Why would God allow the mass bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka which killed 253 people and wounded 500 others? Why would God not stop a gunman from killing one and injuring three more in a California synagogue? Why didn’t God stop the cyclones in Mozambique that have killed 38 people?
Sometimes I just don’t get it. Maybe you don’t, either. There are no easy answers, are there?
Vance Havner was widely recognized as one of America’s most traveled evangelists and popular Bible conference speakers. When he lost his wife to disease, he was disconsolate. Years later, he was able to write:
When before the throne we stand in Him complete, all the riddles that puzzle us here will fall into place and we shall know in fulfillment what we now believe in faith—that all things work together for good in His eternal purpose. No longer will we cry “My God, why?” Instead, “alas” will become “Alleluia,” all question marks will be straightened into exclamation points, sorrow will change to singing, and pain will be lost in praise.
Did you notice the reference to “years later”? Even for the die-hard believer and a well-seasoned evangelist overcoming pain, grief, loss, and sorrow didn’t happen overnight. Sometimes the pain may never be fully assuaged. Many live with chronic pain or depression that affects them every… single… day.
During the Korean War, Pastor Im was torn from his family and imprisoned for years, locked in a dark cell with only a small bowl of soup to eat every day. He kept his sanity by reciting Scripture, especially John 13:7,
What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.
1 Corinthians 13:12 says,
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Like that passage says we can only see a portion of what is going on. We cannot fully know or comprehend what is taking place on a spiritual level and how things weigh in eternity. We only see through a darkened mirror, but one day we will see face to face. We only know in part, but one day we will know fully, as we are fully known!
So, how do we hold onto faith when life is so hard?
William Cowper, an eighteenth-century English poet, struggled with depression his entire life. On one of his darkest days, he hired a carriage to drive him to the Ouse River, three miles away, where he intended to kill himself. A dense fog enveloped the area, and the driver, sensing that something was wrong with his passenger, purposely lost his way only to return back to Cowper’s home. Cowper realized his life had been spared, and that same evening in 1774, at age 43, he wrote these words:
God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread; And big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.
Believe, trust, and know that God is with you in the pain. He is with you in the struggle. He is with you in the hurt.
Isaiah 53:4 reassures us that He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, and in Hebrews we are reminded that He will never leave or forsake us… even in the pain.
What do you do with a bridge when the river moves and it is no longer effective?
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a photo of a bridge in Honduras. The bridge spanned the Choluteca River. The new Choluteca Bridge, also known as the Bridge of Rising Sun, was built by Hazama Ando Corporation between 1996 to 1998 and became the largest bridge constructed by a Japanese company in Latin America. This bridge, which was a gift from Japan to the people of Honduras, was constructed of concrete and steel using modern engineering and construction. It was built to last, and a lot of money was invested in the project.
In late October 1998, the same year the bridge was completed and commissioned for use, Hurricane Mitch struck Central America leaving more than 11,000 people dead, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and causing more than $5 billion in damages. It was the deadliest hurricane to hit the Western Hemisphere in more than 200 years.
Hurricane Mitch began as a tropical depression on October 22, and by October 26 had intensified into a Category 5 hurricane. Sustained winds reached 180 mph, while gusts were more than 200 mph. After making landfall in Honduras on October 29, Hurricane Mitch moved through Central America before reaching Florida as a tropical storm on November 4th, 1998.
Mitch was an especially destructive storm; it slammed into the country of Honduras and ended up dumping over six feet of rain in less than four days. Honduras and Nicaragua were especially hard hit by the hurricane. In Honduras, floods and mudslides brought on by heavy rainfall washed away entire villages, and the majority of the country’s crops and infrastructure were destroyed. The other Central American nations were also affected by Hurricane Mitch, although the death tolls in these locations were significantly lower than Honduras and Nicaragua.
In total, more than 11,000 people (some estimates put the figure as high as 18,000) died because of the hurricane, making Mitch the most deadly storm in the Western Hemisphere since the Great Hurricane of 1780 in the Eastern Caribbean. Additionally, several million people were made homeless or severely impacted by Hurricane Mitch, which is estimated to have caused more than $5 billion in damages.
The Bridge of the Rising Sun spanning the Choluteca managed to survive the devastating destruction of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the more than six feet of water that it dumped on Honduras as it camped out and intensified over them for several days.
