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 However, many people dismiss this as outdated, as irrelevant in our modern, on-the-go, 24/7 reality.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.

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.

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.

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.

The Bible Informs Our Understanding of God

We get to know God better as we read about him in the Bible

The Bible helps us understand God. Read itIs the Bible a book about God or a book about his crazy people? The answer is yes. In combining these two ideas, we can say the Bible is a book that addresses God’s relationship with his creation. Therefore we can better understand God by reading about how he interacts and deals with people.

The Bible mentions God thousands of times. He appears in every one of its books,  (though his presence in the book of Esther is implied). His being permeates every page of the Bible.

To better understand God, we need to set aside the world’s unbiblical view of him. Humanity has a skewed perception of his character. And often they are just plain wrong. Popular culture is not a good source to learn about God. The Bible is.

Love: The prevailing theme I see in the Bible is love. The Bible shows God’s love of us and looks at how people respond to that love.

God loves us and we can love him in return. That’s what he wants. Though he won’t force us to love him, he does desire us to choose to do so. It’s called free will.

In the Old Testament, we see this love for him borne largely out of a healthy fear. In the New Testament, our love comes from the mercy he offers us through Jesus.

Patient: Though the Bible contains a plethora of themes that reveal much about God, I see patience as a key one. God is patient with us. Like a loving parent, he gives us chance after chance. He wants us to learn and to do what is right. Like the father in Jesus’s parable of the wayward son (the Prodigal), God patiently waits for us, scanning the horizon in hopes we will come home to live with him.

Personal: It’s clear God wants to have a relationship with us, so we can be in community with him. He walked with Adam in the garden. He revealed his being to Moses. He affirmed David’s heart toward him. He talked to Paul. He gave visions to many. He guided people to write about him and then compile these writings into the Bible we enjoy today. And, most importantly, he dispatched Jesus to point us to him and provide a means for us to be with God.

Eternal: The Bible shows God as existing outside of the time-space he created. Though beyond comprehension, he is eternal, with no beginning or ending. And he wants us to join him in that.

Though the Bible reveals much more about God, these four traits are a great start: God loves us and patiently waits for us to have a personal connection with him that will last through the rest of eternity. And that’s good news.

Let Us Draw Near to God

4 insights in how we are to approach God

Draw near to God.Because of who Jesus is and what he did for us, our relationship with God the Father changes. Through Jesus we have a new connection with Papa that we didn’t have before. We can now approach him.

In fact the writer of Hebrews encourages us to do just that. He says, “let us draw near to God.” Then he builds on this instruction by listing four aspects of our approach as we draw near to him (Hebrews 10:19-22).

Sincere Heart: Having a sincere heart suggests a proper motivation. While we can approach God when we’re in a jam, if that’s the only time we seek him, I don’t think this pleases him too much. And although we can, and should, come to him with our worries, that misses the point of drawing near to God.

The purpose of approaching God is to just hang out. This means we seek to enjoy community with him and want to worship him. We do this best when we go to him without selfish motivation or a self-centered agenda. Sincerity of heart best sums this up.

Full of Faith: Having faith in him and through him should fill us with assurance. We are his child. We can trust in this reality as we go to see Daddy. We grasp onto this by having faith in him, a belief we can’t manufacture, but accept in confidence of who he is and our right standing with him. This is the assurance faith provides.

Cleansed of Guilt: A guilty conscience robs us of our joy. It takes away our peace. Can we rightly approach God when we lack joy and have no peace? Of course we can, but it’s better when we can draw near to him with a clear conscience, with our hearts made clean. Shame loads us down, but through Jesus our hearts are sprinkled clean. The guilt is gone. Our conscience is clear.

Washed Pure: Jesus not only appeases the guilty conscience of our hearts, but he also washes our whole bodies clean. He makes us pure, both inside and out. It’s all so good.

The question in all of this becomes, are these four conditions we must meet before we can approach God or four realities we realize because we are able to approach him?

The answer is both. Jesus makes these things possible, and our job is to cling to them when we approach God.

Because of Jesus and through him, we can draw near to God. Thank you Jesus.

What Do We Do When We Get Together?

The Bible tells us to not give up meeting together, but we often miss the point

Don’t forget to encourage one another when we meet together.As we persevere in our faith, one aspect of this is to not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). Many people interpret this verse as a command to attend church. It isn’t. Not really. While meeting together could include going to church, it should encompass much more.

