The best church in every state

You see these come-ons all the time—

The best restaurants in every state.  The best small towns in every state.  The best town for retirees in every state.  The best beaches, best whatever.

So, don’t be surprised if you look up one day and someone has compiled a list of the best churches–best small churches, best mega-churches, whatever–in every state.  People are so shallow as to think such a list could be compiled and many will buy into it.

I’m by that the way I am the college football rankings.  Today, as I was driving back from a ministry assignment, for an hour or more I listed to the Sirius XM station where spots guys discussed last night’s college football rankings. LSU was one, Ohio State two, and so forth.  Back and forth they went: Shouldn’t Alabama be lower than 5th? Shouldn’t Baylor be higher than they are? Wisconsin too?  People called in and for an hour or more they argued.

For absolutely nothing.  Next week there will be a new ranking, based on this weekend’s games, and they’ll start all over again.  It’s what these sports-talk guys get paid to do.

But it’s so much foolishness.

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Collateral damage: Hurting the little ones

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depth of the sea…. Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you, that in heaven their angels always behold the face of My Father who is in heaven.  (Matthew 18:6,10)

A friend texted this with an all-too familiar story.

The church has just run off a good pastor for no apparent reason other than the so-called powers wanted him gone.  When a little senior lady stood to protest and declare love for her pastor, she was ordered to sit down and be quiet.  Off to the side sat a young couple who did not stand up and protest, but who were grieving.  Their story, I was told, involves the pastor reaching her for Christ when she was  about to give birth out of wedlock.  In time, as a member of the church,  she married a fine young man and they had a child of their own.  They’ve been growing in the Lord, and they love their pastor devotedly.  Then suddenly–with no warning–they had the privilege of seeing him  brutally mistreated by a few church members who refuse to be accountable. Their beloved pastor was gone and no reasons were given.

No one cared about the senior lady and no one cares for the young family.  They are merely collateral damage.

Thus the Lord’s church gets mauled by the bullies and the “little ones who believe in Me,” as our Lord called them, are despised and abandoned.

There will be a reckoning, friend.  Mark it down in big letters.  The end of this story has yet to be written.

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Too toxic to keep, too popular to fire: What to do about that difficult staff member

“Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

I once asked a pastor friend, “Are you afraid of (a certain member of his staff who was causing him grief)?”  He said, “No, I’m not afraid of him.  But I fear  the damage he could do if I were to fire him.”

Therein lies the dilemma:  What to do about a team member  too powerful to fire but too difficult to keep.

Read on.

I’ve been reading H. W. Brands’ The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War. Dr. Brands is a highly respected professor of history at the University of Texas. Back when Brands taught at Texas A&M, Stephen Ambrose brought him to New Orleans for the 1998 conference on the Spanish-American War. My son Neil and I took in the conference and have been big fans of Professor Brands ever since.

In April 1951, Truman fired the most popular general in American history, becoming in one act the most reviled President in memory. During this period of his presidency, historians agree that Truman had become  one of the most unpopular presidents in history.  Interestingly, however, history vindicates Truman in his decision to dismiss the egotistical and out of control general.  You will search long and hard to find a military historian who thinks that MacArthur should not have been fired.

Someone asked Dwight D. Eisenhower once, “Didn’t you serve under General MacArthur?” (Ike had been his right-hand man in the Philippines in the 1930s.)  He answered, “I studied dramatics under him for eight years.” He is quoted as saying, “MacArthur could never see another sun, or even a moon for that matter, as long as he was the sun.”

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The consistent, historic malady afflicting the people of God

“These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but  their heart is far from Me” (Matthew 15:8).

I suspect some of us are marginal Christians,  just around the edges.

The Lord Jesus knew His Bible.  He was quoting Isaiah.

In the 8th century B.C., the prophet said: “Therefore the Lord said, ‘Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men, therefore I will again do a marvelous work among this people….'” (Isaiah 29:13-14).

Look out at the typical congregation most any Sunday morning.  It isn’t hard at all–nor, in my opinion is it judgmental–to see on display this very thing: people honoring God with their lips while their hearts roam across some foreign country somewhere.

It’s not a new thing.  While Isaiah preached in the 8th century B.C. and our Lord eight centuries later,  you and I witness the same two thousand years afterwards.  It seems to be a human affliction.

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When’s the last time your church was broken-hearted?

“The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

My preacher friend was rendering  his opinion on a certain large church with which we are both familiar.

