“The most effective evangelism – by far – occurs through meaningful relationships between  Christians and non-Christians.”

The list of Church Growth authors who keep reminding us of this truth include,  to name a few, Bill Easum, Lyle Schaller, Bill Tenny-Brittain, and Charles Arn.

Did you also know that over twice as many non-Christians come to Christ through relationships with Christian friends or relatives than all other reasons — combined?

Jesus taught and modeled this approach repeatedly in his ministry.

He told the demon possessed man “Go home to your friends and tell them what wonderful things God has done for you….”

When Zacchaeus had finished hosting Jesus for a meal and conversion, Jesus told him that thus salvation would also come to his friends and family.

After Jesus healed the son of a royal official we learn that he, and all his family and friends, believed.

Jesus taught about sharing God’s love with people we know, and about getting to know new people so that we will be His light to them.  This is THE WAY that the Gospel travels! God’s grace and love are experienced through us as we give to others the love God so freely gives to us.

There is one essential requirement for being an incarnational evangelist: WE MUST BE CLOSE ENOUGH TO UNBELIEVERS FOR CHRIST TO BE OBSERVED AND EXPERIENCED in us. And that is the rub. The longer we are in church, the more friends we have in the church… And the fewer friends we have who are outside the church. Simply put, most Christians have very few close friends who are non-Christian.  Without those relationships, it is impossible to be Christ-like for Christ’s very life modeled what he meant when he said “Go and make Disciples….”

So friends, let me ask you?  How many non-Christian friends do you have and stay in touch with regularly? Is it time to go out and begin making some new friends? Yes, that is Jesus’ voice telling us to go out and befriend the tax collectors and sinners!  To hear it as Biblical scholar Eugene Peterson translates in THE MESSAGE … ” Jesus was spoken of as a friend of the riffraff.”  (Matt. 11:19)

Jesus is saying to us we are to be the salt of the earth, and salt does not season itself.  I guess this means we should  get going and start shaking”  Do I hear an AMEN?  (which means “so be it, I will!” )

At What Cost.

A woman once came to Jesus and used an expensive oil, typically reserved for a deceased person, to anoint his feet. His disciples were shocked. One even suggested that this was a despicable waste of such a costly commodity which could be put to better use in ministry with the poor.  Jesus response was to point out the depth of her worship and her willingness to give of her best to honor her Master.    (John 12:1-11)
I wonder which side of that debate we  would all come down on.  Did she know something we fail to realize most of our lives: that if we are truly worshipping and serving our Lord we will give of our very best rather than whatever we have left over after doing what we have always done?
Anointed Living
Bowing at your scent laden feet
   she let down her hair in complete homage
   as she washed your weary soles with her tresses.
Her most costly gift:
   was it the expensive perfume of nard
   whose aroma filled the room
   with a foreshadowing of His coming death?
Or was it, perhaps, an extravagant gift of herself
   to the one who would soon give himself for her?
Amidst the vehement protests of that most misguided  disciple,
   Mary gently demonstrated what happens
   when divine understanding dawns upon us.
Could it be that when we truly “get you”
   our petty arguments about who is right,
   about the proper ways to honor and serve you
   are washed away as we discover real discipleship?
Lord Jesus, is that the aroma of grace I smell
   as our lives and worship become filled with
   gracious responses to your loving sacrifice for us?
SDB

Forget the Church, Follow Jesus?.

I confess I am behind on my reading. This week I discovered something I had missed.  Last spring in Newsweek Andrew Sullivan wrote an article entitled “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.”  He began his article by recalling Thomas Jefferson’s “non-standard revised and abbreviated edition” of the New Testament , continued with a candid assessment of both 21century church and state, and concluded with  a pithy conclusion which noted our political and religious immaturity.  Needless to say, his column kick-started a number of scathing rebuttals, many of which are rife with the kind of inflammatory remarks which serve to illustrate his point.  The fact is, his article is way closer to the truth than many of us would like for  it to be.

