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?

Why I Pray for My Church Members and then Tell Them About It.

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As a pastor, I have the privilege of shepherding a flock of God’s people through prayer (1 Peter 5:2). Prayer is just one of many tools of a spiritual shepherd. While I have always prayed for the church that I serve, I have just recently started to pray for the members of my church systematically.
After I pray for them I stop and write a note to let them know I prayed for them. The note is not a request for a pat on the back, but a line of spiritual encouragement and communication. Handwritten notes are meaningful and welcome these days because they are so rare.
I pastor a “mid-sized church” which allows me to pray through our church directory about once or twice a year. A weekly and daily goal allows me to make consistent progress without feeling rushed. A family-by-family approach ensures that none is left out.
This practice has yielded benefits for me and the people I serve. Here is a list of the benefits in each category:
Benefits for me
  • It helps me pray consistently.
  • It helps me learn names and make connections between families.
  • It helps me stay connected to quieter “sheep.”
  • It helps me move people forward in their faith.
  • It helps me encourage those who are struggling and hurting.
  • It helps me update contact information.

Benefits for my church members

  • It reminds them they are not alone.
  • It gives them a personal connection to their pastor.
  • It allows them to focus on the positive side of their pain and problems.
  • It teaches them about the importance of prayer.
  • It encourages families to talk about spiritual issues and the church.
  • It highlights the care of the whole church.

Churches come in all shapes and sizes, but they all need prayer. Pastors have the unique responsibility and privilege to shepherd their people through prayer. I hope this guide helps you pray for your church members more effectively.

Are you a pastor or a church member?

How often do you pray for others in your church?

How do you highlight the importance of prayer in your church?

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Share Your Joy

person-110305_1280What brings you joy? Do you find joy in your achievements and accomplishments? Does your joy come from those around you?  Do your circumstances control your level of joy?

The Prophet Isaiah ministered during a stormy time in his nation’s history. The Assyrian Empire was growing in strength and taking over the many of the nations in Fertile Crescent. The Jewish nation and Isaiah’s personal situation was about to get worse.

Even though Isaiah’s circumstances looked bleak, he pointed his people to a time of intense joy and celebration. In Isaiah chapter 11, the prophet predicts the eventual the eventual redemption and restoration of his people, the Jews, through Jesus Christ the Messiah. In chapter 12, he describes the emotions and activities associated with the day of salvation. As the Jews rejoiced over their salvation, they were moved to share their joy with other people.

Even though our cultural and political situation in the church today is much different than in Isaiah’s day, we can learn from him. In Isaiah chapter 12, we learn that when a church is full of joy over the gospel something spills out and that something is evangelism. Evangelism is sharing the good news about Jesus Christ with those who don’t know him yet. If a church is full of joy over the good news about Jesus Christ, they will share it with others outside the church. If there is limited joy in a church, or it comes from the wrong things, then evangelism will disappear.

A brief reading of Isaiah 12 reveals three ways that all believers can find in Jesus Christ and express it to others. First, you can share your joy with others because is present everywhere you go (verse 6). God is always with his people. Second, you can share your joy through praise and worship (verse 5). Music and singing reveal what hidden in the human heart. Third, you can share your joy with all people (verse 4). True joy is contagious, spreading from person to person.

Let’s all take a lesson from the Prophet Isaiah. Enduring joy only comes from God, who sent Jesus to save us from ourselves. If believers and the churches they attend are full of joy it will not only change the atmosphere in the church, it will change their activity. If you’ve found your joy in God, then find someone to share that joy with this week.

Why Plant New Churches? An Open Letter to Unity Baptist Church

plant in handsUnity has a strong history of church planting. Many of the Baptist churches in the Ashland area were started by Unity or by one of her daughter churches. In 1892, Unity planted Pollard Baptist under the leadership of pastor S. Hensley. In time, Pollard planted at least 7 mission churches, including Rose Hill Baptist, and Wildwood Baptist, who would plant their own daughter churches as well. In the early 1900’s, Unity was instrumental in starting 3 mission churches. In 1954, one of those missions became Belmont Street Baptist in under the eventual leadership of pastor Wesley Harris.   In 1974, Unity helped the 45th Street Mission organize into Blackburn Avenue Baptist under the leadership of pastor Thurman Jackson.[1] Some of Unity’s spiritual progeny have grown through the years, and some have disappeared, but her church-planting legacy lives on today.

