Thursday, October 16, 2014

3 Insightful Ways for Church Growth


It is my privilege and joy to be a servant of Christ. I have found such great love and witnessed a great fortitude among many within the church that I pastor. Recently, I shared with them the three vital keys to our growth. When I arrived at the church, almost three years ago, there was approximately twenty five active members; today, we are in the midst of an authentic move of God; a true conversion growth, with new members coming forward continually and baptisms. So, one might think this makes me more of an expert—hardly! So, what’s the formula? What’s the new program? Honestly, you’ll never hear or read that from me—as I believe that God innovatively works within each body of Christ to reach each community. However, I will provide the three keys areas that we focused on and continue to focus on, for growth.

Before, I divulge those; let me say that the vision that God gave to me three years ago is terrifyingly precise. I say terrifyingly because there is a love that Christ has for His church—make no mistake that this it is His—in that, He is unyielding with fervor, passion, protection, and strength. As the pastor, I passionately pray for the church universal and the one I serve, especially, as we engage our faith on either the frontlines of casual Christianity or brutal martyrdom. I pray for wisdom repeatedly—to lead with integrity and resolve and to lead by example. Everything we do is methodically and prayerfully conceived, thought out, and done with the aspiration of serving our King—everything that we do has purpose—from the way we worship, the style of worship, to the way our service is conducted and scheduled—these are all sought to honor God, exalt Christ, in the power of the Spirit, to edify the body. There is a vision and there is a mission. With that all being said, I’ll now address the three things, which propel us to move forward.

1. The Gospel:

This is my first love. When I was baptized years ago, the verse which I declared was Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation.” As well, I relate to the Apostle Paul’s words, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel…” (1 Cor 9:16). As the pastor, I am fully dedicated to the gospel—I will not waiver, I will not compromise, I will not sell out to worldly goods, satanic attacks, fleshly pride, prosperity, or coercion. One of my favorite pastors is now the president of the International Mission Board, David Platt; when he gave his last message before the church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, he said, “We don’t have time to waste on games in the church… resist comfortable, casual, cultural Christianity, because that’s not Christianity.” If our focus is on anything more than the gospel transformation through Christ—we’ve missed God’s will for our lives & our mission. Every week, the one constant that comes from the pulpit and is taught is the gospel.

2. Unity in Love:

When I arrived at the church, God gave me a mandate—that mandate was to love a people, but not just any love, a missional and Christ-centered love—to reach the hearts of the congregation and the hearts of the community. And so, I stress, WE MUST BE OF ONE ACCORD (Phil. 2:2)—inseparable—the time has come for the church to engage the faith in trith—we are THAT generation. Our forefathers faced hard times, and our fathers faced difficult times—it is now our time to face up to the challenge and do it in unison. Yet, one thing I know and have experienced, you may agree, churches never grow when there is division more than unity, tradition more than innovation, complacency more than passion, and love of self more than others. And so again, I as the leader, I have promised to defend them unabashedly, for the unity of love in the church, and if I ever see someone being divisive or attempting to cause division, by the power of Christ and the authority of the church, which was given to me, they can rest assured that their under-shepherd will protect the flock. I love them each very deeply and uniquely.

3. Worship in Heart: 

Worship is more than music; it is our walk, our talk…our thoughts. The word worship comes from worthiness or honor—God is rightfully due honor.  But we also honor God with our music. One of the saddest things I have witnessed in churches and assuredly the Lord has seen, is discord within His church due to worship styles—to me, it is an aberration of godliness…it is unacceptable. We have more important issues at hand—namely, the gospel.
When I arrived at the church, three summers ago, the music director and I sought the best possible way to incorporate the old hymns and the new music, for the sole purpose of the gospel, reaching across cultural, generational, and age lines—it was/is not an easy task. The current vision of the church stresses that we humble our hearts and raise our hands to God—for He has put a new song in our heart. We put aside our “comfort zone” with the understanding that church is not about me—it’s about the gospel—it’s about seeing true conversion growth. Our worship must come from the heart—whether from a screen, a hymn book, or something else—if it is not from the heart then it is all lip service—God will not reward lip service. Worship from the heart.

