Friday, April 26, 2013

Ten Redemptive Steps for Inward-Looking Churches

SCRIPTURE: Matthew 28:16-20
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: April 26th, 2013

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

Earlier this week, I reflected upon Thom Rainer's thought-provoking list of warning signs about Churches that are becoming more inward looking and less outward reaching. The problem is rather widespread, that Christian communities tend to care more about their inner concerns. After all, they claim that the secular climate is less friendly to the gospel now. In some countries, there are harsh punishment for anyone trying to speak about Christianity to certain non-Christians. When secular governments clamp down on religious groups, they are essentially telling them to mind their own religions. As long as people keep their religions to themselves, it is ok. The moment they start talking about their religious beliefs outside of the confines of their churches, their synagogues, their mosques, their temples, etc, the "religious harmony" card gets flashed out.  Authorities will police this diligently. In Canada, any mention of the Bible, or certain Christian words in public schools will automatically raise suspicions and ready criticisms, regardless of whether the purpose is for a good cause.

This is sad. There is something sadder still. When Churches prefer to use such obstacles as convenient excuses to focus inwards. When this happens, the Church fails to become Church.

A) Ten Warning Signs of Inward-Looking Churches

Thom Rainer's article, "The 10 Warning Signs of an Inwardly Obsessed Church" warns us that we must constantly be vigilant about ourselves putting more focus on inner matters, and forgetting about outreach. It is basically a question of "What is Church?" Briefly put, they are:

  1. Worship Wars: where Churches continue their quarrel about whether to adopt traditional or contemporary worship. This can even split churches.
  2. Prolonged Minutia Meetings: At meetings, people seem to be more interested in mundane details, such as colour of carpet, type of paint for the walls, or arguing over what kind of coffee to buy!
  3. Facility Focus: applicable to churches with extensive property or assets, this can pretty much suck in resources to the point that individuals do not have any more time or energy for other things, let alone do outreach.
  4. Program Driven : When the focus is on programming, there is a corresponding concentration of pastoral resources and administrative overheads.
  5. Inwardly Focused Budget : look at the budget each year. Check how much are spent on inward looking programs. In some churches, church camps take up a bulk of the money.
  6. Inordinate Demands for Pastoral Care: This is a familiar refrain. People just require chronic attention and care. In some churches, unless the senior pastor visits them every week, it is assumed that the Church does not care for them.
  7. Attitudes of Entitlement:  This attitude is prevalent among richer communities. Strangely, the more people have, the more they expect. The more they expect, they more they are less easily satisfied. This cycle of entitlement is the beginning of a spiral of unending demands.
  8. Greater Concern about Change than the Gospel: Of all the items, I think this is the most damning of them all. It raises the question of whether people have been changed at all by the gospel in the first place! 
  9. Anger and Hostility: Inner squabbles poison communities. They often masquerade as inner anger and covert hostility. Given an opportunity, the end result can be devastating.
  10. Evangelistic Apathy: This flows out of the lack of transformation. If people are not touched, how can they touch others?
There is no order or ranking of them. They are simply listed as is. Probably, that is because different churches will have different issues at stake. It is still possible that at different times, each of them can very well be a #1 issue!

B) Ten Redemptive Steps

"Worship Wars" is a common phrase used to describe the two camps: Traditional vs Contemporary. This is still happening in many churches. That is why I think it is important for us to be open about it, and to call a spade a spade. Call the war a war. Then ask whether it is a necessary war in the first place. If we are guilty of constantly squabbling over whether to do a more "traditional" kind of worship with hymns, instead of "contemporary" choruses and modern songs, we are essentially more concerned about human preferences rather than what is the purpose of singing in the first place. I think the worship wars is another point of contention among people of different generations. After all, it is another way in which different music styles and preferences appeal to different age groups.

Redeeming "Worship Wars": Focus on the theme of the worship. Choose songs that reflect a healthy variety across the different music eras. It is not the music that is the point. It is how the music, the tempo, and the overall worship mood POINT to the Creator God.

