A Letter To Everyone Who Doesn’t Have A Valentine

Dear Friends,

Tomorrow is Valentines Day, also known as “Make Single People Feel Like Total Losers” Day. From the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep, you will be reminded that, for some inexplicable reason, you do not have a husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend.

You will also be made to feel like a worthless piece of crap who will never be in a relationship and will end up hoarding cats at the end of your life. You may receive a call from your mother in which she: 1) Asks if you have any marriage prospects OR 2) Tries to match you up with someone.

I will not say that Jesus is your Valentine, because that is incredible cheesy and moderately creepy.

However, I do want to remind you of a few things.

  • Being single does not make you any less valuable or any less of a person. Jesus, the most human person to ever live, was single. You are valuable to God because you are his son or daughter. He treasures you because he made you in his image and bought you with his blood, not because you have a significant other. Tomorrow, find your identity and value in Christ, not in your current relational status. Your essential identity as a child of God does not change depending on your relational status. Tomorrow, feel God’s deep pleasure and delight in you.
  • Being single does not mean you are incomplete. You are not half a person, half a Christian, or half a church member just because you are single. You are fully accepted and complete in Christ. God delights in you as you are, not as you will be once you are in a relationship.
  • Singleness is not a holding pattern. Due to the well-meaning, yet often unhelpful remarks of others, you can be made to feel as if being single is some sort of in-between stage for your life. Almost as if you can’t effectively serve God until you are married with kids. This is a lie. Singleness is not a holding pattern, it’s a time for explosion. God wants your single years to be some of the most fruitful, God-honoring years of your life. Paul wished everyone could be single so that everyone could have single-minded devotion to the Lord. Don’t think of your single years as an in-between staging area for the rest of your life. Use tomorrow to strategize about how you can most effectively serve the Lord.
  • Your church needs you. Unfortunately, going to church can be a regular reminder that you are still single. But as a married guy, I can confidently say that your church needs you. A church made up almost exclusively of  married couples can’t function nearly as effectively as a church with a mix of married and single folks. You may be single, but you have particular God-given gifts and abilities that your church needs. Don’t deprive the members of your church of the gifts God has given you. Don’t believe the lie that church is only for married folks.
  • Turn your loneliness to prayer. At some point tomorrow you will feel lonely. When those times come, turn to the Lord in prayer. Confess your loneliness to him, but also proclaim your trust in his goodness, kindness, and mercy. Thank God that he truly does care about every detail of your life, including your relationships. Ask God for the supernatural power to be content in all circumstances. Loneliness without prayer is fodder for temptation. Loneliness with prayer can create godliness.
  • Beware of unique temptations. Because of your loneliness, you may be uniquely tempted tomorrow in regard to sexual impurity. Pornography might seem particularly appealing. Don’t give in. It will only end up hurting you and dishonoring the Lord.
  • Remember that marriage is not the end all. I am so grateful that I am married. But as you know, marriage is not the thing that will ultimately satisfy you and solve all your problems. Only Jesus can satisfy our deepest longings. If you’re not content in your singleness you won’t be content when you are in a relationship.

I don’t write these things lightly. I know that Valentines Day is full of loneliness for single folks. I pray that tomorrow God will give you a double dose of divine joy.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some of those awful chalk hearts to eat.

Stephen



Does the Bible Tell Us What Church Should Look Like?

Donald Miller ruffled quite a few feathers when he recently wrote on his blog that he doesn’t regularly attend church.

While I disagree with much of what he said, I won’t parse through every point. Others have already done that. But Miller said one thing that bothered me very much. Actually he said two things, but they were part of the same point. His point was that the Bible does not give us specific instructions as to what church should look like, which therefore means that no one can really claim to attend a “biblical” church.

The reason this statement bothered me so much is that it is so blatantly false. To claim that the Bible doesn’t tell us what church should look like is to ignore many, many very clear scriptures. To claim that Bible doesn’t tell us what church should look like also allows a person to substitute his own preferences for the clear teaching of scripture, which Don Miller seems to do at numerous points in his blog post.

So what does the Bible have to say about church?

