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Saturday, 29 April 2017

10 Things You Must Do Before Going to Church For The First Time



There are some things that a person wishing to go to church for the first time must know. There are requirements and regulations and accepted standards that everyone needs to adhere to. God also has a list of things that He checks when someone goes into a church building. I thought it might be helpful for you to read the list to see if you qualify;

  1.  Become a better person to ensure you will be accepted by God and others
  2.  Learn how to pray and know The Lord’s Prayer by heart
  3.  Make sure you are physically clean so that you don’t cause offense
  4. Know about the Bible and memorise some verses
  5. Buy smart clothing so that you fit in
  6. Get a baby-sitter so you can leave the kids at home
  7. Save some money so you can put it in the offering bag or contribute to the building fund
  8. Make a list of your sins so that when it’s time for confession you know what to say
  9. Learn how to smile cheerfully and to engage in small talk with strangers
  10. Listen to some worship music and remember some of the lyrics

Some of you are wondering where I’m going with this. Others are reading anxiously through the list to see which of my suggestions apply and what you personally should do. A few might be thinking that this advice is sensible. One or two might have missed the point completely and are annoyed that people could be misled. The vast majority, however, are smiling to yourselves—you get it or at least you think you do….

A church, according to Wikipedia, is a building used for public Christian worship. However, the Bible teaches us that all Christians are part of the universal body of Christ which is the church in a broader sense (Colossians 1 vs 18 and other verses.) Christians gather together in buildings in their local area to worship God—these are what most of us think of when we talk about churches. 

The big question is, who do these churches (or church buildings) belong to? Some may be partly or wholly government owned, others may be owned by a group of people with a board of trustees, still others may be privately owned and choose to operate independently. 

Regardless, all of these buildings are ultimately owned by God. He is the one who places authorities over us and He also provides the finance for buildings to be bought and sold. He owns all of our assets whether we acknowledge it or not. Church buildings and other places that Christians gather for worship are a blessing from Him.

I have heard most of the list of wrong views about church above from non-believers. A street teenager in the Philippines thought that he couldn’t go to church because he didn’t know how to pray. He also said that he was too dirty to go into a church building. Another person said that they wanted to become a better person before they could go to church. Someone else was worried about tithing and whether they would be forced into confession. The others on my list have been mentioned in one form or another in different cultures and in different church situations around the world.

We may think the list is ridiculous and the people that are thinking these things are ignorant. But these are some of the things that people are actually worrying about. To be clear, none of the above are things that anyone should be concerned about or even thinking about when making decisions about going to church. There are no requirements for attending church, at least, there shouldn’t be.

As Christians, we bear the responsibility for projecting the wrong image of our churches to the outside world. We may misrepresent them by our behaviour outside the church, by the way that we respond to a question about what church is like or by failing to correct someone’s erroneous view. We may not want that person to know the truth in case they actually come to our church and reveal who we really are to our congregation. Maybe we think that they won’t fit in due to their ungodly lifestyle. We have gradually formed rules about dress codes, cleanliness and noisy children, amongst other things….

We like formality and we don’t like disruptions or change. We are comfortable mingling with the same people and following set routines week by week. Anything or anyone that disturbs this is a nuisance. We may announce that we welcome all visitors, but is that evidenced by our actions? 

It is biblical for there to be order in a worship service, after all we need to remember Who we are worshipping. But what happens when our traditions, rules, regulations and requirements that are cultural rather than biblical stop people coming to our churches?

They are afraid that they may be checked at the door, or worse gossiped about or alienated having made it over the threshold. They fear that they won’t fit in due to the close knit Christian clique of popular people or that they may be relegated to a seat somewhere far away from the regular members. That they might be asked to move if they accidentally sit in a deacon’s usual spot. They are anxious about the potential superficiality of some of the conversations where numerous people ask them how they are doing before walking off mid-sentence because someone more interesting arrives.

They fear rejection, humiliation and most of all they fear not being good enough. They are in like company in one respect—none of us are good enough for God. That’s why Jesus had to die and why there are no divine scales measuring good and bad deeds or places called Purgatory. Our churches are full of sinful people if only we would acknowledge it. That’s why we need a Saviour. But, instead of recognising that we have all fallen short of God’s perfect standard, we add extra unnecessary burdens to people. We make them feel that they have to be good enough for us before they can enter our churches.

Let’s try to remember that God doesn’t show partiality and that we shouldn’t either (James 2 vs 9.) Let’s not be like the religious leaders who outwardly followed all of the rules but inwardly were corrupt. They were harshly rebuked not only for their own folly but for taking others down with them. “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” Matthew 23 vs 13

Let’s debunk the myths and wrong beliefs about church and ensure that we are not adding extra-biblical procedures to our services. We can also take responsibility for our behaviour as members of the body and ensure we always encourage unbelievers to come to church and then genuinely welcome them when they turn up. This is not just the responsibility of church leaders or the super-spiritual, but all of us as representatives of Jesus.

