Saturday, October 17, 2009

What's Your Priority?

Today in his message, Pastor Brent talked about being deeply committed to God, and specifically he said that we can't honestly say that we're committed to him when we're not committing our money to him. If God has our hearts, he gets our wallets as well.

We tend to cut ourselves a lot of slack and make allowances for ourselves when we fall short. Most people give themselves the benefit of the doubt on a regular basis. Researchers call it "the self-serving bias."

For example, in one survey, 90% of drivers rated themselves as "above average" in their driving skills compared to other drivers, and nearly 50% placed themselves among the top 10%. Of course, this is mathematically impossible, but it's one example of the self-serving bias.

I came across an interesting article this week that provided an example of the self-serving bias among pastors, when it comes to their assessment of the spiritual condition of their congregations, compared to what their congregants actually report about themselves. Most pastors have a rosy outlook when it comes to their members' spiritual condition, but the members themselves reveal a rather different picture. The results are rather striking, and it's definitely worth taking a look at the full article. But here are some of the things that were particularly noteworthy to me:
  • Only 23% of all Protestant churchgoers, and only half of evangelicals (which are known for making a stronger emphasis on things like this) indicated that their faith in God was their highest priority in their lives. So that means most Christians--and half of evangelicals--ADMIT that God is not #1 in their lives.
  • According to the survey, in forming their opinions, "few pastors rely upon criteria that reflect genuine devotion to God." Most pastors utilize external indicators such as worship attendance, serving in a ministry, and comments made immediately after the worship service. While these can be important factors in a person's journey of growth, it is also true that positive outward behavior can mask inner ambivalence, or even outright disobedience or unbelief.
  • In the section labeled "Activity That Does Not Concern Churches," among the list of important criteria that pastors downplay or ignore altogether are
    • tithing/generosity,
    • personal evangelism/outreach,
    • life change subsequent to the conversion experience
    • how visitors to the church are received
    • whether people experience the presence of God in the worship service
When I look at our description of a Fully Devoted Follower that the elders and I have developed together, I am pleased to see that we are on the right track. We have put together a list of criteria that actually assess the level of a person's devotion to Christ, and it includes every single one of the essential characteristics that this article says most churches ignore.

We don't want to have a self-serving bias when we evaluate the health of our church, and we don't want individuals in our church to have a self-serving bias when they look at their own health. We want to see accurately so that we can know what our true condition is, and so that we can work on the areas that need attention the most.

It is right for us to think this way, according to God's word: "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you." (Romans 12:3 NIV)

So where are you on your journey? Are you where you need to be? Or do you have some growing to do? Do you truly make God your first priority in life? What will it take to get him there?

For many of us, it starts with letting go of our love of money, which is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10). The best way to get rid of money's hold over our lives is to start giving it away. You see, our God is a very practical God.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Small Group Changes

In this process of getting ourselves focused on our mission of meeting people where they are and leading them to become fully devoted followers of Jesus, the first area that we're examining up-close is the area of small groups (Reaching Over). We'll be also giving special consideration to our worship services (Reaching Up) and our ministry teams (Reaching Out) in the near future, but the elders and I felt that small groups was the right area to direct our efforts first.

One of the first things that we realized is that we have a lot of great Life Groups that are already established, and wonderful things are going on in them. But most of the time we don't know what those wonderful things are.

  • We are uncertain who belongs to each of the various groups,
  • We usually find out after the fact when a topic of study changes,
  • We don't know when groups are experiencing problems... or breakthroughs,
  • We aren't aware of many of the life changes that are taking place in our groups, except we sometimes hear about them in a round-about or haphazard way.
So we knew that we needed to apply some communication tools for our Life Groups. We now have a regular mechanism for keeping in touch with our Life Group leaders so that we can provide support and encouragement, as well as stay connected with what's happening in our groups.

Another need that we noticed is that there was no consistent plan for life change in our groups. It's not that lives weren't ever being changed, and that no one was ever growing--only that the growth was not a result of a focused, strategic effort, and therefore, not as great and fruitful as it might otherwise be.

So we came up with some across-the-board standards for our small groups and shared those with all our small group leaders at a special training session last week. If you're in a small group, your leader will be sharing these with you soon. There's nothing that should strike anyone as surprising or out-of-place for small groups, but we believe it is helpful to be clear about the purpose and nature of our groups in order to avoid any unmet expectations, unspoken agendas, or unnecessary conflict.

Finally, we realized that it is probably difficult for some people to take the step from attending worship to joining an established small group. After all, there are innumerable obstacles to overcome:
  • the awkwardness and uncomfortableness of breaking in to a group that already knows each other and is familiar with each other
  • the anxiety about whether I'll really be accepted or welcome (despite what people say)
  • the unknown expectations of group members--will I be called on to pray out loud? answer a question I don't know? reveal uncomfortable things about my life?
  • fears about what will happen when people discover "the real me"
  • concerns about whether these people are trustworthy enough to keep my confidential information confidential
  • and on and on....
So we asked, How can we help people take the step of moving from just attending to being a part of a small group? And the answer we came up with was Learn Groups.

Learn Groups will be short-term small groups that will tie into the message series that we're working through. So if a series is four weeks long, the Learn Group will be four weeks long. If a series is six weeks long, the Learn Group will be six weeks long. This gives people a chance to "test drive" the small group concept without making a lengthy commitment. They can get used to interacting and learning in a group setting with minimal risk. At the end of each Learn Group, we'll be encouraging anyone who is not part of a Life Group to "graduate" into one of those established groups.

We've also made the decision to change our Journey Classes into Journey Groups. If the purpose is not simply to impart information, but to aid and assist life change, we feel the format for the Journey Classes needs to be shifted to a group format. There are several reasons for that:
  • Breaking the teaching into shorter, more manageable pieces helps people absorb and digest the information better, rather than our previous approach to download four hours of information in one sitting.
  • Giving time in between each session allows people to practice and experiment with what they've learned so far without piling on more information that they're not ready for.
  • Giving an opportunity to practice allows for more intelligent questions, feedback, suggestions, and comments from the Journey participants, as well as a chance for encouragement, support, and camaraderie within the group.
The first Journey Group will be kicking off Sunday November 1 and going through November 22. It's the Journey 201 Group, which examines the habits that are necessary for spiritual growth. We'll be talking about the habits of prayer, time in God's word, personal worship, tithing, and fellowship. Even if you've already taken the Journey 201 CLASS, you're welcome to try out the Journey 201 Group--I think you'll find that you will enjoy it more and get more out of it in this group format.

To sign up for the Journey 201 Group, email me! There's no cost for the group.

Small groups are an integral part of our process for leading people to become fully devoted followers of Christ because they are the best tool that we have for helping people acquire authentic relationships with other Christians, which are essential for growth. Small groups help foster relationships that are focused directly on life change and provide the safe space for the kind of honest and deep conversations that are appropriate to relationships with a purpose.

If you haven't found a small group, now is the time! Call the office (784-5388) to sign up for a group, or send me an email at

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Non-Growing Christian Is...

The Bible assumes that Christians grow--there's no real comprehension of any other kind (Col. 3:9-10). However, most contemporary American Christians do not grow--they are stuck, plateaued, in a holding pattern--and because this is so common, we fail to see how odd it really is from the Bible's perspective. In fact, if we're not careful, we'll come to see stagnation as normal and movement as strange and bizarre.

So, to counter this heresy, I thought it might be good to re-cast what a non-growing Christian is like through some modern-day word-pictures. My hope is that these will help challenge you to see how offensive a lack of growth in our lives is to God, and strengthen your resolve not only to be a growing Christian yourself, but to spur others on to the same.

A non-growing Christian is...

  • A sinus infection--slimy, gross mucus that creates pain and pressure because it's not going anywhere.
  • A bowel obstruction--a blockage of movement that causes you to hang on to all your crap.
  • A pimple--a clog of oil and dead cells that produces embarrassment.
  • A port-a-potty--a stinky repository of garbage and waste.
  • Engine sludge--gooey gunk that not only won't move, but even causes a whole engine to stop, and eventually break down.
  • A hemorrhoid--a painful torment that cries out for fixing, but most people are unwilling to do anything about it.
  • A free ticket to a mortuary--it counts for nothing, and nobody wants it.
  • Gangrene--dead, rotting flesh caused by a lack of blood flow
  • A government agency--bloated, unnecessary, useless, ineffective, uncomprehending... need I say more?
  • A parasite--a being with no purpose of its own, which contributes nothing, produces nothing, provides nothing. It draws its life by sucking from from the healthy, and spreads sickness simply by doing what comes naturally to it.

Not growing is painful because we repeat the same bad choices over and over, and reap their consequences. It's tragic because we fail to learn from our own life experiences. It's gross and disgusting because that's always the case when something is intended to move and it's stuck. It causes our lives to be rendered worthless and ineffectual. It is one of Satan's greatest sources of satisfaction.

