Archive for the ‘community’ Category

I am not great at sound-bite theology. You know the kind I am talking about. It’s those pithy little sayings, often in 140 characters or less that seem so spiritual, deep, and insightful. They are easy to remember getting passed on time and again until they become accepted as a given, collective, cultural,  truism. To oppose such massive wisdom makes one appear to be as out of touch as your basic Neanderthal. Worse yet, in Christian circles it makes people think you are certainly not spiritually mature and may not even be a true follower of Jesus.

The latest of these maxims drives a wedge between following Jesus and being connected to the church. I cannot count the number of times I have had people say, things like, “I don’t want to get caught up in all that church stuff. I don’t need all that. I just want to follow Jesus”. On the surface it sounds so pure, so right, so spiritual. But is it really? Is it what Jesus calls us to? I dare say that every time Jesus hears one of His followers jettison the church in favor of some personal, individualistic, walk with Him, He has to at least wince, if not weep, or even get a bit ticked. Why do I say that? Simply for this reason. Jesus says that the church is His Bride and He loves His Bride. He loves His Bride so much that according to Ephesians 5:25-27 He gave up His life for her, was willing to die under the excruciating pain of the Cross for her, was willing to sacrifice it all for her sake. Make no mistake, Jesus absolutely loves the church, more than we can imagine. It is His Bride who He intends to perfect and beautify so that on a great wedding day, at the end of this age, that Bride will be presented to Him, holy, pure, beautiful, and spotless. That Bride will be His glory and joy. Jesus loves the church. Why don’t we? Saying that you Love Jesus but can’t stand the church is like telling me that you think I am awesome but my wife is a complete loser. Sorry pal but we are going to have some words over that, and maybe a bit more than just words. You can’t have me and disrespect my wife. It is no different with Jesus.

The current issue of Newsweek Magazine has a very provocative article titled, Forget the Church Just Follow Jesus. In the article Andrew Sullivan does a masterful job of explaining this growing phenomenon. Sullivan points out that a major reason people are taking to this road of abandoning the church, yet still trying to follow Jesus, is because of the ways in which denominations, leaders, and local congregations have abused their positions and been drawn to power rather than servanthood. As a voracious student of history and a pastor for 30 years, I clearly understand the abuses, problems, and damage that is so often found in various expressions of the church. The history of the church is littered with heartbreaking examples of exactly what Sullivan writes about. On an emotional, psychological level I understand why people bail and want to go it alone, or nearly alone, with Jesus. It is simply easier. You don’t have the messiness of dealing with people. You don’t have the debates over theology or the practical out-working of it. You don’t have to deal with leaders who have gone off the deep end. It’s just easier. But it also breaks Jesus heart.

All of the problems that you see in the church are just like problems you see outside the church. People abuse power, from presidents of countries to presidents of home owner associations. People argue and divide over the smallest disagreements, from political parties to married couples. Since the church is made up of people we should not be surprised to see the same sinful behavior. But what we should see in the church is the people of Christ responding differently to those things. In the world we argue, attack, and vilify and then we take our ball and go home convinced of our own righteousness and everyone else’s depravity. Incredibly that same cycle has become part and parcel of life in the church. There will always be such struggles because we are still people beset by a sinful heart. But it should and it must be different in the church. It is the Bride of Christ that must show the world how to wrestle through those disagreements and struggles. It should be the church that shows the world what it means to reconcile with your brother or sister who has sinned against you. It is the church that should show what a redeemed community looks like. It is the church that needs to live out what it means to love your neighbor. Loving one another does not mean we always agree and get along. It means we continue to forgive and serve one another in spite of  not always getting along. You can’t do that in isolation. It must be done within the context of this community we call The Church, the Bride of Christ, His Body.

Now the minute I say church, many people immediately go to the local congregation on the corner. They think of the organizational structure, a denomination, they think dead orthodoxy, religious legalism. They think of the pastor who hurt them or the church split that so devastated them. I am not talking about how a church is organized on a local level, or the various groups that have had such tragedy in their midst. I am talking about the church universal, what the Apostles Creed means when it says, “I believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church”. That has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic church or any other particular structure. It is about the Bride of Christ throughout history. The Bride Jesus loves. I love that church. Right now she is a battered and disheveled bride. Her hair is a mess, lipstick smeared, gown torn, vail askew, one heal broken, knees scraped, and nylons full of runs. But she is still His Bride and He adores her!

