Friday, September 25, 2015

The Power of Community

            The Europeans who came to settle North America found it vast and unexplored. "Self-reliant" was the watchword, and the scout, the mountain man or pioneer, with his axe and rifle over his shoulder, became the national hero.  In the early days the government gave away quarter sections of land to anyone who would homestead, in order to encourage settlement. People flocked west from crowded cities and villages to have their own land at last. Before they could farm the land they had chosen, their first job was to build a sod hut to live in, and most families built them right smack-dab in the middle of their quarter section. The reason was obvious. People who had never owned land before had a new sense of pride and ownership. They wanted to feel that everything they saw belonged to them.  But that custom changed quickly. This chosen isolation did strange things to people. Occasionally, photographers went out to record life on the frontier and returned with photographs of weird men, wild-eyed women, and haunted-looking children. Before long most of these families learned to move their houses to one corner of their property to live in proximity with three other families who also lived on the corners of their property. Four families living together, sharing life and death, joy and sorrow, abundance and want, had a good chance of making it.  Chuck Swindoll, Dropping Your Guard.

            We Christ-followers share some similarities with those early pioneers.  Just like them, we have embarked on this exciting adventure into uncharted territory.  We now have this new life given to us free of charge, and it’s ours…no one can take it away from us.  The possibilities are as limitless as the God we trust.  But just like those early pioneers, we can sometimes get the mistaken idea that we don’t need other believers.  And so you have an increasing number of Christians who are disillusioned with the institutional church and drop out.  And you have many millions more who experience God in corporate worship, but never get any deeper.  To them, church is very much a spectator sport.  Bud Wilkinson, the old Oklahoma football coach, once said, “Football is a game with 22 people who are desperately in need of rest performing in front of 40,000 people who are desperately in need of exercise.”  That is what these Christians experience: They watch a select group of “called” believers serve God while they fight to stay awake, or maybe—if the show is really good—applaud in some way, or even participate.  But they never really get their own hands dirty.  And like those early pioneers, both groups start to get a little weird.  We’re in a series called What the World Needs Now.  God’s plan was to reconcile the world to Himself through Jesus, and He created the church with the primary mission of bringing about that reconciliation.  As we’ve studied Acts, we’ve seen it wasn't just heroic people like Peter and Paul who made the Church great; it was everyday believers who sold their property to provide for the poor, or found a role in God’s work when it turned out the job was too big for the apostles to handle on their own, or took the Gospel with them when they were fleeing persecution and actually shared it with people different from themselves.  That’s how the Church changed the world. 

            And here’s the point of Sunday’s message: Our church can’t accomplish its mission unless it’s a place of true community.  And you can never be all God intends for you to be unless you’re experiencing real community.  When Jesus created the Church, He intended it to be more than a building, an event, or an institution.  He created it to be a family like no other, with a love the world would find puzzling and inviting.  Sunday, we'll look at a story from Acts 12 that shows how deep that love went.  We'll also talk about why you need that kind of community in your life, too.  Don't miss it!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Busting Barriers

When my son Will was very, very small, he and I went to visit my Mom and Dad one day.  We played outside in the country, and I did my best to get him good and tired so he’d sleep well in a different bed.  That night, I took him into the bedroom, where my Mom had set up a little portable crib.  I read him a story, said a prayer with him, and tucked him in.  I breathed a sigh of relief and walked down the hall to the den to sit in peace and quiet with my parents.  After maybe a minute, I felt a presence right at my shoulder.  I turned around and saw Will standing there, with a huge grin on his face.  He said, “I back!” He had never climbed out of a crib before, and he was so proud of himself.    

As we’ve been saying for over a month now, what the world needs now is reconciliation with the God who made us.  Our job as the Church is to reconcile man to God (2 Corinthians 3:18).  We’ve been studying the book of Acts, seeing what it looks like when a church accomplishes its God-given mission.  And as we showed last week, you can see Acts as the story of the Devil putting up barriers, trying to contain the good news about Jesus, and the church continually knocking those barriers down.  A Church with Jesus in charge is like little Will; they just climb out of whatever barrier the enemy sets up and say “I back!”

This week, we'll look at some of the barriers the Church overcame in the days of Acts.  We'll see an amazing story of God pushing through a barrier no one thought would ever fall.  And we'll talk about the main barriers we face today.  

