Presence more than Program

Still thinking about worship this week, and I came across this gem from A.W. Tozer that I thought I would pass along.

The fast-paced, highly spiced, entertaining service of today may be a beautiful example of masterful programing – but it is not a Christian service. The two are leagues apart in almost every essential. About the only thing they have in common is the presence of a number of persons in one room. There the similarity ends and the glaring dissimilarities begin.

Whether it be a communion service, morning worship, evangelistic meeting, prayer meeting, or any other kind of true Christian gathering the center of attention will always be Christ. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mat. 18:20)… Never do the disciples use gimmicks to attract crowds. They count on the power of the Spirit to see them through all the way. They gear their activities to Christ and are content to win or lose along with Him. The notion that they should set up a “programed” affair and use Jesus as a kind of sponsor never so much as entered their heads. To them Christ was everything. To them He was the object around which all revolved; He was, as He still is, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end… Christ was everything in the minds of those first believers and that mighty fact dictated not only their conduct but their inner attitudes as well. Their mood, their demeanor, their expectations sprang out of their childlike conviction that Jesus was in the midst of them as Lord of creation, Head of the Church and High Priest of their profession.

The point we make here is that in our times the program has been substituted for the Presence. The program rather than the Lord of glory is the center of attraction. So the most popular gospel church in any city is likely to be the one that offers the most interesting program; that is, the church that can present the most and best features for the enjoyment of the public. These features are programed so as to keep everything moving and everybody expectant.

We’ll do our churches a lot of good if we each one seek to cultivate the blessed Presence in our services. If we make Christ the supreme and constant object of devotion the program will take its place as a gentle aid to order in the public worship of God. If we fail to do this the program will finally obscure the Light entirely. And no church can afford that.

Tozer, A.W. The Root of the Righteous (Harrisburg, PA; Christian Pub, Inc., 1995) Pg. 92-96.
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Am I ready for worship?

It’s Friday, and my eyes are turned toward this Sunday’s worship service.  I am putting the final touches on my sermon (which will be revised again on Saturday night, and probably re-revised on Sunday morning).  I’ve given thought and prayer to the service, planning which scriptures to read, the themes of certain prayers for the service, and writing out my invitation to the Lord’s Supper.  I’ve got the details ready for worship, but I am still left with the question, “Am I ready for worship?”


I’ll be perfectly honest: There have been Sundays when, even as the Pastor and worship leader, my heart is not ready for worship. I might have every word written, every movement planned, I might even know it all from memory, yet worship seems cold, powerless, unmoving.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that worship must involve some emotionally overwhelming ecstatic experience every Sunday morning. Quite the contrary. I believe God uses ordinary means, ordinary things, to transform us by his grace: sound biblical teaching, heartfelt prayer, honest worship. And, amazingly, even on those days when I feel distant, God still works through this “earthen vessel” to reveal His glory.

Still, what can I do to prepare my heart for worship so that my experience on a Sunday morning can genuinely be an honest encounter with the living and true God?  Here are a few thoughts I’ve put together, perhaps they will help you as much as they have helped me.

Worship Every Day

I’ve started running in earnest again, and for a while I’ve only been running a couple of days a week.  I had an ache in the knee I was trying to nurse, but really the pain had gone away a long time ago.  I was barely running, and never could find my rhythm.

Then I started running every day. It was immediately easier to get up and get going in the morning. I felt I was running better by the end of the first week, and my long slow run on Saturday morning improved.

Lesson learned: the weekend warrior routine doesn’t cut it.

Not in running.

Not in worship.

If you want to really be ready for worship on Sunday morning, then bring your heart to worship the Lord on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, and so on. The regular practice of communing with God through the study of His word, through prayer, and even in song in private greatly advances the hearts readiness for the corporate act of worship when you come together as the Church.

The next time you find yourself saying, “My heart really wasn’t in worship this morning,” ask yourself, “Where has my heart been all week?”  Have you been in regular worship before the face of God, or are you just stopping by once a week?

Prepare for Sunday morning on Saturday night

The worst thing about Sunday morning worship is Saturday night.  Saturday’s, for most, are fun days. We chase our kids to their sports, we go on dates, we have movie night. The problem is, we have so much fun, its really hard to get up and get going on Sunday morning.  We get so caught up on our Saturday fun that the importance of Sunday is lost, and worship becomes an afterthought to our work and play.

