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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Macrae Truette Sweetman

Our second son, Macrae Truette Sweetman, was born today at 11:51am. He weighed in at 10 lbs 2 oz and measured 23 inches long -- now that's a big baby! He is doing really well and seems like a happy little (or big) guy. Heather is doing OK. Some vomiting, but that can happen with c-sections. Our kids couldn't be blessed with a better mother. Man, I love my wife! 

The name Macrae means son of grace. I think that is rather fitting. Life is a complete gift. It's unearned yet occurs freely. He has been born because of the grace of God in our lives and on his life. He has come into existence because a creator God designed him and gave him life. What a miracle! 

Seeing a new born baby is pure evidence of God's existence and our need to be connected to him. Life is so fragile and we are so helpless. Yet, life is so meaningful and emotional at the same time. We all know we should have dignity but we know that we are also in great need. Only the fact that we were created by God and have fallen away from a relationship with him makes the scenario of life understandable. 

So, to all the sons and daughters of grace (that's you), may you find your joy in God and your peace in Jesus as you remember that every breath is a sheer gift of grace. Remember, your life is a gift, what do people usually do when they receive a gift from someone? Let's be thankful. Get on your knees and give Jesus glory for your life. There is no one like you, because there is no one like God!

Here are some photos of Macrae Truette Sweetman:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What are we inviting people to?

I just read a very challenging blog post by Ed Stetzer which opens with a gripping line "I continue to see movements gaining traction among Christians that do not seem to have many converts". Ouch! That line got me hooked to his challenging article. I am now asking myself if we have replaced the gospel with a way of doing church? And, are secondary issues (like spiritual gifts) taking place over primary issues (like sharing our faith)?

This subject is at the core of church planting and it is something I have been thinking about a lot in the past month. I recently blogged about church planting evangelism as I have found a fresh zeal for sharing my faith with people. Since Dec 19th I have shared my faith with 11 people and I have come to discover that there is nothing more exciting and worth celebrating than telling people about the amazing GRACE of Jesus and inviting them to follow him.

Please read Stetzers post if you want to be challenged. 

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts

Special update: I wrote a book for churches to give to first-time guests. It’s had a huge impact at bringing more people back as second-time guests and adding them into the church community. Get the Kindle version of Unforgettable: Your purpose in Christ here and the print version from Those outside the USA may need to order print copies from,, or
Over Christmas I read Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts by Jim Griffith and Bill Easum. If you are involved in any way in church planting you should read this book because it reveals years of learned experience through painful mistakes and the guidance of the Holy Spirit -- these guys are church planting experts! Let me qualify them ... 

In the first 22 years of ministry Jim Easum planted 5 churches and for the last 13 years has been assessing and coaching church plants. Having assessed over 1,500 candidates for church planting, trained people in over 8,000 projects and conducted over 100 autopsies on failed starts, he is an authority on the topic. Bill was a restart pastor and has consulted over 600 church plants/restarts. They have both encountered the same reasons for why church plants fail and have combined their wisdom to help future planters avoid the enormous pains of failure. I can't imagine a church planter not wanting to read this book.

The book is a short read at 118 pages and has the following 10 chapters which highlight and deal with each common failure:
  1. Neglecting the Great Commandment in Pursuit of the Great Commission.
  2. Failing to Take Opposition Seriously. 
  3. A Love Affair with One's Fantasy Statement Blinds the Planter to the Mission Field.
  4. Premature Launch. 
  5. Evangelism Ceases after the Launch. 
  6. No Plan for the Other Six Days of the Week. 
  7. Fear of Talking about Money until It Is Too Late.
  8. Failure of the Church to Act Its Age and Its Size.
  9. Formalizing Leadership Too Soon.
  10. Using the "Superstar" Model as the Paradigm for All Church Plants.
The first mistake is to neglect the great commandment in pursuit of the great commission. On page 6 they write "... the thrill of church planting and reaching people and building a new faith community takes precedence over the personal responsibility to grow spiritually." Page 7, "... [The church planters] goal is not to get people to come to church; their goal is to introduce people to the love of God." This actually seems like a common problem in leadership at large. Christian leaders often give and give and give and become so empty that they can burn out. Or, they get so focused on the business of the church and running meetings that they neglect spiritual renewal through discipleship. 

