Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

I admit to being a bit surprised when I first saw a post about John Piper’s recent, small book Coronavirus and Christ. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Since the book was being offered as a free PDF to anyone wanting it, I downloaded it and read it over the past weekend. A slight majority of the book (Part 2) is given to answering the question, “What is God doing through the Coronavirus?” Piper gives six possible answers to that question, but he first deals in Part 1 of the book with the foundational concepts one needs to understand before addressing the question at hand.

The chapters of Part 1 – “The God Who Reigns Over the Coronavirus” – include:

  • Come to the Rock
  • A Solid Foundation
  • The Rock is Righteous
  • Sovereign over All
  • The Sweetness of His Reign

In Part 1, Piper seeks to draw people to the solid Rock, Jesus Christ, as the only sound place to stand in this world of uncertainty. This pandemic has rocked our world in many ways unimaginable just a few months ago. All of us have been impacted in some way, and most of us in significant ways. Piper shares from his personal experience of a cancer diagnosis about how he had to come to grips with the ground on which he stood during that time of physical uncertainty. Now in this pandemic, he writes that his aim is to “show why God in Christ is the Rock at this moment in history—in this pandemic of the coronavirus—and what it is like to stand on his mighty love.”

Reiterated through the book is the truth that “the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus, yet doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it.” Piper devotes nearly half the book leading up to answering the specific question of Part 2 because he wants the reader to be very clear on the holiness and righteousness and goodness and wisdom of God. In speaking about the sovereignty of God, he explains that God doesn’t just take seemingly bad things that happen (like a pandemic) and then turn them into good somewhere along the line. Rather, he shows how God has a purpose and meaning in them from the beginning. That’s important! This pandemic didn’t sneak up on God and surprise him.

After laying the foundation about God, Piper then offers in Part 2 six reasoned biblical answers to the question, “What is God doing through the Coronavirus?” He admits that God is always doing a billion things we do not know, but at least from the Scriptures we can be sure that God is up to a few specific things during this pandemic. The chapter titles and summary answers below give you the big picture of his answers about this “bitter providence,” but you need to read the entire text to fully understand them:

  • Picturing Moral Horror
    • “God is giving the world in the coronavirus outbreak, as in all other calamities, a physical picture of the moral horror and spiritual ugliness of God-belittling sin.”
  • Sending Specific Divine Judgments
    • “Some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions.”
  • Awakening Us for the Second Coming
    • “The coronavirus is a God-given wake-up call to be ready for the second coming of Christ.”
  • Realigning Us with the Infinite Worth of Christ
    • “The coronavirus is God’s thunderclap call for all of us to repent and realign our lives with the infinite worth of Christ.”
  • Creating Good Works in Danger
    • “The coronavirus is God’s call to his people to overcome self-pity and fear, and with courageous joy, to do the good works of love that glorify God.”
  • Loosening Roots to Reach the Nations
    • “In the coronavirus, God is loosening the roots of settled Christians all over the world to make them free for something new and radical and to send them with the gospel of Christ to the unreached peoples of the world.”

Piper closes the small (5″ x 7″ with 112 pages), quick read with a prayer. The back of the book also includes footnotes and a Scripture index which, being a John Piper book, is filled with many, many Scripture references used in the book.

Some people may see just the title of this book and assume his message is no more than the second answer above, “sending specific divine judgments” since that tends to be a common refrain heard from some pulpits when bad things happen in our world. That would be a wrong assumption. There is far more thought and biblical teaching put into this text than that simple, single, partially true answer.

The closing chapter’s prayer will bring home Piper’s passion on this subject. The final paragraph of that 2-page prayer says: “Stretch forth your hand in great awakening for the sake of this perishing world. Let the terrible words of Revelation not be spoken over this generation: ‘Yet still they did not repent.’ As you have stricken bodies, strike now the slumbering souls. Forbid that they would remain asleep in the darkness of pride and unbelief. In your great mercy, say to these bones, ‘Live!’ And bring the hearts and lives of millions into alignment with the infinite worth of Jesus.” Amen.

Please take the few hours it will require and read the free book Coronavirus and Christ by John Piper. If I haven’t convinced you, perhaps the brief intro from John Piper in the video below will.

