Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is filled with words of warmth and appreciation for them—kind of a thanksgiving letter: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-4).
Most scholars agree that it was his favorite church. The church was the result of a night vision that Paul received from God. In the vision he heard a man from Macedonia pleading with him to “come over to Macedonia and help us.’” Luke tells us that “after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:9-10).
When they arrived at Philippi, Acts 16 records three personal encounters that spanned the socio-economic and spiritual spectrum. They met Lydia who was a seller of purple and one who already worshipped God. They met a demonically possessed slave girl who harassed them for several days. Paul finally had enough, and one day he turned and said to the spirit within her, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” The slave owners who had been enriched by the knowledge the demon was willing to share, brought Paul and Silas before the local magistrates who beat them and threw them in jail.
The third encounter was with their jailor and his family. Luke describes it this way:
At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed. And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”
God permitted Paul and his missionary team to experience His power and grace as He started a church in Philippi. And in later years, Paul paused to send a thank you note to them remembering how his own faithful obedience to God’s call was used by God to create a grateful and giving church. As I pause this Thanksgiving Season to thank God for permitting me to be involved in church planting and church strengthening, this story of how a church got started in Philippi reminded me of how God started a Baptist church in Kingsley, Iowa. At that time, I was serving as DoM/Church Starter Strategist in western Iowa serving two small Baptist associations through the significant help of our Home Mission Board.
The little town of Kingsley was not on my radar—that is until God shined a spotlight on it. I had three separate conversations with three different people in a period of less than a month in which the town of Kingsley was the focus. I can be slow and a bit dense at times, but I got the message!
One of those conversations was with a deacon of an SBC church in Sioux City, Les Stevens, who felt like God wanted him to be involved in planting a church in Kingsley. Pastor Leo Endel affirmed the church’s willingness to sponsor the new work, and the first “outreach” effort was to prayer walk the entire community. God put together a core of believers who began to worship in the school. God also provided a partnership network of churches from ten southern Mississippi associations in a manner that revealed Kingsley had been on God’s heart for some time.
The only other evangelical church in the community had struggled for years, and it was only after the fact that we discovered that they had actually closed the week before the new church plant had its first worship service in Kingsley—God’s timing is always perfect. One Wednesday night we had the opportunity to tour their now empty church building with the possibility of purchasing it. The next morning, a deacon from one of the southern Mississippi churches called and asked if there might be a need for funds to purchase property or a building for a new church plant. Not long after that, a check was received from Perkinston Baptist Church, Perkinston, MS which more than paid for land to build a new building.
It wasn’t long before volunteers and resources were pouring in and a new building was constructed. At the church’s tenth anniversary, the building was debt-free, and they had called a pastor who grew up in the community. Thank You Lord for the Privilege of Serving You!
We have all come through a very difficult season filled with challenges and change, but let me encourage you to take a few minutes and reflect on how the God of the universe continues to invite you to join Him in His work. Paul thanked God when he wrote a letter to a beloved church in Philippi. I thank God for inviting me to be a very small part of the Kingsley story I just shared. In fact, my mind is flooded with additional thoughts of all the other things He did to make New Life Baptist Church in Kingsley a reality that time and space do not permit me to share.
Let me simply say, God’s willingness to use a broken vessel like me in the past as He was producing fruit for the Kingdom, gives me hope that He will use me today as well. As I close this article, I encourage you to take time to fill in the following blank: Thank You Lord for the Privilege of Serving You when You ____________________! A thankful heart is a field in which God can plant new opportunities to serve Him.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
I have mentioned some of the unique cultural challenges that are deeply impacting American Christianity today: emotionally-driven decisions, information overload, sensory overload, and our accelerated pace of life. Today I want us to look at an issue that has been common to humanity since creation itself: our desire to know all that God knows. When we are seeking to know what only God can know, we will not be doing what God has clearly told us we should be doing.
Because I don’t have time and space to start in Genesis and work my way through the Bible, permit me to cherry-pick two very familiar incidents in the life of Jesus that I believe will make my point. Ultimately, my goal is to reveal how far off the mark we have gotten as it relates to having a true Biblical Worldview. We are often focusing on the wrong things, majoring in the minor things, and becoming distracted by the little things that interest us.
