Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Here We Come a'Caroling

The tradition of Christmas caroling began as early as the 15th century when wandering minstrels performed songs in exchange for donations to be given to the needy. In fact, many of the carols we sing today were written during that time. Christmas carols are usually cheerful and proclaim the news of Christ birth.

Christmas is such a wonderful time for sharing the Good News. At what other time of the year can you stroll through your neighborhood, stop in front of the house of a complete stranger, sing a song about Jesus Christ, and get a smile in return.

Christmas caroling can be a part of a churches outreach strategy when combined with other events. While out caroling a church can hand out attractive invitations to other church events such as a Christmas Eve service. A particular neighborhood can be targeted for an annual evangelism campaign that would include invitations to Easter, block parties, backyard Bible clubs and other events.

Caroling also provides an opportunity to involve people who are newer to the church in a fun outreach event. Don’t forget to have Christmas cookies and other holiday snacks ready for afterwards. Some of the church’s seniors and others who may be averse to walking in winter weather might enjoy setting up the party.

The set up is simple. Make up a song sheet of carols. Keep it to one page (printed on both sides) and only one verse for each carol. Fun holiday songs such as “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland” are nice but rely heavily on songs that celebrate the birth of Christ. Avoid Santa songs, he gets enough publicity.

When you stop to sing, make sure the group stands together like a choir. Have a designated song leader and sing the songs in the order they are on the sheet. This will help things flow smoothly. Sing two songs at each stop, more if you draw a crowd. Sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as you stroll away.

Brief your carolers so they can know what to expect and begin with prayer. Debriefing is a good idea, too. Let the folks share the contacts they made in the community.

Music touches everyone, and a song celebrating the birth of Jesus combined with the power of the Holy Spirit, may have an eternal impact on someone's life. Can you imagine the impact if every church went caroling at Christmas?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Who Plants Churches?

Many churches today are planted by individuals following the biblical example of Philip and the other scattered Christians in Acts 8. These individuals include clergy and lay and men and women with varying levels of education.

Some are apostolic. They gather a core group, select and train leaders and move on. The new church then calls a pastor, often called a planted pastor, who might be full time or bivocational. It is far easier to find a pastor for an established small church than to get someone to start a new church from scratch. Also, most pastors with apostolic gifts lack the gifts to pastor a stable church.

In some cases the individual planter becomes the founding pastor and stays long term. Rick Warren and Bill Hybels are the most prominent examples but often theses pastors are bivocational.

The individual planter will sometimes work alone but might seek denominational or local church help.

Churches often start new churches in a nearby community where a significant number of their members live. Church members will provide the launch team and the church will help pay the planting pastor and other expenses while providing mentoring and accountability. In some cases a church will plant a new work in a pioneer area. This type of church planting still requires an individual to provide the vision.

Denominations will plant churches as well, sometimes in partnership with a local church. This involves demographic studies and intense evaluation of the church planter. The right planter is placed in the right place at the right time. It also involves a greater financial investment for the new church. This model does not have a greater success rate than churches planted by individuals or local churches. I saw a church fail even with a hand-picked, full-time staff of three and $500,000 in pledges. Two other churches that were not denominationally funded survived in the same county. Both have their own buildings in less than 10 years.

No matter who initiates the new church start, partnerships are the key to success. Partners include multiple churches providing funding, materiel and other help, denominational support and individual prayer and financial partners. Seminaries, Bible Colleges and parachurch ministries make good partners as well. It is even possible to have multiple denominational groups involved. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has partnered with American Baptist Churches, Baptist General Conference of Texas, and Missionary Baptist Churches for new church starts.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Missions, Evangelism and New Church Starts

Missions in the New Testament involves evangelism and new church starts. In Acts 2:41 we read that 3000 people were baptized following Peter’s evangelistic sermon. Later, these groups formed communities that we call church and the Lord added to their number daily (v. 47)

The laity were involved in church planting from the beginning. New churches were started by believers who were scattered by persecution in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1; 11:19). Phillip preached the gospel and baptized many. The Apostles came later to support the work.

The church at Antioch commissioned and sent Paul and Barnabas to go on a mission trip. They proclaimed the gospel in synagogues and public places, gathering the new believers into churches and teaching them. Paul would appoint elders from the new congregation and move to the next location. He would check on his new churches through later visits and correspondence. This pattern was repeated in all of Paul’s mission trips.