And so, I encourage you now, to love one another, serve one another, reach out to others, and allow the gospel of Christ to transform you. Seek how your church can find the pulse of its community is service, fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) and doing so with one accord. While these three things have proven results for the church I serve, it is not a cookie cutter blueprint. Unity and the gospel however, I would stress are non-negotiables, but they can be expressed in differing ways. Seek how with the wisdom of Christ. If you want to email me any responses or questions, feel free, matt@j31.org

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Communication & Marriage



Over the last several years I have had the privilege of uniting couples in the bond of holy matrimony. Along with that privilege, are the pre-marital counseling sessions, which are attached to the previous months before they tie the knot—these sessions are imperative, and I won’t perform a wedding without them.  There are numerous reasons as to why I demand pre-marital counseling, and you may name some of them; covenant, vows, unity of souls, respect, money, children, etc., etc. But there is one aspect of every marriage that must be addressed to help sustain a long-lasting and healthy bond—that is communication.
I’ve witnessed couples that are blissfully engaged. They’re beaming with joy to sit in the pastor’s office and discuss marriage, dates, and ceremony possibilities. OK, some are not so joyful—some are actually nervous. But my job is to not only make sure that the two are not unevenly yoked (2 Cor 6:14) and understand the noble and big step they are taking, but my desire is to make sure that they can understand one another. Let’s be honest, it seems that women speak a different language than men. This can be a fatal flaw for the marriage—and it’s not that men don’t understand women, it’s that neither party understands, knows how to listen, or how to communicate. I’m going to share a few pieces of advice and one of the best exercises that I invented for helping two individuals communicate as one.
Non-Verbals
Married couples must pick up on the non-verbals; otherwise known as body language. I had one couple in the office regarding their conflict—this was years after marriage (btw, I did not marry them). When I brought up to the husband how the wife was crying out for his affection and attention, the husband denied my claim and declared, “But that’s just it pastor, she doesn’t want to get intimate, she just rolls over in the bed with her back to me.” I said, “No, that IS it—she’s screaming out to you—don’t touch me—there is a huge problem—but you’re not picking up on her body language.”
Body language is so important, and anyone who uses texting or social media understands this all too well—there is no tone, inflection, or gesture to display the real message. I’m the type of guy (sort of typical), that when I get annoyed, I clam up and my wife has to “pry” my emotions open. But I have learned over the years that she knows me so well—she sees the warning flags and I the same with her. When I observe a couple coming into counseling and they sit in separate chairs; one leaning towards the left and the other leans towards the right, with both crossing their arms, I think, “Oh boy, I have my work cut out for me now—Holy Spirit I need your help.” Why? Because they have already told me they’re not going to listen, are butting heads, and have no intention of going forward in humility—all they want is a pastor’s approval for their behavior. Crossed arms usually mean the person is guarding their heart or putting up a defensive wall. Watch for body language—learn what the other is saying or not saying. Observation goes a long way in love.
The Game
OK, I hate to divulge this information, as it is my favorite part of the pre-marital counseling, and those who I counsel may be reading this article. But I invented this game for the sole purpose of helping couples better understand one another. Plus, marriage counseling can be boring, didactic, and cold—I’m a people person and I want the couple to love one another and also to have fun. What I came to realize is not that guys communicate one specific way and that women only speak in one manner, but that each person is very unique (although there are some generalities).
At the end of the first session, I assign homework. I ask each person to go shopping and find three specific items (or use items from home). The three items are as follows: find one item that you believe represents you, one item that you believe represent the other, and one item that you believe represents the way people perceive you. Each person must keep the items hidden until the second session, when they will be revealed (this means you shop alone).
Communication
This game is a great exercise in teaching each person how he or she communicates. For instance, I had one man bring in a teddy bear to represent himself—loveable, dependable, never too harsh, and always willing to give a hug and snuggle—one of the “Oh, how cute,” moments. His spouse-to-be laughed, because she went to his home days before the exercise and hunted for the same teddy bear that he used! This was a good thing—in that both saw the person in the same manner. She, on the other hand, when choosing an item for herself, chose a diamond ring. I turned and looked at the gentleman and said, “Oh boy, you know you’re in trouble, right?” I advised him that she was a complex person, many-faceted (which she gladly agreed), a person who has been crushed previously in her first marriage, but wants you to know that she’s beautiful and has any sides to her personality. All of this from a diamond ring? Yes.
This exercise helped the groom to see that his bride was not going to always want the hugs and snuggles, or to talk things out, or be left alone—this was a complex person and we discussed what communication would like between the two. While I was excited to see them choose the same things for him, I was more excited that we were able to “cut, the problems of guessing, off at the pass.” Each item will inevitably tell the other person how they communicate. A teddy bear shows, “I’m not going to argue and will be passive as much as I can.” I had one woman bring in a chocolate chip cookie to represent her husband-to-be; “He’s hard and crusty on the exterior, but sometimes there’s a morsel of sweetness to be found.” I also had one guy bring in a rubber chicken for the bride—this was not going to go over well, I thought, but she loved it—because she’s a jokester. He knows not to take her sarcasm literally—but then we addressed why sarcasm can hurt. You see, all of these things are just exercises, but married couples must learn to communicate, whether non-verbally, or verbally. Learn how each person says, “I love you.”
Remember the movie, The Princess Bride, as Farm-boy said, “As you wish,” and this meant that he loved her and she understood that. Likewise, your spouse has a language that is to be loved and listened to—take the time to invest in your spouse—in grey areas of your relationship, expose them, develop them, and engage them.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