The issue here is for a planter to be purposeful about his own spiritual growth and to build genuine love for people. Church planting is not about getting people to attend a meeting but to encounter the grace of God and place their faith in Jesus. The danger is to become so focused on the tasks, the results or the numbers that the process of spiritual transformation is totally lost. The bride becomes the focus instead of the groom. Jesus has to be central to the leaders life. To avoid this they encourage planters to attend another churches worship services in order to engage and be refreshed and also to seek spiritual reflection and camaraderie from a mature Christian outside of the plant.

One thing I absolutely love about this book is that each chapter offers specific solutions targeted to resist and defeat each challenge. These "fixes" are pure gold! They are simple practical steps directed at the planter and to coaches. Most of these solutions are not obvious simply because the mistakes which necessitate them are common traps. Implementing these fixes from the start are the only way to avoid and minimize fundamental errors.

Chapter 3, titled "A Love Affair with One's Fantasy Statement", was tremendously helpful for me at this exact moment. I have elsewhere heard this referred to as "the church of your mind" or as they say on page 22 the "church in a vacuum." Right now on the CPT program (Church Planting Training) I am planning, learning, growing and preparing to launch a new church in Chicago. It is very exciting to be constantly thinking and dreaming about the name, the logo, the fancy mission statement, the location, the series we will preach, the strategic methods we will use to connect with new people and the day we will launch with hundreds of people! Ha! We WILL conquer this! But therein lies the problem. All this planning and preparation is outside the context of the mission field. This does not negate the process of church planting training, it actually increases the need to get it right -- which I'm thankful my training is doing! 

On page 23 they write "... the mission field dictates the tactics, not the fantasy statement" and "Church planting is about going out and getting more and more people. And after that it's about gathering those people and gradually forming them into a redemptive community." Articulating a set of values, a fancy mission statement and a trendy name does not mean success -- getting new converts and discipling them is the real measure of success.

Church planters are often so in love with their innovative ideas, their way of doing things or their trendy name, that they preemptively formulate, institute and therefore dictate a purely ideological and imaginary church which may or may not be effective at reaching the people around them.

Page 24 comments "Effective church planters intuitively say to themselves, 'This isn't working.' They have a come-to-Jesus meeting internally and say to themselves, 'We cannot continue down this road, we've got to adapt...NOW!'" I can tend to get dog-eared by things because I hate to quit. I will literally work at something for hours on end without a sign of quiting or rethinking my approach. I know it is a strength -- a God given ability to be steadfast and unwavering -- fighting to the end. But, it is also a huge weakness. Sometimes I will predetermine what I think will work best and then force myself to stick at it until I make it work. I need to strongly heed the advice in this book as this will not always work in church planting.

I am a planner by nature. I like to strategically think ahead and make the best preparations possible. Then, I would prefer for everything to go as planned. Yikes! I'm in for trouble if I don't adjust this way of thinking. This is another area in which God has used my wife to shape me. She is incredibly flexible and an "in the moment" type of person. This has caused conflict in our relationship which in turn has helped me mature in my understanding and appreciation for this God given characteristic. However, even with the growth I have made in being flexible and letting some things flow, rather than programming them, I still have a tendency towards control. If you have a moment please pray for me right now!

The solution for this is twofold. Firstly, I must work hard at developing a genuine love for the people in our area more than my ideological plan. Secondly, I must grow in my willingness to adapt my methods to the mission field. This is why I am currently fighting certain impulses to create a church identity before I have lived in Chicago. I want these things to be contextualized and organic to the people God is calling me to reach. Assuming something will work without really understanding or knowing the people it is supposed to "work on" is a sign of loving the church of your mind more than the people God is reaching. I have determined not to prescribe and identity from afar which I must admit is hard for me. 

Page 27 makes a painful point, if you have ever been a part of something like this then I apologise for poking the pain. They write "We often hear planters say, 'We're a multicultural church,' even though they only have a handful of people. Somehow they think they're effective because they have representatives from each mission field coming to their church, but that's a mistake. They now have a church for everyone, which means a church with very few distinctives." They also say "... planters often make the mistake of winding up with a church designed for 'everyone.' The net effect of this approach is thirty or forty people--forever!" Yikes! 

