Over the past few weeks in our new home in West Jeannette, Amber, Leah, Uriah, and I have had the joy of preparing for Christmas. This is by far my favorite time of year. Though probably not for all the right reasons.
Do I love what lies in back of all this preparation? The historical Incarnation, God becoming man, the second person of the Trinity born of a virgin, laid in a manger, vulnerable, in humble and poor conditions, and all that it means for the redirection of the course of human history? Absolutely. But also, I just love Christmas music. And lights, decorations, Christmas cookies and wrapping gifts (which I still need to do!). I love trudging through the snow with my daughter’s mittened hand in mine to find the perfect tree, cutting it down, stuffing it into the back of our SUV, decorating it at home as a family with hot chocolate and carols playing, and then the excitement of lifting my daughter up on my shoulders to place the star on top, plugging it all in and seeing the wonder in their eyes. I love preparing for Christmas.
One thing we didn’t do this year, though, was decorate the outside of our house with Christmas lights. On my street in Jeannette, that would stick out like a sore thumb. I learned this lesson a few months back when we first moved in and I was out front digging up the five-foot-tall weeds that had overrun the rock patch in front of the house. As I was laying down some landscaping fabric and replacing the stones, a neighbor walking by stopped with a puzzled look on his face and asked, “What the heck are you doing?” I explained what it was that I was doing and he chuckled, “What are you, some type of landscaper?” I explained that, in fact, I was not, and he said, “Good luck with that,” as he walked away shaking his head. He was polite about it, but I could tell he thought I was more than a little weird. Christmas lights on the house would probably only confirm his suspicions, so I decided we would forego that part of our preparation this year.
But as much as I love preparing for Christmas, there is a man who spent far longer preparing and looking forward to the birth of Christ, than I. His name is Simeon, and his story is in Luke 2. He was an old man who had been “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” God told him that he wouldn’t die before he saw that consolation, the Lord’s Christ or Messiah, the Savior. And Luke records that with great joy the old man took the one-month-old Jesus up into his arms, when his parents brought him to the temple, and he blessed God saying,
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in
peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation …
Simeon could die now. The long awaited moment had finally come. The first Christmas had arrived.
But how did Simeon prepare for Christmas? Probably in the same way that old Anna did in the following verses of Luke 2.
She prayed. And God heard her and Simeon’s prayers, and answered them by allowing them to see, with their very own eyes, the child who would redeem the world.
As we continue to prepare in this season, not just for Christmas, but for planting in Jeannette, what is the most important thing we can do? Plan? Network? Bible Studies? Discipleship? As important as those things are, they are all meaningless if we don’t pray. As one church planter wrote, “Prayer is the irreplaceable human instrument by which God’s people advance the cause of God’s Kingdom.” If the goal of church planting is to advance God’s Kingdom, then prayer is irreplaceable.
But why? Why is prayer so central to planting a church? I mean, I get it, Jesus prayed, and the Bible says we should pray without ceasing, and so on. But Jesus did a lot of things. And church planting involves doing a lot of things too. Is prayer really the most important thing?
If you ask me, I am a planner and doer by nature. And if I’m honest, praying doesn’t feel like either of those to me. In fact, sometimes it feels like dying. Or at least like a formality that once done and out of the way, I can get on with the actual doing … But in my better moments, I realize that viewing prayer in this way is a colossal mistake. Especially when it comes to church planting.
So then why is prayer so important? Is it because there is some magical power inherent in prayer itself? No, actually it’s the opposite. Prayer is an abandoning of our hope in anything other than the power of God. And prayer is so important, first, because God loves to answer prayer. And second, and related to the first, it shows our absolute, utter dependence on Him for anything to happen or change. Prayer says, “We’re hopeless, helpless, and powerless. You’re great. Do something or we’re doomed.” In fact, so important is it to what we are trying to do in Jeannette, that if you decide not to pray with me for God to move in an incredible and supernatural way - please warn me now so I can walk away. We can’t do it without asking God in prayer together. And if you’re not committed to doing that, I’d like a running start, in the opposite direction, if this thing’s not gonna work.
But if you are committed to praying for God to powerfully advance His Kingdom through a church plant in Jeannette, consider joining a team of prayer partners that will be forming over the next few weeks. I’m looking to gather a team willing to commit to praying - at least once a week, but preferably daily - for the work in Jeannette. Once the team is formed, I will update you on a regular basis with prayer requests, answered prayers, and so on, and this summer we will gather to pray together and hit the streets of Jeannette for a couple of prayer walks (for you local prayer partners). If you’re interested in joining the team, or have questions, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) ASAP.
In many ways, Jeannette is like old Simeon and Anna. It’s glory days might be behind it, and it’s showing some signs of blight and decay. But more than anything, Jeannette needs to see Jesus with its very own eyes. That is what will bring peace and joy and restoration. Will you join me in praying in preparation for this to happen?
About three weeks ago my wife gave birth to our first child, a baby boy. He is adorable. I love to hold him and kiss his forehead. He eats well, sleeps ok, and poops great. Lord willing in the coming months, he will be baptized. And by the time he turns eighteen to twenty nine years of age, there is a 60% chance he will at best want nothing to do with the local church, and at worst want nothing to do with Jesus.
