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Posts from March 2021

Cancer, Christians, and What the Church Can Do

In our local church we have had what seems to be our fair share (if not an overabundance) of members who have been diagnosed with cancer over the years. The "prayer list" seems to always have names of men, women, and even boys and girls at times, who have been diagnosed with the dreaded "C" word.

Even though I have not personally been diagnosed with the disease, I have had family members placed under that cloud. I imagine everyone reading this knows someone who has had, or currently is, fighting cancer. 

As I write this, there are four women in our church who are front and center in my mind as they are on their own journeys of treatment for their cancer. Their loved ones have sought prayer. Their children are worried. They are super strong women, but even their strength is sometimes tested to the breaking point as they work through their chemotherapy and other treatments. 

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Photo by Olga Kononenko on Unsplash

The men in our church have faced their share of cancers as well. Each story is unique and yet as they go through their own personal journeys, a fraternity of sorts develops of those who have been down the road before. 

Thankfully, we are in an age where many cancers are treatable. Many have great success with recovery. One of our dear sisters shared with me last week that for the first time in many years, she has been declared "cancer free" as the doctor said her cancer is in a state of dormancy. This is nothing less than miraculous as even the doctors did not expect this in her journey. She was smiling from ear to ear giving God praise for the day, and every day to come. Certainly the disease and treatments over the years have taken their toll on her body, but her spirit is strong and I was reminded of God's goodness and grace at that moment. 

Not everyone gets such a report, but God remains faithful. 

While that may not sound encouraging, it truly is. 

The Fear That Follows the Shock

The initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer must seem overwhelming. I imagine that following the shock, there is often a wave of fear tinged with anger that hits. At least that is what I have been told. In a church culture that often reminds believers that they should not fear but have faith, even the strongest of Christians wonders how that is possible when the diagnosis is given.

Leslie Schmucker, a cancer survivor and believer, wrote a guest column about her journey with cancer for Desiring God. In her article (full article here), she states...

Just because we feel some measure of fear does not mean we have no faith; it just means that our faith isn’t perfect yet. Our temporal flesh is broken and weak, and God knows that. That’s why he “gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). As we look to God in faith, his Spirit gives us strength to act from an eternal perspective and to resist cowering in our temporal frailty.

These are good words for those fearing the road ahead and then fearing that that fear is nothing more than lack of faith and therefore, sin. Fear and faith are not necessarily polar opposites. Fear leads to the opportunities to faithfully receive strength that cannot be mustered within oneself.

Don't Waste This Moment

Desiring God is the ministry of John Piper. Piper's transparency through his own battle with cancer has helped him minister well to other believers going through their own cancer journey. Of his most poignant writings on the subject is titled "Ten Ways Not To Waste Your Cancer." If this were written by someone like me who has never faced cancer first-hand, it would sound idealistic and even offensive, but coming from one who was diagnosed and faced the very daunting reality of cancer, it gives clarity. It is truthful and hopeful.

I'll just list the ten points here, but encourage you to click here for the full article by Piper with insight from David Powlison (who also faced his own cancer.) 

  1. You will waste your cancer if you do not believe God designed it for you.
  2. You will waste your cancer if you believe it is a curse and not a gift.
  3. You will waste your cancer if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God.
  4. You will waste your cancer if you refuse to think about death.
  5. You will waste your cancer if you think that "beating" cancer means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
  6. You will waste your cancer if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God.
  7. You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection.
  8. You will waste your cancer if you grieve as those who have no hope.
  9. You will waste your cancer if you treat sin as casually as before.
  10. You will waste your cancer if you fail to use it as a means to the truth and glory of Christ.

Piper's pamphlet, as well as audio recordings, of Don't Waste Your Cancer are available on Amazon here.

If you find Piper's insight encouraging, or just challenging, take the time to listen to him here as he speaks of the truths he faced when the diagnosis was given:

What's a Church To Do?

When the church is viewed as little more than a club for the community to join so that good deeds may be done in the neighborhood, the concept of "church family" will never be experienced. If that is the case, then when crises or challenges such as cancer hit, the one battling the disease will not view their church as a place of respite, hope, and strength.

Since a church family is comprised of the redeemed, we are much more than a team. We are more than a club. We are more than a community group. We are family. In fact, as the redeemed, we are closer than blood relatives. We are united in the Spirit as one. We will hurt when one family member hurts. We will grieve when even one grieves. We will celebrate as one when victory is experienced.

Sadly, many never truly see their church family this way and some never will have such an experience of oneness. Perhaps this is due to the heightened individuality partnered with the desire not to go too deep with others that many of us have? Maybe it is just our sin nature at work? Whatever it is, much is lost to the individual Christian when there is no faith family to come alongside in times of trouble.

