THE IMPORTANCE OF ENGAGING WITH THE COMMUNITY

“Love cannot remain by itself — it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action and that action is service.” – Mother Teresa

Church isn’t about sitting and listening; it’s about actively serving and reaching others.  God does some of His best work outside the four walls of the church building. Many are caught up in the thinking that if God has called them to do something, something was done within the confines of the church. While the church needs to be effective inside, it must also be effective outside the four walls.  This is the will of the Father, the privilege of those who are Christ-followers, and the purpose of the church.

Regardless of the size of your community, your testimony and love for your community impact your ministry to them. If you are a Christ-follower, very few things are more important than loving your community. John 13:35 says, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

Do the people in your world know you’re for them? In our world today, people are often known more for what they are against than what they are for. Unfortunately, this extends even into the church. We want to reach the lost with the incredible good news of Christ, but often all they ever hear us emphasize are the behaviors and attitudes we are against, rather than hearing and seeing the love of God in us.

The For Bay County program is partnering with our communities. A partner is a church that doesn’t make decisions for its community but instead works with the community to make the community better.  When you start living like Jesus, you start loving people the way that Jesus would—unconditionally, not based on what they’ve done for you but just because they are loved by God, they will respond. The church can’t introduce people to Jesus before we’ve ever introduced them to the love of Jesus.

When the church engages with the community, the community is better. They will be encouraged by genuine love. They also will be served by your acts of kindness. When you serve the community, Christ is honored. When you have been motivated by Christ’s love and a desire to obey God, Christ is honored. The Bible tells us to love Him and others more. And just as important, Christ is shared. Those in your community see how the love of Christ is shared with them through you. They wonder and ask how you are different.

You may take regular walks in your neighborhood. But this week, don’t look at it as any walk. Take a quiet, observant walk. If you typically walk with someone in your family, don’t talk. Don’t listen to music. Just walk in silence and observe your neighborhood. Maybe go for a walk at a different time of day or take a different route than you normally would. And look around. What do you see? Whom do you see? What needs do you see? Then pray, “Lord, how are you calling me to respond to this need”?

Discussion Questions:

  1. How can we better engage in our neighborhoods?
  2. How can we build better relationships with our neighbors?

A MATTER OF DEFENSE

“I’m upset because I’m a good person; what they’re saying about me is not true.” it doesn’t matter how good you are, how loving, kind, upstanding; somebody’s not going to like you, is going to try to discredit you. it happened with Jesus. when he was on the earth, he went around healing the sick, lifting the fallen, encouraging those that were down. he did nothing but good, but he was falsely accused, misunderstood. how did he defend himself, protect his reputation?” –  1 Peter 2:22-23.

There is so much going on in the world that temporarily raises our blood pressure. In the middle of a conversation, someone insults you and questions your integrity. Or maybe another believer questions your level of belief or your commitment to the church. Our natural inclination is to vigorously defend ourselves.

We all have people who come against us, make negative comments, try to discredit us, and belittle us. Human nature is to try to straighten them out and prove to them how they’re wrong. We think we have to defend ourselves; that’s our reputation. But the problem with this approach is that as soon as you get one person straightened out, three more will pop up. Somebody will always be against you, trying to make you look bad. If you’re constantly trying to defend yourself, you’ll get distracted fighting battles you were never supposed to.  It’s easy to get baited into conflict, thinking, “Did you see what they said about me on social media? I’m going to show them who they’re messing with.” So, what do we do when we feel the need to defend ourselves? How do we distinguish between defending ourselves and defending Jesus? How do we know when to speak and when to stay silent? Here’s the key: you don’t have to defend yourself; God said He will defend you.

Peter was determined to defend Jesus. When the Roman soldiers and high priests came to arrest Jesus, Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. But instead of letting Peter defend Him, Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Shall I not drink from the cup of suffering the Father has given me” (John 18:11, NIV)?  Fast forward, and we see Peter’s complete transformation. God opened his eyes to see that retaliation against those who wrong us does not serve His purposes. Peter instead gave this command to the church: “Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).

In today’s tense world of instant replies, it has never been easier to react rather than respond with humility and love and let God be our defender.  Every time you are attacked, criticized, put down, or misunderstood, you have two choices: You can defend yourself or let God defend you. Which will it be? Who do you think can do a better job defending you? God can. When we let God take His rightful place as our defender and respond to others in His love, the focus turns to Him. People are drawn to God because they see a part of Him in us.

