Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Is God Good?

Dr. David Jeremiah is a well known evangelical pastor from California. Unlike many television preachers who preach for the cameras and the fame that comes with those cameras, Dr. Jeremiah's sermons are designed for his local church. The television audience just gets to tune in to see and hear his Bible based sermons aimed at his local church. I appreciate the fact that his sermons are Bible based and not the "send me your seed money and God will bless you" type.

I was fascinated by a particular sermon Dr. Jeremiah preached the other day. I watched it on television. It was about why disasters come into our lives if God is such a loving, powerful and good God. Dr. Jeremiah gave a number of good reasons, and it might be worth the time to look him up on the Internet and watch that sermon. The whole sermon was good, but the part that captured my attention the most was when Dr. Jeremiah asked: "Why would a person who refuses to worship God when he is healthy think God owes him a miracle when he is sick? Why should we appeal to a God we refuse to acknowledge when we are wealthy when we suddenly find ourselves in poverty? Why would we look for God's protection in times of disaster when we have not looked to Him in thanksgiving when things went well."

I thought those were great questions. I have been in the ministry since 1988 and in all of those years I have heard many unchurched people complain about how the Lord did not do for them what they wanted Him to do. They talk about some problem or struggle they experienced and how they prayed and asked God for a miracle, but God did not deliver in the way they asked. They conclude that since God did not answer their prayer the way they wanted Him to, He either does not exist or is not worthy of their worship. Their conclusion is based on a faulty premise, that God "owes" us something just because we ask.

I am a good parent, but I do not give my children everything they ask for. Sometimes it is because they are not yet ready for it. Sometimes it is because they do not deserve it. Sometimes it is because I have something better in mind. Though my children may not like my response, my response does not make me a bad parent, in fact, it reinforces just how good of a parent I am because I do what it best for my children even when they do not like it. Likewise, God is good. But His goodness does not obligate Him to give everyone what ever they ask for.

Think about it from this perspective, everything we get from God is a gift. The salvation that God made available to us through His Son Jesus Christ leaves us as debtors to Him. It is a debt we can never repay no matter how many good deeds we do. So even if we are the best Christian possible, God will never owe us a favor. How much less does God owe us if we are Christians who are not walking with Him? How much less does God owe us if we are not even Christians? A non-Christian who gets ONE prayer answered in their entire life should realize the great gift it is, from a God who owes them absolutely nothing.

This may not make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but good parents know when to make us feel warm and fuzzy and when to let us experience the hard knocks of life. God is the best parent of all. Let us look to Him with gratitude for anything He gives us. Let us thank Him in good times. Let us praise Him in times of Health. Let us honor Him in times of prosperity. Then when bad times come, let us remember that He owes us nothing, but if He chooses to give us something anyway, then it is an extra gift of grace that should indeed make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Feel Good Missions

I have served as a missionary with the North American Mission Board (SBC) since 1993. During that time I have hosted and/or helped coordinate hundreds of mission teams from around the nation. Those teams have helped our mission efforts with outreach ministries such as Vacation Bible Schools, Backyard Bible Clubs, Sports Camps, Day Camps, Block Parties, Prayer Walking, Open Air Concerts, Food Distribution and Door to Door Surveys. Teams have also helped us build or repair church buildings, repair homes for the needy or the elderly, build or repair parsonages, tear out damage due to disasters and then rebuild in those same disaster areas. The bottom line is that we could not have accomplished all that we have in the two decades we have been missionaries without the help of mission teams.

However, after all this time as a missionary, I have noticed a disturbing trend. It is what my friend John Theilepape calls "feel good" missions. What I mean by this is the most people want to do things that make themselves feel good. While that is not bad in and of itself, missions should be something that we do for the Lord in service to others, not just something that makes us feel good.

For example, when we have built new church buildings, everyone wants to be the framing crew that gets to put the exterior walls up. It is very gratifying to arrive on the scene with a concrete slab in place and jump out of the church bus with 30 men and ten hours later all four walls are up. It makes us feel good to be part of that. But it is much less exciting to be the crew that comes the week before and digs the ditches to run the sewer lines through, or to come two weeks later to install the toilets and sinks in the bathrooms. But the building is useless without those sewer lines and bathroom fixtures. It all has to be done in order for the building to be used for God, even though certain parts of the project make us feel better than other parts.

Likewise, everyone wants to lead a Vacation Bible School for a mission church in which dozens of unchurched children show up to hear the Gospel for the first time. But fewer people are willing to lead multiple Backyard Bible Clubs in neighborhoods all over town to which only a handful of children come. But in mission areas, the big crowd that shows up for Vacation Bible School is only possible because of the many small groups that came to Backyard Bible Clubs a few weeks before.  Likewise, successful Open Air Concerts in which large numbers attend and give their lives to Christ are only possible because of the Prayer Walking teams that saturated the area for weeks before the concert. One may feel more exciting than the other, but both are equally important in the overall effort of sharing the Gospel.

If mission teams want to impact an area for Christ, they must come to the point where they are willing to do whatever is needed to advance the missionary enterprise instead of insisting on only doing what makes them feel good.

