Friday, December 30, 2016

Disappointing Christmas Worship Services

I am curious about your Christmas worship experience at your church. Churches today have different philosophies and styles concerning Christmas and I'm wondering if I am out of touch with my expectations.  My wife and I were invited to a friend's church for worship the week before Christmas. We went with high expectations because the church is a traditional large main line denomination with a solid reputation. We were looking forward to singing some Christmas carols which our church, a small satellite church, was not singing in their morning worship services. 
We sat through the worship service, literally, and left very disappointed, trying to make sense of what we had just watched.  

The service started with a choir singing a somewhat different rendition of a familiar Christmas carol. Dancers with flags came on stage and moved around the stage in sync to the song. This was followed by a couple of songs that we had not ever heard before sung by a praise team with more dancers.  We were given candles and during the third song and had a lighting ceremony.  The song ended and we kept holding the candles awkwardly not knowing what to do with them.  There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for the candles except that we needed to have a candle lighting time during the service. 

The two traditional hymns were altered with different arrangements as if the soloists were singing on The Voice and were changing a well-known tune to make it their own. All the songs were performed well enough.  But it was definitely a performance. We never stood or sang along with the choir or praise team. The only participation was the candle lighting ceremony.  The pastor preached his sermon and we sat and listened to two more Christmas songs, including a solo of another odd arrangement of Silent Night.  My wife said it should be illegal to mess with Silent Night!

After the service I realized we had sat through the entire service and never sang along to any of the songs. We were never prompted to sing. I'm not sure I've ever gone to a worship service and did not participate at all. My friend who had invited us, was also confounded over the service. Later in the week during the same church's Christmas Eve service, my friend who is a 40 something former pastor, texted me to let me know that the church was consistent in this service also, singing mostly secular Christmas songs. He texted, "you won't believe their first song, "Feliz Navidad"! Then later said they had another candle lighting ceremony to a rock in roll version of Joy To The World. He was beside himself, wondering just who was in charge.  

To me it seemed as if the church was trying a little too hard to be cool or culturally relevant. I'm not sure how others perceived the services but when a somewhat traditional church does this, it can come across as pretentious and contrived, even hokey. This church has a new pastor, (middle age) so I'm guessing they are trying to reach younger generations. But it reminded me of the a 70's style traditional church trying to be contemporary by playing 80's music. It doesn't work and can turn off not only your older members but the younger ones you are trying to reach as well.  

I feel for my friend who attends the church. My advice to him was to talk to the pastor and share in a loving way your feelings. He needs the input of experienced leaders.  He doesn't need to hear complaints and whining but constructive critique that will help going forward. 

Also, I received this post from church after I had written this blog as if God was speaking to me. Ironically it is also titled Disappointing Worship Services. The final paragraph is great advice:

As we worship Christ together this week, may he give us this expectation. May he rewire our hearts so that our joy and goal would be found in honoring him. The Father is working the entire universe toward that glorious end. May we relinquish our selfish expectations for our church’s surroundings, people and future, and instead take up the expectation that Christ will be honored in our worship service, and in lives of worship. Place your hope in that invincible purpose, and you will never be disappointed.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Study reveals a lack of discipleship for a shocking percentage of evangelicals

A recent study conducted by Lifeway and Ligonire ministries indicates a distressing amount of evangelical Christians don't believe foundational Christian doctrine.  

When asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, 46% of self-identified evangelicals agreed or somewhat agreed.  

Another statement in the study that raises some questions about what Christians believe was about salvation:
By the good deeds that I do, I partly contribute to earning my place in heaven. A third of the evangelicals agreed with this statement.  I would not be surprised if this was the response of Christians in general but to have a third of those who profess to be evangelicals say that salvation is based on some works is a head scratcher.  

There is an emphasis on discipleship in many evangelical churches today but I wonder just what we are teaching Christians theses days if so many don't believe in the basic tenets of the Christian Faith.  Are we failing to disciple believers or have we not taught and emphasized the basics in our discipleship?

There was a period of time where discipleship focused on teaching doctrine but we seemed to drift away from the basics to arguing about lesser doctrinal differences. Perhaps we got lost in the details. In the past few years evangelicals have shifted discipleship to more practice, missions and application of our faith, all good things. But have we so focused on the mission that we have forsaken the basics?  Have we just assumed new believers had a foundational belief system that you are saved by grace through faith and not by works? Have we forgotten to emphasize that Jesus is the way, truth, and life and no one comes to the Father except through Jesus.  

These two tenets of our faith pave the way for the way we see the world and live in it.  But they are not politically correct and go counter to the world's values of "inclusion" and "tolerance". However, if we compromise on these beliefs then we don't have the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we have a pagan synchronized religion.  Perhaps we need to go back to the Gospel 101 and re-educate every believer about the pillars of our faith and how these are what distinguishes Christianity from all other religions.  

Thursday, December 8, 2016

How to help your child, employee or congregation take more responsibility

I've had several conversations recently with frustrated parents and grandparents over the lack of responsibility their older children or grandchildren have even as teenagers and young adults. One mark of a mature person is the ability to make wise decisions.  And the same goes for a company, church or organization.  What makes them successful (bear fruit) is their ability to make good decisions from the leadership down through all of the organization. And the one big obstacle that hinders good decision making skills is the inability for the leaders to know when and how to release control and delegate responsibility and decision making to others. Too early and bad choices are often made.  Too late and the leader gets burdened with an overload of stress and work which can also lead to bad decisions.  

In a family, do you give your teenage son or daughter the authority to make decisions on their own? Sure there are many things you would like for them to decide for themselves each and every day, but there are other decisions that need to be made with the parents approval. How do you conclude which decisions they can make on their own and how do you communicate this?

