Church Leadership- Know Your Spiritual Flow

We have all heard the phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out”, most of the time referring to what we either put into our mind or put into our body.  It was a phrase repeated to me numerous times as a kid to get me to think about what I was listening to and what I was watching. It has to do with flow, the progression of how thoughts, faith, ideas, emotions, and wisdom move through us.

I recently experienced an interesting, but expensive, illustration of this truth. We were having some plumbing problems in our house, popping in the lines, sudden dripping in some faucets, so we called our local, friendly, and did I mention expensive, plumber. He walked in the house and took a quick listen to what our aliments were and immediately said, “I know what your problem is…”.

“OK”

“It’s your PRV valve, where is your main water cut off in the house?’

“Wait, a what valve?”

“PRV”

“You got me, what is PRV?… and is it expensive?”

“It is your pressure reducing valve”

“You got me again, what is a pressure reducing valve?… and is it expensive?”

“The PRV regulates the water pressure coming in from the street, it really shouldn’t be higher than 70-75psi. Yours is probably too high, it is why you are having these sudden leaks, there is too much pressure pushing against the faucets and hoses.”

“Oh, Ok… and is it expensive?”

“Yes”

The problem I was having with the “outflow” in my faucets was that my “inflow” was too strong… and after the repair, I needed more “inflow” into my bank account because my “outflow” was more than I expected!

The spiritual flow in a church is similar. As church leaders, as shepherds and servants in our congregations, we need to be aware of the “flows”.  In the beginning the Bible says that the Spirit was “hovering over the face of the deep”. That imagery is powerful, the awesome Spirit of God not sitting or relaxing, but hovering, waiting to move in power at the Word of the Father.  The flow begins as the Father says, “let there be light”, now there is movement, an outflow of power and might and wisdom as the universe comes into being.  Flow can be a powerful thing, sometimes it is gentle like a creek, sometimes it is powerful like the images we have seen from the Japanese tsunami. We can feel flow, we can hear flow, we can see flow, because we as people can sense movements, even slight ones. You could call spiritual flow the feel of a church- energized, tired, worn out, a servant’s heart, stagnated, lethargic… all describe an issue with spiritual flow.

Spiritual flow however has more to do with the idea of discipleship than anything else.  It is opening ourselves up to allow God to pour into our spirit and our mind and then allowing that flow to go through us to others. In a church setting sometimes we can get really tangled up with how to understand if God is working in our midst, are we making an impact?, are we making progress?… lots of questions that can be hard to discern. Grabbing a hold of the idea of flow can help us understand the nature of what is happening spiritually.

Here are several truths about spiritual flow that we need to get:

1) Flow is movement- there is no more simple truth than that, you cannot have flow without movement (verb- to move along in a stream, to circulate, to proceed continuously and smoothly)

2) Flow has to have a force- there is no movement, no spiritual flow without a force acting upon our Spirit.  Newton’s first law of motion tells us a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless it is acted upon by an outside force. To create flow, we need a flow creator, a force to put our Spirit in motion. God is the flow creator!

3) Flow has to be nurtured- flow cannot remain constant without action to keep it going. Spiritual flow runs into all kinds of obstacles that seek to block it and slow it down. Sin, circumstances, the world, pain, suffering, disappointments, conflict, and many other things seek to block spiritual flow.  You have probably encountered many of these kinds of things. Sometimes we call them joy killers, faith stealers, but the idea is that they are obstacles to God having full access to work through us. Because we inevitably run into these things, the spiritual flow in our lives and in the life of our church needs to be nurtured.  Hebrews 11 tells us that faith has to be nurtured,

1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…. 6 But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

Despite all circumstances we must believe that God is, He still exists, is there even when we don’t necessarily see Him and that He is still in the blessing and working business by rewarding those who diligently seek Him.  In Transformational Church, the writers share about our bent toward allowing life or circumstances to make us think otherwise:

“But sometimes the tendency is to focus so much on the negative that we essentially  act as if God no longer exists” (Transformational Church, p. 21)

4) Flow is fluid- spiritual life is not mapped out in blocks, it cannot be programmed or timed nor is it stiff and rigid. Like a river, spiritual flow has to rise, fall, turn, move, go over and around things. Spiritual flow changes and moves to fit the place it is given. Like liquid takes the shape of the vessel it is put in, so we to have to make a proper place for spiritual flow in our life.  Romans 12 tells us that if we are not to be like the world, but to allow ourselves to be open to God changing us into the image of Christ, the flow of the Spirit changing us as it moves through us.

2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

5) Flow can be stopped- God intends for the flow to continue, our lives are to be more like rivers of spiritual life, yet often they more imitate reservoirs. A reservoir is a place where flow stops, is backed up and is not allowed to move at its’ own pace. Reservoirs are tightly controlled places and flow can’t happen in tightly controlled places. Flow can be stopped by unbelief, rebellion, a lack of following, a hard heart, a stubborn selfishness, or too tight a control on our spiritual life, an unwillingness to allow God to change us, a fear of growth into the unknown….any way in which we purposefully resist God’s work in us.

6) Flow is meant to be a blessing- Early civilizations understood that the flow of water was a life-giving place. Early societies and towns often popped up next to rivers, canals, coastlines. These were places that allowed them fresh drinking water, a way of movement, abundant sources of food. Spiritual flow is like that- it is meant to be life-giving as God works through us.

Let’s take a look at inflow in our spiritual lives and the life of the church. We could haggle about the order of which is most important, but the important part of inflow is that these things are moving into our lives.

Inflow:

1) Worship-  Some would say that worship is outflow, something that pours out of us toward God, and I would absolutely agree. In fact there are several things that work in cycle. But in the life of the church, the community of believers, there is not much else that pumps Spiritual life and excitement into the body like worship.  Think about the meaning of corporate worship versus private worship. In corporate worship there is a joining of voices, hearts, focus and intent. What flows in as people encounter the pleasure of God at His people worshiping Him is affirmation, joy, encouragement and hope. The connection to God in worship give us a reminder that God is real, alive and well, worthy of our worship. Our private worship, those times of loving God that come in our private times are more intensely personal, but the result is the same- we are open to God, with our hearts focused on God allowing Him to shine brightly into our hearts. But corporate worship adds one key element, the secure feeling of being among those who are like-minded, believing and verbally and visibly showing their faith through worship. There is that extra bit of encouragement that comes by being together with others who are loving God as well.  It is the “cord of three strands” concept from Ecclesiastes. Look at passage below and think about how it applies to corporate worship…

9 Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up. 11 Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; But how can one be warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

The spiritual inflow of worship stops when we believe that corporate worship is meant for our pleasure or entertainment rather than connection with God.  It is hard for the Spirit of God to flow when our heart is focused on self rather than on the object of worship which is God. He alone is worthy of worship and when we give Him the honor that is due His name, we bless Him.

2 Sing out the honor of His name; Make His praise glorious. 3 Say to God, “How awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power Your enemies shall submit themselves to You. 4 All the earth shall worship You And sing praises to You; They shall sing praises to Your name.” … 8 Oh, bless our God, you peoples! And make the voice of His praise to be heard     Psalm 66

God flows through that kind of praise. If your corporate or private worship is anything other than an offering to God, then it can be seen as nothing more than a self-help exercise to make yourself happy. Those may seem like harsh words, but God will not share His honor, or His worship, with anyone else. As church leaders, how are we presenting the discipline of worship to people… as a meeting, as entertainment, or as a sacrifice, an offering that is given to the Lord?  How are we helping people to get outside of themselves to focus on God rather than on self? How are we challenging people to slow down and take the time to, in a heart-felt way, truly honor and bless the Lord?

2) Prayer- again to some this may seem like something that we dish out, but prayer in its’ most basic form is connection with God.  Jesus Christ gives us bold and confident access to the Father, He intercedes for us and that connection brings life into us… at least it should. Prayer is the place that we can bear our souls, not to complain or gripe about our life, but so that we can truly encounter God, be honest with God and allow Him to bring us help, healing, guidance and hope. That kind of inflow energizes a believer, it fills them with the good things of God, no  matter what their circumstances are on the outside.

Prayer becomes ineffective when it is dialog, us talking to God, but not listening for Him to speak to us.  Really, you can no longer classify it as prayer, since the essence of prayer of the desire to connect with God through the sacrifice of Christ. If we don’t allow God to talk  we cut ourselves off from everything that is good in prayer. Yes we may be able to get things off our chest for a moment, but nothing ever departs because we don’t allow God to replace it with any of His love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, healing…. And unfortunately this is the case all too often. Lots of talking, but no inflow in prayer. Make sure that prayer, whether personal or corporate takes time for inflow, intentionally taking time to listen and hear God. That is healthy spiritual inflow.

3) Bible study-There are times I believe that we have so overemphasized Bible study that we have made it the “first and greatest commandment”.  Bible study is both driven by and has the goal of loving God. We love God and want to discover more about who He is, how He works and how we are to live through His Spirit. It also has the goal of making us more like Christ, and more pleasing to Him, and as we learn more, falling deeper in love with God. That is the flow of Bible study, more than just learning facts, words and concepts. When we open our Bible we open ourselves to experience an inflow of truth, of righteousness, of conviction, of challenge, of hope and promise.

What inhibits spiritual inflow in Bible study is what I call dry knowledge. I have met many people over the years that are full of Bible knowledge, but very little of Jesus. They have a knowledge of Bible words, can tell you the order of the kings of the Southern Kingdom, but display no fruit of the Spirit. As leaders if we encourage people to study the Bible, we also have to share with them the goal of Bible study. As people we will naturally default to the easiest way to satisfy a standard or goal, left to our own devices, we believe the goal of Bible study is knowledge rather than life change. For many that is what we have set as the bar, “know your Bible”. But knowing our Bible does us little good unless we see and take the next step of allowing truth to flow into our lives and shape our heart into the image of Christ.

