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.
I recently asked the question in one of our meetings, “Why is it that we (the church) sometimes seem to have so much trouble going deeper and being more vulnerable in our relationships with each other?” The answers that came back were remarkably consistent. In a nutshell, the standard response was “we’re tiered of getting hurt.” One guy likened his hesitancy to pursue relationships to the memory of being at the Jr. High dance and being afraid of crossing the room to ask a girl to dance for fear that she might turn him down. Rejection can be a crushing blow to our identity and sense of self worth… even as adults. We all have an inborn need to feel that who we are matters, to God and to others. But in our pursuit of validation, we have often been reminded of how limited our capacity can be to bestow value and worth on one another. Some of our attempts at genuine relationship have even resulted in a crystal clear confirmation of that which we fear the most… the sense that who we are and what we have to offer really doesn’t matter that much. This can be especially painful when that message is communicated through our local church experience. And yet, because we were created to function in the context of intimacy and community, we are subconsciously driven to keep putting ourselves out there in hopes of attaining at least a tolerable level of acceptance and approval.
In the 1940s, Abraham Maslow, one of the early proponents of developmental psychology, proposed that our most basic needs include:
- Self Actualization – our need to reach our full potential and destiny.
- Esteem – our need to be valued and respected by self and others.
- Social – our need to be connected to a larger group and to be loved and accepted within that group.
He also noted that we will sometimes be willing to deny ourselves even our most basic of needs, like food, in order to gain acceptance and a sense of belonging within a group. I believe Maslow understood some things that many of us in the church have somehow lost touch with. The top three tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can easily be supported by scripture and are clearly in sink with the Lord’s heart for his people. Does he want us to reach our intended purpose and destiny? To be all we were meant to be? How important is it that we have a deep sense that we are valued, loved, accepted, and connected to something much bigger than ourselves? More importantly, how many of us currently feel that these needs are being sufficiently met?
Because of our culture’s transient nature and the unspoken devotion we have to our long standing local church paradigm, many believers have basically learned to live without some of the very things that we need the most. Even more concerning is the fact that some of us have gone as far as to simply give up our hope of attaining meaningful relationship altogether. There seems to be a growing trend among Christians to adopt the attitude of, “It’s just not worth it… I’ve been burnt before, I’ll just get burnt again.” This has produced an army of believers who no longer have the bond of being united against a common enemy, but now feel it necessary to trust no one and to guard their heart so closely that none are allowed to enter its deeper recesses… including God. This has left much of the bride feeling very alone and isolated.
The lord provided us with the quintessential example of vulnerability in John 13:3-5
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
It has always amazed me that Jesus, knowing full well that he was soon going to be betrayed, rejected, and completely abandoned by his closest of friends, was still willing to serve them in such a personal way. His humility and unguarded vulnerability remained in tact, even in the face of ultimate rejection and unparalleled emotional pain. But notice the first verse in this passage, the Lord had an acute awareness “that he had come from God and was returning to God” I submit to you that Jesus was able to let his guard down only because of the nature of his relationship to his Father. His identity was secure. He knew where he had come from, and he knew where he was headed. Although he loved those men dearly, he did not need their validation or approval in order to serve them in this most intimate and gracious of ways.
At last count, I have held a paid staff position at 10 different churches. Since 1984, my primary vocation has been that of a Pastor. In that time, my wife and I have served in everything from Mega-Monsters to small home churches. From conservative mainline denominational to independent charismatic… upper class suburban to inner-city poor. One thing has remained consistent. People come to church for many reasons, but ultimately they stay for only one reason… relationships. We will invariably put up with all kinds of church craziness when we are “rightly joined and fitted together.” But we will bail at the first sign of trouble if we have the sense that no one really gives a rip about us, or that we won’t be accepted for who we really are. It’s time that Christians come to terms with our need for belonging and acceptance. Ultimately it is about our relationship with the Father. We must constantly be in pursuit of a deeper revelation of his unconditional love and acceptance of us as his children. But this is where we’re missing it. WE ARE TO BE OUR FATHER’S EXPRESSION OF LOVE TO ONE ANOTHER. How do we best receive God’s love for us if not through another’s loving touch, or words, or actions? Jesus clearly understood this principle. He was a living breathing testimony of how we’re to conduct ourselves as believers. Did he wall off his heart for fear of further injury? Did he avoid meaningful relationship in order to forgo rejection? No, he kept throwing himself out there… serving, healing, and ministering compassion through up close and personal contact. Though it is clear that he frequently escaped the constant drain of ministry so he could spend uninterrupted time with his father, he just kept coming back for more, finally to endure unspeakable torture and death as his final demonstration of love.
