Should Churches Open or Remain Closed Despite State Orders?

 

I recently shared an article about Pastor John Macarthur’s decision to exercise civil disobedience in regards to California officials’ mandate to keep church buildings closed for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. He summarizes his justification stating “in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services…”. This seems to contradict his previous sentiment about the same issue where he rationalizes his decision to initially keep the church doors closed. In his first video he reasoned that we should obey our leaders except in the case of blatant Christian persecution (of which he admits this is not), and also for the protection and safety of church congregants.

 

I believe Macarthur’s apparent change in heart illustrates how many are working through this issue. It’s difficult to land decisively on a clear answer to the question – what is the church to do? Should we submit to our governing authorities as Romans 13 says? Or are we obligated to disobey our leaders in order to obey God as illustrated in Acts 5? Many find themselves oscillating between these two questions. At least that’s where I am right now – inconclusive. That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought and prayed about it A LOT, though. There is much to consider. Below are my current thoughts on the question.

 

1) The Pandemic is real

COVID-19 is a real disease with real tragedy in its wake. We must respect the severity of the threat and realize it is not just an American issue – every country in the world is dealing with it. To say it’s all fake or just a conspiracy is equivalent to closing your eyes, sticking your fingers in your ears, and saying “nah, nah, nah, nah” repeatedly.

 

 

2) I’m skeptical of the response

Though COVID is a real threat to consider, I’m not convinced that a global economic and societal shutdown is the appropriate response to a disease with a 97% to 99.75% recovery rate, and according to the CDC a very low hospitalization rate (for every 100,000 people who contract COVID 120 need to be hospitalized, and of those the vast majority are those who are already immune compromised).

 

Like all deaths, every COVID death is tragic. However, while we may be temporarily shielding immune compromised citizens from contracting COVID, the repercussions of the pandemic are shattering to our social and economic systems. With the increases in businesses shutting down, unemployment, homelessness, suicide, depression, anxiety, crime, domestic violence, alcoholism and substance abuse, and economic collapse (to name a few), I’m just not convinced that the aftermath of the response was thoughtfully considered. Is the solution we landed on worse than the problem we are trying to solve?

 

 

3) America is supposedly the land of the free.

As an American, we should (in my opinion) have the right to use common sense, or not. I believe our leaders (if they’re leading well) should make the severity of the problem known, as well as provide information, resources, and strong recommendations regarding how to avoid getting sick; then leave it to the people (including churches, private businesses and organizations) to make a choice on how they will navigate the situation. I believe prohibiting well people from leading normal, law-abiding lives is an encroachment of our God-given rights. However, as a Christian, I hold this thought most loosely. I am a Christian before I am an American and am willing to forfeit my rights for the sake of the Gospel if needed.

 

 

4) Obedience to scripture is my priority.

As a Christian, I will not take my cues from the government as to how I will worship and practice my faith. I will live by the scriptures, not by the whims of my governing authorities who have no context of what living the Christian life means to me. This does not mean I will be a troublemaker or a rebel. I wear my mask in public and try to stay 6 feet apart from others as best I can. I will obey and submit to my governing authorities at every point until and unless obedience to them means disobedience to God. So I am not waiting for the government to give me permission to worship the way God prescribes. If my convictions from the Bible lead me to actions that defy the law of the land, “I must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

 

 

5) “Virtual church” is not koinonia.

Many object to the idea of churches gathering at all right now. “God is everywhere, so why can’t everyone pray at home and meet on zoom like the rest of us?” It’s a valid question. The short answer is it’s not about being able to connect with God personally. Of course, we pray and read the bible and learn about God individually at home. However, a major aspect of the Christian life is koinonia – true Christian fellowship and communion. This includes and assumes regular in-person meetings with your brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

Online services are a good short-term solution to make sure the Word of God is being preached and delivered to our people (praise God for technology); but it is not a replacement for koinonia, nor does it produce the same result in spiritual formation.

 

 

6) I will not fight for the religious status quo.

As a church leader and elder, I am not quick to fight for opening our building and “doing church” the way we used to for a couple reasons. For one – I believe large, indoor crowds is probably a bad idea and will unnecessarily put some people at risk. Though I believe we should have the right to choose this for ourselves (each church knows their people better than our governors and should have the freedom to use wisdom in how they will lead and protect their people).

 

Second – the way we used to “do church” isn’t even the most biblical method. Buildings and traditional western church services are foreign to the New Testament. The things they did in the early church are, for now, unenforceable (i.e. meeting in smaller groups in homes or outdoors).

 

 

7) The church should meet in smaller groups in homes.

All those who are complaining about our government not letting church buildings open have no right to say anything if they are not actively meeting up with their brothers and sisters in small groups for Christian fellowship. The battle for reopening church buildings is a distraction and not helpful to our cause.

