Some Things I Would Tell My 8-Year-Old Self

Two months shy of my ninth birthday on the last Sunday in November 1980, I stepped up during the invitation hymn and walked down the aisle of the Church. At the front was my preacher Jack Austin and he led me through a confession of faith, prayed, and then baptized me. My brother came forward with me that day, and we both stepped into our new life at the same time. Dad met us in a little upper room the Church had behind the baptistery, and he offered us communion and prayed over us before we walked down the back hallway of the Church building into the lobby where everyone waited to greet us.

It has been almost 37 years since that day, and I still think about it regularly. It was the single most significant decision of my life. That day would propel me to Bible college where I would meet my wife who would become the mother of my children. That day led to a career in ministry where I still work today. That day changed everything and sent me down a path with Jesus.

Many of steps on this journey were expected. I knew I would spend a significant amount of time reading the Bible, attending Church and praying. I knew I would one day be a Church leader. I knew that moment would shape my family and my future. There are a few things I wish I had known back then. If I had the opportunity to go back, there are a few things I would like to tell myself to help prepare me for my life of faith.

1. Christianity is More Difficult Than You Imagine. In many ways, I thought his life would be easy. There is one book to read and one set of beliefs to understand. How hard could it possibly be? It didn’t know it would mean clinging to faith with the death of my best friend. I could not imagine the pain of leaving my parents and family behind to serve a Church full of people I didn’t know. Each new chapter of faith has ripped my soul apart while I learned what it truly meant to follow Christ alone.

2. Christians Will Greatly Disappoint You. In my childish naiveté, I only saw the good in people. I never dreamed that most of the people with whom I attend youth group would quit the faith. I could not comprehend that other Christians would one day love me and hate me the next day. Throughout my life, I have seen more people walk away from the Lord and his Church than I have seen join it. Many will want to leave with loud shouts and angry words. Prepare yourself for people to disappoint you.

3. There Will Be No Greater Joy than Christian Joy. There are no words to adequately describe the feeling of seeing your father baptize your son. One cannot put into words the moment you lead someone to the Lord. You will think your heart is going to explode when a person sees you are struggling and offers kindness and love. The journey of faith is full of heartache, but it sets us up for the overwhelming joy of experiencing life as God intended it.

4. You Will Need Grace More than You Can Know. Many times I have been on the receiving end of stressful situations, and yet more frequently I have been on the giving end. I have said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing and reacted in a godless way. I have done things in my life that I would never believe I could stoop to do. I have been ugly, mean, thoughtless, and heartless as I have sinned, failed and made enormous mistakes. The grace I accepted at 8 was far bigger than I knew I needed for my future. Cling to it for dear life.

I understand that my journey of faith is unique and I have had my own unique set of struggles. Personally, I would have wanted to know these things. It would have kept me from feeling so low in times of difficulty and eagerly awaiting the next good thing God would do. Knowing these would have helped me back then, I know that because they help me in my faith even now.

How I Come Up with Sermon Ideas

Yesterday I started a new sermon series entitled “Attack of the Giant Leeches.” I really didn’t know how to feel when some of my friends and colleagues posted their sermons series for the weekend. Many of them had titles like Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, Acts of the Church and Exodus. Frequently I feel like my approach to preaching and ministry is less spiritual than most pastors would choose. At moments like these, I want to give a little explanation of why and how I arrive at the material I preach.

1. Focusing on Needs. I start my sermon planning process by discovering the needs of the people in this world, this community, and this Church at this moment. These needs may be deeply spiritual to very practical. Once I arrive at a list of possible needs then I ask myself, “If someone were to walk into my office wanting to know more about one of these subjects, what would I tell them?” For example, I might pick a single passage to explain to them, or I might pick three various scriptures that help us to understand the issue and some action steps.

2. The Lord’s Leading. After I have developed a list of the needs I see that need addressed, then I ask God to guide me into the 10-12 primary needs that need to be developed into sermons this year. Many times, a topic may be placed in the file and not used until a year or two down the road. This process includes prayer, web searching, and just good old-fashioned thinking. I feel the Lord leading me in numerous ways through this process to make a plan for the year.

