Why I Love VBS

Here’s why I love VBS…

The church where I serve is getting ready to put on VBS this next week (That’s Vacation Bible School for the uninformed). I’ve been participating in VBS since I was a child and I love it. Here are 5 reasons why.

  1. VBS brings the church together around something positive. Summers tend to be a down time in church life when people are pursing other interests. But the weeks leading up to VBS are full of energy and excitement. People come together to get the job done.
  2. VBS forces the church to focus on the next generation. There are all kinds of activities that can happen in church, but you can’t have VBS without children. Children and youth are the future and they need to be prioritized.
  3. VBS allows the church to look outward. VBS is a simple, nonthreatening introduction. It’s so easy to invite families from the community to participate, even a kid can do it.
  4. VBS encourages the church to think about the gospel. VBS is full of a lot of actives , but it’s always organized around a central message – the good news of Jesus Christ. VBS provides church leaders with an opportunity to think creatively and succinctly about the message they want to share.
  5. VBS requires a variety of volunteers. People who enjoy working with their hands and building can help. People that like to teach and organize can help. People that enjoy music and crafts can help. Even athletic types can help with VBS. Men, women, teenagers, and senior can all find their place volunteering at a Vacation Bible School.

These are my top 5 reasons why I love VBS. I know there are more reasons and I’m sure you have your own. Please feel free to share the reasons why you love VBS in the comment section below.

Stuck in a Rut?

I grew up in southwest Michigan where corn and soybean field were plentiful. Whenever a particular part of a field was used too much, especially after a rain, a large deep muddy rut would develop. These ruts were difficult to navigate, even for the best four-wheel drive vehicle.

The writer of Hebrews warns us about a spiritual rut that keep us from reaching our destination. In Hebrews 3:7-11, the writer quotes Psalm 95:7b-11, which itself is a reference to the rebellion of the Israelites when the demanded fresh waster in Meribah (Exodus 17:7). The first half of Psalm 95 is an invitation to worship God as the King and Creator of all there is. The second half of Psalm 95 is a warning about ignoring the invitation to worship in reverence and obedience.

The overlap of these timelines is instructive in itself. This a perpetual problem for God’s people – a rut if you will. The rut is formed when believers trust in God to rescue them from their sins, but fail to rest in the abundance of His grace. They embrace God’s activity in the past, but fail to see His activity in the present.

The writer of Hebrews offers three solutions for those stuck in this kind of rut.

1.Pay attention to the state of your heart. The human heart is prone to wander off course. It must be recalibrated regularly to the “true north” of God’s Word.

2. Push one another toward faithfulness. It’s easier to get out out a rut if you have help. The Christian life was never met to be lived alone.

3. Persist in your confession and convictions. This may seem blatantly obvious, but it’s a crucial addition. You can’t get out a rut unless you try. Those who give up will stay where they are.

The spiritual rut of separating faith from our obedience is nothing new. It has been tripping up believers for generations. But there is a solution for those who find it!

Why Small Groups?

The COVID-19 crisis has forced us to rethink a lot of things, including church. For the first time in our lifetimes, we were unable to gather in-person as a church for months as a time. When we did come back together, we had to alter some of our habits to accommodate increased health concerns.

Now that we are meeting together regularly, we are asking ourselves a whole new set of questions. What about bible study classes and small groups? How do these smaller assemblies relate to our worship services? What schedule and format would work best for our church? Are these ministries even necessary?

As our Sunday morning, Small Groups and through-the-week Life Groups resume in-person meetings, I wanted to address the question of groups. Here are 3 of the top reasons why small groups are important to the local church.

  1. The biblical reason: Jesus used groups. Not only did Jesus mandate that we make disciples in His name, but He also modeled disciple-making. In Rediscovering Discipleship, Robby Gallaty points out five different types of groups that Jesus used in His earthly ministry. Jesus ministered to crowds numbering in the thousand, but He also focused on a “congregation” of 70 to 150 self-identified followers. Beyond that, He spent significant time with a small community of 12 men. Three of those men were singled out for additional interaction and training. The point is that if Jesus utilized small groups, so should we.
  • The personal reason: groups are an avenue for care and shepherding. Small groups can provide a level of personal interaction that is not possible in a worship service. Prayer requests and concerns can be shared in more detail. Questions can be asked and answered. Group members can be encouraged and cared for. Unbelievers can be led to faith in the context of a group and believers can be equipped for spiritual growth in a group. Small groups invite people of all ages to get more personally involved in the life of the church.
  • The practical reason: groups encourage people to stay. Thom Rainer has quoted multiple studies that indicate that people who attend groups are five times more likely to stay connected to the church than those who only attend the worship service. People stay in a church because of relationships and involvement. Small groups are an excellent place to develop both. 

