Trying to Make the Good News Better

Recently I was asked by some members of our church to listen to a sermon from a church their friends attended, who had been alarmed by some things the pastor had been saying, and they wanted my 2 cents.

I listened to the message and agreed with them that the things they had been concerned about were indeed alarming – but aside from that particular issue, which I won’t go into detail about here, there was something else I heard in the message which caused me to pause.

The pastor was talking about a trip he had taken and how, as he was preaching, people were live-tweeting his message, and the most tweeted phrase was: “I am a good person, I just forgot.” The idea being, that you really are a good person, you just haven’t been acting like one. You just forgot to be good.

He then went on to say this: “When people come to church, they don’t want to be told about their shortcomings, they come to church because they want to hear some good news, and this is the good news: you really are a good person! You just forgot.”

On the surface, that might seem nice, but here’s the thing: is this really the “good news” that Christianity has to share with people? That ‘I am a good person’ – even though people innately have a deep-rooted sense of their own inadequacy? Isn’t the “good news” of the Gospel not that I am a good person, but that God loves me even when I’m not a good person?

The “good news” of the Gospel is not that I’m a good person, but that God loves me even in spite of the fact that he has seen me at my worst and even knows the darkest thoughts of my heart that, although I didn’t act upon them, I wished to do them?

Isn’t the “good news” of the Gospel rather that I am more flawed than I can even imagine, yet at the same time I am more loved by God than I ever dared dream possible – which He proved by giving Himself over to death in my place to rescue me, because I was so lost and so far-gone that I couldn’t save myself? Isn’t the good news of the Gospel that I am so broken that GOD HIMSELF had to die for me, yet against all odds or reason, I am so loved by God – undeservedly – that in some cosmic miracle of grace, he was GLAD to die for me?

It would seem to me that in an attempt to make the Good News better, they have lost the heart of the Good News! But in my opinion, when you really understand the weight of the predicament of human fallenness, and then you see the amazing grace and love of God in light of it, that is what sets your heart on fire, and stirs up hope and gratitude in your heart that a lifetime is not enough to express.

What we need is not to make the Good News better – as if that were even possible. It is already the best news in the world. We just need to let it sink deep down into our hearts and reflect on all the wonderful implications of it.

Worst Sermon Ever

On Saturday night I was struck with a feeling that I have from time to time: that my sermon for Sunday was not good. I was convinced it was one of my worst sermons ever.

As I looked it over I thought: My exegesis and hermeneutics are good, I’m presenting the Gospel and talking about how the Gospel speaks to all of life…  The essential elements were in place, so what was I worried about?

Maybe I was just tired from the long drive back from California, maybe I was just feeling that the final draft wasn’t like the way I originally envisioned the message. But I went to church on Sunday morning asking God more than usual to speak through me, even through this message.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. But here’s the irony: it seems that every time I feel this way, convinced that my sermon – although it has all the right elements – is not my best, God seems to use it in an extra special way.

This Sunday, through this message, I had more than one person respond to my invitation to give their life to Jesus and make a decision for him. Another person told my wife that it was the best sermon I had ever preached. I got several emails and text messages after church about the message from people saying they were encouraged and blessed by it.  Here’s the audio of that message.

On a previous occasion, where I specifically remember telling my wife that my sermon was going to be my worst ever, I preached a message which again someone afterwards told me was my best ever, and now has also become one of my favorite sermons as well. When it recently aired on our radio program on GraceFM, we had several people contact our church asking for copies of it. A newer member of our church ran across that message a week or so ago and shared it on Facebook, and then wrote me that if I preached that message every Sunday, he would come – it was the best sermon he’d ever heard in his life. Here’s the audio of that message.

What should I make of this?

I heard Timothy Keller say once in a lecture to pastors about preaching, that we should always seek to prepare “Good Sermons” – meaning that we should make sure all the essential elements are in there: good exegesis and hermeneutics, good presentation of the Gospel and of Jesus as the answer to all the riddles, that they are “Good”. Our job is to prepare “Good Sermons” – because only God can make a sermon “Great” – and that happens, when the Holy Spirit takes our “Good Sermons” and makes them “Great” in the hearts and minds of our hearers. If we try to make “Great Sermons” we will be trying too hard to do something that only God can do.

When I heard him say that, I agreed in theory that he was right, but more and more I am experiencing the reality myself. God likes to glorify Himself, and it’s less about me that I am inclined to think. Praise God for that.

Pastors’ Conference

I just spent the past week at the Calvary Chapel Pastor’s Conference in Costa Mesa, CA. 

Even though the church I lead is called White Fields, I was ordained in Calvary Chapel and have many good relationships there, and very much respect for the core values and aspirations of the movement.

One of the best things about these conferences is the fellowship with other pastors – having so many people together who are doing the same work, facing the same issues and working for the same things for the same reasons is rare, and very refreshing.

