Thursday, October 11, 2012

What Floats Your Boat...or Church?

In the Bible there is a story of a guy who was chopping wood, and the axe head flew off into the water...and sank. This is a fairly bland, normal story until a prophet makes the metal object float to the top of the water much to the relief of the guy who had borrowed it from a friend.

I will hopefully come back to our axe example but first allow me to fast-forward a few millennia where the science of buoyancy has been seemingly mastered even in churches. Someone mentioned to me recently what they saw as the tendency of some North American Christian leaders to not readily ask for advice, much less acknowledge that they need help with church issues. At the same time, leaders in other parts of the world more readily ask for and are able to receive input. As a missionary who has lived on both sides of the fence this caught my attention. Is it cultural pride that hinders some of my countrymen? I venture to offer an alternative explanation.

When I became a missionary in Ukraine in 1993 I had been married for a little over two years, and we had a 9-month old daughter. I was out trailblazing every day while my equally gifted and adventurous wife initially had to stay home in a small apartment in a foreign land. Not only this, but she had no friends, there were no malls, we had no car, we could not find a crib - the kid slept in the largest suitcase, open of course - we had cloth diapers and the soviet washing machine - probably a former tank engine - was broken.

Much of what helped to make my wife happy in the US was now missing, so she had to look to me for it all. I admittedly fell short, and any illusion that I had of being a great husband was sorely put to the test. The fact of the matter is that what "floated" some of our family health and happiness in the US was now gone, and we had to swim a lot harder to stay afloat.

Now we are back in the US for a season, but we are still passionate about The Great Commission and a wee-bit wiser after 19 years in missions. I have also come to see something in my sending country that I could not have seen unless I had left and returned. There is an unnatural buoyancy caused by North American Christendom that makes us think we can swim better than we can. Like a child in the deep end of the pool wearing water wings we are relying on something that if never removed can delude us into thinking we are better swimmers than we really are.

In fact, there is enough buoyancy - latent Christianity - that I can start a church based on flimsy strategies, clever advertising and still expect some level of success. People love new stuff, and "if you build it they will come." Easter Sundays and Christmas service spikes can fuel the illusion, and the church-split down the road can bring in a much needed second wind of new people for the weary swimmer.

There are even growing churches that have little or no evangelism, few baptisms and zero discipleship. The Titanic just steams ahead, rams through icebergs and with so many neighboring ships who needs serious help or an S.O.S. call?

But when I am facing a post-Christian or alien culture - and this is happening in the US of A - there is no buoyancy, and I will sink or float based on the power of the word of God and the faith He has given me to carry out His Commission based on His principles. Without God's involvement my tendency is to sink like the axe head even on my best days, so I become very eager for God's people to speak into what I am doing. It actually comes quite natural after a while even for an American. Even healthy and pleasant.

On a personal note I cannot bear the thought that God might show me on that final day that all I did in life was to move around and repackage the remnant works of other men. I am compelled to reach those who do not know God, and in this quest the mirages of men and the allusions & delusions of recycled works will never satisfy.

The stakes are too high for me to be self-confident in my Christian water wings as the untold millions for whom Christ died are yet to be reached. The axe head in the grand scheme of things is the work of God, and I must return it to Him one day. I don't want to have to say, "oops, it flew off the handle and sank." Before this happens you still have the opportunity to ask a man or woman of God to help save what you are trying to do for Jesus.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ranks, Titles & Clean Feet

While reading "Bonhoeffer" by Eric Metaxas this week I was struck with one account of how Bonhoeffer - to the astonishment of his seminary students - insisted that they call him brother Bonhoeffer rather than director. This may sound like a moot point to us, but in that day titles were very important and a way of showing due respect.

I recently encountered something similar when a friend of mine, Bishop James, was referred to in public by his little grandson as "Jimmy". Brother James had indeed earned his stripes - respect - but it must have caused the "blue screen of death" to any legalistic people who overheard the familiar way his grandson addressed him. However, my respected friend seemed to be quite happy with his grandson. By the way, the blue screen is what a PC does when Windows goes really wrong. Get a Mac...

Trivia question here: Which US president insisted that his wife call him "Mr. President"? The winning answer qualifies you to be in a free drawing for my old Dell PC which - you guessed it - is displaying the "blue screen of death".