“The people are like the fans of (a certain college football team).  Individually, great people. Salt of the earth. But put them all together, and they are horrible. Prideful, boasting, irritating.”

That’s an analysis I’ve not been able to shrug off.  If it’s true–and I’m in no position to judge–it’s a devastating assessment.

The Ascended Christ said to the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing–but you do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17).

The reality is often far different from what we want to believe, from what we aspire to, from what we advertise.

Dare we ask the Heavenly Father to tell us the truth about our own church?

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Churchfails: Scoundrels in the Lord’s family

“There must be heresies among you” –I Corinthians 11:19.

The complete text of that verse goes: “There must be heresies (or divisions) among you that those who are approved may be recognized among you.”

How will we know what we believe if we don’t know what we don’t?

“Churchfails” is a book edited by David Stabnow and written by several seminary professors.  Subtitle: “100 blunders in church history (and what we can learn from them).”

I predict you’re going to love this book.

You know immediately that much of this is tongue-in-cheek when you read the introductions to the seven learned authors of these short, pithy chapters.  For instance…

–“Rex Butler was a shoe salesman in his former life, then God called him to teach when he was 40 years old.  He went from selling soles to schooling souls…..following in the footsteps of William Carey and D. L. Moody!”  (Joe’s note:  Carey was a cobbler and Moody sold shoes.)

–Ken “Deep Dish” Cleaver grew up in the Windy City, a land flowing with cheese and sausage…… We actually invited him to be on our team of authors because he’s an avid unicyclist and we needed the balance.”

–Rodrick K. Durst was “raised and trained in California, moving between campuses of Golden Gate Seminary to catch all the earthquakes…..”

–Lloyd A. Harsch is a “parent, professor, pastor, political pundit, and punster…..He has a captive audience that is pressured to applaud his puns because he submits their grades!”

–James Lutzweiler is “a part-time mushroom picker…..” Stephen O. Presley “hails from (Texas) but ventured out to study theology among the brave-hearted kilt-wearers of the far northern territory….” David K. Stabnow (editor of the book) “gave up a dead-end career digging graves in the frozen soil of Minnesota in favor of herding cats and shepherding words as Bible and Reference Book Editor at B&H.  He lives in Nashville but doesn’t listen to country music.”

Whew.  And the book hasn’t even gotten underway yet.

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Laodicea: The complacent caboose! (Last of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor)

(Thirteenth of our articles on the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.  Revelation 1-3)

“And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write: ‘These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the beginning of the creation of God:  ‘I know your works….'”  (Revelation 3:14ff).

Pastor Jim Phillips (North Greenwood Baptist Church, Greenwood, MS) was telling the congregation last Sunday night about his ordination into the ministry over 30 years back.  As he knelt for the laying on of hands–an interminable period when deacons and ministers slowly file by, placing hands atop his head and whispering words of challenge, encouragement or a prayer–finally, it was Pastor Frank Pollard’s turn.  He whispered words Jim would never forget:  “I’m the last; you can get up now.”

Not exactly what he’d been expecting.

Laodicea is the last.  The final stop on our tour of seven interesting churches of the western half of present-day Turkey.

You can get up now.

Certainly the first of the seven churches–Ephesus which had lost its first love–and the last–Laodicea, lukewarm and repulsive to the Lord–are the most unforgettable.  And probably the two most like ourselves and our own churches.  So many of our churches today imitate Ephesus and go about their work routinely and robotically, forgetting to love one another, while others imitate Laodicea in being neither fervent nor frigid but somewhere in the sickening in-between.  The Lord is neither impressed nor amused.

The city–

We’re told Antiochus II founded the city and named it for his wife Laodice.  It had much going for it:

–It was a rich city, the center of banking for the surrounding region.

–It was a manufacturing center noted for the quality of its black wool.

–It was a medical center.  The local medical school produced an eye salve much in demand.

Three Roman roads converged there.  And when an earthquake devastated the city, the fathers rejected Rome’s offer to fund the rebuilding and and took care of it themselves.  There was also a large Jewish population here.

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Philadelphia: “What’s stopping you?” ( Sixth of the 7 churches of Asia Minor)

(twelfth article in our series on the Seven Churches of Asia Minor)

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These things says He who is holy, He who is true, He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens: ‘I know your works….'”  (Revelation 3:7ff) 

When the Lord begins a conversation by telling you He is holy, He is true, and that He has the keys–always a symbol of authority!!–then, you and I had better listen up because He has something mighty important in mind.

