Monday, June 14, 2010

On Preachers & Preaching

There are days I miss standing before a group of worshippers being able to share messages of hope and encouragement, then there are days I am reminded that serving a church is not an easy job. There are discouragements, frustrations and disappointments. There are people and personalities that will lift you to the heavens and others that will bring you to your knees in prayer.

This week I was reminded just how hard it can be to stand before 500 critics, live in a glass house, or try to love the unloveable. You paste on your best smile, you greet friends and detractors with the same loving concern, but inside your stomach is turning upside down and you head pounds as you struggle to remain a light in moments of darkness.

All that being said, the roll of leadership requires greater discretion, thicker skin, and more temperance and understanding than almost any other job out there. Longsuffering must be one of the foundation principles of those dealing with the souls of men and women.

We strive to shape ourselves into the image of Christ, but that old earthly nature reaches out and grabs us everyone once in a while. How longsuffering is our Father? How much does he endure of our foolishing, disobedience and sin? In the times we are most discouraged with our brethren, it is also the hardest to recieve criticism ourselves.

I know that when my emotions run high, I am not very receptive to constructive criticism. I feel entitled to my wrath and discontent. I was reminded years ago by a wise old minister, to allowing myself a cooling off period. When I really wanted to let one of those fire and brimstone lessons go, to shelve it for a few weeks until I could look objectively at my own emotions. It was amazing how many times when I allowed my head to cool off, I changed the language and tone of my message.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Worship Controversy

Last night we had a healthy discussion of worship at our Summer Series. I appreciate our facilitator's interest in keeping a balanced approach to the topic while insuring that God's will was at the heart of our discussion.

After sorting through the discussion in my own mind, I have a few observations that I hope are worth further discussion.

  • Trying to address all the intricacies of worship is not unique to the 21st Century church. Read 1 Cor. 12-14 and you will see the early church struggled with many of the challenges we face today: individual needs in worship, disruptive actions, losing sight of the object of our worship, ect.
  • We still struggle with extremes. There are those who believe that God's silence on a subject is authorization to run headlong towards any spiritual expression that makes them feel good and there are others who would legislate every action of every member while ignoring the spiritual side of our devotion (i.e. John 4:24 - Spirit and Truth).
  • We struggle with proper application of scripture. There are individual devotions we offer to God as well our collective assemblies. We need to understand the context and how we apply certain passages. I can't tell you how often I have heard "decently and in order" or "weaker brother" misapplied in order to stop something right and good.

One thing is for certain. We will continue to discuss, debate and teach on the topic of worship. My encouragement to each and every person is to be more like the Bereans - "recieve the message with great eagerness and examine the scriptures everyday . . . (Acts 16:11).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Without Excuse

"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." Romans 1:20

God revealed himself to you today. He spoke to you through the creation and made his presence known through the immeasurable riches of His majesty and power. I am always amazed at those who see the thorns on a rose, or thunderstorms on the horizon. I am even more shocked by those who can gaze for hours at a mountain stream, or look into the endless expanse of space only to proclaim "there is no God."

I marvel at the symmetry and architechture of a spider's web, the advance planning and work ethic of the ant and the unparalleled beauty of a wildflower. God carved his initials into the landscapes of the Rockies, and signed his masterpiece with oceans of ink.

In creation we see the hand of an artist, the mind of an engineer, and the heart of a romantic. Every inch of creation demands that something, or someone greater than ourselves is responsible. Through creation the invisible attributes of God are clearly seen.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Does God Speak to You?

Does God speak to you? I am convinced that he communicates with me through lots and lots of avenues. I realize that is a dangerous position. If I don't listen very carefully, it is likely I will project my feelings, emotions and theology onto God. There are a lot of people who claim to hear the voice of God, but I find it very hard to accept their modern day revelations.

So, what do I mean when I ask if God speaks to you. We know He reveals his will through the Bible, but we are mistaken if we think that is the only way God interacts with people. Have you ever had someone speak truth into your life in a manner in which it was most needed? Have you ever stepped up and addressed a matter that needed to be dealt with when no one else would? In each case the messenger could very well be serving as a minister, or spokesperson for the will of God.

