Straight Talk From Steve

Why People Stop Coming To Church

Recently I came across this study by Thom Rainer on why Church members are participating in the gathering of the church less than they previously have.

Here are his findings:

THEY ARE MORE MOBILE. As people are more mobile, they have more places to be and demands to meet.

THEY ARE MORE AFFLUENT. As people have more wealth, they can provide more options for themselves.

THEY HAVE MORE OPTIONS. See above.

THEY CONSIDER CHURCH OPTIONAL. As other options increase, church participation becomes just another option. Besides the church can “outdo” what others offer.

THEY ARE NOT ACTIVE IN A SMALL GROUP. People who attend a small group are more likely to be engaged in the larger life of the church. Those who don’t, aren’t.

THEY HAVE NOT BEEN CHALLENGED. The church has dropped the bar instead of raising the level of expectations. People will inevitably fall to your lower level of expectation.

As I have taken time to think over this list there appeared to me to be a common thread (or three):

  • Either Christians have come to accept that Jesus does not value devotion and commitment to his Bride;
  • Or these members are choosing to reject Christ’s Bride (which can’t be taken will by the groom) by not valuing her as he does;
  • Or these members never made a real commitment to follow and serve Christ in the first place.

I reached that conclusion for this reason. Every reason for people attending church less regularly has to do with a decision to be a disciple with a lower level of commitment, a level at which being a part of the bride of Christ gets squeezed out  by other interests and engagements. What level does your commitment to Christ’s Bride settle? You can’t be more committed to Him than you are His Bride.

The church isn’t perfect, but it is the Bride of Christ.

 



Hospitality That Goes Deep

At FCC, we have a period of time between Worship Celebration and Connection Groups that we call “hospitality”. Hospitality entails serving punch and coffee, along with a selection of desserts or light snacks to our hungry post-worship crowd. Sometimes we are served what would even be called a light meal.

This environment is useful and needed, as well as valued and appreciated. It starts us on the road to hospitality as it provides us with a good time to interact with one another with the “Hi, how you doing ?” or “I’m glad to have the chance to meet you!” conversations before we move on to our connection environments.

Hospitality is a key virtue throughout the New Testament. We see it acted out repeatedly by Jesus in the gospels as he sat down for meals with saints and sinners. We see that repeated by the church in Acts. Hospitality is prominent in the imperatives of Romans 12.

Yet, I am forced to wonder if labeling this “hospitality” doesn’t also present a certain danger. Could it tempt us to accept a limited cultural definition of hospitality rather than embracing the richer and deeper New Testament expression?

However, the term hospitality in the New Testament represents much more than a time of refreshments.  A perception that limits hospitality to punch and coffee misses the richness of God’s intent.

Hospitality is opening one’s life and one’s home to others. It is inviting others to put their feet under your table, and engaging one another in deep, honest and vulnerable conversation. It is  about showing acceptance enjoyed around a meal where we can really get to know one another. That is what Jesus did for Zacchaeus when he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home for dinner.

When I was young, I remember after church going to the home of another family, going out to eat with another family, or inviting a family to our home … and in each of those environments the church would be served as two families got to know one another.

What if we were to rediscover this deeper sense of hospitality by inviting others into our homes, by eating together with one another around our tables, and getting to know one another. Or maybe it isn’t even a meal or our homes, but it is a longer conversation over a cup of coffee at Starbucks. How might that enhance the ministry of the church?.

 



Togetherness

f Ephesians.

In the month of April we will begin a message series through the book of Ephesians.

This will be the third time we have had a teaching series through Ephesians in the 11 years I have served as the Senior Minister. After having preached through it at least two times prior to my ministry at First Christian Church of Chicago, you would think that I might havedeveloped a pretty good grasp of its content.

However, there was a simple, but very significant message that I had not noticed previously. Perhaps I had missed it because I too am very much a product of our culture of American individualism. As I looked at Scripture through those lenses, I often made a huge mistake in seeing the intended much and its proper audience.

Here is what I have discovered. The book of Ephesians is very much a letter to the church – not a church as a collection of INDIVIDUALS  — but the church as a COMMUNITY of individuals.

Here is the difference. A collection of individuals emphasize the personal message, as everything is read through the lenses of what it says, means, instructs, and encourages me. The emphasis on the individual becomes selfcentered and narcissistic.

However, as a community of individuals (emphasis on community), the emphasis moves from me to the community. I come to understand that being part of the church doesn’t mean I am a number in a larger set of numbers. Rather I am a functioning part of a body that needs my presence and participation to fully be what it was designed to be. Paul is not primarily concerned with the individual. His concern for the individual is only as part of the whole.

