Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How To Win Your Friends...Naturally

Today, I watched something remarkable on Youtube. I've included a link to the clip below, and I hope you can spare five minutes to watch this. But first, a little background. Penn Gillette is a member of the comedic duo of magicians known as Penn and Teller. If you're familiar with their act, he's the big guy who talks, as opposed to the little guy who doesn't. Gillette is also an outspoken atheist. In his video blog, "Penn Says," he shares the story of a man who recently gave him a Bible after watching his act. The link above is that blog post, in which he professes great admiration for the man, who he calls "A good, good man," and the way in which this man (apparently a Gideon) shared his faith. But he goes further than that, and this is the remarkable part of the video:

"If you believe in God and Heaven and Hell, and are afraid to talk about it because of social much do you have to hate someone to NOT prosletyze? If you believe that eternal life is real, how could you not try to convince people. If I thought a truck was about to hit you, I'd push you out of the way, and this is MUCH more important than that..." (These aren't direct quotes, but as close as I can come after watching the clip twice)

Gillette reaffirms his belief that there is no God and says, "One polite person is not enough to change that for me." But as an atheist, his logic is impeccable: If we as Christians don't share our faith with those who don't believe, either we don't truly believe this stuff, or we don't care about our non-Christian friends. Ouch!

Here's the link: NOTE: Gillette usually uses some pretty raw words in his act, so there is an "adult language" disclaimer at the beginning of the clip. However, I didn't hear anything objectionable in this particular segment.
It makes us think, doesn't it? It shows the kind of impression we can make on even the most skeptical person if we approach them with integrity, humility and a loving spirit. It also presents us with a tough question: If we believe the Gospel and we love the lost, why don't we share our faith?

This Sunday, I'm beginning a sermon series called, "How to Win Your Friends...Naturally." That's also the name of the first sermon in the series, based on Peter's sermon in Acts 2:22-40. The big idea of this series is that while some people are comfortable with confrontation (like good ol' Peter), most of us would feel comfortable sharing our faith in some other way. Fortunately, Scripture shows us five other ways that people shared Christ. Full disclosure: I get this idea from Bill Hybels' book, Becoming a Contagious Christian. I highly recommend the book, but I won't be preaching from it. Instead, we'll look at six stories of people leading friends and neighbors to the Savior in a way that felt totally natural for them. I'll bet at least one of the methods will sound pretty natural to you, too. Pray for us during this series. It all leads up to Faith in Action Day, October 11. God is on the move in our church, making us more and more into a church that loves the world outside our walls.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Generation of Sarcasm

I like to post stuff on here that I find interesting and thought-provoking. Below, I cut-and-paste an article by Skye Jethani, pastor and contributor to Leadership Journal. As you can guess by his first name, Jethani is a young guy, and in this article, he discusses the way sarcasm has become the "language of choice" for his generation. Why is this? And should we as Christians be concerned about it? Take a moment to read this, if only because it does a good job of helping us see why today's young people seem to enjoy mocking what used to seem sacred.

Note: At the beginning of the article, Jethani mentions a Time Magazine survey questioning which newscaster is now "The Most Trusted Man in America," which ended with a very surprising result. It should be pointed out that the survey was online, with fewer than 10,000 participants, so it wasn't exactly scientific. That doesn't, however, detract from the quality of what he has to say. Enjoy, and I'd love to read your thoughts...

A poll conducted by Time has revealed that The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart is the most trusted news anchor in America. He beat Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson, and Katie Couric. Walter Cronkite, having just entered his grave, must already be turning over in it. Stewart won with 44 percent of the vote. Brian Williams came in a distant second with 29 percent. See the results here.

Like many others of my generation, I enjoy The Daily Show. I find Jon Stewart to be intelligent and his irreverence is often refreshing, if occasionally too snarky or foul for my palate. Still, I wonder what it says about my generation when we vote someone like Stewart to be the most trusted voice in American news—especially when The Daily Show makes no claim of being a reputable journalistic enterprise.

When Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004, an argument ensued with Tucker Carlson about The Daily Show’s lack of journalistic rigor. Stewart responded, “I didn’t realize that the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their queues on integrity…. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls. What is wrong with you?”

Indeed—what is wrong with us?