And that’s only if the recent trends stay the same instead of worsening. Research by the Barna Group, a faith based research company has found that, “59% of young people with a Christian background report that they had or have “dropped out of attending church, after going regularly.”[i]
The Barna group also finds that there is a 43% drop off rate within this age range in terms of church attendance and church participation.[ii] Which means 4 out of 10 students in any given church’s youth group, will not be engaged in the church, at all, by the age of 29.
In a country where there are thousands of churches, Christian radio stations, Christian schools, Christian colleges, Christian youth group programs, Christian camps, and the like, why are we seeing this trend? Why are young people leaving the church, and many of them, no longer walking with Jesus at all, if they ever truly did? Why are we losing the present and future generations of our young people? And why aren’t they coming back?
At least part of an explanation can be found in three common attitudes held by young people today toward the church as an organized institution: I don’t need the church, I don’t want the church, and I can’t trust the church.
A few decades ago, the American evangelical church and its youth programing used to provide a lot of things for young people. It was a place you could find answers to life’s hardest questions, make friends when you didn’t have any, and be a part of something bigger and more important than yourself.
But today there is Wikipedia and Google to learn anything you ever wanted to learn. There is Facebook, Snap Chat, Instagram and Twitter through which you can make friends and be connected. There has never been a time, when young Christians have had more access to other religious teaching and belief systems such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Atheism, and other worldviews which have their own explanations for how and why the world is the way it is and with us in it. There is Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube to bring inspiration and foster creative thought.
Meanwhile, quite frankly, the church is perceived as a place, where science is evil, the word ‘artistic’ means corrupted morals, the music and movies are bad, the faith is phony, shallow, and doesn’t really offer any helpful or meaningful answers to the problems we face today.
In other words, the church doesn’t seem to offer anything to young people any more. Nothing they need and nothing they want.
There is also an overarching skepticism and cynicism toward authority in general today among young people. This is true, say for the many who are pressured into going to college so they could get a degree that promised future success, but incurring debt they could never realistically pay off, and then no jobs available so they could even try.[iii] For those who can get a job, the average amount of time they stay with that work is 3 years. For their parents and grandparents, it was an average of 10 years.[iv]
And for many others who grew up with workaholic parents who were never around. Many others have been entirely abandoned by their parents, having never met their father or mother. 42% of children born today are born to single parents. That figure is up over 37% from the 1960’s.[v]
Young Christians have questions about what is in the bible. Stoning people? Genocide? Homophobia? Is the bible really just a book written by imperfect human beings who have certain agendas and motives in mind? If so how can the bible be trusted as reliable historically and other wise? Isn’t it sort of dated?
Far too often, when young people bring up these doubts and questions in their churches (If and only if they it feel it is safe to do so, and most often it is not), too many pastors and lay people are unprepared, unable, or unwilling to answer these questions clearly and biblically.
And so the church is perceived by the next generation as just another institution that has and will fail them. As such for many of them, the church just can’t just be trusted.
So what does the church need to start thinking, doing, and perhaps most importantly, start asking of itself regarding ministry, not only to teenagers, but even from infancy to the “golden” years of retirement? What does the church have to offer the next generation that they need, want, and can trust?
What the church has to offer is the gospel of Jesus Christ expressed through meaningful relationships in life on life missional discipleship.
Jesus had one plan to reach all generations of his people, for all times, including the present, and he states that plan most clearly in Matthew 28:18-20. “Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We as a church must take seriously the task of discipleship, which is what Jesus always had in mind, if there is any hope for the “lost generation” to be found.
At MCC, our student ministry has identified five targets for discipleship of the next generation. We want to see students of MCC hear the gospel message, believe gospel truth, be shaped by gospel wisdom, be rooted in gospel community, and be launched into gospel mission.
The apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” We know that there is one message of hope every person needs to overcome the biggest problem we face as human beings, our sin. For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). And all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The message that saves is the gospel of Jesus Christ, who has saved us through his life, death, and resurrection. The Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to change people’s hearts and bring them to faith in Jesus. Discipleship is not merely about us telling students what we ourselves think and feel about certain things. It is not mere human thoughts and words that change student’s lives. For it is only God’s word, used by the Holy Spirit that a person can be saved and transformed by his grace alone.
It is not enough to hear the gospel. One must actually believe it. God’s Word in Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” It is through faith in Jesus, presented to us in the gospel, that we receive the gift of salvation from sin and death. In itself, the gospel is provocative, compelling, and robust in its implication for all of life. So we seek to disciple our students faithfully in the word of God, teaching them to not only hear the bible, but to understand and apply it to their daily lives, that they may not only be hearers of the word, but doers also. (James 1:23)
In the bible we see that God is not only concerned with teaching us what to think, but also, how to think. He goes to amazing lengths in Scripture to not just give us exhaustive prescribed solutions to every single hard challenge we will face in life, rather he engages us in a way that shapes how we should think and process the world around us in those moments. In other words, God not only want us and our children to know what to think, but also how to think in this world. This is what God does in what we call the wisdom books of the bible, like the book of Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.
We must stop teaching our children what they should think and do merely because we say so, and start teaching them how to think, because God says so.