The answer to the woes of the church is not to point out all her flaws and then retreat into isolation saying you don’t need or want the church. The answer to the flaws is to ask, what can I do to make that Bride ready for her wedding day? What can I do to help present her to Jesus as a beautiful, perfect bride who will bring glory to Him? To do that you absolutely must be in community with other followers of Christ. You must be willing to work through the hardship and struggle of community in order to experience the joy Jesus takes in His bride. I am not saying you have to be a part of any particular structure, denomination or group. People will make decisions to disconnect with local churches for many reasons. I am not debating that. What I am saying is that the sound-bite theology of forgetting the church altogether and just following Jesus is in the long run, dangerous! It is dangerous to your spiritual growth and well-being because you cannot grow in Christ with out being connected to the Body of Christ. It is simply not possible. Any part of the body that is connected to the head is by default connected to the rest of the body. Cut yourself off from the rest of the body and you cut yourself of from much that the head wants you to experience.

Jesus loves the church. It is the worlds best hope. For all its flaws and dysfunctions, the Bride of Christ is the worlds best hope. Rather than cast stones at her and flee into an individualistic, pietism of just me and Jesus, we must embrace the Bride, give her a hug of encouragement and then do all we can to prepare her for her wedding day. Idealistic? You bet it is! But that is because Jesus always places the ideal before us and says, reach for it, run to it, strive for the best that God has for you and the world. Failure is not an option and neither is giving up on the Bride. I love the church for a simple reason, Jesus loves the church so much that He gave His life for her. Can we do anything less?

I have been thinking recently about the seemingly growing mass of people who do things just to be noticed and known. The examples are so numerous that it is hard to decide which ones NOT to mention. Just think on some headlines over the last few months. Remember “Balloon Boy” and his parents scam to get attention by faking his accidental trip in a hot air balloon? How about “Baseball Taser Dude” who ran onto the field at a Phillies games after calling his dad and asking if it was a good idea? Then there was the copycat the next night. Add to that the countless people who still go on shows like Jerry Springer, or the whole Jon and Kate Plus Eight debacle. Then you have people who play to the paparazzi just to keep getting noticed; Lohan, Hilton, Kardashian, etc, etc. On the far more tragic side I was reminded recently that when Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon on a New York sidewalk the first thing he said was, “I shot John Lennon”. He wanted to be famous and the closest he could get was to be infamous.

So what is it about us that we have this growing need to be known, to the point that we do the ridiculous or even the tragic just to have our proverbial fifteen minutes of fame? I think at the heart of it all it goes back to the biblical story of Adam and Eve and our rebellion against God. Now before you get all distracted by the debate of whether or not Adam and Eve were real people, let’s skip past that to the lesson the story teaches regardless of the historicity of that couple. The point of the story is that human beings are in some sort of rebellion against God and this rebellion, known as sin, has had cosmos altering consequences. We have become alienated from God and from one another. That alienation has produced fear and insecurity, loneliness and shame.

You might be thinking, “Hey, we have always had alienation, fear, and insecurity. What’s different now?” What is different now is two-fold. First, there have always been other social institutions that helped us overcome our alienation and fulfill our need to belong and be known. Once upon a time the tribal group, or community, or family gave us a sense of security, identity, and purpose. We knew people and they knew us. Not simply in the informational sense of knowing, but in the deeper heart sense of knowing. It is more like the sense in Dutch and Afrikaans of “ken” as opposed to “weet”. Weet is informational knowledge, you know about something or someone. Ken is heart knowledge. It is what the Bible speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13:12 when it speaks of a longing for a new day “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” The more mobile we become, the more isolated we become behind our automatic garage doors that allow us to drive into our house without speaking to neighbors, the more we sit on the back porch and not the front stoop, the more we move from place to place and job to job, the more we run the risk of being isolated and alienated and yearning for connection.

The second factor is that on top of the human element there is the divine element. During the rise of the modern era and the commitment to science as having the answers to all our problems, we put God and spirituality on the shelf. We further isolated ourselves from the needs of our soul. Eventually people began to sense that modernism and science did not have all the answers and so an outbreak of being “spiritual” but not “religious” has been sweeping western culture. Why? Because we still have the deep inner need to be known and to know, especially by something or someone greater than ourselves.