Here is the principle discovery I made: As I have read through Ephesians in preparation for the upcoming message series, I looked much closer at a word group that I have more or less skimmed over in the past. I did that because we all know what the word group in question means — or so I thought!

problem. Paul repeatedly uses “you” and “your”, not in a second

The word group in question is “you” and “your”. But here it is the not the second person singular sense, but a second person plural. If you were from the south, you might say “yall,” meaning everybody with you. Or you might even use the phrase “all yall all” meaning everybody in the group.

It is these usages that Paul employs in Ephesians. He wants us to see ourselves not as individuals, but a part of a larger body. He wants us to see ourselves in how we relate in community. He wants us to see ourselves in connection. He wants us to see ourselves as contributors toward the whole. He wants us to see ourselves as family, as common structure, as one.

How would your engagement with the church differ if you traded “you singular” for “you plural”? What would change if church was less about you and more about how you relate to others in the body?



Church Is Not Worship

When church becomes more about having a Sunday morning worship experience, believers cease to be the church, and their spiritual lives are ultimately harmed.

I am not sure how many of you reading this will agree with that statement. But it has repeatedly proven to be true.

Here is how it unfolds: As individual believers become primarily concerned that the Sunday worship environment “feed their spirit”, the goal of worship becomes a subjective experience. Did the worship music move me? Did the sermon feed me? Did I “feel” the presence of God’s spirit in worship? 

Do you see it? The Sunday morning worship experience becomes a selfabsorbed, selfserving model. I have to ask, “If we didn’t feel God’s presence does that mean he wasn’t there or that I wasn’t in tune?” And when I am no longer “feeling it”, it becomes easy for me to come less often, drop out all together, or go somewhere else in search of the allusive “feeling”.

But what makes the church the church is not its worship! We can experience music and message without going anywhere.

What makes the church the church is its fellowship!

A church is defined by its “one another” relationships within community … so it isn’t about me as much as it is about us. The church is not so much the place where I get filled up as it is the place where God uses me to help fill others. As we love, serve, grace, accept, forgive, encourage, correct, bear with, honor, and teach one another we are the church. That is why I often say that the most important time for our church is not necessarily the worship time, but the group life time where relationships are born and strengthened.

Yet we need to differentiate between being a “friendly church” and being the church. A “friendly church” is a church that is welcoming and glad to see one another on Sundays, and misses one another when people are absent. However, a “real church” develops relationships which reach beyond Sunday. A church invites and relishes opportunities to get together for prayer, for mutual service, or for just enjoying one another’s company. A “friendly church” is okay with Sunday interaction. A “real church” reaches out to engage with one another on other days of the week in order to build and strengthen deeper relationships.

We can only have these “real church” relationships when church people spend time with other church people. Are you ready to bring other believers into your life and family so we can be the church?



Church Isn’t A Worship Experience

When church becomes more about having a Sunday morning worship experience, believers cease to be the church, and their spiritual lives are ultimately harmed.

I am not sure how many of you reading this will agree with that statement. But it has repeatedly proven to be true.

Here is how it unfolds:

As individual believers become primarily concerned that the Sunday worship environment “feed their spirit”, the goal of worship becomes a subjective experience. Did the worship music move me? Did the sermon feed me? Did I “feel” the presence of God’s spirit in worship?

Do you see it? The Sunday morning worship experience becomes a self-absorbed, self-serving model.  I have to ask, “If we didn’t feel God’s presence does that mean he wasn’t there or that I wasn’t in tune?” And when I am no longer “feeling it”, it becomes easy for me to come less often, drop out all together, or go somewhere else in search of the allusive “feeling”.

But what makes the church the church is not its worship! We can experience music and message without going anywhere.

What makes the church the church is its fellowship!

A church is defined by its “one another” relationships within community … so it isn’t about me as much as it is about us. The church is not so much the place where I get filled up as it is the place where God uses me to help fill others.

As we love, serve, grace, accept, forgive, encourage, correct, bear with, honor, and teach one another we are the church. That is why I often say that the most important time for our church is not necessarily the worship time, but the group life time where relationships are born and strengthened.

Yet we need to differentiate between being a “friendly church” and being the church. A friendly church is a church that is welcoming and glad to see one another on Sundays, and misses one another when people are absent. However, a “real church” develops relationships which reach beyond Sunday. A church invites and relishes opportunities to get together for prayer, for mutual service, or for just enjoying one another’s company. A “friendly church” is okay with Sunday interaction. A “real church” reaches out to engage with one another on other days of the week in order to build and strengthen deeper relationships.