However, the tragic results lie not in the construction of the bridge but in the nature of rivers. Rivers move. Alas, after a deluge of rain and flooding, the river jumped its banks and carved a new channel in which to flow through.
Rivers move… bridges do not.
This is especially true of ones built with steel and concrete. In the process, the flood washed away the roads and ramps that connected to the bridge making the once functional bridge into a bridge to nowhere. This edifice of sound engineering found itself no longer over the river. It could no longer serve its original purpose.
What do you do when the river moves?
This story can be used as an illustration for the church today. It is almost like a modern day parable with relevance to our current situation. For many of us… christians, pastors, and churches the river has moved.
As is the case with any successful institution, the church was built with the best social and religious engineering available at the time: as a robust and hardy structure designed to be effective and to last. A lot of time, energy, sweat, and money has been previously invested. In fact, there has been generations of investment, and it has served as a bridge for many to move from death to life. Our design, methods, and ideas have spanned the river… when the river was in the right place.
But… unfortunately society has changed. The result is that what used to be true has jumped the old banks where the church had constructed itself. And now, the church is left with a well-built bridge: a bridge of pews, brick and stone and stained glass; a bridge of doctrine, dress code, residential schools, prayer books, organ music, etc.
And the river is no longer where it should be.
None of our previous methods, techniques, and bridges of the past are bad… they just are no longer spanning the river. Our bridges are ineffective structures. They may be nice to look at, we might have fond memories of how they used to work, but ultimately they are no longer serving the purpose of which they were once intended. This brings up options for how to respond to this new situation.
Can we dredge the river back in place? Can we find enough excavators to dig the river back into its rightful channel? How do we move a river? Maybe it will find its way back under our bridge if we are patient? Or do we find another way?
Might we accept the reality and power of the river? It has moved and it isn’t coming back.
Do we begin to reconsider a new bridge? Can we creatively consider spanning the river with lighter and flexible materials: materials able to be adjusted to moving rivers and changing circumstances?
What do we do when the river starts to move?
Other than being caught in traffic, or the occasional Doctor’s appointment we spend fewer and fewer hours each day waiting. Waiting is “old fashioned.”
In this day and age everything is so instant. In fact, they are so instant that I think many of us have forgotten the art of waiting. Everyone wants everything instantly, and I think it has changed the way many Christians today view God.
We pray to God and expect immediate results, but most of the time, that’s just not how it works! God has His own timing. We may want something right away, but God needs us to wait until the timing is right. While this often doesn’t make sense in our minds, God sees the bigger picture and knows what we need and when we need it.
This expectation for instant gratification has left many Christians frustrated and doubting the goodness of God, or whether or not God hears their prayers and can do anything “for” them. I think that instead of becoming disgruntled when God doesn’t provide right away, we need to have a mindset that allows us to be patient and trust in the perfect plans of God. I must admit that for me personally this is hard to do.
Maybe you’re praying for companionship, healing, or help and see no results headed down the pipeline. I have felt this way! In fact, I feel this way a lot! I pray and pray, asking God for something I want so desperately and nothing seems to happen. This is incredibly frustrating. Despite this, I encourage all of us not to lose hope or give up on God. He has a plan. It may not be your plan, but it’s a perfect plan.
Psalm 27:14 says,
Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.
How do you trust in times of waiting? How do you pray in times of waiting?
Let me ask you… when you pray, petitioning God for something, do you really expect results? Do you pray as one who is already defeated just because you feel as if the timing is off, expecting before you even pray that God will not answer your prayer? Or do you pray with confidence that God hears and answers prayer, and that His timing is perfect?
Acts 12 contains a wonderful story that shows how even the giants of the faith and the pillars of the church had trouble putting their confidence in God through prayer. In that chapter we read about Peter’s arrest and imprisonment by King Herod. Having just had James the brother of John put to death, and seeing that this pleased the Jews, Herod sent his soldiers to arrest Peter and put him in prison, intending on having him killed after the Passover. We read in verse five “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” The churches prayers for Peter were constant!
The point is clear in this passage that God’s people were praying with great zeal, great emotion, and great sincerity, asking God to save the life of their beloved brother.
