Aug 29, 2012

Thoughts from Boston

Last week, my wife and I got to take a little "pre-anniversary" trip to Boston, MA.  2012 marks 15 years of marriage for Alison and me.  Our actual anniversary isn't until November, but we booked a couple of smaller trips this year instead of one big expensive trip.  It was a very refreshing time for both of us.  This is one of the few times since my oldest son Nathan was born that we both got away without kids and without an agenda.  Earlier this year, we talked and decided to go to Boston for several reasons.  One, my wife had never been to Fenway Park and by hanging out with me, she has become a pretty good Red Sox fan.  She has mentioned a couple of times the last 2-3 years that she wanted me one day to take her to a game there.  We also selected Boston because Alison had never been to it and I had only been once.  Alison loves to visit bigger cities that have lots of shopping and historical stuff.  So the combination of the city and the game made this a good choice for us.

Although the Red Sox are playing very bad baseball, this is a great time of year to visit Boston.  The weather was very nice. The universities are starting back, so there is a lot of bustle near Fenway.  We stayed at the Hotel Buckminster which is across the Mass Turnpike from Fenway Park. (The picture is actually the view from my hotel room.)  This is an old, historic hotel in downtown Boston.  This gave our visit a very historical feel.  There is a room in this hotel which is the room where the conversation began that resulted in the 1918 Black Sox scandal where the World Series was fixed.

Boston is a city with a tremendous historical and cultural heritage.  The streets of Boston are the site where much of the unrest developed and boiled over that resulted eventually in the American Revolution.  One day, Alison and I walked the "Freedom Trial" which is a 2.5 mile walk through the old parts of town where much of American history was made.  We visited the Old North Church where Paul Revere saw the lanterns that warned of British troop movements.  We visited the Boston Harbor, the Old State House, the sight of the Boston Massacre, Park Street Church, and a cemetery where Sam Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hancock are buried.  We also saw a tremendous amount of cultural diversity in the city.  Boston is a blend of many culture compacted in a small space.  There are areas where every restaurant is Italian and others that are dominated by Irish pubs.  There were several Muslims we passed tons of different cultural backgrounds that we rode with on the subway.  Here are a few of my observations from our trip around this city.

1.  Boston and New England are spiritually dark places - I have grown up and spent most of my ministry in the cultural "Bible belt" of the Southeast.  In this part of the country, there are churches on every corner and almost everyone you talk to is "a member" of a church somewhere and "believes" in Jesus.  Most of the time, we spend most of our ministry as church leaders trying to keep church members happy.  Most of our membership change is sheep from other pastures who decided that their former church isn't for them anymore.  In many ways, church members in the South treat church like they do restaurants they frequent.  If the service is good and the meal meets their needs, they will tip the church and come back later.  However, as soon as the service or food gets bad, they decide to search for somewhere else to dine.  In the area where I minister, we have access to thousands of people who, in reality, have no saving relationship with Christ.  We pass by them, but don't really see them because we are trying to "feed the flock."  If a church in my association has 15-20 baptisms in a year, that is mega-growth.
However, in Boston, things are much different.  In my four days there, I probably passed by three to four times more people than live in my county.  I would venture that 98% of them have no knowledge of Jesus or the gospel.  Jesus Christ is, for many of them, a punctuation to a sentence.  As I walked around the city, I could sense the spiritual oppression and the hopelessness that comes when all our hope is built in the things of this world.  The New England prides itself on being a place of cultural and religious diversity and of educational elitism.  Unfortunately, this has also created a culture that is very intolerant of the biblical message of the gospel.  The answer for the spiritual darkness Boston is finding a generation of genuine disciples of Jesus Christ that live and vocalize their faith one at a time.

2. There is hope in the midst of the darkness - One of the ironies that hit me is that this spiritual darkness hasn't always been the case here.  Boston and New England were once key hubs for the gospel in America.  Much of the First Great Awakening took place here. Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield preached and led many in this area to Christ.  Many of the colleges that are in Boston were started as institutions for religious instruction.  Many of the framers of the early American country were men of deep faith.  We can't forget the place that Christian faith had in this area for many years. There is hope that Christ can reign again here.  I still believe that Christ is "God of this City".  During my visit, I met with a church planter named Juan Maclean.  He and 6 others planted Redemption City Church in Boston a couple of years ago.  They are living out their faith publicly and holding out the hope of the gospel.  It is slow work, but they are being faithful to the cause and God is using them.  Pray for them and for God to send more church planters to this area.  Pray for God to raise up a generation of leaders that will not measure the success of their ministry by the size of their congregation, but by their impact on a city with the gospel.

