Category: Annual Church Themes

Case Study 2: Killing Locusts

The final article in our Summer Blog Tour is written by Scott Johnson as he describes what it means for his church transition from a sedentary faith to an Unshackled Faith. I hope this story encourages you that transformation is possible. God still works when we take the risk to live with our Faith Unshackled.

Faith Unshackled 01

Change is terrifying. Whether its work, school, marriage, or grocery store layouts, change is never fun. When our congregation at Crosspointe Church of Christ faced the fact that we were a hospice church, a church on life support, and we had to move. Fast. Over 10 years our attendance had decreased by two-thirds.

Through a long, agonizing series of events, we begin to seek God’s direction. Where did He want us to move next? We had several congregational meetings that only gave us confirmation that things were bad. We either had to seek out a resurrection or pull the plug. There were no other options. Change had to come.

We had less than a month before we had a final meeting with the entire church to reveal what was next. Taking the church off life support was not an option. So we were relaunching. We were moving to a new mission. I was asked to craft it. I was hopeless. So I sat down to write.

I remember sitting at my kitchen table one night. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t pray. I was beyond frustrated and angry. As I watched the laptop cursor blink, as I stared into the white screen, I gave up. I quit. I stopped. I walked out.

pexels silhoutte night sky-LoRez

I went out onto the back porch and looked at the sky and begin talking to God. I told Him how tired I was. I told Him how discouraged and angry I had become. I told Him that I was sick of it. I told him I quit. And then I told Him that if He had any ideas, I’d love to know them.

And then I hit a watershed moment in my life. I said, “God, you’ve got to show up or Crosspointe isn’t going to make it. She’s your body. You created her. You know what you have in store for us. We give up. I give up. Please, give me your vision.”

I stood there in the silence for a while. And then it happened. God put something into my heart and brain that ignited a fire in my bones.

He brought this Scripture to mind:

“I will restore to you the year that the swarming locust has eaten…” (Joel 2:25a, ESV)

What God brought forth that night has completely re-forged Crosspointe. Sunday we had our first progress meeting since the relaunch one year ago. In that year I’ve seen our members step out in ways I never dreamed possible. I’ve seen more generosity, kindness, and boldness than I ever thought we’d muster. You can follow what this has looked like in the daily life of Crosspointe on my blog https://oldesoultheology.com/.

The years eaten away by the destroyer…have slowly begun to be restored.

Why?   How?

Faith.

God’s people at Crosspointe had the audacity to trust in the God who breathed out the stars… and step out onto the waves. We’re not there yet, but exercising our faith has grown it exponentially.

“We’re trusting, Lord. We know you’ll deliver us. We believe, but help our unbelief.”

Wherever you find yourself in your walk with God, ask the question: What is holding me back from completely trusting Him? What’s my obstacle? And then pray…and kick it right down. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world.

sound-waves 01a

Scott JohnsonScott has been on both sides of the fence: life without Jesus and life with Jesus. He wouldn’t go back for anything. As a former drug addict, he has a passion for sharing Jesus with the world. He graduated from Ohio Valley University in 2007 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biblical Texts. He has been in full-time ministry since 2007 and served two churches in that time. Scott is the Senior Minister at Crosspointe Church of Christ in Franklin, Ohio. He resides in Middletown, Ohio with his wife and their two children. He loves to play guitar, drink coffee, help people, and enjoy his family.

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Faith: The Engine of God’s Creative Redemption

Faith Unshackled 01

Incarnation and Imitation

The incarnation revealed what is possible when a human moves in God’s will, and by God’s power. In Jesus, God acted, but also demonstrated what human action in the name of God looks like. “For I have set you an example, “Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you”. Yes, this line’s context (John 13:15) is somewhat particular to his servant gesture of foot-washing, but the following discourse makes clear that this practice is barely the tip of the iceberg. Everything Jesus does and says is a demonstration of God’s work and will in the world, and the disciples are being invited to share in that way of being in the world. The point of the incarnation is to say, “This is what happens when divine action/being meets human action/being.”

Moments later, Jesus expresses to his disciples that they have perceived God’s will as revealed through Jesus’s words and actions, and have even had their status before God changed because of it: “The servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Jesus is revealing God’s will and work, and then inviting them to join into that same will and work, becoming fruitful by honoring his command to “love one another as I have loved you.” God is at work among humanity in the human form of Jesus, so that humanity might be able to learn how to work on behalf of God in the world.

What’s Faith Got to Do with It?

