Ephesians 1:18

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints... Ephesians 1:18

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Overcoming The Fear Of Sharing The Gospel

photo from Pixabay.com

If you have spent any length of time in an evangelical church, you've probably been encouraged to share the Gospel with as many people as possible. You are told that this is your responsibility as a Christian, to make disciples. But I know that many Christians have a fear of sharing.  The church has tried to overcome this through training programs. I've been a Christian long enough to have gone through several from Evangelism Explosion to F.A.I.T.H. I've memorized the Roman Road and used various methods on evangelistic outings here and in other countries.   

I came to the conclusion long ago that a programmed approach to sharing the Gospel is not the most effective way to lead someone to Christ. It may be the fastest way to touch the most people, but I don't think that it has the lasting impact that relationship evangelism has. It may also be the reason many Christians have an aversion to sharing the Gospel, being uncomfortable using this sterile approach which is more like a salesman trying to reach some numerical goal instead of a deep concern for an individual. 

Most pastors would agree that developing relationships and sharing with a circle of friends and neighbors is the most effective way to spread the Gospel. We build trust and a relationship before we talk about faith. We find common ground and discuss a variety of topics and begin to get below the surface conversation.  However, there comes a time in the relationship when we need to move into the intimate discussion about faith. This is often the most difficult part and where we fail.  How do I make a smooth transition from one topic to the Gospel? 

If you've ever been through an evangelism training course you've been taught to ask certain questions. A popular question is, "after you die, you stand before God, and God asks you why He should let you enter heaven, what would be your answer?"  That question may get to the theological position of the one you are questioning but it also puts them on the defensive. It assumes that the one asking the question has all the answers.  It is far from being the most effective way and may as easily shut down the conversation or turn someone away from faith.  

Here is a natural, relational approach with some suggestions and better questions to ask to open up a discussion about faith that can lead to sharing the Gospel.  

Start by sharing a frustration or problem that you have.  For someone to be more forthcoming about their problems, you often have to initiate by becoming more vulnerable. After sharing, if your friend still is not willing to open up about his or her life, you may ask a question like this.  
What keeps you awake at night?  
What do you struggle with the most?  
What brings you the most stress at this time of your life?

When someone begins to share a problem, we can respond with how we rely upon our faith in Christ to help us deal with problems in our life. So our testimony now becomes a part of the discussion. However, don't be too eager to talk. Take time to listen and probe about your friend's issues. 

Once you have shared on a deeper level about your own issues and how you handle them, then you can explore more about their faith. You've now opened the door to a faith discussion, and how your friend responds helps determine your next step. If you sense an openness, then you may want to ask questions such as:  
How do you cope with your problem?
What part does faith play in helping you with your stress or anxiety?  

The answer to these questions should help you to begin to discover what your friend believes about God and Jesus.  If you still are not sure what your friend believes, you may want to be a little more direct.  You can talk about your faith growing up, why you believe, or your conversion experience.  This leads to questions like:
Did you grow up going to church?  
What did your parents believe?  
Does faith play any role in your life?

If you find that your friend does not have a relationship with Christ, or their relationship with Jesus is not where they wished it was, the next question may be the key to helping someone take the a step to becoming a follower of Christ.

This question gets to the root of the issue and is one that Jesus addressed with the rich young ruler. In Luke 18:18 we read about Jesus' encounter with the rich ruler and the ruler's question to Jesus, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  Jesus doesn't answer directly but probes to determine the one thing that keeps the young ruler from a relationship with Jesus, and that is the ruler's love of money. 

This is a great question! 
What do you think is the greatest thing that prevents you from having a relationship with Jesus Christ?  

This question can be for the searcher who is struggling to make the decision to follow Christ or it could be for the believer who desires more in their relationship with God. Jesus knew what it was for the young ruler and he identified it for him. For us, we don't have that power so we must ask and probe to help one discover for themselves what the barrier might be to a life of full devotion to Jesus Christ. 

Once identified, then you can begin to suggest ways to overcome the obstacle that prevents them from believing. A common response is, "I don't feel worthy or good enough" or "I need to get my life in order first."  This can lead to a discussion about God's grace and what the Bible says we need to have a relationship with Jesus.  Now you are sharing the Gospel!  

Don't be afraid to share.  The key is asking good questions that bring about deeper discussion, intense listening, and the willingness to transition to sharing your faith and the Gospel. 

What is it that keeps you from having the relationship that Jesus desires to have with you?
What are some questions that you use in the process of sharing the Gospel?

