In Luke 10 the Lord gives his relatively small band of followers their marching orders and a brief deployment strategy before sending them out “two by two… like lambs among wolves”.   He begins with the following instructions;

{4} “Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road”.

In essence, “travel light and keep a low profile”.  Interestingly enough, these are also fundamental principles found in what is now commonly known as “guerilla warfare”.   This term has come to represent a military strategy that utilizes small, highly mobile and heavily armed groups of soldiers.  Their objective is often to move in for the strike and then to quickly move on before the larger, slow moving enemy has time to respond.  This style of combat stands in stark contrast to what was once the widely accepted form of battle.   Armies would line up in formation, wearing bright colors and waving banners while blowing horns to alert the opposing force of their presence and intent.   Although grandiose and epic in scale, for obvious reasons, this form of warfare has long since been rendered ineffective and thus obsolete.   And yet, consider the similarities between this method of going to war and our current local church paradigm.  Do we not spend more of our time and energy gathering together, lining everyone up, and banner waving than we do releasing our strategic deployments?  How quickly can we change direction corporately or decrease our resource consumption in order to increase troop mobility?

The Lord’s strategy for kingdom advance was, and is, brilliant.

{7-8} “Stay in (a) house, eating and drinking whatever they give you.  When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you.”

A missionary friend of ours recently returned from a trip to the Orient.  She confirmed that being able to “eat what is set before you” is actually a crucial step in earning the privilege of sharing your faith.  Most cultures will expect a meal in one’s home to serve as the starting point for relationship.  If you want to reach someone in Japan, for instance, you most likely will have to be able to ingest raw fish and seaweed soup without gagging… an ability our friend was apparently not able to acquire.  Because I am currently a construction worker, I have had to develop the skill of drinking beer and watching sporting events on multiple TVs while simultaneously guiding the conversation with my co-workers toward topics of a spiritual nature.   It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

The point is that we might need to think a little more creatively about how and why we do what we do as it pertains to world reaching.  Rather than unloading a bus full of people at the park wearing matching T-shirts while brandishing instruments for leading praise and worship, maybe we should consider a more subtle approach.  Jesus sent his teams out with the intent of quietly establishing common ground.  The objective was not to stand out, but rather to blend in.  This is the very reason that Guerrilla forces often utilize plain clothes civilians rather than professional soldiers in uniform.  The target is much smaller and harder to see, thus much more difficult for the enemy to hit.

{10 -11} “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you”.

As believers, we must learn to quickly discern who is able to receive what we have to offer and who is not.  In the early days of pastoral ministry, I would often find myself investing heavily in relationships that basically ended up going nowhere.   I could spend countless hours counseling, praying for and loving on people that really were not interested in giving themselves over to the lordship of Christ.  In my naivety and pride I would think to myself, “surely if I just hang in there with this person long enough they will eventually decide to repent and turn to the Lord.”  In retrospect, this was usually an exercise in futility.  Any farmer will tell you that sowing seed on an un-plowed field is a waste of both time and resources.   No matter how loving and full of God we may think we are, we must always respect a person’s free will.   Exercising a little discernment about the state of another’s heart can often safeguard us from operating in a spirit of control or manipulation.  Guerrilla church is about being able to get in and get out quickly if we have to.  Not all relationships are worth investing in and it is arrogant to think that we are the perfect solution to each and everyone’s problem.  Even Jesus chose to forgo certain relationships with people knowing the diminished level of their receptivity.

(Mat 9:11-12)  The Pharisees asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”  On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”.

The Lord executed each of his one on one encounters with surgical precision.   He was always intentional, ever mindful, and unashamedly discerning about how and when he invested in his relationships.

{17 -19} The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. {19} I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.”

Let’s face it.  Our enemy is highly skilled in the art of employing an endless array of covert ops.   His troops have no hesitation in using unconventional and underhanded tactics to put the hurt on the church.  Sabotage, espionage, sneak attacks, and outright torture are all considered fair game.  As we gather each week for our regularly scheduled morale boosting sessions, he’s out there nonchalantly picking people off one at a time.  While we are making sure that our formations are orderly and color coordinated, he’s dropping nuclear bombs on our camps and laughing at how clueless we are.   But what’s even more mind boggling is that he’s somehow convinced us that we should focus the brunt of our attack on each other.  Political coups, betrayals, back stabbings… the war within the local church has caused immeasurable collateral damage.

Jesus said “I have given you authority” to get out there and take territory from the enemy.  But stay low, stay small, and make sure you have someone covering your backside.   In truth, we each can develop our own customized style of guerrilla church.  For some, their most effective weapon will be their ability to listen and genuinely care.  For others it may be effectual prayer for healing or deliverance.  One day our primary assignment may be to encourage the cashier at WalMart. The next day it might be to spend an uninterrupted hour talking with one of our kids.  Maybe one week our mission is to be unusually kind to the guy at work we don’t like.  Sometimes the most unassuming acts of obedience yield the greatest impact.   Fanfare and pageantry are fun for a while, but never really affect the outcome of the war.   In the next reformation, the local church will be much quieter, quicker, and perhaps a little less obvious and predictable in our approach to kingdom advancement.  It is time to apply the strategies that our commanding officer so clearly demonstrated while he was with us.  One heart, one mind at a time changed for eternity.

We must stop going to church and start being the guerrilla church that we are called and commissioned to be.

 

I remember when I first heard the U2 song “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” on the radio.  The lyrics on their first couple albums had such a strong Christian undertone that I had to wonder what Bono and the boys really meant when they penned that chorus.  Initially, the song kind of bugged me and I had to wonder if maybe they were starting to head in the wrong direction spiritually.  In truth, I still don’t have a clue as to what might have inspired that unmistakably haunting anthem, but over time, I’ve found myself singing those words with ever increasing conviction.  And lest you’re tempted to draw your conclusions prematurely, I’m pretty sure it’s not because I’m questioning my faith.  Or that my relationship with the Lord is somehow waning.  More likely it has something to do with an unmet inner longing that seems to have been with me for as long as I can remember.  Put simply, I know there’s more out there for us… and I want it.

In all honesty, the Sunday-mornin-go-ta-meetin thing just ain’t cuttin it for me anymore… for a number of reasons.   Not the least of which is the fact that I have always had a tough time staying motivated to do anything on a consistent basis when I’ve lost touch with its intended purpose.  Though singing songs and listening to someone talk for 45 minutes can certainly have some value for a believer, I no longer see regular church attendance as an accurate indicator of the quality or depth of ones relationship with Christ.  Jesus really didn’t talk a whole lot about the importance of going to weekly meetings.  Think about it.  He gave himself to modeling the hands on, one person at a time, spread the kingdom with every step you take method, and then he sent his followers out to do the same.  The early church did not sit around for 20 years and talk about theoretical strategies for world changing, they went out and DID THE STUFF!  Is it possible that we are now mesmerized more by the idea of Christianity than we are committed to its practices?

“But Brother Bump, we must not forsake the gathering together.”  Oh please! Can we not get beyond that verse?  If we’re not hanging out with other believers in a more relevant context than our favorite pew, that’s nobody’s fault but our own.  I don’t need to stare at the back of someone’s head for an hour to feel like I’m “having fellowship” with them.  Personally, I can “fellowship” a lot better around a dining room table, or on a lawn chair on the back porch than I can sitting in a row of chairs surrounded by people who are afraid to even make eye contact with me.  Say what you will about this kind of indifference, but I think the American church culture is pretty messed up.  We’ve substituted a bunch of cookie cutter rituals for the empowered lifestyle and life giving relationships that our inner most being was created to enjoy.  God please forgive us.

The older I get, the more pragmatic I seem to become.  Yet so much of the Christian faith and the local church experience seems to defy any sort of quantifiable result.  How do we determine if what we’re doing is actually accomplishing what it’s supposed to?  I find myself asking questions like, “Is this really working?”  “Are we making any progress?”  “Am I getting any closer to where I’m supposed to be going?”  Often, the answer to these kinds of questions is so ambiguous that I find myself doing all sorts of mental gymnastics… trying desperately to  “stick the landing” in my mind.  But more often than not, my dismount ends up looking more like something you’d see on AFV than you would at the Olympics.   Nonetheless, I’m apparently compelled to keep trying to make sense out of what the Lord is doing in me personally and in the life of his church.  In my frustration, I must confess that I sometimes slip into apathy… but much like the men in that original band of 12, over time I’ve come to the realization that I have no where else to go, and nothing else to do but to follow the Lord and to serve his church.   As a result of what I’ve seen and discovered along the way, I am spoiled for any other life pursuit.

