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Being a Welcoming Church

Monday, November 02, 2020

I’ve been going back and forth for quite some time now about how I wanted to address this subject. This has been on my mind since this series was first conceived around this time last year. I want us to think about the need to be a welcoming church. This is actually the other side of the coin of what we talked about yesterday. If yesterday we considered the idea that we need to be will to go out and see, minister to, and evangelize to people that are different than us, today we want to consider that those same people might venture into our assemblies. What will they find when they visit? What will be their impression and experience? We’ve gone out to welcome them. Will they feel welcome when they come in?

Every day you pass by the building on your way to work. You don’t know anything about this group, but you decide to visit this Sunday for whatever reason. As you walk somewhat timidly through the doors, you expect to be welcomed by the people standing around in the lobby. But they are all talking to each other. No one seems to notice you. “Strange…”, you think to yourself, “maybe things will get better.” Just then, a man wearing a lapel mic rushes straight past you like a chicken with his head cut off. “Is that the minister?” you wonder, “not even he noticed me.” At this point, you seriously consider turning around, walking right back out the doors, getting in your car, and going home. The sign says the church of Christ, but so far, neither Christ nor church seem like proper descriptions of this place. Still, you decide to give it one last chance. Shuffling down the aisle, you look around for a place to sit. As you do, you pass several pews that are empty of people but full of stuff. The pews don’t have names stamped on them, but it is clear enough that people have their own seats here. Your anxiety is now heightened by the possibility that you might sit in the wrong spot or take somebody else’s place. Finally, you find a place at the end of one of the rows and settle in. Still unnoticed. During the Bible class, you hear several comments about why your particular group is wrong. One man self-assuredly retorts, “I just don’t know how anyone could honestly see it that way. You’ve either got to be woefully ignorant or purposefully dishonest to come to any other conclusion.” Ouch, shots fired. You’ve read that text several times and never come to the conclusion that this man feels is so obvious. Others are not quite as brash, but they are using language hardly comprehensible. It’s in English. But the combination of words and phrases is quite strange. Somehow they all seem to know what each one is saying, “do they have some sort of insider code?” you think, “I think I might need a translator.” Having seen and heard enough, you scurry out after the class bell, still unnoticed and unwelcomed.

We could’ve said much more, but I think you get the point. Sadly, this story is far from fiction and is played out in churches worldwide every Sunday. Perhaps that has been your own experience when you have visited somewhere else. We cannot allow that experience to be played out here.

I want us to focus on three principles from three texts that will help us be a welcoming church. I think we do a great job in many areas and that there are other areas in which we (and by this I definitely mean me) can and should improve.

In 1 Cor. 14. Paul is dealing with conducting worship in such a way that is conducive to the goal of building up. In the midst of that discussion, Paul discusses the place of speaking in tongues. Tongues served a purpose to converse with those who spoke a different language. But if you were speaking in a language that no one understood, your tongue speaking had little value for the assembly. This is especially true of the outsider that came in. If they heard everyone speaking in a language she or he didn’t know, she or he a) wouldn’t understand, and b) would think that everyone was crazy (1 Cor. 14:1-25). While we don’t have miraculously inspired tongue-speaking in our assemblies, we can still engage in the sort of activity that violates this principle when we use insider language and “church speak” that we have all grown accustomed to. We think we are speaking plainly, but for many who visit, they can be left scratching their heads, confused rather than edified by our language. If our ultimate goal is that they leave praising God (1 Cor. 14:24-25), then all of us, and preachers are especially bad at this, need to consider the language we are using.

Colossians 4:5-6 is another text that urges us to consider our interactions with outsiders. If our goal is that outsiders become insiders, taking care to season our speech with grace must be a top priority. Even if we do not intend to be malicious or hurtful, our words can often come across that way. This is especially the case in Bible classes. Bible classes are not the place to call out group x, question the intelligence of person b, even if (and this is possibly a big “if”) we are doing so without a shred of judgment or sense of superiority on our part.

Finally, let us place ourselves in the visitor's shoes by applying the golden rule (Matthew 7:12). Would I want to feel neglected? Overlooked? Rejected? Have my honesty, integrity, or intelligence unfairly questioned? Would I want to struggle to find a place to sit or have to worry if I was taking someone’s seat? Or would I want to feel appreciated, welcomed, and seen?