Where We Meet: The phrase to not give up meeting together is a call for intentional interaction with other followers of Jesus. He says anywhere two or three people get together and place the focus on him, he will join them (Matthew 18:20).

  • Meals: Most people enjoy meals with others, and most Christians pray before they eat. Isn’t this gathering in Jesus’s name? I think so. While we may eat some meals alone, we potentially have three times each day to fellowship with others and include Jesus. But do we make the most of these opportunities?
  • Small Groups: Many churches provide opportunities for attendees to form intentional gatherings with a small number of people. This facilitates connection with each other and draws us to God. If we skip our small group, it’s as if we are giving up meeting together, which the Bible says not to do.
  • Coffee Shop: People often meet at coffee shops to spend time and hang out. If you include God in your meeting, either explicitly or implicitly, you assemble in his name.
  • Homes: Do you invite people into your home or see others in theirs? If you both love Jesus, doesn’t this become a get together where he is included? It should.
  • Outings: What about going on a picnic, to the game, the gym, or shopping? With intentionality, each of these can be another opportunity to meet together in his name.
  • Church: Yes, church is on this list of places where we can gather in the name of Jesus. But I list it last because I wonder if it isn’t the least important. Why do I suggest this? Because when we meet in this environment, we often (perhaps usually) do it wrong. Consider the rest of the verse to find out why.

When We Meet: The command to not give up meeting together goes on to explain why. People tend to skip this part. The reason we are to meet together is so that we may encourage one another. The Bible says so, but how often do we do this in our church meetings?

If we leave church discouraged or fail to encourage others while we’re there, then we’ve missed the point of meeting together. While some people make a big deal out of meeting together—that is, going to church—they’re quick to miss that the reason is to encourage each other. If we’re not going to do that, then we might as well stay home.

Let Us Persevere in Our Faith

The book of Hebrews tells us how to react to what God has done for us

An interesting passage in Hebrews opens with a reminder of who we are in Jesus and through Jesus (Hebrews 10:23-25). With this as our perspective, the author tells us four things we should do in response.

Let Us Pursue God: The NIV says to “draw near to God.” I like this imagery of us steadfastly moving toward God, getting closer and closer, almost as though he gently pulls us to him. Though we can accept or reject his supernatural yearning to pull us close, we consent to his attraction when we pursue him.

May we pursue God as if nothing else matters—because nothing else does. We need to do this with a sincere heart and full of faith.

Let Us Hold Onto Hope: Next we need to grasp the hope we claim to have within us. If we say we have hope but don’t act like it, what good is that? Instead our behavior, both in thought and in action, must align with what we believe.

And if we face temptation to waiver in our hope, Hebrews reminds us that he will faithfully give us what he promised. Cling to our hope.

Let Us Encourage One Another: Third is the reminder to encourage each other. While we can nurture many godly traits in others, this passage specifically mentions two: love and good deeds. It’s as if nothing else matters.

We love others in the same way God loves us. He shows us his perfect love and we strive to follow his example. And we help others. Why? Not to get God’s attention or to achieve some agenda, but because he says so.

The practical extension of love is to do kind things for others. Love connects to good deeds.

Let Us Not Isolate Ourselves: We can’t realize all God desires for us if we separate ourselves from his other followers. Together we stay strong. Apart we falter. As the Bible says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

The oft-quoted text for this is to let us not give up meeting together, which many misapply (read more about this). The point is to hang out with others who follow Jesus. The details of what this looks like is for us to determine.

As followers of Jesus, may we pursue God, cling to hope, offer encouragement, and spend time with each other.

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What’s the One Thing That Matters Most?

The list of faith essentials is short—a list of only one item

Jesus is the one thing that's essential to our faithTwo thousand years ago the religious leaders, called Pharisees, heap a bunch of manmade requirements on the backs of the people so they can be right with God. Some scholars place the number at over 22,000 regulations, far more than the 613 items the Law of Moses contains, which far exceeds God’s top ten instructions (aka The Ten Commandments).

While today’s religious leaders have numerically fewer requirements for their followers, they, too, heap a pile of expectations upon us: of things we shouldn’t do and things we should, of hoops to jump through to be accepted into their group (their church).

They spout requirements for us to meet, a checklist of tasks to complete—or behaviors to avoid. We need to agree to their specific theological mindset, and if we question just one item they hold sacrosanct, we’re booted as a miscreant, likely on our way to hell. Branded as a heretic, we’re banished from their community. 

