Links For The Church (11/29)

Stay Safe?

The phrase “stay safe” has increased in usage in our vocabulary as of late. Lisa LaGeorge writes about desiring safety and warns us from idolizing this desire and encourages us to cast our fears on the Lord.

Self-Discipline Is the Gateway to Christian Maturity

“Because discipline is becoming a rarer and rarer commodity in this pampered age, the person who has it enjoys nearly limitless opportunities.”

When Mothering Feels Boring

Ann Swindell writes a beautiful piece to mothers who might feel like they are living in the mundane. She points them to the truth and to the valuable work of motherhood.

Saying, “I don’t know”

This brief but pointed post encourages leaders to be willing to admit they don’t know all the answers. Humility a goal for leaders, writes Tom Hallman.

Jeff Medders on Difficulty in Life

We asked Jeff Medders, “What difficult thing in your life has taught you the most?”

What About Me Right Now?

Promises, promises.

God’s announcement of His plan of salvation and blessing to His people in Christ is one of the unifying themes integrating the message and the deeds of the Old and New Testaments. All throughout the Bible, God’s people have received the gift and legacy of God’s divine promises.

After the fall into sin, we immediately have the first gospel promise (Gen. 3:15). This is soon followed by covenantal promises with mankind represented by Noah (Gen. 8:21–22). Then, we see continued promises with Israel in the person of Abraham (Gen. 12:2–315:18–21), in the assemblage of Israel at Sinai (Ex. 19:5–6), and in the “new covenant” (Jer. 31:31–34).

Within that framework, we find God promising and blessing his people, through Moses, with redemption from bondage in Egypt. There is the promised land, rest, light, and most importantly, the promised Messianic deliverer. In the promised Messiah, “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20). Those of us who live in this messianic age of the kingdom await the blessed promise of his return: “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

In Isaiah, chapters 1–39 focus on judgment and chapters 40–66 on hope. While there are glimpses of hope in chapters 1-39 and glimpses of judgment in 40-66, the reader who comes to Isaiah 40:1, feels the relief it brings: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” This promise of comfort is embodied in the Servant of the Lord in the four poetic Servant songs (Is. 42-55). In the first song, the Servant, empowered by God’s Spirit, will bring forth justice (revelation) to the nations (Isaiah 42:1-4). In the second, the Servant will be a light to the nations and lead his people to the Jerusalem above (49:1–6). The New Testament clearly identifies the Servant as Jesus Christ.

These amazing Servant songs of promise provide a peek behind the curtain of God’s eternal plan to deliver his people, summing up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). In response to this prophetic look into future deliverance we find this statement: “But Zion [Jerusalem] said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me’” (Isaiah 49:14). Why? I am sure the reason given would be, “Look around! Promises, promises. But what about now? Based on what I see I feel forgotten and forsaken, not loved!” The people returning from Babylonian captivity had legitimate reasons to feel defeated and despondent. They saw ruins and rubble.

Based on the circumstances we see around us, we too seem to have many reasons to believe contrary to gospel promises and to exclaim, “But what about me, right now?” What do we do when what we feel and see is at odds with the hope of the promises? How do we reconcile the reality of what we see with the promises of what we do not see?

What about when the promise is, “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!” (Isaiah 49:13), but what you see is the very place of worship itself in rubble, reduced to a pile of rocks that makes you want to weep rather than sing? Revelation 7:16 can feel so distant: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.”

Here is a sad truth: sometimes we prefer the safety of our misery to the promises of God. We actually become comfortable in surrendering to our own misery. We make peace with it, envisioning ourselves a heroic figure because we endure it. We can begin to think, “I know I matter because I’m pressing ahead in this misery.” 

If this narrative were to change, it would mess with our story. Acting on the promises of God is often frightening because doing so will inevitably lead to change. Acting on the promises of God will take us to places we would never go if we did not. The peace we have made with our misery will be disturbed.

