Reverence Embodied

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So, we’ve covered some ground in terms of the controversies and customs with regard to reverence in our worship services. We have taken a quick Biblical tour of what reverence is in terms of a principle in Scripture. To sum up, reverence is essential, and it is essentially the posture of the human heart, with appropriate attendant actions, that make much of God and His promises. Reverence is the exaltation, exultation, meditation, and glorious satisfaction in all that God if for us in Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.

What does that look like in a worship gathering? Well, here are some suggestions.

Intent and Planning

Worship begins with the motives and the design of a worship service. What you think of worship crafts how you design it. Therefore, worship planning teams should have a priority that the service be highly reverential. Once they do, you will see that in the service itself, in structure, song selection, song orchestration, the sermon, the prayers, etc.

While many forms can capture reverence, I do want to suggest that chosen moments of stillness, silence, and contemplation do serve to establish reverence. The absence of these does not necessarily take away reverence, but their presence is helpful and a gift. Many churches today do not allow for enough stillness, silence, and contemplation, which in turn make it challenging for people to really think about and own the truth and power of God’s work in worship.

From Start to Finish

A tone is set in how a service begins. Whether it is a verbal call to worship, a prayer, or a song, the worship leader sets the tone of reverence in how he or she speaks of God and why we are gathered to worship. The beginning of the service should get our eyes on God, how big He is, how glorious He is, and the gratitude we should have in being in his presence to worship him.

Likewise, the closing of a service should set a tone of reverence as we bless and commission the congregation in their service to God in the week ahead. Often the benediction/closing is the moment that seals the sense of wonder and awe that was gained during the service and it should be considered as another important means of conveying reverence.

The Appearance of the Worship Leaders

I do not think that reverence is exemplified in a narrow range of clothing genres. But, I also think that if the worship team looks like clowns, or are obviously trying to draw attention to themselves in how they dress, then that takes esteem away from God, and thus is not reverent. The worship leaders can be stylish, no doubt, but should not be distracting. Women should be careful not to wear anything that is designed to be alluring or provocative. Please take into account fit, length, and such. Men, don’t be a peacock. Be comfortable, be sartorial, but don’t draw attention to yourself. Give the focus to Jesus. In other words, be excellent but not distracting. That helps the atmosphere be reverent.

Song Selection

Some songs exude celebration, and therefore will be upbeat and elicit clapping, body movement, and overall gladness. But, some songs should be selected to elicit a sober reflection on the mercies of God, on the basic truths of the gospel, upon the majesty of Christ, the reality of our sin and yet the glory of the Savior. There should definitely be a priority to select songs that create a unified story in worship and also a balance of joy and reverence. Many genres, from traditional hymns to contemporary choruses, to solos, choirs, and congregational songs can do this. Even instrumental pieces can and should exude reverence.

The Preaching

The way the preacher deports himself as he preaches creates an atmosphere. If he is glib, always light, rarely gravitational, you will not have a sense of reverence. The preacher must carry himself, speak in such a way, and of course deliver the message of a Biblical text in such a way that he leads others in reverent worship of God even during the sermon. Preachers can definitely use humor, and they surely must also balance the sermon with the other Biblically important attitudes of celebration, conviction, peace, freedom, and such, but he must be reverent, too. This will include how he uses humor, how he handles controversial topics, his clearness when it comes to sin, his boldness in proclaiming a big Jesus, and how his communication is unapologetically God centered. If the preacher is reverent in his preaching, he will shape a reverent people.

Thoughtfulness and Excellence

Two simple principles seem to make it or break it when it comes to reverence in worship. Is the service thoughtful, and Biblically so? And is it excellent, and humbly so? You can tell. You can always tell. When a service is thought through, it shows. When it is thought through, it is often excellent. When it is excellent, it leads to focus on Jesus, not on foibles or eccentricities. One friend calls this undistracting excellence. From invocations, songs, Scripture readings, prayers, the sacraments, to the sermon, testimonies, media, and all the other bits, if there is a clear thoughtfulness and excellence, and a clear Biblicality to it all, the service will be highly reverent.

 

These principles can be expressed in a very formal, high church service with business suits or even black robes abounding, or it can happen in a converted wear house, painted in matte black, with work shirts and jeans and an indie rock worship band. Both can he very, even equally, reverent.

Given who God is, we must be reverent. Period.

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Reverence is Essential

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In the last post, we defined some context. In summary, a lot of people have a lot of differing opinions, often strong opinions, on what worship is and what reverence looks like in worship. Where do we go from here? The first thing is to see what the Bible says about this topic.

