Saturday, August 5, 2017

Discovering your God given purpose - an illustration


This weekend I am leading our first Church Board Advance since coming to Gastonia First Wesleyan Church. We had an advance planned for last year, however every church board member notified me 24 hours before the advance that they must cancel, thus the event was cancelled and my heart was discouraged. This year I have been consumed in preparing for this weekend. 

In the closing session today, I plan to share an insightful true story of what it means to discover your God given purpose and live it out to the glory of God.  I am reaching way back into my files to bring a favorite illustration. 


Chariots of Fire is a 1981 British historical drama film. It tells the fact-based story of two athletes in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice. Winner of 4 Academy Awards including Best Picture.

The crack of the starter gun echoed through the stadium on the hot Friday evening in July of 1924. Eric Liddell sprinted forward in his unusual running style, his head thrown back, his arms waving at his side, his feet barely touching the track as he ran. No one, not even Eric himself, thought he had a chance of winning the 400-meter race. But Eric was determined to do his best. Eric Liddell was Scotland's fastest sprinter. He was their hero. He had won every 100-meter race he had run since early in his running career. His quick speed earned him a spot on the 100-meter British Olympic team.

A Day of Rest 

However, Eric Liddell had announced to his country that he could not run in the Olympic 100-meter race because the finals were scheduled on a Sunday. Sunday was a day of worship and rest for Eric. He would not run even if he were his country's only hope of winning an Olympic gold medal. This made the Scottish people very upset with Eric. They wrote bad things about him in the newspaper. Some people even called him a traitor. But Eric stood firm. He had never run on Sunday and never would, not even for an Olympic gold medal.

With very little time remaining before the Olympics began, Eric trained and qualified for another race that was not scheduled on a Sunday. Eric knew his chance of winning the 400-meter race was slim because two of the runners in this race had set world record times. In addition, on the day of the race, Eric was assigned the worst lane. But a note in his pocket encouraged him. The team trainer had given it to him before he left his hotel room. It read, "He who honors Him, He (God) will honor." Liddell knew his decision not to run on Sunday honored God.

Going for the Gold 

As Eric rounded the turn on the track where all the runners usually come together, he expected to see the world record holders ahead of him. But he was there alone. He threw his head back even more than usual and pumped his legs as fast as he could. Eric crossed the finish line first, winning the gold medal! He had also set a new world record! Eric received a hero's welcome when he returned home. The newspapers now tried to outdo each other praising him. But Liddell knew their praise would not last long. He would soon announce his plan to stop running and go to China to tell people about Jesus.

Off to China 

Eric Liddell was born in China. His parents were missionaries there. He spent his early childhood playing among the Chinese children. He spoke their language perfectly. He knew God was calling him to return to China to help teach the Chinese people about Jesus. It was a dangerous time to return however. Japanese soldiers had invaded China and were treating the Chinese people badly. They killed many of them, burned their villages, and destroyed their crops. When Eric arrived in China, it was even worse than he expected. It was not the land he had left many years before. The Chinese, whom he once played with, now did not want foreigners in their country.

Despite the difficulties Liddell stayed. He was sure God had called him to China. He began teaching at a British-run Chinese college. He loved teaching the boys and challenging them in sports. Life would not remain so simple for him though. The conditions in China were growing worse by the day. The mission's board chairman asked Eric to move to the area in which he had grown up. The people there needed comfort and hope in the midst of the Japanese devastation. Many Chinese people in this area also hated Christians. Missionaries were likely to be shot without question. Eric discussed it with his wife and though it was hard to leave, he knew he was the best person to go.

Eric Liddell worked long hours traveling in the war-torn area preaching and tending the sick. Many times, he had to carry the injured to the hospital on his bike over rough roads while dodging gunfire. Sometimes it would take an entire day to get to the village hospital. In the meantime, the Japanese were taking over more of the country and there was talk that all foreigners would be locked up.

Captured, but not Stopped 

The day quickly arrived when all foreigners were forced to move into an overcrowded prison camp. They lived in very bad conditions. There was no running water, the bathrooms did not work, and they were given only a small bowl of soup and bread at each meal. Eric made the best of it though. He knew they could be there for a very long time. He set up church services, schooling for the children, sporting activities, and helped take care of the sick.       He became the most respected person in the camp because of his good attitude.

However, after being in the camp for almost two years, Liddell became very sick. He had a stroke and was unable to walk. The man, who had helped so many, now could not help himself. One morning Eric, the super athlete, who was now only 43, began to have trouble breathing. A little girl, who had come to visit, ran to get help. When she returned with a friend of Eric's, he looked up at his friend and said, "It is surrender." Eric died that same day. It was later determined that he had a large brain tumor. The entire camp mourned his death. When news reached Scotland a few months later, the entire country also mourned the death of their beloved athlete who died at such a young age.

