Month: September 2014

The Ministry of Revitalization Pt 1

Last Friday on this blog I addressed young men going into the ministry to encourage them to consider the important work of revitalizing existing churches.  This week, my desire is to flesh out a little of what it takes to be a successful revitalizer.  Today, I want to focus on the single most important step in revitalizing an existing church — refocusing on the gospel.

Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to young Pastors who are taking on a new church I always like to advise them to be careful about making many changes in their first year.  Instead of trying to change programs, worship styles, and leadership structure, I encourage them to focus on making sure that the people understand the gospel and what it means to live a gospel-centered life.  In reality, this process will usually take more than a year and should be an ongoing process throughout our ministry.  But it is vitally important in the first year of ministry.

Do not assume that people understand the gospel just because they are members of the church.  Over the past twenty years of ministry I have been shocked at the confusion that I have witnessed among church members, leaders, and even Pastors over the content and response to the gospel.  The most common problem that I see, however, is what I might call the minimization of the gospel.  This occurs when people think that the gospel only deals with how we become followers of Christ.  In other words, they see the gospel as the elementary teaching about how we enter into life with Christ but then we need to move on to the deeper stuff.  My contention is that the gospel is the central message of Scripture and forms the fundamental lens by which we view and understand the world.  Furthermore, the gospel becomes both the model and the means by which we live out the Christian life.

So my advice for new Pastors is to start by first making sure that your people understand the content of the gospel — specifically the meaning of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Specifically, here I want people to understand the substitutionary nature and completeness of the death of Christ and the role of the resurrection in giving the believer new life.  Second, I want to make sure that people understand their response to the gospel by specifically defining it in Biblical terms — to repent and believe in the gospel.  If you want to understand the importance of using Biblical terms in defining the response to the gospel I recommend that you read J.D. Greer’s excellent book entitled “Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart.”  That title may offend you at first but I promise that the book presents a solid, biblical explanation of how to present the gospel in clear terms.

Once the content and response to the gospel has been clearly laid out, I recommend that you start working on showing how the gospel can be seen throughout the Bible.  That does not mean to simply tack the gospel on to the end of your message, but rather to use the gospel as a hermeneutical lens by which you interpret and understand the Scripture.  Show your people how the gospel is present in Old Testament types and figures.  Show them how story of redemption unfolds throughout the Old Testament.  Show them how the Apostles (especially Paul) apply the gospel to specific problems and issues in the local churches.  In other words, saturate your people with the gospel from the pulpit every time you preach.  Do this for at least a year before you start making any other major changes.

Revitalization begins with the preaching of the Gospel!  Start by patiently, carefully, diligently preaching the gospel.  Everything else that you do will flow from this first and more important step.

Plant or Revitalize? — Why I would like to Encourage Young Pastors to Consider the Exisiting Church

One of the growing trends that I see among young men entering the ministry is the desire to plant new churches rather than Pastor existing, established churches.  The reasons for this are rather simple.  Many young guys simply do want to deal with the hassles and difficulties of steering a church back towards health and gospel centeredness, as one young man told me, “Why try to fix what is broken when I can just start brand new.”  Young Pastors also know that it is far easier to start an evangelistic minded church than it is to lead an existing church to recapture their zeal.  Many young men have simply become disenchanted with the unwillingness of existing churches to engage their culture and adapt their methods.  They find that it is easier just to start fresh.  Finally, I do believe that some young men are drawn to church planting simply because it is considered the glamorous thing to do or they think they can become the next evangelical superstar.  My advice to this last group is to rethink whether or not they have been called to the ministry.  The bottom line is that if you are not willing to labor in obscurity you are not fit or ready for a larger ministry.  With that said, I would like to give a few reasons why I think more young Bible college students and seminarians should consider taking on the challenge of revitalizing existing churches:

  1. Jesus died for existing churches, owns them, and loves them– we hear a lot of criticism about churches and church members today but what we often forget in this mix is that Jesus loves these churches and so should we.  Sometimes I listen to Pastors and church leaders who seem to relish in pointing out the warts and flaws in the church.  Among young pastors especially there sometimes seems to be an arrogance and smug attitude about the problems in the established churches.  Let me remind you that while she might have some blemishes and may at times show her age a little, the church is the bride of Christ, therefore, we should all be careful about how we treat her.
  2. Exisiting churches have resources that can be used to build the Kingdom– Obviously, existing churches have material and financial resources that new church plants don’t always have but I have more in mind here than building and bank accounts.  Existing churches have men and women with years of experience in church work and the community.  This often goes unnoticed by new Pastors but the collective experience of the people in the church are some of the greatest resources for spreading the gospel.  The key here is to reengage their creativity and energy into carrying out the mission of the gospel.  The challenge is that sometimes in an existing church this can take awhile and requires patience and humility on the part of the Pastor.
  3. Exisiting churches are needed to help start new churches- the work of the Kingdom is not just starting new churches nor is it just about revitalizing existing churches.  It is both!  We need exisiting churches to be revitalized and to recapture their desire to spread the gospel through evangelism and church planting.  Often it is good to think of revitalizing a church as a replanting it because in many ways that is that it is.  But part of every revitalization project must be the focus on fulfilling Acts 1:8 by planting new churches.  In my experience at First Baptist Church, Metropolis I’ve become convinced that one of the ways to revitalize a church is to lead them to get involved in church planting.  Here we started by simply becoming a secondary partner with a church plant.  We took on the role of simply investing part of our budget in the work and sending a couple of teams a year to help, but this quickly grew and became part of the DNA of our church.  Now we are involved in a church planting partnership in Haiti and Chicago but in addition we have experienced a revitalization within our church that has been amazing to watch.

There are several more thoughts running around in my mind about this subject but that is enough for right now.  Next week, I am going  to try to put some ideas out about the things Pastors need to do in order to lead a revitalization process.

G.K. Beale on the Assurance of Salvation

At the recommendation my dear friend Nathan Martin (@nater_Martin) I spent some time last night reading the excursus in G.K. Beale’s “A New Testament Biblical Theology” on the assurance of salvation (pgs. 865-870). Assurance is one of the most important doctrines for a new believer to comprehend, but unfortunately it is often presented in ways that are at best unhelpful and at worst can be unbiblical. Instead of offering trite sayings or clichés, Beal provides us with a clear, simple and Biblical model for understanding the assurance of salvation. He argues that we can understand assurance as a triangle, “with each angle contributing to an aspect of assurance. “

BealeTriangle

Trust in God’s Promise of Salvation

 Beal states that, “First, God promises throughout the NT that those who place their faith in Christ and his redemptive work will receive an inner assurance that they have truly benefitted from Christ’s work (the top of the triangle).” (p.867) He then cites 1 John 5:9-15 as a classic example of this teaching in Scripture:

If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward 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 that we have asked of him.

This passages teaches us that “God ‘has testified’ that ‘eternal life’ comes through belief in ‘His Son,’ and those ‘who believe’ in the Son ‘have the testimony in ‘themselves.’” (p.868) We have the assurance of God’s Word that He has given life to all who believe.

Good Works

The Bible clearly teaches that no one will be saved by their good works, but it is also equally adamant that those who have been saved will produce good works. Beale uses Ephesians 2:8-10 to demonstrate this point:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Verses 8 and 9 are universally used to demonstrate the Biblical teaching concerning justification by faith alone, however; we often skip the next verse. Verse 10 is important because it teaches that as believers we are saved to do “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them,” Beal says, “..one who has truly been resurrected (Eph 2:4-6) and thus becomes a part of the new creation will inevitably and increasingly be characterized by good works (Eph 2:10) instead of behaving like “dead people” in bondage to “trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1-3).” (p.868)