First, the Bible is not going to have a section labeled: reverence. The Bible uses many words for reverence, and it will often depict reverence in action. Or, we can read a song or poem of the OT and see that the whole piece is a form of reverent worship. So, in that light, how does the Bible teach about reverence?

Reverence is all over the place:

God is holy. God is awesome. The created order is to esteem Him as such. So, from Genesis 1 on we have a theology that the creation is meant to give God reverent glory (Psalm 19). We see this in particular is stories like Moses at the burning bush. Moses is commanded to take his shoes off because he is on holy ground. That is reverence. Or, we have the throne room of God in Isaiah 6, where angels and august glory are shrouding the scene. The prophet Isaiah is in awe. That is reverence. Angelic messengers show up all over the OT, and they are not even God himself, but just that they are his heavenly messengers with the aroma and glory of God around them make them creatures to fall down before…in reverence. We have reverence before God’s word in Nehemiah 8. The word of God is brought back to God’s people, so they stand all day to listen and hear it explained in their language. By the way, that is a text that shapes why I have my people stand at the reading of God’s word. Then, we have Psalm after Psalm, which exhibit a reverent heart and overall posture before God, whether in suffering, heartache, joy, doubt, conviction, or jubilation.

Reverence is essential:

In these Biblical portraits, it does not seem like reverence is an option. Often, reverence is commanded. The Bible pretty clearly teaches us that God deserves and requires reverence, otherwise we fail to magnify and reflect God as He is in our worship, and overall life.

Reverence is not alone:

Reverence is essential, but reverence is not the only affection, posture, and value when it comes to worshiping and knowing God. Throughout the Bible we have many other thoughts, affections, and choices that accompany the presence of God, like love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control (hmmm…those seem familiar). We have fear, repentance, satisfaction, knowledge, hope, laughter, tears. We also have a lot of different physical responses: bowing, hands lifted high, dancing, stillness, cowering, wrestling, submission, walking beside, you name it. Then, there are lots of different physical surroundings where God’s presence is: bright, dim, loud, quiet, earthquakes, gentle breezes. Again, there are lots of different settings, and often all with the common thread of reverence, in the Bible.

The whole picture of reverence informs gathered worship:

Well, these are not restricted to gathered worship, are they? So, am I really making a good argument for what gathered worship looks like? Apart from descriptions of the sacrificial system of the OT, and what the Psalms teach us about Israel’s liturgy, and then some clear principles we see in both the OT and NT, we don’t have a detailed explanation of what a Christian worship gathering should look like. There is a lot of flexibility. What we do see seems to suggest that how we worship in all of life is to inform our gathered worship, and vice versa. So, I take it that the breadth of reverence options, and the other priorities of being in the presence of God, should inform how we worship as a local church. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 14, we have a priority to make gathered worship God-centered and also explicable to non-believers. That is true for all of life. I think reverence works the same way.

So, what does this all mean? It means that reverence is a principle, not a policy. Put another way, reverence can truly be expressed in different ways, and there are many other things that should accompany reverence as we think about how to participate in and how to design a gathered worship experience. We’ll talk about that next time.

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Reverent Worship

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Let’s do a series of posts on reverent worship, shall we?

We will begin with sorting through some of the muddiness. So, the situation. Worship wars go in and out of intensity. They seemed to be particularly strong in the 80’s and 90’s. There seemed to be some kind of border that was passed at that point where so-called contemporary worship and contextualized ministry became the norm, rather than the marginal. However, there is definitely still an undercurrent of the debate going on right now, especially as the highly principled and theologically driven community, sometimes associated with  The Gospel Coalition, wants to really get worship right.

So, what is reverence when it comes to worship (and by worship let’s use the narrower definition of gathered worship in a local church)? Reverence for a long time was defined as formality. For many, though they may not think of it in those terms, their definition of what reverence looks like is embodied in forms of worship that are formal by Western standards, and by the way this whole series will assume the issues involved in North America, but I think the principles are at work around the globe. So, the formality definition tends to assume that things like a highly structured service, limited in its connection with overt and physically demonstrated affections, a strong emphasis on hymns in their original arrangements, business attire, historical architecture, a rhetorically formal communication style at the pulpit, and so on, are what makes for reverence. Often their arguments refer to how we display reverence on other occasions or other contexts, like a wedding, funeral, the opera, a fine restaurant, etc. The argument goes, if we dress up and expect a certain orderliness at those events, should we not bring that same level of gravitas and distinction to something as important as worshipping God?

