Thursday, June 30, 2016

What Selfie-sticks Say About Us

Stephen Wilkes made the observation that “The act of sharing has become more important than the experience itself.” He made this statement in a TED talk in which he was telling about his work as a photographer. To achieve the affect he is looking for, he spends many hours in one location, shooting thousands of photos of tourist attractions. This gives him a lot of time to observe human behavior. While doing so, he noticed that people were using historic locations more as a backdrop for photos of themselves, rather than exploring the site.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. We’re unlikely to change it. I’m more interested in why this is the case. This hasn’t always been the way things are, but one thing we know about humans is that we don’t change much. Our motivations today are very similar to what people’s motivations were when the Bible was being written. It’s unlikely that the change in what people do at sites has anything to do with a change in people’s motivations.

Why do people share photos on Facebook and other social media sites? I believe it is because we crave social interaction. It isn’t that we really care if people know that we visited the Alamo, or the Statue of Liberty, or the restaurant down the street. The real reason we post about these visits is because we expect that someone is going to respond. Perhaps it is only a like, or maybe it is a simple statement like, “I didn’t know you were going there,” or maybe it triggers a lengthy conversation. Whatever the case, sharing results in social interaction.

Now, think about why people visited tourist sites prior to social media. We might think that they went to learn something, but maybe not. I remember going on trips as a kid and there were postcards everywhere. People used to say, “Send me a postcard.” Of course, they are collectable, but the purpose of sending a postcard is to say, “Look where I’m at.”

But think also about who visits tourist sites. You rarely see someone there alone, unless they are one of the local workers who has stopped there for lunch. Tourist sites are places to take a date, or to take the wife and kids, or to take relatives who are staying in town. We don’t go to these places to see the site, rather we go because they provide an opportunity for social interaction with the people who visit the site with us.

At the end of the day, it is all about social interaction, and it always has been. Of course, there are things we can do and learn while we are at various sites, but what we want to do is interact with other people. We might need to think about that. The next time we see someone with a selfie-stick, maybe we should go talk to them. That’s probably what they’re hoping for.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Get Your Shoes On (The Armor of God)

How is salvation like a helmet? I’ve heard many sermons about the armor of God. More often than not, emphasis is placed on what a helmet is rather than on the armor itself. Just as we aren’t battling flesh and blood, we aren’t actually wearing armor. There is value in knowing that a helmet protects the most valuable part of our body and we might point out that like a helmet, salvation keeps us alive, even if we have other injuries. But maybe the point of Ephesians 6:10-20 isn’t that spiritual things are like physical armor, but we are to prepare ourselves for battle.

Truth

When we stand in battle, we are to have truth. We are battling for hearts and minds. The enemy is lying to those we are trying to reach. When we speak the truth, the enemy is caught with his pants down. No lie can stand up against the truth. So, we go into battle with truth like a belt.

Righteousness

Of course none of us are completely righteous, but Jesus is our righteousness. Even so, one of Satan’s favor tactics is to point at Christians and say, “Look at them! They’re worse than you are.” But consider what happens when that lost soul we are battling for hears Satan say that but what the lost person sees is things that we are doing for the Lord. Our righteousness protects against the attack. Satan’s words bounce off of our chest, because the lost person, sees something better.

Readiness for the Gospel of Peace

When I was a kid, Dad had a rule that we couldn’t ride our bicycles unless we had shoes on. Even though I loved to go barefoot in the Summer, there were many times that I would wear my shoes, just so I would be prepared to ride my bicycle, without going back to the house to get my shoes. Of course, Dad’s reason for the rule was to protect my feet, and it’s not wrong to talk about soldiers needing shoes to protect one’s feet, but I think people miss the point on this. The point is that you need to keep your shoes on, so you’re ready to run into battle. But in this case, it is the “readiness of the Gospel of Peace.” Are you prepared to share the gospel with someone at a moment’s notice? Are you ready to run to a lost person to tell them about Jesus? If you aren’t, you’re like a soldier without his shoes on.