Psalm 55:22 (GNT) says, “Leave your troubles with the Lord, and he will defend you.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. How have you seen God’s protection in your own life?
  2. In what ways do you need God’s practical protection in your life right now?

HOW DO WE GET MORE OF GOD?

But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence. “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.” -Luke 11:8-9.

Most people want more out of life. They want more out of their jobs, relationships, financial security, happiness, fulfillment, love, money, and time, to name a few. The follower of Jesus deeply longs for more of God in their lives. On the surface, this seems reasonable. Who would not want more of such a good and gracious God?

When the Israelites reached the Red Sea, they were stuck with the Egyptian army closing fast.  God miraculously parted the Red Sea. Could you ever forget such a moment? After crossing the sea and finding themselves hungry, God provided manna daily. When they were thirsty, water flowed from a rock. And, yet, still, their hearts struggled with unbelief. At various points, they thought it prudent to return to slavery in Egypt. They thought the security of slavery was better than being out in the wilderness with God.  How could they react that way with all the power and miracles staring them right in the face?

When we ask that question of the Israelites, we must ask ourselves about our wanderings in the desert or our deeper need and hunger for more of God. Like the Israelites, we need God’s power and direction.

God called us to live out our faith. He called us to walk by faith, to take a risk on His power and His promises. He called us to step out of our comfort zone and live the life we should live. The promises given by Jesus about receiving power from God in Luke 24:49 says: ” And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Then there is Acts 1:8:  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Many people want more of God but are unwilling to be where they need to be to get it. Simply wanting more of God is not enough. The desire for more can be powerful and general. When we say more, we must focus on what we want “more” of in our relationship with God. God is not interested in a joint partnership. He doesn’t want to be your “better half.” He doesn’t want shared custody of you, only on the weekends. God wants you to want all of Him, and He wants all of you. He deserves to be the main focus in your life.

Discussion Question:

  1. Do you want more of God? How does that desire manifest itself in your life?
  2. Do you think God wants more of you?

ANGER LASTS ONLY FOR A MOMENT, BUT FAVOR LASTS A LIFETIME

“For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime! Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  Psalms 30:5.

His favor lasts a lifetime. You have to love that statement.  Favor is granted out of goodwill rather than for justice or payment. In other words, it is a gift from God. You didn’t earn it. You can’t buy it. You can’t be so good that finally, God will say, “You have been so good; you have earned my favor.”

We know God is a God of justice and a God of favor. And His favor is for a lifetime. You cannot accurately define God without talking about His favor.  Favor is a fundamental attribute of God that springs from His grace, mercy, and love. It’s what Jesus did on the cross that earned each of us the favor of God. Moses asked for it, and Abraham asked for it. You can ask for it. “Lord, show me favor.”

The favor of God on your life is evidence to the world that our unseen God is alive and at work in the lives of His people. His favor was meant to set us up, set us apart, and make us stand out to the world, to show God’s goodness, grace, and mercy.

David experienced as many ups and downs, triumphs and sorrows as anyone. He had seen it all as a shepherd, giant slayer, folk hero, warrior, fugitive, exile, father, and king. But in everything, David kept his eyes on the Lord. When times were tough, he cried out to God in frustration, and when God was faithful, David lifted his voice in praise.

If you want to have favor with God, be fully committed to His Son, Jesus Christ. Gain a heart like His, and display His characteristics in your life. Finding favor with God enables you to find favor with man. If we treat people the way we desire them to treat us, we will walk in favor with men. If we respect people and keep an eye out for the welfare of others, people will do the same for us. Proverbs 3:3-4 tells us, “Never let loyalty and kindness leave you! Tie them around your neck as a reminder. Write them deep within your heart. Then you will find favor with both God and people, and you will earn a good reputation.

Psalms 103:8-10 helps us see the attributes of our God. “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” That is favor.

Discussion Questions:

  1. We definitely want God’s favor. But having God’s favor doesn’t mean that this earthly life will be problem-free or pain-free. Jesus’ life and death demonstrate this perfectly. How is it that someone could be blessed and have God’s favor but experience such painful things at the same time? 
  2. There is no room for God’s favor if we value something or someone over God. How can we ensure that doesn’t happen?