We can only have these “real church” relationships when church people spend time with other church people. Are you ready to bring other believers into your life and family so we can be the church?
 
— Pastor Steve

 



Letting Laity Preach

Letting the Laity TeachI have heard the question. It has risen to more than a whisper. “Why does Steve have so many Sunday’s when he doesn’t preach?”  Or we have the accompanying question, “Why are we having untrained church members preach? Don’t we want to show the best face possible when guests show up?”  (Have you seen my face? I’m not sure it is the best one we could show our guests!) Honestly, I hear your concerns.
 
Yet, there are real Biblical and practical reasons that the Elders have, from the beginning of my tenure as Senior Minister, supported sharing the preaching/teaching responsibilities with others in the congregation. Let me take a moment to explain those reasons.
 
As a principal ministry leader at FCC, my primary responsibility is not to do the work of ministry, but to equip God’s people for the work of ministry (Eph 4:13). Yes, I can equip as I do the preaching/teaching, however, I also do that as I equip others to use their gifts in that role. Believe me, it would be a lot easier for me to preach myself than to equip others. A lot of work goes into studying and teaching others text. Then I spend a significant amount of time coaching them on message preparation. I estimate it nearly doubles the amount of time it would take me to preach myself. But in training others, capacities are multiplied in a manner that wouldn’t be true if I did it all myself.
  
A second reason to allow others (including non-professionals) to teach the Sunday message is that it is good stewardship of the gifts that God has placed within our congregation.  If God has granted the church a number of people with teaching capabilities would it not rob them, as well as God, to not provide an outlet for them to develop and utilize those gifts. 
 
A third reason for having members teach relates to the guest question. Actually, when we have members teach guests show up in mass to hear the person teach.  The non-staff preachers bring with them an assortment of people who we would not see in worship with us on Sunday if it wasn’t for their family member or friend presenting the word on that Sunday. Having members preach is an act of evangelism that encourages the inviting of guests, guests who already have some connection with the church through the person teaching.
 
Finally, a final reason is that we are looking toward a time when it is quite possible that the Biblical church just may be pushed underground. If that is to ever happen, it is these trained non-professionals that will become the qualified teaching leadership for the underground church. We won’t have to rush to place ill-equipped leaders in positions of leadership in individual cells. We will have people who have been groomed to lead in the teaching ministry, and will be adequately equipped to share God’s word with depth and skill so that the church can be strong.
 
I hope this helps you understand why on 8-12 Sundays a year I “take a Sunday off” and let others lead in the ministry of teaching.
 
Let me close with this: Someone asked me if this means that just anyone can just get up on Sunday and teach. The answer to that is an absolute NO. The requirements for participation on the teaching team are extensive and demanding. Particularly, only those who prove their capacity to teach, and are willing to participate in extensive hours of training, equipping and preparation are added to the teaching team.

 

— Pastor Steve



Productive Soil, Productive Faith #3

  • The Productive hear the word and embrace the word planted in them.

It’s funny, but as I am writing, I reviewed what had been said so far about this parable, none of us who did the teaching took the time to define what the word was that was being sown. What is this word seed in Luke that they heard?

It would be my guess that most of us would consider the word that is being taught to be the gospel message of Christ. Either a form of Christ is born … Christ is risen … Christ will come again; or God loves you … though you’re a sinner … so Jesus redeemed you through his death and resurrection.

Yet, given the principle message that Jesus spends time advancing in the gospel of Luke is not this narrow recitation of a plan of salvation, we need to look once again at the … what is the word? CONTEXT!

Between the telling of the parable and its explanation are these two verses:

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ – Luke 8:9, 10

In verse 10, Jesus gives us a hint as to the message which is being spread. This message will be understood by some, but misunderstood by others.

Jesus is teaching the secrets of the Kingdom of God. It is a secret not in that it is concealed, but that it is teaching that some will not embrace.

Luke 5 begins: On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God – Luke 5:1

Matthew fills in some details to Luke’s account. Here is what Matthew says about this teaching of the word of God.

Matthew 4:17 says, From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17

Then verse 23 of Matthew 4: And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. Matthew 4:23

Here is the problem we confront. We often think of the gospel in those limited terms of “Jesus saved me.” But Jesus’ message was much more expansive than that little refrain.

