Monday, March 28, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: Easter Changes Everything!

The early church began as an offshoot of Judaism.  So it was a very big deal when they changed their primary day of worship from the "Sabbath Day" to the first day of the week.  But the early Christians made the move, and did so for one reason--the resurrection!

In that sense, Christians consider every Sunday to be "resurrection Sunday."  But yesterday was Easter--the day we set aside on the Christian calendar that demonstrates us to be truly crazy.  Yes, we believe a dead man rose from the dead 2000 years ago, is still alive, and is coming again.  When such an audacious claim is made, there can only be one of two explanations.  One is that there is some sort of mass hysteria that is causing hundreds of millions of people around the world to give into a delusional psychosis.

The other explanation is equally simple:  that it actually happened.

Don't want to believe it?  Well, you are in good company, because neither did the first disciples.  Luke 24 records their walk along the road to Emmaus when they first encountered Jesus after He had been crucified two days before, and their response gives new meaning to the word "cynical."

We've all been there.  "Fool me once," the old saying goes, "shame on you.  But fool me twice, and its shame on me."  The world is full of people who have seen more than their share of dissapointment, and aren't about to allow themselves to be victimized again.  That's pretty much the attitude assumed by Jesus' first disciples.  But the lesson they learn in their encounter with Jesus is that His resurrection changes absolutely everything!

It changes personal expectation into providential hope.  The disciples made clear to Jesus that they had unmet expectations.  The expected that He would free Israel, kick out the Roman occupiers, and maybe even install a few of them into high level offices.  So focused are they on their disappointment, that Jesus joins them on their journey, and they can't even see Him!

One of the saddest things that can be said of a person is that greatness passed by and they missed it.  Is God doing something incredible in your life, but you can't see it because you are focused instead on what you didn't get?  We are far too easily discouraged.

It changes cynicism into trust.  Here is Jesus, risen from the dead, walking among them.  How do they not see this?!?!  That's what cynicism will do to you.  The world kicks you around to the point that you have hardened yourself, and don't want to believe anything anymore.  You are afraid to accept any good news at all, because you have an inherent fear that you will discover its not true.

The resurrection can change all of that.  After finally realizing who was walking with them, the disciples say "did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road?"  Nothing gets rid of cynicism like a once dead man showing up unannounced!

It turns washed-out people toward the Word of God.  These men are done!  Complete exhaustion by trial.  What they have been through the past two days is a world away from a long line at Wal-Mart, a bad day on the golf course, or unexpected traffic that makes them late.  When Jesus died, they watched their dreams die with Him.  Everything they were living for was crushed--or at least they thought so.

But Jesus responds by taking them back to His Word--reminding them that all of this was part of God's plan to redeem for Himself--a plan He had spoken about through His prophets for thousands of years.

If times are hard, don't wash out.  Don't give up.  Instead, turn to the Word of God and read of the Israelites escaping an inescapable situation.  Read about these Emmaus-bound disciples who encounter a guy they just saw die two days ago, now walking right beside them.  And remember that God never goes back on His Word!

Years ago, an S-4 submarine was rammed by a ship just off the coast of Massachusetts.  The sub sank immediately, leaving the entire crew trapped in a prison of death.  Every effort was made to rescue the crew, but all ultimately failed.  Near the end of the ordeal, divers went down one last time to see if there was an option they had missed.  One heard tapping coming from the inside wall of the sub.  Putting his head against the hull, he recognized the Morse code coming from a sailor on the other side----"is there any hope?"

That's exactly how the disciples felt.  Its how many people feel today.  But Jesus is risen, and that changes everything!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Islam, Muslims, and the Importance of Knowing the Difference

"I've never met Islam.  I think Islam owes me $5.  But apparently Islam hates America, which is fascinating."  -Wajahat Ali

"Islam is a diverse religion with many expressions, though unfortunately there is a demonstrable tendency among Muslims to assume only one legitimate interpretation of Islam"  -Nabeel Qureshi

Prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on our country, few people in the west gave much thought to Islam.  Most non-Muslim Americans were aware of their fellow Muslim citizens, but because they kept their distance and never really got to know them, they had summarily stereotyped their understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Islam.

After 9/11, rather than seeking to understand through relationships, many Americans just added a suicide vest to that stereotype.  Too many of this year's Presidential candidates have jumped on that bandwagon with suggestions that range from monitoring American mosques to special ID badges for Muslim citizens.  And all of this is fueled by the generalized assumption that "Islam hates the west" or "Islam's values are antithetical to America's values."  These are strange statements to the many Muslims who have lived peacefully among us for many decades now.  I have a friend who served as a Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush, who currently works with an organization that promotes global religious freedom.  He has been a devout Muslim his entire life.

