Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The New Phonebooks Are Here!: Church Directories, and My Bittersweet Experience

In the 1979 movie, The Jerk, Steve Martin plays Navin R. Johnson, a character described as a "befuddled homeless simpleton".  In one scene, Navin yanks a phone book out of a delivery guys hands and begins furiously whipping through pages.  Then, he stops and yells that most famous line.  "The new phonebook's here!  The new phonebook's here!"

Why is he screaming about such a mundane event in life?  He's excited because he found his name.  On page 73.  What a moment!  He's sure millions of people will see his name in print.  And as a result, he's convinced that great things are going to start happening for him.

Our congregation, like many others, occasionally produces church directories.  This last week, the new directories came in.  I didn't jump up and down screaming, "The new directory's here!" However, I do like having a directory.  A church directory isn't just a photo album.  And it's not just a phonebook.  A church directory should be a tool for prayer and ministry.  Let me explain.

Do you pray for the other people in your congregation?  Not just those on "the prayer list."  Not just those facing crisis.  Surely, we need to be praying for them, but are you praying for every member?  Using the directory as your guide, you can systematically pray for every member of your church.  Even if you don't know all the inner workings of their life, you can pray for them.  I've always found that using Paul's prayers as a model is helpful when I'm praying for someone I don't know as well (e.g.- 1 Cor. 1:4-9; Eph. 1:15-21; Eph. 3:14-19; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:9-12; etc.).

We can also use our church directory as a tool for ministry.  Are there faces in the directory that you haven't seen lately in the Sunday morning gathering?  Use that as an opportunity to write a card, pick up the phone, or make a visit...not to your elders, so they'll do something about it.  Take responsibility for your brother/sister in Christ.  Express your concern about their absence. 

Are their children plagued by illness?  Is there a conflict with another church member she's avoiding?  Is his boss demanding work on Sundays?  Is there some change they're struggling to embrace?  Have they decided things just aren't as exciting as they were at first, so maybe they need to "make a change"?  Is there some other issue that needs to be addressed?  God can use you to speak into your friend's life.

There's more ministry than just noticing who's absent.  As we peruse the church directory, we see the faces of those struggling.  Those recently diagnosed with one malady or another.  The single mom dealing with her rebellious teenage son.  The man who lost his job 6 months ago and can't find work.  The single woman who's subtly expressed her loneliness.  The young couple about to have their first baby.  The not-as-young couple about to have their 6th.  And all these are opportunities to speak and act in the lives of others...for God's glory and their good.

But beyond these basic, helpful uses of the church directory, I find my first glance at a new church directory both bitter and sweet.  The pictures can stir grief and burden.  I see pictures of men or women.  They're alone in their pictures.  However, the last time we produced a directory, a husband or a wife was present.  I also see those struggling with God's purposes in the midst of diagnoses that weren't present the last time their picture was taken.  There are also those struggling with their unbelieving spouses or children.

Then there are those I don't see.  For various reasons, they're no longer part of our congregation.  In another state.  In another county.  In another congregation.  It's probably the last of those three that's most difficult.  People leave churches for all kinds of bad reasons.  And people often just silently sneak away, thinking they're being nice...doing everyone a favor by not talking about their struggles.  But that's simply not true.  And why isn't it true?  Well, that's another blog for another day.  It's sufficient to say that I'm burdened for those I don't see.  (Of course, I didn't mention those absent because of church discipline...or those who have left church altogether.)

That's the bitter part of the church directory experience, but there's sweetness too.  The sweetness of seeing pictures and thinking of how God is at work.  The couple who's fighting for their marriage...and winning.  The families with children in this picture...who weren't in the last picture.  Families we have sent to serve the Lord in other countries.  Men and women who are involved in ministry far beyond what they would've imagined the last time directories were published.

Older couples who have renewed vigor in serving the Lord.  Young, single men and women sacrificing worldly ambition for the sake of others.  People who are being trained in biblical counseling...and sitting in on biblical counseling.  Retired folks who are working like crazy for the Lord, seeking first His kingdom.  Young men who want to pursue pastoral ministry of one kind or another.

Five years of serving in this congregation, and the pictures mean a lot more than they did on day 1.  At the beginning, I was just trying to get the right name with the right face.  Now, I long to know the right spiritual condition that goes with that name and face.  Their needs.  Their strengths.  Their weaknesses.  Their struggles.  And I'm certain these pictures will mean more in five more years.

