One of the four disciplines in The Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX) is creating a compelling scorecard. In order to do this we need to have good accurate measurements. The preceding discipline in 4DX is finding Lead Measures instead of Lag Measures. Lead Measures measure the things that we actually have leverage over, rather than the results that we hope for, but cannot simply do or create. When we find our lead measures, the compelling scorecard is where we measure them.
When it comes to ministries though, we face the dilemma of the work of God vs the work of humanity complication. I remember a church meeting where the visiting teacher asked us all how to make disciples. One of our church members stated with complete seriousness, "We can't do that. Only God can do that." The salvations that begin lives of discipleship and both initiated, fueled, and completed by God (the Author and perfector of our faith). Yet we still have a role in our own faith, as well as the faith of others. If we simply avoid this mystery instead of engage it, we may end up abdicating our roles in making disciples and giving all the credit, as well as all the blame to God.
We need to dive into that mystery in order to find our place in it. Whether great or small, what we do really does matter, particularly in the lives of those we, and God, are trying to make disciples of Jesus Christ. In many cases, particularly where volunteer work is involved, we are hesitant to try to "measure" any of the work. We don't want to offend those donating their time, money, and effort. When there is paid staff, on the other hand, we often are much quicker to lay the blame, because we are paying for their services. In either case though, there needs to be clear measurements for ministry and in both cases there usually is not. We are looking for end results... we don't care how we get there.
That's no way to run a ministry or supervise leaders. There needs to be clear direction on what they are expected to do. The results are in God's hands. (1 Corinthians 3:5-6) We need to find those lead measurements and create a compelling scorecard so that we all know when we are doing the work right and when we are not. And we need to make those measurements without shame.
Our measurements for Fresh Expressions should be at least partially based around the 4 functions of a Fresh Expression:
UP - seeking God's presence
IN - growing in Fellowship
OUT - reaching out in service and love
OF - connected to a local congregation for support and accountability
Let's look at what some lead measurements might be for each of these items.
UP - Testimonies shared, glory sightings (where we have seen God at work in our lives), prayers offered, scriptures shared, questions for/about God
IN - New friends made, repeat visits and regular attendance from new visitors, prayer requests shared among the community, needs lifted up (especially on behalf of others, not just our own requests), any kind of way we are learning to love one another well
OUT - Opportunities taken to share the Gospel with others, opportunities to love those outside the community by taking care of physical needs, listening to them in their emotional needs, any form of service in Christian love, particularly when we can share our "WHY" of Jesus with them.
OF - Percent of connection with the local church (Note: this number is not ideally 100%. If 100% of your Fresh Expression attend your local church you are not reaching people outside your church. However, if there is only 1 person from you local church and you have 50 in your Fresh Expression, they will likely feel disconnected from the local body. I suspect somewhere between 10-20% of the total population is more helpful in maintaining a strong enough connection to the local church for support and accountability) More lead measures for OF that help you attain a good connection with the local church may be: how often the leaders participate in the ministries of the local church, how often they visit and bring a friend from the Fresh Expression, how often the local church pastor or other leader is invited to attend the Fresh Expression. In general, I suspect we do better measuring invites rather than attendance.
Since the forms of Fresh Expression are as varied as the people they reach, measuring these criteria primarily by number are of limited use to the local FX leaders. We are not in competition with the other Fresh Expressions around us. We are seeking to be faithful in our unique context. The numbers are helpful for those in higher leadership advocating on behalf of these ministries, but they may not be the most helpful in guiding the ministry to grow in its work. Those numbers invite ego investment and the pride and shame that go along with them.
Another way to measure those ministries, outside of numbers, is with a red light, yellow light, green light system.
Red light in a ministry indicates that this particular aspect is not happening at all, or is being presented in a way by leaders that is not yet connecting with the community.
Yellow light in a ministry indicates that this particular aspect is happening, but not regularly, or only with great effort.
Green light in a ministry indicates that this particular aspect is happening regularly, and perhaps even without prompting from the leadership.
If we go through our list of UP, IN, OUT, and OF, applying the red-yellow-green lights to them, I can share that we have a green light for UP and OUT, but our IN is more of a yellow, moving to red light, and our OF is a solid yellow. That tells me that we need to put more strategic effort and investment into our IN ministries and perhaps find a motivational boost to lift our OF ministries from the place we are stuck in. That is compelling measurement that instructs and exhorts us without shame.
What color lights are your UP, IN, OUT, and OF?
Just over two years ago, while I was teaching New Testament at Campbellsville University, I was encouraged to publish one of my lessons on the four gospels and four different types of Jewish groups in the first century AD. A year and a half ago, in the middle of the last presidential campaign, I got very irritated and motivated to do just that. Two and half weeks later I had the first draft of Jesus Politics. Today, some eighteen months later, that book has been published and is available to purchase through Parson's Porch. (Part of the proceeds of this book go to care for the homeless in Cleveland, TN.)
