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Monday, December 22, 2008

Merry Christmas

               Merry Christmas

Most of us have very fond memories of the Christmas season—families that arrived from far away, snow storms, decorating the Christmas Tree, Christmas eve services, caroling, baking, presents, and so much more. 

The reason for Christmas is, of course, the birth of Jesus, God’s only son.  Imagine God coming to earth from heaven.  Who would want to leave perfection and come to this world full of problems and troubles?  But God did come.  Jesus was born as a baby to a virgin.  Humans may scoff and say that is impossible.  Yes, it is impossible for humans, but then again Jesus was also God.  And, all we have to know is that God makes the rules—rules like gravity, and magnetic attraction, and mathematics, etc.  So he doesn’t have to abide by his own rules.

But just coming to earth wasn’t that important.  It’s what Jesus did after he got here that counts.  Boy does it count!  Without Jesus you and I would have no chance, no hope of salvation.  None.  Zip.  Nada.

Jesus came to that little town in Bethlehem for one purpose, to fulfill the prophecy of the scriptures that a baby would be born in Bethlehem of Judah who would save his people from their sins.

Jesus was the long (thousands of years) promised Messiah.  The same one promised to Adam and Eve when they were driven out of the Garden of Eden.  The same one promised to Abraham and Sarah.  The same one promised to King David.  The same one foretold by countless Old Testament prophets.  He was (and is) the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords.

We celebrate Christmas with great joy and great enthusiasm because God fulfilled his promise (as he fulfills all promises) to send a Savior.  Jesus lived that perfect life we couldn’t live, and then gave himself up on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins.  And best of all, he rose triumphant from the grave, giving us total and complete assurance that we too will live again if we but trust in him.

I wish you a very joyous Christmas celebration and a wonderful, happy, and peace filled New Year rich with God’s blessings.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Essential Church?

               Essential Church?

I just finished reading Essential Church? by Thom and Sam Rainer III (2008, B&H Publishing Group), which deals with young people, 18 to 22, leaving the church.  While this book primarily targets pastors and other church workers, it is valuable reading material for lay men and women who are active in church leadership.  I not only read Essential Church, but also underlined it extensively because I viewed it as a working reference.

Thom Rainer (the father) has written many books on the health of the church and I have read several of them and always have found them to be logical, practical, and biblical in their approach.  I was especially interested in Essential Church because I know a number of young people who were very active in their churches and could clearly articulate their faith, but left the church.  The fact is that some 70% of those between the ages of 18 and 22 drop out of church.  This troubles me, and it troubles many Christians.

Why is it that people, especially young people, are leaving the church?  That is exactly what the Rainers explore in Essential Church and their conclusion is that many young people of today no long find the church essential to their life.  They just don’t see a reason to continue going to church.  Lots of reasons are given by those who leave the church, but essentially it boils down to their conclusion that going to church is just not essential to their life.

With that information in hand, Thom and Sam examine churches that are not suffering this tremendous back-door outflow to determine if there is anything in common with these churches.  While they do not find a formula for stemming the outgoing tide, they do find these churches have four general principles in common, regardless of the denomination, size, or geographic location.  These principles are:

Simplify.  Each of these churches has simplified their structure and process for making disciples.  That does not mean they have made it easier to become a member, but they have crystallized their discipleship process.  Incidentally, repeated references are made in the book to Simple Church, another book by Thom Rainer that preceded Essential Church.  It’s next on my reading list.

Deepen.  These churches provide strong biblical teaching and preaching.  In other words, these churches don’t compromise the Word.  In fact, these churches have a strong commitment to biblical truth and to quality teaching and preaching.

Expect.  They all expect a lot from their members.  You can’t be a casual member of any of these churches.  If you join one of these churches you are expected to not only attend regularly, but also participate in meaningful projects and programs.

Multiply.  There is a strong outward focus in each of these churches, expecting and encouraging their members to reach others with the Gospel.  These churches expect members to “stretch” beyond their comfort zone, participating in evangelism efforts and even going on foreign mission trips.  They want their members to take ownership of the church and make it essential to their lives.

It’s not a formula, it’s an understanding that gimmicks are not the solution, Bible-based approaches and teachings are.  Thom and Sam stress repeatedly that there is no cookie-cutter approach.  Each church is different and must understand their community as well as their mission in order to become an essential church to the young people of today.

