Friday, July 17, 2015

I Felt Like an Angel From Heaven in Their Midst

 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. -Hebrews 13.2

Did you know that the average person makes up there mind about a church between their car door and their seat? Before a song is sung, before the pastor speaks, most people have already made up their mind about a church. Those first impressions mean more than we imagine.
Over the years as a church planter I have visited more churches than most people, doing research. As a pastor I know the drill of finding my way around a church and I am usually looking to be “off-the-radar” as I try to learn from that church without getting any special attention because of being a pastor. A few churches I have visited were down-right unfriendly, but most were reasonably polite. Still even the friendliest of them were a little awkward at first, simply because I didn't know where things were, or what the expectations were.  That is why a hospitality team is honestly the most important ministry in the body. Those greeters, ushers, and security people make the church seem not only more welcoming but they determine if a person will stick around.
Recently I visited a church that broke the mold on hospitality. I have never been so impressed by any church’s first impression in all my life. To top it off, I was only at a satellite campus, not even the main campus of this fast growing church. What was so radical? Well, they had a huge team of hospitality people. Out of the 300 people at least 50 of them were involved in hospitality, but I was never mobbed. Instead every guest was greeted individually. A host walked every guest around so they could find everything they needed, including their seat, and they gave us s small packet of information, including a CD. Once we were settled they invited us to come back to the welcome center for a gift. A real gift! When I returned to the Welcome Center they answered all of my questions, and helped me fill out a connect card, had I lived in the area they would have also helped me sign-up for anything I wanted to get involved in. Then the host did one more thing after I left, while my name was still fresh on her mind, Sarah wrote me a brief postcard thanking me for my visit, and invited me back. That postcard went out the same day, and got to my house 800 miles away in two days. If I am ever back there I already know Sarah by name, because she greeted me and escorted me around the church so I didn’t feel lost, and her note reminded me of her name too. Moreover, Sarah answered all of my questions because she had been to a briefing that morning to give her all the info she needed and to remind her of that church's core values.
I was stunned by what I experienced. I thought I knew what good hospitality was all about, but then I got taken to school. I quickly figures out I have a lot to learn.  My teenage children talked about their experience for nearly two hours after church. (It takes a lot to impress a couple of PK’s.) After I visited the church I posted about my experience and several people asked to explain what was so powerful about my experience. To be honest, reading this post does not even begin to do it justice. I must also add that I sensed the presence of God, and I heard a Southern Baptist talk about healing and the power of the Spirit in a very meaningful way. Yet, I also have to say that the church wasn’t perfect. The music was so loud one of my kids said she wished she had taken the earplugs. Even my son who loves it loud said, it would be hard to do that every week. The music and the preaching were good but not awesome. Yet this church has grown from handful of people in 2006 to over 20,000 people in 2015. So they have done a great job in making people want to stay. All I know, is that I am planning on going back to visit that church and learn more.

My take-away? Well, People ask me all the time, "How can I serve? What can I do to make a difference?" My first response has always been hospitality because I can't think of any more impacting role than to be part of the hospitality team. Too often people look at that role as beneath them, they take that role for granted, but the truth is, that's why most churches don't make much of an impact. I would love for everyone to feel what I felt when I visited that church. They made me feel like I was an angel from heaven that had landed in their midst.  So I am going to spend the next several weeks with my team learning and growing in the ministry of hospitality.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Who Can Hear the Voice of God (part 4 of 4)

With the last post I mentioned briefly this idea of follow-through when it comes to hearing the voice of God. Follow through encompasses a number of different issues, but central to growing in your ability to hear is what do you do once you have heard the voice of God on an issue. Do you share what you have heard from God if it’s for someone else? Do you share what you heard if you think it is for the church?  And then there is some bad teaching out there that says, if you do not do what God tells you to do, in the instant he tells you, that God will stop speaking to you. Let’s get this straight, only people are that dysfunctional, God is not nearly that easily offended, or he would have given up on humanity a long time ago. That is not to say that there are never any consequences to not listening. For instance, if God tells you to get out of the burning building you might get trapped in it if you don’t listen. Then the next voice you may hear will likely be the voice of God telling you that you weren’t supposed to have arrived at your final destination so soon. Burning house aside, if you stumble in your obedience today, but avail yourself to God in the future, God will still speak to you. Everyday with God is fresh, with no mistakes in it.

