Friday, December 26, 2008

An Atheist Speaks: "A Good Man Gave Me That Book"

I have a hang-up about the use of the word "witnessing" when it comes to evangelism.  To me, it distracts from our core responsibility to be witnesses to the truth ... to continually bear witness to what we have seen and heard.  

As those who have been redeemed from eternal punishment to a glorious hope, we are witnesses to the incredible grace of almighty God.  To speak always of "witnessing," however, seems to me to reduce our responsibility to the level of activity.  Now, I certainly admit that we need to be involved in acts of evangelism, but an overemphasis on activity can turn us into two-faced caricatures--Christian "actors" in the worst sense of the word.  On the other hand, an awareness that I am Christ's witness 24x7 should bolster an authenticity about me, and hopefully increase both the quality and quantity of my evangelistic activities.

I don't really know much about who this self-proclaimed atheist "Penn" is, but he gives a very stirring testimony below about the power of a loving, sincere witness.  People like Penn are clearly representative of "rocky soil," highly resistant to evangelistic methods.  They will likely never be reached effectively by people who merely "go witnessing."  

It strikes me also that Penn shared this testimony with his followers on YouTube, who are certainly highly resistant to the truth.  It's interesting how this unidentified witness' testimony has mutiplied exponentially through his simple and sincere act of love and obedience.

As a bonus, Penn also gives a rather shocking and surprising indictment of those of us who know the truth and don't "proselytize."  

Hat tip to  The Gypsy Road for digging this up!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Main Effort

I recently expressed my preference for the simplicity of small groups over administering a larger, more sophisticated ministry.  I'd like to illustrate why using an historical analogy.

My son and I volunteer regularly for the National Park Service at the Civil War battlefield in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  The story of the Union fiasco that took place here is instructive for ministry leaders, as it illustrates the danger of allowing supporting activities to overwhelm a main effort, whether for an army or for a ministry.

In December 1862, newly appointed Union General Ambrose Burnside stole a march on Confederate General Robert E. Lee and moved his army south to Fredericksburg, intending to finally seize the initiative from his famously aggressive opponent.  Lee was able to dig in along the heights above Fredericksburg, however, when Burnside stalled north of the Rappahannock River, setting up a major confrontation.  

Once across the river, Burnside elected to attack the Confederate right flank, where Lee's supply depot at Hamilton's Crossing seemed to offer a potentially decisive point for his main effort.  Strangely, though, due to a confusing and still controversial sequence of orders and interpretations, Burnside's subordinate General William Franklin sent only two divisions against Confederate General Stonewall Jackson's entire entrenched corps.  Then, after this minimalist assault was driven back, Franklin seemed content to hold his line against the river.  

Meanwhile, as he waited in futility for Franklin's attacks to evolve, Burnside gradually fed six divisions into his supporting assault on Marye's Heights, where Lee held an impossibly strong defensive position, with his artillery on the high ground and his infantry behind a protective stone wall.  Thus did Burnside's supporting effort inexplicably morph into his main effort, resulting in over 12,600 Union casualties in an embarassingly ham-handed and lopsided defeat.

To me, this battle holds a cautionary analogy for the church.  As ministry organizations grow, they easily become weighed down and distracted by their growing support functions:  administration, event management, stage management, buildings and other property, meetings and more meetings ... you get the idea.  These become "must-pay" taxes on the ministry's limited resources:  time, money, energy, gifts, focus, etc.  It's distressingly common for evolving organizations to essentially forget why they exist (the mission and purpose we discussed last week) and become preoccupied with, obsessed with, and suffocated by supporting activities.

To quote a familiar adage:  The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.  It was true for General Burnside, and it is true for us in ministry.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

John MacArthur: The Real Story of Christmas

In case we should somehow forget, John MacArthur tells it like it is:

Merry Christmas from all of us at the Philippian Jailer!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

If Paul Had a Supervisor II: The Retraining Plan?

