The importance of Gathering

” For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.” – Matthew 18:20. 

I get it. The church never closed. The church is the people, not the building. But the doors to the church facilities closed. The opportunity to gather for worship in person closed. A lot has transpired over the past 18 months. Covid-19 upended churchgoing in the US as churches faced declining attendance as public gatherings were put on hold. Many believers turned to various forms of technology holding gatherings on Zoom. There is nothing wrong with finding creative ways to minister to one another in times when the church is scattered. The bottom line is that whenever possible we should meet with other believers.

The Bible emphasizes the importance of the local church.  Picture the nation of Israel, rescued from Egypt and gathered together at Mt. Sinai to hear God’s law. Moses later referred to that important moment as “the day of assembly” Deuteronomy 9:10 says,  “The Lord gave me two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments the Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of the assembly.” At other key junctures in Israel’s history, the nation similarly gathered as an “assembly” before their covenant Lord (Judges 20:2, 1 Kings 8:14, 1 Chronicles 28:8). After the four gospels, almost all of the New Testament is about the local church or directed to the local church. Throughout the New Testament, different local congregations met together and worshipped together. Paul uses phrases like “when you meet as a church” and “the whole church comes together” (1 Corinthians 11:18; 14:23 NIV). Paul and the other Apostle’s letters were actually sent to these church communities that gathered in various cities to be read aloud together.  

We need the community found in the church. All of us long for community and connection with others. God has given us this gift in gathering together for church, and in smaller groups in each other’s homes. It fulfills something inside of us to do life with others, encourage each other and be authentically involved in each other’s lives. Christian podcasts, books, and conferences are wonderful additions to our spiritual lives, but nothing can take the place of a consistent Christian community through the local church. 

We grow more spiritually when we gather together at church, then we can all by ourselves. It can be scary and messy when we step into each other’s lives. We are all human, and no one is perfect. So it requires effort and intentionality and grace from God to do life together, even as believers. Gathering regularly with other believers becomes a refining process where we help each follow Christ more wholeheartedly.  Showing up to church is serving others; to gather is to encourage. How could it be otherwise? You cannot regularly encourage those you only sporadically see.

 The hurricane and the pandemic and quarantine have been transformational moments for our world and our churches. We now have the incredible opportunity to gather and continue our mission of helping the whole world find and follow Jesus.  

 Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is gathering as a church important in your view?  
  2. What changes do we need to make to attend church regularly? 

Connecting With God And People

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:5

Have you ever had a special connection that got you preferential treatment? Everybody is trying to procure tickets to a sold-out concert, but you know the band manager who got you the best seats in the house. There were 50 applicants for the job, but your connections made sure your resume got first consideration.

Having a relationship with God is the ultimate connection. Would we not have the most amazing life if we started our days completely connected to the ultimate of all power sources? The connection that is always reliable, the one that is never subject to error, the one that can’t break down or become obsolete. The one source that can never be hacked, breached, or compromised! The highly functional, trustworthy, miraculous connection that will never fail. 

Developing and maintaining a strong connection or relationship with God requires time, effort, and the desire for closeness. Just as a relationship with other people take work and devotion, so does a relationship with God. Putting forth that effort often leads to a greater sense of self-worth, inner peace, compassion, and love. Choosing to pursue this connection and keep it strong is something anyone can do to improve himself and his outlook on life.  

Our relationship with God should define how we perceive those who God brings into our lives. The people we run across in every circumstance are also made in His image. They are also God’s masterpiece. They can also love Him, serve Him and live eternally with Him right alongside us. When we realize that everyone else can connect to God in the same deeply meaningful way we do, it should be easy to find reasons to deeply connect with them. Our desire for them to know God should encourage a relationship that is significant, selfless, and sacrificial.  

The bottom line is this: God has time for each of us, patience for each of us, and genuinely loves us the same, so we should reciprocate that love in return. When we value people for who they are, we begin to see them as God does. When that becomes our default, our interactions with others will change. When we know the people in our lives are meant to be loved, served, and valued, we begin to see how God loves, serves, and values us.

God is building up His people by joining people together in meaningful relationships. God’s love and grace flow through real people in real relationships. Our role is to discern what we need to do to be open to those God-given connections with others.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does it mean to have a connection with God? With others? 
  2. What can we do this week to strengthen those connections with others? 

When Jesus Speaks People Listen

“Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe.” – Hebrews 1:1-2. 

The stock firm E.F. Hutton ran a very successful commercial campaign in the ’70s and ’80s.  Usually, it centered on 2 or 3 people in a busy airport… or at lunch… or some other busy place where there were a lot of people. These people were usually speaking about investments. Eventually one of the people would say, “well, my broker is E.F. Hutton and E.F. Hutton says…” At that time in the commercial, all noise would stop, all conversation would stop, all actions would stop, all traffic would stop and everyone would turn in listening to hear what E.F. Hutton had to say. The commercial would end by saying, “When E.F. Hutton speaks…people listen.”

