Yesterday, my brother-in-law, Nathan Williams, asked some questions on his blog about men and their thoughts on modesty. I tried to respond but for some reason his spam filter kept telling me my comment seemed spammy and wouldn’t let it be posted. So I sent it to him in e-mail to see if he could get it posted. He decided to post it as his blog entry today. Thanks, Nathan, for posting that. And I appreciate you striving to protect my rep by keeping it anonymous. However, I think one of the reasons we keep hearing from church after church about men falling, especially preachers and elders, is because we act like none of us ever have any real problems with lust.
So I’m reading Seven Practices of Effective Ministry by Andy Stanley, Reggie Joiner, and Lane Jones.* I’m getting a lot out of it. I really appreciated the points about “Clarifying the Win” and “Teach Less for More.” These have really impacted my thought process regarding my work and teaching. I believe they have improved because of the reading. I highly recommend the book.
But, as with all books (except the Bible), I hit a snag. In their chapter on “Narrow the Focus,” which had lots of helpful info also, they get into the niche marketing idea for churches. As they talk about creating brands, they mention that you have to identify a target group. This brought to mind all that I read years ago in The Purpose-Driven Church about this kind of niche marketing.
In the Narrow the Focus chapter, the idea is that a single congregation can’t meet everyone’s need. I am supposed to conclude that a single person has a different need from a married person. A retired person has a different need from a working person. A black person has a different need from a white person. A young upwardly mobile person has a different need from a blue collar person. Management has a different need than labor. There is just no way a single congregation can meet the needs for all of these people. There just aren’t enough resources in any given congregation to meet the needs for all these different people. Therefore, we are told, churches need to narrow the focus by identifying a target. Find out what the target needs, then devote the church’s resources to meeting those needs. They will attract that kind of person. While they will not be able to help everyone, other churches can meet the needs of other people. Because they are not stretching themselves too thin, they will grow larger within their target group than they ever would trying to meet everyone’s needs.
That sounds all well and good, but I keep hitting a roadblock on that path. How can I sing that the blessed gospel is for all but then conduct the congregation’s work in such a way that as we present the gospel it is meant to attract for young upwardly mobile people like Saddleback Sam and Samantha with there two kids Steve and Sally (The Purpose-Driven Church, p. 170)? Are we teaching a good news that is for everyone or just a certain few. If it is only for a certain few, are we teaching the gospel found in the New Testament or one of our own making? Of course, the folks who proclaim this method say it is working because their congregations are so large. “It must be right,” they say, “because God is obviously blessing our approach.” That, apparently, is code for “We have more people attending than you.”
I have to admit, that line of argument can seem reasonable at times. But something still plagued me about this approach. Then it hit me. I asked is the foundation really sound? Does a single person have a different need from a married person? Does a teenager have a different need from a grandmother? Do all of these people really have different needs? On the surface that seems to be true. I’ve even said it myself sometimes. But the reality is this premise is all wrong. While I’m sure in some sense all of these people have different needs, God didn’t send Jesus or establish the church to meet every possible need someone might have. He sent Jesus and established the church to deal with the one need that everyone has.
We are all dead in sin and need the life offered through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10).
Let’s face it, the problems we all have are caused by sin. I don’t need some special teaching just because I’m married with kids. Do you know what causes me struggle in my marriage? The same thing that caused me struggles when I was single. Sin. It will be the same thing that causes me struggles when I’m an empty-nester. It is the same thing that causes me struggles with my neighbors and my co-workers. What do I need? I need the life, the victory, the freedom from sin that comes through Jesus. As Jesus sets me free from my sins, my life will improve no matter what situation it is in. Further, I will learn how to live contently in my relationship with Him no matter what sins those around me commit.
