Month: November 2007

What’s the expiration date on your church?

 Wouldn’t it be interesting Expiration dateif the expiration date for a church were stamped on it as clearly as it is on a package of meat at the grocery?  The expiration date tells you how fresh the package you hold in your hand really is.  If you’re like us, Debbie and I always dig in the back of the case for products with an expiration date as far in the future as possible. Unfortunately for churches, that’s not always possible.  As a pastor or church leader, you don’t get to choose the freshest church.  You’re already in a church and it may be closer to its expiration date than you think. 

Eight Stages in the Lifespan of a Church

Dr. Israel Galindo, in his excellent book The Hidden Lives of Congregations, identifies 8 stages in the lifespan of a congregation:

  1. Establishing.  This is the start-up, the everything-is-new-and-aren’t-we-excited stage.  Lots of energy, lots of enthusiasm, simple mission — survive.
  2. Formation.  Once survival seems fairly certain, now what?  At this stage congregations begin to self-organize like ants-in-a-hill.  Things start to stabilize and there is a collective sense of “we’re actually going to make it work.”
  3. Adolescence.  What does this sound like?  High energy, lots of activity, lots of trying out new stuff, lots of growing up. 
  4. Prime.  Everything is working at this stage.  Energy, organization, guidance, relationships, and manageable anxiety.  The key here is staying here.  Often churches only recognize this stage after they are through it, as in “Remember back in the ’60s when the building was full?”
  5. Maturity.  This is the well-oiled machine, aging, but still running strong.  Maybe not quite as strongly as before, but everything looks okay.  Unless you realize that the trajectory is toward decline and dissolution.  This is often a stage of denial and self-satisfaction.  “We’re not as big as we used to be, but the quality of our members is much better.” 
  6. Aristocracy.  Not all churches become aristocratic, and probably none should.  This is the era of the archives room, commemorating the glory years of the congregation.  Links to prestigious pastors, pride in classic buildings, and other characteristics of the “church as museum” come to play. 
  7. Bureaucracy.  Even if you skip the aristocracy phase, this is an unavoidable and unmistakable stage.  The numbers tell the story — lower attendance, offerings, budgets, baptisms, and energy.  The denials might still continue, but the decline is obvious and depressing.  The solution?  Let’s tighten the rules.  Watchdog the budget.  Form more committees.  Rewrite the constitution.  Energy goes to rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic takes on water.
  8. Dissolution.  The end.  Period.  No more church.  Property is sold or bequeathed, missions gets a big check, and folks go away from the funeral saying, “She died with dignity.”  Or maybe not.  But the result is still the same.  A church out of business.

The stages are Dr. Galindo’s, the descriptions are mine.  While the specific timeline may vary from church-to-church, the results are the same.  But there is hope.  These stages are not inevitable if church leaders, including the pastor, can recognize the stage a church is in and offer leadership appropriate to that stage. 

The question your church has to ask itself is “What stage are we in and what should we do to revitalize ourselves?”  That’s what we’re dealing with here in Chatham.  I’ll let you know how it comes out.  And while you’re waiting, get a copy of Galindo’s book.  You’ll be glad you did. 

“Kindle: iTunes for words” plus writers, readers, and the web

Okay, I’m already lying here.Kindle by Amazon  I promised I would only post once a week on this blog, but I run across stuff that really excites me more than once a week.  So, here are a couple of related pieces on writers, readers, and the web just today —

— My friend rlp has a great post, Web 2.0, on writing in the brave new world of the web.  If you’re a blogger, writer, or just love words, check out his post.  I also shared it under the Trends of Interest feed to the left. 

rlp also clipped this video, which I am now clipping.  This is good, clever, and seriously creative and explains what has happened to information in the last 10-years.

 Today Amazon officially announced Kindle, their new e-reader.  Very cool.  And of course, it’s tied to Amazon.  Kind of like iTunes for words.  The interesting thing is Amazon needs content to feed Kindle.  So not only is it a book reader, but it’s also a blogreader (yes, my fellowbloggers), a newspaper reader, and a Wikipedia reader all-in-one.  Plus it stores you own docs, and works off cell technology.  You don’t need a computer — no need to sync to a desktop or lappy, but you can if you want to.  Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says Kindle is a service.  Hardware is not the star, writing is.  What a great time to be a writer!

