Yesterday, I gave a message at our Outdoor Worship experience in McCall on the IDENTITY of a disciple. I posed what could be a threatening question but is a question that, nonetheless, is one that clarifies and recalibrates our understanding of WHO we are in Jesus as His Body. I started out with this story:
A few years back, some leaders in our faith community were exchanging ideas through email on some creative strategies on how to keep our spiritual focus on the mission of God. In the exchange, one of our leaders simply stated, “why don’t we CELL the church?” Unfortunately, when his autocorrect program on the email program he was utilizing “saw” the word “cell,” it “corrected” it to read SELL. So, the question was accidentally posted, “why don’t we SELL the church?” Well, I must say, I was surprised and (truthfully) excited for a bit that one of our leaders would be so bold. What is interesting though is that question DOES “clear the deck” on some preconceived ideas and long-held misunderstandings of what it means to be the Body of Christ in our time being faithful in our sphere to the call and mission of Jesus.
Imagine with me, what if we did sell? What would we do? What is the nature of the Church?
You see, answering that question will give you a clear opportunity to see what it means to own our identity as disciples of Jesus. Because the BOTTOM LINE is this – the church, the Body of Christ is an organism, alive and well, of people living the life of Jesus…being disciples and making disciples.
Faithfulness, Living in Grace and by the Holy Spirit, obedience, being the Body of Christ – those are the non- negotiables of “church” – of our faith gatherings. Buildings are icing on the cake. They are nice to have but not a non-negotiable – the early church lived happily and powerfully without them.
Here’s what would happen – when Jesus followers, filled with the Holy Spirit, moved by that which moved those early followers of Jesus 2000 years ago, we would:
LIVE – We would live our lives as followers of Jesus – we would be incarnational, embedded, indigenous – we wouldn’t be following personalities, historical movements, or pursuing membership in a religious We would be quickly discerning what it means to be a Christian in our time and place…as Followers of Jesus, that would be our passionate pursuit.
CONNECT – We would find ways to connect with others who follow the same In Ephesians 4, Paul says, we are of “one faith, one Spirit, one Father, one baptism”…in other words, ONE. It is in our spiritual DNA to seek out others who follow the same Lord.
INTEGRATE – We would seek out the other gifts of the Spirit because there is something that we are missing when we don’t have all the gifts, the other parts of the Body of Christ alive and well in our midst. We know that – if I’m a hand, I know I need more to be complete – YES, I am complete in Christ but I am also a part of HIS We need equipping and releasing in understanding who we are in Jesus and how God has “wired us up” to take our place, that significant place, within the economy of God and His “strategy” for mission in and through us.
INTENTIONAL – We would rely on ourselves for spiritual. There was a study done by a HUGE megachurch a few years back that showed that all that the church “does” for people does not create followers of Jesus but followers and “addicts” of church programs. Jesus calls EACH OF US to follow him – to be dependent upon him – we cannot create addictive organizations that feed off of making disciples into co-dependents. We must rather train, equip and release people to know experience and plumb the depths of God’s grace and love through their own growing relationship with Jesus. We must grow “self-feeders,” if you will…people who take responsibility for their own growth in Christ. Fellowship and being faithful in the context of community is important…creating spiritual co-dependents is not.
WORSHIP – GROW – SERVE – WE would find ways to worship, grow, serve – in other words, we would do something together to honor God in all we are and ..that’s in our spiritual DNA as well.
DISCIPLE – We would disciple others naturally – we would go and be amongst, people we knew, neighborhoods and meetings places in town we already inhabit and we would share our lives and gifts. We wouldn’t have to depend on “someone else” to do what Jesus is calling US to do.
DEPENDENT UPON JESUS – We would be ultimately more dependent upon the Holy Spirit and NOT co-dependent upon the church. The transfiguration story is an important paradigm in this regard – we got it wrong – Jesus NEVER INTENDED for us to set up “booths”…Jesus never intended for us to memorialize and attempt to repeat spiritual experiences. The rear view mirror in our cars is the size they are so that we can KNOW where we’ve been but also so that we can see where we are and where we are going. We are not to idolize our past otherwise our God becomes our past. Jesus is moving NOW…how is that true in our lives? When we know that, we know that Jesus is calling us again to a renewed sense of dependence upon him.