Church planting has been overlooked for several years, but recently it has made a comeback. Some forward-thinking church leaders, like Ed Stetzer, Executive Director for Lifeway Research, believe church planting is essential for the future of the church in North America, but others have doubts.[2] Those who resist the idea of planting new churches think that there are already enough churches. Here are 3 objections to church planting that Stetzer addresses in his book Planting Missional Churches.

Isn’t one big church better than several smaller ones? It’s true that larger churches have more to offer than medium or smaller churches, but that doesn’t mean they are better at reaching people. Consider the findings from a recent study:

  • Churches under three years of age win an average of 10 people to Christ per year for every hundred church members.
  • Churches three to fifteen years of age win an average of 5 people to Christ per year for every hundred church members.
  • Churches over fifteen years of age win an average of 3 people to Christ per year for every hundred church members.[3]

Shouldn’t we help our struggling churches instead? It’s estimated that as many 90 percent of churches in North America are in plateau or decline. Some feel that the resources used to start new churches should be used to revitalize churches that are struggling. This is possible in some cases, but it’s not very common. Existing churches that are struggling are struggling for a reason, and they are often resistant to the kind of change that is necessary to revitalize them. The best strategy is to both plant new churches and revitalize existing churches that are open to change.

Haven’t we already reached everyone? Even after generations of evangelism and discipleship, the U.S. is the largest mission field in the Western hemisphere.[4] Our country’s largest cities are filled with millions of lost people, and there are thousands of lost people in our Tri-state area, too.   According to recent estimates, 40 percent of people in the Ashland area have no religious affiliation whatsoever, and only 15.7 percent of the people in the Ashland attend church on a given Sunday. That means that of the approximately 9,000 people who live within a 1-mile radius of our church property, 3,600 have no specific religious connection, and 7,600 do not attend church on a regular basis. It’s estimated that there are as many as 30,000 lost people in Boyd County alone.

The North American Mission Board is encouraging Southern Baptists to pursue church planting as the best way to reach the lost through the Annie Armstrong Missions Emphasis and the SEND City Church Planting Strategy. This year, we will all be encouraged to participate in missions in North America by praying, giving, and even going. But this is nothing new for Unity. We have been participating in missions and planting churches for years.

[1] Special thanks to Judi Little and her careful research on the history of Unity Baptist.

[2] Ed Stezer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2006), 5.

[3] Bruce Nichols, “Churches Die With Dignity,” Christianity Today (January 14, 1991), 69.

[4] Stetzer, 13.

Why I Love Ashland, Kentucky: Reason #1

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I believe that God calls pastors to communities as well as churches. You can’t have a healthy church without personal evangelism and local outreach. If is very difficult for a church to engage in these activities without the support of their pastor. In my experience as pastor, its hard to get excited about reaching beyond the four wall of a church unless you love the community where you minster.

In order to show my love for the area where I minster, I want to share a series of blog posts this week on the reasons why I love Ashland, Kentucky.

  1. The people here are warm and welcoming

My wife and I were both raised in the north. I’m from a small farming town southwest Michigan and she grew up in sprawing suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. We have lived a few places in our life together, some big and some small, but none with such kind and gracious people.

Our church family has been incredibly warm and welcoming, but it goes way beyond that. We have enjoyed a quick smile and an offer to help from shopkeepers, salespeople, and workmen. The teachers and staff at the schools where our children attend have been accepting and encouraging. Our neighbors are friendly and helpful and we have enjoyed a few cooks and block party together.

That is not say we haven’t encounter any grumpy people. But for the most part, the people in this hard-working little city have welcomed my family and I with open arms. For that, we are grateful.

Check back tomorrow another reason why I love Ashland, Kentucky.

5 Tips for Leading More Productive Meetings

Staff-MeetingIf churches are made up of people, than meetings are an inevitable, and important part of church life.  Meetings have gotten a bad reputation, but that doesn’t have to be the case in the place where you serve.  Here are a few tips to lead more productive meetings

  • Have a plan.  The old saying is true: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. You may choose to send out a written agenda ahead of time, or make one up at the start of the meeting. Either way, have a plan and stick to it
  • Be flexible. Flexibility is a necessary complement to good planning. Sometimes new information comes to light or situations change, even during the middle of a meeting. Good leaders take advantage of changing situations and adapt whenever necessary.
  • Solicit input.  The best meetings are a collaboration of the best ideas in the room.  Be prepared to ask open-ended questions, listen, and clarify for the sake of the group.
  • Surface conflict. Not everyone will voice his or her concern or opposition to a decision. A good leader will find ways to bring divergent opinions and disagreement to the surface so that it can be dealt with. This is one way to encourage buy-in and support moving forward.
  • Clarify next steps.  Whether its further research, a follow-up meeting, or a phone call, every meeting can be improved by clarification. Make sure that everyone knows what is happening next and who is responsible for each step.

