We Live in a Fantasy World of Christian Community

We often get so caught up in a fantasy world, that we fail to see things as they really are. Many of us have done this when we think about Biblical Community. When we think about community in the church we often idealize it and romanticize the concept. We long for community and we long to be a part of a people who always get along, always listens to us, and always encourages us. Anyone who has spent even the slightest amount of time in a local church knows that this fantasy world we've imagined is just that, fantasy. Even Pastors fantasize about a utopia church community. We read about the early church in Acts 2 and we think, "Why doesn't my church look like this community!" Yet we often fail to see the incredible conflict in the early church. Their community was far from perfect. From sexual scandal, false teachers, intense church conferences, authority issues, and fundraising, the early church by no means resembled the fantasy world we think it is.

Yet strangely, it is the imperfection of our community which makes biblical community so sweet. The church is made up of redeemed sinners and it is expected that we will sin against each other. Many have been hurt by the church, wounded by other Christians. The church is a defunct group of people, yet God has miraculously brought this ragamuffin group together, despite all their differences through the blood of Jesus Christ.

In Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Life Together, he addresses this fantasy world we live in when we think about community. He writes,

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live in a dream world... A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

So often we are more in love with the fantasy of our personal utopia vision of community that we don't actually love the community God has placed us in. Community is messy, yet God has called us to love these other redeemed sinners around us despite the mess they may make. There is no such thing as a "perfect church" and that is a good thing. Because as soon as you or I joined it, it would cease to be perfect. God in his wonderful plan brings sinners together and unites them through Christ.

Your illusion of christian community may have been recently shattered. You may have been greatly hurt by people within your church. You may be so frustrated with the hypocrisy in churches that you just want to abandon Christian community all together. But take heart, God has not redeemed you and saved you in Christ so you can live in a fantasy world. He has redeemed you to love and serve other sinners, real people, just like yourself. Bonhoeffer would go on to say, "We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily". God has given you your local church, a messed up sinful group of people to be your community. It is a gracious thing to be a part of the body of Christ. Cherish your community and love them for who they are now, not for who they may one day be. Love them well without expectations and when we stop seeking an ideal of community of our own creation, we just might very well find true Christian community.

Multi-Ethnic Congregations: A Present Need and a Future Reality

Our world is changing. It is not any secret that ethnic diversity is accelerating in American culture. What has been a traditionally white dominated culture is simply changing before our very eyes. The unfortunate thing is that many times churches are the most segregated gatherings of people in the country. Established churches have a tendency to be mono-ethnic, meaning that they reach one sort of ethnicity. White people go to church with white people. Black people go to church with black people. Asian people go to church with asian people. You get the point. This is incredibly unfortunate and fails to reflect the reality of heaven in which there will be people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping King Jesus (Read Revelation 5). If established churches are going to survive and thrive the next few decades, we must begin to get a vision for mult-ethnic congregations.

The Church is Not Dying

Many Christians seem to be the prophetic voice of doom. "The Church is dying in America!", well,  so they exclaim. However, this is proving not to be the case. Soong-Chan Rah in his book The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity argues that christianity in America isn't dying it is just changing. He writes incitefully:

“As many lament the decline of Christianity in the United States in the early stages of the twenty-first century, very few have recognized that American Christianity may actually be growing, but in unexpected and surprising ways. The American church needs to prepare for the next stage of her history—we are looking at a nonwhite majority, multiethnic Christianity in the immediate future. Unfortunately, despite these drastic demographic changes, American evangelicalism remains enamored with an ecclesiology and a value system that reflect a dated and increasingly irrelevant cultural captivity and are disconnected from both a global and local reality” (p. 12)

We are looking at a next stage of evangelicalism and it isn't just a white or black movement. It is multi-racial. Rah argues that evangelicalism is actually growing rapidly in America, not among whites, but among first and second generation immigrants from Asia, Africa, and South America. The reason we have been missing this trend is because all of our studies and research are done through an Anglo-Centric lense. Rah continues to write:

“The public face of America is no longer a white male. Meanwhile, the trend of a nonwhite majority America will hit the churches faster than it will hit the general population. This tend is due in large part to the sustaining of American Christianity by newly arrived immigrants who bring their Christian faith with them…. Contrary to popular opinion, the church is not dying in America; it is alive and well, but it is alive and well among the immigrant and ethnic minority communities and not among the majority white churches in the United States” (p. 14).