But in the freeing gifts of God’s promises, he beckons us to something braver, an arena where we are no longer the center. He welcomes us into a reality, where what he promises eclipses what we feel. It does not often feel like victory. The sinless Son of God crucified did not look or feel like a victory. In fact, all across the Bible, obedience rarely ever immediately looks like victory. As 1 Peter relentlessly reminds us, it is suffering that leads to glory for Christ and us (1 Peter 1:6-123:13-4:19).

Believers must actively surmount the evidence to the contrary with the reality of eternal gospel promises. God’s promises are the story of the believer’s life; the challenges, setbacks, and obstacles are but the footnotes of the story. When we fail to see the reality of the promises, we are guilty of what Israel was rebuked for in Isaiah 1-36: attempting to secure hope by stealing from other sources such as alliances with or acceptance from worldly powers. The fear of nations and the fear of man both demonstrate a failure to reverently fear God (Gal. 1:10). 

No matter what you are going through, there is purpose in it. How do you know? Because the greatest act of injustice in the history of the cosmos is the perfect son of God crucified like a guilty sinner. This is a seemingly senseless act, that in the wisdom of God provides the only way we can be saved. We may see rubble but we also see a cross and an empty tomb. This is the nature of faith. It always has been. After all, the Suffering Servant of the Lord tells us, “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:16).

Promises, promises. Yes, and Amen!

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Prince on Preaching

Not Much to Be Thankful For

Table Mountain reigns over Cape Town, South Africa. When we first got sight of it from the highway, we were unable to take our eyes off of its stately, presiding presence. Its abrupt cliffs, rising up out of Cape Town on the oceanfront etched its postcard beauty in our minds. As you see, I can get rather poetic about it. But . . .

Not everybody sees it this way.

My first child was with us in the back seat playing with an inexpensive toy. We tried to get him to see this impressive sight but, because he was only eight months old, he wasn’t the least bit interested. Though we begged him to look, he obviously didn’t believe anything worth seeing was out there. He may have not even known what a mountain is, for all I know. Tourists pay thousands of dollars to see this and he couldn’t care less!

Like a child enamored with a small toy when there is so much to see, many people are caught up in such insignificant trifles. They long for sex and cars and honor and possessions as if these are what life is actually about. Even the best of it all is so temporary and circumstantial. So you win a few accolades along the way, and you add to your pile of things—are these really so important?

When it comes to Thanksgiving time, such people really have little to be thankful for—not because there is nothing to experience (He even invites people to know Him!), but because they are entirely too enamored with what is only marginal by comparison.

What if you were called on this Thanksgiving to give a report of what you were thankful for? If you could say, not what you ought to say, but what is strictly true, what would come out of your mouth? What makes you really happy?

I once heard a man use the phrase, “the expulsive power of a new affection.” He used it about the story of the woman at the Samaritan well. Jesus promised her a “fountain of water springing up to eternal life.” She was told that she would never thirst again. When she grasped the meaning of this, she immediately “left her water pot” and ran into the city to tell the great news.

She drank of something, someone, so satisfying that she forgot the whole reason for her trip to the well! Someone was more attractive than anything she had ever encountered. And she was a veteran at chasing her cravings. She had married five husbands and was living with yet another man. But her true longings were not met until that encounter with Jesus.

There, outside of the window of your own limited experience is something more fulfilling than you’ve known before, something for which you will be far more thankful if you could only see it.

Christ is that one who satisfies. You don’t just have to take my word for it, or the word of millions of others through the centuries—you may keep on playing with your toys and forget Him if you wish. That’s every person’s prerogative.

But there is much more.

“Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” John 4:14

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Christian Communicators Worldwide

Links For The Church (11/23)

How Christians Can Respond To The Moral Failings of Leaders

“Faithful Christian leaders recognize two things at the same time. First, they know that Jesus alone is perfect. But second, they know that our fallenness is no excuse for unfaithfulness.”

