Do You Have Life?

Whoever has the Son has life

In the first of John’s three letters, he writes to the early followers of Jesus, reminding them of God’s essential message about Jesus, light, and life. Jesus, by the way, is the light and he gives life. So amid John’s poetic flare, his words all revolve around Jesus.

As John winds down his letter, he writes, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” He makes it so simple.

We take this word life to mean eternal life, that is, our future life in heaven.

Yes, it is that. But this future begins today, not later after we die. The life Jesus gives us is physical life, too. And this might be just as important. Really.

Too many Christians plod through this life, placing all their hopes in a future life in heaven. Their exclusive future focus robs them of what God wants to give them today.

We need to make the most of this life that Jesus gives us. Live for him. Love others as he does. Point them to Jesus, the Son of God.

John makes it clear: Whoever has the Son has life.

Do you have the Son?

If so, the life he gives starts here, now.

If not, seek Jesus and you will have him. It’s that simple.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is 1 John 5, and today’s post is on 1 John 5:12.]

Considering the Sabbath: Are You Free or a Slave?

Don’t be a slave to the Law or to legalism, but be free to accept Sunday as a gift from God

The fourth of God’s Ten Commandments tells us to not work on the seventh day of the week and to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8-11). Nowadays, some people make an attempt to follow this command, albeit with adjustments. However, many people dismiss this as outdated, as irrelevant in our modern, on-the-go, 24/7 reality.

Though many people do not actually go to work on Sunday, to them it is a day like any other, and they may do as they please. It is enough if they happen to squeeze church into their Sunday schedule, but the rest of the day is theirs to do whatever they wish.

They point out that Jesus comes to fulfill the Law. He says so. Consequently, the Ten Commandments and all of Moses’s Law no longer apply. But in the same breath, Jesus first says he does not come to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17). Therefore, perhaps the Law still stands.

Which is it?

Consider the timing of when God gives all these rules to his people.

They have been slaves for many generations. He releases them from their servitude. He provides them with rules to guide them as a free people. One of the instructions is to not work on the seventh day and to keep it holy.

As slaves, the people worked every day and never got a day off. They had no weekend. They enjoyed no rest. Their masters (that is, their slave drivers) saw to that.

Then they become free and God gives them a day off, a day to rest where they don’t have to work. And to guide them in this day off, he shifts their attention from endless labor to him. Make this day holy, he teaches.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man,” (Mark 2:27). It’s so we can rest as a free people.

In our practice, we shift the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first, the day we call Sunday.

Some people are slaves (either in actuality or in practice) and must work on Sunday. Other people are slaves to the Law. Out of legalistic fervor, they don’t work on Sunday.

The people who are truly free navigate the middle ground.

We are not slaves to work or slaves to legalism. Sunday is a day of freedom for them. We are free to rest and to have a day that is different from all others. We are free to worship God and honor him on a day set apart, a day that is holy.

How to do that is for us to decide. God gives us the freedom to do so.

What Is Your Path?

When we focus on other people, we may lose sight of our own calling

As Jesus wraps up his stint on earth, he spends some time with his disciples, the core group he trained for three years. They will need to carry on without him, and he wants to make sure they’re ready.

First, he must deal with Peter, who, a few days earlier, denied he even knew Jesus. Jesus is gentle but sure. To counter Peter’s three denials, Jesus has his wayward disciple give three affirmations of love. After each one, Jesus tells Peter to “Care for those who follow me.”

Then Jesus tells Peter what his future will entail. It ends with execution. But Jesus tells Peter to follow him, regardless.

Likely squirming and wanting to change the subject, Peter notices John and asks Jesus what the future holds for this disciple, “What are your plans for him?”

Jesus won’t play along. He basically says, “It doesn’t matter. You must do what I told you to do: follow me.”

It’s easy to become distracted by other people: People who seem to have more success, at least by the world’s standards; people who radiate God’s love in a way we fear we never will; or people who pray with a faith that eludes us.

