Thinking Out Loud

January 9, 2018

When Churches Become Self-Serving

Filed under: Christianity, Church, evangelism — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:49 am

Years ago I heard someone state, “Libraries aren’t made for the public, they’re made for librarians.” While some might object to that notion, there is a grain of truth, particularly in terms of the organization of the facilities, which often leaves those of us who haven’t memorized the Library of Congress classification system or the Dewey Decimal system asking for assistance.

Are churches any different?

Many times, especially around Labor Day Weekend in the U.S. or New Year’s Day, churches will get serious about appealing for volunteer help. And the pitch is always the same: Serve in our Sunday School; join our choir; lead one of our small groups. We’ve been there.

My wife and I visited a Presbyterian Church once and after the service ended, she was approached about joining the choir, without even an inclination as to whether or not she can sing. (She can and does.) There was no qualification if she considered herself a Christian, although I suppose visiting this church on a Sunday morning increased the odds.

More recently, a local Evangelical church wanted to replace traditional membership, with a form of covenant membership that would require one be involved in an area of service at the church in order to maintain that status. The problem is, many people in that church are involved with parachurch organizations based both in the community and nationally. They are already serving, just not within the confines of the congregation.

The problem is that this has no outward focus.

Furthermore, when we give, we’re subconsciously giving to ourselves. We are the beneficiaries of the programs the church offers. Our children attend the mid-week program and consume the resource materials and goldfish crackers. We show up Sunday night and consume the video material that’s part of an adult elective. We take notes during the preaching and sing with the worship team and consume what’s projected on the giant screen (and relayed to the baby/cry room; and later posted online.)

But at the first mention that some of our donations might be spent on projects in the broader community, or to a major overseas project, we bristle at the suggestion.

Surely, there are greater needs at home; and by home we mean within the church building. (“Lord, Bless me today and my spouse and our two children; us four, no more.”)

And then there’s the strange logic of the idea that we need to develop more inwardly in spiritual depth and discipleship before we’re ready and able to reach out to the broader community. This just in: It will never happen! We’ll never reach that point where we’ve got it all together and are now prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder and reach the world. We have to reach them not having it all together. They might actually like us better that way. They might be more inclined to want to join a family of the broken than a family of the perfect

…Are we missing something? Do our neighbors see us leave for church on the weekend and mentally follow us and ask themselves, ‘What goes on in that building?’ Indeed, what? Are we more like a community center or more like a secret society? (Especially given the current penchant for not having windows in our auditoriums.)

I think as we’re only days into a new year, we need to ask ourselves how much of our church activity, and how much of our church budget is completely self-serving.

To repeat, we need a greater outward focus.


Graphic: Sermon video (39 min.) from Vermon Pierre at Roosevelt Church, a Gospel Coalition Church in downtown Phoenix, based on this text:

NLT Mat. 20:25 But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. 28 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

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December 30, 2017

The Mind is a Battlefield

The Mind is a Battlefield. It truly is. I’m surprised there’s never been a successful Christian book with that title. Here’s a summary of some things that have appeared here at Thinking Out Loud with the blog tag “thought life.”  Each one of the titles below is a link to a larger article.

Over-Consumption of Internet Media

5 General Principles to Guide Potential Online Addiction

(this ran in March of this year; you need to click the title to see these spelled out)

  • Self Control
  • Mind, Thoughts and Heart
  • Shifting Values
  • The Stewardship of Our Time
  • Misdirected Worship

Media to Fill Your Home

(you need to click the title to see these spelled out)

  • Bible teaching
  • Christian books
  • Christian movies
  • Christian music
  • Hearing God’s voice

Phillips – Col. 3: 16-17 Let Christ’s teaching live in your hearts, making you rich in the true wisdom. Teach and help one another along the right road with your psalms and hymns and Christian songs, singing God’s praises with joyful hearts.

What will control your thought life this week?

A Day Lived Entirely for God

Several years back, a phrase from Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps became part of popular Christian culture through the acronym WWJD?. It appeared on wristbands, bumper stickers and a host of novelties and trinkets and in the crush of popularity, a few people actually bought and read the book.

