Somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of a closet in my home, there’s a high school yearbook. In that yearbook are little notes of encouragement that were written to me by my classmates. Virtually all of them convey the same message, just expressed in a slightly different way.
- “Stay the way you are.”
- “Don’t ever change.”
- “Be true to yourself.”
- “Keep it real.”
- And, “just be yourself.”
My friends meant well. They didn’t realize that when they wrote these things they were actually giving me the absolute worst advice they could ever give. I don’t blame them. After all, they were only 18 at the time. I’m sure some thirty years later none of them have stayed the same. All of them have changed to some degree. I know for a fact that some of them have gotten heavier. Some of them have lost a lot of hair. Some of them have gotten smarter. And all of them have gotten older. Life is marked by change. None of us stay the way we were when we were teenagers, and aren’t you grateful for that?
What if Paul or Peter or John or even Jesus were to sign your yearbook? What do you think they would write. Maybe something like this?
- “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor. 5:17).” –Love Paul. Sr. ’20 A.D.
- “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen (2 Pet. 3:18).” –Your buddy Peter
- “But if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn. 1:7).” –John
- “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3).” –Your Savior, Jesus
The message of the Bible is not, “Be yourself.” In fact, it’s anything but. The message of the Bible is, “Be something greater.” Notice what Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1-3.
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”
What would be the outcome of “just being yourself” or “staying just the way you are?” Well, you would remain dead. You would continue to be a child of wrath. You would remain alienated from the Lord (Col. 1:21). You would miss out on heaven and all the spiritual blessings that a child of God is privileged to enjoy, both in this life and the life to come.
Salvation is not like going to the chiropractor. This isn’t about an adjustment. This is about dying. Instead of being yourself, you die to yourself. Paul spoke of this very thing in Romans Chapter 6 as he described baptism as participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:3-6). It was Jesus who told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3).” It was also Paul who stated, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17).” The Christian life is marked by transformation. It’s marked by growth and maturity (2 Pet. 3:18). It’s all about newness, which means that “being yourself” is not an option.
Don’t be yourself. Yourself stinks! Be something better. Be like Jesus.
Do you ever watch action movies where, in the beginning of the film, the hero’s wife was killed by the bad guy, or his daughter was kidnapped (that’s pretty much every action movie plot, isn’t it?), and the rest of the movie you sit on the edge of your seat in anticipation. You cannot wait to see the bad guy get what’s coming to him. I get this sort of sadistic pleasure watching the villain suffer. It’s horrible. I know. But my only interest in the movie is seeing the action hero prevail by torturing and maiming the bad guy. What if, at the end of the movie, Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger confronts the bad guy. He has his gun drawn and aimed directly at the villain. It’s retribution time. It’s the moment the audience has been waiting for. Time for the bad guy to meet his maker. But what if Bruce Willis or James Bond were to drop the gun and say, “I forgive you.” The two embrace and shed some tears. The credits roll. The movie is over. I don’t know about you, but I’d demand a refund. I don’t watch those movies to see forgiveness. I watch those movies to satisfy my sense of justice. I want to see evil destroyed and goodness prevail. I think we all want that. Even if it’s something minor or petty, we want revenge, not mercy. We might forgive later, but we want the other guy to suffer a little first.
But is that really what we want? You do realize that if our lives were an action movie that we’d be the villain? And you know who the hero would be? That’s right. Jesus. The hero would be warranted in handing down retribution. But, instead, He let people like you and me torture and maim Him. And not only that, He prayed that God would forgive them. Who does that? A true hero, that’s who. You were once the villain. Now you have the opportunity to be the hero. Our world desperately needs heroes; not the kind who torture and maim the bad guys, but the kind who are compassionate, humble, meek, patient, loving and FORGIVING. Forgiveness is a product of one who is compassionate, humble, meek, and patient. Forgiveness is indicative of the one who is being transformed.
