Friday, July 29, 2016

"How Did You Do It?" 22 Years of Marital "Bliss" and "Blisters"

22 years ago tomorrow, a beautiful, smart, winsome, godly young lady with obvious issues of blindness and bad character judgement had already said "I do" to a young 22-year-old knot-head named Joel. 

If, at that moment, you had told either of us what God had in store for us over the next two decades, we would not have believed it!
As you can tell from the pictures, we don't look the same as we once did.  Amy has gotten a lot prettier, and I've gotten a lot uglier and hairier!  Additionally, there are now three other people who live with us who call us "Mom" and "Dad," and as anyone who is a parent knows, the presence of such little ones changes life in profound ways.  All in all, its been a blessed 22 years, and yes, I'd do it all over again with this wonderful woman.  It hasn't all been fun, but marriage isn't supposed to be.

Over the past several decades, divorce statistics remain unchanged, and as a minister of the Gospel, I've personally experienced those statistics.  Charles Lowery once comically said "I'd rather preach a funeral than a wedding any day.  They pay more, and they last longer!"  I can certainly vouch for that.  About 30% of the couples for whom I have officiated a wedding are now divorced.  On the other hand, everyone I've ever buried is right where I left them!


In this kind of context, we are often asked by younger couples how we have made it as long as we have.  Because we constantly praise and adore each other publicly, sometimes folks get the false impression that Amy and I have never had marriage struggles. Truth is, we have hit a few very rough patches in our years together, just like every couple does.  So, why are we still together?

1. Because we try to love Jesus more than we love each other.  Here is the unvarnished truth.  I don't deserve my wife, and the Biblical prohibition against divorce isn't about me or her.  Its about Jesus.  I think if we based our "staying power" merely on our devotion to each other, we too might have been a statistic years ago.  Keeping the wedding vows I made to my wife aren't primarily for the benefit of my wife.  Its about a promise I made to my Creator and Redeemer when I entered into the very marriage covenant that He created in order to point people to Himself.

One day in the future, one of us will pass away and leave the other one behind.  In that moment, the Rainey marriage covenant will be forever severed, because contrary to what some false religions teach, we aren't headed toward an eternal marriage between Joel and Amy. Instead, Joel and Amy are both headed toward their ultimate Bridegroom.  On that day, we won't miss each other because we will both be too busy basking in the unspeakable glory of what our earthly marriage was always supposed to be pointing to.  As wonderful as my relationship has been with Amy, I can't imagine how wonderful that day will be!

So over the past 22 years when arguments seemed to become more regular, or one of us thought the other seemed to be less tolerable, we've tried to look beyond each other, and toward what we promised God we would do our best to reflect--the very thing He expects marriage to reflect.  It hasn't always been easy, but God has a way of always out-giving us in every way, and I've certainly experienced that when it comes to how rewarded I feel by Him for our faithfulness to each other.


2. Because we allow each other to be who we are.  Amy genuinely loves to run, and has completed two half-marathons.  If I'm running, its either because someone has a gun, or because I've come to the conclusion that I don't need to get any fatter than I already am.  Amy is a slow, careful, deliberate and thoughtful reader.  I go through books like chicken wings.  Amy likes to take her time in the grocery store.  I want to split up the list and do double the shopping in half the time.  When we vacation, Amy enjoys the journey.  I'm trying to break a record to get to the destination.

Bottom line:  we are different, and we allow for those differences in each other.  I have a pair of running shoes only because she loves to run.  She has a motorcycle helmet because she knows I'm most relaxed when I'm on my Harley in in the mountains.  Because we know these things about each other, we make sure the other can make time for these things.  They come up every time we have a "calendar meeting."  And we do this because, in the midst of my pastoral schedule, teaching duties and publishing deadlines, and her juggling of the home schedule, we don't want to lose each other.  I thank God for a woman who, when she sees me stressed out, asks "so when was the last time you took a ride?"

3. Because we are best friends.  I'll be brutally honest here:  When I was standing at the altar 22 years ago with my soon-to-be wife, I had a few things going through my mind, but none so intense as the thoughts of what we would be up to that evening!  (Cue the retching now from the peanut gallery.......and my children!)

And I know what some of you are asking, "but it wasn't just the physical attraction.  You did LOVE her, didn't you?"  And I will say yes, I loved her--at least as much as any 22-year-old BOY could love anyone. Furthermore, those feelings weren't wrong.  God put them there for a reason.  But, those feelings alone don't make a marriage last, principally because they come and go.  You'd be amazed at how quickly the sweet smell of cologne and perfume fades when the stench of dirty laundry and medicinal salve is in the room!  

