What’s My Opinion Worth? Not Much.

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“If I can talk you into something, someone smarter than me can talk you out of it.” I’ve used that line several times over the years, most often emphasizing that a person doesn’t trust Jesus Christ as Lord because of a clever argument. Lifelong faith in Jesus happens when the Holy Spirit brings conviction of the truth about sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:9-11). It is not someone’s opinion about God or truth that matters. It’s the truth itself, and the work of the Holy Spirit, that makes an eternal difference. My opinion about these things isn’t worth much. But the truth is worth everything.

For this reason I am cautious about expressing my opinion in print about divisive political matters. I’ll tell you what I think, in the right context, face-to-face, but in print, facial expression is absent, nuance is lost, and if a person disagrees with my opinion I probably won’t be able to have an honest dialogue with them. It could even lead them to “write me off.”

Now, I don’t mean by this that “opinion articles” should not be written and offered to the public in order to persuade others of a particular viewpoint. I just believe that as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose greatest ambition is to help people come to know Jesus, I need to be careful about sharing my opinion on issues that don’t matter nearly as much as He does, if that makes sense.

So often when I read people expressing their opinion, whether on social media or through more formal venues, I ask the question, “Does their opinion really matter as it concerns solving the problem or helping the people affected by the problem?” Or, by expressing their opinion, are they simply venting, and, in effect, “putting up a wall” between themselves and others whose greatest need is Jesus, not their opinion on a given topic.
Though I am not entirely consistent in following my own principles and advice, the following is what guides me when confronted by issues that threaten to divide people. If you are a preacher, or someone who loves Jesus and wants others to know Him and love Him like you do, perhaps these principles will help you.

First, in my life, Jesus matters most. I try to put Him first, and I don’t want to share my opinion about a lesser matter in a way that would turn you, or another, away from Jesus Christ. It’s not that lesser matters aren’t important. They’re just not as important as Jesus, or as helping others to know Jesus.

Second, I try to ask myself, “Does expressing what I think on a divisive issue contribute toward the solution to the problem?” Most often I conclude that expressing my opinion won’t make any difference at all. There are very few people who will change their mind because of what I think, and often my wife is not even one of the few! Now, if God’s Word, the Bible, speaks clearly to the issue, that’s a different story. I might well share what the Bible says. I once had a homosexual ask me my opinion of homosexuality and whether I thought it was wrong. I told him what I am trying to say here, namely, “My opinion on the subject doesn’t matter. But have you read the New Testament? Read the New Testament and pray as you read, asking God to speak to you.” This particular man claimed to be a Christian, though he had never read the Bible, so I tried to encourage him to read what God has to say in His Word.

Third, is there something I can actually “do” to help the situation? Offering an opinion is easy, but working toward a solution doesn’t have to be too difficult either. Maybe it would be difficult if you are one of the few who actually write the laws or execute the laws. But most often the things that we can do to help solve the problem are not big things or profound things. Maybe it’s one small thing that helps one other person. Do that one small thing. It could be volunteering at a school, helping a neighbor, or being kind to the neighborhood kids. Use what influence and relationships you have to show God’s love to another human being. And pray for people. Pray for your town and the issues people are facing. You could even write an encouraging note to a person who is hurting.

When I listen to the national debate on issues regarding race relations, respect for the flag, freedom of speech, and the like, I grow concerned for our nation. But I grow more concerned when Christians, and Christian leaders, throw their opinion around in ways that hurt the witness of the Church. I have concluded that my opinion on these issues really only matters if it leads me to take steps that will truly help resolve the problem. Most often these steps will focus on my local community and relationships and on my efforts to serve others as moved by God’s love for them.

In the annual meeting of the Northwest Baptist Convention (Eugene, OR on Nov. 7-8), we will talk some about how to be a blessing to our neighbors in the Northwest. People without Jesus don’t need our opinions. They need our gospel witness and the blessing of God’s love flowing through us and to them.

A Person of Value

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Last summer my son recommended a book by Cormac McCarthy, considered by some as America’s greatest living novelist. McCarthy is a storyteller whose pulsing prose and inventiveness reveal rare brilliance. His masterly-crafted sentences are a joy. What draws me to his books is his insight into human nature.

Consider these statements from All the Pretty Horses: “No creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold” (p. 11). I have thought of that sentence as I prayed about my own ability to care about what God loves. Is my heart rightly shaped?

How about this one: “If one does not come to value what is true above what is useful it will make little difference whether she lives at all” (p. 240). That statement brings names to mind of those I fear are putting usefulness above truth. Many of them are in leadership roles. I don’t want to be that kind of person or leader.

Chapters could be written on both those statements. But the one I want you to think about most is this: “I wanted very much to be a person of value and I had to ask myself how this could be possible if there was not something like a soul or like a spirit that is in the life of a person and which could endure any misfortune or disfigurement and yet be no less for it. If one were to be a person of value that value could not be a condition subject to the hazards of fortune. It had to be a quality that could not change. No matter what” (p. 235).

The character speaking these words is a high-society Mexican woman whose hand was disfigured when a gun she fired exploded destroying two of her fingers. Even her father viewed her differently after the disfigurement, causing her to question her value.

