“I Am a Small Church Preacher #4”

Please read the following two passages of Scripture carefully, and reason for yourself what they have to say about the small church.

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  (Matthew 16:13-19, ESV)

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.  (Ephesians 3:8-13, ESV)

That first passages teaches that Jesus was going to build His church on the truth that He was the Son of God, and that foundation was solid as a rock; and not even the gates of hell would stop Him.  While the second passage says that through that church the manifold wisdom of God would be made known to the world.  I still believe those two truths, and that every church that is seeking after God, and seeking to be what God wants it to be, those two truths are still true!

Besides that:

A church does not have to be big, for those truths to be true!

A church does not have to be small, for those truth to be true!

A church does not have to have a mission statement, for those truth to be true!

A church does not have to have great singing, or a praise team, for those truths to be true!

A church does not need suits and dresses, for those truths to be true!

A church does not need to dress casually, for those truths to be true!

A church does not need a website, for those truths to be true!

A church does not even need a building, for those truths to be true!

A church does not even need a preacher, for those truths to be true!

THEY ARE TRUE, BECAUSE GOD SAID THEY WERE TRUE!

Generally speaking, we have a hard time accepting those concepts to be right, because we have a whole bunch of preconceived ideas about what it takes for a church to successful – to be effective, to be great, and to be what God wants it to be.  If you preach for a small church, or just attend a small church; you have this little voice in the back of your mind, telling you, or your church, cannot be great – because you’re small.  We know that is true, because no one ever makes a list of the “10 Greatest Small Churches in America”.  You never hear anyone use the words “great” and “small” in the same sentence, when they are talking about a church.

What I want to do in this blog entry, is try and convince you to change your emphasis about what it takes to be a great church.  To change that emphasis from numbers, to HEALTHY.  Please understand, I am not saying that small churches don’t want more people, they do.  What I we need to recognize, in my opinion, is that numbers are not the measuring stick!  Do you remember our last, where we talked about “Bigger does not always mean better.”  There are big churches that are unhealthy, just as there are small churches that are unhealthy.  There are healthy small churches, and big churches that are healthy.  You see, numbers do not decide if a church is healthy.  Philadelphia was a healthy church, even though they had little power (Revelation 3:7-12).

What I want to do, is give you the three essentials elements of a healthy church.

  1. It is a church with people who are madly in love with God through Jesus Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. (Matthew 22:37-38)
  2. It is a church where the people genuinely love each otherA new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
  3. It is a church that makes disciples — 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.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

I’m not going to go into a lot of depth on those three passages, although I could.  In my mind, those three passages lay out the structure of a healthy church.  A healthy church could have a 100 people, or it could have a 1000 people.  It is the actions and attitude of those people that determine the health of the church – not how many of them there are!

Advertisements

“I Am A Small Church Preacher #3”

Look at this list of names, and as soon as you recognize who they are, hold up your hand.  Wait a minute!  That won’t work.  So, pat yourself on the back and say “Good Job”!  So here are the names:

Shammua

Shaphat

Igal

Palti

Gaddiel

Gaddi

Ammiel

Serhur

Nahbi

Geuel

Caleb

Joshua

If you are like most everyone else, you figured it out about the last two names.  Caleb and Joshua give away that this is the story from Numbers 13, of the 12 spies that were sent into the Promised Land.  There is a verse in that chapter that explains “why” the 10 thought they could not take the land.  It reads this way, And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them. (Numbers 13:33, ESV).  Karl Vaters says that they were infected with “the grasshopper complex”.  He says that small churches allow themselves to be infected with the same thing.  In fact, he believes it so strongly that he has a book out by that name.

We (speaking of myself, and others in small churches) allow ourselves to be controlled by a “small church complex”.  Because we are small, we think that we don’t matter, and often feel that we are failures in what God wants us to be.  We become convinced that we will always be that way, until we grow to the point that we are no longer considered “small.”  In the first two posts of this series, we attempted to establish the fact that in the New Testament, there are churches of all sizes.  In fact, one of the churches that Jesus spoke most highly of was, more than likely, a small church (Revelation 3:7-13).  I want you to consider that when we are talking about churches (or a lot of other things), bigger does not always mean better.

I am not much of a fan of “reality” television, but there are a few on the Food Network that I thoroughly enjoy.  One of those is a show that is hosted by Robert Irvine, called Restaurant Impossible.  I’m not quite sure how they do it, but they find restaurants that are on the verge of going under; and Irvine goes and attempts to do the impossible – gives these dying restaurants a second chance.  He goes to the restaurant with a time frame of 48 hours, and a budget of $10,000; and the monumental task of turning that restaurant around.  There is one thing that I have noticed that he never does.  He NEVER tells them that they need to expand their menu, or knock out some walls and create more seating.  90% of the time, it seems as if he wants them to figure out what they do best – and then really work on that, and do it great!  Sounds like a really good game plan for a small church, don’t you think.  The Prairie Grove church of Christ, that has a Sunday morning average attendance of 85; can’t do what the church of 1,000, on the other side of  town, does.  You know what else?  We don’t need to try!!!