In search of that need to be known, to be significant, those already mentioned and many others have taken a decidedly neurotic path. Others have taken a more reasonable and socially acceptable route. The rise in popularity of social media like Facebook or LinkedIn, is in part an attempt to stay connected or reconnect with people who are important to us. Such social media can be a great tool to keep and grow our relationships and give us a sense of place and belonging. Of course it can also fool us into thinking that we have deep and meaningful relationships just because people see our status updates and we have hundreds of friends, some of whom we have never met.

Ultimately all our efforts to connect with one another, to be known by one another, to feel like we are significant and that we matter, will fall woefully short if we do not address the root cause of that alienation. We are alienated from one another on a horizontal plane because we first became alienated on the vertical in our relationship with God. We can have all the human connections we want but until we are connected intimately with God, we will still be lacking and still looking for more. Blaise Pascal said it best; “We all have a God shaped vacuum in our soul that only He can fill”. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about being known, he was speaking of the longing to be known by and to know God in as intimate a way as possible. All our searching for meaning, fame, security, belonging, and connection is at its core the result of a need to know that we are loved by God and to experience that love in deeper and deeper ways.

Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. The Book of Acts 2:45

If there was ever a passage that ran counter to our culture of accumulation then this is it. The first generation of followers of Jesus made sure that no one who was a part of their new found family of faith ever lacked the basic necessities of life. Nobody in that first church in Jerusalem ever went without a meal, or a roof over their head, or a cloak to ward off the cold. They did not have all of their wants and desires met but they did have all of their needs met. In essence what was taking place is that God was working through His people to fulfill the prayer that said, “Give us this day our daily bread”.

Anyone who had something extra turned that extra into a blessing for others. People who had some property, sold the property to buy food for people who were hungry. People sold furniture and bought clothing for people who had threadbare garments. Those who had homes opened those homes to others who had none and took them in, fed them and made them part of the family. The list of acts of kindness is a varied as the life situations people found themselves in.

Given that this is such a radical act we must ask the question, why did they do it? Why would people sacrifice their own comfort and security for the sake of others? Let’s be honest. Most of us are willing to give out of our excess to people in need. We are willing to give out of our comfort as long as it does not cause any real discomfort for us. Most of our “sacrificing” for the sake of others is really not much of a sacrifice. We give away that which we would never miss anyway. So what caused those first followers of Jesus to be so provocative?

Let me answer that question by first asking you a question. If your son or daughter was suddenly homeless and out of a job would you open your home to them, even if it meant their spouse and children moving in for a undetermined amount of time? I suspect the answer is yes and I know that some of you have done just that. If not that exactly you have done something similar for a family member. And that is the point. Those early followers of Jesus understood that they were ALL family. Calling one another brother or sister in Christ was not some religious platitude. They really meant it. If God was indeed their father and Jesus was their brother, then they were all family. That meant taking care of one another as family. You sacrifice for family. You go without so family can have their needs met. You do it because you love your family. Jesus said that the world will know that we are His family, His disciples, by the love we have for one another.

What a difference it would make if we lived out that example today. People in the first century became followers of Jesus because they saw the love the first Christians had for one another. It would be no different today. If we in the church showed that kind of love for each other you would see a revival unlike  any thing you could ever imagine. Not only that. You would see a smile on the face of Jesus because His brothers and sisters had finally figured out how to be family.

A few days ago I had breakfast with Frank Viola. No he is not the Cy Young winning pitcher who played for the Minnesota Twins, although that would be a great breakfast also. This Frank Viola is the author of “Pagan Christianity”, a book that calls the church to consider the ways in which we have gotten off mission by adopting structures and values from outside the Bible. To say the least the book is controversial and challenging. For example the quote, “The traditional church has neither the biblical nor historical right to exist as it does”, is bound to stir up some serious response. Unfortunately what people focus on is the structural issues related to church that Frank talks about. He is a huge proponent of churches meeting in homes. So you can understand why some people get a bit touchy.

What people need to focus on, and what I had the privilege of exploring at breakfast, is the heart Frank has for followers of Jesus living in community with one another and doing so in a way that brings glory to Jesus. Far too many churches function as large groups of passive people watching a small group of people do all the ministry. They are often filled with people who have not had the blessing of being grabbed by the awesome power of living in real community with Christ and His people. They are people who have not been confronted with the amazing miracle of being used by God to lead another person to faith in Jesus. Far too often our churches are filled with people who have had a very limited and a very diluted experience of Jesus and the power of being fully devoted to Him.

