Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Are We Preaching A Sufficient Gospel?

I fully realize that there are many ways to try to quantify and assess church growth and health. However, in many circles it is done through numbers--baptisms, attendance, Sunday School, giving, etc. Some of them raise questions, some of the questions are never asked.

A story of the growth of a rural church was carried in a recent denominational publication. I am going to try to change the numbers some so as not to identify the publication, the article or the church, but not so much that they will fail to capture my point. It raises, or better, fails to raise a very significant question.

A season of growth began in this church 16 years ago. Their attendance was under 50. In the last three years, they have baptized 324 people. The current attendance is 425. Anyone see a problem here?

This is not the graph from the church in this blog
Here is a deadly serious question the church should be asking (if I was pastor, I would be asking it of my preaching): if the gospel we preach and invite people to respond to is not producing lasting results of discipleship, were the hundreds of professions over 16 years of people that cannot be found legitimate? Are we lulling people into a false security? Have we lowered the bar too low? The gospel that Jesus preached didn't have many false professions; it had people who followed hard or turn away because the path was too hard.

The gospel is not complicated, nor are we called to make it that way. However, the road that leads to salvation is straight, narrow, and difficult, and we are called to issue a clear message of followership that includes genuine repentance, self-denial, cross-bearing, obedience, and radical savoring, treasuring, and loving Jesus Christ. Is your church seeing baptisms, is a question that should be asked. Are those baptized taking up their cross, this question is only rarely asked, and even more seldom addressed if the answer is no.

We must begin asking that question, lest we go down with churches that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nazi-imprisoned pastor, said were feasting on the carcasses of cheap grace.

" We Lutherans have gathered like the eagles around the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ…What had happened to all those warnings of Luther's against preaching the gospel in such a manner as to make men rest secure in their ungodly living?  Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Evangelical Church." (p. 54}

"This cheap grace has been no less disastrous to our own spiritual lives. . .  Instead of calling us to follow Christ, it has hardened us in our disobedience. . .  Having laid hold on cheap grace, they were barred for ever from the knowledge of costly grace.  Deceived and weakened, men felt that they were strong now that they were in possession of this cheap grace – whereas they had in fact lost the power to live the life of discipleship and obedience.  The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works."

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Leaving a Legacy

In 2002 I spoke on the phone with Fred. We talked about the situation at what was becoming Living Stone Community Church. We had a mission team coming up that summer from SC. When the mission team came, and I was in Maine, I stayed with Fred and Harriet. I met PC (the cat), and was introduced to sleeping in the middle of summer with no air conditioner and the windows up. I was also introduced to lobster rolls (homemade ones). It was then that my relationship with Fred Osgood began to grow.

As a 26 year-old first time pastor, I was as green as they come. I had no idea what I was doing, but God provided a man to take me under his wing and pour his life into me in a way that would change me forever. Among the three spiritual fathers in the Lord that God has given me, this is the first has has received his heavenly reward. However, I know it is vast, because Fred loved Jesus so dearly, and worked for Him so diligently.

I remember when he and Marshall (Mashall, as he would say it; sometimes Erika would have him say things three times before she could translate from South Georgia to Mainer) would come to the church and shovel snow, or clean, or anything else that was necessary. They were doing that one day while I was doing an interview with the Portland Press Herald reporter, and the reporter spoke to Fred, and Fred replied, "have you ever been born again?" And thus the article entitled, "Born Again Church" written in the spring of 2003, and brought us much over the next four years.

So how did he make such an impact on my life in four years? He helped bring me to Living Stone. I still remember he, Erika, and I sitting in the pews of the church before we started (had a picture, wish I could find it). Those old pews made in about 1901, that weren't screwed down to the floor. Every Sunday he stood at the back of  the church greeting people coming in and going out with a smile and a hug that no one could resist from a white-bearded old man. He warned me about pastoral errors that I was about to make, then turned around the next day and apologized for the warning, saying that I was the pastor, and for me to do what I felt needed to be done. He raced cottonballs with children at VBS. He went on every evangelistic outreach we had. He helped me learn to do baptisms and communion. He went and helped me practice visitation, and counseling, and church discipline. He became one of the elders at the church. He prayed for Erika and I so faithfully. He taught classes. He let the prayer ministry. He built bookshelves, and sofa tables, and gave me a 1900 printing of the Expositor's Bible Commentary. And maybe most importantly, he modeled Jesus for me. At home, in the family, in past jobs, etc., he lived like Jesus.

