Friday, December 12, 2014

The Unchurched in America

One of the elders in my church sent me a link to this article by Barna.

After you read that quick article, let me offer some thoughts on ministry implications ...

#1 - this is exactly why we no longer have to consider "mission work" as going somewhere. The need for mission is greatest right here in our own neighborhoods. Partner this with the facts in #6, and you see that our need here in LA/OC is great.

#3 - the idea that so many of the unchurched have attended church, and have chosen to be "unchurched" is exactly why we are high on the value of biblical preaching, gospel centrality, and culturally relevant, in our church. This is why the ideas of doing things "the way we always" have is so flawed. People are not returning to churches, in many cases, because what they have to offer them is so weak. People have visited churches looking for something - expecting something, and when they have not found it, it is because the churches have lost sight of what truly has power, and traded it in for what they think the culture will respond to. The number one thing people say they like when they visit our church is our emphasis of the Bible. Why has the church at large missed this?

#6 - this is why we are constantly talking about, aiming into, and supporting, planting churches. We are so in need of reaching our part of the country, that the only way this will happen is through church planting. The primary way the leaders that God used to start "the church" in an unchurched culture (the first century) was by planting churches. All of the book of Acts is a story of church planting.

#8 - this is exactly why we call the older and more mature believers in the church to conceed in style and approach for worship, teaching, and image, because we are losing an entire generation. Each generation is slipping further and further away. They must become the focus of our direction or we will not only lose our faith in the next generation, but our entire nation will suffer when we lose the very thing we were founded on. Those who are mature in their faith are called by God to become that which will serve the next generation in reaching them. Doing things "the way we always have", or "the way I like them", is selfish, and requires us to submit our hearts to God in repentance.

#10 - this should indicate that the harvest is ripe for the worker. People identifying as oriented towards Christianity, should indicate that we have common ground with those who need Jesus so deeply. It is not like we have to convince them that Buddha is wrong. We just need to show them that what they inherently already profess requires their submission to it. God is not a God who is disengaged: God is a personal God, founded in Jesus Christ, that requires our full submission and worship. The gospel can no longer be about hawking Heaven to people, offering them an eternity that is disconnected from our today. But, instead, it requires our submission to God today that will result in an eternal outcome.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

“Lord, Teach Us to Pray”

It seems that each time I have written or taught on prayer, many people feel challenged to pray, but struggle to actually spend time in prayer. It would appear that the disciples had the same challenge as they all asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” [Luke 4:1]; I remember dealing with the same thing several years ago. I would sit down to pray, but felt like I only had a few things to say, and they were always repeats of the day before. Two things happened that helped transform my time in prayer. One was the A.C.T.S. acronym as a guide for prayer, and the other was Isaiah 6. 
First, the acronym A.C.T.S.:
A: Adoration
C: Confession
T: Thanksgiving
S: Supplication 
Before we look at each piece individually, let me first read you the passage that helped it all make sense for me.
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people…”  [Isaiah 6:1–9a]
Isaiah invites us into his time with the Lord. It also gives us an idea of how we might spend time in prayer. Let me now work through the acronym.

Adoration is defined as “deep love and respect”. The definition of worship is the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for [God]. The idea of starting with adoration (or worship) in prayer, is for us to start by focusing our hearts on God. Way too often our prayers are our so focused on what we want from God, that we forget to give God what he is due - our worship! 
Just as Scripture begins with “In the beginning, God…”, so all good theology starts with God. Our Reformed liturgy begins with God, preferably in a trinitarian proclamation. Isaiah begins his time focused on God, and so our prayers should begin with God. I can say this with some emphasis, as Jesus started his famous prayer with, “Our God in Heaven, hallowed by your name.” Jesus called God’s name holy (hallowed), before he began anything else. 
Beginning our time by worshiping God not only focuses our hearts, but also sets our priority on God. I would rather give God his due worship before asking him to meet my needs. Isaiah spends more time on this portion than any other (see vs. 1-3).
Beginning in worship sets us with a right view of God. We remember he is all powerful (omnipotent), before we seek to ask him to intervene in our lives. We remember he is all knowing (omniscient) before we seek him for answers. 
Also, by getting our view of God right, by worshiping him in Spirit and truth, we get a right view of ourselves. That leads us to our next phase, “confession”. 
Let me say this as a final thought on worship before moving on: adoration is different than thanksgiving, though many people confuse these. When we are thankful, it is for something done (an act or service). When we worship (adore) it is for an attribute. I often explain it in this way: if I were to ascribe worth to my wife (adore) for washing the dishes and making me dinner, would she feel loved? If I am to adore my wife, it needs to be for her character, her beauty, and her amazing heart. I adore her for these things, and I appreciate her for the things she does - separately. That will be in “thanksgiving” (more on that in a minute). What we are doing in worship and adoration is giving God worship for who he is, not just for what he has done. We worship God for his holiness and his justice, not just for him giving us a job when we needed it. 

