A Letter to Worship Leaders and a Letter to Preachers

After attending a worship conference this past week, I decided to write two letters, one to worship leaders and one to preaching pastors to help each better understand the other and how we can work together for the glory of God.  My experience as both a worship leader and a preaching pastor gives me a bit of a unique perspective on the worship service.  It was hard to sit in workshops and hear worship leaders or musicians make comments about how they always have to cut their time short so that the preacher gets his full time.  It was hard to hear them encourage worship leaders and musicians to really work on their craft and be the best they could be but then make fun of preachers who get up with their multiple point sermons and powerpoint.

First (in no particular order) my letter to address specific needs and sensitivities of the worship leader:

You are not as important as you might think you are.  You are an important part of the worship service, but your area is just that – part of the worship service.  You should work with the other aspects of the worship service rather than against them.

Your part in the service is not the only part where God is at work and is not the only time when His truth is being proclaimed.  God may really work in some people’s hearts during your part of the worship service, but He may want to work in other people’s hearts during the other parts of the worship service.  You have put a lot of effort into your part of the worship service – which is good – but understand that others have also put a lot of time and effort into their areas so this cannot be an excuse for saying your part of the service should get more time or attention or can never be shortened for the sake of the overall requirements of the worship service.

You are like a string on a guitar.  Sometimes that string is part of the chord or is played all by itself and rings with great impact.  Other times that string may only sound quietly, be muted, or not touched at all.  The question should not be whether that string is being heard.  The real question should be whether the overall sound of the guitar is good.  Be the best “string” you can be and know that whether you get 50 minutes or 15, God can and will work through you but He is also working through others.  The worship service as a whole will probably be better if you can accept the truth that you are not as important as you might think you are.

Second (again in no particular order) my letter to address specific needs and sensitivities of the preaching pastor:

You are not as important as you might think you are.  You are an important part of the worship service, but your area is just that – part of the worship service.  You should work with the other aspects of the worship service rather than against them.

Your part in the service is not the only part where God is at work and is not the only time when His truth is being proclaimed.  God may really work in some people’s hearts during your part of the worship service, but He may want to work in other people’s hearts during the other parts of the worship service.  You have put a lot of effort into your part of the worship service – which is good – but understand that others have also put a lot of time and effort into their areas so this cannot be an excuse for saying your part of the service should get more time or attention or can never be shortened for the sake of the overall requirements of the worship service.

You are like a string on a guitar.  Sometimes that string is part of the chord or is played all by itself and rings with great impact.  Other times that string may only sound quietly, be muted, or not touched at all.  The question should not be whether that string is being heard.  The real question should be whether the overall sound of the guitar is good.  Be the best “string” you can be and know that whether you get 50 minutes or 15, God can and will work through you but He is also working through others.  The worship service as a whole will probably be better if you can accept the truth that you are not as important as you might think you are.


As you can see, I really want to relate to both and be sensitive to their specific needs and particular issues.

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One Nation Under God – Sermon for Day of Prayer

I’m not a big “God and country” sort of guy so when I was asked to give the sermon for our town’s Day of Prayer service at Town Hall I was kind of nervous.  I told a few guys in a small group about my concerns and some of my thoughts on the way Christians interact with culture and politics.  I was sharing ideas about why I probably shouldn’t be the guy giving the Day of Prayer sermon but they said I should just share what I was telling them.  So I did.  Here is the transcript of my message:

The theme for this year’s day of prayer event is “One Nation Under God” and the text is Psalm 33:12 – “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, whose people he chose for his inheritance.”

What makes a Nation “One Nation Under God”?

One Nation Under God would be a nation that recognizes and lives under the gracious and sovereign authority of God.  The phrase “In God we Trust” comes to mind.  The people of One Nation Under God would trust in God above everything else. They would not trust in politics, presidents or power, but in God for “In God we Trust” and this trust would be evident in their lives.

There is another verse that refers to this idea of One Nation Under God.  1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  From this we see that a nation that is “One Nation, Under God” is called by God to declare his praises.  It is a nation of people who have been saved by God for his glory and his purposes.

The leader of “One Nation Under God” is not chosen by a vote because there is only one who is ever qualified and his term never ends.  He was and is the Son of God, Jesus Christ who alone was able to take our sins, die in our place for the punishment for our sins, and raise from the dead offering new life and new citizenship into this One Nation Under God.

This One Nation Under God does not depend on constitutions or campaigns.  It is not run by presidents or policies.  It is not determined by borders or birth.  The citizens of this One Nation Under God come from every background, every language, every era of history and are defined only by one thing, the cross of Jesus Christ.

The cost of citizenship into this One Nation Under God would be listed as “death for the payment of sins” and on the papers of the people of the One Nation Under God there is a bright red stamp that covers over that cost that says, “PAID IN FULL BY JESUS CHRIST”

To the people of this One Nation Under God, that phrase and the phrase “In God We Trust” are not just political campaign slogans or mottos printed on paper, they are truths to be lived in every facet of their lives.  The citizens of One Nation Under God do not wring their hands and fret over the current resident in the White House or anything else of any earthly country because they know that the existence of this One Nation Under God does not depend on a vote or a majority but on the sovereign grace of the One True God.

