Following Christ and Thoughts on Cultural Relevance

As I was growing up, the Christian circles I was in didn’t care much about cultural relevance. I attended a very conservative Christian school that was not cutting edge (this is just an opinion, but please know I value the school highly because it was where I surrendered my life to Christ and later to the call to ministry). The church I attended was more on the liberal side and was very liturgical/traditional. My first 6 years of vocational ministry were not focused on cultural relevance. I was just glad to have a place to serve and wanted to learn all I could while obeying God’s call on my life.

In 2002, I was introduced to this cultural relevance, and I began to view church and ministry through a different lens. All of a sudden, my preaching had to be “relevant”. My song selections had to be “relevant”. Everything the church did could no longer represent its past. Every year, the church had to outdo the year before. I would like to think much was accomplished by that. Many people were awestruck by the methods of the church, but how many lives were transformed by the gospel? Am I saying churches should not have attractive ministries? No. The church should be its absolute best, but that level of excellence should be based on God’s standards rather than human standards. The bottom line – God defines relevance differently than we do.

Think with me for a minute. How relevant were the prophets of old by today’s definition? They were declaring words straight from God. Those in the Old Testament heard His voice audibly. They declared things that were insane. Even John the Baptist looked crazy and had a weird diet. No pastor search committee would choose them. They all had a common message – REPENT!

Fast forward to now! This generation, even some who claim to be Bible-based Christians, want little to do with a message of repentance or one way to Heaven. I’m not implying that we must walk around in sackcloth and ashes, speaking King James English, and wearing first-century clothing. I am saying that God’s truth is timeless. I know you are tempted to “change things up a bit” or “make things more attractive for lost people”, but don’t miss the message that people need. The message of “Jesus saves” transcends culture. While many are out here trying to be cool, relevant, or whatever modern term you want to use, just be the person God called you to be and proclaim the message He called you to proclaim. Christianity goes against the grain. Let’s stop trying to make it something it’s not.

Is “Feel-Good Preaching” Wrong?

I would dare say that the vast majority of people in churches are critical of preaching, and their preferences are as numerous as the stars in the sky. Some want loud preaching while others want soft preaching. Some want long preaching while others prefer brief sermons. The stronger criticism I hear in conservative circles is the hatred of what they call “feel-good preaching”. The critics of “feel-good preaching” speak of it with such disdain that you would think these messages were preached by the devil himself. The question is, “How does God feel about this kind of preaching?”

Let’s answer this question with Scripture. Second Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The truth here is that ALL Scripture is inspired by God. If you read enough of Scripture, you will discover that there are doctrinal truths that will make us feel good. When I read about the righteousness of Christ applied to me, a believing sinner, I feel good as I think about my positional righteousness in Christ. When I read the promises of God, I feel good. Some preachers only preach the stuff that makes us feel good. If ALL Scripture is inspired, it stands to reason that we should preach the stuff that is difficult to bear. No man or woman who is involved in sexual sin wants to hear a sermon on God’s truth about sex, but it must be preached. No dishonest businessman wants to hear a sermon about honest gain, but it must be preached. We can’t pick and choose the parts we like and avoid the ones we dislike.

Are “feel-good sermons” wrong? Absolutely not! Would it be wrong for me to only preach that and ignore that truth that we must repent and trust Christ as Savior? Absolutely! It’s all about balance. Let’s strive to preach all truth in a generation that desperately needs the light of God.

Let Your Words Be Few

“Let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

The context of this verse tells us to avoid making hasty vows, especially to God. There is, however, some practical wisdom here. I’ll share it from my own personal experience.

Hurt people HURT people. I wish I could say this didn’t apply to me, but it has. A few years ago, life and ministry circumstances were painful. For years, I was accustomed to having a ministry voice, and then it was stripped away. It seemed as if God were taunting me, saying, “I called you many years ago, but you’re just going to take up space for the rest of your life.” That was not God’s voice. That was the devil! God still has a work for me, and the devil can’t stand it. No divorce or any other life change can hinder what God wants!

When I was going through the time of immense hurt, I lashed out in my writing. That would have been a good time for me to heed the Scripture “let your words be few”. My words did some damage, and I wish everyday I could wish/pray them away or undue the offense they caused. I can’t. But here is what I can do – I can use the lesson to help other people. As I am working with pastors and ministry leaders each week, I have a truck load of “what not to do” responses I give them. I can also do what another pastor with a similar story advised me to do. He said, “Matthew, just prove yourself.” So that is what I choose to do. I can’t undo the past, but I can chart a new path in my best days of choosing to please God.