Eric Liddell would not have ever imagined it, but his devotion to God and commitment to spread the story of Jesus did not end in that brutal prison camp. His life and testimony is remembered around the world. His story has touched the hearts of millions through a movie about him that won the Academy Award. It is called Chariots of Fire. 



Monday, July 10, 2017

Why People Believe All Roads Lead to Heaven



When I was a freshman in high school, I tried out for the varsity basketball team. On the first day of tryouts, the coach ran a scrimmage, periodically sending players into the game to see how they played. When my turn came, I intercepted a pass on the very first play. Then I took the ball the length of the court, skyed over every other player and made the prettiest layup you ever saw.

The coach instantly blew the whistle, stopped the game and called me over to the bench. I was walking 10 feet off the ground. I just knew my shot was so good that he had to stop the game just to tell me. I envisioned that ESPN had called and wanted the footage, and that Sports Illustrated had every intention of running a photo of me on the next cover. The shoe deal with Nike was only a matter of time. So I walked – actually, strutted – to the sideline.

My coach said, "White, that was a great shot. Your form was great; your intensity was great. Only thing is, you went to the wrong basket – but it was a great shot!"

Is there a right and a wrong basket in the spiritual game? Is Christianity the only way to score with God or simply one of many ways? For today's unchurched person, this is hardly academic. The religious landscape of modern American society can be nothing less than bewildering. Religious groups, sects, cults, movements, philosophies and worldviews abound in incredible numbers and diversity.

Add to this mix one of the most pervasive, fundamental convictions of contemporary American society: All roads lead to God, and to say that one way is right and all the other ways are wrong is narrow-minded, bigoted and prejudicial. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me. 

Searching for God is like climbing a mountain. Since everyone knows there is not just one way to climb a mountain – mountains are too big for that – each person can choose from a number of paths. All the ideas about God contained in the various religions of the world are just different ways up the mountain. In fact, though different religions have different names for God, the names all refer to the same God.

Is it true that a lot of roads lead to heaven, which means we really don't have to worry about which road we're on? Is it true that no person, no religion, no group, no book has a handle on the truth? Is it true that all religions are basically the same and all religious leaders are essentially of one mind so that ultimately all spiritual pursuits lead to the same place? If so, people need not look for spiritual truth. They just need to decide on spiritual preference.
If you embrace the idea that multiple paths lead to God and you turn out to be wrong, the consequences are enormous. 

So let's explore the reasons why people hold to this belief:

1. There Are So Many Religions

The sheer number of faiths from which to choose convinces some people that there is more than one path to God. Religious pluralism has existed for centuries, but people have never been exposed to as many faith options as we are today. As the number of religious options increases in one's mind, the idea that one option represents ultimate spiritual truth lessens. Yet the mere presence of options has little to do with whether a particular faith might be true, nor whether ultimate spiritual truth actually exists. The simple fact is that a test may be multiple-choice, but that does not mean it has multiple answers.


2. The Belief That All Religions Are Basically the Same

The idea that all paths are legitimate is also fueled by the sentiment that all religions are basically the same. Many introductory courses in world religions on the high school and college level stress the common denominators of religion throughout time and culture. While these courses may reveal certain similarities, it is also true that they contradict each other in crucial areas. For example, Christians believe in God, while some Buddhists don't even teach that there is a God. Christians also embrace Jesus' claim that He was God in human form who came to restore our relationship with God. Muslims, on the other hand, don't believe that Jesus was God at all. Christians believe in truth and error, right and wrong, morality and immorality, while adherents to the various forms of New Age thinking contend that there are no absolutes and everything is relative.

You can say that somebody is right and somebody is wrong, or say that everyone is wrong, but you can't say that everybody believes basically the same thing. That would be intellectually dishonest in light of the facts. If God exists—unless He is some senile, confused, muddled, schizophrenic, unbalanced being who isn't sure what He stands for—there is religious truth and religious falsehood among the competing views. And the areas of disagreement among those views are not trivial in nature. The nature of God, the identity of Jesus, and how we enter into a relationship with God are of paramount importance. 

To return to our mountain climbing analogy in which all paths lead to the same peak, the truth is that there isn't a single peak, much less a single idea of what the peak even looks like. Instead, the mountain has many different peaks, which raises a significant question: How do you get to the highest one?

3. The Idea That Sincerity Is What Matters

"It isn't what a person believes that matters, but how he or she believes it; all that really matters is one's sincerity." Something deep inside of us knows, and I think correctly, that the nature of true spirituality is somehow connected with authenticity. But it is one thing to value sincerity and another to make sincerity the lone characteristic of spiritual truth. How you believe matters, but so does what you believe. If you say it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere, you miss a very important point: You can be sincerely wrong.

