Garth Brooks, Notre Dame, and Your Christmas Service at Church

Last night while the big game for the NFL was broadcast on NBC and Hallmark was showing yet another Christmas movie, a country music superstar came out of self-imposed semi-retirement. The Garth Brooks Stadium Tour has begun and the concert recorded in the rain at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana in October aired on CBS last night. The production quality of Brooks' concert was incredible. He has been known for his live shows since breaking onto the scene over two decades ago. While other country singers would stand behind a microphone in their starched Wranglers while playing guitar and belting out hits (George Strait, Alan Jackson, et. al.) Brooks would wear the wrap-around microphone that he must have either borrowed from Madonna or the Drive-Thru worker at Chick-fil-A, run around the stage or at times, pull a Bon Jovi and fly above the crowd. Brooks is an entertainer for certain.

Whether you like his music or not, there's no denying he has appeal for many. The stadium was packed. It was raining. It was cold. And while I know that post-production can do some pretty amazing things, based on tweets and reports online from those who were in attendance, plus what was seen on television, the crowd LOVED the show.

Photo credit: tncountryfan on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

So, what does this have to do with anything related to church, Christianity, worship, or anything else spiritual?

While watching last night, I said to my wife "Brooks has the crowd in his hand. He's no evangelist, but he's evangelizing and the crowd is 'amening" their approval." I followed up with "If he asked people to come down front to make a decision, they'd come in droves." This was not a condemnation on crusades or the traditional "come down the aisle" moment in many churches. I was just noting that what we were observing in this very well produced event was something that we have seen in religious settings as well (albeit with fewer people in the crowd.)

My friend and pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Dean Inserra tweeted as the concert was completing:

 

Dean hit the nail on the head in this comparison.

Some of you reading will be upset that I, a Baptist preacher, may seem to be condoning the message or lifestyle promoted in Brooks' songs. Well, I'm not. However, I do know the words of many of the hits he played. I like some more than others. Yet, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who actually has a radio in their vehicle, an iTunes or Amazon Music account or who has been alive for the past twenty years or so who does not know at least some of the words to "Friends in Low Places." 

Christmas at Church

No I do not recommend singing "Callin' Baton Rouge" at your Christmas Eve service. Yet, I do find some insight from this event that was on television last night. Spurred on by Dean Inserra's tweet, I recommend the following to pastors who are trying to find ways to connect with their communities during this Christmas season.

  1. Plan Well. Every community is different, so know yours. If you don't...you have more issues than Chris Gaines. Presuming you know the people in your community, plan a service that will connect with them and allow them to not only feel welcomed, but encouraged that there is a God who loves them deeply. If your service is planned for church people, you will only connect with church people (yours and those who are members of other churches.) It's easy to plan a church service for church people. Don't.
  2. Preach Clearly. Christmas sermons are sometimes the most difficult for pastors, because we (pastors) all too often try to be really creative and end up missing the point. Jesus is the point. He always is. He always must be. The "birth of Jesus" story is known by many, but don't presume it is rightly known by the crowd in your building. Some view the story of the nativity as little more than than a holiday fairy tale or myth on par with the Rudolph, Frosty, and Grinch stories. (BTW - I like all those stories and even the Charlie Brown one.) BTW - just because it's Christmas, don't leave Jesus as a baby in a manger. Get to the cross. Preach the resurrection. A little Easter at Christmas is needed by all.
  3. Provide the Familiar. Sing songs that people have heard. Is it a sin to sing "Jingle Bells"? I say no. However, sing the carols that glorify the Christ. Don't skip or ignore those. People have heard them. Many know the words. They may just sing along. The words point to Christ. Christ is the point, remember? Sing about him. Worship him with these classics. It's possible. And, as we saw with Brooks' incredible show, you don't even have to have the very best singer in town on the stage leading. You do need to be able to lead people to sing, however. In the age of performance worship and having to present the latest pop-song worship chorus, many in the room are left watching and missing the opportunity to worship with song. Vicarious worship is not the goal. The best worship leaders are the leaders who worship.
  4. Present the Decision. Don't forget to draw the net (that's an evangelism term that refers to giving people the opportunity to respond) and express to all who have attended your special Christmas Eve or seasonal service that God loves them. He sent his son. He wants to know them personally and they can receive something more than a temporal gift wrapped in paper. Life is available. Whether you allow people to respond by calling them down front, offering them a moment to meet with you following the service, giving them a link on your app to click, or a number to text does not matter. There are numerous ways to give people the opportunity to respond. Just don't leave it left undone. Otherwise, you will once again evaluate your service with your staff and say "We had a good crowd, but we're not sure if anyone made a decision and therefore, have no way to follow up." Yep - we've done this way too often.

What you don't need to have an effective Christmas service is the production budget of Garth. Don't be who you're not and don't fret that you don't have unlimited resources for smoke machines, lighting, or other effects. If you have those things, that's fine, but those are not the point when the true focus is clear.

So this Baptist preacher learned something from a country singer with hits about drinking, cheating, dancing, and a false narrative about prayer while performing on stage with a man dressed as a leprechaun at a Catholic university. 

Weird.

________________

Photo credit: tncountryfan on Visualhunt /CC BY-NC


The Southern Baptist Convention - A Family Gathered for a Big Story #SBC15

I am currently in Columbus, Ohio, gathering with thousands of family members (that's what it feels like) at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have been to numerous denominational meetings such as this in the past, but this year, there is a different feel.

