Prayer: It’s the Heart That Matters

Few Christians would dispute the necessity of prayer (after all, the Bible is full of commands to pray), yet for many, prayer remains awkward and a bit mysterious.

For some, prayer is usually reserved for crisis moments, such as an illness, financial complications or family issues. The thought seems to be, “I don’t want to bother God with little things I can take care of myself.”

Others use prayer sort of like rubbing of a magic lamp, requesting God to grant their wishes. But for some, prayer consists only of following along when the pastor prays on Sunday morning.

The main purpose of prayer, though, is simply to have a relationship with God. It’s not your finely crafted words or your deep spiritual thoughts that get God’s attention – it is your heart.

For example, have you ever spent an enjoyable time with someone you love and realized that the words hardly mattered because the important thing was just being with them? That’s the kind of relationship God desires to have with us – to just enjoy being in His presence.

The focus is more on communicating what’s in your heart than trying to say a bunch of pious-sounding words.

Sure, there is a conversation involved but it doesn’t have to be long and elaborate to be effective. Martin Luther said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” Jesus said, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matt. 6:7)

That doesn’t mean your prayers should be short, but the focus is more on communicating what’s in your heart than trying to say a bunch of pious-sounding words.

And what if you can’t think of any words? Sometimes, especially in moments of distress or sorrow, we are so overwhelmed we don’t know what to pray for. God has provided a “translator” for those times.

In Romans 8:26-27, Paul tells us, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

There is no one right way to pray. Jesus provided a sort of template in the Lord’s Prayer, which includes praise, thanksgiving and making requests. There is certainly nothing wrong with making requests of God – Jesus tells us to ask God for what we need and Paul says that we should make our requests known to God.

Jesus set the example for how to do make requests through prayer. In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, he pleaded with God to take away the need for his sacrifice, but he concluded with “yet not my will, but your will be done.” (Luke 22:42) We can ask God for anything, but the reminder here is that His will for our lives comes before our own desires.

On the National Day of Prayer today and for the days to come, prayer will play a vital role in our personal and corporate spiritual development. It isn’t hard. All we have to do is open up to God and pour out our hearts.

Follow Up to Big Church Event is Just the Beginning

You had a great Easter service. The church was packed. People committed to following Jesus, and others who were already saved indicated an interest in returning.

Great. So now what?

Follow up to a big event is frequently the most difficult portion of the event. Church members are gung ho about planning and executing the event, but the event itself often becomes the end game. In reality, for a church to grow and increase its ministry in the community, the follow up becomes the beginning.

Follow up assumes that you had a way to obtain information from the visitors. Surprisingly, this is something churches forget to do, especially if it is a non-worship service church event.

Make a follow-up plan. Ideally, this will have been in place prior to the event. Process and evaluate the visitor information quickly. How you proceed will often depend on the number of and quality of the responses.

Respond quickly to conversions. If a person indicated that they gave their life to Christ, make plans to meet with them as early as possible, within the week. Decide who will make the visits, whether the pastor handles them all or a team of leaders divides them up. Repeat the plan of salvation to make sure they understand what they’re committing to. Make clear that committing their life to Christ does not automatically mean they are committing to your church.

Send additional information. This can be through email, if they indicated they are agreeable to receiving emails, or through the post office. With snail mail, you can include a brochure, information about service times (especially if the Easter service was at a special time) and ways they can begin to get involved in the church. Make sure to include contact information if they have questions, concerns or prayer requests.

Home visitation. This should be a set appointment time, not an unannounced visit and should happen within the first two weeks. Depending on the number of responses, you may need a visitation team to meet with the visitor, although many people prefer a visit from the pastor. Keep the visitation to 30 minutes or less and use it as an informational time – both to give information and to receive information. Spend time listening. Don’t ask for any commitments to the church, simply show that you care. Take prayer requests and pray for them before you leave.

Follow-up again. A few days after a home visit, send a postcard (or email if they’ve agreed to that) thanking them for their time, reminding them what you’re praying for them and contact information for further questions. If the visitor seemed agreeable to another meeting, especially if they were undecided about making a commitment to follow Christ, seek another home visit.

Welcome them back. When the visitorsreturn to church, make sure to greet them warmly. Ideally, you can call them by their names.  This creates a sense of family and increases the desire to commit to the church.

5 Reasons Why Easter is Christians’ Most Important Holiday

What is the most important Christian holiday? Based on the amount of time and money spent on it, you would think Christmas. But according the Bible, it’s Easter.