"Prolonged Minutia Meetings" is basically about majoring on the minors, putting undue weight on mundane matters, to the detriment of what is more important to the gospel. Sometimes, people call meetings simply because they feel safety in numbers.

Redeeming "Prolonged Minutia Meetings": Keep meetings in their proper perspective. One of the key ways is to set time limits right from the start. Consider the importance of each topic right from the start, assign time limits, keep watch on the time spent on debating the topic, and be prayerful throughout.

"Facility focus" is about churches that also put more emphasis on self-preservation instead of open giving.

Redeeming "Facility Focus": Maintaining the facilities of the Church is still a part of good stewardship. We cannot do away with that. What is important is to remember that keeping the facilities intact is not the purpose of the Church. The purpose is to shine as the light to the neighbourhood, and to let the Church be community  to all, and not just Church for some. This many even mean risking theft, sabotage, and all kinds of abuse when Church starts to be open to inviting strangers into the facility. The key thing in preserving the facility is to ask: What or who are we preserving the building for? How is the building being used for the gospel?

"Program Driven" is something many churches are dependent upon in order to draw in the people, to give people something to look forward to. I am a little ambivalent when it comes to this. We need programs. We also need focus that the programs is trying to get us toward. The key is to remember what the programs are leading us toward, and not let programs become an end in itself.

Redeeming "Program Driven": Rather than to throw away programs altogether, why not line up each program with the mission and vision of the organization. How much is it serving the needs of the inside community? How much is it serving the needs of the outside community? How is the balance?

"Inwardly Focused Budget" is a tell-tale sign of what is more important to a Church. What if the majority of the Church budget goes into its own programs? Worse, if members feel comfortable about spending more than 80% on their own programs and self-preservation, that will be a clear sign of an inward looking Church.

Redeeming "Inwardly Focused Budget": Take a step of faith. Cut back on inward budgeting and expand the giving. Be stingy when it comes for spending on self. Be generous, even lavish when spending on the needs of the community around us, in missions, in outreach, and in helping the poor.

"Inordinate Demands for Pastoral Care" is something that often bogs down the time and energy of leaders in any organization. When this happens, the Church no longer looks like a city whose light is set on the hill for all to see. It resembles the ambulance light inside the organization, constantly flashing at each member's house. Working 24x7, the Church's constant cry for care amid personal pain makes us wonder about the theology of care in the Church. After all, a healthy Church is one that exercises all the gifts, and not dependent on a handful of people only.

Redeeming "Inordinate Demands for Pastoral Care": People are tougher than what we think. Given the right push and motivation, they can be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Instead of constantly clamoring for attention, I think it is important to learn to be dependent on God, and to ask God to show us how to be people who give care instead of waiting for care to come to us.

"Attitudes of Entitlement" is something ingrained by the culture around us. Many of us grow up thinking that the world owes us a living. I think it stems from people still in an immature stage of faith. A growing child of God will learn that his dependence is on God more and more, and on the world less and less.

Redeeming "Attitudes of Entitlement": The key thing is not to cast a blanket stare at people wanting their needs met, or requests fulfilled. It is to sieve away the unnecessary from the essential, and the prioritize the meeting of needs according to the latter instead of the former. We are all entitled to some essentials. In fact, when a Church gathers, there are some non-negotiables, such as acknowledging God in prayer and thanksgiving, worshiping God when we come together in God's Name, and loving one another.

"Greater Concern about Change than the Gospel" is a little more tricky. I think what Rainer is referring to is the resistance to change that is the problem. In my experience, many people are willing to change, as long as it happens far away, or to some other people and not themselves. The trouble is, the gospel changes lives. Any change must reflect that gospel work in us.

Redeeming "Greater Concern about Change than the Gospel": Do not change for the sake of changing. Change according to how the gospel first changes us. This calls for a realistic and honest snapshot of where we are currently. This demands a clear vision of where we need to go. In between, we are all to serve one another, and let changes reflect that desire to serve God, our community, and one another better. 

"Anger and Hostility" is a real problem in many churches. I have heard people complain about the place of power and politics even in Christian organizations. Sometimes, people call it leadership struggles or takeovers. It all boils down to relationships that have broken down, and the Church subsequently moves towards a painful split. Forgiveness and graciousness rank supreme.

