Monday, June 25, 2018

My Experience Worshiping at a Non-Denominational Church

      While I was on vacation, I did a couple of things that I hadn’t done before mainly because I hadn’t had the chance to do it: I live streamed and I worshiped at a couple of large, non-denominational churches.  I don’t know how many of you have done so before, but the experience was very eye-opening for me.  Before I left on vacation, I had intended to do a sermon series based on the question: Why are we here?  And my experiences these past two weeks have led me to believe that this question is extremely important not only for us as a congregation but for most mainline churches to wrestle with.

I'll get to that towards the end of this post after I share what the experience was like.  I’m going to blend the two experiences together because even though there were a few differences, there were an awful lot of similarities.  I’m doing this because I don’t want things to be confusing if I jump around from experience to experience.  So, what does it look like to worship at one of these places?

My family and I pulled into the parking lot, and there was a sign directing first time worshipers to a VIP parking place.  There was a pop up canopy with several church members underneath.  We parked, and a young man greeted us as we stepped out of our car.  He handed each one of us: all five of us, a welcome packet with a pamphlet with all kinds of information about the church.  It had a little placard with a Bible verse on it, a gift certificate to Chik-fil-a, what we might call a bulletin–but it was really an interactive sermon guide with a card to be filled out attached to it.  The packet also included a pen and journal to keep notes in.  The young man welcomed us, asked us where we were from, and told us a bit about the congregation and its pastor.

We were then invited to hop on a golf cart to be driven to the church entrance.  This was a welcome sight to me especially since I hurt my knee while on vacation.  We were offered donut holes, which we politely declined since we had just eaten breakfast.

We were dropped off at the main entrance, and we walked in.  Immediately, we had deer in the headlight eyes.  I mean, the place was enormous.  We didn’t know where to start.  Within moments, a gentleman who had been sitting on a bench was by our side.  “Can I help you?” he asked.

I replied that we were here for the 10 o’clock service and were early.  We didn’t know what to do or where to go to wait.  He invited us to go to their bookstore and then wait at the coffee shop where there were comfortable places to sit.  We thanked him and headed to the bookstore.

As we walked to the store, I noticed that there was no need to ask anyone what was going on at the church.  They literally had all of their events and happenings plastered on the walls.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it was tastefully done and it looked good.  But they were in the business of making sure you knew what the church was up too from educational opportunities–of which there were many; to kid’s activities including football leagues; to mission trips and local mission projects.  They had pamphlets of information on all these things hanging next to their displays so that you could take them with you depending upon which activities you were interested in.  As I looked at all of this, we headed to the bookstore.

It was interesting looking around that store because they had all sorts of materials in there very much worth reading.  I bought too books, and my son found a book on dinosaurs that he wanted.  There were plenty of knick-knacks, cards, and tracts you could buy as well.  Much of it was geared toward growing in faith and raising your children in the faith. 

We finished up and walked toward the coffee shop, and that’s when I noticed all of the television sets.  They had the service on closed circuit television.  Those t.v.’s were everywhere.  They didn’t want anyone missing the service or the message.  Believe it or not, there were televisions in the restrooms!  Even if you were not sitting in during the worship service, they still wanted to connect with you no matter where you were in their facility.  It was truly head shaking.

We waited until their 8:30 service had finished, and we watched as people exited the worship center.  In the kingdom of God, there are people of every race and every age.  In the kingdom of God, there are singles, couples, and families.  This is exactly what you saw walking out of the worship center.  It was diversity at its finest even though the church didn’t promote it.  As I watched folks come out, a lady stopped to talk to us and offer us words of welcome.  She particularly loved my daughter’s hair because it was curly–just like her own.  We visited for a few moments before heading in to take our seats. 

The worship center was laid out like an auditorium with a stage up front.  Two large screens on either side of the room pumped out a steady stream of information regarding what was going on at the church and how you could get involved.  They were not afraid to use technology.  “If you want to volunteer, text this number.”  “If you are a first time guest, text this number.”  “If you have given your life to Jesus today, text this number.”  People milled around drinking coffee, visiting, looking for seats.  As worship time approached, the screen began a countdown.

