When Tomorrow Comes

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A key leadership responsibility is preparing for the future. That’s a difficult task considering the chaotic and rapidly-changing time in which we live. Still, there are some things that we know and for which we can prepare.

First, when tomorrow comes we will not be exempt from the principalities and powers who are working to destroy human life created in God’s image. As perplexing as the manifestation of evil is, the Bible shows us that our enemy works at every level of society. How do we understand the increasing coarseness of our political life, the growing vulgarity in public life, even the division and compromise that threatens our church life, without knowing that our enemy is working to destroy that which God loves? Whatever happens tomorrow, you must expect and prepare for spiritual opposition.

Second, though the powers of darkness are working to destroy us, God has put limitations on the principalities and powers. Evil exists, but God is in control, and He even uses evil men to accomplish good things. We must not fall into the trap of overestimating the enemy and underestimating God. When tomorrow comes, God will be on His throne, hearing our prayers, accomplishing His agenda, and rescuing human beings from our sin and stupidity. This is our true basis for optimism when tomorrow comes.

Third, the discipling of children is essential for a bright tomorrow. If you don’t disciple your children, the world will. The principalities and powers work to distort the human mind and this begins in childhood. Preschool children develop ideas about the world and the “powers” work to conform the minds and hearts of our kids to the world’s ways. We must fight this. Every believer, every church, must work to reach children and teach them to obey God. Whatever you do, don’t forget the children who will inhabit tomorrow’s world.

Fourth, the American Church is returning to the norm. The Church is a pilgrim people, out-of-step with society, often poor and sometimes persecuted. The American Church has escaped the norm for much of our history, but that is changing. We need to prepare for this. Most of the world’s believers are already poor and persecuted. There are more Christians in Africa than in Europe and the United States combined, and they are mostly poor. China has about the same number of weekly worshippers as the U.S.A. does, and they are persecuted. I’m not saying the American church will experience what the Asian church does today, but a bright tomorrow requires that we put our hope in God and not in the American political process. Not that we should abandon political participation, but spiritual work is done on our knees before an open Bible.

God’s Word tells us that the day will come when time will be no more. On that day the curse will be removed and the daylight will vanquish the night forever (Rev. 22:3-5). Until that day, with every tomorrow the Lord gives, fix your eyes on Jesus and join Him in the spiritual battle for souls.

Make Disciples: Part 3 – Discipling a Church

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Parts 1 and 2 of “Making Disciples” focused on discipling the nation and the community. In Part 3 the focus is the local church, which is the means God uses to disciple individuals, a community and a nation. A community becomes more Christian when local churches take the gospel to their community, love their community, and lead the individuals in their community to Christ. But for this to happen there must be a church in the community that behaves “Christianly.” What does it mean to behave Christianly and how does a church do it?

Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 to “disciple all of the nations” is followed by two actions steps – baptizing them and teaching them to observe everything Christ commanded. Baptism is the public act of identifying with Jesus Christ and His church. In the New Testament, baptism followed immediately after one’s personal profession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Making disciples begins with gospel witness (evangelism) by which individuals, and sometimes entire households, come to profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ and follow Him in believer’s baptism.

Following baptism, making disciples is described by the phrase “teaching them to observe” all of the commands that Jesus gave to the eleven remaining disciples (Matt. 28:20). Those who commit to Christ must learn to obey all of the teachings of Jesus. Now, here’s an observation: many churches are better at teaching the meaning of the Scriptures than teaching obedience to the Scriptures. In sermons and Bible lessons the “What?” is often taught, but not the “Now what?”

So how do church leaders teach the church to obey Christ commands? You can do so by doing these three things.

1. Destiny – Teach every believer that he/she has a purpose in God’s kingdom. Every person “in Christ” has a destiny, a reason for being and a role to fulfill in the Body of Christ. Every person matters. Throughout the New Testament we see this, and God’s people must be taught to read the Scriptures with a view to discovering their own purpose in God’s work. Every believer has spiritual gifting and therefore each has a purpose in what God is accomplishing in the world. The purpose of the church, and of each believer, must be addressed from the pulpit monthly at the very least. It must be taught in small groups. And we must teach our children, in the home, and in the church, that they have a destiny to fulfill in God’s kingdom.

2. Opportunity – Provide the church with opportunities to obey the teachings of Christ. With varying degrees of effectiveness, churches provide opportunities to worship, to contribute to God’s work financially, to walk with God’s people in unity, and to serve God through the ministries of the church and in their daily lives. But some churches are much better at giving people specific opportunities to answer the question “Now what?” Every sermon and Bible lesson should answer this question. The programing and ministry of the church should provide opportunities for God’s people to “do acts of obedience.” Things like evangelism training and sharing the gospel, mission projects, serving widows, and serving the poor and needy, help give opportunities for God’s people to obey Him. Church leaders should regularly ask the question, “How can we show God’s love to our community? How can we take the gospel to our community and to peoples beyond?” These questions will lead to opportunities for serving God (talk to civic and school leaders to get a better understanding of community needs). Also, don’t forget to provide opportunities to celebrate what God does and to pray for God to work through the opportunities provided by the church. How much praying does your church do on Sunday morning that focuses on loving the community and sharing Christ? Are you giving your people opportunities to pray for community leaders, pray for the lost, pray for missionaries, and pray for the persecuted church? Each local church needs to connect with the worldwide church through prayer. A small church can have a huge impact by praying for big things.