I have heard this language before. The desire to reach the nations is confused with having a small core group made up of a few individuals from other nations. From the experience of Griffith and Easum, this just never works. I'm not sure when people starting thinking that having 15-20 people from 5-6 different nations is somehow fulfilling the great commission when you consider that there are billions of people and hundreds of countries. The measure of success is not quantity of nations represented but indigenous growth. If a church plant is not growing then it is dead or close to death. A solid way to avoid this result is to constantly be in the community that one lives. Prayer walk it. Connect with the people there. Define what the local residents are like and then match the church plants methods to reach them. Don't be dog-eared -- adjust or die!

There is just too much good stuff in this book to review it all here so I will end with some worthy quotes:
  • Much of the opposition faced by planters comes from within the plant itself, p14.
  • Your team of intercessors needs to be "outside your plant" so they can pray deeply without an agenda, p18.
  • Usually the first group of people [to reach] is those people most like you, p28.
  • One of the recurring symptoms in failed church plants is premature birth, because the new church lacks sufficient infrastructure and development to survive on such limited resources, p34.
  • The gathered group [of a premature launch] is of such insufficient numerical size that it begins subtly to defend itself by citing the benefits of its size--intimacy, connectedness, and inclusiveness. Doing so unwittingly creates a barrier, making it impossible for any new people to find their way into the young church, p38.
  • You have to have a critical mass of people to add legitimacy and validity to it in the eyes of the public, p39. 
  • Evangelism in NOT a 'phase' of church life; it's the "LIFE" of the church, p47.
  • If the pastor ceases to model inviting the public and pushing the Great Commission then the congregation will become a closed system, p47. 
  • If you don't make contact after contact with the public, the likelihood of success is almost zero, p51.
  • Talk to one thousand people in the first year, p52.
  • The average church plant begins to decline the fourth or fifth year, p65.
  • Many planters mistakenly believe an increase in attendance will result in an increase in cash flow. Experience teaches just the opposite: more people actually increase the cash drain, thus accelerating the demise of the church, p78. 
  • Stewardship of money must be taught from the moment you begin to gather people, p79.
  • Someone else on the team needs to spend pastoral time with people on the fringe, p87.
  • Don't try to launch with a handful of people and try to act like a full-service church. One way or another, it will ruin you, p96.
  • The health of the church plant is in direct proportion to the health of the lead pastor and their family, p97.
  • Future leaders need time to prove themselves on the battlefield, p102.
  • People must earn the reputation of being a leader within your church plant, p103. 
  • Never become so enamored by what someone else is doing in ministry that your goal is to replicate what they are doing, p116.
  • If God has anointed you to plant a church, God will give you the vision, the wiring, and the abilities to do it God's way, p117.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Attracting Interns as a Church Planting Strategy

I believe that God has and is calling many people to serve his purposes in church planting today. This is true in my life and for my wife and kids. I continue to meet other people who attest to this. I am so confident of it increasing that I am planning to start an Internship Program early on in our church plant in Chicago. This will help those with a calling to develop quickly and begin to fulfill the purposes of God. At the same time it will allow them to build foundations in our church plant that will last into the future -- way beyond their internship.

Today I met with Lonnie Taylor the Director of Internships at The Journey Church in St. Louis. The Journey have been very effective at attracting interns and providing a quality environment where spiritual growth can occur. This pool of passionate and dedicated interns can often prove to be a base on which God calls full time staff members and people into further leadership roles. The purpose of internships is not a step towards a paid position or to guarantee a further ministry role, but to equip and release people into the calling God has over their life.

You may use the interface on the right to listen to the most recent podcast or download the mp3 of our conversation. It's about 55 minutes long, with a few interruptions from the waitress, and at a reasonable quality. Lonnie graciously allowed me to have a draft copy of their internship program and walked me through the process and philosophy they currently have. Please learn from this in any way you can. 