All of us that are preaching, or have preached, for small churches have gone to the “Church Growth Seminar” at the mega-church – and then come home and tried to force feed their programs into our small church.  It’s not going to work.  We need to find what we do, what we’re best at, and then do it really well.

There are some things that we as a small church can offer, that the big church can’t.  We need to find out if we do them well, and then do them great.  For example, in the small church you are not just someone filling a seat, or a small piece in a big puzzle; you are somebody that is known and matter.  People need to feel as if they matter, that they are really important – AND IN A SMALL CHURCH EVERY MEMBER IS!  This does not just automatically happen in a small church, the elders and preach have to work at it on a regular basis. When Ephesians 4:11-12 says, and he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Chris, … — there is nowhere that is more necessary than in a small church.  Because in a small church, every member has to work in ministry for it to get done.

Let me give a couple of illustrations that are uniquely inherent in a small church, that helps incorporate every member into the body life and ministry of that church.  First, an empty seat is not just a number, or a space that is left vacant; it is Brother and Sister Jones that are not there on that day.  Sunday, September 16th, I taught the Bible Class and preached for the North Main church in Winters, Texas; and I taught some of the same material in the Bible Class that I am writing about today.  It has been 30 years since I preached for that church, but during one part of the class I walked around the auditorium and pointed at places on the pews and talked about who sat there 30-35 years ago.  We have the opportunity, in ways that big churches can only wish for, to make people feel as if they matter and they are a part of what is going on.  Next, we need everyone to know that they are cared for, and prayed for.  Every time our elders meet, they have a “roster” of all the members, and they spend about 45 minutes to an hour, talking about and praying for the people that are listed.  They don’t have to ask who they are, they know THEM, and try to talk to them on a regular basis.  Finally, in a small church you can eat together.  That may sound like something really insignificant – but our monthly times of table fellowship are really important.  It provides the opportunity for people to get to know each other on a more personal level. Can you imagine the logistics of trying to feed and seat a church of 800 to a 1000.  These are advantages that the small church has, in working to make every member feel important, and as if they matter. Rick Warren once wrote, People are not looking for a friendly church, they are looking for friends.  Small churches offer the opportunity to do that, if they will.  You don’t have to come to a small church very often, until everyone knows your name.

I wish that I could tell you that the Prairie Grove church succeeds at all of these on a regular basis, but we don’t.  We try.  We struggle to do what we do, the very best that it can be done.  But it is something that we have to continually work at.  Praying, and asking God to increase our faith, that we may be the kind of church that pleases Him.

So what do we need to do?  Let me suggest two things:

(1) We need to quit judging ourselves by numbers!  Now we love big churches, and all the Christians that attend together.  That’s just not who we are.  Being a big church does not mean that they are a good church, or a better church.  A small church is not guaranteed to be a God-pleasing church.  They can both be good, or bad.  They are different, but they can both be what God wants them to be.

(2) We need to accept what we are – a small church.  But we need to know that we can a great small church; and once we know that, we should never settle for less.

When we have done that, we need to know that we are a HEALTHY church!  That’s what the next (and last) entry in this series will be about.

(I’m sorry to be so late in getting this posted today, but it has been a really busy day.  I’ve been try to coordinate an effort to get a truck, get the supplies to load that truck, and find the drivers to take the truck to Panama City Beach, Florida.  I would ask that all that read this blog, pray that our efforts will be successful and our trip safe.)

“God, Government, and Me”

I remember a simple time. When letting people know that you believed in God, were a professing and practicing Christian, and went to church regularly was not a big deal. Businesses did not open on Sunday, and ball teams did not practice or play games on Wednesday nights. It was a time when many of the laws reflected the values of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Now, notice, I didn’t say that it was any easier to be a Christian, just easier to let people know that we were attempting to practice the Christian faith.

It is my opinion that, we, as Christians, became complacent and didn’t think anything would ever change. We thought that America was a “Christian” nation, God wanted it to be that way, and it would always would be just that. What we forgot was that our forefathers believed in freedom, all kinds of freedom; and they guaranteed those freedoms. As a part of that guarantee, they separated the church and the state.

Many of the early settlers in the colonies, came to get away from the state telling the church what to do! In Europe, most of the countries, had a state “sanctioned” and “approved” religion. They made it difficult for any other religion to exist, especially as the Protestant reformation got into full swing. In order to practice their religion freely, many of those believers traveled across the ocean to the colonies.

The problem became in America, the church started telling the state what to do. With laws written to guarantee the freedom of individuals, it was inevitable that eventually a push back against the church would happen. Of course, the church didn’t help itself with some of the unloving, and unChristlike, teachings and actions it manifested.

It is my opinion, that we have reached a point where the state is attempting to tell the church what it can believe, and how it must practice what it believes. There are some things in Psalm 2 that I believe could help us during this time.