When Christians think about the value of a single human life we begin with Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according Our likeness.’” If every human is created by God in the image of God then every human being has value, equal value. Jesus’ attention to individual people shows the value God places on every human being including notorious sinners like Pharisees and tax-collectors and adulterers and cross-killed thieves – and me. The gospel means that disfigured humans are so valued that Jesus suffered and died for them, providing the only means by which their disfigured lives might be restored, including the internal spiritual disfigurement created by their own sin.

McCarthy’s character reveals that every human wants what only God can provide – value that does not diminish with time or circumstance – value that transcends the quality of our brains or bodies or personalities – value that is equal at birth and death and beyond death – value that is not diminished by an early grave or added to by a long and fruitful life.

Every person who ever lives wants to be valued, and I would say valued equally to all others. But like ocean waves pounding relentlessly, tirelessly on the scarred shoreline, our world pounds and hammers on the hearts and minds of every person everywhere. The principalities and powers of darkness are working to diminish us. You see it on the playgrounds and in the boardrooms and even in church houses. A person’s value rising and falling according to what they and others think they’re worth. It’s a dangerous way to live. Placing differing values on individuals according to a genuine or perceived defect has produced enormous suffering and evil. We see this clearly in the abortionists and the terrorists and any person who sees other persons as expendable or merely useful for accomplishing certain ends. I recently toured the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. which testifies to the evil humans can do when they think some possess greater value than others.

The value of a single person is the heart and passion of the gospel. It is the heart and passion of the Body of Christ if she is a true witness to God’s heart. Everything that a church and a Christ-follower do should demonstrate the pricelessness of a single human soul. It meets with the yearning for value that all people have, and most importantly it reflects God’s heart toward “the least of these.”

This understanding of value can only be true if we are created by God and if we are indeed spirit, soul and body, created to live forever in relationship to Him. This understanding of value has profound implications for the church and for how we live our lives. Let me suggest two conclusions.

First, we must have deep compassion for every individual human being who is oppressed and diminished by the forces of evil, with all of the attending effects to their personal lives and to society. Christ-followers are not seeking to “win” a war with unbelievers. Our mission is to serve. Our purpose is to demonstrate that only the gospel is good news for people. No other message reveals the character of God and the value He places on a person. Only the gospel provides what every human wants and needs – value undiminished by misfortune or disfigurement.

Second, Christ-followers must be ruthless in our efforts to do no harm to another human being and to place great value on every single human being. I’m not advocating pacifism here. The Bible upholds the principles of self-defense and opposing evildoers with force. What I am saying is that people must come before strategies.

I have seen great harm come to people in Christian organizations because of commitment to a particular strategy or idea, most often an unproven idea at that. I believe the diminished impact of certain churches and larger religious organizations can often be traced to putting strategies above people and self-interest above the interests of others and even above Kingdom concerns. When even one person in an organization is devalued and treated wrongly, it sends a message to every other person in the organization, and every person associated with the organization, that they too would be poorly treated if leadership deemed it helpful to accomplishing the goals. I understand that decisions must be made that are not always popular, and might even cause hurt to certain people. Too often, however, I’ve seen leaders act with recklessness toward others. The truth is that devaluing people is never right and it never works.

A few questions for you and for me: Do you believe that you possess value equal to all others? Do you place equal value on every human being? If not, is your heart shaped to hold this truth and live accordingly?

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).

What People Want from their Church

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There has been much written regarding what people look for in a church. The topic itself can lead to “consumer language,” focusing on personal preferences, when describing the kind of church people want. But many years ago a man seeking a church home told me something I have never forgotten. He said, “I want a church where I can bring lost friends and family with the confidence that they will be treated well, hear the gospel consistently and clearly, with love, and I won’t have to live in fear that something might happen that will make us want to crawl under a pew.”

Immediately you know what he means. He wanted a church family that strengthened his witness. A church family that gave him confidence that he wouldn’t be embarrassed or let down when he invited others to visit. He was looking for ministry partners, who, when taken together, are the body of Christ.

I don’t know if you’ve thought of it this way, but being part of healthy church strengthens your personal witness and ministry. And if you’re a pastor you want your congregation to have the confidence that they can bring a friend on any given Sunday, knowing that the church will be ready for their guest.

With this in mind, what can we do to help our church members have such confidence? Let me suggest a few things.

First, the pastor and church should prepare for and expect guests every week. You only have one chance to make a good first impression, and every week you should anticipate meeting somebody new in your church or Bible class. In my first pastorate we began with 10 people. I was in seminary and a fellow student asked me if it was hard getting motivated to preach to so few. My answer was an honest and emphatic, “No!” and this for two reasons. One, those 10 had a right to hear the best message from God’s Word I was capable of preparing and delivering. Two, I was knocking on doors and inviting folks to church, knowing that when they came I had one chance to make a good first impression. If the pastor and church family are praying for the lost people in the community, loving them, and inviting them, you will have guests. And when you have them, you want to minister to them as best you can.