If you have been following this article through all four parts you know that in the first article I shared a story about hearing the voice of God on April 1, 1996. I was given a six-month plan for getting out of debt, because God was calling us to plant a church. I also mentioned that it took longer than six months because I was reluctant to obey part of the plan (I didn’t want to sell our van). The other part of my disobedience was that in the summer, after we were mostly out of debt, (I had finally sold the van and paid-off my big school loan) I felt certain that God wanted me to start a church right then, to jump-in by faith and that God would provide the net, and that I didn’t need an income. I choked!  You know what else? Because I did not follow to the letter the instructions for getting out of debt it not only took a little longer, but I could have sold the van for a little more money because it was pristine, but in my disobedience we not only added many miles, but some of the interior was damaged. I should have obeyed and sold it in April but I sold it in July, after a few more family trips and youth group trips. The point is that I did not obey all of the instructions, and the ones I obeyed I did not always do it well, but God did not stop talking to me. The worst part of that season in my life was that someone told me my failure to obey to the letter was going to cost me, and that I would never get to plant a church with the Vineyard. Wow, well they obviously nailed that one… I am planting my third Vineyard Church. That incredibly fleshly (neurotic) teaching on the voice of God was the source of incredible pain over the next few months. Then God who has an amazing way of using everything, for the good of those who love him, brought me to a place of renewed commitment to Christ, and to hearing the voice of God for my life. God hadn’t given up on me, nor did he stop speaking to me. God is more committed to the outcome of my life and yours than we will ever be. 

Do you know what a ‘but’ is, don’t you? Not a b-u-t-t. A but is really big word for only three letters. It’s the word we interject that keeps us from doing the will of God.  It is that little interjection that keeps us walking by sight rather than walking by faith (2 Corinthians 5.7). Most of us need to let go of it, and get on with what God has for us, but moving-on is a step of faith. That struggle is likely why the writer of the book of Hebrews said it this way: “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Hebrews 11.6) The desire of God is that you will let go of your but and obey him, yet most of us have a long list of interjections. One of the things I have learned over the years is that the bigger the but the more likely it is God. God often asks us to do what we could not do on our own, so that we will have to rely on God for strength and wisdom.

Little buts on-the-other-hand are things like: but I might be wrong, but I am no one special, but I am embarrassed, but they might not listen to me, like me, believe me, etc. While those things are real, it is even more certain that you won’t get it right, and no one will listen if you never speak up. These little personal risks can potentially make us feel like a fool, but these are the steps to God entrusting us with bigger things, because those who are faithful in little things are the ones to get the shot at being faithful with big things, but not until they are faithful with the little things. As a side note, calling these things little is not demeaning their importance, rather if the little ones are tough the big ones are even more so. But faithful in little, faithful in much Got it?

So then, if we are willing to let go of our buts, then we can go with God, because the very essence of the but is our flesh. It is the limit our flesh imposes on our spirit’s desire to go with God. What we need in contrast to our but is faith. In 1 Corinthians 2.4-5 it says, our faith should not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power.  Jesus said, in Matthew 17.20 that all it takes is for us to have faith as small as a mustard seed to go with God.  Jesus also said, that if we would go in faith that we would do even greater things then he did (John 14.12).

God does not reveal himself to you for your entertainment, or to make you seem important in church, rather God speaks because he has something for us to do and the appropriate response on our part is to listen and get to it. In 1 Samuel 15.22 we read, Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD?  To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. The point being, that as wonderful as worship is, God does not delight in worship that comes from a heart that isn’t yielded to him. The best worship is obedience, and obedience means not just doing the right things, but being attentive to his voice and doing his will.