It may have taken years of prayer or numerous contacts from different people over the years to get a person to actually take the first step and attend a meeting. This is especially true in Western atheistic cultures where society has shunned Christianity and church as a by-product. Let’s make the most of the opportunity to encourage, support and share the Gospel with them rather than placing hurdles in their way. Let’s be tolerant of things that might irritate or mess up our neatly arranged schedules—I never thought I’d use the word “tolerant” in a positive capacity due to rampant political correctness, but there it is!

God owns our churches and He welcomes those who are sincerely seeking the truth. He promises that those who seek Him with all their hearts will find Him. (Jeremiah 29 vs 13) Let Him be found in our churches as we seek to love people and share the Good News about Jesus with them.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Why It's Not Okay For a Christian to Date, Court or Marry a Non-Believer



It's safe to say that the enemy is having a field day in the area of unequal yokes (believers becoming romantically entangled with non-believers.) I would go as far as to suggest that it is the biggest danger and strongest area of temptation a Christian can face, especially for younger people. I hear it all the time and the list of reasons is extensive. 

I succumbed as a teenager, so I’m also speaking from personal experience. After a painful break-up with a Christian, and having just been baptised, declaring my faith publicly, I fell in dramatic fashion. A man who seemed to be exactly what I was looking and hoping for appeared suddenly on the scene when I was still reeling and hurt from what had gone before. The only problem, he wasn’t a believer, well, not yet anyway, but that would change, wouldn’t it?

Determined that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes as so many of my peers, and thinking my situation was somehow different, I ignored the advice of everyone. I persuaded him to come to church with me. I resisted making the relationship official knowing what the Bible says about these things. But, my heart was committed and I was emotionally attached. I was walking the danger line and it was just a matter of time before I veered over the edge.

Six years later, my life a broken mess and a string of relationships with non-believers behind me, I woke up. I decided that enough was enough. Knowing the way home, I repented of my many sins, and returned to a patient and gracious God. That was twelve years ago, but, things could have been very different if I had heeded the warnings in Scripture or listened to those who were trying to get through to me. My life could also have been very different if I had married one of those men.

Let me ask you, do you recognise any of these? They may be spoken aloud or remain hidden in the heart:

·         “I’m the only Christian he knows. How will he be saved if I break up with him?”
·         “She was brought up in the church and our views are almost the same.”
·         “He’s from a good Christian family, his mother and sister are Christians.”
·         “God has told me that she is the one.”
·         “She’s willing to wait until we are married.”
·         “We’re just friends, I’m praying for her.”
·         “He’s been coming to church with me. I think he’s nearly ready.”
·         “Why would God have allowed our paths to cross if we weren’t meant to be together?”
·         “My pastor says it’s okay as long as we don’t have sex.”
·         “That Bible passage isn’t talking about romantic relationships.”
·         “I just have an inner sense that we are meant to be together.”
·         “I don’t think I’ll meet anyone else and I want to have a family.”
·         “My friends really like her, she fits in.”
·         “Everyone is getting married, I don’t want to be lonely.”
·         “I’ve waited for God and He hasn’t delivered, I’ll have to make my own happiness.”
·         “God can’t expect me to be alone forever.”
·         “My church leader said that sometimes God makes allowances.”
·         “I know of a couple where it worked out and he became a Christian. They are very happy”
·         “He is more moral than a lot of Christian people I know.”
·         “The Bible doesn’t apply to us today. Things have moved on.”
·         “She supports my faith and thinks it’s a good thing.”
·         “God knows my weaknesses and He will forgive me.”
·         “God wouldn’t want me to break the commitment I have made to marry her.”
·         “Once we’re married everything will be okay, she will believe because she loves me.”
·         “My situation is different and I know things will work out.”
·         “He accepts my faith and doesn’t want me to change.”
·         “We’re saved by grace, remember? God loves me too much to deny me this relationship.”
·         “My faith is strong enough to endure the temptation, I won’t fall away.”
·         “But, I love him and can’t imagine my life with anyone else.”

There are surely others that you have heard or maybe even wrestled with yourself. The devil has perfected his strategy having dealt with many subjects over the years.  He whispers lies and takes us captive to the feelings and emotions that are racing in our hearts and minds. It’s practically impossible to be objective when we are already in the situation.

All sorts of Christians, from all different backgrounds, with perfectly good intentions have slipped into sin by listening to one or more of the lies listed above. If we tell ourselves something often enough, we start to believe it, whether or not it is the truth. We can dull our conscience until the guilt that kept us awake at night becomes a dull ache and then fades away almost completely. Not totally though, provided we are really saved, there will still be a sense that things are not quite right. Believe it or not, that is God’s grace, reminding us that we cannot be satisfied or fulfilled without Him even though He has been temporarily side-lined.

