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the church

March 17, 2011

A few days ago I was looking through my book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (though at this point I can’t remember why I was looking at it). It’s amazing how much you forget about a book a few years after you’ve written it. As I browsed through it I came across a portion that I found very helpful. And I can say that without pride since it was drawn from Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.

As I wrote about how a Christian ought to develop discernment, and as I wrote about the best context to develop discernment, I wanted to convince readers of the importance of the local church. So here are 5 reasons that Christians need to join a church:

1. For Assurance.

While a person should not feel he needs to join a church in order to be saved, he ought to join a church to be certain that he has been saved. Christians, those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, will naturally gravitate towards other Christians and will desire to be with them, to learn from them, and to serve them. A person who professes Christ but feels no desire to be among his believing brothers and sisters is not a healthy Christian. Thus, eager participation in a local church and heartfelt attempts to measure our enthusiasm for that group of believers is a God-given way for us to assure ourselves that we are truly saved.

2. To Evangelize the World.

The gospel can best be spread through combined and collaborative efforts. Throughout the history of the church great men and women have attempted great things on their own and have often been successful. But more often, great things have been accomplished through the collaborate efforts of Christians working together. If we are to reach this world with the gospel message of Jesus Christ, we must share our efforts with other believers.

3. To Expose False Gospels.

As we interact with other believers, we will see what true Christianity is, which ought to expose the common belief that Christians are self-righteous, selfish individuals. As we labor, fellowship, and serve alongside other Christians, and as we observe the lives of other Christ-followers, we will see what biblical Christianity looks like. The more we see of genuine Christianity, the more the counterfeits will be exposed.

4. To Edify the Church.

Joining a church will help Christians counter their sinful individualism and teach them the importance of seeking to serve and edify others. The benefit of being a member of a local church is not primarily inward, but outward. Christians attend a local church so they might have opportunities to serve others and thus to serve God. Every Christian should be eager to serve within the church and to edify others through teaching, serving, and exercising the spiritual gifts.

5. To Glorify God

We can bring God glory through the way we live our lives. God is honored when we are obedient to him. He is glorified when his people come together in unity and harmony to find assurance, to evangelize the world, to expose false gospels, and to edify one another. God is glorified in and through the local church.

March 16, 2011

ReverberationThere are some books that find their strength in saying new things—the original thoughts or perspectives we’ve simply never heard before. There are other books that find their strength in saying old things—things we’ve heard before but just need to hear again, whether that’s because of lack of faith or lack of memory or just because every time something is said it’s said in a different way. Jonathan Leeman’s new book Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People falls squarely into the latter category for me. I have heard it before. And I desperately needed to hear it again.

Reverberation is a book about God’s Word. It’s that simple. But maybe it’s not that simple. Churches and Christians are looking all over the place to find a source of light, freedom and action, to find whatever it is that will stir people, fire them up, lead them to do great things. Some try the latest and greatest programs; some work on dynamic small group ministries; some work toward the best worship by the best musicians; some look to justice. In the midst of all these options Leeman sets the Word of God, the one thing Jesus declared to be necessary in the life of the church and the one thing necessary for the growth of the church. While none of these other things are necessarily wrong, none of them can be central; rather, each must flow out of the centrality of the Word.

“One thing is necessary in our churches—hearing God’s Word through preaching, reading, singing, and praying.” When the Word is central it echoes out into all parts of the life of the church. “Picture it this way. The evangelist or preacher open his mouth and utters a word, God’s Word. But the Word doesn’t sound just once. It echoes or reverberates. It reverberates through the church’s music and prayers. It reverberates through the conversations between elders and members, members and guests, older Christians and younger ones. God’s words bounce around the life of the church, like the metal ball in the pinball machine.” But that is not all. It also reverberates into people’s homes and workplaces, their families and neighborhoods, out onto Facebook and blogs and anywhere else these people go. And what Reverberation seeks to do is to follow this path.

March 14, 2011

FacebookJust about everyone has joined Facebook. And just about everyone has since considered giving it up. There are all kinds of studies today telling us how much time Facebook is sucking—700 billion minutes between the lot of us every month. That’s a lot of time. But when you divide it 500 million ways it doesn’t seem quite so bad. That’s not why most of us have considered giving it up. There are studies telling us how Facebook is invading our privacy and selling our personal details to advertisers. That’s annoying, but not reason enough to quit.

