When your numbers plummit.

empty seats

We live in a world that is governed by numbers.  Statistics, revenue, attendance and bottom dollar are how we discern our success in most areas of life.  It is normal and right in most situations to evaluate our business practices, spending habits and effectiveness by response and budgets.  If we do not keep our spending in check, we will run out of money.  If we do not tailor our businesses to the market, we will never make a profit and fail.  We can learn much about culture, history, trends and predictions from statistics and make informed decisions for our every day lives and also for our nations.  Numbers can be extremely helpful.

But there are also times that numbers are extremely detrimental.  Sometimes for the sake of data collection businesses will dishearten customers by requiring registration.  Sometimes people will double or triple register for benefits, and thus the numbers are inaccurate.  But for us in the church, we regularly evaluate our effectiveness by numbers – either intentionally or unintentionally.  We might count our attendance, or our new baptisms, or tithes and offerings and consider that a direct reflection of our success and/or Spiritual impact.

To evaluate the work of God by numbers is extremely dangerous.

Western 21st century culture is that of the entitled consumer.  We want to be successful, beautiful and comfortable.  We buy more than we can afford and we expect the world to recognize how wonderful we are.  Thus the extremely successful people are entrepreneurs at heart:  they figure out what people want and they sell it to them, convincing them that they will have a better life in the process.

We are consequently seeing churches follow the same pattern.  There is an entire movement of so-called churches that are drawing a crowd by preaching the health and wealth gospel:  God wants you to be successful and healthy, and all you need to achieve it is faith.  These churches draw huge crowds of people hoping to find a quick fix to a better life.

We are also seeing churches that might have started strong but find that people are “changed” and stick around in response to self-help style messages and books.  Every sermon is another three-step guide to happiness, contentment or self betterment.

Most tragically, however, we are observing the culture at large make peace with sin and continue to alter the moral compass of our country as a whole.  For the sake of not wanting to offend, to be seeker-friendly, and to allow people to define right and wrong on their own, churches are taking no position on sin or the concrete doctrines of the Bible like Hell, depravity, our need for a savior, or grace.  We just preach a secular love and make people feel good.  The old adage rings true:

Even a circus draws a crowd.

We are making ourselves a circus.  And a pretty bad one, most of the time, to be honest.

Let us once again consider Jesus:  our perfect example.  Early in His earthly ministry, Jesus drew extremely large crowds.  People came to Him to hear Him speak and for healing.  One day Jesus was out with His 12 disciples and a large crowd was following Him because He had been healing people.  Scripture says that there were 5,000 men – plus women and children.  This was a huge crowd – at least 10,000 people.  Just watching and waiting to hear what Jesus had to say.  Jesus felt compassion for them and proceeded to take five loaves of bread and 2 fish and multiply that food to feed the entire crowd – to the extent that there were twelve baskets full of leftover food.

Jesus saw a need in the people, He met that need, and worked a mighty miracle.  The crowd was amazed and wanted to continue to receive the benefit of being near Him.  They were following Him.  In everyone’s eyes then – and by all methods of modern evaluation, Jesus was extremely successful at that moment in His ministry.

That night, Jesus left the crowd and went to a town without telling them where He was going.  The crowd figured it out, however, and followed Him.  The very next day He began teaching the same crowd about eternal life, true bread and following Him.  His teaching was so difficult to hear and in vocabulary so offensive that the entire crowd left.  Jesus turned to His twelve disciples and asked if they were going to leave as well, and they said that they had no where to go, and Jesus simply observed:

“Jesus answered them, ‘Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?’  Now He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him.”

 – John 6.70-71

In twenty four hours or less, Jesus went from having well over 5,000 people follow Him to 11.  All of the peripheral followers left, and even one of those who appeared to be devoted was deemed worse than all the rest.  The 5,000+ could not bear His teaching and one of His hand-chosen twelve was wicked to the core, such that Jesus called him a devil.

