Relevance and Fruitfulness

14 10 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.  Galatians 5:22-23

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.   2 Peter 1:5-8

spoiled bananasIt is an important question to ask ourselves as church leaders…is our church being effective?  I do not mean that in terms of numbers.  I think numbers of baptisms and numbers of people in worship and numbers of dollars in the budget are all important metrics for us…but nothing matters more than the question of whether lives are really being changed as a result of our efforts.  That, after all, is what we are supposed to be accomplishing as a church: changed lives.  And if we are NOT being effective, if we are rather unproductive and irrelevant, then what can be done about it?

As it turns out, for God’s people, making “relevance” all about music and worship styles and the latest trends in children’s ministry is a lot like making “quality” of a book all about its cover…it’s not that those things are not important, it is that they barely scratch the surface of quality, relevance and effectiveness.  That is probably why, when Holy Scripture addresses genuine effectiveness and productivity of our faith, it doesn’t talk much about forms of worship, musical styles, youth curriculums or cool murals on the walls of our preschool space.  Rather, scripture ties the effectiveness of the church to the growth and the bearing out (i.e., the preservation) of certain personal characteristics in God’s people.

It is an interesting study in their respective personalities, comparing how Paul and Peter each discuss this issue of “effectiveness” in ministry.  Paul chooses a metaphor about fruit.  He would say that true effectiveness in ministry is about the Spirit of God being set free to live through the lives of His people, producing qualities and characteristics in them which only He could produce.  That metaphor leans more toward getting self out of the way, and letting the Spirit work through you.  Paul, you see, was an intellectual, a thinker and a teacher of thinkers. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” he would say to the Roman church.  For Paul, it all starts with how we think about things.  Peter, on the other hand, was all about action and doing.  Both, the Peter of the gospels (“ready, fire, aim”) and the powerfully transformed Peter of Acts, were about doing.  Peter would have said, “You claim to follow Christ? Show me.”  His instructions about how to stay relevant and effective in ministry were about our actions.  He would say, “ADD these things to your belief…be good, be kind, exercise self-control, persevere through difficulties and, above all, love each other well.”

Their respective counsel goes together like nuts and bolts.  Paul encourages us to allow the Spirit of God within us to incline our hearts as only He will.  Peter then encourages us to act on those spiritual inclinations.  For example, the Spirit produces “kindness” as a fruit in us…He inclines our heart toward helping that homeless person on the sidewalk outside the church.  But we must then act on that inclination if we are to be effective as a church.  It will never be enough to just feel the inclination, or to just see the world around us as God sees it.  We must actually do something about it.  If not, we become useless, ineffective, irrelevant and fruitless.  We must have fruit AND we must do something to preserve that fruit.

Yes, it is about personal characteristics (“fruit”) which only the Spirit can produce in us, and yes, it is about actually doing something with those inclinations (acting to preserve that fruit).  It is about both.

Seems to me this would be a good thing to be teaching our people.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Careful with Open Doors and Straight Paths

26 11 2013

Tuesday Re-mix:

Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.  Acts 16:26

I’m intrigued by this story in Acts 16, not only because Paul and Silas did not leave through the open door of their jail cell, but also because they were apparently able to convince all of the other prisoners to stay as well.  Just a few chapters earlier, Peter left jail under similar circumstances (I know, I know, he had an angel directing him to leave and that is definitely a distinguishing feature!), and I cannot help but wonder if I might not have interpreted an earthquake and chains miraculously falling off me as a sign from God that I should leave!

I think there is a lesson here for the church.  Discerning God’s direction for a church is never quite as simple as walking through every door that seems to miraculously open…never merely a matter of seeing God in isolated circumstances.  That is true because, as it turns out, there is usually more than one possible interpretation of circumstances!  The danger in discerning God’s will in that case is that we all tend to see what we want to see.

