Books Read in 2012: No. 24 – Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community

Total ChurchI really enjoyed this book by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. It actually helped me redefine my vision of the Church’s mission as well as my own role within my local church. The authors drive home the theme that church should be focused on the Gospel of Christ and on community. I must admit I was convicted when I read that Christian community should go beyond what is considered normal as church members are sharing an identity with one another that is found in Christ. The concept of community in the local church should go beyond ice cream socials and mere friendships; rather, Christians should see one another as integral to the Church’s mission within the framework of God’s plan and apply that focus to everything they do.

Many readers will be turned off by the notion that Chester and Timmis are “home church” leaders, however, there is no reason why much of what they are saying can’t be applied within the traditional local church body. I highly recommend it for Christians who want to find their identity within the church or fail to understand why belonging to a church community is important.

Books Read in 2012: No. 21 – What is a Healthy Church Member?

healthyThis little book by Thabiti Anyabwile should be required reading for anyone who attends church. Unfortunately, many of us do not understand the importance of being involved in the local church and see it as an optional (and even sometimes offensive) aspect of our faith. Those of us who do attend often refrain from getting too involved and leave all the work of the church in the hands of a small minority.

Anyabwile, however, has provided readers with a wonder tool to benefit an individual who wants to get the most out of their church life and has identified ten marks of a healthy church member. According to Anyabwile, a healthy church member is:

1. An expositional lister
2. A Biblical theologian
3. Saturated in the gospel
4. Genuinely converted
5. A Biblical evangelist
6. A committed member
7. A seeker of discipline
8. A growing disciple
9. A humble follower
10. Is a prayer warrior

Each of these marks of a healthy church member represents a chapter in this little book. For each chapter, Anyabwile explores the concept and provides study questions the reader can use to conduct a self-examination.

If every Christian would read this little book and commit to the principles Anyabwile recommends, the Church would benefit greatly. I highly recommend this book.

The Head and the Heart Are Miles Apart

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4:29).

Ephesians 4:29 is a simple little verse that is easily understood. There are some who may reduce it to a simple admonition not to cuss, but it really addresses more than that. As Christians, we should only speak words that build up others and benefit them. Additionally, we must avoid “unwholesome talk” which can be defined from the context of the verse as being and talk that does not build up others or serves to tear them down. When I read this verse a couple of weeks ago in preparation for a Bible study class in church, I experienced the familiar tugging of the Holy Spirit. It was a reminder from God that I have often allowed my mouth to speak in an “unwholesome” way. Too often, I am more than willing to tear others down with my speech. Because of the Holy Spirit’s conviction, I have dedicated myself since to praying and meditation on this verse … and even putting it into practice. To my surprise, it hasn’t been too difficult. Only on a couple of occasions have I found myself speaking before thinking. It has actually been a blessing to me that has prepared my heart to worship the Lord. I am thankful for the Holy Spirit’s conviction on the matter and am determined to continue moving in the right direction.

Despite all of this, Ephesians 4:29 isn’t what’s really on my mind this morning. More so, I have been contemplating the very act of putting God’s directives into practice in our daily lives. So often we can become consumed with “head knowledge.” In our quest to accumulate as many facts as we can and refute as much bad theology as possible we sometimes forget that God actually expects us to practice what He preaches. My experience with putting Ephesians 4:29 into practice has reminded me that there is a huge difference between embracing God’s Word in my mind as opposed to embracing it in my heart.

Do you believe the Bible? Do you believe it to the point that it actually changes the way you live? Have you ever made a conscience decision to do something different in light of something revealed to you within the pages of the Bible? If not than you may want to ask yourself if you really believe in your heart.

Paul writes in the book of Ephesians that we should role model the attitude of God. We should live our lives as Jesus would because our time is a precious gift from God that shouldn’t be wasted by living foolishly.

As Christians, we should practice what Christ preached before it’s too late.

I love Christ and I want Him to change me; yet far too often I have been happy to accept “head” knowledge in place of a changed heart. Many would say the same is true of the Church in general. We attend every Sunday with no intentions of walking out the doors changed in any way.

Ask God to change you. Ask Him what it is that you need to do differently. Pray, read the Bible, and listen for His response.

It may change your heart.

Book Review: Remember Why You Play by David Thomas

Book Review of Remember Why You Play by David Thomas

Remember Why You Play is a can’t miss read for fans of high school football. The author, David Thomas, chronicles a season played by Faith Christian High School in Grapevine, Texas and does a wonderful job of depicting how coach Kris Hogan and his staff combine faith and knowledge to effect great change in the lives of their students. Along the way, only the most calloused reader will resist falling in love with the players that comprise the Faith Lions. The story culminates in a game between the Lions and the Gainesville State Tornadoes, a team comprised of incarcerated juvenile offenders. Although many are familiar with the story, I will resist the urge to spoil the ending and simply write that the act of love that occurs during this game should serve to edify and inspire Christians everywhere.