Let’s flip this. Irreverence is often associated with settings that are less formal, and certainly in situations that embrace the casual. My formality = reverence friends often suggest that a casual environment necessarily expresses a less reverent posture toward worship. By casual, we are talking about music styles, the way people communicate from the pulpit or in general from the mic, how people express their affections in physical displays, and of course in how people attire themselves. Jeans, t-shirts, and flip flops all seem very loose and sloppy and, well, not very reverent. Even things like clapping, or hollering, or the use of humor, are seen as devaluing the sense of grandeur we should have in our worship. In fact, some claim that casual setting are driven by man-centeredness, a desire to cater to men in order to please people inebriated by pop culture and to attract more and more people to church

Now, we can flip both of those, and we have people that think formal worship is irrelevant, non-missional, inward looking, almost like a fine piece of art – pretty, maybe inspiring, but an antiquity that does not really connect with practical, every day life. In fact, I guess you could make the case that formality is a means of expressing a Western sense of gravitas, that a small yet influential minority of people want to keep alive, often out of fear as they see it so marginalized, but if that gravitas is no longer the common vernacular of social expression, then it is in no way actually reverent, because no one is reverencing God, just a way of interacting with space, the mind, and other humans. Likewise, one can say that this is just a matter of the heart and, within reason, reverence can be displayed with a huge variety of liturgical styles and social symbols.

So, where do we go from here? We will try and get at some definition and practical import in our next posts. But, I hope we agree on one thing: reverence is good. In fact, reverence is essential in gathered worship and in all of life as believers. Reverence is Biblical.

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5 Quick Reasons Not to Bring Your Sermon Manuscript With You to the Pulpit

My friend and colleague just posted some thoughts on the benefits of writing your sermons out in full here, often called full-manuscripting. At the present time, I do not write my sermons out word for word, but I respect and agree with the thoughts of the pastors who do. I write a detailed outline, and I think out my sermons very precisely in my mind. But, if it helps you in your structure, clarity, and delivery, then I would encourage you to put full-manuscripting into practice. But, may I suggest to you that you should not bring your manuscript with you to the pulpit? Here are my five reasons:

1. Tempted to read: while many men, including Eric, do not read their manuscript, many men do. Men I respect. But, it affects the delivery, and usually not in a good way. By leaving your manuscript on your desk, you will be forced to deliver in a different manner, covered in the next few points.
2. Conversational: when you speak from your heart, without adherence to a word for word manuscript, you literally carry your voice and gestures in a different way. You become conversational and thus you are much easier to listen to. Communication experts will tell you that the elevated tone and stricter body movements one uses when reading are not received by today’s audiences the way they used to. We respond better to natural and conversational speakers.
3. Eye contact: your audience will always be more compelled by you when they see you looking at them. You cannot catch everyone’s eye, but when they see you catch someone’s eye, it makes it real, intense, connective. That is just basic human communication phenomena.
4. The freedom for the Spirit: OK, I know a lot of you are now thinking this can be an easy excuse for long, uncontrolled, winding sermons. That is not what I mean. But, I think it is a good thing to have less commitment to a word for word manuscript so that the Spirit can work to speak through you in an unplanned manner. Couldn’t he have inspired you in your writing? Yes, but he also likes to speak in the moment from time to time. Spurgeon speaks to this and we all know Spurgeon was almost always right, right? (wink).
5. It forces mental imaging in your preparation: the point of writing out a sermon is outlined in Eric’s blog. Those are great points. But, what if you could do the same thing by means of mental imaging? And, once it’s in your mind, you got it. Notes can be lost. Notes can blow away in the wind. But, your internalization of your sermon cannot be compromised by deleterious forces surrounding you. And, you can tweak and contextualize on the fly. If a service has too many other components and you need to shorten up, you can. If you sense a different type of audience and need to elevate or bring down, you can. Either way, the internalized sermon is the way to go.

Give it try. Again, be committed to clarity, control, and a strong delivery –  but force your brain to get there without the aid of a manuscript in front of you. I bet you will find more freedom and impact.

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Dear Pastor Jay: Kinda Sorta Attender

Dear Pastor Jay,

I am a twenty something professional who works at one of the bio tech companies in RTP. When I moved here a few years ago I decided I would make the Bible Church my home church. I do in fact consider your church to be my home church. I don’t attend other churches, and whenever I am at worship, I have a great morning and I feel like Jesus meets me every time. But I will be honest.  Between vacations, visiting family, my love of the outdoors, getting sick, and often simply needing to rest, I find that I attend once or twice a month. Your series in the gospel of John seems like a blur. I have probably picked up about five of the sermons, total. 

Lately you have been talking about making church a big deal in our life and therefore we should get plugged in. Part of me gets that, and wants to have more community with the church, and to find a place to serve. But, I don’t have family in the area and quite frankly I work so hard that I am exhausted on the weekends and need to rest. I cannot fathom having a weekly responsibility or the sense of responsibility to other people that would come if I joined a life group. But then I feel guilty that I should make church a bigger priority.

