Category: Christian Living

3 tips for sharing Jesus with others this Christmas

Even as our culture drifts away from Christendom, Christmas is still the most likely time of the year for non-Christians to consider matters of faith. Here are a few tips to help you step out of your comfort zone and talk to non-Christians in your world about Jesus.

It was a Christmas Eve service in 1992, and I had been recruited to play the role of one of the young shepherd boys. With typical 90s flair, the night retold the birth of Jesus with skits, carols, praise banners, and awkwardness. Yet the gospel was preached and many who had been invited by friends responded by turning to Jesus and receiving the gift of God’s grace.

Why is any of this important?

Well, because one of the people who responded to the gospel that night was my dad.

Christmas comes with more opportunities to give people the gift of the gospel than any other time of the year.

You’re probably aware that Christmas is that magical time of the year when lights are up, stores are full, and millions celebrate the angel’s declaration of “peace on earth” by stressing out over the perfect gift or their frustrating family members.

But what you may not be aware of is that Christmas is also the most likely time of the year for non-Christians to consider matters of faith. From the carols that are sung to the nativity scenes that are set up, over the next few weeks Jesus is placed front and center in our cultural eye more than at any other time of the year. Like my dad, many people are more open to Jesus during the Christmas season.

While it is certainly true (and curious) that there are those in our culture who consider it an offensive social taboo to talk about Jesus during his birthday celebration, the bottom line for Christians is that Christmas comes with more opportunities to give people the gift of the gospel than any other time of the year.

As we prepare to celebrate the incarnation of Christ into the world, here are a few tips to help you step out of your comfort zone and talk to non-Christians in your world about Jesus.

1. Don’t hate on Santa, use him

Whether you like it or not, Santa Claus is a part of the cultural landscape of December. And he’s likely not going anywhere. Apart from a few troubling stalker tendencies (“He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake”!?), he seems like a pretty nice fellow who genuinely wants little boys and girls to try their best to be good. If they behave, they’ll have earned themselves a place on the nice list and be showered with presents instead of punished with coal.

Santa is not the enemy. Santa is an opportunity.

Come to think of it, Santa would have been right at home with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Santa, like the Pharisees, has a fondness for rule-keeping, good behavior, and rewarding high performers.

However, the message of “try harder, do better” is not good news, and it’s not Christianity. It’s a depressing cultural distortion known as moralism, and is about as liberating as being chained to a treadmill and instructed to run to China. No matter how hard you try, you seem to find yourself in the same place—just more tired and cynical.

But instead of seeing Santa as an opponent to be protested or a myth to naively endorse, Christians should see him as one of our greatest opportunities to astonish people with the gospel. Santa is not the enemy. Santa is an opportunity.

Christian, you don’t need to blow Santa up. Just contrast him with Jesus.

The gospel shows us that the true gift-giver is Jesus.

The gospel is a beautiful scandal that turns the Santa story on its head. InEphesians 2:8, Paul reminds us that the unfathomable joy of salvation is the undeserved gift of God.

Santa says, “Earn it.” Jesus says, “Receive it.”

Santa says, “If you’re good, you’ll get my love.” Jesus says, “Only my love can make you good.”

Santa makes a list and warns, “I’ll be checking it twice.” Jesus fulfilled the list and declared, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

You don’t need to blow Santa up. Just contrast him with Jesus.

The gospel is an explosion of hope that brilliantly outshines the dull moralism of Santa.

The good news we get to celebrate at Christmas is that Jesus came into the world to detach our hope from our futile attempts to “be good,” and to attach it to himself. By living the life we couldn’t live and dying the death we deserve to die, Jesus gives sinners on the naughty list (if you’re human, you qualify) the gift of God’s love. That’s news worth telling someone over the next few weeks.

2. Redeem religion

While Christendom may be dead, it has left in its wake some quasi-religious cultural traditions. For many non-Christians, attending some sort of church service during the holiday season is as much a part of their family tradition as chopping down a Christmas tree. It allows them to check off the “God” box (at least until Easter). This kind of thinking is nothing more than dead religion that is devoid of the life-altering power of the gospel. But it does come with one redeemable caveat: the opportunity for people to encounter the life-altering power of the gospel.

The gospel is an explosion of hope that brilliantly outshines the dull moralism of Santa.

That friend or family member of yours who doesn’t know Jesus is far more likely to attend a Christmas Eve or Christmas service with you than any other time of the year. Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway Research, has pointed out that “if there is a given day where more unchurched non-Christians are likely to attend church, it would be on Christmas Eve.” Another study by Lifeway shows that 47% of households will attend a Christmas Eve or Christmas service as a part of their celebrations.

So go ahead and invite them!

This year, we have scheduled our Christmas Eve services around the local Christmas parade that takes place a block from our church. Snowflake Lane is one of our city’s favorite traditions, with performances, lights, and Christmas carols. By choosing to schedule our services before and after the parade, we provide an opportunity for our church members to “double up” and invite loved ones to a local celebration plus a Christmas Eve gathering with a gospel presentation.

3. Remember the King’s promise

To many believers, the thought of evangelism can make them feel more uncomfortable than a hammer at a Miley Cyrus video shoot. Christ’s command to leave our comfort zone and be his witnesses often leaves us feeling like Peter stepping out of the boat into the waters of the impossible (Matt. 14:26–33).

Don’t get me wrong; I totally get it. The fear is real. It’s just misplaced. We all experience those moments on mission where we seem to be sinking like Peter under the chaos of the storm. But that is only because we have taken our eyes off the one who rules the weather (Mark 4:41).

We will be as bold for Jesus as we are aware that he is with us.

The key to living out the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19) is in the verses that surround it. In verse 18, Jesus reminds us that he is the King and possesses all authority. He may have humbled himself to a manger, but now Christ reigns once again from his throne. Then in verse 20, King Jesus makes a game-changing promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Here lies our courage! Christ’s promise is what fuels his command. We will be as bold for Jesus as we are aware that he is with us. As John Newton once counseled a fearful Christian, “When you cannot see your way, be satisfied that [Christ] is your leader.”

The most important four words you can remember this Christmas season as you step out and give the gift of the gospel are the same four words that Jesus gave to put steel in the backbone of those who loved him: “I am with you.” They are the very words that God has spoken to breathe courage into his people again and again (Josh. 1:9Isa. 41:9Jer. 1:8).

Think about it. If the Author loves you completely and is with you continually, why should you fear the other characters in the story?

Freely we have received. This Christmas, let’s freely give.


Christmas Generosity

How can we reflect God’s generosity toward our family, our church, and our world at Christmas?

As a dad at Christmas time, I want to reflect God the Father’s heart to my family, my church, and the world. And his heart is generous! Very generous. My favorite Christmas verse is “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

God gave. And during the Christmas season, we celebrate the greatest gift ever: Jesus.

Generosity to my family

God the Father gave us something he valued most and we needed most: his beloved Son, Jesus. Christmas is the advent of God entering our world in human form on a rescue mission. During Christmas, I want to mirror God’s gracious heart for his family as I spend time with mine. I want to give my wife and daughters generous gifts. This doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive gifts, but I do want my gifts to be costly. I don’t wish to skimp or be cheap—the Father didn’t and isn’t. I want my family to receive from me the gift they want the most.

During the Christmas season, we celebrate the greatest gift ever: Jesus.

Generosity to my church

As a pastor, I understand how important year-end financial gifts can be to the church. Offerings given during the month of December make up a disproportionate amount of monthly funds during the year. I enjoy doubling my average monthly gift each December, and when possible, I like giving even more than double. Giving to the church is an act of worship. And worshiping Jesus through sacrificial and costly gifts seems to be a fundamental part of the biblical nativity narrative (Matt. 2:1–12). It’s the very best kind of historical re-enactment.

Generosity to the world

While the arrival of Jesus literally did change the world, I realize there isn’t anything I can do at Christmas that would have such far-reaching results. But I enjoy being generous to the point I want others to experience it too. I like to help others feel that same buzz that comes from giving good gifts. So each Christmas season, I set some money aside for spontaneous giving.

During Christmas, I want to mirror God’s gracious heart for his family as I spend time with mine.

Some years this looks like giving cash to the parents of a needy family secretively so they can go big on Christmas Day with their kids. Other years it may look like partnering with solid charitable organizations like Angel Tree or Operation Christmas Child. I have a discretionary amount to give to help people to give who wouldn’t be able to otherwise. In this sense, those who are poor can give generously as if they were rich. And that to me is one of the big ideas about the good news of Christmas: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

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5 ways to love your neighbor during Christmas

The whole Christmas season celebrates God with us. Because God is with us and for us, we are not alone. And neither should our neighbors be, as we have great opportunities during this season to connect with them.

