Yesterday I posted three observations about the Magi’s visit to the Christ child that reminded me of Jesus’ mission and subsequently our mission on Earth. But there’s a fourth reality in the story. This is the part we seldom discuss. It’s a good news/bad news reality. Because the gospel is good news, I’ll begin with the bad.
Darkness will always work to oppose light (Matthew 2:16-18).
In an unanticipated turn of events, Herod becomes enraged that he has been deceived, resulting in his murder of all male children under the age of two in the region in order to eliminate the potential threat of a rival king. It was an evil act of brutality. He didn’t want light, so he sought to extinguish it.
Here’s the bad news. The “spirit of Herod” will always be at work in our world to oppose light. It’s a unilateral reality that dates back to the beginning of time.
From Cain and Abel, to Daniel in the Lion’s Den, to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, to Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other, to The Apostles in the book of Acts, to the year 2016.
Anytime a person or a congregation begins to have Great Commission conversations, Satan will take notice and flex his muscles. Anytime we have a renewed commitment to reaching our community and serving our world, all hell, literally, will break loose. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we can be affirmed that we are being guided on the right path! I believe Satan could care less about much of what goes on in today’s American Church. But when the Church begins to discuss mission and vision and start having Great Commission conversations, that church can plan on a counter attack. His attacks are a sign that we are pursuing worthy goals.
So what are we to do with this fourth reality? We can shrink from it, opting for quiet co-existence in the world, or we can work in the midst of satanic oppression and shine the light by centering people on Christ.
Who are you lighting the way to life and centering on Christ in 2016?
Who do you know living in darkness that needs help finding the way to life?
“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:14-16, NLT).
The church I serve just finished up an extensive vision process with Auxano last year. Part of the project involved the painstaking task of developing a new mission statement. After hours of meetings spanning two months we settled on “lighting the way to life by centering people on Christ.” There’s a lot of backstory as to why we settled on the imagery of light and centering which is related to our particular context. But one can’t deny the metaphor of light as a key element of any church’s mission.
Today is Epiphany, when Christians around the world celebrate the visitation of the Christ child by the Magi. That story is familiar, and I must confess that I never thought of the story in the framework of mission until this past week.
Here are three of the observations from the story that I related to our congregation this past week.
First, the purpose of the star (the light) was to reveal God (Matthew 2:1-2). Light is an important image in the Bible. It was the first thing God created in the creation story. It’s important to us, too! When you walk into a room, chances are the first thing you do is turn on a light. We also use it metaphorically, as in “let me shed some light on the subject.” Light is important because it reveals. It clarifies. In the Bible, light reveals God. It provides guidance so we can see God. Light guides our steps to Him.
God did not hide himself at advent. Angels announced his arrival to shepherds, and a star guided the magi from the east to see him as well. The light of the star was for everyone. Pagan kings and ceremonially unclean shepherds alike were welcome to Christ. Light is also important because it reveals something about us. It is to those of us walking in darkness that we discover God through his light.
Second, the star revealed God so the Wise Men could worship Him (Matthew 2:1-2, 9). Light reveals God so we too, may worship Jesus. Everyone is a worshiper. Christ alone is the valid object of our worship. Every lesser object of worship is an idol. In the Bible those idols are clearly identified. Strange gods such as Ba’al, Asherah and Molech existed in the Old Testament. The New Testament is filled with gods from the Greek pantheon. Our idols today are a bit more sophisticated and subtle. But their threat is equally real.
The light that reveals God is designed to draw all people to Christ in worship. John Piper said it best, “Missions exists because worship does not.” The responsibility of any Church is not to create more attendees, but more worshipers of Christ.
Third, when the Wise Men worshiped Jesus, he changed the direction of their lives (Matthew 2:12)
Genuine worship will be a transformative experience. Last week we celebrated the start of a New Year. Resolutions were made and goals were set with the idea that through will power we can accomplish the things we need to accomplish on our way to self-improvement. There are habits to break as well as habits to begin. But we don’t need reformation. We need transformation. Reformation works from the outside in, while transformation is an inside job. Transformation doesn’t come by setting our jaw and looking in the mirror. Transformation comes by looking into the face of Christ. It comes when we see God.
Tomorrow I’ll post the final observation from the darker, lesser discussed part of the story. Happy Epiphany!
