Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent and Lent in a Modern Church

I am not a very traditional kind of church person. The church I lead is not formal. Most people call me by my first name, we drink coffee in our auditorium (I usually call it an auditorium rather than a sanctuary). I wear jeans, or slacks, but I never wear a tie, or a robe. Most people wear shorts when it is warm outside, and this is Florida, so that is most of the time. We have guitars and drums and I really do not like hymns, even when they are played on a guitar. So then people are always surprised about the role of Advent and Lent in our church (although we don't even do them in a traditional way). It's not because I dislike the pageantry or the liturgy of tradition, I am just not very formal personally.

For me, Advent and Lent are not about tradition, but about discipleship.  My doctorate degree is actually in Christian Education. So while my dissertation was about the role of biblical literacy in relationship to discipleship and transformation, I spent a lot of hours reading studying about education and learning. I am convinced that the reason things like liturgy and spiritual disciplines resurface again and again, is because they work. These practices of fasting, the lighting of candles and the keeping of church calendars, reading of prayers and so forth year after year, all reinforce what we believe with doing, smelling, and seeing, and sharing. It is the shared practice, and the sight, sound, doing combination that burns these things deep into our minds and evoke emotional responses within us. Nothing in modern education has been able to replace these simple practices.

The intent of Advent and Lent at the Vineyard isn't about time honored traditions, it isn't about being avant-garde or trendy, it is about repurposing and reinvigorating things that really work, so that they do not become routine and empty but instead create a great experience that deeply imbeds our hearts and our minds with truth.

As we make our way into this Advent season, my prayer is that you will use the tools of this great tradition to make room for Christ and the message of peace to those who know and do his good will.

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.