Boycotts, Persecution and Embracing Our Christian Exile

MB PostsFor 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.

Decapitating Jesus

MB PostsChrist is the head of the church, His body, and is himself its Savior.    Ephesians 5:23

I recently wrote a pragmatic response to the alleged reasons people are leaving the church. I call them alleged because I suspect there are just as many sin-inspired or self-satisfying reasons as there are “justifications.” But my goal here is not to re-pound that sand. My purpose runs deeper. I want to target the biggest problem exiters (those who are officially rejecting church all together while still claiming Jesus) face, “How exactly does one go about decapitating Jesus without killing Him in the process?”

In the western mind everything can be segregated for personalized appeal. “Selection” is the optimal word in marketing. “Customization” beckons us to put the “ME” stamp on everything from phones to diets and cars to cloths. Individuality, personalization and particularity dominate the landscape of American life, and that slams straight into Christian attitudes about spirituality, ecclesiology and theology. Specific to this topic, it laces people with the illusion that one is free to retain Jesus and their Christian spirituality, but to reject the church and all it’s irritating fragility. It’s customized spirituality at consumerism’s finest, but is such a division biblically permissible? Can a Christian separate the head of Jesus from the shoulders of His body and still follow Him in the way the New Testament specifies?

Now it would be easy to make this matter complicated by raising all the emotional and practical baggage that is associated with the discussion. However, I want to make this as simple as possible, not because simplicity makes it easier to swallow, but because some truths should be communicated to professing Christians with a simple matter-of-factness, minus the sentimental caveats that are designed to soften up the listener. And yes, I am aware that last sentence is beginning to sound a little harsh, but I would maintain that we are discussing truths here and truths are not inherently harsh. Opinions are harsh, people are harsh, circumstances can even be harsh, but truths are just truths. They may feel like cold comfort in that we don’t like certain truths, but they endure unabated precisely because they are fixed regardless of our feelings, situations or opinions. And so here is the simple truth, it is biblically impossible to decapitate Jesus, stick His head under your arm and move along with your own disembodied Christ. One must take Him head and body or – by default – He is rejected altogether.

In 1 Corinthians 12:12 & 27 Paul unequivocally highlights this truth when he writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Notice that Paul does not advocate a distinction between the Person of Christ and the Body of Christ as though they are complementary partners with distinct boarders of independence. He says that just as the body is one, so it is with Christ. Do a double take on that. The fullness of Christ isn’t isolated from the church (neither the church universal or local – remember 1 Corinthians is written to a local church after all); rather the church is an extension of what constitutes the fullness of Christ’s glory revealed. As one set of commentators put this, “Christ may be said to be a body with many members” therefore “to dishonor any part of Christ’s body is to dishonor Christ himself.”* Now we should not read this as some weird quazi-Christian-pantheism, but we must read it in the sense that the Body of Christ is ultimately indivisible from the Head of Christ because together this displays the Glory of Christ. I know this all sounds very mysterious, but truths are no less true simply because they are filled with mystery (Ephesians 5:32).

In the big picture, to reject the church – locally or universally – is to reject how Christ chooses to display His very own self. You may not want to accept that. You may attempt to reduce what you are rejecting to a frigid political institution of religious jargon and entertainment saturated marketing, but you rejecting far more in the process. For in leaving the church entirely you do more than divest yourself of a governing board, philosophy of ministry or group of people; you are also leaving that which Christ identifies as part of Himself. Therefore the raw reality is that any wholesale rejection of Christ’s Body, driven by personal hurts or biases, will not hold up as legitimate before Christ who is the Head. Jesus will not allow individuals to enthrone Him as their decapitated king. He cannot be divided against Himself for the fulness of His glory is shown through His unification as Head and Body (Ephesians 4:1-6). The gospel brought this together (Colossians 1:24-29) and no disgruntled, disenfranchised or discouraged Christian has the authority to tear it asunder.

Now are there some wonky local churches and jacked up denominations? Yes! But there are also a great number of them getting far more things right than wrong.

  • Churches that are filled with people who also have been hurt, but don’t give up.
  • Churches that are struggling with how to love a pluralistic culture while still maintaining a biblical vision of life.
  • Churches that are fighting to pursue a healthy blend of what it takes to reach consumers while still developing true disciples.
  • Churches that are proclaiming the fullness of the Bible while still admitting the ongoing battle to become everything Jesus seeks.
  • Churches that are replete, not with judgmental hypocrites, but imperfect people who are imperfectly trying to “be perfect as their Father in Heaven is perfect.”

