Falling Through the Cracks, or Straying Sheep?

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“It’s an all-too-common phenomenon in churches. A church member stops showing up on Sunday mornings. A few weeks pass, and then a few months, before someone notices.”

This past November, on our annual elders retreat, the elders of White Fields Community Church read Jeremie Rinne’s book Church Elders, which is part of the 9 Marks series. Jeremy brings up an interesting point:

‘People in my congregation refer to this phenomenon as “falling through the cracks.” They say things like: “Have you seen Sally around church lately? I hope she didn’t fall through the cracks.”

What if, instead of “falling through the cracks,” we use a different image: “straying from the flock.” That picture seems more fitting for at least two reasons. First, “straying” implies that a disconnected church member bears a personal responsibility to stay involved with the congregation. Sheep don’t ordinarily leave a flock by inadvertently plummeting into a void. They wander away over time through a series of choices.

Second, the image of straying sheep also suggests that someone should keep watch over the flock and take action when a sheep begins to meander away. Yes, each member has a personal responsibility not to roam, but all church members have a duty to watch out for one another. However, one group in particular has an obligation to be on the lookout for straying sheep: the elders.

Elders watch to make sure that no “wolves” infiltrate their congregations with false teaching. But elders also keep watch for unwanted movement in the other direction: members straying away from the flock and from the Lord. This is part of basic shepherding work. Shepherds feed the sheep, guard them from predators, and keep track of them.’

He goes on to point out something interesting from Ezekiel:

‘Ezekiel prophesied against Israel’s leaders by accusing them of negligent shepherding: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding themselves! Shouldn’t the shepherds feed their flock?” (Ezek. 34:2). And what was one of the ways they failed to shepherd? “You have not . . . brought back the strays, or sought the lost” (v. 4). As a result, “My flock went astray on all the mountains and every high hill. They were scattered over the whole face of the earth, and there was no one searching or seeking for them” (v. 6).’

Jesus, in contrast, is the “good shepherd” who leaves the 99 to pursue the one wayward sheep, something which is indeed “reckless” from a business perspective (and this is exactly what the lyrics of Cory Ashbury’s song “Reckless Love” come from).

The difficult balance from a church leader’s perspective is how to be a good shepherd under Jesus, and being overbearing. May God give us wisdom and grace as we seek to do His work!

Christmas Eve Church Services in Longmont

Join us at White Fields Community Church on December 24, 2018 at 4:30 or 6:00 PM for a special Christmas Eve service which will include Christmas music from our band and choir, as well as a reading of the Christmas story and a message about why Jesus’ birth is good news of great joy for all people.

Location: St. Vrain Memorial Building, 700 Longs Peak Ave. Longmont, CO 80501

Invite someone to join you as well! Studies have shown that most people are willing to attend church on Christmas Eve if someone invites them, so consider yourself invited, and invite someone to join you and get Christmas started by focusing on Jesus!

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“They worshiped Him, but some doubted.”

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One of the most intriguing phrases to me in the Gospel of Matthew is found in Matthew 28:16. It says that after Jesus’ resurrection, the 11 disciples (Judas was gone now) went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. And when they say him they worshiped, but some doubted.

“When they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:16)

It would seem that it is possible to worship and have doubts – at the same time!

Doubt is Part of Having Faith

In fact, there is a sense in which doubt is an inherent part of faith.

Jude tells us to “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22)

For more on doubt and faith, check out: The Role of Doubt in Faith

It has been said that “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.” 1

It is important that we ask the hard questions and wrestle through our doubts in order to make sure that what we believe is really true! Anselm of Canterbury famously defined the study of theology as, “Faith seeking understanding”.

So it would seem that is it possible to worship and have doubts – at the same time.

Why Did Matthew Include This Detail?

What is interesting is to consider why Matthew included this phrase in his gospel account. I believe it is because Matthew, with a heart of empathy and pastoral sensitivity, recorded this detail about doubt so that readers would be encouraged in their own struggles between worship and doubt.

This detail shows us that the disciples were not spiritual giants; Jesus gave the “great commission” to go out into all the world and carry on his work by making disciples of him – to an ordinary group of people like you and me.

What Should We Do With Our Doubts?

I was really encouraged this year by a podcast episode I heard this year about the importance of directly addressing the doubts that people have in regard to Christianity: not only for the sake of those who aren’t Christians, but also for the sake of those who are sitting in our churches, who are worshiping, yet they are struggling with doubts. By addressing some of the opposition to Christianity, you are speaking both to critics of Christianity, but also to those who want to believe, but are struggling to do some in some areas.

