fbpx
Are We Building the Altar?

Are We Building the Altar?

In 1 Kings 18 we find one of the most dramatic Old Testament accounts. Elijah, the prophet of the one true God of Israel, challenges the prophets of the Canaanite god, Baal, to a contest to demonstrate whose God is real. 

 

The terms of the contest were simple. The prophets of Baal and Elijah would each prepare an altar and each would sacrifice a bull on the altar. But neither would set a fire on the altar. Instead, each would call on the name of their god and whichever god answered with fire, that god was the true God.

 

Tim Keller in his recent article “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church: Part 3 — The Path to Renewal” points out that many Christians have seen this Old Testament account as a helpful metaphor for how God brings about renewal in the church. Keller defines a revival or renewal this way: “Revivals are periods of great spiritual awakening and growth. In revivals, ‘sleepy’ and lukewarm Christians wake up, nominal Christians get converted, and many skeptical non-believers are drawn to faith.”

 

Only God can bring the “fire of renewal.” Human technique and effort alone cannot produce renewal. Nor can the church compel or manipulate the means or timing of God’s work. However, this does not mean there is nothing we can do as we long for a fresh work of God in our lives, churches, and culture. We can build the altar. As noted by Keller,  “Christians looking for revival, they are ‘building the altar,’ praying that God will use their efforts to bring a fire of renewal with a movement of his Spirit.” 

 

In the first two installments of his four-part series of articles, Keller gives an account of the decline of both mainline and evangelical Christianity. Both articles are lengthy and nuanced and well worth careful reading. Keller’s point in both articles is summed up this way: 

 

Virtually everyone agrees that something is radically wrong with the church. Inside, there is more polarization and conflict than ever, with all factions agreeing (for different reasons) that the church is in deep trouble. Outside the church, journalists, sociologists, and all other observers either bemoan or celebrate the church’s decline numerically, institutionally, and in influence.

 

While the church is always in need of reforming and refining, it seems like this moment in American Christianity is in need of something more than refining. This seems to be a moment when something like renewal or revival is needed.

 

Over 30 years ago Christ Community was founded with the longing and prayer that this local church would be a catalyst for spiritual renewal in Kansas City. That longing and prayer still endures today.  

 

How can Christ Community build the altar?

Keller suggests three altar-building practices. 

 

Recovery of the gospel

It is all too easy for pastors and congregation members alike to functionally forget the radical good news of grace. This is the news that in Jesus we are completely known and loved — not because of anything we have done — but because of what Jesus has done for us. 

 

Theologian Kelly Kapic in his wonderful book You’re Only Human invites his readers to consider two questions. First, do you believe God loves you? He suggests that most Christians would say of course, God loves me. But then he poses a second question: does God like you? How would you respond? He writes: 

 

Have you ever felt that your parents or spouse or your God loved you, and yet wondered if they actually liked you? Love is so loaded with obligations and duty that it often loses all emotive force, all sense of pleasure and satisfaction. Like can remind us of an aspect of God’s love we can all too easily forget. Forgetting God’s delight and joy in us stunts our ability to enjoy God’s love. Forgiveness, as beautiful and crucial as it is, is not enough unless it is understood to come from love and lead back to love. Unless we understand the gospel in terms of God’s fierce delight in us — not merely a wiping away of prior offenses. Unless we understand God’s battle for us as a dramatic, personal rescue and not merely a cold forensic process, we have ignored most of the Scriptures as well as the needs of the human condition.

 

It is this understanding of gospel love and grace that is the keystone in the rebuilding of the altar.

 

Corporate prayer

The second altar-building practice is corporate prayer. While private individual prayer is vital, a quick survey of the history of renewal moments shows a common thread: Christians gathering together to pray for God to work and move.

 

As we seek the renewal of our churches and communities, prayer is critical. And not just corporate prayer within Christ Community but with other like-minded Christians and churches, especially across racial and socio-economic dividing lines. 

 

Creativity

Finally, altar-building is marked by creativity. No two renewal moments have looked exactly the same. Building the altar isn’t a matter of simply trying to reproduce the methods from previous moments. It is about looking for fresh insights into this particular moment, discerning how the Spirit is working. A fantastic resource for understanding this cultural moment and sparking creativity is Mark Sayers book Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture. Get a copy and read it with a group of other believers.

 

Conclusion

In the story of 1 Kings 18, not only does Elijah build the altar but he saturates it with water. The more soaked the altar is, the more dramatic the demonstration of God’s work and word. As we approach deeply contentious election seasons in 2022 and 2024, and face violence, war, and economic challenges in our nation and world, it is obvious; no mere human can light the fire. 

