A Brief Summary of Ancient Montanism

August 30, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith

fire graphicMontanism was considered a heretical movement by the early church.  Founded by the self-proclaimed prophet, Montanus, in the Second Century AD, it began as a ministry within the Christian Church in the region of Phrygia in modern Turkey.   Montanism then spread throughout Asia Minor, with many villages and towns converted to the movement.   In the next century, Montanism was also established in North Africa under the leadership of the bishop Tertullian.

Although little is known about Montanus himself, it is clear that before his conversion to Christianity, he was a priest of the mystery cult of Cybele.  The circumstances of his conversion to Christianity are not recorded.  His ministry, however, quickly became separate from conventional Christianity because of its emphasis on ongoing, authoritative prophecy and ecstatic experience, its extra-canonical writings and its independence from the rule of established bishops.

The receptivity of Phrygia to the Montanist message may have been due to the fact that in the pre-Christian era, this region had been a center of several mystery cults whose worship was characterized by ecstatic activities.  Since the main Montanist writings have been lost, the chief sources for the history of the movement are found in the Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, the writings of Tertullian and Epiphanius, and various inscriptions in modern Turkey.

The essential principle of Montanism was that the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) was manifesting himself through Montanus and the prophets associated with him.  For example, Montanus claimed to speak directly from God in his announcement that the second coming of Christ was imminent.  He was often associated with two young women, Prisca and Maximilla, who had left their husbands to be associated with his ministry.  They soon became leaders within the movement and exercised their own prophetic ministries.  The Montanist prophecies, while rejected by the established church, were recorded and gathered together as sacred documents for use within their congregations.  Only about a score of their oracles have survived into modern times.  However, Epiphanius comments that these prophecies, “..manifest a kind of enthusiasm that dupes those who are present, and provokes them to tears, leading to repentance”.

The movement did not at first question the authority of church leadership or deny any essential Christian doctrines.  Because of this, the Montanists were able to enjoy a brief period of acceptance by the established church, since it had always acknowledged the return of Christ and the gift of prophecy.  It soon became clear, however, that the Montanist prophecy was something different from what the church ordinarily accepted.  The fact that Montanus claimed to have the final revelation of the Holy Spirit, implied that something could be added to teaching of Christ and the Apostles.  Hence, their official condemnation by the established church around the year 177 AD.

Because of his conviction that the end of the world was at hand, Montanus prescribed a strict moral code for his followers in order to detach them from their physical desires and prepare them for Christ’s coming.  This code included a renunciation of marriage, fasting, the desire for martyrdom and a rigorous process of penance.

Although Montanism benefited from the endorsement of its most famous convert, Tertullian of Carthage, even his influence could not halt its decline after 313 as the Christian Church, with the backing of the Roman government, increasingly applied pressure upon the movement until its extinction in the Sixth Century.

Michael Bogart

Helpful Questions to Facilitate Church Change

August 30, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Ministry Helps

Man ChangingTimeRecently, the church where I serve as associate pastor went through a process of evaluation.  As I participated in the process, it reminded me of several times I did this sort of thing in my solo pastorate in years gone by.  So after some reflection, I have come up with a list of evaluative questions which I hope will be helpful for churches and ministries desiring positive change.

  • What are some of our strengths which we can affirm and celebrate?
  • What are the major weaknesses which we should admit and deal with?
  • How can we legitimately minimize the possible negative effects of those areas of ministry which we cannot provide as effectively as other local churches (such as music, youth work, children programs, etc)?
  • Are there sins we must confess as a congregation?
  • If so, how should they be identified and discussed?
  • What will true repentance look like in our congregation?
  • Does the inner circle of our people desire to address core issues affecting change or are they content to do business as usual?
  • Is it acceptable to those desiring change if the key leadership decides that status quo is desirable?
  • What are the key “church health issues” we must address?
  • Do the people have the moral will to see desired changes implemented?
  • What will be the financial and personal costs as well as the impact on morale for necessary changes to be made?
  • What tangible benefits can the congregation anticipate if changes are made?
  • What are some reasonable goals we must begin to achieve within the next three months?  Six months?  Within the next year?
  • How should these goals be prioritized?
  • What is the overall timetable for the achievement of these goals?
  • Who will see these goals through to completion?
  • How will we know when we have achieved our goals satisfactorily?

I hope this is helpful.  Michael Bogart

The Disturbing Jesus

August 30, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Ministry Helps, Thoughts

Jesus4For many, the person and ministry of Jesus has become a very comfortable part of life– so comfortable in fact that we can almost function on automatic when it comes to thinking and talking about him.  One of my tried and true remedies against taking Jesus for granted has been to read the gospels more closely.  When I have done this, I have found a depiction of Christ, which at times, has both startled and troubled me.  Here are some examples of what I mean.

