Monday, February 26, 2007

Psalm 138:2 (Part 7) - "HOW" - We Can Know Our Methods Are Wrong...

“I bow down towards your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you exalted above all things your name and your word.” Psalm 138:2 (ESV)

The methodology your church uses in its decision-making process will either be primarily based on spiritual reliance or human pragmatism. It is much easier, given our nature, to work in our own strength than it is to deny ourselves, set aside our own plans and thinking and humble ourselves before the Lord… and do His work His way. In far too many evangelical churches, decisions are made through pragmatic thinking and human wisdom rather than through the leadership of the Holy Spirit through God’s appointed means – prayer and the Word.

But how can you know… especially if your leaders tell you that they are “waiting on God for direction,” “prayerfully seeking through diligent study of the Word” and that they are pursuing “God’s direction”? Can one observe whether the methodology used is actually wrong?

Well, yes… you can observe this. What’s more, you should. Jesus told us that we would be able to distinguish between true and false prophets not by their programs or even their doctrine, but by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). Even as trees produce fruit in accordance with their nature (apple trees won’t produce pears), so false prophets produce evil fruit… and bad methodology produces bad fruit as well.

So what are the fruits of a human-centered, pragmatic methodology of doing God’s work? I’ll suggest just five things, although there are many, many more. But these five things seem to me to be sadly commonplace in today’s evangelical movement. In evaluating your circumstance, ask yourself the following five questions:

1. Strategy vs. Revelation

In setting corporate direction, does your leadership focus on “strategy” or “revelation”? When pragmatism rules over spiritual direction, strategy replaces revelation in determining direction for the local body. There is much talk in churches about “vision” – you’ve heard people quote the King James Version of Proverbs 29:18 “without vision the people perish…”, and use that thought to discuss the process of articulating a church’s “strategy”. This strategy then becomes the lens through which the church’s plans and activities are filtered. But is that what the Bible is discussing? Consider the ESV translation of the same verse: “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint (or are discouraged)…”. I would suggest that the great need of our churches is NOT a strategy – it is a living and ongoing REVELATION… a Word from God. He’s ready to lead us at all times, with regard to all things.

By contrast (and for example), who hasn't felt the effects of the "purpose-driven" model of church ministry? Scan CT or other “Christian” magazines, and you’ll be surprised at the plethora of resources available to churches for strategies for ministry. Too often church operations or growth strategies are marketed to church leaders as “God’s direction for their church” and the hard work of seeking God’s face in prayer and through the Word is replaced for $19.95 through

God’s plan and purpose is found by those who seek Him with their whole heart. It can not be substituted by man-made plans, gimmicks and clever marketing plans.

2. Authority vs. Servanthood

In leadership style, which is valued in practice more highly: Servanthood or Authority? The road to leadership is a path of decline. Jesus said to His disciples, “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). The attitude of leadership must follow John the Baptist’s when he said about Jesus that “…He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). Too often though, it seems to me that some men in leadership become more concerned about their own authority than in serving those under their care. Leaders who say that they care for “the least and the lost” and then treat the sheep under their care with distain reveal their true heart.

Do you know someone who has left your church? The manner in which they were treated by leadership on the way out is an important measure of the Godliness of the leadership. Assume that the person leaving is completely wrong in doing so… the example of Jesus would be to seek out that one and bring them back into the fold. “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11). Sheep are prone to wander, to stray and frankly, they aren’t too smart. Shepherds don’t get mad at sheep for being sheep – they go after them. All too often in our fellowships, we care far more about the bringing people in the “front door” than we do about keeping them from going out the “back door” – or pursuing them when they’ve left. It is especially telling when the reaction of leadership is based primarily on their “authority.” Sadly, some men in leadership view any disagreement with them as such an affront to their “authority” that they won’t even respond to people who question them! (For more on this, see also #4 below.)

3. Control/Manipulation vs. Integrity

Does your decision-making team value control and manipulation over integrity in reaching a goal, decision or agreement? In making a decision or setting direction, does your leadership sometimes go through the motions of evaluating the options, seeking direction and guidance, asking for input from the congregation while the end has already been determined? Many who have ever participated in a church capital campaign or building program have felt this pressure. From facility decisions to personal decisions to direction decisions, human wisdom says that “good leadership brings people to the right conclusion” – without recognizing that they are being manipulative and coercive in practice. Like Annanias and Saphira before them, the problem isn’t necessarily what they decided… it is the lie about how they did it that is offensive.

It is sufficient to say that any organization that claims to be seeking the Lord’s guidance and direction over a decision when the end has already been determined by leadership, and those involved in the process are directed, or even bullied to come to the pre-determined conclusion is not being led by the Holy Spirit.