You can purchase your copy today here.
Why should you buy this book?
Are you frustrated with politics? Do you wonder what Jesus would think of our nation today? More importantly, do you know what He would do about it?
This book gives you a clear look at what the political arena looked like during the time of Jesus, how they got that way, and how Jesus challenged the political values of all of God's people with his own values of grace, self-control, sacrifice, and incarnation. The book itself is about 5 pages of picture/charts showing a simple interaction of those values and then several hundred pages that examine how these values appear in some of the unique portions of each of the four gospels. Too often we skip right to the political values without learning any of the spiritual foundation beneath it. The focus of this book is on spiritual values with political implications.
Jesus Politics will give you some specific questions to ask of all our leaders, from the global and national level, down to the authority figures within your own family, and these questions will help you discern whether your leaders or your own leadership is in alignment with the values of Jesus.
A clear articulation and understanding of these values is needed even more today than two years ago when the I first began the writing process. When President Trump gives the State of the Union Address will you know what values to look and listen for in the speech? Will you know where to find God in the media's response? Will your own response be in line with the values of Jesus?
This book was not written primarily to our own political leaders. It was written to every Christian leader in the world. While many of my examples are drawn from the United States, several come from outside our nation. The political values that Jesus exhorted were not specific to one nation or another, so I strongly encourage those outside the U.S. to read this as well to find applications within their own politics.
It is time for Christians to take responsibility for their own leadership and politics, measuring what we do and see by the standards of Jesus, rather than waiting for a secular world to tell us what and who is Christian or not.
Ministry in the Full Gospel
Somewhere awhile back in the 20th century (seems odd to say that) a Charismatic Movement broke out calling themselves "Full Gospel" churches. Oddly enough, Google identified 3 churches as related to "Full Gospel" near me in my county of around 100 churches. One was something called the "Full Gospel Tabernacle", which is probably most like this particular brand of Pentecostalism. Another on the list was the Church of Latter Day Saints just down the road from me, which I'm sure is a bit of a misunderstanding. The last, which surprised me, was my own church, St. Mark United Methodist. So, apparently my credentials for writing about "Full Gospel" ministry is verified by Google. That is just more evidence that the world is confused by the names and terminology we use to place divisions in the Body of Christ.
My brief experience with a Pentecostal congregation leads me to believe that "Full Gospel" to them meant an appropriate worship, reverence, and application of the Holy Spirit in their lives (often, but not always shown by praying/speaking in tongues and prophesying). I'm not a tongue-speaker myself, but there is much that I affirm among that tradition. However, I believe that a better description of what it means to have the full gospel occurs when we move beyond monocultural ministries into multicultural ministries.
Monocultural ministries often are described as natural, organic, and working with the culture around us. There are lots of ministry models for this, both missional and attractional in emphasis. The underlying premise for them is: like attracts like. You remember those days of booming youth groups and rivalries between churches to attract the upcoming crowd of football players, because if you get the popular kids then the rest will follow? Do you remember the church growth movements that boiled down to "If you build it, they will come."
And then we ended up with a lot of great big church buildings that remain mostly empty and/or get rented out for daycares, birthday parties, and other community events. Those are not bad things, but they are probably not what the builders envisioned when those churches were built.
That's the lifecycle of most monocultural ministries. They start with a small passionate core team that wants to win their culture for Christ, they invest heavily, make contacts, and market their idea in the community as the culturally relevant thing to do. It struggles at first, but once it gains a critical mass, it becomes the new cultural outlet for time, energy, direction, and a sense of belonging. If they can weather the growth and potential conflicts over the years, they may have several decades of growth. The big hurdle tends to be passing the torch to the 2nd generation. Generally, if a church can raise up one generation of leaders, it can raise up a dozen generations and last until the community around them completely changes culture.
The struggles of many churches in the United States today may be due more to that second fact than the first. Our church leaders know how to train people like them. However, our cultural landscape has been changing rapidly and their children spend more of their life throughout the week in a foreign culture that raises them as opposed to the church which they only spend 4-8 hours each month at best. Many have dropped out altogether and are no longer part of "Christian" culture, and therefore, we do not know how to raise them to become church leaders like us. We lose our people spiritually because we never had them culturally, and we only know how to minister in one culture.
So, if you live in a low-tech, isolated, third-world country, you may be able to do monocultural ministry well for the long-term. However, much of the European and more and more of the American cultural landscape is showing us that it does not work for us across the generations anymore. So what do we do?
