Christianity Is a Team Sport

This past Sunday we started a series through Nehemiah called “Forward.” In the opening chapter Nehemiah hears of the struggles in Jerusalem. It is striking how much Nehemiah identifies with these distant people. Their problems are his problems. Their sins are his sins. This thinking is the opposite of the individualistic way we approach spiritual growth: “If I’m spending some time reading my Bible and praying, I’m good.” But Nehemiah’s spiritual health is tied to the spiritual health of all God’s people. The theologian Don Carson says, “Lone ranger Christianity won’t make much sense of the book of Nehemiah.” 

In our sermon on Sunday I challenged each person to ask if they are living as if Christianity is an individual or a team sport. The book of Nehemiah and the rest of Scripture show that Christianity is much more of a team sport than an individual one. 

David and Goliath – 1 Samuel 17

Growing up in the church, I remember being taught the story of David and Goliath. Afterwards, my friends and I tried to create slings.  We all dreamed of being like David, defeating giants with only a stone and sling. (I never did face a giant, but it there was one window that didn’t survive!)

Fun as that was, the story of David and Goliath makes more sense through the lens of a team sport. It’s like a sudden death shootout at the end of an overtime soccer game. The star player kicks the ball, bottom left corner of the net, score! The whole team wins! David’s success (or failure) against Goliath was the success (or failure) of all the Israelites. If David won, Israel won. 

When we read it this way, we see the story is less about us being like David and more about how a true hero brings victory for all the people. That takes us right to Christ, whose victory over a power even greater than Goliath--evil itself--brings victory for us all. In fact, our salvation is only possible if we see this is a team sport. 

The Body of Christ – 1 Corinthians 12

In this passage, Paul describes the church as a body made up of people with different gifts. Often people interpret this as Paul speaking about a single church, made up of various people with various gifts. But we know Paul is speaking of all Christians because in verse 13, he addresses those who were baptized “into one body by one Spirit.” Paul is talking about all who have been baptized with Christian baptism. He goes on, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (12:26) Think about this literally. If you break your big toe you can’t just go on functioning like everything is fine. It affects all of your life. Paul's point is that all believers have this organic connection. We cannot ignore the pain of other Christians any more than we can ignore the pain from a broken toe. 

Growing In Christ  – Ephesians 4:15-16

Here Paul tells us how to talk to Christians who are carried away by every new teaching or belief: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”  Every Christian has a responsibility to grow in Christ, and we grow in Christ by speaking the truth in love. In other words, while officers of the church ought to equip people for ministry (Eph 4:11-12), all Christians ought to speak truth in love to each other. Every one of us has this responsibility. God’s model for the church is not to have a few people who provide spiritual care; no, every person is called to ministry. In other words, the Christian life is a team sport. 

Implications

There are many implications from these passages, but I want to focus on the question I started with: are you living as if Christianity is an individual or team sport? A simple diagnostic is to look at how are you invested in the spiritual growth of those around you? Husbands, we cannot say we are doing well spiritually if we are not investing in the spiritual growth of our wives. Parents, likewise, we cannot say we are doing fine if we are not invested in the spiritual growth of our children. And for every member of the church, our spiritual health is tied to the spiritual health of those around us. So what impact are you having on the spiritual growth of those people around you? Are you praying for their growth in Christ? Are you speaking the truth in love to them? Small groups are a great way to be invested in the spiritual growth of others. Each person in our church, from the youngest to the oldest, has the ability to make an eternal impact in someone's spiritual life. 

All this ties into our vision; we are on a journey to know Christ. My dream is that we would be a church where, when we make it to the end, we will look back and see that we made it not so much because of any one person, but because of our community and the thousands of often small things we did to encourage one another in Christ. 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon

Kids in Church Part 2

This month, we continue our series on passing our faith on to the next generation. One thing that is often overlooked is that, if we want our children to have an authentic faith, we must have an authentic faith. In the Old Testament God desired authentic love. (Psalm 51:16-17, Hosea 6:6) Outward acts of sacrifice, when divorced from a heart of repentance and love, were actually offensive to God. We may not offer physical sacrifices or burnt offering like the Israelites did, but we do offer other types of sacrifices and offerings to God. We sacrifice our time by volunteering in the church, and we give offerings of money. But there is a danger in these becoming empty forms of worship if they aren’t accompanied by a heart that loves God. God wants authentic worship. God wants us to love him, and when we love him, we will give him all of our lives. 
 