This is all well and good as a bunch of theological talk, but is still missing a critical piece: faith. This all occurs in its context in a crisis moment, and the disciples will forget their loyalty to Jesus before we can scarcely turn the page on the conversation. However, before their abandonment, we get a preview of what will come to pass after the resurrection. It is yet to be tested by the crucible, but we get a taste of the faith that will be solidified when the disciples witness his defeat of death. In John 16:30 we read the climatic confession, “we believe that you came from God”. That curiously-worded affirmation of faith is more central to John’s gospel than is easily recognized.

“We believe that you came from God” sounds like a basic thing to affirm about Jesus, but for John’s gospel it is the critical point. Everything up until chapter 12 has been constructed to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the one sent from God. It’s a theme hiding in plain sight, captured in language like being “from God” or “from heaven”, or in Jesus’s talk about being “sent”. The fascinating turn of the fourth gospel is that it takes this basic affirmation of Jesus’s origin and uses it to launch the mission of the disciples. Just as the father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples (20:21), and when they are doing the will of God, they have access to the same divine power that Jesus put on display. What’s the connection between what Jesus did and what the sent disciples will do? Their faith.

In coming to believe that Jesus is from God, the disciples also come to believe his invitation to share in his divinely originating power and mission. They too become “from God” because now they are “from Jesus”. John tipped his hand early on that this was God’s work in Jesus: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13) In the wake of the resurrection, the disciples can truly become brothers of Jesus, sharing the same Father and God (20:17).

Sent

The Victory of Faith

There’s an old church song, “Faith is the Victory” which draws its language from 1 John 5:4-5, “…this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” The song implies that the victory is one that we, Christ’s disciples win over our enemies. However, the greater truth is that it is Jesus who becomes victorious over his enemies because of our faith. See, we may not have noticed the connection between this text (1 John 5) and John 16:33, where Jesus says to his disciples: “Take courage; I have conquered the world!”. Notice how the announcement is peculiarly located—Jesus proclaims his victory before the events of either the cross or the empty tomb. What has happened at this point that evokes this claim? It is the confession of faith from the disciples—this constitutes Jesus’s victory over the world!

Now that they believe—or perhaps better, now that they are coming to believe—Jesus has won a foothold in the world. God’s work will continue. The gospel embodied in him will be embodied in his disciples who now participate in his mission. Jesus, the Sent One, will become the sender, and the faith of his disciples will become a gateway for the power of God to work goodness in the world.

Our faith is much more powerful than we know. It is not just a vehicle for our comfort or empowerment. It is a vehicle for divine action. It is the connection point at which God’s people become partners by God’s Spirit, agents of God’s creative agenda in the world. Faith is the engine translating God’s will into human action and the restoration of God’s creation.

It is easy to underestimate our faith. I often perceive mine to be quite a weak thing—apparently much smaller than even a mustard seed. But in the hands of Jesus, even our broken faith creates enormous possibilities, and becomes a tool in God’s mission.

sound-waves 01a(If you would like to walk through a study of the “Sent” theme in John, consider the following texts in their context: 1:12-13, 3:2, 3:13, 3:17, 3:31-34, 4:34, 5:23-24, 5:36-38, 6:33, 6:46, 6:57, 7:27-29, 8:14-16, 8:23-26, 8:42, 9:4, 9:29-33, 10:36, 11:27, 12:44-45, 13:3, 14:24, 15:21, 16:27-30, 17:8, 18:36-37, 19:9, 20:21. This list is not exhaustive, and perhaps the better approach is to simply take a highlighter to a fresh copy of the gospel and mark each time the theme shows up. I assure you, you will not have to travel long between occurrences! I would love to say that the theme is plainly stated in literally every chapter of John, but alas, chapter 2 only yields 2:9, which I hold to be playful language on the theme—but I’ll let you decide for yourself.)

10 Steven Hovater - pic

 

Steven Hovater: Four kids. One wife. Seventeen hobbies. A coach’s whistle. Lots of thoughts about God and food. The spiritual gift of volume. Blogs at stevenhovater.com, and preaches in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

Faith Unshackled: A Case Study

My husband, Mike walked down Maiden Alley toward the Ohio River with his young friend.  As he walked with his arm around twelve-year old DeShawn he asked, “DeShawn, when Jesus was on trial, Pilate kept asking if he was a King?  Jesus told him, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, but finally admitted he is the King.  That’s what I’m going to ask you.  Do you believe Jesus is the King?”  DeShawn answered, “Yes, Mr. Mike. I do.”  They continued to walk down to the bank of the Ohio River.  About 40 people from The Rivers Church followed them.  

