Not Losing Heart

Recently, our church has gone through some difficult circumstances. Since the beginning of the year we have walked with each other through chronic sickness, family emergencies, death, unemployment, and various run-of-the-mill life difficulties. These experiences have proved the maxim “when it rains, it pours.”

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay.”

Paul was no stranger to suffering. Aside from Jesus, no other New Testament witness experienced more suffering. But Paul did not allow his experiences to dictate his attitude or his obedience to the Mission Jesus had given him. In fact, he understood that the difficulties believers experience are meant to show that true power is in God, not in us. He said,

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

If following Jesus was about demonstrating our own power; if planting a church was about our own strategic efforts; if ministry and witness was about how skilled and articulate we are; then we would be in a lot of trouble. As it is, we experience all kinds of suffering, but we are not overcome by any of them. We experience confusion and frustration, but we are not overcome by depression. We experience rejection and opposition, but we are not left alone by God.

“So we do not lose heart.”

While sharing in this suffering with my church family, I have watched God work his grace into our lives. I have witnessed a growing sense of life-on-life in our Missional Community. I have seen the first adult make a profession of faith. I have witnessed God answer prayers and lead us in sweet worship. I have seen God call a man into ministry. I have been challenged and encouraged by the men in my Discipleship Group.

Let us remind each other that our goal is to glorify God in our mission to make disciples by transforming lives, families, and communities with the Good News of Jesus. Whatever we suffer along the way is not worth comparing to the joy that is before us.

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Let us keep our eyes on Jesus. Let us work to increase the glory of God in our church and increase our joy in Him. We’re just a tool God uses to that end. And he will never leave us or forsake us. Don’t lose heart!

Multiplying in 2015

How do you usually end the year? In the midst of all of the holiday activity do you take time to look back on the year and what you’ve accomplished? Do you think back to the goals and plans you made in January and whether or not you achieved them?

Most years I don’t think too much about looking back, but this year is different. Looking back on 2014 I can’t help wondering. Has our church plant been successful? Have we fulfilled our vision? Have we transformed our community? Unfortunately, all of those questions can never truly be answered in one year. Church planting is not a one-year effort. Like a foot race, church planting is a marathon, not a sprint.

While there is a time and place to consider those questions, maybe a better question for each of us to ask is, “Have I made disciples this year?” After all, that is our ultimate mission. Isn’t it? “Make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Another way to think about it is, “What have I multiplied this year?” I saw this tweet from a friend today:

“Four things every church should #multiply: disciples, leaders, small groups, and congregations” (@LDukeAL).

As we look back on 2015, ask yourself this: Have I multiplied disciples this year? Have I multiplied leaders? Has The River Church multiplied small groups? Has The River Church multiplied congregations this year? Maybe you have. Maybe we have not. Well, what are we going to do about it next year?

Here are a few things that I want to lead The River Church to do next year. (1) I am going to encourage every Discipleship Group—you know, the informal groups of men and women, meeting at various times—to work through Life on Mission, a 5-6 week study of how to live like a missionary in your every day life, learning to share the Gospel with people who are far from God. In addition to Life on Mission, I am going to encourage our Discipleship Groups to use other evangelism resources, like Just Walk Across the Room, a book and study written by Bill Hybels. Honestly, friends, we need to learn to be better witnesses. If we cannot sow Gospel seeds, we will not grow as a healthy church on mission!

(2) Beginning January 7, I am going to teach “Preaching 101,” a 5-week class on Expositional Preaching. As a pastor and preacher, I take it my personal responsibility to train men in the task of preaching the Bible. The River Church should be full of men who are equipped to preach faithfully the Word of God. But training to preach is not the only thing our men need. We need to learn to be better Missional Community leaders, better at caring for members of our MCs, better at articulating the Gospel and sharing the Story of God, better at leading our MCs on mission. So I am going to continue to lead our men in our monthly Equipping Sessions, where we will grow and learn together as leaders in all these areas and more.

(3) I am going to encourage us to launch new Missional Communities with leaders trained in our Equipping Sessions. I am going to lead us to identify homes and neighborhoods in our city and our valley where we can put new MCs. When a healthy MC grows in a new neighborhood, it becomes the seed of a new congregation.

The mission of The River Church is to make disciples and plant churches by transforming lives, families, and communities with the Good News of Jesus. That’s what we are all about, friends. What is your part of that mission in 2015? At the end of 2015, will you be able to say I helped multiply disciples, leaders, Missional Communities, and churches?

The Christmas Seed

The following is adapted from a message titled “The Christmas Seed,” delivered on November 30, 2014, at The River Church. You can listen to it here.

What is your favorite thing about Christmas? Is it trimming the tree? Is it the decorations? Perhaps what really gets you into the Christmas spirit is the holiday music. Do you look forward to the parties and special moments with family? Or, do you enjoy the smells of the season? The pine scent, the baked goods, the turkey and the ham?