We can do the same thing that the first generation of Christians did... learn to grow and thrive in multicultural ministries. Oftentimes we think of multicultural ministry as a black/white issue in the U.S., and to a degree, that has been true. Today though, in our very globalized society, it goes much further. It involves race. It involves social-economic status. It involves language. It involves nationality. In every ministry situation built around a monocultural community though, it will essentially come down to Jews and Gentiles. Insiders and Outsiders.
Among anarchists, there may be the thought that the solution to this division is to simply eliminate all insiders and make everyone an outsider. Should you succeed at that, there would be no community though, no hub for people to stick to and find belonging. There is another solution though, something modeled by Jesus and fleshed out in the Early Church. You have to continually, intentionally make the inside group diverse.
Does that sound like Affirmative Action? Probably, but it has a different purpose. Diversity among core leadership is not about giving every culture what it deserves. It is about modeling on a small scale how every culture submits to Jesus as Savior and Lord and how Jesus brings us all together as redemptive cultures1. That model (modeling being one of the most primary forms of teaching) becomes a hub that then is able to draw a much greater, much more diverse crowd together, and show them how to live together in Christ. This multicultural ministry gets to the heart of the story of the Rich Young Ruler when Peter asks, "if this man cannot be saved, then what hope to we have?" Jesus reply is the same to us, when contemplating multicultural ministries: "With man, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." What does this have to do with multicultural ministry? That rich young ruler was the epitome of the "in crowd".
Jesus, instead built a core of 12 disciples that, under normal circumstances, would never have stayed under the same roof or ate at the same dinner tables. Tax collectors, fishermen, revolutionaries, people from priestly families... and women! Don't forget Mary and Martha who tagged right along with the guys. The Samaritan woman who was one of the first evangelists was arguably chosen by Jesus as he left the Twelve and sought her out on that hot afternoon in Samaria. Yes, Jesus created a multicultural church, and it was only by an act of God that they came together in the first place.
Where have I experienced this kind of ministry? I was invited to help pastor a leadership team of international students doing ministry at Campbellsville University. Their vision is to bring all people of all cultures together in the name of Christ. It is challenging work, particularly when almost half of our students in the ministry are not proficient English speakers. It is a place we pray for spiritual gifts of communication.
I have experienced this ministry meeting with Hispanic Pastors from all across Kentucky. I hear there stories, struggling with ministry, making ends meet, having very migratory congregations, and dealing with a wide range of cultures within their own context and people who do not always see eye to eye (Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Salvadorans, Columbians, etc.) Some have said that ministry was much easier in their home countries where it was monocultural. I listen and learn all I can from them.
Finally, there is my own multicultural experience at church. We are a small, fairly traditionally led, about 95% white, English speaking church. However, we have been blessed with a 4 or 5 year sister-relationship with a primarily African American church in town. We worship together several times a year and often participate together in community-wide ministries. It's not just a show though. Our members greet each other in Wal-Mart. We pastors work together. Both our congregations only have a small degree of diversity, but the people who bring us new kinds of culture are celebrated for the gifts they are as people, not just as token cultural representatives. We learn from each other and we make each other better - often in joyous ways, and sometimes as iron sharpens iron.
We are not there yet... not by a long shot. But we keep moving forward. We celebrate the work God is doing in us, because without Him, none of this is possible. We learn from our mistakes by repenting, giving grace, and offering healing. We don't give up on one another just because we cannot understand each other at times. We pray, and God keeps us humble and in awe of what He can do as He creates a redemptive community that we could never even imagine.
One of the bigger conflicts within any ministry of any size comes between the people representing church health (sometimes called discipleship) and those representing new church growth (sometimes called evangelism). Sometimes these conflicts hide under the guise of young vs old, and often things like worship music get dragged into this fight. If you've been in a church for more than a year, you've probably observed and perhaps participated in this conflict. Let's be honest though... unless it is purely an issue of people fighting over personal preferences, the root of this problem lies in the value of care and discipling the church family and the value of care for the lost and those outside the family of faith.
The reason we struggle actually saying and believing that we can just do both is that we have a limited amount of resources. In bigger arenas we may squabble over money. I think the more subtle, yet prevalent conflicts arise over things like time, energy focus, sometimes even prayer.
How do we spend our time? If we have approximately 1 hour a week with most of our people on Sunday morning, how much of it is spent on discipleship and how much on evangelism? When we make plans with our property, do we do it for the sake of evangelism or discipleship... or perhaps neither one? When we pray, do we spend the majority of our time praying for the lost or praying for those who are already Christians? Some of these questions may seem silly, until you try flipping the priorities. What happens when you make getting your entire class to accept Christ as Lord and Savior the main purpose of your Sunday School lesson? Does it feel weird and out-of-place? What about doing an alter call, not for salvation, but as a call to tithe?