Recently my family and I moved. With moving comes all the obligatory tasks of packing boxes, finding moving trucks, and bribing friends to help you with copious amounts of pizza.

What else comes with moving? A new set of neighbors. People who God knew I was going to live by and who I have been called to know and love.

We can often get lost in the question, Who is my neighbor? Our lives are filled with different places where we connect and relate to other people. These are the places where we shop, work, and live. Jesus taught us that no matter if it’s at work, the gym, the play area at the mall, or right next door, a person in need is your neighbor (Luke 10:25–37).

A joyful season—for some

I grew up in Las Vegas, a city where many people go to spend their Christmas alone. Often it is a place to numb their depression about being alone during a time of year when connecting with family and friends is so important.

The truth is that you don’t have to be in Vegas to find people who are alone during the Christmas season. Many of us have neighbors or co-workers who have a deep sense of dread rather than joy about the Christmas season. Their disdain for Christmas is not rooted in an ideological culture-war, but rather in an emotional pain—they have little to celebrate or few loved ones to celebrate with.

Jesus taught us that no matter if it’s at work, the gym, the mall, or right next door, a person in need is your neighbor.

The Christmas season is amazing. We get to remember and rejoice that Jesus loves us enough that he would not stay far off at a distance, unfamiliar with human life, but rather he became a human to experience all that we experience. He would be a God who is able to empathize with all our struggles and joys (Heb. 4:15).

The whole Christmas season celebrates Jesus as Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Matt. 1:22–23). This changes everything for us. Because God is with us and for us, we are not alone. And neither should our neighbors be, as we have great opportunities during this season to connect with them.

We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Here are some ways we can express Jesus’ love to our neighbors this Christmas season:

1. Love listens

Throughout the Old Testament, God constantly heard the needs and cries of his people. All around us are people with needs during this holiday season, but because we are so busy we often don’t take notice. Take the time to really listen to the needs of your co-workers, friends, and neighbors. Be proactive in finding out if they have somewhere to go. In the midst of all the great Christmas festivities, don’t miss the needs of people around you.

2. Love draws near

When God heard the cries of his people, he didn’t stay removed and wish the world well. Instead he drew near: he came down to earth and took up residence with us. He wasn’t content to just give us distant instruction, but rather close, transforming connection.

Because God is with us and for us, we are not alone. And neither should our neighbors be.

Take a step to draw near to your neighbors this week and include them in your holiday parties, family traditions, and church worship services. This is the time of year where people are usually more open to connecting, conversing, and church. Take advantage of that.

3. Love takes the first step

Here is where it counts. Jesus did not wait for the world to embrace him or roll out the red carpet. Even to this day much of the world stands in opposition to him. Yet Jesus chose to engage and take the first step because he loves first (John 3:16).

Because we are loved by Jesus, we are called to take the first step toward our neighbors. We can’t wait until we just bump into them at the mailbox or while taking out the trash. Let’s go over and knock on their door. For many of us, this could be a life-changing decision. Maybe we have lived next to someone for years and still don’t even know their name. This year, invite them to come over to that ugly sweater Christmas party and drink too much eggnog. Or tell them to come hang out for that inevitable white elephant gift exchange with your community group.

4. Love is inconvenient

Jesus wasn’t in need of more friends or relationships. He had perfect fellowship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Yet Jesus chose to move toward us at great expense. Becoming human, he experienced loss, betrayal, and even death. It is a major understatement to say that Jesus was willing to be inconvenienced to reach us. Jesus’ love motivates us to endure the inconvenience of disrupting our plans to reach out to our neighbors and invite them into community.

5. Love endures

After the Christmas season has passed and the tree is back in the box or out in the dumpster, let’s not put these new relationships away. Rather, we should endure in loving our neighbors and seeking to draw them into community with us and Jesus. This is exactly what Jesus has done with us, showing us patient love that does not give up (1 Cor. 13).

This is the time of year where people are usually more open to connecting, conversing, and church. Take advantage of that.

So yes, go nuts in filling up your schedule with great holiday activities and events. Have a blast in making memories with your family that will last a lifetime. Just look around and see who you can bring along with you. Draw near to those who are alone and don’t forget them during this significant time of year.

Jesus draws near to the broken-hearted and those who feel alone. When you were alone in your sin, Jesus came looking for you so that you would never be alone. Because this is the love that saved us, we can love like this as well.

So reach out. Extend joy to your neighbor and be generous about loving and connecting with others. That is the whole point of Christmas.

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The nitty-gritty how-to guide on fasting

No one fast to rule them all

Once you have your purpose, plan out your fast. People have been fasting for thousands of years in all different ways.

Once you know your purposes for fasting (the ultimate purpose and immediate purposes), consider your health. Consult your doctor, and if it’s time for a checkup, get in there. Fasting can aggravate medical conditions and you don’t want to find that out the hard way. A few reasons you may not be able to fast safely include a myriad of health concerns from anemia to anorexia to heart disease to pregnancy to nursing—there are many legitimate reasons to not fast.

If fasting from food is not a reality for you, pray about what God wants you to do. He knows your limitations and won’t be disappointed. If you are unable to fast, you might consider partaking in another form of spiritual discipline, abstaining from technology, entertainment, music, a hobby—the list is endless, but the important part is your motive! Use the time you would normally spend eating/snowboarding/facebooking/whatever, and spend it with Jesus.

Thousands of years of fasting could teach us something

Dr. Bill Bright has a very thorough article on fasting that presents and expands on many of the ideas in this article.

There isn’t one particular formula for fasting. It’s a personal decision. How you fast, how long you fast, and what you fast from are all individual choices, none of which are as important as your reason for fasting. God doesn’t command everyone to go 40 days without food. Ask him what he would have you do and start slowly. Avoid jumping into an extended fast without building up to it first.

In the Bible, we find several types of fasts. The partial fast is illustrated by Daniel, who abstained from the best foods and chose to eat vegetables and drink water instead. You could opt for similar plan.

An absolute fast means not eating or drinking anything at all. Paul fasted absolutely for three days. Moses did the same for 40 days, but following suit would be so extreme that you should not copy Moses unless you are absolutely sure God has called you to do so. Don’t worry! If God wants you to do something this extreme, he knows how to make it so clear to you that there is no room for uncertainty.

The most common fast involves not eating any sort of food, but drinking plenty of water and juice. Ideally, juice your own fruits and vegetables or drink 100% juice. Beware of caffeine and sugar, as they will have stronger effects without any solid food in your system.

Ultimately, pray, pick the one that seems best, and think about your motives. God won’t be impressed if your fast is more difficult. He’s already fully pleased with you because of Jesus, so fast in whichever way you choose and praise God that you don’t have to earn his favor through misery!

Plan ahead

It’s tempting to have your own personal Mardi Gras, eating every one of your favorite foods just before starting your fast. While culturally popular, this makes fasting more difficult. It’s better to wean yourself off of food slowly. So plan ahead, as this will mean changing your diet during the days leading up to your fast.

Look at your schedule and plan realistically. Fasting during holidays is not only difficult because of all the special foods you will be around; it can also be a huge bummer to those around you. They want to enjoy a feast with you and celebrate—not easy over the sound of your growling stomach or your sad expression. Avoid this. There is a time to fast and a holiday probably isn’t it.

Also consider the point of fasting: spending time with Jesus. If you’re running a million errands in the lead-up to Christmas or a birthday or another special event, you won’t have the time to sit and commune with God in isolation. Remember, the point of fasting isn’t just to be hungry; it’s to take the time you would normally spend eating and use it to focus on God.

Breakfast vs. breaking your fast

When your fast ends, it’s very important to reintroduce food slowly. Avoid the six-course dinner or the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. Your body will have responded and adjusted to life without food fairly quickly. Suddenly shoveling in normal food will not end well. Start simply, with plain vegetables or broth. Take your time and eat small quantities. Just like you led into the fast slowly, come out of it slowly.

Eye on the prize

Fasting isn’t a burden or a requirement for belonging to God. It’s a gift that helps you to know and run alongside your heavenly father. Going without food is a reminder that cuts straight to one of our most basic needs.

If you’ve never fasted before, be courageous, give it a go, and expect great things. Fasting is an act of faith, and faith pleases God.