3. Creative Ingredients. This is where I start to take a right turn from many guys. I could just preach a sermon on relationships or marriage, but I want to add a little creativity. This year I have preached on “My Crazy Family” and “Attack of the Giant Leeches.” To me, these add a little bit of fun and intrigue. I usually do not pick a title like “Mark,” but call it “Encounters with Christ.” I rarely chose the plain or a creative spin in a title.

4. Making On-Ramps. I like to keep all series under ten weeks. This creates an opportunity for Church members to invite new people on a regular basis. Next year I am going to preach on Jesus and follow that with a series on Acts. I am making them two entirely separate series so that with each new start there is an “on-ramp” for people to join the Church. More and shorter series help people to bring their friends to Church and for anyone else to join us too.

5. Personal Preference. This is pretty basic, but I only preach sermon series that I would want to attend. If a title or topic holds no interest to me, then I imagine it will not generate excitement in other people. I know this might seem shallow, but it is a final question I keep in mind.

These are the pieces of the process it takes for me to come up with a sermon series. It might not be like a lot of other Churches or ministers, and that is okay. I am in no way saying that my approach is the best. Each preacher and Church needs to find what works for them and this is the method that works for me.

I hope you learn and grow from what I do each week, even if it seems a little weird at times.

Two Surprising Signs of Spiritual Maturity

One of the goals of my life is to help people grow in their spiritual walk. I want to help them become more like Christ in every way.

Through the years I have tried to notice markers to chart this growth. A decision to follow Christ is the first big step. Then comes things like connecting, serving, and giving. Lately, I have noticed two more signs of spiritual growth.

1. Admitting You Have a Lot to Learn.

I am continually amazed at the number of believers who act like they have everything figured out. They have heard some Bible stories as a child. They have read a little as an adult. They have listened to a few sermons. What more could there possibly be to know?

Honestly, there is a great deal to learn. The Bible has been compared to the ocean. It is shallow enough for a child to play in it and deep enough that no diver can reach its depths. With every page, there is something new to learn. No one has even mastered the Bible, and there is a breakthrough the moment you admit you have more knowledge to gain.

2. Making an Effort to Learn What You Don’t Know.

This first part of this is vital, but this is more important. I know numerous people who would sheepishly admit to not knowing much about the Bible or God. And yet, they do nothing about it.

One massive step of growth is when someone says, “I don’t know enough, but I am going to learn.” You read the Bible for yourself. You listen intently to the sermon and take some notes. You attend a Bible study of some sort. You buy a couple of books and read them. You take steps to feed yourself on the things of God.

Every day presents us with an opportunity to become more like Christ. There is a connection between is what is going into us and what is coming out of us. Those who are taking steps to grow are also the ones living out their faith in new and exciting ways. Once you admit you have a lot to learn and you are ready to do something about it, the possibilities are limitless.

Your Mistake Can’t Be Undone

In your mind, you vowed that you would never do it. Then you did it anyway. You made a mistake. You crossed a line that you should never have crossed. You broke one of God’s laws. You failed yourself, your God and probably some other people.

What do you do now?

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but what has happened cannot be undone. You cannot go back and magically make things the way they were before. The stain has set. The damage is done.

The only thing you can do now is to forge a new way forward. While you cannot undo the past, there are some things you can do.

1. You Can Be Forgiven by God. The Bible holds out this great possibility of hope. In Jesus death on the cross, my debt was paid. All we need to do is claim Jesus as our Savior and confess our sins to him. God is gracious and kind and will forgive our sins and shortcomings.

2. You Can Ask for Forgiveness From Others. If other people have been hurt there does not need to be permanent damage. You can confess your failure and ask for forgiveness. My shop class teacher in high school used to tell us that if you break a project, don’t give up. Try gluing it back together, and that broken spot can be stronger than before. It is true of both wood and hearts.

3. You Can Use This Mistake to Mold Your Life. Many times, our sins can move us in a new direction. We have seen the dark side of ourselves, and we no longer want to return there. A moment of failure can push us away from our addictions, flaws and bad habits. More than once has a mistake come to light, and it provided an opportunity for someone to change.

4. You Can Allow God to Use This Mistake for Good. Frequently I pray that God will somehow take an ugly moment and make it something beautiful. This past Sunday I shared a story of a woman who had breast cancer, and it became an opportunity for her to change jobs and start a ministry. Similarly, God can take whatever sin we have committed, and all the ugliness that comes with it do a mighty work. When we surrender our weakness to God, then his strength comes through.

