Declining Churches Searching for the Silver Bullet Pastor

  The problem of declining churches in America was nothing new when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in March 2020. I tend to ignore 2020 through 2022 when measuring whether a church has declined. But let’s be honest: if you look back to March 2020 and compare your attendance and financial giving back then to that of today, in March 2024, and both are lower, on average, by more than a few percent, your church has declined. If you had a children’s ministry before the pandemic, and you now struggle to wrangle up more than a few kids on a typical Sunday, you have declined. Your church needs revitalization. Sure, there are other, less tangible measures of health. How are you doing evangelistically? Are you reaching your neighborhood with the gospel? Are you making disciples? Maybe your church has already taken proactive steps in the direction of revitalization. Perhaps you’ve already decided to make some hard decisions rather than kicking the can down the road. If so, good on you! Sadl

A Yielded Life: God’s Battleplan for Christian Victory

 As I write this, we are on the brink of another national election here in the United States. I have to admit that, right or wrong, I’ve kind of tuned out from the news and especially the election coverage.  I mean, to be honest, I wasn’t recovered from the last election.

I’ve tuned out the banter around the election because it’s bad enough to look on TV or the internet and watch the candidates and their surrogates sniping, bickering, and fighting back and forth.  That’s bad enough, but it’s even worse when I look on social media, and it’s friends and family, people I love and care about that are fighting. It’s people who claim to know and love the Lord that are very publicly shredding each other. You dare criticize their candidate, then you’re probably not even a Christian as far as they’re concerned.

Honestly, it makes me sad.

It feels like so many Christians are convinced that if Jesus was here on earth today, He would vote exactly the way they would.  Perhaps unconsciously, they think, Well, I’m a Christian, so God is on my side. So God must be on the side of my candidate, no matter how he behaves or talks, and if people would just get right with God, they’d vote for my candidate.

I wish I could say this God-is-on-my-side attitude is limited to politics, but it seems to have invaded every facet of life.

Whatever the conflict or disagreement, so many professing Christians are convinced that God is on their side.

Whether it’s family: If my wife would get right with God, she’d see it my way! Or work: If my boss wasn’t a heathen, if he would get right with God, he’d see it my way. Or at church: If my brother in Christ would get right with God, he’d see it my way.

At least unconsciously, I believe that’s what so many of us think.  And, no matter the obstacle we face or the battle we fight, we will plead that God is on our side.

We’re convinced that every problem would quickly resolve if only those who disagree with us would just get right with God and come to our way of thinking.  After all, God is on our side… right?

Now look, this election is important. If you care about the unborn life, religious liberty, or the plight of the poor, marginalized, and the oppressed, then every election is important. If you care about how our society treats the stranger and the foreigner or many other societal issues, every election is important. And we want to know that the candidates also care about the issues that are crucial to us.

But the truth is, I believe the Bible shows that God cares much less about how you vote than whether you truly follow Jesus Christ. Are you keeping your eyes on Jesus?

I believe that our key passage this morning utterly contradicts the idea that just because we call ourselves Christians, God is automatically on our side politically or in our disagreements with family, friends, or employers.

Joshua 5:13-15 shows us that we should first concern ourselves with being on God’s side.

Then, when we experience life’s obstacles and battles, we will find ourselves on the side of right. But more than that, we will automatically find ourselves on the side of a victory already won.

The Book of Joshua gives the winning battle plan for life’s conflicts and obstacles.

In Joshua 5:13-15 (ESV) we read: 13  When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14  And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” 15  And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.

Here in Joshua, we see a pattern for living a life with a mindset that grabs hold of the power of God and relishes the victory He’s already won. 

I believe then, the first principle we see in this passage and the surrounding texts is this.  As Christians, when we face the battles and obstacles of life, we ought to…

Make Certain We Are On God’s Side…

We shouldn’t try to force God to endorse our agendas and our plans. Let me be really blunt here—God’s not out to advance our agendas. God has His own holy and eternal program, and He’s not out to promote ours.

Look at Joshua 5:13 and 14 again:

And behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14  And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.”