I have been especially thankful to those of you who have practiced these principles and have lovingly and graciously pointed out to me when I have failed to do so.

Beastly Images

Monday, September 14, 2020

The deep red petals of the rose bush arrest our attention. Birds chirp cheerily as they float upon the gentle breeze. Lush, green trees tower in the foreground. Behind them,  smooth waters glide over the edge of the rocks cascading down to the pool beneath, where a young doe drinks from its refreshing bath. In the distance, we begin to make out a vague image, pointed like the bright green trees, but punctuated with sides of ivory and peaks burgundy. If it is a tree, it is of a much different sort. Our vision sharpens, as our perspective zooms in past the rose bush, the towering trees, and the refreshing pond, and the edifice comes clearly into view looming large over the towering trees. Before us is a grand palace, with many towers, courtyards, and stained glass windows.

Now peering inside the palatial hall of the grand castle a pianist plays music that is at the same time elegant and exhilarating. Dozens of women dressed in pearl dance in handsome harmony, while men in bespoke jackets parley in the background. Before the mass of beautifully figured and adorned patrons sits the young, magnificent prince on a majestic throne delighting himself in the lavish scene. Rising to float and to flit among his guests, the prince immerses himself in the crowd. Dancing, gliding, twirling amidst the revelry and splendor that gilds the room, the prince finds himself without want or concern. He is satisfied, he is full.

But then suddenly the light from the massive icicle chandeliers grows hazy, the chattering voices hush, the twirling women halt. The ornate French doors to the balcony burst open and in hobbles an old hunchback woman dressed in black. Seeking shelter from the storm outside, she stumbles slowly over to the prince. Falling before him she lifts up a single red rose, picked from the bush we saw at the fore. She pleads for mercy and for grace but is met with a face of disgust and disdain. The prince spoiled, selfish, and unkind laughs in derision at the poor woman, and all his guests along with him. The woman warns him, not to be deceived by appearances, and reminds him that inner beauty matters just as much if not more than outer ornamentation but he continued to jeer dismissively. Suddenly, the woman’s true identity is revealed, the haggard old woman becomes a beautiful enchantress. She curses the prince for his beast-like cruelty and the castle along with it. The clamoring multitudes gave way to an eerie emptiness, the elegant music to daunting silence. The gentle breeze turns to a howling gale, the refreshing drink to a lifeless pit. The lush green trees become jagged grey pillars, and the dense rose bush a mass of thistles. Alone in his abandoned place, crouches the prince, no longer regal in his look or his manner. Instead, he has become a gnarled and nasty beast, naked, ghastly, and grisly.

Ok, so I’m not winning any awards for creative writing here. This is just a clumsily worded, adjective laden description of the opening scene of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I believe this story gives us a helpful mental image of what happens to and within us when we reject God’s standard of goodness and seek to follow our own selfish pursuits. We become lonely, broken beasts, with broken relationships, in broken homes, living broken lives. We pursue hastily a promise that we will attain something more when in reality we become something much less. The man who forfeits his family in order to find financial gain, the woman who panders in pursuit of her pride by tearing others down in gossip, and the teenagers who drool lustily after each other all become beasts. The reality of sin, despite the devil’s lie of freedom and power, is that it makes us less like God and more like beasts, given instinctively to our own passions.

This is the reality God was trying to get across to Nebuchadnezzar when He turned him into a beast of the field (Dan. 4:19-33) and it is the reality the Christians in first-century Asia Minor needed to understand about the culture around them lest they grow too comfortable in their current surroundings (Rev. 13:1-18). Let us ask ourselves today, “what are my beast-like qualities? What pursuits or passions do I possess that mar the image of glory and splendor that God has made me to be?" Recognizing this nature within us is the first step in expelling it from us. Only when we recognize our own brokenness, our own beastliness can we turn ourselves over to God to reshape, reform, and recreate us into the image of His Son and our Creator (Col. 3:5-10; Eph. 4:17-24; Rom. 6:1-14).

