Everybody Has an Opinion

Ah yes, the beauty of diverse opinions in the body of Christ.  It seems everyone, these days, is an expert on what is wrong with the church, or more specifically in my milieu, the American church.  I have joined the chorus myself with several entries in this blog about my concerns.  Sometimes it is hard to separate legitimate concerns where we play the proper role of the prophet calling the church back to its purpose, and personal preferences where we are calling the church to be more to our liking.  Of course, I consider myself totally in the prophet category.  How about you?

A recent rash of articles and responses in this regard highlights millenials leaving the church and what is behind their dissatisfaction.  And as usual, everyone has an opinion.  I understand young people’s hesitancy to embrace the church of my generation.  Looking back it is easy to see some confusion we have caused between the gospel message and our political activism, our pursuit of the American dream, and our rigid legalism.  But before we fling the pendulum, as we are all wont to do, too far the other direction into liberal politics, acceptance of all lifestyles, and living simply, let’s stop for a minute and let the Bible speak for itself.

When speaking for itself, I believe the New Testament is unequivocal on two points that affect what the church of the next generation embraces.  First, Jesus is the only way to heaven, no ifs, ands, or buts.  Second, a sinful lifestyle is not compatible with being a believer, a child of God.  Again, the Bible is unequivocal in its presentation of these points.

Now if we are going to accept what the Bible says for itself, we must trust that its words are true.  We must be committed to truth.  We must believe that the Bible, as we know it, is communicating God’s truth.  So this is where we are going to start.  Next post we will investigate the reliability of the New Testament.  Then we will move on to what the Bible has to say about our two propositions:  Jesus is the only way to heaven and a sinful lifestyle is not compatible with being a believer.  I hope you can join us and your faith is encouraged along the way.

We Are What We Love

As I was working on our last series regarding what motivates us to righteous living, I came across an interview with Professor Jamie Smith in the latest issue of Christianity Today magazine.  Since I am a curious person and like to think, the title of the interview, “You Can’t Think Your Way to God” caught my eye.  Read along as Dr. Smith himself articulates his thesis in the interview:

“Human beings are at their core defined by what they worship rather than primarily by what they think, know, or believe.  Starting with the idea that we are what we love, I tried to come up with a model of the human person that appreciates the centrality of love.  That propelled me to see that we are ritual, liturgical creatures whose loves are shaped and aimed by the fundamentally forming practices that we are immersed in.  And the rituals and practices that form our loves spill out well beyond the sanctuary.  Many secular liturgies are trying to get us to love some other kingdom and some other gods.”

“We Christians should be aware that there’s something at stake in cultural participation that we wouldn’t have been concerned about if all we did was worry about the messages in culture. I am trying to wake folks up to realize that if these cultural institutions and practices are formative, then the spaces that we inhabit do something to us. The stadium and the mall are examples of that.”

This quote, while a bit heavy and academic, is packed with thought-provoking depth and must be read carefully.  What I hear the professor saying is that our actions are motivated more by our loves than by what we think, know, or believe.  And our loves are influenced by our cultural participation, not just in the cultural messages we accept or reject, but in the ritual of participation itself.  Are these cultural rituals drawing us away to other loves, other kingdoms, and other gods?

This thesis is particularly compelling in regard to youth ministry.  In fact, it puts into words something that has been percolating in my brain for some time.  Christian leaders and the Christian press are rightfully concerned about the exodus of young people from the church.  We can argue specific statistics, but the anecdotal evidence itself is pretty clear; a large population of young people are leaving the church when their high school years come to an end.  But I wonder, “Have we inadvertently assisted in their exit by our approach to youth ministry?”

We encourage, under the pretext of evangelism, our students to “engage the culture”; to develop common ground with their schoolmates around today’s popular music, television shows, movies, and what’s hip or cool.  But in reality, is this is leading our students into an exploration of “other loves”.  Should we be surprised when they are drawn away by these “other loves” from the faith of their childhood?  Our kids may learn the facts of the Bible – the stories, the rules, what’s right, what’s wrong – but have we taught them to love, worship, protect, and cultivate their relationship to God?