Worship began with singing.  Nearly 20 musicians led the singing–a goodly number of people.  We sang four songs, and I recognized two that I had heard played on KSBJ.  My kids recognized them too, and they broke out into huge smiles and sang along.  That’s unusual because getting my kids to sing at church takes a lot of work!  Individual singers offered words of welcome, words of encouragement, and testimonies of the power of God in their lives.  You were invited to become a part of the experience and engage what was going on.  It was part rock concert, part worship all rolled into one.  And it was effective!!!  It reached a lot of people.  Sure, there were still quite a few folks who were not singing, but there were a lot more who actually were.  Applause was heard after each song.

Then, an assisting minister took the stage and invited folks to come up for prayer.  The church had assembled a group of people who would pray with and for you.  At least 10 folks waited up front to pray with others in the building.  There was no, “Pastor, would you pray for me today.”  There were members praying for other members, right there, on the spot.  Music was playing in the background inviting the whole congregation into an atmosphere of prayer for those coming forward.

What struck me about all of this was the massive involvement of people other than clergy.  20 musicians, 10 people praying, at least 10-15 working on technology filming and producing video for the service, multiple ushers finding people places to sit, folks working at the information desk, folks greeting in the parking lot, folks working in the coffee shop and in the bookstore, folks teaching classes.  It was stunning.

And then it was time for the sermon.  There was a Bible reading, and then the preacher spoke for roughly 40 minutes.  As part of his sermon, he invited one of the congregation members to come forward and share a testimony of how God had been involved in her husband’s life before he tragically died and how He was now active in her life since her husband’s death.  Faith was not only shared by the pastor, but it was shared by a lay person. 

The service closed in prayer, and what a prayer it was!  It was Father’s day, and so the pastor led the congregation in prayer having congregation members lay their hands on the fathers and other men in the congregation.  It was a powerful sign of blessing that was passed around, and it was meaningful for me to have my wife and children all laying their hands on me and praying for me.

As I walked out into the parking lot after the service, I had little doubt as to why these congregations are growing and attracting people.  As I wrote in a Facebook post, “These churches by far have more lay involvement, better hospitality, more engagement by worshipers, and better outreach than just about every single mainline church I have worshiped in.”

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Fruits of the Spirit: Self-Control

Today, we come to the ninth and final fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23, self-control.  I hope that you have found this sermon series as fruitful as I have, pun intended.

Now, most of us, I think have a pretty good idea about what self-control is.  Even if we don’t have a formal definition of self-control, we have heard stories like the following: During the early years of aviation, a stunt pilot was selling rides in his single engine airplane.  One day, he got into an argument with an old farmer who asked to take his wife along for the ride at no extra charge.  The pilot finally said, “Fine, I’ll take you both up for the price of one if you promise me not to say one word during the entire flight.  If you make even one sound, the price is doubled.”  The farmer agreed, and they flew off.

The pilot flew upside down, making twists and turns that would scare most people.  However, the farmer didn’t make a sound.  The pilot finally landed his plane.  As the farmer climbed out, the pilot said, “I made moves up there that frightened even me, but you never said a word!  You fear nothing!”  The old farmer said, “Well, thank you.  But I must admit you almost got me when my wife fell out!”

That, my brothers and sisters, is self-control, but for those of us who like specific definitions, self-control is the ability to have mastery over one’s self to the point that there is no desire that can distract you from your ultimate desire.  Again, self-control is the ability to have mastery over one’s self to the point that there is no desire that can distract you from your ultimate desire.

You know, when I first started researching self-control, I was confronted with the early Greek philosophical definition of self-control.  It was similar to the one I just gave you, but in one important way: the ancient philosophical definition of self-control was a complete mastery over any desire.  In other words, if you had self-control, no desire would impact you at all.  You were free from desire and want.  Now, believe it or not, there is actually one religion that has this as its basis for belief: Buddhism.  Buddhism strives for a complete and total lack of desire.  But as I thought about this, and reflected upon things that I have learned and heard, I realized that this is an impossible definition to adhere to. Why?  Well, think about it.  If you try to practice self-control, you desire to have no desire.  Let that sink in for just a minute. :-)

And so, as I reflected on the Christian faith and I thought about how this word is used in the New Testament–it is rarely used, by the way, I came to the conclusion that self-control isn’t simply a lack of desire.  Self-control is making sure that nothing distracts us from our ultimate desire.  So, let’s contemplate this fruit by seeing how Paul talks about self-control and then by talking about what our ultimate desire is as Christians.

