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Infighting. As if we don’t have enough problems.

We’d understand the nature of Christianity better if we’d remember that much of the New Testament was written from prison. Hardship is a reality for Christians. That’s one of Paul’s points in the book of Philippians, which he wrote to a fearful and divided church. “Conflict is inevitable. But it doesn’t make sense to compound it by fighting each other, as if we don’t have enough problems.” Read the book in one sitting and see if you’re not impressed with these themes:

1. Conflict from those outside the church is normal and productive.

Suffering was in the DNA of the Philippian church. Paul founded it from prison, or at least pretty close (Acts 16:19-24). Years later, Paul wrote this epistle to them from another prison (Philippians 1:7, 12-18). Continue reading

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Borrowing Brains: “Messiah” Outreach Idea

The Lord is doing some tremendous things at TCBC at present, especially as members are giving out the gospel and inviting guests to join us for services. Our “bread and butter” for outreach isn’t events or programs, but equipping and motivating our entire body for “Every Member Evangelism.” The BODY is our best outreach ministry. And the Lord is using them! Please pray for us as much seed is being planted and many professions have been made in recent weeks. It’s been delightful!

Still, we’re wanting to supplement individual outreach with corporate outreach more effectively than we have in the past. One idea I hope we can apply this year is a “Community Messiah Sing.” My intention is to schedule a time early in December in which we invite people from our community to gather at our church building (a) to sing popular portions of Handel’s Messiah together, unrehearsed and with no thought of a performance, (b) to have some refreshments, and (c) to hear a brief discussion of the history and theology of the great work, which will include a clear gospel presentation.

We need to work on the details and viability of it. Have you ever done something like this? Do you have suggestions that would help make it more effective? Or do you have other ideas for outreach via this sort of community event?

Please chime in!

_____

Related: Our most effective corporate outreach ministry thus far is the publication of The Gospel CD, which our members consistently distribute to friends and family members. I commend the idea to you!

Sound Words: A Mess May Mean Success!

The world in which we live is a mess. Lives are dominated by sinful habits. People live with little if any restraint, and it shows in their behavior, their dress, and their language. Sinners are messy. Indeed, even when sinners come to Christ, they bring their messy baggage with them. Thus, ministry that engages sinners is messy. What do I mean?

First, our churches must aim to reach the lost where they are.
I’ve been prone in the past to judge the effectiveness of a church by the condition of its attendees. If the people seemed to “have it all together” (e.g. they dressed up, had high standards, knew the Scriptures, etc.), I assumed the church was strong and effective. On the other hand, if the people had “issues” (e.g. they dressed immodestly or informally, were biblically illiterate, smelled of smoke, etc.), I assumed that the church was weak and ineffective.

The truth is, my means of measuring a church’s effectiveness was simplistic, and perhaps downright backwards! If, for example, a church is filled only with people who “fit in” and have no problems (wink, wink), it may mean that they haven’t seen any conversions for many years! And if a church has down-and-outers, it may mean that they’re reaching their community for Christ—and they’re reaching lost people, not just families looking for strong churches! So a “mess” may mean “success”!

Think of it this way: a house that is perfectly clean is probably a house in which no babies reside. And a house strewn with toys and smelling of soiled diapers—as uncomfortable as it may be—is probably a house where there is new life! And that’s great! To put it the way Proverbs 14:4 does, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” Cleanliness and productivity are often incompatible. Ministry is messy!

Second, our churches must aim at regeneration, not mere reformation.
Because people’s “issues” make us uncomfortable, it may be tempting to press newcomers about issues like proper attire, hair length, smoking, and the like. Yet, we need to be careful when addressing these kinds of issues. We may needlessly offend them, whether saved or lost. Worse, we may communicate to them that Christianity is about “looking the part,” not changing from the inside out by the grace of God extended through the cross of Christ. John Owen addresses the danger of mere reformation in chapter 8 of his classic book The Mortification of Sin. I commend it to you. In short, he warns that if we succeed at getting outward change we may soothe a smarting conscience illegitimately and create a whitewashed sepulcher! Or, on the other hand, if the person tries and fails to change outside of Christ’s saving power, we may create hopelessness and cause them to doubt the gospel’s power.

Finally, we must get accustomed to the mess of ministry rather than turning up our nose at it.
We mustn’t be more “righteous” than Christ (I speak as a fool). Jesus came not to call the (apparently) righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). So He ate with publicans. So He ministered to prostitutes and adulteresses. So He—to His eternal praise and our eternal salvation!—“received sinners” (Luke 15:2). Mere improvement of morals is worse than useless; it’s harmful!