When I learn that and let the good news of Jesus start to impact my life, it will change my marriage, it will change my career, it will change my community. Let’s think about this in a microcosmic way. Think of the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12. Who can the Golden Rule help? Let’s see. I think it will help teenagers, single people, married people, divorced people, widowed people, black people, white people, hispanic people, asian people, rich people, poor people, educated people, uneducated people, white collar people, blue collar people, management people, labor people, unemployed people, Democrats, Republicans… The list could go on. In other words, in this scenario, we don’t need a church that pours all its resources into teaching young married couples. We need a church that will pour its resources into teaching the Golden Rule. Why? Because that will help everyone.
Consider another microcosmic example. When a church is directed by its community to try to meet the felt needs of its target audience, it might do something like the following. If we target young families, we all know the felt need. Childcare. My wife and I have four kids, we feel that need. Yes, it is a need that my grandparents don’t feel. So the church says, “Young families need childcare. Let’s devote our resources to accomplishing that need and we’ll get more young families in our church. If we devote our resources to that, we won’t have enough money to also accomplish the felt need of seniors which is providing company.” If that is the way churches are thinking, no wonder Narrow the Focus comes to mean narrow your target audience. But let me ask you, did God send Jesus or establish His church to meet the felt need of childcare? No. Jesus died for the real need of victory over sin. Narrow the Focus should not mean narrowing the target audience. Rather, it should mean narrowing the needs we are trying to meet. We should narrow it right down to the need Jesus died for–victory over sin. When that happens, we actually open our target up to everyone.
When a church teaches the freeing truth (John 8:32) of God’s powerful gospel (Romans 1:16-17) then lives will be changed for the better no matter what the felt needs of the individuals are or their station in life.
The problem is we have too often bought into the pop psychology of felt needs. Let’s face it, appealing to felt needs will attract folks. But appealing to felt needs is too often appealing to fleshly needs. God did not send Jesus to die to fulfill our felt needs. He sent Jesus to die to meet a real need. Felt needs are different for every person. But this real need is the same. Sadly, not as many people care about their real needs as their felt needs. Further, nothing we can do will force them to recognize their real need. In fact, all that we do to fulfill their felt needs might keep them from seeing their real need because they are never forced to examine their own neediness. So, moving from a felt needs focus to a real needs focus may cost us some members just like it did for Jesus in John 6. But focusing on the real need will actually provide the real help that people really need.
Yes, a single church can meet the need that everyone has. We don’t need different churches for all kinds of different people. We need churches who are willing to focus on what all of us have in common. We’re all sinners in need of a Savior. He will change our lives if we will let Him. Let’s narrow our focus to that.
*Yes, the links in this article are affiliate links. Help a guy out. It’s Christmas time. Click on the links and buy something.
(If you landed on this post without seeing the others in this series, let me explain what is going on here. Thursdays is my day to talk about God’s way for our congregations. Right now I’m in the middle of a series on the Jerusalem church and it’s success. This is the third post in the series. I encourage you to check out the introduction to this series to know more about what is going on and to find an index of the posts in this series as they are put up. Enjoy.)
Times Were Not So Different
I think we have a tendency to goldenize the past (yes, I just made up that word), or perhaps I should say we engoldify (made that one up too) the past. That is, we look around and see how bad things seem to us today and think the “days of yore” were golden. “Oh, we can’t be as successful as Jerusalem because the times were just different back then. Today, there is so much religious division, there is so much sin, and there are so many enemies, we just can’t have their success.” Baloney.
Granted, times were different. Perhaps we won’t have success using every method that seemed to work in those days, but we can still have the same success by having the same attitude and by following their same general example. I’m guessing going to the downtown square of Franklin and starting to preach will not have the same success rating that Paul had when he preached in the Areopagus in Acts 17:22. That sort of thing was common. Paul wasn’t actually standing out so much with his actions as he was with his teaching. Today, if I went down to the city square and started preaching, folks would think I was nuts. Of course, Paul couldn’t use a radio, a television, or a blog to preach. We can. The point for us to learn is not that we have to use the exact same methods and media as the Jerusalem church and early Christians did. Rather, we need to learn that we can keep teaching in ways that are normal today and we can have success as well. The times are not so different that our teaching will be completely and totally ignored–if we are teaching the truth.
