Evangelism • Leadership • Missiology • Church Health. Chuck Lawless is Dean of Doctoral Studies and Vice-President of Spiritual Formation and Ministry Centers at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, where he also serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions.
Sometimes, the Word of God makes you just want to sing. Even unexpectedly so.
This weekend, Pam and I spent time with both of our families – some who are believers, but many who are not. Many are older, facing the increasing reality of death at some point. Some are living for everything but God, and we pray they would turn to Jesus soon. We pray for them regularly, knowing that God’s love for them is even greater than ours. And, I pray that they see something in us that would make them want to follow Christ.
That’s where the singing comes in today. I read Isaiah’s words about God’s judgment followed by His reign, and I can only rejoice at these words of defeated death and dried-up tears: “On this mountain he will destroy the burial shroud, the shroud over all the peoples, the sheet covering all the nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face and remove his people’s disgrace from the whole earth, for the Lord has spoken. On that day it will be said, ‘Look, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he has saved us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him. Let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation’” (Isa. 25:7-9).
Our God has already defeated death through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Though death still happens for now, it’s no longer a shroud hanging over us; for believers, it’s the glorious entrance into eternity with Christ. The magnificent, eternal, all-powerful, loving God who rules forever will somehow wipe any tears from our eyes as He defeats all reasons for sadness and grief. And, even if we have to wait for years for Him to fulfill His plan, it will be worth it. We will join the nations in singing His praises!
In the meantime, I pray that those Pam and I love the most would know Him, too.
Some time ago, I posted, “Ten Factors that Help Long-Term Pastors Stay at Their Church.” Since that time, I’ve also worked with declining churches whose pastors have, in my opinion, stayed too long in their current place of service. Here are some of the clues that move my thinking in that direction:
The church is in continual decline, and the pastor always blames the congregation. I know there are many troubled churches–and decline cannot be attributed to only one cause–but long-term pastors leading churches into decline must take some responsibility for the problem.
The pastor no longer has vision for the church; he lives in survival mode. Everything is about paying the next bill and getting through next Sunday. Any sense of future life is long gone.
If anyone would offer the pastor a new job, he’d likely take it. He might even be looking, but few churches want to interview a leader whose church is in constant decline. If they do talk with him and he blames the church, they have even more reason to discontinue the process.
The church has lost any sense of passion for what they do. Often, a church in a state of decline follows the lead of the long-term pastor into pessimism and hopelessness. Nobody takes needed steps toward change because everybody’s just tired of the struggle.
The only people left in the church are long-termers who will die as members of the church. They don’t like what’s happening to their church, but they’re also not moving their membership. They’ll wait out this pastor like they’ve waited out others.
Paying the bills takes priority over everything else. As the church declines and givers decrease, the bills nevertheless remain the same. This problem is especially acute if the church is still making building and property payments.
The pastor is willing to let the church die on his watch. You’d hope that would not be the case, but I’ve seen it happen. The pastor guides the ship to its death and blames the congregation all the way.
Leaving a declining church is seldom easy for a pastor, however. Nobody wants to feel like he is “abandoning the ship,” and no pastor wants to look back on a seemingly failed ministry. Rather than condemn any pastor, let’s pray for all pastors today who may be wondering about God’s will for their lives.
“The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing. Then they will turn to the Lord
and he will be receptive to their prayers and heal them.”
Frankly, I don’t often think of Egypt as a bastion of Christianity. I know there are believers there, but I would typically equate that country with another world faith rather than Christianity. The day will come, however, according to the prophecy of Isaiah, when even Egypt will follow the Lord: “The Lord will make himself known to Egypt, and Egypt will know the Lord on that day. They will offer sacrifices and offerings; they will make vows to the Lord and fulfill them” (Isa. 19:21). God will in that day even know them as “Egypt my people” (Isa. 19:25).
This time will occur “in that day” – a phrase occurring five times in Isaiah 19 to speak of the eventual rule of the Messiah. The very nation whose heart had been hardened against God centuries before will be among those who worship Him as Lord.
When I read texts like these, I am reminded again of the excitement of doing the work of missions. We are to proclaim the good news to all the nations, but it is God who draws those nations to Himself. He may choose to do so through judgment that first strikes with fear and then brings to repentance, but He does so because He loves the world. His name is most glorified when those from every nation, tribe, and tongue lift His praises high – and we can trust that He will use our preaching of the Word to accomplish that plan in His timing and according to His plan.
