Monday, September 17, 2018

Strengthen What Remains

Jeff and Amy Jo Akin are good friends who moved from Burlington to Louisville, Ky. ten years ago. Jeff is a leader in the Trane Corporation, but he is also a church planter. After leading a small church for several years, Jeff heard from the Southern Baptist Convention about their emphasis on church revitalization. The more he heard, the more excited he got about it. That led to a conversation with one of the men in the SBC who is leading the charge for church revitalization, and from him, Jeff got a contact name and number. The pastor that Jeff called wanted to meet immediately, and the two men spent several hours together. Dan was pastoring an aging congregation that in its heyday had 600 people coming through the doors, and now were down to 50. Jeff and Dan met together numerous times, and then got their leaders together to plan a merger. Jeff took his fifty people and joined with Dan and his fifty, the old with the young, and now they are one year into the new work. One elderly woman told Jeff not long after the new work began, “I’ve been praying for you for 20 years.” Jeff looked surprised, since this was the first time they had met. The dear saint explained that she had been praying for two decades that God would revive her church and breathe new life into it.

Jeff shared with Antioch last Sunday the sobering statistics from the SBC. 15% of the churches report themselves to be healthy. 70% of the churches say they are in decline, and headed for death. 15% of the churches are dead, and don’t know it. 900 Southern Baptist churches die every year. The average church size in the U.S. is 50 people, so that means somewhere around 45,000 people every year lose their church home. Jeff has told me stories of churches in the Louisville area that are near death, with less than a dozen members, but who refuse to join with another church. This is not just the case with Southern Baptist churches, but with every denomination, and with non-denominational churches like Antioch. Jeff preached here last Sunday and used Revelation 3:1-6 as his text, which is a strong word on the need for church revitalization. Jesus spoke this exhortation: “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die.”

Some churches are dying simply because their members are elderly and no new families are coming in behind them. Many churches are dying because they have rejected the truth of God’s Word and have replaced it with their own agendas. Jeff said on Sunday, “Churches are dying because God demands glory, and they are not giving it to him. And time runs out.”

How can a church give glory to God?

God is glorified when a church believes and lives the truth of his word. He is glorified when a church does the work of transforming culture one person at a time, through the power that is only found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is glorified when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity. He is glorified when churches “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and (are) patient with all.” He is also glorified when churches that are dying humble themselves and welcome another church into the fellowship.

Audubon Baptist is doing well, and experiencing the grace of God that attends any work done in obedience to the Lord. The challenges have been met with courage, and the people have risen to the call to make one out of two. They are taking seriously the command of Christ, to “strengthen what remains.”

Monday, September 10, 2018

Larry and Mary Love Africa

Cindy and I got to spend one night last week with our good friends, Larry and Mary, in a beach house at Emerald Isle. They live in Tennessee, and we only get to see them once a year, if that. But our friendship goes back to when we were still young parents, trying to figure it all out. I remember our last time together at the beach. It was 25 years ago, or so, and we encouraged them to try something different in the way they were disciplining their firstborn. The son was not real happy about the suggestion, but Larry and Mary were thrilled with the results. Fast forward a quarter-century, and their four sons are all making a difference for Christ with their lives. Credit that to good parenting and the grace of God.

A few years after that beach trip, we spent some time together at a conference. After the evening session, Larry and I went to the gym, and played one-on-one basketball for more than two hours. We both remember that we played until one of us got to 100. Neither of us remembers who won. We have played golf together a number of times. Last week when we arrived at the beach house, Larry told me he had a basketball, a new football, and tennis equipment we could use. Hey, we both like to play, and we are both competitive! The next morning we played tennis for two hours. I won’t tell you who won, because it’s too painful.

I remember sitting in a restaurant with Larry in 1992, as he was preparing to take his family to Africa. He challenged me with questions about the call Jesus gave each of us, to make disciples of the nations. Since that year, Larry’s ministry has trained tens of thousands of pastors in Africa, and I have had the privilege to share in that training with him on occasion. I have led pastors’ seminars in four African countries, mostly because of Larry’s influence, and have traveled with Larry on a number of occasions. He invited me in January of 2006 to go to Kenya and South Africa with him and a few wealthy businessmen from Tennessee. That trip stands out in my mind for a few reasons. It is stuck in my memory because my father was dying with cancer. I asked Dad if it was OK for me to leave, and he gave me his blessing.

I also remember one of the team, also named Mark, was a very wealthy businessman. He invented a turbo football that I am sure many of my readers own. Mark and I sat next to each other on a bumpy flight to Masai Mara. He told me about his work, and about his family, and he asked me lots of questions about my life. I have never gotten sick on an airplane, but this is another reason I remember that trip so well. The plane bucked and wobbled as we went through heavy storms for an hour, and by the time we landed, I was green and my airsickness bag was full. My new friend, the multi-millionaire inventor, took it from me so he could throw it away.