Redeeming "Anger and Hostility": Think unity. Think togetherness. Think about where one's anger and hostility is helping the Church. Sometimes, we tend to think that truth and principles upheld are more important than relationships. Wrong. While the former is important, do not forget that Christ came to die for people, not principles. It is better to be wronged for doing right, than the be right by wronging others, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

"Evangelistic Apathy" is described by Rainer about a lack of evangelistic fervor by many of the members. When it comes to only the pastor or certain leaders sharing the faith, it makes one wonder about the health of the whole Church. One can do evangelism and then be self-gratified that one's responsibility is done. Wrong. When it comes to sharing the gospel, it is a growing fervour, not a one-off endeavour.

Redeeming "Evangelistic Apathy": Evangelism begins at home. It begins with a clear sense of gratitude of God's grace for our own lives. There is both inreach as well as outreach. However, first, there needs to be a divine reach from God to us. Are we touched by the Holy Spirit? Is Christ real in our hearts? How much do we comprehend the love of God? If we do not get this first foundation in place, any evangelistic effort will be build on the sinking sands of apathy and cold spiritual state.

C) In Closing

Each time we are about to complain, think about
our Redeemer and how we have first been redeemed.
Remember that when Christ calls us to go forth into the world, as in Matthew 28, we go forth as redeemed people. All the disciples have ran away from Jesus in the hour of need. Peter even denied Christ three times. Despite the flaws, Jesus gives the most important mission to these flawed men. Jesus not only trusts them to be faithful, he promises to be with them. The same mandate applies to us today. If we are in Churches that are fixated on inner concerns almost all of the time, the key is not to just abandon them or to accuse them harshly. Leaders of churches are also people who have served sacrificially in many ways. Remember to look at them and one another nor with eyes of judgment or sarcasm, but with eyes of redemption and love. After all, we are redeemed people in the first place. If we are constantly discouraged by ministry work, or have lost our sense of mission, maybe the problem is not the Church, or the inadequate programs or people we have. The problem is much simpler. We have forgotten about the power of the gospel, the passion of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

THOUGHT: "We are too much haunted by ourselves, projecting the central shadow of self on everything around us. And then comes the Gospel to rescue us from this selfishness. Redemption is this, to forget self in God." (Frederick W. Robertson)


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at . You can also send me an email at for comments or enquiries. Note that views expressed are personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Problem of Pain

SCRIPTURE: James 1:2-4
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: April 20th, 2013

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,a whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)

We have all heard of the saying, "No pain, no gain." Is it always true? No really. Experts who give advice on physical exercises will often remind people that when they feel pain, do not just press on and force yourself to push harder and farther. For all we know, the pain is a critical warning sign that we must stop what we are doing. Ignoring the pain, or intentionally going against the signals that the body is telling is is not only foolish, but can bring about long term damage to our physical bodies. According to the popular Dr Oz, he reminds us:

"As we age, our bodies often communicate to us via pain. Pain is the body’s protective mechanism that helps motivate us to protect the injured area from getting worse. Many people try to fight pain rather than take it as a sign to slow down and address the issue. Fighting pain only creates a series of compensating movements that puts you at risk of aggravating the injury and lengthening the time needed to heal. Because of this, it’s important to listen to what your body is telling you."

That is wise. When we feel the pain, do not try to kill the pain and ignore what the pain is pointing us toward.  One of the most memorable stories I have heard is the one told by Paul Brand and Philip Yancey in the book, "The Gift of Pain," is the one where leprous person used his arm to push hot charcoals away. Without pain, there is no worry about any sensation. Without pain, there is no feeling of the heat to the nerve system of the leper. Without pain, the muscles and the skin burns away without the person noticing, when they come in contact with hot fire. Pain is indeed an important feedback mechanism for us. That is why in this way it is a gift.