Fasting during the Living for a Legacy campaign

During the Living for a Legacy campaign, we are asking people to be praying everyday for 40 days. We will conclude the 40 days with five days of fasting, beginning at sundown on January 5, calling the people of Mars Hill Church, including our Extended Family, to abstain from food or use one of the alternative fasts. We will then, as a gathered family at each of our locations, celebrate by breaking our fasts on the evening of Friday, January 10. We would encourage you, if you do not attend a local Mars Hill church, to also have a celebratory meal of thanksgiving and rejoicing.

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6 Ways to Handle Stress this Christmas

With Christmas fast approaching, I’m sure a lot of people (me included) can feel that pull of stress and exhaustion.

It is like sitting at the top of a stress slide, scooting forward inch by inch. We know what is coming, and we might already be worried about how we will land in the bark chips at the bottom. While Christmas may always be busy, here are a few simple things to think about that have helped me control some of the stress.

1. Traditions are tools

Traditions are tools that we use to make culture, to make memories, and to make childhoods. Traditions are not a base that we have to tag or we can’t count the run. Failure to make the gingerbread house does not make your Christmas a sham, for example.

If we were craftsmen, we would not mark our success by how many of our tools we touched. Instead, we’d look at the product. The point of gingerbread houses, cookies, homemade stockings, Christmas pajamas, hot chocolate, presents, shopping, caroling, lights, and every joyful tradition you can think of is joy. If you are failing to get that result, that’s a heart issue that using more tools will not help.

Joy is not something that you can manufacture through traditions—it is something you can shape with traditions.

But the joy itself cannot come from festive moments, new gifts, or tasty treats. The joy can only come from our salvation and our hearts resting in that. After that, joy is expressed in our physical world through our traditions, through what means we have at hand.

If your Christmas is not joyful, get things right with God. The joy of our salvation is the substance of celebrating. Traditions are simply a human response to great joy. Love your traditions because of why we have them, but never love them apart from our deepest joy in Jesus.

2. Know when to not let go

You can reduce stress tremendously by tightening up on the normal things rather than loosening up.

Tighten up your standards on yourself first, and then your children. Do not use the holidays to have a self-indulgent spiritual slump. When you feel rushed, it is easy to give yourself leeway that you shouldn’t.

Baking a lot of cookies is not an excuse to snap at your children. “Needing” to run errands is not an excuse to ignore your small child’s temper tantrum and just buckle them up napless and mad to go peeling off to the mall. Do not get into a cycle of bribing with treats instead of blessing with them. This is a time to follow through. Be clear, be calm, and be consistent. This will not decrease your workload, but it will sweeten it considerably! It is also a great gift to your children, helping them to celebrate such a precious time from a place of security and peace.

3. Size it up or sit it out

If you are finding it impossible to do the things that you think you need to do while maintaining joy in your home, you need to lower the standard. Years ago, we went to a wedding where one of the bridesmaids no longer fit into her dress and wore it down the aisle unzipped in the back. That’s not what you want to be.

Fancy traditions, fun shopping expeditions, huge parties, or insanely perfect gift-buying are all beautiful things to do, but not if you no longer are able to fit them into your family’s life. There comes a time to either size it up or sit it out. Be reasonable about what you can accomplish, and do what you can joyfully.

4. Prepare your children for disappointment

Anticipating opening presents is such a fun thing for kids, that it’s easy to forget that Christmas is full of temptations too. It is a good idea to talk to your kids about what to expect. With our kids, my husband and I talk about envy and thankfulness. We talk about people less fortunate and people more fortunate. We try to have our children be aware that Christmas morning is hugely joyful, and that we all need to discipline our hearts and stay in grateful fellowship.

We have used the illustration of running with our kids: Look in front of you, look at the way you are running, and be thankful. Whenever you start to look at what other people are getting, or what other people are doing, you are likely to run into something, and it will probably be a big envy tree.

This certainly applies to grown-ups too. Do not spend a lot of time or energy examining the motives of celebrations of others. Christmas celebrations are a response to our salvation. Look at your own feet and at your own work. The fact that people out there are just talking about Santa, holidays, and Xmas, and being all greedy and ugly and commercial about it really doesn’t matter. The power of a joyful, thankful, God-honoring celebration is not changed because some people do not know God and are trying to mimic it. Psalm 37:1 sums this up nicely: “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers!”

Do not spend your time getting wound up over the sins of others. Do not tie yourself into knots over unbelieving family members or friends who are doing things wrong. Take responsibility for yourself, and leave their hearts to God.

5. Get your head in the game

With so much happening all the time, it is easy to slip into a pattern of virtual life. When we view our phones and computers as relaxation, we can start turning to them when we feel stressed. Live in your home with your family. Don’t spend all your time looking at other people’s ideas—have some of your own!

Try leaving your phone on the counter all day and skip Facebook. Spend your downtime actually down and not hopping all over the virtual world. You are needed in the real world, so be there.

6. It’s all about Jesus

And lastly, the best way of all to keep from getting grumpy and wound up and stressed out about Christmas is to remember what we are doing in the first place.

We are celebrating that God dwelled among us, that he sent his Son to redeem us. This is not a big burden; this is about the absence of a burden. We are not obligated to party. The excitement, the joy, the laughter, the lights, the food, and the presents: this is all part of the glory of having been forgiven. We are free to do this, and we are free to do this with light hearts. Because, “To us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isa. 9:6).

That child wasn’t just born to be a neat story from a long time ago—he was born so that the world might be born anew in him.

This is not just the birthday of our Savior, but one big collective birthday celebration for all who have been born in him. Don’t let a little anxiety or a big to-do list separate you from the joy of that salvation.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t be stressed because Christmas doesn’t really matter anyways; our stress is simply pointless. Christmas is so much bigger than our little efforts to mark it. It is so far beyond us, that we should take comfort in knowing that our celebrations—our paper plates of cookies, our singing of glorious carols, our joyful gifting to others—can only scratch the surface of a joy that is so big, so vibrant, and so deep that it changed the world.

The love of the Father for his perfect Son is so great that we have been caught up in it. Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, indeed.

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What is and is not fasting

Fasting is an awesome gift. And like all awesome gifts, it can be misconstrued in a way that leaves us bitterly disappointed. Now that we know what fasting is and why we fast, let’s consider what it is not.

God doesn’t owe you

Fasting is not a manipulation tactic or a way to earn points with God. Fasting doesn’t make you more holy or acceptable to God. Christ Jesus alone has made us holy. Instead, by practicing a fast and other spiritual disciplines, we are asking for grace just like we did when we prayed for salvation. We didn’t save ourselves. We received God’s gift to us. So in fasting, we don’t transform ourselves; we receive the grace that transforms us (1 Pet. 1:13–14).

This isn’t to impress your mom

Fasting is not an endurance test and, like anything else, can be done in pride forthe praise of men. Self-righteousness is a signpost on the road to hell. That’s the reason we must clarify our purpose for fasting—to avoid ego-tripping. Jesus warned us not to make our fasting a public service announcement in order to get attention. If you’re tempted to look at your contrite spirituality and get smug about fasting, remember that even the ability to fast is yours by grace alone and without Jesus you couldn’t even do that much.

Not an end in itself

Fasting is not some religious formality to check off the list. Some believers, out of a feeling of duty, will participate in the 40 days of Lent by giving up something easy, but their sacrifice becomes a mere annoyance which they are glad to drop by the time Easter Sunday comes. Without a purpose beyond “It’s Lent,” a religious approach to fasting falls far, far short of the awesomeness God wove into the fabric of fasting.

It doesn’t impress God

Fasting doesn’t force God to be more attentive or give us quicker answers. We don’t tell God, “We’re fasting now. That’s our part; now you do your part” (Isa. 58). No matter what we do, God will perform all his holy will. So fasting isn’t our effort to twist God’s arm. It’s our response of pressing into him like it says in Joel: “rend your hearts and not your garments.” Fasting is one way that we express our surrender and honest petition before God.

Finally, be careful to differentiate between aligning your heart with God (what fasting does) and getting closer to God (what fasting does not). Jesus alone brings you, spotless, into God’s presence. If you belong to Jesus, fasting basically makes you more aware of where you already are.

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Why do we fast?

The purpose of fasting is ultimately God himself. There are many reasons to undertake a fast, but the bottom line for them all is to align your heart directly with him. Think of that as the big picture. The small picture, the immediate purpose for a fast, can vary. So the first step for any kind of fast is to declare our immediate purpose. Fasting can’t be done casually, because there isn’t any spiritual benefit in simply not eating. Going through the motions just makes us hungry, but genuine, purposeful fasting is a powerful discipline for the disciple of Jesus and can play a part in literally transforming your life.