What He had in mind was this church with great assets moving out and doing significant things in the Kingdom.

The Lord said to this church, “When I open a door, it stays open.  And when I close one, no one can open it afterwards!”  How wonderful–and how ominous–is that!

This church–

Called the missionary church.  The excited church.  The church of the open door.  The faithful church.  The church at Philadelphia goes by all kinds of names and titles.  It and Smyrna are the only two of the seven churches without black marks by their names.  Professor Ivan Parke (Mississippi College) says, “You would love to receive their mail!”

How about a church named “Brotherly Love.”  Contrast this with the church at Ephesus that had left its first love.  Evidently, Philadelphia believers are living up to their name since the Lord said nothing negative to them.

The city of Philadelphia–

Even a child knows the meaning of that name:  “The city of brotherly love.”  What might come as a surprise to some is that the city was founded by a brother in honor of his brother  whom he did indeed love.

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Sardis: “The Zombie Church!” (Fifth of the 7 churches of Asia Minor)

(eleventh article in our series on the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.  Revelation 1-3)

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write:  ‘These things says He who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive–but you are dead”  (Revelation 3:1ff).

A seminary student once told me the only thing he feared was zombies.  I said, “Zombies?  Zombies!! They are figments of someone’s warped imagination, friend.  There is no such thing.”  But I may have been wrong.  We might have a zombie church in the city of Sardis.  Let’s look at it.

The church is known by various names in commentaries: The Liberal Church; dead church; lazy, clueless, and “The weak church, one on life support.”

Jesus had only rebuke for this congregation.

The city—

Sardis was some six hundred years old.  It’s glory was its past.  It was wealthy but degenerate. It had been a capital city and administrative center for the Persian government, but was in decline now.

Five roads converged on Sardis.  That was great for commerce. The area was noted for its colored woolen fabrics.

Twice in its history the city had been defeated because its citizens were too lazy to defend themselves.  Located 1500 feet about the surrounding plain, the city should have been impregnable.  but it wasn’t.  The two times it was defeated (529 BC by Cyrus and 216 BC by Antiochus), the watchmen were asleep.  So the city had a false sense of confidence.

The citizens worshiped a nature god named Cybele (pronounced as though it were Sybil).

The church–

Had a better reputation than it deserved.  One writer said it was located at the corner of Self-Satisfaction and Complacency Streets.  Know any churches like that?  Pity their pastors!

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Thyatira: “Anything goes!” (Fourth of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor)

(tenth of our articles on the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.  Revelation 1-3)

“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write:  ‘These things says the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass: ‘I know your works….'” (Revelation 2:18ff)

David Jeremiah calls Thyatira “The Suburban Church.”  J. Vernon McGee called it “Paganism unlimited.”  Other commentators call it “The Corrupt Church.”  I call it “The Easy-going, Overly Tolerant Church.”  Apparently it stood for little and fell for a great deal.

This was the home church for Jezebel, a morally corrupt woman who was not to be trifled with.  No one dared cross her, so she was allowed to spread her poison within the church and beyond.

The City–

In 190 BC Thyatira became a Roman city.  It was famous for its production of wool and purple dye.  Lydia, leader of the church at Philippi, was born here (Acts 16:14).  When the city was destroyed it was never rebuilt.  Ruins today cover only a city block.  In the first century, it was the headquarters for many guilds: potters, tanners, weavers, robe makers, and dyers.  It was the center of the dyeing industry.  (The color purpose spoken of in the New Testament is today called “turkey red,” according to J. Vernon McGee.  He said, “And I mean that color is red!“)

How the Ascended Lord spoke of Himself

“These things says the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and feet like fine brass.”  This must be one of the few times where the Lord Jesus refers to Himself as “The Son of God.”  In most cases throughout the New Testament, it was “Son of Man.”  But here He calls Himself by that distinguished title.

What must those eyes have been like?  I have a personal feeling that the eyes of Jesus in their natural human state were something special, and have two scriptures that suggest it.  Both are in Luke 22. “Now the men who held Jesus mocked Him and beat Him.  And having blindfolded Him, they struck Him on the face….” (vs. 64) They could not stand to look into the eyes of the One they were beating.  Earlier, we read of Peter’s denials.  “Immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.  And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.  Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord….and Peter went out and wept bitterly” (vs. 60-62).  Those eyes!

Eyes afire!  This speaks to us of judgement.  And He does have stern words for this church, but they’re not all bad.

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