So come back! We all agree that the church at times can seem like a saggy, broken, out of shape body with stretch marks and a few scars, but it’s Jesus’s very own Body which is indivisibly and gloriously joined to His headship (Ephesians 5:25-30 & 32).

[*] Vaughen & Lea, 1 Corinthians BSC, p.150 & Ciampa & Rosner, 1 Corinthians PNTC, p.609

Dear Church, We’re REALLY REALLY Leaving You Because You’re Too Sinful And Not Worthy Of Our Grace.

MB Posts

This article will be a bit barbed, but I do this when defending a woman that is being mistreated.

Over the last several days the article “Dear Church, Here Is Why People Are REALLY Leaving You” has repeatedly cycled through my sprawling array of social media feeds (Oh Ryan Howard where is WUPHF.com when I need it most?). I have seen people I love “Like” it and people I like “LOVE” it, but I have contemplated it. Now if I were simply mining the article for anecdotal nuggets I would say there is much to be mined, but taken on the whole I feel like it’s giving me the shaft without any real gold in the mine – and yes, the double entendre is implied.

In the big picture the thrust of the article appears to be saying – as far as I can surmise – “Yes Church I’m leaving you. And yes it’s me, but it’s more you because you don’t accept me for me like you should.” Now I’m not going to argue for a minute that this doesn’t happen (though I actually think a whole lot less, or a whole lot less dramatically than articles like this make it should). However, my bigger concern is that the article itself is an exercise in the very thing criticized, and brazenly so. For as much as some churches out there may not take people where they are at, there are far more people who don’t take churches where they are at. Every week people leave a church for innumerable reasons, but the commonality is some element of “this church isn’t doing it for us.” It’s a break-up with that particular church because it lacks or does something that causes them to “find another” a bit more worthy. However, in the case of this article it appears the rejection is so deep it’s “The Church” that is left, not just a church. And at the core of that issue is far more than merely calling the kettle black, it’s sinners calling sinners sinners for sinfully not loving sinners, sinfully. Yes, read it five times and it will fall together.

So then the innate question, the “what would Jesus ask?” question is, “Who is prepared to love first, to love selfless and to love someone or a group of some ones right where they are at?” The low truth is that there is no red-letter high ground in saying, “I’m rejecting you because you are more broken than me and don’t see it.” Those who think they can love better, judge less and care more should actually model the solution for a broken church in the church. This is particularly true in light of the reality that at the deepest level, people who reject church for rejecting people are inherently rejecting people themselves. Churches are not computers run by algorithms and automation. When people leave churches they are leaving swaths of individuals. Every time people have left our church because they were hurt, I deal with others whom are hurt by the hurt people leaving. And no wonder, people who leave are not just leaving an organization. It’s people who design the programs you deem shallow, it’s people who have the attitudes you consider hypocritical, it’s people who set the priorities you reckon as greedy, it’s people who get bogged down in the biases you hold as judgmental, judgmentally and yes, might I actually say it’s people who struggle with same problems of sin as you, the more enlightened sinner, who advances the broad brushed intolerant narrative that the real problem with “The Church” is that it isn’t as tolerant as you.

  • You, the self admitted sinner who fights for the worth of other sinners you deem worthy, by condemning sinners you find to be undeserving.
  • You, who restrict your illuminated grace because you believe they express only institutional grace.
  • You, the one who has exchanged an eye for an eye, hurt for hurt and rejection for rejection by feeling slapped, slapping back and then accusing The Church of not turning the other cheek.
  • You, who stand in an ebony tower of judgment, condemning those in their ivory towers for being judgmental.

Perhaps most problematic is that the only one who is truly grieved in all of this is probably Jesus. He is working with eternal grace to present His Church – His Girl – without spot or blemish, but you keep pointing out all her flaws and inadequacy. You breed her insecurity through your criticism. She chases after new, flashy and shallow because you remind her she isn’t beautiful. Don’t keep telling her she is shallow, broken, unattractive and bitchy. Stop shamming her for not being the perfect 10. Woo her, esteem her, meet her where she is at and respect her for the sole reason that Jesus loves her and rescued her as His most treasured possession.

Yes, the Church is a Gomer, but she is Jesus’ Gomer. So start treating her like the lady Jesus endures with, not as an establishment you rate on a five star system and then tack on a review.

7 Reasons Evangelicals Must Become The Most Tolerant Group In Culture.

MB PostsIn 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, “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.

