Monday, November 20, 2017

Don't Call Me "Rabbi!"

Jesus said not to use honorific titles--does that apply to "pastor?"

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.
Matthew 23:8-10
A few days ago I was asked, but not for the first time, about this passage, and its prohibition on the use of titles like "rabbi" or "teacher" or "father" among the followers of Jesus. Since he spoke this prohibition himself, it certainly ought to be obeyed. So, when we call someone (for example, me) "Pastor," are we disobeying the Lord? And should Christian institutions give up such titles as "Doctor" or "Professor" as being unbiblical?

I'm not going to speak to the educational situation and titles, although the same principles below may apply to them in intentionally Christ-centered organizations. But I've wrestled with this question for myself ever since going into vocational ministry. The passage, for example, tells us we are all brothers (stressing equal standing), but often when we use such titles we create hierarchy among believers. And it's not just basic titles like "pastor," either. We sometimes create other titles that can be used similarly. I know that our previous church association had a "national representative" that wasn't called "President" or "Superintendent" because that seemed too authoritative, and yet even the more cumbersome title was used by many in tones of deference to authority. It's just how people are--we seem to gravitate toward "pecking orders" and titles help establish that process. If you are "assistant" anything, you are under someone else, so we know you have some power, but not the most.

When I was first ordained, I was working as an assistant pastor, was responsible for youth, and was in my early 20's in a church with half its people more than twice my age. They called me "Craig" before and after ordination, and I was happy with that. My work was respected, and I didn't have any trouble being "followed" when teaching or leading.

In my only other senior pastorate, which was a church replant, I kept that practice going, preferring to be known by my name and not a title. This passage had some influence on my thinking, but so did the idea that "pastor" is one of the gifts given to the church according to Ephesians 4:11. Since we don't tend to call most people by their occupation or their spiritual gift ("Plumber Paul" or "Helpful Henry"), I was happy to be just plain Craig.

Later, some parents said they didn't want their children calling me by my first name but to show some respect to me as an adult with a title. I suggested that "Pastor Craig" might be a good option, as long as "Pastor" was seen more as an honorific like "Uncle"--and that thought came from my visits to mission fields, where all the kids of missionaries called all the missionary adults and visiting pastors and wives "uncle" or "aunt."

I suggested the same ideas when I came here, but because this is a long established church, what people call me is all over the map. For some, I am "Craig," for others "Pastor Craig," and others use "Pastor Miller." Some address me simply as "Pastor." Some of you may have other names for me, but I don't need to hear them! :)

But is the use of such titles as "Pastor" or "Reverend" wrong? At first look, this passage would seem to say, "yes." Jesus wanted his followers to see themselves on equal footing, all learning and following one true authoritative teacher--himself as the Messiah.

But if we think about the context and history, we may be a little less certain. In the days of Jesus, religious Jews were sharply divided into various camps. We know about Sadducees (mainly priestly families who denied much of what we would consider basic spiritual truths in favor of an ethical, non-supernatural emphasis on the Temple observances) and the Pharisees (teachers of the Law who were zealous for obedience to the Law and strong believers in the supernatural). But Pharisees divided into lots of different, competing groups, following particular rabbis and traditions. These groups often viewed other such groups as being in error. Thus people allied themselves with their own rabbis and these groups were often at odds over who was right. And their "rabbis" were all too happy to have such followers, who would treat them with great honor and deference. They would call them "father," too, and often such men conducted themselves with a great sense of their own importance. When they were crossed, they had very little hesitation about putting the one who disagreed in his place. Your rabbi was not just a teacher you liked--he was an authority you deferred to and obeyed, and who often required his followers to show appropriate respect and obedience.

Jesus is rebuking the idea that any man (or woman) should be viewed as  the authoritative teacher on the truth of God on earth, and by extension that any person should take such authority to himself, with one clear exception. It was Jesus alone to whom believers were to look as their authoritative teacher/explainer of truth, and Jesus who was to receive that kind of honor and obedience.

Interestingly, Jesus told his disciples that in his kingom they would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, so he wasn't saying there would be no authority exercised on his behalf among his followers. The apostles clearly understood that Jesus, by his authority was commanding them to go, teach, and baptize people--having already told them that they could "bind" or "loose" things on earth with heavenly power. So it isn't just authority that is in view here.

