Standing Firm in the Gospel

The Gospel must be central to all that we do, say, and think.  The truth of the Gospel – God’s unfathomable love (John 3:16, Romans 5:8), our inherent sin (Romans 3:23, 5:12), salvation by and through Jesus Christ (Romans 6:23, John 1:12) – is the Good News that we are called to live out and carry to the very ends of the earth.

Straightforward? Yes!  But easy to stand firm in?  Not so much.  The truth is that standing firm – and I mean really standing firm, as in being squared, centered, immovable in the Gospel – doesn’t come easy, nor does it come naturally. And the real kicker is this: The biggest problem we have when it comes to standing firm in the Gospel is ourselves.

Here’s how author Michael Horton describes the problem:

“In such a therapeutic, pragmatic, pull yourself up by your bootstraps society as ours, the message of God having to do all the work in saving us comes as an offensive shot at our egos. In this culture, religion is all about being good, about the horizontal, about loving God and neighbor. But all of that is the fruit of the gospel. The gospel has nothing to do with what I do. The gospel is entirely a message about what someone else has done not only for me but also for the renewal of the whole creation.”

The slippery slope that Horton is referring to is what he terms “Gospel Plus.” Here, there’s an understanding that God did in fact descend in Christ to save us, but added to that is a belief that to be truly reconciled to God we must also somehow, someway “ascend” to God.  In the early church, the tendency was to add in Old Testament Law, which of course diluted the true Gospel.  And while today we don’t mix Law with the Gospel, we do tend to add in things like good deeds, religiosity, and self-actualization.

But anything we add to the Gospel of Jesus Christ results in a hybrid, diluted Gospel – Gospel Plus.  So why do we tend to veer in this direction so easily? Mostly because it’s just plain less offensive to us. That’s why we’re drawn to alternative forms of the Gospel, and why it’s so important to reaffirm on a regular basis the centrality of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Praying Through

Several years ago, the church I was a part of held a multi-day prayer summit with a guest facilitator named Gerhard Du Toit. One phrase that Gerhard used repeatedly throughout the summit was, “Praying through.” In general, what Gerhard was conveying is that the more deeply we live for the cause of Christ, the more we can expect resistance – including in our prayer life – and the more imperative it becomes to “pray through” the resistance.

Resistance in prayer may be self-induced (a product of our sinful nature) and often takes the form of fatigue, distraction, or doubt. Resistance may also be at times demonic, given that Satan will do all he can to try to disconnect us from Christ, since apart from Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). Whatever the source of resistance may be, you can count on the fact that if you are serious about prayer, you will face ongoing resistance, and in a variety of forms.

Someday soon – maybe even today – you will wake up feeling more tired than usual, and find it difficult to stay focused while praying. And you will need to decide whether to give up, or whether to pray through trusting that the Holy Spirit will intercede on your behalf (Romans 8:26-27).

In the not too distant future – maybe even right now – you will experience a dry season, when your prayers seem to be ignored, falling on deaf ears. Will you give up? Or will you pray through, believing that the God who invites us to approach His throne (Hebrews 4:16) is the same God who answers our prayers according to His will and timing (1 John 5:14-15)?

Perhaps you have been praying for a particular person to place his or her faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe you’ve been praying for that person for a long, long time, seemingly without success. Is it time to give up? Or will you pray through, believing that God desires for all people to be saved (2 Peter 3:9)?

A final thought: Most likely, you are familiar with the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18. But have you considered why Jesus told this parable? It seems that the answer to this question is so important that Luke was compelled to give it to us before going into the parable itself:

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Luke 18:1)

Finding Your Mountaintop

Confidence and assurance for what lies ahead is rooted in understanding and appreciating what has already taken place. The whole of scripture reveals the breathtaking dimensions of God’s unfolding plan of redemption and restoration, which is assured in Christ.

Scripture connects what was with what is, and what is yet to come. Knowing what has already taken place, and what is promised, instills in us a deeper understanding that God is indeed sovereign, that Christ is indeed building His Church, and that the Holy Spirit is indeed bringing about transformation.