“The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers conspire together
against the Lord and His Anointed One;
‘Let us tear off their chains
and free ourselves from their restraints’.”

(Psalm 2:2-3, CSB)

It used to be said that the state cannot legislate morality, but the truth of the matter is that the state is NOT going to even try. In fact, it is going to legislate that things that are immoral are legal. With the freedoms that our system of government provides — they are legal. Our forefathers would be amazed what people do, publicly, now. Government is running full steam ahead to throw off anything they perceive to be “chains” of the Christian religion.

“The One enthroned in heaven laughs; …”
(Psalm 2:4, CSB)

This is not the first time that kings and governments have tried to legislate God out of the picture. God laughs at their notions, but what do we do?

“I will declare the Lord’s decree; …
(Psalm 2:7, CSB)

“Serve the Lord with reverential awe,
and rejoice with trembling.”

(Psalm 2:11, CSB)

…All those who take refuge in Him are happy.”
(Psalm 2:12).

We have supported, and sent missionaries to countries for years that are controlled by ungodly governments. If we believe that they can make disciples there, we can practice Christianity here. We may need to quit fooling ourselves, that we can elect officials that will make it easy

(I first posted this on Facebook on August 4, 2016.  Things have not changed much, we still see those who think that we can elect officials that will turn America back to God — it is not going to happen that way, if it happens.  I am glad to put this on this blog as a part of our “Psalms on Saturday”, and I pray that it is a blessing to you.  Bill)

“I Am A Small Church Preacher #2”

According to the statistics that I have seen from Karl Vaters, 90% of all the churches in our country are under 200 people.  With that being true, that means that only 10% of all the churches can be considered middle-sized, large, or a “mega-church.”  When you stop and put that in perspective, the results are staggering.  In the February 11, 2016 entry on his blog PIVOT (under the Christianity Today umbrella), “Reality Check: We’re All Going to Pastor a Small Church”; Vaters offers three amazing facts, that he wished someone had told him in Bible College.  I understand that Vaters will use different terminology than I would or do, but I believe we can all understand the point, and the percentages would likely still be true.

FACT #1: 80-90 % of pastoral ministry students will never pastor a church larger that 250 people.

FACT #2: Virtually all of us will pastor a small church for at least some time in our ministry.

FACT #3:  You can pastor a small church well, without settling for less.

That third fact will be a discussion for another post in this series, but in this post, I want us to consider those first two “facts”.  With those percentages being true, why do so many preachers for our small churches struggle with disappointment, discouragement, jealousy, feelings of failure – which all adds up to guilt?

It would not be my place to speak for everyone, so let me just talk about my own experience.  In the first entry in this series, I revealed my own struggles – that were caused by my own desire by a false definition of success – that caused my motivation to be more about prestige, fame, and money. The inability to reach that level of “success”, caused to me to deal with feelings of inadequacy, disappointment, discouragement, and failure.  During that time, if you had confronted me with what my real struggle was; I would, probably, have been insulted.  I would have argued that the opportunity to preach regularly to more people, would have increased the opportunity for me to bear more fruit for the Lord, and, also, multiplied the good that I could do.

My years in Bible College were during the years of “church growth and evangelism workshops.”  In churches of Christ, these workshops and seminars were held all over the country.  Attendance would often run in the thousands, as speakers from all over the country came and exhorted and motivated the brethren on how to reach the lost and grow their church. Generally, these speakers were from churches that were growing, and they would encourage and exhort us to do what they were doing and our churches would grow too. You could not help but think that these preachers were the ones that could be categorized as “successful”, and, really, they were; in attracting more people to attend the congregations where they preached.  The question might need to be asked, to all those churches that grew, was it really good, healthy growth – and have they been able to maintain it?

It was said one time, and I remember it well (although, I do not remember who it was that said it), “It is not a sin for a church to be small, but it may be if they stay small.”  Can you imagine how elders, preachers, and church members were made to feel by that?  Where did we get the idea that a church had to be large, in order for it to be what God wanted it to be?  The church in Jerusalem grew rapidly, and I am sure that it was quite large before the persecution of Acts 8, but I am not sure that there is anything said about “large” churches after that (except that it may be implied in Acts 18:8-10).

What I do know is that there are several passages that are strong indications, that not all New Testament churches were large – there were probably some small ones also.  Consider these passages:

Romans 16:3-5 (ESV), Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well.  Greet also the church in their house. … (could also include I Corinthians 16:19 here)

Colossians 4:15 (ESV), Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.

Philemon 1-2 (ESV), …To Philemon our beloved fellow-worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house.

Now, I suppose that their houses could have been large enough to hold several hundred people, but some how I doubt it.  It may be that they had small churches because they were afraid of persecution if they all met together, but they would not negate the fact that they were small.  But there is one more passage that really has a great deal of influence on my thinking.  In Revelation 2-3, Jesus addresses the seven churches; and there are only two of them, that He has nothing bad to say:  Smyrna and Philadelphia.