Jefferson, not unlike many today, was deeply offended by the image into which humanity  remakes Jesus.   As is always the case, no narrative passes down through multiple ears and generations with out being interpreted and reinterpreted with each reading.  Biblical scholars have for some time acknowledged that what we have in the Scriptures, being written by mortals while inspired by God’s Spirit,  reflects the message the authors wanted to convey. For example, each Gospel writer had  different point(s) they wanted to make about Jesus. To Matthew he was, among many things,  the long awaited Messiah while one of Luke’s important themes is that Jesus’ message was and is for everyone, regardless of race, gender, etc.  Ensuing generations have added layers of tradition and interpretation to Jesus and his message. So Sullivan and Jefferson are in good company when the question what Jesus might think of our world today.

Sullivan reminds us just how frequently and easily religion has been used to justify inhuman behaviors and actions. He queries “What does it matter how strictly your proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand?  What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself?”  As we read we are reminded that we all to easily use religion as the means to help achieve our political ends.  He may just as easily been speaking about the church of today!

How often do we, in reality, “pray” asking that God rubber stamp our ideas and preferences as God’s will?  What about the judgements we pronounce on one another, inside and outside the walls of the church, while proclaiming that it is God’s will?  How about our failures to love one another and our neighbors? And yes, we certainly do cling tenaciously to our favorite religious norms while often proof texting the scriptures to justify them. In reality we do not look anything like the early church and certainly fail to give the world a true impression of what true Christ-likeness looks like.

He goes on to point out that organized religion is in decline and he has certainly highlighted much of the causes for said degeneration. Then he lays out the line that really sticks in my craw because it drives home the nail.  “The ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.”   Now that preaches to us all, secular or sacred in our beliefs.  For in both our churches and our political realms we have moved far afield of the intentions of our founding fathers and our Creator Father: we have become increasingly self-absorbed.”   Ummmm…  I seem to recall my theology classes identifying that excessive selfishness as the core of “original sin.”

Thomas Jefferson called himself a real follower of Jesus. By this, he meant that he sought to live by the values and principles which he could believe Jesus taught rather than by all the additional religious trappings added over the ensuing centuries.  It is a good place to start:  seeking to be as much like Jesus as we humanly can. Such a daunting task will require guidance from the very one in whose Way we seek to walk.

So, Let us pray… a lot, and hard.  And let us remember that prayer is not about talking at God. it is about listening to God and waiting for God’s will to be spoken to us.   Amen?  Amen!

I had often thought it and occasionally read it.  The Bible seemed to be filled with illustrations of this simple yet profound truth.  Some characters from the Scripture embodied the negative side, some rose above their mere humanity to become a positive illustration.  Jesus clearly epitomized this great truth.  He lived it. He embodied it. He just plain WAS and IS the Truth.  So once upon a time I set out on a personal journey of reading, praying, learning, and being mentored in this way of understanding myself and the people around me. Through the experiences and writings of some good folks to whom God had given this wisdom and insight I began to learn.  I am still learning, and practicing.  And recently a new author has put it into the context of the church in such a clear way that I just can’t help but pass it on. What am I talking about?  I am talking about the link between our emotional maturity and our spiritual maturity.

Murray Bowen pioneered what has become known as Family Systems Theory. Edwin Friedman, a student of Bowen, applied it to church and synagogue.  What’s it all about and why is it relevant to us in church?  It is about why we humans act the way we do, for better or for worse, and how we can learn to understand one another and pursue harmony in our communities of faith, our families, and our relationships. Most recently author Peter Scazzero began to tell his story as a Christian and a minister as he journeyed through life and ministry.  Let me share a couple of quotes from him and I think you will begin to get the picture.

“Sadly, for too long we (in the church) have delegated “emotional” issues to the therapist’s office and taken responsibility only for “spiritual” problems in the church, The two are inseparably linked and critical to a fully biblical discipleship.”

“Emotional health and spiritual maturity are inseparable. It is not possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.  When you understand this, you will walk through a door in your spiritual journey. By God’s grace you will never be the same. And you will embark on an exciting journey toward a beautiful life that will touch everyone around you – in your family, church, workplace, and neighborhood.”                  (the Emotionally Healthy Church, p19, 10)

So let me introduce you to his books, both of which I commend to you.  EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY SPIRITUALITY and THE EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY CHURCH.  And let me tell you that a friend who is a professional therapist teaches an introduction to this at his District Leadership Conference each spring. It embodies what he says he has been trying to say for a long time!  I wholeheartedly concur.