While proclaiming the gospel, the New Testament Church did attend to the physical needs of people. There were miraculous healings and sharing of resources with the poor but the main task remained to preach Christ, gather into churches and teaching to obey all that Christ commanded.

Contemporary missions should follow the same New Testament pattern. The pay off for missions ought to be baptisms and new, indigenous churches among the people we serve. If all we do is clothe, feed and educate are we not just sending them to hell a little fatter and smarter? How faith-based is a program that does not yield faith decisions?

Missions is not an either/or proposition? Evangelism or felt-needs? It ought to be both.

Helping people in need is clearly commanded by God and modeled by Jesus. The immediate goal of benevolence ministry is to relieve human suffering. A secondary goal is to build relationships with hurting people. The ultimate goal is to bring about genuine life change in individuals through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The intent of missions among the poor and needy is to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ, not simply to provide services. It provides a point of redemptive connection and adds credibility to our communication of the gospel.

One such model is Life of Faith Christian church in far north Chicagoland. The heart of the church is a food pantry that also provides clothes, furniture and referrals. Pastor Michael Pimpo uses this platform to connect not only with the needy, who are open to the gospel because of their current crisis, but also to people who want to serve, many of whom are unchurched pre-Christians.

The result of his effort recently yielded five believers baptisms. This may not seem like a large number but it is more than most churches will do this year.

The American church is currently in decline despite having the largest number of seminary trained ministers and having more money than any other church in the world. It’s possible that there is something wrong with our training methods and missions strategies.

It’s time that our missionaries and church planters start working together to bring that New Testament pattern resulted in so many people coming to Christ.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Be Thankful

“Count your blessings, name them one by one,” advises the old hymn. This time of year we count blessings instead of calories. We gather with family and friends and fill ourselves from the cornucopia of our wealthy land. Some will attend worship services. Others worship at home, taking turns reciting things for which they are thankful.

The Thanksgiving holiday dates back to 1621 when the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with three days of prayer and feasting. Their first winter in Massachusetts was cruel and only half of the original colonists were still alive. These survivors gave thanks to God that they were alive and worshiping free from persecution as they celebrated the harvest and faced another winter.

In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving to celebrate a turning point in the American revolution. Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving Day a national holiday in 1863, as the Civil War was ravaging our country. An Army surgeon at Valley Forge said, “Mankind is never truly thankful for the benefits of life until they have experienced the want of them.”

We have celebrated Thanksgiving through good years and bad. During the Great Depression, FDR urged us to “ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness...”

The Psalm reminds us that, “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord,” (92:1). We should practice a thankful attitude daily. A heart that is grateful toward God is reflected in appreciation for what other people do for us. Expressions of gratitude towards others cost little but pays big in friendship, happiness and good will.

People want to be appreciated for what they do. A simple thank-you for a small deed is a common courtesy that seems to be lacking today. Showing appreciation to someone is like vitamins to a malnourished self-esteem. Most people prefer appreciation to material reward. They’ll go out of their way to please someone who does not take deeds for granted.

The opposite of thankfulness is self-pity. Instead of counting blessings we complain about slight misfortunes, petty difficulties, jealousies and envy. We poison our minds and sour the people around us. We forget to acknowledge God who gives us all good things (James 1:17).

It has been said that gratitude is a double edged sword. It blesses the one who gives as well as the one who receives. Build someone up today with an expression of gratitude instead of tearing them down with a complaint and watch them grow in appreciation of you. As Aesop said, “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I Wanna Be Like Christ

The American church has done a great job of calling people to follow Christ but have not done as well in helping them to mature. It’s possible that we have somehow given the impression that we can enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and have nothing more to do with him. Perhaps we think the gospel is limited to John 3:16 and not Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Jesus did, however, call for our obedience:

If you love me, you will obey what I command.
John 14:15
Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.
John 14:21
If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him,
and we will come to him and make our home with him.
John 14:23
If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love,
just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love.
John 15:10
You are my friends if you do what I command.
John 15:14

Becoming a Christian is more than fire insurance. It is becoming like Christ. But this is not happening. Polls by Barna Research and the casual observation show that there is little difference in the behavior of believers and non-believers. Even on such big issues as abortion, divorce and cheating on taxes!

