Monday, March 16, 2015

Book Review: Churchless (Monday Link Up #6)

This weekend I read Churchless by George Barna. Here is my review. This is also a Link Up Party.

The greatest takeaway from Churchless is that we need to rethink how we think about the "unchurched". According to Barna three out of four unchurched Americans should really be called "dechurched" as they at one time used to be a part of a church in some fashion. Also according to Barna, one out of six Americans who are churchless fall into the category of "born again" meaning that they say that they have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior and are depending upon His work for eternal salvation.

I find that this should give us pause as we engage with those outside our church walls. Many of them have not abandoned faith at all...rather they have given up on local churches that have burned and hurt them. We have so long equated church attendance with spiritual maturity and this is something we need to be cured of.

If there is a downside to the book it is the fact that there are too many stats. I knew going in that Barna is a pollster, so stats are his bread and butter. However I did find myself at times getting lost in the lists and charts just wishing for a little more help by way of application. I guess the reader is left to that himself. The problem is, of course, that it's easy to make stats say whatever you want them to say.

Overall I gave this book a 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. It was exactly what I expected it to be, nothing more...nothing less. It's a book that I believe could be helpful to anyone wanting to understand the cultural shift we see happening with regards to how people are feeling about local church involvement. It is also a quick read, I read it in one weekend without much difficulty or effort.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Church That Killed The Pastor

I was thinking about a pastor friend of mine yesterday. He died a few years ago and I am convinced that his church killed him. To protect the innocent (and the guilty) I will call my friend Rick. Rick served a small church in the rural south. He loved this little church. Worked hard for them for many years and was a leader in basically every ministry of the local Baptist Association at one time. His family was well connected into the community and his youngest daughter (a high school student) worked with me in youth ministry at the same association already mentioned.

Rick was always asking me how my family was. His family sent cards when my son had his open heart surgery and even sent a little money in one of the cards. He genuinely cared about people. This was refreshing to me since my wife was actually criticized by some in our own church for "missing too much church" after our son's open heart surgery...but that is another story for another blog.

After many years working hard for his little church, Rick was fired. Now the church didn't consider it firing. They did the best they could to spiritualize it and paint themselves in the best possible light. After secretly meeting they told Rick they could no longer afford to pay a pastor and that service would almost immediately be over. They, of course, had to be "good stewards" of God's money, no matter how it hurt the man and family that had poured years of their hearts and lives into this faith community.

Within a couple of months of this I received word that Rick, in his mid 50s, suddenly died of a heart attack. I know from personal conversations that he was worried about his family's future. He was never given a chance to make a case for the church keeping him on. They very quickly hired a new guy as pastor, which of course proved they had been lying all along. There were many awkward feelings at Rick's funeral from the members of his church. They knew. We all knew. They were the church that killed their pastor.

I am determined that this will not happen to me. Even if it means giving up on pastoral ministry. I think many pastors have been killed, albeit indirectly, by churches and by snakes in the grass who disguise themselves as God's people. I know this sounds harsh, but Jesus said to beware of wolves in sheep's clothing. The only place those kinds of wolves lives is in the "church". Maybe there are churches who take good care of their pastors. In 20 years of ministry this has not been my experience. I wish it was...but it's not.

I recently read where Rachel Held Evans believed the American Church is dying and maybe that was a good thing. She said maybe God would resurrect something meaningful from the ashes. Maybe she is right.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Where Are You, God? (Monday Link Up #5)

Where are you, God? It seems that many Christians often believe or are told that this is a question you should never ask. Lots of children are taught in Sunday School ever week that one of the worst sins is the sin of doubt. Don't ask questions because it may mean you are going to hell. But is this accurate? Is this what we see from God's saints in the Bible? Is it what we see from God Himself? A quick look at a well known passage from Psalm 22 may shed some light on this:

"My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" Psalm 22:1

This Psalm, written by David, is a classic example of a passage with an intended double meaning/application. David was genuinely asking this question in one of many times in his life where he felt God had abandoned him. Yes, the same David that would write the very next Psalm (Psalm 23) where he basically says that everything is OK because God is with him says in the psalm preceding that God had completely abandoned him.

