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Thanks for visiting our website! Picture of the Month: sharing the word in Pilanqui, Ibarra, Ecuador; a view of part of the crowd, two baptisms. [Click picture to enlarge.]

Preaching in Pilanqui

Ministry is always a team effort--Jan and I have shared the work of ministry and missions for 48+ years! Countless others have encouraged us, supported us, loved us, and prayed for us. In addition to the customary "Brother Bob," I am also known as dad and papaw. My favorite breakfast is huevos fritos, frijoles, and tortillas, with a good hot sauce and a cup of quality coffee! My greatest joy in life is being part of the kingdom; my #1 priority is to advance "kingdom things" and help develop authentic "kingdom people." I seek to serve and share the good news about Jesus everywhere I go, helping people find Jesus and helping people mature in Jesus. One of the greatest blessings of my life is to be loved by countless people around the world!

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Archive for March, 2010

Healthy Friends and Healthy Places

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

One of the more difficult aspects of our Christian walk is learning how we maintain passion, momentum, and participation within our own contexts. We do this with like-minded individuals. Who are your like-minded faith companions?

I have always liked attending preachers’ luncheons and lectureships. It is a great experience to be a part of a gathering of Christian leaders and hear stories of how others have committed their lives to serving God and others. There is always a lot of hope and encouragement. It is easy to become directionless in life, and we need positive environments to ask questions about our direction.

A contemporary song asks, “Why do I stay where it feels safe when you keep calling me to come out?” This is too often the story of the faith journey of the churches I know. We do this all the time. It is unusual and refreshing to find someone or a group of “someones” who are genuinely missional, risking and caring. Especially in the US church, we like to stay where it feels safe—or at least where it feels known and we assume it is safe—but these places do not always help us grow. They look like pretty places, but in truth they are not environments that nurture life. The death might be slow, but the environment is nonetheless hostile.

Of course, we usually stay. We feel like we are running if we leave. Or that we are selfish to consider what is spiritually healthy for us. Or that we need to strengthen ourselves to learn how to get through adversity. Or that relationships are more important than the fight for what we need in order to survive. Eventually we struggle with the question, “Am I really called to be a light and voice into these places if they are slowly sapping the spiritual life out of me?”

Are you in a healthy place to cultivate your spiritual life and walk with God? Are you blessed with healthy relationships? Can you grow good things where you are, or are you barely struggling to survive? What direction should you go to be faithful to the gifts and calling God has given? It is not really safe to stay somewhere just because it is known and comfortable and expected. We must seek life-sustaining environments. When we seek direction, we need those who will challenge us to work through the hard questions and find the healthy places.

Stars to Steer By: A Principle of Leadership

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

I have gotten away from my weekly quotes–quotes are everywhere, you can find long lists on the Internet. I love quotes. They succinctly say what could otherwise require paragraphs. In recent months, however, I have found a lot of other things I wanted to write about, either in blogs or in the longer articles which I post to the website.

My friend, Bob Smith, serves as an elder in the Edmond church. Every weekday, he sends those of us on his distribution list a saying. Today’s saying focuses on leadership and is especially good. I am a student of leadership. I want to understand it, to encourage it, and to be a leader. I want to help develop effective leaders in the church. Read and think; meditate and apply.

One of the hardest tasks of leadership is understanding that you are not what you are, but what you’re perceived to be by others. — Edward L. Flom

Fringe Folks Fall More Easily

Monday, March 29th, 2010

We had what appeared to be a very good day yesterday at church. Attendance was good, we had visitors, the contribution was encouraging. I noted that folks were talking about a new day and new possibilities. Indeed, we have come a long way in the last three years. After a difficult time, we have found a new balance and stability. I am encouraged, and believe even better days are ahead, but….