If I am being honest, there are moments throughout the book that I feel Thomas is guilty of falling in love with his subjects a little too much. Consider the following passage:

“At age six in a baseball game, Hogan and his unbeaten team were locked in a duel against a pitcher who had held them scoreless. So the next time the pitcher came to bat, Hogan drilled him in the ribs with a fastball. To make sure the opponent knew Hogan’s pitch had been on target, Hogan looked at the player when he reached first base and winked. Sore and rattled, the pitcher became hittable for Hogan and his teammates, and they rallied to win the game.”

I’ve seen a few six year olds play baseball and would like to go on record stating that this scenario is either severely romanticized or that there are some little league coaches in Texas that need fired. Regardless, if Thomas is guilty of loving his subjects to the point of losing his objectivity, I am sure he comes by it honestly. I must admit that I was in love with the Faith Lions by the end of the book as well.

Apparently, this book is being made into a movie due out next year and I am sure it will be the next big “Christian” movie; do yourself a favor and read the book first.

Letting God Out of the Box

In his book, What is Reformed Theology? Understanding the Basics, R.C. Sproul explains the difference between Religion and Theology. He explains that religion is the study of particular types of human behavior, while theology is the study of God. In other words, religion is man-centered while theology is God-centered. It has occurred to me slowly over the last few months that much of what we do as Christians has little to do with God. We seem intent on practicing a religion that is man-centered.

The desire of any Christian should be to focus his life on Christ. We should all be more interested in how God would want our faith to play out in our lives. Too often, we take our cues from our pastors, denominations, authors, small groups, and other areas of influence when we should be taking our cues from Christ.

Sometimes, I think we have created a faith that has little to do with the real living God.

I am beginning to lose interest in the faith we have created. In the faith we have created, we expect God to manifest Himself in a variety of ways. How many times have you heard someone say after a church or worship service, “Wow, I could really feel God’s presence in there,” or, “The spirit was really moving during that sermon.” Have you ever heard someone say that during a moment when you didn’t feel God at all? I know I have. It is in those moments that I feel like the worst Christian in the Kingdom. There’s been moments when I wondered why everyone else seemed to sense God’s presence when I couldn’t. I wondered what I was doing wrong. Then it ocurred to me … those people are lying.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that you can never feel God’s presence during church or feel the Spirit moving during a worship session; however, I am saying that we have created a church environment where you fall short as a Christian if you don’t feel God’s presence at the right moments. So much of what we do as a church and as Christians involves creating moments for God to reveal Himself. We create emotional sermons, passionate worship songs, tear-jerking service opportunities, and intimate small group discussions with the expectation that God will participate when and where we say so. There are even some denominations that expect the Holy Spirit to make you jump around, dance, and speak in tongues; and if it doesn’t happen, there is something wrong with you.

It is as if someone says, “Let God out of His box now so we can all feel better about ourselves … just be sure to put Him away when we’re done!”

I am nearly forty years old and I have been a Christian for going on ten years. While there have been several times in my life when I have felt God’s presence and even times when I felt as if Jesus were speaking right to me, I must admit that none of these moments occurred on demand. Rather, God has spoken to me in moments of His choosing. Do we really think that we can demand the Creator of the universe to speak to us because it is Sunday morning and expect to get a response?

When you study the life of Christ it is apparent that He never acted and responded to the people around Him in the way they expected. He changed all of the rules and all the expectations they had for their savior. He was a rebel that refused to be typecast. Shouldn’t we expect Him to be the same now. I fear that far too often, we attempt to turn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into our own personal puppet.

In his book, Real Church, Larry Crab attributes all of this to an addiction to ourselves. I couldn’t agree more. We create these moments for God to participate in our religion because we selfishly want to feel His presence on our schedules. We play worship music not because we feel He is worthy of our praise, but rather because it gets our adrenaline pumping and makes us feel better about ourselves. We create service opportunites not out of a desire to serve our fellow man, but rather because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We pick and choose our churches like we pick and choose our movies … we’re not interested in attending the church where God wants us because we are too busy trying to find the one that entertains us the most.

Our religion has become all about us when it is supposed to be all about God.

Study the life of any saint worth remembering and you will find they lived a life that was God-centered rather than man-centered. Mother Teresa’s life would have been impossible if she had been afflicted with this addiction to self. Rather than wasting her time creating opportunities for God to reveal Himself, Teresa went about the business of serving her fellow humans and waited patiently for God. By her own account, she went decades without feeling the presence of God … but yet continued to wait for Him.