The Kindle has limitations as does every other device out there, and Kevin Kelly comments that he is still waiting for the cloudbook that will do everything.  Me, too.  Imagine a bigger iPhone that is also a reader, plus computer, plus cellphone, plus internet access, plus toaster.  Okay, maybe not the toaster, but everything else.  It’s coming.  Kevin Kelly writes about this Always On Book and has blogged about the future of books here and here.  I love his labels — People of the Book and People of the Screen

What are the implications for church?  This is the shift in the creation, storage, distribution, remixing, and redistribution of information.  It is democratic, not top down, not expert-driven, and uncontrollable (at least by those who might want to control the free-flow of information).  What do you think the possibilities are? 

“An Opportunity to Testify” podcast

The podcast of An Opportunity To Testify, based on Luke 21:5-19, is the sermon I preached last Sunday, November 18, 2007.  The scripture is from the revised common lectionary Year C.  The text of the sermon is here

Smile, It’s Thanksgiving!

Smile, It’s Thanksgiving!

Philippians 4:4-9

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


Little Johnny and his family were having Sunday dinner at his grandmother’s house. Everyone was seated around the table as the food was being served.

When little Johnny received his plate he started eating right away.

“Johnny, wait until we say our prayer.”

“I don’t have to,” the boy replied.

“Of course you do,” his mother insisted. “We say a prayer before eating at our house.”

“That’s at our house,” Johnny explained, “but this is Grandma’s house, and she knows how to cook.”


Well, if you find yourself like little Johnny, feeling you only have to pray to ward off some disaster, gastronomic or otherwise, then do I have something for you today. Thanksgiving is just around the corner again, and here come all those reminders to be thankful. In the passage we just read, Paul encourages us to “rejoice always” and to do everything, particulary our praying, with thanksgiving.

Despite what you have heard and will hear that everyday should be a Thanksgiving day, or we should do thanks-living instead of thanksgiving, or any of the other clever phrases that are bandied about at this time of year, the truth is we hear a lot about being thankful, but beyond that don’t do much about it.

We do some things to express our thanks. I grew up in a household where we always said a prayer of thanks before meals, and Debbie and I still do that today. We are thankful for what we have to eat, and we stop and acknowledge that God is the giver of not only everything, but this particular meal we’re about to enjoy. If we’re with other folks, I usually say, “Well, let me pray for this and then we can all eat.” Which is received in the spirit I intend it — one of thanksgiving to God. Plus, I keep it short, out of respect for others who do not normally have this practice, and so the food won’t get cold.

But that aside, how do we rejoice always? Or is that just one of those really nice sounding spiritual aphorisms that we all say, but few of us do, or even know how to do? Well, I think I might have the answer for you tonight. I did not discover this, and I’ll tell who I got it from in a moment, but here is the secret to rejoicing always: Smile.

Yep, that’s it — smile. Right about now you’re wondering if you can get a refund on your ticket, but then you’re remembering that you didn’t actually have to pay to get in, so you can relax. I’m serious. Smiling is the key to this whole business of thanksgiving. Here’s what smiling can do for you:

• 72% of people think of those who smile frequently as being more confident and successful.

• 86% of people say that they are more likely to strike up conversations with strangers if they are smiling.

• Bosses are 12% more likely to promote people who smile a lot.

• Research shows that 65% of communication is non-verbal (many claim an even higher percentage).

• Non-verbal communication comprises facial expressions, eye movement, gestures, posture, and all other bodily signs-primarily facial expressions.

• The effects of a smile are so powerful that even a smile on the telephone produces positive results.

• When someone comes into a room, people are automatically drawn to their face, and a smile provides a warm greeting.

• Studies show that happiness is a by-product of smiling, not the other way around as most people assume.

• Research shows that when two people in conversation use the same kind of body movements and gestures (such as smiling), they will experience greater empathy for each other, which they may not even consciously notice.

So, this is not bad. Smiling actually does more than give you little smile lines, for which the cosmetic companies have developed remedies, as if smiling were detrimental to your health. Just the opposite — smiling is good for you, not to mention the folks that have to look at you. As a matter of fact, not only is the act of smiling good for you, but even the word S-M-I-L-E brings a…well, you guessed it… smile to our faces. So much so that here are some of the acronyms that organizations have made from the world SMILE.