As a result of our diluted and passive Christian experience most people never have an impact on the world around them. Most Christian lives are just not provocative. We don’t provoke questions from others. Part of the motivation behind Provocative Christian is that our lives are too much like those of people who are not following Jesus. As a result nobody sees any difference in our lives as Christians, at least not a difference that they want in their lives. Frank wants to help Christians live in such a strong biblical community that our lives will be different and those lives will draw people to Jesus. I couldn’t agree with Frank more.

One of the best parts of our discussion was on how much of American Christianity is focused on the individual follower. It focuses on how to be a better Christian who does all the right things. What gets left out is that we can never be the kind of followers Jesus wants us to be if we are not in community with other Christians. It is impossible to become more like Jesus if you are not living out your faith in community with others. A basic theological reason for that is our understanding of God as trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit exist as one God yet in the marvelous relationship that we call the Trinity. If God is such a relationship of unity and we are created in His image, then in some way we must demonstrate godly relationships.

On a more concrete level, any reading of the Book of Acts shows how incredible that first century community was. They loved, served, cared, challenged and died for one another. If anyone was in need then they met that need. If anyone was sick, the visited and prayed for them. If anyone was straying from the faith they went to them in love and urged them back. Living in such community made it possible for them to grow in Christ like character. It also caused the world to take notice of the difference in those followers of Jesus. Some people were in repulsed by those differences. People always will hate some aspect of the Christian life. But many were attracted by it. It was a compelling witness to how life could be different and so they asked why these Christians lived as they did, why they loved one another so deeply. Eventually the world was turned on it’s collective ear because of that community of believers.

Frank Viola is coming at this from the direction of the House Church or Simple Church. I come at it from the direction of discipleship and the need for each follower to give it all for Jesus. Yet in a very real way we are both coming at it from the same starting point. That starting point is the questions “What needs to happen for Christians to live a life so united to Jesus that they change the world for His glory”. There are lots of details that Frank and I would think differently about or at least have a different perspective. But when the bottom line for both is bringing glory to Jesus through changed lives then we stand on a pretty solid piece of common ground.

I am not a big fan of the WWJD bracelets, simply for the reason that a very good question, “What Would Jesus Do” quickly became a cliche’ and not a way of life. But with that said I have to ask the question about the current economic crisis, “What Would Jesus Do?” It is an important question, especially considering the current human response to it all. Politicians are posturing to get money funneled to pet projects that serve more to win them votes at home than to actually help the economy. Then they express outrage over things like AIG bonuses, only to find that one of their own put that loophole in the bill and they all voted for it. In the meantime people who have their jobs and have no hope that the government will ever really got to helping them, are left frightened and desperate.

Jesus gave His followers some very clear instructions about how to live and how to take care of one another. He said things like,  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” John 13:34. And just how did Jesus love us? That is simple. He sacrificed whatever was necessary so that we would have all we needed to be in relationship with Him. He died so we could live. As Philippians 2:5-8 puts it,

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

The early church figured out how to do this in very practical ways. The Book of Acts tells us that no one in that first gathering of Christians in Jerusalem ever went without having the basic needs of life provided for them.

44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.  Acts 2:44-45

This was not government forced socialism or communism. This was Holy Spirit led generosity and sacrifice for the sake of family. Those first Christians understood that they were family in Christ. They were brothers and sisters in the Lord. As family they took care of one another no matter what the sacrifice entailed. People have done things like that for family through out the history of mankind. But usually it was for family by blood. This was for family by Spirit. They didn’t just take care of family. They took care of anyone God put across their path, but they especially made sure that they took care of family. Paul said to “Do good to all men, especially to the household of faith”.

In that first church, if someone was out of work, they would be inviting into someones business to help out. If that was not possible the the people who had food would provide for those who did not. If someone lost their home then others would open their home and give them a place to live. No one was concerned with protecting his own little material bubble. Because they interacted with each other on a regular basis they refused to turn a blind eye to a brothers need. People like Barnabas sold property and had the money used to feed people.