Unfortunately, the culture we live in are increasingly fearful of pain. The Pharmaceutical industry recognizes exactly that and they profit immensely. From the common aspirin to specialized anesthetics used during critical medical procedures, people have found a way either to numb our natural senses to pain in order to cut deep into our skin. Anyone with migraines will appreciate the use of painkillers like aspirin. Women having a difficult labour can request for an epidural. Dentists use anesthetics to assist any tooth extractions or root canal work. Bodily pains are often addressed with different kinds of medication to enable people to live as well as possible. Yet, for all its numbing features, painkillers mainly address the symptoms. They do not heal. They only mask the real problem to buy some time for a better solution.

What about inner pain? What about emotional pain? What about the kind of pain that aspirin or anesthetics do not help? Some use different ways to help them escape, like alcohol, religious trances, even sleep, to run away from it all. Others go into drugs and illicit activities to flee. Pain is scary for it can force one to do the most unexpected things.

On Monday, the world was horrified to hear about the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Three persons died and many have to suffer the painful decision of having their limbs amputated. Doctors in Boston have frequently sought out second, even third opinions about whether to save or to amputate the legs of people whose limbs were blown off during the explosions. Just reading about the decision making process alone pains me in the heart. Even more have to live with the trauma for the rest of their lives. It all seems so painful and meaningless. Like you, I too wonder why the perpetrators of such violence will want to subject fellow humans to such pain and torture. Why?

There is no easy answer to such questions. Even if police and investigators can find out the reason for the horrible bombings, that will not bring back the lives of the dead. Even if the culprits are all apprehended and justice are swift on punishing them, there is no rescue of the limbs that have been amputated. Even if the world can be numbed in some way to the pain caused, there is no guarantee that such violence will never happen again. Will we then live in fear? Will we be paranoid about the future? Will we then start live our entire lives with full of suspicions of people and trepidation about life in general?

Surely not. The human spirit is not easily broken. Pain is a part of life. It may not come from the best of circumstances, but it can bring about the best in people. I read about individuals who came together in the midst of tragedy, regardless of language, race, or religion. Law enforcement officers, black, white, Asian, hispanic, or whatever, all came together as one united body. Runners, walkers, spectators, hold hands and help one another, that as long as it is a person in pain, they will be comforted. Uniting against the common enemy of violence and nonsensical aggression, people will fight back with love and comfort. People will battle against any force of darkness that threatens to break the human spirit. People have shown that in the midst of tragedy, bombs are not going to make people cower in constant fear. Life will go on, and people will come through it all much stronger.

This Sunday, I will be participating in the Vancouver Sun Run event. The organizers have asked for all participants who want to show solidarity with the people in Boston to dress in blue and yellow, the official colours of the Boston Marathon. Such a gesture will be a way to demonstrate to the world that the human spirit will never be cowered into surrender. The human spirit lives on, even though terrorists can strike fear for a moment. This is not to be taken lightly. It has to be lived courageously.

For Christians, the events of suffering and pain need not come across as something totally foreign or strange. In fact, suffering is very much a part of the life of a disciple. Just this week, I shared a small part of CS Lewis's "The Problem of Pain" which has generated some vigorous disagreement. Lewis famously writes:

"The real problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, but why some do not." (CS Lewis)

This has resulted in some people voicing concern about whether one needs to seek out suffering or pain in order to prove one's discipleship. Here is my reply.

The way I read Lewis in "The Problem of Pain," is that we need not be surprised when people suffer. We ought to be surprised (even suspicious) of anyone who is "pious, humble, believing" and has not been stamped with any hallmark of suffering. That said, there are many different kinds of suffering, including gratuitous as well as non-gratuitous ones. The ones that are of most relevance in this discussion is the kind of suffering that arises out of a wholehearted desire to do all the good that we can. Like Christ who suffered for the sake of others; or the martyrs who suffered for the faithfulness of the gospel; or the persecuted who suffered because of their faith; the upright who suffered by being sacked for refusing to pay bribes; or people who stood up for the truth at great risk to their own lives..... 
In the "Problem of Pain," Lewis is aware that there will be accusations against him about trying to justify suffering. Lewis admits that he is a "coward" when it comes to pain. His purpose of that statement is to show the "old Christian doctrine of being made perfect through suffering is not incredible." 
This is a hard teaching to accept, simply because pain and suffering itself is hard. Yet, I think it is good to be open to what Lewis is saying, that suffering and pain can sometimes be used to purge away the idols or "toys" that try to possess our heart. Pain and suffering is like fire. It burns one up and just like Paul's teachings in the trial of fire, those who pass this test can say like Job: "But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold." (Job 23:10) 
What we can take away from the provocative words of Lewis is this. We need not seek suffering and pain just to prove that we are Christlike. All we need to do is to work toward being Christlike, and lo and behold, suffering and pain will come looking for us. When that day comes, we pray that the Lord will help encourage us, comfort us as we go through the valley of the shadow of death.