SMILE  Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences Program
SMILE  Semiconductor Microcavity Light Emitter
SMILE  Service Makes Individual Lives Exciting
SMILE  Signal, Mirror, Interior, Lights, Engine (drivers education)
SMILE  Single Mothers in A Learning Environment
SMILE  Smart Management Interface Local Exchange
SMILE  Smart-Power ICs (Integrated Circuits) for Lighting Applications
SMILE  Spatial Multiplexing of Local Elements
SMILE  Spiritually Minded Is Life Eternal
SMILE  Stanford Medicine Information and Learning Environment
SMILE  Students Making It a Little Easier (freshman orientation in West Caldwell NJ)
SMILE  Students’ Mobilization Initiative for Learning Through Exposure (Indian youth initiative)

Okay, so some of these are better than others, but the point is we like the word SMILE. Then how do we do this? Well here are a few pointers —

Smile. Smiling is the beginning of laughter. Like laughter, it’s contagious. Pioneers in “laugh therapy,” find it’s possible to laugh without even experiencing a funny event. The same holds for smiling. When you look at someone or see something even mildly pleasing, practice smiling.

Count your blessings. Literally make a list. The simple act of considering the good things in your life will distance you from negative thoughts that are a barrier to humor and laughter. When in a state of sadness, we have further to travel to get to humor and laughter.

When you hear laughter, move toward it. Sometimes humor and laughter are private, a shared joke among a small group, but usually not. More often, people are very happy to share something funny because it gives them an opportunity to laugh again and feed off the humor you find in it. When you hear laughter, seek it out and ask, “What’s funny?”

Spend time with people who have successfully incorporated humor into their lives. These are people who naturally take life lightly, who routinely find ordinary events hysterical. Their points of view and their laughter are contagious.

Dr. Dale Jorgenson, a social organizational psychologist, has found that smiling at others may benefit the smiler in that, when you smile at people, they are more likely to smile at you. The more often this happens, the better the mood of the smiler. When reviewing self-reports handed in by students assisting with his smile research, he correlated the frequency of returned smiles with how favorable their moods were.

“The correlation between the number of smiles they reported receiving in return and their mood was extremely high (80 percent or better),” he said. “The more they got smiled at in return, the more favorable their mood was.”

The evidence is in — smiling is good for us, for others, and produces real positive results in our lives. But, what about the times you don’t feel like smiling. When you’re sad, depressed, grieving, angry, or hurt. How do you “rejoice always” then?

Listen to the story of Thich Nhat Hanh. Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk, who is 81-years old now. Nhat Hanh was born in Viet Nam in 1926, became a Buddhist monk as a teenager, and grew up in a country torn apart by war his entire life. Nhat Hanh founded the United Buddhist Church, and worked for peace in his country. He was a friend of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who said he felt closer to Nhat Hanh than many Christians with whom he knew.

Thich Nhat Hanh was nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work for peace during and after the Viet Nam war. The communist regime in Viet Nam was so suspicious of Nhat Hanh, that he was exiled from his native land for decades, only returning in 2005 to give some talks and visit his fellow monks again.

Nhat Hanh created what he called “engaged Buddhism” — today we would call it “missional” — Buddhism that was involved in helping the victims of war, and then other marginalized people around the world.

Buddhism is predicated upon the idea that all of our suffering is caused by ignorance, and so Buddhists seek enlightenment which means an end to suffering. But Thich Nhat Hanh also believes that there are practical ways in which we can make this world, and our lives, better. He tells his students, “To suffer is not enough. You must enjoy the blue sky, a baby’s eyes, the green grass.” Thich Nhat Hanh also founded a Thanksgiving Day for Buddhists, patterned after the American Thanksgiving, because he thought they needed a day to give thanks.

In Buddhism, there are meditation exercises. Now we are not going to become Buddhists tonight, but one that I find particularly helpful is this: Sit quietly for a moment and as you breath in say, “Breathing in, I calm body and mind.” And you calm yourself.

Then, you say, “Breathing out, I smile.” And you smile. Really.

I was listening to a CD of Thich Nhat Hanh giving this talk on “Being Peace” as he leads the audience in this exercise. I guess he has his eyes open, because he says gently, “You do not smile so much. Let’s try again.” Again, the “breathing in, I calm body and mind” then, “breathing out, I smile.” Still not satisfied with the results, he tells the audience, “Maybe you can practice some more later.”

