As a Christian, I think it is important that we share our faith with others. But at the same time, we cannot expect people who do not follow our faith to comply with the standards of our faith. They must first come to faith in Christ, and only then will they desire to live as our faith instructs us. My friend David Wesley Gould, pastor Nashville First Wesleyan Church puts it this way, “Sometimes I think Christians forget that the New Testament was written to Christians. It is like the U.S. constitution. I can't expect someone in China to live it out. But I can live it out in such a way that people in China want to come here and experience it.” Though the difference may sounds like semantics, it is actually very important. Let’s all look for ways to share our faith and then let that faith impact people’s lives.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Thursday, October 24, 2013
I love church planting. I like the challenge of it. I like the freshness of it. I like to see the “aha moment” when people who never understood the Gospel finally grasp it, and statistics show that happens a lot more in church plants than in established churches. Church planting is in my blood. It is in my spiritual DNA. It is part of who I am.
But sometimes . . . . okay, I’ll be honest, OFTEN, it is exhausting. It is physically exhausting to set up and take down everything needed for a church service week after week until a church gets a building of their own. It is financially exhausting since my tithe is often the bulk of the offering until the congregation gets stronger and more mature. It is emotionally and spiritually exhausting because we have to give of ourselves again and again but there is no one to pour back into us.
I have dealt with these challenges in two ways. First, I try to take a long walk most mornings. During that time I pray, I think about my day and I try to keep my body in some semblance of health. Second, I work hard to forge a coalition of partners that want to help me in my work. Sometimes they are local, but often they are from other places. They pray for and with us. They volunteer to help us do special projects. They give of their resources to help pay the bills until the new congregation can assume responsibility for that. Thank God for partners!
Sometimes people challenge my commitment to church planting. They ask if it would be easier if I just moved back to the Bible belt and served in a more established situation. The answer is yes, but that is not what God has called me to do, therefore it is simply not an option. When I ask individuals, churches or mission agencies to help support our ministry financially, they often ask why it costs so much to start churches in New England. I am reminded of what Jared Wilson says. Wilson, a noted author and a pastor of a rural church in northern New England shares this story:
I attended a speaking appearance by Tim Keller in Nashville, Tennessee a few years ago where the pastor host of the event was remembering being on the board that helped send Keller to Manhattan, lo, those years ago. He said one person spoke up in objection at one point, saying essentially, “I could plant ten churches in Birmingham, Alabama for the cost of this one church in Manhattan,” to which this pastor said, “We don’t need ten more churches in Birmingham; we need one in Manhattan.”
I can totally relate to that story. I know there are many places where the cost of living is much cheaper than Connecticut, where I am currently helping to start multiple churches. Land is cheaper in those places. Christian contractors will build a church for a discount in those places. And there is always an ample supply of Christians ready to jump ship and join the newest church in town in those places. In Connecticut it is a lot harder and a lot more expensive. But does rural Alabama or rural Mississippi, already the most churched states in the nation, really need dozens of new churches? They may need a few, is selected places that somehow got missed, but in general, the churches that are there should be able to finish the job. But in Connecticut, evangelical churches are few and far between. They are underfunded and understaffed. And it will take a lot of money, time and effort to change that. Fortunately, we have a God that provides and He uses His people as part of that system of provision. So do not get frustrated with me when I ask for money, it is just a tool that we use to accomplish God's will in expensive places like New England.
Stephen Um reminds his partners that church planting in New England takes twice as long and costs twice as much, but it must be done if we are to obey the Great Commission of making disciples in all places. If you are interested in providing some practical assistance to come church planters in New England, specifically in Connecticut, click on this link and it will give you a list of current needs, some as little as $10. Come on Church, we CAN do this!