So, I invite you to join me on a journey.  Yes, I am seeking volunteers! Would you like to learn a Biblical and compassionate way of understanding and relating to the people in your life? Your church? Your  neighborhood? Your family? Your workplace?  Then respond and lets begin exploring, and learning, and living.  I really, really, really (can you tell how much I mean it?) believe that we can enjoy much more fulfilling lives as disciples, church members, and people than what we now experience in our congregations.

Sometimes we do  it on purpose, with reckless regard for the consequences. Most of the time I suspect that we do it unthinkingly, without any deliberate attempt to offend or wound. I am talking about the ways we folks who call ourselves Christian often take stands and defend our opinions and desires against all comers.

What is that something in we humans which makes us feel that we must affirm the validity of our personal preferences by seeing them as somehow superior to the alternatives? Why are we so uncomfortable with simply knowing and stating in “I” language that which we value?  Why do we find it so hard to respect the opinions of others who think differently?

Consider, for example, the many kinds of music played and sung in various styles of worship services throughout America.  I used to believe that the so called “worship wars” would subside quickly as we believers remembered whose we are. I was wrong. I still hear folks, many of whom I call friends, make statements about what they consider appropriate, worthwhile, meaningful, and godly without pausing to consider how their choice of words and the defense of their position may wound others. Lest I appear to be speaking to only one group let me go on the record as saying that I have seen this from people whose preferences include every style of worship and music I have experienced.  We have all used language and justification which wounds and excludes. We are all guilty of coming across as judgmental!  So to all my friends and acquaintances I want to say this from the bottom of my heart:

When I celebrate God Incarnate through the works of “The Messiah” or any of John Rutter’s marvelously rich creations I am not being snobbish or superior.  I am simply savoring the musically rich and elegant way God comes to me in song and sings me onward on my journey. What could equal the joyful exuberance of the “Hallelujah Chorus?”

When I sing and play contemporary Christian music from the pew or behind a mic I am not doing it to be entertained or to be adored as a performer. God speaks to me through the music (and through the enhanced visual experiences).  It feeds and nourishes me in my faith, and yes, it also challenges me. I don’t find many hymns which ask me tough questions like “If we are the Body, why aren’t His arms reaching, why aren’t his hands healing, why aren’t his feet going… why are His hands not showing – Jesus is the Way?”

When I partake of Southern Gospel and am not, by default, a rigid and legalistic believer who thinks that everything about this Christian life is black and white, easy, or simplistic. “Because He lives” really is why I can face tomorrow.

If you see me singing along and swaying to some Bluegrass gospel I am not an ignorant country hick who does not know better. My ancestors, and some of yours, could outplay Joshua Bell on that thing they called a “fiddle.”

For that matter, when I shake my maracas during Latino worship, I do not become immediately fluent in either Hispanic language or  culture. I am just enjoying the fellowship and lively worship with my brothers and sisters of another culture.   Gracias, Jesus!

The same goes for when I play the bongos!

No one of these or any other forms of worship and music is the “right” way, or the godly way to worship.  God speaks to us all in many different ways, through many different experiences.  There is nothing wrong with having our own individual preferences.  It is a very spiritually and emotionally mature person who can calmly and loving acknowledge the ways the Holy Spirit speaks to them while also affirming that the same Spirit speaks to others in varying ways.  It is also a very loving way to share our thoughts.

I seem to recall a fella named Paul who was a Jesus follower saying something like

“If I could speak (or sing, play, etc…?)  in all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

If you like traditional worship, with the hymns you have known all your life, I celebrate that God speaks to you through those songs.  If you enjoy the drums, or the flute, or the orchestra, or the cantata, or the Gaithers, or Allison Krauss then I applaud that you open yourself to hearing His voice in the music.  If you wave your arms and applaud I celebrate God with you. If you stand quietly, with hands folded prayerfully while kneeling, I affirm your attentiveness to that still small voice of God.

So how about we put aside all considerations about what is “appropriate” or “correct” or “reverent” and simply celebrate that in spite of all our differences, GOD STILL SPEAKS TO US.  Then we might just find that others hear God speaking to them through our spirit of love and acceptance.

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