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Archive for January, 2019

What measurements would you use to evaluate the effectiveness of your church? Would it be the size of the membership, the quality of the preaching, the vitality of its educational program, the strength of its youth ministry, or the friendliness of its members? These are all crucial elements of a dynamic church, but they are not the ultimate test of greatness.

The church is not just a building to which you go on Sunday to worship God – it is primarily what its members are and what they do seven days every week to honor God and serve others. It is what Paris Island, South Carolina is to the U.S. Marine Corps – a training center to prepare believers for witness and ministry. The true test of any church is whether or not it produces fruitful followers of Christ.

But what does this mean? The parable of the fig tree found in Mark 11:12-14, 19-22 tells us. It was the season for figs to be growing, but a specific fig tree that Jesus and His disciples saw contained no figs, only leaves. Jesus spoke to the fruitless tree and said, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (v. 14).” The following day when the disciples and Jesus passed that fig tree again, its leaves had withered. Peter expressed astonishment, “Master, look! The tree you cursed has withered” (v. 21).

Jesus was making the point that Israel was like this fig tree in that it was bearing no fruit. Rites, rules, regulations, and restrictions had become more important than the fruit produced by personal faith. Jesus was concerned about “the weightier matters of the law – righteousness, justice and love” (see Matthew 23:23). These could not be accomplished without a dependent trust in God. It would be fine if we could end our examination of the parable of the fig tree by saying that it applied only to Israel. But the message here is timeless. It speaks truth to every church and to every individual Christian.

The danger of churches having leaves without fruit is ever-present. Today our elaborate buildings, massed choirs, structured educational programs, vibrant youth activities, and other kinds of programs mean little for the kingdom of God if they bear no fruit. But the parable also has a message that applies to every Christian. Unless our prayers, churchmanship, and activity produce fruit, we are in danger of being cut off.

John 15:4, 5 gives us the secret of fruitfulness – for a church or for any Christian: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” When we abide in Christ, we appropriate all that He has done for us. That means unreserved acceptance of His death for our sins and His resurrection for the defeat of the enemies of the abundant life.

True fruitfulness — for an individual Christian and for a church — depends on Christ abiding IN us and speaking THROUGH us. Fruitfulness is never one or the other. According to the words of Jesus found in John 15, both are necessary What Christ does IN us reaches out THROUGH us to bless and serve others.

The ultimate test of fruitfulness for any church is to reproduce the Christian faith in others. You and your fellow members may meet weekly in a beautiful building. Your church may have a large ministerial staff, and support many programs and activities. But the important question is this: How many people has your church introduced to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord in the last year? In the last five years? And with how many people have you personally shared your faith in the past year? In the last ten years?

If that is the primary way churches fulfill their assigned mission, how effective is your church?

 

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Psalm 23 is very personal in that there are no references to “we” or “us” or “they,” but only “my” and “me” and “I” and “you.” It is King David’s testimony of his personal experience with God. What he says in this beautiful psalm is truth, not poetic exaggeration or theoretical theology.

In the first four verses of Psalm 23 David uses the picture of a shepherd with his sheep to describe the relationship God has with His followers. He presents the picture of a shepherd leading his flock to green grass and calm waters. Then, when we get to verse 4, it doesn’t fit. The valley of the shadow of death conjures thoughts of grave danger where a sheep’s life is in jeopardy unless the shepherd is alert and attentive.

Why would a shepherd who would lay down his life for his sheep lead a lamb into a valley filled with danger? There is only one possible answer: “to get to a better place!” The shepherd knows from experience that predators are likely to be faced. We, like the sheep in King David’s day, often face times of difficulty and danger. In the New Testament the apostle Paul explains it this way: “For we know that all things work together for good, for those who love God, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Psalm 23 contains the following marvelous truths:

The Lord is my Shepherd” – that is Relationship!

“I shall not want” – that is Supply.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures” – that is Rest!

He leadeth me beside the still waters” — that is Refreshment!