Boy, our priorities are upside down. Charles Swindoll once wrote, “We are often so caught up in our activities that we tend to worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.”

What would it look like if you made the conscious decision to call it quits early on a Saturday.  Get the kids to bed at a decent time – maybe even read to them the Scripture that will be preached in worship the next day. Spend some time in the evening by yourself, studying scripture and praying that your heart would be ready for corporate worship the next day. Turn off SNL, get a good night’s sleep, and get up in the morning ready and willing for worship.

Just maybe that will keep you from nodding off like this poor fella…

Come ready to Give

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you walk out of worship saying you didn’t get anything out of the service, you walked in to worship for the wrong reason. The purpose of Christian worship is to give glory to God, to honor and magnify the name of Jesus, to praise the Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Worship is our service to God.

This flies in the face of what most people think of today.  We describe worship as “seeker sensitive,” so that it would seem that the congregation (or audience) is the object of the worship.  Indeed, I hope that all feel welcomed in worship, that those who are seeking the truth will hear and know of Christ, and that all who worship God in Spirit and in Truth come away from that experience having been blessed by the presence of God. I pray that my preaching and teaching in worship edifies the congregation, rebuking and correcting sin, and encouraging and equipping maturity in Christ. All that being said, my greatest desire is that our worship – my preaching, our singing and praying –  brings glory and honor to God alone.

When we gather in the house of God for worship, our primary goal is to glorify His holy name.  We give to God, not just at the offering, but we give our service of worship, our submission to His Word, our renewed commitment to the work of the Gospel.  Come to worship with generous hearts, ready to give more than you receive, and you fill find that your cup overflows.

Practice Genuine Christian Fellowship

The fellowship of other Christians is one of the greatest gifts of grace we could ever know. But what do we do with fellowship?  We serve coffee and donuts in the fellowship hall, shake hands and say “‘morning,” and then we go our separate ways. How is this fellowship any different than that which takes place at the coffee klatch on Monday morning?

Genuine Christian fellowship gives and receives grace. As you worship, you hear the words of pardon and grace, and are invited to be at peace with God.  The fellowship that flows from our worship extends that same grace to one another: forgive one another as God has forgiven you in Jesus Christ (Eph 4:32).

Our reluctance (or refusal) to extend to one another the forgiveness we have found in Christ will quench the spirit of worship.  What if our fellowship, in addition to the coffee and donuts, had a greater emphasis on the reconciliation and grace of the Gospel? What if you walked out of worship and fellowship having finally put to rest the animosity and division that had come up between you and a brother or sister in Christ?  Would you not think then that you had really worshipped before the face of God?

I’m sure I could go on – and I’m not certain these were all on point – but I hope and pray that this will help you to prepare you heart for worship. And remember, even if your hearts not in it, go to worship. I’ve found that when my heart isn’t really “in” something, simply showing up with the rest of my body gets my heart there eventually.

May you be blessed by the regular and heartfelt worship of the Lord!


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Facing the Reality of Evil

“Then the dragon became furious with the woman
and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring,
on those who keep the commandments of God
and hold to the testimony of Jesus”
(Revelation 12:17)

October 1, 2015 brought us another school shooting; this time, at a community college in Oregon.  The shooter in this horrific tragedy reportedly asked his victims if they were Christian, and shot those who answered “Yes.” In all, 9 were killed, and 9 others wounded.

Setting aside all the political debate that has arisen from this, what we can say for certain is this: we are witnessing evil in this world, and our hearts are crying out for an answer. Politicians will debate this to try to find the best policy (either to fix the problem or get them re-elected); that’s what politicians do.  As I wrote in my previous post, it is the role of the pastor to stand in the middle of such senselessness and point to the end of the story, and the One who has written it.

I’m currently in the middle of reading a rather long commentary on Revelation. I realize that doesn’t sound like the most exciting reading. In the light of recent events, however, Revelation and the commentary speak powerfully to our lives today.  Consider this:

The victory won through Christ’s blood must be the basis, not only for the saints’ earthly victory, but also for Michael’s triumph in heaven. V 11 summarizes the purpose of the whole chapter and especially of vv 7-12. The single intent… is to assure those who meet satanic evil on earth that it is really a defeated power, however contrary it might seem to human experience. Christians can be assured that the serpent begins to battle against their bodies only after he has lost the battle over their souls. This expresses one of the major themes of the book: the suffering of Christians is a sign, not of Satan’s victory, but of the saints’ victory over Satan because of their belief in the triumph of the cross, with which their suffering identifies them.

