Please Remember the Animal Crackers!

I have feint memories of what my mom did to bring me to church prepared.  This took much thought and work before leaving the house.  I was young, fidgety, and had issues with attention.  I never really saw the work that went into her preparations, but I enjoyed the fruits of her labor (which sometimes was real fruit).   At various points of the church service different things would make their way out of the bag.  Raisins, grapes, the universal staple… animal crackers.  Sometimes it was crayons, sometimes markers, but the activity book always had places to draw.  She always knew what to bring and had just enough to get me through the service… so that everyone else could get through the service.

Now that I’m 40, I guess its time to make my own preparations for church.  I’ve noticed that we all prepare for church differently.  I’m going to point out 3 styles I’ve witnessed (I’m sure you have seen others).

The first group shows up to church empty handed.  No Bible, no bag, no books.  They pull out their phones, but they don’t have Bible apps or study guides on their phones!  You might wonder if they would have come at all if some reason hadn’t dragged them or forced them in some way.  Worship starts and they seem somewhat attentive.  They may even join in at some point, but with a massive asterisk if they do…  It’s not their job to worship.  They showed up, and they expect the church to do its job and either worship for them, or create worship in such a way that it involuntarily jump starts their soul into worship without their consent.  These are the parents that expect school to raise their children.  Trainers must teach their pets and almost everything in life is someone elses fault.  They will come to church, but whether they worship or not is the church’s responsibility.

The second group fully intends to experience God, but they don’t always manage to catch Him while He is there.  They will sing, pray, listen.  But they have to get warmed up.  The right songs at the right beat, with the best prayer might just work.  Its usually a slow build, but they will get there most of the time.  The big difference between the first group and this one is that this group really wants that experience, it just doesn’t always happen.  This group will say things like, “I just didn’t feel it that time”.  Or, “ohhhh, I got that warm fuzzy worship feeling this time!”.  If they don’t experience this good feeling enough, they may start to look for another church home or complain about the song choice, praise team, preacher, etc.  Similar to the first group, they may blame others when church feels ‘boring’.

The third group will approach worship like my mom did with me (only perhaps, the more grown up version).  They will wake up in the morning with worship in mind.  They will pray.  They will pack.  “What should I bring to worship?”, this group will ask.  Bible (or hip phone app), pen and paper for the sermon outline, breath mints for hugs and close prayers with their brothers and sisters in the Lord.  Seriously?  Why not?  Its this type of thinking that allows for the final ingredient.  God?  Check.  Here He is.  And then they leave home en route to the church building.  This group knows that the house of God is not the church building.   They start the day off in preparation of worshiping God and they bring Him with them.  How much sense would it make to have a party honoring someone and you don’t invite the person being honored?

This group shows up and has a servant’s heart from the first handshake with the door greeter.  They aren’t just ready to start worship, they already have been.  And so they interact with family rather than church going acquaintances.  They see visitors as potential in-laws (the good kind) rather than strangers fighting for the back pew.  And when all are seated and the first word spoken… you are already there:  engaged with God, your Father, ready to praise Him for what He has done… and maybe even work out some issues between the two of you.

Worship isn’t something that happens to us, its something we do.  It’s an act.  Its a verb.  It’s a sacrifice of time, emotion, honesty, confession, repentance, acceptance, and so much more.  It starts the moment you wake up in the morning and greet your God and, quite honestly, it should finish when you say ‘good night’.  If you show up to church and the last time you spoke to God was the last time you were at church… you don’t have the relationship that God wants to have with you.

I had some animal crackers very recently.  You never grow out of them.  They taste plain at first (no chocolate, no toppings, no fillings, just… animal shapes and carbs).  But they are a necessity.  They filled a void in my stomach and kept my mind where it belonged.  Today, Jesus fills a void in my soul and keeps me close to God.  I couldn’t imagine trying to go to church without taking Him with me.  Without first talking with Him in the morning.  Reading His words, and possibly even singing along the way.  He is the reason I go to church, how could I leave Him behind or expect someone else to bring Him?

Worship is intentional, purposeful, specific, and directed straight to God.  It’s personal between the two of you.  It’s not passive, and it’s rarely done with dry eyes.  Even more so, it also involves a community of believers… and if they aren’t seeing genuine Christians delivering worship to a beloved Savior, then I start to understand why they don’t want to be a part of the church.

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Easter Sunday… why bother?

This may step on some toes.  I pray that it steps on the right ones.  I also pray that everyone will honestly evaluate themselves in their current relationship with God and make adjustments to bring Him more into focus at the center.  Amen!

Church can bring out a lot of emotion.

