Social Media: The New “Agora”?

The agora of Ephesus
If you study the first missionary movement in the New Testament, you will find the Apostle Paul traveling through Asia, then into Europe (modern-day Greece), engaging lost, pagan societies with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Though he often would first show up at the Jewish synagogues to engage His countrymen with the witness of the resurrected Messiah, as Paul ministered to an increasingly Gentile society, he would spend considerable time engaging with people in the local agoras.
 
In ancient Greek towns and cities, the agora was more than just a marketplace.  It was usually a natural, open space near the entrance to the acropolis, where the public would gather for social, political, and commercial business.  This was perhaps similar to the plazas that are found in virtually every town in Latin America.  The agora would be where vendors would set up shop, as Paul did when he sold tents in Corinth (Acts 18:1-3).  It was where philosophers and thinkers would debate ideas, as occurred prominently in Athens (Acts 17:17).  Even if you travel to Ancient Ephesus (modern-day Turkey), you will see, among the city ruins, a vast, open, rectangular area, which was the agora of the day.  The Apostle Paul and his missionary team spent time there, even in the lead up to the famous confrontation with Demetrius and the worshipers of the Temple of Diana (Acts 19).  In Phillipi, Paul and Silas were taken to the agora to face the rulers and to answer their accusers (Acts 16:19).
 
Why was this the place of choice?  It was where society gathered.  It was where people met.  It was where conversations, debates, and discussions of all kinds took place.  It was where Paul could engage the lost and build relationships and conversations that would open doors to speak of Jesus and the Resurrection.  If you want to reach people, you go to where they are, where they hang out, where they share their ideas and beliefs.
 
I believe that in today’s society, social media is becoming the new agora.  Yes, people still physically meet at sports arenas, city parks, and fitness centers.  But where are people gathering by the millions to share their thoughts, opinions, and daily life?  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a growing list of digital applications.  How are they connecting?  On desktop and laptop computers, but more so on smartphones, tablets, and portable media devices.  As mundane as it may be at times, that is how today’s generations are seeking to connect.
 
We can dismiss it as a passing fad, or as superficial and shallow, but the reality is, that is where people are.  If we are serious about engaging people (in greater numbers than was ever possible before), we have to go where they are.  We have to build and join conversations and interactions.  It may not be our personal preference, but the conversations, discussions, and interactions are going to go on with or without you.  As ministers of the Gospel and servants of Jesus, vocational or volunteer, let me challenge you to be like Paul in his day.  Yes, be a part of the religious gatherings on the Lord’s day and whenever people are congregating for corporate worship.  But outside of those times, go to the agoras, start conversations, build relationships, point people to Jesus.

Planning Your Preaching Calendar

The time has come for me, as a pastor, to begin planning my preaching calendar for this year. In fact, the time came a couple of months ago, and the LORD allowed me the opportunity to set aside a few weeks in January (with the help of a couple of preachers in our congregation) to recuperate from the craziness of the holiday ministry season and spend some time seeking the LORD for this new year. I want to encourage every pastor and preacher to devote some time and prayer to planning his preaching calendar ahead of time. Let me share a few things that I have learned in recent years.


Why it is helpful

Every day of the year we preachers know that “Sunday’s coming.” It is a reality that cannot be avoided, and that weighs on our heart. We know the responsibility that is ours before God to minister His Word to His people. It is a responsibility that we do not take lightly. And there is nothing more stressful than knowing that you have a preaching responsibility, and not knowing what you are going to preach about. If we have no plan, no direction, we are starting from scratch each and every week. We waste valuable time just asking the LORD, “What now?” And when we have 3-4 preaching and teaching commitments a week, the stress can become unbearable. Planning the direction of your preaching and teaching schedule ahead of time does amazing things to reduce that stress. It frees you to focus the time you also need to give to administration, counseling, visiting and many other weekly ministry responsibilities. It also allows you to promote upcoming themes on your website or promotional material. The benefits are too many to mention. The same God who can fill your mouth with His Words at a moment’s notice will also give you long-term vision and direction in feeding His flock if you seek Him.

 

What to include

Pastors are accountable before God to preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). We are responsible for how the flock is fed spiritually. Our aim is to see believers grow and mature in the things of God. We cannot just preach our favorite passages and topics. We can’t avoid passages and themes that are complicated and controversial. If it’s in the Bible, we are responsible for communicating it. Planning ahead of time to preach on different themes and topics holds us accountable. When you plan your preaching calendar, let me encourage you to consider including:

  1. Book studies
  2. Biographical studies
  3. Topical studies
  4. Key passages

Last year I preached through the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), Hebrews 11, and 1 John. I preached a series on the family, a series for new believers and a series on the Beginning (Genesis 1-11). The previous year I preached a series through the life of the Apostle Peter. The goal is a well-rounded spiritual diet for God’s people.