Rather, it is the exercise of control by a spiritual leader as if he is the ultimate word on all matters of faith. It is self-promotion and self-aggradizement that is in view here--wanting not just the title, but power and respect from others.

So, I believe that using a title like "pastor" need not be considered wrong, as long as the person using it or being called by it is simply acknowledging God's call to fill this role for the benefit of the church. I've had some people say they see the title as showing respect for the calling or "office" of pastor. What must be avoided is the idea that there is, inherent in the person referred to by the title, an authority and power that should only belong to Christ. And pastors need to recognize that their only authority and power comes as they speak what the Word says and apply it as Christ directs. If the "Pastor" is the big shot and everyone else is expected to follow without question, then we are back in the very circumstance that Jesus was rebuking.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The God Who Sings

Of all our conceptions of God, we may miss this one

God reveals himself to us in manifold ways. The creation reveals his power and his order--including the moral order (remember Romans 1). All people, even unbelievers, see this, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.

Jesus came as the express, physical representation of God, being himself fully God, now in human form. This is affirmed in many places in Scripture, including John 1.

The Scriptures are replete with imagery of God that speaks to us of who he is and what he does. He is enthroned above the heavens (Psalm 123:1). He is a righteous judge, who isn't always happy with what he sees (Psalm 7:11). He is "our Father" who gives grace and peace (Matthew 6:9, Ephesians 1:2). He is "great, mighty, and awesome" (Nehemiah 9:32). Time doesn't permit me to survey all the different ways the Bible encourages us to see and understand God--maybe you could take some time later and just begin to recount them all.

But there is one image, one concept, that I came across today (not for the first time), and it blessed me, and I want to share it with you. It is from Zephaniah 3:17--a passage (and a book) you probably haven't been working in recently. Here is what it says: 
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. 

In a prophetic vision of God's judgment and then restoration of Israel as his people in the "Day of the Lord," we find this imagery in the midst of God's comfort and assurances to people. God says to those he has redeemed and rescued in that final day, that in his joy over them, he will break into loud singing.

That is a picture I don't often conjure up when I think of God. I think of God as serious--even in his happiness. I don't know why, but most of my thoughts of God don't consider him so moved with joy, especially over people, that he starts singing--loudly. That sounds too--enthusiastic! But there it is. He says is "in your midst," "mighty," "will save," "rejoices" gladly over his people, quiets them with his love, and exults with "loud singing."

God takes joy in his redemptive work, accomplished through his Son. We are a part of that redeemed people. And that means, by extension, his joy in us and our promised future is the same. The eternal God, not bound by time and not just seeing us now but seeing us as we will be through the work of Christ forever, sings over us. He sings over me, and if you are his child--he sings over you, too.

Take a moment and just revel in that thought. The great God of the universe looks at us, and joyfully belts out a tune of celebration. My old joke that life isn't a musical isn't really true after all. I wonder what the lyrics will be? We can only picture it now, but one day, we'll hear it and experience it. The Father's joy will be full as he brings all the redeemed into his presence. What a picture to hold on to when you wonder what God thinks about you as his child. Let it encourage you today.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Which Bible?

Choosing one may raise some questions--let me help!

Recently one of our members asked me to comment on various versions of the Bible and what I recommend and why. This multi-part question was so good, I decided to write here about it, because there are some great options out there for you to consider, as well as a few matters to be aware of as you make a choice.

First, I know you have probably figured out that I use the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible in my preaching and teaching. But that doesn't mean it is the only "good" Bible translation out there. You also know that I grew up on and still remember much of the King James Version. While I honor its powerful role in English speaking Christianity (and frankly in the English language), I do not recommend it to those who haven't used it regularly, and would humbly suggest that advances in our understanding of the original texts have allowed other versions to be even more beneficial. And while I consider it a good version, the New King James Version (not so new anymore) did not take advantage of some of the advances in our knowledge but sought to remain close to the KJV.

As you consider a Bible, you should know that you will be well served by any of the following versions, but I will weigh in on the pros and cons of each. As I do, I will comment on how literal the version is, and how readable it is as well. Often "the more readable, the less literal" can apply, because trying to be literal in translation often means having to put things in English in a way we would not say them in most conversation. Translators struggle with the question of trying to accurately convey the meaning of words, phrases, ideas, and "figures of speech" from the original language to ours, and that is a daunting task--especially if you are trying to make sure to communicate accurately what God wants his people to know.