Faith

A shield is an offensive weapon, but primarily it is defensive, protecting from all kinds of attack. Faith, is believing that what God said is true. If we know that what God has said is true, then the lies that Satan throws at us extinguish very quickly. Jesus demonstrated this during his wilderness temptation. His response to Satan’s attacks was to put them out by going back to what the scripture says.

Salvation

This one’s a headscratcher for me. Why does salvation come here in the list? So often, we think of salvation as being an event that takes us from being a non-Christian to a Christian, but that would imply it should be first. We might think it has something to do with the order a soldier would put on his armor, but wouldn’t he put on the helmet before he picked up his shield? But faith, salvation, and the word of God appear to be a sublist of things we are to take, while the others are things that we are to have in a state of readiness. Faith precedes salvation, so that may explain the order. But the hope of salvation gives us much the same confidence that a helmet gives us.

The Word of God

Our weapon, is the word of God. The rest of that armor serves only to protect us as we carry the word of God into battle. But I find interesting phrasing in Ephesians 6:17. It doesn’t say, “And take…the sword, which is the word of God.” Instead, it says, “And take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” It isn’t our sword. We’re just the sword bearers. Our job is to carry the word of God to the world, but it is the Holy Spirit who wields it.

Prayer

We don’t normally list prayer among the elements of the armor of God, since it doesn’t have an associated piece of armor, but it is in Ephesians 6:18-20 that we see what Paul is telling these armed Christians to do. He’s asking them to ask God with persistence on the behalf of all saints and for Paul in particular.

But notice what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t say, “Pray that the Lord will save people.” So often, that’s what we do. We think of a lost friend or family member and we say, “Lord, save this person.” Instead, Paul desires that they pray, “that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.”

That is what spiritual warfare looks like. Praying on the behalf of others, and boldly preaching the gospel in whatever situation we are in.

Get your shoes on. It’s time to go.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Why Do Mission Trips

A couple of years ago, I went on my first official “Mission Trip” to Albuquerque, New Mexico. This year, our church has returned to do much of the same thing we did then. In fact, some of the work we are doing this week includes repairing picnic tables we repaired two years ago and replacing windows in a mobile home that we repaired windows in two years ago. I find myself, again, asking, why do we do these mission trips?

Before we answer that question, I think we need to define two different types of mission trips. Interestingly, a mission trip may be one type for one person and another type for someone else on that same trip. I see these two types as expert mission trips and training mission trips. An expert mission trip is one in which a person with special knowledge and experience, such as an eye doctor, travels to a mission field to put that knowledge and experience to use. A training mission trip is one in which people travel to a mission field to perform tasks that they do infrequently or are untrained in and often involves tasks which could be performed much more cost effectively if the short-term missionaries were to stay home, go to work, and send money.

The reason for expert mission trips is obvious. The short-term missionary is doing something that can’t be done by someone in the area, so cost effectiveness is less important. The cost is simply the cost of doing the work.

We should not confuse the reason for training mission trips as being the same as expert mission trips. If the reason is the work, why are we sending software engineers, surveyors, pastors, and high school students to do carpentry work? We can argue that the real reason is sharing the gospel with the people we are doing work for, but skilled carpenters are just as qualified to share the gospel as a software engineer is (or a pastor, for that matter). These types of mission trips only make sense when we see them as a learning experience for the short-term missionary, rather than focusing on the work that they are doing for the people on the mission field or the help they are providing to the long-term missionary on the field.