Facing everyday challenges with the question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ is a great idea, but I wonder if it’s too focused on doing; in other words, I’m concerned that it only measures action.

I’ve written much here about temptation here with respect to our thought life. For myself, a person who doesn’t commit great transgressions of moral or spiritual law, a better question might be WWJT? or What Would Jesus Think? In a review of David Murray’s The Happy Christian, I noted the following chapter outline based on Phil. 4:8… 

[the link takes you to an overview of David’s media diet and ministry diet.]

The Fruit of Your Thoughts

…If your mind is saturated with unhealthy thoughts and ideas, it will manifest itself in several ways:

In your conversation: We all have heard the Biblical principle that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. Even the most guarded, careful, filtered person will let something slip that betrays where their heart is wandering. Or they may lose interest in topics that would normally engage them.

Stresses: For the Christian, having made poor choices in the area of inputs and influences will result in an inner conflict that may come to the surface in being short or snappy with the people we love or people we’re close to. The inner turmoil may simply result from a feeling of personal failure.

Distractions: A mind focused on things below instead of things above will inevitably be un-ordered, resulting in forgetting to return a phone call, missing a payment deadline, forgetting the directions to an appointment. Time allocation to responsibilities may slip noticeably.

Acting Out: Experts say that people dealing with online addictions often end up taking some action as a result of the content they have been viewing, but we tend to think of that as more overt. In fact, acting out often takes places in subtle ways that are more tangential to the addiction than direct. It’s possible that only the person themselves knows that the behavior trigger.

Reticence: Other people whose mind is otherwise preoccupied will simply become withdrawn. An unhealthy mind condition will manifest itself similar to worry and anxiety. For the Christian who senses that they are moving away from The Cross instead of moving toward The Cross, they may opt to retreat from their fellowship group or simply be less animated than is typical.

What Goes into a Mind Comes Out in a Life

We are all fighting a battle within ourselves… The illustration goes like this: There is a old Indian chief telling a story about how each of us have two rival dogs, a good dog and a bad dog. Both are always fighting each other. Sometimes it seems like the good dog is winning other times it appears like the bad dog is winning.

One of the tribal members asks, “So, how do you know which one will win?”

To which the chief replies, “It depends which dog you feed.”

click image to orderRelationships and the Internet’s Dark Side

(the article contains two stories of the manifestation of over-consumption of the worst the net has to offer)

…Someone once compared the things that enter our thought life to what happens when farmers sow seeds and later reap the harvest. The little verse goes:

Sow a thought, reap an action;

Sow an action, reap a habit;

Sow a habit; reap a lifestyle.

One thing is certain, whether there’s aversion or attraction, interpersonal dynamics are changed. Someone has said, “You are what you eat.” You certainly are what you read or view on television or your computer screen…

November 18, 2017

The Relational Quality of a Personal Relationship

Often I think that those of us who comprise “the Church” suffer greatly because language is often inadequate to describe some of the most elementary principles of faith. Much ink (or in the case of the internet, electrons) is used up trying to describe atonement, salvation, the indwelling presence of Christ, or even the subject which returns on a regular cycle much like certain comets: “What is the Gospel?”

Entering into “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” or “asking Jesus into your heart” or “accepting Jesus as your personal savior” probably means something to most readers here, but we forget how quickly we’re losing our audience if we’re speaking to seekers, skeptics, atheists or agnostics. The quality of “relationship” probably reminds them more of something likely to be encountered on a dating website. (“If you think Jesus would be a good match, swipe right.”)

I believe the idea of relationship serves us better if we think about it visually. Since we can only share with others what we’ve experienced ourselves, let’s aside evangelistic efforts and make this personal. For example…
Relationship between us and God

I am at the front of the room speaking and I invite my wife to come and stand about six feet from me. “What does it mean,” I ask everyone, “to say I am in relationship to Ruth?”

Some of the answers are:

  • “You love each other.”
  • “You have shared history and experiences, that the rest of us don’t know about.”
  • “You are intimate with each other.”