The popularity of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Onion reveals a core value of my generation. We thrive on sarcasm. It is our native tongue. Listen to a group of under 40s engaging in casual conversation. It’s nearly impossible for 30 seconds to elapse without a quip, a dig, or a dose of eye-rolling hyperbole. We especially like to cut down authorities—as Jon Stewart has perfected with his witty jabs at the mainstream news media and government leaders.

Sarcasm and irreverence are so popular that government officials clamor to get on The Daily Show to be mocked. They think they’ll be perceived as “good sports” for playing along, and somehow win the elusive support of sarcasm-soaked 18-35 year olds. (Silly politicians, has Rudy Giuliani’s SNL appearance in drag taught you nothing?) But they’re not alone. I have no quantifiable evidence, but my perception has been that more sarcasm is creeping into the church. I experience it more often at ministry conferences, in conversations with other church leaders, and without question on blogs. (Uh hum, are you listening, Url?)

My concern is not political integrity, the erosion of journalism in favor of amusement, or even ministry. My question is spiritual. Where does this deep reservoir of sarcasm come from? Why does it mark my generation the way a strong work ethic once marked the Greatest Generation or the way free-thinking branded the Boomers?

Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales, gave a speech at Yale back in 2005 in which he unpacked the media values of our generation—the slow descent from our parents’ “dry, cocktail party wit of Johnny Carson,” to the “sarcasm and twisted humor” of David Letterman, and the emergence of the bottom-feeder humor that is “Beavis & Butthead” and “South Park.” In these shows, Vischer says, “we had found our voice. We were safe from the world, as long as everything was treated as a joke.” He continues:

Some folks believe Vietnam was the source of America’s modern cynicism. Others point to Watergate. But for me and for many others in my generation, the real root, I think, is much closer to home and much more personal. When we were very young, our parents broke their promises. Their promises to each other, and their promises to us. And millions of American kids in a very short period of time learned that the world isn’t a safe place; that there isn’t anyone who won’t let you down; that their hearts were much too fragile to leave exposed. And sarcasm, as CS Lewis put it, “builds up around a man the finest armor-plating… that I know.”

I agree with Vischer. I think the sarcasm of my generation is rooted in anger and fear. It is a socially acceptable defense mechanism; a way to vent the mountain of anger and fear we feel in a dangerous world where even the structures God has ordained for our safety (family, church, government) have failed to keep their promises.

We are the first generation born after the passage of no-fault-divorce. We are the product of broken homes.

We are the first generation born after Vietnam and Watergate. We are the product of a broken government.

We are the first generation born in the age of Consumer Christianity. We are the product of broken churches.

With no where to turn for safety, our fears ferment under the surface into anger. But this toxic brew cannot stay there. It must find a release. Some of us find very destructive ways to alleviate that pressure. The rest of us let it out by mocking things previous generations took seriously—government, work, family, relationships, leaders, and the future. We are a generation that believes nothing is sacred. And if nothing is sacred, everything becomes profane.

I’ve been much more aware of my own sarcasm lately. I’ve tried to keep it under control—especially in my preaching. (Have you noticed the way sarcasm laces even the sermons of our generation?) And I’m trying to be more reflective about where it’s coming from. Is it merely casual banter, or is there an angry truth, a hidden fear, behind that one-liner?

I don’t want to be a killjoy. I don’t believe all sarcasm is bad, and we even see biblical prophets and apostles using the rhetorical device from time to time. But given the latent anger and fear in our culture, is more sarcasm really helpful in the church? Or should we be doing more to unearth the fears and angers of our generation so that sarcasm might be pulled from our souls roots and all?

A few months ago I had the opportunity to interview Matt Chandler for a piece in the current issue of Leadership. He said something about spiritual growth that I won’t soon forget:
“We want our people to think beyond simply what’s right and wrong. We want them to fill their lives with the things that stir affections for Jesus Christ and, as best as they can, to walk away from things that rob those affections—even when they’re not immoral.”

A heavy diet of sarcasm, whether on television, the web, or even in church, may be what this generation is clamoring for, and it's not immoral, but it may also be robbing our affections for Christ. Rather then emulating the popularity of Jon Stewart, as leaders of the church let’s take up our spiritual calling to guide souls toward love rather than just levity.

As preachers of the Word, let’s put aside our impulse to be entertainers and heed our calling to nurture minds that dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and whatever is commendable.”
As shepherds of God’s flock, let’s lead the effort to drain the stagnant reservoir of fear and anger that is polluting our generation by starting with the swamp in our own souls. And let’s pray for Living Waters to flow in the church once again.

