About worship music

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

One of the great blessings I’ve enjoyed during my 22 years as GCI President is sharing worship in multiple languages and styles with GCI congregations around the world. At times the worship music was so joyously uplifting that I had a hard time standing still! I always appreciated it when the music was carefully coordinated with the theme of the service and presented at a volume that was just right. I enjoyed it when the worship leader provided fitting short segues from one song to the next, thus facilitating a seamless flow. Yes, there were those times when the music was not well-planned and presented. On a few occasions, members apologized to Tammy or me for music that was of poor quality. I mention this, not to embarrass anyone, but to encourage all who plan, lead and perform worship music to offer their best to God and to their congregation.

A skillful worship team leading worship
in GCI’s Columbus, OH, congregation.

Though we have skilled singers and instrumentalists in many of our congregations (like the one pictured above), not everyone has the skill needed to lead or perform worship music well. This doesn’t mean that to be on a worship team you must be a musical genius like Johann Sebastian Bach. After playing one of Bach’s choral preludes, Felix Mendelssohn said, “If I had lost all my religious faith, this thing alone would be sufficient to restore it.” Though Bach worked various jobs to support himself, his great passion in life was proclaiming the gospel through music. It’s always a delight to be led in worship by people who are both passionate and gifted for this vital ministry.

I know that many of our congregations do not have access to gifted worship leaders or musicians. I join them in praying that God will bring those human resources their way. In the meantime, there are multiple resources they can draw upon in providing worshipful music in their church services each week. Toward that end, let me offer some related observations concerning worship music. These observations come from my own experience and comments I’ve received from many people.

Volume

Tammy and I recently visited the worship service at a medium-size church not far from our home. I was investigating the possibility of being a guest preacher there in the future. As the worship music began, Tammy and I could feel the bones in our chests vibrate and our ears begin to hurt. Tammy went to the back of the hall and an usher asked if he could help. She explained that she was trying to locate a place where it was not so loud. When he offered her earplugs, she thought he was kidding (we discovered that this is how the congregation assists people who feel the music is too loud). To avoid the pain she continued to feel, Tammy remained in the lobby until the music ended.

My point in mentioning this is that worship music need not be painfully loud to be impactful. God is not hard of hearing. The purpose of music in worship is to help people share in Jesus’ worship of the Father, and when the volume creates pain, it causes people to focus on their discomfort rather than on God. Some of the most powerful worship I’ve participated in is when the congregation was singing acapella (without instrumental accompaniment). But no matter how the music is presented, the focus should not be the music itself, but Who the music refers us to—our triune God, celebrating his nature and character.

Commentary between songs

Effective worship leaders avoid mini-sermons between songs. They understand that the goal of worship leading is not to be the star of a great performance, but to be an unobtrusive prompter who helps the congregation focus on our triune God. Though we all enjoy stories, the space between songs is not the time to tell them. Lengthy comments are also unhelpful and distracting, especially when they are theologically unsound. I once heard a worship leader invite Jesus into the service (as though he was absent). Perhaps they were unaware that Jesus, as God, is omnipresent. A better comment would have been, “Let’s join with Jesus, our true worship leader, who promises to be with us, even if only two or three of us are gathered.” Comments introducing a song should relate the song to the theme of the service as reflected in the Scripture readings and sermon. When all elements of the service follow one theme, there are fewer distractions and people are helped to focus on one, central word from the Lord.

Orderly worship

Careful preparation leading to orderliness avoids “worship killers.” Perhaps you’ve been in a church service in which the music was provided using CDs or DVDs. But the operator was unfamiliar with the equipment and the order of songs and so there were multiple, embarrassing starts and stops. Having the song list ahead of time enables the sound crew to make sure the transitions are smooth and the volume is consistent. In that way distractions are minimized and the worship has a harmony and coherence that aligns with who our Triune God is.

Introducing new songs

I’ve been in services where the worship leader introduced several new songs, then lamented the congregation’s lack of participation! It is not helpful to introduce new songs each week. Let your congregation get used to a repertoire so they can sing the worship songs well and thus participate fully without too much effort. When a new song needs to be introduced, a good way to do so is to have it performed during the offering when members can focus on the words and be moved by its message. Please don’t introduce a new song to close a service. It’s best that most of the songs be ones the congregation knows well. This not only helps regular attenders, it helps visitors to be comfortable—imagine what a visitor experiences when they see most of the congregation struggling through a song.

Conclusion

I love visiting GCI congregations and sharing worship with them. I want all our members, as well as our visitors and guests to experience the joy that comes with worshiping our triune God in song. When we worship together, from the heart, we experience part of the communion shared by the Father, Son and Spirit. Enabling and enhancing the congregation’s worship of God in song is a high calling and I hope these thoughts will help those who provide this important ministry week in and week out.

Always worshiping,
Joseph Tkach

This is my story

“From the President” this week is by GCI Vice President, Greg Williams.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Greg Williams

My father, Dean Williams, provided my first link to GCI (formerly WCG). While serving as a lay pastor in a small Advent Christian church in Dana, NC, dad began studying WCG literature. Then in 1974, he contracted Ankylosing Spondylitis, a crippling form of rheumatoid arthritis that caused his vertebrae to begin fusing, resulting in terrible pain. As a result, he was bedridden for a year. He used that time to study WCG’s 58-lesson Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course.