BUILD – You see, what would happen, and I say this in love, eventually, we would build another building and eventually get to the point where another pastor or leader or teacher or prophet would have to ask the same question we began ..
WE WOULD BE THE CHURCH INSTEAD OF GO TO CHURCH
This is a wake up call type of a question meant to snap us back to reality – just like the churches of Revelation who are called to return to their first love, resist compromising our Kingdom calling as well as to be and to be “HOT” for things of God, so we too must always embrace the fact that WE are the Body of Christ released into our world to make a difference in people’s lives to God’s glory! Are you GOING to church…or are you part of THE church, the one that is moving and active…the one that is the manifestation of the presence of Jesus in our lives?
I will bless three people this week, at least one of whom is not a member
of our church.
I will eat with three people this week, at least one of whom is not a
member of our church.
I will spend at least one period of the week listening for the Spirit’s voice.
I will spend at least one period of the week learning Christ.
I will journal throughout the week all the ways I alerted others to the
universal reign of God through Christ.
This is a message that I gave last week at both our Long Valley, Idaho faith communities. It encompasses thoughts and feelings that I’ve had for quite some time but have not specifically addressed in the context of our congregations. So, if you are curious, think through what I’m posting. Ask yourself, if you do attend church regularly, “why do you go to church?” Once you have that on your mind, read a bit of what I shared. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it!
“Why are you here?
Why do people go to church?”
An interesting question was posted last week in a Discussion Board in one of my Concordia U classes. A Mixed group of people was talking online and the subject of “church” came up, which it sometimes does. One student at the very outset of the Discussion said, “why and the heck do you waste your time going to church?” Now, one of the things that you probably have gotten to know about me – not defensive – not one who gets put off easily – and by no means, don’t get me started on the Offense thing (we did a few messages on that several months ago). So, when the question came up – several reacted…I responded the best way I knew how – avoided answering immediately…let the discussion hang out there for a week – then I decided to talk to you about the subject!
SO – you “church goers you”…let me tell you something that you may not know about yourselves – You are outliers – reason why? Church attendance is on the downslide – every major study done over the past 25 years – church attendance is declining rapidly.
Now, I don’t know why each of you are here, but here you are…we live in one of the most beautiful recreation areas in world – but you’re here – and the culture at large is SHOCKED!
The fact that you’re taking Sunday church attendance seriously…that is so counter-cultural because you may take Sunday church attendance seriously but…
- Television doesn’t take Sunday’s seriously (from a church perspective)
- Sports teams – schools – kid’s activities which used to avoid Sundays like the plague, that’s off the table
- Post-Christendom has created a sense of “ok-ness” with not participating in a local church
- What used to be a given – no longer a given
I don’t know if you realize this – but up until about 10 years ago, no one that I knew in any capacity of church leadership even contemplated for one moment the question we are going to go after today, that being, WHY are you here? WHY do people attend worship experiences?
They never gave it a moment of consideration because church attendance WAS so ingrained into people’s lives and even the culture, never had to ask the question.
No real reason to – I know for me, until last maybe 15 years or so, never bothered to ask that question – issue wasn’t why people go to church but why aren’t they coming to OUR church?
Well, all that said – let me ask you again the question – have you ever wondered, “why”…why do you come here on Sunday?
Now, before you get all weird on me – let’s say that this is a VERY important question. If you and I are not clear about this – then how can we have a compelling reason for asking someone to join us. If we don’t know what it is that draws us together – what makes Sunday morning worship experiences so invaluable that it takes precedence over every other life priority – then we relegate our attendance to either mindless habit, appeasement of guilt, or pure consumerism.
Each of which has massive problems when you start to think about it.
So, let me explore some reasons why I believe we come together – what could be foundational teaching for all of us to draw us JOYFULLY together on a week to week basis.
The remainder of the message is on the “notes” link below.
Jesus is looking for Talmidim…Jesus is calling disciples in which joining Jesus on his mission is their consuming passion. Jesus is looking for disciples who long to be with the rabbi and live by the rabbi’s teaching (see, “the yoke of the Rabbi” in the article). Your Rabbi Jesus believes you can be Just like Him – remember when Jesus said, “you didn’t choose me, I chose you.” That is still true!