There is no other way we can expect them to be prepared and equipped to faithfully follow Jesus the rest of their lives, in a culture that opposes everything He is about and has come to do to save the world. We can’t protect them forever from the sinful culture where they live by having them only engage “Christian” books, movies, music, and art as good and wholesome as they may be. Our young people need to be ready to fight, when the fight comes their way, equipped with a biblical worldview full of gospel wisdom ready to explain what is good and why, according to God’s truth. We must disciple our young people in a way that trains them in skills of critical thinking, shaped by the word of God.
Too often upon returning from college or graduating from their high school youth group, young Christians are left wondering, “What does it look like for me to follow Jesus now?” Rarely is it even considered by them that becoming a member of the local church is part of the answer.
Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “…upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell, will not stand against it.” We want our young people to be so rooted in a local church community, that they are being equipped and encouraged to faithfully serve Jesus, not only for their high school and college years, but for a lifetime to come. We want them to see church membership as a no brainer, to what it means to live the Christian life.
Our relationship with Jesus is personal, but never was it meant to be private. Knowing and following Jesus means knowing and following Jesus in community. As the Lord says in John 13:35, “They will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.” We pray our students will experience the transforming power of God by being rooted in Gospel Community, the church. We pray they will experience the joy of being a part of a group of sinners like themselves, whom together are enthralled by the grace of God at work in and through one another. We pray that the church will be a place they find meaningful, trusted relationships where they can flourish for a lifetime.
Jesus said in Luke 19:10, “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” And in Matthew 25:40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ This is the gospel mission. It is Jesus’ mission that we long for our students to be passionate about and engaged in for the rest of their lives. We long for them to be living out this mission, to the least and lost around them, as they are trained in evangelism and works of mercy, expressing the gospel both in word and deed to the glory of God. There is nothing bigger for them to be living for and there is nothing more worthwhile of devoting their talents, passions, and desires.
Pray that these targets will be aimed toward and hit with accuracy. Pray that our ministry to students will not merely be about numbers and programs, but instead about the faithful discipleship of the next generation to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. May this happen not only in our student ministries, but in our children ministries, our adult ministries, among our friends and families in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities.
If you are a parent of little children or older teens, make plans now for how you will disciple them. And begin today. Encourage their creativity as image bearers of our Creator. Encourage their interest in things like science and help them marvel at the wonders of God’s power and beauty through them. Begin leading your family daily in a time of family worship, singing together and praying together other than just at the dinner table. Perhaps watch just one episode of the Flash instead of three, and read the scriptures together in place of the second and third episodes. Model repentance to your children, confessing your sin to them, asking them for forgiveness, and explaining to them the forgiveness you have in Jesus. Disciple your kids now in the five targets of discipleship listed above. Disciple their friends and their parents. Proclaim to them the wonderful good news about Jesus.
If you are single without kids, or your children are already grown, take an invested interest in the life of a young person at our church. Ask them questions about how they are doing. Ask them about school and the interests they have. Ask questions and listen without feeling the need to give them life changing advice or wise answers to all their problems. That opportunity may come eventually, but probably not at the beginning. Listen and listen some more, and pray for them, and follow up with them, about what they share with you.
Go to their sporting events and cheer for them. Go to their music recitals and applaud them. Attend their art shows and marvel at their talent. Invite their families into your home for dinner. Invite them to work with you and show them what you do for a living and why it matters for the Kingdom of God. Invite them to check out a hobby of yours and let them participate. And at any point when they are awkward and rude, (notice I said when, not if), show them what grace looks like, tell them about God’s grace at work in your life, and keep going after them again, and again, and again. Disciple them. It is a hard work well rewarded, and full of unimaginable joy with Jesus for his glory.
[i] Kinnaman, David, and Aly Hawkins. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church-- and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. pp. 23
[ii] Kinnaman, YLM, 22
[iii] Kinnaman, YLM, 48
[iv] Kinnaman, YLM, 48
[v] Kinnaman, YLM, 46
“You Lost Me” by David Kinnaman
“Hurt 2.0” by Chap Clark
“Sustainable Youth Ministry” by Mark Devries
“Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker” by Andrew Root
I woke up this morning still processing the events of the past couple of days, and deeply concerned over the news and images of riots in the streets of many American communities last night. After making some coffee, I glanced out of our front door window - as I often do - half expecting to see violent protestors marching down our block, or at least the street littered with debris as so many evidences of the anger over the outcome of Tuesday’s election. But I was not surprised to find our street characteristically … quiet.
Six months ago we moved into West Jeannette, a community known for its high rates of poverty, urban blight, addiction, and crime. The street we live on fits that stereotype. But is a good mix of black and white, all low-income, with a few abandoned homes, and ending at an overgrown, decrepit, brick building with broken windows that once housed a massive brewery, now only a haunt for addicts and the homeless. We live about twenty minutes from Murrysville, a town that made national news on Tuesday as residents were interviewed throughout the night standing in three-plus-hour lines just to vote.
I voted … at a midget football shelter on our block. There were only two other people in there when I did. I didn’t wait at all.
