In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, there is a poignant sub-plot involving the character known as “Brooks”. After 50 years in prison, he suddenly finds himself a free man desperately trying to adjust to his new life on the “outside”. Sadly, after spending so many years living within the unchanging regiment and routine of prison, he simply cannot cope with the dramatic variations and pace of life in what has now become an entirely foreign environment. Unable to function, he contemplates committing another crime in the hopes of returning to the only place that feels normal to him, but ultimately he opts to take his own life instead. He writes a letter to his friends who are still on the inside describing his plight. After reading it aloud “Red”, Morgan Freeman’s character, explains to the other inmates that Brooks had been “institutionalized”. “These prison walls are funny.” He says, “First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”
In the last couple years, I’ve began to realize that many believers are struggling with a similar predicament. We know that there is more for us to do and be outside the four walls of the local church, but because so much of our Christian experience has taken place within these narrow parameters, we no longer know how to think or live like free men and women. For many of us, “going to church” and “doing our church thing” has become the central activity of our faith. Week after week, year after year of faithful attendance has conditioned us to think that institutional life is all that there is for us. So much so, that any attempts to go beyond these well defined boundaries has often been deemed too dangerous, or even forbidden. It’s almost like we’ve learned to fear what might happen to us if we dare to venture out and traverse this land so fraught with evil and temptation. The evidence of this mind-set is found in our church-speak. For example, “The world” has become the term we use to describe that place we don’t want to be influenced by and those people whose behavior we just can’t tolerate. We’d like to think outside of the church box, but somehow we’ve been convinced that the box is not only a good thing, it is there for our protection and should never be tampered with lest we mess it up.
Lately we’ve been asking people this question: If you could do anything you wanted in ministry for the Lord, what would you do? The responses have been so consistent it’s frightening. Almost without exception, they will get the “deer in the headlights” look and then say, “Well… I guess I’m not sure.” With all due respect to those who have propagated this mentality, myself included, it is time to set ourselves and the people we care for free. Free to do all manner of things that have nothing to do with our regularly scheduled meetings. Our programs, our structures, and our Sunday morning routines can, in fact, become a form of bondage if we’re not careful. In principle, we all agree that we’re to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. But if we’re honest about how we’ve spent our time and energy, it’s obvious that we’ve focused the vast majority of our ministry efforts in those places already well lit and sufficiently seasoned. When I look at how Jesus did what he did, I see him out there mixing it up with real people in the real world… meeting each individual at the point of their specific need, loving them, listening to them, treating them with respect, and bestowing on them the kind of value that we all secretly long for.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, over time we’ve began to believe that we must find our place within an organization before we can “do our ministry.” When in reality, most of us our called to serve outside the well guarded confines of what we now call “the church.” Although some gifts and callings are primarily for equipping and caring for other believers, many more are bent toward impacting those we come into contact with on a more regular basis. This is why Jesus elevated the idea of “loving our neighbor” to a place of primary importance on every believer’s to-do list. The apostle Paul was dealing with a similar problem in the church of Galatia. Many Christians had been persuaded to believe that they must come back under the law and its practices in order to be truly justified. Paul had worked so hard to enlighten these young believers to the principles of freedom, grace, and justification through faith, only to have them drug by their feet back into religious bondage by the self appointed “church wardens” of the day.
“You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5: 1-8)
Please understand what I’m trying to convey here. I am not saying that going to church means that we are submitting ourselves to bondage, nor am I suggesting that we should rebel against that which we might flippantly deem “the institutionalized church.” The point is that most of us were pretty good at living in the real world before we got saved. What happened to us? We cut our hair, got our uniform, and started walking in formation. We were institutionalized, that’s what happened. We took on the yokes of others and in the process lost touch with the uniqueness of our personal callings and passions for ministry. Come in, sit down, stand up, sing a song, pass the plate, listen to a sermon, sing another song, pray, go home. Call me crazy, but after doing the same things the same way for so long, I think maybe its time to step back and evaluate how well what we’re doing is working. In many respects, our institutions no longer serve us, but it is we who now serve them.