Dean Williams

Though lacking formal Bible training, my dad had always been a dedicated student of the Bible. So, after completing the Correspondence Course, he had many questions. In 1975, he contacted WCG headquarters in Pasadena, CA, and was put in contact with Hugh Wilson, the WCG pastor nearest our home. When the two met, my dad wanted to discuss the book of Romans. My dad’s contention was that in Romans, grace wins out over law. Pastor Wilson countered with WCG’s belief that God’s law was still in force since the church lives in the time between the old and new covenants (with the new not fully in force until Jesus returns).

Acquiescing to Hugh’s argument, dad led my family in leaving the Christian Advent church to become Sabbath-keeping WCG members. Every Saturday we would travel 30 miles to attend WCG church services in Asheville, NC. This meant that I was taken out of the normal routine of a 17-year-old who had been active in school life as a three-sport athlete. Instead, I became an active participant in WCG’s Youth Opportunities United (YOU) activities, driving across state lines to attend family weekends in places I had never visited before. I excelled in YOU track and field competitions, going from regional to tri-regional events, and then to the 1978 YOU national track meet in Pasadena, CA. I was then invited to attend a National Youth Leadership weekend in Pasadena. These activities solidified my desire to attend Ambassador College. There I met a co-ed named Susan Lang. We attended Ambassador from 1979 to 1983, and were married in 1984.

Linda and Hugh Wilson, who now live in Colorado Springs, CO.

In October of 1986 I was ordained an elder in WCG and by the summer of 1987, Susan and I, with our newborn twins Glenn and Garrett, were on our way to Denver, CO, where I served as an Associate Pastor. There we crossed paths again with Hugh Wilson who was now the pastor of WCG’s congregation in nearby Fort Collins. Hugh and his wife Linda went above and beyond in making us (a couple with newborn twins!) feel accepted into ministry. We are still grateful for the wonderful way they treated us.

Fast-forwarding now in the story, by 1996 WCG had fully embraced the biblical teaching that the new covenant was fully in force with Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. This means that the church is under grace, not law. That year I once again crossed paths with Hugh Wilson. Being a likeable and humble man, he said, “Greg, I guess your dad won that argument we had about the book of Romans!” We had a good chuckle, and when I shared the story with my dad, his heart was warmed.

Fanny Crosby

My dad was a huge admirer of Fanny Crosby. Though becoming blind shortly following birth, she is said to have composed over 8,000 hymns! Fanny’s lyrics testify to a believer who, despite physical blindness, saw Jesus with clear, strong eyes of faith. Her hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” was my dad’s favorite. Its first line proclaims a great truth: “Blessed assurance Jesus is mine!” The chorus then adds, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”

My dad’s journey, from grace to law, then back to grace, is also my story—one with a conclusion that is the testimony of all believers: Jesus is mine, and I am his.

Praising my Savior, all the day long,
Greg Williams

Why prophecy?

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

It seems there is always someone claiming to be a prophet or trying to calculate the date of Jesus’ return. I recently saw a rabbi attempting to tie the predictions of Nostradamus to the Torah, and another fellow predicting that Jesus will return on Pentecost 2019. Many prophecy buffs try to fit current news events into Bible prophecy. Though both Herbert Armstrong and Karl Barth advocated “holding the newspaper in one hand while reading the Bible in the other,” they had very different things in mind.

Armstrong was promoting a premillennial-dispensational, futurist approach to prophecy (one still followed by many) and Barth was urging people to stay firmly grounded in Scripture while seeking to understand the ever-changing modern world. “Take your Bible and take your newspaper and read both,” said Barth, “but interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Barth had it right—he understood that staying firmly grounded in Scripture enables us to, 1) understand the core message of the Bible (including its prophetic passages) and, 2) navigate our way through life within a culture that constantly challenges Scripture. We can confidently follow Barth’s advice knowing that the Bible is reliable. That God has given us reliable copies of Scripture was affirmed in the discovery (beginning in 1946) of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Old Testament fragments in those ancient scrolls agree 98% of the time with the texts of Scripture passed down to us.

(used with permission from ReverendFun.com)

The purpose of Scripture

Jesus taught that the purpose of Scripture is to reveal God—his character, purpose and nature. The Bible fulfills that purpose by pointing to Jesus who is the full and final revelation of God. A Christ-centered reading of Scripture helps us to stay true to that purpose, and helps us avoid misinterpreting prophecy.

Jesus teaches that he is the Living Center of the whole of biblical revelation and that we ought to interpret all Scripture (prophecy included) out of that center. Jesus scathingly criticized the Pharisees for failing on this point. Though they looked to Scripture for eternal life, they failed to recognize Jesus as the source of that life (John 5:36-47). Ironically, their pre-understanding of Holy Scripture blinded them to the fulfillment of Scripture. Jesus showed how to rightly interpret the Bible by showing how all Scripture points to him as its fulfillment (Luke 24:25-27; 44-47). The testimony of the apostles in the New Testament affirms this Christ-centered interpretive method.