He restoreth my soul” – that is Healing!

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness” – That is Guidance!

For His name’s sake” — that is Purpose!

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” – that is Testing!

I will fear no evil” – that is Protection!

For Thou art with me” – That is Faithfulness!

Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me” – that is Discipline!

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies” – that is Hope!

Thou annointest my head with oil” – that is Consecration!”

“My cup runneth over” – That is Abundance!

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” – that is Blessing!

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord” – that is Security!

“Forever” – that is Eternity!

 

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Louis Evans in his book, Your Marriage, Duel or Duet, has a chapter entitled “Finance . . . A Fury or a Fellowship.” In this chapter he points out that money can be a major problem for couples who want to be married. He says that the unwise management of money can cause difficult problems for couples who do not have a well-thought-out program of money management prior to their wedding day.

I have tried in pre-marriage counseling sessions to help couples develop a plan to use their material resources in ways to make their marriage strong, not become a problem. God designed marriage to be “until DEATH do us part”, not “until DEBT do us part.” Some of the reasons money often causes problems in marriages are:

The love of money. There is nothing wrong with owning money – even lots of it. The problem comes when money owns us, when we love money. Acts 5 tells us that Ananias and Sapphira met their death because they loved money. Judas loved money so much that he betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The bishop of a New Testament church must be one who is “not greedy for money” (I Timothy 3:3).

Misunderstanding the purpose of money. Failing to understand how money should be properly used leads to abuses. Both those who have lots of money and those who have very little of it can lack in understanding how it can be used in wise and proper ways. Using money unwisely can have serious consequences for a family.

Unwise credit buying. Buying on credit has enabled many families to have things they would never have gotten otherwise, but buying on credit more than can be later paid for creates chaos in families. Perhaps you have heard the story of the man who told his friend he had arranged for his wife to have plastic surgery. “I took a pair of scissors,” he explained, “and cut up her credit cards.” It is an idea that lots of other families might productively adopt.

Keeping up with the proverbial Jones family. We are literally bombarded by commercials every time we turn on a radio or television set. We are encouraged to covet whatever we do not have in the belief that it will help us keep up with what others have. Greed takes over and getting becomes more important than giving.

Jack Taylor, in his book, One Home under God, shares a poem by an anonymous author which describes a bride and groom’s determination that money would never become a problem in their marriage:

“The bride, bent with age, leaned over her cane,

Her steps uncertain need guiding,

While down the church aisle,

With a wan toothless smile

The groom in a wheel-chair came gliding,

And who is this elderly couple thus wed?

You’ll find when you’ve closely explored it,

That this is that rare, conservative pair . . .

Who waited TILL THEY COULD AFFORD IT.”

 

 

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Two or three vegetable stands pop up each summer along highway 421 north and south of Clinton. Travelers can stop at one of these stands and buy what farmers in the area have grown – watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes, and four or five other kinds of vegetables.

My wife and I stopped at one of these stands several years ago. While we were surveying what we might buy, the owner of the stand began talking with another man who had driven up. Their conversation told me that both of them were, in fact, members of the same Baptist church in the area. Everything that the man who had driven up said to the owner involved his total dislike for the pastor of their church.

Since I was at the time the pastor of Sanford’s First Baptist Church, their conversation quickly caught my attention. I did not know either the name of their church or the name of their pastor, but I do know a few things about how challenging and difficult it can be at times to be a pastor. Finally, the man said to the owner, “I told our deacons all we have to do to get rid of our preacher is to stop giving our money.”

Nothing in their conversation gave me the impression that their pastor deserved the kind of acrimonious criticism being spewed by this negative imitation of what a constructive church member should be. I had heard as much of his diatribe as I could stand. So I said to him, “Sir, your suggestion for getting rid of your preacher may accomplish your devious goal, but it will also do great damage to your church. I know a better way to get rid of your preacher – a way that will work and won’t hurt your church. Would you like to know?”

His interest piqued, he said, “Sure, how should we do it?”