So, with great respect for those who have done the work, here are my recommendations. I am only commenting on versions that are currently readily available and fairly widely used, with one possible exception.

Very "literal" Bibles:
  • The New American Standard Version. This has been recognized generally as the most literal English translation. Because of that, it takes more effort to sit and read than other Bibles, but it is very reliable in its rendering of the original language into English in a word for word style translation. By having "American" in its name, this version guaranteed a limited interest among international English speakers, and it has lagged behind the ESV, NKJV, and NIV in popularity. This was the first translation I used other than the KJV, and for many years it was the "go to" translation in conservative churches if you were leaving the KJV behind. I preached from it for years. It is excellent for study, but not the best to give to a young or new Bible student who is not a strong reader.
  • The English Standard Version--Nearly as literal as the NASB, the ESV made readability a goal as well, but also tried to keep some of the poetic feel of the King James and the Revised Standard Version--an older version that was used as its basis. It has become the most popular among the more literal translations--it is John Piper's and Wayne Grudem's favorite! It would be in the top two of my recommendations in almost every case.
  • The Christian Standard Version--this is a new release, replacing the Holman Christian Standard Bible, released by the publishing ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is a very good, literal translation. I've taken some time to read it, and I find it very good in the sections I've covered. However, it is hard to see what the need for it was, and whether it will gain popularity and staying power (it does have a major publisher and denomination behind it, so that helps). In my opinion, the one great step that the HCSB had made was to use the name of God in the Old Testament where the original text used it. They rendered it "Yahweh." However, the CSV has removed it, going with "LORD" in caps as other English versions do, which makes it even less "unique" as a version. But it is still a good option.
  • The NET Bible--This is the exception I mentioned above, a version that most of you have never heard of. I include it because of its unique helpfulness in giving the English reader access to understanding matters behind the translation. It has LOTS of notes explaining the original language and why a particular translation was chosen--they are the most extensive language notes of any English Bible of which I am aware. If you would like this tool for free, you can download "Lumina" from the app store on your phone and you will get the translation and all of the notes! There are print versions, too. Chris Miller uses this version and highly endorses it--that's another reason I include it. The downside: if it is your regular version, then you will never be reading what everyone else is reading.

Very "readable" Bibles:
  • The New International Version--This is the most popular modern translation of the Bible into English--I think the KJV still is #1worldwide. The NIV is less literal, but still very accurate as it seeks to give more of the ideas than just the words. Sometimes this is called a "dynamic equivalence" method of translation, but what is meant is that instead of translating word for word, the translators tried to give the meaning of each phrase, and if you had to be less "literal" with a word, that was acceptable to be able to get the basic meaning of the phrase or verse across. The most "controversial" point for this translation in its most recent revision is that they have adopted the contemporary usage of plural pronouns to avoid saying "he" or "him" when that is what the original language says in reference to an individual person. They sometimes turn a verse from a singular like "Blessed is the man..." to "Blessed are those..." so as not to imply gender. Frankly, I don't like that approach, but it's not enough for me to keep from making this the other Bible in my "top two." Tim Keller and D.A. Carson both use and recommend this version.
  • The New Living Translation--This translation is even more of a "translate the idea" rather than "translate each word" version, and does the same thing as the NIV with changing singular to plural references to avoid gender. I find that it gives me quite a different perspective when I read it, which often makes me go back to the original languages to discover how they got to the translation they did. I have great respect for those who worked on it, and find it helpful. But it is not the best version to use if you want to carefully study the meaning of the text. 
Some of you might be saying, "but what about 'The Message?'" This is Eugene Peterson's personal translation/paraphrase into English, and it is a very enjoyable read. Peterson often picks up on aspects of the meaning of words and phrases that are helpful, and as a writer his turn of a phrase can be powerful. But there is imprecision and sometimes doctrinal bias that keep this from being worthy of consideration as a main Bible, in my view.

The two versions I've recommended--the ESV and the NIV--both have excellent study Bibles available. The ESV actually has two I appreciate, The ESV Study Bible, and the Gospel Transformation Bible. The NIV has the excellent Zondervan NIV Study Bible. The first and last have very extensive notes on almost everything. The GTB's focus is what its name implies--seeing the Gospel throughout the Scriptures. 
I hope this is helpful if you are considering a new Bible for yourself or someone else. And one more personal preference I have is looking for a good quality Bible--one with a binding that will last. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Does God Hate Divorce?

