Encouragement From The Word

Return on investment

Because we get most of our bills sent electronically, and not many people share handwritten correspondence anymore, except on special occasions, we find that we don’t need to retrieve our mail from the post office more than once or twice a week.

Lately, though, our mailbox has been fuller than usual.  My wife is getting a lot of unsolicited mail – asking for money, of course – from unusual sources.

Yesterday, there was  a letter for her from an organization, and when she got home, she looked at it and said, “Someone is selling their mailing list.”

This happens to everybody who has a fixed address, though perhaps less often than usual, because direct mail campaigns seem to be less effective than they once were.

It got me thinking, though.  Because of privacy laws, fewer and fewer organizations are free to sell their mailing lists, but when they do, other groups will buy them because they hope, and maybe even expect, that they will recoup their investment through new donors. In other words, the cost involved in gaining more names will be exceeded by the results they will get from sending a campaign to those names.

When we share our faith, there is no money exchanged – I don’t think, anyway! – but there is a ‘return on investment’ side to it.  For many of us, talking about our relationship with God has a cost: uncomfortabliity.  Many of us find ourselves outside our comfort zones when we talk about Jesus with others. That’s why we don’t do it.

But consider the return on that investment: if we share our faith with others, and even one person says ‘yes’ to Jesus, what is gained from that act far exceeds the uncomfortability we may have had in sharing.

Think about that the next time you have the opportunity to open a door of faith for another person.  What you’re feeling is nothing when compared with the changed eternity for that person who may come to the Lord as a result.

So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5.20, NLT).

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Encouragement From The Word

Get growing!

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that the more I know, the more I know I don’t know:  it’s important always to be learning.

Like many of us, when I was younger, I thought I had it all figured out; I knew everything there was to know.  But one applicant at a company had a different slant on it.  When the human resources director asked him what he expected to be paid, she said, “You certainly expect to be compensated well for a beginner.”

The applicant replied, “Well, sure.  Work’s a lot harder when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

It’s true that work is harder when you don’t know what you’re doing.  And one of the challenges of being the church today is that every week, we aim to hit a target, only to find that it has moved.  Culture is changing more rapidly than the world has ever seen.  And if God’s people are going to be effective in reaching others for Jesus, we need to be aware of the culture into which we’re speaking.

The challenge, for some, is that they get so sucked in by the culture that they become indistinguishable from the culture, and lose their voice to speak into it. We can’t give up the truth of the gospel – which is, by nature, counter-cultural – in favour of popularity.

(Besides, churches can’t compete with other organizations in the popularity department. And they usually have better coffee.)

As the people of God, we are charged with the responsibility of steady growth, learning more each day about what it means to follow Jesus in our changing times. The question is, What are you doing to learn and grow?

Sunday morning alone won’t cut it; we need involvement in a small group (what we at St. Paul’s call LifeConnect Groups) and some sort of service outlet, whether it’s helping the youth group or in kids’ ministry or perhaps some community group – these help us grow in Christ.

What are you doing to learn and grow?

So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God” (Hebrews 6.1, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Instructions Help

In August, my wife and I were given a gently used gazebo by our friends.  We were thinking about getting one, so the price was right, and we were glad to go and pick it up from them!

The catch? No instructions.

With the exception of one hand-drawn sheet from our friends that showed how the corners went together – which was immeasurably valuable, as it turns out – we had to figure out how somewhere around 50 pieces of metal fit together. It involved a lot of standing and staring last Saturday afternoon, and a fair bit of finger-tightening and finger-loosening and finger-tightening again.  (There’s no point in fully tightening something you’re not sure fits in that spot, right?)

Well, 3.5 hours later, we successfully completed putting all the pieces together where IMG_4640they belonged.  The photo gives proof.  Now we just need to get it covered – a task which might get accomplished in the next few days.

I figure that if I had had the assembly instructions, this task could have been accomplished in approximately half the time.  But that extra time is a small price to pay for a free gazebo!

