Undermining Revitalization–Part 4

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Here’s the conclusion to the four part series on undermining revitalization.

An Alternate Ending

I read an article once that revealed how the endings of Star Wars: The Return of the Jediand Rocky Iwere altered.[1]The original ending of Star Wars: The Return of the Jedihad Han Solo dying. The original ending of Rocky Ihad Rocky receiving money to throw the fight against Apollo Creed. If you’ve seen either movie, Han Solo is one of the heroes of the rebellion against the empire and Rocky victoriously (in a motivational fashion) defeats Apollo Creed. Both are glorious endings.

Today, many churches in need of revitalization are experiencing more of a tragic ending like the original endings of Star Wars:The Return of the Jedi and Rocky I. Such endings are very similar to the ending of the children of Israel in Numbers 14 because of the ten spies who gave a negative report. 

However, we can change the endings of churches in need of revitalization. The endings can be much more encouraging and glorious than we could have imagined. To help rewrite the ending of the stories—from gloom to glorious—I’ve created a code or a set of five guiding principles for all church leaders to follow.

  1. It’s not about me, but HE. Remember, it is not about you! It never has been, nor will it ever be. It is about the King of Glory and making much of Him—not only in the church but through the church.
  2. It is definitely bigger than us, but NOT TOO BIG for God. Turning around a church; jump-starting a church from years of plateau; bringing a church back to life; whatever you call it, revitalization is bigger than one person, or a group of people. It is a task that only the Spirit of God can empower a people to accomplish.
  3. If I don’t check my heart, I can wreck the church. Just because someone has been marked by salvation doesn’t mean they are currently living out their salvation. In other words, people can know Jesus but presently not be obeying Jesus. I think of Peter in Galatians. Paul had to call him out for his behavior that was in direct contradiction to the gospel. Leaders must constantly check their heart to make sure it is connected to and walking with God. I cannot tell you how many leaders that I have come across in my years of pastoring that were “good” people but their heart was in no condition to be leading God’s people—in any way.
  4. If I’m not growing as a leader, I’m holding back the church. Leaders are learners. When it comes to leadership in the church—especially in cases of revitalization–if you want the church to grow (in any capacity) you must be growing as a leader. This principle applies to any leadership position: paid staff, lay elder, deacon, finance committee, personnel committee, etc. Such people in positions of leadership should be reading books and articles (listening to podcasts) on theology, ecclesiology, mission, revitalization, leading change, on their specific areas of leadership, etc. If you hold a position of leadership in the church and you’re too busy or too lazy to grow, you need to step down. It’s just that simple.
  5. It’s a mud-run marathon, not a stroll down Main Street. There’s nothing easy about leading a revitalization. I could get into all the specific difficulties associated with leading a turnaround. But in general, revitalizing a church is a battle. Keep in mind, the devil does not want you to succeed! In addition, the proclivity of the human heart is stubbornness. Thus, revitalization is messy, demanding, painful, and, at times, lonely. Revitalization is like constantly running into a head-wind. To be honest, this is why many churches won’t make it. And they won’t make it because they don’t have the leadership with the backbone to stay the course, to finish the race. They think church should be a place or a people without friction—just an easy stroll down Main Street. Know this: moving in the direction of God will cause friction with the world, the flesh, and the devil.

In closing, churches in need of revitalization can rewrite their ending. But for their ending to be rewritten from one of gloom to glory, there will need to be—undergirding the guiding principles mentioned above—a persistence in prayer, a grounding in the word of God, a commitment to the gospel, and a passion for mission. But rest assure, as this article has contended, it will require a body of leaders undergirding, rather than undermining, the God-given vision of moving forward. The promised land awaits. 


[1]Stacy Conradt. “The Alternate Endings of 28 Movies.” Mental Floss, July 29, 2014. Accessed June 28, 2019. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58013/alternate-endings-28-famous-movies.

Undermining Revitalization–Part 3

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I’m continuing my series of undermining revitalization. The following are the last two ways leaders undermine churches turning around.

Third, these leaders believe the cost is too great for them.

When the majority of the spies looked at the Promised Land, they saw too great a cost. Their standard of forward movement became the peopleof the land instead of the promise of the land. In other words, the fear of losing their lives trumped the faith of living out God’s promise. 

Many church leaders within churches in need of revitalization allow the fear of “what if” to prevent the faith of “what could be.”

Another way to put it—They kill ‘wow’ with ‘how.’There are a least three areas where the fear or the cost of the former overcomes the faith of the latter.

First, the cost of giving up methodological preferences proves to be too costly for leaders who undermine revitalization.Preferential methods such as style of preaching or music, structure of small groups, philosophy of children’s ministry, or a strategy for engaging the community prove to have more of a primary rather than tertiary root to the heart. 

As a result, when a decision is brought to the table to change structure and strategy in order to be more efficient and effective at reaching people far from Jesus and discipling them into His image, that decision is met with opposition from leaders who are attempting to ultimately preserve their religious way of life and worship rather than doing whatever it may take to advance the good news of Jesus. 

Second, the cost of giving up friends one has worshiped with for years proves to be too costly for leaders who undermine revitalization.When it comes to revitalization, not everyone will make the journey. 

The changes may prove to be too much for some for whatever reason. In many revitalization cases I’ve seen people leave to seek church membership elsewhere. And in some of those cases (while they don’t publicly complain or voice their opinion for the sake of peace in the church), they confide in church leaders that they are leaving to seek church membership elsewhere because there is something about the new direction they don’t like. 

Such an exodus of people (especially those who the leaders have known for years) sets off a panic alarm, causing the leaders to retreat from moving forward—thus relapsing to the past. In the end, no one wins since those who leave tend to stay gone and the church is paralyzed from moving forward into the new direction the Spirit is prompting. 

Third, the cost of giving up the safety and security of the feel of the church proves to be too costly for leaders who undermine revitalization.

When a church becomes a vehicle for mission—reaching people far from Jesus—it will be a church that receives, not repels, new people. 

New people joining the church changes the dynamic of the church. Such changes make people uncomfortable. Some members may even negatively voice that the church is not what it once was. Some may voice that they feel like they no longer have a voice. Some may voice they feel like their church has been stolen from them. 

