I’m Baaaack!

Let me start by answering the questions you’ve been emailing me:

  • No, I didn’t die.
  • No, I didn’t shut down this blog.
  • No, the corporate offices of alittlestrongereveryday.com weren’t destroyed by a fire.
  • No, I didn’t remove you from the mailing list.
  • No, I haven’t been on an African safari.
  • No, I haven’t been put into witness protection.
  • No, my wife didn’t put me in timeout.

There is one major reason you haven’t heard from me in a while:  I’ve been spending most of my writing time working on a novel.  It’s my most ambitious writing project to date, something unlike anything I’ve done before.  I’m stretching myself as a writer, forging into uncharted territory, in some ways finding out what I’m made of.  For the last few months I’ve been devoting my writing time to that project.   I’m about half done with it.

Because I know you’ll ask, and to save myself from answering all those emails, let me just say it’s a thriller about a church that hires a new preacher.  Everything about this preacher seems exceptional.  The congregation loves him.  His leadership is sparking energy and growth.  But he is not who the people think he is.  Not even close.  Take Jesus’s comment about wolves in sheep’s clothing and give it a shot of steroids…you still won’t be close to what I’m cooking up.

(Insert fiendish laugh here)

However….

I do miss this blog.  So I am recommitting to it.  I may not crank out posts as fast as I did before because, yes, I will be continuing to stir my fictional pot of murder and mayhem.  But you will hear from me more often than you have recently.  I appreciate your patience and the encouraging emails I’ve received from those of you who’ve written to tell me you’ve missed my posts.

On this Memorial Day, I pray that we will all reflect on the price of freedom and be grateful for those who have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice so we can enjoy it.

 

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Every Time the Doors are Open?

“She’s (or he’s) at church every time the doors are open.”

This is our go-to description for a Christian who is totally committed to the Lord.  I’ve heard it my whole life.  I’ve said it more times than I can count.  You may have too.  But is it possible that some Christians who aren’t at church every time the doors are open are just as spiritual, just faithful to the Lord as those who are?

When I was a kid, our family participated in everything the church did.  Church services, of course, but also VBS, revivals (every night!), church picnics, holiday parties, father/son banquets, potlucks, you name it.  Consequently, when I became a preacher at the age of 19, I expected my people to do the same, and if they didn’t, I felt disappointed in them.

Thankfully, God delivered me from that youthful, ignorant, self-righteous mindset.  It took a while because I tend to be a slow learner, but I eventually came to understand that it’s okay if you aren’t at church every time the doors are open.

Here’s how my thinking evolved.

First, I began noticing that the members of our church who attended every service and activity weren’t necessarily our best members.  In a few cases, they were our worst members.  That fact alone blew a gaping hole in my belief that the best Christians would always be those every-time-the-doors-are-open people.

Second, it eventually dawned on me that there is no biblical mandate for Wednesday evening services, Vacation Bible Schools, church camps, prayer breakfasts, etc.  Our first century brothers and sisters met on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) and we’re told not to forsake meeting together (Hebrews 10:25).  But turning those simple statements into a club for beating Christians over the head when they don’t attend every single service or activity started to seem more and more unfair.

Finally, the across-the-board deterioration of the family that I was observing made me wonder if the church was contributing to the problem.  We asked people to make room in their already jam-packed schedules for an endless parade of services and activities and then made them feel guilty if they chose not to.  I started noticing that some of our people were dragging themselves to church on Wednesdays completely exhausted, often skipping dinner because they were coming straight from work.  Were they doing it because they wanted to or because they would feel guilty if they didn’t?

Ultimately, I came to the following conclusions:

We are to worship God (Psalm 29:2) in spirit and truth (John 4:24) on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2).  Beyond that, a host of church activities will be made available, but each individual Christian must decide which of those things are doable and helpful.  It is not my place or anyone else’s to pass judgment.  Paul said, “So stop condemning each other.  Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall.”  (Romans 14:13)

I love and respect the members of Poinciana Christian Church who are here every time the doors are open.  I also love and respect those who aren’t.

And I look down my nose at no one.

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Seeing Your Congregation With Fresh Eyes

A few weeks ago, we asked every adult in our Sunday morning worship services to fill out a survey.  One of the questions had to do with nationality.  We discovered that on that particular Sunday, at least 26 different nations were represented in our two services.  I say “at least” because several people simply put “Hispanic.”  There were 26 specific nations named on the surveys.

To be honest, I was surprised.  I knew our congregation was quite diverse.  I was expecting maybe 13-15 different nations to show up in the surveys.  I found out that I didn’t know my people as well as I thought I did.