 

Who to involve

Part of the responsibility of church leaders is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12). This includes preaching and teaching. I know that many preachers are very jealous of their pulpit, or feel that they are paid to be the ones behind the pulpit all the time. But that is not true. We are the overseers, and we are God’s men to cast the vision and lead the congregation to follow the LORD’s direction, but the church is a Body. Some of those in the Body have been called or gifted to preach, and we must give them opportunity.

Let me encourage you to set aside times in the year in which you allow others in your congregation to minister the Word. It may be a younger preacher getting started and needing experience. It may be a retired preacher needing to use the “burning fire in his bones” (Jeremiah 20:9). It may be someone on your pastoral staff. But it is good for God’s people to receive the Word from different people. It reminds them that it is God’s Word, not man’s word. It is not about the messenger, but about the Message. And we pastors set the tone and help guide this attitude in our congregation.

There are also special days throughout the year that a guest speaker can be brought in. Annual holidays, church anniversaries, revivals, conferences, or the pastor’s family vacation. These are also times that need to be planned ahead of time. You can work your preaching series around these events, perhaps using these breaks to end or begin a new theme.

 

Planning your preaching calendar can be a difficult task. We need to seek the LORD and listen to His voice. But it is incredibly rewarding, both to you and to your congregation. If you have found any specific thing to helpful in this area, please share your comments in the section below.

Looking For A Summer Camp in 2014?

Vandalia Baptist Temple is again privileged to host two weeks of summer camp in 2014, one for children and one for teens.  You may still be making your plans for the upcoming year, so I invite you to consider joining us at Pleasant Valley Ranch, near Mansfield, Ohio.  Here are the dates:

 
Junior Camp (June 23-27) – For kids ages 7-12, this is an action-packed week that kicks off with our annual Shaving Cream Bash!  Our guest speaker again will be Gospel Magician Bill Marks.  Kids will be challenged each morning and evening with the Word of God, will be involved in group/team games every day, and will have individual opportunities to compete for Outstanding Camper of the Week through Bible memorization, Bible quiz, special music and sports involvement.  Many life and ministry decisions have been made at Junior Camp!  The cost is $150.
 
Youth Camp (August 4-8) – For teens 13-19 (still in high school), this is growing to be a life-changing time of revival and spiritual awakening.  This will be our third year to host a week for teens, and God keeps building on what He has already done.  Our returning guest speaker will be Pastor Brian Loveless, of Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, Texas.  Pastor Brian has a gift to connect with teens, while challenging them to a deeper level of commitment and transparency in their walk with Christ.  Though we have plenty of exciting (often disgusting!) games and challenges, we strive to stay focused on seeking the LORD.  Every morning begins with a voluntary time of group prayer, inviting God to work in our hearts in the day ahead.  With heartfelt worship and powerful preaching, this is a camp you will want to be a part of!  The cost is $160.
 
Make plans now to join us at Pleasant Valley Ranch for summer camp!  As time approaches, more information will be available upon request.  If you have any questions, contact Vandalia Baptist Temple at office@vandaliabaptist.org or 937-898-5761.  May God win many victories in 2014!

Pastor’s Desire for 2014

As every year comes to a close, and I begin to look ahead and seek what God wants to do through Vandalia Baptist Temple, it is a daunting weight that comes over me. As senior pastor, I know that our congregation is looking to me for vision and direction; not one that I can personally develop, but the one that God has for us as a local church. I pray that God will give us the faith to set goals and take risks that will align us with the heart of God and invite Him to manifest His power and glory (Psalm 63:1-2). May God lead us to pursue things that are far bigger than us, and that we could never possibly accomplish if God does not make them a reality.

Some years I have drafted 15-20 specific, measurable goals, and each year the LORD allows us to see the majority of them fulfilled. This year, 2013, was no exception. But the more I think about 2014, the more I see the value in focusing on one or two things which, if done in the power of the Spirit of God, can breathe new life and revival into the heart of God’s people.

My heart’s desire for 2014 is for our church to effectively do two things:

1. Serve the needy in our community

Our church family has a tender heart for those in need. Time and again they step up with generosity and acts of service that display the heart of Jesus. Our teens currently travel over 30 miles away every month to help another church deliver groceries to around 200 needy families. But the needs are all around us. There are apartment complexes and residential areas in which kids are going hungry on a regular basis. Students are struggling with their schooling. Home life is heartbreaking. My prayer is that God would raise up servants to help us organize free meals on a periodic basis, free tutoring on a weekly basis, and loving mentoring and encouraging to kids needing someone to love them and show interest in their daily life. God, help us to love the needy like You love them, and to do so in practical ways!