Interns for Church Planting Overview:
  • An internship is not cheap labor, it's about people fulfilling their calling and using their gifts in a way that "fits" the church. 
  • Find the interns "sweet spot" while simultaneously stretching them to grow. 
  • Every intern needs a mentor who builds with them relationally and modifies the format to fit the interns gift mix and calling.
  • Mentors evaluate interns at the end of each semester. Review goals, action plans and reading material. 
  • Interns are required to read one book a semester and provide a report to their mentor. This should focus on their area of service. 
  • Interns are fully self funded. They have a 30 day period before they are accepted to raise enough money to live on during the internship. This is not just a practical step but an important spiritual measure of the persons calling and faith.
  • Customize the internship for the intern.  
  • Allow new interns to enter at the beginning of each semester. 
  • Someone would be disqualified from the internship if they had the wrong motivation. I.e. they see it as a means to a paid position rather than a term of service.
  • Recruit interns from within the church and attract through web site. Internships are a good option for guys in seminary.
  • Whether or not you have a packaged internship program you will always have volunteers who serve and need spiritual mentoring so some sort of plan is necessary. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Interview with Steve Sudworth

Special update: I wrote a book for churches to give to first-time guests. It’s had a huge impact at bringing more people back as second-time guests and adding them into the church community. Get the Kindle version of Unforgettable: Your purpose in Christ here and the print version from Those outside the USA may need to order print copies from,, or
I had the privilege of interviewing Steve Sudworth who planted a church in Chicago back in 2004. Steve relates to New Covenant Ministries International and his church is just shy of gathering 100 each week. It was a real joy to learn from Steve's experience and to catch his passion for the church. You can use the interface on the right to listen to the most recent podcast or download the audio of our phone conversation.
Matt: Steve, when you first planted a Church in the City how did you go about meeting people and making new contacts?
Steve: Before we planted in May 2004, my wife and I came out a few days before just to see what God was saying about the city.  One of the key prophetic words that God had given us was about the need to build community, to build family.  So arriving here, May 2004, we gave every intention and every effort to be building from our home, having people in our home...anyone who would give us the time of day would look at us for longer than 5 seconds we would try to build a relationship.  

As those relations grew we had as many people in our home as possible.  In the states it has been much harder to get people into our home than it was back in South Africa.  You first have to build that relationship of trust before they are willing to come into your home.  So, we had about 3-4 people we knew in the city when we arrived. So, we worked with that group first at building relationship and trust and then encouraged them to bring people into our home and little by little we grew. So, building relationships and community were absolutely key.  

Before we came out here, we spent and hour or so with one of the guys who leads New Covenant, and we asked him the question, "what advice can you give us?" and he said "when you plant a church you are not going to be the greatest preacher, you are not going to have the greatest facility.  But one thing you need to do, and you can do, is to love people with all of your heart." We have really tried to embrace that-to love people fully and graciously and to express the love of Christ through our relationship with them.
Matt: In terms of you getting out there, building relationship, what would be your take on the spiritual climate in Chicago? How hungry are people for the gospel in the city?
Steve: Coming from South Africa, which even thought nation is struggling, the church in SA is incredibly strong.  Someone sneezes and 3 people get saved.  So, coming here it has been a real change to what we have been used to.  I feel over the last 3 years my eyes have been open to this incredible religious spirit that rests over this city.  There is a strong understanding of Christ, but Jesus is not a person who demands all of our worship.  There is a reluctance to give oneself fully and wholly to Jesus.  The issue of religion is the biggest thing we have faced. 

When we meet people and tell them what we do, their response is "what? Chicago needs another church?" I think that just summarizes the general attitude that resides over this city.  We believe in the ministry of the Holy Spirit and in a city like Chicago...I am really intentional about building relationships with other pastors and it is just hard to find spiritual churches in the heart of the city, there are some in the suburbs.  There is just not an openness to the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Matt: Have you found that people with a Christian background reject the Holy Spirit or embraced the Holy Spirit?
Steve: There has been both.  We believe that every person who comes into the community God has chosen to be apart of us for a season.  Certainly those who God has added, though they may struggle with the HS there is a sense of them wanting to embrace him.  We have a church that only a handful of the core leaders have grown up in a spiritual environment.  About 90% of our church has never had that experience, so we have very patiently, fearfully and wisely walking alongside of people.  Not expecting them to run before they can walk.  However, we have had people who have joined us and are excited about a new church experience, and then 2 or 3 months after they have been there they begin to realize where we stand on different issues and they find reason to move on.  So, there have been discouragements and temptations to dilute the truth. But we want to build, unashamedly, what the Bible teaches.
Matt: Where abouts in Chicago are you gathering from and what are those people like?
Steve: We are drawing people from a cross section of the city.  We were originally located in Lincoln Park, which is Caucasian, middle to upper income.  We weren't fitting into that community very well and drawing people from the North, West and South, and even having people coming from Indiana, which is a bit of a drive. We moved to Bucktown, and being more centrally located we have been able to draw more people from different parts of the city.  We really have not gone for a specific neighborhood or area of Chicago, but have felt that God wanted us to reach the whole city.  We want to draw people from North, South, East and West.  So, the neighborhood of Bucktown represents us better. 