If the devil’s accusations had been effective with God, then all of God’s people would have been cast from his presence and would have begun to experience the anguish of the final judgment, which would be consummated at the Last Day. Instead, the devil was cast out from heaven, because his charges had become groundless. The saints’ status in heaven has been legitimized finally by Christ’s suffering on the cross. All believers, past, present, and future, have overcome the devil because of the blood of the Lamb.

How have they overcome the devil? Through Christ’s death they have been declared not guilty of the accusations launched against them. Therefore they are exempt from the ultimate punishment. Satan’s accusations are unable to unleash the infliction of the “second death.”

Beale, G.K., The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Book of Revelation. (Eerdmans Pub Co, Grand Rapids MI, 1999) Pg663-4.

What you’ll hear from the politician is this shooting is evidence that we need better gun-control, better health-care, better control of such “toxic-masculinity” (whatever that is).  What we need, they’ll tell you, is for the government to fix this; we need a stronger, more powerful, state.

The reality is, Satan has been cast down, and he is raging against the church until he is finally conquered by Christ (Revelation 12). As the old hymn goes:

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure…

This is the reality of the evil we face today, but is also the reality of our conquering King Jesus the Christ.  This evil will continue to rage against His rule until the very end, and our only hope in the face of such evil is found in Christ our King, the one who died and is alive forevermore.  You won’t hear that from your politicians.

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Ministry in the Middle

It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything for the blog (three, to be precise). It was not my intention to stop writing, I just got a little preoccupied and never felt particularly inspired to write. I’m sorry for those who were looking forward to the posts, and I hope I haven’t driven you away through my absence.

One of the reasons I was feeling uninspired was that I wasn’t reading as much as usual during the summer. Usually I’ve got about four or five books that I’m reading at once. I don’t say that to boast. It’s just that in the process of sermon prep, study groups, and personal development, there’s always a handful of books that need read at once.

As I was saying, I slowed in my reading over the summer. We were trying to get settled in a new home, church, and community – and there were some shows on Netflix that I just had to watch. Thus, the reading suffered, and the inspiration to write suffered, too.

Well… good news! I’m back into the full swing of reading again, and – bing! – feel like I’ve got something to say.

(How’s that for clearing the throat?)

I had the opportunity to take my older children to the Life Light Concert this year – a free, open air, three day concert with some of the leading Contemporary Christian Artists. Sunday night’s headliner was Matthew West, whose music I’ve enjoyed for quite some time.  Wests’ concert was great, his music inspiring, and the message was uplifting.

What got stuck under my skin, however, was the artist who came on before West. I’ll not share his name here, I don’t want this to become a personality thing, but in between his songs, this guy liked to “preach.” Now, I’ve got no problem with an artist sharing his testimony. I’d never discourage someone from sharing how the grace of God in Jesus Christ has saved them and transformed them.

What frustrated me was that in his “preaching” he would harshly criticize the church. He had been talking to Christians from all over the world – Christians who told of the blind gaining sight and the lame walking. “What are we doing wrong, Church?” he would ask. “How many people have you healed?” And having shamed the Church for its complacency, he would then start another song, and suggest we buy his album.

To top it all off, he called this concert “worship.” Now I get that worship can come in varying styles and formats – but I believe it should have some essential qualities: Prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, the reading and teaching of Scripture, and a call to discipleship and commitment.  Simply singing (to use the broadest sense of that word for this particular artist) and rambling about the state of the church is not worship.

The crowd might have been worshiping.  Tens of thousands of people screaming and cheering for the artists – that might actually be worship.  False worship, but worship, none-the-less.

Neither should the concert tour be considered ministry.  When you step off the stage and onto the tour bus, never interacting with those to whom you preached – such is not ministry.  It is “strafe-bombing” an unwitting audience with faulty exegesis and half-truths.  Jesus pronounced woe upon the Pharisees and teachers for such things, “For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).