A few thoughts about the next reformation:

1.  God’s love and acceptance of us is not effected by whether or not we go to meetings.

2.  When we do have meetings, I think they should be as inter-active as possible.  People need to tell their story and to have others actively listen and genuinely care.  The season of the talking head at the front of the room has passed.

3.  We must get in touch with our personal calling, gifting and anointing for ministry.  Many of us are still not really comfortable in our own skin.  The church culture has trained us to conform to the image and philosophies of others.  We must get free from these so we can function as who we were created to be… nothing more, nothing less.

4.  People need Jesus, so we have to learn how to demonstrate genuine Kingdom power and authority in our everyday environment.   We can no longer be focused on bringing the world into the church.  We must turn our attention to “going into all the world”.

5.  We are surrounded by an unprecedented amount of potential distractions.  The tumult created by our current geopolitical- environmental -economical mess could easily become our focus if we allow it to.  Fear, doubt, and unbelief must be cut off at the quick if we’re going to thrive in the days ahead.   We can stock our pantries if we so choose, but there is no adequate substitute for faith.

6.  If we can just hang on to the simple belief that God is good, that he loves us without condition, and that his son’s death on the cross has the power to solve any problem, save any person, and right any wrong… than we will be able to transcend any conflict that we might face while navigating the perils of the next reformation.

7.  The days of our current church structures and paradigms are numbered.  It’s time to let them die so that we can get on to whatever is next.

8.  Though I’d like to believe that I have some good ideas about what the next reformation might involve, I’m still unclear as to what’s lies ahead for the local church.    I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, but at least I’m still looking and I’d like to encourage you to do the same.

I guess that’s all I need to say about the next reformation for now.    Please know that I am painfully aware that “reaction to error can often result in further error”.  Knowing my passionate disposition,  I’m sure I’ve made a few statements that have been a little tough to swallow.  Admittedly, the process of working through some of  my thoughts and feelings about the state of the church has been quite therapeutic for me.  I also will be the first to acknowledge that many years of pastoral service has left me rather crusty and cynical at times.  Sheep bites are painful and can definitely leave a scar.  My heart is to continue to expose my emotional wounds to the great physician and to others whom I have come to trust in the hopes of inner healing and restoration.  My desire, Lord willing, is that I will be able to bring the same to his precious Bride when given the opportunity.  The next reformation is calling.

2012 UPDATE:   I’m trying to make the time to put the Next Reformation series of articles in to book form.  Much has changed in my mind and heart since writing these last 10 posts, so the re-write is taking longer than I thought it would.  I would greatly appreciate your prayers and thoughts on this stuff.  Your comments (especially the encouraging ones) are valued.

Blessings, Bump

 

The local church is about to undergo a major paradigm shift. Church as we know it may soon no longer exist. “Why?” you might ask. Because God is always doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? God’s very nature is creative. Look at our world. Why do we have so many different types and kinds of animals, trees, fish, bugs, and people? Consider, if you dare, the vast expanse of our universe. Are all those stars and planets and galaxies really necessary for our survival? Why do we have such unfathomable diversity and beauty all around us? It is painfully obvious that our Heavenly Father just loves to create.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. Rom 1:20

His fingerprints are literally everywhere we look. It’s like He can’t help himself. Something new is constantly exuding from who He is. Therefore, we have no excuse for missing or denying the certainty of the divine creator’s existence. Likewise, we have no excuse for lacking in creativity ourselves. As a believer, His nature is in us. So it stands to reason that creative thoughts, ideas, and plans should be pouring out of us in like manner. Sometimes all it takes is a handful of people or even just one person’s innovative actions to change the course of human history. Most historians would attribute the transition from the middle ages to the modern era primarily to two men. Da Vinci and Michelangelo radically affected the world as we know it simply by being unreservedly creative. These guys somehow tapped into their inner creativity in such a powerful way that the artistic and scientific realms still echo with the after effects of their contributions. How is it that people like Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, The Beetles, and Bill Gates seem to be able access and function out of their creative / entrepreneurial mojo so effectively that it radically transforms the culture they live in? On the other hand, why has so much of the local church become so characteristically irrelevant and predictably boring? Dare I say it? Dead.

It could be because we have been pursuing “revival” rather than reformation and renaissance. According to Webster to “revive” means,

: to return to consciousness or life :
: to restore from a depressed, inactive, or unused state : to bring back
(from the dead)

Really? Are we sure we want revival? No wonder the church more closely resembles Frankenstein than his bride.   The point is that it’s high time that we learn to go with the new and let the old die off like it’s supposed to. Why do we keep trying to bring back to life something that is dead or nearly dead? Our God is perfectly capable of initiating new life… and so are we! The first reformation was a much needed rejection of established doctrine and practice. I pray that the next reformation will look more like a Renaissance. In essence, a “new birth”.

Since the early days of our ministry, we have been consistently attracted to the “right brain” creative contingent of the church. Even now, we tend to gravitate toward those with an artistic bent… painters, dancers, dramatists, musicians and the like. For many years, my primary means of discipleship was to start a rock group. More often than not, my band of disciples was just that, a band. Our walls are covered with original works of art. At least partly because it’s become more and more difficult for us to enjoy all the copies and reproductions (art, music, books, and otherwise) that the Christian culture has been churning out. When art becomes a business, that’s when it tends to lose its authenticity and soul. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Thank God for Willow Creek. They were one of the first churches to step forward and scream, “Hey Christians! It’s OK to be creative again!” Say what you want about the whole seeker friendly movement, we need more churches to take these kinds of departures from the established norms. And to keep doing it until we get free from the emaciated state of religious bondage we’ve been in on Sunday morning… and the rest of the week. A release of creativity is coming… because it has to. Shift happens.

If you’re sitting out there among the faceless masses in the “congregation” merely putting in your time, maybe the season has come for you to GET UP AND BREAK OUT! Do something you know you’ll get in trouble for. Let passion be your motivation like it was before you got sterilized and became a full fledged member of the walking dead. Our Father made each of us with a unique calling and ministry. We have to resist the tendency of allowing ourselves to get homogenized into the mix and to lose our true flavor. God loves your flavor, he was very intentional in making it that way. He’s not apologetic about it, so why should you be? Now’s the time to stand up for who you really are and be an original, a one of a kind believer intent on being the best “you” you can be. I’m not Mother Teresa and neither are you. Only she was supposed to be Mother Teresa. Personally, I think all the bad food and the relentless heat of Calcutta would have killed me anyway.

The reality is that one day we will all stand before the Lord and give an account of what we did with our time here on earth. None of us will be able to excuse ourselves by saying, “but Lord, my pastor wouldn’t let me” or “but Lord, they hurt me and I never got over it… that’s why I couldn’t get it done”. Or perhaps for the leaders, “but Lord, those people you gave me were a bunch of knuckleheads.. What the heck was I supposed to do?” The only way we’re ever going to here “well done my good and faithful servant” is if somewhere along the way we get comfortable being the real us and realize that this is enough. What we’re called, gifted, and anointed to do will naturally flow out of who we are, that’s the way it works. No one has to work hard at being themselves. It’s easy. His yoke is easy. Comparing ourselves to anyone else will always be a bad idea. The local church will experience a shocking metamorphosis when diversity and individual creativity are once again prized instead of feared. Shift happens.

