Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Moving Forward and Moving Outward

Ok, so my last post was a little negative. I think the picture of the torched church might have had something to do with it. I think it might be symbolic, though, of some of the harder issues involved in being part of a small church plant. By no means do I think our little church plant is burned to the ground, and I do hope that those who left will return -but then again, to be honest, maybe it is good that some of them have left. I don't mean it for hard feelings, but I mean that if they aren't happy and are half-hearted in their affiliation to this local body, then they should commit to a body they believe in -hopefully one with qualified elders and sound teacher, etc. I will miss them.

As I mentioned in the previous post, in many ways, the church is trucking on, but in some ways, we are starting over. We have a new leader who is in the process of helping build a foundation. One of the things I am working with him on is a way to turn our men's lunch group, which was meeting once a week, into a time for prayer, encouragement, strategizing, and even some training -all geared toward going out into the community with the Gospel. In other words, the focus will be missional... encouraging a missionary vision toward the community and the world. Rather than sitting around and talking about work, which can be good, we will be talking about the Gospel and spreading a passion for Jesus Christ in this town. We will be, Lord willing, cultivating a vision for this community.

After reading this (http://www.goodmanson.com/2007-09/20/are-church-plants-the-most-effective-form-of-evangelism/), I am reminded of how novel that vision really seems. Can we have a vision for the whole town? The author notes:

"What would happen if your churches vision expanded beyond the four walls of your building and including transforming the entire city you lived in? In order for something of this nature to occur, God has got to show up. This would require a change of heart of the people and the faith/desperation of seeking Him out."

Yes, God must show up. This is nothing short of revival. I don't mean the Finney-esque revival. I mean real revival. God shows up and powerfully moves the gospel and the mercy of His kingdom, through His people's efforts, onto a community. May our little church, our little body of believing friends, become a great light -not for our glory, but for His. Please pray for our efforts and for our hearts to be enflamed for this work, yet so that we do not neglect our other callings (like our wives... hehe).

Lord, bless our efforts to bring your Gospel to our homes, to our work, to our community, and to the world. Give us boldness, make the fire of the Gospel brighter and more joyful in our own lives, and use our meager efforts to open eyes and gather people for your possession. Grant that we would make disciples for your honor.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lessons Learned from Church

My family and I have been involved in a church plant for about two years. It has been moving somewhat slowly, at least from what my initial impressions were. We finally have a local elder/pastor, and he is in the process of forming a band of local elders. I think this is a huge step, and it is one that I pray will lead us to becoming a true fellowship of blessing for the honor of Christ.

At this point, it looks like almost everybody from the "core group" of families has left the church. Even many of those who were not maybe officially part of this "core group" but had been there more or less from the very early stages have left. We have some who have stuck with it, and we have some who are, by all accounts, part of the church, but they are perhaps low on the commitment totem pole. We have some new families, but only one or two. Things look bleak, but I know the Lord can do good things. I really feel like we are starting over, and I am starting to think that is not such a bad thing at all.

I've learned a lot of things in the past two years -too many things to name. I will try to list a few of them, here, perhaps for the benefit of any of my vast array of readers.

1. I've learned that leaving a fellowship hurts. When you leave a church, you don't just leave the preaching that you aren't fond of. You aren't just leaving the music. You aren't just leaving the lack of bells and whistles that you think should comprise a good church. You are leaving people. You are leaving friends, and you are leaving people that you were just getting to know who really enjoyed your fellowship and wanted to know you more. This can not only be painful for you, if you are leaving, it can be painful for those you leave behind. Church is more than Sunday mornings. It is a living, breathing, local fellowship - an expression of the Body of Christ in a discrete time and geographic area. It involves a specific set of people that (hopefully) become close to you in ways that others do not.

2. I've learned that people are fickle -even "like-minded Reformed" people. I thought that "fickleness" was an artifact of low-level, moralistic, nominalistic, even "Arminian" Christianity. I realize now that it affects all walks and all beliefs and all kinds. No group escapes the "I want church this way" attitude, and "if I can't get it I will look somewhere else, even if I need to start a home church." Sure, if we just tweaked the preaching a little, if we just had this like that, if these people weren't so much like this and more like that, then everything would be great, right? But isn't that what being fickle means?

