For though you have ten thousand teachers in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers… 1Co 4:15
For many years now, I have not been able to go into a Christian bookstore without feeling a profound sense of irritation. Without fail, as soon as I walk through the front door, all I can think is “get me the heck outta here ASAP.” I’m not joking or exaggerating about this. This actually happens to me nearly every time I try to buy a bible, or a gift or something at one of these types of stores. It’s like I get instantly provoked as if someone with really bad breath was up in my face insulting me while simultaneously poking me in the sternum. I can’t say that I completely understand what causes this violent impulse reaction in me, but I’m pretty sure it has at least something to do with the abundance of “Jesus Junk” that is characteristically distributed from this kind of venue. Shelf after shelf, rack after rack of fish emblems, cliché ridden bumper-stickers, T-shirts that rip off the latest fad by inserting a Christian icon into a popular image or design, cutesy coffee mugs with scripture on them… you know what I’m talking about. Jesus Junk. And as if the abundance of cheesy merchandise wasn’t bad enough, most stores also stock a wide variety of books that, in my opinion, do little more than add to the already overwhelming burden that believers tend to carry around as it is. “How to Lose Weight While Praise Dancing” “Keys to a Successful Marriage from the Pentateuch” “Victorious Christian Living in 10 Days!” It’s like we take our cues from a decidedly screwed up culture, and then haphazardly create our own diminished version of it. God forgive us.
But the overall weirdness of our little sub-culture is not my greatest concern. It’s the fact that somehow we have propagated the mindset that “church” is that place where we go to hear someone else tell us how to be a Christian. Week after week we sit and eat, sit and eat, until finally we get bored by the limited selection of buffet items and move on to a more promising location for further grazing. And if our Sunday morning gorge fest doesn’t sufficiently satiate us, now we can surf the web for the latest and greatest messages from all our favorite teachers and listen to them ad nauseam on our I-Pod. Especially in the U.S., it is certainly not information that we lack, but rather a lifestyle that is derived from and activated by the principles we’ve already accepted as truth. Wisdom is the application of truth, not just the acquisition of it. By in large, this is where we’re missing it. We know enough about Jesus right now to turn the world on its ear, but sadly, we are educated far beyond our current level of obedience. As a result, we have cheapened the Gospel message and the Christian experience in pursuit of more and more head candy. For many of us, “ten thousand teachers” is not an overstatement of the actual number of influences we’ve subjected ourselves to over the years. We must repent of this. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Cor 8:1)
In the next reformation, we have to break out of our addiction to rampant information consumption and learn how to make what we know work for us in real life situations. A stockpile of Bible verses in no way guarantees that we will actually enjoy our relationship with the Lord, nor will it necessarily have a positive affect on anyone else unless we are intentionally walking out those precepts in the context of our relationships. Just a little revelation of the simple truth that Jesus really does love us can radically impact our neighbor’s life. But not unless we demonstrate it to him in a way he can understand and receive. I’ve spent many hours of my life listening to brilliant men debate the nuances of a wide variety of theological minutia… but to what end? So what if we have an air-tight systematic theology? Does that really help us love one another? Who gives a rip if Jesus returns before, during, or after the tribulation? If we’re living right, it’s not gonna matter anyway! Too much eschatological mumbo jumbo gives me a headache.
Have you ever asked your computer to do more than its processor was capable of? We’ve all had our screen lock up, and our CPU shut down due to frantic data input. Say what you will, but our mind can do the same thing. Now is the time to return to the simplicity of our faith as we have surely reached level 10 on the information overload scale. We’ve yoked ourselves to far too many instructors. We need to own the fact that our current local church paradigm is geared for information gathering… and not much more. So much so that our intellectual over stimulation has made it very difficult to receive instruction directly from the Lord. With the abundance of info we’ve tried to cram into our brains, our Spirit has been left crying out for our attention. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for this kind of behavior. “You diligently study the Scriptures… yet you refuse to come to me” (John 5:39-40)
Learning to follow the leading of the Spirit is a process. But if we’re his sheep, then rest assured, we do know what His voice sounds like. We’ve wandered from pasture to pasture long enough. He is our shepherd… not the guy behind the pulpit. Not the last book we read. We can’t blame our pastor or our church if we don’t feel like we’re fulfilling the personal call that is uniquely on each one of us. We all have the same responsibility, to simply listen and obey. But if we’re listening to “every wind of teaching” then we’re bound to get “tossed back and forth.” (Eph 4:14) Most of us are not called to a ministry within the confines of the local church structure. Instead, we should be looking for opportunities to illuminate our homes, our workplaces, our neighborhoods with the light that every believer carries within. The spirit will do in an instant what our striving could not accomplish in a million years. (Gal 3:3)
Remember how great you felt when you first realized that God loved and accepted you just as you are? As new believers, it’s not uncommon to go through a period during which we experience a sense of being “love sick” for Jesus. We’ve always called this “The Honeymoon Season” of the faith. Ever watched a pair of newlyweds that can’t seem to keep their hands off each other? We knew this one guy who, for several months after meeting the Lord, literally could not stop hugging each and every person he encountered. It was as if he was so full of the Lord’s affection that he just had to give some away so that he wouldn’t explode. You see, when we lose touch with our first love, that’s when we stop having fun. That’s when Christianity becomes burdensome. Our faith turns into a string of unending responsibilities and obligatory tasks. His yoke truly is light and delightful. The yokes of others are a big flippin drag and they suck the life out of us quicker than we can compensate for them. We have to take them off. In the next reformation, we must learn to hear from the Lord for ourselves and to show discretion with the frequency and number of our external influences. In turn, the Lord will help us to cease from our striving and to enter into the kind of rest that our souls are so desperately in need of. Lead on oh King eternal.