 

But we trust the resurrected King Jesus who, when He had ascended to the right hand of His Father in Heaven, sent the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in Acts 2 appeared as flames of fire above the heads of those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost.

This is my prayer: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we pray, we ask, we plead: do it again! For your glory and our good, make yourself known to us, renew us, heal us. Make us faithful to build the altar. We trust you and your timing for the fire. Amen.

What’s So Good About Good Friday?

What’s So Good About Good Friday?

There’s nothing like sleeping in a tent to make you appreciate your house and your bed! There’s nothing like travel to make you treasure home. Every year our family takes a road trip to visit national parks across the country. On those trips, we’ve made some of our best memories together. It is always sad when the trip comes to an end. However, we never appreciate our home and our beds more than when coming home from a long trip. 

 

The common comforts of home — running water at the turn of a handle, light at the flick of a switch, flushing toilets, cold food without constantly filling a cooler with ice — all seem spectacularly wonderful after two weeks of camping, motels, and hours upon hours in the car. 

 

Good Friday works a bit like that in the Christian life. On Good Friday at Christ Community, we remember vividly in our Tenebrae style Good Friday services the darkness -— literal and figurative — of Jesus’ death on the cross. And it is profoundly uncomfortable. Yet, it is the discomfort of Good Friday that helps us treasure the comfort of the gospel. It is for this reason that this service has become a favorite of so many.

 

Good Friday is a trip into the wilderness of Jesus’ death so that we might treasure our home in Jesus’ resurrection life all the more. This once-a-year trip into the grief of Jesus’ death on the cross for our sin helps thaw our hearts. Our hearts can so easily and quickly grow cold to the joy of the hope we have in the gospel. 

 

Poet Christina Rossetti felt this coldness in her own heart. In response, she penned the poem “Good Friday.” Published in 1866 as part of the collection The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems, she describes herself as a stone instead of a sheep and laments how she among all God’s creation is unmoved by the cross. Take a moment to reflect on her words. (Read them aloud if you can.)

 

Good Friday
Christina Rossetti

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,

That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,

To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,

And yet not weep?

 

Not so those women loved

Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;

Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;

Not so the thief was moved;

 

Not so the Sun and Moon

Which hid their faces in a starless sky,

A horror of great darkness at broad noon –

I, only I.

 

Yet give not o’er,

But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;

Greater than Moses, turn and look once more

And smite a rock.

On Good Friday we grieve, not without hope, but so that we may treasure the hope we have! We grieve so that we may be sheep, not stones. We grieve so that our stony hearts might melt. We grieve so that when we encounter the stone rolled away on Easter morning, our hearts may come alive with joy.

What Harvard Discovered About Kids and Church

What Harvard Discovered About Kids and Church

Getting kids to church can be a challenge — at any age. When they are infants it’s because it just takes so much work to pack them up. Kids at that age require so much gear! Later as toddlers, separation anxiety can make dropping them off at the Children’s Ministries area challenging to say the least. With elementary-age kids, sports and other activities can easily compete with and crowd out opportunities for kids to participate in church events. Then as pre-teens and teens, a normal and healthy burgeoning sense of autonomy can be challenging to parental suggestions or expectations for church involvement. 

So as a parent — at any stage — the question on any given weekend can understandably be Is it worth the effort and energy to help get my kids to church this week? 

Now I am a pastor so I know you’re probably not going to be shocked if I say, Yes! It’s worth it. (It feels a little like asking a personal trainer if working out is worth it. Of course they are going to say yes.) So I’m going to let someone else answer the question. 

Recently, Christianity Today magazine published a summary of findings about children’s health from researchers at Harvard’s (yes, that Harvard) T. H. Chan School of Public Health (i.e. not pastors). 

The researchers led by Tyler VanderWeele “…examined a large swath of data, collected over more than a decade, which tracked the development of 12,000 nurses’ children into their young adulthood. The longitudinal study surveyed social, physical, and mental health trends across the group—like substance abuse, anxiety/depression, community engagement, and sexual activity.”

The team was curious about how schooling choices and religious service attendance correlated to health outcomes. Here’s what they found:

In comparing key health indicators, the researchers found little difference between the long-term well-being of adolescents who attended public school and those who went to private school. (All of the kids who participated were between the ages of 9-14 when the study began.)  

So parents you can breathe a little sigh of relief there. But what about religious service attendance? How much does that matter? 

“What we found was that religious service attendance makes a bigger difference than religious schooling,” [VanderWeele] said. “Religious service attendance has beneficial effects across the different school types and has stronger effects than religious schooling.”

 

In other words, the kids who grew up attending church regularly rated far higher in overall well-being as young adults than those who went to a religious school but did not go to religious services during their formative years.