Embracing Racial Diversity in our Churches

We must begin to reach out and engage people of other cultures and nationalities in our churches. This will by no means be an instintaneous transition. It will be slow and gradual, but we must be commited to reaching all people from every sort of ethnic background. The nations are no longer overseas. The world has gotten smaller and the nations are right outside our door.

In my own church, a southern baptist church, I've been so excited recently because our church is beginning to look more like the throne room of heaven. We still have a long way to go, but by God's grace we have seen multiple cultural backgrounds.

  • We have a thriving hispanic ministry meeting at our church and worshiping with us on Sunday morning.
  • We have many deaf members along with a deaf pastor on staff to reach this people group in Wilson.
  • Our church has become less "white" by having black Americans join and visit our church.
  • We have begun to see Asian people begin to join and visit, including this past Sunday where we had four japanese students visit our congregation.

These are very exciting things that are happening in our church, and for a SBC church which is known for being predominatly a white denominatio, this is amazing to see. It is my conviction that our churches should look like our local Walmart, which has become a population sample of the etnic melting pot of our cities. May we learn to see that the Gospel is for all people from all backgrounds and may we create strategies to reach all the people in our cities, even people with different skin color.

Replacing False Foundations in the Church

The Gospel is polarizing. So often we build the unity of our churches on anything other than the Gospel. We build it on a worship style.

We build our unity on our social group.

We build our unity on our skin color.

We build our unity by our age.

We build our unity on entertainment and fun.

We build our unity on politics

We build our unity on anything other than the blood of Christ. The danger is that when we take Christ from being the cornerstone we have lost the church completely. Christ alone is what brings us together as a local body of believers. It is through his life, death, and resurrection that we are able to be forgiven of our sins and grafted into the kingdom, adopted as a child of God. When we put false foundations in instead of Jesus as the source for our unity, we fail to be a church and instead become a social club.

I have found in my ministry that when you begin to remove these false foundations and replace it with Christ it polarizes people. Not everyone will understand making Christ the center and source of unity in their community. They have lived their church lives standing on the instability of false foundation so long that they have forgotten what it is like to stand on the immovable rock.

Our churches are plagued with building their lives on sinking sand rather than Christ. As a result many people have a hard time grabbing a hold of a great vision of Christ and his sufficiency in unifying the church.

For pastors this can be a very difficult and an often painful task. Removing these false foundations can be very painful for the sheep and they will bite back. However a Pastor must operate like a surgeon. A surgeon cuts the patient for the patients health. Although the surgeon inflicts damage, his intentions are not to harm but to heal. Pastors we must operate in the same way. We must have the courage to cut out these false foundations and replace them with the Gospel. However we must make sure we operate in love, with patience and teaching. A pastor must love his sheep, sacrificing his own ego and reputation if necessary for the good of the flock. A Pastor must imitate Christ by walking the way of suffering, laying down his own life for the sake of his people. Pastor you and I must do this. The health of our churches depend on it.

Making Christ the sole foundation for your ministry will not be easy, quick, or painless, but nevertheless it is necessary. For the sake of our churches we must do this and for the sake of our own souls. As pastors we are men who must give account, and at the end of the day we will not be held accountable for our popularity but our faithfulness in proclaiming to our people the whole counsel of God. We must minister in such a way in which we can stand before the Chief Shepherd at the day of judgement knowing we have stewarded our responsibility of shepherding well.

Lies Pastors Believe When Discouraged

Recently I was at an event with a lot of pastors. As we were sitting around the table and conversing, I heard comment after comment showing their frustration and personal anguish over their own churches. Each and every one of these guys seemed so burned out and frustrated over their congregations that they seemed to have practically given up. It was a sad sight to see so many called men of God seem so discouraged. Discouragement and frustration are a natural part of ministry. disappointment will happen and church ministry can be very tough. I've noticed in both my own life and in the life of other pastors there tends to be a few common lies we start believing when discouragement comes our way.

Lie 1: I Must Not Be Called to Ministry

This tends to be constant doubt many pastors have. Am I really called to this? Where is the fruit of my ministry? Am I just fooling myself that God wanted me to do this? However these doubts are lies from the enemy. In our age of instant gratification, where you can go to McDonald's and get a Big Mac instantly, we want to see results instantly. Many pastors begin their first few years at a church and results seem to be small and insignificant. We want results and we want them know, so when things begin to get difficult we automatically think that we were not called to do this. Sure, there may be some problems in our own hearts we need to address, but just because things are tough does not mean that we are not called by God. Many men in the Bible faithfully served with fruitless ministries. Jeremiah is a prime example.

Lie 2: God Can't Work in My Church

In addition to doubting ourselves, we tend to doubt God. We think that God is unable to revitalize this church, that he is unable to transform the lives of our people.  Our people are to difficult for God, so we think. Pastors, we should know above all others, as men of the Word, that this is a blatant lie. God can transform even the most calloused hearts. If he can transform the heart of the apostle Paul and if he can transform our hearts, than God is able to transform the hearts of those in our congregation. As you faithfully minister do not doubt the power or the ability of God to bring revival to your congregation. Beg God to move through prayer and faithfully lead. Wait for God to do the impossible. In your frustrations in ministry, do not doubt the power or goodness of God.

Lie 3: We Need a New Program

This is a temptation many pastors face. Things are going so well so we get the top church ministry books and then viciously apply them in our local churches. We take models of bigger churches and try to force them on our churches. The problem however, isn't just our programming, it is our hearts. Trying to bring revival through programming is like trying to put a roof on a house that isn't built yet. Programs are not the answer to your churches woes. The problem with our churches are not external programs, but the internals of our hearts. Our temptation is just like the Pharisees, to white wash the tomb while our churches are rotting on the inside.

Externals and programs are perceived by pastors as a quick fix that provides instant results in our churches. That is why we so quickly gravitate towards them. This is why we have an obsession with what the latest "Successful" church is doing and we try to copy it.  However, as faithful pastors we must shepherd the hearts of our people, pointing them towards Christ and the power of His Gospel.

Love Your People. Preach Truth. Lead with Conviction. Pray for Revival

Pastor, do not believe the lies of pastoral ministry we are so quick to think in times of discouragement. Ministry is not always easy. We will suffer. We will be criticized. We will often feel all alone. However, we must not doubt the power of God in our ministry. In times of desperation, run to our good God and King. Fall on your face in prayer. Ask him to give you the strength to be faithful. During these tough times of discouragement love your people like Christ has loved them. Preach boldly the truth of God's word. Lead with conviction over the truth of the Gospel. Pray that God would do the miraculous in your ministry.  Beg God that he would open the eyes of the blind and raise the dead to life. He is able.

Pastoral Lessons from the Life of Martin Luther

128756_imagno Martin Luther was a a German Monk whom God used to start the Reformation.  Martin Luther is remembered for many things such as his famous 95 thesis published on October 31, 1517 that went viral.  He is remembered for translating the New Testament into German, the language of his people.  However, one of the most dramatic events in Luther's life was the Diet of Worms.  It was at this meeting that Luther was asked by the Catholic Church leaders to recant all his beliefs such as the justification by faith alone.  It is here that Luther faced with excommunication and possible execution as a heretic, he would have to make his choice.  Luther asked for a night to think about whether he would recant or stand firm on his beliefs.  The turmoil in Luther's soul was fierce that night, and when he arrived the next morning his mind was made up.  Here is what the german monk said:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason- for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves - I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one's conscience is neither safe nor sound.  God help me. Amen.

For those who prefer the movie version of this historic scene you can watch the clip from the 2003 movie Luther. (In the movie version they skip the night he takes to dwell on it)

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5P7QkHCfaI

What lessons can Pastors today learn from the life of Martin Luther?  Well there are more than can be written in this blog post, but let me suggest to you one primary one.

Just like Martin Luther, pastors today must unapologetically stand on the Word of God for all things regarding faith and practice.  There is a temptation for ministers today to let tradition or culture dictate how the church must be.  Pastors must boldly stand on the Word of God, even in the face of incredible opposition.

The Bible will continue to be more and more controversial as our western culture continues to secularize.  Soon, and to some extent even now, faithful pastors will be marginalized for their commitment to the truth of the Scriptures.  Sooner than we think we too must make our stand.  When that time comes we, just as Luther, must make our conscience captive to the Word of God.  We must stand firm on the sufficiency of Scripture and we must do so unapologetically.  God help us.  Amen.

Attractional Ministry has a Shelf Life

Attractional ministry has a shelf life. You can only entertain for so long. Eventually you run out of ideas. Eventually you can no longer top yourself. Eventually that cool new building will become uncool and old. This is the great danger of basing your ministry on an attractional or entertainment model alone, Whether it be a church or a youth group. Eventually you can't put up anymore intel-lights or get anymore fog machines. You run out of skit ideas and have exhausted every gross youth ministry game you can think of.

