Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The power of thinking and choosing

I am currently reading a fascinating book by Dr. Caroline Leaf.  The author is a communication pathologist and audiologist who works in the area of cognitive neuroscience. She combines both science and Scripture in her understanding of how the brain works and the power of thinking and choosing. In the book she writes, "The process of thinking and choosing is the most powerful thing in the universe after God, and it is a phenomenal gift from God to be treasured and used properly." My first thought after reading that line was that it might be stating too much, but as I got to thinking about it I realized our thoughts and choices do lead to powerful results.

Nearly every great discovery came because someone thought it was possible and chose to pursue that belief until it became a reality. Although they might have failed numerous times to make their thoughts a reality, they chose to continue until that dream did become a reality. Of course, the same is true of those who wish to pursue evil. Adolf Hitler wanted to raise Germany back to a position of power with himself as its head, and he chose to pursue that thought until he started a world war that brought death and heartache to millions of people.

As we think about the power of thinking and choosing it should cause us to stop and consider the things we think about most. Those thoughts will shape us and those around us more than we might believe. They can lead us to success or they can cause us to fail miserably.

What are your thoughts about your family? What do you want to experience in your family? How deeply do you think about those things? What choices have you made to make those thoughts a reality?

The same questions can be asked about your career, your finances, and every other area of your life. The first step in improving any area of life is to think deeply about that area, identify the things you want most in those areas, made decisions about how to achieve them, and then choose live out those decisions.

Pastors and church leaders should ask such questions about their churches. As a denominational leader I often heard pastors and other leaders complain about things in their church, but it seemed that few of these individuals were doing anything to correct those concerns. They had never stopped long enough to think about how they might improve their church and decide upon the steps they needed to take to make those improvements happen. Guess what: failing to make a choice is a choice, and when you decide to do nothing, nothing will improve.

One final thought about this. Each of us must choose what we will do with Jesus Christ. As we think about Him and the relationship with God that only comes through Him, we have a choice to make. Do we trust Him with our lives, make Him our Lord and Savior, or do we choose to reject Him? It's a choice each of us must make, and that choice will have the greatest impact on our lives than any other choices we will ever make. 


Friday, May 7, 2021

The renewed mind

Romans 12: 2 challenges us to  "Do not conform to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." As I read this verse recently I considered the pattern of today's world. We live in a world that is filled with rage, prejudice, hatred, toxicity, divisions, greed, violence, pain, abuse, fear, anxiety, depression and more negative emotions than can be listed here. Christians are not immune to these negative emotions. We see this in the divisions that exist in churches and in the language Christians use against one another. Obviously, none of the things I've listed here are positive, and none of them bring value to one's life. We can also note that we are not born with any of these; these are learned as we grow up. So where do they come from?

One place is through the media and much of the so-called entertainment of today. After years of faithfully following the news every night, I have mostly quit watching. I learned that the media does not report the news; it creates the news by deciding each day, out of thousands of possible stories, which ones they will give air time. The stories they select are the ones which promotes their personal biases or ones they can spin to their advantage. There are no journalists today of the likes of Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite so I have no interest in hearing today's talking heads promoting their agendas. 

What passes as entertainment today is no better. Comedians today believe they have to be vulgar and obscene in order to be funny. Many movies are not made to entertain their audience or even to tell a good story. They are made to promote an agenda, a mindset the producers want to instill in their audiences. Music has always shaped its listeners thinking and it still does.

University campuses are another place where the negative thoughts are learned. We often hear of a professor who is accused of promoting bigotry and hatred. Occasionally, a university will take action against such a professor, but often they defend the "academic freedom" of the professor and allow him or her to continue to teach. I can only wonder why a parent would spend $50,000-100,000 a year to allow his or her child to be subjected to such mental abuse. Of course, this type of instruction doesn't only happen at the university level. We now hear of it happening even in grade schools.