Mike and DeShawn stood right at the edge of the river and Mike asked the young man if he was ready for Jesus to be King of his life? This is a kid that only a year and a half before was so rude and disrespectful that he would often be sent home from our Tuesday night outreach ministry and here he stood in the Ohio River ready to put on Christ.  DeShawn came up out of that water to applause and tears from a church family that is a glimpse of what heaven is going to look like.   

Walking to the River Baptism

The Rivers Church began on Sunday, December 18th at 10:02 a.m. at Maiden Alley Cinema in Paducah, Kentucky, a half block from where the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers converge.  From its outset, it has been our goal to be racially integrated, ethnically diverse, and outreach focused.  Nones, Dones, and the next generation are our targets.  Our ministry team spent time praying, talking, studying, and then praying some more about the vision for a church that could open doors for all people to hear the gospel in a post Christian culture.  

Why 10:02 a.m.?  Our gathering time is based on Luke 10:2- “…The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers.”  At The Rivers Church, we’ve based our lives on the truth of the gospel — we know that the gospel is the best message in town that everyone needs to hear but Christians have made it harder and harder for people to hear the message because we’ve often lost our focus.  We are convinced that if we go to where the people are, like Jesus said, and if we love them and love each other, then the gospel will do the rest.   

Only God could have assembled the ministry team at The Rivers Church.  This is what we’ve got- My husband Mike Moore is a trial attorney and was an elder for 5 years at an old established wealthy church. He also is a fantastic preacher. (I know I’m a little biased.)   

Tyrell Grant is a former rap producer drug dealer who became a Christian and quickly decided he wanted to be an evangelist.  He went to school and got a preaching degree.  His wife, Marquita is a preacher’s kid with an early childhood degree who leads our children’s ministry.   

Cornelius Edwards is a wonderfully gifted worship minister.  Before he joined our work he traveled from his home base in Atlanta all over the country to lead worship at special events. Check out his music on iTunes and YouTube.  His wife Soyini has an awesome voice as well and was willing to leave her job at CNN because she believed in this vision of what church could be. She has an innate sense as to what people need and ministers to many already!   

Lyle Sinkey is a former meth addict who is an outdoorsman and preacher.   He just finished up a contract with Duck Commander where he was a videographer.  He and his wife Kelly joined our team to minister in the areas of addiction recovery and marriage.   

Finally, there’s me, Ginger.  I’m a former homeschooling mom and wife who was raised going to church.   I lead our women’s ministry and make some pretty delicious communion bread. 

Rivers Church ministry team

The Rivers Church is a group of believers that are trying to live with our faith unshackled.  Only Cornelius is a paid staff member.  Soyini recently started her own business.  Lyle and Kelly are raising their support like U.S. missionaries.  Mike maintains a full law practice and I’m his office manager.  Tyrell and Marquita run a daycare and Tyrell is also a blogger/tech guy.   

We don’t have a building and it is our intention to never have one.  Our rent at the theatre annually is the equivalent of one month’s utility bills at our former church.  We’re trying to keep it simple.  We use Mike’s Law office for small group Bible studies offered to the community.  Tyrell and Marquita lead a small group in their home weekly.  We have an outreach ministry that ministers to low income at risk children that meets at a shelter at the park.  All of our gatherings are intergenerational.  Families serve together.  We’ve worshipped at the Farmer’s Market pavilion and will have worship this fall right at the river.    

Martin Luther King Jr. said this in Letter From Birmingham Jail, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.  Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”    

Mr. King spoke truth in 1963 and it is even more true in 2017.  Young people don’t care what you know about Jesus until they see how you love like Jesus.  My teenaged daughters invited their seventeen year old friend to worship with us.  When worship was over, I asked her what she thought.  Her answer let me know that we are headed in the right direction.  She said with lots of excitement, “I love this!  At the end, I just felt like I needed to go around the room and hug everyone. You can feel the love.”   

I think we’re on the right path. 


Follow us on Social Media Contacts at:   

Facebook.com/TheRiversPaducah

Instagram: theriverschurch  

Website: www.theriverschurch.org 


Ginger Moore is a 47 year old reluctant church planter, who just celebrated her 25th wedding anniversary.  She’s the mom of a 17 year old daughter and an 18 year old daughter who are so proud and excited to be a part of the work.  Her theme verse for the year has been 2 Timothy 2:13- “When we are faithless, he is faithful for he can not deny himself.”  God has been so very good and faithful as we have planted this church and he has brought the increase.

Gentleness: Good or Bad?

