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We are on the front porch of another football season. Teams representing high schools, universities, and the NFL are already on their practice fields trying to get ready for the first kickoff of their season. Coaches during pre-season practice always try to give major attention to the fundamentals. Vince Lombardi, coach several years ago of the Green Bay Packers, was a fanatic about emphasizing the basics. Time and again during every season he would come back to the basic techniques of blocking and tackling.

After each loss his team knew what was coming on Monday. Lombardi would say, “Today we go back to the basics.” Holding a football high enough for every player to see it, he would say, “Gentlemen, this is a football!” His tactics worked, for at that time he was the only coach who had won three world championships.

What works in the game of football also works in the church. Many churches today have forgotten the fundamentals. Choosing a church in today’s world is in one way like ordering ice cream. You have thirty-one flavors to choose from. You can select from many different kind of “isms” – humanism, liberalism, political activism, new age socialism, relativism, supernatural spiritism, legalistic fundamentalism, and many more.

But before we go any further we need to ask, “What are the absolute basics that the New Testament uses to define a church?” Acts 2:42 says that the four things every church should stress are teaching . . . fellowship . . . breaking bread . . . and prayer. These are also mentioned in what is called the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20. But it adds a fifth basic every church should stress – evangelism.

Everything a church does should support and revolve around these five things: teaching . . . fellowship . . . breaking bread . . . prayer . . . and evangelism. Solid, healthy, growing churches should keep at the task of perfecting these basics. They must be given priority. They form the what aspect of the church

The how aspect is equally important. The Coach of every church is Jesus Christ, and He declares that the church which consistently fulfills its divinely assigned mission will emphasize the “equipping of God’s people for the work of service, so that the body of Christ might be built up” (Ephesians 4:12).

“I believe that is easy,” you may say, “How simple is that?” Are you ready for a shocker? Maintaining these basic assignments in the life of a church is not as easy as you might imagine. Why is this true? Satan finds countless ways to detour a church from the main highway into countless meaningless side roads.

Believe me, as one who has served churches for more than sixty years as a pastor, there is a steady stream of requests that come from countless sources for the church to advance causes other than the five fundamental objectives found in Acts 2:42 and Matthew 28:18-20 that will keep it from fulfilling its mission. The pastor, as the spiritual leader, must be at the forefront in seeing that this does not happen.

A pastor’s primary mission is the interpretation, the exposition, and the application of Holy Scripture to the lives of believers – with relevance, enthusiasm, clarity, and conviction. That is not an easy task, and every member of every church should pray regularly that their pastor will be led by the Holy Spirit.

In the mid-1980’s I had a brass plaque made containing the words of some Greeks who came to the Passover Feast in Jerusalem, and said to Philip, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” (John 12:21). I attached it to the back of the pulpit of Wilmington’s Temple Church where I was pastor to remind me every time I went into the pulpit what my primary mission was. The plaque is still there. God’s Word is where the basics are found.

Christ, every church’s Coach, holds the Bible up and says, “Brothers and Sisters, this is the Bible!”’

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The pastor of a church in Chicago several years ago, wanting to challenge his parishioners to be more faithful in their worship attendance each Sunday morning, came up with a unique idea. He prepared the following letter to be mailed to every member of his church:

Dear church member,

This is to notify you that all church members are expected to attend worship services at least two Sundays each month. Although each of you stated upon joining our church that you would support it with your regular presence, a large number of you do not. In these turbulent times we must have a church comprised of loyal church members. Half-hearted church members simply will not do. Therefore, registration will be taken each Sunday morning to determine which names remain in good standing on our membership roll. If you have some legitimate reason why you cannot comply, please inform the church office.

Sincerely yours,
Your Pastor

If your church were to send a letter like this to its members, what would be your reaction? If continued membership depended on attending two Sundays every month, how do you think other members would respond? Would you think the idea to be preposterous? Overly demanding? Inconsiderate? And noticing that the letter was your pastor’s idea, how would it affect your relationship with him?