 

All the trappings of the modern, western, American-church model are not bad, they’re just unbiblical. That doesn’t mean they’re antibiblical; it just means we can’t find them on any page in the bible (children’s ministry, worship band, youth group, fellowship hall, church sanctuary, etc.).

 

What happens if they burn up the buildings? Will we stop being the church? We have been saying for years “the building is not the church; we are the church.” The church is the people, not the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Now is our time to prove that, and we are failing. The early church seemed to only need the people of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, informed by the Word of God to proclaim the Kingdom of God – and they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

 

 

Putting it all together

In wrestling through all these thoughts, the only conclusion I’ve come to is there’s not a monolithic answer. Every church is different. The geography, demographics, cultural distinctions, makeup of the congregation, etc. all need to be taken into consideration when navigating how to operate as a church. Therefore, church leaders would be wise in taking counsel, yet foolish to look for the model as a point of reference for what decision they should make for their unique congregation.

 

 

A few takeaways I hope you’d leave with

Think and pray deeply.

This post contains just 7 of the thoughts I’ve personally been wrestling with. I know there are other variables I haven’t even considered. It’s complex and every situation is unique. Don’t pretend to have the answer for how others should respond. You don’t. The wisdom of men doesn’t accomplish the will of God. His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor His ways our ways. These trying times should make us keenly aware of our complete dependence on God for His wisdom. Use sound judgement, reason, and common sense – then submit your thoughts to Christ. Think and pray deeply about how you ought to conduct yourself.

 

 

Withhold criticism

We are all in the same boat. Don’t be overly critical about how others are choosing to weather the storm. We are all personally accountable to God for how we choose to worship and maintain Christian fellowship. First, take the plank out of your own eye. Then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Share your thoughts if given the opportunity but withhold judgement if they don’t receive your personal conclusions as fact.

 

 

Pray for your leaders

“If we maintain social distancing, the deep physical and spiritual needs of the church are being neglected.”
“If we prematurely open and encourage people to gather we may put our congregation at risk.”
“What if people get sick and die?”
“Am I compromising the Gospel for the sake of peace with the world?”

 

Don’t think for a moment that the smile you see on the screen during virtual service means your pastor is oblivious to the challenges, or unconcerned for the wellbeing of the church. I’ve personally had conversations with several pastors who agonize over what to do. They hear the voices and opinions of everyone telling them what to do, as well as the critiques and criticism of those who think they’ve failed to lead well.

 

Think and pray deeply for how you should respond. Withhold criticism for those who have chosen to respond differently. Pray for your leaders that God would continue to guide and direct them during this time.

Faith in the Frenzy

It feels like it’s only been a few weeks since the initial news broke about a strange “new virus coming from China”. It turns out that coronavirus isn’t new, but this particular strain (COVID-19) is – and the medical community, as of now, is still unsure how to handle it. All we know is the virus has spread worldwide and people are freaking out. In all my years on Earth I’ve never seen such a globally panicked response to any threat. Businesses are shutting down, all major events are canceling, people are losing their jobs, grocery stores are being cleared out of the essentials (meat, water, non-perishables… and toilet paper?!).

 

Some professionals claim the panic, while real, is unfounded and only due to the media sensationalizing the issue. However, earlier today the Whitehouse issued an update asking all citizens to avoid gathering in groups of 10 or more, and to avoid public places as much as possible. Consequently, many (if not most) churches are heeding this advice and canceling congregational services, opting for online streaming alternatives until things calm down (whenever that may be).

 

I, personally, am not sure which is worse – the threat of the virus, or the fallout of the pandemonium. I recognize the fact that we should all use common sense, take the situation seriously, and plan for what we may need to do differently in these uncertain times. However, my questions are less about what the world is saying and doing as a response, and more about what God is saying and doing right now. As I took time to pray and meditate on the Word of God tonight, I found myself asking Him the following questions.

  • Lord, what are you doing in all this?
  • Lord, what are you saying to us – your church?
  • Lord, what should our reaction be?

 

Almost instantly I found myself transition from questioning to declaring:

  • Lord, you’re not caught off guard by any of this – you’re not taken by surprise; for you know all things.
  • Lord, you’re not absent from this situation – you’re right here in the midst; for you are omnipresent.
  • Lord, you’re not silent in this – you have the answers we seek; for you are always speaking.

 

Many Christians are brushing the dust of their bibles to study the book of Revelation and see what kind of end-time prophesy must be playing out right now. Others are looking to ultra-charismatic “prophets” to see what “new thing” the Lord is speaking through all this. However, before we go there, why don’t we consider what God has already spoken to us in His word. Let these scriptures minister to you during these trying times:

 

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16

 

“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”

Matthew 6:26-27

 

“Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Matthew 6:31-34

 

“And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

Matthew 8:27

 

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Matthew 10:29-30

 

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

John 14:27

 

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33

 

“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.”