Thursday, September 10, 2015


It’s now football season.  Growing up, I read lots of stories of beaten-down underdogs facing an unbeatable foe.  Their coach would deliver a passionate pre-game speech that inspired his boys to victory: Knute Rockne telling his Fighting Irish that their dying teammates last words were to win one for him, or Grant Teaff eating a live earthworm before his Baylor Bears stomped the heavily favored Longhorns.  When I was old enough, I played football myself.  And I learned a very difficult lesson.  All that “win one for the Gipper stuff” is great for storybooks and movies, but it doesn’t work in reality.  Every weekend, coaches across this country get sweaty, red-faced and even profane trying to inspire their teams, but all that emotion goes out the window the first time those boys get hit in the mouth.  The fact is, if the other team is bigger and faster, and has a good game plan, you’re going to lose, and it won’t be pretty.  Unless you get lucky enough to face them on an off day, or you get a few bounces to go your way.  But…if there is something in you that your opponent doesn’t have, the unimaginable can happen.

Our sermon series is called What the World Needs Now.  What we need is reconciliation with the God who created us.  And God chooses to bring about that reconciliation through His people, the church.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel adequate for that mission.  On paper, it looks like we’re going to lose, and lose huge.  So I’m not going to waste your time by giving you a passionate pep talk or filling your heads with positive thinking, because it won’t work.  What I am going to do is tell you that, in spite of the way things look, we have something in us that the enemy does not.  I’m going to tell you that greater is He who is in you than He who is in the world.  I’m going to tell you that even the worst things that happen to us, God can turn them into good in His plan.  This Sunday, I’ll tell you a story that shows all this happening.  And we'll talk about three things that we need to avoid.   

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Finding Your Role

We preachers can be awfully annoying.  We're always telling ordinary Christians to get more involved in God's work.  We heap loads of guilt on your shoulders, but rarely lift a finger to help you figure out what to do.  I believe God custom-designed each one of us for a specific role in His plan of redemption (Ephesians 2:10 is one of the Scriptures that give me that idea).  So how do you find your role?  I would suggest wrestling with the following six questions:

By the way, I am not talking about volunteering for church ministries.  Yes, we need people in the choir, to serve as ushers, to work with kids in the nursery.  You do these things because you realize that in a family, everyone has to do their part, or because that happens to be your calling.  I am talking about finding your ministry outside these walls.  Too often, people who want to do more for the Kingdom start by asking, "What ministries does my church have that I could volunteer in?”  Instead, the question should be, “What did God create me to do in the world, and what should I do about that right now?”  Here are some questions to help you find your role:

            What are my spiritual gifts?  Recently, I preached a series on spiritual gifts and finding your ministry. You’re welcome to go back and listen to those online (  Or google “finding my spiritual gifts,” read the Scriptures that describe those gifts, take a spiritual gift assessment online.  Ask God to show you what gifts He has given you.

            What am I good at?  I’m only good at two things: communicating and watching three football games at the same time.  One of those things is useful to God’s work, and one is not.  You need to look at your skill set and figure out what could be useful to God. 

            What am I passionate about?  Our interests can be a clue to what God wired you to do.  Whatever He made you to do, when you start doing it, you’ll love it.  It will be something that you would do even if it became illegal. 

            What need in our community grips my heart?  Maybe its homelessness or human trafficking or unwed mothers or prisoners in need of mentors.  If you don’t have a cause, ask God to break your heart over something. 

            Who do I know who is far from God?  Move beyond just family members; most family members are more likely to listen to someone else than to you.  Think about your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your children’s friends and their families. 

            How can my gifts, skills, passions, heart and relationships be used in God’s work?  This takes some thought, prayer and a willingness to write God a blank check.  On my sabbatical, I visited Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Northern California.  An older couple in the church had a son with bipolar disorder.  After a severe episode, they began wondering what their church could do to help people like them.  They started a support group.  They get together once a week for a meal and to share prayer requests and needs.  Occasionally there is a guest speaker.  Sixteen years later, it has become a nationally known ministry.  Half the people who get involved are not church members.  Here at Westbury, Brad and Maryann Bryden decided to start a Good News Club on the campus of McNamara Elementary.  Every Friday, they and other volunteers will meet with students who choose to be part of the program. They teach Bible stories and have fun with them.  I didn’t ask them to do this; they heard about this ministry, said, “Let’s try it at McNamara,” and off they went.  That’s what I’m talking about. 

