You will think you have had enough

“I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at His judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.”

–John Brown, in a letter of counsel written to one of his pupils newly ordained over a small congregation, cited by Alexander Grossart in The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, Vol. 1, Ed. Alexander Grossart (1862-1864; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 294.

Revitalization: How it Happened

Back in late February 2017 Jordan, Marshall and I had a meeting to evaluate the previous year and discuss plans for the future. I came in prepared for a review– we would look over the blessings and successes of 2016, talk about individuals who seem to be responding to the gospel, think strategically about how my time could best be invested in the next twelve months. We did none of those things. Instead, Jordan said something like this: “We know that in the next couple years you’re going to be heading out to lead another church. What can we do in the meantime to prepare you for that?”

I was caught off-guard. We talked about perhaps more opportunities to preach, more appearances at elders’ meetings. Then I was asked another question: what is your ideal situation? What are you hoping for in the next twenty-four months?

For this I was not caught off-guard. Ashley and I had begun thinking about this question months prior and I had developed in my mind something of an ideal situation. It went something like this:

“I’d like to prayerfully and strategically gather a group of committed members of our church who would be willing to transfer their membership to a nearby church in need of revitalization. By God’s grace, we would be able to serve that church and help bring it back to health.”

I wasn’t sure if our church was in a place to be able to do this, or what Jordan and Marshall would think. I was surprised that the immediate response was affirmation and excitement. Jordan said, “I’m going to start praying for this, and I want you to too.” So we did. We didn’t have any idea how this would play out. We didn’t have any church in mind to go to.

Jordan ramped everything up. What I meekly brought up as a suggestion he championed and pushed forward. He told our staff, “I want you to be praying about this every day.” He told the same thing to our church’s elders. He and I began meeting a half hour before our staff meetings to talk and pray. Specifically, we were asking mainly for clarity in three areas: 1) where will we go?, 2) who will come with?, and 3) how should we do this?

In some ways, the rest is history. We prayed this way through summer, and in early October we were told about a church in the Grace Brethren fellowship that had a pastor retiring at the end of the year. They had a massive property, and a small group of saints in need of help. And because we had initially thought we’d be heading west into Ventura County, we were a bit jolted when we heard that it was in Alta Loma, about 70 miles east of Simi, in San Bernardino County.

The title of this blog is “How We’re Doing This” but it is by no means a step-by-step process of our great strategic masterplan. The way God has worked so far, it may look like we had such a plan because it’s coming together so nicely. But we didn’t.

Stay tuned for the second part of this post, where I’ll talk about some of the convictions that have driven this project forward.

The above is part of a series. Catch up on the first posts here:

  1. “Revitalization: Our Moment”
  2. “Why Revitalization?”

Why Church Revitalization?

The following post is part 2 of 3 in a series. You can read part 1 , “Revitalization: Our Moment” here.

Trends. If you try to follow them too closely you’ll end up turned around, upside down and backwards, like the clothing on my three-year-old when she dresses herself. But if you don’t pay attention, you could miss out on some crucial opportunities. I mentioned in the last post that we’re in the middle of an upsurge of interest in sound doctrine. John Macarthur, doing a Question and Answer with R.C. Sproul a couple years ago, said, “We’re seeing the greatest explosion of reformed theology in the history of the world.” This explosion has led to the a huge increase in church plants, church planters, and church planting networks.

Running alongside this growth there seems to be another trend that’s gaining traction, and unlike some fads in the church, this one is positive: church revitalization.

We are praising God for the recent church planting trend. But church planters are in a difficult place. My father-in-law heads a network of churches that coordinates and supports church planting efforts. He tells me repeatedly that church planters are always wishing they had a building of their own, a property they could use. Doing “church-in-a-box,” where all your church gear – sound boards, chairs, mics, music stands, etc. – is set up and torn down every weekend, is exciting for about six months. And then it’s tiresome. Volunteers with growing families will only be able to do that for so long. Having a hub from which to do ministry, to call your own, is a blessing, it turns out. This is what church planters long for.

Unfortunately, there are certain places in America where it’s extremely difficult to buy and purchase land. Urban centers, where millions of people live and work, are so overbuilt and expensive that no fledgling church is going to be able to own property. Who’s able to buy property in Southern California, or New York, or D.C.? We need new churches in these places, but it’s a long shot to get ahold of your own land. Property, especially in these kinds of places, is a precious asset.

