Five Contextual Agreements for 2018

Beginning the year is always an interesting time in the blogging world. Christian leaders make their predictions on the church, changes, and challenges for the coming year. Three of the best lists I have seen thus far are Carey Nieuwhof’s, Thom Ranier’s and Chuck Lawless’s. Rather than create my own, I have decided to list five which directly connect to my context and what I am wrestling with as a church planter. Here they go in no particular order:

One: Carey’s number one disruptive trend is “A move beyond church in the box.” Chuck Lawless predicts, “Life-on-life, genuine community will ground people in a church.”

I combine these two together because I believe they go hand in hand. Especially in the Portland area, people crave authenticity and accessibility. As Nieuwhof articulates, gone are days when “you sat down Thursday night at 8 to watch your favorite show, because you didn’t want to miss it.” Yet, churches still function on a set time and schedule which is not on-demand. I will address this later, but the on-demand culture does not mean the physical space will cease to exist; instead, the culture enhances it.

“Bottom line? Churches who only think Sunday and who only think building will continue to shrink. In 2018, if coming to Christ means coming to your church in a set location and a set hour, you need a new strategy” says Carey.

How will people engage with the local church? A life-on-life genuine community will attract and connect people to a local church. These life-on-life relationships are on demand and can be engaged with a quick text, Facetime, Facebook message, etc. Conversation can happen in an instant, followed by a genuine embodiment of the characteristics of Christ. Hence, spiritual formation and discipleship will become essential for the local church to thrive moving forward.

In fact, one of my current projects is a series of conversation points followed by basic resources for anyone to employ in an on-the-go world.

Two: The Team is Eclipsing the Solo Leader. I am a church planter and my greatest desire is to have 1-2 other spiritually mature couples to move to Vancouver and co-lead with me and my wife. While The Village Church is not the first to function with three lead pastors, they are the church which has the most viable track record and visible presence. These other lead pastors would help oversee and champion mobilization and spiritual formation. These pastors would help expand the good already in the community. These other pastors would help free me up for what I do well, and I, in turn, will enable them to lead out of their strengths. “The leader who can do everything well is being eclipsed by the team that can do everything well.” To reach, teach, equip and send a diverse group of people will require a diverse and well-rounded team.

Three: Thom Ranier notes, “The e-book has not proved to be nearly as popular as we thought it would be. Many blog writers are reporting declines in readership. But audio books are rising in popularity. Listeners are moving to podcasts so they can learn while they jog, drive, and exercise. Outside of preaching podcasts, churches have many other opportunities to reach and disciple people through audio ministries.” The Village Church does this through their ‘Knowing Faith’ podcast which takes complex theological issues and makes them accessible in order to equip the everyday Christian.

In Vancouver, people are increasingly working odd hours and 50 hour-plus weeks via two jobs. Therefore, having a small group on Tuesday evenings is ceasing to be an option (think point #1). Spiritual formation will occur as they walk to work, ride their bike, or on the MAX (public transit). As Lawless notes, while this will increase, the subsequent results will be less evangelism. The life-on-life portion of discipleship is so crucial, evangelism must be modeled so that discipleship leads to evangelism. I have stated before how both are the wings of a disciple-making airplane.
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Four: One of the options to maintain a viable presence in the community is a trend which Ranier highlights: “Churches moving into retail spaces.” Anecdotally I have seen greater success for church plants who have rented a storefront. The brick and mortar can be used throughout the week, can be multi-purpose, and don’t require extensive set-up for services on Sunday. In addition, the presence enables a return to the parish model (see point five). Where we are specifically looking to plant, there is an abundance of affordable retail space. I envision a ministry center which can double as a worship space. I envision a place that is filled with worship and ministry seven days a week. A place of resource for the needy. A place of growth for the spiritually hungry. A place which champions and models unity. A place of worship for the gathered church. A place of sending for the scattering during the week. A hub for life and ministry in the community, in the neighborhood, and in the home.