These negative emotions and mindsets are also learned in too many homes. No child is born to hate another. This has to be learned, and it's often learned in the home. We are born with a happy and trusting disposition, but because of situations in too many homes, that disposition is changed into some ugly which can follow that child throughout his or her life.

Regardless of where such toxic emotions and mindsets are learned, God tells us that we do not have to be conformed to the patterns of this world. We can be transformed by the renewing of our minds. How does renewing happen?

It begins by trusting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, giving your life to Him. If you've never done that I would love to talk with you about how to do that. Just send me a message.

Secondly, it comes by meditating on biblical truth. God promised Joshua in the Old Testament that if he would meditate on the Scriptures and keep them that God would bless him in all that he did. As we read the book that goes by his name, we see that God was faithful to keep that promise. 

In Philippians 4: 8 God says to us, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. When we meditate on these things, we will find the toxic thoughts and behaviors will slowly begin to leave us. We will find ourselves separating more and more from the world and drawing closer to God and to becoming what He created us to be. It is here that we enjoy God's greatest blessings. 

Friday, April 30, 2021

Just follow the directions

I just finished another online auction this week. It was another great auction with many local buyers, and we are shipping items all over America. This is the second auction in a row that saw someone drive a long ways to pick up their winnings that were not shippable. We had a man drive from Missouri to our auction center in Indiana to pick up the items he won. In our last auction we had a buyer drive from Texas to our auction center!

These online auctions are fun, but there is one thing that troubles me at every auction: people who don't read the information that clearly states the terms of the sale. Every auction clearly, in several places, gives the day, time and location for people to pick up their winning items, and yet there are 7-8 people in every auction who call or send an email asking when they can pick up their items and where are we located. We explain clearly that we do not have their credit card information on file and people can pay by check, cash or credit when they pick up their items. Still, in every sale there will be several who tell us they assume we automatically charged their card when they won the bid. Numerous times in the listing it explains that pick up is on Wednesday, the day after the sale closes, but on Tuesday night after the sale people will start sending emails explaining they can't pick up their items on Tuesday because they will be out of state or have an appointment to have their dog groomed or some other excuse. That means we have to work around their items in our small auction center while setting up for the next sale. It gets quite frustrating.

Of course, it's not just auction buyers who fail to read the terms of the sale. A lot of Christians never bother to read the Bible, or if they do read it they somehow believe it doesn't apply to them. There is no better guidebook for helping people understand how to live their lives, but many of us feel like we can ignore it and never suffer any consequences. If a preacher dares to proclaim, "Thus sayeth the Lord...." there's a good chance he or she won't be around next week. Prophets were not very popular in biblical times; they are less popular today.

How long has it been since you've engaged in serious Bible study? The Bible is not a book of theory. It doesn't contain suggestions that might help you live a better life. This is a guidebook given to us by God and designed to help us live the life He intends. We don't get to pick and choose what parts of the Bible we'll follow and which parts we'll ignore and not experience any consequences. I'll be the first to admit some of the things the Bible tells us we are to do can be difficult, but if we'll just follow the directions we will find life will become much better.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Church hoppers

 Every pastor dreads to hear a member of the congregation say, "We're not getting fed here and we've decided to leave for another church." This is seldom true. There are those occasions when a pastor is not preaching biblical truth, and people do need to leave a church, but this is not usually the case when people say these words. The reality is that many of them are "church hoppers," people who move from church to church attempting to find a place that will cater to their preferences and desires.

In my 35+ years of ministry most of the people I've seen leave a church did so because they were angry because they didn't get their way. Some were controllers who had perhaps ran the church for years before someone finally said no to them. When they couldn't threaten and bully to get their way they left to take their dysfunction to another church. Some had a different vision for the church and its ministry, a vision most of the church didn't share, so they left. They weren't angry; they just needed to find a church whose vision for ministry more closely matched their own. This is different than the ones who leave because they didn't get their way.

Some have a "What have you done for me lately?" attitude. I learned the hard way that no matter how much you help some people, they always demand more. When the help begins to slow down, they move on to greener pastures.