There’s a lot to unpack here in just a few sentences. But here’s a little background: The Israelites have crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land. The manna from heaven that the Israelites ate every day has stopped.  Now they’re living off the land. And the Israelites are going to have to seize the land from the pagan people who live there.

Geographically, if the Israelites are going to take possession of the Promised Land, they’ve got to take Jericho first.  But Jericho is nothing like the Israelites have seen in their previous battles.  It’s a walled city, a fortress. The Israelites don’t have the kind of weapons and equipment needed to seize a fortress.  Their arrows will bounce off the thick walls of the city. The military problem at hand seems impossible.

As the Israelites camp near Jericho, Joshua, their leader, must have been out by himself. His responsibilities and his decisions must’ve been weighing heavily on him. His choices have consequences, and Joshua knows it.

Suddenly, Joshua comes across this man, this warrior, with a drawn sword. I can imagine Joshua’s alarm as he comes come across this mysterious warrior who, with his sword drawn, probably looked like he was itching for a fight.

Cautiously, I’m sure, Joshua approaches and says to the stranger, “Are you on our side or the side of the enemy’s?”…

And this mysterious warrior, look what He says, He replies, literally, “No.” 

In other words, He’s not on the side of the Israelites or the side of Jericho.

He’s neither friend nor foe, he says, “but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.”

The Commander of the Armies of the Lord serves God himself. I believe this peculiar warrior is what theologians call a Christophany.  In other words, this man is an appearance in the Old Testament of the pre-incarnate Christ. Centuries before Jesus would be born a baby in Bethlehem, God, the Son appears in here in person.

Joshua doesn’t realize it, but he has lifted up his eyes to Jesus.

Are you on our side or our enemy’s? 

No. 

This passage demonstrates the utter impartiality of God.  The truth is that God is on God’s side.  We should concern ourselves with being on God’s side. The real question to ask is if we are on God’s side! We can’t assume that God “has to be on our side” just because we are “Christians.”

So how do we ensure that we are on God’s side?  We must…

Yield our lives to God’s will and God’s ways…

Those who are on God’s side are the ones who love Him and obey Him with all their hearts.  It takes a spiritual preparation and a spiritual shift away from our old worldly ways of thinking. It takes yielding our lives to God’s will and God’s ways.

We look at the second part of Joshua 5:14, and we see Joshua recognize that he is in the divine presence.

And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?”

Joshua immediately yields to the will of God. I’m your servant, and whatever you say, Lord, that’s what I’m going to do. Joshua’s not trying to negotiate with God.  He’s not trying to manipulate God into doing what he wants God to do. He instantly yields to the Lord.

Looking at the events leading up to Joshua’s encounter, we see there’s already been a spiritual shift taking place in Israel. Spiritually, the Israelite nation is preparing for the battles to come. It has reinstituted the rituals that the Law of Moses commanded—observances like the Passover and circumcision.

As Christians, we don’t believe that God has commanded us to observe Israel’s ritual laws.  But here is the point: Israel went back to the things God had commanded of them, and we should cling to the things God has told us He expects of us as Christians. 

We must yield to God and His will.

I believe that in making major decisions, it is right that we should seek the will of the Lord.  We need His wisdom about big life decisions. Should I marry this person? Should I go to this school? Should I make this major purchase? Should I move to another city to take this new job?

However, in most of our daily lives, we don’t have to wonder about what God expects of us. Some parts of the Bible can be challenging to interpret. I admit there are some parts of the Bible that I don’t fully understand.

But when it comes to how the Lord expects Christ-followers to talk, think, and act, the Bible is crystal clear. We don’t need an epiphany when it comes to how we ought to live a life walking with the Lord. God’s word explains God’s ways in a way that’s easy to understand.

In His Word, God calls us to love Him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as yourself.  In the Bible, we learn that God expects us to love our enemies, even to pray for them. God’s word calls on us to live as salt and light in this world.  To speak truth. To live morally, yet not judgmentally, in a way that encourages others to live godly lives.  God calls us to be generous. To forgive others. To guard our hearts.