FAMILY MEETING

I call it a meeting with family members, for that is what it truly is. Baptist brothers and sisters from throughout the land gather together and reconnect with old friends, worship together, make decisions that will impact many through policy affirmations. Like many families, we also grimace at some things said and done by others in the family. It is like being with others over a holiday and then the crazy uncle shows up. We love him, but we never know what he's going to do or say. Every family has that guy. Our SBC has those as well. And, if you can't figure out who he/she may be. . . it may be you.

A "REALITY SHOW" 

Since I categorize our SBC meeting as a family gathering, in some ways it has become like the families featured on television reality shows. There is a sense of trying to just be family, but always knowing that the cameras (or in this case, the national news media as well as bloggers, Tweeters and Facebook posters are in the room as well. . .just watching and waiting.)

Personally, I am glad these guests are in the room, either physically or virtually, in that I believe God uses these avenues to ensure we (Baptists) stay on focus, in "witness-mode" and loving to all, even though we cannot be and will not be affirming to all.

On the heels of headlines that bemoan (or celebrate) the decline of evangelicals in America and statements in op-eds like this one have found places in national media outlets.

As Southern Baptists gather Tuesday for their annual summer meeting, gloom hangs over the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. (Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, The Washington Post)

While the reality is that numbers in Baptist life, such as membership and baptism, are in decline, I have not sensed an overwhelming sense of gloom in our gathering based on this. Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research continually reminds us that "facts are our friends." It's true. The scorecard that has been used for decades in SBC life has been flawed from the outset and while we all know the numbers we have seen in the past were never truly accurate, as Dr. Al Mohler stated at a Baptist21 gathering, "We've never really trusted our numbers, but we bragged on them when they worked for us."

This is true.

Yet, in the midst of facing the facts of these numbers, this convention meeting has become one of purpose - a purpose beyond denominationalism.

Dr. Ronnie Floyd has been touring the nation and using social and traditional media outlets to emphasize the need for prayer among Baptists and all evangelicals in our nation. At the outset, a pastor emphasizing prayer sounds uneventful or, honestly, not impactful. The sad reality is that when a SBC meeting adjusts its schedule and shifts traditional sermons, business and other events to open up a prime, evening session for prayer it becomes newsworthy.

More Than a Meeting About Same-Sex Marriage

The Pastors Conference began on Sunday evening and with winsome truth presented by pastors throughout Sunday and Monday, the Spirit of God was challenging messengers (this is the Baptist term for those from local churches who have been elected by their churches to represent them at this gathering) in ways that was needed and still needed so that we may lovingly engage a culture with the hope of the Gospel without fear or hatred.

The news reports have been focused on Dr. Floyd's message on Tuesday morning where statements regarding the nation's proclivity of endorsing and promoting same-sex unions were addressed. For the average reader of the news, one would think that all Southern Baptists do is talk about LGBT people in our families and cities. While these issues must be addressed, this was not the "Anti-Gay SBC Meeting" so many have stated it to be. To be clear, there has been no waffling on the biblical truths and the religious liberties and pending Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage has been discussed in numerous venues throughout the week.

However, what is often not reported are the bigger stories and foundational Gospel elements that our family came together around. What has not been reported is the movement of the Spirit of God in a moment of declared repentance and reconciliation.

Some Notable Moments in This Year's SBC Family Gathering

These are moments that I deem as powerful and focus oriented. To be honest, some were moments where God may have spoken more clearly to me than others simply due to my personal journey of faith and the chapter of life where I nowreside.

  • Authentic unity among our mission boards - For years, our two mission boards (International & North American) have done great work, but  have never truly worked strategically together. One of the first noticeable moments of unity was when I went into the Exhibit Hall and saw both IMB and NAMB exhibit booths next to each other, decorated similarly, one giving away coffee mugs and the other giving away samples of coffee, while missionaries from both agencies wore similar shirts. Now, that may seem superficial to some, but it's a message that was heart loud and clear. Throughout the week as Drs. David Platt & Kevin Ezell spoke to groups together, their camaraderie was apparent and the reality became even more clear - these guys are working together. For those outside the SBC family, this doesn't mean much, but for the family members, this is HUGE. . .and wonderful.
  • Powerful Sermons - I did not hear every sermon presented this weekend at the Pastors Conference and Annual Meeting, but I did hear most. These godly men have obviously prayed for weeks in preparation for their moment to present the Word. None took it lightly. No sermon was bad (in the sense one can grade a sermon) and all were valuable. Of those that "rang the bell" for me regarding challenge and conviction, I must say that my brother from Jacksonville, H.B. Charles, Jr., Dr. Russell Moore and Pastor J.D. Greear's messages resonated loudly. 
  • James MacDonald & Harvest Bible Chapel are now Southern Baptist - There was rumor that James would make an announcement during his sermon on Monday night. I told a friend "He's joining the SBC." Now, I had no idea and do not know James personally, but when he made his announcement, it looked like I was in the know. Ha. Nevertheless, this is a big story. Now, there are some who are not fond of James and Harvest and may not be happy they are now part of the family, but then again, there are Baptist churches who have been in the fold for decades that others aren't too fond of either, so that's irrelevant. What this does show is that a significant church leader in our nation with influence among many churches has stated that the mission and the doctrine of the SBC is valuable and viable and he wants to be a part. So. . . just like that, we now have a new church in the Chicago area (with others throughout the land in the network.) I'm not sure we count that as a new church plant, though Kevin Ezell may try to do so (That's a joke for those who struggle with written sarcasm.)
  • Send Network Luncheon - Over 2,000 people gathered to eat a soggy sandwich and some powerfully powdered BBQ chips at the Send Network Luncheon. This was a huge gathering and yet, it was basically a large crowd seated in a room watching Platt and Ezell talk about reaching the world for the Gospel, and to enjoy seeing Platt squirm when Ezell asked loaded questions and told jokes on his behalf in front of the crowd. It became clear that Platt and Ezell would make a great touring comedy duo, with Platt playing the straight man and Ezell telling the jokes. (BTW - the use of the term "straight man" is a comedy term that has no connection to the current LGBT discussion that many think Baptists cannot stop talking about.)
  • The Cooperative Program Stage - In the Exhibit Hall, there's a small stage set up between the IMB and NAMB booths. This is the Executive Board's CP Stage where interesting interviews and frank discussions about polity, future and mission take place. Hosted by different denominational leaders throughout the day, these discussions are worthy of a small stand-up audience.
  • Free Stuff - Numerous booths throughout the Exhibit Hall offering pens, T-shirts, books, coffee mugs, and candy means pastors become little kids for a couple of days, holding out their free Guidestone bags and basically "Trick or Treating" from booth to booth. Keep up the free books and coffee mugs. These are a pastor's favorite things.
  • Not Your Traditional SBC - I was impressed and encouraged by the attendance this year, especially in a city that requires most messengers to fly to in order to attend. The racial and generational diversity evident in the room was exciting to see. Ted Traylor told us to wear blue jeans on Tuesday and Russell Moore said we need more tattoos in the SBC. Maybe those were shocking statements, but it's hard to imagine hearing that from the stage a decade or two ago.

