A Changing Spiritual Landscape

There has been much discussion in our country this week about how to interpret a new research report from the Pew Research Center on the state of religion in the United States in 2015.  You can watch the editor of the report talk about the research on the PBS Newshour.  The most common national headline has been about the “decline in Christianity” in the USA.   But if you dig deeper into the numbers, they reveal something more nuanced and interesting:

As Ed Stetzer writes in USA Today, evangelical Christianity continues to grow in our country.  The most massive decline is among those who used to associate with mainline Protestant traditions or the Roman Catholic Church.  Now, when asked, a growing number of them self-identify as having no religious affiliation.  This isn’t necessarily growth in the number of atheist or agnostics, but growth in the number who have no religious affiliation.

Russell Moore reads the report as saying that nominal Christianity (a form of civil religion) is in rapid decline because fewer people feel pressured to say they are Christian when they are not.  In other words, they don’t feel any social obstacles to revealing their true religious convictions.  Moore thinks this is bad for America (a decline in general Christian identity) but maybe helpful for the church (in making true Christianity more clear).

I personally think the report reveals what we see all around us every day: a decline in the importance of religious faith for many people in our country.  The research shows an increase in the disinterested middle of the nation – those who simply don’t care about God and religious faith at all.  This is seen in the fact that former self-identified “Christians” are not converting to another religion, but to no religion at all.

Here’s my take: as a church, we are living in a time in our nation’s history when more and more people are apathetic toward the church and indifferent toward issues of faith.  We live in an era of constant distraction and entertainment, and we are seeing the results around us – a lack of attention toward faith and worldview.  What does this mean for us as a church?  A few things:

1- We need to feel an increasing urgency for evangelism right here in the United States.  Many times, we wrongly assume that Americans are Christian or have heard the gospel.  This is an increasingly wrong assumption.  May we be the generation who takes serious our charge to re-evangelize the 320 million people who live in America.

2- We need to prioritize our outreach to the next generation.  The highest percentage of Americans who describe themselves as having “no faith” are the youngest millennials.  We need to prayerfully consider how we can share the gospel effectively with the newest generation of young people.

3- We need to live as an attractive counter-culture inside the larger secular culture.  I believe one of the reasons that non-Christians find Christianity unattractive is that the Christian community fails to present a true alternative to the larger cultural narrative.  In other words, we look too much like the world around us.

This Sunday, I’m starting a sermon series called Contrast: A Study of 1 John where we will be looking at the distinguishing marks of the Christian faith and the Christian community.  The apostle John helps us understand how we can know that we have experienced the true Christian faith and not a distortion of the truth.  I hope that you will join us for this powerful and life-changing study of God’s Word.

What were your take-aways from the Pew Research?

The Cross and Our Shame

When the Bible describes the condition of Adam and Eve before their choice to sin against their Creator, it says something remarkable about their relationship with one another.  Genesis 2:25 records that they were together in complete vulnerability (they were naked) and that they felt no shame.  They knew each other intimately and yet were not ashamed in each other’s presence.  hen, in Genesis 3, right after Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s commands, they experienced shame.  They hid from God and from one another.  They covered their nakedness and were no longer being completely transparent before the other.

What is shame?  Shame is the humiliation or distress caused by awareness of wrong-doing.  It is the dishonor that we feel when we have done something wrong.  In other words, before sin entered the world, there was no shame.  There was nothing to feel ashamed of.  But once disobedience occurred, shame resulted.  This is true even today.  After we commit a sin, we feel shame.  Some feel more shame than others based on the sensitivity of their conscience and their view of God.  But at the core, we all experience shame.

You know the feeling and the look of shame.  You have had that experience where you couldn’t look someone in the eye because you knew that you had hurt them.   You didn’t want them to know who you really were, what you had really done.  Why?  Because you felt ashamed.  You may have experienced that in your relationship with your parents or your spouse or your best friend.  You most definitely have felt it in your relationship with God.  If you are aware of His perfect holiness and your own moral failings, then you feel unworthy to be in his presence, a sense of shame over the sins in your life, the choices you made that has brought dishonor to His name.

