Our annual members meeting is Sunday, January 10, at 5pm in person and online. We'll present a budget for the members to approve. But not unrelated to that, we'll look at last year and make plans for the coming year.
Anytime we talk money, or facilities, or business at all, we're talking mission. And anytime we talk membership, we're talking mission together.
Membership means we're in this together.
Of all the additional meetings we might ask of you, the annual members meeting is the closest we get to "mandatory."
This Sunday night you'll be asked to decide the budget for 2021 (which you'll get by email this week). But more importantly, we are beginning an active discussion about what is and isn't working, and what changes we need to make or avoid.
Even if you haven't officially become a member, if you consider yourself part of SCC's core group (meaning if you care about SCC), you shouldn't miss this. I know it's tempting to just let others attend and then report to you what happened, but that won't be as accurate as you being part of it. It also cheats others out of your perspective.
For that reason, we're making it so that everyone can attend in person or online. If you watch online, the chat feature will be active and we'll have someone in person to give the people on site a sense of the conversation online as needed.
We'll do our best with that. You just show up ready. Deal?
But what is this "conversation" anyway?
The sermons I've been preaching are setting up a very important conversation that we're getting ready to have as a church.
My "2020 Hindsight" sermon from December 27 set it up. This week's sermon, "What's Wrong With The Church," continued it. In both of them I made strong statements.
This coming Sunday morning I'll add to the conversation with a sermon called "What's Wrong With Your Pastor." If you've ever had a grievance with your pastor, this is for you. If you've never had a grievance with your pastor, this is for you. It continues the thought about why we do church like we do, and how I believe God is calling us to do better.
But I want to be clear: While these sermons are addressing and challenging things in the larger Church that need to be corrected, I'm also trying to expose how we've been affected (and sometimes infected) by the same things. And so, this Sunday evening's conversation will build off of all three sermons, and will be frustrating to follow if you haven't come prepared. So make sure that you've heard all three teachings (Dec 27, Jan 3, and Jan 10) before next Sunday night.
I know I didn't answer specifically what this "conversation" is, but if you pay attention to those three teachings, you'll start to get a sense.
Leaving it a bit mysterious.
Just do your homework. :)
Please pray for your overseers and pastors.
The affairs of our congregation are vested in this board of directors that we call the “Board of Overseers.” They provide oversight of our spiritual welfare, as well as the fiduciary, legal and financial affairs of the congregation. And the pastors are are assigned with the ministry of it.
Several months ago, in September, while discussing a year of uncertainties and facing a new year of opportunities, the overseers and pastors decided to "fast" from business meetings for three months and devote ourselves to prayer. Thank you to those who participated.
Tonight we reconvene to look over the budget for 2021. It's about as "businessy" as it gets.
But it's also as "missional" as it gets.
Our budget lives as a description of what we think is the best way to fulfill our mission while living within our means.
Several years ago we started using the actual income and expenses of one year to create the budget for the next. This both creates and relieves tension for me.
Throughout most of my ministry, the budgeting process has been treated as a "visioneering" process, where we're encouraged to dream prayerfully about what we'd like to do. And then from that we create a stretch budget that's within reach if everyone digs a bit deeper. The unspoken assumption of this process is that ministry takes money, so if we want to do more ministry we need more money.
But that has always created tension for me.
The unavoidable truth we all know is that we can be church without spending any money on doing church.
Seriously, if two or three believers meet in a living room, they are church.
So to tie money to ministry and ministry to money, and then to try to get everyone to give a little more money, has always created some tension for me. And the process of simply carrying over actual numbers from one year to the next has relieved that tension.
But it also creates tension because it lends itself to decline, not growth. Things we once valued get dropped for lack of funds. And then they get forgotten for lack of perceived opportunity. It's harder to drop something than to put it back in. Without tension we don't grow.
Scripture clearly says that money should be collected and used for specific things.
If we really take our cue from scripture, it gets pretty radical. Honestly I wonder how many of us would vote for a budget prepared to fulfill the following:
We “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” (Malachi 3:10), holding it “in common” (Acts 2:44) to cover the expenses of fellowship and worship (Deuteronomy 14:22-24), by putting it “at the apostles’ feet” to be “distributed to anyone who has need” (Acts 4:35), so that there are “no needy persons among us" (Acts 4:34), as we "look after orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27), and support those who “direct the affairs of the church” and “especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” so that they “receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14; 1 Timothy 5:17-18), even supporting missionaries to do the same for others (2 Corinthians 11:8).
How does that hit you?
We're okay financially.
Our expenses were covered for 2020. We'll bring a report on Sunday night. But by all indications, our needs were more than met this year. Hallelujah. Praise God. We're okay financially. And I am encouraged that God has seen fit through your generosity to sustain us. Amen.
And we don't have any big bombs that are waiting to drop. After a year of shaking, we are not facing great failures like some churches are dealing with. We're okay.