America is a great nation and I am proud to be an American.  We are right to pray for America and to pray for the leaders of America and to be involved in politics and policies.  If we want America to truly be “One Nation Under God,” then we who have been saved by the cross of Christ and are citizens of the “One Nation Under God” need to stop pointing fingers at our country and its leaders and instead point our words, our actions, and our lives to the God who saves.

America will only be a Christian Nation, a One Nation Under God, when the people of America hear and see the good news of salvation found only through Jesus Christ’s death, burial and resurrection lived out in the lives of the followers of Christ – the citizens of the true One Nation Under God.

Americans, like everyone else in the world, can become part of the One Nation Under God, but it will not happen by us trying to change America, it will happen by God changing the hearts of Americans – one new citizen at a time as they are welcomed into the One Nation Under God and their papers are stamped “Paid in full by Jesus Christ.”

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The Bride of Christ

Imagine a wedding day.  The guests are all seated.  The wedding party is in place at the front of the church.  The groom stands waiting.  All eyes are glancing at the back doors of the sanctuary – waiting.  After an uncomfortable amount of time, there is a great commotion in the hall outside the sanctuary and then the doors burst open.  The bride stumbles into the sanctuary with mud all over her shoes and the bottom of her gown because she stopped in her garden before she left to pull up some weeds.  She’s very late because her favorite show was on TV.  She has headphones on her head listening to the play-by-play for her favorite sports team’s big game.  She rushes up to the front of the sanctuary and looks quickly at her groom and then the pastor and asks if they can get this over quickly because she offered to babysit for a friend and on her way home she needs to stop at the bank.

I have never seen a wedding start this way and I hope I never do.  It would be deeply insulting to the groom.

Ephesians 5:25-33 states:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.  However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

What is the church?  Is it a building?  A collection of programs?  A club?  A self-help group?  According to God’s Word, the Church is PEOPLE – people who have been saved by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection; people who are following Christ and, through the power of the gospel at work in them, living out His will in this world; people who are sinners and deeply flawed but are being renewed and remade into the image of Christ that we were all created to display (Gen. 1:26).  Ephesians 5:25-33 gives us the metaphor of the Church as the Bride of Christ.  Paul is writing about how the gospel impacts our relationships and is specifically challenging wives and husbands to love each other according to the love that Christ showed to us on the cross.  As he writes, it is almost as if in his excitement he wanders off topic a bit and into his favorite subject, Christ’s love for His people – the church.

Christ’s Love for His Bride

We learn some things about Christ’s love for the church in this passage.  Christ loves the church with a sacrificial love.  Verse 25 says that Christ gave himself up for the church.  He laid down his life so that we might live.  Christ loves the church with an intentional love.  Verse 26 says that Christ gave his life for the church to make us holy.  Christ loves the church with an effective love.  Verse 26 also says that the way Christ makes us holy is “the washing with water through the word.”  Christ is the one who makes us ready for the wedding by washing us through the Word of God.

Christ loves the church with a love of the highest motivation.  Christ’s motivation for loving the church, His Bride, is the highest and best possible motivation there could ever be.  If I said my greatest motivation for loving my wife is for my own sake – to make me feel or look good – then people would call me selfish.  Why?  Because I’m saying that I’m more important than my wife or than anything else.  I am putting something lesser (me) in the place of greatest importance.  Paul says in verse 27 that Christ’s love is motivated by the desire to “present her to himself.”  This means that Christ loves the church for Christ’s sake – for his own glory.  Selfishness is wrong in us because we are putting ourselves in the place of highest importance.  Yet when we speak of Christ, the place of highest importance is rightfully his.  Christ loves the church with the highest possible motivation – his own glory.  For Christ to love the church for any other reason would be to settle for a lesser motivation and a lesser love.

Christ loves the church with a caring love.  Saying Christ loves the church for his own sake does not mean there is no benefit to the church – far from it!  Verse 29 says that Christ cares for the church with a loving and tender care because we are his “body” (the church as the Body of Christ is another great metaphor in Scripture).  Christ also loves the church with a committed love.  Verses 30-32 talk about a husband and wife leaving their past security and identity and becoming “one flesh.”  This is a picture of absolute and lasting commitment and this is how Christ loves the church.

Christ looks at the church and says, “I love you with a sacrificial love – I’ve given my life for you.  I love you with an intentional love – I have a plan and a purpose that is your greatest good.  I love you with an effective love – I will make this happen even though you struggle because my strength is enough.  I love you because I want you to be with me and to share in, enjoy, and display my glory. I am watching over you and caring for every need and I am committed to you forever and ever.”

The Radiant Beauty of the Bride

There is something special about a groom not seeing the bride on the wedding day until the doors of the sanctuary open.  The bride has put a great amount of effort into looking her best as she presents herself to her groom.  When we speak of the church as the Bride of Christ, there is also a display of great beauty, but there is an important difference.

