Faith and Travel Ball: 10 Survival Tips for Families and Churches

“Appearing insecure and angry because of a drop in attendance will only cause us to sound manipulative rather than extending the voice of a loving shepherd to the flock.”

It is that time of year again, already! I know. The Falcons are gearing up for the Super Bowl, and you aren’t quite ready to talk baseball yet. But I love baseball. It is the sport I grew up playing. I love the smell of an old ball glove, hearing the leather pop and the bat crack, and watching games at every level. I enjoyed coaching youth baseball and teaching kids the fundamentals of the game.

One of my all time favorite movie lines comes from a scene in The Rookie. Dennis Quaid, playing the role of Jimmy Morris, approaches a fellow (much younger) minor league teammate and says, “You know what we get to do today, Brooks? We get to play baseball!

Passion for baseball is still strong here in Georgia. While fewer young people may play the game, those who do play take it more seriously than ever. At least compared to my little league days when our teams wore jeans, a t-shirt with a number, sponsor, and Little League patch, and shared four batting helmets and five bats among all 12 boys.

Greater passion among fewer players has also brought about the nation-wide phenomenon known as travel ball. I realize that travel ball is a term that applies to other sports today. But baseball, along with girls softball, seems to be experiencing the greatest participation among the kids and parents that I know personally. However, you can apply these tips to any sport or activity.

As a pastor, I expect to stimulate a little thought among two camps with different feelings. I have friends, especially ministry colleagues, that will not appreciate me writing about the possibility of surviving travel ball. To be fair, they have seen many of their members create habits during the travel ball seasons that have been detrimental to the respective families in their walks with God. They have seen spiritual momentum squelched in their churches as families disappear for months, sometimes never to return. Gone are the days of perfect attendance pins and guarding the sacredness of Lord’s Day worship. There is some merit to these feelings.

These pastors, church leaders, and friends will likely find very little redeeming value in what I am about to share as tips for survival. They will see it as unrealistic or caving. They have a perspective that should be heard, for they can point out concerns and blind spots that must be addressed.

The other camp of believers will be those who are already applying some of these tips. They are so tired of what they perceive to be legalistic criticism of what has become a wholesome family activity as far as they are concerned. They’re not at church on those low attendance Sundays and are unlikely to feel or understand the frustration the first group experiences. And, they might reason, why should travel ball get picked on when others are going camping, leaving early for lunch at grandma’s, going to work, or sometimes not attending worship because they were simply too lazy to get out of bed.

The following tips are not meant to endorse one group or the other. But I do believe they provide biblical wisdom that could bring about balanced and informed decision making. I hope they will be a help to both churches and parents. Ultimately all involved in this growing passion are either believers who need the tips to be better equipped or are lost people who need our church members to reach them.

With that said, let me know which ones you find to be most helpful.

