Audio and Notes From Mesquite 2013 Conference

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of teaching at the Sovereign Grace Bible Conference in Mesquite, TX.  The conference was hosted by Saints Chapel, where Gregg Wren is the pastor.  It was a very enjoyable week.  And, since I promised to come home with audio, the teaching portions of the conference are now posted on the GCA website.  You can link directly to them here:

2013 SGBC Mesquite Messages

Both my series and the daytime sessions by David Morris are posted in that folder.  We were both addressing the topics of prophecy and eschatology.  David’s emphasis was on the relationship between Israel and the church, whereas mine was on the kingdom and Revelation 20.  Our messages and approach dovetailed into each other quite nicely … you know, almost like there was a sovereign hand of providence at work.

Also, here are PDF files of the handouts I made available in Mesquite.  And, for those who are curious, I’ve also posted my notes — all of them.  You can follow along and see how often I depended on them and how often I went rabbit-chasing.  I hope they’re some help.

1 – Introduction to Prophecy handout

2 – Bible Interpretation and Terminology handout

3 – Kingdom Concepts handout

4 – Revelation 20 handout

5 – My notes for the week

All of the audio from the conference — messages, preaching, teaching, and music — will be posted at the main conference website:

www.sovereigngracebibleconference.org

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The Word on the Word

Well, the third annual Embracing the Truth Conference has come to a close.  Words don’t do it justice.  It was a great time of fellowship, preaching, teaching, camaraderie, and food.  It’s hard to believe it passed so quickly.  But, the folk at Hamilton Chapel treated us with an over-abundance of kindness, generosity, and service.  It’s one of those conferences where we leave “with coming back on our minds.”

I taught twice on Wednesday — morning and evening.  Here are the two lectures from that day.  (All of the audio from the conference will be posted to the main conference website: www.sovereigngracebibleconference.org)

The Word on the Word – 2013 Embracing the Truth – Part 1

The Word on the Word – 2013 Embracing the Truth – Part 2

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The Embracing the Truth Conference

The Embracing the Truth Conference is next week.  I’ve had several folk ask about directions, so here’s how you find Hamilton Chapel Church.

They are located at 2240 McCrary Road, Lebanon  TN. 37090

A map is available here.

But, the directions are simple.  From the I-24, go to I-840 heading toward Lebanon/Knoxville (away from Franklin).  Exit at the Couchville Pike exit.  Turn right.  The very first stop sign is McCreary Rd.  Turn left.  The church is on the left side, up just a couple of miles.

Come hear the grace of God proclaimed and enjoy the fellowship of the saints.  I’ll be teaching Wednesday morning at 10:30 and Wednesday evening at 6:15.

Embracing the Truth Bible Conference Final flye

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What I Do Not Want For 2013

2013Back in 2010, I began the year by writing an article for my blog entitled “What I Don’t Want for 2010.” I reviewed it today and discovered that, without exception, I feel the same way for 2013. So, three years after its original writing, I thought I’d share it again, with a bit of appropriate updating.
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WHAT I DON’T WANT FOR 2013

I don’t normally make resolutions when the calendar changes. In fact, I don’t remember ever making New Year’s resolutions. It’s just not in my emotional or psychological makeup, I suppose.

This year, however, I’ve been doing some thinking. As opposed to resolving to do particular things, I’ve been considering the things I no longer want in my life.

Here are the basic facts: I am now 57 years old. In my brain, I’m still about 24. Mirrors are no longer my friends. But, I’ve lived long enough to know a few things about myself. And I’ve grown weary of my most tenacious tendencies. So here is my 2013 list of things I no longer want:

MY OWN WAY

I’ve spent a great deal of my life pursuing, and pretty effectively attaining, my wants and desires. Unfortunately, because I’m a depraved person (a fact that I can prove with ample evidence), my wants and desires were equally depraved. And eventually the constant diet of fulfilled sinful desire became wearying and soul-stultifying.

As I look back, I’ve learned two important lessons. One: every bad, painful, horrid thing that ever happened to me, I didn’t see coming. And two: every truly good thing that has occurred in my life happened despite me. So, what is instantly clear is that I am not in control. And on those occasions where it appeared that I had some influence over the outcome of things, I always messed them up. So, why would I want control? Why would I want things to work my way?