This is not unique to you.  Listen to the writer Ezra describe his personal shame in Ezra 9:6.  “And I said: My God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face toward You, my God, because our iniquities are higher than our heads and our guilt is as high as the heavens.”  In the next verse, he describes the national shame of his people.  Verse 7 reads, “Our guilt has been terrible from the days of our fathers until the present. Because of our iniquities we have been handed over, along with our kings and priests, to the surrounding kings, and to the sword, captivity, plundering, and open shame, as it is today.”  In other words, Ezra is ashamed of his sin before God, and he is ashamed of the sin of his people before the Lord.  Sin leads to shame before God and before others.

What does the cross of Jesus have to do with our shame?  Well, Isaiah 53:3 tells us that Jesus took our shame when he hung on the cross – “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering who knew what sickness was. He was like someone people turned away from; He was despised, and we didn’t value Him.”  Even though Jesus had nothing to be ashamed of, he faced the humiliation and dishonor that we deserved.  He felt the dishonor that we should have experienced.  Why?  So that he could take our shame from us!

In Hebrews 12:2, the Bible says that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him, despising the shame.  What does that phrase mean?  It means that he even though he endured our shame on the cross, he despised the shame.  He didn’t deserve to be humiliated in that way.  He deserved honor and yet received dishonor.  He deserved praise and adoration and yet received cursing and shame.  Why?

2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us what happen transactionally when Jesus died on the cross.  “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  Here’s the truth I want you to get in your heart and mind.  He endured your shame so that we could receive His righteousness.  He took your shame, my friend, so that you could receive His honor.  So that you could approach God as your Father and not your enemy.  So that you could be freed from condemnation and shame, walking in God’s love.  Lift your eyes, child of God.  You are His beloved! Jesus took away all of your shame.


Pastor Taxes

Full-time pastors are considered self-employed in the eyes of the IRS.  Because of this, pastor taxes can be complex and confusing.  In order to clear up confusion on how to plan for taxes, our church provides this explanation of pastors taxes and requests that all of our pastors turn in two numbers to our finance team before the start of each calendar year: (1) their requested federal withholding, and (2) their requested housing allowance.

To define our terms, a pastor’s total income (PTI) = church salary + housing allowance + other income.

Pastor Federal Taxes

Full-time clergy pay two different kinds of taxes.  The first is federal income tax.  Federal income tax is calculated as a percentage of your adjusted gross income (AGI).  How is your AGI calculated by the IRS?  For the purpose of federal income tax, a pastor’s housing allowance is non-taxable income.  Therefore, a pastor’s AGI does NOT include his housing allowance.  This means that federal income tax is levied only against the pastor’s salary + other income.  The AGI for a pastor is his total income – housing allowance – all valid deductions.

Once a pastor calculates his AGI and multiplies it by his applicable tax-rate, he gets his federal income tax burden.

The second federal tax that a pastor pays is federal self-employment tax.  This goes by many different names.  It is sometimes called the payroll tax or FICA or the social-security/Medicare tax.  All of those names describe the same tax.  Some pastors have opted out of social-security and Medicare (by completing a Form 4361 which says that the pastor has a conscientious opposition to public insurance based on your religious convictions – meaning a pastor cannot exempt himself for economic reasons).  If a pastor is opted out of SS/Medicare, then he does not owe Self-Employment tax, but he is also therefore not participating in the Social Security or Medicare systems and will not have those benefits in his retirement.

For those pastors who have NOT opted out of SS/Medicare, they must pay Self-Employment tax every year on their total income (salary + housing allowance + other income).  A pastor’s housing allowance is NOT shielded from SE tax.  Therefore, a pastor will owe 15.3% of his total income as federal self-employment tax.

