I hear many Christians declaring that we need to “Keep Christ in Christmas” because “He’s the Reason for the Season“. Yet, this year, when Christmas fell on Sunday, many churches chose to emphasise their Saturday Christmas Eve Service and some went so far as to cancel their Sunday morning service so that their members could spend time with family.
This state of affairs highlights a reality that many people recognise, but have trouble explaining. There are two distinct holidays both called Christmas.
One holiday places family front and center and close behind is materialism and credit card debt. This holiday has many cultural and family traditions relating to which movies we watch in December, which music we play, and which food we eat. It’s not a bad holiday, in fact, it’s a great experience and an important part of our children’s formative years. It’s warm, it’s rustic and comforting, and hopefully it’s full of love.
So many songs promote this Christmas celebration from, I’ll Be Home for Christmas to Winter Wonderland and Jingle Bells. The romance of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire seems comforting no matter if you live in Florida or Australia and never see snow, or eat chestnuts for Christmas.
Likewise, the list of Christmas moves is extensive. Here’s a list of 50 with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe being as religious as it gets. From classics including A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life to modern classics such as Elf, and Home Alone many families have their own movie play list at this time of year.
The other holiday is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a celebration of God becoming human: the Incarnation. The Incarnation is also a story of love. A story of God’s love toward us. In John 3:16-17 Jesus himself described what happened at his birth. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
The Christian celebration requires worship. It has its own set of sacred carols, but not so many movies. The Christian holiday has also been romanticised. It focuses upon the cute scenes of a baby in a manger surrounded by shepherds and animals. If that’s the totality of the Christian story then it’s no wonder so many have bought into an alternative narrative.
From a Christian perspective the Incarnation of Jesus should prompt people to contemplate questions about the Trinity and the nature of the Godhead. We should ponder the relationship between God and humanity. The miraculous advent of Jesus gives a greater depth of meaning to subsequent events surrounding his death and resurrection.
Additionally, the Biblical account of Jesus birth provokes us to consider complex social topics including the relationship between Christ and political powers, the tragedy of violence, and the plight of refugees. We also contemplate the titles given Jesus and how he is “God with us”, the “Prince of Peace”, and “Saviour”. None of these discussions have cute answers.
Because both of these holidays, the secular and the Christian, are each called Christmas and because they overlap and many people celebrate both… it’s easy to mistake one for the other.
Family is important. God wants us to live within loving families. Traditions, myths, songs, and movies encourage people and provide shared experiences and values. But for Christians, Christmas first and foremost is about reminding ourselves that God loves us immeasurably. Sometimes family reminds us of this truth. Sometimes family causes us to question this truth.
And sometimes, the secular holiday pulls us away from our Christian celebration. For some of us having the picture perfect Christmas dinner, or ensuring the children have time to open their gifts and play with them, take a higher priority than worshiping our Saviour.
I’m not writing this post to beat anyone up, but to emphasise how easy it is to lose focus on the miracle of the Word becoming Flesh. We don’t keep Christ in Christmas because we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. We keep Christ in Christmas by allowing ourselves to dwell upon the Power, Wisdom, Humility and Love found in that manger. We keep Christ in Christmas through worship. And we keep Christ in Christmas by keeping our lives centered upon God and reflecting God to others, because the birth of Christ makes a difference in our lives.
You can read Part 2 of this discussion HERE.
Should Christians observe the Sabbath? I attended a small Baptist high school that believed Sunday is the Sabbath. I remember a friend getting chewed out on a school trip for buying some chewing gum on a Sunday. Seventh Day Adventists believe Christians should continue to observe the Saturday Sabbath as the Old Testament describes. So what are we to do?
The Sabbath has a couple of curious attributes that have made it a polarising debate topic as the positions described above illustrate. All my life I have been taught that Christians do not need to observe the Sabbath as it is the only one of the 10 Commandments not explicitly repeated in the New Testament. BUT, it is also the only one of the 10 Commandments included as part of God’s creative work in Genesis 1.