Giving USA recently released their report on Philanthropy for the year 2014. Among the items reported was a disturbing trend regarding giving to churches and religious organizations. While religious organizations still lead the way with receiving 32% of all charitable donations, giving in 2014 was static compared to the previous year. Numbers can be deceiving and we can read what we wish into any statistic. Giving to churches and religious organizations in 2014 increased 2.5% from 2013. However, when you adjust for inflation, that number diminishes to 0.9%.
Churches usually think of contributions in two ways. One, of course is to encourage committed members to increase their contributions. The second is to create additional giving units through new members. Somehow we are barely holding our own.
One of the challenges pastor’s face is preaching stewardship sermons. There is a fear that people will accuse the pastor in specific and the church as a whole as “only talking about money.” I believe stewardship sermons are important and usually preach two or three a year. But we need to rethink our education and broaden it beyond the reach of the pulpit. Last year we incorporated a letter to the congregation, Sunday School lessons for children, youth and adults, testimonies from members and more. Sharing the load in stewardship education will ease the tension and the pressure from the pulpit. And among the many positive messages about stewardship we need to acknowledge that yes, even the church needs a cost of living raise.
Andrew Blackman has published some research in the Wall Street Journal on the relationship between charitable giving and tax deductions. There is some interesting stuff here, and if you’re interested in philanthropy this is a good read. You can find the article HERE.
Here’s the latest research from Barna Group on the reading habits of Americans. You can find the report by clicking HERE.
The following essay is a guest post by my daughter Shannon. It is a thoughtful and prophetic perspective on faith through the eyes of a millennial.
“So, what’s it like being a pastor’s kid?” I always laugh awkwardly after that.
To answer the question: It’s fine, really. I don’t mind it, not other than the old white members of our Baptist congregation putting my life under a spectacle. Maybe they wondered if I would be the third generation of my family to go into ministry, or maybe they wished I would just stop wearing jeans to church. I’ll never know, but when it came down to it, calling Reverend Doctor Tim Deatrick my father was a plus. I had the easiest access to knowledgeable answers when it came to the tough questions, and I swear 75% of our church brought money to my graduation party. I’m just being honest, it was a good place to be. Still though, I was similar to any other high school student you would meet. I was highly involved in a range of activities, but I hit valleys of depression like so many other teenagers in today’s society. Though sociable, I would say I was alone. I only pretended to have confidence, I lacked consistent friendship, and I punished myself for it when I didn’t understand. It was fine though, I had Jesus twice a week.
I was having coffee in October with my teammate and friend. I didn’t know a lot about her beyond the surface, but I did know that she was an atheist. So when the conversation somehow hit faith and she asked me what I believed in, my brain pilot hit the panic button, strapped on a parachute, and leapt. In other words, I was flustered. I had never been put on the spot when it came to my beliefs, and though I attended church more times in a week than some Americans do in a year, I had no idea how to articulate the tenets of my own faith.
Probably because I didn’t have much.
So how does this happen? There are places in the world where citizens have to meet secretly to read the Bible and risk their lives in doing so, but in America, being a “Christian” is barely more than a cultural label. The Barna Group’s research shows that “in just two years, the percentage of Americans who qualify as ‘post-Christian’ rose by 7 percent,” and on top of that, perceptions of those worshipping a God of love and grace are only growing more negative. In fact, the most common associations when it comes to Christianity are anti-homosexual, hypocritical, and judgmental. We can try to pin it on a rebellious generation that is disinterested in their parents’ bland tradition, but when the topic is boiled down, Americans are turned off to the idea of Christianity because of “believers” who claim to be transformed, yet live their lives in a way that fails to reflect the teachings of Christ.
The afternoon I stumbled through that conversation with my friend, my own blindness was out in the open. I sat on my bedroom floor that night and wrote under the title, “What I Believe.” Like a friendship, my time spent in church did not equate to a strong relationship. You can know a person inside and out and neglect to trust and respect them, and making the realization that my faith was not what I thought it was changed a lot of things about my life from that point on. I had an urgency and a thirst, so much so that I organized a mission trip to Belize and sold art until I could take advantage of a mission opportunity in the Philippines as well. A key thing I learned from these experiences was that being an American “Christian” is not like being a Christian anywhere else. In preparation for the Philippines, our leader told us to be ready to answer to any given stranger that might ask you about your life or for encouragement. Most of us had the same panic that I did with my friend. Revealing the faith that drives our morals, values, character, and life to a stranger would be an uncomfortable experience at best. In American “Christianity”, beliefs are separate from the rest of our lives. Discussing Jesus is nothing like reflecting on what you had for lunch yesterday. There is this “sacred/secular divide” that makes talking about Jesus awkward and unnatural because we often live our lives one way on Sunday mornings and another for the remainder of the week.