The Two Most Impactful Moments

The Prayer Gathering

Tuesday night's prayer gathering was promoted well. Yet, to be honest, I went in like many of my friends (who were honest with me) expecting . . . well, little. Yes, I confess this sin of low expectation. I confess that I was tired and wondered if it would be worth me staying for this event. . . for I sometimes bristle at "Christian events" that seem to exist just for the sake of being an event.

I stayed.

I knew I needed to do so.

The prayer meeting began and we sang. I would say worship began, but that doesn't necessarily begin just because music starts. Worship did begin shortly after I joined in with the singing. I asked God to speak to me, one of thousands in a room that was much more full than I anticipated (again, I repent of my sin of low expectations.) 

One by one, prayers were offered. We followed Dr. Floyd's lead, but it was clear that Dr. Floyd wasn't really the one leading this. God had entered the fray and had taken control.

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I prayed with a group sitting near me. I had never met them before, but I believe, as I told them, that God had placed us near each other in the room so that we could unite in prayer. 

We prayed with and affirmed the prayers of brothers and sisters around us and on the stage. Prayers of confession were voiced. Prayers of repentance were offered. Prayers of reconciliation between the races were stated - this was more than a resolution. Prayers of pleading - asking for healing of our families, for our children, for our nation, for our culture, etc. were placed before God. Prayers for our leaders, for President Obama (YES! Baptists prayed for the President. We asked forgiveness for not doing so and for ignoring the biblical mandate.) 

We prayed. 

We sang.

We prayed as we sang.

And we believe.

We believe that prayer works and that God hears our prayers.

We contemplated the reality of the "If. . . then" prayers and realized that God may not doing the "then" portions because we have not been obedient in the "if" portions.

Was this just a meeting? Well, it could be for some, but that's their choice. I believe this is not the end-game, but the beginning. 

The Missionary Commissioning Service

Together, IMB and NAMB, under the direction of Dr. Ezell and Dr. Platt, respectively, led out in a commissioning service for missionaries and churches (yes - the local churches) who have said "Yes! We will go!" 

I was sitting alone in the crowd, but with family as the stories of individuals and couples were shared. Details on the lostness of our world were presented. I was challenged by the strong word given by Dr. Platt regarding the reasons we must be sent and be sending.

I was brought to tears as I thought of the stories before me. Missionaries pictured on the screen were sitting in the crowd. When their names and photographs appeared on the screen, they stood up, holding a Lumio book lamp in their hands, and it became clear - these people are doing the hard things and doing so because they must. 

They are the light of the world taking the Light of the world into the darkness and we are sending them. Therefore, we are going with them.

It was powerful. It was amazing. This was more than a simple prayer and a passport. 

At the close, under the direction of Dr. Platt, we were challenged to celebrate these who say "YES" more loudly than we cheer for our favorite football team. How can we cheer louder for those who play a game that doesn't matte for eternity than for the God who is sending out his ambassadors into the darkness for a task that holds eternity in the balance?

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Why Come To These Gatherings?

In the past, people would come to the SBC Annual Meeting to watch or be a part of the latest argument or fight. There are some pretty nasty chapters in our story. Yet, today, even with disagreement from some we find ourselves as Stetzer stated on Monday, experiencing more peace in the family than in recent years.

This is significant, especially in a culture that will continue to marginalize and maybe even criminalize some of the biblical and moral stances we must take.

We are a family (crazy uncle and all) and God has seen fit, in His grace, to let us in on His great story.

That's why I come. This is my family and our Father has much for us.


Reflections From Three Days with Baptist Pastors & Leaders

I have spent the last few days in Lakeland, Florida attending the Florida Baptist Pastors Conference and the annual Florida Baptist State Convention. It has been a good few days as I have been able to reconnect with pastors and ministry leaders from throughout our state. The worship leaders were wonderful and the sermons challenging and definitely God-inspired.

