Be Careful with Sports

TJ was a guy I admired. He seemed to be smart, funny and didn’t adhere to anything traditional. He was a little older than me and came from a completely different background, and I listened to him for a unique perspective on the world. One day over a conversation at lunch he was asked about sports, and he said something that caught my attention, “All sports are designed to feed the human ego and nothing more.” He was the very first person in my life that I can remember who questioned the endless sports activities we have here in America.

Through the years I have repeated all or part of what he said to numerous individuals hoping to get their perspective on the sports in which we participate. Usually, the conversation is greeted with surprise and often with heated tones. It was often stated like, “How dare you question this?” Which made me even more concerned over our undying devotion to something we label as a game.

There is always a list of the positive effects of sports in the life of those who participate of which I agree.

1. They promote physical fitness. Every parent is quick to point out that it is better for their kid to be on the field or court than sitting on the couch at home playing video games or watching TV.

2. They are fun activities. All the sports I know about were designed to bring joy to the player. They should result in smiles and pleasant memories.

3. They provide fellowship. You can call it teamwork or whatever label you like. The fundamental component is the interaction with other human beings. Obviously, not all sports are designed for teams, but many contain an element of intrapersonal connection.

These seem to be the primary three reasons most people promote sports, and I can see the values in each of these. But this is where I want to put up a boundary and begin to wave a warning flag, especially to people who call themselves believers. At some point, we can move beyond the foundational goodness of these events and cross into a dark new territory. Here are a few areas where we need to be careful in both our lives and in the hearts of our children.

1. When sports are where we find meaning and self-worth. It is easy to think that if you are bigger, faster or stronger than other people, then you are somehow special. Soon your identity can become wrapped up in your activity. We can think, I have value and worth because I am good at something. My questions are, “What happens when they get hurt? What happens when they meet someone who is bigger, faster or stronger? What happens when they get older and no longer can play?” Finding your sense of self-worth in sports is a dangerous recipe for disappointment.

2. When sports fill us with pride. If you win a few games, it is easy to begin to see yourself as superior to other people. My friend TJ was partially correct in his assessment. Sports are inherently designed to promote one person or team as better than another. Soon that can translate into an inflated ego, and a whole world of terrible actions can follow. The bible is clear that pride proceeds destruction (Prov. 16:18) and a Christian attitude is humility.

3. When sports become our master. This one creeps up on us suddenly. We see all the positive benefits, and so we can throw ourselves into athletics without thinking. Soon your life can be dominated by it. Every evening’s agenda is designed around practices and games. Weekend schedules are prioritized according to the games we are playing. Let me ask you this one huge question, “When a new activity comes up as a possibility is your first thought, ‘What would Jesus want me to do?’ or is it, ‘Will the sports schedule allow it to happen?’” The answer to that question will reveal a great deal about your priorities.

I know as you read this you might think I am an angry old person who hates these kids and all their athletics programs. In fact, the opposite is true. I have four boys who enjoy sports, and I am a fan at most of their games. I have also spent a lifetime watching the effects it is having on our parents and our young people. I want to spend today issuing a warning; please, please be careful with sports.

Five Things You Should Never Communicate to People on Sunday Morning

Every week at our Church there are a group of about 215 people who gather to worship God. It is the highlight of my week as we worship, pray and share what the Bible says. Each week we see new faces, familiar friends and old acquaintances. You are never really sure who will be here on any given day.

Unfortunately, the variety creates some awkward situations and conversations. Here are a few phrases and activities to avoid this Sunday or any time you see people from Church you know.

1. “I never thought I would see you here.” This could also sound like, “You lost?” “Did you lose a bet?” Maybe even, “Will miracles never cease?” No matter how you say it exactly, it still communicates a lack of joy at their attendance. Usually, it makes people feel like an outsider who is not only new but is unwelcome. It sounds better to say, “I am so glad to see you.”

2. “Where have you been stranger?” This can also be stated as “I never thought I would see you here again” or “I thought you moved.” Yes, I know I have not been here, but I am here right now. Instead of your judgmental words how about you talk to me like an adult. Focus more on the person and their presence rather than their recent absence. How about, “It is so good to see you again. I have missed you.”

