We’ve Never Done It This Way Before

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“We’ve never done it this way before.” The old joke is that these words are ostensibly Baptistic and are the usual evidence of an impending church decline. It is true that refusal to change our methods while the culture around us constantly shifts is a sure death sentence for the church; the message of the gospel never changes, while our methods of delivering and embodying it do. Change is hard. There is something characteristically human about refusing change in favor of the comfortable or the familiar. But the nature of the church’s mission demands that we are ever ready to step into new territory, embracing necessary, biblical change for the glory of God and for the sake of the gospel.

The Israelites faced a similar dilemma under Joshua’s leadership. As they prepared to break camp and cross the Jordan River, God’s instruction was to allow the Levites to lead the way carrying the ark of the covenant:

“After three days the officers went through the camp and commanded the people: ‘When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God carried by the Levitical priests you are to break camp and follow it. But keep a distance of about a thousand yards between yourselves and the ark. Don’t go near it, so that you can see the way to go, for you haven’t traveled this way before.’ Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, because the Lord will do wonders among you tomorrow.'” (Joshua 3:2-5, CSB)

“You haven’t traveled this way before.” Those words may have caused a church split in some of our contemporary congregations. But not in the Israelite camp. They trusted the Lord’s leadership and stepped into the waters of the Jordan River with faithful expectation that God would deliver on His word. They were not disappointed.

Pastor or church leader, here are a few important, applicable things to learn from this text:

  1. New does not always mean bad. Several times in Scripture, God indicated that He was doing something new: a new song in Isaiah 42:10, a new name in Isaiah 62:2, a new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31, a new heart and a new spirit in Ezekiel 11:19, a new commandment in John 13:34, a new creature in 2 Corinthians 5:17, a new Jerusalem in Revelation 21:2, and all things new in verse 5. I wonder how many times we miss what God is doing in us and around us simply because we associate new with bad. Can you imagine the painful disappointment on the scene, should the Israelites have responded to God, “No thanks, God. We’ll stay on this side of the Jordan because this is what’s familiar. We’re comfortable here.” God said, “You haven’t traveled this way before” (v.4). But what was ahead of them was infinitely more glorious than anything behind them.
  2. Wherever He leads us, God goes before us. The Israelites, at this point, had a concrete historical example of this truth from the pillars of cloud and fire which went ahead of their fathers (Exodus 13:21). Here in Joshua Chapter 3, God’s presence is again going before them as the Ark of the Covenant leads the way into uncharted territory. Whatever is new – ahead of you as a congregation – if you embrace it with faith and step into it from a heart of obedient surrender to God’s will, you’ll not find yourself alone there. God Himself has cut the path ahead and He will be with you every step of the way.
  3. Don’t get ahead of God. Necessary change is good, but often effective, biblical change takes time. The instructions were for the Israelites to keep a distance of about a thousand yards between them and the ark: “Don’t go near it, so that you can see the way to go,” (v.4). Substantive change in the church needs to be approached with care, always keeping our eyes on the Lord. Here’s some advice: if you see change ahead but you can’t see God in it, don’t go there. Or at least slow down a bit. Wait for God to give vision and clarity for the road ahead. Here’s the deal… wherever you go, the destination is not the prize; God’s presence is the prize. Church, if you can’t see God in it, slow down. Wait for God to give vision and clarity. Don’t get ahead of God.
  4. Before stepping out into the unknown, get spiritually prepared. “Consecrate yourselves,” said Joshua, “because the Lord will do wonders among you tomorrow,” (v.5). Sometimes we follow God’s lead in faith but we’re not spiritually prepared to receive what He has for us there. The church of Jesus should be stepping into every tomorrow with the expectation that “the Lord will do wonders among” us. So let’s be sure to stay prayed-up, cleansed from sin, and restored from unrighteousness (see 1 John 1:9). Don’t even think about following God into the unknown if you’re not spiritually prepared to meet with Him there.
  5. Don’t be so committed to yesterday that you miss what God has for you tomorrow. “The Lord will do wonders among you tomorrow,” Joshua reported. But while the guiding presence of the Lord was evident in the Ark’s procession, it wasn’t exactly like the pillar of cloud or smoke they knew only a generation before. And while the waters of the Jordan River stacked up for them to cross, it wasn’t exactly like the parting of the Red Sea. In fact, even Joshua himself, though being used powerfully by God, was unlike Moses in many ways. But that’s just the thing. Churches are often so committed to what God has done in their yesterdays that they completely miss Him in their tomorrows. Tomorrow will not look exactly like yesterday. The music will change. The architecture will change. The particular English translation of the biblical text with change. The outreach and in reach methods will change. No, you’ve never done it that way before. But that’s good… because God’s doing a new thing. If your expectation of tomorrow is that it will mirror the things of yesterday, you’ll never step into the Jordan River. And you’ll never step foot onto the promises that God has ahead of your church.