Living As Elect Exiles - Despising the Shame

Monday, August 24, 2020

Despising the Shame

Sunday morning we continued our God's Great Book series by overviewing 1 Peter. Peter addresses his audience as "elect exiles" (1 Pet. 1:1) which speaks to their social disjunction as much as their spatial dislocation. They were a group of people who, because of their decision to follow Christ, found themselves as strangers and aliens in this world, on the outside looking in in their former communities. Thus Peter wrote primarily to strengthen his reader's resolve to live right-side-up in an upside-down world. For our part, we pulled out five exhortations to help us live out our identity as elect exiles. We must 1) Live into in order to live out our new identity 2) Seek sanctuary among the sanctified 3) Decide to suffer honorably 4) Entrust ourselves to the just judge and faithful Creator 5) Anxiously anticipate the apocalypse of glory. I'd like to add a 6th exhortation to help us navigate our walk in this life. We must, "despise the shame." This idea comes from Jesus' own example of dealing with the shaming of the world. Hebrews 12:1-2 says, 

“…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” 

In despising the shame which Jesus experienced in the forms of slander, arrest, beating, spitting, and ultimatley crucifixion, etc. Jesus did not treasure it up or hold it near to his heart. He was able to reject it and let it go entirely. 

In 1 Peter, Peter encourages the believers to do four things that will help them “despise the shame” of the world:

1) Reinterpret Shame in a Positive Light: The shaming of the believer by the non-believer while unideal, is not all bad. In fact, we actually have reason to rejoice because we know that enduring suffering and shame will strengthen our faith and glorify God. In this way, the shame we receive becomes an opportunity for refinement rather than an obstacle to reject – 1 Peter 1.6-7; 2.12; 4.13

2) Recognize Your True Honor: Though the world may shame you for being a Christian, you are honored by God. His is the most important court of opinion. Consider the honor God bestows upon His people. When the world calls us strange, bigoted, prudish, peculiar, weirdos, God calls us elect/chosen, living stones, a spiritual house, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, and the rightful objects of His mercy. When the world says you have little to no value, God reminds us of the great lengths He has gone to bless us and the price of Christ's perfect and precious blood that He paid to redeem us. – 1 Peter 1.1-2; 3-5; 18-19; 23; 2.5; 7; 9-10; 4.14

3) Remember that You’re Not Alone: The shame and suffering that we face as believers should not be surprising to us since Christ also suffered. In this, we are partakers with Him. We find solidarity with Christ and with one another. Knowing that we are not alone in our plight can be greatly comforting. Let us commiserate together, weeping with thus who weep and in so doing we will find abundant reasons for rejoicing.  – 1 Peter 4.12; 1.11; 2.21; 3.17-18; 4.1; 13; 5.9

4) Realize That God Cares: Conventional wisdom proposes that if God allows you to suffer, He does not esteem you. Peter encourages just the opposite. Peter suggests that God sees us, God hears us, He knows what we are going through and He cares deeply about our struggles. Instead of wondering, "why has God left me here to suffer?" let us ask, "how is God using this trial to bring me into deeper dependence and closer relationship with Him?"  – 1 Peter 3.12; 5.7

Attribution Disclaimer: This material is adapted from a thematic outline I made of 1 Peter about 5  years ago which itself informed by the work of David deSilva. For a great look at the cultural matrix behind the New Testament see deSilva's "Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture."  

Refresh to Reset

Monday, August 17, 2020

Yesterday we discussed 4 things that will help us in times where we feel the need to press the reset button on life. We restrict ourselves from the things that are less important than our immediate issue, focus on the thing that matters, and look to the one who is able to reset our circumstance. We release our fears, our worries, our doubts, in prayer to God and in so doing we reset our perspectives. Having restricted our bodies we refill our souls with the vivifying, animating, restoring Word if God. We are reminded of His work in resetting circumstances throughout the course of history, and these words breathe new life into us. Finally, if the reason for our need to reset is the enemy we see when we look in the mirror, we must repent. We cry out to God for restoration and renewal. We depend on Him to reset us from the inside out. We come to Him with broken and contrite hearts ready to reset the course of our thoughts and desires and thus to reset the course of our lives. Then we repeat.

I’d like to suggest a 5th tool that will help us to reset. It is the word refresh. Paul uses this term often to talk about the ability the community of believers and individual brothers and sisters in Christ have to revive the soul. Opening ourselves up to this rejuvenating force is one more way we depend on God’s work of resetting our lives (1 Cor. 16:18, 2 Cor. 7:13; 2 Tim. 1:16; Rom. 15:32; Phm 7, 20).

