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When God Calls Us To The Wilderness Road by Rob Haynes



When God Calls Us To The Wilderness Road by Rob Haynes

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There is a familiar story line I sometimes see in movies or books that goes something like this. Someone is facing a crisis and wants to overcome the current situation. The hero of the story goes to a wise master for guidance. The master gives the new student a series of tasks to do to train for the work ahead. However, the tasks seem to make no sense at all, they seem to be unrelated to the ultimate goal the student wishes to accomplish. Yet, through the patient teaching of the master, the student learns that the tasks were, in fact, preparing the student all along. 

Maybe you feel that way about your encounters with God at times. There are occasions when God calls us to do things that just don’t seem to make sense. The account of Philip and the official from Ethiopia is but one example of such a call. I encourage you to take a minute to read about their encounter in Acts 8:26-40, but I’ll give you a quick recap. Philip is called to leave Samaria and Jerusalem to go down an out-of-the-way Wilderness Road. There he encounters an Ethiopian official, a eunuch. Philip shares the Good News of Jesus and the Ethiopian is baptized in his new faith in Christ. It sounds simple, yet it is a remarkable story. The truth of which has all sorts of meaning for anyone who wants to be used by God to share faith in Jesus.

To get a better appreciation of the radical call on Philip’s ministry that led to the encounter with the man from Ethiopia we need to go to the earlier part of the chapter. Acts 8 opens with the record of the young church being persecuted by Saul, before his conversion and renaming to Paul. The apostles’ response is enthusiastic and fervent preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Philip is one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. John’s Gospel tells us that he was close to Jesus. We know he was from Bethsaida, the same town as Andrew and Peter. He is among those preaching in chapter 8.

Philip is called to preach in Samaria. It would be hard to overstate the deep divide between Jews and Samaritans at this time. The ethnic divide is so deep, in fact, that Jews are told to not even take any dirt from the Samaritan towns on the soles of their shoes. No, they are told to shake that dust off and leave it at the edge of town rather than take it with them. 

Yet, the response to the Message of Jesus is strong. Signs, wonders, and healings are taking place. So much so that verse 8 tells us that the whole city was filled with joy. Miracles are happening. Lives are being changed. Numbers are growing. By all earthly measures, Philip’s ministry is exactly where it should be. Which leads us to an important lesson: Don’t fall into the trap of measuring your life with God in earthly metrics. It is tempting to measure our lives with God by things like our financial “net worth” (I loathe that term), our parents’ status in the community, our children’s success, membership in the right groups, or some other such thing. However, what God asks from us is faithfulness. He will produce every other success we need.

In the middle of all these wonderful things going on, God calls Philip back to Jerusalem. Maybe even that is seen as a bonus—you know, sort of like getting a promotion to the big city to take a big assignment. However, verse 26 tells us that God has something else in mind. An angel appears to him and tells Philip to leave his successful ministry. He is to go south (where very few people live). He’s to take the wilderness road to Gaza (which few people use). In addition, he’s to go in the middle of the day, according to the Greek (when few people travel). Everything points to a “reduced assignment”, we might say. Philip’s response is to go when and where he’s told.

There he encounters the Ethiopian official, headed back home after worshiping at the Temple. The fact that he’s riding in a chariot tells us that he’s particularly wealthy and powerful. Verse 29 shows us that Philip is listening to the Holy Spirit, and he’s told to go run alongside the chariot to talk with him. Which leads us to a second lesson: When God calls you to do something, it may not fit your sensibilities. See if you can capture the absurdity of the moment: Here’s Philip, a poor itinerant preacher. A fisherman by trade, now out in the deserted wilderness. He runs alongside the chariot to strike up a conversation as he overhears the official reading from Isaiah. Picture that for a second. 

We know that the official has questions. Lots of them. God leads Philip to answer them to the point where this one person is converted and baptized in a pool of water that they encounter along the way. Immediately after this, Philip is taken away, some 20 miles north. (We don’t know exactly how, but wouldn’t you love to see that instant replay?!) Third lesson: When God calls you, He’s already wherever you’re going. Look at what’s happened here: Philip is called to leave a ministry where the enemies of Israel are being converted in droves. Miracles are happening. Instead, he’s called to go in the middle of nowhere to talk to one person. Why did he ask Philip to talk to this one, nameless-to-us, person? Well, we will only find that answer on the other side of this life. However, there are a few things we can say. Christianity is not first a western thing, nor European thing. We know that it spreads to northern Africa. During the first five centuries of the church, this region of the world produced some of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time who still influence us today. They include Tertullian, Athanasius, St. Augustine, Aurelius, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, and Origen. These are directly influential (though centuries later) on Western thinkers like John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and others.

