Monday, May 30, 2016
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
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
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.
Monday, May 16, 2016
In too many churches, this is how "success" is judged. With no clear objectives, they continue doing what they have always done, rightly celebrating any good things that come, but wrongly refusing to critique their trajectory or their accomplishments to ask the question "Are we headed in the right direction? Are we aiming for the right goal?"
In the first part of Philippians 3, Paul shared how his past informs his present ministry--including his ministry to the church at Philippi. As we close out chapter three, he begins to speak about where he is headed, and from his words come great encouragement to move forward together, and clear guidelines about how to move forward together.
The big idea is simple: Its hard to divide from each other when we are focused on a common goal rather than merely focusing on ourselves.
Move in the Right Direction. Verses 12-14 are a picture of forward movement, and the two steps toward effectively moving together well are clearly outlined here.
First, you have to know where you are starting from. Every church needs a picture of its current status that is realistic. Yes, one day we are headed to heaven together, and in heaven there won't be conflict, and the church will be pure and beautiful. But right now we aren't in heaven. We are on earth. And on earth, sometimes the church can be an ugly woman!
Paul understand that this is true not only for the church, but for himself. Similarly, we start by realizing and admitting that all of us are at a place of imperfection. All of us are still and will always be growing.
But to grow, we have to know where we are headed. Paul says to "forget what lies behind." which is another way of saying we need to deal with our past! These words aren't some trite instruction to push to the back of our minds things that have not been reconciled. They are words that command us to deal straightforwardly with each other so that we are able to truly leave things in the past. Once we do this we can "strain forward to what lies ahead." The imagery here is an athletic picture that would have reminded the Philippians of the Greek games. Paul employs it to describe himself and the church using all energy, strength and focus to aim toward a particular mark, which he describes as the "upward call of God in Christ Jesus." Again, we see clearly that our unifying theme is, and always will be the person and the work of Jesus.
We need to ask ourselves at every level, throughout every department, and in examining every ministry, "are people becoming more like Jesus?" This is how we know whether we are moving in the right direction.
Stay On Course. Ever been distracted? Sometimes its something as innocent as walking into another room, then immediately forgetting why you walked in there. But sometimes distractions can be serious. Texting while driving can result in people dying, for example. Even the most innocent distractions can be deadly. This is why verses 15 and 16 are Paul's way of saying "guys, don't just set the right course and direction. Be constantly checking yourself to ensure that you remain on course."
There are multiple ways that churches can be distracted. We can descend into endless theological debates about non-essential issues that keep us from our mission. We can fight over strategy and structure decisions. We can also be so incredibly busy paddling the boat or riding the stationary bike that we never stop and ask the simple question; "are we still heading in the right direction?"
Verse 15 also reveals that the source of our direction is God Himself. What He has given us to do is too important for us not to constantly ensure that we are on course.
We don't know exactly who these ungodly leaders are, but we do know from the closing verses of chapter three that they long to simply satisfy their own desires, and they are prideful people who "glory in their shame." That sort of posture can manifest itself in many harmful ways. It can take the form of immorality--a pastor or leader who can't keep his pants on or his hands out of the offering plate--or it can manifest itself in people who presume a veneer of godliness but are duplicitous. These kinds of leaders don't mind being divisive, underhanded, or doing anything else necessary for their own gain. They often lie, gossip, and jockey for power and position within the church. All of these actions Paul classifies as shameful behavior, and he warns the Philippians, "don't follow people like this, or you will be distracted from your mission."
These are solemn words we have to take seriously in our own day, because the wrong leaders will move us in the wrong direction. We serve a Savior who is coming back for us, and we serve His Kingdom, which we are all headed for. Keeping our focus on that mission requires leadership who understand this--men and women we can emulate without losing our focus. In the future, we want to raise up other godly men to be pastors and elders. We want to raise up godly men and women to be deacons, small group leaders, and spiritual guides in our church. That will require looking past divisive people, and examining the lives of potential leaders closely. The "upward call of God in Christ Jesus" requires no less.
This is our target and our mission--the upward call of God in Christ Jesus! Let's set our sights on it together, and push forward toward it with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, no matter what it costs.