The business-as-usual today of my community, the poor voter turnout compared to our neighboring communities, got me thinking. Whatever it is that’s got the rest of the nation in an uproar, just simply isn’t doing the same thing here. Not that those issues are unimportant here. I’m sure they are. But the concerns that drove out record numbers to the poles, and are right now driving protestors out into the streets, are just not on the list of top concerns in West Jeannette. We live in a slightly different culture here.
Is it that the poor here, who make-up my neighborhood, so desperately want a change in the political system that Donald Trump’s economic success resonates with them in their plight, and their desire to see improvement in the economic state of our country and their own lives leads them to simply not be as mad as the rest of the country? Or is it that they just aren’t as tired of the racial tension, police brutality, and unjust systems, and they don’t connect those things with the Republican Party and Trump as others do? Maybe. I don’t really know.
But I do have a hunch. If I had to guess, I’d guess it’s far more fundamental than that. My guess would be that the biggest concern for my neighbors today, and on Tuesday, was not so much about politics as it was about survival. Where is dinner going to come from tonight? Is today the day when they will shut off the electricity? Is it getting cold enough this week to start figuring out a way to get the gas turned on? We moved here to plant a church, that’s no secret. But the two biggest questions in my mind recently have been “Why?” and “How?” Do I even know my neighbors well enough to reach them with the gospel? And can I even speak the gospel in a meaningful way to them if I don’t?
Why? Because I want to? In all honesty being a church planter is the last thing I want, for me or my family. Statistically, and practically, it’s one of the hardest things a pastor can decide to do. When I was in college I helped my father “plant” a restaurant. And I watched it nearly destroy him, mentally and emotionally. Statistically, planting a church is much like starting a restaurant. No, I wouldn’t have chosen this for myself. The right answer to the “Why?” of course - and which is certainly true in our case - is for the glory of God. But that still doesn’t answer for me the “Why you?” “Why here?” “Why now?” These are questions that need to be answered. Questions I’ve been thinking about for quite some time now.
And the right answer to the “How?” is certainly by the power of the Holy Spirit, working through the gospel of Jesus and the prayers of His people. But that isn’t the complete answer to the “How?” question either. Especially when the culture and concerns of this neighborhood are often so radically different from our own.
Maybe you’ve asked some of these very same questions yourself. Or maybe you have some of your own when it comes to church planting or Jeannette. That’s why I think it’s important to start a discussion where we begin praying and asking them together.
To do that, I’m planning a town-hall style Vision Meeting on Sunday, November 20th. We’ll begin at 6PM at Murrysville Community Church, and we’ll talk about the “Why?” and “How?” and give you an opportunity to ask the question’s that are on your mind. Whether you have wise counsel or just more questions, I’d ask you to join us as we consider what it means to live out our hope as a family on mission together in Jeannette.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This is often spoken of as the “wall of separation” between church and state. Well… no, actually. That phrase comes from a letter by President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist church. At the time, the state of Connecticut had a state-supported church: the congregational church. Jefferson (rightly) interpreted the First Amendment to prohibit such a practice, and to affirm that the Danbury Baptist church had a right (not a “favor” or “mercy” as granted by the state government) to practice their faith openly and publicly.
My how far we’ve come. Today, even Christians are often confused in this area not only over Constitutional questions, but even Biblical ones. What does the Bible teach about the right relationship between church and state? Well, it’s complicated.
“Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.” - Mark 12:17
Among the implications of Jesus’ statement that is developed throughout the Bible is the principle that the church should not control the actions of the civil government. While Christians are not precluded from running as private individuals for various government offices (See WCF 23.2), church leaders should not have a formal executive, legislative, or judicial power.
When Jesus was approached by an individual in Luke 12:13-14 to have him render a judgment in the case He refused. It is true that the Roman Catholic Popes of the Middle Ages did take political authority. They did so while ignoring this teaching and to the great detriment of the cause of Christ.
In a similar manner, civil governments are also prohibited by Scripture from exercising control over the church. The New Testament makes clear the qualifications for elders or deacons (see 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:3-9) and also that those leaders should be chosen by each local body of believers; not the government (cf. Acts 14:23). Broadly speaking, the Bible places a premium upon human freedom and liberty (Cf. 1 Tim 1:10). Our worship is to be freely given to God, or if freely withheld, we are accountable to God for that but never to our local government!
Civil laws have an immense influence upon the conduct of people in a society. Laws involve morality: right and wrong. Listen to the strong condemnation of unjust rulers and laws from Scripture:
“Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who frame injustice by statute? They band together against the life of the righteous and condemn the innocent to death.” - Ps 94:20-21
“Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” - Isaiah 10:1-2
To say that Christians should have no interest in the laws of their government, no say, seek no influence upon the laws of their country is to ignore much of the Bible’s teaching. Even the First Amendment was never intended to prohibit Christians from seeking significant influence upon their government; rather it was intended to prevent the government from privileging one religion’s say in the public square over another’s.
Christians are urged to pray for their rulers - an act of influence - to the end that we are able to living good and righteous lives freely (1 Tim 2:2). Daniel spoke truth to King Nebuchadnezzar and urged his repentance (Dan 4:27). Jeremiah urged the exiles: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7).