First, let’s look at what St. Paul says about self-control in the book of 1 Corinthians.  We have this passage in our second lesson.  It’s short, so I will read it again.  “24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”

When I was studying this passage, I found out some very interesting things about what Paul was saying here.  You might not find them so interesting, but I really did because they showed how Paul was using the context surrounding this community to bring home his point about self-control in the Christian life.  You see, the city of Corinth was a major sponsor of the Isthmian games.  These games were one of four major sporting events in Greece, the other three being the Olympics, the Pythian, and the Nemean games.  Thousands of people would travel to and through Corinth to go to these games, so they were a very, very big deal. 

With this as the background, Paul uses a sports analogy regarding athletes.  What he says about athletes then is true of them today as well.  “Athletes exercise self-control in all things.”  We know this about dedicated athletes.  They eat special diets.  They train year round.  They do all the little things which make them excel at their sport.  They do not slack off lest they lose their competitive edge.  They walk right past the Coke, Sprite, and Dr. Pepper.  They avoid donuts, pizza, and hamburgers.  You know, all the stuff that tastes good.  They may be tempted.  Their mouths may begin to water when they see or smell such goodies, but their discipline kicks in.  They remember what they are training for, and they exercise self-control.

And Paul reminds the Corinthians about that.  “They do it to receive a perishable garland.”  When I heard the background on this one, I actually chuckled a little bit.  Do you know what this garland was in the Isthmian games?  It was wilted celery shaped into a crown.  Yes, you heard right.  Wilted celery shaped into a crown.  Paul brings home his point by finishing with these words, “But we, an imperishable one.”  Sometimes, you find a quote by a biblical scholar that you absolutely have to share, and I thought the following one was priceless.  This scholar wrote, St. Paul is basically saying “If these athletes push themselves to the limit in training to win that pathetic crown of withered vegetables, how much more should we maintain self-discipline for the sake of an imperishable crown.”  I thought that comment was priceless.

And it makes the point that I was trying to say earlier.  Self-control isn’t a freedom of all desire.  No.  Self-control is the ability to stay laser focused on your ultimate desire so that anything that will distract you or lead you away from it will be left in the dust. 

Three pastors went fishing together in northern Canada.  As they began to get to know each other better, they shared their innermost thoughts.  One confessed certain sins he was guilty of.  He named them and then asked the other two to confess their weaknesses.  The second pastor confessed his sins in detail. The third pastor, however, remained silent for quite a while.  Finally, when asked to reveal his weaknesses, he said, “Friends, I don’t think you want to know my weaknesses, but since you’ve asked, I am going to tell you.  I just love to gossip, and I can’t wait to get home!”

I’m sure the other two pastors were tempted to dump that last one in the lake!  But I told that joke to ask, “What would self-control entail there?  What would the ultimate goal be?”  Of course, confidentiality in the confessional.  Mutual understanding in helping one another overcome sin.  If that is the ultimate goal in building Christian relationships through confession and forgiveness, then this pastor who loved gossip, would not commit it for the sake of his relationships with his friends!  Do you see how that works? 

And that now brings us to the important question.  What is our ultimate goal as Christians?  This is not such an easy question to answer because there are a lot, and I mean a lot of important things that Christianity teaches.  Christianity teaches that we should love our neighbor.  Christianity teaches that we should care for creation.  Christianity teaches that we should live a moral and upright life.  Christianity teaches that we should be generous with our time, talent, and treasure.  Christianity teaches that we should work for peace and justice in the world.  Christianity teaches that we should make disciples of all nations.  Christianity teaches that we must pass down the faith to another generation.  These are all important and worthy goals.  But what is the ultimate goal?  What is the priority above all priorities?

