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Archive for January, 2011

I’ve not updated my blog in a long time and if history is any guide I might get back out of the habit before too long.  But, in the chance that I might be more regular on here I thought I would start putting some of my sermons back up here.  I know that reading a sermon is not what most people want, so I understand if you don’t read this.  However, in looking at the blog stats, I find that most people find the blog while looking for a sermon (they are the most viewed entries).  There are a lot of ministers out there who are looking for inspiration, ideas, or commentary on various scripture passages and sermons from other preachers help.  So, for that reason, I’m going to try to update my blog with my current series on Matthew.

I started preaching from Matthew about 2 years ago, and since I preach verse-by-verse I’m only in Matthew 12 now and will probably be in Matthew for a while, but I think this is the best way to really get at the message of Matthew.  I couldn’t find Matthew 1; the earliest one is Matthew 2.  Hope this can be of help to someone.  I’ve not gone through and edited, so there may be typos in the text.

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I was talking to a couple yesterday who just joined the congregation where I am currently ministering.  We were talking about different aspects of the church which would be relevant for a new member: doctrine, vision, history, ministries, leadership, where the bathroom is…  I was very curious to know more about how they found the congregation and what their initial reactions were– good and bad– since they were seeing things through “fresh eyes”.

Then he asked something which really touched and humbled me.  “How long are you going to be here?”  In other words, do you plan to stick around for a while?

That really got to me, because it shows me just how important the longevity of the minister is to the health of the local congregation, and I think there are some warnings to both ministers and congregations here.

Now, I know that the congregation should not be based solely on the minister.  There is a real danger when a congregation sees the minister as the personification of the congregation or when he has too much power in the church to a negative effect.  We are all in the priesthood of believers and the minister is no closer to God than anyone (though he should be held to a high standard).  But, let’s face it, in a lot of ways the congregation will take on the personality, doctrine, and vision of the minister as he is often the point-man of the church.  He is the one people look to as a leader in the church (even if he has very little leadership responsibility or is just a hired hand).  He also literally has a bully pulpit since he is in front of the congregation constantly in his preaching and as the “face” of the church.  Let’s face it, no matter how good the congregation is, if you can’t stand the preaching you’re not going to last long.  He is also the person that people will have the most contact with in most churches in an official capacity.  I think most visitors to a church will judge a church by its worship service, the preaching, ministries offered (usually for children), and the friendliness of the people, probably in that order (flip worship and preaching depending on how interested in doctrine a visitor is).

I’ve also found that congregations that have the best long-term growth usually have a minister who has been there for a long time.  I can think of three churches around here which have steadily grown and are seemingly healthy and have had a minister there for over 20 years.  Contrast that with congregations that change ministers every three years and are extremely unhealthy (not sure which is the cause and which is the effect, though).  Some churches will have flash in the pan growth with a dynamic preacher, but if he leaves soon so will the growth.

All of this is just to say that it’s a humbling responsibility to be a minister.  Yes, you are usually hired, but hopefully you consider your ministry not to be a job but a calling to be a shepherd.  I hope that ministers will consider the impact they have on their congregation before they consider an opportunity to leave.  Yes, there are valid times when it is best to leave and many valid reasons to do so, but that decision should not be made lightly.  And, congregations should think very hard before they rush out to dismiss their minister.  Again, there are valid times to do so, but often ministers are let go because it’s easier to change a minister than to actually start being the church or to make the “lay leaders” be held accountable.

A new couple joining a church most likely has decided that the preacher is someone with a heart for God and a good message if they commit to join.  I can understand why they might be reluctant to be part of a church where that might be changing.  I hope that congregations and ministers alike consider the importance of the shepherd to the “sheep” of the local congregation.  Congregation: pray for, encourage, and support your minister if he is a man of God.  Ministers: take seriously the trust you’ve been given by your congregation and lead well and live a life worthy of your calling.

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Randy Alcorn, the man who brought us a comprehensive look at heaven, tackles the question of why life on earth is often more like hell.  “The Goodness of God”, at 117 pages, is a good-sized condensation of his book “If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil”.  This book tackles the ancient question of theodicy: why bad things happen in this worl.  This is a book that you will probably want to buy multiple copies of to give to friends—believers and non-believers alike—who have questions about why there is so much evil and suffering in the world if indeed God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving (which He is).  There are so many good things to say about this book, I really can’t think of anything negative.  To begin with, I greatly appreciate Randy’s voluminous use of scripture to lay out his arguments.  In a time when many Christian books are light on scripture, this is refreshing.  Randy doesn’t just proof-text scripture like so many others, either, but grounds those scriptures in solid theology.  Best of all, he doesn’t offer pat answers or mere anecdotes but delves into the theological reasons for evil and suffering in the world.  Essentially, he argues that suffering is a result of the sin in the world which came about through the Fall.  The only way to understand sin and suffering is to have a biblical worldview that understands that this world is not the way the God wanted it to be in His original plan.  One chapter deftly skewers other worldviews and religions by showing how inadequate those views are in explaining suffering and by maintaining that a worldview that denies God has no basis for morality.  For example, to an atheistic Darwinist, rape and murder make sense and could not be considered “bad”; “survival of the fittest”, after all.  Only a holy God could define what is “good” and what is “evil”.  He encourages those who are suffering to consider the cross of Christ as proof that God not only understands our pain but has also experienced it with us.  Many of his points are standard fare in the world of theodicy, but he explains them in a fresh new way and I found his encouragement to keep the promise of the resurrection and heaven in mind while suffering to be well thought out; no doubt based on his research into the subject of heaven.  The book is easy to read, the illustrations and pertinent anecdotes are a good balance to his heady theology, and the length is perfect for those who want a solid overview on this difficult subject (I’m a slow reader and read it in an afternoon).  I would highly recommend this book to anyone and especially for someone going through a time of suffering, though it would be much better to read the book before suffering occurs to have a solid theological grounding to prepare for the inevitability of suffering.  As he quotes a friend of his who lost a son, “I think it’s good for books to offer biblical guidance on suffering and evil, but the greatest comfort for me has been to focus on God.  I’m not as concerned about the whys.  When you know him, it’s okay.  I can trust him with what I don’t know.  That’s what brings me back to the Bible.” (page 96)  This book will not offer pat answers but a look at what the bible teaches about suffering.  Finally, the crowning point of the book is his invitation at the end.  He does not encourage the reader to pray some unbiblical “Sinner’s Prayer” with an assurance that they will now be saved.  Instead, he accurately urges readers to “Ask God to mercifully open your eyes and reveal to you this Jesus you read about.”  (page 113).  “The best way to do this is to open the Bible.  Set aside all other arguments and study the person of Christ.”  In a time of vacuous and unbiblical popular Christian books, Randy Alcorn gives a very solid, theological, hopeful book to understand what the bible teaches about sin and suffering.  This book promises to give hope and encouragement to all who read it.  I highly recommend this book!  I do need to mention that I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review, but this had nothing to do with my high opinion of this book, it truly was one of the best books I’ve ever read on this subject.

