Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Prayer 101: Praying for Those Who Don't Know Christ

A church in another state did a very unusual experiment a few years ago. They randomly selected 80 names out of their local phone book and began to pray for these strangers. They also selected a random "control group:" 80 names that were laid aside, with no prayers lifted up on their behalf. After 90 days, church members called all 160 numbers, asking if someone from the church could come by and pray for them. The amazing result: Of the control group, only one person out of 80 was willing to receive a prayer visit. But of the group that had been previously prayed for, 69 of 80 agreed to a visit. 45 actually invited the visitors inside, offered coffee, and mentioned special prayer requests.

Intercessory prayer is notoriously difficult to measure scientifically, but it's hard to argue with those results. Paul Cedar, author of A Life of Prayer, once agreed to speak at a large evangelism conference on the topic, "Prayer As Evangelism." When he got up to speak, he noticed a typo on the program: It said, "Prayer Is Evangelism." Cedar decided that title was actually more correct than the one he had chosen.

So how often do you pray for specific non-Christians by name? What can we expect God to do when we pray that others would come to know Him? What can we do in order to pray for these people more effectively? That will be our topic this Sunday.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Worship Music Debate

My friend and favorite blogger, Joe McKeever, has retired as Director of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Fortunately for me and the rest of his internet flock, he's still preaching and blogging. He wrote this last week, and I thought you'd appreciate it. Keep in mind, when worship music is the subject, the argument usually divides along generational lines: Those over 50 or so prefer the old hymns and nothing but, while those under 50 want nothing but songs written in the last 15 years. But this is a balanced, BIBLICAL perspective from a man of retirement age...which makes it all the more refreshing...

Are They Still Debating Worship Music?

If so, I have a contribution. Going through old files and tossing out the accumulated notes of a near-lifetime of ministry, I came across this correspondence from June of 2000.

Jeff and Lisa wrote to me:

"We have enjoyed the fellowship and warm welcome we have received from the church. But, we are concerned about something that it seems is becoming more and more emphasized in the church services. It sets a tone for the rest of the service that dampens our spirit. We find it hard to concentrate on your message, and we both like hearing you preach. We're talking about the music."

"We do not think it is right to add a rock beat to hymns written to glorify God. For example, 'It is Well With My Soul' was played one Sunday with a rock beat. This was so offensive to us that we did not feel comfortable singing the hymn. We hate not participating during that part of the service but we feel that we are not truly worshiping God. We hope you will prayerfully consider this issue."

I wrote them back:

"Dear Jeff and Lisa:
"I'm glad you shared your concern with me about the music. I'm going to sit at my computer and try to put some thoughts down here. So, you'll understand I'm typing this myself and not blame the form on my secretary!

"We've had lots of discussion about the music in the church over the past year or two, because in almost every church in the land, the music is changing. A month ago Margaret and I attended a church in California 20 years old and running 15,000 in attendance. The music was a band that just about deafened me, and was not to my liking at all. The pastor said he counsels ministers to find the type of music suitable to their own community, and not to imitate what he was doing there. As the week went by--we were attending a conference--I found the music less and less objectionable. It never reached the point of being 'my kind of worship music,' but I certainly saw how it was being used of the Lord to bless hundreds all around me.

"What I decided (and I'm not the first, of course) is that the type of music we best worship to is not theological or even spiritual, but cultural. That is, our choices in church music are conditioned by the kind of music we grew up with, in church mainly, but to a certain degree, out of church, too. Recently we had an African children's choir here. They were wonderful, and their music was loud, swinging, with a heavy beat, and extremely emotional. Not my kind, but still infectious. And you could see the love of Christ in these people's faces. My conclusion: there is no one kind of music that is 'the Lord's' with all the rest being secular. The music the Lord leads His people to worship with is just as varied as His children are.

"Ken Gabrielse (our minister of music at the time, also chairman of the church music department at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; now leading the music department for Oklahoma Baptists) says that many of the hymns we love and grew up on were originally written to honky tonk tunes of the 1700s. Church leaders who had sung only from the book of Psalms resented Charles Wesley taking a song out of a dance hall and putting Christian words to it, and they condemned him heartily. The same with Isaac Watts who wrote songs like 'At the Cross' and 'We're Marching to Zion.' Today's standards were yesterday's rock songs!
"One of our members was at the First Baptist Church of a large Southern city recently. The pastor told him that only 20 years ago, the congregation would not allow a piano to be used in the service because it cheapened the worship. It had to be the organ or nothing. And yet, where in the Bible does one find an organ?

"It's interesting you mention 'It is Well With My Soul' because, while I don't recall the particular instance you refer to, I was in a congregation a few months back when the music was provided by a jazz band. It sounded weird and sure did not 'feel' like how I want to sing that song. I tried anyway, and frankly did not get much out of the singing. Incidentally, Dr. Gabrielse says we're not supposed to 'get' anything out of the singing; we're supposed to worship the Lord and He gets the praise. He says most of us are too narcissistic in how we worship: 'What can I get out of it?' Anyway, after that service, I heard two or three people comment on how that music had blessed them. So, I kept my mouth shut rather than pour cold water over what had been a great experience for them.

