Archive for September, 2010



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I’ve logged a little windshield time lately passing the time thinking about obedience. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like the word “obey” (as in obedience to God) is a word that is missing from our current Christian vocabulary. Do you feel this way? What emotions do you associate with the word obey? Is it a word that we need to recover? How do we recover obedience without reducing it to legalism?

I’d like to encourage you to weigh in. To comment, simply click on the title of this post and the comment box will appear at the bottom of the page. Comment moderation is on, so I’ll try to get to them as quick as they hit my phone.

Categories : Obedience, Obey
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Where Ideas Come From

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I thought this was a cool presentation!

Categories : Books, Creativity, Ideas
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On the surface we would believe that the early church in Acts was blessed with outstanding growth due to the anointed preaching of the apostles; their balanced practices that would evolve into much of our church programming today; and a talented and committed membership base. Only when we gaze beneath the surface do we discover that the church was framed in the midst of adversity.


The early church had to deal with persecution enacted by religious leaders and later, the Roman government itself. The church had to confront hypocrisy within its own ranks as certain members chose to seek reputation enhancement over character development. But in Acts 6 we find the greatest challenge of all…the question concerning what kind of church they were going to be.

This weekend in worship I framed the conversation by describing the difference between a battle ship and a cruise ship. I’ve not been on a battle ship, but it appears that everything about a battle ship and everyone on a battle ship is there in support of the mission. From the crew to the bridge, every person has an assignment that relates to the mission. Every function is evaluated in light of the mission.

A cruise ship, on the other hand, is about the comfort of the passengers. Passengers pay the fare to receive first class service, food, and entertainment. The experience is wonderful, but it’s all about the passengers.
The difference between the battleship and the cruise ship is the nature of their mission. What if the early church would have assessed their needs and their size and determined to make their mission about their “passengers” instead of staying on point with regards to their mission? It could have been disastrous! Yet many churches face the temptation to focus inwardly on the care and comfort of their members versus reaching out to their communities and the world.
What did the apostles do when they faced the problem in Acts 6 regarding food distribution to the Greek speaking widows?
The first thing they did was to guard their unity. We find the apostle’s concern for the church’s unity implied in the text. In the New Testament, unity refers to “thinking in the same direction.” In other words, unity means that everyone is on the same page, thinking the same thoughts.
The second thing the apostles did was to retain their focus. Verse two made it clear that the primary focus of the church was and would continue to be the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Third, the apostles involved their membership. They didn’t assess the problem at hand and minimize it or act as though it didn’t exist. No, they developed a plan of action and sought the community’s participation in selecting people of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom to engage the need. Ministry has an important role in the church, but like football, the purpose of ministry within the body is to get the members back on the field of play where they can continue to participate in the broader mission of the church.
Next, they adjusted their organization. They made a systemic change that would serve the mission by serving the people on mission.
Finally, they increased their influence. This simple process enabled the church to continue its growth and extend its influence to the point that even Jewish priests were converting to faith in Christ.
As I prepared and delivered this message this weekend, I was amazed at the maturity and wisdom of the apostles who led the early church. I was even more impressed by their unwavering commitment to the mission of the church. When given the choice between remaining a battleship or becoming a cruise ship, they got it right. I hope we will too.
Categories : Acts, Gospel, Mission, Purpose
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Books written out of the experience and conversation of community are always a treat. When many voices speak to a given topic it provides a rich sense of balance and heightens credibility. The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation is such a book. Birthed out of a series of meetings of a group that became known as TACT (Theological and Cultural Thinkers), The Kingdom Life presents to readers and church leaders a way to think about spiritual formation that goes beyond how to practice the spiritual disciplines.

The fruit of TACT’s labor was to establish the elements of spiritual formation into two sections, process elements and theological elements. They are summarized below:

Element One: The gospel of the Kingdom is the realm of God’s active goodness in forming us in Christ as we follow Him. The way we understand the Kingdom of God is to participate as apprentices of Jesus.

