National Day of Prayer 2020

Today, May 7th 2020, is the annual National Day of Prayer, and I can’t help but wonder, “Has there ever been a time in our lives when our absolute dependence upon God has been more apparent?”

Not only are we living in the midst of a pandemic that is affecting EVERY nation on earth; devastating lives and livelihoods; and causing every institution around the world to rethink how they will function in the future; we also seem to be more divided than ever as a nation as many people debate whether we should really be concerned about this and argue over which authorities are worth listening to.

There are many ways we as Christians are called to respond to these issues, but first and foremost, we ought to be turning to God in prayer; giving Him thanks for His goodness and ultimate authority; asking for His guidance; and admitting our own contributions to the evils we see in the world.

Today, more than ever, I urge Christians everywhere to set aside time to pray. Call out to God for His provision and help in our time of need. Ask Him to give you a content, patient, and submissive heart to represent Him will. Listen to His guidance on ways YOU can be a light for His sake in the lives of others who are struggling to find hope. And finally, pray that God would impress on you the need to seek Him like this each and every day.

Easter During A Pandemic: A Curse or A Blessing?

Much has been said about what we have lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Among those losses are plans churches had in place for celebrating Easter. In the middle of Holy Week with Easter just a few days away, church leaders all over the globe wonder how this year’s celebration can possibly fulfill our hopes and expectations in the midst of a global pandemic that has caused us to close the doors of our church buildings and avoid public gatherings.

I heard and read several things from other pastors today that have me wondering, though, if there is a blessing to be found in having so much of what we normally expect from Easter stripped away. What is the real focus of our Easter celebrations? Is it the decor and pageantry? The lights, the music, the drama that we tend to put so much time and effort into producing each year? Or is it on the incredible power and grace of God demonstrated in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ?

In his article Closed on Sunday: Celebrating Easter in the Shadow of Global Death, Pastor Doug Ponder writes, “Don’t give in to the pressure to perform. Instead, remember that Sunday services are not about manufacturing a certain experience, but faithfully holding Jesus forth to people who need to see him (John 12:21). The church is not, and never has been, a show.”

“The church is not, and never has been, a show.” Those are important words for us to ponder as we consider how to approach Easter this year. We now have an opportunity to set aside things that can so easily distract us and to consider what really matters.

In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus warns, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

I do understand the desire to make a big deal out of Easter, but how often to we end up focusing much of our time and effort in preparing for Easter on things that ultimately are just earthly treasures we can live without. How busy do we keep our church members planning, preparing, and rehearsing those things?

This year many of those things are just not possible. Is God inviting us to use this time to re-evaluate why we gather together in our local churches and why we really celebrate Easter? “The church is not, and never has been, a show.”

What a blessing it could be for us all if our planning and preparation for Easter this year was more focused on things like fasting, praying, reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, remembering who He is, and reflecting on what He has done for us!

What a blessing it could be for the whole church if this coronavirus crisis causes us to consider where our treasure truly lies and emerge from this pandemic with a renewed focus on making Jesus Christ central to everything we do!

The Church Has Left the Building…What Now? (Part 2)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, church leaders everywhere are working on ways to continue “being the church” when buildings are closed for the sake of public safety. What does that look like? What are the important activities that define our existence as the Christian church?

When it became clear just a few weeks ago that we would no longer be able to meet together in person as a church family without risk of infecting people we care about with a serious illness, there were two major priorities for ongoing church life that came to my mind. I addressed the first one in my previous post.

The second priority has to do with our call to be witnesses to Jesus Christ. Jesus’ “Great Commission” found in Matthew 28:18-20, tells us what the church exists to do. We are to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I [Jesus] have commanded you.” There are, of course, many different ways we as churches go about doing that work.

For the past year at True North Church, we have been discussing the way we go about inviting people in our community to know Jesus and consider putting their faith in Him. In April 2019, I returned from a trip overseas convicted that we need to change something about our church culture; that we must become a church that is committed to going OUT into our community to meet people and simply show them the love and grace of God.

