Be Alert!!! The Harvest Is Ripe

Evangelism. Does anyone else feel like you never quite measure up when it comes to sharing the gospel?  I’m convinced of the importance of evangelism and I’m deeply moved by stories of people coming to Christ – and yet I still struggle to share the gospel regularly. What would it take to make evangelism a natural and regular part of our Christian lives?

Jesus often describes our mission with the metaphor of a harvest. In Matthew and Luke he says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37-38; Luke 10:2). In similar words, Jesus tells his disciples in John 4:35: “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” Here’s what I want you to notice: if Jesus is sending the disciples and us into the harvest, then someone has already prepared the field.  Implication? You and I are surrounded by people already ripe for the gospel. In our grocery stores, on our sports teams, besides us at our coffee shops, or next-door in our neighborhoods, there are people God is preparing to respond to the gospel. Do you believe that?

I’m convinced that one thing that keeps us from sharing the gospel is the unspoken belief that it all depends on us. I need to find someone to share the gospel with. I need to have the right words to say. It’s as though we think God gives us a barren piece of ground and says, “Grow me a crop of wheat.” But God is already at work to prepare the harvest! We follow in his footsteps. The restaurant you choose, the gym you join, or the Starbucks you frequent are not random choices or events in your life. Each one is God preparing and positioning you in his field for his harvest. Our call is to do what Jesus said: “Look, lift up your eyes and see.”

Let me suggest just one way we can live in the Lord’s fields. If it’s true that God is at work to prepare the harvest, that the fields are ripe because of his work, and if it’s true that God has made each one of us workers in his field, then be alert for small windows of opportunity. Only once in my life has an unbelieving stranger asked me a direct question about God. Every other opportunity I’ve had to share the gospel and build friendships with unbelievers came through what seemed like a small thing: giving a pedestrian a ride up a steep hill, asking the checkout lady how her day is going, saying hello to a person instead of passing without acknowledgement. Look for those small opportunities that the Lord gives you, and expect some of them to lead to more conversations.

Wherever you are, the Lord of the harvest is already preparing his field and has you there for a purpose. Lift up your eyes and see! The harvest is ripe.

It’s Not About Religion. It’s About A Relationship. Really?

On the sign of a local church: It’s not about religion.  It’s about a relationship with Jesus.

When I first saw the sign I thought, that’s great, they’re trying to reach people – and I know what they’re saying. Christianity isn’t drudgery; it’s not a bunch of tedious rules and regulations we slog through; it’s a joy-filled relationship with God through Jesus.  I commend that church for reaching out to our community.

But the more I thought about it the more it bothered me. Bear with with me here – remember, I’m an old guy and I’m entitled to these kinds of musings.  If you want you can blast me afterwards but hear me out for a second.

The sign bothered me because being a Christian IS about religion.  Religion and relationship with Jesus aren’t mutually exclusive.  Being a Christian is about religion AND a relationship.

Religion is a specific set of beliefs about God and the practices those beliefs require. If we don’t believe Jesus is God, who became a man, lived a life of perfect obedience to his Father, died on the cross for our sins, and rose from the dead, we won’t be saved and can have no relationship with the Father or Jesus Christ. Without religion there is no relationship.

James certainly saw religion as important:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:26-27

If one can think he is religious yet not be, then it must be possible to actually be. If there is a religion that is worthless, then there is a religion that is true and worth having.  James says true religion will lead us to bridle our tongues, visit afflicted orphans and widows  and live holy, unstained lives.

In other words, it IS about religion – which affects how we live. It affects our speech. It makes us loving and holy.

The problem with the statement “It’s not about religion.  It’s about a relationship with Jesus” is that it’s vague.  It’s undefined, warm and fuzzy.  But it can say the wrong thing.

If taken the wrong way people might think they don’t need to believe specific truths or be a committed member of a church. That they need not gather with others to hear the word preached or learn sound doctrine or serve others or speak the truth in love, confront sin or repent. It’s just me and Jesus; I don’t need all that religion stuff.

Yes, it is about relationship with Jesus which we receive as a free gift of God. But we cultivate that relationship by abiding in his word, prayer, worship, exercising faith, obedience and loving others – by our religion.

So what would I put on our sign? Maybe something like – It’s not about religion – if you think religion means boring drudgery and meaningless rules. It’s about a religion that leads to and fuels a satisfying saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Of course that’s too much for a sign you have 1.2 seconds to read as you drive by. But you know what I mean.  Ok, old man’s musings are done.  Fire away.