My daughter is about to complete her first year of gymnastics. Her coaches emphasise strength and discipline, but also grace, control and poise. When she correctly walks from one end of the beam to the other there’s a beauty and a gentleness to her movements. The final performance belies the falls, the awkwardness of failed handstands, and the hours of practice and conditioning.

gymnastThen there are the boys. From my observation, boys gymnastics training is quite different from the girls’. They are in continual motion. They fling themselves around apparatus with total abandon. The coaches I watch do a fantastic job of channeling the aggression and energy into exercises where it seems the boys almost don’t notice they’re training rather than playing.

At some point, the boys will learn grace, control and poise, but not today. Their routines emphasise strength and power rather than gentleness and beauty.

This dichotomy poses challenges for churches.

Jesus describes himself as gentle and humble in Matthew 11:29,

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Later, the apostle, Paul, would tell Christians in a church he knew well that Gentleness was a mark of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

But who wants to be gentle? Who starts out in life saying, “I hope my legacy is one of gentleness.“?

I suspect most of us like people to be gentle toward us. We don’t appreciate anger, harsh criticism, or violence directed at us. But that doesn’t mean we aspire to gentleness ourselves. We want to climb mountains, overcome challenges, fling our bodies around with reckless abandon, and play sports to win.

How can churches hope to attract competitive, adventurous men and women if God’s goal is make them gentle?

Thankfully, this list of spiritual fruit isn’t exhaustive. The apostle Peter writing to a different audience includes a similar list.

Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. (2 Peter 1:5-7)

This list seems to replace gentleness with perseverance. That seems like a trait all those gymnasts need, and all Christians need also.

Before you start thinking that I want to take Gentleness out of the Bible, let me assure you that’s not the case. For those of us who go through life hurling ourselves at obstacles always playing to win, then we need to know that God values gentleness.

Accomplishments are great. Achieving goals is admirable. But not at all costs. Gentleness reminds us of the humanity of those around us. It reminds us to care for others. Gentleness reminds us that we don’t win when we destroy someone else in the process.

But for those who would turn Christians into delicate flowers of civility and gentleness, God also reminds us that His Spirit gives us strength to persevere when circumstances conspire against us. Gentleness by itself doesn’t reflect the wholeness of God.

The challenge for our churches and individual Christians is to reveal the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives through both our gentleness and our strength. And knowing when each is needed requires divine wisdom from the Holy Spirit also.

Whatever our natural inclination God encourages to unshackle our faith and expand our character as he transforms us from who we’ve been to who we can become.

Why Self-Control is Deceptive

In Titus 2:1-14 Paul writes to tell his apprentice, Titus, how to go about establishing new churches in Crete. In this particular passage he lists specific instructions for training four different demographic groups within the church.Consider for a moment which virtue would you most emphasise to young Christians in fledgling churches?

Paul tells Titus four times to teach these different groups self-control.  Older men, be self-controlled. Older women urge younger women to practice self-control. Young men, be self-controlled.

If only telling someone to be self-controlled brought the desired results. I think we all know it’s not that simple.

Let’s remember where this topic comes from… This series on Faith Unshackled spent two weeks looking at things we believe. Then over the last two weeks we looked at things God wants his people to be doing. Those things are important, but they don’t amount to much if they don’t change who we become.

While churches often refuse to fellowship with other churches over beliefs and practices I’ve never heard a congregation criticised  because the church doesn’t exhibit God’s patience or self control. Yet one of the great consequences of the cross is that is that God transforms us into his image. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [unshackled faith] And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

What we believe, and what we practice are important, because they influence who we become. But don’t lose sight that God is working in our lives, not only helping us to do or think better, but to become like Him. We shouldn’t set goals to adjust who we’re becoming if we’re unwilling to change what we believe, what we practice, and how we let God work in our lives.

Bringing this specifically back to self-control…I do want to make a couple of points about Titus 2.

  1. The key verse in this passage is v12. Verse 12 splits neatly into two halves. The first is what to avoid. The second tells what to become. Throughout this passage, Paul’s primary concern isn’t whether or not you had donuts for breakfast. (Although that may well be a secondary application.) Rather, when Paul talks about self-control, his focus is upon sin.

    Say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions. Resisting the temptation of sin is important. It takes self-control because sin is attractive.

  1. Is Paul then saying then that teaching self-control means that he expects perfection from everyone? I don’t think so. It’s the grace of God that teaches us to say No….. It’s the grace of God that’s working in our lives to mold us into the image of God. So here’s how I understand this whole thing to be working…

self control 01

The pictures above show a couple of common perceptions about self-control. Many of us get fooled by the word “self” in self-control.  We take all the responsibility upon ourselves. But that’s not God’s use of the term.