Over the years, Amy and I have had many "romantic getaways" when we hire a sitter and take off for a night away, or several nights away.  Our 10th anniversary was spent in Cozumel; our 20th in Key Largo.  This year's anniversary finds us 12,000 miles apart while she does some really important work with educators in Vietnam.  So when she gets back and we are finally able to celebrate, it will probably involve a jacked-up body clock.

And then there was three years ago.  We were planning to go out for a quiet evening together at a local restaurant, but two of our three children caught a stomach bug, so instead we ate takeout, sat on our back deck, and were available in case one of them threw up.

Romantic, huh?

Over the past 22 years, we've had many more experiences like what we faced three years ago than we've had trips to exotic destinations!  And through all of those experiences, we have learned that the best way to face them is to do so as friends.  There is nothing wrong with romance.  I've learned to enjoy it far more over the years. When we get dressed up to go out, Amy is always stunning.  Its funny, I can look at women's clothes on the rack, or jewelry in her jewelry box and not have a clue, but believe me, she knows where it all goes, and it looks really good when she gets it all in place! She is beautiful, thoughtful and intelligent, and that makes candlelight dinners with her an exquisite pleasure.

Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with sex.  Matter of fact, I happen to think that sex is fantastic!  Sex can greatly enhance a permanent bond between husband and wife, but it cannot create that bond, and it isn't what makes a marriage last.  If you think otherwise, you have placed sex on a throne where only God belongs.  

Prolonged sickness, a tough pregnancy, young children that won't sleep, stressful times at work, and a hundred other things can result in you being "on the bench" for a while where sex is concerned. But you always have friendship, regardless of whether the lights are dimmed, whether you hear the kids puking in the background, or whether or not you can work out that getaway.  Friendship isn't dependent on context.  Its unconditional, just like the love we are commanded to have for each other in a marriage.

4. Because we have sought help. I've known and pastored a lot of married couples, and the only ones I've known who never had a rough patch were those who had a problem with compulsive lying.  Amy and I have experienced those rough patches too, and one of the ways we made it through was to seek help.  Twice we have visited a counselor, because there was an issue we knew we needed to work through together, but weren't sure how to do it.  At that point, our marriage wasn't "about to fall apart" (if you wait that long, you might need more than a counselor!), but we wanted to stay on top of things together.

We have also been greatly helped through the years by other couples much older, who have been married much longer.  By living in relationship with them, we have learned from their mistakes, and gained much wisdom on how to improve our own relationship.  Professional counseling can be a good thing, but trust me, the guy with a Ph.D. who is on his third wife has nothing profitable to say to you about marriage.  On the other hand, if you can find a couple who has been married at least as long as you have been alive, you will most likely gain a lot of very useful wisdom.  

Come to think of it, you shouldn't even be asking this 22 year veteran about marriage.  I'm still learning myself!  Instead, go to church and find that man who has been married for 40 or 50 or 60 years.  Find that sweet old lady who walks in every Sunday with a walking cane in one hand, and her husband's hand in the other.  You might learn something.  I know Amy and I have!

So I sit here this morning grateful to Jesus for holding Amy and me together for all these years, and I'm grateful to a wonderful wife and best friend who continues with me on this journey.  Happy Anniversary Amy!  Come home safe!

Monday, July 11, 2016

When Your Pastor Falls

Yesterday, the elders of NewSpring Church, the 30,000 attendee, multi-site congregation in my home state, announced the release of Senior Pastor Perry Noble due to behaviors that disqualify him for pastoral ministry.  This announcement was understandably shocking, both to the evangelical world, and more so to the NewSpring church family.

Some predictable responses to this sad news have already transpired--from secular media outlets pointing out NewSpring's status as the "richest church," to angry fundamentalists shouting "See! I told you so!"  For my part, my heart goes out to Perry, and to the church he founded.

When the first church I ever planted was just an infant, NewSpring was itself just learning how to walk.  Those were trying times in my own life and ministry, and I remember several conversations with Perry that helped me greatly.  Perry cares about the church--all churches.  Perry cares about pastors.  But mostly, Perry cares deeply about lost people finding Jesus.  Perry did  many things differently than I would do them, and a few things I would never do.  But you don't have to be twins to be brothers, and as a whole, I have been very thankful for this brother and the difference he has made.