In December while at a meeting in Washington I met a former Ambassador who served during the Reagan administration--also a devout Muslim. Fighting back tears, her concern was obvious.  "I don't recognize my own country any more," she said.  I have another dear Muslim friend, a young professional with a wife and young child who is building a quiet life in the country for his family.  He is pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-business, and believes in small, limited government.  And just recently he told me "I'm a Republican, but I fear voting for one this year might be voting for my own extermination."  I could go on, but these stories alone should demonstrate that Islamophobia is alive and well.  That national tension was exponentially increased with this week's ISIS attacks in Belgium.  The temptation to assess based on fear is understandable, but dangerous to our civil discourse, and for those who follow Jesus, it is simply antiChrist.

As an Evangelical pastor, I'm not particularly fond of Islam--not because I believe it is a threat to national security, but because I believe it endangers the soul.  But I know and walk in relationship with numerous Muslims, and I love every one of them.  Some of them have become like brothers to me, and in watching those relationships develop I've learned many valuable lessons.  But perhaps the most important lesson is this:  Islam is a highly diverse religion, practiced in at least three "denominational" expressions among more than 1.7 billion people worldwide.  Any religion with that many adherents can't simply be painted into a simplistic corner.  In fact, the best way to understand isn't to read a book about Islam, but to simply get to know your Muslim neighbor. In other words, if we want to have a meaningful conversation about what is transpiring in our world, we have to distinguish between "Islam" and "Muslims."  There are several reasons for this:

1. Faith is not a Monolith.  Think of the difference between an Eastern Orthodox Priest in Armenia, and a Pentecostal preacher in Alabama.  Both are "Christian."  But they don't look or sound very much like each other, do they?  That same sort of diversity exists within Islam.  My Turkish Muslim friends in Baltimore are anything but identical to my friend in Hagerstown who is a Burmese Imam.  Faith is a very personal thing to devout Muslims, and beyond the "five pillars" you will find a wide degree of opinion on a large number of issues.  Just ask them!

2. Systems are not People.  There are numerous Catholics who are on the pill.  Multitudes of Baptists consume alcohol regularly.  I have a Reconstructionist Rabbi friend who will not refuse a good slice of ham.  In this regard, Islam is no different.  Once you actually get to know the people who call themselves "Muslim" you discover numerous opinions on everything from shellfish to alcohol to head coverings
3. History is not Theology.  In recent years, an understandable question has emerged regarding which Islam is the "true" Islam?  While I sympathize with this curiosity, as a Christian theologian I have to refuse the premise of that question.  For Christians, our faith is rooted in and dependent upon the death and bodily resurrection of the Jesus of history (among other things).  But to appeal to "true Islam" by seeking its historical roots is, in my view, to commit a two-fold error.  First, doing so assumes an historical timeline that bears the same validity as our own faith, and I simply reject that.  But additionally, seeking to trace the historical roots of Islam in order to ferret out its "real" theology is to ignore that Muslims themselves worldwide rarely connect the two.  Though Muhammad is revered by all, his life, beliefs, and actions are understood very differently even within the Muslim world.  It is, therefore, unfair of us to ascribe a belief system to our Muslim neighbors that is rooted in an understanding of Islamic history they themselves may reject.

4. Lecturing isn't listening. I was 12,000 miles from home, sitting with my wife across the table from the only other white people in a Chinese city of more than 2 million.  The husband--an Indianapolis police officer--asked me what I did for a living, and when I said "I'm a Baptist pastor," he responded with the only reference point he had--Westboro "Baptist" Church, and said "so you are the folks who hate gay people?"

Feel that sting?  That's the same sting your Muslim neighbors feel when you lecture them about what they "really" believe.  So just don't do it.

Too many Christ followers make generalized claims such as "well, if they were really following the Koran they wouldn't be so 'peaceful.'"

I'm really thankful that when most non-Christians read Exodus 31:12-15, Leviticus 20:10, Numbers 21:34-35, Joshua 10:40, 1 Samuel 15:2-3, or any of the other 842 violent passages in Scripture, they give me the benefit of the doubt. Some even allow me the courtesy of explaining where these passages fit within the larger context of my faith.   I think we owe our Muslim neighbors the same courtesy with regard to Sura 2.  I'm not even saying their interpretation is the right one.  But let's allow them to tell us what they believe.  They can't do that if we are lecturing instead of listening.

Instead, get to know them, assume you really don't know what they believe--because you don't.  Ask questions.  Have a conversation.  Get to know each other.

There is much fear in our culture, but followers of Jesus who walk in the Spirit don't walk in fear (2 Timothy 1:7).  So let's stop talking about "Islam" and get to know a few Muslims.  For one, we have a mandate to share our faith--a topic most of them are eager to discuss.  But even if they never believe as we do, there is a pretty good chance that a deep friendship will result that will bless you both.

It also happens to be an excellent way to defeat terror and bigotry at the same time.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: All, Always, and Only About Jesus

Yesterday, we finished up part two of our ten week series "One Body."  If you were asked to describe the "one thing" that holds the church together, what would it be?

