4 Ways to Celebrate Your First Love

celebrate“Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4 NKJV).

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30 ESV).

Have you noticed that we tend to celebrate what we love most? We might throw a party, sing songs, give gifts and eat cake. We might even write poetry-filled love letters when romance moves us. We can’t help ourselves. We celebrate, we worship what we love most.

Did you know that God cares about what we celebrate? I think it’s because we worship what we truly love. And God cares about that. He cares about our worship.

In the book of Revelation, Jesus told the church at Ephesus that although they had demonstrated perseverance and hard work for God, they had forsaken their “first love.”  It’s like Jesus was accusing them of letting all the romance go out of their relationship. It seems amazing, but God really wants us to love Him first. He loves us and He wants us to love Him back with priority.

So, how do we get the romance back? How do celebrate God’s Son as our “first love?”

In the book of Mark, certain religious leaders asked Jesus to give them the greatest commandment. In a sense he was asked to simplify all of the writings of Scripture down to one simple statement. Jesus didn’t hesitate. He gave them a simple command on how to make God their first love. We can hear and follow this same simple command to love God with priority by loving Him in four ways.

4 Ways to Celebrate Christ as Your First Love

1. Give God the first part of your week through passionate worship. Jesus tells us to love God “with all your heart.” The heart is a metaphor for the center of the self, which includes the will and emotion. One way that we can express our priority love for God with all our heart, is by willingly and passionately worshiping Him with the first part of our week, along with other believers.

Worship is like romance and like romance, we sometimes get it wrong. Two ways we can get it wrong are:

  • No passion. Our worship becomes a dry ritual. We just go through the motions.
  • No priority. We only worship when we don’t have anything better to do.

God wants both our passionate and priority worship. He is looking for whole-hearted worship.

2. Give God the first conversation of your day in focused prayer. Jesus tells us to love God “with all your soul.” The soul is another metaphor for the self. Unlike the heart, which represents the will and emotions, the soul seems to represent the personal identity or internal conversation of the self. As a lover might say to another, “A penny for your thoughts,” the Lord desires us to express our love for Him by sharing our inner thoughts with Him in prayer.

3. Give God the first thought of your day through biblical meditation. Jesus tells us to love God “with all your mind.” The mind is the seat of our intellect, the place where we consider and think. Just as we think about those we love, God wants us to think about Him with priority. A way we might express loving God with our minds is to meditate and study His Word.  When we study God’s Word, it helps “rewrite” our thinking. Studying God’s Word gives us both the mind and the language to love and worship God with priority.

4. Give God the first part of your substance through joyful offering. Jesus tells us to love God “with all your strength.” Strength represents our effort and indirectly the wages of our effort. When you love someone, you want to give of yourself to them. You want to share your time, talent and treasure with them. God asks that we love Him by offering ourselves fully to Him. We can express our priority love for God by giving Him the first part of our income and by giving Him the best part of our time and talent.

Are you celebrating God’s Son as your first love? Do you love Him with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength?

I wonder, what does Jesus think of our love for Him?

The 4 Commitments of Life Changing Small Groups

CG“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42 ESV).

We’re not a church with small groups. We’re a church of small groups. Our church started in my living room with seven people. So, we’ve considered small groups to be one of the keys to fulfilling our calling to make disciples from day one.

As our church has grown in attendance, we have continually launched more small groups, or “community groups,” as we call them. Over 75% of our weekend services attenders are involved in one of our community groups. We recognize the importance of growing big and small at the same time, so as our weekend attendance grows, we launch more groups. And we strive to keep our church calendar uncluttered to make it easier for members to follow the the weekly rhythm of meeting together in the “temple courts and from house to house” (Acts 2:46, 5:42).

But the real secret to our life-changing small groups are the four commitments of the first century church found in Acts 2:42. The Scripture says that they were devoted to 1) the apostle’s teaching, 2) the fellowship, 3) the breaking of bread and 4) the prayers. So, we decided to base our community group ministry on these same four commitments.

