Encouragement From The Word

Who wants a 50s kitchen?

I’m attending the Canadian Church Leaders Conference in Barrie today (and last night, and tomorrow).  It’s the second year in a row that Connexus Church has offered this conference, aimed at leaders in Canadian congregations (since so many church leader conferences are held in the US and aimed at the American culture, which is different from ours).  Even after hearing just two short talks, I’m encouraged to keep going in the work of change.

Change is a hard word for most people, but perhaps especially for those who have been invested in the life of a local church for a long time.  We all remember what the church used to belike.  Some will remember when there were 500 kids in the Sunday school – a number that seems to go up every time the person recounts the story of what life in the church was like 60 or more years ago.

Trouble is, the world looks a lot different today than it did in the 1950s.  In those days, the post-war baby boom and the optimism that came with a rejuvenated economy meant churches were full most Sundays, without much effort on the part of the leaders.  Today, we have generations of people for whom the church has never been a factor in their lives.

One of the key learnings, so far, has been this: if the church is to be strong, we have to be set free from the idea that we just need to survive, so we can dream again. And that means change.  And while change will be uncomfortable, we need to continue to focus on the people who are not among us yet.

That means ‘doing church’ in such a manner that it attracts those who are not yet part of the church and being more concerned for those who are far from God than those who are unwilling to change.  It’s a tough sacrifice, and it can even seem a bit cold.  But if we focus on who we already have, making sure we keep them happy, we are unlikely to see measurable growth in our churches.

I remember in one church I served, someone got up at a congregational meeting and complained about the changes that were happening.  After the meeting, a dear old soul came up to me and said, “I wonder if his kitchen looks like it did in 1950.”

Of course, few of us have kitchens that look like they did in 1950, even if the house is older than that.  Kitchens are among the first rooms in a house to be renovated, because we want to have the most up-to-date cooking and eating spaces money can buy!  We want granite countertops instead of laminate; we want dishwashers, water-serving and ice-making refrigerators, and efficient ranges – all in stainless steel, bien sûr!

Few kitchens today lack a microwave oven, but in 1950, there was no such appliance.

Yet too often, our churches look not much different than they did in 1950.  In some cases, the order of service might not have changed since then!  But if we’re going to reach a new generation, that change has to be made.

I am fortunate to serve a congregation that has adapted to change very well.  There’s more that needs to be done, for sure, but none of it is simply for the sake of change: we change howwe present the timeless gospel of Jesus, because that’s what’s going to reach a new generation.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that the medium is the message, and he had a point: the way we present truth attracts people, perhaps more than the truth itself. And that’s okay!  While we don’t change the message, we do change the medium, because the method of presenting the timeless truths of Scripture inherently makes the timeless truths of Scripture more appealing, thus increasing the potential audience.

Is that always what we old-timers prefer?  Probably not.  But we already know and love and serve Jesus.  What we want is to engage our neighbours so that they will know and love and serve Jesus.  So we set aside what we prefer in favour of what they prefer.  And the Lord does the rest.

When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some” (1 Corinthians 9.22, NLT).

Advertisements
Encouragement From The Word

Give all your worries to God

A friend of mine is moving a long distance.  She had quite a lot of stuff she chose not to take with her in the move. Wondering how best to find a home for it, she had been talking about it with some others, but in the end, with little hope of finding a way to get rid of it, she gave the situation to God.

That same day, she had a knock at her office door; two young women were standing there.  “We overheard you telling some people that you were trying to get rid of some things before you move, “ one of them said.

“Yes I am,” my friend replied.

“We decided to take an apartment together, along with another friend,” the woman continued, “and we need furniture.  We could take your stuff for you.”

My friend could hardly believe her ears.  But the story gets better.

“Yes, we’re moving to an apartment on X Avenue,” said the other woman, naming the street they were moving to.

“That’s interesting,” said my friend.  “That’s where I live now.”  There are several apartment buildings clustered together on that street, though, so it could have been one of many apartments in any of those buildings the women were moving to.

As the conversation continued, my friend realized that they were moving into the same building as she is currently living.  Imagine the amazement on all of their faces when they discovered that the women had rented the very same apartment my friend was vacating!

My friend committed the situation to the Lord, and not only was he faithful in answering my friend’s prayer generally, he was faithful in answering it very, very specifically.

The movers-in will not need to find a moving truck, or a group of friends, to get my friend’s furniture; it can stay exactly where it is.  And my friend is now deeply relieved that the belongings she elected not to move will be going to a good home…in the very same square footage that my friend had enjoyed as her home for several year.

Does God work this way all the time?  No. But the Lord can surprise us with graces like this when we fully commit our worrisome situations to his care.

What do you need to let go of in order to see God take care of your needs?

Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5.7, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

How Do I Love Thee?

The other day, I was listening to a recording of choral music that I’ve heard dozens of times.  For some reason, though, this particular time my ears perked up to one particular anthem that was sung.  It’s called “How Do I Love Thee?”, and I realized upon listening carefully that it is, in fact, a musical setting of what is arguably the most popular sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43, written as a love poem to her husband, Robert Browning.

For years, in (sort of) listening to this piece, I thought it was just another choral anthem of praise to the Lord.  I hadn’t thought it was an anthem of praise to the poet’s husband!

However, if you examine the words, you can, without difficulty, make it into a song of praise to God:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

It works, doesn’t it?

Now, go back and read it again, and put God in the first person, so that it tells of God’s love for you.

Amazing, right?

Victorian-Romantic poetry may not always have been intended for God, but we can make it so.

Spend some time with this sonnet, and make it your own praise to the Lord.

Let everything that breathes sing praises to the Lord!” (Psalm 150.6, NLT).

If you want to listen to the arrangement that struck me, here’s a setting.

Encouragement From The Word

Who’s the customer?

Today’s Encouragement is a reprise of one I wrote several years ago.  The message still applies!  Blessings.  JFL

         Recently, I had the opportunity to visit two different businesses in a community different from the one I live in.  One was a musical instrument store, and the other was a hobby shop.  Anybody who knows me well can understand that both are the kinds of stores I tend to frequent.

When I walked into the music store, I was in the place perhaps thirty seconds when I was greeted in a friendly way by a fellow who turned out to be the manager.  He told me his name, and asked me mine as he shook my hand.  With his disarming demeanour, it was easy for me to tell him exactly why I had come into the store.  Like a good salesman, he took me into a separate room to show me a high-end version of what I was looking for.  When I said that I was impressed but unable to spend what that unit would demand, he completely understood and escorted me to another area of the store to show me a unit that was well-priced and, while not as good as the first unit he showed me, would serve me well.  He took the time to demonstrate it, and answered my somewhat amateurish questions without missing a beat.  When my wife came in, he even made a joke with her that we all laughed at.  All the staff in this store handled customers the same way.

Needless to say, I made a purchase there.  I had seen other units in other stores, but the service I received at that point in time was what made me buy there.  And because of that experience, I will shop there again, even though it’s not exactly handy to my home.

By contrast, when I walked into the hobby shop, I was ignored – despite the fact that I was one of two customers in the store and there were three people working there.  Since I had come all the way to the place, however, I browsed for a few minutes.  A stock person spoke to me when I spoke to him, and he opened a locked cabinet to allow me to examine more carefully something that had caught my eye.  I picked up something I needed, and when I went to check out, I waited for ten minutes.  (Remember, the help-to-customer ratio was 3:2!)  When I produced my ‘loyalty club’ card, which I assumed would save me 7 percent on cash purchases such as the one I was making, I was told that because I had not spent a sufficient amount of money in the store in the past year, they could not honour the 7 percent discount.  And the clerk was in no way apologetic about this.

I walked out of that hobby shop – in which I had spent quite a lot of money over the course of several years – having decided it is unlikely I will ever spend money there again.

Do you see the contrast between those two businesses?  Both sell things that musicians and hobbyists need.  Neither holds a monopoly in its field.  These are tough economic times.  Every business should be grateful to have customers at all!  So why was one so encouraging and the other so ignorant?

Personality will have something to do with it, to be sure, but I think the key is that the music shop staff refused the temptation to take customers for granted.

Lest you think this is merely a consumer rant, let me apply this to the Christian life.  When I was inducted as pastor in an earlier church, the preacher at the induction asked this question of the church:  Who is the customer, and who is the sales person?

Many church people assume that the customer is the church member, and the sales person is the preacher.  Wrong.

The customer is the newcomer to the church, and the sales person is the church member.  This has always been true, but in these days when many churches are in a state of decline, it is more true than ever.

The apostle Paul wrote, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5.20a, NIV).  Paul was writing about himself, but he was encouraging all believers to be ambassadors, to be ‘in sales’ for the gospel.  Churches where the people believe that they have no responsibility to care for guests don’t grow, because their guests often have experiences at church like I had in the hobby shop.  Churches where the people know they have a hand in caring for guests will grow, because their guests will feel cared for and will want to come back.