They call their requirements, the essentials. These so called faith essentials sometimes carry a prooftext, but more so than not they are no more than traditions, conventions, and preferred practices, with an elevated status for us to adhere to.

Some enlightened pastors advise to hold a short list of essentials. They have the right idea.

Jesus has this in mind when he says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). The essentials of Jesus are simple. He creates no undue burden for us, much unlike the Pharisees of his day—or the Pharisees of our day.

But how short should this list of essentials be? Ten items, perhaps five or six? Can we boil it down to three?

How about one?

Yes, there is one faith essential. Jesus says so.

What is this one thing that matters most? It’s Jesus.

At the house of Martha and Mary, Martha is worried about many things (in a practical sense, her list of essentials), while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him. She focuses on one thing, and Jesus affirms her for that (Luke 10:39-42).

This one thing isn’t baptism. It’s not saying a certain prayer or joining a church. It’s not witnessing or tithing. It’s not going to church on Sunday or taking communion. It’s not reading a certain version of the Bible or being filled with the Holy Spirit. And it’s not going through a class or completing a spiritual rite of passage.

It’s Jesus.

Jesus is the one thing, the one faith essential.

Do You Have These Misconceptions about Church?

Many people carry misconceptions about the purpose of church, and we need to set aside that thinking

Christians Need to Gather Together..Last Sunday in “What is Church,” I suggested we are the church. Church isn’t a place we go—not really. It’s who we are. As the church we should be about worship, community, and helping others.

There’s a lot I didn’t mention. That was intentional. Contrary to the actions and attitudes of many, here is what a church is not:

Church is Not an Obligation: We must never think of church as an obligation. Though most people, at one time or another, make a conscious decision to attend a Sunday morning gathering when they don’t feel like it, that falls under the category of being self-disciplined. But if the only reason we ever go is out of a sense of obligation, then our motivation is wrong. God is not impressed.

Yes, the Bible commands us to persist in meeting together (Hebrews 10:24-25), but that doesn’t necessarily mean a Sunday church service. I think it means hanging out with other believers. That should be fun, not an obligation to fulfill.

Church is Not a Means to Appease Guilt: Some people only attend a religious service on Sunday morning because they’d feel guilty if they stayed home. They were trained from an early age that church is what you did. If the church doors where open, they were there: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night prayer meeting, Thursday visitation . . .

Guilt is a powerful motivator. The avoidance of guilt can propel us to positive action, but it needs to have a benefit greater than appeasing a shame-filled conscience.

Church is Not a Routine: Many Sunday services proceed with a rote precision that attendees follow mindlessly. They come, they go through the motions, and they head home. For them the entire time holds no significance. While their body acts, their mind drifts, and their spirit remains untouched. Routine is the enemy of meaningful worship and true community.

An almost parallel aspect of routine exists, called ritual. Though the word ritual carries negative connotations, a positive aspect of ritual is one seeped in deep spiritual mystery. Some people are drawn to this type of almost-mystical ritual, a sacred practice that supernaturally connects them with the Almighty.

Church is Not a Social Club: Some people pursue church meetings as nothing more than a social gathering, void of spiritual significance. They miss the true meaning of us meeting together. They dishonor God and marginalize his community of followers.

Though one of the characteristics of us as church is community, there’s a distinction between meaningful community and a social get together. Yes, community contains a significant social aspect, but more importantly it involves intentionality in how we treat one another. The New Testament gives us over thirty “one another” commands, which starts with the expectation that we love one another.

Church is Not a Business Promotion Vehicle: Some people become members of a local church as a means for commerce. They join so they can sell, not serve. They go through the motions of worship, and their engagement with community consists only of networking for business.

When my bride and I were first married, another couple from our local congregation invited us to their house. We were ecstatic. Then my mother-in-law shared that this couple had recently signed onto a large multi-level marketing company. When I asked them directly of their intention, they confirmed my fears that we would experience a sales pitch. We didn’t go, and they never talked to us again. That’s not church. That’s not even good business.

Church is Not a Place to Amass Knowledge: For much of my life I reasoned that the real purpose of a Sunday service was to learn about God. I dismissed the worship part because it bored me. I didn’t see community because it was all social. And, as an inward looking body, we didn’t do any service. That left the sermon.

But what happens when the sermon doesn’t provide any new information? Does that mean I wasted an hour, or more? But recall the verse that says, “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Amassing knowledge is not the reason we should go to church. That takes me back to worship, community, and serving others.

We are the church. We gather to worship God, live in community, and serve others.

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