In any case, leaders who undermine revitalization begin fighting for the “comfort” of the long-standing members. As a result, they suck the life out of the vision.  

Fourth, they fail to trust the process.

Revitalization, as stated earlier, is basically a corporate form of sanctification. Thus, it is a process of being corporately formed and molded in the body of Christ. Such a process will include highs and lows, celebrations and confrontations, and opportunities and obstacles. Those churches that successfully experience revitalization (and thus revival) are the ones that have leaders who trusted the process. 

The key to trusting the process is knowing God’s promise (promised vision) for who He wants you to be and what He has called you to do. In other words, it’s imperative to anchor the process of revitalization to the glory and command of Christ rather than the experience and demands of the people. 

It’s imperative to anchor the process of revitalization to the glory and command of Christ rather than the experience and demands of the people. 

When leaders don’t know God’s promised vision or His preferred future for the church, then they are driven by experiences and feelings. As a result, leaders jump ship rather than stabilizing the ship through the storm.

In the process of revitalization, it’s not that people’s voice doesn’t matter, it’s just that Christ’s vision for His church matters more. 

Undermining Revitalization–Part 2

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Most have heard the leadership adage “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” With regards to church revitalization, this concept couldn’t be more accurate. If a church is to be revitalized and renewed, and experience health, vibrancy, growth, and multiplication, it will need to be led by a group of godly, knowledgeable, tenacious, loving, fierce, patient, unified, humble, and faith-filled leaders. 

Depending upon the church governance, these leaders can range from vocationally paid leaders (staff) to lay elders (who oversee the church’s direction) to the various committee members who hold positions of leadership. 

Church leaders—holding any leadership position in the church—are the key to the church’s revitalized future just as the group of spies held the key to Israel’s future in the Promised Land.

The problem for many churches in need of revitalization today is that they don’t have the leadership necessary to lead the church towards the land of revitalization and renewal. 

In this post, I will outline the first two ways leaders can undermine the vision of a revitalized church. Understanding these points will (1) help pastors and church leaders to ask the right questions as they lead struggling churches towards gospel vitality and (2) prevent many leaders from undermining the revitalization process. 

First, they believe everything is fine.

Churches are perfectly conditioned to continue doing what they are doing. In other words, they don’t have to change one thing to sustain their current condition. For many churches, this means a slow leak of membership, baptism, and finances while maintaining the image that everything is fine. 

The truth about revitalization is that every church must be constantly engaged in the process of revitalization. Revitalization for a church is like sanctification for a believer. Sanctification, for a believer is the process of being conformed into the image of Jesus. Revitalization for a church is the process of being conditioned for gospel witness and mission. Revitalization seeks to center a church’s DNA around the message and mission of Christ while adopting methods and strategies that effectively disciple and evangelize their context.  

The first step towards revitalization is acknowledgement. A church might be in need of revitalization if:

  • It has been running the same amount of attendees for ten years and has never participated in either a church plant or sent people out as missionaries
  • Everyone they baptized is primarily children of members
  • They have no footprint in the community with regards to their engagement and interaction

The gospel hasn’t called churches to run activity centers of spiritual development for members; instead, it has been called to release saints for mission advancement among the nations.  

Where revitalization is undermined is when leaders verbally acknowledge they want to grow and reach people far from Jesus, but inwardly they are hoping they can keep everything the same and yet see different results. 

Once vision moves from theory to execution, the undermining begins. Those who undermine revitalization typically are in agreement with pastors expressing the theory of vision. However, executing the vision is where they begin a subversive undermining (that is, a passive aggressive stance and language which cuts down or delays growth and change). 

This can manifest itself in a host of ways. Below are some statements that such leaders may make which express they are not fully on board with the changes of revitalization:

  • “What if we did nothing?” 
  • “Let’s sit on it for a while.”
  • “Let’s do some more homework.”
  • “Do we really need to make that change? We’ve been doing it that way for years.”
  • “Let’s bring some others in on this and get their opinion.”
  • “According to our bylaws, that’s not a decision for us to make.” 
  • “I’m not comfortable with it.” 
  • “The pastor is being too pushy.”

In order for revitalization to occur, we need robust conversations, dialogues, and discussions. There will certainly be times for pause so that the team can pray more and do more homework.

However, subversive undermining comes from those individuals who secretly have a problem with the overall trajectory of the revitalization. Now that revitalization is moving from concept to implementation, they are vocalizing their opposition in subversive ways. As a result, revitalization is undermined either for a season or indefinitely. 

Second, these leaders sympathize with complainers and naysayers.

Church leaders ought to have a loving and caring disposition when it comes to others. Love should be the motivating factor in all that we do. Jesus said it Himself: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . . Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39). Of course, these are the two greatest commandments. Even Paul in his letter to the Ephesian believers addressed how the church body should build itself in love (Eph. 4:16).

Revitalization tests one’s biblical understanding of love. It tends to stir up complainers and naysayers who don’t like change and are accustomed and prefer the status quo. These complainers look for someone who has the capability to stop what is causing them discomfort. As such, they prey on the leaders who will listen and empathize with them—giving platform and credence to their complaint. In all fairness, many of these leaders are simply trying to love these people well. Despite this, their act of love undermines the church’s attempt to revitalize. 

Let me share an analogy. What if a child comes to a parent and begins complaining about the healthy food that has been placed before them? What if they insist on having a diet of french fries and ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Anempathetic parent can understand their child’s frustration, but then must guide them through why their diet needs to have healthy food as the foundation. While the child may still long for french fries and ice cream, at least the loving parent has taken time to engage and explain the healthy course of action to their child. 

In order to maintain calmness and a mirage of order, a sympathetic parent, on the other hand, will work to ease their child’s feelings of discomfort. Therefore, they’ll give in to the demands. In doing this, the parent has given credence and validity to the child’s desired nutrition. 

Can you guess which act of love is selfless and the other selfish? The selfless act of love is taking the time to empathize with the child and to enter into a dialogue and discussion about the child’s feelings and why the parent has chosen to place this kind of meal before them. The selfish act of love is the sympathetic parent who feels for the child, but because they don’t want to listen to the complaining anymore gives into the child’s demand, thereby undermining the very health of the child. 