The new directory's here!  And it's a bittersweet experience.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Reflections on "The Soulwinner's Reward"

One of the books I'm currently reading is The Soulwinner by C.H. Spurgeon.  My colleagues and I on the pastoral staff are reading and discussing it together.  I have found this book and our discussions on it to be helpful and challenging.

The chapter we are reading this week is called "The Soulwinner's Reward."  In it, Spurgeon addresses rewards for those who are actively evangelizing.  Seeking to win souls.  And I thought I'd share a few passages that could encourage us in our evangelistic efforts.

The first paragraph encourages us when we don't see the conversions we would like to see.  When our evangelism doesn't seem to be "working."  We've all been there, right?  An evangelistic conversation is shutdown for one reason or another.  Then it happens again.  And again.  It's heartbreaking because we want to see people come to faith in Christ.  Does God really reward these unsuccessful attempts to evangelize?  Hear Spurgeon's words:
"Even if we did not succeed in it [i.e.- our evangelistic effort], the Lord would still say of it, as He did of David's intent to build a temple, 'Thou didst well that it was in thine heart' (1 Kings 8:18).  Even if the souls we seek all persist in unbelief, if they all despise and reject and ridicule us, it will still be a divine work to have at least made the attempt.  If no rain comes out of the cloud, it has still screened off the fierce heat of the sun.  All is not lost, even if the greater purpose is not accomplished.  What if we only learn how to join the Savior in His tears and mourn, 'How often would I have gathered thy children together...and ye would not!' (Matthew 23:37).  It is sublime honor itself to be allowed to stand on the same platform with Jesus and weep with Him.  We are better for such sorrows, if no others are." (p. 172)
It's good to know that there is reward in the going.  In the attempting.  In the sharing.  In the preaching.  In leaving a tract.  In trying to start conversations.  But some might hear this and be tempted to remain satisfied with never seeing people converted.  I don't mean we don't want to see people converted.  I just mean that we can become so satisfied in attempting that we lose our passion...our drive...our hunger...to succeed in seeing people saved.  We can forget the joy of being part of God's work in the world.

Parents, surely there is a sense in which we must be satisfied with remaining faithful in teaching our children the gospel.  In faithfully praying for them.  In using every means God has given us to teach them the faith.  That's all we can do...really.  But how can a Christian parent not hunger for their child's conversion the way a starving man wants just one bite of food?  How can we not be driven to see it happen?  Can we really think of ourselves as "Christian" or "parents" if we remain apathetic?

Part of the problem is that we won't keep attempting if we become apathetic.  We won't keep sharing the gospel.  Very often, we would just as soon give up as keep failing to see conversions.  Well, Spurgeon has encouragement for us here, too.
"I may be speaking to a few who have not succeeded.  If so, I would recommend that they steadily look over their motives, their spirits, their work, and their prayers, and then begin again.  Perhaps they may come to work more wisely, more believingly, more humbly, and more in the power of the Holy Spirit.  They must act as farmers do who, after a poor harvest, plow again in hope.  They ought not to be dispirited, but they ought to be roused.
"We should be anxious to find out the reason of failure, if there is any, and we should be ready to learn from all our fellow laborers.  But we must steadfastly set our faces, if by any means we may save some, resolving that, whatever happens, we will leave no stone unturned to effect the salvation of those around us." (p 173)
He aims at two things to do...examine yourself, and examine your work.  Look into your heart.  Do we believe in the power of the gospel as we share it?  Do we know that the dead can be raised right before our eyes?  Are we sharing as a proud man who has religious insight or as a humble man who has received God's grace?  As one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread?

Also, look at your work.  What exactly are we sharing?  What is our focus?  Does our conversation focus only on how bad the world is?  Are we putting forward some message other than the gospel (e.g.- political, social, etc.)?  Do we ever express the truths of the gospel?  If we believe we need to grow, then what are we doing to grow in our evangelism?  How are we learning from fellow laborers?