Of course, the Holy Spirit plays themajor role in church growth, but, oddly enough, the Spirit chooses to work throughGod’s people.  Thanks to you, and God working through you, your church can be more like the music store than the hobby shop.  That’s my prayer for you!

Encouragement From The Word

The importance of waiting

Last weekend, I had the privilege of hearing Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim speak as he was given an honorary doctorate at Tyndale Seminary’s convocation.  Lim, the South Korean-born minister of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, made news last summer after he was freed after more than two years of detention in a North Korean prison, to which he had been given a life sentence with hard labour…all for having been providing humanitarian aid to the North Korean people.

In his short but poignant speech, Lim spoke about his experience as a prisoner in North Korea – his hard work, his sicknesses, his visions from the Lord, his memorization of Scripture, and the like.  But the one thing he talked about that struck me most was the importance of waiting.

Heaven knows that Pastor Lim had a lot of waiting to do.  When he wasn’t working – often chopping up large boulders of coal into small bits, winter and summer – he was alone.  He knew that his Canadian family, church family and government were doing all that could be done to secure his release.  But the days must surely have been long.

He redeemed the time, though, and found that he grew in the fruit of patience as he waited.  He learned many Bible passages and explanations of Scripture.  His prayer life was rich.  And he waited.

What do you need to wait on God for?  Too often, we like to have everything now. Many things, though, don’t come now.  As we wait, we grow more mature, emotionally and spiritually, and we learn that “those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40.31a, NRSV).

Encouragement From The Word

An important weekend

This is an important weekend.

It’s Mother’s Day weekend, yes.

It’s my wife’s birthday weekend, yes.  (Happy birthday, dear!)

But it’s also the weekend the church celebrates one of the most important, yet under-the-radar, events of the Christian year:  yesterday having been Ascension Day, this Sunday is the day when the church marks the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In many churches – including my own – it will get but a passing nod.  In many more churches it gets less than that.  But the celebration of the ascension of Jesus deserves our attention.  After all, as Tim Perry and Aaron Perry say in He Ascended Into Heaven (Paraclete, 2010), “Resurrection is the beginning of ascension; ascension is resurrection completed” (6), and, “The Ascension marks both the completion of the Son’s mission and the beginning of the mission of his followers – to bear witness to his triumph” (49).

Any doubt as to the veracity of the resurrection of Jesus was settled when he ascended into heaven.  And this, with the great commission, began the work of making disciples, baptizing and teaching.

So Ascension Sunday is a bit like Launch Day: it signifies a new beginning for the church, a new opportunity to commit to the work of making disciples.  If you haven’t been doing all you can to draw people to the Lord – thinking like a missionary, as I said last Sunday in my message – then consider this Sunday, Ascension Sunday, a chance for a fresh start.  And as Luke’s telling of the ascension hints, we don’t have to undertake that fresh start alone!

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.  And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Ambulances, not hospitals

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to listen to Professor David Haskell of Wilfrid Laurier University speak about the state of the church in Canada today.  He said many noteworthy things in his all-too-brief 45-minute talk, but one thing in particular stood out for me:  “Churches are hospitals.  We need ambulances.”

What does that mean?

It means that while God’s people are in the business of soul care, we have, for too long, expected people to come to us for that healing, instead of us going to them. And today, if the church is to thrive, we have to go to them.

Who are “them”?

They are our neighbours, our friends, our loved ones who are suffering spiritually because they lack a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. For a long time in Canada, we have simply expected that people who were interested in religious services of a particular brand would go to a church building of that particular brand, walk in the door, and engage.  And on some rare occasions, this actually happens today…but not often.

No, today, we need to go out into the streets with proverbial stretchers and bring care to the spiritually sick right there in the field before we bring them to the hospital.

To carry that analogy further, we don’t wait for those in need to realize their need and come to the professionals for help.  All followers of Jesus are called to be spiritual EMS workers, acting where and when the need is greatest.

For all of us, that means growing in our faith so that we are competent to provide basic spiritual care – to introduce our neighbours to Jesus – out in the field. None of us ever masters the faith, for if that were possible it would cease to be faith!  But we should enjoy the Lord so much that we long to share him with others – over the back fence, in the post office, wherever we get the opportunity – without waiting for them to figure out their own need of Christ and finding your neighbour showing up at church, only to be surprised to see you there.

Churches are hospitals, and we need ambulances.  Will you be an ambulance?

Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone” (Mark 16.15, NLT).