Friday, August 31, 2012

My Concise Guide to Going to a New Church

Being that it is the Friday before a holiday weekend, I think I will keep it light today.  With yesterday's post about changing churches, I figured today I would give you my brief guide on how to attend a new church.  I know many of you are thinking that going to a new church really does not require instruction, but as someone who has been a new member at a church several times, I can tell you that there are some important things you can do, especially if you are making that new church your home church. 

Going to a new church for the first time is generally an awkward experience.  It might be less awkward in a mega church, where it is easier to get lost in, but do not let that be a reason to choose a larger church instead of a smaller one.  Let God direct you to whatever church you go to, not your own fears.  Going to a new church is awkward because generally speaking everyone knows everyone else.  I not saying everyone is best of friends, but there is at the very least a familiarity between everyone whereas you kind of stand out as a newcomer.  You may feel like everyone is staring at you, and to some extend you may be right.  Many people will give you a second or longer look because you are unfamiliar.  They are not being mean or unwelcoming, they are reacting the same way you would (and will again) react when something new is introduced into a familiar environment. 

Once you make it through the door and unfamiliar faces, there is oftentimes a temptation to sit as far in the back and away from everyone else as humanly possible.  First of all, this is not helpful.  Secondly, it defeats the entire purpose of trying not to stand out.  Sitting alone in the back of a church as a new guest, paints the very target on you that you are trying to avoid.  Just find a seat, somewhere in the middle and somewhere where other people will be around you.  Trust me as I know this from experience, it is much easier for people to be welcoming when it looks like you actually want to be welcomed. 

Once you have your seat and people start filling the spots around you, some will inevitably ask if you are new there.  Be honest, tell them you are.  Observe how welcoming or unwelcoming they are.  These are important observations to make as you never really know how well a church family is receptive to new members until you are actually there.  Quite honestly, though, if they are not a welcoming family then you really do not want to be a part of that church anyway.  Another thing to observe is if their talk is about God and what He is doing in their lives or is it generally mundane things.  I am not saying that everyone should be talking Scripture to everyone, but God should old a place in the conversation other than being preceded by "Oh my."    Once the service is over, do not just run out. Once again, they will never get a chance to know you if you are not there to let them get to know you.  Again, I speak from my own experiences.  Talk to the pastor, talk to other people, get a feel for what kind of programs they have to offer.

If things go well and you feel this is where God wants this place to become your church home, then get involved.  I do not mean in terms of ministry just yet.  They should not know you well enough at this point to ask you to be involved in any kind of serving.  It may be discouraging, especially if you have been a Christian for a long time, but this is actually a positive for the church.  It would be irresponsible of them to just let a complete stranger take the reigns of ministry.  What I do mean is get involved with fellowship groups.  If you are a woman, join the woman's group.  If you are a man, join the men's group.  If they have a home group near your home or within a reasonable distance, join in with them.  This is how you will develop friendships.  If the church has no such opportunities, then I would be a little suspicious.  It is not enough to write a church off, but it is enough to be concerned.  Either way, seeing each other in church for a little while each week is not enough to make friends, you need to be a part of more intimate groups where you have the chance to let people get to know you as you get to know other people. 

That's basically it.  As I said, its my "brief" guide.  The real bottom line is that as awkward as it may be at first, you need to make yourself a part of the church.  If the church has any worth, they all want you to become part of their family.  You just have to let them know that you have that same desire.  They want to get to know you, but you need to make yourself available.  They want to involve you, but you have to take the steps to get involved.  If you show up only on Sundays and leave as soon as the last "Amen" is spoken, you will never have the chance to start to fit in.  I know it may be a little weird at first, but one day you will be the one welcoming newcomers into the family. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Knowing the Right Time to Say Goodbye