Element Two: Spiritual formation is rooted in relationship with God and one another. It calls us to not only relate to God, but to one another in communities of grace, trust, love, humility, and justice.

Element Three: Spiritual formation into Christlikeness involves an intentional public, personal, and communal commitment to living as Jesus’ disciples who are being transformed into His image in all aspects of our lives as we learn to obey His commands.

Element Four: Spiritual formation is a lifelong pursuit of being conformed to the image of Christ from the inside out and not a matter of external activity alone.

Element Five: Spiritual formation is a continual process of transforming the whole person, including the healing of woundedness and rebellion, by the power of God, not to be confused with mere technique or program.

Element Six: Spiritual formation occurs when God, in his grace, invades the destructiveness of suffering that results from the fall and uses the pain of suffering for his redemptive purposes in His people. Suffering is an agent of God through which He forms us in Christ. (This chapter alone is worth the price of the book!)

Element Seven: Spiritual formation in Christ is a process of growing in Kingdom living and participating in God’s mission. Those who pursue spiritual formation will by necessity become people of mission.

Element Eight: The theology of spiritual transformation emerges from the Trinitarian nature of God—relational, loving, gracious, mutually submissive, and unified in will.

Element Nine: Spiritual formation takes place by the direct work of the Holy Spirit, regenerating and conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ as the Spirit indwells, fills, guides, gifts, and empowers people for life in the community of faith and in the world.

Element Ten: Spiritual formation is based upon the Bible as God’s reliable and authoritative revelation. The Bible guides and informs the use of spiritual disciplines and models of spirituality as they have emerged worldwide throughout time.

Each of the preceding elements becomes the topic sentence of a chapter written by a member of the TACT group. They are well researched, Biblically undergirded, clearly written, and amply illustrated. The book concludes with a helpful Epilogue devoted to describing ways that churches can foster spiritual formation among their congregations without becoming programmatic or legalistic. I would recommend this book to Christians who desire to pursue spiritual formation in a balanced way that goes beyond a contemplative life of devotion in isolation. The strength of the book is its explanation of how spiritual formation works in community and in mission. You can live a life committed to spiritual formation without a moving into a monestary!



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On Wednesday nights I’m leading a group in a study of the Fruit of the Spirit. Last night we spent some time talking about the second fruit mentioned in Paul’s listing found in Galatians 5:22-23: the fruit of JOY! As a part of the study I produced a quiz on laughter, based largely on the findings of Professor and neuroscientist Robert Provine. Some of the surprising findings of Provine include…
> People are more likely to laugh in groups than when they are alone,
> The person talking laughs 46% more than the person listening (does this mean I’m not as funny as I think I am??),
> Four times more laughter is triggered by bland phrases than formal jokes,
> Women laugh more than men, and
> Only 1 in 5 espisodes of laughter results from direct or intentional attempts at humor.
Poking around the internet via Google I also saw an amazing report that stated that babies laugh as early as 17 days old. But the one that troubled me most was the statistic that claimed that the average child laughs 200 times per day, compared with the average adult who laughs 15 times a day. I’m not about to claim that the last stat is bolstered in some heavily endowed scientific research, but when I think about it, its probably spot on.

As we age, life does get a bit serious. I just had lunch with my wife who works as a Kindergarten teacher in a nearby public school. As I arrived at her room, the class was preparing for lunch and reccess. Somewhere after that will come a “nap.” As I left I thought to myself that I wished someone would make me nap every afternoon for 30 minutes. But I digress.

