You Belong

October 11, 2018

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The Ephesian church was troubled from the start (see Acts 19) and continued to experience challenges both typical and atypical to infant New Testament churches (see 1 & 2 Timothy and Revelation 2:1-7). The apostle Paul invested three years personally ministering to this group—developing a close, special relationship with them, while also foreseeing some of their future problems (see Acts 20:13-38).

One problem in particular was the challenge of harmonious assimilation for all into the new concept of a multi-ethnic faith community that the church was. This community in Ephesus was largely made up on non-Jews, but the long shadow of God’s covenant relationship with the Jews remained. The non-Jews were having a difficult time accepting their placement within the church due to not previously enjoying that covenant relationship—exacerbated, no doubt, by many Jews who had the same difficulty for them for the same reasons. So Paul speaks to this; speaks to placement and position for all in God’s community.

Chosenness (1:3-14)

Paul uses language such as “chosen,” “predestined,” “adopted,” and “included” to underscore his point about placement—about how God specifically planned for non-Jews to join the Jews in covenant with him. Furthermore this was God’s decision before creation—to one day create a multi-ethnic faith community, which was brought about by Christ and sealed by the Spirit. It was to be a community that would mirror the unity of God himself. Everyone within this community would become “God’s possession.” History did not matter, in that; God’s adoption now trumped it. The non-Jews in Ephesus had the same access to the promises and blessings of God as the Jews, who came to God in faith through Christ. They were chosen. They belonged.

God is Able. You are Able (1:15-2:10)

Next Paul speaks about power and empowerment. The city of Ephesus was an epicenter of religion in ancient Rome, where in most superstition and magic played a major role. Lots of gods to possess, impress, appease and appeal to for favors, but for the Ephesian Christians that was supposed to be all over. Christ supplanted and exposed all of that through the power of his resurrection—the same power available to the Ephesian Christians to enable them to live out their placement in the kingdom (something Paul would explore more in 4:17-5:33). No need to return to the “ways of the world” along with behavior related to that. Their life in Christ was alive with power beyond what they could imagine (3:20-21). Being placed thusly and empowered accordingly, God had specific plans for them as his “workmanship.” God was able and so were they.

Peaceful Reconciliation (2:11-122)

In this section Paul reinforces the idea of placement, while also emphasizing the need for peace, harmony and unity in the new multi-ethnic faith community. His words also speak directly to identity. Formerly the non-Jews were excluded from the covenant—“foreigners” is the term he uses. But Christ changed that. He demolished the barriers of separation inherent with the Law in order to create this new community—the church. Hostility should no longer be the defining force between the Jew and non-Jew in this community. Instead peace and reconciliation should. This would call for new thinking about identity. No one is an alien, stranger or foreigner anymore. Everyone who comes to Christ in faith belongs as “citizens”. Paul imagines it as a kind of new temple with Christ as head and foundation—with all others being an integral, connected part of the building. For this to be realized, Jews would have to no longer primarily self-identify as Jews. The same would be true for non-Jews. Their primary identity would be as citizens of God’s kingdom–Christians. This then would allow the hostility to end and a united community of peace and harmony to emerge emphasizing reconciliation instead of hatred and division. Truly a place of belonging! Paul would urge even more specifically this kind of unity in 4:1-6 appealing to them to “make every effort” to bring it about.

But it would not be easy. Generations of suspicion, prejudice and hatred would have to be overcome. These feelings ran deep and the transformation into self-identifying primarily as a Christian—even before ethnicity—would take time. And this not just in Ephesus, but in almost every New Testament church. Yet it was completely necessary if the church was going to make an impact.

The Good News that they preached—centered of course on Jesus—included reconciliation; becoming part of a community where the old ways of thinking, identifying and behaving were replaced by a new paradigm. Here everyone–regardless of race, background, social status, gender was welcome to follow Jesus equally together with the same access to the Father through the Spirit. Former identities would be replaced and redefined through Jesus. Cultural pressure points and social conditioning that brought division would be overcome by the grace of Jesus lived out in the community. Everything would change—all relationships—between Jews and non-Jews; slave and free; men and women; husband and wife; children and parents. Destructive personal behavior would be put away and be replaced by healthy, others-centered actions. People would be “made new in the attitude of your minds” in order to “put on a new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (4:23).

This was God’s plan. To this they were chosen. Through Christ they belonged completely without reservation. He empowered them in this process and through his Spirit to be able to actually live reconciliation out and create this community of peace and harmony. And what a witness it would be! It would literally change the world.

