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Less Religion and More Jesus this Christmas

Dec 12, 18
JMorgan
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No season accentuates the difference between “religion” and “faith” more than Christmas.  “CEOs” (Christmas-Easter Only) show up at church for the first time in months.  Christian symbols are brought down from the attic and placed around the house and on the tree.  Believers pick up the battle where they left off the year before at the first mention of “Happy Holidays” and “X-mas”.  Christians find it tougher every Christmas to find a card with religious references.  TV commercials fuel rampant consumerism, luring even those who understand the “reason for the season” into their trap.  We’re certain to see more about Santa Claus than our Savior all around us as Christmas approaches.

Complaining about the increasing secularization of Jesus’ birthday won’t put Christ back in Christmas.  Revival won’t break out if more stores acquiesce to boycotts demanding they resume greeting customers with “Merry Christmas”.  Political pressure isn’t the way to force Hallmark to offer more religious Christmas cards and to compel advertisers to wait until after Thanksgiving dinner before kicking off Black Friday.

That’s the “religious” approach, fighting the culture war in America with an “air war” of verbal bombs.  Instead, let’s combat the commercialization of Christmas with service and evangelism as our chosen weapons – a “ground war” of love and compassion.

No, we don’t need more religion this Christmas.  We need more faith in Jesus…

  • Religion is Temporal – Christianity is not about giving us a better life and sustaining us through the hard times.  Religion focuses on this life and what God can do for “me”.  Unfortunately, that orientation dominates the thinking of most professing believers and the teachings of many pastors today.
  • Faith is Eternal – Jesus “for the joy set before him He endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).  Hebrews 11 repeatedly affirms that all those enshrined in the Hall of Faith were looking forward to what lay ahead – eternity with Jesus.  They recognized that this is not our home and acted accordingly.  It was that same assurance of the next life (not promises for this life) that convinced Rachel Scott to proclaim her faith at gunpoint in Columbine.
  • Religion Defends – What should Christians do about our nation’s crumbling moral foundation?  Protests and activism have largely backfired.  Name a significant recent court decision where the Christian moral position has prevailed.
  • Faith Turns the Other Cheek – Christ doesn’t need us to defend our faith.  Jesus never defended Himself.  He was like a sheep led to slaughter.  What Jesus did was to keep on serving, loving, building disciples and preaching the gospel every day of his life.  We should do likewise.
  • Religion Judges – Religion says, “You’re wrong” and stays at arms length.
  • Faith Cares – Faith says, “You’re loved” and pursues the lost at close proximity.
  • Religion Repels – Society has come to see the defensiveness, accusations and evangelism of Christians as intolerance.  It’s ironic that Jesus had the biggest issue not with those the “religious” considered “sinners”, but with those condemning “sinners”.
  • Faith Attracts – Jesus normally healed and fed first, then said who He is.  He had the perfect words, but knew words alone wouldn’t be enough to get people to listen.  Today, if churches were still leading with compassion, non-believers would be much more interested in what Christians have to say.
  • Religion is Transparent – Religion hinges on mankind.  It tries to cover failures and look godly – obscuring the view of the one true God.  As our frailty becomes evident, Christians are seen as hypocrites, causing others weak in their faith to walk away, some never to return.
  • Faith is Impenetrable – Faith’s foundation is God.  Unlike us, God keeps His promises.  He has no moral lapses.  Most seekers don’t “buy” man-made religion – they can see through its hypocrisy.  They’re looking for truth and genuine faith that saves.
  • Religion Loses the Battle – Our culture is moving away from Jesus.  All of our lobbying, voting and venting on behalf of our religion isn’t turning the tide – it’s only galvanizing the opposition.
  • Faith Wins the War – We know the end of the story.  We’ve read the Book of Revelation.  Jesus wins.  In the war for the souls of men and women, faithful disciples of Jesus are much better equipped to be effective soldiers than the “religious”.
  • Religion Consumes – The “religious” look to be fed.  Prayers are about receiving blessings.  Emphasis is on what God (and their church) can do for them.
  • Faith Dispenses – Individual believers become the personification of “church”, living Prayer, Care and Share lifestyles, each looking to reach others for Christ.
  • Religion Clings – A focus on the temporal causes cultural Christians to hang on to what they have.
  • Faith Releases – Dying to self, crucified with Christ daily, causes disciples of Jesus to give sacrificially of their time, talents and treasures.
  • Religion Holds Back – Those who stop at simply believing won’t leave everything behind if that’s what Christ asks of them.
  • Faith Surrenders – Satan and the demons believe in Jesus too, but they won’t follow Him.  Faith is belief that converts to surrender.
  • Religion Puffs up – Hanging around other Christians more and cussing less, then criticizing others who don’t do the same, makes the “religious” feel superior.
  • Faith Humbles – Humility is the essence of our faith; the realization that we’re all sinners in dire need of a Savior, redeemed solely by the grace of God.
  • Religion Says “God will…” – Too many pastors teach that faith is having so much belief in a particular outcome that God decides to give us what we want.  When healing doesn’t come or the deal falls through, we kick ourselves for not having enough “faith”.
  • Faith Says “God can…” – Jesus asked repeatedly, “Do you believe I am able to heal you?”  The trigger for miracles was always belief that Jesus COULD, not that He WOULD.  That means deferring to God’s will – whether the outcome is good, bad or indifferent.  Only the Lord know whether it’s best if healing doesn’t come – maybe His plan is to awaken others to their own mortality, leading them to Christ.
  • Religion Caters – Asking little of churchgoers, providing an entertaining worship experience, and promising a better life is sure to keep lukewarm Christians coming back.
  • Faith Challenges – Jesus preached his most challenging sermon at the height of His popularity (John 6).  In contrast, pastors hesitate to unveil the true costs of discipleship and the Great Commission mandate for fear of driving the “religious” away.
  • Religion Builds a Church – Prevailing church growth models like “Invite, Involve, Invest” define pastors and staff as “church” and churchgoers as “customers”.  The redefinition of those terms has resulted in reallocating funds away from local missions to member retention and from intensive discipleship to small groups.  For churches today, growth does not always imply health.
  • Faith Builds Disciples – The Biblical definition of “church” requires equipping and empowering members to BE the church, reaching the lost between Sundays.
  • Religion Speaks – Being a Monday morning quarterback, bemoaning what’s wrong with the world, is easy.
  • Faith Acts – Getting out of your armchair and serving others in Jesus’ name is hard.  As the book of James says, faith without works is dead.  We’re called to be more about justice than judgment and compassion than condemnation.
  • Religion Keeps Walking – In the Good Samaritan story, the religious leaders were too busy doing religious stuff to stop and care for the beaten robbery victim.
  • Faith Stops and Helps – Instead, a man those religious leaders reviled – a Samaritan – was the hero in Jesus’ story.  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…“ (James 1:27)
  • Religion Shuts Off – Private, Passive, Pensive Christians keep the Gospel of Jesus Christ to themselves.
  • Faith Pours Out – Powerful Christians come to grips fully with the grace and mercy of Jesus and can’t possibly keep it in.

It’s Your Turn

Rather than getting caught up in the madness, stressed by holiday obligations, and complaining about “Happy Holidays”, combat the commercialization of Christmas by serving others and sharing the Gospel.  #GiveAnEternalGift is a much better way to remind neighbors, coworkers and friends of the real reason for the season.

#GIVEANETERNALGIFT, not temporal gifts that are quickly forgotten and discarded, by following these 3 simple steps:

  • Perform an act of kindness and watch it open the door to sharing the Gospel.
  • Post a pic and tell your story on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #GiveAnEternalGift to inspire others.
  • Challenge 3 of your friends on Facebook or Twitter to “pay it forward”.

Who’s at the Top of the Lord’s Christmas List?

Nov 29, 18
JMorgan
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2 comments

God has a special place in His heart for those who have no one.  The Lord feels deep compassion for anyone who is alone and left to fend for themselves.  In particular, God is grieved when there is no man in the house to lead and support the family.  Did you know that there are over 30 verses in the Bible that reference both widows and the fatherless in the same sentence?  For example…

“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)

”A Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling.” (Psalm 68:5)

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)

Widows and orphans are so often commingled in the Bible because they’re in a similar predicament – they’ve lost the most important man in their lives.  Children have been deprived of their dad.  The wife no longer has her partner in life.  They both face a challenging, uphill climb – equally and desperately in need of help and hope.  More than maybe anyone else, they need to truly understand that the Lord is their Father.