The great Dutch Reformed Pastor/Professor/Prime Minister/Chancellor (the guy did a lot of stuff) Abraham Kuyper helpfully spoke of what’s is called “sphere sovereignty.” He summarized the Biblical teaching by recognizing that God has established the family, the church, and government each with its own “sphere” of authority and responsibility. Each should be careful not to attempt to wrongly take away the authority that belonged to the other spheres.
He went on to teach that the church’s authority did include speaking God’s truth to the other two spheres as a to how the Lord desired them to conduct themselves. The church could not take over the family, nor could it take over the government, but it’s responsibility included declaring the Word of God’s meaning and import for how each of the other spheres conducted themselves. They would not answer to the church but to God for whether or not they complied.
This “sphere sovereignty” is a helpful tool we should use. We must recognize that the government and the church are different spheres that should not seek to formally control the other. But we must also learn to recognize the complexity of Scripture by seeing that God very much intends Christians to seek significant influence to shape the laws and practices of a government to reflect and promote true Biblical morality.
Government laws can never save anyone from God’s judgment; only the gospel can. Government laws can never change anyone’s heart to sincerely desire righteousness; only the gospel can. But government can be influenced by Christians to have significant impact upon its people to promote good conduct (even if not from sincere desire).
So lets recover the true intent of the First Amendment. Let’s recognize that it never establishes a “wall of separation” that should keep Christians out of the public square. On the contrary, it establishes the right for Christians to have an equal chance as any other religion to positively impact the direction of our nation.
Good night, and may God Bless the United States of America!
“And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” - Mark 15:2
In our recent The Politics of Jesus series we saw that our theology of politics needs to be complex. Is the Kingdom of God to be involved in politics? The answer is yes and no: it’s complex. But what does that look like? Let’s take a look at some examples. In this blog, lets look at the question of government’s origins and purposes.
After the great flood, in Genesis 9:5-6 God declares:
“And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Genesis 9:5–6, ESV)
Here God establishes the most severe punishment (taking a human life) in retribution for the most heinous of crimes: the murder of another human being. Scripture develops this declaration to show that the authority to impose this punishment isn’t left to individuals, but to the community, or the government. Passages such as Ex. 21:23 and Deut. 19:15-21 from the Pentateuch and Rom. 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 show that government bears the authority of God.
God’s purpose for government are broad, but limited. Such purposes include, but aren’t limited to, the establishment of justice and the defense of the weak as Psalm 82:2-4 poignantly declares, ““How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Generally speaking, governments are intended by God to be “God’s servant for your good” (Rom 13:4). The Bible repeatedly and ruthlessly condemns the use of government power for the benefit of the government and its leaders. It fulfills its purposes only as it serves and does good for its people (see Deut. 16:19; Ps. 26:10; Prov. 15:27; 17:23; Isa. 33:15; Ezek. 22:12; Amos 5:12; Hab. 1:2-4).
“Civil power according to its institution is of God and according to its formation and practice is of man.” - Durandus
While God’s authority is exercised through governments when they fulfill His purposes, a state government’s beginnings comes through the power a people grant to it. Samuel Rutherford explains:
If all men are born equal, regarding civil power, yet one among them is to be ruler, and then this power must be a result of their united decision…. The conclusion we must draw is that the power of making a man into a king or a ruler is from the people…. When the people choose a ruler, the nation can do nothing else, under God, except make that man ruler… The people are not passive in this action, because by the authoritative voice of the nation a private man becomes a public person and crowned king. - Lex Rex, chapter 4
The Bible is replete with examples of this right of the people to form a government bearing God’s authority: 2 Sam. 26:18; Judg. 8:22; 9:6; 11:8, 11; 1 Sam. 12:1; 2 Kings 14:21; 2 Chr. 23:3. In addition, Deut. 17:14-20 also shows this complexity. In this passage, God expressly allows the people to chose to institute a government through a king “like the nations that are around me” (v. 14). Yet, God sets limits on who can be king (a fellow Israelite), his moral qualifications (v. 16-17), and the purposes of his government (to serve the people as ruler under God in a theocracy, v. 18-20). So state government is instituted by God, but the people are his instigation and instruments for what form, who, etc., the government shall take.
Government has no authority to define rights: God has created humanity with certain inherent human rights that no government is authorized by God to take away. Listen again to Samuel Rutherford:
Many believe that authority to govern has its root in the government instead of the law. Such a view holds the government to be above either the law or the foundation and sole giver of the law. Such a view assumes that sovereign law originates from the government. This is blasphemy. - Lex Rex, chapter 13
God has instituted government power and granted it even the power over life and death. But that power is limited; not absolute. Defined by God; not by the desires of the government itself! Listen to the warnings to rulers from Psalm 58:1-2: “Do you indeed decree what is right, you mighty lords? Do you judge the children of man uprightly? No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth.” Countless other passages make clear that God’s law, through which standards or “rights” are declared for all human beings, is to limit the authority of governments over the people (Cf. Ps. 85:1-5; Isa. 1:17-26, 3:14; Job 29:12-15, 31:1-2, Rom. 13:3-4).
This is just one example of the complex, layered teaching of Scripture that bears on the field we call “politics.” Jesus doesn’t want His church to “take power” in the culture, but He absolutely expects us to have a significant political impact that reflects the revolutionary values of the Kingdom of God. As I said, “It’s complex!”