A Witness Still Needed

The parallels between Ephesus and us are numerous. We continue to live in a world intent on hostility, where peace and reconciliation are drowned out in other, louder, destructive and hate-filled voices. The challenge of self-identifying first and primarily as citizens of the kingdom remains especially when we are pulled to identify in so many other ways. It often runs headlong into cultural conventional thinking. But the call remains—we are to be made new, completely, not partially new. While the world seeks to divide, our message and actions are about reconciliation, peace and acceptance. We cannot afford to “follow the ways of the world”—allowing that to set our agendas. We must make “every effort” to maintain unity. We must be a welcoming force–inviting aliens, strangers and foreigners to discover the blessings of citizenship in Christ. We have to be open for the power of God to work within us in ways we cannot ask or imagine. What a transforming force this beautiful multi-ethnic, welcoming, united faith community can still be! I think you would agree that there is a huge need for this in our current climate. I pray we are up for this wonderful challenge.

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Meet Will

June 7, 2017

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Serving as preaching intern this summer at Levy is Will Brannen. Will will be a junior at Harding University in Searcy, AR studying Bible and ministry. He is from Houston, TX. He and his family worship at the Bammel Church of Christ.

I have known Will since 2003 when my family and I moved to work with the Gateway congregation in Pensacola, FL. Will and his family were living there then.

Will has an amazing God story to share about his life. He had a heart transplant as an infant and is a two-time cancer survivor. He plans to tell us a little more about that soon at Levy.

In spending dedicated time with Will–studying text; talking ministry and preaching; visiting people–I am deeply impressed by Will’s desire to serve God, his genuineness and his maturity.

I am thankful that Will is with us for six weeks and I urge everyone at Levy to pray for him, encourage him and support him in his pursuit of a life of ministry.


The Least of These

May 18, 2017

Over the last few months I have been preaching from the kingdom parables in the gospel of Matthew. These stories along with Christ’s other teachings and personal ministry reveal the nature and values of “the kingdom of heaven.” To me as I read the entire story as it unfolds in Matthew, the kingdom was on the mind of Jesus from the very beginning of his teaching ministry (the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7) until his last public teaching before his arrest (chapters 24-25).

As I understand it, the kingdom of God has an “already here/but not yet” aspect to it. The kingdom is here Jesus taught—among us and in us, but not in it fullest state. We still get to anticipate, yearn for, and look forward to it. To me, the best way to understand the kingdom is like this:

  • It is where God is/rules. Wherever the reign of God can be seen, his kingdom is present.
  • It is within us. So Jesus stated in Luke 17:21. When God rules within us his kingdom then is evident in us.
  • It is from another place. So Jesus stated in John 18:36. This speaks to the values of the kingdom. This is what Jesus began sharing in the Sermon and throughout his ministry. These kingdom values are usually at odds with those of our world.
  • The kingdom focus is on the least of these. This was among what Matthew last recorded Jesus saying before his arrest in a section we know as “The Sheep and the Goats” or the great judgment scene. Found here is a major way that kingdom values differ from the world.

“THE LAST WILL BE FIRST”

As Matthew presents Jesus, we hear him say these words more than once and we witness him practice them. Sure there is the backstory of the Jewish establishment’s rejection of his Messiahship—the “first” in God’s story refusing to embrace God’s Son while reacting as the invitation goes out to the “last” folks they ever expected to be in a kingdom celebration (or wedding feast as Jesus imagines it in Matthew 22:1-14). But there is more to the story than just proving a point to hard hearted Jews.

The kingdom of God really is about the least of these. I love the way Jesus replied to some disciples of John the Baptist who came asking if Jesus was, in fact, the true Messiah  (Matthew 11:4). His answer was about the least of these. It was about how the lame could walk, the blind could see, the deaf could hear, lepers were healed, the poor hearing good news. Interesting.

You can see this all throughout Christ’s ministry—stopping to listen to blind Bartimaeus, healing lepers, feeding thousands, making time for little children, offering hope to an adulterous woman, casting out demons in people others had completely given up on. This was Jesus reaching out unashamedly to the forgotten, the devalued, the fringe, the ignored, the neglected, the last–and incredibly making them first on his mind, in his heart and in his kingdom.

