Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Brothers and Sisters

The sad truth is that the church is really inconsistent in the way that she loves within her own walls. If you need proof of that, just look at the way that your church's resources are distributed - physical resources and spiritual resources. 

Here's a place to start: how many persons have been on your prayer list lately? If your church is anything like my church, quite a few. And that's great that we pray for one another! We absolutely should. But how many of those prayer requests have you been asked to send cards to? How many have you been asked to help prepare food for? 

Intended or not, this creates a hierarchy within the church - we pray for everyone, but we care for the select few. 

Ouch. 

I'm not sure what it is that makes us treat persons differently. There's part of me that wants to make this a noble thing, something where we understand someone's love language enough to know that cards might overwhelm them or food might take away the one thing they feel like they're still able to do for themselves. I would love it if our selectiveness in care was a reflection of our deep love for one another. 

But the realist in me knows that it's not. The realist in me knows that we are picking and choosing who we care for based on a number of human factors, including simple preference. We like this person, so we will care for them. Or perhaps it's even worse than that - this person gives sacrificially in one of our ministries, so we should obviously care for this person. 

In the past year, I have seen a few prayer requests come through my chain about car troubles. This is just an example, but it's very poignant on what I'm talking about. A few times, I have been asked to pray for the car troubles and repairs of families in the family of God. Once, I have been asked not only to pray, but to financially contribute for a sister who wrecked her car and could not afford a new one. Then recently, I was asked to financially contribute for a sister who bought more car than she could afford and was drowning in the payments/debt. 

Now, the question is - how do we decide whose car we pray for and whose we replace? How do we decide whose debt we step up to pay off and whose we simply pray earnestly for? 

Again, I'd like to say that it's a widows/orphans thing - that we offer more help to those who are more alone in this world, but given the lists that I'm looking at, that's simply not the case. We are equally praying for or paying for widows and orphans and...with what rhyme or reason? 

Maybe we think it's based on need. Maybe some of those persons have more means than others, and so we're just trusting that they are able to provide for themselves. But...in my experience, that's not it, either. There are poor persons in our church that we will let drown, and there are wealthy persons that we will shower with love. 

There's no foundation for how we're deciding, it seems, except...preference. We are literally picking and choosing who we care for and how we care for them. Prayer for all, cards for a few, food for fewer still, and a little bit of money here and there. Based on...who we like? Who we hang out with? 

I've noticed that we tend to help those very strong in their Christian faith, likely because they are the patriarchs and matriarchs of our congregations, and we are likely to help those very weak in their faith, likely because we are trying to build them up in the love of God. It's the persons in the middle who are least likely to receive the care of the church.

There are many who say, it has to be this way. We have to pick and choose which burdens we take on collectively to carry. We have to have some parameters around who and how we help. Why? Because if we don't....

Well, we'll talk about that tomorrow. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

By the Love of God

Last week, I ended by reminding us all that every single sheep in the pasture is there because they love the Shepherd - we're all in the church because we love Jesus. At least, under the best of circumstances, that is true. 

But even as I was writing that post, something was gnawing at my spirit. Something deeper, something even more true than our love for Jesus. Something that doesn't wax or wane; something that doesn't come in waves and isn't impacted by our circumstances or what kind of day we're having. 

It's true that we're all in the church because we love Jesus, even in the moments when we forget that we do or when it's hard for us to hold onto that faith. 

The greater truth is that we're all in the church because Jesus loves us. The fat sheep, the lean sheep, the sheared sheep, the loud sheep, the quiet sheep, the dirty sheep, the speckled sheep, the spotted sheep - Jesus loves every single one of us. 

How much would it change our one anothering if the first thing we realized when we look at the person standing next to us is just how much Jesus loves him or her? 

This is the goal of the Christian faith, right? We want to see the world the way that Jesus sees the world; we want to develop God's heart for His creation. 

What's strange is that we don't start inside our own walls. There's something in our brains that tells us that we are the home team, the starting lineup, and so we don't scout each other out the same way that we do the opposition. We come together in our Sunday huddles and we kind of roll our eyes because we know that other person is our weak point. We know they're just going to stand out in right field and pick weeds...or pick their nose. We're embarrassed to be wearing the same jersey they are. We can't believe we have to put up with them on our team, and we're always secretly thinking about ways to bench them...or get them to leave altogether. 

Not, of course, that we don't want someone to love Jesus. Of course, we would never say that. What we say instead is that they already don't love Jesus. They're just faking it because they're not any good. They're not serious about it like the rest of us. 

The first thing we always seem to do is make ins and outs on our own team, dividing ourselves into real players in the game and pretenders. Judging those around us as to their intent, their heart, their execution. Their clothing, their cleanliness, their punctuality. Their sin. 

If we can't even love each other like Jesus, how are we supposed to love the world the way He does? 

If you don't look next to you in the pew and see someone Jesus loves, how are you ever supposed to see someone in the grocery aisle? 

It starts here. Our one anothering starts here. By realizing that every single sheep in this pasture is loved by the Shepherd. Period. Every single one. 

Friday, September 23, 2022

For the Love of God

One of the problems that we have in the church is the same problem that Ezekiel talked about in chapter 34 - we've got some fat sheep who like to throw their weight around and butt into everyone with their horns. And the solution to this problem, Ezekiel also talked about and God planned from the very beginning - it is to put the same Shepherd, Jesus, over all the sheep, the fat ones and the lean ones. 

Yesterday, I asked, quite sadly, if you know what a difference Jesus would make in your church. 

And I think that's the thing that too often, we're missing. Whether we are fat sheep or lean sheep or somewhere in the middle, we tend to forget that every single sheep in the fold is under the same shepherd. Every single person in our midst loves Jesus, loves to hear His voice, is learning to hear His voice better, is learning to trust Him more. Every single person in our midst is listening for Jesus. 

Too often, we're drowning out His voice with all our bleating. 

But that person sitting next to you? She's there because she loves Jesus. That guy walking in just now? He's there because he loves Jesus. 

That fat sheep that keeps bumping into you, that feels like he's trying to shove you aside, that has his horns squared right toward your heart, it seems? He's there because he loves Jesus. 

That lean sheep that keeps getting in your way, that doesn't seem to be fattening up at all, that is timid and shy and overwhelmed by the whole thing? She's there because she loves Jesus. 

I think if we learned to look at one another as lovers of Jesus first, so much of the trouble that we have within our fellowshipping would go away. So much of the stuff we fight over and argue about, so much of what separates us, so much of what makes us feel either strong or weak, fat or lean...it would just go away. If the most important thing you knew about anyone else, and the first thing you thought of every time you saw them, was that they love Jesus, I just think that would necessarily change the way that you interact with them. 

Because when we realize that everyone is here because they love Jesus (or because they're learning to love Jesus or because they want to love Jesus), it reminds us that we, too, are here because we love Jesus. That's it. We're here because we love our Shepherd. And all of a sudden, all those insecurities that have had us shoving one another around just...disappear. I'm here because I love Jesus; anything else is far, far, far, far secondary to that. 

Loving Jesus, it just puts us automatically standing together. It puts us pointing toward Him. We aren't persons in the crowd jostling for position, shoving one another around so that we can get a closer look. We're close enough already, and we're standing there shouting and pointing, "Here He is! It's Jesus! Hey, Jesus!" And He turns, and He smiles, and He calls our name. That's it. That's what this is.

Do you know how big a difference Jesus can make in your church? Do you know how big a difference it makes in our one anothering when we remember, first and foremost, that everyone is here because they love Jesus...even us? 

Church shouldn't be about fat sheep or lean sheep. Actually, it shouldn't be about sheep at all. The wisdom from Ezekiel is still true today:

It's about the Shepherd. 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

One Shepherd

If what we have in the church is a sheep problem, where the fat sheep keep shoving everyone else around and butting with their horns, then what is the solution to our sheep problem? 

To hear some tell it, the lean sheep just ought to get stronger. That would solve things. They ought not to let themselves be pushed around so easily. When I was little, I used to hear that all it takes is one person to stand up to a bully and that bully will sit down. So what we need is one brave little lean sheep to go all in for us. 

Others say that the fat sheep need to do something besides get fat. They need to invest more into their communities and give more back, instead of just sitting there soaking it all up and lounging around in comfort. If the fat sheep were working harder, serving more, leading better, they'd be working off those extra calories and they wouldn't be fat enough to shove anyone around. 

