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.
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!”
Have you ever had a buddy lead you into a fight with the confidence that they were going to be there to back you up if things went south? How did that turn out? Unless you flipped the switch into “Macho Man” Randy Savage mode you probably got roughed up pretty good.
Too many times someone has tried to encourage me by saying, “Don’t worry! I am here for you.” Likewise, too many times that very same person is nowhere to be found when things actually go down.
I do not put too much confidence in such a statement coming from a mortal man. Why? Because every mortal man is fully capable and gifted in the art of not “coming through.” Most men don’t make that statement with the intentions of letting the other person down… but men can change along with circumstances and situation.
However, I trust that very same statement from God.
Romans 8:31 says,
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
So… if I don’t trust that statement from man then what makes it any different coming from God? God alone is unchangeable; therefore, I want to make certain that God is for me. We have great reason for confidence in God for our salvation. What is that reason? God is for us!
But I do think that too often, we can apply that verse a little too quickly, without digging deep into what it really means. We correctly use it as a spiritual weapon, but without understanding how to properly deploy it, kind of like using a rifle as a club. We associate the verse with the blessing hiding right around the corner, instead of the victory on the other side of the battle.
We celebrate the victory before fighting the battle.
Yes, there will still be battles! Yes, you will still have to fight! But we fight alongside the Almighty God! It’s true that if God is for us, nothing can stand against us. But it’s also true that if God is for us, a whole lot of things can, and will, be against us. The enemy is directly opposed to the power of God displayed in and through us.
In Ephesians 6:10-18 Paul writes,
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
If there were no fight ahead then why do we need armor and weapons of war?
“If God is for us, who can be against us?” Therefore, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the whole armor of God and take your stand against the devil’s scheme. Fight the good fight against all defeated enemies and spiritual forces of evil. Pray in the Spirit and stand firm. Fight, and stand in victory.
So… what will stand against us? Everything.
Throughout our lives, many things will stand against us. Right now, I’ve got a lengthy list of things causing distress in my life, including but not limited to:
- Lingering sickness and health issues
- My wife’s Medical School loans
- A work list that never gets smaller
I pray about these things a lot. Pretty much every day… and they don’t seem to be going anywhere. They are still here and I am still fighting the fight.
So what gives? I thought God was for me. What about all those angel armies that Chris Tomlin sings about?
It’s not like I’m the only one. Every Christian I know finds themselves in the same place, beset by trials, enemies, weird health problems, financial hardship, and a lot more. This also seems to be the story throughout Scripture. If Jesus had things stand against Him to the point of execution on a cross, then maybe this verse is a little deeper than it seems on the surface.
We have many enemies, but they are all finite creatures. No power can prevail against the infinite God, who has purposed to save us. Who can resist him? What about the devil and demons? God in Christ has defeated the devil on the cross and liberated us from his clutches. The stronger one, Jesus Christ, defeated the strong one, the devil, and has set us free.
What about the world? In John 16:33 Jesus said,
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.
Rejoice! The world of Pharaohs and Caesars and dictators and presidents cannot harm us. Jesus Christ has defeated them all.
What about the apostate church? Again, the answer is, no. It cannot harm us. Why is that? In Colossians 2:14-15 Paul writes,
Having canceled the debt ascribed to us in the decrees that stood against us. He took it away, nailing it to the cross! And having disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
What about the flesh, that sin still dwells in us? Yes, it is against us, but it is not the only thing in us. God’s Holy Spirit is also in us! Too often we forget that! We have the Sprit of the living God dwelling inside us! He is the Spirit of holiness who gives us victory over sin! Therefore, sin cannot have dominion over us. We are not under sin, law, or death.
Is there any power equal or above God’s power? No! Therefore, if God is for us, who can be against us? The Scriptures emphasize this point throughout.
Jesus Christ by his death has defeated all our enemies and his enemies.
Jesus is still waging war against all our defeated enemies, and it is His business to fight such a war. In Psalm 110:1 the psalmist declares,
The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’
In 1 Corinthians 15:25-27 Paul writes,
Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
The battles may come and the enemies may rise up, but I don’t need to solve the problem alone. The Holy Spirit himself intercedes on my behalf. What a beautiful thing. The Spirit comes to the Father on my behalf, but unlike me, the Spirit knows exactly what I need. He’ll never pray the wrong thing. The Spirit will ask God to give me what I need and God will always give it to me. Romans 8:26 says,
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
The whole world may stand against me, but it can’t destroy me because the Holy Spirit is interceding for me.