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
My morning devotions lately have been in 2 Kings. Yesterday I wrote about King Ahaziah seeking help from a false god and the disaster that resulted from that effort. Today I want to focus on 2 Kings 6. In that chapter the prophet Elisha is being pursued by the king of Aram, one of Israel’s long-time enemies. The king is upset because God had been revealing the king’s battle plans to Elisha through supernatural means. Elisha would then tell his own people those plans so they could stop the plans before they happened. The king of Aram sent horses, chariots and a massive army to surround the city where Elisha lived (2 Kings 6:14). The next morning when one of Elisha’s assistants woke up and saw the army, he asked, “What are we to do?” Elisha responded by saying that “those who are with us outnumber those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). Elisha then went on to pray and asked God to open the eyes of his assistant so that the young man could see the supernatural army of horses and chariots of fire that surrounded Elisha’s position. God then used a miracle to lead the attacking army away and as a result, the Aramean’s stopped raiding the Israelite territory (2 Kings 6:23).
Though many centuries have passed since that event took place, God is still doing supernatural events around us all the time. We often get so focused on our problems and difficulties that like Elisha’s servant, we ask in despair, “What are we to do?” In those times we need to remember that God has legions of angels at His command. We need to remember that God has never been defeated in all of history. God has a plan and is working that plan out for ultimate good of the universe. We need to remember that God’s forces always outnumber the enemy and in the end, God’s side always wins. We need our eyes to be opened so that we can see what God is doing around us and take comfort in the power He has at His disposal to do things in ways we could have never dreamed. Today, let our hearts not be troubled, let us believe in Jesus and look to Him for our hope!
Did you enjoy this devotional? You can find many more like them in my book:
Touching the Footprints of Jesus
Available in both print and e-book formats at this link:
Touching the Footprints of Jesus
Available in both print and e-book formats at this link:
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
My morning devotions lately have been in 2 Kings. This book tells the history of the kings of the Israel after it was divided into two nations. To be honest, it is not a flattering story. One passage jumped out at me because it speaks so powerfully to our own culture.
In the first chapter of 2 Kings, King Ahaziah had gotten injured in an accident in his home and was afraid he would die. Instead of seeking help from God, he sent a messenger to a foreign land to inquire of their god if he would recover from his injury. Elijah, the prophet of God, met the messenger on the journey and asked “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?” (2 Kings 1:3). Time and again throughout the history of God’s people God has proven Himself to them. God had worked miracles on their behalf over and over again. It is inconceivable in light of all that God had done for His people that they would seek advice from a false god. And yet, that is what King Ahaziah did.
As we think about our own lives, we have also witnessed God’s power time and again. How many times have we had some close call in our lives and said, “Someone must have been watching out for me.” How many times have we prayed in a time of crisis and God came through for us. God has been there for us in both big and small ways our entire lives. It is inconceivable that we would seek help from any other source but God. And yet, like King Ahaziah of old, we often do that very thing. We ask friends who do not know the Lord for advice. We call physic hotlines. We read fortune cookies. We watch shows on television in which pop-psychologists give us the latest fad in human thinking, even if it goes completely against God’s Word. We even dabble in new age philosophies and Eastern religions seeking truth.
In the biblical story, King Ahaziah ends up dying because he sought help from the wrong source. It may sound cruel for God to not help him in his situation, but remember, King Ahaziah did not ask God for help. He asked a false god who had nothing to offer him for help and got exactly the kind of help that false god had, which was NOTHING. Essentially, God decided to give King Ahaziah exactly what he asked for, which was empty words and nothing, which led to his death.
As we consider our own relationship with God, why do we think God will help us when we have called upon everyone but Him in our distress? What if God just sat back and let all the false hope and bad advice we seek come to fruition in our lives? It would be a disaster. Thankfully, our God is a God of grace and often helps us even when we do not deserve it. But I do think from time to time He withholds His help while we seek all those other dead ends. He wants us to see that those dead ends lead nowhere, so that when we finally come back to Him, we will be more faithful than we were before. But if we tarry too long in turning back to Him, all we have left is the false hope, false comfort, and false help that this world has to offer and that will lead only to disaster. Let us commit ourselves to turning back to the true God of the Universe today and serve Him with all of our hearts.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
Recently one of our church planters sent a Facebook message to me. He had been working the social media angle pretty hard trying to find partners. Though some people had responded, many had not. In a pointed moment of realization it occurred to him that many of the same people he was contacting about partnering with him in church planting were ignoring his messages about partnering but sending him countless messages inviting him to play games on Facebook. He found it ironic that they would talk to him a lot about games but none about Jesus. His message pondered what it would be like if he could get people as excited about partnering with him as they were about playing games on Facebook. I wonder the same thing.