Not as much religious division? Have you heard of Sadducees and Pharisees? What about Zealots and Herodians? “Don’t be a Christian, ” some would say, “Those guys don’t follow the law enough like us Pharisees.” Or they might hear, “There’s no such thing as resurrection, Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead. Just ask us Sadducees. We know what’s up.” “Christians aren’t political enough,” the Zealots might say. The Herodians might respond, “Don’t get caught up with those Christians, they don’t know which side of the toast their bread is buttered on. The Romans and Caesar are taking care of us. If you keep calling Jesus your king, the emperor will eat your for lunch.”
Then there were the pagan worshippers following after all kinds of different gods. We think times are tough because there is a lot of division among supposedly Christian churches. There are numerous people all claiming different ways to be saved in Jesus. During the days of the Jerusalem church, there were numerous people all claiming different gods that would save them. “You don’t have to follow that ‘Jewish god’ Jesus,” some would say, “Instead, follow Athena, Apollos, Zeus, or any combination.” Or they might hear “You don’t want to get mixed up with those crazy Christians, they think their God is the only one.”
Further, and this is very sad, there was even division that occurred among the Christians relatively quickly. The Judaizing teachers kept trying to get Christians to submit to the old law, especially enforcing circumcision on Gentiles. We see that happening in Acts 15. Jerusalem handled that division well, but Galatians demonstrates there was continued division among Christians over this issue.
The point being there was religious division, but Jerusalem still succeeded. So can we.
It is certainly true that sin is everywhere these days. The momentary pleasures of sin are lauded on the radio and television. Billboards invite us to sin. The internet provides a seemingly anonymous highway for sin. If we are not careful, we might believe that it is so much easier to sin these days that we just can’t be successful with a message of freedom from sin through Jesus Christ.
I’d like to address this by looking at two possibilities.
First, I really don’t think it is easier to sin today than it was during Jerusalem’s days. Romans 3:23 applied as much then as it does now. Everyone around the Christians had sinned then and everyone has sinned now. Doesn’t seem that different to me. “Oh, but the effects of sin have increased and the ability to escape sin have gotten harder.” Really? Ephesians 2:1-3 says we all became by nature children of wrath. That was true for them and it is true for us. Romans 7:24-25 says there is only one way to be free from sin and that is through Jesus Christ. That was true for them and it is true for us. There is a lot of sin now. There was a lot of sin then. Sin is hard to overcome now. It was hard to overcome then.
Second, perhaps you are right. Maybe there is more sin and harder sins to overcome now than in Jerusalem’s days. If that is true, does it really mean we can’t have success? Or does it instead mean there will be more people recognizing more quickly how much they need freedom from their sins? Perhaps if we’d quit being worried that people don’t want to escape sin and instead start showing people that we know the way to escape sin through Jesus Christ, we’d have much more success than Jerusalem and than we can possibly imagine.
People are so mean today. There are just too many enemies. There are too many people who are attacking us. There are the worldly, there are false denominations, there are cults, there are new agers, there are atheists, and on the list could go.
Really, you think there weren’t “new agers” in the Bible days? You do realize that most of the New Age movement is going back to the paganism of the early centuries, right? We’re dealing with the exact same stuff they were. Atheists have existed almost from the beginning. We addressed the issue of false denominations in the religious division point above.
Can we honestly make this point after reading Acts 8:1-3? Sure, we have people who put up blogs against us. We have people that say mean and untrue things about us. But very few of us have been chased out of our home towns by our enemies. Here in America, I bet only a handful could even talk about any kind of physical persecution they’ve received. I like to talk about the time I was called by the police after following up on a wayward brother and sister, but that’s the closest I can come to talking about real physical persecution. Do you know anyone that was beaten for their faith? Anyone that was killed for it?
Sure, we have enemies today and they are vicious in their attacks. But we don’t have so many enemies who are being so harsh that we can’t have the success they did. They had just as many harsh, mean enemies, if not more and they still grew. So can we.