Romans 15:4 conveys this dynamic beautifully:

“Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

The unfolding biblical narrative is ample in itself to strengthen us for what lies ahead.  But let’s not stop there; let’s make it personal. Whether your church has been in existence for two years or two-hundred years, God has been at work throughout its history. Before forming ideas and plans, pause to reflect on and be strengthened by recalling how God has worked in your church.  Think on days past when God’s providence was unmistakable and God’s movement undeniable.

In fact, why not gather your leaders for a time of prayer, reflection, and thanksgiving in a specific place in your church or community where God was clearly at work in the past? It could be the sanctuary that God provided at a point in time. It could be the building the church used to worship at prior to its present location. It could be a meeting room where an important leadership decision was made many years ago. What place in your church or community can you gather your leaders to help remind them of God’s faithfulness?

The precedent for this approach was set by Christ Himself. Just prior to His death, Jesus instructed His Disciples to meet Him on a specific mountain in Galilee following His resurrection (Mt. 26:32, Mt. 28:16). Meeting on a mountain would have made for a difficult, uncomfortable journey, but Jesus called the disciples there because throughout the Scriptures, time and time again, God reveals who He is on mountains. God gave the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai; God reigned down fire on Mount Carmel; Jesus was transfigured on a “high mountaintop.” In bringing the Disciples to a mountain in Galilee, Jesus takes them back to the origins of their faith. It was in Galilee that Jesus first called most of them, performed His first public miracle, and preached the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knew the importance of having His disciples look back before receiving the commission He would give them while on the mountain:

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Mt. 28:19-20)

Where is your mountaintop? What place will you gather the leaders in your church to reflect on and be strengthened by who God is, and what God has done?

Leading Through Apathy

Even the most healthy and vibrant churches experience pockets of congregational apathy. While apathy can emerge for a variety of reasons, it is always heightened – paradoxically so – during seasons when church leaders are working to implement significant change. Apathy becomes contagious when some church members believe that leaders are forcing too much change too quickly, while others believe there is too little change too slowly.

Too much change too quickly.
For some people, absorbing significant change in a compressed period of time causes them to tune out altogether. Still, church leaders are wise to not mistake apathy for negativity. In fact, I would dare say that most people who struggle with accepting change are much quicker to numb themselves to what’s happening around them than they are to intentionally sabotage change efforts.

Too little change too slowly.
Whereas some people are naturally resistant to change, others are quick to embrace the promise of change and become frustrated when it is slow to arrive. But if these same people expect others to be the sole agents of change, and are themselves unwilling to get involved, they too can become apathetic.

Different people react to change differently, and for some change represents a gateway to apathy. Hence, a key leadership challenge during seasons of significant change is to selectively help church members to move from apathy and disconnection to enthusiasm and engagement. Here are three ways to help do so:

  1. Meet people where they are at.
    This may sound easy, but it is not. It’s difficult because many people who are apathetic don’t recognize their own apathy. And others who do acknowledge their apathy can’t tell you why they’re apathetic. Finally, there are some who are apathetic but not open to being ministered to – they’ve already given up, and that’s that. Still, as leaders, we need to do our best to meet people where they are at, which means that for people who dislike the nature, volume, or pace of change, we must reassure them that while the church is changing, our commitment to the mission of making disciples, and loving God and neighbor, has not. While it seems overly simplistic, reassurance is often enough for apathetic people to become more engaged, and to have faith that change will happen at the right pace and in the right time.
  2. Be firm.
    If leaders have prayerfully discerned God’s leading for their church, and have courageously endeavored to follow God’s leading, then they must stay the course. It is a colossal mistake for leaders to abdicate forward movement in favor of helping apathetic people feel more comfortable.
  3. Be gentle.
    In his excellent book Replenish, Lance Witt makes the point that gentleness is a key component for leadership. Witt goes on to cite four specific examples:

    • Jesus says he is gentle and humble in heart;
    • Paul says an overseer should be gentle;
    • Paul told Timothy to pursue gentleness;
    • Paul says he and his fellow workers treated new believers with gentleness, like a mother caring for her children.