The church cannot compete with the culture in entertainment. It is exhausting to even try. So many churches find themselves in a money pit of trying to keep up with the latest trends and what a magazine says they "should be doing”. Instead, we must teach our people that the Word of God alone is enough to incite God's people to worship. If what motivates your people to come to church is the show their going to watch and the laughs that will be had, you no longer have a church but a comedy club.

We must help our people see that it is the glorious truth of the Gospel that fuels and motivates our worship. The glorious news of Christ's life, death, and resurrection must usher us in humble worship.

We will be tempted to give our people what they want instead of what they need. What they want is entertainment. What they need is Jesus. May our glorious savior fuel our pure, unadulterated worship in our congregations!

What is it that motivates your worship? How does our lust for entertainment influence our worship? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments

20130110-084855.jpg

Top Quotes from Creature of the Word

Events creature of the word The book Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church is written by Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger.  The book is an extremely practical book that talks about creating a Gospel culture within the life of the church.  The book covers a wide span of issues, but there were a few chapters that stood out above the rest.

Chapter 6, Jesus-Centered Culture, was absolutely phenomenal.  This chapter alone is worth the cost of picking up this book.  Chapter 8, Pulpit to Preschool (and Puberty Too), and chapter 10, Jesus-Centered Flower Committee, are two other chapters that stood out in this book.  If you are a pastor or ministry leader wanting to understand what it looks like to saturate your church in the Gospel, then I commend this book to you.

Here is a trailer of the authors talking about some of the themes of the book:

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90PTFJZs6rM

Here are a few of my top quotes from this book:

That's because the Word, the gospel, creates not just people individually, but a people. collectively.  The gospel isn't just individual and cosmic; it is also deeply corporate. (14)

We seem to have developed gospel amnesia, forgetting that the gospel not only creates and sustains the Church but also deeply shapes the Church.  Present and future. (17)

To confess our sins to one another is to violently pursue our own joy and the glory of God…and exponentially increase our rejoicing and worship, both individually and corporately. (31)

Only the gospel can grip our hearts with this kind of ongoing, unending awe.  Only the gospel can cause grateful praise to flow, and keep flowing, and never stop flowing from our lips.  Therefore, your gatherings must be soaked in the gospel.  Everything from the music, to the teaching, to the observance of the ordinances -- all of it must unashamedly, explicitly, point people to Jesus and what He has done.  Otherwise, the Creature suffers. (43)

Believers, as we know, have different careers, different political viewpoints, different parenting philosophies, different economic status, and different cultural background.  We are different in many, many ways.  Yet we are still drawn together in the body He calls the Church.  Unity in the gospel is much deeper than surface uniformity. (49)

A church culture is healthy when there dis a congruence and consistency between what the church says is important to her and what others know really is important to her.  If a church declares that the gospel is the most important message the world has ever known, and yet the gospel is not seen as the impetus and motivation for all the church offers, this disconnect is indicative of an unhealthy church personality or culture. (97)

Quite frankly, children and student ministries are often a wasteland for well-intentioned morality training. (139)

Typically pastors or staff persons are hired to minister to people.  The number of children increases, so the solution is another staff person.  The number of sick people is on the rise; therefore, someone is hired to visit people in the hospitals, and on and on.  This fart-too-common approach is both illogical and unbiblical: illogical because a church will never be able to afford hiring the entire ministry away, and unbiblical because it violates the essential doctrines of the priesthood of believers and spiritual gifting. (184)

Every single thing the Church does teaches.  Culture is continually being reinforced as leaders are always teaching and people are always learning.  Much of this teaching and learning comes through implicit messages rather than explicit ones: the songs selected, the way Scriptures is read, the attitude of the children's leaders, and the programs that are offered.  If the implicit message communicated via the programs contradicts the explicit message communicated in the teaching environments, then people are left confused and frustrated.  (188)

Rethinking Discipleship

We use programs to replace discipleship. Programs are distant. Discipleship is up close and personal. Programs are organized and planned. Discipleship is unpredictable. Programs are neat and clean. Discipleship is messy. What do I mean by discipleship? I mean imitating the model Jesus followed as we read the Gospels. Taking a few people inviting them into the rhythms of your life as you teach them, encourage them, and pour yourself into them, all in hopes of strengthening their spiritual maturity. Discipleship is personal. It is relational. It can't be done with just a program. It can't be done only through a sermon on Sunday morning.