But then I ask her to sit down and invite Mike to come up to the front. Mike and I are not close, I had to ask his permission before this point because we only know each other superficially. I position him in the same spot.

“So again,” I ask, “Where am I in relationship to Mike?”

After a bit of laughter, some dare to come up with something:

  • “You are standing to his right and he is on your left.”

“Let’s go with that,” I respond, “What does that entail?”

  • “He can see you and hear you and knows what you’re doing.”

I start to deliberately creep back from him. “What about now?”

  • “The distance between you can change.”

The first set of answers all have to do with what we normally think of with the word relationship.

The second set of answers could easily involve other words or phrases: Where I am with respect to Mike; Where I am according to Mike.

When we think about our relationship with God, we might want to consider it in terms of love, intimacy and shared history. “And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am His own…

Today I’m proposing we look for ways to expand that and consider the possibilities that:

  • We need to be aware of God’s position in our lives; that he does stand next to us, and our posture should be that of standing next to him. One counselor I know would say we need to visualize this. The example of me standing next to Ruth or Mike can provide the imagery we need to do this.
  • He sees us; he is watching us (“the eyes of the Lord run to and fro”) and this is also true for everyone on earth; whether they acknowledge him as Lord or not, he sees them. But this works both ways; I think we could also include in this an awareness of seeing Him in the everyday routine.
  • We ought to keep close to him; not let ourselves drift away from the awareness of His presence, either on a momentary basis or over a period of time. (For example, I could continue speaking and forget that Mike is still standing there until he asks if he can sit down now!)

In other words, asking the question “Where I am in relationship to God?” is only partly about the nature or quality of the relationship itself, but also about where God is in my life, and where I stand with respect to Him. The focus shifts from the tie that bind us to how I act and live my life according to Him.

The issue is one of proximity or closeness.

God is omnipresent but that sterile piece theological information means, by definition, that He is also present… 

…Only when have this relationship solidly mapped out in our own understanding can we begin to share the dynamics of it with others. If we think in terms of it in terms of physical proximity (as with the example of Mike) we’re on the right track. But hopefully we move on to something that involves more intimacy (as with the example of Ruth.)  

Out of the overflow of that type of relationship is something we will be excited to share with others.

November 12, 2017

5 Ways We are A Living Sacrifice

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice–the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.
– Romans 12:1 (NIV)

“The problem with a living sacrifice is that it tends to crawl off the altar.” (source unknown)

Today we are joining with Christianity 201 as part of its weekly Sunday Worship series. To read the entire series, click this link. Our key verse reminds us that worship is something we do, but rather worship is something we are. Years ago, Christian musician Chris Christian wrote,

We lift our voices
We lift our hands
We lift our lives up to You
We are an offering1

I really try to eschew pithy illustrations and stories here at C201, but I find this one most appropriate:

A chicken and a pig were discussing how they could do something for the farmer. Finally the chicken said, “He loves a good breakfast; why don’t we give him bacon and eggs?”

To this the pig replied, “That’s easy for you. All it demands of you is an offering, but for me it demands total sacrifice.” 2

Here are some things I think will help us remember what it means to live our lives as a living sacrifice. Each starts with the letter ‘s’ followed by a different vowel.

Sacrifice

If we are to judge it, the measure of a sacrifice is not the size of what is given, but the size of what is left over.

A sacrifice will cost us and it will be consumed. There is no taking back the investment of our energies, gifts or material possessions given up in the service and pleasing of God. The last distinction is important. In service we see tangible results. But God is sometimes pleased by our giving up of things. Ask yourself: How much cash would you put on the offering plate if, as it was in Old Testament times, what was giving was then burned? That’s what our Old Testament predecessors did with the best of their grain and animals.