3. Responsibility – Lead each of God’s people to take personal responsibility for answering the call to love God and to love their neighbors. Each believer needs to take responsibility for God’s work. Opportunities provided must be seized by God’s people as they take personally the task of sharing Christ with the lost and loving their neighbors.

From a programming perspective, individual churches will address these three things in different ways. But think about those in the Scriptures whom God has greatly used. Think about those throughout history, and even those you know personally through whom God has done great things. Each of these people had a sense of destiny. Each of them created and seized opportunities. And each of them took personal responsibility for serving God. A church that leads its people to do these things will become a dynamic church, greatly used of God, no matter its numerical size.

Checklist for Planning a Worship Service

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Recently I led a seminar for the Columbia Basin Baptist Association on planning a worship service. The following is the handout I used and I thought it might be helpful to others who plan worship services.

A classic and helpful understanding of corporate worship was given by Soren Kierkegaard more than 150 years ago. He said that in a service of worship God is the audience, the congregants are the performers, and the pastor is the prompter. If this is a correct, and I believe that it is, then worship needs to be directed toward God with the intent of pleasing Him. Worship leaders are to lead congregants to “perform” for God, to engage with God, in thought and heart and behavior. Worshippers are not consumers of religious products and the worship leaders are not the suppliers of such products.

This in no way infers that worship leaders should ignore the presence of unbelievers and church guests attending a service of Christian worship. Worship services are a major entry way into churches and into the Kingdom for the unbeliever. As missionaries have identified, unbelievers experience two “conversions” as they come to Christ. First, they are converted to us. Second, they are converted to Christ. They first ask the question, “Do I like/respect these church people?” If they do, then they will listen to what we say about Christ. Worship leaders must guide the congregants with clarity and understanding, much like a Holy Land tour guide explains each step of the pilgrim’s journey through Jerusalem. With this in mind, the following checklist is helpful in worship planning.

1. Prayer

a. For what do we need to pray? What do we need to say to God? What do we need to hear from God? Even as the pastor prepares his sermon, he should prepare to lead the congregation in prayer by making a prayer list as the week passes.
b. When will we pray? Beginning of the service? Pastoral prayer? End of service?
c. Who will lead in prayer? Methods of praying that will be employed?

2. God’s Word, the Bible

a. What passages will we read and when will we read them?
b. Who will we select to read God’s Word? (Pastor/preacher, men, women, children)
c. Is the reading of God’s Word a central act of our worship?

3. Music/singing

a. What do we want to teach through the song(s)? Does the song teach biblical truths?
b. Does the congregation know the song?
c. Is the song singable? Is the music in a range that men and women can sing?
d. Does the song magnify God and exalt Jesus Christ?
e. Do any of the songs mention Jesus? The gospel?
f. Does the music leader engage the congregation and lead them to sing? (eye contact, facial expression, smile, good use of transitions between songs)
g. When using a “praise team,” does each member sing every verse? If not, what does this communicate to the congregation?
h. Caution: worship music can sometimes become performance rather than leading the congregation to participate, making the congregation the audience rather than God.

4. Testimonies

a. Is there someone who can share a testimony that connects to the theme of the message and the Scripture?
b. Has someone experienced God and the church would benefit from hearing their story?
c. New believer testimonies, including young people?
d. Testimonies of sharing Christ with a lost person?

5. Message/sermon

a. What biblical text does God want me to preach/teach?
b. What is the central truth of the text?
c. How and when will I read the text? When I do, how should I hold the Bible?
d. How will the text and its truth be communicated and applied?
e. Big Question for the preacher – Do you believe what you say, or is this just helpful information or good advice?
f. Am I preaching to those present?
g. What do I want the congregation to know, believe or do as a result of the message?
h. Am I aiming for the heart and not just the head?
i. Who attending needs to know Christ as Savior or follow Him in baptism?
j. Is PowerPoint helpful?
k. Is the message internalized?
l. What level of eye contact do I seek to maintain (at least 80 percent)?

6. Opportunity to respond to God’s call

a. How will we give people the opportunity to say “yes” to Christ?
b. Methods of response/invitation? Will we use multiple methods?
c. How will we share with the congregation decisions for Christ that are made in the worship service?
d. How will we welcome new believers and new members into the church?