Pick two nations, and pray they will turn to the Lord.
Thank the Lord for making Himself known to the peoples of the world.
PRAYER: “I praise You, Lord, for making Yourself known to me and others. Use me to keep proclaiming Your name.”
They drive me crazy, actually. No matter how much I treat them, weeds always return in the cracks and joints of my driveway. They do, though, remind me about the reality of the growth of the weeds of sin in my life:
The weeds have to bother me before I’ll do anything about them. If I don’t see weeds growing from my driveway as ugly, I’ll ignore them. It’s the same deal with my sin; until I see it as ugly, I won’t turn from it.
The weeds constantly look for a place to grow. I’m amazed sometimes by how many weeds can grow out of the smallest vulnerable spot in the driveway. Sin is the same way—one tiny opening can lead to destruction.
I must treat the weeds continually. Even if I hope to treat them every day, even one day without treatment gives them a foothold to grow and spread. The enemy is sly enough that he finds that same kind of foothold anytime I don’t deal immediately with my sin.
If I neglect the weeds, they only spread . . . and destroy. They can, in fact, fill an entire driveway joint while I’m on vacation or traveling. Sin grows the same way: one unaddressed sin becomes two, which become three, which slowly erode and destroy.
They can ruin an otherwise nice yard. We pay a lot of money for lawn and tree treatments, and we work hard to keep the grass cut and trimmed nicely. If we were to let grass and weeds in the driveway remain, though, everything else would lose some of its beauty. I fear we need not look far to find leaders whose weeds of sin have now also ruined much.
Just pulling the weeds is seldom enough. Often, pulling the weeds leaves the root in the ground – and the problem comes back quickly. Likewise, dealing with sin without eradicating its root is nothing more than turning over a new leaf.
The day may come when the world sees the weeds as acceptable – but they’ll still be weeds. No matter what the world says, weeds still destroy. So does sin, even if the world redefines it.
Here’s my prayer: that each of us would deal thoroughly with our weeds of sin as we begin a new week.
The village of Bethlehem was small, hardly comparing to the city of Jerusalem — and yet, that is where the Messiah, too, would be born: “though you [Bethlehem Ephrathah] are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel” (Mic. 5:2). This ruler would have ancient origins (indeed, the New Testament would reveal Him as eternal), and yet His kingdom was still to come. Only Jesus the Messiah could meet these specifications.
His earthly origins, though, would be as a baby in a borrowed stable in an unremarkable village. When the world was upside down — children would dishonor their parents, and “a man’s enemies are the members of his own household” (Mic. 7:6) — God would step into that world in a most unimpressive way. That baby would later die on a borrowed cross and be buried in somebody else’s tomb, but He was the Messiah come to die for the sins of the world. Through His death, God “pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance” (Mic. 7:18). Indeed, He reigns over our sins, treading them underfoot and hurling them into the depth of the sea (Mic. 7:19).
A village. A baby. God in the obscure. The Creator stepping into a small and unexpected place. His lowering Himself to be born among the shepherds so that you and I might become His sheep.
Our God specializes in the small, the unknown, the insignificant, and the least. That’s a good thing, since all of us fit into those categories.
Praise God that He loves nobodies.
In your prayer today, fall at His feet and worship Him.
PRAYER: “Father, I’m a nobody — but You specialize in people like me. Thank you.”
When I first began studying spiritual warfare many years ago, I quickly accepted the idea that Isaiah 14:12ff represented the fall of Satan. After all, I thought, no mere human being would conclude about himself: “I will ascend to the heavens; I will set up my throne above the stars of God. I will sit on the mount of the gods’ assembly, in the remotest parts of the North. I will ascend above the highest clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:12-14). If no human being would think that way, then the text must primarily relate to the fall of an angel who rebelled against God and sought to take His throne. Little else made sense to me.
Now, after further decades of dealing with people, I think otherwise. While I still see Satan behind the king of Babylon whose kingdom this taunt addresses, I no longer assume that no human being thinks he can set up his throne above God’s throne. We may not use exactly the same language or images, but I have no doubt that some people elevate themselves to the point that they see themselves as their own god. Such is the nature of the combined wickedness of the human heart and demonic ambition: we convince ourselves that we know better than God does. Our own idolatry becomes apparent as we—like the king of Babylon— think, “I will make myself like the Most High.”