Our issue in our time is that we’ve reduced discipleship to knowledge – 6 steps, how to’s, and simple methodologies.
Well, the shock of my life came several years ago when I discovered that discipleship was a life-long journey of learning and growing in the Spirit of Jesus. It was at that time that I made a fervent decision that I had to change. I would never stop teaching and sharing the good news of Jesus but I would I apologize for not giving sharing the full truth of what it means to be a Jesus follower.
Read more, pray and discover more!
It was right before Christmas and, after a long conversation on the phone, I walked into a hospital room…surrounded by a loving family was the small bundle of a baby. What should have been a room filled with smiles and joy was rather immersed in contemplation and watchful sadness. It was not a tense situation, don’t get me wrong. The room had the air of hope but also had been saturated with a life-altering reality – the baby was stillborn. Instead of anticipating days and moments of life, the mom and dad and their extended family were embracing the wrap of swaddling clothes that encapsulated a lifeless, their lifeless, child. I looked at little Olivia and I didn’t see those newborn’s eyes that are searching, trying to make sense of their new world…I didn’t heart the groans, coos, and squeaks that normally accompany such joy-filled seconds of new life. What I beheld was that of a lifeless body…that “look” that is unmistakable – death.
As I walked into the room, I thought to myself, “why am I here?” What possibly could I bring to this situation and to this grieving couple and family? What words of hope? What action of love? What presence is needed? As you might imagine, it is at moments like these that a follower of Jesus depends on only one thing – the love and grace of God. It dawned on me as I crossed the threshold of the room that I was going to have the honor, the humility soaked, spiritually called and privileged honor, of being a “means of grace” to this couple and to these moments of their lives. Yes, it occurred to me as it has escaped my consciousness and awareness before that I was bringing something into that room that was definitely of God’s heart – His presence, His mercy, His love, and the potentiality of transformation and hope. No, it wasn’t about me…it was about what God wanted to do through me…to tell you the truth, I didn’t even know how and what the Spirit was going to do…all I knew is that I had the awesome responsibility and call to be His means of grace and hope in those moments.
That brings me to the “bigger picture” that is the subject of this article. Ok – so here’s some things I’ve been thinking about…I’ve been teaching a bit on the sacraments while I’ve been helping families prepare their children for the receiving of communion in the worship experiences of Peace (by the way, that is the foundation of how decisions are being made in our faith community regarding communion readiness…they are being made by parents in consultation with me). Yeah, for some of you, you have no idea what I’m talking about…but that’s OK. Let me school you for a moment:
A classic definition of a Sacrament is this (straight out of Martin Luther’s Catechism, mind you):
A Sacrament is a sacred act – instituted by God Himself; containing certain visible means connected with His Word; by which God offers, gives and seals unto us the forgiveness of sins…essentially a sacrament is a means of grace”
Also, another quote on the means of grace (these from the Book of Concord – yeah, look that up too if you need to, the BOC is a collection of confessional documents that provided and provide the doctrinal framework the historical Lutheran expression of Christianity) “a means of grace is a way God creates faith, bring about conversion, justification, and sanctification.”
Again, from a historical perspective, there have been debates denominationally on how many sacraments there are and what specific acts are defined as sacramental (or if sacramental theology even is relevant because, in some denominations, it is not). Even so, I’ve come to the conclusion, after having a plethora of conversations and debates over the years, that I am not only one who proactively embraces this whole notion and deep theology of how God reveals Himself sacramentally to the world through and in the acts of ekklesia (that being the gathered faith community, i.e. baptism, communion and the Word of God) but also that those who follow Jesus, in other words, the WE of the Body of Christ are sacraments.