Monday, April 18, 2016

681 God answers prayer in an amazing way!

Hurst Creek section of Lake Travis Jan. 2015
As I write this, much of central and south Texas is under a flood watch.  Only a few months ago we were praying for God to bring rain to the area and fill Lake Travis to 681 feet, the designated full level and now we are facing the prospect of too much water! Just two years ago the city officials of Austin were looking at an historic drought crises.  Not only was Lake Travis, an economic engine for this area almost dry, the city faced the prospect of having to buy imported water to meet its needs.  Weather experts were proclaiming that Lake Travis might never be filled again and that only a miracle, a massive amount of rainfall would fill the lakes back to normal. 

In May of 2014, Austin area pastors united with an idea to begin to fast and pray together specifically that God would fill Lake Travis (681 feet). So the pastors took the idea to the city of Austin officials who agreed to gather together for prayer on May 15, 2014 for a city wide time of prayer to end the drought and fill the lake. What is interesting is that God not only answered those prayers and filled the lake but from this prayer meeting to the day when Lake Travis was declared full, reaching the 681 foot level, was 681 days! God answered our prayers in an incredible fashion! And isn't it just like God to give us more than we asked for, to spill over the cup?  As Ephesians 3:20 says, God will do exceedingly more than you ever imagined.

Hurst Creek April, 2016
Was this a coincidence or act of God? We may never know for sure but your answer probably depends on your faith. The point we can gather from this though as Matthew 18:19-20 states, God answers our prayers when two or more are gathered in His name, and pray specifically.  Much can be accomplished in the body of Christ when we join together for God's purposes. As pastor Will Davis Jr. of Austin Christian Fellowship proclaimed, "it has never been about a full lake but always about our faith and our awesome God."

The Austin area pastors held another prayer meeting this past March celebrating and thanking God for his faithfulness in answering their prayers and they have not stopped praying for God to fill the cup. Now our prayer is to fill us up with his spiritual blessings, to move central Texas residents to be filled with the spirit of God so as to transform the city and surrounding areas. This of course is much harder to measure but we all anticipate seeing how God answers our prayers. 

  • There is power in individual prayer
  • There is great power in prayer when we pray unified
  • There is magnificent power in prayer when we pray together in Jesus' name 

Monday, April 11, 2016

How to receive God's blessings

People today are still very much like those in the New Testament times.  They want the blessings of God more than they want God.  We see in John 6:26-40, after Jesus feeds the 5,000, they begin to follow him wanting more food.  Feed us every day just like when Moses fed us as our ancestors wandered in the wilderness. 

We see the same kind of faith or lack of, today in the prosperity gospel churches where people come to receive "blessings".  "Give and you shall receive", the preachers proclaim.  "See how God has blessed me!  You too can have a nice car, a beautiful house and riches untold if only you give to God (me, my church) your money". 

And the prosperity gospel churches are not the only ones that rely upon such tactics. You can see it also used in mainline churches, only a more subtle version.  It's not the doctrinal belief system that the church is built upon like the prosperity churches, but in many churches you'll hear testimony from members to the fact that God has blessed them when they gave to the church, building campaign, pastors discretionary fund, etc.  It is a manipulatory tactic to get people to give more. Ironic that we use manipulation on our people by manipulating them to believe we can manipulate God into giving us material wealth, if we give to the church.  It's not that those giving testimony are not telling the truth. They believe God has blessed them and indeed God probably has. But the fallacy is in reason why God blesses his children. He does it because God loves us, not because we have earned it in some way.   

We see the same problem with those who followed Jesus around. They wanted to know just what they needed to do to gain the blessings of God, to get a free meal every day.  They wanted the blessings much more than they wanted Jesus.  Jesus didn't say you need to give money to the church or to me.  He didn't say you need to pray five times a day.  He didn't say you need to sacrifice a lamb or go to the Temple on the Sabbath.  He said in verse 29, "believe in Me". "God provided the bread from heaven, not Moses.  I am the bread.  I am the manna.  Put your faith and trust in me.  It is a relationship with you that I want.  Not your works or your money, just your time, your worship, your heart".

This may be the hardest concept for us to accept.  It is what separates all religions from true Christianity. We want so much to believe that we must accomplish something in order to receive God's blessings. It is so counter intuitive that this simple doctrine of grace is what keeps many from that relationship with Jesus.  
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-10

What would it look like if we understood that Jesus wants our devotion not works? How would I live my life differently if I could fully comprehend the depth of that relationship and the grace that Jesus offers? 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

It's dangerous business going out your front door nowadays: Kingdom living in today's crazy world!

I love the scene in the Fellowship of The Ring when Sam hesitates to go with Frodo saying "if I take one more step, it will be the farthest I've even been from home."  Frodo encourages Sam to go saying, "remember what Bilbo always said, 'it's dangerous business going out your front door. You step onto the road and if you don't take your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to'."

