Churched to Death

funny-church-signWhy do simple church? Because Jesus told us to make disciples. ” But,” someone might respond, “aren’t sermons, Sunday School, VBS, mission trips, weekend seminars,small groups, and a myriad of other programs carried on by institutional churches just methods for making disciples?”

From what I’ve observed after a couple of years of attempting to make reproducing disciples, not only are these initiatives not discipleship, they actually have become counterproductive toward fulfilling the Great Commission.  How can this be?  The answer can be found within the Great Commission itself:

“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, 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. 28:19-20 NIV emphasis mine

The difference comes down to one word, “accountability.”  All the programs which I mentioned at least as they are most often administered, teach people what Jesus commanded but they do not teach them to obey everything he commanded.  Without obedience the entire culture of a church can become one of quiet disregard for the commands of Christ.  In time, we begin to excuse each other’s (little) sins so they will excuse ours.  By teaching what Jesus said without expecting that a disciple obey, we actually teach disobedience.  So, we all come together regularly to carry out empty religious activity which we substitute for obedience.  Sadly, the church-goers are the only ones who are fooled into thinking that those observances matter.

Discipleship requires loving, mutual accountability.  As a believing community we must ask each other, “What is Jesus calling you to do and when will you do it?”  Then we must expect that everyone who claims to follow Jesus will carry those things out.  We ought to expect that everyone will expect us to be “doers” rather than just “hearers.”  When this happens we go from an irrelevant religious society to the counter-culture expression of Christ’s kingdom in the midst of real lives.

Some have called that form of religion which has supplanted discipleship “churchianity.”  That word fits this discussion.  In the Bible belt where I live, we’re sick with it.  I’m sick with it.  Last year, while having dinner with church planter, Neil Cole, I recognized the degree to which I had succumbed .  As we discussed the challenges of facilitating spiritual growth in recently redeemed people, I remember saying, “Yeah, those guys got drunk the other night but I overeat sometimes.  I guess we all sin.”  I expected Neil to nod and agree.  That’s how we do it in the church of church.  He didn’t.  He just gave me a puzzled look.  In that moment I felt the Spirit convict me that if I, a professed disciple of Jesus, consider something to be outside his will, I shouldn’t do it.  I also shouldn’t excuse other people when they do things they know to be wrong.

Making disciples is hard because it calls us to go beyond spiritual feelings and scriptural insights to personal obedience and interpersonal confrontation.  For those who are tired of gathering attenders and want to join Jesus in building an army, it’s the only way.

Learning to Learn

I have some friends who’ve recently come to faith. They’re from a subculture very disparate from mine. They’ve drawn me into conversations I’ve never had with other church members. Since they’re new believers and I’m a pastor, I usually see our interactions as an opportunity for me to assist their spiritual growth. I find myself defaulting to asking what about their worldview needs correcting. Today, it dawned on me that they are changing my worldview as much as I am changing theirs. By receiving Christ, they have brought their unique perspective on the gospel to bear on the church’s mission in the world.  Today I had to admit to my friend that he was right about something over which we had disagreed.

His response was, “It’s like this turn signal thing on my van.  If I find the short I can fix it.  You needed a fix to the short.  Its me.”

He’s right. I can get all energized by God’s grace but that energy won’t reach certain people in the world unless I have a bridge like my friend.  I can study the Bible for the rest of my life but the gaps in my perspective will always hinder my understanding.  I need a fix like my friend.