We home-schooled our five children.  Long story, but what you need to know for this illustration is that we have no hostility toward public school and our family and children maintained friendships with kids from a wide variety of schooling situations.  It was a way of educating our kids that fit some things we wanted to accomplish as a family.  It was as simple as that, not part of some political or social agenda.  The background of us not being militant about home-schooling sets the stage for what comes next.

When one of our daughters finished junior high, she indicated a desire to attend the public high school.  We said, “Fine.”  But before we made that transition, we had a conversation and said something like this, “We are fine with you attending public high school.  You are a strong person in your faith.  We are confident that you can stand up for yourself and be a light wherever you go.  However, we have one word of caution.  Just because you are attending public school does not mean that we will be changing our standards.  So, when you are standing around with your new school friends, and they are all gushing about last night’s episode of “Friends”, you won’t be watching it.  When your friends report to school on Monday morning with a buzz about the latest R-rated movie, you won’t have seen it.  Also, you won’t be wearing the typical body-exposing outfits that seem to be popular among high school teens.  Our clothing standards will not be changing.  Our intention is not to send you to school and make you feel like an outsider, we just want you to know up front that our family standard around here will not be changing.  It is not about rules, it is about identity.  This is just who we are.”

You will have to ask Elizabeth what she decided because we left the decision up to her.  What I want to emphasize is that our standards were not driven by rules, they were driven by who we were; they were driven by who we loved and worshipped.  When I asked our adult children many years later, “Do you think we had a lot of rules when you were growing up?” they looked at each other and answered with a rather casual, “No, not really.”  I don’t think the rules as rules were a big deal in their memory because they were just a reflection of who we were.  We are what we love.

Letting the River Flow in Ministry

“Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.  For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (II Cor 3:5-6).  As ministers of the new covenant, we recognize the flowing river inside each believer and we serve in ways that encourage its flow to come to the surface in our friends and family.

Let me give you an example of how this works in ministry.  Several years ago, Rhonda and I were asked to lead an adult Sunday School class at our church for young married couples who were just starting their families.  We were at the other end of the young family years as the first of our five children was just entering college.  We started our teaching assignment with some trepidation.  Would these couples be interested in what we had to say about biblical principles for marriage and family?  How would we drum up interest in these topics?  In short, would leading the way be like pulling teeth?

We had a choice to make.  We could lead the class with an old covenant approach to living the Christian life.  That is, this path ahead is a difficult one and you are not going to like it, but it is just what you have to do.  So buck up and give it your best.  In other words, “eat your vegetables”, they are good for you.

Or we could take a new covenant approach.  Under this system, we present the Christian life as an overflowing feast, not a lukewarm plate of vegetables.  We “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24) by watering the fruit of the Spirit that is already present in every believer by the provisions of the new covenant.  Our teaching is under the overarching message of the New Testament; your old nature died with Christ, sin is no longer your master, you were raised with Christ, and infused with resurrection power to live the supernatural Christian life; to live into who you already are in Christ.

We took the new covenant approach and invited our new friends to join us in experiencing the river’s flow as a community.  In short, our message was, “You can do this”, and we found indeed that these couples were primed for us to join them in the flow that God was already leading them in.  Instead of needing to coax the class forward, we discovered that a desire to learn was already present in our fellow believers.  We just needed to join them and provide some leadership and mentoring in the direction they already wanted to go.  It became a collaborative effort as we encouraged each other in what new covenant living looked like in a family setting.

The whole enterprise was one of our most enjoyable ministry efforts.  Why?  Because we were experiencing the promise of Jesus in John 7 – the flow of the Holy Spirit – in a community of like-minded believers.  It was a great lesson in new covenant ministry, and we were energized by God’s presence and leading for us all!

Is Everyone Included?

