Previous month:
March 2011
Next month:
May 2011

Posts from April 2011

When Pastors Talk About Money

It's a common reason from those who do not attend church - "All they do is ask you for your money." We've all heard it. In fact, some reading this may have said it. Sometimes it seems that way. In some cases, it may be true. I've seen some "pastors" on television that seem to always be asking for more faith offerings. Most often the funds are needed to "Keep this show on the air so that many will hear the Gospel." In many cases, their asking for funds to propogate a ministry that teaches and preaches a half-truth prosperity gospel (and we all know the definition of a "half-truth.") Nice, but if all they're doing is asking for money to fund the show, is the show really promoting the Gospel? OK, that's a posting for another day.

Today, we're finally going to wrap up our study of the book of Philippians as our Sunday morning preaching series. It has been a challenging and eye-opening study. We have covered such things as

  • soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) 
  • standing firm in a world opposed to the Gospel
  • how to discern false teachers
  • how to keep two women in your church who are mad at each other from splitting the church
  • how valuable visiting those in the fellowship is
  • how to be content in all circumstances

And now what it means to give generously, even when you don't have excess funds. The Philippian Christians modeled this so well. Just take a moment and read the second half of Philippians 4. There was something about these Macedonians. You see their generosity spoken of throughout Paul's letters.

So, here we go this morning, driving head-first into another message about money. Some will be attending for the first time and will leave saying "See, all these churches do is beg for your money." The reality is there is a biblical way to talk about money and according to Scripture, how we think about our "stuff" says much about what we believe. If you look deeper into the passage, you discover that it's not really about money. It's about freedom. It's about life.

I found an article on the Generous Church website that shares interesting information on the barriers to giving that many Christians face.

Ron Blue, a Christian financial planner has authored many books on finances and investment planning. He has a way of taking complex issues and simplifying them so that people like me can understand them. For years, he has been sharing the "Five Uses of Money": give, spend, pay taxes, save and eliminate debt. Simple, right?

In his book Generous Living, Ron uses a graphic to outline seven reasons he believes many Christians do not give. The image shows the foundational element that is the major barrier to giving, then as you work up the pyramid graphic, the barriers become less and less of a factor.

Image001

The list is simple, but comprehensive. 

Most pastors would tell you that after consulting with their financial secretaries and Finance Committees, the sad reality is that the vast majority of church members and attenders give nothing or very little to ministry through the local church. There are a myriad of excuses, and we have heard them all.

Some get caught up in the concept of the tithe, wishing to argue ad nauseum that it is an Old Testament teaching and therefore, we are not held to it any longer. The argument has some validity and I am definitely not wishing to slide into legalism.

I like what Randy Alcorn has to say about this in his book The Treasure Principle:

I have no problem with people who say "we're not under the tithe," just as long as they're not using that as justification for giving less. But in my mind the current giving statistics among Christians clearly indicate most of us need a giving jump-start. If you find a gateway to giving that's better than the tithe, wonderful. But if not, why not start where God started His First Covenant children?

According to some statistics over fifty percent of church members give absolutely nothing to the ministry. 

Another large percentage give two to five percent. These are the "tippers," but in truth, that's a pretty sorry tip. Just ask any waiter or waitress.

There is a small percentage that give ten percent or more of their income. This is the group that often gets audited by the IRS because it's so strange to see people giving so much to their church.

While I'm not ashamed at all to talk about finances and generosity, I want to ensure that people get the entire picture. We continue to be working our way through a financial downturn in our nation. There are indicators that it will get worse before it gets better in our economy. For most people, the best indicator is the price of gasoline. This is causing people to worry and wonder how they're going to make it financially. Even Christians, who previously separated their financial life from their spiritual life, are discovering that the two cannot be divorced.

This is not about the church getting more money. Truly, it's not.

I don't get paid on commission, so I have no agenda here, other than seeking to ensure that my financial life is fully baptized and that we all begin to live from a generous heart that is transformed.

I encourage you to get a copy of Randy Alcorn's little (and I mean little - it's about the size of a postcard and only 120 pages) book The Treasure Principle: Unlocking the Secret of Joyful Giving. Read it and pray over the principles outlined. We need a change of perspective when it comes to finances. It's not a new perspective. In fact, it's an ancient perspective. It begins with realizing that God owns everything and He allows us to be His money manager. Not only that, it reveals the lie that even many Christians have bought. The lie is that earth is our home and that's why so many of us work to gather more "stuff" here rather than store up treasures for eternity.