 

2. Build deeper relationships within our Bible classes

I thank God for our volunteers that step up each and every week to teach Bible study classes in Sunday School to people of all ages. The truths that are being instilled are life-changing. But there is so much relationship-building that needs to happen during the week, between members of each class. Prayer requests need to be followed up on. Absentees need to be contacted. Guests need to be visited. Opportunities need to be created for members to just hang out together and get to know each other. Service projects need to be planned to help cover some of the basic life needs that families go through. My prayer is that God would show us a clear path to building community in the “small groups” level of our church, which I believe is the key to overall church health and growth. God, help us to love one another and spend time getting to know one another, so that we can truly be the Body of Christ that we each need from our church family.

 

Are there more things to do? Absolutely! All other ministries still need to be evaluated and led effectively. But I believe that if God would raise up volunteers to lead, recruit and execute in these specific areas, there would be a fresh wind of God’s Spirit flowing throughout the heart of God’s people that would impact every other ministry of our church.

Please join me praying for God to make these dreams a reality. Perhaps God would burden you to lead or assist in some specific way. May God allow us to manifest His love, compassion and grace to those within and outside our church family, for His Kingdom and glory.

Personal Devotions: An Invaluable Resource for Preachers

 

A preacher’s personal devotional time with the LORD is invaluable.  It is our time to connect with our LORD in prayer, Bible reading, Bible study, and reflection, aside from our ministerial responsibility to study and prepare sermons and lessons.  I admit, it can be difficult to focus on feeding ourselves when we are facing the never-ending deadlines of teaching others several times a week.  It is very easy to mistake our sermon prep time with our personal quiet time with God.  But we need this personal time!  I try to make it a point to read Scriptures, even study and research as I read, in portions of the Bible where I am NOT currently preaching from.  It helps keep me refreshed and loving God’s Word in a personal way.
 
That being said, I am about to contradict myself!  I also believe our personal devotion and study time can also be an invaluable source of sermon material.  I don’t know how many times I have been studying Scripture and the LORD impresses me about a future sermon series or message topic.  That is when I write it down immediately and file it away for the future.  In fact, I have a note file specifically for sermon ideas.  It never fails that I come back to it in the future!  But there is another benefit as well.  Let me make my point by sharing a recent situation which preachers face from time to time.
 
It was early Sunday morning, I got up around 5 am to pray, review and finalize my message and lesson for that morning.  I was looking forward to the evening service when a guest musician would be presenting a concert.  That was when I noticed a message on my phone, in which the musician shared that something serious had come up and he had to cancel his visit to our church.  I was somewhat disappointed that he would not be able to come, but I completely understood.  My second thought was, “What am I going to preach?”  I had nothing prepared.  Ever been there?
 
It is in times like these, when we have to speak with short notice, that we can go back and review how God has spoken to us in our personal time with Him.  What verses stood out?  What did God challenge you with?  Even though you will not have your usual time to prepare, you can share from the heart, from the overflow, something fresh that God has spoken to you about recently.  In my experience, those times are used greatly of the LORD.  In our weakness, He proves to be strong.  In our inadequacy, He is more than enough.
 
I would not recommend this be your regular habit in sermon preparation, but what a great opportunity to “go to the Well” and share with others how God has fed your soul!  How has your personal devotional time proven to invaluable in your ministry?  Leave a comment below.

 

Thankfulness and Thanksgiving

 

 

Thankfulness and thanksgiving ought to be a natural part of the Christian’s life. We have experienced the grace of God in ways that we will never fully comprehend. We are all natural-born sinners, deserving of judgment, condemnation and Hell. And yet God loves us unconditionally, sent His Son Jesus to carry our judgment on the Cross, and offers us forgiveness of our sin and eternal life with God in Heaven. No matter how hard, painful or unfair our life in this world may be, God has already showered us with far more than we deserve. And yet our Heavenly Father often gives so much more. He gives us food, shelter, clothing, and many times gives us transportation, health and even wealth. We are so blessed!

 

If we truly understand God’s grace and blessings, we will be thankful. But we must also go the next step and express it. We need to give thanks (aka thanksgiving) to God in worship, praise and testimony. We need to give thanks to those in our life who have blessed us, loved us and served us. That is why it is such a recurring theme in the Bible:

 

Psalm 136:1 O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: For his mercy endureth for ever.

Ephesians 5:20 Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1Thessalonians 5:18 In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

 

As we approach a national season of thanksgiving in America, let me encourage you to make thanksgiving a regular part of your life, as you worship God, as you share testimony in prayer meetings, as you interact with people every day, and as you pray to your Heavenly Father. He is indeed good, and His mercy endures forever!

 

2013 Men’s Conference Highlights

menswebspeaker

This past weekend we experienced yet another amazing Men’s Conference hosted by Mansfield Baptist Temple.  The theme was Expect A Victory, based on 1 Samuel 17:48 where David faced Goliath and “ran toward the army to meet the Philistine.”  Four tremendous preachers challenged us men with powerful, heartfelt messages from the Word of God.