The answer to that question is more complex than we think

This question came up in a recent situation, and as I tried to answer it, I thought that it might be good for me to write on the matter as an opportunity to remind and instruct all of us. So here goes.

From early childhood in church, I remember that when the subject of divorce came up, it wasn't too long before someone would quote Malachi 2:16 as a proof of how bad it was: "For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the Lord of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously (King James Version)." The phrase "putting away" was the term used for divorce. We hated divorce, too, and in our church if you were divorced, you weren't free to do all the ministries others could do. Even if you never remarried, if you were divorced, you had been a party to something God hated and that spilled over into a permanent status of being less useful to God and the church.

When the New American Standard Bible came out, it seemed to make it clearer: "For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” By this time, there had been a divorce in my extended family, and I wondered if God hated my family member, and if this sin was worse than others.

But then came the New International Version. It reads a bit differently: “ 'The man who hates and divorces his wife,' says the Lord, the God of Israel, 'does violence to the one he should protect,' says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful."

And later still, the English Standard Version also follows this path: "For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

Before I discovered this new direction in translation, my study of the Scriptures related to this subject had led me to conclude that divorce is never God's desire for a marriage. However, Matthew 5, 19, and 1 Corinthians 7 reveal that unrepentant sins against a spouse could rise to the equivalent of covenant-breaking that leads to divorce (the two we see in these Scriptures are immorality and abandonment--I believe there are others related to these, but to hear about that, go online and listen to the sermon from the No Easy Answers series). God allows divorce in such circumstances that manifest the fallen condition of humanity (Jesus referred to it as hardness of heart). But because of my earlier training, I still felt that God somehow hated this sin more because of Malachi 2:16.

It was during my preparation for the "No Easy Answers" series I preached five years ago that I began to dig into the reasons for the translation differences in Malachi. I can't take time to explain all the nuances here, but in the text of Malachi, the Lord is rebuking the unfaithfulness of the men of Israel in a number of ways, and one of them is unfaithfulness to the wives of their youth taken in the covenant of marriage. The Hebrew is better understood saying that the hatred is not God's, but that of an evil husband toward his wife that he chooses to divorce--an act characterized here as selfish wickedness (the Hebrew verb "to hate" is in the 3rd person--"he hates," not the first person "I hate"--so the "hater" must be someone other than the Lord, who is speaking). Even before divorce had become rampant in the culture of Israel at the time of Jesus, God rebuked callous hearts that would cast aside wives so that they could pursue others. He obviously did not "hate" the wives who were abandoned. The KJV hints at what the NIV and ESV makes clear--he hates the unfaithful hearts that would do such a thing to a spouse. To "hate and divorce" is to "cover one's garment with wrong" or "do violence to the one he should protect." Not only does God rebuke this--we should all hate such hard hearted cruelty.

So, in a very real sense, God "hates" the occurrence and consequences of such divorces." But this isn't the same thing that some people mean when they quote this verse. What I hear in some people's citation of this verse is that divorce is especially evil, and by extension anyone who divorces (or is divorced) has to deal with God's special indignation. But as we have suggested, this could not have been directed to the abandoned spouse. Nor, I would argue, is it directed toward those men and women who, despite their efforts, their forgiveness, and their patience, find themselves abandoned or abused by a spouse who flouts their marital covenant, and so finally decide to legally end through divorce or dissolution what their partner has already broken. The unfaithful partner is the one whose actions broke the covenant promises made before God.

So, let's be clear. Because God hates sin, this includes marital unfaithfulness of all sorts. And we could even say that it is especially under his judgment because the promises were made before him as the invited witness. But a spouse that has been so wrongfully treated may decide to end legally that marriage bond. And if they do, they will be acting in a way that God also seems to have chosen when he announced his "divorce" of the faithless northern tribes of Israel (Jeremiah 3:8).

Let's uphold the sanctity of the marriage covenant--it is to be a lifelong bond between a man and a woman, and it requires grace and forgiveness every day. I've not only committed myself to helping each marriage at Grace stay together and get stronger, I've rejoiced to see God help couples overcome difficulties, and plead with you: if there are challenges in your marriage we can help with, come to us and let us walk with you toward God's healing and help. But let us not assume that any time a marriage ends in divorce, that God hates those who experience it. Instead, let's agree with God about the tragic situation of a spouse who is mistreated and abandoned through the callous unfaithfulness of their partner. And let's grieve such brokenness and loss.