Larry and Mary spent 7 years living in Africa, and saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. The bad and ugly include being robbed at gunpoint in Kenya. It includes being part of a church that was attacked by terrorists in South Africa. It includes a near miss, as one of their sons was headed to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013 when masked gunmen attacked it. The good includes having children born in Africa; Larry calls them his “African-Americans.” The good includes making friends everywhere they lived, and partnering in ministry with hundreds of missionaries and church leaders. Today, Larry and Mary continue to serve the African church from their home in Nashville. You can read more about their ministry at http://www.leadershipintl.org/. If you have a chance to hear Larry speak sometime, do it. He is an excellent storyteller, and his stories will move your heart and may end up moving your place of residence to where a people-group in the world needs you.

Cindy and I love Larry and Mary, and have been privileged to learn from them over the years, to laugh and to pray together, and to share this past year in their battle with cancer. We are so blessed to walk together, even if only once a year, with them. They illustrate what the Bible says: “a friend loves at all times, and a brother (or sister) is born for adversity.”

Sunday, September 2, 2018

God Does Not Need Your Ability

One of the bedrock principles of the Bible is that God doesn’t need your ability; he works through your availability. We see it over and over again in Scripture. Gideon was chosen by God to lead the nation of Israel into battle against their oppressors, the Midianites. When God spoke to Gideon about doing this great thing, Gideon said, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest…and I am the least in my father’s house.” Moses said the same thing when God commanded that he speak to the Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go.” Moses said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

Do you recognize the mistake both men made? God told them to go and they said they could not go because they were not able to do this great thing the Lord was telling them to do. God could have said, “Who asked you to do it? I just told you to go. Believe me when I tell you that I know full well, much better than you could possibly know, that you cannot do what I am telling you to do.” But what God said to both Gideon and Moses instead was, “I will be with you.”

I remember being targeted by a certain boy in elementary school when I was around 10 years old. We didn’t call it “being bullied” back then. We called it, “the normal way bigger boys behave when they are around smaller boys.” Anyway, I would always walk the half-mile from my house to the school, and every day this boy named Chuck would try to pick a fight with me. I finally told my older brother about it and he said, “Tell little Chuckie the next time he even opens his mouth to you that I am your brother, and that if he lays a hand on you, he will answer to me.” Now, why didn’t I think of that? The next day I relayed the message to my friendly neighborhood bully. He said something like, “Keith Fox is your brother? OK, man, sorry about that, man, let’s just be friends, OK?” I took his lunch money and said, “Bring me your favorite baseball cards tomorrow, and we have a deal.” (That last part didn’t happen) The point is, in that situation, I didn’t need to rely on my own ability. In fact, if I had, Chuck would have stomped me into the ground. I relied on my elder brother’s ability; all I had to do was show up and speak what I had been given.

In the case of Gideon, all he had to do was obey God’s commands and his little band of 300 men routed an army of 145,000. In the story of Moses, all he had to do was obey God and the most powerful nation on earth voluntarily released its three million Israelite slaves, and allowed them to take away much of the wealth of Egypt when they left. Impossible? Absolutely. If you were making up such a story, that ending would be utterly ridiculous. But not with God. That is one of the most exciting truths about following the one true God. He wants us to live in such a way that there is absolutely no explanation for our lives except God. It is called “living by faith, not by sight,” and when you live that way, God gets the credit for your life. He alone deserves it.

God is not limited by your limitations. He is not surprised by your weakness. He is not upset with your imperfections. He does not need your abilities at all. He is God, after all. He only requires your availability as you place your life into his hands by faith. He can and will take care of the rest.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

WTS Product Feature: The NIV Biblical Theology Study Guide

If you know anything about the Westminster Theological Seminary and their Bookstore, you know that they have been strong advocates for the ESV Bible since it's release in 2001 (and we have promoted many of their Bible sales here).

So when they not only sell but promote an NIV Bible, it's note-worthy. And as such, WTS Bookstore included said note with their latest sale: "The notes and articles featured in the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (formerly the NIV Zondervan Study Bible) are simply tremendous. The contributors to this edition number among our favorite pastor-theologians, and their work here makes for rich and rewarding study. The focus on God's redemptive plan of salvation makes this a worthy addition to any Christian's library. While we continue to recommend the English Standard Version as the best all-around English translation for study, preaching and worship, we warmly recommend this study Bible to you as an excellent tool for understanding and applying all of scripture in light of Christ's life, death and resurrection. We're excited to partner with Zondervan to offer it to you at the best prices, before it's available from other retailers."