In the supercharged, win-at-all-costs world we live in, displaying gentleness to others can have incredible impact. In many cases, a gentle, pastoral approach to people who have succumbed to apathy is exactly what is needed for them to move from apathy to enthusiasm, and from disconnection to engagement.

Radical Exclusivity

There are seven “I am” statements from Jesus sprinkled throughout the Gospel of John. Each one points in some way to Jesus’ divinity, and to the exclusivity of Jesus as the way – the only way – to escape from death and enter into life:

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

“Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:9)

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2)

Taking into account the historical context of the expression “I am,” what Jesus is really saying in each of these verses is, “I myself, and only I, AM …”

Stating the obvious, the exclusivity of Christ runs contrary to the supposed inclusivity of today’s culture. But paradoxically, it is only the radical exclusivity of Christ that allows for radical inclusivity in Christ. And make no mistake, inclusivity in Christ is far, far different than the “anything goes” inclusivity of our culture, which has permeated much of Christendom in the west.

It has been said that all religions in the world – except for Christianity – are in essence one and the same. In some manner, each teaches that to be right with God, or to reach nirvana, or to find enlightenment, or to have the right karma, or whatever the main objective of the religious belief is, you need to adhere to a specific set of rules. There are things you need to do, things you must never do, rituals to keep, and principles to follow. And if you do these things the hope is that you will find your way to God, or nirvana, or enlightenment, or whatever the big idea is.  But here’s the kicker: All of the “dos and don’ts” of other religions are based on attainable actions. They may not be easy actions, but they are attainable on our own strength and willpower.

This, of course, is not the case with Christianity. Our faith is rooted not in ethical or ritualistic standards from man, but in the perfect and holy standards of God, which means that there is absolutely no way we can be right with God on our own strength. God is holy, and we are not – not at birth, not today, not ever. At least not by anything we do. But God offers us reconciliation through the exclusivity of His Son Jesus Christ.

But the exclusivity of Christ has always been a hard truth to accept. We see this in each of the four gospel accounts, where early in Jesus’ ministry there are enormous crowds of people clamoring to get close to Jesus, to listen to His words and be awed by the healings and miracles. But then as Jesus’ words and teaching become increasingly pointed, increasingly exclusive, people begin to fall away. Tellingly, the apex of this shift takes place after one of Jesus’ “I am” statements (“I am the bread of life …” John 6:35). After the crowd begins to grumble, we read in verse 66 that, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

The hard truth is that following Jesus – living out our faith in Jesus – is not easy. We love the idea of confessing Jesus Christ as our Savior, but we’re not so quick to want to follow Jesus Christ as our Lord.

A 2011 study by Barna Research showed that 43% of Americans agreed with the statement, “It doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons.” This is no surprise at all, is it? But what is surprising – at least to me – is that the same study revealed that 26% who self-identify as born again Christians also agree with the statement. Perhaps even more tellingly, the study revealed that 25% of born again Christians believe that ALL people are eventually saved or accepted by God, and 40% believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

Regarding the latter point, how is that even possible? At a basic level, Christians worship a Triune God, while Muslims reject the notion of a triune God as blasphemy. Further, Muslims believe that Jesus was a great prophet among many great prophets, while Christians believe Jesus was both fully human and fully God. Is this not the epitome of an irreconcilable difference? Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God. And if you don’t believe me, go ask a Muslim – they’ll tell you!

Why is the exclusivity of Jesus Christ – the exclusivity of our faith – so difficult to accept?

