Monthly Archives: May 2011

Church Growth vs. Church Seasons

Trevin Wax referred to this article in his blog on “Church Growth vs. Church Seasons.”  I found it very enlightening and insightful—and surprising.  One doesn’t think of a healthy, biblically based, biblically driven church losing members as part of a particular season.  Like any church, our church (Boone’s Creek Baptist Church) has it’s seasons of growth and seasons where people leave for a myriad of reasons.  It’s exciting when people come—and oh so difficult and painful when they leave, regardless of the reason.

This article gives some great honesty about the ups and downs and issues with looking solely at numbers.  God brings in, but God also may prune.  When referring to the levelling out or plateauing in numbers, he brings up a number of issues that are developed in this article:

  1. This situation is not unusual.
  2. Non-stop numerical growth is not a biblical expectation.
  3. Healthy churches go through life cycles of growth, pruning, decline, and blessing.
  4. Figuring out what season you’re in is important.
  5. The reality of size preference.
  6. The real issue is health and witness.
  7. Some things can be done in any season.

This is worth the read!

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A False View of Church Success—And What We Can Miss

Thabiti Anyabwile writes a helpful and insightful article on a very touchy subject.  Here’s the first paragraph:

Perhaps one of the most important things to settle in ministry and as a church is how to define “success.”  Without question, we all have some notion of what constitutes “success.”  And whether it’s explicit or implicit, whether it’s written down or unspoken, our notion of success drives our behavior and our self evaluation.

Very often churches and church leaders define their “success” in terms of numbers.  Some defend measurement as an acceptable approach to gauging progress and effectiveness.  They speak of the number of baptisms or converts, church attendance and budgets, and other numerical assessments as shorthand for “success.”  Others reduce “success” to one factor: faithfulness.  ”Whether the numbers change or not,” this group tells us, “is not the issue.  The issue is whether a leader and church have been true to God’s design and intent.”

Here’s what both points of view can sometimes miss:

Click here to read the rest of the article.

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Transforming People Through the Word That Transforms

[This sermon was preached at Boone’s Creek Baptist Church on Sunday, May 29, 2011.  You can listen to it here.]

The Holy Spirit uses transformed people to transform people through the transforming Word! I find it interesting where Peter ‘went’ when he stood up. So many evangelism techniques encourage Christians to begin with their testimonies—to “share your story.” The idea being if one sees what Christ means to us personally, they will see the changed life. We see this happening elsewhere, like in Acts 22 when Paul spoke about his conversion.

Yet Peter didn’t share his story—and he had a good story to share. He could have done the talk-show circuit and had people amazed at his restoration. And all of us are touched by those stories. In the NFL, Michael Vick went from star QB to inmate due to his role in dogfighting back to starting QB whose life has been turned around. We like those stories. Some of you in this room have similar accounts to share.

Yet Peter did not do this. Why? Peter wanted to get to Christ as soon as possible—and for people to understand where they are before Christ as soon as possible. While testimonies are good, in our age people will say, “That’s great that this worked for you—but it’s just not for me.” Peter demonstrates that at the end of the day it’s not about the preacher or the listener, it’s about Christ and how we are sinners in need of the one and only possible Savior who alone could atone for our sins.

So Peter gets to a familiar Word to his listeners, from the book of Joel found in Acts 2:17-21. When Joel spoke this, God had sent great judgment on the people of Israel. He sent locusts that stripped everything green from the land. In the midst of this, God provided hope.

What are the “last days”? This speaks of the start of a new covenant inaugurated with the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ and with the coming of the Holy Spirit!  The Jews felt that when OT prophets were dead, the Spirit wouldn’t speak anymore until the Messiah would come: young men, old men, male servants, female servants.  The “wonders in the heavens” and “signs on the earth” refer to what was happening in that Upper Room.  With this being the “last days,” this will be a day of great dread. We even saw at the crucifixion of Christ that the “sun shall be turned to darkness.”

After Peter spoke the words that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” he recognized that those listening to him would understand this being Yahweh, the God they worshiped as revealed in the OT. Peter would then proceed to show that this “Lord” that everyone must call upon to be saved is the person of Jesus Christ! Look at verses 22-24:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it (Acts 2:22-24).

We are seeing a pattern here. The Holy Spirit, the gifts, and now we see here that the miracles, signs, and wonders have a purpose: to point to the person and work of Christ. This is an excellent way of determining the motives and the faithfulness of “Spirit-filled” churches: what does their ministry point to? Are they merely trying to unlock the inner power already inside them? Are they using this for more material gain? Are they using this as leverage to show their superiority as ‘super-Christians’ due to their possession of a particular gift?