WHAT TYPE OF FOLLOWER ARE YOU?

   “Following Christ isn’t something that can be done halfheartedly or on the side. It is not a label we can display when it is useful. It must be central to everything we do and are.”― Francis Chan, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God

We like to follow people on social media. The most-followed individual user is soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo, who has approximately 621 million followers.  The Rock (Dwayne Johnson has 397 million followers, while Beyonce has 320 million followers. Many Christian writers, artists, musicians, and teachers also have a large follower base. One of them is Priscilla Shirer. Priscilla offers daily encouragement, pointing her 1.7 million followers back to the Bible to help inspire and guide them on their walks with God. We follow people on social media who either inspire, teach, or entertain us. And we can share what they share with others, that tidbit of information, with the click of a button.

Social media following is a whole lot different from following Christ. Following Jesus requires so much more of us than a like, retweet, or share. There is a cost to following Jesus. It’s easy to follow our favorite celebrities on Instagram, but following Christ requires something more of us.

Matthew 4:17-20 says, “One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers—Simon, also called Peter, and Andrew—throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him.”

Simon Peter, Andrew, John, and James all abandoned their nets, boats, and livelihoods to follow Jesus. Later, Jesus called Matthew out of his tax collector’s booth. It is remarkable that these men responded to Jesus’ call and readily left their old lives behind. The most astonishing part of this is that none of them said, “Where?”  When people ask you to follow them, in most cases, you would ask, “Where?” You would want to know the route. None of those questions were asked when they are leaving and whether they like where they are going, yet the disciples followed Jesus.

When Jesus says, “Follow me!” He expects us to trust Him enough to do just that. Granted, it’s frightening to step into the unknown, but we can trust where the Shepherd is taking the sheep. Following Jesus doesn’t mean fitting His plan into our lives; following Jesus means fitting our lives into His plan.

When we truly follow Jesus, we commit ourselves to Him above all else. It’s not a half-hearted, cursory connection we may or may not keep in our news feed.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does it mean to you to follow Jesus?
  2. What impact does following Jesus have on our daily lives?

FOLLOW ME

“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.’” Mark 8:34-35 (ESV).

The church isn’t perfect, and perfect religion isn’t attainable. But Jesus is perfect and the only way to know God. If we want a capsule definition of Christian life and experience, we can do no better than these two words: following Jesus. These simple words introduce us to a never-ending adventure of moving through life in the ways our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, points us to go.

As Christians, we often use the term “following Jesus.” We desire to follow Jesus, but what does that mean? Throughout the Gospel, there are many stories of Jesus and people following Him wherever He went. When He traveled from city to city during His three years of ministry, not only did His disciples follow Him, but also crowds of people.

The stories of Jesus calling His first disciples to “Follow me” (Matthew 4:18–22) are gripping. Scripture says they left what they were doing “immediately” and followed Him. Knowing the whole story, we can understand why they chose to leave their nets to follow Jesus. But did they know then what they were getting into by leaving everything behind? Did they have any idea how much their lives would change? We know they responded to Jesus’ call; the rest is history. Their response to Jesus’ call to follow made all the difference in the disciples’ lives.

The rate at which we are willing to follow Jesus is directly proportional to the proximity of our relationship with Him at that moment. The disciples followed Jesus because they believed He was who He said He was. Yes, they had a lot to learn and sometimes learned slowly, but through it all, they trusted that following Jesus was better than anything this world had to offer. Because they trusted they were transformed. They changed because they left everything that had the potential to come between them and an intimate, life-altering relationship with Jesus.

Sometimes, when we say we follow Christ, it comes with loopholes, ifs, ands, or buts. We try to finagle our way into keeping our comfort and what we want out of life, but we also want to give it all to Christ.

Following Jesus is making a very personal, individual decision. It is a choice everybody is offered and must choose through faith. Following Jesus is not about religion. Following Jesus is to learn to live your authentic, present life with all its responsibilities, relationships, and roles as Jesus would live it if it were His.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does following Jesus mean to you? 
  2. Why is it helpful to know more about Him to follow Him effectively?  What can we do this week to increase our knowledge of Him? 