My dear brothers and sisters, we have to keep moving forward. We can do it. We must do it. The church’s future depends on it. We have to keep creating and initiating and birthing new ideas and strategies and methods for accomplishing that which we’ve been left here to do. If we’re a church leader, for God’s sake let’s set the people we’re leading free! We have to start genuinely encouraging them when they come up to us with a new idea or ministry. So what if it doesn’t fit into our old structure or way of doing things. We must let the new wine flow, if for no other reason than the fact that we need it so desperately. Religion is always marked by the absence of creativity. OK, so our church finally got rid of its pipe organ. Congratulations, now we’re only a few hundred years behind our culture instead of a thousand. Keep in mind, Lot’s wife literally became a monument to the past because she was unwilling to turn away from all that was behind her and fix her gaze ahead. Change is a necessary inevitability. Shift happens.

We can act like everything’s peachy if we want to, but there is a paradigm shift coming to the church. Uniformity will no longer be enforced or even valued. We won’t need to look the same, act the same, or even believe exactly the same to get the job done. Our God is a multidimensional, multifaceted being with unlimited creative initiative. We are made in His image and bare his likeness. We are creative in the deepest parts of our inner being. We are entrepreneurial. We are world changers by nature. We must not stop trying and we must not give up. We will fail… and then we will try again because we have to. As the local church environment begins to morph into something that seems a bit unfamiliar, we will need to change with it. “Go with the new” is the word for this season. If we feel like anything we’re doing has to be kept alive by artificial means… let’s go ahead and pull the plug on it. New life will come with the next reformation. It cannot be stopped, it will prevail. Shift happens.

Lord, please release a spirit of creativity on your church. Forgive us for being lulled to sleep by our religious routines. We want the new wine, new vision, new hope for our future. Give us the discernment to know what we need to let die. Give us the courage to let it go so that we can move on to the new. Show us what’s next for us. Release your renaissance, your reformation, your creative nature in us Lord. Amen

In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, there is a poignant sub-plot involving the character known as “Brooks”.  After 50 years in prison, he suddenly finds himself a free man desperately trying to adjust to his new life on the “outside”.  Sadly, after spending so many years living within the unchanging regiment and routine of prison, he simply cannot cope with the dramatic variations and pace of life in what has now become an entirely foreign environment.  Unable to function, he contemplates committing another crime in the hopes of returning to the only place that feels normal to him, but ultimately he opts to take his own life instead.  He writes a letter to his friends who are still on the inside describing his plight.  After reading it aloud “Red”, Morgan Freeman’s character, explains to the other inmates that Brooks had been “institutionalized”.  “These prison walls are funny.” He says, “First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”

In the last couple years, I’ve began to realize that many believers are struggling with a similar predicament. We know that there is more for us to do and be outside the four walls of the local church, but because so much of our Christian experience has taken place within these narrow parameters, we no longer know how to think or live like free men and women.  For many of us, “going to church” and “doing our church thing” has become the central activity of our faith.  Week after week, year after year of faithful attendance has conditioned us to think that institutional life is all that there is for us.  So much so, that any attempts to go beyond these well defined boundaries has often been deemed too dangerous, or even forbidden.  It’s almost like we’ve learned to fear what might happen to us if we dare to venture out and traverse this land so fraught with evil and temptation.  The evidence of this mind-set is found in our church-speak.  For example, “The world” has become the term we use to describe that place we don’t want to be influenced by and those people whose behavior we just can’t tolerate.  We’d like to think outside of the church box, but somehow we’ve been convinced that the box is not only a good thing, it is there for our protection and should never be tampered with lest we mess it up.

Lately we’ve been asking people this question: If you could do anything you wanted in ministry for the Lord, what would you do?  The responses have been so consistent it’s frightening.  Almost without exception, they will get the “deer in the headlights” look and then say, “Well… I guess I’m not sure.”  With all due respect to those who have propagated this mentality, myself included, it is time to set ourselves and the people we care for free.  Free to do all manner of things that have nothing to do with our regularly scheduled meetings.  Our programs, our structures, and our Sunday morning routines can, in fact, become a form of bondage if we’re not careful.  In principle, we all agree that we’re to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.  But if we’re honest about how we’ve spent our time and energy, it’s obvious that we’ve focused the vast majority of our ministry efforts in those places already well lit and sufficiently seasoned.  When I look at how Jesus did what he did, I see him out there mixing it up with real people in the real world… meeting each individual at the point of their specific need, loving them, listening to them, treating them with respect, and bestowing on them the kind of value that we all secretly long for.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, over time we’ve began to believe that we must find our place within an organization before we can “do our ministry.”  When in reality, most of us our called to serve outside the well guarded confines of what we now call “the church.”  Although some gifts and callings are primarily for equipping and caring for other believers, many more are bent toward impacting those we come into contact with on a more regular basis.  This is why Jesus elevated the idea of “loving our neighbor” to a place of primary importance on every believer’s to-do list.  The apostle Paul was dealing with a similar problem in the church of Galatia.  Many Christians had been persuaded to believe that they must come back under the law and its practices in order to be truly justified.  Paul had worked so hard to enlighten these young believers to the principles of freedom, grace, and justification through faith, only to have them drug by their feet back into religious bondage by the self appointed “church wardens” of the day.

“You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?  That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5: 1-8)

Please understand what I’m trying to convey here.  I am not saying that going to church means that we are submitting ourselves to bondage, nor am I suggesting that we should rebel against that which we might flippantly deem “the institutionalized church.”  The point is that most of us were pretty good at living in the real world before we got saved.  What happened to us?   We cut our hair, got our uniform, and started walking in formation. We were institutionalized, that’s what happened.  We took on the yokes of others and in the process lost touch with the uniqueness of our personal callings and passions for ministry.  Come in, sit down, stand up, sing a song, pass the plate, listen to a sermon, sing another song, pray, go home.  Call me crazy, but after doing the same things the same way for so long, I think maybe its time to step back and evaluate how well what we’re doing is working.  In many respects, our institutions no longer serve us, but it is we who now serve them.

In the next reformation, we must stop trying to get people to our meetings and instead make it our goal to get them to Jesus.  We must each seek the Lord for what he has for us to do… AND THEN DO IT!  It’s almost like we’ve forgotten how to follow the inner leadings of the Lord for ourselves.  If we’re waiting around for our pastor, or some other church leader to bestow upon us the privilege to minister, then we’ve adopted the wrong mode of operation.  Maybe we’ll muck it up a little… so what?  Jesus sent his disciples out there knowing full well that they weren’t prepared for everything they would encounter.  That’s how we learn the fastest.  “Oops… I won’t do that again.”  The time has come to encourage one another to go out and do what our heart longs to do for the Lord.  And if that means we lose our best nursery worker, or our most faithful usher, than so be it.  The world needs the church a lot more than the church needs itself.   If like me,  you can’t stand the thought of living out the rest of your life on the inside, maybe it’s time to start chipping away at the wall of our cell.  We might have to take a long crawl through a whole lotta nastiness, but at least we’ll get free.  Now’s the time to “get busy livin or get busy dyin.”

For though you have ten thousand teachers in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers… 1Co 4:15

For many years now, I have not been able to go into a Christian bookstore without feeling a profound sense of irritation.  Without fail, as soon as I walk through the front door, all I can think is “get me the heck outta here ASAP.”  I’m not joking or exaggerating about this.  This actually happens to me nearly every time I try to buy a bible, or a gift or something at one of these types of stores.  It’s like I get instantly provoked as if someone with really bad breath was up in my face insulting me while simultaneously poking me in the sternum.  I can’t say that I completely understand what causes this violent impulse reaction in me, but I’m pretty sure it has at least something to do with the abundance of “Jesus Junk” that is characteristically distributed from this kind of venue.  Shelf after shelf, rack after rack of fish emblems, cliché ridden bumper-stickers, T-shirts that rip off the latest fad by inserting a Christian icon into a popular image or design, cutesy coffee mugs with scripture on them… you know what I’m talking about.  Jesus Junk.  And as if the abundance of cheesy merchandise wasn’t bad enough, most stores also stock a wide variety of books that, in my opinion, do little more than add to the already overwhelming burden that believers tend to carry around as it is.  “How to Lose Weight While Praise Dancing” “Keys to a Successful Marriage from the Pentateuch”  “Victorious Christian Living in 10 Days!”  It’s like we take our cues from a decidedly screwed up culture, and then haphazardly create our own diminished version of it.  God forgive us.