3. “You’re in my seat.” This may not come out verbally, although it sometimes does, it is often communicated in condensing glances. People feel like they are an intruder rather than a welcome guest. No one has a reserved seat, and it is far better to say, “Here take my seat.”

4. “Do you want to hear all about me.”
Of course, no one says this directly, but it can be communicated in other ways. You can ask questions without listening to the answer. You can talk all about yourself and never ask any questions. You can ignore the person when they try to share something that matters to them. Good communication includes being able to speak, plus listening to the other person. How wonderful it is when someone says, “Tell me about yourself.”

5. “I don’t care about you.” Once again this is one of those things that is communicated non-verbally. When you see a guest or someone, you do not know, and you walk by them without saying a word this statement is clearly heard. If you see people sitting alone in the auditorium and you avoid them and talk to people you already you know it is loudly spoken. Each week we have the chance to welcome people to our community and make them feel happy to be here. It takes effort and can be a little uncomfortable but take the time to tell people, “I am so glad that you have joined us today.”

What we communicate every week sends people a message about what we believe, and it either pushes them closer to Jesus or further away. Some people have been praying that a family member or friend will come to Church or back to Jesus and this is our chance to share the message of Jesus in our words and deeds. I hope this Sunday we will be a group of people who are welcoming others in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus.

The One Thing That Might Be Lacking in Your Spiritual Life

People who want to grow spiritually are always seeking ways in which to do it. It forces them to read their Bible regularly. They develop a habit of prayer. It leads them to conferences and seminars along with sermons and books. In fact, almost all the books that I own are designed to help myself and others become more spiritually mature. The quest to become like Jesus in all that we do pushes people into all kinds of plans and practices.

Lately, I have discovered something that is helping me expand my faith beyond what I had previously experienced. This ground-breaking form of discipleship is simply pouring my life into other people. Some might label it as teaching or possibly mentoring while others might call it discipleship or accountability. By whatever name it wears, one of the best ways to deepen your faith is to be emptying yourself.

The Bible is full of examples of this type of life. Jesus called twelve men to follow him closely as he taught and modeled faith. Paul gathered around him people like Silas, Priscilla and Aquilla, Timothy, and Titus to name a few. Each of these men took a group no bigger than a handful and as small as a single individual and poured their life and learning into them. It can happen formally or informally. It can take place over coffee or in a vehicle. The primary emphasis is not on form but content.

One encouragement is that you expand your reach beyond your own children. Many people I have talked to about this topic have responded that they are focused on their kids and don’t have time for anything else. While I think this is a valid form of ministry, I do not believe it will push you to grow to the depth that working with another adult can do. You need someone to ask you questions, to help you clarify your thinking and respond with mutual encouragement.

Let me ask you today this question, “Who are you pouring your life into?” Is there anyone you can name whom you see as your spiritual child in the faith?

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome on your walk with God is selfishness and self-centered living. Jesus and Paul both modeled a life that was others focused. Maybe that is what it is going to take to make you the kind of person God wants you to be.

If you do not have someone in your life whom you are helping to develop, then today is a good day to start. You can become a mentor, have a conversation, or take the time to share your faith. Make this day about someone else and see how it affects your heart for God.

Seven Reasons I Give Christians Extra Grace

I’ve heard it at least a hundred times before and each time it saddens me greatly. One reason a lady gave me for rejecting a life of faith was that she has known many non-Christians who behave better than Christians. There are variations on her reasoning. Some argue that Christians are judgmental or narrow-minded, or they are less caring than some group of unbelievers they have encountered. After all, why worry about God when you can be better without him.

Maybe you have thought this way yourself. Perhaps you understand the tension when you see someone who claims to know Jesus is acting in an ungodly way. I am here to encourage you to view Christians with grace and love even when they seem undeserving. Here are seven reasons I give an exceeding amount of grace to the people who claim to know God.