Pay attention to what He says to the church at Philadelphia:

I know your works.  Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.  I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. (Revelation 3:8, ESV).

I understand that could be referring to economic power, or social/political power; but, I believe, it is more like likely referring to “little power” because of their small numbers.  They were a church that Jesus had nothing that He was critical of, but commended them for their faithfulness.  I believe that the percentage of small churches that are “healthy and faithful”, is the same as the percentage of middle, large, and mega churches that are “healthy and faithful.”

From the New Testament, I wonder where we came up with the idea that God intended for local congregations to be large.  Now, please, don’t misunderstand, I like a lot of Christians!  I appreciate the good works that the larger churches accomplish.  BUT, I don’t believe that a church has to be large to please God.

In fact the next entry in this series, will be a discussion of “Bigger Does Not Always Mean Better.”

“I Am A Small Church Preacher #1”

Almost 30 years ago, a preacher friend, that I have a lot of respect for and appreciation of, told me that I would never be a successful local preacher.  I don’t know that he remembers doing that, or why he told me that he thought that; but I think that he was partially right.  What I mean by “partially” is that our definition of “successful” was wrong, but by the definition that we were using he was right.  It is my conviction that we were using the definition of “successful” (at least I know I was), as a local preacher that is preaching for a large church in a metropolitan area, was well known in the brotherhood of the churches of Christ, invited to speak on different lectureships and programs, and, maybe, had even written a book or two.  Doesn’t that sound about how we would have defined a “successful preacher” thirty years ago?

About 2 to 3 years after that, I left full-time ministry, and became a bi-vocational minister for the next 25 years.  As of now, I am convinced that God “helped” me “find” my way out; because He didn’t need me preaching full time.  For the next few sentences, I am going to be really harsh on myself, because I think that I deserve it.  For the first 15 to 20 years I was in full time ministry (ages 23 to 41), I believe that I was in it for me.  Every church I went to was a stepping stone to get me to the next LARGER church, until I was ultimately in that place called success.  I attended “church growth” workshops, trying to learn the newest method to help the church where I was to grow – because it would help me to move on to the next step up the ladder.  I kept fastidious records of the attendance figures, as long as they showed an upward movement – because it made me look I was doing a really good work.  I kept track of every church that was “looking” for a preacher, because I might just find the one that would help me a little further up the ladder of “local preacher” success. When I moved to Winters, Texas in December of 1981, it was so that I could go to Abilene Christian University and work on a Masters’ degree.  It was my conviction that it would make me more appealing to “larger” churches, than just my degree from an unaccredited Bible college.  Everything was about me!

Even though my focus was wrong, there were some really good things accomplished.  There are people that were baptized and restored; and I learned a lot about “pastoral” ministry during those days (particularly, grieving with those that grieve).  Even though I was looking to “move up the ladder”, I loved those churches and those people, and I know that they loved me – because many of them still love me!  Places like Rogersville, Alabama; Huntsville, Arkansas; Winters, Texas; and Farmington, Arkansas – blessed my life, and hold a very special place in my heart.

When I retired from the secular work force in December of 2015, I went back to full time preaching for the Prairie Grove church of Christ (Prairie Grove, Arkansas).  There was no delusional thought process, as I knew I was where I needed to be AND would likely be here for the duration (or whatever the Lord sees fit).  But the Lord decided I needed a little more education, and He helped me to discover the writings of Karl Vaters, who is the guru of small church ministry.  There is so much I have learned about small churches, ministering to small churches, and myself; just from reading what he has written:  2 books (The Grasshopper Complex and Small Church Essentials), his blog “Pivot” (that is under the Christianity Today umbrella), and countless other articles about the ins and outs of ministry.  He has encouraged, enlightened, and taught me; and much of what I will write in the next few installments of this blog will be gleaned from his thoughts.  I want to be sure and give him the credit for opening my eyes, and becoming aware of what God wants, and has given, me for my life.

In this particular post, I just want to make one point.  I hoped you noticed the title of this article – “I am a small church preacher”.  It is titled like that for a reason.  I didn’t want it say that “I preach for a small church.”  What I have learned (and not just in the last 2+ years) is that my abilities, talents, and gifts are geared toward a small church, and in particular a small, rural church.  I’m glad that I finally learned, and accepted, that!!!  The dream of preaching for a large church in a metropolitan area, if it had ever happened, would have been a disaster.  I am not built, or geared, for that kind of life and ministry.  It is not me!  I would have been miserable.  The church would not have been blessed.  It would have been a total failure.

Sadly, I’m pretty sure that I am not the only one that is built that way.  I’m sure that I am not the only one that is built that way, that has dreamed (is dreaming) of being something different.