Let’s keep getting rid of our excuses. Let’s keep remembering that God is on our side. He is working through us, so we can’t lose. But that is only true if we’ll rely on Him. He worked through the Jerusalem Christians. He worked through the Antioch Christians. He can work through us.
(Be back next Thursday for our continued look at Jerusalem’s success and how we can pursue it.)
One of the big problems I’ve had in the church setting is letting people grow. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love to see people grow. I love to see them get stronger. I love to see them develop more faith. I love to see them learn new things. My problem is letting them be where they are before they do all that growing.
2 Peter 1:5-8 says we must all increase and add faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Here is what that necessarily means. Right now we lack some faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. If others are to grow in these areas, that means right now they lack in some of them too. That doesn’t make them bad. That doesn’t make them rebellious. That doesn’t make them someone who needs to be disciplined. We’re all on a spectrum. Some are farther along than me. Some are not as far along as me. I don’t want those farther along than me trying to control me and force me to be where they are. I want them to understand that I’m growing, be patient with me, and simply encourage me. Shouldn’t I do the same with others?
My problem is when I see someone who I think is less mature in some aspect of knowledge, virtue, or faith, I want to rush in grab control of their life and force them to be on the same page as me. Sadly, what happens most of the time is I polarize them away from where I am. I often push them into rebellion as they want to assert their right to be where they are right now. So, not only do I not help them grow, I actually stop their growing.
Why do I do this? Because I equate disagreeing with me or doing something different from me to mean that the other person doesn’t really want to serve God and I need to force them to do so. That just doesn’t work. However, when I’m able to recognize that we are all growing, that other people who are at different places than I am love God and they are growing, I’m often amazed at how much they do actually grow. I’m also amazed at how often we end up on the same page eventually.
Here is the hard part. This means I have to give others permission to disagree with me. I have to give others permission to make different choices from me. This means I have to give others permission to think and feel differently than I do about some things. This means I have to give others permission to be wrong sometimes. Or at least I think they’re wrong. Sometimes I was the one that needed to grow and came to believe I had been wrong.
The other reason this is hard is because I’m so afraid others might make me look bad. If folks found out someone who believed “that” or did “this” was in my congregation, they might think I’m somehow bad. It’s like when my children do something wrong. I take their wrong on to myself as if I was the one who did it. I’m not. I’m simply the guy who helps them grow and teaches them when they do wrong. Jesus was able to look at folks in Thyatira and Smyrna (Revelation 2:18-3:6) and not hold against them the sins of others. That’s what I need to hang on to.
I certainly do not believe a congregation can simply allow someone to live in divisive rebellion against God’s will. After all, God did tell the church in Thyatira to quit tolerating Jezebel. However, I also think I am too quick to label some as rebellious simply because they don’t think about every little detail the way I do. It is amazing how I can catastrophize even the smallest of disagreements. It reminds me of the time my dad found I had taken some caffeine pills and in fear had plotted out my life of alcohol, drugs, and crime that was the sure conclusion of having done that. Fortunately, those caffeine pills haven’t led me down that path. Not yet anyway. I remember being so mad at him. I remember wanting to take some more of those pills just to prove him wrong. I remember thinking I would never treat my kids like that. And yet, I do it to brethren all the time (I probably do it to my kids too). I can easily take the smallest disagreement and be sure it means someone doesn’t care about God, won’t obey Him, and is on a path for hell that will lead numerous others with her. Then again, she may simply be on a path of growth and this is where she needs to work. I need to let her develop on God’s time table, not mine. I need to share with her my experience, strength, and hope, encouraging her in what I believe is right. What I can’t do is control and manipulate her to be where I am right now. That’s not my job. Not to mention, it is impossible.
The long and short of it in our churches is there is a time to let people grow. That means there is a time to let them be wrong. That means there is a time to let them be weak. That means there is a time to let them make mistakes. I want others to do that for me.
Keep the faith and remember God’s way works.
I’m sorry today’s post is so late. I try to get Monday’s post done over the weekend so it can be ready to magically appear at 8 am Monday morning. However, this weekend I learned of something that just made it hard for me to write. Even through this morning it consumed my mind so much I could hardly think of anything else. So, despite the fact that I know it will upset some, I’m going to write about what has been consuming my mind the last two days.