Here are some observations, in no particular order, of this convention and my opinions and inferences about the future work of Baptists in the state of Florida:

Leadership Matters

We have been blessed these past 25+ years to have Dr. John Sullivan lead Florida Baptists as Executive Director-Treasurer. As with any leadership task so large, there have been many challenges over the years. Since people are. . .well, people, there have been some personality conflicts over the years with Dr. Sullivan and some in the state. There have been disagreements and differing views as to how certain things should be done and I'm sure different views regarding vision for the future of the Florida Baptist Convention and all that makes up our cooperating union. 

However, even with those issues, which are common in any organization or church, Dr. Sullivan has led with dignity and honor. In a world (and a Christian sub-culture) that is continually changing, I have been thankful for Dr. Sullivan's stance on biblical authority, church autonomy, missional growth and ultimately on seeing as many people in our state and world come to know Jesus Christ personally as Lord and Savior.

Dr. Sullivan is retiring now and leaves a legacy that honors God. There are still challenges ahead for Baptists in this state, so the leadership void will be looming. That being said, we look back with fond memories and thankful hearts to the years behind us, ready to step forward into a future that has the same God at the helm we have always served.

So, personally, I say "Thank you" to Dr. John Sullivan and am praying for our state's search committee and State Board of Missions as we seek to discover the man God has already set aside for this honorable role. It is vital that we hear the voice of God clearly because Godly leadership matters.

Encouragement Is Needed

The Pastors Conference is a gathering prior to the annual state meeting. It is a time where emphasis on pastoral leadership and health is paramount.

B2HtcN_IIAILeLaThe pastoral ministry is not easy. Any man serving in such role could attest to this. I'm not seeking sympathy or desiring to play a victim. That's not my goal at all. However, I have discovered in my own walk, and as I talk with others, that often the pressures of pastoring seem to creep up on an individual and ultimately, wear down a man until the joy of serving and leading seems foreign.

Encouragement is a strong tonic. To hear strong, inspired, challenging and comforting words from men speaking from the battlegrounds to other soldiers in the field is vital. I often do not realize how much I need this time until I am experiencing it.

A three-day convention gathering can be tiring as well, but it is more energizing as we see pastors ready to go back home to churches who love them. Pastors are ready to lead again, to serve again, to fight battles against an unseen enemy again and ultimately recharged for that which is ahead.

With as many pastors resigning and falling into sin as we see in our nation today, this time of encouragement and re-charging must not be forsaken.

The Mission Remains

As I hear of victories in local churches and watch highlight videos of ministries and mission endeavors throughout our state, I am encouraged, but also saddened. 

Here's why - with all the "wins" the reality of a state that is growing darker in sin and further from the Truth of the Gospel is our reality. We must celebrate the victories, but also remember that the task is great and there is much to be done.

To be satisfied with where we are and to sit on our small victories is like the baseball player who settles for a single, but never makes it around the bases to home plate.

Cooperation Is More Than a Tag-Line

Staying with the baseball motif, the runner on first often needs help getting around those bases. Oh, there's the rare player who steals second, steals third and may make it home on a pitching error. Even in those cases, the extra bases are gained based on the mistakes of the opposition. In most cases, the runner gets home "with a little help from his friends." The next batters play a major role in moving the runner along.

In our world, cooperating churches are needed to push back the darkness. God's church will prevail, but we must remember that "our" churches aren't really "ours." They're His!

Therefore, we MUST COOPERATE in this great mission in order to fulfill His Great Commission. 

We will never win this state to Jesus Christ if we continue to try to do so as individuals, with small kingdom mindsets and personal glory as the goal.

We Must Not Forget What It Means to Be Baptist

In an age where denominational titles seem to be less than vogue, it is vital that we, as Baptists do not forsake our distinctives. I agree with Dr. Ted Traylor who said that churches who take "Baptist" out of their name doesn't bother him, but churches who take "Baptist" out of their identity do. There is a reason we Baptists, in our autonomy and independence, with a firm understanding and belief in the inerrant Word of God, our ordinances and celebrations of new life (baptism) and renewed life (Lord's Supper) have been blessed by God so. 

Maybe it's education. Perhaps it's just living out our faith well. Regardless, we have a great heritage and a greater God. Christian first, absolutely. Baptist as a distinctive, definitely.

Mission and Missional Are Non-Negotiables

I had a gentleman berate me about leading our church to be missional not too long ago. My response was clear - "A church that is not missional is not a church." I stand by that statement. 

However, the term "missional" is becoming too much of a buzzword lately and unfortunately, seems to be losing some of its "oomph" (you know what I mean by that, right?) Yet, living missionally is our calling. It's more than a trend.

In addition to living missionally in our community and world, we must also be "on mission" at all times. These two terms tend to overlap, but there is a distinction. The mission we must be at is global in scope. In fact, it's a Kingdom-sized mission.

While our missional expressions that lead us to the local school to help teachers and mentor children, to the public playground to do acts of service and kindness, engagements with local organizations in need of volunteers or space, etc., our "on mission" actions lead us concurrently to engage strategically with the Gospel. 

Mowing your neighbors lawn in the name of Jesus is good and right, and missional. Intentionally sharing the Gospel with your neighbor is living on mission. 

We have missionaries throughout our state and many who are being sent by local churches to the uttermost parts of the world. 