More on this later.


The Church's "Starbucks" Moment

Yesterday I stopped by Starbucks to get a cup of coffee before a meeting. For once, I had an extra five bucks in my pocket. I noticed while the barista was creating my perfect cup of coffee that there was a new book for sale in the shop. The book is by Starbucks ceo (I found out that at Starbucks, all titles are lower-case) Howard Schultz. It's titled Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul. Even though it would have been cheaper to pick this up on Amazon, as I flipped through it, I saw some things that intrigued me, so I purchased it. I found out I was the first person to buy the book at this particular Starbucks. The employee apologized for how long it took to figure out how to ring it up with the free $5 gift card (and I wanted that gift card.)

I started reading it yesterday(just add it to the other three books I'm reading now) and began to notice some interesting principles. Now, I'm not one to read business books to discover answers to church and denominational issues, but sometimes God just makes things so clear. And. . .I was heading to a denominational meeting where we were discussing the future of certain entities and effectiveness of different ministries and programs.

I guess what prompted me to purchase the book was this paragraph in the fly-leaf:

On February 26, 2008, customers at 7,100 Starbucks stores in the US were asked to leave. For the next three hours every barista in every Starbucks was retrained in the art of making the perfect espresso. The act was unprecedented, but proof of just how dire things were becoming at a company that could once do no wrong.

I remember that day. It was unprecedented in the business world. Shutting down a business to retrain employees was very risky. Competitors jumped on it and offered 99 cent espressos while subtly stating that Starbucks was in trouble. The media was all over the story. Stephen Colbert had a special report on his show on Comedy Central about not being able to get his caffeine fix. Wall Street noticed and the stock price for Starbucks dropped. In fact, Schultz says that Starbucks lost about $6 million dollars in revenue by doing this. But, he states, it was worth it.

Why was it worth it? 

The company had grown exponentially. There were Starbucks stores all over the place. The loyal customer base liked this, but the expansion was too quick. Not only that, shortcuts were being taken in individual stores when producing the cups of coffee. While every Starbucks seemed similar (similar paint/wallpaper, same music playing, comfortable gathering places, etc.) there were very noticeable differences between stores. Schultz says the differences, which led to differing quality of product were the people working in the stores. People matter and with such quick growth, they (the employees) began to matter less. This was a problem.

I know, it's just a cup of coffee. What's the big deal, right?

Well, Starbucks had prided itself on its coffee and if the coffee was not just right, every time, problems would arise.

Starbucks has always been about so much more than coffee. But without great coffee, we have no reason to exist. (Schultz, 4)

This statement began to ruminate in my mind. It's about a product for Starbucks - the coffee. What about the church? There are so many things that local churches do, so many things the Association, State Convention and denomination do. Many of these things are "good," but the problem is that as time goes by, some begin to believe the reason the church exists is to do these "things" and therefore, the mission is either forgotten or minimized. Why does the church exist? Why do the denominational ministries exist? It's simple, really. . .to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment (that's for the church). The denominational groups exist not to do what the church should be doing, but to support and equip and enable churches to fulfill the mission.

Programs are developed, ministries are started, entities are built that seem good and godly, and most often are. These are known to be secondary to the main mission. The problem is that over time, the secondary missions can, and often do, become primary. 

We all know that Starbucks sells music CDs and books as well as coffee cups and mugs. We also know that even though you can buy these items in a Starbucks store, these items are not the business' primary mission or function. Starbucks is about the coffee and the people working there and the customer base. They seem to have forgotten these truths and therefore, the profit share dropped. Something had to be done.

We had to restore the passion and the commitment that everyone at Starbucks needed to have for our customers. Doing so meant taking a step back before we could take many steps forward. (Schultz, 5)

Many of our churches are in the same situation. God has strategically placed local churches in areas where the Gospel is to be proclaimed, people are to be loved, the message of Christ is to be clearly shown through words and actions. However, many churches have devolved into a "Christian club" that is busy (and oh, we're so busy) on secondary ministries while the primary mission continues to be ignored.

I was talking to a retired denominational servant yesterday about the "hey-days" of Southern Baptist life. These were the days, just a few decades ago, when programs ruled. The Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay) was producing materials at breakneck speed for churches. Denominational agencies were running on all cylinders providing the latest programs for church growth and education. Baptisms were high. Then, something happened.

The times changed. (The message didn't, even though some thought it did.)

