29 August 2017

Following Jesus Begins with a Commitment to Corporate Worship

I've recently arrived at what was an "ah ha" moment, but it probably should have been obvious to me after all these years in ministry.  Here it is: Sunday morning worship is the beginning of the believer's progress in true Christian discipleship and the foundation for wanting to share the Gospel. If a Christian doesn't have a commitment to  gathering weekly for worship with his church family, he will neither progress to a more mature discipleship nor to sharing his faith with others.

A commitment to weekly worship is how a believer can first demonstrate that she is truly following Jesus.  One might object here and say, "I don't have to go to church to be a Christian!"  I wouldn't technically argue with that.  But I would have to question the maturity of a Christian who wants to defend that statement.  If you're a nominal worship attender, let me ask you a couple of questions.  Are you truly growing as a disciple of Jesus by growing in the Word of God and learning to live a more God-honoring lifestyle?  Are you sharing your faith with others?  I would guess the honest answer would be "no" to both.

Here's the point: If we want to be engaged in real, life-transforming growth as followers of Christ, we can't reach that with a half-hearted commitment to weekly worship. Gathering consistently for worship is the foundation for a natural progression of spiritual growth.  We must have an intention to be regularly present.  And when we are present we must nurture our attention to be on God's worth and the welfare of others around us.

When we come to worship with spiritual focus, we become active participants rather than passive spectators.  We learn to be God focused and less me focused. We share in exalting Christ.  We practice being Spirit-filled and tuning into what God speaks into our lives through the preaching and singing of His Word.  I believe until we do this regularly, we will have little desire to grow in faith or share Jesus with others. Of course, simply warming a seat each week out of a sense of duty or tradition won't really do it either.  However, authentic, personal worship in a corporate setting is the catalyst that causes us to want to grow in faith and share the Gospel.  Anyone I know who seeks deeper discipleship and takes the time to be involved in outreach programs is already a faithful attender of weekly worship. But I have never observed a half-time or less worship attender faithful to small group discipleship or outreach efforts. 

Now, listen to what I'm actually saying.  I'm not saying you can't be a genuine Christian and be uncommitted to Sunday worship.  And I recognized some people have careers that may require their presence on some Sundays.  But if you can choose to be in worship most of the time, but don't, you will not progress in your relationship with Christ like you could.  It's just not going to happen.  Let me tell you why.

Jesus said that the one who wanted to follow him had to "deny self, take up his cross daily, and follow" (Luke 9:23).  This following is a first-priority commitment to make myself second to Jesus - period.  If I can't begin to follow Jesus by making Sunday worship a priority, then how will I successfully follow Him in stuff that takes even greater commitment?  Furthermore, worship takes practice to get it right.  That may sound strange, but think about it.  We have to learn what worship is, what we're doing, and why we're doing it.  It takes practice to get all that straight in our minds and hearts and get dialed into what worship really is and what it is not.  If we are absent most of the time, then we can't get better at it.  This is why it's critical that pastors teach the congregation these things and that those leading worship have a sound, biblical understanding.  Gimmicked up worship leads people's minds, hearts and emotions in the wrong direction to the wrong things.

The purpose of corporate worship is to declare God's greatness and goodness to God Himself, to each other, and to unbelievers among us.  And when we do this God receives glory, we are strengthened and the lost are draw to Christ.

When we learn to worship, we essentially tune ourselves spiritually to make more of God and less of ourselves.  We begin to hunger more for His Word, have a deep sense of gratitude for grace, and delight in His beauty.  We learn to trust Him more and find our greatest satisfaction in our relationship to God through Christ.  Only when this begins to happen will a desire arise in us to pursue God with deeper discipleship in small groups, personal Bible study, prayer, service, and consistent giving.  Only when we worship will we develop a passion for the Gospel that will compel us to be trained to share our faith more effectively. 

The fact will always remain that Jesus called us to follow Him with our whole lives.  He said, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).  The point again is real commitment.  Jesus made it clear that loyalty divided is no true loyalty at all.  We can't say we follow Him and at the same time gaze longingly back for this world.  It's an all-in commitment. It's us who think we can make that commitment less than He made it and still think it's a real commitment.  

If we desire a satisfying relationship with Christ, then we have to be all in, whatever that means and whatever that costs.  This pursuit is a life-long endeavor.  No one ever arrives.  However, a simple way to progress spiritually is to shift priorities away from all those activities that consistently displace worship to a serious commitment to gathering for worship.  This is the  prerequisite for nurturing a desire to grow as a disciple and becoming an effective witness for Christ.

If your enthusiasm for Christ isn't what you think it should be, then I would challenge you to be honest about your attitude concerning corporate worship.  If it truly doesn't constitute a firm priority for you, then I would suggest there is a direct connection between your level of dissatisfaction and your absence from worship.