Ephesians 3:20-21 says, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  When the church stands as the Bride of Christ, we can claim no credit for our own beauty.  It was not our effort that prepared us for this moment.  The beauty that we have as the Bride of Christ is because we are made beautiful by God through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Ephesians 3:10-11 says, “[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms…”  The church’s beauty is not her own.  It nothing less than the radiant beauty of God and his work on display for the world to see.  The church does not exist for people to be amazed or impressed by us.  We exist to point to the One who makes us beautiful.  This is God’s purposeful plan and design.

One aspect of the church’s beauty that most greatly displays the glory of God at work is our unity.  In John 17:23 Jesus prays, “May they [the church] be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you love me.”  Jesus is saying that the unity within the church helps prove to the world that Jesus is sent by God.  Our unity is one of the greatest proof’s that Jesus is the Son of God because this beautiful unity cannot be accomplished by our work.  It only comes as together we submit to the work that God is doing in and through us.

As the Bride of Christ, we stand in the doorway ready to walk down the aisle completely unworthy in and of ourselves to be there.  We are beautiful only because of what Christ has done and is doing in us.  We radiate the beauty he has accomplished in us for his glory.


So the doors open and the bride appears.  People look at the groom as he looks at his bride.  A smile grows on his face as he thinks, “This is my beautiful bride and she is perfect in every way because I gave my life for her to make her perfect.  I love her with an unending love.  I will care for her every need and we will be together forever.”

This is how Christ loves his church – his people.  We must treat what Christ loves so much with great honor, respect, commitment and love.  The church is not ours and does not exist for our happiness, comfort, traditions, or fulfillment.  We do not make the church effective, impressive, or attractive.  That is God’s job – our job is to keep our eyes on the groom who loves us so deeply and to live as a display of his power at work in us, his love that changes us, and his glory that draws others to be part of the Bride of Christ.

This post is from a sermon I preached a few weeks ago at Orchard Community Church as we started a series on the church.



photo by flickr user kriffster

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“The Mission Continues, Acts 21 – 28” – Thoughts on Sunday’s Sermon

Sorry that I’m a bit late on posting my “Monday’s Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon” (I’m writing this on Thursday!).  

Have you ever thought about the power of “normal”?  We often think of normal as being simple, taken for granted, plain, and powerless, but I think the concept of normal is one of the most powerful things in our lives.  What we think is or should be normal exerts pressure on us.  What we think of as a normal income, height, weight, intelligence, and so many other “normals” in our life, make us evaluate ourselves and we feel the weight of being out of line with normal.  One profound way that the concept of normal impacts us is the idea that life should be relatively easy and smooth.  That in general we should be happy, healthy, and comfortable.

We import this idea of normal life into our relationship with Christ on the Gospel Mission.  We think that following Christ should be roses and green fields, calm waters and fresh air.  This means that when our life goes through ups and downs we feel profoundly not normal which often translates into thinking something is wrong – that somehow we are wrong or doing something wrong or even that maybe God is wrong.  Churches get caught up in this.  We can think that any disagreement or differences of opinion are an indication of a deeper problem.  We can think that if the church isn’t growing or enjoying “success” (whatever that is) then something is tragically wrong.

The problem with all of this is how we define “normal.”  The picture we get from Acts chapters 21 through 28 (and really the entire book of Acts, and, come to think of it, the entire Bible!) is that life in relationship with God is filled with ups and downs.  There is no normal level where we are supposed to be comfortable all the time.  It is often in the ups and downs that God is profoundly at work.

On Sunday I gave an overview of Acts 21 – 28 which I won’t do here.  Instead, I challenge you to read it for yourself.  It is an incredible account of Paul’s arrest, multiple trials, and eventual travel and imprisonment in Rome.  Acts ends there.  There is no grand finale, no plot line wrapped in a bow.  In fact, I would say that Acts ends with a great unwritten “to be continued…”   It think it is part of the genius of God to have this incredible account of the beginning of the Gospel Mission end without an ending because the truth is that the account of the church – the followers of Jesus Christ – living the Gospel Mission in this world continues today with US.

One question I had after studying these final chapters of Acts was how it was possible for Paul to keep going when things were so difficult.  Paul’s speech before King Agrippa in chapter 26 holds some key insights into Paul’s thinking and there I saw three things that really challenged me.

Good intentions do not equal right direction:  In Acts 26:9-14, Paul tells about how he lived before meeting Christ.  He was so sincere.  So passionate. So single-minded in his devotion.  So dedicated to living out his belief.  Yet for all of his good intentions and sincere faith, he had to come to terms with the fact that he was sincerely wrong.  Paul’s direction in his life of following Jesus wasn’t set by good intentions.  When we try to just do the right thing then we might be quick to abandon that when it seems like it’s not working.  Paul’s new direction in his life was shaped by the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead to prove He is the Messiah and offers eternal life to all who believe in him.  Following Christ isn’t about having good intentions or just trying to be a better you.  It is about knowing and living the reality that Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection is a truth which forever sets a direction for the Gospel Mission and that we must weigh all of our supposedly good intentions against this unchanging direction.

