Friday, August 31, 2007

Good Sermon Illustration

In yesterday’s (August 30th) edition of The Commercial Appeal (the daily newspaper in Memphis), an interesting article by Richard Lardner of the Associated Press was placed on the front page. Lardner described a new weapon that American military commanders in Iraq have requested:

“Saddam Hussein had been gone just a few weeks, and U.S. forces in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, were already being called unwelcome invaders. One of the first big anti-American protests of the war escalated into shootouts that left 18 Iraqis dead and 78 wounded. It would be a familiar scene in Iraq’s next few years: Crowds gather, insurgents mingle with civilians. Troops open fire, and innocents die. All the while, according to internal military correspondence obtained by The Associated Press, U.S. commanders were telling Washington that many civilian casualties could be avoided by using a new, non-lethal weapon. . . . It’s a ray gun that neither kills nor maims. But the Pentagon has refused to deploy it out of concern that the weapon itself might be seen as a torture device. Perched on a Humvee or a flatbed truck, the Active Denial System gives people hit by the invisible beam the sense that their skin is on fire. They move out of the way quickly and without injury.”

The Application

We as Christians have the Holy Spirit inside us as a source of power to be utilized in spiritual battle. When we are used by God to share the gospel with non-Christians who are under the special conviction of the Holy Spirit, those non-Christians are made to feel a bit uncomfortable. Many of us don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, and thus we do not witness to non-Christians as often as we should. We should realize, however, that the non-lethal conviction that may even evoke images of a fiery hell is necessary for saving lives. Because of their hearing the gospel under the powerful conviction of the Holy Spirit, we will be able to see them moved out of harm’s way quickly and without permanent injury.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Thoughts from Other Thinkers

I was at a meeting this past week at which I heard an interesting comment from a speaker whom I greatly respect. I won’t give his name yet because I cannot give an exact quote at this time. (I have ordered CD recordings of the messages.) His message dealt with dissension in churches, and he stated that he has seen more of it lately than at any time in his ministry. I thoroughly agree with him! He also said that there is no such thing as a strong local church—that all churches are fragile. He stated that many in the audience would disagree with him about church fragility. Some churches obviously have more problems than do others at any particular moment, but I agree with him that all churches are fragile. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to upset the perceived stability that may exist at any given time in a church.

I finally finished reading Ed Stetzer’s wonderful book, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), and I want to share some interesting quotes from the book.

Stetzer distinguished between seeker-sensitive and seeker-driven churches:

“Much of the criticism directed at the seeker-driven church is a result of the misunderstanding of their strategy. In seeker-driven churches, Sunday morning is not supposed to look like church; it’s designed to be an ongoing evangelistic service. A student who visited Willow Creek with me commented that the service looked like a Young Life meeting, a low-key evangelistic service with an opportunity for those who attend to go deeper at another time. The strategy has worked for Willow Creek, but it’s not one I embrace for theological reasons. Instead of focusing on a seeker-driven worship service, I believe it’s better to ask why the church exists—and then to ask questions about the content of the worship service. Churches should exalt God, edify believers, and evangelize the world. Worship services, first and foremost, should exalt God. This statement underscores the imperative of God-centered worship. Believers should also be built up in the faith. Finally, authentic worship can evangelize unbelievers. . . . Every church is seeker-sensitive to some degree. If we are worshipping in the local language, wearing local clothing, and singing music written in the last one thousand years, we are using a worship style that’s sensitive to those who attend. . . . My main concern is that the actions of the church are understandable to the unchurched, sensitive to their needs, but not changing the message to be sensitive.” (261-263)

I agree with Stetzer here. We should be seeker-sensitive, but not seeker-driven in our churches. Unfortunately, a lot of Christians only attend local church meetings on Sunday mornings, and if they are not fed deep spiritual food on Sunday mornings, they may not attend a Wednesday night meeting to get it. I believe that a preacher can deliver a message that both feeds the Christians and evangelizes the lost.

Stetzer defined vision casting:

“Understand here that by ‘casting the vision,’ I mean what I announced as our goal.” (302)

I'm glad that Stetzer defined the term as he was using it here. I must admit that I am uncomfortable with all the talk these days using the words “vision” and “endvision” in churches and on the mission field. Biblically speaking, the word “vision” refers to a supernatural revelation from God. Prophetic visions described in the Bible always came to pass. In contrast, as the word is used today in churches and on the mission field, it refers to a detailed goal described by a leader that may or may not come to pass. We sometimes refer to visionary leaders and leaders with vision. Many businesses and schools have vision statements. I fear that many of us have been using the secular definition rather than the biblical definition of the word. I prefer to use the word “goal.” It may not have the sense of mystery or authority that the word “vision” has, but I think it is more suitable in the Christian context. Today, if a Christian leader’s vision (goal) doesn’t come to pass, our folks who are using the biblical definition of the word might get a bit concerned. Notice Jeremiah 14:14:

“Then the LORD said to me, ‘The prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds.’”

F. B. Huey Jr. commented on the passage:

“These words contain a warning for today’s preacher that he must be careful not to cloak his own desires under the guise of being God’s desires. They also warn people to be responsible in discernment when listening to ‘prophetic’ voices.”

Huey, “Jeremiah, Lamentations,” in The New American Commentary, vol. 16, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1993), 154.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Sermon I Preached Yesterday

(The photo on the right is of me in 1973.)

Text: Philippians 3:8-14
Subject: “How to Win in Our Spiritual Lives”

Introduction: How do we win as individuals and as churches? Is it by numbers of converts, the length of our prayers, etc.?