At the end, a pastor’s total federal tax burden (who is participating in SS and Medicare) is the combination of these two taxes minus any credits (child-tax credit or earned-income credit).  As an equation, it works like this:

Pastor’s Total Federal Tax = Federal Income Tax + Federal SE Tax – Federal Tax Credits

To figure out how much money should be withheld from your paycheck, a pastor should estimate his total federal tax burden and divide it by the number of paychecks he receives in a year.  In our church (that pays out salary in 24 paychecks), the withholding amount should be the total tax burden / 24.

Pastors, what questions do you have about federal taxes that I can help with?

Four Steps to Consecrate Yourself before the Lord

After the Lord rescued the people of Israel from brutal slavery in Egypt and delivered them from the powerful hand of Pharaoh, He called them to consecrate their lives.  The consecration was not a prerequisite of Israel’s salvation, but a commanded response to God’s faithful love for His people.  The Lord commands the nation of Israel to “be My holy people” in Exodus 22:31, to set themselves apart for worship and devotion to God.  The command has not changed now that we are under the blood of Christ.  Our salvation is still a work of total grace, based on the perfect righteousness of Jesus and not our own.  At the same time, Jesus has commanded those who have been purchased by His grace to “obey all that He has commanded us” and to “be holy as His Father is holy.”  In other words, we are still directed to consecrate ourselves before the Lord, not as a means of earning His favor, but as the appropriate response to His favor.  What does this process of consecration look like?

First, we need to remember God’s grace in our lives.  One of the most common commands in the Bible is to “remember” all that God has done for us.  The festivals in the OT and the sacraments in the NT are means of remembering the gracious work of God on our behalf.  A drift in our commitment to holiness is usually connected to a lack of awe and wonder at all that God has done for us.  Start your process of consecration by writing down all the good gifts that God has given to you that you do not deserve.

Second, we need to remove our idols and distractionsAs the people of Israel moved into the promised land, they found it full of other nations who worshipped other gods.  This is a helpful picture of the church’s position in the world today – surrounded by people who worship everything and everyone else other than the one true God.  And because our hearts are naturally bent away from devotion to God, we will drift naturally drift toward idolatry.  This is why Jesus commands us to “seek first” the Kingdom of God ahead of everything else, and why God warned His people to not adopt the gods of the peoples around them.  To consecrate ourselves before God, we need to recognize where we have adopted the idols of our surrounding culture and remove them from our lives.  Continue your consecration by writing down the distractions that keep you from loving God first and most in your life.

Third, we need to repent of sinful attitudes and actions.  When we turn from our idols to seek the Lord, we must confess the sins that have become second-nature to us.  We must be mindful of the sins that we most easily excuse – the selfish attitudes, evil thoughts, and harsh words.  We need to agree with God that our laziness and spite and lust and greed and apathy are sins against His holiness.  We need to repent of our flippant attitude toward our own sin, and recognize the damage that our sin causes to our relationship with God and with others.  As you consecrate yourself before the Lord, ask Him to show you the sinful attitudes and actions that are offensive to Him, especially those that you cannot see.  And turn from those sins back to the Lord.

Fourth, we need to recommit our hearts to God.  Consecration is not ultimately about clean living.  It is about worship.  We consecrate ourselves before the Lord not to prove ourselves to our neighbor or feel good about ourselves.  We consecrate ourselves before the Lord for the Lord.  We pursue holiness as an act of worship, out of a deep love and awe for the worthiness of God.  In this way, true consecration seeks to bring the Lord the glory and honor that He is due.  Finish your consecration process by declaring your love and devotion to God as your highest and greatest pursuit.