So Jailbreaker, are you saying that the "American supervisor" may have had in mind something like this to retrain Paul in the proper way to build a foundation?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

If Paul Had a Supervisor

Editor's note: The Jailbreaker is the Jailer's newest contributing author. As a missionary to Japan, I think you'll find his perspective quite refreshing, as he challenges some of our cultural assumptions. Welcome aboard Jailbreaker!

Several years ago, some colleagues and I did an extensive study of 1 Corinthians together. The vast majority of us were ministering in the “hard rocky soils” of Asia so we made it a point to meet each year in Malaysia to talk about the issues facing us on the field. Our intent was to go back to the Scriptures together with fresh eyes in order to gain insight, answers, and perspective on the issues we were facing as “practitioners” of the Gospel.

One of the things that stood out to me as I was preparing for our interaction that year was the thought, “If Paul had a Supervisor.” Not sure why that was on my mind, but I imagined Paul getting a visit on the field from his American supervisor and, after a little small talk, being asked the dreaded question: “How’s it going in Corinth?”

I imagined Paul, with the sharp, quick mind that he had, answering without hesitation that he "laid the foundation as an expert builder." However, knowing that most American supervisors are skeptical by nature and would find that answer a bit too vague, it was not hard to imagine the supervisor probing further in order to find out what was really going on in Corinth. As he pressed for more details, I can see Paul taking a deep breath and saying, “Well, to be honest, there are factions in Corinth. Some say they belong to Apollos, some say to Peter...

Not wanting to discourage Paul, the supervisor smiles, places his hand on Paul’s shoulder and gently urges him not to let it bother him, calmly assuring him that the factions will disappear over time if Paul stays on top of the issue. “But tell me, Paul, what else is going on in Corinth?”

“Well, to be honest, there are lawsuits between the believers...” comes the reply. Looking for a reaction, Paul notices a raised eyebrow on his supervisor’s face, but after telling him about all that he’s doing to deal with the issue, his supervisor quickly regains his composure and a warm, reassuring smile flashes across his face. "Is there anything else I should know?"

Though at this point I can’t quite imagine Paul gazing down at his feet like a sheepish schoolboy, Paul nonetheless dumps the truck and begins to tell all, revealing every bit of carnal behavior going on amongst the Corinthian believers. Slowly but surely the tension on his supervisor’s face grows as he listens to Paul outline issues of idolatry, immorality, indulgence, abuse of spiritual gifts, disrespect for leadership, selfishness, bad theology, and a whole host of other issues.

By this time the supervisor is not only in shock, he’s having some real doubts about Paul himself. Not just because Paul had a mess on his hands but because Paul had the audacity to claim that a "foundation" had been laid in Corinth. Chalk it up to youthful enthusiasm perhaps, but this Paul guy is seriously out of touch with reality. Maybe the supervisor is even thinking he made a mistake in sending Paul to Corinth in the first place. Who knows, but if Paul had a supervisor, it’s doubtful his "foundation" claim would be taken seriously in light of the mess on his hands.

Was Paul completely off his rocker or, in spite of the mess, was he seeing something not readily observable to most? If so, what was that “something” that led him to believe that a foundation had been laid for a movement of the Gospel in Corinth? Furthermore, when we think of “foundations” today, particularly in America, what do we usually think of? What insight can we gain from Paul’s understanding of “foundation laying” and what difference does that perspective make as we seek to advance the Gospel in our own communities?

By the way, my name is Bill ("Jailbreaker"), and the Jailer asked me to post from time to time. Since most of my Christian life has been lived outside America, my point of view is a bit different from most in the States and Jailer thought this additional perspective would be helpful to have on this blog. If you have any comments, fire away!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Purpose and Mission

I have been doing a good deal of thinking of late about the distinction between our purpose and our mission as the Body of Christ. It's an important distinction, I think:

The primary purpose of the Body of Christ is to glorify God. Everything we do must serve this purpose, or we are doing the wrong thing.

The Great Commission (and I propose therefore the primary mission) of the Body of Christ is to spread the gospel.