We Will Gather Together

Madelyn Canada writes about a hymn that feels different this year. She shares the painful parts of knowing that we cannot gather as we would like, but points us to the hope ahead.

When Saying “I’m Sorry” Is Selfish

Is your apology driven by anxiety or fear of man? Alasdair Groves provides diagnostic questions to help us discern our motivations for saying “I’m sorry.”

Children of Eden

“Aren’t we all children of Eden, lured by the serpent and star-struck by our own desires, our own glory and power?”

Stop Praying for Stuff and Start Praying for God

David Platt helps us see our tendency to value the gifts of God in prayer over God himself. He encourages us toward deep intimacy with God.

Trevin Wax on Gospel-Centered Teaching

We asked Trevin Wax, “What is gospel-centered teaching?”

Links For The Church (11/16)

What to Do When God Seems Far Away

Matt Smethurst shares three ways to take action when God feels distant. We are all familiar with this feeling and Smethurst encourages us in these difficult seasons.

Our Only Hope In Life and Death

“We will continue to struggle with the restrictions, but placing our faith in God means we know His promises still stand, that He is sovereign over the world, and that our lives are lived unto Him, every day.”

Don’t Overthink Evangelism

With methods and tools abounding, we can tend to be caught up in what the best way would be to share the gospel. Blake Long encourages us to get to the task and not overthink it.

Every Woman Needs Another: A Call To Spiritual Motherhood

Tia Kim shares the truth from Scripture that commands discipleship for all – including women. She points to the call to nurture and care for one another a spiritual mothers.

Won Kwak On New Christians And The Church

We asked Won Kwak, “What is the one thing a new Christian needs most from his church?”

When God Gives Wisdom

Proverbs 2:5 says if we fear the Lord, we will find the knowledge of God. One verse later, Proverbs 2:6 tells us what we find is what God gives. “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” In other words, the wisdom we need does not rise up from within us; it comes down from the wise God above as we seek him out. God offers his wisdom from his book for his people.

Proverbs 3:13-18 takes us further in to God’s wisdom.

13 Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,

 and the one who gets understanding,

14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver

 and her profit better than gold.

15 She is more precious than jewels,

 and nothing you desire can compare with her.

16 Long life is in her right hand;

 in her left hand are riches and honor.

17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness,

 and all her paths are peace.

18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;

 those who hold her fast are called blessed.

Verse 13 says the one who finds wisdom is blessed. Well, if we want that blessing, we need to understand what wisdom is.

Proverbs 1 gives some synonyms for wisdom.

  • Wisdom is related to instruction. That is, training, a hard-won aspect of our character, as endurance to an athlete.
  • Wisdom is related to understanding, insight, and wise dealing: practical knowledge of what to do in the hard-to-understand aspects of life.
  • Wisdom is learning or knowledge, which Proverbs 2:5 and 3:6 tell us isn’t merely about facts but about a Person, about God himself, from whom wisdom originates.

So Proverbs shows that wisdom is more than a single thing—it’s a multitude of things that, together, define wisdom. We see this in the wise characters of our popular stories: Yoda, Dumbledore and Gandalf and so on. Why are they wise? Because they have a combination of all the necessary things: experience, knowledge, prudence, instruction, learning.

Everyone else in the story seeks their wisdom. But as wise as they are, Jesus is clearly the wisest man the world has ever seen. Up until his coming, Solomon, the author of many of these Proverbs, was. But when Jesus came, he said, “One greater than Solomon is here.” And unlike finding Yoda, you don’t have to travel to a different planet to access his wisdom. He’s promised to be with us by his Spirit. So the wisdom we need is not something unobtainable. It’s part of the deal God made in Christ. When we know Christ, we get wisdom—and anyone willing to repent of their sin and trust Christ can get in on this.