God calls us to be in His word.  To spend time with Him in prayer. To share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a world that so desperately needs to hear it.

Yielding to God’s will and His ways means that every day, we surrender anew.  We die to ourselves.  We set aside our will, our desires, our convenience, and our comfort.

Daily, we take up the cross and follow Jesus. We pray, “Lord, your wishes for my life come first. I’ll serve you first. I’ll tell others about my Savior. I’ll be the living Gospel to the world around me. Daily, I’m keeping my eyes fixed on Jesus Christ.  No matter if the world that laughs and calls me a religious fanatic.”

Like I said before, conceptually, it’s easy to understand. But, I admit, it’s not always easy to live out. In fact, we can’t live it out by our own power and strength. That spiritual shift required to yield our lives to God’s will and God’s way is only possible through faith in Christ and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  It’s the power of God, living in and through us. He allows us to live a life yielded to God.

That’s how we make sure we’re on God’s side.  Now look…

When You’re On the Lord’s Side, You can Trust Him to Show Up!

The nation of Israel, and Joshua personally, have been through a time of spiritual preparation.  In the person of the pre-incarnate Christ—the commander of the armies of the Lord—God shows up right in front of Joshua’s eyes. 

And what’s perhaps even wilder is that, in chapter 6, the Lord tells Joshua, I’ve given you Jericho. You’ve already won. So here’s what I want you to do. I want you to march around the city one time. Do that for six days. Then on the seventh day, circle around the city seven times, and on the seventh lap, all the priests blow their trumpets, and all the people shout, and the whole city will fall flat.

Sounds like a ridiculous battle plan, doesn’t it?  I mean, this is a walled city, a fortress. The Israelites don’t have the battering rams and catapults that they need to break down the walls and the gates.  At the very least, Joshua’s men will need lots of ladders and ropes to scale the walls and get inside—all while facing fierce opposition.  And once they get inside, the Israelites will have to fight the inhabitants hand-to-hand.

The Israelites are in no way equipped for this kind of battle. And what’s the Lord’s answer? Walk some laps for a week and then blow some horns and holler? You gotta be kidding me!

But Joshua, and the Israelites, that’s what they did.  When you’re obedient to what God told you to do, you’re on God’s side.  You can trust that He’s going to show up. The Israelites needed God to show up.

And did He ever show up!

Sure enough, just like God said, on that seventh day, on that seventh lap, when the priests sounded the trumpets, and all the other folks hollered, God showed up, and that city of Jericho fell flat.  Not one shot fired.  You may not see God flatten a city amid your life’s battles. God may not show up in a burning bush or a pillar of cloud. He’ll probably be entirely invisible to your eyes.  But when you get on God’s side, and you can trust that God will show up. Because that’s what He promises.

Joshua 1:9 9  Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed: for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.

God tells those on His side that He’s going to show up. In fact, He promises that over and over again in the Bible. And God keeps His promises.

Isaiah 41:10 10  Fear not; for I am with you: be not dismayed, for I am your God: I will strengthen you; yea, I will help you; yea, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.

In Matthew 28:20, Jesus promises: I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.

When you are faced with big decisions and responsibilities, big battles, it can feel very lonely.

I think all of us can relate.

One of the most significant battles for me was several years ago, late 2004 and early 2005 when I was the captain of a Navy coastal patrol ship during the Iraq war.  We were in dangerous waters.  Many times, I had to make decisions that could’ve gotten people hurt or worse.  Sometimes, I had to fight with the Navy system to get supplies or repairs that we needed. At times, I felt very lonely.

But the truth is, we don’t need to feel lonely in the face of such burdens and conflicts. Even on my little patrol ship, I saw numerous times—often as my life or career flashed before my eyes, that God showed up—the wind would shift and prevent the ship from getting banged up. A big gunshot that went off on accident ended up flying over a city and not hitting anything or hurt anyone. Every day, something showed me that God was there.

When we’re on God’s side, when we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, we can trust Him to show up.

