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Salvation — One Soul at a Time
10/15/2014 9:02:57 PM
 
It’s a really big world, isn’t it? I mean, when you think of the more than seven billion people who populate our planet and all the issues they deal with on a daily basis, it really gives you pause.
 
Like you, I can do only so much. But I am often reminded of the fact that probably two-thirds of the world’s population do not know Jesus, and the effort to change that figure is a real step of faith. How do we make a difference? One soul at a time.
 
I can’t say for sure, but I’ve heard that in North America, in a given year, one-half of our churches do not receive even one new member into their fellowship by a “profession of faith.” Could that be true? What is it like in your fellowship? Is anyone getting saved? Do we still even ask that question? Do we preach for conversion? Do we give people an opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior? Have we become so contemporary that the altar is too much of a threat to people? Does it make our church crowd uncomfortable?
 
Oh, I know times have changed, but have words like conviction, repentance, surrender, and confession lost their significance? It is at the foot of the cross that salvation is granted. Is anybody being saved in your world? I pray so!
 
The film, The Passion of the Christ, made an indelible impression on me. I walked away from it not wanting to talk to anyone. I wanted to be alone to reflect upon God’s love for me and the suffering our Lord endured to show that love. When Jesus died, He died with my name — your name, all names — on His lips. That’s the “whoever” in John 3:16.
 
I sometimes wonder if there is any urgency in our preaching anymore. This month could very well be an excellent time for intentional evangelism. Please, my colleague, give your people the opportunity to receive Christ. Sins must be forgiven. “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
 
The fields are ripe for harvest — and the harvest is plentiful (John 4:35; Matthew 9:37). The time for evangelism is now. I cannot help but recall the account of Jesus as He went from village to village: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). We must not settle for anything less than a renewed interest in and an intense burden for the millions who are lost.
 
The danger: There is complacency among those who do believe. In 2004, less than one-half of all born-again Christians shared their faith with a nonbeliever. Do you consider that acceptable? We need to change some hearts!
 
Jesus said, ‘‘As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 10:7). Paul said, “By all means, save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22, KJV).
 
I do want to recognize that this is Clergy Appreciation Month. I hope your people are making a fuss over you and your family and your staff. You deserve it. But I imagine that most of your people are believers in the atoning death and resurrection of Christ — the most important message you could be instilling in them. And most of them are concerned and are praying for someone they know who does not believe in Jesus as their personal Savior. They pray for salvation and they look to you for help and an example. The most critical thing you could do as their pastor is to preach Christ crucified and risen again.
 
A report from the Southern Baptists some years back indicated that most of their pastors still gave an altar call or extended an invitation at the end of their sermons. I think it is still true. The purpose: for people to accept Christ or renew their commitment to Him. Do you use the altar area for such purposes?
 
I grew up in an environment where the altar area was used much like the “mourner’s bench” in Methodism. As a pastor, I used that area for evangelism, but also for times of emotional and physical healing. I don’t see that as much in today’s churches as I used to. I wonder why.
 
If we do not give people an opportunity to seek God in a safe and quiet place, at what point in their lives will they? Do you make an attempt to “close the deal,” so to speak, or just leave it up to chance? More people would turn to Christ if someone would just ask them to.
 
Personally, I think many people are frightened by the altar area. One way to overcome that is by using it as a place of prayer during the service — not only for those who are seeking, but for those who just need to feel closer to God and receive the support of a church family … as long as it is a safe place.
 
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).
 
“God looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God” (Psalm 53:2).

Your Identity
9/15/2014 8:24:50 PM
 
Let’s start with a little history and linguistics, just for fun.  
 
An “aphorism” is an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic (concise) and memorable form. Aphorism literally means a “distinction” or “definition”. The term was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. The term was later applied to maxims of physical science, then statements of all kinds of philosophical, moral, or literary principles. In modern usage an aphorism is generally understood to be a concise statement containing a subjective truth or observation cleverly and pithily written. Thus, an aphorism is a noun meaning a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation  a maxim.
 
The Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” (Greek: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, transliterated: gnōthi seauton; or also σαυτόν — sauton with the ε contracted) is one of the Delphic maxims and was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, according to the Greek periegetic (travelogue) writer Pausanias (10.24.1). [Are you impressed?]
 
I’ve often wondered if you can be successful or joyful in life if you don’t know yourself. If you really don’t know yourself, how can you “to your own self be true”?   How do you know your own identity?
 
One way is to remember that our lives in Christ are identifiable. People can see what our values are — how we face a crisis, the way we treat our families, how we relate to the awesome commands of God, and where our priorities are placed. So what would others say of you? “He is faithful! Moral! Full of integrity! Prayerful! Humble! Obedient! Devout! Committed to his family!” Or maybe a combination of these things?
 