Now That’s Interesting! A Font for Doctors, Cancer and Salvation, The Expendables Made by Pixar, More…

Mike Seaver: School, Suicide, Cancer, and Salvation - “I don’t know much about this Jesus thing,” said Cassy, as I entered her classroom. I had never met Cassy, but she had asked to speak with me. She said, “Can we talk?”  I said “Sure.” For the next 45 to 50 minutes Cassy asked me question after question about God, Christianity, and death.

A handwriting font for doctors - This is about right. Whenever I look at prescriptions written by my doctor I’m amazed that the folks at the pharmacy can make out anything.

While I was lining up the shot, an older man walked by, smiled,… - I like this blog, Humans of New York. It’s interesting, and it also reminds me of the masses of people who need Christ.

Basketball Class – The script was written by kids, the voices were done by kids, and the acting was done by adults. Brilliant.

If The Expendables 2 Was Made By Pixar – I would definitely see this movie.

Full of Sap and Spring at Age 93

They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green…(Psalm 92:14)

This is my grandpa, J.J. Altrogge. He’s 93 years old, and he’s still bearing loads of fruit of Jesus. The picture is of him doing a Bible study at a retirement home, which is something he regularly does. For the last 15 years or so he has also painted birthday cards for every member of our church. That currently puts him at around 5,000 birthday cards. Lately he’s been bringing a down-and-out friend of his to church to hear the gospel. He also gives the guy rides to the grocery store to help him purchase groceries.

So what’s his secret? How is he still so fruitful for God at age 93? I think it’s because he is in regular fellowship with Jesus. Every morning he sits in his sunroom, surrounded by his paintings, sips on bad coffee (instant!), reads God’s word, reads a devotional, and takes time to pray. Nothing fancy. No extravagant, mystical rituals. Just time with Jesus.

I’m convinced that the more closely we stay connected to Jesus, the more fruitful we will be. The more we marinate in his word and open our hearts in prayer, the more we will blossom with spiritual fruit. That’s why Jesus said:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5 ESV)

My grandpa abides with Jesus which then leads to him being fruitful. It’s the same with my dad. His fruitfulness as a pastor for the last 30 years is because he is regularly abiding with Jesus. I want to be like my grandpa and my dad. I want to imitate them as they imitate Christ. There’s no gimmick or trick to being fruitful for the Lord. It’s simple. Abide with Jesus and then walk in the works he has prepared for you.

How To Exteriminate Envy And Its Insidious Cousins

The spirit of envy is the very contrary of the spirit of heaven, where all rejoice in the happiness of others; and it is the very spirit of hell itself … Jonathan Edwards, Charity and its Fruits

Years ago at a pastors retreat I shared that at times I envied others’ gifts. One man’s jaw dropped and he said, “But Mark, you probably receive more encouragement than any other pastor I know.” Sadly, he was right – I’d been blessed to preach and pastor and write songs and regularly received lots of encouragement.  But when others were praised for their preaching or leadership, jealousy would rear its ugly head.

Envy is no light thing –  it’s one of the “evil things that come out of the heart of man,” along with sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, deceit, sensuality, slander, and pride and all these, including envy, “defile a person” (Mark 7:22-23).

Envy and its cousins, jealousy and selfish ambition, are “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15) and “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (16).  When we open the door to envy it ushers all its foul friends and every kind of chaos into our lives.

Like the Orkin commercial where a homeowner answers a knock at the door and there stands a 6 foot termite, who says, “I was wondering if I could use your phone – my car broke down a few blocks over, and – (looking down at the floor) is that oak?”  Envy knocks on the door and says “Mind if I come in for a few minutes? I’m not that bad.” And when we let it in it brings all its cousins – jealousy, selfish ambition, disorder, and every vile practice.

Envy springs from a debased mind (Romans 1:28), is a work of the flesh along with immorality, idolatry, sorcery, drunkenness and orgies and those who practice these things, will not inherit the kingdom (Galatians 5:19-21).  Not only does envy trash us for heaven, it ruins us now – “envy makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30).

When we envy, we are saying Jesus alone isn’t enough to satisfy us –  we need Jesus PLUS possessions, admiration, and success.  Then we’ll be satisfied.

And envy is the complete opposite of love, because “love does not envy or boast” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Instead, love rejoices when others are blessed.

How can we exterminate this filthy vermin and its insidious cousins?  

Edwards says the spirit of heaven is “where all rejoice in the happiness of others.”  So when tempted to envy, ask, “How would I react if I were in heaven and God blessed someone more than me?”  In heaven we’ll be free from all sin – including envy.  So we’ll rejoice to see others blessed, honored, and rewarded above us, and we’ll worship Jesus for his generosity.