Christians can be much like Sam when trying to make a decision whether to go on a mission trip, move overseas to serve God in a foreign land, or starting a ministry in a new place. And in today's world where we hear about almost every tragic event, the fear of travel can be a huge barrier to following God's calling. We in America have an aversion to taking risks. It hasn't always been that way. Our founding fathers risked much to make America the country it is. But just mention to someone you are going to Africa or to Europe to serve on mission and see the bewildering looks on their faces. "Are you serious? Why would you take a risk like that?"

I recently had a conversation with a friend who shared that she had been struggling with a decision that she believes is a calling from God to serve him in a specific way. Her idea for ministry would provide hospice patients a unique peaceful and spiritual rest during their last days on earth. The problem she explained was that her dream would require her to quit her well-paying job and take a big risk by starting a non-profit ministry. Many of her friends and family thought she was being foolish to do so.  Her dream required her to risk, sacrifice material things and security. She asked herself, am I being foolish or am I being faithful to God's call? 

Sometimes when I try to determine God's direction for me, taking a risk to serve others can often seem as being irrational, unsafe or imprudent. So many Christians pass up opportunities because they fear losing material things, security and often friends. Yet, when we look at just about any faithful person in the Bible, we see how they risked much and gave up much to follow God's calling. Think about what Abraham, Noah, and Moses were asked to do. From the outside what God was calling them to do seemed like folly. For them and the disciples in the New Testament, Kingdom living meant leaving the security of the present and stepping in with both feet not sure of where they would be swept off to, but knowing that God was with them.  

Our consumer culture demands the opposite of Kingdom living. It drives us to mostly play it safe, and when we are encouraged to risk, it is usually for the sake of possessions, power or profit. We are told to live up to our potential but as my pastor proclaimed one Sunday, "Kingdom living is not living up to our potential, it is pursuing our calling!" That calling often requires us to put aside comfort, safety, material security and the life we currently live, even the world's idea of sanity for something much more grand, much more fulfilling. 

Yet, when we are faced with a choice to join in God's adventure, we are much like Bilbo Baggins. We go to church and live our daily life. We don't like unexpected visitors and unanticipated surprises that break our routine. But as it happens so often, as it did to Bilbo Baggins, opportunity knocks at our door, out of the blue or as we are are minding our own business, God sends an opportunity our way to join Him in an adventure.  And we get to choose. 

Take it from someone that has been all over the world. When you say "yes" to God and enter His adventure, you'll go places that will take your breath away and serve along side of the most unusual cast of characters. I've experienced this all over the world, working alongside Muslim men to build a playground at a school in Morocco to worshiping God with inmates inside a prison in South Africa. 

So if you are contemplating going oversees on a mission trip, don't listen to the world, friends and acquaintances who will try to talk you out of going. You'll hear all kinds of reasons for not going. It's unsafe. It's too much money which could better be spent helping people here.  You are being irresponsible to your family.  Some of the arguments may sound logical. But often your friends won't understand because they view life from a worldly perspective, not from a Kingdom mindset. Just say "yes" to God.  I promise you won't be the same when you return!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Go! Get Out There!

The Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20,  contains Jesus' last words, his marching orders to his disciples before he ascended into Heaven.  This exhortation we believe is also meant for us, Jesus' modern day disciples.  However, so much of our church experience today is centered around the local church. Many of our "church activities" consist of going to church and serving on Sunday. For much of the church's history there has been this "come to us" approach to ministry.  The missional church movement aims to change that and to be more intentional in fulfilling Jesus' call for us to get out of the church and "go and make disciples".

The challenge for all churches is how to motivate Christians to actually get out of their comfort zone and go.  One church in San Antonio devised a unique plan in which the church would forgo meeting for worship one Sunday a month and instead minister outside of the church to the masses.  This church, Bethel, set up a drive-up prayer station in an empty parking lot near their church. The members of the church wave banners and signs along the road inviting drivers to pull over for prayer. Other church members offer prayer to those who stop by. The leaders of the church say they were surprised at how many people actually pull over and share their prayer requests every week.  It has invigorated the church and opened the door for the members to have some great conversations with people who would never step foot into their church.  Their members really look forward to these Sundays in which they get to minister to others.  They meet at the church on these Sundays for a time of prayer and then head to the parking lot to minister to others.

My church, Austin Christian Fellowship, does not have a worship service on the fifth Sundays during the year.  Instead, the church members work on mission projects that the church sets up, one on Saturday and another on Sunday morning.  Some churches, such as Rock Hills in San Antonio, take the first Sunday of each month to serve and minister to the community. What is your church doing to create a "go to them mindset" instead of a "come to us" approach? 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

This Church Failure Drives Me Crazy

"I'm discouraged," says the 28 year old single woman, answering my inquiry about her attempt to become involved in church. "Discouraged? How so," I asked. We had been discussing her return to the church for the past few weeks. Myra works for a company that I serve as chaplain.  She had grown up Catholic but had not gone regularly to church in several years. She began to feel a need to start going to church regularly and a friend recently had invited her to a non-denominational church which she said she really enjoyed. This was a contemporary church that seemed to focus on living your faith in the real world. 

