My heaven series booklist…

Many of you have been asking for a list of the books I’ve been referencing over the past six weeks during our sermon series, “HEAVEN: It’s Better Than You Ever Imagined.” So I thought I’d post about it today. Here are some of the books I read in preparation for the series on heaven..

HEAVEN by Randy Alcorn is like an encyclopedia on heaven. I found Alcorn’s book to be the most quoted by other authors and pastors in their books and sermons on heaven. Other than the Scriptures, Alcorn’s book was the most helpful overall to my study on heaven. Most of the book’s 46 chapters are titled as questions, like: “What is life like in the present heaven?” Or “Will we be ourselves?” Or “Will we eat and drink on the new earth?” It’s 778 pages means that it’s not a book to read in one sitting, but if you’re looking for a comprehensive book on what the Bible says about heaven, this is the one. As Rick Warren said of the book, “This is the best book on Heaven I’ve ever read.”

The two books that I found most helpful to preparing my sermon series on heaven were The Real Heaven: What the Bible Actually Says by Chip Ingram and A Place Called Heaven: 10 Surprising Truths About Your Eternal Home by Robert Jeffress. Both of these books are very easy to understand and clearly come out of both of these pastor’s own sermons on heaven. This makes both books very readable for the lay person and very helpful to the young pastor who might need help organizing a sermon series on heaven. Both books quote freely from Alcorn’s book.

Two other books that I found very helpful are All About Heaven by David Oliver and The Glory of Heaven: The Truth About Heaven, Angels, and Eternal Life by John MacArthur. Oliver’s book was motivated by the death of his 38 year old son after a short but courageous fight with cancer. This makes his book very heartfelt and helpful for the one who might be grieving the loss of a loved one. MacArthur’s book, like the two books by pastors mentioned above, comes out of his preaching ministry. It contains clear exposition of the Scriptures on heaven, yet MacArthur is also willing to imagine what heaven might be like from his biblical studies.

A book that I didn’t quote as freely from in my series on heaven is Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N. T. Wright. I appreciated Wright’s book in that in clarified the difference between the intermediate state, or what I’ve been calling the “Present Heaven” or “Paradise,” and the New Heavens and the New Earth. Wright offers a needed correction to the way we often muddle the intermediate state and the final state together. His book makes it clear that God’s ultimate plan for redeemed humanity is to be raised up with new bodies living in the new heavens and a new earth. However, his book fails to offer much about the Present Heaven.

Another book that I didn’t quote from very much that really affected me emotionally is Preparing for Heaven: What Dallas Willard Taught Me About Living, Dying, and Eternal Life by Gary Black, Jr. As many of you know, I was able to attend a conference with Dallas Willard some years ago and got to go out to dinner with him and spend personal time with him. Our time together had a profound affect on me. He was both brilliant and humble. He treated my like family. I’ve read most of his Christian books and have felt mentored by Dallas through them. So to read of Dallas’ thoughts on heaven as well as Black’s record of his last words as he sat by his bedside in his final moments, was very moving to me. This book is less about an organized study of heaven and more about moving you to be prepared for heaven.

I read many other books on this topic, but these were the ones I leaned on most heavily for my sermon series. I also listened to dozens of sermons on heaven by David Jeremiah, John MacArthur, Colin Smith, Chip Ingram, Greg Laurie, and others. I would commend the sermons by these pastors to you, which are easily discovered on the internet.

I hope this list of books on heaven will bless you as it has me.


“And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.” – Mark 15:37 (ESV)

On this Good Friday let us meditate upon the seven last words of Jesus from the cross:

  1. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
  2. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
  3. “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26).
  4. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34).
  5. “I thirst” (John 19:28).
  6. “It is finished” (John 19:30).
  7. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46).

These seven last words are like seven diamonds on a necklace, each perfect in color, clarity and cut, but varying in caret. They hang in three groups, three sayings each in the first and last group and one saying of greatest weight hanging prominently in the middle. 

In the first group of three, Jesus expressed his concern for those surrounding the cross. To the Jewish leaders who had condemned Him and the Roman soldiers who were crucifying Him, He said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” To the thief hanging on the cross next to Him, He said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” And to His mother He said, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple John, “Behold, your mother!”