The answer is...neither of these. 

See, God has known He has a sheep problem from the very beginning, and He's been working on it from the very beginning. If you read through His promises, you'll see that He's been making provision for this very thing for a long time. And if we go back to our passage in Ezekiel 34 where we're talking about fat and lean sheep at all, we'll see that He sets up His solution to this problem even there by reminding His people of His promise: 

I will set up one shepherd over them.

That's it. God's answer to His sheep problem is...a shepherd. Not just any shepherd, but one shepherd - one shepherd whose love is for the fat and the lean sheep. One shepherd who can be fair and just to all. One shepherd who knows how to get into the pasture and sort things out. 

That one shepherd, of course, is Jesus (and God's promise says as much). 

This is going to sound like a silly question, but do you realize what a difference Jesus could make in our churches? 

Do you realize how it would change the nature of our one anothering if we were all just listening to the same voice instead of trying to look at the same piece of grass? Do you realize how different we would be as a body if we let Jesus direct our steps by His wisdom and move us together instead of making ourselves fat or lean? Do you realize how church would be different if none of us were trying to make ourselves fat? We wouldn't be butting anyone out of the way because we wouldn't have to. With Jesus, there's plenty for everybody. 

Call me crazy, but I think God's onto something here. When you have a sheep problem, the answer is definitely a Shepherd. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Problem with Sheep

So we're finally going to get into it, Ezekiel 34. Now, the chapter is often titled, "A prophecy against the shepherds of Israel," which might lead you to think that we're going to talk about pastors. Not so. Because that's another one of the big myths that a lot of false prophets try to latch onto - the problem with the church is its pastors, and if you only had the right pastor, your church wouldn't be broken. (And guess who the "right" pastor is. That's right - the false prophet himself, of course!)

But the truth is that most persons who are wounded by the church are not wounded by the pastors; they are wounded in the pews. Most persons who are leaving the church are leaving because they're sitting next to a hypocrite, not listening to one lead worship. Most persons are wounded more by the gossip they accidentally overhear in the bathroom than by the teaching, true or not, in the sermon. 

The problem in our churches is not our pastors, not most of the time. The problem that every church faces is our people - it's our broken persons trying to be in fellowship with other broken persons where our insecurities rub against one another and set each other off and turn each other away.  

So here we are, in Ezekiel 34, and here's what I was reading about God's people that struck me as I thought about the church: 

Therefore thus says the Lord God to them: 'Behold, here am I, and I will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and butt at all the weak ones with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my sheep, so that they may no longer be a prey and I will just between sheep and sheep. (v. 20-22)

Some of you read that passage, and it strikes you the way that it struck me - yes, this is the problem with our one anothering. We have a bunch of fat sheep who like to push with their side and shoulder, who like to shove everyone else around, who want to use their influence and their "righteousness" and the length of their Christian journey and whatever else they can brag about to drive a bunch of brothers and sisters around using their horns and if a little blood gets shed, so what? There's no place for weak sheep in this herd! 

Others of you read that passage, and you have no idea what I'm talking about. You don't go to a church that has this problem. You are in a place where the strong sheep help the weak sheep, where they help them figure out where they are going astray and keeping them on a firm path. Where you keep leading them as best you can toward food, but it seems like they just refuse to eat. You don't have a fat sheep problem, you think; you have a lean sheep problem. 

My question to you would be: are you sure? Because if you put any reasonably hungry sheep in front of real food and make space for it to eat, it's going to eat. Plain and simple. If you think you're leading your lean sheep to food and they just won't eat it, maybe your big fat sheep butt is standing too much in the way while you hover over them telling them what great food this is and trying to shove it down their throat. Or maybe you're intimidating them while they're trying to eat; maybe they just want to graze, and you're trying to shove a banquet feast down their throat. 

The point is - a lot of churches have a fat sheep problem, whether they know it or not, and it's the fat sheep (not the shepherd) who are more often than not driving the lean sheep away, shoving them around with their sides and their shoulders, butting at them with their horns, and sending them out to starve. 

The bad news is, the people of God seem to have always had a sheep problem. The good news is, at least it's not a new problem like some of the shepherds are trying to claim. This has been a problem in our one anothering all the way back at least to Ezekiel. 

Is there more good news? This is God we're talking about, so of course there is! (Stay tuned.) 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Nothing New

One of the lies that we keep being led to believe is that the troubles that the church faces today are something new. They are so new and so novel that they threaten the church in ways that the church has never been threatened before. There are preachers - and a culture - that are telling us that we are the reason the church is going to die, because we simply can't get our act together. 

This is why it is so important for us to read our Bible, even the Old Testament parts of it, when we're looking for information about how we're supposed to live together. Yes, the New Testament teaches us about the church and about living under grace and about community, and it has plenty to say about getting it wrong and getting it right, about repentance, about making sure our first love remains our first love. But the Old Testament, too, teaches us about being a people of God, about sharing each other's burdens, about responsibility and atonement. 

And the truth is that the things that we're facing today are not new. This is not the first time that the people of God have come up against themselves in the way that we're coming up against ourselves today. This is not the first generation of a wannabe-faithful people to mess everything up. And if the people of God have survived thousands of years of the same foolishness we're facing right now, we can be sure that the people of God will survive this, too - if we want to. If we can hold onto the wisdom that God has already given us and the examples He's already written for us and stop pretending that we have to come up with something entirely new to get us out of this mess. 

Because here's kind of the rub, if you're following along with all of this - we're living under a faith that says that God stopped talking roughly 2000 years ago. We closed our canon, locked in our Bible, and told the believing world, "This is all you get. God's got nothing else to say until the trumpet sounds and by then, it's going to be too late." And then, we tell ourselves that what we're facing is new, that nothing like this has ever happened before in the history of God's people. 

So then, what? We are, naturally, left to ourselves to figure our way out of it. It's up to us to come up with the solution to our broken fellowship. It's all on our shoulders to navigate what righteousness must look like in an era where we are getting it very wrong (so obviously, then, it must take something different now to be righteous than it ever has before, right?) but where God is not going to speak and tell us what to do (because God doesn't speak). 

No wonder we are rife with false prophets right now! All you have to do to gain the ear of the faithful is to come up with something that sounds halfway decent, and everyone's listening to you. And then, sadly, what most of these false prophets have to say is...we're doomed. We're killing the church. We are so sinful, so backward, and so unique in our sin and backwardness that the very church herself is at stake. 

The same church, remember, that Jesus said even Hell would not rattle. 

Yeah, that church. We are killing it. 

Are you a force bigger than Hell? 

Anyway, this is why we have to know the kinds of stories that we're talking about this week, stuff like Ezekiel 34. Because the truth is, what we're going through as a people of God is not new. It's not unique. God's people have been broken from the very first bite of fruit in the Garden, and we're still broken, and while that's sad, it's not fatal. It's not hopeless. 

After all, we still have Jesus, our living hope. 

Monday, September 19, 2022

An Old Testament Church

When we talk about the nature of the church, one of the passages that jumps out at me is Ezekiel 34. 

Now, I know what you're thinking - there was no church when Ezekiel was writing; the church is a distinctly New Testament body. And...didn't Ezekiel write about stuff like measurements in the Temple and the Most Holy Place? 

You would be right on both counts, but such a reading is just too simple. Set aside the measurements for a bit because that's a topic that deserves its own conversation (perhaps at another time? Math is awesome; biblical math is even more fun). But what's too simple is to say that God's Old Testament people were a Temple people and God's New Testament people are a church people. 

In fact, I think this is one of the reasons that it's so difficult for us to conceptualize much of what the church is supposed to be - because we have made this distinction and thus discounted so much of what God has to say to us about being a people. 

His people. 

See, the Old Testament is how we got here. We watch God as He establishes Himself as the God of Abraham, one faithful man. Then, the God of Isaac, the son - a second generation, passed down from the first. (And let's be real for a second - if you were the sacrificial son of a righteous father and saw the Lord provide a ram in the bushes at the last minute, wouldn't you be tempted to believe in God and His provision, too?) Then, the God of Jacob, who is the first man that we really see redeemed. 