Let us also remember what the Lord clearly says he hates:
  • Making idols--objects of ultimate devotion that displace Him--Deuteronomy 16:22
  • The wicked and the lovers of violence--Psalm 11:5
  • ...haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers--Proverbs 6:16-19
  • Robbery and wrong--Isaiah 61:8
Let's praise and thank God that sinners who do the very things he hates can cry out to him for forgiveness through the merits of Christ, and be saved, be cleansed, and be made whole--this obviously includes us if we look at the Proverbs reference and reflect on our own pride, deceitfulness, hatred of others, and so on.

And finally, let's remember that, as with so many other tragic events in this fallen world, God uses divorce, as he uses other violations of his perfect plans, to accomplish greater purposes in us and ultimately to bring about his glory and our good.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What Happened In Vegas

When Unexpected Evil Invaded Sin City

I got up for our elder prayer time early on a recent Monday morning, and as I picked up my phone to head out, saw the news of a shooting that had taken place just a few hours earlier with multiple victims in Las Vegas. As the deadly details came in, they brought that terrible feeling that is a combination of disbelief, anger, ache, grief, and bewilderment--probably more, too. I prayed right then for the situation and people, not knowing how much worse the news would get.

I've decided previously not to join in the frenzy of social media commenting right away after such events, even the hashtags urging prayers. Personally, I want to know what's happening and try to process that news before commenting. In the days following, some things became clearer, some became more confusing, and some became very personal.

The clearer details were shocking numbers and what was and was not knowable. One man who had no police record and was not known to be a threat smuggled massive amounts of weapons and ammunition into a 32nd-floor hotel room, where he managed to break the supposedly shatterproof glass and shoot victims who were below at a large country music festival. He apparently converted at least one weapon to fire automatically, leading to the eventual toll of 59 dead (so far) and over 500 injured. He had security cameras set up to monitor whether the police were closing in, and there is evidence he had scouted other locations before choosing this one. Within a day we knew it was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. While ISIS claimed him, there is no evidence yet that the shooter was one of them.

Many were wishing he were because what cannot be known is why he did this. His brother was dumbfounded. Details gathered could only reveal a high stakes poker player who lived in his retirement in the desert town of Mesquite, Nevada. He sent his girlfriend out of the country before he acted. He wasn't on anyone's radar as a threat. He didn't leave a manifesto. He wasn't under a doctor's care or diagnosed with a mental disorder. He was just another 64-year-old guy, until he wasn't. 

Confusion came as people, especially the media and politicians tried to discuss the shooter and the crime. It wasn't enough to say that what happened was "tragic," "horrific," and "unfathomable." None of these expressed what everyone felt. Our public figures and media representatives had to find a better word.It was amazing how they referred to the shooter's actions as "evil." That word is a moral judgment, and its use points to some standard of good and evil that is beyond any one of us--it is agreed by all rational people that this is morally wrong. 

Now I agree wholeheartedly, but I wonder if those who call it evil have ever thought about where right and wrong come from? Evolution certainly cannot account for such a way of thinking. If morality is external to us, its source must be none other than the transcendent law-giver--but this is not acceptable to most of the very people using the word. Contemporary society wants to be able to label evil even as it undermines the possibility of its existence. Confusing times indeed. As believers, I hope we, and other Christians, might not let the discussion move so quickly to debates about gun control and security without bringing people back to this foundational question of whether there is a solution for the problem of evil in our world.

The personal piece came home to me as one friend reported that his son was one of the thousands fleeing the bullets (safely, in his case), and another friend reported that his family had lost a loved one in the shooting. The stories of the dead and of the survivors who thought they would die should remind us that this isn't just about a number of victims. It is individuals whose lives were ended or altered in a moment. Each one is mourned by family and friends, who in turn affect their circle of relationships. Each loss is intensely personal to those who cared. And each one is a soul whose relationship to God is most paramount, and has now been forever settled.

The ad campaign says, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." That was always a lie trying to be cute about hiding ones "indiscretions" while visiting what was historically called "Sin City." This week, we've learned that sin can come and wreak havoc even where it is celebrated and winked at, and at least in this case, it definitely won't stay there.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Another Church Visitor Report

Vacation is a time for a pastor to do a good and hard thing...