7. How will you receive the offering (the correct word is “receive,” not “take”)? How can we do stewardship education as we prepare to receive the offering? Is there information we can share about how this offering will be used in God’s work?

8. Is there something we can celebrate or highlight as we worship?

9. Is our worship “indigenous?” i.e. using the gifts and talents of the people God has given us?

10. If a lost person, or a person unfamiliar with our church, attends today, would he know what to do during every aspect of the service? Are we assuming people know how to find a biblical text, have a Bible, or that they know the stories of the Bible, or that they know when to sing, etc.? How can we make everything clear and helpful to a guest?

11. How do we give new people an opportunity to learn about Christ and our church?

12. Are there opportunities to express joy and gratitude as we worship?

The pastor/preacher is the worship leader of the church because he is the church’s theologian by the call of God, spiritual gifting, educational training, and the call of the church. As a part of his calling, therefore, the pastor must give direction as to the content and flow of the worship service. Worship planning can be done as a team, and it’s generally best to do it that way. But the pastor knows what he’s trying to accomplish through the message and the worship service should flow from that.

In addition, wise pastors know that vision transfers through people not paper. The vision that God gives a pastor (the source of the vision must be from God) must be transferred into the hearts of the people in order for it to become the vision of the church. This is a key job of the pastor as servant-leader. The worship service provides the pastor his best opportunity to lead the church into God’s preferred future.

In Times Like These We Need Confidence in the Gospel

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When missionary Lesslie Newbigin returned to Great Britain from India he said that he found a greater mission field in Britain than he had left in India. Key to this was his observation that Indian believers had confidence in the gospel and those in Britain did not. Christians with whom Newbigin worked in India believed in the power of Christ’s shed blood to wash away sin and guilt. They believed that death had been defeated through the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. They believed in the power of the Holy Spirit to raise a repentant sinner from death to life. But things were different with the church-goers he encountered in Britain. They were timid and apologetic in the face of a culture that was increasingly hostile to, and dismissive of, biblical truth. It shocked him.

What Newbigin experienced in Britain is far too common in American churches today. Thank God Baptists have not abandoned biblical truth as some have. But that is not to say we haven’t too often neglected to teach and live the truth we claim to believe. Denial of Bible truth is three steps too far for a good Baptist. We wouldn’t do that. But neglecting to teach the truth, and demonstrating a lack of confidence in the transformative power of the Gospel to bring eternal life, is much too common for far too many.

So how do we restore the confidence of God’s people in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Let me suggest a few things.

First, pastors and Bible teachers must be convinced that the Gospel is true and we must teach it with confidence. The first question a listener has of any speaker/teacher is, “Does he believe what he says?” We have abundant reasons to have confidence in the gospel because it is supported by historical events. Our faith is not a leap into the dark. Our faith is not mere philosophy. It is history. Our Savior did things and said things in history. Peter, James and John and Matthew and the others changed the world because they heard Jesus speak. They saw Him act. They watched Him die. They saw Him raised. They touched and spoke to our resurrected Lord. They watched Him ascend back to heaven. And then they travelled the world for the next 30 years and more, preaching this good news until most of them surrendered their own lives in a martyr’s death.

These are some of the historical facts of our faith. There are many more. We have reason to be confident that Jesus Christ lived, died, was raised, and that one day He will return to judge the living and the dead. Our preaching and teaching must reflect our strong confidence in the gospel message.

Second, when believers gather for worship our gatherings must be saturated with confident, gospel praying. The reading and preaching of the Word of God must be the central act of our worship. And Scripture reading must be restored to a place of primacy in worship. We should sing gospel songs that speak of Jesus and what He has done and what He will one day do.

There was a time that Baptist worship services were characterized by Kingdom and gospel praying, the singing of gospel songs (songs that teach and celebrate who Jesus is and what He did on the Cross), the reading of Scripture, and a message from the Scripture. From my observation, most Baptist sermons focus on proclaiming and applying the teaching of a particular biblical text. That’s good. But much of our praying and singing does not reflect on gospel truths and kingdom concerns, and we rarely hear Scripture readings in our worship services. I believe most of our churches could benefit greatly by adding more Scripture and prayer to our worship services, and by including some songs whose lyrics present and declare gospel truths and actually use the name “Jesus.”

Third, the witness of each local church is more vibrant and confident when the church is sent into the world from a worship experience in which gospel power was expressed and experienced. When God’s people are confident in the power of Christ to change lives, and when we express and experience this in corporate worship, we are more likely to live our faith positively and confidently.

One of the tragedies of a presidential election year in the United States is that the term “evangelical” is associated with a particular political candidate. “Who do the evangelicals support?” is a familiar question in news reports, which makes evangelical Christians (including Baptists) sound like we’re a political organization. Even worse, I fear people think that we believe the church’s agenda is accomplished through politics (and maybe some of us believe that too!) rather than gospel witness.