According to the accounts of Acts, the Ethiopian official is the first convert outside of Jewish lineage. While we can’t be sure, it is reasonable to think that this person would have had some piece in spreading the Message of Jesus to the parts where it grew so strongly, and has influenced us so.

This is a reminder that even when things don’t make sense, pay attention to what God is doing. Philip’s call from God was clearly within his gifts. Yet, he was called to a time, a place, and a person that was clearly beyond what “normal” expectations might be. The result was far beyond what any of us could have imagined. That result began with one person faithfully following the Master’s instruction, even when they didn’t seem to make sense. Even when things aren’t the way we think they could and should be, remember that God wastes no person, no place, no thing. May we be faithful and obedient upon whatever wilderness road falls beneath our feet.

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From The Margins by Rob Haynes


From The Margins by Rob Haynes

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Occasionally, a friend or family member will send me a piece they’ve found in the media about the “decline” of the Church. These articles, videos, podcasts, books, etc. talk about the increase in the notion of the irrelevance of the church in the lives of many in the United States and/or Europe. Usually, this is accompanied by some degree of anxiety from the one who shared it. We should, no doubt, pay attention to the trends in which people seem to be turning their backs on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Numbers shown in such statistics are not merely benign figures. They represent real people whose lives matter to God.

The changing demographics in many parts of the world will cause, and are causing, some significant challenges for churches. This comes not only in the financial realm (fewer participants means less money in the offerings, presumably), but also in terms of ministries offered, lives impacted, and resources available. Things are changing and will continue to change. This changing landscape provides us with the opportunity, and responsibility, to rethink and restructure our approaches to evangelism. 

We need to admit that we are not the first generation to face challenges in our efforts to bear witness in the public arena to the great things that Jesus has done and to do so in a way that is faithful to the gospel. This is not the first time that the church has lost the privileged voice. Today’s Christians are living on the margins, just as many have done in the past. Yet, the Church continues in her mission throughout time and through the world. This gives us hope that we are not responsible for inventing something new to solve the problem. Rather, we look to the witness of the Scriptures and the saints who have gone before. We do, after all, stand on the shoulders of giants of the faith today. Standing on such a witness, let’s looks at some at some opportunities and responsibilities that the shifts in our culture might bring for evangelism:

  • We cannot assume that the “public good” will assist us in making disciples of Jesus Christ. In the past, we could rely on the general culture to be conversant in the principles of the Christians message and, by and large, embrace them. At least this was the way the prevailing winds were blowing.
  • With this in mind, it’s important to point out that the answer is not a full-frontal attack in the culture wars. That has been tried and found wanting. Rather, it’s going to need to begin with humility and repentance. It’s okay to admit past mistakes. It’s okay to admit that you may have questions too. These make the message even more welcoming.
  • That doesn’t mean compromising the Message or seeking to do some sort of acrobatics to make it more “relevant.” The gospel is always relevant. Open the message of Jesus to others in a way that shows love and compassion. God will fill in the gaps. 
  • The world is increasingly complex and changing at an even faster pace each day, it seems. 

This means that, as those living on the margins, we need to learn from those who are shaping the culture. Learn how to speak the language. Learn what questions the culture is asking. The gospel has the answers to those questions. But you will never know how to answer them if you don’t know what the questions are in the first place.

  • At the same time, don’t get sucked into selling a bill of goods to the culture who only wants to measure usefulness in terms of individual gain, national prosperity, or economic advantage. The gospel does not fit into those frameworks. Rather, Jesus challenged all of those “advantages” and declared them all to be worth nothing compared to what He was offering.
  • It means that we need to take time to get to know our neighbors. I mean, really get to know them. They are not just another “soul to be saved.” Rather, they are people who have hopes, dreams, wants, and longings. The gospel is the only thing that will fulfill those in a meaningful way. Others will be open to hearing the gospel when they know that you actually care about them for who they are, not just an accomplishment in your evangelistic mission.
  • We must increase our practical ministries. We can learn well from the early Celtic Christian movement who embraced serving their pagan neighbors while sharing the Good News with them. They were hometown missionaries before we even had the term.
  • We must be open to the Holy Spirit leading. We need to admit that there is no single method of evangelism that works everywhere for everyone. Don’t be too quick to criticize others for how God has called them to serve. 
  • Evangelism must expect the ongoing discipleship of those who accept Jesus’ offer of Life and Life abundantly. Be prepared to take the long journey with others who express a desire to grow in their faith.