4) Fellowship- Spiritual inflow occurs as we live our Christianity out in community.  Many people see their Christianity as private, but it is meant to be anything but private, personal yes, but private no. The Bible is full of references to the corporate nature of our faith. Acts tells us that the church worshiped together, shared together, ate together, and generally supported one another, prayed for one another and ministered to one another. Inflow comes as we allow others to be an important part of our spiritual lives. God has equipped the body with a “diversity of gifts, but the same Spirit” (I Cor 12:4).  These differing gifts are meant to be a blessing to all, a way for each of us to minister to others, and when we allow others to use their gifts to bless us and help us, there is an inflow of the Spirit.

There are no self-sufficient Christians, and the belief that we don’t need others is a sign of pride. The Scriptures tell us that “God resists the proud” (James 4:6), that is another way of saying that there is no spiritual inflow for the proud!  As leaders are we encouraging the practice of fellowship, the use of spiritual gifts or are we promoting only an individualistic form of Christianity where everything is about being blessed, being fulfilled and going to heaven?  Here is another thought that constantly challenges me, as leaders are we modeling the need for others or are we trying to be completely self-sufficient?  Do you ever confess your need for others in the body of Christ?  Do you ever learn from other people in the church? Do you acknowledge the gifts of others?

If we desire our churches to have a great outflow in ministry and outreach, we have to monitor and promote the inflow into the life of the body. I love Jesus’ words in John 7 that speak to flow…

37 On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. 38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” 39 But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing  in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

There is an expectation that believers will have a great outflow, a river of living water pouring out of each believer. The Spirit overflowing and not just spilling out of our life, but flowing, moving like a river. What a beautiful picture of the life-giving Spirit flowing out of us and into others, blessing them with all the awesome things that God can accomplish in their lives. But we have to nurture the inflow, the filling of the Spirit into our lives. I pray for Jesus’ words to be fulfilled in every believer, every person with the Spirit flowing out of their heart, blessing this world with the presence and power of Jesus Christ.

High Achievement on Low Resources- Leading and Working in the Small Church

“If only”… we repeat this phrase many times in our life for many situations. If only we had a little more money, we wouldn’t be struggling so much every month. If only we had a little bigger house, we wouldn’t be so cramped. If only I had a better education, I could get that job. If only…. It is a statement of lack, of not having enough to do all that we would like to do or be all that we would like to be.

Sitting in the small church, this little two word phrase comes to mind often. If only, we had more people, money, land, resources, help, ideas, programs, children, younger couples, faithful givers…

That’s the one thing about small churches they are… small. There are a small number of people to do the work. A small budget to keep the lights on and do ministry. There is usually a small amount of property to work with. There is a small staff.  So, how does all this smallness make a big impact?  How can the small church achieve without big staffs, big money, big buildings or a big number of people?

There are thousands of small churches, for every large church or mega church, there are multiple more thousands of churches that run a hundred or less in worship. The army of small churches is large. The resources that God currently has invested in these churches is enough to expand the Kingdom of God at an amazing rate. Think of it this way for a moment- if revival were to break out in the smaller churches, the Kingdom of God would grow faster and reach farther than if it did in the larger churches. Why? There are more smaller churches. There are more people attending smaller churches. There are more locations of smaller churches (in fact smaller churches reach communities and areas where no larger churches exist).  It is simple math- the potential of the small church is great!  Here it comes though… “if only” they could/would make that kind of impact.

Below are a few key principles to make the most of what you have in the smaller church. If you are a leader, teacher or worker in a smaller church, you can and should believe that God intends to use the resources He has put into your church for great Kingdom impact.  In my previous article, “The Little Church that Could”, we made the case for everyone to believe that the smaller church can be a key part of Kingdom growth.

So, let’s stop dismissing the role of your church, no matter how big or small it may be. Let’s get past the “if only” and work with what God has invested in us. Let’s stop thinking that we have to have more before we can be a useful part of the Kingdom of God… and let’s get to work with what we have at hand and have high achievement in the smaller church.

1) Work to your strengths and on your weaknesses

Several years ago I was sitting in a breakout session at an evangelism conference when the presenter made this analogy that I will paraphrase

“The church is like a physical body, if you want the body to excel you have to shore up its’ weaknesses and take care of its’ deficiencies. You can’t excel if you are sick, you have to spend the money to get well. You can’t excel if you are malnourished, you have to go get some food.”

Now at some levels I would agree with him, but for the small church it begs the questions: where do we get the money to buy the medicine? What person will drive us to the doctor? Who is going to pay for the food?  The church, any church, great or little, mega or small, has weaknesses. There is not a church around who does not look at themselves and see areas that need to be shored up, worked on or changed.

Now in the larger church, this analogy is easy to put into practice. What we lack, we buy, we bring in a specialist, we create a new ministry.  In the smaller church we run into a whole set of problems trying to do this.

This is, I believe, one of the mistakes we make in leading a small church- putting all our time and resources into trying to fix our problems or filling in all of our holes.  When you lead a smaller church, with limited resources, use those resources to work to your strengths, don’t exhaust people’s time and energy trying to fix all that is wrong. In other words, make the most out of what you have. Do the most good with the resources God has placed in your hand. Spending all of your time, resources, energy and effort to try to fix every problem ends up accomplishing little and becomes a vicious cycle because your weaknesses and problems will never end.  Work to your strengths and on your weaknesses.

Take a look at the passage below:

I Corinthians 12   18 But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as He wanted them to be.

Right now God has strategically placed people within your body to accomplish His purpose for your church- to fulfill the Great Commission, to be Christ in your community, to minister to the ‘least of these’.  You may think that you are riddled with too many weaknesses to be effective, yet if you believe that Scripture above, God has placed the people you need in your body already. The problem may be that you are looking at the resources at hand to try to do a task that you are currently not called to do or worse, you look at the limited resources at hand and fail to try to do anything with them.

Practically what does this mean?  If you have 50 people in your congregation- you may not be called to do a big event that requires 200 people to run. But if you look at your 50 people and find their strengths, there is a lot you can do with 50 people and the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is where you have to stop looking to copy what someone else is doing and look at your 50 people as 50 of God’s servants He has placed here to do ministry.

Now as you look at your congregation, what are these folks good at?  What is it that they do well?  Maybe your church is really good at building relationships, welcoming new people but not good at confrontational evangelism. Then you need to leverage that strength by putting people in fellowship opportunities. So instead of doing a door-to-door campaign, your going to invite the neighborhood to a cookout or children’s party or a free car wash, where your folks can mingle with the community and serve them. Maybe the men in your church do not attend the men’s breakfast Bible study, but they are very handy. So instead of trying to force them to attend, contact the local council on aging and find some seniors who need handyman projects done and minister to your community.

Anyone can nitpick a congregation apart, but if you are going to lead this group in the small church, find their strengths, find their sweet spot, and use it to your advantage to build the Kingdom. It is why God has them in your church at this time.

2) Be strategic in your organization

This second point follows the first one very closely. Organize your church for ministry, not maintenance. Many smaller congregations have their time and resources drained by poor organization. They are overloaded with committee work and often the same people are on two or three different committees. If we are serious about making the smaller church effective at achieving Kingdom growth, then we have to free up our limited resources for ministry…. and what is the number one resource today- time.

Belt-tightening is often thought of when it comes to working with limited financial resources, but we don’t seem to be as good at tightening up our time resources.  With fewer people to work with, fewer servants on hand, prioritize their time to accomplish Kingdom work first.  So often the smaller church fills “key” positions first- finance committee, deacons, property committee, ushers… yet when it comes to leadership for Kingdom growth, these positions go unfilled. We seem to place a higher degree of importance on maintenance, placing people in areas of service that keep our church going, when we need to free up people’s time for participating in outreach, ministry, compassion and service to the community.

I have talked to many pastors, and have experienced it myself often, who struggle to engage people in ministry. Yet the very people we are looking for to participate in ministry are already on the property committee, taking their turn in the nursery, working in the kitchen… and then we wonder why they don’t come out on a Saturday to work at our children’s outreach event. As leaders, you have to be aware of helping your workers to prioritize their time. You cannot escape the fact that we, by the committees and teams we ask people to work on, tell them what is important. You cannot say Kingdom growth is important to us, when you have filled your workers time with maintenance work.

It is a bold step to change the organizational structure of a church, but if we are serious about achieving impact in the smaller church, the resources we have must be prioritized for the most important things… and keeping the church painted, the carpet cleaned, controlling the budget and a personnel handbook are not the priorities of the church. Would you like to stand before God as a leader and tell Him, “Look, we kept the books tight, the flowers watered, the hymnbooks in the racks, the kitchen stocked, enforced our by-laws….”.  Do we really believe that God would say, “well done good and faithful servant”?  We have to organize to bear the fruit of the Kingdom- making disciples of all nations- and use the resources He has placed in our hands for His purposes.

3) Don’t be afraid to invest what you have

Here is one thought that will free up your view of money in the small church. Stop referring to your budget as what you have “spent”, rather look at your budget as what you are going to invest in the Kingdom of God. Investment implies one thing- return. When I spend, I think of money leaving my account, never to come back. When I invest, I am looking to build on what I have.

In the smaller church where every dollar has to do the work of two dollars, spending is expensive, even small amounts of money can be seen as an issue. But if we look at our resources and see everything we do as investing, then it is not an expense, but growth. For example, your utility bill can be expensive, or we can look at it as an investment to have lights on so people can see their Bible as we study or have the heat on so people will feel comfortable attending. You can look at your literature order as expensive or as an investment in discipling your congregation. That money you need for your outreach project, can be expensive or an investment in seeing people come to know Christ as their Savior.

Whatever amount of money you have, don’t be afraid, with the leadership of the Holy Spirit, to invest it in the Kingdom of God. We can foolishly spend, but investment in the Kingdom of God always provides returns. Listen to what Jesus says to Peter:

Luke 18  28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!” 29 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come,eternal life.”

If we are stingy with our resources, believing that if we hold on to them we are better stewards, then we are spiritually mistaken. In a worldly sense, you may be right to be tight on spending and keeping what you can in reserve. But in the Kingdom of God, those who sow little into the ground reap little in return…another way of saying that if we don’t invest our resources in the Kingdom of God, we will be ineffective, and achieve little for the Kingdom of God.