People change churches for many reasons.  Some of the reasons are good and some are bad, but it is usually a very difficult decision to make and sometimes even more difficult to actually do.  This is especially true if you have been a part of a church for a very long time where deep relationships have developed.   Sometimes, though, it is time to move on.  What are the right and wrong reasons to leave a church?  I am not talking about if you move far away or if a church splits or even closes, I am talking about those times when we just end our time at one church and become a member of another one.  I am also not talking about silly and unscriptural reasons like that you are in an argument with someone or if you like the style of worship better at another church.  What it all really comes down to is doctrine and what side of this prophesy you are on.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, [because] they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn [their] ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.  2 Timothy 4:3-4 NKJV
This prophesy reflects both the right and wrong reason to leave a church.  If your pastor is teaching a doctrine meant to satisfy itching ears, then it is time to leave.  These are the pastors that teach everything your flesh wants to hear.  They teach prosperity, experiential yet unscriptural Christianity, focus on signs and wonders to amaze the senses, and/or a Christianity with no repentance.   They teach that you can take your ticket to heaven and tuck it away until you need it and go on living whatever kind of life you want to live.   If your pastor is going away from the Bible and getting more into opinion and experience, then you really must consider leaving lest you become infected as well.  Many good pastors have been overtaken by some of the plethora of apostate doctrines abounding in the church today.  It is of the utmost importance that if your church goes down one of these paths leading to destruction that you must prayerfully consider leaving and act should the Lord direct you to do so.

The other side of the coin is that you should never leave your church for a doctrinal position that you "like" better.  I do not mean leaving your church for one with more solid teaching, but I do mean leaving your church for one that teaches what you want to hear.  For example, someone struggling with homosexuality who leaves a church that teaches the truth that homosexuality is a sin for a church that teaches that it is not.  A pastor teaching a wrong doctrine does not make that doctrine right.  Doctrine can not be judged by how many people believe it or teach it, but it must always be judged by what the Bible actually says.  By the Bible, I mean the whole Bible and not passages taken out of context and twisted to mean whatever one wants it to mean.  Back to the point I am discussing, if the doctrine of a church is solidly scriptural and it makes you uncomfortable, the problem is with you and not with what your pastor is teaching.  We should never look for a church to make us feel better about our sin or whatever other areas of our lives are displeasing to God.  We should look for a church that teaches solid doctrine that challenges us to look to change those parts of our lives.  I say that because God is not one who conforms to us, but it is us who are called to conform to Him.

I realize what I said could be taken to some legalistic extreme, so let me clarify that issue before I continue.  I consider those who leave a doctrinally sound church for a overly legalistic one or even one who stays in an overly legalistic one when they should leave as the same as one who would leave or stay for a preference with a more liberal doctrine.  That is because those who seek or stay in an overly legalistic environment, for the most part, do so because they want to feel as though they earned a part of their salvation.  It is about pride.  It is about saying that they are able to be holier than others or that they are able to live without sin.  They like to brag about their level of faith and even look down upon others whom they perceive as having less of a faith.  Surely these churches do impose a sense of fear that if they leave that they will be ostracized or even possibly endanger their salvation, but that is no excuse for those who are caught up in this to read what is clear and plain in Scripture or to put earthly relationships over and above their relationship with God.  The fact is that while some may stay out of an inexcusable fear, most remain out of pride.

Their are a few questions we need to ask ourselves when deciding to stay or leave a church.  Are we being challenged to conform ourselves to the image of Christ?  Is the whole counsel of God being taught?  Are we being taught the principles of Christian living as expressed through Paul in his epistles?  Are we being encouraged to study the Bible on our own?  Are we being encouraged to witness to our community?  Does our church even have an active community outreach?  Am I being encouraged and given the opportunity to seek out what ministry God has for me?  Are the other members good sources of spiritual example and encouragement?   Are our service styles and tradition backed up by Scripture or is any extra-scriptural being added?  Is the pastor's family a testimony to his leadership of the home?  Some may think that last question is unfair, but the Bible does clearly state that as being a requirement to be a leader in a church.  There are others but these are a good place to start. 