Imagine the witness to the world if most Christians became more like Christ.

If you want to “Be Like Mike” (Michael Jordan), you do more than just buy his shoes and wear his number. You practice dribbling, passing, shooting and defense. You observe his moves and mimic them.

It’s the same if you want to be like Christ. Observe what Christ did and practice it: prayer, fasting, serving, and quoting the Scripture from memory.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is
—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:2

Friday, September 07, 2007

Missional Churches Demonstrate a Bias to Action

Coaches and business leaders have noticed that high achievers have a bias to action. They can't wait to get started and want to take action now.

People who have a record of successful achievement in sports, business or any other field display a can-do attitude. Their motto is, “Strike while the iron is hot!” While some people have a need to plan out all the details before acting, high achievers tend to jump into projects, making adjustments along the way.

This same attitude can transfer into ministry. When encountering a man born blind (John 9), Jesus’ disciples wanted to discuss the circumstances of the situation, Jesus demonstrated a bias to action by healing the man. Jesus taught to act whenever confronted by an opportunity, whether it is feeding a crowd or healing one person.

Peter also demonstrated this bias to action. When confronted by a crowd that gathered on the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached the gospel (Acts 2). When a lame beggar asked for money, Peter healed him (Acts 3).

A missional church should be able to take quick action when a ministry opportunity presents itself. If you need to wait for the next business or board meeting, the opportunity will disappear. If you are afraid about what a few of the more critical members will think, little will ever get done.

When church leaders see a ministry opportunity and ask, “What would Jesus Do?” instead of what will Mr. X think, things happen. In one church a family called and asked if the church had a nursery. Although the nursery had not been used for some time, the pastor said yes and made sure it was cleaned and staffed that Sunday. That was the beginning of a growing nursery ministry.

People in a missional church
- see a need and fill it
- anticipate a problem and head it off
- make adjustments to improve ministries
- are not afraid of failure

Friday, August 17, 2007

When great is the enemy of success

I was at a church planting conference recently where I was placed in a team of peers and given a task to perform. It was a practical exercise in teamwork and leadership. At one point, when we were struggling to move from planning to action, someone said, “Good is the enemy of great.” He was quoting the first sentence of Jim Collins' book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't. Many pastors, including me, have read this book.

Earlier that day we had been told that 80% of new church starts fail. With that fact in mind I had an epiphany, “Great is the enemy of success.”

Willow Creek and Saddleback stand as models for the “great” church. Many pastors and church starters want to get their churches to that level. In fact, megachurches and their pastors have much in common with great companies. However, megachurches are rare and pastors and church starters who are merely "good" become disappointed and give up.

Typically, a talented church planting team is placed in an area into which large numbers of young families are moving. In one particular case, it was expected that a new church start would attract close to 300 people on the launch date and double in three years, launching other church starts at that point. The church failed before the five-year mark even though they had $500,000 in outside funding, three full-time staff members (and their wives), and every modern gadget found in church today.

On the other hand, other new church starts in the same area survived the five-year mark. The difference (according to a study by the Center for Missional Research) might be expectations. Church starters who expect to be leading a large church within a certain amount of time tend to fail at a much higher rate than those who were committed to serve in a given location regardless of size or financing. Those who are satisfied with "good" succeed at a higher rate than those who expected "great."

Great is also the enemy of success when we over plan and fail to act. “Analysis Paralysis” is how one colleague liked to put it. Successful leaders have a bias toward action: “Ready, fire, aim.”

Some planning is needed but every question cannot be answered in advance. Plan what you want to do, and then take action. Be flexible enough to make adjustments as you go. Missional churches are able to take advantage of ministry opportunities as they arise and that requires a sense of urgency. Urgency that leads to action generates excitement in the congregation and the community and creates momentum.

“As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” John 9:4 (NIV)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Turnover seems to be the norm for growing churches

Pastors are often dismayed and troubled when families to whom they have faithfully ministered leave the church. Some move away for work-related reasons, some leave in a huff over an offense (real or imagined) and a few confess that they need something different than what the current church has to offer. There’s the practical loss of a worker and financial contributor and the emotional loss of a member of your spiritual family followed by the nagging fear that others will follow and the church is about to crumble.