Indeed, the just and righteous in Jesus will be persecuted in some way. We do not need to seek out suffering or pain in order to prove our worth. The moment we seek to be more like Christ, suffering and pain in some way will seek us out. Call yourself a Christian? Beware. You're on the enemy's radar already. That said, it is good to remember that when trials and pain come, we have the chance to depend on God more. We have the opportunity to cultivate the skills of perseverance. May we, as we follow after Christ more and more, learn to say like Job, that "when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold."

THOUGHT: "When you suffer and lose, that does not mean you are being disobedient to God. In fact, it might mean you're right in the centre of His will. The path of obedience is often marked by times of suffering and loss." (Chuck Swindoll)


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at . You can also send me an email at for comments or enquiries. Note that views expressed are personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Measuring Our Spiritual Growth

SCRIPTURE: 2 Peter 1:5-9
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 13 April 2013
"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. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins." (2 Peter 1:5-9)

You have been going to Church these years. You have been attending Bible studies. You have also been serving in different ways for the Kingdom. Does that mean that you have been growing spiritually? What does it mean then to grow? How do we measure spiritual growth? This week, I want to take some time to ponder upon how we measure ourselves and to provide some tips on how to get a snapshot of where we are, and what we can do henceforth.

 A) The Four-Dimensional Spiritual Measurements

During my varsity days, I remember two popular methods of ensuring we maintain a balance of various spiritual disciplines. The first is P.O.S.B, which I learn from the Christian Fellowship. It's a nice acronym to remember what the basic spiritual exercises we need to do. We need to pray regularly. Even better, to adopt a prayerful life. This makes our relationship with God a dynamic one. In prayer, we can share anything with God. In Outreach, we need to go forth and share the gospel with all, especially non-believers. This enables us to be witnesses as salt and light to the world. In Social, we remember that we are called to form communities of faith, coming together to encourage, to exhort, and to experience the joys of koinonia. We need to read the Bible regularly so that we can let the Word of God guide all of our lives. If we keep all four disciplines well, we are on the way to a healthy spiritual life.

The second model is also a four dimensional picture, which some churches have adopted. That is the 4Ws model: Worship, Welcome, Word, and Works. Although the words are different, it basically highlights the dual-horizontal and dual-vertical aspects of Christian living. Vertically speaking, worship and word is about our upper relationship with God through praying, reading the Bible, and worshiping together. Welcome is about the way we invite friends to walk with us, and works is about our living out of the goodness of God in our daily lives, sharing the gospel in words and in works.

So, if one is using the POSB model, when you ask them how is their spiritual life, they will give you a rough estimate of where they are right now. One example will be that of John, who tells me:

"My spiritual life? Well, I read the Bible regularly, I pray as much as I can, and I reach out whenever I can. Socially I think I am strong. Bible and Prayer, I will put myself as average. What is perhaps lacking is my Outreach. That's where I am spiritually."

When using the 4Ws, one can summarize the spiritual position likewise. If one can live with all four W-cylinders firing away, one will comfortably say they are healthy.

B) Not Enough

Such models have helped me in the past and they are still popularly used in many Christian circles. Unfortunately, I find them more and more inadequate as the years go by. For P=Prayer, how much praying is a good level of praying? One can pray through the motions and still not feel close to God. For O=Outreach, do we measure in terms of quantity or quality? One can reach out a lot and produce no fruit. For S=Social, how much fellowship do we need and is there really a way to estimate it? For B=Bible, do we use the amount of Bible knowledge we have as a yardstick? One can know lots of Bible, and still be immature. The above models are useful, but they are most elementary. They are easy to remember, but they are not enough.