Five: “The rise of the neighborhood church.” The parish model is on a comeback. Because people like their craft or customized “fill-in-the-blank” (i.e coffee, beer) they will increasingly expect this in their church. Further, pastors will be forced to lead wellness for their whole community. They are not just the pastor of the people who attend the church on a Sunday service. They are also the pastor of a select community. A church will gain credibility in our skeptical world when it seeks the good of the whole community. This can only be done when they understand the narrative of the neighborhood and highlight how the story of God brings wellness. It will be increasingly difficult for pastors to know the narrative of multiple neighborhoods. Therefore, multiplication of churches will happen when a group of people lives in another neighborhood. In order for this to be effective, team leadership must be modeled and championed.

These five create a perfect storm for a revival of old models and methods blended with the technological advancement of the twenty-first century. Regardless of theory and prediction, would you join me in praying for the advancement of God’s kingdom during 2018?

New Year. Same God.

“Sing a new song to the Lord for he has performed wonders; his right hand and holy arm have won him victory. The Lord has made his victory known; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.” – Psalm 98:1-3

It is day one of the New Year. As many look forward to the newness of the new year with anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and even determination, I find myself resting in the won victory of Christ. For me, that’s more than a cliche Christian response; it is a necessity. I (we, my family and I) need it to survive just like we need oxygen. We will live in Vancouver, WA for a full year in 2018. This is far away from immediate family, yet God is creating a new family around us. We will attempt to discern where God wants us to specifically plant. We will attempt to gather a core group of people who may want to be a part of a new church. We will begin to more clearly articulate the vision for the church God desires us to see planted. In all these, while I may not have every ‘i’ dotted or every ‘t’ crossed, I am confident in God’s track record of revelation.

I could not have confidence in any of the future plans if it was not for the assurance that Jesus wins. We know the ending to the story. God is sovereign. Therefore, His righteousness will be revealed to the nations (including Portland/Vancouver) because He has been revealing himself to the nations since the beginning of time. God will be faithful because he has been faithful and is being faithful.

We could not manufacture, program, or schedule God working in the ways He had in 2017. God is consistent and unchanging. New year, same faithful God.

“Let the sea and all that fills it, the world and those who live in it, resound. Let the rivers clap their hands; let the mountains shout together for joy before the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth/ He will judge the world righteously and the peoples fairly.” Psalm 98:7-9

Story Over Sin Applied

At the end of the Goblet of Fire, upon the return of Lord Voldemort, Dumbledore says to Harry, “dark and terrible times lie ahead, where we must choose between what is right and what is easy.”

We face that same choice in our daily life when it comes to our interaction with others; we can choose what is right, or what is easy.

We are flooded with false narratives which attempt to guide us in making the easy choice. I mention five in my last post. Whether you are a Christian, or not, these narratives affect your priorities and ultimately your beliefs.

Ephesians 2:1-10 radically reorients the believer’s life to God’s story. What is amazing is that God does not just save us to himself, but you can see in verse ten that God is releasing us to do good works–responding to the story God has initiated. In essence, this story becomes elevated over every other narrative.

As we apply the value story over sin to our actions, story over sin forces us to change how we relate to others. It’s easy to point out the sin/brokenness/wrong actions of others. While we may never publicly or verbally comment on the sin of others, we can recognize it. What is not so easy is to hear the story of another. Carl Lentz of Hillsong NYC does a masterful job of communicating this value in the public square on the View.

 

Before you pass judgment on Lentz’s response, I would like you to consider the rest of my post. I believe Lentz does a remarkable job, not because he “avoids” the question, but because he attempts to address the motivations behind the question. Further, as a Christian, Lentz does not have to point out the sin because he already knows how non-believers have exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:25). In fact, we all still exchange truth for a lie and fall short (Romans 3:23).

Therefore, Christians should have the courage to hear someone’s story over dinner, coffee, a beer before you point out their sin.

Story over sin changes what you see: Real people who have a real story.

If you have ever traveled, and you are a cheapskate like me, you take a week’s worth of clothes and fit it into a carry-on bag. The appearance is that my trip will just be a few days when in reality it is supposed to last a whole week. Never mistake a tightly packed bag for everything in the bag. It is impossible to look at a bag and know what is inside until it is unpacked.

download-6When you interact with another you may see the metaphorical “carry-on bag.” Someone sin is the bag, but as it opened you realize there is a ton of stuff inside. There is more than meets the eye. Every time we meet someone on their journey, it is wisest to allow them to unpack their bag. It takes time for any tightly packed bag to be unpacked. Let me say again, this is not a quick thing. People are not going to just open up the bag and show you their delicates or their dirty laundry. In fact, it would be rude for you to grab the bag and just open it. To choose story over sin is to patiently sit with them until they unpack it.