Jesus, the Friend of Outcasts. The religious establishment of the day regularly criticized Jesus for associating with the wrong people.  He spoke with, ate with and spent time with a variety of those labeled as “undesirable” by the religious establishment, including swindling tax collectors, prostitutes, the severely diseased, Roman officials, and Jews lapsed from religious practice.  Understood properly, this might disturb our view of Jesus for a couple of reasons:

First, it challenges the typical comfort zone of middle class people (like me) because we rarely come in contact with these types of people.  Many of us have been raised in a circle which largely excludes people whose lifestyles are considered unsavory or improper in some way.  We have come to consider ourselves as somehow a cut above those people and immune from their situations.  The fact that Jesus would deliberately invite Levi the tax collector (otherwise known as Matthew) to be one of his inner- circle disciples, is so outside of the way we choose associates that it almost seems incomprehensible.

Then there is the very mindset from which Jesus befriended these social misfits.  He cared about them, but he also expected that they would not remain in a lifestyle of selfishness, immorality, victimization or self-destruction.  It is noteworthy that though Jesus did not condemn the woman taken in adultery, he gave her permission to become something new by commanding her to “…go and sin no more.” (John chapter 8).  Change was both possible and required as proof of her repentance and faith.

It would seem in my own experience as one raised in the steady, consistent, hard-working and respectable middle class, that we are often willing to have compassion on outcasts as long as it costs us little.  When we are involved with those in what would seem to be destructive lifestyles, we expect very little from them in terms of the ability to be other than what they are.  A dishonest person is basically stuck in their dishonesty.  The same goes for an immoral or physically disabled person.  To many of us, a person who has a mindset of dependency will always be that way simply because they aren’t up to making the cut into our class—the respectable, stable, competent people.   Jesus’ treatment of people turns these notions upside down.

The Jesus Who Loves His Church. During his ministry, Jesus gathered a group of followers and forged them into a community which was to be sacrificially devoted to one another.  Upon his departure from the earth, this community became the Church.  The book of Acts records the fact that as new people heard the good news about Jesus and believed, they became members of the community.  Jesus taught them that his good news would only be demonstrated powerfully as the truth when his people are devoted to one another: “People will be convinced that you are my disciples through your love for one another.”   This was no social club, no casual fraternity.  This was a profound change of allegiance.

Many people in the Twenty-first Century are highly individualistic.  Such a sacrificial community doesn’t suit either our personal sensibilities or our cultural patterns.  Even when we do belong to a congregation of Christians, many of us are almost as likely to change our affiliations as we are to seek different employment.  We complain about how the church doesn’t meet our needs.  We seldom volunteer to help in any meaningful way.  We are unconcerned when fellow Christians suffer.  It is little wonder that outsiders aren’t terribly excited about the Christian faith.  Why would they be intrigued about Christ’s Church when they see us behaving with such apathy towards something Jesus loves?

The Non-Materialistic Jesus. It has been correctly said that Jesus had more to say about money and possessions than about heaven and hell combined.  He once advised a wealthy and very religious young man to sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the poor before being eligible for entrance into the Kingdom of God.  He warned that it is impossible to serve both God and material wealth because one will always win out over the other.  There isn’t enough room in a person’s heart for devotion to both.

Jesus was known personally as one who frequently had nowhere to lay his head at night.  He was supported during much of his ministry through the generosity of wealthy patrons.  At the end of his life he literally was left with the clothes on his back, and even these were confiscated by his executioners.

How do we square all this with our obsession over money, possessions, comfort and even luxury?   Obviously some people are going to end up wealthy because of hard work, smart investments or fortunate birth, but never does the New Testament condemn wealth or possessions themselves.  It is, however, decidedly against the kind of devotion to these things which makes them the central focus of one’s life and the keeping of them at all costs.  Need I explain how uncomfortable this makes most of us?

The Non-Political Jesus. Everyone likes to find in Jesus an ally for their particular political and social views.  Marxist guerillas in Latin America claim Jesus as a fellow revolutionary and liberator of the poor.  Capitalists claim Jesus as a friend of free enterprise.  Homosexual activists point out that Jesus never married and theorize a gay Christ in an effort to support their social agenda.  Yet it is dangerous to read such foreign concepts into the Jesus of the New Testament.

