“Some time ago I had dinner with a man who was a deacon in his church. With great energy he told me about how he loved to serve the people at his church. He was so enthusiastic that he gestured a lot as he spoke, and I became a little embarrassed because we were in a packed restaurant. Yet nothing could keep this man’s excitement down as he continued to tell me of his passion for serving God. He constantly looked for opportunities throughout the week to serve the needs of fellow church members, and on Sunday he couldn’t wait to get to church so he could continue his ministry of service. This man’s zeal for service may seem excessive at first glance, but in actuality, he was exhibiting yet another mark of a man after God’s heart – a heart that yearns to serve.
As fleshly humans, our natural (and selfish) tendency is to take care of our own needs first. We like to make sure there is plenty of time for the things we want to do. Then if we have any time or energy left over, we might be willing to use it to serve someone else. But as men after God’s own heart, you and I need to resist these selfish tendencies and strive instead to see ourselves as servants.” (Jim George in A Man After God’s Own Heart)
Last night I had the chance to talk with Henry Neufeld, my publisher, about my book Parent-Driven Discipleship. If you have a spare hour in your day (or you are just really bored) take some time to watch the interview. Would love to hear your thoughts!
It is a cool, crisp fall day. Everyone is up early this Saturday morning looking forward to the upcoming worship service. This is not just any normal worship service. Thousands of people show up early so that they put up tents and cookout in anticipation. Many drive hundreds of miles and spend hundreds of dollars just to get there. They love to get together, strangers even, to talk about past worship services and dream about what may happen at future ones.
As the time for the worship service draws near people pile in to the worship center. It will hold 80,000-100,000 people and you can be certain that every seat will be filled. Those filling the seats will scream and jump and sing and cheer for the entire three hours during the worship service. What’s even better is when it runs long….they call it overtime. No one complains – they actually love when this happens. When the worship service is over, people linger almost as if they don’t want to leave. They take pictures and talk to strangers, sometimes high-fiving and hugging people they’ve only just met. Interestingly, those who did not make it to the worship service in person watched it on TV with friends. In fact, they say they would “never miss one!”
The other worship service it a bit different. It happens on Sunday mornings and few people are anticipating this gathering. They roll out of bed groggily wishing they could get just a few more minutes of sleep. When they are finally dressed they casually make their way to the service, usually showing up a few minutes late. Few speak to people that they do not know and, unlike the day before, people don’t seem all that excited about this worship service. In fact, it seems like they are ready for it to be over so they can go about their day.
As the worship service starts, the people who were cheering and singing yesterday are subdued. If they do sing, it is with very little emotion. If they do clap, it is done half-heartedly. There are plenty of empty seats but it has come to be expected because there are other more important things that need to be done on Sunday mornings. After the singing, the people sit and listen to someone for a while. Many times they get distracted thinking about other things and they get fidgety if the worship service goes into overtime. At the previous worship service they willingly spent hundreds of dollars for travel, tickets and food but don’t seem to contribute much at this service. When it is over, they bolt out the door instead of mixing and mingling like they did the day before. Those who didn’t make it this week may make it next week but only if nothing else is going on.
As we witness our culture turning further and further away from God’s Word, I have often wondered what should we, as believers, expect in the years ahead? Will the day come when verbal persecution of believers in America turns to physical persecution as many of our brothers and sisters experience in other parts of the world? Will we be imprisoned for speaking God’s truth? It is certainly possible.
I have been reading through the book of Acts lately and came across a verse that, I believe, answers the question of what we should expect. It can be found in Acts 12:24 but before I give you the verse I want to put it into context. The church was born just a few chapters earlier in Acts and God was moving powerfully. But the Jewish religious leaders and the secular Roman government began to persecute the church. They were told to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. They were beaten and jailed. Immediately leading up to Acts 12:24, James the brother of John had been martyred for the faith and Paul was imprisoned.
Yet, here is what we read in Acts 12:24 – “But the word of God increased and multiplied.” During one of the most intense seasons of persecution of believers in the history of the church, the truth of the gospel was preached and it increased and multiplied! I think this is what we should expect in the years ahead. But we must be faithful, as God’s people, to be who he has called us to be and do what he has called us to do.
Take a moment and ask yourself a few questions:
- Is the word of God increasing and multiplying in my heart and life? Can I echo with David, the Psalmist, that the word of God is “more to be desired than gold” and “sweeter than honey” (Psalm 19:10)?
- Is the word of God increasing and multiplying in my family? Am I following the Lord’s command to teach my children diligently the truths of Scripture (Deuteronomy 6:1-9)?
- Is the word of God increasing and multiplying in my other spheres of influence (family, workplace, neighborhood, etc.)? Am I the “light of the world” and the “city set on the hill” that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 5:14-16?