That redemption turns into an entire nation of people, and from that point on, God's verbage changes from "you" to "y'all." The nation of Jacob becomes Israel and everything God says and does is for His people

His people come to the Temple, together. They offer sacrifices, together. The burn incense, together. They celebrate feasts and festivals, together. They pay the price for their sins, together. They offer up prayers, together. They are blessed by God as a people and they are cursed by God as a people. Their entire existence under God is communal. Or, at least in God's eyes, it's supposed to be. 

When we read through the Law, we see that most of it has to do with how we are to live with one another. How to protect one another. How to love one another. How to encourage one another. How to respect one another. 

So how is it, then, that we so often get to the New Testament, where Jesus establishes a church and tells us that the emphasis is on one anothering, and we gasp like God is suddenly doing some kind of radically new thing that He never thought of before, and we throw out the entire Old Testament as irrelevant to our New Testament faith? It doesn't make sense for us to keep doing this. 

Anyway, I think Ezekiel 34 has a lot to say to us in the church today, and...it's rough. I'll be honest about that. It's not our best side, for sure. But it's important for those of us who want to be better, and especially for those who still have hope in their hearts but no "religion." 

We'll start looking at the text tomorrow.  

Friday, September 16, 2022

The American Church

When we talk about the church, it's important that we be extremely clear on what we're talking about. As we have seen this week, there are a lot of misconceptions about what the church is or what it should be. But we haven't even hit on one of the most important ones. 

Earlier this week, I started reading a new book where the author expresses concern for the way that the church is functioning. And that's certainly something that we all ought to be paying attention to all the time - we want to be a people who are doing our one anothering God's way. We want to make sure that the church is always what God intended for the church to be, to the best of our ability. 

But what this author actually said was that he fears for the future of "the American church." 

Therein lies the problem. 

Friends, there is no such thing as the American church. None. It simply doesn't exist. It never has, and it never will. (Okay, there is actually some historical precedent that says that yes, it could happen. There was, after all, a Church of England that very successfully conflated theology and patriotism but remember, that's what caused pilgrims to go searching for and settling America in the first place - they didn't like the way the state church was telling them they had to worship.) 

History aside, though, and theologically speaking, there is no such thing as the American church, nor should there be. Every church, every single worshiping body, every single fellowship of believers, every single community of one anothering ought to be God's church. 

And when and if we can get that distinction correct, there will be no need to fear for the future of it. 

But that's how we've done it, isn't it? We made the church first a center of evangelism where we teach persons about Jesus, rather than doing that on the streets where Jesus actually showed us that the best ministry happens, and then, we decided that while we have them in our building, we'll teach them how to make a better America for all of us by telling them - not showing them, but telling them - what God desires for His people and then, we try to unleash our churches on the world to set the parameters under which we should all live when, in fact, we aren't even getting that stuff right inside the church because we have made our churches so much of what they are not supposed to be and gotten so far away from what God desires of us. 

In other words, we have made our churches places in which we think we're building the shape of America and in that sense, we have created an "American" church - a church for the sake of America. But again, that's not what we're supposed to be. That's not what we were supposed to do. And if that's really where we've come (and I think, sadly, in too many places, it is), then I want the future of the American church to be in jeopardy. 

I want the American church to die so that we can be God's church again, the way we were meant to be. 

I don't know. This is just stuff that you have to be paying attention to. That we have to be paying attention to. There are so many Christians, even Christians that I know and love, who would have read the words that I read - that this author fears for the future of the American church - and gone, "Oh, no!" But for me, that's nothing to worry about. We aren't supposed to be an American church. 

We're supposed to be God's church. 

And I absolutely never worry about the future of God's church. 

Thursday, September 15, 2022

A Gathering of Believers

Because we have changed the very nature of the church from a place where believers gather to be encouraged and strengthened to rather more of a professional evangelism center where the lost come to be found, it's no wonder that our churches are struggling. 

One of the most-cited reasons for a Christian leaving a church today is because they "aren't being fed." They aren't getting anything out of the programming. They aren't growing in their faith or learning anything new about God. They aren't being pushed, or even invited, to go deeper in their faith. 

And how could they be? If we think that the mission of the church is to seek and save the lost, then we have to keep preaching and teaching for those who don't know Jesus, for those who are walking into our doors for the first time that morning. So naturally, we aren't putting our resources on the encouragement and strengthening of those who are already disciples. 

Then, we have the gall to look at the faithful, to look at those disciples who have been walking with Christ for a long time already, to look at those who say that they aren't being fed...and to tell them that it's not the church's job to feed you; you're supposed to be doing your own Bible study, your own prayer, your own service. You're supposed to be engaging your own heart because you, my friend, are already a disciple, and you don't need the church to find Jesus. 

So...they leave. And why shouldn't they? We have told them that they are so spiritually mature that they don't need the church any more. 

No wonder our churches are struggling. 

The greater trouble, of course, is that these disciples then go out of the church, which they don't need any more, and they preach a gospel to the world - by word or just by living - that the Christian faith doesn't need the church. That you don't need the church to be a Christian. That the ultimate aim of the Christian life is to get to the point where you don't need to go to church. 

And if that's the case, it becomes harder still to get seekers to come. If disciples don't need church, why would seekers need it? 

Thus, we have become a nation of the "spiritual, but not religious," of the Christian-without-a-church. And it all started when we changed the very nature of the church as Jesus established it for us and decided instead to make it the place where the hard work of evangelism tries to happen instead of the encouragement and strengthening of the saints in the fellowship of one anothering. 

We went from a gathering of believers to an outpost of ministry, and we've taken Jesus out of the streets and put Him into the cathedrals and called the lost to come while the faithful wander in the world looking for a Christ they had, but lost, because they became disconnected from the very place that was supposed to weave them in. 

We've flipped the entire thing upside-down. 

The disciples are no longer leading the church; they're leaving it. The seekers are no longer finding Jesus in the places where they live; He lives in His own special place apart from the dust and the dirt of the real world. The Gospel is being preached in the pulpit, but not lived in our communities. We say to the thirsty, "Come," and we pour out just enough water to keep them coming back for more and then, when they tire of water, we tell them that food is up to them and that they're ready to go foraging. Then, what they find is a smorgasbord of what the world has to offer, only a very small bit of which is Jesus, and it's just too easy once the church has said that you don't need them...to not want them. And if you, who believe in Jesus, don't want the church, then why should I, who am curious about Jesus, want it? 

No wonder our churches are struggling. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Church's Job

It bothers some persons when I say things like, "the church is not the answer to the world's search for hope." It bothers them when I say that the church is not always the best place to learn the love of Jesus. It bothers them when I say that the end game of evangelism is not numbers in the church. 

But all of these things are true. 

And that's not because the church is fundamentally broken. It's not because of the way that our churches are. It's not because of some huge moral failing that we're all just too willing to overlook or whatever. It's because, hear me on this, that's not what the church was made for.

The church was never intended to save the world. That's what the Cross was for. 

Read that line again: the church was never intended to save the world. That's what the Cross was for

Nor did Jesus ever tell us that we were to go into all the world and make members of the church. Those weren't His words. He told us to go and make disciples. And where are disciples made? 

Well, if you look at the Gospels, they aren't made in the church.

Disciples are made in the walk of life. They are made on the streets and in the marketplaces. They are made in homes and on the shores of the sea. They are made in the places where they live and love and work and play. They are made when they hear the voice of Jesus calling and stand up to follow, to go and see what's going on. They are made in the places where the blind receive sight, the deaf receive hearing, where demons are cast out and souls are healed. To my recollection, neither Jesus nor anyone else in the entire New Testament ever said to a single person, "Come, go to church with me!" 

Church is the assembly of believers. It is the place where we come to be encouraged by one another, to fellowship, to break bread, to share in life together. It is where we come to be strengthened, to learn more about this Jesus from others who are experiencing Him, to love out loud with one another and worship and glorify His name. 

The church is not the place where evangelism happens. It's not the place where disciples are made. It's not where persons come to fall in love with Jesus. You're supposed to fall in love with Jesus on the streets and then come to His church so that you can one another with one another. You fall in love with Jesus where there's dust on your feet, then you come to be encouraged by others who are just as abuzz with stories of His grace as you now are. 

So when I say that maybe it's not the best thing to just try to shove a seeker into a church, what I mean is, it's definitely not the best thing to try to shove a seeker into a church. Not once did Jesus tell a man crying out on the side of the road, "Come meet me at the Temple, and I will show you great things." That's not what the Temple was for. 