Does anyone fit this description in your church?  Do you know someone at your workplace or neighborhood who is alone, struggling to navigate life now that her husband is gone?

Loving Those in Distress & Lonely

The root of the word “widow” means “lonely or solitary” or “bereft or void”.  God’s Word does not typically describe how a woman arrived at that status – presumably it was death, but she could be bereft due to divorce or desertion.  Children can also become fatherless as a result of death or desertion.

Most envision elderly women when they hear the term “widow”.  However, women who have lost a husband span all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic status.  Those who have no one, the kind of people the Lord loves dearly and commands us to help, encompass a wide range of dire circumstances faced by countless people right outside the back door of your church:

  1. Widows Indeed – I Timothy 5 says the Church should step in when a widow has no relatives or dependents to help them.  Some widows are financially secure, blessed with life insurance or supported by a loving family.  However, even when there are other family members, often they are unwilling or unable to help.  Statistics show that the rate of poverty among elderly widows is 3 to 4 times higher than elderly married women.  As is so often the case with older widows, emotional grief takes a toll on physical health, increasing medical expenses at a time of reduced income.
  2. Grass Widows – Women left behind by husbands who believe the “grass is greener” often have nowhere to turn for support or are too ashamed to ask.  In cases where children have been abandoned too, this suddenly single mom has much less income to cover nearly the same expenses.  To make ends meet, many have little choice but to dust off the resume, find affordable child care and navigate her unexpected new life on her own.
  3. Widowers – It’s not only women who grieve over the loss of a spouse.  Many elderly men live in solitude as shut-ins, unable to adjust after decades of married life.  Our church did a home “makeover” last weekend for an 89 year-old disabled veteran who hadn’t touched anything inside or outside his house since his wife passed away in 2002.  Her collections of trinkets still covered the shelves inside the home while 16 years of overgrowth completely enveloped the exterior.
  4. Fatherless – Every widowed mom has fatherless children.  Her greatest concern is caring for her children.  Research shows that fatherlessness results in higher rates of poverty, substance abuse, physical and emotional illness, poor education, crime, and teen pregnancies.  Churches can play an important role in telling children about God’s promises to the fatherless, helping them avoid becoming one of these statistics.

Urgency & Imperative

Acts 6:1-3 describes how important caring for widows was to the early church.  They chose “seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom”, including Stephen.  Few churches take ministry to those in distress that seriously.  Most offer only a rotating “deacon on call” for church members and no ongoing ministry for the bereft in the community.  Maybe if church leaders fully understood the plight of widows, they would realize why the Lord so passionately emphasizes the importance of caring for them:

  • Almost half the women over age 65 in the U.S. are widows, and 7 out of 10 live alone
  • 60% of those who lose a spouse will experience a serious illness within 12 months
  • Assistance from family and friends typically diminishes dramatically after the 1st year
  • Widowhood (in all of its forms) is the fastest-growing demographic in the world today
  • 39% of children in the U.S. live without their biological father in the home
  • 75% of the average widow’s support base disappears by the end of the first year
  • Women whose husbands have died live as widows for an average of 14 years
  • Over 90% of the time, a widow does not ask for help because she doesn’t think to, is afraid to, or doesn’t know how or who to ask
  • Practical needs often sit for months before they are met

The lack of dedicated ministries to those living in solitude and distress is largely attributable to the gradual demise of discipleship within America’s churches.  Disciples would naturally have a heart for widows and the lonely because Jesus did.  A common blessing in Jesus’ day was, “May the dust of your rabbi be upon you”, meaning disciples walk in His footsteps in every respect.  Yet in its Americanized, institutionalized form “church” has been redefined as a place and not people, thereby diluting the emphasis on personalized discipleship to avoid the inconvenience and risk that necessarily accompany the Great Commission mandate.

How Churches Should Help Them

First Baptist Woodstock partners with Perspective Ministries to serve the hundreds of widows that attend that Atlanta-based church.  The ministry’s name reflects the importance of changing perspective – turning attention from the loss of a husband and dad to the reality that God has always been the true embodiment of those roles.  That shift of heart and mind brings emotional stability and purpose when all hope seems lost.  Perspective Ministries also provides valuable services to ease the burden caused by death, divorce or desertion:

  • reminds the widow and her children of God’s promises to be their covering, protector and provider
  • recognizes that widows and the fatherless need Christ-centered community, which churches are in a unique position to provide
  • mobilizes relational networks to walk alongside widows and fatherless children
  • organizes social gatherings and grief sharing groups
  • meets daily practical, emotional, physical and spiritual needs of the widow and her family
  • connects them with others experiencing similar loss
  • provides leadership and service opportunities to turn attention to helping others
  • educates family, friends, church members and service providers on how best to care for widows and the fatherless
  • offers its services to the bereft in the community, not just church members, who lack an extended (church) family

The Guiding Principles of Perspective Ministries are:

  • Dignity – Acknowledge that each woman and child is created in the image of God and therefore has immeasurable worth and value, and should be treated accordingly in every respect
  • Relationship – Understand that the suffering and challenges experienced by widows and the fatherless is personal and enduring, requiring individualized and long-term solutions
  • Compassion – Stand in the gap for those struggling to meet the physical, material, emotional and spiritual needs that accompany the loss of a husband and father

The Action Plan followed by Perspective Ministries involves 4 phases:

  1. Initial Engagement – Come in during the storm bringing relief through crisis response teams from within and outside of her “village”
  2. Near-Term Intervention – Over the first few months, provide time-sensitive help and hope to ease suffering
  3. Extended Assistance – Remain after the storm has passed to meet daily needs and build resilience as they adjust to life without a spouse or dad
  4. Ongoing Care – Stay in relationship as support from family and friends eventually wanes to sustain them through the inevitable ups-and-downs

It’s Your Turn

Do you know of another church that has a ministry to widows and the fatherless dedicated to responding to the 30+ Bible verses expressing God’s heart for those bereft of a husband or dad?

The Purpose of Youth Ministry Is Not to Attract Parents

Nov 14, 18
JMorgan
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4 comments

Most churches invest far more in youth ministry than men’s or recovery ministries.  Why?  Many pastors cite Jesus’ deep love of children.  Others would say, “Children are our future”.  Yet in strategy sessions and staff meetings, discussions center around a different objective – the critical role of youth ministries in getting parents to come to church.

On the surface, attracting parents by engaging children appears reasonable and harmless enough.  What’s wrong with rejuvenating an aging church by adding more young families?  Why not convince a few “nones” and “dones” to give church another shot?  The problem lies in seeing ministry to youth as a strategy rather than a mandate.  Inevitably, that line of thinking leads to decisions which ultimately undermine the God-given mission of the church – to build disciples of Jesus Christ who are…

1. Faithful to God, not an Organization

Kids in America today aren’t loyal to institutions, clubs, parties or groups.  They’re job hoppers with attention spans best measured in nanoseconds.  The disheartening number of young adults who walk away from church after adolescence isn’t surprising in light of a clear misalignment – churches structured around membership versus youth who aren’t “joiners”.  Youth programs designed to attract parents are about building a “church”.  A far better strategy is to build disciples who ARE (the personification of) church.  Young people who truly know Jesus as their Savior, who’ve surrendered their lives to Him, may not join a church but they won’t walk away from God – and that should be the overriding concern.  Trying to make church fun and engaging has backfired – youth don’t head to college with faith that’s deep enough to withstand secular teachings and don’t see a reason to return to the church of their childhood.

2. Committed to a Cause, not a Leader

Whatever America’s youth lack in loyalty to organizations, they make up for in dedication to causes.  They will charge the hill alongside any group that’s fighting for a cause they hold dear but won’t relegate themselves to a single organization, following blindly up the next hill its leaders decide to climb.  A church’s brand, growth and reputation today are inextricably linked to the popularity, personality and perception of its senior pastor.  Churches utilizing youth ministry as a growth strategy perpetuate that pastor-centric culture, which has little allure for young adults.  Churches courageous enough to prepare youth to pursue the greatest cause known to mankind – making Christ famous – will see those young adults not only returning to church but dramatically extending that church’s reach.