Many Christians are lamenting where we are as a nation but I’m much more concerned with where we are as believers and as Christ’s church. We may very well face intense persecution in the years ahead, both verbal and physical. But if believers are saturated with God’s word, if the church holds fast to the Scriptures regardless of which way the cultural winds blow, if we see people the way Jesus did as sheep without a shepherd, if we love the lost and boldly proclaim the glorious gospel, then I believe we will experience what the early church experienced. We will see the word of God increase and multiply throughout this world. And God’s promise is that His word will go forth, it will not return empty and it will accomplish what he intends for it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11). That is good news!
“Our goal is not empire building. Although all called to serve our Lord Jesus Christ would accept that, it is easy nevertheless to err in this respect through lack of personal watchfulness. Lording it over others has no place in the work of shepherds and teachers (2 Corinthians 1:24; 1 Peter 5:3). The key title for those in Christ’s service is servant. Shepherds and teachers are for churches, not churches for shepherds and teachers. Churches do not exist for our benefit or for our livelihood. We exist rather for their good.” (Derek Prime & Alistair Begg in On Being A Pastor)
Let me say up front that this post may upset you, though that is certainly not my intent. I love our country. We are a privileged people to live in the good ol’ US of A! But, as believers, our ultimate allegiance is not to this country. Our ultimate allegiance is to our Savior and his kingdom.
We are witnessing a major shift in our society. As a student of history, I know without a doubt that our country was founded on Christian principles. It is impossible to study our founding fathers without encountering within their writings a Judeo-Christian mindset concerning government and morality. Some were not believers (this is well documented – just look at the Thomas Jefferson bible) but even the founding fathers who were non-believers argued that the best form of government and society would follow biblical principles. The shift is towards an increasingly secular society. Believers, who were in the majority for much of our nation’s history, have increasingly become the minority on social issues.
Here is what I believe we will see in the coming years unless something changes dramatically:
1. Same sex marriage will be legalized in all 50 states. This week President Obama (who originally personally opposed same sex marriage and then changed to personally agreeing with same sex marriage) has declared that he believes same sex marriage should be legal in all 50 states. Recently, the Supreme Court decided not to take up this issue thereby upholding a lower court’s ruling that same sex marriage was legal in certain states. Currently 24 states and the District of Columbia allow same sex marriage while 26 states have laws against same sex marriage. At some point the justices will have to rule on this issue and I personally believe they or Congress (through enacting a federal law) will make same sex marriage legal across our nation which is approved of by the majority of Americans.
2. Christian businesses will choose to close their doors or face lawsuits, fines and jail time. This week a couple in Idaho who run a for-profit wedding chapel were told that they must conduct same sex weddings or face fines and possible jail time due to violating non-discrimination laws (this previously happened with a baker, florist, and photographer). In my opinion, the courts will rule that the wedding ceremony must be allowed to happen at the chapel but the Knapps will be able to recuse themselves (because of religious conviction) from performing the ceremony. Another person (licensed to perform marriages and who does not have this religious conviction concerning same sex marriage) will be brought in to conduct the ceremony. Christian businesses (bakery, florist, wedding chapel, etc.) operating in the secular marketplace will be increasingly required to abide by secular laws. They can stand up against these laws because of religious conviction but will likely face lawsuits, fines and jail time.
3. Pastors will be removed as agents of the state in regards to performing weddings. Currently ordained pastors operate as agents of the state when it comes to conducting wedding ceremonies. This is why at the end of a wedding service a pastor will say, “By the authority invested in my by the state of ______________, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” While churches are exempt from non-discrimination laws currently with regards to marriage, I believe this will be the next thing challenged. The argument will be made that ordained pastors, as agents of the state, must abide by state laws regardless of religious conviction. The likely result will be that pastors will not be able to act as representatives of the state. They will be able to do Christian weddings in the church but the couple would then need to go to the court to be officially married in the eyes of the state.
Here is how I think we should respond:
1. Pray. Unfortunately, prayer is often thought of as a last result. We attempt to do things to affect change until we feel like there is nothing else we can do…then we pray. Our temptation in this society will be to busy ourselves doing things and fail to pray. However, prayer should be our first response – we need to hit our knees! We need to ask God to move in a powerful way in our churches and in our culture. We should intercede for those lost in their sin. We need to ask God to search our hearts and our motives. Prayer is not the spare tire in our lives; it must be the steering wheel that drives our lives.
2. We, as believers, should seek to defend our religious liberties both in the ballot box and in the courts. We do not need to bow down and retreat at this point. We need to take a stand through both the courts and the ballot box. I believe religious freedoms need to be preserved. Dietrich Bonhoeffer sums up our responsibility, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” We cannot and must not remain silent as religious liberties are stripped away. Houston has given us a glimpse of what is to come and we must be prepared to stand together.