As the perfect image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), Jesus reveals God’s nature through his interaction with humanity. This is good to bear in mind when reading the Old Testament. It’s especially relevant in keeping us away from things like trying to apply the story of Daniel in the lion’s den to a current situation in our world, say a vote for political office. The prophecies of Daniel are not given to tell us who to vote for. Rather, the book of Daniel shares a story about a man being blessed for his faithfulness to God. In that way, Daniel points to the faithful God who is always for us.

But is the Bible relevant?

Many people question the idea that a book as ancient as the Bible can be relevant today. After all, the Bible says nothing about such modern things as cloning, modern medicine, and space travel. Modern science and technology raise questions and conundrums that did not exist in Bible times. Nevertheless, the Bible is highly relevant in our day because it reminds us that our technological advances have not changed the human condition, nor have they changed God’s good purpose and plans for humankind.

The Bible enables us to understand our role in God’s plan, including the coming fulness of his kingdom. Scripture helps us recognize the purpose and meaning of our lives. It teaches us that, rather than ending in nothingness, our lives are headed toward a great reunion where we’ll meet Jesus face-to-face. The Bible reveals to us that there is meaning to life—we have been created to be in union and communion with our triune God. The Bible also provides a guide to equip us for this abundant life (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It does so by continually pointing us to Jesus, the one who gives us abundant life by connecting us to the Father (John 5:39) and by sending us his Spirit.

Yes, the Bible is reliable, with a distinctive, highly-relevant purpose. Nevertheless, many people dismiss it. Back in the 1700s, French philosopher Voltaire predicted that in 100 years the Bible would pass into the mists of history. Well, he was wrong. The Guinness World Records states that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Over 5 billion copies have been sold and distributed to date. It’s both humorous and ironic that Voltaire’s home in Geneva, Switzerland, was purchased by the Geneva Bible Society and became a Bible distribution center. So much for predictions!

The purpose of prophecy

Contrary to the view of some, the purpose of Bible prophecy is not to help us predict the future, but to help us know Jesus, the Lord of all history. Prophecy prepares the way for Jesus and points to him. Note what the apostle Peter wrote concerning the calling given to prophets:

Concerning this salvation [described in the previous seven verses], the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven…. (1 Pet. 1:10-12a)

Peter says that the Spirit of Christ (the Holy Spirit) is the source of prophecy, and that the purpose of prophecy is to predict the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He implies that when you’ve heard the message of the gospel, you’ve heard all you need to know about prophecy. The apostle John made a similar point in writing this: “Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 19:10b).

Scripture is clear: Jesus is the purpose of prophecy. Bible prophecy tells us who Jesus is, what he has done, and what he will yet do. Our focus in GCI is on Jesus (and the life he gives us in communion with God) not on geo-political alliances, trade wars or whether someone predicted something in a timely manner. It is a great comfort to know that Jesus is both the foundation and the completion of our faith. Our Lord is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Loving Jesus our Savior, the focus of all prophecy,
Joseph Tkach

PS: GCI Update will be published next on September 12. Look for GCI Equipper on September 5. For those of you in the U.S., I wish you a relaxing Labor Day holiday on September 3.

Thankful that we are evangelicals

This “From the President” letter is by GCI Vice President Greg Williams.

Dear GCI Brothers and Sisters,

Greg and Susan Williams

Unfortunately, many people (including some Christians) associate the term evangelical more with political and sociological positions than with the sincerely-held faith of a large group of Christians spread throughout the world. This misunderstanding is due in large part to the way the media uses the term evangelical, though it also results from organizations and individuals who, calling themselves evangelicals, espouse very conservative (even extreme) political and social ideologies.

When we refer to GCI as being evangelical, we are using that term, not politically or sociologically, but theologically. To say that we are evangelicals is to say that we identify with Jesus Christ, who is the heart and core of the gospel (the evangel). The same can be said for the 40+ organizations (including GCI) that make up the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). In the U.S., GCI has held NAE membership for many years. We also hold membership in similar organizations outside the U.S. While NAE members may not agree on all issues, they all are theologically evangelical—sharing a commitment to orthodox Christian doctrine and a passion to make Christ known to a lost and hurting world.

Through attending NAE meetings, I’ve come to know this organization as one that holds true to Christian orthodoxy, desires greater understanding and engagement with the culture, and demonstrates a humble spirit of self-reflection. I have been impressed with the quality of the speakers at NAE gatherings. They help NAE members grow in understanding how the gospel relates to the challenging and often divisive issues we face in today’s world. These issues include homosexuality, gender dysphoria, a worldwide refugee crisis, and Muslims in America. At one NAE gathering, we toured the U.S. capital and heard from members of Congress who are Democrats and Republicans. The goal of NAE President Leith Anderson is not to espouse sociological positions or political agendas, but to help the leaders of NAE member organizations gain a more fully Christ-centered, gospel-shaped perspective on what is going on in the world.

The approach NAE takes to current (often controversial and divisive) issues within our culture is something I hope to see reflected more and more in the approach taken throughout the ranks in GCI. It’s a challenge for us to think with the mind of Christ about these issues instead of thinking out of a perspective limited by our life experiences (our context). Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Seminary, puts it this way:

Mark Labberton

It is striking that our context is the most pervasive influence that shapes us, even if we profess Jesus as Lord. A pure Christian identity isn’t available, because we all live immersed in context.