In fact, this concept was the genesis of this sermon’s development. I was in need of a reset when a friend and dear sister texted me to ask how I was doing and encourage me. This was a catalyst that further stimulated me to reset. I am thankful for you, my brothers and sisters, and your ability to refresh me and strive to do the same for you.

Let us always consider how we might stir one another up to love and good works, how we can be a rejuvenating, reinvigorating, refreshing presence in each other’s lives. To the Hebrew writer's application (Heb. 10:24-25), we can’t do that if we are never present. We must take every opportunity to encourage each other, especially at a time such as this where we are socially distanced. Let us interact, engage, and encourage. Let us call upon each other, visit from front porches, have coffee over zoom, send each other texts, notes, letters, etc. Let us continue to be creative and intentional as we participate in God’s work of resetting in this way. Let us use the resources we have in the circumstance we find ourselves in to refresh one another. Are you in need of reset today? Let us refresh you on your way.

More about M.O.R.E. Conversations

Monday, July 06, 2020

The woman left her water jar behind (John 4:28). The very reason she had come to the well in the first place was now relatively inconsequential. She had encountered the one who provides the water of life. Drinking water, at this moment, as important it was to her physical sustenance, was incomparable to the living water she had just tasted. This is what can happen when we intentionally initiate more conversations about M.O.R.E.

As we discussed yesterday, Jesus provides the answers to everything pertaining to this life that is of any consequence. The Gospel goes beyond giving us good news about what happens to us when we die, it provides good news for where we are in the here and now in our everyday circumstances. The problems brought about by money, our occupations, our relationships, or education (the list most certainly goes on) finds either an answer in the gospel or at the very least gospel offers a new perspective on it and thus a new way of relating to it.

In this way, virtually anything can be organically turned into a gospel conversation. Any need or problem provides a segue not only to talk about how Jesus fulfills our greatest need but how He also provides an answer to our other needs as well. This is good news for us as people called to talk to others about Jesus! If we are looking for an opening for the Gospel all we have to do is talk to somebody long enough for them to open up to us about their lives. Listen long enough (usually it is not very long at all) and they will begin to tell you about their problems and struggles. Here are a few quick tips as we strive to have M.OR.E conversations:

  1. Be a patient listener. Really listen. As tempting as it may be don’t just jump in with the answer immediately before you have allowed the person to air out whatever it is that’s they’re dealing with. What people often want is to feel heard and to be sympathized with. In short, they want somebody who cares. Husbands, we know this lesson all too well. We immediately want to jump in and fix the problem even before our wives have finished speaking. This impulse can be especially difficult to rein in when we’ve got the Gospel as the answer, but we must be patient. We will have time to speak but we must first be quick to hear.
  2. Don’t bail when they don’t show immediate interest in talking about Jesus. Remember, while our mission concerns speaking the truth, it is speaking the truth in love that is our motivation. We speak light and life into people’s situations because we actually care about them and where they are as a person. This ought to be true whether they obey the Gospel or not. But if we retreat or abandon ship the moment they show any hesitancy in talking about Jesus, what we communicate to them is that we never really cared about them in the first place. Perhaps they were just a number to us. A box to check. Or a token to ban. Besides, we never know what God can do with the seed that we helped plant at a later point in time. We probably have a pretty good picture, however, of what Satan can do with someone who comes off less than sincere.
  3. Don’t try to manipulatively manufacture a conversation about Jesus. It comes across as conniving and awkward. For instance, say you are sitting around watching the football game with some friends and coworkers and your team gets a pick 6 (the other team’s quarterback throws an interception and your defense takes it back for a touchdown). As everyone is cheering you blithely say, “You know, Jesus picked 6 disciples, and then He picked 6 more and these 12 went about preaching a message of repentance and if you don’t follow Jesus you are going to hell.” Talk about a non-sequitur. So this example is absurd, but I’ve heard and more often seen (usually on social media) efforts at steering a conversation toward Jesus that are nearly just as bad. We must allow the conversation to happen organically. If we force something into the conversation we will likely be brushed off with weird looks. The weird looks themselves are not the issue, those are bound to come just because of who we are, but we do need to be concerned that we are presenting the message in the best possible light. We must take care not only what we say but how we say it and a large part of the how is the when (Col. 4:5-6).

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