EF Hutton sales skyrocketed because people believed E.F. Hutton was the most qualified firm to invest their money. The author of Hebrews starts his letter with the same idea in mind when he basically says, when God speaks, people should listen.

That certainly makes sense. Jesus is the one to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given (Matthew 28:18). Jesus is the one of whom it will be said, forever, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered—to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.” (Revelation 5:12). He’s the one to whom every knee will bow: “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Philippians 2:10) So what Jesus says matters.

And beyond that, we’re made alive in Him by grace: ”But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!)” (Ephesians 2:4–5) We are counted righteous in Him because of His work. Galatians 2:16 says, “Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”  Jesus is our shepherd so we know His voice.

So when Jesus speaks, of course, we listen.

Discussion Questions:

  1. To have a great relationship with God you must have two-way communication. Consider your current relationship with God; would you characterize it as two-way communication? What would you characterize it as?

Disciple: Be One, Make One

“We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. For even Christ didn’t live to please himself. …May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 15:1-6.

It is clear throughout Jesus’ life that discipleship was incredibly important to Him. So important, in fact, that it was included in some of His last words to His disciples before He left earth. Matthew 28:18-20 says, “Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

We also take seriously the Apostle Paul’s words in Colossians 1:28, “So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ.” Simply put, discipleship is the lifelong process of spiritual growth, aided by the Holy Spirit and personal relationships. We see in Scripture that discipleship is the important, joyful, and at times difficult process of learning and maturing spiritually.

Discipleship is more than acquiring head knowledge and memorizing Scripture verses. It is learning to give Jesus Christ total access to your life so He will live His life through you. The goal of discipleship is to help people grow to become more like Jesus. Helping Christians live out their faith is the main purpose of discipleship. Successful discipleship should teach believers how to share the faith they are living by testifying to what God has done in their lives and through sharing the gospel. 

You may be the only Bible anyone ever reads. Are you disciplining people so that they can one day disciple others? When others watch you face a crisis, do they see the risen Lord responding? Does your family see the difference Christ makes when you face a need? What difference does the presence of Jesus Christ make in your life?

God wants to reveal Himself to those around you by working mightily through you. He wants your family to see Christ in you each day. God wants to express His love through your life. Christ expects His disciples to follow Him — to learn from Him and to stay close to Him. That’s what He wanted from His followers during His earthly ministry and that is what He wants from His disciples today.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What defines us as disciples in your opinion? 
  2. What happens in the life of a disciple when they think of others instead of themselves? How does putting others first build character?

Are You Teachable?

“So let everyone in Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, to be both Lord and Messiah!”Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away—all who have been called by the Lord our God.” 40 Then Peter continued preaching for a long time, strongly urging all his listeners, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!” Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.” – Acts 2:36-41

One of the main characteristics of the Christians in the first-century church was their heart for God. That heart made them willing and excited to learn, change and grow as we see in the Acts 2 passage above.  Once the people saw the impact of their sins on Jesus, they became teachable. They wanted to learn how to make their relationship with God right, and so they asked Peter to teach them how to respond the way God wanted them to. 

Would God consider you teachable? That is a question every Christian should ask themselves. Not just once, but on an ongoing basis. Do you have a willingness to be instructed? Are you humble enough to receive wisdom from the Lord and from others?  A disciple is someone who is willing to be taught and is eager to learn more. A teachable heart starts with the acknowledgment that we do not know everything. If we can keep an open mind, we can learn a lot from the people that God has placed in our lives. Proverbs 13:18 tells us, “If you ignore criticism, you will end in poverty and disgrace; if you accept correction, you will be honored.”

Life is a learning experience. We never get to a place where you act as though you have arrived and know everything. We can grow and learn together if we are willing to share how God is stretching us. God will teach us through His word, through creation, through life experiences, and through the people that we meet each day. Virtually everyone has something to teach us. God has gifted us with unique gifts and talents and we have all walked through different experiences. We can learn from the lives of others.  

We should not keep what we learn a secret. Demonstrate to your wife, children, relatives, neighbors how you are learning new things each day. Share how what you have learned in God’s word has enabled you to grow spiritually. 

A teachable heart is one that wants to grow, to become more like Christ.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does being teachable mean to you on a practical level? 
  2. What can we do this week to be more teachable spiritually?  

A Community At Work

“All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper, and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:42-47.