We fight among ourselves and sometimes within ourselves trying to put discipleship and evangelism in their appropriate boxes, but we rarely stay settled. One always seems to take the lead and the other gets put on the shelf. It doesn't work... and it won't work, because these two aspects of ministry were made to flow together.
You need Kingdom vision of a discipleship system. No, you don't have to be an engineer to figure this out. You need to be a team player that understands how your own ministry affects the ministry of the others within your church. I think of it as a relay race (the way Hebrews may have described the Christian faith) where the two most important tasks a runner has is to:
Running well means knowing yourself and pushing yourself to the best of your abilities. Making good handoffs means knowing your partner and communicating well. You may think that this means the team that keeps their eyes on each other would make the best handoffs. This is not the case. Good handoffs involve cheering each other on, to be sure, but soon after the first runner heads off, the second runner gets into place and stops watching the other runners. They ready themselves and wait for the first runner to shout go, before the handoff so that the baton is passed between two runners going at full speed. The team that drop the batons suddenly into the laps of their teammates and then says go will lose every time because the momentum is lost. In a counterintuitive fashion, the team that wins follows their teammates words, not their actions, because they have trust that their actions will follow their words. They trust their teammates to tell them how to start their own race.
Discipleship and Evangelism were meant to work this way. Across the United Methodist Connection, and other denominations that practice Connection, churches young and old, can find ways to pass the baton to one another. In order to do this, both kinds of ministries must learn to make decisions for the purpose of the Kingdom and not merely their own survival. Older churches fear closing and younger churches fear never becoming self-sufficient, and both are legitimate fears, but we are not called to live by fear... we live by faith. We do not build trust by carefully screening our teammates, but by being trust-worthy ourselves.
So, part three of what I've been up to: I have been encouraging connection between the discipleship parts of our conference and the New Church Development work I have been doing. It has been a blessing to see how well-received that encouragement has been and watching those ministries team up together to help struggling churches find new opportunities for spiritual life and growth in their own communities. We are stronger, no only standing together, but working together in service to God.
When we hear about transitions in Methodist denominations, we typically think about pastor moves. However, congregations are in a state of flux themselves as well. Many of our Hispanic congregations expect to lose 25% of their members each year due to relocation for work and family purposes. A large portion of our older Anglo congregations may be looking at losing that many to death, health concerns, or retirement relocation. Indeed, some of our congregations with a majority of members in their 70s and 80s may be looking at losing much more than that. Everything and Everyone Everywhere is changing... Except our mission.
Jesus raised up leaders after Him to carry on the process of making new disciples. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking our job is to get people saved and God's job is to take them from there. Instead it is just the opposite. Only Jesus can save and He commanded us to go and make disciples and feed the sheep He brings into the fold.1 We all fall prey to this misunderstanding from time to time. Both churches young and old get mixed up regarding their mission and God's part in that.
Perhaps it is because the specifics of God's mercies are new each morning and He is not entirely predictable. Our egos cannot control Him and plan for Him. So instead, we plan around Him, leaving Him out of our plans. Ultimately, He is the one making the plans and we need to constantly realign our own lives around His vision. Perhaps it would make a difference if there were leaders set aside to specifically seek God's vision and help align the ministries of their church in obedience to God. Normally, the main task of those leaders is making sure the bills get paid and the building does not fall apart.
Often this transition is experienced in a slow decline. A few members move away. Each year a few more pass away. We experience the normal passages of life as we lose more through graduations, marriages and divorces, and more. This is normal. This is life.
The problem arises when we realize that it has been several years since we have brought in new people to our family of faith. The births do not compensate for the deaths, and we hemorrhage out our graduates, who often never return. Essentially, our babies do not stay and become fully-functioning members... so where will our new members come from? When was the last time we had a visitor to church? When was the last time someone joined our congregation from outside our church families? These are some of the questions that do not get asked until we are already on the downward slope and losing our balance.
Sometimes, transitions occur because of new growth. Growth, which often seems to be the entire goal, brings changes itself. Many churches can tell stories of experiencing a period of great growth, followed by loss, and then ending in slow decline. Why is that? They were not equipped to handle the growth.
They may have run out of seats or parking spaces. It is likely they were no longer able to know everyone by name and people felt neglected. Ultimately, the church was able to grow in numbers, but not in disciples because all the energy was being directed to bringing in more people and keeping them there, instead of truly making them part of the family of faith and raising them up to be followers of Jesus... and that problem probably found its root with an insufficient number of leaders/teachers within the congregation. Where the leaders are few, decline is right around the corner.
There is another part of this story that may have occurred as well. Somewhere in the middle of that growth, a few people may have realized that some of the members (with longer standing in this church) were given more influence and input into the way the ministries were run. There is a certain justice to that, but when new people do not have clear ways (and clear filters) into the leadership of the church, everyone gets frustrated, lines are drawn in the sand, and conflict grows into a schism in the house of God.