One of the ways that I explain this to new believers is that the greatest evidence of genuine salvation is a changed life. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” This new life is exhibited through a change in behavior and attitudes that lead to good works. These good works not only demonstrate to others that we have received a new life, but also serve as assurance to us that God has indeed transformed our lives through the gospel. Beal says, “…believer’s assurance of truly being part of the new creation comes as they look back at their former life and see the changes that have come about as they look back at their former life and see the changes that have come about since they became Christian.” (p.869)

Conviction by the Spirit

Many years ago I heard an evangelist say that one of the ways that we know we are saved is that “whenever we fall into sin we are immediately convicted by the indwelling Holy Spirit.” He summed this teaching up by saying, “We can’t get away with anything.” Looking back this was one of the most evident signs to me that something had changed in my life. I can remember shortly after I was saved falling under tremendous conviction for uttering a curse word on the playground. What had been a regular activity before now suddenly felt out of place and wrong.

Beal closes by saying, “…faithful, growing Christians should receive multiple assurances from these three angles, which have a cumulative force, enhancing the overall sense of confidence about the reality of their Christians experience.”(p.870) But also warns that, “no confidence should exist in those who profess to believe in Jesus but who reflect no discernible change for the good in their lifestyles and who have no conviction about changing their sinful ways.”

G.K. Beale “A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New” (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011)

Why Do We Give?

As church leaders we are charged with the responsibility of teaching our people good Biblical stewardship.  In other words, we have to talk to them about how they use their time, talent, treasure and temple to glorify God.  One of the hardest areas that we have to deal with is the issue of giving.  This always a sensitive subject, however, I believe that our focus needs to be more on teaching people “why” they give than “how much they give.”  The truth of the matter is that someone can give a large sum of money but if they give it for the wrong reason it is all for naught.  The reason that we give is far more important to God than the amount that we give.  Turn in your Bible to 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 and let me show you three principle that should guide our attitude in giving.

1.  Our Giving Should Reflect Our Understanding of the Grace of God (v. 1-7)

Paul uses the churches in Macedonia as an example for the Corinthians of how they should give, but notice that the emphasis is immediately on the grace of God.  In the first verse of this passage, Paul says, “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia…”  He then goes on to describe how, even though they were experiencing a time of extreme poverty and a test of affliction, they still had given more generously than anyone would have expected.  This was clear evidence of the grace of God at work in the Macedonians, but also reflects their understanding of His grace.  They gave beyond their means because of their experience of grace.

In verse 2 Paul lays out a rather unusual and unexpected formula for wealth.  We tend to think of wealth only in terms of material blessings and abundance.  But Paul says that  Joy + Sever Affliction + Poverty = Wealth.  This is contrary to everything that we are taught by the world, but it is a fundamental Christian truth.  The Macedonians were poor by the world’s standards but rich in God’s economy.

Understanding the grace of God produces a sense of gratitude and humility in our hearts.  It reminds us that everything that we have has been given to us by God.  We own nothing, it has all been placed on loan to us by God and we are responsible for using everything for His glory.  The deeper we understand the grace of God, the more generous we will become.  As ministers, therefore, our teaching on stewardship needs to begin by thoroughly teaching our people about and celebrating the truth of God’s grace.

2. Our giving must be motivated by the Gospel (v.8-11)

I often say to our church that “Paul never encountered a problem that he didn’t solve through the Gospel.”  The gospel is the primary reference point for Paul’s worldview, therefore, when he was dealing with marriage problems in Corinth he settled them through the gospel.  When he was dealing the relationship between a runaway slave and his owner in Philemon, he fixed the problem by applying the gospel.  It should be no surprise then that when Paul deals with giving that he focuses our attention on the gospel.

In verse 8 he tells the Corinthians that he is not commanding them to give but then in v.9 he immediately turns to the Gospel, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” There is no better example of giving in the history of the world than Jesus giving His life on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin.  Throughout the history of the church those who have understood the gospel the best were also those who were most willing to sacrifice and give all they had to give for His cause.

