Tag Archives: Gospel
the evangelical blindspot
I think I’m like the Banksy of blogging. I sporadically spring up at times rarely expected. The difference being, Banksy makes bank while my office is in a former one. But today, I was moved to write for the first time since sometime late in the Obama Administration, for today marks 1-year since our church went digital due to Covid. What is the 1st-anniversary gift for a pandemic anyway? N95’s? Toilet Paper? A Flowbee? (ask your parents). Regardless, such a benchmark gives you an opportunity for reflection. So today, I was reflecting. In tandem with this, I read an article this morning and found personal reflection mingled with pastoral grief.
Before we get underway, I want to acknowledge that evangelicalism in the United States is a complex ecosystem with nuanced views on politics, social justice, equity, cancel culture, science, Covid, and the policies around such things (you know, the stuff that made 2020/21 the great social Tilt-A-Whirl). Evangelicalism is not quite as monolithic as cable news implies, but close. That’s why I say an ecosystem. It’s much like rainforests; they look slightly different from place to place, but everyone knows when they are looking at one. Also, like an ecosystem, it affects the larger environment around it. As a pastor, my focus is on how the world experiences the effects of our collective faith ecosystem.
In real-world speak…
would our communities say that what we’re doing, stating, posting, etc., has communicated unmistakably that above all else, we’re here to love and serve them as neighbors because, in doing so, have we truly loved and served God?
would our disbelieving or de-churched communities be even the slightest bit tempted to think, “Yeah, I don’t like their religion, but I’m sure glad they were around for this last year.”?
would they come even close to describing evangelicals as a people of selfless love in a season of cultural suffering?
would “loving” be in the Top 5 descriptors used of evangelicalism in 2020/2021?
But, deeper questions are gnawing at my heart, questions of deep spiritual consequence.
Did we as evangelicals sense…
a burden to ensure that above all else, putting others before ourselves was our priority, both in the optics of how it looked to them (since we are to be light) and in the application of how it was experienced by them (since we are to be salt)?
the weight of the First Commandment more heavily on our soul than the want of the First Amendment? Which did we quote more? Which gave us hope more? Which bothered us more when we didn’t see it applied? Which of the “Firsts” was truly first and drove our actions, reactions, dispositions, and perspectives this year?
resolve to love others well with an unmistakable calling to care, even if we looked foolish (per Paul), weak (per Peter), or perhaps worst of all, like sheep (per Jesus)?
In the article I was reading today, written by a conservative Christian publication, this was the line that struck me,
“The survey, which has a sampling error of plus or minus 1.6 percentage points, also found that white evangelicals are also the least likely faith demographic to consider their overall community’s health effect when it comes to deciding whether to get vaccinated. Just 48% of white evangelicals said they would consider community health effects “a lot” compared to 70% of black Protestants, 65% of Catholics and 68% of unaffiliated Americans.”
Now, I know some will find themselves pinned down on the beachhead of the word vaccinated. Others, wary of the woke culture, have already cued an eye-roll with the phrase white evangelical. While important discussions in their own right, they are not my focus here. The devil’s in the details, and he would most certainly love to sidetrack us on those topics so we overlook the real issue that may be of concern. So what’s the “buried lead” of the story? “evangelicals are also the least likely faith demographic to consider their overall community’s health effect when it comes to deciding… Just 48% of white evangelicals said they would consider community health effects ‘a lot’”
That little bit of data may have unearthed a lot about our collective ecosystem’s heart.
Think about it. A faith demographic…
whose founder modeled selfless love toward a planet of sinful neighbors and told us to follow his example (1 Peter 2:18-25).
whose number one most crucial commandment calls it to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:29-31) since to love our neighbor is evidence that we actually love God and it’s not just lip-service (1 John 4:20).
whose entire moral code is summed up in the one great umbrella virtue, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)
whose final exam is explicitly rooted in what we did to the least of those around us (Matthew 25:31-46).
That faith demographic is the least likely demographic to consider their overall community… Community, a synonym for what the Bible calls our neighbors.
Now, I can imagine right now some will be quick…
to take offense.
to reject the conclusion.
to add disclaimers.
to write a retort.
to stop reading and punch an angry emoji into the comments section.
to point out that this is only about “community health effects” (while adding something to the effect of “alleged” or “over-hyped” or “politicized” to the front of the phrase), and that such a topic is not a tangible way to measure if we genuinely love our neighbors.
But God seems to disagree!
Don’t miss me here; I’m not seeking to squeeze public health policy into a command to love our neighbors. God did that for us; I’m merely attempting to take the Bible at its word. The law to love your neighbor comes from a book of the Bible that is explicitly about “community health effects” on our neighbors. How coincidental is that? Leviticus may read like a kid playing with a sensory box in a petting zoo with its 247 laws about disease, diet, discharges, and polycotton blends, but it’s also the birthplace of the “love your neighbor” command (Lev. 19:18). And its 3300-year-old decree to make love tangible toward our neighbors in real world ways still stands. It’s on the lips of Jesus. It’s in the letters of Paul. And it’s seeking to find a home in a 21st-century Christian internet article from a Pew Research poll. God was clear in Leviticus that not considering your neighbor’s well-being (due to leprosy, mold, scaly skin, bodily fluid, disease from sickly animals, [insert your favorite communicable disease here]) was a failure to love them. The failure to consider another is the failure to love.