Here’s a little table I’ve put together to provide a rough interpretative matrix by comparing the Hebrew practices of Sabbath and tithing and how the church interacted with them. I recognise that some of the points are a little strained and the match with tithing is not exact, but I hope it demonstrates how we can retain principles from the Mosaic Law while dispensing with the details.
|Precedes Sinai Law||Abraham (Genesis 14:17-20)||Creation (Genesis 2:2-3)|
|Codified at Sinai||Deuteronomy 14:22-29||Exodus 20:8-11|
|About the Heart (These verses describe ungodly motives.)||Amos 4:4||Amos 8:4-5|
|Jesus affirmed the principle||Give to God (Matt 22:21)||Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8)|
|Adapted by the church||cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7)||Eternity = Sabbath-rest (Heb 4:9)|
At this point I want to define my understanding of the Christian principle of sabbath. I do not believe that God commands Christians to take a particular day of the week and avoid all work on that day. Rather, I believe God intends for his people to integrate periods (lunch breaks, or entire days or weeks) of sabbath-rest into our lives. The simplest distinction I can make is that the capital changes to a lower-case “s”. Christians do not need to observe all the Sabbath rituals described in the Mosaic Law, but we can extract enough principles from that holy day to still describe our practice as “sabbath”.
In creation we find rest at the core of Sabbath. On the seventh day God rested. In Exodus 20 the 10 Commandments provide some commentary, “...he rested on the seventh day. Therefore he blessed the Sabbath day…“. The Sabbath is synonymous with rest.
However, it would be wrong to focus entirely upon rest without also considering how sabbath impacts our relationship with God. Over time, the Israelite practice of Sabbath increasingly included components of personal and organised worship. So when I come to define or describe the concept of sabbath-rest for the church I can’t think of a better place to begin than with the example of Jesus.
Mark 1 :21-34 contains one description of Jesus’ Sabbath. Note the various elements:
- v21 – attend synagogue and teach [study] the Scripture;
- v23 – respond compassionately [exorcise] to a person in need;
- v29 – return home;
- v30 – respond compassionately [heal] to a person in need;
- v30 – spend the afternoon eating and fellowshipping;
- v32 – after the conclusion of Sabbath at 6pm, Jesus again begins his public ministry of healing and casting out demons.
In her book Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity Keri Kent points out that since the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening, it begins with food, fellowship and rest, followed in the morning by more structured worship. We see all of these in the passage above. Sabbath provides an opportunity to restore our souls by creating space to:
- Love God through the practice of other spiritual disciplines; and
- Love others by prioritising time with people over time fulfilling tasks.
In Mark 3:27 Jesus made the famous statement that, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” In my experience many Christians have taken this to mean that sabbath is an optional practice that we can disregard if it gets in the way of the rest of our schedule. When we adopt this attitude, we really read the verse as saying, “The Sabbath was made for your convenience, not to get in the way of your scheduled life.” Nothing could be further from Jesus’ intent!
In this verse Jesus makes the point that God made Sabbath for the benefit of people. When we dismiss it, or crowd it out of our lives we reject God’s gracious gift. Jesus criticises the Pharisees who had created an elaborate list of rules regarding the Sabbath that actually made it a chore to keep. However we integrate sabbath into our lives we must keep it beneficial.
On some occasions sabbath-rest may mean gardening, or just breaking from the busyness of life to relax and refresh. For other people their sabbath-rest may involve intentional time communing with God. Others will best experience sabbath around a table with friends or a board game with family. At its most basic sabbath is not concerned with how we fill that time, but what we leave behind.
However, to gain maximum benefit from sabbath-rest we need to make it intentional. Sabbath is not just a “mental-health day”, or a lazy day bumming around in our PJ’s. Just as many people take a day off work for Memorial Day without remembering anything, the temptation exists to take a sabbath with zero intentionality. Sabbath should restore and equip us for whatever comes next.
We are first called to rest and sit with Christ (Ephesians 2:6); then we are exhorted to walk in a manner worth of Christ’s calling (Ephesians 4:1); and finally we are roused to stand firm against the evil one (Ephesians 6:11). Implicit in this is the proposition that if I am not first rested and comfortable in my new identity in Christ, then I will not be able to draw on his strength to walk righteously or to fight against evil valiantly. Or, to put it in another way, being precedes doing and rest precedes work. (Tabalujan, 37)
Our culture makes it increasingly difficult for us to rest and refresh ourselves. We see this demonstrated in the familiar comment, “I need a holiday to help me get over my holiday.” We often return from our vacations which we intended as renewing retreats only to find ourselves in about the same place we were before we left. Our consumer culture entices us to cram as much as possible into any time we have available. Tabalujan provides this helpful table to illustrate the distinction between sabbath-rest and leisure.
|Impact on person||Restorative||Tiring|
|Relationship to work||Gives meaning to||Provides escape from|
Finally, I want to close by summarising sabbath over the scope of Scripture.
- God created sabbath-rest at Creation. If it’s good enough for God we should not dismiss it too quickly.