Here’s the thing. I’m a young man. While I don’t attend very often, I do download your sermons regularly, I hang out with solid friends, and I do intend to make church a bigger deal once I get married, and definitely once I become a father. So, what do you think about my situation. Don’t young professionals have a special situation where weekends can be a bit more fluid and one’s relationship to the church can be a bit more fluid?

Thinking out loud,

Kinda Sorta Attender

Dear Kinda Sorta Attender,

Let me begin by being very pragmatic and idealistic. Then I want to ask you some questions that will attend to your heart and will force you to go to the issues behind the behavior.

Upon arriving here I realized that a good portion of our church does not attend regularly. I noticed that quickly because I came from a church in a very traditional culture and that church was a staple in the community, so most of its congregation attended most Sundays. We had a very predictable and stable attendance chart. The Triangle is a different bird. For a host of reasons, there are many more distractions on weekends and also the demographic is different. Church is not as much a staple here. So, I figure that about fifty percent of our church attends fifty percent of the time. That is a big variance. Our Sundays can vary drastically. Less so now, but it still happens. If everyone came at the same time, I think people would be surprised at how large we are. But, they don’t. This is a phenomena many church, in many locations, experience all the time, even mega churches.

So, what is the ideal? Well, vacations are important. We get sick and need to rest and protect people at church. And, family should be a priority and often we need weekends to visit them. But, if you back all of that out, one should be out 8-10 Sundays a year, which leaves a good portion of Sundays where you are back in town. What about hiking, backpacking, and other fun weekend events where you hope to have both days free? Yep, I think you could include that in the 8-10 weekends. I was being pretty generous with that number. That is like two and a half months, you realize? So, the ideal is if you are in town, you should simply want to be at church, with your spiritual family, worshiping Jesus.

Now, not everyone is going to be churched or believe in church that much, so figure twenty percent of a healthy missional church are unchurched or spiritually immature attenders for whom church is not a priority. That leaves eighty percent of a congregation that should be accountable to a high view of church, and who make every effort to attend when in town. So, a healthier number, in my mind, would be around 80/80 – eighty percent attend eighty percent of the time. Not absolute, but wise I think.

OK. It sounds like you are a part of our crowd who are at church less than half the year. Think about that. Half the year. That is a very disconnected church reality. That is superficial at best. So, here are some questions.

1. It sounds like church is more of a burden. When you are tired, it sounds like church becomes a source of more fatigue. Why do you feel this way? Why is church not a source of pleasure and rest?

2. Have you looked at the Bible and what it has to say about the church, especially in the NT letters?

3. Are you noticing issues in your life that you know do not please God and are perhaps attached to your detachment from church?

4. Have you ever tried to holistically dive into a church and give of your time and energy, in a committed way where your attendance was necessitated?

5. Are you the product of either a home that viewed church attendance legalistically (which drove you away) or was overly slack (which didn’t drive you anywhere)?

6. Are you substituting other institutions, like sports, leisure, or other non Christian communities, for a local church, hoping to find the same stimuli but in a more controllable, less demanding, less soul requiring package?

I think my questions make the point. My big burden for you is that you are missing out on so much fulfillment and joy. Church should be a joy – a discipline, yes, but a joy. I talked about loving obedience this past Sunday. Same goes for church. If you love Jesus with all your heart, and you believe the church really is the body of Jesus (his representative, his family, the plan A of truth, community, and mission), then you should love the church. I fear you have allowed certain things to cloud that. Friend, this is not about an arbitrary desire for us to be a church with a bigger Sunday attendance. Quite frankly, part of me wants to avoid the potentially unavoidable reality of a building campaign if our attendance keeps growing at the present rate, but my real concern is that the Bible church be full of people who experience the life giving reality of gathering as a church to worship Jesus, by praising him in song, reading his word, hearing his word preached, and by being physically together in community. That is both a healthy church and one which is very useful in God’s hands.

The assembling of the church is a spiritual thing. Read Hebrews 10:24-25 on this. The writer says that the reality of the gospel itself is made known in our coming together, so we can stir each other up to love and good works. Friend, you need church because church provides things it alone can deliver. Seriously, the local church is a spiritual reality and Jesus is known in a special way in and through it. So, I’m going to ask you to put that in your theological pipe and smoke it! And, by all means, test this against the Bible.

I would love for you to love the local church. It is a powerful and special institution, and someday I hope to hear that you schedule your life, out of loving obedience, around the worship of God’s people, rather than the other way around. Friend, you will find so much more truth, family, and purpose in doing so.