In the day of “free speech” (meaning free as long as it doesn’t offend anyone lol), don’t go to social media with your anger and cries for attention. The results aren’t so great. Find some wise counsel who can help you process your hurt. Until then, “let your words be few.”

An Honest Moment About Bible Study

Does anyone struggle with spending daily time in Scripture? You may do well for a while and then drop off in consistency after a while? Then you feel guilty for missing daily time in the Bible? You are not alone. I have been there over and over again. In this post, I want to share some of my struggles and offer some thoughts I hope will help you.

I did not begin to study the Bible consistently until I was 16. I had just surrendered to the call to ministry and could not get enough. I was cranking out sermons like crazy. When I went to Bible college, by nature, I was in Scripture all the time. Then I got out of the Bible college bubble into the real world. The pace of life picked up, and I found myself in Scripture out of obligation. Duty-driven spiritual actions often lack delight. I have been in this rut dozens of times and had to come back to the heart of worship over and over.

A pastor told me that preaching 3 sermons a week kept him in the Bible all the time, and he was thankful for that. During my 11 months of preaching weekly, I saw what he said fleshed out daily. Then I found myself out of the pastorate and out of the daily discipline. On top of that, my daily wrestling with God kept me away. The “why” questions of my heart built a wall that preventing my desire for Bible study from being aflame. I was saved, but my heart was far away.

Fast forward to today. At the beginning of this year, I decided I was going to successfully read through the Bible in one year. Thanks to the YouVersion app, I have a plan I can follow. I wanted to read through chronologically rather than from Genesis to Revelation (which is not published in chronological order), so I picked the “One Year Chronological Bible”. A daily plan will often cover the moments of overlap in the Bible. I love it. I do, however, find the historic books cumbersome. The historic books are Joshua through Nehemiah. At every turn, there is war, a sequence of good king, bad king, and the people returning to idolatry. I fell off the wagon of reading for 3 weeks during this time. I decided I would read along with the audio to keep myself engaged.

Today, I almost got caught up with the plan. As I was listening and reading, the truth of God fed my spirit. It was great! I am reminded that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). My weary soul found rest.

When you become inconsistent in your spiritual disciplines, there is no reason to beat yourself up. Guilt and shame are not God’s motivators. God wants to spend time with you, so get back up. It’s a new day, so get up and spend some time with God. Pray. Study the Bible. Spend time with other believers (even if it has to be on FaceTime or Zoom in the midst of a pandemic). Refuse to neglect your spirit. God wants the time with you, and you need it.

Grieving Losses

When COVID-19 hit and places began closing, it was prime time for the devil to prey upon me. As I mentioned in a previous post, the devil loves to attack when we are isolated. The attack took on a different twist. I was bombarded with tons of past memories. These were memories that hurt. Memories that caught me off guard. What was I to do with these memories?

I asked the Lord to show me what was going on. Why would these old memories hit me now? As I was trying to make sense of all this, one thing came to mind – I had not grieved some major losses in my life.

When people think of grief, they mainly think about the death of a loved one. While this kind of grief is valid, we often overlook other types of loss. We lose friendships, other relationships, jobs, money, social status, etc. I was left with processing grief for many things I lost – a marriage, a daily relationship with my kids, ministry as I knew it, people who no longer saw my calling as valid, etc. Some of these losses had been left ungrieved for almost 7 years. Now I know the freedom of having walked through the grief process of some of these things.

What losses have you experienced in life? Have you grieved those losses? If not, you will be stuck until you do. You will carry that baggage into chapter after chapter of your life. Grief is simultaneously painful and liberating. It’s time to grieve! This may sound odd, but you’ll be glad you grieved.

The Pros and Cons of Vulnerability

Vulnerability has become a buzz word of the day. I remember hearing the word in a very negative context as I was growing up. I heard about vulnerability in the context of “Senior adults are vulnerable to telephone scams.” Fast forward twenty years, and now vulnerability is something that is praised. Is vulnerability always a good thing?