If I consider myself more than you, regardless of the inventory of reasons, excuses, justifications, rights, laws, problems, or rationalizations, I’m deciding – by intentional will or partisan blindness – not to love you as God instructs me. And thus in the process failing to love God since he tells me to love you. I’m sunk instantly on God’s top-tier expectation.
Paul said a proper display of authentic love is when people “in humility consider others more significant than themselves.” (Phil. 2:2-3). Therefore my friends, a failure to love our neighbors may be the gravest of our collective sins since love stands at the pinnacle of our Lord’s priorities.
That last line is not for dramatic effect, but sober reflection. When the church in Ephesus was about to lose its love, Jesus started packing his bags. They were doing all sorts of good conservative religious stuff, but without love Jesus said there was nothing worth sticking around for (Rev. 2:1-7). Regarding a lack of love, Paul said worse.
We, as evangelicals, are very good at identifying the sins of our society, but perhaps our efforts would be better rewarded by addressing our sins against society. That’s why I’m not all that invested in the pro/con debates between pro vs. anti-mask. Pro vs. anti-vaccination. Pro vs. anti-lock-down. Pro vs. anti-[fill in your blank]. What I am interested in is that each of us, as evangelicals, looks deep and prays hard so as to be confident that whatever positions we take, we take them because we find those to be the most biblical and unmistakable way we can let the world know, “we’re considering you as more significant than ourselves” for that’s what “loving a neighbor” is all about. If our positions clearly communicate to others, “I care about your …” I think that’s what God cares about. If our positions clearly communicate to others, “I care about my …” I think that’s what God is concerned about.
Jesus was emphatic that “the world will know we are his followers by our love.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if the world agreed?
Since this has swollen to the length of a book, I might as well offer a reflective epilogue for the one poor completionist who stuck it out. As the article came to an end, I felt a deep-seated pause in my soul. One of those “I don’t want to take another step” pauses that occurs because you don’t want to face what may be the most challenging possibility of all.
Not simply that, perhaps…
we haven’t loved a disbelieving world as well as we would like.
we became diverted by self-interest even though we desire self-sacrifice.
we let our fears or frustrations disrupted our intentions.
we inadvertently became more caught up in the passions of amendments over commandments.
we became too focused on our personal rights vs. God’s gospel objectives.
we are all too human and failed to live up to the ideals of love and want to do better.
But, when confronted with the idea that perhaps we don’t consider or love our neighbors as we should… we’re more bothered at the accusation than the possibility.
Or worse still, we hear it and frankly don’t care.
The state which lets you know Jesus has long since left the building.
The Supreme Court, Idols and The Ruining Grace of the Friday God.
The original Good Friday was not so good. In fact it was downright a punch in the gut followed by a brisk boot to the head. By the end of the day a pagan government flanked by a corrupt religion had managed to kill God’s Son, instill fear in God’s followers and give the illusion that God’s plans were buried in the dirt. As night fell on the angst-ridden apostles they found themselves lamenting the end of their movement along with the inevitability of their demise. Yep, it wasn’t exactly a Good Friday from anyone’s perspective: except God’s. For on that Friday many things yet to be seen were transpiring and one easily overlooked reality is that more than one “god” was slain that day.
Part of the angst of the Apostles on that Friday evening was rooted in a problem they were unwittingly blind to at the time. The problem? They had the right God, but they saw Him in selectively wrong ways. They thought Jesus was to be their partisan judge in an earthly court, their commanding general in a Roman invasion and their kingly monarch in a not-really-so-new-but-at-least-Jewish global empire. In short, they believed in a politically empowered messianic idol more than understood Jesus the Messiah who stands outside yet over all human rulers. Therefore when things fell apart, their idol – by way of God’s ruining grace – was slain. So while every part of it looked like a really bad Friday, it was the beginnings of the first truly Good Friday.
In thinking about this, as it pertained to the SCOTUS decision this last Friday, I couldn’t help but run through some parallels of how we too as Christians may have idolized certain things within our country. For a while I have noticed how we have slipped into a form of idolatrous doublethink regarding political powers. In one sense we have generally affirmed that government is not the solution to our problems, but then every election cycle we roll into sounding like politicians or parties are the key to curtailing the very problems we are certain government can’t fix. Now in saying this please don’t take my words further than I intend. I believe that every American Christian has an important public responsibility to be involved in the political process and some even running for office, but my suspicion is that we have gone further than mere civic duty; we may have set our faith and fear in it. We appear to have gone beyond casting our vote to placing our hope and trust and anxiety and distress in the outcomes of the civic arena; making idols out of platforms, methods, legislation and their aftereffects. Some idols we feared so greatly we made a point to desecrate them as often as possible, alarmed that they will rise up and overpower our rights. Other idols we opted to venerate in the hopes they would stem the tide of the idols we feared. Hence we played a game of “my idol can beat your idol,” and now we sit dismayed at the fact that “their” idols are shoving “our” idols butts in the cultural dirt. Yes, the political arm of Christianity is getting a beat down, but oh what a glorious beat down it will be if we are willing to endure it.
In relationship to times of opposition the Apostle said, “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.” While some may speak of the need for God to judge America, we must remember that Peter here says judgment comes first to us. The difference however is that for the Christian God’s judgment is not to dole out sinful penalty, but to forge spiritual maturity. In light of this…
Perhaps the events of Friday, and the feared future consequences of those events, are actually the beginnings of a spectacular grace designed to filter out the worldly contaminates that have inadvertently mixed with what is to be an other-worldly faith.