Consider again chapter 3, verse 13: blessed is the one who finds wisdom. The Hebrew word for one is the generic word for man or human being. God’s wisdom is available to anyone willing to come to God. The New Testament author James says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all.” There is no caveat in that: if any of you. Not if any of you super-smart people, any of you Ph.D.s. You—whoever you are, if you lack wisdom, ask God and he’ll give it. God does not make this too hard for us! You just have to be alive and open to God. You just have to pay attention to his teaching, to his gospel message, and wisdom flows down from heaven. And when it flows down, we realize that what we search for in so many other things is found in getting wisdom.

Consider verses 14-16. “For the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.”

God says compare wisdom with anything else you can get, and wisdom is better because wisdom helps us know what to do with what we get. You might think you need more money, but maybe you just need wisdom to know what to do with the money you have. Get wisdom, and you’ll make the amount of money right for you. Get money only, and you might miss out on both wisdom and money in the end. Remember, King Solomon wrote this. He wasn’t a poor man! He was one of the wealthiest kings in Israel’s history. He spared no expense on his life, but in the end, he realized the best thing he had was the wisdom he got from God.

We in America live have more concentrated wealth than in just about any place in the history of the world. Many of us have jobs that pay well. We have houses full of comfortable things. We have cars that rarely break down. We have vacation spots we visit annually. But do we have wisdom? What’s fancy food on the table without laughter to enjoy it? What’s a nice house that isn’t a home? What’s a family without unity? What’s a retirement plan without a reason to live? All the world’s goods without wisdom is like the Dragon Smaug in Tolkien’s The Hobbit: a cave full of treasure but sleeping on it alone!

God offers a better way through wisdom in verses 17-18. “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.”

Wisdom keeps us from wasting our life on important but not ultimate things. What we need is not the weight of the world’s treasures but the lightness of God’s wisdom. We reach too low for “the good life.” God wants more for us than what this world can offer. He wants to free us from the chains of this world. That means God will ask us to give certain things up, not because he wants less for us, but because he wants far more for us. He wants pleasantness and peace of a good conscience before him, of a life well lived in his presence by his wisdom granted on terms of grace.

But gaining wisdom might not always feel like pleasantness and peace. But wisdom teaches us to look beyond our feelings. In fact, it helps to see the verses leading into this passage. Verses 11-12 show us that if we want God’s wisdom, it comes through his discipline. “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”

Why does he tell us not to despise the Lord’s discipline? Because he knows we’re prone to despise it! Why? Because it’s hard! Who wants discipline?

Every parent knows without discipline the child never grows up right. But with the proper discipline, the potential of the child is huge. We are to accept God’s discipline because it’s one channel through which God’s wisdom comes down to us. When he corrects us, we learn. When he reproves us, we grow. We tend to think of God’s discipline as his disappointment in us, but that’s not how the Bible presents it. The Bible says God’s discipline is his investment in us.

Wisdom teaches us that everything in our life is an investment in us from the good God above. He may take us through some really rough passages, but in every adventure, there is a bridge you don’t want to cross. And when you put your foot on the creaking board, and it sways a little more than you’d like but it holds you up, you realize the adventure God has for you is better than the one you dreamed up for yourself. It’s far more dangerous but far more exciting, and he’s leading you to something far more glorious than you ever imagined. He’s taking you from the silly life you’d live in foolishness to the full life you’ll live in wisdom.

All you have to do to go on the journey to wisdom is say yes to God.  And when you do, when you say yes and follow him wherever he leads, you find that, ultimately, no matter what happens, his purposes for you are good because he’s your Father, and father’s don’t abandon their children, they invest in them. Sometimes the best gifts are ones we don’t think we need, and sometimes wisdom comes through things we’d rather not face. But he who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

God’s investment is his delight in you. Just think, if you feel under God’s discipline now, how much delight he must take in you.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Things of the Sort

COVID-19, Cooperation, and Church Leadership: Seven Questions for Church Leaders

In February 2020 our church was enjoying a stride and a momentum that we hadn’t enjoyed in the past eight years. At least, that’s how I remember it. Memory can exaggerate. Pandemics and quarantines probably don’t help.