2 Corinthians 9    6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

Galatians 6   9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Be creative when resources are slim, but do not use a lack of resources for an excuse not to do ministry.  With the internet and advances in technology there are a ton of resources that are free or relatively inexpensive that you can use for outreach and ministry.

www.mailchimp.com is a resource you can use for an email campaign to visitors or people in the community, creating html emails that look professional… for free.

www.vistaprint.com you can order business cards, many times for free, to distribute in the community, postcards that you can mail or any number of things, all relatively cheap

www.vflyer.com is a resource I have used to develop great looking flyers that can be emailed or printed for free.

What about staff and people?  Every smaller church would love some more staff help. Did you know that just about every seminary, Bible College or Christian College has students that are looking for experience?  Most of these students that are looking to go into ministry would love to have an opportunity to lead ministry and have something to put on their resume. Internships, and small part-time positions are appealing for these up and coming leaders. Your church an be a part of investing in the future of the Kingdom of God by hiring one of these students as an intern, paying a small stipend and giving them a title to put on their resume for the next position. You get an energetic  and willing leader, they get experience to help grow the Kingdom into the next generation.

Just because there may be fewer resources in the smaller church, does not mean there cannot be a great supernatural impact for the Kingdom of God. Being small is not an excuse nor is it a reason the church is not making progress in growing the Kingdom.  Be wise, and be good stewards of the resources God has placed in the body so that you can achieve what God has designed for you to do.

The Little Church That Could- Leading and Working in the Small Church

Our sanctuary seats about 8,000 people… and we come close to filling it twice on Sunday.

We recently bought an NBA arena to hold the 40,000 plus that attend every weekend.

We baptized over a thousand new believers this year.

We had 1,200 kids at Vacation Bible School this summer.

According to Outreach magazine, the 100 largest churches in America have a combined average attendance of over one million people each weekend.

If any of these sound familiar then you might attend one of the thousands of mega churches in the United States. These large churches dominate the Christian scene- their pastors preach at large conferences, their ministries are written about in papers both religious and secular, they are the focus of magazine articles and books, their strategies are turned into best sellers….

As Paul Harvey would say, “and now for the rest of the story”….

The Hartford Institute says that the median church in America has about 75 attenders on an any given weekend.  About 60-65% of the churches in the US have less than 100 in attendance. The majority of churches are single staff member churches, with only a senior pastor as ministerial staff working with volunteers. Most annual church budgets hover around the $100,00 mark, about the same figure as a weekly offering at the average mega church. And multiple articles tell us that the large churches keep getting larger and the small church keeps getting smaller.

The numbers, the sheer size of the mega churches, can make the “average” church pastor and congregation seem small, ineffective and sometimes, if they let it, insignificant. But there is loads of good news for the smaller church, and that is what I want to focus on in this article.  Now, this is not an article bashing the large church or complaining about the mega church or bemoaning the fact that members are leaving the small church to go to the larger churches. Let’s set the record straight, large is not bad, small is not good, we so badly need to get over the jealousy and pride and get on with doing Kingdom work and ministry.

The most common issues or problems that the smaller church runs into are:

  • limited number of workers for ministry
  • inadequate budget for ministry or additional staff
  • inability to keep up facilities to current or modern appearances
  • lack of children or youth to attract younger families
  • discouragement among the congregation

There are a lot of issues and problems facing the smaller church today, and this is meant to be the first in a series of articles that is meant to help and encourage small church leaders and members. The last point of the above list is where I would like to begin, because from what I have seen of the smaller church, discouragement is one of the largest issues facing the smaller church.

I have always liked the children’s story The Little Engine that Could. It’s a story about a train that is stranded and needs an engine to pull it over the mountain. The little blue engine takes on the task and this little single engine train has to work hard to make it over a mountain. While the train is heavy and the mountain is steep, the little engine makes it over the top by repeating the phrase “I think I can, I think I can”.  It makes for a cute and encouraging children’s story.

Unfortunately, many churches today are repeating the opposite phrase when it comes to reaching the community and experiencing growth- “I don’t think we can, I don’t think we can”.  Have talked to a couple of churches recently and this mantra, while not explicitly stated, comes through in our conversations.

“We just haven’t been able to reach people here in this area”.  “It’s hard to reach people here”.  “If only we had (people, space, workers, etc) we could grow”.  You could probably fill in your own phrase that you have heard, or said, at different times from frustrated pastors or discouraged church members.

The focus often times shifts to the larger churches in the area. “We can’t compete with what they do”.  “We can’t offer all the ministries they do”.  “They do their style of worship, our people won’t accept it”.  All of these thing are probably true for the smaller church, they probably can’t offer the full buffet menu of specialty ministries and programs of the mega church in their area. Indeed they probably can’t compete with the quality of ministries, facilities and leadership of the larger church.

But that is no excuse to excuse yourself from ministry or to sit in a pity party about what you can’t do and they can.

As a confession, this is where I get very frustrated with the smaller church sometimes. It seems when we talk about growth or reaching the community, we are quick with an excuse, a reason why we don’t penetrate the darkness of our communities, when in reality, the small church has access to every resource they need.  Sometimes what is required first is an attitude adjustment to be more like The Little Engine That Could.

Rather than looking at all that is not, all that you don’t have… turn 180° and see what it is that you do have.

1) God expects us to believe for great things…

At one time, your church was birthed with a vision, a purpose from the Lord to expand His Kingdom, penetrate the darkness of your community and make disciples of all nations. Now over the years, people change, facilities may change, numbers of people and sizes of budgets may get smaller, even locations may change, but the basic purpose of the church does not.

You are meant to see all these things accomplished- see the community blessed by God’s presence in you, watch lives change as people embrace Jesus as their Savior, minister to the ‘least of these’.  If your vision has been diminished to something less than this, maybe your vision is now to try to survive, to hold onto your past, to keep the doors open and the heat on… then you need to hear God’s call to you all over again because God never called the church to merely survive, but to thrive under His guidance and with His power.

In the Book of Numbers the people were about to experience a great blessing from God, their own land, their own inheritance of a land flowing with milk and honey. Think of it as your church incorporating new believers from your community and seeing God pour out blessings one upon another, seeing that God-given vision fulfilled.  But the people rejected the possibility that God could work, could overcome the people of the land, and refused to move forward. Listen to how the people reacted to encouragement to believe God could fulfill the vision of a new land…

Numbers 14  7 and they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: “The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, ‘a land which flows with milk and honey.’  9 Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them.” 10 And all the congregation said to stone them with stones.

Now God responds to the disbelief of the people…

Numbers 14   10 And all the congregation said to stone them with stones. Now the glory of the Lord appeared in the tabernacle of meeting before all the children of Israel. 11 Then the Lord said to Moses: “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them? 12 I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”

Because the people refused to believe that God could, that God would be on their side, God was insulted and grieved at their questioning of His character. Hear that and let that sink in. When we say, “we can’t”, “it can’t happen”, “we could never do that”, “we’re just a small church”…. we aren’t saying anything about us other than we lack faith, but we are making a large statement about the God we serve- we are saying God is not strong enough, powerful enough, loving enough, to make it happen.  God does not like that, not one bit.  God expects us to believe Him, believe that He is all that He says He is and is willing to work to accomplish the vision He places in us.

The Little Engine that Could only had one advantage- He believed. He wasn’t the biggest engine, the strongest engine, the latest model, but he believed. You may not be the biggest church, have the latest technology, the most workers, but you can believe. If we take God out of the equation, then we can only expect things as big as we are, and that leaves the smaller church believing very little. Take a fresh look at who God is and expand your vision to include the “God-factor”.

2) God is at work to accomplish His work…

Hear Jesus’ words…

John 5  17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.”

The smaller church often looks at their numbers and says that we are few. They look at the same people working three or four positions, and says we don’t have enough.  We feel like our position is to work for God, and because we don’t have all the people we feel like we need to accomplish the work, we have failed or fallen short in pleasing God.

No matter the size of the church, we don’t work for God, but with God. It takes on a whole different feel when we see ourselves as God’s fellow workers, rather than those trying to finish an assigned task for God. We don’t dig the ditch for God, God has a shovel right along side us digging away. We don’t teach a class for God, the Holy Spirit is right there teaching the hearts of people right along with you giving you words to say and open hearts to receive and wisdom for them to understand. We don’t witness for God, God is there revealing Himself to the lost.

John 15  26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.

I love this passage.  Look at it again, who is the first witness?  Who is the first to testify of Jesus’ life, death, burial and resurrection?  It is not us. It says that “you also” will bear witness– the Spirit is the primary worker, we are the “also”. To work with God means that no matter the church size, God is the primary worker and we need to believe that He is working, and we also have to get busy working alongside Him.

No matter what the task is at hand for the smaller church, we are not working alone and we are not working as a smaller church, but as co-workers with a big God.

The Little Engine that Could did what other trains did not do. Unless we have a vision for God working alongside us, we will give up and give over to discouragement that says we few in this little church cannot. Yet if we see God at work in our community, if we can catch the vision that God is seeking out the lost, comforting the grieving, healing the hurting… and this is already happening around you, it opens us up to believe that no matter how many we are, we are laboring with the one who can do all things. God is working, He is doing His part. Do we believe it?  Can we see it?  What will we do about it?

3) Faith without works, kills the smaller church…

I have rarely run into a church that does not claim it wants to grow. Most churches know the rhetoric, we want to reach people for Christ.  Yet, and painfully so, few are doing the hard work to reach people.

Believing that God can work, is one part of the equation. God wants us to believe and will work in us. Jesus said on several occasions that He worked in accordance with the faith of the people…

Matthew 9  28 And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him. And Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” 29 Then He touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith let it be to you.”

