Growing Smaller

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As a church we must grow smaller. Our church has more people attending on Sundays, more home groups, more ethnic diversity, more age groups and more ministries than before. And we have grown rapidly. Before our merger, Blanchard and Living Water had a combined Sunday attendance of 450–500. This past month we had an average attendance of over 700. Growth creates buzz and a sense of momentum. But there is a dark side of growth as well.

Growth always brings growing pains. Our leadership, both lay and staff, feel stretched as the same pool of leaders serve more people. Children’s ministry leaders feel stretched to serve more children. Building maintenance staff struggle with the increased usage of the building. Home group leaders wrestle to enfold new members to their groups without compromising the intimacy and trust that have been built. Youth ministry leaders wrestle to build a sense of cohesion among different groups. College ministry leaders struggle to create space for real intimacy and community with the hundreds of students attending our church. Long time members of the church can feel lost and disconnected from a church that had felt like home. People can feel stretched thin and overwhelmed — like a little bit of butter spread over too much bread.

What can we do? Rapid growth is not unprecedented. The early church grew from 120 to 3000 overnight (Acts 2:41). But the early church also knew that the key to grow larger is to grow smaller; “and day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes”, they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, 46). Their rapid growth in numbers was sustained by growing smaller, meeting, praying, learning and growing together in homes. Churches must always flex as they experience growth; see more on this topic by Tim Keller in this excellent article.

The key to sustain growth is to grow smaller in home groups. If we do not grow smaller in home groups, then church simply feels like a cold organization. As we grow smaller in home groups, church not only becomes a Sunday habit but a formative part of our lives. We share together, pray for one another and grow together most effectively in home groups. Because of home groups, we are missed when we are gone, and we are stretched to grow together.

Let us keep the home in home groups. Let us keep our home groups as safe places to go through the messy process of growth. Let us confess our sins to one another and pray for one another to be healed. Let us challenge one another in God’s Word to grow to be more like Christ.  And let us love one another.

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Simply Giving (2 Cor 9:6–15)

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We feel overwhelmed when we are over-worked, over-worried, over-burdened, and overly in debt. We long to live more simply and untangle the complicated web of our lives. How do we do so? We can only live simply when we trust God deeply. Over the next three weeks we want to understand and live into this trust.  We simply rest when we trust that God can take care of the world even when I’m not working. We simply work without worry when we trust that God will reward that work regardless of how people might perceive it. And we simply give when we trust that “God is able to make all grace abound to you” (2 Cor 9:8). What does God promise to give as we simply give?

First, God gives abounding grace for every good work as we give (2 Cor 9:6–9). Paul celebrates the growth of the Corinthians challenges them to excel in the grace of giving for the needy in Jerusalem. He summarizes the promise that, “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (9:6). Generous giving brings a generous harvest! We should not give because of the smallness of our resources; we give because we see the greatness of ou rGod.

Also, God supplies our needs as we give (2 Cor 9:10-11). Stinginess does not preserve more for ourselves; when we neglect God’s purposes we never find that we have enough (cf. Haggai 1:8–11). Yet as we seek first God’s purposes, then we find God’s abundant provision, since we will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way (2 Cor 9:11).

Finally, God is glorified as we give (2 Cor 9:12–15). People’s needs are met and overflow “in many thanksgivings to God” and “glorify God” (9:12–13)! People see God through our giving.

But what do we do when we don’t want to give generously? Sometimes we hear a call to give and force ourselves to give out of guilt and shame. But the antidote to our struggles in giving is not forcing ourselves to obey but to marinate our souls in the lavish generosity of our God.  We give out of our “confession of the gospel of Christ” (9:13). We give as we gaze at “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (8:9). May the generosity of our God increase our hearts and capacity that we might give out of the abundance that God has given to us! Let us give simply, trusting in God’s abundant ability to provide!