Let me give three reasons. Firstly, the models themselves are mainly focusing on works. Essentially, it tells us that if WE do not do it, we are not growing. It comes from an expectation to do these stuff in order to get something. The underlying assumption is that if we pray so much, outreach so much, read the Bible so much, and socialize so much, naturally we will grow. Where then is the grace of God? Is it not true that our whole spiritual life is a gift for us to cherish and to enjoy? What if we are unable to spend time cultivating these good works? Does that mean we are not growing? Are we then saying that if we DO NOT do all of these works, we have ourselves to blame? Then where is God's role in empowering and energizing us to live humbly, fruitfully, faithfully, and gratefully?

Secondly, the models only represent a small part of the Bible. The four aspects of each model will receive the same criticisms leveled at the four spiritual laws of evangelism. Are they not a pick-n-choose kind of a spiritual yardstick? Remember, that whether we use the 4Ws or POSB, they are only representing a small part of the Bible. We have the whole Bible that we have not really applied. Just like reading a summary of the Bible versus reading the Bible itself. The summary only gives you the gist of a certain belief or argument. The actual Bible provides the texts, the contexts, and the whole syntax of the faith. If we still try to adopt the two models even after 20 years of belief, then we are doing ourselves a disfavour. A wrong yardstick can render us measuring ourselves inadequately, just like trying to measure our own height with a primitive stick that only has the feet and the meters, but does not have the finer inches or centimeters in between. The better our measuring yardstick, the more accurate will be our measurement of our own spiritual growth.

Thirdly, and more seriously, the disciplines are reflective of an increasingly individualistic mindset. On the one hand, it raises the bar for personal accountability and action. On the other hand, where is the community aspect? Where is the link of one's spiritual life to the rest of the community? If a community is not well spiritually, can an individual in the community dare say his own spiritual life is well? I don't think so. A proper understanding of Christian faith is that the individual and the community is intricately linked to each other. If one hurts, the whole body hurts. If one rejoices, the whole body rejoices. If one fails to grow, the whole body fails to grow. This is an important aspect of the Trinitarian model.

On these three counts, the models lose their effectiveness as spiritual yardsticks.

C) A Better Spiritual Measurement

There are several models that can be developed from different parts of the Bible. One model is the fruit of the Spirit model in Galatians 5. Another model is the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. We can also use the combination of the Ten Commandments and the exhortation from Paul to live a life of love according to 1 Corinthians 13. There are a lot more. Let me describe one according to 2 Peter 1:5-9.

Firstly, the Christian life essentially begins at faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God. In faith through grace, we are made new and given a new leash of life. Such faith is a gift of God, that we can be empowered to "make every effort" as well as to "add" to to "supplement" our faith the various spiritual attributes of goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, and godliness. Secondly, there is a movement from individual to community. Are our spiritual disciplines leading us more inward looking? Then we are not growing. If our disciplines are moving toward becoming more like Christ to one another, we are growing. Just like Jesus who reaches out to ordinary folks in order to touch them.  All of these attributes basically provide the foundations of a bigger idea: brotherly kindness. Thirdly, we read about the overall purpose of it all: Love. For me, when I read this passage, there are basically three parts. The beginning is faith. The end is love. Everything else is in the middle leading forward from individual faith to community living. When we are called to faith in Christ, our Christian disciplines must lead us somewhere, and more importantly to Someone. It is never to be an end in itself.

Fourthly, we grow by continuously growing. Peter adds:
"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 1:8)

Note that we ought to understand the word "knowledge" not in terms of knowing more about God, but knowing God more intimately. As my Professor, Dr J.I. Packer has said, "Knowledge about God is not the same as knowledge of God. We can have a systematic theology of God memorized, and still not grow in our knowledge of God." True knowledge of God is not mere head knowledge. True knowledge means a holistic understanding of theory and practice, head and heart, words and works. When we grow more into Christ, our lives in Christ become Christlike for Christ. Our knowledge in God leads to our living out of this knowledge in God, in increasing measure. Continuously growing is a healthy sign.