Myra had told me a few weeks ago that she had made up her mind to give this church a shot and started going weekly. Myra even signed up to be in a small group and she also signed up to help out in the children's ministry and to sing on their praise team. She was really excited about this opportunity and the impact it would have on her life.  Yet on this day Myra explained that she was discouraged because a month had passed and she had not heard anything from the church.  She said she wasn't going to let this affect her faith but admitted she was discouraged so much that she just didn't go to church this past Sunday.

Hearing this broke my heart. This is an epic failure for a church. The church Myra is attempting to become involved in is a multi-site of a large church that I know has systems to help assimilate newcomers.  Yet, here is an example of a professional, attractive young single adult who is searching and wanting to become involved in the church, knowing that this step is crucial for her faith and spiritual development.  And the church somehow drops the ball at the crucial point in this young woman's life.  

I don't know the details of this church's process so I don't know the reason for their inability to follow up with Myra. Maybe their process failed or the person who is in charge of newcomer assimilation didn't do her job.  Perhaps it is because Myra is single and the church just does not have much for single adults.  Myra said there seemed to be a lot of things for families but she didn't notice anything special for single adults.  Whatever the reason, if a church doesn't respond when the iron is hot so to speak, they have a good chance of missing out altogether on the opportunity to help this one person know Christ and change her life. I can't think of another thing a church can do that is more important.

Myra is a typical millennial. She is single like a majority of the millennial generation. I've seen many blogs and heard sermons about the urgent need to reach the millenials if the church is to succeed in the future.  Could it be that the reason the church is not reaching them is that they are neglecting the largest group of millennials, the unmarried adult?  In a past blog I wrote about what it takes to reach the 20 something generation, not just young families with children which is important, but also the single twenty something adult.  
But, unless there are ministries in place that a young single can plug into, and a process that helps him or her connect, a church will just not reach them.  

Remember, the millennial generation may be different than the previous in many ways but each one of them is similar to most people in that they: 
  • Want to be valued
  • Want to be challenged
  • Want to be used
  • Want to be mentored 
  • Want community
  • Want to make a difference
How is your church reaching them and incorporating them into your church?  I'd like to hear from you.  

Monday, March 7, 2016

Can A Man Love Two Women At The Same Time?

My wife and I find the Bachelor television show very interesting, watching how the relationships develop and seeing all the drama over those three simple words, "I love you". This year's version has generated a lot of buzz, "Ben, how could you tell two women that you love them?  What were you thinking"?  My wife explained to me that you cannot love two women at one time. She said, "if you think you do, then you really do not love either one".  I argued that you can be "in love" with more than one person but it's all in how you define "love".  

The reason I think there is so much fuss and fret about saying "I love you" and anticipating those words from the person we care for is because we believe that in saying those three words there comes a level of commitment, or expectation beyond just a sexual feeling. And where it gets even more confusing is that "I love you" seldom means the same thing to the one saying and the one receiving. You can bet the ladies who heard "I love you" from Ben are thinking commitment, something more than a sexual attraction.  They are thinking "I love you" means that Ben is going to choose me as his mate for life, when in reality Ben may be just expressing a feeling, because he cannot make a long term commitment to two women.  

A wise friend told me that when it comes to declarations like "I love you", we should always attach "today" to the end of it, when receiving it. "I love you, today!" Because tomorrow, next month or next year, those feelings may change. Yet, when we hear those words we assume they mean forever. But feeling based statements are dynamic and can change by the minute, mood, or circumstance. 

So the reason we have difficulty with the phrase "I love you" is because the word "love" in our English language means so many things. I can love my car, my dog and my wife. But love in each of these cases means different things.  In the Greek, there are several words used to describe love. Eros is a love based on feelings, a sexual attraction. We get our word erotic from eros.  Philos is the Greek word that describes more of a friendship, a love between two people who have common interests or a fondness for a brother or sister. Philadelphia come from this word, the city of brotherly love.  Agape is another word for love in the Greek that describes a love that is unconditional, sacrificial and permanent. In a good marriage, a husband and wife will give and receive all three of these types of love.  

Agape is used in the Bible to describe God's love. As we love others as God loved us, only then can we be assured of a love that is not based on only feelings and emotions, but based on action, sacrifice, commitment and permanence. Isn't this what we desire from our mate, what we hear them saying when they whisper "I love you"?  

So I believe Ben was saying "I eros" you to both women, but they were hearing, "I agape you". He let his emotions do the talking and now he will have to break one woman's heart. Or perhaps both. The question now is what did the ladies mean when they said "I love you" to Ben?   Oh this is so confusing. So glad I'm married and not in Ben's shoes.