Matthew 15  28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Faith pleases God (Heb 11:6), but it is faith that leads to action that truly changes things. Unfortunately we have often confused rhetoric with faith. Rhetoric, knowing the right phrases to say and the right words to use, is not faith. Saying that you want to reach people is rhetoric, actually sharing Christ with the lost is faith. Saying that you believe your church can make a difference is rhetoric, taking your Saturday morning to feed the hungry is faith. We could go on and on, because we all have heard the rhetoric, it sounds good around the church, it makes us feel better because we are saying the right things and we feel like we believe the right things. This is particularly true in churches where very little is happening.

Filling the smaller church with rhetoric and the right words has also made them complacent and ineffective.  It seems that we have emphasized that right beliefs are more important than right actions. As long as we believe the right things, and can say the right things in church, than we are alright with God… right?. James tells us a different story…

James 2  15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by myworks. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe–and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?

What kills most smaller churches is a lack of doing. “We are old”. “We’ve tried things in the past”.  And so we excuse ourselves from doing and fall back on the fact that we believe the right things. Yet if we don’t do, our faith is dead. It is why many smaller churches are referred to as dying churches. There is a lack of doing, a lack of actual ministry. Read the Great Commission again, “Go and make disciples…”, notice it has no asterisk attached. There is no disclaimer about the size of your church or budget or location. The Christian faith is a doing faith, a working faith, a faith that requires ministry and giving and sharing and praying and touching… and it dies when it is left on the bookshelves and in the pews and in the words of people.

The Little Engine that Could didn’t make it up the mountain because it said the right things. It encouraged itself with the right words “I think I can, I think I can”, but it accompanied its’ words with work, hard work. Work that caused sweat and used up energy and caused strain. The smaller church cannot die for a lack of trying, for a lack of doing ministry. Maybe you can’t do everything the mega church can, but so what. At this point God has not called you to do all those things, but it should not stop you from doing work, the hard work that you can do. Size does not stop you from witnessing to the lost. Size does not stop you from working in your community. Size does not stop you from working with God to comfort the hurting or feeding the hungry.

I like what Steve Sjogren says in his book Conspiracy of Kindness, that too many churches are stuck on Ready, Aim… but never Fire. We talk a good talk, talk about what we should do, but never do it. In the words of Nike, “Just Do It”. Get to the work at hand.

The smaller church often says it cannot get enough workers… lets close this article with this thought.

How many of you in the smaller church does it take to make a difference?  One, two, three?  Taking into consideration that God is already working, that we can believe that God wants to do great things…. start with you. If no one will go with you, don’t worry, God is with you. If no one else will help, God will help. If you are waiting for consensus, if you are waiting for everyone to believe like you do, if you are waiting until everyone gets up to work beside you… you will watch the smaller church die a slow, agonizing death. There are thousands of smaller churches that God is wanting to work through… to be the engine to the Little Church that Could, to climb that mountain of reaching into the darkness and growing the Kingdom of God, to climb the mountain out of the valley of ineffectiveness to the peak of joy in serving with God, to climb the mountain out of discouragement and disillusionment, and to the heights of seeing God do great things in your midst.

God bless the smaller church….

Spiritual Leadership Principles for Every Christian

Leadership….  what we all need, but no one thinks they are qualified to give.  Ask what qualities most people see or want in a leader…

Knowledge and wisdom

Integrity and honesty

Vision and ideas that inspire people

Engaging personality, a person that most people admire and are drawn to

Strength to make tough decisions, and the ability to handle crisis situations

Now, ask the average person if they possess these qualities and they will say no to some or even all of them.  It follows in their thinking then, that they are not leaders. “I’m not really cut out for that.” “I’m not really leader material, I’ll help, but don’t put me in charge.”

John Maxwell said that “everything rises and falls on leadership”, and there is a lot of truth to that. Our culture, and in particular our churches and homes, are suffering from a lack of the kind of leadership we really need, spiritual leadership.  Not just the top down kind of leadership that most people think about, but the significant role of every Christian to be a spiritual leader to the people around them. The question is what kind of leadership are we giving.  Notice, I said giving, not getting. It is easy for everyone to point the finger at the leader, be it the boss, the pastor, the parent, or the president.   But not everyone wants to embrace their role as a leader.

“I’m not a leader”… is no excuse for not showing spiritual leadership!  Being a spiritual leader, a person who leads others to grow closer to Jesus Christ and deeper in the Spirit has little, or most of the time nothing, to do with a position of leadership.  Read that again and remember, spiritual leadership is not about a position or a title, it is about showing the Holy Spirit through your life so that you help others, that is leading others, to  grow closer to Jesus Christ and have a positive impact on others growing up in Jesus Christ. What I want to explore today is how each of us can take up our mantle of spiritual leadership.

It seems that the one thing that we have become good at in today’s society is making excuses- it’s my parents fault, it’s society’s fault, it’s the government’s fault, it’s my dogs fault…. anytime something goes wrong, we look to point the finger. Unfortunately that has bled into the church as well.  We look at the state of the church today and everyone wants to talk about how bad things have gotten in society, how evil the world is or how anti-Christian the media is, yet we have to heed the words of the apostle Peter…

I Peter 4  15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter. 17 For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?

Notice that Peter says that judgment, God’s truthful measure of what is right and wrong, begins with us, His people… not the rest of the world, not the media, not atheists, not muslims. Excuses would point a finger elsewhere, God’s eye however He is looking for each one of us, each follower of Jesus Christ, not to see what our latest excuse is, but to see how each of us are leading spiritually, helping move forward and upward the cause of the Gospel of Christ.

I like Benjamin Franklin’s quote on excuses…

“I have yet to meet a man who is good at making excuses who is good for much of anything else.”

I am fearful that the church has started to fall into the not “good for much of anything else” category. Why? Well, first, its’ not God’s fault!  We have a God that is desiring and able to make the church strong, healthy and effective at impacting society. We have a Savior that is able to cleanse the sins of the worst sinner. We have a Spirit that is able to break down every stronghold, overcome every evil and penetrate every heart. We have lots of Christians, lots of church buildings, lots of church services, lots of a lot of things… so why are we not moving forward in the Kingdom of God in our homes, marriages and churches?  A lack of leadership. A lack of God’s people leading others toward Christ or a deeper relationship with Christ.

Every Christian can be the leader the Kingdom of God has designed them to be, however we first have to embrace a few things to be the…

* Christian leader to our spouse that God desires us to be

* Christian leader as a parent that our children need

* Christian leader to our co-workers that your company has to have

* Christian leader to our fellow church members to help us all make a positive impact

So, how can a person show Christian leadership?  Don’t you have to have a position “up the ladder” or a position that everyone recognizes?  Don’t you have to be an extrovert that talks all the time? Again (and again) the answer is no… being a spiritual leader is not a positional thing, no one votes you into being a spiritual leader, you are a spiritual leader by your nature of being a Christian- that is a person who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and a follower of Jesus Christ. Being a spiritual leader is not a function of your personality- spiritual leaders can be introverts, extroverts, reverts or whatever other -vert your personality make up may be.

First, remember that this is spiritual leadership… not leadership by personality or knowledge or force or education. The Holy Spirit of God, who dwells in each believer, is what makes you capable and able as a spiritual leader.  To say that you are not a leader is not a comment on your personality as much as it is a comment on what you believe the Holy Spirit can do.  We often talk about God working in us- to heal us, help us, bless us, lead us… but I truly believe that God desires more than to just work in us, filling us with one blessing after another. God desires to work through us, to be a person that He can work through to have a positive impact on the world and lead others closer to Him. Don’t be overly concerned with what you don’t have or feel like you lack in, focus your attention upon what God can do and the fact that He can do those things through you.

Leadership principle for every Christian:   God is working through my life to touch the lives of others and lead them to be close to Him.

Second, spiritual leadership has to do with character, not power.  Our world works under the powers that are in control- government, military, financial institutions or on a smaller scale your boss, your CEO.  To the world, power is leadership and leadership is power. If we take this principle into the spiritual realm, then we must have to be a powerful person in order to be a leader. Our leader, Jesus, said that He was meek, He was a servant, He came to serve many, He came to give His life away… He was powerful, just not in the worldly sense. We too can be powerful. Powerful in Spirit to say no to temptation. Powerful to give our time to serve others rather than taking it all for ourselves. Powerful to give to the less fortunate rather than buying another toy we really don’t need.  We may not see these acts as powerful, in fact some in the world would say it is a sign of weakness, but it shows a strength of character to say yes to the Spirit. When you do, you lead the people around you to see another direction for life, another way to live besides the pressure the world exerts on them each day.

Leadership principle for every Christian:  I can be a powerful person, not because of my personality or position, but by using the choices I make everyday to follow Christ to lead others to be closer to Him.

Thirdly, spiritual leadership is living under the right authority.  “It’s lonely at the top” refers to the lofty singular position the world puts leaders in, and that is not what many of us think we want for ourselves. Because worldly leaders are the decision-makers and authorities, they are separated and have to be self-sufficient to survive.  Most of us don’t fit or don’t want to fit that category. But spiritual leadership is not the same. In spiritual leadership we work under the authority of God, with the urging and equipping of the person of the Holy Spirit. There is no loneliness in spiritual leadership. Listen the words of a centurion addressing the spiritual leadership of Jesus…

Matt 8  7 And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!

“Under authority”, the centurion understood that Jesus was not alone and He had companionship for the task given to Him and the one Jesus served had the power to command whatever He wished. We too have to know that what we do in the Kingdom, in our families, in our workplaces, in our church, are not “lonely” activities, but done with and through the Holy Spirit.

Leadership principle for every Christian:  I am not alone as I lead others closer to Christ, but wherever I go and whatever I do, it is under the presence and authority of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, I will not fear the times God allows me to show His grace, forgiveness and power, but I will embrace them as an opportunity to lead others closer to Jesus Christ.

