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Have you ever heard fellow church members constantly describe what is wrong with your church? Maybe this is a habit you have. If so, you need to realize that if it were perfect it wouldn’t allow you to be a member, for you are not perfect. After serving for 49 years as a pastor of six churches and 15 more years as interim pastor, I have noticed that those who perpetually criticize their church are generally the most cynical and the least involved when it comes to helping it fulfill the mission Christ assigns to every church.

When the members of your church, or of any church, have as their primary goal to glorify God through genuine worship, to enjoy meaningful fellowship, and to be faithfully engaged in carrying out the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20, it will be blessed with a sense of unity. When the members of a church spend energy and time focusing on what is wrong with their church, dissention and division will exist. It will not and cannot grow, and God will not be glorified.

Obviously no church is perfect, for all church members are human. There has been only one perfect person who ever lived – Jesus Christ. Every church has areas that can be improved. But, why spend needless energy and time focusing only on what is wrong with it. I propose a more important question that should be asked: What is right with the church? As a popular song suggested several years ago, accentuating the positive helps to eliminate the negative.

By focusing on what is right with the Christian church in the world you will notice the following:

First, it is the one institution, the one society primarily concerned with and dedicated to the worship of God. Worship is the submission of our entire nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of our minds with His truth and the purifying of our imagination by His beauty; the opening of our hearts to His love; and the surrender of our will to achieve His purpose. And all of this is gathered up in the spirit of adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.

Second, it is the one society around the earth that is not only supernatural, but super-national. It is found in every part of the world. In other words, whether we are black, or brown or white or any other color, we are all members of God’s family. We have all things in common. When any church, including yours, achieves this ideal it will be because it is emphasizing what is right with the church.

Third, it is the primary instrument God’s Spirit uses to transmit the good news of God’s reality, of His love and compassion and justice and truth. It is through the living church that individuals can experience the presence of the living Christ, and become members of His spiritual body.

Fourth, It accepts us as we are. However dark or numerous our sins may be, it accepts us as sinners and helps us move forward to become all that God through His grace can transform us into becoming. At its best the church says in God’s name: “Any person, however sinful, can come to the Son of God who said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’” and be brought into loving relationship with the Creator of the universe.

What is right with the church? That is the proper question for you to ask about your church. If you will do that, and give freely of your time, talent, energy, and material means, it will become in your community a living witness of God’s love. There is certainly nothing wrong with that!

Those who spend time focusing on what is wrong with their church should first go look into the mirror.

Sidney J. Harris once said, “The personality of the church is not an apple to be polished, but a banana to be peeled.” It is a very perceptive statement, and it grabbed my attention. He is saying that too much of what goes on in our churches today is devoted to the polishing process, and too little to the peeling process.

Is it true, as he claims, that too much attention in churches today deals with the surface, treating symptoms? Do appearances, buildings, budgets, order of service, cosmetics, consume most of our energy and time? We have been so bombarded on television and out in the business world with the Madison Avenue approach that we have adopted this approach in our churches. We sell the package and not the product.

The package, of course, is important: our church building, our Sunday School, our age group ministries, our church staff, etc. Our primary job, however, is not to sell the package. It is to share Christ with our world. Shall we be content with polishing the apple? Or shall we get on with the peeling of the banana?

Our Lord during his ministry on the earth had trouble with one of history’s most famous bunch of apple polishers – the Pharisees. We tend to forget that they were a very religious and dedicated people. They were patriots, for they helped organize the resistance against Rome in the struggles under Emperors Vespasian and Hadrian. They were devoted to God’s Law. They said, “O how I love thy Law! It is my meditation day and night” (Psalm 119:97). They prayed every day and tithed their wealth. But Jesus accused them of being hypocrites (see Matthew 23:-36). They were polishing the apple, but their core was rotten.

Jesus still has trouble with apple polishers today. We Southern Baptists have our share of apple polishers, but we don’t have a monopoly, not by any means. The mission of all Christian churches and denominations is to keep the task of sharing the good news of Christ with a lost world as priority number one. In other words, we are not to spend our major energy and time polishing apples.

A church or denomination that is dynamic knows its job is to peel the banana. It knows its essential purpose for existence is to reach out and make contact with others on a person-to-person basis and on a life-changing level. Peeling the banana strips away the package and gets down to the fruit.

We stop asking, “How many were in church last Sunday?” and start asking, “How many found God’s will for their lives?” We stop asking, “Why didn’t ‘so-and-so’ come to church?” and start asking, “Why doesn’t my neighbor who is lost or unchurched come?” We stop asking, “How much money was given?” and start asking, “How many people were blessed by the spirit of giving?”