And since yesterday, I've been thinking a lot about NewSpring Church, and many other churches like her who have had to bid farewell to a pastor who disqualified himself for ministry.  Noble and NewSpring may currently be alone in the spotlight, but they are far from the only pastor and church that have encountered a situation like this.  When this kind of thing happens, it doesn't matter how big or how "rich" you are.  Its excruciatingly painful for all involved.  I've consulted with multiple churches in the wake of their leader's moral failure--be it sexual, financial, substance abuse, or other lack of personal discipline.  Moments like that in the life of a church are humiliating for the pastor, impossibly difficult for those who hold him accountable, and painful for a church family that, whether or not they realize it, are dealing with a level of grief commensurate with losing a family member to death.

Often, churches don't know what to do in a situation like this.  Based on my own experience in helping churches through crises like this, let me make the following suggestions.  How should you view the pastor who has disappointed you and let you down?  And, what does the pastor who now no longer leads your church need from you?

He needs your discipline.  This is a difficult thing for many to hear, especially those in the body of Christ who are gifted with mercy and helps.  They rightly expect restoration and often cry out "why can't we just forgive him and move on?"  Within that cry is an honorable desire to redeem the situation and the person.  But often, this cry is accompanied by ignorance of the fact that "forgiveness" and "restoration" are two completely different things.  1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are clear about the character qualities of those who dare to be pastors.  In the case of Perry Noble, those principles were violated by an over-dependency on alcohol.  But I've seen similar circumstances arise from sexual sin, lack of discipline, or the inability to control one's temper.  When disqualifying sin has taken place and all other avenues have been exhausted, removal is best for the church, for the community, and even for the pastor.  The fact that it is also painful doesn't mean its wrong.

So if you are faced with the removal of your pastor over disqualifying sin, trust your leaders who have rightly held him accountable, and follow them as they seek to lead the church forward while simultaneously getting the pastor the resources he and his family need to heal.

He needs your mouth......to stay shut!  News of what happened at NewSpring yesterday had spread to every major news outlet in North America by last night.  Imagine how you would feel if your worst moments not only cost you your job, but were also on display on TV screens, computer screens and smartphones all over America.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself "but Perry was a mega-church pastor.  Our church is much smaller--much less well-known."  But while it is true that your pastor's sins may never end up on CNN, in a situation like this they will certainly end up on the "Community Bulletin Board" where all the "real news" in your small town gets read anyway.  My point?  Your pastor and his family will be humiliated by a situation like this regardless, and the absolute last thing he needs are those he has served as shepherd adding gossip and rumor to the situation.

Yesterday, the leaders of NewSpring balanced transparency with discretion.  And because they didn't "tell it all" there will be plenty of gaps in the story, and people naturally want to fill in the gaps.  If you are part of a church where this is happening, your time is much better spent praying for your church family and your former pastor.  Don't feed the rumor mill.  Doing so only brings greater humiliation.

He needs your unity.  Your church needs it too.  This is not the time to "jump ship" and head to the church across town.  This is not the time to hit the exit ramp because church doesn't feel like Disney World any more.  And its certainly not the time to give the impression that the former pastor is the whole reason you joined the church anyway (Truthfully, if the pastor is the only reason you are there, you are there for the wrong reason!).  Now is the time to lock arms with your hurting church family.

One of the things I"m thankful for in the NewSpring situation is that Perry is humbly receiving the rebuke and discipline from church leaders.  Without that posture, this could have been much worse.  In the worst cases I've seen, the pastor resists loving discipline and "splants" a church by dividing the house and taking those loyal to him down the street to start another one.  Being part of something like that isn't honoring to your former pastor.  It enables him in further misconduct, and does traumatic damage to your church family, the community, and the witness of the Gospel.  Don't play the "God is leading me....." card on this one.  That's just ridiculous.  Now more than ever, stay with your church family!  Years from now, your former pastor will be encouraged to know that his behavior didn't do lasting damage to the body of Christ.

He needs your appreciation  While many gifted with mery and helps want to quickly "forgive" and "restore," may gifted with prophecy and discernment--the "justice" gifts--will want to find a tall tree and a short piece of rope from which to hang their former pastor.  This too, is unhealthy.

When a pastor falls, many are devastated because they say to themselves "I never thought he would be capable of something like this!"  Trust has been broken.  Spiritual trauma has been inflicted on the body.  In moments like that, it is easy to forget that you can't measure a man's life in one bad moment.