The picture below is of a study sheet our associate minister shares with people who ask questions about becoming a Christian.  Look closely and you’ll see that the lady worked through the sheet making notes….in Chinese!  She was baptized yesterday.

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First, let me say that I realize church work in Florida is a little different.  Boy, it is a melting pot here!  (This very afternoon I have an appointment with a man who grew up in Syria and has also lived in France and Africa.)  I wouldn’t expect a small town midwestern church to put forth this kind of demographic on Sunday.  But I wonder how many Christians across America would be surprised to know who’s sitting next to them in church.

I am also struck by how the gospel knocks down barriers and brings people together who aren’t just different, but radically different.  As the world explodes in conflict between people who can’t seem to find a way to accept each other, the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings peace and harmony to even the most ill-fitted combinations of people.  It is truly a thing to behold.

Finally, I think we must understand the extent to which foreign missions can be impacted right here at home, and not just by putting money in the offering plate.  Many of the people who represent those foreign countries in our church each week have friends and family members back home.  Make no mistake, the gospel they learn at PCC will be sent back home in emails and Facebook posts and carried with them when they visit and shared with enthusiasm.  We have had to come to grips with the fact that we are constantly training and equipping foreign missionaries.  How exciting is that?

Maybe you need to do what we needed to do…see your congregation, and the hidden potential within it, with fresh eyes.

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I Wonder What God Thinks

The American Presbyterian Church has decided that, starting June 21, gay is okay.

The church’s General Assembly endorsed a change in the definition of marriage.  Up to now it has been defined as a commitment between a man and a woman.  Starting in June it will be a commitment between “two people.”  The denomination has about 1.8 million members and is now the largest denomination to authorize gay weddings worldwide.

This, of course, is not shocking.  I wasn’t surprised when I read it.  This is the way the world is heading.

The reason I’m writing about it is because of a comment I read from a Presbyterian Church leader.  He said, basically, that there was a great concern about what the church’s membership would think.  Obviously, there are Presbyterians who disagree with this decision.  Will they or won’t they leave the church?  Time will tell.

Rather than worrying about what the membership thinks, I’d like to see the Presbyterian leadership worry about what God thinks.  In fact, I’d like to see leaders in all churches give some serious thought to what God thinks.

Last year I attended a church that offered a marvelously slick worship service.  But the music was so loud and distorted I couldn’t understand the words (thankfully, they were on the screen), the sermon was very positive, highly motivational, and hilariously funny but made no mention of Christ, there was a rushed communion service that would have confused me if I hadn’t already known the purpose of the Lord’s Supper, there was no encouragement to accept Christ, and I couldn’t find a single bit of direction in the bulletin on what to do if I had an interest in accepting Christ.  After the service, I wandered around the lobby and finally found a literature rack in an out-of-the-way corner.  In that rack was a brochure that outlined what to do if you want to become a Christian.

Maybe I was there on an abnormal Sunday, but it struck me that you really have to work to find Jesus in that church.  You can find well-rehearsed music, motivational quips, hilarious jokes, and friendly people, but if you’re looking for Jesus, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

I know we’re all concerned about being relevant and cool, but do we ever just stop and ask ourselves what God thinks of what we’re doing?  I have a feeling that God is not all that impressed with any church operation that relegates his Son to an out-of-the-way corner, no matter how slick and “relevant” it is.

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A Lesson From “The Tuneless Tiger”

Fabian Forte.

If you’re old enough, you probably remember him by just his first name–Fabian.  Or maybe by his nickname, The Fabulous One.

He was discovered by a record label executive from Philadelphia named Bob Marcucci.  When I say “discovered”, I don’t mean that Mr. Marcucci heard Fabian Forte singing in an obscure nightclub or at a county fair.  I mean Mr. Marcucci was driving down the street one day and saw Fabian Forte sitting on his front porch.  He was taken by the kid’s good looks and pulled to the curb.  “Say, kid, can you sing?”

The fact is, he couldn’t sing.

Fabian Forte was such a bad singer that he failed high school chorus three times.  Undeterred, Mr. Marcucci started looking for a vocal teacher to give the boy lessons.  The first two turned him down, feeling the boy had no potential.  The third one finally agreed to take him on.

Fabian eventually recorded such songs as “Turn Me Loose” and “Tiger.”  Time magazine wasn’t impressed, however.  They called him “the tuneless tiger.”