3. I've learned that it is easy to have either a very low view of church or an idolatrously high view of it, making our expectations impossible to meet. In fact, both of these extremes really come from the same thing, and they overlap. One can have an idolatrously high view of certain aspects of "church" and yet, because of that, have a really low view of what church is intended to be, Biblically. Other options include: b) church exists to meet my needs and excite me, and c) church is like, groovy man, and it has no boundaries -we're all church! (which really shows low respect to the need for local elders leading a distinct, known set of people, who build each other in Christ)

4. I've learned that this region is really difficult to plant a church in, unless you fit the formula and split off from one of the big Calvary Chapel-esque churches in the area. You basically survive from funnel-offs from other churches because there are a zillion of them, and it creates a sort of "shop around" environment. When you get bored, you move to the next thing in the buffet line and try something else. Eventually, you might decide to "order-in" and start a home church, which seems to be what some folks have done.

5. We have to gain new blood. We need real revival. We need to reach the many lost people here, and we need the "found" revived to the beauty of Christ and a true sense of purpose in following Him (including by committing to a local church). We, in particular, can't rely on funnel-offs from other churches because a) 99.9% of the people in this town don't know we exist, b) we have less cool stuff to attract people than any of them out there (and probably always will), and c) it seems like many of the funnel offs will eventually just funnel off to somewhere else. It is the nature of the beast. Still, the concern is not numbers. It is gathering people and making disciples and being a blessing to this community.

I'm sure there is more to come. I pray that the Lord will bless this little church. If not, then I have already learned a lot. I have seen these attitudes in myself, so I am not just picking on other people. I have grown much through this 2-year church plant. I have been challenged in many, many areas, and I am thankful for it. I only pray that I would not make too much of it and that the Lord would guard me from ever becoming bitter about any of it. There is good in it all.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Wanting it Too Much

In my previous post, I wrote about a particular idol in my life and how, as C. J. Mahaney and many others before him have noted, the thing that makes our desires idolatrous is usually not the object, itself, but the degree of the desire, such that it rules our lives.

I have been reflecting upon this truth in my life on many fronts. One of the easiest ways, I am finding, to detect functional gods is to look at our sinful reactions to people or situations.

There are a number of examples in my life, but one that stands out the most is losing my cool. Is it really just "emotions?" When you say it like that, it just seems so... common and harmless. I mean, everyone has emotions, right? Everyone loses it every now and then. It really isn't a big deal. It was just emotions.

The problem with this kind of thinking is three-fold. First, it neglects the fact that our actions are driven by what is in our heart -our ruling desires. It makes it sound like emotional outbursts are just random flukes. Second, it seems to downplay responsibility. It makes it sound like things are excusable if they are the result of emotions and not methodical, planned-out intent. Third, if you put all of this together, it neglects the fact that wrong is defined by what dishonors or belittles God and what He commands, not by how common the sin is among men.

Our sinful emotional outbursts actually show more about who we really are than anything else. They show what desires and cravings rule our lives, leading us to sin. We are more ourselves when we are tired, stressed, and emotionally explosive than when we are rested, jovial, and more successful at keeping a sense of decency and propriety over and against what we really desire.

If I lose my cool at my son, for example, what are the desires that lead to my sinful anger in his direction? Well, here is what I think, by reflecting upon my own heart (in no particular order): I desire that he would honor and obey my wife and I. In fact, he must, and I must teach him that he must. I desire that he would fear, honor, and trust the Lord. I desire that he would treasure God and eternal things rather than video games. I desire that he would learn things like integrity and honesty.

This is a list of some of the main desires. I don't know about you, but I can't see anything wrong with any of them. They are all good, Biblical, even practical desires that a parent would have for a son. The problem, however, lies not in the object but in the intensity of the attachment to these desires. Am I building my life, my joy, my sense of success and accomplishment as a parent, and my self-worth upon these desires being fulfilled? If so, then these have become idols. Even the motive in desiring these things shifts. The motive is not so much the good of my son, anymore, as it is that I need these things to be fulfilled, for myself. This is exactly what sometimes happens. Losing my cool when my son dishonors my wife, for example, is just an expression of the fact that I want something, itself perfectly good, so much that I prefer it over God Himself, who hates my sinful anger and wrath.