By utilizing these general principles and developing their own, unique approach, each one of these churches has stopped the outflow.  They have made it easy to understand their mission and their process, while providing strong and faithful Bible instruction.  In addition, they expect much from their members (including those who are 18 to 22 and beyond), and they are outwardly focused.  Of course, while this is easy to understand, it is not necessarily easy to execute.

While these four principles provide the framework around which the book is built, there are many nuggets that deserve attention.  Things like creating a simple, understandable mission, then aligning all of your various Church projects and programs with your mission.  Or making sure your church offers strong, great preaching.  This study and the one upon which Thom’s previous book, Effective Evangelistic Churches, was written, reach the same conclusion about preaching—it must be strong, powerful, and Bible-based.

There’s lots more in Essential Church worth reading.  Thom and Sam Ranier have provided valuable assistance to church leaders who seek to keep young people in their church.  It’s my hope that this book will be widely read.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Designer God

               A Designer God

Women love designer clothes, men like well-tailored good fitting suits, and many people apparently seek a designer God.  Just like telling the tailor to “take a little off here” and “add a little here,” we want God to be of our design.  After all, we know what’s right and wrong and we don’t need God to tell us what’s right and wrong.

That has been the error of man (and woman) from the beginning of time—we seek to be gods and goddesses.  We are not content to have a loving God who gave His own Son up for our sins, we want to be, and we demand to be God!  It’s silly, but we all do it.  We want to make the rules, not God.  We want to be on top, not God.  We want to decide for ourselves, not God.

Why are there so many religions in the world?  Quite simply, man seeks to be God, to define God.  He wants to choose what’s right and what’s wrong, and to decide how to get to heaven, or even if there is a heaven.

So we reject God.  But we do it in a subtle way.  Someone may ask me what I think about some moral issue such as lying, or jealousy or hatred or murder or adultery or the like.  Who am I to say what is right or wrong?  Am I God?  It doesn’t matter what I think about abortion or adultery or lying or hatred.  It just doesn’t matter.  Whether I think something is good or bad is not relevant.  What God says is the only thing that matters.

The other evening Kathi and I watched a show on television that certainly promoted a designer God.  A man had a sex transplant, abandoned his wife and son, and is now a pastor with Bible in hand “preaching” to his flock a politically correct message of right and wrong according his own notions.  Like giving directions to a tailor, he has decided that his Bible should have “a little taken out here” and “a little added in here.”

God is God.  Who are we to sit in judgment of the great “I am”?  Are we all-powerful?  God is.  Do we fill the universe?  God does.  Can we listen to and answer prayers from all around the globe at one time?  God can.  Are we perfect?  God is.

You can’t have it both ways.  Either there is a God or there is no God.  And by His very definition, God does not conform to human standards.  He is above nature.  His dimensions and power and authority are not defined by man.  He is God.

There are no designer Gods.  There are false gods and then there is God. 

Jesus wasn’t just a good teacher.  If you believe that, then you also must believe that Jesus was a liar.  After all, He proclaimed himself as God. “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20).  You can’t have all authority in heaven and earth and be an ordinary human.

How could Jesus be born of a virgin?  Ridiculous!  How could Jesus walk on water?  Preposterous!  How could Jesus turn water into wine?  Impossible!  How could Jesus live a perfect life?  Absurd!

Yes, all this is ridiculous, preposterous, impossible and absurd if you are a simple human.  It could only be true if Jesus is God.

The Bible is given to us as a special privilege.  Through the Bible we hear directly from God.  We are blessed to know exactly what God says and thinks and what He wants us to do.  How do we get to heaven?  God tells us in a straightforward, unequivocal way in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast.”  Is there any other way to get to heaven?  Not so, according to Jesus.  Listen to what He says in John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

If you want to believe in another god or no god, that’s your choice.  But please, let’s not distort what the Bible says.  His words and teachings are clear.  You have a right to reject the Bible as false, but when you pick and choose and turn God into a designer God who meets your preconceptions and has your values, he is no longer the God of the Bible.

Undoubtedly God’s teachings are hard teachings.  That’s exactly what His hand-picked disciples said in John 6:60.  We don’t want to believe God.  We want a designer God.  One who thinks the way we do.  But it doesn’t work that way.  That, indeed, is a hard teaching, but one that is meant for our good.