1. A biblical church involves at least two people gathering together in the name of Jesus. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Working with a client on a team building exercise, while valuable, is not church. Church consists of believers coming together, in the same physical space, in the name of Jesus Christ. To gather together in the name of Jesus means gather together to publicly worship Jesus, serve Jesus, and help others love Jesus. If you’re not gathering together with other believers in the name of Jesus, don’t call yourself a church.

2. A biblical church celebrates the Lord’s supper together. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Jesus commanded his followers to regularly come together to remember and celebrate his death. This is a command, not an optional add-on for the Christian life. This isn’t about preference or opinion or “connecting with God” (a phrase Miller likes to use). The Lord’s supper is a communal event in which the church publicly proclaims the death of Christ. While not expressly forbidden, there isn’t a single place in scripture where a person celebrates the Lord’s supper by themselves. A biblical church celebrates the Lord’s supper. If you’re not celebrating the Lord’s supper with other believers, don’t call yourself a church.

3. A biblical church is led by qualified elders. In Titus 1:5-9, Paul said to Titus: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

Paul insisted that the churches he founded be led by qualified elders. This was so important to Paul that he left Titus behind in Crete for the express purpose of finding and appointing qualified elders for each church. In our post-modern, democratic society, the idea of eldership isn’t especially popular, but it is especially biblical. If you’re not being led by qualified elders, don’t call yourself a church.

4. A biblical church worships in song together. Ephesians 5:18-21 says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Notice that this passage has both a vertical and a horizontal dimension to it. We are to be filled with the Spirit, making melody in our hearts to the Lord. We are also to address one another with our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Singing isn’t just about you connecting to God or experiencing a particular emotional response. When the church gathers to sing we are also proclaiming truth to one another. Honestly, God isn’t primarily concerned with whether or not we like singing or emote when we worship. He is concerned that we proclaim his goodness and glory to Him and to one another through song. If you’re not singing to the Lord and to one another, don’t call yourself a church.

5. A biblical church maintains corporate holiness through church discipline. Matthew 18:17 says, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The church really is a place of spiritual protection. Jesus expects his followers to help one another pursue holiness. If a Christian begins to engage in serious sin, Jesus expects the members of his Christian community to lovingly rebuke him. If the person refuses to repent of his sin, the entire church is expected to get involved.

This process presupposes that a Christian will be vitally connected to other Christians. The reality is, the process of discipline can’t happen apart a local church. If you’re not maintaining holiness through church discipline, don’t call yourself a church.

6. A biblical church is a place where Christians can use their spiritual gifts to bless one another. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”

In writing this verse, Paul was clearly assuming that the Corinthians would be gathering together on a regular basis in the name of Jesus for the purpose of worshiping together. When they gathered together, they were to use their spiritual gifts to build one another up. It is impossible to build other Christians up if you’re not regularly gathering together with other Christians in the context of corporate worship. If you’re not using your spiritual gifts to build other Christians up, don’t call yourself a church.

Contrary to what Donald Miller says, attending church is not about tribalism, or learning styles, or opinion, or preference. Attending church is a matter of obedience.

And there really is such a thing as a biblical church.

Church Shouldn’t Be A Place For Misplaced Shame

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“Ask me about the hole in my throat.” That’s the kind of caption that gets your attention! The accompanying picture is of a man with, you guessed it, a hole in his throat.

The ad was on a billboard, part of a campaign by the Center for Disease Control against smoking. Maybe you’ve seen similar ads, like the ones that made their way around Facebook with a clever spoof mocking the idea of “social smoking.” The idea behind the campaign is to change the way we think about smoking: it’s harmful, and it’s not cool.

The anti-smoking campaign is one example of the way we use shame to change behavior. When a society perceives an activity as acceptable, people can do it openly without fear of repercussions. Change the perception of that same activity from acceptable to unacceptable, and most of us will change our ways or hide our behavior. Shame is a powerful motivator.

But shame can be misplaced. When I see a campaign against smoking I can’t help but think about other moral issues our society deems perfectly acceptable and not shameful: abortion, divorce, pornography, to name a few. We seem to take aim against things that are harmful to our personal health, but turn a blind eye to those that destroy genuine human relationships.