3. Engaged in Life Change, not Activities

Some of the most disengaged millennials are those who were most involved in youth group as kids.  They rarely missed a retreat, lock-in or social event yet want little to do with church once they finish high school.  Consuming all that a youth ministry has to offer does not require or necessarily even promote a saving, sold-out relationship with Jesus Christ – particularly if the ministry’s primary intent is to grow the church.  We’ve seen hundreds of churches gradually replace Bible studies with bowling nights, memory verses with video games, and one-on-one mentoring with team sports.  We’re witnessing the steady decline of personalized discipleship – less immersion in scripture and more entertainment – under the misguided perception that children value fun more than purpose.  Like students at underperforming public schools who still can’t read, many teenagers “graduating” from youth group are spiritually illiterate.

4. Fulfilling a Mission, Not a Role

Any survival instincts or growth aspirations will pervade nearly every aspect of a church, including youth ministry.  For leaders of any type of organization, thoughts of sustaining or expanding operations turn attention inward.  Pastors step up recruiting of volunteers to fill needed positions within the church – it’s all hands on deck.  Meanwhile, as we mentioned earlier, youth in America are looking for an external cause.  Young men and women, especially those who love Jesus, want to help the homeless, orphans, elderly and address other pressing social issues.  They want to share the Gospel – born-again Millennials share their faith more than any other generation today.  Nearly two-thirds (65%) have presented the Gospel to another within the past year, in contrast to the national average of about half (52%) of born-again Christians.  Youth won’t be satisfied simply with being a greeter, usher or child care worker.  They’ll go looking elsewhere for a cause if the church doesn’t provide adequate (external) outlets that produce meaningful (Gospel and social) impact.

5. Hungry for Real Relationships, not Socializing

Making youth group more entertaining and communal may lure kids next Sunday, but will compromise efforts to make them disciples of Jesus.  Group events and activities enable youth to blend in with the Crowd or to conceal their lack of a personal, abiding faith within the larger Community.  Even those considered part of the Core arrive at that status more for the quality of their leadership skills than the depth of their relationship with Christ.  Today, we appear to be seeing greater appetite for smaller congregational life among young churchgoers.  Active participants in youth group for years are feeling lost in the crowd and community.  They want to share their deepest questions and concerns – those they fear disclosing to their parents; however, youth groups aimed at attracting parents are not providing safe and personal forums for those conversations.

6. Desire for Truth, not Relevance

Young kids are smart – they hope and pray for the supernatural, yet recognize strategies and programs modeled after the natural.  When they are part of attractional youth ministries, deep down they understand it’s a cheap imitation of what Christ intended, and they lose faith – maybe not in Him but in church as they know it.  They see through a prepackaged, reconfigured gospel designed to appease.  Youth groups leaders try to act cool and run cool events – but the problem is that they’ll never be as “cool” as their non-Christian friends and activities.  Kids in America today are lost – looking to mentors for answers and truth, not for cool and funny.  Youth ministry “grads” go to college ill-equipped to withstand the secular onslaught because they weren’t discipled and prepared adequately to confront those realities.  As they look back at their youth group experience, they realize that leaders and programs were modeled after whatever was popular at the time – to make kids feel comfortable.  If they lost hope and faith in the “real world” of college, they can’t expect to regain hope and faith in a church that attempted to look like the world.  Only truth, which is uncomfortable, can restore hope in a seemingly hopeless world.

7. Ready to be Released, not Retained

Ask most young adults to define “church” and they’ll describe it as a place they went as a kid or they’ll talk about the pastor and youth leaders.  Youth are being conditioned to adopt an Americanized definition of “church” and not the actual biblical meaning.  If the goal of youth ministry is to attract parents, it serves the institution to centralize around a building rather than to teach children that they are the embodiment of church.  However, that strategy unravels when those kids finish college because “church” never became internalized for them.  Maybe it worked to get their parents and kids to show up at church when they were adolescents, but mis-defining church (as a place and pastor) isn’t getting young adults to return to church.  Creating that attractional environment is the very thing that’s keeping churches from graduating kids to high levels of spiritual maturity – those that will live out GC² (the Great Commandment and Great Commission) in their 20s and beyond.

It’s Your Turn

Is it possible for a church to challenge youth with truth and discipleship such that they don’t lose their faith in college?  Is it worth the risk to lose some kids (and their parents) to a church down the road that has a more fun and entertaining youth ministry?

Jesus is the Answer to the Opioid Crisis

Oct 31, 18
JMorgan
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one comments

Opioid abuse has reached epidemic proportions – and it’s happening within your church.  The face of the opioid crisis is no longer the heroin addict strung out on the streets.  Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them – equating to 11.4 million prescription opioid addicts in 2016.  He’s the former football player who’s a frequent attender but dealing silently with the long-term effects of knee injuries.  She’s the mother of two that sits in the back pew suffering from loneliness and relationship issues stemming from childhood sexual abuse.

The game has changed for illegal opioids as well.  Far more powerful drugs are on the market.  Compared to Heroin, fentanyl is 50 times and Carfentanil (formerly best known as an elephant tranquilizer) 5,000 times more potent.

Overdoses and deaths from prescription and illegal opioid usage are dramatically increasing in nearly every city and county across the country, including yours.  Consequently, government and secular agencies are pouring funds into intervention and recovery programs at unprecedented levels.  The White House has declared the opioid epidemic a nationwide public health emergency and is seeking nearly $17 billion in opioid-related spending in 2019.

While taking measures to save lives and alleviate severe withdrawals are necessary, no amount of money spent on solutions apart from Christ will resolve the crisis.  Yet few pastors have it on their radar.  Most haven’t personally encountered it in their church.  They aren’t aware of the alarming statistics in their communities.  They are ill-equipped to respond to someone who approaches them with an addiction of any kind, much less an opiate.  The knee-jerk reaction of most church leaders is to refer a confessing parishioner to a local agency, essentially outsourcing – when they hold the keys to recovery.

Should the Crisis Concern Churches?

Addiction is a faith issue.  Jesus is the answer.  Even the Department of Health and Human Services understands the critical role of the “faith community”, recently producing an extensive toolkit for faith leaders that even references the power of prayer.  Our federal government is willing to risk crossing perceived church/state boundaries because they know faith is the only way out.  Likewise, Narcotics Anonymous (and AA) continually stresses the importance of looking outside ourselves for answers.  It is common knowledge that attempting to exorcise that particular demon through personal willpower only entrenches it further within.

Nevertheless, with the door wide open to demonstrate the love of Jesus to a waiting world, our churches largely ignore the opioid crisis and remain on the sidelines in the battle.  Collaboration is called for, but the needle in America is instead moving toward churches doing more branded, independent and infrequent outreach.  Proactive engagement and partnerships are needed, but many contend that pastors will not act in earnest unless the crisis threatens to disrupt the sanctity or growth of their church.  Until that moment, most fail to see how the crisis relates to them.

However, every aspect of this crisis is linked integrally to a person’s relationship with God.  Opioid use is entirely centered around one objective – pain alleviation, whether physical or psychological.  The crisis is not about drugs, it’s about pain management.  Pain stems from surgeries, PTSD, depression, isolation, failed relationships, socioeconomic factors, child neglect or abuse – to name a few.  Faith in Christ eases each of these causes of psychological pain and stops necessary usage of opioids (for significant physical pain) from becoming abuse.

C.S. Lewis wrote “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”  We miss out on all God wants to do through our pain when we try to escape (bearable) pain through drugs and alcohol.  Romans 5:3-4 says “Let us also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Is anyone suffering in your congregation or community?  If so, then be assured they are tempted to escape through self-medicating (whether prescribed or illegal) rather than running toward the Lord.  Church leaders are gatekeepers for those in any sort of pain, who find themselves stuck between those two alternatives – Jesus or drugs.  Hesitating to speak openly with the church about the opioid crisis, share facts about the dangers, train members to recognize the signs and intervene boldly when required leaves those in pain at risk of falling to temptation.

And the consequences of succumbing are dire – costing many their faith, families, careers, savings, health and lives.  Consider the impact on children as well – like me who for all practical purposes lost my mom as a young boy to prescription drug and alcohol addiction.  If you surveyed your congregation, there’s a good chance that nearly every family has been touched in some way by the opioid crisis – not to mention alcohol addiction.

What Can Churches Do About the Crisis?

Below is a blueprint to address opioid (and alcohol) abuse within your congregations and communities.  Nearly all options are viable and applicable even for a small church.