So, embrace the new things God’s doing in your church. New doesn’t always mean bad. God will never lead you where His presence does not go before you. Make sure you don’t get ahead of God. Be spiritually prepared, expecting every day for God to do a fresh, new work. And don’t be so committed to how God has worked in the past that you miss what He’s up to in the present and what He’s leading you toward in the future.

Grace and Peace,
Tony

5 Reasons You Need to Go to Church

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Sporting events, recitals and performances, hunting seasons, sleepless nights, family problems, conflict with others in the church, bad hair days, too much rain, too much sunshine… If you’re looking for an excuse to not be regular in church attendance, you don’t have to look for long. The culture in which we live pulls each of us in a thousand different directions every weekend, vying for our time, resources, and energy. But let’s get to the point. If you are a born again believer in Jesus Christ, you need to go to church. And here are 5 reasons why:

1) To be an active part of the mission of God.

In Mt. 16:18, Jesus tells the disciples that He will build His church for His mission. Later, in Mt. 28:18-20, He empowers His church for that mission. God is up to something in the world. He is advancing His kingdom through the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel will reach the ends of the earth (Mt. 24:14), whether you are part of that movement or not. God’s mission is that every person lost in sin and scarred by its ravaging effects would hear the good news of salvation, then be given the opportunity to receive that salvation through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus. “What is God’s plan for this global gospel initiative?” you ask. The answer: the local church. That’s right. God’s created and chosen vehicle for worldwide gospel propagation is the local church. And if you are a born again believer in Jesus, He has invited you to be a part of His gospel movement, pushing back the darkness and heralding the light of Christ all over the world through the work and witness of the local church. Through your faithful attendance, sacrificial financial giving, and active service within the Body of Christ (the local church), you are being an active part of the mission of God. You are joining the movement of gospel advance.

2)  To develop contextualized spiritual wisdom and understanding.

In the local church, you have the weekly opportunity to sit under the Spirit-filled preaching of God’s Word and to participate in the interactive teaching of God’s Word in small groups. Christ has chosen and set apart some to be teachers, preachers, and evangelists who are divinely charged and enabled to equip you for the mission of God (Eph. 4:11-12). If you are not regularly positioning yourself under the preaching and teaching of God’s Word in a local church body, you are depriving yourself of being equipped for the mission. In 1 Thess 3:10, Paul told the Thessalonian church that he was praying to see them “face to face” so that he could “complete what is lacking” in their faith. In order to grow up in their faith under the teaching of God’s Word, they didn’t need another internet sermon or social media quick-shot Bible verse. Paul was praying for the opportunity to see them “face to face.” He wanted to brush shoulders with the people he was leading. He wanted to do life with them. Sermons and teaching series within a local church body are timely and contextual. When you hear a sermon on the internet or television, keep in mind that sermon was developed and delivered to a certain group of people in a certain context at a certain time in their life together. If it was a biblical, Christ-centered sermon it still carries value as such, but it is deprived of the contextual elements of church life together. However, if you are regularly positioning yourself under the Spirit-filled, Christ-centered preaching and teaching of God’s Word in a local church, the spiritual wisdom and understanding that you are gaining is being contextualized to your geographic area and to the timely issues of your own day. You need this.

3) To participate in corporate worship of King Jesus.

Yes, you can worship God on your own. But no, it’s just not the same. Scripture is replete with teaching on the value of corporate worship gatherings. When we lift up our voices together in song, prayer, and Scripture reading, it is a powerful thing. In Acts Chapter 4, the believers all “raised their voices together to God and said…” (v.24). The result of this corporate prayer was that “the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak God’s message with boldness” (v.31). Even in Heaven, there is and will be untold power in the joining of the saints’ voices: “they sang a new song…” and “they said with a loud voice…” (Rev. 5:9, 12). In Luke Chapter 19, The religious better-than-you’s instructed Jesus to stop His followers from worshipping Him. He responded that if they did not corporately do so, the stones would cry out! Psalm 19 teaches us that the heavens and the skies proclaim the glory of the King. When we gather together in corporate worship, we may be singing new songs but they are all part of an old song which has been sung since the foundation of the world. Through participation in corporate worship within the local church body, we have the great privilege of joining in with all of creation to declare the greatness, goodness, glory, and grace of King Jesus. But if you don’t go to church, well, you’ll miss out.