Here is a great visual tool (The Decision Tree) that will help you as a leader or parent in the decision making process from the book Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. The Decision Tree will help your organization be more productive (bear fruit) by identifying clearly, which categories decisions and actions fall into, so that an employee, child or volunteer knows exactly where he or she has the authority to make decisions and act and how to grow and empower others to get along without you. 

Decisions are arranged in categories based on their importance and impact on the organization. The analogy of root, trunk, branch, and leaf decisions indicates the degree of potential harm or good to the organization an action is taken at each level.
Poor decisions at any level can hurt an organization, but if you unwittingly yank a leaf off a tree, the tree won’t die.   A Root Decision if poorly made and implemented could cause major harm to the person or organization.  Giving a teenager or employee this visual picture and using it to categorize your decisions will give them a better understanding of what choices they can make on their own and what needs to be decided by the group.

Leaf Decisions  Make the decision. Act on it. Do not report the action you took.

Branch Decisions Make the decision. Act on it. Report the action you took daily, weekly, or monthly.

Trunk Decisions Make the decision. Talk about your decision before you take action

Root Decisions  Make the decision jointly, with input from many people. Leadership gives final approval.

The goal is to provide employees or volunteers a clear upward path of professional development. Progress is made when decisions are moved from root to trunk to branch to leaf.  As an employee demonstrates a track record of making good decisions in the trunk category, for example, it will be satisfying to both the employee and the person to whom she reports when those decisions can be moved to the branch category.  This works similarly with a child. The more responsible he or she is making branch decisions, the more responsibility they will be given to make decisions. 

The Decision Tree also raises the level of personal accountability.  Whenever we work diligently and brilliantly, without having to be told exactly what to do, it gives more ownership to the employee and unburdens the manager or executive of work.  It also teaches the child responsibility, confidence and increases their decision making skills. 

Where might the Decision Tree work in your life?

Work place.

Home, with your children.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Old ways become new ways to reach the world for Christ

Craig Hasselbach in Nepal
There is a sense of urgency that many mission agencies, ministries and denominations are feeling to go make disciples all over the world, and God seems to be calling a new breed of missionary to accomplish the task.  

Pastor Craig Hasselbach is one who is leaving the pastorate of a large successful Colorado church to take the gospel to places where the name of Jesus has never been heard. He explains here how God moved him to transition from the pastorate to more of an apostolic role in the Kingdom during a mission trip to Nepal. 

For centuries the church has responded to the Great Commission by sending missionaries to preach the good news. These missionaries' primary job was to win individuals to Christ. Some started churches in which they pastored. Others met one on one or in small groups to disciple in order to bring families into the Kingdom. For the most part, the indigenous people looked to the missionary for their spiritual nourishment.  

This model continues all around the world. However more mission sending agencies are going back to the first century missions model.  This method, modeled after the apostle Paul's strategy, focuses on intentionally training and equipping new believers to disciple others. Many mission organizations believe this is a more efficient method of multiplying believers and producing gospel-centered movements, especially in countries where the Gospel has never been heard. 

Craig is working with Nexus International and has formed a ministry called Pastors Without Borders. The mission is to reach the unreached by planting gospel-centered churches around the world through young indigenous Christ-centered believers. Check out his blog.  

What's different from the traditional method is that Craig will not be located full time in any one country. He will spend time discipling and training indigenous leaders in several countries to start churches that will plant more churches. Craig will stay until a leader is trained and a church launched and then will visit the new churches much like the Apostle Paul to encourage and offer training. But the indigenous pastor will be the leader of the Church in each country. His goal is to plant 14 churches that will plant a minimum of 3 churches each, which will plant at least 3 churches. 
There are other mission organizations with a similar vision and methods. East-West Ministries has been training and equipping indigenous leaders for several decades. In 2013, they set a goal of making one million disciples in 5 years by using this method in countries primarily in the 10/40 window.  Many others are using the T4T training method as they seek to rapidly train and equip disciples who will make more disciples.  It is an exciting time in history as we do kingdom work until Jesus comes.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Big and Small, God uses it all!

I experienced two amazing extreme versions of following God's vision to bring people to Christ in the past couple of weeks.  These two expressions of faith were as far removed from each other as possible, one as extravagant and immense as one could imagine, the other as humble and primative as could be here in the United States. But both incredibly moving and inspirational and both reminded me that God can use every person I whether rich or poor. 

The grand experience was visiting a life-sized replica of Noah's Ark. My wife and I vacationed in Kentucky for a week and decided to experience the Ark Encounter, which had opened this past summer.  This "theme park" was the dream of Ken Hamm whose vision was to educate the masses about the Genesis account of the ark and flood. So he decided to build the ark based on the dimensions from scripture. It is 510 feet long and 85 feet wide and 51 feet high, the largest wooden structure in the world. It has three decks which spam more than 120,000 square feet. 

It is a truly awesome structure out in the middle of nowhere, much like what it would have been during Noah's time. We spent a couple of hours with a few hundred visitors walking the three levels inside the ark, reading the educational material and seeing the exhibits. It is an impressive and massive undertaking, reportedly 33 million dollars to build and much more to operate. 

Within a few days of the Ark Encounter I spent a Sunday on a small mission project at a RV park, helping clean up and build some picnic tables for this very low income neighborhood. Our church chooses to do mission projects when there is a fifth Sunday instead of meeting for worship. This RV park was actually the permanent housing for about 300 people, all living in small RV's.