Since becoming a Christian in high school nearly 50 years ago, reading my Bible has been among the most important things I do daily. I wish I could say that I’ve never missed a day, but that but be woefully untrue. Still, by God’s grace I’ve been able to read the Bible cover to cover over 30 times in the past 40+ years. Each time I finish a reading, I choose a different translation or study Bible or edition I’ve never read before and then embark on the next trek through that new-to-me translation or edition. It is not at all surprising that each time I read it, the Lord teaches me things and reveals Himself to me in ways unique to where I am and what He knows I need at that point in my life.

Yesterday I completed reading through the massive, 2534-page Reformation Study Bible. Of all the study Bibles or other Bibles I have read through the decades, this is by far my favorite. I have loved and benefited from many others that I continue to use when prepping a Bible study class such as the ESV Study Bible, the MacArthur Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, the Archaeology Study Bible, the Gospel Transformation Bible, The Spurgeon Study Bible and more, but for reasons I’ll share below, the Reformation Study Bible is the one I’d choose to have with me if I was stranded on that proverbial desert island if I could only choose one.

The late, great Dr. R. C. Sproul was the general editor of this Bible which was last released in 2015 with an update to its previous, somewhat smaller edition. With Sproul as the editor, you can be assured that the commentary reflected by the contributions of 75 theologians is soundly Reformed in its understanding of the Scriptures and of our faith. As one aligned with that tradition, it was a pleasure devoting about two years to praying my way through the ESV biblical text and studying my way through all the related commentary, theological articles, study aids, notes, confessions of faith, etc. Admittedly, as a Southern Baptist I have to disagree with the editors’ stand on infant baptism, but that one issue aside, I can honestly say I never encountered another topic in its pages with which I disagreed with the explanation. The notes are thoughtful, thorough, and defended from the whole of Scripture.

Each Bible book begins with ample introductory material about such matters as the book’s title, author, date, occasion, genre, literary features, characteristics and primary themes, theology, where that book fits in the larger story of the Bible, how Christ is reflected in that book, its history of interpretation, and any special issues noted. A generous quantity of commentary notes are provided at the bottom of each page with some pages having more commentary than biblical text, although that is not the norm. Major Bible sections such as the Pentateuch, historical books, poetry, wisdom literature, prophets, the Gospels and Acts, and the epistles have additional introductions. I loved reading through the 100+ pages of several creeds, confessions and catechisms. Sprinkled throughout the book are 70 helpful theological notes or articles and the detail notes on particular verses point you to those theological notes as appropriate. I have found many of those notes useful when preparing to speak or teach others on a host of subjects. As you would expect from most Bibles, you’ll also find plenty of cross references inside verses to related passages elsewhere and brief textual footnotes along with helpful maps, tables, a concordance, and other resources.

I have to say that the only real issue I had was with some of the print itself. The cross references in the margins and in the brief footnotes in between the biblical text at the top of the pages and the commentary at the bottom are of such a tiny size that it was difficult for my aging eyes to read them if I had my contact lens in which I need for distance due to being nearsighted. I never had an issue reading the biblical text, commentary, theological notes, etc. with or without my contacts, but when I was settling in for my hour a day of personal study I had to remove my contacts for the smallest print to be readable. Also, be prepared to carry some weight around with you if you intend to make this the Bible you take to church or elsewhere. My copy weighed in at a hefty four pounds and five ounces. It may result in a few strange looks from others on occasion.

There are many excellent study Bibles on the market. I hope you use a number of them regularly in your study of the Word as I do. I especially hope and recommend that you own the Reformation Study Bible for the excellent, thorough, biblically sound study notes in addition to the wonderful English Standard Version (ESV) translation it uses. It will be a source of help and insight worth using the rest of your life.

Check out the brief promotional video below by Dr. Sproul. Several options are available in terms of binding to fit a variety of budgets – all worth the cost many times over.

As the Sunday School Director at my church and as a Christian who wants to effectively help bring new believers into the body of Christ and new church members into our congregation, I read with great interest the book Fusion by Nelson Searcy and Jennifer Dykes Henson. I read the older 2007 version rather than the 2017 revised edition linked in this review. With thousands of churches implementing the system detailed in the book over more than a decade since the first edition’s publication, readers of the later edition will benefit from the experiences of many additional churches who have incorporated these methods into their regular practices.

