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It is the weekend leading up to Independence Day which means it is that time of year again.  It is time for the church worship service to go patriotic.  We can expect to see special patriotic music, flag ceremonies, or times set aside to honor those who serve in our military. It is, after all, the birthday of our great nation and we have much to celebrate, not the least of which are the freedoms we enjoy and the men and women who have sacrificially given their lives so that we can enjoy this freedom.

This morning we went to the house of worship where the my church gathers for corporate worship on this weekend before Independence Day. Our worship started off with a patriotic song which was spectacularly performed by the choir and orchestra. This song received a standing ovation and everyone remained standing as we joined in for the Pledge of Allegiance. After the pledge, the entire assembly sang our national anthem. There was a thunderous applause for the patriotism and then we sat down for the continuation of the worship service.

I love our country. I appreciate the men and women of our armed forces and I think there is much to be celebrated about our country. I am thankful that my citizenship is in this country. There is much about our culture in this present day that is concerning but we have great freedoms in this country which is to be celebrated. Many people the world over are envious of people who have the privilege of being citizens of our country. Having said that, I take the position that the pledge and the celebration of our country should happen in the context of civic celebration events but not in the context of Christian worship. I love to watch Pops Goes the Fourth but I don’t love to see those songs sung in church.

I have taken this position because of what I understand to be corporate worship in the context of the local church. The church is coming together for the sake of the community of saints but primarily to worship and exalt the Lord Jesus Christ. We are there to exalt the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We are there to praise the creator of the universe.  (Of course, the centerpiece of worship is the exposition of the Word of God, but that is a subject for another post.) With this understanding of Christian worship, these are the reasons that I think that patriotic songs and the Pledge of Allegiance do not belong in our church worship services.

  1. The Pledge of Allegiance.  This is the easiest issue to point out. While we do pledge our allegiance to our nation on a temporal level, we pledge our allegiance to God on an eternal level. We follow our civic authorities until they conflict with God’s commands. We are at church to worship the God of the universe. What are we doing pledging our allegiance to a lesser authority when we are there to praise God Himself.
  2. Why do we praise God? God has blessed his people in many ways. The blessings of God are not measured in material ways but in spiritual ways. We are blessed to live in America. There is no doubt about that but is that why we worship God or do we worship because of the gift of His Son, His Spirit, and the Gospel? The Gospel is far greater than the privilege of living in the USA. This is why people can gather in places like North Korea and still worship and know that they are blessed by God.
  3. What about internationals? God is moving around the world and is bringing people around the world to our doorsteps. Hopefully your church is trying to reach internationals. What do you think that your international guests think about your patriotic celebration in church? Would they think it is appropriate to be pledging allegiance to the USA in a service of worship to the creator of the universe. They would probably shudder at doing that in a worship service in their home country. They may wonder why worship to God includes allegiance being pledged to a country.
  4. God is calling people from all nations. The United States of America is not God’s chosen nation.  God is calling people from all tribes, tongues, and nations into His church. Our God is a God who will be worshipped by all nations. That is what the story of history is about according to Genesis 12.
  5. It causes people to confuse spiritual blessing with material blessing. We are blessed to have freedom in this country that other around the world don’t have. Celebrating that freedom makes people think that the greatest freedom which God has given us is the freedoms we enjoy as citizens of America. What happens when those freedoms disappear? People will blame God because he is the author of those freedoms. But the real blessings we enjoy are enjoyed by Christians around the world and many of them are experiencing intense persecution.  We can face intense persecution and still be immensely blessed by God. We celebrate the gift of Christ and the gospel which is not limited to people in free nations. Celebrating the freedoms in America in church worship is the first step towards the slippery slope of the prosperity gospel.

There is much more to be said but I will cut this off here. What are your thoughts on this issue? Does your church do a patriotic service? Do you feel comfortable with it?