Oh, I know that there may be a few naysayers out there…so hear me out. Look again at the definition of a sacrament – realize that God created you and me…that not only has God created us but God is always the initial “mover” in terms of a relationship with us. In other words, the only reason we can know and love God is that God is the one who made the first move…He INITIATED and INSTITUTED our relationship. Ephesians reminds us that we are “chosen” and called by God…established in a new identity because of new life in Jesus. In fact, the whole Body of Christ idea…the whole discipleship thing…the whole mission and purpose of living our lives in and through His Spirit? God’s idea! So, we are instituted by God…secondly we, as people who love and follow Jesus, are a visible means that God uses to communicate the truth of His Word. In other words, when you think of “visible means”, you think of the word, “incarnation.” Jesus Himself was the incarnation of God’s love, will, purpose and heart for His world. Jesus was God with skin in the “game” of the world…He was God made flesh and He who “moved into the neighborhood.” Now, through the Holy Spirit, who is the contemporary “incarnation” of the presence of the Lord? You guessed it…we are! God is alive in and through us…we are the “temple of the Lord”…we are the hands and feet of Jesus today. WE are the Body of Christ in the world…that isn’t just some mysterious, mystical definition but His Word made truth and made real in our lives. So, second sacramental issue spoken to…how about the third? Have you ever read about us being “God’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5)?” I bet you have…we are agents of reconciliation…we offer the love that Jesus gave to us to others…we love because He first loved us. We love “one another as I (Jesus) have loved.” We forgive each other…extend God’s healing hand through prayer…oh, the list goes on and on.
Just to underscore…read about the sacraments sometime – they are “outward signs which have God’s command and promise” – isn’t that what our identity is to be all about as followers and lovers and children of God? “The chief thing about sacraments is God’s Word” – isn’t it true, that this Kingdom deal isn’t about you and me but really all about Jesus, the Living Word? “Sign of the covenant of grace” – aren’t we called as followers of Jesus to embody God’s covenant? Light and salt to the world…a city set on a hill…go and do likewise…those are words of Jesus given to challenge and encourage you and me to bear His Word and will into our world. I don’t know…I don’t want to make TOO BIG of a deal of this, but it is making more sense to me as I go along. I don’t think God uses only a handful of means to communicate and reveal His grace to the world…He uses a multitude of expressions of Himself and His love through people who are part of His Body…you and me. I underscore this doesn’t mean that WE do the actual work…we just bear the presence of the ONE whose work has been, is being and is going to be done in our lives. Jesus is the one who saves, justifies, and sanctifies…His work alone.
So, I’ve been coming to this conclusion…we are a means of grace. In fact, the more you think about, the more sense it makes. The classic definition of a sacrament actually helps you and me (if we are followers of Jesus) to embrace our God-given purpose and call…we are “sent” to the world to “go and make disciples.” We are a means of God’s grace in and through our mission…in that way, every follower is a sacrament…every person who loves Jesus that which is poured out, broken, bringing the washing of new life that only comes through Jesus into the presence of the relationships in which we have been blessed.
How’s that for clarifying who we are in Jesus? We (as the gathered community of faith) not only handle the means of grace, we ARE a means of grace! Every follower a “sacrament”…I don’t know, it seems to work for me.
Every day something crosses my desk or my computer screen that promises the “silver bullet” to our desperation in ministry.
There are the inevitable – 10 ways to stop driving away visitors or 8 Reasons why people aren’t coming back or 12 signs of mediocrity in the church or 7 ways to respond as people attend church less often or 10 reasons why young people don’t like church or 10 things you can do now to make sure your church will grow.
It’s out there every day…
So as you might guess…many people are looking for that Silver bullet – that one thing that could turn things around for the contemporary church.
Many are convinced…if we just have that one program…or that one doctrinal secret…or something that can “poof” and solve our problems than we will embrace it with all our might and turn this baby around.
But you know what? There is NO Silver bullet – well, at least there isn’t a silver bullet that is something is easy to apply to our lives.
The ONLY silver bullet that exists out there is something called discipleship and trust me, discipleship…building disciples…building disciples that are not only faithful to Jesus but also are, by nature, reproductive is darn near impossible in what most of the contemporary church has become. Discipleship takes a while. If it wasn’t for the power of Jesus’ presence through the Spirit of God, I think it would be fair to say that we would be lost.
Discipleship isn’t about landscaping schemes or building blueprints…it isn’t about getting that right staff person or dynamic pastor…it isn’t really about a style of music or whether or not we celebrate communion this week or not.