But we're not "okay" in other ways. Or maybe we are. It all depends on what we're trying to do and be. In fact, depending on what we decide, we might be way more than just "okay." We may be positioned to do something incredible.
That's what we need to start talking about Sunday night.
And I can't wait.
In yesterday's message I read extensively from a prayer that I prayed on July 19. I said that I would put it here in my weekly blog. You'll find it below. But first, some context.
I believe God wanted to use 2020 to prepare us for something better than what we had been doing.
You'll hear this reflected in my prayer journal entry from five months ago. But I don't think my prayer caused it. I think it recognized it.
I believe the Spirit of God is moving among many, fanning something to flame, and that it is going to be good, even if the burning up of what has been causes discomfort.
Tonight is our last of six prayer nights that we have devoted to discerning our future together.
We started it in October and have now spent five evenings praying silently together, guided by questions and statements.
This evening at 7pm we will open our mouths. We will pray as the Spirit leads. I want to hear how he has been inspiring you to pray. And I want you to hear how he has been inspiring others to pray. This is a vital piece to our discernment together.
So please, if you are at all able, join together for prayer, tonight at 7pm, either in person at the church or online. And let's expect God to move.
And now, how I've been praying.
On Sunday July 19, I wrote this in my prayer journal:
“Lord, I pray that this is a shaking.
"Shake the world. Shake your Church. Shake us so that whatever is poorly built crumbles. Let whatever of our systems and confidences that doesn’t belong, or that no longer serves its purpose — let it succumb to the shaking. Let the surface cracks form under the stress. Let the cracks run deep. May they fill with water and soften the mortar and dry rot the wood so that the failure is more than cosmetic, deeper than stucco.
“Yes Lord, whatever does not belong, let it give way quickly to this shaking. Cause the foundation to heave; let it rise and fall a second time; may it fall the third time before rising up powerfully, even rising to prominence on the global landscape. But not the prominence of castles and celebrities. Lord, cause the name of Jesus and the foundation of his authority to rise up suddenly out of the rubble. I wait for this Lord. I wait for this!”
I wrote out the words of 1 Corinthians 3:10-23,
“...Each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
"Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
"Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’; and again, ‘The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.’ So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”
My spirit resonated in agreement:
“Yes Lord. Yes Lord!
“A castle is a fortified residence from which rulers rule, protected by walls [and] moats... A palace is a luxurious residence for royalty surrounded by plush gardens... But a temple is a building devoted to the worship of God, and regarded as the place of his dwelling.
“Yes Lord! 1 Corinthians 3:16. Yes Lord.
I prayed again with increasing focus, knowing the impact of what I was asking:
“Let the castles and palaces stand empty, in disrepair. Let them be shaken. Let their walls crack and crumble. May all who find shelter in them run for safety. May they take the scriptures and the doctrines and the gospel witness, even the testimony of your grace throughout the ages, clutching them close as they flee. And may those found wearing robes of ancient tradition not stop to disrobe. And may those found wearing the coveralls of knowledge and wisdom not stop to remove them.
"But let all who are decorated with the jewelry of self-interest, self-lordship, and the lording of themselves over others; and the costumes of importance and prestige; who carry the blueprints and maintenance schedules of castles and palaces; who are attended by servants conscripted from their brothers and sisters, having convinced them it is a means to worldly gain; who teach man-made doctrines and tolerate wickedness — may they rip the clothes from their body as if entangled by them! May they thrash in panic to free themselves from them! May they run naked into the streets to be covered in dust and repentance, to be washed by the water of your word, to be clothed in righteousness.
“Lord, by your decree, cause the castles and palaces to be shaken apart, to be revealed by the fire. Cause the foundation of Jesus to show itself without crack. And may the living temple of God be established on it without pomp and circumstance, but rather with an eruption of praise and devotion."
I finished my prayer that day with these three appeals:
“Restore your Church.
“Rebuild your temple.
“Renew our love.”
It's those same three appeals that I invite you to pray with me.
I have plenty of ideas about what God is calling us to. A lack of ideas is never my struggle. But to not run ahead of God in my desire to do something significant or to lag behind God for fear of disappointing people--this requirements discernment, and that invites the prayers of many.
And so I invite you to help discern our future together. What is God calling us to in 2021?
I ask you to pray this pray with me because I believe God is going to answer it. And when he does, those who have not seriously prayed it will perceive his answer as a devaluing of things they value. But those who pray it eagerly, even if his answer disrupts things we have enjoyed, will rejoice at how he is restoring his Church, rebuilding his Temple, and renewing our love--in ways we wouldn't have thought possible a year ago.
Sunday I called this the start of a conversation. It actually started some time ago. It starts with prayer.
It's all my children have ever known. For years and years, we have been part of hosting a Christmas Eve Worship Service.
We go to church, we sing songs, we hear from scripture, we light candles while singing Silent Night, then we blow them out and wish our church family a merry Christmas.
And for me, when I blow out my candle, it signals a shift in my thinking. At that moment I stop carrying ministry responsibilities and start simply being a husband, a dad, a grandpa, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend.