To help us define a godly purpose for fasting, Donald Whitney gives us these 10 reasons:

  1. To strengthen prayer
  2. To seek God’s guidance
  3. To express grief
  4. To seek deliverance or protection
  5. To express repentance and return to God
  6. To humble oneself before God
  7. To express concern for the work of God
  8. To minister to the needs of others
  9. To overcome temptation and dedicate yourself to God
  10. To express love and worship to God

Throughout the Bible, we see people fast for a variety of reasons:

  1. To be like Jesus (Matt. 4:1–17Luke 4:1–13)
  2. To obtain spiritual purity (Isa. 58:5–7)
  3. To repent from sins (See Jon. 3:8Neh. 1:49:1–31 Sam. 14:24)
  4. To influence God (2 Sam. 12:16–23)
  5. To mourn for the dead (1 Sam. 31:132 Sam. 1:12)
  6. To request God’s help in times of crisis and calamity (Ezra 8:21–23Neh. 1:4–11)
  7. To strengthen prayer (Matt. 17:21Mark 9:17–29Acts 10:301 Cor. 7:5)

None of these purposes amounts to twisting God’s arm to do what we want. Who can do that? God is not a genie who will grant us whatever we wish. He is a good father who is working out his sovereign will. Our reasons for fasting are for our own humility. By denying ourselves for a time, we provoke ourselves to rely more on God Almighty. It isn’t about changing God; it’s about changing us. In fasting:

  1. We pray more intently
  2. We become more receptive to God’s guidance
  3. We lean more on Scripture to hear his voice
  4. We demonstrate our grief and honest repentance
  5. We physically declare that we need God to survive
  6. We learn to sense spiritual reality more than the physical world
  7. We prepare to love others better than ourselves

Lastly, fasting helps us to remember the true source of our utmost joy. Most people would agree that food is a good thing. If you’re unable to fast but chose to abstain from something else, such as a hobby or technology or entertainment, those can also be good things. All good things come from God, but the human heart is inclined to worship God’s gifts rather than God himself. Fasting helps our hearts to look past the good gift to the good God, who blesses us despite ourselves.

I don’t really feel like it

Even if fasting makes sense, you may not feel like you need it right now. But think of fasting as similar to praise and worship. Oftentimes joy overflows in songs of praise, but more often singing leads us into joy. We sing first and that brings us to a place of thankfulness and joy. Likewise, when our souls overflow with godly emotions and repentance, we may be led to fasting, but far more often we need to choose to fast in order to be humbled and to fight our pride by rejecting the ways we so often cope with our feelings. It’s the proactive approach.

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What is fasting?

What is fasting and what is the purpose? This is the first of a four-part series committed to answering those questions.

Hunger for God

Dr. Carl Lundquist, former president of Bethel College and Seminary, would fast once a week. In a letter, he writes, “I spend my lunch break in fellowship with God and in prayer. And I have learned a very personal dimension to what Jesus declared, ‘I have had meat to eat ye know not of.’”

Fasting is a spiritual discipline. Simply put, it means not eating. Instead of using mealtime for food, you use it to spend time with God. Some fasts last for one meal, one day, multiple days, or even weeks. Fasting may begin at sunrise and end at sunset or extend 24 hours per day. There are many ways and reasons to fast, but the basic idea is to set aside the time you would usually spend eating and focus that time on God instead, praying, reading the Bible, and worshiping.

When you’re fasting, you’re likely to feel hunger pangs. Allow those to serve as reminders that you are hungry to know Jesus and that you rely on him for every need. When you pray, ask the Holy Spirit to deepen your understanding and experience of Jesus in everyday life. You might pray something like, “Father, you are my daily bread. You are my comforter, my redeemer, my provider. My life is hidden in Christ. What more do I need?” Christians often focus their mind on one particular idea during a fast, such as the crucifixion during Easter. During this holiday season, as you pray and fast, you may choose to meditate on the humility of Christ’s birth.

What about my medium extra-hot half-caf sugar-free hazelnut americano with room?

A normal biblical fast is to avoid food, but not water. However, you have a great deal of freedom as you fast. Some people avoid everything but water. Others focus solely on not eating and instead drink whatever they want.

Whatever your plan, make sure to consult with your doctor to ensure you are medically fit enough for a fast, and get tips from your doctor on how to fast safely. There are a number of reasons a traditional fast may not be a viable option for you. These reasons range from stage of life to pregnancy to medical conditions to eating disorders and everything in between. Most people are capable of fasting without compromising their health, but if that’s not the case for you, don’t be discouraged! You can fast in other ways. One option is to eat less than normal rather than not at all. You could fast from coffee or give up the foods you enjoy most, eating only simple, plain foods. This type of fasting is commonly called a “Daniel Fast,” referring to the story of Daniel in the Old Testament when he and his friends abstained from eating meat and consumed only vegetables and water (see Daniel 1:12).

While the majority of people are able to fast from food, if you are unable to fast from food, you could consider abstaining from certain activities instead. Though this is technically not a biblical fast, people have abstained from television, Facebook, music, golf—all sorts of things. The idea is to use the time you would normally spend on the activities you love to focus on the Lord instead, praying, reading the Bible, and worshiping God.

But why is the food gone?

Okay, so you’re told you should fast, that it’s a good spiritual discipline, and that it doesn’t necessarily require food. But fasting does emphasize food and it’s preferable if you are physically able to abstain from eating. Why?

There is a mystery to fasting and part of the reason we do it as Christians is simply because God wants us to. Jesus expects his disciples to fast (Matt. 6:16) and obeying God, even when it seems weird, is always a good idea.

The physical implication of fasting is that it directly impacts one of our most basic needs as humans. God has built us into a physical world with physical needs, and the physical world directly impacts the spiritual. By staying away from food and focusing our attention on God, we shut our bodies up, strengthen our soul in God, and put into action our dependence on him. He provides us with life. Food is the way he chooses to do so, but he is the source and can very well sustain us without food, water, or any of the physical necessities of life.

We do not discount the value of the body or consider the physical world bad. Fasting serves many purposes, one of which is to remind our minds, spirits, and bodies who and what we worship: God himself.

One fast, many fasters

You can fast with other believers as well. If it will help you overcome any fear you might have of fasting, ask another believer to join you. Biblically, there are instances of corporate fasting where entire nations fasted together (Esther 4; Ezra 8). So feel free to fast together and pray for one another. Our church-wide fast will lend itself to this opportunity, because there’s a good chance the people around you will be fasting at the same time.

Find out what fasting should look like for you. Be in prayer about it now as we move forward into the 40 days of prayer. Then join us in our church-wide fast to dedicate this time to the Lord as we ask him in prayer for big things at Mars Hill Church in 2014. Even if you feel intimidated to try, let us all agree together as a church to fast for at least one day, in some fashion, if not the full five days.

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How to Live in a Secular World

How should Christians relate to a secular society that does not know Jesus? Paul’s letter to Titus sheds light on this scenario, showing us how God’s grace should motivate Christians to be good citizens and neighbors.

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. Titus 3:1–8

Christians are a minority in our secular culture, which largely doesn’t honor Jesus. That’s not going to change, but there’s an ongoing debate among Christians about how we approach a secular culture that doesn’t agree with us about Jesus.

As we think about our relationship with our society, it’s important to remember we too were once far from God, but he saved us through his grace. It’s with this grace in mind that Paul teaches us, through his letter to Titus, how we should respond to a secular society.\

 

Grace results in good citizens

The first way Christians should engage a secular culture is the same way we always have. We’re to be good citizens, obey the law, submit to authority, and not cause rebellion, strife, or insurrection. We are to be obedient to the law except for when it would require us to disobey Jesus. Christians need to live under the law of the land—it’s one of the ways we manifest our faith in meekness through Jesus Christ.

Remember we too were once far from God, but he saved us through his grace.

 

Grace results in good works

Christians should care about the people living around us in our city, and we should be active in working toward the common good. We have a responsibility according to this text that goes beyond the walls of the church. Yes, our priority should be the people in the church, but we are also responsible for the well-being of our neighbors and our city.

 

Grace results in good words

Christians shouldn’t speak evil of anyone. We may disagree with someone, but we can still respect them. This is one of the ways we reflect the goodness of God. It’s not that we don’t call out false doctrine, but we do it in a respectful and loving way.

Christians should care about the people living around us in our city.