First of all, if it really is for someone else, chances are they already know on some level what you are about to tell them. Nine times out of ten when I share with someone something that God has laid on my heart for them, they already knew it, and it was simply confirmation. That’s easy isn’t it? But most of us just don’t want to stop there . . .
I don’t know why it is, but it’s bewitching really, that having delivered a message from God, that we had nothing to do with, that somehow people suddenly feel they have BECOME the Holy Spirit incarnate and now they feel the need to make things happen, or bring about conviction, or to make people follow through a particular way, or something meddlesome like that.  Please, please, please, remember that is not your job, that is the job of the Holy Spirit (John 16.8). What happens next is up to them and God, but the most common mistake is to try and make people do something. Which often leads to control, manipulation and other sin on the part of the one trying to make it happen. If God does not overrun the will of a person, I am certain that you don’t know better than God, nor do you have the right to force anything on anybody, nor can you make them obey what you heard, nor can you make them repent though forcing them, pushing them, brow beating them, or threatening them. God does not do it that way, and you shouldn’t either. Instead the Bible invites us in 1 Thessalonians 5.20-21 to test for ourselves these kinds of personal messages that are said to be from God to determine if it is God’s word for us, and to keep what is good, but to reject the rest of it. No personal word or prophecy should ever have the weight of scripture.

There are three guidelines you always need to follow when it comes to sharing what God has said to you.
First, ask God, do you want me to tell them about this?  Not everything you feel is from God is meant for the consumption of others, but it could be a matter that God has given you to pray about. In 2 Corinthians 12.4 Paul says, that he had things revealed to him that he was not permitted to tell. Don’t just assume that you are supposed to say everything that comes to your mind. The Bible is quite clear that only a fool does that (Proverbs 10.21, 15.2, 17.28, 18.7). The prophet Daniel had a vision about the distant future concerning the kingdoms of the earth, and he was the top advisor to one of the Kings in the vision but he was told that he should not tell of it now but record it for later (Daniel 8.26).  Even though Daniel lived to see some of the vision come true, and it may have helped Daniel in making some of his decisions, he was not allowed to share it until later. We do know that later on that recoded vision of Daniel kept Alexander the Great from destroying the Jews and their culture because they showed Alexander the prophecies in the Book of Daniel that foretold of his great conquest and his rise to world dominion. The moral is that unless you ask God you might actually cause yourself or those around you pain in a way that is unnecessary. So what should you do?

Secondly, ask the Lord if this is the right time for you to share it? Just like Daniel, maybe you should be silent now, but later it may be needed to help someone. The caution is not that you never share it but maybe its simply, not right now. Or maybe there are issues of private sins, or some personal stuff that probably should not be said in front of others. Matthew 18.15-17 gives us steps for confronting one who has sinned.  It does not begin in front of anyone, but it starts one-on-one, with a heart full of mercy and compassion not judgment.

Third, ask yourself about your attitude and the nature of the message. The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 14.3 that prophecy strengthens, encourages, and comforts.  The correction may be needed but it should always build-up rather than tear someone down.  If it seems condemning in nature then it is not the voice of God, even if it is true. Romans 8.1 makes it quite clear, there is now therefore no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. That means if you are condemning the other person, then you are not speaking for God, even if the message was accurate.

One last thing to consider, sometimes God will tell me something about a situation or a person that is not for me to share at all, but it is meant to prepare me to deal with a situation, or confront a lie, when I hear it later on or whatever.  There can be any number of reasons why God will tell me something in secret but I need to keep my mouth shut.

The the same basic rules apply here as with individuals, the greatest difference being is that you not only have the autonomy of the individual to consider, but also the leadership of the church, and the body at large. If you have heard from God, for the body, then it should prove-out when the leadership of the church hears it.  God does not give leaders the responsibility to lead and then keep them in the dark.  Even when they sin, they should know if a word of warning is for them or not. If they can’t recognize that, then you need to go somewhere else, but don’t take it upon yourself to usurp authority; that is dangerous ground. Look at this in Hebrews 13.17, Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. Those who have been called by God to lead must give account to the Lord for what they do and how they lead, and nothing you can say or do could possibly weigh in heavier than that. But if they are still disobedient, the truth is that God has the responsibility to deal with them not you, remember, you are not the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, I would not stay under the leadership of leaders who are not listening either.