The point is this. God has created us with the capacity to laugh. Though neuroscience cannot conclusively identify the location of laughter in our brains, it does exist from the get-go. We have been given this wonderful gift, but somehow our laughter has become rooted in circumstances and life events rather than from some contented place deep within our character. When we are not content within and are merely responding to external circumstances, the only place we’ll find laughter is in our manufactured worlds of entertainment and comedy. God has created us to laugh and to experience joy, and joy is an inside job.
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2010 has had some interesting religious story lines thus far. Heated debate has lit up the phone lines over controversial topics such as whether it’s appropriate and sensitive to build a mosque at “Ground Zero” in New York City or whether Florida pastor Terry Jones exercised proper judgment by promoting that he would burn copies of the Koran on September 11. Add to this the report by Mark Hanson last week in the Des Moines Register that the American Atheists organization has selected Des Moines as the site of their 2011 national convention, and you have the kindling to start a fiery conversation regarding the nature of religious liberty in America today. You can find the article by clicking here.

Last weekend in worship I shared a lengthy passage from Acts 5:12-42, and shared some thoughts regarding the ancient text vis a vis our contemporary cultural landscape. Here are six things I think that have helped me wrap my mind around some of the current issues:

1. The Christian community has got to do more than pay lip service to religious liberty in America. My pedestrian understanding of religious liberty is that Americans are afforded freedom of worship, freedom for worship, and freedom from worship. In other words, I can worship as I see fit, you can worship as you see fit, and if it’s your preference, you are free not to worship at all. When Westboro Baptist Church (Fred Phelps) picketed our church and four others in 2006, they were exercising their freedom of speech and worship. Were their methods tactful, tasteful, or sensitive? No. Did they have the right to do so? Yes. Let’s make sure that our conversation about the mosque at ground zero doesn’t confuse religious liberty in America with what is sensitive toward the victims and their families of 9/11. I believe its two conversations.

2. The Christian movement in history flourished most during times of persecution and religious plurality. Through my preparation of my present series from Acts, I have cited on two occasions the work of Rodney Stark, who, before taking his present post at Baylor University served as professor of sociology and comparative religions at the University of Washington for 32 years. In his book The Rise of Christianity, Stark writes that by the middle of the fourth century, Christians comprised some 56% of the entire population of the Roman Empire. Such impressive growth of the movement happened, in part, through at least five emperors who ruthlessly tortured and killed Christians. Had the first generation of believers following the resurrection of Christ been afforded the protections that we possess in postmodern America, where we spend more annually on pet food than missions, would we know the gospel today?

3. Fear is bad form for the Christian. I think the most disturbing aspect of the present conversation is that it is heavily peppered with fear. “If they let this happen, then what’s next?” seems to be the seasoning applied to every proposition. As I read the Bible, I am reminded that Christians serve a God who enables 80 year old men to conquer the army of Pharaoh with a stick and who empowers 17 year old boys to defeat giants with rocks and a slingshot. Paul told Timothy that “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of love, power, and a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). So if your heart is gripped with fear, it’s not from God.

4. Political triumphalism is not the answer. Christians must always remember that the cross flies higher than the flag. Our government will not “save us.” Why would we even expect it to? Our allegiance is first and foremost to the Kingdom of God, and our salvation lies therein.

5. Christians should seek ways to elevate the conversation. I recently did a streaming web talk show here in Des Moines. The host, J. Michael McKoy, is a committed Christian man. When he asked during the interview for my thoughts on tolerance, I responded by saying that Christianity has no word for tolerance in the Scripture. Tolerance is the attitude of the reductionist who seeks to meet minimal requirements. After all, Jesus didn’t teach “tolerate your enemies…and tolerate those who insult you or abuse you.” Rather than broker behavior in terms of tolerance, the Christian is called to love. Love trumps tolerance in that it is active in its behavior, not passive. Christians are called to love, and where there is love there is room for conversation and understanding, not judgment and ignorance.

6. Christians should interpret all that we see going on as an unprecedented opportunity to live the gospel and to share the gospel. It takes both. The gospel message is just another message unless it is complimented by behaving in ways that are consistent with the gospel message. The 30 gospel sermons found in Acts are inspiring and challenging. But the response to those sermons was based on more than listening to the mighty words of God’s anointed apostles. The listeners simultaneously observed the culture of the committed and discerned that life in Christ was more than words. In these unconventional days, my prayer is that we will see every challenge as a fresh opportunity for the gospel and that we will share boldly and live consistently.