I just started reading through Reversed Thunder, Eugene Peterson’s meditation on the book of Revelation.  In it, Peterson describes John as a prophet, a poet, and a pastor, and in reading of his vision in Revelation, we should listen as we would to a prophet, a poet, and a pastor.

Strikingly, Peterson describes the role of the pastor saying, “The pastor is the person who specializes in accompanying persons of faith “in the middle,” facing the ugly details, the meaningless routines, the mocking wickedness, and all the time doggedly insisting that this unaccountably unlovely middle is connected to a splendid beginning and glorious end” (Peterson, pg 8).

A pastor is one who reads the Bible, mindful of the glory of God, the goodness of the gospel, and the pressing needs of his congregation. He celebrates the births and the weddings and the graduations. He weeps with the widow, the grieving father, the soul lost in sin.  He knows the fragrance of joy, the stench of despair. The pastor stands in the middle, pointing not to himself, but to the only One who can make anything good come from all the “stuff” we face. He comes with the message of the “Alpha and the Omega, the One who is, who was, and who is to come” (Rev 1:8).

Pastoral ministry is messy. It is often the ministry of interruptions. It is painful, and it is wearying. And the crowds are smaller, quieter, and the lighting isn’t as good.  But Pastoral ministry, ministry in the middle of God’s people, is glorious. There’s no place I’d rather be!

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Every Careless Word

“I tell you, on the day of judgment
people will give account for every careless word they speak…”

(Matthew 12:36)

As I wrote last week on the Delight of Duty and the Celebration of Discipline, I failed to point out one of the hazards of the discipline of daily attending to the Word of God.  As a pastor and a friend I should warn you: If you are reading scripture properly (that is, prayerfully and thoughtfully) you will find that it has less to do with God’s judgment of all the other people around you and more to do with the wickedness of your own heart and your desperate need for Christ Jesus as your savior. All who are in Christ are in the midst of their own sanctification. None of us has arrived, none has attained the perfection to which we strive (Phil 3:12-16), and so when we come before the Lord, we will be taught, reproved, corrected, and trained in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).

I came under the rebuke of the word this week in my reading through the Gospel of Matthew.  I’m pretty familiar with Matthew’s gospel; I spent two and a half years preaching through the gospel. I’ve read it at least two times each year for the past four years using M’Cheyne’s reading program. I have sections of the gospel memorized.

Still, as I read through chapter 12 again this week, I heard these words anew, as if for the first time: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-36).

Here’s where my mind went –

  • How often have my words been thoughtless and careless? My mouth seems to run a twice the speed of my mind, and things come out that I immediately wish I could take back; a promise I cannot keep, a harsh word of criticism, a slanderous word spoken behind the back, the quiet words I mutter under my breath thinking no one will hear.  These words reveal the uprightness of my heart (or the lack thereof). They are heard and known by God.
  • How many of my sermons, how much of this blog, would be covered by the phrase “careless words”?
  • Are my words “full of care”; care for the glory of God, care for the lost around me?
  • How reluctant and slow are the words of praise and glory before the Lord? I am quick to talk about the movie I just saw, or of my hopes for my college team in the coming season, but I stammer and struggle to find the words to express my adoration and praise of my God and of my Savior Jesus Christ.
  • If my words are careless, what of the activities of my mind, the way I spend my time? How much time have I wasted watching TV, or playing CandyCrush, time that would have been better spent in prayer, in the study of God’s Word, or in simply talking with my wife and children and leading them in worship?

If the words of my lips flow from the abundance of my heart (Matthew 12:33), then I can say with the Prophet Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst a people of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5). Yes, even as a pastor I come under the judgment of this text, and even a greater judgment, as James 3:1-2 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”

James goes on to say, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).  Is there another passage of scripture that has more empirical evidence in the world today? We are all leveled and laid waste by the judgment of our careless words.

But we also have the promise of grace in Jesus Christ our Savior. In Isaiah’s vision, the seraphim comes with the burning coal from the altar and touches his lips, applying the cleansing mercy of God’s grace, and equipping Isaiah for the ministry of the Word. In the same way, when we are united to Christ, we are given a new heart (Ezek 36:26), we are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), and from the heart of Christ in us springs the rivers of living water (John 7:38). By faith, through the leading of God’s Spirit and the instruction of His Word, I pray that each day there will be fewer careless words, and more words that are full of care, full of praise; words that build up others and bring glory to my Savior.