The Christian life is designed to MOVE!!! So let's shift it out of park and put the pedal to the metal, people!!! I feel the NEED for SPEED!!! Woo-hoo!!!!!!!!!

What's the next turn you need to make to get on-track with God?

Monday, September 21, 2009

What Is Church About?

Before I share my answer with you, I'd really invite you to wrestle with this question... What is church about? If you're reading this blog, I'm assuming that you go to church, you're part of a church, you belong to a church. So this should be easy. What is church about?

Think about it. Write it out--it helps to make things clear in our minds when we write them down. OK, have you done that yet? No? Then why are you still reading? I'm serious--write down the answer to this question: What is church about? (Don't worry, I'll wait for you...)





OK, have you done that yet? See, here's what I think. I think your answer more than likely sounds something like this:

  • Church is about learning about God and Jesus.
  • Church is about worship and learning more about the Bible.
  • Church is where we go to find out what we're supposed to believe.

Now, maybe not. Maybe I'm all wrong here. But I think I'm right. I think this is the answer that I'd get from 90+% of church-goers. And that is a crippling indictment of us as Christians, on a couple of fronts:

  1. Church is never about where we go. The church is not a building you enter, it's a group of people you belong to. In the Bible, the church is a family, a flock, a body, a bride, a fellowship, but never a literal building. And just like in a family, in a flock, in a body, we belong to each other. Romans 12:5 says, "Each member belongs to all the others." So whatever church is about, it's about belonging to other people.
  2. Church is never about Sundays. If "church" is a group of people we belong to, we belong to them all the time--in the exact same way that you don't cease to belong to your family just because you head separate ways during the day. To say that church is about Sunday morning worship services is like saying that family is about sleeping under the same roof at night, or eating dinner together (if your family does that). Those may be things that happen in a family--even fairly important things--but that's a pretty poor description of what family is all about.
  3. Church is not really about learning. Now, again, maybe learning is something that happens in a church (hopefully so!), but church is not like school. Church is not an educational institution. The Bible tells us that "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1 NIV). Knowledge for knowledge's sake is useless, less than worthless. In fact, "If I... can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2 NIV). Let me say it again--CHURCH IS NOT ABOUT LEARNING!!!

So what is church about? One thing. There is only one reason the church exists. There is only one reason to belong to a church. There is only one reason to serve in a church. There is only one reason to believe in the church. There is only one reason to worship with the church. And that reason is this:

Life. Change.

That's it. Nothing else. We are in the business of allowing God to change our lives, and letting him use us to change the lives of others. And we join together to support and challenge one another on this journey of life change, as we all head in the same direction, so that we can all get there because we could never make it on our own--it's way too hard.

And if we don't understand this, we don't really understand anything about the Christian faith. If we don't grasp this, we may not even really have a relationship with Jesus at all. And I'm not exaggerating even slightly.

Church is about life change.

And so the only kind of knowledge that counts for anything is the knowledge that changes your life. If you learn something, and change as a result, that's good. If you learn something and don't change, you were better off not even learning it in the first place. Way too many Christians are educated beyond their obedience.

As we've said endlessly (and we'll keep saying it), Pathway Community Church exists to meet people where they are on their spiritual journeys and lead them to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. We meet them where they are, but we don't let them stay there--we lead them to a new place. That's life change. And that's not just for the people "out there"; it's for us "in here" too. In fact, we can't do diddly squat "out there" until we allow God to do his work "in here." If our lives are untransformed, we have absolutely nothing to offer this world. We operate with no power. We model a false gospel.

As we implement this simple process throughout our church, there's only one reason behind it--life change.

  • Reaching Up/Worship Services are about life change.
  • Reaching Over/Small Groups are about life change.
  • Reaching Out/Ministry Teams are about life change.

This whole process is about one thing--helping you cooperate with God to let him change your life. If you're happy with your life exactly the way it is and don't want to change anything, you're in open rebellion against God, and you're going to find yourself more and more uncomfortable with the direction our church is moving. And that's only right, because the only thing church is about is life change.

Monday, September 14, 2009

faith : simple

This week, we rolled out our simplified, streamlined, concretized process for... well, everything we do and are at Pathway Community Church. In the past, we've had a mission statement, two vision statements, thirteen core values (separated into three categories), a church structure, an assimilation/discipleship strategy, and a set of Journey classes that we wanted everyone to take--in addition to all the other ministries and programs that we have operated--worship services, small groups, Awana, youth group, Soccer Camp, Dinner Theatre, Trunk or Treat, potlucks, etc.

As I said yesterday, individually each of those things is good, right, biblical, God-honoring, consistent with his purpose for his church, and so forth. But taken all together, it's a little overwhelming, confusing, complex, and just plain noisy.

As leaders, the elders and I recognized the need for a clearer, more focused approach--one that would be easy to communicate and easy to understand, one simple process that ties everything together. And this is it:

Here's how these things are now tied together:

  • Mission: To meet people where they are on their spiritual journeys and lead them to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. We began asking the question, "What does a fully devoted follower look like?", and we made a list of characteristics and qualities that someone would have if they were fully devoted to Jesus. Then we asked, "What do we do in our church that helps people acquire these character traits?" We identified these three areas as key in helping us accomplish our mission.
  • Ministries/Programs: We now have just three main things that we focus on. "Reaching Up" corresponds to our worship services. "Reaching Over" involves our small groups. And "Reaching Out" is tied to our ministry teams. By focusing on these three areas, we increase our effectiveness by being more intentional with each of them, making sure they relate to a specific part of the process of making fully devoted followers.
  • Core Values: These are now connected directly with the mission. First we help people reach up toward God (Real Spirituality). Then we help them reach over toward other believers (Real Community). Then we help them reach out through ministry (Real Story). The core values are now put into a step-by-step process, which helps people grow into acquiring a balanced, fully-developed Christian life.
  • Assimilation Process: This is the question of how someone becomes connected and attached to our church. The worship service is the front door--the most likely point of entry for a new person. The next step in helping them get connected here is moving them as soon as possible into a small group so that they develop strong relationships with other believers. The next step is to help them find a ministry that fits how God has shaped them so that they have a stake in the success and health of our church. Once they are a contributing member of the body, connected with other believers, and growing in their faith, they will be far more likely to work through the problems that come up, which might otherwise cause them to leave.
  • Immediate Vision: To trigger a dramatic reaction between our neighbors and Christ in a fusion of real needs and real love. This vision entails mobilizing people for ministry, which is also the objective of the simple process. Now we have a step-by-step process that will help us move people toward that goal. As we do, we will have a greater and greater impact on our community, which will bring glory and honor to God (Matthew 5:16), and which will attract people to a relationship with him through our church.
  • Broad Vision: To become actively involved in planting new churches to reach the 100,000 people in Jackson County with no church family. We believe this simple process will help our church become more effective at accomplishing our mission, which will lead to growth. With more people and more resources, we will be able to realize this vision, expanding the reach of God's kingdom through the planting of new churches throughout the county.

In essence, it's the difference between a light bulb and a laser beam. In many respects, they're the same thing (after all, light is light), but in practice they're vastly different. The laser beam is exponentially more effective than a light bulb because all the energy is focused.

You may look at this and say, "Well, we're already doing this." That's right... we have worship services, small groups, and ministry teams already. What's the difference? The difference is focus. The difference is applying all our strategic energy in this one direction. The difference is making sure that at each step of the process, something is happening that will help produce fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Resurrection

It is rightly pointed out that the resurrection of Jesus is the hingepoint of the Christian faith. The question of whether Jesus really came back from death makes all the difference in the world. The apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is usesless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

So it is worthy of note that this belief in Jesus' resurrection is not only the most essential of the Christian faith, but also the most hotly contested--and yet, one of the most verifiable events in history, when one evaluates the historical evidence.

1. Eyewitness Testimony
In courtrooms, considerable weight is given to eyewitnesses who have observed the events being discussed in the court case. Since no one else in the courtroom was there, the eyewitnesses are considered key for helping reconstruct the events of the past. In the Bible, two of the four writers who tell the story of the resurrection (Matthew and John) were personal eyewitnesses to the fact, as disciples of Jesus. Luke insists that his account is an "orderly account" based on his own careful investigation of Jesus' life "from the beginning," "so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught" (Luke 1:1-4). And Mark, as a traveling companion of Paul, relied especially on Peter.

In addition, John and Peter both wrote letters to the churches, affirming their eyewitness status:

  • We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of your Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty (2 Peter 1:16).
  • That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Fathe rand has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard (1 John 1:1-3).

And Paul in one of the earliest writings of what we now know as the New Testament said, For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appearedc to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of hte brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

Here we see that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus can be traced to a very early point in the life of the church, attested to by a number of people who claim to be eyewitnesses to the fact. Clearly, this is not a belief that arose a number of years later; it was part of the Christian faith from the beginning.