Jesus was revealed to a people longing for delivery from a Messiah! Yet, Peter does not hold back: “you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men!” You say, “Wait, the phrase before that says that God delivered him up by his plans put into effect from before the world.” That’s right! The Jews’ motives were to silence him, but God is God, using those evil motives to advance his plans!

God transforms people through the convicting, Spirit-empowered Word!  “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37a). How? By Peter’s persuasive preaching? By his illustrations and testimonies and the amount of jokes that he told to loosen up the crowd? No, by the Word of God. Consider Hebrews 4:12-13:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account (Hebrews 4:12-13)

What pierces the heart? What kills and makes alive? What exposes the thoughts and intentions of the heart? The Word of God! When Moses stood before Pharaoh and spoke the Word of God, his heart hardened! When Jesus spoke God’s Word before the Pharisees, they were ready to kill Him! When Paul preached the Word throughout Asia, he was whipped, beaten, and left for dead numerous times (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). The preached Word exposes us before God and will show whether we are dead, or whether we are alive.

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It’s Not Enough to ‘Proclaim Jesus’

“It’s not enough to ‘proclaim Jesus.’  For there are many different Jesuses being presented today.  According to the NT gospel, however, he is historical (he really lived, died, arose, and ascended in the arena of history), theological (his life, death, resurrection and ascension have saving significance), and contemporary (he lives and reigns to bestow salvation on those who respond to him).  Thus the apostles told the same story of Jesus on three levels–as historical event (witnessed by their own eyes), as having theological significance (interpreted by the Scriptures), and as contemporary message (confronting men and women with the necessity of decision).  We have the same responsibility today to tell the story of Jesus as fact, doctrine and gospel.”

— John R.W. Stott, The Message of Acts.

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Lifted from the Quarry to the Upper Air

O God,
May thy Spirit speak in me that I may speak to thee.
I have no merit, let the merit of Jesus stand for me.
I am undeserving, but I look to thy tender mercy.
I am full of infirmities, wants, sin; thou art full of grace.
I confess my sin, my frequent sin, my wilful sin;
All my powers of body and soul are defiled:
A fountain of pollution is deep within my nature.
There are chambers of foul images within my being;
I have gone from one odious room to another,
walked in a no-man’s-land of dangerous imaginations,
pried into the secrets of my fallen nature.
I am utterly ashamed that I am what I am in myself;
I have no green shoot in me nor fruit, but thorns and thistles;
I am a fading leaf that the wind drives away;
I live bare and barren as a winter tree,
unprofitable, fit to be hewn down and burnt.
Lord, dost thou have mercy on me?
Thou has struck a heavy blow at my pride,
at the false god of self,
and I lie in pieces before thee.
But thou has given me another master and lord, they Son, Jesus,
and now my heart is turned towards holiness,
my life speeds as an arrow from a bow
towards complete obedience to thee.
Help me in all my doings to put down sin and to humble pride.
Save me from the love of the world and the pride of life,
from everything that is natural to fallen man,
and let Christ’s nature be seen in me day by day.
Grant me grace to bear thy will without repining, and delight to be
not only chiselled, squared, or fashioned,
but separated from the old rock where I have been embedded so long,
and lifted from the quarry to the upper air,
where I may be built in Christ for ever.

(Heart Corruptions, Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975, p. 73).

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A Divided, Disjointed, Dysfunctional Church—And How to Avoid It.

In our REACH groups at Boone’s Creek Baptist Church , we are covering Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians.  Having only covered the first three chapters, we were amazed to find so many helpful truths for the church today.  The Corinthian church was a divided, disjointed, dysfunction church—with many of the same problems many of our churches have today.  The reason for this is comes down to arrogance and jealousy regarding varying rallying points many members of our churches come around.  If we aren’t careful, disunity will come forth very subtly, but will soon fracture a church right in two. 

Rally Around a Preacher (Past or Present) 

The Corinthian church had their members who had their preference of ministers.  Paul, Apollos, Cephas—each had their styles, giftings, and emphases.  Paul was a church planter and foundation lay-er.  Apollos was a gifted teacher (Acts 18).  Cephas (the apostle Peter) had a Type-A, action-oriented personality!

