Stop Going to Worship

Why do Christians “go to church?”  Many people would respond, “to worship God.”  I don’t want to nix that notion entirely because I believe that we worship wherever we are, but I can’t find anything in the New Testament which suggests that our corporate meetings are or ought to be any more worshipful than the rest of our lives. 

So, why did the first century Christians meet?

1 Cor. 14:26 says, “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

They met together so that the whole group could be built up.  At their gatherings the body of Christ was conditioned to accomplish the task it had been given.  Think of church like a football team which spends time together in the gym and scrimmaging to improve its chances of winning the game.

Sadly, when we view our meetings as “going to worship” we confuse training with the game.  Our collective time, money, and attention flow to bigger gyms and more exciting workouts.  Sooner or later, we start high-fiving after a rigorous scrimmage and feel little tension to actually play the game.

Training is important but it only makes sense when we actually leave the gym and hit the field.  God has called us to make disciples and to express his love.  That’s the game.  When we play the game, we’ll know our need for the training.  No one will have to convince us to value our meetings.  We won’t need to be enticed through high quality performances or programs.  We won’t nit pick the details.

So, are there times and occasions when we especially worship?  As a matter of fact, there are:

“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.  And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Hebrews 13:15-16

Swept Away

I saw The Great Commission with fresh eyes again today.  Here it is:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (NIV 2010)

As I read it, the words, “baptizing them” jumped off of the page at me.  The words seemed so forceful, almost violent.  Our Lord commands us to grab people and push them under the water.  It’s kind of scary.  Perhaps you’ve not seen it that way before.  Perhaps, baptism has become a safe religious ritual or a “symbol.”  Maybe its become these things because theologians over the centuries have succumbed to the temptation to soften the blow by redefining what’s really happening at baptism.

Even the word “baptism” was invented by theologians who were afraid to directly translate the Greek, baptizo, as “immerse.”  Baptism is immersion; immersion is baptism.  Immersion requires a 100% commitment. Look at definitions 3 and 4 for immersion from

3.  state of being deeply engaged or involved; absorption.

4.  baptism in which the whole body of the person is submerged in water

Coincidence? I don’t think so.  In telling his disciples to make disciples, Jesus built total commitment into the process.  Jesus never allowed people to audit discipleship.  “Follow me” meant leave all else, witholding nothing.  To be his disciple, a person must allow Jesus to literally and figuratively sweep them off their feet.  They must fall headlong into his agenda for them.  I’m not saying that the “sinner’s prayer” doesn’t work.  I’m just saying that besides the fact that it is no where precedented in Scripture, it is more likely to result in half-hearted professers rather than whole life disciples.

In fact, everything about the Great Commission implies that discipleship begins with full engagement, involvement, and absorption into Christ.  Look at it again:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20 NIV 2010, emphasis added)

To paraphrase, Jesus is saying,”I am the supreme ruler of the universe.  Invite people to accept my unconditional authority in their lives and then tell them what it is they signed up for.”

The One Thing

Ask my children, they will tell you that I can tend to get frustrated and freaked out.  I’ve been known to throw a fit or two (or many, many more) when things don’t work out as I had envisioned.  When I get like this, it’s a sure sign that I’ve relinquished something that’s important.  Correction: not just something that’s important, something that’s absolutely essential.  Correction: not just something that’s absolutely essential, the one thing that’s absolutely essential.  

Perhaps you know where I’m headed with this so I’ll go ahead and go there.  Open up your New Testament and land with me in Luke 10:38-42, the story of Martha and Mary.  So, Jesus comes to their house and Martha does what any good hostess would do, she gets busy preparing a meal for her guests.  So much is on the line for her – the satisfaction of her guests, the food which might go to waste if poorly prepared, not to mention her reputation as a hostess!  Think of all of the potential negative outcomes which could result from this wonderful blessing of a visit from the Lord!  She becomes a flurry of fingers and elbows as the sweat begins to bead on her brow.  Then out of the corner of her eye she notices Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet.  Her indignation heats up until it boils over onto Mary and Jesus, “Lord, my sister has put everything I’m trying to protect at risk.  Don’t you care!” 

His response is compassionate but firm, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

I have a question to ask, “Would I get stressed out and frustrated if my greatest desire was for the One Thing?”  Don’t we get stressed when we feel threatened?  Yet who could threaten us if all of our joy were to be found in that which we could never be taken away? 

If I were to live above stress, what sort of person would I be?  What impression would I leave on those who observed my conduct in good times and bad?  Paul tells the Philippians, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.”  When I live above frustration, I announce to the world, “The Lord is near.”  In order to do this credibly, however, I must draw near to him.  I must acknowledge the One Thing.  I must allow my self-consciousness and self-importance to melt away in the light of his presence – the One Thing. 