Here are a few highlights from the various speakers:

 

Evangelist Mark Rogers:

  • Bible hope is not wishful thinking.”
  • Without hope we don’t expect a victory.”
  • Hope takes away shame” (Rom 5:5).
  • The world wants to take the shame out of sin.”

 

Pastor Bill Fennell:

  • Sin blinds, binds and ultimately grinds.”
  • We are living in the days of the mighty weakling.”

 

Rev. Scott Pauley (Crown College):

  • My story fits into His story. When I step out of His story, there is great danger.”
  • Every decision has a ripple effect.”
  • The story [of our life] is still being written.”
  • Every decision has a ripple effect.”
  • Whatever is still left to be written matters.”
  • Famines always come… but don’t last forever.”
  • Great men make dumb decisions in the famine.”
  • When God teaches, a test is coming.”
  • Worse than bad circumstances are bad choices.”

 

Pastor Kurt Skelly:

  • God puts us in impossible situations to give us greater capacity to please God by faith.”
  • We live on the interstate: go everywhere and see nothing. God has to stop us so we can see.”
  • To avoid dealing with pain we jump into mind-numbing activities.”
  • We often are foolish and stupid ‘as a beast.’ We respond to God like a dog responds to the word ‘treat!’”
  • We have to find the God-place or we will have a bad perspective.”
  • The Levites got no ‘stuff’ – but they got God! They got to serve God! And it is enough. ‘My portion forever.’”

Seeking God – Like David

Prayer is at the core of the Christian’s life, and at the core of a church’s ministry. Much can be done without prayer (and sadly, it often is), but it is done in the flesh, trusting in talent, skill and determination. But not seeing the power and glory of Almighty God.

If we are going to experience God in a real and powerful way, we have to seek Him in prayer. That has been our focus in recent weeks during our prayer meetings at Vandalia Baptist Temple. We have been meditating on several passages of Scripture that refer to “seeking God” or “seeking” in prayer. What we have observed in each case is that seeking must be intentional, requires effort and sacrifice, or it will never happen on a consistent basis!

Our next passage is found in Psalm 63, one of my favorite passages of Scripture. We know from the last verse that David wrote this while he was king of Israel. But it was at a low point in his reign, probably during Absalom’s rebellion. King David had fled Jerusalem for his life, and was hiding in the wilderness of Judea, away from the Holy City and the tabernacle. But no matter where David was, he had a heart for seeking God. Notice what he writes:

 

O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee:

My soul thirsteth for thee,

My flesh longeth for thee

In a dry and thirsty land, where no water is;

To see thy power and thy glory,

So as I have seen thee in the sanctuary.

Psalm 63:1-2

 

Seeking was a priority

What I love about this passage is the word early. Not because I enjoy getting up when I’d rather be sleeping, but because it reflects David’s priorities. Of all the things that pulled at David’s life, schedule and physical body, seeking God was at the very top. He was intentional about putting his time with God before everything else – and that makes a difference. When our day begins with other things, it is inevitable that our time with God will get crowded out. So we must decide if it is important enough to us to sacrifice some of our sleep time (or to go to bed earlier) to make it happen.

Some have interpreted the word early to mean “early in life” (i.e. childhood), which certainly is important, and was true in David’s life. But in the rest of the psalm David writes about remembering the LORD while on his bed, and meditating on the LORD in the middle of the night, so it certainly was a regular part of David’s personal habits. It was a priority.

 

Seeking was about God

That sounds obvious enough, but notice what David was thirsting for and longing for: seeing the power and the glory of God. He had experienced it before “in the sanctuary,” and he longed to see it again. When you experience God’s glory in your life it fills you beyond description, but makes you want to experience it again and again. David was hiding for his life in a desert; He longed to see God’s power and glory again. So what did he do? He committed to seeking the LORD.

David knew from experience that God’s “lovingkindness is better than life” (vs. 3). That experience moved his lips to praise God and bless God. It moved his hands to be lifted in God’s name. It caused his heart to “rejoice in God” (vs. 11). It was all about God.

Too often our seeking is not about God, but about us. We pursue God for what we want out of it. There is something we want from God, so we ask for it, seek for it, knock for it. But what we fail to realize is that the thing is not what we really need. What we need is Him. When we seek the LORD for who He is, in all His power and all His glory, it has a way of taking care of everything else in life.

 

So let this be a challenge to us today. Make seeking God a renewed priority in your life, but also in your day, schedule, commitments. Sacrifice for it. Plan for it. Schedule it. Make it come first. And when you meet with God, make it about Him: His power, His glory. That will satisfy our soul like nothing else.