What other tips would you share with church leaders who want to improve the productivity of their meetings.?

Five Tips for Making a Hospital Visit

pastor-hospital-visitChristian leaders minister to others in crisis situations. One of the most common crises is going to the hospital for surgery. Here are five suggestions to help you be a better hospital visitor.

  1. Be kind and courteous.  Remember, you are there to encourage the patient, not embarrass them. Don’t sit on the bed, make light of their health condition, or get in the way of the hospital staff. Instead, stand where the patient can see you easily, use humor, only when appropriate, and compliment the hospital staff whenever possible.
  1. Respect their privacy.  Patients take their pain and sickness to the hospital, but usually have to leave their modesty at home. It is always a good idea to knock before you enter a patient’s room or excuse yourself if they need to get settled in their bed. You should also be careful not to share too much information with other caring people, even as a prayer request.
  1. Make time for spiritual encouragement.  If you are visiting on behalf of a church, the patient is probably expecting you to pray with them at sometime during your visit. Don’t be shy about leading the patient and whoever else may be present in an uplifting word of prayer. You may also choose to read or quote Scripture as an added encouragement.
  1. Don’t impersonate a doctor.  You may learn details about the patient’s health situation or diagnosis during your visit. The patient may even ask for you opinion. In either case, resist the urge to share your “unprofessional opinion” with the patient or their family.
  1. Don’t wear out your welcome.  Most people are glad to have visitors in the hospital, but they may feel as if they need to entertain you while you are there. Unless the situation is critical, it is best to keep the visit brief; 15 to 20 minutes is usually sufficient.

These are just some suggestions I’ve found to be helpful.  What would you add to it to help others make better hospital visits?

How to Teach the Bible Through Discussion Without Missing the Point, Part 2

sm-grp-bible-study-LOWResThis is the second part of a two-part series on how to teach the Bible through discussion without missing the point of the lesson.

Interactive small group Bible studies can be a powerful tool for evangelism and discipleship, especially when they are combined with a dynamic church worship service and opportunities to serve and do ministry.  Several weeks ago, I introduced this topic by pointing out 4 major challenges to leading an effective and interactive small group Bible study.  Today, I will share 5 suggestions for teaching the Bible through discussion without missing the point and here they are:

1.Have a clear goal(s) in mind

Motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar is credited with the axiom, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit is every time.”  If you don’t know what you are trying to teach, there is no way anyone else will either.

Discussion based teaching should not be used as an excuse for lack of preparation.  Be flexible, but write down 1 to 3 goals, truths, or principles that you want to communicate.

2.     Ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions are designed to solicit participation and information from the group.  They are questions that require more than a one word answer.  When used strategically, they can create momentum and buy-in.

Open-ended question help you connect with your students, but they also help your students connect with each other.  As group members hear others respond to questions they are urged to share their perspective and insights as well.

3.     Deal with distractions

In part one of this two-part series, I listed distractions as one of the challenges that small group leaders have to overcome – they are inevitable.  Instead of the ignoring a distraction, identify the “elephant in the room” and move on.  And don’t forget to laugh, when appropriate.  If something happens that is funny, enjoy the moment use it to bring your group closer together.

4.     Clarify responses

Group discussions can become unproductive or confusing without some leadership.  When needed, restate participants responses and ask if that what they meant, if they are unclear.

This kind of clarification can also be a good way to transition to another stage in the meeting or point in the lesson.  It gives the leader an opening in the discussion while affirming the rest of the group.
 
5.     Sensitively seek full participation

Part of a  group leader’s job is to keep “the ball going.”  If some of the members of your group are shy or introverted, you may have to find ways to engage them without embarrassing them.  You may also have to gently restrain over-talkative group members by thanking them for the participation and asking others to chime in.

Do you have any suggestions you would add to the list?  What have you found helpful in teaching the Bible through discussion without missing the point?

Two Aspects of Forgiveness

quotes“Forgiveness is both an event and a process.  Making the four promises of forgiveness (found earlier in the book) is an event that knocks down a wall that stands between you and the person who has wronged you.  Then a process begins.  After you demolish an obstruction, you usually have to clear away debris and do repair work.  The Bible calls this ‘reconciliation,’ a process involving a change of attitude that leads to a change in the relationship.”

-Ken Sande, The Peace Maker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict           (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 219