When God talks of self-control, He encourages us to let the Holy Spirit control us. As we think about the person God wants us to become, it’s not just coincidence that Paul includes self-control in his list of the Fruit of the Spirit over in Galatians 5:23.

When we face temptations, rather than struggling with that temptation ourselves, God wants us to pray, to trust Him, to ask Him to take control of our lives and guide our choices. When we take the virtue ‘self-control’ too literally we deny God a place in our lives.

Christian self-control means knowing when to concede greater control of our life to God.

Finally, self-control involves more than avoiding sin. Godly self-control will also motivate us to live in a manner that brings him glory. Self-control means loving my neighbour more than my television. Self-control helps me attend worship services regularly and invest in the lives of other believers. Self-control helps me listen when my impulse is to react. Because self-control means knowing when to concede greater control of my life to God.

One author I read summarised this perspective with this comment. Self-control is not only about the discipline to stop doing things that destroy us, but also about the discipline to do the things that build us up. When we develop a healthy discipline to engage in the spiritual practices, we speed up our growth rate.

As Paul told Titus, regardless of our age or gender, we all need self-control to recognise our need for God’s Spirit to empower us as we put aside sin and live within the kingdom of heaven. This is a crucial step in our journey toward spiritual maturity.

Less Dogma – More Doing

As I think about this summer blog tour theme of “Faith Unshackled”, I have been thinking about what often shackles our faith. And sometimes, I think we have just made it too complicated. It is like we say, “It can’t be that simple!” and then start arguing doctrine, dogma, and Scripture to avoid the obvious.

Faith Unshackled 01

I have been studying a great deal lately the greatest commandments. There are a few different versions of this in the gospels, but my favorite has become the one recorded in Mark 12. One of the scribes sees that Jesus is a legit teacher, so he asks him the big question. “Which commandment is the first of all?” In other words, what matters the most to God? Most of us know the story. Jesus says something like,

Love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.” But in Mark’s recording, the scribe gives Jesus a robust “Amen!” “You are right he says!” Then he goes on to repeat back essentially what Jesus has already said and the scribe tacks on, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”. But here is the part I love. After the scribe says this, Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.

Wait? Loving God and loving neighbor puts us in a place where Jesus basically says, “You’re getting it now. You’re getting closer. You’re discovering the way of the kingdom”?! Can that be?!

Overwhelmingly churches (mine included) give a list of core values and beliefs that are something like, “We believe in God, we believe in the Bible, we believe in salvation, we believe in baptism” and on and on.

But for some reason, I have never seen a church say, “Our core belief is this: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Then love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you are near the kingdom of God.”

That seems a bit too simple doesn’t it? Yet, that is more important than all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices. Or, if I might contextualize and paraphrase it a bit, that is more important than all of our “right beliefs”, “sound doctrine”, etc.

Then we have Matthew 25. I have heard multiple sermons and lessons on this text and how it teaches the reality of final judgment, which by the way I affirm. However, do we ever ponder the question, “What does Jesus say puts one on the wrong side?” If we do, the answer isn’t burnt offerings, sacrifices, correct doctrine, worship service attendance, reading the Bible, understanding baptism, etc. (though those are all REALLY important to talk about and do). Rather, the answer is those that gave food and drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, visited the sick, and welcomed the strangers. I think it would be fair to put that under the heading of “loving God and loving neighbor”.

love god peopleSo when I think about unshackled faith that lives for Jesus with reckless abandon, I think it is best we get back to the basics. The church has been like the football team that has come up with really great offensive and defensive schemes, but forgot to teach the basics of blocking and tackling.

My prayer is that we could continue the important discussions about doctrine, Scripture, and beliefs, but that we would not neglect the seemingly simple and most important. My prayer is that we would get back to the basics. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. And by the way, I don’t think you can do one without the other. Maybe the best way to love God is to get back to the basics and go love a neighbor. Maybe then the kingdom of God will come near.

sound-waves 01aRyan LassiterRyan Lassiter is the husband of Sarah, and father of 3 (almost 4!) beautiful children. He is also the preaching minister at the Hunter Hills Church of Christ in Prattville AL, he and his wife Sarah have also spent time as missionaries. Ryan graduated with his masters in Missional Leadership from Rochester College and his passion is helping people join God in his mission of redemption and restoration. He blogs at www.ryanlassiter.com.

Can we be Friends?

This week’s sermon is available HERE.