The same is true when it comes to funding missions. Everyone wants to fund a soup kitchen, and the need for that is great, but few people want to fund an outreach ministry to business leaders. Perhaps if we funded more outreach programs to business leaders, then those local business leaders would be able to fund the soup kitchen on their own without having to rely on mission dollars from some distant source. People love to give money to buy school supplies for needy children, and that is very important, but hardly anyone wants to buy office supplies for the missionary himself. But how is the missionary supposed to pass out flyers about the backpack give away if he does not have the basic office equipment needed to print the flyers? Churches finance committees and mission committees must see the need to fund both types of ministry, because they are both important in the overall missionary effort

At some point, we must get over our need to feel important about ourselves and instead think more strategically about our mission activity and mission giving. We must stop asking what would make us feel good and instead ask what would it take to actually advance the cause of Christ in a mission area. We must stop making missions about us and make it more about Jesus. I think that if we had a Christ-centered approach to missions that was focused on overall strategy instead of a feel good approach to missions, we would be able to accomplish a lot more in our mission work. May that day come soon!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Howdy Doody Time – Part Two

In my previous post I shared how churches that have a greeting time during the worship service as a way of demonstrating warmth and friendliness actually may be demonstrating the exact opposite. You can read that post here. In this post I want to share some other reasons why churches might want to reconsider if it is appropriate to have such a greeting time, which I jokingly refer to as “Howdy Doody” time.

Since Howdy Doody time is often placed in the middle of the worship service, in my experience it takes the focus off of the worship of God and places it on the fellowship of people. While fellowship between believers is important, it should never take the place of the worship of God. If a church really wants to have a fellowship time as part of their order of service, it should be done in such a way that it does not interrupt the flow of worship. For example, I was once in a large church in New Mexico that had a fellowship time right at the end of the service. After the closing prayer the worship leader asked everyone to shake hands with five other people before they left and said that two of them had to be people you did not know. The congregation, which was obviously used to that, did that very thing and I recall it feeling very authentic and appropriate, much better than doing it during the chorus of one of the songs sung during the middle of the worship service. It is important that nothing break the flow of worship once it starts. In the words of one worship leader I know, “Once you go vertical; do not go horizontal again until the service is over.”
Another challenge with Howdy Doody time is that it takes up valuable time, which in some time conscious churches is more of an issue than others. For example, not long ago I was the guest pastor at a rural church and they had a fellowship time right before the sermon. I spoke there several times and it was always awkward as I stood in the pulpit and waited for people to finish. On one particular Sunday one fellow just kept talking and talking and talking. Everyone else was in their seat and I was standing in the pulpit waiting, and he just kept on chatting with his friend in the aisle. Since I was only a guest speaker, I was not quite sure what to do. Finally one of the deacons said something and the fellow realized he was holding up the service. When I asked about it afterwards, I was told it that was a frequent occurrence from that particular person. It seems unfair for the pastor to have to cut his sermon short, or to have to listen to complaints about the service running long, because a handful of people lack the ability to keep appropriate boundaries during Howdy Doody time. It is better to move the fellowship to some other place in the order of service, such as the end, so that it does not take time away from the worship of God or the preaching of His Word.

Finally, it concerns me that sometimes Howdy Doody time simply becomes a time for gossip about who is wearing what and who did what last week. Since gossip is rarely positive, and often sinful, having a Howdy Doody time during the worship service may actually be encouraging sin and perhaps stirring up anger right in the middle of what is supposed to be a sacred time of worship before God. Why in the world would we want to encourage that?
After writing my last post, I heard from a few people who said that their church had a Howdy Doody time that was done right. While I applaud that handful that may be doing it right, I have yet to be in a church that was doing it right. I fear that we often only think we are doing it right because it feels good to us. Do our visitors think we are doing it right? Does God think we are doing it right? Perhaps we should consider those questions in our determination of whether Howdy Doody time fits into a God-honoring worship service or not.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Howdy Doody Time - Part One

Many churches have what I call the “Howdy Doody” time. It is a time during the service in which they ask everyone in the congregation to greet one another. It is often done mid-way through the song service while the worship leader continues to sing. I am not sure what the origin of Howdy Doody time is, but churches that practice it seem to be under the impression that it makes them feel warm and friendly to visitors. Because I have spent 20 years in denominational service, I am often a visitor at various churches. I can testify that Howdy Doody time seldom accomplishes the apparent goal. In fact, in my opinion, it often accomplishes the exact opposite.

Recently I was visiting a church that has a well-established Howdy Doody time. As the regular members of the congregation greeted each other warmly, my wife and I were left standing there awkwardly. The pastor gave us the required hand shake and “glad you are here” greeting before he rushed off to have a more in depth conversation with someone else. As the congregation continued to hug each other and talk about ball games and vacations all around us, there we stood, wondering what to do next. I noticed another person also standing awkwardly alone a few rows up. So I took it upon myself to go greet him. He seemed relieved that someone finally broke the awkwardness. As we exchanged pleasantries, I learned he too was a visitor, from the next town, having recently retired to the area. And so we awkward visitors had a bit of a chuckle and were relieved when the worship service finally resumed.
Though the church may have thought that Howdy Doody time was displaying warmth and kindness to their visitors, in fact, they were proving that they were a closed group that left visitors on the outside. Even in churches where someone has trained the regular attendees to greet the visitors, in my experience, it is most often a stiff greeting with a limp handshake before they rush off to have a more animated conversation with someone they know. In the hundreds of churches I have visited during my nearly 20 years of denominational service, I do not recall a single Howdy Doody time that was actually warm and friendly to visitors. Perhaps there is such a church out there, but I have yet to visit it.
Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate if this is something that churches need to continue to do. Perhaps it is better to train our congregation to show real interest to visitors before, or after, the worship service. Perhaps engaging visitors in real conversation might be more effective than the limp handshakes and awkward greetings. Perhaps it is time to retire Howdy Doody time.

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: