On Task

Acts 15:36-41 (NLT)

After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there.


There’s no real way to determine who was right in the argument Paul and Barnabas had about taking John Mark along on a second journey. In searching for an answer, I could spend all day discussing topics like immaturity, loyalty, grace, forgiveness and unity, and I would never get to the important point.

The mission of the church comes first.

The disagreement these two apostles had was so sharp that their basic tasks of growing the church and encouraging continuing discipleship were imperiled. Remember, there were vast territories needing to hear about Christ and infant churches full of questions, but very few apostles to do the work.

Rather than letting the disagreement slow them further, they went their separate ways, Barnabas taking his cousin John Mark, and Paul choosing Silas to travel with him.

I have no doubt both men felt great pain as they separated. They had, after all, been through much together.

But again, the mission of the church comes first.

Why the Holy Spirit did not intervene in some way in a dream, a vision or a miracle, I cannot say. In some ways it is comforting to know that in the earliest days of the church, God sometimes left people to experience their emotions, think matters through and come up with difficult answers on their own. In terms of kingdom building, something about this process must be valuable.

It’s not hard to see how this passage relates to the current situation of the United Methodist Church and its internal argument over scriptural authority and application. We are at an impasse, sometimes a sharp one. And the mission of the church still has to come first.

Be encouraged, however. What we’ve heard from Acts today is not the end of the story. Christ somehow managed to bring Paul and John Mark together later in life.

Writing from prison in Rome nearly two decades later, Paul asked Timothy, “Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me in my ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11.) This brief request is clear evidence something changed as John Mark grew up and Paul grew old.

As painful as conflict can be, people genuinely dedicated to the mission of the church will find themselves restored in their relationships, in this life or the next. I feel certain this is true.

Lord, may we always remain dedicated to the Great Commission, the need to lead people to a belief in Jesus Christ and grow them as disciples. We give thanks for all who make this their first priority. Amen.

A Joy to Behold

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Psalm 96

Let’s close out the work week with a psalm, hoping its words will enhance our weekend worship. (The link above will take you to the full psalm.)

Followers of Christ have a basic, biblically inspired vision and mission for their lives and churches, and vision and mission interact in this psalm.

When we speak of “vision,” we’re talking about how we believe events in heaven and earth will play out one day. In short, we see a future where the world will conform to the happy truth that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

In the words of Romans 14:11, which is quoting Isaiah 49:18, ” ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess and give praise to God.’ “

The vision naturally inspires us as we go about our day-to-day mission. We let the Holy Spirit work through us so new disciples of Christ are made. Implicit in all of this is our need to grow as disciples so we can be more effective in our work.

Psalm 96 brings out one particular aspect of vision and mission. In living them out, there is great joy.

We worship a loving, glorious God, and he wants to put a new song in our hearts!

Lord, where our vision has grown dim and we have strayed from our mission, forgive us, please. Give us new light and understanding so we may better serve your kingdom. Amen.

Troubled Church

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Corinthians 6:1-11 serves as an excellent reminder of how far churches can drift from their reason for existing.

It is a very old problem, reminding us of the lament in Ecclesiastes 1:9-11. “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, ‘Here is something new!’ But actually it is old, nothing is ever truly new.”

The young church in Corinth was troubled, although probably no more troubled than large portions of the American church are today, constantly struggling with the secular pressures around them. Gordon Fee, in his 1987 commentary “The First Epistle to the Corinthians,” wrote that the Corinth of Paul’s day “was at once the New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas of the ancient world.”

Paul was blunt about how the Christians in Corinth kept jumping with both feet back into the world, rather than living as people bound together in Christian discipleship. They sued each other when they had disputes—Paul said it would be better for them to accept injustice than to provide such a poor witness about the church to nonbelievers.

Paul also left a list of sins, many of them sexual in nature, that were creeping into the church from the world.

Paul was making a straightforward point. The church should be different. We should be distinguishable from what is going on around us. Once we blend into the part of our culture that does not acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, our ability to act as witnesses to Christ’s redeeming, life-change work in the world vanishes.

We should not cut ourselves off from the world—Jesus’ mandate for the church at the end of Matthew makes that clear. But the holy nature of the church, which is dependent on the holy nature of the individuals within, has to be maintained.

We are the primary way the Holy Spirit is at work to move the world toward a complete relationship with God. We are to permeate the world, not vice versa.

As church members, it’s good to always be asking, “How different are we from the world? Do we stand together in holy ways, changing our own lives and then the people around us?”

Lord knows, we need more people willing to treat the church as their primary, life-altering community, studying God’s word together, worshiping together, and holding one another accountable in loving ways. Do that as a church, and others will notice.

Lord, where we are weak, give us a renewed vision of what it means to be a church. Amen.

More than Enough

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 15:32-39 (NLT)

Then Jesus called his disciples and told them, “I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry, or they will faint along the way.”

The disciples replied, “Where would we get enough food here in the wilderness for such a huge crowd?”

Jesus asked, “How much bread do you have?”

They replied, “Seven loaves, and a few small fish.”

So Jesus told all the people to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, thanked God for them, and broke them into pieces. He gave them to the disciples, who distributed the food to the crowd.

They all ate as much as they wanted. Afterward, the disciples picked up seven large baskets of leftover food. There were 4,000 men who were fed that day, in addition to all the women and children. Then Jesus sent the people home, and he got into a boat and crossed over to the region of Magadan.


I love the various “feeding” stories. They remind me that we still are invited to feed, knowing that when we are satisfied, there will be abundant leftovers.

Just in case you think I’m talking about food, hear what Jesus has to say to his disciples in the 16th chapter of Matthew. The layered context includes faith, the need to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (a reference to their deceptive, legalistic teachings), and the disciples’ inability to get their heads out of the immediacy of a moment.