As we push back the darkness, we must continue in this journey. To be a sending church requires faith and funds and family. This was made clear this week.

Healthy Church Plants are Wins for All

Sometimes I hear people complain about all the emphasis being placed on church planting. They lament that we need to focus more on established church revitalization. 

The problem with an either/or mentality is that . . . well, we stay exactly as we are and nothing changes. 

Yes, revitalization must happen and we saw some incredible stories of churches in our state working through that. However, the clear reality for churches who are crying "Revitalize! Revitalize!" is that it will not happen if the church is unwilling to change.

Churches stuck in the "this is how we always done it" mentality are perfectly positioned and organized to do exactly what they're doing now. It's going to take more than a new coat of paint and a better website.

So, for the church ready to change. . .let's revitalize. We need you alive and healthy where God planted you.

If you won't change, hurry up and shut down or hand over the facilities to another work so an engaged church may have a chance to be birthed where you are currently located but doing nothing.

As for church planting. The key is "healthy" church planting. New works reach more people quickly. There are caveats to that statement, I understand, but the results we are seeing in Jacksonville and throughout the state are clear. When a planter is assessed and partnered with a strong, established church, Kingdom growth happens.

More Diversity Is Needed

The racial makeup of our state is continually in flux. While I cannot change the color of my skin or the heart language I speak, I know that we must seek to grow churches and partner better with those who are not lily-white and English speaking. While some may joke that Miami and south Florida is more like Latin America than the rest of America, the word I hear from pastors in those regions is that more churches are needed, more pastors are needed, more workers are needed. The fields may be "white" unto harvest elsewhere, but in south Florida and in many of our urban areas and other pockets of subcultures throughout our state, those fields are "brown" and "black" and every other shade of skin. 

It's Time to Have a Spanish Sermon

I shared with one friend that perhaps it's time that one of the key messages brought at the annual meeting is done by a Spanish speaking pastor with a heart for the Kingdom. It does not matter than I do not speak Spanish. There are many churches in our state where English is the primary language and we have guests and members who speak another heart language. Maybe it's time for the subtitles to be put on the screen in English for those of us who are mono-lingual and let the Word be broadcast in the room (and throughout the state and world since it's streamed live on the internet) in the heart language of a growing portion of this wonderful state?

There's Much Work To Do

Overall, it has been a good week, but as I reflect on this state and our Baptist partners, I know, as do others, that there is much to be done. As one pastor mentioned over the weekend "There's no place for lazy pastor in God's Kingdom." Amen to that and I add to it, "There's no place for a lazy Christian in God's Kingdom." There's much to be done and to God be the glory.

Thankfully, We Are Not Alone

I am so thankful for pastor brothers and friends in ministry. It is so encouraging to see that even though the work ahead is daunting, I am not in this battle alone. Not only do I have brothers and sisters in Christ along in this journey, I rest fully on the reality that my God is with me as well. As H.B. Charles stated this evening, "God's personal presence is also His perpetual presence."


God Hates Divorce. . .But Not the Divorcee

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"God hates divorce!" We know this. The Bible is clear. Yet, sometimes, the church and others misinterpret this to be "God hates divorcees." That's unfortunate and a misread of Scripture.

Divorce2_616However, though many have been stung by divorce, the reality and solid truth is that "God hates it." Why? Ultimately, because it pictures the dismembering of the "one-flesh" of the covenant. Marriage is an illustration of God's covenant relationship with us through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the "bridegroom." We, the church are the "bride."

Malachi speaks God's word clearly to His people in Chapter 2 of his book. It's a message that was relevant to a self-serving religious people 450 years before Christ. The timeless principle shows the relevance of God's Living Word is always there.

It is a hard truth, but a needed one. While many live their lives under the banner "God wants me to be happy, right?" the Spirit of the Lord is saying clearly, "God wants you to be holy." 

I pray we take to heart the last portion of Malachi 2:16, regardless of our human relationship status:

So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless. Malachi 2:16b (ESV)


Redemption Stories: Christopher, Angela & Leon Yuan

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Redemption christopher family emailWhat many would consider their worst nightmare has become a reality for Christopher Yuan. While attending dental school, he began living promiscuously as a gay man and experimenting with illicit drugs. Within a few years, he was expelled from dental school, imprisoned for drug dealing and discovered that he was HIV positive.

But God has turned his nightmare into an exciting and inspiring story of redemption, grace and transformation. Christopher has an understanding heart for and a desire to minister to those working through issues of sexuality and to those living with HIV/AIDS. He speaks locally and internationally to youth, on college campuses, in churches and in prisons.

Christopher graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 2005 and Wheaton College Graduate School in 2007 with a Master of Arts in Biblical Exegesis and is currently pursuing a doctorate of ministry at Bethel Seminary. He now teaches at Moody while continuing his speaking ministry which has reached four continents around the world. (biography information taken from www.christopheryuan.com)

Christopher, along with his parents Leon and Angela, shared their story with our church on Sunday, September 29. It's a powerfully, moving story. Click the audio link at the top of this post to listen to their account.

We also encourage you to read the Yuans' story in their book Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son's Journey to God, A Broken Mother's Search for Hope.


God Interrupted Our Worship Service

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It was incredible. A moment I have prayed about for years. Not a disruption, really, but an acknowledgement that when we say we are here for Him, and mean it, God moves greatly.