What I call self-appointed “Church Parking Lot Committee” discussions would probably increase immediately. And telephone lines would stay warm in the days following. Some members would likely think, “It will only drive people away to other churches that do not have such an expectation of its members.”

No, your church is not likely to send out such a letter to its members. If it were to do so, the sad fact is that many of its members would be satisfied with things as they are — even though attendance is far less than it should be. Accepting the status quo is way ahead of “rocking the boat” or “stirring up a hornet’s nest.”

This letter, believe it or not, was mailed to the members of the St. James United Methodist Church in Chicago. It may surprise you that the members didn’t get upset and ask their Bishop to reassign their pastor. They didn’t respond with either consternation or anger. Instead, the letter worked. It achieved its objective. Attendance the following year was 56 percent higher than it was in the year before the letter was mailed.

Churches make a big mistake when they ask too little of their members. If God loved every person in the world enough to send His Son to die on a Roman cross to pay the penalty for our sins, we must know that accepting Him as Savior also means accepting Him as Lord of our daily lives. It is through regular worship, both personal and corporate, that we are prepared to become witnesses to others in our community.

First century Christians certainly realized this. Josephus, the Jewish historian of that day, referred to them as “those who are turning the world upside down.” An empty tomb proves Christianity; an empty church denies it. The mission Jesus assigned to His followers is to tell the story of His love. No church can get very many lost sinners prepared to go to heaven if it can’t even get its members out of bed on Sunday morning.

Any church member who expects to answer when the roll is called “up yonder” should make an effort be present on a regular basis in church on Sunday morning when the roll is called “down here.”

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A crotchety old man invested in two of those new hearing aids that are almost invisible. Several days later he returned to the hearing aid company where he had purchased them to express his delight.

“I’ll bet your family likes the fact that you can now hear them when they are talking to you,” the technician said.

“Oh,” the octogenarian replied, “they don’t yet know I purchased the two hearing aids. And I am having a ball! In the past week I’ve changed my will three times.”

This story reminds me of a funeral I conducted several years ago where it was obvious some members of the deceased person’s family had been waiting around for her to pass off the scene so they could inherit her accumulated wealth. The funeral director knew this, and while the graveside ritual was being carried out, he took a document of some kind from his inside coat pocket and began to quietly view its contents.

One family member, thinking it was the deceased person’s will that would be read when the graveside service was over, elbowed the family member sitting next to him and nodded in the direction of the funeral director. When the service was over, the grave was closed, and everyone in attendance left the cemetery and went home – everyone, that is, except the members of the family who had remained and were waiting for the will to be read. But the paper the funeral director had pulled out of his pocket wasn’t a will! He had both a clever sense of humor and a mischievous streak.

The French speak of a disease which they call “La Maladie du moi”, or “Me-sickness.” It is a disease that inflicts millions of people in our world today. Despite the strides that science has made, it has offered no vaccine to combat this deadly ailment. The only remedy that has ever been effective to treat “Me-sickness” is offered by the Great Physician. His love engenders selflessness in the human heart. He banishes “Me-sickness” as surely as the rising sun each day causes the morning dew to disappear.

Where are the focal points in your life? Where does your center of gravity lie? What are your aims in life? The answer to these questions depends on the quality of your heart. Proverbs 23:7 says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” In other words, what you have in your heart determines what is important to you.

If you choose to live only for yourself you will ultimately reap tons and tons of unhappiness. Selfishness corrodes. Unselfishness ennobles, satisfies, and provides healing. The Golden Rule blesses others, but when it is expressed in a negative way, it says: “Do unto others before they have an opportunity to do unto you.”

If you want to be miserable, spend the majority of your time thinking about yourself; about what you want and what you like. Focus primarily on the respect people ought to pay to you, and then nothing will be pure. You will spoil everything you touch. You will make misery for yourself out of everything that is good.