I remember one leader I worked with who used to discribe these kinds of meetings as being like Gilgal: the place in the book of Joshua that was the home base of the people of Israel during the time they were moving out to take conquest of the land which God had promised to give them, but which they had to go out and take by faith, but with much work.

This leader would say: This is our Gilgal. We go out into the fight, steping out in faith, obeying God, fighting to take hold of territory – and we come back here, after our defeats, after our victories, to worship, to encourage each other, to share stories from the field of what we experienced: to celebrate victories, to lick each others wounds – and then we go out again.

I’ve always considered that a great analogy of these kinds of gatherings, and that is certainly what this conference was like for me. I’m feeling blessed and refreshed and excited to get back to the work that God has called me to in Colorado.

Tomorrow we will begin the drive back to Colorado from Southern California… Pray for us… 18 hours, to make it there for church on Sunday… 

Making the News

The past 2 Sundays White Fields Church and yours truly have been mentioned in the local newspapers in Boulder and Longmont.

Last Sunday I was honored to be featured in the Times-Call's annual 100 People of the St. Vrain Valley, in which I got to share about mission work in Hungary as well as what I enjoy about being a local pastor here in Longmont. You can find that article online here.

This past Sunday, White Fields' annual Easter Outreach in Roosevelt Park was reported on by both the Boulder Daily Camera and the Longmont Times-Call. Check that article out here.

Sometimes you can't be sure how what you say to reporters will actually get reported, but I was very pleased with how the Camera and Times-Call reported what I said.

 

Running on Water

I have recently started running regularly along the St Vrain River from Roger’s Grove to Golden Ponds. The other day my running partner and I discovered this row of rocks that allows you to cross over the middle of one of the lakes.
Longmont, thanks for being awesome.
Here are the pictures we took of it today. The first one was taken by my Samsung Galaxy and the other was taken by my friend’s iPhone. Not trying to be a hater – just sayin’… 🙂

Keeping Your Faith a Secret

Yesterday I taught on the famous sayings of Jesus to his disciples, that they are the salt of the Earth and the light of the world. (You can listen to that message here).

Jesus makes his point there, that no one lights a lamp and then hides it under a basket, but they put it on a lamp stand, so it can be seen by all.  Just as a city on a hill can not be hidden, Jesus’ disciples are not meant to keep their faith a secret.

Yesterday in Pakistan, 10 more Christians were killed in the bombing of a Christian church. This makes for 25 total deaths of Christians in targeted attacks over the past few days. ISIS is going around systematically targeting and murdering Christians in the Middle East. Christians in the West have little concept of the implications of Jesus’ words for these Christians!

In the West, the greatest persecution we face for not hiding our Christianity, is that people will think we are religious fanatics. But for the most part, being a Christian is still a perfectly acceptable thing to be in our society. There is honestly not a great temptation, unless you are an extremely insecure person, to hide the fact that you are a Christian.

However, if being a Christian, and not hiding it, means that ISIS is going to come for you and your family, if not hiding the fact that you a Christian means that you might face fatal attacks at any moment, then the temptation is HUGE to want to hide your light under a basket – because if you put it on a lamp stand, then you become a target.

In the Beatitudes Jesus describes the kind of people who will be his disciples: they will be meek, they will hunger and thirst after righteousness, they will be peacemakers, they will be pure of heart. When you read those characteristics, you might thing: Wow, those sound like the greatest people in the world! That’s the kind of person I’d like to have as my best friend! But, surprisingly, Jesus then says   that these kinds of people will be persecuted by the world. (Matthew 5:11-12) You might wonder: Who would want to hurt these kinds of wonderful people?   But you have to look no further than Jesus. He embodied all of those wonderful characteristics, and people beat him and nailed him to a cross.

The situation with Christians around the world facing increased persecution, especially in Muslim-majority countries, should be a wake-up call to Western Christians – and should teach us something about the nature of what it means to be a Christian.

Western Christianity, in my opinion, faces a more insidious form of attack than the physical attack facing those in other parts of the world.  Here, our culture pressures us to make Christianity a private thing, that we are free to do, but only behind closed doors. As a result, we have ended up with a form of Christianity that is very introspective and less mission-focused.

In other words, Western society has sought to domesticate Christians, remove their claws and potty train them. They are not trying to scare us into hiding our light under a basket, like ISIS and other radical Islamists do, but rather to coax us into putting a basket over our light, so as not to disturb others with it.

We must remember the words of Jesus: that to hide our light is to betray our very design and purpose as Disciples of Jesus in the world.

How to Make a Difference in the World

I love the way John Piper speaks about God.

If there’s one thing you can say for the man – it’s that he is certainly not indifferent about the Gospel or the things of God. I may not always agree with everything he says, but when I hear him speak about God, there is no doubt in my mind that he is a man who loves God.