Five Lessons Learned From Preaching on Race

Preaching on race in our church over the last five weeks has been one of the most formative experiences of my ministry.  I have grown in my understanding of racialization in our society today, and I have grown in love for my neighbor.  I am so thankful to have walked through this journey with our congregation at Cityview Bible Church in Round Rock, TX.  Their faithful feedback, honest reflection, and personal obedience has shaped the way I think about race today.  Here are five lessons we learned as a community of faith as we explored what the Bible teaches about race in light of the grace of the gospel:

  1. We are often blind to our own prejudices (whether they are toward those of another race or a subgroup inside our own race) because they are rooted in pride. We need the truth of the Bible and the power of the Spirit to open our eyes to our own racial stereotypes.  We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we are personally beyond all racial biases.  We are not, and we need to own that race matters, even today in 2015.
  2. People want to talk about race in a constructive way, but are not sure how or where to have the conversation. I was amazed at the participation in our small group each week during this series and the feedback from the elders, staff, and congregation.  Not everyone agreed with everything I had to say on the subject, but everyone was thankful that I had broached the subject.
  3. White evangelicals tend to over-individualize racial problems today and fail to see systemic injustices in the culture at large. As long as racial problems today are seen as the result of individual racists, then we can let ourselves off the hook personally if we don’t see ourselves as racist.  We fail to see that we live in a culture with systems that can also be racially unjust and treat groups of people differently.
  4. Racially isolated people can more easily create stereotypes of other races than those who are genuinely connected to people from other races. This is another reason that diverse congregations and schools and civic organizations are so important.  It is too easy to unfairly categorize people that you have never taken the time to know.  And because we are naturally drawn to those who are most like us (the homogeneous unit principle), we are always in danger in moving toward racial isolation.
  5. In order to build a unified, diverse, multi-ethnic congregation, individual congregants must make the decision to value diversity more than their own cultural preferences. If we believe the Bible mandates the local church be both unified and diverse, then each one of us must make the choice to lay down our personal preferences for the sake of the whole.  The goal of building a healthy multi-ethnic church is one where our personal consumerism directly conflicts with the Kingdom of Jesus.

I hope these lessons will help you to take a next step in building bridges of love and peace between people of different races.  For in the end, if we believe the first chapter of the Bible is true, then there is really only one race – the human race, created in God’s image to worship and serve Him forever.

A Biblical Introduction to Elders

On Saturday, 10/4/14, I taught a two-hour class on what the Bible teaches about elders in the local church.  In session #1, I covered the character and qualifications of an elder.  In session #2, I taught on the role and responsibilities of an elder.  Each session includes a few minutes of Q&A.  Here is the video:

Biblical Introduction to Elders Video (10/4/14)

Here are the handouts that go with the video.  The first one covers includes the scripture that I cover in the two teaching sessions.  The other two handouts are just additional resources for elders – one that covers church-discipline and one that covers the role of the elder-chairman (in our specific ecclesiology):

A Biblical Introduction to Elders Sessions 1 and 2
Notes on Church Discipline
Roles and Responsibilities of Elder Chairman


Six Lessons Learned From Our Recent ID Theft

If you didn’t hear the story, Barie had her purse stolen out of her minivan last week while she was working out at the YMCA.  Someone smashed in the passenger-side window while the van was sitting in the crowded parking lot around 10:00am in the morning and stole her purse (which was hidden under the front seat).  Despite my calls to Bank of America within 30 minutes of the incident to report the stolen purse, the thieves were still able to use the debit card and ID to empty all of the money out of our checking and savings accounts.  Here’s what we’ve learned through the process:

  1. If your purse or wallet is stolen (and both your bank card and your driver’s license are taken), it is NOT enough to cancel the debit card with your bank. A thief can still use your cancelled card and your picture ID to access the money in your accounts.  You need to ask for an immediate HOLD to be placed on ALL of your bank accounts with your financial institution, and then as quickly as possible remove all of your funds, cancel your accounts, and open new accounts.
  2. Do NOT trust people that you talk to through the customer service department of any large bank (through their 1-800 phone service). You will end up talking to someone in a call-center who does not understand the details of how fraud and theft actually work.  My advice to you is to immediate go into a local BRANCH and ask to meet with the branch MANAGER.  Ask him or her for a list of steps you need to take to protect your money and your identity.  Don’t leave until the manager gets on the phone and puts a HOLD on your account and flags your ID in their system.
  3. The primary way that people steal money from you after they have your debit card and your Driver’s License is to go through the drive-thru lanes at a large bank (where they have 6 or 8 lanes). They choose one of the far-away lanes and have someone who is close to your appearance go through the drive-thru.  With your debit card (even a cancelled or expired one) and your ID, they can withdraw money from any account linked to your card by forging your signature.
  4. Don’t ever leave your purse or wallet in your locked car (even if it is hidden well). Most ID fraud happens based on stolen identification.  Barie hid her purse well in our van, and another victim even hid her purse in the back seat of her car.  However, the police said that most likely they were being watched as they got out of their vehicles and the criminals saw them leave their purses behind on the way into the YMCA.  This crime happens most frequently at work-out facilities where people tend to leave their purse or wallet in the car.  Don’t do it!
  5. If someone uses your identity as though they were you (which is the definition of identity theft), make sure and let the Department of Public Safety and the Policy Department know that you have been a victim of this crime. Often after this happens, people don’t follow-up with law-enforcement to report the details of the identity theft because their bank reimburses the loss to the customer.  This is one reason that this crime is so infrequently prosecuted.
  6. Trust God. This whole experience has been a reminder to Barie and I that everything we have in this life can be taken from us except for our faith in Jesus Christ.  No treasure on this earth is as precious to us as the gift of grace that God made possible through Jesus.  In addition, we have learned (again) that we must trust God to meet our daily needs.  He has been so faithful to us every step of the way, and we give Him all the glory for helping us through this ordeal.

Don’t Stifle the Spirit

Deuteronomy 4:24 says that “the Lord your God is a consuming fire” Hebrews 12:28-29 tells us to “serve God with reverence and awe because our God is a consuming fire.”

BurningCampfire2We’ve all seen the power of a consuming fire – a powerful image describing our powerful God.

When John the Baptist announced Jesus’ ministry in Matthew 3:11, he said that One was coming who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

In Acts 2:3, on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit of God fell on the original disciples, the Scripture says that the Spirit rested on each one “like flames of fire that were divided.

This same God is present within our church today in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  I think it is helpful to imagine our church as the kindling for the fire – we are putting the pieces of wood together in such a way that is most conducive for the fire to burn.  But we are not the fire.  Only the Holy Spirit can bring the fire and set us ablaze for the glory of God.  And He is doing that.  He is with us.  He is igniting us.  He is burning within us and among us.

With that image in mind, I want to turn your attention to a key verse for NT spirituality: 1 Thessalonians 5:19.  It is a short one – only four words – don’t stifle the Spirit.

The verb translated ‘stifle’ means to “extinguish a fire” to “stop something from burning.” So here’s the picture – the mental image that the Scripture is putting before us:

The Spirit is a fire, and He is setting His church on fire to burn brightly for Him.  But if we are not careful, we can take a bucket of water and douse the Spirit.  We can stifle the Spirit, quench His work in our midst.  And when we do that, we just go back to being a pile of wood without any heat or power.

So, we don’t want to stifle the Spirit.  What does that look like?

What are the things that we do that pour water on the fire of the Spirit in our midst?

We might not even realize what we are doing – we are just doing what comes natural to us.

But we are so desperate for God.  We need Him more than we need air and water.  Without His empowering presence, we are simply going through the motions.  But with Him, all things are possible.

To understand how we are stifling the Spirit, we must first know what He is doing in our midst.  Only then will we see clearly how we are opposing Him and quenching His fire.