  1. Keep the Glory of God your primary purpose in all of life’s pursuits. For some, sports will be an outlet for bringing God glory. For others, sports robs them of and replaces their passion for Christ. So ask, “Are my kids learning from me and for themselves that our primary goal in life is to make sure we exalt Jesus Christ?” (Mt. 6:33)
  2. Don’t overlook the significance of Lord’s Day Worship. A sports mom recently argued in Christianity Today that corporate worship is the greatest need young Christian athletes have. The biblical principle of corporate worship (originally a Sabbath practice in the OT) becomes a prescriptive pattern in the New Testament as the church gathers on the first day of the week for prayers, preaching, teaching, fellowship, and celebration. This can’t be accomplished with a 10 minute devotion, and we are warned not to forsake this time together as the body of Christ. (Heb. 10:25) Jake Westbrook, former major league pitcher with the Cardinals and Indians and active member of our church, recently shared with me the importance of chapels and hotel room Bible studies with other believers. There are evangelistic chapel services in the ultimate of travel leagues. No reason it can’t be happening at every level, which leads to the third tip…
  3. Be Missional. If we combine the first two tips, the next step for some could be to offer an evangelistic chapel service when you are away for travel ball. After all, we do not give the itinerant evangelist or short term mission trip folks a hard time when they aren’t with us on Sunday. Why not? Because they are on mission and experiencing corporate worship elsewhere. We are called to make disciples while we are going. (Mt. 28:19-20) This also communicates the importance of corporate Lord’s Day worship. From my observation, the ones who are most genuine in applying this tip also go out of their way to not miss Sundays at their home church except for a brief season of travel. And they are usually bringing more kids with them to worship! Being “missional” isn’t merely an excuse to be away when and if they demonstrate a heart for souls throughout the year. Obviously this doesn’t apply to the majority. But some have embraced this tip.
  4. Be Careful of Burnout. The world is throwing more opportunities at us than ever before. The spiritual discipline called simplicity is almost completely neglected. There is another Sabbath principle not completely fulfilled in Lord’s Day worship. That is the principle of rest. Many parents are running themselves ragged and wearing their kids out through over involvement. Both of my children have lettered in two sports in high school, something I didn’t accomplish. So I am all for sports for fun, exercise, and teaching leadership and team skills. For some of us who sit behind the desk, a steering wheel, or in a cubicle, the ball field is a refreshing haven of rest and recovery. But for others it becomes an altar of idolatry where they sacrifice their kids. Many have written on reasons they had to pull away from travel ball because of the stress it placed on their family.
  5. Conquer a little territory. Many will play on Sundays because this has become a major money-making opportunity for hosts all over the country. Seems like every state in the south has a number of champions crowned for several weekends in a row. You could become the host with Christ-centered motives. Christians have begun to host Friday-Saturday only leagues while communicating the importance of protecting Lord’s Day worship and rest. In his book The Matheney Manifesto (Crown Publishing, 2015), Cardinals coach Mike Matheney discusses how he made faith and family a priority when he reluctantly coached travel ball by keeping tournaments close to home without having to sacrifice the level of competition. By the way, this book is a great read for all parents and youth league coaches.
  6. Cover your bases! We are all called to be an active member of a local church, not just a pew warmer. We are called as members to use our spiritual gifts to help the church fulfill its mission. (Romans 12:4-7) Just as the second baseman and short stop must communicate and make sure they know who will cover the bag, church members should make sure that someone is covering the base when they are out… for any reason. Whether you are a teacher, a greeter, an instrumentalist, or a nursery worker, make sure you know who is covering your base when you are not there. Be sure and pass that name along to a ministry team leader. Obviously this principle has much broader application than the current subject. Of course it may be difficult to get someone to tithe for you, but there are creative ways of handling that now too.
  7. Take advantage of Mid-week ministries. In rural and some suburban areas you can still find vibrant mid-week services. Our mid-week opportunities at Trinity are extremely vital to our mission. Children and students are in the Word of God, enjoying fellowship, and learning how to serve, worship, and grow as believers. Men and women are getting the same opportunities in a small group setting. If your church offers these services or something similar, take full advantage! While mid-week services are intended to supplement Lord’s Day worship rather than replace it, I know of many who work on Sundays that are extremely grateful for this mid-week ministry.
  8. Consider the costs. For some families, money is no object. They are able to meet their obligations, invest in the Kingdom of God, and pay extravagant amounts for recreation. Others will neglect their personal obligations and biblical stewardship to pay tournament fees and hotel bills. Obviously travel ball is only one of many passions where people can live beyond their means. But many parents have invested three and four times the amount of the average college tuition rate in order to hopefully help their child earn an athletic scholarship. While I know several youngsters that will play at the next level, the majority will either not make the cut or lose interest along the way. While I enjoy collegiate and professional sports, many parents have lost the ability to allow their kids to play for the exercise and for the love of the game. They become obsessed with living out their dreams through their kids.
  9. Teach Humility. With so many leagues referred to with words like “elite” and “premier” one wonders if the words will lose their meaning. I know I am biased, but we have some remarkably talented kids in our church. A handful of our kids will actually play on the next level. The majority will not. Local Little League organizations are struggling with numbers while travel teams surge. In other words, “elite” and “premier” are no longer words used to describe the top three to five percent. As with all sports, kids should learn skill and confidence. But they should learn to play and interact with kids at school and church who may not share their talent and resources. Confidence and security is expressed in humility and the extension of grace, a hard lesson for even grown-ups to learn. Several college athletes attend our services regularly, but because of their humility few in the seats around them know that they are competing in collegiate sports.
  10. Be careful of building an unhealthy tolerance of mediocre commitment to Christ. This builds on the first three tips, but is probably of greatest concern to me. Here is a principle I discovered as a student minister years ago: What parents and leaders tolerate in moderation, children will usually grow to tolerate in excess. Social drinking by parents justifies allowing the beer to flow freely in the mind of a teen. An ever so slightly revealing outfit by mom provides a daughter with a rationalization for complete immodesty. In the same way, missing 30% of Lord’s Day worship opportunities (especially if tips 1-3 aren’t embraced) usually signals to the next generation that active membership and service in the local church is not really all that important. And while I know there are some solid adults in my church who are capable of heeding all of the previous tips, they must keep a spiritual eye on their child while asking, “Does he or she also get it?” The dad may sincerely tell me, “I really miss it when I’m not here, but I cover my bases, reach out missionally, and later listen to your sermon online.” But does dad notice when that child they’re called to bring up to love Jesus, his church, and his mission isn’t missing corporate worship so much anymore? If they’re losing their passion for Christ and His church it is probably time to pull back and refocus on the most important things in life for believers.

There you have it. If these tips better equip and encourage you to make wise decisions in the days ahead, wonderful! If you are one of the two groups I mentioned to begin with and you feel a little irritated, keep a couple things in mind.

For those who say there is zero redeeming value in families being involved in Sunday sports, remember that we too are on mission. This means we have to meet people where they are. And this is where many are. Appearing insecure and angry because of a drop in attendance will only cause us to sound manipulative rather than extending the voice of a loving shepherd of the flock.