- God codified the sabbath at Sinai.
- Jesus clarified the sabbath during his ministry removing the burdensome obligations and restoring its original purpose.
- The church looks forward to an eternal sabbath-rest with God. (Hebrews 3:16-4:13)
God’s intends for his people to experience rest. Yes, in this life we also participate in the mission of God, but we equip ourselves for that mission first through rest. Then we have eternal rest as the goal of God’s mission. That’s not to say eternity will promote laziness. God’s original design in the Garden of Eden included work for Adam and Eve. Rather, God’s promise provides relief from sin, and rest from turmoil and chaos.
For some additional reading, Jonathan Storment recently wrote a good blog post on the topic of sabbath that you can read HERE.
- This post is a lot longer than I usually write. Does it make sense to you, or am I just rambling?
- Does any particular point above resonate with you particularly strongly?
- How do you currently integrate sabbath-rest into your life? I’d love some examples!!
Healthy Homes play a vital role in producing spiritually healthy hearts. We could define Healthy Homes in many different ways. For this Mothers Day sermon I chose to encourage spiritual conversation within the home. Do your conversations bring God’s presence into the consciousness of others?
Some lessons require us to sit down in order to listen, focus, concentrate, write, or remember. In my previous post I made the point that thoughtful people can do a lot of teaching on the run. Jesus’ parables provide a great example of using everyday events and situations to teach profound points.
After I wrote the last post I also came across this observation in a commentary. In John 7:37-38 Jesus says “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” That’s a remarkable statement, but the context is also important. The opening of v37 sets the time as the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles.
On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles the priests conducted an elaborate ceremony that involved the pouring of water and wine as a sacrifice to God. It acknowledged his provision of water when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. According to D.A. Carson (PNTC, 322) this ceremony also anticipated “the Lord’s pouring out of the Spirit in the last days.” Jesus used the events going on around him as an opportunity to proclaim a truth about himself and the kingdom of God.
But how do we learn about the Feast of Tabernacles? We learn by sitting down and reading a book or a blog. Perhaps we learn about the feast in a Bible Class. It’s extremely unlikely we will learn the details of the Feast of Tabernacles in a casual conversation traveling from one place to another.
I suspect that when we think of formal spiritual education most of us think first of our church’s Bible classes. That’s not a bad thing. Churches should have the goal of providing top notch Bible education, both accumulating knowledge and putting it into practice. When Christians fail to take advantage of the educational opportunities churches provide they seldom substitute those opportunities with something more spiritually beneficial. (I also accept that not all church offerings reflect the same quality.)
However, first and foremost families/parents bear the responsibility for the spiritual education in the home. In Ephesians 6:4 fathers are given the specific responsibility to “bring [your children] up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” It doesn’t say “Fathers drive your children to church” it tells fathers to train and teach their children. And just because the passage doesn’t specifically mention mothers doesn’t mean that they have zero responsibility in this area.
So how do you study and teach the Bible within your home? Throughout my childhood Dad would make sure we sat down to read a few Bible verses and pray together most mornings before we ran out the door to catch the school bus. With our 3 year old daughter we now make sure he children’s Bibles are part of the books read at bedtime. We also deliberately make sure that most of the songs we sing with her are Christians songs.
Maybe in your family it’s a time of prayer after a meal together or a discussion of the sermon over Sunday lunch. Whatever works best for you, I encourage you to take seriously the task of having formal spiritual instruction as part of your families routine.
I’m not saying that parents have a responsibility take 50 weeks holding long boring discussions of the book of Jeremiah while memorizing 26 separate passages per year. I like this suggestion from Mark Driscoll,
To be a good teacher, dad should use his imagination, particularly when his children are small. A wise dad makes up fun bible questions for kids to answer and buys props and secondhand clothes so that his children can dress up in costumes and act out the Bible stories with full drama while he serves as the narrator.
A wise dad may realize that a personal quiet time for himself is unwise; rather than hiding away in a quiet place to read the Bible, it is often best to do so in the noisy living room where the kids can see and climb on their dad while he reads his Bible. (Pastor Dad, 27-28)
Driscoll may put a little too much pressure on all parents to teach super-creatively, but he provides a great goal. It’s well worth looking around for resources to help guide family discussions. Christian bookstores have all sorts of devotionals for couples, for teens, etc that may help guide these times of family spiritual sit downs. Here’s a list of some websites you might also find helpful:
- A few BOOKS recommended to me as helpful: CLICK HERE.
- WEBSITES: Crosswalk.com has a page for parents with articles that might prompt conversation.