Listen to what Nhat Hanh says about smiling:

“Even though life is hard, even though it is sometimes difficult to smile,we have to try. Just as when we wish each other “Good morning” it must be a real “Good morning.” Recently a friend asked me, “How can I force myself to smile when I am filled with sorrow? It isn’t natural.” I told her she must be able to smile to her sorrow, because we are more than our sorrow.”

“A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn sorrow on, we are sorrow. If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile.”

“Smiling is very important. If we are not able to smile, then the world will not have peace.”

To which I would add, if we are not able to smile, the world will not know that we know the Prince of Peace.

And that’s it. Smiling. Which amazingly does change your frame of mind, your physiology, and your life. And even in those times of great sadness or disappointment, if we can smile at those experiences, we can find our way through. We smile, not because we seek enlightenment, but because we seek the Light of God. We smile because we know that God is, in Rick Warren’s words, “Bigger and better and closer than we can imagine.” We smile because we are thankful. Go ahead, try it. Smile, it’s Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving message

I just posted a Thanksgiving message that I’ll preach tonight at our community Thanksgiving service.  Titled Smile, It’s Thanksgiving!  it’s a brief message based on Philippians 4:4-9 where Paul encourages us to “rejoice always.”  I hope your Thanksgiving is a wonderful time of good food, friends, family, and smiling!  Happy Thanksgiving!

The way we relate is changing

Two articles from PSFK, plus one from Kevin Kelly illustrate that how the way we relate to one another is changing, especially the younger you are. 

  1. NY City high school students who get good grades will receive a cell phone and free ringtones or minutes, even though cell phones are banned in school.  They can’t use them there, but it proves the  power of the cell phone among teens as a primary communication device. 
  2. Heard of Warcraft, the huge online game played by about a zillion kids?  Now there’s Datecraft, which gives a whole new meaning to “playing games.”  Here’s what the article from PSFK says — “However, the site really illustrates how the web is changing 1:1 relationships across the board. In 2005, 12% of American newlyweds met online thanks to the slew of dating sites out there. But recent polls show that the Internet can also be a love substitute = potential social dysfunction. So it’s encouraging that gamers are reaching out past their keyboards to make real-life social connections.”
  3. Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine really has the zinger though.  Kelly says that we are headed toward a global machine — OneMachine — of which the current internet is only a component.  We’ll all be plugged into this OneMachine for everything.  Kelly says —

    The next stage in human technological evolution is a single thinking/web/computer that is planetary in dimensions. This planetary computer will be the largest, most complex and most dependable machine we have ever built. It will also be the platform that most business and culture will run on. The web is the initial OS of this new global machine, and all the many gadgets we possess are the windows into its core. Future gizmos will be future gateways into the same One Machine. Designing products and services for this new machine require a unique mind-set. 

Kelly goes on to describe the immensity gPhone prototypeof the One Machine and predicts that sometime between 2020 and 2040, the One Machine will exceed the computational power of all humans combined — over 6-billion human brains.  Imagine that on your DSL connection. Computers will become gateways to the One Machine where all computing will be done online.  Google is already headed there with Google Docs, gmail, google maps, contacts, and about 30 other apps they have designed.  All accessible from anywhere on earth from any computer.  And the Google gPhone will be able to access all of it, anytime, anywhere, on any system, with any handset.  Begin to see the ramifications? 

But lost in the hoopla about the gPhone was the Google announcement that they are developing Open Social which will allow any website to create its own Facebook application.  So, your church could develop it’s own social network.  And those in the network would not be restricted to geographic proximity — they could live anywhere.   And, theoretically, your church Facebook could be linked to other churches of similar flavor, or other ministries, or sold to advertising companies to generate revenue for the church, or have ads pop-up when individuals log on to their church account.  Some pretty wild and scary applications could result. 

This is where we are heading.  This also makes the conversations we have at church about worship styles or other issues pale by comparison.  What do you see implied in this new way we will relate to one another for the future of the church? 

New post on FutureChurchNow

I just posted The Way We Relate is Changing to my new blog about trends and technology and how those forces will impact the church.  I’d appreciate it if you’d take a look, put FutureChurchNow in your blog reader or bookmark it.  I post once a week, so I won’t overload you.  And you might find it interesting.  I do. 