For those who are all in to the travel ball movement, remember each of these tips also serve as reminders of the difficulty of finding balance. In Paul’s admonitions concerning “meats sacrificed to idols” some could eat and be okay with God and the church, while others clearly could not. The determining factor boiled down to asking, “Will this activity cause someone to stumble spiritually?” I can’t answer that for your family. But its a serious question when you consider that Jesus gave us the strongest warning about causing a child to stumble spiritually by not giving them easy access to Him! (Mt. 18:6 & 19:14)

Lift Your Head! (Revelation Intro)

(Click here for the sermon audio of the Introductory sermon to Revelation.)

In his commentary on The Revelation of Jesus Christ, John Walvoord says:

“No other book evokes the same fascination… the book reveals truth relative to every important fundamental of Christianity. It is advanced in the Gospels which unfold the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God. The epistles add the theological interpretation of the person and work of Christ. To all of this dramatic and tremendously significant revelation, the last book of the Bible provides the capstone. It is indeed THE Revelation of Jesus Christ not only as the Lamb that was slain, but as King of Kings and Lord of lords who is certain to return.” (The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Walvoord. p. 7)

Many evangelicals and mainline Christians read this book in hopes of discovering within the apocalyptic literature a secret to identifying antichrist or predicting the hour of Christ’s return. But it’s not “the revelation of antichrist” or the “revelation of the date of Christ’s return.” The book was given the title by its author, John, under the direction of our Lord. It is, indeed, The Revelation of Jesus Christ.

There are a variety of interpretive approaches. While I believe the Revelation contains apocalyptic visions describing the consummation of the ages, we must never forget that this book meant something, from beginning to end, to the persecuted church at the end of the first century. Actually, that should give the book greater relevance. For we are not certain whether or not Christ will return in our lifetime. But we can be certain that the church will face persecution, and is facing great persecution, in the last days.

The Revelation of our risen and glorified Lord served as great encouragement to the suffering churches in Asia Minor. Therefore, I believe these scriptures will encourage the body of Christ to lift our heads in the face of the persecution and marginalization we are facing as believers around the world in the twenty-first century.

How Jesus Christ is being revealed in this book:

  1. The Person of Christ is Being Revealed: It is the “revelation” (unveiling) of Jesus Christ (vs. 1). Jesus appeared to his beloved disciple personally. Can you imagine what that must have meant to the one who overheard Jesus tell Peter, “What’s it to you if he lives until I return?” If we read this book with greater passion to determine dates, interpret current events in the Middle East, or identify antichrist than we do to fall more in love with our resurrected Lord, we are missing the point. Verse 2 reminds us that this is the testimony of Jesus Christ!
  2. The Promises of Christ are Being Revealed: Verse 3 contains the first of seven beatitudes, promises of blessings for those who read this book, obey its precepts, or heed its warnings. Yes, many of the promises are contextualized by apocalyptic visions. The principles behind the precepts, however, point to a blessed way of life and entrance into eternity for those who walk faithfully with our Lord.
  3. The Power of Christ is Being Revealed: The seven churches, as referenced in verse 4, are quickly reminded that Jesus is still on His throne. The “seven spirits” possibly even refers to the omnipresent nature of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, as the “firstborn from the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth”, not only has resurrection power, he also has ruling authority! (vs. 5)
  4. The Purposes of Christ are Being Revealed: Verse 5b-6 serve as reminders that everything that was, and is, and is to come is wrapped up in the message of the Gospel of the kingdom and the Glory of God. As Christ-followers, Revelation should motivate us to live to those ends… knowing and glorifying Jesus Christ as we make Him known to the world, over which He has ultimate dominion.
  5. The Plans of Christ are Being Revealed: Verses 7 and 8 conclude this introduction with a reminder from John that Jesus is coming. While we do not know the day or our, we find strength for living in knowing that he will return and make all things right!

I know the message of the Gospel is not as popular in our nation as it once was. I also realize that religious freedom is under fire like never before. But as we study this book written to a church that had suffered immensely under the hands of Roman emperors Nero and Domitian, we are reminded that Christ’s faithful servants can lift their heads come what may! Lift your head today and walk in the confidence of one to whom Jesus Christ has been revealed.

GROWING PAINS

Growing pains accompany growth, naturally. Can you remember experiencing pain in your arms or legs during one of those seasons of life when you had hit a major growth spurt, especially during adolescence? While you did not appreciate the pain, it certainly became more tolerable when a parent explained that you were experiencing growing pains. In fact, it was quite worth the pain. You may have even welcomed the pain just to know that you were growing up.

That should also be our response when we experience growing pains as a church. As with anatomical growing pains, the pains related to church growth (both spiritual and numerical) can come early or late in the seasons of growth spurts. The problem is when we begin to think the pain is unnatural or not worth the growth that comes with it. If we are called to be missional and to grow in discipleship and evangelism, we must beware of the growing pains and refuse to be discouraged by them.