If someone were to ask me why we should restart our small groups ministry in-person or why they should be personally involved, I would start with these 3 top reasons. Small groups allow us to make disciples for Christ in ways that other types of gatherings cannot and that should be enough to move us to action.

Your Confession and Convictions Are the Most Important Thing About You

Photo by Kate Kalvach on Unsplash

Conversations and concerns about diversity dominate our cultural conversation right now. It seems like everywhere you go there is a caring neighbor, a socially-minded company, or a concerned politician trying to fix our short-comings. Even school board meetings are making the news as parents and school board members debate the use of certain theories and tactics in our public schools.

For the most part, these concerns are good. We are a long way from overcoming prejudice and discrimination in our country. But the current cultural conversation does have a couple downsides. One downside is that we are pushed to think in unbiblical categories. God is the one who created us, diversity and all. We must not color outside of the boundaries He has given us in Scripture.

Another downside is that we will loosing site of the one inward reality that matters more than any other. In Romans 10, Apostle Paul shares his deep burden for his fellow Jews who have not accepted Jesus Christ yet. In verses 9, 10 and 11, Paul explains that a person’s outward verbal confession combines with their inward personal conviction to activate their salvation. A renewed relationship with God springs from this singular expression of faith. In verse 12), we learn that this new connection to Christ is more important than the religious or ethnic identity of a Jew or a Gentile. In other words, the label of being “in Christ” through faith in His death, burial, and resurrection is more important than any other label someone may claim.

In Hebrews 3:6, readers are urged to maintain their verbal confession and personal convictions about Jesus Christ. This one thing matters more than the color of one’s skin, their ethnic background, or their gender. As we work to overcome prejudice and discrimination, believers must not be shy out the one identity that defines all other identities.

How to Celebrate Fathers When Yours Was Absent

This past Sunday was Father’s Day, a holiday to celebrate fathers and honor fatherhood. Our church leaned into Father’s Day by applauding fathers and urging them to use their influence in a godly way. Our family leaned into Father’s Day as well. We got together with some of our extended family for meal. My wife and kids got me some great gifts (my favorite was some new shaving supplies) and let me set the agenda for the afternoon and evening.

I am well aware that Father’s Day can be awkward for those who’s fathers were absent. My father abandoned me and my mother when I was young. A few years later he passed away, closing the door on any possible reunion.

According the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 4 children grow up without a biological, step, or adoptive father in the home. But fathers can be absent in other ways. Some fathers are physically present, but emotionally unavailable. Some fathers give up their role through or mistreatment or abuse. Dads are taken out of the home through no fault of their own through accidents and sickness.

This brings up the question of how to celebrate Father’s Day when your father was absent. Is it possible to appreciate God’s design for the family and to honor fatherhood when your experience was or is less than ideal? I think it is and here are 3 suggestions for how to do it.

1. Emphasize what you had over what you miss. Even the best dads have weak spots. Rather than focusing on your dad’s flaws, try to focus on their strengths. In some cases, you may have to adjust you sights so low that you are just thankful they helped give you life – that’s all. Those with present, but unavailable dad’s might have to praise God for a roof over their heads and shoes on their feet. A caring father-like figure is much better than no one at all.

2. Decide to do better. This is for those in a position to make a positive change. You might not have had the best experience with your father, but you can make sure the next generation grows up differently. This mentality has pushed me to be the best dad I can be even if I didn’t have the best dad. You can’t change the past, but with God’s help you can change the future.

3. Focus on your Heavenly Father. The Bible presents God as a Heavenly Father to all who exercise faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. My favorite verse on God as Heavenly Father is found in John 1:12: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (NASB). God’s fatherly influence should be more than enough to compensate for an absentee earthly father.

Celebrating Father’s day can be awkward, but it doesn’t have to be. You can honor the fatherhood and appreciate your family (as imperfect as it may be) by focusing on what you have rather than on what you don’t have – and that is worth celebrating!

How Should We Relate to Angels?

This past Sunday we started a sermon series in the book of Hebrews titled, Jesus is Greater. In the very first sermon we learned that Jesus Christ is God’s supreme revelation to mankind. As such, Jesus Christ is superior to the angels.

Angels are mentioned frequently in the teaching portions as well as the narrative portions of Scripture. They are mentioned 12 times in the book of Hebrews alone alone with one reference to the devil. This brings up the question of how believers are supposed to relate to these mighty spiritual beings? What does the book of Hebrews add to our understanding of angels?