The world around us isn’t the only place that uses shame to enforce behavior – nor is it the only place where shame is misplaced. Sadly, the church is often a place for the same misplaced shame. Consider the kind of issues in a church that divide us into an “us” vs. “them.” Maybe it’s homeschooling versus public schooling; if you choose the right option for your kids, you’re “in.” You’re part of “us.” Choose the wrong option, and you’re one of “them.” We could add things to the list: which version of the Bible you use, health food or dieting choices, what kind of extra-curricular activities your kids participate in, the authors you choose to read. Most of those are personal preferences where we elevate and spiritualize our own choices while shaming those who choose differently. But there are also issues of temptations and struggles with sin which divide us into “us” and “them”: a struggle with same-sex attraction, battles with substance abuse, or a temptation to swearing. Confess one of those sins in a small group setting and watch people back away like you’ve got the plague. But every one of those examples, and any others we could list, is an issue of misplaced shame.

Now don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that God’s church should be a place with no standards, no activities that are deemed unacceptable. After all, the New Testament is filled with commands that gospel-believing Christians are to obey. We are to be holy as the Lord is holy (1 Peter 1:15). This is Spirit empowered, grace motivated obedience – but it is obedience. Despite what we often say, there’s one sense in which the church isn’t the place where you can be accepted and welcomed for who you are, no matter what you do. If “who you are and what you do” is sleep with your girlfriend, persistently lash out in anger at your family, live in constant debt, or use dishonest financial practices, the church can’t simply ignore or accept those behaviors. In light of the reality of sin, that’s not true love. We must be willing to speak up, each of us and as the church together, when sins bring dishonor to Christ. So talking about misplaced shame should not be interpreted as a way to excuse sin or minimize the need for personal holiness.

But the problem is that shaming is a much easier “solution” to another’s sins than an honest conversation characterized by good listening, willingness to hear a different perspective, and, if necessary, a loving rebuke or correction. But when churches, small groups, or even families use shame to govern behavior, they end up creating pockets of secrecy under superficial conformity. Instead of being a place where the real God meets real life, such communities become places where the “God” that is openly talked about becomes increasingly irrelevant to the real but well-hidden struggles people actually confront. Even worse, shaming people we disagree with places on them a load that Christ has already removed. In Christ our shame and guilt are both gone; who are we to replace that burden on another’s shoulders?

Shame is never an appropriate motivator for Jesus’ people. Instead of creating a culture of, “We don’t do that here,” whatever “that” might be, the church is to be a place that welcomes all kinds of strugglers and meets them with the transforming message of the gospel. Sometimes we just need to learn to accept differing opinions in matters of personal preference. Other times we need to enter in with first love and listening, then well-chosen words of timely wisdom that bring the gospel to bear on actions that do need to change (Eph. 4:29). But throughout our goal is to view our brothers and sisters as God views them: accepted, beloved, and shame-free in Jesus Christ.

“Therefore welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).

Photo by Joe Gatling.

The Light Shines in the Darkness

 

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If you pay attention to the headlines or the Twitter and Facebook buzz, you’ve probably picked up on something: we Americans disagree with one another. A lot. And about some very fundamental issues. Whether it’s the Duck Dynasty kerfuffle, struggles between pro-life and abortion advocates, the legalization of marijuana, or wedding cakes and religious liberty issues, our debates become heated and the divide between positions often appears to be an unbridgeable chasm. While there is room for Christian disagreement over some of these issues, and complexity in every specific debate, there still often remains a stark choice for believers: faithfulness to Scripture, or acceptance by popular culture. One comes only at the expense of the other.

It seems that, for 21st century American Christians, facing this choice is disorienting and maddening. What happened to “America, America, God shed his grace on thee?” What ever happened to being a “Christian nation?” And so we react with anger and confusion. We rally behind candidates we think will support our values. We write lengthy Facebook posts, make our case in the comment threads, and start petitions. We lay the blame for this decline at the feet of specific politicians or specific historical moments, like removing the Ten Commandments and prayer from the schools. Our reactions are intense and emotional because we feel something of great value is being threatened. But I want to challenge us to reconsider that mindset, and to see our country’s cultural climate as we enter 2014 as not a threat, but as an opportunity. How so, you ask?