In the next reformation, we must stop trying to get people to our meetings and instead make it our goal to get them to Jesus. We must each seek the Lord for what he has for us to do… AND THEN DO IT! It’s almost like we’ve forgotten how to follow the inner leadings of the Lord for ourselves. If we’re waiting around for our pastor, or some other church leader to bestow upon us the privilege to minister, then we’ve adopted the wrong mode of operation. Maybe we’ll muck it up a little… so what? Jesus sent his disciples out there knowing full well that they weren’t prepared for everything they would encounter. That’s how we learn the fastest. “Oops… I won’t do that again.” The time has come to encourage one another to go out and do what our heart longs to do for the Lord. And if that means we lose our best nursery worker, or our most faithful usher, than so be it. The world needs the church a lot more than the church needs itself. If like me, you can’t stand the thought of living out the rest of your life on the inside, maybe it’s time to start chipping away at the wall of our cell. We might have to take a long crawl through a whole lotta nastiness, but at least we’ll get free. Now’s the time to “get busy livin or get busy dyin.”
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.
It was a Sunday morning and my first visit to this particular church. After carefully choosing my route through the foyer as to avoid any possible human contact, I found my seat and slumped down into the more than adequately padded pew. The sanctuary probably seated 500, but there were only a handful of people in attendance on this day, and not a single soul was sitting within 20 feet of me. As the organ droned on, I found myself surrounded by an endless diorama of stained glass and enough sculpted wood to make me wonder if a single tree was left standing in the Pacific Northwest. Then suddenly, as if perfectly synchronized with the crescendo of the Prelude, two distinguished looking men in flowing black robes strode into the sanctuary and gingerly seated themselves in unison on the matching mini-thrones planted on opposite sides of the altar. Like a trained lab rat, I immediately began fumbling for my bulletin. And yet, I felt a strange sense of comfort as I remembered that the standard order of worship is a sacred thing that few seem to deviate from in any significant way. As the service began, the announcement was made that today was this church’s 140th anniversary, and by estimating the average age of the congregation, it seemed quite possible that some of its founding members were in attendance. Though you would think the atmosphere would be one of celebration, after crawling our way through a couple of those hauntingly familiar dirges from the 17th Century, this service actually felt more like a funeral. As we stood with our hymnals poised for what seemed like an eternity, the words we had all been secretly longing to hear were finally spoken, “You may be seated.” As we settled ourselves into the crushed velvet, the Senior Pastor slowly arose and took his position behind the massive pulpit that seemed to be elevated unusually high above the rest of us.
The sermon that followed had to have been one of the driest, monotone messages in human history. And though I can’t recall anything he said that morning, I do remember how excited everyone became when a trucker’s CB radio broke through the air waves over the church’s antiquated P.A. system. It was like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy, and most certainly sleep inducing environment. It was just the bony elbowed nudge I needed to make it through the rest of the service without passing out. During the closing Hymn, first and third verses only of course, I began calculating my escape route. Which door could I get to the quickest? Was it possible to get out to my car without having to talk to anyone? How will I evade the well-meaning ushers who tried to give me a visitor badge on the way in? It was at that point that I thought to myself, “I’ll never be back here again.”
As I reflect on that experience, I have to chuckle at the “you’ve got to be kidding me” factor that surged through my mind as I endured the morning’s proceedings. But even more so, I came away from that event with a deep sense of grief in my Spirit. Even though I’m admittedly not a big fan of the more traditional or liturgical styles of worship, I’m convinced that it was not those elements of the service that left me so cold. Even many “contemporary” church services seem to exude that same kind of soporific impotency. Often, the only difference may be that they’ve had some sort of image make over. Replacing hymns with choruses and the organ with guitars might be a step in the right direction, but any mortician will tell you that no matter how much we try to dress up the dead, there’s really no adequate substitute for a body filled with life and breath. I wish I could say that this Sunday morning scenario was an isolated incident for me. But in fact, this was just one in a string of many similar church experiences I’ve had over the years. And though I was genuinely disappointed by the apparent absence of the Lord’s presence in that service, sadly I was not that surprised.
