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Observations from Visiting Different Churches this Summer

Observations from Visiting Different Churches this Summer

I’ve been on a full sabbatical this summer.  It has been an enriching, rejuvenating, and much needed time.  One aspect of my sabbatical was that I visited different churches each Sunday.  This has been a great eye-opening experience for me.

I don’t have all the answers, but it certainly raised some good questions.  Namely, if we sat down at a table with Jesus and came up with a blueprint for what church should look like, would our contemporary model be what we come up with?  Obviously not.  And that’s not to throw stones at any of the churches I visited, or to say that mine would be the answer, because it certainly isn’t either.  But it’s a question that we need to ask and keep asking and keep rethinking as we strategize and plan our ministries.  Here is a list of what I learned and observed this summer from my church visiting, some of these are more deeper than others.  Disclaimer:  I am wired to see what we can improve on rather than what we are doing well.  I find it to be more productive for producing effective change.  I’m not trying to be overly critical here.  There were good things I saw too, but that’s not really the purpose of this list:

  • Being new to a church is an uncomfortable feeling, and I’m a pastor who has spent his whole life in church.  I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it is for someone who has never been to church before in their life.
  • New people like to sit in the back, on the ends of rows.  It is makes it difficult when these seats are unavailable to them.
  • Most people in churches do not sing, or they sing very quietly.
  • With a small number of exceptions, sermons aren’t super interesting or memorable.
  • For the most part, the strategy for a new person to connect into the community of a church is this:  1. Go to a service, 2. Enjoy it / Learn from it, 3. come back, 4. join a small group, event, or service group which is where you’ll A. build friendships, B. grow deeper, and/or C. impact the community.  I look at this progression and wonder if this is the best way?  It seems like a lot of steps to take to get to the “end goal”, and that first step is really impersonal.  That’s the thing I noticed over and over, with a small number of exceptions.
  • Churches are very segregated racially.  The vast number of churches are either 99.9% white or 99.9% black.  This is a subject that I will likely post a separate, longer blog on in order to do it justice.  I’m still wrestling with the best way to articulate this as it’s something God has been weighing heavier and heavier on my heart over the years (and is at it’s heaviest point right now!) and is something I want to communicate in a way that is effective and helpful, not condemning or judgmental.  The book Divided By Faith ruined me on this issue a few years ago and God has only intensified this conviction in me as years have progressed.  I strongly recommend that you read this book if you want to get understanding and grow in this area.  Props to Kingdom Life Church for being a good mix of blacks and whites.
  • I found this randomly funny:  White churches all serve coffee and snacks.  Black churches don’t.
  • I was excited about the idea of video venues.  After visiting a couple, my excitement has lessened.  The jury is still out for me on them.

For now, I just want to leave my observations as observations.  I hope they cause you to ask good questions when it comes to the effectiveness of the local church to reach people who don’t know Jesus and to take Christians deeper in their walks with him.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2012 in Theology

 

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Embrace Your Insignificance

Embrace Your Insignificance

I think the majority of our (my) vices, sins, and depths of depression come from the search for significance.  We are continually looking for things that will make us feel important and valuable.  My wife and I went to see a musical on Sunday at the Wharton Center and even though I don’t have a shred of musical ability in me, as I applauded the performers, a sense of jealousy came over me.  Why am I in the crowd clapping, rather than being on stage, being applauded?  I think the same types of thoughts when I watch baseball games.  Here I am sitting with tens of thousands of people in the stands, cheering like a child for players who are mostly younger than me now.  Wouldn’t it be something to be on the field, having all of those people cheer for me?  To have people approach me for my autograph and a photo?  I walk out of the Wharton Center with thousands of other people, jostling for position in the crowd as we head toward our cars, feeling a bit like a lemming…another insignificant person in the crowd…a stat…a consumer…no one seeking my autograph or excited to see me.

I think most of us want to be famous to some degree.  Want people to see us as something special.  I think that’s why Facebook appeals to us.  We can write things and immediately have other people “like” us and “like” the things we say.  We long to be liked and we seek it out, often in unhealthy ways.