The purpose of the book is captured in its subtitle: “Turning first-time guests into fully engaged members of your church.” That is something churches seek to do regularly as they strive to grow Christ’s church. But how does a church do that effectively in God-honoring ways? That is the challenge that this book seeks to answer not just from a theoretical basis, but from the proven experience of Searcy’s church The Journey and the thousands of additional churches who have implemented his assimilation system.

First, let me confess my juvenile and immature mental hurdle regarding the word “assimilation.” I can’t hear the word without connecting it to the Borg from Star Trek while hearing in my mind the phrase, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.” As alien antagonists who forcefully take over other populations and turn them into drones, that is hardly the mental image I want of how we as churches are to assimilate newcomers into the church. But that’s my problem, not the book’s, so let’s move on…

You will be pleasantly surprised at the level of practical detail this book offers church leaders regarding assimilation, biblical hospitality, being intentional about making great first impressions, following up with first-time and second-time guests, creating opportunities to guide guests into gradual next steps through deeper relationships and commitment to service, faith and church membership. Specific examples are given of communication cards to be completed by worship participants, emails, letters and hand-written notes to send, schedules of what to do when for first-time and second-time guests, brief online surveys for guests to complete, checklists for the first-response team, an outline for a new members class, a membership covenant sample, and more. In fact, if you go to the website listed at the back of the book you can freely download a host of related resources for this assimilation system as well as a free e-book on The Eight Systems of a Healthy Church.

One simple outline that is easy to remember regarding the system is the three Rs of retention: Return, Relationships and Responsibility. Put simply, the church’s goal for the first-time guest is to get them to return. When they return, the goal shifts to one of guiding them into deeper relationships with others through various means, especially (but not exclusively) through small groups. And once relationships start to develop, leading them to deeper ownership and personal responsibility will be the next level of commitment that leads to a fuller commitment to faith and service through church membership. Return, Relationships, and Responsibility – an easy overview of the goals for assimilating guests into the life of the church.

The authors make a great point that you don’t have to buy into the entire system at once exactly as outlined (although it would probably be more effective if you did). If you choose, you can follow the suggested “seven small things you can do to get started right away” from the conclusion of the book to start tackling the beast of effective assimilation sooner rather than later. Chances are pretty good that many churches are already doing some such things to some degree now. Reading the book will help you recognize the things you’re doing right as well as a number of opportunities you may be missing. Some of these opportunities can be grasped quickly while others will take more planning, time and resources to do well.

I appreciate the note from Searcy and Henson that you need to give these efforts time to produce results. Don’t try these methods for a few weeks and then get discouraged and quit. Plan thoroughly and execute consistently for at least six months because it may well take that long for the church members and guests to adapt and respond positively to the efforts to a noticeable degree. The book reminds us of Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

All churches aren’t alike and there may be a few things you’ll read in the book that you decide just don’t fit your style or church culture. That’s OK. However, I am reminded of one evangelist’s response to someone’s objection of his approach to evangelism: “I prefer my way of doing evangelism to your way of not doing evangelism.” Ouch! If you and your church are not currently effective and intentional at assimilating guests into the life of your church, then considering Fusion‘s approach is worth of your consideration. Thousands of churches have done so and have the positive results to prove it.

People don’t necessarily go to the church that is nearest to them. They go to the one that is dearest to them. Your intentional efforts at assimilation can be a huge factor in making your church the dearest for your guests so that they choose to come back and eventually fully invest in with their lives.

Fusion is not an impersonal set of actions to implement like a cookie cutter to make drones like Star Trek’s Borg. In fact, the conclusion of the book says “The Kingdom only grows one person at a time. So focus on the one, and the one will turn into many.”

I heartily recommend the book if you are genuinely interested in reaching and keeping newcomers to your church. Do what it suggests for the glory of God and I believe you will see positive results. I look forward to being more intentional, organized and effective in my own efforts going forward as a result of reading Fusion.