1. A Shared Faith (“The apostle’s teaching”). All of our groups study the sermon from that previous weekend. We plan our sermons a year in advance to make sure that we offer a balanced diet of expositional studies through books of the Bible, topical sermon series that address current needs, such as biblical parenting, marriage, and financial stewardship, and other sermon series that our teaching team prayerfully prepares to meet the unique needs or our flock. Our desire is that the community groups would help move the weekly sermon from head to heart, as members discuss and apply the Scripture to their lives. Our teaching team writes weekly community group discussion guides to help facilitate the shepherding of these groups. Having the whole church essentially studying the same Scripture every week is also a powerful unifier, which leads to the second commitment…

2. A Shared Family (“the fellowship”). The commitment to meet together weekly in one another’s homes creates a more family-like environment. The shared hospitality of sitting knee to knee with a beverage and Bible in hand makes for a more relational experience. The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia. This word could also be translated communion or participation. And that’s the key to this second commitment, we want people to actively participate in discussion and application of the Word of God to their lives. We’ve learned that people grow and are better discipled in circles than in rows. These groups help facilitate life on life discipleship.

3. A Shared Food (“the breaking of bread”). Sharing a meal together and regularly remembering the Lord’s Supper together is the third commitment. We train our community group shepherds to plan a weekly meeting that lasts around two hours. The first hour is to be devoted to fellowship and food, and the second hour to Bible study and prayer. There’s just something about eating together that breaks down barriers and enhances the sense of family.

4. A Shared Focus (“the prayers”). Praying together is the fourth commitment. We encourage our groups to keep this in balance with the other three commitments. We want our groups praying real and transparent prayers together. This takes time and trust. We’ve found that breaking up into men’s and women’s groups for prayer time often enhances the trust factor. Men and women are different. And they often have different prayer and communication habits. The key here is to be creative. Sometimes they might pray all together, sometimes in pairs or triplets, and sometimes according to gender.

When we first launch a new community group, we have them study Acts 2:42 together for the first four weeks before joining the rest of the church in studying the sermon. We’ve written a new group launch guide for this. We also encourage the group to appoint champions for each of the four commitments during the launch. The group shepherd will champion the apostle’s teaching, but will also name an apprentice. Then, they are to ask for volunteers to champion the other three commitments. So, each group has a fellowship champion, who keeps members informed of meeting times/places, birthdays and anniversaries; a food champion, who organizes the weekly meals; and a prayer champion, who records the prayer requests and keeps the group informed concerning the group’s prayer list.

By basing our small group ministry on the four commitments of the first century church, we have seen wonderful and miraculous life change in the members of our church. It is not always easy to stay committed to these four devotions. There is always a temptation to add or subtract or to emphasize one over the other. Sometimes it is like herding cats trying to convince people of the efficacy of this approach. But it has been our experience that when we steadfastly devote ourselves to these four commitments and keep them in balance, life change happens!

The joy and sorrow of cross cultural ministry

CrossCultural“And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” (Acts 14:27 ESV).

I’m a little sad. We recently had to close the door on our Hispanic ministry.

We launched our Spanish-speaking worship services on Easter Sunday 2012 and within two years we were seeing around 60 in attendance on Sunday mornings. It was such a joy to greet our members in two languages in our lobby each week:

“John and Sally, Good morning! How are you? … ¡Buenos dias, Miguel! ¿Cómo estás? … Hello Mary …  ¡Dios te bendiga, Lucero!” I had to switch back and forth between the two tongues until I became tongue-tied. And I loved it!

I even had to add a third language for a while, as we had a Haitian church meeting in our building on Sundays during most of 2012.

“Bonjour! Comment allez-vous? Dieu te bénisse! Bienvenue!” I would say, trying to remember my high school French, as I greeted the Haitian earthquake refugees gathered in one of our conference rooms for worship.

Those were exciting, yet challenging days, as we managed to have four Sunday morning services (Two in English, one in Spanish and one in French) in the same building each week. The Haitian church met with us for less than a year. They had their own pastor that traveled around Eastern NC preaching at several Haitian churches. We did several clothing and food drives for them, as many of them came to the States with little or nothing. They constantly expressed their thanks for our help, but we never quite broke through the cultural barrier to get a sense of oneness with them. I’m sure it was difficult for both sides to try and understand the other. Cross cultural ministry is hard.

However, our Hispanic ministry was different. Sure, we still had cultural challenges, but with them we were determined to be one church. Our vision was” One church, two languages.” We had separate, language specific, worship services, but we did children’s ministry, baptisms, picnics, outreaches and praise services together. Their children attended the same classes as ours. Once they reached preschool age, their children were bilingual, and able to enjoy being together with our English speaking kids. We translated our membership class and other materials into Spanish. We even attempted to preach the same sermons.