4. Acquiescence vs. Authenticity

What is, as a practical matter, the quality of relationships in your fellowship? Do superficial relationships (marked by tranquility and silence about any disagreement) replace genuine growing relationships – particularly from the perspective of leaders to those under their charge?

Lucy, in the Peanuts cartoon was quoted once as saying “I love humanity, its people I can’t stand!” Sadly, that is all too often true in church leadership structures. Leaders talk about loving people, wanting to reach them for Christ and to serve them, but show little practical tolerance for those who show up in their fellowship and raise questions or have a different opinion than leadership. Someone said sadly once, the way to be loved in their church was to never attend. Services would then be designed for you, your opinions would matter, people would be friendly to you when you visited. But in some churches, once you commit and become part of the body, you’re no longer important as a practical matter.

When questions or differences of opinion are met with anger and even hostility from leadership, that’s a bad sign about relationships. It is a sad fact, but a fact none the less, that lying about disagreement – pretending things are well when they are not – is often rewarded in practice while seeking to work through disagreements is discouraged.

Jesus said that being in right relationship with each other is something that is more important even than worship itself (see Matthew 5:23-24)! While it is not always possible to work through every disagreement, it is the heart cry of all of God’s people to do so. It is the characteristic that demonstrates that we belong to Jesus (John 13:35)… and when the desire to work through issues is set aside for other purposes, it is evidence of something terribly wrong in the body.

5. Compromise vs. Clarity/Consistency

Is God’s Word preached plainly and without compromise, or is it filtered to screen out the portions which are perceived to be offensive to the “target audience” or otherwise uncomfortable? For example, when repentance is taught without reference to the required changes in behavior that demonstrate repentance, an important portion of the teaching is missing the whole counsel of God is not being taught.

Just as one example, when was the last time you heard a sermon on the topic of Hell? The doctrine of the eternal damnation of those apart from Jesus is clearly taught in Scripture, but rarely from the Evangelical church pulpit. If you’ve never heard this doctrine actually preached, I’d recommend that you spend 9 minutes of your time and watch this video clip (I’d also highly recommend the article discussing this clip).

Further, even when God’s Word is preached, and Biblical truth is proclaimed with clarity, failure on the part of leadership to conform to that truth – or at least to be grieved by their lack thereof – is a self-evident demonstration of a serious problem. And the fact that that lack of conformity is not widely known does not change the fact that it exists, and that it is dishonoring to the Lord.

It is the responsibility of church leadership to faithfully preach, and to live, the whole counsel of God. When the message is filtered, or denied in practice, the methodology is wrong no matter how “right” the message.

When the Holy Spirit is NOT in control, human pragmatism replaces spiritual power, and this is evidenced by:

  • A focus on corporate strategy without personal revelation from the Lord;
  • Exercises of authority in leadership being more prevalent than demonstrations of servanthood by leadership;
  • Group decisions being obtained through control and manipulation at the expense of honesty and genuine agreement;
  • Relationships are marked by an unwritten rule of “getting along at any cost,” with silence about disagreement and acquiescence ruling over honest relationship; and
  • Biblical Truth is filtered or inadequately applied by leadership.
These methods, which I submit are far too prevalent in today’s evangelical churches, are man-centered and dishonoring to God. No matter what “end” it is that we claim to pursue, these methods do not “exalt God’s Name and His Word above all things.” No matter what good we may do through them (or in spite of them), we miss widely the mark of how we should function as an organization. And it matters to God… it really does.

No matter what one’s talk is, or WHAT they are doing, the HOW matters. Their walk and practice demonstrates whether the Holy Spirit is leading or not. And when He is, your leaders will seek spiritual wisdom through dependence primarily on prayer and the Word as the practical methods of decision-making rather than relying on their own wisdom. This will be evidenced by leadership that:

  • Earnestly seeks God’s revelation and does not rely on human strategy;
  • Leads as servants, not authoritarians;
  • Values honesty and integrity, and sets aside controlling, manipulative techniques to reach agreement;
  • Demonstrates humility, evidenced in genuine relationships with each other and the body; and
  • Loves all of God’s truth – even the “hard” parts – and are honest and direct in their self-assessments of how they follow it.
God is grieved by any methodology that replaces reliance on His Name and His Word with human effort… and God’s people should be as well. And there is no substitute for exalting God’s Name and His Word. We find His way to do things by earnestly seeking Him and His direction in prayer and in His Word. A focus on doing things God’s way – with His direction and under His power is not just hard… humanly, it is impossible! Doing things God’s way means that we must renounce ourselves, our plans, our methods… ourselves, and cast ourselves totally on Him. This posture requires, of course, brokenness and humility before God, and a right relationship between each of us and God.