But the overall weirdness of our little sub-culture is not my greatest concern.  It’s the fact that somehow we have propagated the mindset that “church” is that place where we go to hear someone else tell us how to be a Christian.  Week after week we sit and eat, sit and eat, until finally we get bored by the limited selection of buffet items and move on to a more promising location for further grazing.  And if our Sunday morning gorge fest doesn’t sufficiently satiate us, now we can surf the web for the latest and greatest messages from all our favorite teachers and listen to them ad nauseam on our I-Pod.  Especially in the U.S., it is certainly not information that we lack, but rather a lifestyle that is derived from and activated by the principles we’ve already accepted as truth.  Wisdom is the application of truth, not just the acquisition of it. By in large, this is where we’re missing it.  We know enough about Jesus right now to turn the world on its ear, but sadly, we are educated far beyond our current level of obedience.  As a result, we have cheapened the Gospel message and the Christian experience in pursuit of more and more head candy.  For many of us, “ten thousand teachers” is not an overstatement of the actual number of influences we’ve subjected ourselves to over the years.  We must repent of this.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Cor 8:1)

In the next reformation, we have to break out of our addiction to rampant information consumption and learn how to make what we know work for us in real life situations.  A stockpile of Bible verses in no way guarantees that we will actually enjoy our relationship with the Lord, nor will it necessarily have a positive affect on anyone else unless we are intentionally walking out those precepts in the context of our relationships.  Just a little revelation of the simple truth that Jesus really does love us can radically impact our neighbor’s life.  But not unless we demonstrate it to him in a way he can understand and receive.  I’ve spent many hours of my life listening to brilliant men debate the nuances of a wide variety of theological minutia… but to what end?  So what if we have an air-tight systematic theology?  Does that really help us love one another?  Who gives a rip if Jesus returns before, during, or after the tribulation?  If we’re living right, it’s not gonna matter anyway!  Too much eschatological mumbo jumbo gives me a headache.

Have you ever asked your computer to do more than its processor was capable of?  We’ve all had our screen lock up, and our CPU shut down due to frantic data input.  Say what you will, but our mind can do the same thing.  Now is the time to return to the simplicity of our faith as we have surely reached level 10 on the information overload scale.  We’ve yoked ourselves to far too many instructors.  We need to own the fact that our current local church paradigm is geared for information gathering… and not much more.  So much so that our intellectual over stimulation has made it very difficult to receive instruction directly from the Lord.   With the abundance of  info we’ve tried to cram into our brains, our Spirit has been left crying out for our attention.  Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for this kind of behavior.  “You diligently study the Scriptures… yet you refuse to come to me” (John 5:39-40)

Learning to follow the leading of the Spirit is a process.  But if we’re his sheep, then rest assured, we do know what His voice sounds like.  We’ve wandered from pasture to pasture long enough.  He is our shepherd… not the guy behind the pulpit.  Not the last book we read.  We can’t blame our pastor or our church if we don’t feel like we’re fulfilling the personal call that is uniquely on each one of us.    We all have the same responsibility, to simply listen and obey.  But if we’re listening to “every wind of teaching” then we’re bound to get “tossed back and forth.”  (Eph 4:14)  Most of us are not called to a ministry within the confines of the local church structure.  Instead, we should be looking for opportunities to illuminate our homes, our workplaces, our neighborhoods with the light that every believer carries within.  The spirit will do in an instant what our striving could not accomplish in a million years. (Gal 3:3)

Remember how great you felt when you first realized that God loved and accepted you just as you are?  As new believers, it’s not uncommon to go through a period during which we experience a sense of being “love sick” for Jesus.   We’ve always called this “The Honeymoon Season” of the faith.  Ever watched a pair of newlyweds that can’t seem to keep their hands off each other?  We knew this one guy who, for several months after meeting the Lord, literally could not stop hugging each and every person he encountered. It was as if he was so full of the Lord’s affection that he just had to give some away so that he wouldn’t explode.  You see, when we lose touch with our first love, that’s when we stop having fun. That’s when Christianity becomes burdensome.  Our faith turns into a string of unending responsibilities and obligatory tasks.  His yoke truly is light and delightful.  The yokes of others are a big flippin drag and they suck the life out of us quicker than we can compensate for them.  We have to take them off.  In the next reformation, we must learn to hear from the Lord for ourselves and to show discretion with the frequency and number of our external influences.    In turn, the Lord will help us to cease from our striving and to enter into the kind of rest that our souls are so desperately in need of.   Lead on oh King eternal.

In 1987 I was a young seminary student in Chicago.  Each of us was assigned an advisor to help make decisions about what classes we would take and the choices that would determine the direction and focus of our course of study.   As a result, I found myself sitting with Dr. Robert Coleman, face to face across the desk in his little office.  I remember feeling somewhat in awe of him as I had read some of his books and had heard stories about the strength and uniqueness of his personality.  I also remember that he didn’t seem very concerned about my choice of courses, but instead was intent on having me come and join a small group of students that he led in prayer in the early mornings.  Although I had many other interactions with Bob during my time there at Trinity, for whatever reason, I never saw fit to become a member of what I now realize was his personal band of disciples.  In all honesty, I’m still kicking myself for not taking advantage of this incredible opportunity.  Instead of availing myself for a relationship with Dr. Coleman, for the next several years, I spent most of my time doing what I apparently deemed more important… vocational ministry.  What a knucklehead!

Although I’m sure serving as a pastor during that period of my life produced some good fruit for me personally and hopefully in the lives of a few others, I wish I had seen the value in being discipled by the guy who, in my opinion, literally wrote the definitive work on discipleship.  To this day, Dr. Coleman’s “Master Plan of Evangelism” stands head and shoulders above all other books written on the topic of how to make disciples.  Had I understood then what I do now, I would have jumped at the chance of sitting at his feet, and not just sitting there listening passively in his classes.

In the next reformation, we have to somehow recapture the vital nature of discipleship and spiritual parenting as it pertains to accomplishing the ultimate objective of the local church.  We can get so busy doing other “church stuff” that we lose sight of what is, for all practical purposes, the fundamental reason for our being left here on earth.  Think about it, Jesus said that our lives should be given to loving God and loving our neighbor.  Could we not accomplish the first half of that equation more completely if we were whisked away to heaven right after being saved?  In his manifest presence we will be entirely consumed by his love.  So it stands to reason that we remain in this realm primarily for the sake of others.

Recently, while shopping at the local mall with my wife, I was approached by a young teenage girl with a “bible tract” in her hand.  She was with an older lady and another girl about her age.  It was obvious to me that they were out “evangelizing” and I apparently looked like a promising candidate.  She said nothing to me, but offered me the little tract as she walked on by with the other two without ever breaking her stride.  I took the pamphlet and said “thanks” as I saw a look of relief come over her face.  It was as if she was saying, “There.  I’ve done it!”  After reading its contents, my heart just sank.  Like most of the publications of this genre, I was quickly reminded of what a complete wretch I am and how I was bound for eternal torment if I didn’t get my act together pronto.   Page after page of cute little illustrations depicting what a total loser I was, all supported with scripture of course.  I thought to myself, well… so much for the “good” news.

As the years roll by, I find myself becoming more and more of a pragmatist.  I’ve wasted way too much time on methodologies and good ideas that simply haven’t worked.  No matter how far away I might roam, I always seem to come back to this simple truth, the greatest impact of our life will be made one person at a time.  The great commission will not be fulfilled programmatically, but rather in the context of personal relationships.

Many years ago I had an experience that will forever illustrate this revelation in my thinking.  We were leading a ministry that was experiencing nothing short of a modern-day revival.  I’m not talking about a bunch of meetings where a gaggle of believers get all hyped up for Jesus.  We actually were seeing spontaneous salvation and deliverance taking place among many of the lost and addicted young people of our city.  The Lord was doing something far beyond our efforts or understanding, and we found ourselves scrambling to try to hire staff and to find people to take care of all the new believers that were coming to our church.  At that time, our Sunday morning service was gaining a reputation for being one of the best shows in town.   The atmosphere was very informal, the building we were meeting in was virtually devoid of religious icons and artifacts, and we had a really tight rock band leading our worship.  Our overall vibe was very lively and light-hearted, a great first experience for many of those who were new to the practice of “going to church.”