When we’ve yielded your life, our will, and our ways to God, we’ve placed ourselves on His side. We can trust Him to show up in our battles… because, when we’re on His side, they’re not our battles, they’re God’s, and He’s already won.

Now look, when God shows up, there’s really only one proper response, and that’s to:

Humbly worship in the light of a battle already won.

Look with me here in the last part of Joshua 5:14 and verse 15.

14b And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and said to Him, “What does my Lord say to His servant?” 15 Then the Commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take your sandal off your foot, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so.

Joshua humbly worships. And the commander of the Lord’s army says, Take your shoes off, you’re on holy ground.

That place wasn’t a shrine; it wasn’t a site of religious pilgrimage. What was so special about that site near Jericho? Here’s the deal:

Wherever and whenever God shows up, that’s holy ground.

And if we’re in the habit of living a life yielded to God, we should continuously see God showing up, so we ought to be in the habit of standing on holy ground. And humble worship is always the biblical response to standing on holy ground.

As Christians in America, we often equate worship with the music at church, with the songs we sing. But worship is so much more. Not only is the entire church service a time of worship, but worship should be a way of daily life.

The Apostle Paul puts it this way in Romans 12:1, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”

Please understand that when Paul is talking about reasonable service, he’s really referring to service in terms of worship. Some Bible translations say it as, “your true worship,” or “your spiritual service of worship.” The point is, “reasonable service” is spiritual. It’s worship. And presenting our bodies as living sacrifices isn’t something we do at church but something we live out in our daily walk.

What does it look like to humbly worship in our daily walk?

If we are Christ-followers, then the Holy Spirit indwells us. Christ lives in and through us. Our Lord desires visible, bodily evidence that our lives are built on His mercy. Our worship is a walk of gratitude for what Jesus has done for us.  People should see the beauty of Christ in our lives.

This is really an extension of our yielding to God. Worship certainly includes church services, music, and preaching. But there’s more to it.  Worship undoubtedly takes place in our personal, private time of reading God’s word and spending time with Him in prayer. But there’s more to it. 

Our worship should also be about others—outside of the four walls of a church building or my prayer closet.  A life of humble worship looks a lot like the life Jesus modeled for us in His earthly ministry. It’s a life that’s about more than just keeping the rules.  It’s a life about connecting with and serving others.

Throughout the Gospels, we see a Savior who healed the sick and the lame. Jesus cared for the marginalized of society—the woman, the foreigner, the poor. He met human physical needs with mercy and compassion. He spoke words of comfort to those who needed it.

Jesus preached to the spiritual needs of the lost. He warned them about the reality of Hell. But He also told people the good news that He was the way, the truth, and the life…the only way to eternal life with God the Father.

Want to know how to worship? Read your Bible and see what Jesus did. Then do as Jesus did. We, too, should care for others’ physical and spiritual needs. That goes far beyond voting for the candidates we think will have the government do it for us. It means that we’re willing to help personally. That we’ll get some skin in the game. It means we’re ready to be inconvenienced to meet someone’s needs. It means we’re eager to sacrifice our time or treasure to help someone out and to share the Gospel.

Try it, and you’ll see that serving is a powerful way to worship.

Look, there’s one thing I’m sure about when it comes to next week’s national election. When it’s all said and done, God’s still going to be on the throne. He’s always going to be the same all-powerful, all-knowing, sovereign God, who orders the events of this world to see His plans and purposes come to pass.

And no matter who wins the election, the Gospel still works, and Jesus still saves. No matter the season, we should do as Joshua did, and lift up our eyes… to Jesus Christ.  Not to some political candidate or ruler. No man will save our society, except the God-man Jesus Christ, if we’ll turn as a nation to Him.

So we should go vote. I believe it’s our civic duty. And we should vote prayerfully.

And then let’s lift our eyes to Jesus. Yield our lives to God’s will and to God’s ways. Get on God’s side and onboard with God’s plan. Then, because our battles are really then His battles, we can trust Him to show up. 

And finally, recognizing the Lord’s already won the battle, we can simply concern ourselves with a life of humble worship.

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