When I arrived, I was directed to the back of the park to help with another project, where there was this odd looking structure that had been built out of cedar branches. There I met a woman named Donna who explained what we were to work on. This woman said she was the park manager. She was probably in her fifties but you could tell had weathered a rough life and was wearing a tie-died shirt.  She was enthusiastic and animated as she told us all about this structure was similar to an Indian longhouse, how it could withstand a tornado. It stood next to a smaller version which had been used as a greenhouse. 

"Pastor" Donna on the right
Donna explained that they decided they needed a church building to house their Bible study during the winter and thought a bigger longhouse would be perfect. She said that she had given the idea to one of the residents and explained how this uneducated man who spoke little English, looked at the old structure and built a larger version just by sight without any drawings or plans. 

We were to help put the outside covering on the building which was rolls of heavy plastic.  She described in detail where to start and end leaving the bottom third uncovered for ventilation. Donna told us they would put a stove inside to heat the structure, running the stove pipe through the roof to carry the smoke out. 

When I asked her if they had a pastor she said "no, I guess I'm the pastor."  I was amazed at the excitement and passion this woman had as she talked about their small church.  They would meet here in this longhouse during the winter when the weather turned cold on Sundays and for Bible study during the week. Her enthusiasm for God inspired me. This middle aged lady with the smoker's voice living in an old weathered tiny RV took her job as manager to a higher level, one as a priest or pastor to her community.  I have a notion that she was not ordained or anointed by some church authority to do this. She just stepped into the void doing what God wanted her to do. 

Two visions, one grand the other incredibly primative, both expressions of faith you'd be very surprised to see in the United States.  And I'm not sure which I was more impressed with. All I know is God uses us all in amazing ways when we say yes to His dreams he gives us. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The one thing we want most from our leaders is missing

I voted yesterday. Yes, neither of the candidates is my first, second or third choice. Through the whole process I've wondered if God is playing a joke on us or maybe just giving America what it deserves.  I know many people share my concern for our country and are really dismayed by our choices for president.  The reason is pretty simple but I haven’t heard many express it.  The one characteristic that people want most from their leaders is lacking from both candidates for president.  A survey of thousands of people around the world found that the characteristic they most desired in their leaders is integrity.

So we have two candidates, one who has a record of habitual lying and corruption of power and the other who comes across as a pompous, impetuous billionaire with a reputation as a womanizer.  If we want candidates with integrity, candidates that are honest, moral, principled, stable and virtuous, all words to describe integrity, how then did we end up with Hillary and Donald?

Perhaps this is an indictment on the people of America, that we have chosen candidates with the least quality we want in leaders. Maybe we don't really value character and integrity.  Perhaps we have fallen so low as a nation that we want leaders who get things done by whatever means possible more than persons of integrity.  So we are left with two candidates who specialize in getting their way; Hillary with a history of manipulation and down right criminal actions and Donald who has mastered the art of negotiating and making good deals by whatever means possible.  

I long for the time when I supported a candidate I really admired and liked personally.  Unfortunately I don’t have that choice in this election so I seem to be left with voting for policy over personality.  I’m left with deciding which candidate will help bring to fruition the type of country in which I want to live and the government in which I want over me.

So my second observation is this:  As I see it, Trump and Clinton, personalities aside, are extreme caricatures of the government types they represent.  There is Hillary the consummate politician who has used and abused her government power to gain wealth and even more power. She distrusts business and the free enterprise system and relies on government to “fix" the country.  So in her administration there will be more regulation, more taxes and controls on businesses.  There is also a distrust of the regular American citizen to make decisions for themselves. So there will be more and more government intrusion into the lives of American citizens, more thought police, rules and more government control. The government's role in Hillary’s administration will be to make life more equal for those who don’t have as much as others and safer for those who are abused by the capitalistic system.  

Then there is Trump, the outsider with no government experience, the capitalist who has used the economic system to gain wealth and power. His side distrusts government and wants to limit the power and control that the government has over business and the individual.  He will reduce regulations and make policy that will help the American business owners prosper which in turn will mean more jobs for Americans and theoretically a renewed economy and more opportunities for all people.  As I see it, these are our choices.  It’s all a matter of which country in which you want to live.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Integrity? What is it and how do I live it?

With the crazy election and all of the accusations, I’ve thought a lot recently about integrity and what it means to live a life of integrity.  So I’d like to dig a little deeper into what that life looks like in the next few blog posts.  

One of my favorite quotes is from James Michener:
The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.”

I am a relational person who seeks to have fun in whatever I'm doing, so this quote really resonates with me.  When my faith, work, and play intermix and harmonize, I feel as much alive as ever.  An integrated (whole) life is one major aspect of living a life of integrity.

Yet this is not easy because most of us live our lives compartmentalizing work, play, family, and religion, especially those of my generation or older.  I can easily act one way for my family, another at work and play and wear another suit on Sunday and this feels as natural as eating and drinking. It is not even something I consciously do but is a built-in defense mechanism to keep certain beliefs and relationships separated from one another so they don't conflict.

That is why there is this perception of hypocrisy in the church. People see believers out on the town on a Friday or Saturday night partying it up and then in church on Sunday morning hearing about the evils of what they partook on Friday. It's the reason a pastor can preach on the sin of lust while having an affair or a business man who uses unethical business practices to make a bigger pay day and then sit with his family on Sunday morning listening to a sermon on integrity.  Living a compartmentalized life is living a life of hypocrisy and sin. 