Imagine a scenario: Would the churches who bought land in those locations in the last century or so please stand up?They stand. Thousands of these churches in strategic locations are close to dying. The buildings are empty and about to be sold, demolished and turned into tract homes or apartment buildings. Okay. Now, let’s have the young, energetic church plants stand up. Let’s shake hands. Something seems obvious. What do we do when we have lots of people with no building, and lots of buildings with few people? What do you do with a square peg and a square hole?

Granted, I understand that it’s not that simple. Different denominations with doctrinal distinctives won’t want to give their property to churches they don’t know or agree with. I also understand there are some advantages that church planting has over church revitalizing. For starters, church plants can move quickly, make decisions without fearing any baggage or history, and design what they want from the ground up without encountering resistance or fear of change. But there are some advantages to church revitalization. Consider these:

  1. Church revitalization is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of God. Personally, this is the greatest motivation I have for getting involved in church revitalization. Every believer echoes Moses’ ancient request to God: “Please show me your glory” (Ex. 33:18). I want to have front row seats as God demonstrates his power and glory, and what better place to experience this than a church where death gives way to live, the lost are found, the sick are healed, and the guilty forgiven? The glory of Christ shines forth in the lives of the redeemed, and I want to see this up close. I want the community to see it. We are asking that God uses this church revitalization project to demonstrate his power and glory. If at some point there is a healthy, thriving church there in Alta Loma, we will be able to say, “God did this- to him be the glory!”
  2. Church revitalization is an opportunity to establish a more accurate picture of Jesus. What does an empty church and a dwindling gathering of tired believers communicate to the world? It communicates the same thing a nominal Christian does– that Jesus is irrelevant. While I praise God for faithful small churches, and even recognize that healthy churches can have seasons of decline, I am concerned about dying churches. Dying churches littering the landscape are not neutral in what they represent. They communicate to unbelieving onlookers something untrue about God. Revitalization does not merely seek to establish a true and beautiful picture of Christ in a community, it seeks to eliminate a false one. It’s really a two-for-one deal.
  3. Church revitalization is an opportunity to utilize resources for the gospel. A building is not a church, but a church with a building has something precious to steward. God has given them land, a plot in the ground they can call their own. Every square inch in this universe belongs to Jesus, and at least on the grounds that a church owns, that great reality of the Lordship of Christ can be played out. For many dying churches, buildings and bank accounts are not being used much. Some precious saints put in money toward the advance of the gospel decades ago, and it’d be a shame to see it forfeited to the world on our watch. One of the ways we can honor the generations who went before us is to continue the work for which they bought the property in the first place: faithful proclamation of the Word of God and the clear presentation of the gospel.
  4. Church revitalization is an opportunity to shepherd older, precious saints. I recently sat down with a member of such a church and he told me how difficult it is to find someone who could minister to their congregation. Who would want to touch a church with a decrepit building, a tiny congregation, and uncertain financial situation? Keep in mind that many members of these churches are old and infirm, looking mortality in the face. It’s a travesty for a precious, aged saint to die without a church family to love and care for them in their final hours. A church revitalization is an opportunity to care for an often-marginalized segment of our youth-centered culture: the elderly.

I am praying that many older, dwindling churches will, with the Lordship of Christ and the Great Commission in view, hand over their property to like-minded, faithful, youthful church plants. Church revitalization is a strategy with a future. The broader body of Christ already possesses the land. We have the resurgence in the younger, growing movement of healthy, gospel-centered churches. Wouldn’t it be great if God would raise up thousands of church revitalizers who would go into old, dying churches and help bring them back to health?

And isn’t this great that God has allowed us seize such an opportunity?

Church Revitalization: Our Moment

I remember sitting in a chapel at The Master’s Seminary listening to John Macarthur informally share about some of the different ministries he had been participating in over the previous few months. He said something shocking that I have yet to find in print: “Some of you have been praying for revival. You want revival? Wake up and look around. We are living through the greatest revival since the reformation.”

