Church Growth is Like Planting Flowers

HibiscusWe spent a lot of time in the flowerbed in front of our house over the weekend. We transplanted a few hedges into a new location and added a few hibiscus. My routine usually goes like this: I hit the plastic temporary pot a few times, slide the bush out, and the claw at the roots to break them up a bit and put it in the ground and water it.

After about the fourth hibiscus, something hit me. I was reminded of the church. Some churches are like the hibiscus in the temporary plastic pot, content with staying small, content with its roots being bound up in that little cheap pot. Not having a vision for anything greater. Plants aren’t meant to stay in those little pots…they are meant to be transplanted into bigger pots or even into your yard where the roots can spread and grow.

Transplanting a plant can be traumatic but it is necessary because in the little pot, a plant will only grow so large, but in the ground plants can grow much larger. Healthy growth requires tearing. It requires breaking. It requires disturbing the soil a bit. Instead of capturing a view of the church that is broad and big and expansive, I am afraid much kingdom growth is missed out of an avoidance of the pain that comes from being removed from the pot and placed in the ground, the very place God has called us to be. So let us trust in God. Let us take chances. Let us not be afraid of failure but be filled with the assurance that comes out of a life that is partnering with God to bring growth to the kingdom.

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.
32 
Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree,
so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” – Matt 13:31-32

Two Realizations That Help Christian Unity

In Luke 14 Jesus tells the parable of an influential man who throws a dinner party. He sends out the invite to all the choice people, the in-crowd. As the RSVP’s come back he gets nothing but excuses…One guy says he just bought a field and wants to go look at it. Pretty lame…don’t you think he has already seen the field and don’t you think it will look pretty much the same next week? Another guy says he just got married and can’t make it…wise fella right there…still another guy says he just bought some oxen and wants to try them out. You know people couldn’t care less about you if they don’t come because they are test driving their oxen. Oldest excuse in the books. None of the people you might have thought would have been first in line come to the banquet.

So what does the man do? He sends out a second invitation, “‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’” Bring them in. Bring in anyone who will come! The servant goes out and brings in all who are willing. There is still room at the banquet. So the man sends out a third invitation, “‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.”

Why does God fill his banquet with such a motley crew, such a rag-tag bunch of unworthy people? Not only does he invite them…he orders his servant to compel these people to come to the banquet. This is a big deal. These people have nothing to offer the man. They won’t increase his status or make him look good. When you look at the room and see who is there you can’t help but realize the man who is running the banquet is full of grace and compassion. The shocking thing is this, these people are you and me. We are the ones who don’t deserve to be at the banquet. We are the spiritually crippled and lame and poor and blind. We have been given a seat at God’s banquet table. We have gone from the margins to the inner circle.

So what are the two realizations that help develop Christian unity?

Realization #1 – None of us deserve to be Christians. That should humble us and bring us to our knees. So much disunity springs out of a since of spiritual entitlement and arrogance. The truth is, none of us deserve any of it. Yet God, in his infinite mercy is the one who brings us together.

Realization #2 – When you really understand you have been saved by God’s grace, it should make us graceful toward others. Grace is a key ingredient to unity. Arrogance and pride magnify mistakes and differences. Grace helps us iron over differences and mistakes in healthy ways. So much disunity comes from having an ungraceful attitude. Being ungraceful and ungrateful leads to unforgiveness that often leads to unending, bitter disputes that tear brothers and sisters in Christ apart.

Try this: The next time you are feeling disunity with another Christian picture you and that other person as blind, crippled beggars eating next to each other at God’s banquet and see what is left that is still worthy enough to tear your relationship apart. Not too many things will pass that test.

The Book of Acts And the Shaping of the Church

Ever since I can remember growing up I have heard that the book of Acts is the model for the church. A lot of people say (correctly) that we are a 21st century church in a 21st century world and that means there are going to be some differences between the church we read about in Acts and the church of today. That is fair. I do think, though, that there is so much in Acts that we really do need to take notice of and emulate.

When I read Acts I read about the church away from the assembly. They are out there on a mission. They are seeking lost people and intentionally reaching them with the Gospel. They are prayerful about their direction and focus. They are relying on God in so many ways and for so many reasons. It is really pretty humbling. When I have heard people express the sentiment about us being like that church it worries me just a little bit because it is often implied that we are already there when the reality is we still have much to learn from their example.