It’s not that we don’t have a legitimate interest and concern regarding who our political leaders are. We do and we should. But the bottom line is that the only thing the church has is Jesus and the gospel of His saving grace. We don’t have good ideas. We don’t have political clout. We don’t have strategies or programs or anything other thing that remotely compares to Jesus’ presence and His power to replace a heart of stone with a heart for Him. Gospel preaching, gospel singing, gospel praying, all of which flows from God’s Word, that’s where the power is. In times like these, the old hymn says, we need a Savior. That we do. And that we have. Rejoice and be glad! Be confident in Him!

P.S. This morning in my devotional time I read Jeremiah 9:1 in which the prophet writes, “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.” I don’t pretend to know the sorrow that Jeremiah knew as he watched the utter destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the slaughter of thousands. But like many of you, I’ve felt anger, and, at times, a depressed resignation when I look at the goings on in our nation. The one thing, the only thing, that grabs me by the throat and awakens me to what is really real, is God’s Word and my confidence in Him. When I consider the glories of Christ, my hope and my joy soon returns.

The Praying Pastor

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When the congregation gathers it doesn’t need nor does it expect “cool” and “hip” in the pulpit. What the congregation needs and wants (whether or not they articulate it) is a word addressed to God and a Word from God.

That thought came to me this morning as I was praying and thinking about our churches. I have written about this before, but I am really burdened by the need for more prayer in our church gatherings. The prayers offered are usually quite brief, lacking depth and breadth in terms of Kingdom matters. I realize that sounds judgmental, but please know that I am too often guilty of the same. Too often when I consider myself and my ministry there is more doing than praying, and, even worse, there is doing without praying.

I know the Bible well enough to know that God’s people experience utter disaster unless He shows up and takes action. I believe Paul expressed something similar about himself when he said “I am unspiritual” (NIV) or “I am carnal” (KJV) (Romans 7:14). What did an unspiritual Apostle Paul do? I think he sometimes acted without prayer or made decisions based on experience or human reasoning without seeking God’s mind on matters.

So what do I mean by the congregation needing to hear a word addressed to God? I mean that they need to hear God’s man speaking to God on their behalf, leading them to the Throne, confessing sin, asking for forgiveness, interceding for the lost and the persecuted and the missionaries and the leaders and the servants of God. God’s man pouring his heart out to God as the congregation listens and engages with their hearts. It’s not that others cannot and should not lead in prayer when the congregation gathers, but the pastor must do so. No one prepares and plans for the Sunday meeting like the one who occupies the pulpit.

Leonard Ravenhill tells the story of a special worship gathering involving many pastors. Each pastor was to do only one thing. One would pray, one would read the Scriptures, another would preach, and one would appeal for the offering. Charles Spurgeon was chosen as the one to preach, but as he heard explained how things were going to work, the famed preacher said, “If there is only one thing that I may do tonight, I want to offer the prayer” (Revival Praying, p. 80). Wise man.

We preachers must lead our people in prayer and teach prayer, and we teach prayer by praying with and for our people. We hear a great deal today about great preachers. We need to hear more about preachers who pray and who lead their people to pray for the great concerns of God’s Kingdom.

Without question, pastoring a church is more difficult today than at any time in recent memory. We have churches in the Northwest that are discussing whether to admit into membership, or employ in the church (yes, I’ve had one phone call about this), individuals involved with marijuana in some way. Our churches and church members are dealing with same-sex marriage and transgender issues. We are in the midst of a presidential election campaign with two deeply flawed candidates, and this too is causing discord among Christian leaders and in some churches.

All of that is to say that pastors need prayer, and need to pray, more than ever. If you’re a lay person, please pray for your pastor and be his friend. More than once the encouragement of a layman helped me to do the right thing when I was a pastor. Pastors, more than any other person, earnestly strive to speak the truth in love and dispense grace, while also being faithful to reprove, rebuke and correct us when we go astray. They need our prayers.

If you’re a pastor, do not delegate all of the public praying to others. If the pastor is to lead in only two things, it would be the teaching of the Word of God and prayer. No one is better positioned to know the needs of the church and community than the pastor. And no one cares more, or thinks more deeply about Kingdom matters with each approaching Sunday, than the pastor. As you study to prepare the Sunday sermon, think also about the matters you want to address in prayer that Sunday. Take notes, make a list of those matters with which you want to approach God while worshipping with your people.

One final question – who have you heard that really knows how to pray? I can think of a few, but too few. That bothers me less, however, than wondering if my name would come to anyone’s mind when asked that question.

Lord, have mercy, and teach me to pray.

Give Me a Good Map

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Every week I use the Global Positioning Satellite system (GPS) to get me where I need to be. Most of you are familiar with GPS and you use it too. It’s quite remarkable when you consider how it works and the accuracy of the system. Missionaries even use GPS to pinpoint remote church locations where roads don’t exist.