It’s no secret that the majority of people in this country are no longer attending church. Even many believers seem to be disenchanted by the notion of committing themselves to any local congregation in a significant way. Despite some of the more positive statistics concerning Christians, there’s a marked and seemingly growing lack of interest and subsequent decrease in involvement in the local church as a whole. Not long ago, in the city where we were living at the time, five churches from a particular denomination closed their doors in order to combine their ministries into a single congregation because they could no longer support themselves individually. Some might try to put a positive spin on this kind of “transfer” church growth, but no matter how you slice it, this is not a good sign.
Without question, there are significant pockets of spiritual renewal and many healthy and growing local churches in the U.S. But we must not ignore the multitude of sick and dying cells that are often right next to them. As Paul said in 1 Cor. 12, the body’s “parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” Let’s be honest. When we’re enjoying all that comes with being a part of a relatively healthy local church, it’s tough not to become overly focused on our own little corner of the kingdom. When we’re not really suffering, it’s easy to forget those who are. Would you say that most of the churches in your community are in good health and growing? Or maybe it’s your church that’s struggling. Either way, based on the anemic nature of so many of our parts, it seems quite clear that we are due for the next reformation.
It’s been nearly 500 years since Martin Luther slammed a nail into his 95 theses. After all those years, the way we “do church” really hasn’t changed all that much. And for most believers, Sunday morning is still the central focus of the Christian experience. More often than not, one’s faith is more readily identified by where we go than by who we are. When asked, “Are you a Christian?” the most common answer will be something along the lines of “I go to First Baptist”. In theory, we’d probably all agree that Christianity is not an event that we attend regularly. But in truth, that is the way we often think of it. Church has become more about where we go than who we are. This is a problem. So much so that, in many respects, the Sunday morning service has become a pitiful substitute for the abundant lifestyle we were created to enjoy. In the 1500s, church leaders were telling people that they had to pay a fee to get their loved ones into heaven. The motive was to fund the construction of lavish cathedrals. Now we might feel pressure to hold revival meetings or conferences in order to make the church’s mortgage payments. Say what you will, but a healthy percentage of church leaders spend a lot more time and effort maintaining our buildings and programs than we do actually interacting with the people in our congregation. “But we have home groups” we protest. That’s great, and we need more of them. But who are we really doing life with? How many people know and care about who we really are? The person we are when we’re weak, or tired, or unusually fleshy? How often are people in our home if for no other reason than we just enjoy hanging out with them? Not some pre-programmed agenda driven meeting, but genuine, mutually gratifying relationships that would survive with or without the Sunday-go-ta-meetin routine.
One of the core precepts of the next reformation will be the re-discovery of genuine community. Because of the transient nature of our culture, many of us have not lived or functioned in an actual community for many years. If we are 30 or younger, chances are we’ve never experienced the kind of small town living that not so long ago was the norm for most Americans. For example, most of us have little or no relationship with our neighbors. Why is that? It’s not because we don’t want to get to know them, it’s that we don’t want to invest in a relationship that probably won’t go anywhere due to the fact that one of us will most likely be moving again soon. The vast majority of us no longer live in Mayberry where successive generations grow up and eventually die in the same small town… where everyone knows the Sheriff or the town drunk on a first name basis. I’ve only visited the town I grew up in once or twice in the last couple decades. We’ve moved so many different times, I’ve lost count. But like so many others, we’re starting to realize that there is something of primary importance that seems to be missing as a result of our nomadic lifestyle. We must somehow re-capture the kind of genuine community that makes the Christian experience not just tolerable, but actually enjoyable.
In short, although there will always be a need for meetings, we need to admit that many of our “services” just aren’t cutting it anymore. It’s time to be honest about the ineffectiveness of what we’ve been doing on Sunday morning so we can get passed it and on to whatever is next. We’ve been stuck in some kind of comfortable quagmire. Our routine has defied experimentation and exploration. We must somehow shift our focus from having good meetings to living out our faith with each other in the real world. We have to get beyond this dry place that we’ve camped on for so long. It’s time to move out. We are way overdue for the next reformation… a paradigm shift no less significant than the one Martin Luther ignited. The following series of articles is the foundation of my personal 95 theses. If you choose to read on, please know that I’m still “fleshing out” many of my thoughts and ideas on this topic, so I would really appreciate any input or comments. The next reformation is calling.