What about the scenario where a wealthy church member walks in and agrees to write a check to cover some dream the pastor has always had?  Is that necessarily God speaking?  What if your church has prayed and asked God to pave the way for a relocation and someone leaves the church a large tract of land in their estate?  Is that God saying “move”?  If the pastor has always dreamed of starting a half-way house ministry in the house the church owns, and the city planning division suddenly and “miraculously” has a change of heart and agrees to re-zone the property for those purposes, is that God giving the “go-ahead” for that ministry?

Here are some of the phrases we use in these situations…”God seems to be making the way straight for us”…or “God is opening a door”…or “Clearly God is doing this.”  We see the chains fall off and the prison door swing wide open, which is exactly what we have been longing for (even praying for), and we are tempted to jump up and run, celebrating and praising God the whole way!

Do you see the danger?  Circumstances are open to being interpreted in lots of different ways and we are all capable of seeing what we want to see.  The truth is, we can do the same thing with scripture, or with our prayers, or even with interpreting what the pastor just preached or a Godly mentor just said to us.  But we can have much more certainty about what God is doing and saying when all of these things line up and point the same direction.  The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 illustrates that beautifully.  When circumstances, scripture, prayer and Godly counsel all point the same way, then we can feel much more confident that we have heard from God.

Otherwise, when all we seem to have is a wide open prison door…we should be very, very careful about what we think that means!

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




[GULP!] …I Might Have Been a Judaizer

19 11 2013

Tuesday Re-mix:

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us…The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written… Acts 15:6-8, 12-15

scales of justice

Did you ever notice that the process of spiritual discernment is often much more complicated than merely examining the evidence logically?  The more background I read about the Jerusalem Council and its crucial considerations in Acts 15, the more I worry I might have voted the wrong way, if I had been among them.

Circumcision, to the very first Hebrew Christians in Jerusalem, was a big deal…every bit as big a deal as baptism is to the Christian church today.  It was clearly not an act “stumbled upon” through some twist of tradition and men’s preferences…it was an act given to them by God Himself.  There was a plethora of Holy Scripture which required it [insert your favorite among a half dozen or so Old Testament stories showing God’s clear directives about circumcision here].  It was a non-negotiable to them, because it was  non-negotiable to God.  “Scripture says it…I believe it…and that settles it.”

So, when Gentiles began wanting into our little movement, it honestly does not seem that big a stretch to me for the Judaizers to point to those scriptures and insist on compliance.  And when Paul and Barnabas, who had obviously developed an affinity for these uncircumcised Gentiles (and by that I mean a bias on this issue) took issue with that stance, there was going to have to be some clear and convincing evidence (in my mind) that God intended for us to just abandon this otherwise scriptural requirement.  Out of this background, the Jerusalem council was convened…in order to discuss the matter and in order for us to examine the evidence.  So let’s do that.  Let’s examine the evidence, and I’ll give you this lawyer’s thoughts on it as it comes in…

Peter is first.  He reminds us all that God came to him in a dream and told him we need not be “kosher” any longer with our food choices.  Recall (Acts 11:18) that we never really had a problem with that testimony.  We do trust Peter.  But isn’t it a bit of a stretch to conclude from that dream that, along with the kosher food requirements, other requirements are now out the window as well?  And if that is true, who among us gets to choose which other requirements we no longer need to keep?  Peter goes on to make the case that God Himself seems to want the Gentiles “in”, and that Cornelius’ house proves that.  But it seems to this lawyer that Peter is missing the issue here…we are not questioning whether or not Gentiles get to come in.  Rather, we are simply saying they must still follow God’s laws.  This lawyer is not all that impressed with Peter’s testimony as it relates to circumcision, and I find myself wondering where it is really coming from.