As much as I appreciate GPS, it hasn’t completely replaced a good map. My favorite map is the National Geographic Atlas of the World. Its 138 pages contain maps on world climate, population, and food. There are even energy and minerals maps, as well as maps of the moon, the solar system, and the heavens, together with the standard maps you would expect.

The reason I like maps is because they help put my location in perspective. When I look at a map I can see where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. On a map I can view the totality of my travels and pinpoint special places along the journey. Maps give a perspective that GPS can’t give.

As Christians we have a perspective that unbelievers don’t have. The Bible provides us this perspective by giving us the roadmap of history. We know how things started and how things will end. We know that Jesus Christ stands at the center of history. This means that the purpose of life, and even daily happenings, find ultimate meaning in their relationship to what God is doing and has done through Jesus Christ.

For example, as soon as the Fall took place in the Garden of Eden, God directed man’s mind to the coming of Jesus by promising that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). From this beginning, the Bible unfolds God’s plan in Christ, revealing His will and purpose through the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament revelation, before the end of history when Jesus Christ returns.

Because Jesus provides us with perspective and purpose in daily living, Hebrews tells us to keep our eyes on Jesus as we run the race of life (Heb. 12:1f). Jesus enables us to “stay on our feet” and continue moving forward with Him, even as we navigate life’s daily trials.

Contrast the perspective that Jesus gives the believer with that of those who don’t know Christ. For the unbeliever, history is going nowhere and life is absurd because there is no perspective-point, and thus no way to place the events of the day into history’s purpose. We see this reflected in our media, and especially in our news, where the focus is on the politics of the moment or the sporting event of the week. For the unbeliever, life is about tragedies and triumphs, ups and downs, but without the perspective of the Bible, and without finding one’s center in Jesus Christ, it all becomes meaningless.

Without Jesus, life is only about winning and losing, and we all ultimately lose in the end. Some lose by virtue of the situation into which they are born. Would you like to be born a girl in ISIS controlled Syria? You’re in trouble from day one. Or what if you were born infirmed in India, where karma teaches that handicapped people are suffering for misdeeds in a past life? For the unbeliever, the best that can be hoped for is that I might have a little peace and happiness during my days “under the sun” (born an American, for example), but there is no ultimate purpose in this. Without Jesus I have no roadmap in which I can place my life’s journey in the context of the entire earth and all of history. I only have GPS coordinates. I know where I am, but where I am has no connection with the past or the future, and do I even have a future?

What does this mean for us? It means that we must keep our eyes on history’s champion, Jesus Christ, and not get derailed by the politics of the moment or the passing pleasures of sin. Love your neighbor. Be a blessing to your city. Demonstrate in word and deed that God’s plan in Christ is history’s great story. Jesus was and is and always will be. Kings come and go, but King Jesus will prevail. Indeed, He already has! As Paul wrote from the dungeon, shortly before his death, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day” (2 Tim. 1:12).

Reviving a Dying Church

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Thirty years ago this April I began my first pastorate. It was a dying church – dead really. Today we would call it a “legacy church plant.” There were ten people who attended our first Sunday, all but one retired, with the one being a teenage boy. I’m not sure why the boy was there, except that he lived on the other side of the cemetery. The cemetery, church, and a small school building, long since closed, bordered each other. The Thurmond family gave the property for these three entities in the 1890s, each deemed important for a community in those days.

My wife and I served that church for 3 ½ formative years, formative for us and for that church and community. I soon learned that the former pastor recommended that the church disband and give the building to the local Baptist association. He had reasoned this was their best option since they hadn’t baptized anyone in four years, only had a Sunday morning worship service with few attenders, and little prospect of seeing things turn around. The few attenders, most of whom had lived there all their lives, considered his suggestion, but decided to give it “one more try,” which meant giving one more seminary student an opportunity to “learn on them.”

We moved into the parsonage, which hadn’t been lived in for a few years. They tried to get it ready for us, but they hadn’t killed the scorpions, which we killed by the dozens. Then there were the skunks under the house. I would sit up at night, with a light shining into the yard, waiting for the skunks to come out. I shot them once they got far enough from the house that they couldn’t get back before they died. The house wasn’t much, but it was rent free, and that was most of our pay, so we were grateful to have it.

We had no neighbors, except cattle and the cemetery. And we had fireflies, hundreds of them that spring! One night I caught a couple of dozen in a mason jar and released them into our bedroom. I must say, it was quite romantic having those fireflies lighting up our room. But they all died so I only did that one time.

When I think back on those days, I am grateful that we came from a church that taught us how to share the gospel, and believed you had to take the gospel to the people, not wait for them to come to you. So that’s what we did. We began to visit the homes in that rural area, and a few more people started coming. The real breakthrough came that summer when Curtis Aydelotte gave his life to Christ.