Early on in my Christian conversion I was taught a wonderful guiding principle: God is too holy not to that which brings Him the greatest glory and He loves us too much not to do that which is for our greatest good. In other words, He’s going to do things His way whether we like it or not. That’s what sovereign providence is all about.

So, from 2010 onward, I want no more of my own way.

MY OWN FAME

In my early 20’s, I decided to move to Los Angeles. That decision was driven by the need to be famous. It was no longer sufficient to have people in the Detroit area know me, I wanted a national stage. And rock music was the vehicle that would take me there. I had performed for two seasons and toured Great Britain with the Houston All-City Symphony. I had played intimate jazz and “big band” swing. I had played in garage bands, club bands, marching bands, pit bands, and shows bands. But, rock’n’roll was like the express elevator to worldwide recognition. It was hard work. It was emotionally draining. But, it paid big dividends. And that was just fine with me.

But, as Christianity took hold in my heart and mind, thoughts of my own personal advancement and fame became increasingly upsetting and revolting. “How,” I began to wonder, “can Christ truly be ‘all and in all’ if I am constantly making sure there’s adequate room for me?”

I cannot save anyone. My death will not result in anyone else’s redemption. I am quite utterly imperfect. I cannot heal sickness, solve crises, prevent catastrophes, or bring the dead to life. All in all, I am hardly a person to be admired or imitated because, when it comes to the really important matters, I can only point to the One who actually matters. So then, why should I be famous? He should have all the fame because He has all the power. And I need Him far more than He needs me.

So, from 2010 onward, I want no more of my own fame.

MY OWN ART

At one point in my life, I reveled in the notion that I was the quintessential “tortured artist.” My thoughts, emotions, and feelings were significant enough that they needed to be shared with the world. I wrote songs, I wrote poems, I wrote stories, I wrote … well, I wrote about me. I basked in my unmitigated emotional depth and imaginary courage. As I was wont to say, “Hurt me; I’ll make it art.” If hubris had a cousin, I was it.

I have several folders and notebooks full of poems and scribblings. I took them out the other night and realized that it had been years since I’d written anything poetic. Self-expression seems vain … in every meaning of the word.

Now whatever gifts God may have given me with which to communicate thoughts and ideas, I prefer to convey those thoughts and ideas that exalt Him for His great kindness to me, and those which “minister grace to the hearer.” (Eph. 4:29)

So, from 2010 onward, I want no more of my own art.

MY OWN CLEVERNESS

Sometimes, cleverness is its own reward. People gravitate to clever people who can devise inventions, turn a pithy phrase, or appear to be a few steps ahead of the madding crowd. Cleverness is also akin to sarcasm — the ability to slice and dice others with a bit of witty repartee. For many years, my sharp tongue was the chief weapon in my arsenal of tools used to keep everyone at arm’s distance.

As I have aged, I have been cursed with the ability to remember all the verbally-bloodied victims I’ve left in my wake. And, successful in my attempt to keep people at a safe distance, I found myself alone. Cleverness is also its own worst enemy.

Christianity, by contrast, insists on putting the wellbeing of others ahead of our own. Christianity instructs us to keep a civil tongue and use kind words. Christianity is not about being clever, it’s about being a servant, about giving yourself away and investing in the fruitful outcome of others. That’s not done by wit. It’s done by humility. And no matter how clever I think my thoughts or words are, they are of absolutely no significance if they do not aid the Christian progress of the person who hears them.

So, from 2010 onward, I want no more of my own cleverness.

MY OWN SINFUL PASSIONS

As a human, I crave. I have deep, entrenched desires. There was a time when I thought my passion for the things of this world was noble. I was never more alive than when I was lunging headlong into my latest craving. I was “deep,” after all. I felt things more vividly and violently than most folk … or, at least that’s how I saw myself. It made me unique and worth all the attention I was getting.

Consider Psalm 37:4 for a moment. It says, “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.” That’s a dangerous statement unless the Lord changes the desires of your heart. And that’s what has happened to me. The more I have learned to delight myself in the Lord, the more He has become my primary desire. And, sure enough, the more of Himself He reveals to me, the more I am delighted. Now my passion is for Him; His glory, His word, His worship, and His people.

