Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Extra Day

So, ya, it's February 29th, the extra day of the leap year. It's exciting because it only comes once every 4 years. My daughter has a teacher at school that's birthday is actually February 29th. Weird! That means that she's like 8 and teaching 10 year olds!

This year is unique in another way. We have 53 Sundays. That's right, you didn't hear me wrong, 53 Sundays. That only happens every 40 years or 28 years depending on some cycle. In this year's case, the last time we got an extra Sunday in a year, that would be 1972! So ya, 40 years this time.

As a preacher with a preaching calendar, this presents a challenge. As I was planning my preaching and series for the year, I kept being off. Then I started actually counting Sundays. Yep, 53. Weird! There are 5, 5-Sunday months this year. That doesn't happen too often, ya know. Now that I have it all figured out I'm feeling good and really kind of blessed at this opportunity. It's like God has provided another opportunity for lives to be changed and for me to teach His Word to His people.

Benjamin Franklin said, "Do not squander time, for it is the stuff that makes up life." Let's not squander the extra 24 hours that God has given us this year by not sharing Christ's love with someone. Don't squander the time away on stuff that doesn't matter. Do something of eternal value.

We've had some great guest speakers at the church the last several weeks. Excellent messages preached. Check out the one from Mark Worley on February 12 called "The Bus is Leaving". Maybe it will motivate you to share with someone.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dealing with Troublemakers

If you've been around almost any church long enough, it seems that they have their troublemakers. A thorn in the side of their leaders, a stumbling block to others, they squeak and squawk and cause trouble. How should we deal with these people biblically?

Be patient with them.
One of my favorite instructions about dealing with difficult people (and church members) is this principle from Paul:
“We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

Being patient with people is something that I really struggle with. Of course, even Christians are going to manifest problems sometimes. We can’t be in the business of seeking and saving sinners and then be startled by their sins! Many Christians are fainthearted, many are weak, and some are downright unruly.

The Scriptural principle above expects church leaders and mature Christians to have enough wisdom and experience to discern which people and situations require admonition, encouragement or help. No matter how we respond, we should do so in love, being “patient with everyone.”

If the situation does require your intervention or correction, do it with the hope of defusing the situation rather than making things worse. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1).

Confront them.
There are certainly times when the right thing to do is to confront. To fail to confront when the situation calls for it is to fail to do your job as a Christian. Sometimes honest confrontation is necessary not only to defend yourself and the ministry of the Gospel, but to protect the church. As the bride of Christ, the church is to remain pure and blameless, different from the world. Sometimes we must confront sin in the camp to remain as God intends so we can minister the Gospel with His blessing. Remember "...that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough..." (1 Cor. 5:6). Sometimes confrontation is a necessary step.

Many people dread confrontation. Too awkward. Too painful. Easier to ignore the problem and hope (and even pray) it goes away. However, often the problems we ignore tend to only get worse.

Jesus instructed that when a Christian brother sins (Mt 18:15-17) or has something against us (Mt 5:23-24) we should speak to that person privately, seeking to be reconciled. Such a loving confrontation may lead to a positive outcome. Maybe you will discover that you have been misinformed about what the brother said or did. Maybe you will learn the rest of the story. Maybe the brother will confess and ask for your forgiveness.

However, there is wisdom in picking your battles. There is a big difference between a thoughtless slight and a malicious attack. Are you able to let the little things go? If we confront every sin head-on, we will have time for little else.

Learn from them.
Is another church member criticizing you? Have you stopped to consider whether there is any truth to their complaint? Good Christians are good listeners. "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry..." (James 1:19)

Even ministers can respond so swiftly and defensively to a church member’s “attack” that he or she may fail to see that the criticism actually has merit. None of us are perfect -- not even me!

Psalm 139:22-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts, and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.” Are you allowing God to speak to you through your circumstances and learn from them?

Pray for them.
Has a church member betrayed you? Turned against you?

On the evening of His arrest, Jesus knew that Peter was about to betray Him (Lk 24:31-34). How did Jesus respond? He prayed for Peter -- for his faith, for his repentance, and for his ministry. Jesus taught: “Bless those who curse you pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:28).

When a problem erupted in the Jerusalem church, the apostles set a marvelous example of mature spiritual leadership. A church fuss arose over the distribution of food, which was a symptom of the underlying ethnic tension that existed between the Greek and Hebrew Christians (Acts 6).

Notice that the apostles did not jump right into the middle of the fuss. Rather, they told their members to work the problem out among themselves.

Didn’t the apostles care? As the leaders, shouldn’t they have responded? They did respond, in this way: “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.” Surely at the top of their prayer list were requests for peace between the fussing believers and wisdom for the newly selected leaders.