It got me thinking, though, how human beings try to get through life without instructions.  The old joke is that men never ask for directions, and that if Moses had asked for directions, the Israelites would not have wandered in the desert for 40 years! Yet even if we are willing to read a map (old school!) or input an address into a GPS and follow it, in an attempt to get to a specific place, we often are reluctant to follow instructions to progress in day-to-day living.

Someone has said that the word “Bible” is an acronym for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”  I’m not sure it’s all that simple, but it’s also not all that complicated, either. If we want to put together a puzzle, we look at the picture on the box.  If we want to put together a bookshelf, we read the (wordless) directions from IKEA.  The manufacturer provides instructions that make the process better.

That is, in part, what Scripture is for us:  instructions provided by the manufacturer that make the process – of living – better.

Struggling in life?  Read the Bible – especially the Psalms, wherein you will find every possible emotional response to God – and let the Lord speak into your life through his Word.

How sweet your words taste to me; they are sweeter than honey.  Your commandments give me understanding; no wonder I hate every false way of life.  Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path.” (Psalm 119.103-105, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

Let God transform you

I have spent part of this week with a group of students from Presbyterian seminaries in Canada.  They are required to attend what’s called a Guidance Conference at some point in their theological education in order to be assessed in terms of their understanding of their faith journey, call to ministry and gifting.

It was 25 years ago now that I went through one of these conferences as a candidate for ministry, and I remember how nerve-wracking and grueling it was to be watchedat all times, so I’ve done my best when participating in these conferences to be friendly and not to appear like Big Brother.

What these conferences remind me of, writ large, is that the Christian life is not just about being informed.  It’s also about being formed.

It’s possible to shovel all manner of knowledge into people’s minds, and it may make them smart, but unchanged.  There must be an aspect of formation, whether in theological education for pastors or ongoing discipleship for congregants.  After all, you could get an axe murderer to memorize the Psalms and the Westminster Confession of Faith and that person, without the involvement of the Holy Spirit, would still be an axe murderer.

The Bible tells us, “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12.2, NLT).

It is God who does the transforming, not us.  We do well to position ourselves for transformation, but the work of transforming belongs to God.

When God works to transform us, it changes our way of thinking, and therefore our way of living.  Faith not just about knowledge, but about character development.

We don’t send congregants to things like Guidance Conferences, but there are all kinds of opportunities that exist for God’s people to develop their character in the Lord:  conferences, podcasts, videos, online sources like RightNowMedia, as well as small groups and Bible studies at church, along with regular participation in worship.

September starts tomorrow.  It’s a time for fresh starts.  Why not determine that you will make time to prioritize your spiritual formation this fall?

Encouragement From The Word

The elusive subway train

While on vacation in early August, my wife and I paid our first visit to New York City. It’s a fascinating place, great for people-watching, and I recommend that you go if you haven’t been before. (We found a place to camp in New Jersey that was very handy to the train that goes into Manhattan, so while not cheap, it was less expensive than taking a New York hotel room!)

Since the constant gridlock traffic that characterizes downtown Manhattan would drive any Canadian crazy, we relied on public transit to get us around New York. And we learned something fascinating: the New York City subway system is very confusing – even to locals.

We were in Fulton Street Station in lower Manhattan, and we wanted the Number 1, 2 or 3 train to head up to 42ndStreet.  It shouldn’t be too hard, we reasoned, since any one of those three trains would get us there.  But the platform we landed on did not have any of those trains; we weren’t interested in a trip to Brooklyn, so we started watching signs.  Every so often, as we walked along the platforms in the hot, sticky air, we would see a sign that pointed to the Number 1, 2 and 3 trains.

We went up stairs.  We went up elevators.  We went down stairs.  We walked across what felt like miles of platforms.  And this was all in the same station!  At one point, we encountered a lady who, in conversation, told us that she lives there, and she gets confused by the subway.  She wanted the same train we did, and she was as helpless in the process as we were!

Eventually, we found the right platform – no worries about getting my 10,000 steps in that day! – and made it uptown.  But oh, my, what a confusing episode.

Understand that for someone who is new to the church, who perhaps went as a child or has absolutely no faith background at all, walking into a church building on a Sunday morning can be a bit like my experience in the New York City subway.

