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.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Getting All We Ask For From God

What does it mean to ask in Jesus’ name? John 16:23-24 shows Jesus telling his disciples that whatever they ask in his name, the Father will give them. We tend to apply this to ourselves as well, but we all can think of situations where we asked for something in prayer and ended with “in Jesus name I pray” and we didn’t get what we asked for. So, either that isn’t what this passage is talking about, or we’re applying it wrong.

It might be helpful to follow the analogy a little closer. Instead of jumping to this being a God who is omnipotent, so he could give us anything, let’s follow the relationship as it is presented. This is the father/son relationship. So, how would this work with the fathers and sons we know? It occurs to me that I have some things that belong to me, but they are still at my parents’ house. One of those things is a bicycle. Suppose you went to my father and asked, “Can I have that bicycle?”

My father would respond, “No, it isn’t mine to give you.”

Now, suppose told you, “I have a bicycle that you can have. You just need to go ask my father for it.”

You would go to my father and say, “Your son told me that I could have that bicycle if I came to pick it up.”

My father would probably call me and say, “There’s a guy here saying you gave him this bicycle.” But once I had confirmed your claim, he would give it to you and probably help you load it into your vehicle.

There are a couple of things to notice here. One, asking in my name can only give you what is in my ability to give you. Two, asking in my name can only give you what is in my father’s ability to give you.

We often think about what God can do, but we fail to realize that there are things that he can’t do. Consider James 4:3. How can what Jesus said and what James said both be true? Well, because God can’t give us something that serves no purpose other than fulfill our lusts. Literally, it isn’t in his power. This isn’t something that Jesus would give us. This isn’t something that the Father would give us. It goes against who he is, because it would be harmful to us. Worse, if we go to the Father and say, “Your Son told us we could have this,” we’re lying.

So, if asking in Jesus’ name is going to do us any good, we need to be asking for things that are in the nature of God to provide. Unfortunately, we don’t always know what those things are, but we can get a better understanding of that through Bible study. And there are some things that God would give us, if we wanted them for the right reason, but he won’t give us if we don’t.

Friday, April 1, 2016

What Would Conince You God Doesn't Exist?

Atheist Greta Christina wrote about 6 thing that would convince her to believe in God. Here they are:

  1. An Unambiguous Message – Writing in the sky with letters 100 feet high saying “I Am God, I Exist, Here Is What I Want You To Do”
  2. Accurate Prophecies in Sacred Texts
  3. Accurate Science in Religious Texts
  4. The One Successful Religion – The believers in one religion having better lives than those in all other religions.
  5. Inexplicably Accurate Information Gained During Near-Death or Other Supposedly Psychic Experiences

I don’t see six there either. Perhaps she expects God to know what number six is. But here’s the thing, I don’t think she would believe it if writing appeared in the sky. I’ve seen billboards that were signed “God”, but I didn’t assume God had written the message. I assumed some human wrote it. As for accurate prophecies and accurate science in religious texts, the Bible has been shown many times to have accurate prophecies and to mention scientific concepts that were accurate though well beyond the science of the time when it was written. Are Christians going to have lives that are better in Greta Christina’s eyes? Not if Christianity is true, we won’t. And the stuff with near-death experiences: Jesus said that if people wouldn’t believe Moses and the Prophets, they wouldn’t believe someone who came back from the dead.

The world is filled with evidence of God. When I took a biology class in college, the professor was quite atheist, but I saw God’s handiwork in everything he taught us. Our cells are tiny, but every one of them carries a program that is more complex than any computer program ever created. It is more likely that the words “I Am God, I Exist, Here is what I want you to do” would appear in the sky by chance than for our DNA to have appeared by chance.

But Greta asks a question. What evidence would convince you that your belief was mistake? Here are the things I came up with:

  1. The Body of Jesus – If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then my faith is in the wrong person.
  2. … - There’s no point in mentioning anything else. Without Jesus, there is no hope.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Proof of God

The old hymn says, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” Some conversations with atheists have caused me to think about that. It doesn’t matter what you say to some atheists, they’ll eventually get back to the claim that we’re just making stuff up because we want to feel good. It shouldn’t surprise us that they would believe that, but if we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, shouldn’t the song we true? Shouldn’t we have inside knowledge that they don’t and can’t have without that same relationship? What does that look like and how can we know it isn’t just a feeling that we’ve made up?