No matter how long we have been a Christian; no matter how much we love Jesus; there is always the temptation to act otherwise. We will always fight the tendency to respond in a worldly manner. I really struggle with this. However, I struggle with it the most when it comes to forgiveness. I hate to admit it, but I don’t always want what God wants. I want to imitate Christ, but I’m not always happy about it. I find it much easier to hate than to forgive. Sometimes I just want to be mad, and I don’t want to accept an apology or say, “I’m sorry.” It’s in those times that I must remind myself of one unavoidable truth—I AM WHAT I DESPISE! The very things I loathe about others are things I have been guilty of as well. The things that anger me when done to me are things that I have done to others. I hate it when people talk about me behind my back, but I’ve talked about people behind their backs. I hate when someone slanders me, but I’ve slandered others. I hate being lied to, but I have lied to save my neck. I hate it when people are rude, but I’ve been rude. I hate hypocrites, but I’ve been hypocritical. Even if I am innocent of certain offenses, I have certainly offended God, and that is a much higher offense than anything that has ever been done to me. I know all about offending someone. I know all about sin. And, thankfully because of Jesus, I know all about forgiveness.
As Christ-followers, we are different. We offer the unthinkable to the undeserving because that’s what God has done for us. What better example of forgiveness is there than Christians? We were dead in our sins, but have been resurrected to a new life. We are forgiveness personified. We are a living, breathing example of how the rebellious can be redeemed. We are a walking billboard for the redemption story. We MUST forgive. Not just because it’s an obligation. Not just because the Bible says so, but because forgiveness is offering the unthinkable to the undeserving. That’s what God has done for us and, in turn, that’s what we should do for others.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:32
Who ministers to the minister? Many times the preacher can feel like he’s all alone on a deserted island, left to deal with the stresses and strains of ministry in isolation. He may have a wife he can turn to, but he doesn’t feel comfortable unloading it all on her. Plus, there are some things he must keep private, even from her. Perhaps he can talk with the elders, or a trusted deacon. Maybe it’s a personality flaw but I can personally attest to the fact that preachers don’t always feel as though they have an outlet to vent or to unload the burdens of ministry. I am saddened to hear of preachers who take a permanent leave of absence from the pulpit because they became overwhelmed. It may be that they were too weak, didn’t have thick enough skin, or just needed to grow up a little; however, I don’t believe that is true in every case. Much of the stress that a preacher feels is self-inflicted. Many of us carry the weight of constant concern for the church. We feel guilty. We feel inadequate. We lack confidence at times. We hurt and we mourn. We see the worst in people. We are disappointed. We are let down. We struggle with sin. Many times the congregation has the perception that the preacher has it all figured out. Well, let me just tell you, he doesn’t. Please don’t assume that he and his family just skip through life singing Blue Skies and Rainbows. The preacher’s life is highly rewarding. It is, in my opinion, the best life. But that doesn’t mean it’s utopia. When it comes to church we often speak of the needs of the congregation. Don’t forget that the preacher and his family are a part of the congregation, and they have needs as well.
I love preachers and I want to see them succeed. I believe most Christians want that as well. Allow me to share a few suggestions for ministering to your minister.
- FIND WAYS TO UPLIFT (1 Thess. 5:11). All too often church members find ways to tear down rather than lift up. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s all too common. I’m convinced that some Christians don’t even realize the impact of their words. Every preacher has heard phrases like: “You’re going to make a preacher someday.” Or, “That was good, but…(insert criticism).” Statements like these may seem rather harmless but over time they can be quite taxing. Is the preacher above constructive criticism? Absolutely not. Should he be willing and able to accept the wise counsel of others when he is wrong? Of course. But he shouldn’t be subjected to the constant barrage of nit picking from the grammar police or the church member who has taken on the role of speech teacher grading a pupil. All preachers have areas in which they could do better, but I think we can all agree that encouragement is a much better tool for inciting growth than constant chastising and castigating. And please don’t pass over non-constructive criticism by stating, “Well, he just needs to have thicker skin.” No person should be expected to thicken their exterior to withstand the destructive tongue of another.
- UNDERSTAND HIS ROLE (2 Tim. 4:2). Depending on the size of the congregation a preacher can wear many hats. However, many roles are assigned exclusively to him that should be shared among the congregation. For instance, the complaint is sometimes levied by church members that the preacher doesn’t visit enough or is not conducting enough Bible studies (Ironically, he may get criticized for not spending enough time at the office if he is out doing “too much” visiting or evangelizing). If the preacher is shirking these responsibilities out of laziness then that is a critical matter that needs addressing. But many times the congregation has shirked their responsibilities by expecting the preacher to pick up the slack. I have known preachers who were on the verge of burn out because they were doing the elders’ job, the deacons’ job, and the congregations’ job. Personal Bible study, evangelism, visitation, are not duties relegated to the preacher. They are Christian responsibilities that we all share as the Lord’s body (Mt. 25:31-46; Mt. 28:19-20). Don’t expect the preacher to do your job! Also, the preacher is often raising a family. Don’t allow your expectations to be so burdensome that he cannot be an effective husband and father.
