Back from Vacation

Church family,  this week April and I are back to our normal church routines after a month of vacation time.  And we wanted to express our love and  gratitude for all your support and love.

 Just for some clarity, this time of rest was just taking all of my annual vacation all at once for the purpose of gaining deeper rest. I have sensed some deeper fatigue and felt this was wise.  Through some advice and reading I concluded that there was something deficient in my shorter breaks. For me, and many other  pastor’s like me, it can take almost a week to just “turn off” the pressures of ministry. What can happen if a break is short is that just when I am starting to rest, it is time to go back to work.  The aim in taking more time off was to address some deeper issues of rest that are needed for me as a pastor so that I can stay healthy, avoid burn out and run the long marathon with joy and faithfulness.  Unfortunately, it is easy to skip time off in church work and I have done that too often over the last 10  years. Even when we have been away from FGC, there are times when I am still focused on church matters by attending conferences during time away.  I believe that I am growing in this and learning more about the discipline and worship of rest. We have discussed the wisdom of a sabbatical at some point in the future which would be outside of normal time off. But that is a discussion for the future.

 We did enjoy the time off, and definitely experienced some needed refreshment.  We are thankful for the support and respect of the church in giving us some space.   Your encouragement and prayers mean so much and we are freshly aware of how much we love and value your friendship and fellowship. We are also  thankful for those who serve and how well the church carries on when I am gone. This is certainly a sign of grace!

 Another benefit of taking time away is that we got a chance to visit other churches, something that rarely happens in the normal course of the year.  This gives us an appreciate for the larger body of Christ, an opportunity  to worship without any leadership obligations, and a sense of what it is like to be a visitor someplace else. 

 I have already jumped back into a regular work week  and am looking forward to seeing you  all on Sunday. We are planning a 3-week sermon  series on the importance of scripture in our personal and corporate lives. Please keep this in your prayers! 






A Simple (And Free) Method For Discipleship

If the mission of the church (and therefore the mission of Christians that make up the church) is to make disciples, one of the most important questions is: how do we do this? Classroom instruction and time around a book can be helpful, but too often this is where discipleship ends. It is merely information transfer.  But when we look at Biblical examples of discipleship, we see something different. Jesus’ interaction with his disciples before the last supper is a great clinic on discipleship. Here we not only learn about humility, but how to teach humility.

In John 13:1-20 we have the well known account of the foot washing.  Cleaning dirty feet was a lowly job reserved for slaves. It was beneath ordinary people. So when there is no servant to wash the feet of the disciples before the passover meal, Jesus does the job himself. He does the work that none of them are willing to do. This is shocking. The master has become the slave. And he is doing this to show them how they are to serve others.  I realize that this passage is about more than Jesus' example, but that is beyond my focus here.

Note several things about his teaching method. It is a simple example we can use when discipling others, including our children.

First- Do. In v. 1-5 Jesus takes action to wash the feet of his followers. He removes his outer garments and gets the water basin.  This is simple, but important to note. Jesus doesn’t simply talk about servanthood, though he does this in many places. He actually models servanthood for them. He shows them how to do it.  He provides a concrete example of an abstract idea.  In order to make and mold disciples we need to spend time together with them. We need to do things together that demonstrate what it means to follow Jesus. They need to see an example that they can follow.  We need to take them along as we pray, visit sick people, help those in need, have conversations, volunteer, clean up the mess, make plans for the future, etc. We need to do the actions of every day life, and also actions that would be considered “ministry.” And we need to do this deliberately.  We need to do these things with them.

Second-Engage. In v. 6-11 Jesus interacts with Peter while he is serving them. Jesus is a providing the example and Peter is engaging Jesus. Peter is paying attention and he protests this outrageous and shameful act of a master becoming a servant. And Jesus discusses this with Peter. We need to have conversations while we are “doing” the things of life and ministry. And it would be really wonderful if we did some things that were so shocking (e.g. Masters taking the job of the slave) so that lively conversations would follow. We need to explain, clarify, answer objections, point out details, etc.  Discussion during activities, as well as time for silence are important parts of teaching.