The Cross already accomplished so many of the things that we're trying to get persons into our doors for, and the Cross, we must add, was outside, on a hill, in the sight of the city, where anyone could come, witness, learn, be blessed. Where everyone was saved, right out in the open, the same way that so many were healed. 

So we have to stop pretending that the best things about Jesus happen behind our closed doors. That's just not the case. It's never been the case. It's never been the story of the church. At least, it's never supposed to have been. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

A Witness

It sounds strange, if you love the church and you believe that Jesus instituted the church because it was God's glorious design for us and our one anothering, to say that when someone expresses an interest in the hope of Christ, you can't think of a single church that you would recommend to them. 

But the truth is that even though Jesus instituted the church as God's glorious design for our one anothering, it is full of...us. It is full of broken and failing and falling human beings who are struggling under the weight of our own existence, wrestling with our own insecurities and the things that we ourselves have not yet surrendered to Jesus (and even once we have surrendered them, there always seem to be more...), and because of that, we are prone to break, fail, and trip up other human beings who come into our midst.

So when you have someone who says they've given up on religion but their heart is still open to hope, you can't - you simply can't - just try to plug them into a system of broken but religious human beings and hope they figure it out from there. All you're going to do is wound them more deeply and take that little reservoir of hope that is holding on inside of them and poke a big ol' hole in the side of it until it all leaks out and leaves them hopeless and empty. 

This is not to say that this is the approach for everyone. Not at all. There are persons whose life stories bring them to a place where what they fall in love with first is the community of God's people. They love the one anothering, and they thrive on it, even when it's broken. They'll be able to see the confessional nature of our mess-ups and how we love and encourage one another even when we're not perfect (as the encouragee or the encourager), and they'll want to be part of that kind of community. Then, when we get them plugged into our church, we run the cord a little longer and plug them into Jesus. 

This is the model that we've adopted for quite a long time, actually. This is where our most recent evangelistic ideas lead us - we get persons into the church, and then we make them Christians. We draw them with our programs, then we spread the Communion table before them. We entice them by how we love one another, then we teach them the words, "Jesus loves me." 

But when we're looking at a generation who has been so deeply wounded by the church, a generation turning its back on religion and on our structures and on our programs, we can't just keep telling them that this is what we've got. That this is what it's all about. That maybe they were just in the wrong church. Because the truth is that for someone thirsty for the living water of Jesus Christ who is uncertain about what love even looks like, every church is the wrong church. 

When my friend said those words to me - I have given up on religion, but you give me hope - I wondered what kind of thing I might plug her into, and as I said yesterday, I came quickly to the conclusion that there was nothing I should plug her into. She's not looking to be plugged in. Not right now. 

What she needs is a Gospel encounter. She needs to see Jesus. She needs to meet Him. She needs to see what it's like to keep coming to Him. She needs to be there and hear the voices crying out on the sides of the road. Needs to see the woman pressing through the crowds just to touch Him. Needs to know what it's like to climb into a boat and cross over to the other side of the lake just to hear Him speak love one more time. 

And maybe, sure, she could see that in a church. But that's just not the only thing God called us to. Maybe, I realized, the best way for her to see Jesus...is through me. It's to see me crying out, pressing through the crowds, climbing into a boat. Maybe the best way for her to meet Jesus is for me to keep showing up in the places where He is and joining Him. Out loud. 

Maybe that's what evangelism ought to be about. 

Monday, September 12, 2022

An Invitation to Church

For years, the gold standard of Christian evangelism seems to have been, "How many persons have you brought into the church?" How many have you invited to Easter Sunday, or any Sunday, for that matter? How many have given us their name and address and more importantly, money, because of you? When was the last time you invited someone to a church event with you? 

If we're being honest, I don't love it. 

I was thinking about this last week after receiving a message from a friend - something along the lines of, "I gave up on religion a long time ago because I was tired of getting burned, but I swear - you give me hope." And I confess that the first thought I had was, "How can I connect this friend with a Christian community who has the kind of hope that I do? How can I get her back into the fold so that she can see that this is what the Christian life is supposed to look like?"

I realized pretty quickly that...I can't. 

I realized that this is someone that I would not invite to church. This is someone to whom I would not recommend a church. This is someone whose heart is so open to the Gospel that I wouldn't dare ruin it by trying to draw (or drag) her into a church. 

Not right now. 

On the surface, that sounds harsh. That sounds anti-church. That sounds anti-Christian. After all, God told us Himself that the church was the plan for our one anothering, and the New Testament tells us plainly not to neglect meeting together. The ultimate goal of the Christian faith, as so many of us have been taught it, is church membership. (That is actually not the ultimate goal of the Christian faith as God describes it, but it's how we have settled on it in the past few generations.) 

At the very least, it sounds contradictory to the things that I have said even in this space - that "spiritual but not religious" is not a Christian option, that we ought to be members of a congregation, that we ought to commit ourselves to that congregation faithfully because it's about the people, not the programs. And I stand by all of this. I still believe these things to be true. 

But when we are dealing with the spiritually wounded, church is not the immediate answer. Our evangelistic program that says that we get persons in the door, then disciple them is not the best plan of action. When we have someone like my friend, whose mind is closed to religion but whose heart is open to hope, the worst thing we can do is try to throw them back into a congregational fold as the method of accessing that hope for them. The worst thing we can tell them is that the church is the only way to tap into Jesus (which, by the way, is not a biblical teaching, either). 

I found myself thinking of Christian plug-ins for my friend, of ways that I could connect her more deeply to that hope. But the more I thought, the more I realized about the nature of faith and the church and doubt and hope and a thousand other things. So we're going to talk about some of those here in this space because I think they're important for all of us, for the way that we're loving Jesus, loving each other, loving the church, and doing evangelism. 

Friday, September 9, 2022

Beloved

And now, here we are for a second Friday in a row where I'm going to write about how desperately we need to know God's deep love for us. If we want to be a people who read His stories and see ourselves in the shoes of Israel, of God's cherished and treasured people, then we have to view ourselves as a cherished and treasured people. 

And right now, most of us simply don't. 

Listen, this is not because of who we are. We could go on all day about why we don't deserve the love of God, about all of our secret (and not-so-secret) sins, about all the ways that we fall short, about the second thoughts that we have in our own minds, about every time we look in the mirror and see someone staring back at us that we never wanted to be. All of that is true about us. 

But what we can't do is to keep letting that keep us from also knowing how much God truly loves us. 

This is the conundrum that the world's rhetoric has put us in. The same voice they use to convince us not to call ourselves Christians - because we aren't Christ - is the one they use to condemn us when we fall short. It's the voice that comes to tell us that we're getting it wrong. That we are wrong. That we're doing bad things, so we are bad. That this is not the way Christ wants us to bear His name into the world, so we are not worthy of that name. And on and on and on until it's perfectly clear that we can't even love ourselves, so how could God - a perfect, powerful, almighty God - ever love us? 

Once we are not loved, it's easy to simply take a step back from all of those stories because, hey, they aren't about us. We are church folk, but we are not God's people. I cannot possibly be one of God's persons. 

Then, we read the stories the way that we read them, as Egyptians or as historical observers, and it teaches us something, we think, about the nature of God, but really, all it does is put more space between us and Him. If you read the stories of the plagues and come away with a powerful, perhaps vengeful, God who exercises His authority over creation at His own choosing to prove a point about how powerful He is, you aren't learning anything about the love of God. You aren't learning about how much He loves His creation. All you're learning is how much He loves His power. 

Do you see how this spirals so quickly? Do you see how easy it is for us to then get away from knowing the very heart of God that He's told us from the beginning that He's trying to show us? 

It all starts with knowing who we are as beloved by Him. When the love of God is the foundation of your knowing anything at all about Him, it changes everything. It changes the way you live. It changes the way you love. It changes the way that you read His stories. 

Because all of a sudden, you realize - the plagues aren't just about Egypt, and they aren't just about power. They are a story about Goshen and Israel and God's great love. 

And if you missed that, go back and read them again. This time, start with this unshakable truth that is the heart of everything: for God so loved the world.  

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Church Folk

Why is it that we so easily read the stories of God as a people of Egypt or as mere historical observers? 