This kind of conflict is never easy to resolve and almost always means losing not only attending people, but often losing good leaders within the church. It kills the morale of the congregation far more than the death of beloved leaders, because this kind of separation feels so unnatural. It feels like the church kicking people out rather than welcoming them in and it often takes years for a church to recover.
How do we hope to help? It may seem counterintuitive that an outsider could bring any practical help to congregations facing these issues. (Although, ironically, most of these congregations believe that bringing in a new (better) pastor from outside will solve the problem.) I am a pastor myself and I know that we pastors make our fair share of mistakes. Generally speaking though, removing people from the congregation is not the best place to start. Healthy congregations have ways of gracefully correcting us for the benefit of all, and that health can be modeled to a congregation through the intervention of outside leaders. These kinds of things are primarily helpful with churches in conflict though. What about the majority that are simply experiencing slow decline or a burst of growth they are unprepared to adequately disciple?
We invite the leadership into a discussion about Ability, Willingness, and Vision. It is not helpful to discuss major property renovation if the resources are simply not there to make it happen. Likewise it is useless to discuss the addition of major programming if the current property is unable to support it. We have to have a conversation about the current reality of the congregation so we can begin to chart a course to the place we need to be. Sometimes that kind of conversation is easier when you have a more objective outside presence in the room encouraging the conversation.
We also talk about willingness. Some congregations have leaders that are simply exhausted and do not have the capacity to lead the people into the next few years, let alone the next few decades. Lack of spiritual renewal often leaves them burnt out and when the church puts on revivals, they are often the ones left to carry the workload for the benefit of everyone else. Without willingness, a church cannot move forward.
Finally, we talk about the kingdom vision of the church. What do we know already that God wants us to be and to be doing? Do we know how to make disciples? Do we know how to reach people for Christ? Do we know how to call them to serve Him with their lives? Do we know why we exist?
These are all questions that every church should ask of themselves at least once a year. They can keep us on the path of faithfulness to God if we continue to check our alignment with His will on a regular basis, instead of waiting until we are halfway off the cliff. I am beginning to use these questions among my own church leaders and sharing them with other pastors, to help spread this opportunity to encourage good spiritual health within our congregations.
We are training regional pastor and laity teams (2 by 2) to be facilitators in this process. I do not expect to be doing much consulting with this particular process myself, but I have already been involved in helping to train up some of the first facilitators who feel called to this kind of ministry. Among the many plates I have spinning at the moment (and there is more to come), this was one I feel I can support more from a distance, as a consultant to the process. I am saving my presence and efforts to be more involved when those turns toward health are made and opportunities arise for discussions about Fresh Expressions.
Where have I been?
Some of you frequent readers may have wondered what ever became of the daily blogs you had been receiving during much of the first half of 2017. Some of the small seeds I have been scattering for the past few years have started to take root and begin to sprout. Like the mustard seed, it has been a few small things with much larger implications as they continue to grow and connect with others.
First of all though, a short word about writing... A couple years back I began reading Stephen King's On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. Along with several other books and experiences in life, I began to start calling myself a writer, and to write on a regular basis. The most memorable part of King's book for me was his comment about writing at least 2000 words each day. At first that seemed daunting, but before long I was easily writing at least 1000 words per day, while keeping my day job. A lot of fruit has come out of that work, much of it found on my devotional blog.
I wrote something like 1200-1500 words per day for that blog, every day, for somewhere around 8 or 9 months. There were ups and downs in the excitement level, but in the last few months I noticed my writing quality dwindling and something inside me was begging for a rest from the routine. So I pulled back the reins and slowed to a halt.
At the same time I began to spend more of my ministry time planning and working with New Church Development, and a particular form of NCD called Fresh Expressions. The simplest way to describe Fresh Expressions is taking taking the means of making disciples to communities outside the church. Imagine you were going to start a new Christian community in a foreign country far away. What would you need to do? What would you expect as a result in your home congregation? Now imagine that you are doing that in your own community but with similar expectations and results. That is what Fresh Expressions looks like. It brings the core values of church to a new context, linking them primarily by the missionaries sent from the local congregation.
Fully functioning Fresh Expressions are built around 4 main components, designated by directions.
The form and methodology of ministry in these Fresh Expressions can be as varied as the number of Fresh Expressions themselves, however they are not meant to be Church-lite. They are meant to be the church thriving in places and among people that traditional ministries are unable to reach.
I am excited about this particular kind of ministry because the accessibility of it is not dependent upon large financial resources, growing metropolitan areas, or groups of people with any particular backgrounds with church. In other words, any church has the potential to start a thriving Fresh Expression in their community with prayerful, thoughtful investment. It is mission work at the level of small groups. Instead of getting other to come to us, we go to them and take as much of "church" (at least the good parts of "church") that we can pack with us.
