Why Church Attendance Isn’t Like Rental Car Insurance

I came across this article in my Apple News feed this morning, posted by a major news source:

Americans still believe in God, so why do so many of us see it as just optional rental car insurance?

The article cites research which shows that despite the fact that 80% of Americans believe in God, church attendance is decreasing. Americans aren’t necessarily giving up on God, they’re just not going to church like they once did.

Contributing factors are our American culture, which is radically individualistic. It’s not a stretch to say that our modern Western culture is the most individualistic culture which has ever existed in the history of the world.

(Read: Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out)

Furthermore, the Bible has been placed in the hands of the people. No one has to go to church any more in order to hear what the Bible says. Sermons are available via podcast and there are more Christian books on the market than one could probably ever read in a lifetime. Thus, people are increasingly considering church to be optional rather than vital.

The author of this article, a pastor, argues that the church as a community is irreplaceable and meets a deep spiritual need.

(Read: Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why)

41aomdoo-sl-_sx325_bo1204203200_I am currently reading Martyn Lloyd Jones’ classic Preaching & Preachersbased on a series of lectures he gave back in 1969. Interestingly, he mentions the same issue as having existed at that time as well; the availability of journals, books, radio and television broadcasts of sermons or other Christian content had led many people to opt out of church because they felt they could feed their souls and connect with God on their own via these mediums, apart from the local church.

Here’s his response:

“This is a wrong approach because it is too individualistic. The man sits on his own reading his book. That is too purely intellectual in its approach, it is a matter of intellectual interest. The man himself is too much in control. What I mean is that if you do not agree with the book you put it down, if you do not like what you are hearing on the television you switch it off. You are an isolated individual and you are in control of the situation. Or, to put it more positively, that whole approach lacks the vital element of the Church.

Now the Church is a missionary body, and we must recapture this notion that the whole Church is a part of this witness to the Gospel and its truth and its message. It is therefore most important that people should come together and listen in companies in the realm of the Church. That has an impact in and of itself. I have often been told this. The preacher after all is not speaking for himself, he is speaking for the Church, he is explaining what the Church is and what these people are, and why they are what they are. 

Not only that, when a person comes into a church, to a body of people, he begins to get some idea of the fact that they are the people of God, and that they are the modern representatives of something that has been known in every age and generation throughout the centuries. This makes an impact. The person is not simply considering a new theory or a new teaching or a new idea. They are visiting or entering into something that has long history and tradition.

The person who thinks that all this can be done by reading, or by just looking at a television set, is missing the mysterious element in the life of the Church. What is this? It is what our Lord was suggesting when He said, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst.’ It is not a mere gathering of people; Christ is present. This is the great mystery of the Church. There is something in the very atmosphere of Christian people meeting together to worship God and to listen to the preaching of the Gospel.”

He then goes on to tell the story of a woman who had been involved in occult practices, who one time entered one of his church services when he pastored a small fellowship in Wales. She continued coming and eventually converted. When asked what kept her coming when she first started attending, she said that she sensed a “clean power” in their midst.

“All I am contending for is that when you enter a church, a society, a company of God’s people, there is a factor which immediately comes into operation, which is reinforced still more by the preacher expounding the Word in the pulpit; and that is why preaching can never be replaced by either reading or by watching television or any one of these other activities.”
(Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, pp. 52-55.)

Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but let us encourage one another all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:25)

Discipleship is a Direction

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Recently I posted some things I had learned from a book I read called No Silver Bullets by Daniel Im. (Read that post here: “Inputs and Outputs for Growth and Maturity”)

Last week I was in California attending the CGN Pastors and Leaders Conference at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, and Daniel Im was there speaking about some of the topics covered in his book.

By the way, recordings of the messages and panel discussions from the conference are available here. I thought the panel discussion on current issues in theology was particularly good.

One of the things Daniel wrote about in his book and talked about at the conference is the idea that discipleship is a direction, rather than a destination. While there is an ultimate destination to our discipleship: experiencing the glory of God in the fullness of His Kingdom forever, as long as we are here on this Earth, being a disciple of Jesus is about direction, not destination.

  • A destination is a place you can arrive at. Once you’re there, then you’ve arrived.
  • A direction implies active and sustained movement towards something.

What is the measure of maturity?

What is it that makes a Christian disciple “mature”?

Consider this: in the Bible, we read about many people who encountered Jesus, from ultra-religious pharisees to prostitutes, extortioners and even thieves.

