Church Articles

Messy Christianity

One of my spiritual hero’s was John Wimber. He is widely known as the founder of the Vineyard movement of churches. One of the things I respect most about him is that it was said of him when he pastored his first church, he created the substantial growth of 7 other churches in his city because he was leading so many people to the Lord. He was a very enthusiastic evangelist, right from his own conversion in the early 1960’s.

John Wimber was a famous producer in the music industry in the early ’60’s before he became a pastor. Within a few years of his conversion to Christ, he was approached by the Beatles and asked to produce one of their albums. He consulted with the church he was attending and was told that he shouldn’t associate himself with them and strongly advised to not accept the offer. Knowing the type of passionate believer and evangelist John was, what if he had taken the gig? What could have happened if he had been allowed to work with and influence the world’s most popular and listened to group?

Have you heard the statement, “We are in the world, but not of the world?” What does it mean? I grew up in a Christian school. We were taught it meant to remain separate from the world. We were not allowed to dress like them or look like them. I was told that my hair shouldn’t touch my collar. We were taught to never listen to the world’s music. In fact, we were taught that rock ‘n roll in general was evil, even if it had Christian lyrics. It created an us vs. them mentality.

Of course, my teachers had many scriptures to back up their claims. Verses like 1 John 2:15, "Do not love the world nor the things in the world If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him."  And James 4:4, "You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God."

But what do we do with scriptures like John 3:16-17, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him."  Or John 9:5, "While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world."

Is the Bible setting a double standard? Have you ever battled this tension? Have you ever felt that to be more “holy” you had to further distance yourself from the world and especially those who think like the world? I know I have. And then I read about Jesus, who was called a “friend of sinners”, and hung out with those who were some of the most worldly thinkers of the day. And He led his disciples to do the same!

I know for me, I’ve always been afraid of being tainted by the world, of slipping into sin, of backsliding, of losing holiness and of disappointing God. But in the Bible we get an incredible insight into the private thoughts of Jesus. We get to listen in on one of his prayers in John 17:13-18. He doesn't share these same fears. Instead He prayed, "But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.”

There it is! There’s the tension we’re talking about. The tension of being “in the world" but "not of the world." What do you think it means? How do we effectively reach the world without being tainted by it? Does Jesus expectation of us living clean mean that we avoid the messiness of the lives around us?

Are Our Traditions in the Way?

I think one of the most entertaining chapters in all the Bible is Acts 15. It tells the story of the one of the early churches first Board Meetings. And you'll never believe what the topic was!

The Apostle Paul was in the height of his church planting ministry and he was traveling from city to city seeing huge results. Many were being added to the church. Many leaders were being raised up. And there were many miracles. However, a group of zealous Jewish believers were following behind Paul and taking it upon themselves to "disciple" the new converts. One of their main objectives was to ensure that all of the believers, Jews and non-Jews, understood that Christianity was a Jewish religion and that it required every believer to adhere to the full Jewish law. And yes, this included circumcision.

What a crazy notion! And yet, it caused such a stir for "the Way" that the leadership of the early Christian movement had to gather together in Jerusalem to debate the topic. Everyone attending was passionate about preaching Jesus and no one was questioning the message of Christ. The major discrepancy was over their methods of discipleship.  There were those on one side, who believed that the Jewish law was the inspired Word of God and was to be adhered to by all men, Jew and Gentile. And then there were those on the other side, who understood the law to be for the Jewish people predating the arrival of the Messiah. And that while it was to be valued, it was not pertinent to salvation and believing in Jesus. After all, Jesus Himself had said He fulfilled the law. So, who was right?

I want you to take a moment to read the minutes of this meeting yourself. (Acts 15)

There is one verse in this chapter that leaps off the page at me every time I read it. Did you catch it, too? It's verse 19. After all of the discussion and the arguments back and forth, James the brother of Jesus, stands up and says, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God."