Macarthur isn’t a lone voice that’s recognized this. In 2006, Colin Hansen wrote an article for Christianity Today entitled “Young, Restless, and Reformed,” which captured a bit of the flavor of this new resurgence of reformed theology. Mark Dever tells the story of how at the 2006 Together for the Gospel Conference he asked people to stand by ages. He writes “Out of 3,000 we had a few senior citizens. Some guys in their 50’s. A lot in their 40’s. A TON in their 30’s. And even MORE in their 20’s.” These observations were what provoked him to write the 2007 article “Where’d All These Calvinists Come From?” where he traces the resurgence of the recovery of the great themes of Scripture from Charles Spurgeon, through Martin Lloyd Jones, to more contemporary figures such as J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, John Macarthur, and John Piper.

Taking a look around

I’ve been observing this surge as well. A few months ago I was at a weekend ecclesiology conference. You heard that right– an event that addressed the topic of church life, government, polity, and other such topics. There are some who believe this stuff drives young people away from, not toward, the church. But the reality was quite different. The room was packed with young men, many sporting beards and tats, holding their ESV Bibles and filling the pews. These men wanted to spend their Friday night and Saturday morning talking about doctrine.

The secular world took note too: in 2009 Time Magazine put out an article titled, “10 Ideas that are Changing the World Right Now” and third on the list was the “New Calvinism.” As you might expect, the writer at Time had a weird understanding of the “New Calvinism.” Regardless, it’s fascinating that such a movement would be on Time’s radar screen.

What does all this mean? Wherever there’s a recovering of biblical authority, robust biblical theology, combined with white-hot intensity and devotion to Jesus Christ, the church advances. Acts chronicles this – where the Word goes it creates life; and when God is creating new life in the world, there are some inevitable results. One of them is an increase in church planting.

Yes, church planting has erupted in the last decade. When people get ahold of the gospel, and the gospel gets ahold of them, they are emboldened toward work and to risk in the service of King Jesus. Off the top of my head I can list several church planting networks that has been birthed out of this new reformed movement: Acts 29, Grace Advance, Sojourn, Sovereign Grace, Summit, Pacific Church Network. We don’t align with all of these networks on every doctrinal point, but they are undeniably one of the results of the resuscitation of reformed doctrine.

The impact on our church

Many of the men who serve in our church have been caught up into this outpouring of God’s grace. Peruse the bookshelves in our offices and you’ll find Packer’s Knowing God and his Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. For most of us, you’ll see a collection of R.C. Sproul’s works, including The Holiness of God and Chosen by God. We all have an entire shelf’s worth of Macarthur works– his commentaries, Bible studies, and some of his landmark titles like The Gospel According to Jesus and Unashamed of the Gospel. For some of us, it was John Piper’s Desiring God or The Pleasures of God or Let the Nations Be Glad that fueled us to give our lives to serve in the ways we have. In other words, though whatever revival may be taking place is from God’s hand, the men he has used to bring about this resurgence in our time are the very ones we’ve learned from, been shaped by, and owe our ministries to. That is to say, our church and ministry has been profoundly shaped by the recent retrieval of reformed theology.

In our church, before Pastor Jordan there was Pastor John, who rigorously and unrelentingly preached God’s Word to our congregation for thirty years, championing the cause of biblical centrality. His ministry established a Scriptural foundation stable enough to support a faithful transition to a new pastor. The baton was passed to Jordan, and under his leadership God has assembled an company of like-minded and gifted men. As a pastor-friend who serves at a different church in our community once said, we enjoy an “embarrassment of riches” here at Grace. Indeed, God has been good.

In light of the blessings we’ve enjoyed and the grace we’ve experienced, our desire is to continue the advance of the gospel. Our desire isn’t necessarily to plant or revitalize churches. Rather, our aim is to train up men who can be faithful to train more men who will train others also (2 Tim. 2:2). These men, we pray, caught up in the plan of God and the mission of the church, will be sent to a variety of places: overseas missions, established churches, new locations where church plants are needed, and, as we’ve been experiencing over the last couple months, to church revitalization projects.

As we reflect on the church revitalization in Rancho, let’s remember that Jesus is building his church. It is easy to look around at the state of the American church and despair. Some of the critiques of modern American evangelicalism are well-deserved. Too many churches have traded the transcendence of God for pragmatism, convenience, and entertainment. Others have blemished the name of Christ by moral failure and scandal. Outside the church the temperature rises. American politics and policies continually remind us of their bankruptcy. Hollywood is a trainwreck. All of this is sad. What we must not forget is this: that the church, in many places, is surging. The gospel is moving. The church is advancing.