3.  The Great Commission in America necessitates that we create strategies that focus on pioneering missions and redeeming our great cities - I have been a Christian for a long time and a minister for 20 years.  During that time, I have been way too content with crumbs when I should be leading my people to fresh bread.  I have measured my success too much on creating "programs" that people like to attend instead of building "disciples" who impact my city and the world for the gospel.  Our churches spend too much money on internal programs designed to entertain and inform our people.  We have failed to call our people to sacrifice greatly to make sure that cities like Boston are being reached for the gospel.  We have churches filled with people who call themselves Christians, but have a tremendous heart problem.  Our people spend too much time and money on self-serving interests and want churches that "meet their needs".  My church has a responsibility to reach our city for Christ.  We have thousands of people in our city that are just as lost as the people of Boston.  We need to identify them, pray for them, and engage them with the gospel.  Then, we need to be sure to let everyone in our churches know that the gospel doesn't exist just for them.  It is not a self-serving venture, but a self-sacrificing one.  If we really believe that Jesus has changed us, then let's live like it.

We have way too much money spent on churches and ministries that have kept us inoculated in the South.  I am not saying that these aren't good ministries.  The problem is not the ministries our state conventions and associations have created.  The problem is that the average Christian gives less than 3% to gospel related causes.  This creates an issue where there is a huge limit on funds and everyone is fighting over the crumbs of pie left in the pan.  We should have enough money in our churches to reach our communities with the gospel AND to plant thriving gospel-centered churches in Boston, New York, Chicago, Montana, and Oregon.  We should have enough money and missional fortitude that every church in my Southern Baptist Convention should adopt and engage with one of the 6,000+ unreached people groups on our planet.  The gospel we say we believe is powerful enough that all of our churches should have water in the baptistery and people being baptized every Sunday.  We are called to "make disciples" and I think we can do much better.

I am thankful that God has graced me on a trip where I went thinking I would just watch a couple of baseball games, but instead I got a peek into a very different world.  I am grateful that God has given me the honor of being a pastor and hope that I can be faithful to his call to make disciples in my local context while leading us to engage the world for Christ. Friends, the reality of lostness is all around us.  If you live like I do in the cultural Christianity of the South, pray for God to open your heart to the reality of lostness and to shatter the safe castles that we have created that have kept us from engaging the world with the gospel.  I believe that the Father's table still has plenty of open seats available for those who are hungry.  Let's go tell them where they can find the true and lasting satisfaction for their soul.

Aug 25, 2012

Men of Sunday - A Book Review

I recently received a copy of a new book called Men of Sunday: How Faith Guides the Players, Coaches, and Wives of the NFL.  I picked out this book primarily because I love sports and books about Christian athletes.  I always love hearing the stories and finding out about the faith of some of sports greatest athletes.  This book focuses on a number of current and former NFL players and the growing acceptance in most NFL locker rooms to athletes who are outspoken about their Christian faith.

Many of the names in this book will be very familiar to most sports fans - Tim Tebow, Tony Dungy, Ray Lewis, Trent Dilfer, LaDanian Tomlinson, Aaron Rodgers, and Mike Singletary.  The author, Curtis Eichelberger, describes at the beginning of the book how the National Football league has become a place where the Christian faith is much more accepted and prevalent than in years past.  He shows how a large number of the NFL's most successful athletes are men who are strong in the Christian faith.  However, he also avoids the campy suggestion that these men are successful because they are Christians and that somehow God gives Christian players more success than non-Christians.  Instead, he shows how the Christian faith drives many players to excel at the sport, to work hard to the glory of God, and to stay humble in spite of their success or failures.  He also shows how these Christian players handle many tough topics such as being a husband and father, overcoming injury and adversity, dealing with the violent nature of the game, avoiding the multitude of temptations they face, and dealing with the nature of sudden transitions.

This book is a quick read which makes it a very good book for most men.  It deals with subjects that are very relevant to all men, whether they are athletes or not.  Most men will receive a great deal of encouragement from reading about how some of these men that they admire for their great athletic ability deal with issues that are common to all men.  At times is reads like a manhood manual.  It is filled with great advice and brings many practical scriptures to light.  I have already thought of about 5 men I can pass this book onto that would benefit greatly from it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Aug 16, 2012

Five Books I Will Be Reading Soon

If you know me, you know that I read a lot. I am an crazy book collector and try to read most of them.  I am constantly having to redo my bookshelves because of the new books I just bought or the ones I get free from conference.  I collect more books than I read, but I still read a lot.  I think reading is the key to learning and growing.  One of my new fascinations is that I have found several web sites that allow you to get books for free from them if you agree to read them and write a blog about them.  This is dangerous for me because giving me websites for free books is like giving me a box of hot Krispy Kremes and telling me to hold them till you get back.  Here are five books I have picked up recently that are on my most immediate "to-read" list.

1.  The President's Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy - I love biographies and learning fascinating trivia about presidents.  I ordered this book before my vacation and started reading it in July.  It's 600+ pages!  It traces the relationships of sitting presidents with some of their living predecessors.  Great background into this unique fraternity of great leaders.