1. We win by surrender (vs. 8-9). This sounds strange at first. If one football team surrenders to another football team on the field, we would not call that game a win for the surrendering team. We can understand the concept, however, if we can conceive of a football player surrendering his body to a very good coach on the first day of practice. The coach will mold the player into a winner. Paul counted all things as loss/rubbish in order that he would gain Christ. He realized that at the moment he surrendered his life to Christ in repentance and faith, the righteousness of Christ would be imputed to him—the “righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (vs. 9, NASB). The rich, young ruler wanted eternal life, but he was not willing to surrender his wealth to Christ, and thus he walked away from Christ sadly (Matthew 19:16-22).

2. We win by suffering (vs. 10). This also sounds strange. We do not usually think of winners as suffering people. Paul talked about knowing “the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” Children experience growing pains. They eventually have more power as they grow. Football players often say, “No pain, no gain.” As they lift weights and undergo conditioning exercises, their muscles experience some wear and tear, but they become more powerful through the suffering. I sometimes meet Christians who say they have not suffered. The reason for their lack of suffering is that they have not exercised their spiritual muscles. Christianity is not a spectator sport. We are to be spiritual athletes. Church membership should mean something. All members, unless physically unable, should commit themselves to specific, active ministries in local churches. Too many Christians have a consumer’s attitude: “What can a church do for me?” Their attitude should be different: “In what church can I best serve the Lord?”

3. We win by forgetting (vs. 11-14). Again, this sounds strange. Paul discussed the importance of “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead.” He also mentioned pressing on toward the goal. Paul was using an illustration familiar to his audience of a runner straining toward the finish line. Imagine a football team that refused to break its huddle on the field to run an offensive play. While the other team and the referees were watching, the team began an internal feud. In spite of many penalty flags and the departure of the audience, the team refused to stop fighting and begin concentrating on reaching the goal line. This scenario is a picture of many churches today. There is a lot of dissension, and many churches are stuck in their huddles. They are not moving toward the goal. Their members need to forget about what lies behind—the disappointments, hurt feelings, anger, bitterness, etc. Paul was moving toward the “goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” He was a mature Christian, but he was not yet perfected/completed in the absolute sense. He was looking forward to his glorification and the perfect fellowship he would have with Jesus Christ. We, too, should keep the ultimate goal in focus and forget about things about which we can do nothing.

Conclusion: Paul was discussing death in this passage, but we should not see it as a morbid discussion. He mentioned the three aspects of salvation. We are saved from the penalty of sin (justification), the power of sin (sanctification), and the presence of sin (glorification).

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sowing the Seed and Reaping a Harvest

Is it enough to share the gospel with a lost person? Must we also reap a harvest? I’ve heard the following statement in some form many times: “Christians are responsible for sowing the seed, but they are not responsible for reaping a harvest.” In one sense the statement is certainly true. We cannot force people to surrender their lives to Christ in repentance and faith: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink.”

The Great Commission, however, says the following:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (NASB)

Christians are commanded to “make disciples” (mathēteuō, μαθητευω). A disciple (a Christian) is a person who has committed himself to forsake all and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23, 14:33). This forsaking and following involves repentance and faith. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message describes repentance and faith: “Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God. Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour.” True disciples eventually bear good fruit. Some of our seed inevitably falls on soil that is hard, rocky, or thorny. We should try to sow our seed on the good soil, the soil from which will come a good harvest (Matthew 13:3-23).

Notice that Paul both sowed the seed and reaped a harvest on his first missionary journey (Acts 14:21):

“After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.”

In Acts 14:21, the word for “preach the gospel” is “euaggelizō” (ευαγγελιζω), and the word for “make disciples” again is “mathēteuō” (μαθητευω).

In regard to resistant people, sometimes it is said that we can only share the gospel with them and that we cannot harvest such people. That is true. Some Christians find themselves in the midst of a resistant people group. We should always look for receptive individuals in our sphere of influence, but as a general rule we should focus our efforts on receptive groups, not resistant groups. Jesus said that we should shake off the dust and leave when we encounter resistant people (Matthew 10:14):

“Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet.”

Notice He referred to both individuals (“house”) and groups (“city”). Group resistance was emphasized by Jesus in Luke 10:10-11:

“But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’”

Notice that the apostle Paul followed this principle on his first missionary journey (Acts 13: 46, 51):

“Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.’ . . . But they shook off the dust of their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium.”

Donald McGavran said,

“Evangelism can be and ought to be directed to responsive persons, groups, and segments of society. . . . Correct policy is to occupy fields of low receptivity lightly. The harvest will ripen someday. . . . They should not be heavily occupied lest, fearing that they will be swamped by Christians, they become even more resistant. . . . While holding them lightly, Christian leaders should perfect organizational arrangements so that when these lands turn responsive, missionary resources can be sent in quickly.”

McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, Third Edition, ed. C. Peter Wagner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 187, 191.

The culture in America has changed, and it is now generally more resistant to the gospel than it used to be. In an extremely receptive culture, any biblical method will work, so methodology is not very important. In an extremely resistant culture, virtually no method will work, so methodology is not very important. In the middle range, in which a culture such as America’s is neither extremely resistant nor extremely receptive, some methods work while other methods don’t work, so methodology is very important. Within our American culture, there are both somewhat resistant groups/individuals and somewhat receptive groups/individuals. Our primary evangelistic focus should be on the receptive groups and individuals. That’s a biblical strategy. Ed Stetzer commented on such a focus:

“Focusing acknowledges that people generally prefer to come to Christ without crossing social, racial, or economic boundaries. Every international missionary is aware of this and focuses on a selected receptive group of people.”

Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 144.

Our country is now a large mission field. Our people must view themselves as missionaries to their own culture and thus focus on receptive groups and individuals. This view of church membership is the essence of being a missional church.