Set-Apartness

If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

In a world that values conformity, no one wants to be the odd duck. Yet the book of Leviticus is essentially God wanting to insure that his people could maintain a distinct identity. It was all about showing yourself to be different.3

Sinlessness

Jerry Bridges has written,

Jesus said, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). We must honestly face the question, “Am I willing to give up a certain practice or habit that is keeping me from holiness?” It is at this point of commitment that most of us fail. We prefer to dally with sin, to try to play with it a little without getting too deeply involved. 4

Sovereignty

“There is a God. You are not Him,”

Jesus himself deferred to his Father on many occasions; providing us a reminder of who is in charge. We choose to forget this because we are driven to be in control.

Surrender

When Abraham is asked to sacrifice is only son, we have the advantage that Abraham and Sarah didn’t; we know how the story ends. They did not, and yet Abraham is willing to do whatever it takes to obey God.5

Although we speak very different languages, two symbols are universal throughout the worldwide church. One is the word “Hallelujah” which I’m told is rendered the same in most languages. The other is lifted hands as a sign of surrender.

A writer at Charisma points out that our fingers, hands and arms are also most associated with human strength, power, creativity; both in a human sense and if we examine the Biblical record of God’s actions presented in a way we can best understand them. 6

 


1 Full video at YouTube.

2 This story is often used by leadership coaches as well. Here’s a longer version with the punchline contrasting contribution and commitment.

3 We looked at maintaining a distinct identity in this March, 2017 article.

4 We included more quotes from Jerry Bridges on this topic in this article.

5 This is excerpted from a fuller look at Abraham’s trip up the mountain with Isaac at this link.

6 See the full article about lifting hands at this link.

October 19, 2017

Hospitality

Most Christians would affirm the Bible teaches that we should “practice hospitality.” A look at various translations of 1 Peter 4:9 shows that only the NLT suggests that this be directed at “those who need a meal or a place to stay;” though it’s unclear why this one version adds those extra words.

However, the NLT rendering raises an interesting consideration; namely the relative socioeconomic status of hosts and guests in each situation.

Peer Hospitality

This is probably what we do most often. Our guests are often people just like us. We invite them, and a few weeks later we’re invited to their place. Perhaps we’re frequent guests in each others’ homes. Maybe their names is Jones and they are the ones others are trying to keep up with. Or maybe you are the Jones family and you want to show off the widescreen TV you just obtained.

But relatively speaking, it’s an even playing field.

Charitable Hospitality

This is what the NLT was getting at, I guess. Where that single mom and her kids could use a break from leftovers. Where you feel like taking a risk and crossing a line and inviting the guy from the soup kitchen over for Thanksgiving.

Jesus has this in mind when he says, “…When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke 14: 12-14 NIV)

He’s contrasting the first type of hospitality with the second.

A Third Case

But what if the above situation is reversed? This is a situation that struck me a couple of days ago, and was the reason for writing this.

Several years ago I heard a story about a very wealthy Christian man who along with his wife was invited to the home of the part-time Assistant Pastor and his family. The house was very sparse and not well-heated. There was water on the table, and the meal was somewhat basic.

Was there some other motivation? The wealthy man’s wife told me that she really didn’t know what to make of the invitation; the experience was simply unusual for them. (Yes, I’ll bet it was!)

I know there were times in our life when money was tight but we still tried to entertain. (Now our biggest problem is that the house is a mess!) However, it would have been unusual — that word again — for us to invite a couple from a much higher economic station, although in the very early years of our marriage, I can think of two times we did this more out of naïveté than anything else.

It is very much the opposite of the case Jesus described above, to know that money is tight and bills are due next week and yet someone of means is sitting at your table enjoying a roast beef dinner that represents a great sacrifice on your part.

Truly this is the hardest form of hospitality…

…And yet, this is what people do. Not here. Not in Western Europe or Australia or North America. But in third world countries. When guests comes to a village, a Christian family will invite them into their home (or hut or tent) and share their very last bit of food with them; and they will consider themselves honored to be able to do this.

They would agree with the verse in 1 Peter; we do need to “practice hospitality.”

Yet they are probably reading it completely differently than we do.