- FocusOnTheFamily.com has some resources for what they call “Mealtime Devotionals”.
- Here’s a longer list at ThrivingFamily.com.
- FamilyDevotions.org has a new post every day. They don’t seem very creative, but may provide a starting point for you to mold for your families needs.
That’s just a short list. I would really love for you to leave a comment and suggest websites or books that you have found helpful for your family. It seems these resources are pretty sparse.
In light of the Chick-Fil-A “Appreciation Day” I’m wondering, “When did corporations become moral guardians for our society?“
I distinctly remember my professor in my Corporations Law class hammering home that the ONLY legal purpose for a corporation to exist is to maximise profits for its shareholders. In fact, at the time, and probably before and since, there was a debate regarding whether corporations have a moral or ethical responsibility toward the communities within which they operate above and beyond the basic standard of care. Obviously they can’t do harm, but do they have to do good? Is philanthropy part of their charter?
This debate came to a head for me after the Indian Ocean tsunami when many companies donated millions of dollars to charities. Some shareholders questioned whether those donations were illegal. They argued that they diminished profits. They would prefer the companies increase the dividend for the year and allow the shareholders to decide how to allocate their wealth. Here’s a couple of quotes from this lengthy report:
Corporate philanthropy is illegitimate spending by powerful corporate elite of someone else’s money; an attempt to bypass democratic allocation of taxes; philanthropy by individuals is laudable, but not by corporations. P P McGuinness (2003)
Just as I wouldn’t want you to implement your personal judgments by writing checks on my bank account for charities of your choice, I feel it inappropriate to write checks on your corporate ‘bank account’ for the charities of my choice. Warren Buffett (1981)
Compare this to the attitude of Starbucks which in early 2012 issued a memo supporting gay marriage in the US state of Washington. When did public companies begin supporting social causes? Part of the disturbing trend is the perception that future marketing campaigns will focus on ideologies rather than demographics. Check out this article to see normalised this idea is to these guys.
If corporate marketing starts targeting ideology rather than demographics they will continue to feed the monster that divides the world into opposing camps: Red vs Blue, Liberal vs Conservative, Christian vs Not. We already see this in the media with CNN & NBC providing alternative worldviews to the conservative FOX News. (At the same time FOX airs shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy that certainly are not conservative in their orientation.)
Christians have also fed this monster by initiating boycotting campaigns for years. At the bottom of this article is an interesting slideshow from a LGBT perspective listing 25 companies that Christians have tried to boycott. Here’s an example of a Starbucks boycott.
There are so many problems with this approach:
- How do Christians decide which issues are boycott worthy?
- Is it even possible to know the moral values of the owners of every business we deal with?
- Why would we support “Christian” businesses if their work or product is shoddy? How is that good stewardship?
- If God has given Christians “a ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:11-21) how does protesting them build bridges?
- Does boycotting companies express more hate for enemies or love for enemies?
- Shouldn’t Christians be more concerned about transforming hearts than altering behaviour?
- Do Christians really expected non-Christians to support Godly values?
Also, we saw with the Chick-Fil-A LGBT protest that it fueled an overwhelming response from conservative supporters of the company, or of free speech, that the company made record profits. That’s a boycott backfiring big time. I suspect that most protests work that way.
Boycotts and protests are empowering for individuals and create swarms of people moving toward or away from one corporation or cause after another. But there are both swarms of supporters, and swarms of protesters. The whole context is incredibly adversarial. Last week was Starbucks, the week before Home Depot. This week it’s Chick-Fil-A. The opposing swarms never sit down and really listen to the other. In the meantime, a company may occasionally modify its behaviour, but for the most part it keeps doing business with few long-term consequences. They know that if they can weather this storm it will move on to another business before long because it’s incredibly difficult for protestors to maintain the rage and captivate the national attention for any significant length of time.
Corporations will never safe-guard Christian values and morals. Christians and churches can only truly influence society’s values and morals by sharing the Gospel and bringing more people into a saving relationship with Jesus. Changing the behaviour of people outside the kingdom of God through coercion only creates an illusory victory that distracts us from the real mission God’s given us.
It seems only fitting I give the final word to Dan Cathy. (Taken from Matt Dabbs’ blog, who took it from somewhere else…)
“We don’t claim to be a Christian business,” Cathy told the Biblical Recorder in a recent visit to North Carolina. He attended a business leadership conference many years ago where he heard Christian businessman Fred Roach say, “There is no such thing as a Christian business.”