We have more opportunity than anyone in the history of the world to use our words negatively on the Internet. Words are critically important. When Jesus’ disciples were criticized for not ceremonially washing their hands, Jesus emphasized that it’s not what goes into our mouth that makes us unclean—it’s what comes out of our heart. If the gospel, through the power of the Holy Spirit, washes us from sin and gives us a new identity, then good words can flow out of a good heart.

 

Grace results in good manners

Christians should be courteous to all people. Good manners are very important, because the basic posture of a Christian is that we see others as more important than us. That means we treat them with respect, dignity, and honor.

Christians shouldn’t speak evil of anyone. We may disagree with someone, but we can still respect them.

Jesus was strong and bold, but he was also deferential, gentle, meek, and mild. That’s the way Jesus loves and cares for us, and we want people to see Jesus.

In the United States, many Christians act as if something has been stolen from them, and they approach non-Christian culture in a very combative and antagonistic way. To make an impact on our culture and see people meet Jesus, we must be good citizens, do good works, speak good words, and display good manners. If we’re going to be filled with the Holy Spirit and live in a culture where the rhetoric is toxic, we need to be an exemplary in our actions. Otherwise, people will never see Jesus in us.

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Internet Hate & the Gospel

The living God is grieved when our attacks and slander bring disunity to the body of Christ. There is a better way to spend our time than arguing with other Christians over the Internet.

“Defend the Bible? I would as soon defend a lion! Unchain it and it will defend itself.” –C.H. Spurgeon

As a young pastor of a growing church, I am in the most demanding season of my life. We are setting up and tearing down in a community college gym every week. We have outgrown our kids space and are trying to raise $750,000 to renovate a new location. I have been working long, hard hours as our church toils to see the gospel proclaimed, sinners saved, and Jesus made great. And to top it all off, our church has recently been experiencing gossip and attacks over social media by fellow Christians who have never been through the doors of our church.

I have found myself increasingly disappointed and dismayed for those who fill their hours engaging in rock-throwing like this while displaying no interest in resolving their disagreements face-to-face. Have you ever experienced this in your ministry? Have you ever been guilty of this?

I used to be divisive and foolish like this. Early in my walk with the Lord, I was one to proclaim judgment over ministries that didn’t preach my version of Christianity, and I was even verbally unsupportive of leadership in a church I attended. But this is not what God wants for us.

Our speech should reek of grace and be seasoned with salt.

 

Being right vs. being godly

The living God is grieved when our attacks and slander bring disunity to the body of Christ. There is a better way to spend our time than arguing with other Christians over the Internet. King David declares in Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” The reverse is true as well: How bad and unpleasant it is when brothers have disunity!

 

You might be missing something

Consider this: Your current theological position may not be the one you die holding. Look back at your walk with the Lord. Are there positions you once held that you no longer believe to be the truth? Maybe you have not yet arrived at your final destination, and the Lord may be continuing to shape and mold you. Be careful in making it seem that if someone holds a different position on a secondary issue then they are outside of the faith.

God is grieved when our attacks and slander bring disunity to the body of Christ.

Rather than contending for disunity over secondary topics, you could begin to contend for unity on the essentials of our faith—the things that are of “first importance…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). Your time and energy would be better spent contending for the proclamation of the gospel or encouraging brothers and sisters to make much of Jesus.

 

Your witness is more important

Christian, you are being watched. The outside world sees how you engage with, disagree with, and relate to your brothers and sisters within the church and with those outside the church. Paul gives us good counsel: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:5–6).

Our speech should reek of grace and be seasoned with salt. When discussing secondary issues with other Christians, go out of your way to show respect and love for others. If you find that you cannot do that, please do not hit Enter and post your comment.

Your current theological position may not be the one you die holding.

Let the Scriptures speak for themselves: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:12–13).

As I mentioned, I have been guilty of rock-throwing and criticizing from a distance. Gossip like this is something all of us can slip into, even if only in private conversation. It’s a lesson we all need to learn and an area where many of us need to repent. As you read this, I pray that you would ask God to show you where he is calling you to repent and grow in maturity to represent Jesus well to all.

We are not God’s protectors. He is sovereign, and he is far more concerned with his glory and his name being made great than we are.

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Why Christians Go Postal

Originally posted on The Resurgence by Mark Driscoll – July 12, 2010

It was only last week that the Washington Post asked for my opinion on the New Jersey pastor calling for Christians to stop using Facebook. Had I known what would erupt this week, I might have agreed with him.

The big idea of my Post blog was that Facebook doesn’t cause adultery, people do. Calling for a boycott of Facebook is not the answer because the issue is the heart. Even if someone doesn’t commit adultery because of Facebook, if that sin remains in their heart, they will find another way to act upon it. Sadly, after the story broke, it was revealed that the pastor protesting against Facebook was, in fact, guilty of prior adultery, along with his wife. Of course, their adultery had nothing to do with Facebook, according to the news reports. So, while I pray for the couple to get beyond whatever may be troubling their marriage by God’s grace, it simply confirmed my big idea that sinners are ultimately responsible for sin.

Facebook, like many technologies and cultural phenomena, is an opportunity for my heart and the hearts of others you and I interact with to be revealed and transformed. Funny that this week, a simple comment I made appreciating the talent of Jay-Z generated hundreds and hundreds of comments across multiple threads on my Facebook page. Compare that to nineteen comments on my post regarding a news article about the Christian who is being raped, beaten, and tortured for his faith and needs some people to push for his freedom.

The backstory is this. While flipping through TV channels recently, I noticed an enormous concert by Jay-Z. The event was simply epic. Madison Square Garden was packed and people were raising their hands and singing along with religious zeal. By no means a hip-hop expert, but someone who did grow up listening to the earliest days of rap as a non-Christian, I have been aware of his influence for some time. He has sold fifty million albums, garnered ten Grammys, and was honored as one of the Ten Most Successful Artists of the previous decade by Billboard Magazine. He’s also helped to launch the careers or at least influence the music of Beyoncé, Eminem, Rihanna, Kanye West, Notorious B.I.G., Timbaland, Linkin Park, and Dr. Dre, among others. Some of these friends joined him on stage for the portion of the concert I watched, which was quite a performance.

Back to Facebook, where I posted that despite using bowling words, Jay-Z is a genius. I was very surprised to see how heated the ensuing debate became. Scanning the comments, it became clear that there was a polarization between two camps of thought about how Christians should engage culture. One side citedPhilippians 4:8 and 1 Peter 1:13ff and advocated that Christians should not listen to music like Jay-Z. The other side cited 1 Corinthians 9, Romans 14, and John 17:15and advocated that Christians have freedom in Christ and should be in the world but not of the world. All in all, it was a predictably ugly display of Internet flame-throwing where it gets personal fast and people say things digitally they would never say in a face-to-face conversation. Still, I’d like to address the issue of how Christians should engage culture—mostly for those caught in the crossfire of the two extremes.

This blog is not intended to defend everything I’ve ever said and done, as, like all sinners, there are things in retrospect I would say and do differently. This blog is also not intended to defend or impugn Jay-Z. He’s a gifted producer and musician, some of his lyrics are vulgar, and though it will likely never happen, if I ever got to chat with him I would be curious to hear what he thinks about Jesus.

Are You a Missionary?

What I’ve found over the years is that whenever I speak about something culturally related from a Christian perspective, a debate rages. This has been the case since the earliest days of my ministry. This is because I consider myself a missionary in culture. When we started our church we did so in what was among the least churched cities in the nation, seeking to reach the least churched demographic—young, educated, single, urban men. The truth is, these kinds of young men are generally missing from the American church. One thing these men of all races are doing is listening to rap music.

So, as a missionary, I find it a good thing to be aware of what is going on in culture in general as well as in music in particular. Though not a musician myself, I have some five thousand songs on my iTunes account from a wide range of genres and styles. Music is among the most defining and revealing aspects of any culture, and so in addition to enjoying some music, I study lots of music. This endeavor is helped, in part, by a communications degree from one of the top programs in the nation, where I spent a few years analyzing advertising, marketing, political speeches, film, music, and the like.

Here’s the big idea: it’s not about music, it’s about missions.