We fear insignificance, so we seek to fill this void.  Usually it’s in relationships…if I can get this girl to like me, it’ll prove that I’m not insignificant.  It phases from here to significance financially and in our careers…if I have a certain financial status, or status in my company, it will prove that I’m not insignificant.  Or we appeal to whatever subculture we are in.  I see this in the teens in my inner-city neighborhood…if they are seen as cool by their peers in their 4-block radius, they are secure.  I see this in the semi-pro football league I play in with some of the guys.  The guys who weren’t able to secure their superior status from high school or college football, so now seek it in semi-pro, seeking proof of their superiority.  And if that superiority is challenged, they will downright fight you to prove to everyone that they are valuable.  And as pastors, we have our own subculture we use to prove our value, typically wrapped up in our Sunday morning statistics (or how many people read our blog).

As a Christian, I try to remind myself “I am valuable in Jesus, I don’t need these other things to make me valuable.”  While the substance of this thought is on the mark, I’m just now realizing I’ve missed a crucial step.  My value in Jesus always has to compete with the potential value I think I can get out of whatever is in front of me.

The step that I’ve been missing is to simply embrace my insignificance.  Rather than stand up and say to insignificance, “You are wrong!  I am significant!  Look how I can prove it to you…”  I’m learning to say, “You are right… I am insignificant.  No matter how much money I make, how many girls I’d get, how high up in football or baseball I could go, how many movies I could star in, how much political power I could have, ALL of these things are insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things.  In comparison to how BIG God is and how LONG eternity is, all of these things are insignificant.  James 4:14 hits it on the head, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”  The fact is, my insignificance draws me to God.  As long as I’m thinking that I make a pretty good god, the less I am in need of one.

I am insignificant.  God is significant.  On top of this, I am a sinner, separated from God.  And nothing I can do can make this right.  But God made it right.

I can embrace my insignificance as a broken sinner, one of many of billions and billions of broken sinners who have come before me and will come after me.  That nothing the world offers actually amounts to true significance in the long run.  I can embrace this, and once I have fully realized the depth and truth of this, that NOTHING I do can make this any different, I am free to stop trying.  To stop trying to fill up a cup that is cracked beyond repair.  Once I let go of this cup, I can trade it in for the cup that Jesus offers.  Jesus thought I was significant enough for him to die on the cross for.  And he offers me significance of his love and of being adopted into God’s family as his son!  If I continually fear being insignificant (and seeking to remedy this), I will never be free to fully receive the gift of true significance found in being loved by Jesus.

This is a significance that frees me from selfishness and allows me to pursue the things in life that really matter and that have eternal impact.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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How Christians Should Spend Their Money

How Christians Should Spend Their Money

Jesus says in Luke 12:29-34 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

What on earth does he mean by this?  As a pastor, I’m expected by many to have ‘the answer’ when it comes to biblical and theological questions.  The question of money is one that has been keeping me up at night recently and here’s why…

When I read Jesus’ words here, and see the general way he lived his life, it makes me think we have missed the boat as American Christians on what Jesus wants us to do with our money.  I’ve taken two trips to Haiti, and keep up on what’s happening globally and honestly, it’s hard to imagine that Jesus would rather us purchase a new car, a bigger house, a new iPad, or a new flat screen TV over giving these large chunks of money to organizations sustainably alleviating extreme poverty from people around the world, and on top of this, doing all of their work through the existing local churches in these regions.  I’m talking about children who are born into situations where there is no food, shelter, clothing, or employment and their only chance at survival is to become sex slaves or sweat shop workers, if they are lucky.  I see this and it makes me want to sell everything I have, and give it to World Relief, to aid these victims of injustice.

I wonder when we get to heaven if money is one area that, when we can finally see things from an eternal perspective, we will realize that we totally missed the boat on.  We will see the children who died because we bought the newest gadget instead of giving.

I’ve never sold everything I have.  Honestly if I wasn’t married, I wonder if I would.  But life is typically much more complex than this.  And the Bible is as well.  While Jesus did tell one rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor (Mark 10:17-31), Jesus walked alongside many other rich people and he never gave this command.

The fact is, I feel guilty when I spend money on things for myself.  And I’m not sure what to do with these feelings.  And I enjoy life more (and feel less depressed about my guilt) when I free myself (and my wife) to spend some of the money we have earned on relaxing evenings and/or on things we enjoy.

The prevailing thought in America is that you’ve earned what you have, so you shouldn’t feel guilty if you spend it on yourself.  You chose to work hard, to do your homework in school, and to study a certain field in college.  You made these sacrifices, with a certain lifestyle in mind, and there’s nothing to feel guilty about.  You made a choice and you’ve earned it.  You give a percentage of your income away to the church and to charities and you can enjoy the rest of what you’ve earned.  And there certainly is some truth in this.  The ability to experience God’s awesome presence in a sunset over the ocean, or from a breathtaking view in the Rockies, requires the money to pay for these types of vacations.  Money that you earned from choosing to study a certain thing in college and/or choosing to work hard in life.

