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Veering off Course

By Ron Iwasko

September 1, 1983. A Korean 747 flying from the USA to Seoul via Anchorage, Alaska strayed off course and suddenly disappeared from radar, shot down by a Russian fighter jet.

March 23, 1989. The 986-foot Exxon Valdez temporarily moved out of the shipping lane to avoid an iceberg, but then failed to turn back. Just after midnight it stuck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, and more than 1 million gallons of crude oil poured into the icy waters creating considerable damage to the ecology.

Year 2005. Two private aircraft, off course, stray into the Washington D.C. restricted air space around the capital and risk being shot down.

Each thought they were on course and sure they would arrive safely at their destinations. All it took was a little miscalculation, a little inattentiveness, a little overconfidence.

Every pastor I know wants to do right, keep on track, and finish well. Intent is not the problem. Yet getting off course can happen.

It can happen to any of us. Churches can veer off course. So can committed Christians and hard-working dedicated church leaders. We can believe we are on track because we are so dedicated, so determined, so confident. We have no intention of veering off course. But we may.

How can that happen? It can be so subtle, so quietly happening. Somehow the alarms are not going off. Like the frog in the kettle, we don’t sense the growing danger.

We can veer off course when we substitute programs for people.

We measure our progress toward fulfilling the three-fold cardinal ministries of the church — worship, outreach, and edification — in terms of the programs designed to accomplish these. We have a great worship team, complete with choir and orchestra and a great song leader. We have a full Sunday School program for all ages with a great curriculum. We have a strong, well-funded program to support our missionaries.

So what’s wrong? Just this: the goal must be that every believer becomes a worshipper, a witness, and an edifier of others. Through these programs, have we created church members who are worshippers, witnesses, and edifiers? Or have we created observers who applaud and finance the programs, but are not involved themselves, while the “professionals” get it done? If so, we are drifting off course.

We can veer off course when we consider transaction to mean transformation.

Think of the church for a moment as a box through which the members pass. As they enter with their problems and personalities they encounter certain things happening inside that box. When they come out of the box, are they the same as when they entered, or are they somehow changed for the better, more like Christ, more whole? What occurs in that box is either just transactional — the routine happens — or transformational — the transforming power of the Holy Spirit has changed them through the Word and worship. We can come to the point that we know how to “do church” but there is no real growth in and through the Spirit. We have veered off course.

In the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald penned these striking lines:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and heard great argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same Door where in I went.

Would to God that would not be true of anyone, young or old, darkening our doors!

We can veer off course when we substitute praise for prayer.

To be sure, praise is proper and to be highly desired. God is worthy of all praise! But praise is not a substitute for prayer. True prayer is that personal interaction with God that expresses our great need of Him, confessing our failures, calling upon His mercy, seeking to be changed by the power of His Spirit and His Word. Prayer speaks of our need of God; praise says how great is this God we seek.

Jesus said we have not because we ask not. Telling God through praise how great He is does not lead to the discovery of what He wants of us and for us. It does not motivate us to a humble and contrite heart. It does not deal with us at all. Neither can we manipulate Him through our praises.

Could it be that when, through the preaching of the Word people are drawn to the altar to pray, we cut it short by quickly leading them to praise the Lord in song? Instead of allowing them to “pray through.” Are we calling on the worship team to lead in praise choruses too soon?

I remember our first pastor, Cyril Homer, urging the organist to get under the prayer and lift it, not over it and thereby squelch it. If we inadvertently are cutting short the work of the Spirit during deep times of prayer at the altar, we are veering off course.

We can veer off course when we substitute work for worship.

Serving the Lord is exactly what we are called to do. Still, in the American cultural tradition of worth measured by our work, we can come to believe that our worth to God is measured by our performance, that somehow we need to earn our favor with God. It seems to me that all too often those most dedicated to God in our society feel they have to come to God at the end of the day listing all they have accomplished for Him. We should do well, and we should be diligent in our service. But seeking His acceptance on the basis of our work is the opposite of grace — our acceptance based on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross on our behalf.

See the statement of Paul in Romans 11:35 through 12:1: “Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your 1spiritual service of worship” (NASB).2

Paul is saying that what we do for the Lord is an act of worship in recognition of what He has already done for us, not something for which we expect payment (acceptance) in return. All we do is in worshipful response to what He has already done. In that we can relax and rejoice!

There are those who name the name of Christ but do not obey His teachings. They are not even on course at all. There are others who follow the traditions of the elders but there is no life, no movement, no growth. You cannot veer off course if you are not moving. The faster you move, the more attention must be given to keep on course, for a slight deviation can lead to big error.

If the devil cannot defeat us, if he cannot stop us, he will try to deflect us, ever so slightly, that we drift off course and lose our effectiveness. May we, by keeping in step with the Spirit, follow the admonition of Hebrews 12:1,2, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (NASB). He will keep us on the right path, for the right reasons, and for the right goals. To him be all the glory forever.

Ron Iwasko, D.Miss., is former president of Global University, Springfield, Missouri.

Endnotes

1. Or rational.

2. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright© 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.lockman.org).

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