Monday, January 11, 2016

The Low Bar of Relativity

God's Word warns us that in the last days people will gravitate towards false teachers....

2Ti 4:3-4, "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, [4] and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths."

The original Greek word in this verse that is translated as "endure" is "anechomai" which means "to hold oneself up against, that is, (figuratively) put up with: - bear with endure, forbear, suffer." The idea here is to expose oneself to something that can be uncomfortable... Exposing or submission to voluntarily, where there is a choice to stay or depart.

There will be this turning away from listening to the truth, not because they were fooled or deceived but because they have their personal preference of what they want to hear and will then search around to look for people who are saying things that align with what they have already decided to be true.

It is important to note that they will "wander off" into myths. They're not going to sprint, jog, or make a bee-line toward myths and heresies.  It is a casually paced, meandering path that is taken.  Each step on this journey is usually as a result of an avoidance of discomfort or pain associated with being confronted with the truth.

COMPARING TO THE EXTREME. Each move they make is a step away from the truth.  They may compare this new fellowship or group against an extreme example of error and conclude that because THIS group is "better" (relatively speaking) than THAT other group then THIS group must be good.

The problem with this approach is that instead of pursuing excellence they're looking for anything that is above the low bar of extreme mediocrity.

So, how does one know if they are "pursuing truth" or "wandering off into myths"?  The following may be a helpful grid of discernment....

INTENT OF THE CONTENT. Is the primary characteristic of the teaching the reading, interpretation, and application of Scripture?  Is there a more than trivial percentage of time spent on personal anecdotes and illustrations? Is the intent of the message to help the hearer understand the verse being studied? Is Scripture used merely as a launching point for a self-help seminar-like pep talk?  Are the Scripture verses that are quoted used properly and in context?

CONVICTION. All believers are in the process of being sanctified. We have work to do in growing in Christ-likeness. Do the sermons reveal those areas where you are falling short and need to work on? Does the uneasiness of conviction linger with you beyond the parking lot of the gathering place?

ENCOURAGEMENT. Do the messages offer encouragement where it is appropriate?  The unbelieving world will not encourage believers to pursue Christ... believers will only receive encouragement from other believers. Solid teaching points out what "abiding in Christ" looks like. It compares and contrasts our thoughts, words, and actions with what God's Word says. Teachings that promote the idea of "perpetual victimhood" offer no encouragement, no way to measure growth, and keep the hearer continually dependent on the teacher.

HONESTY. Are the words of the teacher (that they don't attribute to others) the teacher's own words? Is he or she extracting the truth from God's Word as a result of time spent studying or time spent cutting and pasting from a Commentary? or lifting teaching points from someone else's sermon? Plagiarism is a big problem in Evangelical churches. If you hear something quotable in a message, jot it down and later google that quote. You may be surprised to learn that it came from a place like

A teacher's personal opinion backed by an explanation can be helpful in understanding one position among multiple possible and correct positions.  Does the teacher separate Scriptural truth from their opinion?  Does the teacher simply present some possible correct positions but not provide any guidance?

DILIGENCE. Does the teacher quote extensively from non-Biblical sources? Even properly attributed quotes taken from Commentaries and from leaders in church history may reveal a lack of diligence in the teacher's preparation. It is important to show the historical traditions of Christian thought but it shouldn't be at the expense of the hard work of digging into the Scriptures themselves.

INTEGRITY. Does the teacher say and do things outside of the teaching time consistent with what they teach? Are their lives a model of what is being taught? For example: A teacher who engages in coarse language privately but edifying speech when teaching does not believe the things that they are teaching. A teacher or leader who speaks disparagingly of the congregation in private reveals a heart that is not qualified to lead.

FALSE TEACHERS.  There is only one perfect teacher of Scripture, that is Jesus. All others will fall short. There will be difficult theological concepts where a teacher may speak in error. A follow-up with them for clarification, correction, and confirmation is definitely appropriate. But if the teacher is repeatedly in error on doctrines that traditionally have only one correct interpretation, then that indicates a problem. Even Satan, the father of lies, will speak truth on occasion, and will quote Scripture... but always out of context and for his own purposes not God's purposes.

A false teacher is not identified by the truthful things they teach but by the false ones.

The danger of wandering off into myths grows the closer we get to the Lord's return. Those who truly desire to grow as disciples and draw closer to Christ must regularly examine their hearts as to their motivations when leaving and/or joining a fellowship.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Life Has a Lot of Moving Parts

As I was responding to an email this morning, I looked at the URL in my signature that points to this blog and thought it was time to review it and freshen it up. That was when I noticed that it had been over a year since the last time I posted. Wow.