Trust God, focus on others. Spiritual leadership is a demonstration of trust in God to take care of us, so we can give ourselves away to serve and lead others. The world teaches us to take care of #1 (notice number one is never anyone but yourself!).  That kind of attitude demonstrates the great insecurity the world lives under- “if I don’t take care of me, no one will”, “trust no one but yourself”, “no one cares/understands/knows me”, “I have to achieve/earn/take so that I have what I want”.  You cannot lead anyone when you are consumed with caring for yourself, blessing yourself and trying to get for yourself.  Leadership, by nature, is something done on behalf of and for the benefit of others.  As spiritual leaders in your home, your workplace or in your church, we should trust God to care for us in our relationships, monetarily, physically, so we can feel free and unhindered to give ourselves away.   Listen to how Paul puts this principle in 2 Corinthians 9

8 And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. 9 As the Scriptures say, “Godly people give generously to the poor. Their good deeds will never be forgotten.” 10 For God is the one who gives seed to the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will give you many opportunities to do good, and he will produce a great harvest of generosity in you. 11 Yes, you will be enriched so that you can give even more generously. And when we take your gifts to those who need them, they will break out in thanksgiving to God.

Leadership principle for every Christian:  I believe that God will supply and support me so that I can feel free to give of myself to lead and serve others so that they draw closer to God. The more I believe God provides for me, the less I try to take from others and the more I give to others.

God has qualified you as a spiritual leader and placed you specifically in your spot- in your workplace, your home, your church- to be a person who helps others draw closer to Christ, to be a leader. You don’t need a lofty position, you just have to be open to allow God to work with and through you.

I heard a story once about a lady who was distressed about her workplace. She was upset because she was the only Christian there and the people she worked with were kind of crude and very “worldly”.  She decided to talk to her pastor about her problem, convinced that she would be told to leave this evil place and go somewhere more suited for her faith. Upon sharing with her pastor all of her difficulties, her pastor responded…

“I am so excited for you!”

“But I am in a lousy place… and there are people all around me who are doing and talking about all kinds of things I don’t like”

“But you are in the perfect place…”

“I can’t be, I am the only Christian there. I don’t have any support…”

“You are the spiritual leader of your workplace. Who else in that company is going to show them the love of Christ?  Who else is going to be there to pray for them? Who else has knowledge of how to get to heaven, how to live with God, how to live a purposeful life in Jesus Christ?  You are their spiritual leader.”

That truth applies to all of us, we are someone’s spiritual leader. Don’t let your home, your workplace or your church suffer from a lack of spiritual leadership. It is up to each of us to take up our mantle of leadership, where we are, in whatever position we are in.  Don’t wait for the people with the titles and the status, be the spiritual leader for those God has placed around you.

10 Principles to Keep Your Marriage Fresh

Nicholas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley… married 5 months

Kenny Chesney and Renee Zellweger… married 4 months

Carmen Electra and Dennis Rodman… married 9 days

Brittany Spears and Jason Alexander… married 2 days and 7 hours

Ok, so maybe these are not the best examples of a long marriage. Well they are hardly examples of marriage at all. In this short amount of time you could barely remember each others birthday, much less bond and grow deeply in love.

This past month my wife and I celebrated 18 years of marriage, and yes 18 great years of marriage. Now not all those 18 years were great, there have been some very difficult years in our finances, jobs and the like, but in spite of what life has thrown at us, there have been 18 great years of marriage. Over those years, I have learned a lot about being in a long-term dedicated relationship, which is surprising considering that I was not exactly the marrying type in my younger years. In fact, before I got married I had not been faithful to one single relationship I ever had. Told a lot of girls I loved them, swore up and down they were the only one… sounds like the lyrics to a country song… but I lied. I enjoyed the freedom of doing whatever I wished, the thought of being “tied down” did not greatly appeal to me.

God changed that in me when I came to know Jesus Christ as my savior, my selfishness turned to a desire to love someone the way I saw my mom and dad love one another. They provided me a great example of a loving, dedicated couple. That is something I deeply desire to pass along. In a day and age when marriage is not as celebrated as it once was, is held in disdain by many, when life long love is laughed at by some, and thought to only be a foolish fantasy by others, I love to see dedicated love celebrated.  There is so little of it in the world today, people move between relationships like they change cell phones, looking for a new model every few years.

So how do you keep a marriage fresh?  How does a marriage relationship, a love partnership, last in a time when there is great pressure to get your own way, exert your own rights and not tolerate any shortcomings of your mate?  I would not consider myself to be a counselor, a psychiatrist or a therapist, just a man who loves God and after 18 years still desires to be the best husband my wife could hope for.

So in no particular order, here is what I have learned about keeping a marriage fresh

1) Know this is about love, not needs

So many people are looking for love today- just watch TV. Companies are making a killing hooking people up in relationships- eHarmony, Match.com and others fill the airways promising that you can find that special person to “make your life complete”.  First, I really don’t like the implication that you are somehow less than a complete person if you are not married. Secondly, it makes for a bad marriage if the other person is constantly having to make up for your deficiencies. The Bible says that we are complete in Christ only…

Col 2  8 Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily;10 and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.

Since we are complete in Christ, a marriage is about loving one another, not getting what you want. There are several inherit problems with looking for your mate to give you what you want or need. First, they will disappoint you. Second, two imperfect people cannot make each other perfect. Third, you put tremendous stress and pressure on your spouse to keep you supported and fulfilled. So if I am looking for my mate to meet my needs, when do I have time to be constantly meeting their needs- it creates a never-ending impossible cycle.

However, if this is about love, several great things follow. I will want to help my spouse, not compelled or guilted into meeting their needs or fulfilling their desires. My spouse will recognize my support as love, not manipulation to get what I want later. We will work together, not just as separate individuals hoping that someone can make me feel better, but there will be a synergy where together we can do more and be more than we can apart. To keep a marriage fresh you can’t bog down the relationship with one person or both people hoping that the other can meet the impossible standard of meeting all my needs.

A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person. Mignon McLaughlin

2) Seek to bless, not whine

This second principle follows the first very closely. In many couples one of the spouses may feel unfulfilled because there is that desire in them for their spouse to meet their needs, and when they fail… whining follows.  Whining is a result of being self-centered, the belief that the world around us, in a marriage our spouse, owes us something and we better get it. Rita Rudner, a comedian, once said, “marriage is finding that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life.”  Not exactly what God had in mind. Now realistically, if a marriage works properly, your spouse does have an obligation, to love you, encourage you, be your help-mate, and work with you through times of difficulty. However, there is a difference between seeing that as a part of a loving relationship, and demanding it as a boss would from an employee.

Your mindset cannot be, “what can I get out of this relationship”. If that is you, you are a taker. A taker is a person who drains the other person dry emotionally, spiritually and in some cases financially… and when the well runs dry, they complain that their spouse does not do enough for them. Takers are toxic to a marriage.  If that is the case, you are doomed for disappointment and if carried far enough, marriage failure.

Instead, don’t sit back and wait for your spouse to fulfill you, seek to be a blessing to them.  The Bible tells us that God has designed us to be givers- do good and share, bless one another, encourage one another, and many other things we are supposed to do for one another.  A marriage that is fresh will be with two people who desire more to bless one another than to whine about what the other is not doing for them.
Whining does not encourage your spouse, you may guilt them into doing something for you, but at what cost? With what motivation?

3) Speak well always, not gossip

This has got to be my number one pet peeve when it comes to a married couple.  Simply put, do not talk down about your spouse in public.  It seems like everyone likes to complain, and when one person starts, others have to top how awful their life is or how bad their situation is or how disappointing their spouse is. Now some people would say that this is just innocent talk, just banter at the water cooler or just identifying with their co-workers or friends.  But innocent talk gets repeated, repeated talk develops attitudes and attitudes turn into stances or strongholds.

If your conversations with your friends, co-workers, neighbors or church family are always of a negative nature about your spouse, guess what people will begin to believe about your spouse- negative things.  That’s when those strange conversations take place- “well your husband said that you were struggling at work”… you think, well when did he say that and what did he mean?  “Your wife says that you have trouble controlling the kids”.  You begin to wonder what else your wife has said about your parenting.  Then trouble ensues.

I have made it a principle to never talk about my wife in a negative way in front of people. First I feel like it is a betrayal of trust. If I have a problem with something she is doing, I need to talk to her about it, not the rest of the world. Secondly I expose her to ridicule with others by opening up her faults and waving them in front of others to see and hear. It doesn’t matter whether I am around other men who are complaining about their wives, that does not give me permission to run her into the ground as well.   Neither one of those things are an expression of love, neither do they help build trust and encourage openness between spouses.  If a spouse feels like every mistake they make is going to be trotted before their friends and planted like a billboard in front of their life, the likelihood of a strong, close, open relationship takes strong downward turn.

To keep a marriage fresh your spouse has to believe that you will be there for them, not looking for some juicy bit of gossip to pass along.  They need to believe that you will love them through their faults and problems, not denigrate them in front of your friends.  Speak well of your spouse and it will build confidence and intimacy in your relationship.

4) Surprise and improvise, not just routine

Mother’s day weekend 2002… my wife was fascinated with the new PT Cruisers that had come out. The car was a little out of our price range to buy, but not out of my price range to rent for a weekend.  It was one of those presents that made her happy, made a memory for her. She would have loved a sweater or nice smelling bath products, she would have enjoyed any number of her favorite things. But every once in a while, you need to be a little surprising, and driving around in a cobalt blue PT Cruiser for the weekend was a hit. It was one of those little things that keeps it fresh and exciting along with a little wonder in the relationship.

Routine is a great thing, it is dependable, comforting, and familiar, but a little razzle dazzle is also a good thing!  I love the fact that she has no idea what I will come up with for a present for her. I love the fact that she can’t guess what it will be.  How do you do this? Listen. Pay attention to the little things you hear in conversations, while you are watching TV or at the mall. File those things away, and pull one out every so often and pull a surprise. This is one place that knowing your spouse’s love language can be important. Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages is a terrific study and helpful to know how your spouse feels love.

