Tuesday, November 24, 2009

God So Loved the World

Our theme for this Advent season, beginning November 29, will be "God So Loved the World." We will be hearing and singing some songs that come to us from other parts of the world to remind us that God's love stretches all the way around this planet of ours (Don't worry, we'll sing your favorite carols, too). In my preaching, I will be taking a look at John 3:16, the most famous verse in the Bible.

This week, we'll look at that first phrase: "For God so loved..." No other world religion teaches a personal God who loves people. Yet the God who made you loves you more than you can ever comprehend...enough to make the ultimate sacrifice just to spend eternity with you. If that's true--and we know it is--then God's love is the greatest thing that has ever happened to you and me. If that's true, then experiencing His love and loving Him back is more important to our happiness and well-being than anything else we can do. So what does that mean in practical terms? We'll talk about that this first Sunday of Advent as we look at Jesus' words in John 6:35.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Do it Again, Lord!

Here's a question for you: Should jockeys be considered athletes? What about race car drivers? Sure, they are sports participants. And what they do takes a specialized set of skills (and in the case of jockeys, specific physical proportions). Sports fans know the names of the most successful ones (especially drivers). But does this make them athletes? After all, it's really something else that supplies the power. After all, no one buys a ticket to watch drivers run a hundred-meter dash, or jockeys play basketball.

Okay, you must be wondering what my point is. This Sunday, I plan to preach a "State of the Church" message. I did the same thing last year around this time, and I spoke of stuff we had accomplished the year before, and what I hoped we'd do in the year ahead. Nothing wrong with that. It's good to make plans, to make sure everyone knows where we're headed. But what our church needs more than good plans is the power of God. Without that, we're jockeys playing basketball...spiritually speaking.

This Sunday, we'll look at Habakkuk 3:2, reading the prayer of a prophet whose situation in life was not as different from ours as it might first appear. We'll talk about how the power of God is evident in the world today (for a little sneak preview of what I'm talking about, search for "Muslim visions of Jesus" on the internet), and ask Him to bring that same power to our place and time.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Esther 7-10: What to do With Your Enemies

I read a few hours ago that John Muhammed, the "D. C. sniper," was put to death this morning. Someone on an online message board, writing to express his opposition to capital punishment, said, "What did this solve? His victims are still dead." Others on the message board quickly responded with satisfaction that a cold-blooded killer, a man who had slain innocent strangers, had now received his just reward.

I don't want to get into the capital punishment debate on this blog. It is indeed a complex issue, and while I have my personal opinions, I doubt I could do the issue justice here. But I would like to point out that there is a fundamental, God-given desire for justice in the human heart. Left to its own devices, unchecked by the balance of love, that hunger for justice can devolve into a hateful yearning for vengeance. On the other hand, there are those who rightly stand up for freedom against the possibility of an all-powerful state, who argue that state-sanctioned killing makes us all guilty of the blood of our fellow man.

It seems obvious to me that God created human governments in part so that evil could be punished. Read Romans 13 sometime, where Paul reminds us that God gave the king a sword for a reason, and so the power of the state must be respected. But then read Jesus' challenging words in the Sermon on the Mount, and we're reminded that while God uses the state to stamp out injustice, in interpersonal relationships, we are called to respond to hatred with love, to violence with peace, to enemies with friendship.

That's not easy to do. Even if we're promised that our enemies will get their just desserts in this life or the next, it's awfully sacrificial to let go of our need for personal vengeance against those who have hurt us. Yet if we have faith in the God who loves us, we will do exactly that.

What does this have to do with Esther? For three weeks now, we have seen an insidious plot formed against the people of God. We have seen two brave, godly people in Esther and Mordecai stand up boldly for innocent lives. If you've never read the story, you may wonder how all of this is going to end. Come this Sunday, and you will see how God equips and allows us to defend ourselves, while never endorsing personal vengeance...how He assures us that there will be justice, but leaves open the possibility that something even greater will happen to our enemies...redemption.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

National Outreach Convention, II

I came back from the convention on Friday, but I wanted to post a couple more things I heard and experienced that you might find of some interest.

Thursday evening, I attended a seminar led by Dino Rizzo, pastor of The Healing Place in Baton Rouge, LA. The seminar was basically a walk-through of their ministry values and habits. One thing they preach consistently--that I liked very much--was the idea that Jesus, while surrounded by crowds, was always interested in the individual. He stopped to heal a woman with an issue of blood, or to touch a leper, or to heal a centurion's servant. He came to save the World, but He always had time for one person. At the Healing Place, their ministry motto is, "we don't give titles, we give towels," based on the story of Jesus washing His disciples' feet in John 13.

Friday morning, I attended a seminar led by Bob Roberts, who pastors Northwood Church in Keller, TX. His church has planted 89 new churches in the US, but is known for international mission work. His "a-ha moment" years ago was when he realized that in the early church, Christians didn't pay professionals to be missionaries, the churches were the missionaries. (He stressed that he isn't against full-time professional missionaries, as his daughter is considering going to the mission field. He just doesn't think churches should end their mission involvement at giving funds). His church chose to adopt a city in Vietnam, and have since seen hundreds of their members do real "foreign missions." Some have hosted Vietnamese exchange students for a year. Others have traveled to Vietnam to help with various kinds of relief work, such as teachers who helped design a new special education curriculum for Vietnamese schools. Bob himself has traveled the world doing mission work and representing Christ. You can check out his blog for more information: http://www.glocal.net/

One interesting note came during a question-and-answer time. Someone in the crowd asked Bob how the election of Barrack Obama has affected Christian work overseas, especially in Muslim countries. He said that Obama's story has been an eye-opener for Muslims who are drawn to Christianity. In these cultures, where often it is seen as imperative for a child to follow his or her father's faith, it is noteworthy to see a prominent man whose father was a Muslim, but who as an adult is a professing Christian. This has opened doors for conversion to Christ.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Esther 5-6: The Two Roads

My brother ran cross country in high school and college. A cross country race takes place in an open place, like a golf course or park, instead of on a track. Therefore, it's possible for a runner to get lost if he's not paying attention to the race markers. It wouldn't matter if you ran 3 miles faster than anyone else if you were running in the wrong direction.