1. God calls sinners to be his family. Many of the people I know had to hit rock bottom before they came to Jesus. Some of them were incredibly flawed people with actions that would embarrass your mother. In their darkest hour Jesus reached out to them, and they responded. Jesus emphasized it is the sick who need him as the great physician. Christians are not perfect people, just forgiven.

2. Christians are not saved by good works. If you don’t follow Jesus, then it is likely you are trying to live in such a way that your good life will get you into heaven. It doesn’t work, but non-Christians can be very well-behaved because they think that will get them into eternity.

3. God’s word tells me to live with grace because I am saved by grace. Paul says it directly, and Jesus tells parables about how people who have been shown grace should then extend it to others. We forgive because we are forgiven.

4. I know how messed up I am. I will never throw rocks at other believers because I have sins with which I am struggling. Sure, I might be proud of the few areas that I don’t struggle, but if I am totally honest, I am a mess and should not judge anyone harshly.

5. Frequently, I have no context of understanding. When you hear someone say or do something ungodly, it is easy to be mad about what they just did. The problem is that possibly their behavior was an improvement. One example I know is a guy who struggles with cussing. It can be embarrassing, but he has come a long way since his life of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Many times, I am saddened by how far you need to go when I don’t realize how far you have come.

6. Imposters Exist. Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who planted wheat, and an enemy planted weeds right among it. They looked similar, and the workers are advised not to separate them till the harvest. For whatever reason, maybe approval, or status, or power or money, some people claim to know Jesus that do not. He reminds us that they will be separated at the judgment. God knows who are his and he will handle the bad seeds and weeds in his time.

7. Transformation is slow. Just because someone says Jesus saved them; does not mean they are sanctified yet. Sometimes it takes years for people to change. Faith is a day by day journey, and each step is essential. Everyone is at a different place on their journey, and I simply may be farther along than some people.

Every week I encounter people who claim to be Christians who both embarrass me and encourage me. Some are a shining example of faith and others are angels who seem to have broken halos. While it can be frustrating at times, I am coming to terms with it, and I am learning to overflow with grace to everyone, not just those who appear better than others.

Your Life in a Sentence

I don’t usually share much that I read in books, but this was exceptional, and it has attached itself to my brain and won’t let go. So I thought I would share it with you today.

Perhaps the hardest part is that eventually your life and mine will get reduced to a single sentence. Not in the weeks or months after our passing. But give it a year or so, and all of us will be described by a single sentence: “My Mom? She was such a kind person. We miss her. Hey, what’s for dinner?” Or “My dad worked a lot, he sure loved is Corvette. What time’s the game on?”

Sobering, Isn’t it.

This book alone is over fifty thousand words long, and it’s not my only book. I will have lived at least five decades by the time I die (hopefully many more), had thousands of conversations, met thousands of people, and spoken to thousands of leaders. But in the end, everyone who knew me well, including my family, will condense my contributions to something like, “Oh Carey, he was ____________. Can you pass the salsa?”

It’s what might fill in the blank that gets me.

-Carey Nieuwhof, “Didn’t See It Coming,” pages 40-41

I Wish I Could Do That

Have you ever thought about all the things you wish you could do? I wish I could sing. I wish I had artistic talent. I wish I knew how to build and create. There are so many skills that other people possess that I dream about being mine.

If I could do those things, I would be such a blessing to the world. I would make an impact for God. I would use my gift and talent to help people, support the Church and make the name of Jesus known.

If I could do that, then I would never stop doing it. I would use my gifts and abilities in so many positive ways. There would be no limit to all the good I could do if I just had your talent.

Then suddenly I realize that someone might be saying the same thing about my life. They may look at me and say, “I wish I had your skill. You do that so well.”

Our natural tendency is to admire the talents of others while ignoring the gifts with which we have been endowed.

There is this special moment in life when you quit wishing for the capabilities other people possess and start appreciating your own potential. You can take what God has given you and use it for so much good.

I believe you have the exact skill set to accomplish the good that God wants you to do. He made you unique, and there are jobs that only you can complete. Today is a good day to stop wishing and start doing.

