Looking Up and Out

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We live in the greatest time in all of history to advance the gospel. We live in a most difficult time in which to pastor and lead a church.

Opportunities abound for believers to share their faith, and the kingdom of God is advancing powerfully among many peoples the world over. At the same time, churches in America face new challenges daily. There’s not space to outline the challenges floating in the sea of opportunity, but many problems are placed in perspective by looking up and out – looking up to God in prayer and contemplation upon His Word, and looking out to the world that so desperately needs God’s grace and mercy.

Whenever God’s people gather they must look up to God in prayer for the lost and needy in their community. They should pray regularly for the persecuted and suffering church, and pray also for the missionaries and their children. Pray that God will forgive us and cleanse us and use us for His glory.

Humbly submitting ourselves to God in prayer when we gather is rarer than you might think. Consider, how much time does your church spend in prayer during your worship services? And for what do you pray? Reading the newspaper will help you know what to pray for in your area. Perhaps your church is connected to one or more missionary families. Do you pray for them regularly? Do you pray for their children? The smallest church can have a powerful, worldwide ministry through prayer. If your church gives to missions through the Cooperative Program, and every Baptist church should, you are supporting 3,600 international missionaries and about 2,000 missionary children. Our missionaries serve in virtually every nation on earth. Ten of our missionaries have given their lives for Christ in the past 15 years. They need our prayer and support, as do the 3,000 church planters in North America and 19,000 seminary students attending one of our six SBC seminaries.

A church that looks up to God in fervent, kingdom prayer, will have better perspective on the challenges they face. A church that prays for kingdom concerns will less likely focus on small and petty things. Likewise, a church that submits to the reading and exposition of God’s Word, with a heart to obey God, will be better equipped to deal with the challenges of contemporary life. Remember, Jesus didn’t say, “Teach them my Word,” but “teach them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20a).

Look up to God in prayer and submission to His Word, and look out to the world in ministry, witness, mission and love of neighbor. Paul told the church in Corinth they were “a letter from Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God” (2 Cor. 3:3). Your church is a letter from Christ to our world. God’s life is in you. You are His ambassador. Feeble and small in number, but powerful as you look up to God and look out to a world in desperate need of Him.

It is a good day to serve the Lord.

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.

Make Disciples – Part 2, Discipling a community

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In Part 1 of “Make Disciples” we focused on the wording of Matthew 28:19 in which Jesus told the Eleven that they were to “disciple all the nations.” Working on the premise that the greatest mission success of the 19th Century was the Christianization of the United States, I suggested that discipling the U.S. was a matter of evangelization, resulting in church starting, followed by the formation of Christian ministries and institutions, such as schools, colleges, hospitals, and orphanages, among other things.

Now, let’s think about “discipling the community.” When I served in the Bible belt state of Oklahoma I learned that while Oklahoma was more churched than Washington State, there was still great variation from one community to the next regarding church attendance. In some communities well under 10 percent attended church on a given Sunday, while in others more than 40 percent were in church. In the Northwest (Washington, Oregon and Idaho), while church attendance is below that of southern states, and the number of churches is lower for the population, there are some exceptions to this. There are communities in the Northwest that are quite Christian and church attendance is high.

So how does a community become more Christian? First, we must understand that it takes generations to disciple a nation or a community. Discipleship implies more than making God’s Word known to a community or a people. It requires that God’s Word penetrate into the distinctive ways of thought, relational networks, and those special ways of doing things that give a community its commonality, coherence, and identity. Discipling a community means that biblical truth and thinking must enter the patterns of thought and life of that community. The way a people think and make decisions, the bonds that hold a community together, don’t change or develop quickly. It is a long process (see Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 50).

Second, some towns are more Christian because exceptional pastors and other godly leaders gave their lives to discipling the community. Spiritual leadership makes a huge difference, especially when a city is blessed with great leaders spanning two or more generations.

Pastors and churches can do several things to disciple their community. First, pray for your community, its leaders, churches, businesses, school and children. Pray for the various groups of people in the community. Prayer might seem obvious, but doing the obvious doesn’t always happen. Most churches devote little time to praying for their community during their public worship services. As one who worships in 40 or more churches each year I can tell you that I seldom hear prayer that lifts up the local community, or any Kingdom or mission concerns.

