We live in a world plagued by frustration and anxiety. Why? Because we’re trying to be “good enough” for other people, and even for God, but without any real power. Jesus died and rose again to give us an entirely new purpose for living. Learn from the story of a former terrorist named Saul what it really means to live for Jesus.
When I was a kid, I heard the gospel and believed it. I didn’t fully understand it, but I believed it.
I can remember attending our annual Easter Sunday sunrise service at the foot of the hill that hosted the headstones of our little country church’s cemetery. The Pastor talked about how Jesus could return at any moment and when he did, the graves around us would pop open and God’s resurrected people would rise from the dead to meet him! This made me huddle in a little closer to Mom and Dad, just in case.
When adulthood came, I had to grapple with the real questions. Sometimes, the question marks swirl in my mind. Especially when life is hard, when the world is messed up, and when so many people are so hopeless. What if I’m wrong? Or what if I missed the point?
Even the earliest Christians struggled between doubt and faith about certain issues, including the resurrection of Jesus. The apostles, who were eyewitnesses, never seemed to waiver after seeing the risen King. But the next generation of Christians had to struggle with faith on their own. It’s the reason Paul wrote this to the believers in Corinth…
Let me remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. It is this Good News that saves you IF you continue to believe the message I told you – unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place. I passed on to you what was most important and what has also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said.
– 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 NLT
Many scholars believe Paul was quoting a short song or doxology that may have been sung in churches in the ancient world. He was quoting it to remind the believers in Corinth of the unbroken line of faith in Jesus’ resurrection throughout the short history of a rather young Christianity.
And a couple thousand years later, our hope still remains in this one great truth: Jesus died to pay for our sins, and then God raised Jesus to life again, just as the Scriptures declare!
Since Paul was dealing in the realm of doubt about the resurrection, he introduced some pretty big “if’s” into the discussion. I love how the Bible handles our questions head-on rather than avoiding them.
But tell me this – since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For IF there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And IF Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God – for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And IF there is no resurrection, then Christ has not been raised. And IF Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And IF our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.
– 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 NLT
So IF Easter isn’t about a true story then…
- There is no point to faith.
- There is no point to church or to preaching.
- There is no forgiveness for sin.
And I really believe that. If the resurrection of Jesus didn’t happen, the gospel is a farce and I should stop pouring my life into planting a church. We can find community elsewhere and do good for the world through local charities. The church is about more. It’s about the risen King and spreading the good news of his death and resurrection.
In the last couple hundred years, rationalism has taken deeper root within our culture. Since the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t seem to make any scientific sense, it’s easier to find ways to reject it as a lie rather than embrace it by faith, with all of its implications. So there have been four particularly widespread theories about the resurrection of Jesus.
- The apostles went to the wrong tomb. But this is not likely. The tomb they were looking for belonged to a wealthy man named Joseph and was brand new. Few people in Jesus’ time were buried in their own tomb. Most were tossed in with the bones of other relatives in small boxes. Besides, while the eleven male apostles might not have been willing to ask for directions, there were several women with them who would have done so. So, no.
- The apostles were all hallucinating. All of them. At the same time. Seeing the same exact hallucination. For no apparent reason… So, no.
- Jesus just “swooned” on the cross. So, he was beaten to a bloody pulp, half his back ripped off, a hole gouged under his rib cage, a crown of thorns thrust into his scalp, nails driven through his hands and feet, and he hung on the cross for six hours drowning in his own blood. Then three days later he was up, walking, and looking so healthy that the apostles thought he had a resurrected, healthy, heavenly body? So, no.
- His body was stolen by the apostles. For me, this might be the most plausible theory except for a huge problem. These apostles went on to defend their “lie” against arrest, persecution, rejection by society, poverty, and eventually their deaths as martyrs. All eleven of them, and hundreds of others too, turned the world upside down in spite of severe persecution. Nobody does that for what they know to be a lie. So, again, no.
While I may still struggle with the momentary question marks, I feel settled on the fact that Jesus is indeed alive and well, supernaturally brought back to life after his death by the power of the Holy Spirit. So for me, the “if” is really a “since.”
SINCE Jesus definitely died for our sins…
SINCE Jesus definitely rose from the grave…
SINCE prophecy and Jesus’ teachings predicted it…
SINCE there were hundreds of eyewitnesses to his resurrection…
SINCE the apostles’ lives were radically changed by the event…
SINCE two thousand years of the history of the church testifies to it…
And SINCE He rose from the dead…
Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. So my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.
– 1 Corinthians 15:54-58 NLT
Since Jesus is alive,
- Our sin can be forgiven (IF we own it).