Dr. H.A. Ironside once told the story of a small Christian denomination that held a Bible Conference. Outside the meeting Hall was a large banner displaying the words, “Jesus Only.” A strong wind blew the first three letters away so that “us Only” was left. This is too often the spirit shown by Christians of narrow vision.

King Solomon offered these words of wisdom to those who are inflicted with La Maladie du moi: “He who has no rule over his spirit is like a city that is broken down, and is without walls (Proverbs 25:28).

William Gladstone accurately described humanity’s greatest problem as well as it can be described. “Selfishness,” he said, “is the greatest curse of the human race.” How right he was!

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In a country churchyard in England stands a drab, gray slate tombstone that shows the ravages of time. Leaning slightly to one side, the epitaph can only be read if you stoop over and look very closely. It says: “BENEATH THIS STONE, A LUMP OF CLAY, LIES ARABELLA YOUNG, WHO, ON THE TWENTY-FOURTH OF MAY, BEGAN TO HOLD HER TONGUE.”

What an unusual legacy to leave the world! The thing that stood out most about her life is that her tongue was no longer in motion. To a physician the tongue is a two-ounce slab of mucous membrane enclosing a complex array of muscles and nerves that enable our bodies to chew, taste and swallow.

Without a tongue no mother could sing her baby to sleep at night. No ambassador could adequately represent his nation. No teacher could instruct her students. No attorney could defend his client in court. No pastor could stand behind the pulpit and preach the unsearchable riches of God’s grace. The entire human race would be reduced to unintelligible grunts and shrugs. We give very little thought to just how valuable this very important muscle is to everything we humans do in life.

Even so, the tongue is as volatile as it is vital. For example, Washington Irving said, “A sharp tongue is the only tool that grows keener with constant use.” God’s Word puts it this way, “The tongue is a fire . . . a restless evil and full of deadly poison” (James 3:6, 8). Used without both care and concern it can be a flaming missile which assaults with tremendous power, leaving damage in its wake.

I remember a woman in my small hometown in Georgia in the late 1930’s who would make the rounds in our neighborhood very early in the morning. The things she had heard in one home, especially if it involved information that fits under the classification of gossip, she would tell to other neighbors. When she spilled the beans she had heard from other neighbors, she would say to my mother, “For God’s sake, don’t dare to tell anybody that I told you that.” She didn’t want you to spread the news. She was planning to do that herself.

The Bible makes it clear that the tongue is hard to tame, and can be untamable. We can tame Flipper and Trigger and Shamu and Lassie. We can tame falcons to land on our wrists, pigeons to carry our messages, dogs to fetch the morning paper, elephants to stand on rolling balls, lions to sit on stools, porpoises to jump through hoops, and horses to do many different kinds of tricks. But the tongue is impossible to train.

Publius, the Greek sage, once said: “I have often regretted my speech, but never my silence.” King David put it even more bluntly: “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle” (Psalm 39:1). He knew that the muscle in your mouth often needed to be put in jail. Harnessing the tongue requires that we ask God to help us do the following three things:

  • Think first. Before your lips start moving, pause ten seconds to mentally preview the words you intend to use. Are they accurate or exaggerated? Kind or cutting? Necessary or needless? Wholesome or noxious? Grateful or complaining?
  • Talk less. The human tongue is only a few inches from the brain, but when you listen to some people talk, the two seem to be miles apart. Your chances of doing damage are directly proportional to the amount of time your mouth is open. Try closing it for a while.
  • Start today. A tongue four inches long can kill a person six feet tall. There may be times you should lock the muzzle on your mouth. You will not regret it. Arabella Young waited too long!

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Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Someone may ask, “Does this mean that God will give me anything, literally anything, for which I pray?” The short answer is “Absolutely not!” But He does answer every single prayer we pray in one of three ways – by saying “YES”, “NO” or “NOT NOW.”