Often the very best thing a brother or sister can do about a difficult person is to pray for them. If you resist your own strong reaction and place the difficult person in the Lord’s hands and wait upon the Lord, you may be surprised at the different ways God can deal with a problem. Remain faithful to God through it all. Perseverance is a call of every saint.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Church Dropouts

The parable of the sower prepares us for the sad reality that not all Christians will remain faithful. It’s heart-rending but we shouldn’t be surprised when some believers drop out along the way. Jesus said some seed planted in shallow soil would spring up quickly, “But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.” (Matthew 13:5-6)

When church members fade away, Christian friends are disappointed and often blame themselves. Like a rejected lover who struggles with self-esteem the church asks, “What’s wrong with us that so many come in the front door and leave out the back door?”

It’s awkward when we see formerly active members at a community function and we don’t know what to say. “Miss seeing you at church!” is about all we can muster. We go home and wonder again, “What happened to them? Why aren’t they attending worship services anymore?”

Jesus explained it like this, “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the Word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” (Matthew 13:20-21)

Some people drop out because they can’t take the heat that comes from believing in the basics of God’s Word. They wilt when friends ridicule them or their job is in jeopardy because of their religious beliefs, and they look for an excuse to quit. Others get so caught up in the pursuit of worldly success and pleasure that they don’t have time for the church anymore. They’re too busy traveling and conducting business affairs.

When church elders or friends muster up enough courage to confront, the defectors never say, “To be honest, I’m a shallow person and I couldn’t take being labeled controversial.” They never confess, “I’m so consumed with making money right now that I’ve got my priorities out of whack.”

No, you'll never hear real truth from dropouts as to why they are leaving the church. Almost always, they blame the church for their backslidden condition. The preacher offended them or wasn't there for them. The church just wasn’t meeting their needs. The music wasn’t what they preferred. They weren’t being fed or their children just weren't plugging in. As a result the church becomes the target of unjust criticism and some members conclude, “The preacher has to quit alienating people.” “The elders need to develop a better shepherding program.” “We need to change our worship style to meet this group or that group's needs.”

I was recently at a church leadership conference and the speaker talked about how they hate it when people leave a church and all they can say is that they “weren't being fed there” or “their needs weren't being met”. That is a consumer mentality that is killing churches and ministries. Maybe these people need to put down the spoon and put on an apron. Instead of consuming only (which is immaturity) they should serve (which shows maturity).

While the church shepherds need to make every effort to feed their sheep and rescue the strays, we would do well to remember that not even Jesus managed to keep every sheep in the fold. “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:66) Even one of his closest disciples, Judas Iscariot, got entangled and overcome by the world. It wasn’t Jesus’ fault and He predicted that in the last days, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold,” (Matt 24:12)

Bottom line? The church needs to do it’s best to disciple and deepen every believer. There's the great indictment against today's church. We may be good at winning souls, but aren't we good at discipling them and growing them deep so they'll mature and stay in the faith. However, church leaders need to also be realistic. No matter how meaningful our worship services are or how effective our discipleship programs may be, we will never have 100% retention. So keep the big picture in mind. Our task is to sow the seed of the gospel and rejoice when some of it grows to maturity.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Good Failure

If you have ever tried something for God and you were met with failure, here is what I want to say to you today: thank you. Thank you for trying. Thank your for action and movement. Failure is not always a bad thing, because failure will oftentimes precede success. Failure can actually teach us success because we can learn from our mistakes.

Since I became lead minister here at Oakwood in 2008, I've had a lot of learning to do. Many mistakes have littered my path along the way, but I tried to learn a lesson from each one. I'm a lot better for it now, guaranteed! As I speak with other church leaders around the country, it is always good for me to hear how the "bigs" make mistakes too, and are still learning themselves. It has been said that if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. But let me restate that in a new way: If at first you don't succeed, relax. You are just like the rest of us.

We beat ourselves up when we fail because we didn't emerge with the greatest success of all time. But often it is through process of learning what not to do that we better learn what to do in the future. We need to be in the practice of good failure. This is failure at its best. It's good because it's a failure where we fail forward, learning from our mistakes.

In Matthew 14 we find the story of a failure, one of the most spectacular failures of all time. It is the story of Peter, who walked on the water with Jesus. It is also the story of his sinking after he walked on the water with Jesus. But the fact is, the Bible tells us that Peter "went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus" (verse 29). That was a great moment, and whatever followed cannot undo it. We can find fault with Peter for a number of things, but no one else in the boat attempted to do what Peter did. He failed, yes. But at least he was doing something!

It is easy to sit like armchair quarterbacks and critique people who are out there leading, out there trying to make a difference. But we need to ask ourselves, "What have I done lately? Have I taken a risk for the kingdom of God?" I would far rather try and fail than never do anything at all. You can recover from a mistake, but you can't recover from stagnation. Do something for the Lord and His Kingdom today. Make sure it's a call to action. And if you fail at it, make it good!