Acts 1:8

 

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,[h] for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Romans 8:28

 

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.”

Romans 10:3

 

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:6-7

 

“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Philippians 4:11-13

 

“And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

1 John 2:17

 

The severity of the current situation surrounding coronavirus (COVID-19), as of now, remains to be determined since we still don’t know all the facts. However, regardless of the situation or severity, the Christian has an underlying hope in Christ that supersedes any calamity. We do not stick our heads in the sand, ignore common sense, or pretend things are as good as ever. We do not deny reality. However, we do recognize a superior reality – one that this reality is governed by, and which gives us peace that surpasses understanding.

 

Know this, Christian: if your peace and joy is governed by (or rooted in) your situation or circumstances, then when your situation or circumstances turn for the worse you lose your peace and joy. When your peace and joy is governed by (or rooted in) Christ – the immutable God – then no matter what your situation or circumstances are you retain your peace and joy. This is called faith, and you need it in the frenzy.

 

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Hebrews 11:1

 

 

My Experience at The Altar Conference

I WASN’T SUPER STOKED TO GO AT FIRST

When I first heard about The Altar Conference coming to Fresno there was a lot of hype and excitement in the Christian community. I didn’t think much of it, because we always have some sort of a Christian conference happening and they all position themselves to be the event that’s going to bring some sort of radical change. I’ve been to my fair share of Christian events and they’ve been edifying and I’m glad I went, but they’re typically not something I get super amped about. I personally prefer worshiping in the context of my local church and being edified through deep fellowship with close friends.

 

With that being said, I had no plans of attending the Altar Conference… at first

 

 

WHAT IS THE CONFERENCE?

The Altar Conference was positioned as “a weekend of dynamic worship and powerful teaching, provoking believers of all backgrounds into a lifestyle of radical pursuit and relentless devotion to Christ.” That caught my attention. When I saw the worship bands lined up, as well as Francis Chan (someone who has played a key role in my spiritual formation), I developed a little more interested.

 

Then I started hearing some of the controversy surrounding the event. Good friends and pastors I love and respect were warning people to not attend because some of the headliners were either false teachers, or associated with false teachers. I wasn’t personally concerned that there would be “false teachers”, as some of my more conservative (cessationist-leaning) brothers and sisters in Christ would accuse, because I personally believe they use those terms way too loosely.
My wife Candace purchased tickets to the conference, and I was eager to go – if anything for at least the worship (I knew it would be good) and to hear Francis Chan. I came with a heart full of expectancy to be edified, as well as a mind full of discernment, understanding the concerns that were aired.

 

It was a busy weekend with many prior commitments, so I was not able to hear every message, but I got the vast majority of what went on. Speakers I heard included: Corey Russel, Damon Thompson, Francis Chan, 15 minutes of Derek Carr and Heidi Baker (I missed Mattie Montgomery and most of Derek Carr’s message).

 

MY WORSHIP EXPERIENCE:

The worship bands were all amazing. I felt the presence of God in a way I haven’t felt in a long-time during every set. The name of Christ was exalted, the Holy Spirit was tangibly felt, and the Father was glorified. I had a real sense that the thousands of people in the auditorium and I were joining in on worship that was happening in the throne room of Heaven at that very moment. The music and prayers really helped create an atmosphere of reverence and awe before the Word of God was preached.

 

 

THE MESSAGE

Again, I missed the first speaking session with Mattie Montgomery, but Candace was able to stay. She came back filled with the joy of the Lord and let me know about the message he gave. Apparently the first message set the tone for the weekend and was centered on the Gospel – lifting up the person and work of Christ to seek and save the lost. Hundreds of people made public professions of surrender to King Jesus.

 

The first message I heard was from Corey Russel – a man I never heard of prior to that day. He came out during the last worship song, HOLY (by Nikki Mathis and Summit Sounds) and he recited from memory all the verses in the book of Revelation that give a picture of the throne room of heaven. My heart was stirred within me as I was brought to remembrance how amazing this God I serve is.

 

Damon Thompson was next. He delivered what I would describe as a brilliant breakdown of how the curse of Genesis would be reversed by Christ (the seed of Abraham), and how it would be carried out to all nations through us.
Francis Chan had the afternoon session. He read Hebrews 12:18-29, giving a clear picture of how terrifying God is – and how this is good for us. If this terrifying God is for us, who can be against us? He talked about the implications of what it looks like to really follow God – if his Spirit truly lives in us.

