Carol and I drove up to Wachusett Mountain State Reservation to look at the fall foliage. On the way back, we stopped in Orange for a late lunch. Here are some photos of the journey.
Monthly Archives: September 2013
The average church in America has gone to sleep when it comes to evangelism. We have become comfortable and complacent about those who are lost. We need to be roused from our stupor and take a fresh look around ourselves.
To help shock our congregation awake, I decided to swear in the pulpit this week. Admittedly, my choice of words was pretty mild. But I was willing to risk my reputation to get people’s attention. Here is my introduction to my sermon and a synopsis of my message that followed.
At the risk of offending you this morning, I want to begin my message with three facts.
Fact #1: Within a 10-mile radius of our church lives a population of 461,736 people. 38% of the population, or 175,460 people, have no faith involvement. On any given street or apartment building in Chicopee, Springfield, Westfield, South Hadley, East Longmeadow, Wilbraham, or West Springfield, just over one out of every three people is going to hell without Jesus Christ.
Fact #2: Many of us here this morning, perhaps most of us here this morning, don’t give a damn about fact #1.
Fact #3: Many of us here this morning, perhaps most of us here this morning, are more bothered I said the word, “damn,” than you are that just over one out of every three people in our region is going to hell without Jesus Christ. We desperately need a new sense of priority and a new sense of urgency.
In John 4:31-38, Jesus gives the same message to his disciples. They believed four myths about ministry and evangelism. Jesus exposes the myths and corrects their thinking. I believe he would tell us the same thing today.
In verses 31-34, Jesus points out that we need a new sense of priority. We tend to believe the myth, “My needs are the most important.” We get absorbed with attendance, budgets, parking, staffing, and event planning. Jesus’ disciples had the same problem. They were more concerned with getting lunch than sharing the gospel with a Samaritan woman. They wanted Jesus to appreciate their efforts to provide his physical needs. Jesus wanted them, and us, to realize that ministry is more important than maintenance. His real food was to do God’s will.
When we evaluate a church service, we tend to ask questions like, “Did I like the music? Was the sermon interesting? Were the people friendly? Did I have fun?” Those are the wrong questions, however. We should be asking, “Did I worship? Were people equipped? Were lives changed? Was God honored?” We need a new sense of priority.
We also need a new sense of urgency. Jesus addresses three more myths in verses 35-38. (1) We believe that there’s plenty of time to share our faith later. Jesus said that the harvest is now (35a). Now is the time for evangelism. (2) We think that people aren’t interested in spiritual things. Jesus said that people are more ready than we think. The fields are white for harvest (35b). (3) We rely on the excuse that evangelism is not our gift and that someone else will do it. Jesus said we each have a role to play in evangelism (36-38).
Instead of being fishers of men, we have settled for being keepers of the aquarium. To help break that cycle, we distributed copies of the booklet “How can I share my faith without an argument?” to the congregation. We also challenged the folks to become a “Matthew” and throw a party for the sake of evangelism. This is part of our involvement in the My Hope for America campaign led by the Billy Graham organization.
Let me encouragement you to take Jesus’ words to heart, “Lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35b).
This is a synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on September 29, 2013. It is part of a series on “What makes a great church?” We are answering the question with the phrase, “A Great Commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission makes a Great Church.” Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.
Some time back, Tim Jack challenged our church staff by asking the probing question, “Are we truly equipping people, or are we just keeping them busy?” Recently, I have asked myself a similar question about my preaching. “Am I merely informing people, or are they being transformed?”
As I wrestled with the answer to that question, I came across the following story in Mark Buchanan’s recent book, Your Church is Too Safe: Why following Christ turns the world upside-down.
A young lady in our church moved to another city to attend university. I knew of a good church in that city—the word was preached there—and I recommended she try it. Her first Sunday, she arrived early and took a seat near the front. A few minutes later, a couple walked in and stood over her. She looked up and asked if she was in their seat.
She got up and moved three rows back. The next person just told her straight up, “You’re sitting in my seat.” She moved again, this time to the other side of the sanctuary and farther back. Shortly, another couple came, sat is the pew directly in front of her, and turned and glowered at her.
“Am I in your seat?”
“Yes, you are. That has been our seat for forty years.”
She got up, sat in the balcony, and thereafter never returned.
The good news: I know the pastor of that church and contacted him about what happened. The following Sunday, he put on his prophet hat and called the church to do better. And I told the story in our church, names disguised, and said to the people, “If ever someone is sitting in ‘your’ seat, consider it divine appointment: God’s given you a lunch date.” Afterward, several people told me how that one challenge opened up new friendships.