D) Putting it in Concrete Terms

How then do we measure our spiritual growth according to 2 Peter 1:5-9? Maybe the following questions can give us a fair indication.

  • Is our spirituality based self-motivation or upon faith in God's Word? 
  • Is our spiritual growth based on what we do, rather than a response to what God has done?
  • Is our spiritual growth measured primarily in individual terms, or growing in community AND individual terms?
  • Have we grown in brotherly kindness and love?
  • Have we given up trying to find ways to learn, to grow, and to love?
  • Are we content with doing good works, or are we only satisfied when we see Christ, know Christ, and to live like Christ?
Perhaps, what we need most is not how well we have done, but what kind of spiritual measurements we are using.

THOUGHT: "It is not the number of books you read, nor the variety of sermons you hear, nor the amount of religious conversation in which you mix, but it is the frequency and earnestness with which you meditate on these things till the truth in them becomes your own and part of your being, that ensures your growth." (Frederick W. Robertson)


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at . You can also send me an email at for comments or enquiries. Note that views expressed are personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Essence of Small Group Health

SCRIPTURE: John 13:33-35
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 6 April 2013
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

We all like to say that we want to be more Christlike. It is an easy thing to say. Living it is not. Likewise, it is easy to say we like to honour Christ, but we find it hard to honour people, especially those who seem to be so selfish, self-centered, or downright self-infatuated. Even Mahatma Gandhi has famously said:
"I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ." (Mahatma Gandhi)
Not to add the fact that the new atheist movement, led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others, are pouring the fuel of sarcasm into the fire of anti-Christian sentiments. In fact, their very existence is an antithetical statement against anything Christianity. Negative sentiments about Christianity are not only nothing new, it is growing. In the West, Christianity is going through a very rough patch right now. In many quarters, the moment a person calls himself a "Christian," the response can be really nasty. John Burke puts it really apt in this:

"If you ask people on the street for one word to describe Christianity today, what would they say?' I've asked this question while speaking to Christians and Church leaders all over North America, Europe, Scandinavia, and Australia, and I find it very troubling that we all know the answers: 'judgmental,' 'narrow-minded,' 'arrogant,' 'hypocritical,' 'bigoted.'" (John Burke, Mud and the Masterpiece, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, p11)

Troubling indeed. I wonder. If Christians are loving, will not the world be more accepting of them? If Christians are more loving to one another, surely, the Church will grow? If Christians share more of their love, should there not be a decrease in negative sentiments, but a growing positive acceptance?

Before we start to be defensive about it all, maybe, we need to take a pause and to look into the mirror first.  This is something that all people need to do, not just Christians. That said, as ambassadors of the gospel, it is vital that disciples of Christ regularly examine themselves in the light of God's Word, and not fall prey under the microscope of worldly expectations.

This week, I like to pose the question: What is the essence of small group health? What does it take to be more loving in our communities of Christ? I like to hone in on one word: Giving.

A) Giving of Our Time

Just before John records the famous commandment of love, we read in John 13 about Jesus who is aware about his hour having come for him to leave the world. Instead of going through a laundry list of touring round the world in 80 minutes, or to fulfill last dying wishes, he spends time eating and meeting with his disciples. John even records, "... he loved them to the end."

In the movie "The Bucket List," two terminally ill men make a road trip to try to fulfill their dying wishes, where they try to make their remaining days count. It is the list of things they want to accomplish before they kick the bucket and die. They go round the world, drive fast cars, skydive, visit exotic places, and soon, they begin to work on things of the heart, like relationships and love in the family. Key to their last days is how the two men spend time with each other and make time for their loved ones.