In the last group of three, He expressed His determination to accomplish His purpose, saying:  “I thirst,” and “It is finished,” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”

In the middle, He cried out in despair as He experienced the weight of sin fall on Him and separation from His Father, so that He called on Him as God, saying: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Notice that Jesus’ last statement from the cross before He died was similar to His first. Like bookends to His seven last words, these two are prayers and in both, He addressed them to His Father, saying: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” 

This last saying is like a child’s prayer, a cry for reunion. The Son is ready to go home to His Father. “Father, I’m ready to come home!” He cried. “Come and get Me, Abba!”

In 2017, we preached a seven week sermon series entitled, “SEVEN WORDS: A Study of Christ’s Seven Last Words.” If you’d like to watch those seven sermons, you can click on the link above. In preparation for our series, we worked to verify the last sayings of Christ, discover which gospels reported them, and place them in the best chronological order. Here is a link to a PDF of the chart that we made: “A STUDY OF THE SEVEN LAST WORDS OF JESUS FROM THE CROSS.” You really should take a look at this chart because it will help orient you to the way the four gospels together give us a fuller picture of Christ’s last words from the cross.

The great British expositor, C. H. Spurgeon has said on this subject, “There is a fulness of meaning in each utterance which no man shall be able fully to bring forth, and when combined they make up a vast deep of thought, which no human line can fathom.”

Yet, we would invite you to join us this day, as we endeavor to try and fathom them, diving deep into these seven last words of Jesus to meditate on their meaning.


Visiting The Church of the Holy Sepulcher

“And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’” (Luke 22:15 ESV).

This coming Sunday begins what many Christians call Holy Week or Passion Week. It is called “Passion” week because of its connection to the Greek word πάσχω (pas’-kho), which means to feel heavy emotion or passion, especially due to suffering. This is the word that Jesus used to describe His coming crucifixion.

A wonderful way to remember Christ’s passion is to visit the Holy Land. I’ve had the privilege of visiting Israel several times. In the attached photo, I’m visiting The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is the traditional location of the empty tomb. Here, I’m touching the Stone of Anointing, a slab of reddish stone flanked by candlesticks and overhung by a row of eight lamps. It commemorates the place where the body of Jesus was laid, anointed, and prepared for burial.

But you don’t have to go to Israel to remember Christ’s suffering and resurrection. In fact, all the church buildings, slabs and memorials added through the ages by well-meaning church folk can be a distraction. I’ve found that reading the Scriptures that describe the Lord’s final week leading up to the Cross, the Tomb and the Resurrection to be just as moving and beneficial to my spiritual life. With this in mind, I offer this daily reading plan for Passion Week for your edification.

  • Palm Sunday – The Triumphal Entry. Read Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, and John 12:12-19.
  • Monday – Clearing the Temple. Read Matthew 21:10-19; Mark 11:12-18, Luke 19:45-48, and John 2:13-22.
  • Tuesday – Teaching in the Temple. Read Matthew 21:23-24:51; Mark 11:27-13:37, and Luke 20:1-21:36.
  • Wednesday – Resting In Bethany. Read Matthew 26:1-16 and Mark 14:1-11.
  • Thursday – Last Supper & Gethsemane. Read Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-23, and John 13:1-30.
  • Good Friday – Trial & Crucifixion. Matthew 27:1-56; Mark 15:1-41, Luke 22:66-23:50, and John 18:28-19:37.
  • Saturday – In the Tomb. Read Matthew 27:57-66; Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, and John 19:38-42.
  • Easter Sunday – The Resurrection. Read Matthew 28:1-13; Mark 16:1-20, Luke 24:1-49, and John 20:1-31.

In addition to the daily Scripture readings, you might want to watch my daily video devotions for Passion Week. These were originally in recorded in 2020 as Facebook live events, so they’re pretty unprofessional. But the content is there and hopefully it’s beneficial and encouraging. You can follow this link to watch them:  Passion Week Devotions.

There are two weeks recorded in the Bible that the Lord inspired its writers to make daily diary entries. They are the seven days of creation and the seven days of Passion Week. In the first week, He made the world, and in the second, He brought our redemption. God must have thought these two weeks important enough to keep a journal…

… And one worthy of our reading and meditation.

Eastgate celebrates 32 years!

Happy 32nd Anniversary Eastgate Church!