The distinction here is important. Our mission to preach the good news needs to guide our actions, but allows for activities that don't directly impact this mission. On the other hand, any activity that doesn't glorify God should be rejected.

To illustrate, in a military unit I may be given a particular mission (let's say, to secure and hold an urban area in a combat zone). My ultimate purpose is to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States." I may participate in activities (eating, sleeping, training, morale building, etc.) that are more or less directly related to my mission. Moreover, there will be members of my unit (the chaplain, the medic, the cook ...) whose roles within the unit are more tangential to the mission than others (say, those of the infantryman, the intelligence analyst ...).

If I engage in activities that don't serve my overall purpose, I'm off course, even if they appear to serve the mission. For example, if I were to participate in a military coup, judging that a different civilian leadership would better serve my mission aims, I would be betraying my purpose for the sake of my mission.

In the same way, the church will engage in activities (worship, prayer, learning, acts of compassion ...) that may be more or less directly related to our primary mission of preaching the gospel to a lost and dying world. We also have members of the body whose particular gifts and talents (nurture, encouragement, teaching ...) tend to lend themselves toward these kinds of "support" activities, no less critical but less direct in their application to the mission of preaching the gospel to the lost.

If, however, in service of our primary mission, we sacrifice our purpose of glorifying God, we are off course ... we are sinning "for the sake of the gospel." For example, if a self-serving pastor seeks to grow a church in order to become wealthy and powerful, he sins. Though the gospel may still be preached and the lost saved, it is in spite of the pastor and not to his credit. In the same way, if the church were to depend on worldly methods (as opposed to trusting Christ) for the success of its ministry may seem to enjoy success, but because "everything that does not come from faith is sin," any glory to God is in spite of the church's actions, not because of them.

UPDATE: Please see the "Comments" for a great discussion on the definition of "mission", etc.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Jesus in my "House" -- the published version

The Cypress Times has just published "Jesus in my 'House'". The usual invitation applies (comments, feedback, etc.)

By the way, you'll note that my published articles have a way of starting as blog posts. So do oaks grow from little acorns ... :0)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Small Groups -- Bang for your Buck

I am the business administrator for our little church. I love and hate the job.

I love it because I see opportunities to do things better and smarter, and I've found a way to use certain gifts to make an impact. I also love the people! Truly, this has been a wonderful church for us all around, and so on balance I must say I'm happy to administrate.

Still, part of me hates the position because I see how much of our corporate energy is spent taking care of things that really don't matter very much. Aside from just the business processes of the church (advertising, finances, legal issues, meetings, etc.), I'm thinking of the production side of preparing and stage-managing our church services. I get a close-up view of the effort that goes into putting on a good "show". Forgive me for the cynicism, but often it really feels like that. It's discouraging to see how much of our time can be spent on such things -- essentially "Martha" time when "Mary" time is what's important. And we're just a small church ...

This is where small groups really stand out to me--they're such efficient uses of our energy. The preparation that goes into them is very mild in comparison--and often focused on more important matters, such as time in the Word and prayer. Moreover, the soul-work tends to be so much deeper and more lasting; the encouragement is almost always more effective and permanent; and we are able to shed our over-reliance on worldly methods to achieve eternal goals.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hip-Pocket Materials: Psalm 73

It’s always a good idea to have a few standby topics in your hip pocket for when you don’t have much time to prepare. Psalm 73 is one of my favorite “hip pocket” texts for group devotionals. It’s nicely set up to generate great open discussion about some penetrating issues.

Read the whole Psalm together, but here are some suggestions on where to focus your discussion time.

The first half (vv. 1-14) describes a man frustrated with how the wicked seem to prosper while the righteous struggle. It opens with how the author’s feet had “almost slipped,” and culminates with:

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. (vv.13-14)
  • Questions: Have your feet ever “almost slipped” in this way? Can you associate with the Psalmist’s feeling of exasperation with this kind of injustice?