Let me put it a little different way. What kinds of things take place in your life that serve to keep you focused, walking in God's will and calling you back to repentance? I can't always explain the correlation, but it has happened far to many times for it to be an accident. I start straying away from my foundations, drifting amidst a sea of complacency and self-will and sure enough something happens to call me back to God. Through his creation, through his faithful servants, through tragedy, heartache and pain God lets me know that I am not on the right path.

Sometimes we hear people jokingly say, "It's a God thing." It really is! We are mistaken if we think God sits idly by without interacting in our lives. I have no doubt that God speaks to me, the problem is, I am not always listening like I should.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Country Club Theology

I have to thank a dear friend (who will remain unnamed) for today's blog. In a compelling discussion of church planting and church growth he talked about the culture and life cycles that some churches experience. The points of reference that follow are not true of all churches, but do characterize those I refer to as Country Club groups.

First, there are the founders or charter members. This group controls the keys to the kingdom. They write the original by-laws, manage new memberships and put "important" controls in place. In country club theology, these are the gate-keepers who watch carefully the growth and expansion of the club.

Next, you have the invitees. These are the folks we love to rub elbows with. I recall working in a small church years ago when a "country clubber" made it clear that there were certain people we didn't need to waste our time on in the community. They didn't have the right pedigree, the right skin color, or a sufficient financial portfolio. It ruffled his feathers more than a little bit when I preached on Romans 1:16 the next week.

As the membership grows you start to get the associate members. They can use the facilities (if they meet all the requirements), but they are on probation. As long as they don't challenge the founders, or seek to change the by-laws, or invite any of those "other people," then they are allowed to circle around the center of the founder's universe.

Finally, there are the observers. They are not observers by choice, but they aren't granted a membership card into the club, can't attend policy meetings, but they are allowed to pay their dues and watch what takes place.

I realize that this not the majority of churches, but if you have ever experienced country club theology then you know just how devastating it can be to the Lord's work. God calls all men to repentance, He wants everyone in the club, and I fear for those who would stand at the gates and block entrance to the eternal kingdom.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Marketing the Gospel?

I recently came under fire for suggesting that a local church focus on their target market. I am not sure if my sin was applying business language to a spiritual concept, or the pre-supposition that I was somehow excluding people from the gospel message. Below you will find three reasons why I make no apology for a focused approach to evangelism.

  1. The early church used target marketing. The gospel went first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. Paul was called as an apostle to a specific, targeted group (the Gentiles). Even early evangelists went to the synagogues to preach (i.e. they took their message to areas where their target audience regularly attended).
  2. Targeting a sector of a community (any community) is not an effort to exclude, but to practice effective ministry. We have programs in every church that target specific segments of the community. Marriage classes exclude singles, financial management classes typically appeal to those with money management issues, even in our church families we have singles programs, youth programs, classes divided by age and interest. All of this so we can practice effective ministry. Why, when we apply the same approach to the community is it anathama.
  3. Finally, knowing our target audience allows us to more effectively present the gospel message. Take a few minutes and contrast the two sermons in the book of Acts. In Acts 2, the message is being preached to a Jewish audeince. The old law, prophets and writings are used to lead people to Christ. In Acts 17 Paul is preaching to a very different, pagan audience and addresses their false polytheistic view of God, quotes thier own Greek poets, but his objective is the same, to lead people to Christ.

I am not sure why people get a bee in their bonnet when you talk about marketing in a church context. We all do it at some level. I am confident that the motives of most are pure - spread the saving gospel of Christ. I would even suggest that Christian stewardship demands that we pursue the most effective, practical, biblical approaches to bringing souls to Christ.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Radical Faith

Another Sunday, the Lord's Day, our Christian day of worship. I sit watching the crowded auditorim when my focus and attention really should be on God. I sense there are a lot of carbon-copy Christians entering the room. We went through the motions of another week, and now we are about to go through the motions of worship. Maybe I am projecting my own bias, but I see a lot of people who are sitting, completely disengaged from what is going on around them (myself included).

The last few years I have had a dramatic shift in my spiritual paradigms. I haven't drifted far from my core beliefs. I am not ready to run headlong towards spiritual Bablyon, but I do long for the New Jerusalem, the shining city on a hill, a place of refuge where all can come for repentance and restoration.

I remember the day over a decade ago when a man walked into our assembly intent on intimidating those present. The years of drugs and addiction made him a hard, callous man who would just as soon cut your throat as carry on a conversation. He wasn't welcomed, greeted or offered a seat of honor (or any seat at all for that matter). Most people made a conscious effort to walk the long way around the auditorium.