To read the article at its original source, go to:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Bad Boy: The Story of Jephthah

This week, our series called, "We Can Be Heroes" concludes with the story of Jephthah. He's probably the least known of the heroes we've studied, and his is the only story of the six that has a tragic ending. Jephthah experienced tragedy not because of willful rebellion against God or flaws in his character, but because he underestimated the amazing grace of God. Ironic, isn't it? When we think of God's people bringing disaster upon themselves, we think of it in terms of "gross moral failure." For example, a pastor cheats on his wife, ending his marriage and his ministry. A Christian executive gives in to greed, engaging in shady business dealings in order to enrich himself, only to be exposed and imprisoned. A Christian parent fails to deal with her explosive temper, and ends up emotionally harming her own children. Yet perhaps the greatest failing of Christians, the most destructive tendency in the church, is our failure to understand God's grace.

In my opinion, the most effective lie the Devil spreads in our culture today is NOT the lie that says there is no God. Nearly everyone knows that God is real, even if they don’t know who He is. Satan’s most effective lie is, “You’re not good enough for God.” I see it often when I invite people to church. They say things like, “Well, I have a lot of things I need to get right first.” They assume that Jesus is for people who have their act together. In Mark 2, we read the story of Jesus eating at a dinner party with a group of notorious sinners. The religious leaders came to the dinner, too, and they looked at those sinners as if to say, “You don’t belong here, boy.” But Jesus said, It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Church isn’t a club for the spiritually healthy, it’s a hospital for the spiritually sick. Jesus isn’t looking for people who are perfect, He’s looking for people who are lost and desperate for change in their lives. That’s why in the Old Testament, He chose people like Leah, Rahab and Gideon. It’s why in this story He chose an outlaw to lead His people to victory. He didn’t tell Jephthah, “Get your act together, and then we’ll talk.” He said, “Give your life to me, and see what I can do with you.” It’s called grace, the unmerited favor of God, and it’s one of my favorite things about God. But some people can’t accept grace. They think they have to do something extra to be acceptable to God. They assume He plays by the world’s rules. Unfortunately, Jephthah was one of those people.

I hope you'll be there this Sunday. Jephthah's story is fascinating, even if it is sad. Please pray that God would bring many people to the service who don't feel worthy of God...and that He would give them ears to hear about His amazing grace.

Jim Denison--Worried About Your Swiss Account?

The following is from Jim Denison's daily email, "God Issues." Jim was born here in Houston, and some of our members know him personally. For many years, he was pastor of Park Cities Baptist in Dallas. He resigned last year to become Theologian in Residence for the BGCT, and to start a new ministry venture, The Center for Informed Faith. His daily email looks at current events with a biblical--and often humorous--view, helping Christians know how to respond to the world around us in a Christ-like way. I thought today's email was especially helpful, so I have reproduced it below. If you like what you see and would like to subscribe, go visit his website at Here's what Jim had to say today:

One of Switzerland's largest banks has agreed to turn over information on American clients suspected by the IRS of tax evasion, according to today's New York Times. At first I was worried about the secrecy of my Swiss bank account, then I remembered that I don't have one. I read that the IRS is interested only in the biggest accounts, and remembered that I don't have one of those, either. I'm not sure how much our account contains, since Janet is the banker in our family. But I'm pretty sure it's less than the hundreds of millions of dollars in the accounts which the IRS is investigating.

However, while the IRS doesn't seem interested in my net worth, I am. The cares and worries of the world are with us all. The good news is that God has a health care plan for our souls. This week Jesus has taught us to fast periodically, abstaining from the physical for the sake of the spiritual. We each need time away from the distractions and duties of our daily lives.
Now, what do we do when we make this time to be still with God? Here we need a second spiritual discipline: the ancient art of meditation.

Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, tells of a time when he nearly "crashed." He was watching the physical gauge on his personal dashboard, eating and exercising, and all was well. He was watching the spiritual gauge, spending time in prayer and Bible study, and all was well. But he wasn't watching the emotional gauge which records our souls, our inner selves, and had to experience depression and come near to burn out before he realized the problem. The same can happen to any of us.

Biblical meditation is very different from Eastern mysticism, with its focus on our inner selves. Biblical meditation focuses the mind and spirit specifically on God. There are three methods which can help.