So what do we do? We put our theology thinking caps on and get involved. We don’t throw up our hands and say, “It’s too complicated for me.” It’s complex, but not complicated. But you do have to: 1) Study the Bible to learn its worldview, and 2) Prayerfully consider how that worldview guides, corrects, and directs our involvement with the issues of our day. And one final note: we do well to remember that God has never designed government to be cure for all the ills of the day. As Samuel Rutherford wisely said:
God has revealed in his law that the power of a lawful ruler is a limited power, and this is a model to follow for all forms of government. This also means that the powers of a ruler should even be limited in taking actions to do good. It is no sin for the people to restrict some power, even to do good, from the government. The people are not stealing God-given power from the ruler: no ruler has the physical power or ability to minister justice in every single instance throughout the nation. God does not ask the civil government to perform the impossible. - Lex Rex, chapter 17
Nobody likes to be sold; but everybody likes a helpful recommendation. That’s why MCC has changed how we try and get the word out about our church. In the past, we, like everybody else, advertised. Not heavily, but ads in phone books and newspapers to let the community know we are here. To be honest, we spent a lot of money and saw no return.
So we took a look at whether it was worth it, and quickly realized what I said above: nobody likes to be sold anything anymore. But if a friend posts a good review of a restaurant on Yelp, or the reviews of a product on Amazon are good, we are much more inclined to give it a try if we are remotely interested.
That’s the power of Social Media recommendations and that’s why we have decided to ask your help in a better form of getting the word out. Starting last month and for at least 2016, we are going to be partnering with an organization called “Reach” that helps church’s like us do two things: 1) Make use of the power of Social Media “word of mouth,” and 2) Make it easy for church members to show mercy to those in need. Both of these are accomplished by “checking in” on Facebook at Murrysville Community Church.
Each time you do, roughly 150-200 of your Facebook friends will see your check-in in their newsfeed. They will see your comments about MCC and how our check-in’s are helping to bring care to those in need. IF they are open to spiritual things, have questions, are looking for a church home, etc., its like seeing a recommendation of our church from someone they already know and have a measure of trust with. Its no longer advertising; it becomes a recommendation. That’s powerful. And that’s easy for you to do. It doesn’t take any classes or have any cost. Just check-in every single time you are at MCC and you are instantly “on mission” helping to get the word out about our church and the Jesus we love.
And not only will you be helping our church, your check-in will actually direct dollars towards those in need. Every month through our partnership with Reach, we will have a chance to support a new organization dedicated to bringing mercy in the name of Christ. Last month, it was Compassion International. This month, its Soles for Souls. Its an incredibly simple and practical way to help our church by demonstrating what is already in our hearts: a desire to show mercy in deed to others because of the mercy we have received from Christ.
So please: check in! Every single time you are at MCC. When you do, say something about our church, our Christ, our efforts to bring mercy. Let that become a recommendation to people you may not even be aware are looking for spiritual help. It really is being missional made easy!
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”- 2 Cor. 1:3–4
I am not thankful that my 2nd spinal disk ruptured and required surgery. Nor the challenge of recovering from this surgery without any narcotic pain medications due to serious allergic reactions. Anyone who suggests the Bible teaches one should be thankful for these things needs a more robust doctrine of the Fall.
I am, however, incredibly thankful. I’m thankful most of all that the Lord Jesus is returning and will restore creation such that bad backs and necks will really be a thing of the past. I am thankful that the Father has placed me in a country where there is such a high standard of medical care that I can even have a surgery like this that prevents further damage to my health. I am thankful that through this affliction, God’s comfort has been so abundantly demonstrated through my family and especially through my “rib,” Alice. I am thankful that through this affliction, the LORD is training me to be a better comforter to others in affliction as His Word promises.
I also find myself repeatedly thankful to Jesus for His relentless care for me demonstrated through Murrysville Community Church. So, so, so many of you have brought meals, sent cards, and prayed! Those with medical training have also been so helpful as we called on them for counsel at various points. Others have eagerly looked for ways to help us practically around the house- a very needed mercy since I’m forbidden to lift anything heavier than 5 lbs! Simply in more ways than I can recount, our God has used you MCC to me His love.
So, I’m thankful. And hungry. No, not for more meals- though some of you can seriously cook and need to think about opening restaurants! But no, my hunger is that others would experience what this is like: to have a spiritual family that is so demonstrative in its love! I’m hungry for those who are lost and hurting to come to the God of all comfort and begin to taste that comfort through our church family. I’m hungry for those on the fringe of our community to move to the core. I’m hungry for those long within our family to know this demonstrative love as they face health issues, job challenges, and relational pain. And you know what? This hunger I’m feeling is the most comforting of all! It’s what verse 4 speaks of above: a desire to give to others the very comfort we ourselves have experienced.
So thank you MCC. Thank you Lord Jesus. And lets all get hungry together that the hurting and lost would richly taste and see that the Lord is good even in the midst of affliction!