While the people were on the other side of town praying for Peter, God saw fit to rescue him. He sent an angel to Peter who led him from the prison and to the gate of the city. Peter seems to have believed this was a dream, for verse 11 says,
When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”
He immediately went to the house of Mary, the mother of John, knowing that the church at Jerusalem would be gathered there. He no doubt realized that they would be gathered together to pray for him.
But what happens next is interesting… as Peter knocked at the door of the gate of the house of Mary, a girl named Rhoda came to answer. When she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her gladness she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter stood before the gate. But all those that had gathered together to pray didn’t believe her.
Acts 12:12-17 says,
When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” Then he departed and went to another place.
Do you see what happened there? Believers who had been with Jesus and had learned from His disciples were gathered together to pray for Peter. These were people who should have had great faith, in fact many of them had seen great miracles, yet when they heard that their prayers had been answered they did not believe it! You can almost imagine them snarling to the poor servant girl “You’re crazy! It can’t be Peter! He’s in prison and we’re busy praying that God will save him!” The situation is almost comical, isn’t it?
You have to ask yourself, is there any purpose in praying if you do not really believe God is capable of answering prayer? Why pray if you do not believe that God is willing to hear your prayer? God is not only capable of answering prayer, but He is also willing to answer prayer!
Pray to God with your expectations set high. Exercise faith through prayer, trusting that God hears your petition. God may not answer your request at the time you expect or in the way you expect, but trust that He will answer.
Sometimes it seems that our answers can’t come fast enough.
It is easy to lose hope while waiting on God, but we have to hold on to the hope that God will give us what we need in His perfect timing. It is this God-given hope that will get us through the days of unanswered prayers. So while it would be easy to lose hope and give up on God, don’t! God has a plan.
He has always had a plan.
Take a deep breath and keep praying in confidence. Pray for peace, and hope, and above all, patience to deal with the sorrows of this life and the things we want to be fixed right away. Some things take time. So take heart and wait on Him.
As a young person I have sat in numerous churches and looked around wondering, “where are all my peers?” Sometimes going to church and spotting another person my age is like a real life game of “Where’s Waldo.”
There is a plethora of articles online about how the millennial generation has turned their backs on church and are “unreachable” or rebellious. This is not another one of those articles.
But… according to a Barna study on church growth and church attendance amongst millennials (22-35 year olds) given in in 2016 church attendance and impressions of the church are the lowest in recent history.
- Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile (an all-time low).
- 59 percent of millennials raised in a church have dropped out.
- 35 percent of millennials have an anti-church stance, believing the church does more harm than good.
- Millennials are the least likely age group of anyone to attend church (by far).
These numbers are staggering! What is going on! Where have we as a church fallen short and failed to reach, disciple, and keep young people in our congregations?
Haggai 1:1-11 says,
In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the Lord. You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”
What do we know about the Jewish people discussed in Haggai?
- Years earlier they had been conquered and exiled from their land and homes.
- They had been taken to a foreign land to serve under a foreign king.
- They were brought out of exile and returned to their ruined land and homes.
The prophet Haggai recorded his messages to the Jewish people of Jerusalem in 520 BC, eighteen years after their return from exile in Babylon (538 BC). Haggai’s prophecy came at a time when the people of Judah were extremely vulnerable. They had been humbled by their exile to Babylon, given hope in their return to their Promised Land, and then discouraged by the reality of what they found.
You might be asking… what does this have to do with college students and young adults? And to that I would respond with, “everything.” Who else is at a more vulnerable time of their life than a teenager transitioning out into adulthood? Who else struggles with schedules, priorities, and agendas more than someone who has just spent the last 18 years of their life being told what to do and when to do it? Who steps out into the world “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” only to be crushed by the reality of life that is ahead of them?
In a lot of ways our young generations are like those Jews returning from their exile in Babylon.
The book of Haggai records the prophet expressing God’s opinion of the people’s negligence in building his house. In verse 5 he calls them to,
“Consider your ways!”
Don’t get me wrong they were working hard, busy with life and commerce, but they were lacking something… neglecting something… missing the point. They were earning money and resources for themselves and their own agendas and houses and neglecting the house of the Lord and the Kingdom of God as a whole. Think about the relation to our younger generations… these Jews were trying to create “something” from “nothing!” They had been in exile for years and were starting over… the same way our younger generations have to “jumpstart” their lives when entering into adulthood.