And all that was after he had passed 75 years old. I am much indebted to this man for the discipling that he did in my life, probably more than I will ever know on this side of eternity. The last time that I was with him and Harriet, we ate lobster rolls together with the family, afterwards we talked and visited. Then he called me and my girls over to him. He got down on one knee ever so slowly and carefully. Then he reached out with his hands and set them upon my daughters' heads, and bestowed a blessing in prayer that God would use them in a mighty way and show great mercy on them.They didn't fully understand the significance, but I did, and I will never forget.

I am so thankful for the privilege to have known such a man, and had his hand on my life. If I could leave the legacy that he left to his family, to many churches, to many disciples, I would be honored.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What Happened To Philanthropy?

I've had the privilege to visit the historic district of Georgia's oldest city in the last couple of weeks. We learned lots of history about all the events, happenings, and people that lived in Savannah over the last 282 years, beginning with those 114 men who got off at what would be the port of Savannah with George Oglethorpe in 1733. Things really got rolling about the time the Revolutionary War was beginning, and the upper class was really separating themselves out and exerting their prominence among the peoples of Savannah. Architecture, pirates, affairs, plantations, monuments, and memorials, we learned and saw it all. As I reflect on it, one thing stood out that we don't see as much of today: philanthropy.

There were families, widows, plantation owners, political leaders, prominent men etc. that donated houses, lands, moneys, or whole estates to the city of Savannah, or to hospitals, or to preservation of art, or to hospitals, and many other community related, perpetual improvement or historically significant causes. Now, maybe it's because I was not raised among the more financially blessed, or maybe it is because I have never worked in a really large metropolis with larger amounts of those individuals or larger non-profits that would not exist were it not for philanthropy, but I just wonder if it is fading from priority?

The Christian faith has always been (or should have always been) about taking care of the widow and the orphan, speaking up for the oppressed, picking up the downtrodden, strengthening the weak and sick, visiting the incarcerated, feeding the hungry, finding the lost. Can't speak for everyone, and maybe I should not speak at all, but it seems as though American Christianity is becoming so self-centered that we are forgetting the fullness of our call. Share the gospel, yes. But Jesus said to make disciples--teaching them to observe all the things that I have taught (Matt 28:20). Jesus says a lot about caring for widows, children, poor, oppressed, and imprisoned, and the OT says too much to write.

Matt 25:35 "...for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in..."

Luke 14:13  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.

So what do we do with our wealth that we have laid up for a lifetime? Build bigger barns to store it all? Lay it up in treasure that wastes away where the moths an rust corrupts? Do we as churches sit on millions of dollars, while we cut salaries, and children starve and die of preventable disease? A good man leaves an inheritance for his children, but must we leave it all to family? Couldn't we give some away while we live and when we die? What if we left gifts to be put into foundations for the ministries that serve entire communities? Why not leave $100,000 to the Pregnancy Care Center of Tiftarea (my personal favorite)? Or to the Lifehouse Ministries? Or to Brother Charlies's? Or to the Salvation Army? Or to Ruth's Cottage/Patti-cake House? There is a new homeless shelter coming for families with children, why not that?

Just a thought for you to ponder as we think about stewarding the money and resources that God has entrusted to us. We will give an account. How much kingdom value have you given this year? Change your last will to reflect your heart for those in the community that you care about.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Wrath of God Was Satisfied

There is a word that is not used much in Baptist pulpits, maybe because people are not taught hard theological words, but it should be. Hard words and doctrines should be taught, but this word maybe most of all.


I looked it up in the dictionary, and even it is not real clear on it. It means "satisfaction." In the Christian sense of the word, as used in Rom 3:25, it means something that satisfies the wrath of God. This is the way that God was able to pass over sins and remain just. He pronounces believers in Jesus "justified" or "righteous" and he can't do that and remain a just judge. So the wrath that is directed toward the sin (a wrath that must flow from God's pure hated of sin, that is something else that is horribly under-emphasized) is not simply taken away, it is spent. God spent the wrath stored up from all the cosmic treason that has ever and will ever be committed upon his son.

So, today, remember, the wrath of God was satisfied because of you, because of the offence to the glory of God, and so that God could be just and the justifier of those that cast all their hope upon him.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A "Good" Christian

How would you define a good Christian? What does a really spiritual Christian look like? It's a question that I asked a friend the other day as we pondered our faith. Your answer to that question reveals a lot about your life as a believer and your efforts toward fulfilling God's purposes in your life. Our answer is probably influenced by our parents, our home churches, our perception of believers before we became one, or our perception of Christians even though we aren't one.

