The thing to bear in mind about that first Palm Sunday

“The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know….” (Ephesians 1:18).

When they welcomed Jesus into the city on that Sunday, they did not know what they were doing.

In praising Him as the Son of David who comes in the name of the Lord, they said more than they knew. They professed more than they believed.

“Most of the multitude spread their garments in the road and others were cutting branches from the trees, and spreading them in the road. And the multitudes going before Him, and those who followed after were crying out, saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’  (Matthew 21)

When they crucified Him on Friday, these people were still in the dark….

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No one spoke to you at church? That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“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 19:34).

“We’re not going back to that church. We attended once and not a soul spoke to us.”

This may be the most common complaint offered by church visitors.

Our people have come to expect that churches will be welcoming to strangers, open to newcomers, receptive to inquirers, and alert to first-timers.

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What the carnal mind will never “get” about worship

Can we talk about worship?

Here are a few quotes to get us started. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of any of them, having found them in that motherlode of fascinating quotes, real and imagined, solid and made-up-on-the spot, the internet.  Smiley-face goes here….

1) From actor Brad Pitt:  “I didn’t understand this idea of a God who says, ‘You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I’m the best, and then I’ll give you eternal happiness. If you won’t, then you don’t get it!’ It seemed to be about ego. I can’t see God operating from ego, so it made no sense to me.”

There is a reason this makes no sense to you, Mr. Pitt.  The Apostle Paul put it this way: “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him.  Nor can he understand them, for they are spiritually appraised” (I Corinthians 2:14).

Don’t mean to be harsh in that assessment, but it explains why so many on the outside look at Christian worship and shake their heads. They just don’t get it.

Let me repeat that: They. Do. Not. Get. It.

2) From a blog in which this guy talks about religion. Someone asked him why God wants us to worship Him.  He answered,  “Everyone likes being praised. It’s a huge ego bump, after all. But why does God need it? I mean, what kind of egomaniac needs millions of people all over the world praising his name? Isn’t that a little arrogant?

Short answer: Yes.”

He went on to make a case for God being egotistical.  Oh, and he thought he was being pro-God.

He should spare God the compliment.

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I went to church today, but didn’t have to

“On the first day of the week, let every one of you….” (I Corinthians 16:2)

A heavy snowfall had paralyzed the city. By church time only the janitor and the preacher had shown up.  As they stood there, trying to decide what to do, the pastor said, “People today just aren’t as dedicated as they should be.” The janitor said, “No sir, and we wouldn’t be here either if they didn’t pay us!”

Today, the second Sunday of December, I’m at the halfway point of five banquets in a six-day period.

Thursday night, it was the “President’s Christmas Dinner” at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.” I wasn’t the speaker or anything, but they set me up a table and I sketched a lot of people.  Then, the next night, after driving nearly 400 miles, I did the annual “pastors and wives Christmas banquet” for two associations around Minden, Louisiana where my buddy Randy Hales is the director of missions.  I sketched nonstop for a couple of hours and did my stories for 30 minutes and drew some more, then drove over two hours back to Vicksburg, Mississippi where I’d reserved a room.  Came home Saturday. Then, that night, I did the “Christmas family dinner” a few blocks from my house for Grace Community Bible Church, drawing everyone and sharing my stories.

I slept like a baby last night.

Two more to go.

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When the church apes the world

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2)

In the recording room of a large radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina, I was cutting 30 second spots our church had purchased.  A committee of our sharpest young adults had put together a package of radio ads on several stations hoping to get our message out and make the community aware of First Baptist Church.

After our first cut, the young lady producing the spots said, “Uh, pastor.  I need you to hear something.”

She fiddled with a few dials and turned up the volume on the car commercial running on the air at that moment.  “That’s what the ads on this station sound like.”

The commercial was fast-paced and loud, with a drum hammering a heavy staccato beat in the background.

I said, “I’m well aware of what your station sounds like.”

She said, “Well, you will want your ad to fit in with that.”

I said, “No ma’am. That is precisely what I do not want.”

“I would like to stand out from all that.”

She agreed to do it my way–just my voice talking quietly, nothing in the background–for the first round of ads.

A month later, at the next recording session, she said, “You’re right. I was wrong. What you are doing is working very well.”

Judging by the response we were receiving from the community, she was right.

Sometimes, when I see churches falling all over themselves to look like the world and sound like the world in order to speak to the world, I shake my head.