The point is to keep up expressions of love, in small surprising ways. Some people think that only the big things count- a weekend trip, a big diamond ring… but it is the small, spontaneous, unexpected things that keep a marriage fresh. I knew of one man who every week sent his wife flowers at work on Friday. She loved it, she loved getting them, she felt loved.  We were talking about this and he was worried that he was keeping this up, but that it was growing old. So I made a simple suggestion, rather than having them delivered to her office, why don’t you take a half a day off, deliver them yourself and take her to lunch.  It was a big hit, she was surprised, he was happy that she was so excited.  Those kinds of things keep a relationship from losing its’ edge.

5) See beauty, not faults

It’s easy to see the faults in others. Jesus mentioned this when he said to take care of the plank in your own eye before you pointed out the speck in your brothers eye.  We are filled with faults, physical ones, emotional ones and even spiritual ones. Yet a marriage can never be built by trying to fix the faults in your spouse.

Many stories have been told of spouse who marry someone figuring that they will “fix” their spouse along the way. Now, what would it sound like if we said that out loud. “Yes, I’ll marry you, but I’ll need to fix some things about your personality and get you to lose a little weight in order for you to really be right for me.”  What happens after three or four years when they still have those personality quirks and they have gained a few pounds- resentment. No matter how much beauty there is in someone, fault finders will always resent the other person not changing to their liking. And by the way, a person who is a fault-finder will always find faults to fix, it is a cycle that never completes and does not have a happy ending.

On the other hand, a person who looks for beauty in their spouse will assume, know and not be surprised or disappointed in the faults of their spouse. Why?  Because we all have them. If we all have faults, and you can’t build a marriage on fixing faults, look for the beauty in your spouse. I tell my wife that she is the prettiest woman I have ever seen, that I can find her in a crowded room by simply looking for the most beautiful woman there.  Because in my eyes, there is not a more beautiful woman. Do I care what others might think? No. Do I care if someone else thinks that blondes are more beautiful? No.  In my eyes, when I look at her, she captures my attention like no other.

I find beauty in who she is, in all the good things that she does, and all the good qualities that she has. Could I sit down and pick her apart and make her feel bad for things that she does wrong, yes. Could she do the same to me, yes. But what good would that do. What would that accomplish but to build mistrust and tear down the others self-worth. I want her to know that she is not just special, but priceless, irreplaceable.  A few years ago for our anniversary I sat down a wrote out a David Letterman Top 10 list… but this list was the top 10 reasons I loved my wife. Some of them were kind of cute, some had to do with how she was with our kids, some has to do with her Christian walk, but all of them pointed out her beauty, the inner beauty and her outer beauty.  She keeps that by her bedside.

More marriages might survive if the partners realized that sometimes the better comes after the worse.  ~Doug Larson

6) Find ways to serve, not expect service

Jesus said that He came to the earth not to be served, but to serve (Matt 20:28). Now if the King of Kings, the one who is truly worthy of all service, came to this earth and served us, we certainly are called and commanded to serve one another, and that includes a marriage.  To serve your spouse may seem to some a very old-fashioned concept, not very empowering  and downright offensive to others. But, if we don’t have a heart to serve our spouse, what options are left?  The option, and one that we see among many today, is that we are here to be served, taken care of.  That attitude first of all is not a Christian attitude. To set yourself up in the high place, expecting service, does not come from the Holy Spirit.

A heart to serve your spouse is not a sign of weakness, but love.  Serving one another by helping your spouse advance in their career, doing the wash when it is not your turn, taking the kids out to eat so your spouse can have a little quiet time- these are not weak moments, but strong moments of selfless love.  Remember what Paul tells us in Galatians…

Gal 5  13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature rather, serve one another in love.

A marriage that is fresh will be one where both spouses seek to serve one another out of love.  Don’t worry about it being one-sided. “Well, what if they don’t serve me like I serve them?”  Then you are not really serving out of love, but out of manipulation. Selfless service gives because it wants to, not looking for what it will get back. (read Luke 14:11-14 for what Jesus says about serving others who do not and cannot repay you)

7) Flexibility- either roll with the punches or run into a wall

Life tends to be very unforgiving. Difficulties of many types will beset your marriage finances, job loss, medical problems- and your relationship needs to be flexible enough to change to meet the times you are in. For the first years we were married I was in school, getting my Masters degree, my wife worked and supported us.  Then I graduated and got a job, our income increased our responsibilities increased, we had more money and had to be responsible with what we had. Then came kids, we adopted 2 boys, and man did life change then. As a couple we had to adjust to different responsibilities, less time together, less freedom.

Flexibility allows a marriage to stay fresh and close as life changes around you. The other option is to allow each episode in life to cause problems, to complain about a lack of time together or a lack of money or having to be tied down with the kids.  I watched my parents relationship change when my mom got sick. They couldn’t travel anymore or do the things they were doing in retirement, but they were flexible, made the best of the situation and continued to love one another through life’s challenges.

As life changes, you have to adapt. Why do many relationships end after a job loss, the arrival of a child, financial issues… because one partner could not adapt to the new reality. A relationship cannot be fresh if you have one partner who resents your bills, the fact you can’t afford what you could afford two years ago, constantly complains about your change in schedule, and so on. That kind of complaining and inflexibility can demoralize your spouse, who can feel like they have failed you somehow. No, your relationship will not be like it was. The point is to be flexible enough to make it better no matter what has taken place.

Here’s the question… do you truly love your spouse or do you love the lifestyle you live?  My spouse needs to know that I love her, and am flexible enough to love her as life changes.

A wedding anniversary is the celebration of love, trust, partnership, tolerance and tenacity. The order varies for any given year. Paul Sweeney

8) Money is a tool, not who rules

Ah, now to money. The number one cause of marital break up is issues relating to money- who makes it, how to spend it, bills to pay and so forth. This principle is very simple- take care of your money, don’t think your money takes care of you. When money becomes king in a household, that house is headed for trouble. Why? Isn’t money important? Frankly, no. Money doesn’t make me love my wife, money didn’t make me fall in love with her and most of all money isn’t the God who led me to marry her. Money is a tool in our hands, not the crown and scepter that have authority over my marriage.

Perspective is everything here.  The money that you make is a blessing from God, He is the one who gives you “power to get wealth” (Deut 8:18).  It is unfortunate that the very thing God intends as a blessing to us, we turn into a destructive force to split apart marriages and families.  I have lived through very tough times financially, very lean times where we could not afford to do much other than barely pay our bills and eat at home. Just like with other things we have talked about, this is a choice.  Choose a money policy for your marriage- how will you make large financial decisions, give yourselves an allowance to each have some spending money, how often will you go out to eat and so on. Stick to it. But most of all, remember, the reason you got married was not to get rich or because you thought it made good financial sense… at least I hope not… you got married because you were in love. To keep a marriage fresh, money has to serve you, not you serve your money.  Whether you have a little or a lot, make a conscious decision that money will never come between you and your spouse.

9) Talk is gold, not cheap

Communication- the second biggest reason that couples end up splitting… they don’t communicate. Now guys, I know that some of us are not great at “communicating our feelings”, and this is not meant to make you feel less than manly, but you have to open up to your spouse. Ladies, talking to your girlfriends about your husband is not the same as having good communication with your husband.

Good communication is born out of trust.  Trust your spouse enough to talk, about more than the weather, politics or what is happening at work. Talk about how you see things in life, talk about how God is working in your life, talk about what you are praying for, talk about how things make you feel, talk about your past, talk about your fears, your dreams… just talk. Some would say that talk is cheap, that action is the only thing that counts. To keep a marriage fresh, to keep it up-to-date, your communication has to keep up with where you are as a person. If you are feeling stress, don’t wait until it boils over into an action that you will regret. Talk it out, share how you are feeling, so that if the stress does get to you and you do boil over, at least your spouse will know where you are coming from. Good communication will lead to fewer problems, and if you do have a problem, easier and quicker solutions.

10) Two become one, not three or four

One of the most basic scriptures in the Bible that talks about marriage comes from Genesis 2

23 And Adam said: “This is now bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

The idea is that in marriage the two people, the male and the female, are joined in a union by God in which they become one.

This same idea is carried over into our salvation. Listen to what Paul says in I Corinthians 6. He is teaching on righteousness, that a righteous person cannot be joined to unrighteousness, because He is one with the Lord.

15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.

These are the only relationships that we, inside, become one with. Our spouse and God. Outwardly we become one with the body of Christ, but inwardly it is God and our spouse. These are the two closest and dearest and important relationships we have. Now let me be very blunt here… you do not become one with your children and no they are not a more important relationship that your marriage relationship. Too many today have this completely backwards, we become one with our children and put our spouse on the back-burner.  The best thing you can do for your children is to show them a strong, healthy, loving and fresh marriage relationship.

If you are too busy with your kids to have time and energy to be intimate with your spouse, it is your kids who have to give, not your spouse. If you are too emotionally drained from dealing with children to be supportive of your spouse, then it is time to prioritize who you give your emotional energy to. Is it hard to do this?  No. As someone has so rightly said, “my kids are with me for 20 years, I have to live with my spouse for a lifetime.”  Yet too many marriages are sent into near disrepair because one or both spouses are too focused on children, and ignore the very person that they are one with.

To keep a marriage fresh, keep your priorities right- God and spouse, those that you are one with, those that your heart and spirit are joined to, the relationships that will help you keep all other relationships strong… then your kids.

May your marriage be a blessed place of freshness and life. If you are looking for a spouse, may these things energize you and encourage you to build a lasting marriage.  God’s best to all.

Church Growth vs. A Church Grown

You’re Fired! Donald Trump’s final words to tell someone that they are not successful.  Disappointing because we love the feeling of success, to find that place in our life or in our career or in our family where we have arrived, accomplished something. In the world of reality shows, games shows and sports however,  there is only one winner. One successful person or team. Maybe that’s why we are constantly driven to comparison- am I better, more successful than the guy next door. “Keeping up with the Jones'” has been replaced with “Being just a little bit better than the Jones”.

Everyone wants to feel like they are successful, even in church. Many people join a church because it is big, many pastors want to pastor a church because it is big. Bigger is better. More is better. Fancier is better. We are in some ways consumed with this idea of comparison in the church as well- which is bigger, better, more successful.   Christians compare themselves against others to see how they measure up. Churches compare themselves with other churches, and are often critical of the ones they feel are more “successful” than they are.

