Spiritual Markers in Your Life

Sometimes the circumstance is a decision-making situation, not so much between good and bad, but between good and best. I hope that we all will be able to pray this to God:

Lord, whatever I know to be your will, I will do it. Regardless of the cost and regardless of the adjustment, as best I know in my heart, I commit myself to follow your will ahead of time. Lord, no matter what that looks like, I will do it.

That is a tremendous prayer of submission. If you DON’T pray this way, you can never say, “Thy will be done” because you are really saying “Thy will be done as long as it doesn’t conflict with my will.” DO NOT proceed until you can honestly say, “Lord whatever you want, I will do it.”

Physical Markers and Spiritual Encounters:

Physical markers were often set up as a reminder of someone’s experience with God. At the crossing of the Jordan River, tribes set up a pile of stones as a reminder of what God had done for the people, and the fathers would pass these stories down to their children (Joshua 4:2-3, 6-7).

There are a number of people in the Old Testament worth studying when it comes to an encounter with God:

  1. Noah (Genesis 6-8)
  2. Abram (Genesis 12:1-8, 13:1-18)
  3. Isaac (Genesis 26:17-25)
  4. Jacob (Genesis 28:10-22, 35:1-7)
  5. Moses (Exodus 17:8-16, 24:1-11)
  6. Joshua (Joshua 3:5-4:9)
  7. Gideon (Judges 6:11-24)
  8. Samuel (1 Samuel 7:1-13)

I chose to look at Gideon since I attended a Gideon pastor appreciation lunch just this week. The Lord came to Gideon while he was working and called hm to a difficult task. He knew he was not up to the task of delivering God’s people from their enemies, but since he had this encounter with God, he set up a memorial and called it, “God is Peace” since he saw God and did not die.

Fathers passed on these stories of God’s activity to teach their children about God’s faithfulness and deeds. Every act builds upon the previous act, like a pile of stones. The stories are told and retold, then adding what God had done specifically for them. They rehearsed the stories to future generations would have a context of how God dealt with his people.  Each new step involved a person, and that person added his experiences to the story.

As we develop a spiritual inventory of stories, they are events that help us to recognize God’s movement in the past to help us prepare for God moving in the present and future. A spiritual marker identifies a time of transition, decision, or direction when I clearly know that God has guided me.

Personal Spiritual Markers:

God has been working in you since your birth, and we should recognize the events that have brought us to where we are now.

  1. G’Anne – In high school, I was interested in a girl who went to church and decided to go to church to be with her. I accepted Christ a year later.
  2. Scotty – I had decided to NOT go to college until my friend brought up the subject (after graduation) and said we could room together and get involved in the Baptist Student Union. I was accepted into college and met my wife at the BSU, and discovered my calling in life was into full-time Christian service.
  3. Bob – He was the campus minister who saw more in me than I saw in myself, and encouraged my to seek ways to grow spiritually, be obedient to God on campus, develop leadership skills and to consider seminary and Christian service.
  4. Kim – At college I met the love of my life and best friend. We have shared life and love for over 30 years. We embrace shared values, salvation in Christ, and commitment to him and each other. God has also called her into her own ministry, not just to be a pastor’s wife.
  5. Stephen – The birth of my son was the first time that God became a real person to me. It had been twelve years since I accepted the Lord; I finished college, then seminary, and then Kim and I were at our first church after seminary. Stephen came a month early and needed to be in the neonatal ICU, so with Kim in one hospital and Stephen in another, I was at a traffic light at about 9:00 one night, just leaving Kim, and on my way to see Stephen, on my way home when I cried out to God. I complained about the meaning of all this, what’s the point of the nine months, the anticipation, the preparation, the excitement, only to have my boy so near death. It was at that time that I heard the still small voice of God reassuring me that I was not alone. He said to me, “It’s going to be OK, I know what it’s like to lose a son.” I knew that no matter what happened to Stephen, Kim and I would still trust and follow God. We were not experiencing anything that God did not know about or experience himself. I named that place (like the Old Testament saints did) “God is my Peace” and “God is my Comfort” because it was that night I learned so much about the love that God has for me and my family. He loves Stephen more than I could ever love him!
  6. Allan – He was the pastor of our first church out of seminary, who was evangelistic and mission-minded. He left for the mission field and planted the seed of missions in our hearts.
  7. Don and Mickey – This couple challenged us to work in the area of home missions at the oceanfront, and to evaluate all that the world and the church had taught us and hold it up to the light of God’s Word. This was a very treasured time of ministry and relationships that laid a solid foundation for life-long ministry and walking with God.
  8. Zambia – It was in Zambia that I sensed the most satisfaction of being in God’s will, denying self and following God. The Great Commission was being realized in my life. The friends I made along the way are lasting and cherished relationships. I realized that I did not take the gospel to the Zambian people, but rather God was already at work there and I adjusted my life to join him in that work.
  9. Lemstone – As we left the mission field for a couple of reasons but our experience back home was difficult (I write about that a bit more in a previous post). God was silent. I could not find full-time employment in the ministry and felt abandoned by God and our denomination. The owners and employees of Lemstone Christian bookstore at the Galleria Mall (south of Birmingham) were praying for my family, and my employment, knowing that it meant I would leave the store. When I had the opportunity to interview in Richmond with the IMB’s Office of Mission Personnel, they called the employees off the floor and went to the stockroom and we prayed. They prayed earnestly for God to move in this situation. This was more than a workplace, it was the community of faith getting together to BE the church. To this day it was one of the most supportive work environments of which I have ever been a part.

