Introducing the “Three Things” Series

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Charlie “Tremendous” Jones” once said, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” Some have add, “the experiences you have” to Jone’s insight and I would agree. These are the things that have shaped me and they have inspired me to start a new weekly series called “Three Things.”

I will start the series with what I think are the three most important books to read on a particular topic. For example, three books someone should read once they get saved. You will notice that I will be pick categories that should matters to wide variety of believers.

The absolute importance of the Bible will be assumed in all my posts. I write, teach, and preach using the Bible all the time.  It is God’s inspired word and it gives us everything we need for faith and godliness (2 Timothy 3:16-17). At the same times, it can be a tremendous help to read how other people think about a particular topic.

You may wonder why just three things. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Focus. The number of choices in our modern world can be overwhelming at times. This includes books as well. The writer of Ecclesiastics warned, there is no end to the making of many books (Ecclesiastics 12:12, HCSB). A book in your hand that you will actually reading is more valuable than a whole bookstore worth of books.
  2. Developement. Reading forces us out of our comfort zones and into a new world of possibilities. It helps us to develop and grew, even when we are defending our treasurer assumptions.
  3. Memorability. Three things stick together. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. They make an easy list to follow up on.

I will launch this series with three special posts over the next three days covering:

  • Three books to read once you’re saved
  • Three books to read on discipleship
  • Three books to read before you go to seminary

 

Preach the Gospel to Yourself and Others

nycholas-benaia-2wGjjX8Qb-g-unsplashYesterday I preached a sermon on the glorious future of the Church from 2 Timothy 3:1-9. In my experience, this passage has been used to inspire negativity and defensiveness in the church. I’ve heard people say things like, “We are in the last days and things will go ‘from bad to worse,” or, “We just need to keep our distance and pray for the rapture.” But when I read this passage, I don’t see reasons for despair, I see reasons to have great confidence in the future of the church. Sure, it says “difficult times will come,” but I’d rather know that ahead of time than be surprised by it. And the fact that it’s predicted ahead of time proves that comes from a God who has everything under control.

One of the reasons for confidence in the future of the church that is found in this passage is the transforming power of the gospel. The last days will be a time when the “cult of self” will grow out of control. People will love themselves more than they love God and all kinds of selfish behavior will flow out of that misplaced love. There is nothing that can be done about this apart from the self-less message of the gospel. God sacrificed His Son, Jesus Christ on our behalf so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to Him. That is the most perfect picture of selfless love you can ever imagine.

In the closing, I challenged the congregation to preach the gospel to themselves and to others. Unfortunately, I didn’t listen to my own words. After the service was done my family went home to have lunch with two families who were visiting from a nearby Christian camp (Scioto Hills is a great camp, you should check it out!) They left, we cleaned up, and I was looking forward to some downtime before our evening activities at church. That’s when our dog decided she needed some extra attention and I blew up at her, yelling at the top of my lungs right in front of my kids. I’m ashamed of my horrible display of selfishness. I wanted what I wanted and I didn’t want anyone (or any dog) to get in my way. As I apologized to family afterwards I was quickly remembered my challenge to the congregation earlier that morning.

I’m very enthusiastic about the future of the Church. Not because I think we will have “smooth sailing” or – heaven forbid – I have anything special to offer. I am confident in the future of the Church because the Church belongs to God and He purchased her future and freedom at great cost to Himself.

Photo by Nycholas Benaia on Unsplash

Seven Ways to Prepare for Worship This Weekend

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I have the privilege worshiping with my church family every Sunday at Unity Baptist Church in Ashland, Kentucky. I may be a pastor, but I’m a worshipper at heart. My primary responsibility in life is to glorify God and worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24).

Worship is one of the spiritual activities (a.k.a spiritual disciplines) that gives focus and provides growth spiritual for those who want to live as Christians. I enjoy worshipping God on my own, but I also enjoy worshipping God with my church family as part of our formal church gatherings.

I rediscovered a fantastic book recently on the spiritual disciplines: Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. In it, Foster outlines the path to spiritual growth through thirteen different spiritual disciplines. Personal and public worship are one of those activities. I was so encouraged by his seven ways to prepare for worship (he calls them “Steps  into Worship”) that I wanted to share them with you here.

1. Learn to practice the presence of God daily (1 Thess. 5:17). Public worship is really just an extension of private worship. Try to cultivate a sense of appreciation and awe throughout the week. When you get to church on Sunday you will eager to share your worship with others.

2. Have many different experiences in worship. Foster suggests worshipping with others in smaller settings throughout the week in addition to worshipping on your own. These sessions can provide the encouragement and accountably you need to express your praise to God.

3. Find ways to really prepare for the gathered experience of worship. Sundays can be busy days. Sometimes we are grateful just to make it to our pew on time. You can improve your experience in the worship service, however, by getting adequate rest the night before or by reviewing the songs or Scripture passages that will be used in the service that day.