In the opening 11 verses of Philippians, Paul describes a number of things that unite us, but yesterday, we looked at the "one thing" under which our faith, service, love for each other and trust in each other must meet, and that is our common identity in Jesus.  There are three ways this common identity empowers us to move forward together.

1. It Gives Us Perspective.  Among the Philippians there was apparently a fear that Paul's imprisonment would slow down the forward progress of the Gospel.  Paul counters that fear with some very bold words.  He clams his imprisonment has actually been used by God to advance the Gospel!

I have to be honest here.  I'm not sure if I was in prison whether I would have Paul's same outlook.  But if that day ever comes and I'm unable to look at that circumstance the way Paul looked at his, it won't be because Paul didn't clearly tell me how here.  This is a guy who, after leaving Philippi, had experienced a riot, threats on his life, a combined two years in jail, an appeal to Caesar, a shipwreck, and is not imprisoned again and awaiting trial.  In the face of all that, a number of the correctional officers who were guarding him had come to faith in Christ, and that faith had spread to a number of others throughout the Praetorian guard.  It's as if Paul is saying to the church; "You think I'm chained to these guys, but the reality is, they are chained to me!"

What's the point?  Simply, that nothing can stop the advance of the Gospel!  That perspective will give us something else.

2. It Gives Us Courage.  No one likes to live through hard times.  But the witness of Scripture (and if we are honest, the witness of people we know) tell us that hard times in the life of a believer usually results in a bold witness.

Think about it.  What moves you the most?  What motivates your faith the most?  Is it watching a TV preacher who seems to "have it all together," flies around on a private jet and wears $1000 suits?  Or is it that brother or sister in Christ you know is suffering, but remaining faithful to Jesus?  I have never been more challenged in my own faith than when a member of my church family responds to suffering with the words of Psalm 73: "Whom have I in heaven but you?  And on earth there is nothing I desire besides you.  My heart and my flesh [i.e. my job, my family, my health] may fail, but you are the strength of my life and my portion forever!

There is nothing about a life of luxury promised in the false "prosperity Gospel" that builds courage.  The World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker said it well.  "Courage is doing what you are afraid to do.  There can be no courage unless you are scared."

Believing this is necessary because otherwise, when we are faced with bad situations, our temptation will be to think "when my situation changes I will be able to serve God again."  The truth is we all have everything we need right here and right now!  Our church doesn't need a bigger platform, more people, or more money to be faithful to Jesus.  And if Paul can empower and coordinate the global communication of the Gospel from a prison cell, you and I have everything we need already.

The only thing lacking is courage.

3. It Gives Us Focus.  Paul apparently had a number of fellow preachers who didn't like him very much.  We are spared the details of why this is, but what we hear loud and clear from the Apostle is "whatever their motivation, I'm happy they are preaching the Gospel, and I don't have time to be bitter or think about retaliation."

This is a great example for us, especially when we are faced with brothers and sisters in the church that we don't always agree with, or people in our church family that rub us the wrong way.  In those moments, if we can manage to lift our eyes above our differences and toward our common goal of making Jesus known, we get a wider understanding of what God is doing through us all!

A.W. Tozer said that if you have 100 pianos all tuned to the same fork, they are automatically tuned to each other.

We, as the body of Christ, are truly one body when we find our common identity in the person and work of Jesus.  It is all, only, and always about Him!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: What Holds Us Together

Yesterday, we started a brand new series entitled One Body.  Because our culture champions individualism, one of the darker elements of that mindset we have to avoid is thinking of the church in an individualistic manner.

For example, if you find when speaking of your church family that you use the singular "I' or "me" more than "we" or "us," you may need a good, healthy dose of what Paul offers in his letter to the church at Philippi.  For that reason, we are spending the next ten weeks moving verse by verse through Paul's letter to the Philippians.  This church, which was planted when Paul crossed the Aegean Sea in Acts 16, was a highly diverse reflection of of the port city in which it was located.  It's members included a wealthy owner of an import-export business, correctional officers, Greeks, Thyracians, blue collar port workers, and even a small number of Jews.

In other words, their diverse makeup was similar to our own congregation, which consists of white collar D.C. commuters, local business owners, public servants, University students, faculty, and administration, artists, and even rednecks!  Any time you have a congregation that diverse, unity is always a challenge.  This is because different backgrounds bring different points of view, opinions, cultures, and ways of looking at life.

But diversity was never intended by God to be a barrier to genuine unity.  Diversity is the richness of our human experience, and when we all find common ground under the Lordship of Jesus, such diversity makes for the most powerful kind of unity--because it is a unity governed by the mind of Christ.  Paul opens this letter describing for the people at Philippi--and us--the things that hold us all together, no matter who we are or where we come from.