While the Christmas story is mentioned briefly in two Gospels, the resurrection is referenced dozens of times, in all four Gospels and in most the epistles. Paul makes it the central theme of his writings. He insists that if Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, then our faith is worthless (1 Cor. 15:17).

Even Good Friday, which celebrates the death of Jesus on the cross, is meaningless without the resurrection.

Why should the resurrection mean so much to Christians? Here are five reasons.

It validates everything Jesus said and did. The son of God came to earth to show us how to live a completely new life. But if he had simply taught the things he did then died, he would have been no better than any other religious leader. It was only by his rising from the dead – conquering death – that everything he said and did took on significance.

It gives us new life. When we commit to following Jesus, he doesn’t just make our lives better. We die to the old life we had and through his resurrection we begin living a brand new life through his power.

It sealed God’s plan to send the Holy Spirit to all humanity. Prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit came to only a few people who God selected. But the plan all along had been to send him to all people. The resurrection made it possible to fulfill that plan.

It gives us eternal life. Jesus’ death on the cross meant the punishment for our sins had been fulfilled. His resurrection meant that he had conquered death, and through him, believers have also been granted freedom from eternal death. While our mortal bodies will die, our souls will live on in eternity in God’s presence.

It gives us a source of joy. The resurrection is a historical fact; nothing can take that away. When we find our joy in that fact, we will always be able to experience joy, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.

What’s So Good About Good Friday?

Almost 2,000 years ago, Jesus was nailed to a cross on a Friday during Passover and died. It seemed like the end of a dream for his followers, who believed he would change the world.

Yet this week Christians from around the world will celebrate the event with a holiday known as Good Friday. As non-Christians look at the event, though, it may raise the question, “What’s good about the death of Jesus?”

Here are four reasons why Christians can consider the death of Jesus to be “good.”

It pleased God. Isaiah 53 predicts the sacrifice Jesus would make, bearing the punishment for our sins even though he had done no wrong. Then in 53:10 it says, “Yet the LORD was pleased to crush him severely.” (HCSB) This seems like a wrong thing for God to be pleased by, but He had some good reasons.

It served justice. Because all people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they have to be punished. With his death on the cross, Jesus took on all those sins and paid the penalty for all who are willing to follow him.

It fixed a broken relationship. When Adam and Eve sinned, it broke the fellowship God longed to have with His creation. When Jesus paid the punishment for our sins, it restored the path for us to have fellowship with God again, which is why He was pleased by the death of His son.

Death wasn’t permanent. The followers of Jesus didn’t know it at the time (although Jesus had told them it would happen) but Jesus’ death was only temporary. He was sealed in a grave on Friday, but by Sunday morning he was alive and free from the bonds of death. That gave an entirely new perspective on his death. What had seemed to be awful on Friday suddenly became good when viewed in light of his resurrection.

While having nails hammered into his hands and feet didn’t make for a very good Friday for Jesus, it did turn out to be not only a good Friday, but a great Friday for those who believe in him.

Palm Sunday Still Has Meaning for Christians

On Sunday Christians around the world will celebrate Palm Sunday. Most people know this primarily as a day when students in the primary children’s department carry palm branches to the front of the sanctuary, which kicks off Holy Week.

But what does Palm Sunday mean?

Biblically, the story of Palm Sunday is found in all four Gospels, and was predicted in the Old Testament book of Zechariah. In these accounts, Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt. People ran ahead of him, laying down palm branches and shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the king of Israel.” In those days, a palm branch signified victory and a king on a donkey symbolized peace.

This was an important event for the people of Israel at the time. Israel didn’t have a king, and hadn’t had a real one in about 600 years. But they really, really wanted one.

They had been living under various foreign rulers for centuries, and currently were under the jurisdiction of Rome and the Caesars (at that time Tiberius). But the people knew the Old Testament stories of the glorious kingdoms of David and Solomon, when Israel was one of the world’s superpowers. They longed to return to those days.

When Jesus came speaking with authority and performing miracles, all the while speaking of the Kingdom of God, it was a natural assumption by the people that he would depose Rome and restore the kingdom of Israel, with himself as the ruler.