I wrote this a few months as Kathy and I finished our summer vacation in Myrtle Beach. If you know us, this is our favorite annual get away ever since we moved east and lost "our" ocean. The one back here is nice, too. Events transpired that made me postpone sharing it then, so here it is now.

I'm a firm believer in vacations, and in making sure you really do get away. We've left our phones away from us, spent little time checking them or other technology, and much more time reading, walking, and talking together. It's the best kind of vacation--long enough to get away, but also to make you ready to return. We are ready to come home.

We've learned never to believe weather reports--had we done so we would have stayed home! Instead, we have had glorious days here with promised rain usually not appearing or coming at night. We've each read a number of books, played games, and are completing a 8-episode movie marathon (last of the 8 tonight--we did Lord of the Rings on our last trip). And the toughest decision has been whether to go to the beach in the morning and the pool in the afternoon, or vice versa.

The middle of our vacation was the Lord's Day, and we decided once again to go church visiting. Our last two church visits in Myrtle Beach have been interesting. We visited a church that had taken over an entertainment complex that didn't survive, and got to watch them honor their high school graduates and talk about a missions trip coming up. So while there was nothing at all negative about the experience, it didn't really draw us back.

You may remember my report our last church visit: where we were welcomed as we drove in, but from that moment to the end, no one spoke to us. We stood outside the venue for 10 minutes while they reduced the seating for the smaller, second service. This church's call to worship was having all of us stand, clap our hands and be encouraged to "Shake it Off!" Yes, the music team covered Taylor Swift's hit (and did a very credible job, too), which was a first for me in a worship service. The worship leader's v-neck t-shirt was appropriately tight to let us know that Cross Fit works, and he led us in other songs that were more familiar in a worship setting than the opener. The sermon was a video, but not just any video. In the summer they were doing a "Best of..." series--videos of congregational chosen favorite messages. This one was about vampires. "Bloodsuckers in the Church" actually. We left pretty sure we wouldn't be back on another trip.

This time, we passed on a multi-site ministry that covers most of the Carolinas with campuses, did enough digging on the web to find out what churches named Cornerstone, Journey, Discovery, Wellspring, Newspring, Arms Wide Open, and Crossroads believe. We found one that was covertly Baptist (not in the name) and a part of The Gospel Coalition, and we went.

Unlike our two previous visits, this was a smaller church of about 100 people, meeting in a shopping center. We were greeted at the door, but the only other person who spoke to us other than the greeting time was another first-time guest. During the greeting time, the couple behind us greeted us, but others around us never turned toward us. The service brought back many memories for us of early days in our previous church in both size and setting. The pastor was on vacation (no complaints because so was I) and their youth pastor spoke from Psalm 7 (can't escape Psalms in the summer!). Afterward, as we made our way out, the youth pastor greeted us at the door.

I enjoy visiting other churches. It is a good reminder of the diverse ways that local bodies of believers function and seek to serve and worship God. The commonalities that we share are encouraging, and the differences, whether size or style, are important to remember.

I also struggle visiting other churches. We are far from perfect, but I miss our fellowship when I'm away. And a common problem for pastors is that we are looking at everything through a "ministry professional" set of eyes. We rate (and often criticize) music, service elements, acoustics and sound, environment, and preaching. I have to prepare myself every time to NOT do these things, and rather to seek to join these brothers and sisters in worshiping the risen Lord. Thankfully, both Kathy and I remarked on the positive opportunity we had to worship with this fellowship.

There was one point, however (and you may have already guessed it), where I was both disappointed and warned. It was in the way that we were welcomed--it was pretty weak. Now, it's not that I am important, or deserving of attention, but corporate worship is meant to be a gathering of souls for the purpose of unified worship to God. It is especially hard for a guest or first-time visitor to enter into a "corporate" experience if those who make up the congregation do not make an effort to include them in the corporate expression. We went in and sat down in an empty row, surrounded by lots of empty rows (we were earlier than many). No one came to sit next to us, and only another first-time guest spoke with us (it turns out he is a church planting missionary who just relocated to a small town 50 miles away). In corporate worship, we follow the lead of those in charge of the service so that we can do things together, but there was no other sense of being together created by the congregation.