So how does this apply to our children? Sometimes children's programs in the church can become like empty sacrifices and offerings. It’s easier to put our kids in Sunday school or youth group than it is to cultivate a genuine love for God in our own hearts and then share that with our children. But in Deuteronomy 6, God calls for parents to display a love for God in every corner of their lives. This is much harder than dropping your child off at the child check-in, but it also offers something much more lasting. 
 
When a genuine love for God emanates from parents’ lives, their children notice. We can sometimes wonder why our kids pick up certain habits or mannerisms. But most likely they picked up these things by observing us! Children are observers of all our actions–even our unpleasant ones. Angela Duckworth, in her book Grit, talks about how much influence our actions have. She describes a psychology experiment at Stanford University in which the children observed the adults playing with toys. Half of the children watched them play with tinker toys the entire time. The other half of the children watched them play with the tinker toys for a few minutes, but then the adult turned and started hitting a life-size inflatable doll. The adult yelled and screamed at the doll and eventually kicked it out of the room. 
 
Next, the children were given opportunities to play with the same toys. Those who watched the adults play peacefully with the toys did the same. But those who watched the violent outburst were aggressive towards the doll, sometimes even copying exactly what they saw the adult do. Much of a child’s learning takes place through informal observation. So parents must ask themselves what their children are observing. Do their children see parents who love God in their thoughts, words, and deeds? 
 
When we understand this organic way our children grow it both simplifies our task as parents and makes it much harder. It simplifies our task because faith is often best passed on to your children through simple, ordinary means, such as conversations around the dinner table, prayers together, and making church a priority. Little things like this over the course of years add up to something substantial. 
 
But this organic way of raising our kids is also harder. It means we must actually love God. We must live a life that reflects what it means to be a follower of Christ. Is it any surprise when a grown child walks away from the faith after observing his parents make hundreds of little decisions that show a priority of sports, vacations, and other things over the regular worship of God? Unfortunately, I sometimes get the impression that parents who seek the most exciting church experiences for their children do it because they are trying to give their children something that they have not actually experienced themselves. The decision a child makes regarding his faith doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is often the fruit (whether good or not) of the spiritual environment they grew up in. 
 
In the next months we will get into some of the practical ways we help our children grow in Christ, but it must start with us and our authentic love for God. This is the foundation for everything that follows. 

In Christ,
Pastor Jon

This is adapted from the booklet “Helping our Kids Grow in Christ.”  It is freely available on the JVC website.  

Kids in Church

Over the next couple months we will look at what Scripture has to say about raising children in the faith. People outside the church often ask me about our kids’ ministry. I get the impression they assume that the best way for a child to grow up to know Jesus is through a vibrant children's ministry and fun youth group. But when we look at Scripture, God doesn’t tell  us to have these things. This doesn’t mean they can’t play a role, but they aren’t foundational. Instead God gives some of his clearest instructions in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NLT):

Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Moses is telling the people what they need to do in order to ensure the generations after them continue to experience the blessings God has promised. He calls for wholehearted commitment to God and tells them how to pass that on to the next generation. Notice that Moses doesn’t say the children need to be enrolled in Sampson's Hunting Club or David’s Music School; on the contrary, the things we typically associate with kids’ ministry are absent. These things are not wrong, but God’s design for passing on our faith to the next generation is less about programs and more about authentic displays of God’s word in all of life. Notice the commands: “repeat them,” “talk about them,” “tie them,” “wear them,” “write them.” Now notice the locations and situations: home and on the road, going to bed and getting up, on your hands and foreheads, doorposts of house and gates. Moses is talking about creating an environment, an environment that encompasses the child’s whole life. The idea of sectioning off part of your life for God--this day or this hour--is foreign to God’s design. Moses is calling on people to live spiritual lives where every action is done for God’s glory. 

Christian faith is best passed on to the next generation through authentic Christian environments. Certain programs fit into that, but a program is not an environment. Programs end; they have boundaries. God calls Christian parents to something without boundaries. We are to raise our children in a climate where God is loved.

