July 8, 2014
And now for something different from me. Just had to get this off my chest.
From my earliest days I connected to country music and I’ve never really fully understood why. I have never frequented a honky-tonk, but loved to hear both Hank Sr. and Jr. sing about them. Drinking and cheating have never attracted me, but George Jones singing about them did. I enjoy listening to Loretta; The Man in Black; Merle Haggard; Willie, Waylon and the boys. I embraced Alabama when they burst on the country scene and shook it up. Of course, I am a fan of George Strait and Alan Jackson.
But now, my radio is rarely tuned to a country music station. Country music has lost me.
Here is why:
- Lack of authenticity. I really feel personally conflicted on this one. On one hand I do not want to see anyone suffer. On the other hand, the best country music has seemed to flow out of life struggles. George and Tammy sang what they lived. Bocephus and his “young country” rockabilly outlaws passionately lived and sang from their souls. Toby Keith had a little hopeful run, but now it all seems plastic and pre-recorded.
- Pop influence. What I hear on country music radio sounds like pop music with a touch of the steel guitar. Nashville has gone Hollywood.
- Fake Twangs. I am not saying that all country music singers must come from the southern part of the United States, but at least in this part of the world our twangs are genuine.
- Wrong demographic. This really may be the reason behind the reasons. I am now too old to relate to teenagers singing about breaking up with boyfriends.
- It just “ain’t” country. At least not what I grew up with and enjoy. Yep things change and evolve. Some change and evolve with it. Others become dinosaurs like me and get left behind.
I think of one of the Possum’s songs. His reflection and question about long-gone country music legends (of which he is now one) still resonates–“who’s gonna fill their shoes?”
Thanks for indulging me.
July 2, 2014
All Scripture is inspired, but there are some texts that speak a weightier word from the Lord.
Here are five transformative texts which do that for me:
- Exodus 20:1-7. These are the first three of the Ten Words. It is Yahweh identifying himself; speaking of the overarching significance of recognizing Him and His Name alone. In a culture with competing gods, Israel was to honor the Only True One. Their identity was to singularly flow from who He was. Their purpose as a people all depended upon this. If they failed to have “no other gods” before Him; they would completely fail regardless of any other factors. In fact this is what happened. It all connected back to a failure to heed these first three commandments. This is why this text remains transformative. Prioritize God first. Honor His Name above all names and our hearts will remain The Potter’s clay.
- Hosea 6:6 (restated by Christ in both Matthew 9:13 & 12:7). The prophet Hosea lived in unstable and ungodly times. Israel had drifted far away from her purpose to be a light to other nations. Dramatically, Hosea’s own life revealed the adultery Israel had committed with other gods. Still, they managed to hold onto ritual–offering sacrifices to Yahweh, which were totally void of heart and meaning. Generations later Jesus would encounter a different Israel, but with the same empty ritualistic approach to God. So he recalled Hosea’s words: I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. Generations after Christ, we still gravitate toward ritual and away from mercy. “Doing” church can never trump “being” Christ.
- Micah 6:8. Staying in the Minor Prophets during the same general historical time-frame as Hosea. Micah’s plea to an unrepentant Israel beautifully reveals the kind of people God desires in any generation: He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. This remains a watershed text–wonderfully summing up who God wants us to be.
- Matthew 22:26-40. The Greatest Commands. This connects to all the other texts. Love God first with everything you’ve got. Then you can proceed to humbly express that love or that mercy or that justice toward others. It is transformation. It is God breathing life and meaning from His being into ours. When His Name is above all names, everything changes. We are truly free to love, serve and obey Him and to freely share these incredible gifts–without boundaries to others. Which brings us to my last text…
- Matthew 28:19-20. The Great Comission. Yes, Christ urges us on toward sharing: to tell what the Lord has done for us; to “go into all the world.” It is part of our purpose–as it was for Israel. It is the outflowing of the kingdom of God to every tribe and people. It is the way others hear of the One who is above all else.
All of these texts are life-changing. At least they have been for me.
Perhaps you have some transformative texts of your own to share?
June 26, 2014
All churches struggle to some degree. No way around it as long as we are a part of them. This should be nothing new or surprising. Just read the New Testament.
But some struggles do more damage than others. Some can destroy the health and vitality of our church. They can just zap The Spirit right out of us. Literally.
Here are my not-so-fab five:
- Apathy. One of the most infamous churches in the New Testament is Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22). Christ called them “lukewarm.” Our word is apathetic. They had no passion; no desire to serve; no zeal to share. They were dying and this was distasteful to Christ. Apathy sits atop my list because it invades and makes its home in too many churches. No growth. No concern. Status quo. Until the doors close for good.
