Friday, July 29, 2011

"I'm Sorry, Pastor..."

"I'm sorry, pastor..." 

While I have not been in the pastorate as long as many of God's servants, I have been a pastor long enough to hear many of the reasons people miss church. Usually the excuses begin the same way: "I'm sorry, pastor, for missing church last Sunday but..." followed by the explanation for their absence.

First, let me say to those who miss a service in any church I am pastoring, you do not need to apologize to me. I probably did notice your absence. However, my calling does not depend on or require you to be present. God has called me to lead the body in worship on the Lord's Day primarily by proclaiming His Word. I will do so whether you or anyone else is sitting in the pew. My responsibility is to God first and this is what He has called me to do.

So, if you miss a service, you do not need to apologize to me. Any "reckoning" required on your part is due to God, not to me.

Second, I do understand there are legitimate reasons for not attending a worship service.  Obviously, if you have died during the week, I do not expect to see you on Sunday! Seriously, though, the providence of God does bring events into our lives which require us to bypass the worship service of our local church from time to time.

For example, some older members have physical conditions which prevent them from attending worship services. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by illness and unable to come (and, if you are ill, the pastor is in favor of you staying at home!). There are times when our cars or other means of transportation keep us out of the house of God. And, occasionally, a family vacation may also take us away from our Christian brothers and sisters.

Third, nevertheless I have heard some reasons why folks have missed church which make virtually no sense to me at all. Allow me to share a few of them with you.

1. "I was out late with my friends last night and too tired to get up on Sunday morning."  Really?! Perhaps you should take the necessary steps to make certain you get the rest you need prior to worshiping the Lord on Sunday. Sunday is the Lord's Day, not your day.

2. "We have Cardinal/Rams tickets for Sunday's game." Well, I am delighted to know you care more for the local sports teams than you do the Lord. The Cardinals do play on other days of the week. The Rams sometimes play later on Sundays. Did you really have to buy tickets for a game which conflicts with the worship service?

3. "My child's ball team had an early game on Sunday." Why is your child on a team which plays games on Sunday morning? Find a league which does not play on Sunday or inform your coach at the outset of the season your child will not play games on Sunday. Besides, what is the lesson you are teaching your child? Isn't it "Sports are more important in life than worship"?

4. "Our family reunion began at noon so we weren't able to come to church beforehand." Perhaps you should tell your family to stop holding reunions which interfere with your worship of God.  Or, perhaps you should just plan on being late to the reunion. The lesson you are teaching your earthly family is you would rather be with them than with your heavenly family.

5. "Sunday is the only day I have off. I decided to relax rather than come to church." This excuse doesn't even deserve a comment.

The next time you miss Sunday worship, please do not apologize to me. I am not offended by your absence. The reason you were out is a matter between the Lord and you. Hopefully He is satisfied with it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Pastoral Concern #4 - Baptism

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...” (Matthew 28:18-19)

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

“But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (Acts 8:12)

“And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’” (Acts 8:36)

“And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized” (Acts 9:18)

“And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 10:48)

“’John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19:4-5)

Ok, I will be brief and blunt. My fourth pastoral concern has to do with the ordinance of baptism. No, I am not referring to the theological understanding of baptism. I am not referring to the mode of baptism. My concern relative to baptism has to do with individuals who claim to be born again by our Lord but REFUSE to be baptized.

How in the world can you refuse to enter the waters of baptism? You tell me it’s not necessary to be baptized to be a Christian. I agree, along with all my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters. Water baptism saves no one. But that does not mean baptism is unimportant.

The first Scripture reference above is the commandment of Christ given to all of his disciples. We are commanded to baptize those who trust Christ. The remaining passages testify to this fact by providing several examples from Scriptures of either calls for baptism or new converts being baptized.

The Scripture is very simple on this matter: repent of your sins, trust Christ for salvation, and be baptized in obedience to the Lord’s commandment. Water baptism testifies to the world you are a follower of Christ. As I understand Scripture, baptism is the sign of the new covenant as circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. If you are physically born a child of Abraham (and, therefore, an heir of that covenant), you are circumcised as a sign of that fact. If you are spiritually born a child of God (and, therefore, an heir of the new covenant), you are baptized as a sign of that fact.

You and I can debate on a variety of matters relative to baptism. Is baptism for babies? Is baptism for salvation? Is baptism by immersion? But if you are one of those individuals of our era who believe you can be a Christian, follow Christ, and yet refuse to be baptized, I challenge you to rethink your position.