The Christmas Eve service fills my heart with love, joy, and peace. But what my family does after that worship service was actually born out of exhaustion.
We go out to eat.
We started it when we had multiple Christmas Eve services that followed Christmas Concerts, and children's programs, and year end parties, and all that stuff. But even when we found a better balance in life, we still continued to go out to eat after the Christmas Eve service.
We've done it for years. We pick one of the two or three restaurants that are open, and there we slink cheerfully into our chair, waiting patiently for the overworked staff to prepare our food. We're usually a small crowd, but we make it a point to bless our servers as they bless us. Then we tip them generously and head home.
Once at home, we open one gift from under the tree. It's always the same gift but we pretend we don't know what it is. Then, we eventually head to bed to rest up for a wonderfully full time of family the next day.
That's how we do Christmas Eve. I love Christmas Eve. And I know I'm not alone.
We may all have different traditions that surround it, but for so many of us the Christmas Eve service marks a time of sacred remembrance about the Incarnation. Even for those whose faith doesn't order their life much at other times, the Christmas Eve candle lighting service is a religious rite that makes the season feel just right.
This year we're not going to do that.
This year we're not meeting at the church.
This year we're not going out to a restaurant.
And it was my decision.
I'm not a fan of my decision to not have an in-person Christmas Eve service. And I know I'm not alone. But there's a reason for it.
There haven't been many easy decisions this year regarding whether and how churches should limit gatherings to help slow the spread of the virus. And the fact that it's politicized complicates the decision.
We all have our opinions about whether churches should "be open" or not. My sense is that our church is pretty much in the middle about it. That's where I am.
We take the virus as a serious threat that is worthy of precaution and prudence. (We've lost friends and family to it.) But we also believe fellowship with other believers is worth some level of risk. So we try to strike a balance.
That's why our campus is open for worship services. But a month ago we were looking at an uptick in Covid cases in our area, and our crowds were starting to grow with the return of our winter friends from the north. (In fact, we're still not sure what to expect of our winter crowds.)
Christmas Eve is typically a large service for us. And I can imagine a scenario where we would have to turn people away when we still have physical seating available. And I can also imagine a scenario where we decide to offer multiple services (as some of my pastor friends are doing) and then hardly anyone shows up because they want to avoid the crowds.
It was a decision without a clear right or wrong. But it was still a decision that had to be made. And it wasn't all about Covid.
As I was considering it, I was also considering my conviction that, as Christians, we don't need to crowd into auditoriums to really worship God. In fact, this year has challenged our assumptions about that. And I believe that what's even more meaningful is the challenge of worshiping together in smaller fellowship groups.
Don't get me wrong. I love singing in a big crowd. And I'm aware that the presence of a crowd gives a sense of authority to the gospel as it's preached. I think there's a place for that. I also think it's easier to do that.
But I think learning to worship God in our living room is more important than learning to worship God in an auditorium. And so, part of my decision was to take advantage of this opportunity to help us grow deeper in the practice of our faith, and in our idea of what it means to worship God.
And so, I made the decision that isn't my personal favorite. But it's the one I stand behind because it has a reason bigger than Covid. In fact, it's actually using Covid to help us learn to worship in our homes. And to see worship as part of how we celebrate Christmas in our homes.
This year we're asking you to host the Christmas Eve service at your home.
If your family and friends are all believers, learn to be comfortable worshiping together when you're not at church.
But even if you're surrounded by people who don't share your convictions or passions, ask them to share something you find meaningful, even if just to be nice. And I'm not talking about tricking them into worshiping. (You can't do that.) I'm talking about you deciding that your living room will be a worship center in your life. And that it will be obvious to those you love that you don't just go to church; you have decided to live your whole life in worship of Jesus Christ.
The worship service will consist of songs and scripture, concluding in candle lighting while we all sing Silent Night together.
It will be hosted at 5, 7, and 11pm.
Pick whatever time works for you and gather your friends and family in your home. Or accept an invitation to their home. (Don't do more than you feel is prudent, but do as much as you feel is prudent.)
Setup your TV or other device to watch at https://sarasotacommunity.online.church.
I think the TV is best, but you can also gather around a laptop, or even meet in the same room together all watching your own phones. The goal is to honor God by gathering for fellowship and worship in a common place with your family and closest friends.
Turn off the lights and participate.
Sing along as the worship team leads us in "O Come O Come Emmanuel," "The First Noel," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "O Holy Night." Open your heart and mind to the scriptures as I read them. And then, as we conclude with "Silent Night," light a candle and pass the flame to the person next to you. As you do, pray blessing over them, that Christ would be formed in them, and that their lives would be filled with love, joy, and peace in the coming year.
Then do what you do to celebrate Christmas. And let it pour out of a heart that has worshiped the Lord.
My hope and prayer is that by doing this we will bring worship right into the rooms where we live, and right among the people with whom we do life. This is where worship belongs.