As you process your grief and disappointment, also keep in mind that it was the guy who couldn't control his drinking who also baptized your children.  It was the guy who cheated on his wife who was also there for you when your mother died suddenly.  In those moments, he never left your side.  Now, he needs you by his side.  That doesn't mean you can't feel disappointment or even anger.  It does mean you shouldn't forget how often he blessed you and your family.  Recall those moments, and communicate them to him to encourage him.

He needs your prayers  How often do you think he prayed for you?  He and his family now stand in great need of your prayers.  Ask God to give him greater wisdom for the future.  Ask God to heal him.  Ask God to heal his family.  Ask God to one day restore him to ministry.

One of the signatures on my ministry license is that of a man who would be later removed from a church because of substance abuse.  Yes, he sinned and disqualified himself..  And yes, the church did the right thing by removing him.  But whatever good anyone sees in my ministry now is largely due to his investment in me as a young man.  We shouldn't forget things like that, nor should we let those who have fallen forget them.

By God's grace, both Perry Noble and NewSpring Church have a future.  If your church has been through similar circumstances, you have a future too, and so does the man you once called "Pastor."  Give him what he needs, and trust God to give your church what it needs.

Monday, June 13, 2016

2016 Summer Reading List

Yet another summer is upon us, which means I'll be taking a break from this site for a few months.  But as always, I can't do that without commending the following reading list to you.

1. Surprise the World!  The Five Habits of Highly Missional People. (Michael Frost)  Michael has written another excellent resource that not only challenges thinking, but encourages doing.  His thesis is quite simple--that when God through Scripture calls us to be a separate, holy, different kind of people, He means it.  Isolation from culture is treason against the Gospel of Jesus, and this short resource will be a great help to those seeking to engage faithfully.

2. Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians.  (Bruce Ashford.)  My friend Bruce has written a fantastic summary of how followers of Jesus can engage culture, and it could not have come at a better time than this election year!  Building off the thoughts of Dutch pastor Abraham Kuyper, Bruce helps us see that the Lordship of Jesus extends to every domain of society--including the civil and political!  Conversely, he also observes how some of our past approaches in this area have been less than helpful, and charts a path forward that is understandable and applicable.

3. Lessons from the East: Finding the Future of Western Christianity in the Global Church.  (Bob Roberts Jr.)  God has used Bob Roberts to teach me so much over the last 10 years.  This book contains stories and experiences I've heard Bob speak about that describe a vibrant, Spirit-filled, dynamic and growing church outside the US and western Europe from which we can learn much.  Alan Hirsch has rightly stated that the new face of global Christianity in the 21st century is no longer the European man, but the African woman.  Bob's new book puts "flesh" on that truism and describes the practical things we can learn from a growing body of Christ in Africa, the middle east, the Asian subcontinent, and southeast Asia.

4. The Post-America World 2.0 (Fareed Zakaria)  No follower of Jesus should confine his/her reading to "Christian" books only.  Global awareness requires insight from global people, Christian and non-Christian, and Fareed Zakaria's updated work is the most comprehensive look at current global realities I am aware of at the popular level.

5. Adventures in Saying Yes: A Journey from Fear to Faith.  (Carl Medearis)  I pretty much recommend anything Carl Medearis writes, and this new work is no different.  This phenomenal book tells his story of ministry in the middle-east, and encourages followers of Jesus with ways to follow Him without fear.  Since we live in a culture that seems to capitalize on fear lately, this book is a great antidote.

Monday, June 06, 2016

4 Ways Pastors Enable Dysfunction in their Churches

The role of pastors is clear in Scripture: “Equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” (Ephesians 4:12) But unfortunately, some pastors confuse equipping for enablement.

Primarily, this is caused by fear on the part of the pastor. Proverbs 29:25 warns us that “the fear of man is a snare." But often, that fear doesn’t look like fear. Sometimes it looks quite courageous. Sometimes it appears as though the pastor is working himself to death in service to the church, when in reality he is doing all the work because he fears a lack of control. Sometimes it appears the Word is proclaimed in an uncompromising way, when in reality the pastor is just trashing people not in the room to make those who are in the room feel as though they have no sin from which to repent. What follows are some ways I’ve seen pastors enable dysfunction in their churches.

1. Throwing Red Meat to a Crowd Rather than Feeding God's Word to the Flock.   Let's face it. Most of us who preach know where our "Amen corners are, and we know what to say to make them noisy. 