A small part of the larger story

What we are hoping to do in Rancho is a small paragraph in a larger story; one that has its roots in an ancient promise to Adam about a Man crushing a serpent, a story where weak people slay giants and desert nomads defeat Egypt’s armies. This is the Great Story we have been written into, not by our choice but by our Author’s; and to appear in print, even as a footnote, as a servant of the Great Hero, the Great God-Man, the Lamb who was Slain, is a man’s highest calling.

Jesus is building his church. We all have been swept into this incredible plan for such a time as this. And we have work to do.

Three Aspects of Sanctification

Anthony Hoekema defines sanctification like this: “that gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, involving our responsible participation, by which He delivers us as justified sinners from the pollution of sin, renews our entire nature according to the image of God, and enables us to live lives that are pleasing to Him.” Or, more simply, the process that believers are made more like Jesus.

There are three aspects of sanctification.

Positional sanctification happens immediately at salvation, and is the washing and cleansing of the new believer where God sets him apart as his own. Paul writes of believers who were sanctified at a specific time in the past: “but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified…” (1 Cor. 6:11). When a person gets saved, he is considered positionally sanctified. He is a saint. He is holy.

Progressive sanctification happens after salvation and is the process by which the believer is transformed into the image of Christ. Romans 6:19b reads “so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.” Believers are to strive for holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

Permanent sanctification happens at glorification, when believers are finally “not able to sin.” This will only come when we die and go to be with the Lord. “When we see him, we will be like him” John says (1 Jn. 3:2), ;and Revelation 21 makes clear that all sin and struggle and pain will be eradicated. In that state of glorification, there will be no possibility of sin destroying anything.

His speaking calls the church into existence

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In 2 Timothy 3:14-15 we see that God’s Word is sufficient to save. Paul writes “But continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able (sufficient) to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Timothy is described as having “learned” the word, “firmly believed” the word, because he was taught the word at a young age he is described as being “acquainted with” the word. What is the result? What is the word able to do? The word is able to “make you wise for salvation.” The word works.

A protestant Bible believing preacher was having a conversation with a Roman Catholic scholar. They were talking about how the Bible came together. The Roman Catholic scholar said, “We all know that the church created the Bible”- he said this to emphasize that the Bible was a human, not divine, book. The protestant pastor replied, “That’s ridiculous. The church never created the Bible. The Bible created the church.”

It did. It does. God’s Word is sufficient and able to build the church. If Jesus said “I am going to build my church,” how do you think he’s going to do it? He’s going to do it the way he’s always done it: by speaking. He spoke creation into existence, he speaks to bring dead souls to live, and his speaking calls the church into existence. The Scriptures are totally sufficient, and so we preach them.

Twitter Me This: 4/18/16

When a Pastor Falls
Russell Moore asks a good question: what should we do when a pastor falls? Here’s my favorite line:
The reason I am so frustrated is because of my inadequate doctrine of sin. It doesn’t matter what I confess in creedal documents or teach from pulpits; when I am surprised by the irrationality of a particular sin, I am demonstrating that I’m a latent Pelagian of the heart. All sin is irrational and self-destructive. If we don’t get that, we don’t know what sin is. My reaction is a reminder to myself of how much I need the sanctifying presence of the Spirit.
After You Preach 

Here’s a short, memorable resource from Dave Harvey to help preachers in  what can often to their most vulnerable moments: after they preach.

Live Smart, by Dan Dumas

I am thankful for anyone who writes strong, robust books aimed at teenagers. There aren’t many, but I think Dan Dumas put together a good one. I picked up a few for some of my guys. Here’s a link: http://www.livesmartbook.com

College Kids Say the Darndest Things

Watching this is half hilarious and half heart-breaking. Ladies and gentleman: higher education!

Twitter me This (4/11/16)

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A collection of tweets that deserve a second look. With some comments if I feel like it. Enjoy.
 
Al Mohler (@albertmohler)
The power of parents reading aloud to children. Majority of kids say parents stop too soon. Read or listen here.
 
Most children can read independently by the first grade, but still kids want to be read to.  Parents, listen up!
 
Steven Lawson (@DrStevenJLawson)
We are not just dogmatic about the gospel, we are bulldog-matic.