Second, expect every week to have some attend that is lost, hurting, and hopeless. When a lost person comes to church it may be the result of years of a mother’s prayer. It may be because their friend or spouse “finally” got them there. In other words, those bringing guests are depending upon us, pastors and song leaders, deacons and preschool teachers, greeters and ushers, to be their teammate in ministering to their loved one. This may be your one best opportunity. Don’t let them down. The church is the body of Christ and every member has a job to do. I have seen the attitude or behavior of one person keep someone from church. It shouldn’t be this way, but lost people don’t need much reason to stay away from church. We need to continually educate the church that the way we treat people matters. The way we greet people and befriend people, matters. You don’t want a fellow church member “crawling under a pew” because you were unprepared to minister to their guest.

Third, when we bring a guest to church, we want them to experience “church.” That is, we want them to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed. We want them to hear God’s people sing with joy. We want them to see God’s people pray with conviction and faith. Joy and gratitude should flow abundantly when God’s people gather to worship Him. Don’t take for granted that unchurched people will be moved by this because they can’t experience true Christian fellowship and worship anywhere else.

That statement made to me over 20 years ago helped me greatly as a pastor. I served one more church as pastor after that, and I’ve done nine interim pastorates. I promised each congregation that I would do all I could to never embarrass them. I would work as best I could to be ready with God’s message each Sunday so that they could bring friends and family on any given week, confident that their pastor would be ready. I wanted our church to know that I would be a faithful partner in helping them reach their family and friends for Jesus Christ. But I also knew they were depending on others in our church to do their part in helping them reach their loved one for Christ.

How sad if our church members had to apologize to their guests for how their church disappointed them. Or, to say it another way, how sad if our church members encouraged their friends to attend a different church because they lacked confidence that they would experience God’s love in their own church.

“There are different activities, but the same God is active in everyone and everything. A manifestation of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 12:6-7).

Keys to Helping Others Discover Jesus, Part 3 – Mercy

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Last week at the Oasis retreat a pastor reported that a 71 year-old man and his wife prayed to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior the previous Sunday. Interestingly, the couple had been serving at the church’s monthly feeding ministry for years, but did not attend church worship services. Then, surprisingly, they came to church that Sunday, professing Christ and requesting baptism. I say “surprisingly,” but the Spirit’s work in the hearts of that couple reflects a familiar story in the long history of the Church. When God’s people show mercy to the hungry and hurting, and do so in Jesus’ name as a testimony to the power of the gospel, hearts and minds open to Jesus in new ways.

When I was beginning my pastoral ministry, someone told me that if I will look for hurting people, broken people, and love them and show mercy toward them, that I will never lack for a ministry. I don’t remember who said that, but they were correct. In my last pastorate we began a ministry in which we sent a team to anyone in our community who suffered some type of tragedy – fire, accident, crime, etc. Our teams were trained to pray for them, then identify and meet their needs. It was interesting to me that some of the people we reached through this ministry were not those we served, but others who were taken by our “ministry of mercy” to the hurting and wanted to be a part of it.

Rodney Stark, author of 30 books on the history and sociology of religion, says that mercy was regarded as a character defect in the pagan world because mercy involves providing unearned help and is therefore contrary to justice. Thus, the Early Church’s provision of mercy not only set her apart from the world, mercy also made life better for the faithful in the “here and now.” As Stark says, Christianity is not merely “pie in the sky” as some unbelievers like to claim. Christianity actually puts the pie on the table by extending mercy toward people in times of grief and distress and disease.

Perhaps the greatest example of mercy in the Early Church occurred during the two great plagues that struck the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries. During the 15-year epidemic beginning in A.D 165, in which a quarter to a third of the people in the Empire died, Christians survived at far better rates, as did their pagan friends, because they did not abandon the sick, but showed mercy toward them and cared for them. Stark says that it not only effected higher conversion rates, but the percentage of Christians in the population increased because fewer Christians died. He reports that studies of ancient cemeteries reveal that, on average, Christians lived longer. Stark says mercy was one of the keys to the growth of the Early Church (see The Rise of Christianity or The Triumph of Christianity).

I believe that mercy is key to helping people discover Jesus in 21st Century America as well. A church that becomes “famous” in the community for love and mercy, and combines it with a clear gospel ministry, will reach people for Christ. A church planter I know started his church with the clear purpose of blessing the impoverished community in which God sent him to minister. When he asked the elementary school principle how his new congregation could help the school, the principle said that she didn’t have much time and that he needed to tell her what he wanted. After another attempt to speak to her was rebuffed he said, “We have $10,000 we want to invest in the school and I don’t know what you need. How do you want us to spend the money in a way that will best help you?” Now he had her attention! That was four years ago. Not only is the principle now a member of the church, but others in the community have learned that this is a church that cares for the community, and demonstrates love and mercy toward people, and the church is making a tremendous impact with many coming to faith in Jesus Christ.

Is your church famous in your town for deeds of compassion and mercy? What can you do, or your small group do, to help one person, one family, one neighborhood? If you are willing to help a broken person, you’ll have a ministry, and your gospel witness will be empowered. Mercy is key to helping others discover Jesus.  This is as it should be, and has always been.