This kind of selfish love takes place all the time in churches desperately in need of revitalization. 

The most loving thing church leaders can do with complainers and naysayers is to help them see the biblical vision of a God-breathed church compared to a personal preferred vision of a self-absorbed church.

…Stay tuned for Part 3 as I cover the two other ways leaders undermine revitalization.

Undermining Revitalization–Part 1

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Imagine you have spent your entire life enslaved. Freedom seems unattainable, and hope is scarce. However, one day a strange man—a fugitive from Egypt—shows up with the message that God sent him to Egypt to demand Pharaoh to let God’s people go so that God can bring them to the land of promise. 

A hope that was once extinct now started to emerge. Freedom’s light was beginning to shine.

Over the next several days drama ensues as competing miracles, plagues, destruction, and death pummel around you. When the dust settles, Pharaoh releases the slaves. He releases you. 

Freedom! Or so you think. Not much time elapses between release and vengeance. Pharaoh and his army set out to wipe you and all the other freed slaves. You plummet back into fear, panic, and fading hope. 

Suddenly, however, there is a commotion, people pointing towards the sea. You look up only to see two walls of water—one on the right and one on the left. You hear a loud cry telling you to march towards the sea. With adrenaline taking over, you enter to where the sea should be, but instead of water, you are on dry ground. You walk forward in the place where the sea had been laying since its creation. You cross the sea and arrive at the other side. When all the people cross safely to the other side, the sea walls come tumbling down over the entire Egyptian army. 

Now what? 

Here you are—freed slaves in the middle of the desert. Who are you, where are you going, and how are you going to get there?These are the questions racing through your mind. Days and weeks pass. Life is tough. Whispers of grumbling began to filter through the camp. These whispers grow louder and louder until they become full out complaints towards God and His leader, Moses. 

Just when you think about joining in the complaints, fire from heaven consumes a portion of the camp, and immediately, there is a hush. The complaining quickly turns to concern. 

On the next day, rather than eating manna, you eat meat for the first time. Nothing has tasted so good in such a long time. But as you were enjoying your quail, you hear cries in the distance. Those who had craved and obsessed over the meat begin to die. And as these people are buried, you begin to make the connection that when people complain against God and obsess over things other than Him, they end up dying. 

You think to yourself that there has to be a reason God freed you—us—from slavery. Certainly, as you sit there and ponder, there has to be more to God bringing us out here other than to teach us some spiritual and life lessons around complaining, gluttony, and idolatry

About this time, you hear reports that Moses has put together a spy team. These men are going to go scout out the Promised Land—the land that God had promised to give Abraham’s descendants. You haven’t been this excited since the day Moses showed up in Egypt to share the good news of freedom and redemption. Now, there is news of a Promised Land—a land flowing with milk and honey—a land of blessing, prosperity, and flourishing. 

Finally, a land to call home. 

Waiting for the return, however, feels like an eternity. Your soul hungers for God’s blessing, for God’s best, for God’s promise, for God’s life for you and His people. You believe that their return means you are one step closer to experiencing God’s movement and blessing. 

After 40 days, news spreads throughout the camp that the scouting team is back. Everyone, including you, jostles to hear about their escapes and what God has in store.

As people gather around, the spies reach into their bags and pull out mouth-watering fruit from the land. They verbally describe how the land was indeed bountiful and fruitful. 

However, what comes next is not what you were hoping for—or expecting. Rather than words of positivity and affirmation, their words are filled with negation and prohibition: The inhabitants of the land are too much for us to handle. They are simply too strong to overtake. We cannot enter the land of promise. 

But from the back of the pack there is another voice. One man, Caleb, says that the people ought to go and take possession of the land. In the sight of God, the inhabitants of the land are no match for the power of God, Caleb reminds the community. Your excitement grows, only to be eliminated once more.

The naysayers win as fear, trepidation, and disbelief spread throughout the entire camp. Now, rather than moving towards the vision God has laid out for His people, many want to return to slavery in the land of Egypt. As a result, God issues judgment on the community that no one 20 years of age and older will see and enter the land of promise. You will never see that land.

Obviously, this was the story of the children of Israel outlined in Numbers 13 and 14. However, when we draw on the contemporary relevance for today, we can equate what transpired in the wilderness to what has transpired and is transpiring in many churches today—namely, there is a leadership vacuum to champion and protect the gospel vision of reaching people far from Jesus in struggling, dry, and barren churches. 

The result is that hundreds and thousands of believers will spend much of their church days—if they don’t leave for another church—in safe mediocrity, monotony, and even gospel (mission) malnutrition with their souls longing to experience God’s vision for their church. 

To address the topic of revitalization, in this four part series, I will first note the stark reality for how many churches in the West are struggling in the wilderness of mediocrity and malnutrition as they experience plateau and decline, and with very little impact in the community. The second and third part will then turn to how leaders can and do undermine the revitalization process. And finally, the fourth part will conclude with an exhortation for leaders to choose an alternate ending—one of hope and flourishing rather than one of struggle and survival. 

Struggling in the Wilderness 

Churches in the West should be concerned regarding their health and vitality. No longer enjoying the prominent role in society and culture, the church in the West has struggled greatly over the last few decades to keep and even reach new people. In fact, over the last couple of decades Mainline Protestantism has been hemorrhaging.[1]In addition, many evangelicals realized the struggle the church (in general) was having to reach a changing culture, which led many in the 1980s and 1990s to shift their methodological strategy in hopes of reaching people who had left the church as well as those who were far from Jesus.[2]

This era saw the rise of Willow Creek, Saddleback, North Point Community Church, and similar style churches. However, some practitioners and church growth experts like Aubrey Malphurs see most of the numerical growth during the church growth movement as mainly the results of transfer growth (Malphurs, 1994, 62). 

Even though numerical growth has been the story for some churches over the last few decades, that hasn’t been the story for the majority of established churches. 

David Olsen, in The American Church in Crisis, predicts that approximately 55,500 churches will close between 2005 and 2020 (Olson, 2008, 176). 

