Friday, May 20, 2016

Ministry is Not a Program

Often when we ask about what ministries a church has to offer, we are thinking about programs. The two terms are usually used interchangably. Our church culture is excellent at developing and implementing programs in which people can get involved. Programs are large and small and cover a variety of desired needs in a church environment. It is the programs that are often the criteria for measuring a church's health. The number of programs and the number of people involved are often what we use to determine if a church is active, effective and attractive. But we must be careful that we do not confuse programs with ministry they are meant to occomplish.

In my many years in pastoral leadership, I have been involved in overseeing the implementation and management of multiple programs in various size churches. Every night of the week several programs were available to reach and minister to people of various age and demographic groups. There were hundreds of volunteers involved in the programs as well. We had a "plug and play" approach that we called ministry. Dedicated staff had everything all set up for volunteers to walk in, give their hour or two to serving, then go home. We worked hard for ministry to be as simple for possible for the church to do. My main focus as a pastor became on ensuring that everything was clean, safe, and smooth for the volunteers to engage in weekly ministry activity.

After a while though, I began to feel that I was more of a director of recreational activities than a pastor. While I am not saying that there are not great moments when people began to follow Christ, it is that true ministry can be lost in the process of programing. Numbers seemed to be the focus; attendance, volunteers, activities, and even funding. When I began to go outside of my familure church culture and experience ministry in other locations and other countries, I noticed that there was something different from the clean, safe and predictable program focused ministry I was used to. Ministry I saw outside of my church was messy, risky, and unpredictable. 

I began to see that the biblical concept of ministry is much simpler than what we usually think. In 1 Peter 4:10-11 it says, "Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen."

First, it is important to know that the word "ministry" is the translations for the word meaning "to serve" in the biblical Greek. So, as sometimes translated, ministry and service are the same word. So when we read the passage above, it tells us what our ministry focus should be. Is it "using whatever gift we have been given to serve others." The idea is also echoed by the Apostle Paul when he says in Ephesians 4:12-13 that the role of church leadership is, "to equip his people for works of service (read ministry), so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." 

The two big take-ways I see here is that ministry is serving God by serving other people and its for the purpose of spiritual growth. When I see the ministry that the early church was involved in, it was much simpler and focused. It took the church and its people into risky and unpredictable situations to present the message and developed mature follows of Jesus Christ. Even when they needed to be better organized to meet the needs of different groups of people as when we see in the book of Acts, the focus was not on making a better program, but to meet the people needs more effectively.

I do think programs are necessary for the church as a means to an end. The end is to more effectively organize the church for serving people. When the focus becomes the program rather than the true ministry that the program is supposed to accomplish, we may sterilize the environment too much to where we forget to go where things get messy, risky, and unpredictable. It is precisely in those situations that we are forced to trust God more when we serve him by serving other people.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Worship is Not an Event

When it comes to worship, we tend to think about it in terms of going to a church or other gathering of Christians. We may say things like, "I went to worship today," or "I am going to the 10:30 worship service." What usually comes to mind are the activities of singing, praying, listening to a sermon. Music, prayer and scripture are usually the elements associated with what we refer to as worship.

In our culture, worship is thought of as an event or an activity that we attend and experience at a given time and place. While it is true that we gather to worship together at regular times and places, we are limiting God's definition and intention of worship if we simply see it in that way. The event of worship is not the extent of worship.

The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Roman church about what proper worship is. "Therefore, I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will." (Romans 12:1-2 NIV)

We see that, "true and proper worship" is really about a lifestyle of loving and serving God. A true act of worship is giving of ourselves entirely to God, allowing him to change our attitude, thinking and action every moment of everyday. This means that the act of worship really begins when we leave the church building.

Notice that Paul says that giving ourselves in this was is an act of "living sacrifice." This sacrifice is not just the giving up an hour or two of my day to go to a church worship service. It is about giving myself completely to God in how I live and interact with others every day. When we understand worship in this way, it should challenge us to fervent desire to live all aspects of my life for Christ.

So how do we understand the purpose and meaning of what we do when we come together for a worship service at a given time and place? Can that rightly be called "worship?" I think that meeting together to praise God is biblical and necessary for followers of Jesus and should be considered worship. But we may misunderstand true worship is if we view that as all there is to worship. We should not come to God and give him a little time and then go on our way to live for ourselves until we return. After all, God's love and mercy to us is always active, not just available for a certain limited time each week.

Our gatherings for worship are a time when we can meet with other believers and encourage each other to full-time worship and service for Christ. It is a time to refocus, renew, and recharge our spiritual commitment to God. It is a place to engage, encourage, and equip each other in following Christ and serving others. It is a time to practice our love for God and others as we prepare for the our lifestyle of worship.