As far as struggles, the majority of our church is between the ages of 22-38...we probably have an equal number of singles and marrieds.  The struggles have to do with marriage, jobs, relationships, family, not wanting to conform to the world, struggles like that are quite common.  I have a real heart for men in this city, and men in this nation.  And one of our biggest desires, as a leadership team, is to raise up a generation of men who are passionate and who are leading with intention.  Generally, men are rather passive, especially in this city. That is one of the struggles we are taking on right now.
Matt: Steve, where has a lot of your growth come from? Fresh converts? People moving in? Transfers?
Steve: Probably it is an even mix between transfers from more conservative church and new commitments or people who have back-slidden and made a decision to once again serve God.  In terms of advertising, we have not done much, not to much marketing.  We have really trusted to use word of mouth, encouraging people to bring friends and family.  We believe in outreach and marketing but in planting finances are tight and we also wanted to make sure we established a DNA of personal outreach versus relying on marketing.  Not so say we won't use it in future, but we are not focusing on it now.  As we move to events and series, we will use it but for now we are using word of mouth and inviting friends and family.
Matt: How has the church changed since you started in 2004?      
Steve: I think the church has changed, not to put over emphasis on this but there has been a significant change in the church as the Lord has changed my wife and I and the gifting and calling on our lives.  Especially, as we have felt a resolve to build on the principles we know to be Biblical, the church has taken on a new flavor. About a year and a half after we went through a season of real intimidation as to who we were and what we were called to be.  I realized that we were compromising on values that we believe are true and right.  So, as we have come through that and gained confidence in who we are, the church has really responded and that has been an incredibly exciting moment.  We have learned some lessons, we aren't saying we have arrived, but we have a much clearer sense of who we are and what God has called us to. We are not striving for the worlds view of in numbers and things, those are not driving us and I think that is a good thing 
Matt: As far as a Sunday morning, what type of setup do you have?
Steve: 8.30 the worship team gathers to setup, we have various small groups that take turns hosting with drinks, snacks, and literature and they also arrive at 8.30.  9.30 the leaders gather with the small group and we pray for the meeting, 9.45 we are there to great people, about 10am we have worship.  Generally the worship team prepares 4-5 songs, but we really try to give room to the HS to lead us.  There have been times when the worship goes on for an hour so the teaching is shorter, and there have been times where we have felt the worship time needs to be shorter because the HS wants to use the teaching time to really minister to people. So, we try to be flexible as we can. 

We encourage contributions, through the elders to help them.  If there are opportunities for ministry, we may pause for 10 min to do that.  Announcements are after the worship...we teach for about 40 min and we always try to work into the teaching the truth of the gospel.  At the end of every meeting we invite people to become Christians and always make prayer available and encourage people to hang out after the meeting. 
Matt: What is the leadership structure?  How does your staff look?
Steve: I work full time, employed by the church.  We do have an administrative assistant, who works 2 1/2 days a week.  She is the only other salaried person who works for the church.  The leadership team consists of myself and two other men who are elders.  And then we have a team of elders, we believe in an eldership team lead church, who I have the responsibility to lead the team, but the entire team leads the church.  We are all married, so our wives, while they are not ordained or pastors, they are involved in leadership decisions and meetings to bring in their  perspectives.  