1. Faith.  Paul's love for this church is revealed early, and its revealed strongly!  And the biggest reason for his love is the "partnership" he shared with the church.  From the very first contact with Lydia up until this moment, there has been an unbreakable bond, and its unbreakable because it is "in the Gospel."

If we all truly believe the Gospel, we won't be the kind of church that breaks up like a teenage garage band at the first sign of conflict.  For Paul, this meant neither the differences of opinion and arguments going on inside the church, or even his own imprisonment could shake the bond they shared.  Genuine faith is stronger than that!

2. Service.  Facing hardship together is a great cure for disunity and division.  For Paul, it was prison.  Can you imagine after receiving this letter how conversations leading to division might have been stopped?  I imagine someone probably said "hey guys, one of our own is in jail!  Is there really anything more pressing than that?"  Indeed, is there any conflict so great that we should let it overcome us and keep us from seeing the more important things?  When we work together with a focus on our common mission, that service does much to hold us together.

3. Love.  Paul expresses a deep love for the church, but as we will see later in the letter, this isn't a romanticized "love" that always feels good and is always pleasant.  A love that never offends anyone, or never makes anyone feel uncomfortable isn't real love.  In fact, we in the west have romanticized away everything about genuine love that makes it so powerful!  The genuine love that challenges for the good of the other is what Paul will model throughout this letter, and its a fantastic glue that holds God's people together on mission.

4. Trust.  Paul's desire here is that the love he is expressing through the letter be replicated in the church, and that it create the kind of intimate knowledge of each other that allows us to make moral distinctions.  Trust requires that we see clearly the good, bad, and ugly in each other so that we can make each other better and grow together toward Jesus.  But that can't happen if we don't trust each other!

5. Destination.  Yes, we are all going to heaven together, but Paul has something else in mind as we approach verse 11.  Namely, together is how we reach the goal of becoming more like Jesus.  This always happens in the context of church community.  There are no solitary routes to becoming like Jesus.  And this is why you need your church family.  We need each other.

The late evangelist Dwight L. Moody said "There are two ways of being united.  One is by being frozen together, and the other is by being melted together."  I think that's a pretty good picture of our choices.  Covenant Church can have a union that is cold and shallow--a union that centers around organizational documents, buildings, membership roles, and a budget.  It doesn't have to be any deeper than that.  But that's not what God wants for us!  If we truly love each other, we will aspire to the picture Paul draws for us in these first 11 verses.  Those are the things that will "melt" us together into a genuine unity.  That kind of unity, when grounded in the Gospel, is inseparable.  And as we continue this series for the next nine weeks, its exactly the kind of unity I'm praying for--for all of us.

Will you join me?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

What Small Church Pastors and Andy Stanley Can Learn from Each Other.

Hopefully the headline didn't chase too many people off.

Last week, Andy Stanley, Lead Pastor of Northpoint Church which meets in multiple locations throughout the metro Atlanta area, said something very discouraging to many smaller church pastors. While preaching to his own congregation and praising the way the church had invested in his own life, Stanley apparently went off-script for a bit to berate anyone with children who would keep them in a small church.

The rant climaxed with this declaration by the Atlanta mega-church pastor:

If you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough middle schoolers and high schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people and grow up and love the local church. Instead… you drag your kids to a church they hate, and then they grow up and hate the local church. 

On this subject, there really is no room for nuance.  What he said was really, really stupid.  Seriously, there was just no excuse for it.  It was simply boneheaded.  But Andy Stanley knows this, admitted it, apologized, and has since done an interview with Christianity Today to further explain himself.  It takes a big man with a lot of humility to do that, and I'm thankful for it.

I've learned an awful lot from Andy Stanley over the years, and there have also been things he has said that have highly discouraged me.  While planting my first church, I read a book he co-wrote with Texas pastor Ed Young Jr.  It was full of ideas our church just couldn't afford--ideas that had been cooked up on a Caribbean island they had visited together that I couldn't afford to get to.  I never finished reading it.

Fast forward many, many years.  I'm now serving as a professor teaching Doctoral students, and my most recent syllabus contains Stanley's book Deep and Wide on the required list for a Contemporary Issues class.  Why?  Because I find that looking into Stanley's ministry philosophy--whether or not I would approach ministry in exactly the same way--to be very helpful and challenging.

I share that piece of personal history as a way of illustrating that like many smaller church pastors who felt the unmerciful sting of Stanley's remarks, I too have been wounded by him.  But I've also been highly encouraged by him.  And more than a few times, the people I minister to have been the beneficiaries of practical wisdom that came from one of his books.

My point is simply that at heart, Andy Stanley is very much like all the rest of us in ministry.  He just happens to have the misfortune of a MUCH bigger and brighter spotlight.  So when he says something that unintentionally wounds a smaller church pastor who is slugging it out in the trenches, and is then man enough to own his mistake, it might be a good idea for all of us--regardless of the size of our churches--to learn some lessons.