I cannot guarantee that my desires end up being fulfilled. Only God can. Anger has so often been a reactionary method to pursue this desire. In effect, I have served it and been ruled by this desire as a god.


All Things For Our Good

A few years ago, I made a decision that would change our lives, at least for now. We sold our 3-bedroom home with a nice, low mortgage payment and moved into a 5-bedroom home with an office and a mortgage payment that more than doubled the former. Some might say that it was, in the long haul, a good investment. I have often been kicking myself for rashly making the decision to purchase this home, but I will admit that it could just be because I am immature and am looking at the "now."

Don't get me wrong -we use our home. We are in it all the time. I am thankful for it, and it really is a blessing to enjoy. We can have people visit us. We can shack up people who need a place to stay for a little while. We can practice hospitality with the local body of Christ. There have been many great benefits.

But sometimes I think, "we could have done so much more and so many different things with all that money... savings, college accounts, giving, etc." This attitude, which hinders my thankfulness and sours my enjoyment of this blessing, is primarily what I want to write about, here.

Whether you think we made the right move in buying a big home or not, I am starting to see how God works all things for our good even in the midst of our (sometimes) foolish choices. See, if we did not have this home, I would perhaps not have seen the degree to which I bank my security on things -on my financial situation, on the economy, on the job market, etc. I have come to see just how these things have, and still do, rule me. This is idolatry, for only God is meant to rule my life.

Is it bad to want some degree of financial security? Is it bad to plan for the future? Is it bad to make prudent financial decisions? Of course not. However, recently I listened to part of a message by C. J. Mahaney about idols. He spent a lot of time unpacking a very important concept: idols are often things that are, in themselves, perfectly good. They aren't just wooden statues or things like pornography. They are functional gods made out of things that are usually good things.

John Calvin said:

"The evil in our desires usually lies not in what we want but that we want it too much."

That is what makes it an idol. You want it too much -to the degree that it rules your life, even for a moment. It ultimately drives your decisions and reactions to people and situations. It rules over your joy or lack thereof. It becomes the basis for things like security and identity. In these ways, the desire, even with a perfectly good object, takes a place of lordship over us which is reserved for God alone. The act is sinful and the results are sinful.

Anyway, I see how I have been making an idol out of things like... wanting to preserve the investment in our property (keeping things nice), wanting to be financially secure, etc. We have had the benefit of having water seepage underneath the garage, having the whole driveway dug up, having things sink that aren't supposed to, having tiles show hairline cracks, having the dogs dig up all the new landscaping we had put in last year... you name it. We have seen the economy and the housing market basically head down the toilet. We see more and more homes go on the market, right in our neighborhood. We have had the benefit of having crackpots live near us with their doomsday prediction of the end of the U.S. economy.

As crazy as much of this is, all of these things have been used for my good, I have to say, because they have been used to squeeze this idol in me so that its head would be exposed in plain sight. If we stayed in our old home, I probably wouldn't have such a benefit. It isn't relatively that hard to get rid of a lower-market home, if you have to, and it wouldn't be all that hard to cover a mortgage less than half of what it is currently, if I lost my job and had to find a new one. Thus, I would probably have continued to live in comfortable idolatry.

I don't think idolatry should ever be comfortable, so I am thankful for the stresses relating to our home. They have shown me just how much my heart has been ruled by things other than God.

It is a house. It may be gone tomorrow, for all we know, but it is ours. God has given us a place to live in, clothes on our backs, money for food, etc. Even if I think my decision a few years ago was a bad one, He still has consistently provided for us. Hence, I ought to be thankful for His provision, no matter what it is, rather than being ruled by what ifs and desires for financial stability.

I am reminded of the teaching of Tim Keller. When God is in His rightful place, when Christ is our security and identity, then money is just money, a house is just a house -all gifts to be thankful for, temporal things to be enjoyed, but things nevertheless that will rot, fade, rust, and dwindle. John Piper reminded me, recently, that our battle is a battle to rest where we ought to rest, and not in all the things the world tells us to rest in. May our hope and security and identity be built on the Rock, and may we flee from those idols.