As our church has returned to meeting in person for corporate worship and is beginning to resume certain activities, I’m struggling to help us regain that momentum. Whether the success of February was as good as I remember or not, right now it feels like our tires are spinning but we’re not gaining speed. There’s activity but not momentum.

I’m not alone in this leadership difficulty. Other pastors and leaders are lamenting the lost traction as well. I’ve spoken with pastors and leaders in my own region, with those in Northern Virginia, and recently processed these questions with a group of ministry leaders throughout Europe. It’s an international impediment. Here are seven questions church leaders can ask as they regain momentum.

Seven Questions Pastors Can Ask to Regain Momentum

1. Do you have urgency for the mission of the church?

Great leaders in the Bible displayed a sense of urgency. Upon hearing of Jerusalem’s broken wall, Nehemiah moved quickly from mourning to storming heaven with bold prayers of resolve (Neh 1:5-11). Paul displayed urgency as he pleaded with the Roman believers of getting the gospel and the church to unreached places (Rom 10:1-17).  Mordecai implored Esther with a sense of urgency to inform the king of Haman’s hateful plot (Esther 4).  These leaders were driven with an urgency for the mission and the moment.

One of the ongoing tasks of leadership is keeping your finger on your own pulse in regard to the urgency of the mission. You cannot lead your church without a sense of urgency. The common example of the on-flight instruction to secure your own breathing mask before assisting others applies here as well. Leader, when your urgency for the mission of the church wanes, leadership lethargy is sure to follow.

Christian leaders must return often to the biblical passages and stories which have been fuel on the fire of their ministry. When God called you into ministry, what passage did He use to grip your heart and your will? Many church leaders can recall the place and the time that the particular passage jumped off the page. It may have been in a personal Bible study or sitting in a pew during a sermon. Meditate on that passage again!

One of the negative consequences of crisis is that it can drain us of our energy and urgency for the mission of the church. As leaders, we spend so much sideways energy that there’s a loss of momentum in the direction we want to go. Leader, as you seek to regain momentum, pay attention to your urgency for the mission of the church.

2. Do you have clarity on the mission of your church?

Urgency is good, but without clarity it’s wasted. Many leaders have urgently led their churches in the wrong direction; like the frantic father who rushes his vacation bound family through the airport only to realize they were headed for the wrong departure gate! Clarity is the nozzle on the hose that creates force and direction.

Can you state your church’s mission statement? Without looking? “Catalyst Church exists to be a healthy local church within walking distance of CNU that helps people everywhere marvel at Christ in all of life.” I promise I didn’t look. I’ve led numerous church planting teams through this exercises. The lead planter has gathered his leadership team together. These team members have sacrificed for the mission. They’ve labored for the mission. They’ve bought in to the mission. But when they are asked to write the mission down; they can’t do it. The team inevitably comes up with three or four different, if not competing, missions.

Ed Stetzer and others have warned us about mission drift. Mission drift goes into overdrive in seasons of crisis. The mission becomes to survive. But the church was never meant to be in survival mode. Your church was never meant to be in survival mode.

A deep sense of urgency and clarity regarding your mission is critical to navigating crisis well. Okay, so you’ve lost the momentum that you had before COVID… how do you get it back? Urgency and clarity.

As you seek to regain urgency and clarity regarding your mission, remember those you are seeking to reach. Think of one individual in your community who is far from God. Imagine how God might use your church to reach them for Christ. Lost people’s faces and names will be a great help to you in regaining the urgency and clarity of your mission.

3. How did COVID challenge your urgency and clarity?

COVID challenged urgency and clarity for each one of us. There’s no denying that. But, we would do well to clarify how. We can’t correct problems we don’t identify. So, how did COVID challenge your urgency and leadership. Did it distract you? Did it discourage you? Did the quarantine make member care difficult? Did it derail your leadership pipeline? The more clearly you can identify the challenges the better suited you will be to respond to them.