I believe the Lord is saddened by the overall level of relational superficiality that most believers are currently experiencing in their local church. In truth, what or who’s to blame for this reality is probably a mute point… but as church leaders, it is our responsibility to do something about it. And more often than not, it starts with us. Church leadership will undoubtedly provide plenty of opportunities for relational strife and personal heartbreak. Many pastors, myself included, have had to fight off the tendency of becoming overly protective of their heart in order to survive. But erecting impenetrable walls around our heart eventually results in love starvation and an overwhelming sadness or anger toward God and others.
The next reformation for the church in the U.S. must involve some kind of systematic emotional restoration effort for its people. Christianity has to be lived from the heart. Our passion and emotions must be engaged and alive both vertically and horizontally if we hope to accomplish anything of eternal value. If we find ourselves trying to do all the right things, but our primary motivation is our sense of obligation or duty, we won’t last very long. When we remain offended, or we refuse to seek healing for our wounded emotions, we are a sitting duck for demonic oppression and torment. Our enemy knows that if he can get us to close off our heart… he’s got us. A little un-forgiveness goes a long way toward knocking us out of the race.
(1 Pet 2:4-5) tells us that Jesus was the original “ living Stone–rejected by men” and that “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…” If you feel rejected, you have to understand that you’re in good company. Rejection is an avoidable right of passage for true spiritual authority. And somehow through the process of our heart being repeatedly wounded and healed… it becomes stronger and yet more pliable at the same time. When we are unwilling to be vulnerable with the Lord or others it is a sign that we have lost our trust in our Father’s sovereignty and loving watchfulness over us. The local church is that spiritual house built with living stones. And like the temple rebuilt by Zerubbabel, many of those stones will be burnt and forever scared by the ravages of battle. Nonetheless, in order for us to function properly… or even to survive for that matter, we must be connected to one another. Not just organizationally, but at the heart level.
The local church must regain its commitment to being a refuge for those in need of emotional restoration and a place where the building of meaningful relationships is a top priority. As individuals, we must pursue a deeper revelation of the Father’s unconditional love and acceptance for us so that we have that kind of genuine love to give to others. Only when we lay ourselves before the Lord and become vulnerable to his touch can we find the kind of intimacy that we all secretly long for. As a result of our poor treatment of one another, and our faulty perceptions of how we might feel the Lord has treated us, we can sometimes be prone to relational superficiality. We must resist this proclivity. Our spiritual life depends on it. Our ability to function as an integral member of the body depends on it. The fulfillment of our destiny depends on it. The next reformation will require a renewed focus on the value and importance of maintaining a deep, heartfelt relationship with the Lord and our fellow believers.
Jesus we really need help here. We want to serve you with a whole heart and an open Spirit. Please forgive us for holding on to our offendedness toward you. We know you love us and want nothing more than for us to be able to feel that love in a tangible way. Please forgive us for hanging on to our un-forgiveness toward our brothers and sisters. We trust you, and we release them and what they’ve done to us back to you. We recognize that they’re struggling and stumbling along just like we are. Forgive them. Please heal our emotional wounds. Heal your church Lord. Heal the bride so fully that her beauty will cause the heavens and the earth to swoon.
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.
In 1803 Thomas Jefferson purchased a huge portion of North America for $2,500. Interestingly enough, no one really knew what he had actually bought because, at the time, the Louisiana Purchase was largely uncharted territory. In 1804 Lewis and Clark, along with the little team they named “the corps of discovery”, were given the task of exploring and documenting basically all things West of St. Louis. Their journals reveal that they were repeatedly shocked and amazed by their discovery of landscapes, species, and peoples previously unknown to the culture from which they had come.
In much the same way, there seems to be a growing sense among many Christians that there is a lot more “out there” than we’ve had the opportunity to experience as of yet. We know the land has been bought and that we really need to explore and enjoy all that this new frontier holds for us. And yet, each time we step out on our journey into the unknown, we encounter certain difficulty and resistance at nearly every turn. Somehow, we have to stop being surprised and shocked when this happens. This is the lifestyle of a pioneer. The next reformation is calling.
For the most part, the way we “do church” has not deviated from the model set forth several hundred years ago. Though hymns may give way to choruses, pews might be replaced with chairs, and the altar is now called “the stage”, the basic Sunday morning format has really not changed in any significant way in all that time. As a result, there seems to be an attitude growing among the faithful church going masses of “been there, done that, bought the T-shirt… big yawn”. At least from my perspective, it seems painfully obvious that it’s time to go farther up the river and see what else there is to see. Though many pine for the restoration of the early church depicted in the New Testament, I would propose that going backward is not God’s desire for us. True, for the most part the first century church was clearly at a better place than we are currently, and we can certainly learn from our history. But the scriptures indicate that there’s much more territory available to us than that which we’ve previously experienced or even read about. Because His Spirit lives in us, there is literally unlimited potential in every Christian, and so there is no place that’s unreachable or goal unattainable for us.