King Jehoshaphat & 3 Examples of Godly Manhood


Ahab king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat king of Judah, “Will you go with me to Ramoth-gilead?” He answered him, “I am as you are, my people as your people. We will be with you in the war.” And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the LORD.” Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall we go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for God will give it into the hand of the king.” But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not here another prophet of the LORD of whom we may inquire?” ~ (2 Chron. 18:3-6)
This is an interesting story to say the least, but let’s look at it for the purpose of viewing three (3) applications for godly manhood.
1. Godly Men Are Uniters, Not Dividers.
Even though King Ahab is far from the godly example of Jehoshaphat, he would be our example of someone who left the faith. Nonetheless, Jehoshaphat sees that they are neighbors, originally of the same covenant, and brothers. Therefore, godly manhood recognizes the greater good and hopes to quell division. As Jesus stated, “Blessed are the peacemakers…” (Matt 5:9). Israel and Judah had been at war for generations, since Jeroboam and Rehoboam.
Ahab was an interesting character to say the least. As the Scriptures reveal, “Ahab did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:33). Yet, when he humbled himself before God with weeping and sackcloth, God saw his heart and delivered him (1 Kings 21:29). It is most likely that his evil wife led him astray. Regardless, perhaps Jehoshaphat saw the same heart? Either way, a godly man is one who wants to unite people, not bring division. In a way that we may apply this—how do we conduct our business—by trying to rule and reign over people or do we seek input and advice? People who are good leaders know how to unite people.
2. Godly Manhood Seeks Prayer Before All Things.
Ahab’s desire to convince Jehoshaphat to engage in a war with Ramoth-gilead doesn’t trump Jehoshaphat’s faith in the LORD.  A godly man knows that God orders his steps and he is content with walking in those steps.[i] Jehoshaphat shows us the importance of making godly decisions. Whenever we are about to be involved with something that we are not certain, or that may have consequences beyond our knowledge, it is imperative to seek the Lord. Needless to say, all things should be brought to the Lord first, but especially when we come up against life changing decisions. Godly people seek God.
Whether in your occupation, neighborhood, or community, before you dedicate yourself to a task or project, make sure that God is involved—even if it’s tearing out a new kitchen, making a community playground, or taking an promotion. These decisions will have an impact not only on you, but others around you. Seek God before all things.
3. Godly Manhood Displays Wisdom & Discernment
Ahab can see that Jehoshaphat is a godly man, so his intention is to bring about “prophets” that will speak for God. However, Jehoshaphat’s spiritual antennae go up, as he notices that something just isn’t right about these so-called prophets. Whether Jehoshaphat visibly observes something or has a gut feeling, he employs wisdom and discernment. He asks Ahab, “Is there not here another prophet of the LORD of whom we may inquire?” (18:6). Out of four HUNDRED men, Jehoshaphat doesn’t trust their intuition or their prophetic prowess. As it happens, Jehoshaphat was correct, as the story unfolds, but suffice it to say that godly manhood takes wisdom and discernment, and in this regard, specifically, spiritual discernment because it pertains to his and other people’s lives.
The message here relates to us in several ways. Let’s say that everyone in your office, family, or neighborhood is on board with a decision, this doesn’t mean that you throw out discernment or have to be the staunch lone vote. Who knows? Maybe you are the one person that staves off a disaster for the business, home, community, but Jehoshaphat was still asking about godly advice. Wisdom will ask for more time when important matters arise. A simple response as, “Can we take some time to pray about this first, or to seek someone who has been though this situation…” is using discernment. As well, spiritual discernment is vital sometimes and you may need to seek a mentor, pastor, or elder; the point, use the resources that you have. You wouldn’t build a house with only wood, screws, and a rock, but you’d wait until you had the correct tools.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Are Sunday Youth Sporting Events Destroying Child-like Faith?