As the Sunday School Director at my church, I’m keenly interesting in leading our Sunday School toward continuous growth and accomplishing its several purposes well. That is no small challenge in our inner-city congregation that currently runs about one-fourth the number of people present on Sunday mornings as it did when my family first joined there in 1988. There are many reasons for those smaller numbers, but they are not the subject of this post.

I have only been the Sunday School Director for a little over a year since early 2019. My slow approach has been to take time to observe and talk with others – sitting in on classes to see what really happens, taking notes along the way of what is admirable and where there are opportunities for improvement. Many hours of discussion have filled up meetings with my pastor and others as we ponder needed improvements. We’re on the cusp of some significant and necessary changes to accomplish what the Sunday School is designed to accomplish in the local church. That process of change will be yet another post on this blog down the road as we have some successes (and hopefully not too many failures) behind us.

In preparing recommendations for improvements to our Sunday School, my pastor handed me a book off his shelf called Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur: A Sunday School Growth Strategy for the 21st Century by Ken Hemphill. To say it is influencing our recommendations for improvement would be an understatement. We are, in fact, completely changing an earlier major recommendation that was nearly a year in the making after running into a wall of opposition from a handful of vocal opponents. We aren’t changing our goals, but we are revamping our suggested means of accomplishing them, and the ideas and insights in this book will help shape the revisions in the plan for the better.

Ken Hemphill authored the book when he was president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His prior service in churches and as director of the Southern Baptist Center for Church Growth as well as pastoring several churches gave him great experience and knowledge to share with others on the subject. Even though the book was published in 1996, I believe it is just as valid and helpful for churches today as it was years ago.

This easily digestible 176-page paperback book has the following chapters:

  • If the Sunday School is a church growth tool, somebody unplugged mine!
  • Is Sunday School a dinosaur in a technological world?
  • Establishing a Great Commission vision for the Sunday School
  • Designing an effective Sunday School
  • Organizing the Bible study program
  • Designing an effective outreach ministry
  • The ministry of assimilation
  • The ministry of teaching
  • Putting it together – keeping it working

The book begins with a brief history of the Sunday School, pointing out the apparent change in focus somewhere in the second half of the 20th century that shifted its focus from evangelism and fellowship and teaching the Bible to only fellowship and then teaching the Bible. Guess what happens when you don’t focus on evangelism? You don’t evangelize! And if you don’t evangelize, you don’t grow. Not only that, but if you do evangelize but then don’t disciple those new believers and assimilate them into the life of the church, the back door will be just as large as the front door and you still won’t grow as individuals or as a congregation. So the opening chapter lays a foundation of six principles of Sunday School growth church leaders should know and implement.

Hemphill is generous with stats that demonstrate the lackluster performance of churches and their Sunday Schools in the latter decades of the 1900s. He offers a number of problems contributing to the decline of the Sunday School: lack of evangelistic focus, loss of emphasis and commitment, loss of vision for the total work of the Sunday School, dismantling the Sunday School’s component parts over time, lack of a clear purpose statement, and fear of innovation. In contrast to these problems, however, he offers nine solid reasons why the Sunday School is the growth tool of the future.

At the heart of the book is understanding the three components of a balanced strategy for the Sunday School. They are evangelism, assimilation, and discipleship. None of the three can be given more weight than the others in importance, or the whole structure will be off balance and will fail to accomplish all three of its purposes effectively. If there is one key takeaway from the book that is easy to remember and to serve as a foundation for your understanding of what the Sunday School is to be about, it is these three terms. In our case, we’ll substitute the word relationships in place of assimilation and we’ll use outreach instead of evangelism as we reshape our understanding as a church of the three equal purposes of the Sunday School, but the three legs of that stool are essentially the same regardless of the term you prefer.

I appreciate the author’s reliance on supernatural power in the process of revitalizing the Sunday School. We must remember that we are not just completing prescribed tasks touted by a church growth strategist; we are faithfully working under the leadership of God to accomplish the purposes of the Great Commission for the glory of God. We can’t do that apart from the very presence and power of God at work through us and those with whom we minister and serve.