 

 

October 8, 2017

Being Good While Being Yourself

For several years Clarke Dixon has been a regular writer at our sister blog, Christianity 201. A year ago he wrote a piece about Islam just for readers here, and a few times we’ve cross-posted material from C201, such as this one about cremation, or this one about the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Two weeks ago, I accidentally formatted one of his C201 posts here and decided you were probably meant to read it. So without further introduction…


by Clarke Dixon

“Just be yourself!”

This is a message often heard in today’s society. “Be authentic, be genuine, don’t let anybody tell you that you need to change!” The Christian message seems to be the exact opposite with the instruction “be transformed” (Romans 12:2), a call to repentance, and testimonies of changed lives. It seems like acceptance of who you are clashes with needing change. Which is the better path? Romans 12:9-21 will help us figure this out.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:9-21 (NRSV)

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT CHARACTER.

Notice that there is no call to change one’s personality in Romans 12. A change in character is what is called for. This is not a change in identity, so that you are no longer authentically you, but a change in character, so that you are a better you. I am, and have always been, a quiet, shy person. The Lord did not ask me to become a naturally outgoing person when He called me to follow Christ.

We want to be careful here not to mix up personality traits with character traits and so miss an opportunity for growth. For example, many people describe themselves as being impatient people, as if impatience were a mark of their personality and something that cannot change. However, anything that is listed as a fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22,23) is something God can and will help us change. As we sort out which of our “quirks” are personality traits that make us unique, and which are sins that keep us from being like Christ, let us remember that being a Christian is not a call away from authenticity, but a call to character.

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT OUR MINDS BEING RENEWED (BUT NOT REMOVED) BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.

In Romans 12:9-21, Paul is fleshing out 12:1,2:

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1,2 (NRSV emphasis mine)

The word behind “renew” has the idea of “making new again”. It is not a complete replacement, but rather a renovation. To renovate a home is a very different thing from demolishing it to build a completely different home. Take, for example, the apostles Peter and Paul. There is nothing to make us suspect that their personalities changed from before they knew Christ to after. We do see them change in very important ways, but they are still very much Peter and Paul. They are still very unique individuals. Discipleship in the Christian life is not like assimilation into the Borg in Star Trek, but rather becoming more like Jesus in our character.

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT RESPONDING TO THE TEACHING OF JESUS.

Romans 12:9-21 feels familiar. These are things that Jesus taught about, and demonstrated in his own life. It begins with love in verse 9: “Let love be genuine”. It includes non-retaliation, putting into practice turning the other cheek, which Jesus both taught and demonstrated. Someone might point out here that Jesus taught that we should deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow. Does that not mean giving up our individuality? In calling us to pick up our cross and follow, Jesus was not calling upon us to give up our identity as being unique in the universe, but to give up a desire to be the centre of the universe. In doing so, you will still be very much you, with all your quirks that make you interesting and unique. But you will be a better you.

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT CHOOSING GOOD OVER EVIL

All of Romans 12:9-21 is framed by the the opportunity to choose good over evil as reflected in verses 9 and 21: “… hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”. This is where “just be yourself” does not actually work. Such a sentiment must always be qualified. In watching the Emmy’s recently I did not hear anyone say anything like “Isn’t it wonderful how Donald Trump is comfortable in his own skin? Isn’t it great that he is just being himself?”. No one is saying that about Kim Jong-un either. At the end of the day, all people want everyone else to be good and not evil. All people want others, if they insist on being themselves, to be their better selves. Unfortunately, most people want to go with their own definitions of good and evil. However, the Christian life leads us to God’s definitions of good and evil, plus God’s empowerment to choose to do good rather than evil.

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT BEING COUNTER-CULTURAL.

Romans 12:2 does not say “no longer be conformed to your own identity” but “do not be conformed to this age”. Simply put, be yourself, but be your better self, and so stick out like a sore thumb. Those who live the kinds of lives that reflect Romans 12:9-21 will surely do so.

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT BEING SALT AND LIGHT IN SOCIETY.