Here’s the straight black-and-white answer you’re looking for, yes! There would be no need for this article had the answer been no—but emphatically and undeniably, Western culture has morphed into Sunday morning sports instead of Sunday morning worship, fact. I can recall a time when Blue laws existed and there were no stores open on Sunday—and I’m not that old. However, that is not the soap box that I’m jumping on and the question of legalism will be thrown out the window quickly—it’s a straw man argument. As Leonard Ravenhill stated, “When there's something in the Bible that churches don't like, they call it 'legalism.'”

There’s a major problem with culture, we all agree; however, are believers to adhere more to sports or to provide the example of godly leadership, integrity, and more importantly, obedience to Christ and His Church? Missing a Sunday service for vacation, getting some much needed sleep, or perhaps even someone taking a job when unemployed, those things we understand are going to happen—and once again we agree that it’s not about getting a gold star for attendance. And assuredly, we all agree that salvation does not come by attending church—we all believe in Christ’s efficacious work on the cross for our salvation. And there are no “buts,” added in.

The argument I am making now is that we are teaching an entire generation that church membership, or even attending church is not merely second fiddle—but there is no fiddle! OK, I’ll say it; youth sporting events on Sundays are destroying the children’s faith. We’re producing idolatry, lacking fellowship, and setting bad examples. They are growing up with these three huge mistakes, presented to them by us—their parents, as if these three things are edifying and good. Here are my three observations:

(1) Producing Idolatry

Children are being taught that there are way more important things than to worship Christ. Now, before you grab the argument, “I love Jesus, the soccer field is my church,” let’s be real for a second. Let me get on the soapbox. Jesus was the One who instituted the church—He’s the One who invented it, heads it, and upholds it, as well as directed its mission and gathering. I’ve never seen communion presented at the soccer field, nor have I heard Scripture being taught, nor songs of praise—maybe you have—but it’s still not church because the focal point is not Christ—but to get Christ out of the way, so that the game can occur.

I once had a seminary professor in evangelism declare that it was OK to skip church for sports, as long as you were “missional” and led the team in prayer. Seriously? While yes, that may be evangelism—it’s not church! And don’t throw the “where two or more are gathered” erroneous interpretation at me either, please. My rant is real because I love Christ’s church—if you do not love Christ’s church then you cannot love Christ—since He is the head (we’re connected). The sport becomes idolatry—putting something before God. We’re teaching the children that baseball is more important than Christ—so years down the road when they want a job, a boyfriend/girlfriend, family, and the ball games are done, try and explain why the church is important to them again? As Charles Spurgeon said, “Train up a child in the way he should go - but be sure you go that way yourself.”

The problem is that the baseball, football, soccer, or any sporting field, or even the dance studio, or whatever activity, you hold higher than the church; you have created an idol for your child. Honestly, anytime we place ourselves as the number one reason to attend church, we miss the point and are idol building. When we make ourselves more important than Christ’s command and the people of God—to edify, love, pray, cry, grow, and live within Christ—then we are saying I’m a Lone Ranger, I can do it alone—cut off the body—keep the head. But Christianity was never designed to be solo—but corporate fellowship.