Every member of every church struggles with this.  We identify with a preferred preacher that suits our personalities and desires.  I find myself leaning toward preachers and teachers who go into great depth and background of the biblical passage.  Other friends of mine prefer preachers who are more motivational in nature, stirring hearts and souls and readying them for action. 

What struck me from 1 Corinthians 3 was this passage: 

“So let no one boast in men.  For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death of the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).

This means that all these preachers (and the world, our lifespan, and time itself) are for our benefit.  Even if one preacher is a church planter, teacher, motivational speaker—if they all are preaching the Good News of the person and work of Christ, it’s all for our edification and encouragement.  They are all on the same team!  Relish in the diversity of God’s unifying Word!

Rally Around a False View of Christianity

In 1 Corinthians 3:1, Paul says, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”  This is from the ESV, but in the KJV, Paul uses “carnal” instead of “people of the flesh.”  Thanks to the Scofield Bible and Charles Ryrie, a theory about the ‘carnal Christian’ has become quite prevalent.  Warren W. Wiersbe outlines this as follows:

[Paul] explained that there are two kinds of saved people: mature and immature (carnal).  A Christian matures by allowing the Spirit to teach him and direct him by feeding on the Word.  The immature Christian lives for the things of the flesh (carnal means “flesh”) and has little interest in the things of the Spirit. . . . The immature believer knows little about the present ministry of Christ in heaven.  He knows the facts about our Lord’s life and ministry on earth, but not the truths about His present ministry in heaven.  He lives on “Bible stories” and not on Bible doctrines. . . .  A mature Christian uses his gifts as tools to build with, while an immature believer uses gifts as toys to play with or trophies to boast about (Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, pp. 577-78). 

While I profit greatly from Wiersbe’s ministry, this explanation of what a carnal Christian is and saying they are believer’s is a slippery slope.  Romans 8 repeatedly says you are either in the flesh or in the Spirit—and if you’re in the flesh, you’re an unbeliever (1-17).  Even Satan knows facts (James 2:19) but that does not mean he is saved, yet the carnal Christian is according to this viewpoint. 

This mindset serves as a detriment to our churches.  How many have been caught in the snare of living “for the things of the flesh and [having] little interest in the Spirit” but still believe they are Christians—while not demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) which itself demonstrates they are branches connected to the Vine (John 15:5-8)?  How often do those who name the name of Christ spend their lives living for self, yet failing to recognize that following Christ entails a denial of self (Mark 10:45; Luke 9:23)?  This theory has brought in a lot of confusion to the church and taken the narrow road of following Jesus (Matthew 7:24-29) and turned it into an eight-lane superhighway. 

Paul’s intention in this passage is to warn the Corinthians that their divisive behavior is too much “of the flesh,” and they need to repent in this area.  We are not saved by our works, but we show we are saved by what we do and where our affections lay (James 2:13-25).  We must not take the ‘lordship’ out of following our Lord Jesus. 

Rally Around a Ministry in the Church

Children’s Ministry.  Youth Ministry.  Sunday School.  Senior Adult Ministry.  Small Group Ministry.  Evangelism.  Building Expansion.  Music Ministry. These and many others are used by the church to fulfill Christ’s intended purpose for the church:  making disciples (Matthew 28:19). 

God gives each of us gifts and desires for each of us to use in His church to fulfill His purpose.  Yet, Satan tempts our flesh to believe that our preferred ministry should be everyone’s preferred ministry—especially if/when funds are low.  Each ministry makes a great case for strengthening the church in the present and reaching others for the future. 

But hearken back to 1 Corinthians 3:22:  “All are yours.”  Each of these ministries work in lockstep with one another for one unifying purpose:  making disciples and being witnesses everywhere at all times (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8 ).  God gives those of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4) a variety of gifts and desires to plug into to help His church flourish and grow.  But when we begin to focus on the ministry area rather than the one for whom we minister, we add to the division, disjointedness and dysfunction. 

Rally Around a Time Period

Face it, everyone hearkens back to the time of their youth as an idyllic time.  Most music we enjoy listening to is music from our childhood or teenage years.  Most of the TV shows we enjoy are from that same time in our lives.  Even now, when I watch M*A*S*H or The Cosby Show, it takes me back to a wonderful, simpler time in my life.

I have a preference of worship from a very poignant time in my spiritual walk.  It took place later in high school and in college.  I enjoy worship with various instruments with solid words and lively music (guitars, light drum, keyboards—we must have a piano/keyboard in there—etc.).  I grew up with piano and organ, but that’s not my preference.  That’s not the era in which I grew up.