1. We should not obsess over them (Hebrews 1:5-13, 2:1-9). Angels are created beings just like humans. They may have supernatural powers, but they are not to be worshipped. When John encountered an angel in the book of Revelation, the angel refused to be worshipped (Revelation 19:10). Instead, we should view them as agents working to advance God’s will.

2. We should be aware of them (Hebrews 12:18-24). Angels inhabit the heavenly realm. As God’s redemption story unfolds in real time, we are all moving towards a place where angels are common place. They are part of the created world and part of God’s plan. We should not treat them like myths or relics of the past.

3. We should “entertain” them (Hebrew 13:2). There were a number of people in the Old Testament who interacted with angels in human form without realizing it (Genesis 18 and 19). This possibility is used in Hebrews as motivation for hospitality. We should welcome and care for others as if they were a representative of God.

A biblical view of the world includes a biblical view of angels and demons. They are supernatural beings made for our benefit and God’s glory. We would do well to treat them accordingly.

What Can I Do While I Wait?

God recently led me and my family into a time of transition. This transition includes a change of jobs (for me), a change of cities (for all of us), and a change of schools (for my kids). Changes can be exciting, but they are also stressful.

Our move has taken longer than originally anticipated. That requires a lot of patience and persistence. It has also caused me to ask, “What can I do to maximize this time in my life?”

I believe that God has a purpose for everything that happens to us in life – the good as well as the bad. This delay is part of God’s plan for me so I want make the most of it. I also don’t want to become passive, wasting the days I have between now and whenever.

You may also be experiencing a season of delay. You are tried of sitting on the sidelines and you want to make the most of your time. What can you do while you wait?

  1. Learn Something New. Transitions and delays are a great times to upgrade your knowledge or skills. Read a book or take a class. Take a trip or start a new hobby. Israel’s King David learned all kinds of things while he waited to ascend to the throne.
  2. Grow Your Faith. Abraham and Sarah waited for 25 years for a biological son. They made several mistakes along the way, but they eventually saw God’s promise come true. They exercised their faith in ways they never thought possible when they began their journey with God.
  3. Rest and Relax. Life can be hectic and draining. We don’t always take advantage of the natural rhythms of life that God had provided to sustain us. Waiting forces us to slow down for a season which can provided some much needed rest. Jesus expected a lot out of His disciples, but He also showed them how to rest.
  4. Reconnect with Loved Ones. Social media and electronics have given us the false impression that we can stay in touch with everyone all the time. That is simply not possible because there are only so many hours in the day. Season of delay might be just what you need to look up someone you haven’t seen in awhile. The apostle Paul used the transitions between his mission trips to reconnect with the believers that sent him out into ministry.
  5. Seek Clarity. This might be the toughest option because you may not be able to get the kind of clarity you are hoping for. Sometimes God explains the reasons for delay and sometimes the rationale doesn’t come until later. Nevertheless, it never a bad idea to lean into your relationship with and ask Him for wisdom and understanding.

Don’t have to waste your wait! Use it as an opportunity to prepare for what’s next. Use it as an opportunity to partner with God.

What else would you suggest to someone who is experiencing a time of transition? Join the conversation and leave your comment below.

Four Ways to Choose Faith Over Fear

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 There’s a new virus spreading across America and its effects are much more deadly than COVID-19. The new sickness that’s spreading is fear. People are afraid to leave their homes because they might catch the COVID-19 virus and die. In some communities, they are afraid to leave their homes because they might get caught up in a violent protest.  Friends and neighbors are hesitant to look at each other in the eye at the grocery store for fear of being judged for not taking enough precautions or for taking too many precautions. Unfortunately, the nation’s politicians and news outlets are fanning the flames of fear to grab headlines and boost their ratings. Make no mistake about it, COVID-19 and racial injustice are serious threats – but fear is the greatest threat in our country right now.

Those who are familiar with the Old Testament will remember another time when fear was a great threat to God’s people. Joshua stepped up to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land in the first chapter of the book that bears his name, and he was afraid. The Israelites had already failed once to enter the Promised Land and the people there were fierce and powerful. Even though Joshua had some good reason to be afraid, he chose faith over fear. As we follow his example in this chapter, we find four ways to choose faith over fear in our present situation.

  1. Experience God’s Presence (vv. 1-6).

God wanted Joshua to know that He was the one leading Joshua before He called Joshua to lead His people. In other words, God promised that He would always be with Joshua. The newly-appointed leader’s success didn’t rest on his performance, but on God’s sovereign presence and power

The same is true today. God takes care of His people like a loving Heavenly Father. There is nothing that happens to us that does not pass through His sovereign hedge of protection. Even when we can’t understand why He allows something painful to happen, we can trust that He has a plan.