Third-Debrief. In v. 12-17 Jesus “debriefs” the disciples after he has washed their feet. He takes time for conversation and instruction when he is done. He asks, “Do you understand what I have just done to you?”  This is an opportunity to make sure they got the message. He is going to provide the proper interpretation for what just happened. Then he clearly says that they need to do this to one another (v. 15). He provides more instruction about true greatness (v. 16). This is important because they are going to be teachers and “masters” some day.  Finally, he gives them an incentive, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (v. 17).  Masterful.

The lesson for us is simple. In order to make disciples we need to do more than invite people to a classroom. We need to do things with them and for them. We need to engage them while we are in action. And then we need to talk and explain what just happened. 

Here is a personal example, I have done this while taking people with me to visit the sick, whether at home or the hospital. On the way to the visit I will ask, “what does the Bible say about being sick?” There are dozens of equally good questions, but I like this one. It can open up almost any line of discussion.  We have a conversation about this. Then I tell them in simple form what we are going to do during the visit. Then we spend time with the person. We talk, pray, sometimes bring a gift. Ask questions. Lots of listening. Then, after we are done and on our way out, we discuss the visit. I want the person to have a chance to express what they saw and ask questions.  I want to make important connections between theory and practice.

Do. Engage. Debrief. It is a simple method that only costs time and humility. But if you do this you will be imitating one of Jesus’ methods and on your way to developing well rounded and Christlike disciples.

Christian Community Starts with the Work of Christ

What are the key elements of Christian fellowship? How can we know if our Christian community is healthy? What keeps people from experiencing true fellowship? Is meeting together for fellowship really necessary? We looked at Hebrews 10 on Sunday as we relaunched our community groups.

Listen to the message here. There are some notes below.

Hebrews 10:19-39

“19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Community starts with understanding what Christ has done for us. This is true because sin has separated us from God and one another. And the most important work, the first work is to repair the breach that our sin has caused between us and our God.

Sin separates us from God, and God from us. God’s righteousness has barred us from his presence. And because our consciences are defiled, being in the presence of God is no longer pleasurable. We now run from him rather than to him. The OT temple worship was a depiction of this situation. We are separated from God’s presence, but he has made a way for us to return and be cleansed.

The work of Jesus (especially v. 19-21), as described in this passage, shows us 4 things that are the foundation of Christian community.  We cannot separate the way we relate to God from the way we relate to other people.

1.     We are welcomed. We have bold access to God’s presence because of the sacrifice of Christ. His blood has cleansed us. We are no longer banished. This is not because we have become good enough or worked hard enough. This is purely because of his work on our behalf. 

2.     We are clean. Our hearts have been sprinkled by his blood. We are washed and forgiven and our consciences can be at peace. What the Old Testament animal sacrifices could only depict, Jesus has accomplished. We no longer need to be controlled by guilt and shame.

3.     We are secure. A promise is only as good as the one who makes it, and we are safe and secure because he who promised is faithful. 

4.     We are in process. Though we are forgiven and accepted completely, there is much work to be done in us, on us, and through us.  And this work is explained (in part) in this passage.  God is at work in us through other believers. We desperately need them to help and encourage us. 

So the exhortations of this passage show us that we need the following:

1.     To stir one another up to love and good works. The term “stir up” that is used is really strong.  It means to provoke. We are to have an active and engaging relationship with our brothers and sisters that helps us to become more loving, more Christ like. How in the world do you help someone become more loving? 2 ways: 1- by loving them in practical ways. 2- By explaining and reminding them of the love of Christ. 

2.     We are to consider how to stir one another up. Doing this is not as easy as we may suppose. We are going to have to spend time thinking about our brothers and sisters. Sin ties us in such knots that it is not easy to unravel. And God uses the patient, loving, prayerful relationships of his children to do his work in one another.

3.     We are to meet together. This one is simple. We need to meet regularly, in face to face fellowship in order to do what this passage teaches. And if we were to make a graph of our fellowship,  the shape of it would go upward. We should be doing this “more and more.”  Meeting together for worship and fellowship is not an option; it is a vital part of God’s work in us. And we neglect it at our peril. There are no exceptions to this. Even if you are a soldier or a police officer and can’t attend normal worship on Sunday, you will need to discipline yourself to make other arrangements for worship and fellowship. If you neglect this, you threaten the health of your own soul and the church. Almost everyone that turns their back on Christ starts by turning their back on God’s people.

