10 Insights About Your Church’s Fellowship

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers…. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people (Acts 2:42-47).

When a church of 120 members set out to assimilate 3,000 new additions into the life of the congregation, they ranked “fellowship” toward the top of the list as a critical step in accomplishing the task.

Koinonia is the Greek word. Literally, it refers to a sharing of life, or a partnership, which doesn’t tell us a lot about what it meant in the followup program in the early church. So, in the absence of anything definitive from Scripture on the precise meaning of the term, I submit for your consideration my own definition: Hanging out.

The “fellowship” quotient of a church–whether the members love the Lord and one another–is one of the most telling features of a congregation, one of the most dependable indicators of the health of the church, and one of the best predictors of its future usefulness in the Kingdom.

Here are 10 aspects of the fellowship of your church worth carving in stone, or better, engraving on the hearts of your leadership and membership.

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Justice vs. Mercy: “Take Mercy Every Time!”

“All I want is what’s coming to me!”

Henry was being obnoxiously persistent in the church business meeting. Finally, in exasperation he blurted out that statement.

An elderly sister in the pew behind him said softly, “Sit down, Henry. If you got what was coming to you, you’d be in hell.”

Henry was demanding justice; Henry needed mercy.

This week driving down Interstate 55 below Jackson, Mississippi, I kept noticing bits and pieces of pink insulation batting everywhere.

After a few miles, we came upon two 18-wheelers pulling halves of a large mobile home. One of the units was shedding, littering the highway. Bits and pieces of the trailer were flying from the open top and being strewn across the countryside.

I dialed “*HP” for the Mississippi Highway Patrol and reported the offender. The dispatcher assured me they would jump right on the matter.

They never showed up.

I was wanting justice. I wanted the cops to pull these drivers over, read them the riot act for the careless way they had secured the mobile home and for littering the countryside, and if they didn’t issue tickets, at least force them to tie everything down.

I suspect this is a the way it is with most of us. I want justice to be done when it involves other people. But for myself, mercy is a better choice.

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What Churches Could Learn From Restaurants

Recently, my wife and I have found ourselves in discussions about restaurants where we’ve dined. We enjoyed the food in each place and found the staff sufficiently friendly. But several aspects loomed large in our conversation, provoking me–ever the preacher–to thinking about how churches could benefit from studying what these eating establishments are doing, and what they’re not doing.

1. I wish churches put as much emphasis on friendly greeters at the front door as great restaurants do.

Often they are teenagers, or perhaps college students. The kids are fresh-faced, sweet-spirited, well-dressed, and friendly. The graciousness appears genuine.

Have you ever walked up to an unfamiliar church and saw no one at the doors, no greeters or welcoming team anywhere on the premises? It happens to me frequently.

Are restaurants more interested in welcoming paying customers than churches are interested in showing hospitality to people coming to worship the living Christ?

Even so, sometime in the service the preacher or a staff member will give a verbal welcome. They will tell how much this church loves visitors and guests. But it doesn’t wash. It rings hollow.

Take the business of having a handshaking, fellowshiping time in the middle of the worship service. If the members do not care enough to greet newcomers before and/or after the service, any attempt to do so within the service itself doesn’t work. To a visitor, the only friendliness that counts is the spontaneous outpouring prior to and after the worship.

The most successful restaurants choose greeters carefully and train them. Managers monitor them occasionally and correct the greeters who are not getting it right. Furthermore, these young people are surrounded by a staff of their peers who will help them.

Churches can learn from this. A church interested in effectively welcoming newcomers will have continual greeter training going on.

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The Sermon That Makes Them Mad

My friend J. B. was serving as interim pastor of the church and invited me to preach a four-day revival. On the final night, as I often do, I preached a message on the church. This week, many months after the event, he told me what happened.

“You really made some of my people angry.”

“Really?” I said. “I can’t imagine. What was that all about?”

He laughed, “They were convinced I had told you private things about our church. You addressed those situations so perfectly, they knew that was no accident. Their only explanation was that I had told you.”

I said, “You didn’t tell me anything.”