I have noticed however that growing churches seem to have a high turnover of members. After a three year absence from one church I served, I noticed that the church had doubled in size but many of the faces I remembered were gone. When I returned a year later the church continued to grow but more old timers were gone.

On the other hand I have noticed that stagnant and declining churches have a more stable membership. Few people come and go.

Gary McIntosh (One Size Doesnt Fit All) identifies three signs that a church is stagnated.
1. 50% or more of the congregation has been in the church for more than 12 years
2. 33% or more of the governing board are related to main families
3. 10% or less of members have joined in the last year

Every time my current church has broken through a growth barrier we have lost some key families. At first I mourned but then I realized that they preferred the church to be smaller. I have learned to let them go with a blessing and help them find another small church they can help grow.

Some people join a church because of the vision of what it can become; most join because they like what they are presently experiencing. As the church grows some will leave because the church has changed and newcomers will join because they like what they are presently experiencing.

People who like things the way they were and decide to stick around will fight hard to maintain control and bring the church back to its lower numbers. Often these individuals will become disgruntled and complain about many things without realizing that the root of their problem is that they don't want the church to grow. If they persist newcomers will leave and the church will stagnate.

While I’m not sure of the ecclesiological soundness of it, I am sure that this is the current reality in the American church. It helps me to view the church as being greater than my own local church. I am grateful for those individuals who have served alongside me and are now serving elsewhere. I am open to working with them again.

I recommend Gary McIntosh’s, One Size Doesnt Fit All, as a conversation starter for churches that are stagnated and want to know why. It is a good book for leaders to read together. The book is short and easy to read, describing the common characteristics of churches of similar size and what it takes to get to the next level.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Finding Jesus in another church

A wise man once told me not to judge other denominations by its worst examples because they could do the same for my denomination. As a young believer, I tended to buy into the proposal that people in mainline denominations, Roman Catholics and other non-Baptists did not believe the Bible and were not real Christians. I was always surprised when I met a non-Baptist on a mission trip or conference and found they believed in both Jesus and the Bible.

On the other hand, I was always made to feel uncomfortable by Fundamentalists and Charismatics. The latter would tell me I was a second-class Christian, the former that I was unsaved. There were also Calvinists, Dispensationalists and others who felt they had discovered the truth and loved arguing about it.

I must confess that I, too, tended to be a one-dimensional Christian. Evangelism is what gets me going. There was a time when I had reduced evangelism to an event where I make a presentation and press for a decision. Once the deal was closed, I moved on. There was no follow-up.

As my faith developed, I learned that there was a little more to evangelism than a polished presentation and an emotional appeal. I also learned that there was more to Christianity than recruiting members to my club.

I learned to appreciate what other Christians were teaching me. My Charismatic friends taught me to worship with enthusiasm and that God still works miracles in our lives. My Mainline friends taught me to minister to the needs of the poor. My friends from the African-American tradition taught me to fight for the rights of the oppressed.

I have not left my Baptist/Evangelical roots behind during my pilgrimage. I still believe that the Bible is the highest authority for faith and practice. I was saddened by the death of Jerry Falwell, who taught me that Christians need to be engaged in the political process. I am still evangelistic with a strong commitment to global missions but I’ve grown beyond the narrow views of my underdeveloped faith.

I continue to learn and grow in Christ. I work to build the Kingdom in cooperation with other churches. I read the Bible with the expectation that God teach me something new. I am open to both ancient traditions and contemporary adaptations in an effort to have a fuller understanding of God.

In today’s post-denominational environment I encounter a growing number of Christians who are setting aside traditions and denominational power trips to impact the world in Jesus’ name. I pray that the number continues to grow and that, one day, they will look back to our time and say the was the Third “Great Awakening.”

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Transforming Communities

I recently visited a mission site near Helena, Arkansas, in one of the poorest communities of the US. This area was selected for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Together for Hope effort to reach out to the areas where the need is the greatest.

Using a combination of government, local and CBF resources, CBF missionaries Ben & Leonora Newell have developed programs to improve the life of the children in the community.

One major effort was renovating the community center gym, which was gutted by a fire. The reconstruction cost was more than the community could afford. The Newell’s secured a $70,000.00 grant and completely restored the facility using church mission teams.