Frustrated and discouraged, we may ask God, “What are your plans for them?”

To which God says, “It doesn’t matter what others do, you must follow me.”

Look straight ahead and follow Jesus. We shouldn’t concern ourselves with what others are doing.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is John 21, and today’s post is on John 21:15-22.]

How a Business Mindset Influences the Church

A church and its congregation shouldn’t let a corporate mentality infiltrate it’s thinking

In “Why Business Practices Hurt the Church” we discussed how business thinking has improperly affected the big-picture perspectives of church. Yet the business mindset goes deeper than that, negatively influencing church practices and attendee attitudes.

Spiritual Outcomes Are Not Quantifiable: The business world measures everything, but when churches try to do that, they end up with a focus on finances and attendance.

Churches shouldn’t measure their success numerically. And when they do, they shift the focus from what matters to God to what matters to humans.

We can’t measure changed lives, but that’s precisely what matters most to God.

Measure What Matters: I once attended a church’s annual meeting. They spent much time talking about the 103 baptisms they did that year and the 103 people who joined their church. It was a grand celebration of their success and the marvelous manner of God at work.

However, as an addendum to the end of their meeting, they shared their beginning and ending membership numbers. The difference was not 103 but one! In a busy year with 103 baptisms and 103 new members, they had only grown by one person. That meant 102 people quit their church.

Don’t measure what makes you feel good, but count what matters.

Churn: The business world calls this loss of customers churn. If a business churns customers so fast that all their effort is spent trying to stay even, then something is wrong, seriously wrong. But this church wasn’t smart enough to realize that—or at least to admit it.

Some churches call this the back door. They grow when people come in the front door and shrink when these folks slip out the back door. Another apt term is leaking. Some churches leak people—a lot of people.

Churn is bad for both businesses and churches. It must be fixed, yet the approach to do so differs. Businesses address churn by looking at customer service and product offerings. Churches should not. Their problem goes much deeper than service and product, but until they realize this, they’ll never fix it.

The Consumer Mentality: When people feel free to leave a church, often over the smallest of slights, they view themselves as a customer shopping for the church that offers the most value. This is a consumer mindset, not a godly perspective.

We shouldn’t shop for a church that provides the services we want. Instead we should look for a faith community we can help.

Consumerism Turns the Church into a Service Provider: When people go church shopping, the church becomes a service provider. Which church offers the best services? Then the focus shifts to programs, service styles, and preaching power.

Instead of asking, “What can the church do for me?” the better question becomes “What can I do for the church?” Don’t seek to be served but to serve.

Customer Complaints: The business that wants to improve, grow, and remain viable listens to its customers. While we all like to hear good news from happy people, the real value comes from the frustrated people who still care enough to share their opinion. So the wise business leader listens.

Yet when most people apply this attitude to their church and share their “concerns” with their pastor or church leaders, they do so with the wrong motives. In reality they want to turn the church into their vision of an ideal congregation that fits them perfectly. Their so-called concerns are little more than a selfish attempt to change the church into what they want for themselves.

Church is Not about the Customer Experience: Businesses talk much about the customer experience. They strive to make the experience of each customer the best they can in order to retain patrons who will continue to buy from them.

When church leaders apply this to their congregation, they begin pandering to the demands of members in order to maintain their attendance and receive their offerings each week. Yet each move in this direction is a step away from God.

Members Are Not Customers: Applying business practices to church implies that members are customers. This carries with it all sorts of negative connotations, such as a consumerism mindset and the need to maximize the lifetime value of members, that is their donations.

The best response is for churches to do away with membership. After all, it’s not biblical.

While modern business practices do much to advance the cause of capitalism and commerce, these same thoughts hurt the church. We must keep this from happening.