10 Things Your Church Website Should Do

(I’ve added a new category, Technology. Here’s the first post.)

Sam Rainer, my fellow-blogger on the Outreach network, wrote a good piece about church websites, The Church Website: Overrated, Overdone, or More To Come?  For small churches, the disturbing news is that only 29% of churches with under-100 in attendance have a website.  So, let me answer Sam’s question this way — If your church does not have a website, get one up! 

Okay, now that’s out of the way, here are 10 things your church website should do:

  1. Give basic information clearly.  Visit a dozen websites and see how long it takes you to locate the church’s name, address, (including city which some sites don’t include — go figure), phone number,  and times for worship.  This is what most people are looking for, so get it right, make it obvious, make it easy to find. 
  2. Use photographs.  I look at a lot of church websites with zero photographs.  None.  No way to tell what the building looks like, what the people look like (old, young, casual, formal, etc).  Post basic photographs of the buildings, with people inside; activities showing people interacting; and friendly faces.  Use your people, not stock photos, and make it real.
  3. Tell your church’s story.  Your site should tell your story.  Not your history, because that’s only a part of your story.  Your church’s story is who you are, what you do, when you do it, what’s important to your church, what makes you special, and so on. 
  4. Explain what your church really believes.  Most churches have a “What We Believe” page.  Usually this is the doctrinal statement, and most are tediously the same.  We believe in God, the Trinity, the Bible, etc, etc.  I like Saddleback’s version which begins, God is bigger and better and closer than we can imagine. Pretty cool, and brief without 397 scripture references following.  Time for that later after guests have gotten to know your church.   
  5. Give clear directions to your church.  This is too obvious to mention, but I have looked at church websites that do not even list the city they are in.  (I realize I am repeating myself here, but this is really important!)  Provide the google Maps or Mapquest link or image, but make sure it’s accurate.
  6. Post contact information on each page.  Phone number, fax number, web address, email address, mailing address — all these things are important.  Note:  do not give an obscure email address, like info [at]  Put people in touch with a real person who has real email and checks it each day. 
  7. Introduce key people.  Every church (almost) has a staff page.  But how about a page for “Here’s the first person you’ll see when you arrive in our parking lot!”  featuring greeters or ushers.  Of course, introduce the paid staff, but don’t give the impression they are the only people leading the church. 
  8. Feature a blog as part of the site.  Lots of churches are doing this now.  A blog is easy to post to, and usually has an interface that does not require the blogger to know code.  Not the DaVinci Code, but html or css or whatever your site is written in.  Code is worse than Greek, so make updates easy on yourself. 
  9. Produce podcasts.  This is a lot easier than you think, even for video.  I post my sermons in mp3 format each week, and it takes about 30-minutes to edit and convert the CD from whatever to an mp3 file.  But you can also use podcasts for lesson series, basic information, a short devotional thought, or whatever you want to communicate audibly.  Lots of possibilities.
  10. Create community.  Okay, this is where things get more complicated.  There are lots of ways to create and facilitate community on the web now.  From meetups, to wikis, to comments, to multiple authors, to FAQs, to chat, to discussion boards — the possibilities are increasing everyday.  Have some way for your folks to connect back to the church is my point. 

Our church website is undergoing a complete overhaul.  I’ll let you know when it’s up.  And, if you need something free, there are lots of free hosting services, or you can use, which this blog is on.  WordPress is free, plus it lets you create permanent pages, post photos, and use other helpful widgets.  And you don’t even need a web domain name.  Or if you have a domain name that’s already yours, you can use that. 

Bottom line:  Get a website up and make it useful! 

An Opportunity To Testify

An Opportunity To Testify

Luke 21:5-19 NRSV

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!”* and, “The time is near!”* Do not go after them.

9 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words* and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Our Fascination with the Future

Jesus is in the Temple during this time, probably from the opening of chapter 20 in the gospel of Luke. In the first part of this chapter (21:1-4), Jesus is watching people — rich people — put their money in the collection vessels in the Temple. These collection vessels were 13 chests shaped like inverted trumpets where rich and poor, male and female deposited their offerings as they came for Temple worship and ceremony. This is the occasion for the story of the widow’ mite — the poor widow who put in two small copper coins. Jesus said that she put in more than all of the rich people because they gave out of their abundance, but she gave all she had to live on.

That’s the scene in the Temple in Jerusalem as Jesus and the disciples and others were standing and watching all the activity in the Temple compound. But to get an idea of the splendor of the Temple, you need to walk with me away from the Court of the Women the smallest eastern court. We will walk down a bank of 22 marble steps, down into the Court of the Gentiles. If we look back over our shoulders as we leave the Court of the Women, we will read the signs that warn non-Jews not to venture any further into the Temple or face death. They were serious about preserving the ceremonial purity of the Temple building.

As we descend into the Court of the Gentiles, we have our choice of gates from which we can exit. We cross through the Royal Porch with its 4-rows deep of pure white marble Corinthian columns, each 40′ feet tall — 162 columns in all in this porch alone. We come to Solomon’s Colonade, the eastern porch, and we head for the gate, which is really a massive entrance. We choose the eastern gate, the gate that faces the rising sun. This is the gate through which the Messiah will come when he comes to save Israel. This gate is called Beautiful and it is just that. Plates of solid gold face the eastern gate, so that when the sun rises in the east, the light of the sun is brilliantly reflected back into the Kidron Valley below, making it appear that the sun is rising in the west at the same time. Travelers approaching Jerusalem see the Temple from a distance and mistake it for a snow-covered mountain, it is so dazzlingly bright and massive.

It is this Temple Jesus and the disciples are standing in. This temple built by Herod the Great, Rome’s puppet king who began the restoration and expansion of the Temple in 19 AD, and would not live to see it’s completion in 64 AD. Six years after the magnificent structure is finished, with its tons of gold, its massive entrances, its wide porticos, and its immense cost, the Temple will be torn down to its foundations by the legions of Rome. No stone left standing, sacked of sacred treasure and leveled to the ground. Today all that is left of Herod’s Temple is the western retaining wall, known as the Wailing Wall. As precious as the Wailing Wall is, the Temple was a thousand times more glorious.

To get some idea of the magnitude of loss, it would be as if the United States Capitol were completely destroyed, leaving only the retaining wall around the base. Or if the White House were leveled to the ground, leaving only the foundation. The loss of the Temple was incalculable, and the thought of its loss was unspeakable in the first century.

So, in verse 6 when Jesus says, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” — those who hear Jesus press in around him in horror and ask, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ They wanted to know what the future will hold.

Our curious concern is not much different now. The popularity of the “Left Behind” series of books, with over 10-million sold is 21st century evidence that we are as concerned and as curious about what the future will hold as those in Jesus’ day. If you can remember our horror at the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, and the deaths of over 3,000 of our fellow citizens, you can imagine the concern for the future of first century Jerusalem.

What We Can Know About The Future

The destruction of the Temple, in Jewish thought, would herald the beginning of the end. Jews in the first century understood time in two eras — this age and the age to come. Many then felt, as many do today, that this age is hopelessly bad and unredeemable. God is surely going to destroy this world, they thought. That destruction will usher in the age to come or what we would now call the Kingdom of God. But, in between this age and the age to come, was the day of the Lord. Jews understood the day of the Lord to be a time of judgment, of refining through fire, of purification of this world. Non-Jews, those not God’s people would be judged and destroyed. Unrighteous Jews would be judged and punished; only righteous Jews would survive this terrible appearing of God.

In that context, Jesus tells those gathered around him what they can know about the future.

  1. Other voices will call to us. Jesus warned them that these other voices would be bold in claiming authority for themselves, saying “I am here” and “the time is now.” Jesus said, don’t go after them.
  2. Conflict will sweep the globe. Wars and rumors of wars is how Jesus puts it. Nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom. The end is not yet.
  3. Natural disasters will overtake us. Earthquakes, famine, plague, signs and portents in the heavens — all of these things will indicate something eschatological is taking place. The combination of all these events will signify God at work.
  4. God is not in the Temple, God is present in Jesus.  Jesus also mentions in another gospel that the Temple will be destroyed and in 3-days he will rebuild it.  An incredible claim considering that the Temple he and the disciples are looking at isn’t finished and this is now 24-years after Herod has begun his expansive renovation. 

Sounds very modern, very today, doesn’t it. It only takes a casual observer to see that global crises, and the competing voices of  pluralisitic, post-Christendom socieity are swirling around us today. But before you quit your job, sell everything you have, and move to a mountain top to await the coming of the Lord, keep listening.