Bottom line: Don’t help damn people through your efforts to improve them! They don’t need to be more respectable in their sinful condition—though such respectability may keep Christians from feeling squeamish. They need the gospel. They need to be born again. They need heart change that results in habit change, as do those of us who have been saved for decades.

Ministry is messy, at least if it’s productive. May our churches be hospitals for the spiritually sick, and may they be messy for the glory of God!

_____

“Sound Words” is a monthly column in the OBF Visitor, the publication of The Ohio Bible Fellowship. This article was first printed in September 2009. It is cross-posted from the OBF Visitor blog, where many other articles are posted and may be searched by author, category and keyword. Information on subscribing to the Visitor is available here.

Sound Words: Is God Still Working?

There is a shocking lack of confidence in the Gospel of Jesus Christ today. To borrow a phrase from Romans 1:16, it seems that many are “ashamed” of it, or at least doubtful as to whether it is indeed the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” This Gospel doubting can be seen in at least two ways.

Some doubt the Gospel and therefore supplement or replace it.
There is no question that the church is embarrassingly pragmatic in our day. Pragmatism is essentially the idea that success justifies strategy—that the end justifies the means. “If it works, do it,” we are told. Thus, in the name of evangelism, we see all sorts of circus-like shenanigans: “preaching” that apes foul-mouthed stand-up comics, shockingly explicit “outreach” to the pornography industry, goldfish-swallowing youth pastors, bait-and-switch outreach efforts, felt-needs preaching, and the like. While the Gospel may be “snuck in” to such efforts, they actually reveal a sad lack of confidence in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Such “evangelists” act as though the Gospel is an impotent thing—a hard sell that has to ride the coattails of more attractive products, not unlike the add-ons politicians tie to bills in order to pass unpopular measures using measures with broad support. But make no mistake—the tacky salesmanship that exists both inside and outside of fundamentalism betrays a lack of confidence in the unadulterated, unadorned Gospel.

Some doubt the Gospel and therefore expect no conversions.
Not all Gospel doubting is as crass as the used-car-salesman tactics listed above. Some have a more respectable shame of the Gospel, but it is a tragic doubt nonetheless. Some are convinced that God is finished, that the conversions we read of in the New Testament and throughout church history are relics of another time, evidences of more receptive hearers and more empowered churches. We shouldn’t expect solid churches to grow, we hear. In fact, our declining numbers are justified and almost celebrated as badges of our faithfulness—as though all growing churches must be doing something wrong.

I disagree with the second concept as vehemently as I disagree with the first. To quote a Christmas hymn, “God is not dead, nor does He sleep.” He’s still working. His Spirit is still convicting, illuminating, drawing, regenerating. The Gospel is still the power of God for salvation. The Word is still alive, and powerful, and heart-rending. And thus, I expect to see it work. I pray expectantly. I preach expectantly. And God is saving people—like the deacon who will preach in our prayer meeting in a few hours, like the drug addict whose life has been turned upside down in recent months, like the single mom who has turned from religion to Christ and been eternally changed; like the multitudes that have come to Christ in recent months at Grace Church of Mentor—not because the church is perfect, and not because the church is compromising, but because the Gospel is mighty and they’re unleashing it to one sinner at a time.

One of my favorite hymns about the power of the Gospel is Isaac Watts’ stirring “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place.” After rejoicing in salvation blessings and marveling at God’s including us in them, the hymn ends with a prayer for the Lord to use His victorious Word to save souls, fill His churches, and glorify Himself.

Pity the nations, O our God!
Constrain the earth to come;
Send Thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see Thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May with one voice and heart and soul
Sing Thy redeeming grace.

We mustn’t be ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We mustn’t sell it, as though it’s on a discount rack. And we mustn’t shelve it, as though it’s no longer useful. The Gospel is as powerful as ever! God is as alive as ever! Let’s pray and preach like we believe it, by God’s grace.

_____

“Sound Words” is a monthly column in the OBF Visitor, the publication of The Ohio Bible Fellowship. This article was first printed in August 2009. It is cross-posted from the OBF Visitor blog, where many other articles are posted and may be searched by author, category and keyword. Information on subscribing to the Visitor is available here.

Missionary Motives, Tom Needham: “We always brought in the harvest.”