1. All pastors say stupid things.  Only Scripture is inspired and inerrant.  Pastor's mouths are not--not by a long shot!  In 24 years, there have been more than a few times I have declared with authority something I found out later the Bible gave me no authority to declare.  A few times, I've had to stand in front of the people I pastor and apologize for misrepresenting God and His Word.

In other words, I can identify with Andy Stanley, because I too, have said a LOT of stupid things while preaching.  I credit providence for the fact that my earlier sermons aren't stored away in cyber-space--since my ministry began way before the day of the podcast.  Today, nearly everything I publicy say or write usually ends up on the internet, but I'd like to think I'm a little wiser in my 40s.

But that doesn't mean I won't say something stupid this coming Sunday. (although God willing, I'll be able to resist being an idiot).  We all say things that sometimes we have to retract.  That's something pastors of churches of ALL sizes have in common.

2. Most pastors suffer from "size myopia."  Andy Stanley has never, ever ministered in a small church.  That doesn't make him a bad guy.  It just means that from the standpoint of experience, he has no real reference point for what it is like to be the guy who preaches and prints the bulletins and takes out the trash and stacks the chairs.  He himself will admit that he is not a "church planter" in the truest sense of that term.  Northpoint's "core group" started with 450 people.  That's more than 5 times the size of the average congregation in North America.

This myopia explains a lot.  Our family spent 11 years at the same church where my wife and kids worshiped while I drove or flew all over the country and the world preaching in other places.  During that time, my kids--ALL of my kids--grew in their faith at a church that was never larger than 150 people.  They cried when they learned their Dad was going to be a pastor again because they loved our small church family, and didn't want to leave it.  Now they attend the church I pastor--a large one with the very kind of structure Stanley contends is necessary so they won't "hate the church," and they love it too!  My own family is living proof that the size of the church has very little to do with whether your kids will grow in their faith.

When Stanley assumes that kids will hate church if they go to a small one, I can counter that assumption with my own kids!  But I don't expect him to understand that because again, he has no reference point for it.  All he has ever known his entire life is large churches.

But if we are honest, most small church pastors have to admit that they too suffer from size myopia.  If all you have ever known is a small church environment, you don't have a reference point for Andy's world either.  I've repeatedly heard the stereotypical critique of the "mega church" by many small church pastors who assume that every mega church pastor is a spoiled rock star who is only concerned about his own "brand."  Problem is, I've met many of these guys, and with few exceptions (yes, some of them are total jerks, but so are a few small church pastors I know!) they are godly men with a vision for the Kingdom that is sorely needed in our culture.

Last week, Andy Stanley spoke out of ignorance.  Given his willingness to own his mistake, let's not respond with more ignorance.  The myopia on both sides could be easily cured if we were willing to learn from each other.

3. A few pastors are big enough men to admit it.  A couple of years ago I was consulting with the pastor of a large church with a budget of just over $4 million.  During that conversation he described how financially tight the chruch was, and told me "Joel, some weeks I wonder if I will even get paid!"

A couple of hours later I was sitting with several church planters in a coaching session.  One of those planters, whose church budget was around $75,000, told me "Joel, some weeks I wonder if I will even get paid."  He was shocked to learn that a large church pastor had, in the same day, told me exactly the same thing!

The thing is, when you have a $4 million budget, its because you also probably have $4 million in liabilities to cover, and tight financial margins feel the same no matter how large you are! (Actually, the pressure is greater in the large church, because so many more people are depending on your leadership)  We don't need more churches of one size or the other.  What we need are men godly and humble enough to admit that we all struggle, we all occasionally say stupid things, and we are all limited by our own experienes and points of view.

Jesus loves the grand mega-churches of Korea that make our mega-churches look small!  Jesus also loves the hidden house churches of China.  He loves the large, vast auditoriums full of people growing in their faith.  He loves the small building built by volunteers who worship there each week. He loves the networks of house churches led by tent-making leaders who are passionate about His truth.  Anywhere He is worshiped, His Word is taught, and His people are equipped to extend His Kingdom is a place and a people He looks at and smiles.

If Andy Stanley's recent gaffe can be the catalyst that drives us all to understand this more deeply, then I thank God for it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Three Reasons to Leave Your Pastor Alone Just Before He Preaches

There are many things I love about the people of Covenant Church, but one of them is the importance they place on the proclamation of God's Word.  That importance is communicated, among other ways, by the time and space they give me before I preach every Sunday.  I normally arrive at the church about an hour before our first service, and aside from a sound-check, I take that time to go over my message one last time, spend some time in prayer, and focus as best as I can on what I believe God wants to say to His people that week.  The folks at Covenant feel free to interact with me in between and after services, and talk about their problems, ask for prayer, and any manner of other things.  But before that first service, they tend to leave me alone.  I'm grateful for that.

