Archive for the ‘evangelism’ Category

It was the type of opportunity about which one can only dream and pray to come to pass. A group of exchange students from more than two dozen countries visited Northland Church in order to have a 90 minute presentation and Q&A about Christianity and Jesus. They came as part of a program, supported by The State Department, with the intent of encouraging dialogue that leads to mutual respect and a lowering of tensions around the world.

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There were a few things I hoped to accomplish with my time. One was to help them understand that what tolerance really means is that I respect you as someone made in the image of God and treat you with dignity, even if I disagree passionately with what you think. In the past there was a common cultural ethic that said, treat one another with respect, engage people with different ideas, debate those ideas, and seek truth in the process. The current understanding of tolerance says, you cannot tell anyone that your ideas are right and theirs are wrong. But the end result of that new tolerance is to not pursue truth and disrespect and marginalize anyone who claims their ideas right and others wrong. We need to get back to a place where we can say what we think, agree and disagree with others, respect them as people, and never attack the person, only the ideas.

 

Second, in light of that understanding of tolerance, here is what I believe about Jesus, why I follow Him, and why I think He is the only way to Heaven. It was a delight to hear the questions that students asked regarding Jesus, why I thought He was the only way to Heaven, what place I thought Mohammed had in God’s plan, the Bible vs the Quran, and a host of other questions. Even though my answers clearly showed that I disagreed with much that Islam teaches, they loved the open yet respectful honesty of the answers.

Third, in the midst of our dialogue, questions and answers, I wanted them to see in real life the tolerance I just told them about, so they could actually experience someone who disagreed with them yet loved them. You see it is one thing to talk about tolerance and respect and dignity, but it is another thing altogether to demonstrate that in the real life tussle of questions and answers over difficult topics that are passionately embraced.

Not only is this type of understanding and tolerance needed between Muslims and Christians, it is even more needed among Christians of various stripes and theologies. We can’t really expect to engage, in a respectful Christ-like way, people who do not follow Christ, if we are unable to do it with people who identify themselves as Christ-followers.

 

 

In recent weeks my quiet time of prayer and Bible reading has included an in-depth study of Paul’s 1st and 2nd Letters to the Thessalonians. As Paul writes to the young Christians in that Greek city he makes a curious and profound statement in chapter 2 verse 8, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us”. This verse strikes me as the perfect balance in an ongoing debate over the relationship between evangelism that focuses on speaking and preaching the Gospel and that which focuses on serving people at their point of need.

Why is it that so many of us in the Christian community are unable to hold things in tension and balance. We so quickly go to extremes. We want to make so much of following Jesus into an either or proposition when much of following Jesus is “both/and”. We have been doing that when it comes to preaching the Gospel or living the Gospel and doing so for generations. This is not an either or proposition.

Clearly Paul preached the Gospel. He verbally shared that wherever he went. He lived out what he says in Romans 10:14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” We cannot get caught in the serious error that downplays the necessity of people actually hearing the truth of Jesus. The famous quote attributed to St Francis, “At all times preach the Gospel, when necessary use words”, may have been a great corrective for those who only used words, but to somehow use that to make preaching the words of the Gospel into a last resort tactic, is wrong-headed in the extreme. Paul makes it clear, we must, absolutely must, tell people the Good News that Jesus came and died and rose again so that by trusting and following Him as Lord we can have eternal life. That is non-negotiable.

Yet just as clearly Paul believed it was not enough to only preach the Gospel verbally. He was compelled to share his very self, his life, with the Thessalonians. The way that played out was that Paul served them, loved them, lived with them as a brother. He was open, transparent, and vulnerable. As a result his life became another way to demonstrate the Gospel. When that life was coupled with the preached Word, then you had a powerful testimony to Jesus Christ.

It shouldn’t be at all surprising that our message is to come in the form of BOTH the spoken, preached Word, AND the shared life of Christ followers. The is exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t send a message from on high, a voice coming out of the clouds, with the truth of trusting in Him. He actually came into the world and shared in our lives. It is what the incarnation is all about. Jesus came into the world and took on flesh, He lived among us, shared our joys, griefs, temptations, and victories. He became like us in all things with the exception of succumbing to sin. Jesus lived a both/and life. He spoke the Gospel and He shared His life.