Paul and Barnabas are next.  No big surprise what their position is, as they have built a large and growing church of Gentiles by letting them off the hook on this circumcision issue.  They have much to lose here and have a pretty clear bias.  So, what is their “evidence”?  They say, “Look at the numbers!” They say, “Isn’t this evidence that God is blessing us?”  “Everybody is joining us!”  It reminds this lawyer of the very tired argument of every teenager who says, “But everyone else is doing it!”  To be clear about my skepticism here…God has NEVER used popularity as a guide for us to follow.  As a matter of fact, Jesus Himself said that the world would hate us, not love us.  Are we to then hear this testimony about sheer numbers of Gentile converts as some type of evidence that God wants to do away with circumcision?  Really?  This lawyer admires Paul’s and Barnabas’ love for their people, but this lawyer wants to remind them that love is NOT giving people what they want…it is giving them what they need.

Lastly, Pastor James speaks, and he is opening scripture.  Finally!  We can now turn to what matters the most!  James shocks us with his selection.  He skips all references in all of scripture to circumcision.  All of them.  He selects an obscure two verses out of an obscure prophet (Amos) and reads words about God’s desire to have Gentiles bear His name.  And that is it.  Nothing about circumcision at all.  This lawyer finds himself asking, “Really, James?  That is it?”  Again, it seems to me that James (like everyone else) has missed the issue.  Nobody here is questioning whether or not Gentiles get to come in!  Nobody!  Aaauugghhhhh!!!!!

And that, my friends, is a summation of all the evidence presented.  How would you have voted?  I am pretty sure I know how I would have voted!

Except for one other thing…

There is also the unpredictable and inexplicable work of the Holy Spirit among those men (and among us today).  And who but the Holy Spirit could have caused those brilliant minds to look at THAT evidence and come to a consensus to do away with the requirement of circumcision for the Gentile believers?  That little factor has a way of changing everything, doesn’t it?  God’s plans have a way of confounding the best logic men can produce.  Our attempts at “weighing the evidence” mean nothing…NOTHING, apart from the Spirit and its influence on us.

So, what does that mean about your next church business meeting?  Your next “important” committee meeting?

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  John 15:5

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




A Timely Haunting

5 11 2013

Tuesday Re-mix:

Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.  Acts 11:20-21

In his book, Deep and Wide, Andy Stanley asks a question that has been haunting me for some time now: Who is church for?  Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?  Seems like we should be able to answer it without even flinching.  But it is killing me…haunting me.

It is killing me because I know the right answer: church is for the lost and broken world around us…it is God’s one and only plan for reaching, saving and healing that world.  Church, when all the programs and budgets and theological debates are done, is for that world.  That is painful for me to admit because, once I admit that, I know it means I must then look at everything I love and want and do in the church and ask myself whether it fits that purpose…whether it is designed to reach that world.  I think you know where that inquiry will lead.

But that question is killing me at an even deeper level yet.  It is causing me to examine my own heart and ask some troubling questions about my heart’s inclinations and leanings, especially where that lost and broken world is concerned.  With the Lord’s leadership, I have crafted an entire ministry around loving, encouraging and healing the church.  It is my passion.  So, it is easy for me to want church to be for church people…because they are my audience, my market, the purpose for my ministry.  I love pastors.  I love church leaders.  I love church people…and there is a huge part of me which wants church to be for them.

So, when I read Dr. Luke’s account of the early church and its struggles to answer this same haunting question, “Who is church for?”, I am looking for answers for myself.  I am looking for how they got over some of these same biases and prejudices that I feel in my own heart.  I am looking for their way forward through that challenge, and I am hoping it will somehow show me the way forward as well.  After all, THEY were much more prejudiced than I…they had some very real racial issues at play, some very real doctrinal issues at play…I don’t have any issues nearly that severe…do I?

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I read that Peter simply stood up and told them the story of what he had seen and heard at Cornelius’ house, how he had seen the activity of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and how it all seemed to him to line up nicely with what God had been saying to him through his prayer life…and they listened and then said [paraphrasing], “Oh.  O.K., then.  We get it.  We’re good with that.”

What was their magical, mystical, secret and amazing way through the challenge?  They prayerfully listened to pastor Peter’s testimony, and they agreed and they moved forward.  Period.  That was all it took for them.  Aaaauuuggghhhhh!!!!!