But I wonder about that couple who have sat for forty years in the same pew. This is a church renowned for its pulpit ministry. As far as I know, they’ve never had a mediocre preacher. All the pastors I’ve known who held that pulpit—I’ve known four—were or are masterful homileticians. They’ve handled the word of God correctly, and declared the word of God with vigor and passion.
Forty years of that. Forty years of the word preached. Forty years of gospel proclaimed. Forty years, Sunday after Sunday, of sermons that must have declared God’s scandalous welcome to the stranger among us. Had they not, many times, heard John 4 (Jesus meets a woman at the well) or Luke 7 (a woman anoints his feet with her tears) or Matthew 25 (Jesus divides us, as sheep from goats, based on whether we welcomed the stranger)?
Forty years, and still they’d not heard.
Personally, I don’t want to settle for informing people. I don’t want to preach for forty years and see people unchanged by the message. Oh, that God might pour out his Spirit and transform us!
“If sinners be damned, at least them leap to hell over our bodies. If they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees. Let no one go there unwarned and unprayed for.”
Charles H. Spurgeon
How should Christ followers respond to the attacks on the mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and the suicide bombing at the church in Pakistan. “As lambs in the midst of wolves” is a thought provoking recent post on The Secret Church blog. The author suggests six godly reactions that are based on 1 Peter. After reading, perhaps we should go to our knees and pray for those who are being persecuted.
The book of Micah in the Old Testament can be described as a courtroom scene. The nation of Judah is on trial for their many sins. God pronounces them guilty and sentences them to exile. Despite the sobering, sad message, the book ends with a tremendous statement of God’s grace in chapter 7, verses 18-20.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.
If God can show compassion to a nation that turned their backs to him and walked away, how much more will he forgive us when we return to him? Truly amazing grace.
In his book, Your church is too safe: Why following Christ turns the world upside-down, pastor and author Mark Buchanan tells about an exercise he does with church leaders. He uses it to help the leaders assess the health of their church.
I draw a flat line on a chalkboard or flip chart. On the left side of the line I put a letter A. on the right side, I put a letter H. I call this, inventively, the “A to H Scale.”
Then I assign Scripture verses to several people in the room. The verses are taken from the book of Acts, chapters 2 and 4, and from various chapters in the book of Hebrews. I have the people read these verses in a prescribed and alternating sequence: first a verse or two from Acts, then a verse or two from Hebrews, and then Acts again, and then Hebrews, back and forth until we’re done.
What I’ve paired up in the alternating readings are opposed realities. The world we see in Acts is miles and miles away from the world we glimpse in Hebrews. They comprise a series of before-and-after photos, except moving in the wrong direction: the before shots are splendid, captivating, inspiring; the after shots are shabby, embittering, depressing.
Acts 2:42 – And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Hebrews 13:7 – Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
Hebrews 13:9 – Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.
Hebrews 13:17 – Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Acts 2:43 – And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.
Hebrews 12:28–29 – Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
Acts 2:44–45 – And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Hebrews 13:5 – Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Hebrews 10:32, 34 – But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you … joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
Acts 2:46–47 – And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Hebrews 10:25 – not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Hebrews 12:15 – See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;
Hebrews 13:1–2 – Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
The journey from the community depicted in Acts to the community addressed in Hebrews follows an arc of shocking decline. The distance between the two, in only one generation, at most two, is stunningly wide. The comparison tracks a fall from great height. It measures, like an astronomer’s redshift, the fading of a brilliant light. It gauges, like a stockbroker’s accounts on a Black Monday, the sudden gutting of mass wealth. The found are nearly lost again. The children of light live in shadows. The rich have become poor, with nothing to show for it.
After we’ve read all the Scriptures, I ask each person to draw the A to H Scale on their notepaper beside each set of Scriptures, and then to rate on that scale where they think their church falls in that area. (The midway ranking is around D or E on the scale.) And then I have them rater their church overall on the same scale.
On the one hand, this would be a sobering exercise. Rather than become depressed, we need to keep the author’s final comment in mind: “Why else would the writer of Hebrews plead with and scold believers to return to what they once knew, if there was no way back?”
Book Review: Praying the Attributes of God: A daily guide to experience his greatness, by Ann Spangler
While Praying the Attributes of God is probably a helpful book, it is not what I was expecting. Rather than being a guide for using the attributes of God to shape how we pray, the book is more of a devotional guide to understand God better. While it accomplishes the latter, it falls short of the former.