In Comeback Churches,Mike Dodson and Ed Stetzer accentuate that 70-80 percent of North American churches suffer from decline or plateau, and 3,500-4,000 churches close each year (Stetzer, 2007, 17).[3]

Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, notes in The Incredible Shrinking Church

According to a special report published in Leadership Magazine, of the approximately 400,000 congregations in the country, 340,000, or 85 percent, are either plateaued or declining in membership. Some are in crisis while others are soldiering bravely on, grateful not to be in worse shape than they are (Page, 2008. 8). 

There is an apparent backwards ecclesiastical movement taking place across America in the majority of churches. Rather than growing, many churches are suffering from severe decline and facing impending death. The state of our churches’ effectiveness, fruitfulness, and missional impact in the West is bleak.[4]

While many advocate for church planting as the antidote to this deadly infection of Western churches, the question still remains: “How do we revitalize these struggling churches?” 

Revitalization is no easy task. In Planting Missional Churches, Ed Stetzer writes,

Saving dead and dying churches is much more difficult and ultimately more costly than starting new ones. Some authorities even argue that changing a rigid, tradition-bound congregation is almost impossible. As Lyle Schaller has indicated, even if it is possible, nobody knows how to do it on a large-scale basis…Church revitalization does not happen much, but it does happen sometimes. I have been struck by how infrequently it actually occurs… (Stetzer, 2006, 11).

George Barna also comments, “In many cases, trying to revitalize a declining church is probably a wasted effort” (Barna, 1993, 15). This sagacious comment comes in light of how rigorous and demanding church revitalization can be. Although revitalization is difficult, it is also an opportunity to demonstrate the power of the gospel. 

If the gospel brings the dead to life, shouldn’t it be able to awaken declining and dying churches? Absolutely! Thus, revitalizing churches is a gospel task.

What is involved in this gospel task of renewing and revitalizing struggling, dry, and barren churches? Much ink has been spilled addressing what is involved in revitalization (e.g., the importance of preaching the gospel, being a leader who leads with conviction and courage, praying to undergird, having patience to wait, and embracing unity around a new or renewed vision). 

With such good theological and practical content today regarding revitalization, there’s one element to this gospel task that is typically overlooked. That element is a group of leaders championing and protecting the vision of a renewed (and revitalized) church. To that I turn in Part 2.


[1]Ed Stetzer, “Churches in America—Part 2,” July 6, 2016 The Exchange, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/july/state-of-american-church-part-2.html

[2]Many refer to this shift as the “Church Growth” movement as many church leaders attempted to see the church increase in numbers of converts, attenders, and members. 

[3]Also, in Breaking the Missional Code, Ed Stetzer and David Putnam believe 89percent of all churches are not experiencing healthy growth.

[4]Rick Richardson, in his recent work You Found Me, notes that based upon research only 10% of churches are growing by conversion. 

Dangerous Church

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dan·ger·ous (ˈdānj(ə)rəs/)

Dangerous is an adjective which means, “able or likely to cause harm or injury.” It can also mean, “likely to cause problems or to have adverse consequences.”

Typically, when Americans think of the word “dangerous” they tend to think of a weapon, an object in the house, a kind of animal, a kind of person or group, an area of town, or a region of the world.

Those things that we think of as dangerous have the potentiality of causing an effect on us and our lives. When something is dangerous it yields a certain kind of power and authority towards those who consider it dangerous. In other words, when someone thinks something or someone is dangerous, there’s a respect and honor—even a fear—towards that something or someone.

If I had to guess, I don’t think people today (particularly in America or throughout much of the world) believe the church is dangerous. Sure, they may think that radical religious groups like the Westboro Baptist tribe is emotionally dangerous and/or a cultural nuisance. Yet, they don’t view the church, in and of itself, dangerous. In fact, many do see the church, by in large, as a menace and nuisance to society—not to mention irrelevant.

However, when it comes to the book of Acts, the church was dangerous. Now, before I go any further, let me clarify what I mean. Did the church cause bodily harm to people? No! In fact, they brought healing to people. Did they cause problems for religious people and their institutions? Yes. Did they cause problems in cities throughout the known world as people turned their life over to Christ proclaiming Him as King and God, not Caesar nor their pantheon of gods? Yes.

The harm induced by the church—the problems caused by the church—throughout the world in the first century, had to do with the kind of change and transformation the gospel brought into the lives of people, and thus, in the spaces they occupied. Isn’t this ultimately why the Jews and Romans killed Jesus? He was dangerous. He was a threat. He was causing harm and causing problems within their spheres of influence. He was disrupting their way of life, their religious system.

In this short post, I want to provide the “how” and “what” of becoming a dangerous church.

First, how do churches become dangerous? Jesus exclaims, “If anyone wishes to come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). So, just what does it mean to die to oneself? To help understand what it means to die to self, I use the acronym D.I.E. (Deny yourself; Intend to be crucified to the world; and Emulate Jesus. In sum, to follow Jesus—and to access and download His life for us—we must D.I.E. daily. To state it in another way, to download the latest version of His life for us, we must kill the oldest version of us.

To download the latest version of Christ’s life for us we must die to the oldest version of us.

So just imagine what our churches would be like comprised of people who D.I.E. to themselves daily.  Imagine the impact these churches would have in and on their communities and cities.

Those who D.I.E. become dangerous to those around them and the places and spaces they occupy.

Second, what does becoming a dangerous church look like? In other words, what are some of the characteristics displayed in churches that are dangerous? Based upon Acts 5:1–32, I believe there are at least five characteristics exhibited by a church that is dangerous.