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Today was a bitter sweet day at our church. Today was the last Sunday for our pastor, Preaching Pastor (PP), to be in the pulpit at our church.  He is moving on to another ministry that God is calling him to and there are exciting days ahead for him and his family. I just want to take this opportunity to write down what PP and his family mean to me. I am sure there are many others who feel the same way but just have not expressed it to him.

I live in a city in the deep South in the United States. Our county has over 400 churches but, to be honest, it is really hard to find a good church here — in my estimation. When I mean good church, I mean a church that is committed to the gospel and submits everything it does to the authority of God’s Word. I also mean a pastor who preaches the whole counsel of God and does so unashamedly. A good church should have a pastor who submits his sermons to the words on the page of the Bible and the very points of his sermon are driven by the authors who penned (not literally) the words of Scripture. When I look for a church, I look for a church where the pastor is someone that I trust and I can willingly submit to as the leader of the local congregation.  Our pastor until today, PP, was such a person and here is why.

One of the first things I noticed about him was the points in his sermon came from the text that he was preaching. He did not impose his own ideas into Scripture but let the Bible determine what he was saying to us in his sermons. He was truly biblical in his sermons. He also tried to be biblical in all aspects of how he led the church. He knew that the ultimate authority in the church is God and that God revealed Himself to us in Scripture — so the only way to lead the church was to submit to God’s Word. He was this kind of man (and still is). I believe this is a principle that was a driving force behind all that he did at our church. I believe this will continue to be the case at his new place of ministry and the result will be that his congregation will be blessed, well-fed, and well-led.

Another great thing about PP is that he constantly was reminding the congregation of what was going on in the world; not just politically but also within the church. He was leading his church members to be World Christians; not worldly Christians, but World Christians. That is, he exposed them to the persecution that continues to persist around the world and the constant dangers our brothers and sisters in Christ face just to name the name of Christ or to meet for worship and Bible Study. He reminded us that the call to follow Christ comes with a cost and rejected the false claims of the property gospel. PP kept before our congregation the need to take the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth where the name of Christ is not worshipped and where people have no access to God’s Word nor is there anyone there who is attempting to share the gospel with them. We call this world missions and PP was faithful to keep this need before the church. Our pastor, PP, did not focus on world missions to the neglect of the gospel needs in our own community. He was very much aware of the needs in our city and how we need to be Christians taking the gospel to our places of business and to our community.

I don’t really intend this to be a long post so I will not go into great detail but another great thing about PP is how he was willing to invest in me and my family. I knew that any time I had a need or my family was in crisis, I could call him and he would do whatever he could even if that was just to listen. He has ministered to me on numerous occasions and has helped our family in times of crisis. He has truly loved us with the hands and the love of Christ during the time we have been at this church.

Last but most certainly not the least, we all love PP’s family. His family reflects his godly leadership as the head of his family. His wife is a wonderful pastor’s wife who has a warm and welcoming spirit about her. She shows love to everyone who walks through the doors of the church. Also, their children are great kids who clearly are being raised to love the Lord. They are a wonderful family and they will be missed. Their next place of ministry is getting a great family. Their next church is being blessed with a great man of God as their pastor and he will bring with him an awesome family. Our loss will most definitely be their gain.

Having said all of this, I know that this is not good-bye. We will see them again. I am sure we will see them when they come back to visit our city. We may even go visit them in their new city. Either way, it will not be the last we see of them. We will worship God together for eternity at the feet of Christ. God continues to mold us and shape us as He finishes the work that he started in us. It is a lifelong journey and God uses fragile and cracked (or even broken) vessels to carry out his purposes. He uses us where we are to bring glory to his name and sometimes he sends us off to new places to minister to and build up the church. This is exactly what is happening with PP and his family as they move on to a new phase of ministry. I pray that God may use PP and his family mightily as they obediently follow God to their next place of ministry, and beyond.