3. Recognize that God may be allowing persecution to come so that his church would be purified and more effective in reaching people with the gospel. I have been preaching through the book of Habakkuk recently. Interestingly, Habakkuk begins the book asking why God has failed to turn His people’s hearts back to him and bring revival. God responds that he is at work but it will not be what Habakkuk expects (God will bring in the Chaldeans to take Judah captive and lead them into exile). He then tells Habakkuk “the just will live by their faith.”
Have you considered that God might be allowing persecution to come upon the church to purify it (when it costs to follow Christ, you find out who the true believers are)? Could it be that this world needs to grow darker so that the light of the gospel can more effectively shine through the church? Throughout church history, the gospel has exploded when Christians were persecuted. We, as believers, are called to live by faith…trusting God is at work to bring about his glory and our good regardless of what happens around us!
There is an Exodus 32 a pretty frightening story. It is a story of idolatry; a story of perversion. Yet, for our contemporary audience it seems a bit silly.
Here is the backstory: God delivered his people (Israel) from slavery in Egypt and provided for them as they began their journey into the promised land (Exodus chapters 1-23). In Exodus 24, God called Moses up on Mt. Sinai for a 40 day and 40 night discussion. He laid before Moses how He would be worshipped by the nation of Israel and what was expected of them. This discussion carried on from chapter 25 through chapter 31.
In chapter 32, the people of Israel grew restless. Moses had been gone too long and they decided to take matters into their own hands. As Moses was meeting with God, learning what He expected of His people, the Israelites decided to craft for themselves another “god” in the form of a golden calf. They even went so far as declaring that this “god” (made with their own hands) had delivered them from the oppression of the Egyptians. Aaron (the priest) made an altar before the golden calf and the people brought sacrifices. They worshipped and celebrated at the altar of the golden calf.
I know what you are thinking – “how could they be so stupid”? How could they have seen God’s hand at work, witnessed him meeting with Moses on Mt. Sinai, and devolved into worshipping a golden calf?
These were the same questions I had when I read the text. However, I quickly realized that we worship “golden calves” as well. They are just a bit more sophisticated and subtle.
God desires to commune with us (like he did with Moses) but all too often we are content with the golden calf. As I reflected on this reality I came up with a couple of personal and corporate “golden calves” that rob us of true communion with God.
Personal “Golden Calves”
1. We believe that the primary place where we commune with God is in church. Many believers have this perspective. Have you ever heard this said: “I attend church on Sundays to get my tank filled up before I head into a new week?” Being a part of the body of Christ weekly is vital to our growth as believers but it is impossible to “fill up our tank” on Sunday and expect it to last all week. The reality is that we should come to our weekly gathering having communed with God for the previous 6 days. I firmly believe one of the reasons God does not do more in our weekly gatherings is that we have not communed with him through the previous week. Just imagine what our services would be like if every believer had communed with God during the course of the previous week and showed up ready to worship and serve out of the overflow of what God had been doing in their lives during the previous 6 days!
2. We equate knowing about God with knowing God. This is subtle but so easy. I know having spent years in school studying Scripture and theology that it is very easy to equate knowing about God with knowing God. It is easy to be consumers of information about God without transformation. Communing with God is less about what you know about Him than it is having an intimate relationship with Him. Many people in history who have experienced deep communion with God were not learned scholars. They were ordinary people who had a passion to live in communion with their Heavenly Father. We should desire to know all we can about God but knowledge means nothing apart from a deep and abiding relationship!
Corporate “Golden Calves”
1. We equate singing songs and listening to preaching as communing with God. It is entirely possible to participate in a weekly worship gathering and never commune with God. We have the guarantee that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20) but is it possible for God to be present in our services and we not truly commune with Him? Consider this – do we really mean the words of the songs that we sing to and about God? When we have the invitation and sing “I Surrender All” do we really mean it? When we hear a sermon do we become “doers” of the Word. David said in Psalm 51 that he would not offer sacrifices to the Lord because that is not what God desired – God desired from David a pure and contrite heart. Are we just going through the motions in our services or are we communing with God?
2. We believe busyness for God equals communion with God. Is it possible that we have become so busy doing things for God (programs, ministries, etc.) that we have no time to meet with God? The cold, hard truth is we can have a church calendar that is filled with activity after activity, program after program and completely miss communing with God. I’m always convicted when I consider that Jesus consistently stepped away from the busyness of ministry to commune with his Heavenly Father.
God desires to commune with us and I honestly believe that most believers want to commune with Him. Yet, we can fall into the trap of worshipping the “golden calf” just like the Israelites did and completely miss communing with God. The good news is God’s grace is free flowing even in our idolatry. Instead of wiping out the entire nation of Israel and starting over he disciplined them in love and agreed to go with them into the promised land (Exodus 33:14). That same grace is extended to us by our Heavenly Father who loves to commune with his children. Will you commune with Him today or remain content worshipping the “golden calf”?