1. EDUCATION

Goals

  • Increase your understanding of addiction and the opioid crisis
  • Educate others in your congregation and community
  • Break down the walls of shame and stigma

Big Ideas

  • Conduct an Awareness Sunday at your church
  • Distribute information about the crisis
  • Issue a call to action

Application

  • Encourage those impacted to seek help
  • Share the hope that healing is possible
  • Identify those able and willing to provide support

2. PREVENTION

Goals

  • Monitor and prevent risk factors for potential opioid abuse
  • Recognize signs of opioid use and act early
  • Foster genuine community and transparency

Big Ideas

  • Conduct a church-wide assessment
  • Identify primary spiritual and social needs of the congregation
  • Learn about outside resources that can be leveraged if needed

Application

  • Gauge preparedness to address risk factors and crisis internally
  • Take note of those in physical or emotional pain
  • Counsel those at risk (or their family members)

3. INTERVENTION

Goals

  • Always ask tough questions when opioid abuse is suspected
  • Advise and counsel those currently affected by addiction
  • Provide and promote access to faith, social and clinical resources

Big Ideas

  • Appoint an (internal) leader on this issue
  • Organize efforts to build support structures for families in crisis
  • Improve perception of your church as a “safe” place for help

Application

  • Ensure staff and other key leaders are trained to recognize signs of suffering and stress
  • Provide practical support to individuals and families in crisis
  • Point congregants to vetted resources for clinical and medical support

4. RECOVERY

Goals

  • Celebrate overcomers and share success stories
  • Support those struggling through the long road to recovery, reconciliation and redemption

Big Ideas

  • Provide a more wholistic picture of “health”
  • Have resources and information ready and available
  • Provide “family” and community for those in recovery

Application

  • Organize efforts to build support structures for families in crisis
  • Provide economic, food, housing and transportation assistance
  • Start a Celebrate Recovery program

The solution to the opioid crisis is not simply programs and pills.  The answer lies in the hope found in Jesus alone and surrounding those tempted to abuse opioids with a loving community – the body of Christ.  Disciples of Jesus will come to understand that this life is short, God teaches us through our pain, and we do not own our bodies – it is the temple of the Holy Spirit.

It’s Your Turn

Like me, have you seen addicts radically transformed solely by the love of Jesus?  On that note, have you ever wondered whether any of the demons cast out by Jesus and His disciples were actually addictions?  Those Jesus healed of demons were often described as incoherent, unable to speak and convulsing – doesn’t that sound a lot like an overdose?

God’s Formula for Leading Men to Maturity

Oct 19, 18
JMorgan
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What is more important than growing men in their relationships with the Lord?  That is what Jesus spent nearly all of His time doing.  God designed men to be spiritual leaders of their homes and communities.  Equipping men to carry out those responsibilities effectively is the key to the Lord’s math for growing His Kingdom – multiplication, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Only disciples multiply – both within their families and throughout their circles of influence.

Jesus poured Himself fully into a few men and changed the world.  Jesus modeled how to take men down the path to Christian maturity.  He cautioned men countless times to avoid the greatest impediments to maturity – their natural tendencies toward pride and self-centeredness.

Men lacking depth in their relationships with the Lord, with one foot in the world’s system, may add but will never multiply.  They may occasionally invite a couple folks to church or do a service project, but those addition-based actions never produce exponential fruit.

The question is “Are churches today making disciples who multiply or churchgoers who add?”  Are most men in your church a great deal like Christ or cultural “Christians” (as society currently perceives that word)?  Is your church illuminating all the steps on the road to Christian maturity or presenting a more palatable version to men based on church attendance, volunteering and giving?

Does your church have a stronger women’s ministry than men’s ministry, resigned to the fact that women are generally more willing to fellowship and share their feelings?  Is your church less focused on building a discipleship-oriented men’s ministry than an engaging youth ministry, strategically trying to grow the church by reaching parents through their children?

Let’s look at 7 ways that Jesus conducted his men’s ministry based on exponential multiplication and compare it to how many churches today rely on simple addition:

1. Educate + …

Multiplication

  • Jesus worked as a carpenter, but His primary occupation was Teacher.  Each day, He discipled a small class of 12 men and tutored them 1 on 1.
  • Jesus often lectured large audiences in auditoriums on mountainsides and beachfronts, but reserved His deepest lessons and truths hidden from the masses for those 12 men within His inner circle, knowing that depth in a few would produce multiplication for the many.

Addition

  • Few churches facilitate 1 on 1 discipleship among members.
  • When pastors are asked how their church disciples, most cite optional and seasonal small groups (which are generally structured with more fellowship and less leadership than would be necessary for effective disciple-making).
  • A weekly 30-minute sermon and small group meeting are not adequate education for men expected to be the embodiment of “Church” within their families and communities between Sundays.

2. Equip + …

Multiplication

  • Jesus gave His disciples and other close followers not only the words to preach but also the power to heal as a means to open the ears of non-believers to hear the Gospel.
  • Jesus understood how each man was moving down the discipleship path and personally addressed their needs for growth.

Addition

  • Rather than providing intensive, personalized training necessary to answer tough questions, most pastors simply tell men to share their testimony and invite people to church to hear the Gospel from a “professional”.
  • Few churches present men with tailored opportunities to bring hope, help and healing to families in need within their city.
  • All churches have systems to track individual giving, but none keep records of individual growth or needs for advancement in their walks with Christ.

3. Engage + …

Multiplication

  • Once equipped, Jesus sent all of His disciples into the mission field to live out prayer, care and share.
  • Scripture lays out church-related responsibilities for all believers, but exempts no one from the Great Commission.
  • Jesus, Paul and the disciples modeled equipping other men to disciple other men, leading to the exponential multiplication experienced by the early church.

Addition

  • Church leaders generally engage men at a far lower level than is biblical, giving each a small church “chore” to do on a committee or as a greeter, usher, etc.  Pastors are eager to commend men for those minor inconveniences, knowing those small tasks not only contribute toward building the institution but also allow men to feel good about themselves for having done something.
  • Engaging men in discipleship is far more courageous, time-consuming and inconvenient than church “chores”, which require little or no training.
  • Personalized discipleship entails proactively reaching out to men about taking the next step in their discipleship journey, but men’s ministries or sermons rarely present concrete next steps or clear paths to Christian maturity.

4. Events + …

Multiplication

  • Jesus spoke frequently at gatherings, but they were not organized as events inviting people to come to a designated location.  Instead, they were held spontaneously wherever He went, challenging men to follow Him.
  • Men’s ministry fellowship and outreach events are only multiplicative if they serve as catalysts for year-round discipleship, evangelism and compassion activities by those in attendance.

Addition

  • One-time (fellowship or outreach) events generally do more harm than good, typically intended to drive church loyalty or attendance and therefore not seen as genuinely relational, compassionate or impactful.
  • The “Involve” components of today’s prevailing church growth strategy (Invite/Involve/Invest) consist of church “chores”, small groups and fellowship events.  Each of those is strategically designed to be convenient, fun and “sticky” (keeping men coming back) but they do little to make disciples (the central function of any church).

5. Expect + …

Multiplication

  • Jesus and His disciples are not on record as ever saying “come to a church service” – instead, Jesus said “follow Me”.  That’s an expectation of surrender, a willingness to sell all one owns and give to the poor if asked by the Lord – which the rich young ruler found far too demanding.

Addition

  • Many pastors fear men will choose possessions over God if presented with the challenge to truly surrender, so they settle for asking them to attend, volunteer, share their testimonies and extend invitations to a church service.  Any further expectations (e.g. for discipleship training or making disciples) could drive men and their families to a less demanding church down the road.

6. Empower + …

Multiplication

  • Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit, through whom God works in us and through us His plans to exponentially expand His Kingdom.  The power of the Holy Spirit is released when we surrender and abide in the Father, stepping outside of our comfort zones to make disciples but trusting Him to bear the fruit.

Addition

  • All believers are indwelled by the Holy Spirit but those not following the Great Commission mandate, abdicating that role to trained pastors and missionaries quench the Holy Spirit and the multiplicative power of the Lord’s math.

7. Evolve

Multiplication

  • Jesus modeled multiplication that works from the Inside-Out through disciples with tremendous depth.  Rather than a church-centric model that seeks to convert “crowd to core” through fun events, “core to crowd” builds a solid base of disciples who each invest in making a couple more disciples, eventually reaching the “crowd” through exponential multiplication.
  • Men’s ministries should include a biblical, strategic framework for leading men into a closer relationship with Jesus.  Each activity, role, group and event should contribute intentionally to moving men to down that discipleship path.  For example, a “26.2” structure can reflect that growing in Christ is more like a marathon than a sprint – with a plan built around each “mile”.