Have you ever been a part of a church that is dwindling?  Do you wonder if it is dying?  Have people started joking, or worse yet – believing – that “Ichabod” has been written over the door?  Are your loyal congregants and even leaders pouring out of the door to find other churches or to just stop going altogether?  It is definitely a good and right thing to evaluate the tendencies of our congregation.  First of all we need to pray.  We need to remember that our churches are not our churches.  The only person who can truly call the church “my church” is Jesus.  He is the head.  He directs, He guides, He is sovereign over them.  And we must submit to His leadership.  We also need to find out why people are leaving.  Is something sinful or heretical being taught?  Is there a faction within the church?  Is there a predator working with our children?  Or are people just bored, or convicted, or looking for more friends?  In short:  are they being driven by the Holy Spirit or by their flesh?

Jesus’ teaching and the Gospel in and of itself is offensive and difficult to hear.  Jesus was charismatic enough and preformed so many miracles that the crowds continually grew and were even oppressive by their vast numbers, but they regularly receded back – even to just the disciples – when Jesus began to preach the Truth.  People do not naturally want to hear the truth.  They want to have their ears tickled, their bellies filled, and their backs patted:

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

 – 2 Tim 4.3-4

Jesus appeared to be unaffected by the crowds.  In fact, when the crowds grew to be certain sizes, He often left them to go off to pray by Himself or to go somewhere else to teach and heal.  This is the exact opposite of our goal in western Christianity.  We want to be successful, we want to draw in the masses and be a big dynamic church.  We will start multiple campuses and use videos to broadcast our pastors, we will make our mark on this city.

Churches in persecuted areas understand much more clearly the heart of Jesus for His church on many levels:  they are wary of big numbers, they facilitate strong discipleship, the stick to the truth, and they launch small groups of believers all around the cities rather than establishing themselves in a big, worldly, and visible way.  You would expect to hear that they are slower to evangelize, but quite the opposite is true in most circumstances.  We are complacent and expect “the church” to reach the lost, so we rarely share the Gospel and only on occasion invite people to join us at church hoping they will get saved inside the walls of the church.  The persecuted church has experienced Jesus changing their world, and they seek to protect the church by only bringing in other believers, but yet they are excited to share what God has done in their lives so they get out and talk about the Gospel on their own.  We have much we can learn from them.

But while we live in our “bigger is better” society, we are given clear instructions of how we are to respond to a difficult culture that does not want to hear the truth:

“But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

 – 2 Tim 4.5

We should approach every decision, including our church devotion, by prayer.  Where is God leading you to serve?  There are certainly times that churches die.  It could be because of false teaching, it could be because of sin within the congregation that is not being addressed, it could be because the members are complacent and God is scattering them to get them out of their comfort zones and making the useful again, God could allow a church to die for any number of reasons.  But if He has called you to a body, then you must be faithful and follow His leadership even if it is difficult and if other people are leaving.

We must also fight the temptation to evaluate our success by numbers.  If we follow the example of Jesus, we will find that people might be intrigued by the good deeds that we do, but the vast majority of them will not stick around.  We will even find that within our “core” and faithful few, there will be devils who are there for the wrong reasons and will fall into gross sin.

We must be sober, and we must endure hardship.  We must share the Gospel boldly and we must fulfill our ministry, even when it appears unsuccessful to the world.  God is our judge, not man.  And in the end it is only His opinion that matters.  You will always do right if you obey God and do what He teaches.  And if we look like Jesus, chances are we will not have a crowd the size of the one the circus draws.

“But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.  For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.”

 – 1 Cor 4.3-4

Resolved.

new years resolution

New Year’s is just a few days away, and many New Year’s resolutions will be made.  Have you started thinking about yours?  Will you aim to eat better?  Or exercise more?  Perhaps you will simplify your schedule or get more rest.  Many will aim to be more spiritual – praying more, meditating, reading the Bible daily, and the like.