I went to Curtis’s house and visited with his wife Kandy. She said that she would be at church with her kids but her husband wouldn’t because “he doesn’t go to church.” But the next day there he was. Within a month he received Christ and became the first person baptized in that church in 4 years. Curtis was 47 years old. He later told me that when I came to his house he was sick in bed with a migraine, but he could see me out the window. When his wife told him I was a preacher, he said, “Huh, a preacher who wears blue jeans. I think I’ll try that church.” That was 30 years ago and Curtis and Kandy are still serving Christ in their senior years.

Others soon came to know Christ. Families were transformed. The church grew. We never became large, but that church is still there today. The ten there when we arrived are all dead, save the one boy, but the church remains.

A fellow seminary student asked me, “How do you get motivated to preach to so few people?” That was an odd question to me. Motivation was not a problem. For one thing, I was visiting people throughout the week, sharing Christ with them, and inviting them to church. If they came and I wasn’t prepared for them, that would be a tragedy. Moreover, every individual who came needed, and deserved, to hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word just as much as the attender of a mega-church did. A further motivation for me, I must admit, was that I was learning how to preach and how to pastor God’s people. These both required hard work. I was young and knew that I wouldn’t be at that church forever. But if I did not serve them well, why should God give me any other ministry? Besides, this was what God called me to, and I was having a lot of fun.

We saw a “little revival” in that church and community. It came as the pastor, and then the church, began to share Christ with others. It came as our little church gained confidence that God was at work, and that they could invite people to attend with the confidence that God could use us to bring eternal life to others. Within two years, God even used our church to start another church about seven miles away. We were the first church to start a church in that association in about ten years. That served to motivate other churches, much bigger churches, to do the same.

Those years at Fairview Baptist Church were good years. We learned a lot, and we saw God do a good work.

This Sunday, April 3, I’ll be preaching at Orchards Baptist Church in Lewiston, ID, beginning a four-day revival emphasis. I pray that we see God do deep work in that church, and that lost people are drawn to Jesus. But I do know this, if your church needs revival, share the Gospel on a regular basis and lead your church to do the same. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to save a person from sin, and nothing revives a church like God’s people getting right with Him, and then sharing the gospel with others.

Several years ago I saw Curtis Aydelotte at a funeral. He told me that recently he had crashed his motorcycle and was sliding down the road, certain he would die. But he said, “It was amazing because I wasn’t afraid. I was sliding down the road and I knew I would be with God.” He said, “That’s the thought that hit my brain. I knew I’d be with God – and I wasn’t afraid.” Then he said, “I thought you’d like to know that.”

Curtis was right. I did like hearing that. It demonstrated that the Jesus he had come to know decades before, through the ministry of a little reviving church, is powerful, and His salvation is eternal.

The Prison Outhouse was the Only Place We Could Worship

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Something that I regularly do is check a couple of websites for articles on the persecution of Christians. One site is http://www.persecution.org and another is http://www.opendoorsusa.org. Today I read an article on Open Doors (an organization founded by Brother Andrew for those of you who remember him) that I thought I would repost to my blog.

For those of you who are pastors or Bible teachers, I highly recommend that you check sites like these. On them you will learn some of what is happening with and to believers worldwide. You will also read stories that you can share with your church. When we read such stories it helps us to put things in better perspective. It is so easy to get bothered by things that, in the end, are trivial or silly when compared to what Christians are facing elsewhere. So the article below comes from Open Doors and the author is Emily Fuentes, dated January 13, 2016.

Hea Woo’s Story

The sharp, cold wind blew through the prison cell, but Hea Woo could hardly feel it… she could hardly feel anything. “I was within hours of death; sick, malnourished and frozen from the deplorable conditions of the prison cell,” shared Hea Woo. “I didn’t think I would be alive to be used by God. I didn’t think I would ever see the outside of the prison cell.”

But then something happened that would change Hea Woo’s life and the lives of many fellow prisoners. “I felt God stir a fire in my heart to share the gospel with others in prison.”

Hea Woo knew that this was impossible for many reasons; The prison guards were capable of murdering anyone who shared about Christianity. And she also didn’t know which prisoners would report her if she did share the gospel message.

For three long days, Hea Woo tried to ignore the calling God had placed on her heart. But after three days she could ignore it no longer, as God had given her very specific instructions.

“Share your cornmeal with another prisoner.” It did not seem like much, but when Hea Woo gave her cornmeal to a fellow prisoner, she literally gave them life. “I realized that was my calling- to bring life to those who were dying. By giving my own food, I was able to give them life and make a sacrifice of my own. This opened up many possibilities to share about Christ.”

One by one more and more prisoners were interested in hearing about Christ, as they were amazed by Hea Woo’s sacrifice. She had to be wise about the best ways to minister to others and the safest place to fellowship, so she prayed for guidance.

“God placed it on my heart: The outhouse of the prison was the only place we could worship.” And so they worshipped God in the most lowly and unlikely place. In that outhouse, they were free to fellowship and worship, even though they were in prison in North Korea.