We have a team of deacons, not in the traditional sense, but anointed men and women of God gifted to preach, prophecy, evangelism, whatever their gifting may be.  We have 3 couples who are deacons and we are about to release a single lady onto our deacon team.  So, those are the offices in our local church.  As a local church we relate to a Ephesians 4 ministry team called  New Covenant Ministries International.   That is a team of apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers who are invited through relationship that we as an eldership have developed, they don't come in as hierarchy but come to partner with the local elders to bring gifting and ministry, as it says in Ephesians 4,"so the saints can do the work of service and bring us to maturity."
Matt: How do you go about raising up leaders, identifying elders, do you have a system, or material or is more organic?
Steve: We have tried to incorporate both formal and informal. The informal would be having people in our home, especially if we feel like God has his hand on a couple we would spend more time with them, asking them probing questions. Getting a sense of where they are at, challenging them in areas of character, getting a sense of what is in their heart.  And then we have formal training as well.  I try to get together once a quarter with potential leaders to envisions them about where the church is going, find out what is going on in their lives, hear some testimonies. 

We also have a time of training which is broken into four areas.  We have leadership training from the Old Testament, leadership training from the new Testament, Leadership examples from The life of Paul and the life of Jesus.  As the time is right, and we invite people to come along, we make it clear that we are not asking them to become leaders we are just preparing them for what God is taking them it no, but the timing of that has to be worked out with God.  So, they know even though they are going through leadership training that does not mean they will be set in as leaders.  

Those we feel God is raising up as deacons or elders, from that group we will take them away and spend some time teaching on 'what is a deacon,' 'what is an elder,' 'what do they do,'...every time we get an Ephesians 4 ministry in we would set aside time for them to spend time with existing leaders and potential leaders.  We ask their perspective as well...who do they see sticking out from the crowd, who would they consider for leadership.  We ask them to give us some perspective on that as well.  And when we travel, if there are opportunities for us to minister in other churches, we try and bring potential leaders along with us. Because going on adventures together is a great way of building leadership.
Matt: My wife and I will be moving to Chicago to plant a church and we are praying about where we are supposed to be.  We feel like we are to be in the city. We feel that we want to be close to a university.  We have one year old and expecting another in late January. Taking those factors into consideration, what insight would you give in terms of choosing a place to live? Combined with that, what advice would you give us if you could do things over?
Steve:  To answer your first question, the trendy spots would be Lincoln Park and DePaul University, that is obviously an area with lots of young people and young families.  Lincoln Park and Lakeview would be that way.  For us, and the types of people we were drawing (gathering more of diverse group), that was not a good fit for us.  There are a lot of Caucasians, between the ages of 20-30.  There is another great community that is much more diverse which is further north.  Loyola University has a branch in the North, still in the city, the neighborhood is Andersonville/Uptown.  There is the medical district and UIC which is just to the south of the city.  That neighborhood is 10 years it would be a great place to plant, but there are not to many families there yet.  Those are the 3 that come to mind.  

In regards to advice or perspective, I think I really like what you are doing as far as taking time to look around, getting to know the city.  My wife and I arrived and our two young kids, not knowing anyone, and there was a lot of pressure to make something happen quite quickly.  That is part of the reason why it took us so long to find out who we were and what God has called us too.  We learned a lot on the fly, not that I regret that because we have learned so much and God had a particular purpose in that. 

But, I love what you are doing-taking time to learn the city and what it is God is calling you to, how you are gifted, where you fit best.  If I could do things over, I would ask for 6 months of salaried support so I could just live in the city, get to know the city, the pulse of the city.  I think as soon as you move here, get around the city as much as you can. Get to concerts, get to events, go exploring, spend time with people who have lived here for 20,30,40 years, be a student of the city.  As we have done that over the years we feel like we are just now grasping the heart of the city.  I feel what you are doing right now is outstanding.
Matt: Steve, thank you so much.  I have learned so much during this short time I have had with you, I really appreciate it.  


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Real Transformation: Regeneration

Wouldn't you like to know where genuine life-change comes from? If you knew, you could be more intentional about it and therefore more able to change. Do you ever wonder at what point someone experiences a deeply spiritual and personal conversion -- laying down an old life and starting a new one? Maybe something is eating away at you on the inside? Or, perhaps you've got the God bug recently? Yesterday I asked a stranger at Starbucks this question, "There are a lot of people who are interested in God right now. Do you ever think about faith or God?" He said, "I think about it all the time!" That comment told me something big was about to happen to that guy!