Homeschool Nazis love it when you attack the public school system. Prophecy addicts long for you to spend every Sunday expounding on some cryptic passage from Revelation. Hyper-Calvinists can’t get enough discussion about “historic Baptist thought.” Conversely, those who think Calvinism is the doctrine of antichrist shout loudly in response to a pastor who dismisses the whole discussion with a single, broad-brushed reference to John 3:16.

The issue here is that our people all have their pet subjects, and if we want to stay on their “good side,” all we really need to do is discover what those passions are and focus on them when we are in the pulpit. Problem is, this approach never produces genuine disciples, because when you give inordinate focus to a few subjects, you fail in your duty to teach “the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27)

Another issue that arises from using the pulpit to simply throw out “red meat” for the crowd is that, strangely enough, you never seem to get around to actually preaching to the people who are in the room. It’s always what’s going on “out there,” or “those people” who are the cause of the problem. In the process, our people are reinforced in their own pride and never move significantly forward in the process of becoming more like Jesus.

To be sure, I’m not suggesting that you should never speak of how your people should educate their children, or how Biblical prophecy should affect our Christian walk. I’m simply suggesting that it takes absolutely no courage to stand in a room full of conservative, heterosexual, “red state” attendees and blame the homosexual community for all that is wrong with our culture. It takes very little temerity to appeal to surface-level exegesis in the attempt to get your people all bent out of shape over those evil Calvinists. 

And to stand in the pulpit, week after week, and do nothing but condemn the people “out there” is more like the practice of a Pharisee, and less like a New Testament pastor who follows Jesus by getting to the heart of the real issues. Judgment, the Apostle Peter says, begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). If you genuinely preach the whole counsel of God, what you feed your people won’t always taste good to them.

      2. Hiding from Hard Subjects. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 100 times from a pastor. “We don’t address THAT, because THAT would get us off mission.”

      On the surface, I understand the sentiment. Our preaching and teaching can easily become unbalanced if we focus too much on what we might think are “secondary issues.” Still, too many pastors simply avoid hard subjects altogether. What this teaches our people is that when the pressure is on, its OK to take the easy way out.

      But Struggle is part of the Christian experience. When a baby dies, when a spouse is diagnosed with a terminal disease, or when some other unspeakable tragedy occurs, people need to be already armed with a solid understanding of providence and sovereignty. They need to have already wrestled with the tension between divine providence and human freedom in a way that brings them toward greater intimacy with God BEFORE these things happen in their lives. If that means the pastor has to occasionally “go deep” on a subject like providence, so be it! 

      Likewise, when a child struggling with homosexuality “comes out” or a businessman is faced with the choice between keeping his integrity or keeping his job, the truth of God’s Word from the pulpit should be in the minds of all who are involved so that hard issues can be faced in a way that honors Jesus.

      Too often, pastors avoid these subjects, or worse, they oversimplify them in a way that ignores the difficulties of applying one’s faith during hard times. Enabling your people in this way is a treasonous act of denying them the tools necessary to think and act for themselves in a way that brings glory to God. Sure, there are more “practical matters” to attend to, and those should be addressed as well.

      Additionally, every subject that is dealt with by a pastor should be connected to the larger purpose of lifting up Jesus as the center and circumference of Scripture and our faith. But if God’s Word addresses it, then we are bound by our calling to address it as well.

      3. Doing the work rather than sharing the work. Maybe its motivated by guilt. Or maybe its motivated by a desire to control every ministry. Whatever the motivation, workaholism on the part of the pastor steals time from his family, and steals opportunities for service from his people. Doing anything (or worse, having your wife do anything) simply because ‘no one else will do it’ enables the church in its current state of laziness and consumer-driven sin.

      Furthermore, answering every phone call, making every visit and personally responding to every need means you never equip the church to do these things and are personally worn to the point where you eventually do nothing well. The late Adrian Rodgers said it best: “The pastor who is always available is rarely worth anything when he is available.”

      4. Making the church about you. This is, by far, the hardest statement in this post, but its true. Pastor, the church is not about you! Its about the body of Christ, and your validity in holding the pastoral office is tied inextricably to how well you serve the people God has put under your charge.

      When you act, you should do so with their best interests in mind.
In too many evangelical traditions including my own, the “celebrity culture” has produced many men who believe the church is there so that they can advance themselves. Regrettably, I’ve encountered a few pastors who make decisions that affect the entire church based solely on how they will personally be affected. In the worst cases, this behavior manifests itself in a pastor who uses the pulpit to get out all of his pent-up frustrations, which is the pastor-congregation equivalent of spousal abuse. Pastor, you serve the bride of Christ, and one day, you and I will stand in front of Him and answer for how we have treated His wife while she was in our care!