That’s the spirit of love. The spirit of heaven. When we love others we rejoice to see them blessed – even more than us.  And Jesus will help us to love others this way as we confess our sin, ask Jesus to satisfy us with himself, and help us rejoice when he blesses others.

Are My Motives Clean?

Have you ever held back from serving the Lord because of fear that your motives weren’t pure?  Maybe you were thinking about praying out loud in a group setting, but then thought, I just want to sound good and impress people – I shouldn’t pray with that kind of attitude. Or you were about to share an insight that came to you during a Bible study discussion. You almost opened your mouth, but then couldn’t quite bring yourself to actually speak up. It’ll sound like I’m showing off –and it’s not that important anyway.

The examples could go on and on: sharing the gospel with your neighbor, playing on the worship team at your church, giving your testimony in public, writing that book you’ve been thinking about for years – all of these potentially good works can, and I’m afraid often do, get put on the back shelf to die a long, slow death while we try to get our motives completely clean.

If you ever done or thought something along those lines, I have good and bad news for you. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: your motives will never be pure. You will always be tempted in some way by pride when you step out in service or some good work for the kingdom of God. That’s the reality of being saints who simultaneously have God-given desires to bear fruit (see John 15:16, Eph. 2:10, 2 Thess. 1:11) and also remaining sin that taints our good deeds.

But here’s the good news: Jesus cleanses our acts of service. It is through Him that we offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” (1 Peter 2:5). Listen to John Owen’s words about how Jesus purifies our spiritual offerings:

The Lord Christ first, as our high priest, bears the iniquity, the guilt, and provocation [of our best duties]; and not only so, but he washes away all their filth and defilements…Whatever is of the Spirit, of himself, of grace – that remains; whatever is of self, flesh, unbelief… – that he consumes, wastes, takes away…The saints’ good works shall meet them one day with a changed countenance, that they shall scarce know them: that which seemed to them to be black, deformed, defiled, shall appear beautiful and glorious. (Communion with the Triune God, p. 292)

I’m convinced that Satan, the enemy of our souls who opposes every advance of God’s kingdom, rejoices at how many of us stay on the sidelines because of fear that our motives aren’t pure. Yes, we must watch our hearts and be open to the Holy Spirit’s conviction when pride becomes our dominant motive. But don’t buy the lie that one day pride will be totally dead and you can serve without any trace of self-seeking in your heart.

Here’s what I suggest. When you’re wondering whether you should step out and act but analyzing your motives, ask yourself this question: will what I’m about to do glorify God and bless others? If the answer is yes, do it – even if your motives aren’t 99.4% Ivy soap pure. Trust the work of Jesus to cleanse your good works, take your eyes off of yourself, and then step out in faith to serve others. It’s what you were created to do!

 

Customer Service and the Church

The church can learn a thing or two from major corporations.

For example, Jen and I were recently talking about the outstanding customer service offered by the company Land’s End. They are friendly, helpful, informative, and you don’t feel like they’re in a hurry to get you off the phone. In fact, Jen appreciates their customer service so much that she said, “Their customer service is so good that I wish I liked more of their products!”

When she said that my mind immediately went to my church.

The worship at our church isn’t incredible. I’m not Matt Redman or Chris Tomlin or Bob Kauflin, and my ability to lead our band is average.

Our sermons are biblically rooted expositional sermons, and we’re always trying to improve, but they’re nothing special. No one is making comparisons between us and John Piper or Matt Chandler.

Our facilities are average. At best. We don’t have a fancy sound system or a massive stage. Our children’s ministry is a bit crowded right now.

But there is one thing about our church that is outstanding: the people. Our church is full of the warmest, friendliest, most welcoming people on planet earth. Time and again I’ve heard guests say that what struck them the most about our church was how welcome they felt. Over the years my dad (the senior pastor) has made a concerted effort to create a culture of warmth and welcome, and that culture is noticeable the moment you walk in to church.

It seems like people are willing to overlook a lot of deficiencies as long as they feel welcome in a church. The sermons might not be the absolute best, but the people can be the most loving. The worship might not be on par with Matt Redman, but the welcome can be on par with Matt Redman’s church.

Now don’t misunderstand me, a church should always be built upon the preaching of God’s word, and the preaching of God’s word and biblical worship should never be traded for something else. Never.

But lots of smaller churches, like mine, don’t have the resources to build an incredible building or install a magnificent sound system. And us smaller churches are pastored by people like me, who have limited gifts. So my church can’t be Northpoint, or Mars Hill, or Bethlehem Baptist.

But we can be the most welcoming church around, and I think that goes a long way.