Every blessing,

Pastor Jay

 

 

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Dear Pastor Jay: Family First

Dear Pastor Jay,

I read enough blogs, note what’s being published, and have picked up on some of the bigger themes in your teaching, and I see that there is a movement to make not just ‘the’ church but the local church a big deal again. I guess I am wrestling with this idea because I feel like what the local church has become is not what it used to be when I was a kid. I grew up in a strong Christian home and my family considered the church to be very important. But that meant going to Sunday worship, and occasionally a Wednesday prayer meeting or church picnic. Back then we did not have all the events and programs that so many churches have today – like you all have at the Bible Church. We did not even really have a youth group. Local church was worship. Now church is worship, plus youth group, plus a small group, plus other focus ministries, plus being involved in your outreach ministries. That’s like 20 hours a week, I think! 

But, the big rub for me is that I feel like this is more than just a time commitment. It seems like the church is replacing what God intends for families to be. We have youth pastors instead of parents. We have all these service events, when families should be living a full Christian life and serving in their places of influence. If we were to really dive into church, I feel like my role as a dad would be outsourced. So, my wife and I don’t really encourage our kids to be part of the youth group. For now we come to morning services and put our youngest kids in Sunday school, but that’s about it. That leaves us with a lot of room and time to be family. Our kids can be fully committed to their sports teams, we can use our nights and weekends as family, and we can make it our priority as parents to disciple our kids, rather than the youth pastor. Don’t get me wrong, we appreciate your teaching and the worship, but I’m OK with that being your contribution to our family’s life, and I don’t feel too compelled to get any more involved at church, since I use my work as a place of ministry, I read lots of good Christian books, and our family is growing spiritually as we are being an intentional Christian home.

So, can you explain why we ought to make the church a ‘load bearing wall’ as you often say, if we’ve already got good ‘load bearing walls’ as a family?

Regards,

Family First

Dear Family First,

Let me begin by saying that I wish I had more people like you to persuade into a deeper or thicker life with the local church. You are fundamentally right, may I say Biblical, in your vision of family. Yes, the family was God’s first and primary means of discipleship and community. I don’t think anything has changed that in the New Covenant era (after Jesus has come). But, even in the OT, and its stress on the biological family, the nation of Israel, in terms of extended families, towns, clans, tribes, and the entire nation, was also very important. Community was more than the family. Not less, but more. That theme continues in the NT and even more vividly. The family is still core in the NT, but the importance of the family of God becomes central. Look at places like Mark 10.29-30, 1 Corinthians 11 and the communion table teaching, and the joy Paul demonstrates in the book of Philippians over his partnership with the church. It is so great your family is Christ-centered and intentional. But, that should not compete with the beauty and exalted status of the local church. Local church involvement should not just be for those without family in the area, or those without believing family, or those who want to outsource their discipleship to the professionals. No, it seems that a deep family life can complement a deep local church life, comprised of more than one service on Sunday mornings.

My first suggestion is to simply look again at the NT letters and see how Paul and Peter and the others regard the local communities they were writing to. Look at the exalted status of those communities in the apostle’s theology. The fancy name is ecclesiology (study of the church). The apostolic ecclesiology was very exalted. They loved the church because of what they believed about the nature of the church. It did not replace the biological family but it was the greater context of the biological family. So, however you proceed, make sure you can confidently say it reflects the Bible’s teaching on church.

OK, as for what church has become versus what it used to be. Yes, churches are now becoming larger and more organizationally complex than ever. Some might say busy and littered. I do agree that most churches need to de-clutter the programs and events, or at least not baptize the passion and ministries of all our missional people into formal initiatives of the church. But, part of what has happened, I think, is that churches are becoming more robust in being local churches, and are thinking about truly wise and helpful ways of discipling people in an era where there are not a lot of mature believers and families like yours. So, the abundance of specialists can be a good thing. The church is getting better and better about reaching people, engaging culture, doing public work of great depth and gospel faithfulness. The more robust organizational life allows us to do this. Also, our world is very fractured, due to some of the cultural changes that have taken place since you were a child. I bet you spent more time than you think with people from your church, but life back then allowed for it in more organic ways. There was less busyness, less technology, less overall distraction. The church today has to find ways of pulling people back into slower, methodical, community and mission with its programs, events, and staff leadership. Our desire, though, is for the institutional part to be subtle and begin to hide once relationship and bonds are fixed.