But what do short-term missionaries learn? There are many things that one might learn. We might think first of learning to share the gospel. We might think of young people learning by watching their elders actively working while on the trip. But as I watched my pastor prepare for leading a bi-lingual bible study and then have no one show up, I saw him learn something. I watched as our youth pastor used this trip as an opportunity to let some of his students teach VBS lessons to students not much younger than them and some older than them. His students learned from that experience, but I suspect he did as well. Part of my task on this trip was to “take pictures”. While people are growing tired of seeing a video camera with a red light glowing, this trip is giving me an opportunity to try some things that I don’t have the opportunity try at church. It seems fitting that we are staying in a university dorm, because this trip is a type of experimentation and learning that you might find on a college campus.

As we consider our priorities on short-term mission trips, it might be wise to set our first priority as the learning and experimentation type experiences. In one week, we aren’t going to win Albuquerque for Christ and our primary mission field if Fort Worth anyway, but what we learn by struggling in unusual situations that we are experiencing in Albuquerque are things that we can turn into expertise that we use as we work in the familiar setting back home.

Monday, June 6, 2016

7 Things I Wish I Knew About Public Speaking When I Was in High School

When I was in high school, I had a number of times when I was required to speak in front of a group of people, both at school and other organizations. I hated it. If I could have gotten out of it, I would have. I still remember feeling ill from nerves, leading up to the speech. But now, I kind of wish I could go back and do it again, with the knowledge I have now. There were things that our teachers tried to teach us about public speaking. Most of it, I didn’t get, because it didn’t help me with my situation. Here are some things I wish I had known:

1. Knowing the subject matter is more important than wording.

My approach to giving a speech was to write out what I wanted to say and then develop ways to memorize what I had written. The problem is that when you are standing in front of people, you don’t trust yourself to recall your memorized speech, which makes you nervous, which causes you to forget even more. Now, I don’t write speeches, I write outlines. The better I know the subject material, the shorter my outline can be. The purpose of the outline is not to remind you of the material, but to remind you of the order in which you wish to present the material. If you know the subject well enough, you may not need an outline at all. You simply tell people what you know.

2. Handle nerves by looking at people.

There were several approaches to handling butterflies that I heard about in high school. Some people say to imagine people in their underwear. One idea was to beat the tar out of something with a newspaper before the speech. Those don’t work. What does work is looking at people. If you can, spend some time before speaking of giving a performance looking at the audience. If in a big meeting hall, sit on the front row and turn around and watch people as they filter in and take their seats. They aren’t nearly as scary as the people in your imagination. In a small setting, spend the time before your speech talking to people. Shake hands with people. Ask them how their week is going.

3. There are other people more nervous than you.

Because I’ve never been one to talk much, I’ve often heard people refer to me as shy. “He’s just shy,” they would say. Believing that to be the case, I convinced myself that I was more nervous about public speaking than other people were. I learned otherwise in college. In an architecture class, we were required to give a verbal presentation for a building that we designed. I was nervous, but I made it through the presentation, communicating all the information I needed to convey. Another student did not fare so well. His nervousness was visible on his face as he gave his presentation. He made it to the end and as he was returning to his seat, he fainted and fell in the floor next to my seat. I began to realize that my nerves were minor compared to some people, that I enjoyed public speaking, and that I wasn’t as shy as people assumed.

4. Nerves are optional.

Several years ago, I stood in front of about 800 people. This was my first time in front of that many people. I felt the butterflies building up, but I remember consciously pushing that feeling aside. In the past, when I felt nervous, would worry that my nerves would make it impossible to do what I needed to do. But it really is possible to simply refuse to be nervous.

5. The first few minutes are the worst.

Nervousness about public speaking is caused by the fight or flight response. It is impossible for a person to remain keyed up for long periods of time. Once you start talking, the adrenaline levels will begin to decrease. After a few minutes, you can settle into the talk and enjoy yourself.

6. Tell Stories

Story telling is one of the best things you can do when speaking in public. You can list a bunch of facts and accomplish nothing, but people will remember your stories. On top of that, if you need to fill time, stories tend to eat up a lot of time without requiring you to remember a lot of details.