It really is all about Jesus:  In Acts 26:15-17 and 22-29, Paul tells Agrippa what it was that changed his life.  What could possibly make this persecutor of Christians and rejector (I think that’s a real word) of  Christ become willing to endure beatings, imprisonments, and even death for the sake of the truth he once fought so hard against?  It was the reply from the voice that stopped him on the road to Damascus and said, “I am Jesus” (26:15).  The fact of Jesus’ resurrection proves everything Jesus ever said about himself.  It proves that he was able to pay the penalty for our sins and offer eternal life with God.  It also set an entirely new direction for Paul’s life (as it does for ours) because Jesus said, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you” (Acts 26:16).  This is the same language Jesus used when speaking to the disciples when he said, “and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).  The reason Paul could endure so much difficulty is that he knew his life was not about him.  It had nothing to do with his comfort and it had everything to do with whether or not he lived and spoke as a witness to the truth of the existence, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.  We are equipped to endure the ups and downs of the Gospel Mission only as we accept the fact that our lives are now all about Jesus.

This Changes Everything:  In Acts 26:15-18, Paul tells Agrippa about the mission that Jesus gave to him to take the gospel to the Gentiles.  For his entire life Paul had focused on keeping the Jewish Law and trying to preserve and purify the Jewish nation as God’s people (this is what being a Pharisee was all about).  Now, Jesus tells him to leave all that behind and go to the people Paul once rejected to tell them that God is offering them salvation through Jesus.  Paul’s life was (and our life still is today) radically changed by the fact of the resurrection of Jesus.  Look at these statements of Paul from Philippians:

Philippians 1:12 – Speaking of his beatings and imprisonment – “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.”
Philippians 1:20-21 – “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Philippians 1:27-30 – “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”

These are the statements of a man whose entire life has been changed by Christ.  He has a new definition of “normal” – a definition that is wrapped around the idea of proclaiming the truth about Jesus no matter what happens to him.

So as we end our brief study of Acts, we have to understand that the mission continues with us today.  We are now the witnesses of Jesus in this world.  We must allow this incredible truth redefine our concept of normal life and accept the wonderful, but often difficult, truth that we are living out the Gospel Mission today.

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“Grace-Driven Transformation” – Core Value #4 of Orchard Community Church


Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.  (Philippians 2:12-13)

Are we there yet?  It is the question every parent dreads on a long road trip.  It usually starts about 10 minutes into the trip and doesn’t stop until you arrive at your destination.  It’s tough being a kid and waiting to get somewhere.  In fact, it’s tough being an adult and waiting to get somewhere in our lives.  We can wonder when we will “arrive” at the spiritual maturity we see taught in scripture and we think we see in others around us.

Core Value #4 of Orchard Community Church is a strong belief in “Grace-Driven Transformation.”  Here is the full description:

We are passionate about the Gospel’s power to bring about long-lasting transformation into the image of Christ. Our gratefulness for God’s saving grace through Christ positions and motivates us to eagerly and intentionally cooperate with the Holy Spirit and access the empowering grace of God in a life-long process of being made more like Jesus. (Philippians 1:6; Titus 2: 11-14; 2 Peter 3:18)

The call to follow Christ involves being transformed.  Change is not optional in the Christian life.  It is the necessary effect of the gospel in our lives.  But it is God who brings about this change.  Philippians 2:12-13 says that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, but then it goes on to say that “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”  This is the essence of Grace-Driven transformation – we are working (or living) out what God is doing in us.  It is His grace at work in our lives changing us to who He created us to be.

We believe in the power of God to change lives.  We are also very careful to not try to substitute our own power or methods to try to change each other.  A call to be changed by God’s grace can easily slip into beating each other up.  Believing in Grace-Driven Transformation as a core value means that we trust that God is at work and that it is our work as a church to look to and point others to Him through the power of the gospel so that He can change us.

If you are reading this and struggling with asking God “are we there yet” – wondering when you will be the person you should – know that God is already at work in your life.  If you have accepted Christ as your savior then God has promised that He has put His Spirit in your life and is changing you from the inside out.  This is why the list of Christian qualities is called the “Fruit of the Spirit” – it isn’t the fruit of our labor, it is the fruit of God’s work in us.  Trust what God is doing in your life.  When we beat ourselves up we tend to stay away from the means that God uses in our lives to transform us – gathering with believers, God’s Word, and prayer.  Yet when we trust in God’s work in our lives we will run to the ways where He is working.  We will be encouraged by the truth of God’s grace at work in our lives.

We, the people of Orchard Community Church, trust in God’s Grace-Driven Transformation at work in each believers life.  It is God’s job to change people.  It is our job to point them to the grace of the gospel that can bring about that change.


photo by Flickr user melissaemmons

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“Systems Check” (Acts 15:1-35) – Monday’s Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon

So it’s 11:30pm on Monday night and I’m finally getting around to writing my reflection on the sermon yesterday!  We leave tomorrow for a brief three day family trip so today was pretty busy as I tried to get stuff done that I normally do on Tuesday through Thursday.

