Local Churches as LIVING Systems…is there something to be done? Yes…Discipleship!

1Above is a telling picture of what happens in churches as “living systems.”  As “living systems,” congregations go through life cycles that, in many respects, mirror that which we all endure as human beings.  Below is a simple manner of explaining these stages:

  • Child – Survival is the keyword. The question being asked: can we be self-sustaining?  These are exciting times in a congregation’s life!
  • Adult – Maturity and development are keywords. Questions being asked: what will be our identity?  Do we have a plan to be faithful to God’s call?  These are times that take up the most “chronological” time.
  • Parent – Multiplication is a keyword. The question being asked: what is happening in and through the faith community that is bringing about new life?  Maturity congregations will either “birth” new life and new ministries or will start to subside in impact over the long haul.
  • Grandparenting – Experience and resources are the keywords. The question being asked:  Are we encouraging and building up other ministries?  Are we planting, starting something new that keeps us “youthful” in enthusiasm, passion, and dedication to Jesus’ mission?
  • Senior – These are Legacy years. In many instances, congregations are facing decline and are either trying to survive or seeking God for long-term legacy and rebirth.  There are critical issues in attracting and keeping of young leaders, people, and families.  Either NEW life will be experienced or the congregation may face “death.”

Again, the bottom line of this cycle is that all churches are living systems and, as living systems, all have life cycles that are easily discernable.  Living systems, by nature, seek stability.  That’s normal.  A problem starts to occur when these most living systems become institutionalized because institutionalism causes systems to get more centralized and controlled.  That’s a good thing – at least initially – unfortunately, along with control eventually comes stagnation.  As institutionalized systems start to age most discover that these systems leak life.  It drains right out of them.  That’s why institutionalized systems eventually have to deal with things like instability and chaos again.  Instability and chaos bring a sense of new life…new life brings about vitality, enthusiasm, and vision.  Unless a living system invites instability and chaos back into their common experience, research shows us that soon the system will run itself into the ground and die.

Friends, the Church (that universal organism we know as the body of Christ) has moved from a time of unprecedented stability to a sense of chaos, change, and survival.  Because of that many of these “living systems” are struggling to hold on to meaning and stability only to discover problems that they didn’t anticipate.  For the issues that led to the stability and life of these complex systems have changed (this isn’t the 1950’s any longer) and, in most cases, the system has no way to adapt and move on.  The complexities of life and culture are causing panic, disillusionment, and even resignation.

The fact is, a lot of people don’t go to church anymore.  They are not church-inclined.  And even if people go to church they are not exhibiting those characteristics that promise or could promise to breath new life back into fading and dying systems.  Healthy and growing systems can’t completely tolerate spectators.  Healthy systems move anonymous onlookers into relationships, they are much more interested in action than thought and definitively are intentionally moving everyone into their God-given, fruitful and reproductive potential by means of dismantling authority structures and equipping people to do the work of the ministry.

Every day something crosses my desk or my computer screen that promises the “silver bullet” to our desperation in ministry.   But as you might guess, there is NO silver bullet with which we’ve had experience.  The ONLY silver bullet that exists out there is something called discipleship.  Discipleship, building disciples that are not only faithful to Jesus but also are, by nature reproductive. Discipleship is definitely not about doing another church program or having the right sermon series.    Discipleship is about ONE person who desires to follow Jesus learning from Jesus how to follow Him and then teaching and demonstrating to another how to do the exact same thing.  And instead of this thing happening once in a while, it happens daily not in church buildings but in coffee shops, living rooms, break rooms, and restaurants around the community.

People of Long Valley faith communities (both Our Savior @ McCall and Shepherd of the Mountains @ Cascade) and other Christian congregations, a DNA or paradigm shift that many of us have been praying about needs to continue to be foremost on our prayer lists…we need to learn how to be disciples, train disciples, and release disciples.  We need to continue to learn what it means to love and follow Jesus.  In many respects, we can’t afford the luxury of doing anything else than doing what Jesus has called us to do.  We need to see everything that we do and are through the filter of discipleship and disciple-making.  I believe Jesus is not only cheering us on but also deliberately empowering us through His Spirit to continue to be His hands and feet in our communities!  Let’s pray for LIFE in our living system!  Let’s not give in to apathy or complacency.  Let’s keep our eyes and hearts on the good Shepherd and see what has in store for us next!

What is God really all about?

1Would it surprise you if I said that there are a lot of people who really don’t know the real God?

In a pluralistic world where there seems to be a number of divergent concepts of who God really is, I think it is important to be VERY CLEAR about who the God we worship and serve really is!