Well I, for one, am certainly intrigued, and I thought I'd pass it along:

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Keeping the Camel Out of the Tent

You have heard the familiar adage that you have to keep the camel’s nose out of the tent if you want to keep the camel out. But what if the camel is the creator? And what if the camel’s nose is the belief that the world was created by God?

I am amazed at the boldfaced steps that are being taken to make Darwinian evolution mainstream and to marginalize or destroy any mention of God as creator in today’s classrooms. Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin wrote several years ago that we must prefer “science” to “supernaturalism.” Why? “Because,” he said, “we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.” That is stunning in itself, for it is an admission that a philosophical presupposition drives the evolutionist, not the facts. Lewontin agrees. “It’s not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation” of the world, he writes. “On the contrary,” he continues, “we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations.” Nancy Pearcy translates this in her book, “Total Truth.” She says that what Lewontin is saying here is, “We first accepted materialism as a philosophy, and then refashioned science into a machine for cranking out strictly materialist theories.”

Lewontin concludes that this commitment to materialism must be “absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.” Or, a divine camel’s nose in the tent.

Don’t believe that the tent flaps have been nailed down? Here are a few examples from textbooks that are used in our nation’s schools today.

“Many people believe that a supernatural force or deity created life. That explanation is not within the scope of science.”

“By attributing the diversity of life to natural causes rather than to supernatural creation, Darwin gave biology a sound scientific basis.”

Darwin himself would be pleased that his theory of evolution has taken root so deeply in our culture. He wasn’t sure about evolution, but he saw it as one of many possible explanations for the origin of the universe that left out God. Make no mistake: leaving out God was his primary objective. He wrote, “If I have erred (by exaggerating the power of natural selection) I have at least, as I hope, done good service in aiding to overthrow the dogma of separate creations.” What was most important to him, Darwin wrote, was the idea that “species have descended from other species, and have not been created immutable.” He was willing to concede his theory for any other viable mechanism out there, as long as it was naturalistic, as long as God could be kept out of the picture.

Funny thing about God. He will not be left out of the picture, especially since He painted it. Only the Bible’s explanation makes sense of where we came from and why we are here. C.S. Lewis responded to those who misinterpret the Bible and in the process make fun of Christians for wanting to go to a heaven where we will “spend eternity playing harps.” Lewis wrote, “The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.”

Here’s how God might respond to those who would make up stories to explain the universe. “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me.”

Forget the camel, his nose, and your tent. It is the Lord of the universe with which we have to do.

Look to him. Listen to him.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Get the Leaving Part Right

I was in line at a wedding reception several years ago when a man asked if I remembered what happened at his big day nearly 16 years earlier. I started laughing. The picture is etched in my mind of the two of us who were officiating the wedding standing in front of the two being united that day in holy matrimony. The problem was, there was a third party standing there. Right between the bride and groom. You see, the pastor who was supposed to ask, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” forgot to ask. As a result, the man giving the bride away kept standing there. He didn’t know what to do, and the pastor who forgot to ask the question didn’t know there was anything that needed to be done. This was only the third wedding I had officiated so I didn’t know what to do either. We were all undone.

As I recall, the bride and groom spoke their vows to each other by leaning forward and looking past the man in the middle. He was no small man, and the image of those vows being tossed across the bow at each other makes me laugh every time I think of it. An awkward situation, to be sure, but the couple came to the same end that every wedding is supposed to come to: they were married when it was over. That story has been told and re-told for these many years, and I am sure it will live on in the lives of their children’s children.

I couldn’t help but think about what that wedding scene represents for so many today who never really left home on their wedding day. Though a man in the middle of the wedding ceremony may not change anything, a mother or father in the middle of the marriage will spell disaster. You have heard these stories. Young newlyweds decide to remodel their living room. The groom’s mother hears about it, orders paint and wallpaper that she thinks would look best, and shows up on Saturday morning ready to go to work. Or a young couple with their first child decides to go to the lake for a summer vacation. When the maternal grandmother hears about it, she insists that the young man not take her daughter and grandchild to that lake “because it is not safe.” Or a young family is visiting grandparents when one of their children acts up and needs to be spanked. The young man’s father tells him he is being rash and begins to teach him, as he says, about the “proper way to discipline your children.”

Now when I officiate a wedding, I will always ask the parents of both the bride and groom to stand. Then I say to them, “You have the privilege and the responsibility to pray for (this couple), to support his leadership in their marriage, to give advice and counsel only when asked, to encourage them and take delight in their life together as husband and wife. Will you pledge to do this?” The two sets of parents don’t hesitate to promise before God and man to let this young couple establish their own household as the Lord requires.

Jesus said it like this: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” The picture of a mother or a father sleeping between newlyweds makes us shudder. There’s no room for a third party in the middle of a marriage.

Get the leaving part right.