Shellbound: Why churches tend to be unfriendly and cliquish

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

I stood before the congregation holding two letters in my hands.  “Both came to my office this week.  I thought you’d like to hear what they say.”

“The first letter is from a member who moved several hundred miles away last year. She is missing this church.  She wrote, ‘The churches here are not friendly like our church back home.  No one speaks to visitors.  I miss our loving, friendly congregation.”

I said, “Do we have a friendly church?”  Heads nodded all over the building.

“Well, then, listen to this.”

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When we backslide, a dozen things happen, all of them bad

“The way of the transgressor is hard” (Proverbs 13:15)  

What started this was a note from a fellow who took issue with something I said about the church.  He had no use for the church, he said. Every church he’d ever attended preached a shallow message, the sermons were mind-numbingly boring, and the people were dull and listless.  After venting, he wondered if I’d be interested in some essays he’d written about the church.  I declined.

In our exchange, I said, “Could I tell you something that happened to me?  IEven though I’ve been preaching for over half a century, at least twice during that time, I have gotten out of fellowship with the Lord.  What we call “backsliding.”

And when that happened, I noticed something surprising.  I became negative about my fellow church members and critical of the other ministers.  Then, when I humbled myself and repented, I saw them in a new light and found myself loving them. That was a fascinating thing to learn.

This was as gentle a way as I could find to tell the man that my money is on his being in rebellion against God. In his backslidden state, he is down on the Lord’s people.

Backsliding.  Interesting term, isn’t it?  It says what it is, and needs little explanation.

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The most surprising thing about the Apostle Paul’s ministry

“I am glad about the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, for what was lacking on your part they supplied. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore, acknowledge such men” (I Corinthians 16:17-18).

As amazing as he was and as capable in ministry, as brilliant in theology, and as bold in his witness, the Apostle Paul needed people.

Does that surprise you as much as it does me?

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When friendship and truth clash

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).

Around here in Southeast Louisiana you’ll see billboards that say “Friends don’t let friends eat imported crawfish.”

I know people in other parts of the country who would change that to say “Friends don’t let friends eat crawfish, period.”  🙂

A friend speaks up when his buddy is in trouble. A friend tells the truth even when doing so is uncomfortable for both parties. A friend rebukes his colleague if he’s doing something dangerous or self-destructive.

I want to be such a friend; I want to have such friends.

A few years back, while in Birmingham, I sought out a few friends whose opinions I treasure and handed them a brief manuscript I had labored over.

After all, who should know better than Calvin Miller, Fisher Humphreys, and Charles Carter whether my writing is sound, on target, helpful, and publishable?

“I need you to be brutally honest,” I said.

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Pecking orders and taking care of the little ones

On the farm, in the yard where we kept the chickens, you noticed something.  Some poor hen ranked at the bottom of the pecking order–a real phenomenon, by the way–and could literally be pecked to death by all the others.  Unless someone stepped in and protected her, her life was miserable and grew worse by the day.

Humans don’t play foolish games like that, do we?

Let me tell you a story.

Bill was a big awkward, homely guy.  He dressed oddly, and drew the attention of a few fellows in the shop where he worked, guys who enjoyed making fun of him.

One day someone noticed a small tear in Bill’s shirt and reached over to rip it a little more.

It became a joke that morning. Anytime anyone passed Bill, they tore the shirt just a little more.

Bill was hovering over a machine, working on it, when the ripped part of his shirt got caught in the wheels.  Inside of two seconds, he was in real trouble. Alarms sounded and someone shut off the machine just in time and trouble was averted.

The foreman had seen all this.  He walked over, pulled the switch on the power for that section and called the men around.

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The busy-body instinct: Scriptural precedents and scary incidents

“Lord, do you not care that Mary has left me to do all the serving alone?  Please speak to her” (Luke 10:40)

The busy-body virus has infected many a good person. Even preachers catch it from time to time.  Some thoughts on the subject….

Have you ever prayed, “Lord, speak to my sister. I’m tired of doing all this work alone.” Martha did.

What was Mary doing? That lazy, good for nothing was sitting at the feet of Jesus, worshiping.  A waste of time?  The pragmatists among us seem to think so. This is the little informal society of activist church members who claim Martha as their patron saint.  (Matron saint? Whatever.)  To them, worship is something we do when the work is completed and we can’t find anything else to occupy us. Only then do they allow themselves the privilege of pausing to read the Scriptures and enjoy a quiet time of prayer.