What is it that keeps churches from peeling bananas? Why is it so hard for us to strip away the superfluous and get down to the fruit? Our Lord would probably say that it is due to five things: lack of commitment, living with unconfessed sin, unwillingness to make sacrifices, spiritual blindness, and lack of understanding as to what the primary mission of the church is.

Those who walk in darkness all around us – your neighbors and mine – need for us to stop polishing apples and start peeling bananas. In other words, we need to stop going through the motions, doing only what is expected of us as church members, strip away the package, tell them that Jesus Christ died on the Cross for their sins, and that He offers eternal life to everyone who will believe and follow Him.

The only way to be saved is to repent, acknowledge our spiritual needs, surrender, and follow Christ.

The Old Testament character, Job, posed a question that humans have asked throughout the centuries, “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14).

In asking this very important question he dared to go beyond the strict limits of the theology of his so-called friends and accusers. The New Testament doctrine of the immortality of the soul was not a fully developed belief in the Old Testament. Even so, countless inscriptions on tombs from many civilizations that are now extinct offer mute testimony to man’s quest for immortality.

The question concerning life after death is an anxious one. Job himself referred to death as “the king of terrors” (18:14) and as a “journey of no return” (16:22). Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his soliloquy echoed Job’s sentiment in describing death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” What Job and Shakespeare were saying is that once a person dies there is no way they will be able to return in their physical form to the earth again.

People do not argue with death; they argue about death. There have been endless speculations throughout history concerning its meaning and mystery. The atheist Feuerbach termed life after death “a wishful projection.” Karl Marx called it “a consolation for the oppressed.” Freud viewed it as “an unrealistic regression of the psychologically immature.”

It was a leap of faith for Job to even pose the question concerning the possibility of life after death. It expressed his innate hope and quest for immortality, a hope that would not be fully and satisfactorily answered until much later. Job was not the first person to have a yearning desire for immortality.

The question of life after death is one that schools of philosophy cannot answer. It is beyond the realm of science and technology to answer. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, confronted with the stark reality of death of her Son, humans throughout the centuries have asked the question, “Who shall roll away the stone from the sepulcher?”

The question: “If a man dies, will he live again?” finds its answer only in Jesus Christ. He alone could speak with words of authority, “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25). Christ’s resurrection once and for all time indisputably answers the age-old question concerning the possibility of life beyond the grave. He is what the Bible calls the “firstfruits” from the grave that precedes the final resurrection of the dead at the Second Coming of Jesus.

Because of Christ’s triumph over the grave, death is no longer what Job called “the king of terrors.” The grave has become the door to immortality. It is the room where the garments of mortality are exchanged for the garments of immortality. Only those whose names are included in “the Lamb’s Book of Life” will be ushered into life eternal and experience the joys of heaven.

I am grateful for every single day that I have lived, and I want to live on the earth as long as I can. I suspect that the vast majority of people who are reading these words feel the same way. But one day, at a time of God’s own choosing, our lives will end. The physical body in which we have lived will walk through what the psalmist called “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23). Those who accept Jesus Christ as their Savior will be prepared for that day.

Shortly before his tragic death, P.P. Bliss wrote the praiseful song “Hallelujah! What a Savior!”

“Man of Sorrows! What a name!
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah! What a Savior!”

In commenting on this great hymn, Ira D, Sankey said, “It seems as though God prepared it for the great jubilee of heaven when His children shall gather to sing ‘Hallelujah to the Lamb!’”

Jesus — the “Man of Sorrows” — took our penalty for sin upon Himself on Calvary that we might one day stand before the Judgment Bar of God with absolutely no stain attached to our name (Romans 8 :1). If you are not a Christian, please read Acts 16:31 and follow the suggestion the apostle Paul gave to the Philippian jailor. When you come to the end of your earthly journey, you will be very glad you did.

You will not have another opportunity if you wait until your life on earth is over. Think about it!

We have all heard jokes about people showing up at the pearly gates seeking entrance into heaven. While some of these witty fabrications may bring a smile to our faces, behind most of them is the false assumption that we must do something in order to get into heaven. Some people are shocked when they learn that there is absolutely nothing they can ever do to be saved or to gain entrance into heaven.

John 3:1-15 contains the story of one of those persons. Nicodemus, a rabbi and a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, had a difficult time understanding the difference between religion and relationship. To him salvation depended on the things he did (religion), not the result of God’s free gift of grace (relationship).