The Olivet Discourse encompasses three passages of scripture: Matthew 24:1-25:46, Mark 13:1-37, and Luke 21:5-36. Each opens with Jesus’ statement that a day will come when not one stone of the temple shall be left upon another. And in each passage, the disciples quickly respond with the question, “When will this happen and what signs can we expect to see prior to it happening?” Keep in mind that they had been walking daily with Jesus for three years, and had heard him repeatedly challenge them to be holy, set-apart men who were truly different in a desirable way. Immediately preceding the Olivet Discourse, Matthew records Jesus’ denunciation of the religious elite with a series of woes, because they taught one thing and lived another. His disciples had also heard Him say, “This generation is a wicked generation; [because] it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).
As we read the Olivet passages we find that Jesus weaves the more immediate fulfillment of the destruction of the temple that occurred in 70 AD with His second coming which is still yet to happen. We also see a strong and repeated encouragement for the disciples to guard their hearts and to not become discouraged.
As Jesus wraps up His discourse, as recorded in Matthew, He tells them to always be prepared by being obedient to all that He had been teaching them, because the consequences of disbelief, disobedience, and distraction are severe.
"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
The same strong exhortations are recorded by both Mark and Luke:
“Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning—lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping” (Mark 13:35-36).
Having heard Jesus tell them to focus on being an obedient disciple instead of worrying about when and how He will return, it should be instructive to us that they repeated the process a few months later. If it happened to them, it can and will happen to us. Just prior to Jesus’ ascension Luke tells us:
"Then they gathered around Him and asked Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
I must admit that my pragmatic nature kicks in when I hear Jesus repeatedly states that knowing the time of His return is not something we can know. Instead, He repeatedly told His disciples to focus on knowing and obeying God’s commands. With that in mind, I have summarized the book of Revelation and eschatology into one very short statement and two short questions: God wins! Are you on His side? If so, are you helping others find out how to get on His side?
Ultimately, our focus should be on the things that interest God and not what interests us. There are plenty of difficult and obscure Biblical passages that can distract us. And there are plenty of Biblical Doctrines that we seek to rationally explain that we are asked to simply accept by faith: the trinity and the humanity versus deity of Jesus are just two of them. Don’t get distracted! Keep the main thing the main thing—making disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples…for the Glory of God.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
I have been discussing some of the cultural challenges that deeply impact Christianity in the U.S. I pointed to the impact of the huge technological advances that have created Information Overload and the affluence that has provided Sensory Overload. As I have been doing the weekly articles I have also been working on a discussion summary of Zach Eswine’s book The Imperfect Pastor. His book speaks to our current culture and the way that pastors and Christian leaders have fallen prey to unrealistic expectations. We are expected to know-it-all, fix-it-all, be everywhere-for-all, and do-it-all-today.
As he describes his own pilgrimage as a pastor, he acknowledges that in the flesh we can easily become willing accomplices. Our need to be needed, pride, and insecurities are appeased when we conform to these cultural pressures. As he brings his reflections into focus in one of the final chapters, he suggests that we need to learn to make disciples and develop leaders at Game Speed. He wrote, “To practice at game speed is to run, catch, or kick the ball in practice at the same pace the game will require.” His basic point is that life transformation is not quick, so it can’t be done fast or in a hurry. It’s not that God can’t do it in an instant; it’s that He will only move as fast as we let Him.
Let me take his term game speed in a slightly different direction. For those of us who played little league sports, we know that one really good athlete can create a winning team. When we played in high school, we discovered that it took two or three really good athletes to win a state championship. If you played college ball you discovered that those two or three really good athletes needed to be surrounded by other good athletes. By the time someone makes it to the professional sports level, they discover that everyone on the field is a really, really good athlete. At each level, the athletic skills and therefore the speed of the game increases.
So what does doing ministry at game speed mean? Let me suggest the following:
What I hope you hear me saying is that game speed for disciple-making is slow and tedious. It calls for hard work and consistency. We have to be willing to do the right things year after year, knowing that disciple-making isn’t exciting or flashy, and it is actually very messy. The old sport’s cliché practice makes perfect is actually not true. You can practice doing something wrong and when push comes to shove you will generally do it wrong. The reality is that perfect practice makes perfect! In high school, I got tired of hearing my football coach say, “Run that play one more time.” We didn’t have a lot of plays, but the ones we ran were generally effective because we knew exactly what we were supposed to do.