And above all else: what’s more important than HOW we evangelize is the character of the Christians who share their faith. Holiness matters. People not only need to hear that God is alive, but they need to see His followers live in such a way that they demonstrate the love of our Living God. This is a good place to recall John Wesley’s words about the Methodist movement in the West, its expanse in his lifetime:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” (Thoughts on Methodism)

 We need not fear for the future of the Church. The Kingdom will Come and God’s Will shall be done. If we fail to fulfill our role, God will raise up another. However, remembering that Palm Sunday admonition, I don’t want a rock to take my place in crying out – or in showing and sharing the love of Jesus as He commanded us to do. If we must do that from the margins, so be it.

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Thoughts on Friends, Politics, Church, and a Faithful Witness by Rob Haynes


Thoughts on Friends, Politics, Church, and a Faithful Witness by Rob Haynes

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God May Be Asking For a Witness, Not an Attorney by Rob Haynes

“As a lawyer for God, putting up His case, I was a failure. As a witness for God, telling what He had done for me, I was a success. As in a flash, I saw my calling: I was to be a witness! It was bitter medicine, bitterly and publicly administered, but I took the medicine and found it cured me of illusions. I would not be God’s able lawyer, but I would be a witness to grace.”

E Stanley Jones


I was recently in a coffee shop enjoying the morning and catching up on some reading. At a nearby table were some folks whom I know from the broader Christian community in my town. My acquaintances discussed strategies for convincing a hypothetical non-believer to become a Christian. I was struck by their tone in particular. Their conversation was framed as one in which one might win a great legal battle. They talked about how to get the other person to capitulate in an argument of wit and strategy.

The quote above comes to mind when I think about this incident in the coffee shop. E. Stanley Jones was a missionary to India. He arrived there in 1907 and had a rough start to his ministry there. His attempts to argue for God led to a real crisis of faith and ministry early on. After a careful reconsideration of his approach (and his vocational service), Jones became a significant influence on millions of people, including many world leaders.

He dedicated his life and ministry to conversations of faith with people in one-on-one settings, small groups, and large seminars. He held to six principles of faith-sharing:

  1. Frankness. Jones made sure that his hearers knew that the reason for their gathering was a faith-sharing opportunity.
  2. Humility. He never attached another’s religion in his messages. “If there is an attack in [the message], it must be a positive presentation of Christ. He himself must be the attack.”
  3. Openness. He never shied away from difficult questions, but rather welcomed careful examination and reflection.
  4. Deference. He made sure the others in his conversations felt valued and appreciated.
  5. Christ-Centered. He never shied away from the necessity of faith in Jesus.
  6. Experiential. Jones felt that “Christ must be interpreted in terms of the Christian experience rather than mere argument.”

In our present day and age, it seems like there are many who want to argue. However, maybe God is asking you to be his witness, not his attorney. Jesus told his disciples that they were to be just that: Witnesses. What if your approach to sharing Jesus took on these six principles?

To finish the opening quote from Brother Stanley (as he preferred to be called), he said,

“And I have been a witness – a witness before princes and peasants, before Brahmans and outcastes, before the mighty and the miserable, of what Christ has done for an unworthy recipient. I have found that this is what people want to hear – testimony of what has happened and is happening to you.”

Jones proved to be an effective witness for Christ in the pluralistic society in India of the 20th Century. The pluralistic societies of our day can be reached in much the same way. Everywhere we turn there is someone willing to argue. Yet, this principle remains: people truly want to hear a testimony of what has happened and is happening to you. Giving them that testimony steeped in Brother Stanley’s principles can prove just as effective today.

Where might God be calling you to not be his attorney, but rather his witness?

Have They Heard of Your Faith? by Rob Haynes

Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, I have not stopped thanking God for you … Ephesians 1:15-16a


At World Methodist Evangelism, we are committed to helping people show and share the love of Jesus. While that may be easy to say, it is much harder for many people to do. I know several folks who will gladly tell you all about a great movie they saw, a book they read, or a song they heard. However, those same people—though they may be devoted followers of Jesus—may be hesitant to share their strong faith and their love for God’s people. Yet, telling of the wonderful things we’ve learned in Jesus is way more important than the latest movie, book, or song. For many, it can be simply overwhelming to know where to start. I get it. However, that does not mean it is impossible to learn how to begin.

The church in Ephesus learned how to share their faith in Jesus, and it was closely tied to the demonstration of their love for the people in their community. It was so strong, in fact, that Paul heard about it though he was many miles away. Paul had planted this church and was staying in regular contact with them. Well, as best as he could in that day and age. From our contemporary perspective, we may look back at the churches in the Bible as full of Super-Christians. While there were certainly many faithful people, they had their challenges and difficulties. Ephesus was a cosmopolitan community, full of various pagan religions. The book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that they were so committed to these pagan deities (and against Jesus) that they rioted at the idea that Paul would suggest they abandoned those deities for the One True God. (see Acts 19)

It was probably not easy to be a Christian in ancient Ephesus at the time of Paul’s letter. The church at Ephesus did not respond with despair and hand wringing. Nor did they huddle up and hide, looking into one another. They practiced a faith in Jesus. Just like in Ephesus, many in the culture today are proclaiming that they will follow the gods of their own design and choosing, rather than the One True God.