Honestly, I am afraid that far too often in the church we resort to a worldly, materialistic motivation for giving.  I hear preachers all of stripes and theological persuasions attempt to motivate church members to give so that they will receive back from God.  Recently, I heard a preacher actually quantify the amounts, he would say things like, “God will restore to you 30 times what you give, so if you give $1,000 He will return your gift thirty-fold.”  He then when on to ask, “How many of you could use $30,000?”  As the hands went up all around he then said, “So come and give your seed gift of $1,000 and God will return your investment thirty-fold.”  This kind of plea misses the point of New Testament giving completely.  We don’t give to receive, we give because Jesus gave His life to save us, therefore, everything we have belongs to Him! When we give we are supposed to reflect the gospel, not the basest forms of human greed.

3. Our Giving Should Reflect Our Participation in the Body of Christ (v.12-15)

In these verses, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are participants in the body of Christ.  He then cites Exodus 16:18 to show that in the wilderness God provided the needs of the children of Israel by sending manna and quail.  It is important to go back and read all of Exodus 16 to really capture the context of this verse.  When you do, you will see that Paul is really saying two things by citing this verse.

First, he is pointing out that God always provides for the needs of His people.  One of the most amazing things about the manna and quail is that every Israelite family has exactly what they needed. Those who gathered much had exactly what they needed and those who gathered just a little had exactly what they needed.  In other words, God made sure to cover their need.

Second, he is making the point that since Corinth had an abundance of material resources while others had less, they needed to give out of their abundance to help those in need.  Furthermore, there would be a day when these rolls were reversed and Corinth would be on the receiving end of Christian generosity.

As we give we need to remember that every member of the body of Christ is called to participate in the life of the church.  Not only does this apply to the local church but also to the church universal.  In the recent years our church here in Illinois has been involved in helping a church in Blanquette, Haitit.  While our church has been able to send large amounts of material aid to the church there, I feel sure that we have received more blessings than we have given.  The dear people of Haiti have done more to teach our people about the gospel and about what it means to live out the gospel than they can possibly imagine.

Conclusion

Christian giving is a reflection of the gospel of Jesus Christ and a basic part of the Christian life.  As Pastors and church leaders we have a responsibility for teaching our people good stewardship.  But as we do, we need to make sure that we teach them as much about “why” they give as “how much” they should give.

Seven Characteristics of Effective Christian Leadership

What makes an effective Christian leader?  There have been hundreds, maybe thousands of books written on this subject.  I’ve listened to countless sermons and lectures about what it takes to be a good leader.  But I have found no better source for understanding Christian leadership than the Bible.  In the Old Testament, one of my favorite leaders is King David.  Over the past couple of months I have been preaching through 1 Chronicles and have been inspired by the tremendous example of leadership found in King David.  This Sunday night I will be concluding the series by preaching from 1 Chronicles.  As I studied the passage I noticed that there are seven characteristics that David displays here that are vital for every Christian leader.