I have met few people who don’t like Christmas. It seems like everyone I know enjoys getting into the holiday spirit. Yet, I wonder if we really understand the true holiday spirit. In the midst of all the wonderful traditions do we miss out on what’s really important about Christmas? Can we as followers of Jesus offer something more lasting during this time of year?

In Mark 4:1-20, Jesus told the story of the sower. The sower sowed seeds that fell on the path, on rocky ground, on thorns, and on good soil. The seed took root among the rocks, thorns and in good soil. But only in the good soil did it grow and bear fruit.

Jesus compared the story of the sower with our “sowing” of the word. We can think of the word as the Good News of Jesus that is planted in a person’s heart so that they grow and are transformed by it. During Christmas we share the Good News of Jesus through the story of his birth. In the Incarnation, God gave his Son to sinners like us so we could experience the peace and joy all year round.

However, there are some people at Christmas who are like the path. They don’t want to have anything to do with the story of Jesus’ birth. They may be the ones offended when you wish them a “Merry Christmas.” They may be the ones who oppose images of the Nativity. Their hearts are hard to the Good News. Our response can and should be to pray for them. We should continue to sow Christmas seeds hoping that a seed may just implant itself in a crack in their heart and grow to break up the hardness.

There are other people at Christmas who are like the rocky soil. They are eager to hear and accept the story of Jesus’ birth, but often times there are things going on their lives that make it hard for them to grow. Holidays can be difficult for people who are dealing with the loss of a loved one, terminal illness, unemployment or bad family experiences.

A friend of mine just lost her sister in a tragic and senseless act of violence. What can we offer people like my friend? We can offer them the Incarnation. The story of Christmas is that God became a man and experienced every kind of difficulty that we face, even death. He didn’t leave us hanging. He knows what we’re going through and he will carry us through it. We can sow these Christmas seeds of peace and joy that are only found in receiving the gift of the Son.

There are some people at Christmas who are like thorny soil. They accept the story of Jesus’ birth but they are too preoccupied with the holiday rush. They are attracted by the holiday advertising blitz. They are willing to accumulate debt in order to make the season bright. They are run ragged pursuing temporary joy that ends when they have to go back to the mundane of the rest of the year.

Have you seen some of the holiday commercials on TV recently? One depicts a man doing Santa a series of favors so that he’ll get the one thing that will really make his Christmas special: a new car. What can we offer people who are distracted by the cares of the holiday season? We can offer them the greatest gift that has ever been given. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16) This little baby, God in a manger. When we receive Jesus we receive the greatest gift. The holidays will come and go. The feelings of peace, joy and love for all mankind will fade come January. But the gift of Jesus provides us with “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).

Can you believe the Good News?! God became a man! That little baby changed everything. The entire course of history hinges on the true Christmas story. The world has never been the same. And the people around us will never be the same when they receive the Christmas Seed. Sow it widely, my friends. Go tell it on the mountain! Jesus Christ is born!

To My Church Family

It’s that time of year. It’s time to be thankful. It reminds me of one of my favorite thanksgiving passages in the whole Bible, Philippians 1:3-6:

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

Paul loved the church in Philippi. They loved him, too. They participated in a “partnership in the Gospel” (1:5). They supported Paul financially, having “entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving” (4:15). This was not a wealthy church. They were from the region of Macedonia, where “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (1 Cor. 8:2). They believed in the Gospel and sacrificed so much to support Paul, a minister of the Gospel, as well as others who were in need.

Paul and his friends at Philippi provide me with an ideal, biblical example of how to address my family at The River Church. Allow me to speak a few direct words of thanks:

I thank my God for The River Church. I thank my God for your generosity. You have given sacrificially to the work of planting seeds of the Gospel in a dry place. You have given so that my family can make our home in our community. You have given so that those who are far from God can witness us live out the implications of the Gospel in our lives. You have given in order to bless our community and our world!

I thank my God for your faithfulness to the Gospel. Week in and week out your presence is a testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit in your lives. You are committed to gathering for worship, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:25). You are striving to connect with one another in community. You are growing as followers of Jesus as you study the Bible and pray together.

I thank my God for your concern for one another. You have identified needs within the community and are meeting them. You are seeing our community through the compassionate eyes of Jesus. You are loving “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

I thank my God for your good work. You arrive early. You stay late. You give your attention to the details that no one else sees. You work hard to accomplish tasks that don’t get praised or recognized. “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). “So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden” (1 Tim. 5:25). God sees.

I thank my God for The River Church. I thank my God that he has given us the grace to work side-by-side with one another. I thank my God for his providence in joining our paths together. I thank my God that you obeyed him when he called you to plant a church. I thank my God that you are his humble servants. And I thank my God that he is not finished with us, that he will complete the work in the Yakima valley that he has begun in us.

May the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).

Abiding and Prayer

What would you do if someone offered to give you whatever you asked? Very few of us would answer, “no thanks!” Are you kidding!? We would jump at the chance to get whatever we wanted!