When we look at the early church we get a picture of small communities of people who followed Jesus together. The Book of Acts, especially Acts 2:42-47, gives us a great picture of the early church. These believers engaged in life together through teaching, fellowship, communion, prayer, miracles, radical generosity, and corporate worship. They spent time together learning, celebrating, proclaiming the Good News, and supporting each other. 

God never intended for us to live the Christian life alone. How can we apply the 59 “one another” references in scripture unless we are in intentional, close relationships with each other? God calls us to love, not in a casual way, but in a deep, face-to-face, life-on-life, transformative way. One of the best ways to generate those types of relationships is in small groups. 

Today small groups give us an opportunity – no matter how “big” the church gets in our gatherings – to be “small” together. But for the Acts church, it was a way of life. Their relationships with one another were critical to their pursuit of and growth in Christ. In those times there was no other way to experience biblical community. Then as now, small groups were and are an integral part of “being” the church and not just “doing” church. Small Groups are a great way to connect with others.  They provide supportive and encouraging environments where you can build lasting friendships and take the next step in your spiritual growth.

Take a moment to think about the people God has given you. Think about your friends and family. Think about those around you at church you feel close to. What would life be like if you were all alone? What would your hardships have been like if you absolutely had no one to endure them with? Small groups can be wonderfully eclectic made up of a variety of ordinary people navigating their way through this life together.  Each week you are able to get together with other people to discuss scripture, personal experiences, goals, and give each other support.

It doesn’t take much time before you realize that it is was in the ordinariness and even the weaknesses of our shared lives that the presence of Jesus shines through.   

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does spiritual community mean to you? 
  2. Have you participated in a small group? If not, what is holding you back? 

Live A Life That Reflects God’s Love

“And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.” – Romans 5:5. 

What is the greatest evidence of your faith? Is it how often you pray, go to church, read your Bible, and perform other “Christian” activities? Is it an emotional response to reading scripture?

The best proof of your faith is in how you love. Love is the greatest evidence that a person knows God:  1 John 4:7-8 says, “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  

Those verses point out the unmistakable connection between loving and being loved by God. It is not some flowery, sweet, and sentimental type of love, but the love that God pours into the hearts of those who follow Him.  

After experiencing God’s saving grace and being made into new creations, we are commanded to reflect God’s love to others.  As believers, we are ambassadors for Christ: “So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:20).  This command is not for when times are good, but at all times  Your thoughts, words, and behaviors are to be characterized and a reflection of this type of love.  

While our immediate priority is toward our fellow believers, our responsibility to love doesn’t end there. The command to love extends beyond the church to embrace all people. Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians was that ”…the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows.” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). 

We are born of love and created for love. From the beginning to the end God draws us to Himself and His love. Once believing and accepting His love, we discover each day the depth, width, and vastness of this love. We become living examples of God’s love. The way to reflect this transforming love is to share and reflect that love. When God’s love shines through our lives it proves to an unbelieving world that we belong to Him. Jesus affirmed this when He said: “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:35). Our love for others is a litmus test for every believer.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which expression of God’s love makes you feel the most loved? In which ways can you show love to the people around you?

I Think I May Have Messed Up…Again

“He has done this so that every person would long for God, feel their way to him, and find him—for he is the God who is easy to discover!” – Acts 17:27 (TPT).

Do you know that draining feeling of longing to get it all right but failing? Needing everything to fall into place, but everything is mixed up? It often prompts the question: yes, I know God loves me but does He love me right now because, well, things are a bit of a mess. 

We all tend to want to keep things picture-perfect. But in spite of our best efforts life is fraught with messes of all shapes and sizes. Decisions you regret, a job you drag yourself to every day, illness, financial struggles, packed schedules, and alike can make life messy. Our lives today seem to be about running to the next event or managing the next crisis while desperately trying to hold all of the pieces together. But here’s the thing: your mess does not surprise God. In fact, that’s why He sent His son to earth. We are all in need of a savior.

Sometimes I think we fail to accurately see how God sees us. 2 Corinthians 12:9 says, Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.” When we are consumed by rules and expectations and our mess, we are not walking in His grace.

Grace is a gift most of us don’t quite know how to take. Culture instills in us the whole idea of give-and-get and work-and-earn, so grace seems too easy and counterintuitive. But it is grace alone that has the power to transform lives. 

1 Corinthians 16:23 says, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.” Paul normally closed his letters by saying, “Grace be with you.” (for example 2 Corinthians 13:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:28, 1 Timothy 6:20, Philemon 25, Galatians 6:18, Colossians 4:18) Paul is an unlikely candidate for accepting the grace of God. Paul spent years persecuting the church and killing Christians. That was his mission. But Christ appeared to him, forgave him, and saved him.