One of the most amazing things about genuine conversion is that God does not suppress our emotions — He redirects them. What was once self-love becomes brotherly love. What was once fleshly desire becomes Heavenly desire. What was once selfish passion becomes the desire to spread His word, to call sinners to repentance, and to help them see the One who is gracious, kind, patient, and altogether lovely.

So, from 2010 onward, I want no more of my own sinful passions.

WHAT I DESERVE

Through an act of amazing charity, I was recently given a set of drums. There was a time when I was defined by my ability to play drums and if I didn’t practice for at least three hours each day, I wasn’t alive. Playing drums was as natural as breathing. Although I used to own several drum kits, I haven’t owned any drums for fifteen years or more. When the kids were young and I was struggling financially, I had fallen behind on the house payments. I sold my last Pearl kit for exactly the amount it took to keep us in our house. Since then, I had been drum-less.

I told you that story to tell you this one. After I was given a beautiful set of Pearl drums — my favorite, by the way — I told a musician friend of mine about the remarkable circumstances that led to the gift. He said, “That’s great! You deserve them.” Those words hung in the air for a moment. Then I replied, “No, I don’t deserve them. And the last thing I want is what I deserve.”

You see, one essential element of a really advanced ego (trust me here, I’m an expert in this area) is the assumption that you deserve all the good things that come your way. And if something bad happens, it’s an aberration. That’s the sort of thinking that leads to questions like “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

The Bible declares that there are no good people. There are only sinners, enemies of God, haters of everything that is holy — wicked, depraved people. The proper question then is, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” And that’s the essence of grace.

What I deserve, it turns out, is hell forever. What I deserve is God’s eternal wrath. What I deserve is to be separated from Him permanently and perpetually. Fire, brimstone, torment — that’s what I deserve.

But, what I’m promised is Heaven. Through no goodness on my part, as the result of no good works I’ve performed, but merely as a matter of God’s mercy, I will not receive what I deserve.

I have received grace. I am receiving grace. I will receive grace.

So, from 2010 onward, the very, very last thing I ever want is what I deserve.

IN SUMMARY

Now here’s the great irony of God’s genius. As much as I do not want my own way, my way is inexorably becoming conformed to His way. In other words, I do not feel in any way cheated or short-changed. I am fulfilled and happy. Just as I grew tired of “my way,” He changed my way to suit His way and I most joyfully now pursue the way I find most pleasing — His way.

As much as I am no longer interested in my own fame, I get great joy from seeing Him exalted. And though I could never have predicted it, GCA and Salvation By Grace have become widely known through the Internet. I receive wonderful letters and email from people who share their lives and testimonies with us. We hear from all corners of the globe and people tell us how their lives and faith have been enriched by listening and reading at our site. Honestly, it’s overwhelming and deeply gratifying. But this new-found recognition is not fame. It’s not a matter of ego. It’s God’s providential wisdom at work. He allowed me to bask in my own aggrandizement until I could smell ego a mile away. Once that smell was repugnant, He put me into His service. Then He let people know who we were and what we were about.

His ways are wonderful.

As much as I do not want my own art, God does not destroy the individuality of His people. He gifts His own with the abilities that are best suited to their place in His kingdom. I was given the gift to communicate. Being Irish, I’ve always thought of it as “the gift of gab.” When folk tell me that the Bible finally makes sense to them, or that I have helped them understand complex biblical concepts in a way that makes it simple and approachable, that’s just God turning my “art” to His glory. It’s no longer about self-expression. It’s about Heavenly-expression. Same ability, new purpose.

Cleverness, I suppose, falls into that same rubric. But, where I used to show off my own verbal and intellectual dexterity, my concern now is to show off God’s astounding wisdom and the limitless value of His word. It’s not about being clever; it’s about being clear, being precise, being a tool in the hands of a Master Craftsman.

As much as I do not want my own sinful passions, God has redirected my passion. He has not squelched it. Much as He used the temperament of Moses or the boldness of Peter, God has taken what was once debauched and turned it toward His holy purposes. Christianity has enlivened and enriched my passion, giving it a righteous purpose and restraining it from its unseemly past.

His grace is beyond comprehension.

And, as much as I do not want what I deserve, as Christ has been formed in my heart I want Him to receive everything that He deserves. He deserves a church that will recognize their status as His elect and beloved bride … and act like it. He deserves to have His word revered, respected, and rightly handled. He deserves to be glorified through the eternal ages because of His finished, complete, fully-effective atoning work and the full salvation of His chosen people. He deserves to sit at the Father’s right hand and be lifted up above all names and all creation. He deserves to be worshiped and adored. He deserves the very best that His Father can prepare and give Him.