“You have so little faith!” Jesus declares in 16:8. “Why are you arguing with each other about having no bread?”

Then, having reminded them of the two miraculous feedings recorded in Matthew, he asks, “Why can’t you understand that I’m not talking about bread?”

Jesus is trying to remind his followers that he is the bread of life. He is the source of grace. Let’s break away from the food metaphor for a moment and get to the point: Grace comes because God grants us life-giving love despite our not deserving it.

That grace didn’t come cheap, either. If grace were bread in a market, none of us could afford so much as a slice. God had to come in flesh and buy it for us, dying on the cross to overcome the power of sin and death.

All we have to do is accept what is given. We simply behave like hungry people, holding out our hands to catch loaves of bread being tossed in our direction.

Coming from an eternal source, the supply of grace will always exceed demand. As followers of Christ, our mission is pretty simple. We find ways to tell others, “God loves you! Accept what is yours! Stop starving for the love and forgiveness you so desperately crave!”

I’ve recently spent some time writing about the “means of grace,” the places where we are sure to receive grace, so perhaps we don’t need to explore those details again today.

But for crying out loud, eat. Eat!

Lord, may we be overwhelmed as we experience your love. Help us to find innovative ways to offer that love to others. Amen.

Small Groups, Day 3

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Peter 2:2-3 (NLT): “Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.”


I’m going to say what you probably expect a pastor to say about core practices in a small group: We need to read our Bibles and pray for each other.

I hope I can also clearly communicate how prayer and Scripture take on new life in the context of a small group. If you find prayer difficult, or if you find sustained time in God’s word unrewarding, it may be that you’re not cut out for the life of the lone-wolf Christian. (Few are.) You need a pack.

A successful small group usually has a specific mission-within-a-mission, the overarching mission being to make and grow disciples of Jesus Christ. With that broader goal always in mind, a group might exist to focus on outreach to a particular segment of the community, or to bring people together who have the same set of skills or interests. A general exploration of the Bible and a mutual agreement to pray for each other would still be important for the education and spiritual bonding of the group, however. The Bible and prayer keep us on mission.

I can testify as to how much fun it is to explore the Bible in a small group, and how incredibly sustaining it is to know others are praying for you each day.

It’s also exciting to figure out as a group how to make that exploration. I’ve been in groups where we’ve tried various techniques. Once, a group used a book focused on the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. We would read a portion during the week and discuss our questions about what we had read at our weekly meeting. It was great!

So great, in fact, that we got another book by the same author. It stunk! About four weeks in, we gave up on it, but then we tried something different, something that might sound boring to the uninitiated. We started direct study of individual books of the Bible, buying journals that contained Scripture on one page and an empty ruled space on the opposite page.

When we came together each week, we shared what we had circled, underlined, questioned and commented on. Those ruled pages were sometimes surprisingly full. And we learned a lot together. Perhaps more than anything, we learned to take Scripture very seriously—we experienced God working through the Bible to shape our attitudes and actions.

By the way, I was the only clergy in that all-male group, and the lay people had a variety of education levels. Some had been Christians for decades, others for only a short time. It was a great mix, and everyone contributed. New Christians have a particular knack for asking the difficult questions.

Yes, “read your Bible” and “say your prayers” amount to very basic advice. But they are basic for a reason, and I’m convinced we best understand why in a small group.

Tomorrow, I want to focus on what is both frightening and rewarding about small groups: achieving mutual accountability.

Lord, open your holy word to us in new, dynamic ways, and when we pray together, may we be one with your Spirit. Amen.

Small Groups, Day 2

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT): Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”


As we continue an exploration of what makes Christian small groups effective, I’ll propose what I think is their greatest existential threat, short of the devil joining. The members, having begun to enjoy some level of spiritual intimacy, will want to “close the circle,” keeping new people out.

Now that I think about it, that may be how the devil gets in!

Small groups are, of course, Christian in their mission. And regardless of how a group may define its specific reason for existing, it has to continue carrying out the “Great Commission,” Jesus’ mandate that we make and grow new disciples.

So small group members find themselves maintaining a strange tension. They want spiritual intimacy, and at the same time, they want to be drawing what are essentially strangers into the group where secrets are sometimes shared.

To succeed, the members from the start have to be deeply intentional about growing and then splitting, birthing a new group. And frankly, this is where American Christians seem to struggle more than Christians in other, more communal cultures. I have witnessed and heard stories of small groups locking down, fearing they will lose something precious if they let new people join.

I recognize the instinct. We have to understand, however, that what we lose is what is sometimes called “organic growth,” the development of the body of Christ, where the Holy Spirit best goes to work in the world. A locked-down small group is like a dead cell in a body.

If each small group successfully draws enough new members to split each year, the number of small groups in an area can grow amazingly fast. You may remember geometric growth from math class: 1 becomes 2, 2 become 4, 4 become 8, 8 become 16, 16 become 32. Most churches would love to be able to say that in five years, 32 healthy small groups containing 150 or 200 active, thriving Christians would exist in their congregations.

I personally think it’s ideal if the first true small group in a congregation focuses on understanding how to evangelize, either reaching those who have never heard of Jesus Christ or re-energizing those who have fallen away. That way, evangelism DNA should remain in each new generation of small groups.

Along these lines, every small group needs both a dedicated leader and a leader in training, someone ready to depart with the new group when it’s time for a split. Having a leader in training also emphasizes the group’s seriousness about splitting.

Tomorrow, we’ll consider some core practices of small group members, the kind of activities that ensure the group remains truly Christian.

Lord, we don’t always get excited contemplating math, but we know what we’re really talking about is vibrant, vigorous life, the greatest blessing in your creation! Renew us with a deep understanding of how quickly the kingdom can grow, if only we cooperate. Amen.