I remember a skit that was done in one of the many summer youth camps I helped lead.  The skit was about a teenage girl hanging out with Jesus (a boy playing the role of Jesus) in her room. The girl gets a call from a friend inviting her to a party. She excitedly accepts the invitation and quickly gets ready and starts to walk out the door.  “Jesus” starts to go with her.  She turns around and tells him, “you must stay here”.  She turns to walk to the door again and Jesus continues to follow her.  This time she turns and adamantly proclaims, “I’m sorry but you can’t go! You don’t belong at this party, stay put!” The point was clearly made. There are places and areas of our life where we don’t exercise our faith, where we would rather not have Jesus taking part.
How well do you live an integrated as opposed to a compartmentalized life?  Consider how you keep your religious life separate.  Think about how much your faith has spilled over into other areas of your life.  Have you kept your faith life only for Sundays or do you take Jesus everywhere you go? If not, how can you better integrate your faith in the other areas?

More on living an integrated life in next week’s blog: the good news about the millennial generation and the church’s response. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

America's greatest problem few talk about

Photo curtesy of
My wife had cataract surgery a couple of weeks ago on one eye and she has been declaring what a difference her now "repaired" eye is from the other.  She'll look at an object and remark how much brighter and colorful it looks viewing from her surgically repaired eye minus the cataract as from her other eye which also needs cataract surgery.

I was thinking just how her experience with new vision is like how our lives can also become distorted, discolored and in need of some sort of operation.  Our culture is much like a cataract which slowly forms over our spirit and blinds us from the true life God has called us to live, the abundant life that we were created to experience. This distortion makes it difficult to see the world clearly and so we can easily be enticed to live a fraudulent life of death and destruction.

So many young adults have been deceived into believing that the good life is one of drugs, alcohol and sex.  One study indicated that 23.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs. That’s approximately one in every 10 Americans over the age of 12 – roughly equal to the entire population of Texas.  And that is only those who have admitted to having a drug or alcohol problem, perhaps only the tip of the iceberg.

I'd say we have a serious problem - an epidemic.  I have personally felt the impact of this problem indirectly. I am close to seven couples, some friends and some family, who have young adult children struggling with drugs or alcohol. All of these young adults, men and women ages 18 to 37 have had children out of wedlock, that they are not able to take care of because they are not capable or just don't want the responsibility.  And much of the problem stems from their addiction to drugs or alcohol. And so this problem is not just one that affects the addicted person but it also wrecks havoc on the lives of their parents and has a great chance of being passed on to their children.

We have a lot of problems in our country but I can't think of anything that does more harm to the individual, families and to society than this.  None of the presidential candidates are discussing this problem. There are no demonstrations or protests. I think many families keep these problems hidden so we don't really understand the scope of the problem. You may hear people complain about the drug culture being an inner city problem but this goes much farther than the inner city.  We have a rotten culture nationwide which leads to broken lives of drug and alcohol abuse and it is an epidemic in all areas of our nation.  And its tentacles reach into all areas of society.

Faith based rehab facilities are our best solution now to this problem.  They serve much like cataract surgeons. These facilities remove the addicted person from the destructive culture that has so discolored their world view, so they can begin to see clearly, that there is another world full of color that is available to them.

However, only a small percentage choose to check into rehab and there are not enough facilities to handle all those addicted if they did. The Church is best positioned and has the potential to not only treat and heal but be the key to winning the war on drugs. Celebrate Recovery and identity groups are ways the church has addressed the problem but many churches aren't equipped or even want to do the messy work needed. Ironically ministry to those struggling with addiction may be the church's best opportunity for evangelism and life transformation. 

Only until one admits there is a problem and gets treatment will he or she be able to see the difference.  Then they can begin to understand their true purpose, their identity and the role they can play to make a difference in the world.  Then they will see a world of color and potential and hopefully be more inclined to choose life over death. God said "This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!" Deut. 30:19 It is much easier to choose life when we see clearly the choices before us.

Perhaps we should take a look at our culture that promotes and encourages this life of death and destruction. Maybe if we dealt with the root issue, to understand that we do have a culture of death that permeates our society, then we could prevent so many broken and wasted lives.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Keeping the main thing the main thing

One of the biggest problems we face in life is keeping focused on the most important thing.  Whether it's in our personal lives, business or church, the temptation to drift from your purpose is always a concern.  We see it in politics when candidates drift from the important issues and sports when players get distracted  and hurt their teams by getting unsportsmanlike penalties.  When we lose our focus, we seldom accomplish our goal.

One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 12:1-3 which speaks to the importance of maintaining focus "fixing our eyes on Jesus" and removing anything that distracts from that purpose, "throw off everything that hinders” or anything that keeps us from living the life God intended us to live. This is so important that there is a crowd of heroes of the faith cheering you on, to not be distracted and bound by the world's temptations and sin, to keep focused on the main thing.

For churches, keeping focused on the main thing is extremely difficult also. The 21st century church in America has drifted a long way from what the early church focused on which was to make disciples who make disciples. Now the church has become many things to all of us and the pastor's dilemma is that we get into so many well meaning activities that the main purpose gets put on the back burner for a season or sometimes gets neglected altogether.

I recently met with a staff member of a church who was hired to oversee several ministries of the church including missions. He was frustrated because there seemed to be no direction for any of the ministries. Many voices expressed a variety of opinions about what they should be doing and there was no limit on what "ministries" the church offered. The general rule was the more we provide, the more people we will reach.

Lost in all of the activities was the original purpose; to reproduce disciples. It's as if the church itself was ADHD. The staff, lay leaders and volunteers would jump from one emphasis to the next, juggling countless number of jobs but failing to do well the one thing that the church was created to do; multiply disciples.

When contemplating any ministry, shouldn't we begin by asking the question, will this help us accomplish our main purpose?  If so, then what is the best way we can do this to reproduce followers of Jesus?