The Normal Christian Life

Watchman Nee, a twentieth century Chinese church planter and teacher, said:

“What is the normal Christian life?  We do well at the outset to ponder this question.  The object of these studies is to show that it is something very different from the life of the average Christian.  Indeed a consideration of the written Word of God — of the Sermon on the Mount for example — should lead us to ask whether such a life has ever in fact been lived upon the earth, save only by the Son of God Himself.  But in that last saving clause lies immediately the answer to our question.” – The Normal Christian Life

What comes to your mind when I say the word, “Christian”?  Do images of church services, moral prohibitions, or “family values” project themselves onto your consciousness?  According to a 2007 Barna study, here is what comes to mind when non-Christians who are age 16-29 hear that word:

  • 91% said antihomosexual
  • 87% said judgmental
  • 85% said hypocritical
  • 78% said old-fashioned
  • 75% said too involved in politics
  • 72% said out of touch with reality
  • 70% said insensitive to others

We might want to blame prejudice fostered in the media for these results, but 84% of the respondents said they had Christian friends.  To some degree, this distorted picture of Christianity on display in the minds of non-believers has been painted by the average Christian.

The American brand of Christianity repels those whom Christ came to save because it is abnormal.  Why would such a perversion exist?  Perhaps we could list many reasons but one stands at the root- consumerism.  Simply put, Christ calls people to “come and die;” the church calls people to come and sit.  Jesus confronted people and because of that, “many turned back and no longer followed him.”  We see no record of Jesus chasing them out the door to better explain what he meant.  He simply turned to the few who were left and invited them to leave if they wanted to.   The church on the other hand placates because the leaders fear that people will leave and take their money with them.  Should not a Christ-like church regularly experience defections of the disgruntled?

Those in church leadership must, by the power of the indwelling Spirit, hold up and aspire to the high bar of Christ-likeness.  That is the normal Christian life.  We must fearlessly confront average Christians and reject those who would pay us for a manufactured messiah.  We must invest in the few who are ready to give all and ignore the many who just want to give some.

It won’t be easy.  Few will choose this path of their own accord.  However, I believe there is coming a time when many will be forced to choose.  Lord, hasten the day!

God’s Family Business

Is the church a family or a business?  The answer is, “yes.”  The church is God’s family business.  We struggle with this idea because “family” and “business” are mutually exclusive terms in our culture.  We think of family as something warm, spontaneous, personal, and unconditional.  We think of business as cold, calculated, impersonal, and performance oriented.  How could any two ideas be more opposite?  We counsel people not to go into business with family for fear of difficult entanglements and clouded judgment.  We even have a saying, “It’s not personal; just business.”

Perhaps our difficulty with reconciling these two concepts stems from our own culture rather than from anything essential either to family or to business?  We live in a society in which the dominant economic entity is an impersonal construct which we call the corporation.  Regardless of what is written in the mission, vision, and core values of any specific corporation, all are driven by the same prime directive, “survive.”  Without fail, this agenda objectifies individuals within the organization.  No wonder we struggle to reconcile our idea of family with our idea of business. 

The New Testament was not originally written to our greed-driven culture, however.  Those who originally received the gospel and, in fact, the vast majority of all people past and present have functioned within a society driven by another economic entity, the household.  Households were family businesses.  Adult sons would not leave home when they reached adulthood and married.  They would build onto their father’s house and work to expand the holdings of the family.  They were not paid a wage per se but rather worked for room, board, and an inheritance.  Members of the household were expected to contribute and could be assured of an unpleasant confrontation with the householder if they failed to do so.  At the end of the day, though, they would be sitting around the family table dipping in the dish with everyone else.  The household knew nothing of expendability. 

With that backdrop, consider Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Tim. 3:14-15:

“Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”

The church is God’s family business.  As members thereof, we work to expand his holdings in the world by carrying out the Great Commission.  Our reward is his pleasure with us and a rich inheritance at the end.  To be effective, we will need leadership and organization (These two verses follow Paul’s instruction regarding elders and deacons.).  However we must not become an organization.  How do we do that?  By keeping the bottom line, “make disciples” rather than “make budget.”  These two agendas are and will always be in conflict.

In a culture where elders and deacons serve as a board of directors, pastors are CEO’s, staff are employees, and members are customers, the church desperately needs to reclaim her identity as God’s family business.  In an era when some call two believers playing golf together “church,”  the church desperately needs to reclaim her identity as God’s family business.  God has paid us the huge compliment of calling us his adult children and of inviting us to participate in his glorious enterprise.  Let’s leave the boardroom and head for the field!