Last Sunday I talked about the need for all Christians to pursue spiritual maturity. In the process I presented some research results from the REVEAL study of spiritual growth. As the researchers collated their results, they grouped healthy spiritual practices into 4 groups:

  • Beliefs and Attitudes;
  • Organized Church Activities;
  • Personal Spiritual Practices; and
  • Spiritual Activities with Others.

It seems to me that those first three groups are the ones we emphasise the most. We do a lot of teaching to establish Biblical beliefs. We encourage participation in church activities, particularly Bible Classes and worship. We also encourage people to pray and read Scripture for themselves. But perhaps when we look at that list we’re not even sure what “Spiritual Activities with Others” means. So here’s another list for you.

Activities with Others

Of these four, I’ll focus today on the top two: Spiritual Friendships and Spiritual Mentors. It seems to me that we often value Christian friendships among teens as we pour many resources into ministries for teens. However, we don’t make the same emphasis among general church members.

We settle for people showing up on Sunday and don’t impose the expectation that they spend time with other Christians outside of Sunday worship service. We know that Christians need one another to experience the fullness of Christ, but perhaps we often think that Bible studies fulfill all the “one another” instructions in Scripture.

I expect that some of my readers will think the church already values spiritual friendships. You may be right. But let me pose a scenario and gauge your response…

board games group

You hear of a church down the road that cancels their Wednesday night Bible Class because they decide that they study the Bible as a group sufficiently on Sunday. Instead, they now meet in homes and play board games, and cards. Sometimes they watch movies together, while some of the groups bake together or discussing books they’re reading together.

What you may not have heard is that each of these groups close their time together with 20-30 minutes of prayer. But still, all that play time in place of Bible Study!

Perhaps we feel uncomfortable toward this church because while we acknowledge the theory regarding the importance of spiritual friendships, we don’t actually value them all that highly. We may not have thought of it in these terms, but we would prefer for people who aren’t friends to study the Bible together, than to not study the Bible and work on building friendships.

Perhaps we feel uncomfortable praising spiritual friendships, because we don’t have any ourselves.

  • Do your friends encourage your faith?
  • Do your friends pray for, and with, you?
  • Do you pray for, and with, your friends?
  • Can you ask your friends about Scriptures you’ve been reading?
  • Do your friends get excited about sharing God’s love with others?
  • Do your friends help you date, or parent, in a God-honor way?

I believe that many of Christians will acknowledge the importance of spiritual friendships to their walk with Christ. We’ll acknowledge that God has placed us in His church and made us part of his body which belongs and works together. But I suspect that many Christians fail to prioritize spiritual friendships or allow their personal spiritual practices to bleed over into our relationships with others.

It’s true, that many Christians can say that their best friends also attend church with them, but that by itself doesn’t make the friendship spiritual. Spiritual friendships intentionally include spiritual conversations, spiritual checkups, and spiritual practices.

 

Can I Measure Spiritual Maturity?

The sermon on this topic is available HERE.

Most Christians recognise that God makes a claim upon our lives that nothing else in our lives be more important that our commitment to Him. He’s our #1.

But what does that look like?

street preacher

When I hear talk like that I picture street corner preachers proclaiming the need for repentance and breathing damnation all at the same time.

I picture my chiropractor who greets each crack of my back with a “Hallelujah” or “Thank-you Jesus”.

I imagine people in the workplace who are most known for the disapproval of the latest social trend for the last twenty years who also tell everyone that they should be in church on on Sunday.

As I think a little more deeply, I recognise that making God #1 will look different for everyone. So how can we tell if others are making God their priority? More importantly, how can we tell if we have idols in our own lives?

One helpful way of addressing these questions, is to change the question. Making God our life’s priority covers a lot of ground. It also indicates that it’s something we do, and then it stays that way. If we’re honest, we’ll concede that giving God priority is a growth process that takes years, and we probably never master it completely.

So here’s a bite size question that I find more helpful.

Am I committed to spiritual growth?

All of us want to say “Yes” to that question, but how are we pursuing spiritual growth. I find that most Christians have few tangible steps they can take toward spiritual maturity beyond the big three of: Pray, Read the Bible, and Attend Church.

I doubt that spiritual growth is a “one size fits all” process, but in recent years I’ve stumbled across material from Willow Creek Community Church and Real Life Ministries that I’ve found helpful.

The Willow Creek REVEAL survey identified four stages of spiritual maturity. You can see them in the picture below along with an indicative saying from each stage.