As I have studied the Scriptures, I see four areas where the Spirit seems to be powerfully working:

1-      He is leading us toward dependence on God (prayer)

Scripture:  Romans 8:26-27

“In the same way the Spirit also joins to help in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings.  And He who searches the hearts knows the Spirit’s mind-set, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

The moments in the Scriptures where the Spirit moves most powerfully in the church is through prayer – Acts 2 (Pentecost), Acts 4 (place was shaken, they were filled, spoke boldly), Acts 6 (devote ourselves to prayer), Acts 10 (Peter’s vision as he was praying), Acts 13 (praying when the Spirit set aside Paul and Barnabas for missions), Acts 16 (Paul and Silas in prison praying)…

The Spirit’s fire burns where there is faithful prayer.

2-       He is convicting us of sin and turning our hearts toward Jesus

In the gospel of John, Jesus talks about the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Listen to Jesus’ words in John 14:25-26

“I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit —the Father will send Him in My name—will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.”

Listen also to His words in John 16:7-8

“Nevertheless, I am telling you the truth. It is for your benefit that I go away, because if I don’t go away the Counselor will not come to you. If I go, I will send Him to you. When He comes, He will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment.”

A couple of thoughts on these passages:

  • The Holy Spirit is working among us to point our hearts back to Jesus.
  • He is leading us to study and read the Word of God.
  •  And the Spirit is convicting our hearts where our lives are out of line with the Scriptures.
  • His conviction is not one of shaming us, but one of changing us.
  • He desires us to trust in Jesus, to follow Jesus, to live like Jesus.
  • And He is speaking to our hearts toward that end.

3-      He is gifting us for making disciples (living for others)

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12-14

We just recently preached a five-week series at our church through these chapters, and we learned some important truths:

ONE, that the Holy Spirit has gifted every Christian for the work of ministry, and

TWO, that the gifts are given for two reasons:

  • First, that the name of Jesus would be lifted high among all peoples (mission)
  • Second, that the church would grow in maturity

The fire of the Spirit comes to the church not just for the good of the church.  It comes also to equip the church for the work of the ministry.  The Spirit wants us to live for others.   The Spirit gifts us to make disciples – both inside and outside the church.  The Spirit is not just at work inside your congregation.  He is Lord of the whole earth and calling the church to go into the whole world.  The NT is clear: the Spirit gifts believers to accomplish the mission He has given us – to serve one another (to build up the church) and to reach the world with the gospel

4-      He is bringing unity among brothers and sisters in the church

Jesus prayed in John 17:20-21 for us.  Here’s what He prayed:

“I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message. May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me.”

I think we are safe to assume that the Holy Spirit is working to accomplish the prayer of Jesus in the world today.  He moves as the people of God are unified and love one another.

Listen to Paul’s encouragement to the Christians in Ephesus in Ephesians 4:30-32:

“30 And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by Him for the day of redemption. 31 All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. 32 And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ.”

A couple of thoughts:

  • We grieve the Spirit when we don’t get along with each other.
  • Jesus wants us to be unified as His church – under One Master, One Savior, One Spirit.
  • The Holy Spirit is working to build one church with one mind and one heart.
  • The church is powerful when we work together as one people with one heart.
  • We honor the Spirit and stoke the fire of His work when we love one another.
  • But we grieve Him when we don’t – when we can’t get along and are divided.

All of that being said, here’s the real question I want us to wrestle with:  how does Satan work in our midst to tempt us to stifle the work of the Spirit?  Remember, Satan is a liar.  He works to deceive God’s people so that they do not believe the truth.  And if we are not careful, we will fall right into his traps. Here’s what Satan is doing to lead us to stifle the fire of the Holy Spirit:

1-      Satan is feeding our self-reliance and causing us to doubt God’s goodness.

If we are not on guard, this leads us to a lack of prayer.  Now God is sovereign and He will do as He pleases, but He has set up this world with a key spiritual principle in place – if we do not pray, He will not move.

It is time to check our hearts and minds when it comes to prayer.  Are you praying at all?  Is it sincere?  Is it consistent?  Are you and I declaring our dependence on God for all of life and ministry?