The God of the Bible is a sender by nature. He is a missionary God who has sent his people into the world since Abraham. In the Old Testament he sent prophets like Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Jonahover cross-cultural boundaries. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to live as a man, in a particular time and place, with a particular people as a missionary in a sinful culture. The Father also sends the Holy Spirit to Christians so that we, like Jesus, might also live as missionaries in culture. The gospel that portrays this most clearly is John, where Jesus says roughly forty times, “The Father has sent me,” and then says in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

As a missionary, I do not view culture passively, merely as entertainment. Rather, I engage it actively as a sermon that is preaching a worldview. I teach my children to do the same. Their computer is fully visible in the middle of our kitchen and dining area, with protective software to help ensure they are not prematurely exposed to content they cannot handle, dangerous people, and also such things as pornography. The television used by our five children is also mounted for all to see in the most visible section of our home to help ensure we actively oversee our children’s cultural intake. That television also has a password that my wife or I must enter if anything is to be recorded or watched beyond a certain age-appropriate rating.

We also watch shows with our children. Those shows are recorded on a TiVo so that we can stop and have discussions during them, helping our kids understand the ideology that is being presented and how to think about it critically. We want our kids to be innocent but not naïve. Naïve Christians are the most vulnerable to engaging culture ignorantly and unpreparedly. If a Christian kid does not know how to walk as a Christian in culture, it’s no surprise that once he or she leaves their parents’ home after graduation, they are statistically likely to fail continue walking with Jesus.

The attitude we have for our children is the same we have for our church. This is why we have a pastor leading film and theology discussions. This is why we have a large contingency of Christians who are in the music business but do not wave the flag of Christian music. Rather, their theology informs their songwriting and artistry. Like our children, our goal is not to create a safe Christian subculture as much as to train missionaries to live in culture like Jesus. This helps explain why we baptized, by God’s grace, almost a thousand new converts last year alone—people who simply would not have connected with a typical Christian church existing in a cultural cul-de-sac.

Syncretism vs. Sectarianism

Regarding missiology, the question is, how are Christians to be missionaries in their cultures? Historically, and biblically, there are two erroneous extremes that Christians swing between: syncretism or sectarianism.

Syncretists go too far into culture, abandoning or diluting the gospel in the name of relevance. Liberals in the early twentieth century did this by pandering to the high culture of academic modernity and abandoning belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, the supernatural, and the divine nature of Christ. The shells of mainline churches are their legacy. Most recently, the Emergent Church did much of the same as they chased after the postmodern mood of our culture by questioning the virgin birth of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, and God’s design for heterosexual marriage.

Sectarians are better known as fundamentalists who impose man-made rules on people in the name of achieving holiness by avoiding sinners and hiding out in a “Christian” culture. They are prone to seeing others sin more easily than their own sins of hypocrisy and religious pride, while arguing about morality when they should be explaining how to be redeemed. Whereas syncretists go too far, sectarians don’t go far enough. Neither follows the entire example of Jesus, though both would disagree passionately.

The general concern of sectarians is that to be in culture is to be in sin. All Christians are commanded by God to avoid universal sins—offenses the Bible condemns for all people in all cultures—as well as particular sins, or offenses that are sinful for some people under some circumstances but not for all people under all circumstances. Christians are to do so without unfairly condemning or restricting the freedoms of fellow Christians who involve themselves differently in controversial cultural matters. For example, I personally disdain cigarettes, but I cannot forbid everyone in my church from smoking, because the Bible does not. This is, in part, what Paul means throughout the New Testament when he speaks of weak and strong Christians. In truth, every Christian is both weak and strong. We all have some areas in which we need to restrict our freedoms because of our weaknesses, while we are able to use our Christian liberty in areas in which we are strong.

Unity, Not Uniformity

I recognize that Christians will have different personal convictions in matters of culture and I welcome those differences that are not sinful, because what pleases God is unity, not uniformity. Uniformity undermines mission and often is promoted by erroneous restrictive and permissive theologies. Restrictive Christians go too far and name everything a universal sin, forbidding some cultural activities that the Bible does not, such as listening to certain musical styles, getting tattoos, watching movies, smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol moderately, enjoying some sexual pleasures within marriage, and body piercing. Conversely, permissive Christians tend to name everything a particular sin and bless activities that the Bible forbids, such as drug use, fornication, homosexuality, and cohabitation before marriage.

I’m not advocating either a permissive or a restrictive approach to debatable cultural issues. Rather, I am encouraging Christians to involve themselves in culture not merely for the purpose of entertainment but primarily for the purpose of education. As a missionary, you will need to watch television shows and movies, listen to music, read books, peruse magazines, attend events, join organizations, surf websites, and befriend people that you might not like to better understand people whom Jesus loves. For example, I often read magazines intended for teenage girls, not because I need to take tests to discover if I am compatible with my boyfriend or because I need leg-waxing tips, but because I want to see young women meet Jesus, so I want to understand them and their culture better.

Garbage In, Garbage Out?

Sadly, a theology of “garbage in, garbage out” remains quite popular but has numerous flaws. First, there is no such thing as a pure culture untainted by sin and sinners, including Christian entertainment, which has had its share of scandalous behavior. One such example is the fact that as I’m writing this blog, the leader of a major Christian television network has publically confessed to adultery. Second, it is uncertain what distinguishes clean “Christian” and unclean “secular” entertainment forms and why Bibleman is so much better than Spiderman.

Engaging culture requires discernment by God’s people to filter all of the cultures they encounter, Christian and non-Christian, through a biblical and theological grid in order to cling to that which is good and reject that which is evil. As we engage culture (watching films and television, listening to music, reading books, shopping at stores, and so on), we must do so as theologians and missionaries filled with wisdom and discernment, seeking to better grasp life in our culture. We do this so we can begin the transforming work of the gospel in our culture by contextualizing the good news of Jesus. Not compromising. Not changing. Contextualizing. Practically, this means doing what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22–23, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” The truth is that every ministry is contextualized, the only difference is to which culture and which year of that culture. Everything from pews to chairs, sound systems, projectors, suits, and a printed Bible in the English language are very recent missiogical contextualizations in light of the two thousand years of Christianity.

For those who are familiar with my ministry, this all may seem very confusing in light of comments I have made on other cultural issues. For those who have raised objections and questions in a gracious manner, with all sincerity I want to say thank you! They help me learn how to articulate more effectively my deeply held biblical convictions about Christ, Christians, church, and culture. They help me learn and grow, which I appreciate and need. 

One helpful taxonomy I have used for years to help teach on missiology is as follows:

·     Receive – There are things in culture that are part of God’s common grace to all people that a Christian can simply receive. This is why, for example, I am typing on a Mac and am going to post this blog on the Internet without searching for an expressly Christian computer or communication format.

·     Reject – There are things in culture that are sinful and not beneficial. One example is pornography, which has no redeeming value and must be rejected by a Christian.

·     Redeem – There are things in culture that are not bad in and of themselves, but can be used in a sinful manner and therefore need to be redeemed by God’s people. An example that has resulted in a great deal of media attention is sexual pleasure. God made our bodies for, among other purposes, sexual pleasure. And, although many have sinned sexually, as Christians we should redeem this great gift and all its joys in the context of marriage.

As you can see, each issue requires discernment. Liberal syncretists tend to receive too much. Fundamental separatists tend to reject too much. So, while I would reject yoga because it is a Hindu worship act, it is possible for the Christian to redeem some of the exercise principles, as my friend, Rose, extols. Likewise, it’s not a sin to watch a film such as Avatar, enjoy the technological mastery, and learn about how to tell a great story. But, it is imperative for a Christian to not embrace the blatant pagan worldview that does not distinguish between Creator and creation, upon which the entire storyline of the film is constructed.

That said, is it possible to appreciate the musical and entrepreneurial talent of Jay-Z without praising his character or beliefs? Yes. Is it possible to watch and listen to Jay-Z to learn about culture, what people are valuing, and why some men have much larger audiences than any preacher because of how they present their message? Yes. Should Christians agree with the every message he and other artists present? No. Should Christians who like rap check out guys I have enjoyed getting to know a bit, such as Lecrae? Yes. Should all Christians listen to Jay-Z? No. Should Jay-Z sit down and talk to me about Jesus? Yes. Jay-Z, whenever works for you is good for me, and if need be I’d even watch a Nets game.

For further reading, I have addressed this topic at length in my book Radical Reformission(2004), in numerous sermons since, and last week a Mars Hill pastor wrote a blog about how we engage culture .

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Multiply – Week 03 – Coaching

The Heart of a Disciple Maker

Why do you want to make disciples?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? The answer is incredibly important.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we should be focused on making disciples. But if we don’t do it with the right motives, we are wasting our time. Worse yet, we could be doing more harm than good. Ministering to other people has been a deadly trap for seemingly godly people throughout the ages. If God cared only about outward appearances and religious activities, then any effort toward ministry would please Him. But God tells us repeatedly that He cares more about the heart than the externals.