Southern Baptists (of which I am proudly and unashamedly a part) had a heyday in the 1950s.  Most in the South believed in Christian principles and morality, and even went to church for the most part.  Attendance and baptism and offerings were up.  But those numbers are dipping convention-wide.  Why?  Some say it’s because we’ve abandoned the way we did church in the 1950’s.  The fact is, many churches have not abandoned the 1950s, but the culture has.  It’s changed—big time.  It’s also changed from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as well (my ‘era’). 

Yet, look at 1 Corinthians 3:22 again:  “all are yours … present or the future.”  We learn from the past, but from our heritage in the Word and from mistakes.  We live in the present, because that’s where God has placed us and we can only minister to those who are here right now.  We look to the future, because God has called us to pass along the precious deposit of the gospel (1 Timothy 2:2; Acts 2:38-39).  But we must embrace each of these timeframes for our benefit! 

Rally around Relevance

This last rallying point is the other side of the coin of what was mentioned previously.  ‘Being relevant’ stands as a huge rallying point with many churches in our day.  By this, we mean to look at what is trending popular in the culture, then work to use that as a common point to bring folks in in order to hear the gospel of Jesus. 

Whereas those who rally around a past time period live in the past, those who rally around relevance risk rejecting and ejecting the past all together.  From changes in architecture, music styles, and technology—what is new and what is ‘in’ is what must be used.  The slippery slope?  What’s in style now will be out of style soon.  Efficiency was the watchword in the 1950s, now it’s relationships and informal worship.  Fire and brimstone preaching or oratory preaching (depending on what part of the country) was ‘in,’ now it’s more conversational in tone. 

My point is, we cannot eject the present for the past, nor can we eject the past for the present

Who Do We Rally Around?  Christ!

Paul exclaimed in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  This is how Paul stayed so focused

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You Cannot Manage a Church Like a Business

“It comes as a shock to some church members that you cannot manage a local church the same way you run a business.  This does not mean we should not follow good business principles, but the operation is totally different.  There is a wisdom of this world that works for the world, but it will not work for the church.

“The world depends on promotion, prestige, and the influence of money and important people.  The church depends on prayer, the power of the Spirit, humility, sacrifice, and service.  The church that imitates the world may seem to succeed in time, but it will turn to ashes in eternity.  The church in the Book of Acts had none of the ‘secrets of success’ that seem to be important today.  They owned no property; they had no influence in government; they had no treasury (‘Silver and gold have I none,’ said Peter); their leaders were ordinary men without special education in the accepted schools; they held no attendance contests; they brought in no celebrities; and yet they turned the world upside down!

“God has a plan for each local church (Phil. 2:12-13).  Each pastor and church leader must seek the mind of God for His wisdom. . . .  Though the church must be identified with the needs of the world, it must not imitate the wisdom of the world.”

(Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol. 1, Colorado Springs: Victor Books, 1989, p. 581). 

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Gripped by the ‘Stache: Funny Commercial with Joey Votto and Mr. Redleg

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“The Gospel Commission” by Michael S. Horton (Book Review)

Michael S. Horton, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 308 pp.  Hardcover $19.99, Kindle Edition $9.99. 

When it comes to reflecting and analyzing the current American church scene, Michael Horton has been one of my two favorite writers on the subject (the other being Stephen Prothero of Boston University). 

Horton serves as J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California.  Author of over a dozen books, this book completes the trilogy, following Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life.  His concern in this book is that the American church is drawing from various sources and influences to build their own kingdom with their own strategies and agendas rather than drawing from the strategy already laid out by Jesus in the Scriptures.  Toward the beginning of the book, he inquires,”

In its lust for cultural relevance, mainline Protestantism squandered its inheritance. Conservative Protestants today are also in danger, not so much of being attacked by New Atheists as of surrendering a robust confidence in God and his Word to a culture of marketing and entertainment, self-help, and right-wing and left-wing political agendas. If mainline bodies sold their birthright to the high culture, are evangelicals in danger of selling theirs to popular culture?

He explains clearly the point of the book:  “Discipleship cannot mean going with the flow; it requires swimming against the current not only of contemporary culture but often of contemporary church life and experience. The central point of this book is that there is no mission without the church and no church without the mission.”