The Ephesian church demonstrated a faith in Jesus that was so infectious, it overflowed in their love of the people. Faith moves beyond mere belief. The integrity of our faith is evident in the living out of our beliefs. This is best done when we take seriously the fact that Jesus, the Messiah, calls us to live a transformed life that reflects the Bible’s teachings more and more every day.

Faith in Jesus is the humility to see the world as it is and the audacity to believe that God is working, even now, to bring the kingdom inaugurated in Jesus of Nazareth. To do so means that we move confidently in the assurance that God wants to transform us into windows of the Kingdom for others. Which leads us to the second thing Paul mentions: Love for the Saints.

The people of the church in Ephesus were at odds with many of their neighbors. But look at what made the difference: Their love for one another. A love that has that same bold audacity that Christ wants to—and will make—a change in other people. Do the people outside the church—those who would not consider themselves part of the church or a follower of Jesus—know that the church loves them? Or that God loves them?

Who has heard of your faith in Jesus? Or the Love for the People? Who is giving thanks for it? Living in the same fear, operating out of the same panic mindset that we see in the world, does not represent the Body of Christ well. Who wants to give thanks for that? That’s everywhere in the culture today. Rather, the Scriptures point us to something greater: the Mission of the Kingdom of God. That’s a big task, and likely the reason that many feel overwhelmed when sharing their faith. Maybe the solution is in how we view the problem.

In 1939, George Dantzig was a graduate student in California. He was studying statistics with Professor Jerzy Neyman. At the beginning of one class session, Dr. Neyman wrote two examples of unsolvable problems on the blackboard. George happened to arrive late to class that day and mistakenly thought the unsolvable problems were their homework assignment. He wrote them in his notebook and went to work. Eventually George solved both problems. Later, an ecstatic Dr. Neyrnan knocked on George’s door to share the news. A bewildered George apologized, thinking the assignment was overdue. That’s when Dr. Neyman informed George that he had solved two of statistics’ unsolvable problems. “The problems seemed to be a little harder than usual,” George later recalled. George Dantzig went on to earn his PhD in statistics and develop systems that continue to shape our world today in the areas of transportation, energy, and business. But the origin of his impact on the world can be traced back to those two problems and his attitude towards them: In his own words, “If someone had told me they were two famous unsolved problems, I probably wouldn’t have even tried to solve them.”

The beauty of sharing our faith is that it is not an unsolvable problem. Rather, Christ has already provided the solution. In His divine wisdom, he has asked us to be a part of the Mission. He is asking us to come to the problem with available hands, willing hearts, and faith in Him. Let Christ do the rest. Then others will hear of your faith and your love for the saints.

An Empty Chair and Evangelism by Rob Haynes

Let me tell you the story of a young man whom we will call “Victor.” This story catches up with Victor in his early twenties. He had a difficult childhood, and both of his parents had passed by the time he was twenty years old. He had fallen into several destructive habits in his late teens, habits that he continued to practice with gusto. 

Some friends invited him to church, and he decided to go along a few times. On one particular occasion, he became aware of his need for Jesus and responded to an altar call at the end of the service. The lay leader who prayed with him up front was nice and offered “to help him in anyway,” but Victor never saw him again. At his own initiative, Victor later reached out to the youth pastor at the church for direction.

 Victor explained to the youth pastor what had happened in that church service. He told him of a sense that God was calling him to work with teenagers, but he knew he needed to grow in his own faith first. Victor said he needed to put these destructive habits away, but he had no idea where to begin. Could the youth pastor help him? 

The youth pastor said he understood. He gave Victor a thick book to read and told him, when he finished it, to come back and they would talk about it. Victor was still confused. He wanted someone to show him how to live out this new calling that he sensed and wasn’t sure how a book was going to help. He felt intimidated by the book and was too embarrassed to tell the youth pastor about it. He still felt certain of his need for God but was more confused about how to go about it than before.

 This true story illustrates an all too common tale in the church today. However, our spiritual ancestor, Mr. John Wesley, was keenly aware of the need to work to prevent this scenario. 

He cautioned the Methodist preachers that to make people aware of their need for God, but not give them the means to work out that awareness, was a travesty. This is a key reason he developed the Class Meeting. As I have written in this space before, a re-engagement with the Wesleyan pattern of the Class Meeting is key for the future of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement. These weekly small group meetings have produced great fruit for spiritual growth for centuries. While it is easy to think about such groups as a way to disciple those who are already deeply committed to Jesus, they can be excellent tools for evangelism as well.