Wrapping Up
Throughout this series of blog posts the emphasis has been that every Christian hears God’s voice, it’s just a question of are you listening. Secondly that the language of the Holy Spirit is first the Bible, then people, events, dreams, visions, circumstances and numerous other ways, but not in any particular order after the Bible. The point is that God is communicating with his people. The third message was that we put up hurdles to hearing God and we need to take them down, so that we can hear him when he is speaking to us. Then finally, having heard God that we need to obey God when he speaks.  Every time you obey God your “hearing” gets better and clearer, and your faith gets larger, and you learn a little more about God’s will for your life. In contrast, every time you ignore or reject the voice of God, it means that you are going to miss out on what God has for you because you are going to do everything in our own strength, and by our own understanding.  We are most fruitful when we work with God rather than in spite of him.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Who Can Hear the Voice of God (Part 3 of 4)

One of my favorite phrases about avoiding weirdness and excess in the ministry of the church is the term coined by John Wimber, Naturally Supernatural. It means to fully embrace God’s supernatural activity in the world but to avoid all the hype & weirdness that tends to accompany much of some Pentecostal & Charismatic church cultures, especially on TV. So whether we are talking about seeing God’s hand in a series of events, or telling of dreams/visions, the prophetic, words of knowledge, or simply answered prayer, or even vague impressions, we believe that everyone who has accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior hears from God and just needs to learn to listen to his voice. We know that not everyone prophesies, not everyone hears audible voices, not everyone has dreams or visions, but we also know that God speaks to every Christian and he has already been talking to you.  The goal is simply to help you discern his voice. 

When it comes to listening to the voice of God it is important to remove things that can build-up in our spiritual ears like wax. The obvious things are sin (especially pride) or unbelief, but just as deafening are things like motive, and/or preconceived ideas/prejudices, or even experience (or the lack thereof). Remember, God searches the hearts while man looks at the outward. Two examples of how motive can make us spiritually deaf are in the book of Acts. The first example of motive is in Acts 5.1-11, a couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold their property with the stated intent to give the money to the church, but somewhere in the course of events they decided to keep part of the money  (which they had every right to do) but rather than tell people that they kept part of the money they lied about the amount they sold the land for, and pretended that they gave the church all the money.  By withholding the change in plans they lied to the church (and the Holy Spirit). We can only guess what their motive was but we know the end result was that Ananias and Sapphira were both struck-down by the Holy Spirit. Whatever the motive was it is clear that it was not pure.  In another incident in Acts 8.9-25 a man named Simon, who had been a sorcerer, had recently come to Christ. When he saw the Apostles laying hands on someone to impart some spiritual gifts for ministry, Simon wanted the ability to give spiritual gifts to others, and then offered the Apostles money to give him that gift. Peter rebuked Simon sternly, and told him that he would never have a part in that ministry, and that Simon and his money will perish together because his motives were wrong. Then Peter urged Simon to repent before his condition became permanent; which Simon did. The point in each of these events was that motive is a big deal to God, and it can be a big barrier to hearing God’s voice. You can fool some of the people, some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, and some can even fool themselves, but you can’t ever fool God. God knows what is in our hearts, and if we are out to test him or to gain notoriety, or selfish riches, God will not play along. 