And discipleship is definitely not about doing another church program or having the right sermon series…it just isn’t.
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.
1 Corinthians 11:1 “be imitators of me as I am of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 4:16 “I urge you then be imitators of me.” I don’t see this as overly complicated – Paul seems to be saying plainly that imitation is a core part of being a disciple – you see everyone needs to be trained to be like his or her teacher, Jesus. That’s what the disciples of Jesus did…that’s what we need to do – be about the process of imitation – that’s how we learn and that’s how we grow.
It’s always been that way – since we were little kids – we learned by observing and watching and listening and then ACTING out what we saw someone else “do.”
Friends, don’t let discipleship in your life be all about information – information doesn’t change the world. Disciples are made on the mission field, not in classrooms.
So, this challenging dynamic boils down to TWO questions:
1 – Who are you watching? In other words, who’s mentoring you…who do you have in your life whom you say, “there I want to love and follow Jesus JUST LIKE THEM.”
I’m getting to the point these days where I don’t feel any compulsion to teach you more information about God…but I do feel a HUGE accountability to make sure that you are mature in Jesus as His disciple and that you start acting on what it means to be a disciple.
2 – Who’s watching you? Is your life worth imitating from a Kingdom perspective…and if not, why not?
Friends, it has taken us centuries to get to where we are today. For many of us, we have spent our lives learning how to run a church, design a worship service, run a Sunday school or other church program…we are experts on budgets and buildings. It will take us a while, in fact, we have to be completely retrained when it comes to relearning what it means to be a dynamic, organic community that is dependent on the Holy Spirit to see if new life can be breathed into us again. A DNA or paradigm shift is occurring and it doesn’t happen overnight.
Discipleship … learning how to be disciples, train disciples, release disciples and make disciples will take some time.
In the meantime, we’ve got to learn to love and follow Jesus – be His disciples and pray that He will energize us to disciple others as He is discipling us.
Discipleship as Journey
Phil. 1:6 – “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it”
Phil. 2:12 – “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling…”
Matthew texts – the parable of seed growing secretly, mustard seed parable, the parable of the sower, fruit/growth principle
John 15 – Vine and branches
2 Peter 3:8 – “one day is like a 1000 years and a 1000 years are like one day”
Thesis – Discipleship is essentially and definitely defined as “following Jesus”. Discipleship is more of a journey than a destination. It is a journey of grace, mercy, love, and power through the Holy Spirit. It is a journey that closely accompanies the “ups and downs” of a person’s emotional and chronological maturity. To say that spiritual formation or growing “maturity” as a disciple “trumps” ones normal development would unfairly thrust a person into adhering to a performance-based maturity paradigm. A disciple never “arrives”…the gospels are a story of disciples being called, responding to that call, and engaging in a journey of discovery and discovering more of the “new and abundant life” that comes in and through Jesus. Discipleship is a journey that is specifically Jesus dependant…it is a move from immaturity to a growing maturity (that can be observed and monitored as it is “lived” out in one’s life). Discipleship cannot be reduced to a list of spiritual benchmarks. Even so, many people continue to describe discipleship as a list of “to do’s” that eventually reveal a performance-based discipleship paradigm.
Essentials of Discipleship
“Christianity who the living Jesus is inevitably Christianity without discipleship and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”
“Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes.”
A disciple is someone who follows Jesus.
Bonhoeffer commented on discipleship in Cost of Discipleship:
“Follow me” means “run along behind me”
Jesus gives us no intelligible program for a way of life. He gives us no goal or ideal to strive after…no cause which human calculation might deem worthy of our devotion…Jesus calls us to discipleship purely for the sake of discipleship…for the sake of that call and a relationship with Him.
A disciple “burns his boat and goes ahead.”
A disciple is:
Called out of their old life.
Completely surrendered to Jesus.
Called out of “finite and into infinite possibilities.” (Bonheoffer)
Is not a “mere theological, doctrinal system which renders discipleship superfluous and following Jesus inconsequential.”
Is called to a life of love and obedience to Jesus.
One who embraces a life of obedience to Jesus, suffering with Jesus and sacrifice for Jesus.