- LOVE HIM (Mk. 12:29-31; Jn. 13:34-35). You may not be very fond of your preacher. You may think he’s boring. You may not like his style. But he is your brother in Christ. He is a human being; therefore, he should be a recipient of your love and respect. He is laboring for the Lord and that is certainly a worthwhile endeavor—one that should be appreciated. So tell him you love him, not just by shaking his hand on the way out of the auditorium or telling him, “That was a good speech.” Hug his neck. Be specific with your compliments. Value him and his family. Be a Barnabas.
- PRAY FOR HIM (1 Thess. 5:25). Your preacher needs your prayers. Pray for his well-being. Pray for his family. Pray for his effectiveness. Pray that he will be the servant, the husband, and the father God needs him to be. Pray for his daily walk with God.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and this is certainly not meant to be a rant or an attempt at gaining sympathy. This is meant to serve as a friendly reminder that the preacher is not above the fray. He’s not Superman. He’s not invincible. He’s not impervious to the struggles of the task. Let’s all help our preacher to be as successful as possible as we strive to help the Lord’s church be as successful as possible.
Change is not easy. Change usually requires one to step out, sometimes way out, of their comfort zone. Change typically means working harder. Change demands that one set aside personal preference for the good of the church, and that may be the most difficult aspect of change. I understand. I have sympathy. However, I cannot go along with a refusal to make improvements out of a stubbornness to change. Churches that are unwilling to adapt and adjust will die where they sit. They may not have to close their doors, but they will be filled with people who are not growing.
Change seems to be a dirty word in the Lord’s church. For many people, it’s like nails on a chalkboard because change is often associated with altering doctrine. When some church members hear “change” they automatically assume that things will begin spiraling downward away from Biblical truth. Any kind of change, even if it’s necessary, is often met with the phrase, “Well you know, that’s how it always starts,” or, “You know where that’s going to lead.” I am in no way advocating a movement away from scripture. I would certainly never knowingly promote doctrinal error. I admit that not all change is good. Not all change is profitable. Not all change is necessary. However, change can be a really good thing. In fact, in some cases, change is absolutely necessary.
Here’s the change I’m advocating—a return to our roots. Read through the book of Acts. Did the first church just sit? Did the first Christians simply go to church? No. They were more than a church. They were a movement. They were The Way. Church wasn’t a part of their life. It was their life. They were a part of something much bigger than themselves. I want to be part of a movement, don’t you? I’m not satisfied with coming to church. I want to be church. More specifically, I want to be that church; the one we read about in the New Testament; the one that changed the world; the one that was more than a congregation. They were a movement! Let’s be a movement again.
The apostles were constantly on the move. People like Paul, Barnabas, and a host of others worked tirelessly to spread the gospel message and to build up the church. They were not sitters. They were movers. Movements move, which means that if want to be a movement again then we must start moving! I don’t believe God ever intended for the church to be a monument or a memorial to a once great movement. You will never convince me of that. Sadly, in many cases, that’s precisely what has happened. Churches have retreated. They have stayed cooped up within the walls of the building and have only focused inwardly. They have kept to themselves. The major emphasis has been on maintaining the flock rather than growing the flock. The tendency has been to focus more on the structure of worship, but not as much on transformation. Churches often concentrate on petty, insignificant scruples and less on brotherly love. They get worked up over societal ills, politics, and what other churches are doing wrong, but show far less passion for evangelism. A lot of things are important; only one thing is most important. We cannot forget our core. We must remember who we are and what we are to be about.