There is that adversative particle, actually a conjunction that says what is to follow is a contrast–different than what went before. I am glad to see increased attendance, but I am disappointed in the fact that Bible class attendance was barely over 50% of worship attendance. Let me tell you what I have noticed through 4+ decades of ministry–Bible class attenders don’t drop out! I know there are exceptions to the generalization, but the statement is mostly true. Bible class attenders give a majority of the contribution. Bible class attenders invite visitors, teach the Bible classes, and are the folks you can count on when something needs to be done.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad for every person who walks through the door of the church building. I want people to attend and find a place to grow spiritually. But I have a deep concern for the folks who stay on the fringe of non-involvement–the “Sunday morning worship only” crowd, no Bible class, no evening worship, not much “church” during the week. I am concerned with the fringe folks because I have observed that it is the core folks who have staying power and can survive the challenges of life. I am concerned because the fringe folks are more likely to fall away.

I am reminded of the story of the little boy who fell out of bed, and when his mother rushed in to his bedroom and asked what had happened, he suggested the real problem: I think I stayed too close to where I got in!

A New Day

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Today is a new day. Well, of course! Sunday, March 28, 2010. A day we have never seen before, new challenges, new opportunities, unseen possibilities.

I am thinking of something different. Today is a new day–the first day of a new chapter of my life. I will not preach today, nor next Sunday, nor the next Sunday. I will teach my Bible class. I will share special time with “my kids” in Kid’s Time as we begin the worship assembly, I will encourage God’s people as we surround the Table, but I will not preach.

There is another possibility–today is a new day, the Lord’s Day, the first day of another week, evidence of God’s goodness and love and mercy. Today is recognized in the Christian world as Palm Sunday. The fellowship in which I worship and serve has not traditionally made much of it. That has likely been to our loss. I doubt it gets mentioned today unless I mention it–which I will! It is Bible; it is fact; it is history. To mention something is not to celebrate it. It is the first event in the most documented week of Jesus’ life. The contrast is striking. Those who shouted Hosanna on this Sunday were long gone the following Sunday. Some of those shouting Hosanna were perhaps among those who shouted “Crucify Him”. Mobs are fickle. Mankind is fickle.

John Stott (The Cross of Christ) wrote, “There is good biblical evidence that God not only suffered in Christ, but that God in Christ suffers with his people still. … It is wonderful that we may share in Christ’s sufferings; it is more wonderful still that he shares in ours.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Letters and Papers from Prison wrote, “It is a good thing to learn early that God and suffering are not opposites but rather one and the same thing and necessarily so; for me, the idea that God himself suffers is far and away the most convincing piece of Christian doctrine.”

From the perspective of this new day, our Lord could see the events of the coming week, culminating in suffering and death. As Good Friday and Easter approach, there is another meaning of the phrase: New Day. As we focus on the world-changing event which will grab the attention of the Christian world next Sunday, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we see the possibility of a newness that will never fade or grow old. Take time to meditate today on what God has done for you in Christ.

Welcome to the church that celebrates Easter–the New Day which is possible in the resurrection of Jesus–52 times a year!

Dark Flow: The Invisible Visible God?

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

God wants to be recognized and known. In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas declared that God has not left himself without evidence or testimony (Acts 14:17). Paul to the Romans said that God’s invisible qualities are seen in creation (1:19-20). This week, the scientific world is all aflutter again because of “dark flow”, first reported by scientists in 2008. Dark flow describes a phenomenon in which hundreds of galaxies appear to be streaming in the same direction at an incredible speed more than 10 times the speed of light, apparently pulled or influenced by some “unseen structures” on the fringe of creation (according to the perspective that affirms nothing supernatural exists outside of the created universe). Those of us who believe in the God who is bigger than the universe and exists outside of and independently of the universe can think of another possibility.

Scientists are puzzled by the observed coordinated streaming motion because it cannot be explained by current models that explain how mass is distributed in the universe. Thus, some researchers have made the controversial suggestion that the clusters are being tugged on by the gravity of matter outside the known universe. The researchers say that the flow clearly points in the same direction, very coherent.

Scientists have a natural explanation: chunks of matter got pushed outside the known universe as a result of or shortly after the big bang, so our universe is part of a larger “multiverse”. A similar explanation is that the universe we have observed to this point is not all there is, and that there are much larger portions of the universe which are unseen.