At the end of one of our services, I asked for anyone who wanted to give their life to the Lord for the first time to come to the front of the auditorium.  I don’t remember how many came forward that morning, but it was a good number.  We led them all in the prayer of salvation and then concluded the service.  As was our routine, we asked the group of new believers to follow us back to one of our smaller rooms at the back of the building.  Once gathered, I said a few words and we began to hand out bibles to those standing side by side, all facing inward in a big circle.  Suddenly and without warning, I burst into what can only be described as uncontrollable weeping.  I’m not exaggerating, I completely lost it.  Here I was, trying to say something profound and comforting to this wide eyed group of new believers, and I self imploded right in front of them.  So much so that I had to quickly hand the meeting off to one of the other staff members so I could go hide in my office.

As I waited for the building to clear out so as not to frighten anyone with my disheveled appearance, I began to ask, “What the heck was that Lord?  These aren’t tears of joy, I feel like I’m dying here!”  It made no sense to me that I was so grieved over what is supposed to be such a joyous occasion.  Maybe the angels were rejoicing, but I was overcome with quite the opposite emotion.  On the drive home, the Lord reminded me of how sad it is when irresponsible men impregnate young women only to leave them once the child is born.  In an instant, I understood what had happened to me in that back room.  Somehow, I had been allowed to feel just a small portion of the Lord’s heart for spiritual orphans.  We had just created another fresh batch of babies, and I knew there was no way we were going to be able to adequately take care of them.  We had only a handful of relatively mature believers in our ministry, and even fewer who were actively trying to disciple anyone.  My wife and I had been meeting with a small group of new believers in our home, but I knew our ability to provide any kind of individualized care was completely maxed out as it was.

Everyone knows that making babies is always going to be fun.  It’s exciting and enjoyable.  But taking care of those babies we’ve made is quite the opposite.  It’s hard work.  It requires personal sacrifice, an unwavering commitment, and a relentless consistency to raise a child to the point of self sufficiency.  So it is with spiritual parenting.  In the local church, we often take great pride in the number of babies we’ve made.  But I have to wonder how many of them have been virtually abandoned shortly after birth?  In our pursuit of “getting people saved,” how many spiritual orphans have we created?

For though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers… 1Co 4:15

In the next reformation, church leaders must somehow prioritize the value of spiritual parenting and discipleship.  So many believers seem to remain in perpetual spiritual immaturity for the simple reason that so few are willing to invest in the kind of up close and personal relationships that Jesus clearly modeled for us in the Gospels.  If your church’s evangelism mentality is all about getting people to make a decision, so you can quickly move on to the next person, and so on, then it may be time for a new paradigm.  If you’re mantra is, “some will, some won’t, who cares, who’s next?” you might be under estimating the length of process that most people go through when searching for truth.

Dr. Coleman used to look out over us as promising seminary students and exclaim, “It’s good that you’re planning to enter the ministry, now where are your men?”  That question has been ringing in my ears ever since.  Where are your men?  Whose life are you intentionally investing in right now?  Is anyone counting on you for care, or guidance, or prayer support?  If we fancy our self a spiritual leader and we’re not really that involved in the lives of any specific individuals,  it might be time for a gut check.   Are we really in the ministry, or just in denial?

Or maybe you’re not in a leadership position in your church, but you know you’ve been a Christian long enough that you could be helping others along their way.  Sometimes, if you want to know who to lead, all you have to do is turn around and see who’s already following you.  Maybe it’s your kids.  Maybe it’s a co-worker who you know listens to what you say.  It’s usually not about going out and trying to find someone to disciple.  Spiritual parenting often begins with a simple decision to be a bit more intentional with the relationships we’ve already established.  Take the time to read The Master Plan of Evangelism.  I think now it’s actually called the Master Plan of Discipleship.  The question is not “What Would Jesus Do?” but rather, “What Did Jesus Do?” while he was here with us.  The answer is painfully obvious, he made disciples, and he commissioned us to do the same.

I really like the slogan for the AMC channel.  It is, “Story Matters Here.”  In the local church, we would do well to learn from this profound little by-line.  People’s life stories matter. Where we’ve come from, where we’ve been, and what it is that has made us who we are today is important to the Lord, and so it should be to us.   Knowing a little about someone’s story is often the first step toward building a genuine relationship with them.  What was your family life like when you were growing up?  How did you come to know the Lord?  How did you meet your spouse, and so on.  Granted, going after the answer to these kinds of questions is just a starting point for relationship building, but you’d be amazed how frequently this step is skipped, especially in the church.  The result being that many believers are currently living at a level of relational superficiality that can create a palpable sense of disconnectedness and latent feelings of isolation.  We were created to know, and to be known by others.  When we take the time to truly get to know someone, we are acknowledging their intrinsic value, apart from anything they might be able to do or be for us.

In many respects, the local church in the U.S. now functions more like a business than the relationship based, community oriented organism that it is meant to be.  Because the church machine must be fed with a seemingly unending supply of human resources, people can sometimes be viewed by their leaders as little more than a means to an end.  If the people don’t give more, how will we pay our mortgage and staff?  If the people don’t serve more, how will we keep our programs afloat?  Although understandable, this dynamic often leaves the faithful parishioner feeling more like an object than a person…  an object that retains its value only as long as it is being used to accomplish the objective.  Once deemed unusable or unwilling to continue service for some reason, the object is then quickly discarded and the mad search for a replacement begins.  The machine must keep churning out whatever it’s churning out… right?

Think about it.  The very nature of how most churches choose their leadership is more akin to a search on monster.com than the natural progression of spiritual parenthood that we find in scripture.  More often than not, pastors and supportive staff members are hired on the basis of some kind of prefabricated job description frantically created by the pastoral search committee due to the rapid departure of the last guy.  Here’s the job, find someone who can do the job, end of story.   But with this mentality, much like the corporate world, a hired gun can just as easily become a fired gun based on what is often a highly subjective evaluation of their “job performance.”  At least in my experience, it usually has more to do with ticking the wrong elder off at some point… but we won’t go there.

Even pastors and church leaders can easily move in and out of local congregations without ever really being known.  I’ve had church job interviews during which the topic of my relationship to the Lord was never addressed.   Who I was evidently was not of primary concern, but rather what I could do for the ministry, that was the issue in question.  I’ve been on church staffs where we had little or no relationship with some of the other staff members and their families.  Something about that just never sat right with me.  If community building and personal vulnerability is not modeled by a church’s leadership team, it’s not likely to take hold within the congregation, no matter how passionately we might preach about it.  And this phenomenon tends to only worsen with numerical growth.  The larger a church becomes, the more difficult it is to facilitate the prioritization of relationship.  Though it is clear that friendships must evolve organically, a large ministry has to work even harder at cultivating a culture conducive to sustained small group interaction.  The belief that people’s value comes from who they are, and not what they have to give, must be present somewhere in a church’s DNA if life-giving community is ever to be attained.

If you’ve ever been involved in a church split, you understand why this is so important.  9 times out of 10, churches split apart or dissolve altogether simply because there is a relational breakdown among its leaders.  A little misunderstanding, jealousy, or back-stabbing among a leadership team can quickly bring a previously healthy church to its knees.  Or, if a leader has no relationships where he can be truly honest about his struggles or temptation, then rest assured, the enemy will take advantage of that opportunity.  Big trees can be toppled by little winds if there is an insufficient root system.  Please learn from my mistakes, churches can get very top heavy if the leaders are not covering each others backside.  An environment that does not communicate a loving concern for people as people, regardless of their position or performance, can turn ugly in a heartbeat.  Those you thought would take a bullet for you can sometimes just as easily decide they want to put one in you.

Knowing one another’s story in no way guarantees a golden ticket for relational security or longevity, but it’s at least a good starting place.   When we understand where someone’s been and what they’ve experienced, we’re usually not as quick to give up on them or to judge their behavior quite as harshly.  Like it or not, in many ways we are a product of our life experiences.  If you know someone was sexually abused by their father, for example, you might have a little more grace to extend to them when they have trouble submitting to authority.   You get the idea.