One way to learn from others is to read what they have written about evangelism.  But BEWARE...reading about evangelism does not make us more evangelistic, but books and articles can help us grow.  With those warnings given, here are a few suggestions to consider:

  • The Soulwinner by C.H. Spurgeon - How could I not recommend the book I'm quoting in this post?  You can get it in Paperback or on Kindle (for only 99 cents).
  • The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever - This is a very helpful book to think about what the gospel is and some practical ways to improve your evangelism.  It's also not as long as Spurgeon's work.  Paperback or Kindle
  • Here's an article from Jim Eliff at Christian Communicators Worldwide that will help you think more intentionally about evangelism: "A More Spontaneous and Genuine Evangelism"
Let me quote one last passage.  It reminds us of the pleasure of God in our evangelism, and it is a fitting way to finish this post.
"When you bring others to His feet, you give Him joy, and no small joy, either.  Is not this a wonderful text: 'There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth' (Luke 15:10)?  What does that mean?  Does it mean that the angels have joy?  We generally read it so, but that is not the intent of the verse.  It says, 'There is joy in the presence of the angels of God.'  That means there is joy in the heart of God, around whose throne the angels stand.  It is a joy that angels delight to behold.
"What is this?  Is the blessed God capable of greater joy than His own boundless happiness?  What a wondrous thought!  The infinite bliss of God is more eminently displayed, if it cannot be increased.  Can we be instruments of this?  Can we do anything that will make the Ever Blessed glad?  Yes, for we are told that the Great Father rejoices beyond measure when His prodigal son, who was dead, is alive again, and the lost one is found.
"...It is a great pleasure to be doing a kindness to an earthly friend; but to be doing something distinctly for Jesus, something that will be of all things in the world most pleasing to Him, is a great delight!...
"Go, dear friends, and seek to bring your children and your neighbors, your friends and your relatives, to the Savior's feet.  Nothing will give Him as much pleasure as to see them turn to Him and live.  By your love for Jesus, become fishers of men." (p. 178-179)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Grace, Gladness, and a Good Man

"The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  And a great many people were added to the Lord." - Acts 11:21-24

I've been to a lot of funerals.  I've conducted a lot of funerals.  That means I've heard a lot of eulogies.  Had several "open mic" sessions, where friends and family stand and give testimony to the character and life of the person who has passed.  The stories make people laugh, cry, stay silent, think, etc.  One of the adjectives often used as people speak of their loved one is "good".  He was a good man.  She was a good friend.  Dad was always good at listening.  Aunt Sally was such a good mother to her children...like a second mother to me.

But we describe people as "good" apart from funeral services.  Someone asks about your boss.  "He's a good man."  Your co-worker?  "She's a good woman."  A child may be said to have "a good heart," even though his/her actions seem to say otherwise.  Words that are used so generically...so often...can sometimes lose their meaning.

I ran across this word "good" today as I read Acts 11.  It's a word Luke uses to describe Barnabas.  If you're familiar with this man and his role in the book of Acts, then you know his reputation as an encourager.  Here, Luke says Barnabas was a "good man."  That identification stood out as I read.  And I don't believe Luke means it in the general way we sometimes use that phrase: "He's a good man."  He's not just trying to be nice.

In chapter 18 of Luke's gospel, he records an encounter between Jesus and a rich man.  The man comes to him with a question: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Lk. 18:18).  Not just Teacher...Good Teacher.  It's a compliment.  It's nice.  It's a way to even gain favor with the person you're calling "good."  No problem, right?  Wrong.

Jesus doesn't begin by answering his question.  He begins by addressing this "good" business: "Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone" (Lk. 18:19).  Apparently, Jesus doesn't think slapping the adjective "good" on a person is a good idea.  There may be relative goodness in the acts that we do.  One man may be good when compared to the rest of his family.  His co-workers.  His neighbors.  His community.  Even the world!  But no one is good when we remember the ultimate standard of goodness.  God.  God alone is good.

You may be thinking, "Yeah, but Jesus is God in the flesh.  Why didn't He just accept what the guy said and answer his question?"  Here's why.  The rich man didn't know who Jesus truly was.  He knew Him only as a teacher.  Not as Messiah.  Not as Savior.  Not as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Just as a teacher.  Jesus knows that.  And if this rich man is assuming Jesus is just a man...just a teacher...then he needs to be corrected.

So, it is best to believe that Luke is doing something else.  He's not just paying a compliment.  He's saying something genuine and important about Barnabas.  So...what is he saying?  What does Luke mean by "he was a good man"?  Luke helps us answer that question in two ways.  First, he describes human goodness in relation to God.  Second, he describes human goodness at work.

First, Luke says this "good man" was "full of the Holy Spirit and of faith."  The fullness of the Spirit and the presence of a robust faith in Christ made Barnabas a good man.  This is the way Luke described another good man back in chapter 6.  The first Christian martyr, Stephen, was "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5).  These descriptions speak of one's relationship to God.  Both are marks of born-again Christians.

Apart from faith in Christ...apart from the Holy Spirit's regenerating work...here's who we are: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10b-12).