I find all of the discussion interesting–it buoys my faith that God is still at work! God is still fashioning, molding, sustaining, perhaps even still creating? (Why not?) The “unseen structure” which so powerfully moves parts of our universe where he wishes them to be I call God. Evidence continues to mount–some see God, some cannot! Interesting!

On the Front Line

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Over the last 50 years, the ways in which wars are waged has changed considerably. War is now high-tech, impersonal, sterilized, even glorified. Nonetheless, combat is life-threatening. If being on the front lines involves less personal, face-to-face, hand-to-hand combat, the threat of IEDs and a variety of explosive devices has increased the danger. Being on the front lines means the loss of human life. On the front lines, one comes face to face with how the battle is going, the loss of life, the ebb and flow of the conflict.

Today the church is in a battle for its very existence. The war exists in almost every place and is waged in many different ways. In some places, the church has a relative strength numerically and assembles in secure enclaves that allow life to proceed with little interruption. Christians who live in such locations may not correctly assess how difficult the global battle is. In other places, where the church is not as strong and Christians are fewer, the church’s army is rapidly decreasing in number, despite periodic successes. It is not fun to be on the front line. On the front line, one becomes painfully aware of the losses, the challenges, the lack of troops.

Across 40+ years of ministry I have generally participated in the battle for Christianity in secure and fruitful places. A majority of the churches Jan and I have worked with and attended experienced growth–sometimes in unbelievable ways. We have been blessed to witness hundreds of people turning to the Christ as they found forgiveness, newness, purpose, and genuine life. We have seen the joy of mission work that carries the gospel to the far corners of the earth to receptive people. More recently, we have personally participated in effective mission works. We ministered in two churches that have a special place in our hearts–in one church, a dozen years of ministry during which the church doubled; in the other, 8+ years of ministry as the church grew by more than 50%. I am grateful to those two churches for the blessing and insights of those 20+ years of ministry. They helped make ministry easy and fun and productive.
During our years in Christian higher education, we were relatively isolated from the battle. While we were active and involved as members of a local congregation, we were also away a great deal as we accepted responsibilities in interim ministry and guest preaching appointments. We visited and preached in a lot of congregations. That schedule meant that we did not participate in the daily battles and ebb and flow of Christianity in those local congregations, primarily small mission congregations throughout the Northeast, New England, and the Atlantic seaboard.

For the past eight years, I have observed the battle in a different light. Working in a smaller community which has two congregations of the churches of Christ, over two tenures separated by four years in Christian higher education, we have seen the reality of the struggle firsthand. Let me describe what I have seen “on the front lines.” From 2002-2004, we worked with one of the two congregations mentioned. During those years, the two congregations had an average combined attendance of about 500. After four years in higher education, we returned to the same congregation we had worked with before, now significantly smaller. The factors that contributed to the decline in number do not matter for this article, except to say that much of the loss occurred as people transferred to the other congregation. One would expect that such would keep the average combined attendance about the same or growing.

Let me share with you the reality. Last week the two congregations had barely over 300 in combined attendance. On a good Sunday, the two congregations may have a combined attendance of 400. That represents a loss of at least 20-25% of the “troops” over only a few years. Some of that has occurred because of the graying of the church and the death of older members, especially visible and felt in smaller, rural communities. Some of it has occurred because of the continuing stream of young people who move away from the community and do not return. Unfortunately, some of it has occurred because members have dropped out of active involvement in Christianity. Some of it has occurred because former members now attend community and denominational churches. These factors, which promise only to accelerate, do not bode well for the future of the church, especially in small communities.

The purpose of this article is not only to suggest how acute the potential decline may become in coming years, but to suggest what the church must do to reverse the experience and once again participate in the battle in the ways and places that matter.

The church must restore its focus. We must remember the God-given purpose of the church, that is, why the church exists. We must preach Christ more than church. We must establish genuine community more than social networks. We must define Christianity through meaningful relationships more than rules to be kept. We must quit trying to meet the needs of consumers and tell people clearly about the involvement demands of discipleship.

Meaningful worship. As we focus on God, seeking him and making him visible, the church must genuinely worship him, both corporately and individually.