I have come to love Acts chapter 15 and the account of the Jerusalem Council.  I love it because I think it shows us a picture of church leadership in action in a powerful way on a very important issue.  The gospel was being threatened by people who said that believing in Jesus was not enough and were saying that people had to do certain good works in order to be saved.  By the end of the council’s meeting, the church has affirmed that salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone and has protected the unity of the church around the central truth of the gospel.

I called this sermon “Systems Check” because the early church had to check it’s way of thinking and doing things against the Word of God.  We all have “systems” or ways that we normally think or act.  Our systems are usually based around the highest priority in our lives.  It could be money, power, what people think of us.  It could be tradition or change, fear or self-doubt.  When we face a difficult situation we grab the handle attached to that central gear of our system and we turn the crank.  The system goes into production and out comes a response.  Oh sure, we have the ability to make different choices, but we have to at least admit that those choices are largely determined by our greatest priorities around which we have built our systems.

The early church could have given a quick answer.  They could have grabbed the handle attached to their greatest priority and turned it and then responded accordingly.  For some churches the greatest priority is tradition – doing things the way it’s always been done.  For some it is change – purposely doing things differently than it’s always been done.  Both represent systems based around a central priority and both can be drastically out of line with the mission of the gospel.

But the early church didn’t just respond out of their “system.”  They took the harder route to judge how they thought against God’s Word.  In fact, it isn’t just what the council decides that is so important – it’s how they decide it.  They start by listening to everyone that they can.  Paul and Barnabas tell their stories of what God has done on their first missionary journey.  The believers from the Pharisee group tell how they think the Gentiles must keep the Law of Moses.  Others must have been given the chance to speak as well because verse 7 says, “after much discussion…”  At several points in the narrative we are shown that there was a rather large crowd.  At the beginning of the meeting, the entire church of Jerusalem seems to be involved (verse 4 says they were welcomed by “the church” – not just the leaders).  Verse 6 tells us that the “apostles and elders met to consider this question” but they either did this with the rest of the church present or greatly involved the rest of the church throughout the process because verse 12 calls the group “the whole assembly” (which would be an odd way of referring to just the leadership) and verse 22 says that after James makes his recommendation for what they should do that “the apostles and elders with the whole church” come up with a plan to carry it out.

As they are listening and involving the people (which turns a crisis into a discipleship opportunity!) they are also weighing everything against God’s Word.  Peter tells about what Christ has taught him in regards to the Gentiles being accepted through Christ and not through the Old Testament Law.  James cites passages from the Old Testament that show that it was always God’s will to accept the Gentiles.   They take this information and use it, instead of their own “systems” to weigh the current situation and the conflict that is being caused by a challenge to the core of the gospel.

This is true leadership in action.  Not only are the leaders not just pushing their own agenda, they are purposely taking the time to check their agenda against the word of God.  No top down authoritarianism.  They are involving the people by first listening to them, letting them see how the decision is reached, and then involving them again in carrying out the solution.

The main “gear” of our “systems” needs to be the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and God’s Word must be the standard against which our systems must measure up.  This is true in the church and in our individual lives.  If we truly believe that we are sinners saved only by God’s grace, then why would we want to try to figure things out and do them our way?  We will instead want to do them God’s way as we check everything against His Word.  This is the role of leadership in the church and it should also be evident in the lives of Christians as we seek to be led by Christ on this gospel mission.

Disclaimer:  any typos or blatant heresy in this post is due to the fact that the author should probably be sleeping…

photo by Flickr user bluebus

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“Grounded and Growing” (Acts 11:19 – 14:28) – Monday’s (well, actually Tuesday’s) Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon

I blame the time change this past weekend for why I’m a day off on posting my reflection on Sunday’s sermon.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

This past Sunday at Orchard Community Church we looked at Acts 11:19 – 14:28.  It was a LOT of information to cover.  In these chapters we get to know the church at Antioch and then read about how they send Paul and Barnabas on Paul’s first missionary journey.  Chapter 14 ends with Paul and Barnabas returning to Antioch and telling the church about the amazing things God has done.

On the surface these chapters seem to be about a lot of action.  There is a lot of travel, a lot of people coming to know Christ, and a lot of churches being started.  What struck me was what was behind this action.  In the church at Antioch and in the churches that Paul and Barnabas start there is an emphasis on being rooted or grounded rather than just doing.

We see this first in Antioch before the missionary journey even begins.  In Acts 11:19-21 we see that God has done a great work among the Gentiles in Antioch and a church is growing.  The Christians in Jerusalem hear about this and send Barnabas to check it out and to help.  (Just as a quick side note, I absolutely love this idea of one church helping another and working together for the Gospel Mission!)  Barnabas arrives and sees “evidence of the grace of God” (Acts 11:23).  Another possible translation is that he saw “evidence of what the grace of God had done.”  Barnabas knows immediately that what is happening at Antioch is God’s doing, not just their own efforts.  This view shapes his ministry there.  He doesn’t challenge them to do more or to work harder, he encourages them “to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.”  If what was happening was God’s doing, then the way to keep it going was to keep the people focused on God.  The evangelistic and missionary activity of the church at Antioch came from their being grounded or rooted in God so that it was God working in and through them and not just their own clever ideas.

