Taking Scriptures Seriously and Personally

“There can be no true Christian spiritual formation
 without taking the Scriptures seriously and personally.”
 Richard E. Averbeck
     Twenty years ago, I invited a church member to share in a Bible Study I was leading. Her response surprised me; “I took a Bible course in college so I don’t need your study.” Only a few years ago, in my former church in Pennsylvania, I invited someone to a Bible Study. Their response was equally surprising; “I already do a lot around the church. I don’t have time to read the Bible.” Both of these persons demonstrate little understanding of the role of the Bible in our growth as Christians. Richard Averbeck is absolutely correct, there simply can be no true Christian spiritual formation (Christian growth) without taking the Scriptures seriously and personally.
     Neil Cole puts it this way, “Most of us would be ashamed if we compared the amount of books, magazines and newspaper articles we have poured into our minds with the amount of God’s Word we have invested into our souls. Doesn’t that tell us that we really value the world’s philosophies more than God’s? This must change if we are ever to become a living example of the people of God! We can start by investing approximately half-an-hour each day to hearing from God!”
     Last year, during a week of personal study, I read that the average person in this country views twenty-seven and one-half hours of television each week. That is the equivalent of more than one entire day per week! This author went on to write, quite persuasively, that those who hear the Bible read only on Sunday mornings, followed by a twenty-minute sermon, are in serious trouble. There is simply no way one reading from the Bible and a twenty-minute sermon can compete with twenty-seven plus hours of television. God’s Word is outmatched in sheer quantity of time. The values taught by television programming will trump the values of God in the lives of the believer.
     I am confident of this: the local church only has power when the majority of its membership chooses to read the Scriptures in large amounts, in whole context (not a chapter here and a verse there) and regularly, even daily. Jesus has called this church to an uncommon work in Palm Beach Countyand the Presbytery of Tropical Florida. This will require an uncommon source of power: the power that is released in the lives of those who take the reading of the Bible seriously and personally.
     Jesus said, “People won’t live only by bread, but by every Word spoken by God\” (Matt. 4:4 CEB). What is required first is a hunger for God’s Word born out of a desire to be useful to God.

Pay Attention to the Future

“The church had better pay attention to the future because that is where we will do ministry.”
Leith Anderson
     During my doctoral studies I had the opportunity to study with Leith Anderson. He is the author of Dying for Change and A Church for the 21st Century, as well as the Senior Pastor of Wooddale Church in the Minneapolissuburb of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a congregation of over ten thousand members.
     The singular most important comment that he made to the twelve pastors in his class was, “The church had better pay attention to the future because that is where we will do ministry.”
      Anderson continued that yesterday’s successes (in the church) often are the greatest obstacles to today’s innovation. Simply, because it worked so well yesterday, the leaders of the church are reluctant to change the method for doing ministry. Trouble is, what was state-of-the-art yesterday is often obsolete today, much like my old record player.
     What is the church to do? One answer, of course, is nothing. The church can continue to do ministry like it has for the past number of decades. What is likely, however, is that such a church will then begin to behave like an older person: Taking fewer risks than in the days of youth, concerned with paying off the mortgage and making plans for retirement and death.
     Another answer is for the leaders of the church to revisit the church’s core values (the question of what is important around here), the mission statement (the question of why is the church here), the vision statement (the question of what will it look like when we have achieved the mission) and a development of a fresh strategy for realizing the vision (the question of how will we get there). Such an approach will infuse fresh energy into the church and enable a witness to Christ that is relevant to a changing culture.
     Your Long-Range Planning Committee will be addressing these questions as they begin their work. I hope you will partner with them by holding their efforts in your daily prayers as they seek God’s wisdom and direction for this church.


