Straight Talk From Steve

Celebrate Easter

Easter is a time for celebration!
However, the celebration is not about giant bunnies who deliver baskets of goodies to young children although that activity often garners the most attention. It is not about having to get dressed up in your finest dress or suit to go to church that one time of year. It has nothing to do really with chocolates and chicks.
Easter is about  the most amazing news — God defeated death! And since God defeated death we can be confident that he can conquer so much more that threatens our peace and joy.
While the cross may be the central message of Christianity, its real importance lies in the reality of the resurrection. If Jesus died, but did not raise from the dead, we still worship a dead God. If Jesus died but did not rise, we have not hope for the today or the future. If Jesus died but was not resurrected our faith is useless.
However, since the tomb is empty, the Easter celebration is about celebrating the opportunity to live a life freed from guilt and shame. It is about the hope that things can be better, that joy can be resuscitated. As Jesus rose from the dead after 3 days, he grants us the opportunity to see our lives be made new. Because Jesus rose, he shares that hope with his followers.
This is what we will be celebrating on Easter. We invite you to join us. Worship Celebration begins at 10AM (and if it’s any consolation, you don’t need to dress up).

Hot & Cold Are Good

Stop saying that God prefers for us to be either on fire for him or spiritually cold toward him rather than spiritually struggling somewhere in the middle. Do you really believe a hostile atheist like Richard Dawkins pleases God more than an inconsistent, struggling believer?
When we take the hot as have in a vibrant, enthusiast faith, and the cold as being either spiritually apathetic or antagonistic toward God we miss out on the important message that Jesus really was trying to teach the church in Laodicea.

Actually, the hot and cold of Revelation 3 is not a contrast between good and bad options. Both hot and cold are positives expressions set in contrast with the lukewarmness of the Laodicean’s self-sufficiency.

Here is the historic context of the statement, 
“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
Laodicea didn’t have a supply of good water. The local water had a high lime content.
In contrast to Laodicea are the water supplies of both Hieropolis and Colosae. Hieropolis had healing hot springs used by people to treat a number of maladys like arthitis. Colosae was fed by refreshing, cool mountain streams (remember the Nestea plunge?).
Since, Laodicea didn’t have their own source of water they piped the cool water in from Colosae 20 miles away. However, by the time it reached Laodicea it was rancid and tepid.
Jesus takes this issue related to the local water supply to teach the Laodiceans a spiritual lesson. Laodicea had developed a spiritual malaise because of their self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency. Jesus described their self-assessment as “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” With that spiritually lethargic attitude Laodicea had ceased to make a influence on its community as either a place of spiritual healing, where broken lives were being put back together, or of spiritual refreshment, where weary souls were being revitalized.
Here is the point Jesus is making: God desires that we be a healing or a refreshing community, rather than a community which is useless and worthless due to our spiritual lethargy.


How To Grow Church Attendance

Over the last month you have heard the Elders share a vision for 2017 of seeing our average Sunday attendance rise by 20% over 2016. I’d like to come behind what they have shared with a little more information and context.
The attendance average for FCC hit a significant snag in the spring and summer of 2015 when the average Sunday attendance dropped to 75. It then became a goal of seeing the attendance rebound by at least 20% over the next year (September 2015-August 2016) or 90 people. We actually saw a recovery and our average Sunday attendance increased to 92 people.
This year again, the Elders sought to see us reach a 20% attendance increase once more. However, we felt that we needed to make the congregation aware of this goal.
The reason informing the congregation was deemed important, was because we wanted the congregation to own the vision for growth as well. Congregational buy-in is necessary because it is the congregation that will ultimately determine whether we will reach our goal or not.
There are two determinants helping us achieve the growth that we dream of for each member:
1) If we attend ourselves … nationally, the average church attender now attends church only 27 times per year — that is only one Sunday over half. At FCC, we have noticed the national trend in our own attendance as choices of sports, sleeping in, and other things have squeezed out church attendance. 
Attending half of the time will do to you spiritually the same thing as eating half of the time will do to you physically. We can do better for ourselves spiritually.
2) If we invite others to attend … studies show that at best, 25% of church members ever invite someone to church. Yet, over 50% of unchurched Americans say they would attend church if a friend invited them.
Part of our mission is to help others know Jesus. Inviting them to church may be the best way of helping them know Him. Who have you invited? Keep inviting. Find new people and invite them too.