Before talking about the church’s opportunity, however, we should acknowledge that the feeling of being threatened is, at least in part, an accurate one. There are movements and mindsets in America that do represent threats to religious liberty or to the dignity and sanctity of human life. Christians should be involved in resisting those influences for the basic reason that failure to do so is a failure of love of our neighbors. All of us have some part to play, and some of us – especially those called to legal or political vocations – have a large part to play.

But having said that, our hope is not that we will “win” the cultural war (whatever that means). And the opportunity before us is not an opportunity to reclaim America as a Christian nation – after all, that’s something God never promised us. The church, not America or any other nation, is God’s treasured possession.

No, the opportunity before us is this: to live lives that reflect the glorious light of Jesus in a darkening society. Our current cultural confusion is not something to celebrate – but it is something God can use. When a society cannot agree on such basic things as what it means to be human, or what it means to be male and female, chaotic darkness will inevitably follow. But in the midst of that darkness, there is an opportunity for the light of the gospel to shine brightly. Our obedience to Christ, though it may appear increasingly strange to our neighbors and coworkers, can provide opportunities to give reason for the hope that is within us. And I’m not talking some sort of “super-Christian” lifestyle, but simple, ordinary Christian lives: marriages that remain faithful over the long haul. Parents who love and value their children instead of regarding them as shackles on their independence. Singles who relate to one another in purity. Churches where people of different races and different income brackets love and serve one another, where senior saints are honored instead of marginalized in favor of the young and beautiful. Simple acts of faithful obedience, but by God’s grace a testimony to a radically different way of living than anything a secular mindset can produce.

The New Testament defines our identity for us: we are those who have been brought from darkness into God’s marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9), a new humanity united in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:15). That identity is something no political system or nationality can produce – it is the work of the triune, redeeming God. It is an identity that will often receive the world’s scorn. And yet, at the same time, in a society that is losing all eternal reference points our identity as children of God is a quiet and constant testimony to the reality of the gospel. May the Lord give us grace in 2014 to live lives that shine brightly amidst the darkness, that many might come to know Jesus, the true light of the world.

I am indebted to Peter Hubbard’s excellent book Love into Light for the idea of seeing the issue of homosexuality as an opportunity, not a threat – I’ve simply taken his thought and broadened it.

Photo by JAaron.

Should We Be Happy About the Duck Dynasty “Victory”?

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Yesterday A&E announced that they were reinstating Phil Robertson as part of the massively popular show, Duck Dynasty. If, by some chance, you missed the whole kerfuffle and brou-haha, due to the fact that you’re part of a strict, isolationist Amish sect, it can be boiled down to this: In an interview with GQ Magazine, Phil Robertson made some rather coarse remarks in which he condemned homosexuality and sort of supported Jim Crow laws.

Needless to say, the entire Internet exploded when Phil’s remarks were published. The gay community was offended and called for the suspension of Phil Robertson, which A&E quickly did. The Christian conservative community was offended, and created all sorts of petitions for the reinstatement of Phil Roberts. Lots of blog posts and Tweets and Facebook posts were furiously banged out by folks on both sides of the argument.

As I reflect on the entire situation, a few things stand out to me. Does it bother me that Phil Robertson made some unhelpful comments which offended both my gay friends and my African-American friends? Yes. Absolutely. The things Phil said were not particularly helpful in bridging the gap between the Christian community and the gay community. I’d recommend you read Wesley Hill’s piece, “What Phil Robertson Gets Wrong“, to deepen your perspective on this issue. I’m really grateful for Wesley and his commitment to talk openly about homosexuality without straying from the orthodox teaching of scripture.