Quite simply, it is because we have lost our identity as a people of God. 

It's complicated how we got here, and it's even complicated to try to explain where we are. We are a people who are, on the one hand, fighting a sense of Christian nationalism right now that claims that America is God's political entity and that there is some kind of special blessing on her, and at the same time, we do not believe that we are a beloved people of God. 

....maybe we should get into that a little deeper at some point. 

The point is, we have become identified with our things and our places more than our God, and that is what is creating so much of the challenge for us. 

This happens in a lot of quiet little ways. For example, there are a number of persons in our world who would have once called themselves Christians, but now, when you ask about their faith, they will just tell you that they go to church. Are you a Christian? "Well, I go to church." 

The culture seems to have forced us into this a little bit (and I use the word "force" quite liberally, as it is really a retreat for us from the bold proclamation of faith that we ought to have). It's done this by putting a whole lot of baggage with the term "Christian" and spending so much of its time attacking Christians for being fallen human beings instead of Christlike figures, and so there has become this sort of stigma with identifying yourself as a Christian - you don't want to seem like you're the thing the world hates, especially if you are not particularly like all the things that the world hates about hypocrites. So in an effort to differentiate ourselves from those "Christians" the world is railing against, many of us seem to have simply decided that we will refer to ourselves as "churchgoers." 

I'm not talking here about the uncommitted, by the way. I'm not talking about those still on the fence or those still seeking, who also call themselves churchgoers because they haven't really made a commitment to the faith yet. I'm talking about those who are, in their hearts, lovers of Jesus but who can't figure out exactly how they want to declare that any more. 

So we call ourselves churchgoers, trying to escape the baggage that comes with being "Christians." And once we become simply churchgoers, we have lost the name of Christ altogether as a banner over our lives. There is no "Christ" in "churchgoer," though there is in "Christian." 

Then, we tend to move from being churchgoers to members of a particular church. Now, we've lost any attempt at trying to clarify what our faith means and have just skipped right to affiliations. Are you a Christian? Well, I'm a member of X Church. Now, we're even further from associating ourselves with Christ, and with God. Our churches have become social groups, and we are identified by logos and buildings and maybe programs, but not God. 

Quickly, then, we become a people who don't recognize even ourselves as a people of God. We took one step away by no longer calling ourselves Christians, then another step by calling ourselves members of a social organization. At some point, many have even decided they are "spiritual, but not religious" but even these do not talk about the Holy Spirit being the basis of that spirituality. 

We have developed, then, a faith in which there need be no mention at all of God. And when we have a faith like that, it's not hard to see why we don't identify ourselves with the people of God when we read His stories; we don't see ourselves even now as a people of God. 

We're just church folk.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Existence of God

It's true that we're prone to read the stories of the plagues as though we ourselves were living in Egypt, and this colors our perception of God. But it's also true that many of us are prone to read the stories of the plagues in an even more detrimental way - as mere observers of history. And this destroys our perception of God. 

We read these stories as far-removed persons, as persons living in an entirely different time and place. We relate neither to Egypt nor to Israel. To us, these become just stories that happened once upon a time, nice little "myths" (not in the sense of being false, but in the sense of simply being stories) about the origins of something - maybe the nation-state of Israel that exists somewhere in the Middle East, a place that most persons would struggle to find on a map. 

But what else are we supposed to make of this story? We don't live there. We've never lived there. We have never been Egyptians, and we have never been Israelites. We have not been captors, and we have not been captives. Many of us live in places where there are not rivers flowing through or crops being grown. Too many of us have never even seen in a single locust, let alone a whole army of them. 

The entire story is foreign to us, or so it seems, and so we read it as such - a foreign story about foreign ideas, a narrative about things that we don't relate with and never can relate with. 

And then, of course, we find ourselves with no relation at all even to this God. 

He's just a character in the story of a long-ago people. He's just a force in a story about good and evil. A moral type of story, if you will. A fable, like Aesop used to write. This becomes just another one of those stories that tells us how we are supposed to live - gracious, if we are Egypt; patiently insistent, if we are Israel.

But it comes to have very little to do with God. Rather, it becomes for us, as historical observers, a story about right and wrong, about a good way to live and a bad way to live. God, then, becomes "karma," for lack of a better word - He's just the character reinforcing goodness and punishing badness. He is the personification of "you reap what you sow" and there is really no judgment, but there is also no love. 

Because a force like that one is impersonal. There's nothing to know about it. It simply exists. There's nothing to love or to worship or to devote oneself to. It would be like giving yourself to the wind, which is simply going to blow whichever way it will. 

The truth is, we read most of our Bible this way. We read it as a people who aren't these people, a people who are neither captives nor a people of God (though we are actually both). We read it as though God is simply some kind of moral force working through the history of the world to encourage good (rather than to will or to create it) and to discourage bad (rather than to destroy it). And then, we wonder how we got here, to a faith that doesn't know who God is or what it means to love Him or to be loved by Him. 

And so, we come back again to the same question we left with yesterday: what if that's not how we read the Bible? What if that's not how we read these stories? What if we read them as though we are, in fact, Israel - both captives and a people of God? 

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Read Like an Egyptian

This week, we're talking about the plagues in Egypt, and we're looking at what it is that they teach us about God. And certainly, they teach us the raw power of God, but I said yesterday that I think we're missing something very important in the stories of the plagues. And we are. 

Because too often, we read the Exodus like Egyptians. 

We read it as if we are a people in the land in which the Exodus is happening, as though we are actually there and experiencing the plagues of the frogs and the flies and the blood and the darkness firsthand. We put ourselves in the shoes of those who were walking in those sands along the Nile, and from this vantage point, the stories of the plagues take our breath away. 

They raise for us questions about this God, about any God who could do such a thing. We stand in awe of His power, but we tremble a little bit, too. It's hard to grasp what He's doing or why or how a loving God could do this to an entire people, especially an entire people who aren't responsible for telling Israel "no." Egypt as a whole is paying the price for Pharaoh's hard heart, and the entire land is suffering and is being devastated and then...and then, what? 

But let me ask you something: 

How does it change your view of God if you read the Exodus not as an Egyptian, but as an Israelite?

What if you saw the plagues not as a person of the land, but as a person of God - a captive in a foreign land? This is what we're missing about God's love in these stories. 

The people of Israel went to work in Egypt every day. They came to build bricks in a land teeming with locusts. They came to make harvests in a land decimated by hail. They came to the rivers after a long day under the hot Egyptian sun and found blood instead of water. They knew firsthand the plagues of Egypt because they were living them in their captivity. 

But when the people of God went back to Goshen? When they returned home at night? None of that. There were no frogs in Goshen. There were no flies in Goshen. There was no hail in Goshen. There was light in Goshen. 

The people of Israel went to work in their captivity in Egypt and saw God's judgment on a harsh people, but they went home at night to peace and prosperity - to thriving crops and fertile soil and quiet, without a buzz or a croak or a flutter or a thunderclap to be heard - and they knew God's deep love for them.

And sometimes, I just wonder how it would change our understanding of God if we read these stories the way Israel saw them, not the way Egypt did. If we read them and knew what was happening in Egypt, but knew that we don't live there. If we knew about the frogs, but the croaking didn't keep us up at night. If we read them as His people and not a bunch of foreigners?

What if the Exodus isn't just a story about God's raw power, but about His deep love?   

Monday, September 5, 2022

A Plague

When you read the early chapters of Exodus, what do you learn about God? 

We're talking here about a very strange season in the history of Israel, a time in which they were living in captivity and counting on the Lord to set them free through a man named Moses who was abandoned as a Hebrew baby, grew up in Pharaoh's palace, murdered an Egyptian, ran away for several years, then came back to both a people and a palace who didn't recognize him. And, oh yeah, he wasn't really interested in the job anyway. 

For most of us, this story takes a whole lot longer than our brand of Christian faith tells us that it should. We are a people who believe that whatever God wants, God gets, and so if God decides to do something, it's as good as done. We don't really understand why it took so long to get Pharaoh on board or why God put up with the hard heart of the Egyptian ruler as long as He did. After all, He's God. If He wanted to march His people out of Egypt, there really wasn't anything that could stop Him. 

Can you just imagine Moses? "No, no, Pharaoh. This isn't a request. Think of this as more of an informational meeting. We're outta here." 