If God’s work is worth doing, its worth doing God’s way, isn’t it?

“Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16).

Next time: “WHO” – Are We Wrong?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Psalm 138:2 (Part 6) "HOW" - Is Our Methodology Wrong?

"I bow down towards your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you exalted above all things your name and your word.” Psalm 138:2 (ESV)

We looked last time at 3 examples in the Scripture where the WHAT was right, but the HOW was wrong… in leaders, leadership team members and in individuals. The Bible teaches that it is not enough to just do the right things… the WHAT may be OK, but HOW we do what we do matters also to God. So what’s your experience – and how does your local fellowship do what it does? In its methodology, does it follow the example of our Lord and "exalt God’s Name and His Word above all things"? (Ps. 138:2)

Sadly, my conclusion is that many evangelical churches don’t do so well at this. In many cases, the way that churches do what they do – their methodology - clearly exalts man over God's Name and His Word – even when they are doing “the RIGHT things.” This is clear and sadly undeniable. As I continue to think about this further - and to observe the patterns more often, it is a heart-ache to realize the truth and extent of the problem.

When we rely on ourselves and human methodology, we deny the leadership of the Holy Spirit and exalt ourselves over the true head of the church. And often, it is not what we say that we are doing, but what we actually do that indicates the problem. But once again, don’t take my word for this… decide for yourself. Evidences of our usurping control from God, and the absence of genuine leadership of the Holy Spirit in the body is seen in a number of ways. Today, let’s look at the root issue – the thing that makes HOW we do even the right things wrong, and next time we’ll look at some “fruit” that follows.

I’ll offer some questions for you to ask yourself. Take a look at your own heart… the “HOW” for you… and look at the methodology used in your own local church by its leadership. Here’s a question to consider which will indicate to you whether the HOW in your experience exalts God’s Name and His Word above All THINGS:

When determining what to do as a practical matter, do you place greater practical value on human wisdom than on spiritual direction? In many cases, church decisions are driven more by reliance on human pragmatism than by waiting on God for spiritual direction and power.

What methodology does your church employ in the decision-making process? Is it, at its heart, human wisdom, sprinkled with pragmatism – or do your leaders honestly rely on spiritual means to make spiritual decisions? Just to get to the heart of the matter, I'll be blunt: Does dependence on prayer and actual use of the Bible receive lip-service, or is it your actual experience? Specifically:

1. Is prayer essential to your decision-making? Do you pray – really pray – seeking and expecting guidance from God in your decision-making process? Do you wait to hear from Him, or do you assume that your way is the right way?

In setting a course of action, some church leaders talk about being led by the Holy Spirit, but in fact (as a practical matter) follow their own best thinking, and assume the Holy Spirit’s leadership resides in their own plans. Prayer – when it happens at all for these men – is either something perfunctory before the discussion (“Dear Lord, guide our thinking…”) or a token thought after the decision has been made (“Bless our efforts, Lord”). Sadly, some church leaders appear to spend more time telling people about their process of “seeking the Lord’s guidance in prayer” and “studying the Word for direction” than the time they actually spend doing so as a group. All too often, corporate prayer for direction is a sadly rare phenomenon.

Think of the example of the example of Jehoshaphat, when confronted by the armies of Moab and Ammon (2 Chronicles 20). His first reaction to the news was that he “…set his face to seek the LORD” (20:3). Listen to his prayer:

“O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you. Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? And they have lived in it and have built for you in it a sanctuary for your name, saying ‘If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you – for your name is in this house – and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save.’ And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir, whom would not let Israel invade when they came from the last of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy – behold, they reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession, which you have given us to inherit. O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” Meanwhile, all Judah stood before the LORD, with their little ones, their wives, and their children. (Emphasis added)

They saw the problem. They made a decision to do nothing other than to set out to find the LORD, they focused on His character and His promise, and announced their intention to wait for God’s deliverance… and they stood there and waited for His answer. And this prayer, waiting and total attention on the LORD was their ONLY preparation for the battle!

Here’s my question put another way: When was the last time you were working with a group of Christians and had no idea how to proceed… with no indication of how to address an issue, and the group stopped to pray – really pray, with passion and expectancy – and seek the Lord’s face for wisdom and direction - determined to do nothing except what the Lord would then reveal... beyond the scope of prior thinking?

Are these examples in the Bible for someone else’s benefit? When we read our own church history, and hear of men who in leadership past have earnestly sought the Lord for direction and power, does their example provide no direction for us today?

All too often for busy church leaders, business meetings are well attended while the prayer meetings are neglected. Why is this? I would suggest that this happens because prayer is either unimportant or impractical in practice… and it is easier to be pragmatic and proceed with our own wisdom than it is to set our own reasoning aside and to seek the Lord’s direction.