But… why were they lacking? Well quite simply they had neglected the divine agenda of “building up” the Lord’s house. The people of Judah had simply neglected what was of first importance and God frustrated their labors. Verse 9 says,
You look for much, but behold it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?’ Declares the LORD of hosts, ‘because of my house which lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house.
We have in the days of Haggai a very similar scenario to what we face today. People are busy. Through the day-to-day life filled with the day-to-day tasks and agendas often the pursuit of personal advancement is promoted to a position of preeminence. And as a result the agenda of God and His will for his people gets sacrificed on the altar of personal pursuits.
This is where we the people of God come in… the church.
After thousands of years, the book of Haggai remains unique among the books of Old Testament prophets for one key reason: the people of Judah actually listened! Haggai’s message to rebuild the temple was passionate, simple, and straightforward. No one could mistake whether or not his direction had been followed because the results would be evident for all the people to see. Through the physical act of rebuilding the temple, the people began to indicate a shift in their spiritual lives: from devotion to self toward devotion to God.
Haggai had an important message for the Jews who had recently returned from exile. They had forgotten their God, choosing instead to focus on their own interests, so it was time for them to “consider their ways.” Nothing was more important for the Jews than to show that the Lord was at the center of their thoughts and actions, so Haggai directed them to finish rebuilding God’s temple.
However, rather than leaving them alone with the task of rebuilding, Haggai continued to preach to the Jews, encouraging them with the hope of future glory in the temple and a victory to come over the enemies of God’s people (seen in Haggai 2:7–9, 21–22). According to Haggai’s message, if the people would place God at the center of their lives, they would realize the future blessings that God had in store for His people.
How can we as the church draw our youth back? How can we be like the Prophet Haggai?
So many times we say that we are too busy…too busy for people, too busy for ministry, too busy for personal Bible reading/devotion, too busy to pray, too busy to meditate, too busy to whatever…to this God says, “Consider your ways!”
I recently watched the NBA finals and in Game 4 Steph Curry stepped up to the free throw line and knocked down 2 shots without batting an eye. He was in his comfort zone! In fact, throughout the finals he made 95% of the free throws he attempted. Steph Curry’s comfort zone is watching the ball go through the hoop.
What’s your comfort zone?
A comfort zone is a psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person and they are at ease and in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress. In this zone, a steady level of performance is possible.
As a Worship Pastor, comfort zones may be one of the things I wrestle with the most! I take the story of Moses as an example and am encouraged that God is in the business of stretching the comfort zones of His followers. Moses, as most of you know, did not consider himself a great speaker… some would even theorize and say that he might have had a speech impediment, but God called him to go and plead with Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. God called a person who was uncomfortable with their speaking abilities to be the voice of a nation, a voice of reason, and the audible voice of God.
We see a similar charge to Abram, when in Genesis 12 God tells him to “leave his country and Father’s house to a land that he will show you.” Even though it doesn’t say here, I’m sure Abram was hesitant at first. Leaving the land that he had known his whole life for a place that hadn’t even been given to him yet. A land that he didn’t know and couldn’t see!
So, Because of these stories I know that as a Pastor challenging my congregation to step out of their comfort zones is important and Biblical. But how do I do that? It seems every time I start to think on this topic so many more questions come up. What is the current comfort level at? How do we stretch without breaking people? How fast do we move? Am I stepping out of my comfort zone? How do we develop a method? Do we move with our church or as a separate entity?
All of these questions must be carefully weighed and thought out before deciding what stepping out of a comfort zone looks like for your individual ministry.
I have been on staff as a Worship Pastor at New Hope Community church for three and a half years now. I have learned a lot, and have seen God move in ways I couldn’t ever imagine! How can we come along our congregations and encourage the “fearful” steps out of the comfort zone? Let’s think together!
Find Your DNA
One of the most dangerous things I have seen over and over again with Pastors entering into new “home bases” is imparting their home church, or favorite “model” church, into the direct vision and end goal of the church they are in.
Now don’t hear me say that it is wrong to take things that healthy churches are doing and trying to implement them into the life of your church. That’s not it at all! The problem is when you try to make another church’s DNA your own!