Remember his disciples squabbling about who would be the greatest in his kingdom? This is so like most of us—seeking the edge, maneuvering for position, wanting to be number one—first! Matthew shared this unflattering episode in 20:20-28. Once more Jesus made it crystal clear that in his kingdom this type of ego stroking would not occur. It was about being last, he told them, not first. Or as he framed it in another conversation–giving up of ourselves; our self-will and ego in order to gain much more in him.

Do we get it? It is all about the least of these. Once Jesus said that if we harm or injure one of his little ones—specifically little children in the context of Matthew 18:1-15—that it would be better for us to have a millstone (read very heavy weight) strapped to our neck and cast into the sea. Not sure how much plainer it can get than that.

It is about justice, mercy, grace, empowerment, forgiveness, hope, compassion, healing and love—demonstrated to those who frequently do not receive much of it. This is what Jesus came to deliver. This is what his kingdom in its present form is to emphasize. And when the kingdom comes in its fullest—forgotten folks like poor, sick Lazarus will enjoy an eternal place at God’s table. The last will be first.

THIS HAS CHANGED ME

On a personal level this “least of these” emphasis has changed me. First, I can relate to it. Honestly, I often feel like one of the “least of these.” This has more to do with believing Satan’s lies than Christ’s teaching, but it is a real struggle for me at times. Quite often I assess my life and feel like a failure on different levels—wondering if my life has made any real, lasting difference; questioning if my attempts at preaching really matter in the big picture; wondering if I have helped or hurt my family; at times feeling lonely and afraid–just out on the fringe. I do realize and acknowledge that these thoughts come from my enemy who wants to “steal, kill and destroy” me, but they are honest emotions. And it is good to know that when I am thus struggling that Christ is there. This is the “when I am weak, he is strong” promise of 2 Corinthians 12:10–which is simply another way of restating his kingdom focus.

It has also changed me in how I look at others. How often have I brushed aside the Bartimeaus’s of the world in my rush to pursue my own ends—my own place at the chief seat in the kingdom? How often have I ignored the last? Had no time for the least of these? How many times have I been so focused on the winners, while denigrating the losers that I lost sight of the real purpose of my life within the kingdom of God?

God forgive me. I have come to realize that those I have called “the losers” are exactly who Christ valued–the least of these.

The evidence is just too overwhelming. Read again Matthew’s story of Jesus. It is right there—repeatedly. In God’s kingdom:

Whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. 

It really is about the least of these.


Becoming an Effective Assimilating Church

April 20, 2017

This was a presentation I gave in a class at Levy. 

If a congregation becomes successful in becoming a visitor friendly church, a good percentage of guests will desire to transition into permanent membership. That is a wonderful and desired result of a relevant welcome ministry. It also brings with it challenges of assimilation—moving guests into involved membership.

Just as with becoming visitor friendly, assimilating new members into involved membership must be an intentional effort by a church. If not, then many unwelcome consequences could occur—including missing out on the giftedness of new members, alienation of new members eager to plug-in, and of course, ultimately losing the new members altogether. This is why it is just as imperative to become an effective assimilating church as it is becoming a visitor friendly church.

All Have Gifts

In the apostle Paul’s divine efforts to correct the dysfunctional situation among the Corinthian church he left us with a beautiful text on how the church functions as a body (1 Corinthians 12:12-25). Here he emphasized that in order to operate at its highest level the church needs every member in place and functioning efficiently—everyone has a place and everyone is needed in their place for God’s church to be healthy and growing.

Within this text is the idea that every member has a gift to offer and contribute to the overall health of the body. In fact, Paul teaches, God put every member in exactly the right place within the body to best use the gifts he gives them (vs. 18).

So everyone is gifted. God has put every new member coming into the Levy family into the body exactly as he desires. He recreated them to fit and plug right into the body of Christ. It then becomes up to local body to help them assimilate in order for them to use that gift.

Purposeful Assimilation

To become an effective assimilating church means making the transition from guest to involved member as seamless as possible. Included in this process is:

  • Giving the new member an easy entry point to consider how and where to get involved. This is one purpose of our Levy 101 orientation class—to offer an introduction to the church and provide ministry information along with a simple and understandable way to sign up for ministries that connect and relate to each new member. Whatever the method/approach an effective assimilating church will provide each new member timely ministry information and have a proactive process in place to help them find where they fit—along with an encouraging atmosphere for getting involved. Many new members come into the church with an expectation of this—desiring to plug-in and make a difference. This is one of the strongest characteristics of the millennial generation, for example. So it is essential for effective assimilating churches to provide an entry point to involvement.
  • There must be timely follow-up by ministry leaders/deacons, etc. After providing an entry point the next step is to share the information provided by new members to appropriate ministry leaders. Once this information is passed on, the ministry leader should be ready to contact the new members in order to help them connect and become involved in their ministries. This allows the new members to start contributing to the work of the church and the overall kingdom quickly, which also gives them a sense of purpose and place in their new church home. It demonstrates that their new church takes seriously God’s call for everyone to use their gifts for ministry. If anywhere along the way, this process breaks down or is not in place, then it can adversely affect the new member’s relationship with the congregation, while also hurting the church by not utilizing the giftedness of the new member. Going back to the Corinthian context, it is a way for the eye to say to the ear that it is not needed. Our ministry leaders and deacons are greatly appreciated for their dedication in using their gifts to volunteer and lead ministries. An important part of that is to be sensitive to new members, always being prompt in reaching out to them if they have indicated interest in their ministry area.
  • Continuing focus on involvement and growing gifts of ministry. Assimilating churches work to create a climate of involvement beyond the details of a specific welcoming/assimilating ministry. Ministry fairs, tools to help members identify their personal ministry gifts, leadership being open to new ministry ideas from within membership, giving honor and appreciation to those involved in various ministries, etc. all work to help plug-in members and encourage them to grow their gifts of ministry. And while some of this will organically happen (which is also very healthy) an effective assimilating church will be very intentional in helping create this kind of climate.

Closing the Back Door

One significant characteristic of an effective assimilating church is that they limit the number of members leaving through the “back door,” that is, members leaving due to not being involved, becoming distant from the congregation at large, and deciding to go elsewhere. Certainly, involvement must generate from within individuals. Even the best assimilating approach will fail if a person decides not to become active within a church, but the back door will stay wide-open for churches who are not intentionally seeking ways for members—new and old—to become and stay involved in ministry that makes a kingdom difference in their community.

It is an entire church initiative. All of us—even if we are not a ministry leader—can help in the assimilating process and help close the back door. There are social aspects involved as well. We can all greet and welcome new members. We can invite them to lunch. We can take the time to get to know them and make them feel at home. An old study revealed that new members need to make seven new personal connections at a church or they would exit in just a matter of months. Regardless of the accuracy of this statement—it is true that unless new members are made to feel at home, involved, needed, and a part of their new church, they likely will take the back door—sooner rather than later.

Be Sensitive and Proactive!

So in whatever capacity that we can—be sensitive to helping our new members assimilate as quickly as possible. If you are a ministry leader do not neglect to contact new members if they express interest in your ministry. If a new member volunteers do not ignore that—put them to work! Greet all new members. Go out of your way to make them feel welcome. Put the power of prayer to use on their behalf. If we are truly working to build a strong family for the glory of God, all of this should be a central focus of that goal.


FIVE PREACHER FAILS

October 26, 2016

I am intimately familiar with preacher fails. I have lived through a host of my own. Here are five common ones.

  • Lack of discipline. Usually the church world allows quite a bit of daily freedom for preachers to be about their ministry. This freedom can be easily taken advantage of—preachers staying at home and away—not being fully engaged in productive ministry. We preachers already put up with the “you only work three hours a week” barbs. Let’s not allow laziness and lack of discipline to give that any credence. Instead let’s fully “carry out the ministry God has given” us (2 Timothy 4:5 NLT).
  • Inattention to study. Lack of discipline can also lead to sloppy study habits, which in turn damages our ability to effectively speak truth in love. Don’t take shortcuts on sermon preparation. We should put the proper study time in—so that we can be both confident in our presentation and content; that we are in fact handling correctly the Word of God.
  • Inability to listen. I once was convinced that I pretty much had all of the answers and I was eager to share them! Failure on my part to appreciate and to listen to other’s council, to hear proper constructive criticism, to simply learn from wiser and more experienced people hurt my ministry at times. Let’s be quick to hear and slow to speak!
  • Complaining. Everyone needs a place to vent on occasion—the same is true for preachers, but be very careful not to be seen as a whiner or complainer. This can undermine ministry. I have participated in and heard my fair share of elder roasts, how-terrible-my-church-is conversations, and complaints about everything from salaries to worship style. If things need improving usually complaining or whining is not the catalyst to make it happen. Instead let’s try to do all things without complaining and grumbling (Philippians 2:14).
  • People Pleasing. We all desire affirmation—preachers are no exception. And as preachers we certainly want to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I may save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), but not to the point of compromising personal or biblical integrity. Ultimately we will give account of our life and ministry to God. We simply cannot allow a desire to please people set the agenda for our work. It can be harmful to us, to our families and to our ministry. There is a balance here that we all must find.