Or do we simply go through our daily routine without God?  And then when the bottom falls out, we run back to the Lord in prayer.  If that is our routine, we are stifling the Spirit in our midst.  We need to return to prayer as the church.  We need to cry out to God and lean on His strength.

Not as an afterthought, but as our heartbeat.

2-      Satan wants us to justify our sinfulness and ignore the voice of the Spirit.

I wrote earlier that the Spirit is convicting us of sin and leading us back to Jesus.  But Satan doesn’t want us to respond to the Spirit’s conviction and repent and find healing.  And so we are tempted to excuse our sin and give up on the pursuit of holiness.

This is one of our biggest struggles.  The church doesn’t look any different from the world in our value and practices.  This grieves the heart of God and stifles the work of the Spirit. We need to return to a place of holy sorrow for our sin.

We need to not just acknowledge our sin, but see it for what it is and turn from it.  The temptations don’t change – to run to sex and money and power and substances for our pleasure, to treat our spouses and kids with hateful words, to lie and steal and betray.

But our attitudes toward them need to change.  God’s grace is sufficient to cover all our sin, but that doesn’t mean we should keep on doing it!

3-      Satan seeks to convince us to pull away from ministry and mission

In most churches, a small percentage of the people do most of the work.  That is terrible and dishonors the gifting of the Holy Spirit.

At its core, it takes the gifts of the whole church to build up the church.  And it takes the witness of the whole church to reach the whole world.

I don’t think a church that is full of people who are sitting on the sidelines will ever see God honor that and bless it with His powerful presence.

When we live selfishly (it’s all about me) and fail to live for others (both inside and outside the church), we quench the fire of the Holy Spirit.

4-      Finally, Satan plants seeds of distrust and division inside the church (lack of unity)

This is the one that the Lord has been speaking to me the most about recently.  I think this is the area where Satan does his greatest damage and hurts the church.

Relationships are hard.  They are challenging for so many reasons.  In the church, you will experience some of the greatest friendships and community anywhere.

Talk about the challenges of relationships here…

  • Lack of love
  • Unkind words
  • Disrespect
  • Lack of communication and follow through
  • Forgetfulness

Satan uses all of this to plants seeds of distrust and division in our midst.  And instead of reconciling as we should when we are hurt, we hold on to our pain and gossip about one another.

And we dump bucket after bucket of cold water on the fire of the Holy Spirit.  We need to work on this as the people of Jesus.

We need to move toward each other in love and forgiveness.  We need to stop blaming others for our relational difficulties and take responsibility.  We need to be unified and be the one body that God has called us to be.

Jesus died for us all – every one of us.  Not so that we could create factions and divisions, but so that we could love one another.

So that we could be ONE body – unified under the banner of Christ..

With all of that being said, what do we need to do to stoke the fire of the Spirit rather than stifle His work?

1-      We need to welcome Him and express our dependence on Him for our life and ministry.

2-      We need to confess our sin (both of omission and commission) and turn back to God.

3-      We need to use our Spirit-given gifts to serve others and reach the world.

4-      We need to repair relationships in the church that are strained.

My prayer is that every church would repent of stifling the Spirit and get in step with the Lord again.

Four Marks of Deception

Last Sunday (5/18), I preached a sermon from Colossians 2:4-7.  Verse 4 in particular has stayed with me.  Paul shares his desire for the Colossians to “not be deceived by persuasive arguments.”  He was concerned that the Christians in Colossae would hear arguments from others inside the church that sounded good at first but would ultimately lead them to destructive ends.  As a pastor, I resonate with this concern.  I meet with Christians all the time who are struggling in walk with God because they have believed something false.