The ministry at Antioch is growing so Barnabas travels all the way to Tarsus (over 100 miles each way!) to get Paul.  From earlier in Acts we know that when Paul first meets the risen Christ he is told that he will be sent to take the gospel to the Gentile world.  For several years Paul  has waited for God’s timing for this huge mission to begin.  I think Barnabas saw something going on in Antioch that resonated with the mission Christ had given to Paul and so he brings Paul there to see what God does.  For a whole year they work together in the church at Antioch.

Acts 12 is a snapshot of some things that were happening in Jerusalem around this time.  The apostle James is put to death.  Peter is arrested and by a miracle of God he escapes from prison.  King Herod is getting a bit full of himself and some people start saying that he is a god to be worshiped.  Herod doesn’t stop them and give glory to God so he is struck down and dies (see Acts 12:23).

Chapter 13 starts back in Antioch.  There are “prophets and teachers” (which are probably leaders in the church since Barnabas and Paul are included in this list and these gifts/functions are listed in Ephesians 4:11-12 as people given to the church to “prepare God’s people for works of service”) who are “worshiping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2)  As I read this, this means that these leaders were not sitting around discussing strategies and programs.  They were focusing on who God is (worshiping the Lord) and what He wants them to do (often associated with fasting).  They knew what Christ had called Paul to do.  They could have been making charts and maps and filling three ring binders with ministry plans, but instead they were seeking God and waiting on Him!  It is this groundedness in the gospel and in God that leads to the incredible missionary work found in the rest of Acts.

As Paul and Barnabas travel, share the gospel, and see churches start in various cities, they also encounter lots of opposition.  They are chased out of cities.  They are under threat of death.  In one city, Paul is stoned and left for dead.  This is no easy or comfortable mission.  The gospel life to which we are called is difficult.  This is why, when Paul and Barnabas start their return trip to Antioch, they go back to these baby churches and do two things.  First, they challenge and encourage them to “remain true to the faith” (Acts 14:22) – stay grounded, rooted, in Christ.  Paul and Barnabas knew that any effectiveness for the Gospel Mission in these cities would be the fruit of a strong and growing faith.  The second thing Paul and Barnabas do is to appoint elders (Acts 14:23).  In order for these churches to stay grounded in their faith, they need leadership that saw this ministry as their highest priority.  It is no accident that one of the words often used in Scripture for godly leadership is “shepherds.”  These churches were going to face difficulty from both inside and outside of the church and they needed godly leaders who led the church in such a way as to care for the people by helping them to continue being grounded and growing in their relationship with Christ.

I truly believe that churches and followers of Christ today are way too focused on DOING.  We have lost a sense of being grounded, rooted, and completely dependent on God.  All too often we see our relationship with Christ like being a rechargeable battery.  We plug in for a short time each week or maybe even each day and then we go out and do our work (taking time along the way to ask for God’s blessing) and over time our “charge” starts running down.  We come back to church, do our daily devotions, or go to a conference to recharge our batteries so that we can go out and do more for God again.

Leadership in churches reflects this understanding.  Leaders set direction, make the decisions, and lay out strategies.  In so many churches, the model of church leadership has slipped into the idea that the leaders “drive the bus” –  do what they think is right – and the people can either get on board or get out (I have actually heard this!).  Leaders push, pull, and even even hurt people all in the name of trying to get them to do the things that the leaders think they should be doing for God.

But God doesn’t need us to do anything for Him.  This idea that we do things for God betrays the fact that we have too small of an idea of who God is!  It is God who is at work.  It is God who is moving and doing ministry.  It is God who has all the power and all the grace.  We need to quit trying to do things for God and focus instead on living lives rooted in what God is doing.  Jesus says this so poignantly in John 15:5 – “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  We are not batteries that have some capacity to store up God’s power for ourselves and let it out at our choosing.  We are branches that are constantly and totally dependent on the vine for nourishment and it is the health of the vine that works through us to create  the fruit.  Since this is true, leadership in the church is not a matter of getting people to do the right things, but shepherding people to be more grounded and rooted in Jesus Christ so that God can do great things in and through them.

This is true for how we each “lead” ourselves as well.  We often seek tips and techniques to make our lives better.  We want the latest book or fad to tell us the secret of life.  We want to do things that will make us feel better when it is the frantic doing that is keeping us from the One who created us to find our joy in Him.

OK, this is getting really long so if anyone is still reading at this point let me finish with two other observations from this missionary journey.

1. Difficulties are natural and should be expected on the Gospel Mission.  This is all the more reason to focus on being grounded in the gospel and in relationship with God through Christ.  If we are only focused on doing things then when difficulty comes we can easily think we must be doing something wrong.  But if we are instead focused on staying grounded in God’s grace then the difficulties become an opportunity to see God at work.