From the time I was a youngster, I’ve been labeled as a “wheeler-dealer”. I can’t explain it, but I just love to buy and sell stuff. I was apparently too young to remember this transaction, but my Mom tells the story of me selling the ladder that went to my bunk bed to one of the neighbor kids. Why he wanted it I couldn’t say, but apparently I felt I didn’t need it anymore, so out the door it went in exchange for a cash settlement. In the early 70s, you could often find me collecting, trading, and bartering with Wacky Package stickers or beer cans as they were the hot commodity of the day. Even now, I take great joy when I find something at a flea market, or in a garage sale, or on Ebay that I think I can turn a profit on. I don’t really know why, It just makes me happy. In fact, my favorite TV shows are American Pickers, Pawn Stars, the Barrett Jackson auto auctions, and The Antiques Roadshow. Somehow I’ve slowly gravitated toward these kinds of programs because they are all based on the principle of worth. Which simply put is, something is worth only what someone is willing to pay for it. Over time, I have come to realize that this is especially true in the realm of the Spirit.
As a believer, we must understand that all things of great value come at a price. “But Salvation is free” you might retort. True, salvation is a free gift to you and I, but it came at the highest price ever paid for anything. You see, as a believer we can sometimes unknowingly underestimate the value of some of the “good gifts” (Matt 7:11) given to us by our Heavenly Father. Every parent understands that if we give our children everything they want at no cost to them, eventually they will develop an entitlement mentality. In other words, spoiled kids think they deserve everything and don’t have to work for anything. This is why my Dad tried to teach me and my siblings about what he called “the value of a dollar”. Though he was a very wealthy and generous man, he did not give any of us kids everything we wanted nor was he pressured by when we wanted it. In turn, we learned that some things we had to wait for, to earn, and eventually to pay for ourselves. Maybe you don’t want to hear this, but our Heavenly Father sometimes likes to apply this principle as well.
Let’s take for example the kind of experiences that may be required of us in order to gain a greater level of spiritual authority. At one point, the Apostle Paul’s authority was brought into question by those who were jealous of the impact his ministry was making on the church of Corinth. His defense was both simple and profound. In essence, he claimed that he had earned his authority by consistently being willing to work hard and to suffer for the cause of Christ. “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.” (2 Cor 11:23) We must not be deceived about this, there will most certainly be some work and pain involved in the process of attaining genuine spiritual authority. True, some things will come as a free gift, but rest assured, others will have to be paid for. Much like our earthly parents, the Lord understands that we won’t appreciate anything of value that didn’t cost us something.
A friend of mine shared a story recently about attending the 90th birthday of one of his uncles. He said he had never really spent much time with the man, but he was confident that he must surely be wise after living all those years. He knew this might be his only opportunity to glean some of the wisdom gained over the course of a long and eventful life. So he cautiously approached and asked him to share just one “nugget of truth” that he had discovered. Much to his dismay, the old man flippantly replied, “just keep breathing.” At this, my friend walked away quite discouraged and offended at the man’s unwillingness to give up any of the goods. How dare he!
I’ve seen a similar dynamic take place at different church events. It’s not uncommon for a well meaning believer to approach someone who has just delivered a powerful message, or demonstrated some form of anointed public ministry. They will walk right up and ask, “could you please lay your hands on me so I can get what you have?” Unfortunately, that’s not usually the way it works. Most of the people who are walking in true spiritual authority or anointed ministry have paid a great price to be doing so. And if somehow they haven’t yet, believe me, they will. This principle can also apply to the gaining of what Paul called the fruit of the Spirit. Don’t believe me? Is your theology getting tweaked a bit? Just ask the Lord to “give” you patience and see what happens next. I can tell you from experience what will happen. NOTHING WILL HAPPEN… at least not any time in the foreseen future. You will have to wait like you’ve never waited before until you flesh screams out in frustration.
Again, please don’t be confused about what I am saying here. God does give us plenty of great things, spiritual and otherwise, free of charge. He is more gracious and abundantly generous than we will ever comprehend. As a believer we do share in an inheritance that is completely unmerited. But don’t be shocked if you have to pay dearly for some of the kingdom stuff you’ve yet to attain. There is purpose in our difficulty. The Lord will sometimes even allow our enemies to remain in order “to teach warfare” to those of us who don’t have enough “previous battle experience.” (Judges 3:1-2) That’s the principle of worth in action.