That would be a story for the ages, too. Wouldn't it? We would love to have that kind of God, wouldn't we? I would. 

But instead, what we have is a meek little man, an older man, an exile who came back to captivity, of all things, asking Pharaoh to let his people go...and getting a resounding "no." Not once. Not twice. Not even three times. Over and over again, God sends Moses to ask, even when they both know the answer. 

Then, we get a series of plagues. Frogs covering the land. Flies covering the land. Locusts covering the land. Darkness covering the land. All of the water turns to blood. The Egyptians are downright horrified. Even they start begging Pharaoh to let God's people go. (Okay, this isn't *exactly* biblical, but it doesn't seem far-fetched. The outcry of the Egyptian people had to be astounding. Like, dude, we will make our own bricks; just make the hail stop.) 

The question is - what do we learn from this story? What do we learn from the plagues? 

Because of the way that the story is written, I think what we often learn is something about the awesome, terrifying, absolute power of God. We learn about this God who will absolutely destroy the land and everything in it when you tell Him "no." We learn about a God who sends blood and flies and frogs and hail and casts everything into darkness. 

And I think all of this leads us to a God the world should worship, should fear, because...just look what He can do. 

But I think the way we read this story betrays us. I think we're missing out on something really important, something fundamentally faith-changing that is written for us in the Exodus. 

What is it? 

Stay tuned.  

Friday, September 2, 2022

Loved

The sad truth about these false prophets is that they're playing on our distorted understanding of God's love. And that, more than any other message, ought to be a wake-up call for the church. 

How does a message where God doesn't love His church become so popular in the first place? When we already believe that God doesn't love us...or struggle to believe that He does. 

Honestly, one of the hardest truths about the Christian life is the depth of God's love for us. We know our sins, our failures, our trials, our habits, our hang-ups, our patterns, our everything, and we know how hard it must be to love someone like us. We know what an incredible disappointment we are if we hold ourselves up to some moral/ethical/spiritual standard that sounds "Christian." Of course God doesn't love us. 

And that's what these pastors are playing on - they are creating these moral/ethical/spiritual standards for the church and encouraging us to hold ourselves up to them so that we can fail and then they can tell us that the church is broken and of course God doesn't love it (or us) because that's the easy message to preach. From there, it's easy to deconstruct the church, shift the emphasis from God's love for us to our love for one another, preach a message that looks a lot like the world's definition of loving each other (tolerance, affirmation, buzzwords like "social justice" or whatever else is going on right now), and all of a sudden, we've totally changed the nature of the church from a people loved by God, called, and sent into the world to a people trying to love God by loving others in some way that He will supposedly approve. 

As it plays out, it's a subtle, but deadly, difference. Yet, so palatable to the masses. 

What we need are not activist pastors reminding us that we don't measure up to some moral/ethical/spiritual standard that Jesus never created for us, but rather, we need pastors who hold us in the shadow of the Cross and remind us of the incredible love that God poured out for us right there.

We need pastors who push us to understand who we are not as lovers of God, but as beloved by God. We need pastors who put the burden of being loved on our shoulders, not the burden of loving. We need pastors who are constantly reminding us of the grace that closes the distance we so easily create in our minds between us and God. God already saw that distance, felt the pain of the separation, and solved that problem. That's the Gospel, and that's the Gospel that we need preached. 

It's not easy. We would much rather love than be loved, much rather serve than be served. We would much rather tell the world everything we know about God than show them one thing because the truth is, most of us struggle with even that one thing. Most of us know a thousand things about God, but struggle to live a life that reflects that even one of them might be actually true. And these activist pastors jump all over that and tell us we're right - God is disappointed in us and really wants us to be doing so much better. 

And now, we're back at a faith by works and not by grace, which the Bible itself speaks out against at every turn. 

I really do think the key for us for reclaiming the church and God's love for her and God's design for her and God's plan - and yes, this really is it - is to start by becoming a people who are better at being loved by God. All of the other stuff, all the things we think we're supposed to do and to be and to create or whatever burden it is we're putting on ourselves, will flow naturally out of our being loved by Him once we get that right. 

So stop paying attention to these guys who have nothing good to say about the church. They don't know what they're talking about. 

For God so loves the church. And He said so quite clearly. 

Thursday, September 1, 2022

False Prophets

Still, no matter what we say, we are left with the nagging suspicion that some of what these activist pastors who spend their ministry preaching against the church are saying is actually true. It just sounds like maybe they're onto something. In most cases, they really are doing a fantastic job of convincing us that they sound like Jesus, that the things they are saying are things that Jesus would say.

But then again, the false prophets have always been good at that. 

Remember these guys? These are the men (and women) who have been part of Israel's story from the very beginning, the ones who come speaking boldly in the public squares and sounding for everything like they have the same kind of authority as real prophets. They tell the people what they think, and they use very holy-sounding language to do it, and then the people are convinced that these men and women are actually speaking for God.

Over and over again throughout the Scriptures, we see them coming face-to-face with real prophets of God. We see them standing there right in front of guys like Jeremiah or Elijah and continuing to preach the messages that God hasn't given them. But they wrap these words in such language that the people don't know what to think any more. The false prophet in the King's presence sounds so much like Jeremiah that it's hard to know which one is speaking with authority and which one isn't (except that the King always seemed to know...and choose the false prophet).

We're not talking here about prophets of other gods. We're not talking about things like Elijah's showdown with the prophets of Baal on the mountain. That's an entirely different story altogether. We're talking about the guys who claimed that the Lord sent them, who talked to Israel in their own Hebrew holy language, and who were just entirely making it up because it sounded good to them. 

Because they, like too many activist pastors these days, were trying to make a name for themselves. 

In the New Testament, they aren't called false prophets any more, but false teachers. And the writers of the epistles, especially Paul, continually warn the church about them. Paul even goes so far as to say that if anyone comes to you preaching a Gospel that is different than the one that he has shared, that person is a false teacher, and you must deal with them as such. 

A gospel, perhaps, in which Jesus doesn't love His church and is ready to demolish it.

That is one of the fundamental differences between false prophets in the Bible and false prophets today - the ones in the Bible always seemed to be building up God's people in the face of coming judgment; today's false prophets seem to always be tearing down God's people against His desire to build them up - but false is false is false. 

And these guys are bold; they always have been. There is a scene in Jeremiah in which the prophet literally calls out the false prophet standing right in front of him, and the guy knows that Jeremiah is a true prophet of the Lord, but stands there and insists in his own false prophecy anyway. Right to Jeremiah's face. That's bold. 

And that's what we're still seeing today. Most of these activist pastors are being called out, at least from time to time, and they are just standing there, insisting in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that they are right. 

The truth is that there were many in Israel who believed their false prophets, almost entirely because they wanted to believe their false prophets. They liked that message better than the one God's real prophets were preaching. And the same is true today. There are plenty of persons, even persons of faith, even persons of real faith, who believe these false prophets, almost entirely because they want to believe these false prophets. 

As strange as it seems to understand, they would just rather believe that God is disappointed with His church than that He loves it dearly. Why? 

(One more day.) 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Developing Revelation

How do I know that God hasn't given a word to one of these pastors to renovate His church and establish a new way of worshiping? 

Quite simply, I don't. 

The idea that we're talking about here is the idea of "developing revelation" - the notion that God speaks to His people in seasons in and effort to develop across time the gloriousness of His plan in the world. This is how we got to the church in the first place - by tracking God's developing revelation all the way from "in the beginning" through Egypt to the tabernacle in the wilderness to the Temple in Jerusalem to exile and all the way to the Roman Empire, where Jesus revealed the church to us as God's design for His people under grace. Without developing revelation, without everything that came before it, we would have no way of understanding Jesus or the church. That's just how God works.

Then sometime, many many many years after Jesus, a bunch of religious professionals got together and decided that God was done speaking to His people and that nothing new was going to come from His mouth. Revelation, they said, was closed. 

Now, I'm not so sure about that. I don't think that a God who has spoken to His people in every culture and every historical era across time suddenly just stops and forces everyone to figure out what His Word to a people under Roman rule has to say to us in a world of smartphones and automatic weapons. I think He's still speaking to us, giving us a message that makes sense. If that weren't true, we wouldn't have so many Christian living books being published telling us what God wants us to know about our lives today

But the standard for new revelation has got to be high. If we are a people who believe that God's entire history was leading us to Jesus, then anything that we claim that changes a single thing about Jesus has an extremely high burden of proof. 