Classic Lawson. Wonder how long it took him to think of that one.
 
Jonathan Leeman (@jonathandleeman)
Ah, how proficient we sinners are at sinning when we’ve been sinned against! Victims becomes perpetrators, creating new victims #cyclegoeson
Helpful to remember when counseling people. 
 
Kenneth R. Samples (@RTB_KSamples)
“Religion is a fairytale for those afraid of the dark.” -Stephen Hawking
“Atheism is a fairytale for those afraid of the light.” John Lennox
Stash that quote away for future use.
 
Mark Dever (@MarkDever)
The victory we are often granted is not the shortening of the trial but the lengthening of our faith. (see Luke 22:32)

 

People are the raw material of heaven

disciples

I have watched men catch the vision of reaching the world for Christ. I have caught this vision, and have dedicated my life to this grand and glorious aim. But I have seen some men become so goal-oriented that to achieve their goals they roughly shoulder their way past people who need help and encouragement.

But what is our objective? What are our goals? When we all get to heaven it will all be vividly and pointedly clear. We will find only people in heaven. There will be no committee notes, no scholarly papers on intriguing themes, no lengthy studies, memos, or surveys. People are the raw material of heaven. If we become enamored with projects, goals, and achievements, and never lend a hand to people along the way; and if we say, “Doing this will not help them accomplish my objective,” what are we really thinking about? Self! Exactly opposite to the lifestyle of Jesus Christ.

Leroy Eims, Disciples in Action

Aren’t we like Cain?

“We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother.”

Why would John say that? He’s talking to a church. He’s talking to a group of believers who were in danger of false teachers. He wasn’t talking to a bunch ex-gangbangers and thugs, who had a history committing the high crime of murder. He’s not speaking to inmates. He’s talking to church folk. Why does he warn them about murder?

The answer is because there’s something else going on here. Something deeper. John knows that while we may not ever murder something, the murderous motivations that compelled Cain to kill his brother are inside us all.

John knows that we have a problem. We are more devious than we often think.

Look at what motivated Cain: “And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.”

This passage is for you and me. It lends great insight into the tendencies of the human heart. It’s written because we are prone to act like Cain.

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Aren’t we like Cain when we compare ourselves with others? Remember, it wasn’t Abel who disapproved of Cain’s offering. It was God. But Cain’s hatred broke against Abel. Why? He lost the comparison game, and it made him angry. How often do you compare yourselves with others, only to grow in silent anger because you envy them?

Aren’t we like Cain when we secretly despise the successes of others? How do you feel toward the Golden Child whose life seems to prove that God loves him more than you? And people ooze with praise and compliments for the other guy? How does it make you feel toward others when they get the recognition and you don’t? Abel did nothing to Cain, yet Cain hated him–for nothing other than God approved of Abel’s worship and not his own.

Aren’t we like Cain when we try to steal credit for every good thing in our lives? Deep in his heart, Cain wanted credit for his act of worship, even though it was corrupt. But don’t we all? Don’t we all want take credit for all the good things we do? Don’t we want to get the glory for any success that we have? Don’t we try to trace every blessing’s origin back to our own goodness, our own efforts, our own power? We are credit thieves.

Aren’t we like Cain when we make excuses for our shortcomings but are hyper-critical of others? Cain hated Abel’s offering; didn’t think it should be approved. But he apparently saw nothing wrong with his own sacrifice. We critique others with incisive tenacity, but expect everyone else to extend grace. Double-standard much?

Aren’t we like Cain when we want recognition and approval so badly that we will trample on whoever gets in our way, or we will be infuriated by those who hinder us? Cain wanted to be approved, get recognition, get noticed—in all the wrong ways. When Abel got in his way, he killed him. We do the same thing. Think about the times you got angry this last week. Was it not because someone or something got in the way of what you wanted?

We have a sin-problem. We have a Cain-like heart. We love ourselves way too much, and self-love dams up our love from flowing to others. Our hearts become a stagnant pool of self-absorption, rather than a flowing river of life-giving love.

We need a Savior. The Savior breaks the dam of self-love and releases the flood of God’s love. Springs of life start flowing. Our Savior’s love transforms our self-love into genuine love. But first, we must recognize our weakness, and cling close to Jesus, and depend entirely upon him to work in us.