The reason so many of us have considered giving up on Facebook is that it makes us miserable. A recent paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looks at a series of studies involving how people evaluate moods—their own and those of others. The study itself is not as interesting as the implications. What the study found is that people tend to underestimate how dejected other people feel and that this in turn increases a person’s own sense of unhappiness. Put otherwise, we all believe that others have better lives than we do and this makes us feel bad about ourselves. That’s strangely significant.

Where do we find this phenomenon in clearest form? On Facebook, of course. We log on to Facebook, look through the photographs and status messages our friends post, and believe that everyone is happier and more successful than we are. And when I have spoken to friends and family members who have considered giving up Facebook, this is exactly the reasoning they have given. They look at other people and feel miserable in comparison.

What an interesting phenomenon. It seems clear that Facebook is exposing something, some ugly little corner of the human heart. Facebook is all about making life seem joyful—we “like” one another’s happy status updates, not the sad ones; we post photos of our parties, not our funerals; we use it to celebrate births and marriages and new relationships, not to mourn deaths or remember break-ups. Facebook is meant to be a happy place for happy people. But it doesn’t seem to work out so well. We all think everyone else is happy, but we don’t feel the joy.

November 06, 2010

At the 9Marks Ministries blog I recently came across a brief article that outlined some of the ways church members can (and should!) serve their church on a Sunday morning. These are, in turn, drawn from a Trellis & Vine conference led by Colln Marshall.

Since tomorrow is Sunday, a day when the majority of the readers of this blog will head to their local church, it seems like a good time to reflect on a few of these things. Is there anything that should be added to the list?

Before the Service

  • Read the passage in advance
  • Pray for the gathering
  • Greet newcomers (act like you are the host)
  • Think strategically about who you should sit with
  • Arrive Early

During the Service

  • Sing with gusto (even if you can’t sing)
  • Help with logistics (if there’s a problem, help fix it)
  • Don’t be distracted
  • Listen carefully
  • Be aware of your facial expressions (you may affect others and discourage preachers)

After the Service

  • Connect newcomers with others
  • Get newcomers information
  • Start a conversation about the sermon
  • Ask someone how they became a Christian
  • Stay late

November 02, 2010

Washed and WaitingThe issue of homosexuality is one in which the church has not done so well over the years. The majority of Christians have long held fast to the clear teaching of Scripture—that homosexuality is against God’s plan for the people he created and that homosexuality is a serious sin, one that manifests a particular hardness of heart. In all of this Christians have honored God, I am convinced. But where Christians have been less than exemplary is in a commitment to engage the very difficult issues. I am beginning to see a lot of growth here, but the fact remains—Christians tend to engage the issue of homosexuality on only a surface level. We have easy answers that, to those who demand them, are not at all satisfying.

Wesley Hill has had to engage this issue in a far more serious way. Hill is a Christian and he is gay. Now I know many will get no further than this phrase: gay Christian. Hill uses that phrase as a kind of shorthand to express that he is a Christian—an evangelical who holds to the tenets of the Chrisitan faith, but he is also a man who is homosexual in what seems to be his natural orientation or inclination. He has always been attracted to men and only men. He has remained celibate through all his life, convicted and enabled by the Holy Spirit not to act out his sexuality. But hope and pray as he might, he cannot change his inability to be attracted to women. I am not crazy about the phrase gay Christian, but will use it in this review while adding it to my growing list of things to think about in the future.

Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality is his attempt to answer some of the most difficult questions, and to answer them not in an abstract sense, but from the perpsective of someone who has labored over them and shed many tears along the way. What does it mean for gay Christians to be faithful to God while struggling with the challenge of their homosexuality? What is God’s will for believers who experience same-sex desires? How can gay Christians experience God’s favor and blessing in the midst of a struggle that for many brings a crippling sense of shame and guilt? These are the questions the church needs to be willing and equipped to answer. We have to be able to do better than “Homosexuality is wrong.” And that’s what this book is all about.