My work this past year has primarily been in supporting New Church Development in the Central KY area. In October, I was asked to help form a team and oversee Fresh Expressions all across Kentucky. This fall, I have spent most of my work in this area speaking to groups of church lay leaders and working to recruit members of the new KYFX team.
Through all of this, I have been sharing my vision of the means and fruitfulness of Fresh Expressions. I am not a math or numbers person in general, but I have been working with a formula as a guide to the possibilities of Fresh Expressions. It looks something like this:
What is more
If that was not reason enough to get excited about, then think about this: In our time where the local church has not often been faithful in raising up new leaders and new pastors to fill churches, let alone plant new ones, Fresh Expressions is becoming a means of raising up and training new leaders who are able to reach those who cannot be reached in traditional settings. Laity who are willing and able to lead a Fresh Expression may become some of the better candidates for pastoral ministry in the years to come, and they can discover and practice those gifts and skills first without incurring large debts from theological education. Essentially, they get free on-the-job training for ministry. The conference and local church also get a method of testing the fruitfulness of these leaders before investing large amounts of resources into them.
To me, the possibility of raising up the next generation of church leaders is even more exciting than planting new churches. Buildings and programs come and go, but the people whose lives are changed and who give them over to the service of God can touch hundreds and thousands of others each. Fresh Expressions, to me, are not a means of changing or reforming the Church. It is a way of starting new ministries based upon the place where the needs of the people intersect with the commission of the gospel so that all may be saved, transformed, and given new life.
This hope for the future hinges upon the willingness of the local churches to try something new to reach new people, the ability of our district and conference ministries to give them adequate support to match their faith, and God's grace to cover and lead us all. Failure is certainly an option, but giving up is not. God may not demand that we succeed perfectly every time on our own, but He does command that we seek His help and attempt to fulfill the mission He gave to us.
Autumn is season where we celebrate life because we begin to see it leaving us. Harvest time brings great excitement, but leaves the land bare. Perhaps there is a psychological need we have developed that makes us want to use this celebration time to prepare us for the winter ahead.
As opposed to Christmas and Easter, which are celebrations that point to life in a time of death, this season of revivals points to a memory of life pray and tried to connect it with a hope for the future, but it is done while the grass is still green. It is the good news footnote in the wake of a prophecy of cold, darkness, and death ahead.
I think this creates a perfect time for reflection, thanksgiving, and changing priorities in life. Sometimes the most important New Year's resolutions find their roots directed in the harvest time of October, nurtured by Thanksgiving in November, and are given inspiration during the versions of Christmas. Today may be the day you begin a lifetime of change and growth in a new direction.
I have been told that it is important to plan with the end in sight, and I think I keep that in mind in the past when I have spoken at funerals. In those times out cold, darkness, and death, we look for hope and opportunity for new growth. We celebrate the past and look to the future for new life. How do you make that connection? Through God's Word.
I think the two most important scriptures for me in preparing for funerals are Genesis 1 and John 1. Genesis 1 is the story of God creating the whole world and creating humankind. We, like the rest of creation are spoken into existence - made by His Word - if you will. We are also told that we were created in God's image. If you skip ahead to John 1 we discover that the Word of God that we were created by in the beginning, came to earth and became flesh and lived among us, so that we would know God. We should have been able to see God at work in each other, but sin had marred and twisted that image. Christ came (in part) to clear things up.
I believe that God works through all things for the good of those that love Him (Romans 8:28) and that means He works in all people, whether we, or they, realize it or not. That means that no person is not so full of sin that God cannot be seen in some aspect of their life. Granted, sometimes we have to dig pretty deep to find it. Often it is not even something done intentionally. Regardless, I approach funerals with the belief that everyone has a witness to Gold in their lives... Something that can be expressed by the Bible.
It is as simple as taking the concept of a "life verse" and applying it to the lives of others. One of the best ways to bring honor those we have lost, to bring comfort to their loved ones, and to bear witness to God's love and power in all our lives. It helps turn us all from a place of personal sadness and loss and helps us lift our eyes to our God in gratitude for the life that we honor at that occasion.
Why wait though? Take a moment to reflect and decide today what your life verse is. Stay living it out deliberately so that when your day comes, your family will not need a preacher to help them see God's love... Your own life will be witness enough.
You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
How do you change the flavor of the earth and shine God's light in the world?
Give. Fast. Pray.
Bank with God, not with the world… and don't spend your days worrying about all the details.
It's not complicated. Everything we do comes back to the questions…
Do you truly trust God?
How does that affect the way you live on a daily basis?