After several years, Hea Woo was able to leave North Korea, but the mark she left is still felt in the country. God used her to bring several people to Christ, heal many and start several house churches.
Today, more than 50,000 to 70,000 Christians remain in North Korean prison camps. Learn more about how you can help these believers.

*Representative names to protect persecuted Christians

Evangelism in an Election Year

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President Clinton was impeached when I was a local church pastor. The issues involved matters of morality that required a response from pastors, on occasion, but doing this in a “non-political way” wasn’t always easy. The Sunday following his impeachment was most memorable. I began my message saying that in the past week someone had done something to our country for which I could never forgive them. “The harm to our country was so great it could not be overlooked,” I said. I could see the congregation bracing themselves for what I would say next. They thought, “Oh no, here it comes!” And then, just when they thought I was about to launch into a political rant, I said, “I will never forgive Michael Jordan for retiring from the NBA!” which was the other “big news story” of the week. That statement prompted the biggest outburst of laughter we ever enjoyed together.

All laughter aside, political issues are always difficult for pastors and churches, and perhaps doubly so in an election year. And when politics intersects with biblical teaching, it often requires a response from pastors. But as important as elections are, and they are important, evangelizing the lost is truly vital. And lest you want to evangelize only Democrats, or only Republicans, I want to suggest some guidelines for our conversations with others, particularly with unbelievers.

First, the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be the supreme message of our lives. When speaking with unbelievers, do not risk offending them and lose any chance of witness by discussing politics. Stick with Jesus as your subject. If we confuse receiving Jesus with adhering to a particular political viewpoint we will destroy our witness to at least half of our neighbors.

Second, God’s ways are not man’s ways. Politics and elections don’t deter or detour Him. There are many biblical examples of God orchestrating the politics exactly the opposite of what believers would have preferred. Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were God’s instruments, the Bible says, though they were pagan rulers and wicked men. Contemporary historians say that Chairman Mao Zedong, the atheistic ruler of China for 27 years, who sought to destroy the church, helped to establish the conditions for the explosive church growth that China has experienced in the past 30 years. I read recently that the two countries in which the Church is growing fastest, as a percentage of the population, are Iran and Afghanistan. The article suggested that growth is being accelerated by hardline, Islamic rulers, which are turning people away from Islam and toward the Prince of Peace.

Third, heart transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit. The most important thing we can do for the lost is lead them to Jesus, then teach them to pray and read the Word. If they (or we!) will do these things, the Holy Spirit will transform their (our) minds so that they (we) become more like Jesus. When people come to Jesus their morality and worldview changes. About a year ago one of our Northwest churches led a young couple to Christ who made their living by farming marijuana. The pastor told me that they got very involved in Bible study and were hungry to grow in Christ. By the fall, the couple became convicted that they needed a new line of work. Jesus saved them, forgave them, and He is transforming their hearts and minds. Note that salvation came before transformation.

Fourth, the “world” already regards us politically. The message of the Church to the lost world is too often a political message, and that is a shame. If you ask an unbeliever what a conservative, evangelical Christian is, he will describe them with political language. We have already seen this in the current presidential race as various candidates vie for the “evangelical vote.” It is far better to be known for the ministry we do and the God honoring character we have than the political stand we take, or the candidate we endorse, if we want to have spiritual influence with the lost.

Finally, the true Gospel is cross-cultural and cross-political. It works in every context. The Gospel works in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the United States. It works in free societies and in those ruled by tyrants. The true Gospel can bring conviction of sin to liberals and conservatives, and both need Jesus.

I once had a professor whose father was a pastor. He said that a man once came to his father asking for spiritual counsel. He visited with the man, and then asked, “Aren’t you a member of such-and-such a church? Isn’t so-and-so your pastor?” The man said that yes, he was correct on both matters. My professor’s father then asked, “Why didn’t you go to your pastor for counsel?” And the man said, “If I needed a golfing tip I would speak with my pastor, but I needed to speak with a man of God.” Ouch!

That is the greatest lesson that professor ever taught me and I’ve never forgotten it. Whether you are a pastor or a layman, the people you know will figure you out. In time they will know what is most important to you. Each of us must decide, is it more important to share our political opinion or to share Christ. Don’t be known as a political preacher or political Sunday school teacher. Better to be known as a lover of Jesus and seeker of lost souls.

Are All Sins Equal?

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Are all sins equal? Do different sins carry differing consequences? These questions have long been discussed, and answers have been suggested, perhaps none more creatively than that of Dante Alighieri in his 14th Century classic, Inferno.