Even in the ministry of missions, the purpose can get lost. We can do a lot of great things, supporting all kinds of beneficial missions from social support to missionaries on the field. We can send mission teams all over the world to work with all types of programs and churches. We can pat ourselves on the back, for all of our efforts but we often don't slow down enough to evaluate our missions, ministries and programs and whether they are accomplishing our goal of multiplying disciples.

When we view and filter ministry from that perspective, then a lot changes.  We don't do ministry because that's the way our denomination has always done it. We don't do ministry because so and so wants it. We don't do ministry because it puts butts in the seats. We do ministry to multiply disciples. Some ministries, even good things, may need to be tweaked or eliminated. Some long term, traditional acivities may need to be put on the shelf. This probably means some member’s pet ministry may have to be sacrificed.

These are difficult decisions and can be painful but Hebrews 12 conveys just how critical it is.  The whole spiritual world is rooting, cheering, encouraging you to not be distracted and keep your eye on, your focus on the main thing: Jesus.

More on keeping your focus click here

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

When death surrounds you, what do you do?

“In the United States people die from sickness or old age. Here people die by murder. If someone here actually makes it to old age, it’s – it’s…really surprising...”

This quote came from Darwin, the Honduran husband of Jennifer Zilly, the young missionary working in Honduras. Darwin receives a phone call to learn that his brother had been murdered, shot to death when he complained that his cows had been stolen.  Darwin goes to be with his family in their time of grief only to learn that his mother has died of a heart attack when she learned her son was murdered.

In her latest post on their blog, Jennifer sheds light on how dreadfully dangerous life can be in Honduras.
"If we were to sit down with our kids and make a collective family list of all the murders that have skimmed close to our lives – all the family members, neighbors and local townspeople who have been murdered – we would need many sheets of paper."

How do you deal with life in the midst of such heartache of relatives and neighbors being murdered? How do you grieve and how do you deal with the fear of death so near?  Jennifer relies on her faith and focuses on her job as a missionary.

Read the entire post here.

This is real life in a third world country. We complain about our first world issues, which are incredibly insignificant compared to the life and problems many missionaries encounter.

Reading Jennifer's blog, we are given a real example of what life is like when there is little to no police protection. Those who complain about the police in our country and those who actually propose we don't need the police, have no clue what every day life is like without law and order.

I've seen it in many of the countries that I've visited. When there is an absence of local police, there is always a gang or entity that steps in to fill the void, using threats and their corrupt power to control the people.  And even here in the States in isolated areas where there is no respect for the police, there is an abnormal amount of crime and death.

Thank God that we have a country that values law and order. We don't have a perfect system and we certainly can improve on many aspects but our system is the best the world has to offer.  We have much to be thankful for.

I'm also grateful for the many Christians like Jennifer who sacrifice what they have to serve God in third world countries.  They are putting their lives on the line every day to bring real hope to people in cultures that provide no hope.  Pray for Jennifer and Darwin as they walk through this difficult time, that Jesus would guide and protect them so that they might complete the work that God has called them to do.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Living the abundant life: 7 great things about your identity

Photo curtesy of
One of our most critical needs as humans relates to our identity.  Our identity defines who we are as a person.  Humans by nature seek to define themselves either by the people with whom they associate or by the things they aquire or accomplish.
So for most, their identity is derived from either their job, their wealth status, their family or heritage, their lifestyle or a combination of these. And yet, an identity based on any of these creates a variety of problems.  So many of our problems in the world come from racial tension, comparison, greed, power and control, much of which comes from the need to be someone. 
However Christians have an alternative.  We can choose to identify with Jesus Christ and live from our true identity instead of trying to create our own.  When we better understand who we are in relation to our creator, and live from that reality, the more fulfilling and abundant our lives will be. Here are 7 wonderful truths about humans:

1. We are tri-dimensional. We are body, soul spirit, similar to the trinity. One of the differences between man and animals is that we have a spirit. Animals are two-dimensional beings, humans 3 dimensional. 
2. We exist eternally. Many verses tell us that we are eternal beings and we have the opportunity to spend eternity with God.  John 3:16, Psalm 139 
3. We are moral beings. We all have a built-in sense of what is right and wrong and the ability to make choices. Genesis 1
4. We are designed to have a relationship with God: We are loved. 1 John 3, Romans 3:20
5. We are accountable to God. We will answer to him because God created us in his image. 2 Corinthians 5:10
6. We are created unique. Your DNA is unique to humans and a part is unique to only you.  Ephesians 2:10
7. Because you are made in His image, you are infinitely valuable. Genesis 1:27

As 2 Cor. 3:16 says as followers of Christ, we reflect God.  When I identify with Jesus, a part of His glory shines from me.  I don't have to aquire things to define me. I don't have to join this group or identify with this sexual orientation, or gain power or prominence to be somebody.  When Jesus was tempted by Satan with these things, Jesus refused because he knew who he was, whose he was and knew his purpose. 

I don't have to hide behind a persona that pleases others and helps me get the things and accolades the world tells me I need. I can be as honest and authentic as I can be, trying to be myself and being ok with who God created me to be. I can share my struggles and successes equally to lift up and encourage others. I am free to be me, knowing that God is working in me, growing me to become more like him, and one day I will be complete in Him.  Living from an identity in Christ changes everything!  

Monday, August 22, 2016

Faith in Christ gives athletes advantage in Olympics

There were a lot of amazing stories from the athletes in the Rio Olympics and many of those who won medals have used that platform to speak about their faith in Christ.  