Addition

  • Outside-In strategies around promotional events may grow a church (little “c”) but do not promote multiplicative disciple-making (the Church, big “C”).
  • Believers are the heart and definition of church (“assembly of called out ones”), but “crowd to core” strategies revolve around attracting non-believers into a church building rather than producing and sending disciples out.

It’s Your Turn

Are you leading or attending an addition church or a multiplication church?

7 Forks in the Road to Christian Maturity

Oct 03, 18
JMorgan
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On the path to Christian maturity, we arrive at a number of decision points.  Rather than coming to faith, non-believers can reject the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life that Jesus offers.  Rather than becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, many believers would simply prefer salvation without transformation.  Yes, at every turn there are opportunities to veer off the path.

The decision to advance down the road or drive off into the proverbial ditch hinges on the single trait that scripture repeatedly defines as the essence of our faith – humility.  Countless stories in the Bible convey the importance of a person’s humility or arrogance in determining whether they receive healing and blessings or rejection and condemnation.  Pride is the origin of sin – with Satan taking advantage of Adam and Eve’s desire to be like God.  Arrogance drove Pharoah to lead Egypt to the brink of destruction, Goliath to fall and the Pharisees to draw the ire of Jesus Christ.  The Lord’s response to nearly everyone in scriptures and still today is directly related to their humility: “God gives special blessings to those who are humble, but sets himself against those who are proud.” (1 Peter 5:5)

It follows that humility (grounded in love) is the most important trait of a Christian.  It is the very essence of our faith.  Conversely, arrogance does more to separate people from God than anything else.  We have placed our faith in the most powerful yet humble Leader the world has ever known.  God Himself performed the most humble act in world history.  Despite His omnipotence and righteousness, Jesus “though he was God, did not demand and cling to his rights as God, but laid aside his mighty power and glory, taking the disguise of a slave and becoming like men.  And he humbled himself even further, going so far as actually to die a criminal’s death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

“Humble” does not mean what Webster defines as a lowly self-perception.  Instead, it is a realistic understanding of our place relative to God – acknowledging the Lord as our Creator and mankind as His creation.  It is the recognition that we are all equal in terms of our design in God’s image – holding everyone in high esteem as eternal souls (what is unseen) and not judging based on their appearance, behaviors or words (what is seen).

7 Forks in the Road…

The following 7 steps plot the path to becoming a Christian and maturing as a believer.  For each of those steps, humility determines whether someone moves forward, stagnates or jumps off the path entirely:

1. Listen – Humility tolerates alternative or opposing positions, willing to patiently listen to a Gospel presentation and consider its implications. That’s the actual meaning of “tolerance”.

“Pride leads to arguments; be humble, take advice, and become wise.” (Proverbs 13:10)

Veer off the Path: Selfists who dominate mainstream American media and culture see tolerance as the polar opposite – the right to avoid exposure to alternative points of view.  To protect our identity bubbles, Selfists intimidate and ridicule any speech that doesn’t agree with their world view.  Many Christians feel it is becoming more difficult to witness today because fewer are willing to listen.

2. Respond – Humility recognizes the truth about the depths of our depravity and need for a Savior.  It leads those who are humble to investigate the veracity of Christianity, where they will discover that it is unique among the world’s religions.  Only Christianity is Gift-based, believing that God alone holds the keys to eternal life.  God had to reach down to save us because we cannot “earn” our way into heaven.  All other religions are Wage-based – either via legalism where our good must outweigh our bad, or via inner divinity where we seek to discover our own immense power inside of us.

“But those who think themselves great shall be disappointed and humbled; and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)

Veer off the Path:  Even those who see the need for forgiveness and understand that it is only available through Jesus can choose to continue in sin, “enjoy” life and be their own boss.  Rather than humbly turning to God, most seek self-actualization, happiness, health and well-being.  Selfism, the fastest growing “religion” in America, assumes a good human nature where pursuing “what’s in their hearts” will lead to the right decisions – for them.

3. Repent – Only the humble see the enormous gap between our sinful nature and the holiness of almighty God, and bow in submission.  Possessing the humility to Listen to the Gospel message and to Respond by investigating (and concluding that it is true) does not necessarily mean that a person will Repent and turn to God.  Changing one’s thinking and changing one’s behavior are two different things – and repentance requires both.  Giving up old ways starts with humbly confessing that nothing besides Jesus can bridge the otherwise insurmountable divide.

“Then if my people will humble themselves and pray, and search for me, and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear them from heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

Veer off the Path:  Since pride is the essence and origination of sin, then it is pride that causes people to choose sin over repentance.  They reject forgiveness, retain control, give no credit to the Lord, deny their need for a Savior, shut Him out and go on with their lives.  Yet it was God who gave them life itself and all of their abilities and possessions.  They implicitly tell the Lord that He overestimated the cost required to reconcile mankind to Him when He sent His Son to die for us.

4. Accept – Humility is the first prerequisite for accepting God’s grace and starting down the path to becoming a disciple.  Humble is the first word the Lord uses to describe those granted salvation – His followers.  The Sermon on the Mount begins with a long list of those who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven – opening with those who are “humble”.

“Humble men are very fortunate!” he told them, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is given to them”. (Matthew 5:3)

Veer off the Path: Christianity is not an “attractive” religion to a proud, self-absorbed people.  Other religions teach, “We have the answers within us” or “We control our eternal destiny by our actions.”  That’s a far more enticing message than “We’re sinners in dire need of a Savior who must die to ‘self’ and surrender our lives and plans to Jesus”.

5. Obey – Without humility, we won’t confess our sins, repent and exchange our old lives for new ones in Christ.  Once we have accepted Christ as Lord and are indwelled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus is clear in Matthew 7:21-23, Matthew 25:31-46 and in all of his interactions with the Pharisees that He expects His followers to live in line with their beliefs.  We are transformed in an instant in God’s eyes when we are saved and cannot lose our salvation – but was a profession of Christ as Savior authentic if that person goes on sinning without any conscience or regard for the Lord’s commands?  And the greatest of His commands was to love the Lord and love our neighbors.

“Those who belong to Christ have nailed their natural evil desires to his cross and crucified them there.” (Galations 5:24)

Veer off the Path: Many believers subscribe to “cheap grace”, arrogantly believing their salvation is secured and resorting to the “Christian” version of Selfism – looking out for own interests.  They do not follow Jesus’ primary mandate – to love above all else.  They revile non-believers, rarely share their faith, and do very little compassion ministry – yet are eager to show off their knowledge of all things religious, often believing that all those who “know” less are destined for hell.  It was people like them that Jesus shut down at every opportunity for their arrogance.  And it is those same religious elitists who are principally responsible for the public perception today that Christians are more about judgment not justice, condemnation not compassion, self-righteousness not selflessness, and hypocrisy not humility.

6. Serve – Christians should model the grace and mercy that accompanies belief in a God who provided the ultimate depiction of humility.  We can’t love the Lord with all of our hearts, souls and minds or love our neighbors as ourselves unless we humble ourselves before God and our fellow man.  Only when Christians and churches exchange angry words for humble kindness will our impact and influence cease to dissipate.

“But Jesus called them together and said, “Among the heathen, kings are tyrants and each minor official lords it over those beneath him. But among you it is quite different. Anyone wanting to be a leader among you must be your servant.’” (Matthew 20:25-26)

Veer off the Path: Churches were the food bank and homeless shelter for 1900+ years.  But today the average church spends less than 1% of its budget on local missions and only runs occasional outreach events.  Rather than building disciples who reach out compassionately to those in need, dollars have shifted to building institutions.  Church leaders have become hesitant to challenge members to personal discipleship, missions and evangelism – fearing those demands on their time would drive them away.  It is interesting that church plants are more humble and courageous, investing much more in discipleship and compassion, most likely because they have much less to “lose” at inception.

7. Share – Every Christian is called to humbly witness and make disciples, not arrogantly criticize and disparage those who do not believe.  According to recent studies, the words of Christians are driving people away from the Lord, not bringing them closer.  Jesus healed and fed first, then told people who He is, understanding the proper sequencing of Prayer, Care and Share – acting, then speaking.  He knew even His perfect words wouldn’t sink in unless He demonstrated His love first.