Using the gym as a base of operations the Newell’s have after school programs and other activities that are staffed by volunteers from churches in the community. A summer-long recreation program is staffed by visiting mission teams from churches across America. Other ministries include a mobile library (donated by an Alabama church) and community gardens.

Their current big project is the construction of New Light Missionary Baptist in the heart of this impoverished community. Mission teams from CBF churches around the country are participating in this effort to build this beacon of hope in the midst of faith-numbing poverty.
Helena, Arkansas, stands as an example of what can be accomplished if we “attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.” The Newell’s ministry started small. They got the local churches organized, worked with local government agencies, and asked for help from other churches and community agencies.

This type of community transformation can be accomplished in any area. First, look for needs. Take a field trip though your neighborhood, paying particular attention to the poorer sections. Ask the local school principals. Meet with community based organizations. Interview the people in your church.

Second, as you are looking for needs, take note of human and material resources God is making available. There might be buildings or rooms you can use, abandoned fields for community gardens, people interested in working, etc.

Third, decide what you want to do first. There are more needs than resources, so go for the low hanging fruit first. By picking an easy task where there is agreement as to the need and sufficient resources, you will gain credibility for the next task. All big ministries start small.

Fourth, develop partnerships with churches, community based organizations, local government agencies, businesses and others who want to work together to creates a better future for your community.

Finally, remember that the greatest need in your community is Jesus. Meeting physical and emotional needs are important. It was a big part of Jesus ministry. We cannot neglect the spiritual needs of the people we serve.

Feed someone a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach someone to fish and you feed him for life. Lead someone to Jesus and they will never thirst again.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

God responds when his people pray.

The book of Judges describes a repeating cycle where Israel becomes disobedient to God resulting in terrible consequences for their nation. When they realized the consequences of their sin, they cried out to God for salvation. God would raise up a champion who delivers God’s justice to Israel’s oppressors and brought revival to the nation. This cycle is repeated seven times in Judges.

This lesson can be applied to our own spiritual lives. The Bible teaches that “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9 KJV)

Can we wear out God’s patience? When Peter asked if we should forgive a person who has wronged us seven times (Peter believed he was being generous), Jesus said that the number was seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22).

This lesson is also seen repeated in history. By the 1500’s the church is being led by corrupt leaders. Worship is dead and the people are superstitious and fearful. Martin Luther and other preachers lead a great revival of Bible teaching. The Bible was put in the hands of the people and the church was reformed.

In England, John Wesley preaches in the streets and starts small groups in response to the Anglican Church’s lack of concern for the soul’s of the poor in England. Revival spreads across England and prevents a bloody revolution like the one in France.

In 18th Century America, it was said that worship waned and immorality flourished. Thomas Jefferson and other influential thinkers believed that rationalism left no room for orthodox Christianity. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall stated, "The church is too far gone ever to be redeemed." In 1794 churches set aside the first Monday of every month to pray for revival. By 1803, the Methodist church grew from 2700 to 12,000 and 10,000 people joined the Baptist Church. The American Bible Society and the American Sunday School Union were organized in the decade to follow.

God has also raised up champions such as John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English in the 1300’s, William Wilberforce, who labored to abolish slavery in England, and William Carey, who started the modern missionary movement. He continues to raise champions in our time. There is Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the civil rights movement, and Mother Teresa, who ministered to dying outcasts in India.

Disobedience is the natural tendency of humanity and results in defeat and judgment by God, however, God is patient and faithful His people and responds when we call upon Him in repentance.

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14 KJV)

Friday, March 16, 2007

No Soldier’s life is wasted.

It is painful for a soldier or the families of any person in military service to hear that a life lost in service to our country was wasted. People enter military service for many reasons including patriotism, economics and adventure but, once that uniform is put on, you serve for personal honor, your comrades and the long line of those who have served with honor in the past.

Senator Barack Obama said in a speech in Iowa last month, "We now have spent $400 billion and have seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted."

He later apologized. Perhaps he can be excused for his lapse. He has never served in the military and cannot know what goes through the minds of our young service members. He does not know the fear, loneliness and deprivation that are part of the sacrifice we are often called upon to endure. He does not understand the level of fortitude shown by a soldier who enters a room first or goes to investigate a suspicious bag lying by the road.

Senator John McCain, a veteran of Viet Nam who was a POW for over five years, has a long family history of military service, and has two sons who are currently serving, said pretty much the same thing on David Letterman.