20% and Beyond


Practice Hospitality With Whom

Paul bids the Romans to “practice hospitality.” There is a nuance to that statement that I had never been aware of before today. The term specifically references the warm welcome that is extended to a stranger, someone who doesn’t belong to the family. And with that nuance, I believe it presents something more than a cup of coffee or punch in an after worship social environment.         Hospitality is what we do to make guests welcomed.
Many churches don’t do hospitality – for what they would call hospitality only serves to make those who   belong welcome.  Surprisingly, some churches are infamous for choosing to ignore their guests.
Yet, week after week, we hear from guests that FCC Chicago is a welcoming and friendly place. Our guests  express to us that our church family does a tremendous job of making them feel like they belong by greeting them and engaging them in conversation, and inviting them to Connection Groups.  All of that is hospitality! And we are doing a good job at it.
Now, let me ask that you go the next step. We do a tremendous job of demonstrating hospitality to guests within the church building. What if we extended hospitality beyond the church walls to those guests?
  • What if we exchanged phone numbers with those guests, and made a call to them during the week to share that we were glad to meet them?
  • What if we invited them out to eat with us on Sunday following Connection Groups, and take the chance to get to know their story?
  • What if we planned to meet them during the week for a cup of coffee?
  • What if we invited them to our homes for dinner, and a chance to play some games with the family?

Can we choose to do that? What difference do you think such actions would make in helping people to connect with the church, see the church as a community of grace, and feel further loved by the church? Let’s not just practice hospitality. Let’s perfect it.


Do You Make The Holy Spirit Cry?


“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you are sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:30).
The Holy Spirit begs each of us, “don’t make me cry.”
What is it that makes the Holy Spirit cry? What breaks His heart?
Interpreters of this verse often present a wide array of thoughts on what it means to “grieve the Holy Spirit.” Ideas range anywhere from crediting Satan for the actions of God, living in unrepentant sin, or falling away from faith.
However, each of these interpretations break one of the cardinal rules for Biblical interpretation … study the context. Let the context define what an unclear statement might mean.
Paul does just that with this verse in Ephesians 4.
Take a look at verse 29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
Now look at verse 31 and 32: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
We don’t need to go any further than these verses to guess what Paul means in verse 30! Paul provides matching bookends to verse 30. Sandwiched right between is the plea to not bring the Holy Spirit to tears.
The verses, immediately before and after, mentions actions that are destruction to relationships within the body of Christ. In each couplet, a negative action is rejected for a positive option. In both verses, Paul is telling the believers to guard against these negative actions: destructive words; and bitterness and malice. The Ephesians are told to exchange these negative actions for positive relating: words that encourage and strengthen; and tender forgiveness like God.
Why does he tuck this verse about grieving the Holy Spirit between these verses? Because Paul’s sandwich is meant to make clear to the reader that it is these very harmful activities that threaten the harmony and unity of the body of Christ that make the Holy Spirit cry?
Have you made the Holy Spirit cry? How are your relationships within the body of Christ? Have you conducted yourself in a manner that leaves tears streaming down the face of God? Or have you exchanged the actions that bring the Holy Spirit to tear with the actions that place a smile on His face because they grow and bless the body?

Telling The Lost To Go To Hell

Have you been guilty of telling others to go to Hell?

The very phrase for many Christians sends a bolt of indignation through our gut. We don’t like hearing people tell one another to “Go to Hell”, because it is a defaming and derogatory statement of derision.