Ultimately, the deciding factor of whether or not to leave a church is the Lord's direction.  It is something that should be considered only after prayer and direction.  It is also important to have a church to start attending after you leave as it is very easy to get into the lazy habit of not going to church at all.  When we pray, the Lord will give us direction and it is up to us to act on that direction.  God is generally not in the business of forcibly removing people from churches.  That is generally up to us.  Unfortunately, many pray and know that direction and do not act on it.  I, myself, have been guilty of this very thing.  We can not ask for fleece after fleece after fleece as a sure sign that God wants us to move.  For any called to move, I truly believe you really know but are just hesitating out of fear of the unknown, the habit of going to where you are, hurting feelings, or moving away from relationships.  We can not put any of that, though, over the Lord's direction.  The Lord knows those concerns and He would not have called you to act if He did not have a plan and a reason for all those possibilities.  On the other hand, it is important that we seek to conform ourselves to the image of Christ and not look for someone who teaches a Jesus who is a lot like who we are already.  What I mean is that we should not leave a church for a pastor who makes us feel comfortable in our sins and failures.  He should not condemn us either, but his teaching should challenge us and encourage us to live that life as a man or woman of God.  I will end with what effect the church should be having in our lives.
And He Himself gave some [to be] apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ-- from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.  Ephesians 4:11-16 NKJV

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Cold Hard Reality Check

We live in hard times.  No these aren't the hardest times ever lived, even by American standards.  Also, we do not live in hard times compared to most of the rest of the world.  I am not going to debate the whole issue today of First World Problems vs. Third World Reality.  The fact is that many of us go through hard times, many of are going through hard times, many of us have had an entire life of hard times, and many of us have hard times yet to come.  That, my friends, is reality. 
[We are] hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; [we are] perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed-- always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.  2 Corinthians 4:8-10 NKJV
I know this verse is mostly about persecution.  Its message transcends persecution, though, and is a really good passage about our dual reality.  That reality is that this world is hard and it is out to get us, but we have a superseding reality that it all does not matter in the end.  The world is hard, but it is only our home for a short time.  We may be in poverty in this world, but we have eternal treasures waiting for us in heaven.  Life may be hard, but it is only hard for a time.  Hard times may be even more difficult, but they are only for a time.  If not for Jesus, this world would truly be hopeless.  If not for Jesus, we really would have nothing to live for.  This hopelessness is brilliantly illustrated by Solomon in Ecclesiastes.  Without God, life becomes a pointless meandering ending in death.  Even if you "make your mark" on the world or even if you leave children behind, what does it matter?  Maybe it will matter to others, but it would matter absolutely nothing to you who entered the great nothingness of godless death.  Eventually, history will have even forgotten you and every mark you left would be superseded by other marks left by others.  If you are lucky, your life will become a legend of half and assumed truths.  Even still, you are still dead and gone with all that you once were rotting away in a box sealed so tight you are not even allowed to become part of nature.  That is reality without God. 

Thank God we do not have to consider such a reality.  We have everlasting life through Jesus Christ.  We have a hope of an eternal and perfect world to come.  We do not go to a "better" place but to a perfect place.  We do not go to a place where time goes on forever but to where time does not even matter at all.  We go to a place where money is seen for the silliness that it really is.  We go to a place where our treasures really do last forever because we will never have need to even use them.  We will live in a world where what we did on earth may be forgotten (or forgiven), but those things done for Jesus are memorialized in those who are your new eternal neighbors through the work that you did.  We are not saved by works for sure, but others are led to salvation through our works.  That will be a reality as we meet the lives of those we may never even knew we touched until we meet them in Heaven.  As for our bodies, we will be raised up into new and glorified bodies never to be touched by sickness or injury.  It is that hope of a new life that gets us through this life. 

We really need that hope.  Despite the repugnant apostate ramblings of prosperity preachers and the sheep who follow those wolves in to greed and despair, the reality of life is that it is usually hard.  Fortunately, we do not face the cold hard reality of life alone but by the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.  That is why we can say those same things that Paul said in 2 Corinthians. 