Before The End Comes, The Opportunity to Witness

Verse 12 is very important — ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.’

So it’s not just false prophets, war, and disaster. We the followers of Jesus will be persecuted. Now this is the part not many books are written about. This is not the attractive part of the day of the Lord. This is not what we want to hear and it was certainly not what Jesus’ followers wanted to hear either. That’s why the disciples were in keeping a low profile in a room in Jerusalem before Pentecost.

Luke who wrote this gospel also wrote the book of Acts. Luke opens Acts chapter 4 with the account of Peter and John’s arrest. And so it begins. Christians arrested, persecuted, handed over to religious leaders, brought before kings and governors. Jesus goes on to say that we will be betrayed by relatives, friends, parents and siblings, and some will be put to death.

Oh, wait. That’s exactly what happened to Jesus. Betrayed by one of his own, arrested, tortured, ridiculed, tried by religious leaders, brought before the governor. Killed by the government of Rome. So now the term “follower of Jesus” takes on new meaning. We are following him — through persecution, accusation, ridicule, and death.

But, then Jesus says something very odd, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”

To what are we testifying? The apostles in the book of Acts would testify to what they had seen. John, in I John1 says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

The New Testament Greek word for witness — one who testifies — is martys. It is the same word from which we get the English word, martyr. So, a witness is someone who tells what he or she knows. A witness for Christ is someone who tells what he or she knows about Christ even if it means their life. And for many it did. The martyrs of the early church were those who refused to worship the emperor, or renounce Jesus, or give up their faith. And so they died because of what they had seen and told.

But then Jesus says something really strange —

“So make up your minds NOT to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

We are not on our own in the face of persecution. Jesus is still with us. And he gives us words-and-wisdom so overwhelming that no rebuttal is possible. Which doesn’t mean they won’t kill us, but it does mean that they will do so knowing the truth. Knowing the irrefutable truth of God. Acting out their hate, their arrogance, their own will in spite of knowing and hearing and seeing the truth of God standing before them. But they did that to Jesus, too. And Pilate could only ask Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate knew he was face-to-face with the truth. Pilate knew that what he heard was true. Pilate realized that Jesus was not a criminal. Pilate had the opportunity to embrace the truth, to respond to Jesus, to love God. But in the face of overwhelming words-and-wisdom, Pilate could only resort to a weak question, “What is truth?”

But here is our assurance. Jesus says not a hair of your head will perish. Now usually we think that phrase means a person will survive, live, come through. But Jesus has just said that many will be put to death. So what does he mean here? Well verse 19 holds the clue — “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Not your lives as some translations have it, but your souls. In other words, you will die to this life, but you will not perish in the life to come.

Which to us is not much comfort. Our lives are lives of ease. Our faith costs us nothing. But to millions of followers of Jesus, this promise has real meaning. It had great meaning to those a few years later under the persecution of the Emperor Domitian. John writes about them in Revelation. Listen to Revelation the seventh chapter —

1After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3″Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” 4Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.

Then verse 9 continues —

9After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” 11All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.

13Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

14I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
16Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
17For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

— Revelation 7, NIV

The future, whatever it holds, will be our opportunity to testify. To be a witness to what our eyes have seen, our ears have heard, and our hands have touched — that we proclaim.

In the ancient Celtic Christian world, there were three types of martyrs. Because Christianity came to Ireland without bloodshed there were no red martyrs — those who gave their lives for Christ — at least initially. The Irish Christians designated other acts as acts of witness or martyrdom. The green martyrs were those who gave up friends, family, and their community to live in the hills or caves as hermits. The white martyrs were those who left friends, family, community, and their country, setting sail in tiny boats called coracles. Sailing into the white morning light, these martyrs left everything familiar for their witness. St. Columba, who founded the abbey at Iona, was a white martyr. Later, the red martyrs would also be added to the list, as those who gave their very lives for the cause of Christ.

Our Witness Now 

Jesus said the events of the future will be our opportunity to testify. But what about now? What about here? What do we have to tell or need to tell? And are we so dependent upon the presence of Christ in our lives that we are confident that Jesus himself will give us the words-and-wisdom that cannot be refuted.