Yesterday's message was one of pointed realization. As Paul reminded the church in 1 Corinthians 15, so too did God remind us yesterday that as followers of Christ, we often forget that which we used to be. We have forgotten the rescue and thereby live our lives as if God's love and grace and mercy is deserved.

Paul speaks clearly here in the chapter, reminding the ancient Corinthians, as well as believers for centuries, that Christ died, was buried, rose again, appeared to many and called out the church, all in accordance with the Scriptures.

This was God's plan.

RescueAbout five minutes into the sermon yesterday, I stated that there were two groups of people in the building. One group had taken a small step of curious faith by attending, but have never stepped into the Story God has for them. In other words, they are still lost, separated from God because of their lack of surrender to Him.

I felt led to address this and describe how the Enemy would do everything he could to keep them from taking that step. Then (to be honest - I don't believe I really expected an answer) I said, "Is there anyone here ready to step into this Story and surrender to Christ?"

I looked up to the balcony and a young man named Chris stood up.

It took just a moment for me to realize he wasn't getting up to go to the restroom. He was responding to the call. I asked "Are you ready?" He replied "Yes!"

I encouraged him to come down right then and he did. The congregation sat in awe-filled silence. I saw many whose eyes were open widely, just as wide as their mouths as their jaws dropped. It was apparent - many members of this church had never experienced anything quite like this. God was in the room and He was moving.

Chris came down. I prayed with him as hundreds watched. I introduced him to Marshall Walker, one of our deacons and Marshall and he went to our counseling area for prayer and affirmation.

I looked to the congregation and said, "Most of you didn't know someone could respond to an invitation to come to Christ unless it was at the end of the service and soft piano music was being played." There was a chuckle, partnered with the realization that the statement was true.

God interruped our service yesterday.

Well, maybe more accurately, we actually decided to follow His lead yesterday. He had an order of worship already planned. It was good. It was right. It was holy.

The message continued to the church members and those who have previously come to Christ. The reality was clear - many of us have forgotten about the Gospel. We have forgotten about our rescue. It's evident in the silence we have when engaging others in our family, workplace, neighborhood and community that we have forgotten. How is this so? There's no logical reason for keeping the rescue plan (God's plan for our salvation through Christ's death, burial and resurrection) to ourselves.

We have spiritual dementia.

The sad reality is that a side effect of this spiritual dementia is our apparent lack of love for others who are still enslaved. Are we basically saying "Just go to hell?

May we remember.

It's that important.

May we share.

It's that vital.

Rescue is available. We don't have to remain enslaved.

Yesterday, Chris was rescued. We were invited to see it happen.

 


Spiritual Giftedness - Don't Be Uninformed

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Preaching three services on Sunday morning is interesting. The message is the same but the response is unique based upon the people in the congregation. Based on comments following yesterday's services, many are still wrestling with the truth of God's Word as revealed.

Per a request, I am putting the full transcript of yesterday's message on this post. The audio file attached is from the 10:45am service.

We are getting into a portion of 1 Corinthians today that often causes people to either perk up or become fearful. The Corinthian believers were new in their faith. They were working through some things to better understand what it meant to be a Christ-follower.

Some of you here today are in the same boat.

Your questions may not have to do with what we would consider doctrinal matters. You most likely did not wake up this morning wondering about the doctrine of man, the immutability of God, the triune presence of God or the different takes on millennialism that identifies end-times theology.

Most likely, you were considering things such as “What do I wear today?” or “Do I have time to get a doughnut before church.

We go with God’s Word and begin in 1 Corinthians 12 today. Paul’s letter is systematic in how it deals with questions, problems, corrections and focus.

Paul loves this church, even though they frustrate him with their actions at times. His love prompts this letter. The Spirit of God inspires him to write and that’s why 2000 years later, the relevance of this letter is solid. It’s more than a letter to a bunch of now dead Christ-followers in a foreign culture many centuries ago. It’s God message to you and me today.

God doesn’t want us to be ignorant nor uniformed.

So, he gives us answers. He spells it out.

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. 1 Corinthians 12:1 (ESV)

We live in an age of information overload. We now have more data at our fingertips than any generation in the history of the world. In just a moment, if you could get cell coverage in here, you could Google any topic and have an answer immediately. It may or may not be true, even if on the internet it may not be true – seriously! But, you can have an answer.

Having an answer and being informed are two different things.

How many of you when in school studied for a test only to be able to remember the data or answers until the test time. Then, thirty minutes, or maybe thirty seconds after taking the test, you did what one of my seminary professors used to call a cognitive dump and pretty much forgot the data?

Paul writes so that we may be informed. So that we may have answers to real questions that matter. So that we may be able to take the data of the answer and use it in real life. So that we may not waste time on things that do not matter. So that we could live our lives in a way that glorifies the Father.

In this case – his topic is that of spiritual gifts.

When you talk of spiritual gifts in the church, immediately you have factions and groupings develop within the church. Some teach that a number of spiritual gifts as listed in Scripture are no longer available, others teach that all are available, but some are more important, then there are some that believe unless you have one specific gift, you’re not truly a Christian.

Then, there are the many who are Christ-followers, not sure what is meant by spiritual gifts and wonder if they have one, what it is and finally what to do with it. Some misidentify things as spiritual gifts and all the sudden everything is a spiritual gift.

It’s a conundrum.

So, as Paul says “I do not want you to be uninformed.”

There are classes, surveys, and intense studies on spiritual giftedness. I’m not going to get into that much detail today, but I am going to lay a foundation that covers the essentials of what is meant by the term and what the purpose is for these gifts.