Most churches make the false connection that discipleship and programming are the exact same things. It isn't. Churches do a lot of programs that don't produce disciples of Jesus. However I think there is a reason that most of us prefer awesome church programing rather than getting involved in each others lives in relational discipleship. The reason is, programs are way more comfortable. With a program I don't have to confront a brother or sister in sin. With a program I don't have to take a friend by the hand and pray for them. With a program I just have to sit and watch. I just have to sit in a bubble of my own personal spirituality.

We have such an individualistic understanding of discipleship. In our culture today, that makes the individual supreme, we've seriously forgotten how to live in community. While we are the most connected generation in the history of the world, we are also the most isolated. Most of us think that my relationship with God is exactly that, me and God. It is me and God versus the world. We think, "I don't need the church. I don't need anyone to grow in the faith. It is just me and God, and that's all I need!" Although that sounds incredibly good, and even righteous to us, the New Testament calls us a liar. We absolutely need each other. Community is essential to the very essence of what it means to be Christian! We are not chosen in Christ as individuals, but as a people, as a holy nation, and as a royal priest hood. We are a body. We are the bride. Notice that when the New Testament describes the church, the church, although it involves as many people, is a singular entity. The many Christians are one bride. The many believers are one body. The followers of Jesus are one nation.

As we think through discipleship in our local church, may our programming not hinder us from developing the sort of intimate and personal relationships with one another that foster discipleship. Older and mature believers grab a hold of a younger believer and disciple them. Meet weekly for coffee, invite them into the rhythms of your life, and pour yourself into them. Discipleship is messy. It is hard work. But if we are going to be faithful to the New Testament and the people God has called us to be, we can't keep doing what we are doing. There are many in our churches who are heavily involved in programs but completely unknown in their churches. This should not be the case. May we grab hold of one another, get involved in each others life. May we encourage each other, rebuke each other, and press on together as we seek our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

Rethinking Worship Wars

The worship wars never seem to end.  Although they have slowed down in recent years, I remember in my own lifetime, during the 90s in particular, where the battle for worship style was intense.  In general, there seems to be two different camps: traditional and contemporary.  Although those two camps often incorporate a wider spectrum of style, the two camps gather together in an Us vs Them mentality.  Although these battles have been known to divide churches, I think we must confess that we have blown this issue way out of proportion. The New Testament does not prescribe a particular style of worship to the church.  In fact, the New Testament is shockingly silent in discussing how to structure worship services.  I think both sides of the debate need to come to the realization that there are far more important things to focus on than worship style.  You can have a piano, a organ, and a choir with pimped out lavender robes and be a Faithful church.  You can also have the same style of worship in another church and be found unfaithful.  What’s my point?  The litmus test for a faithful church is not observing the worship leader to see if he wears a three-piece suit or if he wears skinny jeans and toms.  Worship has nothing to do with music, but everything to do with the posture of the human heart.  

However, I do think worship style is hugely important.  Which one should my church do?  Is one more preferred over the other? Most people choose their style of worship based on which style of music they like more.  I suggest to you that your preference has little to do with which style of music your church should worship too.  Music in worship should stir the hearts of your congregation to worship and engage the lost person in your community.  The correct question for church leaders to ask isn’t, “Which style do I like best?” but rather, “Which style will help me engage non-believers with the truth of the Gospel”.  We must view the issue of worship through a missional lens.  So which is the best style of worship? Well it depends on where you live.  In a deep rural area in the south, a traditional form of worship might be the best way to reach your community.  In an urban environment, that same style might not engage the city so well.

When it comes to worship styles we must think like a missionary.  No one method is superior to another, but one method might better advance the Gospel of Jesus in your community. It requires careful observation of your people and careful thinking about how to clearly communicate Christ to them.  Maybe it is through a traditional style.  Maybe it is through a contemporary style.

The tricky part is most church members do not think this way when it comes to worship style.  Worship is about me.  It is about my tastes and my wants.  Many church members view themselves as consumers of the church, and when they don’t get the style they like, the grumble and complain.  As a result, we must carefully teach our fellow brothers and sisters to think missionaly when it comes to worship.  We must get our people to see that the advancement of the Gospel is far more important than receiving our personal preferences.  Indeed, we sacrifice our own needs for the sake of others (Philippians 2).  This can take a lot of time and a lot of teaching, but by God’s grace His Spirit will change the focus of the congregation away from themselves and out to a lost and dying world in need of Jesus.