So then, here are some things that I will be working on, resolutions for the tongue, if you will (and these are things I have given carful thought to before sharing):

  1. I will speak to no one until I have first spoken to the Lord in prayer, and have attended to His word in scripture.
  2. I will not let a day end without having come before the Lord to give an account for the day in prayer.
  3. I will think of each conversation, every word written, as being spoken or written in the presence of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, asking “Would I say this before my Lord?”
  4. I will strive for my words to be praiseworthy and encouraging, full of care for the glory of God, the building up of the body of Christ, and the reaching of the lost with the Good News of Salvation in Jesus Christ.

The chorus of the Hawk Nelson song “Words” comes to mind:

Let my words be life
Let my words be truth
I don’t wanna say a word
Unless it points the world back to You

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all!


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The Delight of Discipline

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you…”
James 4:8

For the past couple of weeks now I have been struggling to write for this blog. I’ve got a couple of good articles started (and a whole lot of bad ones too), but I never felt particularly inspired nor satisfied with what I had written. Being in a new church, a new denomination, a new community; there is so much to learn and take in that I just haven’t yet found the rhythm of writing.

I suppose that’s where the discipline has to kick in. When I don’t feel like writing, I need to write. Even if it’s just a paragraph, even if it never sees the light of day, the practiced discipline of daily writing – formulating a coherent thought and communicating it in an understandable way – will eventually bring me to the point where writing feels more natural and comes a lot easier.

The same goes for my running – which hasn’t been happening either. When I don’t feel like running, I need to run. The routine of going to bed on time so that I can get up early for a run, lacing up the shoes and hitting the road – even on those days I really don’t want to do it – builds a love for the run and a desire to keep going.

This is the beauty of Discipline. The practiced, purposeful, and dedicated commitment to a task, even when the heart isn’t there yet, will ultimately lead to heartfelt participation.

The same is true of the Spiritual Disciplines.  When I don’t feel like praying, I need to pray.  When my heart is not inclined to worship and praise before the Lord, I need to come before Him in worship and praise. When I’m tired of reading Scripture, when I think there’s nothing more to be gained, I need to take up and read.

We often disparage discipline because we think it takes the heart out of the experience: You’re only reading Scripture and praying because its on your schedule. That may be the case, but daily reading of God’s Word will develop a love for God’s Word and a desire to spend more time in it. Regular times of prayer and devotion before the Lord, even using a book of written prayers and traditional hymns, will lead to spontaneous moments of heartfelt praise.

Consider Charles Spurgeon’s message on “Pray without Ceasing”:

If for awhile the heavens are as brass and your prayer only echoes in thunder above your head, pray on; if month after month your prayer appears to have miscarried, and no reply has been vouchsafed to you, yet still continue to draw nigh unto the Lord. Do not abandon the mercy-seat for any reason whatever. If it be a good thing that you have been asking for, and you are sure it is according to the divine will, if the vision tarry wait for it, pray, weep, entreat, wrestle, agonise till you get that which you are praying for. If your heart be cold in prayer, do not restrain prayer until your heart warms, but pray your soul unto heat by the help of the everblessed Spirit who helpeth our infirmities. If the iron be hot then hammer it, and if it be cold hammer it till you heat it.

My heart may not be in it – the writing, the running, the reading, the praying. My heart and my mind may be wrestling and divided, but I will continue to pray, worship, and attend to God’s Word until I can do so with One heart and One mind.

Why? Because these things: worship, meditation on God’s word, and prayer are some of the ordinary means of grace.  They are the instruments that God uses to work His grace within us, to transform and conform us in the likeness of Christ.  The more we come to these means, the more we rest in His grace, the more we live and love in grace.

As I daily return to the ordinary means of grace, as I encounter Him where He has promised to meet me, it seems less like discipline, less like duty, and more and more like delight.

And so keep reading, even if the words seem to bounce around inside your head and never take root.  Keep praying, even though it feels like the words don’t leave the room. Keep praising, even through the tears. He is near, His grace is at hand, and He is sufficient.

May the grace of faithful discipline bring joy and peace to your heart!


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The Holiness of God

i love that one of the Adult classes at Church is going through Dr. Sproul’s study, “The Holiness of God.”

I highly recommend the study guide that accompanies the video series. It’s free to download here.

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