To speak of spiritual gifts, we must speak of the Holy Spirit. I shared in the past that the doctrine of Trinity – the tri-une God who is One who is also Three is essential to the Christian faith. We have One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The tendency is to try to comprehend this.

You cannot.

Your brain is not wired to fully comprehend it. Your brain has two lobes – a right and a left. Some of you are left-brain people. You’re more logical and analytical. You want a map. You want a list. You need bullet points.

Others are right-brain. You’re more artistic. You are creative. Intuitive. Thoughtful. Subjective.

In high school, my art teacher was always trying to get us into the “right brain” mode. We had just come from our math, history or science classes which were very left-brain and she had about an hour to “right brain” us. Often she’d tell stories, play some music and leave us to create. Great class.

Nevertheless, you have a two lobes in your brain by God’s design. Right brainers and left brainers are both good, created by God, but think of it this way – how can a two-lobe brain comprehend a triune God?

You can acknowledge it, but comprehend fully? No.

It’s a mystery and the reality is we do not like mysteries. . .at least mysteries that we cannot figure out.

It requires faith to understand.

God – One God! Three persons – Father, Son and Spirit.

Get it?

Me neither, but I believe it.

God sent His Son Jesus (Son of God, God the Son) to live and to die. He did. He came back to life. Jesus did nothing out of sorts or random. His entire life, everything he did and said and thought was focused on the task at hand – to glorify the Father. He did everything under the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel of Luke is a great place to see this connection of the Trinity in action. Unfortunately, many times today when churches and believers speak of the spiritual gifts, they tend to land on the Holy Spirit so much they miss Jesus and seem to push him to the back burner. This is a huge mistake. You’ll notice in the Bible that the Holy Spirit always points to Christ and His story of life, death and resurrection.

When Jesus came back to life after the cross, he stayed around for a while and then made a promise to his followers, to us. He said he was leaving and when he left, the Comforter would come. This Comforter had already existed, for the Comforter is the Holy Spirit, (God’s spirit, the spirit of God) but his role would be preeminent in these days.

We need to remember that the Holy Spirit is a “he” not an “it.” He is God and God is Spirit.

The Holy Spirit gifts Christ-followers - every Christ-follower.

To define what spiritual gifts are it may be best to identify what they are not.

  •  
    • Spiritual gifts are not personality traits
    • Spiritual gifts are not the same as natural talents. Leslie B. Flynn (a now deceased pastor and author) states it this way “Talents have to do with techniques and methods; gifts have to do with spiritual abilities. Talents depend on natural power, gifts on spiritual endowment.”
    • Spiritual gifts are not the same as the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). The Fruit of the Spirit reveal Christ’s contribution to our character while our spiritual gifts reveal the contribution we make to God’s kingdom.

So, what is a spiritual gift?

Gift-blueHere’s a working definition by Pastor Erik Rees I think is pretty solid “A spiritual gift is a God-given special ability, given to every believer at conversion by the Holy Spirit, to share His love and strengthen the body of Christ.”

Os Guiness states it this way “The purpose of giftedness is stewardship and service, not selfishness.”

The first time we see spiritual gifts in the Bible--

For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you-- that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine. Romans 1:11-12 (ESV)

Paul uses the word “impart” and some may misconstrue that meaning. It is not that Paul is going to give them a spiritual gift, but that Paul will give them the benefits of his spiritual gifts.

According to this passage and others to believers in different cities, one of the purposes is to strengthen other believers. To strengthen someone by a spiritual gift means to help their faith not give way as easily when trouble enters their life.

We have spiritual gifts in order to help other people keep the faith and maintain an even keel in life's storms.

If there is anybody around you whose faith is being threatened in any way at all, take stock whether you may have a spiritual gift peculiarly suited to strengthen that person.

WATCH THIS VIDEO FROM MERCY HILL CHURCH, ONE OF THE CHURCH PLANTS WE SPONSOR IN GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA. WATCH IT WITH EYES TO SEE HOW GOD’S CHURCH USES ITS GIFTEDNESS TO SERVE THE COUPLE SHARING THEIR STORY.

redemption stories - nate and heather 1280x720 from Andrew Hopper on Vimeo.

Some wonder why we are so bent on small groups and expanding them throughout the community. This is why? This is a picture of Christ-followers living out their faith, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, utilizing the gifts He has given them for the sake of the fellowship, the encouragement of others, the salvation of others and the growth of the Kingdom.

We have stories here in our fellowship as well – maybe not on video yet, but they’re everywhere.

Often church folks want to know their spiritual gift so they can figure out what to do, or maybe get an excuse for what not to do in the area of service within the body.

We do believe that God has shaped every Christ follower and every Christ follower is given a gift – a spiritual gift at the point of new life. This gift wasn’t earned (it wouldn’t be a gift.)

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies--in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 4:10-11 (ESV)

Serve the fellowship through your giftedness so that GOD MAY BE GLORIFIED THROUGH JESUS CHRIST.

He is the point. This means that God's aim in giving us gifts, and in giving us the faith to exercise them, is that his glory might be displayed.

“He wants us and the world to marvel at him and to think he is fantastic. The stupendous reality of God is all encompassing.” – John Piper

YOUR RESPONSE:

  • Come to Christ
  • Acknowledge your giftedness
  • Recognize the purpose of your gift
  • Life is to lead others to marvel at his greatness
  • Others first
  • Selfless living

He's Still Alive!