He said, “I know. I didn’t tell you on purpose, so that whatever God laid on your heart to share would not be tainted by my viewpoint.”

It’s not the first time that happened, I told J. B.

That particular sermon, more than any other I preach, has been known to send a few church leaders out of the services angry at me for sticking my nose into their business.

Here is the gist of it.

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How to Stay Married for Fifty Years

Well, someone has to say it.

No one who is married qualifies as an authority on marriage.

It’s no doubt true that some writers on the subject and professors who deal with this in academia may be considered such. But all the people I know married for any length of time have one overwhelming sense about them: Staying married and getting it right is hard work and cannot be done perfectly.

Taking two individuals who are sinners, needy, flawed, and still becoming whoever they will eventually be, and locking them into the most intimate of all relationships–then telling them it’s for the rest of their lives!–can be scary.

Marriage is tough.

Staying married takes everything two people have to offer. Only the truly determined or the terminally timid stick with it for decade after decade.

Marriage is a relationship designed to reduce its participants to a state of eternal perplexity, complete inadequacy, and thus a daily dependence on God.

No wonder many are opting out on the institution these days.

In this second decade of the third millennium, marriage is becoming increasingly unpopular. People need a good reason for getting married, otherwise, they see they can have the benefits of a legal union without any of the obligations.

That said, for those considering it, we offer our list of marriage values that will take you and your husband/wife through to the end and leave you rejoicing that you hung in there.

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Marriage: Ten Things We Got Right (in 50 Years)

Conflict makes stories work.

Write a book on how you succeeded with nary a mishap and made it to the top without a struggle of any kind and even your best friend, after buying a dozen copies, will lay it aside halfway through. It’s boring.

But tell how you struggled, how you failed and got back up, how life handed you lemons and you made a meringue pie, and we will all read it and cheer you on.

Our previous blog told of ten mistakes Margaret and I made over a half-century of marital bliss. (I’m putting that word in there just for her, to give her a smile. There were blissful moments, to be sure, but so many of the bad moments, the times when you’re so miserable you don’t know what to do except throw yourself on the mercy of God and love each other by faith.)

I told a friend yesterday that, in retrospect, the good times in our marriage were like the Smoky Mountains, and the bad times like the Rockies. That is, the good were nice and pleasant, green and verdant and sweet. But it’s the jagged outcrops of granite that seem to loom above everything else, causing us to remember those more than the other.

The first article was about the Rockies. This one is about the Smokies.

So, as promised, here are ten things we got right in a half-century of marriage. And so you won’t wonder, Margaret and I made the list last night over supper. It’s a joint project.

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Marriage: The First 50 Years are the Hardest!

Margaret Ann Henderson and I were wed on a Friday night in April of 1962. A few short weeks later, here we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of that event.

Time does fly.

This Friday night, April 13, at the exact half-century mark, we will be dining in one of our favorite New Orleans restaurants with our two sons and our daughter, our sons’ wives, and all eight of our grandchildren, who are flying in from various locations around the country for the weekend. Our pastor and wife, Mike and Terri Miller, will join us for the occasion, as will one other special couple, Beverly and Gerald Nugent.

Son Neil and his wife Julie have put together a notebook of photos which will be on display that night. (It feels not entirely unlike the kind of display funeral homes show for memorial services.) Margaret asked me to draw some kind of something for its cover. I’ve sketched in a few things, and decided on the heading at the top: The First 50 Years are the Hardest!

That’s tongue-in-check, of course. But not much.

Has it been hard? Yes. Has it been wonderful? Sure. Has it been everything we expected when we walked down that aisle at Birmingham’s West End Baptist Church so long ago? We had no idea what to expect, so that one’s hard to answer.

Would we do it all over again? If we were smart, we would. And if we were truly smart, we’d do it better this time.

We made enough mistakes the first time through for several marriages.

The popular thing to write on one’s 50th anniversary is a glowing tribute to one’s spouse in admiration for her patience and perseverance and in praise for the Lord’s triumph. I feel a lot of that. But I know also that few would benefit from reading that.

What interests people and benefits other marriages is learning from our mistakes. And we made plenty of those.