Did you catch that? If you take two kids — one who attends church once a week regularly and another who goes to a religious school five days a week but attends church only sporadically — it is the regular church attendee who fares better. The researchers concluded that “…religious service attendance in youth was clearly the more dominant force in shaping health and well-being, at least as this pertains to the data and experiences 20 years ago.” 

Here’s the bottom line from the Christianity Today summary: 

Furthermore, “regular service attendance helps shield children from the ‘big three’ dangers of adolescence: depression, substance abuse, and premature sexual activity,” VanderWeele writes in his latest article for Christianity Today. “People who attended church as children are also more likely to grow up happy, to be forgiving, to have a sense of mission and purpose, and to volunteer.”

 

“So regardless of school type,” VanderWeele says, “it’s beneficial to go to religious services, both as an adolescent and as an adult.”

These findings highlight the beauty and wisdom of God’s design for the local church. When parents dedicate their children at Christ Community, one of the questions they are asked is: Do you promise, before God and this congregation, that you will be faithful in worship, both in the home and in the church?

Those two spaces —the home and church — are vital to human health and flourishing. This is why Christ Community’s Children’s Ministries and Student Ministries staff and volunteers put so much effort into equipping parents. Parents play an outsized role in their children’s faith development. However, what the Harvard analysis shows  is clear. It isn’t enough to simply be faithful in worship at home if we want our children to truly flourish. It also requires being faithful in a worshiping community; a local church.

Five Practical Reminders for Financial Fitness

Five Practical Reminders for Financial Fitness

A number of years ago Forbes Magazine compiled their “Top 100 Money Quotes of All Time.” Here are a few of my favorites:

 
  • Too many people spend money they earned…to buy things they don’t want…to impress people that they don’t like. –Will Rogers
  • I love money. I love everything about it. I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks. Got a fur sink. An electric dog polisher. A gasoline powered turtleneck sweater. And, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too. –Steve Martin
  • Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery. –Charles Dickens
  • I made my money the old-fashioned way. I was very nice to a wealthy relative right before he died. –Malcolm Forbes
  • We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. –Winston Churchill
  • My formula for success is rise early, work late and strike oil. –JP Getty

However, lasting financial fitness requires more than pithy humor and insightful inspiration; it also requires a few consistent habits practiced over a lifetime. Every year in our Church for Monday class, we share these five practical reminders for financial fitness.

 

1 – Make a Plan

Whether you call it a spending plan or a budget, use cash envelopes or build your own custom, macro-laden spreadsheet, you will never experience consistent financial fitness without a plan.

A good plan will allocate money for regularly occurring expenses (groceries, gas, utilities, rent/mortgage, insurance) as well as periodic expenses (property taxes, vacations, Christmas presents, car replacement).

Identifying and then regularly allocating (read: saving) money for those periodic expenses is the real game-changer. Christmas comes on Dec 25 every year. It should never sneak up on us from a spending standpoint. Yet, how often do we rack up credit card debt in November and December buying Christmas gifts? If you spend $600 on Christmas presents each year, you can set aside $50 each month and have the money ready.

There are some great digital tools to help you manage a budget/spending plan including EveryDollar, Mint, and my favorite, YNAB

 

2 – Minimize Debt

While Christians have a variety of perspectives on what it is appropriate to use debt for — from nothing at all ever to only a mortgage to maybe a car or always for education or a business startup — biblical wisdom always favors keeping debt to a minimum. A general rule of thumb might go something like this: Avoid debt whenever possible. Only take on the minimum amount of debt when necessary. Pay back debt as quickly as possible.

For the best teaching on debt under 3 minutes, click here.

3 – Create Margin

Margin is the key to eliminating misery in your money. That’s Charles Dickens’s point in the quote from the Forbes list above. If you make $50,000/year and spend/save/invest $49,500, you feel great. If you make $50,000/year and spend $50,500, you always feel miserable and behind. 

It is that margin, that little bit of wiggle room in our finances that enables us to care for others, to be generous when unexpected needs arise. Creating margin is the key to having the capacity to help others in need. As Pastor Tom Nelson puts so powerfully in The Economics of Neighborly Love

“If we have compassion without capacity, we have human frustration. If we have capacity without compassion, we have human alienation. If we have compassion and capacity, we have human transformation. We have neighborly love.” (p. 16)

 

When we are moved to help and we have the margin to help, we get to experience a joy we would otherwise miss.  

 

4 – Monitor Lifestyle Creep 

Lifestyle creep is what happens when we always increase our standard of living whenever we gain a new level of income. Sometimes when we get a better paying job, a raise, or simply a cost-of-living adjustment, every new dollar is absolutely necessary to meet basic expenses or pay back debt. But other times our current income is meeting our needs and the additional income puts a choice before us: Do we increase our standard of living? Do we buy a new car, a bigger house, nicer clothes, upgrade from only Aldi to only WholeFoods?