“Pray for him,” I said. “And get every member of your church to pray for him — every day. Ask God to guide him and make him more effective, and then join diligently with every other member of your church in helping get done what God wants it to do. If you succeed in doing this, it will not be long before the ministry and witness of your church will become so effective and widely known that another church, probably much larger than your church, will come along and take your pastor off your hands.”

At that point Jessie and I put what we had purchased in the car, and drove back to Sanford. I have often wondered what this man might have said to the owner of the stand after we pulled away. I strongly suspect that it might have been, “Who is that guy?” My ears were burning! But I was smiling!

I have often wondered if he followed my advice and became a constructive church member. I seriously doubt it. Constant critics seldom take constructive advice. If he had followed the suggestions I gave him, several things would have happened — and all of them are constructive. His church would definitely have become more successful in carrying out its divinely assigned mission. And his pastor’s effectiveness as a Christian minister, wherever he might serve in the future, would have been greatly enhanced.

God calls every pastor to be the shepherd of a family of individuals who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Each pastor, like every member of his flock, is a human being. Humans are not perfect. That includes pastors. Church members need to pray for and support one another. It is the only way any church can carry out its divinely assigned mission in a maximum way.

The person who has never been criticized is not breathing. Those who can – do; those who can’t – criticize. But the best place to criticize is when you are standing in front of a mirror.

 

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God paused after the sixth day of Creation to evaluate His work, and, “He saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:25). Only one more task remained. At this point “God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Adam would fulfill a role no other creature could – he would have fellowship with God and be the object of His love.

After God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden He observed that something was still missing. Genesis 2:18 tells us what it is: “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” Adam was lonely because he had absolutely no one with whom to share the living of his days. It was the first time God said of anything He had created, “It is not good!”

God recognized that Adam had a strong need for contact with another human being – a need He had built into him. Eve would be the object of Adam’s love and would love him in return. She would share the wonders of creation and the responsibilities of stewardship. What this tells us is that by God’s design all human beings have an innate need to be loved and to belong. Through our relationship with family, friends, co-workers and others, we form our sense of individuality and find our place in the mosaic of life. It is when that need for affection and fellowship goes unfulfilled that we become restless, unhappy, and lonely.

If you are struggling with loneliness you are not alone. Loneliness does not develop overnight. It can be the result of a lifetime of influences that shape our personality. Or it can evolve after a major transition or trauma. Often we are unaware of the subtle forces that can slowly lead us into self-imposed isolation. Many things can lead a person to be lonely: unaffectionate parents, social factors, and the influence of technology such as addiction to watching television or cell phone overuse. Loneliness, by whatever it is caused — these factors or others — can lead to alcoholism, drug addiction, family breakdown, and many other negative things.

As the story of Adam and Eve illustrates, God intends for us to share our lives with other people. Both the Old and New Testaments have a lot to say about marriage, parenthood, friendship and church fellowship. But fellowship with God is the relationship of preeminent importance. A dynamic walk with God is a solid foundation for building relationships with others. Karl Menninger, renowned psychologist, said to those who are lonely, “Lock the door behind you, go across the street, find someone who is hurting, and help him (or her).” It is good advice. Helping someone else shifts your attention from your problems to the needs of others. Perhaps this is why Joseph Fort Newton said, “People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.”

You have probably heard suggestions from well-meaning friends like these: “Join a club,” or “Do some traveling.” They aren’t bad ideas, but they aren’t solutions to the problem of loneliness either. The following steps will help you break free from the prison loneliness easily becomes: (1) admit your problems; (2) Consider the causes; (3) Accept what cannot be changed; (4) Change what can be changed; (5) Work at developing new habits that build up your inner self; and (6) Give time and effort to the goal of making new friends.

James Russell Lowell, in The Forlorn, wrote these wise words:

“Whom the heart of man shuts out,

Sometimes the heart of God takes in,

And fences them all round about

With silence mid the world’s loud din.”

 

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