7. Have one and only one point.

A speech should have only one point. Going into a speech, you should know the one thing you want your audience to do or to remember. Everything else should go into communicating that point. I don’t recall my high school teachers telling me this. The point of my speeches was to fulfill the requirements of the class. I didn’t care whether my classmates learned something or took some action. Had I focused on a call to action instead of getting a good grade, my speeches would have been much better.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Small Groups or Sunday School

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about small groups. Part of that is because I’ll be taking on the leadership of one of our adult Sunday school classes (pending church approval). A church without small groups will struggle to be more than just a performance venue. If the only interaction people have at church is shaking hands with a few people, it is unlikely that people will miss them when they are gone and when they are hurting, there is no one there to help them. That’s not what church is about. But just what is a small group?

From Acts, we know that the disciples met from house to house. We don’t know exactly what this looked like, but we know they did it. Today, different churches do small groups differently. Some people will say something like, “We don’t do Sunday school; we do small groups.” But we need to be careful that we don’t turn that around and say, “We don’t do small groups; we do Sunday school.” Sunday school is just one of several things that can be considered small groups. But is one better than the other? Must we do as they did in Acts and meet in people’s houses? I think we need to be careful about always saying that if we don’t do it exactly the way they did, we aren’t doing it right. When Paul instructed Timothy on how church should be done, this didn’t seem to be an issue of primary importance. Instead, he focused on personnel issues. If you get the right set of leaders in place, the rest isn’t so important.

Meeting in people’s homes has some advantages. The group can meet at a time that is convenient for the group. You don’t have to have as big of a church building. It may seem less formal, so people are more comfortable. But Sunday school or at church small groups also has advantages. Parking isn’t an issue. There is a built in baby sitter for those who have kids. If a group leader is going to be out of town, the group will meet in the same place they always do.

Unfortunately, churches want to turn this into a this is better than that issue or worse, turn it into a doctrinal issue. Or they may stick with one because of tradition. I think many churches would benefit if they did both. Not the small churches, obviously, since the whole church might a “small group,” but some people may find it easier to attend Sunday school than to attend a small group during the week. On the other hand, the teachers of children’s Sunday school classes, the greeters at the door, people who work on Sunday morning, and others, may be unable to participate in a small group that meets on Sunday morning. And if classroom space is an issue, why not have some of the classes with retired people in them meet during the week? While the rest of us are at work, they could be meeting for class.

Another thing, there are some small churches that might benefit from having classes that they can share with other churches. A Bible study group that meets during the week could easily have people from more than one church. Or maybe the leaders of several small churches get together for a small group of their own. They might be able to discuss topics that the average church member knows little about.

Instead of taking a “our way is the right way” attitude, why don’t we look at the needs of individuals and develop small groups that fit their situation, so they will be able to participate?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Churches and the Doors People Use

Some people say that the church website is the new front door to a church. Their argument is good, since most people visit a church’s website before they visit church. But then they go immediately into what the home page of the website should look like. There’s nothing wrong with having an attractive home page, but we must be careful that we don’t forget everything we know about church doors.

I’ve been to many church buildings. There are quite a few of them that I’ve entered, but not by the front door. The church I grew up in had two doors. There was the front door, which was at the top of a set of steps. There was a side door that closer to the parking lot and had not steps to get to it. Most people used that door. The only people who used the front door were visitors who made their way around the side of the building by walking across the rocky and uneven yard, before climbing the steps. But that was the door that had a sign above it, stating the name of the church. The other door was just the door that was added when the church added restrooms to the building.

There is a similar situation with church websites. While we might call the homepage the front door and that’s where we spend most of our time on appearance, that’s not how people visit our websites. The only people who visit that page already have a first impression of your church. Homepages are what we put a link to in all of our printed materials, and the link we provide when we’re asked. It is not how people find our church. Instead, people find our church through Google, or through Facebook, or some other website that serves to redirect people. But think about what they find.