2. Empty Tomb
Eyewitness testimony is great, but of course we all know that eyewitnesses can lie. What gives credibility to the eyewitness testimony is that there are other historical facts that back up their claims. One of the most striking is that it is almost certain that the tomb of Jesus was empty. We can know this because if Jesus' followers are running around claiming that Jesus is alive, the best way to squash that claim is to produce the body--which nobody did.

It's not because they didn't have a reason to. Many people, in fact, had a vested interest in putting this whole Jesus movement to rest--namely all those who had conspired to get him killed in the first place:

  • Jewish leaders--The whole problem for them with Jesus was that his teachings and his understanding of God and scripture profoundly threatened everything they loved--their privileged status, their power and influence, their wealth. The last thing they wanted was to see Jesus' followers take up his mantle and start spreading his influence throughout the Roman Empire.
  • Roman authorities--Until Jesus, they had been able to boast a 100% success rate with crucifixions. They certainly didn't want that image tarnished. Moreover, Jesus had been charged (at least officially) with rebellion against Rome and attempting to establish his own kingdom. While Pilate personally felt that Jesus was harmless, could he be sure that the same could be said for all of his followers? In addition, the tomb of Jesus had been guarded by Roman soldiers; it certainly made them look inept if it could be said that the tomb was empty.

The only reason that makes sense for why no one came forward with the body of Jesus is because the body wasn't there! This is especially true when we consider that the church was born in Jerusalem, the very city in which Jesus was crucified--the last place on earth that it could have started if the tomb were not empty.

3. The Disciples' Lives/Deaths
Many theories have been put forward as to why the tomb could have been empty. Some are so ridiculous as to require more faith than actually believing in the resurrection (for instance, some advance what is known as "The Wrong Tomb Theory"--that everyone in Jerusalem forgot where Jesus was buried and all went to the wrong tomb to look for his body). Probably the most common explanation from skeptics for the empty tomb is that the disciples stole the body.

Setting aside the difficulty of overcoming the Roman guard which was posted, and the courage required to break the Roman seal on the tomb (remember, Peter withered under questioning from a servant girl in a courtyard just days earlier), one must consider that each of the disciples was eventually executed for their faith, except for John who lived out his final days in exile on the island of Patmos.

Certainly, no one is willing to surrender their lives simply to perpetuate a lie. And they would have known it was a lie if they were the ones who had stolen the body. The only logical explanation for their behavior is that they were absolutely certain that they were telling the truth--to the point that they were willing to die for it. And the only way they could be certain it was the truth is if they had been telling the truth when they shared their eyewitness testimonies.

And there was much they suffered before they actually gave up their lives. Consider this description of his life from the apostle Paul:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides eerything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Corinthians 11:23-29).

Who signs up for a life like this? Only those who believe that the benefit outweighs the cost. Only those who are fully convinced that Jesus Christ indeed rose from the dead.

4. The Audience
All this that we've examined so far is pretty convincing to me, but the clincher is the fact that the Christian faith grew so explosively in its first years. How could this happen if the audience the first Christians were trying to reach did not believe in the message they were sharing?

Shortly after Jesus was killed, Peter spoke to a crowd in Jerusalem (remember, the site of the crucifixion!). Many of the people listening had themselves probably seen Jesus put to death. Peter started out by saying, "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know" (Acts 2:22). Then he went on to say, "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact" (Acts 2:32).

And the audience's response is interesting. They didn't say, "We don't know what you're talking about!" or "Hey! That's not the way it really happened!" Instead, they were immediately terrified, and said, "Brothers, what shall we do?" And 3000 of them put their faith in Jesus that day.

The earliest New Testament books were written within 25-30 years after Jesus' death--plenty of time for many, many eyewitnesses to still be alive and able to rebut or refute the claims of the biblical writers. But there is no evidence that anyone at the time disagreed with the version of history that the Bible presents. Everyone agreed that that was the way it had happened.

If there is a God, and if he has revealed himself in Scripture, and if archaeology backs up the Bible's claims, and if dozens of prophecies were fulfilled in the life of Jesus in a way that no one could arrange, then it's not too big of a leap to believe that this God could raise his Son from the dead. The whole New Testament bears witness to that pivotal event, and the writers of Scripture are all in agreement. Moreover, the evidence is overwhelming--Jesus did rise from the dead. It's just one more reason that I find the Bible trustworthy.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Uniqueness of the Bible's God

As we're looking at the various reasons why the Bible can be trusted, we've looked at a historical argument (fulfilled prophecy) and a scientific argument (archaeology), but this week, I want to look at something a little different. While those lines of thinking are more objective and evidence-based, this week I'd like to focus on an aesthetic argument that has its own logic to it. You may or may not find this convincing, but I do. It has to do with the uniqueness of the God that the Bible presents to us.

The Bible claims to be God's word--the only authoritative and reliable record of his activity in history. By extention, the Bible asserts that all other sacred texts that claim the same status (The Qu'ran, The Bhagavad Gita, The Sutras, and so on) are not authoritative and reliable, especially with respect to the ways they deviate from the record given in the Bible.

So it is noteworthy to me that no other religion in the history of the world presents a picture of a God or gods like anything that resembles the God of the Bible.

  • Personally Concerned. In the Bible, God is personally concerned with all of his creation, especially human beings. He lovingly, patiently, tenderly works with them to restore the personal relationship that was originally present in the perfect origins of the world before humanity strayed from his perfect design. In Islam, by contrast, God (Allah) stands as an aloof, unapproachable King and Judge who can be satiated only through radical submission and self-discipline. In eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, God is an impersonal force that permeates the universe. Other religions have a pantheon of warring deities and demi-gods that scheme against one another in an endless quest for their own selfish desires. No other religion presents an image of a loving, concerned God.
  • A Model To Imitate. In the Bible, God uses himself as the ideal for us to follow. His goal is that we should become like him--loving, faithful, honest, just, generous, servant-hearted, compassionate. In other religions, it's a matter of "do as I say, not as I do." God, or gods, must be appeased--human beings must do things their way in order to avoid punishments or to receive blessings. The gods of other religions are drunk with power--they have carte blanche to do whatever they want--and most of the time they are vindictive and capricious. In eastern religions, since God is not a person and possesses no character, there is no corresponding way to imitate; the best that can be hoped for is to be absorbed into God and nothingness.
  • Initiator Of Relationships. At each phase of the biblical story, God is the one who takes the initiative to establish a relationship with us, rather than the other way around. He did this in creation, at the fall of Adam and Eve, with Noah and the flood, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, at the Exodus and giving of the Law, with all the prophets, and finally in Jesus. In all other religions, it is we who must pursue the Deity to gain his "goodies"--in Christianity it is God who pursues us because of his great, unsurpassing love.
  • Incarnate. In no other religion does God wrap himself in human flesh and come to reveal himself more fully than he ever has, and eventually take on himself the curse of sin to repair the broken relationship between himself and humankind. The Incarnation is a service (of the highest order!) to humanity. In some other religions, gods may disguise themselves as humans for personal gain, or because they've been punished by other gods with more power. In other religions, God remains a figure too remote and inaccessible to stoop to such a low level.
  • Dispenser Of Grace. Of all the contrasts, I believe this is the greatest. In all other religions, the worshipers must earn their way to God. But Christianity is the only religion in which God offers grace (unmerited favor) to people. It is based on the truth that we can never earn our way to perfection; if God were to accept us in our imperfection, he would have to himself compromise his own integrity (and cease to be perfect). Instead, he made a way for us to become perfect through the blood of Jesus, because it was impossible for us to achieve on our own. This concept is so remarkable and incomprehensible that the tendency is even for Christians to keep trying to earn God's love and favor. Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons are two "Christian" groups that teach that we must work to achieve our right standing with God, rather than trusting in the work already done by Jesus.

In other religions, God is either impersonal and inacessible, or God is angry and vengeful, or the gods are petty and selfish. Christianity stands alone as the religion where God is personally concerned about us, where he stands as a perfect model for us in all integrity, who initiates a relationship with us, even to the point of himself becoming human, and showers us with his grace and mercy.

You see, when people come up with their own religion, this isn't the kind of God they create. This is the kind of God that everyone should want, but it seems too good to be true. And ironically, the God of the Bible demands the we surrender the thing that we cling to most tightly--our own pride. The Bible says we are totally dependent on God's love and goodness, that we have nothing good to bring to him, and that message is even harder for us to accept than the idea that a god must be appeased with sacrifices.