Don’t Fight Against God

Too many people fail to see God at work and instead oppose those who follow him into his new ways

Jesus warns his followers what awaits them. First, they’ll get kicked out of their church and then people will kill them. Their opponents will do so in the name of religion, thinking they’re acting in service to God. This means the killers aren’t coming from the world but from within the family of God.

Historically this happens whenever a new move of God occurs. The biggest movement of God was Jesus coming to fulfill the Old Testament Law. Most people miss this, and so they oppose him.

There is also Moses who leads the people from slavery to freedom. He gives them instructions on how to live as a free people. They oppose him—for forty years. Though they don’t kill him, they provoke him so much that sometimes he wishes he was dead (Exodus 32:32 and Numbers 11:15).

The Old Testament prophets likewise suffer opposition and death. It seldom goes well for them.

The pattern of religious conflict continues since the time of Jesus. Most notably the Reformation. Christians oppose other Christians. Christians hate other Christians. And Christians kill other Christians. Another momentous time of Christian versus Christian hostility happens at the birth of the Charismatic movement in the early 1900s and again at its rebirth in the 1960s.

Each time God is at work doing a new thing. Each time, many of his people mount a significant opposition. And God’s messengers usually suffer for it.

Don’t label the people who follow God into his new way of doing things as heretics and oppose them. Instead, we would be better off heeding the words of Gamaliel who told the religious leaders, “Don’t bother with them. If they’re doing this on their own, they will fail. But if it’s of God, we can’t stop them—and could end up fighting against God himself,” (see Acts 5:38-39).

Instead of kicking the people we disagree with out of church, we would be better off seeing if God is at work. Instead of arguing, let’s listen.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is John 16, and today’s post is on John 16:2-3.]

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The Bible Can Provide Direction for Our Lives

We can receive focus for life decisions from the Word of God

The Bible offers much for us, assuming we bother to tap into its treasure-trove of knowledge. One of the Bible’s uses is to provide direction for our lives.

To realize the Bible’s insight as applicable to our lives, however, we need to read it, study it, and discern it. Looking for quick answers usually doesn’t work out so well.

Be wary of these ill-advised shortcuts and follow the one reliable technique:

Random Verse Selection: You’ve likely heard of a person, desperate for answers, who holds up their Bible and demands, “God speak to me.” Then they open the Word of God to a random page and read the first verse they see.

Sometimes they actually receive an applicable verse that offers comfort, confirmation, or instruction. However, the selected verse often provides confusion or a laughable text, given their situation. This is an especially dangerous method when making critical life decisions.

Asking God to direct us to a random passage and faithfully expecting him to do so is not something we should avoid, but we should exercise great care if we do this. And it should never be a regular practice.

Word Studies: Looking up verses in the Bible that contain a certain word or phrase can provide an incredible amount of insight. I do this often and am amazed to see how words connect throughout the Bible, with one verse illuminating another.

Yet, we need to be careful with word studies. When used wrongly or indiscriminately, this in-depth analysis can lead us to bad theology or unwarranted conclusions.

For example, assume we’re doing a word study on marriage. Some scholars place extra emphasis on a word’s first appearance in the Bible, claiming it should guide our understanding of subsequent appearances.

The first mention of a form of the word marriage in the Bible occurs in Genesis 4:19, as in, “Lamech married two women.” The implication equates marriage with polygamy, hardly a worthy conclusion. Be careful of word studies, especially when the goal is to use the results to make a decision.

Proof Texting: An extension of word studies is proof texting. Proof texting involves taking various verses from different sections of the Bible and linking them together to form a conclusion, often a predetermined one. It uses the Bible to justify an agenda.

The problem when doing this is the likelihood of taking verses out of context to prove a point. This may result in applying a verse literally, when the context is figurative or even rhetorical. It could involve looking at the words of an ancient work and forcing them into a modern context they were never meant to address.

Just as with word studies, the concept behind proof texting can produce valuable results. However, if we don’t exercise extreme care, the more likely outcome is manipulating the Bible to say what we want it to say.