  • They realize they serve a dangerous God. Early in this chapter, God takes out Ananias and Sapphira because of their lie and deception. They lied to church, and ultimately to God, about the amount for which they sold their property. A dangerous church has a dangerous God working in and among them to fulfill His mission. I find it interesting that in the same chapter, religious people are trying to protect their institutions and way of life through violence and threats. Dangerous churches never have to resort to violence and vehement threats to those who endanger their way of life and mission. Why? Because they serve a dangerous God who ultimately protects His people, His church. This doesn’t mean that we don’t shepherd, watching out for wolves in sheep’s clothing or ravenous lions looking to devour weak prey. It simply means we don’t have to fight fire with fire—violence with violence, nastiness with nastiness. We can trust in a sovereign, omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotent God who work in and through us to accomplish His will for His good pleasure.
  • They stand in awe of God. A couple of times in this chapter Luke tells the reader, “And great fear came upon” those who heard of what God had done—particularly with Ananias and Sapphira. The idea of “fear” invokes awe. There’s this healthy reverence and fear the church has towards God. When a church stands in awe of who God is and what He has done, is doing, and will do, they posture themselves submissively to God offering their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to Him.
  • They embody unity and togetherness. In the early days of the church, while God did many signs and wonders in their midst, they gathered consistently in Solomon’s Portico, a large outer-court where large numbers of people could gather. We also see in other places, whether it is in the Upper Room (Acts 1), devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to one another (Acts 2), or believing they were of one heart and soul (Acts 4), the early church wasn’t about individuals coming to a location to consume a religious experience but about individuals coming together to form a body (Jesus’ body) to live on mission. One person can make a difference, but a group (a body comprised of many) can alter history. Think about it. The only reason why Jesus altered history as we know it, was because He empowered His body to go into all the world. A dangerous church can only become dangerous when it is unified, moving and operating together in the power of the Spirit.
  • They buy into Jesus’ comprehensive mission. Not only did they preach the gospel, they served the hurting, the needy, the broken, and the sick. They were serving and meeting the needs of so many people that it went out on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to the point that people from the surrounding towns and villages started bringing the sick and afflicted to Jerusalem. As they physically met needs they spiritually pointed to Jesus—the hope and King of the world—who had come, lived, died, and rose again to make all things new.
  • They are willing to die. After being arrested, the apostles’ lives were threatened once again in Acts 5. They were told they had been warned and charged not to teach in the name of Jesus, yet they continue to do so. Peter, along with the other apostles, respond, “We must obey God rather than men.” And they go on to proclaim the gospel once more to these, already irritated, men. In the face of an angry religious mob, Jesus’ devoted apostles declare, “Kill us if you must, but we cannot disobey the command of our King.” This mentality makes the church extremely dangerous. And it is this kind of attitude that becomes the seedbed and fertilizer of God’s movement in the world. Church father, Tertullian, put it this way, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The world cannot stop people willing to die for what they believe in!

In closing, are you dangerous? Is your church dangerous?

May it be said in our generation, from cities and communities throughout our land, “These men (and women) who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (Acts 17:6).

A Servant’s Viewpoint

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A few mornings ago, my 11-year old had a “princess moment”. You know what a “princess moment” is? Where she thinks the world should revolve around her. She was running late, as she fell back asleep. As she comes down the stairs, my wife was very gentle and encouraging to Ellie as she said, “I have everything ready for you. I’ve made you breakfast; got your bookbag all packed.” 

As parents we would love for our child to respond by saying something to the effect, “Thanks so much mom! You’re the best! I couldn’t ask for a more caring mom. I love you.” Yep, you guessed it. That’s not how she responded. Having plopped down on the couch, opening up her laptop, she begins barking about the breakfast. “That’s not what I want,” she exclaimed. With a little bit of my wife’s New York-Italian coming out, she expresses that all she wanted to do was serve Ellie and make her life a little bit better and easier since she was running late.

My wife’s words resonated with John 13, the passage I’ve been contemplating lately. John 13 is where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Imagine the scene. The Son of Man wraps a towel around His waist. He kneels down to where the dirty, nasty, and filthy feet are planted. He then takes the basin of water and begins to wash the dirt and grim off the disciples’ feet. 

As He begins to wash Peter’s feet, a shell-shocked Peter immediately and bluntly says, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” We know that Jesus responds, “What I’m doing you don’t realize now, but afterward you will understand.” Now, the Bible doesn’t tell us if Jesus looked up and locked eyes with Peter, or if Jesus continued to focus on the feet. If I had to guess, I would say that Jesus locked eyes with Peter for the dialogue goes on a few more sentences to the point where Jesus exclaims, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with me.” 

It is in this exchange that we see a servant’s viewpoint. It is from the bottom looking up. We live in such a culture where I don’t know if we fully understand a servant’s viewpoint, for our culture in one way or another is where people posture themselves from the top looking down. 

A servant’s viewpoint is from the bottom looking up, not the top looking down. 

Looking up rather than looking down is a game-changer. They are two completely different viewpoints and perspectives. One says, “I’m here to serve,” whereas the other says, “I’m here to be served.” 

Jesus goes on to describe to His disciples that what He did that night they are to do likewise. They are to pick up the ministry of the towel. To follow in the vein of Jesus, and to take upon ourselves a servant’s viewpoint, we will have to arm ourselves with three questions. In other words, a servant will always be asking themselves the following questions.

Who Can I Serve?

This seems to be the easiest question, yet it is the most difficult. I know what you’re probably thinking, “How is it the most difficult question?” Because, although it is easy, our hearts and minds don’t naturally want to ask this question. Rather our hearts and minds—especially in our culture—are constantly looking at who can serve us. 

Be honest. When’s the last time you went to a sit-down restaurant, entered your subdivision, pulled into your home, exercised at the gym, or attended church and thought, “Who can I serve?” The places we frequent and the busyness of our lives do not condition us to think about others—they condition us to think about ourselves. 

The places we frequent and the busyness of our lives do not condition us to think about others—they condition us to think about ourselves.

When you ask yourself, “Who can I serve?” it takes the attention of you and refocuses it on those God has placed around you. It can be a family member, friend, neighbor, co-worker, or a complete stranger. Jesus arrived that night and entered into that upper room knowing that He was going to serve His disciples. 

This question is critical. If you don’t know who you are going to serve, you won’t be able to answer the next question. 

How Can I Serve? 

Why did Jesus take upon Himself the form of a servant, wrapping a towel around His waist and kneeling down with a water basin to start washing feet? Because Jesus entered that upper room not only knowing who He would serve, but how He would serve them. 

Knowing how He would serve them was built upon knowing them. You will not know how to serve others unless you know them. In other words, knowing precedes doing. Better yet, knowing precedes serving. You will not know how to serve others unless you know them.

If you know the account in John 13, you know that Jesus performs a physical act of service that has deep spiritual connotations. In other words, His physical act of cleaning feet represents His fast approaching physical (yet spiritual) act of sanctifying hearts. In short, Jesus’ physical act of serving feet reflected a deeper kingdom reality directed at their hearts. 