That includes changing the nature of the church. 

If Jesus Himself told us about the church and built it, if He's the one who established it, if He's the one who spent His life and ministry telling us how things work in the community of God and calling us to go make disciples and to love one another, then anyone claiming that the church is not that important or that Jesus doesn't love His church has to prove that that's God talking and not them. 

So far, none of them have. 

Listen, we already have in Revelation the way that God responds to a broken church. Seven of them, actually. We have already seen how God responds to the model that is carried out fallibly by broken persons in a fallen world. Not once does God say, "Wow. This church thing was a bad idea." Not once does He say, "Man, you guys are getting this so wrong that I'm going to have to rethink My plan." No, what He keeps saying is, "You aren't perfect, but keep loving Me, and I will keep perfecting you." "You're doing some things well, but there's some stuff you still need to work on." And He keeps repeating His call to love one another, to never stop meeting together, to not neglect the community of the church. 

And if God, seeing how broken the church can be, still thinks the church is the plan, then the church is the plan, period. No matter how chic it may be to start proclaiming otherwise. 

And as much as these pastors who spend their ministry tearing down the church try to tell you that they're just like Jesus, that you can find their kind of ministry all through the pages of the Bible, they're half-right. You can. 

But it's not where they claim it is. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Disestablishing the Church

The conversation here gets a little muddier the deeper that we get into it. Yes, it's true that Jesus spent a great deal of time tearing down the religious structures of His day, the Temple culture that the Jews had lived since all the way back in Exodus when they built the first tabernacle. We could argue, perhaps, that it went even further back than that - all the way to Abraham and the sacrifice on the mountain. 

But the reason that Jesus did this was because He came to institute a better way of worship. He came to put into practice God's plan for His people. He came to fulfill the promise that rid them of the need for that Temple worship in the first place. He came to reconcile the world to God and establish the church as God intended it. 

He even said as much - I will tear down this Temple and restore it in three days. In other words, He's turning all of this to rubble to make it better - more glorious, more full, more wondrous, more holy. 

Now, here's where it gets a little trickier to keep talking like this: these activist pastors who seem to have it out for the church, these guys who tell you that they are just like Jesus...say the exact same thing

They claim that the church is failing, that it's not what God intended it to be, that God has something better for His people, that He is calling us to new ways of worship. They make the same claims against the church that Jesus made against the Temple, and they tell us that this is God's will. That God Himself has something better for us than the church. All we have to do is build it. 

At this point, you might be thinking they are right. You might be thinking they have a point. The church is, in fact, a broken institution, primarily because it is made up of fallen men and women. Who wouldn't want a more perfect assembly? Who wouldn't want to find a way to do it better?

But the line here is very thin. Because when Jesus established the church, He said not even the gates of Hell would overcome it. When Jesus established the church, He said this is the way that we're supposed to do it. When the New Testament tells us about the church, it tells us about a broken body of fallen men and women who have things to work out, but it never says that the church itself was a bad idea or that God is disappointed in it. 

To say that the church is not what God wants from us is to say that you have a better idea than Jesus did. It's to say that you have a better Promise than Jesus did. It's to say that Jesus got it wrong in building the church. 

It's to say that the entire testimony of the New Testament - from the Gospels where Jesus establishes the church through Peter, through the letters where Paul encourages the broken church, to Revelation where God writes letters to His broken churches (letters that are full of love) - is somehow wrong. Or outdated. Or broken. Or something. 

It's to say that the thing that God was doing from the very beginning of the world, the thing that Jesus accomplished in His life and ministry, isn't the plan. 

Do you see why that's a problem?  

Monday, August 29, 2022

Sounds Like Jesus

When we talk about Jesus who possibly doesn't love His church, the trouble is that there's a way to preach that message and make it sound absolutely legitimate. 

For example, most pastors who want to preach this sort of message take this spin on it: "Jesus came to tear down the religious structures of His day." And that much is true. You can build an entire sermon series around Jesus's confrontations with the Pharisees, His talk about the Temple, His expansion of the law. It seems like at every turn, Jesus was very much against the way that the faithful people of God had done religion for the preceding several thousand years. 

And the message that Jesus preached about the established religion of Israel is the same message that these pastors preach about the church - it isn't holistic enough. It doesn't go far enough. It doesn't have its emphases in the right places. In fact, a lot of these guys just take Jesus's words about the Temple and make them about the church. 

And...it sounds like Jesus. 

It sounds like Jesus because it is Jesus. It's His words, His attitudes, His emphases. You hear a sermon like this, and if you don't understand what's happening, then you're sitting in the pews going, "Whoa. We need to be changing a lot of things about our church!" 

Then, these pastors swoop in and tell you all of the things that you need to be changing about your church, about the way you worship, about the programs you put together, about the responsibilities you take on, about...whatever. 

But something very subtle has happened in between, something that most churchgoers (or followers on Twitter or listeners of podcasts or whoever) don't even notice: between telling you how much Jesus doesn't like the church and telling you what you're supposed to be doing better, almost every single one of these pastors stops talking about Jesus.

Once they've used Him to introduce the concept of tearing down the church, they stop talking about Him. When they've moved on to what the church is supposed to look like, listen - you'll realize they're suddenly telling you what they think. If they're name-dropping Jesus at all, the content has shifted, and it's no longer what He said at all...but most persons don't realize this because the front end was so loaded with authentic Jesus that if you even hear the name, you automatically assume the back end is just as authentic. 

It's deception at its finest, and it's extremely effective. The trouble is, of course, that it is not very much Christian at all. It's not Christ-centered, and it's certainly not Christ-like (ironic, since these are the guys who are most likely to repeatedly tell you how much like Jesus they are). Using the authority of the first half of the message, they depend upon that authority carrying through to their own part of it, and most of the time, this absolutely works. This is how we end up with entire congregations preaching this shadow Jesus who hates His church and wants it to look more like them. This is how we end up with comment sections full of agreements with activist pastors and absolute hatred for anyone who thinks differently. This is how these messages take root. 

Wait, though - if this is really the message that Jesus preached, shouldn't it be the message we're preaching? Don't we have an obligation, as faithful Christians, to carry on His Word, even if we don't particularly like it? 

Don't be fooled - this was His Word, but it is not any longer. There are some major fundamental differences between the ways that Jesus preached this message and the way pastors are doing it today. We'll look at some of that in the coming days. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

Unloving the Church

When we point out that activist pastors are prone to attack the church, we have to be very clear about what we're saying, lest anyone get the wrong idea. 

The church is not above reproach. She is not perfect. She is not even close. She is full of sinners and backsliders. She does some things well, and she gets some things wrong. If we look at the letters to the churches in Revelation, we see that this has always been the case - God Himself even recognizes this. 

Because of this, two things are true: first, we should not preach a Christianity that never calls out the church for her shortcomings. Our aim is always to get better at doing what God has called us to do, and that requires being honest about who we are. Second, we should not assume that every pastor who calls out the church is an activist pastor. Many, many pastors over many, many generations have called out the church out of a deep love for her and a desire to see her be authentically more like Jesus. 

Where we have to be very aware of what's going on is when we are dealing with activist pastors, and here's how you know: 

Activist pastors tend to preach a message in which even Jesus doesn't love His church. In which Jesus is disappointed with us and condemns us for the way we're doing church. In which church seems to be the biggest problem with Christianity. In which the church can do no right

(On that note, though, a bigger hallmark of an activist pastor is that any church that is not his church can do no right. He's usually very good at claiming that his church is doing all the things that no other church is doing and that every church should be doing and thus, his church should be the church that everyone should try to model and look up to. Do you see how this fits in with his narrative of building a platform for himself? He puts his church on display not only to show you how wrong you're getting it, but to convince you of how right he's getting it. It all feeds into his need to convince you that he looks very much like Jesus so that he can pick the fights he's picking and preach the messages he's preaching that actually testify otherwise.) 

The number of Christians who are disappointed in the church right now is staggering. I'm telling you - it's staggering. The number of Christians who believe the church is broken and that not even Jesus loves the church, let alone likes it, is flabbergasting. And it's not because today's church is fundamentally different than churches in the past, no matter how much some of these voices try to tell you that's true (any even coarse reading of church history will tell you it's not); it's because of these activist pastors who have built their platforms on tearing the church down in order to build themselves up, all while claiming a Christ-like humility and preaching a message that affirms that. 

