I saw the movie Marley & Me this week and loved it. I’m a dog person. I suspect every dog person would understand and love that story. It brings to mind that big speech your parents gave you when you were a kid and you pressed them to let you have a dog. You know the speech, it begins with something like, “A dog is a big responsibility…” and then moves on to all the hardships that come with dog ownership, etc. The words may vary slightly from one set of parents to the next, but all the speeches are designed to establish some clear ground rules, some non-negotiables, if we are going to go down this path. It is actually a good process for any new beginning or new chapter in life…including New Year’s resolutions, and especially including churches. Every individual Christian and every church should be looking into the new year with some clearly defined values, some non-negotiables, some distinctives that will help keep us on the right path no matter what may come. Like taking on a new puppy, every Christian organization should be looking into the year ahead and saying, “If this is what we are called to do, then here are some values on which we simply will not compromise.
Jesus demonstrated this process beautifully for us with His 40 days in the wilderness just prior to beginning His ministry. He spent 40 days fasting and connecting with the Father. It was no doubt a spiritual version of what churches might call strategic planning; not that He was spending that time “planning” first steps, but rather that He was spending that time really connecting with God the Father. To my way of thinking, that is by far the most important element of “strategic planning” for any Christian or for any church.
The lessons we can take from Jesus’ wilderness experience in setting our church’s own “non-negotiables” are too numerous to list in a blog post, but here are a few obvious ones. Here are some easy guidelines for churches wanting to clarify their non-negotiables for the year ahead:
- Set your priorities and keep them – Fasting was one way Jesus used to draw closer to the Father. It helped him focus, keeping the main thing the main thing, so to speak. So for the tempter to suggest forsaking it in order to satisfy a physical desire was not only wrong, it was offensive. Similarly, when our desires for physical matters become more important than spiritual matters, we have gotten off track as a church. When we are creating and maintaining programs and traditions based upon convenience and comfort rather than on meeting spiritual needs, we have missed the point. There may be ways of doing church which are more efficient, more convenient, or more productive of physical results (like dollars or numbers), but those things are not the priorities we are after. Sometimes efficiencies or convenience need to take a backseat to more important spiritual values.
- Do not get out in front of God –The tempter wants Jesus to put His status as the Son of God to the test. His suggestion is very much a “Let’s take this baby out for a spin” attitude. He suggests that Jesus could set any agenda He wished and the Father would bless it. Does God want to bless us and to protect us? Yes, of course He does. Is that a license to run off on our own agendas and in our own power and “force His hand” on this promise? No. We must be as faithful to God’s timing as we are to the rest of His will. As a church, we must be committed to waiting on a clear word from the Lord before we launch that new ministry.
- Be honest and unbiased in your teaching of scripture – (I credit my pastor for this point…I missed it in my lesson but He nailed it in his sermon…this is why he is the pastor and I am just a Sunday School teacher…way to go Don!). I am struck by how well the tempter knows the scripture. I am even more struck by how easily he can twist it to fit his agenda. As church leaders, we must commit ourselves to an utterly honest, unbiased approach to understanding God and His ways as set forth in the whole of scripture. We must guard ourselves against interpretations which are designed purely to satisfy a denominational or cultural bent.
- Worship God alone. No matter what might be gained from it, worshiping another would never be an option in Jesus’ mind. He recognized the concept of being a living and holy sacrifice. He knew (and demonstrated for us) that every decision He made in life, whether big or small, was an act of worship. There were no shortcuts to this concept, nor any viable alternatives. Similarly, both for individual Christians and for churches, every piece of business, every vote, every decision, every act is an act of worship. As church leaders, we have a responsibility to help our people understand this concept and to keep them focused on God as the only One worthy of that worship.
So, you want the puppy? You want to be a Christian? You think you are called to this ministry or that? Take some time in the wilderness this week and prayerfully consider the non-negotiables of that path. I strongly suspect there will be moments in 2009 when you will be glad you did.
© Blake Coffee
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