(2) The Absence of Fellowship

The absence of fellowship is a major American dilemma. The problem is that some parents think “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so,” is all they need to know. The parents are aiding in the destruction of their children’s faith—they are not building them up, but building up idolatry. Fellowship is not only about intimacy, sharing, and caring, but it’s about encouraging others in community worship. Worship does not necessarily mean song, but our actions and the way we live the gospel. By pulling our children from church fellowship, making sure they make the game, the logic comes across to them as “If I say it’s more important than church—it’s OK.” But that logic will break down because it’s subjective at best—the foundations and boundaries of living the gospel are gone.

As well, fellowship attendance is important to the one who comes and is struggling. They see you across the aisle—they see your smile, your presence—iron sharpens iron. Perhaps you’re struggling and share of your busy schedule? “How do you cope,” they inquire, and then you realize that your response was their God-confirmation. They needed YOU. We are unified as a whole body, not churches of one. Fellowship informs the child that God has not left them alone—He gave them the church, to get through life, its pain, its suffering, its heartaches, along with their anxieties.

(3) Setting the Wrong Example

Needless to say, we’re setting the wrong example to our children and to the community. I get it, you will say, “But, I’m one person, if I pull my son or daughter out of this or that sport, no one will care and they may lose an eventual scholarship!” Once again, is the scholarship more important than Christ and His Church? We cannot just worship the head and cut off the body—it’s unified. We’re telling the world that we agree and we adapt and we like it. We like a severed Christ.


Here’s the next argument, but I go to church on Wednesdays instead—look, it’s all justification. Only you know your heart and if you’re one of the ones who brings your kids to sporting events instead of Sunday worship, first (1) I don’t condemn you, I pray for you, second, (2) the inevitable will happen when your child walks away from the faith—I pray that I’m wrong, and (3) lastly, you have created a subjective environment for your child to base his or her life choices on the matter of personal importance. In the matter of Christianity, that does not bode well. Please, heed the warning, love Christ, love the church, love your children; they’re the next generation to receive the baton of faith—let’s help them be the men and women of God that He intends. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Imputation & The Gospel


The impue-what? I hope I didn’t lose you already!

You may be thinking, “Seriously? Is this a theology lesson?”

I recall in my undergrad studies, literally hating theology—I remember telling my wife how “dumb” it was. Little did I know I would receive a dual Masters, with the one of the degrees in theology. Why? Why such a drastic change from loathing it to loving it? It certainly was not the riveting textbooks, or the sessions of mono-toned lectures; no, it was the idea that everyone has a theology—they just don’t know it. Secondly, I learned some invaluable concepts about my faith in Christ, the Gospel, and the reasons why I believe what I believe. Theology literally opened up the Scriptures for me. And so, I pray that this is not some boring reading, but an engaging and Spirit-led challenge for you to grow in your faith. This post will not be exhaustive, nor is it intended to be. Its intention is to illuminate you with the doctrine of the imputation and it’s correlation with the Gospel.

So, since this will be somewhat short and precise, I only want to focus on two verses of Scripture: Romans 5:19 and 2 Corinthians 5:21; these will be our springboard to launch us into what the imputation is and what it has to do with the Gospel.

What is the Imputation?