Right before we moved to McCall over a year ago, after MONTHS of being bugged by a friend to read a book, I finally got it in my hands, The Misunderstood God (the subtitle, Lies Religion tells about God). That got my attention because I 100% agree – religion, that humanity-made institutional entity that is more about rules and dogma than about transformation and relationship has perpetuated lies, if not at least, mistruths about God. So, I thought I would share with you about what I believe is the #1 issue when it comes to misunderstanding God – the issue of Religion and Relationship.

Like many of you, I grew up sitting in a church pew on Sundays and I, like you, heard sermons…I listened to sermons…I took notes on sermons…I became a sermon expert. Now, I can’t remember much of what my pastor said in all those sermons but, years ago, I went through a serious time in my walk with God where I did have to deal with what I DID remember. There were a lot of things, I’m sure, that the pastor said that were encouraging, true and served me well. But there were also some things that burrowed themselves down into the depths of my heart and spirit that did me a spiritual disservice. Why? Because they actually reverberated through an already wounded heart…a heart most likely that is wounded like yours. Those words actually affirmed what that broken part of me already believed about myself. I swear I heard the preacher say literally 100’s of times, “if you think there is ANY GOOD IN YOU, you better hold on for your life because God’s going to knock you off your throne and expose the truth about how truly wicked you are.” I heard that I was evil and when it came time in my journey to take stock in how all that had panned out or played out over time, I came to some serious conclusions that caused my heart to sink.

But as I was growing, I was discovering quickly that the God people were telling me about was not the God that I had grown to know. I was also discovering as I was talking to people that that God would NOT be one that anyone would want to know. Please don’t take me wrong on this…I’m not going to stand here and blast away at the pastor that truly I loved. I am eternally grateful for him, EVEN SO, there were things I believe he got wrong.

Bottom line is that there have been problems in how many of us have been taught about God. There were people who taught me about God who were really trying to hide their doubts and questions. Maybe they felt compelled to act like their faith life was totally satisfying, when, in fact, it was often limited, dry, or cold. Some claimed that they could explain all the mysteries of God, those unexplainable things and instead of simply confessing, ” let’s humbly walk together in this,” they tried to come up with pat answers and then forbad us from questioning their authority. Friends, there are people who try to pretend that the Bible doesn’t say some really nasty things when, in fact, it does. They try to tell us that we have to accept these hard truths with blind faith without question There are spiritual leaders who claim that they understand other beliefs, faiths, and worldviews and that all of them were utterly false and that we are forbidden from giving them any intellectual consideration. If we did, they would tell us that we were condemned by God. I don’t think that’s was the demeanor of Jesus. There are also those who try to convince us that their particular brand of doctrine/dogma is really the best kind of doctrine/dogma and that other doctrines/dogmas were going to lead us, not to Jesus, but down a black hole. There are leaders who publically profess that God is love only to treat other people dismissively or patronize them by reducing them to labels, caricatures or opponents. Instead of finding other people’s beliefs and stories fascinating, riveting and daring to demonstrate affection in simply entering into relationship, we are often taught to summarily and flippantly dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with us. When you come to understand these things, and you come to a pretty quick conclusion – no wonder we’re all screwed up when it comes to understanding God.

In my journey, I got to the point where I started asking questions of other Jesus followers. I didn’t discriminate because I asked people of all “stripes and church allegiances” one simple question – “do you love God?” And you know how many responded? With a definitive but embarrassing “NO.” That haunted me because, for a long time, the best answer I could give was exactly the same. I didn’t even know if I liked God. I mean, he’s never satisfied…he wants all the glory…he likes it when we put ourselves down and call ourselves no good, miserable sinners. God threatens to kill our children and friends and family if they don’t see things the way that He wants them to see things. He wants all our money and he’d just as soon hang us by a thread over a blazing fire to make sure we are “right” with him. And, if we don’t get our act together we’re going to spend eternity to hellfire, a place where He will gladly send us. I was told there is NO place to hide from God’s wrath and that any doubt I have about God’s existence shows me that I really didn’t believe and am going to hell…that I better believe the right things or I’m not really a good Christian…and If I’m not ready for the rapture, I might just get “left behind.”

I believe we are missing something. Many of us bought into religion and missed the core of what it means to be in a relationship with an eternal lover. Friends, religion doesn’t work. One pastor I read about actually was flabbergasted when, during a worship service, he asked the question, “How many of you feel you’ve basically been miserable for the largest part of your life as a Christian?” and almost every single hand in the building was held up high. We’ve been lied to about God. We’ve been lied to about who God is, what He is like, what He wants from us and how He relates to you and me. And frankly, I don’t know how we could have missed it.