Tonight is our fifth of six Monday night prayer meetings in which we're asking God to lead us clearly into next year.
I believe a change is coming, and has already come (I'll say more later), that will affect the larger church. And because of that, we need to decide how we'll respond as a congregation in 2021. So the overseers called us to a season of prayer about it, and that's what we've been doing since October.
Tonight let's pray a Christmas prayer together. 7pm at church or online.
Our last prayer meeting was the Monday before Thanksgiving, if you can believe it. In that week's teaching I called us to give thanks even for the hard things in life, so we did that.
We started by giving thanks for the blessings that are easy to recognize. As we prayed I was moved by the Spirit to read the names of all the people we've baptized in my eleven years here. Can you believe it's 101? We thanked God. He's so good.
Then we spent time giving thanks for the blessings that are harder to recognize, like disappointments and sorrows. And as we prayed I was moved to read the names of all the people we've laid to rest. Can you believe we have said final goodbyes to 169 people? As hard as that is, we thanked God for our time with them, and his grace toward them. He's so good.
Then, with thanksgiving in our hearts, we spent time with these prayer starters from the prior meeting:
And then we concluded our time prayerfully reflecting on the questions we've asked ourselves at each of our prayer meetings:
Tonight we will spend time praying for God to restore to us the joy of our salvation.
Yesterday, I taught a difficult truth (here's the 20 minute explanation), that anyone who is unwilling to let contrition do its work will never fully experience joy — the joy of salvation.
Regret and remorse are natural. When we do bad things we feel bad. We should. Contrition serves its purpose by causing us to call out to God for mercy. It's there that we fully appreciate his forgiveness. Contrition is not about beating ourselves up over past sins, it's about feeling broken where we've shown that we are in fact broken, so that we can find healing.
Humanism comes in many forms. It often teaches that contrition is bad. And that really shows its head at Christmas when many look to have their "faith in humanity restored." What we really need is to have our "faith in humanity exposed." What we really need is faith in a God who is eager to redeem a fallen humanity!
As I said yesterday, one of the most popular "gospels" is that we are all basically good people with a God spark in us that Jesus came to fan into flame. That sort of thinking leads us to devote ourselves to ourselves with a goal of self-improvement and self-actualization. it's a false gospel with a false devotion.
The true gospel is devotion to God with a goal of glorifying him. And it begins with a brokenness about our sin. It doesn't stay there because it does receive forgiveness. But if it doesn't start there it doesn't receive forgiveness.
It's counter-intuitive that the gateway to joy is contrition. But what's become intuitive to so many of us doesn't work. And we have depression and anxiety to show for it.
Let's learn to prayerfully embrace contrition as a good path that leads to joy.
Tonight we'll gather for prayer at 7pm in the auditorium or online.
We'll spend the first part of our time in personal reflection, allowing contrition to do its work as we pray to God: "Restore to us the joy of your salvation and grant us a willing spirit to sustain us."
Then, as we've been doing, we'll pray through the emphases of the first four nights and conclude at 8pm.
Finally, mark your calendar for the last Monday in 2020 (December 28th) so we can all spend time praying together, hearing how God has been leading our prayers of discernment.
See you tonight.
It's an odd phrase: "this Grace of Giving."
Paul uses the phrase in his second letter to the Corinthians. He uses it to describe an offering given by believers living in poverty. Then he uses it to encourage believers not living in poverty to also excel in this grace of giving.
It's natural to give out of abundance. When we have more than we need, we can give an enthusiastic gift to help someone meet their needs. It's a gift of gratitude. And it makes us feel good. It's a response to what we perceive as the grace of abundance.
But when we don't have enough, it's not natural to be generous. To give away some of what we need to help someone with what they need doesn't make sense. And yet, to do so is a gift of gratitude for what we do have. Sharing in each other's burdens is a grace in itself, even when the grace is by necessity, somewhat mutual.
Scripture says that for anyone to give away money, whether out of poverty or abundance, it is a "grace of giving."
Here's how he said it in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5: "We want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us."
And then he challenged the Corinthian believers to follow their example by completing their own act of grace. He wrote in verse 7, "Since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving."
Today I want to report on our church's "grace of giving."
We concluded last Sunday's worship service with our fall "Generosity Offering." As I set it up, I told you that I would be content with whatever God led you to give.
I meant that personally, but also on behalf of the leaders of our church. I didn't ask their permission to say that. I just know it to be true. So I said that.
I even chose in the moment not to read my notes about where we stand financially as a church. I had planned to, but in the moment, not only did it feel unnecessary, it felt wrong. Not morally wrong, just less good than not reading it. So I didn't.
I just wanted God to provide however he wanted to provide.
I just wanted to invite our church to "excel in this grace of giving" as a privilege.
I just wanted to see what God would do if the offering was a grace given, not a burden imposed.
Here's how I see it: What you give is between you and God. But whether you give is between you and me.
