Daily Links (December 5)

Dying to self in the age of self-love

There’s much talk of self-love in Christian circles right now, the kind of self-love that promotes a perceived circumstantial happiness. When I hear of Christian bloggers or authors or even just professing Christians in my own private life diverging from orthodox Christian faith or values because it’s “too hard,” I feel a depressing weight on my shoulders. Their quest for happiness outside of orthodoxy demoralizes me in a way a combative atheist never could. They demoralize me in a way even my own particular burdens of suffering do not.

The degree to which self-love has seeped into the church should distress us all.

Redeeming friendship

I find there to be a desperate need for this redemption, and I love that Jonathan connected this to discipleship:

I think we can learn a lot about the end goal of discipleship from what we’ve already looked at in Jesus’ own life: pointing others to the Father and repenting of sin. That’s the goal for us in a discipleship context, and it’s the goal in our friendships. Daily, through every interaction we have, our aim should be helping others get to know Jesus more intimately by getting to know each other more intimately.

Quick video biography of Athanasius

History is cool. Patristic history (meaning during the time of the Church Fathers) is very cool.

How community keeps you from drifting

We understand God best when we are in community with other people. As we sit in a circle and talk about God from a text from the Bible, we begin to see the fullness of who he is. That aspect of him will stand out to one, another aspect to someone else. As we make our way around the circle we begin to lose our truncated view of God and begin to see him in his fullness. We need each other to see more of God.

Daily Links (December 4)

Calling all control freaks

There’s a lid that comes with your control freak tendencies. You will eventually hit a wall in which the size of your church shrinks back to the size of your personal span of care. Until you let go.

I asked Carey what helped him see this. Here’s what he said:

Are you a teachable person? Here’s a quiz to find out.

Humility is to be a mark of the Christian (James 4:6) – and humility is characterized by teachability. Use these questions to determine how teachable you are.

Advent, explained

Your big, long, Vox-y Advent explainer.

Do you like the person you’ve become?

It’s an important question. (I’m experimenting with posting some things on Medium.)

Why You Don’t Read Your Bible

Over and over again, studies show that the most important thing for spiritual growth is reading the Bible. Yet it’s the one thing most people in the church aren’t doing.

Only 45% of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. For each church attender who does read their Bible every day, there’s someone else who doesn’t read it at all. Biblical illiteracy really is an epidemic.

I say this not simply as someone who is researching the topic, but as a pastor who talks to people every week inside and outside the church who have next to no biblical knowledge. The most concerning thing is that there doesn’t seem to be a distinction between those who are new to the faith and those who have been a Christian for several years, sometimes even ten or more.

Why is it that despite the evidence, despite our sincere longing to grow spiritually, that we aren’t doing the one thing most capable of producing that growth?

In my experience, there are two main reasons people don’t read their Bible. The first is that people honestly don’t understand that the Bible holds transformational power. They may think so intellectually, but they don’t believe it. And second, they don’t read the Bible because they don’t know how to find delight in reading it. Both of these are worth understanding in more detail.

Understanding the transforming power of God’s Word

Why do people always tell you that you should be reading your Bible more? Seriously, why do pastors and writers and bloggers go on and on about being in the Bible each and every day?

Besides the overwhelming research indicating Bible engagement is crucial to spiritual growth, it’s because the Bible itself tells us that the Word of God is the only thing powerful enough to transform the human heart.

Nowhere is this seen in more vivid detail than the prophet Ezekiel’s vision from God of the valley of bones:

“The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.” (Ezekiel 37:1-4 ESV)

Ezekiel knows he’s helpless to bring this bunch of skeletons to life. He says, “God, I don’t know, but you do.” Good answer.

God then tells him what it takes to bring the bones to life — His own words. Ezekiel then speaks the Word of God over those dry bones and the unthinkable happens:

“And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.” (Ezekiel 37:8-10 ESV)

God spoke and enfleshed these piles of bones and then breathed into them the breath of life. All through the power of His Word.

The power of His Word

And that’s not all. The book of Hebrews tells us that all things are held together by the power of His Word.

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power… (Hebrews 1:3 ESV)

That same life-giving, universe-sustaining power is still wielded through the Word of the Lord. But these days, we don’t have to hear from prophets or judges or priests. The opening of the book of Hebrews tells us,

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV)

The Son (Jesus), then, is how we hear the Word of God today. And where are his teachings and commandments recorded? In the Bible.

How to get started understanding the power of the Bible

If we want to be brought back to life, if we want to see a new heart made of flesh beating in our chest instead of the cold, hard one we have now, then we will be students of the living, breathing, active Word of God (Heb. 4:12).