I took that time to reflect on what life has been like since then. I realized that life is busier than ever and has a lot of "moving parts".

Jeremy and Jennifer were married and Eva and I helped them launch into married life.

Elizabeth completed her Associate's degree and transferred to Corban University in Salem Oregon. We took some time to help her get launched.

Eva had surgeries on her thyroid and shoulder, each of which required time for recovery and recuperation.

I've had a busy and challenging year at the college. Every week since Oct 1 2014 I've spent nearly every day in sermon preparation. Each Sunday since then I've delivered those sermons (a total of 64 consecutive weeks and counting).

This isn't intended to sound as a boast, but if it is taken that way please view it as a boast in Christ. The Lord has perfectly protected and provided for all of our needs during this time. It is by His grace alone that all of the "moving parts" of life have been held together and kept in motion. Every morning I'm painfully aware that if He were to lift His hand off this deal, then the parts would go flying in all directions.

As I look forward to 2016, it seems like it will be more challenging than 2015. A new start time for our Sunday Bible study (10:30am from the previous 11am), a 3-part seminar on Bible prophecy in January, projects around the house that were postponed in 2015 that will need to be done in 2016, relationships with extended family and friends that have been neglected need to be given attention... and the list goes on.

I want to encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ that if He has called you to a work, He will also equip you, and sustain you. It is in those situations where His presence is undeniable.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Grace is my church!

Those four words are arguably the most encouraging ones for a church planter to hear. It is an expression that reflects the heart of someone who has heard the mission, vision, and core values, seen them put into practice with sincerity, and received confirmation from the Holy Spirit that this is the body of believers to be part of for this next season of their life.

They're also perhaps the most frightening words to hear. We haven't launched yet. We're still growing and awaiting for the Lord to put the remaining pieces into place. The mission, vision, and core values will not come into full fruition until we launch and yet with those words, "Grace is my church!" the responsibility and burden for caring for God's people has increased.  Our focus has always been to care for the people who the Lord already brought, (rather than on designing ways to gather more people) but this declaration from those who have come alongside us puts an exclamation point on it.

It has been 7 months since embarking on this journey, and only 5 months since we started our twice-a-month Bible study. During that time the Lord has grown us individually and as a group in obedience to His Word, in our faith in Him as we see answered prayer, and in our relationship with one another.  This, not coincidentally, is the mission of Grace Bible Fellowship:

Bringing others together to grow closer to God, His word, and His people for His glory.
Those four words were also the cause for more prayer and reflection as to the next step. There's been a collective hunger to meet more frequently and to have something on Sunday.  There were some practical reasons for that in addition to the tradition equating church with Sunday.  Work schedules prevented some from being able to attend. Others have difficulty driving at night. There was also the downside of meeting only two or three times a months. If one couldn' attend a session, it might be another 3-4 weeks before we'd see them again... that's not good.

As a result of prayer, reflection, and conversations with the group, we have announced that starting on Sunday, October 5th, we will be meeting for Bible study every Sunday @ 11:00am at the Prescott Adult Center.  It's not going to be a church service, but it will be a Bible study with a message from the Bible (verse-by-verse exposition with an emphasis on application) followed by a time of discussion on the teaching, fellowship, prayer, and socializing.

We're responding to the needs of the flock and to what the Lord is doing, and as a result we're going to have a pretty unique opportunity during this next stage of planting. An interactive corporate gathering where we can discuss the sermon and application points so that we'll be ready to start the week putting these truths into practice.  These have truly been "family gatherings" and we're excited for this next step.

Church planting is hard work but the Lord Jesus Christ has been so kind and gracious to us. There are many times when the burden seems so great, and the Spirit is faithful to remind us:

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, [7] casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." - 1 Peter 5:6-7

We are so blessed for the opportunity to be part of this work, for the people the Lord has gathered thus far for the journey, and look forward with eager anticipation to growing closer to the folks here now, who else He will bring, and what He will do to bring glory to Himself through this work.

I've been dreading this day all week... last night I couldn't sleep... tossing, turning... at one point I woke up in a cold sweat. But there was no avoiding it, the day was now here. This day comes in an awkward time of the year where the natives cry out in discomfort at the daytime heat, only to shift to shivers of cold at night.  I will be relieved when it is over.

So I get out of bed and grab a cup of coffee. It's going to be quite a journey so I have a 2nd cup. I don't know when the next time I'll be able to eat, so I make myself a sandwich... turkey, ham, swiss... I'm going to need all the protein I can get.

I gather my supplies. Like a climbing expedition up Mt. Everest, I plan things out and have everything ready. Once I go up, I'm committed. To have to come back down would be an admission of defeat, and an acknowledgment of poor planning.