If the measure of spiritual maturity is simply knowledge or religious observance, then it’s no question: the pharisees were more mature. They knew more about the Bible and their record of religious observance was spotless. The only problem was: the pharisees were far from God in their hearts. (Mark 7:6 – “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me).

On the other hand, you have people like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), an extortioner who hasn’t got everything in his life sorted out, but he’s changed directions and is moving towards Jesus even though he’s just now at the beginning of his journey.

Who is the greater disciple? The answer is: Zacchaeus, because he is moving towards Jesus, as opposed to the pharisee who isn’t.

The implications of viewing discipleship in this way

Viewing discipleship as direction rather than a destination has profound implications. It means that you don’t become a disciple by successfully learning a block of material or completing a discipleship workbook or 4-part class. Rather discipleship is an ongoing process.

Unlike justification, which is an outside, definitive, unchanging status that is bestowed on a believer by God, discipleship by definition implies sustained movement. So, if at one point in your life you were passionately seeking God and following Jesus, but are not currently doing so, your past discipleship doesn’t make up for your current posture. Knowledge, longevity nor familiarity equate to having “arrived” as a disciple, in other words. Discipleship is about direction.

A Case Study: the Cussing Christian

When I was pastoring in Hungary, we had a young woman come to our church. She had grown up in an atheist family and her father was a musician. She was a bohemian herself. At our church, she heard the gospel, and she received it – and immediately she began to grow and change. She was at every Bible study, taking copious notes, so hungry to know God and understand His Word and His will for her life. She was all-in, whole-heartedly following Jesus and asked to be baptized.

She also cussed like a sailor. My wife and I learned some new Hungarian words from her… You see, we were fluent in Hungarian, but being in church settings, there were certain “colorful” words, which we had never been exposed to. That all changed when this woman came around. Every Wednesday, after Bible study, there was a time for people to ask questions and then we would pray together. She would often have questions or comments, a praise report or a prayer request – and as she would speak, we’d hear her say some words which didn’t recognize, and then we’d watch as the others in the group grimaced from the words she chose to use. Quickly, we learned what those words meant.

Although we didn’t love the fact that she was using this language, we were happy to see the change in her heart and in her life and her obvious love for Jesus. This was how she had talked before she came to know the Lord, and we trusted that the Holy Spirit would do the work of sanctification, and as she followed Jesus, she would be transformed in every area, including this one.

One day a middle-aged woman from the church approached me. She was angry that we allowed this woman to come to our church and be baptized, considering that she used foul language. This middle-aged woman had been raised in a Christian home, but had a penchant for gossiping about others and slandering them. Unlike with the young woman, I had not witnessed any of the fruits of the spirit in this middle-aged woman’s life, but instead had distinctly seen judgmental and legalistic tendencies.

Which of these two women was the greater disciple? Clearly the older woman knew more about the Bible and had been a Christian longer, but if discipleship is a direction, then the answer is: the younger woman.

What direction are you moving in?

If discipleship is about active, sustained direction, what direction are you moving in? Have you perhaps stagnated?

The good news is, you can change direction. That’s what the word “repentance” means: to change direction.

That was, after all, the first message Jesus preached: “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Change directions, whatever you’ve been pursuing, running after – instead, change directions and follow me.

Longmont Pastor Video Blog – Episode 1

Starting today, every Wednesday we will be dropping a new episode, in which we will be covering some of the topics addressed here on the blog, as well as others topics and interviews with guests about topics relevant to life, culture and the gospel.

Check out Episode 1: The Role of the Law in the Life of the Believer, and follow us on YouTube or Vimeo and Soundcloud.

You can help us spread the word by giving the video a like and sharing it on your social media or sending it directly to some friends.

Here’s the video (email and WordPress subscribers click here):

Thanks to Ocean Babin for all his hard work recording and editing this video, as well as to CryBaby Design for the great background image. We also want to thank Nick Morris Sound Services for making the music for the intro!

For the content mentioned in this video, check out these posts:

Poll: Common Hurdles to Believing Christianity

Starting the Sunday after Easter, we will be doing a series at White Fields called “The Trouble Is…”, in which we will be talking about and addressing common questions and objections that people have about Christianity.

You can help me by taking a second to fill out this quick anonymous poll to let me know what are some of the biggest hurdles to faith that you have experienced yourself or encountered in other people. Thanks!