In a future post I will deal with the pains associated with your personal spiritual growth. I am currently experiencing some of the those myself. But for now I would like to share with you some of the growing pains that I believe a church family will experience if they desire to grow. Perhaps these observations will enable you to rejoice over symptoms about which you have occasionally been tempted to be overly concerned.

Growing Pain 1: Personality clashes may become more prevalent. A greater missional spirit and the addition of people means a wider variety of personalities. This calls for greater patience and a willingness to learn to appreciate people that are not like you, people who do not think like you do about everything. Keep in mind, 1 Peter 2:9 says that we are all a “peculiar people.” You will also find that in the context of spiritual growth and the promotion of church unity that Paul told the church at Philippi to “do all things without grumbling or complaining (Phil. 2:14).” Don’t be threatened by people who have different personalities. To embrace them is to be kingdom minded.

Growing Pain 2: Ministry responsibilities must be networked. By the way, this is biblical. Smaller churches, however, often become accustomed to the pastor or pastoral staff doing most of the work of the ministry. Paul explained to the church at Ephesus that the primary responsibility of the pastoral leadership is to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-12).” If the pastor doesn’t embrace the growing pain of equipping and letting some things go, he will likely master the church version of the art of bonsai. In Acts 6 the apostles provide us with a model for raising up leaders and networking ministry so that leaders can focus on their primary areas of calling. I am fortunate to be a part of a church that gets this. But we may be tempted to forget this from time to time, either by not embracing our roll in the networking process or by expecting the pastoral staff to be involved in everything.

Growing Pain 3: Assimilation strategies must change. There, I said it. The “C” word. The message of the Gospel never changes. Nor does our call to assimilate believers for discipleship. The larger a church becomes, the more necessary it is for people to be a part of a small group. Small groups can no longer be viewed as extra-curricular Bible study groups. They must provide opportunity for intimate fellowship. Whether you call them Life Groups, Sunday School, Men’s or Women’s Bible Studies, or Cell Groups… there must be a place to connect, open up, get real, and become a more functional faith family. Small group leaders must become as concerned about the facilitation of building community as they are about teaching the Bible. So it is A-OK to not finish the lesson because real community is taking place.

Growing Pain 4: Leadership and decision making strategies change. Tim Keller has pointed out that in smaller churches (the average church size is less than 100 active attendees) most decisions are made by the congregation as a whole. As a church grows, however, and expands its ministries and ministry staff, many decisions concerning direction, strategy, organization, finances, calendaring events, and ministry and mission opportunities have to be made quickly. Decision making will become a daily activity of a growing church staff.

Therefore, the ministry staff must be thoroughly vetted when called. They must be accountable to one another and keenly aware of their future accountability to God. They must model a walk with Christ. And they must demonstrate that they LIVE and LEAD by the Word of God. They must do all of these things so that they can earn the trust of the people. And when they have earned such trust, the people should allow them, even make life easy on them, when it comes to making leadership decisions under the direction of the Word of God, the mission of the church, and the guidance of the Spirit of God (Hebrews 13:7&17). The wise leader will cast vision and listen to the hearts of the spiritually mature in the body as often as possible. Learning to trust and follow God-called leadership can be a growing pain for some believers, especially if they come from a smaller church that never kept a pastor long enough for him to earn the trust of the people.

That is not to say that there are not certain systems of accountability, certain protocols of protection, or certain shared responsibilities. But our systems and structures must never become the proverbial “tail that wags the dog.” And when a leader is clearly unethical, unbiblical, or deliberately carnal, believers should apply the biblical steps of church discipline to lovingly confront the situation. (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Timothy 5:19)

Growing Pain 5: Communication streams must become more effective. There is balance to this particular area of growth. Unfortunately, the pain comes in finding that balance. First of all, everyone simply cannot always be “in the know” about everything in a growing church. As illustrated by points 3 and 4 above, many activities and ministries will take place on the small group or ministry team level. And many decisions will be made by pastoral staff on a daily basis. It would take 3 or 4 hours each evening if I explained to even my wife everything that took place during the day in the life of our church. Yes, the staff is busy all week, not just Sundays and Wednesday nights. We also trust that the church is busy “being the church” throughout the week. We actually love to hear stories of what you are doing for the sake of the kingdom, but we obviously don’t have time to hear and know everything there is to know. Why? Because so many wonderful things are happening! Praise the Lord!

But to bring balance to this, we must strive more and more to communicate the vision and mission of the church. We must especially keep folks posted on how they, how you, can be a part of it. Opportunities for service, prayer needs, and praise reports of how God is working must saturate our church family. This means that as we grow, there will be growing pains in the process of learning to better communicate. There is greater likelihood that someone will be left out by accident. With more people calling our church family home, the chances are greater that someone will have missed the Sunday that a particular announcement was made, or even consecutive Sundays an announcement was made. Not only does this provide a growing pain for the leadership to learn to use more communication channels than ever before (for example, you are probably reading this because of email or social media), there is also a growing pain for members to learn to access all of the various communication streams. Uh, growing pains! Praise the Lord!