 

I loved how towards the end Francis talked about how there were differences in his theology than probably most of the people at the conference (even specifically naming some points of disagreement). However, when we have a picture of how terrifying this God we serve is, and how God says “these are my sons and daughters”, it humbles us to not divide over secondary issues.

 

For the most part, every single message I heard was extremely edifying and turned my gaze and heart towards Christ, except for what I experienced at the end of the night.

 

 

THE CLOSER – HEIDI BAKER

Due to one of those prior commitments I referred to in the beginning, I missed the evening worship set but made it back in time to hear the last speaker – Heidi Baker. I personally have never listened to a message from Heidi Baker before, but I am well familiar with the reputation she has in some of the more extreme circles of charismatic Christianity. I’ve seen some of the weird YouTube clips and listened to my cessationist brothers and sisters not only mock her but accuse her of being a false teacher and heretic (again, terms I personally feel they often flippantly overuse, which is why I take these accusations with a grain of salt).

However, I came with an open heart and an open mind, as well as a discerning spirit. I was extremely let down and grieved at what I witnessed. Candace and I entered the stadium to the sound of mindless droning and chanting. She was on her knees praying (a posture we should all take before a holy God), but she wasn’t making any sense at all. There was about 45 minutes of incoherent babbling and crying and singing. She would say things like “we need to go high! But low, and slow… and get up!” When she started singing “He’s got the whole world in His hands”, I looked up and about 2/3 of the crowd had already left. She would periodically break from her chanting to stand at the podium and speak, but even then, nothing made any semblance of a logical point. No teaching, no word of instruction, no exhortation, nothing but senseless chatter.

 

I wouldn’t call it heresy; it was just nonsense.

 

 

“YOU’RE JUST CLOSE MINDED AND JUDGMENTAL”

I would be the first to admit that sometimes in my personal prayer time with God I have no words to speak. I try to speak and can sometimes babble and make no sense. Other times, I have a word in my Spirit, but my mind cannot articulate what I want to say and the Spirit intercedes for me with groans and utterances that words cannot express (See Romans 8:26). If someone were to be in the room with me during those times, it would seem weird. It’s a personal time between me and God and I am deeply edified.

 

However, in a corporate setting if you have nothing to say we are instructed to keep it between ourselves and God. Look at these excerpts from Paul’s correction to the Corinthian church:

“If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified…

What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church… if there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.” (Read all of 1 Corinthians 14 for the full context)

 

Yes, I am judging because we are called to make right judgement according to what the Word of God says (See John 7:24 and 1 Corinthians 5:12 for example). I’m not only judging by the Word of God, but what I felt in my spirit as I witnessed hundreds of people who were just singing praises to Jesus turned off by mindless chatter as a person was edifying herself in front of thousands of people. My spirit was grieved.

 

 

MY TAKEAWAY

The entire conference was amazing, except for what I experienced during Heidi Baker’s “message”. I believe that what Derek Carr and Mattie Montgomery were praying would happen at the conference, did. That it would be a weekend of dynamic worship and powerful teaching, provoking believers of all backgrounds into a lifestyle of radical pursuit and relentless devotion to Christ. That it wouldn’t be a moment, but a movement.

 

I am extremely happy I went. I connected with God through amazing worship and was stirred by powerful teaching to follow Christ more closely and commit to Him more deeply. I truly believe that the hundreds of people who made public professions of faith in Christ were introduced to the God of the scriptures, and were challenged to follow Him with everything.

 

So though I have points of correction, I am not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I hope this conference continues, and that the leaders would stay truer to their mission of including “believers of all backgrounds” by using discernment as to who should be invited and holding the speakers accountable to Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 12-14 for orderly corporate worship.

 

 

MY PRAYER

I pray that my conservative brothers and sisters would be more generous and show charity to our Charismatic siblings who may miss the mark in different ways than them, so long as we’re preaching the same Gospel (I understand many would argue that they’re preaching a different Gospel – that’s an issue for another post).

I pray that my charismatic brothers and sisters would continue in their passion and fervor for the Lord, without throwing out or ignoring clear biblical teaching on orderly worship.

I pray that God would continue and build upon what He started at The Altar Conference.

 

 

Photos sourced from The Altar Conference Facebook Page.

Everyone You Meet is a Divine Appointment

 

Because I believe in a sovereign God I hold to the position that every person you meet is a divine appointment. However, every once in a while God highlights an encounter and His involvement in orchestrating the appointment is more obvious. I want to share with you one such encounter I recently had, and how encounters like these have changed the way I pray for God to open doors to be a witness for Christ.

 

No mood for evangelism

I picked up these two pieces of art while on a spontaneous last minute kid-free trip to Avila Beach with Candace. We walked around downtown Avila and landed at a local hipsteresque coffee shop to enjoy the scenery, a delicious single-original pour over, and of course – each other. Needless to say, having spiritual conversations with complete strangers wasn’t on our agenda, to be shamefully honest.