There is the tendency in many churches to share all the needs, issues, and illnesses with others as part of the "fill out the prayer list" time in groups, but to do little with the list once it is created. FYI - just because it is called a "prayer list" does not mean people are actually praying. That is not a shot. It's a confession.

We have our commission. There is no denying that we must make disciples as we go. We know we are to be on mission here, there, and throughout the world. We must. We also understand the very real calling to evangelize those who are far from God. These are not debatable. These are commands. When it comes to the greatest commandment, there is no argument that loving God is essential and that loving people is commanded. Yet, we may at times be guilty of loving those we have yet to meet more than those in our own church family.

To face outward only as a church may be called evangelistic and mission-minded by some, but leaves care for those within the fellowship undone.

To face inward only as a church may be called discipleship by some, but leaves the command to go ignored.

Therefore, when a brother or sister in our family is diagnosed with this horrendous "C" word, the church must respond. Maybe it will be the creation of a "Meal-train" online or a "GoFundMe" account to help cover financial hardships. Serving our loved ones in very practical ways are helpful - whether it be mowing their lawn, taking care of their kids, sending ready-to-eat meals to the home, or any other very such thing. And...if you say "Call me if you need anything" just realize they likely will not call. So, seek to find the need and fill it without waiting for the call. There are very real and tangible things that can and should be done. They are good and right to do.

However, the coming together as loving family members to pray must be paramount. Prayer is not our last resort. It must be our first response. Our intercession for the health of our loved ones is key.

We Must Pray

Pray for healing? Certainly.

What if healing does not come? Don't stop praying.

Our prayers will lead us to a healthy and strong understanding of the sovereignty of God. The God who loves deeply, is never wrong, heals fully, and provides completely desires the prayer of his children on behalf of his other children.

The humbling aspect of prayer is not only what our brothers and sisters facing cancer need, but what we all need. Every Christian in the family of God–every member in the local body–should know what the carpet in their room smells like due to being on their faces in prayer before the Lord.

Cancer has hit in the past.

Cancer has just been revealed in someone's present.

Cancer will be diagnosed in the present.

Treatments will be coordinated and handed out and those seeing to the treatments and applications of such should be lauded, appreciated, and prayed over. 

Those who are walking the cancer journey must be loved deeply by their church family. They must know this.

They need to be more than a name on a "prayer list." Love them well. Serve them honorably. Walk with them along the journey. And, get to know the smell of your carpet as you intercede for them. I will be.


"Gospel-Driven Ministry" by Jared C. Wilson - Book Review

There are a few authors who are on my "buy the book as soon as it is available" list. Jared C. Wilson is one such author. His books focusing on the gospel and specifically on church and ministry leadership are golden. Most recently, he has released a book titled Gospel-Driven Ministry: An Introduction to the Calling and Work of a Pastor. At first, I thought this may be a restructured or rereleased version of his book The Gospel-Driven Church. It is not. This book is focused more on the qualifications of the pastorate and the focus on gospel-centrality in ministry. (BTW - The Gospel-Driven Church is a must read as well.)

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I mentioned recently to some peers that Wilson's latest book is one I wish I had been able to read decades prior. The insight into the joys and challenges of pastoral ministry is so valuable. However, to be honest, even if this book was available a few decades prior, and even if I had been given it by a trusted pastor, and even if I had read it...I likely would not have been able to digest the depths of truth offered in needed and beneficial ways. The arrogance of my youth would have left me with a book full of highlighted phrases and healthy insight, but most likely not as impactful in my life and ministry as needed.

Nevertheless, I now have a stack of these books in my office. I have the honor of working with many church planters and new pastors in my city. Often over coffee or when meeting with one of these young men I give them a copy of Jared's book along with instructions to read, highlight, and think deeply on the insight offered. I am believing these men are more mature in their walk and less arrogant than I was at their age. I also have come to grips with the reality that I have shifted into the role of "older pastor" whom others believe may have some wisdom to offer. I may not have wisdom...but I do have a listening ear...and a free book by Jared C. Wilson.

What I love about Jared's writing is his clarity and boldness in declaring truth while also inviting the reader into his own stories of victory, pain, and pastoral calling. Jared writes about authentic situations and not just about ideal circumstances. He has a way of explaining the very true, challenging, fulfilling, and at times painful realities of serving as a pastor of a church while also seeking to be a godly husband, father, and friend. He reminds the pastor reading that church life is messy at times, but so very worth it as God is glorified when the gospel is central. I find myself reading through the book and pausing to say "Yep, that's true." It may not be new news, but it is comforting to know that the issues I face are not special, but are similar to what all pastors face (though certainly the context and circumstances may be unique.)