4) To live in biblical community.

Believe it or not, the word “fellowship” in the Bible is not a synonym for “potluck.” Fellowship happens as a group of people become more and more united in a common identity, with a common mission born from a common motivation.  It happens when God’s people begin to understand that we don’t attend Outskirts Baptist Church; we are Outskirts Baptist Church. Fellowship was something to which the early church “devoted themselves” (Acts 2:42). The believers were not in a constant consumer-driven, church-shopping state of mind, ready to move on to the next greatest thing. They were devoted. When things were good, they celebrated together. When things were difficult, they dug in and shared a common commitment to each other. This fellowship was unique in their cultural context. It was different – a good different. So much so that they were “enjoying favor with all the people”; as a result, “every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Listen, 21st Century American Christian… you don’t just need to go to a local church; you need to be the local church. Learn to live in biblical community. Learn to give up your preferences and desires so that the unity of the church body and advancement of the gospel will be gloriously peculiar in your day, as it was in the day of the early church. Serve and be served. Do life together with the believers in your local church body. Be committed. Be devoted. This is what it looks like to live in biblical community.

5)  To live in obedience to God. 

This is where God plays the “because I said so” card. Even if you don’t completely understand why being actively devoted to your local church body is valuable, if you are going to live in obedience to God’s Word you must regularly attend a Bible-beleiving, Christ-centered local church. In Hebrews 10:24-25 we read, “And let us watch out for one another to provide love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” Not attending church regularly can become a habit very quickly. The culture in which you live pulls you in a thousand different directions every weekend. Your options are endless. But God’s Word is clear that Christians are to make regular church attendance a priority. Even if you don’t understand why, the biblical instruction is to trust God’s will and live in obedience. Christian, if you are in the habit of not attending church, it’s time for a new normal.

Grace and Peace,
Tony

I Believe in Christian Teens

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I believe that from within the church God is raising up an army of counter-cultural warriors for the faith. I believe that this generation of born again believers will be sold-out for Christ, not bending their intellect to the whims of cultural godlessness, but unreservedly living out a faith that is firmly grounded in biblical Christianity.

I believe that this coming generation of Christ followers will speak boldly where we have kept silent. I believe that their speech will be seasoned with salt, but unabashedly truthful in witness to the authority, inerrancy, and reliability of God’s Word. Their mouths will not only sing praises to God, but will actively tell future generations of the Gospel-grace of God that is found through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ.

I believe their conduct will bear living testimony to the joy of doing life God’s way. They will walk worthy of their calling in Christ. They will put to death the cravings of the flesh, and bring to life those actions that are congruous with the holiness of God to which they have been redeemed. Their lifestyles will model the message of Christ that their lips proclaim.

I believe they will love people – all people – like we have failed to love them. Their self-sacrificing, Christlike love will not be bound either by old stereotypes or by current events. This love of theirs, fresh and deep, will be living proof of their loving God.

I believe this new generation of Christians will return to biblical purity – sexually, mentally, and relationally. I believe the curse of sinful sexual temptation, having spiraled out of control in recent generations, will be obliterated as they crawl out of the salacious cultural bed we have made for them, preferring instead to honor the marriage bed as holy unto God.

I believe in Christian Teens.

“Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12, CSB)

Grace and Peace,
Tony

The End of God’s Blessings

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Why would God bless us? Why would He show us favor? Scripture reminds us often that apart from the salvific work of Jesus Christ, humanity is altogether vile, ungodly, self-centered, and short-lived. Why would the infinite, holy God of the universe see fit to pour out His blessings and His favor on us? Certainly we do not deserve it.

We pray for God’s blessings. We pray for healing. We pray for financial freedom. For effectiveness in our various endeavors. For grace toward our children and grandchildren. For God to show up in our circumstances as only He can do… And He does… He answers our prayers. In fact, the Bible teaches us that the prayer of the righteous effectively moves the heart of God.

