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A Letter to my Congregation: Pastoral Reflections on Yesterday’s Election

Dear Christian–

We wake up this morning to a new world. Some people are excited, some are saddened and some are devastated… but nearly everyone is shocked. And, ironically, I probably could have written this email regardless of who won last night.

I will leave it to the pundits to try and understand how this happened, what it says about the state of the American public and American politics. But as your pastor, my deeper concern is for the fracturing in our country. Each of us has friends and family (and maybe this even describes you) who are hurting and angry. Half of our country feels disenfranchised, scared or completely betrayed by the system.

So what will we, the church, do now?

The church must walk in integrity. Never has the world needed our faithful walk of obedience more than now. May we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be full of character and known for our honesty and kindness to all people.

The church must be a beacon of hope in the midst of darkness, confusion and instability. People are going to be looking for something firm to hold onto, and initial indications are that even the financial markets will experience significant turbulation and uncertainty. Politics may fail and finances may falter, but we have the hope of the risen Christ as our foundation.

The church must demonstrate peace and unity. Of all the words to describe our nation right now, words like polarized, fractured, broken and angry come to mind. Not peace and unity. In the coming days, there will be a lot of talk of unifying and drawing together. But it won’t work, not apart from the Spirit’s help anyway. Peace and unity are only possible if they start with the church and are modeled by the church.

The church must pray for wisdom for our leaders. We, as a nation, have a long road ahead with internal and external challenges facing us. All of our elected officials will need the wisdom of Solomon to govern well. So let us pray for that wisdom.

The church must honor and dignify those whom God made in his image. We have a President-elect who has successfully offended and angered women, immigrant, Muslims and many more. Racial tensions are high. Into this brokenness, we can be known as those who build up those who feel most disenfranchised and devalued. And maybe for you, dignifying and honoring God’s image-bearers means respecting our soon-to-be president.

The church must model compassion to the least, the last and the lost. May we be known for our radical generosity and love for those who feel like the system has failed them and need help. Julian the Apostate, the 4th century Roman Emporor, once famously said,”These impious Galileans [Christians] not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their fellowship, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes.” This pagan emperor’s biggest problem with Christians is that they were so generous in caring for the poor. May the same be said of us.

The church must be a prophetic voice of truth to the world. Into a world of empty words, deceitful words and false words, we are to speak truth with grace. Because Jesus is truth.

Friends, the world is changing right before our eyes. We could get swept up in the changes. But that is not what the world needs right now. We have the incredible opportunity to be a calming presence to an anxious nation. And we can do so because our hope is not in the president, but in the High King. Let us rest and hope in the words of Revelation 11:15, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”

For Christ,
Steve

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Elders & Deacons: Partners in the Gospel

Elders and Deacons

Jesus is the King and Head of the Church. He is the church’s leader and its Chief Shepherd. The church belongs to Jesus, exists for Jesus and is under the authority of Jesus. In God’s sovereign plan and under his authority, he chooses men to serve as elders and deacons to lead, guide, serve and protect his church.

So the question becomes, what’s the difference? The office of elder is an office of teaching and rule. The office of deacon is an office of service. In practice though, it’s less about different roles and more about starting point, as the above illustration demonstrates. The elder typically starts by assessing spiritual needs in people’s lives and moving toward meeting physical needs. The deacon, on the other hand, starts by serving people, moving to a place of teaching people how to grow in maturity as a means of helping them grasp the spiritual implication of the practical assistance provided.

Example: Say a couple’s marriage is struggling and they are falling behind on their bills. Let’s see how the elder and the deacon are likely to respond, starting from the distinct perspective of their respective office.

The elder may begin counseling the couple, assessing their selfish motivations, areas where they are pursuing their own desires rather than seeking to pour the gospel onto the spouse. Out of that counseling and assessing the spiritual needs of the couple, the elder may learn that the couple is having financial problems that are contributing to the marital discord. At that point, the elder may move to provide assistance in meeting the financial problems of the couple.

The deacon, conversely, may start by helping meet the physical needs of the couple: helping with the rent or paying the couple’s electric bill. The deacon, then, started by serving the practical needs of the couple… but not ending there. The deacon then asks diagnostic questions such as:

  • How did you get into these financial difficulties?
  • Is this a one-time challenge or likely recurring? If recurring, what lifestyle changes must the couple make?
  • How is your marriage doing? Are these money problems getting between the two of you?

The elder may start with counseling or teaching a class and move to helping with practical needs. The deacon may start with the practical needs and move to counseling or teaching the couple about Godly approaches to money.