Yet, staying on the same page visionally was a continuous challenge. As long as we met with the Hispanic leaders weekly, things seemed to go pretty well. But these meetings were very taxing on me personally, as every word had to go through a translator, and it took great amounts of time to avoid misunderstandings in communication. So, I asked them to appoint someone from their congregation that was bilingual, that could act as their lay pastor, and also be the one who stayed in constant communication with me. They agreed and identified one of their own, so we appointed him as a lay pastor for our Hispanic members. We even enrolled him in a Hispanic school for pastors sponsored by our denomination.

It wasn’t long after this that our vision for one church, two languages began to diverge. I suppose I should have seen it coming. I don’t think our newly appointed lay pastor ever fully embraced the one church vision. He wasn’t part of the core group that we started with in 2012. And as he grew in influence as the lay pastor, I think they began to think of themselves as more and more, a separate church.

Little things started cropping up to reveal our growing disunity of vision. The Hispanics started entering through a side door rather than coming through the front door on Sundays (The lay pastor said that it made them nervous to come in the front door because they felt that everyone was staring at them). They had a baptism service at a campground for Hispanic believers without including the English speaking church. They started expressing concern with having their kids attend English speaking Sunday services together. And many other instances of a diverging vision became obvious.

So, we met with the lay pastor and other key leaders and asked if they wanted to be a separate church. We offered to change our relationship from one to two separate entities and offered that they could rent the same space from us until they found a place of their own. We did this because we didn’t want to act in a patronizing way towards them, which is always a risk in cross cultural ministry. God had called them to be part of us, but perhaps He was calling them to be a separate church plant now. They declined. They insisted that it was all a misunderstanding and that they wanted to stay one church with us.

However, things really didn’t improve much after this meeting. Apparently, there was also a difference of vision within the Hispanic church itself. Some wanted to be separate and some wanted to be one with us. And so, in the Spring of 2015, after a doctrinal disagreement with another Hispanic member, the lay pastor left to start a new church plant and took the majority of our Hispanic members with him. This left about 15 Hispanic members behind, who were actually among the first core group that we had started with in 2012.

We attempted to hit the restart button on our Hispanic ministry after this. The remaining members gave it a courageous effort, struggling for a year to grow. But the growth never came. When our Hispanic worship pastor accepted a call to another church, that was the last straw. The remaining Hispanic members decided to fold and go elsewhere. Our final meetings with them were filled with both laughter and tears, joy and sorrow, as we remembered all that the Lord had done among us and all that we had learned from one another.

And so, I’m a little sad as we close the door on our Hispanic ministry. I’m not sure what it all means. I’m convinced that God called us to start the ministry. I know that for a short season, He gave us an “open door” of ministry with our Hispanic neighbors. I don’t know why it has seemingly drawn to a close. But we’ve learned a lot about cross cultural ministry during this time (mostly what “not to do”). And when the opportunity comes for another “open door” to Hispanics or Haitians or whoever, I want us to be ready to say “Yes” and walk through the door once again.


What motivates your God questions?

GodQuestioning“And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years'” (Luke 1:18 ESV).

“And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?'” (Luke 1:34 ESV).

As a pastor, I get a lot of “God questions.” Yet, people are often apologetic in asking them. It’s as if they fear offending me, or worse yet, that they might offend God. I try to put them at ease.

“God isn’t afraid of your questions.” I often reply when questioners express concern.

I tell questioners this to keep the conversation going. After all, how can you learn if you don’t ask questions? However, I’ve noticed that some aren’t really interested in learning. Their questions are actually agnostic arguments. They are more like intellectual barrages of skepticism that they throw out to avoid trusting God. They aren’t really seeking understanding. They are expressing unbelief.

These two kinds of questioners can be found in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke. The first questioner was an older man named Zechariah and the second was a young woman named Mary. At first glance, their questions look very similar, yet upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the first was motivated by unbelief and the second by a desire for understanding.

Zechariah and his wife were advanced in years and had no children. When God sent the angel Gabriel to Zechariah to announce that his wife would soon give birth to a son, Zechariah questioned God’s Word. He asked, “How shall I know this?” Zechariah wasn’t asking for an explanation. He was asking for a sign. God’s Word wasn’t enough. He needed proof to believe. So, God gave it to him. He made old Zach a mute for nine months. It’s like God said, “Here’s your sign, Zechariah. You won’t be able to ask any more questions until you learn to trust Me.”