It's because when you look for pastors on a social media platform, these guys are the first ones to pop up. They are the ones making the most content. They are the ones getting the most hits. They are the ones who seem like the ones you ought to be following. And then you get sucked in, and if you don't have a solid understanding of who Jesus historically and biblically was, they start very quickly and easily to shape your view of Him. 

And now, we have a Christianity that's being torn down from the inside under this big banner that announces that this was God's plan all along, that this is what Jesus would want. But remember what Jesus said? He said not even the gates of Hell would shake His church. 

So why are we letting pastors do it? 

(We'll continue this conversation into at least part of next week because as I wrote that last paragraph, I realized there was something very important that I still want to say. Something that we have to understand in this context. So stick with us.) 

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Far from Home

How does an activist pastor get away with preaching a Jesus who is so un-Christlike? 

There are two primary ways. 

First, we have to recognize that pastors have a measure of authority. And when someone has authority, we assume that someone has learning. And when we assume that someone has learning, we assume that person knows more than us, so we trust that person to teach us. This is, truly, what ends up getting most of these activist pastors in trouble eventually - they rest so heavily on the authority that they have by virtue of their position that it comes their downfall. 

But in the meantime, they enjoy that measure of authority that lets them essentially preach whatever they want to, appeal to their own authority, and convince the masses that they must be right. They must know what they're talking about. After all, they're the pastor. 

So what happens then is that we have entire groups of persons who buy into what their pastor is saying and buy into it so wholeheartedly that they start repeating it, then the voices claiming that Jesus really is just like this grow. And a whole army of militant Christians who have adopted their activist pastor's pet project is unleashed upon the world. 

All you have to do is look at the comment section of any of the radical, non-Jesus-like claims these radical pastors are making, and you can see how it happens. They are filled with "amen" and "you preach it, brother" and "when will the world understand?" (That last one is really scary because it means that person has so thoroughly adopted the pastor's activism that the whole world is backward and wrong and lost and damned.) (Not, of course, that our world is not lost and getting some things wrong - that, of course, is the heart of the Gospel, but this is different.) 

The second way that pastors are able to continue to preach this kind of non-Christlike activism is even more pernicious: they get away with it because it sounds so much like the message of the world. 

These pastors adopt positions that are very worldly positions. They are hot-button issues, things the whole world is talking about. Things the world is even condemning Christianity for (which is why so many activist pastors build a platform on condemning the church). And we know that the more you hear a message, the more likely you are to believe that that message is the truth. So if you're hearing a message from the world, and your pastor then preaches it from the pulpit, then by gosh, it must be true. 

So these pastors are using your predisposition to believe the things you hear over and over again to make sure you're hearing their platform over and over again, and what better way to do that than to adopt a platform that you're already hearing?

This is how we end up with such a worldly Jesus being preached in our churches. This is how we end up with congregations that are very world-affirming, whose starting point seems to be that the world is getting it right and the church is getting it wrong. We see this all the time, don't we? And then we start to slowly question the church instead of the questioning the world, and from there, it's not hard to climb fully on board with this kind of platform. The world is saying it. The pastor is saying. Not long after, the church starts to say it. And all of a sudden, we have a Jesus who is no longer building His church, but condemning it. And that's the Jesus these activist pastors end up preaching. 

How far from the Gospel we have fallen! And it happens just like that. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

In the Image

What happens when an activist pastor starts picking a fight? Well, if he's going to convince you that he's just like Jesus, then he has to start preaching a Jesus that looks just like him. 

Let's go back to the pastor that we were talking about yesterday who was picking fights against political conservatives. It wasn't long after he started making this his platform that this pastor started rewriting Scripture. He said he was "updating" it to what Jesus would say if He lived in our world today. And what this pastor did was to take a well-known passage in Matthew about caring for the poor and protecting the rights of the many, and he filled it with a bunch of political talking points from his own persuasion and put the emphasis not on the act of the Christian, but on the shoulders of the government. 

The whole Scripture became about implementing policies and passing laws and re-structuring society. And this pastor insisted that this is what Jesus would have preached. 

Except...it's not what Jesus preached. At all.

So the pastor makes the claim that Jesus didn't preach it because Rome was different than America, because the times were different, because we have different relationships with our government now. And further and further and further away we get from the actual words and heart of Jesus because this guy just keeps spinning this story further away until it suits his own needs - the activist mission he has adopted for his platform. 

I would hope that I wouldn't have to explain why it's unlike Christ to be talking about changing the governmental structures of a nation and putting the burden of charity onto the state, but it's also true that this pastor received an outpouring of support for his statement. By the hundreds, social media users started chiming in with "Amen!" and "You preach it, brother!" Which means that not everyone is able to tell the true, historical, Son-of-God Jesus from the fake gospels being preached by activist pastors such as this. 

So let's be clear - Jesus always put the burden of charity on the individual's shoulders. On the Christian. He always preached a Gospel that says that it's your responsibility to do good in this world, not simply to vote for it. It's your responsibility to help your neighbor, not just to point her toward an established program. It's your responsibility to be the hands and feet of God in your community, not to elect leaders who will do it for you. 

The Jesus that this pastor is now preaching is far removed from who Jesus really was, but at this point, He has to be. Because this pastor has picked this fight and staked this claim that he is just like Jesus, that he is more like Jesus than you are if you disagree with him, and now, he has to preach a Jesus that looks like him. Because he has to convince you that this is who Jesus is so that when you look at him, you see Jesus. 

Actually, what he wants is that when you look at Jesus, you see him. 

Do you see how quickly this gets off track? 

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Broken Records

How can you tell if a pastor is picking a fight? Quite simply - every single one of these pastors picks the same fight over and over again for a season, then moves on and picks a different fight over and over and over again for a season, then moves on and picks another different fight.... These guys tend to develop what we call "one track minds." 

When they do this, they become narrowly focused on one idea, and they start "calling it out" everywhere that they see it. And before long, they're calling it out everywhere they suspect it. And not long after that, everywhere they can make a case that perhaps it is happening. 

I recently saw a pastor who loves to preach sermons that agree with the culture on a number of hot-button issues go on a rant about "conservatives," drawing his information from a left-wing political "watchdog" group whose entire existence is based on "gotcha" moments, real or imagined, centered on right-wing political figures. One politician with an R by his name had said one thing, and this group went off on all Republicans, on all conservatives, on all Christians calling them backward and stupid and accusing them of twisting the Gospel and making ludicrous claims. As if this one guy speaks for everyone who votes Republican or calls themselves a Christian. 

And by the way, that's another way you can tell you've got one of these activist pastors in front of you - they are always calling out Christians for being wrong and hate-filled and backward and stupid. They are always railing against the church, for some reason. Except, of course, for their church, where they are doing it right. Whatever it is. All of the other Christians in the world are very, very wrong. 

Anyway, this pastor starts laying into conservatives and those who call themselves Christians because this one guy said something really dumb in his public platform. And then, a couple of days later, he got a ministry email from some organization to which he is apparently a part (or he wouldn't be getting their emails), and it was an offer of financial resources. But it included the disclaimer, "Conservative churches only." 

So immediately, this pastor starts going off about how political conservatives control all of the money and are out to destroy those who are "trying to be like Jesus actually was" (i.e. him and his church) and it's all a great big conspiracy against liberals and democrats and the future of our country is at stake! 

The thing is...when someone is talking about a conservative church, they aren't talking about politics. They aren't talking about a church that votes Republican. They are talking about a church that holds to a doctrine of true biblical interpretation, one that doesn't add to the Scriptures or twist them in the face of culture. Being a conservative Christian is not about politics at all, but because that's this pastor's pet project right now, he spun it so that it sounded like it is. 

And that's what tends to happen with activist pastors. They latch onto a single idea, and then everything becomes about that. Every sermon, every tweet, every post, every meme, every everything becomes centered on this idea because, again, what they want is for you to see them and then to hear them tell you that they are acting like Jesus. Even though they're picking these fights every time and sometimes, as we've seen, even fabricating them just to "win." Because the truth is that if you hear a certain message enough, you'll almost always start to believe it. 

And then....