Maybe you would take the following challenge.  Make a six month commitment to make weekly worship your greatest commitment for Sundays.  If at all possible, choose to put it first and don't allow other things to take you away from it.  Come with the attitude of submitting yourself to God, listening attentively to the preaching of God's Word, and participating enthusiastically.  Don't expect it to be perfect, but expect God to work in your life.  Don't expect your spirit necessarily to soar immediately, but do expect change to emerge.  If you do this, don't be surprised if God doesn't whet your appetite and give you a desire to want to get closer to Him, more involved in your church, and a burden for those who need to love Jesus the way you will.   

21 June 2017

Why "Church" Must Die

We wrongly use the word church.  And it keeps us stuck in unbiblical and unhealthy mindsets in regards to what the church is and what it does.  We need to kill the modern usage of the English word church.  

First, just a little bit of history of the English word church

The word comes down to us from the Greek, kyriakos, which means "from the Lord" or "pertaining to the Lord"  The actual Greek word in the New Testament that references a gathering of Christian believers is ekklesia, which literally means, "an assembly of people." 

This begs the question of how the English word church, which does not mean an assembly of people came to be used as a translation for ekklesia.  I suppose it's difficult to know with certainty how this happened, but it appears that some of the first English translations, such as Tyndale's (1526) and Coverdale's (1535) used the English word congregation, rather than church. However, the popular Geneva Bible (1560) and then the King James Bible (1611) used the word church.  Such an obvious mistranslation strongly implies that a pretty strong agenda lay behind it.  

The best explanation seems to be that the word church was better for emphasizing establishment.  The church was the institution whose existence and purpose was to be understood as "pertaining to the Lord."  What this ambiguous and confusing label did was lend itself more to an institutional and authoritarian sense, rather than the original sense of a gathered assembly of people.  Unfortunately, it became common place in English, and translators since the KJV have been stuck with it.  The consequence of this has been profound.  Today, we use the word to mean just about everything but what the New Testament word ekklesia actually means.     

Today, when you hear the word church being used it is typically an unbiblical usage.  Most often people use it to reference the organization and it's location.  If someone asks, "Where is First Baptist Church?" another will answer, "It's on Main Street," referring to a building that is empty most of the time.  Often you'll hear a church being referred to as "pastor Smith's church," as if it is the business that he runs.  Then you'll hear many ask, "where do you go to church?"  This usage has a double meaning.  Such a question reveals that the one who asks it thinks of church in the framework of a meeting that happens in a certain place by a certain religious organization.  Going to church means attending worship service.  We even say, "It's time to go to church."  In this way, church is conceived as something you attend. 

Of course, the word church is also conflated with all our denominational labels - the Baptist church, the Presbyterian church, the Pentecostal church, the Methodist church, the non-denominational church, or the community church.  Again, this reinforces the idea of institution because now we have to ask, "What kind of church?"

I'm so confused!  How about you?  The word has come to be used in so many ways that it really doesn't mean much at all.  It typically is used in ways that only reinforce the wrong ideas.  This reality has left us with many unhealthy misunderstandings, which have been embedded into many bad practices.  Words, in the end, really do matter.    

The Greek word in the New Testament for what we call church, ekklesia,  was a common term used primarily in regards to a called out group of people for a specific task, usually in regards to civil and public service.  But in its basic sense, the word just referred to a group of people congregating together for some purpose.   

Jesus is recorded using the word ekklesia twice.  In Matthew 16:18, Jesus declares, "...I will build my church..."  Jesus was simply saying He would gather and build a people for Himself, an ekklesia, not an institution or a campus.  In Matthew 18:17, Jesus uses the word in the context of the church exercising church discipline.  The last step of attempting to correct a wayward brother is to tell the matter "to the church."  In other words, get the whole congregation in the know and involved.

In Acts and the letters of the New Testament, the word church is typically used in reference to a group of Christians in a certain location.  However, there is also a sense of a universal church that spans the ages and will be fully realized at Christ's second coming.  In either sense, the meaning of the word church (ekklesia) is a gathering of people with a shared purpose.

The Christian movement used a common Greek word in a new way.  Jesus called what He was building a "called out assembly of people" that would follow Him.  The early church clearly understood this.  However, once the church became an institution, patterned after the Roman Empire in the fourth century, this meaning began to be lost.  By the time we get to English translations of the Bible in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we see this institutionalization embedded in the mindset of translators.  A few astute individuals, like Tyndale translated ekklesia with the English word congregation - which is a much better word!  Regrettably, establishment mentality won out in the end and English translations established the word church.        

What to do?  I think we must shift our understanding and our usage of the word church.  For example, when referring to the building where the church gathers for various activities, let's use a term like meeting house.  When we are referring to the time of gathering for corporate worship, then let's be mindful to use the word worship.  And when we are really talking about the people who make up the church, then lets use the term congregation.  It's more than just words.  Words shape and reinforce our understanding. 

If we can train up a new generation to use these words biblically and accurately, then we may be able to reverse some of the institutionalized, corporate, entertainment driven "church" mentality that pervades evangelical Christianity today.   

26 April 2017

How Can I Overcome THIS?