As ridiculous as it seems to us today to be debating over physical circumcision as a requirement for salvation. There's something about this chapter that is eerily familiar. Verse 19 in particular caused me to ask, "What traditions do I hold dear today that are making it difficult for outsiders to believe in Jesus?"

I've moved past the surgery or no surgery part of the discipleship process, but I have my own church traditions that I value. Are any of my "methods" hindering others from entering a relationship with Jesus?

When Mahatma Gandhi was asked how Christian Missionaries could make more of an impact on his nation of India, he replied “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Do you think that is true? What traditions do we, the Church, have that could be hindering outsiders from coming to Jesus? I know our message is sacred, but do you think it's time we start messin' with our methods?

Do We Need to Lose Our Religion?

“The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.”

~ Dr. Timothy Keller ~

There are many differences between Jesus' ministry and my own, but one really stands out to me. Jesus had an uncanny ability to attract the outcasts, outsiders whom the mainstream of society rejected. He loved them and they loved him.

If I am to be honest, the people I feel most comfortable with and the ones who are mostly attracted to me and my ministry are not the same types of people that were drawn to Jesus. According to Dr. Timothy Keller, I must not have the same focus Jesus had or be preaching the same message Jesus preached. Have I been too concerned about keeping the insiders happy? Have I been too focused on my own comfortability and preferences? Have I become religious instead of relational?

Most outsiders are opposed today to religion, and to the church - but the fact is, Christianity was never designed to be a religion. It’s hard for us to realize this today, but when Christianity first arose in the world it was not called a religion. It was the non-religion.

The Roman’s used to call the early church “atheists” because what the Christians were saying about spiritual reality was unique and could not be classified with the other religions of the world. The irony of this should not be lost on us. To most people in our society today, Christianity is religion. The only alternative to it (besides some other world religion) is secularism. But from the beginning it was not so. Christianity was something else entirely.

The crucial point here is that, in general, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him. We see this through many New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life.

One time, after Jesus first called Matthew to be his disciple, he encouraged Matthew to throw a party for all of his "outsider" friends. The religious crowd was really upset that a Rabbi would behave in such a way. The story reads;

"Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew's house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus' followers. 'What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?' Jesus, overhearing, shot back, 'Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.'" (Matthew 9:10-13 Msg)

Jesus had a clear focus. A clear WHY. He was focused on outsiders. He desired relationship, not religion. If we're not having the same effect, is it because we do not have the same focus? Should we check our motives, our WHY? Do we need to lose a little religion?

How to Create an Inviting Environment

Wayne Dyer, a well known author said, "All blame is a waste of time. No matter how much fault you find with another, and regardless of how much you blame him, it will not change you. The only thing blame does is to keep the focus off you when you are looking for external reasons to explain your unhappiness or frustration. You may succeed in making another feel guilty about something by blaming him, but you won't succeed in changing whatever it is about you that is making you unhappy."

One of the most valuable foundational breakthroughs for me as a Senior Pastor occurred the day I realized that I am responsible for the environment of my church. I couldn't blame the community I was in, the people I inherited, or the money (or lack thereof) in the bank account. I couldn't be frustrated with my people any longer for not inviting the unchurched. I was responsible.

Lou Holtz, the famous Head Football Coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, said, "The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely the one who dropped it."

I was tired of making excuses as to why my church wasn't growing and why we weren't reaching the unchurched and why our community was "such hard soil." It was time to take responsibility and do something about it.

The first thing I looked at was our services. What was the purpose of our Sunday morning service? I asked our leadership team in my first church in Canmore to study our services. We realized that we were trying too hard to please everyone. So, we decided to give our Sunday service the specific purpose of becoming a "bridge" to the unchurched community. Dr. Thomas Rainer claimed in his article Ten Surprises About the Unchurched, "Most of the unchurched prefer to attend church on Sunday morning if they attend. Perhaps the unchurched responded this way because that is the time they have always heard church should be. But when we asked the formerly unchurched (new Christians attending church) the same question, they gave us the same response."