Dr. Labberton also notes that we all need “a new social location”—a new mindset that results from the union and communion we have with Christ, by the Spirit. In GCI, we aspire to have that mindset—what we refer to as a Christ-centered worldview. We then seek to work across denominational lines with others who share this worldview. We come together through the NAE and other venues, not to justify ourselves, but to hear a fresh word from the Lord, who speaks to us all through Scripture and brings us all to see whatever blindness we may still suffer from.

GCI and all NAE members aspire to be evangels who, with the Spirit’s guidance and empowerment, faithfully follow Jesus and his gospel. As evangelicals, we seek to witness to the truth that is in Jesus, who alone has the power to save. We strive to rise above personal hurts, prejudices and societal trends to confidently follow in Jesus’ footsteps. We seek to grow in Jesus’ faith, humility and compassion, including his commitment to justice and righteousness for the dignity of all people.

One of the benefits I derive personally from GCI’s NAE membership is the joy of rubbing shoulders with leaders from other denominations that share with GCI a commitment to Jesus and his gospel. I find them to be both encouraging and wise. It’s extremely helpful to me to talk with them about what they have experienced, and to compare notes about all manner of shared concerns and experiences.

I pray that we in GCI will grow in our evangelical commitments and practices. I pray we’ll be even more passionate in expressing the love and life of Jesus through our actions, and in sharing the truth of his gospel in our conversations.

Thankful that we are evangelicals,
Greg Williams

PS: For help in approaching, with the mind of Christ, the challenging (and often divisive) ethical issues that arise in our world, be sure to read the Worldview Conversion series currently running in GCI Equipper—click here for the first article.

Another plane conversation

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

I’m half-way convinced that I should write a book titled Transformed by Airplane Conversations. I have two reasons: First, over the years I’ve had some interesting conversations on airplanes with a variety of people, and at times the conversations have addressed the Christian faith. Second, your responses to my sharing these conversations in the past leads me to want to share some more.

Though Christianity is not always the topic of my airplane conversations, sometimes it does come up—typically when my seatmate asks what I do for a living. When I reply that I’m a Christian pastor, the conversation often quickly ends. However, sometimes it continues. Let me share one of those times with you.

(source)

As the flight was taking off, I began privately thanking God for the first class upgrade, which meant a more comfortable seat, some wine and lunch. My thoughts were interrupted when the man seated next to me introduced himself as a Jewish lawyer. Before I could reply, the flight attendant started serving lunch. First, she brought us shrimp cocktail, revealing that my seatmate was not a practicing Jew—he was eating his shrimp so fast that I decided to offer him mine. He gobbled it up right after telling me his doctor had told him to cut back on cholesterol! As we continued eating, he asked what I do for a living. I replied that I was a Christian pastor—fully expecting that he’d reply with silence, and I’d then be putting my earbuds back in to listen to an old Beatles’ album. But to my surprise, he continued the conversation, telling me that he respected me for being a Christian pastor!

As the conversation continued, we talked about our favorite foods, wine, beer and music. Then he asked me a question that seemed to come out of nowhere (though I suspect he had wanted to ask it as soon as I mentioned I was Christian). “What reasons,” he asked, “would you give me for believing that God exists?” Though I had not anticipated that question, I quickly replied, “Let me count the ways!”

Thinking that he probably was at least an agnostic, I began by noting that, from my perspective, apart from God there is no logical, philosophical or reasonable explanation for how everything exists in our universe. I continued by noting that atheism is a false religion in that it requires an irrational faith commitment to believe that life comes from non-life, and that everything popped into existence on its own by accident, without any purpose. He agreed that the creation question was huge for him. I then attempted to illustrate the nature of atheism as a religion by showing that it makes its own faith statements and has its own evangelistic ministry. I mentioned the names of atheism’s two “apostles”: Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss; and its four “evangelists” (pictured below, left to right): Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.

(source)

Amidst our give-and-take, I made several points concerning atheism, noting that its belief in blind chance as the origin of an unimaginably complex universe takes as much or more faith than belief in a loving, sovereign God who created it all. I also mentioned that the atheism peddled by Dawkins and his cohorts focuses largely on what it doesn’t believe in and why it hates religion, especially Christianity. Though that approach might satisfy some people, it is not enough for me and many others who grapple with the great mysteries of life and reality.

He asked why I have concluded that atheism is inadequate as a rational worldview. I replied by noting that atheism is unable to provide a consistent explanation for the origin and order of the universe. If an atheist argues that matter is eternal, they are going against modern science, which states that the universe had a beginning and is gradually running down. If they affirm that the universe had a beginning, then they must account for what caused that beginning. Either way, atheism cannot adequately explain the universe and a world full of complex life forms. I also noted that the atheistic worldview is incapable of providing the necessary preconditions to account for the universal laws of science and logic. In short, it is unable to account for the meaningful realities that people encounter in life, especially considering the atheistic view that we have no free will and all our choices are an illusion.

I then noted that atheism cannot furnish a rational basis for determining good and evil, or the human need for absolute moral standards. If there is no God—who by definition is absolutely good—then there is no absolute standard for judging something to be good or evil. Ironically, atheism objects to the existence of God due to the presence of evil in the world, yet it is unable to account for the difference between good and evil, much less provide a solution, apart from God, to the problem of evil.