My observation is this: doubt isn't necessarily as bad a thing as we make it. In a recent book I read from Phillip Yancey he stated that doubt is a major ingredient for faith, that what makes faith,well faith, is that it is exercised in the midst of doubt. Much like a person cannot show courage except in the face of fear, you cannot exercise faith but while starting straight at doubt. We learn from David that it's better to tell God how you feel...He knows anyway.

One other thought about Psalm 22:1. Jesus quotes THIS passage from the cross. Not Psalm 23. Jesus doesn't say, "God, I am not worried cause you are with me" (though there certainly are times that would be an appropriate thing to say). Following Gethsemane where Jesus pleaded with God that this cup of suffering would be taken away He quotes David's anguishing cry that God had abandoned Him.

We know, of course, that Jesus was forsaken FOR US. God turned His back on His Son so that He wouldn't have to turn His back on us. But often lost in this is the VERY REAL sense of abandonment that Jesus felt. It seems that even the Son of God thought it was OK to voice what seems to be least from His human nature. That's something to think about. 

Monday, March 02, 2015

Who Am I? (Monday Link Up #4)

Psalm 8

1 Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
in the heavens.
2 Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
3 When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

5 You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
7 all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
8 the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

9 Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

I wanted to make three brief and simple observations about this beloved Psalm from my own personal meditations this week.

#1 The Universe is Big

David says that there were times when he "considered the heavens". It's good for us to do that every once in a while. We are learning it seems every week of a new galaxy or a new planet. We have all seen images beamed down from the Hubble Telescope. God's creation is vast and seemingly has no end.

#2 We Are Small

And here we are. Almost 7 billion people on this speck of the universe we call earth. Each of us is a blip on the radar of history and the cosmos.

#3 God Loves Us Anyway

As insignificant as we may seem, God is in fact mindful of us. He cares in great detail about my life and your life. This caused David great wonder, and it should do the same for us.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What did Paul and Peter do just before they were executed? (#TBT Post)

        No. The two apostles did not request a last meal nor were they entitled to one by the Roman courts ... even for Roman citizens who had been sentenced to death.

        I'm sure they did, even though we are not told that they did.

        They wrote letters.
        Yes, they both wrote letters. Peter wrote a letter to the Jews in the dispersion, the believing Jews who had been scattered by persecutions, and Paul wrote to his beloved son in the faith, the young and timid Timothy (1 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:12-15; 2 Tim. 4:6). But how could they be so composed that they could think clearly enough to write letters? And why did they write these letters? I would like to propose several ideas as to how and why they could do this.

1. They were moved by the Holy Spirit to write, praying that we would be moved by the Spirit to read.

2. They loved their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

3. They loved the church of Jesus Christ.

4. They loved the gospel of Jesus Christ and sought to preserve it.

5. They knew the forgetful nature of man.

6. They sought to guard the truth of the gospel.

7. They knew the consequences of not writing to the church and its pastors who would suffer persecution.

8. They had both seen the risen Lord Jesus.

9. They were aware of the dangers lurking within the visible church, i.e., apostates.

The writings of both apostles, of course, were inspired by the Holy Spirit and became essential and Holy Scripture for the church of Jesus Christ. And through the 66 books of our Bibles, the progress of redemption, the gospel from Genesis to Revelation, has been preserved that we might be equipped to do the work of ministry to the world that God loved in this manner, He "gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in Him might not perish but have everlasting life."

Aren't we glad the apostles wrote! 2 Timothy 3:16-4:5; check it out.

*(The top picture is supposed to be Peter; the bottom picture is of Paul).