Perhaps God is stripping us of our power, our privilege and our position specifically so all that remains is living by His Power, His Privilege and His Position.
Perhaps the best way we were ever going to love others selflessly was to be stripped of our ability to resist others socially.
Perhaps what our prayers most required, what our faith most desired and what our thankfulness most needed was being socially humbled so as to display Spirit-filled humility.
Perhaps because our idols have fallen, all other idols will eventually follow in suit so that Jesus reigns in the lives of an eternal multitude secured specifically because of the witness of our temporary discomfort.
Perhaps we will find a new found anguish for people who are estranged from God’s grace more than be agitated that they break God’s rules.
Perhaps by not being as focused on winning the culture wars for Jesus we will now be more focused on winning a war worn culture to Jesus.
Perhaps because we gladly pass through the fires of reviling with only blessing on our lips the embers of revival will settle around our country.
Perhaps we will be freed from the fear of all earthly calamity and rejoice in certitude of our eternal certainty.
Perhaps we will now know with steely assurance that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Perhaps what we least wanted we most required to be holy as God is holy.
Perhaps with less and less we will realize more and more Jesus meets every need.
Perhaps with all our idols broken down that is when His Cross, His Gospel, His Church and His Glory will be most lifted up.
Perhaps what feels like a very bad situation will be the beginning of a very good opportunity. It wouldn’t be the first time world changing things sprang from the ruining grace of the Friday God.
Boycotts, Persecution and Embracing Our Christian Exile
For as long as I can recall the Christian majority and uniquely my clan of conservative evangelicalism, has enjoyed a seat at the table of cultural influence. We have shaped policy, mentored presidents and maintained a moral status quo that was generally accepted or at least tolerated by the overarching populace. Yet much of this was not particularly gospel oriented or even biblically saturated. Sure, the moral expectations flowed at times from biblical passages, but the means and spirit in which they were communicated were guilty of a pretext without a context. With the regularity of a high-fiber diet, a new protest, petition or picket would be announced to drive back the intruding woes of society. For as soon as a group or corporation would push Christian boundaries, the word “boycott” would bellow from the religious empowered like a Christianized Bat-Signal; threatening financial penalty toward any entity that did not keep their whitewashed tombs looking white. Never mind if the immoral were going to hell just so long as they embraced our façade of ethical propriety.
The actions of the last five decades have won us no audiences, built us no bridges and as we are seeing today secured us no power. But what it has done is build a societal pressure that has grown weary, even vengeful, toward God’s moral referees and now is their season to set things right. And in a feat, almost Belichickian, the other side has stolen our playbook and now suddenly we don’t like how the game is being played. But this is precisely how we prodded them to play. Instead of modeling the appeal of a transformed life and the supremacy of the implanted word we leveraged the power of politics, embargoes and rhetoric to force moral capitulation without spiritual regeneration. So now what has been good for the Christian goose is even better for the cultural gander. This brave new world that is rapidly cycling before us is not exclusive of our doing, but we have contributed to spinning it up.
So how shall we then live? That is the real question before us. Not, “How can we get back to how we used to live?” That season has passed and it’s fruit has been both seedless and tasteless. The world around us has no want of, nor fear regarding the moral arbitrators. But more importantly, it’s not what they need. Our world doesn’t need wittier, pithier more provocative Christians who score points with the choir, paint cross hairs on their chest and agitate the culture. That is a law of diminishing returns. What our world needs to see, and will find hard to reject in the long game, is a people un-phased by the ebb and flow of shifting norms. People who embrace biblical convictions so deeply, they graciously live above the turbulence brought on by media, rhetoric and misguided reforms. For every time we have been rejected by a culture, it has been our role as the joyfully persecuted that has produced systemic cultural transformation.
Unfortunately it is this swelling persecution for which we are unprepared as American Christians. We sensationalized it for those who would be “Left Behind”, but we didn’t actually prepare for sticking around. We were not ready to become the slighted voice. We were not primed to be the distrusted. We were not braced for our community’s growing suspicion and condemnation. We littered the fruited plain with consumer savvy churches that spoon fed good advice to make life good and pleasant (some of which will simply embrace the current culture to sidestep earthly rejection), but we did not prepare Christians for the bad seasons that would require them to stand up, suffer ridicule and be counted among the cultural transgressors. Yet this is precisely where God flexes through his people; when they receive retribution with rejoicing. For the current conditions are not new conditions, but they are the consistent conditions in which God wields the grace of revival if we let go of our heritage of social controlling and embrace what it means to be spiritually compelling. And by compelling I do not mean cooler, looser or quieter. I mean clearer, godlier and bolder than we have been. Our error was not that we were too committed, but rather we were too committed to the wrong things. We boycotted over matters of the Law at the cost of the Gospel. Yet now is our opportunity to set our house in order, to embrace our exile, to set our vision on an eternal culture who’s maker and builder is God and thus elevate here and now the one thing that changes everything: the life-transforming message of Jesus.
7 Reasons Evangelicals Must Become The Most Tolerant Group In Culture.
In the current lexicon the word “tolerant” is about as loaded as a pub-hopping Irishman on St. Paddy’s Day. It’s the brave new litmus test that discerns whether one is an enlightened and understanding citizen, or an outdated bigot who deserves to be branded with an “ic” or “ist” tacked onto the back of some culturally untouchable word. Because of this, I need to take a moment to unpack how I’m using the word. I will do this by differentiating between new and true tolerance.