If Jesus is examined impartially in the gospels, his teachings are strictly non-political.  When asked if Jews should pay taxes imposed by their Roman conquerors, Jesus’ enigmatic reply was , “..give Caesar what is due him, but be sure you give God what is rightfully his.”  Jesus was careful to pay his own tax to the Romans, yet he refused to acknowledge Rome’s ultimate authority over his life when facing Pontius Pilate.

This is not to say that his teachings have no political implications: they most certainly do.  However, Jesus’ goal was never to transform governments or the social order, but to transform people from the inside out.  Jesus acknowledged that he was indeed a king (in fact, rightful heir to the throne of David) yet he stated clearly that his kingdom was not of this world.  It was something that people brought into their lives by choosing allegiance to him.  It would spread from life to life until all nations would be represented and then it would come fully on earth.   No armies would bring it by conquest; no governing bodies would enact it by law; no violent revolution would establish it by force.  Although at times, Christians have attempted all of these methods to establish or enhance Christ’s Kingdom, in every case the result has been less than satisfactory.

It is an inner kingdom.  It is a kingdom taking form through a brotherhood, a sisterhood, a family of faith.  It is a kingdom growing despite (or even because of) persecution and hardship.  Christ’s  kingdom is coming with such certainty that no army, no law, no natural disaster can postpone it by a single minute.  This is a radically foreign idea to most modern people.

Jesus as a First Century Jew. Twenty-first Century people can easily forget that, like the rest of us, Jesus was born and raised in a particular ethnic context.  Like all Jewish boys throughout history, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day according to the commandment in Moses’ Law.  At age thirteen, he became a son of the covenant (bar mitzvah).  He attended synagogue, kept the sabbath, ate kosher and observed the numerous laws of Torah.  The gospels show Jesus as very careful to make the journey to Jerusalem to attend mandatory feasts and participate in temple rites.  Even his humor is Jewish (“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven.”)

For those outside Judaism, there is much in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life which can seem puzzling or culturally unintelligible.  It is not unheard of, on the other hand, for Jews to investigate the gospels and find immediate common ground with Jesus, even after twenty centuries of Jewish adaptation and cultural change!  So it should be no surprise that Jesus’ way of interacting with people, his concerns and his teachings are all very Jewish in character.  A bit of reading up on Jewish custom and religious practice can make a huge improvement in one’s comprehension and insight into the story of Jesus as told in the gospel accounts.

But as a Jew, Jesus’ most severe criticism was aimed, not at Gentiles or even at Jews who weren’t taking seriously their obligations to the Law of Moses.  He reserved his condemnation for the religious elites of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Why?  Because Jesus saw them as missing the point of the very scriptures they claimed to live by.  He saw them obsessing over the minutia of the religious code, using it to elevate themselves in relation to others and manipulating people through guilt and intimidation.  That is why his message to those oppressed by the power of the religious elite and despairing of any share in God’s Kingdom, was such truly good news.

The More-Than-Human Jesus. Certainly Jesus was born in a particular time and place (during the reign of Caesar Augustus in Bethlehem).   He was entirely human as is shown in his human traits (hunger, thirst, anger, sorrow, death).  But then there is that other side of Jesus, which may make us uncomfortable, such as his claim to be the Messiah of Israel.  The New Testament spends a great deal of space showing how this claim is validated by the many prophecies concerning Messiah in the Old Testament (Micah 5:2, Isaiah 7:14, etc.)  Yet the scriptural experts of his day couldn’t believe that a carpenter’s son, the circumstances of whose birth was dubious to say the least, from a backwater town like Nazareth, who had never attended any of the respectable rabbinic academies, could possibly be God’s answer to centuries of prophetic utterance.

More than this, Jesus claimed to be God in human form.  In John chapter 8, we encounter Jesus saying to these very religious leaders that Abraham, some two thousand years before, had personally acknowledged him and had forseen his day coming.  Jesus claimed that to see him, was in fact to see God.  He claimed that he and God the Father were one: that is, somehow unified in nature and being.  So incensed were the religious elites by all these claims that they plotted to kill him.  Even today these claims, if taken seriously, must surely shake the conventional viewpoints of many.

The Living Jesus. The gospels assert that Jesus is literally, physically alive.  Contrast this with the notion that Jesus was simply a tragic figure whose life was cut short before his calling was fulfilled.  His disciples then were so lost without his magnetic personality that they began to talk about him as though he were still living.  So after several generations, the belief that the deceased teacher from Nazareth was still alive somehow became solidified as Christian doctrine.