Horton senses that the church is drifting away from the thrust of what Christ established.  In its place is a more therapeutic message aimed at building up self-esteem.  He senses a danger in this mindset: 

The early Christians were not fed to wild beasts or dipped in wax and set ablaze as lamps in Nero’s garden because they thought Jesus was a helpful life coach or role model but because they witnessed to him as the only Lord and Savior of the world. Jesus Christ doesn’t just live in the private hearts of individuals as the source of an inner peace. He is the Creator, Ruler, Redeemer, and Judge of all the earth. And now he commands everyone everywhere to repent. All idols are shams.

With Jesus and His church being seen as more of a therapeutic, self-help entity, Horton explains that this is why so many churches struggle with clearly presenting doctrinal distinctives.  For those who struggle with doctrinal stands, he observes,

Many Christians today feel awkward taking stands on doctrinal issues that sound increasingly alien in our pluralistic culture. We don’t want to come off as the bellicose and judgmental know-it-all. Even in the church, we often shy away from doctrinal discussions for fear of appearing proud or divisive. In addition, recent conversations between evangelicals and Roman Catholics have softened the urgency and even the propriety of evangelical proselytizing in nominally Roman Catholic as well as nominally Protestant countries. Yet in reaction against perversions of our missionary mandate, are we in danger of surrendering to a culture that privatizes and relativizes ultimate truth claims? In this environment there is a lot of pressure to downplay the communication of the gospel in favor of simply letting our lives do the talking. It’s deeds, not creeds, that count. But is this false humility? Doesn’t this approach suggest that our confidence has shifted from Christ’s person and work to our own? The mission statement that Jesus delivered to his church is an urgent imperative to proclaim the gospel to everyone, to make disciples of all nations. From the beginning, Christianity has been a missionary faith.

He makes a solid point!  By backing away from doctrinal claims and distinctives, the church risks giving away that which is intended to make it salt (that is, a gospel preservative) in the world (Matthew 5:13).  Without doctrinal clarity based on the Word, we fail to show the why behind the what of our efforts.  In an effort to “meet people where they are,” we must be careful not to forget who we are (redeemed sinners rescued by God’s marvelous grace through the cross and empty tomb) and where they truly are (sinners in need of rescue through the gospel of Christ). 

Christians are called to do many things and to work diligently in many vocations, not only as church members but as parents, children, neighbors, co-workers, citizens, and volunteers. However, everything that the church is called to do as a visible institution—not only its ministry of preaching but its public service of prayers, singing, sacraments, fellowship, government, and discipline—is to be a means of delivering this gospel to the whole creation. Even those raised in the church must be evangelized every Lord’s Day, inserted again and again into the dying and rising of our Living Head. The same message that created faith in the beginning sustains it throughout our pilgrimage. It is the gift that keeps on giving, and it is intended to be given away by us to others outside of the covenant community.

Sadly, many American Christians have completely internalized Christianity.  It’s about an inward emotion, not an outward demonstration of the faith (James 2:23-25).  Outward forms have little value, and those in authority positions in churches are rejected or at least ‘de-clawed.’  In its place is a Jesus-and-me mentality, stressing a personal relationship with Christ.  We hear this said: “It’s not about religion, but about a relationship.” 

Horton reminds us that Acts 2:42 brings us into community:  “And they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.”  Horton aims to draw Christians back to the purpose of our salvation: not to have Jesus as a life coach or a role model, but to been seen as an atonement for our sins.  We are not merely good people in need of being better—we are sinners in need to resurrection! 

Horton addresses a number of issues that challenge us to see if the Word and sacrament are truly sufficient and central to our life and community—or if we desire to pursue the sliding scale of relevancy in an ever-changing culture.  Prepare to be challenged! 

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The Threat of the Gospel Going Into Eclipse

“It is easy for a preacher to be bold when he is in his own pulpit, among friends.  But when there are manifestly hostile people breathing out fire, as Stephen was soon to find out, a bold preacher takes great risk.  That is why Martin Luther said that in every generation there will be the threat of the gospel going into eclipse.  Every time the gospel is proclaimed, clearly and boldly, opposition arises and conflict comes.  A minister has never mounted a pulpit anywhere in the world who has not been absolutely aware of how dangerous it is to be bold.  So when preachers are fearful, they have to come back to this text and look at the way the Apostles, without respect for their lives or their worldly goods, would say like Luther, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also,” and then preach with boldness” (R.C. Sproul, Acts, St. Andrews Commentary—in commenting on Acts 2:14-41). 

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