 By some accounts, around half of all the people who came to follow Jesus in the Methodist Revival of the 1700s in England did so in a Class Meeting. There are some advantages to a Class Meeting for evangelism:

  1. Imagine a scenario where Victor had made his need for Jesus known in a church with Class Meetings. The pastor or lay leader could have put him into a group of believers who could answer his questions about faith, spiritual practices, and the need for Jesus.
  2. People who may be skeptical about faith can see a small group of Jesus followers embodying lives that want more of the Risen Christ in their hearts every day. This sort of living is infectious.
  3. The power of community is paramount, especially these days. Many who become followers of Jesus will lose friends, family connections, and face ridicule and scorn. They need a community which will accept them and their questions as they grow in the Love of Jesus.

These are, of course, just a starting point. The reality is that lines between evangelism and discipleship are often blurry. Many people are discipled in the journey of evangelism, and evangelism takes place during the discipleship process. While the Class Meeting is an important tool for spiritual growth for those who have already made a decision to follow Jesus, it can also be an excellent way to welcome those who are exploring what it means to make a decision to say “yes” to God’s offer of hope and salvation.

One way that members of Class Meetings can remember this intertwined reality of discipleship evangelism is by intentionally leaving an empty chair in the room where they meet each week. An open seat can serve as a prompt to pray for and invite others to join them on the journey of Christian faith.

Though he struggled for a while longer, Victor eventually found a community of faith at a different church. He was baptized and now serves as a pastor. However, these stories don’t always turn out with such a positive ending. Only when the local Christian community answers the call can the narrative turn. Will you look for people like him to show and share the love of Jesus? Will you make room for the people whom God will bring to you? What are the ways, both literally and figuratively, in which you can leave an open seat for conversations about faith?

Not If, But When by Rob Haynes

I live in an area that is susceptible to hurricanes and other tropical weather. Frequently, when my neighbors and I talk about these big storms, you will hear the phrase, “Not if but when the storm comes…” Throughout the year we prepare our homes, our churches, and our businesses to face the wrath of the storms that will eventually come our way. Like millions of other people who live in such areas, we make these plans year after year. Some may say that we should just move away, but aren’t all of us exposed to natural disasters of other types in some way?

In many ways, the Christian life is like this. Even though we may follow Jesus closely, and do exactly what we are told to do, we will still find ourselves in the midst of the storm sometimes. In those storms, Jesus calls us to even deeper expressions of faith. In Matthew 14, we see the record of when Jesus called Peter to step out of the boat and walk on the water of the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm. While the miracle of walking on water is significant, if we take a look at some of the other points in the account, we can see ways that we can follow Christ in the midst of the storms that come our way.

It’s important to embrace the fact that even when we follow Jesus closely, we are not immune from difficulties and trials. Matthew’s gospel tells us that the disciples were caught in a raging storm even though they were doing exactly what they had been instructed to do. In verse 22, we see that Jesus commanded them to cross the Sea of Galilee. These travelers in the boat were not wayward followers. Rather, they were faithful to follow Jesus’ command. Yet, they were still caught in a storm and had been working for hours, straining against the winds and the waves. They were struggling and most likely exhausted. I wonder if they were questioning how they got into such a difficult situation. Did Jesus know what they were getting into? Did he put them in this storm on purpose? 

When the disciples saw Jesus in the storm, they couldn’t quite figure out who he was or what he was doing. Jesus doesn’t condemn them for that. Rather, he tells them to take heart and to not be afraid. He says, “It is I.” Well, at least in many English translations that is what he says. In the Greek text, Jesus says, “I AM.”  By using these words, he echoes the Old Testament record of God’s appearance to Moses. When Moses asks for God’s Name, he simply answers, “I AM.” Jesus is telling the disciples  ‘I am God; you are not alone.’ He doesn’t give them reasons for why they shouldn’t be afraid by saying things like, “I can calm this storm.” Or “I can walk on water.” Rather he tells them that the LORD, the Great I AM is right here. Jesus is saying, “I AM everything you are looking for and everything you need.”

Then comes the apex of the story for many: Peter’s reply is “IF it is you…” In the minds of many people at this time, there was no doubt that God could give someone the ability to walk on water. The question was: Did God give Jesus that ability? Is this God before me? Peter’s request seems to be more like, “If it is you, pick me over everyone else to come out there.” Peter has a habit of wanting to be picked first over the rest. 

Place yourself in the picture for just a moment. Where are you? Are you, like Peter, wanting to get to do the special things? Sometimes, you just have to get out of the boat. Are you sitting in the back of the boat, wishing you had said something? Are you hiding and hoping Jesus doesn’t call you to get out of the boat? Notice once again, that Peter is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing, but the storm is still blowing. Even the boldest acts of obedience do not guarantee the absence of trials and tribulations.