Ministry takes a lot of time to figure out what the church’s “DNA” is. By that I simply mean what is natural and comfortable for them. For me I have to explore and find out if there is there a song that has been the church’s anthem that everyone raises his or her hands to? Is there a mash up that has helped bridge the gap in styles? The DNA is made up of these unwritten rules, and what the church is passionate about as a whole.
I remember the first time I led a song that “flopped.” It was within my first three months here and it was almost as if the other vocalists and I were the only ones singing along with it. I quickly realized that at that current time that song was too far outside of the norm for the church.
So… what did I do? Did I force that song down their throats? No! I stopped singing that song, and songs like it, for a time while I figured out what our DNA was. Interestingly enough, as the church moved and grew and developed a trust in me (we will discuss that shortly) I was able to reintroduce that song with great success!
You have to find what has been done, what has worked, what was forced, and what was taken away that should have remained.
For some churches their DNA is in their direct community; for others it may be younger families, older families, singles, multi-ethnic, middle class, upper class, lower class, etc. Neither is better or worse, it is simply the door God has opened for you and caused your congregation to become passionate about.
Effective ministers find out what the church is passionate about and integrate it into the service and life of the church.
My wife and I love the outdoors and love adventure even more! We love to hike and climb/ shimmy into places that others might not want to go. Now imagine that you want to do an exploration in a remote and dangerous area. You have money to find a guide and you get several ads and read through them trying to pick your guide. Are you going to choose the “new guy” or the guy that has led numerous successful explorations in the exact area in which you plan to go?
On the other hand, imagine that you need brain surgery. Do you want the surgeon who barely got through med school or do you want the guy who was at the top of his class and has done hundreds of brain surgeries?
Before people are willing to go somewhere new with you they must know that you won’t abuse their willingness and trust. To earn their trust, you must let them know that even in stretching them, they will not be forgotten or misrepresented.
In the story I told about the song that “flopped” why do you think the song went over better the second time a year or so later? Did the musical taste of the entire church change? Probably not. The congregation trusted me more.
How do you earn trust? You do life with the congregation. You get to know their DNA and become part of that DNA. You meet people where they are at, because that is how God treats us.
Go With Them
I remember the first time I went hiking with my wife. If you know Alaina then you know that she is all legs… and that became painfully obvious when we reached our first hill! Now that I have grown accustomed to hiking at her pace we both have to be mindful of our speed when we walk/ hike with others.
As an artist I have to be mindful of the pace of my artistry and creativity. It is so easy for my ministry to seemingly move faster than the rest of the church. I can do this by updating our song selection and modernizing our sound, our stage design or our atmosphere. All of these are valuable tools and should be developed, but if they are leaving the rest of our congregation in the dust what are we gaining?
I like the idea of meeting people at their comfort zones and taking them one step further.
In fact, that is the way Jesus modeled discipleship. Jesus didn’t point people where to go without going with them, or call them from a place far away telling people to find their way to Him. Jesus’ ministry was based around walking with people, teaching as they went.
Jesus led people to places he was going himself or had already been to! As a leader are you trying to lead from afar?
Keep a Clear Focus
Lastly, if we are going to ask and challenge our congregation to take a step with us, we need to be stepping out in ways as well.
Stepping out of your comfort zone demands that you yourself are constantly moving forward in your own walk with Christ. We must be showing the congregation that we are moving forward as well as worshiping in ways that are outside of our preferences or comfort zone.
That comes from being transparent through the process of stepping out of our comfort zones both from the stage and personally in conversations.
Be real with people. If you aren’t a naturally expressive person, show your congregation that you are trying to move outside your comfort zone by raising your hands in worship. If you aren’t comfortable singing, then sing. If you aren’t comfortable with leading a prayer out loud, then pray for all to hear. Show your congregation that you are stepping out with them.
It is healthy for us to worship in ways we are not comfortable with!
If we practice worshiping in ways we aren’t comfortable with then we will get more comfortable stretching our comfort zones in all aspects of our life.
But change, stepping out of your comfort zone, isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon made up of consistent steps forward.
Meet people at their comfort zone and take them one step further.
Let me ask you a question…
What if the members of our churches started sharing their faith, but it wasn’t in a way that brought more people to our church? Would we celebrate and encourage that?
If not, we may not be as much about kingdom growth as we think we are.