Confession is simply admitting our guilt and sin before God. All of us have things we need to confess whether we like to admit it or not (1 John 1:10, Romans 3:23). We are called to confess our sins in prayer (James 5:16), and we are taught that this is a part of the forgiveness process (1 John 1:9). Since I think most people get this, let me offer a challenge to this: corporate confession.
Isaiah not only confesses his own sin, but confesses the sin of people in his day. He writes, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (vs. 5) I see the same thing in Nehemiah:
5 And I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. [Nehemiah 1:5–7]
God does amazing things through Isaiah and Nehemiah. I am challenged by both these men of God to confess the sins not only that I have committed, but the sins of my community, nation, generation, and church. I am compelled to believe that corporate confession has great merit, as even Jesus did so from the cross, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34]

Thanksgiving flows naturally out of confession because we know God has forgiven us, and removed our sin from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). Being forgiven prompts us to being thankful, but we can be thankful for so much more.
It is a great moment in Isaiah’s passage, where he hears, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” He knows his sinfulness is gone. What a miserable existence it would be if we had to confess sin and just leave it there stinking before God! This is not so in Christ. We are forgiven! And, we should show our thankfulness to God for his mercy and grace. 
Just as God is deserving of our thankfulness for forgiveness, what are the other things we thank God for? How about our families, or our church? How about the ministry he has given us to serve in? What about the prayers God has already answered for us? There is so much to thank God for, this should be a long list of gratitude. 
When talking about worship being about character, and not actions done, I used the example of adoring my wife for her attributes. It is true that once I have adored her, she loves to know what I appreciate. Our God is the same way. He is due our worship and adoration, but he also is to be appreciated and thanked for all he does for us. 

Supplication is defined as the action of asking for something earnestly or humbly. When we bring our needs to God, it is to done with both an earnest and humble heart. We all have needs, and we all have desires. To seek God for all that we need or desire him to “supply” in our life is the easiest part of prayer for most people. Let me offer some suggestions for this time. 
Pray for others first, and yourself last. If you are married and have kids, let your prayers be about your family first. If you are a pastor, pray for your church and their needs before yourself. It is always a good practice to seek God on behalf of others before yourself. What is the worst thing that can happen, you run out of time and can’t pray for yourself? God knows your needs! He will care for you.
Most importantly, leave room for God to speak. It is during the time after worship, confession, and thanksgiving that Isaiah hears from God, and writes, “I heard the voice of the Lord saying…” (vs. 9). Bring a journal and a Bible, and allow for room in your prayer time to listen. We all too often make prayer time a monologue, and not a dialogue. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

“My House Shall Be Called a House of Prayer”