When Peter was walking on the waves to Jesus, he made the mistake of taking his eyes off of the one who had just assured them that I AM. When he focused on the storm he was filled with doubt. This is easy to do in the storms of life. We may doubt that God has called us, that God is with us, that God is looking out for you, or that God knows what he is doing. So, you try to help God out. This passage reminds us that even in the midst of the storm, even in the midst of our doubts, God still has our hand we call out to him. No need to help him out.

However, if we only focus on the storm, we will lose sight of Jesus. When storms come your way, do you fret and dwell upon them? Or do you look for other ways that God may be working in the situation? Rather than focus on the rain and the wind blowing all around, the call of the Christ is to focus on the presence of God.

I find it fascinating that it is only when Jesus is in the boat does the storm calm down. Then everyone in the boat worshiped him. This isn’t just praise, but full-fledged worship. They confess, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Those who first proclaimed the Good News of the Risen Christ in Jerusalem, Judea, and through the earth were witness to the storm and to the One who was with them in the storm. What are the storms you are going through? What are the storms you have been through? How can God use those storms, and His presence with you in the midst of them to make a difference in someone else’s life?

Sometimes, showing and sharing the love of Jesus with someone is walking through difficult situations with them. Sometimes it is inviting others to worship Jesus with you in the middle of life’s storms. Or it may be bearing witness to the faithfulness of God’s presence in any storm. Even in the Christian life it is not a matter of if, but of when. May the great I AM find us looking to him in any storm.

Discipling Over Programming by Rob Haynes

I’m Sorry I Didn’t Make Disciples Sooner

I come to you today with a confession: 

I failed to take seriously the command of Jesus to make Disciples. For too long, in my three decades of ministry, I ignored the simple and direct command of Scripture to make disciples who will make disciples. It wasn’t on purpose. I thought I was doing a great job, but I now know that I was woefully deficient. 

Alongside this confession, I am hopeful, more so than ever. I am convinced, more than ever, that our denominational heritage of discipleship in Classes and Bands, the original Wesleyan/Methodist Small Groups, is the answer for the current and future church. However, for nearly thirty years I missed that message. As I said, it was not a sin of commission, rather of omission. Allow me to illustrate.

I began serving in ministry in the mid-1990’s. The prevailing model of ministry at the time was to build great programs. If we built a great program, then many people would come. Some of them might return. They would get involved in another program that might keep them connected to the church. A few of those would go a little deeper and might lead another program. You get the idea: we were taught to program so that we could build a program that would build programs. 

Allow me to brag just a moment: I became good at building programs. I could build something that could get people to come out and even some of them would return. As a youth pastor, I created events for students after football games that attracted hundreds of teenagers. I put together some great mission trips to some cool places. As an associate and lead pastor, I replicated these practices with adults. The names changed, but the methods were the same.  

However, I am not sure I made many disciples. When I look at the mandate of the gospel, I see several things pointing me to make disciples, but nothing about occupying people’s time with programs.

This may seem a little harsh. It may even seem foolhardy to some people. You may be reading this and thinking that I am crazy for not wanting to attract people. However, I have found that if we spend all our time in ministry merely trying to attract people according to the current whims of the culture, then they will merely move along to the next thing that catches their attention.

I was confronted with this reality in a couple of conversations when I was a youth minister.

One day, I ran into Anthony walking into church on a Sunday morning, guitar in hand. Anthony was an influential teenager in our church. He was a talented musician, a leader in his school, and was friendly and outgoing. I asked him if he was coming to the really cool thing that I had planned for next Saturday. I can’t even remember what I had programmed, but it was another way of keeping people busy at the church. His reply cut me to the quick: “I’ll come if I can’t find anything better to do.” Ouch! This was one of the key people I expected to see there! If he wasn’t going to come, I was in trouble.

The second was with some parents of the students in my ministry. On a Sunday morning we were talking in the Sunday School hallway in between the worship hour and the Sunday School hour. They were lamenting that their teenage children were not coming to church. Their conclusion was this: With absolute resolution parents should get their teens out of bed and bring them to church! Then it hit me: of the three or four families standing before me, none of their teens were in church that morning. When I asked why this was, they each sheepishly offered half-hearted excuses of tired children or over-programmed schedules. 

The church, and me as their minister, was not offering anything different than what they were getting anywhere else. I was just putting Jesus’ name on it. Much like retailers competing for market share, I was competing for the attention of teens with forces that grab their attention much better than I could. 