“Lord, straighten him out.”

“Lord, rebuke her.”

Simon Peter grew tired of Jesus talking about what was ahead for him and pointed toward an apostle standing nearby.  “Lord, what about this man?”

Jesus said, “What is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:21-22).

I love knowing that Simon Peter was not above wanting to rearrange the lives of others; but appreciate even more the Lord’s answer. “What’s it to you?  Do your job!”

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What I would say at your graduation

(I have not been invited to speak at anyone’s high school graduation in years, and am not unhappy about that in the least.  Sitting through the lengthy program–sometimes outside in the sun!–and eventually rising to try to convey some heavy thoughts to a crowd interested in a thousand things other than my message, no thank you.  So, I’ll just post a commencement address here. Thank you very much. Oh, and congratulations.)

“Thank you, Superintendent!  Congratulations, graduates. And may I say, you look beautiful today.  Even the fellow on the front row who appears not to be wearing pants under his robe.

Today is a great day in your life.  But don’t let it be the high point. In fact, if you do life well, you will forget almost everything that happens today, as a hundred other great events in your life will crowd out these memories. So, savor the moment. It’s fleeting.

Here is what I’d like to convey to you. Got your pencil and paper ready? This will be on the test!

1) Keep on growing.

You’re not ‘you’ yet; in some ways you’re still an embryo.

When looked at through the lens of your complete life, you are today graduating from the 3rd grade. You have so much to learn, so much farther to go. This is no time to quit growing.

Someone in my high school told of a classmate rowing his boat out into the middle of the lake and dumping all his textbooks overboard.  His new high school diploma was all he would be needing. This is suicidal.  Not to say stupid.

I hope you didn’t love high school too much. One of the worst things that can happen to any of us is to have hit our peak in high school, to have loved it so much that we never want to leave, and to spend the rest of our days trying to recapture those moments.

Far better to have been a little frustrated in your schooling that “they” weren’t teaching something you needed, that “they” were wasting much of your time, that you could do better than this. This angst, if we may call it that, has a way of jet-propelling you out of school toward the next stage.

That’s good. You’re so ready to get on to the next thing.

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The subtle sin of judgmentalism and how it works

“Do not judge, lest you be judged…. Why  do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1ff.)

If you are prone to criticism and judging others, chances are you will be the last to know it.

It’s that kind of sin. I see it in you; it’s just part of who I am.

I find it fascinating that after issuing the warning about not judging others, our Lord followed with the caution about specks and logs in people’s eyes.

This is precisely how it works.

My judgmentalism of you appears so normal and natural that it never occurs to me that I am actually condemning you.  So, while your rush to judgment is a log in your eye–one you really should do something about!–my human tendency to speak out on (ahem) convictions is merely a speck in mine and nothing to be concerned about.

Ain’t that the way?

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What one new pastor told his church

“(I ask) that they may all be one, even as Thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that Thou didst send me” (John 17:21).

No one wants your church to be unified more than the Lord.

In fact, almost everything depends on unity.

On April 14, 2012, the new pastor, Dr. Charles McLain, stood before his congregation, ready to lead his first monthly business session.

Before they got underway with reports and motions and votes, however, Charles had something to say which they needed to hear.  His little speech would affect the course of that church for years to come.

They needed to know how their business meetings were going to be conducted.

What follows is his written message, verbatim.  (He shared it with us, alongwith permission to share.)

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“We joined that church because they have the best food!”

“The Lord richly gives us all good things to enjoy” (I Timothy 6:17).

If that verse doesn’t apply to food, it doesn’t mean anything.

This morning, as I write, a minister was telling me about a conversation with a senior adult in his church. They were discussing the last associational senior adult revival and the fellow just couldn’t say too much about it. It was great. The minister asked what made it so special, expecting to hear about souls saved and lives changed.

“The food!” he said. “On Tuesday they had chicken and dressing to die for! And the next day the gumbo and jambalaya was as good as anything I’ve ever put in my mouth!”

I posted that cute little story on Facebook.

Guess what happened.

My preacher friends jumped all over the guy.

“That’s why revival tarries.” “This kind of carnality.”  “Their appetites is their god.”

That sort of over-the-top spirituality.

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