The “new tolerance,” as DA Carson christened it, is the pervading cultural pressure to affirm the beliefs and behaviors of others, provided those beliefs and behaviors are legal, consensual and/or harmless to the majority. Now, much of this definition I am prepared to live by, with the exception of the pivotal word, “affirm”. See, I expect my culture to engage in things that I sometimes find to be wrong. Equally, I expect my culture to look upon some of my beliefs and behaviors the same way. That is the nature of a democratic and multicultural society. But to impose the added requirement of affirmation is a game changer.
Lexically the idea of affirmation is an artificial addition and has nothing to do with the “true tolerance.” The Oxford Dictionary defines “tolerant” as, “Showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Based on this, tolerance is actually what is required of a person when they specifically do not support something. At best, tolerance asks us to respectfully co-exist with differences we do not affirm for the sake of civility and discourse.
Thus for the evangelical, true tolerance does not require unfiltered affirmation of beliefs or behaviors the Bible calls sinful, but it does require a relational acceptance of all people in the hope that the transforming grace of the gospel will penetrate their lives. In this sense evangelicals must rise up as the most truly tolerant group in culture for seven reasons:
1. Because We Must Compensate For Our Crazy Drunk Uncles.
Do you have a crazy uncle? He shows up at Thanksgiving wild-eyed, outspoken,a bubble off center and guzzling Pabst Blue Ribbon like a camel on empty at a desert oasis. In the media it seems they often manage to find evangelicalism’s crazy drunk uncle to give airtime to. The result is that many who are not evangelicals think the crazy evangelical who made it as a sound bite on “The Daily Show” is how all evangelicals think and act.
I recently experienced this firsthand when a group of people automatically assumed that since I am an evangelical pastor I hate the president, despise the gay community, watch Fox News, listen to Rush Limbaugh and carry a gun. That last point is true; the rest is not. I don’t tune in to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. I believe the president to be a well-intended man in a very difficult position. I care about the gay community as I do the rest of my culture. And as to the gun I carry, I don’t do it to make a point at Target, and I am not a member of the NRA. This doesn’t mean I agree or disagree with everything on Fox News, from Rush Limbaugh, by President Obama, in the gay community or about gun rights, but in the spirit of true tolerance I don’t need to. Rather I need to know how to graciously relate Jesus to all the views that swirl around me even regardless of whether I agree or disagree.
Only by going out of our way to establish caring friendships, so as to show people something beyond one-dimensional caricatures, will they begin to see real life evangelicals differently than our crazy drunk uncle TV pundits.
2. Because We Are To Be Tolerant, Just As God Is Tolerant.
Romans 2:4 says, “4 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that His kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (NLT). Every day that Jesus does not return is another massive global tolerance campaign. If it’s good enough for Jesus to be tolerant it’s good enough for those of us who follow Jesus. And the reason for the tolerance is profoundly missional; it’s intended to see people turn from their sins. Therefore, sitting on the other side of a cultural fence lobbing condemnations and frustrations will never be as effective as crossing the fence in the spirit of godly kindness in the hopes of seeing someone we love come to repentance.
3. Because We Need To Be Understanding To Reach The Unbelieving.
I think about Paul at Mars Hill. His first reaction upon reaching Athens was nothing short of disgust. It says in Acts 17:16 that when he saw the sheer scope of idols flocking the city “his spirit was provoked within him.” (ESV). The word “provoked” really doesn’t cut it here. The original Greek word paroxyno is where we get paroxysm, “a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity.” When people looked at Paul that day he had a gag reflex kicking in with a nervous twitch flapping over one eye. That is, until he recalled that this city didn’t know any better. They were doing exactly what they knew how to do because no one had shown them anything different. From this Paul downshifts and begins to relate to the people of the city. He begins to compliment them, speak their cultural language, and even quote from one of the very altars that caused him to flip his phylactery a few days earlier. In doing so he has no intention of selling out (as verses 31-32 eventually shows with the words such as repent and judgment), rather he is pressing in. Ultimately Paul chose suffering long, in the hopes of seeing others rescued from suffering forever.
4. Because We Have To Model What Actual Tolerance Is.
The new tolerance is as hypocritical as a chain-smoking dad busting his kid for sneaking a cigarette. It’s a selective acceptance that tolerates only what it affirms and stands rigidly intolerant to those who disagree. And those who advocate the new tolerance are not spending a great deal of time encouraging one another to love those who disagree with them. Just follow some of the recent trends in the media and you will see exactly how the new tolerance treats those who hold a different vision of the world. The exercise of true tolerance is branded as intolerance, which in turn solicits, even demands, banishment or shaming as the appropriate response.
For evangelicalism, however, part of our core command is to love our neighbor. We are reminded perpetually of the need to love people right where they are. To invest in those whom we may disagree with, to turn the other cheek when provoked and to even do good to an all out enemy. I realize we have not always done this well. Far too often we have slipped into imposed morality or personal offense, but we must continue to encourage one another in what the Bible commands of us toward those who don’t believe or behave as we do.This is true tolerance; it is the tolerance that evangelicals are the best at displaying and we must continue to model this more than ever in a culture that is losing the spirit of true diversity.