The way to combat information and sensory overload is to get back to the basics: 1) Remember why we exist—live out the Great Commandments to love God and to love our neighbor as we are fulfilling the Great Commission to make disciples among every language and cultural group in the world. 2) Rely on time-proven principles that support doing spiritual development at game speed
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
I hope some of you were able to see the aurora borealis over the weekend. Although I missed out on this one, I can still recall being awed as a child by the light shows God put on in the Wyoming night sky. God has given me an opportunity to travel, and I recall experiencing sensory overload with a man-made light show. It was in Times Square in the middle of Manhattan Island. It was early evening and lights were flashing from street level up to the skyline in all directions. It almost made me dizzy. There I was standing on a small island (33 square miles) that over 1.6 million people call home. To top it off, in the middle of all of it stood a panhandler who called himself the naked cowboy. As a native of the Cowboy-state of Wyoming, I’m confident that nowhere in the 97,814 square miles of my home state would I be able to find another one quite like him—nor would the state’s residents want one.
In recent weeks I have been addressing cultural issues that are negatively impacting the spiritual health of the American church: emotion vs fact-driven decisions, general moral and ethical declines, and information overload. Today I will highlight one of the issues that our affluence has created: sensory overload. One way I have described our current reality is the stark contrast between most people in the world who eat to live and our lifestyle where we live to eat. In many nations, people spend the majority of their waking hours working, scraping, and searching for a way to survive that day. We spend a lot of time dreaming and planning our next vacation or choosing how many of the 100s of exciting things we COULD do this weekend that we will be able to actually CRAM into our agenda—Sabbath rest and public worship often don’t make the final list. Each experience seems to create in us a desire to find an even more exciting opportunity. Stimulating our sensory system gets harder and harder—almost as if we were addicted. We become intoxicated as we seek newer and better opportunities that lay somewhere out there in our much anticipated tomorrows.
Sometimes we seek spiritual stimulation in a similar way. Our desire is to go from one mountain top experience to another. We seem to ignore the reality that between the mountain tops are valleys. I would also quickly point out that every mountain top experience isn’t the same. I could argue that the moment when Elijah’s life was most deeply transformed wasn’t on Mt. Carmel; remember, within hours of that adrenaline rush, he was running like a scared rabbit from Jezebel. I would suggest that Elijah’s greatest life change took place on Mt. Horeb (Sinai). And there it wasn’t God’s demonstrated power that stimulated Elijah; it was God’s quiet voice. God said to Elijah:
“Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (I Kings 19:11-13)
That experience initiated a significant change in the way Elijah did ministry. Instead of seeking more stimulating Mt. Carmel experiences, he began to fulfill God’s call for his life.
Then the Lord said to him: “Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place.” (I Kings 19:15-16)
Elijah walked off the Mountain of God, anointed Elisha, and began to disciple him. They were together 24/7/365 until God’s chariot of fire swept Elijah into heaven (II Kings 2). Just like Jesus spent 24/7/365 with His disciples until His ascension. From those realities, I would surmise that spiritual transformation is a slow, often boring, life-on-life process. To drive my point home, let me remind you that God commissioned Elijah to anoint three leaders: Elisha, Hazael, and Jehu. As I already mentioned, the Bible records that Elijah immediately anointed Elisha, but who anointed the other two? Elisha anointed Hazael (II Kings 8:7-14), and an unnamed disciple of Elisha anointed Jehu (II Kings 9:1-10). So obedient disciple-making also assumes that it will be a multi-generational process.
In last week’s article, I described growing up in Wyoming in the ’50s. As such, it wasn’t hard for me to avoid either information or sensory overload. But another part of my reality back then was that I grew up in a state where there were less than four people for every square mile compared to Manhattan Island, NY, where today there are 48,327 people per square mile. So, I didn’t have to be taught the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence, simplicity, or slowing. That was just a part of life. Similarly, social distancing hasn’t been a burden for Wyomingites, because they have been practicing it for hundreds of years.
Back then, Bible verses like Isaiah 30:15, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; In quietness and confidence shall be your strength. But you would not;” Or Psalm 62:5 “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone” didn’t carry a lot of meaning for me. But the spiritual disciplines I just mentioned and these verses are things that I really, really need to hear and to heed today! Are you willing to step away from the sensory overload lifestyle (both physically and spiritually) and join me as I place myself quietly before God? I will be bold enough to suggest that unless we quickly change our lifestyle, the next generations (our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren) will struggle even more.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.