What are some practical ways you can worship God in the everyday activity of your life? Share a comment on your thoughts about worship.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

You Can't Go to Church

Deep within our vocabulary of our Christian culture is the concept that the Church is a place or an event. We view the institution or building as "the church." Therefore when someone asks you where you are going so early on a Sunday morning, you reply, "I am going to church!"

On the surface it can be said that we are just using a commonly known reference point in our speech to communicate where we are going. But the deeper, more biblical definition of the concept of "Church" has little to do with a place, a building, an institution, or even an event.

In 1 Peter 2:4-10, the Apostle speaks of the Church being a building, but only in a metaphorical sense. In verse five Peter says, "And you are living stones that God is building into a spiritual temple. What's more, you are his holy priests. Through the medication of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God."  This verse, as well as the entire passage, is jam-packed with truths that challenge our traditional vocabulary and thinking about what the church is and how it is to be understood.

First of all, I want to point out that I believe our concept of church is more Old-Testament than it is New-Testament in the way its understood. Peter mentions two familiar concepts to the Old-Testament worshiper, the temple and the priest.

While I will say more about this in future posts, I want to point out how we may still be thinking of the old ways of worship, rather than the new way in following Jesus Christ. In the old way of worship people went to a place to worship called the temple. They also come to a person to mediate between the worshiper and God called the priest. The way we often practice our worship today is much like the Old-Testament worshipper coming to the temple and to a priest. We just transfer the concepts to a church and a pastor.

But notice what Peter says is the new temple and who the priests are: "You are living stones that God is building into a spiritual temple." In other words, you can't go to church because you are the Church. And we also are the "priests" with Christ as our head priest.

The implications of this should profoundly change our thinking about church. Verse 9 says, "But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light."

So we see that the church is not a place we go to worship God, but a people God has chosen to worship Him. It is not tied to geographical area or a building. Wherever Christ followers are, there is the church. That makes the church very mobile and global. And believers are also called to be the ones who show the world who God is through Jesus Christ. Wherever we go we take Christ with us and share his message and ministry. The Church is a people worshipping and serving God through Jesus Christ.

We may never be able to change the vocabulary of our culture but we can begin to change our concept of what the church is and does and how we function within in it. Just remember, you can't go to church because you are the Church.

What do you think? What practical things can we do to "be" the church rather than just going to church?

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Missional to the CORE

When I was first asked if I would consider starting a new church, my first response "NO." My response was based on the fact that we already had numerous churches in our area. The need that I perceived was not that we needed more churches, but the churches we had needed to be healthier. As time went on and others encouraged me to think about starting a new work, I knew that it would have to be something different. I began to write down the CORE values that had been bouncing around in my head for many years (you can see the list at the end of my blog post, "Inside, Outside, Upside-Down").

Around that time a new word starting to be thrown around in church leadership circles was "missional." While there are various ideas of the meaning of the word, there is even more variety in how the concept is implemented in churches. However, it seemed like a word that fit the CORE values that I was beginning to embrace for a new church. To try to define the concept I began to ask, "what would it look like if a local church acted like missionaries in its home area?"

The starting point was with the fact that God is on a Mission. God acts with purpose and planning to bring worshipers to himself (Ephesians 1). He came to us as the person of Jesus Christ to serve humanity. While sacrificially giving of himself, Jesus unashamedly pointed to himself as the only way to have a right relationship with God the Father. The purpose of the Church flows from this mission that God is on. We are called to be on the same mission; to go and share the love and message of Christ so that others may follow and worship God.

From this point I began to formulate our list of CORE values for a local church that thinks and acts as missionaries in our local area, and in our global ministry as well. The resulting list of our 9 CORE Values had to be Christ Centered, Outwardly Focused, Relationally Based, and Empowering the people to grow and go as God directs us.

The perspective these values provide has led us to focus more on our ministry outside of our building, rather than how many we can get inside. It has allowed us to be very ethnically and economically diverse and representative of our community. It has moved us to connect and partner with other churches, ministries, non-profit organizations, schools and businesses in our city. These CORE values are developing us into a ministry that goes out into the streets and around the world to serve others and share Christ in unique ways.

Check out our CORE Values. What do you think? What would it look like if your church approached ministry with these values in mind?

Friday, February 19, 2016

President Obama Proves Jesus' Premise

As Christians in the Middle-East, we were not comfortable. It seemed like we always had to be looking over our shoulder and behind our back to be sure that there wasn’t somebody waiting to stab or shoot us. It is just the reality of life under Islamic dominated states. It is the cost of being Christian in any Islamic state.

We should not surprised by the fact of persecution. Jesus told his disciples in John 15:18-20, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” The first disciples of Jesus were persecuted just as Jesus predicted, and we find ourselves in the same situation even today.

But I thought that Jesus’ prediction might not be entirely true. Maybe Muslim minorities in secular states are being persecuted too. I thought that might be just the nature of the world and not necessarily a Christian spiritual fact. But I was wrong.