One reason is a base desire to believe that sincerity and goodness ought to be enough for people to be in good standing with God. But the problem with sincerity is that you can be the most sincere person in the world, and yet be sincerely wrong. This was Jeremiah’s lament: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

As for goodness, we can strive on our own, with all of the strength and resolve we can muster, to be as good as we can possibly be, but at the end of the day – literally – we will have failed. Because while we in our flesh, in our humanity, can devise all manner of standards for goodness and right conduct, the truth is that even our most righteous acts are tainted by sin. Romans 3:10 is a sobering reminder of this truth: “There is no one righteous, not even one.”

I suppose that if we dug deeper to the root of our resistance to the exclusivity of Christ, we would find that ultimately it is a faith issue. Placing our faith in a Savior who loves us just as we are is easy. Placing our faith in a Savior and Lord who calls us to crucify our flesh with its passions and desires, carry a cross daily, and lose our life for the sake of Christ is not so easy.

Difficult as it is, the exclusivity of Christ demands that we receive Christ as our Savior, and follow Christ as our Lord. Because it is only out of the radical exclusivity of Christ that we are able to experience radical inclusivity in Christ:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Accountable Leadership

Several years ago, as I was preparing a sermon on forgiveness, it dawned on me that Peter and Judas were really not all that different. Both were deeply flawed – Judas was self-centered and dishonest, Peter was temperamental and impetuous; both had wronged Jesus – Judas by betrayal, Peter by denial; and both, when they realized that they had wronged Jesus, were overcome with regret – Judas was “seized with remorse” (Matthew 27:3), Peter “wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75). So why are the legacies of these two flawed men so vastly different? The answer is most certainly multi-factorial, but at a base level clarity emerges when we consider how each responded in the moment they became fully awake to the harm they had caused Jesus.

Judas took matters into his own hands by trying to return the payment he had received for betraying Jesus, and when that didn’t work, by ending his own life. In contrast, Peter knew immediately that there was nothing he could do to make restitution for his betrayal of Jesus, nothing he could do to assuage his guilt. And so he wept bitterly … and was later fully restored by Jesus.

Moving forward a few thousand years, as pastors and church leaders, our reality is that we have all made mistakes, we all do make mistakes, and we will all continue to make mistakes. Being human, it turns out, is synonymous with making mistakes. Go figure.

Herman Melville once wrote, “Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly in need of mending.”

Yep, that about captures it. But what does it have to do with “accountable leadership?”

A lot, actually. Because given the certainty that we will in fact make mistakes, a fundamental question is, “Will we embrace accountability, or will we shun accountability?”

To embrace accountability is to enter into the pain that comes with acknowledging, taking responsibility, and learning from our mistakes. This is the path that Peter took, and ultimately it led toward restoration and renewed purpose. To shun accountability is to attempt to conceal our mistakes as we go along, avoiding at all costs the pain of having to deal with the damage we have caused. This was the path Judas took, and it led to destruction.

As difficult as it is, accountability is essential for all who follow Christ. And it is even more essential for all who are leaders in Christ’s church:

“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Luke 12:47-48

If we are courageous to embrace accountability, a natural follow-up question is, “To whom are we accountable?” The answer, I believe, is three-fold: We are accountable first and foremost to God, then to others, then to ourselves.

Accountability to God
After God sent the prophet Nathan to confront King David about his adultery with Bathsheba, David’s first words were, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). As the story continues, the repercussions of David’s sin unfold, and they are devastating. Like David, regardless of how we sin, when we sin we sin against God, and there are repercussions to our sin. Yet the only way that we can truly grasp the weight of our sin, and truly experience the fullness of the grace of God in Christ, is to embrace accountability to God. This of course requires that we are diligent and intentional to connect with God.

As a disciple (and as a leader), how is your prayer life? Do you pray out of convenience or ritual, skimming the surface but never really going deep? Or do you pray with an open heart and mind, emptying yourself in order to be replenished as the Holy Spirit ministers to your soul? If your approach to prayer is the latter, you know the experience of coming under conviction for your sins, while at the same time being restored and renewed by the grace of Jesus Christ.