2.  Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley - This book is coming out in a couple of months for national release.  Andy is a great leader and teacher on leadership.  He is one of the clearest and best communicators I have ever heard.  While there are times that I wish Andy would go deeper into some of the richness of gospel truths in his sermons, there is still much I learn from his leadership example.  This book is the story of how Andy and his team started North Point and what are the guiding principles that helped them to reach so many people.  Andy has taken a lot of criticism from some in the "gospel" camp, but whether you agree with him and the ministry of North Point or not, I believe there is a lot we can learn and take away from his story.

3.  Gospel Deeps by Jared Wilson - I have recently become a big Jared Wilson fan.  This is my book to counter the Andy Stanley reading.  Jared has a vision and passion for the gospel that is infectious.  He is a very talented writer who inspires me to know God better and to know his word deeper.  Jared is the antithesis of the "big-church" pastor.  He is content to live and preach the gospel in a small community church in rural New England where the work is hard but rewarding.  If you haven't read Jared's book Gospel Wakefulness, you must put it in your query right now.

4.  Men of Sunday by Curtis Eichelberger - This is one of the books I ordered from one of the book blogger websites.  I chose this one because I am a huge sports fan and love to read the stories of athletes who love Christ.  This book will help give me some stories to share with men about jocks who love Jesus.

5.  Killing Calvinism by Greg Dutcher - Calvinism is the hot topic today, especially in the SBC.  It's vastly caricatured by those on the non-Calvinist side and hotly embraced by those on the Calvinist side. I have very good friends and mentors on both sides of the debate.  I avoid the labels because of the divisiveness it causes.  However, as I read some people's online endorsement of this book and the description of it in Amazon, it sounded like a book that needed to be published a long time ago.  I think many in the Calvinist movement turn people off their theology not because of the truth of it, but because of their approach and presentation of it.  There are a small minority that feed the caricature of the non-Calvinists while many Bible-believing, gospel-centered, missionally-driven adherents are ignored or marginalized. I hope that reading this book will help me to be able to continue to build bridges between both parties.

Aug 15, 2012

The Ring Makes All the Difference - A Book Review

I believe one of the most important topics that the church has been silent on for far too long is the topic of cohabitation (i.e. "living together", "shacking up").  It has gone from something that was becoming more commonplace but still very "taboo" in my early 20's, to completely socially accepted and seen as a preferable, if not perfectly valid, substitute for marriage.  Because our culture has completely lost any and all understanding of gender differences, gender roles, and a cohesive and biblical definition of marriage, we are facing a continual onslaught on the union of marriage.  What God's word defines as a very unique union, given and blessed by God, called "marriage" is seen as completely Victorian and old-fashioned today.  Relational unions in our culture are now defined by the preferences of the individual and pragmatism or "whatever works for you" reigns.

Into this picture, enter the book The Ring Makes All the Difference by Glenn Stanton.  Stanton makes a strong and compelling case, based on years of sociological data compiled at many of our countries leading schools, that there is a strong difference between the relational quality of people who are married and those who choose to live together.  The statistics and data given in this book are deep and hard to ignore.  This is not a "religious" book based on "religious" statistics.  Much of Stanton's data come from secular sociologists who have compiled data for over 20 years about relational quality, lifestyle practices, and relational satisfaction between those who have chosen the path of cohabitation versus those who have chosen marriage.  Not all marriages studied were necessarily those of Christians.  The results are not surprising, but overwhelming support that the marriage commitment makes a considerable difference for the better over cohabitation.

This book is a must read for pastors.  This book is a must read for older teenagers and college students. This book is a must read if you have a person in your life that is either in a situation of cohabitation or is considering it.  While some might think that the book has an overly "Christian" slant, it does not.  While Stanton is a believer and does work for Focus on the Family, he saves his biblical argument until the end of the book after presenting a virtual mountain of secular data that support his thesis.  It's time for the church to awaken and address this issue, and this book is a great way to do it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Moody Publishers, through NetGalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Aug 13, 2012

You Really Want to Follow Jesus?

I have been preaching for almost a year now through the Gospel of Luke.  We have been going walking through this gospel asking the question "What is the good news (gospel) that Luke is trying to tell us and how does that affect our lives?"  The past 2 Sundays we have been in one of the most pivotal moments in the gospel in Luke 9:18-27.  At this point in his ministry, Jesus takes his mentorship of the disciples and his requirements for following him to a different level.  He asks the disciples the most important question that everyone has to face in life, "Who do you say that I am?"  Everything in life revolves around getting that answer right.  It's the final exam question that determines whether we pass or fail.  If you get the wrong answer to that question, the rest of your life will be off course with God.