No major effort of revitalizing the Sunday School is going to happen if you don’t organize (or reorganize) in ways required to accomplish the purpose. Hemphill provides a number of possible structures that will vary depending on church and staff size. While this means that the structure won’t look exactly alike from one church to the next, Hemphill is rightly adamant about the need for strict age grading throughout the Sunday School including throughout the adult classes. I agree with him on that. I’ve witnessed when having fuzzy or no age boundaries for adult classes only leads to groups staying together for decades and feeling quite content with who is in the group, rarely keeping their zeal for outreach as much as they do for fellowship among themselves. New classes or better aligning existing classes with stricter age ranges can help meet the needs of all participants, especially newer participants who are less likely to feel welcome or comfortable among a group of people who have been together for many years. Age grading can also bring into glaring light the age group gaps in your congregation that may not otherwise be obvious.

The chapter on designing an effective outreach strategy gives practical suggestions for visitation, evangelism training, and making contacts. The assimilation chapter is filled with practical tips of how different people and groups can work together to integrate new people into the life of the church and in relationship with one another. The suggested organization for care groups seems critical to making it work through the Sunday School.

If you asked a random group of people, “What is the purpose of the Sunday School?” I suspect most would answer along the lines of “to teach the Bible.” They are right in part given the three areas of focus mentioned above. Bible teaching and learning is certainly at the heart of what happens in the bulk of the time given to the Sunday School when it meets together as a class. Much of what happens in terms of outreach and relationships can happen outside the Bible study time, but the Sunday School is not close to achieving its purposes without strong Bible study and discipleship. To this end, Hemphill provides a number of suggestions for teachers and church leaders to assure quality teaching.

The final chapter provides a host of specific gems of advice to sum up in one place the key points made in earlier chapters and to provide final thoughts. Key points are categorized into sections on integrating the work of the class, building the church through the Sunday School, and creatively providing space. That makes the key takeaways from the book easy to reference in the future and easier to remember.

Many may think the Sunday School is a dinosaur. I disagree or I wouldn’t be a Sunday School Director. I wouldn’t devote time and energy to participating as a student or teacher. I certainly wouldn’t devote many volunteer hours to trying to grow our church through the Sunday School if I didn’t believe it is both possible and the right thing to do for all ages within the church. For those and other reasons mentioned above, I commend to you the book Revitalizing the Sunday School by Ken Hemphill. It is practical, informative, challenging, encouraging, and just as relevant now as when it was first published. Keep an open mind and heart as you read it, then seek the Lord’s wisdom in how you can use this info to strengthen your church through the Sunday School for the glory of our awesome God.

It’s not time to hang up the bee shoes yet.

26 days ago my company offered an early retirement incentive to those of us who qualify based on age and years of service. Last night at midnight was the deadline to apply for it. I didn’t apply. I thought about it – a LOT. I weighed the pros and cons and sometimes felt like a pinball being thrust back and forth by flippers that changed the direction of my thinking regularly.

In the end, it wasn’t the right decision for me to retire for a variety of reasons. I’m sure it is the right decision for a number of my colleagues across the company, and I wish them well in their next chapter of life. They will be missed in many ways.

The process of thinking through the retirement option was something new for me, so I thought I’d give others a peek into my experience these past 26 days. You’ll likely face the same choices some day if you haven’t already.

First Reactions

When the program was announced, it was the first time for me to be forced into thinking about retirement. My wife and I have both assumed we will work many more years until we are 70 or so. That’s another 9-10 years away for us. Retirement wasn’t on our radar and isn’t an option financially at this time. But I’ve never had a company offer me seven months salary plus benefits to not work for them. (Based on my years of service, it worked out to seven months for me. Others’ packages would be based on their years of service.) Having the offer put in front of me required that I at least consider it.

The Pros

Several things were attractive about the offer:

  • Earning my full salary plus health, dental and vision benefits during the seven-month payout period;
  • The possibility of earning a double salary for that time should I be able to walk immediately into another full-time role elsewhere (especially attractive given the debt we took on buying our home last year and then adding to it the building of a carriage house behind our home this year);
  • The excitement that comes from doing something new and different;
  • The opportunity to reinvent myself again at age 60;
  • The possibility of taking what I’ve learned in 14+ years at my current company and applying it to a company in need, perhaps building an online community from scratch;
  • The possibility that voluntary retirement would save the job of someone else since the company has announced plans for some involuntary layoffs soon. The number of layoffs will be impacted by the number of us voluntarily leaving first.
  • I liked the idea of having input in naming my successor (who I have had selected for years) and in training him for the job, helping him take a nice jump in his career path.
  • Maybe doing this would allow me to work out some arrangement for my dream role – Minister of Education at my beloved Walnut Street Baptist Church.