"My conclusions then, Jeff and Lisa, are: --that often the very thing that offends one person blesses another, --that music is so personal and individualistic that almost no two people like it the same way, --that the minister of music has a tough job trying to meet the needs of so many people with varying tastes and needs, and --that church music is never static, but like every other methodology in the church. The message never changes, but the methods are fluid and always adapting to where people are at the moment.

That's why Jesus made so much of the need for God's people to be new wineskins. A new wineskin believer is open and flexible, willing to try the new and not resistant to change. I'm 60 years old (note: that was 9 years ago!) and I have to fight this tendency every day to prefer things the way they have always been. But I know when I give in to that, something within me starts to dry up and wither and I become less and less available to the Holy Spirit.
"What I'd love to see you do is to decide that a) not all music in the worship service must be to my liking, so long as some of it is; b) I will worship and sing unto the Lord and not rate a song or sermon by 'what I got out of it,' and c) to pray for the Lord to lead in the choices of what we sing and how we do it.

"Not long ago a man came to me with the same concern you mentioned. The drums were too loud and interfered with his worship. He had decided to remain in the foyer until sermon time. If this did not work for him, he would find another church. Oddly enough, the next Sunday he loved the music and even found that the drums fit right in. He made a discovery that's worth mentioning here. He found out that in order for the worship leader and the musicians to get the right balance in the sound and beat and so on (I'm not a musician!), they had to experiment. By being patient and not critical, he found that they are making strides to improve. So, he's still in his place on Sunday and seems a lot more satisfied.

"I know I've not done a very good job of responding to your letter, but I hope you'll give me an A for effort. I will take it as a great act of Christian faithfulness and love if you will accept my suggestions above, and see how it all develops. If, after a few months, you still have the same concerns, let me know and we will talk further, even involving Ken in our discussions.
"Thank you. God bless you. I'm honored to be your pastor."

(My notes do not indicate how Jeff and Lisa responded. I don't actually remember them--they're no longer a part of our congregation--but am confident that over the intervening years as they have visited churches in other cities, they have long since gotten past these concerns and recognized them as temporary preferences, not lasting spiritual convictions.)

Joe's blog is found here: http://www.joemckeever.com/mt/archives/001179.html Just in case you'd like to comment to him.

Prayer 101: When Your Prayer Isn't Answered

True story: Carrie and I started dating on a December Saturday (actually, I can remember the exact date, but I don't want you to think I'm just showing off). We had a couple of dates, then I went home for Christmas break. We were in college, so that meant that I wouldn't see her for about a month. As soon as I got home, I sent her a letter. Then I waited a while.

(As a reminder, back then there were no cell phones, email, text-messaging, etc. When you were separated from your main squeeze, you had two choices for communication--snail mail and long-distance phone calls. Since my parents were still paying the long-distance bills, I decided to let the letter suffice for a few days before I called)

After a week or so, I decided to call her long-distance. Surprisingly, her voice seemed a little upset. After some prodding, I found out why: My letter had never arrived. She had assumed that I had gone home and forgotten about her. Perhaps I had even taken up with some old girlfriend (If she'd seen the sort of girls who lived in Yoakum at the time, her fears would've been greatly relieved). I did my best soft-shoe routine over the phone to show her how sorry I was, then followed that up with another letter explaining how excited I was to be dating her, how I didn't know what had happened to that letter. And then--here's the worst part--both the earlier letter and my letter of apology arrived at her house at the same time. The US Postal Service nearly ended my marriage before it ever began! Fortunately, Carrie chose to believe in me.

Sometimes, it's hard to believe in a God we can't see, especially when He doesn't seem to respond to our prayers. The most common heresy in popular preaching today says that if we live the right way, pray the right way, give to the right preacher, then God will always answer our requests in the affirmative. It certainly didn't work that way for Paul, however, as he shares in 2 Corinthians 12. When his prayer for relief from his "thorn in the flesh" went unanswered, how did Paul respond? That is what we'll discuss this Sunday.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Stephen Ray's philosophy of youth ministry

This Sunday, we'll be presenting Stephen Ray for church approval as our new Minister to Youth. Those of us who served on the Search Committee were very impressed by his commitment to Christ, his passion for helping teenagers know God and His word, and his overall vision for youth ministry. But I'd rather you get a sense of it for yourself. Here is Stephen's philosophy of youth ministry:

It’s kind of tricky to provide a biblical basis for youth ministry philosophies, because youth ministry as we know it today didn’t exist in biblical times. It’s a pretty modern invention. But still, based on the overall framework of the church, we can infer a couple of things about how youth ministry should be done. Number one, youth ministry isn’t supposed to be “mini-church” for teenagers. In other words, real Church is when EVERYONE comes together in a common setting with common goals, working toward those together as a family in Christ.
Youth ministry is pretty much supposed to be a chance for students to go even deeper into God’s word and relationships with each other in an environment that specifically addresses the challenges and spiritual goals of teenagers. Second, youth ministry is really done best in the greater context of family ministry. In other words, the youth minister’s job is much more like a coach than a baby-sitter. He equips the student and the student’s family with all the tools necessary to ensure the spiritual maturity of the student. Youth ministry should be way more like an orchestra performance – and less like a concerto.