In the New Testament, Cornelius the centurion served as a bridge. He was a gentile who came to faith in Christ without having to convert to Judaism. His conversion not only catalyzed the a new gentile church in Caesarea it also sent theological shock waves through a church which saw itself largely as an extension of Judaism. Cornelius’ conversion converted the mindset of the church leaders of the day. We need to reach people from all backgrounds not only because they need Jesus but also because we need their idiosyncrasies to better understand and communicate our own message. (Acts 10-11; 15)

Gospel

In 1 Cor. 15:3-6, Paul recounts his gospel.  Those who would participate in evangelizing the world, do well to consider this passage.  First, notice the brevity of Paul’s statement.  In just 25 words, Paul relates the crucial elements of the gospel – “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

Notice also the repetition of the phrase, “according to the Scriptures.”  Paul didn’t expect blind faith in his assertions.  He took the trouble to point out the Old Testament allusions and prophecies pointing to Christ.  This approach commends the message as true when compared with other religions.  Take as an example a Muslim friend of mine.  Though he won’t admit it, he has worked hard to convert me.  In response I have challenged him by saying, “I can prove the gospel with only the Old Testament.  Can you prove the truth of the Qur’an with only the New Testament?”  His honest response was, “No, I can’t.”  A God who claims to live above time ought to be able to give us a heads up about what he’s going to do.  Not only so, but if the gospel is true then we ought to find passages in the Old Testament which make no sense apart from the fulfillment in Christ.  Isaiah 53 is such a passage.

Not only did Paul call the Scriptures to testify about his message, he also could point to a contemporary witness of these events – Peter, The Twelve, the 500, and then James.  One might say, “Okay, so that was good for Paul since many of these people were still alive in his day but what about us at the first part of the 21st century?”  The answer can be found in the final witness he listed, “Last of all to me.”  Because Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision, we can expect him to continue to express himself in various other ways – changed life stories, healings, dreams, and visions.  Everyone who has encountered the risen Christ has a story to tell.

So, to preach the gospel like Paul we should 1. succintly share the facts, 2. support them with Scripture, and 3. weave our own experience and that of others into an effective gospel presentation.  See my attempt at covering these elements below:

The world is a messed up place.  The Bible says that it’s messed up because people rebelled against their creator and did things that were wrong – they sinned.  God plans to fix the world but he must first deal with sin.  God’s messenger, Isaiah, foretold that God would send his Chosen One to die as punishment for sins, be buried and rise again to turn people away from living sinful lives.  700 years later Jesus Christ came and did what was foretold by dying on a cross for our sin and rising to life again.  I’ve accepted his death as payment for my wrongs. He’s set me free from the guilt and power of sin.  Now I’m looking forward to his return when he’ll fix this broken world where his people will live forever.

Pusher

I just came back from a meeting with my daughter and two of her friends.  They attend a charter school in the area.  I’ve been challenging and equipping them to reach their fellow students with the gospel.  Today they kind of pushed back and told me that their classmates are particularly hostile to people attempting “push their religion” on them.  Vocabulary means everything.  The phrase their friends use reveals a lot about their mindset.  They see Christianity or seemingly any faith system as something which can be thrust upon them.  That’s too bad.  As a follower of Christ I have no desire to make another person accept him.  In fact Jesus seems to have made it hard for people to follow him.  He doesn’t want the unwilling.  So, an authentic relationship with the risen Son of God by definition cannot be pushed on another person.

However, I am driven to do all I can to help as many people as possible come under the kingdom reign of Christ.  What drives me is the inner joy that I have received.  I don’t want to push my religion; I only want to share my joy.  I don’t believe people will suffer for eternity in hell so I have no need to issue a “turn or burn” ultimatum.  I just want to see people be saved, not from eternal damnation but from the brokenness plaguing them in this mortal coil.  Yes, I believe I have received eternal life but the word “eternal” is a qualitative as well as a quantitative modifier.  I’ve received a different way of living that will also never end.  Isn’t that worth sharing with everyone?

Life Transformation Groups – A Testimonial

I have a friend who is also an elder at our church.  In the past couple of years I’ve watched him grow into a spiritual leader who inspires and challenges me every time we talk.  God has done many things in his life to effect this season of growth but much of it started with his participation in a Life Transformation Group or LTGRead his testimonial below –

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” James 5:16a NIV

For many years I struggled with a particular sin that was very stubborn. Try as I might, I could not get mastery over this shortcoming. I pleaded with God to take it from me but I was unable to get any lasting relief. Last summer I started an LTG with another guy. To my amazement the sin I had struggled with became a footnote. It is not to say that there has been no struggle whatsoever, but knowing that I am going to be asked about it every week is a strong deterrent.  I have been able to move on and work on other areas where God is prodding me.