And, I want Him to have it all.

Let me close this bit of new year’s observation by driving home one more vital point:

This is nothing like me.

Left to myself, I would always want my way, my fame, my art, my cleverness, and every sinful passion my evil heart could inspire. And I would be fully convinced that I deserved every moment of pleasure and egocentric gratification. That’s exactly what I’m like.

This short treatise is evidence of how effectively and sovereignly God has overcome and overwhelmed a wretch like me. I get no glory from it; nor have I earned any. He gets all the glory because He has done all the work, invested all the effort, and is fully responsible for any and all good results.

I am astounded at His grace.

I am secured by His mercy.

I am reassured by His love.

I am thankful.

I am humbled.

And I want Him more than I want myself.

Happy New Year.

AN UPDATE FOR 2013

I have to admit that since writing this article three years ago, not only have I witnessed God’s kindness in many, many facets of life, but I have quite-nearly reached the most elusive of all human goals: Contentment.

The apostle Paul wrote —

“But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:10-13)

I knew this attitude doctrinally, but now I am learning it experientially.  And it’s great.  The more I lean on God’s sovereign providence and admit repeatedly that whatever He does is good, the more content I’ve become with every decision He has made regarding my life and ministry.

It’s not about wealth or poverty, full or hungry, abundance or neediness.  It’s about knowing who we are in Christ, our Heavenly destiny, and His faithfulness to His people in all circumstances.  After beatings, stonings, shipwreck, imprisonment, and being abandoned by “everyone in Asia” (2Tim. 1:15), Paul wrote that he was content. After receiving a gift while under house arrest, he wrote that he had no wants. I find that astounding.

I live in air conditioning, carpeting, plentiful food, a variety of entertainments, and an army of friends and supporters.  My needs are more than supplied.  I have abundance. Yet, I still have wants. And I still struggle to be content. But, I’m getting there.  I am closer than I was three years ago.

To be content in this life is the goal.  And, by His grace, by His providence, despite the ups and downs of life, I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

So here’s the one thing I WANT for 2013: to be conformed to His will and to learn to be truly content.  That would make for a mighty fine new year.

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Local News Articles From Years Past

Over the years, I’ve contributed various Christian articles to the local newspapers and they’ve been very cooperative in running them “as written,” without additional editing (although they did insert their own titles).  These articles have even been responsible for bringing some of our current members through the doors for the first time.

As they were published, these articles were pinned to our bulletin board until they took up the majority of the cork real estate.  So it was time for a bit of cleaning.  I took them down, scanned them, and thought I’d share them here on the blog.  The text of each article is included below the image for easier reading.

The first three articles appeared in the Smyrna A.M. paper back in 2007.  Smyrna A.M. is a production of the Tennessean newspaper and is distributed freely to every household in the Smyrna area.  The fourth article appeared in the Murfreesboro Post back on November 12, 2006.

Who Is Jesus

Be Careful When Answering “Who is Jesus?”

Jesus is not your homeboy. He’s not your co-pilot. And he’s not your boyfriend. Despite the marketing techniques that are in vogue today, which attempt to make Jesus more approachable by making him more “cool,” the trend toward redefining our Savior may soon make Him indistinguishable from any other pop star or celebrity. And sadly, like most celebrities, he is too often viewed as an optional accessory to be used or ignored according to the whim of the consumer. And as we all know, audiences are fickle.

What’s worse, notions of Jesus as God – one to be worshiped and obeyed – are markedly absent from most modern sermons, and the “dumbing down” of Christ is reaching a sort of critical mass in the contemporary church. Soon the Jesus of the Bible will disappear altogether.

Here’s a fact: You are not like God and God is not like you. He is different. He is “completely other.” As the prophet Isaiah records, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

In the attempt to fill pews and keep their coffers fat, the modern church has attempted to humanize Jesus in sub-biblical ways. They assume that His love is tantamount to human love, or that His jealousy and zeal are the same as ours. As a result, we have a generation of Christians who redefine their Christianity by their feelings and thoughts, rather than by aligning their thinking with the dictates of Scripture. And that’s not just theologically clumsy. It’s lethal.