Though I may be buffeted by a hurricane of pain, strife, sorrow, temptation, and spiritual attack, God calmly controls every gust of that hurricane. He is orchestrating all things for my good and his purpose, strategically using this trial to build my trust in him, this relationship to increase my joy, and this hurdle to hurdle to give me a deep experience of his love for me.
No matter what stands against me, it can’t thwart God’s purpose. From start to finish, first breath to last, cradle to grave, I’m his. Come hell, high water, or the apocalypse, nothing can stand against me.
I enjoy singing songs that reflect on God’s faithfulness and promises to remind me in times of battle that God is for me and with me. If you are like me there are times you need a reminder that he is God and you aren’t and His timing is much more deliberate than yours. One of those songs goes:
Walking around these walls
I thought by now they’d fall
But You have never failed me yet
Waiting for change to come
Knowing the battle’s won
For You have never failed me yet
Your promise still stands
Great is Your faithfulness, faithfulness
I’m still in Your hands
This is my confidence, You’ve never failed me yet
I know the night won’t last
Your Word will come to pass
My heart will sing Your praise again
Jesus, You’re still enough
Keep me within Your love
My heart will sing Your praise again
I’ve seen You move, come move the mountains
And I believe, I’ll see You do it again
You made a way, where there was no way
And I believe, I’ll see You do it again
Romans 8:18–19 says,
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
The suffering I experience right now is going to pale in comparison to the astounding glory that will be soon revealed to me. In fact, the glory that’s coming will be so breathtaking, so glorious, so overwhelmingly valuable, that I’ll look back at what I suffered and say, “That was nothing! It was all worth it! Following Christ through the valley of pain and suffering was nothing compared to this!”
Nothing can stand against the Holy Spirit helping me.
Romans 8:28 promises,
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Nothing can stand against God’s purpose for me.
Given all these things, Paul then says in Romans 8:35-39:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If God is for us, there truly is nothing that can stand against us… and many things WILL stand against us. That’s guaranteed. But, we are more than conquerors and nothing can separate us from the love of God!
But our end is sure. We WILL arrive in glory, and when that time comes, we’ll chuckle at how insignificant our sufferings really were. Christ will be all in all, and we’ll be experiencing joy we didn’t know was possible.
Fight the good fight. God is for you.
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.
Recently my wife and I moved to a new house. If you’ve ever experienced the “joy” of moving, you know it can be a long and stressful process. All the boxes, the packing, and the aimless strolling through your home every morning to find the box that contains your socks and underwear… it can add up to pure madness. I know that I personally have doubled the amount of gray hair in my head over the past two months.
Packing up a house can also reveal unwanted surprises. Like when we moved our couch for the first time in two years only to find a variety of bullets in varying calibers (you have to understand my home for this to make sense), a plethora of candy wrappers, and a very questionable half-eaten Chick-fil-A fry. During our move, I constantly was asking myself, “Are we really this messy?”
Then comes the worst part… when everything is out of the house and all that’s left is cleaning up the aftermath. After scrubbing and sweeping with the help of extended family a realization finally set in: with more maintenance, the house would have been in much better condition. Now don’t get me wrong! I’m a tidy person! I like things to be clean and in place… but when you live in a space long enough all of those hard to get places get gross and you even become used to a certain level of mess.
As we transitioned into our new home I immediately felt the urgency (maybe even a little too much) to maintain our home and its cleanliness. I vowed to be intentional on a daily basis to faithfully steward our home, even in the things that aren’t visible. Mowing the grass, sweeping, mopping the floors, and dusting are now a regular thing that I treat as preventive maintenance, so that maybe next time we are moving and things get shuffled around we aren’t left standing in a messy room asking ourselves, “how did things get this bad?”
This same illustration can be applied to the heart of a Christian. Intentionality is important in maintaining the health of your own heart! There’s a reason Jesus stresses the importance of the heart so much in the Scriptures, because it’s the life and breath behind everything you do. Sadly, you may be able to fake things on the outside with the right answers or charisma but I believe that the Christian whose heart is far from God is of no value to the kingdom.
Take a moment to ask yourself a few questions:
- What is your life like underneath the surface?
- If you stripped away the surface, would your life reveal a heart that has a zeal and passion for God?