Let's break this down a little bit more. Jesus calls us to give as we love. We give to our neighbors as we are called to love them. We become neighbors to those we find in need and give, not because it is our quick and easy response, but because giving is a part of loving. If our loved ones were in need, we would give to help them. We would not stop an analyze our giving. We would not begin a tally of what we might be owed back. We give because we are called to love.
We give to God as well though. What can we give the one who already has everything? We give ourselves. We take away from the things we want and waste it lavishly on Him, not because He needs it, but because we want to show Him love. We give our time, energy, strength… We turn off the television and we hand the remote to God. We find ways to stop doing our own business and focus in entirely upon Him. We give like this because we love God. This is fasting.
What is easy and what is difficult for you to give to show love to others?
What is easy and what is difficult for you to give to show your love to God?
When we pray, we don't pray with empty words. We pray to the one who created us, who knows and loves us more than any other. He is our hiding place, no matter where we find ourselves, and there is no place else that we come alive the way we do when we are in God's presence. We do not speak His name in hushed tones. We rejoice in it! All the desires of our heart pale and melt away into the single plea that God would come establish His kingdom here among us. We do not pray for revival. We pray for heaven to come down here, so that when the day comes that we pass from this life into the next, we don't miss a beat. We will do whatever it takes for God to have His way with us here. We know that life comes from God and we are dependent upon Him, so we ask for whatever we need to be strengthened and inspired to serve Him well today. We freely release the debts of those who owe us as we ask forgiveness for our own debts that we have yet to repay to God. We will not let the problem of debt hold any of us back, or anyone around us, from serving God to their full capacity. We ask for guidance, not trusting our own understanding but acknowledging that He is the one who directs our path. We ask that He release us from the snares and pits of the enemy.
Looking at this model of prayer, what kinds of small prayer types would you divide it into?
Which of those types of prayers do you find yourself praying most often/least often?
Our world is on life support and it is fighting to pull the plug on itself. There is nothing in this world that will last. There is nothing in this world that will truly satisfy us. There is nothing in this world that will make us secure. There is nothing in this world that will save us. Every dollar we invest outside of God's will is a dollar lost. Every drop of sweat we spend trying to build something in this world apart from God is a wasted effort. We proclaim that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13) not because He somehow gives us superpowers, but because apart from Him, I can do nothing (John 15:5).
It's not just our actions that demonstrate our faith either. It is our thoughts as well. When we dwell upon things that do not matter or are outside of our control, instead of seeking God and trusting in His provision, we are tossed about like waves, unstable in all we do, and should not expect to receive what we ask because we are full of doubt, instead of full of faith. (James 1:6-8) We either believe that God created us in love, watches over and provides for us with love, and will never forsake us… or we don’t. Oh but we all worry every day you say! Perhaps, but we do many things every day that we do not let linger in our lives. Worry is spiritual uncleanliness that will lead us in spiritual sickness the way a household that is unable to dispose of sewage will soon become filled with disease, not only unlivable itself, but contagious to those around it.
What is one thing you have found helps you stop worrying and trust that God will provide?
- from Matthew 6
"Blessed are the poor in spirit..."
He changed the world by calling the least, the last, and the lost. In a world that only knew how to use the poor, He only gave. They were not any more loyal than the rich and powerful. They came to be fed, healed, delivered from spiritual oppression. Some of them said thank you. Some did not. Many people followed Him. A few actually put His words into practice. In the end, they all either turned on Him or abandoned Him, and He died... perhaps the poorest spirit of them all.
"You are the salt of the earth... the light of the world..."
But they were not. They were nobodies. The man who memorized this message was a hated tax collector and traitor to his own kind when he first heard these words. He rated below Judas the thief. On their best days, they were just people, trying to get by in a world that seemed set against them. Whatever He saw in them, they did not see in themselves or in each other. It is a strange thing to have the one in Whom you hope, put their faith in you.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets..."
The laws and their interpretations piled up more and more all the time. It seemed impossible to please God. How can you earn a life of peace and comfort? Nothing seemed to work. They wanted to give up and come up with new laws, simpler laws. They wanted to start fresh. He looked at the broken mess of their lives and told them they were not far from God at all. They were just missing one thing.
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder'..."
Justice, in its purest form, has always been 'an eye for an eye'. Justice had gone missing though. When the Jews were trampled down by the Romans, where was their justice? When their property was confiscated and their people sold into slavery, where was their justice? Injustice led to anger and desperation, and that led to hate and violence and vengeance. That story ends with rivers of blood poured out across the nations. He does not deny the injustice. He denies the vengeance. He denies the violence. He defies the hate and the desperation, and He even defies the anger experienced in the face of injustice. What are we to do in the face of injustice? Seek reconcilliation above all else, He says.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery..."