Jesus once asked His apostles, “Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” When they responded that some thought he was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other prophet, Jesus asked them pointedly, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13-15)

That’s an excellent question – one that we all have to come to grips with at some point in life. Who do we say that Jesus is? Is he merely a man with some good social ideas? Is he another in a succession of Hebrew prophets? Or is he the figment of someone’s fertile imagination foisted on all humankind as some sort of grand, cosmic joke?

Biblically, there is only one right answer. Faced with that penetrating question, Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” In response, Jesus made sure that God received the credit for that realization, saying, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven.” (Matthew 16:16-17)

That means that the only correct answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” is the answer God reveals – “He is my son. He is Christ. He is Lord.”

Of course, all of that begs the question, “Who do you say he is?”

Be careful. Your answer matters.

 

Fun Fundamentalism

 Putting the ‘Fun’ in Fundamentalism

“So what kind of preacher are you?” a woman recently asked. “You’re not one of those fundamentalists are you?”

I knew what she was driving at. One small segment of evangelical Christianity has usurped the term “fundamentalism” and redefined it so that only they fit in the category. Now when we think of “fundamentalists,” we imagine fire-breathing pulpiteers who spend their time listing all the things they reject and condemning everyone with whom they disagree. And that’s a shame because fundamentalism is not a bad word.

“Yes,” I replied. “I am a fundamentalist.”

She took a couple steps back. I assured her that I wouldn’t bite. “You see, I am an adamant defender of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The Virgin birth. The sinless life. The death, burial, and resurrection. Those are all fundamental to Christianity. Without those basics you have no faith.”

I asked her, “Would you go to a doctor who didn’t understand the rudiments of medicine? Or would you trust an auto mechanic who didn’t know how engines work?”

“Of course not.”

She was catching my drift. The same way that we would never trust our bodies or even our cars to the care of someone who lacked the fundamentals, we should never entrust our spiritual well-being to someone who ignores the basics. In theological circles, those fundamentals are called “doctrines.” A doctrine is simply something taught as a rule or principle of the faith. And, the principles of Christianity are built on those fundamental doctrines.

So don’t be afraid to call yourself a fundamentalist. Study the doctrines and construct your faith from those basic building blocks. That’s the method Jesus prescribed: “Therefore, whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock.” (Matthew 7:24)

Yep, I’m a fundamentalist. I love the doctrines of the Christian faith and am not ashamed to say so. Recently, one of our congregants told me, “As we keep teaching the Bible, we are going to be known as the church to put the ‘mental’ back into fundamentalism.”

I smiled. “You’re right. But, wouldn’t it be great to be known as the church to put the ‘fun’ back, too?”

 

Theology = education

 Theology = Education, Not Entertainment
(I had entitled this: Theology Matters)

I get a lot of email. Due to the popularity of our website, I receive comments and observations from a wide range of denominations and countries. One of the most consistent themes emerging from my inbox is the general lack of doctrine and theology being taught in most churches. In its place, churches offer showmanship – clowns, puppets, light shows, theatrical productions, surround-sound, smoke machines, rock bands, etc.

An elemental shift has occurred in the contemporary church. According to the Bible, although the followers of Christ are in the world, we are not to be of the world (John 17:14-16). We are called to reflect the principles and teaching of Christ, as salt and light in an otherwise decaying and dark environment. But, as church buildings and budgets have grown, churches have begun competing with the world over the disposable income people spend on entertainment. And in the process, doctrine and theology have suffered.

So, does that really matter? I mean, what’s the point of theology anyway? Is doctrine really that important?

The word “theology” is a contraction of two Greek words, meaning “words about God.” The Bible is full of such words. As you learn the Bible, you learn what God is like, how He thinks, how He acts, and what it takes to approach Him. It’s not enough to simply think about God. It matters what you think about God. Proper theology teaches you how to think about God properly.

In his epistles, the apostle Paul urged the church repeatedly to concentrate on “sound doctrine.” That means: solid teaching. They were not to merely imagine what Christ was like or what He taught. They were to devote themselves to the solid, provable teaching handed down to them by the apostles. Proper theology leads to proper Christianity.

Biblical theology answers the most pressing, important question any of us will ever face: “How can sinners stand forgiven and un-condemned before a righteous, holy God?” Given that we are all mortal and the ratio of death so far is a perfect 1:1, what you think about God’s salvation is a very important consideration. Proper theology leads to peace with God.