Occasionally nudging me toward the retirement option was the thought of stepping out on faith. I like the sentiment of a painted rock I have at the house that reads “Leap and the net will appear.” Images of Indiana Jones stepping out on faith in “The Last Crusade” come to mind. I don’t like living life with all answers certain and no risks taken. Where’s the faith in that? Where’s the adventure?

But with every pinball bounce to the pro-retirement line of thought would come equal or greater reasons not to travel that path, so I pondered…

The Cons

  • I love what I do and the people I get to do it with at my company. Why leave a nearly ideal situation?
  • 25 days is too little time for a 60-year-old to secure another equal, full-time opportunity that would guarantee uninterrupted work.
  • Jobs like mine are few and far between. I partially left it briefly in 2015-16 and was miserable, eager to return to it later in 2016. Why take a chance on making the same mistake again?
  • While I got a few nibbles on the bait I publicly and privately cast during the past 25 days, none matched the long-term prospects of continuing exactly where I am.
  • It would be seriously short-sighted to trade what may well be a decade more of work I love for seven months’ salary to not work.
  • In the worst case scenario of not taking the early retirement incentive and then being involuntarily let go, I would still get the same package in a severance package plus career assistance and eligibility for unemployment.
  • One of my basic life principles that has served me well is “When in doubt, don’t.”
  • Another principle I’ve heard for years is “The best retirement plan is to keep on working.”

The Decision

If I was within a year or two of my planned retirement, it would be a no-brainer. I would have taken the incentive and been as happy as a lark. But with retirement 5-10 years away, that wasn’t the case. The final clarifying thought in the closing days came from asking and answering the simple question: “Which offer on the table is best for me and my wife for the longest period into the future?” The clear answer was staying where I am.

It would have been nice to put out feelers and be mobbed with offers from other companies to bring me on board. I did put out feelers. I wasn’t mobbed with offers. I wrote a few key people in my profession to let them know about my situation and interest in making a move. I discussed it with several people at a conference of the top practitioners in my profession. That conference serendipitously fell on the calendar the week after the offer was announced. I posted about it on LinkedIn and had over 12,000 people see that post. However, I didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time pursuing other options these past few weeks. I did my regular 50+ hours of work per week. If no significant offers appeared without taking time away from my work, then that was quite alright by me.

The result of casting that bait for 24 days was the sound of crickets chirping – not exactly the most affirming career experience I’ve had. Insecure thoughts came to mind: “Are my skills not marketable? Am I experiencing ageism that we all know happens but nobody admits to where I’m too old and expensive for companies who can hire someone half my age at half my price (with less than half my knowledge and experience)?” I started understanding really well Henry Kissinger’s quote from the late 1970’s: “The absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously.” Indeed. Fortunately, I got three nibbles on my bait the day before the deadline – two of which may still come to pass in some form, but none enticing enough to pull the trigger on this retirement offer.

The Assurance

My Christian faith is a defining part of who I am. No big decision happens apart from prayer, discussion with trusted mentors and family members, and seeking the truth of God’s Word. My prayer throughout this process was that God would open the right doors, close the wrong ones, and give me assurance that what comes to pass is exactly what He wants for me. I take this path of continuing where I am as His answer and I am completely content with that. Closed doors are wonderful answers to prayer. We shouldn’t bust through them.

So the bee shoes shown at the top of this post are not being put away any time soon. They’re part of my uniform and identity as “The Buzz Guy” where I work leading our internal social platform called Buzz. I love my job. I love so many awesome people I get to work with daily. I believe in my company, Humana, and its leaders to move us forward in ways that make a positive difference in the lives of the millions of people we serve. There is purpose in that, and personal fulfillment.

Time to get back to work…