5. Mistakes Make for Great Ministry. Rick Warren says that “You biggest failure may be your best opportunity for ministry.” After all, who better to speak to teenage moms than someone who has been in their place? Who better to talk to alcoholics than a recovering addict? Who better to minister to hurting people than people who have hurt themselves? Our experiences can be used by God no matter how we feel about them.

Your failures cannot be undone, but you do not have to be undone by your failures. Every mistake is an opportunity for us to grow and God to do a mighty work in us and through us. One misstep is not the end of your story.

Some Thoughts on “Being the Church”

What I am going to write in these next few paragraphs is the culmination of years of being a Church leader. I know that what I am typing right now flies in the face of all modern teachings about Church. But I have grown weary of hearing the same thing repeated without thought, and I have to say something.

Last week while attending a conference I heard the same type of phrasing at least six different times. It was the simple refrain of “the Church needs to get outside its walls.” Another time it was phrased as “we need to stop attending Church and be the Church.” Still a third time it was proclaimed as “be the gospel, don’t just preach the gospel.”

Everywhere I go there is the continually repeated plea to “be the Church.”

My problem is that there is not an either/or choice to be made. Meeting on Sunday morning with a group of believers is still the Church. Serving in our community is also the Church. Lately, the emphasis is on one of those. In fact, it has gotten to the point that some Christians are abandoning worship all together in an effort to “be the Church.”

I am here today to declare that I believe what we do on Sunday morning at our Church gatherings is vitally important.

There are three primary reasons I feel this way.

1. The Power of the Gospel. The Bible declares a message about Jesus that we call “good news” or “the gospel.” This is the story that God hates sin, but he loves people. He sent his son into history as a man to live and die on a cross. He was bodily resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the father. One day he will return to judge both the living and the dead based on their reaction to this good news. What truly separates the Church from the world is the message of Jesus Christ and his salvation.

I fear that much of what I see the Church doing could be labeled as “community service.” We go and do nice things to have a nice community full of nice people living in nice houses. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that the real point of serving people is so that they glorify God in heaven (Matthew 5:16). We help people so that will be more receptive to hearing the message of the gospel proclaimed to them. The gospel is what will ultimately change their lives.

The Church gathers on Sundays to hear the gospel proclaimed and explained, that is a primary role of the Church.

2. The Power of Words. There seems to be this bias today toward action. If I help a person repair their house I have done something great, if I talk to them then I am just a man of words. I continually remind people of the power of words. Words have the ability to heal, to encourage, to bring joy and to serve in their own unique way.

To illustrate this point I usually point to doctors. There are two groups of doctors in the world. One of them heals the physical body. The other, called Psychologists and counselors, try to help heal the soul. And how do they do it? They talk and listen.

Each week, preachers like myself try to speak words of life to their congregations. In the past few weeks, I have preached about how to remove regret, confront anger in our souls, heal broken relationships and win over worry. Each week someone has told me that I helped them find healing. Church gatherings may involve a lot of talking, but that is not a bad thing.

3. The Power of Prevention. Another bias I see is that most people view recovery ministry as the highest form of serving. I would suggest that the Church gathers to also help with prevention. Let me ask you, “Is it more important to take a girl off the streets or to keep a girl off the streets?” Both seem equal to me.

The Church comes together to teach and train, and we work toward developing healthy people to live in this dark time. This week at youth group I am going to explain about honoring your father and mother. My hope and prayer are to teach children that their parents have the best in store for them (at least Christian parents) so they should listen to them. I hope it will help the child thinking about running away or making some other destructive choice.

My mother says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It is still true.

I fear that we live in a time when the Church meeting on Sunday morning is being reduced to a non-effective form of ministry. I am here to declare that I think it is a vital part of everyone who calls themselves a believer. Sure, we can spend too much time at meetings and not enough out in the world doing ministry, but the opposite is also true. We can spend so much time trying to “be the Church” that we lose our saltiness (Matthew 5:13).

The Church has many roles, and I believe all of them are important to the life of believers.

The Recipe of Life

On Sunday evening I had the opportunity to lead our Jr and Sr high youth group. I did something a little unconventional and had most of the evening be one big object lesson.