Is it really a sin to have air conditioning?  Because you could give this money to those in extreme poverty.

Once you start going down this road, it is never ending and can quickly become the path of legalism and intense judgmentalism.  Yes I drive an old car, on purpose.  But I could drive an older one.  Or I could take the bus and get rid of my car and its insurance payments.  Yes I live in an smaller house, on purpose.  But I could live in a smaller (cheaper) one (and get rid of my window AC units, gasp!).  Yes I have old electronics, on purpose.  But I could get rid of them altogether.  And give this money to those in extreme poverty, or to missions (or both).

And then there is the wing of Christianity that sees personal financial inflow as the direct blessing of God (because why wouldn’t a loving Father want to bless his children?), and they structure entire church ministries around how God wants you to be rich.  Typically their pastors model this through mansions, private jets, and the top-of-the-line luxury cars that they own.

Is money a tool to bring life to others?  Or is it an avenue for us to enjoy life more?  Is it a sin to enjoy life more?

Can you see why this keeps me up at night?  It would be easier if Jesus just said, “It’s okay to buy these types of things, but don’t buy those types of things.”

But I wonder how many of us never even stop to consider this.  We just buy buy buy our pile of earthly treasures with no thought of the eternal implications our money could have.  Rather than using Luke 12 (or anything else in the Bible) as our guide, we simply go with the flow of the American idea of what money is for.

It’s confusing.

It’s complex.

I want to obey Scripture, and teach others to do the same, going against culture if needed.  But where do we draw the lines?

I don’t know.

Jesus tells me his grace is enough for me, and that it’s okay that I don’t know.

Please post your thoughts on this topic in the comments section, with the heart of giving instruction and help to me and other readers who are wrestling with the realities of the Bible’s teachings on money.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2012 in Theology

 

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Religion Stinks

I don’t know how many times I’ve had someone tell me they aren’t interested in Jesus because of how hypocritical they see the Church.  This comes in many forms:  televangelists, “Christian” politicians, the church they grew up in, the pastor they grew up with, their Christian parents, the Church throughout history, and the list goes on and on.

I enjoy telling people who are anti-religion that they have a lot in common with Jesus, especially those who also have a desire to care for the poor.  Just a few of the many fun words Jesus had for the religious people of his day:

You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
 “ ‘These people honor me with their lips,
        but their hearts are far from me.
 They worship me in vain;
        their teachings are but rules taught by men.’” -Matthew 15:7-9

And of course there are many more, Matthew 23 potentially taking the cake as Jesus rattles off these harpoons to the religious leaders, calling them “a son of hell (v.15)”, “blind guides (v.16)”, “blind fools (v.17)”, “blind men (19)”, saying that while they clean the outside of their cup, “inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence (v.25)”, calling them “whitewashed tombs (v.27)”, and then the big finish, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (v.33)”

My point is simple: People should not look to religious people/leaders for their example of Christianity, they should look to Jesus.

(A side note: I think a lot of people use this as an excuse to not have to deal with Jesus)

Let Jesus tell you who Jesus is.  It’s only fair.  Curious?  Read his biography, the book of John.

Religion stinks.  A relationship with Jesus doesn’t.

A cool spoken word poetry video that hits on this very topic:

I preached on this topic on Sunday 1/8 as we begin a sermon series in a Galatians, a book that deals with this very thing:

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2012 in My Thoughts on My Sermons

 

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John 3:16 is Overrated

I had a great time at Crossroads’ Grand Opening Sunday this past Sunday.  I ran in Lansing’s half marathon (read my blog on it) prior to preaching, which made for quite an adventure (got to church with 8 minutes to spare before the service started!), but really the whole morning was an exciting rush.  We packed the house at Crossroads and had two people commit their lives to Christ (What does that even mean?… read on…)