In the twenty years that I’ve been a Christian I’ve heard a lot of talk about restoring New Testament Christianity, but the conversation usually revolves around what we do in worship, in our monuments. No doubt we should concern ourselves with worshiping in a manner that is God-ordained and, thus, God-pleasing. However, restoring New Testament Christianity isn’t just about the form and function of worship. If that is our only focus, then we are falling way short in our restoration efforts. If we’re truly concerned about restoring New Testament Christianity, then let’s also focus on moving beyond the walls of the church building. There is a time to gather and a time to scatter. What we do outside the walls of our building is just as important as what we do on the inside. Let’s be passionate about making disciples. Let’s be participators and not merely spectators. Like our first-century predecessors, let’s be Christ-centered and mission-minded. Let’s be who they were. Let’s do what they did. Let’s move!
We see it on bumper stickers, inspirational posters, and graduation cards. We see it embroidered on pillows or tattooed on a person’s body. It’s the words of the Lord as spoken through the prophet Jeremiah and it reads, “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope (Jer. 29:11).’” Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland and other “prosperity preachers” use this verse to cater to our culture’s selfish and individualistic mindset. IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU! YOUR BEST LIFE NOW! GOD JUST WANTS YOU TO BE HAPPY! HE WANTS YOU TO HAVE IT ALL! Even in the realm of religion, I am still the focal point. And many have bought in to this sentiment. As a result, Jeremiah 29:11 becomes a signature verse for the “Name It and Claim It” theologians. But Jeremiah 29:11 is not about you. The dead give away is found in the heading of this chapter. It reads: “MESSAGE TO THE EXILES”
It’s easy to read a verse like this and individualize it. Here’s what we would like it to say, “I know the plans I have for you Chris McCurley.” But not even the original hearers of this message could not have individualized these words. Jeremiah’s message was meant for the elders, the priests, the prophets, and the people, many of which would not be around in 70 years to see this promise come to fruition. This was a promise of future welfare for the nation at large, not a promise of prosperity for any one particular person. I feel quite certain that the people hearing this message for the first time would not have responded as we often do today. We read this verse and we zero in on the prosper part. We focus in on how God is going to bless us in amazing ways. However, the message to God’s people is that everything’s going to be alright…eventually. After years and years of suffering they’re going to come back home and be restored; not them, per se, but their kinfolk. The grim reality surrounding Jeremiah 29:11 is that hard times were in store for God’s people. Someday there would be restoration. There was hope on the horizon, but only after decades of harshness.
So, is there a take away from this verse for us? Can we still claim Jeremiah 29:11 even though it has nothing to do with God personally prospering us? The answer is, “Of course.” All scripture is beneficial to us, and all scripture can be claimed by us, just not always in the way we would like to claim it. Does God have a plan for you and me? Absolutely! Does He plan for our welfare and not our calamity? Certainly! Does He give us a future and a hope? Without question! But we are dead wrong to assume that the plan involves a long life of comfort and convenience with perfect health and mountains of money.
What about the gentleman whose mother, wife, and three children are all killed in a car accident? What about the young mother of four small kids who is diagnosed with Stage Four cancer? What about the man who works hard but gets laid off from his job and his wife leaves him for another man? What about the family who must deal with the horror of having their child abducted and murdered? Is this God’s plan? Do you see the danger in grabbing hold of certain “Life Verses” and assuming that they represent the totality of God and Christianity? What happens when the miracle you prayed for doesn’t come? What happens when God doesn’t heal your loved one? What happens when the man of your dreams finds someone else? Is God not good? Does He not care?
The apostle Paul stated, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).” Thousands of years from now, it won’t matter how much wealth and status you had. It won’t matter how much pain and suffering you had to endure. This is not about how good one can have it while alive here on planet earth. This world is not our home. This is our temporary residence. We don’t belong here. We are exiles in a foreign land (1 Pet. 2:11). Therefore, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if I am healthy and wealthy in a physical sense. It doesn’t matter how good I have it in the here and now. All that truly matters is that I have the hope found in the abundant life Jesus Christ came to give (Jn. 10:10).
My friends, God has been honest enough to tell us that there will be trouble in this life. This life is hard, but God has also made us a promise. There is hope on the horizon. There is a glorious future awaiting us. Though we are exiles on this planet, some day we get to go home. Let’s not get things twisted. This life is all about kingdom living, not earthly pursuits. If we don’t have a penny to our name, we are among the wealthiest to have ever lived because of WHO we belong to. A life lived in Christ is the most prosperous life of all. So let’s get busy living it!