Does it bother me that Phil Robertson was so quickly suspended for the remarks he made? Yes. Absolutely. Tolerance no longer means the freedom to say something which offends someone. Tolerance now means we must accept everything as being good, just, and true. I would recommend you read Russell Moore’s piece, “Duck Dynasty”, to deepen your perspective on the need for true tolerance.

But there is one thing that stands out to me more than anything else: We Christians need to distribute our moral outrage more appropriately.

Conservative Christians were absolutely outraged over Phil Robertson’s suspension. I mean, we seriously flipped out, taking to Facebook, Twitter, blogs, the radio, and even television to voice our disgust. And while I understand the need for clear-headed dialog on issues related to civil liberties, I think it would behoove (I’ve always wanted to use that word) us as Christians to distribute our outrage a little more evenly.

I don’t hear a whole lot of moral outrage regarding the issue of pornography. I hear a lot of talk about the need to stay away from porn, but I don’t hear much by way of outrage. We should be really, really outraged about porn. I would venture to say that porn is destroying more men, boys, and families than homosexuality and polygamy combined. We should be outraged at the damage being done by pornography. I would love to see more men standing up to the porn industry and telling it to go to Hell (literally). I would love to see more men beating the crap out of the porn industry.

I don’t hear a whole lot of moral outrage regarding the plight of young girls caught in the sex-trafficking industry. The fact that sex-trafficking even exists should fill us with a holy, flipping the tables in the temple, kind of anger. I confess, I’m often apathetic to the whole issue. That shouldn’t be the case. We should be just as furious about sex-trafficking as we were about Duck Dynasty. Actually, we should be more furious.

Until the recent case of Kermit Gosnell, I didn’t hear much moral outrage regarding the issue of abortion. Occasionally something would come up that would temporarily fire us up, but then we would return to business as normal. We Christians should be absolutely flipping out regarding abortion. I’m grateful for all the work being done for the cause of life, but I don’t sense the same level of outrage and urgency about abortion as I did about Duck Dynasty. That simply should not be the case. Every day thousands and thousands of babies are straight-out killed. Executed. Murdered. Now that is something truly worthy of outrage.

I don’t hear much moral urgency regarding those who have no access to the gospel. Every day thousands of people die without ever hearing about Jesus Christ. Those who die apart from Christ go to Hell. That reality is both a travesty and a tragedy. I would love to see more men and women (including me!) outraged at Satan’s opposition to the gospel, and determined to take Jesus to the lost.

Should we be happy about the Duck Dynasty “victory”? I don’t know. I guess it’s a good thing in terms of religious liberty. But I would love to see more churches and Christians (myself included!) fired up about something more important than a reality television show. Every day millions of men and women look at porn, thousands of girls are caught in sex-trafficking, thousands of babies are executed, and millions of people die without the gospel.

Let’s get fired up about the things that really matter.

 

I Get Very Suspicious When…

When someone claims to know what Jesus or Paul or any other biblical author “really” meant. I’ve got to admit, it takes a lot of guts to make a claim like this. By saying you know what Jesus “really” meant you’re saying that all the scholars, church historians, pastors, and Christians throughout all of church history have missed the true meaning of Jesus’ words. I mean, sure, there have been many theological mistakes throughout church history. But now, after thousands of years, you’ve finally figured out what Jesus really meant? If that’s the case then Jesus’ words must have been pretty unclear.

When someone claims to know what Jesus or Paul or any other biblical author would have said if they were alive today. Again, another bold, audacious claim. God chose to close the canon of Scripture at a very particular time and place in history. There were very particular cultural practices and ideas in place when God closed the canon of Scripture. If he wanted to, God could have continued to cause men and women to write Scripture. But he didn’t. When you claim to know what Jesus would have said regarding homosexuality or gender roles or politics or church, you are walking on very dangerous ground. You are treading where only heretics dare to tread. Jesus and Paul and Luke and Jude and James and every other Biblical author said what they said and no more.

When someone claims that the Church has gotten an issue completely wrong. Yes, there have been many mistakes made by church leaders throughout church history. But to claim that the Church as a whole has gotten an issue completely wrong for the last 2,000 years? Wow, very, very bold claim. To claim that Christians, who are indwelt and led by the Spirit of God, have collectively swung and missed for the past 2,000 years is a very strong claim indeed. And doesn’t it strike you as a bit odd that only now God is starting to make up for his mistake? That now, after 2,000 years, we are the generation who has finally gotten things right?