The second questioner was Mary. She was a young girl who had never been with a man and here was this angel telling her that she was about to conceive and bear a son who would be the Messiah. So, like Zechariah, she had a question. And at first, her question doesn’t sound that different from Zechariah’s. But the motivation for her question couldn’t be more opposite. While Zechariah’s question clearly expressed his heart of unbelief, Mary’s revealed her desire for understanding. She asked, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

Mary didn’t ask for a sign, or for proof. She didn’t doubt that God was going to give her a son. She didn’t express unbelief that she would be the mother of the Messiah. No, she just wanted to understand how a virgin could have a child. And so, God answered her with an explanation that she could understand. And then, she uttered one of the most profound faith statements in the Bible, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

I still try to put questioners at ease by telling them, “God isn’t afraid of your questions.” But lately I’ve been adding the instruction, “But be aware, He knows your heart. Does your question come from a heart of unbelief or a desire for understanding? Because how God answers your questions has more to do with your heart than your head.”

What motivates your God questions?

Loving the sojourner

Yuhan, Gary, Robin, & Lily in Jakarta, April 2016

Yuhan, Gary, Robin, & Lily in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 2016

“He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19 ESV).

What is a “sojourner?” The dictionary defines it as “one who resides temporarily in a place.” Other Bible versions translate it as “stranger, alien, or foreigner.” Or as they would say in the South, “You ain’t from around here, are ya?”

Over 15 years ago, my wife and I were having dinner at a local Chinese restaurant when we met a waitress named, Lily. We discovered that she was actually from Indonesia, a country that I had previously visited. Of course, I had to practice my few Indonesian phrases on her every time we visited the restaurant.

“Selamat sore, Lily! Apa kabar?” (“Good afternoon, Lily! How are you?”) I would shout out to her when I entered the restaurant.

“Baik, baik, terima kasih! Apa kabar?” (“Fine, fine, thank you! How are you?”) She’d answer, with a huge smile on her face. Obviously happy to have someone speak to her in her heart language.

After a time, we became very connected to Lily. We had her over to our house for meals. We helped her navigate some things like going to the dentist and hearing her struggles as a “sojourner” in America. She became like family to us.

One day when we visited the Chinese restaurant, Lily ran over to us very excited and said, “Good, good. I’m glad you’re here. I want you to meet someone new. His name is Yuhan and he is here from Indonesia too!”

Gary & Yuhan - Christmas 2001 in Wilson, NC

Gary & Yuhan – Christmas 2001 in Wilson, NC

So, we started including this young man named Yuhan in the invitations to our home too. He depended on Lily like a mother and it wasn’t long before he started referring to me as his “American father.”

One Christmas, we had Lily and Yuhan over for Christmas dinner. We hung stockings on our fireplace with their names. We ate, and sang Christmas songs, and gave out gifts. Lily and Yuhan were part of our family.

A few months later, Yuhan announced that he was returning home. We hugged and shared an emotional goodbye. We exchanged email addresses and wrote to one another a few times, but soon lost contact.

We continued to be close to Lily. She started attending our church. Her oldest daughter came to live in the States for a while and attended our youth group. Lily became an American citizen and recently started traveling back and forth to Indonesia to visit family.

Earlier this April, I led a small team to visit a missionary family our church had sent to work in Indonesia. Before we left, I contacted Lily to see if there was any way to get together with her while we were there. Unfortunately, her schedule and ours didn’t align. She was leaving Indonesia just as we were planning to arrive.

But as we were leaving the States, I got another email from Lily saying that she was extending her stay and wanted to meet with us in Jakarta the last two days before we planned to return. She would have to stay two extra weeks, buy a ticket to fly from Surabaya to Jakarta, and rent a hotel room there, but she was going to make it happen just to see us! We were surprised and humbled by her desire to be reunited with us. But the surprise didn’t end there.

As we were riding a taxi from the Jakarta airport to our hotel, I phoned Lily to see about planning dinner that evening with her. She was so excited. She said we would need two taxis to travel together to dinner. I told her we had room in our taxi for her, but she insisted that she already had two lined up because she had her daughter and some friends with her that wanted to go too.

Imagine my surprise when we arrived at the hotel and there stood Lily, her daughter, Amanda, another friend, and this smiling young man, nearly bursting with emotion at our arrival.