“He was despised and forsaken and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and pains… therefore I will divide him a portion with the great kings and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty, because he poured out his life unto death.” (Isa 53:3, 12)
Several years ago, a friend of mine shared an impression he had received about the spiritual climate of the region in which we were living at the time. In prayer, he saw a stereotypical church building with a huge three-legged stool sitting on top of it. On top of the stool sat a bride and groom figurine like the kind that would normally be seen on a wedding cake. On the legs of the stool there was writing, each leg bearing a different word. On the first leg the word “competition” was written, on the next “recognition” and on the third “suspicion”. As he continued praying, the Lord revealed that the figurine represented the union of Jezebel and the religious spirit, and that they were the antithesis of Christ and his bride the Church. Their position on top of the stool was indication that they had been given much authority in the local church in our area. The stool represented spiritual authority, and the legs were that authority’s support structure. The Lord then revealed that if only one of these legs were to be broken, the whole thing would easily topple over. I believe these three attitudes of the heart: competition, recognition, and suspicion expose some of the enemy’s most common tactics for keeping Christians from working together. More importantly, they also provide a glimpse into the Lord’s plan for unifying his body and restoring life and vitality to the local church.
Competition: If at any point we feel the need to compete with another believer or ministry, we need to consider where that desire might be coming from. Though I am convinced there is actually a kind of healthy competition that can take place between believers as we “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24) there is also an ungodly form of competition that is most often motivated by our need for validation. Let’s face it. We all want to be great and to be a part of something great. What we may not realize is that this need for greatness is a God given desire. The scriptures make it clear that every believer was created to take and to hold a place of great heavenly authority. However, we can often loose sight of this perspective in the midst of our efforts to find our place in the earthly pecking order. Most believers would acknowledge that our value is not determined by our level of outward “success” or by how we are viewed by others. And yet, we often have an internal struggle erupt when another brother or sister is openly blessed by the Lord in some significant way. Why do we sometimes grit our teeth when He makes an obvious display of His favor on a fellow believer or ministry? In 1 Cor. 12, Paul explains that “if one part is honored” than “every other part should rejoice with it.” We all know that it can be quite difficult to muster up the appropriate response when faced with that situation. Instead of being genuinely thankful for another’s good fortune or blessing, our first response may be to feel jilted or “gypped” by God.
There are many biblical examples of this form of jealousy. Cain and Able, Joseph and his brothers, certainly Jesus and the Pharisees, and even the ministry of the Apostle Paul suffered from this kind of ungodly competition. In Acts 13 we are told that when Paul was teaching in the Synagogue he began to draw large crowds of people. And “when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying.” (vs. 45) If we ever find ourselves wanting to discredit or disparage another ministry or a minister that seems to be having more success than we are, we need to quickly reign in our tongue and ask the Lord to enlighten our thinking. Even if a given ministry or leader may at times appear to us to be improperly motivated, we need to be mindful of our thoughts, and intentionally gracious with our comments. Being overly critical of another believer or their ministry is a sure sign of something amiss within us. And rest assured, if our judgments are truly unrighteous and without repentance, they will inevitably lead to our own humiliation.
In contrast, if we will simply learn to “rejoice with” our brother when he is blessed, this will encourage the Lord to release his favor and blessing to us. Our Father really does want to pour out all kinds of good things on his children, but he will never reward unbridled sibling rivalry. When my kids are in strife with each other, I am often compelled to respond quickly with some kind of disciplinary action. But when they are seemingly intent on tearing one another to pieces, I will let them go at it for a while without my intervention. The result is remarkably consistent. In no time, they become truly miserable and then they come crying to me for help. My response is always the same. “I don’t want to hear about what your brother did, I’ll deal with him next. What did you do wrong?” I am convinced that this is also the Lord’s approach to resolution when we find ourselves in the midst of relational conflict. In short, the countermeasure for competition is cooperation.