Second, identify the various networks of people in the community (language and ethnicity, social groupings, occupational groups, sports community, arts community, etc.), pray for them, and explore ways to connect with them. The larger the town the more groupings of people there will be. But even in a small town you will have several different groupings. It could be that your church members are already a part of several different groups.

Third, identify community needs and those who are working/tasked to meet those needs. As you identify needs, explore ways that God might use your church to meet one or more of these needs. Schools and service organizations often welcome churches who offer to help them.

Fourth, build relationships and friendships with community leaders. If you care about your community leaders as individuals, and aren’t seeking to “get something” from them, God can bless these relationships in unexpected ways.

Fifth, focus on children and young people. When discipling a community, do not neglect the young ones. In childhood we develop our sense of right and wrong and personal disciplines. A child can and will learn almost anything, and they can become anything God wants them to become. The older we get the harder it is to change behaviors, values, careers, everything. Decisions we make as adolescents will shape our entire lives. Nothing a church does is more important than what it does to love and reach children for Jesus Christ.

Sixth, orient the ministry of the church to obeying the teaching of Scripture in ways that connect with the needs of your community. Your town is unlike any other town. There is no “model church” doing what your church needs to do because each community is different and the particular composition of the Body of Christ is different for each local church and for the local churches in a particular community.

There is much more that could be said, and examples that could be given, to elaborate and illustrate how to disciple a community. But one final thought might help – learn to both “love” and “like” your church and your town. If we don’t find a way to love and like the people where we serve we will limit our effectiveness. God’s work is all about our relationship with Him and with others. Both must be strong for Him to use us to disciple our town.

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.

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.

Seven Reasons for the Pastor to Lead the Church in Prayer

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One of the great joys of the pastor is that of leading the church to God’s throne in prayer. I have observed, however, that the “pastoral prayer” is less common in our churches than it used be, or than I had assumed it was. There are many reasons for the pastor to lead the church in prayer as she gathers to worship God. Consider these seven reasons:

  1. Prayer is one of the two most important components of worship (the exposition of Scripture being the other). Leading the church to talk to God in prayer is vital to spiritual leadership.
  2. The church learns what is on the pastor’s heart as he prays. Are the lost in the community on his heart? Community leaders and servants? Missionaries? The persecuted and suffering? What and whom we pray for helps others understand what we value. It also educates the church on what the pastor deems most important, and thus, about which we must be talking to God.
  3. Children and new believers learn how to pray, and what to pray for, by listening to prayer that comes from their pastor’s heart.
  4. Sunday guests, especially the lost, expect that when they attend a church worship service that they will be led to meet with God. They come needing to meet with God, as we all do. Prayer is a spiritual activity they expect to experience in the church, and they need to experience it, in a deep and meaningful way.
  5. Congregational prayer should be planned and prayed about in advance and the pastor is the best to do this. The pastor’s focus on preparing for the weekly worship experience is unsurpassed and thus he is best positioned to pray for the people and matters than need to be brought to the Lord that week.
  6. What the church prays for reveals the heart and priority of the church.
  7. There is no greater privilege than to lead the church to the throne of God in prayer and the pastor should covet this opportunity.

One thing I want to make clear is that others in the church should be called upon to lead in public prayer. I am not suggesting that only the senior pastor should lead in prayer. Nor am I suggesting that the pastor is always the greatest prayer warrior in the church. Thankfully, many churches have godly women and men who spend a great deal of time talking to God each day. In one church I served there was a teenage boy, though young in his faith, taught us important lessons on how to pray. He didn’t know “church vocabulary.” He talked to God in a simple, sincere way, and it was refreshing to hear him as he led us to God in prayer.

You might add to the list I am suggesting, or change it in some way. That is perfectly fine, of course. But I do hope that each of us will give careful thought to the prayer ministry of our church, including our time spent in public prayer on Sunday morning. Sad to say, many churches spend less than one minute in prayer on Sunday morning, and often this minute sounds the same each week and addresses nothing outside the walls of the church building. It doesn’t have to be this way. We should plan and prepare to pray, just as we plan and prepare to preach and sing.