a healthy spirituality. One of those issues of that baptism. I have found it important to teach what the Bible says about this subject on a somewhat frequent basis. This frequent teaching has helped many people find a great sense of peace as they consider this most important Christian experience.

According to the New Testament, baptism is the way that Christians publicly proclaim their faith in Christ. It is a picture of how Christ died for us, was buried for us, and rose again for us. When we stand in the water we are saying that we are taking our stand for Christ. As we are dipped under the water it symbolizes us "dying and being buried" to our old way of life and when we come up out of the water it symbolizes how we are raised to "new life" through our faith in Christ.

Baptism does not "save" us, but it does show the world that we have already been "saved" from our sin. The New Testament makes it very clear that every person who has trusted Jesus as their Savior and made a commitment to follow Him should be baptized after making that decision. Obviously, if a person has never been baptized at all, then it makes sense that they would be baptized after they make a sincere commitment to Christ. If we realize we are in this category, we should pray about getting baptized right away out of obedience and devotion to Christ. It will enhance our connection to God and improve our personal spirituality.

Sometimes people were baptized by their parents before they were old enough to understand what it was all about. While that is a very lovely ceremony to watch, we cannot find any examples in the Bible of an infant or small child being baptized. In the Bible, people were always baptized only AFTER they made a deep and sincere commitment to Jesus Christ. When people who were baptized by their parents finally make the choice for themselves to become Christians, they should get re-baptized as a testimony of their own faith. It does not mean they didn't appreciate what their parents did for them, nor does it "undo" their previous baptism, it simply means that now they are making this decision for themselves. Parents should rejoice that their kids have come to a place of committed faith in Christ and support them in their own faith decision.

While there is no "perfect" age to be baptized, it is very common for young people ages 13-24 to have the spiritual and emotional maturity to be able to think this through on their own and come to this conclusion for themselves. Therefore that is a common age for people to be baptized once they have trusted Christ as Savior.

There is something powerful about being baptized. It gives us a sense of spiritual cleansing. It makes us feel close to God. It is also a step of obedience to God, since He is the one who told us to do it once we had trusted His Son as our Saviour.

If you want to be baptized, talk to your pastor. If you live in the Central Vermont area, send me a message on Facebook or by email and we can set up a time to talk. Once you feel like you understand it all, I would consider it an honor to baptize you. Pray about it.

Dr. T

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Are You Ready for the End of the World?

American culture has been fascinated with “doomsday” stories for decades. Science fictions buffs have a variety of end of the world scenarios including nuclear war, giant asteroids, another ice age or alien invasion. New age followers are convinced that we should be paying attention to Nostradamus’s prophecies, which speak frequently about how the world will end. Those prophecies focus on the rise of the three “anti-Christs” who would bring great destruction on the world. Those who believe in Nostradamus think Napoleon Bonaparte was the first anti-Christ and that Adolf Hitler was the second. They are not in agreement who the third anti-Christ will be. Some of the more radical views are that it will be either the Catholic pope or Barack Obama.

In recent months a new wave of “end of the world” fever has began to spread as a result of the publishing of a Mayan prophecy that says the current “cycle” of the world will end on December 21, 2012. This cryptic warning has hit the main stream mostly due to the promotion of an upcoming movie that focuses on a fictionalized account of what might happen if that prophecy were actually true.

Obviously no one knows if the world will end in our lifetimes. If the world does end, no one knows how or when it would happen. Regardless of our inability to predict the end of the world, thoughts about that subject seem to captivate our collective consciousness. I think one reason such thoughts are so prevalent in modern American culture is because we live in a culture that has gone array. Marriages are falling apart, deficit spending has made the long term economic outlook for our nation shaky, and many of the pillars that have traditionally held our society up seem to be on the verge of teetering. These realities lead people to feel like the whole world is falling apart. Those trends produce emotional anxieties that make doomsday scenarios seem more realistic.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the Mayan prophecy is true and the world as we know it will end on December 21, 2012. What should we be doing to prepare? Should we be building bomb shelters, or stockpiling food, or hoarding gold? If everything is going to fall apart, surely we should be doing something to prepare for such world-wide destruction.

Thinking about how we should prepare for the end of the world might actually be helpful. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not a follower of Nostradamus or of the Mayan prophecies. As a Christian I believe that God will bring about the end of the world in His own time and His own way. My faith in the Sovereignty of God in all things gives me great hope and inner peace. Though I do not know what the future holds, I believe that Christ holds the future. This does not mean that I never think about the end of the world, but it does mean that thinking about it does not keep me up at night. My faith helps me sleep well knowing that no matter what happens my eternity is secure in Christ. If the world falls apart, any bomb shelter I could build would not be adequate. I am not rich enough to stockpile enough food or gold to really make a difference if the economy totally collapsed. The reality is there is little I can do of a physical nature to prepare for the end of the world. Therefore I must focus on being prepared spiritually. As I develop my faith in Christ, it gives me an inner peace and strength that prepares me for the end, whenever and whatever it may be.

Those who feel a high level of anxiety about the end of the world, or perhaps just the end of their own lives, might do well to develop their own relationship with Christ. Young people especially, who have a whole lifetime yet to live in this very messed up world, would do well to develop their Christian faith. That faith will help them sleep well at night and also help them focus daily on the things they can do to make the world we currently live in a better place.