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915 easterYesterday was Resurrection Sunday, or Easter as most people know it. Like most churches in the west, the services are more crowded that normal, families gather together, children hunt eggs and eat chocolate and wear new clothes. . .and then everyone takes a long nap in the afternoon.

It's a tradition.

We had four services yesterday - one was the community-wide Sunrise service at Moosehaven (largest attendance in their history with over 630.) The other three were at our church campus. Just as anticipated, the attendance was up. The energy and excitement in our 9:15am service was contagious as we had to find more chairs. While the worship team is leading the congregation in singing, a group of our men are carrying chairs through the room to add to the back. It was a good problem to have, and apparently proof that I didn't really have enough faith that people would come.

In the midst of the fun, family time and incredible worship experiences, the reality that many still do not fully understand the deeper meaning of the day becomes clear.

Easter is a day of celebration, not of bunnies or eggs or other fertility items, but of the risen Lord. Jesus Christ (the Son of God, God the Son, second person of the Trinity) really died and on that first "Easter" came back to life.

His resurrection gives us a chance at life.

If you can, take the time to listen to yesterday's sermon audio linked above.

Remember, even on the day after Easter. . . He is still alive!

You can be, too!


The Dangerous and Risky Calling of Pastoral Ministry

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When it comes to pastoral ministry, especially here in the States, a recent survey showed what many have feared to be true (and often is only spoken of by those in ministry in hushed tones). It’s not easy and sometimes it takes a toll.

Consider these figures. . .

Hours and Pay

  • 90% of pastors report working between 55 and 75 hours per week.
  • 50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
  • 70% of pastors feel grossly underpaid.

Training and Preparedness

  • 90% feel they are inadequately trained to cope with ministry demands.
  • 90% said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.

Health and Well-Being

  • 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • 50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.

Marriage and Family

  • 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families.
  • 80% of spouses feel the pastor is overworked.
  • 80% of spouses feel left out and under-appreciated by church members.

Stressed-manChurch Relationships

  • 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.
  • 40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
  • #1 reason pastors leave the ministry – Church people are not willing to go the same direction and goal as the pastor. Pastors believe God wants them to go in one direction but the people are not willing to follow or change. (Though we all know that toxic churches and parishioners exist throughout our nation, we also must acknowledge that often pastors have a vision, but are not adequately casting that vision, communicating it well and if they’re battling through all the other negative statistics we’re seeing, it’s no wonder there’s conflict.)

Longevity

  • 50% of ministers starting out will not last five years.
  • 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.
  • 4,000 new churches begin each year and 7,000 churches close.
  • Over 1,700 pastors leave the ministry each month.
  • Over 1,300 pastors were terminated by the local church each month, many without biblical cause.
  • Over 3,500 people a day leave church each year in our nation.

According to another survey, only 23% of pastors report being happy and content in their identity in Christ, their church and in their home.

Why share this? Because we are part of a story bigger than ourselves. Pastors and families of pastors are being taken out, all too easily. That’s why I have followed God’s lead to be invested with young pastors and peers through our network of churches. That’s why my wife and I will be working with others in our network to assess new pastors and church planters in our city. We don’t want to see these men end up a statistic. We want them to lead, to serve, to pastor healthy churches, to have marriages that are holy and last, to be ready for the attacks of the Enemy and to find victory.

Some say, “But that’s not our church. That doesn’t have anything to do with us. You don’t need to worry about those guys. You have other things here to worry about.”

Yeah, it may be said, but it’s wrong. Dead wrong and that line of thinking is what leads churches to become toxic. It’s a brand expander mentality that is more about self than about Kingdom and when a church begins to live like that, they actually push the kingdom of darkness forward rather than the Kingdom of God.

The church, whether the portion gathered here at First, or in another building or maybe meeting in a living room somewhere, is to provide for the one God has set apart to pastor/lead/shepherd them. Paul had invested 18 months with the Corinthians and had seen this gathering grow into the church at Corinth. The spiritual authority was given to him and he taught, preached and even wrote part of the Bible, under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration for the sake of the Gospel.

I believe we are at a place of calling. God has his hand on some men here, some women, too. He is calling. He is creating a great uneasiness within you. You have your plans. You’re working your plans. You’re in a career perhaps, but . . . and you know it’s there. . .something just isn’t right.

It’s not about a career. It’s a calling.

God is looking to you and saying “I have a calling for you. I have a story for you.” You reply with a list of excuses and buts and reasons (at least you think they’re reasons) as to why you cannot step out in faith and change everything. You have a family. You have a job. You have a mortgage. You have debt to pay off. You don’t have the expertise. You don’t have the education.

And after that wonderful picture of hard stats and depressing numbers, you’re thinking “Who in their right mind would do that?”

But God is still speaking.

For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

You love God. You love the church. You love people (well, some people) and you know He’s speaking to you.

Oh, and He’s not calling you to the safe ministry (the safe ones are the ones that are weak and don’t matter anyway.)


1 Corinthians 9:19-23(ESV)
19For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.
21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.
22To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

Do you see that? Paul is saying “I’ll do whatever it takes to win some, to save some. It’s that important.” He’s saying, “I do it all, with or without pay, through attack, depression, discouragement, pain, challenge, all of it for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

Paul’s affirmation is your affirmation. It’s my affirmation. This calling, whether as a pastor or missionary (oh, BTW – if you’re a Christ-follower, you’re a missionary – there’s no calling for “regular, every day church member) is worth it.

It’s worth it.