The Best Way To Create A Family Friendly Church Service Is To Stop Having A Biblically Committed One.

MB PostsYears ago I was on a return flight from a conference in California. I was early onto the flight so I buckled up, settled in and popped open my Bible. It was a risky move in that it opened up the possibility for conversation, something I very much wanted to avoid on this flight. A Bible in 8B can act as a beacon of invitation for a sweet older Christian in 8A who sees your Good Book as a good opportunity to bend your ear about church potlucks and her quilting for Jesus club. Or even worse, you might end up with a Dispensationalist in 8C who wants to know what you think about blood moons, the Trilateral Commission and Nicolas Cage starring in “The Left Behind” movie. It was risky, but I had some things on my mind and needed to do a little cross checking.

As I read, a distinguished older gentleman hoisted his bag into the compartment above and then settled in next to me. I could sense his head tilting to glance over at my reading material. For roughly 5 minutes he did this until his eastern European accent cut the air, “You are reading a Bible, yes?” Hoping to maintain a cone of silence and dissuade any further conversation I simply nodded. “I’m Jewish. I know this book. It is a dirty and vile work.” With those words the cone of silence evaporated.

“Really!” I thought. “Of all the people you could have placed next to me, Jesus, you put a Nazi-era Jewish European who thinks the Bible is ‘dirty’ and ‘vile’.” At a slight loss for an opening sentence, I simply burped one of those awkward chuckle-coughs and mumbled, “Really?”

“Oh yes, it is the darkest least moral book in the world.” Now at this point I figured he was going to elaborate on how it has started wars, fostered slavery, blamed his people for the death of Jesus or segregated people groups. Instead, I found that his thesis was a bit more content driven.

“It opens violent. The world is chaos. Then God tears everything apart to make day and night, land and sea. He then makes people where sex and domination are their first commands. It starts with violence and sex. It’s dirty.” I confess this was not the answer I saw coming. In fact, it’s an answer I had never even considered before.

“Interesting… I’ve never seen it that way.”

With a kind sincerity he looked at me and said, “How could you miss it? It keeps going like that. They are naked in a garden. Their son kills their other son. After that God destroys the world due to wicked people. All those animals die because of people. It’s very very violent. God telling people to kill men, women, children and even the pregnant women for land. You see men having sex with their slaves and grotesque animal sacrifices. Even Solomon writes a book on how to have sex – it’s a pornographic book.”

Awkwardly I responded, “Well that’s why I’m more of a New Testament guy.”

“Oh, the New Testament! I’m Jewish; I do not know it so well, but I do know it says Jesus was crucified for sins. That is a very violent way to forgive. I also know Jesus said He will send people to eternal torture if they don’t believe in Him. That is both violent and cruel.” He then paused for a brief moment, leaned in and said in a whisper, “The Bible should never be taught to children. It is not for kids. That is why Christians change the stories so much, to make them friendly for their families.” With that he simply patted me on the forearm and said, “Thank you for the talk. I think I will rest. Enjoy your book.”

This 15-minute interaction happened over 20 years ago, but I never forgot the importance. While I didn’t agree with this man’s extreme articulation, I did agree that the Bible is not exactly a family-friendly book and to make it so does violence to what God has revealed. Think about it. Even the “kids’ stories” of Adam and Eve, Noah and The Flood, David and Goliath or Jesus and The Apostles are at some juncture R-Rated stories if accurately and fully told. Even the moral parts that would be construed as most family friendly are usually set against a backdrop that is not. For example, if you want your kids to memorize the 10 Commandments you are going to have to get into swearing, murder and sex. Aside from these popular examples, the entire narrative of the Bible is dealing with the problem of sin, rebellion and wickedness and how God solves that through Jesus, the Cross and His Word.

From all of this I see that the only way to be truly family friendly in a Sunday service is to redact much of the R-Rated Bible in order to make the whole experience more acceptable for a G-Rated expectation. Yet this fails our commission. Our calling is not to decide what we think is appropriate in the Bible, but to communicate the full council of God. We are not free to be editors, but proclaimers. We don’t possess the authority to write or erase the mail; we merely deliver it as it is. Now, I know that sometimes God’s mail makes us squirm, gets uneasy or even downright feels offensive, but not nearly as much as the sin it’s combating. Sin makes the Truth, even the ugly Truth, necessary. And as Christians move forward in the hopes of reclaiming a family-friendly world I pray it begins by embracing the fullness of the not so family-friendly, though always family-preserving, Bible.