Then the Psalmist pivots, and brings up an crucial point:

If I had said, "I will speak thus," I would have betrayed your children. (v.15)

  • Questions: Have you caught yourself bemoaning your circumstances against the success of people who don’t seem to deserve it? How does this kind of complaining “betray” the children of God?

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God;then I understood their final destiny. (vv.16-17)

  • Question: How can entering the “sanctuary of God” alter your perspective on questions of injustice? (Job is a great example here.)

When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. (vv. 21-22)

  • Questions: What kind of mindset is the Psalmist describing here? Has this ever been your mindset? What brought it on?

But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds. (v.28)

  • Questions: How would you describe the Psalmist's outlook at the end of the Psalm? How was he able to move from his bitterness to this new attitude? (Hint: Go back to v.17 and following ...)

Spend a few minutes in Psalm 73 yourself, and let God lead you through some vital issues of the heart: discontenment, bitterness, complaining ... as well as joy, trust and the eternal perspective. Then consider how you might be able to use this as a baseline from which to lead your small group through some of the same issues.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Church as an NBA Game

Now this is funny! (Note: If satire offends you, please pass this by.)

Hat Tip: Irish Calvinist

Here I Am Lord (v1.1)

My latest Cypress Times article reprises my October 11th post on how God provides direction to our personal ministries through our gifts and through the circumstances He places us in. Kindly stop by, leave feedback, etc.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Andrea: Jesus at Work

Andrea was a faithful attendee at our weekly lunchtime “brown bag” devotionals at the Pentagon about 10 years ago. One day she drew me aside and asked if she could discuss her boss with me. The strain on her face told me much, but she quickly filled in the details. Their work relationship had deteriorated badly, to the point where she dreaded coming to work, and feared her next performance report might reflect the mutual animosity that had developed. We sat down in the conference room and talked about how she could focus on respecting and obeying him as her earthly authority, praying for him, and leaving the results to God. She wept a bit as we prayed together, and walked off with a refreshed sense of purpose.

Within just a couple of days a much happier Andrea pulled me aside to report that her new approach to her boss was already having an transformative effect. She’d just had a heart-to-heart with him, reassured him of her loyalty to him and to the team, and apologized for her recent prickliness. His response was almost instantaneous—like daylight breaking through the darkness. Not only did the atmosphere at work improve rapidly, she felt she’d recovered the quality of her witness for Christ.

A workplace small group can have a remarkable effect, whether it’s in a Bible study, prayer meeting or devotional format. Of course you have be sensitive when pulling one together, since there are ever opportunities to end up on the wrong side of various sensitivities and office rules. Still, it’s an exciting thing to have an active, praying, encouraging, network of believers shining the light and salting the earth at work.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Monday, December 1, 2008

Every Supporting Ligament

In building a small group, please remember that you're not the only laborer in the field. You have friends and allies all around you ... if you take the time to look.

When I first arrived in California in 2001, I had a plan. There was a Navigators missionary at the base where I was going to be stationed. I'd had great experiences with the Navs, and I was excited to meet Willie and to get started. When I arrived, however, Willie seemed distant and ambivalent about getting together. Confused by this, I concluded God wanted me to move in another direction.

When the opportunity came along, I took over leadership of the local Officers Christian Fellowship ministry instead. God immediately provided a couple of great co-laborers, and things began to grow quickly. We also discovered Russ, a terrific chaplain we could really work with, and the ministry blossomed.

Then suddenly, Willie reappeared! I soon learned from him that he and his wife had been going through some very difficult medical issues, but now they were on the mend, and he was eager to reconnect and get back to work. Funny thing was, I had this new commitment to OCF. How was this going to work?

The answer is, of course, that God had all that figured out. The timing was perfect for a fusion ministry. I really needed someone to disciple some of the guys who were coming to our small groups, and Willie needed a place to get plugged back in. Together with Russ, we forged a truly exceptional team. I have wonderful memories of how God knit that body together and what He accomplished through us!

God didn't send us to compete with other Christian ministries. Rather, from him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:16). Are you making the most of your supporting ligaments?