Muslims in secular countries are as strong as in Islamic countries. When Iranian president Hassan Rouhani visited the Italian Museum, the nude statues were covered and the wine was banned in respect to his Islamic law. I wonder if Rouhani would do the same thing for the Pope if he would visit Tehran! Would the Pope be allowed to enter the mosque without first performing the Islamic cleaning rituals? Can Hillary Clinton visit Tehran without her head being covered with a scarf? 

I don’t think so. Islam always wins in the Middle-East and in the West. Christians seem to have no rights in either place. And that makes Jesus’ premise and prediction come true. In the Middle-East we are being persecuted, arrested, offended and threatened for doing nothing legally wrong. I have never seen a government official, a parliament member, or a president say anything in regard to this, let alone pay us a visit to ensure our safety or our right to exercise our religious or political life.

In America, as soon as there was tension in the air against Muslims due to the events in France and California, every governmental official started apologizing to the Muslim minorities. Muslims themselves have been protesting and yelling and defending their political and religious rights. I wish we could do the same thing in the Middle-East. In America, even President Barack Hussein Obama paid the Baltimore Mosque a visit as a gesture to ensure the safety of Muslim minorities and their right of practicing their religion without fear. Which again, made me wish that we had the same right in the Middle-East, as well as the same president like Obama, who proved Jesus’ premise to be correct. It is not the nature of the world that brings persecution upon Christians, but the animosity of the world toward Christ and the Christian Church.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Inside, Outside, Upside Down

What I have learned from ministry over the years has lead me to believe that our understanding of the church may be backwards and upside down. Our challenge is always to search the Bible to keep our perspective in line with God's. That means if what we assume is not what God says, we must adjust our thinking and change our activity. Even in what we believe about the purpose, structure, and activity of the church.

Early on, as a young pastor, I began to write down some assumptions about church and what I discovered in the Bible that demonstrated a need to change my thinking about church leadership, ministry, and our purpose. What developed was a list that I used as the Core Values when we started Grace Point Church in Buffalo, NY.

I summarize the challenge these statements present as thinking "Inside, Outside, Upside-down." We are challenged by what God wants to do spiritually on the inside of our lives and collectively as a church. We focus outside of ourselves as God calls us to interact with others in the way Jesus would. And when it comes to ministry, we have to flip our approach upside-down from some traditional approaches and structures.

These values are not necessarily new or original with me. They do come from the Bible after all, and others have stumbled onto them, taught them and even implemented them. After much thought, prayer and practice, here is the list so far. I am simply going to state them with a supporting scripture. I will unpack each one more in future posts. Please comment and interact. How can you put these into practice in your ministry and church?

1. God is on a Mission; we must discover what God is doing and get involved. Ephesians 1:3-14

2. We can't "go to church;" followers of Christ are the Church 1 Peter 2:4-10

3. Worship is not an event; it is a lifestyle of loving and serving God. 
-  Romans 12:1-2

4. Ministry is not a program; it is people serving God by serving others. 
- 1 Peter 4:10-11

5. Pastors are not "the ministers;" they are servants who create environments where all God’s people are equipped and encouraged to serve. -  Ephesians 4:11-13

6. The Church is not homogeneous; our ethnic diversity represents the fullness of God in humanity and strengthens our ability to reach our community and world. - Acts 13:1-3

7. God's goal is not our comfort; it is for life transformation which comes through 
the application of biblical truth. 2 Timothy 3:14-17

8. Simple organizational structures allow the flexibility to be most effective in God's mission. 
-  Acts 2:42-47

9. Loving like Christ is not easy; it is essential for our relationship with Christ that we view and interact with people who are overlooked and ignored
- Matthew 25:31-46

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

God Is More Powerful Than ISIS

ISIS is driven by fanatic Islamism, and the West is driven by secular liberalism. Young people are stuck between materialism on one hand and new age spirituality on the other. And a few, like a person I met at church, are seeking certainties based on mathematical equations and logic.

We can call it post-Christianity world, or pre-Christianity. Names don’t matter anymore. It is the world of sin, fear and confusion. And, for such a world Jesus came. Middle East refused him as a blasphemy against God, and the west turned him down as foolishness.

Paul said in 1 Cor. 1:23 said, “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The bad news is that the facts that Paul, you and I know are overwhelming, but the good news that God is more powerful than the facts.

People don’t find the Gospel attractive for cultural, spiritual, psychological, religious … etc., reasons. We as Gospel preachers, may not have the power to penetrate their minds and change their reasoning, but we have the power to pray to the One who does have the power over every single mind in this world. Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up in the last day.”

So let us not be discouraged by the stubbornness of the world and lose hope, but let us be diligent and courageous for the One who is with us is more powerful than the one who is against us. As Paul says in Romans 8:31, “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”