5. Because We Already Acknowledge Our Own Sinful Short Comings.
Evangelicals believe they are saved, grown and completed by gospel grace alone. It is a faith of walking shoes, not work boots. Thus when evangelicalism begins to sound chiefly like a religion of morality, we missed a turn somewhere. We know we don’t earn our standing before God; rather we follow the One who earned that standing for us – Jesus. Because our salvation is only by the grace of God, we should humbly be aware of our own sins, our various faults and our continued weakness. This is exactly why tolerance is necessary. Paul himself even says in Colossians 3, “12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (ESV). True tolerance doesn’t excuse sin, but it understands the struggle with sin, comes alongside in gentleness and points to the grace that can free and refresh. A good, honest look at the sinner in the mirror, coupled with gratitude for God’s grace, helps us to love the sinner across the street in true tolerance.
6. Because We Are The Ones Who Can Maintain The Importance Of Both Tolerance And Repentance.
The new tolerance seeks to free people from their sins by telling them their sins are not sinful. It is humanities’ attempt to save itself from its sins through the gospel of anesthetization. Yet the only road to abundant life passes through the door of repentance and grace. This is where evangelicals have the perfect combination. In true tolerance we can connect with people in a way that displays legitimate acceptance and love, but not at the cost of sharing the enduring message of God’s love that can forgive people of their sins and produce in them the life that excusing sin will never produce.
7. Because We Believe Only The Gospel Can Change People.
Culture wars are not for evangelicals. Every culture war has a deeper root that is the real war, and that root is sin. Not sins, but the actual cause, the nature of sin itself, Original Sin. Therefore to think that culture is the war is like battling the fever to cure the cancer. The real conflict is internal, supernatural, generational and trans cultural. It is a war that invades every layer of life in every person’s life, thus nothing done through the means of this world can change our deepest problem. Only an invasion from outside this world can change the sin of this world…
Which is why God sent Jesus.
Which is why Jesus received the Cross.
Which is why the Spirit raised Jesus.
Which is why Jesus sent the Spirit to testify of Himself and God.
God invaded our broken sphere in the person of Jesus to bring true transformation through the Spirit. Therefore…
Only the Gospel can confront our cultural sins.
Only the Gospel can restore our cultural soul.
Only the Church carries the Gospel that can change the culture we are called to love in the true tolerance of God.
Don’t Mistake Liking Church For Loving Jesus
I recently met with a colleague who was sharing with me the focus of their church. With enthusiasm he said, “We’re not like most churches. We’re going after the people no one else is going after by creating a church that the unchurched love to attend.” The strategy he espoused wasn’t particularly novel. It reminded me of a time years ago when a buddy of mine invited me to attend a meeting of “World Wide Dream Builders”. After 5 minutes I asked, “Is this going to be an Amway thing?” “No” he said, “It’s totally different. It’s Amway 2.0.” In talking with this pastor it felt like that conversation. I was hearing how it was unlike most churches, but it sounded like Willow Creek rebooted. In that sense it didn’t really seem to be unusual at all. Aside from this I know of a number of churches in the area that are employing the same strategy since it’s documented in a popular book that bears the same subtitle. In fact, as the discussion unfolded, he pointed me to that very book as the source of their philosophy. I have not had the time to make my way through the entire book and so my thoughts here are in no way those of a reviewer. Rather it was the premise alone that has bounced around in my head like a hyperactive 8th grader jacked up on NoDoz and Red Bull.
Initially I was intrigued by the idea of creating churches unchurched people would love to attend. After all the church should have a burden to reconnoiter its surroundings with the intent of embedding the message of Jesus and His Bible. In fact, I would go so far as to say every church should be unapologetic when it comes to leveraging whatever tools, tendencies or familiarities necessary to connect Jesus’s Message to the surrounding Culture. And yet as I continued to work over the implications of “creating churches the unchurched love to attend” my initial warmth chilled to a Fargo January dressed in brass boxers.
Now, to be fair, I believe we should seek to utilize culturally familiar ideas in order to bridge biblical concepts to the unchurched. For example, in the church I’m a part of we occasionally use secular music, video clips, props, humor and other socially familiar forms to help communicate the biblical message. We do this so that the unchurched can better understand whatever section of the Bible or theological topic we are going through, but in a way that is culturally relatable. In this sense our focus is, “creating a biblically centered church the unchurched can understand.” There is no guarantee they will like or agree with what is preached since we strive to preach whatever the text is saying regardless of its potential receptivity, but we call it “a win” if they understand what is being proclaimed.
If, however, the ideology of “creating a church the unchurched love to attend” is the top tier purpose of our strategy, the net effect may be a model that considers the interests of hopeful attenders above the instructions of the Founding Initiator. For it appears that inextricably laced within the premise is the idea that success is measured directly by how much people – who don’t like church – begin to love church.
So to grapple with this for a moment let’s strip it down to a more general concept. Generally speaking, how do we usually get people who don’t love something to love it? One method is to give them more of the thing that is loved (Example: My step-mom kept giving me eggplant until I learned to enjoy it.). The other method is to remove what people don’t love and replace it with something they do. The difference between the two is night and day; the former teaches people to love the thing that you love, while the latter loves people at the cost of the very thing you want them to love. Now plug this back into our church philosophy premise. When it comes to a church creating an environment “unchurched people love to attend,” the first casualty will be anything that they say is an impediment to them loving to attend. Therefore, at the root of this ideology is the need to remove themes, messages or expectations the unchurched may not love and in their place incorporate themes, messages or expectations they enjoy. It’s the ultimate case of the unchurched tail wagging the church dog.