The God of the Bible gets to the root of the matter. And for me, because God is, at the same time, both more lenient AND more demanding than the gods of other religions, it shows me that he must be the One True God. No person or group of persons could have concocted this story--there's no way anyone could have been so clever as to invent it. When you add in the fact that the Bible has 66 books with dozens of authors spread over thousands of years, presenting one consistent picture of God--yet developing more and more nuance and depth as he more fully revealed himself over time--there is only one conclusion I can reach: It is the story of God, and not of men. And I believe it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


As I discussed last week, one of the reasons I find the Bible trustworthy is because of fulfilled prophecy. Just examining the evidence regarding the various prophecies about the Messiah that were fulfilled in Jesus is convincing enough. But there are many, many more that were also fulfilled throughout Israel's history. However, fulfilled prophecy isn't the only reason we have to trust what the Bible says.

Another reason that is just as strong is the evidence from archaeology. Over the last 150+ years, there has been extensive archaeological research in the entire region for lots of reasons:

  • The "fertile crescent" (the arc of land stretching from Israel to Mesopotamia) has been identified as the locale where the earliest humans were located. Consequently, many scientists are interested in discoveries related to the origins of humanity and studying primitive human life. This happens to also be the place where 90% of the Bible stories take place.
  • This region is the birthplace of three of the world's five major religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the other two are Buddhism, which originated in China, and Hinduism in India). Many religious archaeologists have sought to make discoveries that would help shed light on the stories and people described in the various religious writings.
  • The area has also attracted many archaeologists who are hostile to religion, who have attempted to make discoveries that contradict the claims of scripture, or who have wanted to show that archaeology demonstrates that some facts are not as the Bible presents them.

Here's the crux of the issue: The Bible claims to be God's word--authoritative, accurate, and trustworthy in all its claims. There are many things that cannot be proven directly (e.g., whether an angel appeared to Gideon, whether God actually spoke to the prophets, or what was said at Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin), but there are some things that can be proven. For example, if the Bible says Jericho was located a short distance west of the Jordan river and that its walls fell down (Josh. 6), then if the Bible is true we should find it where it's supposed to be, and there should be evidence that its walls collapsed. And that is exactly what we find. Jericho is actually one of the most excavated sites in Israel.

Literally thousands of statements in the Bible have been confirmed through archaeology, and so far none have been proven to be false. Here are a few examples:

  • References to the Hittites (as in 2 Kings 7) were also once regarded as scriptural inaccuracies. Until a little more than a century ago nothing was known of the Hittites outside of the Bible. Some suggested there had been a scribal error and that Assyrians were actually intended. The Bible was vindicated when Hittite monuments were discovered in the 1870s at Carchemish on the Euphrates River in Syria. In 1906, excavations at Boghazkoy in Turkey uncovered thousands of Hittite documents.
  • It was once claimed there was no Assyrian king named Sargon as recorded in Isaiah 20:1, because this name was not known in any other record. Then, Sargon's palace was discovered in Khorsabad, Iraq. The very event mentioned in Isaiah 20, his capture of Ashdod, was recorded on the palace walls. What is more, fragments of a stela memorializing the victory were found at Ashdod itself.
  • Another king who was in doubt was Belshazzar, king of Babylon, named in Daniel 5. The last king of Babylon was Nabonidus according to recorded history. Tablets were found showing that Belshazzar was Nabonidus' son who served as coregent in Babylon. Thus, Belshazzar could offer to make Daniel “third highest ruler in the kingdom” (Dan. 5:16) for reading the handwriting on the wall, the highest available position.
  • Some scholars doubted that Biblical King David actually lived. But in 1993, Israeli archaeologist Avraham Biran discovered a ninth-century B.C. stone tablet among the rubble of a wall at Tel Dan in northern Israel. The 13 lines of script on the tablet commemorate the defeat of Baasha, king of Israel, by Asa of "the House of David." This provided not only the first corroboration of their warfare (described in 1 Kings 15), but also the first mention of the name David outside the Bible.

And I could go on and on. Obviously, the miracles described in the Bible, as well as its spiritual message, must be accepted on faith, which is the basis of our relationship with God. But archaeology does demonstrate that--at the very least--the people, places, and events of the Bible are real. And this is no small matter, since one of the claims of the Bible is that God has revealed himself through the history of the people of Israel. If the historical record isn't accurate, then the claims about God based on that record can't be trusted either.

And while any one piece of evidence can be dismissed as a coincidence or insufficient by itself, it is the weight of the myriad of discoveries that demonstrates so clearly that the Bible is indeed the word of God. Time and time again, when an argument is made against the Bible because of a lack of evidence for some claim or another, archaeology ends up proving the Bible accurate and trustworthy after all.

Over 25,000 sites have been discovered by archaeology pertaining to the Bible, as well as the records of tens of thousands of individuals and events. Nelson Glueck, the renowned Jewish archaeologist, said, "It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted its Biblical reference."

In fact, many archaeologists have been convinced by their own findings that the Bible is an astonishing book - some even to the point of becoming Christians. Sir William Ramsay, for, example, was a wealthy atheistic English archaeologist who was determined to disprove the Bible. He spent many decades over his diggings and published book after book, detailing his findings which all confirm the Word of God. Sir William finally declared that the Bible is accurate and is the Word of God as a result of his findings!

We can have every confidence that when the Bible says something happened, it happened. The biblical writers were not in the habit of falsifying evidence. Biblical kings, wars, cities, rivers, people-groups, palaces, springs, tools, events, shrines, religions, customs, and more have all been verified through archaeology. It's one more reason why I can confidently believe everything the Bible says.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fulfilling Prophecy

OK, as we're examining the trustworthiness of the Bible, in conjunction with our Sunday worship series, "The Messiah," I think the first thing that we ought to look at is this whole issue of Jesus fulfilling prophecy. There are really four separate questions to be addressed:

  • How do we know the prophecies were written before Jesus' birth? Couldn't they have been created after the fact?
  • Could Jesus have fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah by coincidence?
  • Could Jesus have arranged the circumstances of his life so that he fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah on purpose?
  • Did Jesus' followers embellish his life story after his death, claiming that he fulfilled prophecies that he, in fact, never did?

1. Were the prophecies about the Messiah fabricated?

It might seem hard for us to know when something was written in ancient times. After all, we don't have the original documents. All we have are copies of copies of copies. But there are several things that help us know that the prophecies about the Messiah were not fabricated, or invented after the fact.

  • The Dead Sea Scrolls contain many of the prophecies about the Messiah. During the excavation of the caves, archaeologists discovered at least fragments of every single Old Testament book, including a nearly intact scroll containing the entire book of Isaiah, which has more prophecies about the Messiah than any other book in the Old Testament. And while the prophet Isaiah lived 700 years before the time of Jesus, and these are just copies, many of these scrolls still date to over 100 years before the birth of Jesus. The scrolls confirm that there has been very little corruption of the biblical text through the copying process over the centuries--and certainly the prophecies about Jesus date to well before his birth.
  • Non-biblical sources are all in agreement that during the time of Jesus there was widespread anticipation among the Jewish people that a Messiah figure would come. Josephus, a Jewish historian from the first century A.D., is probably the most significant source of information on this time. However, Roman government records also show that there were many insurrections, rebellions, and revolts led by individuals who claimed to be Messianic figures. In fact, Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome in 70 A.D. as a result of one of these rebellions, and the Jewish people were scattered around the world until the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1947.
  • The Gospels, written within 30-50 years of Jesus' death, clearly portray Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfiller of prophecy. If there weren't an expectation of a Messiah, the readers of those stories would have instantly rejected them as nonsense, or at the very least, works of fiction.

2. Is it just coincidence that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies?

OK, so there are some predictions that were made before Jesus' birth that line up with the biblical accounts of Jesus' life. Isn't it possible that someone would have come along eventually who looked like the picture that was painted? Wasn't it just a matter of time? After all, lots of "prophecy fulfillments" are really in the eye of the beholder, since prophecies usually tend to be rather vague.

It's true that some of the biblical prophecies about the Messiah are a little fuzzy; in fact, some of them weren't even considered to be Messianic prophecies until after Jesus came, and his followers realized that more Old Testament passages referred to him than they first thought. However, many of the prophecies are very specific, and rather restrictive, eliminating any real chance that any one person would fulfill the prophecies coincidentally.

  • In many places, the Bible tells us that the Messiah will be a descendant of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16; Isa. 55:3-5; Jer. 23:5-6)
  • The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2)--a small town of about 500-700 residents at the time of Jesus' birth. Certainly very few people were born there in human history.
  • The Messiah would establish his kingdom approximately 490 years after the prophet Daniel (see Dan. 9:24-26)--Jesus died 483 years later.

A team of mathemeticians have calculated the odds of only eight Messianic prophecies being fulfilled in one person to be one chance in one hundred million billion--millions of times greater than the total number of people who've ever walked the planet! It would be approximately like putting a sticker on a silver dollar, and then covering the state of Texas with silver dollars two feet deep, and then asking a blindfolded person to wander around the state and bend over and pick up one coin. The odds that they would pick the marked coin are the same odds that any person would fulfill even eight Messianic prophecies by coincidence.