I’m convinced that codependency is a real issue with many pastors and churches. Rather than empower and bless each other, they use each other in a way that spreads dysfunction throughout the body, and destroys any hope of that local church being faithful to her call. When a pastor simply gives the people whatever they want whenever they want in an attempt to keep his job, or be complimented, or to advance himself, such behavior is not service. It is enablement. To be sure, pastors by themselves cannot change this scenario. But men, we can, and we must, resist the temptation to confuse equipping with enablement.


The fear of man is a snare. (Proverbs 29:25) Resist it, and serve your people well as a result.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: The Blessings of a Unified Family

"Family."

Almost every time this word is used in our culture, the intent is to portray an overwhelmingly positive picture of warmth, openness, acceptance, and love.

But let's be honest.  More than a few in our world have had experiences with family that were anything but the way that word is described.  Additionally, even those of us who come from "healthy families" have to admit that few moments in our lives resemble a Norman Rockwell painting.  For most of us, "family" includes times of hassle, drama, conflict and dysfunction.

Likewise, when we speak of a "church family," we are speaking of a group of people related to each other by our common faith in Jesus, but who are often very different from each other.  And sometimes, those differences come out in ways that make us look less like  Norman Rockwell painting, and more like a scene from a National Lampoon movie.

But the danger in moments like that is to treat church as something less than a family.  Too many in our culture do this today, "hopping" from church to church when they finally grow weary of something about their present faith family that they don't like.  The result is "trendy" churches that last for a decade or so, and then fizzle out when the people in that church get tired of each other.

Anybody remember "one hit wonders?"  That term emerged in the 1980s to describe rock bands whose single made it to the top of the charts, only to leave the band who performed it without a sequel.  Now, more than 30 years later, "one hit wonder" describes a band or performer you have never heard of, but a song everybody has heard of!

Yesterday, we finished out study of Paul's letter to the Philippians.  He has taught us about joy, contentment, release from anxiety, and effectiveness in our mission, and he has continually tied all of these things to unity--living, thinking, and acting as one body (hence, the title of our message series).  The big idea is this:  Your church family is not a means to an end.  Its not a place to find the latest, hottest "Christian trends."  Its not a way for you to build power and influence, or find a job (though sometimes relationships with other church members may be beneficial to you).  Your "family" is the reason you are part of a church!    For those who get this and stay faithful to a church, there are multiple blessings to be found.  The people of Philippi understood this, and through their example, Paul concludes his letter describing the blessings, as well as the requirements for those blessings to continue.

They are committed to each other.  "I can do all things through Christ who gives me the strength."  That verse looks great on a coffee cup, but it has a context that we need to understand.  The "all things" Paul refers to here is related to the idea of being content in all circumstances.  This stands in contrast to Prosperity Theology, which teaches us that God always wants us healthy and wealthy, and Poverty Theology, which teaches that it is a sin to be rich.  Apparently, Paul in his life had been both super rich, and broke!  And neither affected his walk with God or the power of his ministry.

Do your circumstances affect your commitment to Jesus and His church?  Right now, things are pretty exciting around Covenant.  But it won't always be this way.  We need to ask ourselves if our commitment to our church changes because of financial stress, internal conflict, or decisions we don't like.  One of the blessings of a unified church family is that they are committed to each other.

They invest in each other.  Paul describes a synergistic fellowship with Philippi--a deep partnership of multiple people who are all headed in the same direction.  And the primary way this was expressed by the Philippians church was by their financial support of Paul.  "No one else came to my aid like you did," he says, specifically mentioning Thessalonica, where his work caused a great uproar and he ultimately had to leave the city.  No matter what he faced, the Philippians were there with him.

The point is that Jesus' people are a giving people, and their giving isn't conditioned on whether times are good or bad.  They invest in each other regardless!  Yesterday, we talked about how this principle applies to us.  We owe $800,000 on our facility.  If you understand what it means to be one body, then you understand that this debt belongs to all of us!  I wasn't the pastor when this debt was incurred, but that doesn't matter.  The moment my family and I joined Covenant Church a few weeks ago, that debt became my debt.  If you are a member of our church family, its your debt too!  Once we all understand this, it will be much easier, not only to pay that debt, but to do anything else we are called to do together.

No, not everyone will be able to give the same amount, or even the same percentage.  And no, God never calls you to give Him what you don't have.  But your bank account is a statement of your values.  Anyone who truly loves their church family expresses that value, at least in part, by investing in their family.