Gloves, kneepads, toolkit, replacement pads, spraypaint, shop vac, extension cord, bearing oil, another sandwich, and a travel mug of coffee. I carry all of these things up the ladder and place them at the edge of the roofline... this is "base camp".

Like a mountain climber tossing a rope, I plug the extension cord into the outside socket and fling the coil of the extension cord onto the roof. It lands with a reassuring thud.  I now make my final ascent up the ladder and onto the roof.

I've got work gloves and knee pads on. This task is too challenging to fake "manning up" and going without protective gear.  I'm at a stage in life where the practical trumps the appearance.

I open my toolkit on top of the cooler, and like a mechanic working on a snowmobile in the middle of the tundra, I begin to expose the cooler's insides.  The pads on this cooler are not those straw/seaweed variety... no, these are the monstrous corrugated paper ones. The new pads including the box they came in weigh no more than 5 lbs. The old ones I'm replacing, approximately 50 lbs. Talk about mineral build up!

So I begin scraping the water pan... minerals are flaking off.  I then take the shop vac and begin cleaning out the pan. fine dust starts billowing out of the exhaust and into the air. It was like a blinding snowstorm. I cover my face... I forgot to bring a mask, but I will not admit defeat.

The pan is clean.  I top up the bearing reservoirs with oil. I remove the metal trap that closes the opening for winter.  I install the new pads.

Now comes time to deal with the float valve. This value shuts off the water when it reaches a certain level. If the float is too high, then the water overflows and runs down the roof. If the float is too low, then the pump will not get enough water and the cooler won't cool and the pump can burn out.

So with the same careful measuring eye that Indiana Jones had in weighing the pouch of sand to match the weight of the idol, I adjust the float.  I reassemble the rest of the cooler.

Unlike expeditions up Mt. Everest, I can't leave the things that I brought up. I toss the old cooler pads off the side of the house... they land with a loud crash and shards of mineral encrusted paper fly everywhere. The impact is so forceful, flakes of these shards get embedded into the neighbor's wooden fence.  It is then that I hope that Eva didn't think that I fell off the roof.  Note to self: Let Eva know when I'm tossing things down off the roof.

I bring everything else back to the edge of the roof... hoping to say goodbye until the autumn when I'll need to return to shut things down. I double-check to make sure I have everything.  (One year I had forgotten an adjustable wrench up there and spent the whole summer looking for it) A sentimental tear wells up as I bid farewell to the cooler.   I download the equipment and tools.

We're in the final stretch now. I turn on the little brass valve on the outside spigot that is the water supply for the cooler. No leaks!  I climb up the ladder and I can hear the faint but distinct spraying and gurgling of water as the pan fills. I'll come back in 20 minutes to check the water. The level is just about right. I gently bend the float arm to allow just another 1/4" more water and wait for the valve to shut off.

In the house, I plug in the power to the cooler and turn on the controls... HIGH / COOL. I can hear the pump engage and 30 seconds later, the cooler's motor kicks in.  The temporary but distinct odor of the new pads may be annoying to the rest of the inhabitants, but it is a reassuring one for me. The air is coming through the pads. (For some reason my mind considered the possibility of something going wrong and the air coming from somewhere else)

Is the air coming through the vents cool because the cooler is working or because the ambient temperature outside is cool? Will I need to return to the roof and verify firsthand that the pads are wet and cooling?  I decide to write in my adventure journal instead and wait for the heat of the day to confirm that the cooler is working.

For the ladies, this is a little insight into what us guys go through to get the house ready for the summer heat.  For the guys, a little commiserating, brothers-in-coolers as it were.

NB: This was actually one of the smoothest cooler activations I've experienced... generally, this task requires at least 1 and often 2 trips to Ace or Home Depot.

A pastor I once greatly respected and admired was often heard telling ministry workers that the key to faithful service was to "just teach the Word".  He believed that pastors and church planters need only focus on teaching the Word of God to God's people. It didn't seem correct to me the first time that I heard it, and over the years it made even less sense to the point where I rejected that bumper sticker quote as being so reductionist as to be dangerous.

In the 21st chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves Him. In response to each of Peter's affirmative declarations, Jesus replied with: "feed My lambs" (John 21:15), "tend My sheep" (John 21:16), and "feed my Sheep" (John 21:17). I believe that these three responses by Jesus outline the responsibilities of a shepherd.

"feed My lambs".  The metaphor of "sheep" and "food" certainly do reference the teaching of God's Word. The lambs, the young sheep, the young in the faith need to be fed the milk of the Word. It must be presented in a way that can be received and applied by those who are new believers. This requires a deliberate plan to provide that level of teaching as well as a pastor who is in touch with the flock to know who needs the milk of the Word.