In a frightening description of Hell, Dante imagined that different sins merited different levels of punishment, with the worst reserved for three particular traitors. Dante pictured the devil as having three horrible faces, and in each of the devil’s mouths there is a sinner. In the left and right mouths hang Brutus and Cassius, who murdered Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate. Brutus and Cassius appear with their heads pointed out and their feet inside the devil’s mouth. In the center mouth, lodged headfirst, with his twitching legs protruding from the devil’s mouth, is the betrayer of Jesus Christ, Judas Iscariot. The devil chews on his victims, continually, and throughout eternity, tearing the traitors to pieces, but never killing them.

Dante certainly had a vivid imagination! And though there is no biblical support for the details of his description of hell, the issues of differing consequences for various sins does find support in the Bible. The Bible shows that God does consider some sins to be worse than others. Some sin brings greater guilt than others. And some sins do us more damage than others.

First, consider the sin that Jesus calls “unforgiveable.” In Matthew 12:31-32 Jesus said, “I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come.” Resistance to the witness of the Holy Spirit about the person and work of Jesus Christ rules out the possibility of faith and repentance. No sin is more tragic and lethal than this.

Second, consider the sin that brings death. In 1 John 5:16-17, John tells the church to pray for a brother whom you see committing a sin, but only if it is a sin that “does not bring death.” John says, “There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that.” Commentators have long debated the nature of the sin leading to death. Quite possibly it is the same sin that Jesus referenced as the unforgiveable sin. Whether this is so, clearly the text indicates that some sin is less consequential than others (or than one other).

Third, the Scriptures often indicate that different sins bring different consequences. Moses told the Israelites that their sin in worshipping the golden calf was a “great sin,” one of the consequences of which was a plague sent by God (Ex. 32:30-35). In 2 Samuel 12:7-23 we read of the terrible consequence that David suffered after his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. The consequence included the death of his son conceived in adultery. In Luke 12:41-48 Jesus speaks of varying levels of punishment based on the level of knowledge a steward has. Jesus also said that whoever causes the downfall of a child who believes in Him, “it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea” (Mt. 18:6).

Fourth, we see in Scripture that deliberate and willful rebellion against God can bring greater levels of consequence. Romans 1:18-32 indicates an increasing level of depravity in human beings as God gives them over to the consequences of sin. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus says that if a brother sins against another, and he refuses the increasing levels of accountability brought by the church, that he will ultimately be treated like an unbeliever. In 1 Cor. 5 Paul said to “turn over to Satan” a particular brother who was stubborn in his sin.

Because Jesus Christ forgives and cleanses us of all our sin when we place our faith in Him and experience salvation, we are tempted to disregard our continued sin and how God might deal with it. Moreover, because all have sinned against God, and because the “wages of sin is death,” (Rom. 6:23), we sometimes fail to consider that the consequences of our sin can vary, both in this life, and in the life to come. Without Jesus Christ, all sinners are spiritually dead and eternally lost. But there are different levels of severity, and consequence, between the sin of sloth and that of mass murder. If a hungry person steals a loaf of bread, he is a sinner and a lawbreaker. But we judge, and I would suggest that God weighs the sin of a sadistic killer, differently than that of the bread thief. Clearly, throughout Scripture, God prescribed more severe consequences for certain sins.

The church is often accused of focusing on certain sins, especially sexual sins. There is validity to this accusation, I’m sure. But there is good reason for the church to warn about sexual sins, and that is because they are frequently committed, and they carry damaging consequences. In 1 Cor. 6 Paul says, “Flee from sexual immorality! ‘Every sin a person can commit is outside the body, but the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body.’” He goes on to say, “Your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you” and “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6: 18-20). In this text the Scriptures describe sexual immorality as particularly damaging because of the relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere we read of how families, marriages, and children are damaged, even destroyed, through sexual immorality. Dwelling on an immoral thought is sinful, but acting on such thought carries greater consequence, at least in this life.

Again, every person without Jesus is spiritually lost and dead in sin. But this fact does not negate the varying levels of consequences that sins carry. Scripture shows that in God’s estimate some sins do us more damage and produce more weighty consequences. We must learn to think of sin biblically. We must hate sin wholeheartedly, especially where we see it in ourselves. And, we must not succumb to the temptation that many Christians have today, of not recognizing that some sins do more damage than others. Yes, it is true, that we are all sinners. But it is also true that some sin will destroy your relationships, damage your body, and harm your witness for Christ, more than will others. Because of this, all sins are not equal.

One final thought. The reality that some sins are more damaging than others must not produce a judgmental or prideful spirit in those who have refrained from certain sins. Paul’s said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” – and I am the worst of them” (1 Tim. 1:15). If I regard someone as “worse than me,” or “less than me,” how can I love them in unfeigned humility? I cannot. Therefore, the purpose of this essay is not to help us identify who is worse than whom. The purpose is to help us acknowledge and deal with the sin and guilt in our own lives lest it destroy us. And, a second purpose, is to keep believers from getting wobbly in the knees and winking at the kind of sin that is destroying people’s lives, even while our nation celebrates certain of these sins.