"We've wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives,” said McCain.

What was he thinking? Were his years in a POW camp wasted? Did he forget the way the military was scorned back then? Has he forgotten how the courage he displayed is an inspiration to others who face the possibility of capture?

In all branches of the military and in our veteran’s groups we honor our dead long after their families are gone and their names have been forgotten. I have been in military service since 1976. I have seen the tide of public opinion rise and fall. I do what I do because it is a part of me. I believe it is the same for most in the military. People speak of fighting for freedom, for causes, for whatever… In the end we fight for each other. In the end each other is all we have.

Early in my career my squadron lost three Marines in three separate training accidents. These were not war losses. These deaths were not wasted and were no less honorable than a combat casualty. Everyone in uniform understands that we are in a dangerous profession that may have cost us our life.

I am in the National Guard now and have already deployed once. I am ready to go again if called upon. I don’t make these decisions. I swore an oath and I live by it. I will go where I am sent and fight at home if it comes to that. I don’t crave parades or special honors but they are touching when I experience them. It’s what I do and will probably do for a few more years.

You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!
From “Tommy” - Rudyard Kipling

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to love, And a time to hate;

A time of war, And a time of peace. Ecclesiastes 3:1,8 (New King James Version)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Joshua is conned by the Gibeonites (Joshua 9)

Gibeon was one of the Canaanite cities that God commanded to be destroyed. They feared Israel and devised a plan to ensure their survival. They knew that Israel was allowed to make treaties with cities outside of the Promised Land.

The Gibeonites put together a group of men and disguised them to look like ambassadors from a distant city. They were equipped with worn clothing and shoes and carried moldy bread and cracked wine skins to give the impression that they had been on a long journey from a far-off land. Joshua and the nation of Israel were tricked into a treaty that was in violation of God’s commands.

Joshua and the leaders of Israel did not sin deliberately. They carefully inspected the evidence presented by the Gibeonites and found it to support the story. The Bible tells us that their failure was in neglecting to consult God before making a decision.

When Joshua discovered that he had been deceived, he declared that the Gibeonites would be tasked to chop wood and carry water in support of the Tabernacle worship. The Gibeonites never gave Israel any trouble and came to be called the Nethinim (given ones) and labored as servants in the temple (1 Chron. 9:2; Ezra 2:43, 58; Neh. 3:26).

When the other five Canaanite cities in the region heard of Gibeon’s plan to allay with Israel, they gathered to destroy Gibeon. The five armies, now out in the open, were easy prey to Israel.

We can learn some important lessons from this story. First, Satan sometimes comes as a devouring lion (1 Peter 5:8) and sometimes as a deceiving serpent (2 Cor. 11:3). Our senses can be deceived so we must seek God as we make decisions.

Second, we should make the best of our circumstances. The Gibeonites served the Tabernacle and, later the Temple until the Babylonian captivity.

Third, God can use our mistakes to fulfill his plans. They five kings that gathered to destroy Gibeon were marked by God for destruction. Their gathering in one place, out in the open made it easier for Israel to defeat them.

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28 (NKJV)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The fight to end slavery continues

Amazing Grace has been recorded over 3200 times; more than any other song. It was written by John Newton, a slave trader who sold over 20,000 slaves into captivity until a near-death experience at sea prompted him to leave the slave trade and dedicate his life to Christ. The lyrics of Amazing Grace tell of the remarkable transformation God created in his life. Newton said of himself, "Only God's amazing grace could and would take a rude, profane, slave-trading sailor and transform him into a child of God."

John Newton was a mentor to William Wilberforce and encouraged him in his fight to abolish slavery. Elected to parliament at the age of 21, Wilberforce led a life-long fight to end slavery. Although continually defeated over 20 years, a law to end slavery in England was passed in 1807, the year that John Newton died.

Wilberforce continued to fight for the abolition of slavery in all British colonies for 26 more years. The law was finally passed three days before his death.

Two hundred years after the British Parliament abolished slavery and 144 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are still 27 million people living in slavery; more than at any other time in history.