For some, its pain.  Christians are sinners and even in corporate church, we make mistakes that can leave scars.

For others, its discomfort.  Jesus prayed to God that we would be united.  He knew how we would fight.  If it isn’t politics its church politics.  In my life I’ve seen churches split over chosen songs, dress codes, overhead projectors, hand clapping, instruments, and many other seemingly trivial issues.  So why bother?

Especially when very few churches get it right?  The church isn’t where the Christian goes to be built up… its where the sinner goes to put God first.  Think about that for a moment.  How many scenarios exist, where the person in the wrong shows up and dictates how the event is going to play out?  When the sinner shows up and bows humbly before the loving God… church happens.  Everywhere else is, sadly, people vying to be the next pharisee.  To me, its an issue with definition.  ‘The Church’ isn’t that big building.  It’s the loving God that sacrificed His Son for us, so that we might gain, should we choose to do so.  Our acceptance of that sacrifice doesn’t come with judgement or condemnation.  It comes with us loving back.  The Bible says that God is love.  Shouldn’t the church be love also?  It is.  And where it isn’t, it can be.  Why bother?  Because when it is done right… When God is the focus… the world begins to function just as God (it’s creator) intended it to.  The sick are healed, relationships are repaired, bridges are built, and love is shared freely.  Lives are strengthened and when we walk out that door, its a new world to face.  This may sound silly to some, and to those I claim its because you’ve been unfortunate in your church experience.

For those who don’t understand church, or for those who feel lost in one, or for those who have tried and left running out the back door:  I’d like to offer 10 simple rules to measure by.  If many of these don’t hold up well, something needs to change, as its not what God intended.

1.  Does your church consistently hold its values and beliefs in line with the Bible?  Do they do things because a church leader said so, because an established family said so, because their grant said so, or because the Bible said so?  (note the words ‘values and beliefs’.  Obviously, leadership will need to ‘lead’ in clerical, business, and logistical matters).

2.  Are the songs, prayers, and messages building up the members or are they praising God?  There is certainly scripture that gives validity to building up the members.  But what is the core purpose of worship?  “Worship”.  Reverence… adoration… thanksgiving.  That has to be first and foremost and consistent.

3.  Is your church growing?  Or trying to grow?  The issue isn’t about butts in the seats, its about souls.  Does your church’s message care and even yearn to save the lost?  Are you fired up and sent out on a mission after church?

4.  Is the money going to God?  Either in future planning, current budgeting, or missionary spend, is the church making the most of the money?  Are they following the Biblical examples to stretch each dollar, grow each cent, or are they effectively burying it until needed?

5.  Is the message consistent?  One simple example, I’ve seen over and over again:  Does your church accept an offering every Sunday, but they don’t have the time to offer communion as well?  What an odd priority.  With PayPal, credit cards, websites, donation boxes, and even snail mail to the building… collection is the one thing that can happen outside of corporate worship.  But when leadership justifies that it can’t… I see a red flag.

6.  Is the entire message taught?  Jesus is a loving Savior who gave up everything to get to us.  But He is also jealous and can be angered.  He keeps His promises, both good and bad.  (i.e. the floods came when promised just like relief comes when promised).  The life of a Christian is a hard life filled with self sacrifice, scrutiny, and persecution.  God hates all sin and we are not to judge.  Christians are supposed to look different from the world, not following it and /or adjusting our beliefs… etc.

7.  Is every member involved?  Another common malpractice I’ve seen quite consistently is a tiered version of church, where one group will be the leadership of the church and the other group will be the spectator.  Almost divided like classes, an entire group of people will go to church on Sunday, never serving in any capacity and never being asked to.  This feels eerily like how the Pharisees practiced their faith.  They were the ‘in’ crowd.  This isn’t God’s church.  He asked the fisherman, the commoner, the family-man.  ‘Leave it all behind and follow Me’. (he roughly said).  Jesus came to save everyone… so church is FOR everyone.

8.  How welcoming is the church?  This has to do with each and every member.  When a visitor walks in, how many people will they walk past before they are jubilantly greeted?  How long will they sit alone before someone joins them?  How long will they attend before being invited to a small group, a meal at someone’s home, or an event to get to know them better?  We are all some level of shy, awkward, and uncomfortable.  The ‘church’ (meaning God’s real and intended church) will bury those feelings behind the genuine excitement over seeing a new face to potentially join the mission with.