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Gifts for Mothers (and the rest of us! Psalm 127)

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We often think that we can tackle the world on our own. We will tackle our careers and secure our futures. We will tackle our worries and fix things. We will establish our families and find comfort. Yet often despite our most earnest efforts, things don’t work out according to our expectations. How do we navigate the failure of our best laid plans? Psalm 127 reminds us that security, rest and family are all gifts from the LORD. As we celebrate Mother’s Day, may we celebrate the gifts that God provides.

First, the LORD gives the gift of security (Psalm 127:1). Unless the LORD builds the house and watches over the city, our labor and sleeplessness are “in vain.” We long for security. No matter how hard we work to build a house, unexpected and uncontrollable circumstances can easily destroy that house. No matter how vigilantly we watch over our cities, destructive armies still break in and destroy. Yet the LORD builds and watches over the city, and through Him we find security.

Also, the LORD gives the gift of rest (Psalm 127:2). Rising up early, going late to rest and “eating the bread of anxious toil” all are “in vain.” We must give up the illusion of our control and surrender to the reality of God’s control.  Even our most earnest labors can end up in futility because of matters beyond our control. Yet the LORD “gives to his beloved sleep.” This sleep is more than physical; it is the rest of a peaceful and quieted heart.  Sometimes even our sleep is tormented because of unresolved worries, but rest quiets the storms of our heart.

Finally, the LORD gives the gift of family (Psalm 127:3–5). They are a heritage from the LORD, and the fruit of the womb a reward (127:3). This sounds great, but the reality is that children are a great liability.  CNN recently calculated that the average cost to raise a child born in 2015 is $233,610! Yet many of God’s gifts begin as liabilities and then become responsibilities, like arrows in our quiver (127:4). However these responsibilities eventually become our assets, so that a parent “shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (127:5). This blessing is not limited to physical children; the apostle Paul was single yet frequently spoke of those that he loved as his “joy and crown (Phil 4:1; 1 These 2:19). Caring for others and the next generation is always at first a liability that becomes  responsibility before it becomes an asset.

When we receive gifts, we see ourselves as grateful stewards. We are not owners. We are not in control. Rather we have been given an incredibly undeserved gift, so let us be good stewards of these gifts to the glory of God. This Mother’s Day may we give thanks for the gifts of security, rest and family and receive the empowering to raise up the next generation well.

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Dressers, Tuition, Obedience and Miraculous Provision

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When Eunsil and I were first married, we lived simply. Our kitchen table was a folding card table. We had no dresser so our clothes hung in the closet and our socks and undergarments were in a drawer in our nightstand. But  I will never forget my excitement, though, when we saved enough money to buy to buy a dresser. We went to Naked Furniture on Main Street in Wheaton and found a beautiful dresser. We went home to think about it. The next morning my wife was doing her quiet time and was convicted about generosity. A college student she was discipling at the time could not pay her community college tuition.  Eunsil asked if we could use our dresser money to support this tuition. One thing that I had learned from her early on is that generosity had a price. If we wanted to give, then it would cost us something. And for us to give generously to support this student, we would have to forgo our dresser. I said yes, reluctantly, knowing that my poor socks and other things would remain cramped in their little home. Little did we know how this step of sacrificial obedience would lead to God’s abundant provision!

A few days later we pulled up to the church and saw a garage sale in the neighborhood. At the garage sale, a number of items were piled on top of a solid wood dresser, with nice grooves and a natural finish. There was no price tag. I quietly asked the man, “How much for this?” He said, “$20.” I quickly said, “I’ll take it.”  I pointed to the kitchen table and chairs a few feet away. “How about that?”  “$10.”  Feeling like bandits, my wife and I got a wonderful wood dresser, kitchen table and chairs for $30. For the amount of money that we would have used to buy one wood dresser at Naked Furniture, we were able to pay for a student’s community college tuition, a dresser, a kitchen table and chairs to boot! And all of this provision was sparked by a small step of sacrificial obedience.