As a disciple (and as a leader), do you make the study of God’s Word a priority in your life? If you are serious about being accountable before God, you must be in the Word of God regularly. And you must invite and allow scripture to bring conviction and transformation:

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Hebrews 4:12-13

Accountability to Others
In Jeremiah 17:9, God speaks through the prophet in stating, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

Because each of us have the propensity to deceive ourselves, it is critical that we invite others to speak truth into our lives, and to hold us accountable. There are far too many pastors who have lost their churches – and oftentimes, their families – because of a gradual deterioration of values, priorities, and conduct. Like it or not, we are prone to wander. Whether our wandering takes the form of spending too much time at work and not enough with family, or of lapsing into unhealthy and unholy habits, or of simply falling away from essential spiritual disciplines, we need people around us to hold us accountable.

Around three years ago, I transitioned from serving a single church to serving multiple churches under two half-time denominational roles. Interestingly, each of the new roles did not exist previously, and were very open-ended. In each case, to help ensure ongoing accountability, I quickly developed a scorecard of key activities and metrics that I am responsible for maintaining and reviewing monthly with other key leaders. No one asked me to do this, but I knew that doing so was critical for bringing out the best in me, and by extension the churches and leaders I work on behalf of.

Accountability to Self
It seems like every sports coach in America has at one time or another talked about an athlete “giving 110%.” The problem with that statement is that it makes no sense! After all, no one can give more effort than they are capable of giving.

What is true, however, is that all of us are guilty of giving less effort than we are capable of giving. I don’t always do my best as a husband. Or as a father. Or as a Classis Leader. Or as a preacher. Or as a … well, you get the point.

The reality for pastors and church leaders, in part because of conflicting priorities and finite capacity, is that we must pick and choose how and where we invest our energy. This is nothing to apologize for, it’s just part of life.

But it can also be a crutch, an excuse. In our busyness we can easily overlook tackling the things that matter most in favor of dabbling in the things that matter least. Whole churches have lost sight of their missional call as they have elevated programs, events, and activities above all else. Individual pastors and leaders have lost sight of the fact that the effectiveness of their leadership is tied directly to their followership of Jesus Christ.

Even as we are called to be accountable first and foremost to God, and even as we invite other people to hold us accountable, we must also be accountable to ourselves. Other than God Himself, the only person who knows whether or not I am actively praying, studying scripture, and making my life an act of worship is me. And other than God Himself, the only person who knows whether or not I’ve given close to my personal best when preparing for leadership meetings, sermons, retreats, etc., is me. Self-accountability starts with self-awareness and an unquenchable desire to be all that God created us to be.

Four Ways to Encourage Staff Members

Ministry is not for the faint of heart! While there are numerous blessings that come from serving the Lord and His people, so too are there numerous challenges – many of which are very, very messy. In the absence of encouragement, the best church workers can hope for is to hang in and survive. But with regular encouragement, church workers are positioned to thrive.

Encouragement comes both from God, who is our strength and shield (Psalm 28:7), and from God’s people, who are to encourage and build one another up (1 Thes. 5:11).

We know that God will do His part if only we seek Him (Psalm 121).  But what about us? How are we to encourage and build up our staff? The list that follows represents a good start:

Be Present.
So often in ministry, church workers feel isolated and alone. Being present with staff members – checking in on them, asking how they are doing, praying for them – can make all the difference.

Affirm staff members.
In my ministry, I have the privilege of connecting with many pastors and leaders. I am blessed to share in their joys and humbled to share in their sorrows.  What saddens me more than anything is when a pastor or leader does not feel affirmed. How easy it is to forget that all people need affirmation. I’m not suggesting that we flatter staff members to boost their self-confidence, but that we sincerely and honestly let them know they are appreciated. Just as people must hear the Gospel to respond to it (Romans 10:14), so too must people hear words of affirmation to feel affirmed.