“That got my attention,” Cathy said. Roach went on to say, “Christ never died for a corporation. He died for you and me.”
“In that spirit … [Christianity] is about a personal relationship. Companies are not lost or saved, but certainly individuals are,” Cathy added.
“But as an organization we can operate on biblical principles. So that is what we claim to be. [We are] based on biblical principles, asking God and pleading with God to give us wisdom on decisions we make about people and the programs and partnerships we have. And He has blessed us.”
Matthew 16:16 contains one of the key events of Jesus’ ministry. Peter has spent close to 3 years studying for this exam, and finally he knows the answer. Jesus asks “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Stage 1 of Jesus’ ministry is complete. He finally has acknowledgement of both his kingship, and his deity.
After all that study, Peter must have been so proud of himself that he passed that test. But then Jesus immediately predicts his death. Peter, not realizing it’s still the same test as before answers confidently. In v22, he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Mega-Fail!!
Now, in chapter 17 we find that six days later Jesus takes Peter, along with James and John, up a mountain. There before their eyes Jesus is transformed, or transfigured. Then, out of nowhere, two guys show up who can only be Moses and Elijah. Peter wasn’t prepared for this pop quiz, but you have to answer something, right? So in v4 he suggests building three tabernacles or tents for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. But again it’s the wrong answer.
It’s easy for churches in general or Christians individually, to find themselves thinking that because we’ve got one answer correct, we must have all the answers.
For instance, if the Church of Christ correctly interprets Scripture regarding believers baptism by immersion, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the CoC also has a correct interpretation of the role of women in the church. Both may be correct teachings in God’s eyes, but they’re not necessarily connected. Sometimes we can be so confident in our interpretive approach to one issue, that we assume any other interpretive conclusion we make is also 100% correct.
It’s important that we have convictions about our beliefs and faith. Scripture tells us to be ready to defend them (1 peter 3:15b). But just because we have beliefs doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep our mouths shut at times. Peter would have been much better off biting his tongue. We would often also do well to do likewise.
Because Peter gave one correct answer, he was no longer teachable. All Christ followers do well to develop a habit of listening first.
In his book UNChristian, David Kinnaman summarises and discusses survey results of non-christian20-30 year olds. He notes,
The primary reason outsiders feel hostile toward Christians, and especially conservative Christians, is not because of any specific theological perspective. What the react negatively to is our ‘swagger’. Outsiders say that Christians pssess bark — and bite. Christians may not normally operate in attack mode, but it happens frequently enough that others have learned to watch their step around us. [Outsiders] say their aggression [toward Christians] simply matches the oversized opinions and egos of Christians. (2007, p26)
I believe this is why 1 Peter 3:15-16 doesn’t stop with the instruction to defend our beliefs. “But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. There certainly seems to be a disconnect between this verse and the description above.
Right answers can breed arrogance. We don’t need to apologise for having confident beliefs, but we do need to listen first, and express them with gentleness and respect. After all, we might be wrong.
- Have you ever found yourself in Peter’s shoes, gaining confidence from a success only to turn around and fall flat on your face?
- Why do you think outsiders have this opinion of Christians? Surely they’re talking about someone else, not you and me?
- This is a very pertinent lesson for me. I get in trouble for speaking when I shouldn’t way more than often than I want to admit. What tips do you have for developing a habit of listening first.
When we talk about faith we often used language like, “We need to place our faith in Jesus”. But what does that mean? As a starting point, it means that we accept that Jesus is who he says he is. As the apostle Peter declared in 16:16, we have to accept that he is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But this phrase can be misleading at times, because it sounds like a one-time event, while in actuality God seeks persistent faith.
When Jesus encountered the Canaanite woman with the demon-possessed child (15:21-28) he really tested her faith. Three times Jesus ignored her cries, but four times she kept asking him for rescue. She had faith the first time she asked, but after four pleas Jesus was able to say, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” Sometimes we get to thinking that because we have faith in Jesus that he’ll solve our problems quickly. But do we still have faith if his response isn’t instant?
We see this same message in the example of Peter walking on the water (14:25-33). Peter had tremendous faith to jump out of the boat in the middle of a storm expecting to walk on the water… but his problem was he didn’t have persistent faith. It’s the absence of that consistency Jesus criticizes when he says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Let me suggest that we often get our priorities confused. God’s not just looking for us to step out in faith and do GREAT things for him. He’s looking for us to do MANY faithful things for him over a long period of time. Although Peter got off to a great start, he took his eyes of Christ, the solution and started focusing on the waves, the problems. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that our faith often has an “use by date” also. We often arrive at a point where we say, “God, if you’re not going to act on this request, I guess I’ll just have to do it myself.” It’s hard to be patient and persistent.