I’m depressed.  And haunted.  You?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




“Look at us!”

24 09 2013

Tuesday Re-mix –

Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!”  So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.  Acts 3:4-5

The short, two-block walk in downtown San Antonio from my parking garage to my office usually crosses paths with at least a dozen or so people who are either homeless or at least very “down on their luck”.  There was a time a few years ago when God brought me under conviction for my then-habit of crossing the street before I had to face them and their requests for money.  I am pleased to say I do not do that anymore.  I actually know several of the regulars by name now: Sal, Jorge, little Joseph, Becky, and one who just calls himself “Soldier”.  While I am pleased to know these few names, God is not finished with me yet.  The next lesson is about the eye contact…or lack thereof.  I know God is leaning on me to be a better friend to these often-troubled souls, and in order to do that, I really am going to have to be better about making eye contact with them!

That is the real issue, isn’t it?  We don’t want to see them, and we don’t want them to see us.  And it is not just the homeless…it is anyone whose needs just seem overwhelming to us.  We do not want them to see us as a possible source of help, because we do not believe we really have something that will help them.  If you walked into a hospital ward full of sick people and you were carrying the one vaccine which you knew would cure them, you would look them all right in the eyes and tell them to line up and get ready to be healed!  But when the needs seem to us to be more than we are capable of meeting, our eyes immediately turn away and we walk on, hoping they will not look at us.  We don our imaginary cloak of invisibility and pretend not to notice them.

You know what that means, don’t you?  It means our faith is small…too small!  It means we do not believe the God we serve is big enough to be of any value to them.  Moreover, even if I do have a strong faith in God, I would much rather just introduce them to God, leave them with Him and walk away, so I do not have to actually be a friend…that, after all, would be asking too much.

When I read Acts 3:1-10, I am struck by Peter’s boldly dispelling this notion of invisibility.  He not only makes himself visible, he refuses to be ignored!  “Look at us!” he says.  See us, and we will see you.  That, it seems to me, is the first act of love toward a person in pain…really seeing them and letting them really see you.

In terms of becoming a missional church, maybe that is a starting point for a lot of us.  Maybe when we each start making this decision in our own lives (to really see the hurting people around us and invite them to see us), the church at large will follow suit.  Then, we will do a better job of saying to the hurting people in our community, “look at us…and we will see you too.”  Maybe that is what love looks like.

I have so much to learn!

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




How Many Breaths Have You Taken So Far Today?

20 08 2013

Tuesday Re-mix –

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Colossians 3:12-14

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”  Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.  Matthew 18:21-22

hot-air-balloonThe average person breathes about 28,800 times a day.  Did you know that?  That’s a whole lot of hot air.  I wonder if that’s enough to fill a hot air balloon?  If the average adult breath is about 1 liter of air, and if the average hot air balloon is about 77,000 cubic meters of air…how many of us would it take breathing all day long to fill a hot air balloon? Somebody do the math on that and give us the answer in the comments!

For the Christ-follower, forgiving is a lot like breathing.  I think when Jesus corrected Peter in Matthew 18, saying we are to forgive seventy times seven, what He meant is that we’re not even keeping score like that.  We don’t count at all, because we will be doing it way too much to keep track!  For us, it is like breathing.  We breathe in and we breathe out…we forgive.  We breathe in and we breathe out…we forgive again.  That is the way it is supposed to be in the church.

Forgiveness may be the most misunderstood concept in Christendom.  That’s ironic, because forgiveness, it seems, is supposed to be the hallmark of the gospel and one of the identifiers which separates Christ-followers from the rest of the world.  Supposed to be.

We should be the world’s preeminent experts on forgiveness.  We should be the standard bearers.  The world should be looking to us to see and to better understand what forgiveness looks like in every circumstance.  We are God’s chosen illustrators of forgiveness…He has left us here in this world in order to demonstrate it.  Are you convicted yet?

