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.

 

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

The Marks of a Disciple

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Jermaine Wilson experienced tremendous transformation. He grew up in Leavenworth, Kanson and started to sell drugs out of his childhood apartment at an early age. He was eventually incarcerated at the maximum-security wing at Lansing Correctional, a state prison in Kansas where he had a realization. “If I don’t change,” he thought, “I’m either going to spend the rest of my life in prison or dead in a casket.” In a strange turn of events, Jermaine is now the mayor of Leavenworth, according to a story that air on CBS earlier this year. Jermaine credits the transformation to God, education, and volunteer work. After prison, he started serving his community and got his felony record expunged, paving the way for a political run.

Jesus used a parable of the vine and the branches to teach us about spiritual transformation in John 15:1-17. Like Jermaine Wilson, the disciples experienced a transformation while they followed Jesus. In one sense, they become disciples the moment they said, “yes” to Jesus. In another very real sense, they didn’t become disciples until they put their faith in the resurrected Jesus. (John 20:29)

The parable of the vine and the branches invites the question, “When does an unbeliever become a disciple?” This metaphor and the explanation follows gives us three marks of a disciple. Notice that these marks are dynamic, not static, meaning they grow and develop over time.

1. Disciples build a friendship with Jesus.

Social media has changed the way we view friendship. It used to be that you had to be physically present with someone to make a friend, but now you can become friends with people all over the world with the click of a button. Social media can increase our ability to communicate, but it can’t increase our capacity to care.

A friendship with Jesus is based on trust and affection. Friends depend on each other because they have a two-way bond. Jesus calls us to “abide in me and I in you” (v. 4). We are branches and branches can do nothing by themselves, they are just sticks (v. 5).

Friends are better than servants because they care for each other. Jesus considers us friends because he gave his life for us (v. 13). He also reveals God’s Word and will to us (v. 15).

It takes time to build a friendship with Jesus. It takes up to three years to grow grapes on a vine. After the vine and branches are established, grapes grow like the life of the vine moves into them. Jesus could have downloaded everything he wanted his disciples to directly into their brain the moment he called them, but he didn’t because he wanted to develop a relationship with them.

2. Disciples bear fruit that lasts.

Spiritual fruit is the Word of God put into practice. In a broad sense, it’s every act done in obedience to Christ. Spiritual fruit is every display of Christ-like character, ever prayer prayed in accordance with God’s will, and every deed done to bring unbelievers to faith in Christ. The beauty of the vineyard is in the sheer magnitude of grapes produced, not just one particular grape. In a narrow sense, its ever act of love done for another believer (more about that in a moment).

God prunes us to make us more fruitful. The vinedresser removes all the old growth to make room for new growth and fruit. God uses His Word to prune and clean us (v. 3). He works to remove things in our lives that get in the way of our fruitfulness. Those things might be sinful habits, misplaced priorities, or even harmful relationships.

People who don’t bear fruit aren’t disciples, they’re imposters (v.6). True spiritual fruit remains to the end. Anyone can do something that looks spiritual on the outside. Only the deeds done in the power of God will make a lasting impact.

3. Disciples demonstrate love for other believers.

Spiritual fruit has a broad and a narrow definition (see the previous point). Demonstrating love for other believers is a prominent mark of a disciple because grows out of the first and second Greatest Commands revealed by Jesus in Matthew 22:35-40.  The first command is assumed in this passage while the second command is reinforced (v. 9).

We must follow Jesus’ example in demonstrating love for others. Jesus laid down his life for the ones he loved – his friends. We must show love to everyone we meet as our “neighbor,” but we have a special responsibility to love our fellow disciples.

Our special relationship with Christ must not become a source of pride. He chose us, we did not choose him (v. 16). Back to the parable, he planted us we did not plant ourselves.

In summary, an unbeliever becomes a true disciple when he or she builds a friendship with Jesus, bears fruit that lasts, and demonstrates love for other believers. These activities cannot be accomplished without the transforming power of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Have you tapped into that power?

Photo by Nacho Domínguez Argenta on Unsplash

The Ministry of the Holy Spirit

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D. L. Moody was a shoe salesman turned international evangelist near the end of the 19thcentury. He had a huge impact on the Kingdom of God, holding crusades & other meetings across America & Europe.  His influence is still felt today through the institutions that he left behind: Moody Bible Institute, Moody Publishers, & the Moody Church.  While preparing for a crusade in England, a local pastor protested, “Why do we need this ‘Mr. Moody’? He’s uneducated & inexperienced.  Who does he think he is anyway? Does he think he has a monopoly on the Holy Spirit?” Another wiser pastor rose and responded, “No, but the HS has a monopoly on Mr. Moody.”

The Holy Spirit can have a big effect on the life of a believer. The third person of the Trinity makes the presence of God personal. He also demonstrates the power of God in the life of the believer.

In his Farewell Discourse in John 16:5-15, Jesus revealed that the Holy Spirit has a dynamic ministry to unbelievers in the world as well as the believers. If you miss out on both sides of the Holy Spirit’s ministry you might find it hard to make sense of Jesus’ instruction in this passage where he says, “it is to your advantage that I go away” (v. 7)

In John 16:5-15, Jesus describes four things that the Holy Spirit does in the world and in the believer. The Holy Spirit is still alive and well today. As we understand his work among us we are better prepared to cooperate with the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

1. The Holy Spirit Convicts the World of Sin (v. 9).

To understand the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we must understand sin. Sin is missing the mark – any thought or action that falls short of God’s perfect will. Like an arrow that misses the target, we have all fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23).