What is the alternative to all of these growing pains? The pains of lethargy and stagnation are much worse, only to be followed by spiritual rigor mortis! So I prefer to embrace the growing pains. How about you?

Don’t Stunt Your Growth!

(Click Here to Listen to the Complete Sermon)

I enjoy a good cup of joe as much as anyone. And its not always for the early morning stimulation. I like a variety of flavors and origins, both regular and decaf. One add for a particular brand of energy shot asked the question, “Why drink 3 or 4 cups of coffee when you could have 1 (perhaps 3 ounces) of [this energy shot]. My answer was simple. I enjoy drinking coffee. 

But I remember when I was younger, in my teens, and I received this warning from a few adults – “Coffee will stunt your growth.” I didn’t want to stunt my growth! I was a skinny dude back then. Perhaps the fact some older men would occasionally inform me that coffee would help grow hair on my chest brought the balance I needed to continue the coffee habit.

Isn’t it funny that we will so seriously consider the impact of something on our physical growth and development, but pay little attention to those things that affect our spiritual growth and development?

In Ephesians 4:1-16 the Apostle Paul provides us with insight into stages of spiritual growth. There are individual and corporate implications to these principles. This letter, in providing a dissertation on “body life”, transitions from the doctrinal to the practical at this point. In doing so, we are given sort of a check list, if you will, to examine where we are and how we’re doing in our spiritual journey.

1. Evangelized with the Message of Christ. (Verses 1-9)

In the first verse we are reminded that salvation, as described in the previous chapter, is a calling to be lived out. So “walk in it.” 2 Corinthians 5:17 informs us that we a new creation, old things are passing away and all things are becoming new. Anyone reading this should stop and ask, “Has there been a time in my life when I turned from sin and self, trusted Jesus Christ and His Gospel alone for salvation, believing completely in the finished work on the cross and confirmed by the resurrection?”

Verses 2-3 describe the fruitfulness of such a life transforming response to the Gospel. Our lives give evidence of faith and repentance in how we relate to others. So there is a test of our fruitfulness that is described throughout the New Testament in passages like John 15:1-17.

There is also the test of right beliefs. In verses 8-10, Paul describes the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus Christ. The fact that Christ “descended” points out that He is the “Word Made Flesh” from John 1:1&14. Philippians 2:5-11 describes his “descending” as becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross, but now having been exalted (resurrection and ascension) to the right hand of the Father! There are also glimpses of Pentecost and the indwelling Spirit in the final words of both verses 6 and 10. Paul would build on this in Ephesians 5, specifically verse 18 which admonishes us to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit.

Hopefully this clarifies the fact that evangelism isn’t just leading someone to make a faith decision and chalking them up as being on “our side” now. Evangelism and discipleship are mutually exclusive. In fact, they are so far from that they are almost synonymous. To be evangelized with the message of Christ is to have begun cooperating with the process of discipleship. This leads to the next stage in our checklist.

2. Equipped for the Ministry of the Cross. (Verses 10-12a)

As Paul continues to describe the “body life” that believers who have been evangelized are called into, he promptly explains that ministry leaders, including pastor-teachers, have been placed within the various local congregations for the “equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry.” (vs. 11)

One might think that Paul would have dealt with growing toward maturity, as he does immediately following the subject of equipping, before he explains that those who are evangelized are called to a ministry. I have certainly taken that approach as a leader at times. I mean, why would we be given an assignment before we’ve proven ourselves and become better established, right?

One way to illustrate what I believe Paul is setting forth under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is to compare it to when I became a father. There is nothing like knowing that you are about to become a father, nothing like holding that newborn in your hands, to make you see the importance of being a leader, growing in maturity, acting like an adult, and learning everything you can about being a dad.

If new believers understand that they are called to be equipped for ministry, this will increase their recognition of the need to grow in grace as disciples of Jesus. There is a holy sense of inadequacy that accompanies God-given ministry that drives us to be all that we can be for His glory. 

3. Edified toward Maturity as a Christian. (Verses 12b-13)

Both individually and corporately we are being “built up” as a mature Christian and a unified body prepared to exert major kingdom influence in the world for the glory of God. In fact, love and unity among members of the body becomes an evidence that we are being edified (or built up) as individuals Christ-followers.

Mature believers hunger for depth in the study of God’s Word as it pertains to all of life. You will find them taking notes during sermons and small group Bible studies. They will learn to depend on a daily devotional time in the Word and in prayer. Though avoiding legalistic tendencies, you will find them tuning their car radios (or designing their playlists and accessing podcasts) more and more around the music and Bible teaching that feeds their souls. 

4. Established in the Mutuality of the Church. (Verses 14-16)

A spiritually mature believer, or one who is moving toward maturity, will delight in being knit into the fabric of the church. This is authentic body life. We may seem like a small and insignificant part of the body, but Paul says that we are all “supporting ligaments.”

