Big News for the Earls!


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This past Sunday at the conclusion of my sermon, I made an announcement to the members of my church: in early March, the Earl family will be leaving North Carolina and will embark on a new ministry journey.  My last preaching Sunday will be February 28, and we will ship out sometime in the following week, Lord willing. I realize this may come as quite a shock to some of you, so allow me to detail what God has been doing in our lives.

When we first moved to the North Carolina High Country, Michelle and I agreed before God that we would remain here, serving His church for as long as He desired.  We never had any intentions of making any ministry changes, and we resolved to stand fast – even if we faced difficulty. This Sunday, I will celebrate five years as the pastor of Higher Ground Church of God.  Those times of difficulty have been rare, and we have come to know and love a church family that, I would imagine, can be found in few churches in America.

Changes

But several years ago, I began to sense that God was going to be moving us. It’s kind of a long story really, but I began to feel a burden for the city of Chicago. Now at the time, I knew this had to be God because neither Michelle nor I have ever been there, and we zero connections with it. So, we made this “urging” a matter of prayer.  For the last several years, we have sought God and His specific purposes for our family.

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Church Membership: Beginning a Conversation

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This week and next, I am preparing to preach a series of sermons on the topic of church membership. This is a topic that I think many Christians in the United States have a clouded understanding of. For many, church membership means filling out an application, committing to attend every service, and vowing to put their tithes in the offering plate.  But, is this really what it means to be a church member? I mean, does the Bible even talk about church membership? If it does not, then joining a church is optional.  It is something the church has continued because it loves tradition. If it does, however, then it most certainly cannot be ignored, but must rather be explored, studied, and even enjoyed as a blessing from God.

It is my contention that church membership is completely biblical. Let’s begin this conversation by trying to define church membership.  For this definition, I will turn to Jonathan Leeman’s book, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, a short volume that is a part of series of books from 9Marks on building healthy churches. Keep in mind that Leeman draws his definition from the ten “indisputable themes” of church membership that ran throughout the first days of the early church (for more, read chapter 2 in his book). But for now, here is his definition:

“Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.” (p 64)

Though it is a long definition, it is an excellent one.  Leeman points out that there are three elements present in this definition.

Affirmation – “A Church body formally affirms an individual’s profession of faith and baptism as credible” (p 65).

In other words, in order to enter into a “formal relationship” with the body of Christ, a person should actually be a member of the body of Christ.  This is affirmed through the church’s recognition of an individual’s affirmation of faith and the visible act of Christian baptism.

Oversight – “It promises to give oversight to that individual’s discipleship” (p 65).

The local body has the primary responsibility to ensure that every member is given the proper tools to grow in their relationship with Christ.

Submission – “The individual formerly submits his or her discipleship to the service and authority of this body and its leaders” (p 65).

Specifically, a church member acknowledges the local church as the body responsible for the oversight of his or her soul. This means that, in joining up with a local church, each individual member is placing their spiritual care into the hands of that church’s leaders and members. Likewise, he or she will do the same for the other members – work to care for them spiritually and physically.

So, this is a brief description of what it means to be the part of a local church. Doesn’t quite seem so simple as signing a card and agreeing to a statement of faith, does it? There is more – far more to entering into a formal relationship with a local church than merely agreeing to pay your tithes to it.  In fact, to join with a local body in some ways is similar to the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. On the one hand, unlike the marriage covenant, it can be a breakable union. There are appropriate times and reasons to break the formal relationship of church membership.  On the other hand, however, to join with a local church does not mean that its members can simply stop investing their time and resources with the church when they don’t like something (or someone).

Unfortunately, this is the epidemic of our day.  You’ve heard of the term “church hopper,” right? A church hopper is a person who moves from church to church, sometimes indefinitely, due to a number of possible reasons.  For example, Church A has too early of a worship service, so they visit Church B.  Church B, however, has boring music, so they go to Church C.  In Church C, though, the preacher is too “long-winded,” so, they visit Church D.  Now, I will be the first to say that it is important to belong to a church that is teaching solid doctrine. After all, the local church is responsible to “give oversight” to a member’s discipleship.  But, there is a very visible theme running through the epidemic of church hopping. Did you catch it? Self-centeredness. The church hopper says, “I am not satisfied with what I see, so I will search until I am satisfied.”