The author of the book that got me thinking in this direction wrote this,

“Christians think they know God because they read about him in a book. We’ve been taught that the more we read the Bible, the more we will know him. The Pharisees knew scripture like the back of their hands, but when God stood right in front of them, they didn’t know him from Adam.”

I believe with all my heart and soul that God’s heart is broken over the way His children not only lack knowledge of who He is but how they promote ideas of God that drive or keep people away from Him. God is misunderstood – because God is about a RELATIONSHIP with you NOT about pushing you into a Religion. We all need a new, refreshed idea of God that will truly make a huge difference in your life. What all of us need to do is expose everything we think about God, every creed, every prayer, and every understanding of God’s real and amazing love. Love is why God sees everything inside of you and knows every emotion, thought and feeling and still calls you His own. Love is why he soaks through every outward thing that stands in the way to saturate your spirit, soul, and heart with the knowledge of his everlasting presence. Love is why there is no place, no person, and no created thing that can ever separate you from the love of the Lord. God is all knowing, all powerful, and all wonderful because God is love.

Our relationship with God IS a sacred romance. You can do, think, serve, go to church, and read the bible, in fact, you can reduce spirituality to a checklist of activities for God that (you believe) will eventually give us the right standing before God on judgment day. You can brag about all you’ve done for God but, like the parable of sheep and goats in Matthew 25, you don’t know Jesus. You can do for God all you want, but something will STILL be missing. Have you ever sat with a friend or spouse -and get the gnawing feeling in your heart that something was missing or that you need more from the relationship? We LONG for transcendence in life. We were created in the image of a God who KNOWS intimate and heart-driven relationships. We were created for something deep and meaningful where our persistent reaction and reality in the relationship is more awe and wonder and love than stuff measured by analytics. And that shouldn’t come as a COMPLETE surprise to any of us because that’s what the Trinity itself, God’s very nature/character/existence is all about. The Trinity…that eternal relationship of the Godhead…we don’t necessarily fully understand it, but God is enjoying eternal intimacy in eternity. God is in PURE relationship – God IS a pure relationship. The heart is at the center of ultimate reality, and that was the real love that was shared in creation.

I’ll put it this way – any relationship that ignores the heart survives only on guilt, legalism, and doctrine. That’s why some people in churches care more about rules and boundaries and what people can’t participate in then they care for people. It is easier for us to operate in the realm of rules and ideas than it is to live in the realm of the heart. That’s why Jesus always had a problem with legalistic religious people – they were looking at rules and laws and doctrines that kept people away from God while Jesus was saying that God is all about open arms.

I know that this is a bit of a challenge to define the heart. In fact, think about it this way – how would you define love? Better yet, what does a person have to do to fall in love with another person? Those are hard questions to answer because there is NO specific answer. Love and the heart are mysteries. We have some language for it – we talk about heartaches and broken hearts. We say, “have a heart,” we call people “black-hearted,” “brave-hearted,” or “lighthearted.” We all have words and phrases that try to capture the heart’s reality. But do all those words and attempted definitions completely grasp the heart? Not in any way, shape or form.

The Bible tells us that not only does God look on our hearts but that our hearts are the true place where we can hear and respond to the voice of God. We were created by God to respond to God in our hearts – without thinking, without processing, without coercion, almost without explanation. But when we respond to God with religious activity that replaces communion with God on a heart level, a true relationship with God is missed.

When Jesus said, “follow me,” he didn’t mean into to do so into a religion or cognitive journey. During the 15 and 16th centuries, the institutional Church made a great move but a costly move. In trying to correct doctrine and teaching, they swallowed intellectualism and rationalism whole and moved away from the heart in order to make a home in the head. You can’t fully reduce discipleship to knowledge and miss the love of God that, as Jesus, said becomes the foundation of what faith is all about. Remember what the greatest “commandment” is? Love the Lord, and love others as Jesus has loved you.

Jesus promises a life of wholeness through a deep connection with his great heart. Religion says that you are on your own…that you’ve got to prove to Jesus that you are worthy to love. Jesus says the world is a benevolent place. Religion mocks such naïveté, warning us, “Just watch yourself – disaster is a moment away.” Jesus invites us to trust. Religion intimidates us into self-reliance. The Spirit of God whispers that we are someone special, that our heart is good because it is made for Someone good. Religion tells us we are a dime a dozen, worthless, even dark and twisted and dirty. Jesus tells us life will flourish when we give it away in love and heroic sacrifice. Religion tells us we must arrange for what little life there may be, manipulating our world and all the while, watching our backs.