It didn’t matter, though.  Fabian was an instant star, not because of talent, but because of great looks and a stellar publicity campaign.  Teenage girls all across America swooned at the sight of him, no matter how off-key his singing was.*

From the beginning of time, people have been taken in by appearances.  Eve “saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious…” (Genesis 3:6)  David “noticed a woman of unusual beauty taking a bath…” (2 Samuel 11:2)  Samson insisted on marrying a Philistine woman, saying, “she looks good to me.” (Judges 14:3)

Interestingly, Jesus came into the world without impressive looks: “My servant grew up in the LORD’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him.” (Isaiah 53:2)

In a world where looks are given far more importance than they deserve, we need to be very careful when we encounter beautiful things and beautiful people.  We need to be equally thoughtful when we encounter things that aren’t particularly beautiful.  I’m not sure which would be worse, being suckered into a bad situation by good looks, or missing out on a great situation because of a lack of attractiveness.

People have done far too much of both.

*  Peter Harry Brown and Pat Broeske, Down at the End of Lonely Street, (New York: Dutton, 1997), 197

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Colleen McCullough’s Obituary

Colleen McCullough was Australia’s best-selling author, a novelist of towering skill who produced such highly respected works as The Thorn Birds and An Indecent Obsession.  She died on January 29, 2015 at the age of 77.

Ms. McCullough was a chain smoker who routinely pounded out 15,000 words a day and, on a good day, a mind-blowing 30,000 words.  She continued to work on an electric typewriter well into the computer age and it is said that she was so good at spelling and grammar that she needed almost no editing.

But perhaps the most attention she ever got came on the day her obituary hit the papers.  People all across the world reacted to these words:

Plain of feature and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth.

Colleen_McCullough_3182511b

Let me just take this opportunity to say that I hope the person who writes my obituary keeps my looks out of it.  I can just see it now:  Plain of feature and certainly as bald as a billiard ball, he was… 

But I must confess…I like that word “nevertheless” in Ms. McCullough’s obit.  Whatever perceived shortcomings someone thought she had in the looks department, she apparently made up for it with warmth and wit.  Let us remember that her obituary could have read as follows:

Spectacular of feature and with a beautifully toned body, she was, nevertheless, a person nobody could stand to be around.

What a great reminder for all of us that it’s what we are, not what we look like, that matters.

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The Brian Williams Saga: A Warning to Preachers

Brian Williams’ professional free fall has been stunning.  He has gone from being one of the most respected journalists in the country to being the subject of scorn and ridicule in less than two weeks.  And he did it without having an affair or getting caught in a drug bust.  In a country where lying has become the norm, who knew the truth mattered so much?

Obviously, it’s different if you’re a news reporter.  You’re held to a higher standard.  The same could be said of preachers.  People want to know that the person behind the pulpit is telling the truth.

I’ve often wondered how we preachers would fare if we were all hooked up to lie detectors while we preach.  How many of our personal experiences are exaggerated to create a greater impact? (Hyperbole is one thing, but do we embellish too much?)  How many of our statistics would stand up to some serious research?  What percentage of our quotes are accurate and properly attributed?  How often do we fact check a powerful illustration before we run to the pulpit with it?

I once had an editor (Yes, Lynn Pratt, I’m talking about you) who drove me crazy, demanding that I have airtight documentation for every stat and illustration I used.  She made me prove that none of my numbers or stories were made up or exaggerated.  I wanted her to trust me, but she wouldn’t.  I had to send her packets of photocopied pages from my sources.  Boy, that was a pain.  But you know what?  It was the right thing to do.  Those books we worked on together are factually airtight.

Oddly enough, Lynn Pratt stands out as the best editor I’ve ever worked with.  The hardest and most demanding, yes.  But she made me better writer.  Well, maybe not a better writer, but a more thoughtful and careful writer.  It’s even affected my preaching.  When I am tempted to embellish, I hear Lynn’s voice in my head reminding me about the importance of absolute integrity.

Thank you, Lynn.

One more thought:  I’ve learned that sometimes the sources themselves are wrong.  For example, I’ve seen the same quote attributed to two or three different people.  And I’ve seen statistics that stand in conflict with each other.  There’s nothing we can do about that.  However, to the extent that we are able, we preachers need to make sure that what we tell our people is true.  God doesn’t need us to help him by embellishing.  The Gospel is amazing enough as it is.

 

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Overthink: How Smart People End Up Looking Dumb

Overthink is when you convince yourself that your nutty idea is better than the choice that 99% of the rest of the world would make.

Like in last night’s Super Bowl.

You need a yard to win the game.  You have Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch in the backfield.  Yet you convince yourself that throwing a pass into traffic is a better choice.

Brilliant.  See you next year.

But before we get too carried away with our ridiculing of the Seahawks, let’s admit that overthink happens all the time, even among church leaders.