“Be humble when you are trying to teach those who are mixed up concerning the truth. For if you talk meekly and courteously to them, they are more likely, with God’s help, to turn away from their wrong ideas and believe what is true.” (2 Timothy 2:25)

Veer off the Path:  In America today, the prevailing church growth model is “Invite, Involve and Invest” or what I call the “rallying cry of the internally-focused church”.  The formula entails elevating pastors to the exclusive role of evangelist and simply asking congregants to invite their friends to church next weekend – largely abdicating their intended roles as the personification of “church” between Sundays.  Worse yet, there is the highly religious “frozen chosen” who see no point in evangelism since God has already decided who is going to be saved.

It’s Your Turn

Do you see any other forks in the road where pride inhibits conversion or stifles growth in Christian maturity?  Are there forks that you or others are facing right now where you see an opportunity to swallow any pride and steer straight?

Saved, but Not Transformed?

Sep 19, 18
JMorgan
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In our last blog post, we debated how the Lord views the importance of behavioral change after accepting Christ as Savior.  Since we are saved by grace alone (which is not up for debate), is growth in Christian maturity: 1) completely necessary, 2) absolutely expected, 3) strongly encouraged, 4) definitely preferred or 5) entirely optional?  If your church does not have a personalized, intensive discipleship program in place with mandatory participation by all members then, whether your leadership knows it or not, it subscribes to either #3, #4 or #5.  But the Lord advocates #1 and #2…

Why Maturity is Not Optional

“Those who are in the realm of the flesh CANNOT please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they DO NOT belong to Christ.” (Romans 8:8-9)

“Whoever tries to keep their life WILL lose it, and whoever loses their life WILL preserve it.” (Luke 17:33)

 “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple MUST deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Matthew 16:24-25)

The words CANNOT, DO NOT, WILL and MUST are not indefinite.  Accepting the challenge of overcoming self-oriented tendencies (by the power of the Holy Spirit) is not a matter of choice.

Scriptures like 2 Peter 1:5-7 also describe dying to self not as a one-time event, but as a process. “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.”  Few go from self-centered living and old ways of thinking to adopting all of the fruits of the Spirit outlined in Galations 5:22-23 overnight.

Yet how could believers not embark on that journey, realizing the magnitude of what Christ endured on the cross on their behalf?  There is no good work or ritual we can perform to ensure (or lose) our salvation, but we have to wonder if someone was ever really saved in the first place if there is no personal transformation.  How could they go on living for self when dying to self is the required response of a disciple?  Discipleship involves discipline – which Hebrews 12 says our Father lovingly doles out to bring His children into obedience in their obligatory struggle against selfishness.

There is also the danger of launching into that process, only to stop at superficial changes.  Jesus issues repeated and disturbing warnings in Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 25:31-46 about the dire fate awaiting those who acknowledge Him as Messiah and perform religious acts, but do not follow His commands.  Their shallow, legalistic alterations in external actions and behaviors did not involve a genuine change of heart.  A Christian may cuss less and volunteer at church more, while pointing at all the “sinners” outside the 4 walls.  Could that be who Jesus considers a modern-day Pharisee, who washes the outside of the cup but inside is full of “self-indulgence”?   The answer is likely yes if that person’s surface-level transformation took place from the outside-in, not the inside-out.

What Does Maturity Look Like?

An objective of any parent is to lead their children to maturity.  In discipling my own son, I’ve plotted a roadmap not just to maturity as a young man but as a Christian.  My 11 year-old loves the Lord, but is still shedding self-centered habits, a process that Paul describes in Romans 7 as a battle that can only be won through Jesus Christ.  This biblical roadmap to Christian maturity applies not only to children like mine, but to any new or even long-time believer:

  1. Pursues Evil – Arrogant, Hypocritical, Selfish, Defiant, Abusive, Vengeful
  2. Unintentional Sin – Unwise, Aimless, Lazy, Obstinate, Closed-Minded, Misguided
  3. Avoids Evil – Recognizes right/wrong, Develops a conscience, Makes better decisions
  4. Desires Change – Seeks to know the Lord, Decides to be obedient, Accepts responsibility
  5. Begins to Care – Concerned and prayerful about the welfare and salvation of others
  6. Discovers Love – Worshipful, Compassionate, Respectful, Authentic
  7. Pursues Good – Loving, Humble, Joyful, Patient, Peaceful, Kind, Gentle, Self-Controlled

A chart outlining this path is posted in my son’s room.  My hope for him is the same as it is for myself and for all Christ-followers – that we would each grow in our appreciation for what Christ did for us and respond accordingly in our actions.  Rather than gradually losing touch with God’s immense grace as we hang around more Christians and begin to “sin” less, that our love for Christ and for others would increase as discipleship enhances our understanding of His love for us.

But unless pastors, seminaries, consultants and other church leaders restore personalized, intensive discipleship within America’s congregations, that understanding and appreciation is more likely to fade than escalate…

Why is Maturity Seen as Optional?

If we adopt the biblical definition of “Church”, then Christians are “insiders”, much more like employees than customers (“outsiders”).  When a company hires a new employee, training is the first priority.  Would a company consider a 30 minute presentation each week to be adequate training?  What if it added weekly group discussions with fellow employees for a few months each year?  Would the combination of those two be enough?  Of course not.  Companies know that proper training for employees entails 1-on-1 mentorship, group classes and on-the-job (OJT), in-the-field experience.

Pastors understand that 1-on-1 and group training classes led by professionals work best in business but consider those too demanding to require of all congregants.  The vast majority of churches draw the line at hoping churchgoers will attend weekly 30 minute sermons and optional small groups rather than training them properly for their role as Christ’s hired workers.  Churches provide few OJT opportunities, instead pitching “chores” that build the institution and acquiesce to the busy schedules of members who have little time for living out Jesus’ model for discipleship and evangelism (i.e. compassionate service as the door opener to sharing the gospel).

The fundamental flaw is not seeing church members as “employees” (i.e. workers engaged by Jesus to live out the Great Commission, paid in heavenly wages and not earthly salaries).  So pastors instead inadvertently treat congregants as “customers”, voluntary participants in “church” who are not on the payroll and therefore must be enticed to return the following week.

Since discipleship is hard work, costly and risky, pastors are reluctant to require it of those they mistakenly view as “outsiders” to attract and retain.  No company can make customers read the owner’s manual (Bible) or share the “good news” (Gospel) about new products as prerequisites for making a purchase – but that’s exactly what churches should be doing.  Companies are careful not to burden customers with excessive demands and must provide excellent customer service.  Likewise churches have become hesitant to impose stringent (discipleship) requirements even on long-time members for fear those “customers” will start looking for another church down the road that will expect less of them.

Lacking proper training, few churchgoers understand the commands of Jesus for personal transformation and are unprepared to be effective ambassadors for Christ – instead, they leave that responsibility to trained professionals (i.e. pastors).  The Church in America is feeling the effects in terms of diminishing attendance, influence, impact and public perception – collateral damage from pews full of believers under-equipped to fulfill the Great Commission (i.e. to pursue the real “customer”, the lost out in the community).

It’s Your Turn

Are too many churches today enabling and content with superficial outside-in changes versus inside-out transformation?

Hidden Steps on the Path to Christian Maturity

Sep 05, 18
JMorgan
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Our last blog post told amazing stories of radical, unconditional love.  However, what was missing from those stories was how they began.  Rich Mullins, Alissa Parker and Andrew Brunson didn’t develop earthshaking faith overnight.

The path to unconditional love begins as the Lord leads us to accept Jesus as our Savior.  The road to our conversion may be long or short, but it doesn’t end there.  In fact, it’s only the beginning.  The sanctification process that follows our justification could last a lifetime and will be filled with speedbumps and potholes along the way.  Each challenge we face is meant for our good, intended to mold and shape us into Christ’s image as we’re refined in the fire of life.  Yes, it is our holiness and not our prosperity that God seeks and speaks of in Romans 8:28, one of the Bible’s most oft-quoted yet widely-abused verses.

In God’s immense love, He lays out and pushes us down a path to maturity in Christ through His Holy Spirit.  Many believers never move very far down that path, opting for “cheap grace” by repeating the Sinner’s prayer but not following the Lord’s commands to obey, love and make disciples.  Many churches permit congregants to persist in that disobedience to the Great Commandment and Great Commission (GC2) by not illuminating the full path to Christian maturity.  In the name of church growth, afraid to push congregants outside their comfort zones, church leaders put members at risk of standing to Jesus’ left with the “goats” on Judgment Day.

Only pastors truly involved in building disciples who worship the Lord unreservedly and serve others compassionately (possibly at the expense of short-term church growth) do their best to ensure those entrusted to their care will stand to Jesus’ right with the other faithful “sheep”.  Unfortunately, pastors mischaracterizing God’s love as a one-way street of grace and forgiveness with little expectation of reciprocity or accountability may grow their headcount but aren’t counting (proverbial) “sheep”.