We all acknowledge that God wants to lead us, and we should seek His direction in prayer, but too often our knowledge doesn’t translate into our own course of action! When prayer isn’t a practical part of the decision-making process, it becomes a token idea or an afterthought, devoid of passion, and our self-reliance demonstrates that we do not exalt God’s Name and His Word above ALL THINGS.

2. Do you actually use the Bible in making decisions? Is it actually important in the process? As a subculture, we are good in affirming the accuracy, priority, authority and clarity of the Scripture in theory. We say that "the Bible is our final authority for faith and practice", but in many cases, we do not use the Bible in our group decision-making process. As a practical matter, decisions are made by common sense, and the Bible is an afterthought in the process at best, normally used only to proof-text the conclusion already determined.

When confronted with a problem or need, do you go to the Bible for guidance and wisdom? Does it provide you direction? Is it really your “final authority for faith and practice”? Does anyone even bring their Bible to the meetings (and if they do, do they open them up and use them in the process)?

When was the last time you saw a decision made based on the Bible’s direction and authority? When was the last time you changed your mind – and your behavior – because of something you read in the Bible? Sadly, many church decisions are made without even a thought of whether the Bible might have something to say about the subject. We’ve talked previously about the attacks on authority, priority, relevance, and clarity of the Bible – and in many cases, people will practice decision-making as if those attacks are true even when they deny them theologically.

From Francis Shaeffer to Charles Colson to David Wells, with empirical George Gallop and George Barna and their ilk, one need not go far to hear the indictment of the intellectual dishonesty and biblical illiteracy of evangelical movement today. Never in the history of the Church have so many had so much information, so many translations, so many books, aids and study helps - and so little interest in actually reading and knowing the Bible as the modern day American, middle-class, suburban evangelical church.

Why are our congregations growing in size, and declining in confidence in the Bible? Do our increases in attendance and influence somehow offset the decline in Biblical thinking and practice? And as churches become more “corporate” in their leadership structure, it is increasingly less possible for us to use the Bible – as a practical matter – in our decision-making process?

When a decision is made based on our wisdom and thinking rather without carefully considering God’s revealed Word and direction, it’s more than a shame… it’s more than a tragedy: It is sin, no matter how much anyone pretends that it is not, or wishes that it is not the case. And it does NOT exalt God’s Name and His Word above ALL THINGS.

So what is your experience personally? And what is the pattern of your local church? Is prayer the means to decision-making, integral and important, or is it an afterthought? Do you practically, actually use the Bible to determine decisions? Are your decisions governed by what the Bible has to say? Or would it be likely that it is as likely that the Bible doesn’t even enter into the process at all?

The evangelical movement is in trouble because it does not practice what it preaches. When did evangelicals become “deists” in their theology of decision-making? We were the movement that talked about “a personal relationship” and God “walking and talking” with us! Has God abandoned those practices, and set us in motion to work things out for ourselves while He watches from a distance? All too often, leaders talk about hearing from the Lord, but in practice they are following their own human wisdom. One man comes up with an idea, the leadership team endorses it, it’s announced with fanfare to the church and it is implemented – all without a Word from the Lord!

There is no substitute for exalting God’s Name and His Word above all things in HOW we do what we do. It is not OK to do even the right things the wrong way. We find His way to do things by earnestly seeking Him and His direction in prayer and in His Word.

A focus on doing things God’s way – with His direction and under His power is not just hard… humanly, it is impossible! Doing things God’s way means that we must renounce ourselves, our plans, our methods… ourselves, and cast ourselves totally on Him. This posture requires, of course, brokenness and humility before God, and a right relationship between each of us and God.

When practical reliance on prayer and the Word is lost or in decline in church leadership, several things happen. If you are willing to see them, they are clearly observable. When the HOW is wrong, we can pretend that we are doing these things – and even fool some people - so in my next post, I’ll offer some warning signs that show that the HOW is wrong in any local church. After all, even if we fool everyone who sees, we won’t fool the One who counts. And His Word indicates that He isn’t amused.

Next time: “HOW” - We Can Know Our Methods Are Wrong…

Friday, February 09, 2007

Psalm 138:2 (Part 5) - "HOW" - Can Our Methodology Be Wrong?

“I bow down towards your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you exalted above all things your name and your word.” Psalm 138:2 (ESV)

In this series, I have suggested that what we do in our corporate assembly matters to God, how we do it matters to God, and that who we are when we’re doing it matters as well.

What is the local church’s main reason for existing? Is it to evangelize the lost? To show compassion towards the least? To encourage and strengthen the believer?