Church hoppers can have a fear of commitment. They are afraid if they stay too long in a church they will be expected to become involved. The only involvement they want is to attend a worship service when it's convenient. They don't want any responsibility, and they certainly don't want to be held accountable. The pastor of one church told me that their church was large enough that people could hide out there. That can't happen in a smaller church. Eventually, in a smaller church people are going to be invited to serve in some capacity, and that invitation is enough to cause some church hoppers to leave.

They may also have a fear of the shallowness of their faith being exposed if they stay too long. While the excuse may be that they are not being fed, the reality may be that they don't want to be fed. Often, they are not feeding themselves. Their faith might be described as a mile wide and an inch deep. There is no depth to their faith, no roots, and this shallowness will eventually be seen if they stay in a church long enough for people to get to know them well.

 When people complain about not being fed, pastors should take a look at their sermons to see if there is any truth in the complaint. It might be that some adjustments may be needed in the messages, but often pastors will find that there is no basis for the complaint. In that case, wish the people well as they continue their spiritual journey and bless them as they continue their church hopping.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Where does a church find a bivocational pastor?

 For years churches worked with their denomination to help them find a pastor. Many still do, and this was an important of my ministry as a Regional Minister for our denomination. Smaller churches in our area often sought help from the placement office in a nearby seminary. They could usually provide the names of seminary students seeking a ministry position while they finished their studies. However, as more and more churches have begun seeking bivocational leadership seminaries and denominations can struggle to provide good candidates. Where do these churches look to find a bivocational pastor?

Denominational leaders should still be the first contact. Like I often told smaller churches, I didn't have bivocational ministers growing on trees, but sometimes I would know of a retired minister or someone feeling led to enter the ministry who might be willing to serve their church. Sometimes I would know of lay leaders who felt called to do more and who had the gifts to serve a church as a bivocational minister who might consider a call to a church. Because denominational and regional leaders network with so many churches and people, they are the first contact a church should make when seeking bivocational leadership.

Your bivocational pastor is going to come from the same general geographical location as the church. It's not likely a pastor will move from New Jersey to Iowa to serve a bivocational church. When I worked with churches seeking such pastors I would try to keep within a 50 mile radius from the church and much closer when I could.

Sometimes the best person to serve as a bivocational pastor will come from within the congregation itself. Several times I saw someone from within the church accept the call to serve as the church's pastor and enjoy a very successful ministry. These are people who are known by the congregation and community, they are trusted, and they have shown good leadership in the past. Often, they will lack training, but there are numerous ways that can be addressed today.

Retired pastors can make great bivocational ministers. While they may have been glad to leave the stresses of fully-funded ministry, I have found many who were willing to serve a bivocational church. They bring a wealth of experience and wisdom to the role that a church will not get from someone just out of seminary. If they are willing to consider returning to the ministry it probably reflects a passion to serve people, and that is important in a bivocational church.

Although it often takes time to find a good bivocational pastor, they are out there. Churches should not give up or decide to settle on someone who really isn't a good fit for the church. Work with your denominational leaders and trust God in the process. You'll be glad you did.

Friday, April 16, 2021

The importance of youth ministry today

 I grew up when youth ministry in our church was known as BYF, Baptist Youth Fellowship. We went on hay rides, played games, had Bible sword drills and once a month joined the other churches in our association for a large youth gathering in one of our larger churches. It was fun and a good chance to learn about God and what the Bible teaches. Youth ministry today is much more serious. Not that there's not opportunities for fun and building relationships with other young people, but the challenges young people face today require much more from the youth leaders than what the youth leaders of my generation faced.

Recently, I had the opportunity to listen in to a ZOOM meeting where a global study of teens was shared. This study focused on 13-19 year-olds in twenty countries to better understand their religious beliefs and their challenges. Of the young people in the study, 43% were Christian, 23% were from other faiths, and 34% professed no religion with 20% of them committed to atheism or agnosticism. However. when a list of criteria was presented that would determine how many of the Christians were committed to the faith, that 43% dropped to only 7%.

