Monday, August 19, 2013

Using the ESV in Our Services

I recently announced that I will begin using the English Standard Version (ESV) translation in my preaching. This represents a big change for me, as I have used the New International Version (NIV) for many years. But over the past year, I find myself gravitating more towards the ESV in my studies, so I decided to make the switch in my preaching. 

I’m sure some people will wonder why the switch, so I wanted to offer a few thoughts on it in this forum.

First of all, I find many translations to be useful in my study of Scripture. Whenever I prepare a sermon or a lesson, I consult many versions. My favorites are the ESV, NIV84, New English Translation (NET) and the New Living Translation (NLT). I also frequently study from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).  And I usually read from The Message for a more contemporary paraphrase of the passage.

But when I preach or teach, I try to use one primary version, though I often quote other versions as well (I always try to mention it when I do this, just to be clear). Now some preachers don’t do this. In any given message, they may quote multiple versions without ever noting that they’re doing this. That’s their prerogative, but it’s not my style.

I find that preaching from one primary version keeps me theologically honest. I don’t try to find a version that says it the way I want it said, and it forces me to do my homework in preparing sermons and preaching the Word of God.

Keep in mind that almost all of us use a translation of the original Scriptures, since most of us don’t know Hebrew (the primary language of the Old Testament) or Greek (the primary language of the New Testament). We are forced to rely on those who know the languages and have translated them into English.

Even then, modern translations have updated older translations because the language changes. The King James Version (KJV) from 1611 is a very hard translation to read and understand, even though it is in English. The language has changed so much in 400 years that updated versions are needed.

This would be a good time for me to tell you that if you are among those people who believe that the King James Version of the Bible is the only acceptable English translation of the Scriptures, you can stoppeth reading now. You won’t liketh anything else that I have to sayeth.

When it comes to Bible translations, there are three primary types of translations. The first is a “word for word” translation. In reality, most of us would never read a true “word for word” English translation, because it wouldn’t make much sense to us. Translating the Hebrew Old Testament or Greek New Testament “word for word” into English would be cumbersome and awkward. But versions considered “word for word”, including the KJV, the NASB and the ESV, come closest.

The second main type of translation is “thought for thought”. Here, the goal is to convey the “thoughts” or “concepts” of the original languages into English. The emphasis is to help the reader understand the ideas behind the words. The NIV and the NLT fall into this category.

Finally, there are “paraphrases”. These are great resources to help us to put Scripture into modern terms, but they should never be used as your primary source for Bible study. They simply take too much liberty with the original languages. The Message and the Living Bible are popular paraphrases.

If you want to debate the merits of various translations, be my guest—just don’t do it with me. I have my preferences (hence the change to the ESV in my preaching). I don’t believe that all translations are created equal (I like the older translation of the NIV—the NIV84—much better than the newer translation—the NIV11, for example). And I studiously avoid “gender neutral” translations. But I'm not going to debate the subject with you.

That’s probably a much longer explanation than you wanted of the planned change to the ESV in my preaching ministry, but I wanted you to know why I’m making the change. Of course, you can still follow along pretty well in my sermons even if you use some other Bible translation. We’ll still display the words on the wall as we always have. It’s just that now, those words will be coming from a different translation—but the same Word of God.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Sacred Institution?

In action taken this week by the Supreme Court of the United States of America, we have once again witnessed assaults on the Biblical, historical and traditional institution of marriage. These actions will result in further redefining marriage by our culture in a way that is inconsistent with the Scriptural perspective of the union of one man and one woman together for a lifetime.

Having said that, and having consistently expressed strong opposition to the concept and practice of same sex marriage, I must also point out that no actions taken by the states, courts, legislative bodies or executive branches of government can change the fundamental nature of marriage in God’s eyes. While I am highly disappointed in the continuing degradation of marriage as an institution in our society, I cannot honestly say that these recent actions by government have done any more to hurt the institution of marriage than actions and attitudes of society in general, including, I am sorry to say, self-professing Christ-followers.

Long before the concept of same-sex marriage became a realistic possibility in our culture, heterosexuals were doing more than their fair share to degrade and defile marriage. If we are outraged by society’s acceptance of same-sex marriage and view that as a threat to the institution of marriage, we should be equally offended by other practices that have trivialized marriage as well.