I don't mean that as as "between you and me as your pastor." I mean it as between you and me as family. And between me and you as family. And between you and others in the church as family. We are in fellowship together, so we share the costs of being together.
And scripture says that the goal is equality. But not that we all give the same amount. It's that we all give what we are able.
Paul wrote in verse 11 that each person should give according to their means, and he explained in verse 12, "For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have."
He elaborated: "Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written [in Exodus 16:18]: 'The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.' ” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15)
This has always been my desire as well.
And so, on Sunday I just left it between you and God. I didn't tell you how much we need.
Of course it's reasonable to let the church know where we stand financially.
On the one hand, you should want to know so that you can help meet the need. On the other hand, you should want to know that we are being responsible with what's already been given. As Paul wrote in verses 20-21, "We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man."
So, in an email a couple weeks ago, I explained where we stood. And then I included it as part of last week's blog post. I won't say it again here. You can go read it if you didn't the first time. But that was based on October financials. (Members may request financial statements anytime by calling or emailing the office.)
Last week we closed out November, so the picture is becoming more clear. We still have one month to go. But our November financials show a year-to-date loss of $33,457 — which really isn't bad considering our receipts are down almost $100,000!
But "not bad" isn't good enough. We want to live within our means, so to that end we have given opportunity to the church to meet the need, and to excel in this grace of giving.
So what came in?
At the end of the service I mentioned the need in general terms, said we would be content with whatever comes in, we spent time in prayer, we sang a song of joy, and then we concluded our worship service.
I heard one story of a couple who had come prepared with one check, and during worship they were prompted to write another check in the same amount. Double their offering. No person asked them to. And when the man told me about it, I didn't ask how much it was. I don't need to know. The Lord prompted them to give it, they obeyed, and I am filled with joy and satisfaction that they excelled in this grace of giving.
Others have asked me what we brought in. I know they gave, but I don't know how much. I'm content to know that they did. And I'm at peace knowing that the church is excelling in this grace of giving.
And I'm pleased to say that as of Tuesday's mail, our Generosity Offering has brought in $32,216.
We still need to meet our December expenses, but on behalf of the staff and overseers, thank you so much for excelling in this grace of giving. And to those who continue to prioritize the church in your weekly giving as well, I give special thanks.
God loves a cheerful giver. May he cause you to reap as generously as you have sown, having all that you need, that you might abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6-8).
"You can't take it with you!"
We’ve heard the axiom so many times that we don't give it a second thought. We use it to remind ourselves, "Don't waste so much energy accumulating things that don’t last!" Or we encourage ourselves, "Go ahead and use it up now! Better enjoy it while you can! You can’t take it with you!”
But what if we can take it with us?
Jesus said if you store up for yourself treasures on earth, it's a bad investment. Thieves steal, economies collapse, things decay. He said it's better to store up for yourself treasures in heaven where those things don't happen.
But he said it's not just because it's a more reliable investment. He said the reason is because, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21 NIV)
The Christmas season is a good time to look at what you treasure most.
And before you look forward, look back over the year and see what you've invested your treasure in. I find two questions helpful.
We throw our money at a lot of things. Some of the things we spend our money on have no eternal value, or even have eternally negative value! And other things that we say we value just don't show up at all in what we spend our money on.
Usually the disparity is much more grey than paying for "sinful things" and neglecting "holy things." It's paying for lesser things and not being able to pay for better things.
Look back over this year to see where your heart was. In times of uncertainty we really see our hearts! How did you spend your money? Where did you invest your time? What stories did you tell about the things you appreciate and value? Did your cash flow tell the same stories?
Where you spend your time and money tells you where your heart is really invested.
What if you do take it with you?
We say, "You can't take it with you!" and Jesus says, "That's not true! You DO take it with you!"
He drove the point home with a very black-and-white statement. What if there's not as much wiggle room here as we think? He said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Matthew 6:24)
To be clear, how we spend our money doesn't determine whether we receive eternal life. We don't buy salvation. That's not our gospel. But what we spend our lives on does reveal how eagerly we are trusting and loving God in this life.
Many of us came to Christ knowing that we had racked up insurmountable "sin debt" by doing things that just shouldn't be done. But then we called out to God and he forgave us that debt! He wiped it clean!
When the Lord says, "Your sins are forgiven," it is the last word on sin. This is our gospel. All who turn to the Lord in repentance and faith will be saved. If you've done that, all your sins, your transgression, your debts, have been forgiven. Amen.
But the gospel is more than a debt relief program; it’s an investment that reaps eternal reward.
His last word on our sin becomes the first word on our love.
At the beginning of this Christmas season, consider how you are investing -- not just your money, but your life. And to speak of your life is to speak of whatever things you treasure.
Last week I sent a letter to everyone I could who has connected with SCC this year. In it I explained where we are financially and what is needed to break even this year. As pastor, I have that responsibility to let you know the church's year end needs. But honestly, my greatest desire is that you would be mature in your love and wise in how you invest your life. Because you ARE taking those things with you.