Now, here is the really difficult part.  What we are looking for, is the prestige and the money that goes with preaching for the large church; particularly the money (in my opinion).  I understand the struggle to make a living as a “small church” preacher.  I understand what is like to have more bills at the end of the month, than you do money.  I understand the fear when the phone rings, and you know that it is another bill collector (and you don’t have anything new to tell them). But I am convinced that it is Satan telling you, go preach for a bigger church and make more money – that will solve your problem.  It probably won’t, but that is what he tells you.

Until we come to grips with what we are, and how God has gifted us; we may always feel like a “ministry failure.”  The sad part is, that our feelings become obvious; and we make the church feel as if they are failing.

Small churches, and preachers for small churches, are not necessarily failing.  Now, there may be some that are failing, but it is not because they are small.   There are “big churches” that are failing, because just being a “big” church does not make them (or their preacher) a success.  For the next three or four entries on this blog, I want to write about small churches, their preachers, and how they can be successful.  May God help us be what HE wants us to be.

“What is God Like”

What is God like?” Have you ever asked that question, or been asked that question? Most of the time when that is asked, someone wants to know what God “looks” like. Usually, it is a child, and one of their endless string of questions?

But, how did YOU answer that question? My personal opinion is that most people think of God as looking like Gandalf, from the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy — older male, with long white hair, and a flowing beard. Movie directors/producers have made some interesting choices as they have depicted “God” in the movies. The two that come to mind right away, are George Burns and Morgan Freeman. I could not tell you “how” or “why” they made those decisions, although they were intriguing. It will be really interesting (and it was), as they make a movie from the book “The Shack“, how and who they choose to depict God.

I know that I cannot tell you “what” God looks like. I’m not sure that we have the vocabulary to do that. But I will tell you, that I am not as concerned about how we “picture” God, as I am how we think about His attributes. I will sadly confess, that for much of life I pictured God as a harsh taskmaster, just waiting to catch me doing something wrong. I was terrorized by that perception, and often despaired of ever being able to please Him!

There were two passages in my reading this morning, that we all need desperately to have in our psyche about God. They are:

The Lord values those who fear Him,
those who put their hope in His faithful love.”

(Psalm 147:11, CSB)

For the Lord takes pleasure in His people; …”
(Psalm 149:4, CSB)

Have you stopped and considered that those who believe in God, and trust in His faithful love, are of value to God; and that He takes pleasure in them!!! That instead of hovering over us, just waiting to catch us in some sinful action — that He “beams” in pride about His creation.

Can you imagine the Father, saying to those that are around Him — “You want to see the very best I have done? The ‘masterpiece’ of my creation?” If He did, where would He point?

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so that we can do the good things he has planned for us long ago.” (Ephesians 2:10, NLT)

Those that put their hope in God through Jesus, they are the “top of the line.” The very best act of “creating” that God has ever done. That ought to give us strength and courage as we face the wiles of Satan. We can, and WILL, win! Peace.

(This was first posted on Facebook on August 4, 2016.  It is being used  here as a part of our “Psalms on Saturday.”  I hope that it is a blessing to you.  Bill)

 

“My Week at the 2018 ACU ‘Summit'” #4

This will be my final entry about attending the “Summit” program at Abilene Christian University, the week of September 16-19.  During the first entry, I talked about the trip in general, and the really enjoyable visit that I had with friends at Winters, Texas (and the blessing that I received in being able to preach for the North Main church in Winters  that Sunday morning).  The second post was about the program at ACU in general:  how I liked the format, and my feelings about the different “pathways” that I attended.  Next, I wrote about how having the opportunity to listen to Steven Fowl speak about “The Message of Ephesians” was such a blessing; and how his handling of the text of Ephesians opened my eyes to things that I had not seen before.  I want to add one thing to what I had to say about Fowl’s presentation; if he was the only one that I heard, the trip would have been well worth it.

In this entry in my blog, I want to mention two speakers that had a great impact on me with the things they said (and how they said it).  The impact they had was different than that of Steven Fowl, but it was very meaningful to me.

The first one that I want to mention is Don McLaughlin, the “Senior Minister” of the North Atlanta church of Christ in Atlanta, Georgia.  This is the first opportunity that I have had to Don speak, and I must tell you it was a real blessing.  He spoke right after Steven Fowl in the “Preaching Wholeness” pathway, and his subject matter was “The Ephesian Pathway to Wholeness as a Church in Society.”  Two things that really impressed me about McLaughlin’s lesson was his passion for the message that he was delivering, and the way that he interacted with the text of Ephesians.  My friend, Steve Wolfgang, crystallized that last point for me, putting into words what I was thinking.

There are a few items from my notes, that I wanted to share:

(1) He said that Paul taught as if he lived with and among people.  He said, that is obvious by the things that says in Ephesians 4:1-3 (ESV), …urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  It would take someone that was in and with and among people, to know that those attributes would be necessary to maintain unity.