My seatmate and I had an enjoyable exchange, and he said he appreciated most of my points. He confirmed that, while he is not an atheist, neither was he following any religion. He said he was searching, and felt he had not found the right place yet. Then he got up from his seat and headed for the restroom. While there, the smoke alarm sounded. Immediately, he was interrogated as to whether he had been trying to smoke a cigarette in the restroom. The flight attendant even asked me if I had seen him holding a cigarette when he entered and exited the restroom. When he was permitted to return to his seat, I told him that I know a good Jewish lawyer if he needs one! At first he laughed, but then he asked who I was referring to. He laughed again when I replied that I was referring to Jesus Christ, though this time his laugh was somehow warmer.

As we deplaned and went our separate ways, I wondered what he had been thinking when I mentioned Jesus to him. I’ll never know, though I’m happy I had the chance to do so. On my way into the terminal, a quote from G.K. Chesterton came to mind: “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.” Something to think about.

Grateful that God has revealed himself to us and we can share that knowledge with others,
Joseph Tkach

Open for ministry!

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

Greg and Susan Williams

The move of our Home Office from Glendora, CA, to Charlotte, NC, was quite a challenge. Not only were there hundreds of boxes to pack and unpack, there was the challenge of getting the staff members who moved from California to North Carolina situated in their new homes. There was also the challenge of filling some key staff positions. Thankfully, those tasks are now complete, and I’m pleased to report that GCI’s International Home Office is open for ministry!

Open House

To celebrate, we recently held an open house at the Home Office. It was attended by local GCI members and other guests. Here are some pictures (click to enlarge):

Welcome to our new home!

New Media Team

Michelle

As noted by Joseph Tkach in his March 14 Update letter, several Glendora Home Office employees did not relocate to Charlotte. As a result, we needed to fill several Home Office staff positions. A primary need involved staffing the GCI Media team. In Glendora, that team was competently directed since 2010 by Nathan Smith. But having recently become a father, and with all four of the grandparents located on the West coast, Nathan decided not to relocate to Charlotte. We are grateful for his service, including his willingness over the last several months to share his knowledge and expertise in preparing our new GCI Media Director, Michelle Fleming.

Michelle, the daughter of one of GCI’s mission directors, has been a Home Office employee for several months. She is bright, quickly learns new skills, and has the management acumen needed to tackle the challenge of producing media content on behalf of our global GCI family. Most importantly, Michelle is a GCI elder with a passion for how the Spirit is shaping us as a fellowship. I’m confident that her passion will shine brightly in the new and creative media productions to come from the newly formed GCI Media team, which now includes Joe Brannen and Charlotte Rakestraw. For an article about the Media team, click here, but first let me brag a bit on the newest team members:

Charlotte
Joe

Joe Brannen, a GCI elder, is our Digital Content Developer. Joe does a magnificent job telling the GCI story in videos, photographs and other media because he and his young family have lived the story at home and through ministry in GCI congregations and camps. Charlotte Rakestraw, the daughter of a GCI pastor in Florida, is our Social Media and Correspondence Coordinator. Having discovered a passion for graphic design as a teen, she majored in that area of study in college, and has worked as a designer for ten years. Charlotte now uses her considerable graphic design talent to tell the GCI story using 21st century technology.

I’m thrilled that this talented Media team is now in place in our Home Office. I’m blessed to have their offices adjacent to mine. Their infectious energy keeps me excited to come to work every day!

Come visit us. We’re open for ministry!
Greg Williams, GCI Vice President

Our true worth

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

Years ago, the McDonalds corporation conducted an advertising campaign that declared in no uncertain terms, YOU DESERVE A BREAK TODAY! We’ve all seen ads like that—ones proclaiming that we deserve to own or consume a particular product. Many companies use this marketing approach to get us to buy their coffee, hamburgers, hair products, even toilet tissue. It’s not that I’m against buying nice things—recently I bought a dark chocolate, caramel and peanut-covered apple. Tammy and I definitely enjoyed it! But let me ask you this: Is our worth as human beings really about the things we own and the products we consume?

(Source)

Advertising campaigns like the one described above are designed to get us to view ourselves more highly than we ought so that we’ll reward ourselves by buying the advertiser’s product. Sadly, that scheme works because our fallen humanity is subject to flattery (Psalm 5:9 NKJV; Romans 16:18 NKJV). We see that in the case of Adam and Eve (our first representatives), who rejected God’s good purposes for humanity. The distortion of human nature resulted, though God did not give up on us. He went to work advancing his purpose to bring many sons and daughters to glory (Hebrews 2:10). In doing so, God does not give us a slick sales pitch appealing to our distorted sense of self-worth. Rather, he invites us to trust in and follow his Son, the second Adam, who took on himself our fallen human nature and restored it to what God intended so that in him and by his Spirit, God’s eternal purpose for us would be realized (Ephesians 1:3-14).

Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus gave humanity a worth that far exceeds what we could ever deserve, earn or even imagine. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Yea doubtless… I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Philippians 3:8, KJV). Paul knew that a living, deep relationship with God through Christ has infinite worth—inestimable value—compared to what any finite source could possibly provide. He reached that conclusion by examining his own spiritual heritage, no doubt recalling the words of Psalm 8: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?’” (Psalm 8:4).

