Stop saying “I’m fine!”

We have all heard it before. You pass someone you know and ask them, “how’s it going?” or “how ya doing?” Answer: “fine.”  Or….. “I’m fine thanks.” There are other go-to responses to that question, but “I’m fine” tends to be among the most popular. Steph and I had the opportunity to attend a pastors conference this past week and one of the speakers made an offhand remark about the meaning of “fine.” He said that it really stands for:

Fouled up, Insecure, Neurotic, Exhausted

We all laughed, but we also recognized the truth that he was hinting at. Fine really doesn’t mean fine. It often means I could be doing a lot better…… I’m struggling…… I have a lot of problems that seem insurmountable, etc, etc. Now, just to give a little disclaimer, often when someone asks how we are doing, they are not looking for us to unload all of our troubles on them. Nor are we. But you would admit that we have the tendency at times to be dishonest in our assessment of ourselves. It is human nature to want to put on a good front and project a stoic, “got it all together” image of ourselves. But one of the things that should characterize us as Christians is our desire to be real and transparent and genuine.

One of the major themes in the Bible is that of loving and caring for one another. God never designed the Christian life to be an individual, lone-ranger kind of thing. God designed the Christian life to be a community project where we share one another’s burdens and constantly point one another to the power of the Gospel. The Church of Christ is a wonderful gift! Brothers and sisters in Christ are a wonderful gift! But in order for this gift to work, we must be real with one another.

The next time someone asks how you are doing, don’t feel like you have to tell them how fouled us, insecure, neurotic, and exhausted you are. Simply do your best to answer honestly and accurately. Along with that, remember what an amazing gift God has given us in the Body of Christ and seek to attach yourself to that Body. Find people that you can minister to and people that can minister to you.

“And let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:4-25)  “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” (Romans 12:10)  “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)

 

When a Church Closes Its Doors

Last week our family had the opportunity to go to a play in Dubois, PA. We had a wonderful time watching “Anne of Green Gables” and the gal who played Anne was simply superb. As you might have guessed from the above picture, the play was in an old church which was converted into a theatre in the early 90’s. For over 100 years, this structure had served as the meeting place of a Baptist Church, but unfortunately the church had to close its doors.

 

This same tale has been told thousands of times in thousands of communities all over the place. These church buildings typically are either abandoned, bought by another church, or like the Baptist church in Dubois, bought by a business or community organization to be used for something else. As we sat waiting for the play to begin, I thought about all the preachers who had served this local church over its century-long existence. I also thought about all the people who attended and served this church through the years. As I processed this, I couldn’t help but lament over the closing of this church and the many others that have suffered the same fate.

 

My point is not to be overly sentimental and nostalgic about this sad reality, but to make the point that American and Canadian churches are closing like never before. I don’t have any national statistics for you, but I do know that in my own district (the Western PA district of the Christian and Missionary Alliance), we have suffered the loss of at least a dozen churches in recent years. Surely, there are a number of reasons for this, but the fact is, it is happening. While there is tremendous growth in other parts of the world (something we can praise God for), the North American Church is at best stagnant and more likely, in decline.

 

This is probably nothing thing new for most of you. You don’t have go very far in communities both big and small to see what I have just described. For years, we have been told that the church in North American is declining in the same way the church in Europe has been for last half century. The secularization of the culture is now being reflected in several different ways, including church attendance. I guess the big question is……how are we to respond to this? Let me suggest three things.

 

It’s Not All Bad

 

It would be easy to think that any church closure is a bad thing, but that’s simply not the case. In some cases, it is a reason to rejoice. Sadly, there are a lot of churches today that are preaching a false gospel, holding to unorthodox theology, using unbiblical practices, and serving as really bad witnesses for Christ in their communities. That may sound harsh, but it is the unfortunate reality for many churches. These so called “churches” are bound to die and the sooner the better.

 

On the flip side, there are a lot of good, solid churches that are healthy and thriving. We can praise God for this and pray that these churches would continue to grow and multiply and be faithful to the teaching of Scripture for years to come.

 

Join a Good Church

 

You have heard the saying, “the best defense is a good offense.” Like most sayings, there is some truth in it. Perhaps the best way to prevent future church closures is by having strong, healthy, biblical churches in the present. If you are not already, attach yourself to a good, bible believing, gospel preaching church. It always surprises me the number of professing Christians who are not part of a local church. Many of them have been hurt in the past by negative experiences and I don’t want to in any way minimize those experiences. However, the church is the Body of Christ here on earth. The church is where and how God has chosen to display Christ and His glory to the watching world. Joining a local church allows you to worship, to grow, and to serve in a corporate body of believers. In Hebrews we read things like, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). This is a remarkable passage and it reminds us that when the people of God come together, it has a way of strengthening and encouraging us. On the other hand, when we start to view church as optional, our churches are weakened. If you get enough people with that same mindset, inevitably you start to see churches closing their doors.