The next reformation must somehow include the core value that people’s history, and their stories, matter.  If “all things” really do “work for the good,” then those “things” must surely deserve some thoughtful consideration.  I’ve often encouraged people to create a spiritual time line or some kind outline of the significant events of their life, and then to share it with others.  You’d be amazed at how encouraging it can be to do a retrospective on where you’ve been and what has occurred over the course of your journey.  Invariably you’ll begin to see the Lord’s hand and his presence at each step along the way.   In the process, an awareness of your roots and a sense of being at peace with your history will begin to shine a light on the Lord’s intended purpose and direction for your life.

If you’ve yet to be a part of a group that allows you to share your story, maybe you need to start one.  Believe me, everyone needs somebody to be interested in who they are and the path that has led them there.   But don’t be surprised if the process seems painstakingly slow.  We’ve recently done this with a small group of 5 or 6 couples, and it took us about a year just to get through the first phase of story telling.  Don’t get in a rush, and don’t be afraid to have fun with it.  Share photo albums, put a power point presentation together about your journey, be honest about the good and the bad times.  You’ll find that it’s actually kind of liberating when you don’t have anything to hide.  Though community building can be time consuming, I’m convinced that an unwavering commitment to establishing tight knit relationships will be a necessity if we are to successfully navigate the rough waters of the next reformation.

There’s a land that I see where the children are free…free to be you and me.

I recently asked the question in one of our meetings, “Why is it that we (the church) sometimes seem to have so much trouble going deeper and being more vulnerable in our relationships with each other?”  The answers that came back were remarkably consistent.  In a nutshell, the standard response was “we’re tiered of getting hurt.”  One guy likened his hesitancy to pursue relationships to the memory of being at the Jr. High dance and being afraid of  crossing the room to ask a girl to dance for fear that she might turn him down.   Rejection can be a crushing blow to our identity and sense of self worth… even as adults.  We all have an inborn need to feel that who we are matters, to God and to others.  But in our pursuit of validation, we have often been reminded of how limited our capacity can be to bestow value and worth on one another.  Some of our attempts at genuine relationship have even resulted in a crystal clear confirmation of that which we fear the most… the sense that who we are and what we have to offer really doesn’t matter that much.  This can be especially painful when that message is communicated through our local church experience.  And yet, because we were created to function in the context of intimacy and community, we are subconsciously driven to keep putting ourselves out there in hopes of attaining at least a tolerable level of acceptance and approval.

In the 1940s, Abraham Maslow, one of the early proponents of developmental psychology, proposed that our most basic needs include:

  1. Self Actualization – our need to reach our full potential and destiny.
  2. Esteem – our need to be valued and respected by self and others.
  3. Social – our need to be connected to a larger group and to be loved and accepted within that group.

He also noted that we will sometimes be willing to deny ourselves even our most basic of needs, like food, in order to gain acceptance and a sense of belonging within a group.  I believe Maslow understood some things that many of us in the church have somehow lost touch with.  The top three tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can easily be supported by scripture and are clearly in sink with the Lord’s heart for his people.  Does he want us to reach our intended purpose and destiny?  To be all we were meant to be?  How important is it that we have a deep sense that we are valued, loved, accepted, and connected to something much bigger than ourselves?  More importantly, how many of us currently feel that these needs are being sufficiently met?

Because of our culture’s transient nature and the unspoken devotion we have to our long standing local church paradigm, many believers have basically learned to live without some of the very things that we need the most.  Even more concerning is the fact that some of us have gone as far as to simply give up our hope of attaining meaningful relationship altogether.  There seems to be a growing trend among Christians to adopt the attitude of, “It’s just not worth it… I’ve been burnt before, I’ll just get burnt again.”  This has produced an army of believers who no longer have the bond of being united against a common enemy, but now feel it necessary to trust no one and to guard their heart so closely that none are allowed to enter its deeper recesses… including God.  This has left much of the bride feeling very alone and isolated.

The lord provided us with the quintessential example of vulnerability in John 13:3-5

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;  so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

 

It has always amazed me that Jesus, knowing full well that he was soon going to be betrayed, rejected, and completely abandoned by his closest of friends, was still willing to serve them in such a personal way.  His humility and unguarded vulnerability remained in tact, even in the face of ultimate rejection and unparalleled emotional pain.  But notice the first verse in this passage, the Lord had an acute awareness “that he had come from God and was returning to God” I submit to you that Jesus was able to let his guard down only because of the nature of his relationship to his Father.   His identity was secure.  He knew where he had come from, and he knew where he was headed.  Although he loved those men dearly, he did not need their validation or approval in order to serve them in this most intimate and gracious of ways.

At last count, I have held a paid staff position at 10 different churches.  Since 1984, my primary vocation has been that of a Pastor.  In that time, my wife and I have served in everything from Mega-Monsters to small home churches.  From conservative mainline denominational to independent  charismatic… upper class suburban to inner-city poor.  One thing has remained consistent.  People come to church for many reasons, but ultimately they stay for only one reason… relationships.  We will invariably put up with all kinds of church craziness when we are “rightly joined and fitted together.”   But we will bail at the first sign of trouble if we have the sense that no one really gives a rip about us, or that we won’t be accepted for who we really are.  It’s time that Christians come to terms with our need for belonging and acceptance.  Ultimately it is about our relationship with the Father.  We must constantly be in pursuit of a deeper revelation of his unconditional love and acceptance of us as his children.  But this is where we’re missing it.  WE ARE TO BE OUR FATHER’S EXPRESSION OF LOVE TO ONE ANOTHER.  How do we best receive God’s love for us if not through another’s loving touch, or words, or actions?  Jesus clearly understood this principle.  He was a living breathing testimony of how we’re to conduct ourselves as believers.  Did he wall off his heart for fear of further injury?  Did he avoid meaningful relationship in order to forgo rejection?  No, he kept throwing himself out there… serving, healing, and ministering compassion through up close and personal contact.  Though it is clear that he frequently escaped the constant drain of ministry so he could spend uninterrupted time with his father, he just kept coming back for more, finally to endure unspeakable torture and death as his final demonstration of love.

I believe the Lord is saddened by the overall level of relational superficiality that most believers are currently experiencing in their local church.  In truth, what or who’s to blame for this reality is probably a mute point…  but as church leaders, it is our responsibility to do something about it.   And more often than not, it starts with us.  Church leadership will undoubtedly provide plenty of opportunities for relational strife and personal heartbreak.  Many pastors, myself included, have had to fight off the tendency of becoming overly protective of their heart in order to survive.  But erecting impenetrable walls around our heart eventually results in love starvation and an overwhelming sadness or anger toward God and others.

The next reformation for the church in the U.S. must involve some kind of systematic emotional restoration effort for its people.  Christianity has to be lived from the heart.  Our passion and emotions must be engaged and alive both vertically and horizontally if we hope to accomplish anything of eternal value.  If we find ourselves trying to do all the right things, but our primary motivation is our sense of obligation or duty, we won’t last very long.  When we remain offended, or we refuse to seek healing for our wounded emotions, we are a sitting duck for demonic oppression and torment.  Our enemy knows that if he can get us to close off our heart… he’s got us.  A little un-forgiveness goes a long way toward knocking us out of the race.

(1 Pet 2:4-5) tells us that Jesus was the original “ living Stone–rejected by men” and that “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…” If you feel rejected, you have to understand that you’re in good company.  Rejection is an avoidable right of passage for true spiritual authority.  And somehow through the process of our heart being repeatedly wounded and healed… it becomes stronger and yet more pliable at the same time.  When we are unwilling to be vulnerable with the Lord or others it is a sign that we have lost our trust in our Father’s sovereignty and loving watchfulness over us.  The local church is that spiritual house built with living stones.  And like the temple rebuilt by Zerubbabel, many of those stones will be burnt and forever scared by the ravages of battle.  Nonetheless, in order for us to function properly… or even to survive for that matter, we must be connected to one another.  Not just organizationally, but at the heart level.