The church world has had volumes written on church growth, enough I’m sure to have plugged the BP oil spill.  I have read a lot of these books, on methodologies, on programs, on strategies, on leadership, on organization, and for the most part they have been pretty good books filled with stories of how the authors particular idea worked in their setting.  We like that. We like neat ideas, easy to understand and implement. We like the plug and play kind of approach to things. That is how the world works today, plug it in, switch it on, and there you go, all the benefits, bells, whistles, lights and features you could want…. so that is the way the church should work as well…. right?  Just plug in the right program, organization, methodology and it works, we grow, we are successful and everyone is happy….right?

Now this is not, I repeat not, a blog blasting church growth- in fact I am all in favor of seeing a church grow!  But what is the source of our church growth? What do we believe will ultimately make a church grow? What do we trust to make the engine of church growth rev up?

Church Growth

Talk to any person in church leadership and ask them if they would like to see their church grow– and almost everyone (because we are talking church here and someone will disagree just to be disagreeable)  would say that they really want their church to grow.  Now, ask them how they expect their church to grow and your answers would be many, but the majority of them would boil down to a smaller list of a few things:

  • Good children’s ministry
  • A great music program
  • Bible preaching
  • Relevant to the culture
  • Dynamic youth ministry
  • Knocking on doors, being evangelistic
  • Having a loving church family

All these are great things.  And for the most part, will be seen in a church that is growing. Now some churches will have several things on the list- great music and a dynamic worship service and showing love to the community.  Great! All great things.  Other churches may not have great music, but are passionately evangelistic. In Josh Hunt’s book Make Your Group Grow (which I will review in the coming weeks), he mentions a pastor who had doubled the church he was serving. When asked to describe the music, he said “yeah, it’s not only traditional, it’s bad traditional. Yeah, bad, like bad. The piano isn’t in tune….”. When asked how his church doubled, it was visitation. Visiting families, knocking on doors.

Now some would read this and argue that you can’t grow a church without contemporary, edgy, music. Some would say that pianos and organs are a death knell for a church.  Well apparently old traditional, excuse me, bad traditional music can be played and a church can still grow in El Paso, Texas.

That is something that I see when we talk about church growth, it is very focused on the how.  Read about church growth and everyone is enamored with the how- how did you do it?  How did you reach young adults?  How did you develop your children’s program?  How did you recruit workers?  How did you change your music style without splitting the church?

Here is what I am driving at, the discussion of church has for many boiled down to the kind of church you are, the kind of organization you are or the label that you wear.

  • Contemporary
  • Purpose Driven
  • Conservative
  • Attractional (event/worship service emphasis)
  • Organic (still working on how to define that)
  • Emergent
  • Traditional
  • Family Oriented
  • Bible
  • World outreach/Missions-driven
  • Simple church
  • _______________________  (fill in your own defining term)

To some extent we need to do this. We need to be able to articulate how we do things, what we believe, what we have to offer, what we consider to be important. But how far do we carry this?  Is church growth dependent on these things?  Is the growth of the church driven by these things?

As I have said in a previous post, lost people are not impressed with our church trappings, our way of doing things or our church preferences- they don’t think about it, they don’t know anything about it and aren’t swayed by it. They will come to whatever church God draws them to, whatever label we slap on it.  These things are more for the people in the church. It gives them a way to identify their church, talk about their church and understand how their church worships, what it values and how it operates.

As  a church pastor and leader I have struggled, and many church members have as well, with trying to find the right combination of ministries to have, style of worship to offer, programs to have in order to see the church experience growth and success. Many churches have split over changes in music or programming.  Many churches have experienced great difficulty as a new methodology is introduced.  Others have thrived as they have reinvented their ministries and made sacrificial changes.  The best book I have read on this topic is Ed Stetzer’s book Comeback Churches. It details the comeback trail of churches that experienced renewal and growth after times of struggle and decline. It is a highly recommended read.

From within the church there is a mindset of “build it and they will come” or “have this ministry and young people will come”.  We are saying that our trust is in what we do or how we do it. If we only played _____ kind of music we would attract those young people. We are saying that we trust in a style of music to grow the church. And subtly we are looking for credit for doing such a good job. After all we are doing this “for God” right? The logical conclusion of this way of thinking is that we are down here building something to make God proud. Look at the church we have built/grown for you Lord.  As if we have the institution of the church and the one who runs it the best wins.

What we have to come to realize is that people aren’t attracted by institutional church. By the way,  the only church that is truly institutional is the one that is no longer led by the Holy Spirit of God and God does not move in. When that happens,  the only thing that is left is the institution, the organization, the by-laws, the constitution, the way of doing things- all which can exist completely separate of the presence of God.

And that is where I want to swing the discussion to….

A Church Grown

A couple of months ago I was preparing a message and was doing some Bible study (good thing to do for a sermon!) in the Book of Acts.  And I read…

Acts 2  46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church  daily those who were being saved.

Acts 5  14 And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women,

Acts 8  5 Then Philip went down to the  city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. 6 And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.

Acts 9  31 Then the churches  throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.

Acts 9  40 But Peter put them all out, and knelt down and prayed. And turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. 41 Then he gave her his hand and lifted her up; and when he had called the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed on the Lord.

Acts 11 20 But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.

A lot of this is not new to you, if you have ever read the Book of Acts you have read these passages and noticed that the church multiplied quickly as the disciples preached the resurrection of Jesus and God worked great miracles through them. But what we have to notice is that the church was grown, God being the grower.

Here is where our thinking needs some fine tuning. Often we look for the right program, style, methodology, in order to get people to the church so we can reach (and count) them. The mindset becomes, if we can devise the right mix of programs, then we can reach people. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, our heart is to see people reached, which is a good thing, but we cannot trust in these things. As the above passages tell us, God is the grower, our trust has to be that the Father, who was willing to sacrifice His Son to pay the sin debt for sinful people, is able, and willing, to draw people to His body.

A church that is grown praises God and thanks God for His movement to bring people rather than patting themselves on the back for being so cleaver or so talented to draw a crowd. There is a desire to see the power of God move in people so that they are made new again in Jesus Christ.  We cannot point to a program and say, that is what caused our church to grow. That smacks of spiritual pride, and that is a dangerous place to be.  In Matthew 16 Jesus makes a powerful statement about a church grown…

16 Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.

There are three small, but key, words in verse 18. I, My and it.

I- Jesus will be the builder of the church. There is no condition here, He said I will build, not might, or could, but will. He tells us it will happen as He draws all people to Himself after His crucifixion.

John 12  32 But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.

The Father joins into the work of building as He reaches out to people to bring them into relationship with Jesus…

John 6  44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’  Therefore everyone who has heard and learned  from the Father comes to Me.

Then, amazingly, God invites us to be a part of the building process…

I Cor 3  6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. 7 So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. 8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building.

We are planting, watering, working, but it is still God that is giving the increase- Jesus building His church.

My- Jesus called it My church. I will build My church.

Here is something that we can never forget– there is no one who has more at stake in the growth of the church than Jesus. There is no one who has paid as high a price as He has. There is no one who will in the end do more work for the church, get more glory in the church and receive more pleasure from the church than Jesus.  It is His body, His people, the gathering of His followers who make up the church. They are His, Paul reminds us that we are not our own, but have been bought at a price.

There is no one who loves the lost who you come into contact with more that Jesus. There is no program or methodology that loves people, there is no style of music that sheds blood for the forgiveness of sin.  We are not building something for Him- it is His. We are working with the owner, the architect of the body of Christ. If it grows, it grows because it is His and He is making it so.

It- The church, the body. Jesus will grow it and all of hell will not prevail against it.

There is a beautiful picture here if we allow it to unfold.  The church will grow, Jesus promised it. But it is not growing in a vacuum, there will be opposition to its’ growth. That opposition is the forces of evil, the gates of hell. The growth of the church pushes against the gates of hell, pushes back the darkness.  Now we look at our world and we wonder if it is true.

Let me ask a question, today, where is the church growing the fastest– where it is the darkest!  China, where the evangelical church is illegal and believers are persecuted and killed. In Africa where it clashes with Muslim influence and tribal religions filled with people worshiping demons.  If the church were just a nice little place that had a membership drive, these would be the last places it would grow. But the power of God is on full display, running contrary to all that we would think reasonable.  Why?  Because the church is His and He will grow it where it will bring Him the most glory.

This is where I want to close. Could it be that the church in America is not growing because when it does we steal the glory of God?  We make celebrities out of pastors, say their growth is due to the latest, hottest program, and make them rich buying their latest book on how to get the church to grow… and we are not humbled by the powerful movement of God as much as we are envious and coveting their success.

Now again, do not misunderstand, I am not criticizing big churches or books, etc. I am all for whoever is leading people to Jesus and making disciples. I just want us to consider that we too often give credit to a person or a program, believing that it is the solution to growing the church, and forget that all growth, however big or small is because God moves, God builds, God draws, God makes new.  God will lead us to start ministries, programs and the like, but they ultimately are not the cause of our growth.

A church grown causes believers to be in awe and wonder that God is powerful enough to break through the darkness, the hardness of a heart and make a radical change in the life of a person deeply and sacrificially loved by God. That is where I want to be, not just in another latest, greatest seminar on how to add people to the church, but in the midst of God’s movement, celebrating His goodness at making people a new creation.

Each new person is the result of a supernatural act on God’s part to add to the Body of Christ. If there is no addition the church, then God is not moving in your midst and you have to ask, Why?  What is withholding God from adding to our number?  That you will have to ask God about, after all its’ His body.

How Do I Study the Bible?

God’s Word

The Holy Bible

It can sound intimidating– studying the Bible, knowing God’s Word. It can sound like you need to have an extra special education, be a monk or speak in several languages… or maybe even know the secret handshake to figure this out.  As a pastor I have heard many people talk about their lack of understanding of the Bible, their confusion about how to study it or understand it.