 

 

As we sat on the patio looking out toward the ocean soaking up the sun in the perfect weather I noticed a young guy on my right side. He was unkempt, barefoot and hippy-looking, wearing a hoodie with board-shorts and coke-bottle glasses. At first I couldn’t tell if he was homeless or hipster (or both?). His small, lazy dog was passed out underneath his chair as he sat Indian-style drawing intently in his sketchpad.

 

 

The conversation starts

As I glanced over to satisfy my curiosity, his artwork immediately captivated my attention. I noticed he was using a mixture of coffee and India-ink in his sketches. I awkwardly interrupted his train of thought and asked “what are you working on?” As simple as that – a conversation starts. He was excited that someone cared enough to ask and happily started showing me and Candace all his work. He said I could have any piece I wanted – I offered him $20 if I could take two. He enthusiastically agreed.

 

 

It gets interesting

After briefly talking about his art and creative process, I started to ask questions about him. It got interesting. I learned that his name is Adam. Or Dustin. Or whatever he wanted to go by that day (his words). I learned that he had two college degrees from when he went to school in Colorado, where he’s originally from (a degree in biochemistry and one in religion). I learned that he hated his mother, and institutions, so he left Colorado to explore the world.

 

After traveling in Asia, then Peru, he made the decision to not touch money and to live off of the land and the hospitality of locals. He also decided to stop wearing shoes. His mom somehow convinced him to move back to Colorado. After a couple months of soul-sucking capitulation he skipped town to live in California where he would wander the beaches, make rock cities and draw in front of the coffee shop.

 

We talked about Buddhism, Hinduism, corrupt drug-selling cops, and telepathic alien fish people (I am not kidding). He told me that Jesus was really a Buddhist, and all institutionalized religion is corrupt.

 

 

Now we talk some Jesus

By this time in the conversation I’m praying under my breath for God to give me the words to say. Since he brought up Jesus, I asked what he thought about Him and why he came to the conclusion that Jesus was a Buddhist. Finding a bit of common ground, we got into a rich dialogue about the Bible and how Jesus Himself rose up against the religious establishment because they missed the point.

 

Just as he was agreeing with me, I had to remind Adam of Jesus’ words in John 14:6 where He says “I am the way and the truth and the life…” Jesus didn’t say He was a way, but the way; and He doesn’t allow for a belief that “all roads lead to life” when He emphatically says “no one comes to the Father except through me”.

 

The conclusion

The conversation went on for another ten or so minutes, sharing the truth about Jesus as often as I could. No, Adam didn’t repent of his sins, renounce his idolatry and give his life to Jesus right then and there. However, a seed was planted. Adam thanked me for being educated about what I believe, and he said that it was refreshing to have a conversation with a Christian who was actually willing to talk to him, rather than brush him off (maybe telepathic alien fish people is too much for some people). I encouraged him to keep seeking the truth and to follow it no matter where it leads, because the road to truth ends with Christ.

 

We shook hands, parted ways, and Candace and I started praying for him in the car. We quoted scriptures like “one plants, another waters, but God gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:5-8) and “God’s word will not return to Him empty, but will accomplish what He desires and achieve the purpose for which He sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).

 

 

Takeaways

There are a few things I took away from this encounter.

  1. Every appointment is a divine appointment, so we should be aware, ready, willing, and able to have spiritual conversations at all times. There are likely dozens of potential missed opportunities to share the Gospel because we are too busy with our own agenda – I want to be busy about His agenda.
  2. Conversations are pretty easy to start, so we should have more of them. This conversation started with the simple question “what are you working on?” I couldn’t have predicted where the conversation would go from there, but statistically speaking I would have more opportunities to share the Gospel if I was more intentional about starting simple conversations with strangers.
  3. It’s important to know your stuff. I’m not an expert on many things. I can’t help with conversations about corrupt, drug-selling cops, or telepathic alien fish people, but when the conversation leads to Jesus, the Bible or the Gospel I can add some substance. Adam thanked me for “being educated” about what I believed.
  4. A little kindness goes a long way. I intentionally made several emotional deposits with Adam. I was legitimately curious about his art. I valued his talents by purchasing his work. I asked about his story. I genuinely cared about him. Making these emotional deposits allowed me the opportunity to maintain civility and Adam’s respect while making a huge withdraw – telling him that his beliefs were wrong and Christ calls him to repentance. The more deposits you make into someone the more weight your withdraws hold in their mind. So be kind and winsome.