Whether we want to admit it or not, Christians today are as infected by the virus of materialism as the rest of the world. Think of your gut response to the idea of opening your home to give people a place to live. Did you immediately go to the impact on your comfort. Did the very idea of it make you uncomfortable. Did you quickly come up with reasons why your life situation would not allow for that? Okay, what if it was your parents, or your child, or your twin sister who was homeless? Would that change the equation? I would hope so. Now, what about your father in the faith, or your brother in Christ, or your sister in the Lord? They are family too. The response should be no different.

What if you are faced with a need that is beyond you ability to meet. Maybe you have a spare room that someone can move into but you do not have the ability to provide food for them and you. You can’t provide transportation for them or medicine or clothing, then what. In the early church that was simple. They gathered together as the church, house to house. The typical church gathering would have been between 20 and 40 people who where the church at someones house. From time to time the various “House Churches” would come together for bigger meetings, but almost daily they would gather in their neighborhood in a House Church. So the person who was homeless, or out of a job, or sick, would be provided for by a couple of dozen people who shared the load. You might open your house, three other families would take turns providing groceries, someone else would make clothing, someone else would watch the children, someone else would you get their friend who was a physician to come and check on them. It was the people of God being led by the Holy Spirit to meet the needs of the family of God.

Those early Christians were so good at caring for their own that they quickly branched out and started doing the same for the non-Christians who lived near them. Eventually the Roman world noticed this as was put to shame by the sacrificial love of the Christians. Through that sacrificial lifestyle the Roman empire was turned on it’s ear as millions came to Jesus because of the love that we had for one another. Oh to see that happen again!

P.S. Props to Scotty Alderman for suggesting this topic and the next few that will follow the Church in Acts 2

“For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places”  Ephesians 6:12

What is it that binds people together into the type of community that the Bible refers to as “koinonia – a sharing of life”? What is it that causes people to be willing to lay down their lives for one another, to serve one another, to sacrifice, forgive, encourage, support, and build one another up? The classic trilogy, Lord of the Rings (LOTR) from J.R.R. Tolkien gives us amazing insight into some biblical truth. It does so by showing us how that kind of community is possible between men who previously distrusted one another, Elves and Dwarves who hated one another, and Halflings who would prefer nothing better than to avoid them all while staying home eating salted pork and smoking a pipe filled with Longbottom Leaf.

Key to understanding how this incredibly diverse group was knit together into a Band of Brothers, sacrificing their all for one another is that they knew they were in a war together. And it was not a small, minor skirmish. It was a war for the fate of the world. It was a war in which the most hideous evil to ever exist was seeking to enslave, torture, and crush all people of goodwill. They knew that they were together in a struggle to the death between good and evil. If you ever speak to, or read about soldiers who together faced an enemy that sought to destroy them then you have learned about the bond that can only come in the face of such danger. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, you King Henry speaks to his vastly outnumbered men on the eve of battle. He inspires them with the recognition that back in England there is a multitude of men who will one day wish they had been part of that “lonely few”, that “band of brothers”. There is something about facing danger together that forges a bond that nothing else has the fire to accomplish.

Followers of Christ are engaged in such an epic struggle. Paul says that we are in a wrestling match that is a life and death struggle. We are wrestling against a spiritual evil that is wicked and wants to destroy us. In order to face that enemy we must buckle on our helmets and breastplate, take up our sword and our shield and go to battle. It is serious business. What is truly fascinating is that Paul’s call to arms in Ephesians 6 comes directly on the heals of his call to all of us to be in right relationships with one another in which we submit to one another out of love for Christ. We are NOT to go into this battle alone. We are to go into this battle locked arm and arm with other followers of Christ, other fellow soldiers.

The Fellowship of Ring, those nine disparate characters, quickly came to realize that despite all their significant differences, they were not one anothers enemies. They were in fact one anothers brothers with a common enemy. Followers of Christ must realize those same two things. No matter how significant our differences we are not one anothers enemies. We are in fact one anothers brothers and sisters in Christ and we have a common enemy. That enemy is the “devil who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour’ 1 Peter 5:8.

Perhaps for those followers of Christ who have been raised in a western culture, the problem is that our enemy is not a flesh and blood enemy. It is a spiritual enemy. We tend to ignore the spiritual reality around us and focus on the material world. As a result we forget that we are actually in a battle. The more we come to realize that we are in a battle together and that we must trust one another to guard each others back, the more we will see the kind of community that the world longs for. We will begin to see people ask to become a part of our shared life. True Christian community, forged in spiritual battle will provoke the world to want to join us.