Jesus, when some people wanted him to stay and become their Rabbi, defines his message in Luke 4 by saying: but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” Luke 4:43

The term kingdom occurs 31 times in Luke. It is Jesus’ priority message. That message is far bigger than a personal call to salvation.

It is an invocation of Jesus’ kingdom reign. Jesus’ rule has begun. Jesus has taken his place on his throne. God is on the march to restore creation as it was designed to be. The defeat of Satan has already been secured.

In the book of Revelation, chapter 20, we have that infamous millennial rule of Jesus in which Satan is bound. Jesus’ kingdom is protected as Satan’s influence is curtailed. That is today. I know that we look all around us, and we witness the Satan’s influence present in our world. But we must never forget – God is on his throne.

In Matthew 10 as the disciples return from their missionary trip. The disciples are celebrating their ability to cast out demons to which Jesus announces that he saw Satan thrown down from heaven. God’s kingdom is on the advance. God is making the move to win back all of the territory lost to Satan at the fall.

That is the good news. God sits on his throne. His army is mobilized against Satan. And those who are his subjects share in his victory.

If the word is the good news of the kingdom, it is much farther reaching than “Jesus saved me.” The message is “Jesus’ kingdom is here. His reign has begun. Live as his subjects.”

This is the message that God is setting all things straight. If all things are being set straight that includes the lives of his people being put right.

However, one of the dangers we face as believers is that the kingdoms of the world are a far more tangible reality for most of us. Being a citizen of the US is a more conscious reality than our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. We often in our day-to-day lives we are far more likely to make ourselves as home in this world than to be aliens and strangers, ambassadors representing a kingdom which is not of this world.
 
— Pastor Steve


Productive Soil, Productive Faith #2

“As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” (Luke 8:15)
 
The Productive have good hearts. Although most of your texts say, “honorable and good hearts,” a literal reading of the text would be “good and good hearts.”

However, Jesus is not stuttering or repeating himself here. He is using two different Greek words for good, each with a significantly different nuance.

The first term, kale means good as in that is useful for fulfilling its purpose. This would be in contrast to something broken so that it is not useful.

Every so often, when the kids were younger, I would help them sort through their toys. In doing so we would inevitable come across something that one of them would want to keep. It would be broken, have parts missing, or just plain not work, such as a dried out marker. Sometimes I would ask them, “Does it work?,” to which they would answer, “No.” So my thought was then throw it away. 

Kale means that their heart was still able to do what God had created it to do. It had not become hardened. It was still pliable, soft to the things of God … able to be shaped by his word … receptive to his call … moved by his commands.

Within this term is a test of faith that many of us need to examine – Am I fulfilling the function for which God has designed me? Is my heart still functioning well, so tender and responsive to the things of God, or have I started to become hardened to God’s call?

But the second term carries a different nuance.

Agathe means of good character. This is the moral person … the person of character … the heart that has rejected sin and seeks to live according to God’s standard of morality and character.

This is the person that understands that  God desires for us to reflect his character … to be holy because he is holy … to love because he loves … to forgive because he has forgiven us.

This is the kind of good heart that Jesus had in mind when he shared this garden metaphor.

“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43-45)
 
Is your character good? Does it stand out in the midst of a corrupt society as something that is admirable? Or is your character tainted?

From where does this new heart come? How does one achieve a heart that is not hard and corrupted, but is soft and full of grace and truth?

In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet, speaking on behalf of God says:

26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26, 27)

Here is the promise in that verse … I don’t want you to miss it … God is saying that it is not too late. If you’ve had a hard heart … if you have been pushing back against God … if you are still struggling to open to him … if you still are battling against character this looks more like the world than like a child of God, he can still change your heart.

People all around will say, “People can’t change.” Yet, change is just what God is offering. He is saying that he will provide a heart transplant that will remove your stubborn struggle with the presence of his own Spirit.
 
— Pastor Steve


Productive Soil, Productive Faith #1

And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 8:8)

But we need to ask: What does it mean to be productive spiritually? What is Jesus pointing us to in showing this productive soil with its overwhelming level of yield?

 

In verse 14, we have defined for us the failure of the thorny soil to bear fruit. The term translated mature is actually a fruit bearing term, but it has a negative attached to it. So those distracted by prosperity, passions and worry have fruit that never grows to maturity. Their faith is immature.

I used to wonder why people would shuck their sweet corn at the grocery store. I no longer wondered after I bought a bag of sweet corn one day several years ago. When I sat down on the back step and began shucking the corn, to my surprise, I found that about half of the ears were little more than leaves and silk. Oh, it had kernels on the cob, but few had filled out. The ears had only partially developed. The ears offered plenty of promise, but little fruitful maturity.