The local church must regain its commitment to being a refuge for those in need of emotional restoration and a place where the building of meaningful relationships is a top priority.  As individuals, we must pursue a deeper revelation of the Father’s unconditional love and acceptance for us so that we have that kind of genuine love to give to others.  Only when we lay ourselves before the Lord and become vulnerable to his touch can we find the kind of intimacy that we all secretly long for.  As a result of our poor treatment of one another, and our faulty perceptions of how we might feel the Lord has treated us, we can sometimes be prone to relational superficiality.  We must resist this proclivity.  Our spiritual life depends on it.  Our ability to function as an integral member of the body depends on it.  The fulfillment of our destiny depends on it.  The next reformation will require a renewed focus on the value and importance of maintaining a deep, heartfelt relationship with the Lord and our fellow believers.

Jesus we really need help here.  We want to serve you with a whole heart and an open Spirit.  Please forgive us for holding on to our offendedness toward you.  We know you love us and want nothing more than for us to be able to feel that love in a tangible way.  Please forgive us for hanging on to our un-forgiveness toward our brothers and sisters.  We trust you, and we release them and what they’ve done to us back to you.  We recognize that they’re struggling and stumbling along just like we are.  Forgive them.  Please heal our emotional wounds.  Heal your church Lord.  Heal the bride so fully that her beauty will cause the heavens and the earth to swoon.

When Jesus was asked to provide the cliff notes version on how to be a Christian, he said “love God and love each other, cause that’s what this thing is all about.” RBT (Revised Bump Translation) Most would readily agree that Christianity, in its purest form, is truly simplistic.  But for reasons apparently beyond our ability to comprehend, we often seem to make our faith and practice a lot more complicated than we would like it to be.  Maybe it’s some kind of spiritual A.D.D., but we tend to quickly lose sight of that which was intended to be our primary focus as believers… loving God and loving others.  Added to our struggle to stay properly focused is the fact that well intentioned pastors and church leaders sometimes get distracted by lesser truths and teachings and thus inadvertently cause much confusion and loss of clarity as it pertains to what is truly mission critical for the local church.   We all have our pet doctrines and specific topics that we particularly enjoy propagating.  But I would contend that even more concerning is our shameless addiction to maintaining the sanctity of how we do what we do every Sunday morning.  Somehow, because we’ve been basically doing the same things the same way for the last several hundred years, we now associate singing songs and listening to someone talk for 45 minutes with being a believer.  What has happened to us?  The basis of our faith has become an event that most of us merely attend as a non-essential spectator.  In turn, we’ve created a false perception of what it means to be a Christian.  We’re not really living as Christians anymore, we’re singing songs about it and letting someone else indoctrinate us on their theories of what it might look like if we actually did something about it.  Brothers and sisters, I submit to you that Christianity is not an event that we passively attend, but rather a life we must live and more fundamentally a real being that we must get to know as a friend.

It’s been said that to know someone is to love them.  Before we can truly love anyone, we must have some form of up close and personal interaction with them.  Especially in the U.S., we’ve been trained to interact with God vicariously through the songs, teachings, and books of others.  This is a relatively recent phenomenon that I’m sure would seem quite strange to early believers.  Much of what we’ve come to accept as our expression of faith is no more than an obligatory routine that we do each week because apparently we lack the motivation to try something else.  According to the Lord, the bare essence of our faith is relational in nature, not ritual.  But therein lies the problem.  Our culture has trained us to put more effort into our events than we do our relationships.  We were created to live out our lives in the context of a family and a community that would allow us not only to function, but also to actually enjoy ourselves in the process.  It is my contention that American Christianity has become more about our meetings than what our meetings are supposed to be about… mutual life giving love relationships with God and others.

Looking at the back of each other’s heads while listening to a talking head, although purposeful, is clearly not relational in nature.  Of course there’s value in these types of gatherings, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t get together on Sunday mornings anymore.  The point is that we’ve just invested an unhealthy percentage of our time and energy in our meetings and not nearly as much as we should in each other and our individual interaction with the Lord.  Genuine relationship, be it with God or others, is costly.  It is time and energy consuming.  It is also very risky and thus potentially unattractive … at first.

One of my daughters came into my office the other day and blurted out, “I’m mad at God!”  Being the picture of parental wisdom and patience that I am, I responded, “Yeah?  Why’s that?”  She went on to explain in detail several of the things she didn’t understand about her current life situation and more specifically what the Lord wasn’t doing for her that she wanted him to do.  She went on for some time verbally re-enacting the conversations she and the Lord had been having.  “I said this, and then he said that, then I asked why, and he answered with this…” and so on.   It was as if she was describing verbatim an interaction she had just had with one of her high school girlfriends.  After she left the room, I have to admit that I had a deep sense of pride in my little girl’s relationship with the Lord.  It was real, it was raw, and it was honest… the way genuine relationships always are.  Sometimes we get mad and have to give each other a piece of our mind.  “I don’t like the way you’re treating me… why’d you do that? Sometimes I don’t understand you.”  If we ever find ourselves talking this way with God… that’s actually a good sign.  It means we’re getting to know him as he really is… and not just because someone else told us what he was like.  Intimate relationship requires truthful, gut wrenching vulnerability more often than not.

And frankly, that’s probably more at the center of the real issue.  Most of us are so emotionally wounded, that we have great difficulty achieving much heart to heart intimacy with God or anyone else.  Life has been rough on all of us whether we’re willing to own that fact or not.  I don’t care how spiritually mature we think we are, we are deeply emotional beings and most of us could benefit greatly from some prolonged inner healing and deliverance ministry.  And in my experience, sometimes it’s the most visible and influential church leaders who are in the most desperate need of emotional healing.  Many of the leaders I’ve known would love the opportunity to be truly vulnerable with someone, but they realize they can’t go there for fear of certain character assassination.  This dynamic has bread much of the rampant superficiality and smiling fakeness that we’re experiencing currently in the local church.  Pastors are people too… so we need to cut em some slack.  Pedestals tend to be precarious by design.

In addition, we must also not forget that every moment of our lives we dwell smack dab in the middle of a full on, bare knuckled brawl in the supernatural realm.  As a believer, we have an enemy who is hell bent on sucking all the peace and joy out of our life here on earth that he possibly can.  One of his primary strategies is to simply get us to focus on one another’s weaknesses or mistakes so that we remain in a state of offense toward one another.  Or, he just gets us to start doubting the Lord’s goodness or love for us and as a result we become offended at God. Proverbs 18:19 says, “An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city” That sounds like battle language to me.  Local church life seems to bristle with opportunities for relational pain and anger, but unhealed emotional wounds and unaddressed offense both have the potential to keep us from honoring our two most essential directives.   We can’t love God or each other at a distance.  It has to be a transparent, face to face  interaction for it to work.

If you think about the definition of “love” provided in 1 Corinthians 13, you will realize that very few of these concepts are easily applicable to a large public gathering.  True love must be expressed in the context of relationship, and most often to an individual.  Thus, loving God and each other can be difficult to do well in a crowded room with someone singing or talking on a microphone.  Forgive my pragmatic nature, but we need to re-think this thing a little.  How am I to express love to you if I’m afraid to even look at you when you’re sitting right next to me?  God forbid we distract one another and miss some crucial moment of the performance on stage.  Is it just me, or is there really something very wrong with this picture?  Why are we so afraid to get out of our seats and mix it up a little?

Truthfully, it’s not just the rut we’re in on Sunday morning, it’s the overall shortage of joy and our frequent inability to simply ENJOY our relationships with one another and the Lord that seems to keep dogging us.  We’ve been so busy doing the church thing that we’ve forgotten how to BE the church.  How we interact with our friends, our family, our fellow employees, or our boss is a much more accurate indication of our spiritual maturity than how well we understand and can articulate the latest and greatest doctrines.  Paul called this being “blown here and there by every wind of teaching.” (Eph 4:14)  Many of us still think that if we can just get our friend to the meeting…. if they just here the right message, they’ll “come to the Lord.”  Here’s an idea, why don’t we make an honest effort to take the Lord to them?  He’s in us right?  I don’t know anyone right now who would say they suffer from too much kindness being shown to them, or having too many friends who really care about them.  Jesus was known as a FRIEND of sinners.  Sometimes just being a good friend may be the most spiritual thing we can do for someone.  That also applies to our relationship with the Lord.  Slowly I’m coming to the understanding that he wants us to see ourselves as more than his child or his servant.  Just like us, he needs friends.  Jesus likes it when we just hang out together, no agenda, no pressure… friends.  Honestly, I still have trouble being a good friend in the Sunday morning environment, to the Lord and to others.  Too much other stuff is going on, and we only have so long to do it because there’s another show starting in an hour and a half.  Hurry and find your seat, we don’t want to miss the trailers.  It’s time for change.  God help us, I feel like we’re at a fork in the road.