And it is not just Facebook games. People who tell me they do not have time to volunteer have the time to play on both a softball league and a basketball league. People who tell me they do not have money to donate somehow have the money to drive the latest model car with all the upgrades. Pastors who tell me their church is too stretched to help plant another church find money for another round of renovations in a sanctuary that already looks pristine and take their senior adults on amazing sight seeing trips on fully equipped buses, but seem unable to take those same people on a mission trip. Once I got a letter from a mega-church asking me for money, not to start a church, but to build an $120,000 playground for the children in their already well funded private school. I sent them a letter back suggesting they tithe off their playground fund to a church plant in New England. I am still waiting on that donation to come through . . .
It is all about priorities. The American church has gotten our priorities wrong. Now we play games and have fun instead of being about the business of winning others to Jesus. I am not suggesting that we should NEVER have fun or play a game, but somewhere along the line we must stop playing games with our faith and start doing whatever it takes to win our nation to Jesus. The team of church planters we have in Connecticut are in it to win it, will you join them, or are you too busy playing games on Facebook, planning your next trip to the beach or getting a message at the spa?
Friday, October 18, 2013
He had gone into the store to buy a cross necklace for his daughter. She wanted to wear it as a way to display her faith and he wanted to support her in that effort. Instead of just buying her a cheap necklace, he thought he would go a nicer store and buy one that would be special to his daughter. As he looked through the various options he did not find quite what he was looking for. He asked the young man who was the store clerk if they had any other cross necklaces to choose from. The young man said, "Yeah, we have some in this other case over here, but I do not know if you would want them or not, they have some dude on them." When my friend looked the other case, the "dude" was Jesus and the crosses were actually crucifixes. Though my friend was not interested in buying a crucifix, he was stunned that the young man had no idea who the "dude" was.
Though our culture has always had a number of people who do not follow Christ, few would have failed to recognize a crucifix as being Christ on the cross. But this young man had no idea that the person on the cross was Christ. He did not realize the unparalleled sacrifice God had made on his behalf. He was missing a critical piece of information that could change his life forever.
Though we can pretend that young man was just ignorant of the truth, the reality is that he represents a growing number of young adults who do not know who the "dude" on the cross is. The good news is that young people are interested in finding out. They are very open to sitting down with a friend or relative and having a genuine conversation about who Jesus is and what part He might play in their lives. Though they may not quite be ready to commit their lives to following Christ, they are increasingly curious about who He is. The question we must ask ourselves is, "Are we telling them who He is?"
Monday, October 14, 2013
Our culture has become obsessed with the idea that no one should say that any particular action that another person does is "wrong" or "bad." If anyone does point out that some one's behavior was in poor taste, or just plain wrong, they get the "don't judge me" response. For the most part, our culture has accepted the idea that no one can judge another person. In fact, it has become the highest form of social acceptance and the one unpardonable social sin of our postmodern era.
To be honest, I'm struggling with this. On the one hand, I grew up in a very judgmental religious environment in which we categorized every one's behavior and separated ourselves from everyone in our quest for purity. On the other hand, some behavior is just plain wrong and we do not have to be a religious fundamentalist to recognize it.
There is one school of thought that says that when a person does something wrong that we should all look the other way and not say anything because who are we to judge. There is another school of thought that says that if we do not care about our friends enough to point out behaviors that can destroy their lives, then what kind of friend are we. From a spiritual perspective, if we do not care enough about another person's soul to help them avoid the pain the wrong behavior brings into our lives, then our spirituality does not mean much. But most of us do not want to be the "behavior police" with some mandate to point out every behavior that anyone around us does as being right or wrong. Somewhere between the two extremes of never saying anything and always pointing out everything is the thin line that we should walk that shows care and concern without being overly judgmental.