Sometimes hurt we experience is deep and traumatic and feels like a continual open wound.  Sometimes the hurt is sharp and temporarily difficult, soon healing up but never completely forgotten, leaving a scar.  Our collective struggles are many - abuse, relationship ruptures, failures, addictions, hopelessness, sickness, tragedy and losses of various kinds.

Sometimes we think to ourselves, "How can I overcome THIS?" We have a hard time envisioning a future that doesn't include this pain.  And when we let this pain begin to define us, then we tend to spiral down into deepening pain or even self-destructive behavior.  Of course, we don't want this for ourselves, but we just feel stuck.

The Christian faith is not an abstract system of theological propositions with moral expectations.  It is a faith that completely connects with our human experiences. Christianity is not a set of rules and regulations; it is about faith, love and hope that gives joyful motivation to follow God's standards and principles.  The Christian faith, when lived out, is practical for living. When we embrace it fully and faithfully, we discover that we encounter a power that can overcome life's greatest hurts.

A genuine Christian faith profoundly helps us handle life's great challenges and pain. God brings us into a faith relationship with Himself for His own glory and for our great spiritual benefit.  Here is what I believe God has revealed in His Word and proves over and over in the lives of believers. These are reasons you can know that you can overcome THIS!

I know that I can overcome THIS because God puts an unshakable faith within me.  Jesus told us that those who hear His words and acts on them will be like a man who built his house on a rock. And when the storm comes and beats against the house, it will stand (Matt. 7).

We have a firm footing when we are confident that Jesus is the Son of God, who has revealed Himself to be our Savior and Lord.  We may bend, but God will not allow us to break.  When our hurt is too intense and deep for words, the Holy Spirit makes intercession on our behalf. And because this is true, we can be assured that God is accomplishing his purposes and He will work good even in spite of the bad (Rom. 8).

This unshakable faith is not in our own strength.  This is a faith that comes from a genuine change that comes through, what Jesus called, the new birth.  Jesus explained that a true relationship with God is only possible by being born again of the Spirit (John 3).  Being born is something that happens to us.  We don't cause our spiritual birth any more than we caused our physical birth.  God calls us to believe and follow, but we rest assured that we didn't save ourselves by our own strength or goodness. He did that. And since He made us new people by His Spirit, then he will sustain us. Jesus said clearly that His sheep know Him, follow Him and that He will never lose any of them (John 10).

Our hurts are sometimes pretty awful, but if we are in Christ, we must remember that He holds us all the while. He causes us to persevere.

I know that I can overcome THIS because God gives me a family of faith that strengthens me. For us to willingly divorce ourselves from a meaningful relationship to Christ's church is to remove a God-given, burden-bearing, support system from our lives.   The church is the body of Christ and every believer should share in it and benefit from it (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12) .

The New Testament witness knows nothing of lone-ranger Christians.  Jesus established his church for those who would believe and follow.  In faithful service to God, every born-again believer should be participating in a local church that faithfully teaches the Word of God.

When God saves us we become part of His church to further the Gospel. Additionally, He provides us with people who can lighten burdens and minister to us in our times of hurt (Gal. 6). The church is certainly bigger than me, but it includes me.  Not only do I get give and serve, I also get to receive help in my time of need.

If we are in a compassionate church (which most are), we need to remember that those people are God-appointed medicine for our hurting soul.  They cannot take away pain, but they can help make it more bearable.  They can embrace us and "weep when we weep" (Rom. 12).  There is tremendous strength to be found in community.  If we are connected, serving, giving, worshiping, and growing side-by-side with other believers in the church, then when the hurt comes these friends of the faith will be there for us.

I know that I can overcome THIS because God gives me a future that sustains me.  Our faith in Jesus continually gives us a bigger picture that encapsulates our present hurt. We shouldn't deny the hurt, but we have the ability to put it in a bigger perspective that is infused with hope that comes from our faith.  This ability comes from the presence of real hope.  This is not merely wishing for a brighter future; it is knowing it.

The big-picture, larger-than-any-hurt hope is the resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus said that the one who hears Him and believes has eternal life and has passed from death to life (John 5).  This is a present reality.  We have life in Him now and will continue to have it for eternity! This truth does not change with our circumstances; it remains the constant even in our painful experiences.  Jesus also told us that in this world we would have trouble, but to never forget that He has already overcome it (John 16).  And because He has already secured the victory over death, so have we.  We can't forget this truth of our identity in Christ!  It will sustain us through the most difficult pain and loss.

So, if you find yourself wondering how you can possibly get through your current pain, remind yourself of who you are and what you have in Christ.  Lean on your church family; don't withdraw.  Allow the grace of God to continue to do its work.  Keep believing and trusting with boldness.  We all are going to accumulate a portion of suffering in this life, but as believers we know who loves us, holds us, and never lets us go.  Hold tight to the hand that's holding you.      

Following Jesus Begins with a Commitment to Corporate Worship

I've recently arrived at what was an "ah ha" moment, but it probably should have been obvious to me after all these years in...

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