On Saturday morning, I learned about a brother in Christ, a preacher of the gospel, who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. I had not even heard of the brother until that news report. I spent the day praying for him off and on. On Saturday night, I learned he had faked his disappearance in order to commit sexual immorality with a 13-year-old girl. My heart broke for him, for the girl, for their families, and for their congregations.
*****EDIT: If you have already read this post once, I am adding in a clarifying statement based on some private comments I have received. I want to clarify some things before you read my initial thoughts. I guess you could say I want you to hear my second thoughts before you get to my first.
I do believe what our brother Jody did was reprehensible and wicked. I do believe he should be prosecuted for breaking the law. I do hope he comes to realize what damage he has done to that little girl, to her family, to his congregation, and to his own family. I hope having seen that bottom, he will turn to the only power that can help him overcome this sin. Please do not take my post that follows to mean I am turning a blind eye to how awful this sin was. It is its awfulness that scares me and causes me to fear for my future if I dabble in sin. It is its awfulness that prompted my thoughts.
My prayers and my heart go out to the little girl and the family. The damage done to her is immense. The damage done to her family is equally immense. I am praying for them as they strive to recover from being victims of sin’s awful effects.
Please understand, my point in this post is not to defend Jody’s sin. My point is to help us see the warning that Jody’s sin should provide for us. With that in mind, I realize I probably can’t clarify enough to make everyone happy or even agree with me. But I hope you can at least see my point.
As news of this leaks out to more and more people, the responses will be myriad. Here is what saddens me the most. It breaks my heart to know how Satan is going to use this. Satan will twist this so that many people will glory in their own power. “I may have made some mistakes in my time, but at least I never did that.” Kind of sounds to me like, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers…” (Luke 18:11).
Instead of using this as a testimony for our own power, we need to see it as a testimony to the power of sin. We need to take the warning about what sin can do to us. Romans 7:14-24 describes this power. I’m going to include the whole passage here because we need to read it again and again.
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
This brings to my mind what God said to Cain near the beginning, “…sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Sin wants us. It wants to run our lives. If we give it an inch, it will take a mile. No wonder we must all concede what Paul says in Ephesians 2:1-3:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
Every single one of us gave sin control. Every single one of us became by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind. Do you see what this means? This means instead of saying, “I’ve made some mistakes, but I would never do that,” we need to be shaking in our boots saying, “That could be me. Sin could do that to me too.”
Perhaps the sin that has had control of you is not lust and immorality, but arrogance, outbursts of wrath, slander, malice, drunkenness, greed, materialism, gluttony, or on the list could go. It doesn’t matter what sin you have given control in your life, it will take you farther than you ever imagined and it will destroy you. How many gluttons have abandoned their families after a heart attack? How many materialists have destroyed their families in pursuit of more and more things? How many covetous have driven away every relationship they’ve had as they wasted their money on the lottery and at casinos? How many who consistently had angry outbursts ended up killing someone even in their own family? Did they flee with a 13-year-old? No, but was the end result much different?
Five years ago, if anyone had asked our brother, Jody, about sacrificing his family, his work, even his soul in order to have a few moments of pleasure with a 13-year-old, he would have reacted exactly as we do today. “Absolutely not. I’ve done some bad things, but I would never do that.” Yet, he did. That makes me think of I Corinthians 10:12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Today, I want to say, “I’d never do that.” But if I let sin have control, that is exactly where sin will take me. If you let sin have control, that is exactly where it will take you. If your favorite flavor of sin is some other matter, it will destroy your life in some other way. It will lead you to do things you had never imagined. We cannot control and enjoy sin at all.