I surely do not consider myself an expert in finding that thin line, but it is a constant goal in my life. One thing I have found that helps is to ask people questions about the things they feel judged about. By asking them questions, instead of just telling them what my position is, I hope to stir up their own thinking to judge themselves and see the need to change. For example, when a person tells me some story of what they did at a party, and then ends the story with something like, "It may not be right, but it was fun and no one has the right to judge me," I like to follow their story up with a simple question such as, "Who judged you and told you that it was not right?" Almost every time, that will cause them to pause. As they think about it, they will say, "no one yet, but I think someone might." So I then like to ask, "Why to do think someone may judge you?" To which they are left with the uncomfortable situation of either admitting the behavior was wrong, and therefore worthy of judgment, or trying to do mental gymnastics to prove that their wrong behavior was somehow right for them. You can watch their face as they try to justify it and see in their eyes that they do not even believe their own logic on the matter.
If they admit their behavior was wrong, then I can say, "It sounds like you have judged yourself, perhaps you should listen to your own judgment on the situation and alter your behavior." They cannot say that I judged them, because I did not. I merely pointed out that they judged themselves and they deemed the behavior was wrong on their own.
If they do mental gymnastics to try to prove some bad behavior was actually right, then I can say, "Wow, that is some interesting rationale for what you did, I wonder if most people would really see it that way." To which they normally respond, "I don't care what most people say." I can then follow up with the statement, "Apparently you do care what most people say because you are worried about them judging you." I can follow that up with a statement something like, "If you don't want to be judged, then maybe you should not do things that most people would consider worthy of judgment." Again, I do not have to be the judge in the situation, I can let what they have already agreed most people think about their behavior speak for itself. Despite how much we say that we do not care what others think, in reality, we all care very much, and that can be a powerful motivation for behavior modification.
As a Christian, I think God is the one who judges all of us and I think He is the one who gets to decide what is good or bad behavior. But most of my non-believing friends do not really care at this point what God thinks. So I have to help them get to that place. By asking questions that force them to admit their own position is wrong, then I can move on to a place where I can share what God says is the right way to act. It may take several conversations over a period of time to get there, but we will eventually get there, without me having to judge them a single time.
Friday, October 4, 2013
After years of ministering in a wide variety of situations, I have observed that the initial environment in which a person comes to faith often remains their primary preferred religious experience. For example, I have a friend who came to faith in a house church. He was drawn to the close knit fellowship and the sense of family. Though he no longer attends a house church, he is still active in a small congregation that has a close knit family feel. At least one time since I have known him, he switched churches because the church he was active in got “too big.” I have several friends who came to know the Lord during the Jesus Movement. That movement was known for its distrust in “organized religion” and a more organic approach to faith. That movement also tended to like folk music. Most of my friends who came to know Christ in that movement still prefer a “folk” sound to their worship and often refuse to “join” a church even though they may attend it for years and be very active in it. They still struggle to see the value in “joining the organization.” Then there is this older couple I know that came to faith in a highly structured church that used a strong liturgy. Though they have changed denominations because the church they grew up in has abandoned biblical theology, they still sought out a church that recites the Lord’s Prayer every week and celebrates communion at most services. In their minds, it just is not “church” if a service does not have those things. In each case, my friends have pretty much remained in the same type of environment in which they came to faith. Though this was often NOT the church of their childhood, it normally is the church in which they found real faith in Christ. Those early days of Christian discipleship are important in forming our spiritual DNA. And when various groups come together for a larger worship experience, they bring these aspects of faith with them.
I am enriched by seeing all the various ways in which people can worship and still relate to each other as Christians. Though the Gospel never changes and biblical truth is the same for all, the various aspects of church, such as liturgy, music style and local church polity are different. Instead of being fearful of those differences, we should celebrate them. The person who prefers the high church can learn something from the close knit house church. The house church can learn something from the liturgy. The 60 year old Christian hippie can teach something to the 20 year old Christian hipster and the hipster can teach something to the 60 year old man at church who still sports a pony tail.
If we keep our focus on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and we keep our learning based on the Bible instead of man-made distinctives, we can worship, fellowship and serve with those who look at things from a different perspective than we do and be enriched by it.