On Google, unless people are looking for your church specifically, what they will find are secondary pages. They’ll Google something like “Easter egg hunts in Fort Worth” and they’ll find an article you posted three years ago about an Easter egg hunt you had at church. On Facebook, they’ll follow a link that a friend liked. That link won’t be to your homepage, but to some article you provided a link to on your Facebook page. Other people will find your church by following a link from a blog post, quoting something in an article on your church website.

Do you get the picture? While the Internet is constantly changing, one thing remains constant. The Internet runs on content and primarily textual content. People don’t enter the “front door” of your website, but they enter through one of many doors that has the content they are looking for. From there, they may follow a link to your homepage, to find out more about your church, but they’re already in the door and they’re wondering around your hallways looking for someone to show them how to get to where they want to be.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Prayer and Blood Gushing Toes

Have you stopped to think how many times in the Bible that God answered prayer by sending a messenger? When Daniel couldn’t understand a vision, God sent a messenger to set him on his feet. When Abraham prayed for Lot’s protection, God sent messengers to forcibly remove him from harm’s way. When Peter was in prison, God sent a messenger to free him. When a eunuch was seeking to understand the scripture, God sent Philip. When some women were praying on the river bank, God sent Paul. With it happening so frequently, you might think that is God’s preferred method.

And you just might be right. When Jesus looked at the multitudes in Matthew 9:37-38, he said, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Pray ye therefor the Lord of the harvest, that he would send laborers into his harvest.” And when Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord in Isaiah 6:8, the Lord said, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah responded, “Here am I; send me.”

Could it be that we have the wrong approach to prayer? I have seen many prayer lists. Name after name is listed of people who are in poor physical health, who are having financial problems, who are having family problems, who are in need of salvation, and many other things. At various times, we hear people call out prayer requests like they are announcements. Following an ordination service when we had just been stirred by a powerful sermon charging the man who had been ordained to preach the word, we heard a prayer request for someone I didn’t know and can’t remember their name, but I know they have blood gushing from their toe.

Of course, James does tell us to pray for each other. But it isn’t obvious to me that he intended for us to make lists of people with gushing bodily fluids. Some of us are real good about praying for each individual. The rest of us throw these lists in the back of our Bible to look at the next time we meet to make a list. We might pray a prayer like, “help these on the prayer list.” How different this is from the picture we get in James 5:14. Even in praying for the sick, James called for an action by the church elders. Not just pray, but “pray over him, anointing him with oil.”

One of the problems I struggle with is answer the question, “Is God answering these prayers?” I’ve often heard people talk about how prayers were answered concerning someone on the prayer list, but if we’re keeping count, there are also several on the prayer list who dropped dead. I don’t know how to pray for the person with the blood gushing toe who might have it amputated other than to ask the Lord to heal the toe. But what if it heals? What if it is amputated? What if it gets infected? Did the Lord answer?

Let me suggest that what James calls for is very different. Suppose, instead adding this blood gushing toe to the prayer list that the church elders visit this person. Is this person saved? This would be a good opportunity to find out and to share the gospel with them. I doubt anointing with oil is the right treatment for a blood gushing toe, but praying over this person may be a source of encouragement and maybe there are other things that can be done to help this person while they are in their current condition. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever discover something you can do for them if all you have is a list item on a prayer list. Do they need their dishes washed? Their yard mowed? Their bed sheets changed? You can’t anoint someone with oil without touching them.

It’s fine to pray for someone’s healing, but let’s not forget to pray, “Lord, send me.” It’s easier to see how the Lord is answering prayer when we are the ones he’s using to answer those prayers. If all we ever do is ask the Lord to heal, or to fix a broken marriage, or to help a person through financial difficulties, we’ll wonder why he didn’t answer our prayer. But what if we answer his call to go help someone replace their bandages, or to watch a couple’s children on a date night, or to provide some advice on how to save money? It’s through those things that he answers prayer and he will use us to do it.