Effective Christian Leaders…

  1. Understand who is really in control (v.1)- Notice in this verse that David refers to the Temple as a “palace” for the Lord God.  The NIV translates this word as a “palatial structure.”  This is a word used to describe the dwelling place of a King.  By using this specific word, David was reminding the people that there true King was the Lord.  This is the very first issue that every Christian leader must settle in their own hearts.  You minister under the Lordship of Christ!
  2. Make personal sacrifices (v.2-5)– In these verses the Bible says that out of his own treasure David gave 3,000 talents of gold and 7,000 talents of silver.  According to the Wycliffe Bible Commentary the gold would have been worth $1.1 billion and the silver $16 million.  This is an enormous sum of money.  Every Christian leader is called to make sacrifices to be involved in the ministry.  Obviously, Jesus is the greatest example of sacrifice but the Bible is filled with dozens of examples of men and women who set aside their personal comfort and desires to serve God.  Sacrifice is not just a possibility in ministry, it is a prerequisite.
  3. Lead by example (v.6-9)- Notice that before David asked others to contribute he set the example for them.  Whenever I think of leading by example I think of the Apostle Paul who in 1 Corinthians 11:1 says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”  As Christian leaders we need to provide an example for people to follow.  We need to follow the example of  those who have set a positive example of Christian humility and a commitment to the gospel.  As   leaders we must live a life that is surrendered to Christ and set an example of devotion for other people to follow.
  4. Give all of the glory to God (v.10-17)- David was careful in this passage to give all of the credit to God.  In v.14 he says, “For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.”  Effective Christian leaders realize that everything they have and everything they are belongs to God.  But the wonderful news is that we find our greatest purposes and our greatest joy in glorifying God.  So give God all of the credit.
  5. Pray for others (v.18-19)– Christian leaders know the importance of prayer and recognize that one of the greatest investments they can make in the lives of others is to pray for them.  Many years ago I heard a quote by that said, “We move people to God through prayer.”  Christian leaders motivate and move people more through prayer than they do through persuasion.
  6. Worship the Lord (v.20-21) David lead the people to bless God.  This should be the goal of every Christian leader!  Many years ago I was introduced to John Piper’s book entitled “Let the Nations Be Glad.”  In that book he shows that the primary motivation for Christian service is always worship.  This is the thing that God most desire throughout the Bible.  As Christian leaders we need to understand that worship is more than just singing a few songs on Sunday morning and going home.  Worship is a lifestyle of constantly honoring God in everything we do.  As Christian leaders we all have the responsibility of leading people to worship.
  7. Pass the Torch (v.22-30)- David did not try to grasp the reins of leadership but instead passed the torch to the next generation.  As Christian leaders one of our greatest tasks is to prepare the next generation to take our place and then to hand over leadership.  David hands the reins of leadership.  In v.24 the Bible says, “All the leaders and the mighty men, and also all the sons of King David, pledged their allegiance to King Solomon.”  I think that the people’s willingness to follow David is connected, at least in part, to David’s willingness to hand over power and be supportive of his son.  This is one of the hardest things to do in leadership but it is also one of the most important.  As Christian leaders we need to mentor and train the next generation, then we need to hand over the reins, then become their biggest cheerleaders.

Habakkuk: Why every believer should question God?

Is it right to question God?  For most of my life I have heard well-meaning, good-hearted Christians answer this question with an emphatic No!  But in actual experience we all know that there are moments in lives when circumstances cause us to question what God is doing.  Habakkuk is a biblical example of the benefit that questioning God has for our spiritual life.  Rather than settling for trite, simplistic theological answers, Habakkuk dares to ask God some hard questions and in the process develops a far more glorious vision of what God is like.  I would like to suggest that hard questions can serve the same function in the life of every believer.

Habakkuk wrote during a time when the nation of Judah was experiencing a time of great economic prosperity but was spiritually bankrupt.  As he looked at the injustice and wickedness rampant in the nation, his heart became incensed at God’s apparent lack of interest.  Habakkuk decides to take the issue to God and to find out some answers, so in 1:1-2 he asks, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?  Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?”  This is an honest question and one that every generation of believers is forced to ask as we look at the violence, unrighteousness, and injustice that goes on all around us.

God’s answer in 1:5—11 came as a complete surprise to Habakkuk.  Essentially, God announced that he was raising up the Babylonians to serve as his instrument of punishment against Judah.  This was not at all good news to Habakkuk and causes him to ask another question in 1:12—13.  In these verses, Habakkuk raises the question of God’s justice, “How can you use the unrighteous to judge the righteous?”  He then goes on throughout the remainder of chapter 2 describing the violence of the Babylonians.  What we have here is the classic case of asking a question and then being disturbed by the answer.  Habakkuk wants God to deal with the sins of Judah but never imagined that it would involve being conquered by the Babylonians.  So in 2:1 the prophets says, “I will take my stand at my watch post and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”

In chapter 2 we have one of the most important statements made in all the Bible, “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” (2:4)  This verse would be used later by the Apostle Paul to describe the essence of our response to the gospel.  In Habakkuk’s day God was reminding the prophet and the people to keep on trusting that He was in control, even when some would question whether He was.

