IS THE CHURCH IN THE ENTERTAINMENT BUSINESS?

The American statesman Benjamin Franklin corresponded with the evangelist George Whitefield about Christianity. In spite of Whitefield’s efforts, Franklin never turned to Christ. On one occasion Franklin wrote a criticism of the Christian faith as was practiced in America, “The faith you mention has certainly its use in the world. I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I endeavor to lessen it in any man. But I wish it were more productive of good works, than I have generally seen it; I mean real good works; works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not holiday-keeping, sermon-reading or hearing; performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and compliments, despised even by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity. The worship of God is a duty; the hearing and reading of sermons may be useful; but if men rest in hearing and praying, as too many do, it is as if a tree should value itself on being watered and putting forth leaves, though it never produced any fruit.” (Personal correspondence from Benjamin Franklin to George Whitefield.) Unfortunately at times Church ministry in America can be more about entertainment than it can be about addressing real needs with real help.

The Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:15 speak of love in action. In its context this verse points to the fact that speaking the truth in love is a part of the process of maturing spiritually. Ephesians 4:14 speaks of achieving a level of spiritual maturity that comes as a result of speaking the truth in this way. According to this verse speaking the truth in love works to safe guard the believer and prevents him from being bantered about by false teaching. It states: “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting . . . .”

We must admit that sometimes actions are more effective in conveying our feelings and ideas than our words. The old axiom: “Actions speak louder than words” is true. We must keep this idea in mind when we read Ephesians 4:15, “. . . speaking the truth in love . . . .” Paul’s point can be glossed over and misunderstood. We assume if we have knowledge of Bible doctrine it will keep us from straying, but in its context Paul is suggesting a slightly different point. His point is that if we learn to live our faith, it keeps us from straying. Paul is talking about integration of the truth rather than a useless knowledge of the truth. Take a closer look at Ephesians 4:15. Notice it doesn’t just say “speak the truth,” and it doesn’t only refer to knowing the truth. It says, “. . . speaking the truth in love . . . .” There is more here than the idea of hollow obedience in communicating Biblical truth. This command involves the idea of integrating the truth in how we think and live. We are to allow the Word to touch every facet of our lives.

The church aspires to be purpose driven, but based upon the results, we are forced to ask, “What purpose really drives the American church?” A business approach to Christianity and a message of self-aggrandizement drives much of what is taking place in American church culture. The church falls into a pattern of entertaining people rather than helping them. In this environment, the church’s practical priorities are more about the lady’s tea, men’s softball, the Christmas bazaar, get rich schemes, etc. Preaching and worship are designed to attract, humor, and entertain new parishioners. James Cymbala, the pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, wrote “As a preacher myself, let me be blunt here. Preaching itself can easily become just a subtle form of entertainment. When I stand at the Judgment Seat of Christ, he is not going to ask me if I was a clever orator. He is not going to ask me how many books I wrote.” (James Cymbala, Fresh Wind Fresh Fire, p. 59.) Cymbala later again wrote about how preaching should stir people to action and prayer: “God will someday ask, ‘Did you bring people to where the action could be found … at the throne of grace?’ If you just entertained them, if you just tickled their ears and gave them a warm, fuzzy moment, woe unto you. At the throne of grace, I could have changed their lives” (James Cymbala, Fresh Wind Fresh Fire, p. 84.) The kind of preaching that fails to lead listeners to respond with action is entertainment. Ironically, too many Christians have a theology that speaks of the value of prayer but rarely pray. Similarly, worship that fails to energize us to greater service is also little more than self amusement. (The underlying meaning of the word “amuse” means to divert someone’s attention from serious thought.) Isn’t this the kind of behavior that James warned against, “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.” (James 1:23-24.)

The fact that our actions are to be in harmony with our word is emphasized many times in Scripture. Even in Psalm 51:6 we learn that God isn’t just looking for outward obedience but inward conformity as well. “Behold,You desire truth in the inward parts, And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.” We must recognize that our life must be in agreement with our words. Ours is a message of love and our actions must convey the same spirit from the core of our being.