A FRESH SPRING

“Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! …tell of his salvation from day to day.” – Psalm 96:1-2 (ESV).

Spring arrives in mid-March every year, although it seems someone forgot to tell the weathermen. But even if the weather is not cooperating, it’s spring. It’s time to open up the house and let the fresh air in. It’s time to put away the winter clothes and start some spring projects, waiting until the weather turns. It’s time for some spring cleaning.

Spring cleaning is a time to let go of the clutter that has accumulated over the winter. It gives you a sense of accomplishment and a fresh start. Nothing is better than walking into a sparkling clean, polished, and organized home.

Spring is an opportunity to clean and declutter our physical space, but it also is an excellent time to do a little spring cleaning of our hearts and let go of the things that separate us from God. What are we holding onto that is separating us from God? Are there habits or worries we can hand over to Christ so that our hearts can be free to focus on sharing God’s love?

When sunshine peaks through the clouds, and warm breezes bounce off the skin, it is the perfect time to do just that.   It is a matter of scrubbing away the dirt and making space for new life and growth to happen. Cleaning out any jealousy, ungratefulness, and general pessimism built up over the winter needs to go. We may not completely understand how or why our lives got so cluttered, but at least we know how to clean it up. It may never be finished, but as God continues perfecting the work He started, we can be part of it.

We do not have to go about the spiritual cleaning process alone. When we bring our burdens to the Lord, He walks alongside us. In addition, reading His Word can help us to become stronger in our faith. According to Psalm 119:105, the Word acts as a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. Ultimately, spending time with the Lord and reading His Word are the only tools we need in spiritual spring cleaning. Through self-evaluation and prayer, God can reveal the areas of our lives where we need improvement.

Like spring cleaning, it becomes a matter of upkeep. Jesus must receive our undivided attention. We must watch for cluttering thoughts that do not align with God’s truth. We must focus on to whom we belong and sweep away any thought that tries to tell us otherwise.

This spring, let’s meet God amid our mopping, sweeping, dusting, and decluttering. Let’s invite Him to show us what needs to be cleaned up in our lives to be more like Him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is there a part of your life that needs some spring cleaning?
  2. What can you do this week to start that spring cleaning?

IS YOUR PRESENT MESS TOO MESSY?

GOD made my life complete when I placed all the pieces before him.” – 2 Samuel 22:21 (MSG).

David is a paradox — a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. He is a great hero of the faith whose Psalms speak of passionate worship. He performed heroic deeds, including killing Goliath. In 2 Samuel 22, David speaks of a passionate relationship with God. But then we have Bathsheba, Uriah, and Absalom.

In 2 Samuel 22, David records his thoughts, which seem a bit self-serving. While David was called a man after God’s own heart, he was neither a perfect man nor a perfect king. So, how can we account for David rejoicing that he was righteous and clean before a holy God? The righteousness David experienced was righteousness given to him and anyone else who put their faith in God.

We need to remember the story of David and others when life becomes messy and when things become more than we can handle. If we could only see ourselves as God sees us. Jeremiah 31:3 says, “…I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.”

Jesus is not afraid of our mess. Over and over in the Bible, we see Jesus moving and involving Himself in people’s messes and miraculously coming through for them. Whether it was a blind man beside the road (Luke 18: 35-43), a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), or a lame man lying beside a pool (John 5:1-15), Jesus stepped into their situation and showed them that His love was more powerful than their problems. And He is bigger than the valley we find ourselves in today. God doesn’t love us from a distance. God stepped into our messy world to save us and set us free. He wants to be in it with us and help us despite whatever we face. By sending Jesus, God ran into the mess for us. Jesus did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. God didn’t just step into the world 2,000 years ago. He is ready and able to step into what we are dealing with right now.

God permits you to be yourself. You don’t have to put a tarp over the mess.  You are not too messy for God. He specializes in making old things new and transforming messes into things of beauty.  So, trust Him with your mess. Show up in His presence with your mess… your whole mess, and let Him show you what He can do. The great news is that God can do beautiful things with a broken life when you give Him all the pieces.

2 Samuel 22:21 says, “GOD made my life complete when I placed all the pieces before him.” We can lean into Him and experience true change that turns our mess into a message to others — the message that God is able.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did He change you from mess to a masterpiece? How has God made old things new in your life? 

