Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Story (in less than 3 minutes)

As promised a few weeks ago, a bottom-line recap of our 31-week series through the whole Bible in less than 3 minutes. Okay, here goes. 

In the very beginning, the eternal God created everything. And he especially created mankind in order to receive glory and worship from him and to have fellowship with him. The first man, Adam, however, sinned against God, and this fellowship was broken. God, however, graciously provided a way for man to still enjoy his fellowship: a sacrifice, such as a lamb.

As God continued to sovereignly and mercifully call people to fellowship with him, sacrifices remained essential. God was holy, and man wasn't. So the death of an animal acted as a sort of "satisfaction" to God for man's sin. But this was only temporary at best, as God's wrath against sin could never be turned away by anything less than holy. So for centuries to come man continued to sacrifice every year in order to be right with God.

But these imperfect sacrifices were actually pointing to something greater that God was providing — the perfect sacrifice of himself. Frankly, that's exactly what God did when he sent Jesus into the world: He gave us himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Jesus, the holy God in the form of a man, lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and rose again from the grave so that all who believe in him could forever be made right with God. When Jesus accomplished this, God was satisfied permanently. Why? Because the sacrifice was holy. Perfect. It was the sacrifice of himself.

This was startling and world-changing good news — God had come to man and had given his life for us so that we would not die in our sins. As people heard this message, and saw how glorious God was in his sacrifice for sin and authority over death, people repented of their sins, believed this message and worshiped God for saving them. They, too, were now enjoying forgiveness from sin and fellowship with God, just as many others before them.

Even now, God, just as he has been doing since the beginning of time, is still calling people to himself through this very same message of his sacrifice, what we know as the Gospel. It is the good news that Jesus has come, has lived and died, and has risen as the complete atonement and satisfaction for our sins. And anyone who repents of his or her sin, turns to God in faith, and confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior, will be saved by God and made right with him forever. Incredibly, it is in this very act of saving lost sinners that God gets glory from us and has fellowship with us, the very thing he set out to do in the beginning.

Hallelujah for the story, and all glory to the Author!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What to Look for in a Church

A few months ago as I was teaching from Acts 2-4, I, almost in passing, threw out some observations about what people should look for in a church. Not that these qualities are unimportant; rather, it wasn't the bulls-eye target of the text that day. But it warranted a drive-by mentioning, so I generally lobbed these implicit church-trait observations into the laps of our people that day.

Know what I discovered in subsequent emails and conversations? It was one of the main things that stuck.

So, here's the same lob your way. I'm fully aware this isn't exhaustive, and that some will disagree. But I find this textually-based approach refreshing in a day when lots of people use lists that have their basis in everything but Scripture.

Finally, I do see this simple list as prioritized, which not only makes it meaningful when you are looking for a church, but also quite helpful when you are thinking about leaving a church.

So what does Acts 2-4 implicitly teach about how to select a local spiritual family in which to grow strong? There are three main things you need to consider.

1. Content of the message (GOSPEL-CENTERED DOCTRINE) The Apostles were veracious cross-clingers. No amount of cultural pressure could hide their clear and compelling attachment to the work of Jesus, both his crucifixion and resurrection. So when they spoke, there was not even the slightest attempt to make what had just happened -- the Gospel -- palatable or polite. The Gospel is where they started, stayed, and ended. And everything else was built on that.

The point? Any church that seems ashamed or afraid of our core, central message -- Jesus' death, burial, resurrection, and ascension -- isn't going to have the boldness or power to address anything else that matters either. So find out if they got the core right, and if they are unashamedly clinging to it.

2. Character of the leaders (SHEPHERD-LIKE AUTHORITY) Speaking truthfully, living authentically, witnessing boldly, enduring faithfully, giving selflessly ... these were the traits of the leaders. They were the ones who first modeled what God showed us in Jesus -- sacrificial leadership! They cared and they shared. It only makes sense, then, that the rest of assembly, for the most part, followed suit.

The point? If you're not seeing the leaders lead, they're probably not. Leadership leaves no doubt about what is expected, not because of what they say, but because of what they show. And it will be an environment of multiple leaders showing in a unified manner what it means to be part of that specific faith family. So look first at the leaders -- do they model with grace and truth what they are mandating?

Here's why this matters: hypocrisy hurts! You may think you can avoid collateral damage, or that it won't affect you. But nothing is further from the truth. Atmospheres of selfish ambition and hidden hypocrisy end up costing everyone something. Much like a family where mom and dad pretend year after year, the kids aren't at fault, but they usually end up absorbing some of the effects.

3. Conduct of the people (MISSION-DRIVEN BEHAVIOR) As the Gospel took root and the leaders modeled its effects, thousands followed in their footsteps. And they were footsteps molded around the mission of Jesus. And not only in the beginning when this meant sharing their stuff, but more so later when it meant moving their stuff. This "accidental" moving was exactly God's upper-level strategy to get his followers out of Jerusalem and into the other parts of the world, living an on-mission life in a brand new place!

The point? Look for a body of believers characterized as catalysts, not consumers. Those who see themselves as part of a spiritual chain reaction empowered by the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the end of a pseudo-spiritual equation where they are the final product, are the kind of Great Commission people who will serve, relocate, adjust, sacrifice -- even die -- for the sake of the Name.