 What can you do?  Don’t put limits on God.  Don’t say, “I don’t have time to do anything else.”  Just write Him a blank check, and don’t stop praying until you find your place.  Our church needs you.  The world needs that kind of church.

Thursday, September 3, 2015


Ah...the old Encyclopedia Britannica.  With a random bust of Napoleon, naturally.

Once upon a time, there were Encyclopedias.  People sold them in malls and door to door.  Parents would lay out hundreds of hard-earned dollars so that their kids could have access to knowledge on virtually every subject.  The books would arrive in a big wooden shipping crate, space would be cleared on the family bookshelves for all twenty hardback volumes, and the next time little Billy Bob needed to know where Dwight Eisenhower was born, or who fought in the Crimean War, or what year the Titanic sank, he could find out without leaving his house.  But it was expensive, took up an enormous amount of space, and was immediately obsolete; between the time you ordered the books and they arrived, stuff happened that wasn’t covered in them.  Then, at the turn of the 21st century, a couple of internet entrepreneurs had a crazy idea to create a free online encyclopedia with articles written not by experts but by regular people.  Anyone who wanted to write an article could do it; after all, everyone is an expert on something.  That way, it would be available to anyone with a computer and an internet signal, and it would be constantly up to date.  In January 2001, Wikipedia was launched.  Wiki is the Hawaiian word that means “quick.”  A wiki is a webpage that doesn’t have an author; instead, people who read it are the authors.  Critics said it would never work.  “You can’t have ordinary people writing articles on an encyclopedia; you’ll just spread the ignorance.”  They underestimated the intelligence of the common person.  Just try editing a Wikipedia page in an incorrect way.  If you went on the page for the Houston Texans right now and wrote, “The Texans are the best team in the NFL,” within minutes, someone would see that and challenge it.  On the other hand, if you wrote, “since their founding, the Texans have won 88 games and lost 120,” and you cited a source like, it would stand.  Today, 495 million people from all over the world visit Wikipedia every month.  It contains so much information, if you tried to put it in print form, it would take over 15,000 volumes.  It has democratized knowledge in a profound way.  For most of my life, and for the years before, you learned things by asking experts and hoping to find the right books.  Now, all you have to do is look it up on your smartphone.  In fact, I’ll bet someone right now is checking their phone to see if I was right about the Texans’ all-time record.

We’re in a series called “What the World Needs Now.”  The Bible says what the world needs is to be reconciled with the God who made us, that reconciliation can only happen through Jesus Christ His Son, and they will only meet Jesus when His people, the Church, start being what we’re called to be.  We’ve talked about the need for a radical revival in churches today, how we need to put Him fully in charge of our lives and our congregations.  We talked last week about how, if we want to transform our community, each of us is must be willing to do more.  But what are we each supposed to do, specifically?  That’s what this Sunday's message is about. 

And here’s the sermon in a sentence: Our church will never be what it was meant to be until we truly democratize ministry.  Let me put that another way: Most members of evangelical churches think, “My job as a church member is to attend, give an offering, and pray, so the professional, trained clergy have the resources to do the real work of saving souls and changing the world.”  And those are the good church members!  Frankly, I think Satan is thrilled with that arrangement.  That way works for a lot of us, too: Ministers like me are happy because it makes us feel important and keeps us employed.  Members are happy because it absolves them of responsibility; they can see their churches as a place to get their spiritual and emotional needs met.  You know who isn’t well-served by that arrangement?  Lost people.  They never get introduced to the One who could save them.  99% of them are never going to visit a church on their own.  Even fewer will meet an ordained, seminary-trained minister in person.   They are left on their own.  Think again about encyclopedias.  For hundreds of years, they seemed like a great idea, the most logical way to get information to people.  Then some computer nerds said, “Why not put the knowledge in the hands of everyone?”  And it worked.  We need a similar thing to happen in our church; we need a Wikichurch, where everyone does their part.  Jesus had this idea two thousand years before Wikipedia was ever even thought of.  Sunday, we'll look at how it happened in the early church, in Acts 6.