It’s up to us to assume nothing, keep it simple, and be willing to help people navigate through a service that may be old hat to us, but not to our guests. This is true whether your worship gathering is simple and streamlined, or requires you to follow along in a book or a bulletin.  Whatever we do, it may be gibberish to someone who is new to the church.

Let’s do all we can to grease the path that leads to Jesus.  That way, our guests will be able to echo the Psalmist:  “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Psalm 122.1, NLT).

Encouragement From The Word

A cure for anemic preaching

One of my long-held convictions is that there is a lot of anemic preaching out there today.  In so many cases, as I hear about and experience myself, preaching is either weak in content or weak in communication.  These two scenarios are most common:  either the preacher speaks well and passionately and has nothing to say, or the preacher shares the Word of God accurately and faithfully but without any sort of affection.

When we get strength in both content and communication, that’s when preaching becomes powerful. And I want to encourage you, whether you’re involved in the church I am or any other congregation, to hold your preacher to a standard that brings excellence.  How?

First, expect that your preacher will bring you the Word of God with power.  Come to worship with readiness and expectation. Engage in the singing; pray with the prayers; listen to the Word; be ready to act on what the preacher says. I can tell you that good listeners make better preachers.

Second, study the passage yourself, ahead of time, if you know what your preacher will be talking about.  Each week, I put the next Sunday’s message title and text in the bulletin – not so that people will say, “Oh, that’s nice, he’s talking about…” whatever.  No, I do that in the hope that people will have a look at the passage, ponder it, and come to worship the next Sunday ready to hear from God, ready to interact with the text and with what God gave you from it through the week.

Third, don’t hesitate to ask your pastor to help you work through a Bible passage that you’ve been reading.  If a text challenges you, moves you, or confuses you, talk about it.  (You can also do this with your small group.)  Let your pastor know that you’re engaged with the Bible, and that will make him or her more engaged with the Bible, too.

Fourth, pray for your pastor.  When people tell me they pray for me, I am moved, sometimes to tears, because I know what a difference that makes in my life – and in the life of the person who prays for me.  Preaching is a spiritual act of worship for the preacher and for the listener.  God can and does move by his Holy Spirit in amazing ways through the act of proclamation and intentional listening.

When you do these things, holding your preacher to a higher expectation of preaching that is both transformational and passionate, it’s amazing what the Holy Spirit will do with the church.

When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified.  I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling.  And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit.  I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2.1-5, NLT).

This week, I’m working through The Art of Better Preaching, a course by Carey Nieuwhof and Mark Clark.  It inspired me to write this.  If you’re a preacher, I encourage you to take this online course.  (Nobody paid me to say that, I promise.)

God’s best for your weekend.  How will you change how you listen to preaching?

Encouragement From The Word will return on August 24.

Encouragement From The Word

Celebrating by giving

In some cultures, I’ve learned that when an individual is celebrating a milestone of some sort, the individual gives gifts to those who have helped him or her to achieve the milestone, rather than the common North American tradition of others bringing gifts to the individual.  I’ve come to appreciate that.

This year, our church decided to try that approach.  We are celebrating our 60th ICG14anniversary of ministry and service to our community, so last Wednesday evening, we borrowed an idea from a friend of mine, and hired an ice cream truck to roam the streets of town for an evening.  We stopped at a seniors’ residence, a soccer pitch, and a community park – and for any passersby as we journeyed along.  People were expecting to have to pay for the ice cream.

But they didn’t.  We did.

Why? We did it to invite our community to celebrate with us, and to get the word out that serving Jesus and having fun can be compatible.

We weren’t preaching to anyone.  We told them St. Paul’s was celebrating its 60th anniversary by giving away ice cream cones.  The driver/server of the ice cream truck was so thrilled at what we were doing that he told everybody he gave a cone to where the church is and what time worship begins!

Will this result in higher attendance?  Possibly, but not likely.  That’s not really why we did it.  But if our act of kindness to our community planted a seed or two, it will have been successful. You never know what opportunities may come about down the road because we offered an ice cream cone on a warm evening, in Jesus’ name.

Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically” (Romans 12.11, NLT).