The odds that any person would fulfill 48 different Messianic prophecies was one chance in a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion! That's equal to the number of atoms in a trillion, trillion, trillino, trillion, billion universes the size of our universe! The prophecies are like a fingerprint--they're absolutely unique to only one life in all of history, the life of Jesus.

3. Did Jesus fulfill the Messianic prophecies on purpose?

Some people have wondered whether Jesus simply arranged his life so that he fulfilled the various prophecies about the Messiah. Growing up in that time period and knowing what the various prophecies were, perhaps he put himself in positions that could be construed as fulfillments of those prophecies.

For instance, in Zechariah 9:9, it says, "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a cold, the foal of a donkey." Jesus fulfilled that prophecy in Matthew 21:1-11. Surely, that scene could have been manufactured easily enough.

While some of the prophecies are of this type, many are far beyond Jesus' control:

  • As we've already seen, the Bible predicted where and when the Messiah would be born. Surely Jesus couldn't arrange that on purpose!
  • The Bible tells us who Jesus' ancestors would be.
  • One Messianic prophecy promises that his bones would never be broken (Ex. 12:46; Jn. 19:31-37)
  • The Messiah would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (Zech. 11:12; Matt. 26:15)
  • He was given wine vinegar to drink while on the cross (Ps. 69:21; Jn. 19:28-30)

These and many more show that Jesus couldn't have possibly fulfilled the Messianic prophecies intentionally through guile and smarts.

4. Was the story of Jesus' life altered by his followers after the fact?

So, we know the prophecies already existed at the time of Jesus' birth. We know he couldn't have fulfilled them by accident or on purpose. But maybe he didn't fulfill them at all. Maybe his followers "padded his resume" a bit, to bolster their religion that they had started. After all, it would help give them credibility if they could convince people that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. Maybe they just said that he was born in Bethlehem, from the line of David, and so forth, and none of it's true.

There are several insurmountable problems with this line of thinking:

  • There were many eyewitnesses to Jesus' life when the Gospels were written. Those within the Church accepted these accounts of the life of Jesus as scripture. But if the eyewitnesses had disagreed with the versions written down by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they never would have risen to the status of scripture--they would have been discounted and ignored.
  • The Gospel writers didn't do their writing in isolation. Luke, for example, says that he thoroughly researched everything. They spoke with lots of people. If the Gospel writers had played fast and loose with the truth, someone in the Christian community would have gone to them and said, "Look, Matthew, we're trying to share a message of Jesus, which is all about righteousness and truth; don't taint it with these lies."
  • The Jewish community had even more motivation to discount the Gospel accounts. They were trying to put down this whole Jesus-movement. They would have jumped on any opportunity to discredit the Gospels by pointing out falsehoods, but there is no historical evidence that anyone of that time period made the claim that the fulfillment of prphecies was falsified. Not one example.
  • Most importantly, if the Gospel writers themselves had known that they were perpetrating a fraud, they wouldn't have given up their lives for it. Every single one of the twelve disciples were killed for their faith, with the exception of John, who spent his final years in exile on the island of Patmos. If they didn't believe that their story was true, none of them would have been willing to die.

As astonishing as it is, the only feasible conclusion is that God revealed his plan to prophets hundreds of years ahead of time. He arranged history so that we would be able to identify the one and only Messiah when he came, and Jesus is the only person in the history of the world who fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah. Because of fulfilled prophecy, I know I can trust the rest of what the Bible has to say.

But this is only one reason I find the Bible to be trustworthy. I'll be sharing more reasons in the coming weeks. Because if we can truly believe what the Bible says, it makes all the difference in the world.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Who was Jesus?

To say there's a lot of interest out there about who Jesus is, would be a colossal understatement. I did a Yahoo! search on "Jesus" just to see what would happen--it came back with 678 million different web pages for me to peruse (over 2/3 of a billion different websites that refer to Jesus!!). If I were to visit 1000 sites a day, it would take me just over 1857-1/2 years to see them all.

And I wonder, if I were to examine them, how many of them agree? Because it seems to me that there are as many opinions out there about Jesus as there are people--everyone's got their own take. Here are some of the answers I found out there:

  • Barbara Thiering, author of the book, Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, contends that Jesus "was born, according to the modern calendar, in the year 7 BC, in a religious community near the Qumran plateau, 25 km. east of Jerusalem. His mother conceived him while she was engaged to be married, at a time when people in the community she lived in still considered her to he a virgin. As a result, some regarded her son as illegitimate. In later life, he married twice and fathered three children. Emerging as a religious leader, he was arrested for infringing the rules of Judaism. As punishment, he was sentence to death, but survived a bungled execution. His loyal followers helped him to escape and he spent the rest of his life in hiding, meeting with friends and helping his associates to write documents that would spread his ideas. He was 70 when he died, possibly in France."
  • David Bergland, the 1984 candidate for president on the Libertarian ticket, opines: "Jesus was not divine, but was a prophet, a fabulous man who taught morality through parables, and gathered a great following.... he may or may not have been crucified, but his followers went on to build a religion and a church based on his teachings. The basis for this belief is, typically, that millions of people have believed in him for 2,000 years so he must have existed. But being the son of God, the miracles, death and resurrection-that’s just a bit much for anyone with a healthy stripe of skepticism."
  • From a Jewish perspective, the official website of the Jews And Hasidic Gentiles - United To Save America insists, "The man known today as 'Jesus'... became a 'king' (over the Christian church) who changed the original Law, doing away with the Hebrew calendar and the Biblical holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos the Festival of Tabernacles, Passover, etc.). He disregarded the one, infinite G-d of the Hebrew Bible in favor of a new 'trinity' that included himself. And he repeatedly broke the Law by committing terrible sins, while openly challenging the G-d-given authority of the rabbis of the Sanhedrin.
    Naturally, Jesus did sometimes pretend to respect the Law, but whenever he thought he could get away with it, he turned right around and broke that same Law. In Matthew 5:17-19, he declared that he came to fulfill the Law, and in Matthew 23:1-3 he defended the authority of the rabbis. But the rest of the time, he rebelled against the Law—thus showing that his occasional words of piety were meant only to hide his evil agenda."
But, of course, the divergence of opinion isn't surprising--or at least it shouldn't be. People were divided about Jesus from the very beginning. In Matthew 16:13, he asks his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" and they responded with all sorts of answers that various people had offered up:
  • John The Baptist
  • Elijah
  • Jeremiah
  • One of the prophets
Today, we wonder how people could confuse Jesus with these other personages. But in an age without mass communication and photography, it would be easy for people to confuse Jesus and John the Baptist--they had a similar message and both called the people of Israel to repentance because of "the kingdom of God." When people are going off of second- and third-hand reports, it's natural they might confuse the two.

When people confused Jesus with great Biblical heroes from the past, they were essentially saying that Jesus' ministry reminded them so much of what they had heard about these historical figures, he must be some kind of reincarnation or a second coming of these great men. And in fact the last prophecy in the Old Testament promises, "I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes" (Mal. 4:5). We understand John the Baptist to be the prophet like Elijah who prepared the way for Jesus the Messiah, but the people back then thought perhaps Jesus was that Elijah figure, or some other person from Israel's history.

Nicodemus, in John 3, approached Jesus and told him, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him." What remains implicit is that Nicodemus nevertheless is having trouble figuring out what to make of Jesus' ministry. Jesus routinely criticizes the Pharisees (a group to which Nicodemus belongs) who are simply doing the best they can to obey all the commands and precepts of God flawlessly. What Jesus pointed out is that God was looking for an internal transformation, not external compliance, and most of the Pharisees did not love what God loves. It's a question of identity--would the Messiah really come down on the most religious, most holy, most respected Jewish leaders of the day, and instead hang around with prostitutes and lepers?

In Matthew 13:54-55, we read that the people of his hometown took offense at him and were amazed by his teachings: "Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?" they asked. "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?" In other words, they asked, "Isn't he just an ordinary person? Where does he get off?" It's a question of identity.

Although characters in the Bible struggled with Jesus' identity, the writers of the New Testament did not. They simply presented Him as the divine Son of God. The Gospels declare that he is who he claims to be. So in the end, the question about Jesus is really a question about scripture--is it reliable? Can it be believed? When the Bible records what Jesus said and did, is it accurate?

We can either accept the Bible as trustworthy, or reject it as fanciful myth-making. But we should have reasons for whatever judgment we make. As we go through our weekly message series series on "The Messiah", I'll be blogging about why I believe the Bible to be trustworthy and true, and why we can believe in Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Alpha and Omega, the Lord Almighty who reigns supreme as God over the universe.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Comfortable Christianity

Over the last month on this blog, we've looked at "The Easy Three-sy", the easy, less demanding versions of The Key Three, which are the core values of our church. Whereas a real, authentic faith produces Real Spirituality, Real Community, and Real Story, the Easy Three-sy settles for fake versions of these vital expressions of the Christian life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who died in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote famously in his seminal work, The Cost of Discipleship, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

That's not a very popular notion with most American Christians. In America, we've been conditioned to believe:

  • that the fastest and the easiest is the best,
  • that suffering and sacrifice are useless,
  • that convenience is a necessity,
  • that waiting for anything is a bother,
  • that pleasure and fun are inalienable rights.