I've attached a copy of the letter below, with all the $$$ signs.
We'll take up a generosity offering as part of our worship this Sunday, but you can give anytime by clicking here. The principle laid out in scripture is that there would be equality in meeting the needs. And that's all I ask. Give in keeping with however God has blessed you.
The discussions that the overseers and pastoral team have been having this year are heavy -- not in a hopeless sense, but in a sober sense. We are full of faith, but because of that, we are doing the uncomfortable work of challenging assumptions. And for that reason we have called the church to prayer.
As pastor, I believe the course we've been on as a church will not accomplish what we had hoped it would.
Too much has changed in the world. The things that used to "work" are not as effective as they once were. And this pandemic has brought it to light.
And when I talk about "the course we've been on," I'm not talking about little decisions, like what songs we sing, or whether we have two worship services, or things like that. I'm talking about the big course we're on, like overall strategy.
And honestly, the "course" we're on is not much different than almost every other American church that has a heart to see people come to faith.
Often called the "attractional" model, it has been useful for several decades at attracting unbelieving people to a presentation of the gospel, and inviting them into fellowship where they can grow in their faith and be supported. This model got everyone's attention in the 1980s and 90s as a natural evolution of the Church Growth Movement of the 1960s (which itself was an attempt to reverse a sudden loss in church growth rate for the first time in two centuries, and to capitalize on the popularity of the crusades of the 1950s).
And so we all learned to measure our effectiveness by worship attendance, and engagement in programs through which we could share common experiences and fellowship, volunteering our time and energy to help make it all happen. Underlying this was the belief that the best thing we could do as a church was to do church in a way that attracted people.
Usually we would frame that as attracting unbelieving people, but the attractional model doesn't really know the difference between believer and unbeliever. We focused on doing things people liked, and ended up competing with everything people liked -- including the stuff other churches were offering that people liked.
As a result, most Christians have learned to choose a church by what it offers, to participate as long as we like it, and to leave when we find a church that offers things we like better.
And so there's been a migration of believers to large churches with big programs. And if we measure it by attendance, and even by people making faith decisions, this has worked in huge ways.
Just in my own ministry experience in the two churches I've served, I've seen probably a thousand people come to faith under this model. It has worked. And it has built thousands of mega churches with big box ministries and impressive facilities to house them all. (And honestly, our own facility that was so impressive in 1980, was built for and supported by the crowds we attracted.)
I believe this model served a purpose.
But when I put my finger to the wind now, I sense that the winds have shifted. And really, it's not even a new sense. The sideways gusts have been hitting for a long time. But my sense is that now it's the old ways that are the sideways gusts. We can still point to examples to say that the model works, but I think the most consistent wind is blowing cross ways to it.
Another way to say that is, for many people the attractional model is ringing hollow. I think it will still have notable gusts where many come to faith, but most consistently the wind is blowing toward smaller fellowships within a larger network.
This pandemic has accelerated the disconnect many were experiencing with how American churches do church. And we are no exception.
That's hard to admit because we like us. We enjoy us. We feel inspired in worship, and encouraged by the word. We have fun doing what we have fun doing.
And if being a church is just about doing stuff we like, that's one thing. But if we are fulfilling a mission, that's another thing. Believing it's the latter, I have been totally reevaluating how we "do church." And throughout the course of this year, I have brought my concerns and thoughts to the overseers for their discernment. And they are laying it out before the church for prayer, to help discern what we will focus on as a church in the future.
In September the overseers decided that, in lieu of their monthly business meeting, they would call the church to prayer twice a month for October, November, and December. In fact, we are suspending our congregational annual meeting until January so that we can follow through on these prayer meetings before doing business.
The goal of these prayer meetings is for the core group of SCC to help discern what God is calling us to next year.
Tonight is our fourth of these six special prayer meetings. If you consider yourself part of the core group (meaning, if you want to be) come to the auditorium or be online at 7pm. It will be an hour of talking to God, guided in a broad sense, but contemplative in the personal sense.
In the first two meetings we spent time focusing our prayers on four questions:
At the third meeting we spent time finishing these prayer starters:
Tonight, we will spend time giving thanks to God.
We'll thank him for the many blessings we've seen. The people who have responded to the gospel in our midst. The people who have come to faith. We'll thank God for those who finished their race well. We'll thank God for those who have supported this church in so many ways over the years. We'll thank God for those who have spent time as part of our fellowship and the blessings we exchanged with them. We'll thank God for the opportunity to even consider our future. We'll discern the many ways God has blessed us already, and give him thanks for it.
Then we'll thank God for things that aren't always comfortable to thank him for.
This year has been difficult. But, like I said yesterday, God uses trials for our good. This is true for each of us individually, and for us as a church. The hardships of this year have given us opportunity to pause and consider what we do and why we do it. So tonight we'll lean into that too.