Well, yes – of course – all of those things are part of the local church’s mission. When those don’t happen, the church isn’t functioning as the body of Jesus. But those things, as good and as important as they are, are NOT to be the PRIMARY focus of a church – or of the individuals in the church. Our primary individual and corporate responsibility is to exalt God’s name and His word above ALL THINGS.

We’ve been discussing whether it is possible in our evangelical sub-culture that WHAT in our corporate assemblies can be wrong. My conclusion to that question is that when we lose our focus on God and Him alone and focus instead on the audience, the “WHAT” of our assembly is wrong. I’ve also said that in “WHAT” we do – our focus - many evangelical churches, as a practical matter, exalt man over God. Whether you agree with me or not, it’s easy to see that it is possible to do the WRONG THINGS in “serving God.”

But is it possible to do the RIGHT THINGS the WRONG WAY? Is it possible that “HOW” we carry out our work for the Lord is wrong as well? Again, I believe that an objective look at much of what goes on in the evangelical church today leads one to the conclusion that we do not exalt God's Name, or His Word, over all things in HOW we do what we do.

It may be hard to see clearly the “WHAT” in your church – the concept may seem too vague to you. But the “HOW” is very easily observed, and in my view, it is the thing that most clearly reveals the problem I’m discussing.

So let’s look briefly at what the Bible teaches about “methodology.” Isn’t it enough to be doing the “right things?” Does God really care about HOW we do what we do?

The Bible is full of examples of people doing “the right things” in the wrong way… and God’s response is consistent. It is painful to see… and God’s reaction ought to convince us that God’s work must be done God’s way. If not, the consequences are, quick frankly, shocking.

Let me give just 3 examples from Scripture, from three different perspectives within the body… then next time, we’ll look at how this plays out in our evangelical experience:

1. A Leader’s Perspective: Aaron and His Sons.
Remember the example of Nadab and Abihu. They were Aaron’s first sons (Exodus 6), called by God Himself along with Aaron and the Elders to special privilege in worship (Exodus 24) and set apart by God Himself through Moses to serve as priests over Israel (Exodus 28). After the clear confirmation of their call, the very next thing we learn about them is that they offered “unauthorized (or strange) fire before the Lord” in worship. God killed them on the spot… and prohibited their Dad and brothers – also priests - from even mourning for them! (Leviticus 10:1-7). Here’s what Moses said when this happened:

"This is what the LORD has said, 'Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'" (Leviticus 10:3)
God’s reaction to this “strange fire” offering shouldn’t have been any surprise to Aaron. After all, he was the one leading in the “golden calf” incident while Moses was receiving God’s law, and he for himself God’s reaction to his creation. I notice also, by the way, that when Aaron presented the idol to the people, he said “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:5) Then, he built an altar for worship, and declared a feast to the Lord. (Exodus 32:5) The people responded enthusiastically… but their methodology was all wrong – tragically wrong. And it was wrong even though they had not yet heard from Moses the law of God!

Please notice that there is no indication in the text at all that Nadab and Abihu were insincere, or wrong in any way other than to say that they offered worship that God did not authorize. It’s important to note that God cares about how He is worshipped!
When His is approached in the wrong way – even by the “right” people – it is sin. It’s offensive to God. And it matters to God.

Leaders do not have the right to decide how worship is to be conducted. It is God’s right to declare what is and is not acceptable and especially in our public assembly. Pray for your leaders in this regard, as they bear the responsibility of correctly discerning God’s way of worship.

My first point is this: It is possible for leaders – even those called by God Himself – to do the RIGHT THINGS the WRONG WAY. And when they do, the God who does not change is dishonored, because His Name and His Word have not been exalted above ALL THINGS.

2. A Leadership Team-Member’s Perspective: Uzzah.
The Ark of the Covenant had been taken from Israel in battle (1 Samuel 4:3-11), and shortly after David’s ascension to the throne as King, he gathered his army together to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem. But the leaders made a critical mistake: God had provided specific direction for how the Ark was to be moved – it was to be covered and transported by being carried by the Levites with poles (Numbers 4). Further a specific warning was given that people were not to
“…touch the holy things, lest they die.” (Numbers 4:15)

David and his men should have known better… they had the Law and its instruction. But we see in 2 Samuel 6 they chose instead to transport the Ark on a cart. Hey, they were doing the right thing, weren’t they? And David had the people doing this with enthusiasm! Celebrating before the Lord with all kinds of instruments… a wonderful, enthusiastic worship celebration for the Lord!

But then there was a problem: The ox pulling the cart caused the cart to tip, and Uzzah “put his hand to the Ark” to prevent it from falling to the ground. In the midst of meaningful, enthusiastic worship, a celebration of joy doing the right thing in returning the Ark to God’s people, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the Ark of God.” David was angry at God, and he was afraid.