Or would they describe you in less flattering terms? “He is arrogant. Prideful. Stubborn. Difficult.” Regardless, you have identifying characteristics and a “great cloud of witnesses.” My colleague — what identity will you leave behind?
 
I am moved by the one who wrote: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
 
Let me ask you a very personal question. Have you ever awakened early on a Monday morning with the thought, “I wonder how long I can keep doing what I’m doing?” Have you ever scripted a resignation letter in your head, but never got around to writing it? How are you feeling about yourself and your assignment today?
 
In my work with pastors, I have found the following to be true:
(1) We need to see progress.
(2) We need to be allowed to dream new dreams.
(3) We need to be around positive people rather than negative thinkers.
(4) We need times of rest and restoration.
(5) We must have the support of our families.
(6) We need to be able to relate in a positive way to colleagues.
(7) We need periods of personal revival to see us through the dark times.
(8) We want to be seen as change agents.
The list could go on.
 
When you think about what we do, it becomes obvious that ministry is not for cowards. Are you able to fulfill the mandate of your call and, also, are you using your gifts effectively? I know it’s a lot to think about, but it is really vital if you are to know yourself and enjoy what God has called you to do.
 
“But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).

Living in Peace
8/15/2014 5:21:15 PM
Air strikes in Gaza City - July 2014 
The news recently has been filled with horrible things. The Middle East is a mess once again, teetering on the brink of a regional war that would surely draw in numerous world powers. In our own United States, racial tensions have again produced demonstrations and stand-offs that have everyone crying, “Foul.” In our homes, family members continue to battle one another as if there weren’t greater enemies outside our walls. In our own hearts, we face very real struggles that continue to feel as if they will never end. We need peace, real peace, the peace of God that goes far beyond our own understanding.
 
I ponder the words of Jeremiah, who cried out, “‘Peace, peace’ ... when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6: 14). Why is peace so elusive? Why do we struggle so for it in our homes, churches, and among people who are determined to destroy one another?
Gaza War victims - 2014 
Many years before Jesus came, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah wrote that a child was to be born who would be called the Prince of Peace. Jesus would later say, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
 
We experience His peace as we commune with the Father and the Son in love. How many times have you prayed for peace with a hospital patient or someone who has lost a loved one? What were you praying? Probably that the situation might be surrendered to the One who loved them and had the answers to their suffering and sorrow; that as you prayed and they surrendered, there would be a lifting of heaviness, a realization that someone had entered their personal world with a divine presence.
Ferguson riots - 2014 
May I offer a simple but heartfelt opinion? Peace, wherever it is sought, will never be the result of negotiations or pressure. It will happen because of men and women who actively seek peace and in whose hearts rage, anger, resentment, and revenge are forbidden. Outside the influence and motivation of the Prince of Peace, we will never find it. The Bible says, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
 
We become instruments of His peace as we pray the prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.”
 
In a world like ours, I doubt if peace among men will ever be a reality — especially in these last days — but personal peace is possible and attainable through our faith in Jesus Christ. We live in a fallen world controlled on the human level by sinful men. That combination rejects the peace that Jesus offers, but there is the promise of perfect peace. It comes by emptying our minds of fear, anxiety, and bitterness, and by allowing the presence of God to fill us where dismay and doubt exist.
 
In all our suffering, there is the assurance echoed in Hebrews 13:5, originally from Deuteronomy 31:6: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” That is the atmosphere of peace I am talking about. The assurance of His love, His presence, His direction, His understanding of your situation, and His willingness to become involved in your life as though you were the only one He had to care for. The challenge is in the surrendering, isn’t it? In the letting go.
 
As you preach and teach about peace, may you experience that same peace in your own life.
 
“Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:2).
 
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body, you were called to peace. And be thankful” (Colossians 3:15).
 
In so many ways, our hope for any kind of lasting peace begins with you and your relationship with your God. “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight” (Matthew 5:9, MSG).

A Healthy Church
7/15/2014 9:28:41 PM
 
For the past couple of decades, it seems that there has been a greater emphasis in our society on health than there was in the past. For example, there are a number of recent and current TV programs and specials featuring doctors and other experts promoting healthy eating, proper fitness, and general well-being. Then there are those countless cooking shows and contests on the various food-oriented networks that seem determined to wreck any healthy intentions we might have with some of the most amazing and delectable taste temptations anyone could imagine.
 
The church is similar. While there are a lot of folks promoting the concepts that we can utilize to get our churches healthy and to keep them healthy, there are others emphasizing the competitive aspects of church life that perhaps point us in the wrong directions. As pastors, which messages should we be listening to and incorporating into our congregations?
 