* 27 Million: Number of people in modern-day slavery across the world
* 800,000: Number of persons trafficked across international borders each year
* 17,500: Number of foreign nationals who are trafficked into the U.S. every year
* 91: Number of cities in the United States with reported cases of trafficking
* 50: Percent of all victims are children
* 20 Million: Number of bonded laborers in the world
* 218 Million: Estimated number of children working aged between five and seventeen
* 126 Million: Estimated number of children who work in the worst forms of child labor - one in every twelve of the world's five to seventeen year olds.
* 300,000: Estimated number of child soldiers involved in over 30 areas of conflict worldwide, some younger than 10 years old.


    ***MAY 2014 UPDATE***

  • 25% of international human trafficking victims are in Texas.
  • Interstate 10 is the #1 human trafficking corridor in America.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

GOT GRACE?

When Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous serial killer, turned his heart to Jesus and was baptized, many people were skeptical; some Christians were outraged. Is it just that a man so vile can gain entry into heaven so easily? It is if you believe in salvation by grace. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast (Eph 2:8-9 NIV).”

To say that one sinner is more worthy of hell than another is to argue that some people are more worthy of heaven; and that our worthiness (or righteousness) comes from something that we did or did not do (works!). Salvation is the gift of God. We cannot boast about it nor can we argue the injustice of another’s salvation.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells of a young man who squandered his inheritance on the fast life. He was immature and wanted nothing more than to indulge his lusts, no matter how expensive. He shamed himself, humiliated his family and embarrassed his community. After having lost everything, he decided to return home. There was no “I told you so” lecture. There were no tests of loyalty. His father welcomed him with open arms and celebrated his return. All his rights as a son were restored. John 1:12 tells us that, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (NIV).”

The elder brother felt this was unfair and was livid. He had been faithful and loyal and believed himself to be deserving of the attention that his brother was attracting. Unfortunately, this is the mind-set of some Christians when one our own falls into sin and returns to the church. They don’t rejoice with the angels. They react as if they had been cheated. They want to put a limit to God’s love and grace.

Consider the woman caught committing adultery in John 8 who was going to be stoned to death. Jesus did not disagree with the woman’s guilt or her death sentence. Jesus confronted the mob with their own sin and need for grace. When the crowd left, Jesus told her to go and sin no more. The woman did not ask for forgiveness and there is no evidence of her repenting or coming to faith in Christ. We don’t even know if she said thank-you. Jesus showed that woman grace, even though she did not deserve it. That is an example of how we are to treat the lost. “…While we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 NIV)”

Lost people matter to God and they ought to matter to us. “The Lord…is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9 NIV).” Church ought to be a place where the lost can encounter God’s grace and where Christian’s who have lost their way can come back home.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Why do so many newcomers leave the church?

Why do we keep losing so many of our new people? This question is often asked by churches that have difficulty assimilating newcomers. Even if they have a lot of visitors every Sunday, some churches see a steady march out the back door.

It could be that newcomers and churches have conflicting priorities. People stay in churches where they can make friends but too many churches want newcomers to believe and behave a certain way before they can be friends. In other words the process is BELIEVE, BEHAVE and, then BELONG.

This was not Jesus’ pattern. He called Matthew, a despised tax collector, to be part of his crowd and even socialized with his rowdy friends (Mark 2:13-15). It was later that Matthew became on of the 12 apostles (Mark 3:14). It was after he befriended a Samaritan woman with a tarnished reputation that she became a believer (John 4).

Newcomers come to church seeking community. Most will place a higher priority on the character of the people in a church than on the church’s doctrinal distinctives. Once the newcomers feel welcome and accepted, they will be open to learning and, in time, their lives will be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and the combined witness of the community.

In other words BELONG, BELIEVE and BEHAVE is the biblical pattern for a church that wants to impact its neighborhood by transforming the unchurched into fully devoted followers of Christ.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Conquering Spiritual Mountains

If your spiritual life seems like an uphill climb then let Caleb serve as a model for your ascent.

When Caleb was 85 years old he made this declaration to Joshua:

10“Now then, just as the LORD promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the desert. So here I am today, eighty-five years old! 11I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. 12Now give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the LORD helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.” (Joshua 14:10-12)

Caleb was confident that God could deliver on his promise. He was a witness when God parted the Red Sea and saw how God provided for his needs in the desert. He witnessed the collapse of walls of Jericho and the many victories that followed.