Preaching is one of the most noble and needed callings! Let’s do it with a passion for excellence. I praise God for good preachers!


Numbers

October 24, 2016

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I offer a confession–as a preacher I do think frequently about numbers. Each week as I see Sunday class and worship attendance numbers I usually either will praise God at the healthy numbers or wonder where everyone was–if the numbers are low. I can’t seem to help it.

More than once in conversations about such numbers I have been gently reprimanded–told that perhaps I think too much about it. Maybe so. But numbers do represent souls and are a way to consistently measure the health and growth of a church body.

Throughout history God has put an emphasis on numbers as a measuring tool. Luke was not shy about including the number of conversions in the book of Acts. Of course, if the focus is on numbers-for-numbers-sake for self-glorification, then that is a problem. King David realized this the hard way (see 1 Chronicles 21).

For all of my preaching ministry I have always desired for numbers to increase because I have always desired the church to grow. Increasing numbers to me represent the kingdom of God expanding, more people coming to the Lord, and more people actively involved in worshipping and serving him. I praise God when I see the church grow and I thank him for it! I know it is about more than just numbers (has to be!), but numbers nonetheless do reflect the growth.

When numbers decrease it has always alarmed me. It disappoints and concerns. Often I take it personally (this is irrational I know, but I think it is a common preacher problem) and wonder what I have done to cause the dwindling numbers.

God has given me the privilege to preach in small, medium and larger churches. In all of them I prayed over their numbers. In all I wanted and want more people to come to Christ and faithfully participate in his church. It is not for bragging rights or my glory, but for God’s. And it is for the sake of souls. I want more people enjoying the hope I have in Christ.

So I suppose I will continue on wrestling with the numbers–trying to find the right balance and attitude. I realize that God knows who is his and has a much bigger count going on than I can imagine (1 Kings 19:18).

But for now–if you were in worship Sunday, I rejoice that you were. If not, you were greatly missed you. You do count!


Preacher-to-Preacher: Do’s & Don’ts

October 19, 2016

From one preacher to another I gently offer this advice for building stronger relationships within your church and with other preachers.

  • Don’t go all robo-preacher. A while back I was a guest at a church. I was acquainted with the preacher, but had not talked with him recently. So I asked the “how are you” question—genuinely wanting to know how he personally was doing. I got back what I call the “robo-preacher” answer. His church was doing incredible and was growing. They had recently added more leadership and renovated their facility. He was in more demand than ever as a guest speaker at other churches and conferences. God was good! Well, okay. Glad to hear it, but that was not the question I asked. Being a preacher I recognize the tendency we have to attach our value to the good things God is doing through our ministry and those around us, but perhaps this information does not always need to be in the foreground and we need to engage others in a different way. Opportunities to share good news about our ministry will happen.
  • Don’t start posturing. In one city as a new preacher I arrived late (had to find the place) at a graveside funeral service. It was raining. As I made my way to join the crowd a man kindly shared his umbrella with me. After introductions I discovered he was a fellow-preacher in town but at a church that I soon found out that was suspicious of mine. His entire demeanor changed and he began to posture over certain biblical theological positions. Later when encountering this brother, he would barely acknowledge me. I have never understood this. Even if we disagree why this treatment? Wouldn’t it be healthier and more productive to engage each other as brothers and perhaps even enjoy open dialogue about different viewpoints?
  • Do Reply. Maybe this just happens to me (or maybe all of this just happens to me—I could be the common denominator creating all of these situations! LOL) but often when I email and/or call other preachers I never get any reply. Nothing. Not even a “no thank you—not interested.” It is puzzling. I know everyone is busy, but try to reply. It is the gracious thing to do. Speaking of…
  • Do be gracious—to all and specifically toward other preachers. We are a brotherhood within one, you know. All preachers are not gifted the same. We all have made our mistakes (The reason I can write this post is because I recognize myself in it). Let’s be kind to each other even if and especially if—I go all robo-preacher on you or start posturing or whatever. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt, encourage one another, and help each other grow in the gift of preaching. It is a gift God values highly.

I love the preaching life even with all of the insecurities and bumps along the way. The rewards far outweigh those temporary challenges. I also appreciate the work of my brothers in the pulpit. Let’s always strive to learn and grow as preachers and always try to be encouragers of each other to preach the Word!