And finally, once we understand our relationship with God and His Son, that knowledge affects every aspect of our lives. How we treat people, how we raise our kids, how we live in society, and how we treat our marriage are all directly impacted by a genuine understanding of our position before God. In other words: Proper theology leads to a proper life.

So Does Theology Matter? Yes. In fact there is no other subject in this lifetime that will have a greater impact on your eternal destiny than the words you say about God.

Theology matters.

 

Big Deal With Jesus

So What Is The Big Deal With Jesus?

How many people have heard that name all their lives and still don’t know why we Christians care so much about this Jesus fellow? Most folk know the basics. He was born in a manger in Bethlehem to a virgin girl named Mary. He was venerated by shepherds and later by wise men that were following a star. You can learn that much by watching the Peanuts Christmas Special. But there’s much more to Jesus than that.

First off, Jesus of Nazareth is a verifiable historical person. In other words, it is a fact that he actually lived on planet Earth and was crucified during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Even Tacitus, the Roman historian, confirms this.

The Hebrew Scriptures that make up what we call the Old Testament are replete with predictions about a Messiah, a Deliverer, who would come to bring peace and justice. In fact, there are so many details in the Scriptures concerning the Messiah, that the odds against any one man fulfilling them all or practically incalculable. Nevertheless, Jesus matched the details verbatim.

Christianity makes many claims that are utterly unique when compared to the religions of the world, past and present. For instance, Christianity starts with a fact: Jesus lived and was crucified. Then it follows up with the central event of historic Christianity: the resurrection. The Bible declares that Jesus was dead and buried. He remained in the grave for three days and three nights. And, He rose from the dead, ate and drank with his apostles, and rose into heaven, taking His seat at the right hand of God.

This central event – the resurrection – has come under all sorts of scrutiny and criticism over the last 2000 years, but it remains one of the most enduring and powerful events of human history. Books and volumes have been constructed proving the veracity of the biblical account and after years of hard-headed study I am equally convinced that the total sum of Christian doctrine stands or falls on that central reality.

And perhaps the most convincing proof of the truth of the resurrection is that Christianity continues to make cataclysmic changes in people even today. People are converted from cynicism to faith; from anger to lovingkindness; from self-centeredness to charity and service. There is a power that continues to overwhelm people, driving them toward those things that are good and true, despite themselves. The same power that resurrected Jesus continues to bring people from their spiritual darkness into the light of understanding and grace.

And that, my friends, is a very big deal.

 

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Entertaining the Church

Mime

 

Hello Pastor Jim,

I pray that this email finds you and your ministry well.  I was recently asked if I would allow MIME ministry in the church. My sense is that this activity does nothing for the body of Christ and opens the door for all sort of other forms of entertainment. Would you explain your position on this ‘ministry’? Maybe I’m wrong in my assessment, but I just want to be right in what I expose to the people of the living God.  Thanks in advance.

Response:

Hello Pastor,

Thanks for taking the time to write.  It’s always a great pleasure to hear from my preaching brethren.

Let me start by assuring you that you are not wrong in your assessment of entertainment-based activity in church. I contend that the encroachment of plays, mimes, clowns, jugglers, dance troops, etc. into church services has weakened our collective understanding of why we gather as a body in the first place.

The purpose of the church is twofold:

  1. The worship of God
  2. The edification of the saints.

So, what we have to ask ourselves is how something like mime can accomplish either task.  I conclude that it cannot.

As for point number 1:

I realize that most of these so-called “ministries” claim that they create or present a “worship experience.”  But, that’s logically impossible, since the attention of the congregation is focused on the performers, not on God   In order to truly worship God, you must be able to concentrate your thoughts on Him.  These days, the concept of worship has been replaced by the idea of “having an experience.”  But, any exciting circumstance can create an experience.  When a congregation is excited by a presentation of lights, music, smoke machines, special effects, etc. they leave thinking that they’ve “experienced” worship.  What they’ve actually had was an emotional reaction to sensory stimuli.  Their emotions were over-loaded (much like what happens to all of us when we watch television).

But, worship is active.  Worship engages our hearts, our minds, our intellect, and our emotions.  Worship is dependent on knowing whom we are worshiping and why we worship Him.  Watching someone perform is the exact opposite of engaging in worship.  Therefore, it is impossible for a performer to claim that his stage-act is a form of worship.