REVEAL growth continuum.jpg

While it’s interesting to consider we might currently stand on this continuum. More important for our question “Am I committed to Spiritual Growth?” is understanding how a person moves from one stage to another. The REVEAL survey provides some ideas there also.

The survey results can be broken down into 4 areas of spiritual life. A spiritually mature Christian will seek to grow in all four areas, but the temptation is to ignore those which feel less comfortable to us. The four areas are:

  1. Spiritual beliefs and attitudes
  2. Organized church activities
  3. Personal spiritual practices
  4. Spiritual activities with others

I can’t list all the catalysts for movement without this post becoming ridiculously long. You can get all the survey results and discussion in a recent book titled MOVE. But here are the Top 5 catalysts for each area of movement:

Moving From Exploring Christ to Growing in Christ

  1. Belief in Salvation by Grace
  2. Belief in the Trinity
  3. Church Activity Serve in a church ministry 1-2 times a month
  4. Spiritual Practice Prayer for Guidance
  5. Spiritual Practice Reflection on Scripture

Bible study 02Moving From Growing in Christ to Close to Christ

  1. Belief in a Personal God
  2. Spiritual Practice Prayer for Guidance
  3. Spiritual Practice Reflection on Scripture
  4. Spiritual Practice Solitude
  5. Spiritual Activity with Others Evangelism

Moving From Close to Christ to Christ-Centered

  1. Belief Giving Away My Life (“I am willing to surrender everything that is important in my life to Jesus Christ.”)
  2. Belief Christ is First
  3. Belief Identity in Christ
  4. Belief Authority of the Bible
  5. Spiritual Practice Reflection on Scripture

In his book “Real -Life Discipleship“, Jim Putman, describes the stages of spiritual maturity in terms of stages of life: Infant, Child, Young Adult, and Parent.

I love his vision of a mature Christian as a parent. A Christian is not mature because they know Bible details. A Christian is not mature because they’re always talking about Jesus. A person is mature because they’re investing in the lives of people around them. Sometimes they’re leading people into relationship with Jesus. Other times they’re helping younger Christians grow.

A christian who regards themselves as mature but isn’t passing on their faith to another generation of believers through personal effort (not by paying the preacher) is deceiving themselves.

There’s a lot to consider here and each of these ideas have thick books behind them. My primary goal is to encourage each of us to continue our quest to grow in Christ: To grow toward spiritual maturity. As we do this we’ll discover that Christ is #1 in our lives.

Trusting Faith

Faith Unshackled 01

Words do not stay the same. The definition or influence of a word can change over time. Sometimes they are overused and lose their power. Words that were once quite meaningful can become meaningless. Christianity is a religion that relies on certain words. The Bible is a story, and you cannot tell a story without words. Some of these words are essential to Christianity, and yet Christianity is a religion that has been around for many, many years. Christians have clung to important words while also dealing with an ever-changing world where the meaning of words can change.

Faith is one of the most significant words belonging to Christianity, but what does it mean? Over the years, many have equated it with belief. For these individuals, faith is the same as mental assent, but I believe a careful reading of the Bible will prove this definition to be inadequate. Certainly, belief is an element of faith, but it goes deeper than what a person may hold to be true.

Several times in the Gospel of Mark, faith is contrasted with fear (Mark 5:36). One of the most famous stories where this occurs is when Jesus calms a storm (Mark 4:35-41). You can imagine how frightening it would be to be on a small boat in the middle of a lake during a storm. Your boat could be capsized by the wind and waves. You would be susceptible to lightning strikes. You would essentially be helpless until you could reach shore. This is the situation that the disciples found themselves in. They were scared, and through it all Jesus slept. Finally, they decide to wake him. He calms the storm, and then says, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40).

hands 01If faith were merely belief, then fear would have no power over it. It’s possible to believe and at the same time be afraid. Faith is more closely related to trust. When we trust, fear goes away. This is what Jesus was looking for in the boat. The disciples were believers, but they did not have trusting faith. If they would have had faith in Jesus, then they would not have been afraid.

The contrast between faith and fear that Mark provides is helpful in evaluating our level of faith. It might be difficult for some to gauge their commitment to God adequately.  We are great at critiquing others and not so great at self-criticism. However, if we think of fear as the opposite of faith, then it is much easier to identify areas where we are afraid. Wherever we find fear, we will likely also find a lack of faith. If we fear the political future of America, then we need to trust that God is sovereign over all. If we fear our neighbors who do not look like us, then we need to seek to love them all the more while trusting that God has created all people in his image. If we fear what will happen to the economy or where our next check will come from, then we need to trust that God will provide.