Share the Good News. As we see our community and world, we must care about our community and world with the heart of God, and focus afresh on the purpose of the church to share good news. Restoring the biblical focus on sharing the gospel with the goal of making and maturing disciples, the church must seek cultural relevance for the unchanging message of God.

Redefine church. The redefinition of the church involves multiple factors. The church must become less self-centered and less concerned about church “for us”. Looking outward more than inward will result in less focus on issues, traditions and protecting the past. The church must redefine Christianity as something Christians are involved in 24/7, with high levels of involvement throughout the week. This will require that local churches rethink the number, kind, and timing of activities. It will also require a people-releasing view of church rather than a people-controlling model, so that the every-member ministry concept of the New Testament can be realized.

Fellowship. The church must get out of its comfort zones and touch people that are not like us, sharing a fellowship that includes all kinds of people who are distinct ethically, socially, and economically.

Leadership. The church must seek biblical leadership patterns within the church that develop leadership by influence and not by control. Such healthy, biblical leadership patterns will provide models for how we will seek to lead others to Christ and in Christian living.

I Am Resolved….

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

God has an incredibly big plan for our world. We can only know that plan by the revelation of God. We will not learn that plan through natural revelation–by looking at the world. We may conclude that God exists by natural revelation, but to understand the details of God’s plan for his creation requires supernatural revelation. God has revealed himself to us in Scripture–in fact, Scripture is first and foremost a revelation of God. In Scripture God reveals his plan for the restoration of human creation after the fall. God’s preposterous plan is that Christ can be the Savior of the world, that the church as the body of Christ can become the declaration of the wisdom of God, and that God’s presence can be carried into every part of the world through the disciples of Christ.

Thus God makes possible in Christ three things that are beyond the reach of human effort: re-creation, rebirth, and reconciliation. Genuine newness is possible, new creation in Christ. This newness is not the same old stuff dressed up in new clothes. This is a “brand new” newness, as God re-creates the creation. A new self comes forth–the Bible calls it rebirth or regeneration. In baptism a person participates in the death of Christ and thus has promise of participation in the resurrection of Christ. This is again described as newness of life. Such a change makes possible reconciliation. Reconciliation is real change–newness, grace, and transformation. The oft-quoted definition of reconciliation as “friends again” is weak and impotent. God is not only restoring relationships, he is making the restoration of relationships reality by undoing the breaking points. This is only possible in genuine newness by God’s grace resulting in transformed lives. As creation was passive (God gets the active verb), so also is re-creation passive. The renewal of rebirth in baptism is passive (see the passive verb); reconciliation is passive (ditto). God desires to work in our lives, and more than anything else, that demands that we get out of the way.

Note that so far we have done nothing, unless you describe responding to God’s graceful initiative and promise of re-creation, rebirth, and reconciliation as “something.” We have been called upon to see God (recognize and respect him), to respond to God in repentance so that he can do his work.

Here is the most difficult part. We have not seen how difficult it is. We have thought it easy; we have made it too easy. We must decide to follow Jesus–regardless. Jesus describes this process as hating all else (being willing to sacrifice anything we love), counting the cost, and leaving all else behind. This is resolution. To resolve something means to settle it once for all. Our Christian lives are difficult because we have not experienced resolution.

We have decided, but we go back on our word and commitment when the going gets tough. We will put him first, until something else comes along. Following Jesus is all or nothing. There are no lukewarm disciples. We have encouraged people to become Christians and to experience the newness of total cleansing and forgiveness of sins, but we have failed to tell them that they must fill the void with something–the Holy Spirit is given, we develop the fruits of the Spirit, Christ lives in us. The dichotomy does not serve us well. The idea that Christians are cleansed and disciples are committed has led people to want to be Christians without being disciples, but such distinction is unknown in Scripture. One cannot have the cleansing without the commitment. A Christian is a disciple–a learner, imitator, follower.

Show me an uncommitted Christian and I will show you someone not worthy of wearing the name Christian. Let us get back to God’s incredibly big plan which he has revealed to us in his word. He takes the initiative by grace to re-create us, regenerating, renewing, reconciling. This is of God, not of us. We are his workmanship. Our part is easy to say and hard to do: I am resolved!

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