2. Watch out for Pride.  As Paul and Barnabas traveled and shared the gospel, it was the people who thought they had it all right that were the most resistant to the gospel.  I believe this is just as true for those “inside” the church as those who are outside the church.  When we focus on “doing” for Christ we will feed the pride in who we are and what we can accomplish.  If instead we focus on being grounded and rooted in Christ then any effectiveness, any growth, is what God is doing in and through us and He gets the glory.  The way to fight pride is to keep our focus on Christ and the gospel that says we are dead in our sins and risen to new life only in and through Jesus Christ.  All our plans and strategies are filthy rags that amount to nothing, but God’s work is His glorious grace on display through us that can change people’s lives.

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Guardrails – The Core Values of Orchard Community Church

There are many ways to arrive at a destination.  If you are on a baseball team and your “destination” is to win the game then you could tie all the opposing team’s shoes together, put butter in their mitts, and replace their bats with balsa wood.  This just might win the game.  The problem is that it would cross all sorts of important boundaries in order to do so.  While there are many ways of arriving at a destination or achieving a goal, not all are the best or the right ways and sometimes we can arrive at the destination having lost who we are in the process because we ignored these boundaries.

For the past several Wednesdays I have been writing about the Mission Statement of Orchard Community Church which is “We exist to make and become fully devoted followers for Christ through the renewing and transforming power of the gospel for the glory of God”.  You can read more about the Mission Statement here:  part 1; part 2; part 3.  The Mission Statement sets a direction or a destination.  It is what we believe God wants to do in and through us.  But just like a baseball game, there are many ways we could go about doing this and some are much better than others.  We need boundaries, like guardrails on a highway, to keep us on track.  These are provided by the Core Values.

The Core Values of Orchard Community Church are:

1. Passionately God-Centered

2. Dependent on God

3. Rooted in the Word of God

4. Grace-Driven Transformation

5. Becoming Fully Devoted Followers of Christ

6. Committed to One Another

7. Actively Serving

8. Intentional Outreach

9. Authentic and Passionate Worship

For the next 9 weeks, I will take one of these Core Values each week and look at why it is important, how it keeps us on track, and how we are seeking to do this as a church.  My hope is that we will weave these things into everything that we do and that they will become the fabric that holds all of our ministry, worship, and fellowship together. For this week, just look over the list and see if these things are present in your life.  Do you see them in your church?  Why are they important?

I look forward to working through these 9 things and thinking and praying about how to incorporate them into everything we do as Orchard Community Church.

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“World’s Colliding” – Acts 6:8 – 8:40. Monday’s Reflections on Sunday’s Sermons

I called this sermon “World’s Colliding” because I see a collision between our idea that we are in control and the truth that God is in control.  I was really struck by the stubbornness of the religious leaders.  As I read through the passage, studied, and spent time in prayer, I saw a pattern of control emerging.  They thought they had all the answers.  They thought God had to work through them on their terms.  Their attempts at staying in control are like us creating our own “world” – like blowing a bubble – and then living inside it where we think we reign supreme.  What really convicted me was that these were religious people.  They believed in God, but in their minds God was just a part of their bubble and they were still in control.

Stephen’s speech is an incredible overview of the Old Testament showing how God is in control, He works according to His ways, He works wherever He wants, and He works through whomever He wants.  It is His world and we get to live in it.  The fact that Stephen was willing to give this speech knowing it could lead to his death shows he was completely trusting God.  He was not consumed by this “bubble world” of our own making.

My main take-away from preaching this sermon is this question:  Which world are we really living in?  Are we as believers living in our world, of our own making, where we are in complete control or are we living in God’s world for His glory, and under His authority?  One huge difference I see between the church in Acts and the church in western culture today is that we seem to have too much invested in this “bubble world”.  It seems that the church in Acts was so effective because they were living out the reality of God’s kingdom, not just trying to tell people about it.  Their goal wasn’t to point people to the kingdom of God using any technique of this world possible, it was to BE the living example of the kingdom of God according to power of God’s presence and the gospel at work in their lives.  Sometimes the techniques undermine the message.

I think we have become too technique driven.  We think that if we do MINISTRY A and maybe MINISTRY B then God will bless us with X number of converts or at least Y number of attendees, which should result in Z increase in giving.  This is “bubble” thinking.  This is us being in charge and expecting God to bless our methods.  This was not how Stephen and Philip did ministry.  They simply showed up, lived and spoke the gospel in any and every situation.  For Stephen, it meant his death.  For Philip, it meant the beginning of the Samaritan church and the church in Africa.  In our “bubble world” we would say that Philip was effective and Stephen was not, but that’s certainly not what God’s Word is saying.  It was because of Stephen’s testimony and then his death that the church moves out of Jerusalem carrying the gospel with them wherever they go.

I used to think that the believers in Jerusalem were not fulfilling Christ’s charge to them in Acts 1:8 to take the gospel to “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  I was ready to preach this passage according to this understanding, but the more I studied the more I saw the passage differently.  I see now that Acts 1:8 wasn’t just a list of goals for the church, it was a road map for how God was going to work in them.  Each “stage” in the gospel mission was a preparation for the next.  The church needed  to spend time in Jerusalem building a firm foundation on God’s Word (the teaching of the Apostles) and learning to live out the gospel as a community of believers.  They also needed to see how God worked in various situations.  At the beginning of chapter 6 we see that cross-cultural issues were needing to be dealt with and the church (guided by the Holy Spirit) responded brilliantly.  This prepared them for the next stage of their mission.  I don’t think that what happened to Stephen was God’s way of kicking them in the seat to get them moving, I think it was a sign that God knew they were ready for the next step in their mission because they had learned the lessons they needed to learn in Jerusalem.