(email subscribers can click here to access the poll)

Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why:

Hebrews 10:24-25 tells Christians to not neglect gathering together, but to seek all the more how we can stir each other up to love and good works.
I just taught that passage last Sunday (audio of that message here), and in my preparation I discovered that the phrase “stir up” essentially means to pester or annoy someone, to not leave them alone. I’m thankful for people who do that in my life.

A friend of mine had been politely pestering me to read James K.A. Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom” for about a year before I finally picked up a copy and started reading it earlier this month. I’m glad I did.

Smith’s basic premise is that all of us are constantly being shaped by “liturgies,” including (and primarily) “cultural liturgies.”

Liturgies, as he uses the term, are not confined or restricted to the order of service in a church worship service. Liturgies are, according to Smith’s use of the word, “rituals of ultimate concern that are formative of our identity—they both reflect what matters to us and shape what matters to us.” Liturgies, wherever they may be found, serve to shape us by forming affections within us.

Smith points out that such liturgies can be found throughout our culture, in places like malls, stadiums and universities, to name a few.

As Christians, it is important that we intentionally submit ourselves to the kinds of liturgies which will shape us into the kind of people we believe we ought to become, and which shape our affections in the right direction.

He points out that our nature as humans is such that we are not so much shaped by our worldviews as our worldviews are shaped by our practices, experiences and affections. Therefore, knowing this, it is important that we submit ourselves continually to the right kinds of “liturgies”.

Liturgies, he explains, “inculcate particular visions of ‘the good life’ through affective, precognitive means, and do so in a way that trumps other ritual formations. In short, they are the rituals that grab hold of our hearts and want nothing less than our love.”

Malls, stadiums and universities are filled with “rhythms, rituals, and spaces which are loaded with meaning; and more specifically, they are loaded with a particular vision, a unique ‘understanding’ of what it means to be a happy, fulfilled, and flourishing person; in short, implicit in these liturgies is an understanding of what it means to be really human.”

It is important therefore, that we recognize the “religious” nature of cultural practices and institutions, and understand that they are not neutral and that participation in them shapes us in very real ways. We should be aware of this fact, and also decide what “liturgies” we want to participate in, in order to shape our affections in the right directions.

He states that this makes it all the more important that Christians focus on creating and practicing our own uniquely Christian liturgies – formative practices which shape us and develop our affections in a particular direction. Christian liturgies include church attendance and participation, reading the Bible and listening to sermons in weekly church services, praying and singing with others, taking communion, being part of a community group, etc. His goal in this is to help us “see the importance and centrality of Christian worship in ways that we perhaps haven’t heretofore.”

I think this is a very important realization: that the reason to participate in church is not only to learn things, but to take part in practices which shape our minds and hearts towards God and His ways. This is why you need church even if you already know “everything” 🙂

There are other reasons as well:

Statistics show that church attendance has a radical impact on families and on the success and health of marriages.

Christmas Eve Services in Longmont

We invite you to join us on Christmas Eve at White Fields for a special service which will include Christmas music from our worship team and choir, as well as a message from the Bible about the birth of Jesus and what it means for us today.

We will be having two services on Christmas Eve, at 9:00 & 10:30 AM.
Location: St. Vrain Memorial Building, 700 Longs Peak Ave. Longmont, CO.

It’s said that 70-80% of people in polls said that they would be willing to attend church on Christmas Eve if someone personally invited them. So: consider this an invitation – and, consider who you will invite to join you at church this Christmas Eve!

White Fields Community Church fényképe.

Click here for more information.

How Much Time Should a Pastor Spend Preparing a Sermon?

I like to joke that as a pastor I only work one day a week, but the truth is that on average most pastors work 50-60 hours a week. This time is spent managing, planning, corresponding – and of course: studying and preparing a sermon.

Sermon preparation can take a lot of time, especially for a perfectionist. I know that I have often certainly spent an inordinate amount of time preparing my sermons before; partly because I consider it a high and holy calling to preach and teach the Word of God, and also because it is something I enjoy doing and I want to do it well, in a way that truly honors God and impacts peoples’ lives.

So how much time should a preacher spend on preparing a sermon?

I heard one well-known pastor say once at a conference that he only spent about four hours per week preparing his message. He then added that this is because he has a team of people who do all of his research for him, and he takes the material they bring him and organizes it into a message. Most pastors don’t have this luxury, nor would they want someone else doing their studying for them.