Notice that Uzzah was not in control of the event, or the method of transport. Others had that more senior, leadership responsibility. He was just on the team… going with the program, and doing what seemed like the right thing in the moment.

And he died because of it - at the hands of an angry God.

When someone “on the team” does the right thing the wrong way - even if they are just following their leaders’ instruction, they offend God. And it matters to Him.

So here’s my second point: When leaders determine to do RIGHT THINGS the WRONG WAY, those who follow them offend God. Following orders is no excuse – everyone is responsible for exalting God’s Name and His Word above ALL THINGS.

3. A Congregant’s Perspective: Ananias and Sapphira.
I don’t want you to think that leaders bear all of the risk. They have a heightened responsibility to lead well – in direction (the “WHAT”) as well as methodology (the “HOW”). But God cares about HOW the rest of us do things as well.

Remember Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5)? We all know the story. Acts 4:32-27 tells of the heart of the church congregation in Jerusalem, and the amazing spirit of generosity demonstrated by the people. People sold their houses and property and brought the proceeds to the apostles for redistribution. Imagine the joy within that group… the unity among the people, literally bought with their Holy Spirit-fueled generosity! Imagine the testimony to a watching world as they saw the good accomplished, the tremendous evidence of real conversion among the people!

This man Ananias and his wife wanted to participate, but they kept “some of the proceeds” and presented the rest to the apostles. As judgment was pronounced, Peter made it clear that Ananias was under no obligation to give all he had away… his sin was not doing the wrong thing. It was that he did it the wrong way – he lied, saying that he had given it all. In an event that struck great fear in the whole church, both Ananias and his wife died instantly upon the divine revelation of their sin!

Notice, by the way, that the sin was publicly exposed. All knew what happened, all were filled with “great fear” (Acts 5:11)… and all were warned about the danger of doing even the RIGHT THING the WRONG WAY.

My third point is that, even when leaders lead well, those following can do the RIGHT THING the WRONG WAY, and when they do, God is offended… God is angered. It matters to God, because when we do this, we do not exalt God’s Name and His Word above ALL THINGS.

How can it be wrong to worship God? Worship is wrong when we do it the wrong way. The WHAT may be right, but if the HOW is wrong, it’s ALL WRONG. That’s because God must be worshipped “in Spirit and in Truth”… said another way,
we must exalt His Name and His Word above all things.

God’s character has not changed from those days [“For I the LORD do not change”] (Malachi 3:6)], and our concern for doing things God’s way rather than ours ought not either. This problem of wanting to worship God “our way” is part of the fallen nature of man, evidenced even as early as Eve’s disobedience and Cain’s grain offering.

So HOW are we to worship God rightly? If we judge ourselves correctly, we fall so short in our heart motivation. The truth is that worshipping God is not just hard – humanly, it is impossible! It requires a right relationship between each of us and God, and right relationships with each other. Doing “work” can be done in the power of the flesh… but exalting God’s Name and His Word can not be done apart from the empowering of the Holy Spirit individually and corporately in the assembly.

There are no short-cuts to doing things "the right way:" Power to do God’s work comes from God Himself through prayer and the faithful study and application of God's Word. There is no other way… and these methods are foolishness to the natural mind. The problem is that in practice, they are foolishness even to the evangelical mind as well.

So it is possible to do the RIGHT THING the WRONG WAY, and to anger God in the process. The next question is this: Is it possible that this same problem continues, even today?

Glad you asked. Yes it does. And next time, I’ll give you some concrete examples of how this happens today... and how to see if it does in your own church.

Next time: “HOW” – Is OUR Methodology Wrong?

Friday, February 02, 2007

Psalm 138:2 (Part 4) - "WHAT" Is Wrong With Our Message?

“I bow down towards your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you exalted above all things your name and your word.” Psalm 138:2 (ESV)
Last time, I noted that the focus in our corporate assemblies ought to be on God and Him alone… and when “what we do” focuses on other things, well… that’s a big problem. I also said that, as I see it, many evangelical churches, as a practical matter, exalt man over God in what they do.

I suggested also that you consider 2 questions about your local church and see where your “corporate heart” is placed. Yesterday, the question was “Who is the audience in your church’s worship service?” When the focus of your service - the “target audience” - is on someone (like seekers, people’s needs, etc.) or something else (making us feel or act better, entertainment, etc.) other than God and Him alone, the service – however good and helpful it is – is not a Christian WORSHIP service. And it does not exalt God’s Name and His Word above all other things.

Let’s consider a second question today, which raises an even more fundamental issue: What is our message?