They glorify God together.  "Just as you have provided for me, God will provide for you," Paul says.  Think about what that means--Paul's provision wasn't just monetary.  It was also the capacity to complete God's mission for him even when he was lacking in physical and monetary resources!

God has given us--in each other--that very same capacity!  God bountifully blesses people who give to each other.  And all the riches in Christ that we need, we already have!  We have it in each other!  And if we are truly committed to each other, the result of all we do together brings God the glory He deserves!

They build a family together.  The closing verses of this letter reveal that there were a lot of people in the room as Paul finishes writing.  As he prepares to hand this letter off to Epaphroditus for delivery to the church, he identifies a number of "brothers" in the room with him--including "those of Caesar's household," civil servants now part of the larger body of Christ.

Remember the sociological context of Philippi.  This is a highly diverse region, and Paul writes this letter mostly to address how the church should get along with each other in the face of all those social, political, and cultural differences.  I find it encouraging that Paul concludes the letter with his own very diverse crowd--men from a variety of different backgrounds, but united in their support of the Gospel.

God's family is diverse.  We won't always see eye to eye on everything.  We won't always view everything the same way.  And when there are moments of conflict, we will handle it much better if we realize that at the end of the day we aren't ultimately just building an organization.  We are building a family--God's family!

Too many churches treat the church like a shopping mall.  They come to get religious goods and services, going where they want, and avoiding what they don't want.  And when really cool, new stores open up across town, they are gone.

But true churches aren't shopping malls.  They are families.  I long to see that at Covenant.  One day, I want to see a retired, black executive showing a white single mom how to make ends meet with her budget, because race isn't what defines us.  I want to see one of our custodial staff discipling a wealthy investment manager who isn't as far along in her faith, because socio-economics isn't what defines us.  I want to see our youth included as substantive participants in corporate worship, and learning more from our senior adults, because age isn't what defines us.

This is what families do.  This is how families behave.  And with God as our Father, and Jesus as our elder brother, we have everything we need to commit to each other, and change the world together!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: Joy and Unity

For the last several weeks we have been looking together at Paul's letter to the Philippians--a letter written to a highly diverse congregation encouraging them to maintain unity in spite of their differences.  We we enter the final 2 weeks of this series, we begin to see specific examples in the church at Philippi.  In particular, Paul now begins to address a sharp dispute between two prominent women in the church--Euodia and Syntyche.

For the first three chapters of Philippians Paul has hammered the concept of unity--an inseparable bond between believers that finds its commonality in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  At this point in the letter, Paul reveals the reason this issue is so important at Philippi.  Two women are in a sharp dispute that threatens the very unity he knows the church needs to survive and accomplish its mission.  And in his interaction with these two ladies, we see what is required if we want to be a unified body.

Reconcile with Each Other.  At some point in the recent past, Euodia and Syntyche had served alongside Paul in ministry, and also alongside each other, but they now find themselves on opposite sides of an issue.  Though we aren't told what the particular issue is, the dispute itself helps us understand two things.

First, maintaining unity and reconciliation with each other are perpetual exercises until we see Jesus.  Because we are all sinners, we will for a lifetime encounter situations that require us to reconcile with each other over something.  Conflict will always exist on this side of eternity, so we must always be aware of it, and working through it together.

Second, the problem between Euodia and Syntyche isn't mentioned, because the problem itself isn't the issue.  The issue is that there are two sisters in Christ at odds with each other in a way that threatens the unity of the body of Christ at Philippi. So Paul says to them "agree in the Lord."

When conflict exists in the church, many times the issue isn't the issue.  The issue rather, is a broken relationship that God wants reconcilled

Embrace Each Other.  A word that is getting a lot of use in our day is the word "tolerance."  Admittedly, tolerance is a good thing, because it helps maintain a level of "peace" among civilizations.  But Paul is calling the church here to a much higher goal than mere "tolerance."  Tolerance is what I give to the TSA every time I get on an airplane so that I can maintain my Christian testimony in the airport, and not get arrested!  But Paul has something much more significant in mind when he describes the relationship we are supposed to have with our church family.  We know this primarily because what he says is filled with the theme of joy.

He tells us to "rejoice" and then immediately follows it up with a warning against anxiety.  All sorts of things cause anxiety in our lives--heavy traffic, financial difficulty, job loss, sickness, and a general unease about the future.  The world we live in provides us unlimited opportunities to be anxious, and Paul's larger point is that the church should be the one place where our anxiety level goes down, not up!