For now, it appears that the model is successful since there are a handful of good themes the unchurched enjoy. Many people who may be cold to church are nonetheless warm to self-improvement regarding marriage, family, communication, conflict resolution, sex, money and occupation. As a result, such themes can be marketed and deployed by churches year after year because they are inoffensively therapeutic. But what are we to do if the day comes where the Bible’s message on good themes is frowned upon by the unchurched? Does the goal remain figuring out how to create churches they love? And how far are we to go in accommodating unchurched expectations? Some practitioners will answer, “We would draw a line if we needed to start denying what the Bible says.” Really? I would like to bank on that, but in all candor it seems that a soft form of denial has already been underway long before it was imposed. It began the day a church willfully embraced selective censorship for the sake of unchurched appetites. If a church proactively adopts an omission mandate when it is merely concerned that the unchurched may be turned off, what will it do when it is altogether guaranteed?
My deeper concern however isn’t that this model may be pacing itself into a biblical showdown. Nor is it that it may mistake the concept of becoming numerically successful with the mandate to be biblically faithful. The real kernel of my apprehension is that it may foster an attitude by which it’s assumed by all parties, “If people like church they love Jesus.” In reality however, there may be a substantial disconnect between who Jesus is and what makes a church loveable to the unchurched. For example, many of the themes churches are using to help the unchurched love attending church are not anchored directly in the core message or subsequent messages of Jesus.
The “7 Themes ‘A Seeker-Focused Church’ Knows The Unchurched Love To Hear” are typically:
- Conflict Resolution
Many churches that are focused on leveraging Sunday as primarily an outreach venue will see these seven as the wheelhouse. Yet the content of those seven themes is not often rooted in what Jesus actually said in relationship to them. It’s more often 35 minutes of soft psychology (where a specialist, therapist or author is referenced more than Jesus), a moving story, a homework assignment for personal improvement (create a date night, have sex twice a week, try giving 1% and see what happens, etc) and perhaps three loosely invoked verses so as to maintain the title “sermon.” It is just enough of the Good Book to feel like church, but not so much that the unchurched would feel too confronted by the Bad News that gives them a need for the Good News. From this, one could, in all reality, love church because it’s “relevant” for their life, but then resist Jesus when they realize what He really says and seeks.
Think about the simplest form of the Good News in the four Gospels. Jesus’ “Big Idea” of relevant life change was like swallowing a horse pill with an Arizona case of cottonmouth.
“23 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:23-26 (ESV)
That is the unequivocal Gospel of Jesus in less than 100 words. And from that the question becomes, “Is this the message the unchurched hear when they attend churches they love?” It should be, because that is the only message that saves. And notice it’s not just, “Jesus died for you.” Letting people know that Jesus died for them is only half the Gospel. The message of first importance is, “Jesus died for sinful you. And to follow Him means you are dying to yourself and embracing who He is and everything He says.” In other words, to love Jesus means to love the truth that:
- Jesus is God who came, died and rose.
- Jesus is the only way to heaven and apart from Him there is only the separation of hell.
- Jesus invites us to die to ourselves by repenting of our sin and self-focus.
- Jesus warns us of a life that will bring more challenge than ease.
- Jesus calls us to love Him by obeying everything He has said regardless if it is personally helpful or hurtful. (Note: Jesus did speak to all 7 Themes above, but His message on those does not promote well in a land where the great idols is “personal happiness.”)
- Jesus expects that everything He said we will protect, promote and pursue.
If people only love the loveable words of Jesus, they don’t actually love Jesus.
If pastors only preach the loveable words of Jesus, they may never know if people have been given the opportunity to love (or reject) everything Jesus loves.
If leaders seek to love unchurched people only by creating churches they love to attend, we may be failing to love them fully by failing to cultivate a church that above all else – Jesus loves to attend.
The 10 Things I Try To Do To Be Sanctified By The 10 Things I Hate To Admit.
Right now I feel a bit like the final season of Seinfeld. I started this blog a month ago and now its peaked. I should drop the mic and walk away since it’s all downhill from here.
I am blown away by the viral nature of the previous post. When I decided to put it out there I figured at best it might receive a couple hundred views, not 165,000 in a week. It struck a deeper cord than I could ever imagine. From this I have now heard from countless pastors (along with spouses or kids) who feel a sense of silent solidarity. To know you’re not alone is a powerful counter-force to the isolation the Enemy labors to impose on those called to pastoral service.
Reflecting back on the post I was reminded of how articulating a problem is much easier than offering solutions. Perhaps this is why even the dumbest dude in the room can still effectively play “The Devil’s Advocate.” Critique is always easier to produce than clarity since the latter requires reflection while the former is shot from the hip in about the same amount of time it takes a frat guy to slam a Bud Lite and belch.
The other difficulty is that sometimes the solutions offered come across as Sunday school platitudes without a practical map for very real challenges. In comments to the post there were a few individuals who were quick to remind me, in some variant form, that, “It’s Christ’s Church NOT YOURS so you should get out of the way.” Thanks Sherlocks for Jesus! We know that. In fact we can go a step further and say, “It’s Jesus’ Universe and we should all get out of the way.” In reality however we all seem to perennially get in the way with fear, worry, anxiety, pride, fatigue, bitterness, control, idolatry and the like. We live a bipolar existence where the Spirit leads in one direction and the flesh snaps our head around. It’s this spiritual whiplash that is the essence of our fallen plight.