In 1987 I was a young seminary student in Chicago. Each of us was assigned an advisor to help make decisions about what classes we would take and the choices that would determine the direction and focus of our course of study. As a result, I found myself sitting with Dr. Robert Coleman, face to face across the desk in his little office. I remember feeling somewhat in awe of him as I had read some of his books and had heard stories about the strength and uniqueness of his personality. I also remember that he didn’t seem very concerned about my choice of courses, but instead was intent on having me come and join a small group of students that he led in prayer in the early mornings. Although I had many other interactions with Bob during my time there at Trinity, for whatever reason, I never saw fit to become a member of what I now realize was his personal band of disciples. In all honesty, I’m still kicking myself for not taking advantage of this incredible opportunity. Instead of availing myself for a relationship with Dr. Coleman, for the next several years, I spent most of my time doing what I apparently deemed more important… vocational ministry. What a knucklehead!
Although I’m sure serving as a pastor during that period of my life produced some good fruit for me personally and hopefully in the lives of a few others, I wish I had seen the value in being discipled by the guy who, in my opinion, literally wrote the definitive work on discipleship. To this day, Dr. Coleman’s “Master Plan of Evangelism” stands head and shoulders above all other books written on the topic of how to make disciples. Had I understood then what I do now, I would have jumped at the chance of sitting at his feet, and not just sitting there listening passively in his classes.
In the next reformation, we have to somehow recapture the vital nature of discipleship and spiritual parenting as it pertains to accomplishing the ultimate objective of the local church. We can get so busy doing other “church stuff” that we lose sight of what is, for all practical purposes, the fundamental reason for our being left here on earth. Think about it, Jesus said that our lives should be given to loving God and loving our neighbor. Could we not accomplish the first half of that equation more completely if we were whisked away to heaven right after being saved? In his manifest presence we will be entirely consumed by his love. So it stands to reason that we remain in this realm primarily for the sake of others.
Recently, while shopping at the local mall with my wife, I was approached by a young teenage girl with a “bible tract” in her hand. She was with an older lady and another girl about her age. It was obvious to me that they were out “evangelizing” and I apparently looked like a promising candidate. She said nothing to me, but offered me the little tract as she walked on by with the other two without ever breaking her stride. I took the pamphlet and said “thanks” as I saw a look of relief come over her face. It was as if she was saying, “There. I’ve done it!” After reading its contents, my heart just sank. Like most of the publications of this genre, I was quickly reminded of what a complete wretch I am and how I was bound for eternal torment if I didn’t get my act together pronto. Page after page of cute little illustrations depicting what a total loser I was, all supported with scripture of course. I thought to myself, well… so much for the “good” news.
As the years roll by, I find myself becoming more and more of a pragmatist. I’ve wasted way too much time on methodologies and good ideas that simply haven’t worked. No matter how far away I might roam, I always seem to come back to this simple truth, the greatest impact of our life will be made one person at a time. The great commission will not be fulfilled programmatically, but rather in the context of personal relationships.
Many years ago I had an experience that will forever illustrate this revelation in my thinking. We were leading a ministry that was experiencing nothing short of a modern-day revival. I’m not talking about a bunch of meetings where a gaggle of believers get all hyped up for Jesus. We actually were seeing spontaneous salvation and deliverance taking place among many of the lost and addicted young people of our city. The Lord was doing something far beyond our efforts or understanding, and we found ourselves scrambling to try to hire staff and to find people to take care of all the new believers that were coming to our church. At that time, our Sunday morning service was gaining a reputation for being one of the best shows in town. The atmosphere was very informal, the building we were meeting in was virtually devoid of religious icons and artifacts, and we had a really tight rock band leading our worship. Our overall vibe was very lively and light-hearted, a great first experience for many of those who were new to the practice of “going to church.”