Compensate staff members fairly.
Scripture makes clear that those whose vocational work is the spread of the Gospel are to be paid fairly for their work. When Jesus sent the seventy-two out, He told them to eat and drink what was offered to them, “for the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). Paul made several mentions of the need for church workers to be compensated fairly (Romans 4:4, 1 Cor.9:9-14, 2 Cor. 11:7-9, Phil. 4:16-19, 2 Thes. 3:7-10, 1 Tim. 5:17-18). Churches must consider their size, viability, financial health, and denominational policy when establishing fair standards for staff compensation. External wage surveys are helpful if they include data from comparably sized churches in the same region. As you consider total compensation, be sure to account for health and ancillary insurance premiums, as well as retirement contribution. Additionally, churches should plan for an annual cost of living allowance (COLA).

Establish and commit to an annual employee evaluation process.
There has been considerable debate during the past several years over whether performance evaluations help or hinder employee performance. But in my experience, I have found that most staff members, especially those who are driven to excel, clamor for a formal performance evaluation.  Still, while I have used an evaluation process for several years, I only recommend giving annual performance evaluations if the church’s senior leaders endorse doing so, and if the evaluation process is geared to build up rather than tear down staff members.  I believe that a good evaluation process accentuates strengths, identifies areas for improvement, and creates an opportunity for a supervisor and staff member to collaborate on a development plan.

Complete Unity?

“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
John 17:22-23

Question: Is “complete unity” (or, as some bible translations phrase it, “perfect unity”) among Christians even possible?

Amazingly, the answer is that complete unity is not only possible, it is assured. There will come a day when our unity will be made perfect, complete. But our present reality is that our unity is both imperfect and incomplete. As individuals, and as churches and denominations, we tend to elevate our own self-interests above the interests of others. We are prone to judge one another, and to gossip and slander one another. And we allow politics and issues of the day to divide us, even to the point of labeling those who disagree with us as “unspiritual” or “unchristian.”

This is ample reason for discouragement, honest reflection, and corrective action. But it’s also reason to cling to the truth that in John 17, Jesus does not thank the Father for bringing believers to complete unity, but that we might be brought to complete unity.

Jesus’ prayer is for the unfolding process that will one day result in complete unity among believers. Jesus’ prayer is centered in sanctification – our lifelong journey toward holiness. And since sanctification is an ongoing process for every believer, so too is sanctification an ongoing process for the church as a whole.

This represents both bad news and good news. The bad news is that the church has not yet reached complete unity – no surprise there! But the good news is that each day brings us that much closer.

In the meantime, it is a challenge to fix our focus on good news when it seems like bad news is so prevalent. We know that as Christians we’re called to be united in Christ, but so often we’re anything but united. In fact, far too often we’re divided, embarrassingly so at times.

A few years ago, Pastor Rick Warren’s son Matthew took his own life following a life-long battle with depression. Given that Rick Warren is a high profile Christian leader, you would think that this might have been a time when Christians around the world would have encouraged and lifted up the Warren’s in prayer. And while there was indeed a substantial outpouring of support and prayers, there was also ridicule and blame.

Mark Driscoll, who like Rick Warren is a high profile pastor-leader, posted on Facebook the day of Matthew Warren’s suicide that, “I teared up hugging and praying over my five kids today while praying for my friend Pastor Rick Warren, whose 27-year-old son died. Please pray for his family and their church family.” A few days later, in his blog, Driscoll wrote about the response he received from his Facebook post: “Most Christians responded with kindness and a promise to pray. Some, however, said some ugly things I will not repeat. They were not alone.”

Sad as it is, there are many Christians who are more interested in expressing opinions than expressing love. Rick Warren himself, just a few days after his son committed suicide, posted on both Twitter and Facebook that, “Grieving is hard. Grieving as public figures, harder. Grieving while haters celebrate your pain, hardest.”

“Complete unity?” Not hardly. But it will happen. Not through our efforts or good works, but through Jesus. It’s because of what Jesus has done, and is doing, that we can be assured that the church will come to complete unity – maybe not today or tomorrow, but one day soon.