OK. I have made some conceptual points, but the question of why your family might/should plug in more is still out there. Here is the deal: while you may not need the resources we provide because you are self-feeders and intentional in your own lives of mission (again, nothing but awesome!), need is not the only reason to plug in past Sunday mornings. Nor is guilt, might I add. This is not a drive-by guilting 😉 Joy-producing investment and ministry are also reason and actually should be the controlling reasons once you pass a certain place of spiritual maturity. Your kids may not need our youth pastor. But, what if our youth pastor was able to help them invest in other youth’s lives, grow in their leadership, give them opportunities within a worshiping community to evangelize and serve our city? At that point he is not supplanting you, but rather supplementing you and your wife. Our youth pastor is not intended to replace parents. He is there to encourage and supplement. Why not take advantage of that and plug your kids into church-based service, if in fact the church is God’s plan A of mission in the world? Same for you and your wife. Is there a place you can use your gifts in our church? I love it you use your time at work to reach out. But, what if you shared some of that time and energy at church? We could use your partnership and I think you would be blessed.

Let me finish by saying it is never our intent for people to do everything we offer. In fact, here is my ideal. We all worship together at a weekend service. We invest in a Life Group. And we have one place of service. Your kid’s version of a LG would be our children’s ministry or youth group. I find that model keeps our family together for most of the time, and the time apart is not really that much in the long run. Do we have to say no to certain opportunities to live this way? Yes, but it is so worth it.

Hope you’ll consider some of these things, especially the study of what the Bible says about the local church. If something is true, then it’s also good and beautiful

Blessings,

Pastor Jay

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One Spouse, Two Churches

Dear Pastor Jay,

My husband and I are Christians. We love the Lord and we love his church. Yet, throughout our marriage there has been one pretty big challenge. He and I have very different experiences and values when it comes to church, and thus we tend to be drawn to different kinds of churches. We both want a church with strong evangelical beliefs, that takes preaching seriously, is warm and welcoming, and that wants to reach non-Christians. But he grew up in a solid Christian home in a very traditional Presbyterian church in the suburbs and I became a Christian as a college student at a small charismatic church in the city. In grad school we did find a church that satisfied both of us, but now we are just not finding a church that seems to fit us both. For the past six months my husband has been attending a church he really likes and I have been attending another that I really like. We feel ministered to and are thriving at our respective churches, but something about this does not feel right. We are thinking of starting a family soon, and my gut sense is that we do not want to have our children raised in this type of situation. How important is it that we attend the same church?  If it is important, how do we decide on which one to attend?

Sincerely,

One Spouse, Two Churches

Dear One Spouse, Two Churches,

This is an important question, and I am so glad you are asking for wisdom from a pastor. Most people kinda know there is something not quite right with this arrangement but keep their heads down and keep doing it, hoping for the best. Here is my honest advice, followed up by the reasons for it. I think you should do everything within your power to attend the same church. 

Now, I do not think this is an issue of sin, at least I don’t know your hearts well enough to say that. Sin always has some involvement in our wisdom decisions, but you will have to seek God and match your heart with Scripture to determine that. I do think this is an issue of wisdom. Put another way, what is the best decision to make?

I guess there are reasons to attend different churches, but having racked my brain for some, I came up with scant few. Here are some:

– Transition. You are leaving a church (for Biblical reasons) and one of you feels that you need to finish out a certain commitment, like teaching Sunday school, before you both  uproot and leave. One spouse goes ahead and starts to attend the new church, while the other ties off loose ends before joining the first spouse.

– Separation. Unfortunately, in devastating marital situations, separation might be a wise solution for a time of healing, counseling, and restoration. During this time it might be wise for one spouse to attend another church. But hopefully this is a short term solution, and once the marriage begins to heal both spouses should gladly worship together again.

– Extenuating missional reasons. I know of one couple who lived in a Muslim country that forbid its own people to openly worship as Christians. The wife was a foreign westerner, and so she worshiped openly at an ex-patriot church. The husband had to worship in an underground church. But, once they came to the U.S. for grad school, they gladly worshiped together for the first time in their whole married lives, prizing their ability to do so.

That is all I came up with. In other words, while there are other reasons, I think they are preferential and I think the greater good of worshiping together trumps them. I take this strong stand because of what I believe about the local church. The local church is not just a Sunday experience of getting good music and Bible teaching. The local church is an extension of our families. In fact, in places like Mark 10.29-30 Jesus says that our new family in Christ is as important, if not more important, than our biological family. So think about that. You are dividing your marriage relationship over a community that is comprised of people sewn together by the blood of Jesus, a blood that runs thicker than family. A bit ironic, don’t you think? I know it may seem like you are preserving unity by doing it this way, but I would argue you are causing subtle form of disunity that will come back and bite you because you are not living within the integrity that God has designed for you and your relationship to the local church. I cannot see how choosing to attend different churches is a faithful and accurate testimony of the covenant community of the local church. In fact, I feel like you are betraying the beauty of the church by doing so. Given my examples above, you are choosing to do something reserved for marriages in dire straights, not a marriage that is healthy and wants to fight for ever more unity, even if great sacrifice is the cost.