Remember what Colossians 3:16 instructs us to do. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly . . . .” It is in this vein that 2 Corinthians 3:3 speaks of Christians being “living epistles.” When our knowledge of the truth is integrated into our lives it helps keep us from being drawn into error in our behavior and our thinking. We must guard against just collecting novel and interesting Bible facts. It is possible to become only a storage compartment for offbeat theological truths while just taking up space waiting for Christ’s return. When our knowledge of the truth is only at a mechanical, technical level we are still vulnerable to spiritual attack. Could it be that so many fine Bible teachers and pastors in America have fallen into sin because they failed to go beyond a superficial understanding of the Bible?

There is a danger in knowing Biblical truth while failing to live Biblical truth. It can make you believe you are something that you are not. It can make you think you are strong and invincible when you are really vulnerable and weak.

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THE POWER OF A TRANSFORMED LIFE

I have had the privilege of watching a life that has been transformed by doing what is right. I will call the person Gus (not his real name). Gus was convicted of being involved with a young woman who was underage. He was in his forties at the time of his arrest and conviction. After serving his prison sentence, Gus was put into counseling as a part of his rehabilitation. His counselor has worked with sex offenders for years; and she has heard it all and seen it all.

They say if you ever met Gus before he was saved he smelled bad, he was dirty and unkempt. For six years his counselor saw little or no change in Gus. After six years Gus came to Christ and was discipled by a mature Christian man. In addition he began working in a food bank that was sponsored by a local church. He has been a key to the food bank’s success. Gus’s life has been transformed. Recently his counselor, we’ll call her Brenda, prayed to receive Christ. She has been impressed with a life that has been transformed through obedience. The change and healing that counseling could not do has taken place because of doing what is right.

In the months that followed, Brenda began attending a church in an outlying community. A few weeks ago a recovery group for sex offenders was meeting in an adjacent county. It was reported that one of the participants, we’ll call him Brent, stood up and said something like: “We meet week after week and say the same things over and over but we get nowhere. There’s got to be more to it than this.” In response to this complaint the psychologist leading the group suggested that Brent talk to Brenda because she had recently become a Christian. In a phone conversation this second psychotherapist admitted, “We have concluded that the solution to these men’s problems isn’t psychological but is spiritual.”

I have been in the ministry for over thirty years. I have seen many great programs that have had some impact. I have seen spectacular kid’s programs, tremendous music programs, above average sports programs with roomfuls of trophies. People have been saved (mostly children) and my ministry has experienced times of growth. But, the world has taken little notice of the traditional church ministries with which I have been associated.

Over the last few years, the church that I am now pastoring has had a growing kingdom emphasis. Kingdom ministry focuses on helping the helpless, while traditional ministry tends to focus on addressing the needs of church people. The world has taken notice of our toddler-like efforts.

Since beginning our kingdom ministries I have been invited to address the department of education in my state. I was invited to make a presentation about our church’s efforts. I invited another pastor to join me to meet with these educators. My friend’s congregation built a community center for our neighborhood. Last fall a city official asked our church to host a booth in a city park featuring our congregation’s ministry. A while back, a member of my church met with one of our United States senators. She represented our church and a mobile food bank that she and her husband run. For all of the ministry over the years: the cantatas, the softball teams, ladies’ teas, etc no one cared about what we were doing. Now with fledgling efforts in obedience even unsaved people have taken notice.

The American church seems to be floundering and weak. Only a thin polished veneer hides the confusion and weak spots. No section of the body of Christ is unaffected. Perhaps some parts seem more diseased than others but no one part is immune. While parts of the body seem polished and dynamic, the truth is the American Church is having little impact on our culture.