The synoptic gospels all record Jesus as saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” [Matt 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46], which is a direct quote from Isaiah the prophet:
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” [Isaiah 56:6–7]
The challenge for us today is to to honestly ask if Jesus would consider our church a “house of prayer”? Do we really understand the call of Jesus’ church to be a people hallmarked by prayer? Do we truly see the link between the power of prayer and God’s movement in history? Do we commit to both corporate and private times of prayer as a church? Sadly, for too many churches and pastors, the answer is no.
If we can honestly assess both ourselves and our churches we will come up with the answer that corporately we are not as prayerful as we are called to be. As leaders, what are we called to do about it? Let me offer a simple answer through a common pattern we see in Israel.
The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. But when the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother. The Spirit of the LORD was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the LORD gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died. (Judges 3:7-11 ESV)
Consider the following pattern as not only what has happened in the days of Israel, but what takes place today. In simple terms, here is what takes place:
  1. God is good to his people and they enjoy his blessings. Whether it is Israel inheriting the land God gave them, or the first century church being empowered by the Holy Spirit, whenever people are walking rightly with God, things are good. 
  2. God’s people tend to get complacent. Sin enters in, God’s people capitulate to the cultures around them, and allow their hearts to wander away from God. If God’s people do not course-corrected at this point, things go downhill fast. 
  3. When God’s people don’t repent, God tends to lift his hand of blessing. That can be as severe as Israel’s loss of land and being taken into captivity, or something far less like just being outside the blessing God desires to shower on his people. For us in the church today it seems to be appearing as an impotence in being the Church Jesus empowered us to be.
  4. When God’s people return to God, he hears their prayers and returns to them. 
In the Judges passage an all too common story arises. Israel, after enjoying the covenant blessing of God for a time, inevitably gets complacent. As they allow their hearts to wander, they move further away from God and into idolatry. Eventually God lifts his hand of blessing off of them, and they lose what God had given them. After enough pain and heartache they remember God, and reach out to God in prayer. The highlight of the passage is God faithfully returning to them, pouring out his Spirit on them, and restoring them. 
This story is common with Israel. It is common with the church today too. Just imagine the timeline of Church History and compare it to the history of Israel in the Old Testament. We see the same thing: times of blessing, times of idolatry, and times where God moves mightily again. But, where are we today? Not many who study the church in America for overall health and effectiveness would say that the church is doing well. It doesn’t take a statistician or biblical scholar to see that Jesus commissioned a powerful church, enabled them to do incredible things, and sent them on a God-sized Kingdom mission. If all that is still true, if we are still that church, why don’t we look a bit more like the church Jesus designed us to be? Could it be that we have lost our orientation for prayer? 
The church was designed to be under God’s blessing. Jesus clearly commissioned his Bride to be a powerful community that would take his gospel to the ends of the earth. Jesus teaches us that we will do even greater things after he is gone (John 14:12). Why then when we measure ourselves by Scripture do we find a church that seems so impotent?
The early church gathered often for prayer together (corporate prayer particularly). Luke records words like, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer”, and “we will devote ourselves to prayer” [Acts 1:14 and 6:4]. It was during times of prayer that God did amazing things like pour out his Holy Spirit on the people, commission leaders for ministry, miraculously setting Peter free from jail, and even raise the dead. So why not us? 
What do we do when we find ourselves outside of where God has called us to be? What do we do if we find that we as a church have become complacent and too much like our culture? How has God called us to return to him, when we find that we are no longer the people he created us to be? The answer is simple: return to God in prayer. 
What if we used the famous passage in 2 Chronicles written to Israel about just such a time in their lives? God told Israel that he was with them, and would remain with them, but they were prone to walking away. He provide for their complacency and sin before they even acted it out.  
Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.
God provides the answer for Israel’s departure, even before they do it. In short, God says when Israel wanders away he will lift his blessing from to get their attention. However, when they return to him, he will return to them. He promises to do so when Israel returns in prayer. God even repeats himself again saying, “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.”

This brings us back to where we began: would God consider our church to be a “house of prayer”? If we desire to see another “great awakening” sweep our country, if we desire to see more empowering like the first century church, and if we desire to accomplish the mission that Jesus set us on, we need to return in prayer.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What Bible Translation is Best?

One of the greatest gifts that God has given us is his Word - the Bible. Some of the only things that might be better than the Bible are God’s love for us, and the salvation Christ accomplished by his work on the cross. Beyond that, I cannot think of much else in this life that is a greater gift to us than God granting us the revelation of himself in writing for us to study.  

However, with so many translations to choose from, how do we know what is best for us? It can be completely discouraging to someone who doesn’t know much about choosing a Bible.

There are many English translations on the market. Many Christians have a preference, most preferences seem to come from what they used as a child or when they first came to faith. Hopefully, this short message will help you in choosing a translation.

Every Bible we have today is a translation from ancient manuscripts: these ancient writings have been around for hundreds to even thousands of years. To get them into English, or any other language that you and I can read, they have to be “translated”. There are two  main “types” (styles) of translations: “dynamic equivalent’ and “literal equivalent”.