I cannot address those who don’t believe the Bible or who don’t see it as authoritative. Those people have more serious issues and cannot be called Christians in any real sense. Take away the Bible and there is no foundation for faith. The Bible is God’s Word and we should seek to obey it.

If you do take the Bible seriously, you need to know that it is clear on the subject of relationships between believers and non-believers. In 2 Corinthians 6 vs 14-16:

“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (ESV)

I think John MacArthur’s comments on this passage are helpful here;

“This passage identifies two opposing worlds.  The terminology is clear.  One of those worlds is marked by righteousness, light, Christ, believers, and the presence of God.  The other is marked by lawlessness, darkness, Satan, unbelievers, and the presence of false gods.  And these two worlds are utterly different and distinct, so much so that they are mutually exclusive. 

They cannot work together in common partnership; they cannot fellowship together.  They are not in harmony with one another.  One is old; the other is new.  One is earthly; the other is heavenly.  One is deadly; the other is life giving.  One is wicked; the other holy.  One is built on lies; the other is all truth.  One perishes and the other lives eternally.” (https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/47-45)

Personally, I never considered the arguments that the Bible passage didn’t apply or that God meant something different. I knew what the Bible said and that my decision to have a relationship with a non-believer was displeasing to Him, so I just stayed away from the church. Ultimately, I became a prodigal.

I wasn’t guilty of hypocrisy by claiming to live a Christian life—those that do are not just harming themselves but are also damaging the integrity of the church in the eyes of the world. Don’t claim to be a Christian if you are living in wilful disobedience and don’t try to justify yourself by blaming God. That’s what the religious leaders in Jesus’ day were doing and they were severely rebuked for it.

What about the occasional story about couples where one party was converted later than the other? From a different perspective, does God ever bless disobedience? The answer to that question is a definite “no.” So, those who believe that they have somehow been brought together by God and that He would have them disobey a clear command in Scripture are wrong.

There are instances where God is gracious to a person and brings good out of bad. He may forgive our wrong choices and use us anyway, but there are always consequences. Nine times out of ten, or maybe ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the non-believer ends up drawing the Christian away from Christ.

There are many sins in the mix in these situations but the main one is idolatry. We are placing a person ahead of our relationship with God. It is easy to become blind to the reality and irrational—the enemy makes us think that we must be with that person and it becomes the most important priority in our lives. Is another human being ever really that incredible, or have we been drawn into a fantasy world?

We forget that we serve a good God who loves us and knows the desires of our hearts. That He is all powerful and more than capable of leading us to the right marriage partner at the right time. We attempt to do God’s work for him and make a mess of it. We are impatient and impulsive and forget that our hearts are sinful and lead us astray. We think that we can handle it and that we know what we are doing. We place ourselves on God’s throne and suffer the consequence.

God’s commands are there for our benefit and protection. He didn’t make them up to ruin our fun or for the sake of it. Think of the long-term consequence of becoming emotionally entangled or even married to a non-believer; 

  • Unless they see the truth, the partner you love is on their way to hell
  • What about your children? How can you teach them the right way if you are divided
  • Your priorities, values, focus and purpose in life will be fundamentally different
  • Your hobbies, holidays and use of time will be at odds with each other 
  • There may be arguments about financial priorities, career prospects, gender roles
  •  In time, there will be fights about church, personal devotions, beliefs, the Bible 
  •  Guilt—a nagging sense that you have sinned and are trapped in the situation
  • Different views about love, marriage and relationships
  • The loss of the opportunity for unity in a marriage with God at the centre
  • Greater likelihood of divorce—a marriage that is divided from the outset may fail
  • The church in disarray as disobedience is seen as the norm and others follow the example 
  •  God is grieved and your relationship with Him is damaged

Again, I’m sure there are many more that only those who have suffered through them will know.

This post is really a warning to those that are not yet married not to fall into the enemy’s trap. Don’t shut out the voices of those who care about you or isolate yourself from other believers. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn away from your church family thinking you and your partner can go it alone. Listen to the advice of Christians who have made mistakes and heed what they say. You are not invincible and your situation is not different. Talk to your church leader by all means, but if they tell you something that contradicts the Bible, you must obey God rather than men. They will have to give account for their carelessness.

This is not a message about Christian dating, so I’m not going to offer suggestions in that area. I will just say, that it is better to be single than to be with the wrong person, and then either end up falling away from God, or in the middle of a messy divorce a few years down the line. 

Wait and pray, if God has someone for you, you can be sure that He will bring that person along when the time is right.