I suppose that is enough storytelling for now, but the point is we should constantly watch for how God is moving, and notice the spiritual markers that outline and define our journey. All along the way I sensed that these were never decisions between good and bad, but between good and best. I was called to serve God and follow his lead whether I was on the field or serving in a church. He has called me to faithfulness to his will, purposes and his ways.

Making Godly Decisions

It is always important to seek to honor God in the decisions we make every day. It may not matter the choice of location for lunch today, but there are a lot of decisions that we must make and the outcome is one that will honor God or not. We all want to know God’s will, so how can we know? Here is a little guidance on guidance:

How Does God Reveal His Will? God reveals His will primarily through…

  1. The Spirit of God – When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. (John 16:13)
  2. The Word of God – Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. (Psalm 119:105)

What Decisions Are Pleasing to God? God blesses…

  1. Decisions that He initiates – I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. (Proverbs 4:11)
  2. Decisions that line up with His Word – Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. (Psalm 119:33)
  3. Decisions that accomplish His purpose – It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:13)
  4. Decisions that depend on His strength – I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)
  5. Decisions that result in giving Him glory – Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
  6. Decisions that promote justice, kindness, and humility – He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
  7. Decisions that reflect His character – Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)
  8. Decisions that come from faith – Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
  9. Decisions that consider the interests of others – Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)
  10. Decisions that are bathed in prayer – Pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Other information on guidance has been posted here: Decision-Making by the Book

Church Growth Strategies

I don’t just post articles from someone else, but I read *Bill Wilson’s “Confessions of a Church Consultant”  today and had a flashback to the “Great Commission Consultation” that our church experienced in February 2010. Our church had a negative reaction, today I believe I know the reason why. Here are the highlights from the article and my comments:

Here is a secret: Congregational strategic planning is frequently a waste of time and can be counterproductive. Many congregations engage in strategic planning; some opt to conduct the process internally, while others hire an outsider to help.

Our local association provided what was billed as a church growth guru who was effective in many other areas of the country. Our church had been on a plateau for several years and sometimes it takes a fresh look at one’s situation, from the outside, to see what we often fail to see on our own. So we opted for the outsider to inspire, challenge and motive us toward being all that we can be for the kingdom in this place.

Consulting with congregations is all the rage. Most take some form of corporate planning and apply a thin veneer of spirituality to a secular model. Behind these plans is a paint-by-number approach to your future that, if followed, promises to produce a set of core values, a mission statement, SWOT analyses, strategic initiatives, SMART goals and the like.

This was the main focus of the consultation, there really was a “paint-by-number” approach. Other churches in whom I knew staff members had the same prescriptions for the same unhealthy diagnosis. If you don’t have retention of people who visit your church, you need an assimilation process. The same prescription included the Nelson Searcy assimilation model (from the Journey Church in NYC). It is a fine model, especially for churches who have no real strategy at all, but is not every church different? We have different styles, different communities, and different reactions to gathering information… the point is that if there is an assimilation hole, the consultation guy filled it with this assimilation product.