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There has been much made lately on youth leaving the church. I subscribe to a lot of podcasts where this has been a topic of conversation. This is not a conversation among just Calvinists or just Arminians but is a conversation that is taking place among Evangelicals of all stripes. There is apparently some kind of data, collected by someone like Barna, that supports this position. What the experts are saying is that American Evanglicals who are active in church as a youth have a tendency to leave the church once they graduate from high school, leave home, and go to college.

I am someone who was part of church youth in high school and left home to go to college and remained in the church. I experienced college as someone who was part of a local church and am still part of a local body of believers today. I now have children who are youth-aged. In fact, I am a parent of multiple teenagers. (Feel free to pray for me. I need it.) I sit watching the youth of our day praying that I don’t screw up as a parent and that my kids will have faith in Christ that will be their own and that their faith will continue to grow into adulthood and that they would be committed lifelong disciples of Christ.

What I see from so many youth today is that they are not part of the church as young people. Their parents take them to church and drop them off with the youth group. They hang out with a bunch of youth at church. They have Sunday School with their peers — which is positive since they are all experiencing the challenges of transitioning from childhood to adulthood. While at the youth group, they usually sit around on comfortable sofas because we all know that NOBODY would come if they had to sit in uncomfortable straight back chairs (gasp)! They listen to relevant music and not that boring stuff their parents listen to. And often times, they sit around and complain about how they are not respected because of their youth all the while remaining in their youth cocoon. After Sunday School, or Bible Study, they head off to the worship center for Sunday morning worship. And guess who they sit with during worship? That’s right: they sit with youth. After worship, they find their parents and ask to go eat lunch with the their friends in the youth.

On Sunday night often times the youth have their own get together for more fellowship and study — separate from adults. On Wednesday nights they are with the youth again. They may even have some other get-together on Friday or Saturday because there isn’t enough youth fellowship time already. Yes, I am being a bit sarcastic here.

So, I’ve mentioned four meetings at church: Sunday School, worship, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. How many of those times do the youth at your church integrate with the church body and how many times are they with just the youth? Your answer is probably that the youth are with just youth about 75% or 100% of the time, if your church is like most American churches. If this is the case, how can we say that’s youth are leaving the church? I don’t think we can say that. I submit to you that youth are not leaving the church. I say that they were never part of the church–at least not while they were in the youth group. What they were part of during their youth years was a para-church group called “the youth ministry” but were not really part of the local church. If your church is like this, here are some critical things that your young person is missing out on.

1. First and foremost, they are missing out on worshiping with their family — particularly their mom and dad. They need to see that mom and dad are serious about worship and that they are there to worship God; not just to take their kid to the youth group. They need to see that mom and dad take the sermon seriously by taking notes and not texting and checking Facebook during the preaching.

2. They miss out on the inter-generational nature of the body of Christ. By being with youth all the time they are hanging out with those who are facing similar problems. That is true. But why not hang out (sometimes) with people who have already experienced those problems and have come through them? Why not learn lessons from people who can encourage youth as examples of those who have been through those tumultuous years?

3. They miss out on opportunities to serve and to be the body of Christ. To be part of the church they should be plugged in. They have no right to complain about being disrespected by adults due to their age if they aren’t trying to plug in and serve. Let us not encourage our youth to be spiritual navel gazers but people who are committed to building up the body of Christ by serving!

So, why shouldn’t youth drop out of church when they go to college. They don’t know what it is like to be part of the church and how beautiful the bride of Christ really is. Don’t misunderstand me. Teenagers need teenage friends. They need to know how to build friendships and develop relationships and hold each other accountable in the Lord. However, I don’t think that their relationships should be limited to those with peers. I am praying for a change in the church youth culture and that this change would take place before all of the youth that were never in the church leave the church.

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Whether you move to a new community or your church decides to shut its doors, you may find yourself looking for a new church home at some point.  When you are looking for a church, what do you consider the most important issues or reasons in selecting a particular church.  As I consider this, these are what I consider the most important issues in the selection process of a new church home.