The physical act of service should reflect a deeper kingdom reality directed at hearts.

As followers of Christ, when we ask ourselves, “How can I serve?” we should be thinking about the deeper spiritual realities of our physical act of service. For instance, husbands when you ask this question in the context of your home—particularly towards your wife—your deeper spiritual reality will involve loving your wife as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her. 

How we serve should ultimately reflect the deeper spiritual reality of the kingdom of God invading the dirtiness and brokenness of our lives.  

What do I Hope to See from My Service? 

Obviously Jesus wanted His disciples clean—spiritually speaking. John 13 isn’t as much about feet as it is about hearts. Jesus wanted to see His disciples (as He wants to see the whole world) clean so that mankind and God could be reconciled. Without cleaning—which ultimately required the shedding of Jesus’ blood—there is no reconciliation. In fact, Jesus tells Peter if He doesn’t wash him then Peter will have no part (or relationship) with Him.

But there is something more Jesus wanted to see from His act of service. He wanted to see this kind of service enacted in the life of His disciples. In other words, what He did, He wanted the disciples to replicate. 

If you continue to read the passage, there’s even one more layer to what Jesus wanted to see. He wanted the disciples to experience deep-seated happiness—better known as joy. He expresses that those who do such things are blessed. 

Could it be the reason why many today have such an unsettled spirit is because they are selfishly driven to feed the bottomless pit of self-absorption. The only true way to experience wholeness, fulfillment, and joy is to give your self-away in the service of God. 

The only true way to experience wholeness, fulfillment, and joy is to give your self-away in the service of God. 

Put these three things together, and a servant’s viewpoint hopes their service: 

1) draws the person closer to God, 

2) ignites others to join in serving in a similar manner—making the world a better, more selfless place, and 

3) instills a deeper-seated joy and peace in life. 

Do you get it? A true servant’s viewpoint leads to the trifecta of life—right relationship to God, right relationship towards others, and a right relationship with self. 

In closing, Jesus teaches that the greatest position in this world is from the bottom looking up, not the top looking down. That’s what we call an inversion of the gospel. The Prince of Peace didn’t tie a towel around His waist and kneel down next to a water basin to wash feet so that we could be American cultural princesses and princes that tell Him, “He missed a spot.” He did so in order for us to take our clean feet—washed by the blood of the Son of God—and go and do likewise. And this is definitely something my wife and I are striving to emulate for our children—not to mention, praying for them. 

Living in the Land of OZ: Three Ways for the Church to Posture Herself in a Foreign Land

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The influence of Christianity upon Western society seemingly has become a past experiment. As the Enlightenment experience failed—failing to eliminate all societal ills and bring about a human utopia—so too has the “Christian Nation” or Christendom failed. As a result, the church has struggled with this shift—and now find herself, in many ways, confused as to her role and posture in a pluralistic, secular, post-Christian, and skeptical environment. In other words, the church in North America has finally realized they are no longer in Kansas but in the land of OZ (or biblically speaking, in Babylon). And now believers and churches across the denominational spectrum are asking the question, “What do we do?” 

Believers and churches across the denominational spectrum are asking the question, What do we do?

In many ways, the North American church in the twenty-first century finds many similarities with the people of God in Jeremiah 29. [The dissimilarity that I must point out is that God was in a covenant relationship with the nation of Israel, whereas America is not.] Jerusalem had fallen. No longer did Israel experience cultural and national hegemony. Now in captivity, Israel experienced life as a sojourner, alien, and minority. They were marginalized. Obviously, many saw their newfound position as difficult, demoralizing, and depressing.

In response to their newfound foreign environment, they had a few options with regards to how they would posture themselves towards the larger culture. First, they could have just faded off as a sub-cultural hermit—sitting and longing for the ‘good ole days’ as they faded into irrelevancy. Second, they could have taken a more antagonistic, resentful, and angry approach, one that was mean-spirited, violent, and intolerant. Second, they could have bashed the Babylonians over the head with the Torah. Third, they could have accommodated the Babylonians—thinking “if we can’t beat ‘em’, join ‘em’.” Or, they had a fourth option—God’s option. They could seek the peace of the city.

Embedded within this Spirit breathed option, there are at least three particular ways the people of God were (and are) called to seek the peace of the pagan land.

1) Live here as if you were living there. We are to live everyday normal lives as if we were living in the homeland. God informs His dazed and confused people to, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jer 29:5-6). In other words, God tells them to live here as if they were living there (back at home)—faithfully tilling and cultivating both land and family while they multiplied in the land. Seeking the peace of the foreign land begins by living faithfully as if we are in the homeland. [Keep in mind that for believers today, our “homeland” is the new city where Jesus will have made all things new (Revelation 21).] 

God tells them to live here as if they were living there.

2) Live to bless, not curse. God expresses that His people take up the task of blessing the pagan nation. This is quite remarkable! The people of God were to live as a blessing, praying to the Lord on behalf of the nation as they seek the flourishing of the pagan city. For in the city’s flourishing, God’s people will flourish. While the scope of this article does not permit me the time to dive into the notion of “blessing,” this vision, nevertheless, harkens back to both Genesis 1 where God blesses humanity (Gen 1:28) as well as the prophetic promise God made to Abram, “through you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Blessing a pluralistic and pagan city means believers will work for and towards the common good in a way to bring flourishing and functionality to every sphere of life.

Blessing a pluralistic and pagan city means believers will work for and towards the common good in a way to bring flourishing and functionality to every sphere of life.

3) Live faithfully, not forcefully. We are to strive for faithfulness, rather than striving for world change. In this passage, there is nothing about seeking the transformation of the city. God doesn’t ask them to work towards transforming Babylon into a theocentric (Jewish) nation. God doesn’t ask them to transform the Babylonian culture and cultural practices to those that more align with the Torah. While change may very well take place, God’s call to His resident aliens was a missional posture of faithfulness—faithfulness in all areas of their life, as they seek God and the welfare of the pagan city. 

God’s call to His resident aliens was a missional posture of faithfulness—faithfulness in all areas of their life.