In this contrast between the immaturity of the crop in the thorny soil and the productivity of the harvest from the good soil, Jesus is speaking of the fully developed life of a disciple. In the following chapters of Luke, specifically 9, 11, and 14 Jesus will speak extensively about the cost of following him. The kind of person it will take to be his disciples … The self-sacrifice of cross bearing … The willingness of count the cost … The hard moral choices … The enduring commitment to follow Jesus wherever he goes and however hard it gets.

Paul speaks in comparable life changing terms in Colossians 1:

Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, … so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; Colossians 1:5b, 6, 10

The Productive is the person who isn’t willing to settle for a partial following, a marginal discipleship, a divided loyalty.

The Productive is all in … Nothing held back … Nothing in reserve … No holds barred … Never give up.

It is the mature faith that will not be satisfied until it has the character of Christ reproduced, and multiplying within themselves.
 
— Pastor Steve


Shallow Soil, Shallow Faith #5: Remove the Rocks

The rocky soil of the Parable of the Soils is a metaphor for those who lose faith because their faith has inadequate roots to sustain them during times of temptation, difficult circumstances, and persecution.
 
Yet, I have to wonder if there is something that we can do to help make this shallow ground more productive for the kingdom.

 

Is there anything we can do to improve the soil condition?

What are some potential remedies for shallow faith this is decimated, defeated and ultimately deserted?

If you’ve never had the opportunity to travel to Europe, you’ve seen them on TV and movies … those quaint country roads lined with miles of stone walls. These walls, which also divided fields, and lined drives would account for thousands upon thousands of stones. I thought to wonder, “where did all of these stones come from?”

Unlike us, these rocks weren’t hauled in for landscape purposes. These rock walls were formed as fields were cleared to make them more useful for farming. As rocks were pulled from the field they were stacked along the edges of the property where eventually the walls would take shape.

As sowers, we need to help remove the rocks so that the shallow can develop deeper roots that will be able to sustain their faith.

How shall we do that?

  • First, Teach for depth. We should teach, teach, teach … but we also need to be aware of what and how we are teaching.

Over the last two to three decades, the teaching practices of the church have changed. And it has not all been for the good. While some of the teaching prior to and into the 1980’s might have been good, solid theology but with little real life application, the preaching of the last couple of decades may be described in opposite terms … it is highly practical, but the depth of truth might be missing.

We have done a good job of preaching the imperative, the “how tos”:

  • Six Paths to Financial Peace;
  • Four Strategies to Defeat Emotional Insecurity;
  • Three Habits of Lasting Friendships;
  • Seven Steps to Have A Better Family by Friday;
  • Three Ways to Control Your Temper;
  • Two Keys To Racial Reconciliation.

In our effort to be practical, have we lost the reason, the why, for these imperatives … and in losing the reason for the imperative have we become just another social development organization.

When we water down the teaching of the church to steps, or life strategies, or imperatives to achieve, we encourage shallow faith.

We should never disconnect the imperative from the indicative. While the imperative tells us what to do, the indicative gives us the truth which should motivate us. We should never unhitch the command for action from the content of truth.

Both need to be taught in relation to one another:

Why should I strive for financial peace? Because God has made me a steward of His resources.

Why should I seek emotional security? Because we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, and God wants us to know our worth.

Why should I want a better home? Because the home is a model for the relationship with God and his people, and it is the first place where we are usually introduced to Christ.

Why should events like recently occurred at Charlottesville disturb us? Because God created all people in his image, and the walls of hostility between races was knocked down by Christ. It is shallow Biblical knowledge that allows someone to distort a book which teaches the unity of all ethnic groups as joint heirs in the promises of God into a theology of white supremacy.

We need to teach for depth. But here is the second thing that we can to do clear the ground.

  • We must develop relationships with the shallow before the trials come.

Those relationships will help the shallow grow deeper roots in two ways:

Developing relationships of mutual accountability will help them confront the testing of temptation. As we walk with one another, calling out the sin, calling each other to repentance, it invites a return to faith, and a deeper walk. For each other’s own good, we can’t be too afraid to confront one another in our sins, but that requires relationship. Will having a relationship mean that confrontation won’t hurt the relationship? No, but shall we choose the opposite, letting our friend wander into sin because we don’t want to wound our friendship?

We help to remove the rocks by identifying the stones of sin that need to be cleared from the field, and in relationships of accountability help to move those sins and temptations to the edges.
 
— Pastor Steve