Most believers wouldn’t even consider using that phrase. Yet, I fear that we have so focused on the phrase as “bad language’” that we have forgotten that we may be saying the same thing to people with much more serious consequences.
When we treat those outside of a relationship with Christ with ridicule and derision, we in essence are telling them to “go to Hell.” When we fail to demonstrate Christ’s love toward those who are struggling in sin, we are telling them to “go to Hell.” When we fail to exhibit God’s grace to those who are seeking salvation, we repeat the refrain “go to Hell.”
Our actions toward the lost, whether they be family, friend or enemy, have very real consequences. These consequences are much more significant than someone having hurt feelings because someone told them to go to H-E- double hockey sticks. The consequences of rejecting lost people, failing to show grace, and judging rather than showing grace to lost people is a sure way to being accomplices with sending them on their way to Hell. Sometimes in our own spiritual arrogance, we are actually pushing them to Hell because we are pushing them away from Jesus.
This is not to deny that those who are outside of Christ are going to hell. What the problem is is that many Christians, who are called to be God’s ambassadors of grace to a lost and dying world, are perfectly content with lost people being consigned to Hell. While we may not be throwing them in, we may be fanning the flame.
How do you get these lost souls off the highway to Hell? You treat them with the same level of respect that Jesus did. You build friendship with lost people. You pray for their salvation. You engage them in conversations through which you can tell them about Jesus. In short you treat lost people, not as if they deserve Hell, but as people who deserve the grace of Christ, the same grace shown to you.
Let’s not be content letting them go to Hell. Let’s do everything that we can in order to change their condition and destiny.


Soft Hearts

soft-hearts“Be kind to one another tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
Right relationships are not just about the don’ts — don’t hold grudges, don’t speak badly of others, don’t seek harm toward others.
Right relations are also built by positive actions. Paul tells us to have soft hearts toward one another. That means be sensitive toward one another, allow your heart to be moved by others. Bitter hearts become calloused. Paul encourages that to be replaced with softness and compassion.
He, also, tells us to forgive each other. That is the positive reflection of softening of a heart of resentment and anger. It isn’t enough to discard your bitterness. Bitterness needs replaced by forgiveness. We need to relate to one another as God relates to us because of the sacrifice of Christ.
Paul’s very clear implication is that since all of us needed forgiveness at the expense of Christ, we ought to demonstrate forgiveness to one another. How is it possible to hold someone hostage in unforgiveness for the very things Christ has forgiven?
Does your heart need some softening?

I Resolve To Release Myself From Bitterness


“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Ephesians 4:31 ESV
We do well to put away the bitterness, resentment, anger, and dreams of payback that haunt us. These are the dark places of the soul that keep us captive to old wounds, old scars, and bind us from experiencing the joy of life in Christ.
Yet, I wonder if our putting away is less than Paul was hoping. Rather than relegating bitterness to the trash heap of things that don’t move us toward Christlikeness, do we stow it away in a location where it is easily retrieved for display? Do we get our resentments out ever-so-often so that they can be polished to a bright sheen to make sure they don’t begin to look like something which should be discarded? Do we nurse our anger when we should be starving it? Do we end up cherishing our bitterness more than the joy that would be experienced when we let it go?
Paul’s instructions do more than let the other person off the hook. They grant you the room to experience healing yourself. It is up to you to shake off the chains. No one else can set you free. 
I resolve to release myself from bitterness, to discontinue blaming others for my resentments, and hold over their head the injustices which I have convinced myself I have suffered at their hands. In setting them free, I choose to set myself free.
On the otherhand, picking at my wounds may only lead to infection.