Yes, we are saved by God’s grace – but how we act, particularly toward our brothers and sisters in Christ, demonstrates the sincerity of our confession.  Christ loves us, literally to death, but the Lord is a righteous and jealous God.  In His righteousness He had to pass judgement on sin; in His love He made a way for us through the sacrifice of His own Son.  In His love He provided the path to holiness though His Holy Spirit; in His righteousness He judges those who choose not to pursue that path and cheapen the price He paid for our forgiveness.

First Steps on the Path to Maturity

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

Those are not the lifetime batting averages or career rushing yards of those enshrined in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11.  Those are not descriptions of the radical, unconditional love we illustrated in our last blog post.  Those are the essentials, or baby steps, down the path to Christian maturity.  Those are what “sheep” do – evidence that a new believer is beginning to move past milk and ready for solid food.  Those who haven’t yet begun intentionally caring for fellow believers are not ready to graduate to the next steps on the lengthy path toward the Hall of Faith.

Often the early part of that path involves a small step of faith.  Although some do come to know Jesus, sell everything and head immediately into the mission field, most on this journey of sanctification start by doing simple Sheep-like things.  As they take that first step, they see Jesus show up in powerful ways, blessing their work to bear fruit.  Like Elijah, who obeyed and saw God perform miracle after miracle, we must continue taking steps in our walk with the Lord if we want to see God’s hand at work.  If we march ahead in obedience, gradually our love and faith will grow to the point where we’re willing one day to challenge the prophets of Baal like Elijah, give away the clothes off our back like Rich Mullins or endure years of persecution like Andrew Brunson.

Few Churches Light the Whole Path

Why aren’t there more Rich Mullins, Andrew Brunsons and others worthy of the Hall of Faith today in America’s churches?  Those individuals were willing to trudge down the path against seemingly insurmountable obstacles and odds, undeterred because they were always looking up at the Lord and looking ahead to their heavenly reward.

Yet most churches in America today don’t equip or empower members to move beyond the first “baby steps”.  Nearly all emphasize the Matthew 25 basics of caring for those inside the church.  Every church pushes “church chores” like serving as greeters or ushers.  But they overemphasize internal tasks, rarely pointing out external opportunities farther down the maturity path.  Therefore, our gaze becomes fixed inward, only seeing immediate needs within the 4 walls of a church and not upward and outward (like those in the Hall of Faith).

By limiting outlets for leveraging our spiritual gifts, lay leaders often develop a false sense that they’ve completed the entire path to spiritual maturity by faithfully serving on church committees.  Yes, some have the gift of administration, but we are all called to the Great Commission.  I fear many elders and deacons have served at a church for 20+ years but never led someone to Christ.  I fear many churchgoers hardly miss a Sunday but have not once told a non-believer about Jesus.  Of course, serving our church and fellow members is commendable and biblical, but if the objective of that work is building an institution versus building disciples, then we remain stuck at the “baby steps” stage.

But the road doesn’t end there…

Illuminating Hidden Steps on the Path

Churches that do not highlight and encourage pursuit of the full path to Christian maturity (i.e. making disciples who make disciples) may be liable for laying out a path that leads into a ditch.  It’s easy to grow complacent and self-righteous as we spend more time around church people doing church things.  We can become less thankful for grace than when we first believed as we cuss less and serve at the church more.  As time goes on within churchdom, many become less prayerful and less inclined to take the Gospel out to non-believers, losing touch with the desperation they once felt for a Savior (back when they were in that same position).  Instead of driving down the path to maturity, they gradually disconnect from unconditional love, throwing their cars into reverse.

The rest of the path to Christian maturity beyond confession and basic “Sheep-tending” is rooted in obedience.  Obedience, love and discipleship are joined at the hip.  Jesus states plainly in John 14 that “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.… Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching”.  His greatest commandments are to love God and all of mankind.  For a church to help members move along the maturity process, its leaders must abandon catering to church consumers and challenge them to love unconditionally and obey recklessly.  We are all called to surrender our lives to Jesus like Rich Mullins, Alissa Parker and Andrew Brunson.  Anyone content with cultural Christianity must be presented with the reality that Jesus expects much more of them.  He demands personal growth and not just church growth.  Believers ARE the personification of church, so they bear responsibilities between Sundays for BEING the Church.  Yet only a small percentage of churchgoers serve actively in external ministry or share their faith regularly.

The decision to stop catering and start challenging a congregation to obey GC2 risks a mass exodus of fence-sitters and “goats”.  Although the road to long-term church growth runs through disciple-making, few pastors can stomach the short-term loss that it brings.  Being the first out of the gate is scary, particularly for an established church with high fixed costs, when there are alternatives down the street that still demand far less of their members.

So as a result we have far too many “elementary school” and “high school” level churches in America offering only “milk” and not the full path to Christian maturity.  Few churches provide a “collegiate” or “masters” level education.  Those in “high school” aren’t ready to be effective in the workforce.  The occupation of a Christian is GC2 , but how can those who aren’t yet disciples make disciples?

For those mature enough to move down the path past “high school”, remedial churches typically cling to those individuals rather than “graduating” them, providing limited options for growth and service beyond internal ministries.  However, truly transformed individuals likely will not repeat Christianity 101 over and over again, soon seeking a richer experience once they hit a church’s “educational” ceiling.  Those worthy of the Hall of Faith, who would die for their faith and endure torture before renouncing it, won’t leave higher levels of spiritual maturity to full time church workers.  Yet they struggle to find a church illuminating the full path to Christian maturity because programs, facilities, staff and amenities cater to seekers and immature believers, diverting valuable resources away from potential investments in starting “college” and “graduate” level programs for discipleship and (external and internal) service.

It’s Your Turn

Are a high percentage of your church’s members so on fire for the Lord that would leave behind their careers and wealth if called into local or international missions?

More like Christ and less “Christian”

Aug 22, 18
JMorgan
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2 comments

In our last post, How Churches Enable Conditional Love we began to paint the portrait of a person who loves like Jesus.  What does it look like to demonstrate a love so radical that the world would consider you “odd for God”?

If being a “Jesus freak” means I’m so filled with the Holy Spirit that I take WWJD to its literal and logical extreme, then count me in.  If it’s my fanatical love that fulfills the promise made in John 15 and John 17 that the world will hate me, sign me up.  But if that hatred of me stems from the prevailing perception of most Christians, that I’m legalistic and judgmental – then shame on me.

Jesus beautifully portrays the pure, unconditional love we should seek to emulate.  No one possesses enough “goodness” to replicate the unadulterated, Agape love He modeled, but through the power of Christ in us, we can do what is humanly impossible…

1. Doing what you hate most for those who can’t return the favor

The undefiled sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross was unblemished by any concern about self-preservation – driven only by unfathomable love and desire to redeem a world that had almost universally rejected His Father.

Few defy natural fight-or-flight impulses in the face of extreme danger.  Andrew Brunson, an American pastor currently imprisoned in Turkey under false charges of trying to overthrow the government, stood his ground and resisted the urge to flee.  He has publicly forgiven his captors and accusers.  At every opportunity, Pastor Brunson is glorifying God, sharing the Gospel and professing that “It is a privilege to suffer for the sake of Christ.”

2. So much empathy for those suffering that you can’t sit still and watch

Jesus desires compassion even more than sacrifice (Matthew 9:13)  Paul’s definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13 begins with “patient” and “kind”.  Jesus went well out of His way and endured countless “inconvenient interruptions” to heal nearly every ailing person that believed He had the ability to restore them to health.

Rich Mullins wrote one of the most popular praise and worship songs of our time, “(Our God is an) Awesome God”, and had the opportunity to pocket millions, but donated nearly every dollar to charity.  Rich was known to literally give the shirt off his back and the shoes on his feet to anyone in need.  He walked away at the height of his fame to teach music to children on a Native American reservation.  For Rich Mullins love was not just an emotion, it was a genuine concern for others that drove him to unimaginably compassionate actions.

3. Forgiving egregious personal affronts without any hope of an apology

1 Corinthians goes on to describe love as keeping “no record of wrongs”.  No man has had license or occasion to forgive as many offenses against Himself as Christ.  Betrayed by His closest friends, rejected by those He came to save, executed unjustly by priests entrusted with the prophesies He fulfilled, Jesus marched forward unwaveringly and undeterred to His predetermined fate.