Here’s some classic John Piper for your listening pleasure:

Worship: Offering, Receiving and Shopping

Another thought-provoking comment from my studies on the history of Christian worship:

At some time in the Church’s history, attitudes seem to have moved from an earlier sense of going to worship in order to make an offering to God (worship, adoration) to a sense of attending in order to receive something (a blessing or some kind of credit). It appears that along with this shift came an increasingly passive role for worshippers, until it seemed that simply attending was almost all that was expected. Such a development is seriously demeaning. Everything done together in worship may (and should) be viewed as an act of offering a gift to God, who is the object of reverence and praise.

Seems pretty spot on to me. I shared this quote with one of the elders of White Fields Church and his comment was that he would go so far as to say that in our consumer culture, people have gotten so passive about “worship” that they not only come with the mentality and expectation primarily to receive, but they “shop” for where they can find the best bargain.

The part of the above quote which really sticks out to me is the word “demeaning”. I think the author is right. But how do we go about shifting this consumer culture in the minds of Christian people? That is the challenge.

What Makes for Good Preaching?

What differentiates good preaching from mediocre preaching?

Surely you know it when you hear it, but it can’t be just a subjective thing – there must be some criteria that differentiate good preaching from not-as-good preaching.

I recently heard Timothy Keller differentiate between good preaching and great preaching. He said that “good preaching” is the altar and that “great preaching” is when God brings the fire upon the altar. In other words: preachers shouldn’t strive to preach “great” sermons, but should work to preach “good” sermons – because only God can take a “good” sermon and by the power of the Holy Spirit make it a “great” sermon within the hearer.

So what makes for good preaching?

Here are some thoughts:

  • A good sermon, no matter what text it is preached from, has to preach the Gospel. Just as every town in England has a road which leads from it to London, every text in the Bible has a road from it which leads to Christ. If all the Scriptures ultimately point to Him, a good sermon must preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.
  • Yet, a good sermon must be faithful to the text. It must not manipulate the text to simply be a “proof text” to back up the point that the speaker wants to make; it must be true exegesis, which determines what the author, and God through the author, intended to communicate through that text.
  • Furthermore, good preaching is an art form – it must be informative, it must be touching emotionally, and it must be moving inspirationally.  I heard Timothy Keller say that when you are preaching, people should be taking notes, but when you get to the part of your sermon that is about Jesus, you should seek to portray him as so captivating that people can’t help but stop taking notes when you talk about Him, and when they leave, they should leave wanting to do something because of what they’ve heard.
  • Another friend of mine – and an elder at White Fields Church – put it this way:
    • In our conversation he even put it this way: “A good sermon takes you to a place you’ve never been before, or it takes you to a place that is so intimate that you are emotionally moved”

What do you think?  What are other essential elements of “good” preaching? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Bad Church Statistics

I ran across this article this week about Bad Church Statistics and the lies that are commonly believed as a result. I’ve copied the 7 myths part below, which is the core of the article.

I don’t know about you, but I have heard almost all of these before. I guess the sky isn’t falling quite as bad as we’ve been told it is. But, as Winston Churchill said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Myth #1. The divorce rate among Christians is as high as that of nonbelievers.

Reality: Christians have significantly lower divorce rates than the religiously unaffiliated. Further, the more regularly a Christian attends church, the less likely that person is to divorce.

Myth #2. Christian young people are leaving the Christian faith in record numbers.

Reality: It’s true that younger people are less affiliated with church than older people, but that’s the case in every generation since scholars began tracking it. We always need to help the next generation connect with church, but the overall percentage of Americans who affiliate with evangelical churches has remained rather stable for the last 30 years.

Myth #3. The majority of American evangelicals are poor and uneducated.

Reality: This quote from the Washington Post has some truth to it. The problematic term is “the majority of” which should be replaced with “many.” On average, evangelical Christians are less well educated than mainline Protestants, Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated. But evangelicals cover a wide spectrum from poorly educated to highly educated. Themajority, however, are not poor and uneducated.

Myth #4. The prayer life of American evangelicals is diminishing.

Reality: It turns out that evangelical prayer is on the increase. For example, 75% of evangelicals today pray on a daily basis, compared to 64% of those in the 1980s.

Myth #5. Evangelicals are less active in sharing their faith with others.

Reality: About half of all evangelicals report sharing their faith with non-believers, and rates of evangelism have held rather steady over the past several decades. This evangelism rate is more than double the rate of mainline Protestants and Catholics, and is higher than most other religions. We all have family and friends who seek a closer relationship with God, plus we know of entire people groups that have little exposure to the Gospel, so let’s keep ramping up our efforts.

Myth #6. Evangelicals preach one thing about sex outside marriage, but practice another.

Reality: Actually, evangelicals have relatively low rates of adultery, premarital sex and pornography usage, and these decrease with more frequent church attendance.

Myth #7. The more educated you become, the more likely you are to give up your faith.

Reality: Belief and practice grow stronger with increased education, evangelicals included.