Of course, this line of thinking is pure nonsense.  From what the gospels record about the circumstances of the resurrection it just doesn’t add up.  Neither can this “wishful thinking view”  possibly be right when the incredible spread of the early Christian message is considered realistically.  The early Christians proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection from a very confident factual position.  The location of Jesus’ tomb was common knowledge.  No one could deny that it was empty.  The likelihood of Jesus being mistakenly buried before he was actually dead makes no sense since the Romans were experts at the process of crucifixion.   Even if that could be believed, the idea that a severely wounded Jesus could revive, roll away the huge stone and then escape the detection of those who were determined to eliminate him, is far fetched (to say the least).

More likely would be a conspiracy by his friends to steal the body and fake a resurrection.  Yet even this doesn’t add up.  The disciples were as sure as anyone that Jesus was dead.  They were demoralized and afraid.   Even if they had planned such a daring theft of Jesus’ body, they had proved their incompetence in such a mission when some of them unsuccessfully attacked a group of soldiers only days before at Jesus’ arrest.  So the body-snatching theory falls apart as well.  No, the best explanation, given the facts, is that Jesus rose bodily from the grave.

Conclusion: My advice is that if you think you know all there is to know about Jesus, maybe a serious and informed look at the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) might upset your comfortable views.  Jesus isn’t someone you can easily categorize and put on a shelf.  He still has the ability after all these centuries and across cultures, to make people squirm a bit.  He also has the ability to call forth our deepest admiration and even devotion, just as he did twenty centuries ago.  If you are content with some kind of dumbed-down Jesus, then you needn’t read the gospels with any kind of searching eye.  But if you are brave enough to do so, brace yourself for some discomfort and perhaps a whole new life!

Michael Bogart

Which Bible Version Should I Use?

August 24, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Bible, Defending the Faith, Thoughts

brown-bible1A Basic Explanation of English Bible Versions

One of the most frequently asked questions among Christians these days is, “Which version of the Bible should I use?”. The wide variety of English Bible translations have indeed been a great blessing in many ways; but at times they have also been a source of confusion. The person hearing a sermon or attending a Bible class may be at a loss because the version they are using reads slightly differently from the one being used by the leader. So how did the English speaking church go from the time in the early Twentieth Century when the King James Version (also known as the Authorized Version) was nearly universal among Protestants, to our situation today with easily a dozen widely used translations?

Before we go into a brief history of the English Bible, we should remember that neither the Old or New Testaments were originally written in English. In fact, the English language (as we would recognize it) was non-existent during the period of time in which these documents were being composed. The books of the Old Testament were written over approximately 1000 years, beginning around 1400 BC, with the majority written in ancient Hebrew, while a few of the later ones were penned in the related language of Aramaic. The New Testament was composed in a type of ancient Greek known as Koine (common or trade Greek) during the second half of the First Century AD.

When these biblical languages could not be understood by a significant number of God’s people, there were attempts to translate the scriptures into the languages spoken by them. For instance, in the book of Ezra, Ezra the priest had the Hebrew scriptures translated into Aramaic for the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon and could no longer speak the native language of their ancestors. Several centuries later, in around 200 BC, other Jewish scholars did the same thing for Jews living in Greek-speaking lands. The New Testament was translated in the first several centuries AD into Latin, Ethiopic, Syriac and other languages of early Christians.

The English-speaking people did not officially convert to Christianity until the 600s AD. Along with the rest of the Western Europe, they used the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible in worship. Consequently few people had access to the Bible in its original languages. Due to the Roman Catholic policy of using a uniform version of the Bible among its people and closely guarding those scriptures from misuse by untrained people, centuries went by without any serious attempt to translate the scriptures into English. The first successful effort to do so was by the priest, John Wycliffe in the 1370s. He used the Latin Vulgate as the basis for his work, rather than Greek or Hebrew manuscripts. Though Wycliffe’s translation was second-hand at best, its major contribution was to create in the common people a hunger for the Bible in their native English.

The first attempt to use the original languages for translation was by William Tyndale in the 1520s. His excellent work was supplemented in the years that followed by other versions, such as the Coverdale Bible, the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible, which were the first English Bibles to be used for public worship. With the growing influence of Puritanism in the late 1500s and the inheritance of the English throne by King James I, there was a renewed desire for a standard English Bible to be used in all the Protestant churches. King James commissioned this project in 1607at the Hampton Court Conference, with a panel of 50 scholars who worked on the translation for four years. This Authorized Version was published for use in 1611 and became the standard for English use for the next 350 years. It is a remarkable combination of quality translation (given the manuscripts available at the time) and an elegant English style.