The Divine Romance

Did Jesus offer himself out of purely altruistic motives or was there a selfish agenda involved?  Would it surprise you if I told you that the New Testament suggests that it was the latter.  According to Hebrews 12:2, Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him.  What joy might that be?  I suggest that it was for the joy of his wedding day.  Look closely at Ephesians 5:25-27.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (NIV)

Can you see the romance in this passage?  Christ is a lover who must have his love.  He gave up himself to present her to himself.  Whatever she was before, his love has made her worthy of him.  Because of his love, she is holy, pure, blameless, and radiant. In token (the washing with water) and pledge (the word) she has become his.  He has treasured her and she has become his treasure.  When she asks him, “Why, my Lord, did you pay such a terrible price for one such as I?”  His answer will come back, “Because to me you are worth it, my love, my joy.”

Husbands, can we love like this?  That’s what we’re commanded to do, but we have greater reason than a command.  Paul says, “He who loves his wife, loves himself.”  I think he’s saying, that by selflessly, unconditionally, actively loving our wives, we gain the joy of their affection.   If we make their hearts our treasure, would we not find the riches of mutual love?  Would not such relationships reflect the glory of the Divine Romance?

The Parable of Fish

There once was a poor farming village.  The sandy ground bore little fruit despite the daily toil of the inhabitants.  They fought over the meager produce and the weak starved to death.  No one considered leaving the village because the leaders, out of desire to maintain control, had told everyone that they were surrounded for miles and miles by trackless desert.

One day, a stranger came to the village.  He was different.  He didn’t farm or fight for food.  Instead, he would regularly cross the berm which surrounded the village and come back with a mess of fish that he would share with those who were too weak to farm or fight.  It didn’t take long before he had inspired the admiration of the villagers and the disdain of the leaders.

Some followed him on his fishing trips and discovered that rather than being surrounded by desert, they were located by a vast ocean.  The Fisherman showed them how to cast a line into the dark depths and bring up a catch.  Every day the Fisherman would head out with his little troop of followers.  Some days they would bring in hundreds of fish.  Other days were more difficult.  The Fisherman explained that while this ocean would always yield plenty of fish, there would be days and weeks which would require more persistence to bring in the catch.

In time, the villagers lost interest in farming and fighting.  They got more interested in fishing.  The leaders, who sensed that they were losing control over the people, decided to have the Fisherman killed.  They gathered several of the best fighters and cornered the Fisherman.  They killed him in a back alley and threw his body in the ocean.

The damage had already been done, however.  The villagers had learned to fish and continued to do so.  As the Fisherman had predicted, however, some of their outings yielded little or no results.  When they would return empty-handed, the leaders and other villagers would laugh at them and offer them some of their produce.  The leaders would say, “You can’t expect to catch as much as that guy.  He was different from you.  You’re a farmer and you need to return to farming.”

The Fisherman’s followers thought this made sense but they didn’t want to dishonor the memory of their friend by giving up on what he had taught them.  They also had learned a unique and impressive skill which set them apart from the other villagers.  The leaders understood their reservations and made the fishermen an offer.  They would build a beautiful fountain in the middle of the village as a monument to the Fisherman where people could come and learn about how to fish from the followers.

At first, this plan worked beautifully.  Villagers regularly turned out to watch this sacred ritual and learn how to do it.  The fishermen were revered, respected, and sought after for their unique skills.  Villagers would pick their favorite fisherman based on his particular style or his elaborate equipment.  They would spend time arguing about who was best.

After a few years, though, the demands of farming and fighting began to pull interest away from this new curiosity.  Even the Fisherman’s followers struggled to find time to devote to fishing in the fountain.  So that the ritual wouldn’t die out altogether, they scheduled a weekly fishing session when the faithful would gather begrudgingly for an hour at the fountain to discuss fishing and watch the experts ply their trade.  Then everyone would go back to his fields for the rest of the week.

Lord, teach us again to pray.

The Simple Will of God

Perhaps the question which most perplexes the serious Christians I have known is, “How do I know what God’s will is for my life?”  This question is usually borne out of an unsettled sense that surely God did not call them to a life of the mundane.

I can identify.  I’ve been zealous for the things of God since my first serious commitment to him at age 17.  However, the circumstances of my life led me to a job as a delivery driver for UPS for 14 years.  For most of that time, I felt like I was in one of those boxes just scratching to get out.  There were times that I tried to force God’s hand like when I put our vehicle up for sale and then our house.  In neither case did God allow the sale of the item in question.  It was as if he wanted me to be a UPS man.  In fact, that is just what he wanted.