This brings me to the point that I want to make.  Some of the people in Judah questioned God out of unbelief while others were driven by their faith to question God.  That might seem like a play on words but in reality it is a difference of eternal significance.  Those who question God out of unbelief only deepen their situation and harden their hearts even further.  But when genuine believers question God out of a deep, abiding faith, they experience spiritual growth.  The difference is in the starting point.

Habakkuk never questions whether God exists or whether He is good.  Habakkuk starts off with a firm belief in God and a basic understanding of His nature.  But in his humanity, Habakkuk recognized that he struggled with understanding the ways of God.  He needs to grow, so he humbly asks God for a deeper revelation of His nature.  In other words, Habakkuk began his questions from a point of faith and as a result received a further revelation of God’s nature.

As believers, we can grow in our understanding of God by faithfully taking our questions to Him in prayer and submitting ourselves to the authority of God’s Word.  As we read, study and meditate upon the Word of God, He will provide us with a deeper understanding of His nature, character and ways.So if you are a believer, I want to encourage you to question God.  Some of our questions He will answer, some He will not, but either way we will grow.  But the starting point always must be faith.

Healthy Versus UnHealthy Vessels

The next couple of paragraphs may be hard to read and I promise you that they are equally hard for me to write but we have to admit that a major reason the church is so unhealthy is because its Pastors are sick.  Even as I write those words my heart is broken because I love Pastors and I am one myself and I know how hard of a task we have in this day and age.  But I also know my own heart and I have talked with enough Pastors to know that we have a serious crisis occurring across the church.  As Pastors and church leaders we need to take a careful look at our own lives and make sure that we are fit to lead.

Not long ago I was having coffee with a Pastor friend of mine who showed me a picture of himself and three of his friends from seminary.  He then went on to tell me that out all three of those friends ended up having to leave the ministry as the result of moral failures.  We both sat there for the next hour sharing with each other the stories of men that we knew who had one time had heard the call of God on their lives to preach the gospel but at some point had ended up falling into sin.   It would be easy to try to say that these men had never been converted or that they were simply wolves in sheep’s clothing, but the truth is much harder to deal with. In each case, we agreed that these were genuine believers, who loved God and wanted to serve the church but ended up falling into sin and lost their ministries.  What happened to them is actually much simple and much scarier— they simply didn’t take care of their own spiritual heath and they slowly drifted into a heinous sin that ruined their family, cost them their ministry and destroyed the church they Pastored.   But what is even scarier is that this is not the worst thing that can happen.

Over the years,  I’ve seen Pastors who neglect their spiritual lives but instead of falling into some heinous sin they simply grow cold, uncaring, and cynical.  They don’t wash out of the ministry, but instead keep on showing up week after week, with no life, no vitality, and no passion.   Rather than being ministers of life, they’v become carriers of the deadly spiritual pathogen known as lethargy.  These are Pastors who have not been caught up in such blatant and gross sins as sexual immorality or greed, but instead are plagued by a host of seemingly smaller, easier to disguise sins, that are equally as appalling to God as their more grandiose cousins, but far easier to justify and rationalize in the mind of the Pastor.  Rather than ruining their life and ministry in one quick moment, this situation leads to a slow wasting away or rotting of ones life and ministry.

An unhealthy vessel will either bring rot or ruin to the local church, but there is another option— we could turn around and take the necessary steps to return to Spiritual health.  Over the past couple of years, I have talked to many former Pastors whose lives and ministries were ruined by sin, but there have been others who upon recognizing their condition repented and came back to God.  It wasn’t an easy path, but their lives have been turned around and they are now examples of God’s grace and mercy rather than of another Pastor who washed out of the ministry because of a moral failure.  The question that I have to ask myself and you will have to ask yourself is, “Which one am I going to be?”