Toward the end of the 1800s a number of Bible scholars and clergy began to sense that the Authorized Version was no longer adequate for several reasons. More recent discoveries of ancient manuscripts had added to the knowledge of the original language texts. Along with this, English had changed dramatically since 1611, so that the English itself needed updating as well. These concerns led to the Revised Standard Version of the 1880s, which was updated again in 1952. The Twentieth Century saw an explosion of Bible translations. The New American Standard Bible in 1971 was an attempt to translate the Bible into a distinctively American English. While the English style has been accused of being awkward, it is actually one of the most precise translations in the English language.

New theories of translation in the late Twentieth Century added to the mix of versions available. Rather than a closely literal approach, many opted for what can be described as either a paraphrase or a thought-for-thought translation. Among these are the Living Bible (1962), which is a paraphrase, originally designed for children, the Good News Bible (1966) which is another paraphrase designed for people in the counter-culture, and the New International Version (1978) a thought-for thought translation aimed at the entire English-speaking world. The NIV has become one of the most widely-used versions because of its simple, generic English and its accuracy of translation. All of these translation efforts have used the reconstructed original language manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments.

There have also been some recent revisions of older translations. The New King James modernizes the English of the Authorized Version, while at the same time, adjusting the translation from updated manuscript data. The New Revised Standard Version is a gender –neutral update of the older Revised Standard Version. Other popular versions of the Bible include the Phillips expanded paraphrase, the Message, which is a more recent paraphrase, and the Roman Catholic New Jerusalem and New American Bibles.

So, which Bible is best for you? Many people like to use a paraphrase or a thought-for thought version for reading, while relying on a more literal version for study. Try sampling a few to find out which suits your needs. Stay away from off-beat, inaccurate and agenda-driven translations, such as the New World Translation of the Watchtower Society. Otherwise, find a Bible you will use regularly and use it!

Michael Bogart

When You’ve Been Wronged

August 16, 2009 by admin  
Filed under New, Thoughts

reconciliationAt some point in life, everyone gets hurt.  Maybe a friend has wronged you by saying something negative behind your back.  It could be that you have been cheated in business, or in some way treated unfairly by a neighbor or family member.  Inside, there are feelings of frustration and anger.  You may go through a period of feeling as though your heart could break.  You desire retaliation; justice.

Although such feelings are common, they are not the best way to respond.  In fact, the Bible says much about how to react when you are wronged.  Let’s examine scripture in light of some very common approaches to being wronged.

Some people suffer in silence.  Instead of doing anything at all, they just stew in frustration.  Before long, unresolved frustration and hurt can turn into bitterness.  When this happens, it is usually the bitter person who is hurt most.  Proverbs 19:11 speaks to this approach, saying, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is his glory to overlook an offense.”  If you can simply forgive and forget a wrong, it is to your credit and can prevent much self-inflicted heartache later.

Another approach to being wronged is to complain to a third party.  Hurt feelings desire sympathy.  An offended sense of justice seeks allies.  Often people justify involving other people because they feel the need for someone to talk to.  Sometimes there may indeed be a need for godly advice.  However, when a third party is brought in only to reinforce your side of things and share your anger, the outcome is unproductive.   Proverbs 17:9 says this: “He who covers an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.”  It is not a wise course of action to involve people in a matter which does not directly affect them.

Other people desire retribution.  They seek justice as they conceive it applying to their particular case.  If they have been hurt, they desire the offender to suffer as well.  If they have lost something valuable, the one who caused its loss should be punished.  This may go well beyond a sense of fairness, becoming vengeance, in which punishment is beyond what is normally called for and results in severe damage to the offender.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:38-42 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”  In Jesus’ profound understanding of God’s will, love trumps justice.  Reconciliation is better than vengeance.

None of these responses really achieves either the purposes of God or the very best for the person who has been wronged.  These things are achieved through following Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 18:15.  “If your brother sins against you go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”  In other words, God’s way of bringing blessing to both parties is for the offended person to seek out the offender in order to work toward reconciliation.  Here are some of the amazing results of such a course of action:

  • It prevents a relatively small issue from developing into something very serious.
  • It keeps the situation from involving those who are not directly related to its resolution.
  • It can begin the healing of major hurts and begin the resolution of serious damages.
  • It may lay the foundation for a new and deep relationship with the offender.
  • It always results in a clear conscience for the one who genuinely seeks to honor God and be a source of reconciliation.

As long as I am making lists, here is some further biblical advice for when you seek resolution.