An Intentional Study Plan: As an alternative to the three above approaches, the better solution is to follow a regular Bible reading plan. This might involve reading the Bible through in one year. Another option is spending an extended time studying the words in one book of the Bible or the writings of one author, such as Luke, John, or Paul.

As we read and study the Bible, God will speak to us. He will reveal truth. And since we’re following a preconceived plan, we protect ourselves from interjecting our own agenda into what we select to read, which can easily happen when we don’t have a plan and follow our own whims on a haphazard basis.

The Bible can give us valuable direction for making life decisions but only when we read it wisely and don’t try to use it to meet our own agenda.

Put God First: Don’t Lose Sight of What Matters Most

Too often we place our personal needs over what God is at work doing

When Jesus’s friend Lazarus dies, Jesus goes to were the man is interred and, with a dramatic flair, raises him from the dead. When the people see this miracle of miracles, many believe in Jesus.

Bringing someone back to life is an amazing feat, and surely everyone should be happy. But not everyone is. Do you know who’s upset? The religious leaders, the very people who claim to represent the God who sent Jesus in the first place. But they miss it.

They can’t see God’s hand at work. Or maybe they’re not willing to. All they can think about is themselves. Though under Roman occupation, they still managed to carve out a comfy situation for themselves. And they want to keep it. They enjoy their standing as religious leaders and the admiration of the people. Selfishly, they want to preserve what they have, to maintain the status quo. In their self-centered ambition, they lose sight of the God they portend to serve. They fail to realize that God is present.

These religious leaders fear losing their position, their power, and their prestige. Their solution? Kill Jesus. Yep, they become so focused on protecting their current situation that they plot against their God.

It’s easy to criticize them. Yet this same thing still happens now.

How many religious leaders today have become so focused on preserving their job, maintaining their paycheck, and keeping their followers that they oppose the work of God, things contrary to their faith and what God has called them to do?

It happens too often, and it’s wrong. We must always put God first, even if we might lose something in the process.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is John 11, and today’s post is on John 11:43-53.]

Does Dropping Out of Church Mean Turning Your Back on God?

Church attendance may relate to faith or the two may have no connection at all

It borders on gossip, but I occasionally hear a whispered concern about so-and-so not going to church anymore. They dropped out, which in the minds of some people means these nonchurch attenders have “fallen from their faith,” “have backslidden,” or are now “going to hell.”

On a broader scope, I keep hearing reports that Millennials (or some other demographic) have turned from God and left their faith. What is the reason for this conclusion?

It’s simple. They’ve dropped out of church.

Ergo they must have abandoned their faith. However, just as some people attend church and don’t really know God, others know God quite well but have given up on church.

We need to, once and for all, disconnect the assumption that church attendance equates to faith—and that regular attendance implies a vibrant faith. To the contrary, I’ve heard many people say they stopped going to church to preserve their faith in God, that church attendance damaged their state of spiritual being more than it helped.

Don’t take my assertion that church attendance is not an indicator of faith as an excused to stop going. However, if going to church presents an unhealthy burden for you or causes you more harm than good, then perhaps you need to find a different church.

And by different church, I don’t necessarily mean a different denomination or a different style of service, but to perhaps re-envision what church is.

At the basic level church is where two or more people gather in Jesus’s name (Matthew 18:20). This might mean in a church building on Sunday morning. Or it may mean at a coffee shop Wednesday afternoon or a restaurant Friday evening. How about a sports event on Saturday or dinner on Sunday? What about a game night or movie outing?

Before you bristle at the implication that playing games or watching movies in Jesus’s name is on a par to Sunday morning church attendance, which one offers more Christian community? Which is the setting where serious faith conversations are more likely to occur?

When the Bible warns us to not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25), it’s not talking about going to church. It’s really talking about meeting together. This may mean meeting at the coffee shop, restaurant, sports event, Sunday dinner, game night, or movies.