Over 32 years ago, on Sunday, November 17, 1991, we held an organizational meeting in our home to discuss the idea of planting a church. We invited around 40 people to attend. Fifteen people came. At the end of the meeting, I handed out index cards asking those present to express their commitment to be a part of a church plant. Ten people committed to help. We agreed to name the church, Wilson Community Church.

On Sunday, December 8, 1991, we held the first small group meeting in our home. We invited the fifteen from the first meeting to attend, plus all those we had invited before. Five people came. Counting Robin and I, that made seven people.  But we weren’t discouraged. We kept meeting weekly and the Lord kept adding to our number.

By mid January 1992, our first small group had grown to three groups. We averaged around 26 adults in weekly attendance between the three groups. So, we decided to launch a Sunday morning worship service. We thought renting a school would make for a good location. After visiting several schools around Wilson, we felt that Forest Hills Middle School had the best visibility and the most functional auditorium for our needs.

So we launched our first public worship service in the FHMS auditorium on January 26, 1992 . We had 66 people attend our first service. Little did we know that day that we would be renting FHMS for the next 15 years!

After 19 years of doing portable church, 15 years at FHMS and 4 years at Community Christian School, we purchased the former Regal Cinema in September 2010. We remodeled much of the building, turned one of the six theaters into our worship space, and started meeting for worship there on May 1, 2011.

On Sunday, September 27, 2015, we launched our second campus in Rocky Mount, NC, at Rocky Mount Academy. We named our second campus, “Eastgate Community Church.” My son Jonathan, and his wife Nicole, planted our second campus, continuing our tradition of renting a school for our worship services. After two years at RMA, we leased space in a small strip center on Highway 301 and continue to meet there since September 2017.

In 2022, after celebrating 30 years as Wilson Community Church, we changed the name of our Wilson campus to Eastgate Church, reflecting our vision of being one church, two locations. And our vision to continue planting more churches in Eastern NC.

Looking back on 32 years of ministry, there’s so much to remember and to be thankful for. But I mostly remember the little things, the days of small beginnings, and how God has faithfully built His church and helped us to be faithful to be His church.

Praise God for 32 years!


“18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” (Matthew 4:19 ESV).

I have noticed two opposite extremes in our generation concerning commitment. The first is a real hesitancy or even the fear of actually committing to anything. Some psychologists attribute this to what they call, “the paradox of choice.” The paradox of choice suggests that an abundance of options actually requires more effort to choose and can leave us feeling unsatisfied with our choice.

I have to admit to feeling this “paradox of choice” when I stand in line at a new sandwich shop with the cashier impatiently waiting for me to decide. I’m overwhelmed with all the many items on the menu board. How am I supposed to commit to a choice between the “Cackle Croissant” and the “Salami Slapstick,” or the “Turkey Tease” (Sandwich shops have the funniest names for their menu items)?

The other extreme that I’ve observed is a tendency to over-commit. This person says “yes” to everything. They commit themselves to so much that they are unable to fulfill any of their commitments. The net result in some ways is similar to the first extreme. Committing to everything is like committing to nothing. Making real commitments that we actually keep means we have to say “no” to lesser things.

The call of Jesus gives us the foundation for all our other commitments. He called his disciples to a simple, focused commitment to follow him. Looking at his call in Matthew, there appears to be three simple commitments implied in this following of Jesus:

  1. A commitment to His Person. He calls us saying, “Follow ME” His call is not to a religion, but to a relationship. It’s not to a philosophy, but to a person, the person of Jesus Christ. Leaving behind our own priorities and worshiping him with priority is the first commitment.
  2. A commitment to His people. Notice that Christ’s call was to be one of His disciples. You can’t follow Jesus without hanging out with His disciples. He calls us to be members of His family.
  3. A commitment to His purpose. He calls us to an adventure, to be “fishers of men,” making the proclamation of the Gospel our life’s pursuit and purpose. 

There’s real power for life-change in making a few focused and simple commitments to Jesus. Are you ready to commit?

I’m Bound for That City

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2 ESV).

I’m on my annual study retreat this week and I’ve been working on a sermon series about heaven for Spring 2024. So when the New Testament reading from the One Year Bible yesterday was from Revelation 21, it turned my usual morning devotion into a day long meditation on God’s holy city, the New Jerusalem. I’ve always been drawn to John’s vision of this great heavenly city where all the saints of God will one day dwell, but yesterday was different. Because in addition to already having my mind on heaven, I received a text message yesterday morning from my sister telling me that my mother’s eldest sister, my dear aunt Jerri had graduated to heaven. She was 93.