MM_OnwardBook_BlastPhoto-500x500 You see, in the old days, every Southern Baptist church used the same Sunday School literature, sang out of the same hymnal, most had the same Sunday schedule (9:45am - Sunday School, 11am Worship,) had Sunday night services preceded by Training Union, had a WMU, Brotherhood, RAs, GAs, Youth Choir, etc. We were a homogenous denomination for the most part. Most of the churches I grew up attending as a military kid even had the same floor plan.

Boy, that has changed. Just in our Association (Jacksonville Baptist Association) we have such a diversity of churches. There is no one size, fits all program any longer. Don't get me wrong, I like this. I'm not wishing to go back to the "every church is the same" model. If we did that, someone would force me to wear a tie on Sunday and I'd have to put the old pulpit back on the stage and get rid of our praise band.

Perhaps we have forgotten that it's all about the coffee? Or, in our case, the gospel?

Then came the economic downturn. You know what? God knew it was coming. That's hard for some folks to swallow. In fact, I've talked to some Christians who admit that thought has never crossed their mind. Yep, God knew the economic hard times were coming. You know what else? God is using it.

We (some churches and denominational organizations) had gone year to year increasing budgets and spending. We spiritualized it by labeling everything as "missions." You've heard it, haven't you? "Everything we do is missions." Sounds good. It's just not true. It's akin to the lie we tell ourselves that "Everything we do is evangelism." It's not.

So, perhaps what many churches are experiencing now, and I know state conventions, Associations and other SBC entities are facing is the "Starbucks" moment - the moment when it's time to risk losing in the short-term (i.e. the closing of all Starbucks for three hours) in order to get back on mission.

It's not easy. . .

There are moments in our lives when we summon the courage to make choices that go against reason, against common sens and the wise counsel of people we trust. But we lean forward nonetheless because, despite all risks and rational argument, we believe that the path we are choosing is the right and best thing to do. We refuse to be bystanders, even if we do not know exactly where are actions lead. (Schultz, 5)

Our leaning forward is different than Schultz's and Starbucks'. Our cause is much more important than sustaining a coffee business. Our calling is much deeper than a passion for a great cup of coffee. Our risks are not haphazard and man-made. Our leaning forward must be God-ordained, faith-based and risky in the sense that it doesn't rely on our safe stories, but in that it relies fully on the power of God.

Am I proposing shutting down every church and denominational office for three hours to retrain our people? Not like Starbucks. I believe we have already had that moment afforded to us. That was the purpose of the SBC Solemn Assembly held a couple of months ago. During that time, thousands of Southern Baptists were asked to come together, seeking God's desire and submit to His will. In truth, we were asked to stop "doing church" to spend time refocusing on what we are called to be. 

Perhaps we need to do this again? At least individually.

Maybe the church's and denomination's "Starbucks Moment" needs to begin with the individual's "Starbucks Moment?" Has the secondary become primary? Are you so involved in "your ministry" that sustaining it, maintaining it and funding it are the priorities? Over time, the natural shift is for the secondary "good" ministries we are involved in and/or develop to become the primary ministry. . .and that's the problem.


Reading Old Maps

Last Friday I was sitting in a junior high geography classroom before school talking to a group of five guys that I mentor. We were talking a little about how their Spring Break went and re-hashing the session of the day. The talk turned very serious as I explained that I would only have about six or seven more meetings with them in this program and wanted to make sure they understood the real purpose of my time with them - to help them see what it means to be a real man, but to ultimately help them understand that a life apart from Jesus Christ results in futility. This was a good day. I was able to share plainly from the Word of God about the Way, Truth and Life that is Jesus Christ.

As we sat there, I began telling some stories about people I know who are believers from throughout the world and a little about their struggles. I turned around and saw a large map on the wall. . .this is a geography classroom, remember? I looked at the map and was going to point out some of the areas these friends are from. It was a map of Europe and the Middle East. I recognized the area, but something wasn't quite right. Then, it hit me. This was an old map. I hope this was a map used by the teacher to show where boundaries used to be, but who knows? These maps are expensive. Maybe the school doesn't have enough money to upgrade the maps. Maybe they just project maps from Google Earth and don't want to spend the money on the paper maps. That makes sense. Perhaps, since the maps are still in pretty good shape, the teacher just can't throw them away. 

Map Anyway, I noticed some nations that brought me back to my high school days. There was West Germany, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and this large nation called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I immediately thought of the Cold War and Red Dawn (Wolverines!)