If I have a headache in the middle of the night and I blindly reach into my medicine cabinet, I can sincerely believe I am taking an aspirin. But if I am really taking cyanide, my sincerity will not save me from the perils of the poison I've ingested. Sincerity matters, but it cannot be all that matters because sincerity alone cannot alter reality. Therefore, it is not simply the sincerity of our faith that matters but the object of our faith as well. Faith is very much like a rope – it matters what you tie it to.


4. The Belief That No Religious Group Should Think It's Better Than Any Other

Some people are offended by religious groups who think their religion is better than any other religion. They believe that because God is so big and our understanding is so small, it is nothing less than arrogance and narrow-mindedness for a single religious group to maintain that it holds all truth. To ensure that tolerance of other people's views exists, one should not claim some people are wrong and some people are right—or that "wrongness" or "rightness" even exist. But let's imagine a young student who is given a question on a math test in school. The question is: "What is 2 + 2?" The answer, of course, is "4." But let's say the child answers "37." Is the teacher intolerant, narrow-minded and bigoted if he/she corrects the answer?

Everyone must avoid a spirit that persecutes people for their differing beliefs or denies them their religious freedom. But this spirit of tolerance is different from believing all points of view are equally valid. Just because you come to a conclusion about where you should place your spiritual trust does not mean you are intolerant of other beliefs. It does not even mean you deny that some truth can be found in other perspectives. 

As C. S. Lewis once observed, "If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through… If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions contain at least some hint of the truth." Returning to our math student, there is one and only one right answer to "2 + 2," but there are some answers that are much closer to being right than others.


5. They Don't Believe in Truth

Ultimately, the question is whether people believe in truth and today many do not. A study by the Barna Research Group discovered that 66% of all Americans deny the existence of absolute truth. As Allan Bloom has observed from his years teaching in a university classroom, there "is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of. Almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative."

The most enduring and accepted definition of truth is the correspondence between our ideas or perceptions, and reality. If I make the statement "It is raining," it is true if I look outside and find that it is raining. What is true is that which actually is. The belief in more than one way to God is really a belief that truth does not exist or, even more to the point, that it doesn't matter. Yet nowhere in life does this match our experience. 

There is not a single area of life where you can make any choice you want from a wide array of options and achieve the same result or experience. Even a skeptic as noteworthy as Sigmund Freud maintained that if "it were really a matter of indifference what we believed, then we might just as well build our bridges of cardboard as of stone, or inject a tenth of a gramme of morphia into a patient instead of a hundredth, or take tear-gas as a narcotic instead of ether."

The question, therefore, isn't "Is there truth?", (there is, and we live our lives by it every day) but "Can spiritual truth be found?"

Perhaps now the most incredible spiritual claim in all of human history can be heard. Jesus said: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Not a way, a truth or alife, but the way, the truth and the life. It is this idea that marks the Christian faith. In the Book of Acts, we read the apostle Peter's proclamation: "It is by the name of Jesus Christ… Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:10,12).

While there are many religions from which to choose, they differ radically from one another, and choosing where to place your spiritual trust is neither narrow-minded nor intolerant.

Truth exists, and it matters.

If all roads do not lead to God, then a spiritual search will lead you to the scandalous reality of one way. And for the Christ follower, that way is through a person:

Jesus Christ.



Sources
Adapted from James Emery White, A Search for the Spiritual (Baker). 

Additional sources can be found in the endnotes of this book.

Knechtle, Give Me an Answer.


C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Friday, July 7, 2017

Try Not To Laugh Challenge - Step up and enjoy!


Here is my first Try Not To Laugh Challenge  with comedian Jeanne Robertson. If you have what it takes to take the challenge then step up. Good Luck. Enjoy Everyone.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

Is there a "death spiral for churches today?

I recently read the following from a post by Thom Rainer:

65 percent of churches are declining or plateaued. For most of us, that number was better than the conventional “wisdom” we have heard. In that sense it was good news.

Over 61 percent of churches average fewer than 100 in worship attendance. Yes, we are a nation of small churches. I love it. I love small churches.

But if your church has fewer than 100 in worship, it is likely to be a declining church. In fact two out of three of these small churches are declining.

Even more, there is a direct correlation with the rate of decline in a church and the size of the church. Simply stated, the smaller the church, the greater the rate of decline in attendance. Perhaps these three statements will clarify my point:

  • A declining church with an attendance of 200 or more declines at a rate of 4 percent each year.