If God cared only about religious activities, then the Pharisees would have been heroes of the faith. They were continuously engaged in ministry: they vigorously pursued outward demonstrations of godliness; they made sure the people around them kept themselves holy, and they diligently taught the law of God. And yet the Gospels present the Pharisees as villains. Jesus’s harshest words were reserved for these religious overachievers:

 

This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. (Matt. 15:8–9)

 

The Pharisees devoted their whole lives to religious activity. They must have seemed so impressive to the people around them. Yet Jesus came along and declared that it was all in vain! An important theme that runs throughout Scripture is this: “The LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart“ (1 Sam. 16:7). Clearly, God wants us to pursue certain actions, but as we put God’s commands into action, our motivation makes all the difference.

Q1 | Take a moment to examine your heart. In all honesty, why do you want to make disciples? Do you struggle with wanting your actions to be noticed by others?

 

Teaching Is Dangerous

Ask yourself again: Why do you want to make disciples?

Maybe your decision to be a disciple maker has been reluctant. Perhaps the only reason you are still working through this material is because Jesus commands you to make disciples, and you don’t want to be disobedient. You’re not sure if you have much to offer, but you know you should let God use you however He desires.

Or maybe you’ve always seen yourself as a leader. You have a message that the church needs to hear, and you’re ready to teach anyone who will listen. You don’t need motivation; you just want to be better equipped.

For those of you who are reluctant, remember that God wants you to minister out of joy, not mere obligation. God wants us to enjoy the privilege and pleasure of ministering to others. He wants us to be cheerful when we give (2 Cor. 9:7), and He wants us to lead others willingly and eagerly:

 

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly. (1 Pet. 5:2)

 

For those who are eager to lead, remember that God wants us to be cautious as we lead. Remember that you will be teaching people about the Bible and guiding them into godly living. The Bible takes the role of a teacher very seriously, and so should we.

James gave us a terrifying warning about the power of the tongue. While we can speak truth and bring life to people, he warned that our words can also cause incredible damage. The tongue is untamable, James said, capable of diverting the direction of our lives, producing deadly poison, and “setting on fire the entire course of life“ (James 3:6). Indeed, James even accused the tongue of being set on fire by hell!

If you look at your heart and find even a trace of desire for the glory and prestige that come through teaching and leading other people, take some time to let James’s warning sink in. Think about what your tongue is capable of. As a disciple maker, you could make a huge impact for the kingdom of God. Or you could lead people horribly astray.

Q2 | Read James 3:1–12 and meditate on James’s warning. How do these powerful words affect you? How might you need to adjust your approach to making disciples?

 

Love Comes First

Paul added a challenge from a different angle. In the most beautiful terms, he said that gaining knowledge and power—even sacrificing our own bodies—is completely worthless apart from love:

 

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1–3)

 

The result of loveless ministry is serious: “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal … I am nothing … I gain nothing.“ In other words, even the most impressive and sacrificial actions are worthless if they are not empowered by love.

Are you the type of person who would teach someone without loving them? Don’t be quick to answer. Many good pastors have confessed that they got so caught up in the busyness of ministry that they went through the motions without loving their people. Most of us have to work hard to keep love at the forefront.

What do you think and feel when you are in a group of people? Are you overly aware of the ones who are wealthy, attractive, or have something they can offer you? Do you worry about what people think of you? Or do you look for ways to love and opportunities to give? A sure sign of a loveless heart is seeing people as a means to your own ends—they listen to you, give you affirmation when you want it, stay out of your way when you don’t, etc. Teaching other people with this type of mentality is bound to be sterile and unfruitful. According to Paul, every time we try to teach someone with this mentality, we can be sure that we have become nothing more than a clanging gong or resounding cymbal; we have made ourselves both annoying and irrelevant.

Fulfilling Jesus’s command to make disciples is about more than having the right theology or well-developed teaching points. Remember that if you “understand all mysteries and all knowledge“ yet don’t have love, you are nothing. Earlier in the same letter, Paul said, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God“ (1 Cor. 8:2–3). It’s not about what you know—or what you think you know—it’s about love.

If you’re not willing to make loving God and loving people your highest priority, then stop. Seriously, walk away until you’ve settled this one essential point. Lack of love is the unmistakable mark of death: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death“ (1 John 3:14).

Making disciples isn’t about gathering pupils to listen to your teaching. The real focus is not on teaching people at all—the focus is on loving them. Jesus’s call to make disciples includes teaching people to be obedient followers of Jesus, but the teaching isn’t the end goal. Ultimately, it’s all about being faithful to God’s call to love the people around you. It’s about loving those people enough to help them see their need to love and obey God. It’s about bringing them to the Savior and allowing Him to set them free from the power of sin and death and transform them into loving followers of Jesus Christ. It’s about glorifying God by obediently making disciples who will teach others to love and obey God.

So the question is, how much do you care about the people around you? When you stand in a crowd, interact with your family, or talk to people in your church, do you love them and long to see them glorify God in every aspect of their lives? Honestly assessing your heart and asking God to purify your motives need to become habits in your life.

Q3 | Up to this point, would you say that your desire to make disciples has been motivated by love? Why or why not?

Take some time to consider your existing relationships—family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, etc. The way you think about and interact with the people that God has placed in your life can tell you a lot about your heart. Think about your relationships and ask yourself how well you love those around you. By assessing your current relationships, you should be able to identify areas you need to work on.

Q4 | Describe your love for the people God has placed in your life. What evidence can you point to that shows that you love the people around you?

Q5 | In addition to praying fervently, what practical steps can you take to increase your love for people?

 

Teaching by Example

One of the worst things you can do is teach truths that you are not applying. We call this hypocrisy, and it’s the most common criticism of Christians in America. You could argue that it may be better not to teach at all than to teach truth without applying it to your own life. Jesus gave some harsh warnings toward the religious leaders who were doing that very thing. He said:

 

Do and observe whatever they [the scribes and Pharisees] tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. (Matt. 23:3–5)

 

Hypocrisy has damaged many, so let’s run far from it.

James also gave a strong warning against this type of thinking. He said that if we hear the Word of God, but don’t do what it says, we are merely deceiving ourselves (James 1:22–25). He went on to say that religion without practical action is worthless (vv. 26–27). Let’s be realistic: a self-deceived teacher who practices worthless religion is probably not the best candidate for a disciple maker.

Maybe the clearest explanation of teaching by example can be found in the book of Hebrews: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith“ (Heb. 13:7). The author of Hebrews actually called us to consider—literally, “to examine carefully“—the outcome of a teacher’s lifestyle. We can get so caught up in examining a person’s doctrinal positions that we overlook his or her pattern of life. But this is essential because Hebrews calls us to imitate the faith of these people. If you are going to make disciples, you need to be putting your faith into practice so that the people around you can imitate your faith.

Because of this, being a disciple maker demands your entire life. The job description of a disciple maker is the same as that of a disciple of Jesus Christ. It requires everything. It means following Jesus in every aspect of your life, pursuing Him with a wholehearted devotion. If you’re not ready to lay down your life for Christ’s sake, then you’re not ready to make disciples. It’s that simple.

This doesn’t mean that you need to be perfect before you start. Perfection is a lifelong process that won’t end until eternity (see Phil. 1:6 and 3:12–14). But it does mean that you need to “count the cost“ (see Luke 14:25–33) and allow God’s truth to change your life. Making disciples is all about seeing people transformed by the power of God’s Word. If you want to see that happen in others, you need to be experiencing such transformation yourself.

Q6 | Would you say that your life is being transformed by the truth of God’s Word? Why or why not?

Q7 | What changes do you need to make in order to live the truths that you will be teaching other people?

Q8 | The things you’ve been thinking through in this session are not easy to address—there are no “quick fixes“ here. End your time with this session by praying that God will give you the proper motivation to make disciples, increase your love for Him and the people around you, and empower you to live out the truths that He has called you to teach to others.


4 Dangerous Postures of Christian Living

This video was shown during week number 3 of our series Multiply. We are praying that it speaks to you the way that it was used during the sermon that Sunday morning.

More teens are leaving the church now than ever before. Ever wonder why? Skye Jethani makes it simple and clear in this video. He goes beyond pointing out the flaws.. he offers up an answer as well.


Lessons in Fatherhood 3

A few weeks ago I experienced something remarkable. In fact, the event stunned me. It occurred on a rainy, yet warm, Saturday afternoon in the beginning of October. It was one of those days when most parents keep their children inside, but I think some of the best times as a kid are spent running around outside in the rain. Besides, my kids have a lot of energy and are bouncing off the walls if forced to stay inside all day. During a break in the rain, my son and daughter walked with me to the pharmacy to pick some medication. They sought out and stomped in all the best puddles along the way. Upon leaving the pharmacy, they asked if we could take a longer walk so they could find more puddles around town. I agreed.