For example, sex outside of marriage (either pre-marital or extra-marital sex) is a fundamental threat to the institution of marriage. As our society has become accepting of sex outside of the confines of the marriage relationship, we have seen a cheapening of both sexual relations and of marriage. The idea of “saving yourself” for marriage is quaint and seemingly archaic in our culture, though God’s standards of confining sex to the marriage relationship has never changed. Whenever a celebrity or athlete acknowledges he or she is a virgin, it becomes news (generally mocked and ridiculed).

I’ve actually heard supposedly Christian ministers advocate the practice of living together before marriage. Some suggest that this is the best way to really get to know your partner before you make a lifetime commitment. If that were true, then the rate of divorce among those who lived together before marriage would logically be lower than that of the general population, but multiple studies have indicated that is not the case. In fact, those who live together before marriage divorce at the same or perhaps even slightly higher rates than those who don’t live together before marriage. Of course, this practice of co-habitation has become so common that it’s increasingly difficult to find a couple who didn’t live together before they were married. This is even true for many couples within the evangelical church.

While the practice of extramarital sex is still ostensibly frowned upon in our society, it really doesn’t cause many raised eyebrows when someone admits to such a relationship. Especially among men, there is a sense that “boys will be boys”, and thus a fact of life to which we must become accustomed.

While divorce rates for committed Christians (as opposed to those who define themselves as “Christian” because they’re not Jewish, Muslim, etc) is lower than the general population, it is still exceedingly high. Many Christians feel no compulsion to save their marriages through counseling and intense effort. As one man told me a few years ago (a former pastor, no less), he wasn’t happy in his marriage and simply wanted out.  We grow bored. We grow restless. We grow weary. We want out.

I was watching a show recently that is set in the 1960’s, and they referred to the child of a divorced couple as coming from a “broken home”. When I heard that phrase, I thought to myself, when was the last time I heard a divorced family referred to as a “broken home”?  That is exactly what it is, but we don’t use that terminology any more.

And of course, this doesn’t even take into account the countless joyless marriages in which people muddle through for one reason or another, including religious convictions. Unfortunately, those religious convictions are not strong enough to motivate them to practice love and submission in accordance with the standards of Scripture. They’re going through the motions, but in the process, they are hardly glorifying Christ through their loveless, joyless marriages.

I mention all of this because I think we Christians need to understand that there are a lot of practices, beliefs and attitudes that threaten the institution of marriage every bit as much as same-sex marriage. We get all bent out of shape because of the declining morals in our society, but we need to acknowledge that these morals go far beyond just the fairly recent acceptance (“tolerance” as society refers to it) of homosexual marriage.

Maybe we shouldn’t get on our high horses to decry the way “the liberals” are harming marriage until we take a long hard look at the damage we conservative Christians have already done to what God intended to be a holy and consecrated institution for the welfare of mankind.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Summer Vacations

Every Summer when I was growing up, I could be sure that I'd hear at least two or three sermons about the heathens who forsook the church for a week or two in order to take a summer vacation. Pastors would rail against these pagans who would abandon God for a little R&R. Of course, I never understood why pastors would take it out on me--I was IN church. Shouldn't they be shouting at those who weren't there?

When I became a minister of the Gospel more than 20 years ago, I vowed that I would never take that approach to those who had the good fortune to be able to get some time away to be with family or to enjoy a little down time. I think that I have honored that vow throughout my ministry, because I truly do not begrudge people some time away. As a family, we always made it a priority to take a week or two off for summer vacations. Even now that Kacie is grown and out of the house, Kim & I purpose to take time away together periodically. And with a more flexible schedule, it doesn't always have to be in the Summer.

I don't think there's a thing in the world wrong with getting away for a while, and if that means missing church for a few weeks, so be it. However, what I do have a problem with is taking a vacation from God. That is a recipe for disaster. So while you enjoy your summer and take some time for a change of pace, let me encourage you not to take a vacation from God in five vital areas.

Don't take a vacation from God's Word. You need to maintain a time each day that you are in God's Word. There are all kinds of devotionals available online, and great resources like The Daily Bread, Table Talk  and other daily devotionals to assist you in your study of God's Word.

Don't take a vacation from prayer. Just as you need to hear from God on a regular basis, He wants to hear from you.

Don't take a vacation from worship.  You don't need to be in a church service to worship. Listen to Christian music and take time each week just to give praise and honor and glory to God. You can listen to sermons from great preachers online. Or you can listen to mine.

Don't take a vacation from serving. Look for opportunities to serve others, either through church-sponsored service projects or just as you come across needs where you live, work and play.

Don't take a vacation from giving. The expenses of God's church go on whether you are present or not, so be faithful in your support of the Lord's work. Life Spring offers online giving options that are secure and easy to use. 