The path of God’s abundant provision is paved by steps of sacrificial obedience. We often want miraculous provision without sacrificial obedience:   manna without the wilderness, fire from heaven without the sacrifice of the altar, and feeding of the five thousand without giving five loaves and two fish. So instead of living on manna and quail from heaven we live by our own abilities and relegate miraculous provision to stories in the past. Friends, let us live with sacrificial obedience. As we walk in that type of obedience, we will experience God’s abundant provision. Let us be sacrificial, generous givers as we worship our generous Father who sacrificed even his own Son for us. And let us view opportunities for sacrificial obedience as opportunities to witness God’s miraculous provision.

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Witnesses Together (Luke 24:36–53)

 

 

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Jesus really, literally, physically, bodily rose from the dead. When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they couldn’t believe that he was really back from the dead, but with a lot of convincing, they finally believed their senses. Why does God’s plan involve a physical resurrection for Jesus and for us? What are the physical resurrection’s implications for our lives? Jesus’s physical resurrection strengthens our hope by affirming the goodness of physical reality, provides the foundation of our mission, and inspires us to worship.

First, Jesus’s physical resurrection strengthens our hope by affirming the goodness of physical reality (24:36-43). Jesus rising from the dead is such a shock to his disciples that they can’t even believe their senses. So Jesus goes to great lengths to prove he is no ghost or vision, but a living, breathing, flesh-and-bone, resurrected human. And if our resurrection is like Jesus’s (1 Corinthians 15:45, 49) we too will be raised physically with a body that is similar to our own yet freed from sin’s corruption (1 Cor 15:51, 53). This is not only true of our bodies, but all of creation will be renewed and restored (Romans 8-23, 2 Peter 3:7-13 Rev. 21:1). We see in Jesus’s resurrection, and the promise of our physical resurrection, an echo of Genesis 1, that what God has made is good, and matter matters. This frees us from an overly spiritual legalism (1 Tim 4:1-5). It also strengthens our hope in the resurrection as we see in creation pictures of the goodness of a redeemed creation. We aren’t waiting for some vague spiritual reality we can’t picture, imagine, or desire. We await a redeemed creation where every good thing we experience on this earth is a taste of the goodness it will have when it is redeemed. It helps us celebrate the goodness of what we experience now and solidifies our hope of what we will experience later.

Second, Jesus’s physical resurrection provides the foundation of our mission (24:44-49). All of God’s plan before Jesus leads up to and points to Jesus’s death and resurrection (24:44-45). It is only through Jesus’s physical self-sacrifice and physical resurrection that repentance can lead to forgiveness (24:47). And the Holy Spirit who comes after Jesus empowers his followers to point back to him (24:49). The core of what we as a church have to offer the world is the good news that Jesus’s death and resurrection fundamentally changed our world and our relationship with God. Jesus’s physical death and physical resurrection form the core of our testimony as witnesses (24:48).

And finally, Jesus’s physical resurrection inspires us to worship (24:50-53). The disciples’ mourning on Good Friday turned to joy on Easter Sunday. The death of Jesus alone would have been a pointless defeat. But with his resurrection the whole picture is flipped. Through Jesus defeated death by dying and rising again! He cleanses our sins by offering the perfect sacrifice! He foils our enemy by playing his victim, only to rise in victory. As the disciples shift from Good Friday’s sadness to Easter’s joy, they explode in worship day after day.

If Jesus didn’t actually physically die, and actually physically rise from the dead, then our “faith is futile” and we are still in our sins (1 Cor 15:17). But since Jesus did bodily rise from the dead, we have the best picture of what eternal life will look like, we have the greatest message ever to share with the world: God’s plan from ages past brought to fruition in Jesus. Our worship then propels us to witness of this great reality in our world!