For some of us the speaking part is easy, the sharing life is hard. For others the sharing life is easy but the speaking part is hard. Let me propose that followers of Christ embrace both in their lives. We must, absolutely must develop a culture in which we both speak the truths of the Gospel, hard as they may be, and share our lives with those around us, both those following Jesus already and those not yet, as hard as that may be.

The result of people like Paul sharing their very lives and speaking the truth of the Gospel was that the early church became of community of people who did the same. As they did so, others on the outside of the community wanted to be included on the inside. Some wanted in because they resonated with the preached word. Others wanted in because they resonated with the love they received. Some wanted in for both.

Are you more a speaker than a life sharer? Is it the other way around? What do you need to do to become better and speaking the Gospel? What do you need to do to become better at sharing the Gospel through sharing your very life?

Just days before we boarded a plane for South Sudan, another fight broke out along the boarder between Sudan and South Sudan.  Three days and five flights later we arrived in Malakal, a boarder town that just a few months ago witnessed two days of street fighting between rebel infiltrators from the north and South Sudanese militia. It was just one more of countless such battles that have taken place during the decades long civil war that ended with independence for South Sudan in July of 2011. The war, which claimed more that 2 million lives, has officially ended, but the fighting has not. In fact Sudanese President Bashir has recently declared that he intends to retake South Sudan and incorporate it back into Sudan. I have no doubt that the South Sudanese will resist that prospect with all they have. The latest round of fighting was set off when Sudanese planes bombed a town in South Sudan. The south retaliated and actually captured Heglig, a town in Sudan’s oil fields. Since then the sabers have been rattling overtime. Security in Malakal is a constant concern as I learned when I opened the door of the SUV we were to ride in and found that I was literally riding shotgun. An AK-47 was placed between my seat that the middle arm rest. A bullet hole was in the windshield in front of me at forehead level.

Riding shotgun, well actually riding "AK-47"

The root of the problem in Sudan and South Sudan is that Bashir has declared that Islamic Sharia law is to be imposed on all Sudan. He originally was content to let the Christian south secede so that he had little or no interference with his plan. It seems he hoped to also drive out Christians from Sudan and force them to move to South Sudan. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Christians remained in the north and continued to live out their Christian faith and witness. Despite threats, loss of jobs, destruction of homes, and numerous other hardships, they remain. Not only do they remain, but their service and love of their Muslim neighbors has resulted in continual conversions from Islam to Jesus. So Bashir’s latest statement is that the conflict will end either in Jubba, the capitol of South Sudan or in Khartoum, the capitol of Sudan. His meaning is clear. One country or the other will have to conquer and impose it’s will militarily.

 

For three days in Malakal, Pastor Gus Davies, John Tardonia, Alan Carpenter, and I had the blessed honor of working with some of the most courageous and gracious people I have ever met. I have been to numerous countries over the last several years and encountered people in all sorts of situations. Never have a met a group of people who have endured so much, for so long, with such grace, courage, and even joy. The pastors and leaders that we are working with in Sudan and South Sudan have known nothing but war for their entire lives. They all know people, including family members, who are among the 2 million dead. Yet, they see nothing but opportunities to love their neighbors and their enemies. Often those two groups, neighbor and enemy, are one and the same. It seems that they view this fact as being convenient. Instead of needing to love a neighbor and an enemy, they get to love both in one person, half the effort.

Not only is the war part of daily life, but so is poverty, sickness, and deprivations that we in the west would find shocking. Consider two numbers. First, 95% of South Sudanese will never finish primary school, or what we in American call elementary school. Second, 50 out of every 1,000 women giving birth will die doing so. One person told us, “If you are sick and go to the hospital you will die. If you are healthy and go to the hospital, you will get sick and then you will die”. Yet as these wonderful people speak of the hardships in their lives they do so with a smile as they talk about all the doors such hardship opens for sharing the Gospel and loving the needy. They don’t seem to knotice that they are among the needy.

One of many South Sudanese pastors who inspired me with his joy.