  • Go in humility.  Remember, there may be a point of view to the situation you have not yet considered.
  • Go determined to seek true justice.  If you have been a party to the wrong, admit it and ask for forgiveness.  If restitution needs to be made, do your best to make it.
  • Go in love.  That is, never go to the person with the sole idea of setting them straight or giving them a piece of your mind.  Certainly never seek the humiliation of others.  Rather seek the wholeness and welfare of all concerned.  If you do, you will be like God because that is how he deals with us.

One more issue remains to be mentioned: what if your efforts are not well-received?  If you truly have made the effort to seek peace and reconciliation, then the problem is not yours.  You cannot force others either to forgive you or to admit their wrong.  Pray for them and continue to be open for reconciliation should circumstances and attitudes change.  You will have one very precious thing regardless: the deep satisfaction which comes from having done things God’s way.

Michael Bogart

The View From the Grave

August 14, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Thoughts

grave stoneHave you ever noticed that a difficult problem suddenly becomes easier when you can see what you are trying to accomplish and then how you can work backward from there?

Take your own life for example. The normal way to view life is starting from the past and present and attempt to plan into the future. You know: “This is where I have been in the past. I am here right now. I think I am headed in a certain direction in the future.” Perhaps a more productive way of setting a life-direction is to visualize what and where you want to be in the future and work back through the steps to what and where you are now.

A very sobering, but I think very helpful way of doing this, is to visualize your own funeral. Few of us have any accurate idea of how or when we will die, but for the purposes of the exercise, just assume you will live a reasonably long life. Let’s say that you are also able to achieve at least some of your life’s goals. Now seat yourself as an invisible guest at this gathering in your memory. What is being said about you? Who is in attendance? What are the mourners thinking and feeling?

Someone, perhaps a minister, is summarizing your life. Not only are the main facts of birthdate, education, career, marriage and family being shared, but what kind of person you were. Maybe there are tears. A final prayer is said. The people disperse to continue their own lives before your remains are laid to rest.

From the perspective of the grave, what meaning and achievement would your life have? Were you deeply loved and respected? Did your life make a difference for anyone beyond yourself? What will happen to you from this point on? Is there heaven? Judgment? Darkness?

It is difficult to picture all the details, but on the whole, seeing things from the perspective of the grave has a way of bringing the present into sharp focus. This perspective also brings up certain practical questions, such as: “Do I want to be deeply appreciated by those around me? If so, what am I doing now to make that possible? How can I show my love to family and my commitment to friends in ways which will assure them that I care?”

If you want to make a difference with your life, the perspective of the grave compels you to ponder who you are helping now. Are you contributing because it is required, because it helps you, because it looks good or because you really do care about helping people live better?

What about beyond the grave? The Bible is very clear when it teaches that eternity is decided in this present life. Again, if it is heaven you desire that is attained by some definite choices in the “here and now”. The primary choice is to desire God and to come to him through his son Jesus. Followup choices might include deciding what steps you should take to make knowing God a growing reality for the rest of your life.

Most of us live as though death is some distance away. We count on many years of doing our thing, whatever that may be. The approach of death sometimes comes as a shock and we find too late that we have been living pretty much for ourselves, touching no one around us very deeply or sacrificially. Then death becomes something to fear wehn we realize we must account to the God we have largely ignored.

The view from the grave brings our priorities into sharp focus. It shows the outcome of our plans and loyalties. It predicts the results of our relationships. The time to get this perspective is now. The time to chart the steps toward a meaningful life-purpose is now. The time to make our peace with God through Jesus and enter into relationship with him is now.

Michael Bogart

Prodigals Can Return

August 11, 2009 by admin  
Filed under New, Thoughts

Prodigal SonAs a pastor, I frequently meet people who once had some connection with Jesus and his Church, but who for some reason have been out of touch for some time.  In some circles these people are called backsliders.  Other groups refer to people in this situation as “out of fellowship” or “lapsed”.  In my experience there are a surprising number of such folks.

I suppose that people drop out of Christian faith, or at least the practice of it, for a variety of reasons.  It is common these days for many people to have to work during the times when churches normally hold their services.  When there are few opportunities for Christian fellowship, it is easy to see how people become sidelined.  Other reasons for a cooling off of Christian practice could include personal difficulty, hurt feelings caused by other believers, a change of priorities, or just plain disillusionment and apathy.

Folks who find themselves adrift from their faith often experience guilt, embarrassment and despair.  Some have been away from Christ for so long that they have given up hope of ever returning.  Is there hope for such people?  Certainly.  Here are some ways to get back in step with Christ:

First, admit where you are. Face the fact that you have dropped out and need to return to the source of your true life.  In Bible terminology this is called repentance.  It doesn’t mean you have to promise never to stray again or to become a model Christian.  Just tell God that you have been wrong and that you want to come back.  But the first step is to face where you truly are without excuses.