A PERSONAL GOD

Because I am God, your personal God, The Holy of Israel, your Savior. I paid a huge price for you: all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in! That’s how much you mean to me! That’s how much I love you! I’d sell off the whole world to get you back, trade the creation just for you. “So don’t be afraid: I’m with you…I want them back, every last one who bears my name, every man, woman, and child Whom I created for my glory, yes, personally formed and made each one.’”…”But you are my witnesses.” God’s Decree. “You’re my handpicked servant So that you’ll come to know and trust me, understand both that I am and who I am. Previous to me there was no such thing as a god, nor will there be after me.  I, yes I, am God. I’m the only Savior there is.”  Isaiah 43:3-11 (MSG).

Our finite, human minds will never truly understand the vastness of God’s glory, nor the fullness of His character. When we consider His infinite greatness, it can be difficult to remember that while He is incomprehensibly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, He is also personal and relational. He is Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

People have a hard time grasping the idea of a personal God.  They see God as too abstract, big, intimidating, and beyond human understanding to have a personal relationship. They struggle to reconcile a personal God with all the evil and suffering they see in the world. It can be so easy sometimes to get lost in our circumstances and wonder if God is even there. But the reality is God is present with us, deeply invested and active in each of our lives. He is a personal God.

He has a plan for you that is good: ““ For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). He thinks of you often:”O Lord my God, you have performed many wonders for us. Your plans for us are too numerous to list. You have no equal. If I tried to recite all your wonderful deeds,  I would never come to the end of them” (Psalm 40:5). You are never alone: “What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15). He sustains you: Cast your burden upon the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken” (Psalm 55:22 NASB). His knowledge of you is intimate:  O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord” (Psalm 139:1-4). And finally He dwells within you: Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16 NKJV)?

God is with you. Not only is God with you, but God knows your name, your pain, your problems, your doubts, and your fears. God knows your temptations, and God knows which ones you are yielding to. God knows the way out, how to restore joy to your life, and how to help you transcend whatever you are facing. You can’t get more personal than that.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Share when God became personal for you. How do you know God wants a relationship with you? What are some ways that God reveals Himself personally to you?

DO WE TAKE EASTER FOR GRANTED?

“Easter was when Hope in person surprised the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present.” —N.T. Wright,

It should be a day for celebration like none other.

It’s obvious why Easter should be celebrated. Jesus Christ’s resurrection defeated death and gave mankind a pathway to redemption. That’s certainly cause for celebration. But with every passing year, does Easter become a little less important to the place we can take this special day for granted? Is it just a day where the church is packed, we eat a big meal and some chocolate bunnies?

Many of us have heard the gospel countless times. Many of us have heard that the Son of God was sent as a servant, and although He was flawless, He took on the punishment we deserve. We can finally be forgiven because He was a perfect sacrifice and suffered death on the cross. Three days later, His tomb was empty. He defeated death and was resurrected from the grave. We cannot completely commemorate what Christ did for each of us on that day.

The resurrection of Jesus is not just an addendum to the Calvary story. It is not merely something that happened as a result of Calvary. Our understanding of Jesus is foundational to our faith. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins.”Christianity could not exist if Jesus never conquered death, and His resurrection separates Him from any other religious leader. Jesus prophesied His death and resurrection and sealed His promises by accomplishing those two things.

What would our lives be like without Jesus? What kind of future would we look forward to if He hadn’t intervened on our behalf? Sometimes, it can be far too easy for us to become complacent in understanding what He has accomplished on our behalf. We’re so used to the benefits He brings to our lives that we don’t consider the mess we’d be in without Him.

Jesus isn’t just a “good guy” — He’s our Savior, worthy of all praise and attention. Fundamentally, our Lord’s message was Himself. He did not come merely to preach a Gospel; He is that Gospel. He did not come only to give bread; He said, “I am the bread of life.” He did not come merely to shed light; He said, “I am the light.” He did not come only to show the door; He said, “I am the door.” He did not come merely to name a shepherd; He said: “I am the shepherd.” He did not come only to point the way; He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

How can we take Easter or our Savior for granted?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Who do you say Jesus is? What difference does this make in how you live each day??