Peter boldly gives the correct answer, "You are the Christ of God."  That answer has multiple layers of implications to it.  If Jesus is not the Christ, the Son of God, then following him is useless.  He was either extremely delusional or deceptive.  However, if Jesus really is the Christ, and you truly believe that, then there are dramatic implications on our lives that follow.  That is why Jesus then gives them the first proclamation of the gospel in verse 22 and then gives them very costly consequences of obedience and following him in verse 23.

Based on this text, I saw three essential elements of true salvation and three essential elements of true discipleship that I preached these past two weeks.

The Essential Elements of True Salvation

1.  True Salvation Requires a Bold Confession of the Person of Christ (verse 18-20) - Just like Peter, we must boldly confess that we too believe that Jesus is the "Christ" of God.  He is the Anointed One.  He is the only begotten Son of God sent from heaven.  He is the sinless Son who came in full obedience to his Father to meet all the righteous requirements of the law and to die in full payment for the sins of man.  We cannot just say that we like Jesus.  We cannot just stop at saying "Yes, Jesus is God's Son", because there are a million other follow-up questions that must be asked.

2.  True Salvation Requires a Deep Conviction in the Gospel of Christ (verse 21-22) - After Peter correctly answered the question about Jesus' personhood, Jesus then gave them a clear proclamation about his work.  We have to fully understand both Jesus person and his work for the gospel to make sense to us.  Jesus tells his disciples that he will be handed over to the religious leaders and killed and rise again three days later.  In Matthew's gospel, he records that at this point Peter tries to interrupt Jesus and tell him that cannot happen. This is not the "Christ" or "Messiah" that Peter and the others had in mind.  It's a reminder that we can know the truth about who Jesus is, but completely miss the truth of what he came to do.  Being truly saved means that we feel a deep conviction in our life about the gospel, that we trust in Christ's payment for our sin, that we by faith fully rely on his work on the cross and trust him as Savior and Lord.

3.  True Salvation Requires a Radical Commitment to Follow After Christ (verse 23-26) - Jesus then ties into the statement about the gospel the radical consequences of those who want to follow him.  He says in essence, "I am going to Jerusalem where they are going to kill me, but I will rise again.  Now, if you want to follow me, forget about yourself, take up your cross, and come on."  This is radical obedience.  And, this is the radical obedience that has been missing for the most part in churches in the American culture for a long time.  I will break these down a little further below in the sermon I preached yesterday.

The Essential Elements of True Discipleship

There are lots of people that like to identify with Jesus somehow.  There are millions in our country that claim allegiance to Christ.  However, it is clear that not all who claim to be "Christians" are truly converted or following him.  Unfortunately,deeply embedded in our American consciousness is the desire to be sovereign over our own lives.  The result is that many try to follow Jesus on their own terms and many churches have become safe havens for the falsely converted and comfortably religious, but lost.  Jesus makes very hefty demands in verses 23-26 on what it truly means to follow him.

1.  True Discipleship Requires a Determined Submission to Follow After Christ (verse 23) - Jesus has already said that the path of following him ends in death and resurrection.  If we want salvation, we have to be willing to die to self and be born again in new life.  Jesus makes this clear when he says if we follow him, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.  Self-denial means saying "good-bye" to your former life before meeting Christ.  It means putting your agenda in submission to him.  Taking up your cross is not just having to deal with the troubles of this world, but a complete and daily dying to self.  It means daily confessing that "I am crucified with Christ, and I no longer live."  Following him means that we go where Jesus goes.  We don't determine the direction of our lives.

2.  True Discipleship Requires a Complete Surrender to the Cause of Christ (verse 24-25) - Jesus says that we cannot try to live our lives in such a way to accumulate things for our own significance.  If we try to "save" our lives by our own effort, we will lose them.  But if we "lose" our life in complete surrender to Christ, we find true salvation and purpose as God designed us.  He further illustrates this question with a tragic picture of a man who achieves all the earthly success that he is longing for, but has to give up his eternal soul in the process.  We cannot be surrendered to Jesus and sold out to the things of this world at the same time.

3.  True Discipleship Requires a Courageous Identification with the Person of Christ (verse 26) - Finally, Jesus says that we cannot live our lives ashamed to be associated with him.  We must boldly wear the name of Jesus and bear all the consequences of that.  We must face ridicule, rejection, scorn, criticism, slander, imprisonment, persecution, and even death if necessary because Jesus Christ faced all that for us.  We must passionately reject the cultural Christianity of our day that makes Jesus look like a peace-loving hippie and requires nothing to follow him.

What say you?  Have you thought through the dramatic consequences and costs that Jesus gives to follow him?  Or, have you been the victim of a pasteurized Christianity that has been conveniently sanitized of all the demands on our lives?  Truth is, because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, I really see no other way to respond other than full allegiance and submission to go wherever he goes, to pay whatever it costs to follow him.