Hill maintains throughout the book that homosexuality is a result of the Fall. Never does he soften this or backpedal on it. Never does he seek to excuse his inclination to homosexuality anymore than he’d downplay any other sin. What I most appreciate about Washed and Waiting is his ability to take us inside his struggle. We all have sins we struggle with; we all have what seem to be besetting sins. Why should we read a book about those who naturally tend toward homosexuality instead of those who naturally tend toward lying or cheating or some other sin? I would answer that in two ways. In the first place, issues of sexuality and sexual identity strike very, very close to the core of a person. A person who is drawn to shoplifting does not self-identify as a thief. That is not his identity. But a person who is homosexual truly does identify that way. It is a major part of who he is. And hence it is a very difficult sin to deal with. In the second place I would say that society is feeding all of us, those who go to church and those who do not, all kinds of false messages about homosexuality and we need to be equipped to respond in a robust way—in a way that shows we truly understand the issue on more than a surface level. This isn’t about yucky sexual deeds—the “yuck factor” (a term that I believe was first coined by C. Gerald Fraser in the early 80’s). It is about people made in God’s image who seem to have a part of their core identity that through the reality of sin is just plain miswired.

September 08, 2010

Occasionally I attempt to think back to all of the questions I receive from readers of this site. I try to think of things I have been asked many times but have never written about. One that came to mind recently is rather a simple question: Under what circumstances may I leave my church? Quite often I receive emails from readers who are concerned that their church no longer preaches sound doctrine or perhaps no longer offers skillful teaching. And they want to know if the Bible allows them or even compels them to move on.

We live in an age of consumerism and this leaves us accustomed to prioritizing our needs and, even more so, our desires, above all else. We march out of stores that do not carry the products we want at the prices we demand; we customize our lives, from the clothes we wear to the cell phones we carry. In all things we are sovereign, we are discerning consumers who demand that things be done our way.

But church is an area where consumerism ought to be the furthest thing from our minds. At church we are part of an involuntary community which is pieced together by God. We are placed under spiritual authorities and are to be subject to them. We need to be very careful, then, to examine our hearts and examine our motives before withdrawing membership from a church. Sadly, though, there are certain situations in which this becomes a necessity.

There are good reasons to leave a church and there are bad reasons to leave a church. I dare say that there are far more bad reasons than good reasons. There are times where you must leave and times when you may leave. In this brief article I want to point to a few of those good reasons. Perhaps another time I can focus more on the really bad ones.

You Must Leave

Most of the reasons you must leave relate to leadership. If the leaders of a church show contempt and disregard for the Bible and for sound doctrine, you are called to separate yourself from them. And it may well be that the only way to do this is to leave your church (though in some circumstances you may be able to have the leaders removed).

Here are four situations in which the Bible tells you that you must leave a church.

July 15, 2010

Today’s guest blogger is Frank Turk, he of Pyromaniancs fame. He shares what was meant to be a recorded conference message but has instead been relegated (reduced?) to a blog post.

*****

Some of the massive throng of readers for this blog may know that I was nominated to speak at “theNines” this year — which is an on-line event where the speakers record 9 minutes of advice for people in ministry, and the event itself is free of change. Turns out that I have also been selected. Only the rules changed this year: instead of 9 minutes, we only get 6, and the topic has itself also changed significantly. Until there’s a public announcement about that, I’ll leave that to the chaps at Leadership Network and Catalyst to disambiguate the situation.

BUT: the changes leave me with a 9-minute talk that I drafted and now cannot use — until Tim e-mailed me yesterday and asked for a submission to help him keep his blog running for a couple of days while he’s away from his desk. So for all of you, here’s what I would have said if nothing else had changed:

First of all, to sort of throw a rock at my normal constituents, I want to strongly recommend Rick Warren’s video from last year about what the purpose of the local church is. That’s a great nine minutes on what the local church ought to be, and you should go back to the archives to watch that one again and again because he’s right.

There’s another side to what Pastor Warren said in that video, and I wanted to make that the focus of my brief time here: it’s the topic of “bigness”. See: a subtext of Pastor Warren’s talk is that a ministry is not really fruitful unless it’s big – because really: only a big church with big resources can do what Saddleback does on paper and in fact in the real world. You can’t send thousands of missionaries and planters unless you have tens of thousands supporting them – or at least as a base from which to draw all those people.