Recognition: If you have ever had the opportunity to attend a meeting where leaders from several different churches or ministries had come together, you might have discovered that these get-togethers seem to have a tendency to be either wonderful or horrible. There is nothing sweeter than enjoying the heart-felt relationships shared by like minded believers, and nothing more excruciating than having to endure a room filled with posturing pastors or church leaders. Again, this need for recognition is actually a part of our God-given makeup and is there by design. The Father wants us not only to know Him, but also to be aware that we are known by Him. But when we are not in touch with the Lord’s acknowledgment of us, we will invariably resort to drawing attention to ourselves or something we have done in the hopes of getting it from each other. Jesus devoted a significant portion of the sermon on the mount to this very issue.
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matt 6:1-4)
At one point, I was asked if I would be willing to help clean up our church building after one of our events. I agreed to volunteer and showed up the next morning ready to work. Within minutes, I found myself on my hands and knees cleaning toilets and urinals. Though I immediately recognized that the Lord was closely watching my internal response to this proverbial test, there was still a part of me that really wanted someone to notice my willingness to tackle this particularly humbling assignment. Thankfully, no one really paid much attention to what I was doing or made any comments about how great I was for lowering myself to such a task. And rightly so. Throughout the Gospels, we repeatedly find Jesus trying to enlighten his disciples to the principle of unnoticed obedience. In Mark 9 he asks them this question, “What were you arguing about on the road?” Instead of responding, “they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” This statement is truly profound and applies to so many different aspects of our faith. Clearly the Lord is not as impressed by our “greatness” as we tend to think he is. But the scriptures seem to indicate that there is actually huge potential for long term honor and recognition in a lifestyle of unassuming self sacrifice. Therefore, the countermeasure for recognition is servanthood.
Suspicion: Are we prone to give other believers the benefit of the doubt, or do we tend to hold them at arms length until they have somehow proven themselves to us? Even though we understand that appearances and first impressions are not always reliable, I think we often want to “size up” one another a little prematurely. If we have been a part of a local church for any length of time, then we have undoubtedly had our trust betrayed by a brother or sister in the Lord at some point. If we have not yet been thoroughly disappointed or disillusioned by the behavior of another Christian, then we should prepare ourselves for the inevitable. We should also recognize that to be disillusioned is to have an illusion removed from us. Many of us still seem to be living under the assumption that no one in the church should be allowed to hurt us. We should keep in mind that the Lord not only allows us to be wounded by others, but that his deepest desire is for us to die. Through the example of his crucifixion, Jesus demonstrated that there are times when we must choose to make ourselves dangerously vulnerable, even to those who have the capacity to inflict great harm upon us.
Of course, this is not to say that we should haphazardly throw ourselves at the mercy of anyone with a fish emblem affixed to the bumper of their van. Proverbs 4:23 says we should “guard our heart” because it is “the wellspring of life.” We should always be mindful of our alliances and discerning of those whom we embrace. But our pre-programmed misgivings toward other Christians can often end up being entirely unwarranted. Our enemy is no fool. He is very aware of the power that is released when dissimilar believers are unified in their goals and purpose. In 1 Tim 6:4, Paul warns his young disciple about those who have “an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, and evil suspicions.” Have you ever encountered someone who seems to have an unhealthy interest in controversies? Did they quarrel about words and talk maliciously about others? Unfortunately, we have all probably all been sucked into these kinds of evil suspicions at one time or another. But even worse, if we make it our habit to pre-judge or talk negatively about other believers, than we should expect to reap what we have sown. Instead, we should learn to ask the Lord to show us those divine relational hook-ups that we might normally overlook because of our own personal biases or insecurities. We might even be pleasantly surprised by the friendships that would develop as a result. The countermeasure for suspicion is trust.
It is no secret that the majority of people in this country are no longer attending church. Even many believers have become disenchanted by the notion of committing themselves to a local congregation in any significant way. I believe the Lord is deeply grieved by this trend. Though some have vowed to remain estranged, many others are sitting right beside us on Sunday morning wanting desperately to somehow be more connected. Granted, we probably will not have the same level of affinity or concern for everyone who feels this way. Some we may not want to be connected to at all, but that is the nature of the body. Still, we cannot deny that we really do need each other. So, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, but especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Gal 6:10)
“The Three Legged Stool” is used by permission of Don French and Kingdom SEAL Ministries.