To be poor is to know want and to want what is not yours. He proclaims that it is not merely the act of taking that which is not yours which is wrong, but even the wanting itself. Not only is anger intolerable, so is desire. Anything that causes uncontrolled desire should be cut off. Marriage is a calling from God and it is to be entered into and lived trusting in God's provision, not demanding fulfillment from one another.
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely...'"
It is a human privilege to be able to speak truth. The powerful ability to speak is part of our connection to the image of God. Lies therefore are a desecration of that image. This desecration becomes even worse when we speak untruth and point to God. There are no need for vows. Every person carries the seal of heaven as one of God's creations, as one of God's children. That is enough, and more than anything else we can call up to vouch for us.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye...'"
Injustice is not defeated with punishment. Injustice is defeated by reconciliation. In a complicated world of desperate needs and broken dreams, sin compounds upon itself as one misdeed is countered by one worse. Evil snowballs into atrocity. 'An eye for an eye' was the attempt to cut the cancer out before it spread too far. He is not proposing surgery though. What He speaks to them is a cure for the cancer. He will not cut anyone out and He will not let us cut them out either.
"You have heard that it was said 'You shall love your neighbor...'"
You have set the bar too low, He explains. From the beginning, we were meant to be extraordinary beings. We were made in the image of God. We were taught to be Holy, because He was Holy. When we saw the world fall apart around us, we lost our confidence in God. We failed when we tried to fix the world ourselves. We made it worse. So we lowered the standards for ourselves and repeated this process over and over and over again. Now we have no standards and we still cannot seem to satisfy that overwhelming sense of injustice in us. Depression sinks in as our hope goes out. There is no way out. We are powerless against the waves of death and destruction that come our way.
But His voice rings out from the chaos. It's time to raise the bar. It is time to set your sight back on the God who made you. You will never hit the target if you keep aiming below it. Anyone can just get by... You are a child of God and it is time to start acting like one.
I have wondered over the years why the gospel writers were so critical of the Pharisees compared to the other groups of Jewish people that lived in Israel, let alone the Gentiles. There are some moments when Jesus seems to stop his lessons about God and God’s Kingdom start picking on the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23) Why would the early Christians have been so critical of this particular group of Jewish teachers.
One thought is that it was because they were so wrong. I think there is some merit to this, particularly to the Early Church as they grew in Gentile territories. Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome demonstrated a close evaluation of the purpose of the Law of Moses in the life of the Christian. Both in that letter, as well as in Philippians, where he specifically identifies himself as a former Pharisee, as well as in Galatians, he concludes that both Jews and Gentiles find equality through faith in Jesus Christ. (Romans 3; Philippians 3:1-11; Galatians 3, 5:1-6). The Pharisees were a big deal to Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles. Yet it is not Paul calling these Pharisees out by name in Asia Minor and Rome. It is Jesus calling them out in Jerusalem.
It is possible that the Gospel writers, Luke in particular whom we know traveled with Paul, may have been influenced by him in writing that gospel account. I think that may have defeated some of his attempt to write an orderly and accurate account if he was intentionally adding in some verbal jabs Jesus gave to the Pharisees on behalf of Paul and his frustrations that occurred years after Jesus ascended to Heaven.
That brings me to a third alternative. It is possible that Jesus did indeed make those verbal jabs not because the Pharisees were so wrong but because, out of all the groups of Jews out there, they were so close to getting it right. If you read the comments Jesus makes about the Pharisees closely, you will discover that much of his criticism of them is not about their beliefs or their verbal teaching - it is about their practice. In fact, he explicitly tells His disciples to do as they say, but not as they do. (Matthew 23:2-3).
We know that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both Pharisees that followed Jesus - so it was possible to be both, it just presented its own challenges. In fact, given that the Pharisees eventually conspired to end the life of Jesus, I think the Pharisees had much more problems with Jesus than He had with them. Joseph and Nicodemus had to be careful, not of Jesus or His disciples, but of their fellow Jewish community leaders. For them, it was not just a matter of religious differences, it was an issue of political alliances.
There is also one final reason for the abundant presence of Pharisees in the gospels. They were simply more prevalent in the region of Galilee than the Sadducees were. Although Jesus spent a significant amount of time in Judea, he grew up and spent the majority of his three years in ministry in Galilee. Whether they came out from the towns and villages he visited, or actually followed him on the road, it was simply more convenient for the Pharisees to have access to Jesus, so it makes sense that, of all the Jewish groups near him, the Pharisees would have been better represented.
I think, in light of these reasons, that the Pharisees may well have deserved their part in those woes Jesus pronounced upon them. However I think they also in part were representative of all the groups in Israel at that time. They represented those who know what is right, but do not do it. At the end of the day though, as critical as Jesus was about the Pharisees, He let them follow Him… and He made disciples out of some of them.
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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