We did a series earlier this year, which has borne a lot of fruit – even residually. It was called: The Trouble Is… (link to sermon audio – and – link to YouTube follow-up videos). In this series we addressed some of the reasons why people commonly reject or doubt Christianity, including: Science, Hypocrisy, Hell, Suffering, and others.

We put that series onto pen-drives and have handed them out at community events here in Longmont, as well as made them available for free for people who come on Sunday mornings for church, and we have not been able to keep up with demand. We have handed out several hundred of these so far, as people take them to give to friends and co-workers. In fact, I had someone tell me the other day that they have been using the series to lead a group discussion at their workplace; every week they listen to one message and then watch the YouTube follow-up video, and then discuss it. Attending this group are people from all kinds of backgrounds, including agnostics, Buddhists, and lapsed Christians. Very cool to see God using it in this way!

What should we do with our doubts? We should press into them, and seek out answers, because if what the Bible says is true, then it will hold up under scrutiny, and our seeking will lead to finding, which will lead to the dispelling of doubts and the strengthening of faith. This is exactly what happened with the disciples themselves, who – though they doubted here in Matthew 28 – they were able to dispel their doubts and became so convinced of the reality of it, that all of them suffered for it, and all but one (John) gave their lives for it!

I Could Never Believe in a God Who…

As we look forward to the new year and plan our teaching schedule, we will be doing another series along these lines. Likely, this will become an annual thing for us.

This one will be called “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…” We will spend 6-7 weeks directly addressing the questions that people struggle with, such as: sexual orientation, genocide in the Old Testament, the historicity of the Bible, why “bad things happen to good people”, etc.

As I did previously, I will be posting a poll online to gather information and would love your feedback, so please keep an eye out for that.

In the mean time, don’t let your doubts stop you from worshiping! But don’t let your doubts derail you either. Press in, seek God, and seek the answers to the questions you have. You will be strengthened in the process, and you will also be equipped to help others.

 

“If you can do anything else, do it.”

October has been Pastor Appreciation Month. I am thankful for those who have reached out to me this month, and I want to express my appreciation for those who have pastorally poured time, love and energy into me.

A question that people sometimes ask is, “How do you know if you’re called into pastoral ministry?”

“The Prince of Preachers”, Charles Haddon Spurgeon addressed this question to the students in his pastoral training school, recorded for us in the book, Lectures to My Students

Spurgeon’s advice to his students was: “If you can do anything else, do it. If you can stay out of the ministry, stay out of the ministry.”

He continued, “If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor or a grocer or a farmer or a doctor or a lawyer or a senator or a king, in the name of heaven and earth, let him go his way.”

In other words, only those who believe they are chosen by God for the pulpit should proceed in undertaking this sacred, yet difficult, and sometimes wearisome calling.

Why You Should Do Anything Else if You Can

Earlier this year, I shared the tragic story of Andrew Stoecklein — see: Pastors, Depression and Suicide

Pastoral ministry is taxing on the pastor’s family. The church is not only the pastor’s “workplace” or place of ministry, it is also their family’s own faith community. There is a social element to it as well. When people leave the church, your kids suffer because they lose friends.

I came across these posts from pastors on social media recently, reflecting some of why people in pastoral ministry struggle:

https://www.facebook.com/cnieuwhof/posts/951599645028464

Why There’s Nothing Else I’d Rather Do

My point here is not to complain but to acknowledge that pastoral ministry can be difficult. There is something cathartic about hearing someone else say these things out loud.

However, there’s nothing else I’d rather do.

This is the genius of Spurgeon’s statement: If you can do anything else, do it. There are plenty of other ways to serve God. The role of pastor is only one of many roles in the body of Christ. And yet, there are those who find themselves convinced that there is, in fact, nothing else they can rightly do but answer God’s call to serve His people through pastoral ministry.

These are those who say along with the Apostle Paul: For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if it is not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. (1 Corinthians 9:16-18)

They say along with Jeremiah: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, indeed I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9)

It isn’t only a duty, it is also a joy. It is an honor and a joy to be able to lead a group of God’s people and regularly get to be an instrument through which God helps people grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is an honor and a privilege to get to be involved in the most meaningful moments of people’s lives as a representative of God’s Kingdom.