            First and foremost, we begin by giving the word a more workable definition. We don’t walk around the twenty-first century talking about imputation—it sounds like someone needs their leg cut off. As well, sometimes a modern definition of a word can throw us off, which is exactly what you would find if you looked up the word imputation—as it can mean an accusation, reproach, or a charge against someone. That’s not what the Biblical doctrine means. When we talk about the imputation of Christ it is not a thing, but an event.
Just to make this easier, let’s give our word a new label, just for our understanding—let’s call this word, “counted.” Now, I don’t want you to be thinking of the word counting, in its present tense, as if it’s still happening, but at totaled sum or a calculated amount. For instance, if you needed a new TV, you find the one you like, pick it out, calculate the total amount due, and then go to the register. However, if you don’t have cash, you will use your credit card—right? Then, the amount for the TV is “counted,” on your card. But, you technically did not pay for the item—yet, but you’re driving home with it, putting it on the wall (an epic new flat screen!), and watching it—although, you have never made one payment—hence, it is “counted” as yours.  
            Now, let’s add to this and say that by some crazy stroke of luck, unbeknownst to you, your credit card company, feeling generous (as if), gives you a credit in the exact amount of the flat screen TV—the amount then that was once “counted” as yours, on your statement, is now nullified—meaning, you don’t own the debt, but you still get to watch the TV and possess it! Sounds great, right?
 Well, this is the rudimentary concept behind the imputation. The doctrine states that Jesus took our sin upon Himself, and then put into our account, righteousness instead. Likewise, the Apostle Paul explains to the Roman Church, “For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). Because of Adam, all of mankind has been born into sin, as Adam was the head of humanity. Rightly so, Jesus Christ, the only man to have ever defeated death, by being raised to life, conquered death and became the first-born of righteousness.  All who proclaim by faith that Jesus is Lord are saved by that faith and “counted” (there’s our word) as righteous. It is not that believers are righteous, but that they are “counted” as righteous, or declared righteous by God, through the work of Christ.  

“For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
            The penalty for the sin of man then was grievously put upon Christ (2 Cor 5:21; c.f. Col.1:14; 2:14-15), while His righteousness was placed upon us, or put into our account. The analogy of the flat screen is applied to show that while we did not pay the penalty for our sin, it was paid by Christ; while we possess righteousness, it is not our own, but His.

What Does the Imputation Have to do with the Gospel?

Paul’s letter to the Roman Church carries a continuum of thought from the beginning. He begins chapter one by acknowledging that all of mankind knows about God, but suppresses the truth (1:18). They either have a moral law written upon their hearts (2:14-15) or possess the written Law (ch.2). Then, Paul “levels the playing field” leaving no man righteous or justifiable of sin before God (ch.3); meaning, no amount of works can declare any man righteous before God. Paul then continues his argument founded upon on righteousness based on faith for both Jews and Gentiles—excluding works, providing examples of Abraham’s faith and righteousness (ch.4). Paul proceeds by examining justification by faith (a one-time action of Christ) and then accordingly, he finally addresses the imputation of sin by one man Adam, and the imputation of righteousness by one man, Jesus Christ (ch.5). Moreover, Paul shocks his Jewish audience in 5:20, by stating that the Law came into existence to increase transgression, to show that grace “super-abounded” hyperperisseuō.

Grace. This is not some word which merely means that we’re off the hook or that God loves us, or that we no longer endure judgment, but Paul’s illustration paints a picture that all of humanity—whether with the law in their heart (knowing it’s wrong to kill, steal, lie, etc.) or by the adherence of the written Commandments, no one is justified by their actions; no one has an excuse as to whether or not they’re a sinner—the law (in the heart or written) proves to all of us that we are in need of a Savior and not only for salvation, but the need to be washed from the sins, so that we can come into union with a holy God. This is where the Gospel and the imputation intersect. Without the grace of the Gospel, which tells us that we all were sinners and that none of us came to faith in Christ without the power of the Holy Spirit, and then the imputation—that teaches us that man’s works are not capable of bringing us into union with a holy God—we see that they must be united and simultaneous acts—both of God.

The fact that God grants grace and that God alone gives us the ability to be declared righteous is something which should place us in awe of a great and loving God. To think that not only God’s desire was to save sinful man, but also to declare him righteous by placing Him in unity with His beloved Son, shows us an incredibly intelligent and amazing Creator. The Gospel and the imputation express that God wants relationship with His creation—His people. That God would pull the sin from man’s account, nail it to the cross (Col.2:14) and place it in Christ’s account, then in the same fashion, take Christ’s righteousness and put it into the believer’s account (2 Cor 5:21) is far from this human mind to understand all of the complexities, but I do comprehend its worth and grace. Thanks be to God for His love, mercy, and relentless pursuit of sinners. Thank God for the Gospel. Thank God for the imputation—so that I can have fellowship with Him.