Fakers: 3

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Before I wrap up this conversation on hypocrisy, I want to make one more observation. Astute Bible readers have learned that first occurrences in any story line are important. That’s what makes Genesis, for example, an important book in the Old Testament. In the story of the emerging church in Acts, this passage about the first instance of God’s discipline should get our attention. What is God trying to say to the congregation then? What is God trying to say to us today?

As for then, I think God was making a statement to the people about character and integrity. Were Ananias and Sapphira the only sinners there? Were they the first to commit a sin? My answer would be no and again, no. So what’s the deal? God was teaching them that the goal of faith is character development that reflects the image of God. This is more important than their (or our, for that matter) attempts to attain some form of sinless perfection. Life is to be lived from the inside out. Hypocrisy attempts to live from the outside in, which is an approach to faith that must be soundly rejected.

The passage concludes in verse 5:11 with the first use of the word ekklesia, which is rendered “church” in our English translations. So what does it mean when we see the first instance of church discipline and the first use of the word church in this narrative account? I recall reading a book on small group ministry where Bill Hybels wrote, “The value of community lies in the possibility of exclusion.” God was trying to take this crowd of passionate believers and shape them into a new society, an alternative community of faith that would pursue the Kingdom of God with every fiber of its being. Authenticity is one of God’s values and should be one of ours as well. Don’t get me wrong, sin is not good and God is holy. But you can’t genuinely possess clean hands without a pure heart, unless you have a thing for legalism.

Participation in God’s new community comes with some stiff demands, and he sets the standard high. Jesus said we must love one another as we love ourselves. Paul’s epistles flesh that principle out even further. We should be discerning about this in our churches today. Not in ways that prescribe litmus tests to our morality and ethics. But in ways that insist on authenticity, character, and integrity that reach beyond whether our baptism is in order and we adhere to doctrinal statements and confessions.

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A Heart for the Community

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Serving in urban St. Louis during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s presented a pretty steep learning curve. I grew up in rural northeast Missouri and attended college in a county seat town that boasted a population of around 10,000. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the city of St. Louis. Still do. Two of my children were born there. And I learned a lot about people and ministry during that first decade of full time service. If the streets were tough, you just had to be tougher. If money was tight, you had to be more creative. If the work load grew heavy, you had to work longer. All in all it was a good ministry, but I honestly shudder to think of what could have been.

Since those days I realize how little I knew about urban ministry and the impact I could have had if I had only known the kind of information available in the latest book I’ve read titled A Heart for the Community by John Fuder and Noel Castellanos. This book was birthed out of the urban ministry of various leaders and organizations in urban Chicago. Some 35 contributors wrote extremely helpful sections resulting in this reference guide for those who lead ministry in urban locations and suburban areas that are beginning to undergo transition.

The book is divided into four sections, each complete with multiple chapters by multiple voices. Section one details some of the critical issues facing urban areas including a helpful chapter that explains neighborhood gentrification and how to identify it. Section two describes and evaluates several church planting models that have found success in urban areas (e.g. the “Hip Hop Church,” “House Church,” and “Replants,” et al). Section three provides an unexpected series of conversations regarding challenges surrounding the transitioning of suburban neighborhoods where poverty is meeting luxury, chiefly due to the gentrification of the inner city. The final section details several parachurch organizations that are committed to serving the needs of the urban culture and how churches and parachurch organizations can work together to accomplish kingdom causes.

If you’ve served, are serving, or are called to serve the city, pick this resource up and keep it near you. It will inform you and inspire you as you serve among the “least of these.”


Fakers: 2

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Hypocrisy is dangerous. Anytime a person pays more attention to building their reputation, image, or brand than they do developing their character, the results can be devastating. So what can work a day world Christians do to prevent pretense in our lives? Here’s a little list of things for you to consider:

1. Don’t judge others actions or their motives. Jesus said it best, “Do not judge others and you will not be judged. For you will be treated (judged) as you treat (judge) others” (Matthew 7:1-2, NLT). If you will commit to totally avoid the trap of comparing yourself to others, which is the basis of judging, you’ll have a nice head start on preventing pretense.

2. Acknowledge the possibility of hypocrisy in your own life. In other words, walk in genuine humility. 1 Corinthians 10:12 states, “If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall.”

3. Be open to someone who truly loves you (no agendas, no strings attached) speaking truth into your life. A mirror can help us correct physical imperfections, such as uncombed hair or lettuce in the teeth. But a true friend serves as a mirror into your soul and helps you see the nicks and dings in your character that need work. One of the reasons King David got off to a spectacular start in life was that he had Jonathan at his side to tell him the truth when he needed to hear it. As long as Jonathan was alive, David was unbeatable. But when David lost his “mirror,” he went downhill. Fast.

4. Ruthlessly eradicate pretense at first sight. While Acts 5 doesn’t give us the extended version of Ananias and Sapphira’s story, experience would tell us that they didn’t just wake up one morning a decide to pull the biggest ruse in church history up to that point in time. We never just wake up and sin grossly. There’s an erosion that takes place in character, followed by the determination to take a short cut. My point is that all sin comes to us gradually. When we sense the drift, we need to take pre-emptive action.

5. Choose your audience daily. Joshua gives us a great example of this. In chapter 24 of the book that bears his name, Joshua challenged the people with this: “Choose this day who you will serve…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Every day we must renew our commitment to live our lives for an audience of One.

6. Finally, always remember that you can fool all of the people all of the time, but you can never fool God. This is a simple yet profound reality that we need to be reminded of regularly. God sees you, inside and out, all the time. Others may not be able to tell whether or not you’re a faker, but God knows.

I hope these suggestions will be helpful to you in the ongoing battle against pretense and hypocrisy. You may not become sinlessly perfect in life. But you can become an authentic person of character and integrity. When you do, your reputation will take care of itself.

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Fakers: 1

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Last weekend in worship I dealt with arguably the most difficult passage in the book of Acts…the story of Ananias and Sapphira. God is understandably serious about sin, but in this text he puts to death this couple for their hypocrisy and pretense. A pedestrian view of the story leaves the reader with a lot of questions, most of which are unanswered. The reader is simply left to look at the “big picture” and draw some practical applications for life.

If we are to believe that biblical names are a reflection of the people we study, it may be helpful to know that Ananias means “blessed by the Lord” and Sapphira means “beautiful.” This couple was “blessed and beautiful.” It kind of gives you the impression that they were a young, upwardly mobile couple who were looking to make their mark on the world. They were ambitious networkers who were striving for attention.

That is a sharp contrast to the context of the story. Acts 4 concludes with the report of a man named Joseph who had sold a field and given the money to the apostles for distribution to the poor. His act made such an impression on the apostles that they gave Joseph a nickname. They called him Barnabas, or for the English speaking world, “Mr. Encouragement.” Barnabas’ selfless and humble act of generosity earned him a favorable reputation in the church. I don’t think its too big of a stretch to imagine that all of this attention on Barnabas did not go unnoticed by the “blessed and beautiful” couple. There are two ways you can gain a reputation. You can do it though character development or you can manufacture it. Barnabas’ reputation came by the former. Ananias and Sapphira through the latter.

Jesus had a lot to say about hypocrisy. In fact, the word hypocrite comes from Greek theater and means “one who plays a part.” As I thought about hypocrisy I wrote my own definition. See what you think of this: “Hypocrisy is the result of manipulating your reputation in a favorable way without paying the price of character development.” When a person pays more attention to developing their reputation and their image than on developing their character, the results can be devistating.

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