Some vary the theme and design a process that produces the same thing in every church that uses the plan. This sort of prescriptive planning is used by those who know what your future should be and have a not-so-subtle agenda of turning your church in a direction that they have predetermined. If you get hooked into one of those plans, expect unnecessary conflict and unhealthy upheaval.

The idea of a “predetermined direction” stands out for me. The guy came with an idea of what a healthy and growing church looks like, with stories and illustrations where he has turned other churches around using this same strategy. I think we have a tendency to be covetous of other churches when we see God moving over there more than over here. So we took the plan and presented it to the church and got all sorts of unanticipated “conflict and upheaval.” We talked as a body, shared the same feeling of being scolded; the founders of the church (who grew this congregation to what it is today) must of somehow failed because we have not kept the main thing the main thing (the Great Commission – If he only knew how mission-minded this church is). It is almost like this guy knew we could be a mega-church if we would only follow his plan, when all along our people simply chose to be faithful to God, follow his leadership and allow the Lord to cause the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).

The truth is, far too many of these generic plans are a waste of time and energy because they give only lip service to the question of divine guidance. Oh, there is the obligatory prayer emphasis, but what is lacking is genuine spiritual discernment. Without this, the planning becomes an exercise in stating the obvious/inevitable, and wastes a valuable opportunity to deeply consider the future God has in mind for you.

I felt there was a lot of activity during this time, and we developed a few ideas for a new direction, but our people did not embrace the consultation, or respect the consultant since he came across as a know-it-all with a condescending attitude of who we are. We have a solidly strong church and he spoke to us as if we where dying and one day the doors would close if we did not make changes. Real and earnest spiritual discernment and seeking God’s guidance appeared to be lacking.

A spiritual discernment process is very different from a corporate strategic planning model or a biased approach to your future. Spiritual discernment begins by admitting we do not have the solutions. Spiritual discernment invites thinking, praying and reflecting at a level that most of us studiously avoid. Spiritual discernment is messy, often slow and extremely complicated. Most churches want neat, quick and simple. Sorry, but neat, quick and simple work in this area (like most of congregational life) will lead to shallow, predictable and counter-productive.

The article includes a time-tested pattern of spiritual discernment for individuals and organizations:

Spiritual discernment begins with disorientation: Something happens to knock us off our feet. Some event or series of events conspire to turn our world upside down. It may be an unpleasant experience such as a death, or a beloved pastor’s departure, or some crisis. Whatever it is, our life and world is shaken and we experience high anxiety. Throughout Scripture, disorientation is the portal God uses to break into ordinary lives and do extraordinary things. (remember Joseph, Moses, Esther, Mary, Paul, Peter, etc.) God’s people are constantly finding themselves thrown off balance and unable to manage things using old frames of reference.

The next phase of spiritual discernment is a time of reorientation: On the heels of our crisis, we look around for something or someone to hold on to that will help us make sense of our shaken world. We find that the promises made by culture, leaders, politics, money, possessions and an array of false gods are empty. We turn once again to the One who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. All of our self-made structures, programs and hollow leadership models collapse under the weight of the issue before us. In their place we rediscover our reason for being as a congregation. Our pride gives way to brokenness and humility as we reconnect to our mission and purpose. We lean into our future with a willingness to lay aside those things that have distracted us from our true calling.

Finally, a spiritual discernment process leads us to a new orientation to life and ministry: We reorder and re-prioritize our life as God’s people so that we are on his mission, not ours. We find a depth of meaning and fulfillment that has been missing. We sense passion and engagement rather than lethargy and apathy. Because we have taken seriously the voice and movement of the Holy Spirit, we no longer rely on others to prescribe our future, but we create that future as collaborators with God in an ongoing process of regeneration and renewal. Our time spent in re-visioning our future has produced a new spirit of openness to God’s leadership. We begin the hard work of aligning every part of our life with our new vision.

Bill Wilson* reminds us that we need to be a congregation who resists the temptation to cut corners and go for easy solutions to complex issues. Instead, let’s journey along the narrow and challenging way of spiritual discernment. That sort of spiritual journey leads us to become the people God intended us to be.

*Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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How to Seek Guidance

People always want to know how they can tell what God wants them to do, the churchy question is phrased like this: “What is God’s will for my life?” You may be interested in reading more on the topic, I have a page covering several issues surrounding God’s will.

I discovered that there are only eight places in the Bible where the word guidance is used (in the NASB):

  1. But I will use the bronze altar for seeking guidance (2 Kings 16:15)
  2. Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance (1 Chronicles 10:13)
  3. Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance (Proverbs 1:5)
  4. For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers (Proverbs 11:14)
  5. Plans are established by seeking advice; so if you wage war, obtain guidance (Proverbs 20:18)
  6. Surely you need guidance to wage war, and victory is won through many advisers (Proverbs 24:6)
  7. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it.” (Habakkuk 2:19)
  8. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28)

We may seek guidance, but God provides something better, he provides himself.

The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. (Isaiah 58:11)

Many of us struggle to understand and discern God’s guidance for our lives. We ask questions like:

  1. Should I marry or not?
  2. Should I marry this person or that person?
  3. Should I have another child? Should I join this church or that one?
  4. Which profession should I follow?
  5. What job should I take?
  6. Is my present line of work the one to stay in?

Herein lies the major distortion of knowing and doing God’s will. Does God lead and direct in these areas? Yes. Does he come out and overtly tell us what to do? Rarely.

So how does God guide us? Consider these principles:

  1. God’s guidance concerns itself more with our steps than our overall journey.
  2. God’s guidance is more preoccupied with the present than with the future.
  3. God’s guidance has less to do with geography and more to do with morality.
  4. God’s guidance is more interested in our character than our comfort.
  5. God’s guidance is not insider information.
  6. God’s guidance is that we pursue the Guide more than guidance.

In seeking God, his plan will be revealed to us. His way will lead back through his Word. If the step is more critical than the journey, and the present is of greater consequence than the future, and the Guide more essential than the guidance, what is needed? We need to know the right step to take and to know what we must do in the present. That’s why we need to know the Guide.

God does not guide us magically; he guides us relationally. Therefore, the Bible must be studied so we may become acquainted with the ways and thoughts of God. God’s aim is that we become his companions who walk with him. He already knows us, so now he wants us to understand and know him. The more we understand him, the more real our relationship will be with him and the more likely we are to keep in step with him in the direction he is taking us.

The Guidance of God

This month we have been looking at the topic of “Hearing the Voice of God.” As we strive to hear God’s voice, we can be assured that he will be asking something of us. If we have the faith to seek him, actively listen, and then actually follow through and obey, life is then aligning itself with kingdom purposes.

Today I believe it is extremely important to make sure we emphasize the proper words in the theme for the month. Most of us will tend to emphasize HEARING the voice of God. Others might emphasize hearing the VOICE of God, but I submit to you that our emphasis needs to be on hearing the voice of GOD.

The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. — Isaiah 58:11

While the Bible never uses the word guidance, it does speak of a Guide. We may seek guidance, but God provides something better than guidance, he provides himself.

Many of us struggle to understand and discern God’s guidance for our lives. We ask questions like:

  1. Should I marry or not?
  2. Should I marry this person or that person?
  3. Should I have another child?
  4. Should I join this church or that one?
  5. Which profession should I follow?
  6. What job should I take?
  7. Is my present line of work the one to stay in?

Here lies the major distortion of knowing and doing God’s will. Does God lead and direct in these areas? Yes. Does he come out and overtly tell us what to do? Rarely.

So how does God guide us? Consider these principles:

  1. God’s guidance concerns itself more with our steps than our overall journey.
  2. God’s guidance is more preoccupied with the present than with the future.
  3. God’s guidance has less to do with geography and more to do with morality.
  4. God’s guidance is more interested in our character than our comfort.
  5. God’s guidance is not insider information.
  6. God’s guidance is that we pursue the Guide more than guidance.

In seeking God, his plan will be revealed. His way will be known through his Word. We need to know the Bible, but more importantly we need to know the Guide. God does not guide us magically; he guides us relationally. The Bible must be studied so we may become acquainted with the ways and thoughts of God. God’s aim is that we become his companions who walk with him on a journey. He already knows us. Now he wants us to understand and know him. The more we understand him, the more real our relationship will be with him and the more likely we are to keep in step with him in the direction he is taking us.

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