Paul liked to compare life to a race. At the end of his life, in his second letter to Timothy, he said, "I have finished my course." He didn't just mean, "my life is almost done." He meant, "I've run the race God marked out for me before I was born." Because of that, Paul was able to die with hope instead of regret. He was excited about the future, not despondent about the past.

All of us are running a race. If you have gotten off course, wouldn't you like to know it as soon as possible? This Sunday, we'll look at the lives of two major figures in the book of Esther, named Mordecai and Haman. These two men couldn't have been more different. One achieved some earthly success, while the other found eternal glory. It's a fantastic story, with a WOW of an ending, but it's also a wakeup call for each of us...which one of those men are you more like?

National Outreach Convention

I'm at the NOC this week. It's a great experience, but I feel like I'm drinking from a fire hose. I'm trying to write down as many notes as possible, even as I'm being challenged and renewed in my calling to lead a church that reaches its community. So here are just a few insights I've gotten:

From a discussion group on welcoming guests to your church:

Most people make up their minds about our church within the first seven minutes. That is before the music or preaching begins. Incidentally, the group leader said that a healthy church should have about 5 first-time guests in every service for every 100 people in attendance. I'm not sure where he got that stat from, but I did the math: For our church, that means we should have 20-25 first-time guests in every service! We don't have anywhere close to that, but it sounds like a great goal to shoot for.

From Ed Stetzer, in a message from 2 Timothy 4:5

"Why did Paul have to remind Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist?” Because Timothy was in an established church (Ephesus), and like all established churches, it had grown inward over time. He had so much “pastoring” to do that he was tempted to stop being an evangelist. That's still the downfall of many church leaders today."

"Don’t let outreach be the enemy of evangelism. Don’t just get people to church, get them to Jesus. Outreach is a wonderful tool, but only the Gospel saves. We should strive to know nothing but Christ crucified."

From Efrem Smith, who pastors a multi-ethnic church in Minneappolis:

"The church should look like Heaven will look—diverse."

"Consider the impala. It can jump 13 feet in the air, enabling it to escape from lions. But it can be kept in a zoo behind a 3-ft tall fence. Why? Because it won’t jump if it doesn’t know where it will land. We don’t know what our ministry efforts will produce, so we sit. If only we would jump into the world’s problems, we could break free. We wait for Washington to fix health care, when the church could fix health care itself. What happened to us? We used to build hospitals…we just got lazy."

From Nelson Searcy:

"People usually come to Christ and to your church when one of three things is going on in their lives: They are under tension, in transition, or in trouble. There is more tension, transition and trouble in our world now than ever before, so now is the time for the church to shine."

From Sam Rainer, in a seminar called "Reclaiming a Generation of Church Dropouts:"

"Of those who drop out of church, 70% will do so between the ages of 18-22."

Rainer researched this group of people who are abandoning the church. He found that they are NOT leaving because of music styles, or because they went off to a state college that "stole their faith..." People who attended secular universities drop out of church at the same rate as those who didn't.

The answer is found in two places: The family and the church. Young adults are much more likely to "stick" in church if three things are true of their family:
1. Families who regularly talk about spiritual matters.
2. They serve together in the church.
3. They pray together.
For kids whose families are not involved in church, the more adults from church are involved in their lives, the more likely they are to stay involved in church.

For the church, the keys are:

1. Community: They need a group to belong to (which leads me to praise God that our church has put such a priority on our college and career department!).

2. Transparency: They want to feel that their pastors are open with them. They want to know why, not just what they are supposed to do.

3. Mentoring: This doesn't have to be anything formal. They want older adults to just "hang out" with them.

4. Opportunity: For young adults today, the worship service is no longer the front door of the church...instead, it's the missions program. In other words, young adults are drawn to, and will stay in, a church where they feel they can make a positive difference in the world. For me, this was one of the most profound things I've heard at this entire conference.

5. Shooting straight: They really want to know the truth. We shouldn't worry about offending people or being controversial. Just tell the truth.

6. Team leadership: They HATE autocratic leadership. They want to feel they have a part in the direction of the church.

7. Correction: They want accountability. Believe it or not, many young adults are drawn to churches that practice church discipline.

8. Forgiveness: Most young adults have no concept of forgiveness or grace. They carry guilt and shame, and need to know that God can overcome their sin.

9. Diversity: Young adults look at race in a different way than previous generations. They are used to being around people of other ethnicities, and do NOT want to be in churches that are all one race.

10. Joy: They yearn for true celebration. This world offers counterfeit celebration; we must offer them something a genuine reason to rejoice.

If I can find the time, I will post some more insights tomorrow. I should be home tomorrow night, Lord willing. Thank you, WBC, for sending me to this conference, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday!