The Gifts of Christmas

On December 25th much of the world will stop it’s regular activities.  For a day we will come together as friends and family.  Most difficulties will stop and for a time we will enjoy the blessings of the day.  The trappings that surround this day mean the difference between success and failure for many in the business world.

How can one day mean so much to so many?  This is the day set aside to remember the birth of our Saviour!  Some would argue there is no authority to set this day aside.  Others would attempt to prove Christ’s birth could not possibly have been on this day.  Still some would deny Jesus birth altogether.  Their attempt is to take Christ out of Christmas entirely.

I have no desire to argue the authority for this day.  I don’t wish to argue if this is the correct time of the year.  There are those who are much better qualified to do so.  My intent is to list just a few of the blessings that have come to us as a result of the birth of our Messiah.  The following are certainly not all the blessings the birth of Jesus brought to us but these that follow are the true gifts of Christmas.

  • The birth of Jesus brought the gift of salvation to the world.  Jesus was our sin payment.  His birth brought the hope of salvation to the world.  Without the birth of Jesus there would have been no sin payment.  If there had been no sin payment there would have been no salvation.
  • The birth of Jesus brought the gift of joy to the world.  There is no joy that compares with the joy of knowing Jesus.  As a believer we have a joy that the world will never know outside of Christ.  John tells us in I John 1 that the knowledge of Jesus leaves us full of joy.
  • The birth of Jesus brought the gift of assurance to the world. It is the intent of the Lord that we know with certainty our salvation.  The gift of our Lord made this assurance not only possible but certain.
  • The birth of Jesus brought the gift of peace.  There is no peace that compares to being in Christ.  It brought to us a peace that passes all understanding.
  • The birth of Jesus brought the gift of service.  The birth of Jesus gives us the opportunity to be reconciled back to God.  This reconciliation allows us opportunity to build relationship with the Father.  As we grow in our relationship with the Lord we are afforded the gift of service.  Our service brings glory to His name.

These are but a small sampling of the things brought to us by the birth of Jesus.  These gifts are real regardless of whether Jesus was born on December 25th or not.  They are certain with or without our perceived authorization.  These are indeed the real gifts of Christmas.

We Must Get it Right!

    

     Do you really believe the mission of the church is the same as that of Jesus?  In our heads we know that according to Luke 19:10 the mission of the Christ was to “seek and save the lost.”  If in our hearts we believe that His mission is our mission we know we aren’t doing a good job of imitating our Lord.

     From 1980 until today the United States has grown in population by more than 30 percent.  During that time the growth of Churches of Christ in this country has been basically none existent.  Everyday we are falling farther behind in fulfilling the great commission in this country much less throughout the world. 

     We see many congregations in a long-term spiral of non-growth.  Even worse we may see them actually declining in number.  One study I read recently stated that only 1 out of 20 or 5 percent of the churches that decline for an extended period ever regain growth and vitality. 

     Let me share another disturbing fact.  From 1994-2004 established churches contributed 0 % to growth of churches in this nation!  When you continue to do what you are doing you will continue to get what you have gotten!  It is absolutely essential we rethink the  direction, focus, and culture of our brotherhood. 

     Those who have taken the time to research have found there is an exception to the stagnation problem prevalent in so many of our churches.  Church plants continue to grow and do well.  In church plants each year on average 1 person is converted for every 32 members.  In established churches that ratio is an abysmal 1 for every 82 members.  It is firmly proven that church planting is a great way to build up the cause of Christ today. 

     While Churches of Christ have maintained the status quo or declined in the last 20 years the Conservative Christian Church has maintained a steady growth pattern.  Aside from the obvious difference of instrumental music, if you examine the two fellowships you will find the primary differences are culture and direction.  One group has nurtured a culture built on the idea of “fighting against change.”  The other has promoted a culture of “preaching Jesus” through the planting of churches.

     It is obvious that planting churches produces essential growth.  Yet, not all churches or Christians can be involved in planting churches.  Do we simply forget about these established churches?  Do we allow them to die a slow death as life slowly seeps from them?  Is it possible to transpose the same values, direction, and culture that exist in a church plant into our established churches?  Is it possible for a church to regain the vitality of its youth?  I think that it is not only possible but very necessary.  Imagine what we could accomplish if we could transpose into our established churches the same vitality and zeal that exists in church plants!  I fear in our present day churches we have built something that may not please God.  We need to rethink our values and direction.  With God’s help we can do this!

 

Church Culture (part 8)

     In today’s world there isn’t much we can really trust.  The world is searching for some place it can invest  confidence.  Nothing in this world provides such a place.  Only God is the answer.  No trust can be placed in government, men, or even religion.  God is the only answer worthy of trust. 

     The answer to tomorrow’s problems already exists in the mind of God today.  Our answers cannot be found in our ability or understanding.  Many of us grew up believing if we could do enough, pray enough, or repent often enough we might be saved.  This culture provides no security, no joy, and little hope.  The time has long since passed for us to move our trust from our ability to the grace provided by the Lord.

     Churches operating in a culture that stresses the preaching of Jesus know that it is not in man to direct his steps.  Our understanding will never be adequate nor our righteousness sufficient to warrant eternal life.  Our salvation stands of falls within the halls of God’s grace.  Our direction must be determined by total trust in God and the reconciling power of Jesus Christ.

     I could not tell you the times I have thought, “I can’t do the Lord’s work in this place.  I could only see my own abilities and the job that stood before me.  I had forgotten that I am simply a tool God uses to do His work.  I doubt that I stand alone in these thoughts.  It isn’t unusual for one to depend on their abilities forgetting about God.  It has been my experience in my years of preaching that this is the accepted rule.  Our fellowship serves in a culture of self-reliance.  We depend on our intellect, talents, and understanding to determine our religious direction.  This is not enough.  Man is never sufficient regardless of desire or actions.

     It is very necessary that Christians and churches learn to have a deep trust in God.  It is necessary for salvation.  It is essential in our daily walk.  It is also extremely important that we develop a deep trust in God within our local churches.  Our culture of self-reliance and understanding built in our knowledge of Scripture has diminished our trust in God.  This culture will always limit our abilities because to some degree it leaves God out of the equation. 

     How do we change our culture? Do we pray more often?  Do we work harder and longer hours?  Maybe we should spend more time studying Scripture.  All of these are of value, but they are not our problem.  The Churches of Christ today must develop a deep trust in God.  Only then can we preach Jesus in a way that places His influence in our churches as well as our communities.  This is a subtle change of direction, but a change of direction absolutely necessary.  Without this cultural change we will not remain relevant to a world in serious trouble.

Church Culture (Part 7)

     A Christ centered church is a one another church.   Churches that stress Jesus become churches with a close-knit family atmosphere.  One of the characteristics of these churches is an attitude that stresses building up one another.  In Hebrews 10:25 the Christians were told it was important that they not give up meeting with their brethren.  The reason was not founded in the legalistic concept of “having to attend.”  Instead this idea was founded in the concept of family.   When we meet two things happen.  We  bring glory and honor to God and we build each other up. 

     In our society we talk to our children about “peer pressure.”   This isn’t limited to children and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The family concept of Christ driven churches contains an element of peer pressure.  When Paul is addressing the church at Thessalonica in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 he is speaking of peer pressure.  He is telling them to avoid the man who does not obey instruction.  He tells them do not associate with him that he might be ashamed.  He further says, “Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a family.”  This is certainly a form of “peer pressure.”

     A church that centers its activities and directions in Jesus is a family built in Jesus.  There is a particular lifestyle that is built into this concept of family.  When one falls the other members of that family lift up the fallen.  When family members cry we cry with them.  When they laugh we laugh.  We teach each other by allowing others to see our walk in Jesus.  Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1 that we ought to imitate him even as he imitates Christ.  A lifestyle of preaching Jesus is lived in a certain way.  We learn not only from Scripture but also by watching others walk in Christ.  There are things that are accepted and things that are not.  This lifestyle becomes a type of peer pressure. 