Many people are intimidated when it comes to reading the Bible. They hear pastors and teachers teach, and think “how could they know all that stuff”.  There are terms that we don’t use in our everyday language today- propitiation, sanctification, not to mention all the -ology’s (soteriology, ecclesiology, etc).  Then there are places that seem strange and hard to place- Where is Bethel?  Where is Elam on a map?  How about all those strange nations and people who are mentioned- Philistines, Hittites, Edomites… and all the other -ites.   To many, understanding the Bible is like a foreign language, trying to understand something from another world… and in some ways it is.

The Bible is a spiritual book, authored by and understood by the Holy Spirit.  For some that is not helpful because they are unsure about the Holy Spirit, but hang with me.

The Holy Bible (Bible is a french word for book) is a book about God’s character, His actions and His expectations for man. Yes there is a lot that is foreign to us in our modern, particularly American, culture. But the encouraging thing here is that the intent of the Bible, the reason we read it and study it is not to know who the Hittites were or what propitiation means… it is to know the God the Bible talks about.

Jesus looked at the religious leaders of His day and told them that they had missed the entire purpose for God’s Word…

John 5  39 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

The Scriptures were really about Him, not the words on the page, not the people, places or things in the Word of God.  Not that those things are not important, just that they are not the primary purpose.  The same is true for us today, we have to approach the Bible, not for the sake of knowing the Bible as a book, but so that we can get to know God.  So don’t allow all the things you don’t know or don’t understand keep you from opening and reading your Bible, come to it with the intent that you are here, with Bible open, so that you can get to know God better, understand the teachings of God better so you can follow Him closer.

So now that we have got the Bible open, what’s next?

Over the years I have answered a lot of questions about Bible study, a lot of questions that people were really kind of afraid to ask, after all, aren’t Christians and church people supposed to know how to study the Bible?  So, while to some of you this may seem simplistic, here are some answers to common questions about Bible study…

1) How much am I supposed to read at a time?

I have heard a lot of answers to this question- a chapter a day, whatever is in the devotional you are using, etc..  Well, let’s go back to the purpose for Bible study- to get to know God.  Read until you come across something that teaches you something interesting, profound, challenging or encouraging about God. That may be a few verses, a chapter or two or three chapters. There is no contest to see how much of the Bible you read, the important (read vital) part of reading the Bible is to draw closer to God, to fall more in love with God.

God is concerned not with volume but quality. He wants you to get to know Him through His Word, and He delights in teaching us who He is. Read these verses below and make this your approach to reading the Bible…

Psalm 119  12 Praise be to you, O LORD; teach me your decrees.

Psalm 25  4 Show me Your ways, O Lord; Teach me Your paths. 5 Lead me in Your truth and teach me, For You are the God of my salvation; On You I wait all the day.

So each time you pick up the Bible to read, read until God speaks to you, are drawn to a phrase or verse or story, and spend some time reading it over a few times, letting the words sink into your mind and heart. If you feel like you only read a few verses, remind yourself of the purpose- I am here to get to know God, and He spoke to me. If you feel like to had to read a lot to get something, remind yourself of the purpose- I am not here to read a little or a lot of the Bible, I am here to get to know God.   And spend a few moments thanking God for teaching you about Himself.

2) How do I understand what it says, so much of this seems hard to get?

First of all, you’re right, the Bible can be hard to understand and apply to our lives. The Bible is a spiritual book, written by men through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit…

2 Peter 1  20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

So we are dealing with the supernatural acts, thoughts and character of God. God spoke to the prophet Isaiah and told him that man’s ways were not naturally our ways…

Isaiah 55  8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. 9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.

This seems like an impossible barrier to overcome. It would be like someone like me being told to read a nuclear physics book and understand it. Their ways are not mine, I don’t know how it works, how to define their terms or even how a clue as to how a nuclear reaction really works. What I would need is a teacher… and so God provides the perfect teacher for us to understand His ways.

Our teacher is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God who comes to live in every believer. And yes, the same Holy Spirit that inspired the men who wrote the Bible. Nothing like the author of the book being your teacher of the book.

John 14  26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.

So how do we understand what the Bible says?  We listen to our teacher. The Holy Spirit can reveal the meaning of things to us, as we need them, as we need to hear and know them. He does not give us instant understanding of everything in the Bible. Like a good teacher he shows us what is next, what we need, what we can bear, what we can grasp.  Read the passage below and realize that you will never know God’s things by just being able to understand, you have to be taught by the only one who really knows, the Holy Spirit…

1 Corinthians 2   9 But as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”  10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. 11 For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. 13 These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy  Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

So when you read the Bible, first get ready to get to know God, not just the words on the page, and second pray and ask the Holy Spirit to teach you what you are going to read.  Now the Spirit may also use a Sunday School teacher or a pastor or another Christian to help you understand a passage or a word, so here is part of my “best advice” for understanding the Bible- ask questions, lots and lots of questions.

When I first came to know Christ, I had very little Bible knowledge. I didn’t know the difference between Galatians and Genesis, between Joshua and Joseph, between… well, you get the idea.  I did however attend a Sunday School class and our Bible Study on Wednesday night, and before, during and after, I would pepper my teachers with questions. Not because I was obnoxious, which I am sure in some ways I was, but because I wanted to know.  And they were great in helping me to understand.  If you have questions, find someone you can ask them of- a pastor, a Bible Study teacher or if you wish email me (pluslife.ministry@gmail.com) and I will be glad to help you.  But please ask. The Holy Spirit has given many in people in the Body wisdom and understanding and they would be glad to help.

3) But there is so much I don’t understand, it seems frustrating?

Without being sarcastic, welcome to the club!  Because the Bible is a spiritual book, written by God, there is not a person on this planet who can explain everything in it in perfect form and know everything about God. God is too big to be outlined, flow-charted, cliffs noted, and put into your pocket.  Everyone who reads the Bible struggles with understanding what it says, what it means, how to put what they read into practice. Don’t be intimidated by people who seem to know a lot about the Bible, no one just knows this stuff or is just smart at it. Everyone, whether they have a college education or a fifth-grade education, has to learn through the Holy Spirit teaching them. No one has a leg up on knowing the Bible, everyone is dependent on the Holy Spirit to give them understanding.

The point is not what you don’t know, the point is to gain something you need to know.  Too many people look at the Bible like another subject. I want to learn math so I read, do problems and there you go… I know algebra.  Christianity and living the Christian life is not like that.  The depth of what you can know and learn is infinite, because it is not the 66 books of the Bible you are seeking to know, it is God Himself, and He is God without end, infinite in love, power, forgiveness, hope, grace and mercy.  We have a hard time picturing the infinite in our mind.  What is something like that has no end?  That is what it is like to try to know God, there is never an end to His greatness.

So don’t concern yourself with your lack of knowledge or understanding of a certain part of the Bible.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, is constantly in a learning process when it comes to studying the Bible (any of you who would like to give encouragement to others about this leave a comment on the bottom).  Just engage yourself in the process and read your Bible, what you don’t understand, let it be OK. There is more than enough to learn and know, you will get around to the rest. Listen to the Spirit and learn what you can this day.

4) Where do I start?

If you are just starting to read the Bible, I would suggest you start with one of the first 4 books of the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are what is called the Gospels. These are the books about the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. John can be a little easier or Luke. but these are usually a good place to start reading.

5) What version of the Bible should I read?

A loaded question for sure. There is some controversy in the church today about Bible versions, not as much as there used to be, but still some people like some versions better than others. This answer is not a ringing endorsement of any particular version just a short thought on some of the more popular versions-

King James- traditional version used in the church for many years. Written in Olde English- thee, thou, knowest, etc. If you find this lyrical and have a high reading level, you might find this enjoyable.

New King James- basically the same as the King James with all of the Olde English removed. This is the Bible version that I normally preach from. Very readable and understandable.

New International Version- written in modern English and the most popular version on the market

New Living Translation- this is a version where all of the more difficult words and concepts are broken down into easy to understand English.

If you would like to compare versions, my suggestion would be to go to http://www.biblestudytools.com and read a passage in the several different versions that they have online.

6) Should I have a reading system or a devotional to use?

If you find this helpful to keep you reading on a regular basis, by all means use one.  Here is one caution however, remember the point is for you to get to know God and allow the Holy Spirit to teach you each time you open the Bible. Reading a short scripture and a devotional thought does not mean that God has spoken to you. If you read your passage and devotion and are unmoved, and the Spirit is silent, keep reading or pick another book or chapter to read as well. Don’t stop just because that is what the devotional said to read for today.

7)  Are there some other books that would be helpful to me in studying the Bible?

There are a few things that would be helpful. First, a good study Bible would be helpful. This is a Bible that has cross-references so you can see other passages in the Bible that deal with the same subject you are reading about, it also has study notes at the bottom of the page to help you understand.  There are a few ones that I recommend…

The Life Application Study Bible– good study Bible with notes on how to apply what you read

Quest Study Bible– good for the first time Bible reader

NIV Study Bible– solid study Bible with lots of cross references and notes

Experiencing God Study Bible– great Bible that helps you connect with God (out-of-print but you can find them on Amazon or other used book sites)

Secondly, and these are just suggestions: Manners and customs of the Bible (typical reference book that helps you to understand time period places, people and things), Strong’s Concordance (look up words and where they are used in the Bible), Bible Dictionary.  All of these references can be found in Bible study software that I would strongly encourage you can purchase.  Check here for different versions and prices on the software.

I would like to end our blog with a prayer for you as you look to get more out of your Bible reading or would like to start…

Our Heavenly Father you are a great God, a God worth knowing and knowing better each day. Help us as we open your Word, your Word that you have left us to bring us and you closer together. Lord there is much that we do not know and much that we do not understand, please fill us with your Holy Spirit, our teacher and guide, so that we can be excited, uplifted, challenged, corrected and encouraged by what we learn each day.

Blessings on you as the Bible in your house gets opened more and the pages of it become more of a friend to you.  We will do more on How to Study the Bible in a later post.

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