We'll thank him for the disappointments, the losses, the struggles, the discomforts, and even the uncertainty many of us have. With a deliberate gratitude we will pray blessing on those who have disappointed us. Even those who have wronged us. And we'll pray for opportunity to bless anyone we have disappointed or wronged. We'll thank God for a hard year.
Then we'll spend time with the questions from the first three prayer meetings.
This is our call to discern the future by discerning the past. We need your help in this. God is listening for our prayers.
Let's pray tonight at 7pm, in the auditorium, or online.
This Friday at 7:30pm, we're hosting "Nations Worship" in our auditorium! We'll be gathering by simulcast with others all around the world, experiencing expressions of worship from believers all around the world! It promises to be an inspiring time. I hope you're able to come.
This pandemic has made many feel lonely, and yet at the same time it has made the world feel small.
As I've said many times, this is a great opportunity for the gospel and for the church. This is opportunity for each of us to reexamine our affections and allegiances, and for all local churches to examine their structures and strategies to make sure their fulfilling their true mission.
Sometime last year I start mulling over this mission statement: "Fulfilling the Great Commandment and the Great Commission with Great Compassion and Great Conviction."
I visit that phrase often in my own personal prayer times, and as I search God's heart and mind for what SCC should look like in this new era.
This morning I was reading Psalm 105 and I saw two comments in the margin that I had jotted down some time ago. One says, "Matthew 28:19-20." The other says, "Luke 24:48." This morning I added a third comment: "Matthew 22:37-40."
Let me show you what those three passages say, and then what Psalm 105 says.
[Jesus said,] “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
[Jesus said,] “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."
[Jesus said,] "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.
Global Disciples helps to equip near-culture missionaries to "make disciples" among their own people. We as a church have been able to provide resources to assist in those efforts. As a result the gospel of Jesus that gives life to the dead, and forgiveness to the repentant, is spreading throughout the least reached areas of the world!
When I went to Nepal I heard someone say something that stuck with me:
"If you plant a church you might get disciples, but if you make disciples, you'll always get a church."
We have something to learn from them.
In fact, I believe this is part of the change God is calling his church to embrace here in the West -- the changes we've been praying for discernment about here at SCC, where our mission needs to shift from growing a church to making disciples.
Part of that is catching the vision of what happens when people discover the gospel within their own cultural context!
When I experience the joy of disciples in other areas of the world it renews me. These people have never been taught to hope in political systems. They have very little earthly wealth or freedom to defend. They simply cast all their cares on the Lord and hope in his salvation. They trust that his care for them really is enough! And their joy is contagious. When I experience their joy in the Lord, my own faith and hope is restored and energized!
I want us all to experience that together. That's why we're hosting this "Nations Worship" event this Friday, at 7:30pm. Let's gather and worship the Lord together with our true brothers and sisters in the faith from all around the world. And let's renew our own love in it.
May God be honored as we lift the name of Jesus high.
In Acts 12, we read that King Herod arrested some of the apostles. He took James, the brother of John (one of the "sons of thunder" as Jesus nicknamed them), and had him killed with the sword, making him the first of the apostles to be martyred.
Then he put Peter in prison and planned to have him tried and executed after Passover. And we read in verse 5 this wonderful sentence: "So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him."
We should hold that last phrase in our hearts.
"But the church was earnestly praying to God..."
Everything about that phrases indicates that something's getting ready to change because of the prayers.
As we read on, an angel shows up in Peter's cell and walks him out of the prison miraculously! It's so miraculous, in fact, that Peter thinks he's just seeing a vision. Because things like this just don't happen. It's not until the angel leaves him standing in the street outside the prison that Peter realizes it really happened!
I wonder if he was "earnestly praying to God." I imagine so. But I wonder what he was praying for. Because apparently it wasn't for an angel to show up and miraculously walk him out. Either that, or he prayed for it without believing it could really happen.
But once reality set it that he was freed, he went to where all the believers were gathered for prayer. He knocked on the door and tried to get them to let him in. They even recognized his voice. But they concluded -- get this -- they concluded that it wasn't really him.
They concluded that it must be his angel or something because, apparently, things like this don't really happen. But then he convinced them it was really him and they praised God.
Back to the phrase: "But the church was earnestly praying to God..."
I wonder what they were praying for?
I mean, the implication is that Peter was released in answer to their prayers. But then when he was released their response shows that they didn't really expect him to be released! It's odd!
Jesus said in Mark 11:24 that whatever we ask for in prayer, "believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." And yet, they didn't believe what they received. Perhaps they were "believing for" something else?
We're not told specifically what they were praying for, just that they prayed earnestly. But again, the implication is that Peter's deliverance was in direct response to their prayers. I wonder if they prayed for something less, and that God fulfilled it by doing even more than they asked for?
Perhaps they prayed, "Lord, strengthen Peter." And God did -- by freeing him.
Perhaps they prayed, "Lord, save Peter's life." And God did -- by freeing him.
Perhaps they prayed (as they did earlier in Acts 4), "Lord, stretch out your hand to perform signs and wonders in the name of your holy servant Jesus!" And God did -- by freeing him.