     Christians learn quickly the things that are accepted by their local congregation and the things that aren’t.  We learn the things that are important to that church and the things that aren’t important.  This becomes the “culture” of the church.  The culture is maintained by to a degree by our unwillingness to gain the ire of our spiritual family. This is true in any church.  This isn’t necessarily driven by Scripture.  It is more likely driven by attitude.  Christ centered churches are driven by an attitude that says the most important thing that happens is the preaching of the Master.  These attitudes are kept constant by like-minded brethren.  Legalistic churches are kept constant in the same way.  The difference is simple.  Legalistic churches are constantly searching for error in the lives of their brethren.  Churches which make the preaching of Christ their distinctive value,  are looking for ways to extend the influence of Jesus. It is about the choice we make.   It is about where we place our emphasis.  Choose carefully your family.  There will be peer pressure.   It might well determine your eternal destiny.

Church Culture (part 6)

     As congregations mature certain characteristics become mainstays in their service to God. In past years we have experienced attitudes and actions that weren’t always what the Lord would prefer. How many of us have experienced the disappointment of being part of a spriritual family hindered by different groups each having their own agenda? How difficult it is to contantly hear murmuring. We hear fellow preachers condemn one another in the name of truth. Monthly papers have been produced condemning everybody and everything that doesn’t agree with the opinions of the writer. Instead of a family pulling together we become a family divided, brethren constantly condemning and bickering with each other. An atmosphere of legalism and self-reliance brings about results that never allow necessary positive characteristics to develop. For more than 100 years we have wallowed in an atmosphere that has hindered the preaching of Jesus. It doesn’t matter how noble our intentions the results have been tragic. This atmosphere has been diametrically opposed to all that is produced by the preaching of Jesus. Far to often in our arrogance we have allowed this atmosphere to not only remain but be the defining force in our brotherhood. In many instances we have failed to grow as Christians and as churches. We have attempted growth in a culture that stands opposed to the freedom brought to us by Christ.
     A culture of preaching Jesus produces maturity in both individual Christians and the churches to which they belong. Mature churches develop positive personality traits. Proper spiritual concepts will only develop consistently in a culture that stresses the preaching of Jesus. It is important that we nurture proper traits in our church family. Let us look at the characteristics that develop when a church centers its preaching in Christ.
     If preaching Jesus is our mantra we will produce a trait of transparency within the church. Transparency and honesty are absolutely necessary in order for a church to maintain its strength in the community. Everything must be above board and without question. We cannot afford to develop hidden agendas. This eliminates the popular question, “What can the church do for me?” Proper culture and atmosphere encourage our imitating Christ. When meeting our personal wants stops being the driving force we no longer have need for personal agendas. Preaching Christ is the agenda. We can be totally honest in dealing with each other because we have taken peronal pride out of the way. I no longer feel the need to win. My pride and success is now placed in preaching Jesus.
     Christ driven churches nourish an attitude that builds on small victories. They celebrate the  successes. These gifts are treasured because they allow opportunities of encouragement. It becomes the rule rather than the exception to find a way to appreciate the things we do for one another. In Hebrews 10 we are commanded to provoke one another to love and good works. The successes in our spiritual families afford brethren an opportunity to fulfill this command. We now find opportunities to build each other up in Christ Jesus. A deep and abiding love among brethren is the natural result of preaching Jesus.
     Proper atmosphere in our congregations will bring us together. One of Jesus last request to the Father was unity. When we stress absolute agreement rather than Christ we will never see unity. The choice could never be clearer. We either stress the direction of the past or we stress Jesus. The personal traits of our congregations rest on the choices we make.