Here goes…

Truth is an interesting concept these days. For most people, one person’s truth can differ from another person’s truth and yet, everything can be alright. But for the Christian, this issue of truth is much simpler…and more difficult. It is simple because we define truth simply as the Word of God. It is difficult for many reasons, the first being that belief in this Truth doesn’t accomplish anything. It is the application of this Truth that brings about change in the life of a believer. When it comes to teaching truth, I believe that teenagers can digest seminary level biblical and theological training as long as it is packaged appropriately. They need to be challenged. They need to be pushed. For it is in this Truth that they discover the love and redemption of God. There is no Truth greater than that.

When a believer professes faith in the Gospel, the Holy Spirit comes into his/her life and begins a transformation, making the person progressively more like Jesus. We’re so used to hearing people say things like, “I was saved when I was 12”. Really, salvation isn’t something that takes place in a single moment. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is when you first decide to become a believer (justification). The middle is this process of transformation (sanctification). The end is when sin is eradicated and we are completely redeemed and enter into community in the Father’s presence (glorification). As Christians, we’re in the middle. Truth and transformation go hand in hand. They cannot be separated. It is the application of Truth that serves as the catalyst for the Spirit bringing about real transformation in the lives of believers.

We often think of faith as being a very personal aspect of our lives. But for the family of God, we are called to love each other and live life together. Isn’t it interesting that the overwhelming majority of New Testament letters are not written to individuals, but to communities, in order to be read aloud during worship? That’s because God wants us to understand how important community is to Him. We, God’s people, are way more effective in edifying each other and reaching unbelievers when we work together as a unified community, rather than as individuals or divisions. In the same way, we are called to love each other, grow together, learn together, solve problems together, serve together, and reach the lost together. With this in mind, teenagers shouldn’t approach youth ministry (or any other ministry, for that matter) with a consumer mentality, being only interested in what they can get out of it. Rather, students should be just as concerned with how they can function as a small part of a huge, God-centered whole.

The greatest display of love comes through serving, deliberately placing yourself in an environment or activity where you consider the needs of others as greater than your own. Pastors serve churches by spending hours in prayer, quiet time, sermon preparation, hospital visitation, counseling, etc., because they care more about their parishioners than themselves. Parents serve children by working hard in order to ensure a more successful and prosperous life for their children. Coaches serve players by spending hours in practice drilling plays and helping athletes develop their weaknesses. Jesus served humanity by dying a criminal’s death in order to redeem those who would believe. In the same way, we are called to serve. And more than that, to practice the attitude of a servant at all times, placing the needs of others above our own and not allowing discomfort or shame to keep us from practicing this sacred call.

If my friend went to Best Buy to get a new big screen TV, and they were having a crazy sale, letting 42” Plasma screen HD TVs go for like $100, the first thing he would do is call his family and friends so they can get in on the action. It’s human nature to want to share good news. So why not the greatest news there is? The literal translation of the word “Gospel” is good news. However, I really feel like the reason that Christians might be so hesitant to share the Gospel with unbelievers is because they themselves aren’t really all that impacted by the news – it’s like “alright news” or something. If news is truly good or great, you can’t wait to share it because you want others to experience what you’ve found. The only thing is – if you aren’t experiencing the great things that come from good news, then either you won’t share the Gospel at all, or what you do share isn’t the Gospel, but really your discouragement with the Gospel. In order to share good news with others, it has to be “good” in you, first.

Prayer 101: How to Pray for our Church

In the movie Dances With Wolves, a Sioux tribe is facing an imminent battle with a fierce rival tribe. Lieutenant Dunbar, the white Army officer who has befriended the Sioux, brings them all the guns he has stored on his desloate frontier fort. He trains them to shoot, knowing this modern weaponry will give them a great advantage against their enemies. But when the battle begins, the Sioux use the rifles as clubs. Dunbar screams, "No! Shoot them!"

In an odd way, it reminds me of the Church. We have an overwhelming advantage over the forces of evil...Jesus said the very gates of Hell wouldn't stand against us. Our mission is to bring the entire world exactly what they need the most, and give it to them free of charge. How can we lose? Well, for a start, we can fail to use our most effective weapon. We can rely on human strategies and effort, and forget to call on the awesome power of our omnipotent God.

One of my favorite quotes about prayer says, "Prayer isn't about getting your will done in Heaven, it's about getting God's will done on Earth." There's a reason Jesus taught us in the Lord's prayer to pray, "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven." So if we want our church to grow, to do what God created us to do...in other words, to change our community for Christ, then the number one weapon at our disposal is prayer. But how do we pray for our church? I believe the book of Acts shows us that one of the reasons the church of the apostles was so effective was that they prayed "in one accord." This doesn't mean they were all in a big Honda (rimshot, please). It means they were in agreement in their prayers. Take it from me...if our church ever begins to manifest 5% of the power of that early church, Southwest Houston will be unrecognizable...in a very good way. So what are these things we should be "in one accord" praying for? That's what we'll talk about Sunday.