It may have even been, "Lord, break Peter free!" And maybe they even prayed specifically that "Peter's angel" would go and break him free. And perhaps they were just so caught off guard that it took awhile for them to make sense of it. Perhaps God was two steps ahead of them. Perhaps they were still thinking "Peter's angel" and God had already given them just "Peter."
I suspect it was one of those. The part that matters most is that "the church was earnestly praying to God..."
What are we praying earnestly to God for, and what do we expect to be changed because of it?
If the story was written about these times, and it said in the middle of the story, with anticipation, "But the church was praying earnestly to God!" what might we expect to read next?
A little over a month ago I called the church to prayer and explained why we are praying. I know some of us have been fasting -- a true expression of praying earnestly. Thank you for taking it seriously.
The first two Mondays I asked us to pray through four questions as part of discerning how to pray:
Tonight, on this third of six Mondays of prayer, don't lose sight of the discernment questions, but start praying earnestly by finishing the following prayers. They'll be on the screen for you as we gather.
See you at 7p in the auditorium, or online at https://sarasotacommunity.online.church.
With faith, hope, and love,
Like I said yesterday, the only reason I would ever preach on U.S. politics is because it's needed for our context. If we were living in North Korea or China or Russia I would be teaching the same gospel truths in that context.
I'm actually not really talking about politics, I'm talking about faith. But faith impacts everything else, and here in the U.S. we're in the throes of a contentious election.
There's a lot of anger in the world. And a lot of fear.
I suppose there's also apathy about the election, but it doesn't seem like that's as prevalent as it has been in past elections. Even those who don't like politics are wondering what tomorrow will bring. Even our national neighbors (geographical and political) are paying attention. For whatever reason, as goes the U.S., so goes much of the world.
After tomorrow's election, life will not be what it is today. We will learn something about our nation and our neighbors. We will immediately start to forecast our future as a nation, and our futures as those affected by its policies. Even if the election results are contested, tomorrow we enter new territory.
Like I said yesterday, many of us have a sense that violence is coming.
Some say it with prophetic import. Others have complex interpretations of the apocalyptic scriptures (Daniel, Revelation) that they believe is the final word on how to understand such things. Still others simply watch what people are already doing and feel like violence is inevitable: If one candidate wins, it will be a sudden eruption; if the other candidate wins, the escalation will be more gradual, but violent nonetheless.
And whether by prophecy, scripture, or observation, that would be my sense. The Spirit just keeps telling me to be ready, and to make sure those in my faith family are also ready.
I believe this year is not insignificant. I believe we are going to see a shift that's way more significant than whether Trump or Biden wins the election. I believe we need to be prepared for hardship. I'm not a doomsayer. But at the very least, we need to be ready with a faith that can survive without the structures and systems that have propped us up organizationally for years. Like I said yesterday, if our faith can't survive underground, it doesn't deserve to survive above ground.
And if it's the kind of faith that can survive underground, it will thrive all the more if allowed to live fully above ground.
And so I keep calling us to remember the most difficult of Jesus' teachings.
It's easy to teach "love your neighbor" in times of peace and prosperity. It's easy to teach "forgive those who sin against you" when the example you think of is when that friend was inconsiderate that one time. But to teach "love your enemy" in a time of violence and hardship? That's absurd. And it's commanded.
May God have mercy and spare us that.
But may we in faith be prepared for that.
And just because Jesus told us to love our enemies, it doesn't mean there is anything noble about living where we are harshly treated by our enemies. Our prayer is that our enemies would come to repentance and be filled with the love of Christ! And so it's to that end that I keep preaching the gospel and applying our current situation to it, that we might be prepared for whatever comes along, be it blessing or hardship. And so that we might be a blessing to others in times of blessing and of hardship.
Immediately after the sermon yesterday, I called everyone to a time of prayer as we prepared to respond in song. As I entered my own time of prayer I flipped open my Bible and it landed on Jeremiah 29. I considered interrupting the prayer time to read it out loud, but just tapped my hand on it with a blessing for later, and gave it back to God.
Today is later. I want to give it to you to read. I am asking you to spend time in prayer with it. But with these two caveats:
So, with those two caveats, allow me to apply a very basic analogy to our context. As I read yesterday in 1 Peter 2:11, we are "foreigners and exiles" here on earth until God comes to bring us into our everlasting home. And if we can consider that this world is our temporary Babylon, consider how God might want us to live within it, as you read what he said to those exiled in actual Babylon.
I have emphasized certain words in bold.
(New International Version)
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.
"Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
The word of the Lord.
May God hear our prayers for peace and prosperity.
May every prediction of hardship and violence be mitigated by God's great and bold display of grace, as he calls all people to repentance, and fills them with his Spirit, and with love, joy, and peace. And may we all long for his appearing, living as a blessing in this world, but living for the blessings that will surely be ours on that day that he comes to take us home.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.