Caleb’s faith was consistent. We learn in Numbers that when 10 of the spies that were sent into Canaan voted to stay out of the Promised Land out of fear, Caleb stood with Joshua and gave the minority opinion. They boldly declared that God was greater than the armies and fortified cities. They were right.

Forty-five years later Caleb chooses the difficult hill country inhabited by giants.

Like Caleb we should choose the difficult challenges to increase our faith. How many mature and dedicated teachers choose to teach Sunday school in a clean suburban church rather than help start a new church? How many struggling churches do they drive past on Sunday morning? How many seminary students crowd into mega churches rather than go where they are needed? How many seminary graduates are without a church because they won’t start a new church or preach for free at one whose doors may soon close?

Be like Caleb. Choose the hill country. God will lead the way and conquer your enemies and increase your faith.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

God uses unlikely people to do his work.

The first lesson is that loyalty to God takes priority over loyalty to earthly governments. When Rahab hid the spies, she sided with Israel against her own people (Joshua2:2-7). It was an act of treason! There is no easy way to put it. Her king ordered that these men be turned over but she chose to deceive the authorities knowing that these men would destroy her city.

We can learn three important lessons from Rahab, the prostitute introduced in Joshua chapter 2. The Hebrew word translated prostitute could also mean an innkeeper but the New Testament makes it clear that Rahab was a prostitute. The Greek word is not as ambiguous. (James 2:25 and Hebrews 11:31)

Another example of this lesson is the refusal of the Hebrew midwives to kill the male newborns as commander by the Pharaoh when they were slaves in Egypt. “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)

A New Testament example is when Peter and John continued to preach the gospel in disobedience to local authority: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (Acts 4:19)

A second lesson we learn is that the revelation of God in history was not confined to Israel. Canaanites heard the news and reacted in fear. Some, like Rahab, became believers. Rahab’s faith was based on the knowledge of the Lord’s mighty acts (Joshua 2:9-10). On that basis she decided that He alone is God (v. 11), and she acted on that decision to seek refuge in Him (vv. 12, 13).

The third lesson is that a person does not need to know every aspect of Bible truth before he or she can be saved. Both Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 indicate that Rahab had put her faith in Jehovah God before the spies ever arrived in Jericho. Rahab’s knowledge of the true God was meager, but she acted on what she knew; and the Lord saved her.

She is an example of the grace of God at work. Her salvation is not based on her character or merits. She was a prostitute, a traitor and a liar but Rahab showed more faith in the Lord than the ten spies had demonstrated forty years earlier. She said, “I know that the Lord has given you the land” (Joshua 2:9). Her faith was based on facts, not just feelings; for she had heard of the miracles God had performed, including the parting of the Red Sea at the Exodus.

Only two women are named in Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith”: Sarah, the wife of Abraham (v. 11), and Rahab (v. 31). In contrast to Sarah who was Abraham’s wife and used by God to found the Hebrew race, Rahab was a non-Jewish worshiper of pagan idols who sold her body for money.

God in His grace uses people we would probably not choose. “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Cor. 1:27-29).

Matthew named Rahab as Boaz’ mother (1:5) in his genealogy of Christ. Rahab married into one of the important families of Israel and was the mother of Boaz who married Ruth and was the ancestor of both King David and Jesus.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Lack of faith results in a 40 year penalty for Israel

The first lesson I learned from studying the book of Joshua is that the people of Israel were entering a land that God had already won for them. All they needed to do was possess it.

Looking back to Numbers 13-14 we learn that Moses sent spies into the Promised Land. Ten of the spies reported that the land could not be taken. It was inhabited by hostile tribes in fortified cities. Two other spies, Joshua and Caleb, declared that, although there would be a fight, the God who had delivered them from Egypt would defeat their enemies.

The people were afraid and lacked faith and went the majority report. The result was that they wandered the desert for 40 years. That entire generation, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, died without entering the Promised Land. They could have entered the Promised Land anytime but their fear and unfaithfulness robbed them of the victory that God had already won.

There is a lesson here for us. How often have we seen people reluctant to accept the gift of salvation that God has given to us through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ? How many Christians struggle with sin when God has given us the victory?

The Promised Land is a picture of the Spirit-filled life. Although the Spirit-filled life is available to every Christian, it still needs to be possessed just like the Promised Land. Possession of it is the result of an obedient walk.

6“Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. 7Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:6 - 9 (NIV)