The warning to me was clear. We are in a season of LOTS of visitors, especially students (along with families). Will you do this pastor a great favor? Welcome them into corporate worship. Don't just nod or offer a quick hello. Speak with them. Get their names and find out more about them. It doesn't matter if they will be back next week or not--you are meeting someone you may spend eternity with. Volunteer a little information about yourself and our church. I would have loved to learn what this church's "story" was--what is their aim, are they a new church, what do they love about being a part of this fellowship. Don't just go walking by new people sitting by themselves. Stop, introduce yourselves, and maybe even sit with them if they aren't waiting for someone. If there are confusing instructions from the platform (sometimes we use words and abbreviations only long timers would know), lean over and let them know what is being talked about. Speak with them again after the service. Let them know they would be welcomed any time they can be with us. I can tell you from personal experience, there have been three churches I have visited in the last five years (and that includes our 2012 sabbatical) where I felt welcomed like that--and I still remember them. Let's make sure we are in that "memorable" camp--so that people will see the love of Christ extended to them as fellow believers or as those who may need to know that love.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Keeping Worship "Corporate"

Each Lord's Day, as we come together to worship the Lord, we are seeking to do something that is unnatural to us. But if we don't do it, we will miss the purpose and the joy that the Lord has for this kind of gathering.

We want to come with our hands and hearts held out to be filled...and they can be.

We want to learn from God's Word...and we should.

We want to hear music that turns our thoughts heavenward...and it can.

We want to praise and thank the Lord for his goodness...and we do.

But beyond all of this, we are coming to be a part of something more--specifically something more than any one of us represents. We are coming to be a part of the Body of Christ seeking all of these things together. We are not to be the collection of hundreds of individual worshipers, but rather the people of God in worship. 

You may wonder what the difference is. Let me see if I can help.

Everything that I listed above that we want to do, we could do on our own, or perhaps on our own with Spotify or Pandora readily available for the music part. But something changes when we all come together to do the same thing as one people. Actually a number of things change.

When we seek to be filled, it is not just my needs but the needs of the Body--individually and as a group--that should fill our thoughts and petitions. We need power corporately to love each other well, to meet each others' needs, to serve together well, and to seek God's direction for us as we serve our community and our world in his name.

When we sing, it isn't just to enjoy a song, or even to sing these praises to God, but to sing them to God together, and in so doing often to remind each other that we are not alone in the endeavor of praise. Sometimes when we sing, especially if you may not favor a particular song, you might want to realize that your singing is an example and an encouragement to those around you and even to the musicians leading us from the front. It says, "yes, we are with you in this praise and testimony." 

When someone leads us in prayer, it is meant to be the prayer of all of us, for all of us. We aren't supposed to be silently waiting for a finish so we can sit down or move on. We are to be affirming from our own hearts the petitions being asked, the praised being offered, the thanks being given, and the confessions being made. 

When we read God's Word out loud, we are saying it for ourselves, but also for those around us--we need to be saying it and we need to be hearing it--interestingly, the public reading of the Scriptures is one of the few elements we are commanded to have in corporate worship. God already knows what the passage says--he had it written for us, after all. But we need to be reminded of it.

And when the preaching is going on, we are to hear it as God's instruction (however imperfectly given by the messenger) to us, together. We shouldn't listen and say, "I'm already doing that" or "my neighbor really needs that." Instead, we should all be saying, "this is important for us; teach us how to do this better, or avoid this more fully, Lord," (depending on whether it's an instruction or warning). 

Something you might not expect takes place when we worship this way. Our hearts are not only drawn toward God, but toward each other. The Spirit uses such worship to remind us of our belonging to one another, and our need for each other. It keeps us from becoming music critics and sermon analyzers--instead, it helps us focus on what the Body is, hopefully, gaining through our time together before the Lord. 

As we worship, we are often told there is an Audience of One. That is true in one sense, because our focus is the triune God. However, our worship is a testimony to angels and demons. To angels there is the amazing truth that these fallen humans, redeemed by grace, have come to know the God they serve night and day because of his mercy, and they marvel. Demons likewise must marvel, and shudder, as they see all of their schemes coming apart and coming to nothing. A watching world also learns about us--not just those who might come as guests, but even the testimony that we gather before our Lord together every week. One of the best parts of that is when we, who are different in many ways, demonstrate a unity that is only explainable by the gospel.

Personal worship is a privilege, and we should engage whenever we can. But we need corporate worship to fulfill our true calling as God's people. And according to Hebrews 10:24-25, the closer the end of this age gets, the more we will need such times together. Let's not miss a moment of shared glory in his presence that we don't have to!