If you are troubled because God did not answer a certain prayer you prayed, it is probably because one of the following three things is true: (1) If your request was wrong, God said “No”; (2) If your timing was wrong, God said, “Slow”; (3) If you were wrong, God said, “Grow.” But, if your request was right, your timing was right, and you were also right, God said, “Go”. Let us examine each of these possibilities briefly.

Some prayer requests, no matter how well intentioned, are inappropriate because the timing is wrong. For example, there was the time Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus to the top of a high mountain when He was transfigured along with Moses and Elijah. Peter came up with what he thought was a brilliant idea: “Master, let us build shelters up here on the mountain — one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah so that James, John, and I can stay on the mountain and bask in your glory” (Matthew 17:1-8). The request was totally inappropriate. Staying on the mountain is not what Jesus had in mind for them, and He said “No.”

Before bringing any of our prayer requests before the Lord in prayer there are four very important questions we should ask: (1) Will that for which I am praying glorify Christ? (2) Will it advance His kingdom? (3) Will it help or bless people? Will it enable me to grow spiritually?

When the timing of our prayer requests is wrong, God says, “Slow.” We live in an instant society, always trying to do everything faster. Freeways and supermarkets have express lanes. We are twenty miles from home and our children ask, “Are we there yet?” We want God to answer our prayers now – if not sooner! Instant gratification fits our idea much better than having to wait – even for the things we want God to do in answering our prayers. We do not know when the best time for God to answer any prayer is, but He does.

Sometimes God delays in answering a certain prayer to test our faith, or to give us time to modify our request. And sometimes He delays in order to give us time to develop our character qualities such as endurance, trust, patience and submission – qualities that come only when we wait patiently and trust God’s timing. A lot of spiritual gain comes through pain, hurt, struggle, confusion and disappointment. We may not be able to see God’s reasons for delaying an answer to our prayer, but we can trust God. He loves us.

The third reason why some of our prayers are not answered is that something is wrong in our own lives. For example, there is a barrier between us and God. We are so busy with other things that we take little time to bow before God in prayer. God delays to answer because He wants us to “Grow.” Prayer is more than asking God to run errands for us. Thinking of God only in terms of giving us what we want for ourselves portrays Him as our private genie. Prayer doesn’t work that way.

It is especially when our outlook is bad that we should try the up-look. Days hemmed in by prayer on both ends are not likely to come unraveled in the middle. Know this: God is never more than a prayer away.

It is when a prayer glorifies God, seeks to build His kingdom on earth, and is aimed at meeting human need that God says, “Go.”

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“Hypocrisy” is a dirty, repulsive, distasteful word. There isn’t anything about a hypocrite that is appealing. The word means “play acting, to play a part as an actor on a stage.” To do this, especially with great skill and feeling, is admirable. But to a play a role when only pretending to be a Christian is despicable. II Timothy 3:5 describes such a person as “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”

A hypocrite is a person who wears a mask to hide his true identity, a person who preaches by the yard and practices by the inch, a person who p-r-a-y-s on his knees on Sunday and p-r-e-y-s on his neighbors the rest of the week. In other words, he never intends to be what he pretends to be. It goes without saying that Jesus, during His earthly ministry, had an intense dislike for hypocrites.

Jesus showed compassion and forgiveness to the Samaritan woman at the well. He forgave the woman caught in the act of adultery. He ate in the homes of despised tax collectors. He healed and associated with lepers and the lame. But whenever He came into the presence of hypocrites, He saw red, and His blood pressure would go sky high. He called them “whited sepulchers” which appear beautiful on the outside, but on the inside they were full of dead men’s bones” (Matthew 23:27).

Hypocrisy generally demonstrates itself in the following ways:

Giving to be seen by others. Jesus said that giving should have as its object the meeting of a need, not to gain the recognition of other people. Trumpets were often sounded in the Temple before large gifts were thrown into the treasury. Such giving has as its motive the desire to impress others, not the meeting of needs. It is not given out of concern, but giving to be seen. Such giving provides no joy and receives no reward.