Monday, May 09, 2016
Yesterday, we covered part 7 of a 10 part series moving through Philippians entitled "One Body." Throughout this letter, Paul repeatedly commands unity from the church. And as he opens Chapter Three, he makes a close connection between the lack of unity at Philippi and false teaching. It is in this connection that we find the essence of what it means to be a false teacher.
All of the major religions of the world--including a few perverted, dysfunctional forms of Christianity--use a system of "walls" to define their faith. In other words, if you want to be faithful to a religion, you must stay inside the "boundaries" of belief and action that have been prescribed by that religion. But that isn't what it means to be Christian. Following Jesus truly and purely is, at its essence, "joy in the Lord." That's how Paul describes it anyway. In short, if I'm tethered to Jesus, that's all that matters. I don't need "walls" or "boundaries" because I am tied to Him, and so long as I respect and find all my joy in that relationship, it will keep me from crossing inappropriate, sinful boundaries.
But false teachers aren't satisfied with that. Their desire is to build walls and boundaries, and insert those boundaries between Christ and His followers. The end result is that faith then stops becoming about a relationship with Jesus, and becomes about the boundaries. This is precisely what was happening at Philippi through a group known as the "Judaizers." These men taught that to truly follow Christ one had to submit to the Mosaic requirement of circumcision. Paul's response to this was strong and clear, and he associates false teaching with the division happening in Philippi for five reasons.
It Creates a False Faith. Paul teaches us here that true believers "put no confidence in the flesh." The false teaching at Philippi had some convinced that something needed to be added to their faith in Christ in order for them to become "real Christians." But the truth of the Gospel is that faith alone in Christ is all you need. There is nothing you can do with your body, your works, your efforts, your vote, your relevance or your experience that can make God love you more than He already does. Christ is enough.
It Creates a False Confidence. As we look at verses 4 and 5 we are starting to get into a bit of Paul's own personal testimony. Truly, if good works, religious rites, ethnic identity or Scripture memorization contributes in any way to salvation, Paul wouldn't have needed Jesus.
No one hates addiction more than the former addict. No one hates sexual sin more than the person who has lost his or her marriage because of it. And no one hates religion more than the person who has been delivered from its enslavement. Here, Paul is telling the Philippians and us "I hate what the Judaizers are teaching, I hate this false faith, because I used to be a follower of it!"
Nothing destroys unity in a church like false confidence in something other than Jesus. Such arrogance inevitably creates two groups of people in the church. The first group are actually foolish enough to think they are keeping the law all by themselves. They become arrogant, proud and judgmental. The second group feel defeated because they are honest enough with themselves to admit that they will never meet the standard. In churches with this false teaching, the first group ascend into positions of leadership, and they lord over and spiritually abuse the second group. Its a truly sick thing to observe, which is why Paul hates it.
And by the way, God hates it too!
It Creates a Dangerous Zeal. Paul was so sure of himself and his own righteousness that he felt obligated to hunt down, detain and kill those who disagreed with him. Today, we have a term for that kind of activity. We call it terrorism. Prior to his conversion, Paul would have made an excellent candidate for ISIS.
That's what flesh-based faith does. It takes secondary issues and makes them primary. It creates a false zeal that harms others. But it also does something far worse. It damns the false teachers themselves.
It Creates a False Person. The last verses of this section describe the powerful story of Paul's conversion. Up until He meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, his entire identity has been lost in his religious system! But Jesus sets him free on his way to Syria, and in that moment, everything Paul though he knew was re-engineered around the person and work of Jesus Christ.
But prior to that moment, Paul was like a lot of religious people today. Religious people can do a lot of damage to others, but the greatest damage they can do is to themselves. And too many people in the church today are so lost in their own religious systems, preferences, practices and ancillary beliefs, they don't even know who they are anymore!
It Keeps you from the real thing. Paul had to lose everything in order to "know Him in the power of His resurrection." And the ultimate reward for that is the "resurrection of the dead" he mentions in verse 11. He is referencing that final day when the spiritually dead and spiritually alive are forever separated. On that day, if you are putting your confidence in barriers, walls, rules, regulations, or other works of the flesh, you will not be resurrected.
These are serious implications, and they should prompt each of us to ask two questions:
1. What is keeping you separated from your church family? Do you need to repent of self-righteousness that has caused division in the body?