Christ commands you to be baptized. Until you do, you are living in disobedience to the very one you claim is the LORD of your life. So, get on with it!

"Faithful Preaching": A Book Review

"Faithful Preaching: Declaring Scripture with Responsibility, Passion, and Authenticity"
by Tony Merida

While a student at Criswell College many years ago, I was required to study homiletics, the science, the techniques, and the practice of preaching. I recall the class being extremely interesting and quite practical for me who, as a young Christian, had done very little preaching. We had a couple of textbooks on the subject which were helpful but a laborious read. After "plowing" my way through them, I concluded any textbook on the subject of homiletics must be somewhat of a bore.

Now, thirty plus years later, I read Tony Merida's homiletics text and discover how wrong I was! Dr. Merida has penned a terrific work in the field of preaching. His book is not only informative but it is written in a very interesting and very readable way. Furthermore, I find the work quite inspirational. The author encourages preachers to be expositors and to preach expository sermons. This book is not only the work of an experienced professor teaching his subject but also from the heart of a pastor who loves God and His Word.

The volume is 240 pages in length and approaches the study in 4 parts. They are entitled:

1. Faithful to the Triune God: Trinitarian Convictions for Expository Preaching.
2. Faithful to the Word of God: How Busy Pastors Prepare Christ-Exalting Expository Messages
3. Faithful to the Call of God: Watching Our Life and Doctrine
4. Faithful to the Mission of God: Preaching the Gospel in Our Generation

I found the second part to be the most informative. Dr. Merida provides great insight and guidance on how to develop expository messages. While this process is virtually the same as found in other homiletical works, the author uses a very straightforward and simple means in explaining the procedure. For example, in the chapter on studying the text, the 4th phase of this step asks the question “How is the Gospel Related to This Text?”, Dr. Merida writes:

“This redemptive step is often left out of books on biblical interpretation. It is both theological and exegetical. ... The purpose of integrating biblical theology to exegesis is to look for redemptive themes and Christological connections that display the unity of the Bible. ... To miss the redemptive connection is to miss an important piece in interpretation. ... The grace of God in Christ should be integrated naturally, not artificially in exegesis, and woven throughout in the application of your sermon.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and highly recommend to any who preach (or teach!) the Word. Dr. Merida has given us a great work on the subject of preaching. Now, if only I could preach as well as he writes...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Pastoral Concern #3 - Local Church Membership: Part 2

As I noted in my previous pastoral concern, I am deeply bothered by the reluctance of some and absolute refusal of others to join a local church. Those who profess to know Christ and have such an attitude need to evaluate their position from Scripture. If they are honest with themselves, they will conclude they are in sin by refusing to join and should repent of their actions, find a local church, and covenant together with that body.

There is, however, another attitude expressed by many believers today on the subject of local church membership which disturbs me greatly. The only term I can think of to describe this position is “Bare Bones Church Member”. Let me define what I mean when I call one by this phrase.

A “bare bones church member (BBCM)” is an individual who has professed Christ as his Lord, has been scripturally immersed, and has united with the local church. Essentially that is the end of his involvement in that local church.

Below I list some characteristics of such members. Obviously, no two BBCMers are the same. Some will be more involved in the local church than others. But here are some of their traits:

1. They might attend morning worship services but not consistently.
2. They rarely, if ever, attend Sunday school.
3. They rarely, if ever, attend Sunday evening activities.
4. They never attend the local church prayer meeting.
5. They might give financially to the church but, if they do, it is very little.
6. They might serve on a committee if asked but likely not.

Before discussing each of these characteristics, let me make it clear that I am not a legalist. You do not become a Christian by earning it through some form of good works and you do not remain a Christian by doing so either. Christianity is a life lived by the power of the indwelling Spirit for the glory of God. It is not a life of required works.

On the other hand, if a professing believer has truly been born again and transformed by God’s Spirit, his life has been radically changed. He longs to know God more fully. He desires to be with God’s people. He lives to serve God with all the spiritual gifts and natural abilities God has given him. In other words, he no longer thinks and acts like those without Christ, at least not habitually.

I’m certain BBCMers have existed in local churches since the founding of the church on the day of Pentecost centuries ago. Perhaps I was blinded to their presence in my younger days as a believer. But it appears to me these types of members are much, much more prevalent in our churches today.