Let me illustrate this. For several months I lived with a family in Hawaii. About the time I showed up the family planted a banana tree in their front yard. A few months later the banana tree was producing bananas. For a guy who grew up in the high elevations of Colorado this was shocking. It took over ten years for my family to get our new apple tree to produce fruit. Hawaii, though, was an excellent environment for bananas. A good habitat fosters growth. A really good youth group can act like fertilizer, but a plant cannot survive on fertilizer alone! For lasting growth, it needs an entire environment with water, good soil, sun, the right temperature, and so much more. Likewise, the key for a good spiritual environment is authentic love for God; it’s like sunlight, water, rich soil, and a good climate all at once. 

Authentic love for God must undergird everything we do if we want to see the next generation grow up to love Christ. Everyone in the church has a role to play in this. Over the next several newsletters we will look at some of the ways in which we all can show our children this love for God through family activities, worship, children's programs and more. 

In Christ,
Pastor Jon

This is adapted from the booklet “Helping our Kids Grow in Christ.”  It will be freely available in the coming weeks on the JVC website and resource wall. 

Christians and Immigration: Part 2

Back in March, we talked about sphere sovereignty and how it can help us think and talk about immigration. Then, we considered this issue within the sphere of the government. In this newsletter we are going to look at how we should think of immigration within the sphere of the church. 

To review, sphere sovereignty is the idea that God has created distinct spheres of authority within the world. Governments have a certain sphere of authority, while the church has another sphere of authority. When applying passages of Scripture we need to ensure we are not taking a passage that is written for one sphere--say, the church--, and applying it to another sphere, such as the government. A simple example is a Christian police officer who is both to use the “power of the sword” (Rom 13:4) to protect the citizens and to follow Jesus’ teachings to “turn the other cheek.” (Matt 5:39) The sphere the police officer is currently operating in (as an on-duty officer, or as a private citizen) would tell him which scriptural principle to apply to his situation. As I mentioned in the March newsletter, many misunderstandings about the response to immigration result from taking a single Bible passage and applying it to all spheres. This wouldn’t work for Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek, and it doesn’t work for passages related to immigration.  

Churches, while they reside in particular nations, do not belong to those nations, but are embassies of God’s eternal kingdom. (John 18:36, Phil 3:12) God’s kingdom is made up of people from every nation, tribe, people and language. (Rev 7:9) In one sense, God’s kingdom is wholly made up of immigrants. In Romans 4, Paul tells us that we are not born into God’s household, but become part of God’s family through faith. In other words, we all had to go through an immigration process when we became Christians. And we now live as spiritual foreigners--refugees--, awaiting the day we make it to our new home. This should give all Christians compassion for refugees and immigrants.

The purpose of the Church is to make disciples from all nations. (Matt 28:19) Traditionally, this meant missionaries would go overseas, but now, with the ongoing refugee crises, the nations are coming to us. We now have opportunities to bring the gospel to all nations without even leaving our city.  In Acts 17:26-7, Paul tells us that God has ordained the boundaries and movements of all people throughout history. Thus the millions of refugees seeking a home is not a mishap, but part of God’s sovereign purpose. 

Many refugees come from places where it is difficult to send Christian missionaries, and now God is bringing these formerly isolated people to us. As a church we should welcome people from around the globe because of the opportunity to share the gospel with them. Are there risks in welcoming refugees? Yes, of course. It’s the government's job to figure out how to minimize these risks. But as Christians, when did we start thinking it wasn’t risky to be a Christian? When did we start thinking there wouldn’t be  a cost to following Christ? Can we claim to follow Jesus, who willingly suffered and died on a cross for his enemies, if we first seek safety and isolation from the very type of people that Jesus died for–those who wanted to kill him? 

The influx of refugees and immigrants should be exciting for God’s Church. Now the nations are coming to us! And what a message of hope the Gospel has to those who have no home. For at the heart of the Gospel is the story of a man named Jesus, who, not long after he was born, was taken by his parents as a refugee to Egypt. The Gospel offers the hope of a new beginning. Whether we live in the suburbs or the slums, the Gospel shows the best is yet to come. Because of Christ, we are all immigrants, walking by faith towards the true home Jesus has prepared for us in heaven.

In Christ,
Pastor Jon