Here’s what I see: The lack of practical confidence in the authority of the Bible is certainly the foundational problem in many of our evangelical churches, and because of this, I believe that our focus is wrongly placed – and the message that we proclaim does NOT exalt God’s Name and His Word above all things.

Look with me at this issue in 3 ways:

1. What Is Said: A church’s exclusive message is to proclaim Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. It is through the faithful, expository preaching of the Bible from men who have received a message from God that is the great call of the church, and when that is missing and we place other things above God’s Word in priority, authority and practice, we fail in our primary mission. And as many churches seek to address an audience other than God in their services, I note that many churches are providing those audiences with a message that is tragically short of the whole counsel of God: and their focus is, as a result, tragically wrong.

So, what is the message we are trying to communicate in our services? When our pastors take up “the sacred desk,” what “word from God” do they bring? I’m so grieved when I read some churches’ current sermon series: Another “5 steps to financial freedom” or “relationship hints” or “love, sex and dating” type things, chosen because they “speak to people’s needs,” I wonder if they’ve missed the point that the message is supposed to be God’s message to us, burned into the heart of a messenger who will not speak unless he speaks from God and for God, and not the wisdom of men with a little “God” sprinkled in to prove their point. And how we need to hear a word from God... so much of what we hear these these days is politically correct, therapeutic, feel-good... powerless to engage, convict or change.

There is also the problem of poor handling of the Word through bad theology, bad exegesis and bad hermeneutics. While there are many happy exceptions, the trend away from formal, seminary training for the ministry is, in my view, a dangerous one, which leads to many practical difficulties in church life.

The weakness in preaching, though, often reflects the general practical lack of interest even many in the pews have in the Bible. We all say that it is “our final authority for faith and practice” but don’t know it, don’t know how to use it, and treat the Bible as irrelevant in our day-to-day lives.

2. What Is Not Said: Maybe your church doesn’t have the type of messages that I mention above. That’s good, but you should ask whether the whole truth is being told, or whether the preacher skips the “hard parts” – for any reason. True worship loses its focus when the unfiltered, faithful preaching of the "whole counsel of God" revealed in God’s Word loses it's priority.

In most churches (and for most attendees), the Sunday morning sermon is the primary (and effectively, the exclusive) corporate opportunity for preaching and teaching God’s Word. So why do the preachers speak to the lowest common denominator? Why do so many preach the “positive” points and omit or skip over the “negative”? Why do some pastors pick a text to preach and skip over portions which, if taken in context, might require discussing a “hard” concept or requirement?

One of the benefits of true expository preaching is that it forces us to hear all that God wants to say to us… the pleasant and the unpleasant – both of which are “good, acceptable and perfect” to the true child of God. But the sad fact is, the “good” parts are acceptable to most people – regardless of whether they are converted. And many people tragically believe that they are Christian but reject (even angrily) some of the plain teaching in God’s Word… and they are enabled in their deception by preachers who – even while preaching God’s Word – don’t preach all of it.

Does your pastor preach “the whole counsel of God"... the parts we like and those that challenge us? Here are just a few indicators to help you answer:

*Does the message generally assume that all in attendance are Christians, or is there an acknowledgement of “tares” being present among the “wheat”?

*Are the requirements of God’s standards clearly articulated for non-believers, and are they warned about the immediate, urgent danger that they face by continuing in rebellion to God?

*Is repentance clearly preached as required? Are distinctions drawn between repentance for non-believers and believers?

*Is God described primarily as a loving God… always willing to forgive, deeply interested in meeting our needs, etc. without balancing those truths with the truth of God’s holiness, His demand for our holiness and absolute obedience?

*Is there mention at all of the reality – and imminent danger – of Hell for those apart from Jesus? Is eternal judgment ever preached?

*Are there warnings to the believers about the danger of falling into apostasy personally and admonitions to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling”?

It is an extremely serious thing to “subtract truth” from God’s revealed Word. (Revelation 22:19)

3. How It Is Said: The message that we hear is supposed to be God’s message to us. Think about that for a minute: The Sovereign God of the Universe, taking time to give us a personal word of direction, instruction, correction, encouragement, etc.!

Imagine how you would feel if you answered the phone today and President Bush was on the other end of the line, and he wanted to tell you something. Regardless of your political views, I’m willing to bet he would have your attention, you would tell your friends about the call and you would view the event as at least significant. How do you react to God’s Word to you each week?

It's a sad thing when people ignore God's message to them. But also, one of the reasons sermons are so frequently ignored, or merely tolerated, is the heart-condition of the messenger. Imagine that you were chosen to represent the United States of America at the United Nations. How would you feel? Most of us would be gripped by the seriousness of the task, perhaps overwhelmed by our inadequacy to fully convey the message, and would take any help at all in delivering the message. Similarly, men with a message from God feel those same things.