My Aunt Jerri was a force to be reckoned with. She was beautiful, engaging, intelligent, and when it seemed called for, she could be a little intimidating. She was a second mom to me. When my father died, she insisted that we live with her until my mom was able to care for us. I still remember her sitting up late with me at her kitchen table in Wayne, Michigan. Just the two of us. She would patiently discuss my questions about my dad and heaven and what the Bible said about such things. I was only eight years old, but she didn’t talk down to me. She treated me like I was old enough to discuss such things as an adult would.

She would say, “Your dad made me promise that I would talk to you like an adult. He told me, ‘Jerri, I’ve always talked to Gary like he was a little man. He’s used to that. Please promise me that you’ll talk to him as I have when I’m gone.’ So, I promised him that I would.”

And she always did.

My last visit with my Aunt Jerri was to her bedside at a nursing home. She didn’t recognize me at first. She had declined mentally in her 90s. As she stared at me, wondering who I was. I reminded her, “I’m Gary. I’m your sister Wilda’s boy.”

“Gary, you’re Gary. Oh, I know you. You’re Wilda’s boy!” She said, pulling my face to hers, and smiling with tears in her eyes. “But where’s Wilda?” She asked. “And where’s mom and dad?”

Not knowing how to answer, I looked to her daughter, my cousin, Glenna, who answered, “Momma, Wilda’s in heaven. And so is your mom and dad. They’re all in heaven.”

“Ohh…” She groaned, as if hearing it for the first time, sadly covering her face. But then her demeanor suddenly changed. Dropping her hands to the bed, she looked sternly into my eyes and asked, “Then why am I still here?”

Why indeed. I didn’t know how to answer her that day. But today, she finally has the answer. She is not here. She is with the Lord.

My meditation on heaven and my thoughts of my Aunt Jerri led me to a remembrance of an old hymn, entitled, “I’m Bound for that City.” It was written and composed in 1954 by Albert E. Brumley and the Brumley brothers. I heard the song many times sung by the Willow Branch Quartet, of which my mother Wilda Dillon Combs was the lead singer. I don’t have a recording of her quartet doing it, but I’m happy to have a recording of my mother singing it solo on her 1975 album, “Wilda & Mom.” I’ve included the recording on this blog below, along with a montage of photos of my mother, her family, her childhood home and church. I’ve also included the lyrics below. May it bless your soul and may it turn your thoughts towards heaven!

I’m Bound for That City
There’s a city of light
Where cometh no night
And the sun never sets in the sky
In the Bible we’re told
That the streets are pure gold
And a cool gentle river runs by
I’m bound for that city
God’s holy white city
Oh yes I am
I’ll never turn back to this world anymore
No matter how rough may be the way
No matter how oft I stop to pray
I’m bound for that city
On that ever green shore
Little children will play
And our hearts will be gay
As we stroll through the city of gold
No more dying up there
No more sorrows to bear
For nobody will be feeble or old
I’m bound for that city
God’s holy white city
Oh yes I am
I’ll never turn back to this world anymore
No matter how rough may be the way
No matter how oft I stop to pray
I’m bound for that city
On that ever green shore

Adapting Your Parenting Style to the Child

1 Thessalonians 2:7-12 (ESV) 7But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. 9For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. 11For you know how, like a father with his children, 12we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

I’m a father, a grandfather, and I’ve been a pastor for over thirty-one years. So, I’ve thought a lot about parenting and I’ve received a lot of questions about it from others throughout the years. Questions like:

  • “How and when should I discipline my child?”
  • “How old should they be for being potty trained?”
  • “When is my child old enough to confess faith in Christ?”
  • “What about baptism and the Lord’s Supper?”
  • “How can I be sure that they are saved?”
  • “What do I do about my rebellious teen?”
  • “How do address my adult child?”

In answering these questions, we have God’s Word as our guide, but we must also take into account the child’s level of maturity. Have you noticed that every child is unique? No two are the same. And as they grow, they change. So the parenting style that seemed effective when they were small, doesn’t work when they’re older. These differences require different parenting styles. 