If you encounter me on the street, in the pulpit, or in the bleachers of a football game, you may conclude that I am in relatively good health other than being a little overweight. What you likely will not discern is that I am far from being at my best when it comes to pick-up basketball (which I used to really love) or hitting the tennis courts with my kids. No, I am not referring to the aging process here, though that may not be totally unrelated.

The fact is, I have blown out the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) for yet a second time. And, at my age, I am delaying surgery for now. Indeed, our church may look healthy to outsiders. And in many areas we are functioning with a great degree of “church health.” But we aren’t reaching our full potential. Why? There are various supporting ligaments that are not in place. Paul describes a need here for the “whole body” to be functioning as one. 

I am afraid that we must constantly strive to overcome the consumer mentality of the church. The temptation is to show up on Sundays for a little encouragement to get through this thing called life. But when one comes to faith in Christ after being evangelized with the message of the Gospel, he or she has been enlisted in God’s army. And one doesn’t enlist to simply wear the uniform and enhance their resume. No, we then receive equipment for the duty we’ve been assigned. We begin to grow and develop. We realize we are part of a team that depends on us to help accomplish a mission. And, in the body of Christ, our mission is to make Him known to our neighbor, the nations, and the next generation.

DON’T Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart!

Don’t stop asking Jesus into your heart! But, by all means, clearly communicate what is meant by such statements.

In case you’ve been out of the theological loop, there has been a discussion in recent years about whether or not it is “biblical” for someone to “ask Jesus into his or her heart.” Actually, the conversation has likely been around as long as the language. I remember discussing the issue with an evangelist friend twenty-five years ago. He had a problem with the phrase, and I agreed with his reasoning.

Let me make a few acknowledgments before I offer a counter perspective.

First, I am extremely grateful for the ministries of men like David Platt and J D Greear. These men, and many others who have voiced concerns over this phrase, have a heart for God and a desire to see the Gospel articulated with clarity and conviction. Their books, sermons, and denominational leadership in the areas of missions and evangelism have been invaluable resources to me. I learn from these young men.

Next, I get it. I understand the danger of a child, or even an adult, hearing the phrase “just ask Jesus into your heart” without a clear articulation of the Gospel. Subsequently, It’s possible (even likely) that many have prayed such a prayer without appropriating faith, repentance, and a certain embrace of core essentials of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Finally, I have also been very reluctant to use the phrase. Why? Not because I think it is unbiblical. I usually choose to move beyond some biblical imagery, whether in personal evangelism or from the pulpit, and go straight to the explanation of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ’s perfect work from the cross to an empty grave!

Having said that, I find it an overreach to call such language unbiblical or to be critical of those who still use the words “ask Jesus into your heart.” But if you choose to use this language, it must be accompanied by explanation and clarification. Most of the ministers and church leaders that I know do a superb job at this, but I can’t speak for all of them.

So before you are too critical of those who use these words in their communication of the Gospel, keep the following in mind.

  1. “Christ in your heart” IS biblical language and imagery. While we have to be careful of children imagining a two-inch Jesus walking into a literal heart’s door while taking Revelation 3:20 out of context, the language of Christ in your hearts is still biblical. Peter challenged the persecuted church to “sanctify (lit. set apart, honor) Christ as Lord in your hearts (1 Peter 3:15).” That word is kardiais, literally “hearts”, though the picture is figurative. Oh, but that’s a verse about sanctification, not salvation! True. However, most of those who argue against the language also argue, as I do, against a false dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship. We are to lead people to become sanctified Christ followers. It begins and continues with the heart. YES, FAITH! But how has God communicated to us the inward expression of faith? Romans 10:9 speaks of confessing with the mouth and “believing in the heart.” The context clarifies the heart imagery.
  1. The idea of inviting Christ “into your life” is also a biblical concept. In the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel the woman at the well discovers that the life Christ has to offer can become the Living Water that overflows in us. The New Covenant is superior to the Old in part due to the fact that the Spirit of Christ dwells in us, fills us, and seals us for the day of redemption. The Holy Spirit is not a “force.” He is a person, the third person of the Trinity, the very Spirit of Jesus Christ. Once again, the context of the John’s Gospel and the rest of the Bible help one to more clearly draw the analogy of Living Water and the life of Christ in us.
  1. All biblical language used in communicating the Gospel requires some explanation and clarification. Call it “exposition” if you will. Obviously, the Spirit of God brings about illumination often allowing the simple reading of Scripture to bring one to faith in Christ. But when we proclaim these rich inspired texts with statements of principle, we usually provide explanation. Even when we avoid the allegorical language like “you must be born again” or “ask Jesus into your heart” we still have to offer explanation. We explain the meaning of words like “faith”, “believe”, and “repent.” So I have no problem with the fact that if someone uses a statement like “ask Jesus into your heart” they will have to explain what they mean by that. Even Jesus had to interpret (do hermeneutics) and explain the Scriptures concerning himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27).Whether you use the words like “you need to believe on the Lord Jesus,” or “take up your cross and follow Christ,” or “call on the Lord Jesus Christ”, or “ask Jesus into your heart and life,” you must still expound on the core essentials of the Gospel. The Gospel writers, the writers of the Epistles, and even Jesus used a variety of terms and phrases in clarifying the Gospel. Imagery is used on occasion, but full context and the whole of the New Testament keeps us from making oversimplifications.
  1. The concept of “asking” is also biblical. I understand the danger of communicating that there is some “magical” prayer or formulation of words that provides one with a secure eternity. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Our faith does begin with a confession. A confession of our sinful condition is accompanied by a confession that embraces the Lordship of Christ and his Gospel. The Gospel is expressed in words. While there is no magical prayer that can save by mere rote repetition, prayer is still a wonderful way to help people articulate their confession to God and their confession of Christ. A “sinner’s prayer” is often the verbal expression of sincere faith that communicates in words that there is comprehension of and response to the Gospel. It’s the Romans 10:13 moment of drawing it all together and nailing it down! And those who lead such prayers almost always make the comment, “It’s not the words of the prayer, but the response of the heart to the truth of the Gospel.” Ironically, many who seem most concerned about this prayer also remind us constantly that salvation is the work of God. Seems odd that we would place so much emphasis on the respondent to irresistible grace (to whatever degree you embrace this doctrine) to “get it right.” Isn’t God the one getting it right?

Obviously, we must all heed the admonition to “earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).” But when we communicate the Gospel by expounding the Scriptures the best we can under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and the hearer responds with faith and repentance as best they know how to the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ, we can rest assured that God will do the saving work!

Doctrine matters. Words matter. And, yes, some are placing false hope in perverted forms of the gospel. But there are also many rock-solid Christians leading people to become Christ’s disciples for life beginning with a prayer that includes many elements in addition to the phrase “ask Jesus into your heart!”

“Are you Staying for Preach’n?”

 

“Are you staying for preach’n?” This may sound like a crazy question to be asked at a place of worship on a Sunday morning, especially to millennials. Most of my colleagues are praying about ways to get more of the congregation involved in small groups where they can build community. Then its helping them discover their gifts, passions, and calling so that they begin to serve Christ as a Spirit-filled disciple.

Isn’t that the greater challenge? Moving people from the corporate worship into small groups, places of kingdom service, and helping them to truly be the church? Yes, that is certainly a task that the church I serve is regularly tackling.

I am also aware of another danger, however, that reminds me of a question that I was often asked in a Sunday School class as a child in the 1970’s. “Are you staying for preach’n?” You see, along with the Sunday School offering, the attendance report, the number of folks who had read their Bible daily and studied their lesson, there was a place to report the number of class members who planned to also be in worship. And it was not uncommon for the worship attendance and Sunday School attendance to be about the same. At the country church I attended, approximately 10% of those in Sunday School did not stay for worship. But another 10% not in Sunday School would show up for worship.

Today corporate worship participants tend to significantly outnumber those who attend a small group, to the degree that I am afraid we may be overlooking an important and influential minority. I’m speaking of the ones who are involved in small groups, usually serving in some capacity, as well as serving in a variety of other areas in the church. The ones I see around all the time… except when scanning the congregation from the pulpit! 

What’s the big deal, right? They’ve already advanced to that next level of service and involvement. You don’t have to worry about them. Uh, not so fast. In fact, I may be more concerned about this group. Let me give you some reasons.

1. I know the importance of my calling, and I take it very seriously. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 14:3 that my proclamation of biblical truth under the anointing of the Holy Spirit in a corporate setting is absolutely essential for body life. Specifically, if I am doing what God has called and gifted me to do, those present will be edified, encouraged, and comforted. In other words, it is a necessary time of refueling that fights discouragement, breakdown, and frustration in various areas of kingdom service and living. Those who regularly miss corporate worship will almost always experience the latter.

2. I know the impact corporate worship has on my life. When we sing great confessions of faith as a body in agreement, the pipeline from my soul to the heart of God is strengthened and restored. I realize that I am part of the Bride of Christ. I become more aware of His presence by the mere synergy of worshipers exalting Jesus together. Emotions are horrible masters, but wonderful servants. And those who miss this synergy while always serving in other areas find themselves emotionally drained.

3. I know our natural tendency to avoid confrontational truth. Our corporate gathering also serves the purpose of our “spurring one another toward love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25).” Back to that country church I grew up in. I will never forget homecoming services. I distinctly remember arriving very early with my grandfather one year. A group of men had been awake throughout the night preparing the stew. They would work together through the corporate worship hour to have the delicious BBQ ready. But my thoughts concerning half of the men present at that moment were, “Who are these men? Why are they never in worship? Are all of them really needed here? Why are their wives often in worship alone except for Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day?” Even as a child I could discern that these men had no intention of allowing the Word of God proclaimed by the man of God to confront their souls which were far from God. 