We hear a lot today about church growth… and church growth is good. A healthy church should be growing just like a healthy person should grow. A healthy church cannot help but grow! Like any revival draws people from all over to it, genuine Spirit filled believers are drawn to a movement from the Lord.
A lot of churches are starting to evaluate every program and decision according to how much it helps the church grow. Are we too traditional? Too contemporary? Is our music too loud or too soft? Do we need a coffee bar, a younger more hip worship pastor, a funnier preacher?
Evaluation is good and healthy as long as we look at the big picture. The big picture that I am talking about is the Kingdom of God. Matthew 6:33 says,
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
We do not seek his kingdom to get what we want, but as we seek first the kingdom of God our lives and ministry cannot help but grow.
Church growth cannot be the only reason we do what we do in our local churches. There is a much higher calling to grow the kingdom of God.
In the book Externally Focused Quest Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson have a great discussion about the Kingdom. Here’s some highlights that may challenge your thinking:
How important is the kingdom? The word kingdom is mentioned 152 times in the New Testament and 116 times in the Gospels. By contrast, the word church is mentioned just three times in the Gospels – all in the book of Matthew. The first public words of John the Baptist and Jesus were to announce the kingdom (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). The first prayer request that Jesus taught his disciples was “Thy Kingdom come…” (Matthew 6:10). The first priority for the believer was to seek God’s kingdom (Matthew 6:33).
What is the kingdom? The kingdom of God is any place over which God has operative dominion. The kingdom is where the King is reigning. So if Jesus is reigning as king in your own life, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).
In the book Liberating the Church Howard Snyder writes,
Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice; church people often put church work above concerns of justice, mercy, and truth. Church people think about how to get people into church; kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; kingdom people work to see the church change the world.
The church does not exist for itself. The church exists to proclaim and demonstrate that the kingdom is near.
So… what’s the difference between church thinking and kingdom thinking?
- CHURCH: local, internal, evangelism the goal, programmed, gospel explained, Sunday, growing MY church.
- KINGDOM: global, external, evangelism the starting point, organic, gospel lived out, Every day, growing THE church.
Jesus said in the great commission to go into all the world and make disciples. Those people that need to be reached and discipled in all the world don’t just include people from our local communities that will attend our local churches.
As people use social media to make new relationships and keep in touch with friends who have moved away, more aspects of our lives are happening without regard to geography. From crying with a friend going through a divorce, to celebrating the joy of childbirth, many of our most intimate moments are being lived through Facebook Live, Skype, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and FaceTime.
More people who share their faith are doing it online, too. Which means that the friends and family members they’re sharing it with are becoming less likely to be able to attend church together.
These recent nuances in connectivity and communication provide great potential for our church’s participation in kingdom growth, even if it doesn’t always result in the numerical growth of our local congregation.
I love the mindset of the senior pastor I work under. When he is asked about programs we could add like youth sports, Celebrate Recovery, etc… he normally redirects the conversation to a local church in our area that does that particular ministry with excellence and says, “Why would we try to compete with another ministry in our area instead of just sending people to that ministry to be nurtured?”
Sometimes our evangelism and discipleship can end up with us encouraging someone to follow Jesus to another church!
In the western church world, we have become so used to tethering evangelism to our church’s programming and attendance that we can forget they’re not the same thing.
NEWSFLASH: Church attendance isn’t the goal of evangelism. Following Jesus is the goal.
What if a church was teaching and practicing evangelism in such a way that people shared their faith in Jesus at work, in their neighborhoods, with their families and online, not only as part of a church program, but as a natural outgrowth of their faith? We must always remember that, while church attendance is a vital element in our spiritual growth, church attendance isn’t the goal of evangelism. Following Jesus is the goal – even if it means they attend a different church than ours!
We must remember that Jesus didn’t call us to make congregation members… He called us to make disciples. Making disciples comes first!
Let’s focus on the Kingdom and be just as happy when someone comes to Jesus and attends another good church as we are when they attend ours. It’s great when a church member invites an unchurched friend or family member to come to church with them. But it’s even better when that person invites someone to follow Jesus with them. People need to know we’re concerned about them more than our church’s bottom line. The kingdom of God is always bigger than our little corner of it.