- Fear. It partners with apathy. It is the antithesis of the spirit of God (2 Timothy 1:7). Yet it reigns supreme in many churches who are too timid to shake off failed methodology and stale tradition; who are unable to embrace the full significance of God’s power due to a need for control; who allow fear to paralyze and prevent vision. God has the antidote for fear (1 John 4:18). Healthy, growing churches embrace it.
- Division. God literally hates disunity (Proverbs 6:19). When churches unhappily divide they undermine the reconciling message of the cross (1 Corinthians 2:2). Our unequivocal “endeavor” in our churches is to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-4). Division sends the wrong message; it devastates the church’s influence; and damages it ability to be the church. Division has destroyed many churches.
- Judgmental Spirits. The Roman church in the New Testament was rife with this. Finger pointing and self-righteousness defined them (Romans 2:1-4). This is one reason Paul reminded them that, “there in no one righteous; not even one” ( 3:10). When anyone begins to think of themselves more highly than they should and then begins to make judgments toward others based on that self-inflation, trouble usually follows within a church. In Rome, Paul’s finger pointed to the cross- to Christ (3:21-26). When churches focus on him- judgmental spirits will end. If not churches may end.
- Hypocrisy. Perhaps nothing stains the image of the church like hypocrisy. It destroys the ability of the church to impact community. Jesus made clear his attitude about hypocrisy (Matthew 23:13-37). It is unattractive and ungodly.
And we cannot forget this one:
- False Teaching. Of the kind present in Galatia and Colossae. Though different, each in its own way undermined the lordship and supremacy of Christ. Paul called the Galatia teaching “another gospel” (Galatians 1:6-9). The heresy in Colossae was based upon “human tradition and the basic principles of the world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Both had to eradicated from these churches. False teaching comes in diverse forms–from subtle shifts that nudge Christ into the background to full broadside attacks on his sovereignty. Either way when a church ceases to be connected to its head- Christ (Colossians 1:17-20), it ceases to be church.
Avoiding these church destroyers must be our goal. Never should these define us.
June 17, 2014
Christians from all over central Europe will be gathering (God willing) at a former Soviet pioneer camp in southeastern Lithuania on the dates of July 28-August 2. Camp Ruta near the Lithuanian village of Molatai will host the third annual Baltic Family Camp (BFC). Our theme for the session is “10,000 Reasons’ and people from Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Russia, Germany, Sweden, England, Lithuania and the United States will spend this week in study, praise, fellowship, and fun.
The concept of the BFC is to provide missionaries, Christian families and individuals an opportunity to rest, relax, and refresh together in the Lord. The churches represented by those who attend the BFC are small and separated by hundreds of miles. The BFC has helped to create a sense of brotherhood among them–connecting them with a network of believers who now interact all throughout the year. It has been a joy and a blessing to witness!
The BFC has two separate daily schedules–one for the children who attend with their family and another for the adults. Bible classes and marriage enrichment classes are offered daily for adults while the kids follow a typical camp-type schedule: Bible classes; sports, games, and activities; as well as arts and crafts. The highlight of each evening is our worship together.
God just continues to bless this effort and each year the camp has grown. I solicit your prayers as we journey over very soon. As camps go–this is one of the best in which I have ever been involved.
And just to keep in step with the pattern of this blog–here are five reasons why!
- I love Lithuania. I have been working in this country since 1996 including two years as a resident missionary in the capital city of Vilnius. It is a lovely little country with great people.
- The fellowship. It is wonderful to witness the bond that the BFC has created among the diverse people who participate. I rejoice when I hear of the connections that grow between these Christians. They live so far apart and their churches are small and resources limited. The BFC has provided for them a sense of brotherhood that we often take for granted.
- The people. Of course! I get to renew many older relationships and establish new ones. We may speak different languages but we are one in Christ Jesus!
- The weather. How about highs in the upper 70s to lower 80s and lows in the 50s at night–in July and August?
- The food! Yes, I love me some Lithuanian blynai (better known to us as pancakes). I do not lose weight at camp, I usually gain it! :)
May God bless our efforts in the BFC in 2014!
February 12, 2014
For years I read every church growth book on the market. I hung on the testimony “experts” shared. I rode the waves of the church-building trends. I wanted my church to grow; to be relevent; to be on the cutting edge (as much as allowed within my congregational setting, anyway); and to attract others. Eventually, however, I learned that while all of this could produce activity, it was not always healthy activity. What was good for that happening church in the metropolis, was not necessarily good for my church.