How does that happen? By you sharing your story, allowing them to see your bag, and also what is inside it. When you tell your story about how God brought you from death to life, you communicate the good news of rescue and redemption. If you have never written down that moment or marathon of God working in your life, then take some time to write it down.

As you share all the baggage you have, it is imperative you know God’s story. A Christian’s story is not how they cleaned themselves up, and instead how God brought past change and is still changing us. There is a great resource to work through called The Gospel Primer if you are not sure how to do this.

Our task is to point them to God’s story not point out their sin. When their story is caught up in God’s story to change happens. Jesus came to seek and save. He doesn’t expect us to become the saviors, rather live in response to the story of the savior.

Jesus is better than any strategy or behavior modification. He is more able to bring real, lasting, heart-level change. He is the greatest missionary ever. Jesus is better. He’s better than you. He’s better than your pastor. He’s better than anyone or anything else. His story overcomes our sin.

A Value: Story over Sin

We all like a good story. A good story simulates our souls and evokes our emotions. I went and saw The Last Jedi. People have such divided opinions on the movie because of how they are connected to the largest Star Wars metanarrative.

I will indict myself in this next number, but in America 490 billion dollars are spent watching movies and being entertained watching stories.  The average American spends 5 hours and 4 minutes daily watching tv, which increases when you have a streaming service. That kind of money and time into being entertained by stories either that we can relate to or that we can escape from (watch something non-sensical). We have been hard-wired by our Creator to be drawn into stories in a real way—we kind of need them. Think about it: before movies, there were plays, campfires, dinner tables, cave walls. We were created in a story and for a story.

The problem of our consumption of stories is that stories shape us and disciple us. They give us a worldview, a way of seeing the world around us. According to Matt Chandler and Tim Keller, in our American context, there are five false narratives which we consume that conflict with the narrative to which we as Christians submit.

  • Consumerism: the good life means that you have the kind of stuff that people would look to you and see – the meaning of life is getting more stuff. More will make you happy
  • Secularism: all there is what you can see and verify. The happier you will be is once you realize there is no supernaturalism.
  • Nationalism: success and supremacy of our own nation from political purity would make our world a better place.
  • Progressivism: just keep making forward progress that we will move our way toward utopia.
  • Cynicism: nothing can be trusted, everyone is in it for their own gain, nothing is beautiful, doubt anything good or beautiful. The only trusted source is self.

Trying to live life under one of these false narratives is like continuously picking up rocks. You have to keep picking up rocks. Eventually, the rocks you pick up crush you. In the world, real people, your neighbor, your co-workers are being crushed by these narratives.

We are drinking these narratives in with every movie, idea. Because we all consume something, we will stumble back into one of these narratives. When we act on and adopt these narratives we are lead to sin. Ultimately, each of these narratives entices us to believe the lie that we are at the center of the story.

Christians are not immune to the pervasiveness of these lies. When we reflect on our life we can often see God as one of the characters in our story. We look for him when we need him and expect him to be grateful when we serve him. He is a lovely piece of our story, but we still think of it as our story. But it is not our story. It is God’s story as creator and rescuer. We exist to expand the goodness of His story throughout the world.

The story God as told in the Bible is the only true narrative. Our disbelief in who God is and how he acts leads us into sin–defining right and wrong according to our perspective instead of God’s. God’s story shapes everything.

Christians have one true story really well so that we can spot the false narratives. This involves the ones we believe first, those that the culture spews second, and those others believe third. Before we can move past this point, we have to know how God’s story intersects our individual stories.

There is a murderer turned missionary named Paul in the Bible who started a church in the ancient city of Ephesus. While in prison, He writes back to the church as he awaits trial in Rome for sharing the story of Jesus and it’s implications.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously lived according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air,the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus,so that in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do. – Ephesians 2:1-10

For believers, you and I have this story in common. We have a shared story. I do not know about you, but the first time I was made alive was in the second row of a youth conference where God took me from death to life. It is the place where my self-created identity failed and God said, “Mine.”