We found some very large puddles by Veterans Park in Youngstown, NY. The kids joyfully ran from puddle to puddle, equally excited about the experience of stomping in each new puddle. I stood and watched. It didn’t take long for another downpour to begin. This merely added to the fun, causing their joy to swell. I stood in the rain while the kids continued to play. This scene is actually not unique in our household. We often go for walks when there are puddles or run around in the rain or play in the snow or seek out snow banks to climb on. Sometimes I participate in the fun, and sometimes I stand watching. At times I enjoy these excursions, and other times they are exercises in self-sacrificial love. In this specific instance, I didn’t mind getting wet because I found joy in the joy of my children.

This experience of mutual joy is also not unique. My kids are excitable, and their joy is often noticeable. Sometimes they say, “this is the best day ever” or my favorite, “you are the best dad ever.” I fully appreciate those moments. Too often, however, my kids complain or seem entitled. They demand that I do more for them even after extended periods of daddy fun. It seems that I cannot appease their four and six-year-old selves. This is especially true of our four-year-old son. My wife and I have had many conversations about this issue. Are we spoiling them? Should we spend more one-on-one time with them? Is this age-appropriate behavior? Is this a personality trait? These are the questions that parents ask when their understanding is limited by their humanity. Yet on this day, amid the excitement of stomping in the biggest puddle, my son stopped, looked towards me, and, with a huge smile on his face, shouted, “Thanks for bringing us here Dad.” It was a simple statement, less exaggerated than some of the others they make, and I was stunned. It was the first time he had thanked me without prompting, and I found it surprisingly meaningful.

I love my children when they are both grateful and ungrateful, but I am far more pleased with their attitudes of gratitude than with their complaints and selfish demands. If I am pleased with my children’s moments of joy and gratitude how much more does God delight in our joy and thankfulness? Yet I admit that my children’s ungratefulness often mirrors my attitude towards my heavenly Father. I can easily find something to complain about: my back hurts, my kids are ungrateful, something is not going well at work, my spouse is imperfect, etc. The list of potential complaints can go on and on. And yet my attitude is contingent on the same basic issue that determines how my children respond to me. Am I considering all that my Father has done, does, and will do for me?

An attitude of thankfulness is central to a Christian’s faith, and it provides us with a proper perspective as we negotiate life’s challenges. Just as my children should be thankful for the fun, comfort, and stability that I provide, I should be thankful for the many blessings in my life. I am aware that many of these blessings are temporary. My happy marriage, children, job, house, and life comforts are good things, but focusing only on these does not produce a perspective that perseveres through life’s hardships. I will not always be healthy, “wealthy”, and surrounded by friends or family. Unexpected events are bound to happen and tragedy may occur. When these events occur I am free to voice my angst to God (see the book of Psalms), but crying out to God in moments of anguish is different than adopting an ungrateful or entitled attitude. The former is done with perspective. The latter is done with none.

God provides me with what I cannot provide my children and has done for me what I cannot do for them. An attitude of thankfulness is rooted in a proper understanding of grace and the hope it produces. In his book Knowing God, J.I. Packer properly identifies that our adoption as sons and daughters of God produces hope through three truths. First, adoption includes a promise that we will inherit the entire estate of our Father (Gal 4:7; Rom 8:16-17). Second, this inheritance includes being made like Christ (our elder brother) in every way; we become “co-heirs with Christ…that we may also share his glory” (Rom 8:17; see also 1 Jn 3:2). This includes the perfect transformation of our body, mind, and character, something that cannot happen on earth. Third, in heaven we get to participate in a family gathering.  I cannot articulate or even begin to grasp this last part of my inheritance, but I thought that Stephen Hay’s sermon effectively gave us a preview of what that might look like (http://wilsonfbc.com/portfolio/week-28-the-end/). Moreover, these rewards come because God poured out his wrath, which I deserved, on his beloved son (a much bigger sacrifice than simply standing in the rain). When my ungratefulness is positioned against these undeserved gifts, it is clearly unwarranted.

I am quick to see the reasons for why my children should be thankful for me yet loose sight of a far greater reason for why I should be thankful. I become frustrated with my ungrateful children while becoming ungrateful myself. The proper perspective ensures that we do not fall into these traps and become overburdened by the sufferings of this world. I have received a gift that never ceases. If you have not received this free gift, your Father awaits with open arms (Luke 15:11-33).


Lessons in Fatherhood 2

I’ve always had problems sleeping. I’ve battled insomnia, sleepwalking (as a child), and bizarre dreams. As a child I would occasionally wake up in a confused state; my visual perception was skewed so that things appeared distant and my movements seemed exaggerated or sped up. I would sometimes experience mild tremors that pulsed through my body. This state was also accompanied by nonsensical reoccurring dreams. During these incidents I would navigate my way downstairs and alert my parents in a confused manner that something was wrong. My father would often be the one to get out bed to deal with his confused son. I clearly remember lying on the couch as he calmly rubbed my back, waiting for the incident to end. I remember abruptly sitting up on the couch to babble nonsense or look out the picture window that was situated overhead. My father would graciously stay with me until I calmed down and the tremors went away.

Although those episodes have long passed, a good night’s sleep is still sometimes hard to come by. We have a baby who still cries at night, and a 5-year-old daughter who occasionally cries loudly in her sleep. I often wake up multiple times for no good reason or struggle to fall asleep. Another disruptive, yet enduring, nighttime event occurs when my son stumbles out of bed at night, stomps rather loudly down the hall, comes to the side of my bed, and tells me that he’s had a bad dream. My initial irritation with being woken up is quickly offset by the realization that my son is scared and finds comfort with his father. I usually call out to him so that he can find me in the dark, tell him that it’s just a dream, give him a hug, and walk him back to his room. He is typically sleeping again as soon as his head hits the pillow. Crisis averted, but such an event only increases my fatigue the next day.

These anecdotes reveal two very important elements about life as a Christian. First, it provides a picture of how fathers graciously interact with their children and do not ignore their needs. Of course, I am imperfect and fall short in my duties as a father (that’s another blog entry). I get tired, grumpy, impatient, and often cannot simultaneously comfort or closely interact with all my children. God has none of these deficiencies. He is perfectly loving, merciful, just, sovereign, holy, unchanging, all knowing, and always present (just to mention a few of his attributes). His love never fails; it endures forever (Ps 136). Whereas I don’t want to be woken up at night, God is always graciously there waiting. I put my son back to bed as quickly as possible; God is not limited by time or fatigue.

Yet, just as we can use personal experiences to better understand God, we can also use them inappropriately. When we inaccurately apply human characteristics to God, we engage him as a flawed, albeit powerful, being. We may think of God sitting in the sky, not having the time or desire to deal with our “meaningless” lives. Or we think that he is angrily judging everything we do wrong, and so we run from him rather than to him. We forget about grace, atonement, and our adoption into God’s family. We fail to see that the very best in us is immeasurably less than the goodness and lovingness of God. We forget that he is always present, waiting for us to run to him. His embrace will be immeasurably greater than that of our human fathers.

Second, it illustrates the need that children have for their father. Like I needed my father and my son needs me, we need our heavenly Father. The act of needing is not done apathetically nor accompanied by stubborn self-reliance or pride. At times it is done in a manner that is much like my son’s desperate stomping in the middle of the night. The reasons for such desperation are wide ranging. Perhaps we are suffering, anxious, confused, or afraid. Perhaps we’ve done our own thing too long and find ourselves at a point where our only option is to run back to our Father. Regardless of the reason, a loving Father awaits. Other times our need is acted out in a manner comparable to when my daughter tiptoes into my bedroom around 7:00 on a weekend morning, politely crawls to where my wife once slept, and we doze off and on until it is time to get up. Neither of us are particularly talkative in the morning; she just seems to like being nearby. Maybe we should all start our day by drawing near to our Father. It might even eliminate some moments when we have to stomp back to Him in desperation.

Such an act requires a degree of humility that can be conveyed with anecdotes about young children calling out for their human father. But as adults we often become self-reliant so that acknowledging our need to commune with God contradicts much of what we do in life. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Christ instructed his disciples to become like little children (Matthew 18). There is something very childlike in desperately running or quietly coming near to our Heavenly Father. I could use more of that childlike humility in my life.