Therefore while I would love to title this follow-up, “The 10 Solutions To The 10 Things Pastors Hate To Admit Publicly.” the reality is that only the Resurrection will accomplish that task. Now does that mean we just throw our hands in the air with an apathetic, “Well that sucks!”? We can, but it’s not a very fruitful way to move forward: for while we may never eradicate every insecurity in life, we can be sanctified through every situation of life.
So with a more personal perspective here are “The 10 Things I Try To Do To Be Sanctified By The 10 Things I Hate To Admit.”
#1. When People Leave I Try To Remind Myself Of What I Know.
Early on in ministry people would leave the church and it would hit me for weeks or even months. This was especially the case when it was people who were particularly close to me or mission critical to the church. But what I have learned over the course of time is that those feelings always evaporate. Therefore now days when someone leaves I just say to myself, “Matt… down the road you know this isn’t going to bother you, so how about you just take that bridge right over there and get over it.” I know that may sound a bit trivial, but it really works for me. Now days when someone leaves for what I perceive to be a lame reason (and honestly some are unequivocally lame reasons) it only bothers me for about a day. When it happens I remind myself, “You won’t be irritated by this tomorrow so just get through today. Look at everyone who is still here and focus on reaching those who are yet to be here.”
#2. When Feeling Pressure To Perform I Try To Resist The Chase.
Now days I can discern when this lure is slipping through the water because I feel a sudden urgency to ramp up for wrong reasons. As soon as I start thinking we need a newer, bigger, louder, cooler, funnier (fill in the blank) because the church down the street just introduced something – I intentionally slow down. I kill the chase on the spot because I know the chase will be a waste of resources fueled by ego. If however I think we need a newer, bigger, louder, cooler, funnier (fill in the blank) so we can advance the Kingdom for Jesus – I proactively ramp up. The difference is an honest look in the mirror to see whether I’m chasing to compete with men or creating to please Jesus. The latter fills me up and makes ministry exciting, the former stresses me out and makes it exhausting.
As a side note: If the church you’re in sits in the shadow of a mega-church, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to match up (unless Jesus has specifically called you to that style of ministry). I say that because Chucky Cheese is cool, until it’s next door to Disneyland and then it’s just cute.
#3. When Struggling To Get My Worth From Ministry I Try To Elevate The People Around Me.
Sin at its core is a deep lustful gaze upon the self. Thus when I am not experiencing a sense of worth from ministry I have two options. The first is to get everything around me to make much of me and perform to my expectations. The second is to look away from me and to make much of those who are around me. It’s much harder to focus on my own disappointments if I’m attempting to celebrate others’ accomplishments.
#4. When I’m Seriously Thinking About Quitting I Try To Quit For A Couple Of Weeks.
I don’t literally submit my resignation, but I step back and take a 2-3 week break. My reasoning is that if after a couple of weeks I’m dreading going back, then I may need to seriously consider an occupational change. The team around me nor the church will be healthy for very long if I don’t really want to be there. In my case what I have found is that my love of pastoral ministry begins to outweigh the hardships or frustrations I may be experiencing. After a week I become antsy without an outlet. I begin to tinker with a sermon idea, ministry issue or some other pastoral curiosity. In other words I find I can’t do anything else because I don’t want to do anything else.
#5. When Tempted To Be Transparent I Try To Remain Opaque.
Yes you read that right. I believe opaque is healthy for pastors and their families. We are called to a higher standard and because of that we automatically face higher scrutiny. This was no secret going in and to resent that fact may invite more burden than we want or need. Now we don’t have to like it. We can think people are critical for it. Some individuals are demonically abusive with it. But we still need to accept it.
Aside from this is the reality that we are – by the nature of our calling – leaders. This anticipates that we show no anxiety even when fearful: display strength even when worn. It’s simply part of the job that shepherds remain composed so sheep feel secure.
Ultimately I seek to be genuinely transparent to the degree that people know my life is very much like theirs, but also opaque enough so that they don’t wonder if the craziest guy in the asylum is running the joint.
What this doesn’t mean is that we should seek to be opaque with everyone. I am very transparent with a core of friends, all of whom are actually in the church I’m a part of. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I have opted for the deepest transparency with the people I spend the majority of my ministry time with. I’m not saying that is a great rule for everyone, but I have been blessed to be a part of a church that is remarkably receptive regarding pastoral humanness while maintaining a clear biblical expectation of leaders.
#6. When Driven By The Numbers I Try To Stop Counting.
Since it’s birth our church has taken weekly attendance. I have not looked at the totals once in those 2 1/2 years. At one point numbers became my idol, so I dethroned the idol by ditching the metrics. Others on our team keep track of these things because that is not their idol, but they kindly don’t share that information with me. Now can I tell generally when things seem to be on the incline or decline? Sure. Does that general perception still mess with me from time to time? Absolutely. Right now we are in a growth phase so I’m in a “good mood.” When it seems like we are in decline I can get discouraged (for both godly and ungodly reasons). But not being bound to the numbers is personally liberating.
On the same front I want to stress that to not care about numbers is as potentially sinful as being motivated by them. Dr. Luke was all about celebrating the numbers as was Moses and Nehemiah. If the numbers are Jesus’ numbers, I should rejoice. If the numbers are my numbers, I must repent.
#7. When Feeling Discouraged I Try To Hang With A Pastor Who Has It Tougher Than Me.