Time is a tough commodity to give up nowadays. People are too busy with their own stuff to even bother about giving it away. That is why the words "Wasting time" tends to be said when nothing seems to get done. In small groups, when we go for meetings, sometimes when we do not feel like we have gained anything, we get upset, and even use the words "wasting time" to describe the entire meeting. I prefer to see it otherwise. For in going to small group meetings, it is not about doing things, but doing things TOGETHER that matters. It is not about being there, but being there for one another that matters more. It is the giving of our time that is our way of saying: "Our time is more important than my own time."

POINT: Jesus gives of his time, even in his dying hours. Shall we not give time for one another in our living days?

B) Giving of Our Money

Money can be a touchy issue. Sometimes, a dispute over how much to give or how the money is spent can create tensions and even split groups.  Money is a key factor in Judas's betrayal of Jesus. Judas is the treasurer for the group, and so when Jesus asks him to do quickly what Judas had planned to do, the disciples thought that Jesus was asking him to buy things for the festival or to give something to the poor. Little do they know that Judas had something sinister in mind.

Against this backdrop of money and ill-gotten gains, we read about way money can tempt us. It tempts Judas to even want to betray Jesus. Remember that Judas was the same one who were among those who criticized the woman who broke the alabaster jar in order to anoint Jesus with fragrant oil.

I know that of many groups that exist simply because of generous people in the group. They offer their houses for meeting places. They prepare lavish dishes for people. They put out their best for the group. When it comes to giving, it is not the quantity that matters, but the quality of what they give. In fact, the quality and quantity comes out of this one fact: A Big Heart.

The woman with the alabaster jar and the expensive perfume has Jesus praising her saying: "Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."

In small groups, the bigger the hearts of people, the greater the willingness to give of one's money and resources, both in quantity as well as quality.

POINT: Healthy Christian Communities will have a healthy level of giving, both quantity and quality.

C) Giving of Our Service

Jesus washes his disciples' feet. On Easter, the new Pope Francis is pictured washing the feet of non-Christians, even kissing them. It has generated lots of applause and approval, that the new pope is going to be more acceptable than the previous one.

Washing the feet of people is a powerful demonstration of recognizing that we are called to be servants of God. A servant of God is not one who expects things to be done for him or her. A servant of God is one who puts upon himself or herself to do things for others.

We live in a culture where we expect to be served. Whether we are waiting at the bank tellers or queueing up to buy tickets from the manned counter, we expect service to be done quick and fair. For those of us with domestic servants, we expect to be served our meals on time and to our tastes. We expect our houses to be cleaned properly. We expect the to serve us according to our expectations.

In Christian communities, it is easy to bring such expectations and apply them to other members of the group. Why not apply that expectations on the self first?

POINT: Healthy Christian Communities expect more from the self to give through service, than to expect others to serve you. Jesus washes the disciples' feet. So should we through the giving of our service to them.

D) Giving of Our Lives

Jesus has said that greater love has no man, than one who is willing to lay down his life for his friends. If that is so, what about dying for our enemies? Jesus has demonstrated exactly that by dying for the sake of the whole world. When we give of our lives, we give of ourselves.

Bronnie Ware recently published a book about the five top regrets of the dying. Note that nearly all of them have to do with relationships. The first is about living a life true to self. If we are not living to bless others, we are certainly not being true to our calling. The second is about regretting working too hard. Why? It is because most of the time, working too hard means accumulating accomplishments for self. Third, courage to express one's feelings is about honesty. Relationships need that. In Christian communities, we are called to do something more: Speak the truth in love.

Four, staying in touch with friends is vital. Finally, true happiness lies not in taking stuff for self, but in giving of our lives to others.

POINT: If Christ has given us his all, why can't we begin our giving with what we have?

E) Summary

My readers. Are you a part of a small group or a Christian community? Do you feel like you want to begin a positive change for the group? Do you want to be the loving community that Christ has called us to build? Give of your time. Give of your money and resources. Give of your service. Give of your life. For in giving, we shall receive even more. The crux of the matter is this. The more we give, the more we realize that the Lord will be pleased.

The essence of healthy small groups is in this one word: Giving.

THOUGHT: "The most obvious lesson in Christ's teaching is that there is no happiness in having or getting anything, but only in giving." (Henry Drummond)


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