The slipping away from consistent corporate worship that refuels, encourages, unites, edifies, and restores souls in the context of a covenant community is so subtle. One week you had to keep nursery. The next week a member of your family was sick. The following week that relative who doesn’t attend church prepared a lunch celebration at noon for the whole family, so you jetted after small group. Then? Guess what? It was your turn in the nursery again, followed by a travel ball tournament, followed by that Sunday you were helping in the kitchen for the church social. Oh, but you stayed active! You were active serving in mid-week ministry to children and attending small group occasionally. But before you knew it, it had happened to you. The passion and power experienced by so many, igniting a fire in your brothers and sisters, has eluded you! You are present for “Martha moments” to serve and feel better about your devotion, while having too few “Mary moments” until you are no longer present at all. Your service has become lifeless and drudgery.

And you may not even know why! It is because you are missing the biblically mandated prescription of the corporate worship encounter way too often. And it is taking a toll on your spiritual fervor.

 

 

7 Steps to Writing a Personal Mission Statement

A personal mission statement can sharpen your focus and help you to have greater impact in our world for the glory of God. It can help you know which opportunities you should embrace. Perhaps more importantly, in this super-paced world we now live in, it can help you know when to say “NO!” to opportunities. A mission statement will not only clarify your direction in life, it will also fuel your passion to move in that direction.

I formulated the following steps under the influence of a couple of decades of teaching God’s Word and incorporating tools from godly leaders. Robert Lewis’ Men’s Fraternity studies, Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God, Ike Reighard’s North Star Journal, and numerous notes from John Maxwell on leadership have influenced the somewhat simplified approach below. I came up with this “abridged” approach to accommodate men that I meet with regularly that may not have availed themselves to all of the resources above. I highly recommend further research using such resources. I also suggest journaling one’s way through the following considerations over a period of several weeks.

  1. Begin with Prayer. “God delights in the prayers of the upright!” (Proverbs 15:8) Born again followers of Christ are in a spiritual pursuit of the will of God. We need to be guided by His Spirit in this pursuit. (See Jeremiah 29:13 & 33:3, Ephesians 1:17-18, and Colossians 1:9-12.)
  1. Study God’s revealed purposes for all of humanity. Use key texts that summarize those purposes for us. Reading Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life or Chuck Swindoll’s Rise and Shine will greatly enhance this step. Here are a few key texts that summarize God’s revealed purposes:
  • 1 Peter 4:11 (Man’s “chief purpose”)
  • Matthew 22:37-40 (The Greatest Commandments)
  • Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8 (The Great Commission)
  • Matthew 5:13-16 (New Covenant Cultural Mandate)
  • Genesis 1:28 & 9:1 (Dominion Mandate through lens of the above texts!)
  1. Consider your Character and the Legacy you want to leave. Start with Scripture that you rely on for character. Perhaps Galatians 5:22-23, Joshua 1:9, Philippians 4:6, Proverbs, Psalm 1 are examples of verses that people embrace as legacy verses or “life verses.”
  • List the names and traits of people that you greatly admire.
  • Write down the qualities that you feel energized by when others recognize them?
  1. God’s Specific Calling on your life. What is it that you believe God has called you to do for him as it relates to specific ways to accomplish his revealed purposes for all? This can relate to vocation and/or areas of service in God’s kingdom. More specific Scriptures may come to mind here when you apply the first principle. Also consider passions, promptings, open doors, and confirmations from the Body of Christ. (See Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God.)
  1. Describe the venues of life where your mission will be fulfilled. Include both actual and aspirational, where you flesh out your mission now and where you hope to do so in the future. (e.g. home, work environment, mission field, target ministry areas, etc.)
  1. What resources will you draw from to help you accomplish this mission?

Consider:

Aptitude (i.e. Servants by Design Profile that can be taken http://www.youruniquedesign.com) What do others say that you are good at? When are you in your “sweet spot”? The Servants by Design Profile, and other personality and aptitude profiles like it, will help you to understand your personality “viewpoint” and “currency.” This is invaluable information for writing a personal mission statement.

Spiritual Gifts (Especially motivational gifts) It is quick and painless to do a spiritual gifts test online thanks to numerous websites like http://www.spiritualgiftstest.com.

Passions What really drives you to do what you do? What makes you come alive?

  1. Pull it all together! Use key words and reemerging themes to write your life mission statement. Take your time. Allow for fluidity with enough guiding principle that never changes. Below is a template that may help you pull together notes from your reflections on the first six steps.

By God’s grace, I want to be (or become) (see #3)…

Primarily for/with/at (see #5)…

Who is all about (see #2)…

I will fulfill God’s call more specifically by (see #4)…

I will rely on God’s strength and wisdom as well as how he has designed, equipped, and gifted me to (see # 6)…

*Take all the space you need to begin creating this statement. You should familiarize yourself with this statement, then shorten it as much as possible without losing important elements. Then evaluate goals, objectives, plans, and decisions in light of this mission.