It was at night that Nicodemus decided to pay Jesus a visit. Was this because rabbis studied at night? Was it because he wanted to avoid the crowd? Was it because he did not want his conversation with Jesus to be limited? I believe it was because he was troubled by some spiritual questions he wanted Jesus to answer. The important thing is that he was a seeker after truth and that he went to the right source to find it.

Nicodemus was rich, highly respected, and strongly religious – a Pharisee. He had given his life to study and obey the Law. He was also knowledgeable of the traditions supporting the Law. As we might say today, “He was leadership material. He would make an excellent chairman for an important committee.” Having heard a lot of interesting things about Jesus, he wanted to meet Him and hear what He had to say.

Jesus cut right to the heart of the matter Nicodemus wanted to discuss. He told him that he must be born again. When Nicodemus did not understand what this meant, Jesus explained that He was referring to a spiritual birth, not a physical birth. To be born again spiritually is a divine act controlled by God. It is a supernatural act that brings about a dramatic change in a person’s life. Nicodemus had not entered into a faith relationship with Christ. One way of expressing it is to say he was religious, but that he was not redeemed.

There are four primary truths a person must know in order to be born again:

Position does not save you. Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish Supreme Court. He was correct on many areas of doctrine, but he made one primary mistake: he externalized religion. Outwardly, he lived above reproach. He was part of the religious elite. Applying this to our lives today it means that being a deacon, or an elder, or even a pastor does not save you. Position does not save anybody, however high or important that position may be.

Popularity does not save you. Nicodemus was highly respected and popular in his community. He was recognized as a strong spiritual leader. Being born again has absolutely nothing to do with popularity.

Prestige does not save you. Nicodemus was a person to whom people turned for spiritual answers. He was a spiritual adviser who had spent his life studying the Scriptures. He was, in essence, a spiritual guru. But he had never been born from above.

Piety does not save you. Nicodemus possessed great knowledge. He was religious to the core, and was widely recognized for his piety. What this means for us today is that you can attend church regularly, tithe your income, practice spiritual disciplines, and still be lost because possessing piety saves no one. To be born again you must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

There is only one way to be born again and one day go to heaven: You must go to Calvary, repent of your sins, lay them down, accept Christ as your Savior and Lord, turn to the right, and keep straight ahead.

Is God’s presence felt in a powerful way in your church when it gathers for worship each Sunday? And does your church have a significant impact upon its community? If not, these two things can and will happen if you and your fellow church members regularly do two things: (1) Genuinely pray for them to happen, and (2) demonstrate a willingness to be used by God to make your prayer become a reality.

How long has it been since you prayed with all your heart for the outreach ministry of your church to be successful? Try to answer this question honestly – even if you are embarrassed and convicted. Until you have prayed for your church – its staff, its mission, and its ministries – in great detail and with sincerity, you have no legitimate right to: (1) find fault with anything it does, (2) fail to attend its worship services, or (3) refuse to support it financially. A person who prays for his or her church will do none of these three things.

Francis W. Dixon, an English Baptist minister, once said: “There is only one real problem in the church of God these days, and that problem is its prayer life.” This was not true in the first century church. The book of Acts says, “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31 NIV).

Something good always happened when the early church prayed. It should be obvious that it was not the building that was shaken. It was the disciples who were shaken, and they went out to shake the entire Roman world with power. The word for power in Greek is dunamis, the word from we get the word dynamite.

First century Christians were conductors of power. Christians today can also become centers of pulsating, dynamic, spiritual power. It can happen in a church only when it is committed to prayer. God’s power is as available to churches today as it was to the early church two thousand years ago.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism says: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.” It would be hard to improve on that definition of prayer.

The early Christians, faced with persecution, prayed for boldness: “Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness” (Acts 4:29 NIV). Our request as we face the challenges of our world should be the same as theirs: “Lord, give us boldness to proclaim your gospel.”

Dr. Daniel Poling was editor of the Christian Herald for many years. He had a son who was one of the four chaplains who went down on the Dorchester not far from the British coast early in World War II. Each of the four chaplains had given his lifejacket to another passenger. They stood at the rail, hand in hand, and went down with the ship. Clark Poling had written a letter to his parents shortly before he left on that fateful voyage. In the letter he said, “I know I shall have your prayers; but please don’t pray simply that God will keep me safe. War is dangerous business. Pray that God will make me adequate.”

The result of genuine prayer is that powerful things will happen. If you want your church to be filled with power, commit yourself to the goal of praying for it. Encourage your fellow members to join you in this venture. What happened in the early church can happen in your church. Prayers can be answered only when they are prayed. Nothing lies outside the reach of prayer except that which is outside the will of God.