But why? Why would God bless us and show us favor? Surely there is an end… a purpose… a goal. There’s a word used often in the Greek New Testament to describe the end or the ultimate purpose of something. The word is τέλειος. It describes the state of something when it has grown to its fullest potential – the end goal of something. James used the word in the context of Christian endurance (Ja. 1:4). John used it in the context of Christian love (1 Jn. 4:18). The writer of Hebrews, in the context of the Christian’s personal spiritual growth (Hb. 4:14). The Apostle Paul, in the context of the Christian church’s corporate growth in spiritual unity (Eph. 4:13).

But what is the end – the τέλειος – of the Christian’s blessings from God?

Vanessa and I read Scripture and pray together in the mornings. This morning, as she read Psalm 67 out loud I was reminded of why, ultimately, God chooses to bless those who love Him. And this reminder carries with it a bit of a wake-up call for the redeemed:

“May God be gracious to us and bless us; look on us with favor so that Your way may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations.” Psalm 67:1-2.

Apparently, God chooses to bless us and show us favor not for our benefit, but for the benefit of “the nations.” God’s blessings poured out on us have for their end the spreading of the Gospel across the corner and around the globe. This seems to be an increasingly foreign concept in our Western Culture… we tend to understand God’s blessings and God’s favor as rewards for our faithfulness, or as His stamp of approval on our lives. But biblically speaking, the end of our blessings is not our satisfaction or our comfort. The end of God’s blessing and favor toward us is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would reach the ends of the earth.

How has God blessed you? How has He shown you favor? And how are you allowing Him to channel His blessings and favor through you, to the ends of the earth? Are your blessings growing to their fullest potential – to their τέλειος?

Christian, God has not blessed you so that you can sit and soak in your blessings. He has blessed you so that His love and His truth will overflow from you – financially, verbally, spiritually, physically, emotionally, relationally – into the lives of others He has put around you… all for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If you are hoarding your blessings to yourself, Christian, you’re doing it wrong. But if the blessings of God are flowing through you regularly, faithfully, generously… then perhaps verse 7 will become true in/through your life: “God will bless us, and all the ends of the earth will fear Him.”

Grace and Peace, Tony

Church, POTUS, & Allegiance

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Photo Credit: http://www.nytimes.com

“I pray that the perception of your mind may be enlightened so you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the glorious riches of His inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power to us who believe, according to the working of His vast strength. He demonstrated this power in the Messiah by raising Him from the dead and seating Him at His right hand in the heavens—far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, and every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to comeAnd He put everything under His feet and appointed Him as head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of the One who fills all things in every way.” Ephesians 1:18-23 (HCSB, emphasis added)

It burdens me to see so many Christians (pastors, even) inciting and facilitating division among brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s get this straight. There is only One Name above every other name. There is only One Ruler who deserves our unquestioned allegiance. There is only One Lord over all, who rules and reigns at the right hand of God the Father. Every other name is only named for a fleeting moment. Every other title given is subject to the ultimate authority of the God of the Ages. Every other figure, no matter how iconic or powerful, still rules under the feet of the appointed One–Jesus Christ.

According to the Holy Spirit’s word through the Apostle Paul, if we forget this–if we fail to stake our allegiance in Christ alone–we have dulled our minds to the “hope of His calling,” the “glorious riches of His inheritance,” and “the immeasurable greatness of His power to us who believe” (vs.18-19 above). So I pray with Paul, that the “perception of our minds would be enlightened.”

Is Christ divided? Then why do we intentionally and rigidly divide His Body? Is such rigid allegiance really worth undermining the advancement of the gospel? “For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and living like unbelievers? . . . are you not unspiritual people?” (1 Cor. 3:3-4, HCSB). Understand this, Christian: every word spoken, every idea thought, every action taken… it all teaches the watching world something about the Christ we proclaim. How embarrassing it must be to our Lord when our open divisions and dissensions portray a divided Christ to the world He came to save.

So not in the spirit of unity for unity’s sake, but in the spirit of unity for Christ’s sake, I appeal to you, my brother or sister in Jesus. Be careful unilaterally staking your allegiance to anyone or anything other than Christ Himself. Before you type that post, make that phone call, compose that tweet, or speak your mind, be sure that every action and every word is submitted in humble allegiance to the Lordship of Jesus Christ alone. And for the love of Jesus (literally), spend your energy, time, voice, and resources making much of Jesus instead of making much of some temporary name named.

Grace and Peace, Tony