If you’ve never understood that, don’t stop until you do. Many people have never been walked through the truths of Scripture about the power of the Word in a way that made them see the importance of Bible reading. Don’t feel bad. Just get started.

If you’re not sure where to look, start by reading this chapter of Multiply, a discipleship curriculum. It will help you understand why we should be studying the Bible in very clear language. (This chapter is in part 3 of the book, which is all about how to study the Bible. It’s well worth the time. In fact, the whole book is great. And free! The site linked to has all the material, and it’s also available as a free app.)

The goal of using any of these resources is for you to see the transformational power of the Bible. I’m reminded of these words from Rick Warren:

“Reading the Bible generates life, it produces change, it heals hurts, it builds character, it transforms circumstances, it imparts joy, it overcomes adversity, it defeats temptation, it infuses hope, it releases power, it cleanses the mind.”

May you and I know those things to be true through our own experience with God’s Word.

Finding delight in reading the Bible

An even more common reason for not reading the Bible than not understanding the power of it is not knowing how to find delight in reading it.

Try to imagine yourself sitting down to a table with fresh white linens draped over top. Several pristine utensils sit before you. The napkin is folded into some beautiful but unknown geometric shape. It sits just above a clean, white plate. And on that plate is a big, black leather Bible.

As you look down at that Bible, does it look like the desert you can’t wait to dig into, or does it look more like the brussel sprouts you shove aside so you can get to the good part?

The answer to that question means everything.

Too many of us look down and see a strange, foreign book that we want to love, but just don’t know quite what to do with it. It’s just never tasted good, so we move it around on the plate and pretend to enjoy it.

That is not what God intended.

The majesty of the God’s Word

Look at the majesty of what God’s Word should be like to us from Psalm 19:

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:7-11 ESV)

In just five verses, we’re told that the Word of God is perfect, trustworthy, good, clear, eternal, true, and sweet. Is that how you feel about the Bible?

If those stats mentioned earlier are true, probably not. So what do you do?

How to start finding delight in reading the Bible

Well, for starters, you don’t find delight in reading the Bible until you start reading the Bible. Like any other discipline or practice, the more you do it, the more natural it becomes and the more you’ll start to enjoy it.

If you’ve never really given daily Bible reading a shot, of course it’s difficult in the beginning. Of course it’s hard to do and hard to understand. But that doesn’t mean you should stop; it just means you’ve got work to do.

The best way to jump in is to pick a yearly reading plan through the free YouVersion app, one of the many websites, or, my current favorite, the Read Scripture plan. It’s available as a free app or PDF that has helpful videos to better understand each book and major theme of the Bible. There’s also a weekly podcast with Francis Chan where he talks through the week’s readings and helps you better understand and apply it.

Those are some good options, but which plan you choose is really not the point. It matters less how you’re reading through the Bible, and more that you’re actually doing it.

What to do if you hit a road block

If you’ve tried to build a daily habit and failed miserably (like I did many times), or you just can’t seem to get into it, there is something that will help. First, pray for the God to give you a heart for the Bible. If you’re seeking His truth, He will answer you.

But second, talk to someone or listen to someone who loves God’s Word. Nothing has been more catalytic in my own delight in God’s Word than this. If you’ve never really seen someone who loves God’s Word, then you have no picture of how it can transform your life and bring joy to the core of your being.

If that’s you, then I’d suggest listening to or watching this series of videos on how to study the Bible (and following along with the notes they have). It’s a big investment, but so, so worth it. The teacher, David Platt, loves God’s Word, and it’s evident in his voice and demeanor. I’m in seminary, so believe me when I say that what he takes you through is a seminary-level education for the everyday person. And it’s all free, like the other resources mentioned here.

Don’t put this off

At the end of your life, you will give an account to God for how you spent your time (Rom. 14:12). At that time, all the ways you wasted time on Netflix, Facebook, or whatever else will be abundantly clear. Please, see the reality of what’s at stake now. Don’t put this off until later.

God has revealed Himself to us. He has told us how to live and work and think and act. And it’s all the Bible. You probably own 2 or more if you’re reading this. Or you probably have a smartphone and can download a free Bible app right now. In many parts of the world today, we have no excuse for not reading the Bible because it’s so widely available.

The most precious gift I can give you or anyone else is encouragement to build a lifelong passion for studying God’s Word. My prayer for you is that these words from Martin Luther would be true of you:

“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me, it has feet, it runs after me, it has hands, it lays hold [of] me.”