This aspect of the passage didn’t really come out in my sermon yesterday – there just wasn’t time and there is always more that could be said about a passage than what can fit in any one sermon.  But it has been on my mind a lot over the past few days.  It’s easy to look at Acts 7-8 and ask how we might be missing our mission and wonder if God might have to take drastic measures to get us moving.  But now I think there is a better way of looking at it.  We should ask what God might be preparing us for and whether or not we are learning the lessons He is teaching us.  Maybe part of our “bubble” thinking is that we think it is our job to figure out how to get the mission accomplished when the truth is that it is God’s mission and He will accomplish it through us if we are allowing Him to do the work in our lives that He is trying to do.  Is it possible that we are so busy trying to accomplish God’s mission that we have missed the importance of being God’s people?  Is it also possible that this will be the most effective way of accomplishing the mission?

What “world” are people seeing in our lives, in our churches, in how we do things?  Are they seeing the authority of God and absolute dependence and trust in Him?  Or are they seeing an unspoken belief that we are in control?   I mentioned in the sermon that at the cross the world of God and this bubble world of ours collided.  The cross not only shatters the reality of our bubble world, it provides a way out – salvation through Jesus Christ.  We see in Revelation 21 that our world will pass away.  The bubble will be popped and shown for what it is – nothing.  God’s world (His truth, His authority, His glory) will endure for ever and ever.  We live in the time of the collision.  We must decide if we will accept the reality of His world and the gospel as the bridge and then we must live this out and be witnesses of this “world shaking” truth in everything we do.

Robert Frost said in his poem “The Road Not Taken” – “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  This is a very poetic reminder of a much stronger truth expressed in Scripture:

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12)

“Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”  (Matthew 7:13-14).

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:34-36).

Edit (10/26/11): listen to this sermon online

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Power of the Gospel

The Mission Statement of Orchard Community Church is “We exist to make and become fully devoted followers of Christ through the renewing and transforming power of the gospel for the glory of God.”  

This is the last of three posts on the Mission Statement of Orchard Community Church.  The first was about the Glory of God and the second was about being Fully Devoted Followers of Christ.  This week I want to look at the idea of the “renewing and transforming power of the gospel.”

In Romans, Paul writes “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).  Do we really believe this today?  There are a lot of Christian books out there on how to improve yourself, your marriage, your job, your church, and your children.  Many contain very helpful advice.  Often pastors preach sermons about these things as well.  My fear is that maybe, just maybe, underlying all of these ideas is the basic (and very wrong) assumption that we must change ourselves.  Sometimes I get the feeling that believers in Jesus Christ have lost the idea that the gospel is powerful to change us and have instead assumed that we must rely on our own good intentions, programs, and efforts.  We seem to scratch and claw our way to small changes on our own instead of relying on the monumental power that is available in the gospel.

How powerful is the gospel?  Like Paul said in Romans 1:16 – it is the power of God.  Ephesians 1:19-20 explains that this is “his incomparably great power for us who believe.  That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead…”  Did you catch that?  The power of the gospel is the same power that raised Christ from the dead!  If you are a believer in Christ, that is the power that is at work IN YOU!  The difference this power makes is the difference between life and death – “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

As a church we are not worried about having the best programs or techniques.  Our worship services won’t wow you and our use of technology certainly won’t blow you away.  Our coffee is OK and the preaching is probably average.  But what we have is greater than anything you will ever find in the world – the power of the gospel.  Our teaching isn’t about improving ourselves – it is about dying to self and accepting the new life that is only available through the gospel.

The power of the gospel renews us.  It is an ongoing recreation of who God made us to be in the first place.  It is a hope and a strength beyond any situation in this life.  It is a renewing of strength not by improving us, but by substituting God’s strength in the place of our weakness.

The power of the gospel transforms us.  No one can come to Jesus Christ and accept the gospel (the good news of His death, burial, and resurrection in our place for our salvation) without being changed.  You cannot add Jesus on to your life like installing an app on your phone or adding him to the already crowded list of priorities in your life.  Transformation is a total change – a complete tear down and rebuilding of who you are.   After all, minor improvements on a condemned building might make it look better, but it is still destined to fall apart.  This transformation comes as the gospel redirects our lives, redefines our priorities, and renews our will to conform with God’s perfect will.

As a church, we will trust in the power of the gospel in everything that we do.  I believe this will make us better parents, employees, leaders, stewards of our money, and everything else in our lives, but not because we are simply improving ourselves in small ways.  It will be because God is at work in us through the power of the gospel for the glory of God.

How have you seen the power of the gospel at work in your life?  How can we continue to demonstrate the power of the gospel in our individual lives and together as the Church?

photo by flickr user Shane Woodson

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