Ask God for help. Prayer does make a difference.  If it is a time issue, tell God about work schedule.  Ask him to work on changing it or to provide opportunities for fellowship and growth in other ways.  If broken relationships are behind the estrangement, appeal to God to smooth hurt feelings, forgive those who have wronged you, rearrange your priorities or give perspective.  If you have found yourself in new and unfamiliar surroundings, ask him to direct you to a church or fellowship in which you can be nurtured and in which you can serve others effectively.

Make yourself accountable. Find another Christian who has personal integrity you can trust and who will have both courage and compassion to ask hard questions and expect straight answers.  You may fool yourself with creative justifications of your attitudes and behavior, but it is more difficult to fool someone wise who knows you and cares about you.

Let bygones be gone! If dropping out resulted from someone’s wrongdoing, work through it and move on.  Why should the past ruin your present joy?  Why should someone’s sin hinder you from doing right?  Do you think God is impressed with excuses which put blame on others for your own choice to abandon the God who has demonstrated his love for you by sending his Son to die on your behalf?

Serve. There is no better medicine for recovery and progress in spiritual growth than consistent Christian service in an area which you find fulfilling.  Try some things until you find something that is regular, fits your talents and gifting and results in the kinds of goals you are energized by.  Make sure that what you are doing benefits people and honors the Lord Christ, whom you serve.

Yes, there is indeed hope for those who have dropped out of active Christian faith.  Reasons need not matter.  Years don’t have to hold you back.  Prodigals can come home.  The point is, are you willing?  An old Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Take that first homeward step and before long, the prodigal will see the Father’s welcoming smile.

Michael Bogart

Work and Prayer

August 6, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Ministry Helps, Thoughts

prayerThe Interaction of Prayer and Effort

Many years ago a friend of mine quoted a little saying about prayer which I still remember: “Prayer is work. Prayer does work. Prayer brings work.” I have no idea where he got this catchy little phrase, but since then, I have found it to be profoundly true. Here’s why.

Prayer is work. It isn’t always easy to pray. As you begin, your mind may have a hard time focusing on God. It is difficult to visualize a being who is all-powerful and wise, and yet invisible. Perhaps your body refuses to cooperate due to weariness, hunger, restlessness, or cramped muscles. You may battle with doubt or guilt, perplexity, anger or even apathy.

Prayer is work because you must insist on making time for it in your schedule. Your creativity may be stretched to find a quiet and private place to pray. You may have to do some study of scripture in order to learn how to address God, what types of things you may legitimately pray about and what your motives should be.

Prayer is also work in view of the long-term routines required in prayer. It is one thing to pray now and then; it is quite another to pray consistently over a period of years. Over the long haul, it requires effort to overcome the fatigue and discouragement, which may go with praying year after year. Though prayer may be a joyful and even liberating experience, it clearly involves real work at times.

Prayer does work. I am aware of the skeptical argument which says that prayer is just wishful thinking. Skeptics believe that any perceived results of prayer are merely coincidental or are due to the power of a positive mental attitude. Yet I have personally known many people who would point to definite instances of prayers being answered in ways hard to write off as psychological.

Of course, this should come as no surprise to followers of Christ. Jesus promised in John 15:7 that if we abide in him, we may ask whatever we will and it will be done. I take this to mean that if our lives are closely bound with his, we may ask freely because our will and purpose will also coincide with his. There are numerous other biblical passages which say that God hears the prayers of people who humbly pray according to his will.

Serious Christian experience also demonstrates prayer’s effectiveness. Things happen. People change and circumstances work out which could not have done so on their own. True, God responds in his own way and timing. There may be times in which nothing much seems to be happening. But God does respond. It is not at all uncommon for God to answer in a way which clearly grants even the specifics we have requested.

Prayer brings work. That is, prayer often spurs the person praying into action. It does this in several ways:

First, prayer sets in motion a chain of divinely orchestrated events, which require the petitioner to do something. Let’s say you are praying for a job. In due time a position becomes open, but part of God’s answer is up to you. You must fill out an application and attend the interview. God will not just hand you a job on a silver platter. What God can do is bring about circumstances which are beyond your control. But when those circumstances occur, it is you who must act.

Secondly, there are times in prayer when it is almost as if God interrupts and says, “OK, stop right there. Don’t ask me to do something which you know in your heart that you must do.” Maybe you are praying for a neighbor who has lost her job. She is facing real financial difficulties. It may be a good thing to pray for her, but if you can help her personally, prayer must wait. Before you ask God to intervene, buy her a few bags of groceries; fill her tank with gasoline; give her children Christmas presents. God may be saying, “Yes, I’ll provide for your neighbor—starting with you.”