Our spiritual health is tied with our willingness to do what is right and pleasing in the sight of God. We must stop assuming that we can be healthy while ignoring what Christ has commanded us to do. Jesus was and still is the champion of the helpless. Matthew 25:40 reminds us that true faith is fruitful and our love for the Lord can be observed. It states “. . . inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” If the church is to be healthy and fruitful it must imitate the Lord Jesus—there is no shortcut. There isn’t a kind of lesser Christianity that can produce healthy believers without heeding Christ’s words. Like the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar we are doomed to a kind of insanity because of our opulence, and yet by imitating Christ, there is a way of escape (compare Daniel 4:27). We are called to be like Jesus. He is the Messiah soldier:

He saw that there was no man, And wondered that there was no intercessor; Therefore His own arm brought salvation for Him; And His own righteousness, it sustained Him. For He put on righteousness as a breastplate . . . .”Isaiah 59:16-1

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SPIRITUAL HEALTH AND SERVING OTHERS

The impression is left that we assume that significant healing and transformation in our lives can take place without lifting a finger to obey Christ’s commands. The assumption is that: spiritual health can be achieved apart from obedience.

Spurgeon wrote, “To know right, and to do right, are different things.” Many churchmen must believe that attending a church service once a week and listening to a good sermon is all that is necessary to develop spiritual vitality and strength. Some sit in church service after church service and listen to sermons on an endless number of topics. The sermons produce temporary comfort but do not produce action and change that leads to spiritual victory. Charles Swindoll wrote about the negative consequences of this situation:

There are many people cruising from church to church, from Bible conference to Bible conference, filling note book after notebook, wearing out Bible after Bible, who are still some of the crankiest, fussiest, most irresponsible people you meet. Why? Because they do not practice the things they hear

Some worship can also disguise a similar type of disobedience. Some participate in worship that produces powerful emotions and feelings. I fear that to some the worship has become an end unto itself where the worshiper receives a kind of spiritual high. Many contemporary American Christians must believe the lie that listening to sermons and singing praises is a substitute for obeying Christ. We have forgotten the warning that is contained in Jesus’ words: “‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me.’” (Matthew 15:8.) Fervent worship does not guarantee that we are pleasing God or doing little more than entertaining ourselves. We cannot be content with getting a kind of spiritual buzz on Sunday that does not produce results throughout the week.

We can also assume that a person can talk his way to spiritual health through counseling. It is commonly believed that a person can be transformed by listening to a counselor sort and talk through his or her problems. It is assumed that a person can attend a recovery group, confess his problems and if this is done often enough over time he or she will become healthy. We ignore the need to substitute new behavior for old behavior and that a major step in our healing is to be found in obedience. Unfortunately, many embrace the false assumption that they can experience God’s healing in their lives without being diligent to obey Christ’s commands.

But what promise or blessing from God was ever gained by just talking things out? God’s blessings and promises have been tied with obedience. Salvation is obtained through obedience to God’s command, “And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.” (1 John 3:23) While we are not saved by loving others, authentic faith will demonstrate a love for other believers. The promise of the Holy Spirit’s power is also tied with obedience: “And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.” (Acts 5:32) And yet, we believe that we can talk another person into spiritual health. All he or she has to do is sit back and listen. R. A. Torrey wrote:

One of the important conditions of growth and strength in the Christian life is work. No man can keep up his physical strength without exercise and no man can keep up his spiritual strength without spiritual exercise . . . [that is] without working for his Master. The working Christian is the happy Christian. The working Christian is the strong Christian. Some Christians never backslide because they are too busy about their Master’s business to backslide. Many professed Christians do backslide because they are too idle to do anything but backslide.

I’d like to suggest a couple of ideas that are related to Torrey’s comment. First, it has been said before we can preach the gospel we must live the gospel. Helping the helpless is strategic in our preparation for the work of proclaiming the gospel. Second, it has often been claimed that we remember 80 percent of what we do or experience, versus only 10 to 20 percent of what we hear. This fact brings into focus the truth that an active and obedient faith becomes more deeply rooted in our hearts and minds. Modern preaching and teaching often fail to look for any action in response to its message. As is stated above many Christians naively believe that their church attendance is all they need in order to be successful in their Christian walk. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We cannot be healthy spiritually if we ignore the clear commands of Scripture. Our spiritual health and development are impacted by our obedience.