Why Groups Should be Meeting as Missionaries

What if the word missionary didn’t just mean people that leave everything behind to share the gospel with people in Africa, India, or somewhere else around the world? What if it also meant that you died to yourself and shared the gospel with people right where you are? What if we lived as missionaries in our neighborhoods, communities, and workplaces?

According to the New Testament, that’s exactly what we should be doing already.

Authors Colin Marshall and Tony Payne point out that many of us put the emphasis on the wrong words in the Great Commission. They say the command (or the main verb) of the Commission is not “go,” but “make disciples”:

And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:17-20 ESV)

Getting the command right makes a very important difference, as Marshall and Payne write in The Trellis and the Vine, because the misunderstanding,

“…can lead local churches to think that they are obeying the Great Commission if they send money (and missionaries) overseas. But the emphasis of the sentence is not on ‘going’. In fact, the participle is probably better translated ‘when you go’ or ‘as you go’. The commission is not fundamentally about mission out there somewhere else in another country. It’s a commission that makes disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple.”

They aren’t the first ones to suggest that “go” is better translated as “as you go.” The Christian Worldview Journal has written on the topic. And this is a more technical explanation of the Greek if you’re interested.

The command of the Great Commission, then, is to make disciples, and the context is everyday life (“as you go”).

As you go

As you go about your life, make disciples. As you go to work, make disciples. As you go to the park, make disciples.

The question isn’t what has God called us to do, but where has He called us to do it. He’s called all of His followers to make disciples as they go throughout their life. The question for you and your group is where does God want you to do that right where you are?

For followers of Jesus, this is the most important question to ask ourselves. Because if we aren’t making disciples, then we aren’t obeying His commands.

Charles Spurgeon’s famous statement on this rings truer than ever in this context:

“Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.”

Every Christian is called to live as a missionary wherever they are. Which brings us to your group.

Meeting as missionaries with your group

Part of the normal rhythm of any community group should be to meet as missionaries in its community. That means each group should be spending strategic time at specific places in their community with the goal of sharing the gospel and making disciples.

For example, let’s say you’re in a group of young families. you probably go to the park with your kids at least a couple times a month. What if you started going to the same park at the same time with the goal of forming relationships with other families in your community?

My family has started doing this over the last year and we’ve seen a noticeable change in how we relate to our community and the people around us. We go to the same two parks usually, and while we’re there we try and talk to the other moms and dads there. Sure, some people don’t want to talk to you. But others are almost desperate for a connection and they’re tired of parenting on their own all week. We just talk to those people and get to know them. Since we started doing that, we’ve already had two other families reach out to us to get together for play dates. Our hope is that those connections turn into opportunities to share Jesus with them, and we’re ready to help them follow Jesus if that’s where it goes.

Think through what your group normally does and see if there are more strategic ways to do it. Or think about different ways to spend your time in order to live on mission. Here are 25 ways to do that (and here are 25 more).

Meeting as missionaries doesn’t mean you go someplace and just start street preaching. It means you go into a place and become part of the fabric of the community so that you can build relationships with people and show them the love of Christ in tangible ways, and then invite them into that love.

Finding the time

Meeting with your group like this is something you can do at least once a month, but doing so every other week is probably ideal because it keeps mission at the front of everyone’s mind.

Most people start groaning at the “level” of commitment at this point, but that’s because they misunderstand what it looks like to find time to live in community. They also misunderstand the importance of it. As we saw above, making disciples isn’t something that’s optional for followers of Christ. It’s the last thing the resurrected Jesus told us to do before going to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.

As always, the point is not to make things into a checklist, but to intentionally work mission into your life to make disciples and be obedient to Jesus’ call on your life. Remember, the question isn’t if we should make disciples, but where we should make them.

7 Foundations for Forming a Group

Starting a community group of any kind never follows a playbook. It’s always different, and usually doesn’t go how you thought it would. But there are some things you want to keep in mind as you go through the process of forming one. Below are 7 of those foundations for forming a community group.

1. Prayer

The first thing a group should be built on is prayer. That includes a couple specific things.

First, pray for God to send workers into your community (Matt. 9:38; Luke 10:2). It can be overwhelming to step back and think about all the lostness around you. Even if you live in a small town, the thought of it just being you or your family in the beginning is enough to take your breath away. This is why we’ve been told to pray for workers. Pray for God to send believers into your path that He wants you to lock arms with and start to build a community around. His Spirit will lead you as you go, so don’t worry if you have no idea who that will be. In fact, if things happen as He intends, there will be people that join your group that you never would have pursued aside from His leading.