Let me briefly look at each of these BBCM characteristics and share what they are telling me about that individual.

1. They might attend morning worship services but not consistently. Public worship is not that important to them. “I can worship God wherever I am”. Of course, they don’t. “Besides, there are so many things to do in a week I need one day to myself”. In other words “my time” is more important than the Lord’s time. Therefore, some will sleep in, some will play golf, and some will attend sporting events. A BBCMer always has a “good” reason for missing the public worship service.

2. They rarely, if ever, attend Sunday school. Of course, Sunday school is before the worship service. “If I can’t get out of bed for ‘church’, how can I ever make Sunday School?” Their interest in the Word of God is virtually non-existent and their lack of knowledge of the Scripture is evident when you ask them to turn to a specific book in the Old Testament and they turn to the table of contents! Some will pose other reasons for their absence such as “I don’t like the teacher” or “I don’t agree with the teacher”. Again, they can always find a reason for not coming.

3. They rarely, if ever, attend Sunday evening activities. This is especially true if they manage to make the morning worship service. “I’ve done my church duty” is their attitude. To them, church membership demands only 60-90 minutes one day a week. “I gave up my Sunday morning for church. I’m not going to give up the whole day to the Lord”. This is especially true if the Sunday evening activity might involve Bible study in some way! Good grief, how often do we need to study the Bible in one day anyway?!

4. They never attend the local church prayer meeting. If you ask a BBCMer why they do not attend, they will say something similar to “I can pray on my own”. Or, perhaps their response would be “I’m too tired after working all day”. “I can’t afford to spend all my time at the church”. “The Cardinals are on TV tonight”. Or, maybe they will use the classic “There’s nothing for my kids”. Well, perhaps you could start something for the children. When I hear such excuses, I am led to conclude (1) they do not think much of corporate prayer; (2) they do not care if they miss opportunities to share joys and burdens with fellow believers, and (3) the meeting of their local church for public prayer is low on their priority list.

5. They might give financially to the church but, if they do, it is very little. Again, I am not a legalist. When it comes to giving, that is a matter between you and the Lord. If you ask some BBCMers about giving, they will remind you, “Remember we are under grace not the law”. That’s “code” for “I do not have to give a tithe”. No, you do not (see 2 Corinthians 9:6-15). But God required the tithe of the people in the Old Testament. How can we, saved by the grace of His Son, give any less? Unfortunately, many BBCMers give very little to advance the Kingdom of God.

6. They might serve on a committee if asked but likely not. Some BBCMers might agree to serve but their absence at church functions results in them missing committee meetings as well. Usually, though, there is little desire or commitment to serve. Again, such an attitude expresses a lack of interest in being with the people of the Lord and serving in Christ’s mission with them. They have “better” things to do with “their” time.

Most Baptist churches have adopted a church covenant, a formal agreement between members of the local congregation. My present church has one which is widely used in Baptist circles. Here is the second paragraph of that covenant:

“We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this church, in knowledge, holiness, and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrines.”

I ask those who are BBCMers: how do you “walk together in Christian love” when you rarely come to church functions? I ask the BBCMers: how are you striving to advance the church when you have little to do with it? I ask my fellow members who are “bare boned”: how are you promoting our church’s “prosperity and spirituality” by staying home? I ask the BBCMers in the Baptist world: how are you sustaining your church in “its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrines” when you do not come, do not study, do not pray, do not give, and do not serve? Where is your commitment to Christ and His church? Why do you even belong to a local church?

Again, I am not a legalist. Doing such things do not make you a Christian or preserve you as a Christian. But I must be honest and blunt to you who are “bare bone church members”. I am concerned about your souls. If you truly know Jesus Christ as your Lord, where is your devotion to Him and to the institution for which He died? Your life more closely resembles the life of one who does not know Jesus Christ than the life of a radically transformed individual. Take a moment and honestly ask yourself “Do I truly know Jesus Christ as my Savior?”

If your answer is “yes” then I ask you, “WHERE ARE YOU?” Isn’t it time you become an active, living member of your local church rather than sitting on the sidelines? Come, study with us, worship with us, pray with us, give with us, and serve with us!

But, if your answer is “no” then I pray the Lord would convict your heart of your sin and graciously give you repentance and faith. May you and your life be radically transformed by God’s omnipotent power!