In doing a Grand Opening and in doing a lot of promotion for it, it puts me in a unique situation as to deciding what to preach on.  I know there will be a lot of new people there, and many of these people will not have a relationship with Christ, so this opportunity is a great one.  This really got me thinking, “What is the Gospel?”  What is the Gospel really?  I grew up being taught that the Gospel is a prayer you pray to ask Jesus to forgive you of your sins, then essentially you receive a ticket to heaven (see picture at right…you can get your own card at getoutofhellfree.com ).  It was never said exactly this way, but this is what was implied and essentially it’s how I shared the Gospel with my non-Christian friends.  Time and time again, my friends would pray this prayer, but I would see zero fruit in their lives.  In fact, I’d ask them about it and they were confused as to what I was even talking about.  I began to wonder, “Why isn’t the Gospel working!?”… but as I read more of the Bible for myself, and in my adult life continued to share Jesus with those who don’t have a relationship with him, I realized that while John 3:16 is a great verse, it all by itself is not the Gospel.  In fact, there is a conversation Jesus has with his disciples in Luke 9:18-25 that discusses this very issue.  A very very rough paraphrase of it is this…

Jesus: Disciples, who do people say I am?

Disciples: They say you’re a prophet or a great teacher/spiritual person.

Jesus: What about you?  What do you believe?

Disciples: We believe John 3:16!

Jesus: Great, that’s key.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, it’s only the first step, you must not stop there… there’s so much more, let me explain…

And that is what my sermon from Sunday is on:

 
 

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Witnessing to (Jehovah) Witnesses

Two Jehovah Witnesses stopped by my house today.  They are the 2nd pair to come by in the last two months or so.  While most of our natural reactions when JW’s or Mormons ring our doorbell is to tell them we’re not interested, or maybe even to get angry at them, I encourage Bible-believing Jesus-followers (a better description than “Christian” for what I consider myself!) to see these encounters as an opportunity to share the true message of Jesus with these witnesses.  The common bond that JW’s and Mormons have is that at the core of their faith, they believe we are saved by our good behavior (earning God’s approval), rather than being saved by our faith in the forgiveness and love of Jesus.  On a theological level, neither group believes Jesus is God (they don’t believe in the Trinity)… (both will tell you in some way that “Jesus saves us”, but how can Jesus save us from hell if he was a mere prophet or angelic figure, only God can conquer something as powerful as sin! -and you’ll find this is only lip service to him saving us, it is truly our works, in their minds, that save us in the end)

On a side note, a couple months before my first pair of JW’s came by (June), I had a pair of Mormons come by as well (April).  I learned a lot from each of these conversations.  For what it’s worth, the pair of Mormons were a lot more polite than the JW’s.  They were interested in actually having a conversation with me, and when I presented something to them that made their beliefs contradict Scripture (you have to know Mormons believe the Bible (KJV version) is God’s word), they said, “That’s a good point, I’ve never thought of it that way, I’m going to do more research on that,” which I appreciated.  The frustrating thing about talking to both JW’s pairs that have come over (they also say they believe the Bible is God’s word… kind of… they change words and add words to the original Greek and Hebrew, how convenient, but for the most part you can still show them Scriptures to look up accurately), it feels like when I talk to them I must sound exactly like the teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoons:

Because the JW’s tell me, “We believe everything the Bible says.”  I then show them 3 simple Scriptures that show that Jesus/the Messiah is seen as God (a part of the Trinity) in Scripture:

Isaiah 9:6  (prophecy of the Messiah) For to us a child is born,
        to us a son is given,
        and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called
        Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
        Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 10:21 (same word describes Messiah in 9:6 as here describes Jehovah/God)  A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob will return to the Mighty God.

John 20:27-29 Then he (Jesus) said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Colossians 1:16-17 For by him (Jesus) all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

And I swear I must sound exactly like the teacher from Charlie Brown, because these are the responses I have received:

The first lady, after telling me adamantly she believes the Bible, told me that nothing she ever hears is going to make her say that “Jesus is God.”  I asked her then how both of her statements can be true since Isaiah, Thomas (with Jesus affirming it), and Paul (author of Colossians) all just said that Jesus is God, and all of them are in the Bible.

The 2nd lady gave me an analogy about a dog to explain her view of Jesus in relation to the Father, and then said how she’s believed this for 25 years so she isn’t going to change now.