The other issue is preconceived ideas or prejudices. In the Bible, it is pretty rare that God takes a Saul of Tarsus and slams his face in the dirt and says, I am God, and you're off track.  Most often, God will allow us our prejudices and preconceived ideas about people, the world, and even religion because of our will. The Bible says that all of creation testifies to God, and for those who want to see, God’s hand can be seen in everything, but if you look at all of creation, and conclude that this is all just an accident of nature, God won’t force you out of your preconceived ideas. You can chose naturalism over all the wonder and splendor of God’s world, and see the world as random chance, but the problem is that as a Christian if you let naturalism dominate your worldview, you probably will never hear God’s voice, because you have already shut out the supernatural. I see this happen to believers who have an anti-supernatural bias when they try to read the Bible. They conclude that when Jesus delivered someone from a demonic-attack that it was just seizures or epileptic fits, but ignore the fact that Jesus healed them supernaturally.  By insisting on a natural explanation (prejudice) they close themselves off from supernatural input. You don’t have to see a demon behind every bush to be a Christian. In a biblical world-view sometimes seizures are demons and other times they are physiological problems. 

What other prejudices can block you from hearing? You could have theological presuppositions that are not grounded in the Bible but in rationalism or denominational teachings. If you have been told in church that God does not speak today, or if your church background has limited the ways in which God is allowed to speak, you may miss the voice of God. One such example was the Pharisees. They thought God only spoke through their traditions in Jesus’ day because it had been so long since they had a prophet. So when Jesus spoke to them outside of their traditional interpretations they rejected what he said even though it was according to the Scripture. Jesus addressed the issue when he said to them in John 5.39-40, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” Even though they knew that there was a Messiah coming and that God had spoken in the past through the prophets about him, they rejected the voice of God because their hearts were hard to God speaking outside of their traditions.  Probably the biggest prejudice is “experience.” 

Often experiences (or the lack thereof) dictate what people are willing to believe. If they had a bad experience with someone telling them that God said, and then they made bad choices, they may rightly conclude that it wasn’t God, but they may also decide that God doesn’t actually speak today. Or if you have never heard God’s voice (felt led by God, or had any kind of supernatural experience) you might conclude that God does not speak today.  

Another prejudice that we need to be aware of is one that isn’t usually thought of as a prejudice, but it is one; it’s the fear of making a mistake. If you live in fear of making a mistake you will never hear God’s voice. If you do not listen to the voice of God you will certainly make big mistakes because of failed judgments and lack of information. Making mistakes is part of life, if we are too prideful to risk a mistake, then we will never enjoy the fruit of having God lead you further than your own intellect and information can carry you. I have often heard fear spiritualized as not wanting to mislead someone else or create expectations that God then does not fulfill. It is God who invites us to listen to his voice and follow his lead. It is God who invites us to pray and ask. Worrying about what God will or will not do may be an indication that we think we know better than God how to handle people, and may actually be revealing the real issues that fear is masking. 

Once you clear the spiritual earwax out you need some practical instructions for hearing God’s voice. First, “dial down.”  You can hear better when you turn down the emotional noise. It is hard to hear anyone when you are amped up emotionally. In everyday life a discussion that gets emotional usually leads to people not hearing each other. Sometimes it means we need to calm down, sometimes it means we need to turn off the religious hype. Working yourself into an emotional frenzy does not help you hear God. As you develop in your hearing you may well need to discern God’s leading under extreme circumstances but those are rescue situations; they are not normal.  The sooner you learn to dial down and listen, the easier it will be to recognize the leading of the Holy Spirit and then to later identify his voice under duress. The reason that many people reject the notion of hearing the voice of God is that they associate it with fleshly emotional and religious hype. All kinds of weird things get said, and God gets blamed for the weirdness. Keep in mind the words of the Psalmist, Be still, and know that I am God… (Psalm 46.10).  Consider this, there isn’t even one verse where God’s people get all worked-up into frenzy in order to hear his voice, but in 1 Kings 18.25-29, the prophets of Baal get all worked up into a frenzy and no one answers. In contrast, Elijah then steps up to the plate in this battle of the gods and in verse 36 Elijah prayed a simple (no hype) prayer that God would answer. Then fire poured out from heaven and the frenzied false prophets were defeated. God is not a religion, he is our Father in heaven and he is relating to us. When God speaks it is not an event, it is a normal occurrence that flows out of love and a desire to lead us. 