My generation is infatuated with the new and immediate. We love the newest gadgets and newest movies and newest theological ideas. We would be wise, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, to let the fresh winds of church history blow through our musty brains.

I’m about 95% sure that at least one person who reads this post will remind me of the fact that many Christians owned slaves. In response I would say two things. First, it is my educated guess that many men and women throughout church history who have defended sinful practices were not born again. This is the case when it comes to the Crusades, slavery, the Spanish Inquisition, and many other sad events. These events and practices were promoted by those who embraced cultural Christianity not true Christianity.

But this is not always the case. Jonathan Edwards, who was clearly born again, owned slaves. Many churches clearly embraced racist attitudes and practices for many years. What are we supposed to do in these cases? We acknowledge that Christians and churches get it wrong sometimes. This isn’t a contradiction of what I said earlier. Churches can get particular issues wrong. This is why we must always be testing our beliefs against the clear revelation of Scripture and the collective wisdom of the last 2,000 years, as opposed to the last 200 years.

We would be wise to test our modern ideas of sexuality, politics, gender roles, and every other issue against church history as a whole. As I look out over the battles being fought in churches I find it remarkable how closely many of the battles resemble the fight for democracy in the United States. This probably isn’t a good thing. Our battles must always be fought on the basis of God’s word, not current ideas. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not in any way suggesting that slavery or racism or sexism is okay. But our definitions of what is right and wrong must be shaped by God’s word and nothing else.

If we don’t we don’t test our ideas against God’s word and church history we are in danger of letting our theology be shaped by current events and ideas rather than the clear, unshakable Word of God.

Arrrrrrgggghhhhhh!!!#*^%$&# My Toe, My Toe, My Toe!

Most of us care about our bodies. We nourish them. We try to keep them warm and comfortable. I personally like to fill my body with coffee — strictly for the antioxidants. I try to avoid doctors, dentists, shots, emergency rooms, bloodletting (though I’ve been told numerous times I have nice veins), colonoscopies and the like as much as possible. I sit on comfortable couches and sleep in a warm soft bed.

Isn’t it amazing how we pamper our bodies? When my son David was little I was dancing around with him (in my socks) and spun around and slammed my little toe into the foot of our couch. ARGGGGGGHH! I managed to set David down and then my whole body went into crisis mode and to the aid of my little toe. I sat down, and my leg lifted my little toe up to my hands. I cupped my hands around my little toe and my fingers gently rubbed it. My vocal chords let out appropriate moaning sounds and calls for sympathy. My eyes were alternately squeezed together in pain then looking to see if I’d broken my toe. My mouth eventually swallowed several ibuprofens for pain. My whole body was hurting because my toe was hurting.

The Bible says that the church is Christ’s body:

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22-23).

Jesus cares about his body infinitely more than we care about ours. Paul said that when one part of Christ’s body hurts the whole body suffers. When one part of Christ’s body rejoices, the whole body joins the celebration. When the church stubs it’s little toe, Jesus cares about it. If we immediately go to the aid of our little toes when we stub them, how much more does Jesus care about and move to help each and every member of his body.

When I stubbed my toe I didn’t say, “Oh it’s only my little toe. It’s not that important.”

You matter to Jesus. And you matter to your local church. No one in the church is unimportant. Every single member has a role to play and every member needs the rest of the body. My right hand can’t just decide it doesn’t need the rest of my body and go wandering off to do its own thing (maybe that’s what Thing decided to do in the Addams Family).

Maybe you’ve had a bad experience in a church. Maybe you were let down by a pastor or disillusioned in some way and now feel like you want nothing to do with church. There are some churches you should leave – if they don’t preach the word or they tolerate sin. But don’t give up on THE CHURCH. Jesus has a place for you in his church somewhere.