My journey toward vulnerability was a long one. I did not exhibit this quality until I was in my thirties. It took depression, anxiety, divorce, and ministry difficulties to bring this quality into my life. Here is what I have learned:

Vulnerability can be a great point of connection. People identify with vulnerability. When pastors share their struggles, people often connect. Those who beat themselves up for failing to be the perfect Christian are set at ease when they hear pastors share their struggles with their words, thoughts, and actions.

Vulnerability should have its boundaries. For example, it would not be wise to stand up in a church service and surprise someone in front of the entire congregation by publicly confessing your impure thoughts about that person in detail. That is something best shared with God. Not everyone can be trusted with your vulnerability.

Vulnerability can attract the wrong element into your life. As a man going through a divorce, I met tons of vulnerable people who were looking for love (or at least a rebound). In that case, I attracted that because I was in a bad place emotionally. I have also discovered that vultures who seek to eat the vulnerable alive will try to take advantage of you. Even when vulnerability is expressed in a positive way, it can be an open door to draw people in who can drain your energy if you are not careful.

Vulnerability is hated by those who do not exhibit it or connect with it. Vulnerability has its way of cueing up the critics. They will be quick to point out how you always talk about a particular thing or share too much. If God has placed it within you to say, let the critics run their mouths. People are going to voice their opinions anyway, so you might as well get the practice of drowning out their negative noise.

Vulnerability can have repercussions. Some of those with whom you are vulnerable may use it as a means to betray you. They may think, “Well, Matthew admitted he is not strong in this particular area, so we will build our case to prove he should not lead us.” I have seen this happen in the church setting. I have had to learn that if my vulnerability comes back around through another party, I must be willing to sign my name to it and accept the consequences.

Everything in life must have balance, including vulnerability. In the day of extremists, balance is difficult to find but extremely refreshing. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and dismiss vulnerability, but don’t go on a “I-will-tell-all” spree either. Give vulnerability a try, using some boundaries, and watch God connect the dots. It really can be a beautiful thing.

Understanding and Addressing the Devil’s Tactics

The devil’s work has been alive and well for a long time. We don’t have to look far to see it. But I want you to think about this. How does he attack you? The devil’s tactics are pretty lame. His playbook has not changed much at all through the years. The circumstances are different, but the core of the enemy’s MO is very much the same.

Matthew 4 records the devil’s encounter with Christ. I laugh when I think that the devil actually thought he was going to take down Jesus. He has failed repeatedly and continues to do so. This biblical record reveals these 3 basic tactics of the devil:

The devil attacks through isolation. He waited until Jesus was alone in the wilderness. I am an introvert. Although I love to be alone and often work better alone, I know that I must be around people to some degree. I have discovered that constant isolation has a vicious cycle. Isolation leads to loneliness. Loneliness leads to boredom. Boredom will often lead us to fill our time with things that we shouldn’t be doing. Beware of isolation because the devil is often lurking right around the corner.

The devil attacks us when we are weak. Matthew 4:2 says that Jesus had been fasting 40 days and 40 nights without food. He had a physical body and all that came with it. Hunger is one of those things. The devil waited until this sensitive most to attack.

The devil also casts doubt on God’s Word. Three times, the devil twists Scripture to lead Jesus into caving into temptation. He said, “If you are the Son of God…” Jesus came back each time with, “It is written”, then quoting Scripture in context. The devil went away.

These three tactics were used by the devil in the Garden of Eden. He got Eve alone, played on her desire for food, and cast doubt on God’s word. The devil is not as clever as we think. We just need to be aware of and counter his attacks.

Rather than isolate, we need to gather with godly people. Hebrews 10:25 says we should not forsake assembling with other believers. In fact, we should do this often, encouraging one another, because the end is approaching. Godly community is a threat to the devil. That’s why he tries to cause disunity.

To counter weakness, we must take good care of ourselves. We need proper rest, diet, and exercise. A weak and poorly fueled body prevents us from being on our A game.

When the devil casts doubt on God’s word in our lives, we need to know Scripture to throw back at him. The Bible is called the sword of the Spirit, so we should be using it all the time. When the devil says you are a loser, remind him you are more than a conqueror. When he says you are condemned, remind him there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. When he says God does not love you, pop back with the truth that nothing can separate you from God’s love. All of these are found in Romans 8.

You and I have no excuse to be the devil’s toy. We have all the equipment we need to be victorious in the Christian life. The reality is we need to be disciplined and use it. Now that you are reminded, get up and make the devil run.