So what do we do in the meantime? We don’t shut our eyes to our struggles and shortcomings, but we also open our eyes to how God is at work in people, churches, and communities. God is on the move. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is being advanced. The Kingdom is coming. And while the Kingdom is being ushered in by Christ, we have the privilege of being a part of His work.

As I write this, I am reflecting on a recent worship service I attended at my home church, Knapp Street Reformed in Grand Rapids. Knapp is a small church of around 120 in worship. Across the street from Knapp sits a satellite location of Ada Bible Church, a very large church that is easily ten times (and probably more like twenty times) the size of Knapp. The two churches are quite different, yet they share a wonderful partnership.

And so it was that when my family and I arrived early for worship on January 8, there were already around 40 cars parked in Knapp’s main parking lot. This was not a surprise, given that Knapp’s administrative assistant had sent an email earlier in the week letting Knapp members know that the youth group at Ada Bible Church were on retreat that weekend, and because Ada uses all of their parking spots on Sunday morning, we would be giving up some of our parking spots to Ada members who were leaving their cars through the weekend.

Toward the conclusion of that morning’s worship service, Knapp Street Lead Pastor Les Wiseman asked attendees to provide an extra blessing for our friends from Ada by clearing the snow off of their cars (it had snowed heavily the night before). When our brothers and sisters from Ada arrived later that afternoon, they found that their cars were free of snow and ready to roll.

I share this story not to brag about my home church, but because it represents a small sliver, a fleeting glimpse, of “complete unity.” And I share it because I want to challenge individuals and churches to strive for complete unity – with Christ and with one another – in anticipation of what is yet to come.

“And there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
Revelation 7:9

The Unfathomable, Knowable Love of God

“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Ephesians 3:17-19

How wide is the love of Christ? So wide that when Jesus stretched out His hands on the cross, he did so for all people, that in spite of our unworthiness, by faith we might be reconciled to God. The width – the breadth – of Christ’s love is limitless, surpassing knowledge and understanding.

What is the length of Christ’s love? Beyond measure. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. Jesus has always existed and will always exist, and is the same yesterday, today and forever. His love is from everlasting to everlasting.

How high is the love of Christ? Higher than heaven itself. High enough for Jesus to be seated with the Father in Heaven. High enough that we can be “raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 2:6).

What is the depth of Christ’s love? Deeper than the lowest Hell. Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and humbling himself to be obedient to death, even death on a cross. The depth of Christ’s love has no boundaries.

Advent reminds us that God’s love, while unfathomable, is also knowable. How can this be? The answer, of course, is Jesus:

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).

The God who formed the heavens and the earth sent us His son – not with power and glory (that comes later when Christ comes again), but as an infant, born of a virgin in a manger.

Unfathomable. Knowable.

What Child is This is one of my favorite Christmas songs. It is melodic and moving, but more than that it points to the love of God in Christ. The song begins with a simple question: “What child is this?”  The answers we receive are breathtaking:

What child is this?

“The babe, the son of Mary.”

This child is Emmanuel – God with us.

What child is this?

“The King of kings, salvation brings.”

This child is the Messiah, the Savior of the World. This child is the Christ.

What child is this?

“This, this is Christ the King.”

This child is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

For Christians, God’s love is both unfathomable and knowable. But for the many who do not yet know Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, the love of God, while unfathomable, is also unknowable. God’s love is unknowable to non-believers because ultimately the love of God is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. It is only when a person places his or her faith in Jesus Christ that the unknowable love of God becomes knowable – increasingly so as we follow Christ as Lord.

Does the love of God compel you to want to share God’s love with others? It should! The Gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – is the best news we could ever begin to imagine. The good news is so good that it must be shared.

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
Romans 10:15

Finding Common Ground

For Christians, Jesus is our common ground. We may disagree on any number of things, but there had better be agreement on Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Head of His church.  Is this enough to resolve every conflict we may have?  No – but it is always the correct starting point. We may disagree on strategy, tactics, or issues of the day, but our shared unity in Christ ought to compel us to love one another regardless of our disagreement.