Recently, some of our church family have been going through some real difficulties. Some have faced illnesses, others marital and relational struggles, and still others financial/job setbacks. Often we turn to Scripture for guidance in these times. That’s a good thing. The Bible has much to say about how to approach each of these kinds of things. But maybe we need to learn to turn to the Bible for something else: the comfort of God’s providence. Truth is, we need more than just instructions for living, we need help in living. We need hope, comfort, and strength. The doctrine of God’s providence is a precious and powerful help in such struggles. The Bible shows us again and again that God’s surprising grace comes to us providentially. Understanding feeds faith, and faith brings strength, hope, and perseverance even in tough times. So let’s understand a little bit more about the providence of God.
Providence refers to the way God is continually involved with everything in creation. In a Reformed understanding of the Bible, we believe that God has pre-planned and ordered everything that comes to pass. But He did not just make creation and humanity as some giant wind-up toy. He created a world that would need His continual involvement and interaction for His plan to actually unfold. Providence is the doctrine that helps us understand the summary of what the Bible teaches on how God does this. On Sunday, I mentioned that this involvement can be helpfully broken down to several parts. Let’s take a look briefly at these parts.
Passages such as Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:17, and Job 34:14-15 all indicate that what we call “the laws of science” is really describing how God is maintaining the properties of creation by His on-going power. God deals with inanimate creation differently than volitional creates (humans, angels). The doctrine of preservation tells us that God is continually using His power to keep everything in existence with the powers/nature that He created it with. This brings the suffering Christian comfort knowing that God is not dependent upon the forces of the universe that may afflict His people; no, our loving Heavenly Father is in control of them.
Ephesians 1:11 tells us that God “works” or “brings about” everything that happens in creation to accomplish His will. Daniel 4:35 is pretty blunt and humbling: “all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”” Proverbs 16:33 affirms that this control of all things extends to everything in creation- even the seemingly random (like dice rolls). But this control of all things happens through what is called “concurrence.”
Concurrence refers to how God does this not by eliminating or over-riding the distinctive properties and wills of creatures, but by accomplishing His plans through our willing, responsible choices that have real results and for which we are held accountable. The precise language of the Westminster Confession 5:2 teaches this concurrence:
5.2. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
The secondary causes included the willing, genuine choices of humanity. Many genuine Christians go astray from the truth of the Bible here. They fail to recognize the difference between the ability to make choices according to our desires (which the Bible affirms) versus the insistence upon a “neutral free will” that has no pre-dispositions towards one thing or another (which the Bible flatly denies). As St. Augustine said, humanity has “free will” but lacks “liberty” as we are all enslaved to sin due to consequences of the Fall (See Romans 5:12ff). We have a true natural ability to make choices that providence doesn’t over-ride; but humanity lacks the ability to make godly choices. God’s providence works through those choices to ultimately accomplish God’s plans. So God is controlling all things (providence); yet humanity is making real and genuine choices according to our desires. How does God accomplish this? Short answer: don’t know, we’re not told! This is where many folks go wrong…
On the Reformed side that wants to emphasize God’s sovereignty- we go wrong by down-playing to the point of irrelevancy the real choices of human beings. We unintentionally commit the very error James 1:13-15 warns against: "Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death."If humanity has no real choice in the matter, then God is responsible for evil and James is a liar. But if our choices are real and genuine yet still fulfill the purposes of God, then we are responsible for those choices; not God. Yet they serve to accomplish His will.
On the Arminian side that wants to emphasize human choice- folks go wrong here by ignoring the clear intended meaning of Scriptures like the ones we’ve surveyed and denying God’s ultimate control over the choices of human beings. They teach that God foreknows but does not control (though even foreknowing is now under attack today through the heresy of Open Theism). Often sincere Bible-believing folks will embrace this conclusion because they can’t find the answer to how our choices can be real and yet God direct them according to His purposes. Rather than bowing before this mystery, they seek to remove the mystery by denying God’s providential control. This lessens the greatness and glory of God as He’s revealed Himself in Scripture and ultimately throws a measure of doubt upon God’s ability to keep His promises if there are things beyond His control…
Sometimes our Arminian brethren will take this position because they say they do not want to make God the cause of evil and that the Reformed understanding does just that. But when we examine this objection, it falls short. Reformed theology affirms the real, genuine choices of humanity in which they choose to do that which God has forbidden (evil). Yes, God is in control of these choices, but his control is exercised by not restraining the genuine, real, evil desires of humanity.
Imagine I repeatedly tell my children, “Don’t eat too much candy, your tummy will hurt.” But in order to break them of a longer-term problem of gluttony over candy, I continue to warn, but do not restrain them one night from eating all the candy in their candy jar. As the tummy ache begins, they are now suffering from the real and genuine choice they made to disobey my instructions. Yet, I was still in control of the situation, even purposefully wanting them to end up with tummy aches from their gluttony (I know, I’m a mean Dad…). I exercised my control by not restraining them; but their tummy’s ache not because I forced candy into them, but because they made a real and willing choice to be gluttonous.
The analogy breaks down at points, but I hope you see from it how God can even ordain and providentially be in control over the evil in the world, yet not be responsible for their actions. A couple of verses help to drive home this reality:
Proverbs 16:4- The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
Acts 14:16- In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.
Both verses emphasize God’s control over even the wicked and evil, but the Acts verse emphasizes that God’s control was not done by forcing people to be evil (which would make him responsible) but by “allowing” evil by not restraining it.