 

It’s conversations like these that have caused me to stop praying for God to open doors of opportunity to share the Gospel. My prayer now is “Lord, help me to be cognizant of the doors I know you’ve placed in my life… Help me to be aware of the divine appointments you’ve set before me today. Give me a willing heart and an able mind to share your love with the people you’ve put in my path. In Jesus’ Name, amen!”

 

Here are some pictures from that day

2017 India Trip Recap

2017 India Trip Recap

On July 31st, 2017 I set out to visit my friends in India who are doing amazing work to reach the Indian people for the Lord. The objective was to document our journey and give an accurate picture of India from a Christian perspective. To help me accomplish this I brought photographer Chance James and film maker Manny Collazo. A short film documenting our journey will be released early 2018. The goal of this project is to display the breathtaking beauty of the people and landscape as well as highlight the spiritual darkness overshadowing the land, resulting in grievous social atrocities. The film won’t end on a bleak note, though – there is hope! God is alive and well in India, working through a faithful remnant to shine brightly in the midst of spiritual darkness and social injustice.

 

While in India we had 6 days of filming, visited 3 states, several cities, and a handful of rural villages. The following is a bullet point recap of our trip. I started the draft of this post on my cell phone on the way home from Delhi and completed 2 days after my return while it’s still fresh in my mind. For the sake of protecting the people and work in India, I’m omitting some names and places.

 

 

The journey from Fresno to India spanned 2 Days with 20 Hours of flying and 10 hours of driving with a couple layovers. We travelled over 8,100 miles in planes, cars, trains, buses, mopeds, auto rickshaws. The journey home consisted of a 3 hour drive to Jabalpur, an 8 hour train ride to Agra (where we visited the Taj Mahal), a 2 hour drive to Delhi, a 14 hour flight to Toronto, a 5 hour layover, a 4 hour flight to LAX, and finally a 4.5 hour drive to Fresno (40.5 hours of straight travel). My legs were swollen by the time I got home, and a visit to my chiropractor was immediately scheduled. Praise God I don’t struggle with jetlag from long travel.

 

 

 

Let’s just say we ate well. There’s nothing better than authentic creamy Indian Butter Chicken full of flavor that you just can’t replicate in America, paired with homemade warm-off-the-oven, perfectly crispy, slightly buttery naan bread. The mango and watermelon juice is sweetened by nature with fruit that was freshly picked that day. The spices in the chai are flawlessly blended and the cream is sourced from one of the millions of buffalo you see all over the place. There’s no such thing as a Costco Rotisserie chicken – when you order chicken from the market, you get a live animal that you must kill, pluck and clean at home. Everything is bursting with flavor. The sweets are either too sweet, or have different, often surprising spices, herbs and other ingredients you wouldn’t find in an American dessert.

 

 

Upon our arrival, we were greeted with an array of flowers to adorn our necks and a large vinyl banner with our names printed on it to welcome us. The people are extremely (almost overly) hospitable, sometimes to the point where it makes you uncomfortable. I found myself saying thank you about 100 times a day, as well as “no, please don’t worry about it”, as people are willing to go completely out of their way to accommodate your every request (or even your subtle suggestion). For example, when I passively mentioned that I would be visiting my chiropractor when I got home due to the travel, I had to stop my hosts from calling a masseuse to come to the home we were staying in.

 

The children we met in the safe havens, villages, and schools were so full of joy and life, especially the special needs children. It was a humbling reminder that material possessions are of little value in bringing true joy as we worshiped with people who quite literally had nothing, yet were more full of life than most people I’ve met in the USA.

 

Many locals have no regard for personal space or public privacy. It was common to be immediately surrounded by curious onlookers wondering who we were, where we were from and what we were doing. Though we all inwardly seek affirmation, the Indians I met were very open about it. The Hindu Sanskrit Scribes we met, for example, were anxiously awaiting our response to witnessing their worship service. When given something such as food or a gift, you’re likely to look up and see wide eyes, an ear-to-ear grin and the question “you like?”

 

I would describe the Indian people as laid back; go-with-the-flow.

 

 

Stunning… breathtaking… hard to articulate… must be experienced. We arrived during monsoon season, so the landscape was covered in lush, tropical greenery. Animals are everywhere; primarily cows, buffalo, monkeys and dogs. The weather was mucky, tropical, humid, hot. The AC was a refreshing relief from the damp heat.

 

The city was chaotic. Just imagine people everywhere zooming in and out of traffic with no regard to lanes or any discernable traffic laws. People are traveling on foot and bicycles as well as all types of vehicles from motorcycles and mopeds, to tractors and cars. You clench onto the car door handle and stare at the street wondering why there are no car accidents. Lanes are more of a suggestion and horns are a must. In America, you blow the horn to warn of danger, yell at someone to move, or express your disgust with their terrible driving; whereas in India blowing the horn is a common courtesy to let people know you’re approaching.