Old maps. 

It's kind of like the GPS I bought a few years ago. For the most part, it's accurate, but I haven't yet upgraded the maps. This means that when I'm driving in certain areas of Jacksonville, the Oakleaf area or parts of St. Johns County, the GPS is totally confused and thinking I'm driving through fields. I need to break down and buy that upgrade.

Old maps can be interesting. There are many of them framed in the Jacksonville Public Library. I've seen them used as decorations in Red Lobster. They're interesting in that that show how things used to be with old boundaries, less developed areas, etc.

Old maps just aren't very useful if you're relying on them to get you where you need to be today.

In the Bible, this discussion developed among Jesus' followers. There were questions about John the baptizer's role, the Pharisees interpretation of the law and what Jesus' message meant.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved." (Matthew 9:14-17 ESV)

John was seen as a reformer by many, and a threat by the religious establishment. He was seen as one who was seeking to reform by bringing about repentance among those steeped in the traditions of Judaism.  Jesus came not to just patch an old system. His purpose was to bring in something new.

What was new? The new covenant, new life. . .a new chapter in the story.

A new map.

I wonder how often we forget this? How easy is it to fall back into a works-based, legalistic religion? Religion that is lifeless? How often do we, even as Christians, find ourselves sounding more like the Pharisees than Christ?

We like the old maps. They're comfortable. They're still in good shape. There's no reason to throw them away. It's just that the old maps don't quite get you where you need to be.

This plagues the lives of individual believers. It affects the health of churches. I'm sure you've heard it all before. . ."The message never changes, but the methods do." It's true. While Christ offers new life, we become comfortable with the familiar. Familiarity leads to stagnation at times. We must guard against this. 

It's not about programs, events or church traditions. Those can all be good and even add to health, but they can also become "old maps." The new map, by the way, isn't new technology, new programming, new events, or new ideas. The new map isn't even that new.

The new map is Jesus. 

Let's make sure we remember this.


You Are Not Alone

Those four words - "You are not alone" have been discovered to be the key to getting an e-mail opened. With all the marketing e-mails that are sent globally (i.e. spam e-emails) when the subject is "You are not alone" the e-mails are opened well over 90% of the time.

The study was done over the past two years and without a doubt, these are the key words to getting an e-mail opened.  Sean Platt writes about this phenomona on www.copyblogger.com. He writes. . .

In two and a half years of sending all kinds of emails to all kinds of lists, the simple phrase “You Are Not Alone” is the most-opened subject line I’ve ever seen — by far.

Because Aweber counts each email that’s been opened, even if they’re from the same user, that single subject line has had an average open rate of90%, and has surpassed the 100% mark several times.

Not only is the most opened e-mail subject, but it receives the most responses.

Why is this?

It's universal. People don't want to be alone.

Castaway-wilson That's why stories like Tom Hanks Cast Away are so compelling. While there are times when it's good to be alone, no one wants this forced upon them and for extended periods of time. That's why Wilson the volleyball was born.

God created us to live and serve within community. The church is God's plan for expressing His love and furthering His kingdom and it also is the venue (and I'm not talking about the church as a building) for allowing his children to connect.

Like it or now, we need each other.

The thing is, as a follower of Christ, you are not truly alone.

You may feel this way at times, but it's a facade. It's a lie. The Enemy attacks at this core fear. God has promised to never leave nor forsake those who have received Him as Lord. 

I know, feelings of loneliness are real. It may be a lie from the Enemy, but it feels real. It's painful. It's debilitating. . .so we search. As Christians, there are times when loneliness comes upon us greatly. As you draw closer to the Father, it may appear that you are all alone.

A.W. Tozer wrote about loneliness and the Christian life. He wrote. . .

The loneliness of the Christian results from his walk with God in an ungodly world, a walk that must often take him away from the fellowship of good Christians as well as from that of the unregenerate world. His God-given instincts cry out for companionship with others of his kind, others who can understand his longings, his aspirations, his absorption in the love of Christ; and because within his circle of friends there are so few who share his inner experiences he is forced to walk alone.

The unsatisfid longings of the prophets for human understanding caused them to cry out in their complaint, and even our Lord Himself suffered in the same way.

The man [or woman] who has passed on into the divine Presence in actual inner experience will not find many who understand him. He finds few who care to talk about that which is the supreme object of his interest, so he is often silent and preoccupied in the midst of noisy religious shoptalk. For this he earns the reputation of being dull and over-serious, so he is avoided and the gulf between him and society widens.