 

If you are not already, my advice is to get plugged into a church. Your participation and involvement really matters! See to it that you are regularly fed by God’s Word and available to serve in any way you can. Churches are always looking for volunteers and there are dozens of different ways you can serve and use your gifts to the furtherance of Christ’s church.

 

Pray……for Churches, Pastors, and New Church Plants

 

As I said earlier, while there are a lot of bad churches, there are also a lot of good churches and we need to be in prayer for these churches that are being true to God’s word. No doubt you will pray the most for your own local church (that’s natural and healthy), but also be in prayer the churches in your area. I know for a fact that pastors and church leaders of neighboring churches would greatly appreciate your prayers. Each week in our church bulletin we list a local church and pastor to pray for. This is a reminder that we are all on the same team. The apostle Paul keeps it short and sweet when appealing to the Thessalonian believers: “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:25).

 

Lastly, we need to pray for new church plants in our area and around the world. As I said earlier, it is sad to see churches close their doors, but often just around the corner, God is birthing something new and exciting. There has been a revival of church planting in recent years, but that doesn’t mean church planting is easy. I learned a long time ago that I was not cut out to be a church planter, but God does call some to this critically important ministry and we need to pray for these church plants as much as we can. 

64 Years in Ministry and Counting….

I have been privileged to be a pastor for about 9 years. In the first church I served at, my tenure lasted about 4 years. The second tenure lasted about 3.5 years and now I am serving as pastor of a third local church. Surprisingly, my experience as a pastor is not unique. It does seem short, but statistics tell us that the average pastoral tenure lasts about 3.6 years. To state the obvious, that’s not very long and this illustrates the unfortunate state of pastoral longevity today.

 

It was not always this way. One of my hero’s of the faith, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), grew up during a time where long pastorates were the norm. His grandfather Solomon Stoddard pastored the same church for over 55 years. His father Timothy Edwards pastored the same church for over 60 years. And had he not been forced to resign from his church after (only) 23 years, it’s safe to assume Jonathan Edwards would have served till the time of his death, just like his father and grandfather and the majority of pastors in Puritan New England. The relationship between pastor and church was kind of like a marriage – “till death do us part” was the idea. That is not to say there was never conflict, but there was a long-term commitment that was virtually unbreakable. In the three centuries since, the pastoral landscape has changed dramatically.

 

Over the past few months I have gotten to know a man by the name of Dave Lewis. Dave is a kind and humble man who loves to golf and I am told is quite competitive. Dave is a fellow pastor and when we met one morning at a local MacDonald’s I asked Dave, “How long have you served at your church?” I knew he was an older gentleman but his answer still blew me away…. 64 years! Dave started serving at Bald Eagle Alliance Church in Osceola Mills, PA way back in 1953, not long after he had graduated from Bible College. While a lot has changed during that time, and countless pastors (including me) have transitioned to other churches, Dave has stayed put. From what I can tell, he doesn’t have any retirement plans, even though he is now 87 years old.

 

I was curious so I asked Dave what the secret of his longevity was. He answered, “the grace of God and the will of God.” His simple answer hints at a profound truth. It is not God’s will for every pastor to spend his entire ministry at one church. However, in the case of Dave, God ordained that he would have a lifetime ministry at one local church. Such a long ministry was only possible through the sustaining grace of God.

 

As we continued to talk, Dave spoke to the need of every pastor to read good books and even mentioned a few authors by name. “Read Bunyan, Newton, Spurgeon, and above all Tozer” he said. Dave talked about the early days of his ministry when he heard A.W. Tozer preach on several occasions. Ever since Tozer’s death in the 1960’s, he has drunk deeply of Tozer’s works and it was almost as if he knew Tozer like a close friend. Pastor Dave is a voracious reader of Christian classics and he encouraged me in that same direction.

 

There were a few other things that pastor Dave counseled me on that are worth mentioning. Prayer for him is the “power house” of the ministry. Of course, he was simply echoing what Charles Spurgeon and many others have said before him. Having a focus on prayer is absolutely vital when it comes to maintaining a long and fruitful ministry. He also spoke to the need of every pastor to immerse himself in Scripture. While there are plenty of good titles and good authors (such as the above mentioned), there is no substitute for the Word of God.

 

When I asked Dave to tell me about his church, he had nothing but good things to say about his people. “They are the most loving and gracious people a pastor could ever ask for,” he said. Even after all these years, there was still a love affair between the pastor and his people. I have been around long enough to know that this is unique and I found Dave’s words concerning his congregation to be refreshing and encouraging. Perhaps the thing that I found most remarkable about Pastor Dave is that there is still a fire in his belly that drives him. As he shared about what he was preaching and teaching on in the coming week, there was clearly a passion and excitement. It seemed as though he couldn’t wait to share the riches that he had discovered from his study of God’s word. Even after 64 years of preaching the Word and shepherding the flock, the fire has not dimmed.