Do you see the tug of war between the two? Have you felt it? Have you felt this longing for “more” and yet your heart won’t let you go there? Can you feel where you’ve walled your heart off? Jesus came to set your captive heart (behind that concrete wall) free!

CS Lewis once wrote, “I find in my life desires which nothing in this world can satisfy – the only logical explanation is that I was created for another world.” Lewis knew that sense that we never quite fit – that we never truly belong because we belong in the heart of God. People tell us that we can’t belong to their circle – not smart enough, not rich enough, not the right political affiliation, or don’t believe the way they do. All that happens while at the same time – something HUGE is going on. Our Lord is calling us into relationship – to be in a place where we belong to HIM – where we belong IN HIM. We are “welcomed” at his table – no one is not welcomed, no one has to scramble for another chair. We have a seat next to Jesus by His command and by His good pleasure. God sees us for who we are and, because of Jesus (like Adam and Eve in the garden before the fall), we can live with NO shame. We are free to be our own true selves in that love because Jesus lifted our shame and killed it on the cross and then raised us with Him to a new and rich life. Because of Jesus, we can enter our hearts, biblically, the deepest parts of who we are, confident that we are loved. We live in perfect love. We can be free to live our lives from the heart out…fully accepted and fully loved. We don’t have to pretend to be anything else than we were really are. You can be and live boldly because you are loved. We can stop pretending that life is better than it actually is. Even when tough times come, and you know they have, do and will, we can stop pretending. When we are wrapped in up in love and grace, we can truly live.

Friends, religion, and spiritual acts were NEVER meant to be used as boundary markers of acceptability, merit badges of being a good person, or reward for decent behavior. We come to believe that the things people say of us are true and, because of that, the small story we are living is the only story we will ever live. We count on a small story for meaning and for identity. We struggle to keep existing in the small story with order and perfection, all the while becoming exhausted and empty. We feel a deep longing for more inside, but we push it back down to the inner places of our hearts because it feels dangerous and uncertain to explore this longing. When we deny our identity as that which is encompassed in our hearts, that which is proclaimed by God to be “loved, a child of God, a saint who is gifted by grace”, all we have left are rules and hoops, all of which net us nothing but frustration, anger, and meaninglessness. When we make FAITH into “hoops” and not about love, then everything within ourselves and in our relationships and world because that which crushes our TRUE identity IN Jesus.

Our identity lies in the sacred relationship God that is inviting us into. It’s scary and risky and will be a journey that is anything but average. But you see, in His eyes, you are anything but average. In His eyes, you are worth pursuing, worth loving, and worth risking His Son’s life for. That’s true of you! You are worthy of being pursued. You are worthy of being loved eternally. You are worthy of the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus.

We are still celebrating Easter. Resurrection shakes everything up. The resurrection is God’s final pledge of what he will do with all the condemnation, feelings of inadequacy and damages hearts with which we live. The resurrection is God’s promise that NO hurt or condemnation is immune from God’s transformational process. God turns hurts into Hopes.

I learned two new words this week, “evasion and untethered,” both have to do with what happened when smartphones got “disconnected” from specific networks. For example, with an Apple iPhone, you can now PICK a provider of service instead of having to buy a phone and be TETHERED to one specific cell service. The software/firmware to do that is called, “evasion-ware.” The Resurrection is the ULTIMATE evasion firmware for your life and mine. Resurrection is the ultimate jailbreak from an operating system in the world that is tethered to religion, death, sadness, and destruction. God is untethered in the resurrection. As long as Jesus is in the tomb, He’s messing around with our lives. But when we are most preoccupied with stability and control…when we are most satisfied with sleepwalking, boredom and even death, here comes the resurrected Jesus! Once you know in your heart of hearts that your relationship with God is just that, a relationship…and that through that relationship there is NEW LIFE as promised by God for you: You can live with faith! You can rest with purpose and a living hope! You can take the risk of loving all the time because even your mistakes and misfires are redeemable.

I don’t want an average life. I don’t want to be trapped in the small story or religion when in a relationship with Jesus, God has a grand plan for my life. I have no idea what that relationship will look like at times, but today it starts with learning to identify who I am in Christ and living out that identity with gusto, life, love, and enthusiasm.

Don’t misunderstand God – God loves you, pure and simple. God wants back from you only what any person would do when they are loved with a love like God’s, love Him in return. When you and I have found our absolute reference point that is both utterly within you and utterly beyond you at the very same time,” that is the reality that grounds our being and soul. A historical figure in Christianity, St. Catherine of Genoa shouted as she ran through the streets of her town hundreds of years ago, “my deepest me is God!” Oh, to find at the very heart of whom we are and how we live God and God’s presence and love? Now, THAT can change a life!