So work and prayer are indeed inseparable. Communicating with God requires some serious effort. God does respond to prayer and things happen. Sometimes prayer puts us in a position which calls us to take further action ourselves. How true it is: Prayer is work; prayer does work; prayer brings work!

Michael Bogart

Recipe for Recruitment

August 4, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Ministry Helps, New

Phoning(Written by Ken Johnson) I once received the compliment, “You are the best recruiter we have ever had.”  I honestly was pretty surprised about that statement.  I didn’t believe I did anything particularly revolutionary…or do I?  As I thought about it, perhaps I do things a little differently.  To begin, remember the three R’s of recruiting: Relationships, Right fit, and Rhythm.

Relationship. I always seek to recruit out of relationship.  Truly, all of ministry is relationship, but recruiting especially so.  I know that in order to have an effective ministry I need to be in relationship with every person who works directly under me.  This will vary for each person and each ministry dependent upon size and structure.  Large programs (over 200 volunteers) will require leaders to be in relationship with key leaders.  Small programs (under 100 volunteers) will allow the leader to be in contact with every person.

In my current setting, my program is just the right size to be able to have an adequate relationship with each person who serves in my ministry.  I know each person’s name, family background, and ministry area.  For some I even know hobbies, joys, and past experiences.  This is invaluable as I seek to either affirm what they are doing or recruit them to move into a new area of ministry.  Without that relationship, I am either a voice on the phone or a face up front making an announcement.  With that relationship, I am a person who cares about them and their real felt needs.

As my program expands, the direct relationships will be strained.  My focus will have to shift from my direct volunteers (i.e. Sunday School teachers) to my immediate volunteers (i.e. service coordinators).  These people will then pass on the relationship to those who serve under them.  They will be required to know every person in the same capacity I currently do.  The relationships that they develop will empower them in recruiting their current volunteers.

This works great for those who already work underneath you, but what do you do when you are seeking to recruit a new volunteer?  The key again is relationship.  The more you know about the person you are seeking to recruit, the more effective you’ll be.  Getting to know that person’s dreams, excitements, joys, family, etc. will help you because then they feel like they are being recruited by a friend, rather than a position or an office.  The closer the relationship, the easier it can be to recruit.

Right Fit. The second factor in recruiting is the “Right Fit.”  As you recruit the person, always recruit to their strengths.  Out of the relationship you have developed with this person, remember what their joys and excitements are.  Find a spot that excites them.  The more excited they are about what they are doing, the more they will fit into the right spot and the more they will stay for a long time.

One of the biggest fallacies of recruitment is recruiting to the wrong position.  Wonderful Christ-like servants will volunteer because of a need but not because they are passionate about what they are doing.  They become band-aids for a hole instead of a committed volunteer.

Whenever you recruit have clear expectations and job descriptions so that the volunteer will know what they are getting into prior to getting into it.  This will also help to insure the right fit because they’ll know that they are getting into something designed for them that they’ll enjoy.

Rhythm. The final aspect of recruiting is to give the volunteers a good pace to work with as they move into this new ministry.  Don’t throw the volunteers to the lions!  Whenever I am trying to recruit a new volunteer, I will give them some time to try things out prior to putting them in leadership.  This might consist of learning under someone for some time, it might consist of just visiting the program, or it might consist of spending time praying about becoming a volunteer prior to jumping in.

This slow process will help a volunteer to know that they have time to move into the role that they are assuming rather than just being thrown in the first week they say they are interested.  This is a very respectful way of recruiting which will help the volunteers to know that they are loved and cared for.  The easier the transition, the more likely they are to stick around in the long run and make a real commitment to long-term ministry.

Once you have recruited some key volunteers, do not forget to find ways to sustain their hearts and spirits.  Encourage them constantly!  Write notes, make phone calls, and remember birthdates.  Anything you can do to continue to build the relationship you have with the volunteer will help them to want to stay.  They’ll know that they are loved and cared for.  The better the volunteer feels about what he or she is doing, the more that person will want to stick around (and even do recruiting for you).

I was once told I was a good recruiter, perhaps that is so.  Truly, I am good at building relationships, finding the right spot for the volunteer, slowly working them into the program, and continue to encourage that person in what they are doing.  It results in good recruiting because people will want to work in a place where they know that their leader knows them and wants to be with them.

Ken Johnson is currently Director of Children’s Ministries at Campus Bible Church of Fresno, California.