In the squatter villages of the Philippines there was no divide. The Christians that we collaborated with along the way were whole-heartedly devoted to the needs of others, even if all they had to offer was love. It was vital that they be consistent in their faith-based actions because the need of the community was so blatant that they had nothing to hide behind. No iPhone 6 could shield their desperation, and as we entered the homes composed of garbage and tin, family after family poured out their desire for protection, opportunity, and above all, hope. Authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert analyzed diverse personal stories from those in poverty and came to this conclusion:
While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms… Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humility, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.
I can tell you from experience that the studies are spot on. On the streets of Manila, where there are 2.2 million children without homes, we met Girlie. She was found by the orphanage we were volunteering with several years ago. She didn’t have a family or a name, and they guessed her age based on her dental records. No one should ever have to experience the abandonment that she did, and yet, the first time we met her, she greeted every person in our group with a hug and a smile that still radiates in my mind.
This being said, if studies reveal that poverty boils down to a psychological mindset rather than a caliber of material objects, and if people who have come from the worst can be revived without diamonds and a beach house, then I would say that America is as spiritually impoverished as anywhere. We are poisoned with a different disease, and it is so much easier to hide. In countries that we would consider impoverished, the evidence of their collective need leads to an understanding and unity between the people. They suffer together, but what we don’t realize in America is that we are all mutually broken. As we advance in technology, knowledge, and power, I hear daily claims that we have outgrown religion, but is that all we’re moving away from? What about the desire to connect and empathize? Each and every one of us is facing a battle, and rather than being transparent so that we can help one another, we do as much as we possibly can to suppress our struggle and pretend that it isn’t there. Our desperation pushes us not to find help, but to avoid it or even temporarily forget about our stress. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that “By 2020, mental and substance use disorders will surpass all physical diseases as a major cause of disability worldwide… [Anxiety and depression] frequently co-occur with each other and with substance use disorders.”I myself am guilty of hiding out and avoiding help; we’re afraid of vulnerability because we associate it with weakness. Without steadfast peace, we resort to masked lifestyles centered around personal gain and goal of living in comfort under the umbrella of “enough”.
The idea we have of enough is a tricky thing though, as the finish line of our dreams is a moving target. “Enough” is unattainable in America because we can see that there is always a gadget we haven’t bought, a car we haven’t driven, or a style we haven’t tried on. We are bombarded with advertisements and commercials highlighting people that have something we don’t, and they always look that much happier. Author John Brueggemann describes what he calls “Everest Psychology” in his book Rich, Free, and Miserable. We are already so close to what we think is the top the mountain, and we will be satisfied as soon as we grab hold of that one last thing. If I could just get into my dream school, if I could just marry the perfect guy, if I can just find the right job— there is nothing wrong with short term goals, but once we rely on these for our fulfillment, we miserably find ourselves depending on what can only provide temporary happiness, and “the elusive summit is always within sight but just out of reach”.
Not only are we increasingly materialistic, but our generation’s individualism has surpassed the simplicity of having a unique personality. Defensive individualism has translated to a mindset that says, “you do whatever it takes to make you happy, I’ll do whatever it takes to make me happy, and if we all do this while simultaneously staying out of each other’s way, we will all be united in happiness.” Again, you would think that this existentialism would make us more peaceful and accepting, yet it still fueled by selfish ambition and tolerance rather than love. We are incredibly defensive, easily offended, unforgiving, and still dissatisfied.
As faith diminishes in our country, we are left trying to give our own lives purpose. We all want to be remembered for how good we were and all of the positive things we accomplished, but if a street is not named after you following your death, then did you really live? If one day we’ll all be nothingness in a black hole of the universe, then what really is the purpose? The verdict on Christianity in America is that it can be revived, but it certainly won’t happen overnight. Media has skewed perceptions, whether it be the news channels making Westboro Baptist Church the mascot of what Christianity represents, or popular TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy that depict Christian characters as comically annoying and unreasonable. Although the media certainly hasn’t helped the favor of Christians, I will reiterate that they are not where complete blame falls when it comes to American post-Christianity.
Redirection has to come from followers of Christ. The actions of Christian hobbyists in America have diluted the themes of “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and turned the label of “Christian” into a pride-driven battle between who is right versus who is wrong. For some, it’s a faith so shallow that their ego turns sour just by the sway of an election.