While there is disagreement on how to get there, people naturally long for a better society. Romans 12:9-12 gives some very practical ways of getting there. Just imagine the impact if people were to live like these verses describe. The effect of a renewed mind is much better than the effect of being conformed to the current age. As our relationship with Christ leads to our minds being renewed, people will take notice. How could anyone not respond positively to genuine love (verse 9), hospitality (verse 13), being blessed instead of being cursed (verse 14), care for the downtrodden (verse 15), non-retaliation (verses 17 and following), and being with people who are peaceable (verse 18)? We should note here that we are to think on “what is noble in the sight of all” (verse17). The world is watching, even longing for, a changed people to show the way.

CONCLUSION

Society does not actually say “just be yourself”, it says “be yourself, unless we don’t like you, or there is something about you we think should change”. Jesus says I love you, no matter what you are currently like. I have already demonstrated that love by bearing the cross for you”. Now that is true acceptance, and by Someone whose acceptance of us really matters! When you experience acceptance by God, get ready to be changed, not that you are no longer you, but that you are a better you. Not only are you transformed by the renewing of your mind, but the world around you will begin changing for the better too. So be yourself! But be a God-filled changing-in-great-ways self!


August 12, 2017

For the Forty-Somethings

 and some Thirty-somethings

 plus a few Fifty-somethings

It’s time to step up.

By that I mean, it’s time to get out the checkbook (or chequebook if you prefer) or grab the credit card and go online.

I’m not talking about giving to your local church. I’m sure you already do that. Maybe you tithe. Maybe you’re what Andy Stanley calls a percentage giver.  Things are stable financially and you’ve recognized that responsibility. Your local church thanks you, and wouldn’t exist without you.

No, this is about giving beyond your local church. It’s about the parachurch organizations, the faith missions, the Christian social service agencies. It’s about hospitals in third world nations, adopting orphans, and teaching literacy to jungle people, and preparing translations of the Gospel of Matthew.

Here’s the deal: A generation that founded many organizations — many formed in the post-war years 1945 to 1950 — and then funded those organizations is dying off. These generous patrons need to be replaced.

At the same time, as Christianity loses its ground numerically in Western Europe, Australia/NZ, and North America; awareness of the faith mission organizations is decreasing. Those of us who populate the pews on the weekend do not have opportunities to hear about the vital things different groups are doing, either domestically or in far-flung mission fields.

Some of these organizations are watching their donor base shrink and shrink to the point where everyone from office staff to field workers face cults. It’s now or never…

…Writing an article like this without mentioning names of potential objects for your philanthropy is difficult, but that’s what I pre-determined this piece would be. I do however suggest a few questions:

  1. Am I interested primarily in proclamation of the Christian message, or I am okay with organizations who serve the needy in Christ’s name?
  2. Do I want my money to stay here at home, or do I want to give to overseas projects in the most economically disadvantages parts of the world?
  3. Do I want to give to a major, longtime, well-established Christian charity, or do I want to partner with a newer, upstart group?
  4. What causes tend to resonate with me?
  5. If my gift means I end up on a mailing list, are these organizations I genuinely want to read about and learn how and what they’re doing?
  6. What particular ministry opportunities or places in the world am I personally aware of which may not be as familiar to others?
  7. Do I want to scatter some funds among a handful of Christian organizations, or go long and deep with one particular cause?
  8. Are there ministries where I have personal contact with a particular worker and will thereby know that the job is getting done; the money well-spent?

You might need to do some research. If you’re married, make sure your partner agrees with your choices, especially if you’re writing checks on a joint-account. And decide if you want to be a monthly supporter — which the organizations love because it provides them with a stable financial forecast — or if you’re doing a one-time thing.

People in the middle of a variety of ministry contexts are watching for your contributions.

July 13, 2017

6 Areas Where Church Dropouts Miss Out

FellowshipWe are in the middle of a church attendance crisis. What was always a weekly occurrence for individuals and families is often, at very best, only twice a month. Some are skipping entire months at a time. Others have simply discontinued the church habit, with no return in sight.