 

It seems like there are millions of tiny shops selling very similar things, making you wonder how anything stands out to be remembered. The city is very grimy, and the villages look like camping in the jungle. Most of the homes people live in would be considered unlivable in America, but they just make it work and are happy to do so.

 

 

Indian Culture varies depending on where you are. Some big cities are more westernized and modern, while the smaller cities are very traditional and conservative. It was strange to visit an obscure eating hole on the side of the road, next to a hotel consisting of outdoor beds made of logs and rope, and the owner of the place asking if he could take a picture and put it on Facebook. Some small jungle villages have cell phones and motorcycles, even though they have no electricity, cell towers or internet.

 

The predominant religion is Hinduism (80%), and it has deep roots in the culture. Idol worship is everywhere and the caste system, while not legal on paper, is still actively accepted as the way things are. While 90+ percent of the Hindus are warm, open and accepting of Christians and their work, there is a small number of radicals who unfortunately retain power in every sector of society (including upper levels of government), making it extremely difficult for Christian work to exist, much less flourish. The state of Madhya Pradesh (among several others), for example, has anti-conversion laws where it is illegal to baptize a Hindu, or for a Hindu to change religions. Therefore, much of the Christian work that happens must be done in the shadows.

 

 

The area we visited is in the heart of the 10/40 window – the most highly concentrated area of unreached people groups in the world. The ministry is massive. Humanitarian efforts and philanthropic work have built bridges to cross the religious chasm and opened doors to preach the gospel to many otherwise unreached people. Everything from education and medicine, to multimedia and benevolence is available; and all work is conducted at an elite level.

 

  • The K-12 school is home to over 2,600 students, many of which are top performing in their studies.
  • The college is home to over 700 students offering degrees in subjects such as science, math, commerce, post-graduation, teachers training, computer literacy, journalism and mass communication, to name a few.
  • The multimedia studio was one of the first to have an all Hindi text website (which happened to be Bible-based).
  • Audio/video productions are produced and distributed all over India, with 2 nationwide broadcasts per year featuring Christian media.
  • Village learning centers have educated hundreds of children who otherwise would have never received a quality education.
  • The safe havens have rescued over 150 girls from dangerous situations.
  • The disabled children’s program has given dignity and worth to people who are typically ostracized from society.
  • Dozens of pastors and ministers have been trained and sent out.
  • Hundreds of churches have been planted.
  • And hundreds of new baptisms take place each year.

 

The list goes on and on, and all of this is running on a shoestring budget. Financial contributions from the US help with child sponsorships, and profits from local initiatives are used to expand other ministries.

 

So far this post is over 1,500 words and as I said in the beginning – this is just a bullet point recap. This trip is truly something to be experienced firsthand, and is possible if you’d like to do so. Contact me personally for more information on the ministries we’re working with, or for information on how to book a short or long-term missions trip to India.

 

 

Photography by Chance James

Video by Manny Collazo 

Music by Sadhu Nityanand

Life, As Seen on Facebook

Today I had an encounter that was both encouraging and convicting at the same time. After church, a good friend of mine gave me a big hug and told me how proud of me he was. He is much older than me (old enough to be my dad), and we’ve been following Christ together for about the same length of time (I think we were even baptized on the same day back in 2007). He went on to say how he loved seeing my Snapchat Stories and Facebook Posts, and how he was impressed with how I am always on the go and manage everything in my life to God’s glory.

He said, “one minute you’re playing with your kids and the next you’re lifting weights at the gym. You spend a lot of time with your wife, and you’re always posting scriptures, and I can see that your business is doing great! I’m really proud of you, and how far God has brought you because I know we both started following Christ around the same time, and I know the life that God pulled you out of…”

On the one hand my pride was stroked and I felt really great about myself… for about a millisecond. Pride was pretty much immediately followed by conviction as I started to correct my friend and let him know that on social media I tend to put my best face forward. I don’t often share the “behind-the-scenes footage” of my struggles and issues. I was convicted of the fact that I may be guilty of portraying a picture-perfect life on social media, while covering up the embarrassing aspects of my life that I don’t really want to let others in on.

As my friend was sharing with me how proud and impressed he was with my life, I was thinking on the inside, “but, if you only knew!”. If you only knew how conflicted I am about the amount and the quality of time I spend with my family. If you only knew how fearful I was that maybe I was missing God’s will for my life in certain areas. If only you knew how I’ve had to live off of financial miracles because business wasn’t as prosperous as I made it appear to be. If only you knew the arguments Candace and I have about stupid stuff, and how often I still let my pride get in between our marriage. If you only knew how vigorously I have to fight my lusts, doubts, anxieties, laziness, fickleness, and complacency.