Secondly, it may take time for you to learn to listen. Some people can get on the bike and ride from day one. Others take a little more time to get their balance, but once you learn you will never forget.  Don’t be hard on yourself just because you don’t get it right the first time; condemnation is from the enemy. If you fall down God says get back up. God is not expecting you to be perfect; that’s why he gave us Jesus. It is a forgone conclusion that you will not do it perfectly. 

Lastly, remember that each time God speaks it is unique to the individual.  There is only one burning bush, only one altar consumed by fire in battle with false prophets, one talking donkey, etcetera. Don’t look for God to repeat events in history, but let God speak to you without your determining how it must happen. Those past events were uniquely designed by God to speak to them. God will speak to you in the way that best speaks to you in each event or circumstance.

One of the most common complaints in relationships is communication, but chances are the problem isn’t speaking, they do that fine, it’s that neither one is really listening. That’s why we offer a class called, Listening for Heaven’s Sake, it's not called talking for heaven’s sake. In communications most people are busy building their response to the other person before the other person gets done speaking. They are only technically listening but they are interpreting incorrectly. They filter everything through their own motives, experiences, prejudices, and such then interpret what they think is being said rather than what was meant. The real issue of listening is one of relationship. When someone approaches another person with a desire to get their own way, or to win an argument, or any motive other than listening, their desire is not to relate. For you to really hear what the other person is saying, you have to listen to God, not just what you want to hear.

First, one of the most common complaints about hearing God is that God never answers my prayers. That is an emotional roadblock to hearing God before you ever get started. In the Gospel of John 8.47 it reads, he who belongs to God hears what God says. That is a promise you need to hold on to. Often a few questions reveal that like most of us, they made no connection between what they prayed for, and what happened. They chalked-it-up to coincidence or the actions of others.  We are like the atheist that gets lost in the Alaskan wilderness. He got so lost and he runs out of food, so in desperation he prays, “Oh God if you are really there please get me out of this mess.” Moments later a dog sled team comes along and rescues him. But, later when someone asks him about his experience, when they say, “Wow, God was really with you.” The atheist replies, “No, I tried praying but God didn’t rescue me, it was that dog sled team.” Listening involves trusting God to answer. 

Second, good listening involves knowing God through Christ and learning about God. If you don’t have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and you don’t know anything about the character of God, then you are open to all kinds of other spiritual voices. Demonic voices are spiritual too but they won't lead you to life and godliness. Often times people get involved in other forms of religion or spiritualism and then attribute these other spirits' leadings to the true and living God. Or they have recently come to faith in Christ but they have some really awful images in their head about God, from non-Christian teachings or unorthodox teachings and then filter events through unbiblical ideas, or false teachings. So if you want to grow in hearing the voice of God you need to know him through Jesus Christ, and you need to learn about him.  Otherwise you may be in danger of misinterpreting what God said or did, and be led astray from what God intended.

Third, don’t go beyond what God revealed. If God shows you that there is sin involved, don’t jump to conclusions about who sinned. If God leads you to give, don’t judge the situation or their worthiness. If God leads you to pray for someone or share the gospel with them, just do that, don’t go beyond or do less than how God is leading. One of the biggest roadblocks to hearing from God in the future is a lack of follow through when you do hear. If you have already done that, the need is to repent, and on the next opportunity you get to follow through on God’s leading. Likewise, if God tells you to stop doing something or to start doing something don’t assume that God’s direction is for anyone other than you. On the other hand, if you are praying for someone else, do not interpret what you get. Just relay the impression, dream/vision, verse or whatever without your interpretation or thoughts on the matter. If you get a word, let the other person determine what that word means. Keep you out of God’s Word to them. More about this in part four of this article series.

God’s voice is available to every Christian, but learning to listen is also an art. Some people pick-up on it quickly; others take more time. Give yourself permission to learn, and forgive yourself when you fail. The goal is not to be a superstar or the center of attention. Only God is a superstar, and only God deserves the credit and attention. So use the practical steps to start you on the journey to discerning God’s voice in your life, and be on the look-out for more about follow through in part four of this series.