1. Agree on primary theological issues. The first and most important characteristic needs to be that we agree on the primary theological issues. That is, they must have a biblical understanding of the gospel. This is a non-negotiable point. They must understand the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ’s work on the cross. They must agree that one’s salvation is by grace and grace alone. Salvation is a work completely of God and He doesn’t need our help. You must only repent. The church must agree with the inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture. We may not always agree on how to interpret Scripture but we must at least agree that the Bible alone is the rule for all that we do.

2. Credobaptism. Any church that I join must practice believer’s baptism. I will not join a church that does not practice baptism by immersion. Sprinkling is not baptism. Baptism is, by definition, dipping someone under water. Baptism must be reserved for believers who have demonstrated a credible evidence of regeneration and who want to join the church and become part of the community of believers. They cannot baptize infants. They must baptize only believers.

3. Ministry to all ages. I need the church to minister to all ages, at least the ages of the people in my family. Since I have youth aged children, I need it to be a place where my youth aged children can live in community with other youth. I need it to be a community of believers where adults speak truth into children’s lives and show them what it means to live as an intentional disciple of Christ. I need the church to be intentional about preparing the youth biblically for a world that is hostile to Christian ideas. I don’t need it to be about parties, concerts, and amusement parks. I need it to be intentional and gospel driven. I need to it to be a church that understands the parents’ role in the youth’s lives but will alongside the parents in discipleship.

4. Expository Preaching. I believe that a church needs a steady diet of expository preaching. It is okay to depart from it on occasion but in general, expository preaching needs to be the practice of the preacher. It helps in preaching the full counsel of God and not just focusing on the favorite texts of the pastor. It also allows the text to drive the message rather than using a Bible verse for a launching pad to say whatever they want.

5. Welcomes workers. I hope that my next church would be open to having new people serve and minister in the area of their gifting. There are areas in which we could contribute to the ministry of the church but I need the church to be open to having new people get involved. I don’t want to be a part of the church that always goes to the same people to step in and minister.

6. Missions. I would hope that the church would have a biblical understanding of missions. But, if they don’t, it needs to be a church where the pastor is leading them to give financially to support missions. It should be a significant part of the budget, prayer, and preaching.  It should be a climate conducive to the church growing in this area.

7. Love in spirit and practice. Does the church have a sense of unity in spirit? Do they love on one another? Are they welcoming to visitors?

The answer to these should be a resounding “yes!” These are really the minimum of what I think should characterize a church that I join. There are several other traits that I think are important but are not must-haves such as high expectations and accountable church membership.  However, if the church is getting a steady diet of expository preaching, these other issues will eventually fall into place.

What are your thoughts?  What do you look for in a church?

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I really enjoy Kevin DeYoung’s blog over at the Gospel Coalition called DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed.  I usually agree with him theologically on most points.  I even subscribe to his blog via email.  However, he recently published a post entitled Are Christians in America Persecuted?  He basically said that it happens all of the time but persecution happens to Christians in America “not as frequently, consistently, or with nearly the intensity that Christians are persecuted in many other parts of the world.”

While I agree with the last statement, I do not agree with his assessment that it happens all of the time.  I also do not agree with his reasons for making that statement.  I really appreciate the fact that he brings in the Bible but I believe that his exegesis is fallacious.  He equates the biblical word for persecution with “harassing someone because of beliefs.”    He points out that Old Testament prophets were reviled and spoken against and Jesus calls this persecution in Matthew.  The problems is that reviling and being spoken against is not equivalent to harassing someone.  Harassing in our modern English is very subjective.  You can consider someone calling you a “Right Wing Bible Thumping Radical” harassment or even being reviled.  But this is not being persecuted.  You don’t have to be killed or be tortured to be persecuted.  I think we are going down the road towards persecution but it does not happen all of the time to all Christians.

