Thursday, July 29, 2010

Five Lessons I Learned at Church Last Sunday

The guy coming in halfway through my sermon wasn’t interested in looking for a place to sit.

I notice lots of things while I’m preaching: the sleepers, the doodlers, and the people that leave early. These things can be discouraging but rarely are they distracting. Maybe almost a decade of speaking in front of continuously texting teenagers has prepared me to look boldly in the face of distraction and snicker. I should have been in The Men Who Stare at Goats.

But what happened last Sunday really distracted me. When this particular guest came in, I assumed he would quietly pull up a pew on the back row. By the time he was halfway down our center aisle I ruled that one out. Maybe he’s related to one of the ladies on the front row and is coming down to surprise grandma and enjoy the last few minutes of church. I ruled that one out when he found his way up the steps and onto our platform where he gently took hold of my left arm to whisper in my ear.

Maybe it’s because I was preaching at the time but I was in full theological mode when he came up on the stage. No thoughts of the UFC. That came about a day later. I was expecting this to be somebody that stayed up all night with Jesus watching Benny Hinn and just had to show up to tell us all what he learned. I immediately thought of the order of our worship service and was prepared to rebuke him back to Paul and Jan land. Instead, another rebuke was in order.

“I want to talk to one of the women in your church.”

Sometimes people say things to you that require much prayer, soul-searching and wisdom-seeking. This wasn’t one of those times. I told this obviously distraught stranger that there was no way he could do that and to sit down somewhere so I could talk to him at the end of the service. Thankfully, he cooperated. I then continued to finish out a sermon to a bunch of people who had no idea what I was saying because they were too busy worrying about what the guy on the front row had up his sleeve, or in his pocket, taped to is chest or strapped around his ankle. Who can blame them?

Churches need the leadership of many godly men.

Providentially, I was preaching on Peter’s command to the elders in 1 Peter 5 when our friend paid us a visit. My point was that the biblical way for churches to be run is not by committees or power hungry, wanna-be CEO pastors. Instead, the pastor should work with other men to lead and direct the church. When I finished preaching, closed things out and went down to meet this man, I got to see several men who, as usual, stepped up in that leadership role. I think there were men around the entire room, ready to step in when needed. It reminded me of those wrestling matches on TV when I was a kid where a bunch of wrestlers stood around the outside of the ring with leather straps to keep one or both of the actual wrestlers from running away. The only differences this time were that the men in my church were wearing the leather straps instead of holding them and they were not wearing tights. At least not that I could tell.

So all of these men were on guard in case something went down. But they were also there for something else. When I finished talking and praying with the stranger, several of these men embraced him, cried with him or counseled him. There were men who were just there to serve, men who were there to instruct and counsel and men who did both. More than ever, I saw my sermon text played out immediately after I was done preaching it.

The after is much worse than the during.

It’s a lot like when you’re first learning how to drive and one day you're acting like an idiot behind the wheel and almost drive under a gas tanker. You don’t think much of it right at the moment but about 45 seconds after the fact your heart is somewhere up in your esophagus and beating six times faster than it should be.

It was the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit that pulled me through this weird incident and allowed me to finish the task at hand without developing a chain-smoking habit. Sure, we could point to adrenalin and I think that’s a very real help in those types of situations and even in mine but even adrenalin falls under the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

It was also the grace of God that allowed me to have the kind of fear that I felt two hours after all of this. That’s when people started calling and visiting to check on me and publicly thanking God for His protection. That’s when I really realized, “Hey, this has happened a lot of times in churches and not ended so well.” It was God’s grace that not only protected all of us but opened our eyes to things we need to do better. And that brings us to number four.

Churches must take security seriously.

I feel like such a wimp for saying that. I imagine Jim Elliot, Nate Saint and every other Christian martyr looking down on me with a frown. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case but it still doesn’t stop me from thinking about it.

The reality is that the world is getting more and more crazy and churches are some of the most vulnerable places in our society. That’s why Towaliga Baptist Church will be relocating to a beautiful, used, slightly damaged compound in Waco, Texas.

Okay, maybe not.

Instead, I do feel that all churches must be strategic and equipped when it comes to security. Most churches in the south are equipped. You’d be hard pressed to find a man in church that’s not carrying a gun, knife, throwing star, bow staff or tack hammer. But all of that is worthless if there’s no strategy. All the weapons in the world will only be reactionary if there is not a strategic plan for security. I never thought I’d be thinking about this kind of thing but I am and if you are in a leadership position at your church I hope you are too.

Never underestimate the power of a hurting heart.

I live and minister in a part of the United States that puts way too much emphasis on walking the aisle. I truly think that many here believe in salvation by grace through aisle walking. This trend makes evangelism very difficult because so many people think they are okay with God because they walked down an aisle. Others feel they can’t get anywhere in a relationship with God because they are too scared to walk down an aisle at the end of a service to say a prayer. In the south, aisle walking is both highly reverenced and highly feared.

I share that bit of context to highlight what kind of grief this man was enduring. Not only was he not ashamed to walk down an aisle, he was willing to do it in a room full of strangers during the middle of a sermon. Again, this aisle walking did nothing for him but I think that it does show just how broken this man’s heart was. When I was in seminary, a professor told me that there is a broken heart on every pew. He forgot to tell me that some of those broken hearts bypass the pews all together and come straight up on stage with you.

That’s what I learned at church last week and I’m really looking forward to this week.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

John Mark McMillan | Death In His Grave

Here's the chorus.

"On Friday a Thief
On Sunday a King
Laid down in grief
But awoke with keys
Of Hell on that day
The first born of the slain
The man Jesus Christ
Laid death in His grave."