This book is a good read for all Christians, but a must-read for pastors and ministry leaders. The practical insight offered through easily understood story-telling, with real-life illustrations and stories remind the pastor/shepherd that ministry faithfulness is less on doing everything, but trusting that Christ has already done everything.

Being driven by and centered on the gospel is freeing and Wilson's writing is a breath of fresh air in an age of church-centered stress.

Here are just a sampling of quotes that I highlighted as I read Gospel-Driven Ministry. They're "tweetable" but ultimately are worth more than likes on a social media post. The wise will take these to heart:

  • "A call to pastoral ministry is the inclination to conform one's desires and direction to the aspiration of shepherding a church. it must not simply be a desire to preach." (p. 17)
  • "The pastorate is not a right or an entitlement. The pastorate is a sacred stewardship reserved only for the qualified, called, and commissioned men." (p. 24)
  • "If we do not preach Christ from the text, we are not preaching a Christian sermon." (p. 37)
  • "Ask yourself this: Could this sermon be preached in a synagogue? A Mormon temple? A Jehovah's Witness kingdom hall? Each of these religions affirms the moral uplift of the Scriptures. Each of them uses the Bible to make inspirational, spiritual points about doing god to others and honoring God. But the one thing that we have that they do not is the gospel. It is the gospel that chiefly distinguishes Christian preaching from unchristian preaching." (p. 65)
  • "Do not preach an illustration in search of a text." (p. 95)
  • "The heart of ministry is a heart that doesn't see people as the interruption to your ministry, but sees the interruptions as the ministry." (p. 121)
  • "Worse than an unfeeling, uncaring pastor is a sullen, whiny, sad-sack pastor." (p. 145)
  • "Be transparent. Be honest. Don't just share the what; explain the why." (p. 160)
  • "It may sound noble and godly to keep convenience store hours, but it's a fast track to physical exhaustion and gradual resentment of the flock." (p. 201)
  • "I used to think pastoral ministry was about helping people live. Then, I learned it was actually about helping people die." (p. 217)
  • "You are not ready to shepherd until you have been spiritual discombobulated by the gospel and essentially reconstituted by the gospel." (p. 226)
  • "Christian ministry is the overflow of the mystery of God in Christ coming to bear on your soul and, through yours, on the souls of others." (p. 227)

Certainly, it is clear by now. I highly recommend this book. Buy it. Read it. Highlight it. Thank God for the insight. Then, give a copy to another pastor or ministry leader. They will thank you for it.

And...in case you, like me, are now one of the "seasoned pastors" in your community. Read the book. Put it on your shelf. Then, in about a year, take it off the shelf and reread it. You will thank Jared for this.


Teenagers Need More Than the Coolest Youth Group In Town

A few weeks ago I was asked to lead one of our local junior high school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle. 

What I love about these young people is that once they determined that being an athlete on a school-sponsored team was not required for attending the huddle, they began inviting fellow students and have played around with an alternate name for the club. While still officially a Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle (and approved by FCA as an official group) these students will say that the "A" can mean athlete, academician, artist, or just anybody. To be honest, I like the name "Fellowship of Christian Anybodies."

I asked them to list some of the issues their fellow students were facing. We focused on the "other students at school" in that it is often easier for the students to share their own struggles when it is seemingly focused on what others may be facing. Believe me, everyone in the room knew exactly what we were talking about.

Every generation of teenagers has had their issues, their struggles, and their challenges. Just being a twelve to fourteen-year-old in a public school brings overwhelming challenges. Yet, this group shared things that were on such lists years prior.

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As the students began to share, the list grew longer and sadder. Here are just a few of the items I wrote upon the whiteboard as they shared.

  • Pressure to vape
  • Pressure to drink and do drugs
  • Pressure to have a "significant other"
  • Family issues
  • Struggles with being adopted
  • Parents divorcing
  • Bullying
  • Grades
  • Pressure from parents (to play sports, be in band, be on a travel team, keep good grades, get into the college of choice, get a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.)
  • Gender confusion and identity (LGBTQ+)
  • Sexual pressure
  • Etc.

Many of these items have been issues for decades, but some are moving up the list to be more prominent now. Others, like vaping, were not issues in years past because they did not exist. The stress of performance partnered with parental pressure and peer bullying is huge, and not only in-person, but also, if not more so, online and through social media platforms and oft-used apps by students.

I then asked the students what the answer was to all these issues and in typical fashion, from students who state they are Christians, "Jesus" was the answer given.

He is. He always has been.

Then I asked, "But do Christian students–those who have surrendered to Christ as Savior and have been transformed by the Holy Spirit–deal with these issues, too?"