I’m not saying that the Trinity is a simple concept to digest, but please don’t compare your Jesus and God to a something about how dogs relate to each other.  And I’m not saying you should listen to my view and in 5 seconds, understand the Trinity.  The Trinity is hard for our minds to grasp: how does Jesus pray to the Father, while at the same time say, (John 10:30-31) “I and the Father are one.” Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him... or: (John 14:9)  “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?   But at the very minimum these Scriptures should exude the response from a self-proclaimed Bible believer that “I’ve never thought of it that way, I’m going to do more research on that.”  If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at the Trinity, see my Feb. sermon on it:

Beyond the this’s and the that’s of our theological views, the lack of ability to listen presented by the JW’s is what troubles me the most.  I give credit to the Mormons who were actually taking notes, and willing to hear what the original Greek and Hebrew texts say, and when there’s a difference with their beliefs, say: “Hey I’ll look into that more,” rather than claim to believe the Bible then immediately say that the Bible won’t change your beliefs about God.

It makes me wonder how often I do this when talking to others about their faith, or talking to other Christians about their doctrinal beliefs that differ than mine.  While it’s more obvious when we see this in those of other faiths, it’s much harder to see in our own lives.  While holding a Bible in hand, it is important that we read it for what it is (while using good hermeneutics I beg of you Christian!!), and try our absolute best to rid ourselves of preconceived biases we have, like how our Jehovah Witness, Mormon, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc. upbringing taught us to look at the Bible.  Let’s look at the Bible (without adding any words to it please, JW’s!).  Jesus ripped on the Pharisees over and over for adding things to the Bible, let’s make sure we don’t do the same in our traditions.

And to Christians out there, please show JW’s and Mormons the love and grace of Jesus when they stop at your house.  Explain to them that it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).  They, like everyone else, need to here of these incredible gift God has given us, they are just happening to come to your door to hear it from you, rather than you having to go to them.

(you don’t need to go to seminary to have an intelligent conversation with these faiths.  Check out these great resources, which are bullet-pointed and brief, and excellent:  Mormonism by Kurt Van Gorden & Jehovah’s Witnesses by Robert M. Bowman, Jr. )

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2011 in Theology

 

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Miracle Myths

On July 3rd, I preached a sermon entitled “Wanting a Prayer Answered But Needing Jesus” from John 6:

In my own life, I’ve often found myself to be confused about why God doesn’t seem to answer my prayers for people’s healing (or at least not in dramatic ways), yet I read about dramatic healing stories in the Bible and from other people today.  As a pastor, I’ve talked to many people who also have prayed for healing, or for other help from God, only not to receive it from Him.

From these experiences, I have discovered a myth when it comes to miracles (miracles = any prayer we want answered)… We are often taught to believe that if we just have enough faith and pray boldly enough, that God will answer our prayer.  There is definitely a tension in this topic that I am still attempting to find balance in, but the glaring fault in this ‘formula’ for answered prayer is that it treats God like He is our cosmic butler, or our genie in a bottle.  That we can manipulate Him to do what we want if we only pray hard enough or frequent enough, believe enough, lay enough hands on, anoint with enough oil, etc..  If God doesn’t do what we want, we question His love for us, or we beat ourselves up for not having enough faith.

Since when was the point of prayer to get God to do what we want?  Is not the point of prayer, and our entire walks with Christ to come to Him, asking Him what He wants us to do for Him?  In Matthew 6:31-33, Jesus says to seek first His Kingdom and “all these things” will be added unto you.  I think if most of us were really honest about our prayer lives and the miracles we seek, we don’t give a rip about Jesus’ Kingdom, but rather are seeking the “all these things” to be given to us from God.  The command in Matthew 6:33 is to seek His Kingdom, not to seek His provision of things (which is often how we like to read it).  The seeking command of 6:33 is similar to what I preached on in my sermon from John 6… the difficult truth of the Gospel is that Jesus is all we need, and that what He can do in our hearts is the greatest miracle of all and is the primary miracle we should be seeking.  He may occasionally use exterior miracles along the way to get us to this point, but we need to see the short-term nature of these and how overrated they are if they don’t produce heart change.  I can pray for miracles, having full faith God can do them, but if He doesn’t, I cannot allow that to affect my faith in Him.  If I do, God becomes my butler who’s slacking off, rather than my King who created the world and who died and resurrected to save me from my sins.

This truth is difficult to swallow, yet it’s one we need to understand and embrace to stop ourselves from leaving the faith due to a myth about a Vending Machine God who doesn’t really exist.  Instead we are given a God who offers us love, grace, and intimacy with Him, which I hope we can understand even in the toughest of times, is not a consolation prize for what we feel we really need.

 

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2011 in My Thoughts on My Sermons

 

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