While the starting point may be different, good eldering and good deaconing both require engaging the spiritual and the physical needs of the congregation. And, when done well, they will join hands as partners in the process…

If Prayer Were A Hamburger

This summer, my wife and I, along with our children’s director at Covenant Life Church, are leading a small gr

oup for families. Over ice cream each week (yeah, not a weight loss small group!), we are discussing one aspect of how to follow Christ together as a family. The first week, we looked at praying as a family. How do you get your kids involved in

prayer? I can claim no original credit for the hamburger prayer model (my mom taught this to kids at her church for years), but it really is a great visual technique for training your kids in prayer. Each part of the hamburger reminds us of a different aspect of prayer. These are my notes from that lesson…


Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (Phil 4:6).

The parts of a hamburger can remind us of the parts of a prayer!

What is prayer?

  • Prayer is talking with God
  • “Call to me and I will answer you and sow you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jer 33:3).
  • God promises that when we talk to him, he will answer us!

3 ways God answers prayer

  • Yes
  • No
  • Wait (not now)
  • So he will always answer us, but that doesn’t mean he will always give us what we want. Sometimes he wants something even better for us.

Hamburger Prayer Model

  • hamburgerTop bun: The address
    • How we start the prayer
    • How do you start your prayers?
    • Dear God, Dear Jesus, etc.
  • Meat: Praise and thanksgiving
    • The main piece of the prayer
    • Praise God for who he is and what he has done
      • Name aspects of God’s character (love, grace, etc.)
    • What are you thankful for?
      • Family, friends, food, etc.
  • Lettuce: Confession
    • What sin do you need to confess to Jesus?
    • Be specific – learn to name specific sins
    • And be thankful because he promises to always forgive you (see 1 John 1:9)
  • Cheese: Intercession
    • Praying for others
    • Who can you pray for?
    • Your parents, brothers and sisters, friends, etc.
  • Tomato: Petition
    • Praying for yourself
    • What do you want to ask God for?
    • It’s not wrong to ask God for things, we just don’t want that to be the only thing that prayer is about
  • Bottom bun: Closing of the prayer
    • How we end our prayer
    • How do you normally end your prayers?
    • In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Interact: Here’s a great family activity for the beginning of summer. Grill out hamburgers for dinner this week. As you eat, talk about how hamburgers teach us the various aspects of prayer… and then spend a few minutes prayer as a family.

Heaven, Hell and the End of the World

Heaven, Hell and the End of the World
This world will come to an end. And then what? This course investigates what the Bible actually teaches about heaven (hint: it’s not an eternity long worship service!), the gut-wrenching reality of hell, how it will all come to be… and why it should even matter to us. Special thanks to Kyle Cookerly for his partnership in preparing and teaching this class.

Week Message Title Notes Audio
1 On the Study of Heaven
2 Heaven on Earth
3 What will Heaven be like?
4 What will we be like?
5 Hell and Eternal Judgment
6 Hell and the Character of God
7 This World Will End
8 The Return of the King **
9 Living for the Promised Rewards

*An Amazon List has been created with some of the resources used in this class.
** The audio for week 8 was corrupted.

Kingdom Dynamics

Kingdom Dynamics
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on the earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Jesus has promised that he will return and establish his kingdom here on the earth. Over the course of 6 lessons, we explore what the kingdom of God is, how it is coming and what it means for our lives today.

 

Week Message Title Notes Audio
1 The Priority of the Kingdom
2 The People of the Kingdom
3 The Promised Redemption of God
4 The Old Testament Covenants
5 The New Covenant in Christ
6 Living in the Kingdom Today
Appendix A – Resources for Digging Deeper
Appendix B – Kingdom Verses

Questions to ask when considering a small group strategy: Part 2

Yesterday, I outlined 5 of 10 initial questions I have for any church that is evaluating their small group strategy. Those questions included the place in the church’s discipleship strategy, goals on involvement, what to do with kids, the definition of a small group and the objectives of a small group. Let’s pick up right there with another 5 critical questions any church must answer in moving forward with a small group strategy.