This is in contrast to a church culture I see that is primarily focused on inviting people to come to our churches. We put on all kind of events and try to make our worship services as attractive as possible in the hope that people will come, hear the Gospel message, and put their faith in Jesus. But we are finding more and more that people today who are not already Christians have little interest in coming to a church unless they already know someone there and have a desire to learn about God.

We have decided, therefore, to be a church that goes out. We want to go out and get involved in our community to be where other people are. We want to serve people to show them what Godly care and compassion look like. And because of the love Jesus has shown us, we want to share that same love with people in our communities. Our goal is not to do this so that they will come to our church; but to simply be the kind of people God has called us to be; praying for God to reveal Himself to those who need Him; and being ready to speak about the hope we have in Jesus, our savior who offers grace to all people.

Now we all find ourselves in this uncertain time when most of our community gatherings have been cancelled. Social distancing, separation, and even isolation have been come the everyday norm. Now more than ever people who are alone need someone to reach out to them and we all need to pull together as a community to make it through this pandemic well.

Jesus said:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that[ they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16

This is a time for the church to let that light of hope in Jesus shine brightly! We can’t invite people to our church buildings, and many people right now are pulling away from interaction with others. In order to “be the church” today, it is all the more essential that we find ways to reach out to others even while we maintain our “social distance”. We need to show those around us there is hope and joy and even thankfulness in this uncertainty because the Lord is faithful; seek out those who need to know there is someone near them who cares; and do what we can to help pull our community together for the good of all.

The Church Has Left the Building…What Now?

The phrase, “The church has left the building” has been used as an encouragement to Christians to remind them that we are called be a light for Christ in our world. It is a reminder that “church” is not a building or weekly event. We are the church and we represent Jesus in all we do.

Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, this phrase has suddenly become a very literal expression of where we find ourselves throughout the world! Churches everywhere are needing to give up meeting together in order to prevent any unintentional spread of this viral infection that could do serious harm to people we care about. Being unable to meet in person has forced church leaders all over the world to ask, “Now what? How do we continue to be the church?” As I have pondered this question myself, there are two important aspects of “being the church” that have been at the forefront of my mind. There are two issues I would like to challenge us all to consider in this new age of Christian church life.

I will consider the first of these issues in this post. Numerous churches have taken the step to begin offering online worship services through a variety of available platforms. We are truly blessed to have such an abundance of options available to help us make this transition in a short time!

When faced with the need to do something other than meeting together in person, you are forced to consider what is most important about those weekly church gatherings. In my mind, I think of two specific Bible passages. The first is this:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV

Somehow we need to continue meeting together. Part of the value in meeting is that we have the opportunity to encourage one another to live by faith in Jesus. Without that ongoing encouragement, we all have a harder time holding strongly to our faith. The second passage I think of is 1 Corinthians 14:26:

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

In my mind, one of the really valuable parts of this passage is that each person who comes has something to share. It has always been important to me that there is opportunity for the members of the church to be sharing, praying for, and encouraging one another. Much of that happens throughout informal times during our gatherings when people are talking to one another; but it also happens during the more structured time as we invite multiple people from the church to take part in leading prayers, reading Scripture, helping to lead us in song, teaching, and sharing testimonies of God’s faithfulness.

The challenge I see for us today is find ways to go beyond offering an online “worship experience” that we as church leaders prepare and present to our congregations. How do we create opportunities when we can’t meet in person for multiple people in the church to engage with one another-sharing, praying, encouraging, and teaching each other while we, the leaders, step back and give thanks to God for the many ways He is working throughout the whole church body?

For our specific church, I saw the ability to do this in video conferencing tools that allow interaction between people. As we are all being asked to distance ourselves from others, I saw the need to work against isolation by giving people the opportunity to see and hear from one another. We’ve been able to provide some informal gathering time for people give updates and ask for prayer; ministering to one another. After getting past the initial rapid change and working out some technical glitches, I am now seeing opportunities to invite other people to speak and lead us through parts of our worship gathering. We’ve also experienced the unexpected blessing of having family and friends join and interact with us here in Minnesota from as far away as Texas and Florida!