- Death and suffering can be defeated (IF we believe it).
- Life can have purpose and meaning (IF we choose to live it).
And over time, our faith moves from question marks to exclamation points!!! Since Jesus is alive, there is hope, life is different, and eternity matters.
I was humbled by the words scribbled on the back of a communication card this past Sunday:
This was my first time to church. I have struggled most of my life and just find myself in the worst situations. Listening to your sermon gave me a lot to think about and I am ready to let Jesus help me find the way.
I had a follow-up conversation with this young man after the service was over and I was moved by his honesty about his past and present struggles. We make it clear at Grace Hills that all of us are broken and any of us can find healing in a relationship with Jesus. That healing process just started in the life of this young man. Another young lady made the same decision Sunday as well.
In addition to two people trusting Jesus for the first time, we heard from quite a few others who were discovering or rediscovering Jesus, or church, or both.
Easter Sunday was big for us this year. Each year, it’s been our highest attended service and this year a new record was set with 337 people attending. That followed a big effort to get the word out on social media, through invite cards, and by word-of-mouth. It also followed a big community egg hunt the day before that saw about 400 people gather at a local school.
I looked at my social networks on Sunday afternoon and rejoiced to see that we weren’t alone. Christians and church leaders were praising God for people who found Jesus in churches across the land and around the world. I love that!
Pastor Rick Warren talks about how to make the most of these ‘big days’ for growth, and I agree with his approach. While some disparage the very idea of trying to ‘attract’ lost people to a weekend worship service, I believe strongly that most people who ever come to know Christ and who really go on to grow deep roots in Him do so in the context of a gospel community. It is absolutely not up to the individual believer to share Jesus alone. We have a spiritual family that can, in community, help friends explore Jesus.
As with all big events, there is a build-up and then a release of tension when it’s all over. A common question among Pastors is, how do I come down from a big Sunday? While we do often experience an overall increase in average attendance after these weekends, we also know that the crowd won’t be as big next week. So during the week following a big day, here are some practices to develop.
1. Calm down. You can’t sustain a hyper pace forever and if you try, you’ll burn out. So get some rest. Take it easy. Spend some extra time in prayer, Bible reading, and meditation this week.
2. Follow up. People came and filled out cards, so they’re willing to be ministered to with at least a thank you and an offer to help further. And don’t do this all yourself. Delegate and spread the joy around!
3. Think big picture. One high attendance Sunday does not a disciple-making church make. Evaluate your plan for assimilating and discipling people. How will you turn a crowd into a congregation?
4. Plan ahead. Mother’s Day is next in terms of Sundays to do something out of the ordinary, or your church may do something in between. It’s okay to take a week to slow the pace, but don’t let the next opportunity sneak up on you.
5. Sustain momentum. I’m a big believer that movements are evidenced by momentum – sustained forward motion. When you have a ‘big win’ Sunday, it’s important to celebrate it in the life of your church.
6. Focus on the next lost person. Attracting a crowd to church is a great way to allow the community to draw people to Jesus collectively, but don’t ever get so focused on the masses and on the crowd that you lose sight of the real goal – to reach the next lost person.
7. Pray and humble yourself. I hinted at this in tip #1 because prayer that appeals to God’s power undergirds everything we do. And I’ll close with prayer because it also prevents pride from messing up the victory. Take a minute to blame all the good stuff on Jesus!
Was awesome. On Saturday, we hosted a community Easter egg hunt at Grace Hill Elementary School. About 75 volunteers, a third of which were teens, came and hid 5,000 eggs and served a hot grilled lunch to about 350 people. The school was gracious enough to allow us to invite all 500 of their students which allowed us to have some great conversations with people in the community. (Watch the highlight video.)
On Sunday, we broke our previous attendance record (176, set on our launch Sunday) with 215! With a full band and a full theater, our first Easter service as a new church family was moving. And the highlight? Two young people gave their lives to Jesus and will be baptized soon.
We loved the weekend – it was exhilarating – but our hearts ache for the lost. We’re begging God to open doors for us to connect with people who are far from God in northwest Arkansas, to empower us to make disciples who bring others to Jesus, and to keep the mission and the vision as non-negotiable priorities at all times.
How was your Easter weekend? If you were at Grace Hills, tell me what you thought. And if you were somewhere else, tell me how it went. Go!
Easter Sunday is special. In spite of the competition from little furry bunnies who deliver colored eggs and sugar-induced hyperactive episodes among children, it’s still a holiday that is fairly “religious.” That is to say, Jesus still gets a fair amount of attention, possibly because it’s always on Sunday and churches draw such attention to the resurrection. This is good.