Some of the interesting findings in the report noted that 52% of all the teens believe that all religions teach equally valid truths. Conservative Christians believe that only faith in Jesus Christ leads to salvation, but 53% of the Christian teens in the study believed that all faiths lead one to God.

When the study focused on issues the teens struggled with they found there were many. One in five teens feel sexually attracted to someone from the same gender in the previous few months. One in four admitted to having suicidal thoughts in the previous three months, and this included one in three teens from the US. The top factors that led to the suicidal thoughts were gender confusion, online bullying, same-sex attraction and depression. The study found that girls struggled more with these issues than the boys.

Only 53% of US teens believe that gender is determined at birth reflecting the trend we are seeing in our culture. Same-sex marriage is also growing in acceptance among teens with girls much more likely to say that marriage does not need to be exclusively between a man and woman. It was also found that a small percentage of teens view marriage as a lifetime commitment between two people.

While there were other interesting findings in the study, I will only mention two more, one negative and one positive. The negative one is that only one in 12 teens will talk to their pastor or study a religious text to find answers about the meaning of life. This indicates a real distrust that many teens have towards their religious leaders, which I sense reflects more on those of us in leadership than it does on the teens. We have not earned their trust.

The positive finding I'll mention is that 41% of the teens who do not attend church say they would if asked and another third reported they might attend a church if asked.

I doubt that the youth leaders I had growing up ever faced any of these challenges. Today, I would expect that all youth leaders do if they are listening to their teens. Many of our churches need to take a serious look at their youth ministries and ask if they are equipped to respond to their young people who are facing some of these challenges and questions. The decisions our young people make in their teens will impact the rest of their lives, and we need to do everything we can to help them make the best decisions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The problem of suffering

An argument often used by those who doubt the existence of God is related to suffering. They will point to the example of a child dying of cancer or some horrible event that brings harm and death to innocent people. They then challenge the existence of God by saying that Christians teach that God is all-loving and all-powerful, and yet innocent people are allowed to suffer. Therefore, their conclusion is that either God does not exist or He is not all-loving or all-powerful, and therefore, even if He does exist, He is not worthy of worship. Frankly, it appears to be a good argument as virtually everyone wishes that people did not have to suffer the things that can come into one's life. However, this argument fails on several counts.

One, those who make this argument are often the same ones who claim there is no objective morality. They believe that people should be free to do what they please without any moral judgment being placed on them. But, their claim that suffering is bad or wrong is a moral judgment. If there is no objective morality, what is the basis for their moral judgment? Perhaps they believe that a particular action is wrong, but if another does not hold to that belief, and there is no foundational basis for moral values, then who can say that anything is good or bad?

Second, just because we might not recognize a good reason for suffering does not mean that there is not one. Many will tell you that the greatest insights they ever gained came through a time of suffering in their lives. Countless people have testified that they have accomplished the things in life they've accomplished as a result of going through times of testing.

A third reason the argument fails is that there is nothing inconsistent in the nature of God that would prevent suffering. God often allows us to experience the consequences of the choices we make, and sometimes those consequences are painful. If God prevented us from experiencing those consequences we would probably make even worse choices than we do now.

Finally, suffering is a result of living in a broken world. When sin entered the world it brought with it suffering and death. There will come a time when all suffering will cease, but this is not that time.

Everyone will go through times of suffering at some point in their lives. Some will experience it much worse than others. Because it is such an important part of our lives, and because it can cause even the most dedicated Christian to question his or her faith, I am going to begin a three-part sermon series in the church I serve starting next Sunday on the subject of suffering. If you live in the Westport, Indiana area I invite you to join us at 10:30 for worship. If you live away, the service will be broadcast live on our church's Facebook page at  https://www.facebook.com/WestportBaptistChurch. It will also be available on our church's webpage at https://westportbaptistchurch.org.