Did COVID (and the quarantine and mandates) make ministry easier for you or harder? How so?

4. What did COVID reveal about your leadership team and structure?

Not only did it challenge our urgency and clarity, COVID revealed some things about our leadership team and structure. In some ways we were prepared for the pivot. In many we were not. I imagine your leadership team was similar.

Teamwork matters when we face difficulties. Great teams distribute pressure where poor teams multiply pressure[1] Moments of crisis magnify that principle.

In our setting, we were able to pivot to Zoom leadership meetings pretty quickly. We actually found that it forced us to begin some habits of leadership meetings that we had let drift. So, every other Monday we jumped on a Zoom call to talk as leaders. We would check in, address needed adjustments, and plan ahead. They were great meetings, until we stopped. So, I know my next leadership challenge!

As you reflect on the past few months, how has your leadership structure helped you lead well? How has it hurt? What changes do you need to make? God has positioned you as a leader. Now, go lead!

5. Who is one person on your team that has been an encouragement recently? How can you publicly celebrate them?

The apostle Paul was a master at celebrating people. Read Romans 16. The concluding chapter of his theological magnum opus is a list of names! Read Philippians 2:19-30. Paul held nothing back as he celebrated and honored Timothy and Epaphroditus.

As you’ve struggled to lead through this season, hopefully some people have stepped up in encouraging ways. Someone has sent you an encouraging text. Someone has seized the opportunity to meet and engage their neighbors with the gospel. People have continued their financial support of the church. Volunteers and church members have serve with one another and served one another in this season. Celebrate these evidences of grace!

If you, as a leader, regularly celebrate people you will skyrocket to the top of the list of ‘great leaders’ in the minds of those you lead. Very few leaders are good encouragers. They probably aren’t getting celebrated at work. If they volunteer their time as a little league coach or umpire, they’re probably not being celebrated there. Unfortunately, they probably aren’t being celebrated at home either.

Celebration is an act of leadership. Especially in seasons of crisis. So, who can you celebrate?

6. What leadership lessons can you learn from the early church?

The early church lived and breathed crisis mode. They never had political favor or cultural majority. But they had a driving resolve to advance the gospel in all circumstances.

Luke recorded the books of Luke-Acts so that Theophilus would “have certainty concerning the things [he had] been taught.” (Luke 1:4). He showed him the leadership of Jesus and then the leadership of the apostles. He displayed moments of great success and moments of great hardship.

As you work to find traction for your church, Luke offers you some characters for companionship in the book of Acts. In Acts 1 the disciples ask what Jesus exposes as the wrong question. In Acts 4 they respond to political pressure. In 5 they deal with sin in the church. Church leader, Luke’s account of the early church gives you a glimpse into their life and leadership. See how Paul responded to uncertainty. See how Peter led. See how they dealt with relational divisions and cultural tensions.

The early church was not the perfect church. Neither will your church be. But come alongside this fledgling fellowship and see how God works among imperfect people in less than ideal circumstances.

7. What is one thing that God is calling you to do as a leader going forward?

Here’s the deal with leadership: you have to lead. You have to do something. Make some decisions. Pursue some vision. Take some action.

I have a tendency to think that it all needs to be done right now. Instead, perhaps we would do well to focus on the one next step that God is calling us to take as a leader. So, what is that for you?

Here are some examples:

  • Get your leadership team meeting regularly again
  • Renew our sense of urgency by praying for the lost
  • Get back to that expositional sermon series that you punted because of COVID
  • Change an aspect of your leadership structure
  • Reemphasize the importance of church membership
  • Relaunch small groups

Great leaders ask great questions. They continually wrestle with how to do what God has called them to do to the best of their ability. I hope that these seven questions have stirred some God-given thoughts and prayers and plans that He will use as you lead forward in your local church.

[1] Jeff Mingee, Called to Cooperate: A Biblical Survey and Application of Teamwork, 50.