Alissa and Robbie Parker’s daughter Emilie was in 1st grade at Sandy Hook Elementary School when she was coldly murdered by a crazed gunman.  Emilie’s parents embodied Jesus’ words in Luke 6:27-36, not only forgiving the perpetrator but launching a national ministry, writing a book and starting a blog to help others experience faith, hope and healing in the face of unspeakable tragedy. 

4. Seeking the welfare of the most unsavory character you know

Jesus eagerly pursued tax collectors and prostitutes.  He turned the tables on the self-righteous, directing His ire at them and not at those they were condemning.

The mission of CREATED is to “restore vulnerable women involved in the sex industry to an understanding of their value, beauty and destiny in Jesus Christ”.  CREATED treats the seemingly dishonorable with dignity – looking beyond actions that incite either lust or ridicule to see a soul made in God’s image, more desperate for a Savior than those standing in judgment of their disreputable behavior.

These people are weird – for Christ.  It would be unsettling if the Lord expected that kind of radical love of all His followers.  I contend that He does…

Less Religious and More Godly…

Being more like Christ and less “Christian” is the path for believers to become known as more joyful than judgmental, compassionate than condemning, and hopeful than hypocritical.  As shown above in the 4 Agape examples, we can love like Jesus.  But as we discussed in our last blog post, it will require a significant departure from prevailing church growth models.

Equipping congregations to love unconditionally and putting an end to cultural Christianity will entail…

  1. Praying fervently for the power of the Holy Spirit to fill each believer, because Agape is only possible through Christ in us
  2. Teaching church members to see people as souls made in God’s image so we can stop judging others based on appearances and actions
  3. Developing an aggressive plan to grow believers beyond conversion into disciples of Jesus Christ
  4. Redefining “church” as people and not a place, putting responsibility back on congregants for being the personification of “church” between Sundays
  5. Fighting the culture war in America with a “ground war” (with love as the chosen weapon) rather than the current “air war” (of opinions and politics)
  6. Reallocating time, talents and treasures toward uses that emphasize not only love for those who love us, but also love for those who may not like us
  7. No longer counting heads but tracking transformation, evangelism and community impact

The challenge of reversing course in those 7 ways, eliminating man-made religion and restoring Christ-likeness, is complicated by the loss of access to churchgoers today.  In an effort to cater to busy schedules and retain members, pastors have made church more convenient and comfortable – conditioning congregants to give less of their valuable time to discipleship and disciple-making, the primary prerequisites for learning to love like Jesus.  Modern adaptations and conventions for running institutional “church” have modified and misdirected love, steering it toward a lower level of commitment than Jesus modeled or intended.

It’s Your Turn…

Please share a story of radical, fanatical love you’ve witnessed in your community.

How Churches Enable Conditional Love

Aug 08, 18
JMorgan
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2 comments

Part 2 of 2

Loving those who hate you is weird.  Praying for the welfare of your worst enemy is strange.  Forgiving the drunk driver who kills your daughter is highly abnormal.  Yet that’s exactly what Jesus tells us to do.

The question is – are churches in America today providing the path to become “weird” for Christ?  Are our pews filled with “weirdos”?

Anyone who bucks cultural norms is apt to be ridiculed.  Yet studies show that it’s not our radical, agape love that’s fueling the declining public perception of Christianity.  Instead, surveys confirm what is readily observable in the mainstream media – that Christians are perceived as unusually legalistic and judgmental.

While John 17 says the world will always hate Christians, it is possible to change the media’s characterization of Christians from “hateful” to “loving” and “compassionate”.  For example, in the days of the early church, the Roman emperor Julian had to acknowledge, “The [Christian faith] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”

No, the first word non-believers think of when asked to describe a Christian does not have to be “legalistic” or “judgmental”.  Yet the processes and conventions in churches today contribute to that unfortunate word association.  Christ-followers could be universally known for being “weird” for much better reasons – like putting others first, serving the poor, abject humility, and loving those who hate them.  However, that will require significant departure from prevailing church growth models…

Formula for Enabling Conditional Love =

1. Looking Like the World + …

As we discussed a few weeks ago, culture has changed the Church more than the Church has shaped culture.  By definition, conforming the way we run churches to fit accepted norms produces cultural Christians, not social outliers (for Christ).  Churches advertise and offer adaptations to the framework we see for church in the Bible to accommodate an increasingly time-constrained and demanding society:

  • Comfort – Design environment around creating an experience
  • Convenience – Shorter commitment around weekend service
  • Community – Social structure around small groups (fellowship vs. intensive discipleship)
  • Control – Centralized definition of “church” around a place and pastor
  • Counts – Measuring “success” around near-term conversions, attendance and giving
  • Compassion – Focusing initiatives around holiday, church-branded “outreaches”

None of those cultural conventions are non-conforming enough to birth non-conformists.

2. Yet, Promising Something Different + …

The increasing number of “Dones”, including youth not returning to church after adolescence, speaks to missed expectations.  People are smart.  Churchgoers see through cheap imitations of what Christ intended and lose faith – not in Him but in church as we know it.

  • They expected to find unconditional love (which would be “weird”), but instead see attempts to give the appearance of love, like friendly greeters (which is actually quite normal)
  • They expected life transformation (which would be “weird”), but instead see a bar set at conversion with no options for personal discipleship
  • They expected the supernatural (which would be “weird”), but instead encountered strategies and programs modeled after the natural, like attractional children’s ministries
  • They expected real community engagement (which would be “weird”), but instead were offered occasional service projects that have negligible social impact

Those with deep relationships with Jesus will not be satisfied at a church that does not deliver on its biblical promises.  They’ll quickly see through the majority of pastors who teach that believers must come to church for discipleship, but then do not offer true discipleship programs.

3.  Then, Treating the World as “Outsiders”

Yes, churches following the prevailing church growth model in America today (i.e. Invite, Involve and Invest) are designed around worldly concepts yet claim to be nothing like the world.  You likely see the irony of the first two parts of the equation – but it gets worse.

With fewer attending church regularly and giving per capita decreasing, efforts to grow and sustain a church typically involve internal and external brand promotion.  The result of “I love my church” campaigns and congregants wearing church t-shirts for outreach events incites an implicit “us versus them” mentality.  In other words, intentional efforts to market an institutional church encourages an unintended distant stance and a public perception of judgmentalism.  As brand marketing inadvertently defines church as a place and not as people, loyalty to the church increases for saved “insiders”, but their sense of personal responsibility to reach unsaved “outsiders” diminishes.  “Insiders” band together in their belief systems and political positions, unwittingly aligning against “outsiders” who don’t agree with them – and as a result feel left out.

Rather than acting like “weirdos” and loving those who hate them, church loyalists typically ignore the Great Commission, in effect treating non-believers like the “weirdos” by substituting passive invitations to a church service for proactive evangelism and discipleship.

Equipping Congregations to Love Unconditionally

A return to the biblical model for church, which naturally creates “weirdos”, is not complicated – but would be quite painful for a church entrenched in the status quo:

  1. Pray fervently for the power of the Holy Spirit, who is rarely mentioned in most churches, to fill each believer – because the real battle is not against people but against the powers of darkness that work against the souls of men and women
  2. Teach church members to see people as souls so we can stop judging others based on appearances and actions, which makes us undervalue non-believers, overemphasize distinctions, and reduces the impetus to share our faith
  3. Develop an aggressive plan to grow believers beyond conversion into disciples of Jesus Christ, who inherently see everyone as souls made in God’s image with eternal value
  4. Redefine “church” as people and not a place, putting responsibility back on congregants for being the personification of “church” between Sundays
  5. Fight the culture war in America with a “ground war” (with love as the chosen weapon) rather than the current “air war” (of opinions and politics)
  6. Reallocate time, talents and treasures toward uses that emphasize not only love for those who love us, but also love for those who may not like us – such as utilizing the church building for ESL classes for Muslim refugees, recovery programs for opioid addicts, support groups for parents of troubled teens, and compassion efforts for local widows
  7. Stop counting heads and start tracking transformation, evangelism and community impact

Only when Christians and churches adopt these biblical strategies will society see us as “weirdos”, not because we’re legalistic and judgmental, but because we love and forgive unconditionally.

It’s Your Turn…

Do you know of a church that is producing strange, abnormal Christians who turn the other cheek, treat the dishonorable with dignity, and desperately pursue lost souls?