This may not be the answer for everyone. We each need to consider what works best in our own context. I do want to challenge us all, however, to think about how to engage the whole body of Christ in the work of being the church. The church is made up of a many more parts than pastors and worship leaders, and each part plays a valuable role in the ways we challenge one another to mature in our faith and share God’s love with the world. How can we engage the whole church in this COVID-19 era? The answers may even transform the way our churches function when we are able to meet in person once again!

Behold the Child!

The Prophets

A few weeks after he was born, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. While there, two people full of the Holy Spirit saw Jesus and recognized him as the Messiah-the savior God had promised hundreds of years earlier to send.

These two people, Simeon and Anna, were given the privilege of recognizing this child as the Messiah after a time of faithful endurance. Simeon had been told he would not see death before seeing the promised savior. He carried that knowledge with him each day not knowing in advance when the promise would be fulfilled. How much anxiety and anticipation did he experience in the waiting?

Anna lost her husband after seven years of marriage and spent the next several decades as a widow. Being a widow in the 1st century was a vulnerable position to be in! She must have had daily concern for her own welfare. In spite of that, we read that she devoted herself to the Lord; worshiping with fasting and praying in the temple day and night. She committed her life to God with an enduring faithfulness.

It can be difficult to wait for the Lord to act, yet it is that faithful, long-term endurance that is so often rewarded. Psalm 27:13-14 reads, “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” Waiting it seems; with patience and faith that you will see the goodness of God; is an important part of living by faith.

We have a tendency to get impatient with God. We want things to happen now and in the way we expect. But God has His own plans and works in His own perfect timing. Anyone who has faithfully endured can tell you that God’s way of coming through is typically well worth the wait!

As Christmas draws near, let’s give thanks first of all that we no longer need to wait for the coming Savior. Jesus has already come! His birth remains an unchanging sign that cares about our lives. Despite our sin and stubborn pride, God reached out to us and continues to make Himself available to us as we respond to Him day by day with enduring faithfulness. Know that as you steadily love and serve Him; God will make his goodness known to you!

Behold the Child!

The Shepherds

Luke 2:4-18 tells us that when Jesus was born, some shepherds living in the nearby fields were visited by an angel. The angel told them they would find a baby wrapped in cloths; lying in a manger, and that this child was, in fact, the Messiah, the Lord! The shepherds then sought out the child and spread the word about all they had been told.

Imagine how different things would have been for these shepherds if they had found Mary, Joseph, and Jesus but never heard the message about him. They would not have known there was anything special about Jesus at all! The story of their encounter with him may only have been about an unfortunate couple who had to give birth in a stable during the Roman census.

The important point to notice about the shepherds in the Christmas story is the way they responded in faith to what they were told. They heard the message, and because they believed it enough to act on it, they had an encounter with the Messiah that night worth telling everyone they knew!

It leads me to wonder how often God is present in circumstances of our lives, but we miss seeing Him because the message He’s given us in His Word is not at the forefront of our hearts and minds. The Bible is full of God’s promises to protect, to provide for, to teach, to empower…to always be with those who put their faith in Him. How much more would the story of our lives be filled praises for God if we lived in full faith that His words are true and looked to see His goodness and faithfulness in every situation?

May your Christmas be filled with wonder as you behold Jesus in new ways yourself. Consider what a blessed first Christmas those shepherds experienced because they heard the message; believed the message; and saw the face of God!

Behold the Child!

Mary & Joseph

We are in the first week of the “Advent” season leading up to Christmas 2019. Many Christians know that Advent is a traditional time of preparation and anticipation beginning the 4th Sunday before Christmas. The word Advent is derived from a Latin word meaning “coming, ” and this season serves as a great way for us to focus on the coming of Jesus into the world and celebrating Him throughout the Christmas season!

As I think about Christmas this year, I have been considering what it must have been like to be among the first people to experience this “coming” when Jesus was born. Mary and Joseph had an especially unique encounter as the earthly parents of this “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32 NIV).