At Northland Church we talk about the Church Distributed. By that we mean, every follower of Christ takes the church with them, everywhere, everyday, and that a gathering of two or three people in Jesus name is the church gathered. You don’t need buildings to love and serve people for Jesus and you can start churches anywhere, in a home, a business, under a tree. In Malakal we completed the second level of Distributed Church training for 74 pastors and leaders. In the 5 months since they attended Level 1, nearly 1,000 people have come to faith in Christ because of their efforts, and churches are being started in homes and numerous other locations. Among the trainees were fourteen from Sudan. At the end of the training we gathering them together to pray for them as they were returning north to an uncertain future. There was no fear, anxiety, or consternation in any of them, only the anticipatory joy of heading back into the lions den in order to conquer the lion with the love of Christ. One of them told me of being threatened with his life on numerous occasions. With a laugh he told me that his response is always the same, “I say to them, if you kill me I just get to go and be with Jesus in heaven that much more quickly”. I know that he says it with all sincerity and with a joyous smile on his face. The response is always the same. They either walk away or get this puzzled look on their face which opens the door to talking about the Jesus he loves so deeply.

During the time in Malakal we also met with the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese, the Anglian Bishop, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Sudan and the Minister of Health for Upper Nile State. Each of them demonstrated the same courage, faith, and joy that had become so common in our time there. All four are desperate for us to work with them in changing the culture of South Sudan. From training their pastors, of the 475 Presbyterian pastors less that 40% are trained, to providing medical care and clean water, the doors are wide open for ministry that will glorify God and change lives.

Since returning to Florida several people have asked if we were frightened to be there. The fighting going on was about 100 miles from Malakal. Pastor Gus and I have spoken often on this subject and the conclusion is always the same. When you know that God wants you to be someplace, then the safest place you can be is in that place. The most dangerous place you can be is someplace, anyplace, else. That doesn’t mean there is no danger. Things could go badly, quickly. But that is where one must trust that the Lord of the Universe, who called you to that place, has a better perspective than you do. Additionally, the South Sudanese are not nameless, anonymous people. The pastors we trained are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are family. Our being there, if only for a few days, was a huge encouragement to them. They were reminded that they were not alone, that Christians from as far away as Florida were standing with them in the furtherance of the Gospel and the changing of the world. How could we possibly stay home in our comfort, knowing that family needs us? Putting up with a few days of no running water, 100+ temperatures with no A/C, and bed bugs that made my hands look like I stuck them in a fire ant mound, was not even worth fretting over if it meant being able to witness the grace and courage of these amazing saints.

Pastors having a tea break in Malakal, S. Sudan

Pray for them. Pray for Sudan and South Sudan. Pray that these pastors and leaders are able to change the culture and change their world. Pray that God will in deed supply all they need through the riches available in Christ Jesus our Lord. When you hear a news report or read a magazine article that mentions Sudan and South Sudan, don’t just gloss over it because it it over there, somewhere. Instead let that be the reminder that you too are connected with people there. Stop your reading if only for a moment and ask God to continue to bless them with grace and courage. While you are at it, ask Him to increase those things in your life too.

Matt 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
In a time of revolution and upheaval, and following possibly the most violent century on record, it seems almost laughable that there could possibly any real hope of bringing peace into the world. Yet Jesus seems to think that there are peacemakers and that they have some special relationship with God. So what is it that these peacemakers do and why such a special relationship with God?
The first thing we need to come to grips with is our understanding of peace. The definition we commonly accept, the absence of war, is woefully lacking in-depth and has little to no relationship to the Biblical understanding of peace. We have become so accustomed to wars, both global and local, that we have accepted the absence of bullets flying and rockets falling as somehow constituting peace. By such a definition the blessed peacemakers would be those who get the bullets and rockets to stop. When I was a child and through my teenage and early adult years, the United States and the Soviet Union were not shooting at each other. Yet there was no peace. We called that time, The Cold War. Nobody really felt that we were at peace. During elementary school we had regular drills on what to do in case of nuclear attack. Our neighbors actually built a bomb shelter in their back yard. It was not a time of peace.
The most commonly known biblical word for peace is the Hebrew word shalom. It means far more that just the absence of bullets and rockets. When you great someone with shalom you are pronouncing that you pray their world is one filled with the joys, blessings, and contentment that can only come with a right relationship with God. True peace is about healthy relationships of openness, trust, and love.
The ultimate blessing of Shalom is when you are at true peace with God. This is not a concept that is readily considered in our world. Most people seem to assume that since they are not in a fighting war with God that they must be at peace with God. After all, God would never be mad with us would He? Isn’t the idea of an angry God an ancient, superstition born out of ignorance? Not according to the Bible. Because of our sin we are literally at war with God. We fight against the reign of God in our lives. We worship anything but God. We act as if things are fine because we are not standing on the mountaintop shaking our fist at God and He is not hurling lightning bolts at us from the heavens. Yet the Bible says that “since we have been justified though faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” Romans 5:27 Prior to coming to faith in Christ we are not at peace with God. We were still God’s enemies. Yet out of His love for us, while we were still sinners, Jesus Christ died for us so that we can have true peace, peace with God as out Father.
So how does this fit with the blessed peacemakers of The Beatitudes? If you have peace with God you have something that you should be sharing with others. You become and ambassador for Christ. Consider what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God as reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God”
So the peacemakers are those who are giving their all to see that people are reconciled to God. Why are they called sons of God? Because they are following in the footsteps of the Eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was given the ultimate ministry of peacemaking on the cross. There is nothing more important that you can do for someone than to help them find ultimate peace with God through Christ. That doesn’t mean that efforts to stop the bullets and rockets are waisted. They are extremely important. But we should never settle for the lack of such things as being true peace. We humans are so very prone to accepting something that falls short of the God’s best design for us. We accept the good and fail to experience the great.
If you have been reconciled to Jesus, then you need to be a peacemaker and give yourself to the ministry of reconciling others to Him. If you have not been reconciled with God, the with Paul, I implore you to do so. You will never have ultimate peace in your life until you do.