As complex issues such as gay marriage and abortion rise in our politics, it is easy for the religion to “become famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for,” so it is vital to keep in mind that the kingdom is not built by political reformation or through legislation. It begins with personal responsibility and spreads through the influence of our character.
This character is not that of a picket sign: shameful, condemning, and fueled by hatred. The walk of a Christian should actually be the polar opposite. That is not to say it’s always easy to love the people you disagree with, however, by connecting with those that come from different backgrounds, statuses, and beliefs, we are given the opportunity to share on a personal account why we live our lives the way that we do. When churches become exclusive social clubs, and when we keep anyone who lives their lives differently at an arms length, we lose this connection, and we trade our intended mission for our own comfortable “Christianity”. If 1 John 2:6 urges that “whoever claims to live in Him must live as Jesus did,” then why are Christians starting disputes under YouTube videos in the comment sections and passively spewing opinions in 140 characters or less? We should be less passionate about spiteful debates, but absolutely fervent in connecting with the marginalized, the broken, and the lost. Thousands of people followed Jesus eager to hear what He had to say, not because He forced it on them and hatefully condemned their lifestyle, but because He had a genuine desire to invest into the lives of others, and in doing so, revealed the greater love and hope that comes when you choose to live your life to glorify God. Our calling is not to judge and divide. Above all, we are to be bold in love.
Since my doctoral studies were in the field of preaching, I have read scores of books on the subject. Books on preaching sermons and how to preach sermons fall into two general categories. There are technical works written by professors that get into the nuts and bolts of the how to craft and deliver sermons. Then there are the practical volumes, written by pastors, that discuss how to approach preaching week in and week out.
Timothy Keller has published an encouraging perspective on pastoral preaching that focuses on how to go about preaching in a day that is skeptical about the gospel. He doesn’t delve into how to preach sermons, per se, but rather focuses on how pastors can approach preaching with confidence in an age of question.
Softening the message of the text is clearly not an option for Keller. He encourages preachers to have bold confidence in the text yet creatively communicate the written word with clarity and simplicity. The timeless message need not change. However, times have changed, and the wise preacher will learn how to convey spiritual truth in ways that are both understandable and compelling. Understanding the message of the text is important. Equally important is the need to understand our current culture.
I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who routinely preaches and teaches in a constant setting.
The church I serve is now nearly a year into a vision process that we began with Auxano. One of the key elements we learned is the importance of developing a cohesive strategy that describes how we intentionally plan to make disciples. A key passages that informed our thinking on strategy is the familiar description of the behavior of the early church following Pentecost.
“All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity– all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47, NLT).
Here are five simple observations I shared in worship yesterday.
1. The behavior of the church was an outflow of the Spirit.
The second chapter of Acts opens with the Spirit’s advent on the Day of Pentecost. While one cannot deny the miraculous signs and wonders performed by the apostles, it is my conviction that the core impact of the Spirit’s arrival was the life change that occurred in the masses. If you want a good description of what a Spirit filled life looks like, don’t focus on the margins. Focus on the core behavior of worship, prayer, fellowship, teaching, sharing, ministry and evangelism.
2. The behavior of the church was consistent.
Notice the inclusive language: everyone, every day and all. The Spirit’s impact was so profound that all the people participated in the disciple making process every day.
3. The behavior of the church was simple.
Aren’t you amazed that the early church created such a movement without a building, a budget, or seminary trained staff? What they did was simple enough that anyone could do it; and they did it sincerely enough that it became influential.
4. The text describes the behavior of the church, not the behaviors.
I contend that these first and second generation disciples didn’t divide themselves up into silos or specializations. I believe that each person practiced each element. To pick and choose among the items listed in the text would be akin to baking a cake using only the ingredients that you like. In order for a cake to be a cake you have to include everything. Similarly, in order for a disciple to be mature, each discipline must be practiced.
5. God produced the results.
The final verse summarizes one of the most important chapters in the New Testament pertaining to the church. The Lord added daily. We can plan, program and strategize, but God has to produce the results. When the people committed themselves to disciple making practices, God responded and blessed the early church.
The National Review has weighed in with a good article on reaching Millennials. You can find the article HERE. According to the author, we should perhaps spend less time thinking about how to attract millennials and more time developing processes that help them grow spiritually.
Barna Research Group has released a new study on the relationship between women and Church in America. To view the report, click HERE.