Crucifixion (after Rembrandt) by Bonnat
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever wondered why God came in the person of Jesus the way he did? Couldn’t he have come with angelic hosts displaying power and glory? Couldn’t he have come as a talking animal, or like a Marvel Comics superhero? But as we know, Jesus came in the humblest manner—a helpless infant. His plan was to be put to death in a horrible manner. He did this because he was mindful of us. I cannot help but be encouraged when I remind myself of the amazing truth that though he did not need us, he came anyway. We have nothing to give him except honor, love and appreciation.

Since God does not need us, it prompts the question of our worth. In crass material terms, we’re worth relatively little. The value of the chemicals that compose our body is about $160.00. If we were to sell the bone marrow, DNA and organs in our body, the price might go up to millions of dollars. But that price does not begin to compare to our true worth. In Jesus, we have inestimable worth as new creations. Jesus is the source of that worth—the worth of a life lived in relationship with God. The triune God brought us into existence from nothing in order that we would be eternally in perfect holy and loving relationship with him. That relationship is a union and communion in which we freely and gladly receive all God gives us. In return, we entrust to him all we are and have.

Christian thinkers over the centuries have expressed the glory of this relationship of love in various ways: Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “This infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.” C.S. Lewis said that, “No one who has experienced [the joy of knowing God] would ever exchange it for all the happiness in the world.” He also said that we humans were made to “run on God.”

God created all that is (including us) because, as the apostle John put it, “God is love” (1 John 4:8b). God’s love is the supreme reality—the basis of all created reality. His love is of infinite value and it is his redeeming and transforming love expressed toward us that gives us our true worth.

Dear friends, let us never lose sight of the reality of God’s love for us. When we have pain, whether physical or emotional, let us remember that God loves us, and will, in his timing, take all pain away. When we have sorrow, loss and grieving, let us remember that God loves us and will, one day, wipe away all tears.

Let me conclude with an analogy that I hope and pray resonates with you. When my children were young, they asked me why I love them. My answer was not that they were good kids who were good looking (which they were, and still are). It was not that they were honor roll students (which they were). Instead, my answer was that I loved them BECAUSE THEY WERE MINE! That is no mere marketing slogan—it speaks to the core reason of why God loves us: We belong to him, and that makes us more valuable than we can possibly imagine. Let us never forget that!

Rejoicing in our true worth as God’s beloved,
Joseph Tkach, GCI President

Attitude of gratitude

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The quote shown above, though funny, is all too true! I have a copy of it on my desk and often chuckle when reading it. It reminds me of the stupid things we humans sometimes do. A case in point is seen in the picture at right. Where is this guy’s eye and ear protection? He apparently never read the instruction manual!

Reading (and heeding) instructions can save lots of self-inflicted pain and heartache in life. Consider these instructions from the apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Thessalonica:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
(1 Thess. 5:16-18, ESV)

Practicing what he preached, Paul maintained an “attitude of gratitude.” At all times and in all circumstances, he remembered that God was always with him and for him, and so he gave thanks.

When I typed the phrase “attitude of gratitude” into a search engine, millions of results popped up. I read several of the linked articles—some sharing stories and others quoting Bible verses. Some noted the physical benefits of cultivating such an attitude. One put it this way:

Over the past decade, numerous scientific studies have documented a wide range of benefits that come with gratitude. These are available to anyone who practices being grateful, even in the midst of adversity, such as elderly people confronting death, those with cancer, people with chronic illness or chronic pain, and those in recovery from addiction. Research-based reasons for practicing gratitude include:

  • Gratitude facilitates contentment. Practicing gratitude is one of the most reliable methods for increasing contentment and life satisfaction. It also improves mood by enhancing feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, enthusiasm, and other positive emotions…. Gratitude also reduces anxiety and depression.
  • Gratitude promotes physical health. Studies suggest gratitude helps to lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, reduce symptoms of illness, and make us less bothered by aches and pains.
  • Gratitude enhances sleep. Grateful people tend to get more sleep each night, spend less time awake before falling asleep, and feel more rested upon awakening. If you want to sleep more soundly, instead of counting sheep count your blessings.
  • Gratitude strengthens relationships. It makes us feel closer and more connected to friends and intimate partners. When partners feel and express gratitude for each other, they each become more satisfied with their relationship.
  • Gratitude encourages paying it forward. Grateful people are generally more helpful, generous of spirit, and compassionate. These qualities often spill over onto others. (Dan Mager, Psychology Today, November 2014)

For Christians, an attitude of gratitude flows from rejoicing in the Lord—praising him for his goodness, love, faithfulness, mercy and grace. Since our Triune God oversees all things and works all things together for our good, we can give him thanks, no matter our circumstances. This grateful mindset helps us see more clearly how God is working in our lives. As noted by James, the half-brother of Jesus, the closer we draw to God, the closer he draws us in (James 4:8). As King David noted while thanking God, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy…” (Ps.16:11 ESV).