Their eyes opened wider and it was an "a-ha" moment for many of them. They knew the answer was Jesus because in Sunday School, at youth group, at camp, and in most every evangelical youth gathering in our churches today they are taught he is. It is not that the answer is more than Jesus. It is not, but the realization that even being a Christian does not make them immune to such pressures seemed like a revelation to them. 

The bell rang. We prayed. They then went to begin their school day.

More Than Lock-Ins and Pizza Parties

As I was driving to the office following this meeting, I began to think about the youth ministry God blessed me to lead for many years here at our church. We filled the room weekly for our Wednesday worship. We would load the buses for trips to the beach, the theme parks, youth camps, and special concerts and events. We held DiscipleNow Weekends in homes where over one-hundred students paid to go "deep" in Bible study with guest leaders over a weekend. We held lock-ins (the absolute worst event ever devised for youth groups–designed to eradicate all sane adult volunteers in student ministry, IMHO) and concerts, game nights, competitions, movie nights, work days, matching T-shirts mission trips, and every other thing created by youth pastors in what I see now as the "golden age of big group youth ministry."

I planned these events. I enjoyed them. We saw thousands of teenagers over the years attend and many make life-changing, eternal decisions for Christ. 

These were good days.

But...there was always something missing. I could not put my finger on it at the time, but I knew we were just a degree or two off in our mission and our focus.

Perhaps it was the trickle-down effect of the church growth movement?

Perhaps it was the pressure to create the best youth experience in the city?

Perhaps it was always feeling the need to out-do the church down the street, or even worse, the youth event we held the previous month?

Hindsight is 20/20

I know young adults (and not as young as they think adults) now whom I was blessed to serve as youth pastor, who are walking with the Lord. They are serving him and his church. They are leading their own children well. Some are even serving in full-time ministry. There are many whom are considered co-laborers for the sake of the gospel.

Yet, there are many others who walked out of the church building after receiving the free book (they never read) and the "ConGRADulations" CD of Christian music when we recognized them as high school graduates. They seemingly left the version of faith they claimed to be true, impactful, life-changing, and important, back in the youth room, or in that dusty box of high school memories in their parents' attic.

I heard the very real issues and concerns shared by the group of teenagers I had the honor of meeting with last week. I think about the immensity of what they face. In many cases, their parents or guardians are feeling similar pressures. I know this is true because of the emails, texts, and direct messages I receive almost weekly from parents or guardians hoping I can give them practical, step-by-step answers for some of the most grueling issues their teenagers are facing. 

The answer is still Jesus. He always will be, but as these parents are recognizing, the very real and important need for growing as a disciple is not something that can be outsourced to a youth minister or a Sunday school teacher.

When I served as a youth pastor, I was satisfied living in my silo of youth ministry. I talked with and resourced parents as best I could, but ultimately, I was engaged with reaching teenagers. I would say that my intent was to reach them for Christ (and it was) but sometimes, it seems I was focused on reaching them for my youth ministry. Ultimately, we had hundreds of teenagers who joined a youth group, but never joined the church or God's family. Lost teenagers wearing Christian t-shirts was common.

This is changing as our church has moved to a model of student ministry (as well as preschool and children's) called Family Equipping (read more here.) The focus is less on the young person and more on equipping parents and guardians to be lead disciple-makers in their homes. Those who understand the value are praising this shift.

Others who simply long for their teenagers to be part of a large youth group so they can make great memories and do all the things their parents did a couple of decades earlier do not like this. Some have left our church. They have found other churches who provide the very same type of ministry that was so prevalent in the golden age. These are not bad churches. They are wonderful and God is using those ministries for his glory. It is just that they are functioning under a different model. I pray for them and their impact for the kingdom.

Since hindsight is 20/20, I now know that when our church functioned under such a model, we did a disservice to families and students. We settled for good, when God was calling us to better.

The bottom line is that teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality, their gender identity, the pressures to perform, the temptations to vape and other things, the stresses of family breakdowns, and the host of other things that end up on a whiteboard at a junior high school do not simply need the world's greatest pizza party, a sub-par event with dumbed-down inspirational "talks," matching t-shirts, or just someone to sit by in the church service.

They certainly need Jesus, but they also need a roadmap for next steps in their journey of life. Not only that, they need a guide to help them take those steps. Ideally, those guides are their parents. In some cases, they must be another (such as Paul became for Timothy.) 

It is essential that we equip believers well, for this generation and the ones to come.

May we never be guilty of outsourcing discipleship that is commissioned to us.

Oh, and by the way, I am not opposed to pizza parties, youth camps, mission trips, and DiscipleNow Weekends. I think these are all valid, good, and helpful. As for lock-ins though...they are of the devil, so no love for them.