Increases in our standard of living are not necessarily bad. It’s good to celebrate and enjoy the good gifts we’ve been given. But we need to be aware of two things when increasing our standard of living. 

First, we should do it intentionally, not accidentally. It is so easy to just start spending more. If you’re going to increase your standard of living, do it on purpose. Think about it. Pray about it. Ask close friends for wisdom. Make sure you won’t end up making choices that make you marginless and miserable, just at a higher standard of living. 

Second, we have to recognize once you step up your standard of living it is really hard to step down. It’s harder to go back to driving an older car or living in a smaller house or taking less elaborate vacations, once you’ve upgraded. So be careful about going too big. 

 

5 – Start Giving, Increase Giving

​​Jesus said, “It is better to give than receive.” (Acts 20:35) A generous life according to Jesus is the best life. But how much should we give?  C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusement, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our giving does not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say it is too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our commitment to giving excludes them.”

A good rule of thumb rooted in the Scriptures and Christian tradition and practice is 10%. But what if you feel like there is no way you could give 10% and still make ends meet? Start somewhere? Could you give 6%? 3%? 1%? Start somewhere and then seek to increase. Likewise, we shouldn’t let 10% be a speed limit on our giving either. There’s no verse that says, “Thou shalt not give away more than 10%.” The goal is cultivating generosity and joy not fixating on percentages. 

If you feel stuck in your finances, reach out to one of your pastors. We would love to pray with you and connect you with resources that can help you experience greater satisfaction and freedom in managing, sharing, and enjoying the financial resources God has entrusted to you.

A Liturgy Against Shame Before Creating

A Liturgy Against Shame Before Creating

The greatest enemy to creativity isn’t lack of time, money, tools, or training. The greatest enemy of creativity and productivity is shame. More than distraction or busyness, shame steals the energy and courage required to create. And even more disastrously, shame disrupts the relationships that are necessary for creating and producing together. Even creative tasks that are undertaken alone are always done in dialogue with other minds, in conversation with other image-bearers. Shame disrupts creativity and productivity causing us to hide from one another. Shame breathes lies. Shame lies and says:

You’re an idiot. You have no business doing this work. You’re going to fail. You always fail. You’re never good enough. You never will be good enough. You’re a fraud. This is so derivative, so unoriginal. Nobody will care about this work. Nobody should care about this work. It’s trash. People will laugh at you. People will steal your work. People will think what you are doing is dumb. 

The louder the voice of shame, the more energy it takes to overcome it and create something good and beautiful. It robs us of energy we could otherwise use to create. This is a major theme in Curt Thompson’s work. Curt is a Christian psychologist and author who writes on the themes of shame and creativity, andt Christ Community recently had the privilege of hosting him for an evening conversation. You can watch his talk HERE and read more in his books The Soul of Shame and The Soul of Desire.

All of us are creating even if we aren’t professional graphic artists or creative writers. Making dinner is a creative act. Building a presentation slide deck and building a deck on your house are creative acts. Putting together spreadsheets and spreading fresh sheets on the bed are creative acts. 

And wherever there is the potential for creativity and ushering goodness and beauty into the world, shame is lurking — seeking at all costs to choke and strangle that creativity. I want to offer you a practice for combating shame when you’re preparing to create. This is a liturgy, a prayer, for combating shame that you can use when you begin a creative endeavor. 

Liturgy Against Shame Before Creating 

All:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
You are the Creator and Sustainer
of everyone and everything,
You uphold the universe by the Word of Your Power.

Leader:
You have made us creative collaborators in your image;
Male and female you have created us. 

Created us to be creative.
Created us to draw out all the fulness and beauty
of the world you have lovingly formed and fashioned.

Yet now as we stand on the precipice of this creative endeavor,
the threshold of this good work,
this good work, O Lord, which you have prepared for us to do,
we find ourselves haunted by shame.

In the face of this shame,
we shrink back, we hide;
we grow suspicious of others,
contemptuous of ourselves.

King Jesus, who for the joy set before You despised the shame of the cross,
teach us now to despise this shame.
Against the lie of shame which says, I am worthless.
We speak the truth of Your voice:

We are fearfully and
wonderfully made.

Against the lie of shame which says, I have nothing to offer.
We speak the truth of Your voice:

We are God’s handiwork,
created in Christ Jesus to do good works,
which You prepared in advance for us to do.

Against the lie of shame which says, They can’t be trusted, they will hurt you.
We speak the truth of your voice:

We are all baptized by one Spirit into one body,
we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, defend us now
from all the assaults of shame.
And shepherd us into the green pastures of your goodness and beauty.

Amen.