First, I explained that the Bible calls us to submit to God. Most people want freedom and the opportunity to do anything they want. Christians choose to follow God’s words for our life that we find in the Bible.

Second, I had them break into four groups.
-Group #1 had a cookie recipe and a leader who knew how to make cookies.
-Group #2 had no recipe and a leader who did not know how to make cookies.
-Group #3 had no recipe and no leader.
-Group #4 had a recipe and no leader to help them.

The ingredients and supplies they needed were all set at the front of the room, and they had to come up with a plan to make cookies. Then at the end of the evening, they would have to eat the cookies that their group made.

As you might imagine I was trying to prove a point; all of us are living our lives in one of these four ways.
-Some of us are trying to follow God’s word, and we have people to help us.
-Some of us are just following people older than us, even if they have no idea what they are doing.
-Some of us have no one pointing us the right way and no connection to God’s word.
-Some people have God’s word and yet have no one to lead them.

What was fascinating to me was how each group did on the project. I had several guesses as to how it would go, and I was surprised at what actually happened.

The first group did well. Having a knowledgeable leader and a recipe makes for good cookies.

The group with a recipe and no leader did well also. Their cookies were also good.

The group with no leader and no recipe was the most interesting. Several of the boys wanted to add a lot of sugar and handfuls of chocolate chips. One older girl who knew how to make cookies took over. She quickly became the leader simply because she appeared to have more knowledge. The younger boys in the group submitted to her leadership, and the cookies turned out okay.

The final group had a leader who didn’t have any knowledge of making cookies, but the leader was shown the recipe briefly before starting. This group seemed to have the most fun. They laughed and worked together. My favorite line from their group was, “Who needs a hand mixer when we have hands to mix with.” They had a good time, and yet their cookies were awful. In the end, they made two trays of goodies, and one whole tray went into the trash.

After all was done, I took a few minutes to explain to them the overall lesson. God gives us his word with all its guidelines and rules so that we will make good cookies with our life. Believers have the freedom to do anything with our lives, but we chose to submit to God’s recipe found in his word. Submitting to the leadership and instructions of God is the key to making a great life.

Many people go through life, and they look like they are having fun. They smile and laugh and don’t seem to be sidetracked by anything. They throw in whatever they want, and it appears to work out for them. That is until it doesn’t. One day they wake up and the recipe they have spent a lifetime making is a disaster.

Every day we should ask ourselves, “Are we choosing the right ingredients to build a sweet and wonderful life?” The choices we make each day are building blocks of the future. As some of the kids will tell you, the right ingredients are essential.

What Do You Say At a Time Like This?

I usually have a plan for what I am going to write on my blog each day. Some days are written several days in advance, but Monday is typed up in the afternoon. As I said, I usually have a plan.

Then I flip on the news. As of this moment, 58 dead and at least another 400 injured in Las Vegas. People are dead, other people are hurting, and their loved ones are searching for answers.

In moments like these, I have three separate thoughts.

1. Father God, Hear Our Hearts. This is undoubtedly a time to pray. We ask God to comfort those dealing with loss and heal those who are injured. The Bible gives us an important statement about prayer in the book of Romans. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26 NIV.)

Honestly, I don’t know what to say beyond, “God, please help all those directly affected by the tragedy.” The passage in Romans says that the Holy Spirit will take the longing of our hearts and express them in words to God the Father. He will hear our “groans that words cannot express.”

2. Mourn with Those Who Mourn. While I do not personally know of anyone in Las Vegas, I do know of several Churches there who are trying to shine the light of Jesus. They will no doubt be affected by those involved in this shooting. Those Churches will be filled with people weeping over this disaster. I can pray for those people, and I can feel sorrow over their loss and pain.

I also hope that those Churches will be able to share the mercy and grace of Jesus in this dark hour. I pray that those people allow their compassion and love will overflow into their community.

3. Love the People in Your Life. We never know when our time is up. We never know when an accident is going to happen or a tragedy. With that in mind, take a few minutes to love the people around you. Call your mom. Kiss your spouse. Text your kids.

The world in which we live is a dark and scary place sometimes. Today our nation feels the pain of one lost soul who brought pain to the city of Las Vegas. We pray for them. We mourn with them. We ask God to use this evil for some good in this country, that city, and our life.