 

If you tried to look up Dave on the internet, you would find that he does not have a web presence of any sort. His church doesn’t have a website, he does not have a blog, nor does he have a twitter following. Dave is what we would call “old school” but I believe he is a model worth following and one that is all but lost in our day and age. Pease understand I am not here to put Dave on a pedestal. When I asked him about doing a little write-up on him, he was very hesitant to agree, not just because he is a humble man, but because he is aware of his own sin and shortcomings. Dave doesn’t want anyone to look to him or to any other man. Rather he would have us look to Christ (Isaiah 45:22) and His power to save. As the psalmist puts it, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Psalm 115:1).

 

Far too many pastors start off wanting to be the next John Piper or Tim Keller or some other famous pastor. It’s fine to have good models in pastoral ministry but it is unhelpful and even detrimental to aim for ministry success from a worldly perspective. This is kingdom building of the wrong kind and it happens all the time. God is simply calling pastors to be faithful (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:1-4, John 21:15-17, 2 Timothy 4:2) and diligent (2 Timothy 1:11-12) and to serve with endurance (2 Timothy 4:6-8) knowing that one day the Lord of glory will reward them for their labors.

 

Few pastors will ever spend the entirety of their ministry at one church. Obviously, Dave Lewis is unique and I praise God for his life and ministry and the example that he has given us. Many others have served well over the years, and perhaps you have heard of them and are aware of their ministries, but it is a safe bet that most are unknown to the world, except for the people and communities they serve. We can praise God for these faithful men, however, if you are looking for the best model to follow, look no further that the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate “good shepherd” (John 10:11) who lays his life down for the sheep. Every pastor should strive to emulate him and serve in the grace and wisdom that only He can give.

 

IMG_0388

 

The Same Old Glorious Message

Ever since Christmas, we have been slowly working our way through Matthew’s gospel as a congregation. Let me tell you, this has been a lot of fun for me. After spending much of my early ministry jumping around from passage to passage and doing one mini-series after another, I have greatly enjoyed digging deep into Matthew’s gospel. This past week, while preaching from 4:12-17, I noticed a similarity between Jesus and John the Baptist. Matthew tells us in 4:17, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’” This was the exact same message that John preached (see Matthew 3:2).

 

Granted, while this is nothing mind-blowing, it offers us a simple, yet power lesson. Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul and all the apostles, and the great saints of old all preached the same message. Of course, Jesus would expand on this message, but from the beginning of His ministry to the very end, He had one theme – repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! As preachers and Christian leaders, we must let this be our theme too.

 

The apostle Paul puts it this way in Galatians 2:6-7: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” This reminds us that there is only one gospel, and those who are faithful to the truth preach that same message. To distort the gospel is to deny the gospel.

 

There is a push today in our modern world to be innovative and flashy and cutting-edge. I know of one pastor who said that every three years they had a “new church” because he was constantly innovating and trying to appeal to our ever-changing world. I am not going to deny that in some ways, change can be helpful and even necessary (ie: how we use technology), but if the change involves compromising the message, then you have a serious problem. Pastors can be tempted to scratch those “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3) all around us, but we must always resist that temptation and be true to our Lord and Master.

 

All around the world, the Church of Jesus Christ is vast and varied, and pastors serve in countless ministry contexts. How remarkable to think that in the midst of such diversity we all preach the same message….the gospel. May we be faithful to proclaim that glorious message till our dying breath. Like Paul, may we be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown or righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day.” 2 Timothy 4:7-8

 

“For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” 2 Corinthians 2:17

 

“One another” in the New Testament

Let the power of God’s Word speak for itself:

 

  1. “Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Romans 15:7
  2. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Colossians 3:16
  3. “But God so composed the body, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” 1 Corinthians 12:24b-25
  4. “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:18
  5. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” James 5:16
  6. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” Romans 12:10
  7. “Live in harmony with one another.” Romans 12:16
  8. “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11
  9. “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:7
  10. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32
  11. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Romans 16:16
  12. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8
  13. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another……But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” Galatians 5:13, 15
  14. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:21

In Essentials Unity, in Non-Essentials Liberty, in All Things Charity

I live in Waverly, NY, which sits right on the New York – Pennsylvania state border. Rarely a day goes by in which I don’t cross into Pennsylvania for one reason or another. I am also a Canadian citizen and with most of my family still living there, at least once or twice a year, passport in hand, I journey back to my homeland. Border crossing is nothing new for me – it’s just a regular part of life.