While some continue the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study, others are more certain to have their absence from weekend worship signal a drift away. Twice in 1 Timothy 6:10 and 6:21, Paul uses the phrase “wandered from the faith.” The micro-context is “the love of money” and worldly influences; but clearly a faith that was more anchored would not drift.

Some will argue, “I haven’t wandered from the faith, I’ve simply had it with the local church.” Believe me, I get that; I get that more than you can imagine, even if you’re a regular reader here. But every Sunday I get up and make the trip. Not because I’m obeying the commandment to, or because I’ll feel the Evangelical equivalent to Catholic guilt if I don’t, but rather because the benefits clearly outweigh the cost.

We could look at all the factors that are in play right now causing many to give up a lifetime of church participation, but today I would rather focus on the positives; the things we gain by gathering together.

FellowshipThere is so much to be gained from community. The small group movement has made this even more meaningful. In that context, as Andy Stanley says, “It’s harder to fall out of a circle than it is to fall out of a row.” When we worship in a larger body, we’re also observing other people at worship, hearing their testimonies, and witnessing the spiritual growth taking place in their lives. We’re also putting ourselves in a place to minister to others.

Corporate PrayerIt’s hard to participate in “If two of you will agree as touching anything on earth” prayers by yourself. There is something to be said for coming into God’s presence en masse and then interceding on behalf of individuals facing great needs, our spiritual leaders, the local and national government, and the work of God around the world.

Personal PrayerThe obvious consequence of corporate prayer is that there are people available to pray with you when it’s your need that is uppermost.

Corporate Worship Even if you don’t like the song, or don’t prefer the style, there are many intangible blessings of being part of a local assembly lifting their voices in praise that simply can’t be duplicated at home. I know those “worship moments” in nature are meaningful, and singing in the car with a worship CD turned up loud can be inspiring, but in my life, many corporate worship occasions have been life highlights.

GivingYou can give online, of course, but many people don’t. In the offering, we participate together in financing God’s work in the local church and are made aware of the needs of missions operating throughout the world. Giving is an act of worship.

Confession Many services offer a call to go forward or stand or raise a hand and through a physical action affirm that God is speaking to us about a particular aspect of the day’s teaching. Even a short time of silence gives us an opportunity to respond to God in ways that might never come about through watching a sermon on a computer or television, where ‘dead air’ isn’t desirable.

CommunionThis is last, but certainly not least. The modern “breaking of bread” service, or Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist has a direct connection to the Passover meal. As we receive the bread and wine in community we do so in humility and thanksgiving for what Christ has done for us.

These are just a few of the benefits that occur when we don’t give up meeting together. You might be able to approximate some of these individually, and if circumstances require that, then you certainly should try. But I believe these things were intended to work best collectively.


Appendix: Support scripture passages:

We should not stop gathering together with other believers, as some of you are doing. Instead, we must continue to encourage each other even more as we see the day of the Lord coming. – Hebrews 10:25 GW

All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer… And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had…They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity. – Acts 2: 42, 44, 46 NLT

I was gladdened when they said to me, “We are going to the house of Lord Jehovah”! – Psalm 122:1 Aramaic Bible in Plain English


Christianity:

Coming under the loving Lordship of Jesus Christ and being joined to a company of imperfect people who are trying to live a new life in a new way.
~ Larry Tomczak (circa 1976)

June 27, 2017

Knowing Your Vulnerabilities

Filed under: Christianity, Faith, personal — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:51 am

Note: Some will find this article is built on a rather pessimistic or negative premise, but I hope you’ll buy in and see the lesson in this.

If you’ve read The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel you’ve seen a reference in the first chapter to Charles Templeton, once a leading Canadian pastor whose faith was suddenly shattered and he spent his prime years in agnosticism. There is a story that Billy Graham was once asked about his calling and said something to the effect, ‘I’m only doing what Charles Templeton started and didn’t finish.’

My father was a big part of the music ministry surrounding Templeton’s work, and said he felt that the trigger for Templeton’s atheism was a massive fire that took place at his Toronto church. (Parenthetically, my father was constantly reminding me that you can’t fix your eyes on an individual leader; the focus has to be on Christ.)