As a Pastor, I know that Easter Sunday excites me because I’ll see new and unfamiliar faces in our weekend worship service. Most Pastors (those who aren’t jaded toward the occasion) get the warm fuzzies as we approach this big day because of the opportunity to address an unusually large crowd of attenders. As my own church gears up for this special Sunday, I wanted to pass along some wisdom I’ve learned from fifteen years of celebrating this special time as a congregational leader.
Here are tips for approaching Easter as a Pastor…
- Remember Jesus. It’s all about Him. His resurrection is the first half of the Easter story and the promised and guaranteed hope for the future resurrection of all believers is the second half. Make it a day of worship.
- Remember family. Easter Sunday afternoon has always been as meaningful to me as the morning service because our family gets to spend quality time together.
- Remember Jesus as a family. I love peeps and chocolate bunnies as much as the next guy, but it’s even more important to have family conversations about the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Read it from the gospels together and talk about the wonder of that morning.
- Remember children. I like church Easter egg hunts simply because we’re smiling at kids for the 4.2 minutes it takes for them to locate our carefully hidden plastic eggs. If having an egg hunt means you will welcome more kids to church on Easter Sunday, go for it. I know you’ll be faithful to present the gospel to them and their parents since you’re remembering Jesus already.
- Remember to celebrate. This is a day of victory and triumph. It kinda deserves a smile.
- Remember a lost world. People will come to your church on Easter who may only come once or twice the rest of the year. You can try to shame them into coming more (and it probably won’t work), or you can just love them and have compassion on them the way Jesus often had compassion on crowds who only showed up when he had food. Love them. Treat them lovingly. Maybe they’ll be back because of love.
- Remember the questions of a lost world. The resurrection is unbelievable… if you’re a naturalist. If you don’t embrace the supernatural God of Creation, you’ll have a tough time with the miracle of the resurrection. Remember this. Don’t fear the big questions, and don’t be afraid to let Scripture give answers.
- Remember to be the church. What do you do every Sunday when guests come? Do that, but do it even better. Welcome newcomers. Smile. Serve them. Love their kids. Guide them around your campus. Meet their need for friendship.
- Remember who you are. Don’t try to be the church you’re NOT on Easter. Be you. Pastor, you should preach. Your worship leader should lead. And while the day is special, the worship service should give people an idea of who you always are, not just who you are on a holiday.
- Remember that people count. So don’t just count the people. Metrics are valuable and big attendance days can help us envision what our church will look like if we work together. But don’t forget that every face is the window to a soul deeply loved by God.
And… remember Jesus… no matter what else you forget.
Graphic by Pierce Brantley.
Thirteen years ago, I read The Purpose-Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission for the first time. The first chapter contains the story of how Rick and Kay Warren packed up their belongings and headed to a community to which God had called them to plant Saddleback Church. They arrived in Orange County with a moving truck and about $1,000 and started a church with seven people at the first Bible study.
This past weekend, I attended four of our services and helped route people to overflow areas where they could participate in the services despite the fullness of the main worship center. The day’s attendance totalled over 37,000 across twelve services at eleven campuses. Please understand, Jesus was glorified with just as much excellence and enthusiasm in churches meeting with a handful of people.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better. But there is something pretty neat about reading the early chapters of the book of Acts and seeing how God inspired the record of those days to include detailed numbers on how many thousands of people were becoming part of the church family, and then seeing God continue to reach the masses in our culture today.
People, in those days, were being added to the church daily and in much larger numbers than we see anywhere on the planet today. I agree with Bailey Smith who said “There are no large churches. Some churches are just smaller than others.” We can hardly claim “largeness” just because of attendance numbers when so much of the surrounding population remains unreached.
But when I realized just how many people were on campus, I felt a wave of gratitude for several reasons:
- Pastor Rick preached the gospel, crystal clear, to over 37,000 people at one time.
- I deserve hell because of my sin. Instead, because of Jesus Christ, I am alive, in the ministry, and on staff at an amazing model church.
- Jesus rose from the grave! That’s what the day was really all about. And the same power that worked in His resurrection is working in us today as well.
We won’t be here much longer. In nine weeks, Angie and I will go from helping pastor 37,000 people to pastoring only a very few (temporarily, we hope). But I will never even begin to be able to thank God enough for allowing us to be here, in this season, in this place, connecting with this church, and learning in this atmosphere.
He is risen. He is Lord. And He is sooooo good!
You may see this as trite, or you might see it as a really tasty way (pun intended) to share the basic elements of the story of Jesus through imagery familiar to everyone who has ever experienced the awesome goodness of Marshmallow Peeps.