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Before you worship, ask yourself this question

“Now, while the people were in a state of expectation….” (Luke 3:15)

To the Pharisees who joined the crowds emptying the cities and flocking to hear the rough preacher in the desert proclaim Heaven’s message, John the Baptist asked, “Who warned you vipers to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7) 

What were they doing there, he wanted to know.

Long after John had been decapitated for his faithful proclamation of the Lord’s message, Jesus asked the crowds who had thought so much of his rough-hewn cousin:

–”When you went out into the wilderness to hear John, what were you looking for?” (Luke 7:24)

–”What did you go out to see?” (7:25)

–”But what did you go out to see?” (7:26)

Anyone see a trend here?

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Knowing What is Worthy…and What Ain’t Even Close

This fellow stopped me after church the other evening. I was the guest preacher there and about to walk out the door and drive home, a good 90 minute task. I was tired and he had a joke to tell me and another preacher friend.

“You seem like a together person,” he said in my direction. “Comfortable in your own skin. Good sense of humor. So, I have a joke for you.”

He began, “Did you hear the one about Billy Graham, the Pope, and Oral Roberts all dying and going to Heaven at the same time?”

How do you say, “Yes, I’ve heard it a few dozen times and didn’t like it the first time?” You don’t. You stand there and try to look like you’re listening.

It took the poor guy forever to tell the story, of how God said they had arrived unexpectedly, that their mansions were not quite ready yet, and would they mind if He sent them to purgatory for a bit first. He told of a conversation between God and the devil, in which the Lord was asking permission from hell’s warden.

It went downhill from there.

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Getting Fresh With God

A friend wrote to me of his concern with his prayer life:

“One of my big problems with praying is when I get ready to pray in public–or even in private–I can’t think of something new to say. I sound so repetitive in my prayers. How do I increase my vocabulary?”

My immediate thought is that, while I certainly understand his desire for freshness in his prayers, vocabulary has little to do with it. The issue is not the word-choice but the heart-cry.

After receiving my friend’s note a few days ago, I decided to sit on it until inspiration provoked a proper response.

Sitting in church this week and worshiping along with the congregation for the first half of the services before walking to the pulpit and preaching, it occurred to me that staleness and dullness affect far more than our prayers. Our worship–meaning everything we do in worship services such as preaching, teaching, announcing, leading hymns, etc–could use a periodic infusion of freshness.

So, let’s get to it.

Here are five suggestions for freshening up your prayers, sermons, everything about your public worship leadership. Please do not miss the caution at the end.

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Five Things I Know About Your Worship

You worship that which you do not know. But we worship that which we know…. (John 4:22)

It’s not easy making generalizations about the worship activities of every person on the planet, other than this one: something within the heart and soul of each human cries out–reaches out, strains, hungers–toward its Creator. The forms which that heart-cry take are as varied as the races and cultures of men. Some bow before the waterway flowing through their village, some sacrifice to the volcano looming above their community, and some build massive cathedrals which they decorate with ornate images, all as expressions of their worship. Others enter their church, their synagogue, their meeting place, and sing hymns, offer prayers, read from their holy book, and give offerings.

For those who worship the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ–for those of us who call ourselves Christians–making some generalizations is easier. We share many things in common, not all of them desirable.

I know five things about your worship, Christian. You make safely conclude these are likewise true about my worship.

1. You don’t do it very well.

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Ineffectual Worship: Wearying the Lord With our Words

Some of us work with words. As much as a farmer works does with the soil and a potter with the clay, we deal with words. Writers, pastors, teachers–we are wordsmiths.

And therein lies the challenge. Unless we stay close to the Lord and keep a steady eye on our assignment, it’s possible that in time we can send forth empty words to do our work for us. We can fill a page or an hour with words and words and more words. Eventually, we think that’s all we need to do, just speak words.

You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “In what way have we wearied Him?” (Malachi 2:17)

Addressing the people of the Lord, the prophet Malachi is in no way limiting his message to the professional priests and ministers. All the Lord’s people were guilty of the sin of word inflation.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, filling our worship on Sunday with so many words. And leaving the church thinking we have done something worthwhile just because we spoke some words, read some written words, and sang words printed in a book or flashed on a screen.

The Lord in Heaven is sick and tired of words that are multiplied and inflated as though He were some mindless professor grading term papers by their weight.

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