Here are a few areas that I think they had right that are still helpful today

Mission
How much has the book of Acts shaped the one thing that stands out the most in the book of Acts? Our mission. If we are that church we read about in Acts, are we sending people out to reach lost people? I don’t mean sending checks (that is important and essential to many good works continuing). I means people…do the people who attend know they are a part of a mission, what that mission is and how they contribute to it?

Boldness/Zeal
Do we share their boldness and zeal? They took on the world. They spoke with kings. They upset the status quo and had meetings with rulers and authorities and found themselves in conversations with prominent people because what they were up to was significant enough to get them in trouble with certain groups.

Dependence on God
Do we mirror their full out dependence on God for direction? These guys trusted God. They didn’t always get it right but it always came back to what God wanted and trying to be pleasing to God through fulfilling the work He gave them to do. I am afraid there are some Christians who have learned to depend on doctrine rather than God. Again, doctrine is important, even essential but we must always remember who the doctrine points us to.

Imitation & Maturity
The point here is that being a church like that is more than form. It is about our heart. It is about our view of God. It is about our mission and our attitude. It is more than imitation. We can imitate someone else all day but it doesn’t mean a whole lot until we make it our own and grow to maturity. Strict imitation can be a real sign of immaturity and can reflect a real lack of dependence on God in favor of a dependence on form.

Focus on Discipleship Has Created a Resurgence in Baptism

waterheartIt used to be pretty unusual to hear people teach the importance of baptism. In Churches of Christ it wasn’t unusual. We talked about it all the time but outside our fellowship it was pretty infrequent. If you did hear it, it was one of those things done to infants or done to join a specific congregation. All of a sudden I am hearing more and more people teach the importance of baptism. Where is this renewed interest coming from? It is coming from all the interest in discipleship. Once you emphasize following Jesus and obeying His teaching, even if doing so goes against tradition…baptism jumps right out for two reasons: 1) Jesus commanded us to do it, so if you are going to follow Jesus and take his words seriously you will take baptism seriously and 2) in the BIG discipleship verse of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 he even tells us how to go about making new disciples and it involves baptizing people.

I am so happy to see people re-emphasizing and teaching the importance of baptism. I believe it is important because Jesus could have brought up all sorts of things just before he ascended to heaven but this is one of the most important things he said – go and make disciples and do it like this…teaching them, baptizing them, etc.

The Greatest Command: It’s Okay to Love Yourself

2 Timothy 3:1-5 warns,

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.”

How often do we talk about the love we should have for ourselves? Maybe one reason we don’t do that very often is because 2 Tim 3:2 tells us that a horrible day is coming when people will be lovers of themselves. So we see love of self as an evil to be avoided. You might even feel guilty to think about loving yourself. But here is what Jesus said in Matthew 22,

““‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

In these two verses we have love of God, love of others and an implied love of self. You will notice that Jesus didn’t need to command us to love ourselves but he did imply that we can and should have a healthy love for our own self. Commands are usually given for things we don’t do naturally…I mean, where is the command in the Bible to eat three meals a day, right? We don’t need anyone commanding us to do things that come naturally.We would all say that God loves us. Millions of people can quote John 3:16 which says exactly that. Many millions grew up singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know…for the Bible tells me so.” We know Jesus loves kids but once we become adults and become aware of our own sinfulness it becomes a lot harder to have a healthy love for yourself. It is hard to see ourselves as forgiven and let go of our guilt.

It is hard to see ourselves as valuable but here is the deal…we don’t have value apart from Christ. The only reason we have any value to begin with is solely because we are made in the image of God and in that passage in Genesis 1:26ff, Scripture says “Let us make man in our image…” – plural. Are we made in the image of Christ as well?, only to have sin mar that image only to later have Jesus come to reconcile and restore that within us back to our initial state? Here is my point…you do have value but not because of yourself. The value you have is because of God. God loves you, Jesus loves you, other Christians are commanded to love you…Jesus implies we ought to love ourselves as well…just don’t make the focus or the center of that love the love of self apart from Christ.

So, do you love yourself? If you struggle with that, what makes it so hard?

Richard Oster Has a New Commentary On Revelation Coming Out!

Great news from Richard Oster’s blog! Dr. Oster has completed and is about to have published his commentary on Revelation 1-3 entitled, “Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible.  A Commentary on Revelation 1-3” This is going to be great and I recommend you guys get a copy of this book when it is available. As soon as I find out it is out I will put a post up to let you guys know. You can read more about it at his post, “The End is Near“. I love his opening line,

“With almost eschatological fervor I am expecting the publication of my commentary Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible.  A Commentary on Revelation 1-3 within weeks rather than months.”