An LTG is formally called a Life Transformation Group, but it could also be called a laughing together group or a learning together group because those things happen as well.  An LTG has three parts to it: scripture reading, accountability questions and praying for the lost.  The scripture reading is done at home. You come together once a week and ask each other the scripted accountability questions, discuss the scripture reading and pray for three people you know who are lost.

It is interesting that James says to confess your sins and pray for each other and you will be healed. Sin does a powerful amount of damage to ones soul. Spiritual progress cannot happen until the wound of sin is healed. An LTG with another committed believer can be a vehicle of healing that allows your relationship with God to go to a much deeper level. Won’t you consider joining one?

For more information, click the picture below:

LTG

Strategic Planning

I just reblogged a post on Islamophobia.  I agree with the facts related in the post and with the contention that many people fail to call out the misdeeds of Muslims out of fear of backlash or worse.  However, I would not say that Islam is ultimately to blame for the evils committed by some Muslims around the world.  Islam just provides a convenient palate upon which the sinful hearts of humans mix the blood-red hues of their hatred.  Other convenient ideologies have been churchianity, Communism (rational atheism applied), nationalism, and racism to name a few. For the real issue check this sermon I delivered on November 11th.

Strategic Planning

Testimony

In Bill Hybels’ book, Just Walk Across the Room, he challenges his readers to write out their faith story in 100 words or less.  Here is my 105-word attempt:

As a young person I dreamed of growing up to become a doctor.  Then, I saw a “20/20” special on successful people who had attempted suicide.  Their reason: Once they had reached their goal in life, they still felt empty.  I projected myself into their shoes.  I thought, “If this is all there is then life is meaningless.”  So, I began reading the New Testament.  Within those pages I met a man who transcended the vanity of this mortal coil.  His name is Jesus.  He invited me to train under him and so to become like him.  I accepted and have never regretted that decision.

The Bottom Line

Two years into my stint as a children’s minister for a medium-large church, I found myself in our prayer room crying out to God for answers and relief.

My question to him: “Why is this so heavy?”

His answer: “It’s consumerism.”

Next I asked him, “How can we combat consumerism?  It’s everywhere.”

He replied, “It’s the general fund.”

He showed me how undesignated giving gives birth to an entity which vies for its own survival to the detriment of the goals God has for the church.  The institution becomes a codependent parasite draining the vitality from the body of Christ.

“Is it even possible to do church without a general fund?” I asked.

Then he proceded to show me how Christians could meet in smaller numbers.  Because the groups would be smaller there would be no need to build or rent meeting spaces. They could be led by proven people who could develop and endorse more leaders.  These leaders could live on faith, support themselves, or do a combination.  Minus a staff and facilities, the need for a general fund would dissipate.  Without a bottom line to maintain, leaders would be released from the pressure to please and placate and be liberated to lovingly confront.  Appeals to give could be heard as “Give to them.” rather than “Give to me.”  People could be challenged toward real generosity out of compassion rather than minimal giving out of rote obligation.  In short, we could quit “doing church” and start making disciples.

This vision haunted me for four years until I finally gave in and quit.  After three months of uncertainty, God brought me to serve with another church.  So what’s the difference?  Our elders have embraced the preeminence of making disciples.  We’ve acknowledged the danger of survival thinking and we’re moving forward to make disciples rather than maintain programs.

We have a building.  I draw a salary.  We have a general fund.  But we’re launching groups and developing leaders which have none of these things.  We’re getting as lean as we can to make way for these groups to be born and multiply.  We don’t want any group we plant or resource to send money back to the mother ship. This approach will probably affect our organizational bottom line but that’s okay because our eyes are on God’s bottom line – more people becoming more like Christ.