I'm grateful for it because I haven't always been in environments like that.

I have served as pastor of two other churches prior to coming to Covenant, and during my time working for the denomination I served as interim or transitional pastor for eight other congregations.  In a few of those churches, a habit had formed of "rushing" the pastor just before the service started.  Generally speaking, one of two things were on the minds of those who said "Pastor, I need to talk to you now, before the service starts!"

Announcements:  Someone inevitably, and every Sunday, had missed the deadline for the submission for announcements, and wanted me to be sure and remember to mention the softball practice on Tuesday, or the Women's group on Thursday, or the leftover casserole in the fridge that somebody needed to claim before it was thrown out.  (Nope, I didn't make that up.  It actually happened!)

Problems:  The room was too hot--or too cold.  And usually, it was both on the same Sunday according to at least two different people.  The toilet in the men's bathroom is clogged.  Or, someone is really upset "about that thing you brought up last week."

I'm not minimizing the importance of either information, or the problems that people experience (well, not most of them at least).  But before you rush your pastor this coming Sunday with news that the women's group really wants Mrs. Myrtle publicly thanked for today's flowers, you might consider three reasons bothering him right before he preaches is a really bad idea.

1. It Wrecks His Focus.  Any pastor worth his salt takes the proclamation of God's Word seriously.  He wants to get it right because he respects the Bible, he loves God's people, and he knows that, at this moment, the greatest gift he can give the bride of Christ is an accurate, compelling, challenging Word from the living God.  When you approach him with a hand full of other things you want him to suddenly remember to do, his concentration on the Word is broken and his focus goes south, because very few people have the natural ability to mentally balance multiple issues of different content on the fly.  If you want a better sermon, a great way to start getting one is to cease wrecking the focus of the guy who is doing his best to bring it to you every week.

2. It Affects the Church. When the pastor loses his concentration, it affects his delivery, which in turn, also affects the attention span of the church.  This domino effect ends with the people of God not hearing from Him as clearly as they otherwise should have.  In short, when you rush the pastor for your own interests just before he preaches, your whole church family pays for it.

3. It's Just Not that Important.  During the worship hour, the primary aim is for God's people to hear from Him.  Though that happens in many ways, in the Protestant tradition we have contended (rightly, I believe) for the past 500 years that it primarily comes through the proclamation of His Word.  So before you rush the pastor right before the service just ask yourself, "Is this announcement/problem so important that it warrants the possible garbling of God's message to His people?"

Yeah, I didn't think so.

Most every pastor I have known is accessible when he is truly needed.  But when it comes to the pre-service rush with hoards of information to announce and problems to solve, give your pastor a break.  You and your whole church family will be better for it. 

Monday, March 07, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: Community

Yesterday, we finished up our "We are Covenant" series.  I hope it was both encouraging and clarifying for you.

We spoke for several weeks about where we find ourselves contextually as a church, what Jesus has called us to be, and how we should fulfill that calling.  But what we covered yesterday is an absolute necessity if we are to fulfill Jesus' vision.  We can't be effective at anything He calls us to do if we aren't doing it together.

Together.  Its a beautiful word, but living it out isn't easy because we are all different.  We have different tastes, different convictions, different ways of relating to each other, different ways of showing our love to each other, and all of these are fueled by different personalities.

So how on earth do we take the hundreds of people who are part of our church family--all different--and become ONE body?  We do it by emphasizing and living out Biblical community.

Another word for that is fellowship.  But when most Christians think of fellowship, they think of a long table full of casserole dishes full of delicious and unhealthy food.  But the Scriptures define community differently, and more deeply.  Community occurs when we love God's family with the love of God Himself--when our VERTICAL relationship with Him both defines and informs our HORIZONTAL relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

That is what we looked at yesterday.  And 1 John gives us a glimpse into what true community looks like.

1. Community Makes us More Like God.  The word "love" is very nebulous in our language. For example, I "love" my wife, my kids, my Harley, and Jesus--but obviously not all in the same way, or with nearly the same intensity.

Thankfully, the Greek language of the New Testament is more precise, and the word John uses here that we translate "love" has a more defined meaning.  The love we should have for each other is defined specifically as the very love that originates in God.  And when our church family has that kind of love for each other, the bond formed is so strong and powerful, it can't be avoided.

Conversely, if we don't love in this way, then we don't know His love.  But if we have His love, we are bonded together in a way that produces the unity we can then take to international students at Shepherd University, victims of trafficking, troubled kids who spent their formative years in horrible home situations, and others.  And we can provide for our community and the world something they can't find anywhere else!  Because in loving them in this way, they feel the presence of God.  But that love has to start in our midst--among each other!

2. Community helps us learn to get along.  When different people congregate together--especially when they do so in a church our size--"getting along" doesn't happen naturally.  It takes work!