The book contains a series of five-day devotionals on 17 attributes of God. The attributes covered by the author include love, goodness, unchangeableness, all-knowing, patience, and many more. The format for each week’s devotional is the same. Monday starts off with a Scripture passage on the specific attribute as well as a short Bible study on the topic. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday contain devotional thoughts on different aspects of the attribute along with suggestions how to reflect, praise God, offer thanks, confess, and pray for things related to the attribute. Friday provides a reflection on how the attribute connects with other promises in Scripture.
My sense is that the book is aimed at spiritually mature, older women. Perhaps that is why I found it less than satisfying. I am not part of the intended audience. Most of the quotes tend to be from previous generations—A. W. Tozer, Charles Spurgeon, Pascal, and Henry Ward Beecher. There are only a few contemporary examples—Amy Winehouse, Star Trek, and one survivor from the 9/11 attack in New York City. The stories and illustrations are either gender neutral or female. There are very few aimed at men.
My concern with books such as this is that they major on information and fall short of transformation. It provides suggestions for application. However, unless you are spiritually mature and disciplined enough to implement the suggestions, it will fall short of changing how one prays.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the Tyndale Blog Network http://tyndaleblognetwork.com/ book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
A pebble dropped in a pond creates a small disturbance that sends a ripple out in several directions. A boulder dropped in a lake creates a much larger ripple that could reach the shoreline several miles away. An earthquake can create a tsunami can sends waves across an ocean. A single tweet sends ripples that can change the future of countless people.
The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011 claimed 16,000 lives, injured 6,000 people, and destroyed or damaged countless buildings. It swept about 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, some of which reached the shores of Washington State in 2012.
Former NFL offensive lineman, Brian Holloway, learned his home had been trashed on Labor Day weekend 2013 through the culprits tweeting it to their friends. He turned the tables by using the tweets to identify those responsible. Rather than apologize, some of the parents threatened legal action against Holloway.
No one sins in isolation. Sin creates a ripple that affects many things—relationships, trust, respect, status, jobs, future plans, careers, marriages, families, churches, communities, schools, prayer life, spiritual growth, God’s blessings.
What is the most important thing in life? Money? Success? Family? Sex? Reputation? Pleasure?
That question was posed to Jesus during the last week of his life on earth. He entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowds (Matthew 21:1). The religious leaders immediately peppered him with questions in an attempt to trap him in a corner:
- Who put you in charge? (Matthew 21:23)
- Should we pay taxes? (Matthew 22:15)
- What happens to marriage in the resurrection? (Matthew 22:23)
- What is the most important thing in life? (Matthew 22:36)
The exchange regarding priorities occurs in Matthew 22:34-40. A lawyer poses the question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” The question had been debated for years by the religious elite. They calculated there were 613 commandments in the law: 248 positive commands (one for every part of the human body) and 365 negative commands (one for every day of the year).
Rather than being an honest question, however, it was a diversionary tactic. In focusing on the debate, they completely missed the point of the law.
We do the same today. We go to war over music styles—hymns vs. praise songs. We argue whether we can bring coffee into the worship center. We even debate over proper attire—coat & tie vs. jeans, t-shirt, and baseball hat. The real question we never seem to ask is this: “Was God worshipped?”
In giving his answer, Jesus turns to the most familiar section of the Old Testament. It was a verse every child of Israel knew by heart. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). The most important thing in life is loving God with every aspect of our being—heart, emotions, intellect, energy, activities, attitudes. There is no compartmentalization when it comes to loving God.
Jesus went on to add a second most important commandment. This time he quoted the last half of Leviticus 19:18. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Oftentimes, the best way to love people is to spend TIME with them—listening, praying, serving, and helping. We can also practice the many “one another” commands of the New Testament.
One maxim of business is the saying, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” When it comes to the Christian life, the main thing is to love God and love people. Those two elements summarize all of Scripture in a succinct phrase. Loving God sums up the first four of the Ten Commandments. Loving people captures the intent of the last six commandments.
Loving God and loving people reinforces that Christianity is a relationship not a ritual. In Mark’s account of his conversation, he adds the insight offered by the lawyer as a response to Jesus’ statement.
And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all your heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:32-33, emphasis mine)
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing—Love God & Love People.
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on September 22, 2013. It is part two of a series on what makes a great church. We are using the phrase, “A great commitment to the great commandment and the great commission makes a great church.” Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.