"tend My sheep". This is different than feeding. It involves all aspects of caring for the flock. Protecting, providing for, treating wounds, gathering, releasing, and loving, are just some of the responsibilities. Again, a pastor/shepherd needs to know the flock and be connected with it to properly tend to His sheep.

"feed My sheep". This is another reference to teaching the Word, but the target of this type of teaching are the mature believers. They need the meat of the Word, the more difficult and challenging truths of Scripture to help them to grow even more mature in their faith.  A pastor needs to know who in the flock are the more mature believers and provide ways to feed them the more advanced theological truths of Scripture.

"Just teach the Word" ignores the Lord's command to His shepherds to "tend My sheep". It also ignores the need for different type of food for different members of the flock. An attempt at a one-size-fits-all meal ends up not being optimal for the young nor mature in the faith.

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." - 1 Corinthians 13:1-2

Apostle Paul through the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit wrote that speaking truth must be accompanied by love. "Just teach the Word" doesn't acknowledge the need for love. A "just teach the Word" philosophy of pastoring doesn't produce a shepherd, it produces a public speaker.

On a variety of occasions I've had the opportunity to coach church planters. One planter in particular had taken "just teach the Word" to heart to the point where his primary focus was to teach a Sunday message. The church launched small. It remained small. Some people would visit a Sunday service but not return. Some of them would stay but others who had been there a while, left. The net result was a number that essentially remained unchanged.

Some in leadership asked why I thought that the church wasn't growing numerically. They found it puzzling since the church planter "teaches the Word". In response, I would read John Ch.21 to them and ask them for the evidence that the planter was tending the Lord's sheep and that he is feeding BOTH lambs and sheep. Of course there may be other factors involved, but if these basic aspects of shepherding are not being done then it is a contributing factor.

Those of us who are called to be pastors, to be shepherds of the Lord's flock, need to love the Lord and His people above all things. A genuine, sincere, and observable love. Teaching the Word is essential but not the only thing a shepherd is called to do.

It is when a pastor is in and among God's people, in the trenches of the Christian walk, demonstrating love, care, and concern that the teaching of God's Word has the greatest penetration into the hearts and minds of the hearer.

"Just teach the Word" makes a great bumper sticker... that raises bumper sticker pastors who equip bumper sticker Christians.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Marks of a Mega-church Mindset (Pt.1)

It's been two and half months since embarking on this journey of planting a church. As I prepare for our first information meeting, I'm excited to share the mission, vision, and core values that the Lord has stirred in my heart with those who the Lord is drawing near to hear. I'm reflecting on the opportunities that I've had over the past few years to coach church planters and mentor elders.

What is clear is that a mega-church is not simply defined by the number of attenders.  Yes, the larger a congregation the more likely it is to be mega-church because intimate fellowship with other believers has a practical numerical limit. But it goes beyond that. It's also about a particular mindset as well. It is possible (because I've witnessed it) for a church of 15, 150, or 1500 to have a mega-church mindset.

There are indicators, "marks" if you will, that reflect a mega-church mindset. In this blog post, I'd like to cover one such mark.  It is, "how church leadership interacts with the congregation".

Mega-churches are known for having wide-but-shallow connections and relationships. It is a simple by-product of dealing with large numbers of people. There are not enough leaders and not enough hours in the day for leadership to have long-lasting and significant relationships with large numbers of congregants. So out of practical necessity, the quantity and quality of interaction is reduced to:

CRISIS. When a member of the congregation is going through a difficult time, such as hospitalization, death in the family, or other critical situation, leadership directs their attention to that person. They comfort, they pray, they serve that person in practical ways.  When the critical period of the crisis subsides, leadership's attention moves on.

CORRECTION. Should a member of the congregation do something that affects other members, leadership directs their attention to the member to deal with the situation. Redirection and restoration are attempted and hopefully received. Having dealt with the situation, leadership's involvement ends.

CONVENIENCE. There are many ministry needs in the church... opportunities to lead tables, prepare meals, as well as various administrative tasks, and more. When a need goes unfilled for a time, leadership seeks out congregants who are available to serve in that capacity. They are recruited, trained, and scheduled. When the need is filled, leadership redirects their focus elsewhere.

It's not necessarily a reflection of the character of a particular leader but of the necessity of the situation. In a mega-church mindset, relationships are, in a word, "reactionary". Relationships are formed and temporarily established as a result of a need. When the need is addressed, the focus shifts elsewhere.