 

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I just finished reading Matthew Paul Turner’s book “Churched” as a part of Waterbrook Multnomah’s “Blogging For Books” Program.  Basically, they provide a copy of a book in exchange for an honest and thoughtful review of said book.  Sounds fair to me.

I was attracted to “Churched” because it sounded like a book which would give a candid and amusing look at what it is like to grow up in a fundamentalist church and hopefully provide some insight into how that journey ended once the author became an adult.  This book delivered on half of that expectation: much was said about the upbringing, but very little about how the author fared after becoming an adult.  Let me say from the beginning that this was a very enjoyable book and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for some light, enjoyable, reading; it would make a great book for reading on a plane, on the beach, or in any room of your house where you require short chapters that can be read easily.  “Churched” is Turner’s account of growing up in a fundamentalist church, written in more of a humorous tone than descriptive.  Early in his life his parents began attending IBBC, an independent fundamentalist Baptist Church led by the domineering Pastor Nolan.  What follows are a series of vignettes showing various aspects of life as a young fundamentalist as seen through the eyes of a young child.  His fundamentalist church is described in ways that paint it as absurd, extreme, “weird”, and hypocritical.  All in all it’s a good read.  Mind you, if you’re looking for deep theological insight, an honest examination of the perils of growing up as a fundamentalist or deep soul-searching about how our religious upbringing affects our later adulthood then this book is not for you.  However, if you are looking for an amusing and often funny book based on shared religious experiences then you will not be disappointed.  I found the writing style to be both endearing and slightly annoying at the same time; it is a mix of Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor.  That is, the humor is often forced and the descriptions of life in a fundamentalist seem a tad exaggerated for humorous effect.  To be fair, I don’t really know: his church could have been as absurd as he lets on, but I got the sense that he was portraying his experiences more as a stereotype or caricature of fundamentalist life than as it really happened.  If his goal was to just paint a caricature then the effect was good, but if he were really trying to describe things as they were then the accounts seemed hard to believe (again, think of Garrison Keillor’s descriptions of Lake Wobegon: funny, but a little hard to believe).  All in all, though, the description of his upbringing was very amusing and enjoyable to read, as long as you are expecting farce and not documentary (I was expecting documentary, which is why I was a little disappointed).  My other complaint is in a similar vein.  I expected that he would give some discussion as to why he rejected fundamentalism and how he came to the spiritual place he is now.  After all, the subtitle of the book is “One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess.”  The journey toward God is missing in this book.  Essentially he shows how absurd and, his words, “weird” his church life was a child and then jumps ahead in the final chapter to explain that he wandered from church to church until finally settling on Cross Point Church in Nashville after meeting with the minister, a Ryan Seacrest lookalike.  From what I could tell his reason for feeling comfortable at that church was that the minister did not highlight his hair even though it appeared that way.  I found the last chapter to be the most engaging: it was real, the writing was not forced humor or caricature, and it showed a bit of the spiritual journey of the author.  Unfortunately, there was little in the way of detail about how he ended up where he is now or an explanation about what he rejected in fundamentalism and why.  Yes, fundamentalism made him look weird compared to the rest of his culture (especially the way he portrays it), yes, they have extremely negative views about culture and yes, they are very ardent in their beliefs about the bible and morality, but what was lacking was an explanation as to why he rejected these things.  Often there were times when he would begin to explore why he rejected fundamentalism, like in a chapter when he is perplexed about why his dad is friends with a man who rejects Christianity or when he describes a woman who challenges his fundamentalism while he was witnessing to her.  I wanted him to go a little deeper to explain why these encounters were obviously profound to him, but he left those stones unturned along with any insight into his feelings toward them.

Still, I go back to my early assessment: if you want a deep book that explores spiritual truths, this is not for you.  If you want a good, amusing read in the tradition of Dave Barry, this is a great book for you.  To those who grew up as a fundamentalist you might find this book to be a fun look at your early life, to those who didn’t this book might be a good way to reinforce the image of fundamentalists portrayed in popular culture.

I would recommend “Churched” and found it to be worth my while to read: it’s a fun, easy read.  It is well written and there are many places where you will laugh out loud.  Turner’s new book is called “Hear No Evil” and I would be tempted to read it to find out if he gives more details about how he made the leap from fundamentalism to a grudging tolerance of church in general.  Oh, and here is my disclaimer: “I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review”.

Here is a link you can follow to read the first chapter: http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/catalog.php?isbn=9780307458018&view=excerpt

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