We are hard pressed on every side.  If you do not have a job, you have bill collectors, the needs of your family, and others all clamoring for money you do not have.  If you do work, you have the constant reality that your job could be lost.  No one is safely employed in these times and employers know that.  We have deadlines, overbearing bosses, many hours away from home, and many other demands unique to whatever job you have.  Despite all these crushing forces coming around us day in and and day out, we are not crushed.  We have the Holy Spirit in our hearts leading us and guiding us through the maze of stress that is our life.  What brings many down, we are sustained.  Though there are times we want to throw our hands up and give up, we do not.  We continue on day after day facing the stress of this world by the power of Jesus working in our lives.  That is how we face it, but we are not crushed by it.  In fact, it is our reaction to hard times that leads many to the Lord.  What causes much of the world to live in fear and despair, we handle with joy and faith knowing that no matter what happens, the Lord will get us through. 

How many of us have been perplexed?  How many of us have asked the question "Why me?" or "When will it be by turn?"  or "How long?"  etc.  We all had those moments where life overtakes us for a moment before we remember our faith.  God does not always answer those questions for us right when we ask them and sometimes He does not answer at all.  I believe there are many things in our lives that we will never understand until we are present with Him in eternity.  Yet despite the uncertainty, we are not in despair.  That is because we have trust in God that He will get us through no matter what it is we are going through.  We need not be in despair because even when we do not understand, we know that God does and that God does love us. 

And, finally, all of us could say that we have been struck down.  Whether it be the unrequited crush we have had when we were young or whether we were left at the alter ready to begin a new life that never will.  We have all faced loss whether it be jobs, money, or loved ones.  Many of us have been fired, laid off, and repeatedly turned down for jobs.  Many of us have watched as others received raises and promotions we thought we were in line for.  Many have lost in sports, careers, relationships, and more.  Some have been struck down by serious health problems in their lives or in the life of someone they love.  Yet no matter how many times we are struck down, we keep getting back up because we are not destroyed.  We will never be destroyed.  We get up because we are not working under our own strength but with through Jesus Christ who strengthens us no matter what we face in this world.  There is nothing in this world more powerful to destroy us than Jesus Christ is to sustain us.  There is nothing that happens to us in Christ that is not allowed by God to happen to us.  We walk in that faith, which gets us back up no matter how many times we are knocked down.

Someone some time ago posted a quote on Facebook that God saves his toughest battles for His strongest soldiers.  If only that were true!  God gives tough battles for various reasons to various people.  For some (such as Peter when he denied Jesus), it was to humble him when he thought that his strength was more than it was.  For others (like Abraham when he was told to sacrifice his son), it was to show just how strong his faith really was.  In all cases, the end result is to increase our faith.  God does not save his toughest battles for His strongest soldiers, but His most faithful soldiers face and overcome every battle they face.  Life in Christ is a war with many battles.  Those battles will stretch and try our faith but as we face and make it through more and more of them, our faith increases all the more.  We all have our challenges and we all wake up each day and face those challenges yet again.  When we face them alone, we fail.  When we face them in faith that Jesus is going to fight that battle for us and through us, we are victorious.  When we do fail, it is important to get back up and face it all over again.  I say that because no matter how miserably we fail, no matter how much we are beaten down, no matter how much we think that we can not get up an do it all over again, we have a God who will restore us, encourage us, and strengthen us.  So, please, when you feel that life is getting the best of you and you are just ready to give up or when you think there is no way you can overcome or get back up and face your challenges again, remember this one thing.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  Philippians 4:13 NKJV

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The World in Fifty Shades of Grey