A friend of mine who pastors a small church told me that he spends 30 hours per week preparing for his Sunday message. He also has a midweek service, for which he prepares about 15 hours. The result of that is that he doesn’t have time for anything else except sermon preparation. In other words: he doesn’t have any time left over to be a pastor (Greek for “shepherd”) to his congregation. He is only a preacher. Particularly in smaller congregations, it is important that a pastor not only be a preacher, but a shepherd, and he and I both agreed that his time allocation in this area was more of a detriment than a blessing to his congregation.

As for myself, in addition to my regular duties as a pastor, I have a wife and young children who I like spending time with, and in the past few months I have taken on hosting a live radio show once a week and I’m studying for my Masters, which requires about 16 hours of my attention every week. All this means that I need to be good at managing my time well, not only for my own benefit, but for the benefit of my family and my church.

8 Hours or Less: Writing faithful sermons faster by [Huguley, Ryan]

So I was intrigued a few weeks ago when a friend recommended this book: 8 Hours or Less: Writing Faithful Sermons Faster by Ryan Huguley.  It sounded a bit gimmicky to me at first, but after reading it, I think it’s a great resource that I would recommend. Basically, in the book, he outlines a plan for your week, which has you doing certain tasks each day for an hour or two, which help you focus and write better sermons faster. I think that’s really key; it’s not hard to write sermons faster – the question is if they will be good sermons. The system he lays out is intended not only to improve the speed, but also the quality of sermons.

One part which was foreign to me is that on Tuesdays he has you study the text and review your outline with a small group of people. This is probably the part I was most hesitant about, but the part which I have enjoyed the most.

If the end result is better sermons and more time for a pastor to spend pastoring people,  leading the church and preparing for the future, and having more time for their families, that’s a win-win-win. I recommend this book whole-heartedly.

Martin Luther on Music and Song Writing

One of Luther’s great contributions to Christianity was that he pointed out that much of the common thinking about Christian living and attitudes comes from Plato and Aristotle, rather than from the Bible.

Plato, for example, was a dualist – who viewed the physical world as inherently bad, and the unseen spiritual world as inherently good. Therefore, Plato taught that physical pleasure should be avoided; it was better to live a life of suffering and eschew pleasure in order to be more spiritual. This thinking worked its way into Christianity, to the point where things intended by God to be blessings for our enjoyment were rejected and forbidden. One such area was music.

Augustine of Hippo had written about music in the 5th century, stating that he was “troubled in conscience whenever he caught himself delighting in music.” Luther, who greatly looked up to Augustine, responded by saying: “I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God.” He went on to say, “Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor,” and “next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”

“Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor.”

“Next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”

Luther is the one who introduced, or at least re-introduced congregational singing to the church. It may be hard to imagine, but until Luther brought singing to the church, there had been no such thing for at least several hundred years, if not more. Furthermore, the fact that there is congregational singing in Catholic churches today is directly because of Luther, and most hymns sung in the Roman Catholic Church today were written by Protestants.

Luther also believed that music was a great tool for teaching spiritual truths. He wanted to put good doctrine into congregational songs to reinforce the teaching that was coming from the pulpit. Luther wrote many hymns himself, but he also reached out to others for help. In a letter to his friend Georg Spalatin in 1523, Luther wrote:

Our plan is to follow the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers of the church and to compose songs for the people in the vernacular, that is: spiritual songs so the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music. Therefore we are searching everywhere for poets. Since you are endowed with a wealth of knowledge and elegance in the German language, and since you have polished it through much use, I ask you to work with us in this project.

I would like you to avoid any new words or the language used at court. In order to be understood by the people, only the simplest and most common words should be used for singing; at the same time, however, they should be pure and apt; and further, the sense should be clear and as close as possible to the [Bible]. You need a free hand here; maintain the sense, but don’t cling to the words; [rather] translate them with other appropriate words.

Furthermore, unlike Zwingli in Zürich, who forbade the use of musical instruments, Luther encouraged the use of musical instruments in church.

Martin Luther not only introduced music back into the church, but he defined the parameters of what makes for good Christian church music.

Sola Scriptura: All Scripture is Breathed Out by God

Yesterday we began a 5-week series at White Fields in which we are looking at the 5 Solas of the Reformation: the slogans that the Reformers used to summarize their core beliefs:

  • Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
  • Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
  • Sole Fide (Faith Alone)
  • Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
  • Soli Deo Gloria (To the Glory of God Alone)

We started by looking at the first of these: Sola Scriptura.