Grand and Beautiful Testimony

     Craig Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor and president of Princeton Theological Seminary and someone whom I admire a great deal. Before his current presidency, Barnes was the preaching pastor for the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA. During his ministry with that congregation, the church undertook a renovation and expansion of their facilities. At the launch of the financial campaign for the work, he wrote a letter to his congregation. I share a portion of it here with you.
     “When someone enters your home, they learn a lot about you. The way you decorate and furnish the rooms, the art and photographs that hang on your walls, and even the way you maintain the house tells people who you are and what you value. The same thing is true about our church home. A church is certainly more than a building. It’s the people, centered in Jesus Christ, who make up the church. But every church expresses its personality and values by how they organize and maintain their building.
     Our church is a grand and beautiful testimony to our devotion to Christ. The great lantern that sits above our Sanctuary is a physical witness to our mission to be the light of hope to the community around us. Our grandparents who built this facility wanted people to follow that light into the congregation where they would find a ministry that can restore the human spirit. But after all these years, our church home is now in need of some significant renovations.”
     Perhaps what I like best in those words from Craig Barnes is the image that the church is a grand and beautiful testimony to our devotion to Christ.
     Years ago, during my first ministry in Florida, there was a young family in the church I served. The wife was a former Miss Florida. She was active in the church, he was not. One day she dropped by the office and told me how unhappy she was. As a former beauty queen, she had always enjoyed the attention, the affection that came with the title. When she married, she believed that the only affection and demonstration of devotion she needed now was from a husband. Yet, something happened. His affection for her evaporated – at least any demonstration of it.
     He was in sales so he drove a new car with all the bells and whistles.  It was necessary for him to make a favorable impression on potential customers. They couldn’t afford two nice cars, he thought, so he required his wife to drive an old pick-up truck that lacked air-conditioning. As she told me through tears, it wasn’t so much that she hated driving that ugly truck, though she did. What bothered her was that it didn’t concern her husband that she had to settle for the old truck. The old truck became for her a symbol that he no longer valued her, no longer desired the best for her, and no longer had a grand and beautiful devotion to her.
     The Bible teaches that Jesus has chosen to “dwell” in us – to take-up residence in our lives. The Lord of all, the One who rescued us from death now makes His home in each of us. The question we must ask is, “What kind of accommodations are we providing?” Do our lives resemble an old, ugly pick-up truck or a grand and beautiful Sanctuary? It is really a question of desire and intentionality. Are we following a purposeful path each day to grow-up into full maturity in Christ or have we settled for church membership and worship on Sundays. The difference is considerable.

We Require Spiritual Nourishment

     Take out orders have become a commonplace alternative to home cooked meals in our increasingly frantic and busy culture. Physical nourishment has never been an option for when time permits – our bodies are designed in a manner that it must have the fuel food provides to function. Eating is not a choice. The question for busy lifestyles is what we will eat and how that food will be provided. Though fast food is often the food of choice for people on the go, there continues to be an increasing number of alternatives. Nevertheless, the pressing issue before us today is less the quality of the food but more the convenience of its availability. We have become a “take out” culture.
     What we often overlook is that we also have been designed by our Creator to require spiritual nourishment. The soul hungers for God as the body hungers for food. When the soul is neglected, the hunger often results in unhealthy addictions – sex, drugs, alcohol and excessive eating. Yet, those caught in the grip of addictions will readily confess that they fail to satisfy beyond the short term. That is because nothing can satisfy our spiritual hunger but God.
     Naturally, the best meal for the soul is regular worship and participation in a small, intimate Christian community of care, such as a small group. But just as we rarely have the time for home cooked meals, we find that regular worship and small group participation is difficult. We are a frantic and busy people.
     Certainly the church must continue to offer meaningful and dynamic worship and opportunities for small groups, but more is demanded. Just as we increasingly rely on take out food for the body, the church needs to provide take out food for the soul. Without the proper nourishment, we spiral into destructive addictions.
     I have become committed to our church making available “take out” for the bread of life, Jesus Christ. One resource that is available is printed sermons available in the Narthex (lobby area of our church) or on the church website. Each month, a new sermon will be added to those currently available. Passing these messages along to a friend or work colleague expands the circle of persons who are nourished by the preaching ministry of this church. Another resource is the weekly devotional, Heart & Soul, that is printed in the worship bulletin. This resource is also available on our website and includes every devotional I have written in the past year. You are invited to expand the ministry of our church by being a point of distribution of these and other resources, as together we seek to bless our community.

Good is the Enemy of Great

“Good is the enemy of great”
     We must set high standards for the Lord’s work. This has become an obsession of mine. We cannot settle for less than the best. We cannot settle for good when God asks for our best. The proclamation of the gospel demands excellence. Anything less demeans the church of Jesus Christ.

     This striving for excellence must be seen in everything from cared-for buildings and manicured lawns to well-written and produced brochures and other printed materials.

     The practice of ministry also requires excellence. Excellence in ministry and programs demand both paid staff and gifted volunteers. Neither can be neglected. Growing excellence in ministry will require that we continually add to our paid staff and equip volunteers. In fact, research by the Alban Institute, a non-profit that studies congregational vitality, indicates that a church is optimally staffed when it has one full-time paid professional staff person for every one hundred persons in worship. Naturally, whenever a church seeks to move toward this model, financial resources must be available. That requires that a church culture of generosity be continually cultivated.

     Why one professional staff for every one hundred in worship? Volunteers alone cannot sustain excellence over a period of time. It is in the very nature of the word volunteer. Volunteers provide ministry leadership after hours from their “real” jobs. Persons may be retired but have other responsibilities. Volunteers may be parents and have sports events, rehearsals and other activities that require their time. Volunteers alone simply cannot sustain consistent excellence in the long haul.

     The ability of volunteers may also be less than what is expected or required for excellence and the ministry suffers. Paid staff receives consistent and ongoing training, performance objectives and supervision. Accountability to the Personnel Committee and Session raises the bar of performance. 

     I count it a great privilege to be the pastor of this congregation. As we move toward greater and greater excellence in ministry together, I continue to share here, and in other places, what moving from good to great will require.