  1. Establish God’s Word as a Priority (vv. 7-9)

God promised Joshua success if he obeyed The Law – God’s Written Word. He was to be so focused on it that he would not deviate from it to the right or the left. Even though Joshua was involved in a military and political operation, God wanted Joshua to know His heart.

I am not trying to minimize the dangers we are facing right now. I am saying that it is much easier to walk by faith in God when we read and study His Word regularly. Political crises, healthcare emergencies, and natural disasters will come and go, but God’s Word remains forever (1 Peter 1:25).

  1. Embrace Biblical Community (vv. 10-15).

Once God prepared Joshua, he shared his plans with the rest of the Israelite people, even the Reubenites, Gadites, and part of the tribe of Manasseh. These three tribes had made special arrangements to settle on the east side of the Jordan River. But Joshua knew that if they were to be successful, they would need everybody to be involved.

The greatest source of community and encouragement in the New Testament world is the Church. The COVID-19 crisis has made it difficult to meet face-to-face the way we always have, but that doesn’t mean we should give up the practice altogether. Faith is encouraged and fear is kept at a distance when we know we are not alone.

  1. Energize Yourself and Others to Move Forward (vv. 16-18).

The Israelites responded positively to Joshua’s instructions. But Joshua knew they needed more than good intentions to conquer Promised Land. He reminded them of God’s promises and pushed them to move forward.

Fear tends to paralyze us. We can fight that tendency by moving closer to our goals, even if it is only one small step at a time. Giving up and giving in to fear is not an option if you know that God has a great plan for your life.

Joshua’s courageous example inspires us to choose faith over fear. As we read in the 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment” (HCSB). We must use the power, love, and common sense that God has given us to vaccinate ourselves from the virus of fear that has infected so many in these times.

The Blessings of Weddings and Funerals

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In his Primer for Pastors, Austin B. Tucker ties pastoral ministry to the ministry of Jesus. “The first miracle of Jesus…was at a wedding where he turned water into wine (John 2:1:11) The last miracle was at the grave of his friend, Lazarus, where ‘Jesus wept’ before he restored his friend to life (John 11:35). Every pastor who walks with his people will have his own mixture of joy and sorrow.”

I have had the privilege and blessing of officiating more weddings and funerals than I can count. As a minister of the gospel, I have always tried to highlight the power of God’s Word during these milestone moments with couples and families.

Here are two guides that I have developed, one for each end of the spectrum of life. One is for Christian couples who are about to get married. The other is for someone who is planning or participating in a funeral for a family member or friend.

Wedding Planning Guide

Funeral Participation Guide

 

Three Ways to Balance the Tension Between Avoiding Bad Company and Living Like a Missionary

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This past Sunday I preached a sermon from Proverbs 1:8-19 on avoiding bad company, especially those who are fascinated by violence and greed. I focused the message around the corrosive character of trouble-makers as well as their ultimate destiny. I warned the young and the old in the congregation I serve to avoid violent people or you will become the victim of their own crime. I encouraged them to set their sights on living a God-honoring life and to distance themselves from anyone who might distract them from that goal.

But what about living as a missionary? Aren’t Christians called to live as “salt and light” among those who lost and spiritually separated from God (Mathew 5:13-16)? Didn’t Jesus spend at least some of his time with sinners and other “unsavory” people (Mark 2:14-17)? Didn’t Jesus commission his followers to live like missionaries in neighborhoods and nations around the world (Acts 1:8)?

At times, there is a tension between avoiding bad company and living like a missionary. Here are three questions to balance out that tension.

1. Is this a voluntary or involuntary association?

You can’t choose your family members, but you can choose your friends. This means you may have to make the most of an unpleasant relationship with a relative. You can’t (or shouldn’t) disown a family member just because he or she is not receptive to the gospel. You may want to rethink friendship, however, that is consistently pulling you away from the things of God.

2. Is this a short-term or long-term connection?

There is more at stake with a long-term partnership than a short-term acquaintance. You will have a much great opportunity to influence someone while you work on a work or school project together than by sitting beside them at a one-time social function. The longer timeframe will also give you an opportunity to assess the health of the situation.

3. Are you in a position to influence or be influenced?

Peer-to-peer relationships involve people who have the same level of influence, while superior-to-subordinate relationships involve two different levels of influence. Knowing where you stand in relation to those around you will help you assess your ability to persuade others. You may have a lot more control over a positive relationship with a co-worker than a negative relationship with your boss.

There are many other factors to consider in the tension between these two goals.  Is there any kind of abuse or criminal activity involved in the relationship? Are you actively praying for the spiritual wellbeing of the person or persons you are trying to reach? Are there any cultural or communication barriers that are obscuring relational goals?

What other questions would you ask in balancing out the tension between living like a missionary and avoiding bad company?