First, meditate on God's word. Find one verse or a small passage, and focus your heart and soul on it. Put all your senses into it—see it, hear it, smell it, feel it. Dwell in it with God, asking his Spirit to speak from his word to your spirit.

Second, meditate on God's creation. Find just one thing God has made and study it. I remember studying a leaf one day, amazed at its intricacy, detail, and design. If God devoted such attention to a leaf, how much more has he been engaged in the details of my life?

Third, meditate on a life issue or world event. Consider a problem for which you need God's help, or a good thing which has happened to you. Ask God to give you his mind on the subject, and listen for the prompting and insight of his Spirit in your heart.Make time for your soul to meditate on God's word and creation, your life, your world, and God will give you his power and the tranquility of his presence. When was the last time you gave the Holy Spirit an opportunity to speak in these ways to your soul? When will be the next? Let's finish our series tomorrow.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Mule: The Story of Jonah

We love to root for the underdog. It's why movies like Rocky become enduring classics, why the 1980 US Olympic hockey team is memorable even to people (like me) who don't like hockey. I have enjoyed preaching this current sermon series, We Can Be Heroes, because I love those stories of underdogs God chose in Scripture to do outstanding things. I love reading about an overlooked wife (Leah) who God preferred over her more desirable sister; about a pagan prostitute (Rahab) who became an Israelite hero; about an feisty old geezer (Caleb) who showed a younger generation how to trust in God; and about a jittery weakling (Gideon) who became a triumphant warrior. Such stories inspire us to believe that God sees in us the qualities the world seems to have missed...and that we ourselves may even have been unaware of.

But what about when our misfortune is not a matter of genetics, poor social environment, or bad luck? What about when we're down and out because of our own foolish decisions? In other words, does God choose sinners, too? If you know anything about Jesus, you know the answer to that story. This Sunday, we'll look at perhaps the most stubborn man who ever lived, and the God whose stubbornness was even greater. Jonah's story is familiar to many of us, but there's a lot more to it than "some guy who got swallowed by a whale." Come see what I mean--and see what a stubbornly gracious God we serve--this Sunday.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Parent's Number One Job

A few years ago, a new family began attending my previous church. Dad rarely came, but the mother and her three daughters (blond hair, big blue eyes) were there consistently. I had a chance to visit with the oldest girl after Vacation Bible School that year. She had made a commitment to Christ during VBS, and I found her to be entirely sincere in her desire to follow Jesus. I baptized her soon after, and even old Dad showed up for that! But then I started noticing I hadn't seen the family in a while. Finally, I happened to bump into the Mom somewhere and asked how they were doing. I can't ask that question without people assuming I mean, "Why haven't you been in church lately?" (It's an occupational curse) She apologized profusely for dropping out of church, but explained that her oldest daughter was in a softball league that frequently held games out of town on Sundays. "She's a really great pitcher. Her coach thinks she could get a college scholarship someday. So I feel like we need to let her chase that dream as long as we can."

She was eight years old, by the way.

While I saw them sporadically after that, they never again came on a weekly basis. I didn't get to baptize any of the other kids, nor nurture that oldest daughter's brand-new faith, nor reach out to the dad. Frankly, it still bugs me today. A large part of me wishes I had tried harder to reach them. Another large part wishes I had said something to her about an important and--I believe--unfortunate decision she and her husband had made as parents.

I know it's a dangerous thing to tell someone how to raise their kids. Every day that I'm a father, I see the numerous ways I fall short of the ideal in that important task. So I DON'T speak as some sort of self-appointed expert in parenting. But I believe God's Word is clear: Our number one job as parents is to do all that we can do to lead our kids to Christ. We cannot choose faith for our children. But we can do numerous things to make that decision likely. We can:
--Bring them to church, Sunday School and other spiritual activities.
--Teach them Bible stories at home and pray with them.
--Live out an example of authentic faith.
--Discipline them in accordance to biblical principles.
--Pray daily for their spiritual well-being.

God had a purpose for our kids when He created them, and no one on earth will have more of an impact--for good or bad--on whether they experience His love and live out His purpose than we (their parents) will.

To the Jews of Jesus' day, Deuteronomy 6:4 was the most important verse in the Torah. "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one." It was the verse they said everyday, that they bound to their doorposts and wrists. That passage goes on to say, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." God's plan for Israel was that the parents would teach the children to follow Him. This wasn't supposed to be complicated; Just talk about God when you're going through day to day life with your kids. Mention Him when you walk, when you lay down, and when you get up. That was always God's plan...and still is.