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Sola Scriptura means: the Bible alone is our highest authority.

Martin Luther and the other Reformers found themselves in a situation, where – having read the Bible, they discovered that many practices and teachings of the church in their time were actually in direct opposition to the clear teaching of the Bible – particularly on the issues of absolution of sin and justification.

This is what led to Martin Luther’s famous statement at the Diet (Congress) of Worms:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against this knowledge. May God help me. Amen.

Sola Scriptura does not mean that we reject other sources of truth and wisdom, nor that we reject or ignore tradition. To do so would not only be foolish, but it would be ignorant of the fact that the very way that we got the canon of Holy Scriptures that we now have was in large part by God working through reason and tradition to transmit the Scriptures to us.

What Sola Scriptura means is that when it comes to what we believe and how we live, there is no higher voice, no greater authority than the Holy Scriptures, and everything must by judged by them.

So, if church councils say one thing, but the Bible says another: Who wins?  The Bible does. If our culture and society says one thing, but the Bible says something else, then who do we believe?  Who do we submit to?  The answer is: the Scriptures.

Did the New Testament Writers Know They Were Writing Scripture?

2 Timothy 3:16 says: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

What Scriptures are being referred to here?

Obviously it is referring to the Old Testament scriptures, but interestingly, this comes from 2 Timothy, the last letter which Paul wrote, at the end of his life. By this time — almost all of the books that we have in our New Testaments had already been written, and were being distributed amongst the Christians, to be read and studied in their churches.

So, when Paul says, “All Scripture” — he’s not just talking about the Old Testament, he’s also talking about the New Testament!

In the New Testament, what you find is that the Apostles understood that God was using them in their time to bring about a New Testament of Holy Scriptures, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Here are a few examples:

  • In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter refers to the writings of Paul as “Scriptures”
  • In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul referred to his own message as “the word of God”
  • In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul takes a quotation from the Gospel of Luke – and he calls it “Scripture” (Luke 10:7)
  • In some of his letters, Paul instructs the recipients to distribute his letters and have them read in the churches. (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27)

What Paul is telling Timothy in this text is to stick to the Scriptures, because they come from God, not from man.

The Bible is not only inspired in the sense that it is like a great work of art that we might say is “inspired” – but it is inspired in the greater sense, that the words it contains were breathed by God Himself!

What that means is that the Bible is no ordinary book — it is the very word of God to us, and therefore it alone is worthy to be the highest authority in our lives.

Take Joy in Being the People of God

Last night I went to an event where author Eric Metaxas was speaking about his new book, a biography of Martin Luther. It was held at a church in Greenwood Village, and after speaking for about an hour about Luther and the writing of the book, he answered questions and then signed books.

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During the Q&A time, Metaxas said a few things which I thought were particularly powerful. The question was one about how Christians should always be reforming the church. Eric responded by saying that: yes, the Reformation must always continue, but in his opinion, oftentimes the church is too critical of the church. That Christians spend a lot of time deriding Christians and bemoaning the church, when in fact we should find an immense amount of joy in being the people of God who are called to take the message of God’s grace and love into the world. This is something we should revel in!

He went on to say that he grew up in the secular culture, and that for him – he saw the church as a living connection to God. When you’re drowning and someone throws you a rope, he said, it may be an imperfect rope, but it is a rope nonetheless, and rather than focusing on its flaws, you are thankful for the rope!

Metaxas went on to point out that the cultural elites in our day all speak the same language of secular humanism, and they together have collectively agreed that Christianity is old fashioned, obsolete and passé – and too often, we as Christians bow down to that and say: ‘Yeah, you’re right,’ and we shrink back into the shadows or retreat into an insular Christian sub-culture. Instead, we should stand in confidence as the people of God, with the truth of God, and use all avenues available to us to bring God’s truth and the message of the gospel into our society.

Eric has done this very well with his radio program and his books, which are published by a mainstream publisher (Viking Books) and several of which have made the New York Times bestseller list. He has a unique perspective on the church, having become a Christian later in life, studying at Yale and living in New York City, none of which are generally considered particularly friendly towards Christianity. He has been a good steward of the gifts that God has given him and has become an important and influential voice in our society, heralding the gospel as he can.