In applying this notion to the cultural context of the church today, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I completely agree that the gospel is transformative; the gospel changes individuals, families, cities, and even nations. To a certain degree God did bring change in Babylon through the faithfulness of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. My point is that the goal for the people of God is faithfulness to God and to His call, work, and mission in the world.

In neither Testament does God ever assign the task to His people of world change or city transformation—forcing people to believe and behave like the people of God. 

The mission of the church is to witness and make disciples. We witness and make disciples by working as ambassadors for the kingdom of God, serving as agents of blessing for the city, and inviting people to follow Jesus as their King who is in the construction process of making all things new. In sum, we simply share and show the gospel of King Jesus!

The mission of the church is to witness and make disciples.

In closing, may the church today—in finding herself in this foreign land like Dorothy found herself in the land of OZ—seek to live faithful lives reflecting the characteristics, attributes, and signs of God’s kingdom life in our homes, vocations, relationships, and ethics. May churches seek the “welfare” of the foreign city, living as agents of blessing rather than antagonistic, mean-spirited, angry, resentful and defensive agents. And finally, may we take the posture of faithfulness—faithfully calling people to follow Jesus. 

Pre-Clean Before the Deep Clean

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We have decided in the Laxton house to hire someone to clean our home a couple times a month. Given our busy schedules both at work and chauffeuring the kids back and forth from their events, we thought it best to hire someone to help us keep our house clean. 

On the eve before the cleaning person started, my wife frantically goes around barking orders at everybody to clean the house for the “cleaning lady.” I’m sitting and listening to this thinking to myself(because I don’t want to upset momma; because when momma’s not happy, no one is happy), “What? This is crazy! We have to clean the house for the “cleaning” person?” For a man, it didn’t make sense. However, Joannie explained it a little more to me and then it still didn’t make much sense. [Ladies, what can I say…I’m a man.]

This got me thinking about how some Christians communicate (whether unintentionally or intentionally) about “cleaning up” our lives, and how many outside the church view themselves before darkening the doors of a church building or thinking about giving their life over to God. 

Here’s the misconception: We think we need to pre-clean before Christ does a deep clean

Like I said, Christians communicate whether intentionally or unintentionally that there’s some self-effort that goes into cleaning up a person’s life before Christ comes in to do a deep clean. My feeling is that this is unintentional. In other words, churches don’t really know they are doing it. But they do so through their posture. 

The posture of many churches communicates to people that you need to be a certain kind of person to make it here. Your worldview can’t be too crazy. You need to be somewhat moral and decent. You need to use a PG (or at the most PG-13) language. You need to do a little bit of homework so that you can understand a smidgen of what’s going on—since few will do anything to try and reach communicatively where you might be. In short, you need to be somewhat put together. 

Such a posture communicates to “dirty” people that they need to have some things straightened out before Jesus does a deep clean in their life. This kind of posturing frustrates people with already dirty lives. Just like our house, we knew it was dirty. We knew it wasn’t put together. That’s why we “hired” someone to clean it. So, being told to clean it before the professional cleaning person came was frustrating. In essence, we were being told to do something we had yet to do.

When churches posture their engagement this way with a lost world that waddles in their dirty sin, they wind up pushing them further away. When the church (even unintentionally) communicates that a dirty world must do some pre-cleaning prior to attending Christian community, they tell them to do something they don’t know how to do and to do something that only Jesus can fully do. 

One of the glories of the story of the Gospel is that “dirty” people found Jesus attractive. They encountered Jesus in all their filth. There was no pre-cleaning that happened. Sure, some were cleaned after encountering Jesus, others left still in their mess. Nevertheless, they encountered Jesus in all their nastiness. 

Dirty people found Jesus attractive.

The church must have a posture where people in all their filth feel safe enough to encounter the glorious Christ. If not, we aren’t as much like Jesus as we imagine. Truthfully, I believe the church, by in large, has a lot of work to do in reimagining such a posture where “unclean” people feel comfortable enough to approach. [Hint: we can start by realizing that we don’t have it all together. We might dress up and play a good part, but we all have our own mess and our own struggles. We call this vulnerability and authenticity. Those two places are a good start in creating a safe environment. Never forget the difference between a believer and an unbeliever is Jesus. It’s not our morality or how we seem to have it all together. It’s simply Jesus!]

Never forget the difference between a believer and an unbeliever is Jesus.

The other thought that’s a misconceptionis when people think they need to clean their life up before coming to God. If I had to guess, this misconception finds its roots in shame. In other words, people are ultimately ashamed of who they are, what they do, and how they feel. They feel they don’t add up. They feel they aren’t enough. They feel defeated. Thus, they feel shame. 

Shame is a powerful deterrent from God. It is what drove Adam and Eve into hiding. Because there’s this innate feeling that we don’t add up to a being that (if He exists) is transcendent. And so the thought goes, if God is real, and He is who He says He is, then I need to get my act together before I come and bask in His presence—much less join His family. 

The overall thrust of this way of thinking is what most religions teach. You work your way out of shame into God’s good graces. In other words, you pre-clean your house before God does the final clean. But, that in no way is the Gospel message. You don’t have to pre-clean your house. You don’t have to tidy up the home of your heart. Jesus comes into the darkest and dirtiest residences and makes them miraculously new.  

You don’t have to tidy up the home of your heart. Jesus comes into the darkest and dirtiest residences and makes them miraculously new.  

Some might come back and say, “That sounds all well and good. But what happens if I make it dirty again.” Truthfully, it’s not “if” you will make a mess again, it’s “when” you make a mess again. What makes the Gospel so unbelievable is that Jesus not only comes to clean the home of your heart, but to make your heart His home. Jesus has covenanted (not contracted) to not only do a deep clean justifying your past, present, and future sin, but to work with you to bring about a sanctifying cleanse where you become more like Him. Over time you will have less and less mess.

What makes the Gospel so unbelievable is that Jesus not only comes to clean the home of your heart, but to make your heart His home.

In closing, I ultimately realized why my wife asking our children to pre-clean before the professional cleaner came. However, when it comes to our lives, I’m grateful that Jesus doesn’t ask us to do some pre-cleaning before He does His deep clean. I’m grateful that Jesus enters into our mess and chaos (regardless of how bad we think it is) and not only cleans it but takes up residence to keep it clean as He leads us to our glorious future home—eternal life with Him in the new city.  