4. Have a willingness to be gathered in the power of the Lord. Foster suggests that the language of gathered fellowship (worship) is not “I,” but “we.” We should be more concerned with God’s presence and work in the church as a whole than if our own individual needs have been met.

5. Cultivate holy dependency. The danger of “preparing” for worship is that we think that worship depends on us. God is the one who took the initiative in revealing Himself and His Word to us. Our worship is really just a response to Him and His gracious work.

6. Absorb distractions with gratitude. Distractions are unavoidable in public worship. Foster suggests thanking God for the life and energy of a little children who may be making noice rather than being annoyed by them.

7. Learn to offer a sacrifice of worship. Worship is rarely convenient. It takes time, energy, and other resources to praise God like He deserves. It takes commitment to gather with God’s people every week to worship God. When we learn to see these “difficulties” as a sacrifice in themselves, we will be more inclined to overcome them.

In the end, we are all worshippers at heart. We can either worship the One True and Living God revealed to us in the Scriptures, or we can worship something or someone less than God. If you are drawn to worship God, then I hope this helps you prepare well for worship with your church family this weekend.

 

Teaching Truth in a World of False Teaching

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This past Sunday I preached a sermon on the corrosive influence of false teaching and controversy in the church from 2 Timothy 2:14-26. In my opinion, the most dangerous form of false teaching today is what I would call pop theology – spiritual belief for the masses. Pop theology invades our lives and our churches with a thin veneer of spiritual vocabulary and/or Judea-Christian values, but at its core, it is not Christ-centered or biblical. Pop theology appears in many forms but the most popular forms today are consumer spirituality, civil religion, church history conspiracy theories, the quest for personal fulfillment, and insincere objections. In this sense, false teaching is all around us.

The thing that struck me most about this sermon and the text is charge for Christian leaders to gently correct those who are in error. As a minister, I need to have certain character qualities that the don’t usually show up on a job description. Church ministers (and members too) need to engage with those in error with kindness, patience, and an eye towards peace. This can be hard when we live and work in a spiritual battlefield.

I certain don’t do this perfectly, but with God’s help I hope to improve. I pray that God will give me a head for truth, a heart for people, and hands that are eager for collaboration. I have the privilege of pastoring a church named “Unity Baptist” and want more than anything for us to live up to our name.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

My Experience in a Discipleship Group

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I made a startling discovery earlier this year. I did some research on the baptism, membership, and attendance trends in the church I serve as pastor and I realized that as a church, we have lost 500 people in the last 10 years! We have welcomed an entire sanctuary full of people (our sanctuary seats about 500) into our membership through baptism and transfer of letter, but our Morning Worship and Sunday School attendance have stayed about the same. Even though some of those people have passed away, moved out of the area, or stepping into places of ministry, you would think that we would be able to retain at least some of our newest members.

One of the reasons we have not retained our members, new and well-established, is because we have not done a good enough job collectively of discipling them. We have allowed baptism and new membership to become the finish line of faith instead of the starting line. We have welcomed people of all ages into our church and given them a variety of ministry opportunities without a clear plan for spiritual development.

This discovery led me to a new type of ministry that isn’t new at all. When Jesus Christ was on earth, he ministered to thousands of people yet focused the majority of his time on 12 ordinary men. Jesus narrowed his focus even further by investing in Peter, James, and John more than the rest of this disciples. Jesus made disciples in small groups. The Apostle Paul followed Christ’s example by teaching and training a select group of men out of the hundreds, maybe thousands, that he had contact with. Timothy, Titus, and Luke are familiar names to us today because Paul worked so closely with them during his time on earth.

The new type of ministry that I discovered is a Discipleship Group. A Discipleship Group is an intentionally small group (3 to 6 people) that meets for spiritual development and replication. Unlike Sunday School classes, these groups are gender-specific and closed to outsiders to facilitate deep relationships, open communication, and accountability. After twelve months, group members are prayerfully challenged to turn around and start their own group for the next year.

I have been involved in 2 exploratory Discipleship Groups in the last 2 years and experienced great benefits. As a believer, I have been prompted to spend regular time in Bible study and prayer, to invest in meaning relationships with other believers, and to live out the gospel daily. As a pastor, I have seen men in our church hear from God through His Word and look for ways to share it with others. I have only been involved with these particular kinds of Discipleship Groups for a short time, but I can see and anticipate the benefit they would bring to the church that I serve and the greater Kingdom of God – especially those who join in the next 10 years.

What experience do you have with small group discipleship, if any?

Working Toward Effectiveness

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Yesterday I preached a message from 2 Timothy 2:1-7 on effectiveness in ministry. In the passage, Paul paints four pictures of effectives ministry for his associate, Timothy: a strategic teacher, a selective soldier, a self-disciplined athlete, and strong farmer. Yesterday I preached the message, today I’m working on putting it into practice.

The pictures presented in the passage all have an application to my life and ministry, but the picture of a selective soldier stands out me right now. The picture of a selective soldier is a picture of priorities. A soldier can’t follow the order of his commanding officer if he’s wrapping up in civilian affairs.