(Ruben Archer Torrey, How to be a Successful Christian, page 82.). (Charles Swindoll, Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back, p. 21)

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THE LOST FORTUNE

For years the rock served as a doorstop on John Reed’s North Carolina farm. The old Hessian farmer’s son Conrad found the seventeen pound rock in the creek bed but no one thought much of it. It wasn’t until 1802 that a Fayetteville jeweler examined it and then offered $3.50 to the farmer for the stone. John sold it for that price but in the days that followed it was revealed that the yellowish rock was seventeen pounds of solid gold. Adjusted for inflation that means that $300,000.00 of gold in our day was sold for the equivalent in today’s dollars for a little over 50 bucks ($50.00). Like the old German farmer John Reed, many have come to think of eternal life –something with great value –to be something ordinary.

In a materialistic culture as we have in America, we can think of the gift of eternal life to be something ordinary and of little value here and now. We must learn that the prize of eternal life has great value while we are on earth. Eternal life itself isn’t just limited in impact to the future. An American minister named Reverend Ike preached a prosperity gospel. Ike used to speak mockingly of evangelical Christianity as offering only “pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye.” That isn’t true. The Scriptures reveal that eternal life isn’t simply about the future. I am going to tell you a secret that is more precious than gold and it can liberate you from spiritual bondage.

When we hear the expression “eternal life” we are inclined to think about existence after death. In addition, we are prone to think of eternal life as referring to time and duration – things that will last forever. However, according to John 17:3 this isn’t the main idea behind the concept of eternal life. You may have heard it before and you may have heard it many times but eternal life isn’t just about the future, it is about a relationship. Our relationship to God. Read Jesus’ words carefully, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3.) The word know is speaking of a personal or firsthand knowledge of God. The first time this word for “know” appears in the New Testament is in Matthew in reference to the physical union between Mary and Joseph. Matthew 2:25 tells us that Joseph, “…did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son.” Although this is a different kind of relationship, it still helps us to recognize that the word “know” is used of a firsthand, personal knowledge of another individual.

Let me clarify my point. You must be clear in your thinking and distinguish between “knowing God” and “knowing about God.” We know God by seeking Him by studying the Bible, by meditating upon His Word, through times of prayer, through times of worship and by purposefully obeying His commands. A person needs to seek a supernatural understanding of God’s Word, and he cannot be content with an intellectual understanding of the Bible and God alone. Two of the greatest evangelical voices in the 20th century warned against failing to distinguish between knowing God and only knowing about God. The first voice is, J. I. Packer, who admonishes us about making knowing God just an intellectual endeavor when he writes:

“If the decisive factor was notional correctness, then obviously the most learned biblical scholars would know God better than anyone else. But it is not; you can have all the right notions in your head without ever tasting in your heart the realities to which they refer; and a simple Bible reader and sermon-hearer who is full of the Holy Ghost will develop a far deeper acquaintance with his God and saviour than more learned men who are content with being theologically correct. The reason is that the former will deal with God regarding the practical application of truth to his life, whereas the latter will not.” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God.)

It is possible to know about God without experiencing Him. It is possible to have only an intellectual understanding of who God is It is possible to fail to experience God as the Psalmist invites us: “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Psalm 34:8.)

The second voice is A. W. Tozer, who gave a similar warning. In his book The Divine Conquest he spoke of those who seek God in books alone. He then contrasted the person who has only a second hand knowledge of God with one who knows Him firsthand. Tozer says the person who knows God on a personal level will consider an approach on an intellectual basis alone to be a perversion. He wrote that the man who knows God firsthand will be repulsed by such an idea and will say:

“‘I have heard Him and observed Him. What have I to do any more with idols?’ For he cannot love a God who is no more than a deduction from a text. He will crave to know God with a vital awareness that goes beyond words and to live in the intimacy of personal communion. “To seek our divinity merely in books and writings is to seek the living among the dead; we do but in vain many times seek God in these, where His truth too often is not so much enshrined as entombed.” (A. W. Tozer The Divine Conquest.)