Too many today conclude they don't want to invest too deeply and too emotionally in a church community because "I might get hurt."  The truth is, there is no "might" to it.  If you invest emotionally in anybody, eventually you will get hurt!  That happens because we are all imperfect, and in a sense, we are all, simultaneously both victims AND perpetrators of hurt.  This is because we all sin, and community is necessary for our sanctification (big word that means our character is gradually becoming more like God's character), and for the church on a group level

This is why John reminds us that community is commanded by Jesus.  Think about it for a moment.  Most likely, the worst emotional pain you have ever felt has come from those closest to you--your parents, your spouse, your children.  That's because the closer we are to each other, the more sin is revealed in our lives, and the more that sin exhibits itself in our relationships.  But just as we would never disown our families, we must also remain committed to each other.

In every church, there will be arguments, dissagreements, and difficulties to be worked out.  When we love each other through that process, the result is that we learn what true love really is.  And the sense of community that comes from taking those hard steps makes it worth the journey.

3. Community Helps Prepare Us for Eternity.  John isn't teaching that you get saved by loving other people.  But what he is saying is that if your conversion was genuine--if you genuinely love God with all your heart--one of the expressions of that genuine faith will be healthy, growing, mature relationships with your brothers and sisters in Christ.

But you can't claim a love for God if you don't also love those He created in His image and for whom He sent Jesus.

But here is the exciting part.  Practicing the kind of unifying community John describes in a world full of Gazas, Fergusons, political debates, and Syrias will reveal the power of the Gospel like nothing else.

And at the end of the day, that's really what matters.  In the future as your pastor, I'll be preaching about vision, mission, structure, systems, staffing, and of course, money.  Those are all real issues and our future is affected by viewing each of them in the right way.  But none of that really matters if, at the end of the day, we aren't a true community of faith.  Because no matter howlarge,  rich, slick, or well-organized we may become, without community it all evaporates at the first sign of conflict.

Here is the great news!  Covenant has many, MANY people who have seen conflict before, and they have already modeled community for us because they are still here.  We have much to learn from them!

And we can also continue to learn this principle from the Scriptures.  Next week, we launch from the subject of Biblical community to begin a new series entitled "One Body: A Study of Philippians."  How can a diverse group of people move as one?  How can we respect our differences, celebrate our diversity, and at the same time live in Gospel community together?

For the next ten weeks, we will learn how this happens from another highly diverse church that existed in the first century.  I look forward to seeing you there!

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Evangelicals and Donald Trump: Its not Him. Its Us.

Two days ago, the "Super Tuesday" elections seemed to solidify the already large lead of the current front-runner for the Republican nomination for President. Donald Trump has surprised nearly everyone, and if the trend continues, we are headed toward a Republican convention that will nominate him to face off with the Democratic nominee--presumably Hillary Clinton--in the November general election. 

It is truly sad that Donald Trump seems to be the best we can do.  It is sadder still that Trumps candidacy is enabled by prominent Christian leaders who seem to have forgotten the importance of character.  But it is tragic that Trump's road to the White House has been aided and abetted by such a large swath of voters who identify as followers of Jesus Christ.

In recent weeks, a number of folks have lamented this reality, including my friend Russ Moore.  The response from the "pro-Trump" evangelical community toward people like him, and people like me, has been less-than-friendly.  In some ways, I get it.  Your vote is a very personal thing, and sometimes its tough to get over the offense given when someone confronts you with the fact that you might not be making the wisest decision.

But the greatest frustration comes when this already dysfunctional conversation is further impeded by re-direction. Jerry Fallwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress have done it, and their re-direction tactics have been replicated multiple times by the evangelical electorate who are apparently offended in the reminder that character matters in a national leader. 

What follows are the most common examples of re-direction I have experienced in this conversation, along with my responses.  Those responses are meant to communicate that in the end, this conversation really isn't about Donald Trump at all.  Its about something much, much bigger.

We Aren't Electing a Pastor. 
Another way of expressing this is; "There is no religious test for the office of President."  Both Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Jr. have made this statement in a fashion dismissive of those who have challenged them regarding their support for Trump.  Both statements are usually followed by accusations that we expect the next President to be able to pass an ordination council examination in one of our churches.  Just today, Jeffress, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, TX, said those who refuse to support Trump if he is the nominee are "fools."

I know we aren't electing a pastor.  Actually, I'd prefer we NOT elect a pastor, which is why I didn't vote for Mike Huckabee or Pat Robertson in 2008.  (Its also why I throw up a little in my own mouth every time I see Robert Jeffress on a political stage of any kind, but I digress)  But pastors aren't the only people whose continued leadership should depend on their character.  I don't expect Donald Trump to be Christian.  But those who do follow Christ should think twice before putting their support behind anyone whose moral character isn't befitting that of a national leader.  You don't have to be a Christian to lead well.  But you must possess high character.