But as the week following Palm Sunday went on, Jesus didn’t plot a coup and didn’t take on the Roman government. Instead, he continued to speak against the religious leaders and tell stories that many didn’t understand. When Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, agreed to betray him, the religious leaders were able to turn the majority of the crowd from shouting “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”

Although the people at that time misunderstood the kingship of Jesus when they made a pathway of palm branches for him, today Christians continue to celebrate Palm Sunday because it symbolizes the beginning of Jesus becoming king of world. He just did that in a far less spectacular fashion than the first century Jews thought, but in a way that continues to have a worldwide and eternal impact.

Get Men Involved to Spur Church Growth

Gender gaps and equality are discussions filling recent news reports but there is one area where a sizable gender gap exists without much notice – a lack of men in the church.

According to Church for Men, the typical congregation in the United States is comprised of 61 percent women and only 39 percent men. This holds true across all age ranges. On a given Sunday, only about 12 percent of men attend church, and nearly a quarter of all married women are attending church alone. The divide is even more pronounced for midweek events, where women make up 70-80 percent of attendees.

Why does this matter? Studies show that involvement of men in the church has huge benefits. A church with a 50-50 attendance split between men and women is typically a growing church, while a church with 30 percent or fewer men in attendance is a dying church. Children of men who attend church regularly, especially boys, tend to stay involved in church longer into their teen years and beyond. And transforming men has a wide ripple effect in families and in the community.

So what can be done to attract more men to the church? Here are a few places to start.

Beef up. Surprisingly, only about 10 percent of churches have a strong men’s ministry. Begin placing an emphasis on developing a ministry to men, but also look for areas in existing ministries where you can include men.

Roughen up. Churches often reflect the feminine in their décor and outreach, which tends to leave men feeling like outsiders. Using bold colors instead of pastels and décor that is a bit more rustic will make men feel more at home.

Rock out. In general, men prefer louder music with more rock elements and strong lyrics, rather than praise music that repeat the same words over and over.

Fist bump. Men are becoming more comfortable with the bro hug, but for many men physical touch beyond a firm handshake, along with talking about feelings, still makes them feel uncomfortable. Develop environments where they can feel manly while getting more involved.

Be active. Because men usually are more action-oriented, find ways to include them in activities that require more action, like church maintenance and planning outdoor activities. Join sports leagues where men can ease into church participation through activities they enjoy.

Action stories. It’s no secret that most men prefer an action-adventure movie or story. Include more teaching on some of the mighty heroes of the Old Testament to show that men can be men and still honor God.

Pat the backs. Men react well to praise and encouragement. Rather than being critical of men for not being involved, emphasize their importance and recognize them for the efforts they are putting forth.

Concise communication. Most men are not given to long conversations, and communication is often brief and to the point.

7 Ideas to Deepen Your Spiritual Life During Lent

For many Protestants, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent are a bit of a mystery, a Catholic tradition that seems to have little bearing on them. While there is no direct scriptural reference to Lent, it contains aspects that many Christians can apply to their lives to deepen their spiritual walk leading up to Easter.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Easter. Ash Wednesday is so named because Catholic priests traditionally mark a cross in ashes on the foreheads of those celebrating Lent. This is a reference to the “sackcloth and ashes” that showed repentance in the Old Testament.

The 40-day period represents roughly a tenth of a year, or a tithe of a person’s time. It also is associated with Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness before starting his ministry. Traditionally, Lent is a time to develop a deeper spiritual connection with God through simple living, prayer and fasting. Often, in addition to fasting, Lent means giving up some form of pleasure for those 40 days as a dedication to God.

Here are seven ideas for observing Lent this year.

  1. An electronic fast. Give up TV or some other electronic media. Or abstain from social media.
  2. Pray for 40 people. Each day, spend time in prayer for one of your family members, friends, neighbors or church members.
  3. Deepen your scripture knowledge. Do an in-depth study of a book in the Bible. Studying the book of Acts, for example, will give insight into the life of the early church.
  4. A partial fast. Perhaps you’re not ready for a full-fledged fast but you could give up something like soft drinks, fast food or sweets for the 40 days. Use the cravings as reminders to pray.
  5. Help others. There are many non-profits helping those in need, and they almost always need volunteer help.
  6. Visual prayer. Each day you encounter many people on the street, in stores and at work. Spend a moment to silently pray for the people you see.
  7. Give sacrificially. In addition to your tithe, find a worthy Christian cause to donate to. Set aside money each day for the 40 days. It doesn’t take much. Even $5 a day leads to $200 to help someone in need.