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Seeing Jesus Together (Luke 24:13–35)

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This past week my wife and I spent time with a close friend who adopted a two and a half year old child. Their home, family, and hearts were prepared to lavish great love on their new child. This child would come into a caring, loving and comfortable home. Surely this child would respond with ecstatic appreciation!  Or so we all thought. After years of waiting, the actual adoption happened, and the child struggled.  She struggled to leave her foster parents and adjust to her new parents. She threw temper tantrums and refused to eat. Physical challenges became apparent. Although she was adopted into a new family, she struggled to adapt to that new family. Only after a few years did she begin to settle into her new identity as an adopted child.

Similarly we often struggle when we are adopted into God’s family. Although we are adopted and embraced by God unconditionally, we struggle to receive and live by that love. In Luke 24:13–35 Jesus walks with his disciples so that they can live in a new reality. This is the reality of his resurrection. How does Jesus help us to live into that reality?

First, Jesus walks with us in our disappointments (Luke 24:13–24). Jesus meets a few people on the road from Emmaus, confused because of the death of their hopes that he was the one to redeem Israel (24:21). Jesus meets them in the midst of their disappointment.  Similarly with our disappointed hopes, Jesus does not rebuke us for our disappointment but he walks with us in the midst of our disappointments.

Second, Jesus helps us understand his purposes through his Word (Luke 24:25–27). Even as Jesus confronts their lack of understanding about this resurrection, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Their disappointments and misunderstandings are refocused by careful interpretation of God’s Word.

Finally, Jesus demonstrates his presence in the flesh (Luke 24:28–36). Jesus spends time with the disciples in his risen body. Their eyes are only opened as he took bread and ate with them. This ensures that this is not a ghost who was with them. As they spend time with Jesus in that way, they realize who he is. And they go and proclaim all that they have heard. Similarly as we encounter Jesus in his body, the body of Christ, we truly realize the truth and goodness of who He is.

Jesus helps us to adjust to the new reality of his resurrection. He walks with us in our disappointment, interpreting it according to his Word and bringing us into an encounter with Himself. May we walk in the fullness of his resurrection!

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Just Bring Your Lunch

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Do you ever want to shut out the needs of others because they outstrip your own resources?   That’s how I felt on Monday. I went down to Indianapolis to gather with eighty other pastors and church leaders for our annual conference of the Midwest District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. I felt spent after Easter with a long list of to-do items and a sea of dandelions growing on my lawn. Meeting with and learning about the struggles of other tired pastors just didn’t feel very appealing! Yet I was bothered by a nagging question, “What would revival look like if ignited across this entire region? What would it look to turnaround not only these churches but this region?” I kept shaking off this nagging question because I have enough to worry about in our own church. Like the disciples in John 6, I was despairing over the inadequacy of my own resources before the needs of so many (John 6:9). Yet what can we do when the needs of others outstrip our own resources?

In John 6, this boy rebukes me. He didn’t focus on the inadequacy of his own resources in the face of great need, but he brings his own limited resources to Jesus in the face of that need. The disciples were busy focusing on the greatness of the need, complaining that “two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little!” (John 6:7). Yet this one boy brought his lunch to Jesus. Nobody else brought anything else. But this boy brought his lunch, and the crowd is fed.

Jesus just wants us to bring him our lunch. I’m so busy trying to figure out how to fix everybody’s problems, but that is not my job. My job is simply to bring my five loaves and two fish to Jesus. So this morning I did what I could. I prayed. I prayed for the churches, the pastors that I met over the past couple of days. I prayed through the challenges and to-do lists that I have. And this morning I am at my desk, bringing my five loaves and two fish. I just want to do what is needed. I’m crossing off items on my to-do list, one item at a time.

When you feel that needs outstrip resources, simply bring your five loaves and two fish to Jesus. He has power to multiply and feed the five thousand. I have no idea how Jesus will answer my prayers for these other churches. However I am going to keep laying down each of my burdens at the feet of Jesus. Let us not shut out the needs of others because of the inadequacy of our resources, but let us bring these needs with our five loaves and two fish and simply lay them at the feet of Jesus. And let us see what He will do!

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