4.     We are to encourage one another. This word is like a coin with 2 sides. Encouragement includes both admonition on the one hand (challenging one another and correction) and consolation on the other. This is something that others need from you. It is something that you need from others. In order to be healthy you need to give this and receive it. And this kind of fellowship can’t happen in a 10 minute conversation after worship. It will take time together. 

And in the end, that is what the author concludes from the great work of Christ. It is all about relationship. We are to draw near to God in worship, and draw near to one another in fellowship. This is at the heart of what it means to be the church of Jesus.

Photo courtesy of the Navy Seabee Museum. Some Rights Reserved

What the Church Can Learn From A Rowing Team

Last week we had our second "FGC Talks" seminar. This means that after a brief worship service we had 3 brief sessions on the topic of community offered by 3 people in our church and one from outside.  It was really fantastic.

Rob Hastie showed part of this video, posted below, (He showed from 1:00- 2:20 but the whole thing is worth watching). It is a trailer for the the book "the Boys in The Boat"- a story about the American rowing team that won the gold medal in the 1936 olympics. Rob uses the analogy of teamwork and how a successful rowing team has to operate with so much coordination and unity that they are really not 9 separate individuals. They are 1 team. This is a fantastic illustration for the way the church should be functioning.

Rob's talk is 20 minutes and worth listening to. It is an inspiring talk that will challenge you. You can listen to it below. The rest of our talks from that day can be found here.

9 Principles For Making Friendships As Means To Share The Gospel


Last week I preached at Redeemer Church in Modesto. You can listen to the message here. 

I have listed the main points with a little description below.

9 Principles For Making Friendships As Means To Share The Gospel 

Friendships are a key element to the spread of the gospel in the New Testament.  This was true for Jesus (Luke 5:27-32) and Paul (I Thess. 1:5, 2:1-8), as well as others. Building relationships in our current context can be difficult.  We face more cultural disintegration and social distrust than ever before.  Many Americans don’t know the people in their community, and they don’t want to know them. It’s too scary.  The following suggestions are offered to help you in overcoming obstacles and building trust.

Please note, this NOT a simple recipe for success. These are just some principles from scripture, tools to help you love people.  And these are certainly other ways to do this. But here is some good news: These things are completely within your reach. You don’t need any special training or a degree.  If you are a Christian, you can do this!

1.    Have no agenda but love. 

This may seem counter-intuitive.  But people are very perceptive. They know when they are a just a “project.” Years ago a pastor friend of mine developed an acquaintance with a Jewish Rabbi. Their friendship blossomed in many ways, and they often discussed the OT together. At one point the Rabbi asked my friend, “Did you only become my friend because you wanted me to become a Christian?”  This was a sensitive question and my friend answered with skill and wisdom: “I would want to be your friend even if you never became a Christian.” This should be our approach. We love people because they are valuable and made in the image of God. Of course we want them to hear the gospel and come to know Christ.  The agenda of love includes this, but it is much bigger

2.    Look for people that God is preparing. 

Throughout the New Testament there is a theology of the “open door.” For example in Col. 4:3-4 Paul says, “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.” This means that God is at work in people’s lives long before we arrive. We should be sensitive to this and look for people who display openness to spiritual things.   Too often we are trying to pick fruit that is not ripe. James McDonald calls this “green apple evangelism.” We should look for ripe apples. One way to tell if a door is open is that people are willing to listen and talk about Christ. Doors often open during crisis. This means we don’t have to rush a friendship or force a conversation prematurely

3.    Look for natural opportunities

Our society is full of social distrust. We are easily annoyed and suspicious of people that “aren’t supposed” to be talking to us. Just think of the guy pushing samples at the mall, or the salesman that walks up to you while you are at the park with your family.  However, this distrust often disappears when we are in natural situations such as our kid’s soccer game, the gym, work, etc.  When we connect with people in these situations, their cultural defenses are often down and people are willing to talk. They might be open to build a friendship that they wouldn’t consider in other circumstances.