But by God's grace, we have been rescued out of this condition.  Freed from the slavery of sin.  Made righteous in God's sight.  Our good God has made us good in His eyes.  The Christian life, then, is to "be who you are."  You are declared righteous in Christ.  You are saints, set apart by the Holy Spirit in Christ.  You are declared good and acceptable to God because of the person and work of Jesus.  That's what the Bible calls justification.

Now, being justified.  Live righteously.  Live saintly lives.  Live good and acceptable lives.  Not to become righteous, saintly, and good, but because God has declared you righteous, saintly, and good.  However, while this is true of all believers in Christ, Luke is not simply saying, "Barnabas was a Christian."  There's more here.  Luke's saying that Barnabas' Christian goodness was observable.  If you look at his life, you'll see the evidence of goodness.  You should see him and come to the same conclusion: "he was a good man".  Jesus says we'll know people by their fruits (Mt. 7:15-20), and Paul says that goodness is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

And that brings us to the second part of the answer to our question: What does Luke mean by "he was a good man"?  How was this basic Christian character observable in Barnabas' life?  Here's Luke's answer: "When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose" (Acts 11:23).

Barnabas had been sent to gather information about the supposed new church in Antioch.  The apostles heard a lot about them in Jerusalem.  If they had e-newsletters in that day, Antioch would have made the headlines: "A New Church Allegedly Planted in Antioch."  But, being good shepherds and wanting to protect the integrity of Christ's church, the apostles send Barnabas to make sure it's a genuine church.  Genuinely believing and preaching the gospel.  Genuinely marked by God's grace.

And Luke says that Barnabas arrives in Antioch.  He goes to the church.  And what does he see?  The grace of God!  What a captivating idea...he sees the grace of God.  In other words, Barnabas sees the evidence of God's grace.  He sees faith and works that can only be explained by the grace of God at work in their lives.  And how does he respond?  He's not suspicion.  He doesn't cast doubt on the story of their conversion.  He's glad!

Barnabas has always been a guy who is slow to suspicion and quick to rejoicing.  Remember when Paul was converted?  Nobody was ready to believe he was a Christian, but Barnabas came to his side.  Stood up for him.  He saw the grace of God in Paul's life and was glad!  This is observable goodness in Barnabas' life.

Again, think about Luke's gospel.  In chapter 15, Luke records three parables from Jesus about things that are lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.  After the first two, Jesus says that there is great joy in heaven...rejoicing among the angels...when one sinner repents (Lk. 15:7, 10).  Then, in the third parable, a father throws a party to celebrate the repentance of his prodigal son (Lk. 15:22-24).  Joy is the right response to seeing the grace of God in others.  It is the heavenly response.  The godly response.  The good response.

So, Barnabas' goodness is observable in his response to seeing the grace of God.  It's also observable in what he does next.  He doesn't pack his bag and leave town.  He doesn't Skype with the apostles back in Jerusalem and tell them: "Looks like their good!"  No, he does something else.

Barnabas doesn't just see the grace of God.  He encourages them to continue in the grace of God.  "...[And] he exhorted them to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose..." (Acts 11:23b).  Barnabas speaks.  He talks to them about persevering in the faith.  He warns them about the danger of turning away and exhorts them to stay faithful.  But being faithful won't just happen.  It's not automatic.  It's not like setting the cruise control on your car.  These Christians have steadfast purpose.  They have to be intentional.

You see that?  That's goodness at work!  Christian goodness means caring about the lives of others.  Caring about their spiritual lives.  Caring enough to speak God's truth.  To speak it in love.  To speak God's Word so that our brothers and sisters will grow in goodness.  So that the fruit of the Spirit will observable in their lives, too.

Barnabas was a good man.  He was full of the Spirit and of faith.  And that goodness was observable in two things: (1) joyfully seeing God's grace in others and (2) faithfully exhorting God's people to continue in God's grace.  That brings me to a question: Am I a good man?  Are you a good man?  And like Luke, I don't mean, "Are we Christians?" (However, that's the right place to start!)

What I mean is...do we rejoice in seeing the grace of God in others?  In seeing the evidence of grace worked out in their lives?  Do we suspect that it's not genuine, or do we celebrate what we see?  Are we encouraging other Christians to stay steady, to remain faithful, and to persevere in the faith?

More than what I think about me.  More than what I think about you.  What do you think others might say?  If someone were recording this time in your life.  If they observed you at your church.  And if they used the criteria that Luke mentions here.  What would they say?  Are you good?