A couple of months ago my wife and I got to do a couple of longer hikes in the Rocky Mountains. To save money and time, we decided to pick up Subway sandwiches on our way each day and eat them in the car before hitting the trails. It was so much fun eating sandwiches and other, primarily unhealthy, snacks picnic-style because there was fresh air, a beautiful view, my wife, and no real expectations or civilized rules regarding how or what I ate. I didn’t have to eat my sandwich before my gummy bears, keep my elbows off the table, or use my forks in the correct order… I mean how many forks can a person possibly need to eat a meal?
Another memorable meal was when I was in college. As a Public Relations class heading towards graduation we went to a conference to rub elbows with some possible future employers, and “professionals” in the field. After that conference there was an elaborate meal with waiters, multiple courses, fine dishware, and tons of utensils. The etiquette and expectations were high and completely different than my previous example.
As a kid we didn’t get out the classy dishware often, probably because my mom was afraid we would break it, and we would, or maybe because we didn’t have any? I’m not sure… but both of those examples paint a picture of my point, the way the table is set can determine the expectations for the meal.
Think about it! The dishware is not the reason you sat down at the table… the food was! But the place settings can determine the context and direction the meal will take.
As worship leaders, we set the mood for what is expected for the worship experience for the majority of the congregation. Obviously, there will always be those who are bold or mature in their faith who we don’t need to bring to the throne because they are already there. But for the majority of the church, we set the table and the layout for what is generally expected during a worship service. We can be the examples of what kind of worshipers we are called to be. I know that a meal with fine china versus a picnic will have two different moods… both are fine and enjoyable, but different. In the same way, a small group setting with an acoustic guitar has a much different feel than a Sunday morning service with a full band. Both are great and both can be incredibly powerful times of worship, but they are different styles. The table for each scenario is set differently.
As Pastors and leaders we are called to do the prep work through prayer, devotion, study, and thought to find out what message we want to convey to our congregation, what place setting and context we want to put before them. I once heard a quote that went like this,
Worship ministry is not about telling people where to go, but about leading them as you go there yourself.
Every week I try to encourage this mindset in the way our team leads. Whether the position is deserved or not, if you are onstage or have a role on the worship team, you are seen as a leader. What you do dictates to the majority of the congregation what is acceptable or inappropriate for the service.
However, as worship leaders, we can’t make the congregation do anything they don’t want to do. Just like a table-setter or host of a meal, I can bring you the finest dishes and cups, decorate the table extravagantly with candles, and set out fancy silverware, but I can’t make you eat the food or even like it, and I shouldn’t try to… that is not my job. If our goal is to lead people to worship and we begin to judge our services based on how many people raise their hands, we will become very effective manipulators. If we take a close look at Scripture, however, we can see that isn’t our job. In Psalm 23, God Himself does nothing more than prepare a table for David in the presence of his enemies, and it is David’s choice whether or not he will partake in the “meal.”
That Psalm says,
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
What good is an elaborate meal with a way to eat it? Table-setting is about giving people the tools to eat the meal. Likewise, it is our job to prepare the setting for worship and then get out of the way.
I imagine that our experiences are often like Moses’s after he came down from Mount Sinai in Exodus 19.
Exodus 19:7-17 says,
So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.”
When Moses told the words of the people to the Lord, the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.”
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.
In Exodus 19 Moses had a literal mountaintop experience with God and was told to go down and tell the people to prepare themselves for worship… to prepare to have an experience with the Almighty God. Then on the third day, he led them up on the mountain so they might worship God.
Do we realize that when we worship we do so standing before an Almighty God?
One time I was exploring an old train tunnel with a buddy and once we got inside we were immersed in total darkness. As we trudged through the mud and water trying to catch a glimpse of the light emerging from the other side time seemed to drag on and on. After an hour or so I asked, “Have you been here before?” My trust had wavered over time and my primary concern was that he was experienced in the path we decided to take.
As many worship leaders, Pastors, or “creatives” do, we put a lot of time, prayer, and effort into our weekly services. We map out the flow of the songs so there aren’t any distractions, and we tie them together with the topic or theme we are trying to convey. As Moses did, we lead people up the mountain. But do you think the Israelites would have trusted Moses and followed him up the mount had he not gone before them already? He was experienced… he had been there before!
I highly doubt that Moses would have held the trust of the Israelites had he not first been to the mountain himself and stood before God. You cannot lead someone where you have not been yourself.