2. What is keeping you from Christ? What are you unwilling to lay down to seize Him as the ultimate prize? That is a more serious question, because if you get this one wrong, your religion will send you to hell.
The close connection between division and false teaching should scare us all enough to know the truth, and let it drive us together in unity, as we all continue to pursue Jesus.
Monday, May 02, 2016
Being subjected to a "horrible boss" is exhausting, depressing, and mind-numbing. But the worst kind of leader is the divisive leader--the manager, team leader, or even pastor or small group leader whose modus operandi is to lead through division. For the past several weeks, we have been studying Paul's letter to Philippians, and focusing on the theme of unity. We've learned some hard but valuable lessons along the way regarding what it takes for a church to achieve the kind of unity Paul speaks of--the kind Jesus prayed for in John 17.
But as Chapter 2 comes to a close, Paul gives us a glimpse of a different kind of leader--a leader who unifies. And through his praise of Timothy and Epaphroditus, we see four clear characteristics of the kind of leaders every church needs to seek and submit to if they truly want unity.
1. Selflessness. Paul gives his highest commendation when he says "there is no one like Timothy." This compliment is particularly noteworthy when compared with others Paul doesn't name, but describes as "those who seek their own interests." Epaphroditus likewise, in spite of what was apparently a serious illness, continued to think primarily about his church family back in Philippi, ad pushed through in order to complete the task given him by the church When the church seeks leaders, it should seek those who are always thinking of others.
2. Faithfulness. Paul described Timothy as having "proven worth." In other words, Timothy had a track record of faithfulness! The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and Paul knows this, so he says of both these men "I trust them, and you can trust them too because they have already proven themselves through their actions." The best leaders are those with a track record of faithfulness that says "I will always be there for my church family."
3. Teachability. The relationship between Paul and Timothy was very much like a "father-son" relationship. And it is apparent from what we read here that Timothy continued to learn much from Paul. Though he was a mature pastoral leader himself, Timothy remained a life-long learner, and was always willing to submit to godly authority. Unteachable people make horrible leaders because they want to be in authority without being under it. All of us need accountability and humility that keeps us from assuming "I know this. I have it figured out. I don't need anyone telling me what to do." Those who bring unity to a church by heir leadership are teachable.
4. Kingdom-focused. Of Epaphroditus in particular Paul says he did what he did "for the work of Christ." This is what keeps a real leader going. Can't you imagine that somewhere along that 1600 mile, round-trip journey, Epaphroditus wondered to himself, "is this really worth it? Good grief! I'm just carrying supplies, and I almost died from it!" I imagine quite a few followers of Jesus sometimes feel the same way when they are charged with doing something that seems mundane. But think about this: Paul is sending this man back to the church with the letter we are now studying 2000 years later! Had Epaphroditus not completed this "mundane" journey, you and I might have had 65 rather than 66 books in our Bibles.
My point? When you serve Jesus, however you are serving Jesus, it is of immense importance and there is nothing mundane about it--even if it seems that way!
Serving in KidMIN might seem mundane and meaningless, until you recognize that you are raising up the next generation of men and women who will take the reigns of leadership in less than 20 years--and one of them might even be our next pastor! If you serve in the parking lot--especially in this unusually cold weather we've been having--you might wonder if its worth it. But if you have read the statistics, you know people are more likely to return to the church because of what they experience in the first 10 minutes after leaving their car than they are because of the worship, or the preaching.
Absolutely nothing done in the name of Jesus is meaningless.
Those who realize this and model selflessness, faithfulness, teachability, and a Kingdom focus are the sort we should all be looking for when selecting those who will help lead us into a unified future. Education is a great asset. Experience is also beneficial. But either of those divorced from the measurable characteristics Scripture describes only leads to arrogance and self-centerdness in a leader. You can educate the ignorant, and give the novice experience. But you can't fix bad character. So as we move forward together, we will be examining that aspect much more closely, and in light of the examples we have here in two godly men from the first century.
So if this letter were being written today to Covenant rather than Philippi, would you get a mention? If so, what would be said about you? Would you be described as faithful? Or would you be numbered among those who seek their own interests?
What do you want to be said about you?