Outreach Magazine deals with trends that are helping churches reach more people. Recently they did a feature article called “The New Virtual. It’s about using technology so people can gather for worship and reach out to their community without attending a conventional church building. They interviewed me about what we are doing at Northland. This will give you a very good picture of how people can connect and worship together and still be thousands of miles apart. The whole idea of people being able to connect with one another and be part of a body of people yet never be in the same room is a bit radical for many folks. But purely from a theological standpoint, we know that followers of Christ are connected to one another by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. All the technology does is give us a way to communicate with each other and experience that connection.

Click here to download the PDF of the article Outreach Top 100 2010-Online Worship Article It will take you to another page on the blog then just click the link.

I have traveled enough to have seen my share of Third World Poverty. From Swaziland, to the Amazon Basin, to India poverty has a somewhat familiar face. There is a difference between the rural and urban face of poverty but generally speaking when you see rural poverty in one country it looks a lot like rural poverty in another. The same can be said of urban poverty. Or so I thought. A few days ago I was introduced to rural poverty like I have never seen it before. The Western Province of Zambia is about the size of England yet has only a million people. Mongu is the largest town in the province with about 30,000 people. But don’t let the word “town” fool you. From what I could tell most of those 30,000 people live in grass huts no different from the rest of the province. Folks outside the town live in small grass hut villages ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred people.

It is estimated that in Western Zambia there is close to a 50% HIV/AIDS infection rate. Before the introduction of ARV’s or antiretroviral drugs, the infection rate was about 30%. So why the rise in infection rates? The ARV’s are helping people live longer. The tragedy in that is that lots of those folks are not changing their sexual habits and simply passing on the disease to more people. Included in that culture is what young girls go through after they experience their first menstruation. I small, closet sized straw enclosure is made outside the house. It has no roof and no door. It is a glorified walled fence with no door. it is built-in such a way that you can’t see directly in. The girls are placed their as the place where they now live and are forced to keep silent in order to learn submission. But every sex offending guy in the area knows this. So it is common for these young girls to be repeatedly raped and they must keep quiet the whole time. Not only do they suffer the trauma of that violation butit comes with the astronomically high risk of HIV infection.

As if it could not get more shocking, three out of five children in Western Zambia die before the age of five. So 60% of all children never see their fifth birthday.  What do they die from? Well AIDs is a big factor but so are very preventable and basic things. Scores of children die from drinking water that is not clean. In little ones, the diarrhea that results is quickly followed by death. Also high on the list is death from malnutrition. Even though Zambia is a net exporter of agriculture, the western province has been shut out and ignored by the central government. There are almost no roads leading into the area. Roads the do exist are either crater filled dirt roads or subject to flooding several months out of the year. So because of tribal disagreements, apathy, and the lust for power, children die.

As painful as that reality may be, the most shocking reason for this mortality rate was that some children are killed by their own parents in obedience to the dictates of the local witch doctor or shaman. Friends who I stayed with told me of the horror of learning that a family just a hundred meters down the road killed their baby. The local witch doctor told them the baby was cursed and the needed to kill it. So they buried the child alive. By the time my friends heard this and rushed to save the baby, it was too late. Lest you think that is one, extreme, unique situation we heard similar stories on several occasions.