In my opinion no pastor has it tougher than a solo or bi-vocational pastor. In that situation one must serve as a spiritual Heptathlete; mastering preaching, visiting, counseling, budgeting, marketing, marrying/burying and inevitably cleaning the church as well. It’s a lonely service, requiring a ton of output, often with minimal return on investment. These are my hero pastors and the kind I try to spend time with when I’m down.
I do this because sometimes when I’m discouraged it’s a grave case of “first world problems: church edition.” I get bummed because I wish…
- we could hire a fourth pastor to strengthen our small groups.
- we could have our own building for better control over environment.
- we could have $400,000 of surplus in the bank since $135,000 is just not enough flexibility for our current “needs.”
Boo-Flipp’n-Hoo right! Then I go and spend time with a hard working faithful Heptathlete for Jesus whose tireless investment probably brings a bigger smile to Jesus than anything I’ve done in a decade. After that I am remarkably grateful for what Jesus has allowed me to be a part of.
Obviously there are other times where discouragement is far more legitimate and deep. In those circumstances I find a seasoned pastor (65+) who is active or retired with at least 40+ years of ministry under his belt. Those dudes have weathered it all. Three hours with a Jedi Master like that offers a perspective unmatched by a conference or leadership book.
A final aspect to this one is that I immerse myself in the Psalms. When I see how jacked-up David’s life was and yet he still managed to praise God it always makes me feel better.
#8. When I Worry About What The Church May Think I Try To Pray For Them More Than Myself.
There has been more than a few times where I have given an announcement I didn’t want to make, preached a passage I would have desired to skip or released a pastor that many would prefer we keep. Every one of those circumstances makes me uneasy. Therefore in those times I pray for strength, not for myself but for the church since they are the ones who suddenly receive something without warning. It would be terribly self-absorbed if my deepest concern is having the courage to say the hard things. My greater concern should always be that the church would have the strength to receive and I would have grace in the sharing.
#9. When I’m Feeling Competitive I Try To Worship With The “Competition.”
I hate to admit that it was only a couple of years ago when I casually viewed every evangelical church within a 10-mile radius as competition. They were brothers and sisters in Christ, but it was a sibling rivalry. Then something unexpected happened, a couple of other pastors approached me about the idea of having a citywide worship night for the evangelical churches. At first I was about as interested as Ted Nugent being asked to join PETA. Then one of the pastors, a man named Randy, said to me, “I feel like God called me to try to start this because, well to be honest, you have been the competition and only the Devil wins with that attitude.” Wow, he said it out loud. He said what most of us don’t have the courage to admit to anyone. With that admission the Spirit confronted me and Randy won me. Within weeks an evangelical worship night called “One Voice” was born and with it a brotherhood of once jockeying churches. In worshiping with the “competition” I fell more in love with what Jesus is doing with His Church and thus I wanted to pray for these churches far more than contend against them.
As a great byproduct I have found that this also helps with #1. When someone from the church I am in goes to one of those churches I’m actually cool with it because I love the people who are there.
#10. When I Feel Like I’m Failing The Church I Try To Preach More And Think Less.
When I was in high school my teachers would say, “Use your brain Boswell.” Well I finally started doing that and I have regretted it ever since. As a natural pessimist thinking often drives me to notice the worst in a circumstance or how something is problematic. My solution for this: think less, preach more. Not longer Sunday sermons, but out loud confrontational preaching directed at myself from the Bible. For example:
- When I’m dealing with an angry person and I start thinking about all the ways I could cut them off at the knees in an argument, I stop thinking and start preaching “Love your enemies and pray for them – Matt” Matthew 5:44
- When I’m beginning to feel irritated by the angry person and I sense a bitter preoccupation with them, I stop thinking and start preaching “Let no root of bitterness spring up and cause trouble because many will be defiled by that – Matt” Hebrews 12:16
- When I’m thinking the church isn’t going right and the wheels are all going to come off the wagon any day, I stop thinking and start preaching “Upon this rock I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it – Matt.” Matthew 16:18
- When I’m beginning to listen to the Enemy and feel like I’ve failed, I stop thinking and start preaching “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved – Matt.” Ephesians 1:3-6
You get the idea. I preach the Word with the deepest conviction possible – directly to myself – because at the end of the day only what God has said has the power to override and heal any justification I have created to maintain how I feel. What I know is that only Jesus, His Gospel and His Word can effectively engage and alleviate “The 10 Things Pastors Hate To Admit Publicly.”
What I have not sought to offer up in this list is a formula to fix our problems. We are chock-full of formulas in the church today. In fact it’s sometimes the formulas themselves that have exacerbated the problems. Yet my intent was simply to remind us that sanctification isn’t the implementation of more tactics, but the avoidance of the things that tempt us along with the desperate pursuit to find the real us in Jesus. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of ‘little Christs’, all different, will still be too few to express Him fully. He made them all. He invented— as an author invents characters in a novel—all the different men that you and I were intended to be. In that sense our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. It is no good trying to ‘be myself’ without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call ‘Myself’ becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop. What I call ‘My wishes’ become merely the desires thrown up by my physical organism or pumped into me by other men’s thoughts or even suggested to me by devils. Eggs and alcohol and a good night’s sleep will be the real origins of what I flatter myself by regarding as my own highly personal and discriminating decision to make love to the girl opposite to me in the railway carriage. Propaganda will be the real origin of what I regard as my own personal political ideas. I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call ‘me’ can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.
Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis
Thank you Peter Svensk for reading me this quote yesterday. God has perfect timing.