“Dead in trespasses and sins” and the consequences of destructive actions explain where we come from and what’s wrong with the world. Into the brokenness, God sends the Son to save.

The sending of Jesus did not happen because God was putting together a team of super people. We were not saved because our parents were good disciple-makers. We were not saved because God looked at our unique skill-set and said: “Oh I could use some of that in my kingdom.” We were not saved because we used to do bad things and now we don’t. We were saved because God is gracious and kind and in His mercy he saved us.

This common story transcends all of our differences Which is why the church can come together being politically, socio- economically, racially different. So you have where we come from, what went wrong, how God has fixed it, and our purpose in life all in 10 verses. This is our story and this story is incompatible with the five false narratives. You cannot embrace our story and embrace these other narratives. There is no group hugging these narratives together.

What do you do to help you reorient yourself to the one true story?

Likely, you attend Sunday worship services and at most, you spend 2-3 hours weekly to reorient you to the grand narrative. Now compare that time allotment to the 5 hours and 4 minutes you spend daily consuming false narratives (feel free to lump in social media for you non-tv watchers).

We cannot just reorient ourselves to God story when we gather, but the story has to be evident when we scatter. We have to be so caught up in God’s story that we choose story over sin. When we filter every area of life through the gospel we put God’s story over sin.

The gospel is: God himself has come to rescue and renew all creation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Every area means every area…the good and the bad. We can apply the gospel to all areas of life. Here are a few worldview examples…

Our story compels us to be generous, while consumerism says hoard or get your own. Our story is that everything that has been given to us is by the grace of God and should be held loosely at our fingertips eager to give it away and be generous to others.

Our story drives us to see the beauty and goodness in God’s world, while cynicism says there is no real good. Our story is that God has been kind to us even when we did not deserve it and were even not kind in return. Therefore, we should strive to cultivate beauty, justice, and trust just as our God did for us.

Our story acknowledges that we cannot solve our own problems, while progressivism says we will eventually find a manmade solution. Our story is that God provides the solution to sin and brokenness in Jesus Christ through his selfless love. One day He will bring full restoration and right all wrongs. Therefore, we can serve and love self-sacrificially with no strings attached.

Our story sends us to hear other’s stories and testify about the one true story before we condemn anyone for their sin. Jesus does not expect us to become the saviors and behavior modify people out of sin. We are invited to live in response to the story of the savior. God’s story overcomes our sin.

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The Alabama Election & Christian Witness

Mark Galli of Christianity Today wrote a solid commentary about Christian witness in light of today’s special election in Alabama. Albert Mohler also addresses the crisis of conscience. The biggest loser in the Alabama election is not Democrats or Republicans; it’s the Christian witness. Our Christian witness can be revived if we learn to suffer patiently in the public square. We would rather fight than suffer.

We all like a good story. A good story simulates our souls and evokes our emotions. The problem of our consumption of stories is that stories shape us and disciple us. They give us a worldview, a way of seeing the world around us. In our context, there are predominant false narratives which we consume that conflict with the narrative to which we as Christians submit. The Alabama Election brings one to the forefront.

The fight for the culture’s heart through political means has undermined the integrity of the explicit Christian witness. We choose to do what is right in our own eyes, “which results in moral, psychological, and social suffering unheard of in our history.” We fight for moral purity without the basic expectation of moral purity in our candidates.

One of the false narratives which pervade our culture is nationalism. If you do a quick Google search the initial results come back as 1) patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts, and 2) an extreme form of this, especially marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries.

I would also add that nationalism is further oriented towards developing and maintaining a national identity based on shared characteristics such as culture, language, race, religion, political goals or a belief in a common ancestry. Who are we as a country? The answer isn’t quite so clear-cut as one would hope.

On the surface level, loving one’s country is not a bad thing. God has ordained nations. However, whenever a good thing becomes a God thing the result is idolatry. While some would disagree that nationalism is a false narrative, and would even directly challenge my ensuing conclusion, the fight for the heart of American culture resides in one’s own view of morality. Moreover, if the only way to display the gospel is through political means, then one has bought into the lie of the false narrative. Further, if one’s perspective of the nation is elevated above the implications of the gospel, then lie is present there as well. Because of the United States history, trying to separate politics from faith is like trying to unravel Christmas lights. It’s time consuming, meticulous, and if only it had been done right initially. Knowing what should have been done does not alleviate the current situation of knotted Christmas lights–or better messy politics.

Like many of us choose to do, we would rather buy a new set of lights than deal with the mess. We attempt to do the same with politics. We would rather purchase a new nation through political aims than take the time to unravel and use what we have. It is an indictment against us all because we believe a lie shapes us all.

Whether you are on the right or left, chances are the purity of nation will make the world a better place. Here is the lie. One’s definition of pure usually involves thinking and acting exactly as you would. Self is at the center of pure. If only people would do this, we say, then the problem would be solved. In the end, the clamor is for uniformity in action and perspective.

The political right views purity of nation through one lens, while the political left views purity of nation through another. Regardless, the expectation is the same: a uniform identity. The identity proposed is usually divorced from any real conversation about real differences. The very plea for purity undermines the shared national identity of our history.

As Galli notes in his article, “The problem with many Christian conservatives is this: They believe they can help the country become godly again by electing people whose godliness is seriously questioned by the very people they want to influence.”

I would not limit the problem to Christian conservatives. The problem with many Christian liberals is this: They believe they can help the country improve by electing people whose moral superiority is seriously questioned by the very people they want to influence.

Because the United States has always been a melting pot of culture, language, race, religion, political goals, and common ancestry, one of our greatest values is love for the story others bring to the table. In order to do this, our conversation and our politics must be steeped in humility and moral accountability. As a Christian, fear cannot rule my politics; it displays the love of self. As a Christian, cultural congruency cannot rule my politics; it displays the love of self. The Christian faith has never been about fighting for something but serving and suffering the Savior the who modeled it for us. The Christian witness will be revived when love neighbor testifies to the love of God.

Books I’ve Read Recently

download-1Saturate by Jeff Vanderstelt. The vision which drives the book is “every man, woman, and child in every place having a daily encounter with Jesus through words spoken and deeds done through his people.” Saturate is written to encourage the everyday Jesus follower to engage in the everyday stuff of life with the goal of seeing Jesus saturation for everyone in every place. Vanderstelt is thorough in articulating the vision which God has placed on his heart. There is a unique balance of Scripture, story, and vision casting. Vanderstelt longs to see the church re-connected to the everyday stuff of life instead of disconnected from life. Instead of people doing church, Jesus is supposed to be living life through his church. Meaning, Christian is not an adjective for activities, events, or things; people are Christian. Therefore, followers of Jesus can make disciples who make disciples when they are shaped by the gospel in every area of life. Vanderstelt articulates how environments help shape followers of Jesus. The reality is that people are being discipled and discipling others whether they realize it or not. The question becomes: to what or to whom are you discipling them? My hope is that you consider reading Saturate for a gospel-centered vision on discipling and gospel worldview.

 

download-2The Atlantis Gene/ The Atlantis Plague by A.G. Riddle. I have been trying to reintroduce fiction into my literary diet. I found the first two books in a trilogy absolutely riveting. I am excited to read the final book. Riddle blends history, science, religious theory, and potential real-world events to uncover worldview and mankind’s motivation.

For example, “The war is always the same, only the names and places change. There are demons upon this earth. They live in our hearts and minds.” Riddle does well to communicate the longing of humanity’s soul is to find meaning and a place where the random violence makes sense.

Later, in a book steeped in science and evolutionary theory an exchange happens between a scientist and a soldier, “You already know that the universe supports the emergence of human life. In fact, the universe is strictly programmed for it. If any of the constants were even slightly different—gravity, the strength of electromagnetism, the dimensions in space-time—there would be no human life. There are only two possibilities: either human life emerged because the laws of the universe support it by random chance, or the alternative: the universe was created to foster human life.”