Romans 5 describes suffering and perseverance as elements in Christian maturity. But persistent faith doesn’t come from our own inner strength and resilience. Perseverance results from us tapping into the hope Christ gave us in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 5:3-5 … but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
The Canaanite woman knew she was in the presence of the Messiah and so persisted with her request. Peter forgot that God was with him, and started to sink. Remembering that we are always in the presence of God adds to our faith, perseverance.
- Do you think Christians make a “profession of faith” too big of a deal?
- Have you found persistent faith to come naturally, or do we have to work at it?
- Considering the text above from Romans 5, have you experienced suffering that produced hope?
Matthew 10 finds Jesus riding a wave of popularity. He has performed miraculous healings. He’s calmed a storm. He’s preached the greatest sermon ever. He’s even forgiven sins. He’s followed by a crowd, and in 9:33 “The crowd was amazed and said, ‘Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.'”
If Jesus lived today, at this point in his ministry he’d be producing a popular dvd series, have just signed a book contract and have started building a new cathedral in the suburbs. In fact, at the end of chapter nine he regrets that there weren’t enough workers to cope with the demand for the good news of the kingdom. So as chapter ten begins, he deputises the Twelve giving them “authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” What an excitingly vibrant, and dynamic ministry experience as lives were forever changed through the power of God.
One of the few lessons to have stuck with me from my years obtaining my business degree is that, “Growth is as hard (or harder) to manage as decline.” The military understands this principle. Supply lines have to keep up with troops. If the troops advance beyond their supplies they’ll soon find themselves under-resourced and isolated.
Starbucks provides a corporate example. For 30 plus years they experienced phenomenal growth from 1 store in Seattle in 1981 to over 15,000 stores worldwide in 2007. But then the company’s standards started to slip. They became overly optimistic and complacent. They started opening stores too close together and in communities unable to support the premium prices. They also struggled to provide adequate training and therefore quality of service and product. They had simply grown to quickly. In 2008 they closed 600 stores and shuttered another 300 in 2009 as the company’s profits declined for the first time. Since then, Starbucks has been able to turn things around by returning to its core values, products and standards. (See history of Starbucks’ growth here.)
It’s easy to get caught up in the euphoria of growth and lose touch with reality. 2011 has been a good year for my church as Sunday attendance reaches its highest level in years. But I don’t know who’ll be there next week, let alone over the rest of the year. Can we really count on a third of the Sunday attenders being non-members each week?
The temptation exists for us to get caught up in numbers and graphs and crowded worship services and to forget our core values and standards. Each newcomer brings their own unique set of blessings and gifts, but they also bring unique questions and needs. During periods of growth, it’s common to only see the positives and to overlook the needs driving that growth. When churches stop focusing on making a difference in people’s lives, they’ve lost sight of the Good News of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus understood the temptations that accompany growth. In the midst of his successful ministry to the crowds, he warns his closest disciples that their core message will not always be welcomed. Jesus’ message challenges the accepted norms of society and the Twelve will encounter opposition as they spread his message. Central to Jesus ministry is the question of his identity. Is he really the Messiah, the Son of God? The answers to this question will prompt disagreements. Brother will betray brother to death and a father his child…” (10:21)
Jesus didn’t allow the growth his ministry experienced to dilute his message or lose sight of his core values and purpose. In this discourse with the Twelve he gives them a reality check also. Throughout his ministry Jesus struggles to keep the Twelve grounded in the present. God will do great things, but they will also experience hard times.
The answer in those times of difficulty is to keep in mind the big picture. Three times in v26-31 Jesus tells his disciples “Do not be afraid.” God cares about them and they are doing His work. They are to keep their focus totally upon Him (37-39).
- Have you experienced difficulties managing growth? What temptations did you face?
- What opposition to the Gospel do you experience in Western culture?
- What are the core values Christians need to “get back to” to prepare for seasons of spiritual conflict?
- Read Colossians 1:12-14 here.
- If you missed Sunday’s sermon (16 January) you can listen to it here (the first minute or two are missing).
Our congregational theme for 2011 plays on the initials of our name, Lawson Road (LR). The first word was a no-brainer: LOVE. The second word continues to have me second guessing myself: RESCUE. While everyone on the planet should agree on the virtue and desirability of Love, perhaps only a minority would agree that they need Rescue. This means there’s a reasonable chance that using this term as a congregational theme will offend someone.