As for point number 2:

Entertaining the congregation is not the same as edifying the saints. Despite the fact that amusement has replaced education in most of our society, the church should be a place of edification where the saints are challenged to think, to consider the propositions of Scripture, and to consider the depth and breadth of God’s Word. And, as I like to point out, our English word “amuse” is simply the word for “think” — muse, with the alpha-negative before it — a-muse.  It literally means “without thinking.”  And there’s plenty of stuff happening in the modern evangelical church that fits that description.

I think what has happened historically within the church is that their ever-increasing budgets and huge overhead derailed their sense of purpose.  Raising money is now more important than teaching/preaching or worship.  Many, many churches live under the burden of keeping themselves afloat financially month-to-month, so they are forced to bring in every dollar they can lay claim to.  And now they are fighting for the disposable income that families spend on entertainment.  As a consequence, newer church buildings look more like Las Vegas theaters than they do places of worship.  The platform doubles as a stage for Broadway-style productions.  And that, sadly, is what people have come to expect.  So, the bar is raised ever-higher as churches compete to attract new attendees who will pay premium prices to belong to the hippest church in town.

Of course, all that is diametrically opposite to the purpose of the church.  While we are in the world, we are not to be of the world.  And nowhere in Scripture do any of the authors endorse or engage in entertainment as a form of spreading the good news.  To them, preaching the truth was of utmost importance.  And, there is simply no way to contend that the gospel can be preached by people in white face make-up saying absolutely nothing.  Plus, because no words are used in mime, the message is open to the interpretation of the individual audience member.  So, there is no way to assure that the congregation received any consistent telling of any gospel truth.

I recall a few years ago, one of the big entertainment churches here in Nashville advertised that they would be having a mime troupe appearing at their Easter Sunday service to mime the Easter story.  This event was the banner headline in the Tennessean newspaper.  “Two Rivers Baptist Church Welcomes Mime For Easter Sunday!”  That was when I knew the church had completely lost its focus.  After all, the Bible tells us that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17).  So, on Easter Sunday, the most popular church-going Sunday of the year, the one day when the most visitors were likely to attend, one of Nashville’s largest churches had a guy on the platform who said nothing at all.  It was unbelievable.

Consequent to all this, we have huge church buildings in every city that are filled with Biblically-ignorant folk who actually think Christianity is about feeling good and being entertained.  The message of redemption from sin has all-but-disappeared and the need of a Savior has become secondary to simply feeling positively about yourself.

So, I’ve taken a firm stand against “showbiz church.”  There is no room for performing in church.  The focus and center of attention must remain on God and His Christ.  Everywhere else in the world we have people vying to be celebrities.  The church is the last place where that sort of activity ought to go on.  I don’t even like it when the man in the pulpit starts performing.  And most of these traveling entertainment troupes want to sell their CD’s or DVD’s in the foyer of the church after the performance in order to raise more money.  I can only imagine what Jesus would say.  He chased out the money changers and the church invited them back in.  According to 2 Peter 2, one of the evidences that a man is a false prophet is that he will “make merchandise” of the church.  That practice now runs rampant and the biblically-ignorant congregations gladly throw their money at the very people who are leading them astray.  It’s a mess.

I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I sometimes wonder what goes on in the minds and hearts of pastors who chase after every new trend in the modern church.  At what point did they decide that the gospel of Jesus Christ was not sufficient to attract and maintain a congregation of believers?  What made them think that plays, dancers, puppets, surround-sound, mimes, clowns, stick-ministry, and all that other silly stuff would improve the simple and profound message of the gospel?  And, to my way of thinking, people who will not attend church unless they get worldly entertainment are not truly seeking Christ.  They’re seeking those things that satisfy their flesh.

It comes down to this:

“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach, except they be sent? even as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that bring glad tidings of good things!”  (Rom. 10:14-15)

If people are not being told about Christ and the necessity of His work then they will never call on Him.  No matter how professionally a mime does his work, he can never replace the necessity of preaching.  And if a mime cannot adequately and clearly convey the message of the gospel (which he can’t), then what is he doing in front of a church congregation?  Let him sell his wares out in the marketplace of entertainment.  Let the church preach the Word.