Titles and ranks are in the best sense earned in the course of service, but they are not who we are as believers. They denote honor and function on a team, but those who see them as goals totally miss the mark. Titles should serve the goal as we pursue the goal, but in God's kingdom they are not the goal.

I do not believe in knee-jerk reactions to such questions, but I would pose a heart-probing question to those who go off track on this. Isn't it ironic that Jesus descended to become like us so we could know Him as brother and God as Father, yet some leaders do the opposite and ascend while putting unbiblical barriers between themselves and those who don't have titles? They are essentially undoing what God did, or it might be more accurate to say they are redoing what God undid.

One misguided pastor I knew on the mission field held to the idea that leaders should only relate upward, but that begs the question as to whether those above want to relate downward to him? What nonsense! God related downward and actually went there...down. Because we could not go up.

I do respect my leaders, and in different contexts I refer to them as pastor, bishop or just friend. But I shy away from those who would ascend the ladder of Christiandom's who's who, taking only themselves. In much the same way a common soldier might be cautious with a superior who they see pursuing self-promotion verses battle-earned promotion among his Band of Brothers.

The soldier instinctively knows if a leader might fail him in battle, and I am thankful to say I have friends and leaders who have gone into the trenches to save my neck. My respect, honor and thanks towards them is deep and long-lasting.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that Jesus did eventually ascend... into heaven, to sit at God's mighty right hand. But He did not do so alone. He takes us there to sit with Him and at how great a cost of personal sacrifice? This is leadership, leading us to the Father, and He is worthy to be called Lord.

Pastor Mike ;-)

You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. John 13:13-15

Monday, December 20, 2010

Let Nothing You Dismay

In almost every Christmas movie we hear this title in the line from a warm and familiar Christmas carol ringing out in the background. No matter how secular the movie or how hard they still try to prove Santa’s existence, the real theme of the season is always shining through the cracks of a poorly-wrapped “Seasons Greetings”, a present that has a star burning at full strength inside. And we also hear:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased." Luke 2:14

Peace on Earth is indeed God’s intent, but not some feel-good kind of peace whose true depth has been bleached out by too much holiday tradition. It is a peace in the midst of an evil onslaught against our souls from the enemy below, and enmity with a righteous God above. In the midst of this conflict the angels herald peace on earth as God steps in - born as a child - to show just how close He will descend to save. His tidings offer victory over darkness and an amnesty for those who would seek peace with Him. But the peace is conditional on the unconditional surrender of us, the merry gentlemen.

Remember Christ our Savior. It is not the child in the manger who brought peace but the sacrifice that He made some 33 years later as the Messiah on the cross. His birth was the introduction of His mission, and His death, burial and resurrection accomplished peace for those who would respond.

Saved from Satan’s power. There is an enemy of our souls and of humanity who desires to wreak total chaos and death. The devil’s left hand seemingly causes destruction while his right hand gives a false peace that there is neutrality and moral relativism. And mankind runs back and forth from darkness to false light like confused sheep without a shepherd.

We have gone astray. But relativism is a lie. There is light and darkness, truth and falsehood, right and wrong. And it is only those who are initially dismayed at their poor condition before God who can appreciate the true tidings of comfort and joy heralded some 2000 years ago and echoed till this day. These are those “with whom He is pleased.”

"God bless us, every one!" Timothy Cratchit

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Are You an 8-Ball Leader?

Most Americans my age will remember the novelty toy called the 8-Ball. It was about three times the size of a normal billiard ball, and it was designed to answer questions. That’s right. Just ask it a question, turn it over and an answer floats to the top than can be read through a small, glass window. Sounds like the occult Ouija board, doesn’t it?

There is no way to predict how the mysterious 8-Ball will answer, the inner mechanism is concealed and the answers even contradict each other. For this reason we sometimes call people with strange, indecipherable personalities an 8-Ball.

There are also 8-Ball leaders. Their team must get all decisions through them, but they are unpredictable because they never bring their team into their thinking process; thus a very dependent team. This also demoralizes the team because their ideas and ways of thinking never receive healthy reinforcement. All they know about their leader is that there is some random force controlling decisions: the weather, hormones, digestion problems, self-preservation, etc. In the case of a spiritual leader it becomes more complex because they can always say that God told them. How do you argue against that?