If you don't believe me, just watch our commercials. Every product and service promises instant, easy, convenient fun for the purchaser:

  • Are you tired of the hassle of going to the dry cleaners? Then buy our easy dry-clean-at-home solution!
  • Have you had it with knives that go dull and have to be sharpened? Then get these knives that chop through steel and never need sharpening again!
  • Overwhelmed by all the phone calls from creditors? Then call us, and we'll send you our proven system that simply and quickly transforms your debt into wealth!

So in a culture where running errands is understood as suffering, it's easy to see how death is a tough sell. And yet that's, of course, what Jesus expects of us: "Anyone who does not carry his cross and folllow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27 NIV). As his listeners well understood, a cross was not just a heavy burden to carry, but was the principal device of torture and execution in the Roman Empire at the time. Today, Jesus might say, "Anyone who does not sit in his electric chair and follow me cannot be my disciple." And just in case he hasn't been explicit enough, to drive the point home, he reiterates just 6 verses later, "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (v. 33).

Jesus's expectations for us fly in the face of the "Comfortable Christianity" most of us have consumed for most of our lives--the Easy Three-sy we've grown accustomed to. But if Jesus's expectations are different than our own, whose ought to shift or bend?

I think that notion is worth pondering for a while. Here, I'll stop typing for a little bit while you chew on that thought.






Just a casual scan through the Gospels reveals much about the kind of lives that Jesus expected us to live, as his followers:

  • "When they arrest you, do not worry"
  • "All men will hate you because of me"
  • "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body"
  • "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it"
  • "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me"
  • "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first"
  • "A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God"
  • "In this world you will have trouble"

It's a wonder that we can read any of these words and still believe in a comfortable Christianity. Yet it happens all the time. Somehow, we just skip over these words of Jesus (and much more from Paul, Peter, James, and the rest!), and we figure that they don't really apply to us, somehow. After all, we're Americans! We don't do the suffering-thing. (When the world criticizes church-people for being hypocrites, this is what they are talking about--they're willing to at least respect all-out commitment, even if they don't agree, but to live the same life that everyone else is living and call it better somehow? That's a little hard to swallow.)

So the question for American Christianity, in a way, becomes... How do we become less American and more Christian?

You see, this isn't a struggle for our brothers and sisters in China, Iraq, Egypt, India, and North Korea--they don't have this problem at all. In a way, when there is no external persecution coming against the Church, the living of a Real Faith becomes much more difficult; there is no crisis that forces us to choose it, we don't recognize our impoverishment that shows us how much we need it.

So Real Faith is born from all the little choices we make along the way:

  • Will I always give to God sacrificially of my time and money?
  • Will I worship with reckless abandon, regardless of what others may think?
  • Will I reveal my weaknesses and failures to others so that I can grow to overcome them, even though it makes me vulnerable?
  • Will I talk with my neighbors and coworkers about Jesus and my church, not knowing whether my talking will be welcome or not?
  • Will I serve others when I have the opportunity to serve myself?
  • Will I continually say "yes" to God, regardless of how much he asks of me?

Will you?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fake Story

This morning we had an all-church-family gathering, where we talked about some of the challenges and obstacles that face our church body in this current climate. I was so proud and grateful for the Real Community we enjoyed together, as we had people asking hard and honest questions, receiving hard and honest answers, and telling their very personal stories about what God is doing in their lives. We took off our masks and intereacted with one another as real people. It was an awesome time together.

As people opened themselves up and shared their stories from their hearts, I was struck by the realization of how the combination of Real Spirituality (our authentic relationship with God) and Real Community (our authentic relationship with one another) really does serve as the foundation for Real Story (our authentic relationship with the world). When God is active and working, and we are sharing life with one another on a personal level, we have something relevant and attractive to share with the world around us. I want to remind everyone who was here this morning to remember to share the stories you heard with the people that you come in contact with this week.

Real Story is sharing with other people the real difference that a relationship with Jesus makes in our lives. Real Story is talking about the problems of a life without Jesus and how knowing Jesus makes all the difference in every way that matters. Real Story is sharing about our own journeys and the journeys of others we know in a way that the people around us can relate to it, and then inviting them to come consider a life with Jesus.

But when we're living lives of Fake Spirituality and Fake Community, we can't talk about how Jesus makes all the difference--because he makes hardly any difference at all. We haven't made the decision to obey God in every area of our lives; we pick and choose what we want to obey and what we don't. And our lives look just like everyone else's lives. Our biggest fear is having our masks ripped off to show our hypocrisy. When that happens, all we have to offer the world is Fake Story.

Fake Story is trying to attract people to our church without relationships. If we don't have an authentic relationship with God or an authentic relationship with other people in our church family, we certainly can't develop an authentic relationship with those outside it--at work, in our neighborhood, in our kids' t-ball league. So we don't talk to them about Christ, about our church, or about the difference God can make--we don't have the foundation for that. What we do is work the registration table at the Easter Egg Hunt, or put a car in the Trunk or Treat, or sit at the Hospitality Tent at Soccer Camp. And hopefully, somehow because people's kids have gotten free candy, that will make them want to come to a worship service on Sunday morning and pray to receive Jesus as their personal Savior. Fake Story just doesn't work.

But that was never the intent of our outreach events. They were always intended to be a tool for relationships, not a substitute for them. They were meant to be a way for us to build closer relationships with the people in our lives, by providing us an opportunity to interact with them in a different context, to introduce them to other people in the church, and serve as a way for us to follow up with them afterwards--maybe even inviting them to attend, if our relationship with them is at that stage. But the event can't do all that by itself; it serves as a tool for the relationship, not a substitute.

The other way that outreach events can work successfully is if we establish new relationships with people at the event. If someone comes and we get the opportunity to start up a conversation with them, we might find some common ground with them and use that to meet together with them again so that the relationship can keep going--setting up a play date with our kids, for example. Then we can talk more about our church and our relationship with Christ. Again, the event is a tool, not a substitute.

But Fake Story can't handle relationships. Fake Story doesn't want to get close to people outside the church. Fake Story doesn't want to reveal anything too personal, or get in a place where there might be uncomfortable questions. Fake Story doesn't want to deal with unchurched people's messy problems or complicated lives. Fake Story wants to keep the lines of distinction clear and easy-- Us ............ Them--so that there will be plenty of space in-between.

Fake Story is rooted in fear--fear of being discovered as a fraud, fear of being labeled as a Bible-thumper, fear of being rejected, fear of going out on a limb, fear of being asked a question we can't answer, fear of looking foolish. So Fake Story is rooted in selfishness. Because none of our fears relate to the other person; they only relate to me. Fake Story is concerned only with me, not with them. If we were concerned about them, we'd cross over into Real Story, and share with them the truth that could save their souls and transform their lives.

You see, Fake Story is EASY. That's why these are called the Easy Threesy. It's convenient Christianity, life on my own terms with a Jesus Christ insurance policy for my soul.

But Christ's call is to something deeper, something richer, something REAL. Easy is FAKE. The only kind of faith that matters is the faith that actually costs you something (Mk. 10:17-23).

Can you get over your fears? With Christ's help you can. But are you willing? Will we do the hard thing of holding out the Hope of the World to the people that God has placed in our lives around us? Will we tell and share the Real Story?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Fake Community

Last week, I didn't put anything up on this blog because I was on vacation over the 4th of July holiday in Kentucky. But this week, we're continuing our examination of The Easy Threesy, looking at Fake Community.

I believe that one of the most serious problems of the American church is that we pursue shallow, insignificant, insincere relationships with one another. We may not immediately see this as a spiritual issue that has any impact or reflection on our relationship with God, our ability to serve him effectively, or the power of our witness to the world, but that is preceisely the case.

Our Core Value of Real Community is all about having real, authentic, vital relationships with one another within our church body. For our relationships to meet the criteria of Real Community, we need to practice several essential habits:

  • Giving preference to the needs of others, rather than our own comfort;
  • Utilizing our gifts, abilities, and talents to serve others and build them up, instead of serving ourselves and feeding our own egos;
  • Recognizing the value of each member's uniqueness, and how both our strengths and our weaknesses can bring glory to God because of our connection with one another.