I wish I could tell you that I learned my lesson immediately. Oh, if only. However, I succumbed to the pressures of these forces for several more years in ministry. If you serve in ministry, maybe you have seen it too. It takes on different shapes depending on the place and target age groups. It can look like “Caring Ministry”, “Pastoral Care”, “Age-Level Programming”, “Men’s Breakfast”, or even “Sunday School” and “Small Groups.” 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the church being a center of community activity or with providing fellowship for those who are facing loneliness, isolation, or disenfranchisement. However, we must be cautious not to confuse programmed entertainment with discipleship. And the Church’s primary role is to make DISCIPLES, not to merely entertain those who show up.

I did not learn this soon enough. I continued to make the mistake of following the whims of my church members. They wanted to be entertained, and to put the church’s name on it. Sure, we talked about the Bible. We talked about Jesus. We enjoyed one another’s company. However, I seldom saw life-changing ministry happening. I blamed many things, but rarely the right thing: My failure to make more and maturing disciples.

So, at this stage in my ministry, I have decided to put all my energies into disciple-making over programming. In the church we planted a few years ago we have made this the key focus of everything we do. This, by no means, reduces the role of mission or evangelism. Rather, just the opposite. Because I do not treat them like a programming audience, it means that I am not solely responsible for mission or evangelism. It means I am learning to walk with people as they discover the Holy Spirit’s desire as to how they should serve in faith sharing with others. The best way I have seen to do this is right in the middle of our heritage as Wesleyans as demonstrated in the Class and Band Meetings. 

Let’s face it: the Church is facing several challenges today, challenges from which the Wesleyan/Methodist movement is not immune. I do not fear for the future of the church. Rather, the global and historical witness of people committed to discipleship gives me hope. 

The GPS/SatNav in my car gives me an important reminder about this hope. When I lose my way, it tells me that it is time to “recalculate” and get back on the road heading the correct direction. It is time to get back on the path to which God has called us: to make disciples, not merely comfortable and entertained church-attenders.

This is my confession. May You, O Lord, have mercy upon us, spare those who confess their faults, restore those who are repentant, and grant that we may hereafter live a godly and righteous life. Amen.

Our King Carries a Towel, Not a Scepter by Rob Haynes

The world watched last September as millions mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth. Subsequently, many watched with great interest as Charles was enthroned as King in May. The pageantry and celebration had not been seen in a generation. As King Charles assumed the throne, he was given the regalia of royalty: a crown, an orb, and a scepter. However, it is the scepter that monarchs have used across centuries and cultures to symbolize power and authority.

What we hold in our hands can say a great deal about who we are and our intentions. If I approach you with a football or with a first aid kit or with a dinner plate, I am conveying different messages. It also may say something about who I am or what skills or authority I possess. While anyone may hold a football or a dinner plate only the king, by rights, may hold the scepter. However, what if a king were to give up his rights to such power in favor of a more peculiar demonstration of power?

John’s gospel gives us a beautiful account of the Thursday night before Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. The final hours that Jesus spent with his disciples is full of rich messages. One of the most beautiful scenes is when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Chapter 13 tells us that Jesus knows that His time is now short. Judas Iscariot has already committed to betraying Jesus. John points out that Jesus knew “that the Father had given all things into his hands…” (v.3, emphasis mine) This means that Jesus could have set things on a different path. He could have stopped Judas’ plot. He could have thwarted those who sought to take His life. He could have defeated the Romans. The power was in His hands. He could have wielded the scepter that was rightly His.

However, “He took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” (v. 4) The Greek word used here that we translate “took off” can also mean “laid down.” The hands that deserved the scepter that rules the universe, laid down his robe—and his life—and picked up a towel that was reserved for the lowest of salves. He took the time to wash the feet of those who would abandon Him in just a matter of hours: including the ones who would return to follow him and the one who set the plans of his death in motion. He deserved the power. He chose peculiarity.

Many parts of our culture today demand that we grab as much power as possible. This power, we are told, comes in the form of political influence, financial gain, or a favored reputation in social circles. Even in parts of the church today people are vying for money, influence, and worldly power. However, none of these are the pattern of Jesus. He knew that the peculiar pattern that His disciples must follow is the pattern of the Cross. In doing so, He would prove that true power comes in the Resurrection.

Modern-day followers of Jesus are called to follow this same peculiar pattern. The Bible’s answer to the challenges in today’s world, and our individual relationships, is not more struggles for power, status, or influence. Rather, the answer is showing one another that our Savior has called us to choose peculiarity over power. We are, of course, called to follow Jesus in holiness and righteousness. Along the way, others will let us down. We, ourselves will fail sometimes. Our response, by Jesus’ example, is the pattern of the Cross. In this pattern, the power of His resurrection is made complete in us.