We, like the martyrs of the first century Roman empire of whom John writes in Revelation, have something to tell that is at odds with this world and its system. That is why many will hate us, persecute us, arrest us, ridicule us, turn against us, and even kill us. There are systems of power and greed and corruption and consumerism in this world that are at odds with the world to come — the kingdom of God. While it is not our intention to create enemies, cause conflict, arouse suspicion, or incite reaction, simply by living Kingdom lives — following Jesus — we will do so. We will not have to wait for the future, because the future is now. Before all the signs of the eschatological work of God, Jesus said we would face persecution. If we’re not facing it now, we might want to examine how much of our lives are lived in contrast to this world and in harmony with the world to come.

Three Stories Of Witness

Our opportunity to witness now lies in the way we align ourselves with the values and actions of the age to come — the Kingdom of God.  Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  And living kingdom values is often in direct opposition to the values of this world. 

John Wesley prayed that when he died, he would die penniless and he did.  Wesley could have accumulated a vast amount of money as the Methodist movement spread.  Just on his writing alone, Wesley could have made a fortune even by our standards today.  But Wesley’s values were not of this age, but of the age to come. 

The story is told that John Wesley had a meager amount of money one day and used it to buy a couple of small paintings to brighten up the room in which he lived.  Later that day, Wesley encountered a woman who needed food and, realizing that he had spent the only cash he had on decoration, he vowed never to do that again.  When I told Debbie this story, she said, “He should have bought more art.”  So, obviously everyone is not called to live the spartan existence of John Wesley.  But Wesley was living Kingdom values as he understood them, rejecting the call of consumerism that existed even in the 1700s.

The second story reminds us that living by kingdom values now often places us at odds with the rest of society.  White pastors like Paul Turner who supported the rights of African-Americans during the civil rights movement were often fired, ridiculed, or both.  Turner believed that all people, regardless of race, were God’s children.  And so he took the hands of little black children and walked with them into the school building in Clinton, Tennessee.  Then, after moving to Nashville, did the same thing as pastor of Brookhollow Baptist Church.  For that Paul Turner was beaten, ridiculed, harassed, belittled, and criticized.  Kingdom values stir up both passionate support and violent opposition.  This is the kind of persecution that Jesus was speaking of.  This is living the values of the age to come, not of this present age. 

Taking the cause of the poor, the ignorant, the marginalized is often difficult but always God’s work.  Until Rick Warren, pastor of one of the largest churches in America, submitted to an HIV test, the whole subject of HIV-AIDS was not on the agenda of the evangelical church.  Warren has been criticized, not by the world, but by fellow Christians for coming to the aid of those with AIDS.  This is the kind of ridicule is that of which Jesus spoke. 

The third story brings this conflict between this age and the age to come even closer.  It’s a story about bananas.  Chiquita, the banana people, entered a guilty plea in federal court in September to paying right-wing paramilitary groups in Columbia for “protection” of their banana plantations.  Chiquita was fined $25-million by the Justice Department, for this illegal act.  While Chiquita was paying the paramilitaries, over 4,000 people in that region of Columbia were killed, and 173 deaths were directly attributed to the AUC, the group Chiquita gave over $1-million to.  USA Today reported Chiquita’s guilty plea, and you can visit the Chiquita website where they acknowledge their misdeeds and fine. 

I wrote an article about this, and a friend of mine replied,

We’re being hit from all sides. Shocking injustice lives in my sock drawer and in the crisper in the fridge. Who’d have thunk it? My old value was frugality – finding a good price. Now I’m having to embrace a new value – seeking to use my money in ways that foster justice.

But isn’t it cool that so many people are getting this all at the same time.

So, at our house, at least for a while, we’re buying brands other than Chiquita.  These stories are examples of this age versus the age to come. 

So, we don’t go looking for trouble, but we do go looking for places where Jesus is at work.  And we join him there.  In the process, we find ourselves with Christ — in ridicule, in persecution, in criticism, and in death.  But, this is our opportunity to witness to the work of God in this world, and it comes with a price and a reward. 

Sermon for Sunday, Nov 18, 2007

I just posted my sermon for this Sunday, November 18, 2007 — An Opportunity To Testify, based on Luke 21:5-19.  This is a first draft, as I am running late this week, so check back later on Friday for some revisions.  Have a great Sunday!

Friday, Nov 18 — Made some minor revisions, but still a work in progress.  Any thoughts?