Then there is the leader who brings their team into the decision-making process, and they impart the principles by which they should all make decisions. It might be a purpose statement, ethical standards, etc. The leader tries to model this so the team can understand it, then the team is allowed to take the wheel and ultimately take the whole car. Unfortunately, some leaders just like the driver’s seat, and 8-Ball leaders take unpredictable roads which make the team – in the back seat – rather car sick.

Even God is not an 8-Ball leader. Jesus constantly interacted with His disciples with the view in mind that He would soon leave, and they would continue the ministry. He reinforced their positive growth and corrected their mistakes. He consistently modeled and explained every aspect of a healthy spiritual life.

One of the greatest examples of leadership comes as a question from God Himself. Sodom and Gomorrah were ripe for judgment, and God asks Himself and us, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…?” God then allows Abraham to enter into a debate with Him and to intercede for the righteous souls who still remain in these cities.

Why does God open up His plan to Abraham? For the sole reason which He also reveals within the same question. It is because Abraham is a great leader and will become a great nation. We need to also see the potential in those whom we lead and bring them into our council.

The LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed?” Gen 18:17-18

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Church: Seeker-Friendly or Just Friendly?

In the realm of church planting and church growth, the phrase seeker-friendly has arisen as a way to make it easier for people to come to God, or at least to His house. In the best sense this phrase describes attempts to remove unnecessary barriers to people attending church such as formal attire, archaic music styles and “christianese” which is our inbred lingo that makes little sense to the outside world.

In the worst sense, seeker-friendly sometimes means just entertaining people and catering to their personal preferences. A few go so far as to remove from the gospel elements that might offend - you know, the cross, etc. I would not even call this seeker-oriented. It is just a way to attract or distract people from their Sunday morning golf game or a few extra hours of sleep.

However, the root problem in all of this is an oft-misunderstood idea of what people are actually seeking. I mean are they really seeking what we are trying to provide? Case-in-point:

This summer I attended two different churches in the US where I had never been before. I don’t play golf and didn’t want to sleep in that morning and since I am a Christian I thought it might be a good idea to meet with my God and with His people.

The first church was stylistically a perfect fit for me. It was nearby, and I had heard about it from a friend on Twitter. I arrived early so I could mingle and meet people, and I was confronted by a super facility and a continual line of greeters on each side of me. No kidding, there were at least 10 people on each side of me handing out welcome brochures. This corridor of humanity led to the welcome desk which I decided to skip.

I then proceeded to my seat in the main hall and enjoyed a wonderful contemporary service. After the meeting I tried to meet the pastor, but he was busy with another person so he handed me off to one of his leaders who was excited to meet me. He then led me away to what I thought would be a conversation. However, he dropped me off at the visitor desk where I was given a free coffee mug and was thanked for coming.

I did manage to fellowship with my God in this church, but not one person there seemed to know I was also seeking a connection with friendly people. Even with all the greeters no one actually took the time to genuinely greet me.

The second church I visited was a large Baptist church in my home town. I heard they had a contemporary service, and I had a few friends who went there so I decided to visit. I walked in to organ music and to a crowd where the average age was 65. This was not contemporary at all, and I did not see any of my friends there. Wrong address? However, the preaching was great, and I once again met with my God.

One more thing though, many of those older people came up to me and gave me very warm greetings. They were very FRIENDLY, and the elderly woman sitting in front of me told me later how much she liked my singing voice. This was not the style of service I was seeking, but the friendly nature of the members more than compensated and I had a great time. Later I found out that my friends had attended the earlier contemporary service which I did not know about.

Ultimately, the biggest attraction for the seeker is our love towards them and the hope and truth we display by our changed lives. Since we ourselves are the body of Christ then we personally need to be seeker friendly. Addressing stylistic questions and the shape of the roof on our building is secondary to this.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Rx: Discipleship

Traditional pastoral ministry is often like being an ambulance driver. Medics know little about the private lives of those who call 911 until there is an accident or crisis. After a call, they often arrive to find the aftermath of an unhealthy lifestyle or driving laws not being heeded. The same can be said for the police who respond to domestic violence calls.