Many Christians tell me how they long for things to be different. They tell me of their ideas on how to bring about change in the individuals, institutions, and social systems that are marred by the sin of reject God’s teaching. No doubt, our world desperately needs the transformation that comes through Christ’s message of hope, forgiveness, and a call to holiness. At the same time. Jesus’ followers must resist the urge to grab the scepters of power the world dangles before them. These apparitions of power never last. Rather, imagine a world where Jesus’ followers came together to convey His message with the towel of servanthood. People will wonder at our peculiarity. When they do, we should point them to the Cross and watch Jesus’ Resurrection power make them new.

Let Each Generation Tell by Rob Haynes

“Let each generation tell its children of your mighty acts; let them proclaim your power.” Psalm 145:4

I became a Christian in my twenties. I was attending a large-membership church at that time, and I was recruited to help as a teacher’s assistant with the children’s Vacation Bible School that summer. I was intimidated by the idea of leading children. In the nearly thirty years since then, I have heard that same hesitation among people of various ages and Christian maturity. Yet, sharing with children can be easier than you think. First, let’s look at some Scriptural direction and the Wesleyan history of faith-sharing with children. We will then look at an idea on how you can tell the Good News of Jesus to children with a few simple items.

In Deuteronomy 4:9 Moses commands the people to remember the instructions of the Lord and tells them to pass it on to their children and grandchildren. This instruction still applies to us today and should provide encouragement for us to share and show the love of Jesus to God’s children of all ages.

Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations includes people of all ages. It is not just limited to adults, or even teens, but also includes children. The Scriptures are clear that children need the love and forgiveness that Jesus offers. This is seen, among other places, in Matthew 19 when Jesus welcomes the children into his teaching ministry and tells the disciples that they should follow his example.

John Wesley understood the vital role that ministry to children has in the mission of the Kingdom of God. He demonstrated this in his work to start schools, like the Kingswood School. He instructed the leaders of the Methodist revival to teach the children and show others the importance of ministry to children. When some protested (like I did early on) and said they did not feel like they were gifted to teach children, his response was to “pray earnestly for the gift and use the means for it.” He went on to tell them to reach out to children and their parents alike, to teach them on every occasion, and give parents the tools to raise their children in the wisdom and admonishment of the Lord.

Long before modern researchers told us that most children set their religious preferences by age twelve, Mr. Wesley was telling Methodist leaders the same thing. He understood that instructing children at this critical age was vital to the ministry. He affirmed Martin Luther’s assertion that a revival never lasts longer than one generation.

Sharing the story of salvation can begin with something simple like a Wordless Book that you can make on your own. Each page of the book is a solid color with no written words. Arrange colored paper in the following order and tell the Gospel story using these colors as a guide.

  1. GOLD is for God’s perfection—God created the Heavens and the Earth in perfect love and grace. God wants us to be with him and in constant relationship with him. When God created the Garden in perfection, he warned Adam and Eve not to do things that would hurt themselves and others.
  2. BLACK is the mark of sin—Because of the things we do that break God’s laws, our relationship with God is broken. It needs fixing. There are things that we do that separate us from God, others, and ourselves. The Bible calls these “sins”. All of us have sinned, and our hearts need to be made clean. We cannot make our own hearts clean; only God can do that.
  3. RED represents Jesus’ sacrifice—The Bible tells us that there is punishment for sin. Jesus, God’s One and Only Son, took the punishment for our sins so that we would not have to face the punishment we deserve. Instead of us being punished for our sins, Jesus died on the cross so that all the wrong things we have done can be forgiven.
  4. WHITE is the purity that Jesus offers—This means that our hearts can be made clean. Jesus does not force this on us, but we must ask God to forgive us. When we believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and invite him into our hearts to turn away from sin, he will wash us as white as snow.
  5. GREEN is for growth—The Bible says that we should continue to learn to love Jesus more deeply every day and share his love with others. We are to read God’s Word, pray, worship, serve, and obey for the rest of our lives.
  6. GOLD is for eternal life—Scripture tells us that Heaven is very real and that we can work with God to bring God’s Kingdom on Earth. It also tells us that Jesus has made a heavenly home for all who love and serve him. This is open to everyone.

This is only a starting point to begin a discussion with the children. It can also be adapted in any number of ways; for example, you can make bracelets with children that contain beads of each color. As the children wear the bracelets, they can be reminded of the story of salvation. By using this simple color pattern, the book can be adapted to any language and in a variety of cultures.

I encourage you to put together a wordless storybook or bracelet with some children in your life. Maybe they are children you have met in your neighborhood, your church community, or the local park. Pray that God would open your eyes to those who need to hear it. Then let yourself be used to tell the children of God’s mighty acts as you proclaim his power.