Jesus has relationships planned for you. He has “joints of supply” for you. Just as in my body nutrition flows from my hand to my mouth to my stomach through my blood into my shoulder down my arm to my fingers (it’s highly technical – you probably wouldn’t understand it), so the grace of God flows from one member into another in Christ’s body. I need the grace that comes to me through others. I need the encouragement, the teaching, the exhortation, the prayers, the truth spoken in love by others.

Jesus cares about his body. He nourishes it and protects it and cleanses it and cares for it. We too should care about Christ’s body. We should love the church and pray for it and do all we can do to build it up and strengthen it. Don’t give up on THE CHURCH. Hey, the Corinthian church was a mess – they were taking each other to court, tolerating immorality, and abusing the spiritual gifts, and even badmouthing Paul, yet he didn’t give up on them but kept working with them. The Galatians were buying into a gospel of works, but Paul didn’t quit trying to help them.

Why not take a few minutes and pray for your church right now? Pray for your pastors. Pray for those who are hurting or sick. And pray that Jesus will continue to build and beautify his church.

Hey, You Don’t Treat My Wife Like That

One day when I was out of town I got a call from my wife Kristi, who was in tears. A salesperson for a photography company, a woman, had been very rude to her, swore at her, and then actually shoved Kristi. When I got home I called the company right up. I said you’d better deal with this woman or I’m calling the Better Business Bureau. I’ll call Channel 4 News. I’ll call the police. This woman needs to know she can’t treat my wife like that. A little while later the president of the company called me and told me he had fired the woman. “You don’t have to do that,” I said, “If she’s sorry.  But she should know not to treat customers like that.” Eventually the woman called and apologized in tears, we forgave her and she didn’t lose her job. The point is, I was angry because someone had mistreated my wife.

The church is the bride of Christ

Revelation 19:7 says:

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready

Again in Revelation 21:9

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.”

Paul tells us that earthly marriage between a husband and wife is a mysterious picture of the union of Christ and his bride.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25)

And a few verses later:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)

As Christ’s bride, the church is most precious to him. He purchased her with his blood.  He tenderly nourishes her. He fiercely protects her. Anybody who hurts his church incurs Jesus’ furious wrath.

If I was outraged when someone shoved my wife, imagine Jesus’ outrage toward those who abuse his bride. Someday Jesus will repay the North Korean president and soldiers in the work camps who torture Jesus’ people. That co-worker who constantly torments you at work because you’re a believer?  Unless he repents, someday Jesus will pour out his fury on him. That college prof who mocks you for your faith?  Someday he will stand dumbstruck and trembling before the judge of heaven and earth and have to answer for his mockery of Jesus’ bride.

Let this put the fear of the Lord into you and me. Every time we slander another believer, we do it to Christ’s bride. Every time we’re unmerciful to a fellow Christian, we hurt Christ’s Beloved. Every unkind word we say to a believer, every bad attitude we have toward a believer, every angry thought word or deed….all to Christ’s precious bride. And Jesus takes it very seriously. Hey, you don’t treat my bride that way.

Conversely, every act of kindness we do to a fellow believer, we do to Christ’s bride (and to Christ as well). Believers’ union with Christ is deep and real and intimate. Every time we care for a brother or sister, or encourage, bless or serve them in any way, we do it to Christ’s bride, and it pleases Jesus.  Let’s love the church, value the church pray for the church, do good to her.  Jesus won’t forget it.  And he’ll bring it up at the great marriage supper of the Lamb.

Why the Church Needs Business Principles

I had a conversation recently with a long time evangelist and church leader. He was bemoaning the state of leadership in the church and at one point said, with great passion, “Pastors are not CEOs; they’re shepherds!” He is right. The pastor is not the Chief Executive officer of a church. That isn’t the calling. (Though in many churches it’s the cultural construct.) Pastors are called to lead, to care, to nurture, to protect, to feed.

Right about this time, though, the guy’s ideas jumped the rails. He went on to call out several pastors of mega churches (not present at the time) for “bringing all this business into the church.” He decried business principles for ruining the church and undermining its mission and message.