Dynamic Equivalent vs. Literal Equivalent 
A “dynamic equivalent” translation is a “thought-for-thought” translation. The scholars who use this method read a sentence or paragraph, basically a full thought, and attempt to translate it into common language so that it is both true to the original intent, and readable in the new language. 

A “literal equivalent” is a more “word-for-word” translation. The translators take the original language and attempt to translate every word from one language to another. This is not always as easy as it sounds, as one word in a language may have multiple equivalents in another language, or really no word that is the “literal equivalent”.

Let me say this before we move on: no translation is perfect. Anytime you translate from one language to another, no matter what style of translation you use, you inevitably run into some problems. However, you can make an educated decision based on what you know and choose the Bible that is best for you.

Pros and Cons:
Dynamic equivalents often make a very readable translations, that flow well verbally, and land well in the ear of the reader. They flow really well because of their design. Whole thoughts are translated at a time, so when they are written out they are written with the design of being read together in the new language. The clunkiness of word-for-word translation is overcome here. 

The problem that can arise with a dynamic equivalent translation is that you are getting interpretation mixed in with translation. When one person takes someone else’s “thought”, and tries to find the dynamic equivalent to that “thought”, there is inevitably the translators own “thought” added to it. Those that have sought to do this have worked very hard at keeping their own biases out of it, but some inevitably bleeds through.  

Literal equivalent translations of the Bible are often the choice of teachers. The reason for this is accuracy. Those who prefer this style of Bible want to know what the Bible “says” (translated), not what the Bible “means” (translated). This style of translation makes it a better teaching tool.

The problem you can run into with a literal equivalent is that it can read a little clunkier than dynamic translations. There are also sometimes problems with words: some words have more than one meaning, others have more than one counterpart in the new language, and still others have no real words that are the equivalent in the new language. This means sometimes you have to take a word and create a phrase, or vice versa. 

A good example of a word translation issue is the English word “love”. There are at least three words in Hebrew, and four more in Greek, that we translate into love in English. Hebrews and Greeks had different words for familial love, physical love, and unconditional love. We have “love”. So, the question is, do you define love (add meaning) or do you simply use love? If you add for clarity you are going beyond literal translation (word-for-word). If you don’t, have you not only carried the word, but the meaning correctly?

There are no real right or wrong answers here (but there are some very highly opinionated people about translation issues!). Let me give you some common translations.

Popular examples of “dynamic equivalent” Bibles are: the New International Version (NIV), Living Bible (TLB), New Living Translation (NLT), Today’s New International Version (TNIV), and “The Message” by Eugene Peterson (no abbreviation).

Popular examples of “literal equivalent” translations are: the King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), American Standard Version (ASV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV).  

Choosing a Bible
The first question I like to ask people that ask me about choosing a translation is simply what they will read. Any Bible that you will read is better than you not reading a Bible. Now, that being said, there are some that are better than others. 

My preference is to stay with literal equivalent translations for what has been already said above: I want to know what the Bible “says” not what it “means”. I want to be able to derive the meaning from the words God actually chose to be written. 

First, my preference in a Bible, is the English Standard Version. That is what we use every Sunday in the church, and what we stock in the pews. The reason for that is that is a literal equivalent translation that has the best scholarship behind it. The other literal equivalents like the KJV (400 years old), and even the NKJV (32 years old), are good, but do not have the best scholarship of the last several decades. The ESV grows out of the Tyndale-KJV legacy, with a more accurate and more readable translation. 

If you are going to choose a dynamic equivalent translation, I will suggest that the NIV is your best choice. The New International Version was originally published in the 1970s after about 10 full years of effort. There were 100 scholars engaged, from across all streams and theologies of Christianity, as a way of balancing bias. They also made for a very scholarly translation. The second thing they did that I like was to balance “word-for-word” translation with “thought-for-thought” translation, to get the best result.  The NIV underwent another “update” that was released in 2011 to address some issues that were found after its release. Overall, this is a good, very readable, accurate translation.

Study Bible Suggestions:
The following are three of my favorite study Bibles. They have great articles 
(note the last one is available only in digital format)

May you grow in your study of God’s Word!
Pastor Jeff