“Yuhan?!?” I shouted. Not meaning to ignore the others, but so surprised to see this older version of the young man from 15 years earlier.

“Yes, yes! You do remember me. I have waited 15 long years for this. I am so happy to see you again, my American father!” He exclaimed, as he ran towards me to embrace me in a hug.

“Where? Hmm… how did you know I was here?” I stuttered.

“Lily called me. So, I caught a flight from Singapore where I was working and booked a room here for the night. I wouldn’t miss seeing you and Mrs. Robin for the world!” He explained.

As we rode to dinner together, Yuhan told me that I was the only one in America who had ever invited him to their home while he worked in the States. Then, he pulled out his phone and showed us a photo he had of us together at my dining room table at Christmas in 2001 (photo above).

“See, I never forgot you!” He said, while pointing at the photo with tears welling up in his eyes.

GaryYuhan2“Now, I’m going to take you to dinner.” He announced. He insisted on paying for everyone’s meal. He even made sure that the restaurant that was closed when we arrived, remained open for us.

At the end of our time together, I told him, “I love you, Yuhan.” And he replied, “I love you, too.”

In the book of Deuteronomy, God told the Israelites to remember the time that they were “sojourners” in Egypt and how He had loved and cared for them. God commanded them to “love the sojourner,” just as He did.

After all, we are all just sojourners in this world. Yet, God has loved us so much that He sent Jesus to make a way for us to become citizens of heaven. It is the love of Christ that urges us to love the sojourner in our land. It was Christ’s love that moved us to love Lily and Yuhan when they were living in the States.

And I believe that it was God’s love that moved them to surprise us when we were sojourners in their land too.


Two tombs that point to resurrection life

The Garden Tomb

The Garden Tomb

“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again. ‘ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:23-26 ESV).

The Greek word ἀνάστασις (anastasis) is translated “resurrection.” Literally, it means to cause one to stand up again. This is a physical word that points to a physical reality. Jesus claims that this word is more than an eschatological doctrine that gives us hope at funerals. He claims to be the resurrection and the life. Resurrection is more than a principle to believe. It is a Person to know.

Jesus’ resurrection claim has left a historical footprint in Israel in the form of two tombs: the Garden Tomb and the tomb of Lazarus. While visiting Israel three years ago, we saw many ancient ruins and grave sites, but one of the most meaningful was the Garden Tomb near Gordon’s Calvary.

IMG_5577The Garden Tomb is one of several possible locations for Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built over one of the traditional sites, but the church building hides any idea of what the site may have originally looked like. The Garden Tomb on the other hand is preserved in such a fashion that allows for meditative viewing. Our tour group spent considerable time there and I was even privileged to lead them in a communion service near the empty tomb.

IMG_5619The Garden Tomb has been maintained by a nondenominational charitable trust from the United Kingdom since 1894 named The Garden Tomb Association. It is near the Damascus Gate outside Old Jerusalem. We stayed at a hotel only a 5-minute walk away from the Garden Tomb and enjoyed stopping by nearly everyday. The association does not charge for entry, but does accept donations and runs a small store for support. We loved having our morning quiet times here!

Tomb of Lazarus

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the tomb of Lazarus in the West Bank town of al-Eizariya (Arabic for “The Town of Lazarus”). We were on a 10-day tour of Israel, followed by another 8 days on our own, but there is so much to see that we just didn’t get to it. Plus, getting to it is complicated by the fact that the traditional town which was once called “Bethany,” now lies on the other side of the wall in a Palestinian controlled area. I regret that we didn’t visit. It is only a couple of miles away from Jerusalem. Perhaps on a future trip. We’d really love to go back some day.

These two tombs tell a story. Both are empty today. Both match the appearance as described in the Bible. Both held a dead body for at least three days. The one in Bethany was occupied by Lazarus until Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth!”

IMG_5622The one outside the walls of Jerusalem was occupied by Jesus until the first day of the week over 2,000 years ago when the One who said, “I AM the Resurrection” stood up and left it empty till this day!

Resurrection life has conquered death. So, that whoever believes in Christ, though they die, yet shall they live!

Easter means… hope

0278=278“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3 ESV).

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ Name” (Edward Mote).