David Bouda and Steele Johnson, after medaling in the synchronized diving competition, explained that their identity In Christ helped them stay grounded and unfazed by the pressures and demands of competing in the Olympics.  Watch the interview here.

Maya DiRado won two golds, a silver and bronze in her first and last Olympics, capping the final meet of her career with a stunning upset of triple gold-medalist Katinka Hosszu in the 200-meter backstroke. 

In an interview before the Olympics, Dorado explained how her faith in Christ helped her focus and stay grounded.  "Knowing that I’m a child of God and that his love for me is determined by nothing I can achieve or do on my own has given me a quiet confidence. I think that my faith has helped me chart my own course and pursue my goals when people around me may be going in different directions. Jesus’ love for me and all humanity is something that always helps me better love people around me when things get difficult. As for my swimming career, my faith has helped me remember that there are so many more important things in life worth doing. Swimming is a pretty selfish activity, and so I’ve always known that it can’t be my whole world."  Read interview here.

For the first time in history, the U.S. women swept the 100-meter hurdles event last night and won all three medals! When gold medalist Brianna Rollins was asked how she and her fellow athletes prepared for the race, she said "we formed a prayer circle this morning and we just let His presence come upon us. Watch interview after the race here.

The women's 4x400 team made up of Phyllis Francis, Courtney Okolo, Natasha Hastings and Allyson Felix won their race in Olympic record time. The four of them gathered in a circle at the end of each race, before they did any celebrating, and prayed.  

We heard from Michael Phelps how the faith of a mentor, Ray Lewis, and the book The Purpose Driven Life helped him recover from the depths of depression and reignited his passion to live. 

We also found out that Simone Biles, the greatest female gymnast in the world, learned her skills under the parenting of her adoptive Christian parents.  Ron and Nellie Biles credit their faith which compelled them to love unconditionally and to choose to adopt Simone and her sister and raise them with boundaries and Christian values.   

What I love about each story is that they don’t just make the common statement of thanks to God for winning, but share how their faith, in a tangible way, is responsible for where they are today. These are powerful examples of athletes who have excelled because of their faith in Christ, stories that have been witnessed by millions of people.   

Yes, life in Christ has its eternal rewards but it also gives us many advantages in the here and now.  When we exercise our faith, we can experience the abundant life that Jesus proclaimed He came to give us. Jesus wasn’t talking about gold medals, but a victorious life in the here and now connected to him with the ability to pursue your calling and overcome the adversity and challenges that keep you from realizing your purpose. 

The abundant life is not some mythical life but a tangible way of living by faith in a world that tries to chew you up and spit you out.  All of us, not just Olympic athletes, have the opportunity to live the abundant life Jesus came to give us if we only choose to live in Him.  

Here is a list of rewards that I have received as a result of my faith in Christ.  I wrote about them in a past blog.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Bullets fly in Rio!

Mission team in Rio
The Rio Olympics has brought back a lot of memories for me.  I’ve been to Rio four times on mission trips and those that have been to Rio de Janeiro will agree it is the most beautiful city in the world. The pictures you get on your television don't quite capture the magnificent beauty. And yet what makes the city even more fascinating is the great contrast between the breathtaking landscape and the poverty, crime, and trash.  I can attest to the danger first hand. The reports are not exaggerated. On my second trip to Rio, our mission team experienced two shootings within three days. Below is the story (much longer than my usual blog post) but it has an interesting ending and will give you a first hand look at Rio.

"We are not in Texas anymore!", I recall one of our team members remarking as our mission team sat in a church in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil trying to make sense of the crazy events of the past three days. We were getting some counsel from two different Brazilian pastors concerning two hair-raising experiences since we had arrived in Rio four days earlier. The first occurred following a Sunday night worship service in the small Juaniza favela (Brazilian slum).

We had divided our mission team into two groups for worship at two different churches. The larger group went with pastor Daniel Camaforte to his church in the favela. We were doing most of our work with his church. I kept a smaller group with me as I was preaching in the church which was our lodging for the week, located closer to the downtown area.

The team at Pastor Daniel's church had a great worship service and were fellowshipping with the members of the church outside in the courtyard beside the main road of the favela when the Rio police drove into the favela. All of a sudden, shots began to ring out coming from the drug gang in the favela directed at the police. The church members were suddenly in the crossfire of a shootout between police and the drug gang.

Pastor Daniel quickly and calmly urged everyone back into the church. He directed all of our team into a back room to avoid being hit by stray bullets and waited for the shooting to die down. During a lull he tried to get our team to leave but the shooting started once again, and so the team returned to the room. Finally the shooting stopped and Pastor Daniel got our team back on the bus and walked down a couple of blocks beside the bus to the exit of the favela to make sure we were safe.

You can imagine how disturbed and worked up everyone was when they returned to the church where we were staying. Two of the young ladies explained that they had just returned from the small store a couple of blocks from the church before the shooting occurred. If the police had come in a minute or too sooner, they would have been right in the middle of the shootout. Needless to say, our team spent a restless night but got back to work the next day doing some construction on the church in the favela and ministering.

The following day, Tuesday,  our team took the morning off to go to Copacabana beach. On the way back to the bus, about 10 of the team were walking through a nice neighborhood. Four of the team had stopped in a magazine stand to buy some refreshments. I was about 20 feet back from the stand when I heard a shot ring out. Now we were all very sensitive to the sound of gunfire, and so my first reaction was someone was shooting at us, the Americans. I heard someone yell get down, and I fell face first beside a tree. I looked up and saw a Brazilian man staggering from the magazine stand muttering something in Portuguese. The front of his chest was covered in blood. Obviously he was the one who had been shot. Todd Riddle, our Singles minister, hollered "let's get back to the van. Run!" I wanted to help the man but I couldn't understand just what was happening. I'm sorry to say, my fear took precedence over the care of the man and I along with the others took off toward our van. As I began to run I saw some police on the far corner of the street and hollered for everyone to not run but walk fast. I didn't want the police to think we had committed the shooting.