Being thankful to God in times of trouble and hardship involves humbly surrendering to him—acknowledging that we need him, remembering the words of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)

As Paul noted in his first letter to the church in Corinth, part of following Jesus involves a willingness to “die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31, KJV). We do that by following him in close communication—listening to his Word, responding to him in prayer and in other forms of worship. Then when we encounter difficult or troubling situations, we know that whatever suffering is involved, we can trust him to draw our burdens up into his sufferings on our behalf at the cross. He then redeems our sufferings, leading us to share, by the Spirit, in the new life of his resurrection. Throughout this process of redemption and transformation, we experience an attitude of gratitude, for the Spirit reminds us of our Savior’s invitation:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30, ESV)

The more closely we follow Jesus, surrendering to him and trusting him, the more grateful we become as he takes our burdens upon himself and gives us his peace—his rest—even in the midst of life’s storms. This brings forth in us a life-giving “attitude of gratitude.”

Thankful for Christ and the rest he provides,
Joseph Tkach, GCI President

PS: Due to the publishing of GCI Equipper on July 11, and the July 4 (Independence Day) holiday in the U.S., the next issue of GCI Update will be published on July 18. I’m grateful to God for the freedoms we enjoy in the United States. I pray that our citizens will not take them for granted.

Ordering our worship

This “From the President” letter is by GCI Vice President Greg Williams.

Dear Pastors and Ministry Leaders:

Greg and Susan Williams

Is there a particular way that worship services in the church should be conducted? That’s not a new question—the apostle Paul addressed it in his first letter to the church in Corinth. Their services had become contentious and chaotic, and Paul wanted to help them solve the problem. He did so by noting that, while their desire to exercise their spiritual gifts in worship was commendable, they must do so in ways that build up the church rather than causing division and confusion (1 Cor. 14:26, 33). Paul exhorted them to conduct their worship in “a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor. 14:40). Believing that Paul’s exhortation is relevant for us today, I encourage all our pastors to gather with their leaders (including those who plan and direct worship) to evaluate their worship services.

History of worship liturgy

Let me share some relevant history. As various worship traditions developed, some churches and whole denominations adopted a “liturgical” approach to structuring their worship services, while others adopted an approach called “non-liturgical.” By definition, liturgical churches follow a set liturgy (order of worship). Some utilize a “high liturgy” that is fully-scripted while others have a “low liturgy” that, being less-scripted, allows more flexibility. Non-liturgical churches, while still having an order of services, are even more flexible. Historically, many Protestant churches became non-liturgical—not because they were against order in their worship, but because they did not like what they felt was the excessive ritual of the liturgy practiced in their day.

Whether liturgical (high or low) or non-liturgical, all churches (whether acknowledging it or not) have a liturgy—some sort of “order” to their worship. That’s good because a lack of order can lead to the chaos Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 14. Interestingly, there is a movement today among some non-liturgical churches to return to certain elements of the ancient, more formal liturgy of the church (click here and here for more information). They find that this shift makes their worship more appealing and inspiring to both regular attenders and visitors.

GCI’s history and a challenge for us today

Historically, worship in GCI (reaching back to WCG and beyond) followed a highly structured, standardized order. With our reformation came greater flexibility in how our congregations ordered their worship services. However, it is my observation that in adopting a less structured approach, some of our services have become somewhat chaotic and thus not as edifying as they need to be. Given that situation, I ask all our pastors and fellowship group facilitators to gather with their leaders to examine how they are conducting their worship services. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Do our services focus on who God is as revealed in Jesus?
  • Do they reflect the communal nature of our triune God who exists in harmony and unity?
  • Are our services uplifting and hope-filled, or are they uninspiring?
  • Do all aspects of our worship build up the church, or is there confusion and chaos?
  • Do all who are open to hearing the gospel (including non-Christians) feel welcome in our services?

Conducting this evaluation and making needed changes will take careful and intentional effort. That’s appropriate since the root words of liturgy mean “the work of the people.” Wanting to assist you in that work, we have published in this issue an article that addresses worship in GCI congregations. It includes a standard order of services (liturgy) that, though not required, is strongly recommended. Over the next six months in GCI Equipper, we’ll publish additional articles that will provide further guidance to help you discern the Spirit’s direction concerning your worship services. As you go through this time of discernment and restructuring, I encourage pastors to discuss their insights and plans with their Regional Pastor (U.S.) or Regional Director (elsewhere).

Points to ponder about congregational life

Though our worship services are vital, they are only one part of a congregation’s life. With this broader perspective in mind, as pastors gather with their leadership teams to evaluate their liturgy, I challenge them to also evaluate some other key issues. To help them do so, I’ve listed below some points to ponder. It’s my observation that we’ve tended to overlook some (many?) of these issues. Perhaps that’s because we’ve been (necessarily) focused on doctrinal and theological renewal over the past several years. I believe it’s now time to attend to these other issues as we enter a new season of living out of the loving, inclusive relationship we have through Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