It was a Sunday morning and my first visit to this particular church.  After carefully choosing my route through the foyer as to avoid any possible human contact, I found my seat and slumped down into the more than adequately padded pew.  The sanctuary probably seated 500, but there were only a handful of people in attendance on this day, and not a single soul was sitting within 20 feet of me.  As the organ droned on, I found myself surrounded by an endless diorama of stained glass and enough sculpted wood to make me wonder if a single tree was left standing in the Pacific Northwest.  Then suddenly, as if perfectly synchronized with the crescendo of the Prelude, two distinguished looking men in flowing black robes strode into the sanctuary and gingerly seated themselves in unison on the matching mini-thrones planted on opposite sides of the altar.  Like a trained lab rat, I immediately began fumbling for my bulletin.  And yet, I  felt a strange sense of comfort as I remembered that the standard order of worship is a sacred thing that few seem to deviate from in any significant way.   As the service began, the announcement was made that today was this church’s 140th anniversary, and by estimating the average age of the congregation, it seemed quite possible that some of its founding members were in attendance.  Though you would think the atmosphere would be one of celebration, after crawling our way through a couple of those hauntingly familiar dirges from the 17th Century, this service actually felt more like a funeral.  As we stood with our hymnals poised for what seemed like an eternity, the words we had all been secretly longing to hear were finally spoken, “You may be seated.”   As we  settled ourselves into the crushed velvet, the Senior Pastor slowly arose and took his position behind the massive pulpit that seemed to be elevated unusually high above the rest of us.

The sermon that followed had to have been one of the driest, monotone messages in human history.  And though I can’t recall anything he said that morning, I do remember how excited everyone became when a trucker’s CB radio broke through the air waves over the church’s antiquated P.A. system.  It was like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy, and most certainly sleep inducing environment.  It was just the bony elbowed nudge I needed to make it through the rest of the service without passing out.  During the closing Hymn, first and third verses only of course, I began calculating my escape route.  Which door could I get to the quickest?  Was it possible to get out to my car without having to talk to anyone?  How will I evade the well-meaning ushers who tried to give me a visitor badge on the way in?  It was at that point that I thought to myself, “I’ll never be back here again.”

As I reflect on that experience, I have to chuckle at the “you’ve got to be kidding me” factor that surged through  my mind as I endured the morning’s proceedings.  But even more so, I came away from that event with a deep sense of grief in my Spirit.  Even though I’m admittedly not a big fan of the more traditional or liturgical styles of worship, I’m convinced that it was not those elements of the service that left me so cold.  Even many “contemporary” church services seem to exude that same kind of soporific impotency.  Often, the only difference may be that they’ve had some sort of image make over.   Replacing hymns with choruses and the organ with guitars might be a step in the right direction, but any mortician will tell you that no matter how much we try to dress up the dead, there’s really no adequate substitute for a body filled with life and breath.  I wish I could say that this Sunday morning scenario was an isolated incident for me.  But in fact, this was just one in a string of many similar church experiences I’ve had over the years.   And though I was genuinely disappointed by the apparent absence of the Lord’s presence in that service, sadly I was not that surprised.

It’s no secret that the majority of people in this country are no longer attending church.  Even many believers seem to be disenchanted by the notion of committing themselves to any local congregation in a significant way. Despite some of the more positive statistics concerning Christians, there’s a marked and seemingly growing lack of interest and subsequent decrease in involvement in the local church as a whole.  Not long ago, in the city where we were living at the time, five churches from a particular denomination closed their doors in order to combine their ministries into a single congregation because they could no longer support themselves individually.  Some might try to put a positive spin on this kind of “transfer” church growth, but no matter how you slice it, this is not a good sign.

Without question, there are significant pockets of spiritual renewal and many healthy and growing local churches in the U.S.   But we must not ignore the multitude of sick and dying cells that are often right next to them.  As Paul said in 1 Cor. 12, the body’s “parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” Let’s be honest.  When we’re enjoying all that comes with being a part of a relatively healthy local church, it’s tough not to become overly focused on our own little corner of the kingdom.  When we’re not really suffering, it’s easy to forget those who are.  Would you say that most of the churches in your community are in good health and growing?  Or maybe it’s your church that’s struggling.  Either way, based on the anemic nature of so many of our parts, it seems quite clear that we are due for the next reformation.

It’s been nearly 500 years since Martin Luther slammed a nail into his 95 theses.  After all those years, the way we “do church” really hasn’t changed all that much.  And for most believers, Sunday morning is still the central focus of the Christian experience.   More often than not, one’s faith is more readily identified by where we go than by who we are.  When asked, “Are you a Christian?” the most common answer will be something along the lines of  “I go to First Baptist”.  In theory, we’d probably all agree that Christianity is not an event that we attend regularly.  But in truth, that is the way we often think of it.   Church has become more about where we go than who we are.  This is a problem.  So much so that, in many respects, the Sunday morning service has become a pitiful substitute for the abundant lifestyle we were created to enjoy.  In the 1500s, church leaders were telling people that they had to pay a fee to get their loved ones into heaven.  The motive was to fund the construction of lavish cathedrals.  Now we might feel pressure to hold revival meetings or conferences in order to make the church’s mortgage payments.  Say what you will, but a healthy percentage of church leaders spend a lot more time and effort maintaining our buildings and programs than we do actually interacting with the people in our congregation.  “But we have home groups” we protest.  That’s great, and we need more of them.  But who are we really doing life with?  How many people know and care about who we really are?  The person we are when we’re weak, or tired, or unusually fleshy?  How often are people in our home if for no other reason than we just enjoy hanging out with them?  Not some pre-programmed agenda driven meeting, but genuine, mutually gratifying relationships that would survive with or without the Sunday-go-ta-meetin routine.

One of the core precepts of the next reformation will be the re-discovery of genuine community.  Because of the transient nature of our culture, many of us have not lived or functioned in an actual community for many years.  If we are 30 or younger, chances are we’ve never experienced the kind of small town living that not so long ago was the norm for most Americans.  For example, most of us have little or no relationship with our neighbors.  Why is that?  It’s not because we don’t want to get to know them, it’s that we don’t want to invest in a relationship that probably won’t go anywhere due to the fact that one of us will most likely be moving again soon.   The vast majority of us no longer live in Mayberry where successive generations grow up and eventually die in the same small town… where everyone knows the Sheriff or the town drunk on a first name basis.  I’ve only visited the town I grew up in once or twice in the last couple decades.  We’ve moved so many different times, I’ve lost count.  But like so many others, we’re starting to realize that there is something of primary importance that seems to be missing as a result of our nomadic lifestyle.  We must somehow re-capture the kind of genuine community that makes the Christian experience not just tolerable, but actually enjoyable.

In short, although there will always be a need for meetings, we need to admit that many of our “services” just aren’t cutting it anymore.   It’s time to be honest about the ineffectiveness of what we’ve been doing on Sunday morning so we can get passed it and on to whatever is next.  We’ve been stuck in some kind of comfortable quagmire.  Our routine has defied experimentation and exploration.   We must somehow shift our focus from having good meetings to living out our faith with each other  in the real world.   We  have to get beyond this dry place that we’ve camped on for so long.  It’s time to move out.    We are way overdue for the next reformation… a paradigm shift no less significant than the one Martin Luther ignited.   The following series of articles is the foundation of my personal 95 theses.   If you choose to read on, please know that I’m still “fleshing out” many of my thoughts and ideas on this topic, so I would really appreciate  any input or comments.  The next reformation is calling.

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