First of all, thank you everyone for your prayers.  My wife's surgery went well and she is now recovering well.  Please continue to pray for a complete and speedy recovery.  For the most part, when someone is recovering from surgery, the best thing to do for those first couple of days is absolutely nothing.  You want the healing to get well underway before you stress those wounds by trying to do too much.  I spent those couple of days with my wife and much of that time was spent watching television.  Seeing what passes for entertainment today, especially in terms of reality shows, I really wonder where this world is going.  People are oblivious to the end that awaits them and they are living empty sinful lives, or even worse, living vicariously through those (or through fictional characters) that that live those empty sinful lives for them.  Emptiness is what I see.  Empty lives and dead empty souls going through the motions of what they think life should be never really knowing they are walking dead, zombies enslaved to the base lusts of dying flesh, walking full on into judgement. 
But as the days of Noah [were], so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  Mark 24:37-39 NKJV
Just as in Noah's day, people are oblivious today to the judgement that is to come.  They know more about celebrity gossip and the dysfunctional lives of reality TV stars than they do about their own eternal destination.  Even worse, they care more about those things as well.  It is all about "eat, drink, and be merry" only they do not even contemplate that tomorrow they may die.  How else do you explain the fascination with such things as The Jersey Shore or Toddlers and Tiaras?  How do you explain the entertainment in watching pregnant teenagers struggle through life?  How else do you explain the joy in watching glorified fornication and humiliation as men and women throw themselves at a complete stranger for a relationship that will never work and makes a mockery of a sacred institution ordained by God?  How else do you explain when we eagerly watch a talk show host open an envelope to see who a baby's real father is?  How do we explain spending hours playing video games with realistic violence and sado-sexual themes?  How else do you explain the phenomena of Fifty Shades of Grey? 

Fifty Shades of Grey is a funny title.  I think it is a really symbol for what this world has become.  I say that because even Christians get caught up into all of this mess.  Instead of light shining in dark places, we only add white to the black of the world leaving us a murky grey.  Christians should not revel in the dysfunctional sinful lives of reality TV stars, we should be grieved by them.  We should not see them as entertainment but as lost souls bound for an eternity of Hell.  But we don't, we laugh and cheer them on right into Hell.  As for celebrity gossip, what makes it right just because they are celebrities?  Should we not be offended that there even is such a thing?  Should we watch the Jersey Shore waiting for what antics the drunken fornicators will get into next or should we be offended at the very thought of real life sin being real life entertainment?  Should we watch the exploitation of our children on Toddlers and Tiaras and laugh or should we be thinking of the millstones hanging around the necks of those who would exploit such children?  Do we watch pregnant unwed teenagers as entertainment or do we grieve for those children of children and the hard life they will have?  If I really need to explain why Fifty Share of Grey has no place in the life of a Christian, then you really need more spiritual help than this blog can provide.  Just because there are no pictures, it does not mean that it is not pornography.  We should be completely ashamed at ourselves if we think any of that is entertainment. 

Maybe you won't be as cool if you do not know the latest celebrity gossip.  Maybe you are strange if shopping, sports, or any of the other minutia of this world is not the top topic of conversation.  Maybe people would be put off because you like to talk about Jesus.  Maybe you won't be as popular if you are offended at sin and grieved by sinners and children exploited on television.  But, seriously, that is how it is supposed to be.  We are not called to intermingle with the world adding our light to its black to make grey.  We are called to be a stark contrast to the world.  We are supposed to stand out, we are not supposed to fit in, and we certainly are not supposed to try to fit in by being entertained by that which should offend and grieve us.  The world is heading straight forward to judgement and most of the people you see around you are heading straight forward into Hell.  That needs to be our priority.  That needs to be the driving force of our hearts.  We should never be entertained by a Hell-bound sinner but our hearts should grieve and cry out for their salvation.  Be a light in contrast to the dark world.  Be a light shining as a beacon of hope for all those who want to rise above the misery of a fallen life in this dark world.  After all, any shade of grey is just a lighter shade of black. 
For you were once darkness, but now [you are] light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit [is] in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose [them].  Ephesians 5:8-11 NKJV

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.  1 John 1:5 NKJV