(2) Read carefully the next statement — “The church is not meant to satisfy something in you, that is supposed to be satisfied in Christ.”  Did that make you stop and think for just a moment?  The church is meant to be the body of Christ among people; and what does that look like?  It was at this point, that he emphasized Ephesians 4:11-16; and, in particular, the phrase to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.   He defined “equip” as to mend — like setting a broken bone, or mending a net.  Emphatically, he said that it is the role of the church is to help people mend their lives, or to get things in order.

(3) The final thing that I want to mention, in the last session of the day — the Q & A for the “Preaching Wholeness” pathway — McLaughlin shares his story.  I am not going to attempt to tell the story, except to say if you have to listen to the whole 45 minute session just to hear that — you will receive a rare blessing!  It will help you to understand where the passion that he has come from.

On the final day of Summit, Wednesday, the program changed to what was called “Short Paths”.  Each of these were two sessions that were limited to specific, and special, topics.  The one that I attended was “Still Wrestling:  Faith Renewed through Brokenness”, and the speaker was Les Ferguson, Jr.  Les has a book out by the same name, and you may be familiar with the story.  Les was preaching at Gulfport, Mississippi when his wife, Karen, and his special needs son, Cole, were murdered by a member of the congregation.  The murderer had worked his way into their life, by offering to care for the boy, so that the mother could have some time away from providing 24 hour a day care.  It was during that period of time, that the man molested the boy.  After he had been discovered, arrested, and was out on bail (arranged by a member of the congregation), he killed Karen and Cole.  I’m not going to tell the rest of the story, but I am going to encourage you to get the book (our Prairie Grove church book club is reading it next month) and learn from the struggles of someone else.

Generally, when I attend any of the classes, I really try to take extensive notes, but I could not during these two sessions.  In fact, I laid my pen down just so I could listen closely.  I haven’t started the book yet, as I will probably read it with our group.  I know that it will be painful to read, as my heart breaks with one who really had to struggle with life, pain, doubt, faith, and God; over a long period of time (as still does, according to him).  It was just a very powerful two hours, and I am glad that I got to be there.

I don’t know that I will go back to Abilene next year.  The main subject “Psalms” really intrigues me’;  but I suppose it will come down to who the speakers are, and what the program at Harding looks like.  There are so close to the same time, that I generally end up having to go to one or the other.  Looking forward to ACU getting the audio of all the classes online, and having the opportunity to hear some of the ones that I missed — and listen to some again.

 

“My Week at the 2018 ACU ‘Summit'” #3

The week of September 16-19, it was a privilege to be able to attend the “Summit” lectures at Abilene Christian University.  I want to thank the elders of the Prairie Grove church of Christ for making this trip possible, and their support in my endeavors to improve my knowledge and abilities.  Last week (September 25th and 27th) I entered the first two blog posts concerning my trip, and my impressions of those speakers that I had the opportunity to hear.  In the blog entry today, I want to talk about the speaker that had the greatest impact on me.

I suppose that the first thing that I need to do is to be transparent about how my day started on that Tuesday.  I didn’t want to get up and get around, so I looked at the lectureship program and saw that at 8:30, Steven Fowl was speaking on “The Message of Ephesians”, and since I was looking at a 50 mile drive to Abilene, my first thought was; I think I’ll lay here and rest a little while longer.  I probably have as many hours studying the book of Ephesians, as I do any New Testament book — and I really wondered, if this class would really be worth the effort (from someone that I had never heard of).  Well, I’m glad that I didn’t lay there a while longer:  because Steven Fowl was tremendous, and it would have been my loss if I had not got up and gone.

There was a reason I had never heard of Steven Fowl;  he is outside of our fellowship and teaches at Loyola University Maryland – Baltimore.  There he serves as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and is also a Professor of Theology.  He has written several books; and, in particular a commentary on Ephesians in the series “New Testament Library.”  In Academic circles, that series of commentaries is very highly regarded.  In other words, according to those who know, he is a scholar on the subject of Ephesians.

All of that really didn’t matter to me, but what did matter was the way that he treated the text and what he taught me from a text that I had read/studied many, many times.  I am not going to try and cover all that he talked about, but I know that ACU will have an audio copy of his lecture on their website soon — give it a listen (you will be blessed).

He began by talking about the first chapter talks about “Cosmic Reconciliation“, and the the key verses were verses 10-11:

… as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things IN HEAVEN and things on earth.  In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.

This is the story that Paul tells of “Cosmic Reconciliation” — that has been resolved, but not consummated.  We are now in the time, between the times.  I know, let that sink in for just a  moment.