It is this very loneliness that throws him back upon God. His inability to find human companionship drives him to seek in God what he can find nowhere else.

Even  in times of loneliness, it is valuable to remember that God is continually present for the believer.

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10 (ESV)


Good Cancer?

It's about 7am and I'm sitting in my office watching a funeral service online. Weird, I know? The first morning service of the day will begin in just about an hour. Right now those who attend our 8am service are getting ready and some are already on their way. I dare say that most all of our attenders are just doing their normal Sunday morning routine. I doubt anyone else is watching a funeral online.

I will be sharing from Philippians 4 today. It seems like an easy message because it covers one of the most popular verses in the Bible in our culture today - Philippians 4:13. Yet, my fear is that this verse has, for some, become little more than a "positive thinking mantra" or "motivational statement" for Christian business. Paul leads into it describing it as the "secret" (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the godless book titled "The Secret.")

This secret is key to finding contentedness in all circumstances.

OK, back to the funeral service. The service is for a staff leader for NewSpring Church in Anderson, SC and took place almost a year ago. This staff member, Zac Smith, battled cancer bravely, but in May 2010, he was called home. I'm showing a clip this morning during the three services. For the vast majority, it will be shocking. Some may feel it insensitive. I have prayed about this all week and just cannot get his story out of my mind.

Zac made a video describing his battle with cancer. He was a fighter, as we encourage all to be when diagnosed, but there came a point in his life where the doctors were saying that apart from a miracle, his body would just shut down.

I look at this man, the clips of his wife and three small children and then hear his story. He says that he has learned to be content in all circumstances and that he  believes, as the Scripture states that God cannot give him a bad gift (Matthew 7:11) which has given him a new perspective. He actually says "Cancer is the best thing that's ever happened to me."

I know that just about everyone reading this post today has faced cancer, either in their own lives or the lives of someone close to them. I'm like many of you when you go to the doctor and he asks "Is there a history of cancer in your family?" that have to answer "Yes." As I get older, I begin to wonder what this really means?

There are numerous close friends, brothers & sisters in Christ, here in our fellowship who are undergoing treatment even now. Many have already been released of their earthly pain and brought home. 

Cancer - it's everywhere. It's a more ominous word in our lives today than even "sin." That's so strange. Cancer is like an evil person rather than an "it." We fight it. We raise money against it. We walk and wear ribbons declaring our solidarity against it. I'm with you. I've worn those ribbons. 

So, when I hear Zac say "Cancer is the best thing that's ever happened to me," I just shake my head.

He explained why. He said knowing his days are limited moved him to being a better husband, a better father, a better son and a better friend. He experienced Ecclesiastes 7:2 which tells us it's wise to go to a funeral every now and then to be reminded about what really mattes in life.

I still don't want cancer. I don't want my wife to get cancer. I don't want my children to get cancer. I don't want anyone in my family to get cancer. I don't want anyone in my fellowship to get cancer. I don't want those with cancer to suffer. I want them healed, physically. . .now.

Yet, more than these wants, after viewing Zac's story, I want something even more, now. I want contentedness. I want peace. I want perspective. 

I didn't have time to watch Zac's entire funeral, so I forwarded to certain parts. It's pretty obvious Zac helped plan the entire service. 

Cancer_ribbon_colors_meaning The service ends with a moving rendition of the praise song "Hosanna." (I see the King of glory, Coming on the clouds with fire, the whole earth shakes, the whole earth shakes. I see His love and mercy, Washing over all our sin, The people sing, the people sing. . .Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest. . .) What a moving song. I listen to it often in my truck, cranked loud and booming. I'm sure people stare as I have a little worship service driving around Orange Park. 

After the song, the pastor comes out and says "That's what he wanted. That's what he got. It's done. We're not. Let's go finish the work. We have a life to live. To God be the glory." Wow. I've already had church this morning.

The title of this post is "Good Cancer?" and I know the risk of putting this out there. Some will say I'm insensitive. I don't believe I am. Zac Smith died last May. His wife and kids deal with the aftermath of his death daily. His church and extended family still experience the gap that his absence causes. Yet, I'm seeing that through Zac's life and death, as well as others I have known, that God's love abounds.

You'll get to see the video of Zac today during worship. I'll post it on tomorrow's blog as well as other links to Zac and his story.