An article I read today (Myron Augsberger, 1990) captured some of my reservations regarding the term Rescue. Speaking as a well-educated white male moving to work in an inner city ministry, he wrote, I was going to the inner city, I explained, not to be like the people there or to rescue them heroically. I was going simply because I cared. Choosing the theme Rescue does not reflect our position of superiority in relationship to those around us. However, we face a distinct risk of developing an attitude of arrogance, or that we at least portray arrogance to people we encounter.
In order for this word to truly motivate the church we must adopt the fundamental truth “we have all been rescued.”
- For [God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. (Col 1:13)
- the Lord Jesus Christ… gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. (Gal 1:3-4)
- Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1 Thess. 1:10)
In each of these verses, the word Rescue is not used as a missional statement for the church, but as a description of the church. Only this consciousness can ensure we maintain our humility as we also pursue the mission of rescue.
Although Rescue doesn’t show up on every page of the Bible, we shouldn’t dismiss it as an insignificant word. To me, it’s synonymous with the concept of Salvation, which is a lot more common. (but doesn’t being with “R”) The logic may be a little convoluted, but I do believe the church has been given a mission of Rescue.
I don’t think there can be any argument that Christ has given the church the mission of spreading the message of the Gospel throughout the world. Romans 1:16 states, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” The message of the Gospel brings salvation, or rescue, to everyone who believes. Our commission is to spread that message of rescue as broadly afield as we can.
Jesus gives an example of how Love and Rescue complement each other in Matthew 9:36. First, Jesus sees the crowds and is moved with compassion, or love, then he sends his disciples out to expand his mission of proclaiming the kingdom of heaven (10:5). Likewise, our message of rescue must always be motivated by love to be effective, not personal or corporate ego.
So what do you think? Please share your reaction below.
- Do you think many people would find the term “Rescue” offensive as a church theme?
- Can you suggest an alternative “R” word for a church theme?
- What would you consider the biggest challenge: Getting the church to acknowledge their own rescue, or motivating them to share the Gospel of Rescue?
- Read Isaiah 61 here and Luke 4:16-21 here and Luke 7:22 here.
- If you missed Sunday’s sermon (4 July), you can listen to it here.
- Follow the rest of this discussion here.
This week’s thesis is, The Church of Christ must adopt the Mission of Christ.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
At his baptism, Jesus received an anointing of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit commissioned him and sent him into the world with the tasks he describes in this passage. Luke places this quote early in Jesus’ ministry so that it can function as a mission statement for the months and years to come.
Some of these tasks he accomplishes literally but others he only ever fulfills figuratively. Jesus certainly preached good news to the poor, and healed the blind. But Jesus didn’t go to any gaols and lobby for the release of prisoners. We must understand that while this mission statement has a literal application, there’s also a spiritual undertone to each of these points
The Church of Christ (along with many other churches) has often emphasised the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-18. (One reason churches of Christ emphasise this passage, in addition to its inherent importance as the last words of Christ, is because of the central role it gives baptism.) Both accounts stress the continued presence of Christ, the importance of teaching, and the importance of belief and baptism. Matthew summarises the process by instructing the apostles to “make disciples”.
While the Great Commission must retain a position of utmost urgency within the church, we should not regard it as our only commission. The only methodology it describes of convincing people to believe and be baptised is limited to preaching and teaching. However, the church can learn much from the example of Jesus in addition to his words. Therefore, The Church of Christ must adopt the Mission of Jesus which Luke lays out in 4:16-21.
As Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 (and perhaps 58), he provides insight into both his methodology and content. On a literal level Jesus spends a lot of time with the poorer members of society, he does heal the blind and other diseases, and he proclaims the inbreaking of the kingdom of God.
From a spiritual perspective Jesus’ message of good news provides freedom for those in spiritual bondage (whether to demons or sinful lifestyles). He provides freedom and hope for those who see only hopelessness. Of course, he could also offer spiritual freedom to those who were literally slaves and prisoners.
Christians who, like Jesus, receive an anointing with the Holy Spirit at baptism have also been sent into the world with a message of good news. We are baptised, not just to be saved, but also to be sent. Our message then is not just “Repent and be baptised”, but a message of forgiveness, hope and freedom. If we adopt Jesus’ mission statement then The Church of Christ will ensure it cares for the poor, the sick and the prisoners, while not ignoring those better off members of society. We will reach out to those in bondage with the consequences of sin, addictions, and hurtful habits. Jesus preached a message of eternal consequence, but he also met people where he found them.