Classic.

HT: Philip Cunningham

Principles Wrapped In Practices – Fasting

Jesus could just tell us to rely on God. Instead He taught His disciples how to fast. Jesus was the master teacher, wrapping up principles into practices. Repeating those practices solidify the principles Jesus wants us to make a part of our lives. What is more, Jesus doesn’t just tell them that they should fast and hope that they get the principles. Jesus tells them how the fasting is tied to the underlying principle,

““When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:16-18

Why not just lecture them to be more concerned about what God thinks than about what men think? Why not preach a sermon on the value of trusting in God for what we need? Jesus could have pulled aside the twelve and explained to them how fasting will bring God & God’s will into clearer focus. He didn’t do that because there was a better way to teach it than just using words. He wrapped those principles up into practices…Instead of just telling, Jesus prescribed a practice that solidified the underlying principle he wanted them to get. It is up to us to make these things more than teachings,

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” – Matthew 7:24-25

Principles Wrapped in Practices – The Lord’s Prayer

The Lord’s prayer offers us several great teachings about the Christian faith. We learn everything from God being our Father to kingdom values and the importance of God’s will being done. We learn about God providing for our necessities and the importance of forgiveness. Those are all amazing teachings. What is so great about the Lord’s Prayer is that it takes those core truths and wraps them in practice, the practice of prayer. This is not just something to think about…it is something to participate in, to create and experience. When we repeatedly participate in the practice of praying like this, those teachings and truths become more deeply engrained into our being. Jesus was after more than just mental ascent and ideological agreement with his teaching…Jesus was after our hearts, transforming the very essence of who we are…to become more like Him.

This, then, is how you should pray:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
-Matthew 6:9-13

The Greatest Commandment: God, Others, and Self

Sometimes I hear the greatest command summed up as “love God and love others”. That misses the only person in the whole world who isn’t included in those two categories, self. But Jesus did include loving yourself in the greatest commandment,

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” – Matthew 22:37-38

Paul echoes this in Ephesians 5:28-29, “28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church”

God doesn’t want us to get so caught up in loving ourselves that we get self-centered and fail at the first two greatest commandments in Jesus lists. I do wonder though, if we avoid talking about the love of self for fear people won’t handle it very well. What can happen is people end up feeling pretty beat up, guilty and lacking a biblical concept of God’s love for them and a healthy love for themselves. Maybe that is just so obvious that I am the only guy in the room that hasn’t picked up on that.

1 Corinthians 13 Young Adult Remix

If you want to reach 20 Somethings, here is the key – Love them and let them know it. You may not have all the “right” programs (as if there is a giant cookie cutter you can press into your congregation and make it work). Your worship may not be flashy. Your members may be aging. The nursery may be empty. You may not know all the right things to say, the questions to ask or be up on all the latest cultural trends, viral videos or newest songs…but if you can just have a heart for this generation and reach out to them in love…embrace them and give them space to explore faith in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way…you will be amazed what will happen.

Here is why this works. You spend time with the people you love. That generates a connection greater than giving them the next great program or ministry. You give attention and affection to the people you love. That will build their trust. You will gain and earn the respect to speak words of truth into their lives, give them the guidance they need and be there to pick them up lovingly when they make a mistake. Love is key because love shoots right through all the surface issues of why they leave and why we don’t keep them around.

Do we love them like we should and do they know it? Is our love for them at least as evident as our love for doctrine and tradition? If your answer to that is no, then I would ask you to read what Paul told the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 13. Today it might sound something like this…

1 Corinthians 13 Young Adult Remix

“If I speak all the true doctrines of the church, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where it is silent, take the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess in the Sunday morning offering plate and worship a capella, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are traditions of the church, they will cease; where there are tongues that teach church doctrine, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part,10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

If you read 1 Cor 13 in context going back into 1 Corinthians 12 you will see that Paul didn’t think any of these gifts were bad things. In fact, he said to seek them out. Same for us. Doctrine is important. Even our traditions can be important to us. We just have to make sure that all of these things are seen and done through the lens of what will remain and the greatest thing that will remain, is love. So please don’t read my re-write as any slam on the church. If it is a slam on anything it is on those who take perfectly good things and use and abuse them and run people off (especially young people) because they “have not love” in how they use and practice those things. I just want to be clear on that.