I’ll never forget the time I was sitting at a banquet table with some preachers I’d never met before.  A couple of the guys were sharing the exciting news of their church plant.  When I asked what the name of their new church was they said a word–a single word–that had absolutely no spiritual connotation whatsoever.  I thought they misunderstood me, so I asked again what the church’s name was.  They laughed and repeated the word and then launched into a lengthy explanation of why they chose the word to be the name of their church.  I nodded and said, “Oh, okay.”  Inside, I was thinking, That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

Here’s something to keep in mind.  The longer it takes you to explain why your idea is a good one, the worse your idea probably is.

Good ideas tend to be simple and obvious.  But we like to impress people with our brilliance or our coolness, so we often disdain the simple and the obvious and shoot for something that will raise eyebrows.

And no, I’m not opposed to innovation.  Every great advancement in our civilization has sprung from it.  What I’m talking about is commonly called “reinventing the wheel”.  If your idea is really an advancement, great.  But if you’re simply trying to prove that you’re smarter than everyone who relies on the tried and true, you’re probably heading for an embarrassment.

This morning I’m pretty sure there are some Seahawks and Seahawks fans who wish the coach had gone with a boring old handoff.

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Enjoying Where You Are

I live in central Florida, about thirty minutes from Disney World.

When those words come out of my mouth, non-Floridians ooh and aah and talk about how lucky I am.  I generally keep quiet and let them envy me.  (Admit it.  Being envied feels good.)  The thing is…I know the truth.  Living here can be difficult at times.

For example, I live 6 miles from the church where I preach.  How long does it take you to drive 6 miles where you live?  It often takes me 20-25 minutes.  There’s this little thing called traffic that severely complicates life in central Florida.

Oh, and do you like reptiles?  If you live in Florida, you’re going to have them.  Lots of them.  I’ve had snakes and lizards in my house and alligators in my yard.

And then there are the bugs.  A subtropical climate is to bugs what a greenhouse is to roses.  I’m talking big enough to saddle and ride.  It’s nothing for me to hear a shriek from the other room, followed by my wife demanding that I come and bring a weapon.

Of course, on the other side of the ledger, it’s supposed to be 72 degrees and sunny today on the next to last day of January.

There are good things and bad things about every place.

There are also good and bad things about every stage of life.  Right now I’m old enough to have a back that gives me trouble.  I hate that.  But I sure do love being a grandfather.  My eyesight and my golf swing aren’t what they used to be.  But I sure do like my senior discount.

I’ve concluded that one of the most underrated marks of spiritual maturity is the ability to enjoy where you are and what you have in spite of the negatives you could be focusing on.  We often think that people who carry 10-pound Bibles and can quote lots of Scriptures and lead vibrant ministries are the most spiritual people.  And maybe they are.  But I wonder if God doesn’t smile more at the person who isn’t flashy but simply wears a smile and appreciates what God has given him.

The apostle Paul said, “I know how to be content with whatever I have.” (Philippians 4:11)  Those words are all the more impressive because they were written in prison where Paul didn’t have very much.

I think sometimes growing a little stronger every day could mean simply complaining a little less every day.

 

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Preaching: The Forgotten Priority

The coming of a new year always inspires a lot of articles and blog posts about cultural trends and how the church needs to respond to them.  You’ve probably seen them floating around on Facebook and Twitter.  I’ve read a few of them.  They all say pretty much the same thing.  Among other things, we need to invest in technology and quit judging people if we want to reach the lost.  Oh yes, and target young people because they have a greater sense of mission and, you guessed it, they better understand cultural trends.

Let me be quick to say that I agree with much of what I read in these articles.  It’s what I don’t read in them that bothers me.   Simply put, I read almost nothing about the power and importance of the preached gospel.

Paul said, “Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21)

Honestly, I don’t know how you can write a 10 or 12-point blog post about building an effective church without mentioning the importance of preaching.  Some of the articles I read go on and on about the importance of having an app for your church and instituting online payment methods for giving, but say nary a word about the importance of having a strong, doctrinally sound voice in the pulpit.

Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t too clever for our own good.

Here’s what I think:

The most important thing a church can have going for it is strong, biblical preaching.  It can do with or without an app, a Facebook page, a glitzy web site, streaming sermons, online giving, a fancy building, free wi-fi, or a clearly defined brand.  But it cannot fulfill God’s purpose without power in the pulpit.

Occasionally, I speak to young preachers.  I always say, “Never, ever, ever let your preaching become a secondary priority.  If something has to slide, don’t ever let it be your sermon.”

I think I would feel better about all the hotshot church experts and bloggers if they showed a little more respect for preaching.

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