We are not to live our faith in isolation but in community. However, we must dissuade ourselves of the notion that this community should happen on Sunday morning.

If the traditional form of church has let you down, don’t give up on all forms of Christian community. Find one that works for you and pursue it at all costs. Your faith may depend on it.

Does Jesus Offend You?

Though many people like an easy Jesus, not everyone accepts what he says

Jesus normally teaches the masses in parables. Though most don’t really understand what he means, they like his stories because they’re so countercultural. Plus, he sometimes gives them food and heals them. He’s a cool speaker who does nice things for them. What’s not to like?

Then one day he speaks to them directly. He’s blunt. There’s no compelling story, just some weird message about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. He’s not talking about actual cannibalism; it’s a metaphor—of some sorts. It’s about life and death, sacrifice and reward.

The people grumble. They complain he’s hard to understand and say no one can accept his message. Many of his followers become ex-followers. They reject him and go in search for something else, but the disciples stick around; they’re all in.

Yes, the main message of Jesus is easy. He loves everyone and opens his arms to accept us. But sometimes he’s hard to understand, too. Sometimes his message offends people. Their response is to give up on Jesus.

But I’m all in. I hope you are, too.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible this year. Today’s reading is John 6, and today’s post is on John 6:53-68.]

Why Business Practices Hurt the Church

Many churches try to operate like a business even though that model doesn’t apply

In our culture we’re familiar with the structure of businesses. We either work for a business or we run one. It’s a natural extension to apply these principles to the church. But we shouldn’t, because a church isn’t a business. And the church needs to stop acting like one.

Consider these common elements of a business:

CEO: A CEO runs a business. Ultimately the CEO controls everything and makes all decisions. While the wise CEO will delegate both responsibility and authority, in the end the CEO stands accountable for what happens. Incidentally most CEOs receive huge compensation packages for their trouble.

In churches many people wrongly elevate the pastor to CEO status, and many pastors try to grab unto it. Jesus was a servant leader and so should today’s pastors. And by the way, they shouldn’t be a pastor for the money. Jesus wasn’t a wealthy man, and he stands as a worthy example for ministry leaders.

Board of Directors: Businesses have a board of directors. In some cases these boards agree to whatever the CEO wants. In other cases the board rightly serves as a check and balance to the CEO.

Although some churches are truly democratic, where every decision results from a congregational vote, most churches have some sort of board. Some boards are elected, others are appointed, and a few are comprised of big money donors (money speaks). In most cases the board serves as a rubber stamp for whatever the pastor wants. But the other extreme is micromanaging the pastor and dictating every action. The early church operated by consensus. Maybe today’s churches should, too.

Board Chair: Many times the chair of the board is the CEO. This means the board tasked with overseeing the CEO is also run by the CEO. The result is an ineffective board.

In many churches the pastor also runs the church board, rendering the board as largely ineffective. The pastor, who serves continually, gathers strength over time, while the board, which turns over every few years, becomes weak.

Profit Motive: Companies are in business to make money. Even nonprofits need to generate a positive cashflow if they hope to remain viable.

While the motive of a church should not be money, often cash becomes the soul focus of concern. The constant pressure of bringing in money causes churches to make decisions based on finances and to kowtow to the demands of big-money donors.

Return on Investment: Businesses make decisions based on ROI (return on investment). Remember, they’re in business to make money.

Churches shouldn’t be in the money-making business. They should focus on changed lives. The ROI for the church is souls, not dollars.

Stockholders: Businesses are owned by stockholders. The stockholders expect a profit from their investment.

While churches don’t have stockholders, most have members. And these members wrongly expect something in return for their participation. They forget the church’s real purpose is others not members. They forget to lay up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20).

We understand how businesses run, but we are wrong to apply these lessons to churches. A church that runs like a business becomes an institution and fails to embrace the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks so much about.

[This is from the May issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]