Did you know that Jesus has made us a similar offer? Take a look at the verse of the week for The River Church:

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7)

Every time I read that verse my attention is immediately drawn to the words, “and it will be done for you.” That’s an awesome promise! I want God to do whatever I ask, don’t you? But before we start sending our Christmas list to “The Big Guy Upstairs,” let’s take a closer look at this promise.

In John 15, Jesus used the illustration of a vine to describe his relationship with his disciples. A vine nourishes and supports the branches. It gives them life and helps them to bear fruit. The branches are attached to the vine and remain in the vine—they “abide” in the vine. If they are removed from the vine they stop growing and bearing fruit. If they stop bearing fruit, they are pruned away to make room for branches that are bearing fruit.

Jesus said that he is the true vine. His followers are the branches. His followers will only grow and bear fruit if they “abide” in him. Bearing fruit was a big deal to Jesus. In one parable he described seed thrown on various types of soil. The only good soils were the ones that “bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:20). Bearing fruit is more than just developing godly character. For the follower of Jesus, bearing fruit means reproducing more followers of Jesus!

What does all this “bearing fruit” talk have to do with receiving whatever we ask from God? Jesus said, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” This is a great promise, but it is a conditional promise. Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you” (emphasis added). God will answer our request if we abide in Jesus and if his words abide in us. Our challenge is to actually abide in Jesus. Abiding is not a one-time thing. It is a process. A long process. Bearing fruit is not like taking a trip to the grocery store. It takes months and seasons and years. It takes time but the results are worth it: “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

Abiding means growing in our relationship with Jesus through knowledge and obedience. As we get to know him through daily Bible reading and meditating and prayer, we understand God and his ways for us through Jesus. We obey what God reveals to us in the Bible and experience grace and increased faith as we do so. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (John 15:10). When we do what Jesus told us to do, abiding takes place. It is a simple plan, but its effects are eternally satisfying. Abiding will never get old!

As we learn to abide, we will find that whatever we wish will look a lot more like God’s will for us. And his will will be done. “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).

Abide, bear fruit, ask for more. It will be done for you.

Wisdom to Lead

The subject of “leadership” has been trampling through my mind in recent weeks. It started out there as a mostly tame creature more than 20 years ago but has rumbled into maturity over the past few years. It seems appropriate that now I turn my attention to it since I currently carry the title of “church planter.” I’m still not sure what that means exactly, and every day I feel as if I’m failing to live up to my role in our fledgling church.

Meanwhile, “leadership” has been on a rampage. As I work desperately to finish my seminary education this year I have found myself completely immersed in the subject of leadership. Ministry Leadership, Conflict in Ministry, and a Leadership Practicum have all challenged me from various angles, exposing my own shortcomings while at times also applying salve for my wounds.

This morning as I persevered through my time in the Bible I read 1 Kings 3. It wasn’t until some time later as I prayed and began my work day that that Old Testament story came to my mind again.

Do you remember it? God appeared to Solomon in a dream and said, “Ask what I shall give you.” Hello! If only God would appear to me and write me that blank check! I imagine Solomon was fairly amazed at the offer, as well. But here’s how he responded:

And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have kept for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (1 Kings 3:6–9, ESV)

Allow me to offer a clumsy paraphrase:

“God, you’ve always taken care of me and my family. You did more for my father than he deserved, and he did the best he could to follow you faithfully. Now you’ve placed me in his position to lead your people. But I don’t know how to lead them. They are too great, too many for me to take care of. Give me wisdom, God! Who can do this?!”

Solomon obviously realized that in his situation he would not be able to lead God’s people without divine help. He needed more than the standard anecdotes, conferences, videos, podcasts and books. Without the wisdom from God all the rest is just hot air.

I feel like I’m in the same place right now. I’ve been encouraged by a multitude of sources of “leadership” training, and I’m certainly not opposed to the help they offer. But what I need more than anything else is God’s help to lead God’s people. Like Solomon, I want to be a great leader of God’s people. I doubt I’ll ever have great influence over thousands of people, but I want to lead well, nonetheless. I thank God for the wisdom he gives for the task! Short of receiving divine offers in a dream I have only to ask God for wisdom, “who gives generously to all without reproach” (James 1:5, ESV). And I’ll need to keep on asking, since I need a lot of wisdom and am slow to learn.

Bible Plan 2014 (Week 32)

Track 1

Judges 20; Acts 24

Judges 21; Acts 25

Ruth 1; Acts 26

Ruth 2; Acts 27

Ruth 3, 4; Acts 28

1 Samuel 1; Romans 1

1 Samuel 2; Romans 2

 

Track 2

Jeremiah 34; Psalms 5, 6

Jeremiah 35; Psalms 7, 8

Jeremiah 36, 45; Psalm 9

Jeremiah 37; Psalm 10

Jeremiah 38; Psalms 11, 12

Jeremiah 39; Psalms 13, 14

Jeremiah 40; Psalms 15, 16