Too often, though, preachers have obtained their message through other means than hearing from God. The week was too busy, the crush of administrative and other matters crowd out the time necessary to be alone with God in the Word and in prayer, waiting to hear His message for the people. Last minute messages, pulled together from secondary sources and our own thoughts may have some impact on the listener, but they will not accomplish the same thing as God speaking to His people. Maybe it’s just me, but (as an example of many I could cite) I am shocked by Rick Warren’s pastor-website which offers pre-made sermons for pastors to use!

But these aren't the only hindrences possible. In addition to the time and priority problems faced, sometimes the preacher, sadly, is not interested in applying the message preached to his own life. All of us recognized, for example, the hypocrisy of Ted Haggard after his fall, particularly in the video clips of his messages talking about the importance of family, the sanctity of marriage, etc. When our own lives don’t measure up to what we preach, our preaching loses its impact, we lose our moral authority to be heard, and God’s message is hindered by the messenger (2 Timothy 2:21).

Whether it’s lack of time, interest, priority or personal integrity, all lead to a lack of passion. Men with a message from the God of the Universe are gripped by that message - as a matter of primary importance - for God's people. Too often, sermons are devoid of this from the preacher, and are filled instead with loads of information, precious little application, and no passion. If the message hasn't gripped, impacted and changed the preacher, it won't matter to the rest of us, either.

And sometimes, pastors also forget the difference between teaching and preaching... While sermons may emphasize one or the other sometimes, the two are very different functions: Teaching informs; Preaching moves, challenges, convicts, motivates – it changes people! Preaching is the foolish thing that God has appointed to be the primary vehicle for demonstrating the power of God in saving people. (1 Corinthians 1:21, Romans 10:14)

What’s the “passion level” of your church’s message?

*As a general matter, do the messages seem primarily directed to provide new information or to move the listener to specific action?

*When you leave the service, are you struck with conviction about the pressing need to conform your thinking and behavior to the message you just heard, or can you go on with your day without giving much – if any – thought to the message preached?

*When you talk to friends or family after the service, is applying the message heard your primary topic of conversation?

*Assuming that they were old enough to listen, can your children tell you what the message was about?

Listen, really listen, to the sermon you hear this weekend – pay very close attention, and ask yourself this question: What does the preacher want me to do? What exactly, practically, should I do to be more like Jesus this week in my attitude, actions or activities? And is that command or challenge from the Word, or is it the preacher’s idea?

Even more importantly, is the preacher gripped by the importance of the message? Does it really matter to him? Has he been affected, changed by the message? If not, it’s right to wonder if he’s heard the message from the God of the Universe… and a man without a message from God has no real message for God's people.

How about us? What is our responsibility – those of us in the pew - for the message? Consider this: The Bereans were judged by Scripture as “more noble” than others because they “…received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) We should do no less with the message proclaimed in our churches. The most frightening thing I have seen about preaching is that, apparently, most people do not seem to care – period.

What an awesome, fearful responsibility your pastor bears – to be the primary messenger in your life to bring God’s Word to you! We ought to pray diligently for them to have enough time and freedom from distraction so that they can prepare themselves adequately for this task. We ought to pray for courage and boldness in telling “the good and the bad.” And we ought to be deeply concerned if, over time, the pastor is not meeting this fundamental responsibility of his office.

All of that to say this: When we focus on less than the whole counsel of God - when we dilute His Truth by wrong focus, poor methodology or a lack of passion, we end up elevating other things over God’s Word in fact.

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Maybe for those in my generation, this problem of “WHAT” – our focus - may be hard to see. But in my limited experience, my children's generation sees the issue very, very clearly. The next time one of your kids comes home from college, ask them what the focus is of your church service… the answer may surprise you. The emerging church movement is right in its questioning whether we as evangelicals have lost our God-focus… and, while I have considerable discomfort what some in the conversation are saying, their pursuit of God in worship ought to challenge us to think about who our audience is.

So how does your church do in its worship service – and what is the message proclaimed? You have to answer those questions for yourself… but this is what I see increasingly evident in our movement: When, by design or effect, the practical focus of a corporate assembly shifts from God alone to us, it is wrong, and it is sin. And it does not exalt God’s Name and His Word above ALL OTHER THINGS. And if we as evangelicals don’t seek to elevate God’s Name and His Word above ALL OTHER THINGS, we will die as a movement as surely as the mainline denominations have done before us.

But the problem is bigger than just the “WHAT” of evangelical corporate focus… it is revealed more clearly in “HOW” things get done.

Next time: “HOW" - Is Our Methodology Wrong?