How would you answer? Give it some thought. I know I don't have many readers, but I hope that it will provoke thought. Don't give your answer without justification. Also, follow your reasoning out to its logical end. I guess then we should all ask: are we really spiritual, good, mature Christians?

Monday, February 23, 2015

How To Treat The Shepherd

While I was in Maine with a church plant, I had a man (who was attending my church, but not a member) who called me one day, and he told me that he always dedicates the first lobster he catches each year to the Lord, and did I want it? Duh. He brought it over, and it was HUGE, 3lbs! It was just under the legal limit where if they get any bigger, you have to throw them back. It tasted really good too!

The names have been left out to protect the innocent, and me. Only those in the Sunday School class know this . I was in a church this month, and I caught the last part of the Sunday School. The lesson was from Nehemiah, and was pertaining to the reestablishing of worship, specifically the care of the Levites and the giving of fruit, wine, grain, and money to help take care of their needs.  It was interesting, and true to the text, and the teacher did a good job. It was Lifeway material (so many of you studied it, and may have entertained the question), and the writer asked the question: “including, but not limited to money, what does a church do to take care of pastors?” What a great question! Having been a pastor for 11 years, I thought of the ways that churches went above and beyond for me and my family. I also thought of the times that we really felt forsaken. So I was excited to hear this class’s answer.

I sat in a meeting of ministry leaders and pastor once, and I listened to how many of them felt alone in their ministries. Having been hurt by others or by churches caused them to be very guarded, and afraid to be fully vulnerable and trusting. There was a longing for it, but it wasn’t being met. I thought, maybe we are doing something wrong? Maybe we have the wrong mindset when it comes to pastors and churches? Maybe this is the reason that we tend to have short tenures in the pastorate? Do we make the divide to great between pastors and congregants?

So what did the class say? They were silent. Didn’t say a word. “Ok, moving right along…” Wow. Do churches not give much thought to what they can do to take care of their pastor other than paying him? October is pastor appreciation month, but not all churches do anything special. But why not do something all year? Having seen the pastor side of that question, as well as having seen a lot of turnover in the first 15 months of my ministry here, I raised my hand and led them back to answer the question. This is a question that I wish every church member in our association would be required to answer on paper.

I think I am going to preach on this, but let me give some suggestions today. 1) Money is good, it says you love him; but, if this is all you or your church does, he is only a hireling. He is hired to preach, to visit, to marry, to bury, to be at the hospital, to be at the beck and call of others.  2) How about his time off. Make sure he takes it. Some preachers will work themselves to a fault. If they lose their family for you church, you have not taken care of him. 3) Speaking of his family. What do you do for them? Are their expectations upon his wife or children that wouldn’t be on another church family? Give them more vacation time than a business would; the church is not a business. It is a loving family, so let’s all be one. 4) One of the best things that you can do for him and his family is to let them just be a part of the church. Let him just be a church member. Visit his family. Befriend him. The divide between the pastor and member is far too wide. Shepherds had a close relationship with their sheep.

These are general suggestions, you have to ask yourself, what does our pastor need; not just, what is it that we have to give to just do enough. Each situation is different. “A new command I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you should also love another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” –Jesus, and I think He would apply it to pastors too.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Trusting a God We Cannot Control

Control. It's something that we all like to have. Maybe not in a bad context but just with many aspects of my life. For example, when I am driving, I feel like I am in control. When I am not, I feel like I am lacking it. I really don't like it when people feel that they are in danger when I am driving with my knees, and even though I am still in complete control, they snatch the wheel! They are going to kill us all! Do ever do that to me! My wheel, don't touch it. If we die, it's on me.

I started a new book this week, and it asked a piercing question as this man felt himself in a terrible situation, even though he was convinced that God had led him there. He said that he did not know that the plane that he was on taking him to his place was "the plane ride to hell." He talked about the despair he felt, deeper than any he had ever felt or even comprehended that a person could feel. He was at a crisis of faith, and the question he asked was this:

Would I choose to trust this God who I could not control? Would I be willing to walk with this God whose ways are so different (from mine). Would I, once again, lean on this God who makes impossible demands and promises only His presence?

Piercing question. A question that we all face in the midst trouble, change, heartache, waiting, hurt, and mission. Will we? Will I? Will you? We can walk down the path of worry (Matthew 6:33), fear (2 Timothy 1:7), doubt (Proverbs 3:5-6), and unbelief (Luke 8:50). Or that of trust, believe, and receive; "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10).

A God that you could control would not be much of a God. He is sovereign and is under the bonds of nothing but Himself. We must embrace that with joy! Will you?