For any of these habits to become anchored in our lives, it requires difficult conversations, truthful self-revelation, accountability, deep respect and love for one another, and honest dialogue. That's exactly what Fake Community simply will not tolerate. Fake Community:

  • Places a high premium on easy relationships; it steers far clear of any relationships or conversations that could become difficult, uncomfortable, or potentially awkward.
  • Sees ministry as a platform for exalting oneself--whether in one's own eyes or others' eyes. Our ministry--not our identity in Christ--becomes the proof of our value and worth;
  • Gives lip service to loving other people, but grumbles and complains behind their backs about all the ways that they are irksome, irritating, and obnoxious. Fake Community is a fault-finding community, not a grace-giving community.

It really comes down to this: Do we exist for others, or do they exist for us? That's a very important question that gets down to the essence of our approach to all our relationships. On the night of his betrayal, after celebrating the first communion meal with his disciples, Jesus got down on his knees and washed each of his disciples' feet. As he did so, he asked them, "Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them." The text tells us that the reason he did this was to show them "the full extent of his love." (Jn. 13:1-17).

You see, Jesus lived a life that was all about service, and nothing about self. He came to serve, not to be served--even though he was worthy not only of service, but honor, power, glory, worship, devotion, obedience, reverence, and much more. But he didn't claim his right to these things. He humbled himself and took on the nature of a servant--to show us the full extent of his love.

A Real Community of Christ-followers--a group of people who actually seek to imitate Jesus in their lives--will nurture in themselves this same attitude that was in him (see Php. 2:1-11). Here's what happens if Real Community has been supplanted by Fake Community:

  • Grudges, grumbling, and gossip spread like a virus, squeezing out room for forgiveness;
  • Relationships are weak, so that they aren't able to stand up under difficult conversations. Either those conversations never happen, or they lead to a rift or separation;
  • Error, sin, and wrong attitudes are excused ("Oh, that's just Sally"), ignored, and not addressed so that relationships stay shallow and insincere;
  • When someone admits a failure or shortcoming, it creates awkwardness and discomfort in others because they expect everyone to keep up appearances. For someone to remove their mask and refuse to play the "image game" might mean that others will also be expected to reveal their own failures. The loss of a good image is the ultimate fear of Fake Community;
  • There is no sense of one's place in the body of Christ. Each member is a lone ranger--no authority, no accountability, no external expectations or standards. If such elements were introduced, they would elicit cries of "legalism!" and "authoritarianism!"

And the outcome is that we do not really know anyone, and no one knows us. We are lonely, isolated, and scared--when the family of God is meant to provide love, compassion, and care. Further, we have nothing interesting or compelling to offer a world that needs to see what love in action looks like because they're too jaded and cynical to believe that it really exists. Jesus said, "All men will know that you are my disciples by the love you have for one another" (Jn. 13:35). Fake Community ensures that they will not know--it emasculates our ability to tell others about Jesus. How can you tell if you have a problem with Fake Community?

  • When someone hurts you or slights you, do you say anything to them about it?
  • Are you eager to understand others' point of view? Do you ask questions before jumping to conclusions?
  • Are you patient with the weaknesses and failings of others?
  • Are you eager to serve and to give to those who have needs?
  • Do you take the initiative to connect with others so that they don't have to?
  • Do you serve without expectation of reward, recognition, or appreciation?
  • Are you grateful for who God has made you to be, with all your abilities and talents, to serve him and others in the body of Christ?

"No" answers indicate a tendency toward Fake Community. We can go through the motions, be in a small group, serve on a ministry team, and shake hands in the lobby--but if we keep people at arm's length about who we really are on the inside, we will never "get" what the church of Jesus Christ is all about. We will miss out on all that God has for us, and we will undermine the very mission of the church, the whole reason the church exists.

It's hard to belong to a Real Community. It takes effort and diligence. It requires honesty and vulnerability. Sometimes we'll get hurt. Sometimes we'll want to hide. But the payoff is so great. When we are connected with people who truly know us--the real us--and still love us, warts and all, we become empowered to live a life that is rich and free. It is so liberating to remove our masks and stand boldly and confidently with each other as beloved children of God!

Easy relationships are fake relationships. That's why Fake Community is one of The Easy Threesy. And fake is boring, it's pointless, and it's unattractive. I'm not really sure why anyone would want to waste their time with it, and yet we do. It's so much more enjoyable to get to know a real person instead of the mask they wear. It's so much more purposeful to talk about the real issues of life instead of the trivia. And it's so much more compelling to invite others to experience a depth of love they never realized was possible instead of another circle of shallow relationships they don't need.

Why not venture out into Real Community? Let's start being real with one another. Let's really give and receive the kind of love that Christ has poured out on us.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Fake Spirituality

Last week, I talked about how both belief and unbelief can coexist, side by side, in our lives, and I tied it in to our core values--Real Spirituality, Real Community, and Real Story. When we are not following God completely, these vital components of a genuine faith degenerate into Fake Spirituality, Fake Community, and Fake Story. Lately, Pastor Brent and I have been calling these "The Easy Threesy" instead of The Key Three.

But beware! This degradation happens more easily than you might think, and unless we stay vigilant in our relationship with God, we are certain to drift into The Easy Threesy. This week, we're examining Fake Spirituality.

Real Spirituality is about possessing an authentic vertical relationship with God. For our relationship with God to be authentic, there are several important criteria:

  • We have to accept at the most basic level who he is and who we are. He is the Creator; we are the created. He is the Master; we are the slaves. He is the Father; we are the children. He is the Sovereign; we are the subjects. He is the Leader; we are the followers.
  • Because of the nature of this relationship, we have to accept his commands, his will, his plan, his cause, his wisdom--we have to live life his way. So we use "our" possessions, time, health, abilities, relationships, careers, and opportunities for his purposes.
  • Finally, we must understand that he is the proper object of our worship, and we must strive to eliminate all competitors for our heart's affection, staying connected to him in prayer and through his Word.
Fake Spirituality cleverly and subtly seeks to subvert each of these markers.
  • While giving lip service to God's authority, Fake Spirituality tries to soften God's complete and total demand on our lives. We end up fudging around the corners by being "reasonable," adopting our own notions of God's identity, instead of accepting who he has revealed himself to be. This can happen in a thousand different ways. One of the most common ones I hear is the insistence that "God would want me to be happy." And that idea is used to justify a wide variety of sin--even adultery and divorce! So the practitioner of Fake Spirituality continues to claim to accept and follow God, but it is not God as he has revealed himself to be through his Word.
  • When we start to make God "reasonable," it changes the kind of demands that he places on our lives. We begin to say things like, "Well, God would never ask me to give up my golf league; after all, there's nothing wrong with golf." And of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with golf, but God will ask us to give anything that stands in the way of us accomplishing his purposes for our lives. We will miss a call to enter the ministry, a call to serve overseas, a call to build a bridge with our next-door neighbors. In essence, we stop listening to God's demands to pursue a life of our own comfort and convenience, life on our own terms.
  • A person possessing Fake Spirituality may be at church every Sunday, but they do not have God as their object of worship. They might worship pleasure, power, possessions, popularity, or prestige. It might be career, thrills, politics, or alcohol. It could be anything... except God. For a person of Fake Spirituality, they may still pray, but they will find their prayer times dry and empty, and their prayers will go unanswered--because there is a lack of desire to truly hear what God is saying to them. When God demands something that we refuse to surrender, we lose our close connection to him.

Here's the problem: One event of obedience is never enough. We may experience a spiritual breakthrough in our lives--a time of learning, where we begin to understand God in a deeper way than we ever have before; a time of surrender, where we give up our resistance and humbly accept God's demands for that moment in our lives; a time of victory, where we overcome an addiction or a habit that has kept us in bondage--but that time will pass, and God will call us to experience him again a deeper level.

We cannot rest on that past success--God calls us to experience ongoing success in our lives. Surrendering to him is a continual process that never ends. To be people of Real Spirituality, we must learn to make surrender a habit--that we would constantly ask him what he would want from us next, and then seek to do it. In other words, that we would come to God, saying "yes" to him in advance--whatever it is that he wants to do.

Here are the tell-tale signs of Fake Spirituality, so that you can test yourself to see if you've wandered into complacency in your walk with Jesus. Do you live with:

  • A nostalgia for the past, when you felt closer to God?
  • Devotion to a program or ministry that at one time served as a tool for your growth?
  • Longing for a person that God had used formerly to draw you to himself?
  • An attachment to a particular style of music, preaching, or worship service--and if you don't have your preferred style you "can't worship"?

When we have fallen in love with the forms over the Former, it means trouble for us spiritually. There is no method, no person, no program that God deems necessary, but many times we are quick to override him. We declare things necessary that God has not, and in that way we demonstrate our refusal to accept his lordship over our lives. We demonstrate our Fake Spirituality.

You see, it's easy for this to happen. In fact, it happens all the time--it's the Easy Threesy. Real Spirituality, a vital, authentic vertical relationship with God, takes concentration and effort. It takes focus and determination. But O! What a joy to walk closely with God! To sense his presence and care, to know his faithfulness and love, to rest peacefully in the midst of chaos, to rejoice in the middle of suffering--it is the most wonderful thing in the world.