A disciple’s character is transformed (made clear through traits exemplified in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5).
A disciple is a part of a “visible community” – salt and light to the world.
A disciple practices the “righteousness” of Jesus – the Kingdom lifestyle that is made real in and through a Kingdom LIFE in Jesus.
Lives a Kingdom “call” where the reign of God is experienced in every area of life (e.g. seen in how we care for others, love God, experience/share peace, experience and share wisdom, it is one that is rooted in God’s story, lived out in memorial experiences, seen in our values and worldview, and lived through our vocation and relationships). A Kingdom life permeates all aspects of life.
A disciple grows in Jesus Christ…”making disciples” is at the core (in the very essence of one’s spiritual DNA) of a disciple’s identity.
Being a disciple involves denying self, picking up a cross-marked identity, and following Jesus.
Being a disciple involves the disciplines of prayer, bible reading and study, worship, growth in the knowledge of God, growing clarity/ownership of one’s identity in Jesus, being filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, being obedient to Kingdom living as revealed in Christ and His Word, experiencing spiritual warfare and sharing of the resources that God has given graciously.
Being a disciple involves INCARNATIONAL, MISSIONAL, and RELATIONAL living (Leonard Sweet).
Being a disciple occurs in the context of our REAL lives…we experience physiological development (we have bodies); we experience emotional and relational development (we are inherent “image based” beings – multi-faceted, spiritual, emotional, complexities that are a reflection of the God in whose image we were created); we are fragile and have life experiences that can derail us in our growth and development; frequently change/transformation occurs following times of “wilderness” (i.e. emotional, relational, or situational breakdown); we are connected with other life “systems” that require us to change. Frequently, each “breakdown” in life throws us or propels us to embrace issues and developmental realities that have occurred in our past. In other words, we return to “younger” or “less mature” stages in life as we process life’s challenges. That’s why growing spiritual maturity/discipleship can never been seen as a linear process…it is a journey filled with joys, sorrows, victories, and defeats…it is not an ascending into perfection program but rather a lifestyle of dependence upon a loving and transformative God in whose life we have discovered our true identity.
“In, through, over and above so-called normal development the human spirit surges, struggles, sustains, submerges, and reemerges with the newness of life. Those who have seen spiritual transformation in its wondrous and joyful intention to transcend linear expectations and repeatedly reconfigure life’s set patterns, yet without loss of continuity in selfhood, have little difficulty in recognizing and accepting the analogy between this and the rebirth of life after death according to God’s promise of resurrection and redemption for all creation beyond time and history…in actuality, human development is never experienced as a cycle or a sequence, it often feels more like a few decades of searching, finding, and losing an uncertain fulfillment…when the longing for that intimacy is satisfied by the spiritual presence of Christ, the face of God…a lifetime is an unfinished act of God’s love….as each life unfolds, gets torn open, stripped of its survival techniques and its passing pleasures…it appears from under the surface that we have been created for nothing less than the pure love of God…” James Loder, Logic of the Spirit
Human life unfolds over time – clocks, calendars, “to-do” lists, benchmarks of spiritual performance and maturity “lists” cannot supply a definitive framework for spiritual formation.
The Holy Spirit causes transformation of a disciple’s life IN THE REAL LIFE of the disciple. New life and our new identity IN JESUS takes shape over time but does not necessarily “trump” the God’s creative process and the miracle of human development embedded into each unique individual. God is in the sanctification business yet that work is NOT a linear work…it is best described as a journey…a circuitous journey that closely parallels the ups/downs of one’s growing, emotional maturity. Can a “miracle” of growth that astounds one’s emotional development occur? Yes, most definitely. Even so, spiritual formation appears to be closely related to how a person grows and develops emotionally and psychologically during the duration of their lives.
Significant questions – what can we realistically expect out of a person’s growth as a disciple? What transformation potentiality is there at any given emotional development stage? Could it be that we are expecting something to happen in one’s spiritual, discipleship maturity than we can realistically anticipate given one’s emotional and chronological development? Are specific spiritual formation traits more apt to emit and demonstrate their “aliveness” in one’s life given the specificity of their age and maturity in development?
Above 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!
Would 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!