In the dictionary’s definition of the word “hope,” it describes three aspects (I have put this into my own words):

  1. Its basis. That which makes up the foundation for our expectation that our great desire will be satisfied.
  2. Its nature. That which describes the quality and strength of our future longing and its affect on us in the present.
  3. Its object. That which is the focus of our expectation. This is the future something or someone that we focus our desire upon obtaining.

I think Edward Mote (1797-1874), the founding pastor of Rehoboth Baptist Church in Horsham, West Sussex, England must have been contemplating these three aspects of hope when he penned the words to that great hymn, “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less.” Published in 1837, this hymn became an instant classic.

Mote declared, “My hope is built” on Christ! Mote sees Christ’s work on the cross, his “blood and righteousness” as the foundation, the basis of our hope.  I agree. But I would further add that which the apostle Peter proclaimed, that our hope is built on Christ’s resurrection. In other words, the basis for Christian hope is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our hope is built on the historical reality of Christ’s work.

Mote says that this hope is not mere “trust” in a sweet “frame” of mind. No, it is based on the firm foundation of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. This also speaks to its nature. Christian hope is a “living hope” as Peter described it. Its quality lies in its connection to the living Lord Jesus, who abides in those who believe on him. This hope is not merely an optimistic or positive “frame” of mind, but a strong conviction that all is well and that all will be well because of the living Christ. As Mote wrote in verse three of his hymn, “When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my Hope and Stay.”

Christ’s resurrection is the basis of our hope. Christ’s abiding Spirit within us is the nature of our hope. And Christ’s return is the object of our hope. As Mote wrote in his final verse and chorus:

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh may I then in Him be found.
Dressed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

Christ is our living hope!

Stop going to church

BeChurch“Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22 NKJV).

“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, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47 NKJV).

“…upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 KJV).

Stop going to church?

Jesus commanded us to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19), but He never told us to go to church. In fact, the only “going” He commanded, was to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15). Jesus never told us to go to church because the Bible never describes it as a place to go, but a people to be.

Today, we have too many people who go to church and not nearly enough who actually understand what it means to be the church. Consider the description of the first-century church in the book of Acts. Their devotion to God and to one another, their visible witness, their gladness, and favor with outsiders; all these characteristics were evidence of the Spirit of Christ in their community. This Spirit-filled, family of God, confessing “Christ as Lord” with their mouths as well as their manner, was the “rock” upon which the “Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

The church, as the people of God, is to be the visible manifestation of the body of Christ in this world. The existence of the true church should be one of the strongest proofs of God’s activity and presence. It is to be, as the apostle Paul told the Ephesians, the “household of God built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.” And as Paul told the church at Corinth, our meetings should be so Spirit-filled and Word-rich that unbelievers would “fall to their knees and worship God, declaring, ‘God is truly here among you!’” (1 Cor. 14:25).

Unfortunately, the hypocrisy of those who only go to church, instead of being the church, has become an actual hindrance to the gospel receptivity of unbelievers. The church that should be an attraction to unbelievers, repels instead.

What can we do?

Stop just going to church and start being the church. Because the church is not the steeple, it’s the people. It’s not a place to go, but a people to be. It’s not a building filled with fine furnishings, but a faith-filled, family of Christ-followers. Pray that God would make our church a gospel-saturated, Spirit-filled, graceful and generous people, so that He can add to our number daily those who are being saved.

Let’s stop just GOING to church and start BEING the church, then Christ will BUILD the church.

Proclamation follows passion

TalkingHeart“In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV).

“What you say flows from what is in your heart” (Luke 6:45 NLT).

Have you noticed? We tend to talk about whatever we are passionate about. If we love football, we will talk about the latest game or draft pick with a total stranger. If we love a new restaurant, we proclaim its food and atmosphere on social media to all who will listen. If we’re recently engaged to marry, no one can stop the bride-to-be from showing off her new engagement ring. It’s what we do. We just naturally talk about what or who we love. Proclamation follows passion!

This is what the apostle Peter was writing about in his first epistle. He knew that believers were often afraid to share their faith in Christ with others for fear of disapproval or persecution. Yet, he also knew that if believers elevated Christ to the highest place in their hearts, honoring Him as the Lord, then they would always be “prepared” to talk about their faith to others. Fear of persecution would not stop their proclamation because they would “fear” dishonoring Christ more than any fear of disapproval by others.

According to surveys by Barna, only 73% of born again believers believe that they have a personal responsibility to share their faith. And only 52% say they have actually shared their faith with someone else in the past year (George Barna, “Is Evangelism Going Out of Style?”).