Even though most calls might be legitimate emergencies, there are some people who just want the immediate problem fixed, and afterwards they will resume the same unhealthy or abusive practices that lead to the problem in the first place.

In contrast, in the church the true role of a pastor is not that of an overworked ambulance driver but of an overseer, equipper and helper. His initial response to a problem might be to save someone if there is a crisis no matter what the cause may be. However, he must then help that person develop the right spiritual foundations which will remedy a cycle of dysfunction and even help mature them to the point where they impart the same foundations to others.

A traditional pastor is often overworked just putting out fires and can unknowingly develop a codependency with dysfunctional Christians. Sooner or later, such a pastor will have to make his own 911 call due to burnout.

There will always be those who are so damaged by sin that they will need special care. But the majority needs discipleship, and leaders have to be brave enough to make it the main remedy for the main problem.

What is the main problem? A lack of the lordship of Christ.

What if people will not submit to Christ’s lordship? Just do what Jesus did. Continue to love them and minister truth.

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Mark 10:21,22

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Curse of the Flying Hunting Dog

Sometimes - more often than not - the opinions of those around us just don’t hold water. In the South where I am from there is another expression for an ill-thought-out plan, argument or opinion: That dog just don’t hunt. Bad grammar and all!

As for the nonsensical title of this blog it serves two purposes: first, to get curious people to read it and second, to link common southern sense with biblical truth. The truth in question is the verse:

Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, so a curse without cause does not alight. Prov 26:2

In common English this means that an undeserved curse is like a fluttering bird that will not land, namely not land on you. It simply has no validity and should not be worried about.

Throughout our lives we will encounter people – even in the church – who try to define us by something other than God’s truth. In the worst sense people are sometimes told that they will always be a certain way, and that “way” is invariably not desirable.

It might be, “You will be a failure”, like your sibling, mother or dad, or, “God cannot use you” because of something in your past or a perceived lack of gifting. I pastor people all the time that can’t seem to dislodge these lies from their souls. These defining lies are more like curses, and they seem to be carried from one generation to another.

This post cannot encompass this subject in full, but suffice it to say that every word of man that seeks to define us in any way must measure up to the word of God. A good man at his best can only encourage and equip us, but it is God the Father who defines us.

I have personally come to the point that when someone says something unbiblical or stupid about me I am better able to quickly compare it to what God’s word says. If the person’s statement doesn't measure up I say, “Sorry, inadmissible in a court of grace.” I then forgive the person and move on. I also try to equate what they say to the photo of the dog in this post. This helps me smile about it all.

Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 2 Cor 5:16,17

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Bigger Boat or a Bigger Net?

In the classic movie Jaws we are formally introduced to the monster fish when he raises his mammoth head out of the water as Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is throwing fish food off the back of their rickety boat. Thus proceeds the sober quote by the traumatized chief, “You're gonna need a bigger boat.”

Now allow me to jump ship here to another fishing boat, the church. Bigger churches are not bad, but bigger churches don’t necessarily catch bigger fish or more fish for that matter. The secret to a good fishing boat is not only what is seen above the water but the vast nets that are towed beneath the waves.

It is also important where we cast our nets so we don’t end up getting our lines tangled with other fishing boats. Basically, churches should not cast their nets into other churches.

Just last summer I was staying with friends right on the beach in North Carolina. I awoke one morning before the swimmers went out because I heard the gentle humming of the fishing trawlers over the breaking of the waves.

My first impression was one of solitude, but as I looked closely I could see that the small boat – nearly identical to the boat in Jaws – was dragging nets that were hundreds of meters long. And while the fish and the vast nets were unseen by the inattentive sunbathers strolling to the beach the fisherman’s gaze was fixed on them via some sonar-driven fish-finder.

This is a great picture of what the church should be, and if we see a big church then we would assume that the nets are vaster even reaching to other nations. A fleet of such church/fishing boats with disproportionally large nets would change the world, but unfortunately some large church-boats have become cruise ships with little or no nets at all. Some behemoths run into icebergs due to the captain’s pride and vanish beneath the waves with many lives wrecked or lost.