At the end of one of our services, I asked for anyone who wanted to give their life to the Lord for the first time to come to the front of the auditorium. I don’t remember how many came forward that morning, but it was a good number. We led them all in the prayer of salvation and then concluded the service. As was our routine, we asked the group of new believers to follow us back to one of our smaller rooms at the back of the building. Once gathered, I said a few words and we began to hand out bibles to those standing side by side, all facing inward in a big circle. Suddenly and without warning, I burst into what can only be described as uncontrollable weeping. I’m not exaggerating, I completely lost it. Here I was, trying to say something profound and comforting to this wide eyed group of new believers, and I self imploded right in front of them. So much so that I had to quickly hand the meeting off to one of the other staff members so I could go hide in my office.
As I waited for the building to clear out so as not to frighten anyone with my disheveled appearance, I began to ask, “What the heck was that Lord? These aren’t tears of joy, I feel like I’m dying here!” It made no sense to me that I was so grieved over what is supposed to be such a joyous occasion. Maybe the angels were rejoicing, but I was overcome with quite the opposite emotion. On the drive home, the Lord reminded me of how sad it is when irresponsible men impregnate young women only to leave them once the child is born. In an instant, I understood what had happened to me in that back room. Somehow, I had been allowed to feel just a small portion of the Lord’s heart for spiritual orphans. We had just created another fresh batch of babies, and I knew there was no way we were going to be able to adequately take care of them. We had only a handful of relatively mature believers in our ministry, and even fewer who were actively trying to disciple anyone. My wife and I had been meeting with a small group of new believers in our home, but I knew our ability to provide any kind of individualized care was completely maxed out as it was.
Everyone knows that making babies is always going to be fun. It’s exciting and enjoyable. But taking care of those babies we’ve made is quite the opposite. It’s hard work. It requires personal sacrifice, an unwavering commitment, and a relentless consistency to raise a child to the point of self sufficiency. So it is with spiritual parenting. In the local church, we often take great pride in the number of babies we’ve made. But I have to wonder how many of them have been virtually abandoned shortly after birth? In our pursuit of “getting people saved,” how many spiritual orphans have we created?
For though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers… 1Co 4:15
In the next reformation, church leaders must somehow prioritize the value of spiritual parenting and discipleship. So many believers seem to remain in perpetual spiritual immaturity for the simple reason that so few are willing to invest in the kind of up close and personal relationships that Jesus clearly modeled for us in the Gospels. If your church’s evangelism mentality is all about getting people to make a decision, so you can quickly move on to the next person, and so on, then it may be time for a new paradigm. If you’re mantra is, “some will, some won’t, who cares, who’s next?” you might be under estimating the length of process that most people go through when searching for truth.
Dr. Coleman used to look out over us as promising seminary students and exclaim, “It’s good that you’re planning to enter the ministry, now where are your men?” That question has been ringing in my ears ever since. Where are your men? Whose life are you intentionally investing in right now? Is anyone counting on you for care, or guidance, or prayer support? If we fancy our self a spiritual leader and we’re not really that involved in the lives of any specific individuals, it might be time for a gut check. Are we really in the ministry, or just in denial?
Or maybe you’re not in a leadership position in your church, but you know you’ve been a Christian long enough that you could be helping others along their way. Sometimes, if you want to know who to lead, all you have to do is turn around and see who’s already following you. Maybe it’s your kids. Maybe it’s a co-worker who you know listens to what you say. It’s usually not about going out and trying to find someone to disciple. Spiritual parenting often begins with a simple decision to be a bit more intentional with the relationships we’ve already established. Take the time to read The Master Plan of Evangelism. I think now it’s actually called the Master Plan of Discipleship. The question is not “What Would Jesus Do?” but rather, “What Did Jesus Do?” while he was here with us. The answer is painfully obvious, he made disciples, and he commissioned us to do the same.
I really like the slogan for the AMC channel. It is, “Story Matters Here.” In the local church, we would do well to learn from this profound little by-line. People’s life stories matter. Where we’ve come from, where we’ve been, and what it is that has made us who we are today is important to the Lord, and so it should be to us. Knowing a little about someone’s story is often the first step toward building a genuine relationship with them. What was your family life like when you were growing up? How did you come to know the Lord? How did you meet your spouse, and so on. Granted, going after the answer to these kinds of questions is just a starting point for relationship building, but you’d be amazed how frequently this step is skipped, especially in the church. The result being that many believers are currently living at a level of relational superficiality that can create a palpable sense of disconnectedness and latent feelings of isolation. We were created to know, and to be known by others. When we take the time to truly get to know someone, we are acknowledging their intrinsic value, apart from anything they might be able to do or be for us.