But there are also many who refuse to set a resolution because they know they will break it.  I knew someone who struggled so much in school and discipline that he simply refused to set any goals.  The fear of failing to meet them was so great and the guilt associated with it led him to remain as he was, as a guy in his late twenties.  He said, “I would only be setting myself up for failure”.

It is true, any goal that is set is an opportunity for failure.  But it is also true that unless we set goals or make an effort, nothing will ever be accomplished.  It is true on the micro level:  if you do not make a plan for the day, you will forget to go to the grocery store after work, or bring your workout clothes to hit the gym.  But it is also true on the macro level:  you have to apply to college and start classes to earn a degree, you have to send out your resume to get a job, and start lessons to learn a skill.

But the reality is that our relationship with God is more than just a goal.  Our spirituality is more than just dedication.  Goals, however, can enhance a relationship and a Spirituality.  Even in the midst of our emotion-driven society that believes love should be easy and euphoric, most will ultimately admit that marriage is hard work, and relationships take effort to maintain.  They might be born in emotion and initially driven by passion, but after time that can fade and commitment must mark our choices in order to maintain intimacy and happiness.

In the same way, there are times that our Spiritual walk and relationship with God will be easy and natural.  But there are other times when we are distracted, too busy, frustrated, or over stimulated and pleased with our physical lives that we neglect our relationship with God, and it will take a conscious effort and decision to pray, read the Bible, meditate and listen to the Holy Spirit.  And the nature of having discipline or a goal does not take away from the authenticity of the relationships – quite the opposite, in fact.  It portrays our convictions and passions to intentionally set aside that time, even in the midst of everything else.  A wife feels loved and valued when a husband takes time out of his day to call, to stop for flowers or to take her on a date where they can talk deeply.  She actually feels more honored that he would value her enough to go through to effort of planning.

Not only is it not disrespectful or disingenuous to set aside a specific time to pray or have a quiet time every day, it is also not an expectation or sin for which God will condemn us if we fail.  If you have a standing phone date with a friend, and you forget once or twice, that friend will forgive you if it is not your habit to forget.  If you need to reschedule a lunch date with your wife, she will understand if you are not in the habit of blowing her off.  If you consistently forget or blow off your relationships, however, there will grow a distance between you and a very real problem is established.  The same is true with God.  You cannot have a relationship with God and be Spiritually healthy if you neglect Him.  If you oversleep one morning, however, or have a change of schedule and have your quiet time in the afternoon instead of the morning, He will not consider you a failure.

“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.  I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”

– John 15.4-6

Jesus commands us to abide in Him.  The term abide can be difficult to understand, as we rarely use it in day-to-day language.  The Greek term used translates as “to remain, to not depart” and also “to continue to be present, to continue to be held or kept”.  The implication is continual interaction and relationship.  Jesus explains Himself with the imagery of the vine.  A branch depends on the vine for sustenance and life.  A branch cannot survive, produce fruit or grow unless is draws sap from the vine.  So we, when we are Spiritually born, must draw our Spiritual life from Jesus.  We cannot live, grow or bear fruit unless we stay connected to Jesus.

So as the new year approaches, let’s be bold to set a goal to go deeper with Jesus.  He will not be mad at you if you miss a day or two, and will not consider you a failure.  Quite the opposite, in fact, the commitment to and any progress towards greater intimacy with Him is a beautiful reality that will strengthen your Spiritual walk, health and maturity.  Let us not put a weight on ourselves that He hasn’t put on us, but let us abide in Him and draw our life and strength from Him as our source, as our vine.

You will find that as you begin those habits, it will soon turn into a situation where you long for your time with the Lord and needing to reschedule from the morning to afternoon will leave you ready and excited for that time.  Or missing a morning will leave your day lacking.  Let’s change our attitudes about resolutions, not seeing it as an opportunity for failure but rather an opportunity to grow and change.  Let’s not beat ourselves up and give up if we miss a few days, but find commitment anew by the encouragement and strength we draw from the days we succeed!