  • A declining church with an attendance of less than 100 declines at a rate of 7.6 percent per year.

  • A declining church with an attendance of less than 50 declines at a rate of 8.7 percent a year.
It’s a death spiral. Declining smaller churches decline much more rapidly than larger churches. Once the declining church goes below 100 in attendance, its days are likely numbered.


Here is the sad summary statement of this portion of the research: Once a church declines below 100 in worship attendance, it is likely to die within just a few years. The life expectancy for many of these churches is ten years or less.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Churches in America



By:  Ed Stetzer

The polls are in and the news is bad for the Church in America. 

Christianity is on the decline, Americans have given up on God, and the “Nones”—those who have no religious ties—are on the rise. It is indeed true that parts of the Christian Church in America are struggling, while a growing number of Americans are far from God.

As head of a research firm that studies the church and culture, I often tell pastors and other Christian leaders that “facts are our friends.” Surveys and other polls are a bit like running a series of tests during an annual physical. The scale, stethoscope, and blood tests don’t lie. There is no positive spin on your increased weight, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Research data gives us a realistic picture of our health—rather than the overly optimistic view we’d prefer.

What the Numbers Tell Us (If We Will Listen)

Overall, the Church’s influence on Americans is beginning to fade.
So what do the numbers tell us about the Church in America?
Overall, the Church’s influence on Americans is beginning to fade. A growing number of Americans have given up on God—or at least on organized religion. They have become “Nones,” a term popularized by Pew Research. And their numbers are growing.

Pew’s 2007 Religious Landscape study, which surveyed 35,000 respondents, found that about 16% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. By 2015, that number had grown to 23%, almost one in four Americans.

Gallup, another well-respected national firm, gives a wider view of the rise of the Nones. In 1967, Gallup found that about 2% of Americans—or 1 out of every 50—claimed no religious preference. By 2014, that number had grown to 16%, or about 1 in 7.

Pew has also tracked the decline in the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christians. In 2007, Pew found that about 8 in 10 Americans identified as Christians. That number dropped to 7 in 10 in 2014—a statistically significant change in a relatively short time. Pew also found that less than half of Americans (46.5%) now identify as Protestants for the first time in American history.

The Pew data demonstrates a consistent and noteworthy increase among Americans who are disconnected from faith. If this trend continues, and we have every reason to believe that it will, this portion of society will become increasingly prominent and perhaps even become a majority.

These studies show that American religion is in a period of slow decline, says Mark Chaves of Duke University: “None of this decline is happening fast, and levels of religious involvement in the United States continue to remain very high by world standards. But the signs of decline are unmistakable.”

There is no credible research showing that Christianity is dying in America.

Pew’s findings have led some to forecast the complete collapse of Christianity in the United States. The data, however, implies a more complex reality. Frankly, there is no credible research showing that Christianity is dying in America despite the flashy headlines we often see.

Instead, American religion is simultaneously growing and in decline. Fewer people claim to be Christians, but churchgoers—those who regularly attend services—are holding steady in some segments, and thriving in others.

America the Devout?

To gain further perspective, let’s look at Pew’s data alongside data from the General Social Survey. The GSS, which began in 1972, is particularly helpful for tracking trends in religious belief and practice.
Some background: the GSS uses a classification of religious tradition commonly known as RELTRAD, which was devised with both doctrinal and historical changes in religious groups in view. This classification system is particularly helpful as we look deeper at the data and seek to understand the nuanced reality of American religion.

The GSS shows only a slight decline among frequent churchgoers.
For example, after seeing recent polls, including Pew’s data, some concluded that the number of churchgoers has collapsed. When we look at the GSS, however, a different picture emerges. The GSS shows only a slight decline among frequent churchgoers. In all likelihood, that decline will be reversed as the data returns to the mean. This should hardly be categorized as a collapse, and in no way affirms popular doom and gloom predictions.

Church attendance data over time is important here. In 1940, 37% of Americans said, “yes,” when asked by Gallup if they had been to church within the last week. In 2015, almost the same number—36%—said they’d been to church. Hardly a collapse; reasonable people, as Chaves described them, don’t need to disagree when the facts are this clear.

What’s more, according to the GSS, we find a stable percentage of the Protestant population attending church regularly—no prodigious drop in Protestant church attendance. Instead, over the past 40 years, the share of Americans who regularly attends a Protestant church has only declined from 23% to 20%.


The reality is that the United States remains a remarkably devout nation. Taken as a whole, about 4 in 10 Americans claims to go to church weekly. Further, more than 138 million Americans—or 44% of the population—belong to a congregation, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Monday, July 3, 2017

A Prayer for America


As we prepare our celebrate our Nation's Independence Day, we pause to remember why we celebrate.