It is true that the church is not a business. It is not a profit earning entity, at least it shouldn’t be. Church is about people and purpose not numbers of any kind. And top or bottom line numbers cannot accurately measure that purpose or the success of the mission. But to define the usefulness of business principles so narrowly as to say they ruin the church” is false (and also discouraging to business people in the church, but that is a separate issue).

Most effective business principles aren’t directly about profit; they’re about organizational health and effectiveness. And, while the church is not a business, it is an organization. This means that the principles of David Allen, Chip and Dan Heath, Seth Godin, Patrick Lencioni, Simon Sinek, and others certainly do apply to the church. Such principles don’t create life in the church and they are not an end in themselves. A church could feasibly be a healthy organization but worthless in the mission of Jesus. But such principles do remove obstacles to the mission. They can increase the effectiveness of those working toward the mission. And they can create an environment that is open to those being invited into the mission.

The church is the body of Christ. It is His representation here on earth. And it is imperfect. We, the church, do not effectively communicate the gospel of Jesus or exemplify his life. We are not good at working together and being a single unit pointed in the same direction. That’s why we need effective organizational – or “business” – principles. It will always be the mission of Jesus that drives the church and defines its effectiveness. But good methods help us do that mission better.

photo credit: angietorres via photopin cc

Why I Don’t Go By “Pastor Mark”

Many times people who are new to our church call me “Pastor Mark” or “Pastor” when they address me. I understand – they’re just trying to be respectful and show honor to me.

Once a sweet elderly lady at the local hospital asked what I did and when I told her she began calling me “Reverend.” Reverend Mark. I like that. And Monsignor Mark isn’t bad either. I like the alliteration. Most Majestic Monsignor Mark is even better.

Anyway, I usually tell people, “If you feel comfortable, you can just call me Mark.” Sometimes they’ll reply “But we’re supposed to honor and respect our elders,” to which I might reply, “Thanks! I know I’m an old guy. And I know you want to honor me, but “Pastor” is just my job description. I tell people if you want to call me “Pastor Mark” I’ll call you “Carpenter Bob” or “Secret Service Agent Sally.” Now don’t go blasting me with comments about my rudeness. I try to do all this in a very light hearted way. Hey you know me – Mr. Sensitive.

But I tell people this because although I have a different function or role in the church than most, I’m a member too. I’m on the same level as everyone else. I’m not on a different tier above everyone else. I’m a disciple of Jesus just like they are. I’m a fellow sojourner, still in process, who has plenty of foibles and weaknesses. Still putting sin to death. Still learning about all Jesus has done and is doing for me.  I’m not THE MAN OF GOD, up there on the mountain where no common sheep can go.

I’m a shepherd, but I’m still a sheep as well, part of Jesus’ flock. I’m a preacher, but I still need preaching. I may dispense the word but I need to take it in myself. I would presume that my family doctor takes medicine himself when he needs it.

When people say, “Mark, when you were preaching this morning, I felt like you were preaching to me,” I often reply, “Thanks, that’s amazing how the Lord does that. Because I was first and foremost preaching to myself.”

I am called to lead the church, especially through preaching and teaching. But I’m leading as a member. A fellow brick in the building. I’m subject to the Word I preach. Whatever I tell others to do I should be doing. If I tell them to first look for the log in their eye when they confront someone on sin, I need to check for redwoods in my eye.

If someone confesses sin to me, I must be gentle and merciful, knowing I am capable of anything anyone shares with me.

 To me, for someone to call me “Pastor Mark” creates an artificial separation or an artificial class system in the church. There’s the flock down here and the pastors up there. I don’t believe Jesus wants that division. He said to call no man “Father” or “Teacher.” The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were shocked that Jesus would eat with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus didn’t look for honor, but washed his disciples’ feet.

I’m not saying it’s a sin to call someone “Pastor” or that if you go by some title you’re a pharisee.  If I come to your church and you prefer me to call you “Pastor Joe” or “Reverend Rick” I’d be happy to. When in Rome…you know. It’s really not that big a deal to me. But when you come to my church, you can feel free to call me Mark. Unless you’re more comfortable with Most Majestic Monsignor Mark.