Our Political System Is Broken


Our political system is broken (and it’s not in how you think)! 
The brokenness has little to nothing to do with voter fraud, rigged elections, media bias, or all of the other things that were made a point of emphasis this election season.
It isn’t really about who was elected President. I think that the candidate that was elected is only different in the particulars, but not really in the expanse of lack of character.
It isn’t really about who the two leading parties set forth as their representative candidates (though that is part of the fall out) because the problem isn’t so much the election system as the politics which is getting played between the elections. 
I think that the real brokenness in the political system is us. We have traded away our birthright as American citizens for a bowl of stew (see Genesis 25:29-34).
We haven’t risen to the level of character that is implied in the words of the John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Rather, than rising in character, we have gotten down in the mud.
Today, we may look at this as a Republican problem. It is being said, “It is those non-college educated, white, male Republicans who saddled us with a misogynistic, racially prejudice, blabber mouth with a streak of vindictiveness and cruelty as President for the next four years.” Whether or not all of the things that have been said about Trump are true or not, enough is true that it has mobilized the most unsavory segments of American society.
However, to have such a limited perspective, we fail to adequately address two other groups of people:
1) Those who voted for a woman whose pro-abortion/anti-religious agenda would have made abortion without any room for conscience the mandate of the nation, and would have forced those who disagree to join her in the sin, not to mention her long history of checkered moral and ethical compromises;
2) Those who opted for either Trump or Clinton out of expediency of keeping the other from being elected — in effect making them an accomplice in the moral depravity of their candidate by essentially showing that such moral faults are no longer that big of a deal. We will look past them if it fits our agenda.
On both sides, we have been too willing to trade character for a promise of our cut from the American dream, or American made in our image. Happiness has become our idol, and the hell to anyone who impedes our dream of that self-indulgence because it is all about us.
Meanwhile, we turn away from a large segment of broken American.
We learned from this election that numerous segments of our society are feeling left out, disenfranchised, and without hope. It was this large segment of broken America that cried out to be heard in their vote for Trump (I don’t buy the argument that most of the people who voted for him are racist or misogynist). It was the same dynamic as in 2008 with many who voted for the promise of hope with Obama.
Some were willing to roll the dice on Clinton. Others voted as if the entire system needed blown up so they voted for Trump.
How did this happen? Because our political system has been so entrenched in polarizing society that they have forgotten the people who make up the society. Those that don’t fall in the extremes have been allowed to fall through the cracks by the political elite and the political extremists. Meanwhile, their party advocates cheer them on.
We need to stop the selfishness, and open our eyes to the hurting people around us. We need to make the first steps to healing the alienation of large swaths of society. We need to be agents of reconciliation and redemption instead of demeaning devices of divisiveness. A good start would be a simple return to civility, talking to and listening to others as if they have feelings, and not as foes to be vanquished.
How can we heal the brokenness? We need to stop shouting at one another over the cries of those who are hurting. Stop shouting and take time to listen. Listen to the blacks fearful of police. Listen to the mothers who are afraid of sending their children outdoors. Listen to the chronically unemployed and underemployed that have to make a choice between taking a low-wage job that will cost them benefits, or continue to suffer the soul sapping humiliation of reliance on government hand outs. Listen to those amassing incredible debt paying for college to get a job which may not put them in a place to payoff those loans. Listen to those given a series of promises about health insurance which have amounted to nothing more than paper dreams. Listen to the children attending failing schools which are failing them. Listen to the midwest farmer that has been left behind.
We need to work toward a system that doesn’t force us to choose from extremes, right or left. We need our government representatives to stop with the partisanship, and start mutually working toward solutions that effectively provide assistance to those who are angry and disillusioned.
We need to reclaim the grace, selflessness and love that many in this country had been known for before we abandoned our deep Christian moorings that allowed us to love others as ourselves.

I don’t think, though, that we will ever experience that healing and happiness that we crave until we also rediscover the one who makes such healing and joy possible.


It’s Not The End Of The World


Many are the heralds who trumpet that election 2016 will result in the end of America as we know it. We have let our anxiety overwhelm us with despair. Hope has been lost in a pool of uncertainty and fear. 


Undoubtedly, many changes will result from this election. However, if we are believers, it is hardly the end of world. Our hope does not rest in such transient things as elections or even nations.


Here is a sampling of things that will remain unchanged as the results of the election roll in:

1) God’s word is still true and his authoritative revelation;

2) God will still reign sovereign on his throne;

3) Mankind will still be subject to sin and powerless to resolve the problem;

4) Jesus is still God’s Son, the conquering Redeemer, Savior of mankind;

5) Mankind still will only be redeemed through faith in the saving work of Jesus;

6) The resurrection of Christ still empowers God’s children to live new lives freed from bondage to sin;

7) The church is still called to exhibit the grace and love of Christ with one another before the world 

8) The mission of the church to share the gospel with a lost world will be unchanged;

9) Christians will remain aliens and strangers in this world because this is not our home;

10) The world will still not embrace believers as their own because the people of this world hated Christ first;

11) Jesus is still going to return to bring his people home to be with him forever;

12) Those who make the choice to be alienated from God in this life will remain alienated for eternity.


Looking at this list, I’m not so sure much of significance will really change come Wednesday. Perhaps the emanate changes will drive us to reliance on what is lasting and what really matters.


What is sure about our faith produces hope. And hope overcomes our fear.