DeYoung argues from Scripture that persecution is not something that happens only to a few Christians.  The Bible says that it happens to all Christians.  I wholeheartedly agree but we must read the Bible in its context.  It was written to Christians in the first century who were persecuted for following Christ.  In 21st century America, I don’t know that it applies.  The context is totally different.  I think we need to count to the cost and be willing to be persecuted but we live in a culture where persecution is not widespread.

He also brings in Acts 5:41 which says that it is a privilege to suffer for the name of Jesus.  This is true.  However, that does not mean that all American Christians have this privilege.  Our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world face persecution and it is our privilege to pray for them and encourage them and work for their release as we are commanded in Hebrews 13:3.  To equate what we face in America with what Christians face in places like Eritrea or North Korea is wrong.  When they are placed on the same level, we minimize the significance of real persecution.  It is like me saying to my wife about the pain she has in her back from a herniated disc, “I experience pain everyday and all the time.  In fact, I experience pain when I burned my mouth on my coffee this morning.”  To equate the two, minimizes the real pain that my wife faces.

Please, I understand people talk about you behind your back for being a Christian at work.  You may even get passed up for a promotion because you don’t work on Sundays or you won’t lie to get ahead.  Don’t equate this with someone being hung upside down and having boiling grease poured over his feet.  Don’t equate it with Christians in Ethiopia who are put in sea containers in the desert heat and don’t even have a place to go to the bathroom.  Don’t equate it with a man who is forced to watch prison guards rape his wife because they are Christians.  They are very much different in nature and degree.

Let us not overstate what happens to Christians in America.  Let’s pray for Christian brothers and sisters who face persecution.  In fact, some in American face persecution also but this is the exception and not the norm.  Let’s remember Hebrews 13:3 and “remember” those who are in prison and those who are mistreated for their faith.  For more information on how you can learn how to pray or support our persecuted family visit the website of The Voice of the Martyrs.

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There is an interesting blog post about some early church fathers.  These church fathers were ones that lived following the apostles and were part of the early church councils.  Sadly, today Christians know very little about the early history of the church.  It is also sad that as a whole people don’t read much about church history.  Read this post to get a sketch of some early church fathers such as Athanasius, Augustine, Jerome, etc.

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When I called this post, “Our Adoption,” I was referring to our adoption in two senses.  I am not only about the adoption I experienced as an adoptive parent but also the adoption by God of me as a co-heir with God’s son, Jesus Christ.

When I adopted by sons from the former USSR, I had no idea really what I was getting into.  I just knew that these children needed a loving family and I was offering them that.  They brought nothing with them–except themselves.  We went through all of the legal process of them to become our sons and then it became time to go to the orphanage and bring them physically into our family.  We went shopping at the local market for some clothes and shoes for them because they literally had nothing.  The clothes they wore in the orphanage belonged to the orphanage and would not be coming with them.  So when we went to pick them up we took with us a new set of clothes for them to wear.  They took their old clothes off an put on their new clothes.  They had nothing that belonged to them.  Not even a toy or a doll or clothes to wear.  They stripped down completely, put their new clothes on, and turned their old clothes back into the orphanage for other kids to use.  They became ours sons.  Everything I have became accessible to them through me as my children.  I love them as my own offspring and withhold nothing including my love for them.

Isn’t this true also of how we came to Christ?  When I became a Christian, I brought nothing.  I had no good deeds or righteousness to offer.  They were all as filthy rags.  The only things I have are what Christ freely offered and gave to me.  Just as my sons were wearing clothes I gave them when we left the orphanage, after my encounter with Christ the only righteousness I had was that of Christ.  I only had it because of what He did for me on the cross.  I now have access to many blessings through Christ just as my sons now have access to many things as a result of being adopted.

I thank God for His adoption of me.  It was merely a work of His grace.  I trust that my sons are thankful for my adoption of them also.  Their adoption was also a work of His grace.  May God get all the glory and praise.

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