 

This got me to thinking about a famous quote. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Originally, I thought this quote came from the Puritan Richard Baxter, but I was wrong. It is actually from a German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius. Having set the record straight, lets talk about its significance and how it connects with my opening illustration.

 

As Christians, there are things that separate us, just as borders separate states and countries and territories. I am part of a denomination (the Christian & Missionary Alliance) and just like every denomination, we have distinctives. While I love my Southern Baptist friends and have learned much from them, we hail from two different tribes. We share much in common, but there are some elements of emphasis and doctrine that separate us. The same could be said about other denominations too.

 

I also have some non-denominational blood in my background. The first church I pastored was an independent church in Ohio. When it comes to my theological training, I have attended three non-denominational schools – Briercrest College and Seminary, Regent College, and currently Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Each of these schools draw students from literally dozens of denominational and non-denominational backgrounds. I thank God for these experiences, which I believe have broadened by perspective.

 

As I said earlier, there are always going to be things that separate us. Take, for example, the first church I pastored. Even as an independent, non-denominational church, we still had distinctives. We had a doctrinal statement and a mission statement along with other elements that made us unique. This is true for every church. No two churches are the same, even those that hail from the same denomination or network. I think it would be fair to say that most churches and church leaders understand this and try not to let it hinder cooperation with other bible-believing, gospel-centered churches. We realize that even though we have distinctives and unique emphases, there is a place and a need to come together for the furtherance of the gospel.

 

With that being said, let me also say there is a place for separation. The Bible clearly teaches separation (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1) from the non-believing and the apostate. There are going to be times where it is unprofitable (and even damaging) to align ourselves with those who reject the gospel of Christ. So how do we know when to separate? When is it ok to extend the right hand of fellowship and when is it not? This takes us back to our opening quotation – In essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. We all long for unity, but what are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith that when violated would force separation?

 

Recently, I heard John MacArthur talk about what he calls “the drivetrain of the gospel.” By this he means the essentials of the Christian faith. MacArthur defines these as belief in “a Triune God, deity of Christ, deity of the Holy Spirit, deity of God the Father, the virgin birth, the sinless life of Christ, substitutionary atonement, literal resurrection, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” These essentials, along with a belief in the Bible as the Word of God, have formed the core of historic Christian doctrine for centuries. And where there is a denial of these core doctrinal elements, there can be no cooperation and there must be separation. I would also add that these are the doctrinal issues we must unite around as Christians. If there is anything we should be rallying around, it is these foundational biblical truths.

 

What about non-essentials? What would be a doctrinal issue where two Christians (or Churches) may differ on but liberty should be granted? I would suggest things like eschatology (views on the last things) and ecclesiology (views on church governance/baptism) just to name a couple, are matters that would fit into this category. It would be unhelpful and unwise to separate from a brother in Christ just because he doesn’t share your particular view on the millennium, for example. As a footnote, I would also add differences in ministry methodology to this list of non-essentials.

 

What my experience has taught me is that we need to collaborate and work together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Surely we are better together than apart. I don’t think anyone wins when all our energies are being poured into non-essentials that separate instead of essentials that should unite us. Is there a place for standing for the truth? Absolutely! But let’s make sure we are fighting the right battles. Let’s make sure we are armed and prepared to stand against he enemy of our souls. And let’s do everything we can to unite and cooperate with our brothers and sisters in Christ for the cause of the gospel.

Love and Unity – Two Keys to a Healthy Church

John 13:34-35:  “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Among the many “radical” teachings of Jesus, this verse would have to be put in that category. And what was true back then is still true today – only when a heart has been transformed by the power of the gospel can we truly love another person.  A life lived without Jesus is a life lived without love.  Sadly, this is the norm in our world.  In light of this truth, Jesus knew what a powerful witness it would be for a group of people to actually “love” one another.  When the world watched these crazy people who truly loved and cared for one another, they would know that something was different about them.  So love for one another within the Body of Christ is a key element in the health of a Church.

A second key element is unity. A healthy church will be united around the cause of Christ and His gospel. Just to clarify, I am using the word unity to describe a group of people who come together for a common purpose. In the Bible, one of the metaphors most commonly used is the Body of Christ. In speaking of our physical bodies, there are hundreds of different parts that come together to form our bodies, but they are all important and all serve a specific purpose, just as God intends. This is instructive because when all the parts come together, you have a healthy, functioning, body. The same is true with the Body of Christ on earth, the Church.  If half the parts are not functioning and not being used, you have a sick body that will never perform as it was intended. However, if all the parts are working and functioning together for a common mission, you will have a healthy body that will be used to accomplish the purposes of God. Paul puts it this way in Romans 12:4-8: For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

There you have it – two keys to a healthy church. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list, but in any church where love and unity are missing, you can be sure that church is not a healthy functioning church.