Enjoy your summer and all that comes with it. Longer daylight hours, warmer days, swimming pools, grilling out and vacations--these all are gifts from above. Enjoy them in a guilt-free manner. But don't take a vacation from your relationship with God.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Journey of Generosity

As I sit here on the Monday before Commitment Sunday, I am overwhelmed by the way that some folks in our congregation have responded to our focus on generosity over the past four months. As a pastor, I always brace myself for cynicism and criticism whenever we talk about money in the church. And while I’m sure that’s happening somewhere among some people, God has graciously kept that kind of discouraging talk away from me.

Instead, I’ve been blessed to hear positive feedback about the church-wide Life Group study on generosity. Many people loved the approach that study took to talking about generosity as a way of life. Our Life Groups responded in such a positive manner in undertaking generosity projects, providing financial assistance and meeting physical needs that otherwise might not have happened without their generosity.

A number of people, especially those relatively new to Life Spring, have expressed their appreciation for the thoughtful and methodical approach to the 242 initiative. They appreciate the time we have spent talking about vision and laying out a challenge for our ministry for the next few years. One family in particular, who has long been active in church work, expressed gratitude to be a part of a church with a heart for the community and a vision for the future.

I’ve even experienced the rare expression of appreciation for a month long sermon series on giving and generosity. The folks at Life Spring have always had a profound love of and respect for the Holy Word of God. And that has proven to be true even as we have been discussing the sensitive issue of money and giving. Several people have voiced their support for the approach we have taken on Sunday mornings of simply but boldly proclaiming the truth of God’s Word on these subjects.

From the beginning of our ministry in Spring Hill almost 7 years ago, our leadership has committed to never coercing, manipulating, guilting or tricking people into giving to our church. I trust that even as we have had a prolonged emphasis on giving and generosity, people still believe that to be true. What any person or family gives to the Lord’s Work at Life Spring is a result of the Holy Spirit of God prompting them, and not any arm twisting on the part of our leaders.

As you continue to prayerfully consider your role in making our vision for ministry a reality, I hope that you have gained new appreciation for the work we are doing and the difference Christ is making in the lives of those to whom we have been called to minister. May our every effort be directed at continuing to lift up His Holy Name, for He (and He alone) is worthy of our praise and glory.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Style v. Substance

I enjoy visiting the websites of churches. Some are very sophisticated, with lots of pictures that flash across the screen very quickly. Others are more antiquated, with lots of words and few graphics.

But it’s not so much the designs I am interested in. I like to try to get a “feel” for a church from its website. Usually, I can tell a lot about a church after spending about 10 minutes on their site.

I was on a site today that described their worship experience as “real”. They went on to explain that they like their music “loud”. I guess the louder you are, the more authentic you must be, at least by that standard. They also said that sermons are delivered by a guy in “blue jeans”. A guy in dress slacks, or khakis, or (God forbid) corduroy just can’t be genuine, I suppose.

Another site I visited recently emphasized that they used the KJV (King James Version) of the Bible in their church. That appears to be very important to them. Not the New KJV, on the NIV or ESV or some other translation, but the good old 1611 KJV. The one that uses “thou” and “thy”, just like the Apostle Paul did in his original letters.

That same site also mentioned that they sing hymns. From a hymnal. Not choruses. Not words displayed on a screen or on the wall. And though they didn't say it, I'm sure that they sing verses 1,2 & 4.

In making these observations, it’s not my intention to be critical. Those of you who are know me know that I spend very little time concerning myself with what other churches or other pastors are doing. I don’t try to build up my ministry or our church by tearing down other ministries and other preachers.

But it is interesting to me to observe the varieties of styles that characterize the Lord’s church today. In the two examples I cited above, the doctrinal statements were very similar. I think that those two churches would be very comparable in what they believe, but they wouldn’t be at all comfortable in how they each carry out ministry.  I’m pretty sure that members of neither church would want to spend much time in the other.

This may be, at least in part, what the Apostle Paul had in mind as he said, “…I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)

Paul never suggested that we compromise the Scriptures or water down the truth. He didn’t indicate we should put doctrinal distinctions aside for the sake of unity. But even as he affirmed the essence of the message, he said that we should not get too wrapped up in our methods.

Those things that are considered “cutting edge” today will be “old-fashioned” tomorrow. The style of worship that our kids rave about today will be the things their grandkids groan against 50 years from now. But the strength of the Gospel is the message—whether delivered by a guy in a three piece suit & wingtips or by a guy in jeans and tennis shoes.