July 4, American Independence Day, fell upon a Sunday this year. So as I preached on this topic I concentrated on the message of freedom. I suggested that while the Good News of forgiveness through Christ frees us all from sin and the consequences of sin, many of us (perhaps even most, or all of us) also experience freedom in a practical, short term way. I asked the congregation to answer the question “What freedom has God given you?” Here are the responses:
- Free to see every day as a good day and to see God as central in all of my life.
- Freed from guilt.
- The freedom to go forward.
- God freed me from myself! He freed me from selfishness – to realize that I am not my own because Christ bought me with His blood that he shed upon the cross. (1 Cor. 6:20)
- Freedom from worry about tomorrow.
- The freedom to experience and share his love.
- I’ve been freed from a task-driven life to enjoy the relationships God has given me.
- Mostly freedom from sin, but also: Freedom to choose; freedom from doubt, fear, & insecurity.
- God’s freedom healed me from self-doubt. I know that his love and grace directly touches me. I am free from legalism and know that God is not waiting around the corner for me to do something wrong, which I will do. He created me, loves me and has set me free. Someday through his grace I’ll take my place with Him.
- Freedom from a perennial, neverending feeling of guilt. Of not being “good enough”. Guilt comes when I fail God but leaves when I ask for grace. Thank-you Father!
- Freed from worry about things like excess possessions and status.
- I have received freedom from Loneliness – God gave me wonderful friends. Complacency – He gives me opportunities to grow spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Inadequacy – my value comes from Christ, and I am “good enough” because of His love. Feeling lost and without a purpose.
- God gives me freedom from despair over guilt and has give me purpose and hope, as well as a desire for more understanding of His will.
- Freedom to join a church where I can grow spiritually and find the purpose of my being.
I hope you find the experiences of others encouraging for you. Please leave a comment and encourage someone else.
- How have you experienced freedom in Christ?
- Do you agree with the statement “We are baptised, not just to be saved, but also to be sent.“?
- Read Hebrews 4:14-16 here.
- If you missed Sunday’s sermon (16 May), you can listen to it here.
- Follow the rest of the discussion here.
In this series of posts I intend to examine the implications of claiming the title “Church of Christ” for our fellowship. I don’t recall having ever heard a church emphasise the significance of the name other than making the point that it’s take directly from Rom. 16:16. So this discussion is not an explanation of it’s current significance, but rather an exploration of how this name could shape our identity if we take it seriously.
The points I choose to highlight appear in no particular sequence. The earlier ones should not take priority over the latter ones, although you might choose to prioritise them for your own benefit. They are simply some of the implications I see of acknowledging that we belong to a church that belongs to Christ.
The Church of Christ should also be The Church of Prayer.
When we acknowledge that The Church of Christ really means The Church Belonging to Christ, we should adopt an attitude of humility. We acknowledge that submitting to Jesus for forgiveness and reconciliation started a process that continues today. We never reach a point where we attain a status of sufficient righteousness and godliness that we can stop submitting to Christ.
Since the church belongs to Christ, we need to seek his will for the church. In general, we do this through the study of Scripture. In specific circumstances, we do this through prayer. The very act of prayer assumes a posture of submission. In prayer, we acknowledge our lack of answers and our dependence upon God for those answers.
Prayer declares that we serve a risen and living Saviour with a vested interest in the well-being of his church. Hebrews 4:14-16 (cf. Rom. 8:34) describes Christ as actively representing us before the throne of God. Verse 16 states that by turning to God through Christ “we receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” How tragic if The Church Belonging to Christ passes up opportunities to appeal to Christ: opportunities to receive his mercy, grace, and help.
In practice, I often find myself trusting my own wisdom and experience rather than submitting to Jesus. When someone shares a concern with me, I listen to them, consider the issues and the Scriptures, and then share my advice, and if I remember, finally take time to pray together.
I believe that The Church Belonging to Christ should make prayer such a central part of its identity that it becomes our first and automatic response to difficulties we encounter. Rather than problem solving and then praying, The Church Belonging to Christ should develop a culture that bathes a dilemma in prayer and only then begin problem solving in the quest of God’s will for the situation.
A Church of Christ, that doesn’t make prayer a central part of its identity quickly becomes The Church of US.
- Can you think of any church/denomination that has a reputation as a “church of prayer”?
- Does your church already emphasise prayer? How does it do this?
- Do you agree that the urge to problem-solve rather than pray is widespread and natural? Do you have tips to help overcome this urge?