What is it that's holding you back? Why not say "yes" to God right now, and enjoy a return to Real Spirituality?

Monday, June 22, 2009

You believe... but how much?

In Mark 9:14-29, the Bible records an interesting story about a demon-possessed boy whom Jesus' disciples were unable to help. The demon had robbed the young man of his speech, and would throw him to the ground in foamy-mouthed convulsions.

When the father brought the boy to Jesus, Jesus made a comment that seems a little harsh and maybe even out-of-place: "O unbelieving generation! How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?"

Unbelieving? Really? It's not as if Jesus had been around. Prior to this, he had been up on the Mount of Transfiguration, with Peter, James, and John. In fact, he had only just arrived on the scene. So since the father didn't have access to Jesus, he tried the next best thing--he asked some of Jesus' disciples for help. He asked the disciples whom Jesus himself had already commissioned and given authority to drive out demons (Mk. 6:7) to liberate his son from the evil spirit that was controlling his life.

But it seems that Jesus' appraisal of the situation was right on track, after all (imagine that!). For the father says, "If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." Jesus responds, "'If you can'? Everything is possible for him who believes." And the father immediately answers back, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.

What a very interesting statement. It seems that belief and unbelief are not mutually exclusive, that we can possess both simultaneously. There are not many opposites that fall into this category, making belief and unbelief a rather unique pair. For example, it would be difficult to see how a light or a TV or a stove could be turned off and on at the same time. Not many people would ever think of saying, "I am relaxed; help me overcome my stress!" But belief and unbelief seem to be different.

At a recent conference, Craig Groeschel, pastor of in Oklahoma, made the insightful observation that Christians usually live with and move among three different levels of belief:

  • I believe in the gospel enough to benefit from it.
  • I believe in the gospel enough to contribute to it comfortably.
  • I believe in the gospel enough to give my life to it.

At the first level, we believe enough to accept and enjoy the benefits of following Jesus--forgiveness of sin, assurance of eternal life, peace, hope, joy, acceptance, self-worth--but we don't want our faith to cost us anything.

At the second level, we begin to realize that it's not just about accepting God's love for us, but about loving God in return. So we begin to contribute our money, our time, and our talents and gifts for his use. We might join a small group where we can practice loving other people, or begin serving in some ministry to benefit other people. But, of course, we don't allow our faith to get in the way of the things we really want, like weekends of camping, our golf league, and a flat-panel TV or a big house. We contribute--but up to a point--not in a way that's going to inconvenience ourselves.

At the third level, there is no longer a concept of serving oneself. Faith and life are intertwined, and every decision, every dollar, every priority is made from a perspective of how best to serve and grow the Kingdom of God. There is an abandonment of self and a total commitment to God and his glory.

Groeschel says that true clarity comes not from the identification of these three levels, but from understanding that success at level three, can easily cause us to slip back into level two. This is because level three is where we grow spiritually, where our capacity for impact is expanded, where our understanding of God is deepened, and as we adopt this new level of belief, allowing it to sink deep into our hearts and minds, in time it becomes the new "normal" for us. It becomes a regular part of our lives. What was once sacrificial and challenging, now becomes... comfortable.

To return to level three, we must listen closely to what new steps God is asking us to take--steps that will lead us again out of our level of comfort and into the level of radical obedience and trust. And if we consistently resist what God wants to do in us, if we keep on saying "no" to him repeatedly, we find ourselves back at level one. We aren't really contributing to the gospel at that point--no matter what it looks like on the outside. Our spirituality becomes a matter of keeping up appearances. We're really only in it for the goodies we get, the benefits we find.

Belief and unbelief actually live quite easily side-by-side.

So it's as if Jesus is saying to us, "You believe... but how much?" The Bible tells us that Jesus will not do miracles where there is a lack of faith (Mt. 13:58). Faith in him is a condition that he places on everyone who comes to him, asking for his help. And without faith, it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).

In our church, we talk often about Real Spirituality, Real Community, and Real Story--our Key Three. Our Key Three are all about living out a level-three faith. But there is a level-two version of these values that we often settle for--Fake Spirituality, Fake Community, and Fake Story. Together, they make up an unconvincing, unattractive, unfulfilling life. Starting next week, we're going to be exploring these counterfeit rivals for the vibrant, level-three faith that Jesus died to bring us.

But until then, you might start asking yourself, "How much do I really believe?"

Sunday, June 14, 2009

God Is...

For One Prayer 2009, we're focusing on the topic "God Is..." I mentioned today that we could spend every week for 100 years on this theme and never exhaust the richness and depth of the identity, activity and character of God. So, just for kicks, I figured if I were going to preach on this for a year, what are the first 52 topics I'd be sure to cover:

God Is Infinite
God Is Sovereign
God Is Intense
God Is Holy
God Is Waiting For You To Do Something
God Is Calling Us
God Is Right Here
God Is Right On Time
God Is On Mission
God Is An Anchor
God Is Deep
God Is Compassionate
God Is God
God Is Community
God Is One Of Us
God Is A Shelter In Trouble
God Is Trustable
God Is The God Of Abraham, Isaac, And Jacob
God Is I Am
God Is Father, Son, And Holy Spirit
God Is Patient
God Is All About Relationships
God Is Unfoolable
God Is Mysterious
God Is Omni-Everything
God Is With Us
God Is Our Liberator
God Is Life
God Is Light
God Is Better Than Anything (Even Coffee!)
God Is Perfect
God Is Strategic
God Is Really Smart
God Is Awesome
God Is Hilarious
God Is Knowable
God Is Dying To Meet You
God Is Creative
God Is Emotional
God Is Inexhaustible
God Is Responsive
God Is A Parent Of Brats
God Is Right
God Is A Change Agent
God Is A Procrastinator
God Is A Being, Not A Philosophical Construct
God Isnowhere
God Is A Delegator
God Is Persistent
God Is Extravagant
God Is Not Willing That Any Should Perish
God Is Accepting Friend Requests

What does your list look like? Who do you know God to be? Let's hear it!

Monday, June 8, 2009

US National Conference

This past weekend, Pastor Brent, John Fisher (our lay delegate), and I attended the National Conference for the United Brethren in Christ, USA, in Huron, OH. Representatives from UB churches from around the entire country were present; altogether, nearly 900 people participated. The weekend included business, inspirational speakers, workshops, worship, and great opportunities for interaction and connection with old friends and new ones. It was a fantastic experience, very worthwhile. Here are some of the highlights.

  • We elected a new bishop--Phil Whipple from Colwood UB Church in Caro, MI. The bishop is the spiritual leader and overseer of our denomination. He sets the vision for our churches, and provides direction to the various teams that equip us to accomplish the vision. Bishop Whipple and I aren't what you'd call close, but I do know him. I believe he will be a very capable, godly leader for our denomination, and I'm extremely pleased to serve under his leadership. His term will begin in August.
  • Our main speaker was Dr. Tim Brown from First Baptist Church of Clovis, CA (my old stomping grounds as a high schooler). He shared his story about how he was called by God to "the worst church on earth" (the words of the chairman of the search committee). Getting ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the church had split every ten years of its history, and was down to about 60 people from nearly 400 just prior to the most recent split. It had a terrible reputation in the community, and was full of contention and bitterness. Yet God has used him to lead the church to health and vitality, serving their neighbors, and advancing the kingdom. They are now running about 900 in attendance on Sundays. His stories of God's grace were extremely powerful and offered hope that no situation is too dire or beyond God's transforming power.
  • Saturday morning, we attended various workshops designed to help us apply the main theme: XLR8--spread the word rapidly. We each found ours to be beneficial and practical.
  • Saturday evening focused on UB missions, with a fantastic presentation of the history of UB work around the world, and inspiring worship with the praise team from a UB church in Jamaica. Global ministries director, Jeff Bleijerveld gave the message.
  • Sunday wrapped up with an encouraging message from outgoing bishop Ron Ramsey and the installation service of our new bishop.

If you like, you can check out more at

In many ways, the state of our denomination is not strong. We have many weak and unhealthy churches, few resources, and a lot of inertia. This has been our condition for a lot of time, despite the best efforts of many godly leaders to change it.

However, I do feel that a fresh wind is blowing. There is a clear call to us as pastors that we must lead our churches to fulfill the Great Commission, and I am seeing many pastors respond to that call. The denomination equips us and empowers us to accomplish the mission, and slowly churches are beginning to turn around. This is an exciting time in the United Brethren Church. I'm sad that only three of us from our church had the privilege of participating in this conference. In 2011, I hope to see a strong contingent from PCC at National Conference, to be equipped, inspired, and informed for Kingdom service.

May God bless his church, as we seek to serve him without compromise!