Why is it then that we’re apparently afraid to move past the three songs, three points, and a poem mode that we’ve been stuck in for so long? Is it because we just can’t seem to come up with anything better? Are we afraid that we might disturb or disrupt something truly sacred? Granted, the lifestyle of a pioneering explorer may not be for everyone, but the restless discontent that many of us are feeling may actually be there by design and thus may also prove more compelling than we first thought. It’s time for the typical local church paradigm to change. We are no less in need of a reformation than the church was when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. Uncontested boredom has grown into apathy, and as a result we have somehow accepted our sorry state as being normative. The church has been lulled to sleep and thus has become fundamentally immobilized. God help us, the next reformation is calling.
For some of us, the discontent may run even deeper. When I was a teenager, I decided to take the course required to get a scuba diving license. Shortly after being certified, I went on a ten day diving trip to the Cayman Islands. It’s hard to explain if you’ve never experienced it, but these islands provide some of the best scuba diving on the planet. The water is so clear that you can swim on the surface and see everything a hundred feet below you as if you were flying. Hour after hour I was able to explore countless coral reefs, an unlimited variety of vibrantly painted sea life, and even some fascinating ship wrecks. This was truly a dream come true for a novice diver like myself. Sadly, for the next twenty some years, the only scuba diving I was able to do was in the muck ridden, muddy watered lakes of the mid-west. Here, everything is brown and green and the only hope of any excitement is seeing an unusually large bass or maybe a sunken pick up truck or something. Even when I got back to the relatively clear water of the Florida Keys, I found myself having to come up with ways to amuse myself. I tried floating upside down, chasing big barracudas to see if they’d turn on me… I even grabbed the tail of an eight foot shark just to see what would happen. It was like enough just wasn’t enough anymore. This is exactly the way many believers currently feel about their local church experience. At some point they’ve tasted of the Lord’s awesome nature and they want more of it. Just one powerful encounter will leave us hungry and unfulfilled by anything less than the spectacular. It only takes a tiny taste of His supernatural love and acceptance, power or authority, and we’re ruined for life… spoiled by that which can only be found in a personal, first hand experience with God himself. There’s just simply nothing comparable.
Lewis and Clark spent well over a year gathering supplies, recruiting, and training before their boat even hit the river. The members of the corps of discovery were hand picked for their particular expertise and trained for the specific task required of their expedition. These men were not just along for the ride. They were in the boat with a well defined purpose and intent. In much the same way, our focus as church leaders may need to shift from, “let’s see how many people we can get in the boat” to “let’s really get to know each other so we can utilize that which each of us has to contribute to the effort”. The spectator mentality has run its course. We weren’t created to sit on the sidelines and watch the professionals do their thing. It’s no wonder so many of us have bounced around from church to church. It’s like we’re channel surfing in hopes of finding a program that will hold our interest. Now… there’s a lot more than “57 channels”, but it seems like there’s still “nothin on”.
By the grace of God, we’ve been able to be a part of several local church plants (start ups) over the years. Somehow, we’re still driven by the belief that there’s much more out there than what we’ve been able to fully explore or experience thus far. We’ve also become increasingly aware that we will not get very far, let alone survive the journey, without having the right crew along with us. Exploring the untapped potential of the local church requires a ridiculous amount of intestinal fortitude and a unique brand of internal resolve. In other words, “you gotta want it” cause the river will be treacherous and the opposition fierce. But the dissatisfaction level among believers seems to be increasing exponentially as the years go by and the law of supply and demand will eventually take effect. People are looking for a new place to live. A place that will provide them with opportunities to explore who they really are and encourage them to utilize the specific abilities they possess for the sake of the expedition. Most of us want to know and be known in a community marked by the genuineness and transparency of its people. We long for a place where we can pursue deep, sustained relationship with God and others… a functioning local church that is identified by the uncharacteristic affection that its members have for one another. We’re searching for something. New wineskins that will be able to stretch enough to contain and dispense whatever the Lord wants to pour out on us…. Alas, I wax poetic.
In short, I think most of us are tired of all the hype and event oriented nonsense we’ve come to accept as normal church life. Haven’t we been to enough rock concerts, lectures, and musical theater performances by now? God knows I’ve been responsible for promoting and facilitating my fair share of them. But these days you’re not going to rock me hard enough or amuse me sufficiently to get my juices flowing. I’m searching for more. The local church can be more. The time has come to man up and head into the wilderness with each other… to start doing real life together. St. Louis has become blasé. Let’s go find our L.A.! The next reformation is calling.
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.