 

download-3Not the Place to Ignore Me by Joshua Motes. I have a unique connection to this book. Josh is one of the members of my Church Planting Residency Cohort. Josh writes about his experience in Afghanistan where he survived a horrific ambush. “Thousands of miles from home, on the business end of a daring mission into a deserted Afghan cityscape where friend and foe blend, author Joshua Motes hears God speak these words, calling him back to wholehearted devotion and a renewed commitment to be an influence for Jesus among the men he led. As one of the few American soldiers serving in the military that has experienced direct fire combat where life and death are a constant reality, First Lieutenant Motes offers a unique perspective on living out a committed life of faith.”

I am thankful for Josh and his service. Having served multiple tours, Josh is someone who listens to God and obeys. Josh is very honest about the tension he lived in and how as Christians we face a very real enemy.

“We worship God when we abandon ourselves to Him, and forsake our pathetic attempts to weather whatever it is we are facing under our own perceived strength.”

A Growing Heart Gives Thanks

A few weeks ago I attempted to get back into the lifting mode. I have been going to 24-hour fitness a few days a week to play basketball, but since my college football career ended I have not done any serious lifting. After a few games of pick-up, I pull off my basketball shoes and put on some others and head into the workout area. Jim and I were going to bench. As I and a couple guys walk that way, I notice something. Everyone seems to have on headphones. I am not a music person, so as I observe the room I wonder why people listen to music. Being curious, I ask Jim, why he listened to music when he worked out. His response was profound. “I use music for motivation. Everyone needs motivation.”

We all need motivation. We all use something for motivation. What do you do for motivation? Where do you go for motivation? Or better, what is your motivation?

God desires to grow our heart. If we are honest, this world is tough on our heart. Rather than experience a growing heart, it is easy to experience a shrinking heart with increasing skepticism, pessimism. For something like a workout, music is appropriate. For life, we need something more lasting.

TheBranch.GrowingHeart.Kyle.008For Christians, our driving motivation is something called the gospel. I love how the Three Circles Method encapsulates the message of the gospel.

Brokenness – We live in this world and it is characterized by brokenness. We do not have to look very hard to see this. It seems like every week the news gets worse. Sex scandals, violent shootings, that’s just on a national level. For you, it might be financial troubles, crazy kids, loss of a loved one. Even if you are someone who thinks life is pretty good, chances are you have a growing skepticism and concern of the world at large. Mentally you go somewhere, or practically you do something to maintain your motivation to keep going.

God’s Design – The world we live in was not God’s original design. The way that we have gotten ourselves into brokenness is something the Bible calls sin. All sin really is, is defining good and evil according to what we think is best, or better, that we can do anything better than God. Turning away from God’s Design and pursuing our own way.

Brokenness eventually leads us to death and destruction. Ultimately, separation from God.

God doesn’t want us to be in brokenness so he gives us a way through the brokenness. That way is Jesus. Jesus comes and enters into our brokenness. The death that we deserve for brokenness, Jesus takes our place and dies on the cross after living a perfect life. Then, Jesus rose from the dead making a way out of brokenness.

People try many things to get out of brokenness: religion, success, relationships with other people, education, abusing substances to escape. None of these things extract us from the circumstances of life.

The only way through is to turn from our sin and to believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose for us. We can then begin to experience God’s design in our life as we get to know Jesus. We are then sent back into brokenness to make Jesus known and help others pursue God’s Design. One day, the hope of eternity is how God will eliminate the brokenness and we will live fully in a restored world.

God wants us to experience His design and therefore grow our heart. In the midst of life, God’s desire is for us to be motivated by the future hope we have through Jesus and live in the present as if it is already here.

We see this when circumstances are far from ideal in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. The backstory for this book is found in the book of Acts. It is where Paul and his coworker Silas went to the Ancient Greek city of Thessalonica. After one month of telling the good news about King Jesus, a large number of Jewish and Greek people gave their allegiance to Jesus and became the first church community there. But trouble was brewing. Paul’s announcement of the risen Jesus as the true Lord of the world led to suspicion. As the hearts of the people changed, their actions began to reflect attitudes of gratitude and joy and action peace and love, which were subversive to the culture.

The Christians in Thessalonica were eventually accused of defying Caesar, the Roman Emperor, and they said there is another king named Jesus–they were merely following His example. The persecution actually became so intense that they had to flee the city. This was painful for them because they loved the people there so much.