Forgiving “seventy times seven”…forgiving “as the Lord forgave you”…is a tall order!  It means spending an awful lot of our time in forgiveness mode.  It means we probably should be spending more time forgiving than just about anything else.  If I am reading scripture correctly, it is a big deal.

So how about it?  How many breaths have you taken so far today?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy:
 © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Two Quick Lessons for Your Church…from Our Older Brother

19 02 2013

Tuesday Re-mix –

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.  Matthew 16:16-17

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”  Matthew 16:22-23

A little help from older brother

A little help from older brother

I was the baby in my family.  That means I got to learn from my older sibling’s mistakes (sorry, Sis)…not that there were THAT MANY mistakes there to learn from…but there were a few.  And I did learn from them.  That, it seems to me, is a huge benefit of being the younger brother.

I think of Peter that way…an older brother from whom we can learn.  For me, Peter’s spiritual pilgrimage has always served as a great illustration of the human frailty of the church.  Just like a local body of believers, there are times when Peter got it so very right, and there are times when he got it so very wrong.  Looking at his pilgrimage in Matthew 16 raises for me a couple of important lessons for the church.

1.  Celebrate when we get it right, but don’t get too cocky…we may just get it wrong tomorrow.  My church happens to be one of the really healthy churches in our community right now.  I like that.  It makes me feel good.  Even though people coming from other, less healthy, churches do not constitute “kingdom growth”, I am not going to lie and act like it doesn’t make me feel good.  My church is getting some things right in this particular season, and that makes me feel…well, maybe a little superior.  In a slightly sinful kind of way.  That sin is foolishness on my part.  Because there are cycles of health and dysfunction and health and dysfunction for churches, just like there are for individuals.

For Peter, Jesus’ praise of his childlike faith in Matthew 16:17 was short-lived.  With almost neck-breaking speed, Peter followed it quickly with a huge fail (Matthew 16:22).  Such is the Christian walk.  And such is the cycle for churches as well.  Once I get past the preliminary feelings of superiority for all those people coming from other churches to mine during this season, I humble myself by remembering that my own church has been the one everyone was leaving before…and may well become that church again one day.  That is an important understanding for us all.

2.  As important as the doctrine of Salvation is to us, the doctrine of Lordship better also be in our curriculum.

Peter’s humiliation in this passage stemmed from the fact that his paradigm for “the kingdom of God” did not square with God’s truth, and when confronted with that problem, he had a hard time letting go of his paradigm.  I think that issue is reflected in the American church as well.  We believe in God, we believe in Christ, we believe in the Holy Spirit, we believe in a whole host of things (“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”), but we also have our own ideas about how that should play out in our lives, and we have a hard time giving up on those ideas.  Our intellectual constructs of God become our idols, the things we truly worship.  Our hearts become hard with arrogance, rather than soft to His Word and to His will.

Our communities call us hypocrites…because we are.  We say we believe in God’s Word, but then we twist it and strain it and ignore it and slant it to meet our desires.  We interpret scripture based upon our life experiences…rather than interpreting our life experiences up against the plumb line of God’s Word.  In short, we often do not really allow God’s Word to reflect honestly back to us and to shape and mold our hearts.  Wasn’t that Peter’s problem?  Peter, it seems, BELIEVED IN Christ…he just didn’t necessarily BELIEVE Christ.  Sadly, that version of Peter would fit in just fine in our culture.

We must teach salvation, for sure.  But then we must teach Lordship, i.e., actually following Christ, and we must teach it well.  We must hold the Word of God in the highest of regards and teach our people to love it and respect it and BELIEVE IT.  If we are bringing our people into a relationship with Christ but then leaving them there as infants, we are missing what “church” is supposed to be about!  The great commission is not about going and making converts…it is about going and making disciples.  Discipleship matters.

So as I reflect on this passage, I see some important points here for the church.  And we get the benefit of our older brother, Peter’s mistakes.  For that, we say, “Thank you, brother.”

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com