9.  Is the story current?  Is everyone still talking about the good ‘ole days?  Are you always hearing about the last pastor or some amazing family that moved on or has passed?  Churches doing the will of God will have new stories to tell.  New souls, new testimonies, new prayers answered.  It’s OK to reminisce on the past… but we can’t live in the past.  Just like your car, your stomach, and your wallet… that tank has to be filled again, and again, and again.  Jesus didn’t perform one miracle and then go back to heaven.  He spent a lifetime serving the Father and then finally gave up His life as well.  He gave it all!  Not just one thing, 15 years ago.

10.  Are children leading?  Jesus said we are to be more like children.  When the disciples tried to stop the children from coming to Jesus, He corrected them.  “let the children come to me”.  Why would the church not follow this example?  They may not be able to execute perfect exegesis of Revelations but they do know love.  And in many cases, they know love in ways that we have long forgotten.  Not only do they need to be trained, they need to be mentored and allowed to serve as any other member of the church.

No church is perfect.  But there is a clear distinction between those trying to be a perfect church and those trying to serve God perfectly.  If you don’t know the difference yet, I sincerely promise, you want the latter.   I want to encourage you to stand firm.  You will walk in and out of buildings filled with sinners.  When you find a place where the sinners are working with God to live a life of thanksgiving to Him… stick around.  I didn’t provide this list to shame existing churches or to start an argument over semantics.  This is for those searching.  I searched for over 20 years.  And I’m so thankful that I didn’t give up.  It’s far too important to abandon.  In some cases the church will be wrong.  In some cases you will be wrong.  I could easily write about all of the wrong expectations we bring into the church.  (and I might in the future :p ).  For now… encouragement.  Don’t give up.

An often overlooked scripture in the Bible is when Jesus told His disciples to wipe the dust off their sandals and move on when people didn’t receive the message.  Many, many Christians need to hear this scripture and stop trying to force God on people that aren’t ready for Him yet.  But I also find a broader meaning here.  This verse is about freedom.  We aren’t tethered to a location until success occurs.  We are simply asked to try.  Give it all you’ve got.  If it doesn’t work, move on.  Never quit.  There is never a quitting reference in the Bible unless its a tragic story.  Move on?  Yes!  Quit?  Never.  Jesus never quit.  Paul never quit.  Martin Luther King never quit.  Some of us find ourselves wanting to live life among those great and precious names, but only as long as things are going well. (reread point 6).  If you are a threat to Satan (i.e. if you are doing church right) life will not be going well.  He will attack.  But thank God you will be prepared with God at your side and a loving church at your back.

If you feel compelled to visit church on Easter Sunday… GO!  But think about why that is.  Think about what you may be missing throughout the year.  Consider why so many keep coming back week after week.  Talk to some friends that may be stronger in the faith.  Talk to someone at the church of your choice if you go.  One advanced step you can try in the privacy of your own home is to turn off all distracting devices (TV, radio, PC, etc) and speak to God.  You don’t need special words, you don’t need any scriptures.  Just chat.  Tell Him what is wrong.

God doesn’t want you in church… He wants you in heaven.  But the church is such a valuable tool, we often get the message lines crossed.  I don’t want to see you in church because there are some bad churches out there.  I want to see you accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior!!!!!  And that… will put you in search of a good church, serving Him.   God bless!

You Weren’t Worth it!

What if you were the one:

The one that Christians saw and got cold feet.

The one that believers passed by because they were afraid.

The one that everyone thought was ok.

The one that people just assumed didn’t need anything.

The one were folks reasoned, “I’ll talk to the next one”.

The one the church forgot.

The one that disciples neglected.

The one that was just another one that will find God some other way.

The one whose eternal fate wasn’t worth stopping for.

The one the rest of the world just didn’t have time for.

The one that every one else avoided eye contact with.

What if that person were you?  Would you object?  Would you enjoy knowing that others believe in eternal Heaven and Hell and yet didn’t bother to speak to you?  Spend some time today, and instead of trying to motivate yourself to be the good person… think about what if you weren’t.  Consider the impact of NOT doing anything from the other direction.  Can you walk past a starving person and throw food in the trash?  Can you enjoy laughter around those grieving?  Can you truly carry the Joy of Christ Jesus around so many lost… and not say anything… or do anything?

What if you weren’t worth it?  What if Jesus was not in your life?  What if you had no hope?  What if you had no future?  What if you had no relationship with the Father?  You were worth it!  You were worth the life Jesus spent away from God.  You were worth His sacrifice.  You were worth His death.  And they are too.  They are worth some discomfort and potentially awkward conversations.  They are worth your time.  They are worth your prayers.  You were worth it… and so are they!

Disciple up!  It’s not called the optional task on Sundays.  It’s not called the mediocre commission.  It’s called the Great Commission!