In many respects, the local church in the U.S. now functions more like a business than the relationship based, community oriented organism that it is meant to be. Because the church machine must be fed with a seemingly unending supply of human resources, people can sometimes be viewed by their leaders as little more than a means to an end. If the people don’t give more, how will we pay our mortgage and staff? If the people don’t serve more, how will we keep our programs afloat? Although understandable, this dynamic often leaves the faithful parishioner feeling more like an object than a person… an object that retains its value only as long as it is being used to accomplish the objective. Once deemed unusable or unwilling to continue service for some reason, the object is then quickly discarded and the mad search for a replacement begins. The machine must keep churning out whatever it’s churning out… right?
Think about it. The very nature of how most churches choose their leadership is more akin to a search on monster.com than the natural progression of spiritual parenthood that we find in scripture. More often than not, pastors and supportive staff members are hired on the basis of some kind of prefabricated job description frantically created by the pastoral search committee due to the rapid departure of the last guy. Here’s the job, find someone who can do the job, end of story. But with this mentality, much like the corporate world, a hired gun can just as easily become a fired gun based on what is often a highly subjective evaluation of their “job performance.” At least in my experience, it usually has more to do with ticking the wrong elder off at some point… but we won’t go there.
Even pastors and church leaders can easily move in and out of local congregations without ever really being known. I’ve had church job interviews during which the topic of my relationship to the Lord was never addressed. Who I was evidently was not of primary concern, but rather what I could do for the ministry, that was the issue in question. I’ve been on church staffs where we had little or no relationship with some of the other staff members and their families. Something about that just never sat right with me. If community building and personal vulnerability is not modeled by a church’s leadership team, it’s not likely to take hold within the congregation, no matter how passionately we might preach about it. And this phenomenon tends to only worsen with numerical growth. The larger a church becomes, the more difficult it is to facilitate the prioritization of relationship. Though it is clear that friendships must evolve organically, a large ministry has to work even harder at cultivating a culture conducive to sustained small group interaction. The belief that people’s value comes from who they are, and not what they have to give, must be present somewhere in a church’s DNA if life-giving community is ever to be attained.
If you’ve ever been involved in a church split, you understand why this is so important. 9 times out of 10, churches split apart or dissolve altogether simply because there is a relational breakdown among its leaders. A little misunderstanding, jealousy, or back-stabbing among a leadership team can quickly bring a previously healthy church to its knees. Or, if a leader has no relationships where he can be truly honest about his struggles or temptation, then rest assured, the enemy will take advantage of that opportunity. Big trees can be toppled by little winds if there is an insufficient root system. Please learn from my mistakes, churches can get very top heavy if the leaders are not covering each others backside. An environment that does not communicate a loving concern for people as people, regardless of their position or performance, can turn ugly in a heartbeat. Those you thought would take a bullet for you can sometimes just as easily decide they want to put one in you.
Knowing one another’s story in no way guarantees a golden ticket for relational security or longevity, but it’s at least a good starting place. When we understand where someone’s been and what they’ve experienced, we’re usually not as quick to give up on them or to judge their behavior quite as harshly. Like it or not, in many ways we are a product of our life experiences. If you know someone was sexually abused by their father, for example, you might have a little more grace to extend to them when they have trouble submitting to authority. You get the idea.
The next reformation must somehow include the core value that people’s history, and their stories, matter. If “all things” really do “work for the good,” then those “things” must surely deserve some thoughtful consideration. I’ve often encouraged people to create a spiritual time line or some kind outline of the significant events of their life, and then to share it with others. You’d be amazed at how encouraging it can be to do a retrospective on where you’ve been and what has occurred over the course of your journey. Invariably you’ll begin to see the Lord’s hand and his presence at each step along the way. In the process, an awareness of your roots and a sense of being at peace with your history will begin to shine a light on the Lord’s intended purpose and direction for your life.
If you’ve yet to be a part of a group that allows you to share your story, maybe you need to start one. Believe me, everyone needs somebody to be interested in who they are and the path that has led them there. But don’t be surprised if the process seems painstakingly slow. We’ve recently done this with a small group of 5 or 6 couples, and it took us about a year just to get through the first phase of story telling. Don’t get in a rush, and don’t be afraid to have fun with it. Share photo albums, put a power point presentation together about your journey, be honest about the good and the bad times. You’ll find that it’s actually kind of liberating when you don’t have anything to hide. Though community building can be time consuming, I’m convinced that an unwavering commitment to establishing tight knit relationships will be a necessity if we are to successfully navigate the rough waters of the next reformation.
There’s a land that I see where the children are free…free to be you and me.