Your Church Might Be A Country Club If…(Part 2)

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In my previous post I began outlining four identifiers that your church might be more like a country club than a church. Once again, I’m not knocking country club memberships. If you are a member of one, I give you permission to sing along with Travis Tritt—loud and proud—“I’m a member of a country club….” [If you are a country music fan, maybe you just got that song stuck in your head for the remainder of the day. You’re welcome!] 

The reason for my posts is that I fear many American believers view the church as a country club. Or at the very least, they practically behave as if the church was indeed a country club. Regardless, viewing the church or behaving as if the church is a country club distorts both the identity and the mission of the church. 

Knowing the characteristics of a country club can help protect the church from becoming or being viewed as such. Here are the remaining four identifiers that your church might be more of a country club that members pay for than the church that Jesus died for.

1—Your church might be a country club if your members worry about public disruption.

One of the benefits of being a member of a country club is that you don’t typically have to worry about the public infringing upon your property. In other words, the members of the club can enjoy the exclusivity of the club’s amenities. They don’t have to vie for tee times, tables in the dining room, the pool, or the tennis courts. In short, they can enjoy their club with minimal crowd or public disruption.

For many churches, and church members, they don’t like crowds—they don’t like newer people coming in and disrupting the way things are. They want their same parking spot for both their car and their rear. In addition, church members may fear more newer people means more newer things. In other words, if the public comes in, they may shape the church house into something they aren’t comfortable with. 

I know what many church members say. They say, “We want to grow and reach new people.” What they really mean, however, is, “We want to grow and reach new people as long as it’s convenient and agreeable for us.” In other words, they are fine as long as the newer people don’t rock the boat or disrupt what they have going on. It’s incumbent to keep in mind, Jesus didn’t die for His people to protect their exclusivity, but for His people to proclaim and demonstrate the inclusivity of the gospel—that Jesus is for all mankind. 

2—Your church might be a country club if you view other churches (“clubs”) as competition. 

The last thing you want if you are a club owner—or a club member at that—is people leaving and going down the street to the newer, bigger, and fancier club. In fact, if a club starts losing lots of members to the club down the street, they begin to see them as their big bad competitor. As a result, there tends to be a sour taste towards the “other” club. In addition, there tends to be reactive measures taken by the “losing’ club. Instead of having their own identity and crafting the club accordingly, they copycat the club down the street—thinking such measures will plug the leak. 

Churches should be different. Churches aren’t in competition with one another but are partners in the Great Commission. I believe the reason why many churches and church members see each other as competitors is because for the last thirty years or so, there’s been a lot of swapping going on. Something happens at one church, and people leave to go down the street to the other. Or, another church sprouts up with a “better” band, preacher, children’s ministry, and environment, and people from the “older” church leave to attend the newer. Such a cycle is built upon consumerism which drives competition. 

Church leaders must learn to be secure in who God has called them to be and what He has called them to do. While every church has the same call and task—or the same message and mission—the way they go about enacting them should have flexibility. In other words, church shouldn’t come in a one-size fits all mold. As J.D. Greear expresses, “We are to marry the mission [and the message], and date the method.” Every church must seek the face of God to determine how they are to flesh out their call and task there in their locale. Keep in mind, it may not look like the church down the street. And that’s ok. 

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I’m not suggesting there’s nothing to learn from one another. I think there is plenty we can glean from the various models and styles of church. However, the minute we see another church as a competitor and not as family is the minute we Americanize the church’s mission—to be better than the church right down the street. 

The minute we see another church as a competitor and not as family is the minute we Americanize the church’s mission.

3—Your church might be a country club if 99.9% of your programs and events evolve around members.

Have you ever noticed the calendar of a country club? Almost every single event and program is for its membership. There might have been more, but the only event that I saw on the calendar that involved outsiders was the member-guest golf tournament. Like I said, there could have been more, I just didn’t see them. Such a practice shouldn’t be odd though. Should it? The members do pay for the club’s services and amenities. Thus, it would only stand to reason every event and program would revolve around the members.  

Having every event and program revolving around members isn’t a bad thing if implemented at a country club. However, it is detrimental if implemented at a church. The church is a body or organization where the membership doesn’t exist for itself but for those who have yet to join. If churches aren’t intentional, they will find that most of what they do is geared for insiders not outsiders. But if churches will stay true to their Christ-given mission, they will develop their ministries and programs with non-members in mind. If not, they are well on their way to becoming a country club. 

4—Your church might be a country club if you create an environment of becoming before belonging. 

If you are going to belong to a country club, you will have to become of member of that club. It is as simple as that. Sure, some clubs offer you an opportunity to try out the golf course and the kitchen prior to joining. Nevertheless, if you are going to belong and find community at the club, you will first have to become a member. Just out of curiosity, I wonder what would happen if clubs allowed people to belong to the club before they became a member? Perhaps more people would join?

In the church there’s a small debate over the progression of people’s faith and involvement with the church. Do people believe (in Christ), then become (a member of a church), and then belong (to the community)? Do they belong, then believe, and then become? Once again, I don’t believe there is a one-size fits all for every person. However, I do believe the church must be flexible on each person’s process and progression in the faith and involvement with the church. 

Having said that, I do believe churches should be very careful at creating environments that prohibit people from experiencing Christian community before they actually become a Christian. In other words, churches would do well to create safe environments for people to belong before they believe and even become. Just out of curiosity, what kind of impact do you think a church could have if they created safe places for nonmembers (people far from God) to belong as they explored faith, engaged in a Christian community, and witnessed authentic worship? 

Country clubs are places that provide services people pay for, whereas the church is a body of believers providing service for the king who died for them.

In closing, there’s definitely more that could be said with regards to churches behaving more like a country club than what Jesus intended for them. The reality is, country clubs are places that provide services people pay for, whereas the church is a body of believers providing service for the king who died for them. When church leaders and church members keep this at the forefront of their mind, they will be a missional vehicle advancing the good news to a people in desperate need rather than a recreational vehicle enjoying the amenities of a religious club.