Remember this: God is still in the business of answering prayers. The tragedy within far too many churches today, however, is not unanswered prayer. It is unoffered prayer. Believe it!

The Declaration of Independence of the United States boldly claims that every citizen is “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” A recent poll revealed that only one third of Americans say they are very happy. That is why the question is often asked, “How can I be happy?” The German philosopher Johann Wolfgang Goethe said there are nine keys to contentment and happiness:

  1. Health enough to make work a pleasure.
  2. Money enough to support your needs.
  3. Strength enough to battle your difficulties and overcome them.
  4. Grace enough to confess your sins and forsake them.
  5. Patience enough to work until some good is accomplished.
  6. Charity enough to see some good in your neighbors.
  7. Love enough to move you to be useful and helpful to others.
  8. Faith enough to make real the things of God.
  9. Hope enough to remove all anxious fears concerning the future.

Notice how spiritually motivated most of Goethe’s keys are. But how do we acquire these qualities so we can be happy? The place to begin is to open God’s Word. Notice, for example, these two verses:

“Happy are the people whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 144:15).
“Happy is he who trusts in the Lord” (Proverbs 16:20).

Another key in experiencing lasting happiness is to avoid sin, for sin is a major source and cause of unhappiness. Psalm 51 is a wonderful description of the effects of sin. Whatever you do, if you want to be happy, avoid sin. And if you fail, confess it and the Lord will restore to you the joy of salvation (see I John 1:9).

Ask God to keep you free from hate, and to keep your mind free from worry. Live simply; expect little; give much; fill your life with love, and scatter sunshine. Forget self; think of others, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Happiness is just another word for joy. What I have noticed about genuinely happy people is that it is not how much they have or who they are that makes them joyful. If you want the fullest possible happiness, give yourself completely to Jesus Christ. Trust your life to Him. Read His words, follow His ways, and talk to Him. He will give you “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (I Peter 1:8). John Oxenham expresses it this way:

“Not for one single day
Can I discern my way.
But this I surely know—
Who gives the day
Will show the way,
So I securely go.”

Empty hands

In the book of Deuteronomy, there is a description of the manner in which Old Testament worshipers were challenged to approach God in worship: “No man should appear before the Lord empty-handed: Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.” (16:16, 17).

All of us, as we approach God in worship, come with “dirty hands” – hands that have been soiled with the deeds of self-centered living. We were born in sin – that is, with the DNA to look out for ourselves. How easy it is for us to adopt the standard of the man mentioned in the New Testament who, though he had more than he would ever need, tore down his barns to build bigger barns because he thought he didn’t have enough. When we recognize this tendency in ourselves, we need to ask God for cleansing and atonement.

Something that continues to cause sorrow in the heart of our Lord is that many who have found cleansing and atonement still come before Him in worship with “empty hands.” They fail to place upon His altar offerings of love and gratitude, of praise and thanksgiving. They have not learned the joy of sacrificial giving in order to glorify God. Martin Luther once said: “I have had many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands that I still possess.”

The word “steward” in the Old Testament meant “the person who is over.” A similar connotation is conveyed in the New Testament reference to “an overseer, one to whom something has been entrusted.” In practically every instance the English word “steward” conveys the idea of responsibility to another. In fact, almost every English word ending in “ship” implies relationship.

Jesus, while in the temple one day, observed how those who were present had different attitudes toward their Creator. He first saw what might be called surplus giving.Many rich people,” He said, “put in large sums” (Mark 12:42). He did not scorn their gifts and made no comment whatsoever concerning their actions. Perhaps some who gave large sums did so to attract the attention and admiration of others who were in the temple. For them the giving of large sums of money would not have been a sacrificial gift.

The second thing that caught the attention of Jesus was an example of “sacrificial giving.” He saw a woman making her cautious, timid approach to the temple treasury. Listen to our Lord’s evaluation: “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasure . . . her whole living” (Mark 12:44).

God is the master; we are His servants; God is owner; we are His overseers and/or stewards. Stewardship implies responsibility. We can only be stewards of what belongs to another. Those who recognize the importance of being a steward will try to never enter into worship with empty hands.

King Duncan, in King’s treasury of Dynamic Humor, describes a man who came close to doing that:

“Once I knew a Baptist, he had a pious look.
He had been totally immersed, except his pocketbook.
He put a dollar in the plate, and then with might and main
He’d sing, “When we asunder part, it give me inward pain.”