Churches come in all shapes, sizes, and traditions. Before importing the latest and greatest from a successfully growing church, we all need to thoughtfully consider if it really fits into our church context. Some things may; some things may not. The key to me is in understanding our own church–and working within it to bring about congregational health–just as we are. I wholeheartedly believe that regardless of worship style, church tradition, location, etc., every church can be healthy and productive in the Lord. Here are five suggestions on how to be a healthy church–just as you are; right where you are:
- Be Real. This is foundational. Churches that demonstrate a genuine faith struggle attract fellow strugglers. This is the opposite of Christianity as performance. This is church–not about how proud we are to be church; how exceptional our preacher is; how cutting-edge our worship is; how amazing our building and campus is; it is about real folks who have found forgiveness and fulfillment in Christ. It is about demonstrating and celebrating the real difference Christ has made in our lives. It is about being true to him, his will and who we are in him. No pretense; no put-on. Jesus is our identity. He is the reason why we worship. It is not trying to be something we are not. If we can learn to become genuinely transparent with our faith at our church–our church will be healthy and being healthy, ready to be used by God in fantastic ways.
- Be Welcoming. Truthfully, many churches are not that welcoming. They think they are, but in practice they are not very sensitive to the experience of guests. To be welcoming means to be intentional about it. It is more than just a friendly mindset, it is an intentional atmosphere created within a church to make every guest’s experience as pleasant and encouraging as possible. All churches have people who visit. What is the reception they receive? Are they greeted? Are they assisted in finding their way around? Is there informational material to share with them? Is that material updated? Are church members interacting with the guests? Why is this so key to being a healthy church? Not only does it greatly assist guests–ensuring a great church experience for them and an incentive to return; it creates an outward focus for the church. Unhealthy churches have an inward focus. Healthy churches seek ways to serve others. Being a welcoming church is where an outward focus can start.
- Be Your Best. This point really speaks to worship and worship styles. Perhaps nothing has harmed churches more over the last few decades than worship wars–people feuding within churches as to which worship style will be practiced. None of that has been very healthy. What is healthy is when we simply do our best (within our worship context) to worship God “in spirit and truth.” We put our entire heart and soul into our Sunday gathering. We do not hold back in our devotion and praise to God. Certainly, we use gifted people to lead and assist us, but it is also our best God desires. We can have the latest technology; the most gifted leading us; the most contemporary song selection and still not have healthy worship. Healthy worship is when we are all engaged–offering the best of ourselves to God as we worship. When we do, it will be a tremendous witness to our faith and relationship to God–a witness other’s will notice and from which they will gain strength. Healthy churches do not get lost in an over-focus on the latest worship bells and whistles–they engage the heart of the worshipper to bring out the very best we have to offer.
- Be Grace-Filled. Healthy churches realize that there are none perfect (“not even one”- Romans 3:10) and operate in God’s spirit of grace. Forgiveness is fundamental among healthy churches. Healthy churches welcome everyone to journey as fellow grace travellers. Healthy churches are not judgmental nor self-righteous. Healthy churches offer a safe place of refuge for all who are weary in the world. God’s grace oozes from healthy churches.
- Be Flexible. This may be the most difficult! Not speaking of any type of Biblical or value compromise here, just the ability to adjust to changing culture. Think Paul here–becoming “all things to all people” in order to spread the gospel to as “many as possible” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Healthy churches do not get stuck in the rut of tradition to the point that they fail to live in the present. The church is called out to minister in our time and place. Healthy churches have enough flexibility to adapt to their changing communities and offer a compelling contemporary message about the old rugged cross.
How all of this will look– lived out in churches is as different as the churches themselves. It is not presented as some exhaustive check-list–just what I have observed over the years within healthy churches.
February 10, 2014
*The following information is based on years of conversations with preachers; years of being a preacher; and a more focused dialogue I had with a select few preachers. It is not a scientific study, nor does it represent all preachers.
Don’t you like when a disclaimer starts things off! It was necessary, however. Each preacher’s experience–while sharing many similarities–is also unique. Just like each church is unique. So, I am not pretending to speak for all preachers in this post. The five bullet points I share do, though, speak for many (including myself).
- Preaching is our calling. For most of us, preaching is not just a job. A job is usually something you can take or leave. It is necessary, of course, but not necessarily life-defining. Preaching is life-defining. It is not just what we do; it is who we are. Preaching knows no nine-to-five mentality. It is not something we can leave at the office. It is what we feel compelled by God to do. Ask your preacher about this. He will tell you.