As I started thinking about that, I realized that a fire is a rather superficial reason for abandoning the faith, though I can’t say what bitterness could steal my heart in similar circumstances. I have often said to close friends that I become an atheist every night around 4:00 AM when after several hours of tossing and turning I can’t get into some deep sleep. I hope they know what I’m saying and don’t take it too literally. Again, superficial things.

Last week I started thinking what superficial factors could plunge me into a cycle of questioning the reality of the Christ story. I don’t mean this in the sense that I’m having a faith crisis, or that any such factors would be successful, but I wanted to better understand my own vulnerabilities. Here are two I came up with.

1. Natural disasters. This is of course a reason often used by non-believers for not embracing the idea of deity. “How could a loving God allow this to happen?” But as I watch World News Tonight with David Muir each evening and see peoples’ homes washed away, it does seem a great moment for divine intervention that didn’t take place. Remember, we’re talking about potential vulnerabilities here.

2. The actions of fellow Christians. This was the one C.S. Lewis said could prevent just about anyone from becoming a Christian. When I think of the hurt I’ve endured at the hands of fellow believers, I can very easily imagine a person of weaker faith abandoning ship.

So…what about you? Have you ever looked toward the horizon and imagined the proverbial straw that could break the proverbial camel’s back. As I said at the outset, some of you are perhaps reading this at the outset of the workday and it may seem like a very negative thing to consider, but I think it’s important to be aware of our vulnerabilities. I think it’s implicit in the warning of Proverbs 4:23, “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” (NLT)

What personal circumstances or things in your life have the potential to eat at your core faith? What is the weak link in your faith chain?

So the one who thinks he is standing firm should be careful not to fall.” – 1 Cor. 10:12 Berean Study Bible.

 

 

June 8, 2017

Testimony: Sharing Your Salvation Story

As the counselors added new logs to the fire the sparks would rise high into the night sky. It was Friday night, the last night, and it was testimony night, and camp staff and campers took turns sharing their testimony.

Knowing what I now know about liturgical churches, I’m not sure where the equivalent forum is to share a testimony in those denominations, but if you’re Evangelical, such opportunities are everywhere. Here are some things to consider when they pass the microphone to you.

1. What happened way back then?

Most people have a before and after story. There is your story what Andy Stanley would call a pivotal circumstance, what David Jeremiah would call a turning point. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see. That sorta thing. Be sure to mention Jesus.

2. Was this a gradual thing or did it happen all at once?

In my denomination, the former is called process conversion and the latter is crisis conversion. Choose your answer carefully because some critics on the sideline will question the nuances of either. God works in mysterious ways.

3. What other significant events have marked your life in Christ?

Most people will think in terms of crossing the line of faith as a one time thing, but hopefully there have been other markers in your story. Baptized? Volunteered to work with kids? Started a blog?

4. Were they part of a gradual climb, or was it more incremental; more step-by-step?

If you want to be honest this is a good time to say that some times it’s one step forward and two steps backward. Some periods in our lives will find us more responsive.

5. What scripture verse(s) or passage(s) has been helpful in explaining, confirming, affirming your relationship to Jesus?

People aren’t looking for a particular life verse, perhaps it’s more a matter of some common ground you’ve found with a Biblical character, or a promise that has been particular helpful.

6. If you knew then what you know now, would you have done anything different?

There may be something in your story that will help someone in the audience who is facing a tough situation or difficult decision.

7. What about more recently? What happened this week, yesterday or this morning?

A testimony that is solely about something that happened 35 years ago isn’t a testimony to the power of God active in your life today.

8. Why should someone want to experience what has happened to you?

You want to remind your hearers that the response to your story is to look at their own lives and see if there’s a next step in their future.


One of my all-time favorite testimonies: Nancyjo Mann from the Christian band Barnabas. Copied from a VHS tape.


The image at the top is a composite of baptism videos from North Point Community Church. Before being baptized, each candidate is required to make a 2-4 minute video sharing their salvation story.

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