I'm going to explain how real spiritual transformation happens ... are you ready?

Jesus said in John 3:3 "... no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." This means that you cannot be set free from the slavery of self-centredness unless you completely start over. That's right, you need to die, and be re-born. There is no yin and yang here, no makeover, its a radical death and resurrection event! Jesus is tough but clear about it.

There is some confusion over the process of salvation. Some think that people can initiate their own spiritual transformation through their efforts of repentance, works or even meditation. Such verses as Romans 10:13, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved", seem to suggest that our response causes the change. However, the scriptures are clear that the re-birth of the soul, being born again, is something that we play no part in. Our part is repentance which comes as a result of regeneration. God initiates spiritual change in us and we respond. 

Titus 3:5 refers to this change as "regeneration" which is "palingenesia" in the Greek -- literally meaning "again birth" (palin again, genesis birth). We know that God starts this process because Ezekiel 36:26 says "I will give you a new heart." The word "I" in that verse is critical. God does it. Actually, regeneration is a work of both the Father and the Holy Spirit as indicated in 1 Peter 1:3 "In his [The Father's] great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope." and in John 3:8 "born of the Spirit."

What is the significance of this? It shows that being a Christian (the best life you can have) cannot come about by being good, going to church, being born into a Christian family or a certain country, but only through the divine intervention and initiation of God. The regeneration of the soul comes before we confess our wrong doing and before we verbalise a commitment to Jesus. This is illustrated by Jesus calling Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Jesus told him I'm coming into your life today before Zacchaeus repented and resolved to undo the fruit of selfishness in his life.

The Evangelical Free Church of America unfortunately has this the wrong way around in their statement of faith. It reads "We believe that the true Church is composed of such persons who through saving faith in Jesus Christ have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit ..." Regeneration actually precedes faith in Christ, not the other way around. Regeneration is not an external sign like repentance. Regeneration is a mysteriously inward event where by God gives someone a new heart and it starts to manifest itself in the way they live their life -- there is a radical transformation. 

As a follower of Jesus this gives me great confidence in the work He is doing in peoples lives. The guy at Starbucks yesterday could have said I'm not interested, leave me alone! But he didn't due to the work of God bringing about a change. It is this activity of God that leads a person to place their faith in Christ. The Bible says in Romans 3:11 "no one seeks for God." So, a person saying I've been thinking about God recently, displays evidence of the work of God. No one knows the point of regeneration other than God. But, I think it's better to assume that God is at work. This increases our faith in sharing the gospel. Not everyone who shows interest in God is regenerated, at least not yet, but they are sure getting close! Why not expect that God is doing something in the people around us?

A personal conversion to Jesus is not the end of true transformation -- it's the beginning. Genuine regeneration must bring about results in life. 1 John 3:9 says "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God." This does not mean perfection, but it means an inward desire to do the right thing and to stop indulging in sin. I have seen this happen to people many times. They have a hunger to read the Bible, which they did not have before. They have a hunger to connect with other Christians, which they did not have before. 

The story of Zacchaeus helpfully illustrates that a change of heart, a regeneration of the soul, is different to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Zacchaeus had a radical turn around yet he was not filled with the Holy Spirit like we see in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit initiated a change of heart in Zacchaeus but did not clothe him with power gifts for ministry. I make this distinction because while someone can be born again by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, and therefore have the Spirit in their life, convicting them of sin, they may not have received The Baptism of the Holy Spirit with power gifts for ministry and mission. 

Regeneration is therefore an act of God where he imparts new spiritual life to us which results in an outward repentance and transformation. This is the first stage in salvation. My sins are forgiven because Jesus came into my life and changed me, not because of the depth of my repentance. I have a desire for God now because my sinful nature has been crucified with Christ. We cannot claim this result in regards to something we have done. It is solely the initiation of again-genesis (re-birth) in our hearts by God. If you want genuine life transformation then be assured that God is at work in your life, otherwise you just wouldn't want it.