It is easy to gauge a service by how well the band played, how the tech team did, and if the congregation sang loudly or only a few people raised their hands. I fall victim to this mentality quite often, but leading worship is centered around trust in God. Craig Groeschel once said,
If we blame ourselves when things go poorly, then we will be tempted to credit ourselves when things go right.
The act of table-setting can be scary.
But we can do nothing more than that. So as you plan your service this week, think about what table you are trying to set. We lead our congregation to the table, not by pointing a finger, but by saying, “Come alongside me as we go together.”
Matthew 2: 9-10 says,
After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
Here in this Christmas season we will here this account read many times. Hallelujah! Jesus was born! But… sometimes we focus in the birth and not the story that leads up to it. As I read this account I notice a character that usually doesn’t get much attention… the star that led people to where Jesus was.
The star of Jesus, the beacon of hope, the beacon of grace and change moved until it came and stopped above where Jesus was. The star was not static; it was a moving star. It was not a stagnant star; it was a star that made movements; it was a star that did not remain in the same position; it was a star that was in motion and pursuit of where Jesus was. It kept moving. It was not satisfied to be “near” the Will of God… it wanted to be in the Will of God.
Friends, we are called to be that star… “To go therefore and make disciples.”
As Christians, and leaders, we should strive to be that beacon of hope, that directional sign that eagerly desires to be where Jesus is and to lead others there as well.
Our challenge is forever to be a moving star; be a star that isn’t stagnated; be a star that keeps improving; be a star that gets better and better; be a dynamic star; be a star that won’t be at the same spot and same level from day to day and from year to year. Be a star that shines brighter and brighter each passing day. A star consistently seeking the presence of our Lord.
Jesus’ example is one that has no business with stagnation. If you are stagnant in your work, you are not following Jesus’ example. If you remain on the same level, you’re missing the mark. If people cannot see anything new in you as you grow older, you are walking in stagnation. If where you were yesterday is same as where you are today, stagnation is at your doorstep.
Change looks different for all of us. For some of us it may be a change in physical location, for others it could be in spiritual maturity or leadership, servanthood, attitude, desire, etc.
The movement of Jesus’ star was not hidden. People saw the star moving. If indeed you are moving, your movement should be recognizable. Keep moving; even when you make progress, keep moving; no matter what successes you experience, keep moving. As you move like that star towards the presence of Christ people will follow. Be like that star… lead people to Jesus.
Take advantage of the season and point all that you do to Christ.
In this season of Thanksgiving and reflection that exists between November and the new year I want to write to all my worship leader friends, creative ministry volunteers, and musical coordinators and say… I appreciate you.
You are one of the most influential people in the life of your church.
Each and every week you are entrusted with the task of standing before your people and leading them into the very presence of God. Your role is to point people to Jesus, not yourself; yet, you do so through an art that is incredibly personal and that you’ve worked tirelessly to perfect. Trust me… I know the challenges, tendencies, and pitfalls! Our roles require us to be a gifted artist continually honing our craft, a theologian, and a leader all rolled up into one. All of those things combined make an arduous task.
The Bible references the predecessors of the modern worship leader in several places, such as the list of people in 1 Chronicles 25:1,
David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals.
The Scriptures are also filled with admonitions to worship, very often including song.
Psalm 150:16 says,
Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.
Hebrews 13:15 says,
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.
Colossians 3:16 says,
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
So the role of a Worship Leader or Pastor is, in my view, a clearly articulated biblical role.
Even so, your responsibility brings with it some pretty big challenges. The sad fact is that we all know that music can easily become one of the more controversial things within the life of the church. Everyone in our church has an opinion, often in direct opposition to another, and each will expect you to satisfy both somehow.
You will need to be more modern and traditional at the same time, louder and softer, and lead for longer but shorter time periods all simultaneously.
As someone who has been there, and who is there, I want to encourage you to feel free to listen to people’s suggestions, but focus on pleasing the Lord in the manner that you and your leadership have prayerfully chosen to affirm, stylistically and culturally. Seek Him first… the details will all shake out!
Matthew 6:33 says,
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Jeremiah 29:13 promises,
You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.
And most importantly, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-19 says,
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.
To all of you serving week after week… I appreciate you. Your churches appreciate you. Keep on fighting the good fight!