We made it back to the van where we met the rest of the team. There I found out what had happened. Those that were in the magazine stand said a young Brazilian man was in the stand with them. He pulled out a gun and shot the manager in the chest and took off running. They didn't know exactly why he had shot the manager, perhaps he had been caught stealing something. But you can imagine how distraught they were. One of the ladies on the team who was in the magazine stand just wanted to go home. She had been involved in two shootings within days.

We had planned to go to another favela to do a sports camp with kids that afternoon. But the shootings had unnerved the team to the extent I thought it best to take the afternoon off and allow the team to process what had happened and pray. I asked both the pastors, the pastor of the church in which we were staying and Pastor Daniel from the favela to talk to the team to help us understand what had happened. It was interesting the different perspectives from the pastors. The pastor of the church where we were staying, which was in an upper income area of Rio, was very surprised at what had happened. He said he had lived in Rio a long time and never had witnessed anything like this. Pastor Daniel, on the other hand, said it occurred all the time in the favela and it was something that those who lived in the favela dealt with on a regular basis. He assured us that God was in control but that we should realize that we were in a dangerous place.

We prayed a long time and then talked about how none of us had been injured, that God had protected us. We prayed for the man that had been shot and later heard that he was in critical but stable condition. We prayed for the people in the favela, for Daniel's church members who lived in the danger zone. We prayed that our mission would not be deterred, that fear would not cause us to divert what we were called to do in Rio.

That night our plan was to go to preach in a church in the favela in which we were to work that afternoon. I told the team that I was going to go and anyone that wanted could go with me but if there were any that felt uncomfortable, they could stay behind. Everyone would understand. All but a couple of the team went with me. We had a tremendous service where I challenged the men to step out and lead their families and the church. Afterward the pastor of the church took us to a house half way up the mountain of the favela which had an open porch that overlooked the city of Rio. A lot of the favelas as this one are built on the side of the mountain. The view was unbelievable. The pastor introduced us to a man who had once been a drug lord and sold drugs from this very spot. The former drug dealer explained that he had given his life to Jesus Christ and walked away from his old lifestyle and now led a Bible study on this porch where he once sold drugs.

The pastor then asked me, "Pastor John, would you like to meet the Drug Lord of this favela?" The question caught me somewhat by surprise. My wife, Barbara, was with me and I glanced over at her to get an idea of what she thought about this. I could tell she was very concerned but she gave the approval, saying "I understand, it is up you."

I looked over the team and asked Nick, one of our young guys, if he wanted to go. He agreed and we took off along with the pastor, our Brazilian guide, Caesar, and a female translator. There are no roads in the favela, just a small path up through the neighborhood. It was dark and very creepy, the only light coming from inside the houses. We would stop from time to time to visit with the neighbors as we made our way up the mountain.

After some time we stopped to talk to some men that were sitting on a porch alongside the pathway. They were dressed in army camouflage, three on the porch with several others hanging out behind them. I leaned over and asked our translator if this was the man. She said yes, he is the Drug Lord. I still remember his name, Carlos Gabriella, and he was much younger than I anticipated, in his mid twenties.

I was introduced to him and I began to tell him about our interesting adventures with bullets and shootings. As I told about the shooting of the magazine stand manager, he looked very agitated and indicated he would like to find the man who did the shooting and deliver the punishment. I was to learn that the drug gangs acted as the police of most of the favelas. They keep order and control over their neighborhoods.

I remember talking to him about King David of the Bible and how David was a leader but was not a perfect man. In spite of his sin and shortcomings as King, the Bible said he was a man after God's own heart. I told him that I realized he was the leader of this favela and I urged him to be a leader like David. I encouraged him to be a man after God's own heart, that God would forgive him of his sins if he just asked. I asked if I could pray for him and he said yes. I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed for him. I was told he had just become a new father and so I prayed for his new baby boy. A funny thing was that the translator told me that Carlos' baby was a girl, not a boy, but she had translated girl for me! Whew. Thanks for catching my mistake!

As we walked back to the church I had so many thoughts and feelings. I remember thinking how God so often turns tragedy into opportunities for him. Yes, Rio is a dangerous place but the only way out is transformation and redemption from Jesus Christ! If only the people of Brazil would look up and see the statue of Jesus as more than a statue or symbol but as a Savior wanting a real relationship. How great is the courage and faith of those like Pastor Camaforte who live and minister every day, risking his family and life for Christ!

Monday, August 8, 2016

For Such A Time As This

If you were like me, you watched the men’s 4x100  freestyle relay on the edge of your seat screaming for the U.S. swimmers. With the win Michael Phelps now has 19 gold medals in his fifth Olympics. An unbelievable accomplishment may be an understatement.  And yet what may be even more incredible is his story, which he is telling freely, from the highs of winning gold medals to the depths of wanting to commit suicide and back again to a restored life of purpose.
After his second DUI, Phelps was at the lowest point of his life, ready to end it all. “He had no idea what to do with the rest of his life,” said his longtime coach, Bob Bowman. “It made me feel terrible. I remember one day I said: ‘Michael, you have all the money that anybody your age could ever want or need; you have a profound influence in the world; you have free time — and you’re the most miserable person I know. What’s up with that?’ ”

A lot of his story revolves around his strained relationship with his father who divorced and left the family when Michael was nine. But what Michael is telling but often overlooked is the catalyst for the change. 