Fowl then moved to chapter 2, where he talked about “Local Reconciliation“, and as the key verses of that section, he focused in on verses 11-13:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Where he went with those verses is what caused my jaw to drop!  I have read those verses 100’s of times, and never once had this thought crossed my mind.  That is the result of reading back 2000 years, and missing the obvious.  For the Gentile to be reconciled, they first had to understand that they were Gentiles.  The people of the first century who were not Jews, did not think of themselves as Gentiles.  They were Ephesians, Spartans, Corinthians, Romans, Athenians, Egyptians, Ethiopians — “Gentile” was what the Jews called them.  They did not understand that it was a bad thing to be … alienated from the commonwealth of Israel …” — in fact, culturally speaking, they were probably glad that they were.  So, they had to understand that they were “alienated” from the people of Israel, and that was a bad thing.  Until they understood that, they could not … be brought near by the blood of Jesus Christ.  They could not be “reconciled” into one body, until they understood that there was a …dividing wall of hostilitythat had to be removed.  What God was doing “locally”, was correcting the “disorder” by putting Jew and Gentile in one new body in Christ.

Then, he moved to chapter 3 — where he said that Paul tied the local and cosmic together.  The unity that God, through Jesus, had created in one body of Jew and Gentile was a “witness” to the cosmic powers of the wisdom of God.  He looked to verses 9 and 10 as the key verses:

…and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, SO THAT THROUGH THE CHURCH THE MANIFOLD WISDOM OF GOD MIGHT BE KNOWN TO THE RULERS AND AUTHORITIES IN THE HEAVENLY PLACES.

The unity of God’s people is important, because the stakes are so high.  The mission of the church, to demonstrate the manifold wisdom of God, hinges on its unity.  When we fail to stress the importance of the unity of God’s people, what are we saying about the wisdom of God and the mission of Jesus.  He was about to run out of time, and he quoted someone (and I did not get who) concerning the unity of God’s people — “Until the Eucharist is bitter, we will never understand how important unity is to God.”  I’m not sure on the exact wording of that, and I know the language is not something that churches of Christ normally use, but the message is powerful!

I have often said that I like to go places where I know there will be people that I do not agree with, and there would be a lot that I would not agree with Steven Fowl.  BUT, his message challenged and blessed me, and motivated to look deeper into the text.  I have not purchased his commentary on Ephesians yet (the New Testament Library series is pricey), but it is on my wish list.  He opened my eyes to things that have always been there, that I had read right over.  I have a copy of his outline, that was handed out, and as soon as ACU gets this class online I intend to go back and take better notes.  It was that good!

“When I Get It Worked Out”

It seems as if in almost every church where I have done local work, there has been at least one individual (and usually more than one) that at one time was very faithful, but had fallen completely away. More than once I have gone to visit individuals like this, and have heard “When I get things worked out, I’ll be back.” What do you say to someone like that? They know what they are doing is not right. They know that they need to change. They want you to know that they are making plans to change and be back. Basically, what they are saying is, “Leave me alone, I know what I need to do.”

This morning, as I was reading Psalms 140-145, there was something that jumped off the page at me. All these psalms are described as being “Davidic” (HCSB), and made me realize just how many enemies that David had! Repeatedly he talks about how many are setting traps and snares for him. How much despair he feels. How much he needs the Lord’s help!

One verse that jumped out at me, says:

Lord, hear my prayer.
In your faithfulness listen to my plea,
and in your righteousness answer me
.”
(Psalm 143:1, HCSB)

The thing that struck me about that verse, was that David says Lord hear-listen-answer because of who You are, not because of who I am. In these chapters, David recognizes who he is, and realizes that God can and will help him. In fact, he says:

May the Lord my rock be praised,
who trains my hands for battle
and my fingers for warfare.
He is my faithful love and my fortress,
my stronghold and my deliverer.
He is my shield, and I take refuge in Him;

(Psalm 144:1-2, HCSB)

Not only, is the Lord a location of safety, He provides training for the battle that is coming. If David needed help in his struggle with his physical enemies, how much more do I need help in my struggle with the “spiritual forces of evil”.

David knowing his need, proclaims:

Listen to my cry,
for I am very weak.
Rescue me from those who pursue me,
for they are too strong for me.”

(Psalm 142:6, HCSB)

If you are waiting until you get some things straightened out to return and rebuild your relationship with the Lord; would you at least consider that you are not strong enough to do it by yourself. That the enemy will overwhelm you, and convince you that neither God, nor the brethren, will accept you until YOU solve your problem. Please don’t believe that lie.  You cannot change and “get right” by yourself!  You are going to need God’s help.  He just waiting for you to ask, and look to “his faithfulness” and “his righteousness”.  Peace.

(This was first posted on Facebook, August 3, 2016.  It has been reposted here as a part of our “Psalms for Saturday.”  It is my prayer that it will be a blessing for your life.  Bill)

“My Week at the 2018 ACU ‘ Summit'” #2

When I made the decision to attend the ACU “Summit” this fall, instead of the Harding Bible Lectureship, as I had been planning on for 6 months; there were several items that influenced my decision.  There are two that I specifically want to mention:  (1) the theme, and (2) the format.  The theme for this year was “Wholeness in a Broken WorldInsights from Ephesians”.  Ephesians is one of my favorite books in the New Testament, and I probably have more hours in the study of the text of Ephesians than any other book.  But, I am always wanting to learn more, and check out some of the conclusions that I have arrived at.