Mary was the very first person to be present at the coming of the Lord into the earth as her womb became the place where the Son of God; who was before all thing and through whom all things were created (Col 1:15-20); took on human form! What must it have been like for her to know that child she nurtured within her was the very image of the invisible God she had her people worshiped and trusted in for generations?

Joseph acted on faith in the angel’s message to him that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was coming to save people from their sins (Matt 1:20-23). He came alongside Mary and the child; loving and protecting them. When the child came, he and Mary were the first to see; to touch; to embrace God in human flesh!

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus this Christmas, let’s remember who this child is. This child lying in a manger; completely dependent upon fallible, sinful human beings; is the very image of the invisible God; firstborn over all creation. “In him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15-17).

Jesus didn’t lose that identity when he was born. He humbled himself; setting aside His divine and supernatural nature to become like one of us. He did this to empathize with us; with our weaknesses and struggles with sin. He did this to demonstrate the greatness of his mercy and grace for all of us who fall short of God’s ideal life for us (Heb 4:14-16). He did this because he loves us.

May you behold this child in a new way this Advent season that draws you to Him in an encounter with God of your own.

What Child Is This? Christ the King!

IMAG0312.jpgIt’s Christmas time once again; one of my favorite times of the year! Signs of celebration are popping up all around as festive decorations and lights brighten up the dark Winter evenings, Christmas music is being played, and plans for families and friends to gather are being made.

This time of year is especially full of anticipation and joy for us as Christians while we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. As the popular Christmas carol asks, however, “What Child is This?” Is he just a cute baby with a heartwarming story? No, Jesus is much more than that!

The chorus of that song declares the wonderful truth: “This is Christ the king!” Isaiah 9:6-7 describes him this way:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”

The apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15-18:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”

This is the King of kings and Lord of lords. His reign will last forever!  Jesus is king immortal and eternal. As creator, he is the ultimate authority over all things in
heaven and on earth. This is a king worthy of all praise, and of our deepest respect!

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The wonder of Christmas is that this great KING humbled himself to become one of the least of us. He lived among us and gave up his life for our sake.

So, as we go about our Christmas celebrations and think about this baby lying in a manger, let us remember this child is our loving King who came to give us new life.

Making Disciples

In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus gives what we now call “The Great Commission”:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20 ESV)

This is the command that provides our primary purpose as Christians and as the Church. The question I’ve been asking myself recently is, “How do I do that well?”  “Making disciples” of Jesus Christ is more than just guiding people toward faith in Jesus. It involves doing all we can to help them become fully mature and fully devoted followers of Jesus.  If that is my primary role and I want to do well with the work God has given me, how do I best accomplish that?

First of all, I want to acknowledge that it is God who does the growing in a person’s life. As the Apostle Paul pointed out in 1 Corinthians 3:4-7

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?  What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

iStock_000000614771SmallSo then, my role is to plant and water seeds of faith in a person’s life and trust God to give the growth in His timing and in His way. For this I am extremely grateful! God knows best how to guide each person toward maturity in their life as a disciple of Christ!

As I have observed people grow in their faith, I have come to recognize three areas where we can focus effort to help make mature followers of Christ.

Training of the Mind

The first area of focus is “training of the mind.” I can teach people what the Bible says. This is where I find a lot of discipleship methods are focused. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Because of this, we need to help people understand what the Bible says. This helps us to know who God is, who He says we are, and what God wants from a relationship with us.

But training of the mind by itself isn’t enough.  I think we can all recognize that we don’t always behave according to what we know and believe to be right. I may know that eating a box full of cookies in one sitting is not good for me but still do it because they just taste sooo good! Something else has to change in us before we start doing what we believe.

Training of the Heart

For this we need to train the heart. This is really where God works on each person-changing their motives and desires and challenging them to love & trust Him above all other things; but there are ways we can help ensure this growth happens. In fact, I think this is something we MUST do in the church to really help people grow. It is possible for us to spend all our time focused on teaching knowledge and providing only a superficial level of discipleship.

In order to truly help make mature disciples of Christ we need to go deeper with one another; drawing out what lies deep within our hearts.  To do this we need to go beyond just studying the Bible and ask probing questions about why we don’t live according to what we know; or what fears or worries hold us back from fully trusting God.