How will you commit to the Lord this year?

The Non-Committal Millennial

“But Jesus said to him, No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.'”

– Luke 9.62

I am from the generation that they call “Millennials” or “Generation Y”.  We have all heard the hype:  we are the kids who do not want to grow up.  We are the trophy children who validate our parents by our success.  We all believe that we are special and deserve to get high grades just because we tried, and it only matters that we “give it our best”, not necessarily that we do well.  Jean Twenge calls us “Generation Me”:  the world revolves around me, we are narcissistic and therefore highly esteem confidence and tolerance.

Is it all true?  I have not done research or surveys to document the validity of said observations but I can say from my life experience and the relationships that I have, it sounds pretty accurate to me.

There is an abundance of reasons why we are the way we are:  the Industrial Revolution, the internet, normal worldview evolution.  But I am not interested in analyzing why we are the way that we are.  I want to see what Jesus has to say about it.

If we are constantly looking for something bigger and better, if success is our god, if comfort is our standard and if trials throw us into a tail spin, we are in a sad position to live a life of righteousness bringing glory to the name of Jesus Christ.  How good is your work ethic?  Jesus said that anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not worthy of the kingdom.

What does looking back mean in relation to faith?  It means valuing something other than God.  It means giving up when the going gets tough.  Our parents’ generation valued Church, community and God such that they went to Church three times a week – “Whenever the church doors were open” they were there.  My generation, if we are having an emotional day stay home to watch TV.  “I’ll go to church when I feel like it”, because it is about me and not about God.  I took a nap on Sunday and overslept right into evening service.

The Old Testament paints a vivid picture of God’s position on partial commitment:

“Then the two men said to Lot, ‘Whom else have you here? A son-in-law, and your sons, and your daughters, and whomever you have in the city, bring them out of the place; for we are about to destroy this place, because their outcry has become so great before the LORD that the LORD has sent us to destroy it.’  Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, and said, ‘Up, get out of this place, for the LORD will destroy the city.’  But he appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting.  When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city.’  But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters, for the compassion of the LORD was upon him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city.  When they had brought them outside, one said, ‘Escape for your life!  Do not look behind you, and do not stay anywhere in the valley; escape to the mountains, or you will be swept away’…Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven, and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.  But his wife, from behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.”

12-17, 24-26

I have always imagined the family running away from the cities and mid-stride Lot’s wife just glanced over her shoulder.  I don’t know if that is accurate, but however it happened – the simple act of looking back at the city merited her death.

Jesus said that there are four ways to respond to Gospel Truth.  One person cannot hear the truth at all.  Another person hears the truth and it sounds good and they appear to receive it, but he desires to live a worldly life – money, success, pleasures, etc. and therefore is not saved.  The third person hears and welcomes the Truth, but when a trial comes he does not trust God but gives in to despair and is not saved.  The last person gives his life over to God and fully values eternal life above worldly life and does not fall away in times of trial; and therefore is saved (Matt 13).  And his statement that one who looks back after he was set to the task not being fit for the kingdom came in response to someone simply saying “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home” (Luke 9.61).

Is this life about you?  Or is it about honoring God?  Do you leave a church when you don’t like something, or do you stick it out in submission to the leadership?  Do you commit to serve regularly?  Or do you show up at church when you feel good and don’t have other plans?  Do you tire of doing good and dream about your old lifestyle?  Do you miss and long for “the good old days” or do you see and value God at work all around you, even in the hard times?  Does your love for God dictate your daily activities or is faith a hobby, insurance for eternity?  Do you abandon your responsibilities during a midlife crisis?  Do you leave your wife because you want to have fun, or you find it easier to not work it out?  Or do commit and honor God by keeping the covenants that you have made to Him?  God is more concerned about our holiness than our happiness.  Let us set our hands to the plow and not look back.