But there is hope. My friends, Paul and Marinette Van Coller are living in Mongu and leading an effort called The Zambia Project. Along with an amazing team of people, including their 5 and 3-year-old sons, the Van Collers are providing education, health care, job training, a safe house village for abused children and are taking the Gospel to all parts of the province. Their vision is to plant a church within walking distance of all 1 million people in the province. Walking distance for them is not what it is in the west. Six or seven kilometers or about an hours walk is their target. That means they are working towards planting 6,000 churches.

The reason for planting the churches is simple enough. The only way to break the hold of animism and witch doctors, and sexual abuse of kids, and provide clean water and dignity is if there is a healthy church that is serving people in Jesus name. These folks need the freedom and power that can only come from the Gospel.

The process is actually rather simple. A group of people, including Zambians who are being raised up for leadership will head off into the bush in four by fours. They will go to a village and live out of their vehicles for a week or two at a time, building relationships and talking about Jesus. Eventually some people come to faith and become the beginning of a church. The team then stays in contact and trains local leaders to begin the process of improving their lives in the village. Eventually those new believers duplicate the process in villages nearby. If that all sounds very “first century Book of Acts” to you, you’re right. It is exactly that.

What inspires me is that people like Paul and Marinette and James and Jess, Lehana, Moses, Stephen, Maurice, Scott and Naomi, and Ruani, have dedicated themselves to serve others as Jesus would. Some of them are from the province and they are struggling desperately to bring Jesus to their homeland. Others are from outside Zambia but they know that God would not let them ignore the needs of others. In the developed world we find it easy to insulate ourselves from the harsh realities faced by most people on the planet. Just by reading this blog you have allowed yourself to move out of your isolation and see the stark reality of life that is normal for others. The question is, will you slide back into your comfortable world in the next five minutes or will you allow what you have learned to change you into a different person? Will you live more simply so you can give to others? Will you give up your vacation in order to go and spend two weeks feeding babies or even planting churches in Zambia? Will you reach out to the homeless person you pass each day on the corner? Will you spend more time with Jesus so you can learn to love as He loves and tell others about Him?

Okay, it has been awhile since I have posted on what I consider to be a stupid move by Christians. Not that there hasn’t been any material to work from. But this one is over the top and I just had to say something before my head exploded. It is being reported in CNN that a Florida preacher is planning a burning of the Quran, the book considered holy scripture by Muslims. His hope is that this will have some evangelistic impact and cause Muslims to repent and follow Jesus. Are you kidding me?

Look I am all for trying to bring Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ. I am convinced that only by faith in Christ can one be assured of a place in heaven. So my objection to this burning of the Quran has nothing to do with thinking that every religion is as valid or true as the next. My objection is that this is as far from a biblical way to act as one can find and will in fact have the exact opposite effect. Far from causing any Muslim to reconsider his or her faith, this will only serve to alienate them further from the Gospel and will have that same impact on countless non-muslims who see this as one more angry Christian who is out of his mind.

Let’s look at this from a perspective that Jesus so clearly teaches, “love your neighbor as yourself”. Let’s suppose for a moment that this scenario is turned around. Instead of a Christian pastor burning the Quran to get Muslims to repent, it is a Muslim Imam burning a Bible to get Christians to convert to Islam. What do you think the reaction of Christians would be? Exactly! Many would be screaming about the horrors of Islam and how the Bible is our sacred book and that Muslims are just showing once again how evil they are. So why do we think that Christians burning the Quran will have any beneficial impact and cause people to want to follow Jesus?

It is far to easy to make an outrageous statement and burn a book for Jesus. What Jesus wold rather have is that we do the hard work of preaching and demonstrating the Gospel as He tells us to. The Bible says “speak the truth in love”. We don’t hold back from declaring that Jesus is the only way to heaven. But we do it as we serve people in need and as we weep over the fact that they are lost without Jesus. I mush prefer what Christians in Lebanon did a few years ago during a time of fighting between Muslims in Lebanon and the Israeli army. Instead of standing around and burning Quran’s and being excited that the Muslims where finally getting their due, the Christians sheltered and clothed and fed Muslims who had lost their homes or were simply fleeing the violence. When asked why they were doing this the Christians replied, “because Jesus said we are to love our neighbor and care for the hurting in our midst”.

You tell me, which kind of Christian would you rather be associated with? Whose Jesus would you rather follow?