4.    Serve people.

We should be doing this anyway. This is our identity as Christians, we are servants. We are last. We follow the one who is the “king of slaves.”  He came “not to be served but to serve and give his life” a ransom for many.  When you truly love people you help them, you meet their needs.  And we should not only serve the people around us, we should serve alongside them!  This also means allowing them to serve you when you are in need. This is just part of being a decent human being! But even more, it is a great opportunity to display God’s work in us.

5.    Look for repeat exposures

Most likely there are people in your life that you will see again and again. Those are the people you should befriend. Work on developing trust and depth where possible. 

I have a friend that used to be a missionary in Bagdad. Once I asked her, “How do you share the gospel over there (in such a hostile place)?”  She answered, “The same way you should be doing it, we go to the same grocer every day, we go to the same shops and build trust with people and then look for opportunities to share Christ.” I was convicted at the simplicity of the suggestion.  Be deliberate and be focused. The apostle Paul operated this way.  He would go to the same marketplace every day. He would go to the same synagogue week after week.

In many places in scripture, sharing the gospel is compared to the work of a farmer. This job includes planting, watering, tending, and then reaping. Many people who talk about evangelism only talk about reaping. But in reality, most of the work that farmers do is NOT reaping. Harvest is a couple of weeks at the end of the season. You should work on planting, watering, plowing in your friendships.

If you are going to survive in this kind of endeavor, you will need to take the long view. Pray for reaping, but don’t worry about it, and don't rush it. Take your time, pray and trust God.

6.    Eat with people

This suggestion is so simple it may seem like a shock. Be like Jesus! He ate with all kinds of people. You are going to eat anyway. And so are they. Look for opportunities to share a meal. Invite people into your home and into your life to get to know them.  This can be a very easy way to learn more about someone’s life and story. My wife and I have even done this when homeless people ask for food. If I have time I will tell them I will be happy to buy them a meal if they will eat it with us so we can talk. This pretty quickly weeds out the scammers vs. those truly in need. It also provides a chance to do something more important than throwing money at a problem.

7.    Ask Questions and listen!

This is very much like Jesus! The book “Questioning Evangelism” by Randy Newman shows the way that Jesus used questions in his ministry.  He was always asking questions! Scholars estimate that he asked hundreds of questions. One author says the number is “307.” The occasions where Jesus is interacting without the use of questions is certainly the exception.

When we ask questions several important things can happen, IF we ask sincerely, and IF we care enough to listen to the answer. First, it shows a degree of humility. It says “I care about you.” Second, it helps you to understand the person. And if you work at this, you will find that people are truly interesting! Third, The right kinds of questions can be disarming. Even in conflict questions can help to lower a person’s sense of threat.  Finally, good questions can help people come to grips with what they already believe. In my experience, the right question can bring someone to wrestle with their own beliefs, perhaps for the first time. I have found this true in casual settings as well as “formal” events like street evangelism. 

8.    Look for Common Ground

We all have common experiences, common spaces, and common interests. This is one of the best ways to connect.  People are often willing to open up based on their hobbies, their reading interests, place of birth, favorite cuisine, their sports team, etc. 

One of the greatest areas of common ground is found in our weaknesses and struggles.  We are all sinners.  When Christians paint themselves as “having it all together,” it is not only a lie, it destroys a sense of common ground.  All of us have had times where we can’t pay the bills or face an untimely car problem.  So, if you find out that a neighbor is struggling with their teenagers or marriage, one of the best things you can do is talk about your own struggles in similar areas.  This may lead to a very concrete way to talk about a very abstract topic like grace or redemption.

9.    Pray

This is not an afterthought. This is one of the most important things, and we should do it at the beginning, middle and end of the process. Why? Because God is the one who changes hearts. 




Dare To Be A Sinner… You Actually Already Are!

“Confess your faults one to another” (James 5:16). He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!

"But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone. “My son, give me thine heart” (Prov. 23.26). God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! This message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner...

"In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted. But God breaks the gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107:16).

"Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother.

"The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together