 

We also need to be willing to be transparent with one another and confess our shortcomings. And we need to be willing to persevere when things get difficult: when frustrations arise with the Bible and with our relationships in the church; and when our hearts tell us to run away!cross

In order to provide for this kind of growth, we need to work hard to make our church be a place of deep love and overflowing grace. We need to let people know that we truly care about them, and we need to continue caring about them even in the middle of their struggles.

It also means we have to be willing to stand on biblical truth-all the while testing our own hearts to make sure we are not being prideful and selfish. When the people we love are wrestling with something in their heart, we must gently keep pointing them toward Jesus in order to help their hearts be trained.

In addition to all this, I believe there is one other area of discipleship we can provide in the church:

Training of the Mouth

Jesus’ command to make disciples is the command given to every follower of Christ. This means that every Christian is called in some way to help others know Jesus and grow their faith in Him; which means you will need to be able to say something about what it means to be a follower of Christ! This is what the apostle Peter was referrring to when he wrote, “ but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15).

Being able to speak about your faith with confidence requires practice! People tend to have a fear about speaking to a group or trusting they will be able teach correctly. The only way to overcome these fears is to gain experience, and I think a church with people who want the best for you is one of the greatest places to gain that experience!

Therefore, I can help people grow as disciples of Christ both by providing opportunties for them to teach and by making it an expectation that this is a normal part of maturing in Christ.

So how can I best work at making disciples of Jesus Christ? By training the mind, training the heart, and training the mouth.

How Does a Church Grow?

file5351335317694.jpgI’ve been pondering “The Law of the Lid” lately. This is a leadership principle taught by leadership expert, John Maxwell. Maxwell points out that your ability to lead is the “lid” on your potential. Anything you lead will grow until it hits that leadership lid, and if you want to grow it any further you need to move the lid higher by growing in your leadership ability.

I can see this law at work in the church. After almost 10 years since we launched True North Church, we have been through several phases of growth and each one has required new lessons to be learned in order to handle the next level.

As I thought about this law recently, though, I wondered, “Is the whole point of leading something really just to make it keep growing?” We talk a lot about growth in the church, and we often think in terms of increasing numbers of people, more & bigger programs, or a larger budget. But are those really our main goals? Is success for us defined by continuing to get bigger? And is that really my incentive to keep growing as a leader? Do I pursue greater leadership skills just to lead more people? I ask these questions because I have also been in countless discussions about the fact that numerical growth is NOT the goal of a church; and focusing on it can lead to serious problems!

The fact is that we do want out church to keep growing, but we need to be careful how we define “growth.”  What does it really mean for our church to grow? To answer that I start with the primary purpose of the church: to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.” (Matt 28:19-20) This is the command Jesus gave to his disciples. It is the foundational command of the Church, and as a follower of Christ, it is my own primary purpose.iStock_000000614771Small

So when it comes to growing the church, our goals are to continue growing in the depth of relationship we all have with Jesus and growing in our capacity to help others know Him. In other words we help people grow in maturity as disciples of Jesus; and we look for more opportunities to help other people grow as disciples of Jesus.

crossesThese two growth goals are connected to one another. There comes a point in every Christian’s life when further growth in their own faith only comes when they start sharing what they have already learned. Accomplishing our first goal, therefore, provides us with more people capable of pursuing the second goal! As a pastor, that means I need to do more than just teach people about Jesus and help them understand and apply the Bible to their lives.  I need to also ensure those people are being trained in how to lead and equip others!
This might result in a bigger church, but if our focus in the right place, we won’t be concerned about that.  Growth may also mean we train up a bunch of people to go other places in the world to make disciples.  It might mean we teach them to go be leaders in other churches.  And it might mean we send some out to start a new church.  The point is that in all of these ways we are helping people grow in their relationship with the Lord and growing the overall ability of the church to teach people about Jesus, too.

All of this brings me back to the “Law of the Lid.” It is vital for the kind of growth we are seeking that the leadership capabilities of the church increase,  and in order to do that, I need to keep growing as a leader as well.