Nonetheless, let’s have bigger churches, fleets of churches, because the potential catch is disproportionally larger than the number of solitary fishermen trawling among the nations. And let us assure that the nets that we cast are even bigger.

When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Luke 5:4

Friday, March 19, 2010

Open Up in the Name of the King!

In medieval times a loud banging on the door followed by the above phrase would evoke sudden fear or at least worry. Your first thoughts may have been that a Musketeer was outside coming to fetch you to debtor’s prison because of the current financial crisis.

The last thing you would expect is your neighbor using that phrase to make you come out and move your oxcart from in front of their driveway or even the Musketeer asking to borrow some money.

Everyone knew that the only legal reason someone could invoke the king’s name was that they were on the king’s business, and any other use of his name was illegal and might land your head in the stocks or even worse, in a basket.

This medieval example came to mind recently while I was considering how some Christians use the phrase “in Jesus’ name” as some sort of blanket incantation to make their oftentimes selfish or even bizarre requests come to pass. They later suffer shipwreck in their faith when the formula doesn’t work.

However, asking something in Jesus’ name is very powerful when the person who is asking is a servant of the same King and is also on an errand for the King. Any other use of His name is basically spiritual corruption.

When we use Jesus’ name the doors that we are knocking on are the nations and the hearts of mankind. The doors that we close are those that lead to or allow evil. Along the way it is quite safe for us to ask for personal provisions to support us. Musketeers called this a per diem, and Christians call this, “Our Daily Bread.”

It is also safe to use God’s name as did soon to be King David when he stood before the intimidating Goliath, but it is extremely unsafe to use it when we don’t personally know Jesus as in the case of the seven sons of Sceva. Acts 19:11-17

We should never abandon the authority that we have as believers, but the church would find herself in much better shape and amply supplied if she only used the King’s name while on the King’s errand, namely the Great Commission.

You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. James 4:3

This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. 1 Jn 5:14,15

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Best Offering Message Ever

All Christians who are serious about advancing the gospel know that it requires money, and the bigger the vision the more money that is needed. Some things of course should never be funded especially when it is really someone’s personal ambition being promoted in the name of God.

However, when we consider the unreached and uncared-for millions of souls on this planet it becomes easier to divide the good goals from the bad ones. Once we determine how much money we need and what we need it for we then have to find out how to get it, and from the very beginning of Judeo-Christian history that method has been the offering.

My first understanding of the offering from childhood was when a group of men wearing the same color sport jackets came to the front of the church during a certain song, prayed, picked up shinny brass or silver plates and then proceeded to follow a simple crisscross choreography of passing those plates from front to back as people dropped in change, checks or envelopes.

My next exposure to the offering was basically the same thing, but this time there were no matching coats, and someone actually taught on the principles of giving. But the more I became exposed to other churches and movements, the more I noticed that some leaders spent quite a bit of time trying to motivate people to give.

Great incentives and many promises of God’s generous reciprocity were used to pry the needed sum from people who were not convinced or motivated enough to give. “Don’t worry, you will get it all back.” was the usual statement to soften the blow of giving. Oftentimes the pressure was greatest and the message longest when the reason for giving was in doubt. You know: theme parks, golden faucets and a faster jet.

The worst offering message I ever heard was from a woman who for some reason altered her voice to sound like a cat in torment when she took the microphone. She screamed some unintelligible hyper-something message for 5-10 minutes. Of course I knew that she was mimicking another screaming-cat preacher that she had seen on TV, and they both probably lost their voices.

But then there is the best offering message I have ever heard, and it went something like this:

“If Christians really understood the pearl of great price there would be no need for long messages on giving.” Wow, that was short!

This phrase resonated in me and still does. This is not only the motivation to give, but it tells us what we should give to. We might get something back, but then again we might not. We can definitely be sure of one thing. If we give something of value then someone else in need will receive something of value. And yes, God will take care of us and meet our needs along the way.

The pearl of great price – and if you haven’t guessed by now it is Jesus - is also the motivation to give one’s life to advancing God’s kingdom either where you are or to go where you are needed. Jesus because of love gave all that He had to get what He valued, us. If we also give because of love others will get what we value, Him. Is there really any other motivation to give?

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Matt 13:45,46

for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matt 6:21