Why is this? Why aren’t born again Christians sharing their faith? Here are some “reasons” that people give:

  • Lack of knowledge. “Fear that a question will be asked that I can’t answer.”
  • Rejection. “Fear that the person won’t like me.”
  • Disapproval. “Fear that the person will think I’m being too religious or uncool.”
  • Impolite. “It isn’t politically correct to discuss religion.”
  • No desire. “I’m an introvert. I don’t want to talk to anyone.”

There may be many more “reasons” that believers are giving for not witnessing, but the truth of the matter is not found in the external world, but in the heart. If we are afraid to talk about our hope in Christ with others, we may blame it on many things, but the real reason is found in our hearts. For as Jesus said, “Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.” If we are silent about our hope in Christ, then we have not set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts.

Dear friends, as we approach the Easter season, let us examine our hearts. Have we set apart Christ as Lord? Do we “honor” Him as holy and above all things? Do we want to please Him above all others?

When we love Christ with all of our heart, mind and soul, we won’t be able to stop talking about Him. Proclamation follows passion.

Gospel-centered living

Gospel Centered Living_3 Strands (Black)“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5-6 ESV).

Over the next few weeks we will be discussing how making the gospel the center focus of our lives will result in a kind of three cord strand of evangelistic living. These three strands include: building relationships, sharing the gospel, and introducing people to our community of believers. Together, these three pursuits will not only reflect our gospel-centeredness, but will result in gospel-saturated lives that create an invitational culture that will bring those far away from God near.

In the book, Total Church, the authors write about this idea of living “gospel-saturated” lives:

TotalChurch“We need Christian communities who saturate ordinary life with the gospel. The communities to which we introduce people must be communities in which “God-talk” is normal. This means talking about what we are reading in the Bible, praying together whenever we share needs, delighting together in the gospel, and sharing our spiritual struggles, not only with Christians but with unbelievers. We want our life together to be gospel-saturated. We want to live and talk the gospel as part of our shared life.” – Tim Chester; Steve Timmis. Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community.

The apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Colossae about how they could live lives that were marked by this kind of gospel saturation. Using the word “walk” to describe the ordinary, day-to-day coming and going of their lives, Paul encouraged them to live with the kind of “wisdom toward outsiders” that would open up opportunities for gospel sharing. Knowing that outsiders would be attracted to the wisdom and grace of gospel-centered living, Paul advised the Colossians to be ready to “answer” them with the gospel reason for their behavior.

This kind of gospel-centered living changes our ordinary days into extraordinary ones as we see “outsiders,” people who are far from God, brought near by the gospel that they see demonstrated in us.

As we approach the Easter season, we are redoubling our focus on making disciples that live gospel-centered lives. With this in mind, we are offering four Easter weekend services this year, so our members will have more options for inviting others to hear the gospel. In order to put more focus on these additional services, we decided to cancel our usual Easter EGGstravaganza event.

So, remind me again why we cancelled Easter EGGstravaganza?

Sure, this event was very successful at attracting large numbers of people to our campus (Over 3,000 attenders last year), but we really couldn’t point to anyone who came to faith or starting attending our church as a result. The event did make us quite famous in Wilson and certainly made us a lot of friends, but it didn’t appear to be leading “outsiders” into our gospel community.

We have not given up on doing special outreach events, but we are determined to carefully evaluate every event to make sure it is leading people closer to hearing and receiving the gospel.

So, this year we decided to take the money and effort that we normally spend on Easter EGGstravaganza and put it towards actually inviting outsiders to attend one of our Easter weekend services. We are mailing out 12,500 postcard invites to our Easter weekend services. These postcards have been carefully selected to go to households that have children and will advertise our Easter services, as well as a fun egg hunt opportunity for the kids after every service. We are also printing 2,000 doorhangers that we will hang during our annual Hope Station food drive and we are giving out special Easter invite cards to our members to pass along to their friends.

As Chester and Timmis say in Total Church:

“Major events have a role to play in church life, but the bedrock of gospel ministry is low-key, ordinary, day-to-day work that often goes unseen. Most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality.”

The truth is, most people visit our church because they were personally invited by a friend or family member. This is where the real gospel work takes place. One gospel-centered person deciding to befriend, share and invite an outsider to come inside and experience the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.