But when we interact with people who are unchurched, or dechurched, we are wise to find some other source of common ground, which oftentimes paves the way for a relationship of trust to develop, and may well open doors to sharing the Gospel, and eventually finding common ground in Christ.

An illustration that comes to mind is from an article published in USA TODAY some fifteen years ago.  The article was titled “Enemies Play in Peace,” and it was centered on a group of Israeli and Palestinian men brought together for one week to play basketball at the University of Vermont.  Here are a few excerpts from the article:

At first, the chill in the air at that meeting – not helped by an Arabic-Hebrew language barrier – worried organizers as the two groups sat separately. Then a warmth spread as basketball dominated the talk. Israelis and Palestinians agreed to speak English.

“Sports is a language everyone understands,” said Galily.  “Now it is not us and them here, it is just us.  It is just a small step, but it in the journey it is an important one.”

“This trip has let me see such wonderful guys here,” Kotto, 25, said, sweeping his hand around the lunch table.  “I encourage everyone to understand the other side of things. They are guys just like me.”

Even sworn enemies can find common ground, and when that happens, the possibility of deeper, more meaningful discussion is greatly enhanced.

The story above is a good one, but there is a story in Scripture that is far better.  It’s in John 4:1-42 – the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well.  You’ve probably read and heard this story many times, but I encourage you to pause for a few minutes to read it afresh, and to let the story wash over you.

What an amazing impact one encounter had!  The woman at the well was changed forever, and so too were many in her village.  And, of course, this story has impacted countless others, too. After all, we’re still talking about it, and learning from it, all these years later.

The lessons in the story are many, but for today, let’s focus on the importance of Jesus gradually – and progressively – establishing common ground.  Think about this …

  • The woman was part of a mixed race, with Samaritans considered to be impure by Jews. And yet Jesus stops to converse with her, which in itself is an extraordinary act of grace, given the cultural norms of the day.  The initial common ground Jesus established was simply acknowledging her, rather than ignoring her. And so Jesus fills a basic human need – to be acknowledged, and valued, as a person.
  • Going for water in that culture was hard work. Wells were typically located outside the city on the main road, and women would go for water twice each day – morning and evening.  But this woman, because of her reputation, came to the well at noon in order to avoid being seen by others. In other words, she was ostracized from others in her community.  Yet Jesus acknowledges her, and more than that, offers her “living water” that would remove a person’s thirst forever.  For a person who had to work so hard to get water in the first place, including needing to make the walk in isolation at odd hours, Jesus’ offer was eminently appealing.  She didn’t understand what Jesus meant by “living water,” but she understood full well how difficult getting water was.  Again, Jesus’ words met her where she was at, addressing a significant need.
  • Having established common ground, Jesus is ready to steer the discussion to a deeper place. He instructs the woman to go to her husband, knowing full well that she had already had five husbands and was currently living with a man she wasn’t married to. The woman assumes Jesus to be a prophet. Gradually, by degrees, she is being drawn deeper and deeper into the truth of who Jesus is. Jesus then speaks to her about true worshipers – spirit and truth worshipers – which prompts the woman to state, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming…”
    Talk about progressively unfolding common ground!  She anticipated the coming Messiah, but still didn’t realize that she was talking to Him.
  • By the time Jesus tells the woman, “I who speak to you am He,” there was already a bond of trust built. It started when Jesus addressed the woman, which in itself represented a break from the tradition and custom of the day. It continued when Jesus offered the woman a gift (“living water”) she didn’t fully grasp, but in her mind would remove the physical and emotional burdens she carried in having to go for water alone, and at odd hours. Once common ground was established, Jesus ministered to her powerfully and concisely: “I who speak to you am He.”

Take time to think about the differences you may have with people around you, and ways in which you can establish common ground as a starting point that may well lead to healthier relationships, or even organic opportunities to share the Gospel.

And as you do so, be sure to heed these words from 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”