  • If your congregation is functioning more like a small group (with high levels of interaction and sharing of the leadership/facilitation role), it’s likely that you should consider yourself a “fellowship group” rather than a “church” that provides a well-planned and executed worship service. Healthy churches need to have a combination of both well-executed worship services as well as small group gatherings where disciples are enriched, and depth of community is built. Please be satisfied with what you can currently offer, and trust the Lord for the future growth you desire.
  • If you are holding your primary worship service on Saturday, that puts you out of step with most of GCI and the rest of the Christian world. Doing so sends a misleading signal about who GCI is. While circumstances may have prevented some GCI congregations from moving to Sunday services, making that change should now be a priority. In my far and wide GCI travels, I have rarely experienced a strong, vibrant and growing GCI church that is meeting on Saturday.
  • If you are meeting at an awkward time of day that makes it hard for people to gather, then you need to make a course correction.
  • If you are gathering in a hall that is difficult to locate and is out of the flow of normal activity, then consider how to improve your location, and find a target community to be immersed in.
  • If you are renting space in a church building that is owned by another congregation/denomination, consider the problems you face with identity. Is it clear that you are a congregation of a separate denomination?
  • If you have a rotating speaking schedule with multiple preachers, it’s likely that you are in “maintenance mode,” lacking cohesive leadership and vision for your church. The lead pastor should preach a minimum of three times per month, and it is even better if they preach five out of six weeks.
  • If your lead pastor also fills the role of “chief deacon,” then members need to step up. Perhaps the pastor needs to let some things go.
  • If you have people conducting the musical aspects of your worship (instrumental and/or vocal) who are not musically gifted, something needs to change. Get people involved in worship, but in accordance with their giftedness.
  • If your weekly worship service is structured in accordance with GCI’s past tradition, and hasn’t been examined in a long time, now is the time for a “come to Jesus” meeting! Take a good, hard look and have the difficult conversations. You will be glad you did!

Once again, I encourage pastors to discuss their findings concerning these points with their immediate supervisor. Let us work together as a team to bring improvements to the worship and other aspects of congregational life in our churches and fellowship groups. Thank you for your cooperation.

Your brother in Christ,
Greg Williams, GCI Vice President

Honoring our parents

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach

Though I was told that I was my paternal granddad’s favorite grandchild, it didn’t always seem that way to me—he was a strict disciplinarian. Because he died when I was young, I didn’t know him well, though I did know he was something special by the way my parents, aunts and uncles honored him—especially on his wedding anniversary and on Father’s Day.

Father’s Day is celebrated in the U.S. and 69 other countries on the third Sunday in June (some other countries celebrate it in September). Last year in Australia there was quite a furor over the notion of changing the name to “Special Person’s Day.” Some reasoned the change would ensure that children without dads would not feel excluded from the celebration. While it behooves us to include children who don’t have at-home dads, I don’t think a name change would help much—we’d also have to change the name of Mother’s Day and several other holidays to avoid exclusion or offense. My only complaint about Father’s Day is that, because it falls on Sunday, we fathers don’t get a day off work!

Father’s Day and Mother’s Day celebrations give us opportunity to obey the commands given in the Bible to honor our parents. However, those commands present a problem for people who have had abusive parents. What are they supposed to do? While there are no easy answers, it’s important to remember three things: First, that God fully understands what those who were hurt by their parents endured—he sees and cares. Second, that giving honor does not mean condoning or continuing to endure abuse. Third, that the ability to honor those who have abused us does not come from within—it’s a gift from God that involves sharing in the mind of Jesus who willingly died for undeserving sinners (Romans 5:8). With Jesus, by the Spirit, we can give honor to those who don’t deserve it. We do so by looking beyond the pain they’ve caused, and instead of seeking revenge, seeing them as a child created by God. Don’t get me wrong, God does not love the pain they have caused, but he does love the child he created.

“Picture of Faith” by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)

Though we may not know all the factors that led a parent to be abusive, we know God did not create them that way and does not want them to remain that way. We also know that our Lord says, “love your enemies,” “pray for those who persecute you,” and “turn the other cheek.” Jesus also says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32). The apostle Paul adds in 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 that we should regard no one (parents included) from a merely human point of view—instead, we should see them in relationship to Jesus, who intends that they become new creations in him, by the Spirit. When we ask God to help us see an abusive parent in that way, our hearts begin to change. We find ourselves less focused on their bad behavior and more focused on the person God created them to be.

Let me emphasize that we are not called to honor our parents on our own power. Instead, enabled by the Holy Spirit, we see them in the light of Christ—the light of what our Lord intends for them. In that light, we are able to honor our parents because we know that Jesus, as Mediator, stands between us and them—he is Lord and Savior of that relationship. We also know and trust that Jesus’ purposes for us cannot be thwarted by bad parenting. Through him and by him we have a heavenly Father who graciously rules over all earthly fathers (and mothers).

Giving honor to a parent is not mere emotion—it’s an attitude that comes from faith, hope and love in God through Christ and by the Spirit. Also, giving honor does not require a positive relationship (in some cases, a face-to-face relationship with a badly abusive parent is not possible). Nevertheless, Jesus calls upon us to rise above the bad relationship to extend honor, even if from afar. We do so by focusing on our relationship with Jesus, who enables us to grow into his maturity, including his ability to love the unlovely. We do so remembering how Jesus showed incredible honor toward us when we were completely dishonorable.

One last thought: When children see parents honoring their parents, they will likely imitate that behavior. Despite the challenges, honoring others is a healthy activity for others as well as for ourselves.

Happy Father’s Day,

Joseph Tkach, GCI President