Parenting is affected by your child’s age (maturity), ability (mental and physical) and their heart (will). As children grow to maturity, their mental understanding moves from thinking in concrete ways to more abstract thought. So, our parenting style must adapt to the child. In addition, what works with one child may not work with another. So, we must seek to understand and know them. The chart above offers a helpful way of seeing how children progress in their spiritual formation and mental development based on their age.

Looking at the way the apostle Paul ministered to the Thessalonians, that he was like a “mother” (7) and a “father” (11) to them, shows how Paul adapted his “parenting style” to fit where these new believers were in their spiritual journey. Notice the three verbs he used in verse 12 to describe how he led them. He said that he “exhorted, encouraged, and charged” them to follow after the Lord. Each verb reveals a different mentoring or parenting style that shows how to adapt your parenting style to your child.


First, the verb “exhorted” (Greek: “parakalountes“) means to beseech, to admonish, or exhort. Literally, it means “calling alongside.” In other words, it means to “show and tell.” When is this parenting style most needed? When your children are young. 

A helpful model for illustrating this is found in Ron Campbell’s book,  Situational Parenting. Look at this diagram I adapted from the book. I have added my thoughts in red. The “S1” situation, when the child is between the ages 0-6, calls for this “exhorting” style. This style is high guidance, high authority and directive. A parent’s job at this age is to show and tell them what to do and how to respond. This is not the time to be offering choices and explaining reasons. This is the time to teach obedience and for them to learn in concrete ways the rules of living under your authority.


The second verb Paul used to describe his parenting style was “encouraged” (Greek: “paramutheomai”). It means to comfort, encourage, console, or admonish. This is another “para” (“alongside”) word, so it’s very relational. But instead of a “come alongside to see and do as I say,” it is more of a “you can do it and I’m right here with you” style. This moves the parent from a directing role into a coaching role where the child is willing, but is still developing the skill-sets to do things well. 

Notice the shift from “guiding and directing” in S1 to “explaining and persuading” in S2. Children in the 7-12 age group are moving from concrete to more abstract thinking. When the parent has done a good job using the “show and tell” style in the early years, parenting the child in the “S2” ages 7-12 season can be one of the most encouraging and joyful seasons of parenting. It is also the most critical time spiritually for most children. For they are the most receptive and open to the gospel in this season of life. Most people who come to faith in Christ made the decision during this phase of life.


The third verb Paul used to describe his parenting style was “charged” (Greek: “martureō). It means to bear witness, to testify, to charge. Paul used this final style to prepare those he had discipled to go and live in a “manner worthy of God” as he had taught and modeled to them.

The “charge and send” parenting style is the one that parents should hope to use in the child’s teenage years. This is the season when the parent should be able to slowly transition from using an authoritative style to one of influence. This is the season when you’ve already taught them how to ride a bike, you’ve already gone out riding with them and taught them about safety and the rules of the road. Now it’s time to let them ride out of your sight without you riding alongside them. It’s the time to slowly give them more and more freedom, while still maintaining final authority.

Parents often make themselves and their teens miserable during this phase because they use the skill set from S1 instead of S3 here. They do this usually because they were too lax in the early years and now they try to make up for it. Ideally, this should be the years that they are releasing them. Like a countdown to a launch. 

This is the phase when I used to say to my teenage children as they were leaving on a date or going out with friends, “Remember who you are and whose you are!” 

“Yes Dad.” They’d reply.

“So, say it.” I’d answer.

“I’m a child of God. And I belong to God.” They’d say as the hurried to leave.

“And don’t you ever forget it!” I’d shout as they departed.


This is the final phase of parenting and it never really ends. If parents are faithful to raise up their children in the Lord, actively doing the hard work of fathering and mothering, then their children eventually become more like friends. And the children view their parents as mentors and honor them all the days of their life.

In this phase, the parent must learn to release their adult children to the Lord. They must withhold unsolicited advice, learning to wait for their children to ask for help. In this season, parents must learn to direct their care to the Lord in prayer and to let the Lord direct their children’s and their grandchildren’s steps. This is the season when the parent no longer leads by authority, but by influence.

5 reasons our church looks like a game show this week…

“Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.” – Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:22b-23 (NLT)

‘But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”‘ – Jesus, Luke 18:16 (ESV)

If you come to our church this week, or for that matter, you just drive by the building, you’ll see some pretty unusual features added to our windows and interior. Our church looks like a game show!