OK, so we understand a bit more about what providence is, but… so what?? Why is it so important? Why would Biblical authors take the time to craft so intimately and extensively the doctrine of God’s providence into say the book of Ruth, or snapshots from Matthew? Let’s conclude by meditating on the practical power of providence in our lives through 3 snapshots:
Precisely because God is controlling and directing everything and everyone in creation to accomplish His plan, we can have confidence in His promises. It is those promises that bring us hope- hope for good, hope for rest, hope for purpose amidst suffering. Providence assures us that our hope in these promises of God is not misplaced:
Romans 8:28- And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
1Pet. 1:3- Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Knowing and believing the Bible’s teaching on providence enables us to move past the “why this suffering” questions and on to the “what do you want to accomplish through my pain” questions. Providence doesn’t take away the pain; but it enables us by faith to trust God is doing something through our pain and to begin to look for it and even long for it.
Providence teaches us that God is present in our suffering. Our Heavenly Father is not just in control in some reactive way, but whatever we are going through, God has brought it into our lives purposefully and redemptively. Because providence teaches us God’s active involvement with creation, our suffering can be eased knowing God is not removed and far off but near and involved.
As I shared on Sunday, I hate basketball. Just really hate it. My hatred may go back to the fact that I suffered a bad concussion playing basketball as a freshman in High School. I was whisked to the doctors while feeling woozy and in agonizing pain. But I’ll never forget when my Dad arrived. I was seated on the ground waiting to get in to see my doctor (chairs were too high-up for my dizziness). After checking on things, he sat down beside me and pulled me close so that my spinning head could rest on his chest. That simple act did more to remove my fear than anything else. Dad was there and close. He was going to make sure I got whatever care I needed, but even more than that- he was with me…
The doctrine of God’s providence means that God is with us in the midst of whatever we are going through. His personal presence can free us from fears and ease our suffering. Pastor and Theologian John Calvin describes the calming, humbling, encouraging effects understanding and believing the doctrine of Providence can have upon our hearts:
Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge. Therefore, whatever shall happen prosperously and according to the desire of his heart, God’s servant will attribute wholly to God, whether he feels God’s beneficence through the ministry of men, or has been helped by inanimate creatures. For thus he will reason in his mind: surely it is the Lord who has inclined their hearts to me, who has so bound them to me that they should become the instruments of his kindness. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chap. XVII, section 7.
If we are going to experience God’s surprising grace, then we are going to have to wrestle with the reality of God’s providence. Hopefully, this post helps to get the ball rolling in your mind and heart.
Bonus Reason to be Thankful for Providence: A man was questioning God’s arrangement of the universe. He said, “Why does God make a big tree with small nuts, and a small plant with large watermelons. It doesn’t make sense.” Just then a nut fell out of the tree and hit him on the head. He said, “Thank God that wasn’t a watermelon.”
What does it mean to be missional? It’s part of our passion to be a “missional” church. Its why we exist; but it is far from easy because it takes us out of our comfort zones in an effort to love others in Jesus’ name.
One of the challenges of becoming a church on mission is that we must learn to focus our activities according to our vision rather than our preferences. Let me share a couple quotes from Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passions and Practices of Missional Churches to help us think and pray through this further:
When missional churches order their actions according to their purpose, they must continuously let go of those activities that do not result in accomplishing their purpose. They must be ruthless in this difficult endeavor. As Peter Drucker puts it, ‘The question has to be asked… If we did not do this already, would we, knowing what we now know, go into it?’ If the answer is no, he says, we must decide on new courses of action. Some find it easier to say, ‘Let’s make another study” or “what we are doing is meaningful to some people” than to say, “It is a good thing, but it is not helping us achieve our primary purpose. Let it go!” It is only the latter response that orders actions according to purpose…
The challenge of discontinuing practices is not unique to churches. Addressing change, Drucker identifies policies that must be implemented if any business is to successfully manage change. Foundational to all other policies is one he calls “organized abandonment,” which consists of “abandoning yesterday” – freeing up resources committed to things that may have worked in the past but are not working today.
There are many good things disciples and their churches could do. Those who intend to be missional know they cannot be everything and do everything. They are focused on the purpose for which they have been sent and they are not taking their eyes off of that purpose. They order their actions according to their purpose.
Change is normal in a world that is broken, but being redeemed. But confidence amidst change takes both faith in our sovereign and good God and a resulting commitment to follow wherever He leads. This new website is part of the change necessary to grow as a missional church. Along with it, I’m excited to share there will be some other new tools coming in the months ahead to help us grow as a missional community.
As your church staff completes this website roll out and a back-end database conversion, we will then be working on launching our very own MCC church app that will be available for both Apple and Android OS! This app will bring some really fantastic communication and convenience to our church family that will go far, far beyond anything offered on even our new website. Following the launch of our app, we will also be upgrading our Sunday children’s check-in experience to make full use of the new app for better convenience for parents and safety for our children.
All of this new tech has some pretty simple goals: to help us communicate better and enable us to better focus on being on Jesus’ mission together. With our desire to launch a new campus in Jeannette in the next couple years, all of this tech will enable us as a church to better communicate and serve together to see the gospel advance in our communities!