You know by now how much I love sports. And kids' sports are great. But when our child's recreational activities regularly interfere with the life of our church family, the choice we make at that point teaches our child what is truly important in life. The vast majority of young athletes will never get an athletic scholarship. Of those lucky few, only a tiny percentage will play pro ball. Yet even if one our kids is part of that exalted group, is important enough to justify him missing out on active participation in the Body of Christ? If you'll pardon me for paraphrasing our Lord's words, what does it profit a kid if he has a major-league curveball but loses his soul?

I know that kids are busy with more than sports. Schoolwork is more and more time-consuming than ever before. Yet we manage to get our kids to their other responsibilities on time. Couldn't we--shouldn't we--"crack the whip" to make sure they have their homework done in time to be present at Wednesday Night Live? Shouldn't we budget so they can attend preteen camp? Isn't it worth our while to make sure they get enough rest on a Saturday night to make it to Sunday School the next day?

One more thing: I know it's conventional wisdom to say, "I hear too many stories about kids who were forced to go to church, and then hated God for it later. I want my kids to choose faith on their own." I understand that perspective. Certainly once a child is a teenager, it's hard to make them go somewhere they don't want to go. And if he or she truly doesn't want to go to church, to youth or children's activities, come talk to us. Maybe we need to change the way we do certain things. At the very least, maybe we can help you. But let's address the issue of "forcing" our faith on our kids. As parents, one of the toughest parts of our job is to decide when to let our kids "be themselves." We may decide that a funky hairstyle is no big deal, but if they start doing something truly dangerous, we have no qualms about being heavy-handed. For instance, if our child were hanging out with drug-dealing gang members, we'd certainly "force" our values on them. Here's my point: If we truly believe Jesus is who He said He is, then following Him is the most important decision any of us can make. We owe it to our kids to do everything we can to help them know Christ and His purpose for their lives. Their childhood and teen years are such an important window of opportunity for them to establish a real relationship with Christ. Can you think of anything that should be more important to us as parents?

I can't.

Faith in Action Day

NOTE: This article will also run in the September issue of The Westbury Word, our print newsletter. If you don't currently receive the Word and would like to, please call our office at 713-723-6428.

On Saturday, October 17, 1998, a huge rainstorm caused devastating flooding along the Guadalupe River in South Central Texas. Towns like New Braunfels, Seguin, Victoria, and Cuero experienced incredible amounts of damage to homes and businesses. At the time, I was pastor of First Baptist Church in Stockdale. Although our town was far enough away from the river to escape the flooding, we all knew people who had lost everything. The next morning, we had church as usual. The floods were mentioned and prayed about in our Sunday School classes. I may have mentioned the subject before my sermon…I don’t really remember. But that was about it.

A little while later, I had a conversation with an old friend. Bob had been my Sunday School teacher in my teen years, and was still my insurance agent. He said, “I think it’s a shame that churches had worship on October 18. We should have cancelled services all around this area so we could help our neighbors drag their wet carpet and furniture out of their houses, and help them find places to stay.” He was right. We missed a great opportunity that day. We could’ve shown our un-churched neighbors that Jesus cares about them. Instead, we gave the impression that Jesus hides in a church building when things get tough. Of course, that wasn’t our intention…we were just doing what we’d always done on a Sunday morning.

In a way, that’s the point behind Faith in Action Day, October 11. We’ll be cancelling worship and Sunday School that day so that we can all be involved in ministry in our community. Our website has a section dedicated to this, or you can call the church office to learn more. For years, Christians have operated under the assumption that if we built a nice building, hired a good preacher, and had good programs, people would come flooding in. If that approach ever worked, it doesn’t work anymore. We can’t expect people to come to us. We must go to them. My prayer for Faith in Action Day is that we would show our friends and neighbors the love of Christ in a way they can truly feel, and that we would learn that we can’t just go to church…we must BE the Church. I hope and pray that it becomes so much a part of our church’s mentality, our ministry DNA, that whenever tragedy or hardship strikes our community, we are the first to respond. That’s the way Christ would want us to be. Please pray for this event, and prayerfully decide soon which ministry opportunity you and your family will participate in on October 11.