Radical faith is when we put our trust in God even when the future seems uncertain. We see this in story after story in the Bible beginning with Abraham. What we discover from Scripture is that God is always faithful. It would be difficult to trust in a chair that looks weak and fragile, and that has never been set in by you or someone you know. There would be no reason to trust the chair. However, if you saw a big sturdy chair that always provided a safe and secure seat for anyone who rested in it, then you would have no problem trusting the chair. God gives us every reason to trust him. We can always depend on God.

sound-waves 01a06 - Scott Elliot picScott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications. You can find regular blog posts on the Start2Finish platform HERE.

God Uses Us: Shackles and All

I was in the cemetery at my grandmother’s resting place.  This particular memorial park was an exclusively flat-stone only grounds, and each stone had a metal vase that you twisted out of the middle of the stone and turned over to display flowers.  My aunt had tried to pull it out for Mother’s Day, but it was stuck.  I was down on my hands and knees using a pocketknife trying to pry the vase free, it wasn’t budging!  I look over and my daughter is on her knees with her hands folded.  I asked what she is doing and she responded, “I’m praying that God will help you get the vase unstuck.”  Frustrated and very sweaty, I was baffled because I was sure the good Lord had more important things on his plate than helping me turn a vase over…I mean, God doesn’t really work that way does he?  When I returned to my car, I was blown away that at the very moment I was working, prying, and feeling defeated by a gravestone, my seven year old was praying.

Faith Unshackled 01

Sometimes the things we perceive as strengths can become the most restrictive shackles to our faith. I think the ancient story of Adam and Eve still plays out in us…you see, I was reminded in that moment and many others that I have chosen to feast on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Moreover, I have studied the Bible and with that understanding comes the “shackle” of trusting myself to define not only if something is good or evil, but if God is likely to act or not act in a given situation. I think there are too many times where my familiarity with God through the Bible allows me to arrogantly move without an element of trust—to serve before prayer, as if God already affirms what I have decided to do.

As I reflect on this type of “faith,” I think it is why I tend to accomplish only the things I am naturally good at doing, never venturing into the unknown, uncomfortable, or uncontrollable.  Those ministry opportunities or missions are just too sizable for my skills…it would take more than what I have.  I believe that true faith gives LIFE (like the other tree in the garden) and often moves beyond our knowledge, skills, and experience.

Products of a fallen and broken world, I think that all of us come to God with a shackled faith of some sort. And I must admit that I like my shackles because they provide me with a way of understanding faith and they allow me to know that I am growing in faith.

Whenever I ask the question, “Does God really work that way?” I am beginning to see that question as a growth question because it is a direct attack on my knowledge and experience.  When I reread the scriptures asking the question, “What does the Bible really say about this?” I see this question as a challenge to my study and the past interpretations.  And when I finally take an opportunity to trust God and lean on God, when I find myself on a plane to Africa, having dinner with a stranger, opening up a Bible study, or praying that God would intervene in our heroin crisis…I realize that God is in the process of breaking my shackles and setting me free to trust him more.

We all have shackles, and God calls us anyway.  As I think about what it means to live an unshackled faith, I think about the New Creation described at the end of Revelation.  I think about all of the brokenness we have, all of the obstacles that make us cry to God to increase our faith, relieve our doubts, and give us greater perseverance.  But there is great day coming when our faith will become sight.  John says that God will, “…dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

Today we battle our shackles, but we learn to trust God, to believe God, and one day our hope is to be unshackled, face to face with God Almighty, Creator of the unbroken world!

Y1LqPrayer:  Creator God, call us to greater works and allow us the opportunity to trust in You more and more as that great day gets closer and closer.  Our desire is to be set free from the shackles that hold us back.  I pray that you reveal to me the limits of my faith so that I can identify my shackles and receive healing and wholeness from You.  Come Lord Jesus, so that our faith can become sight and our brokenness can be fully restored.  Lord God make all things new and that includes me, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

sound-waves 01a

Jonathan Woodall - picJonathan Woodall serves the GracePointe Church of Christ in Elizabethtown, PA.  He is married to Hayley and they have two children. Jonathan spent ten years in campus ministry at Soma Memphis serving the University of Memphis and served as a worship minister at the White Station Church of Christ.  Jonathan has a desire to see the church reach the next generation and is particularly drawn to the communication of God’s story through preaching and teaching, especially as it pertains to our contemporary context. Jonathan’s blog can be found at www.jonathanfwoodall.com and the church website is www.gracepointechurchofchrist.org  (PS – if you are coming to Hershey, PA for a vacation or whatever, come worship with us!)