Church Culture (part 5)

     We must allow the emphasis of our preaching and teaching to mature until it centers in Jesus. As we mature in our direction we need to maintain an atmosphere of family unity.  How do we make this subtle change of direction and  still maintain unity? I mentioned earlier in this series the questions are easy but the answers are hard. 
     As we study the ministry of Jesus we see a very distictive pattern. Jesus always worked with purpose. Nothing was by accident. Jesus didn’t begin his ministry until the time was right. The time and circumstances were pre-determined.  At His baptism two major things took place. First, Jesus received the Holy Spirit. Second,  He received the blessings of his Father.  With the Holy Spirit within Him and having recieved the Fathers blessings Jesus began His ministry.
     When all was ready Jesus began to assemble a core group of workers. These were men who loved and supported the Lord. From this core group of twelve he chose an inner group of three. These men were from varied backgrounds so different, yet shared a commonality.  These were men who were willing to learn, to change, and most of all allow themselves to be used.  These men were fully committed to the cause of Christ.  They didn’t understand everything nor did they know everything.  The one thing they did understand was the fact that this ministry was all about the Messiah.
     One of the things I have learned in thirty-two years of preaching is we always need friends who are committed to walking with us on our journey. At this point we might be tempted to say there is safety in numbers. In reality it is so much more.   Jesus knew these twelve men would turn the world upside down. Today the right core group with a passion for Christ can certainly change the culture and direction of a local church.
     In Scripture we are told to teach men who will be able to teach others also. Teaching men who will be able to teach others cannot be done from the pulpit or in the classroom alone. It has to be done one on one. Choose those who love the Lord. Choose individuals who are willing to listen, willing to change,  individuals who love Jesus.  Teach and instill in this core group a passion for the message of the Messiah.  Develop a core that has such a passion for preaching Christ that like Jeremiah of old they can’t hold the message.  It has to be told.
     Each church is different. I can’t tell you how long it will take to build a core. I can’t tell you how many you need in the core, but I can tell you this. We will not change church culture or build strong churches until we develop a core element passionate about Christ.

Church Culture (part 4)

Today our discussion changes from theory to practicality.  How do we implement the changes necessary to bring about a change in the attitudes and atmosphere in our churches?  I stated earlier that changes must be made one Christian and one congregation at a time.  Since we are autonomous as individual churches this is the only effective option to bring about necessary change.

     The first area that must be addressed is the area of education.  In many instances we are who we are because this is all that we know. We have been exposed to a particular preaching emphasis and it has brought about predictable results.  A preacher friend of mine once said, “It is a good thing that many of those who are members of the church were brought up in the church because otherwise they would have never studied their way to truth.”  This is a very scary thought.   It would be inappropriate to blame this on the masses.  All groups are similar in this respect.  We tend to accept the ideas of those we consider to be the experts.  If we don’t like the results we have no one to blame but ourselves.  For more than 100 years we have heard a distinct sound coming from our pulpits.  That sound did not include a passion for preaching Christ.  The sound we have heard is very heavy in the areas of patterns, restoration, blueprints, and self-reliance.  That same sound has been shallow in areas such as grace, faith, and trust in God.  There has been far too little preaching on what God has done for us.  Instead we have stressed man’s obedience to forms and patterns.

     The initial step in changing the atmosphere in each congregation is a change in the direction of the message.  We must stress a deep need for the Christ and the purpose He has in the lives of mankind. We must turn our atmosphere away from attempting to win arguments and proving doctrine.  Our direction has to become a genuine passion for telling the world about the Savior.  This begins with a proper emphasis in education and preaching.

     In 2 Thessalonians 3:1 Paul says, “Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored just as it was with you.”  Paul made it clear that his preaching consisted primarily in the message of Jesus.  This had been the case in Thessalonica and it was the case everywhere he went.  Paul wasn’t telling them not to worry about morality.  He fully expected them to adhere to messages he had brought to them earlier.  This didn’t alleviate their responsibility to deal with error.  What Paul was sharing with them was where he expected them to put their emphasis.

     If we continue to teach and emphasize the same things we have in the past we will continue to get the same results.  The first stage in bringing about change in the culture of our local churches must be a change in the emphasis of our preaching and education.  Our preaching and educational emphasis must be on Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  This is not a miracle cure.  It is simply the place we begin in turning things around.  It has taken us a long ime to get where we are today.  The change will not be easy but it is so necessary.