From then on, Paul was focused on the grace of Christ because he knew he didn’t deserve to be called a child of God. But Paul was not unique. None of us deserve to have the Son of God go to a cross and die an excruciating death so that we might be saved. When things are messed up is when we need to remember the price Jesus paid in giving us something no one deserves—forgiveness, salvation, grace, and eternal life.   

When life is a little messy, we need to trust God. We need to learn to find God in the mess. Trusting that even in the chaos and mess, He knows the plan. It’s not always easy. But no matter what mistakes we have made, there is always enough grace.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does your life display God’s grace? 
  2. God’s grace is costly. How does remembering the great cost of God’s grace empower us to live today?

The Miraculous Love Of God

“ Though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not.” – C.S. Lewis

God owns His love. You can’t add to it. It’s a love that doesn’t depend on you. It’s a love that depends on God alone. It has nothing to do with you. God’s love depends entirely on Him. There is no good thing that you can do to get God to love you anymore and there is nothing that you can do to get God to love you any less. It’s not about your love for God; it’s about His love for you. God’s love is unconditional and is the driving force behind everything He does. 

Unfortunately, religion has misrepresented God. In some cases, religion has presented God as harsh, unforgiving, cruel, and judgmental. They have come up with the conclusion that God is mad at them. God is not mad at you; He is madly in love with you. 1 John 4:9-10 says, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 

“Long ago the Lord said to Israel: “I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.” (Jeremiah 31:3). King David, whom God referred to “as a man after my own heart” said: “But as for me, I will sing about your power. Each morning I will sing with joy about your unfailing love. For you have been my refuge, a place of safety when I am in distress. O my Strength, to you I sing praises, for you, O God, are my refuge, the God who shows me unfailing love.” (Psalms 59:16-17).

God loves you simply because He loves you. You don’t have to work for His affection. You don’t have to set yourself straight before God can pour out His love over you. The father in the prodigal son’s story ran out to meet his son before anything had ever been set right. He didn’t know his son was there to apologize. He didn’t care. He simply wanted to love his child. Your heavenly Father feels the same way about you. He longs to love you right where you are, as you are. 

Maybe you’ve struggled to fully understand God’s love for you. Maybe you feel your shortcomings and sins make you feel unlovable. But if you take the time to cultivate and grow your faith, your understanding of God’s unconditional giving, and sacrificial love will grow. With a fuller understanding of His love, you can then reflect His love and transform lives.

Understanding the love of God for us is essential to a fulfilled Christian life. God’s love is fundamental to our identity as His children and the sacrifice of Jesus. The Christian life is rooted and grounded in the unconditional love of God.  It may seem elementary that God loves you, but hopefully, you open your heart anew to this reality, and that God could reveal His love to you in a real and new way today.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you describe God’s love in your life? 
  2. What’s one change you can make in your life to put more love into action?

Continuing What Jesus Started

“In my first book I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 1:1-2.

The book of Acts has one theme—the continuing ministry of the risen Lord Jesus. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of what Jesus began to do and teach. In Acts, Luke tells the story of what Jesus continued to do and teach through his disciples (1:1-2). Jesus’ followers, empowered by the Spirit proclaimed His word and the result is an expanding movement of new disciples and churches.

Before Jesus was taken up into heaven, He gave orders to His apostles. It focuses on the final command, the Great Commission, to take the good news to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). As you read through the Book of Acts, it becomes obvious that the apostles and early church were not doing their own thing, formulating their own plans, and building their own empires. Rather, they were instruments through whom the Lord was working His purpose and plan. They were containing what Jesus started. 

While the Book of Acts emphasizes the ministry of Peter and Paul, it shows clearly that these men were not one-man shows. They worked together with many others to do the Lord’s work. Luke lists many people in Acts. He shows that God has an interest in individuals and that He works through bringing these individuals together into His church.

Our task is to continue the mission of Jesus Christ. When we love others, we are continuing His mission. When we develop and use the particular gifts He has given to each of us, we are continuing His mission. When we respond to the grace to do something for someone else, we are continuing His mission. When we make time to be kind to those whom our society hates, the downtrodden, the socially unacceptable, the butt of jokes at school, at work, in the community, we are continuing His mission.

There is only one mission, the mission of the Risen Lord. He invites us to follow Him and participate in the fulfillment of His mission. As His word advances, new disciples are made and new churches are formed. The obstacles are immense, yet Jesus’ presence and power ensure the gospel’s advance throughout the world.

Jesus still calls his disciples to follow Him in obedience and continue what He started by taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. Rather than dwelling on what we have become, each one of us needs to do our part in continuing what Jesus started.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does continuing what Jesus started mean to you?    
  2. What can we do this week to use your gifts to contribute to the Jesus movement?