However, there’s a problem with this reasoning. No church can satisfy every desire we have. Church A may provide a good worship service, but 10 AM is just too early on a weekend. Church C doesn’t start till 11, but the preacher cuts into lunchtime.  The deeper issue in each of these excuses, though, is the church hopper is focused on his or herself and not the body of Christ. Church membership for the hopper is mainly about “what others can do for me,” and not about the commitment to serve others. If the church seems like it will meet the hopper’s needs, he or she may decide to join.  They may stay for a time and even get involved.  But over time, something will annoy them.  If the annoyance is heightened enough, they will leave.

For the epidemic of church hopping, the Bible offers us a cure.  Hebrews  10:24-25 (ESV) says:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Here, perhaps more bluntly than any other passage, the inspired Word of God shows us that the cure for church hopping is to stop looking at ourselves.  In fact, the mandate for biblical church membership teaches us to be ever mindful that Christ’s return is near, and to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13)!  Sin is deceptive, and the local body of Christ wields a power that is able to unmask and overcome sin’s trickery in one another and encourage each other toward holiness.  In both of these texts, church membership is centered on one member’s care for the other. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Church membership is about the progress of the whole body.

This interpersonal encouragement will involve a long-term commitment to one another.  It will involve personal sacrifice and Christlike humility. But as we enter into this commitment, we will find that the local body of Christ is displaying Christ to the world.  Its members will discover the soul-care and maturity that is needed to endure until Christ returns. And, dare I say, people will want what we have!

So, as we explore this topic together, let us pray that God opens our eyes to the beauty of the Body of Christ and our need for one another. I think we’ll see that the Bible says a whole lot more about church membership than we’ve ever thought before!

With you as we study together,

Pastor Josh

How I Am Fed Spiritually

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As a pastor, I have had people ask me, “How are you fed spiritually when you are always trying to feed everyone else?”  I will use this post to try and answer this question.

My first reply is simple: the Lord nourishes me day after day as I meditate on Him and His word.  He does this most often in my private devotions, and while I am preparing to preach His Word to His Body.  My most satisfying morsels of spiritual manna are discovered and consumed while I am seeking God for understanding of a particular text of Scripture, while I pray aloud, and even during times of frustration when I seemingly cannot grasp His Word clearly.  I am reminded of the instruction that Paul gave to Pastor Timothy in Paul’s first letter to him.  After writing the first three chapters – all filled with instruction, exhortation, encouragement, and warning – Paul gives Timothy, the one who is called to labor for the Gospel, some settling encouragement:

“If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed” (1 Timothy 4:6).

Paul wrote that if Timothy labored to care for the spiritual well-being of his flock, teaching them sound doctrine and carrying the banner of truth, Timothy would both show evidence that he was a faithful minister, AND would be nourished by the very doctrine he was teaching.  So, this is primarily how I am “fed” as a minister of Jesus Christ.  It is the greatest, most fulfilling, strength-giving enrichment I could ever receive.  And I glory in Christ because of this.

There are other ways that God nourishes me. For one, I am always filling my spirit with solid, Gospel-centered, Christ-exalting reading material – whether with books or online articles. One place I often find myself frequenting online is the Gospel Coalition website.  The amount of richness offered there to a struggling pastor (or any believer) is amazing.  I have so benefited by many of the blog contributors there, and I know you would as well.

But, by far the ministry most responsible for contributing to my spiritual growth is that of Pastor John Piper and Desiring God.  If you have sat under my ministry and teaching, you have likely heard me refer to him.  Now, I do not want to give the impression that Pastor John is someone that I worship or give undue praise to.  Praise belongs to God, and God alone.  But, after serving the Lord for about six years in church-focused ministry, I have often struggled to find mentors who would counsel and teach me the “ins and outs” of vocational ministry.  To be sure, the Lord has blessed me with certain individuals along the way who I hold very dear to my heart, and I so thank God for them.  However, there has been no person who has more impacted my love for Christ than John Piper. You might say that he has served as a channel for me – a telescope to help me see the greatness of God in a more vivid way.  Though we have never met, I see him as a spiritual father, and I a son of his in the faith.  So, I cannot help but bless God for Pastor John’s long and faithful service to our blessed Lord Jesus.  His service has helped me immensly in mine.

So, if you, too, desire to know God in a deeper way, maybe you will find nourishment for your soul through the ministry of my pastor, John Piper, and the ministry of Desiring God.  At the bottom of this post, check out their short video that highlights the driving force behind the ministry.  Also, visit their website here.

So, there’s the long answer to the question.  If you’ve ever wondered how I am fed spiritually, now you know.

Grace and Peace,

Josh