I have a tendency to try to be all things to all people. This seems like a positive quality, but it’s not. It’s not good for me to be involved in so many things that I don’t do anything well. It’s not healthy for me to find my joy and self-worth in making other people happy, no matter how noble the task. I know myself well enough to pushback against this natural impulse.

Effectiveness in life and ministry means setting priorities. As a result of yesterday’s message, I am trying to prioritize three things: preaching, gospel conversations, and quality time with my family. Some weeks are “messier” then others and I don’t set aside enough time to prepare for my preaching responsibilities. Since I have been gifted as a pastor-teacher and I have been called to serve Unity Baptist Church, effectiveness for me preparing and preaching to the best of my ability.

I believe that preaching is important, but so is personal evangelism. I’ve had the privilege of studying evangelism at the highest academic levels, but that doesn’t make me an evangelist. Sharing the good news about Jesus Christ and pursing gospel conversations makes me an evangelist. I am praying right now for opportunities to share Jesus this week.

As a vocational minister, my personal life and my work life are intertwined. Sometimes these roles get out of balance. At various times in my life, I’ve prioritized my work life over my family life. I honestly feel like I’ve improved in this area, but I don’t want to repeat my unhealthy patterns of the past. I just came back from a week-long family vacation and I praise God for an opportunity to prioritize time with my family.

These are just some of the things I’m thinking about to work towards more effectiveness in my ministry. I want to serve Christ as faithful soldier who choses his duties wisely.

What are you doing to improve your effectiveness in ministry?

Photo by Paulette Wooten on Unsplash

You Are What You Pray

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We are familiar with the phrase, “you are what you eat,” but did you know you are what you pray? Our prayers connect us with God, but they also reveal our priorities. The things we prioritize, we pursue, and the things we purse we become. If you thank God for your food, you become grateful. If you pray for the safety of your friends and family, you become caring. If you pray for unbelievers to come to Christ, you become evangelistic.

Jesus focused on his mission and his followers throughout his earthly ministry. It shouldn’t surprise us that when he prayed just before his arrest and crucifixion, he prayed a selfless, mission-focused prayer. The prayer recorded in John 17:1-26 has been labeled many ways but it was Jesus’ last words before he was taken away and killed. In it, Jesus prayed for three distinct things.

1. JESUS PRAYED FOR HIS MISSION TO BE COMPLETE (v. 1-5).

Jesus came to earth with a mission to live a perfect life and die a perfect death so that he could save the world and share his life with his followers. If Jesus didn’t finish his mission his disciples wouldn’t have a mission of their own or a message to share. Jesus knew how important his mission was.

Notice three principles from this section of Jesus’ prayer that helped Him finish. First, Jesus was God-centered (v. 1). Prayer is more than a task, it is a relationship. Second, Jesus has an eternal focus. Eternity begins at conversion, progresses with Christian growth and discipleship, and continues on into heaven. Third, Jesus was totally surrendered. Jesus gave us his own will so that He could accomplish the will of the Heavenly Father.

2. JESUS PRAYED FOR THE CHARACTER OF HIS FOLLOWERS (v. 6-17).

Jesus prayed for three things in regards to the character of his followers. First, he prayed that they would be kept in God’s name (v. 1). Someone’s name usually represents their character in the bible. Jesus prayed that his followers would be kept close and their character would mirror his own.

Second, Jesus also prayed that his followers would be kept from the evil one (v. 15). Jesus acknowledged that Satan’s destructive influence in the world. Jesus prayed that his followers would be protected from that influence. Satan may be a bully, but he should not be feared.

Third, Jesus prayed that his followers be set apart in the truth of God (v. 17). God’s Word should have a prominent place in the lives of Christ’s followers. There are five practices today that allow God’s Word to permeate your life: hearing the bible, reading the bible, studying the bible, memorizing the bible, and meditating on the bible.

3. JESUS PRAYED FOR THE MISSION OF HIS FOLLOWERS (v. 6-26).

Unfortunately, there are many people today who do not finish their God-given mission. The average church loses 3% of its membership each year. Thousands of pastors leave the ministry each year before retirement.

Jesus prayed that his follower would all be one (v. 11). Solidarity is just as important for individual local churches as it is for the Church as a whole. Unity is more than just doing stuff together, its “being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (Philippians 2:2).

Jesus also prayed that his follower would be with him where he was (v. 24). He has just announced that he would be leaving his disciples behind while he went to prepare a place for them in heaven (John 14). Even though he would be leaving, he wanted his followers to be with him eventually so they would see his glory.

Jesus prayed for himself and his followers because you are what you pray. His prayer flowed from his priorities and passions. What do your prayers say about your priorities and passions? Are you working to complete your God-given mission? Are you developing a Christ-like character? Are you contributing to the oneness of your church?

Like in many other area of life, you and I have good intentions. But if you genuinely want to make good on of those good intentions, start with prayer.