Second, pray for God to send unbelievers into your group’s path. Many of us have not spent our time in church praying for opportunities to share our faith because we’re scared to death to do it. That’s okay. The first Christians, even the Apostles, gathered continually to pray for boldness in sharing Jesus to those around them. Your group should do the same. God will put people in your path for you to share your faith with, but unless we’ve prayed often about those times then there’s a tendency for us to miss them because we’re not paying attention.

2. Shared leadership

The New Testament gives us a model of what’s referred to as a “plurality of leadership.” This means no one person is charged with every facet of leadership in a local church, and the same should be true of any group. That may not be the case in the beginning since there may not always be enough mature believers to be in leadership roles, but plurality should always be the goal. That means no one person should be charged with teaching, evangelism, coordinating serving opportunities, and so on. As many people that are ready to lead, at least in some capacity, should be leading. This increases ownership of everyone in the group, and adheres to the New Testament model.

A good way to start is for leaders to identify their gifts and then look for the greatest areas of weakness. Odds are someone in the group will have complementary gifts that can strengthen the group and contribute to building up the group toward maturity in love (Eph. 4:16).

3. Get the Gospel

The temptation in any group is want to jump forward into belonging or mission, but to do so without forming a Gospel foundation will lead to a group with misguided efforts. If you don’t get the Gospel, you don’t get why you’re even forming a community. The Gospel tells us how and why to be in community. It shows us our need for Jesus and helps us understand what he’s done for us personally and corporately.

Before a group goes anywhere, it’s needs to get the Gospel. Without a Gospel foundation, a community group is no different from a club or volunteer organization. The Gospel changes everything, and it’s not worth being on mission in community without understanding that first.

4. Tell your story

The Gospel is a story about what God has done through Jesus and is doing through His Spirit. It’s a grand narrative that extends way back into history and way forward into the future. But it’s also a story that we’re invited into.

Each of us has a Gospel story to tell. If you’ve been saved by Jesus then you have a story arc that mirrors the one found in the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, restoration. We’ve all been created to be unique people with particular backgrounds (creation). Along the way though, life happens and we start to realize that everything isn’t as it should be; that might even happen through major issues or crises in our lives (fall). But then we met Jesus and he saved us from all that mess (redemption). Now we’re doing our best to figure out our place in this greater story and see how we can push back the darkness in our sphere of influence (restoration).

It’s important to take time at the formative stages of a group to hear each person’s story, with all its messiness and gloriousness. But have each person tell their story along that biblical arc of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, so that the group is focused on who the Hero of the story really is — Jesus.

5. Define the mission

This is a chicken or the egg situation, but as early as you can see if you can identify where God is sending your group on mission. He is sending you somewhere, but it might not (and probably won’t be) where you think. No group should be without a mission field though.

Think through things like who is God already placing in our paths? Where is there a need and a great opportunity to share the love of Christ in a way that opens up doors for sharing Christ? Are you called to young families who don’t know Jesus? The elementary school down the street? The women’s shelter? An orphanage?

6. Rearrange your lives

Once you’ve identified your mission field, your group needs to think through how you’ll rearrange your lives in order to serve the people you’re on mission to. That means thinking through your everyday life to identify opportunities for different people in the group to serve families or people. And don’t think in terms of a particular day or event; think broader than that. You’re wanting to think through how you can weave your lives around this mission field in order to share the love of Christ that knows no bounds with them.

It might mean you give up some nights during the week, are more open with your home, or start spending time and money in different places. Be creative. This is the work of a missionary in the context of your everyday life. And its exactly the kind of work God is calling you to.

7. Plan for multiplication

From the beginning, you should explain that your group won’t be together forever, at least not in the form it is now. That’s because Jesus saves us, then sends us. Each and every Christ follower is called out of darkness and into the light, then sent right back into the darkness so they can do the same for others. When God saved you, He had other people in mind. He loves you and wanted to save you, of course, but His plans are much bigger than simply getting you into heaven.

In order to live out those plans in your community group, it means that at some point your group needs to multiply. That simply means you need to send out a person or couple from your group to lead another community group. And that’s hard. For the next leaders, it involves dying to themselves and stepping out of their comfort zone. And for those in the group it means they experience grief and loss when their brothers and sisters go off on their own.

That language of death is appropriate. Jesus tells us in John 12:24 that, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” If we want to see the fruit of the Gospel multiplying across our town, city, and world, we have to let the seeds die. We have to die to our own interests, plans, and desires. But out of that death God brings forth a beautiful and glorious community.