- Our goal is to “preach Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). This is a part of our call. We must be faithful to Jesus; to preach him; to have a cross-centered message. It is not primarily about preaching church. It is first and foremost about preaching Christ. He is our main agenda. For some preachers this, unfortunately, has brought them into conflict with their churches–when other agendas developed within those churches. As preachers, we realize that ultimately it will be Christ who will hold us accountable for what we preach (James 3:1). So, our aim is to lift him up in order for all to be drawn unto him.
- We love the church. Most preachers of my acquaintance would do everything in their power not to bring harm or disunity to the church. It is the precious bride and body of Christ. Our desire is to see the church flourish and grow; to see it be relevant to its community; to witness spiritual lethargy turned into spiritual energy; to be a part of changing lives; of renewal; of revival. This is one reason why we do what we do. Few things matter more to a preacher than the health of his church.
- We often feel insecure. Preachers feel vulnerable quite frequently. It seems to come with the territory. Whether it is connected to our own personal weaknesses; our own perceived feeble efforts in the huge responsibility of proclaiming the gospel; or the atmosphere and attitude within our congregations; preaching does not usually come with lots of job security. Most preachers agree that it is better than it used to be, but still insecurity lingers.
- We just want to be accepted as family. It may come as a surprise to non-preachers, but many preachers (and families) find it difficult to make friends. One preaching brother told me that one of his college professors (who had been a preacher) expressly told his class not to make friends where they preached! Even though I do not agree with that reasoning, I understand it. The best thing you can do for your preacher is make him feel at home. Get to know him. Spend time outside of the church building with him and his family. Trust me on this one.
God places an extremely high value on preaching and preachers:
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:13-15)
Value your preacher. Let him know you appreciate his efforts to preach “Christ and him crucified.”
January 21, 2014
One of the my earliest sermons was entitled, “Forsake Not the Assembly.” It was based upon the “go-to” verse on this topic–Hebrews 10:25. Since then, I have spent a considerable amount of energy trying to urge; convince; beg; encourage; and challenge folks to grasp the eternal significance of gathering weekly with the church.
I will give it another shot. Here are five compelling reasons why you should worship with the church every Sunday.
- Church is a big deal to God. How big? Christ started and endorsed the church–Matthew 16:18; His sacrifice purchased the church and made it whole–Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25-27. He married it. The church is the bride of Christ–Revelation 19:7-9; 21:2,9. The idea that we can have Christ without the church is unthinkable to God. From heaven’s perspective there is no “take it or leave it” option when it comes to the church. God is all in on the church. Jesus gave all to the church.
- Worship matters. What goes on in church is also a big deal. When we gather with the Spirit of God in our midst, events of eternal importance occur. Communion takes us to the cross and beyond. It anchors our gathering with reflection, thanksgiving, and anticipation. Our singing is designed to encourage, teach, and build up each other. Our prayers are like sweet incense to God. Biblical teaching expands our understanding of God and his will for us. The sweet fellowship we enjoy strengthens and refreshes. None of this is accidental. It is thoroughly God-designed–just for us. Why deny ourselves this incredible blessing?
- Church is a redemptive community. It is usually at this point in this discussion when all the church warts are pointed out. Yes, it is true. The church is made up of all sorts of less-than-perfect people. Folks in the church do dumb things and often fail to model Christ consistently. It is also a fact that our exercise of worship can occasionally seem repetitive and less-than-inspirational. We are after all, human. But we are not what makes the church such a compelling place. It is Christ and his redemptive work within us. The apostle Paul recalled the sorry former state of some who made up the Corinthian church. But that was before Jesus. He tells them, “Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a frest start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah and by God present in us, the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:11 MSG). This is the church–full of a bunch of sinners given another chance by Jesus. The church celebrates; reflects; and embodies his redemptive work. When we can focus on that–on him; our attitude about church and our experience in church will likely change.
- We need you. You have a place in this redemptive community. God has arranged it (1 Corinthians 12:18). You belong. You fit. We need your giftedness; your heart (especially if it is broken); your presence. Your background does not matter. Without you here, we are not complete. Please do not ever believe otherwise–we need you.
- God loves you. Ultimately this is what it is all about. Earlier, I referenced Ephesians 5:25-27. It is a beautiful text on many different levels: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” The church is about the love of God working in you to bring about transformation; to bring about God’s eternal will for you to enjoy a relationship with him forever.
To the skeptics; to the burned out; to the suspicious; to the bruised; to the turned-off; to the struggling; to the disappointed; to the disillusioned; to those who no longer believe; to those who doubt; to the tired: to the former faithful; to anyone who has given up on or never were interested: give church a chance. Come and worship with us Sunday. It will be far from a perfect experience. But that is why we are here. We need redemption. We need Jesus. And yes, we need you.