Relationships formed out of response to a practical need are rarely deep or long-lasting. It's not the type of Koinonia fellowship described in the New Testament.  This is why I'm burdened to include as two of the core values of Grace Bible Fellowship, "Everyone is family" and "Plant churches".

I am firmly convicted that it is far better for individual believers, the community, and the cause of Christ to have 3 churches of 300 members than to have one church of 1000.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Emphasis Matters: "My will is God's will"

It's a simple phrase. But it can have opposite meanings depending upon which word is emphasized.  "My will is GOD'S will" implies that the speaker desires for their will to be aligned with God's. That their desires, intentions, thoughts, words, and actions are submissive to and supportive and consistent with the Lord's sovereignty.

"My will IS God's will" implies a strong equivalency in a synonymous sort of way that what the speaker is thinking is by default what God's purposes are.  They will rarely ever directly say that. That's too over-the-top arrogant, but they use softer wording that is acceptable in the Christian culture.   They'll often refer to Psalm 37:4, "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." as a proof-text for that belief. Obviously there is more to that verse than that.

Their emotions are the key tool they use to discern God's will.  "I have a peace about it" is a phrase often used to "prove" that it is the Lord's will in a particular situation. So basically, they think of something, have a peace about it, and then go for it.

It's a self-rationalizing approach to making decisions. It is also extremely dangerous to one's walk with the Lord and growth as a disciple. If a believer has decided that what they are planning to do is God's will for them simply because they have a peace about it, then the outcome is never questioned. There is no self-examination as to whether or not it truly was God's will (versus that person's desire).

One of the roles that the Holy Spirit has is a ministry of convicting. To compare the believer's thoughts, words, and actions against Christ's righteousness and the Word of God. When there is a disconnect, believers should experience righteous conviction or "good guilt".  But sin, primarily pride, can prevent us from hearing this conviction from the Spirit.  God is loving and He is patient. So when we don't respond to the Holy Spirit's convicting voice, He will bring people and circumstances into our lives to "get our attention".

God uses people as an agent of conviction. For David, it took Nathan speaking to David in a parable to break through David's heart for him to be confronted with his sin.  God uses circumstances as a way of getting our attention as well. For the prophet Jonah, it took being thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish for Jonah to come to a full acknowledgement of his rebellion and to repent.

I've referred to Jonah's experience with the great fish as a "storm of correction". Jonah was in rebellion against the Lord and in turn the Lord used the storm and the great fish to get Jonah's attention.

When we have a self-rationalizing approach to seeking God's will we mistake the storm of correction in our lives as merely a storm of direction. We lose the opportunity to learn and grow from that correction and perpetuate a "when life serves us lemons, make lemonade". Had Jonah done that, he wouldn't have repented of his rebellion but instead made plans to redecorate his fish-belly condo.

If we don't examine ourselves and identify a storm of correction, then we simply "go with the flow" and embrace everything as being terrific and wonderful. On the surface it may sound super-spiritual, but it is simply stupid.

When the Lord brings people or circumstances into our lives to provide a corrective note, we should listen. It often means that the hardness of our hearts had prevented us from receiving the Holy Spirit's conviction. It is far better to receive and repent because of a whisper than because of a divine 2-by-4 upside the head.

So how can we re-calibrate our minds to be sensitive to the Spirit's stirring?

  • Be totally honest with ourselves and with God. He already knows everything so why try to hide the faintest seed of unrighteous thought?  Acknowledge it, confess it, and repent from it. We might make a decision partly for selfish or prideful reasons, no matter how small a role that thought played in the decision, confess it and repent from it.
  • Listen to those around you. When a dissenting opinion is voiced, listen.  Does that opinion line up with Scripture?  What is the motivation for the person holding that opinion?  Sometimes a dissenting voice inadvertently exposes a sinful motivation at the heart of a decision. Sometimes that opinion is not applicable. But that conclusion should only be derived after prayerful and brutally honest self-examination.
  • Ask yourself, "When was the last time I asked the Lord for something and His answer was 'no'?". Often times people who "have a peace about things" will find it extremely difficult to remember such a situation.
  • Review the outcome. We seek, we decide, we act. What were the results? Was the Lord truly glorified and people blessed? Were there things that could've been done better? What things were done correctly?  We need to extend to ourselves and to others, "grace to grow". We need to acknowledge that not every endeavor we undertake will be perfectly executed. We'll fall short in one way or another. When we acknowledge this truth and extend grace, then we are more comfortable in acknowledging shortcomings. And with that acknowledgement comes learning and growing.

Our greatest opportunity for growth as a disciple of Jesus is when we genuinely humble ourselves before Him, fervently seek His will, be faithful to do our best, and then listen and receive commendation and correction from Him.