Monday, February 23, 2015

What Did Jesus Say About Hell? (Monday Link Up #3)

It is often cited that Jesus speaks more about hell than He does heaven in the gospels. This may be true (I haven't counted the verses or words) but usually this is used in a sort of "evangelistic" setting trying to get unbelievers to repent and turn to Jesus. I am certainly for unbelievers coming believers but as I work my way through the Gospels so far in 2015 a surprising observation has come to mind. Jesus spends way more time warning "religious people" about hell than He does "heathens". Consider these examples:

"then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in Your presence, and you taught in our streets.' But He will say, 'I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity." Luke 13:26-27

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father." Matthew 7:21

"Then they also will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' Then He will answer them, saying, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." Matthew 25:44-55

Jesus made it very clear. There will be a lot of surprised "church people" on judgment day. He never seemed to take this harsh approach with "all those sinners" that we think we are so better than because we are Christians. It's a lesson we can all learn.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

I Was A Sick Man Who Needed A Doctor

When Jesus heard it, he said unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Mark 2:17

I will never forget my first interview for a church position. It was early 1998 and Nikki and I were newlyweds who had just begun our studies at Columbia International University in Columbia, SC. I was pursuing a youth ministry position that I had discovered through the school's job referral service in the little town of Ridge Spring, SC.

I was new to the whole "search committee" thing and really didn't know what to expect. Having said that I thought the interview was going well until the group asked me about my conversion. I was less than four years old in my faith and at this point I still had quite a bit of that "new believer" zeal. I was ready and excited to tell everyone and anyone at a moments notice what God had done in my life through His Son Jesus.

It has always been an important part of my testimony that I wasn't raised in a "Christian home" (a fact now that is even more precious to me at times since I was protected from many of the legalistic church baggage junk that much of my generation has rightly rebelled against). So I shared my story.

I didn't get to specific but I did mention how just a few years prior I had been in some trouble with the law as a teenager. Many would have considered me a hellion, though I wasn't into drugs and I got pretty good grades through school. Nikki's dad was even warned by some of his seminary neighbors that he shouldn't let his daughter hang out with me. Nevertheless, I had a few run ins with the authorities that even led me to be assigned community service, which wasn't finished until AFTER my decision to follow Jesus (no, He doesn't magically take away the consequences of our prior sins).

After I was finished with my testimony I could tell there was some tension in the room. Finally a young lady spoke up. I could tell in her tone that she was sprinkling sarcasm and smugness all over her response. Her question was simple, "How are you going to explain that to teenagers? I am not sure you would be a good example for our kids!"

I was both shocked and hurt. I had just poured out my heart to these folks (and thus learning for the first time that many church people cannot be trusted to share your true heart) and had been shot down. Worse, it seemed that they did not care that Jesus had rescued me from my past life and that this message of good news in my life was EXACTLY what their teenagers needed to hear in the difficult world they found themselves growing up in.

I knew at this point I wasn't going to get the job, so I took advantage of the opportunity to explain Mark 2:17 to them. Jesus told the Pharisees that those who are well (or those who think they are well) have no need of a doctor, but a sick person does. He hadn't come to call the righteous (or those who think they are righteous) but sinners to repentance. This was my story. I was a sinner that Jesus loved and called to repentance.

I know we "church people" say all the time that someone doesn't need to clean themselves up first in order to come to Jesus. However, where the rubber meets the road this is often what we really believe. They wanted someone who already had their act together even before they met Jesus, someone who was morally pure and had no "skeletons in their closet" so to speak. The problem is, of course, that only one person fits that description, the Lord Jesus Himself.

Even though it has been seventeen years since that interview it left a distinct impression on my life and my wife's. I will likely never forget that moment.  This is why I tend to draw a distinction between "followers of Jesus" and "church people". I can see it in people's faces when I teach. When I talk honestly about my sin, about our sins, and not the sins of those "heathen" out there I can see "church people" cringe or make a face that clearly indicates they do not like what I am saying.

"Church people" get mad when the church sign says "Messed up people welcome here" and say they would rather the sign say, "This Sunday is wear a tie to church Sunday." If you think I am exaggerating, the previous example is a real experience that I have had in the last year, you can't make this stuff up. We wonder why people want nothing to do with our churches. Well, I don't wonder. Friends, if church is about "keeping up appearances" then we wouldn't be very happy with the people that Jesus would have brought as "visitors". Maybe we want to wear our ties and look moral on the outside because if we started serving real sinners, they would begin to remind us too much of ourselves. You know, that wouldn't be a bad thing.