God is not fast food. We can not have Him our way. We can only experience Him in His way and on His schedule. Larry Crabb teaches that this anticipation is more valuable at times than any experience we can have of God in this life. Jesus taught that this life is all about anticipation. Heaven is so close we can taste it. We should look forward to it like a little child does Christmas morning. There is no experience we can have in this life that will come close to the experience of being with Christ in Heaven … we should embrace this anticipation and quit trying to put the cart before the horse.

Church, sermons, worship songs, service, small groups …. these are all good things if they serve to increase our anticipation for God. He will reveal Himself to us on His schedule. The Spirit will move among us … not like a pay per view movie, but rather like the living, breathing God that He is. We should embrace those moments when we can’t feel God’s presence in this world because He has  promised we will live entirely in His presence someday.

Manipulating God into doing our bidding … creating moments that feel religious … these are the things that false religions are made of. These are the things I no longer have an interest in.

Father, my prayer is for you to speak to me and fill me with the Spirit as you see fit. I ask that you help me stop and take notice of You in the moments You are trying to speak to me. In the moments that I can’t feel Your presence, I ask that You fill me with anticipation. Father, I want to desire your presence like a child desires his Christmas present. Lord, lead me to worship, praise, study, and serve with the right motives. Help me to conquer my addiction to self and become more addicted to anticipating You.

Amen.

Further Reading:

Real Church by Larry Crabb
What is Reformed Theology by R.C. Sproul
Living in the Power of the Holy Spirit by Charles Stanley

Back Sliding and Bicycles

A few years ago my friend Russ and I decided to get into bike riding. It happened kind of on a whim, but I jumped in with both feet and went out and bought a fancy road bike with all the bells and whistles. Soon after, I bought a nice mountain bike and cycling became my primary form of entertainment. I can remember with great clarity how exciting it was when I first rode over ten miles. Soon, a ten mile ride was nothing to me. Before I knew it, a fifteen or twenty mile ride was common place. I even logged a few rides over fifty and sixty miles. It was a blast. Life eventually got in the way; however, and I got a little derailed. I sort of fell off the bike riding wagon and gained about fifty pounds. Riding the bike was suddenly harder for me. I rode just today and had to work to get in seven miles.

If you put my bike riding into church-talk, you could say that I “back-slid.”

“Back-sliding” is a phrase that I hear often. If you hang out with Christians for any length of time, you’ll eventually hear it as well. Normally, it comes just after someone finds out I’m a Christian, “I didn’t know you were a Christian Clark. I used to be one, but I’ve sort of “back-slid.”

This terminology drives me up a wall. My first response when someone tells me they have ‘back-slid’ is to ask them how. I ask for specifics. I am interested in knowing because it blows me away that someone can think they have fallen so far off the track that they no longer qualify as a Christian. Normally, after I talk to someone long enough, I discover that they don’t mean they have quit believing in Christ or the lessons He taught … what they normally mean is that they have fallen back into a pattern of sin that they thought they had outgrown or given up for good. It is the recurrence of that sin in their lives that prompts them to describe themselves as a “former Christian” that has “back-slid.”

Let me explain why this cheeses me off so much. Being “back-slidden” as described above is a man made concept. Obviously, there are some people who used to believe in Christ and possessed a Judeo-Christian faith that have quit believing for some reason. That’s a different story than I described above. The problem is that most people who describe themselves as “back-slidden” don’t fit into that category; rather, they have allowed the presence of sin in their lives to convince them that they no longer qualify as a Christian. Maybe that’s a concept that their pastor taught them, or maybe it comes out of their denomination’s doctrinal statement; but it certainly isn’t Biblical. The Bible says that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God! We’ve discussed the concept of grace in detail on this blog … tell me, whom among us deserves it?

Denominations that allow people to think they can “back-slide” enough to make God quit loving them are doing their members a huge disservice. So you’ve got sin in your life, huh? Guess what … so does every Christian that walks the earth!

The heart of the matter here is cowardice. People that say they have “back-slidden” out of the grace of the All Mighty are cowards. They make it sound like something that happened to them involuntarily. Certainly, there are addictions and what-not that are harder to fight than others, but all of us who call ourselves Christians have to deal with the presence of sin in our lives. It isn’t always easy, but Christ calls us all to deal with the sin in our lives and live for a higher purpose. Paul compared following Christ to running a marathon because it isn’t always easy.

We have a choice … we can dub ourselves back-slidden and fall deeper and deeper into sin …. or we can get back on the bicycle and huff and puff our way for seven miles … and accept the fact that Jesus Christ died for us no matter where we are on the path.

Clark