God wasn’t nearly as worried that my talents were being wasted on delivering packages.  He was too busy working on me to worry about what I was working on.  During that time, I discovered that God’s will is as omnipresent as he is.  I could perform his wil for me in any and every moment of my day.

Would you like to know his will for your life right now?  Look at 1 Thess. 5:16-18:  “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” That’s right.  It’s just that simple.  Ironically, as I chased a sense of purpose, I fled the joy and gratitude which can only be had in the now.

God has a destiny for all of us.  However, he never gives a road map to that destiny.  Instead, he gives us a heading: joy by prayer by gratitude.  Those who live this way live in his will.  Those who live in his will discover his purpose for them.

Good to God’s

I’ve never read the book, Good to Great.  A lot of people I respect have read it and recommend it.  It’s probably a good book- heck it might even be great.  The premise of the book, as I understand it is that in order for an organization to succeed it must insist on having the most talented and skilled people in positions of leadership.   The premise seems solid and I know several people who would apply it to church leadership.

I’m coming to realize, however, that Jesus (surprise, surprise) uses the lowly ones to do his most impressive work.  I’ve known Michelle (not her real name) for nearly fifteen years.  As long as I’ve known her, she has struggled with a crushing sense of spiritual inadequacy.  At our church, we used to have old style altar calls.  Michelle would avail herself of them on what seemed like a monthly basis.  Every time her prayer was the same, “Help me do better.”  Every time her tears of remorse were real and abundant.

Lately Michelle has caught the vision of our Life Teams.  She has become a leader.  Without official training of any kind, she has begun pulling people together to pray, engage with Scripture, and reach out with the gospel.  Michelle doesn’t really see herself as a theologian or even a leader but she is influencing an ever-widening circle of spiritual wanderers.  Her Life Team which began with just her, her husband, her adult daughter, and her three grandchildren has been growing almost weekly as participants have been inviting people in their own relational networks.  After roughly four months, her team has doubled in size with 80% of the new members being “unchurched.”  How many megachurch pastors would like to see growth percentages like that?

Michelle is different now.  Instead of always praying about her failings, she’s praying for the ex-con who’s been attending her Life Team and for her granddaughter to follow Christ, and for her friend’s daughter to commit to the group.  I don’t know of a human being who would have predicted that Michelle would be such an effective church planter but God chose her for this work and is effectively using her.  Perhaps we should be less concerned with going from good to great and more concerned with going from good to God’s.

To Know How To Sow

I’ve been around a lot of people who are into missions.  They talk about people groups, missiology, ethnography, and mobilizing  After listening to them talk about reaching the unreached, I sometimes come away wondering if it can be done.  All of the social science and methodology which make up modern missions objectify the ones we’re trying to reach and somehow almost puts them out of reach.  Missions has become a sadly ironic academic persuit in many cases. 

I believe there is a necessary distinction to be made between missions and mission.  To follow Christ is to be on mission and vice versa.  In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus told us to make disciples.  Observe that he gave no missiology.  His command was as large as the world and yet for some reason he seemed to believe that simple proclamation, baptism, and teaching would be enough to complete the task.

Not only does Jesus fail to give us a strategy, he depicts his method of proclamation as being haphazard.  Consider the “Parable of the Sower” in Matthew 13.  The sower flings his seed on any and every type of soil.  Most of his seeds fail to produce.  However, his approach is vindicated at the end of the story since the good soil produces 30, 60, or 100 times what was sown.

Could it be that Jesus is saying that it matters little how we sow or where we sow but rather that we sow?  What would happen if every believer imitated his Lord’s indiscriminate broad-casting of the gospel of the kingdom right now, right where he lives with faith that seed, soil, and Spirit will bring the result?  Would there be a result?  What sort of result might it be?  Would it be inferior to a more strategic approach?  What if sowing like this became the normal Christian experience?  Would the world ultimately be reached?

Perhaps missions has a place.  I’m just concerned that missions supplants mission.  It bothers me that many of my friends who are involved in missions do little if anything to actually make disciples where they live.  If we fail to make disciples here who assume that following Christ means to be on mission for him, then who will we send over there?  On the other hand, if we simply get on mission in our neighborhoods, offices, and schools, and make disciples who are like us, we will find that the gospel will spread from person to person and cover the globe.

So what about all the difficulties of crossing cultural barriers?  I believe that Jesus covered that bit with his promise to be with us until the end of the age.