This is the point of Jesus’ words in John. He is saying that eternal life is more than grasping the theological truths. It is about knowing God as a friend and companion. Eternal life is about knowing God personally, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3.) When we come to Christ He may merely be a stranger, but we must seek a closer relationship with Him if we are to be healthy spiritually.

Consider three key benefits of a deep and personal knowledge of God. First, some come to Christ and are born again and find instant release from sinful behaviors. Others come to Christ and over the years find themselves mired in some sinful habit. No matter how long you’ve walked with the Lord or no matter how deep the pit in which you find yourself, the gift of eternal life can still bring release from spiritual bondage. The gift and benefit of knowing God is powerful in setting us free. According 2 Peter 2:20 the writer indicates that we escape the pollution of the world through a knowledge of God, “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ….” Certainly this verse refers in part to the release that we have from sin’s penalty when we trust Christ but there is something more here. This verse speaks of the pollution that surrounds sin. It isn’t merely release from the penalty of sin that comes through a knowledge of God; but the knowledge of God overcomes sin’s polluting and corrupting influence . The more we press in and learn to walk more closely with the Lord the less the grip sin and any kind of spiritual pollution will have on our lives.

Second, according to Daniel 11:32 our energy level and interest in spiritual things is governed by our knowledge of God. “Those who do wickedly against the covenant he shall corrupt with flattery; but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits.” (Daniel 11:32) Daniel’s prophecy was speaking of the people of Israel and that their knowledge of God will cause them to be courageous. In our culture and our day we must be careful to not allow the things of this world to interfere and take God’s place in our lives. It should be obvious that the more distant our walk, the more fearful we will become. Like the apostle, many follow the Lord “afar off” and are then paralyzed by fear. (Mark 14:54.) A fearful Christian will find it comfortable to stick with what he knows even if it is robbing him. A Christian who has only a technical or second hand knowledge of God will be timid and find it difficult to tell others about Christ.

Finally, according to Ephesians 1:17-18 a person will increase in wisdom and understanding through a knowledge of God. In Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:17 the apostle prayed, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.” Knowledge of God will expand our understanding of our world and wisdom will illumine our way. Wisdom is: the ability to anticipate the results of one’s decisions and it is the predisposition to do what is right (follow the way of righteousness). On the one hand by walking close with the Lord, a believer’s ability to see pitfalls and hidden dangers will be heightened. While we have the promise for wisdom in James’ epistle, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5.) In keeping with this verse wisdom is found by spending time with the Lord. The quest for wisdom through prayer will bring us into God’s presence, and wisdom will be granted to us as we walk with Him.

On the other hand, knowing God as a friend and companion will impact our ability to see things more clearly. It gives the believer the capacity to better appreciate the resources and lavish inheritance that is our’s in Christ. Notice this is the message of the next verse, Ephesians 1:18. Our capacity to understand our inheritance in Christ is expanded through our knowledge of Him, “the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.” (Ephesians 1:18.) Our ability to see our eternal inheritance is overshadowed by the things of this world but knowing God breaks through the darkness. As a result, we need supernatural understanding to better grasp the blessings and benefits that have been poured out upon us.

Knowing God as a friend in your daily walk will help you face the struggle that you are having with sin. The more closely you know the Lord, the better your understanding of His devotion to you. The better you understand your destiny in Christ, the stronger you will be to face and reject paths that lead to self-destruction. The more confident you are about the Lord’s commitment to you, the easier it becomes to choose the path that will make you stronger.

There is a Rock by the doorway to your life and eternity and it is the Lord Himself. This Rock is more precious than gold, and there is no reason to be afraid since He can give you light for the darkness. This Rock is waiting for you to call. He loves you and He is listening.

The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised; So shall I be saved from my enemies.(Psalm 18:2-3.)

Check out our web site: http://www.servantoflight.com

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