Are we expecting enough?

Someone once asked me about church growth.

Well, they asked about why the church wasn’t growing. Of course, what they meant was, why weren’t there more people around? 

This wasn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation. So, I gave an answer that I’ve given before. I’m convinced we cap our expectations. We don’t expect a lot from people.

If we can get you to show up Sunday mornings, we don’t want to press our luck. Sure, someone might ask you to sign up for some event. But even if you’re not there, we won’t make a big deal about it.

Now, I’m not suggesting we press every person who walks through our doors into some kind of service. That’s foolish. Actually, there are churches that have done that. And people run away!

The expectation I have in mind is not that you must sign over every bit of your free time for whatever new ministry idea that pops into the pastor’s mind. A lot of that can be busywork.

Plus, people are not ministry pawns.

They are children of God who bear the image of God. Their participation in the church should help them in unearthing, more and more, that image. That’s not to say they don’t have work to do in the church. They do. We all do. That’s why we all have spiritual gifts.

When we give someone the opportunity to discover their spiritual gifts, they’ll want to work. When we show people how to use their spiritual gifts, they won’t settle for busywork!

So, let’s set high expectations for one another. I don’t mean tell people what to do, but remind one another that Jesus calls us all to bear fruit. Setting higher expectations leads to greater discipleship. Have you read the New Testament? It’s full of high-discipleship expectations.

The person I was speaking to responded, “No, there’s got to be something else.”

Please don’t take this to mean that I’m suggesting I hold the keys of church growth in my hands. That I have the perfect answers to all things ministry. I don’t. But I do know the priority of the church needs to be following Jesus.

You can’t have low expectations for what you prioritize.

But, oh, we do try!

In Acts 7, Stephen defends himself against accusations that he spoke blasphemous words against Moses and God. His response is a history lesson. He reminds his listeners of God’s story. Part of his defense includes Moses.

In particular, Stephen recalls Moses on the mountain with God. Remember that? The people got anxious. Before they had said, “Everything the Lord has said we will do” (Exodus 24:3).

But Moses was gone for a few chapters.

As Stephen recalls it, the people were now unwilling to obey Moses. Instead, “they pushed him aside.” They didn’t like his answer anymore. It didn’t fit how they were feeling. So, they turned to Aaron who did what they asked of him.

Much of church growth talk today has to do with leadership. Fine. That’s not totally out of line. But listen to what the people told Aaron to do: “Make gods for us who will lead the way for us.”

God won’t lead us by lowering his expectations of who we’re called to be. “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). How’s that for high expectations?

Stay blessed…john

Why I keep wearing masks

Do you remember how you felt last year when the reality of the pandemic was unavoidable?

If you and I had conversations when it all began, remind me what I felt, please. I don’t quite remember. It’s a blur. I know I had to make tough decisions that affected our church. And I do recall thinking a lot of my family.

Other than that, I may have been too occupied learning how to be a video evangelist to feel anything more.

I also remember taking time to read about the last time our nation endured a pandemic. I wanted to see what we learned from that experience. If there was anything worth bringing to mind this time around.

In a nutshell, I took away that what helped us before was cooperation. It was the willingness of communities to engage in an array of social distancing practices. Those places willing to do so for extended periods of time helped the nation curb the spread until a vaccine was available.

Nothing new under the sun.

We used masks back then, too. As you can imagine, the masks people used then weren’t as helpful as some we have today. But it was something.

Now, I’m thinking about all this because recently my state governor informed us about his decision to rescind social-distancing mandates.

First, let me assure you that I understand the concern many people have about allowing governmental entities to mandate such practices at all. There are obvious lines we approach with these kinds of decisions.

Second, let me also share with you why I continue to wear a mask and keep with social distancing practices. It has to do with an illustration from our scripture reference today.

When I read from 1 Peter 2, I can’t help but think of the stones erected in the Jordan River after the people of God had passed through.

I’ll let you read Joshua 4 yourself to fill in all the details.

But do recall now that those stones were a reminder to future generations. They would remind all people of God’s faithfulness and mighty works.

As standing stones ourselves, we are witnesses to the same power.

The love of God in Christ Jesus is the ultimate power of God that we experience. His sacrificial love is what saved us. As a result, Christ has taught us that the most important way to live is to love God and to love people.

In that light, as I continue to wear a mask, for example, I am keeping in mind that we have learned this is an easy, albeit imperfect way to care for other people. To demonstrate the love of humanity while we endure such a crisis together.

Masks and social distancing were never about fear. They continue to be about care. Pandemic or not, I want my life to be a standing stone.

It’s been over a year now. By most credible accounts, there is still about another year left before we can say we are past the dangers of COVID-19. Government mandates or not, we’re going to have to decide how we best care for each other. 

Standing stones point to the power of God, the love of God in Christ. Peter also called Jesus a living stone. And look what Jesus did with his life.

Stay blessed…john

Is spiritual warfare real?

Spiritual warfare is real.

You believe it is, too.

At least if you made your baptismal vows in the United Methodist Church. When we baptize someone, we ask several questions of them. Their baptism also reminds us of ours. So, we all reaffirm what they say we believe.

One of the questions we ask is: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?

Why would we renounce spiritual forces if we didn’t believe they were real? And if they’re real, how do we reject them?

Scripture often uses militaristic imagery. Think of Ephesians 6. The armor of God. In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul also talks about our weapons of warfare.

So why are many of us in mainline denominations so timid about spiritual warfare? We don’t talk a lot about it. Whenever I do it feels necessary to make sure we know what we’re not talking about so as not to lose anyone in the conversation.

To be sure, I don’t have in mind much of the sensationalism one might come across on a Christian TV program. No, there is something much more pervasive to acknowledge.

The story that helps me best qualify this conversation for us modern disciples of Jesus is the healing of the Gerasene. Three of the gospel narratives tell this story, Matthew, Mark and Luke.

We often note Mark’s hurried story-telling nature. He moves his stories along at a rapid pace. That teaches me to pay attention to any details Mark does include. When it comes to the man who had the legion, Mark gives us more information about him than the other gospel writers.

So, pay attention!

We know his condition drove him among the tombs. No one could restrain him, even though they tried with chains and shackles. He was strong and prowled day and night howling and bruising himself with stones.

I imagine people tired of trying to help him. Who could blame them?

If Jesus had not shown up on the shore that day, do we suspect the man would have remained as he was? If chains and shackles didn’t work, what would be the next level of force to subdue him?

Spiritual forces already subdue people. Those people don’t need others trying to subdue them any further, even if their goal is to help. Spiritual warfare, then, is the fight against such suppression. What I gather from Mark is that suppression comes in many forms. 

Was there anything else the other people could have done for the man? I suppose so, but they didn’t know what.

Is that why we don’t talk about this much? We don’t know what it requires of us? It’s easier to bring a food dish or write a get-well card, isn’t it?

Consider what Mark tells us about the man’s healing. When the people came to investigate what happened, they found the man sitting with Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. He was restored.

We renounce spiritual forces of wickedness because they take something away from the personhood of another child of God. Sometimes that child of God is us. But even if it’s not, like Jesus, we engage in real spiritual warfare.

Stay blessed…john