Nothing is more vital for our churches, our families, our spouses, the people we serve, and ourselves than for our hearts to be healthy. Here are four vital practices we must have in order to make sure our hearts are constantly chasing after God. These disciplines may seem simple, but they are crucial if we’re to avoid the pitfall of “talking the talk” without “walking the walk.” Matthew 15:8 puts it this way,
This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.
Let’s think together!
Drink from the Well
Psalm 119:105 says,
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Be in the Word daily! While this discipline seems to be a no-brainer, it’s often overlooked amongst the many tasks, emails, jobs, and chores we have on our daily plate. In the hustle and bustle of your work life and home life often the importance and value of a daily intake of Scripture is lost.
To have any strength and maturity in your walk with Christ, our days have to start with the self-care of being in the Word. It’s truly that simple. The inspired Word of God is “living and active”
Hebrews 4:12 says,
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Daily Scripture gives us a constant and consistent reminder of who Jesus is, and what He’s done for us. Run to his Word daily, and drink from the well that never runs dry.
Sit at His Feet
When is the last time you stopped and just meditated on the Lord? If you are like me then you might struggle to recall when it last was. Sometimes we can get so caught up in serving the Lord and “working out our salvation” that we lose sight of what it is to be a Child of God all together.
We see a story that portrays this exact thought in Luke.
Luke 10:39 says,
And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.
Most of us know the context of this story of Mary and Martha. Jesus enters the house of Martha and while she is consumed with serving, Mary just wants to sit at Jesus’ feet. It’s a familiar passage to most people but it’s easy to overlook the simple concept that sitting at the feet of Jesus through prayer is everything!
While God certainly calls us to do good works, he wants us to remember that we are his sons and daughters first. He wants us to spend time with him; he wants us to know and rely on him more. One of the ways we can pastor our own hearts away from self-reliance is by spending time with him through his Word and through prayer.
Stop and Listen
Exodus 20:8 says,
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
One of the greatest detriments to our ministries and the people we lead is failing to rest from our work. I remember early in ministry I felt like I needed to be “on” at all times, even the weekends. This drove my wife insane and certainly didn’t help out our relationship or even my relationship with the Lord. Taking a Sabbath day for rest each week is not only a good practice but is a command of Scripture. You must have it… God designed it to be this way!
Use this day of rest to disengage from “work” and to refocus your heart and soul back on the Lord. Take time to stop and listen. This day of rest will recharge you, and remind your heart that whatever ministry tasks you have are under the sovereign hand of God. Pastor your heart well by obeying the regular rhythm to Sabbath.
Be in Biblical Community
Galatians 6:2 says,
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
One of the best ways to grow as a believer is by being in a solid Biblical community. This may look different in your context, but you need to surround yourself with people who will walk alongside you in the Christian life. This includes people who you give permission to call out sin in your life and see your blind spots. Being in Biblical community is about being with people who know everything about you… your strengths, weaknesses, sin struggles, and pitfalls. It’s about constantly being “gospeled” by other people so that you’re growing in Christ-likeness. Take care of your heart by surrounding yourself with godly people and living in Biblical community.
While this is not an exhaustive list, these four practices will help to maintain a healthy heart and prevent the cobwebs that apathy and neglect create. Our churches need Christians who are diligent in pastoring their own hearts. May we be Believers who strive toward these disciplines with hearts aimed towards glorifying the risen Christ.
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.”
There is something magical that happens when you crest the top of a ridge only to see the landscape outstretch before you. It’s breathtaking, overwhelming, consuming, and rejuvenating. It makes you want to take it all in, to know all of its beauty. It’s impossible to convey in words and capture in an image. All you can do is pause and try to take it in.
There is something wonderful that happens when you walk into a bakery or a coffee shop. The sounds, smells, and atmosphere invade your senses with such delightful goodness. You usually stop to catch up and adjust to the tidal wave of feelings and sensations that pour upon you.
What do these moments have in common? I believe that what they have in common is that to be truly appreciated we have to pause for even just a moment to allow or thoughts, sensations, and emotions to catch up and synchronize.
These pauses are meant for us to understand the beauty of life unfolding around us. These pauses are meant for us to digest the information alerting our minds and hearts. These pauses are meant for us to consume the moment in its fullness. These pauses are known as “Selah.”
“Selah” is part of God’s Word and it surrounds lyrics in Israel’s worship material. Being a follower of Jesus who is trained in music, I was excited to find out all I could about the word. To have a Selah can mean to have a pause, a musical pause, or a moment to understand. It can be brief or it can be forever. This pause occurs 74 times in Scripture (71 in Psalms, and 3 in Habakkuk).