This is not just the obligatory reference to King David, but think about him for a minute. Here was a man after God’s own heart. But he let lust weasel its way in to that heart. I don’t know exactly what happened. Perhaps it all happened in one fell swoop of sin’s axe. He may have seen her, called for her immediately, and before the night was over had committed the sin. But I can also imagine a different scenario. He lusted for Bathsheba, thinking how great it would be if she were one of his wives. He fed that lust a little bit by inquiring after her. He found out he was one of his mighty men’s wife. So he tried to put it out of his mind. But he lusted some more. He argued with himself about how wrong it was. But that lust kept tickling his heart. He finally called for her. I can even imagine that the first time she came he didn’t do anything but meet her and perhaps flirt a little. Finally, he committed immorality with her. Then, to cover up what he had done, he didn’t fake his own death; he actually killed the woman’s husband. At least our brother Jody didn’t do that. This is the power of sin in our lives.
Sadly, many of us think we can control and enjoy some level of sin. Let this story be a warning to us. Sin will take over. It will take us where we don’t want to go. None of us is immune from its power. In the end, it will destroy us.
My friends in 12-step-recovery programs have a saying about their addiction. They explain that they only have three choices: 1) locked up, 2) covered up, or 3) sobered up. That is, if they stay in their addiction it will either send them to jail or kill them so their only solution is sobriety. While Christians everywhere will be saying, “I’d never do that,” my friends in recovery will be saying, “Have I done that? Not yet.” They will understand if they don’t surrender their acting out behavior to God and start giving him control, there are all kinds of things they think they would never do that they eventually will. This attitude shouldn’t just be for those recovering from alcoholism, sexaholism, gambling addiction, or drug addiction. This attitude should also be in all of us who are recovering from our sin enslavement. (Dare I say sin addiction?)
Let me say something specifically to anyone who is reading this whose favorite flavor of sin is right up this alley. If lust is your problem and you’ve been looking at pornography, let me assure you, this could be you. It will be you if you don’t surrender this sin now and start surrendering it every day. Take a good long look at where sin took even a gospel preacher. I guarantee you when he became a Christian 15 years ago, he thought he would never commit the sin of lust and immorality again and that he would never, ever do anything like he did this weekend. But sin is relentless and progressive.
If you are a preacher and you’ve been looking at pornography, do not say to yourself, “At least I’ve never done that.” If you keep looking at pornography, you’ll do something like it eventually. That is what sin does. You cannot control and enjoy it. It will control you. Please, no matter what it costs you get some serious help for this.
However, Paul didn’t end Romans 7 with despair. He asked the question who will deliver me from this body of death. Then he gave an answer in Romans 7:25: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus can deliver us.
This doesn’t mean Jesus will simply forgive us. No, it means Jesus will actually deliver us from the body of death, the body that is being controlled by the law of sin. Let me tell you what won’t deliver you. You won’t deliver you. You aren’t strong enough. You can’t set up enough rules, enough accountability partners, enough safeguards to deliver yourself from a sin-controlled body of death. The lion is attacking you (cf. I Peter 5:8). Quit thinking you can beat him. Instead, retreat into the only protection you have. Let God be your fortress of protection (Psalm 18:1-3). Put on the armor of God and be strong in His might, praying with all perseverance and petition (Ephesians 6:10-18). Live by faith in Jesus, not by faith in your power to keep Jesus’ rules, but by faith in Jesus (Galatians 2:20) and He will deliver you from your body of death.
Don’t let this story cause you to glory in your own supposed power. Instead, if you haven’t done anything like this, thank God for His grace that He hasn’t let your sins take you this far. Develop some respect for the power of sin, recognizing that it could have been you, and start surrendering it to God. Give praise to God for His power that despite all of sin’s power, we can rule over it by the power of God.
In the past, I know I’ve gone about evangelism and sharing the gospel with others in all the wrong way. There was a time when I trusted in myself that I was righteous. My evangelism told the world, “If you can start being as good as I am, maybe you can be a Christian too.”
However, God has humbled me, forced me to be rigorously honest, and caused me to realize I need to take a different approach. I need to share with the world, “If you are as bad as I am, you need a Savior too. I’d like to tell you about Him sometime.”
If I can ever help, let me know.
Come back next Monday as we pick up with Praying Like the Psalmists.