In his book, Excellent Protestant Congregations, author Paul Wilkes identifies 311 excellent congregations — of every type and style — determined from research over a two-year period. He lists the factors that he feels describe “excellent” churches:
  • Evidence of a “joyful spirit”
  • Awareness of members’ diversity
  • Welcoming attitude toward all in the church community
  • Emphasis on true spirituality and a deep personal relationship with God
  • Innovative and thoughtful worship
  • Collaborative decision making among pastor, leaders, and lay members
  • Awareness of Christian tradition
  • Scripture-based teaching and preaching
  • Confrontation of real problems with members and the church’s community
How does your church match up with Mr. Wilkes’ criteria? Do the results of the analysis concern you and your pastoral team? Would you add or remove anything from Wilkes’ list? Would you change anything in your church?
 
For several years now, as I have written and traveled across the country, I have been preaching a message of “church health.” I believe every body of believers can be healthy if they are willing to look honestly at themselves. The above guidelines might be a start! No matter how God leads you, my prayer for you is a healthy congregation.
 
May I, therefore, suggest a few guidelines of my own for assessing the health of a congregation of any size? Healthy churches are/have:
 
  1. Biblically based. Do your congregation members have a clear understanding of what they believe, why they believe it, and substantial information to assist them in defending their faith? 
  1. Mutually concerned. Do your people genuinely care for one another? Is it obvious to others? 
  1. Socially connected. Church is fellowship as much as it is a formal worship service. Is there a sense of family among your people? 
  1. Community saturated. Are you aware of the day-to-day decisions that are made in your community that affect its school system, social programs, and overall moral climate? Are you and your congregation members actively involved? 
  1. Financially stable. The church that is fiscally responsible will be able to weather any situation. Study and use biblical principles. 
  1. A clearly understood vision. Every church needs to know who it is, what its calling is, and how it will be directed to meet the challenge of the future. 
  1. A positive outlook. See yourself as God sees you — full of potential and planted for a purpose. 
I’m sure there are many other “good health indicators” for churches of any size, but I urge you to consider these, then add your own ideas to the mix. One thing I know: Christianity needs you to make your ministry meaningful and to help change the way pastors and laypeople alike look at the church of Jesus Christ.
 
“The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).
 
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46).

A Life of Personal Holiness
6/17/2014 8:44:36 PM
 
Most of us, I trust, would agree that the Lord expects each of us who believes in and follows Him to live our lives differently than we did before we accepted Him, and differently than those around us who are non-believers. What He expects is a life of personal holiness, sacredness, perfection — just like He is.
 
Now, He also realizes that none of us is able to do that. He expects and would love to see us live exactly as He wishes, but He recognizes our sinful nature and limitations. He made us, after all. Even with Jesus standing in the gap for us — providing reconciliation for us failing Him — we are going to make mistakes until we eventually enter eternity.
  
That being said, however, He still expects each of us to try our best to be personally holy. Once we have done our best, He will make up for the rest. Oh, He is likely to tolerate an effort that is less than our best, but there are several parables and scriptures that would suggest He would not be pleased with anything short of everything we have to give. In other words, no “well dones.”
 
“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:3-4).
 
A life of personal holiness is not easy. But it is important — for the Christian himself, for those he encounters today, and for those whose lives he might someday touch.
 
Even the best and the brightest of our colleagues often fall prey to the attacks of Satan. When that happens, precious lives are left in ruins, promising ministries are destroyed, and priceless future opportunities for sharing God’s love are lost. The cost is too high.
 
There is only one preventative course to take: Stay very close to our Lord. Admit to Him your weaknesses and surrender to Him your fears ... and then flee. Flee every form of evil, and take yourself out of harm’s way.
 
A message I once gave was titled “There Is an ‘I’ in Integrity.” The three points in the message were wrapped around three words: CHARACTER, INTEGRITY, and MOTIVATION. It is like a three-legged stool. You lose one leg, and the whole piece of furniture will collapse. For instance:
 
♦ CHARACTER — “Who you are.” We were created to be like God. Your character is composed of the attributes that determine who you are — in public and in private.
 
♦ INTEGRITY — “How you live.” There is a code of moral and ethical values that you accept and apply to your everyday life.
 
♦ MOTIVATION — “What influences you.” Why do you do what you do? Where do you find your value system? What are your priorities? Who do you attempt to please? Jesus made it very clear: We are to “love the Lord your God” with all of our being, and also love His creation.
 
Psalm 15 is a marvelous reminder of who God honors: “He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous” (Psalm 15:2).
 
“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

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