Our focus, therefore, became to "set the table for guests" Sunday mornings. What did that mean? We all put our best foot forward when we invite guests into our homes. We clean the house, use our best china, and prepare our best meals. We decided to have a similar focus Sunday mornings. We began to evaluate our services through how effectively we were reaching outsiders.

What changed? Almost everything, to be honest.

  • We shortened the length of our service. Not because we liked it better, but because the visitors are more comfortable with a concise format.
  • We changed the type of songs we sang and became cautious of the language we used. We tried to avoid songs that were too "Christianese" in their verbiage.
  • We moved the offering to the end of the service and instructed our visitors not to give.
  • We formed a "creative team" that met weekly to plan our services and add unique elements that enhanced the message.
  • I shortened my messages and went from preaching 3-5 points to a one point sermon with a doable takeaway.

These are just a few examples of methods we messed with in our Sunday services when we gave it a purpose. The result? Not only did we become more effective at reaching outsiders, we noticed an almost immediate change with our own people. They began to attend with a purpose. We saw an increase in volunteers. There was less complaining and our church became friendlier.

What is the purpose of your Sunday services? Who are you trying to reach with them? What ideas have you used that have grown your weekly attendance?

The Secret to Exponential Growth

Pastors, what if I could give you a secret that would increase the income in your church by 416%? What if I could guarantee a way to increase your parishioners sharing their faith with others by 228%? What if the same secret would be a key to increasing the discipleship in your church by 231%? Would you be interested? Do I have your attention, yet? Bible_Reading_Guy

These numbers are taken from a study conducted by the Center for Bible Engagement released in August 2012. It was a survey conducted on the Key to Spiritual Growth. You can find the survey at www.centerforbibleengagement.org. The secret? These astounding numbers were caused by simply increasing the number of times individuals read the Bible in a week. The results showed a dramatic climb in spiritual growth and just as dramatic decreases in struggles and bad habits if an individual would engage in the Bible 4 times a week or more!

This begs a question be asked. If simply increasing the number of times a week an individual reads the Bible can have such a dramatic effect on their lives and on the life of a church, how do we encourage our parishioners to engage more in the Word?

You see, I think we have a major problem in our churches. For the most part, our programs and systems are producing lazy, dependent Christians. They are so dependent on Pastors and Teachers feeding them the Word, that they have stopped feeding themselves. There is nothing wrong with being fed from great preachers, I make a habit of listening to 2-4 sermons a week myself. However, I've noticed that over the last few decades there has been a steady decline in the emphasis of daily devotions and personal Bible study. More and more, I am finding believers who struggle with a daily routine of reading the Word. Yet, such a habit can be life changing. Just read the above survey and read the results yourself!

But we don't need a survey to tell us these things. The Bible, itself tells us the same. Look what James wrote in James 1:25.

But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James tells us there are 4 things we need to do if we desire to be blessed in all that we do.

  1. We need to READ the Word intently. (whoever looks intently in the perfect law) What if we helped our parishioners engage in daily reading plans? It could change their lives!
  2. We need to REVIEW the Word. (and continues in it) Reviewing the Word is studying the Word. It's a step deeper than just reading. One of the best ways to examine the Word and study it is by engaging in meaningful discussion with others. What if we helped our people establish small groups to do just that, discuss and study the Word together?
  3. We need to REMEMBER the Word. (not forgetting what they heard) One of the most significant spiritual practices is Bible memory. Quoting verses like Jesus did to his tempter, is one of the best ways to overcome temptation. The only way to do that is through memorization. What if we encouraged people to memorize a verse a week?
  4. We need to RESPOND to the Word. (but doing it) This is an active faith. What if we created opportunities for our people to act on the Word they've just been taught?

These steps and corresponding questions are something me and my staff are discussing right now. We are trying to discover the best way to encourage Bible engagement among our people. Because we believe, as the Bible tells us that it is the best way for them to be blessed in what they do.

Question: How many times a week do you read the Bible personally?