Perhaps Jesus can give us the answer.  For Jesus was once asked which commandment was the most important.  Does anyone remember which commandment he said was the most important?  Does anyone remember which command Jesus listed above all others?  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  That is the most important commandment of all.  That is the most important goal of all.  Loving God is the ultimate desire we Christians are called to have.

And, of course that love is based upon what Jesus has done for us on the cross.  As God incarnate, he lived the blameless life.  He was completely righteous and deserved salvation and glory.  But instead, he chose the cross.  He chose pain and suffering in an act of sheer grace.  “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but they are now justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith.”  Christ took our sins upon himself and put them to death, and he then gave to us his righteousness.  He took our filthy, dirty rags of sin, and gave us garments of pure white.  When we are moved by this love; when we encounter this love; we cannot help but long to love Him in return.  We cannot help but want to live for him in return.  We cry out, “Jesus gave all for me, so I give all to Jesus.”

Ah, but how easy is it for us to get distracted?  How easy is it for other wants and desires to encroach upon us?  We live in a society that encourages self-indulgence.  We live in a society that encourages us to live our lives to the fullest–to experience everything.  We hear over and over again that we should push our limits.  We should test the boundaries.  Our kids these days are over-extended.  They have a toe hold in ten activities at once, and we parents are rushing all over the place trying to hold down our jobs, get to our kids’ activities, spend time with our spouses, and have a moment or two of fun along the way.  Over extended kids lead to over extended parents.  And those of you who are retired aren’t immune either.  You know it.  Do you know how many times I have heard retirees say, “I’m busier now than when I was working.”  Have you heard that too?  We feel like we have to do this and we have to do that.  We want to do this.  We want to do that.  And we work ourselves to a frazzle because we want to do everything.

Self-control means we limit ourselves.  Self-control means we focus on the main thing, and we orient our lives around the main thing.  So, let me ask you this: if God is supposed to be the main thing for Christians, then what would that look like.  I mean, let’s push that athletic imagery that most of us are familiar with.  If an athlete avoids certain drinks and certain foods to keep his or her health: what things do we need to avoid to keep our spiritual health in shape?  If an athlete takes time to train his or her body on a weekly basis: what things do we need to do as Christians to train ourselves to live lives for God?  If an athlete studies his or her sport, learning the nuances of his or her position and studying his or her opponent to best find out how to win: what things to we as Christians need to study to learn the nuances of our faith and learn how to live it out in the world?  If serious athletes eat, sleep, and breathe their sport, can anyone say that about those of us who are Christians?  Can anyone point to us as having such self-control that we are not distracted by all the things of this world and that we focus on our relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

My purpose in sharing this is not to put us on any guilt trips.  If you are convicted and shown that, like me, you are not exercising the self-control that you should; if you are convicted, like me, that we are way too distracted and that we allow all sorts of other things to draw us away from our ultimate desire; then let me suggest that changing things is not a matter of trying harder.  You know what that is like just like I do.  If you’ve ever had to lose a few pounds, you know how easy it is to give in and eat that last slice of pizza.  You know how easy it is to drink that can of soda. If you’ve ever decided you needed to cut back on your use of curse words, you know how easy they slip off the tongue.  If you’ve ever tried to tell yourself you need to attend church more, you know how easy it is to snuggle under the covers or give in when someone close to you says, “Let’s go do this together on Sunday.”  Exercising self-control is no easy task.  It’s downright impossible at times.  This is why it is a fruit of the Spirit.

And like those other fruits, they do not emerge because we try to make them grow.  They do not emerge because we say, “I will produce those fruits myself.”  They emerge out of our trust in God.  They emerge when our hearts are captured by the love of God in Christ Jesus. They emerge when we come to grasp what Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross and in his resurrection.  If you desire self-control in your life; if you desire an end to the hectic pace; if you desire things to be more simple but you dread saying no; turn to Jesus.  Turn to the cross.  Ask God to reveal to you the reality of grace.  He will, and when He does, you will find yourself longing to love Him more. You will find yourself longing to serve Him more.  You will find yourself setting Him as your ultimate desire, and you will produce the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Amen.