When that happens, the result isn't "tolerance" or detente, its a true "peace" that comes only from God that the world can't understand.  It's a peace that has been promised to His people, but we will never find it until we learn to embrace each other as the brothers and sisters we are.

See the Best in Each Other.  Dr. Ellinore Kinarthy says that the average person has more than 200 negative thoughts a day.  And every religious system in the world has some way of trying to help its adherents deal with the negative.  In most eastern religions, the answer is seen to be "meditation" that involves an emptying of the mind.  But here's the thing:  your mind is never a blank slate!  And since there is always something in there, Paul tell us to ensure that our minds are disciplined to think of truth, purity honor, justice, beauty, and compassion.  "Think on these things," he tells us, and then put them into practice in the church.

Simply put, its easy to see the worst in people--and its true, we are fallen and all of us have some really bad things happening in our hearts and lives.  But the larger point is powerful:  When you look at your brother or sister in Christ, before anything else we should see the image of God.

How will we know that has happened?  One powerful indicator will be when you can look at the person in our church who is least like you and see the work of God's grace in them.

We are the people of God, who have a clear mission from God.  And, we have a peace from God that world can't replicate that is available to us.  Let's joyfully "agree in the Lord" and move forward together!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Four Ways to Know if Your Church is Out of Touch

"We want to reach our community!"  In 24 years of ministry, I've never served or consulted with a single congregation that didn't say this.  But for too many churches, they just weren't getting it done.

For many years, church leaders have attended conferences, listened to church growth "experts," and copied strategies that were successful in other contexts in the hope that the result would be people coming to Christ and communities being impacted.  But too often, the most critical piece of the puzzle wasn't even considered.

Too many churches are implementing "strategies" that have little to no connection to their community.  This is because too many churches are completely out of touch with their surrounding community.

How do you know if your church has lost touch?  Over the years, I've observed four primary indicators:

1. The members of the congregation aren't from the community.  Driving through a not-yet-gentrified area of Louisville Kentucky years ago, we saw prostitutes on the corner, witnessed people entering the local crack houses, and sensed the obvious presence of darkness.  But once we turned into the church parking lot, we saw a Lexus, parked next to a Mercedes, which was in turn parked next to a Cadillac.

Those who had been members of this church for decades claimed they wanted to reach this community.  But the community had drastically changed over the years, and the church members no longer lived there!  They understood nothing of the poverty and addiction that surrounded them, and had no personal desire to envelope themselves in the lives of "those people," but they fully expected the community to   come into a facility, structure, and approach to ministry that was totally foreign to them.  If no one from your church lives in the community, it may be time to relocate your church, and give the building back to believers who actually live there.

2. Church meetings don't include substantive discussion of the community.  It was a three hour business meeting that included a lot of very important issues: what should the worship service look like?  How should we structure ourselves?  And of course, "who is going to be in control?"  But for 180 minutes, this dying church said nothing about Jesus, or the community that surrounded them.

If you spend more time analyzing the church than you do serving the community your church was put there to serve, its a sure sign your church is completely out of touch.

3. There is no link between church ministries and the common concerns of your community.  The church was seriously considering spending $3 million on a brand new, state-of-the-art "family life center," complete with a full-sized gymnasium, free weights and nautilus equipment, and aerobics classes.  Problem was, no one had considered that there was already a $15 million facility just across the street that provided all those things already--and did so in a way the church would never be able to compete with.

Too often, churches start food pantries, ministries for single moms, recovery ministries, divorce care, financial counseling, and a thousand other things without so much as asking a single person from the community what the needs are.   A church that truly serves its community listens to its community, connects community needs with its own ministries, and those ministries with the Gospel.

4. Community Transformation isn't part of the vision.  When I teach church planting courses, one of the assignments always includes the students assembling an initial strategy plan for a new church that includes community analysis, vision, mission, and an overview of the first 18 months.  And I warn the students that if the vision stops with a picture of the church, they will have earned a failing grade!

Church is essential to the mission.  In fact, without the church, there is no true mission!  But though the church is necessary, it is not ultimate.  God's Kingdom is ultimate, and the result of any effective church that is aware of its surroundings is a community that reflects more of the Kingdom of God.  How will the community look different 10 years from now if your church is truly obedient to Jesus.  If you haven't answered that question, then whatever you have described isn't vision.  If you've never asked the question in the first place, your church may be completely out of touch.