Most of us subconsciously know (partly because we’re guilty of it ourselves) that no one really keeps it 100% on social media. However, for me, this is a big deal. When I came to Christ I vowed to never be fake. I grew up witnessing hypocrisy in the church, and I was resolved to not be a hypocrite. You know – the one who seems like they have it all together and they put on a front as if they’re perfect, yet they have skeletons in their closet that would make a heathen blush. I was determined to be genuine; to be real. What you see is what you get. Yet my friend’s praises indicated to me that maybe I’m not being all that honest… so I guess this post is me setting the record straight – YES! I have weaknesses, too. If I can boast about anything, I’ll boast in that…

 

But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.; Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me” 2 Corinthians 12:9

 

Here are a few potential dangers that I see can follow as a result of Christians sharing a superficial display of life as-seen-on-Facebook:

 

1) We can convey hopelessness to those who struggle

As a Christian, when we only share “the good stuff” without being open about the fact that we have struggles and weaknesses it can be very discouraging to those who feel like maybe they’re just inadequate. When they see how “all-together” some people have it, they can feel as if they’re uniquely without God’s favor. Conversely, being forthright about our struggles and letting others know that “what you’re going through is very common” can be very encouraging and instill hope in others who struggle with similar things.

“He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:4

 

2) We can distract people from the gospel

Our seemingly perfect lives displayed on social media can become a distraction from the gospel. When all glory is deflected from Christ’s greatness onto our greatness, we become a hindrance to the gospel working in the lives of those we’re trying to impress.

 

3) We can give false expectations

If you follow Christ for any length of time, people will catch on. You can’t have a “personal relationship with God” in the sense that it’s so personal no one ever knows about it. It doesn’t work like that. If you’re a Christian, people will take notice, and often times pay attention (some for better, and some for worse). If as Christians all we post is the good, and never show the bad and the ugly, we may not be accurately representing scriptures like:

“In fact, all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Timothy 3:12

 

“Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you.” 1 Peter 4:12

4) We can encourage false motivations

It’s often said, “what you win them with is what you win them too.” Yes, God has been good to me and my family. Though this post is about boasting in my weakness, I can’t lie – I’m blessed. I do have an unbelievably beautiful wife who loves me and is committed to me. I have three amazing sons who look up to me. I have a business that I love and has been able to provide a lifestyle that most people in the world couldn’t dream of (relatively speaking, since 51% of the world lives off of less than $2 per day). Yes, every one of those things I just listed has their fair share of difficulties and ups and downs; however, I’d be lying to say that God hasn’t blessed me abundantly.

However, people often times equate correlation with causation, and consequently make rash decisions. In other words, one might say “Sean is a Christian. Sean has a comparatively great life. I want a great life. Therefore I’ll give this Christianity thing a try.” Then when things don’t pan out the way they expected, they jump ship, exposing their false motives for following Christ in the first place.

As Christians, we need to not give the false impression to those we’re trying to win that following Jesus means a life of ease and financial prosperity. We need to be open about the weaknesses and trials we face as believers, while pointing to the source of our contentment in all things – Christ.

I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:12-13.

 

5) We miss out on opportunities to point to Jesus

The fact is we need Christ. Not only do we need Him for salvation, we also need Him for sanctification. When we paint pictures of ourselves as though we are in lesser need of Christ’s continual work to cleanse and heal us, then we miss out on opportunities to share the real ongoing, active work of Jesus in our lives.

“I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion” Philippians 1:6

 

 

So, how then should we post?

Though this post is about being authentic on social media so as to not put on a false-front as if you have no struggles, I’m not therefore advocating that everyone should now take all filters off and share everything. I think we’ve seen that, too, and it’s probably worse. You know – the complaining griper who always posts negativity on their wall and usually shares way too much information in order to drum up sympathy from anyone who cares to comment. I’m definitely not saying we should resort to that.

I’m also not saying that we should post our deepest struggles and darkest secrets for the world to see. I believe there’s wisdom in having a close group of a trusted few who can speak into your life for those issues. In fact, I’m not saying that anyone should post a particular way at all. I happen to like the diversity I see in my News Feed, and it would be pretty boring if everyone posted the same way. This post was primarily a personal reflection for myself, so here are my personal takeaways:

  • I’m going to continue posting the types of posts I have been (good food, great coffee, time with my family, updates with Butler, ministry outreaches, etc.). These are all real parts of my life, and I give glory to God for all of them.
  • I’m going to periodically post things like this, hopefully giving a more balanced insight into who I really am.
  • I’m also going to be more transparent (as wisdom would allow) with some of the things that I have struggled through and wrestled with, but always with a message of hope and victory through Christ… because what’s the point otherwise?