Praying to be heard by others. The Pharisees prayed on street corners and in the synagogue – in other words, in public places for the purpose of being seen and heard by others. They were not interested in talking to God; they only wanted the reputation of being praying persons. Such praying isn’t genuine prayer.

Fasting to be noticed by others. Jesus condemned such fasting, for it had no spiritual motive. He saw people who fasted with disfigured faces, who put on a peculiar kind of mourning garb, and who paraded before the public, striving desperately to impress others with their piety. The motivation behind such fasting was to try to appear more spiritual than they actually were. It is hypocrisy wearing a spiritual mask.

Faultfinding. Hypocrites tend to look for splinters in other people’s eyes even when they have a log sticking out of their own eye. Have you known any splinter hunters? Do you have any self-appointed faultfinders in your church? They perceive themselves to be experts at recognizing the faults of others, but they are unable to see their own. Jesus said that those who entertain themselves by finding fault in the lives of others perceive themselves to be spiritual surgeons, but they are practicing without a license.

Are you a splinter hunter or a faultfinder – if so, you are a sanctimonious “Pecksniffian.” I encourage you to go to the Great Physician and schedule a major operation upon your heart. Enroll in His School of Christian graces and take courses in sympathy, understanding, empathy, brotherly love, and Christian concern. If you will do that, you will be on the road to becoming more like Jesus Christ.

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Robert McQuilken, when he was a young man, dreamed of becoming the president of Columbia Bible College in Columbia, South Carolina. His father, whom he adored, had held that position, and he aspired to someday take his father’s place.

Not everyone has the opportunity to see a dream come true, but Robert McQuilken did. When he was chosen president he moved into the office his father had occupied with the firm conviction that it was God’s will. He served Columbia Bible College with distinction in the years that followed, and under his leadership it became a premier Christian institution. It has prepared literally thousands of young men for Christian service, both in the United States and overseas.

It was at this point that Dr. McQuilken had a tragedy on his hands. His wife began to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Her condition rapidly deteriorated and in a matter of months he found himself faced with dramatic consequences. She not only lost the memory of much of their life together, but she was unable to even recognize him. While I was serving as the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Sanford I saw the tragic impact of this disease on one of the finest Christian families I have ever served.

Dr. McQuilken knew that he had a very important decision to make, and he quickly made it. He resigned the presidency of Columbia College so he could give full-time care to his wife. It was a decision to which he did not give a second thought. He walked away from the position to which he had felt called by God as an act of love for his wife.

There were realists who told him that it did not make sense for him to do what he was doing. “There are lots of well-trained people who can take care of your wife,” they said, “but not everybody has the ability or training to be president of Columbia Bible College. Your wife would not know the difference, for she does not even recognize you when you come into the room to help her.”

Then there were the superficially pious critics who said to him, “You are walking away from a calling from God. No Christian should ever go AWOL from what God calls them to do. You are letting your personal concern for your wife interfere with your service for the Lord.” They were trying to make him feel guilty.

His answer to this criticism was magnificent: “I know she does not know who I am, but that is not the point. The really important thing is that I know who she is! I recognize her, though she is very forgetful, to be the same lovely woman I married many years ago.”

At this point he paused briefly, and spoke words to his critics that were profound: “There is only one thing more important than a calling,” he said, “and that is a promise. I promised both God and her on the day we were married that I would to be there for her ‘until death parts us.’”

America would be a much better country in which to live if there were more people like Robert McQuilken. He knew the difference between promises made and promises kept. Not everybody does! The strength of a nation depends upon the strength of its families. Many couples in our country live together outside the bonds of matrimony. And countless others view their union as a possible short-term option.

The difference between a short-term option and a lifetime contract? Knowing the value of a promise! Have you kept the promises you made to others? Have you kept the promises you made to God?

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