Confessions: I Want To Preach Like A Reject

MB PostsFor a couple years one of the all-consuming sins I struggled with was that I wanted people to like me. They didn’t need to like every part of me, or even most of me. I wasn’t looking for a group of friends. No, I was looking for something far more specific. I wanted a congregation of fans. I wanted a people who loved preacher me. I wanted to assemble a crowd who would promote “Pastor Matt Inc.” because, well frankly, I wanted to be a brand. Deep down inside I aspired to become a name among the big names. I imagined being the next new funny, edgy, creative, insightful and provocative preacher. In short, I was using Jesus while praying, “Jesus, I want to be used.” In fact, my wife even confronted me on this more than once with the simple loving phrase, “Matt, I worry that you’re good enough at this that you don’t need Jesus, and that’s a problem.”

Now at the time I would push back on her. I didn’t want to recognize the validity of her insight. She was probing a bit too deep. Tenaciously I would argue how my actions were not about me. It was all about reaching the lost. But over the years a few honest stares in the mirror have humbled me to the point where I can now confess these things openly. In fact, to my shame, I would admit that my want of notoriety even caused me to abandon some of my doctrinal roots so I could “win the more” through my ability to win their will. From this, reaching people to be my listeners became more important than proclaiming Jesus so He could have His followers. This isn’t to say that I failed to preach the name of Jesus each Sunday, but the person of Jesus was driven through a filter designed to collect people more than confront sin. He was a therapeutic hipster Jesus who looked a lot like Bono, and I was going to ride His novelty to my celebrity. At least that was the unfolding plan until the devastating grace of God crushed my emergent pride.

The story of how everything changed is too long to share here, but the condensed version is that I was run through by the very doctrines I believed would produce celebrity: and what a beautiful execution it was. It restored in me an addiction for the grace, love, holiness, truth and sovereignty of God. As I looked anew upon the magnitude of Jesus, my lust for recognition began to extinguish. From this I was recharged with a determination, not for my renown, nor for our church’s growth, but to make Jesus fully known even if that meant everything else came to nothing. With fresh fire I was renewed to preach, not the Jesus people wanted, but the Jesus people needed. And the difference between the two is colossal.

One seeks a savior who loves me with my sins, the other is a Savior who saves me from my sins.

One resides on a stool alongside my throne, the other offers His throne through the surrender of mine.

One makes the offer that you can pick and choose what you want to follow, the other says you must pick Whom you will choose to follow.

The former is “a Jesus” as we want to reconstruct Him, the latter is Jesus as He has revealed Himself to be.

What the Holy Spirit thrust upon my heart is that the opportunity to proclaim the worth and excellence of Christ is in itself the reward. We see this was the same impetus in the call of Isaiah. Imagine this poor guy when he’s commissioned to preach. God rolls in and says, “I want you to go and preach to a people who won’t pay any attention. You will be known as the dude no one wants to know. You will be the preacher everyone wishes would just shut-up. Your church will be the size of pool party in Greenland. In short Isaiah, you will be a reject.” Think about that. There is, from the outset, no hope given to Isaiah that there would be national repentance. Before he is even boots on the ground he is guaranteed an anti-revival. I don’t know too many pastors who would take that gig. In fact I’m not certain Isaiah would have taken it on except for what happened.

So what seized upon Isaiah’s spirit and overcame the weight of guaranteed rejection? It was the overwhelming vision of God’s holy and gracious glory!

1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim… And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”

Like Isaiah, it is only when we are found in God’s presence, looking upon His Holiness and experiencing the full measure of His atoning grace that our lust for recognition is vanquished with the compulsion to proclaim the excellence of His glory, and not even the guarantee of rejection can stop it.

To preach like a reject means to not be enslaved by a fear of rejection.

To preach like a reject means to not be detoured by the absence of a following.

To preach like a reject means to not be moved aside by the absence of moving ahead.

To preach like a reject means to preach Jesus for the sheer joy of Jesus.

Oh Lord, may we not preach to solicit the acceptance of men, to fulfill the want of celebrity or to fulfill our church growth idolatry, but only to proclaim the glory of Your grace revealed in the Person of Your Son Jesus. May we preach with the conviction of a reject who is incapable of human acquiescence for we are made alive by the vision of Your majesty.

Don’t Mistake Liking Church For Loving Jesus

MB PostsI 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:

  • Marriage
  • Parenting
  • Communication
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Sex
  • Money
  • Occupation

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.

 

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