There are very few things in life that are truly meaningful, which are not also difficult.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. (1 Timothy 3:1)
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.  (1 Timothy 5:17)

So, to all you pastors out there:

Take joy in being a pastor! Keep fighting that good fight, keep running that race, keep looking to Jesus. Seek your acknowledgement, affirmation and appreciation primarily from Him. Go to Him with your frustrations and hurts. Cast your cares on Him, for He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).

And may we say along with the Apostle Paul:

“But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)

Happy Pastor Appreciation Month!

“Heap Burning Coals on Their Head” – What Does That Mean?

Every week, Mike and I sit down in front of the camera to film a sermon-extra: a further discussion about the text we studied at White Fields on Sunday.

You can find those videos on the WhiteFields YouTube channel and Facebook page, or you can get the audio on SoundCloud. Check those out and subscribe so you can get keep up with those discussions and content.

Here’s this week’s video in which we discuss the somewhat confusing phrase in Romans 12:20 – “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head”:

What is Expository Preaching? – Some Thoughts from Martyn Lloyd-Jones

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The approach to preaching that we champion at White Fields is called “expository preaching.” I’m also involved with a movement called the Expositors Collective – which will have its next event in Bradenton, Florida on Nov 30-Dec 1, and which has a great podcast you should check out!

What is Expository Preaching?

The root word of “expository” is “expose” – and expository preaching is all about exposing the meaning of the text, as opposed to imposing a meaning upon the text. 

The goal of expository preaching is to let the Bible speak for itself, rather than using it as a “prooftext” to validate what we already think or what we really want to say. As opposed to coming to the Scriptures with a pre-conceived notion or goal and then looking for verses which back that up, expository preaching/teaching is focused on coming to the Bible and understanding what it has to say to us.

For this reason, we usually teach and preach through the Bible in a verse-by-verse fashion, but expository preaching can be done when addressing topics as well.

However, just teaching verse-by verse does not necessarily equal expository preaching. An expository sermon aims to expose as clearly as possible the meaning of the text, which means that it will have an effective structure for doing so, and will bring in other biblical texts to reach that goal.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Expository Sermons vs. Running Commentary

Consider these words from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic: Preaching and Preachers

A sermon should always be expository. But, immediately, that leads me to say something which I regard as very important indeed in this whole matter. A sermon is not a running commentary on, or a mere exposition of, the meaning of a verse or a passage or a paragraph.

I emphasise this because there are many today who have become interested in what they regard as expository preaching but who show very clearly that they do not know what is meant by expository preaching. They think that it just means making a series of comments, or a running commentary on a paragraph or a passage or a statement. They take a passage verse by verse; and they make their comments on the first, then they go on to the next verse, and do the same with that, then the next, and so on. When they have gone through the passage in this way they imagine they have preached a sermon. But they have not; all they have done is to make a series of comments on a passage.

I would suggest that far from having preached a sermon such preachers have only preached the introduction to a sermon! This, in other words, raises the whole question of the relationship of exposition to the sermon. My basic contention is that the essential characteristic of a sermon is that it has a definite form, and that it is this form that makes it a sermon. It is based upon exposition, but it is this exposition turned or moulded into a message which has this characteristic form.

A phrase that helps to bring out this point is one which is to be found in the Old Testament in the Prophets where we read about ‘the burden of the Lord’. The message has come to the prophet as a burden, it has come to him as an entire message, and he delivers this. That is something, I argue, which is not true of a mere series of comments upon a number of verses.

I maintain that a sermon should have form in the sense that a musical symphony has form. A symphony always has form, it has its parts and its portions. The divisions are clear, and are recognised, and can be described; and yet a symphony is a whole. You can divide it into parts, and yet you always realise that they are parts of a whole, and that the whole is more than the mere summation or aggregate of the parts.

One should always think of a sermon as a construction, a work which is in that way comparable to a symphony. In other words a sermon is not a mere meandering through a number of verses; it is not a mere collection or series of excellent and true statements and remarks. All those should be found in the sermon, but they do not constitute a sermon. What makes a sermon a sermon is that it has this particular ‘form’ which differentiates it from everything else.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (pp. 82-84). Zondervan

He then goes on to make the point that “Spirit-led” does not mean structureless. We must not assume that structure and organization is at odds with being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The ultimate goal of expository preaching is to let God’s Word speak and be understood as clearly, and with appropriate force upon the life of the hearers, that they might know God’s Word to them.

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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)