EarthTom Needham was a farmer in Iowa who is now a farmer of men in Cameroon. He’s an exemplary missionary whom we’ve been privileged to support. Responding to my query about what propelled him to the mission field, Tom reached back to his first occupation for a powerful illustration:

“We rejoice with you. How our churches need to get a vision for evangelism! The fields are white unto harvest. I spent many years on the farm both growing up and as an adult. Every year there was a harvest, sometimes, more, sometimes less, but always a harvest. Sometimes the harvest was easy, sometimes it was difficult. Sometimes I didn’t feel like getting in the combine. Sometimes I got discouraged when equipment broke down or the weather was unpleasant. Sometimes I wanted to quit early. One year I didn’t finish picking corn until mid winter when the ground finally froze hard enough to get the corn picker out there. The point is, we always brought in the harvest. We never once left it out there. Christians are responsible to bring in the harvest. The Lord Jesus has promised that when we sow, there will be reaping. The harvest must be brought in: ‘Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.’ John 4:35″

Again, reader, consider whether the Lord would have you take the gospel where it is unheard or unbelieved. And pastor, join me in praying and laboring more diligently to see more people from our churches go!

_____

Previous Missionary Motives posts:

Update: You Really Need to Publish a Gospel CD!

Gospel CDIn December of 2007, I mentioned here that TCBC had produced a 25-minute presentation of the gospel and had a couple thousand copies made. At the time, I encouraged churches to improve upon the idea.

So, if you’ve done it, how’d it go? And if you haven’t, why in the world not?!

Seriously, you need to do this. It’s been a great tool for us. We’ve distributed all of the first batch and are working on the second. We use it like a tract, but it’s better than a tract for a number of reasons. We live in a digital age. People aren’t likely to spend half an hour reading fine print on a small piece of paper. But getting into their car or truck and popping in a CD? Sure. Beyond that, it’s been useful in the conversion of a man in our church that has a hard time reading, and there are more and more people to whom we should be ministering who are illiterate. We’ve pursued a number of outreach ideas, but none have been as effective as our Gospel CD.

A couple quick tips as you get ready to produce a Gospel CD for your own church:

  • Don’t use a recorded sermon. We thought about that, but someone kindly suggested that I record something shorter (ouch!) and more directly aimed at unbelievers. Record something fresh.
  • Don’t make it too long. But don’t make it so short that you don’t do justice to the gospel! I think about 25 minutes is good.
  • Be clear in your explanations, and avoid KJV-type language. If you use theological words, define them.
  • Quote lots of Scripture. Lots.
  • Make a recording of reasonable quality, but don’t spend a ton of money. We recorded ours in our church office with a $15 headset microphone, then had the discs professionally copied and printed. You don’t need to break the bank. But don’t be cheap, either.

If you’d like a printed copy of what we recorded, here’s a pdf. And again, you can hear it here.

Do this, whether you’re a large established church or a new church plant. It will give you a great resource to give visitors, to leave with friends, family members, and co-workers, to have people send with Christmas cards, etc. And it will even be useful in training the members how to give the gospel in a thorough and conversational way.

Let me know if I can help! And if you do it, please come back and tell us about it—suggestions, problems, other ideas, whatever.

Now get busy!

Yikes: “Your hand placed upon his shoulder may help him make the decision.”

I “talk back” to my books as I read them, which is why I hate borrowing books. I use a variety of symbols, including a key for vital points, a pair of glasses for references or books I’d like to look up later, a “Q” for great quotations, etc. If I’m not sure what I think, I’ll either write “?” (for statements I probably doubt) or “Hmm” (for statements I probably affirm). Sometimes, of course, I disagree with a writer entirely. I’ll normally indicate my disagreement with a simple “X” in the margin.When especially exercised, though, I’ll say “That’s nuts!” or “Yikes!” Well, the following statement in an article on evangelism in a well-known publication got a “Yikes!”

“After Scripture has had its chance, and decision should be reached, get your friend on his knees, and ask him to decide after you have poured out your heart to God for and with him. I have known more men who have yielded on their knees than anywhere else. At just the right time, when genuinely  prompted by loving impulse and sincere motive, your hand placed upon his shoulder may help him make the decision….

When you pray with the one for whom you are working, be most specific and plain in your petition. Then ask him to pray for himself. If he cannot, frame his prayer for him, and ask him to repeat.”

“Mercy.” I write that sometimes, too. Now, on rare occasions even the old hand-on-the-shoulder trick doesn’t work. The author offers some practical advice for that scenario:

“If you fail, do not be discouraged, but determine to get nearer to God and to gain more power through your apparent failure. Write a good letter to the one you have failed to reach or failed to find after repeated calling. Many have been won by correspondence. He knows you are interested very difinitely if you write.”

Getting nearer to God is a great thing. So is writing evangelistic letters. In fact, I appreciate the author’s urgency about getting the gospel out as effectively as possible. But calling evangelistic conversations in which one doesn’t repent and trust Christ “failures”? “Yikes!”

Now, here’s the fun part. Any guesses regarding who the author is/was, or at least the name of the publication that printed the article? You can at least guess the author’s denomination, I’d think. Anyone? (No googling allowed.)