It is in our human nature to sin. It is not just some isolated event that happens once in awhile. Sin leads us to rebel against the righteous expectations of God and to reject his gracious offer of salvation.

The Holy Spirit works in the world like a prosecuting attorney in a courtroom. The prosecuting attorney does everything in his or her power to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty of the charges that have been presented against them.

2. The Holy Spirit Convicts the World of Righteousness (v. 10).

Righteous describes someone who has a right to stand before God and has a right to be in a relationship with Him. God is the one who gets to decide what is right. God is our standard of righteousness.

Let’s return to the same courtroom scene we imagined earlier. While pursuing a conviction, the prosecutor appeals to the moral standards that have established through the law.  A criminal is guilty, not just of committing a crime, but failing to live up to the legal standards of the law.

3. The Holy Spirit Convicts the World of Judgment (v. 11).

Jesus knew that sin is inspired by Satan, “the ruler of this world.” In this verse, Jesus said that Satan “has been judged.” The term is in the perfect tense, meaning that it has already happened, and we are living out the continued effects. Those who side with the ruler of this world over the Savior of the world will be judged for all eternity when Christ comes back.

Let’s return one more time to the courtroom scene. After the prosecutor presents all of evidence and references all of the legal standards that are relevant to the case, he urges the jury to come back with a “guilty” verdict, so that the criminal can be sentenced for his crime.

4. The Holy Spirit Guides Believers in the Truth (v. 12-15).

Jesus introduced the Holy Spirit to his disciples as “the Spirit of Truth,” or The Teacher. The disciples couldn’t take it all in as they were walking with JC, but the Holy Spirit inspired some of them to complete God’s authoritative Word. The same Spirit that inspired the Bible guides people to the truth today.

There are all kinds of helpful nuggets, helps, and tips in the Bible about all kinds of things in life. But the Bible and the ministry of the Holy Spirit isn’t focused on you, it’s focused on Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel. Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of truth.

Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living & active & sharper than any two-edged sword, & piercing as far as the division of soul & spirit, of both joints & marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Holy Spirit uses the Word of God as a surgeon’s scalpel in our lives.  No one that I know enjoys surgery, but we submit to it when we know there is no other way to get healthy.

The Holy Spirit has a dynamic work to the church and the world. He convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. He also guides the believers to the truth. The question is, will you cooperate with him?

Headlights and floodlights alert us of danger and highlight things of beauty. The headlights in your car illuminate the road at night and the floodlights around your home light up the architectural features of your home. When lighting is well done, you don’t see the lights themselves, but the hazards or the buildings the lights are trained on. The Holy Spirit lights up the dark places in our lives as well and he also lights up Jesus Christ so we can see our need for Savior.

 

Left Behind

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Jesus left the world better than he found it. He came into a world darkened by sin and showed his light. He overcame sickness and need with his God-sized power. He told the lost about God’s plan to save them and invited them to follow him.

When the time was right, however, he left his disciples behind and broke their collective hearts. But Jesus didn’t leave his disciples without a plan. He told them about his plan to continue his ministry through his disciples even though he was returning to his Heavenly Father in heaven.

In the Farewell Discourse found in John 14:1-31, we read about three realities that Jesus left behind that changed the world forever. As we align our lives to these three realities we participate in God’s plan to save the world. We also experience his care as he takes care of the little details in our lives.

1. Jesus Left Behind Disciples Who Look Forward to His Return      (14:1-6).

Jesus promised to return after preparing a place for each of his disciples in heaven. The disciples were stressed out about the details, but Jesus assured them that if they knew him they had all they needed. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (v. 6).

The world was and is better off with a growing group of disciples working to make Jesus known while they look forward to his return. Jesus didn’t just leave his disciples behind, he sent them out into the world to make more disciples on his behalf (John 20:19-21) I praise God for the disciples that have been made through the Church.

2. Jesus Left Behind Churches that Do Greater Work than He Did (14:12-14).

Jesus also promised his disciples would do “greater works” than he did. There was no way his disciples could top Jesus’ works in terms of importance or degree for there is no way to do better than walking on water or raising someone from the dead. The disciples could, however, do greater works than Jesus in terms of size and scale.

As often as churches use the Word of God to exalt the Son of God, they do “greater works” than Christ himself. Instead of 11 disciples gathered around to hear from God, there are hundreds of thousands of churches around the world with millions of disciples gathered to hear from God. Those with the gifts of service are just as important as those with the gifts of speaking if they are glorifying God (1 Peter 4:11).

3. Jesus Left Behind the Holy Spirit that Ministers on His Behalf (14:16-17, 25-29).

Jesus rounded out his discourse with a promise to send the Holy Spirit to help his disciples. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit teaches His disciples through the written Word of God and reminds them of the Word they have studied. The goal is to get in Word of God so that the Word of God gets into you.

Jesus left the world better than he found it by leaving behind three important realities: disciples, churches, and the Holy Spirit. That brings up three closing questions:

Are you a disciple of Christ?

Are you engaged in the work of the church?

Are you hearing from the Holy Spirit?

If you align yourself with the big stuff in God’s plan, the details that we so often worry about will fall into place. Jesus left the world better because he left us behind to multiply his ministry. If you align yourself with these three realities, God will take care of the rest. He may be gone but he’s not gone forever. Are you ready for his return?