I don't expect the next President to install a baptismal pool in the White House.  But neither do I want a stripper pole in the Oval Office.  Character matters.  And when it comes to character, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  If Donald Trump's past behavior--his VERY RECENT past behavior--is any indication, we have no reason to trust him with the most powerful office in the world.  I'm not asking evangelicals for an ordination council prior to inauguration day.  But I am asking for a little consistency, which means that we hold the same posture toward character that we seemed to hold 20 years ago when the subject being discussed was an Arkansas Governor named Bill Clinton.

Why Are You Attacking Him?  Simply stating the facts of someone's life isn't an attack.  Its true that Trump is thrice married.  Its true that adulterous affairs have been the catalyst that ended his previous marriages.  Its true that he has bragged about those affairs.  Its true that his presence on the debate stage has turned an already-deficient venue into the political equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show.  Its true that he supports Planned Parenthood. 

Such statements aren't attacks.  They are warnings to the evangelical portion of our electorate that its time to sober up.

We are All Sinners.  Who are You to Judge?  Someone recently asked me if Donald Trump would be welcome at our church.  Apparently, this individual thought my pointing out Trump's character deficiency meant I wouldn't welcome misogynists, adulterers, and bombastic, rude bullies into our church.  "After all, we are all sinners." 

Yes, we are all sinners.  And yes, all sinners are welcome at the church I serve as pastor.  But welcoming them and enabling them are two different things.  If a convicted pedophile wants to join us in worship, he is most welcome.  If he tries to go within 10 meters of our kids area, he will be shown the door--VERY quickly.  The Shepherd's job is to protect his sheep. 

Likewise, were Donald Trump--or any other candidate for President--to show up one Sunday, they would be welcomed, and invited into the presence of God with the rest of us.  But when we are talking about the Presidency, we aren't talking about who is welcome at church are we?  We are talking about putting someone with a history of misogyny, crudeness, immorality, and the inability to control his temper into the most powerful office in the entire world. 

Its not judgmental to suggest that this is a really, really bad idea!

Its disgraceful to suggest he may not be a Christian!  Actually, its just being accurate.  A Christian, by definition, is a person who has turned from his or her previous life, confessed their sins, asked God's forgiveness, and accepted His pardon via the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus.  Trump, by his own admission, hasn't done this.

So contesting the bona fides of his conversion isn't an attempt to attack or disgrace him.  Its an attempt to guard the most wonderful, powerful, and eternally consequential message in all of human history from compromise.  As B.B. Warfield once said, "If everything that is called Christianity these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity.  A name applied indiscriminately to everything designates nothing."  

Moreover, no one who truly cares for Mr. Trump would be so ambiguous as to play the "its dangerous to judge someone else's faith" card.  The Scriptures are replete with commands--and examples--of the church making judgements about what is and isn't genuine faith, precisely because we care about eternal souls too much to watch them go to hell while whispering to ourselves "well, its not for me to judge."

Why aren't you attacking Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton)?  Nothing frustrates a preacher more than when he is addressing issues in a congregation, and instead of dealing with their issues, they redirect by complaining that you don't preach enough to the choir.  This particular objection is Exhibit A of what it means to employ re-direction as a tool to avoid the issue.

For one, Barack Obama isn't currently seeking re-election to the Presidency, and a soon-to-be past leader is hardly the concern of those who should rightly be focused on the future.

Second, the imperfections and even disqualifications of one candidate never justify looking past the disqualifying behaviors of another.  Personally, I'm no fan of Hillary Clinton.  But Clinton's liabilities don't excuse followers of Jesus from electing a buffoon to face her in the general election.

Third, no one aspiring to the 2016 Democratic nomination is in any way dependent on the "evangelical vote" to get them there.  Conversely, no one running for the GOP nomination will get that nomination without the support of evangelicals.

Simply put, if Donald Trump becomes the GOP nominee, American evangelicals will be largely responsible.  There is simply no excuse for this.

Why do you hate him?  I don't.  I'm not "against Trump."  I'm against those who claim to follow Jesus voting while wearing beer goggles.  Currently, the "Super Tuesday trend" could be reversed.  There are good men still in the race who could still be the party nominee. 

In short, this whole conversation actually has very little to do with Donald Trump, and everything to do with the integrity of what it means to be a follower of Jesus in America in 2016. 

It has to do with whether we value power more than we value truth.

It has to do with whether we are willing to justify ungodly behavior and link it to our faith.

It has to do with whether we are truly consistent when we say that people of high character matter.

It has to do with whether as worshippers of a resurrected, eternal Christ, we want to cling to a dying, temporary Caesar.

It has to do with whether we value nationalism so much that we are willing to betray the principles of God's eternal Kingom in order to make a temporary one "great again."

Trump caused neither the lack of discernment or the prioritizing of power over truth we are witnessing now among American Christians.  He is simply the result of it. 

Its not him.  Its us.