Last post we focused on the corporate church situation.  Now let’s bring this idea of celebrating diversity in the church down to a personal application.  If you are like me, certain personalities rub you the wrong way.  Certain individuals strike you as difficult people.  In my former selfish approach, I usually avoided these people, hiding behind my introvert nature.  But by God’s grace, I have opened up to the diverse variety of personalities that are the body of Christ.  I have discovered that it is so easy to be blind to our own personality quirks but quick to notice something amiss in others.

Two things have happened as I have moved out of my comfort zone.  First, my life has been enriched by this interaction.  My church experience has a new fullness as I embrace all the personalities, gifts, and talents that make up the body.  I see more value in other’s gifts.  Just as we are often most comfortable with folks of our personality bent, we can also slip into the idea that giftedness like ours in not only most comfortable, but actually most valuable to the body.  But when I read the Word it becomes clear:  the body needs all the gifts.

The second result is that I am now more sensitive to and able to encourage my new friends.  Certain personalities on both the quiet and loud end of the spectrum are unfortunately often avoided in our church situations and I believe we should go out of our way to draw these people in.  A legitimate and felt need in our community of believers is to “know and be known”.  And it is incumbent on us in the church to make sure this is happening.  Can I encourage you?  Go out of your way to befriend the person God brings in your path.  Let your smile, body language, and greeting say, “I am glad you are here.  I am glad I saw you this morning.  I am glad you are in my life.”

You know, one of the things Jesus was accused of over and over again was that He was too inclusive.  Let’s join Him in his inclusive message and actions and celebrate the diversity of His beautiful body – the church!

Embracing All the Gifts

In I Corinthians chapter 12, Paul compares the church and its members to the physical body.  Paul starts his discussion with this simple comparison.  Just as the physical body is one body with many parts, so too the church is one body (of Christ) with many members.  And just as with the physical body, each member of Christ’s body is different and gifted for a unique function and contribution to the church.  The beauty of it all is that “God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired” (vs 18).  God Himself has placed you in the body for a purpose.

To summarize the main points of Paul’s analogy, no part of the body should consider itself inferior to another.  Conversely, we should not look down on others as less important than ourselves.  And we should not desire to be a part of the body that we are not.  Every individual and unique member of the body is crucial to its function.  “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” (vs 17) and so on.  So crucial is each part that we should never say to another, “I have no need of you” (vs 21).  But I wonder if, in subtle and subconscious ways, this is exactly what we say to each other.

As I visit with people, especially young people, across the country, folks are looking for a way to exercise their gifts and talents in the church.  They are looking to extend the church’s reach through their various circles of influence.  The churches themselves, however, are often going the other direction; streamlining and eliminating ministries in ways that suggest not every gift is needed.  For example, when the church choir disappears, what happens to those with the gift of song?  When the adult Sunday School classes are dissolved, what happens to those with the gift of teaching?  When the service projects go away, what happens to those with the gift of helps?  Focusing on doing a few things well is great for businesses, but it does not fit the church, the body of Christ.  The church is made up of diverse members with diverse gifts and all should be embraced.

A young missionary working overseas shared with me her joy at being asked by a team of nationals to join them in planting a new church.  She has the gift of encouragement and had an integral role in helping the local leaders get their new ministry off the ground.  The joy in her voice as she shared her story was unmistakable.  Why?  Because she had been asked to contribute to the cause of Christ in a specific way that matched who she is.  She not only felt needed, she was needed!

My own ministry experience has been marked by great highs and disappointing lows.  The highs were generally marked by being asked to do something I was made to do and the lows usually involved serving in an uncomfortable role; not uncomfortable because it was difficult, but uncomfortable because it was not where I felt that I had something to contribute.  Maybe it was far from my giftedness or just a place where I was filling a slot and not really feeling needed.

Now, let me make clear, as we mature in the Lord, we move beyond our natural talents and develop ways to serve in all kinds of areas even those we thought tedious.  We should always be willing to be stretched by God into new areas of service.  We should never become a prisoner of our personality or our own self-evaluation.  We should always be open to new challenges and opportunities to serve.  But as leaders helping spur our members on to maturity, a good place to start is helping them find their “sweet spot” in the church and develop that avenue of service.