This letter is Paul’s attempt to reconnect with the Christians in Thessalonica after he got a report from Timothy that they were doing more than okay, that they were flourishing despite this intense persecution. Paul writes the letter with two movements. The first is a celebration of their faithfulness to Jesus. Then, he challenges them to keep growing as followers of Jesus.

The Thessalonians lived in a culture where all of life was permeated by institutions and practices which honored the Greek and Roman gods. Transferring your allegiance from the gods of the age to the Creator God through King Jesus this came at a cost: isolation from your neighbors, hostility from your family.

But for the Thessalonians, the overwhelming love Jesus who died for them and the hope of His return made it all worth it. Everything they did was motivated by hope in the coming kingdom of Jesus, a full return to God’s Design.

As Paul concluded his letter, he encourages the Thessalonians to live out the will of God.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray constantly, 18 give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

One of the oft-said phrases when taking Xavier on a bike ride is “Look up. Look ahead. See where you are going.” Inevitably he becomes distracted, nervous, too confident, and ends up getting stuck in the grass, or getting stuck on the curb.

When we do not look up, look ahead, and see where we are going we will likely wreck.

Playing basketball on a regular basis, I am always amazed at how many guys dribble with their heads down, especially when they are pretty good players. When their head is down, their eyes are down. Because they are not looking up they miss obstacles, players trapping, and opportunities, players making good cuts.

When we do not look up, look ahead, and see where we are going we miss obstacles and opportunities.

I remember teaching my sisters how to drive. Initially, they would always look right at the front of the car, or even at the car in the next lane over. My words echo what I say to Xavier as he rides his bike–look ahead. Your eyes take you where you want to go. Good eye discipline keeps you in your lane and allows you to anticipate by making adjustments when other cars break, or you need to make a lane change.

When we do not look up, look ahead, and see where we are going we are ill prepared to travel the road ahead.

When Paul encourages the Thessalonians to give thanks [to God] in everything (or all circumstances). We are directly challenged. The qualifiers Paul adds to basic thankfulness conveys the importance of thanking God within all circumstances of life, even the difficult ones. In Thessalonica, these circumstances include suffering. It is important to notice, however, that Paul reminds the Thessalonians to give thanks in everything, not for everything.

I was reminded of this passage when I heard of the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A gunman entered a small, rural Southern Baptist church and opened fire, killing over 25 people according to reports. This horrific event has stirred up another round of cultural debate over gun laws, showing that our society is not only sharply divided but willfully politicized. Blood has not even cooled on the ground before pundits issue their pronouncements. Lost in much of the commentary was the fact that Devin Kelley was apparently denied a gun license by the state of Texas. Evil, it seems, will overcome almost any barrier. I appreciate how Owen Strachan’s response to such evil.

We know this from the Word of God: evil has an expiration date. Jesus is going to return. He is going to judge the quick and the dead. Those in Christ will be privy to experiencing God’s design in full. Those apart from Christ will get their hearts longing with life eternal apart from GOD.

Our secular age speaks much of justice, in truth. But secular justice has no Christ. Specifically, it has no Christ-centered hope of eternity. It tells us that things are getting better, that we are making “progress,” that we can solve the world’s problems. We have to. We have to get it right, now! Though we can surely make gains in our society, we cannot heal our world. Only Christ can. Only Christ will. 

The Christian approach is decidedly different when it comes to the pain and suffering of this world. Since the believer trusts in a sovereign God who can turn any situation to their good and who can make someone more than triumphant in any adversity or other circumstance. Thus, our heart grows. We can love, forgive, be selfless because the death of the body is not the death of the soul.

Thanksgiving to God is to be given in adversity and prosperity, for no matter what happens all things work together for the believer’s good. To be thankful is a fruit of grace and is in contrast to the constant grumblings and ingratitude of a godless world. Look around. Our world is filled with blame and complain. The quick politicization of every tragedy will surely provide enough example. If all you have to live for is this life, then, of course, you get upset when something happens to mess all of that up.

Gratitude is subversive to the attitude of our day.  Gratitude is a sign of God’s Design. A Christian can be thankful because they have their eyes on eternity.

 

What motivates us to go forward is being thankful for the hope of eternity we are heading toward. Keep your eyes on eternity. Look where you are going.