But, I was really intrigued by the format that David Wray, and the ACU Summit team, had come up with.  On Monday and Tuesday, they arranged 12 different “pathways” that dealt with their theme.  You had the option of picking one “pathway” and staying with it for 4 or 5 sessions.  Let me say, that there were 15 minute breaks between each session, and after the two morning sessions there was a general assembly of everyone (chapel) and the lunch break.  So, you just did not sit for five hours or so, without any breaks or getting up to move around.  The advantage of that, was all the sessions were in the same room and there was one facilitator for the whole day.  The two pathways that I attended had 4 lectures, and then a period of Q & A at the end of the day.  This allowed me to get a good overall picture concerning the one “pathway” that I chose, and not worry about running all over the campus to hear those speakers that I wanted to hear.  Of course, the disadvantage was that there were speakers that I would have liked to have heard, but it just made sense to stay with the subject that I had chosen.

On Monday, there were seven “pathways” to choose from:

Ethical Wholeness

Biblical Wholeness

Small Church Wholeness

Marriage Wholeness

Worship Wholeness

Technology Wholeness

Interfaith Wholeness

Obviously, there are several good selections there, but I chose Small Church Wholeness.  I really don’t want to be critical, but I wish I had chosen something else.  This subject is close to my heart, because of my ministry background.  All of the speakers had good things to say, but most of them could have been said in other sessions that had nothing to do with small churches.  I was really excited that ACU had planned these sessions, because it is my conviction that there are a lot of small churches in our fellowship that are really struggling and need to find “wholeness”.  Many of those churches, the members of those churches, and their preachers feel like failures – BECAUSE THEY ARE SMALL.  Elders, deacons, and preachers could have attended these sessions, and I don’t believe they would have come out feeling any different.  According to the statistics that I have seen, about 90% of all the “churches of Christ” are under 200.  They need to be encouraged, and told that they are not failures as preachers, Christians, or churches – because they are small, or attend a small church.

I know no one from ACU will probably ever see this blog entry, but here is what I would suggest for a similar pathway in the future.  ACU has evidenced that they are not adverse to bringing someone from outside of our fellowship, if they are an “expert” in the field (and there were several on the program this year).  I would suggest they bring Karl Vaters to the program, and let him talk to elders and preachers of small churches.  Vaters has written The Grasshopper Complex and Small Church Essentials, and writes a regular blog for Christianity Today called “Pivot” that deals with small church ministry.  The things that he writes are educational, uplifting, and encouraging to small churches and their leaders.  It is my conviction that he could draw small church elders, preachers, and members; and be a blessing to them.  But that is just my opinion.  I am also sure that there were those in this “pathway” that would tell you they were blessed by what they heard.

On Tuesday, there were five “pathways” to choose from:

Business Wholeness

Congregational Wholeness

Discipleship Wholeness

Preaching Wholeness

Racial Wholeness

Again, it does not look like you could make a bad choice, and I didn’t!  I went to the session on Preaching Wholeness; and I will say, in my opinion, it was outstanding.  Eddie Sharp was the facilitator for the session, and I was blessed by attending this pathway.  The two morning sessions were the best, and were a real blessing to me.  I will say more about them in the next blog entry (10/2/18).  The 1:30 session was a little bit of a disappointment, as Amy Bost-Henegar was not able to be there.  The Friday before the start of Summit, her 17 year old daughter was diagnosed with Lyme disease, and she felt as if she could not leave.  It is my feeling, that in this setting, a woman might help me, a man, with the approach on how to preach to women and children – that I might not see, or have the normal capacity to feel.  So, Eddie Sharp and Mitch East (the preacher and preacher-in-waiting) at the University church in Austin, Texas filled in.  Having as little time as they did, they did as well as could be expected; but I still would like to have heard what Amy had to say.

The final day of the Summit was on Wednesday (9/19), and there were 5 pathways to choose from:

Discovering the Ennegram

Still Wrestling:  Faith Renewed through Brokenness

Mercy and Justice Wholeness

Christians at Work

One of the reasons that I chose to go to “Summit” was to have the opportunity to hear Les Ferguson, minister of the Oxford (MS) church of Christ speak.  His subject was Still Wrestling:  Faith Renewed through Brokenness, and he has a book by the same name.  You may be familiar with his story, and the tragedy, sorrow, and suffering that he has endured – but knowing about it, and listening to him tell it, are two different things.  I have pretty extensive notes on all the classes that I attended, but I just sat and listened to Les.  Our church book club is going to read his book, for our October selection, and he autographed 8 of them for me to give to the members of our club.  It is my intention to do one blog entry on him, his class, his story, and his book; next Thursday (10/4).  It is a story that a few can identify with, but most of us can’t.

I am glad that I went to Abilene, and attended “Summit”; and I am seriously considering going back next year.  The theme will be the “Book of Psalms”, which again fits right in my wheelhouse.  But I do have some more things that I want to say about this year.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Bill