  • Relation to congregational care: What is the connection between small groups and congregational care? Done well, I believe it can be the primary congregational care structure. When someone is in a small group, it is that group that takes initiative for visiting in the hospital, that facilitates meals when a baby is born, etc. Bill Hybels tells the story of going to visit someone in the hospital only to find the entire small group gathered around the person. He was basically told, “You’re not needed here. We’ve got this.” That is the opportunity of small groups for pastoral care.
  • Connection to preaching: Again, this is a big philosophical question. How is the weekly preaching of God’s Word and the teaching of small groups related. For some, there is no connection. People hear a sermon on one topic and their group studies something else. There are others where every group has to use the sermon as the basis for discussion, with the church providing resources for group leaders toward this end. Then there are some in the middle that take some period of time each year (say, 2 months) where all groups study the same thing built off  and connected to the preaching.
  • Past experience: Is there a past of small groups, or is the church starting from scratch? Either answer affects thoughts on developing a model, timeline and communication with the congregation as to what is happening, why it is important and how to get involved. A church that has never had small groups before has the unenviable task of convincing people it is important to their spiritual growth. On the other side, in churches that has a small group past, there is probably baggage that comes along with it, good or bad. Again, this is not about a right answer, but about honestly articulating what will be involved in making the new small group initiative a success.
  • Transience of population: Is the population pretty stable there or is there a fair amount of population turnover? Mark Dever has articulated that they know that the population of Capital Hill Baptist Church turns over every 3 years. So, at Capital Hill, they need a discipleship strategy that seeks to make the most of that. Instead of bemoaning all the lost people, they intentionally developed a strategy to prepare those people in the time they do have them. This can be a very important question in determining the type of model that might be effective for any local congregation.
  • Leadership development: How is the model that the church embraces raising up leaders? This is a huge one. I just recently spoke with a woman  who, along with her husband, has been leading a small group for a long time. I may be wrong about this, but I heard that Noah originally started this group with his kids when they got off the ark and it has been meeting ever since. Her comment to me: There are people in our group that should be leading groups. One significant hurdle is any system where people get into a group and are stuck there for life. People get comfortable in their group and are content to stay there. That leaves the challenging proposition of always needing to develop new leaders for new groups and having to rely on finding those people amongst those who are not already in a group. And yet, doesn’t it seem that those who are in a group already embrace the philosophy of ministry that says that groups are important?

Well, there are my recommendations on the 10 initial conversations that any church should have if considering a small group strategy for the first time or evaluating the effectiveness of their current system. As I said in the first post, small groups are a means, not an end. The end: To see disciples raised up in the likeness of Christ who are giving their lives away for the gospel. To the extent that small groups are effective toward that end, go for it.

 

Questions to ask when considering a small group strategy: Part 1

At Covenant Life Church, where I have the privilege of serving, the church leadership has continually affirmed that true discipleship and life change normally takes place in the context of relationships. That conviction has evidenced itself in many ongoing conversations about the role of small groups in our discipleship strategy and has made it front-burner topic for me. And then, just last week, I spoke with an old friend who just recently accepted a role as Pastor of Small Groups and is tasked with building a small group infrastructure in his church. At his request, I offered to assist him in any way I can thinking through small groups in his context.

What resulted are 10 initial topics and questions that I believe must be asked for a church as it reflects on small group strategy. The first five are here, the second five will be discussed in tomorrow’s post. As an aside, these are in no way ordered by priority, but rather by the way they came out as I was writing them.

  • Place in discipleship strategy: What is the discipleship strategy of the church? And where do small groups fit? For some churches, it is the discipleship strategy. They are looking to get everyone in a group as the primary way that they will be discipled. For others, Sunday School or “Life on Life” type environments are the primary discipleship tool and small groups are supplements. A clear answer on this is, I believe, one of the more critical questions a church must clarify in the processing of planning a small group strategy. At the end of the day, small groups are a means, not an end. The end is raising up radical disciples of Christ. Small groups are a great strategy for that. But knowing where small groups fits in the equation of raising up disciples will help you discern where to push and where to back off.
  • Church goal on involvement: Has the church leadership articulated a specific goal regarding involvement in small groups? It’s easy to say “we want everyone in a group,” but that type of statement often requires a radical reorientation of ministry philosophy and programming that many churches (and the individuals who attend) are not ready for.
  • Kids: Will the church provide childcare for groups? This is a very pragmatic question that comes up in every small group conversation I have. What do we do with the kids? Personally, I love having my kids at the small group I lead. I think they get to see men and women that I want them to look up to, and they get cared on in awesome ways. But, honestly, I think I am in the minority there. Many people look forward to their small group as their “adult time” and don’t want kids around. Thus, childcare becomes a consideration. A clear answer up front regarding childcare is essential.
  • Definition of small groups: What counts as a small group? Is it necessarily a co-ed group meeting weekly in someone’s home for coffee, dessert and a Bible study from now until Jesus comes back? Or does a group of guys that meet weekly and study James for 30 minutes before playing basketball for the next 2 hours count as a small group? Could groups meet on the church campus or not?
  • Objectives of small groups: What is the purpose of a small group? What exactly do you expect to happen there? Is it primarily fellowship? Bible study? Community outreach? Is it some combination or something else entirely? Articulating what you want to happen will shape what actually does happen in those small groups.

So there are 5 of the 10 initial considerations that I would want to explore in any conversation regarding small groups. Check back tomorrow for the other 5, including the relation of small groups to the preaching and leadership development.


For further reading, I highly recommend Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groupsby Nelson Search and Kerrick Thomas.