July 13, 2010

Today’s guest blogger is Ed Stetzer. That’s a name that is familiar to most of you, I’m sure. I recently spoke at an event with Ed and, having enjoyed his company, asked if he’d be willing to put together a guest post. And, as you’re about to see, he was kind enough to do so.

*****

A lot of kids grow up wanting to be a rock star. These days the term “rock star” is applied much more liberally than the days of heavy metal. Athletes are rock stars, movie stars are rock stars, software designers are rock stars. The rock star aesthetic has been democratized.

You don’t even have to live a rock and roll lifestyle to be a rock star. These days even the most un-hip of occupations can achieve rock star appeal. Including pastors.

Somebody once said, “The Gospel came to the Greeks and the Greeks turned it into a philosophy. The Gospel came to the Romans and the Romans turned it into a system. The Gospel came to the Europeans and the Europeans turned it into a culture. The Gospel came to America and the Americans turned it into a business.” And business is booming. Millions of churchgoers file in to buildings each week, line up in rows like shelves at Walmart, and watch the stage. They come for one purpose: to see a show and hear a pastor.

This, by uncritical standards, is success. But while this phenomenon increases, I believe it can be damaging to the spiritual vitality of the American church.

June 30, 2010

This morning I read the verses of 1 Timothy 3, a passage that describes the qualifications of those who may be leaders within the church. And having read those verses, which tell of the kind of godly character that must be present in the life of one who would be a pastor or elder, I was drawn to some words from the prophet Jeremiah, words that focus on what happens when we ignore such qualities and raise up unsuitable leaders.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’”

The twenty-third chapter of Jeremiah falls near the halfway point of the book, in the midst of a section where the prophet is foretelling the end of the Davidic dynasty and the coming captivity of God’s people. In this chapter Jeremiah pronounces judgments against the false prophets who had become a plague within the nation. Though these words were spoken some 600 years before Christ and in a particular time and context, his words ring as true today as they did then. “They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’ ” (16, 17).

What was a problem then is a problem now. So many men and women today speak visions of their own minds, and teach what has so evidently not come from the mouth of the Lord. So many say that it shall be well with people whose souls are in grave danger; they seek to show from Scripture that Christ will save those even who have never heard his Word, and who have never humbled themselves before the Lord. They say, “It shall be well with you” to those who sit in the pews but have never had their hearts of ice melted by the Lord. They speak lies and blasphemies, all the while claiming to speak for God.

June 24, 2010

It’s easy to grow discouraged at the state of the church. As a person who invests a lot of time and attention to studying the church, her health and what Jesus requires of her, I often find myself prone to lamenting her state. Writers from all backgrounds and denominations have written about the church, and I have read many of these books and publications. The standard book begins with a few chapters outlining all the ways the church has failed with the rest of the book providing the solution. If only we did this or that or the other thing, we would make the church what she was intended to be. I haven’t read too many books that give the church a pat on the back and say “good job!” Maybe for good reason. Maybe not. When I wrote The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment I was deliberate in not doing that, in not giving a long list of all the ways the church has failed. What real value would there be in spreading that seed of discouragement?

Here are just a couple of examples of people who have taken on the church in recent years. Rick Warren wrote the mega-seller The Purpose Driven Church and in it he proclaimed that the church has lost sight of her purpose and that God was calling her to rediscover it. Millions of pastors bought and read this book and began what Warren refers to as the Second Reformation—a Reformation of purpose. A couple of years ago I counted six or seven books in the Christian bookstore heralding “the next Reformation,” yet all of them pointed towards a different basis for this Reformation. The men and women of the Emergent community (does anyone even remember Emergent anymore?) continually wrote indictments of the church, showing how, in their view, she has failed in the modern world and is primed to be an even greater failure in the postmodern world. A person who was fully immersed in the emerging church sent me an email once and wrote about “denominational distinctives that strive to keep us divided” as if churches are purposely focusing on the distinctives in order to drive wedges between them and other believers. There are any number of other authors that identify problems and tell us how to fix them. Many people are proud to be believers, yet are ashamed to be part of the church, the visible body of Christ. They portray the church as being purposeless, intellectual and ancient, knowingly and joyfully trapped in the past, snickering as we watch our neighbors fall into the abyss.