Sacrifice. I guess that is the operative word. If the church is all about Jesus, and Jesus is the Savior who sacrificed himself for us, then part of you getting on the same page with a church is sacrifice. If both of your churches really are evangelical, have good teaching, good community, and are committed to outreach, then the sacrifices you will make are pretty small in the big picture. That couple I mentioned, who lived in a Muslim country, I think would be amazed at how we Americans view church. We have so many good churches to choose from that we tend to be like people shopping for a car, rather than those hungry for Jesus and completely committed to his body, the church. His body! It is one. You two are one! I divided marriage for a unified church? No sense, if you do indeed have a healthy, growing marriage, as you say.

Consumerism. That is the other word. Please look at your hearts and see if you are being led by consumerism. Yes, both of you have different experiences of church. While those aren’t totally irrelevant, in no way has God given those to you to divide you, especially with regard to something as important as the local church. What if he gave you those experiences to unify you as a couple in finding and serving in a good local church?

By the way, you brought up children. Indeed. How you relate to the local church is teaching your children ecclesiology. You know this is not ideal. So, do what it takes and do the right thing, not only for your marriage, but also to set your kids up to be able to love and participate well in Jesus’ body, the local church. 

So, One Spouse, Two Churches, here is what I would do. I would sit down and pray for wisdom. I would then talk with both of your pastors. If one of you goes to my church, I would actually tell you to go to the other church rather than remain at the Bible Church with your divided communities. Remember, almost every church records its sermons now. If you love your current pastor’s preaching, just listen to it online during the week. Which of you should sacrifice for the other? I don’t know for your situation, but given my view of a husband’s leadership role, I think he should hand over his rights and go to your church – at least as a starting point. That is sacrificial leadership. His desire should be for you to be blessed and he should try to take the lead in protecting the integrity of your holistic participation in Christ’s body.

God will lead you. I believe he wants you at the same church, given what he says about the church in His Word. The church is a place that is a load bearing wall, it is meant to be very influential in our lives, and so the most important people in our lives should share that with us.

By the way, if you follow my logic all the way, I would make it a regular habit to literally worship together at the same service. Try and find places to serve on Sunday mornings that allow for you to be at the same service, as much as possible. AND, for those of you dating or engaged, now is the time to talk about this! But, I guess that is another topic.

Blessings,

Pastor Jay

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Dear Pastor Jay: on the Local Church

I am going to do a series of posts on very practical questions regarding the local church. The questions will be ones I hear frequently and/or ones I think should be asked by more people who could stand to wrestle with the answers.

There are three things I regularly pray for my children, on top of my foremost desire that they be converted, Spirit filled followers of Jesus Christ. First, I pray that they would love God’s word, and believe that it is absolutely central to love it, learn from it, and obey it – I want them to have a Bible-saturated faith. Second, I pray that they would have a God-centered theology. That is, I want them to prize the holiness, sovereignty, and supremacy of God in all things, not least their life. I want them to hunger for how they might glorify God forever, not how God might give them more comfort in this life. Finally, and the one I find most parents leave off, is my desire that they love the local church, and that consequently they make the local church a load bearing wall in their lives. One of my pastoral goals is to get my people to do likewise. I believe with all my heart that the local church is God’s plan A of community and mission for his people. Yes, lots and lots of great stuff is happening in ministries and situations not technically the local church, but from what is clear in the NT Scriptures I think the local church should be the pivot foot for every Christian in their endeavor to live for Christ.

Also, while these posts should speak to everyone, I will have a bent toward the family and how parents in particular should be wrestling with these issues, as it should be a priority for them as parents to raise their kids to follow Jesus in the very ways Jesus wants to be followed. If Jesus desires us to follow him with an earnest investment in a local church, not merely as individuals or even nuclear families, then parents need to model that and pass that on.

So, this series of posts will be modeled after the Dear Abby style of advice columns. Each day I will try and address a pertinent question, and yes, I am sure some toes will get stepped on. In fact, the people who most need to hear some of this probably are not reading my blog, so you may want to pass these onto people whose toes are ready for some pounding (wink). Or tweet the link! Honestly, I don’t write these on my soap box. I really do write these out of love, and I am most concerned that many, many Christians, even passionate ones, are missing out on God’s best for their life, and the joy of a healthy, holistic Christian experience, because the local church is not a big priority for them or they are relating to it in a way that is not going to produce the most fruit.