A few months later that man was my brother in Christ. His hair neatly cropped, his heart completely changed. He continued to struggle with the challenges of his past. Members struggled with how to help him, but he was trying, searching and longing for something better than he had known.

For years I longed for a church without problems, now I shudder to think what that mindset means to the salvation of men. The troubled, the heartsick, addicts and outcasts need a safe harbor, a place of refuge from the storms of life. If they are not welcome in our churches, ministered to by the saints, and taught by the faithful - where will they go?

So answer that question for me - WHERE WILL THEY GO?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Finding a Balance

Preaching is hard work! There is the challenge of presenting meaningful, biblical, inspiring messages week after week and month after month. You try to tailor your message to a broad and diverse audience and you have to try to take into account the sensitivities of certain sections of the membership.
All that being said, and after spending more than 30 years in and out of the pulipt, I have my own ideas of what makes for excellent preaching.
1. Be transparent. People want to be taught, inspired and motivated, but more than anything they want you to be real. Those of us sitting in the pew want to be able to relate to our speaker in a real and meaningful way.
2. Provide practical applications. Understanding the importance of faith and learning to walk according to faith are two deeply different issues. When I leave on a Sunday morning, I want another tool to put in my toolbox of life. How can this make me live better?
3. Know your audience. Our churches are now filled with people in second marriages, single parents and step-families. I can't tell you how many "off the cuff" comments I have heard from pulpits all across the country that re-enforce negative stereotypes, bruise sensitivities, or indict whole segments of our church family.
4. Avoid Improvisation. That brilliant illustration or idea that pops into our heads while we are making a point, may not seem so brilliant when it passes our lips. I am guilty of this particular fault and it has gotten me in trouble more than once.
5. Find a faithful critic. You are not looking for someone who is going to kick you every chance they get, but a true friend who will share perceptions from audience. Whenever I speak at a conference, or workshop, I pass out evaluation forms. Honest feedback makes me a better speaker.
So, what rules would you add to these five?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Understanding our purpose

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Those words are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. They are part of a poem entitled, "The New Colossus," written by Emma Lazarus. For decades those words have reflected the hope, promise and opportunity provided within the borders of the United States. People flocked to this country from every nation on earth for freedom, liberty and opportunity. As a result our society has become a melting pot of cultures, people and in many cases problems, but it is still one of the things that makes America great.

I believe this concept reflects what the church is supposed to be. A land of promise and opportunity. A place of new beginnings, restored hope and a unique bond of fellowship. If we embrace the words of Jesus, "Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest . . .," then we are inviting those who are different, those who are socially, morally and spiritually challenged. We welcome the quirky, unique and challenging people in our society.

How tragic it is when we so homogenize our worship and our spiritual community that people don't feel welcome. What a shame it is when rather than work with people, teach people and lead people, we simply wash our hands of them. We need to return to doing the hard work of ministering to those who don't fit into our neat little mold of church life.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


I hadn't been preaching long when an older brother pulled me aside after a sermon to gently correct me. My intentions had been good, but my application of a particular passage of scripture was not accurate. He did not belittle me, or condemn me for the mistake, he humbly corrected me and went on to be a great encouragement to me in ministry.

Our culture is so concerned with political correctness that we are afraid to speak truth into the lives of others. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, it is unloving if we are plain spoken concerning sin. I have to stop and wonder if the reason our society has deteriorated is because so few have the courage to say, sexual immorality is sin; filling our hearts and minds with movies and music that lead us away from Christ is sin; compromising our values concerning the work and worship of the church is sin.

I am not suggesting that we are hateful or unloving in how we present truth. It should always been done in a spirit of meekness and loving kindness. Our desire should be for the good of others, not with the self-righteous indignation displayed by the Pharisees.

My children don't always like it when I call them to accountability for their actions. At times they are frustrated and angry that my standards and expectations for them are set higher than the world. I believe that God has called me to speak truth into the lives of my children whether they are happy with me or not.

But, who speaks truth into my life? Who holds me accountable? Who do I trust to tell me the hard truths about myself? We all need someone like that in our lives. We need brothers and sisters in Christ who love us enough to say, "your behavior is troubling, your conduct is unacceptable, the path you are walking is leading you away from Christ."

Are you open to allowing others to speak truth into your life?