Michael says that when he was at the bottom, Ray Lewis, a strong Christian and former NFL great, encouraged Michael to not give up and recommended the book, The Purpose Driven Life. The book gave Phelps new direction, new hope and a new purpose in life. The result is a new life, a reconciliation with his father and a story of redemption that he can tell to help others change their life.  If you haven't watched the full ESPN story, it is worth your time.  The Lewis part starts around the 7 minute mark.

Watch the story here.

I’m wondering where Phelps would be without that encouragement from Ray Lewis. I think about Esther and the words of Mordecai, “for such a time as this”. For Lewis, his act of obedience to help lift up Phelps in a time of great need was crucial.  

Where has God placed you in this moment? For whom can you be a catalyst for change? Don’t miss the opportunity to encourage someone today to live a life of purpose in Christ Jesus. It may be the difference between life and death. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Pokemon Go getting people to church, Gospel Go getting the church to the world.

I see many things through the lens of the Gospel so seeing how Pokemon relates to our faith isn’t so crazy. But I can’t take total credit for the comparison. This observation came from a pastor I coach in a discussion about the Pokemon Go phenomenon. I don’t play but I understand the game sends players with their smart devices all over the place to find and capture Pokemon "monsters".

So it's been credited with getting young computer gamers outside, discovering their city instead of spending all their time on computers in their homes. One of the popular stations where the Pokemon characters are being placed is in churches. One gamer said that as many as 70% of the landmarks where you collect "monsters" are churches. I saw a tweet that said, what if Pokemon Go is just a conspiracy to get young people to church?  

It's ironic that a secular computer game is actually getting people to church.  My pastor friend pointed out in our discussion, "it is unfortunate Christians don't have the same enthusiasm and passion to go and make disciples as the Pokemon players do in capturing their 'monsters’". That ignited a discussion about the similarities between Pokemon and the great commission.  Think about it.  There are a few similarities.

First off, Christians have been given similar instructions as those playing Pokemon.  In Matthew 28:18-19 we are told to Go, get out of the church, your house, your comfort zone and travel to identify people, not computer characters but real people, and to share the love of God with them to make disciples. I guess you could say our task is not to capture them but to convert people to faith in Christ. 

In Pokemon Go I’m told you can accumulate points or monsters to compete against other players. When we participate in the Great Commission, we also receive something to help us with the task.  We receive power from God to help us accomplish His will. Acts 1:8.  

In Pokemon you are playing in a fantasy computer world that is integrated with the real world. In the great commission, you are participating in the Kingdom of God, the real world. 
Where the comparison ends of course is that the Great Commission is not a game, it is a matter of life and death for eternity for real people. 

There may be more similarities.  For those Christians who play the game, I'd like to know what you think and if there are other comparisons.  One thing for sure, it's a strange and rapidly changing world in which we live. 

I'm sure Pokemon is a fun game but I sure wish Christians would get as excited about the Great Commission and spend their time going out into the world to share the Gospel with those who don't know Christ as they do playing a computer game. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Power Of Perspective

There is one crucial thing you must do when trying to find and live the truth, one thing that most people neglect. It's the same as what it takes be a great putter in golf. You must get a correct read of the green. Will the ball go straight or break to the right or left? What is the slope and speed? To best determine all of those factors, it is crucial to see the line you are putting on from all sides. 

I've been lazy at times and just looked at a putt from where my ball rested. When I missed the putt by several feet, I couldn't believe how bad I misread the green. Then I'd walk to the other side and see that the green sloped down a lot more than what it looked like from where I was putting. You would be amazed how different a green can look from different perspectives depending on where you are standing. The green can actually look like you are putting uphill from one side of the hole and downhill from the other!

Life is much like that also. Problems and life circumstances can look a lot different when viewed from a different perspective. So it is always important to keep that in mind and always try to look at an issue more than just from your own eyes. 

For example, when I tend to complain about my circumstances, I just have to put myself in the shoes of those I have encountered around the world and realize how well I have it. One reminder is this fact sheet to help us put life into perspective:
  • If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep… You are richer than 75% of this world.
  • If you woke up this morning with more health than illness .. You are more blessed than the million who will not survive this week.
  • If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation… You are ahead of 500 million people in the world.
  • If you can attend a church meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death… You are more blessed than three billion people in the world.
  • If you can read (and apparently you can)… you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world that cannot read at all.
  • If you have a little money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish some place… You are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
When we walk in another person's shoes, as the saying goes, or look at the problem, disagreement or issue from the eyes of another person or place, we can always get a much more complete picture.  Sometimes we get confirmation that our view is correct. But more often our reality changes. That is what the prophet Nathan did with King David to convict David of his sin, by telling Him the story of the rich man taking the poor man's only lamb. David's perspective was shattered and corrected.  2 Samuel 12.

To get a more complete picture we should:
  • Start with a Biblical perspective. This gives you a foundation of truth and God's perspective.  
  • When you are in conflict with another, set aside a time to talk about the issue. Each person must listen to the other, without making comments. Then repeat back what you heard them say.  Once done, then you can work on solutions to the problem.
  • Build relationships with those who are different from you, older, younger, from other ethnicities, or from different places. Listen to their stories!  
  • Expand your world. Travel.  Go on mission trips. Serve others. Discover how others live. 
We have little to lose and much to gain by taking the time to view life from all sides. Then we see and can better understand truth.   "Another Man's Shoes" poem.

What Do Nesting Dolls and the Gospel have in common

Ephesians 2:8-10 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 w...