I know. The title sounds harsh and, perhaps, un-Christ like. But please hear me out. The Oldham Lane Church of Christ, where I am blessed to serve, has experienced tremendous growth since it was planted in the mid-90’s. What started with 73 members from the Baker Heights congregation has blossomed into approximately 600. It’s exciting for sure, however with growth comes challenges. Where you have people you have problems, and where you have more people you have potentially more problems. The staff and elders at Oldham Lane have made a concerted effort to be engaged and to be ready to handle issues when they arise. But we have also made a conscious effort to be proactive, not just reactive. Some problems and issues arise rather spontaneously. You weren’t prepared for them; they were just laid at your feet one day. Others can often be thwarted before they reach the level of severity. With this in mind, the elders and staff at the Oldham Lane church have come to understand that our congregation may not be for every one. While we welcome everyone and while we invite anyone and everyone to come and see what we’re all about, there are some boundaries we have set and some lines we have drawn to protect the body that belongs to the Lord. Here are a few of those boundaries.
Our church is not for soreheads! If you are someone who is constantly complaining about something, yet never doing anything then maybe our church is not for you. Understand we love you. We are deeply concerned about your soul. And we will patiently love you. However, we will not allow you to threaten the unity of the Lord’s church. Jesus prayed for unity (Jn. 17:21). Paul constantly stressed unity in his letters. Are you a threat to unity? If so, you must be disciplined. There are valid concerns and criticisms that some may have. The eldership should seriously consider these, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the man or woman who has made a sport out of griping; the one who has become a professional nagger. Everyone should have a voice and everyone should be heard. Elders are shepherds of the soreheads as much as they are shepherds of the meek and the sweet. But leadership demands that the shepherds lovingly correct those who do nothing yet gripe about everything. The church is not a forum for your scrupulous ranting.
Our church is not for spectators! We won’t boot you out the door. And, we believe, there is a period of time that new members need to survey the landscape and get to know the lay of the land, so to speak. However, we do have expectations for you. We expect you to be a participator, not a spectator. We expect this because God expects it. God doesn’t need more pew-fillers within the church. He needs more laborers in the vineyard. He needs brothers and sisters who are active participants, not passive recipients. We live in a culture of entitlement and that mindset has infiltrated the church to some degree. Some members feel as though it is the responsibility of the church to serve them when, in truth, we were all saved to serve. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU! It’s about the body. Every one has a role. As Paul so eloquently pointed out in 1 Corinthians 12:14-31 we all have a role. Each one of us makes up a part of the body. Whether you are an eye, a foot, a hand, etc., you have a role. If you are not a working part of the body then your part of the body is dead. The body becomes deformed. And someone else has to pull your weight. There are times when a member is wounded and needs the rest of the body to help bear their burden (Gal. 6:2). However, there is no good reason for a fully capable member not to fulfill their role. We are not a consumer-driven church. We are a Christ-driven church.
Our church is not for those who wish to teach, preach or practice falsehood. There is no room in our church for those who wish to preach a different gospel. There is no place for false teachers. We will not give you a platform to proclaim or practice things that are in opposition to scripture. Don’t come to our church thinking you are going to change the message. When it comes to methods we are always willing to try new things. But we will not be moved from where we stand Biblically. Don’t get me wrong. We don’t claim to be perfect, and we are not above studying and learning. Like the noble-minded Bereans, we are always eager to receive the word and are diligent to examine the scriptures (Acts 17:11). We are also very deliberate in our approach to the Bible as we seek to faithfully follow God’s word.
To say, “Our church is not for everyone,” is not meant to be a statement of exclusivity. Quite the contrary, we want every one to obey the gospel and be a part of the body of Christ. However, we also want them to understand what it means to treasure church membership. We don’t want them to merely come to church; we want them to be the church. We don’t want church to be a part of their lives; we want church to be their life. Christ died for the church. He purchased it, member by member, with His own precious blood, which means we have no right to treat His bride in a self-directed manner. This is not about kicking people to the curb. This is about helping God’s children understand what church is and what it is supposed to be about. So don’t come into a congregation of the Lord’s church with an agenda. Don’t assume that because you contribute a lot monetarily or because you’ve been there the longest that you should have more power. Don’t expect the church to cater to you. The church belongs to our Lord and it functions best when each and every Christian seeks God’s will above all else.