Question: Have you experienced the difference that a warm welcome at church makes?

If you found this post helpful, would you mind sharing it with you friends on Facebook or Twitter? Thanks!

Now That’s Interesting! Best Softball Field Ever, 25 Writing Tips, A Real Hover Bike, More…

The best softball field ever is at the foot of Yosemite Falls - Wow. This makes the softball fields around here look like dumps.

Berlin Balloon Race, 1908 - A fascinating set of photos. How do you race hot air balloons? And how can I get in on a race like this?

25 Insights on Becoming a Better Writer - Aspiring writers, pay attention to these tips.

Finally, someone is inventing a real hoverbike. My birthday is just around the corner in case anyone is wondering.

The Secret To Adding Real Punch To Your Words

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 1 Timothy 4:12

Paul told Timothy to preach the word. But he had to do something else to add real punch to his words.

Timothy was a young guy – I’ve heard he may have been as young as 16 when Paul took him under his wing. Folks may have been tempted to despise him because he was young. Who is this young punk trying tell me how to live?

The secret to adding real punch to our words is to back up those words with a godly life.  It’s not just for an outward show.  God motivates and encourages us through others’ example as well as words.

Others are observing us. First they listen to our words. Then they check to see if our lives match up. They check to see if we love others.  If we’re humble. If we trust God in the fiery furnace. They watch how we act outside of church.

Nothing does more damage to the gospel than when our lives don’t match up with our words. If we tell others  Jesus changes people, it confuses them if they see no change in us. If we preach we should love one another yet slander and gossip about others, who’s going to follow us?

Paul often urged others to imitate him:

For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 2 Thessalonians 3:7

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me-practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:9

Pastors, lead your churches by example.

Try to be the biggest servant in the church.  Seek to be the most joyful, thankful, gentle, humble person in your church. Set an example in sharing weaknesses. Show your fellow believers how to face trials with faith, prayer, and perseverance. Show them how to be teachable and approachable.

Parents, lead your children by example.

Husbands, let your children see you love your wife sacrificially. Parents, ask Jesus to help you be joyful and thankful. Show your children how to forgive and speak kindly of those who offend you.  Let them see your commitment to regular Bible intake and prayer, as well as your devotion to your local church. Demonstrates expressive, wholehearted singing to God and devotion to the preached Word every Sunday.

Young men and women – set an example for older believers and younger believers

Set an example of radical zeal for God, serving and looking to the interests of others. Set an example for others in purity and holiness. Show us how to honor your mother and father.  Be different than many young people in your humility and teachableness.

No matter what age you are, married or single, you can set an example for others.  By God’s grace, let’s all seek to give others something to imitate.

photo by Generationbass.com

Take My Wife…No Seriously, Take Her

Abraham is the man when it comes to faith. In the book of Hebrews, the author dedicates six verses to the life of Moses, the great leader of the people of Israel, the man who struck the rock and caused water to burst forth. But Abraham? He gets twelve verses, praising him for his great faith in God. Stick that in your ephod and eat it Moses!

But Abraham’s great life of faith was punctuated by some bizarre episodes. For example, when he and Sarah (then Sarai) were about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai:

When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” (Genesis 12:11-13 ESV)

What the heck? Abraham uses his wife as a human shield in order to protect his own skin. Even though God had promised him that he would have a son, he is still worried that the Egyptians will kill him and steal his wife. What gives?

The problem was that Abraham began to take circumstances into his own hands rather than trusting in the promise and protection of God. When the threat of violence arose, he didn’t commit himself to the sovereign hands of the God who had called him. Instead he began scheming for his own protection. He devised a plan that he thought would protect both him and Sarai. He tried to take control of the situation.

As I think about Abraham’s boneheaded plan, I realize that we’re not much different. When trouble arises our first response is to try to brainstorm our way out of it. When money gets tight, our gut reaction isn’t to confess our trust in the God who has promised to meet all of our need according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. It’s to take a closer look at the budget and tighten our belt a few notches. When one of our children isn’t doing well spiritually, we resolve to be more stern, to correct more frequently, and to quickly stamp out any nonsense. Instead of committing them to the only One who has the power to melt a heart of stone, we try to be the Holy Spirit. When condemnation rises in our hearts, we try to work our way out of by praying more, serving more, and reading our Bible more, instead of believing God’s promise that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.

Abraham blundered when he tried to take control of a situation instead of relying on the promise of God. Thankfully, we can learn from Abraham’s mistake and not end up accidentally giving away one of our family members. Let God be God. Don’t try to be sovereign.

+photo by Zach Dischner