In the Old Testament “Selah” is uses twice as often as “Amen” and three times more than “Hallelujah.” But all around the world, those two Hebrew words have become common terms… all while “Selah” is little known, used, or understood although being used three times as much in the Old Testament as “Amen” and “Hallelujah!”
Proverbs 30:5 says,
Every word of God is flawless.
It is safe to say that “Selah” is definitely a word worth understanding!
To take a pause… Selah puts our focus on the things God wants us to think about. Selah gives our Spirit time to catch up, to understand the power and beauty of God and His Word.
Psalm 24:10 says,
He is the King of glory. Selah.
Biblical scholars suggest other possible meanings of “Selah” to include: silence, pause, interruption, accentuate, exalt, or end. Reflecting on those words and putting them into action can help us to take a “Selah” moment to pause and worship God during the day.
To have a Selah is to take an account of the wonder and heavenly impact of the moment.
As worship leaders and Christians in general, we need to be aware of these moments as we lead and interact with people.
We need to provide the space necessary for wisdom and revelation to sink in and take root in the lives and hearts of the people. As we sing truth, this truth has to be heard, understood, and absorbed into the spirits of all those worshipping in order for true change to occur. When David wrote the Psalms, he included these moments not only for musical breaks, but for divine cultivation to happen in the people and in himself.
Psalm 46:10, says,
Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.
Sometimes we move so quickly from one song to the next, from one conversation to the next, or from one moment to the next, that the seed of truth is lost in the stampede of the messages. So slow down. Pause. Be intentional. Allow the truth to take root, and allow the Holy Spirit to water it so that growth can happen.
Psalm 45:1 says,
My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
What would you like the story of your life to look like? What is the theme of your heart and the story of your tongue?
I watched a man chiseling on a rock once while I was in college. After a bit he turned and I asked him what he was making. He replied, “The state of Kentucky!” The rock looked nothing like the state of Kentucky… in fact it looked more like a log. He then said something that I have remembered and thought about since. He said, “It may not look like it now, but the state of Kentucky is in there… I just have to get it out!”
What an idea! The artist knew that what he wanted was attainable, but it just was going to take some effort to get it exposed.
I am a perfectionist, which often restricts me as an artist. I get frustrated when what I have on canvas or paper doesn’t match what I had in mind in my head. That frustration restricts my ability to be artistic, whereas I watch my wife work, whether it is drawing or painting, she allows the work to transform throughout the process. Like a sculptor allowing the piece to take form with every hit from the chisel bit. She has a way of allowing a piece to take shape itself, and you are able to watch it take shape and detail as it transforms and evolves throughout the process of her work.
The Psalmist gives a valuable reminder that everyone has a “canvas” on which to “paint” the story of his or her life. If you were to paint yours, what would picture you create? The story of your life is determined by the overflow of your heart. Are you like me as an artist? Do you get frustrated and want to throw in the towel when the story you had in mind from the start isn’t taking shape just right? Or are you like my wife or the sculptor I mentioned above? Do you allow the story and art to unfold and transform as you pour yourself into it and work?
We must remember, transformation is always progressive, always changing and moving forward.
The Apostle Paul knew all about transformation first-hand. From murderer of Christians to Apostle of the Church, the canvas of his life underwent radical change. In Philippians 3:12-14 he admitted,
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul was well aware that he had some changing still to do but he understood that it wasn’t about perfection, qualifications or credentials; it was about Christ’s righteousness. He was committed to pressing toward the goal of transformation into Christ’s image.
Paul didn’t allow the first chapters of the story to determine the ending.
Paul refused to flee from the struggle and suffering involved with change. He was passionate for the Cause of Christ and his passion oftentimes involved pain… sometimes the change doesn’t come naturally but instead it takes work! In fact, the Latin word for passion means pain.
1 Timothy 6:12 says,
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
In our fight for change, we must realize that a certain degree of pain and work is involved. Putting to death the old ways of thinking, feeling and behaving is uncomfortable at best, and often painful! Don’t be passive, but instead be committed to pressing on.
Life is filled with situations where we are faced with a “fight or flight” decision. If you run, you’ll have to face the same fight again. You want to change your life? You have to fight for it. But take heart – you are in good company!
Be like Paul. Be like the sculptor we discussed above. Live righteously and know that what God wants for you is attainable, but it just might take some effort to get it exposed!
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.