In the midst of the debates about the identification of the fallen one in Isaiah 14, it might be better to remember that the sin of the king of Babylon can be our sin, too. All of us are susceptible to unexplained and hard-to-believe arrogance.
Have you ever been guilty of establishing your own kingdom, without regard for God? Are you doing that now?
Be aware that our own kingdoms will fall someday.
PRAYER: “God, I know I’m susceptible to arrogance. Remind me today how much I need You.”
God wants our complete devotion, but oftentimes, we veer into disobedience. Using the story of the Israelites in the wilderness, Stacy Reaoch explains why believers must respond to God's direction with joyful obedience.
“Therefore, the Lord was very angry with Israel, and he removed them from his presence.”
2 Kings 17:18
Judgment had fallen on Israel. Hoshea, the last king of Israel, was imprisoned. The Assyrians had come to Samaria, and they captured the city. Assyrians even moved to the city and resettled it as their own. All of this tragedy took place, we are told, because the Israelites did not listen to God. Indeed, today’s reading echoes with these descriptions:
They worshiped other gods
They “secretly did things against the Lord their God that were not right” (2 Kgs. 17:9)
They “did wicked things that aroused the Lord’s anger” (2 Kgs. 17:11), like setting up pagan altars
They would not listen to the prophets God sent to warn them
They “imitated the nations around them although the Lord had ordered them, ‘Do not do as they do’” (2 Kgs. 17:15)
They did evil in the sight of the Lord, “arousing his anger” (2 Kgs. 17:17)
God had warned them again and again that He would remove them “from his presence” (2 Kgs. 17:23), but they would not listen. As the stories of their continual rebellion pile up, it’s not hard to understand why God would send them away into exile. They angered Him, ignored Him, rebelled against Him, and even replaced Him in a sense as they worshiped other gods. His prophets were not lying when they spoke of coming judgment—and we are wise, too, to remember that our sin brings consequences.
To be honest, what’s hard to understand is why God still kept His hand on them in the first place. Even exile was designed to bring them back to Him; once again, His commitment to them would trump their commitment to Him.
Consider how often you might have ignored God’s warnings about something.
Thank God for times when He allows us to pay a price for our wrong in order to bring us back to Him.
PRAYER: “Lord, I’m guilty, too, of sometimes ignoring Your warnings. Help me to hear You and follow You always.”
We wait too long to teach them. That is, we allow believers to sit for years, and then we challenge them to evangelize after they’ve lost their fire for Jesus (see yesterday’s post). That’s late in the game.
The programs assume that believers actually know non-believers in the first place. Even if we trained every church member to be evangelistic, many—if not most—of them have no real relationships with non-believers. We’ve wrongly cocooned ourselves among believers.
We use non-evangelistic people to teach them. Too often, the very people facilitating evangelism training aren’t doing evangelism themselves. When no one in the room has a genuine passion for telling others about Jesus, the program won’t accomplish much.
We expect too much from a single program. Some programs try to change believers who’ve never shared their faith into full-time, on-fire evangelists within a few weeks or months. That’s a lot to accomplish via a single program.
We assume they’re only for adults. Sometimes, adults are the hardest believers to convince to evangelize. They’re busy. They’re nervous. They’re sometimes afraid. Teach children and teens to evangelize, though, and they’ll take the lead….
The programs don’t produce life change. Any change they create is often temporary – the fire for evangelism burns for only a short time after the program ends. Fascination with Jesus and lifestyle evangelism are seldom the result.
Often, only the people already doing evangelism complete them. However we enlist participants for the training, we frequently wind up with only those folks who already have a heart for evangelism. We want those folks in the room, but we need to go after the others, too.
The programs often give too little attention to prayer. The bottom line is this: we cannot change the hearts of non-believers, and no program we have or create can change that fact. Thus, evangelism training tools that don’t emphasize prayer neglect the power that must undergird all our efforts.
So, what’s my point? Programs aren’t really the problem. Our issues go beyond having the right program – but all our issues are fixable. Be sure to address these concerns in your congregation even as you look for the best program for your church.