The man whom humanity needs most is a shepherd

A few things are certain. We live in a universe created by a Shepherd God. The Lord is our Shepherd. Our world is redeemed by a Shepherd Savior. Our Elder Brother is a Shepherd. The man whom humanity needs most is a shepherd. Every messenger of Christ is sent to do a shepherd’s work. We are to stand at last before a Shepherd Judge. God is going to separate the good shepherds from the shepherds who are bad. The questions which every pastor must meet and answer are three: ‘Did you feed My lambs? Did you tend My sheep? Did you feed My sheep?’

Charles Jefferson, The Minister as Shepherd, pg 31

The first step toward raising up leaders

As we head out to our new church in Rancho Cucamonga (you can read a bit about it here), one of my primary concerns for the church is that we have a plurality of qualified leaders. Where the leaders go, the church will follow, and for a congregation to attain a level of health there must be healthy leaders.

How do we find and develop such leaders? I’m sure there are libraries of literature on the topic, both secular and Christian. I’m not sure I can say here what hasn’t been said a hundred times over in other places. But I can say something simple and biblical that we always need to remember: prayer is the primary, first work toward raising up leaders.

The first offensive tactic for raising up leaders is to ask Jesus for them, and patiently wait for him to give them. God said, “Behold, all souls are mine” (Ezek. 18:4). Jesus told his disciples “All authority has been given to me” (Mat. 28:18). He tells us to ask for workers (Mat. 9:38). Jesus holds the heart of a king in his hand, and has the power to turn it heart wherever he wills (Prov. 21:1). As a rich and generous Lord, Jesus loves to give these people to the church (Eph. 4:11).

All potential leaders are Christ’s. He has authority over them. He tells us to ask him for them. He’s generous in providing them. Do we believe this?

If we’re short on solders as we head into battle, we need not be ashamed nor bashful to come boldly into his barracks and ask for more manpower. When we pray this way, we are assuming Jesus is powerful enough and generous enough to provide, and it glorifies him.

Yes let’s have leadership pipelines and training centers. Let’s do men’s Bible studies and workshops. But most of all, and in everything, let’s pray for leaders.

There may be many reasons we don’t have leaders among us. But let it be not because we’ve never asked for them.

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.

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.

A definition of church membership

I like Jonathan Leeman’s definition of church membership. It’s a bit clunky, but if we can unpack it I think it’s pretty helpful.

Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.

A few things stand out to me.

First, it’s formal. Formalizing membership is simply saying out loud “I’m with you, and you’re with me.” We need not fear it as a slope that leads us into institutionalism. A formal recognition of a spiritual reality is helpful communication.

Second, it’s relational. Formal doesn’t negate relational. Church membership ought to be carried out in the context of loving relationship. It’s not about signing papers and taking classes. It’s about getting to know and care for one another.

Third, it clarifies.  Membership declares the responsibility of the leadership to oversee and provide direction to the member. The leaders give oversight while the members proactively submit themselves to the church in their discipleship. For both, responsibilities are clarified.

And for these reasons (and many more unpacked in Jonathan’s book) I’d recommend that every Christian become a church member. It serves the leadership. It clarifies your role. It strengthens the relationship. It’s an altogether healthy move.

And if you’re looking for an introduction into the subject, read his book Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesusit’s only 132 pages.

Why the American church needs Acts

pentecost

I’m beginning to teach the the book of Acts, and the more I study the more I’m convinced of its relevance for today’s church. Of course, all Scripture is relevant. Always. But in light of certain American evangelical tendencies, the message of Acts is urgent. Here are four reasons why the American church needs Acts:

So we can get back to the basics. The church today often attempts to grow by human innovation, worldly wisdom, trends and fads. Acts shows us how the first church grew. God acted through godly men who preached God’s Word by God’s Spirit. To be faithful, we need to get back to the principles that drove the apostles. It is a beautiful simplicity.

So we will stand up for the truth. In an age where no one wants to offend anyone, and everyone is hung up by this idea of “tolerance,” Acts is a fresh supply of reality. We need to be reminded of the boldness of Peter and the rational, engaging argumentation of Paul. Let’s remember that there is such a thing as truth, that we are not the dummies for preaching it, and that there’s a mass of humanity that needs to hear it.

Also, under this heading, we need to be reminded that the truth offends. It does. But it also saves. Peter’s message about the risen Christ was met with repentance and three thousand hearers that day were “cut to the heart” (2:37) and added to the church. Stephen’s message about the risen Christ was met with a murderous rage. Peter and Stephen preached the same Christ.There’s a lesson to be learned here: truth will unite God’s people to the church and at the same time will instigate opposition to it. It is outside our capacity to determine how people respond to truth. It is our duty to preach it.

To help us grow thicker skin. The American church is flabby and in great need of some spiritual muscle. The church needs to recapture the vision of holy grit, tough compassion, relentless love in the face of opposition. We give up too easily, back down too frequently, are offended too often, and discouraged too much. Too much fluff. The church in Acts shows us what thick skin looks like, what it means to have a spine, what manly mature Christianity looks like. Not many of us are willing to say to the governing authorities “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:19-20) or how many of us have witnessed fellow believers “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (5:41)? Too few, I think. May the Holy Spirit make us tough!

Opposition was real in Acts, and as we faithfully and boldly proclaim the gospel, we will face it. The tenacity of the apostles in Acts inspires us to face a grim and hostile reality.

To remind us of divine power. Because we have become so accustomed to manipulative ministry—trying to manipulate people into following Christ with human means—we need to remember that there is such a thing as divine power. Acts shows us that Jesus is alive, that he rules as king on high, that he is commanding his forces and moving. If Luke is the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Acts is the story of his heavenly ministry as Head of the church. He still sits at the right hand of God, he still holds all authority in heaven and earth, and he is still building his church. The more we depend on his divine power, the better off we’ll be.

The clearest measure of a Christian’s maturity

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A Christian is someone who has a growing love for the Word of God.

A Christian is someone who is growing in the discipline of prayer.

A Christian is someone who has a growing love for his brothers and sisters in Christ.

A Christian is someone with a growing concern for personal holiness.

A Christian is someone who desires to see the lost converted and discipled.

Where is the Word of God most clearly taught, most rigorously obeyed, most highly valued? Which place, of all the places a Christian could be, is meant to be a “house of prayer”? Which gathering can the believer most readily show his love for the brethren? Where else can a believer be exhorted to holiness and be held accountable? Which institution makes the Great Commission its purpose and goal?

The church. The church is the crossroads where all the Christian’s highest affections meet. And that’s why I think the clearest measure of a Christian’s maturity is how he feels about the local church.