The Call That Kept Me on Track

Seven years ago, I was pastor to this couple. From the time they met me on my trial weekend to determine whether I would be the next pastor of Tar Heel Baptist Church, Charlie and Jennifer loved my family and we loved them.

I’ll never forget a Sunday night in February 2014 when my phone rang, and it was Charlie. I was a discouraged man who had stepped away from the pastorate and was going through a divorce. I was determined to never preach another sermon. When I answered the phone that night, Charlie’s greeting was “Hey there, Preacher!” That might not mean much to many, but it meant the world to me. Charlie encouraged me to remain true to my calling.

For several years now, we have made it a tradition to see each other on July 4. Couples like this (and I have had many through the years at Tar Heel and other ministries) are the reason I keep going, second to my devotion to Christ. Thanks for refreshing me! You are a blessing to the body of Christ.

Bon Jovi Couldn’t Be More Accurate

Photo from Pinterest

I don’t doubt that many of you read this post title and thought, “Matthew has lost his mind!” My response – “You have stated the obvious😂.” Seriously. I would not label Bon Jovi a theologian, but his lyrics, “Oh, we’re halfway there. Oh, living on a prayer,” is right. The year is halfway over, and prayer is very much on the minds of anyone who is concerned about the status of our world.

As I reflect on this, I can’t help but think how many of us would agree that prayer is powerful while our prayer lives do not reflect it. We may pray over meals or when we want something from God. I know I’m guilty of not desperately crying out to God in this crucial time in history like I should. If we’re honest, I’m not alone in this.

Here is what the Bible says about prayer – “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians‬ ‭4:6‬). God says here to pray about everything. It’s a command. Some of the “everything” should include our government, the Coronavirus situation, and the racism we see in our country. I don’t care where you are in this discussion, I think we can at least agree we need some prayer.

We are halfway there…well, at least to the end of 2020. Some of us are probably thinking we are over halfway gone as a nation and a society. Don’t build your theology off Bon Jovi and just live on a prayer. Live on a bunch of them! Better yet, live in full confidence in the God who answers prayer! You might be amazed at how He works.

My Rescue Story

“For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son,” (Colossians‬ ‭1:13‬ ‭NLT‬‬)

There is not a single born again believer who does not have a rescue story or more than one. Sadly, we have fallen into the trap of comparing stories. I have heard some people who think that they do not have a rescue story because they didn’t have sexual relations with at least 25 people, spend at least 30 years hating God, and use every drug known to man. I thank God for every rescue story, whether great or small in HUMAN perspective. In God’s eyes, there is no small rescue story.

My rescue story began when I was a young boy. God pursued me with the gospel until I chose to respond to Him in faith at the age of 6. What a sweet time that was! But little growth happened between the ages of 6 and 14.

I remember God beginning to get my attention about His calling on my life when I was 14. I loved music and was decent at the instruments I played. The musical influences of my life had big dreams for me, but God had other plans. My problem was I was beginning to follow the plans others had for me because it was an escape from God’s call on my life. I knowingly ran from God’s call while preaching every Friday night in a nursing home. You may wonder how you can do what God wants while trying to avoid the call. I can write a book about that😀.

My junior year of high school was a huge year of spiritual turmoil. I was so miserable that I went home after school and slept a few hours before waking up to eat, do homework, then go back to bed. God wasn’t going to let me run for long. Friday, May 2, 1997, I preached in that nursing home with such passion. Something clicked. That Sunday, May 4, 1997, I told my mom I could run no longer. God rescued me from my own will.

I wish I could say I had no struggles after surrendering to God’s plan, but that would be a lie. There was a struggle that began in my childhood that lingered…this ugly thing called depression. I would stay on the emotional roller coaster ride into my twenties and thirties. What I didn’t realize was the roller coaster would malfunction in the Spring of 2012. Anxiety got into the mix. The few months leading to successful treatment were agony. Through it all, God was faithful and rescued me once again from the pit of my despair.

What seemed like light at the end of the tunnel was temporary. Despair hit once again toward the end of 2013. I was finally pastoring my first church when my marriage came to an end. Because of church challenges in addition to the collapse of my family life, I found myself without employment and a ministry. The thing that contained my identity for so long was stripped away. God rescued me once again, this time from a false sense of identity.

My rescue story is still being written. While I know my eternity is secure, I still struggle. And God is still faithful!