The One Verse I Now Understand as a Pastor

This week I have been thinking about my time in ministry. I have been a paid Church leader for twenty-five years now. Through those years my understanding of scripture has increased in many ways.

Some of my knowledge has grown through simple reading. I have now made numerous trips through the pages of the Bible, and my overall familiarity has expanded.

Some of my insight has come through study. I have spent hours digging deeper into the context of passages along with the historical background. I have read books written by scholars and deep thinkers explaining the theology of God.

The final way I have grown in my knowledge of the Bible is through experience. I now understand passages about being a husband and a father. Sections about Church leadership make more sense to me after having worked a lifetime with those leaders.

The one passage that eluded me in those early years is a line from the Apostle Paul to the Church in the city of Corinth in his second letter. He tells the Church about all the struggles he has experienced in his life. He has been beaten, known danger and even been shipwrecked. Then he says, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).

Paul includes in his list of struggles as a Church leader the pressure of his concern for the Church. The words imply he worried about the people in the Churches he had established. He cared about the people who needed to find Jesus. He was concerned about them accepting Jesus as their Savior. He spent hours praying they would grow in the Lord. He wanted to see them mature in their faith and become like Christ. He planned and prepared ways for people to serve the Lord and their fellow-man. He felt this overwhelming pressure both day and night to help the people he knew to become the people of God.

After twenty-five years I know the pressure of which he speaks. I worry about the people I lead and serve. They are on my mind both day and night. I pray for them, I think of them, and I hope they experience abundant life in Christ. I feel the pressure of being a Church leader, and I don’t regret a day of it. I believe eternity hangs in the balance and everyone who is saved is worth every ounce of energy.

Five Major Changes in My Twenty-Five Years of Ministry

Yesterday I shared a little about my first steps into the ministry that happened twenty-five years ago. Today I want to follow that up with sharing some of the significant changes I have seen during that time.

Let me say up front; I want to keep these positive. Sure, several negative things have happened I may share those soon, but today I see only the good. Here are some of the great things that I have seen happen since I started preaching every week.

1. The Worship Revolution – I was not prepared for this. The first two Churches I served were hymnally driven. We picked out songs from the hymnal, and the numbers were told to the congregation before each one. The worship leader would hold up their finger to indicate which verse was next and we usually skipped one of the verses for some reason. Then came a worship revolution. At first, we introduced a new chorus to the congregation that was only a few lines long, and we repeated it over and over. Then came to a new wave of worship and bands were introduced to congregations. Now, there is no longer a thing called contemporary worship; there is just worship in all its forms.

2. Technological Advancement – At my third Church I started using a computer. The elders could not understand why we needed it, so a kind individual donated one. I started printing the program with it and putting a sermon outline inside the folder. Soon the words for worship went up on a screen. By far, the biggest change is the internet. It literally changed everything. People now go to websites before visiting the Church, sermons are shared online, and announcements along with prayers are spread through email.

3. Greater Resources Available. During my first ministry, I subscribed to magazines and a once a month audio tape called “Preaching Today.” Every month there was great excitement as I could listen to two sermons and a lecture or read about the latest trends. Now, I have access to thousands upon thousands of free resources. Each week I listen to the best preachers in the world and read some of their blogs. I have far more lesson material and sermon ideas than I could have ever imagined. These are available to anyone who wants to use them, not just preachers. What a great time to be alive.

4. The Rise of Community Service. When I started the ministry, I taught evangelism classes. I would train people on how to talk to friends, neighbors, and acquaintances about faith. Most Churches have no program like that anymore. Instead, the Church now goes out into the community to do good works. The hope is to shine the light of Jesus into the world and allow that to become a bridge to share what we know about faith. Churches are leading the way in many communities with projects to help the poor, homeless, refugees, disaster victims and a variety of other projects.

5. Flexibility in the Church. In the early years, people got upset at the word “change” being used. Now, I make changes every week, and no one says a word. The world itself is changing at the speed of the internet, and the people in the Church have lost their resistance to it. In fact, most people embrace change nowadays. Sure, there are a few who are vocally resistant, but not the majority. The Church now has video venues, multi-site campuses, multiple services and is trying new things like never before.