Yep. We’ve made some temporary modifications to make our building look like a game show set. Not only that, but we’re dressing the part, and we’ve even written songs and lessons and designed crafts and activities around the game show theme.


Let me give you five reasons:

  1. Because kids today love watching game shows and especially love being able to participate in them. We know that our members will bring their kids to any kind of VBS type event  just because we offer it. But we wanted to do something that would cause kids in the city, that don’t normally go to church, to beg their parents to bring them. As the apostle Paul taught, we are trying to find “common ground” with unreached families in our city in order to share the gospel with them.
  2. Because kids are the most open to the gospel. That’s why Jesus instructed His disciples not to do anything to “hinder” kids from coming to Him. We’re making our church kid-friendly because we want to give them the gospel in a way that they can understand.
  3. Because when we reach kids, we also reach their parents. One of the main reasons that people begin attending church is because one of their children starts asking “God-questions.” You know, stuff like: “Who made the world? What happens when you die? Who is Jesus?” Parents often need help with these kinds of questions. We want to be there to help.
  4. Because the future growth of our church is in our children and family ministries. God has trusted us with young families with lots of kids. We want to be good stewards of that trust. So, our annual KidzFest outreach is one way that we “lean in” to this trust that God has given us.
  5. Because we want to teach kids about the Good News that is found in Jesus Christ and because kids matter to God.

So, there’s five reasons that we’re looking and dressing like a game show this week. It’s why over 100 adult volunteers have been singing, teaching, playing and serving all week. It’s why we planned and worked for months beforehand to prepare. We want kids to come to Jesus.

So, put your “game face” on and join us this coming Sunday to hear what our children have learned and the decisions they have made at KidzFest 2023!

4 Key Areas of Discipleship

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 18:19-20 ESV).

“And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52 NIV).

The command to “go and make disciples” is not just for pastors and missionaries, it’s for every believer. This commission is to all who would call themselves Christ-followers. It’s the Great Commission, and one of the main purposes of the Church.

As a church, we want Eastgate to be like a discipleship “factory.” A widget factory is concerned about production, how many widgets they’re making, but they’re also focused on quality control. They want each widget to meet certain minimum specs. Likewise, Eastgate’s “disciple-making factory” is concerned about both quantity and quality. We want to grow both deep and wide.

Desiring to grow “deep” disciples, there are four areas in which we endeavor to lead and feed our flock. These four key areas are similar to the four ways that Jesus grew in Luke 2:52. Our four areas or four “B”s of discipleship are (not necessarily in this order):

  • Believing – Jesus grew in wisdom, in what He knew. We desire to lead people into a saving faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We desire to teach the whole Bible. We want our members to be biblically literate and trained in good doctrine. We have ten essentials or foundations of the faith that we seek unity of belief on.
  • Behaving – Jesus grew in stature. He grew physically. We desire that our members grow in physical disciplines and self-control. We teach believers about financial stewardship, parenting, marriage and other life-skills. We teach them about the spiritual disciplines, like how to have a daily quiet time, about Bible study, witnessing, worship, prayer, fasting, sacrificial giving and more.
  • Becoming – Jesus grew in favor with God. He grew spiritually. We desire that our members grow spiritually too. This is about the inner life, one’s character. We believe that the nine character traits of the fruit of the Spirit, like “love, joy, peace…” and so on, found in Galatians 5:22-23 are good indicators of growing in the character of Jesus. Adding the trait of “hope,” we seek to train members to yield to the Lord and grow in these ten character traits.
  • Belonging – Jesus grew in favor with men. He grew socially. We desire to lead believers to have assurance of salvation, so that they know that they belong to God and to God’s family. We exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ who have a growing Heart for God, Heart for each other, and Heart for our World. We want Eastgate to live as the family of God.

As a church we desire to build disciples that are growing in these four areas to be more like Jesus, but admittedly, we can only offer these things. To reword an old cliche, “we can lead our sheep to water, but we can’t make them drink.” As individuals, we have to take personal responsibility for our own discipleship. The church can only offer an environment for growth. We each have to personally desire this growth.

Do you want to grow more like Jesus? Are you taking advantage of the opportunities for growth that your church offers? Are you yielding to God’s work in you?

How’s your discipleship?

4 Devotions of Life Changing Small Groups

“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 devotions 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 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 commit ourselves to these four devotions and keep them in balance, life change happens!

This is an edited version of my article from August 25, 2016.