Here are our top 10 mistakes. (Well, the ones we want to talk about. Smiley-face goes here.)

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Getting Comfortable in Babylon

In Stephen King’s latest best-seller, “11/22/63,” hero Jake Epping has traveled back in time to head off Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy. One of numerous complications is that the time-slit into which he’s able to slip lands him smack in the middle of 1958, some 5 years before the dastardly deed is done.

Eventually, Epping, who happens to be a teacher of high school English literature, moves to Texas and takes a job teaching in a suburban Dallas small town. And there something happens he had not anticipated.

He falls in love.

He loves the small town, the people, the school, the atmosphere, the kids, and the librarian. Especially the librarian. And he arrives at a momentuous decision.

He’s not going back to 2011. He’ll stay in 1960′s Texas.

Now, I’m only half-way through this massive book (845 pages!), so anything can happen, and usually does. But it’s an intriguing thought. He leaves contemporary America, retreats into the America in which I came of age (I was born in 1940 and graduated from college in 1962, so Jake Epping has hit my generation perfectly) and decides he prefers it.

He likes the real butter as opposed to the oleo, the absence of excessive (and ridiculous) airport security, the friendliness of communities before everyone became paranoid, and the laid-back attitude. (Note: He does see and reacts to the Jim Crow laws, the harsh racism, and the way factory plants are polluting the water supply, and begins to address these in his limited way. Just saying.)

I’m struck by the idea of the time-traveler finding a time he likes better than his own and settling down. When that happens, his mission is threatened.

We who are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ are time-travelers, on a mission in this world, with plans to report back home when the mission is accomplished.

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself (Philippians 3:20-21).

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“I Want to be somebody!”

The other day, while we were awaiting our planes in Naples, a friend said to me, “You know, Joe, people spend the first half of their lives trying to be a success, and the second-half trying to become significant.”

He added, “You know what I mean, trying to decide what kind of record I’ll leave behind. My legacy. How will I be remembered?”

I’ve thought about that ever since.

What I said to him at the moment was, “One of our favorite SBC pastors, Dr. Frank Pollard, was once asked how he wanted to be remembered after his death. He stunned the questioner into silence with his answer. ‘I don’t want to be remembered. I’m just the messenger.’”

Frank’s word set the gold standard for those of us in the Lord’s work.

The issue remains, however, and deserves some thought: What does it mean to become significant in this world? and how can I attain it?

So, the title of this piece is a misnomer. We’re not actually focusing on how “we” can become “somebody.” In Creation, God made us somebody: “a little lower than the angels,” is how the Psalmist put it (Ps. 8:5). In redemption, God showed us the true value He places on us: “God so loved (us) that He gave His only begotten Son….” (John 3:16).

The question rather becomes How can I make a lasting difference in my world? So that when I depart, I will leave behind a legacy of faithfulness, I’ll leave people who are better off for my having been here.

Let’s make a list of ways to make a significant difference in this world.

But first….

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Rescuing a Sick Church: 5 Principles to Keep Applying

Sometimes we have to enroll the entire school in the first grade and start all over.

Recently, when I had trouble in one of my ears, the E-N-T doctor prescribed, among other things, a bottle of pills with unusual directions: “Take 6 a day for the first 4 days, 5 on the 5th day, 4 on the 6th day, 3 on the 7th day, 2 on the 8th day, and 1 on the 9th day.”

It worked, I’m happy to report.

My wife, who seems to know as much as most pharmacists, says some meds must not be curtailed abruptly.

Certain illnesses and conditions respond to simple, one-step treatments. Others require weeks, months, even years of medications and applications. In those, regular repetition over extended periods is needed for healing.

The sick church did not get that way overnight. Often, anemic, struggling churches result from the unhealthy teachings of warped leaders. In many cases, teachers have gone to seed on a pet doctrine and omitted altogether the basic principles of solid Christian living as unworthy of them.

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the sayings of God…. (Hebrews 5:12).

The elementary principles. Basic Christianity. The kind of stuff we should have been taught in a new members’ class.

Sometimes we have to backtrack with an unhealthy congregation and re-enroll everyone in first grade.

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