The past twenty-five years have seen its share of changes. It makes me excited for the next twenty-five years. I pray as times change that the Church embraces the positive advancements for the good of the gospel. Every year the people of God need to be working to reach the next generation not holding on to the past methods that are no longer effective. By the grace of God, we will continue to use everything we possess for the name of Jesus.

My Time in Ministry

Labor Day weekend of 1993 I was invited to speak at a small Church in Urich Missouri. It was my third year of college, and I felt God leading me to become a preacher. I went into the administration building at Ozark Christian College, and they said this Church was looking for a preacher. I could go there, and if they liked me then I might be invited back for another sermon, and it could potentially be a student ministry. On Sunday morning I loaded up my car for the day and drove one hour and forty-five minutes from my dorm to Christ’s Christian Church. I was more than a half hour early for the program and was surprised to find a couple of older people there preparing for worship. The time came for the service to start and seven people were sitting in the back two rows on the left, and one older gentleman was on the right side. I asked if we should wait for everyone else to arrive and they looked around and responded by saying they were all present. We sang hymns, prayed, shared communion, and I preached. The exact text and topic of the sermon have long been forgotten, but the memory of that day remains.

By the grace of God that little Church asked me to return the next Sunday. Away from the holiday weekend and there were a few more people the second week. Again they listened to what I am sure was a sermon composed of the best stuff I had heard in chapel at college. Once more they invited me back to speak. Finally, the first week in October after worship a couple of people grabbed me and asked if I would like to come back every week. Elated and scared I said that I would be more than happy to preach for them.

Most weeks were the same for me. I woke up and drove the hour and forty-five minutes to Church arriving before anyone else. They trusted me enough to give me a key. I would go early to preach through the sermon, make sure everything was ready, then meet with people before Sunday school, help lead a lesson, and finally, we would all worship together where I would preach. The following year I would learn to plan worship and lead when needed. I taught Sunday school for adults and then teenagers. When everything was done on Sunday morning, they gave me $75, and I felt like the most blessed student in the world.

The sermons were nothing special, but they were my fledgling steps into preaching. Much of what I said was shallow, short-sighted and immature. I was 21 years old, and I spoke to people two and three times my age. During my time in that ministry, God was good. The Church added people, and soon 40 or more were coming on Sunday. We had 70 on Easter, and there was little space for any more people. By the end of my time with the Church, I was blessed to lead two young people to the Lord and baptize them into his name.

Since those days, twenty-five years have come and gone. I have served five other Churches in four states. I have preached well over a thousand sermons, taught countless lessons, and baptized around 200 people. God has been good to me every step of the way. I have made my share of mistakes, failed repeatedly, embarrassed myself and others, along with doing a few things right. God took that child I used to be and transformed me into a committed follower of Jesus who leads his people. For that, today I am thankful.

The Opinions of Others

We live in a time when it is easy to rely on the opinions of others. When my wife and I visit a new town and the time comes to look for a place to eat, we check out the reviews of local sites online. Then comes the time to make a purchase. I search for the ratings given by commenters who already own the product. Quite often the restaurant or the product I choose is swayed by the opinions shared on the internet.

The side effect of this practice is that it can influence us beyond the things on which we spend our money. The words of others can shape our thinking about everything.

If we listen long enough to other people, it can affect the way we see what is important. It can shape our view of God and what it means to be a believer. Their frustrations can be our frustrations. Their views become our views. Quite often our thoughts about ourselves are shaped by what other people say above all else.

One struggle for a person as they follow Jesus is to have their thinking shaped more for God’s word than by the words of others. You may be carrying a burden you were never meant to carry that was laid on your shoulders by other people. Your view of God may be steered more by the comments made online than by the Bible. How much of what you believe about your heavenly Father and yourself are shaped by the opinions of the people?

As our reliance on ratings and reviews grows with each year, we must be careful with the value we put on the opinions of others beyond those helpful comments. Trusting someone who recommends the best blender is one thing. Believing their views about God and the value of human life is quite another.