Deception inside the church is notoriously difficult to see and refute because it always includes some portion of the truth.  The most dangerous false-teachings, the ones that deceive the highest number of Christians, are half-truths, teaching one part of the Bible but hiding the whole truth.  Every Christian has to grow in his or her ability to discern truth from error for three reasons.  One, most deception is subtle, not overt.  Two, your spiritual leaders can’t be with you at all times.  And three, deceptive teaching leads to destructive living.

How can you begin to grow in your ability to discern truth from error?  Let me give you four marks to look for:

First, false-teaching usually proposes something new or better than historic, orthodox Christianity.  While Christian truth must be applied in fresh ways to the unique challenges each generation faces, this doesn’t require new truth.  Deceivers tend to propose that they have insight into truth that has been hidden until now.  Always beware of novelty when it comes to truth.

Second, false-teaching usually seeks to justify sin as acceptable to God.  The moral code presented in the Bible has not changed since the canon was closed 2000 years ago.  And yet, in every generation, some part of the moral foundation of Scripture is considered outdated.  Usually, those who seek to change the moral teaching of the Bible want to justify something they already desire to do.

Third, false-teaching always appeals to some authority outside of the Bible.  This authority can be a person or an organization or an experience.  The deception lies in telling us that while Scripture is respected and valued, we must decide which parts of it are fully true and authoritative in today’s world.  As soon as the whole Bible is removed as authoritative, truth is in trouble.

Fourth, false-teaching turns our eyes from Jesus and denies our need for His grace.  In Colossians, Paul was concerned that some were encouraging the church to move on from Jesus to deeper truths.  They were teaching that Christ was great, but not sufficient.  This deception continues to this day.  False-teachers tend to point people to themselves rather than Christ, emphasizing self-effort rather than dependence on God’s grace.

Hopefully, these guidelines begin to give you a grid by which to evaluate what you hear and read.  In today’s world, everyone with a webpage, a blog, and a YouTube channel is “an accomplished author and speaker.”  Be on guard against those who seek to deceive you with persuasive arguments and hold on tightly to Christ.

Courage & Kindness

Leadership requires two skills in equal balance – both of which are difficult in their own right, but exceedingly difficult together.  Leaders must be courageous and kind.  Let’s explore these two traits and our need for growth in each area.

God tells Joshua to “be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:9) in his leadership of the Israelites into the Promised Land.  Joshua must have been insecure after following in the footsteps of Moses and intimidated by the strong nations dwelling in the Land.  God knew that His servant would need courage, so He reminded Joshua that He was with him wherever he went.

Good leaders still need courage today.  Some leaders put off tough decisions and hard conversations because they are afraid.  Understandable, but also detrimental to the team.  Courage is required in every area of spiritual leadership – from sharing your faith to praying with someone to confronting sin to challenging complacency.  Do you wrestle with courage?  Do two things.  One, remember who God is and trust Him to lead you.  Two, ask God for courage.  Ask Him to specifically give you the courage you need today to confront the needs of today.

In addition to courage, leaders also need compassion and kindness toward those that they lead.  Philippians 4:5 commands us to “let our graciousness be known to everyone.”  Leaders must treat the people they lead with the same grace and kindness that God has shown them in Christ.  Courageous leadership is not the same as rude leadership.  We can make tough decisions and lead courageously while also caring deeply for the people that we lead.  And those we lead can tell – if we are using them or actually care about their spiritual growth and health.

Do you struggle with being gentle and kind toward those you lead?  Then, again, you need to do two things.  One, you need to lean on the Spirit each day in this area.  The Bible says that gentleness and kindness are fruits of the Holy Spirit, evidences that He is working in your life.  To display these characteristics, you must depend on the Spirit daily.  And two, ask God for greater compassion in your heart for those you lead.  Leadership is endlessly frustrating (whether as a parent or a president), and if we are not careful, our hearts can grow callous toward those we lead.

Kindness without courage produces a leader who is nice to everyone but unwilling to actually lead.  Courage without kindness produces a leader who is moving but running over people along the way.  To be a healthy leader, you must pursue both!