Each post is going to get you to consider some key foundational questions. I am not going to re-play these questions each time, so let me list some of them.

1. What is your theology of the local church? Forget lifestyle for now. What do you think, in theory, of the local church? Now, is that in line with the Scriptures? Don’t know? Start looking at the NT letters, especially how the author thinks of the people he is writing to – which is a local church, or group of them.

2. What is your functional theology of the local church? What does your personal attitude toward your church and your lifestyle reveal about what you actually think concerning the local church?

3. If you are no very high on the local church, why is that? Is the issue with your church, or you? If you feel like the issue is with your church, is that based on your preferences or on more objective Biblically important values? Are you ready to be part of the solution, if possible, and if not, are you willing to find a Biblically compelling church?

4. While your current arrangement with your church may not be an issue of sin, or right vs. wrong, is it nonetheless wise? Is it the best? Is it going to produce the most fruit, in the long run, for God’s glory in your life?

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Truth and Grace for The Sexually Broken

In my former posts, I focused on the Biblical truth regarding homosexual behavior, and some of the pastoral responses a healthy church embodies in light of the issue. In some recent conversations, it became apparent there is still more to say in terms of the relational side of things. What does it mean to have the grace part lived out? What does it mean for our church to be a place that people who struggle with homosexuality feel safe and accepted?

That is a tough question, with a lot of nuance and subjectivity. For some, the minute we lay down doctrinal and ethical commitments, love is compromised. I wish this was not a reaction, but it exists and for understandable reasons. Also unfortunate is that many doctrinally keen churches don’t put as much thought and passion into relationally pursuing broken people. So, let me clearly and explicitly say that we need both a commitment to Biblical concepts of obedience and sexual purity AND gracious embrace of all we encounter, whether they are obeying Jesus or not.

However, if I were to take a pastoral stab at this, let me outline some thoughts:

One, we need to be a church that preaches grace, all the time. Costly grace. Biblical grace. Jesus-centered, gospel grace, but grace nonetheless. Grace must be our culture. One of the most important truths of grace is that God accepts us apart from our goodness or badness. He accepts us because of the righteousness of Christ. Even when we don’t love him, pursue him, or obey him, he still loves us.

Two, we should tie in our belief in grace to our love for and acceptance of the sexually broken, consistently and when appropriate to the text.

Three, this should begin to bear fruit, revealed in people opening up and confessing in appropriate settings and smaller communities, like Life Groups, or accountability groups, or other intimate communities, that they struggle with sexual sin, including homosexuality.

Fourth, another fruit should be that homosexuals  are taken into loving community: Life Groups, other mid size groups or ministries, etc. In other words, our relationship with the sexually broken cannot be abstract. They must be a part of our community.

Fifth, homosexuality should be viewed as a subset of sexual brokeness in general, not a separate and utterly distinct form of sin and/or the effects of the curse of the fall. This is exegetically true and thus theologically important. By doing this, we make sure we view it as form of brokeness AND thus we also do not set it off as worse than other forms of brokeness. Like anything else, we ask that this propensity is fought against with the fight of faith, along with things like greed, anger, impatience, covetousness, etc.

Sixth, we are consistent in our calls for repentance and obedience to God’s Word. To be consistent and to be whole, we must ask the sexually broken to repent if they are currently living in sexual sin. If we believe sin is death, then we go after those playing with death. We save them from themselves and the snare of the devil. Again, we treat homosexual behavior as a form of sexual sin, and so we take it with utter seriousness. But, we need to take cohabitation, porn, pre-marital sex, and other sexual sins as seriously.

Sixth and a half, all of us – all of us – must own, openly confess, and constantly go to Jesus with the fact that we all are sinful, have addictions, have idols, and are not rid of sin, not for a long shot. Whether it is a nice white-collar sin, or the big, hairy, nasty ones, we are all sinners. Period. We all need grace. All is level at the foot of the cross.

Seventh, and finally, we do our best, with what we know from God’s word, with lots of prayer, lots of good thinking, and with our pursuit of Jesus above all. I don’t know, but I feel if we do this, God is going to be faithful and lead us. I feel like a loving atmosphere is going to form where people who struggle with homosexuality will be safe and know the grace of Jesus – through us, co-sinners and co-inheritors of grace. I may be naive or overly optimistic, but I sense that a passion to follow the clear teachings of Scripture, to be loyal to Jesus above all, and to humbly love the sinner will go a long way toward this kind of church.

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Some Friday Bible Overview and Humor – The Book of Acts in 3 Minutes

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