It is natural for people to argue that their beliefs are true. That is something we share with atheists. We look at the evidence and it looks like it points to the God of the Bible. An atheist looks at the same evidence and interprets it very differently. But in both cases, we keep pointing to the evidence as proof. It is also natural for people to support organizations that attempt to prove their beliefs. We give money to church and an atheist gives money to some research organization. So, where is the difference?

One preacher made the statement, “When I got saved, my guitar got saved.” Take an outside view and observe what happens when people accept Christ. The music they play changes. They start going to church. They start giving money to church. Their language changes. Their communication contains less vitriol. As an outsider, there is an easy way to explain this that has nothing to do with God. People have invented religion and they think that if they do all these things that it will make God pleased with them. Follow these ridiculous rules and the big sky fairy will give you everything you want.

But here’s the thing: I’m not following a set of rules. Oh, sure, there are some things that are taboo, but when I have a conversation with an atheist and I choose words that are kind rather than returning the vitriol of their words, I know my reasons. It isn’t because of the rules, but because of a genuine love for that person. When I share the gospel with one of them, it isn’t because some preacher told me I have to do that, but I really want to see them accept Christ. How do I know that he lives within my heart? Because of love. Not because I feel like he loves me, but because I have love for a stranger who curses me and ridicules me for my beliefs. Anyone can love someone who loves them, but to love someone who hates you requires God.

Unbelievers will never understand the love that motivates the Christian. We can tell them about it, but they won’t understand. They’ll understand the words we use, but they won’t believe us. Their whole concept of love is limited to what they feel for their friends and family. People are looking for proof that God exists. Why wouldn’t he prove it? The interesting thing is that the only thing we can be certain exists is our mind, because everything else could be artificial stimuli. So, where did God put proof of his existence? He put it within our mind. Love which originates in the mind of God takes shape in our mind and becomes actions that we do for people who give us every reason not to love them.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Put 'em to Work

Imagine this scene: You’re talking to someone who has moved into area. In the course of the conversation they say, “We’re looking for a good church. Do you know of any?” There it is! An opportunity dropped right in your lap. You say, “You should come to our church. Our pastor preaches great sermon. Our people are super friendly. We have programs for your kids. Let me give you a card. It lists our service times and our website, so you can check us out.” The other person accepts the card and says, “I’ll be sure to do that.” That’s the kind of conversation we would love to have. But maybe we shouldn’t be so excited.

The problem with this conversation is that it involves matching up an ideal church with an ideal person. What if this person doesn’t have kids? What if the church doesn’t have programs for the kids? What if the pastor doesn’t preach very well? What if the church isn’t very friendly? What if the church doesn’t have a website?

When I was a teenager, I was the music director at a church with a high attendance of 25. 10 was more typical, at the time. Our youth group was me. Our children’s ministry was nonexistent. We had one Sunday school class, but we would order children’s literature, just in case someone showed up. The fact is, there are a lot of churches in that same situation. Some have declined to that point. Some are new churches that are just starting out. In any case, these tiny churches can teach us something.

So, let’s look at the scene again, but this time from the perspective of a tiny church: “We’re looking for a good church. Do you know of any?” You say, “You should come to our church. Our pastor does okay, but he’s working a full-time job and then preaching two sermons and teaching a Sunday school lesson. Our pianist has trouble seeing the music. We’d like to children and teens coming, but our people are all too old to do much with them. We could really use your help.”

This second conversation is not the way we normally think we should persuade people to come to church, but it’s closer to what we should be doing. Yes, there are benefits to church attendance that include youth programs and fellowship meals and training programs, but that only comes when people put in the work. We can’t maintain programs if new members don’t do their part. But if everyone does something, we all benefit even more.

What if we took that tiny church attitude and applied it to larger churches? What if, instead of telling people about the great things we already have, we told them about the things they could help us with? Consider this conversation: “Tell me about your Sunday school classes.” “We have classes for all age groups. We have great teachers, but we could really use is someone to go around and empty the trashcans after church, so there isn’t food left sitting in the classrooms.” It might be that the person decides they’ll visit another church instead. But it might also be that they say, “That’s something I could do.” Just imagine if every time we added a church member it meant we had another person doing stuff. We would get a lot more done.