And I agree with you that opening the door a little can let in all sorts of diverse programs that are very hard to extricate once the congregation has become accustomed to them.  A little leaven, as we know, leavens the whole lump.  I would rather fight the unpopular fight of maintaining Christian integrity.

My words to you would be the same as Paul’s to Timothy:

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.  (2Tim. 4:1-5)

Yours for His sake,

Jim Mc.

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Handling Snakes and Drinking Poison

Sunday morning as were closing the book of Acts I compared Paul’s snakebite to Jesus’ words to His disciples concerning the divine protection that would accompany their missions. It’s a dicey and very particular bit of theological detail. I expected questions and I started receiving them right away.

The following email exchange is demonstrative of the sort of concerns people voiced. So, I thought I’d post the question and my reply here on my blog in the hope of clearing up any consternation my perspective may have caused.

It’s my constant purpose to be clear and I assume that every person who raises a question represents many more people with the same concern who didn’t write or ask. So, I’m grateful for the question and the opportunity to follow-up on our Sunday morning discussion.

Here’s the email

Hi Jim,

I’m sitting here listening to your Sunday sermon and have a question. You seem to be stating that we are not (since it was only tossed at only the 11) supposed to be following the “Great Commision.”

Mar 16:15 15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.

Or am I hearing you wrong?

Blessings,

C. D.

And my reply —

Howdy,

I knew as I approached this passage in Acts and compared it to Jesus’ statements concerning handling vipers it was going to take a fair bit of explaining. But, my position is not complicated. From a very simple, pragmatic point-of-view we must understand our Lord’s statement “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them” (Mark 16:18) one of two ways. Either (1) Jesus intended that every believer would be impervious to snakebites and poison or (2) those words contained an inherent limitation. Since even “snake handlers” die when bitten, it’s hard to make the case for Christian invulnerability. Even as much faith as I have in Christ’s finished work and God’s sovereign mercy, I’m not ready to swig a glass of poison. So, I conclude that Jesus’ words were meant to be understood in a limited fashion. And since he was talking to a particular group of people, I assume that His words were limited to His apostles.

Now, even as I talked of this on Sunday morning, Jennifer asked about the fact that other gifts mentioned in this same passage did manifest to the church-at-large, such as speaking in tongues and healing the sick. And she’s right. But, those gifts are mentioned in later epistles written to the church as a body. So, I see no conflict from a textual standpoint. Some gifts were given to the apostles that were later also given to a larger body of believers — such as tongues, healing, etc. But, other gifts given to the apostles — such as taking up serpents or drinking deadly things — are not mentioned beyond Jesus’ initial impartation of power. So, inasmuch as they do not seem to be promised to the whole corpus of the Church, I conclude that it’s a mishandling of Scripture (and a form of “tempting God”) to assume those words have universal application and start flinging snakes around.

So, within that framework, I can address your question concerning the “Great Commission.” It is true that Mark 16:15 is directed at Christ’s apostles. That instruction was primarily theirs. However, as we read the epistles from Acts forward we find further instruction from those apostles adjuring believers to spread the gospel of God’s grace. For instance, Paul’s instruction to Timothy, “… do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.” (2 Tim. 4:5)

The necessity to teach and preach is passed on to the Church —

Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men … And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:8-13)

So, it’s biblically consistent to argue that certain aspects of Christ’s instruction in Mark 16 were meant exclusively for those men standing in His presence as the words were spoken, whereas some of what He spoke was also expanded out into the Church body. That perspective solves the confusion caused by those who see every word uttered by Christ as applicable to every believer in every age under every circumstance. That’s one reason I emphasized the contrast between Paul healing the residents of Malta while failing to heal Epaphroditus. We cannot argue that God’s gifting of miracles is readily available to every person of faith to exercise at their discretion.

So, the long and short of this discussion is simply this: Jesus said certain things to His apostles exclusively and it is an error to usurp His words and apply them indiscriminately. However, certain commands and gifts that Christ gave His immediate disciples were also conveyed to “the body of Christ,” His Church, by the Holy Spirit — including the charismatic gifts and the necessity to preach the gospel of God’s grace. And I am willing to preach both aspects of that equation.

I hope that helps to clear things up.

Thanks for writing! I’m sure you’re not the only one who wrestled with that question.

Yours for His sake,

Jim Mc.

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