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May the Great Commission never be something you only read about

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Just a Little Rant - Church Signs, Sunday School and Evangelism

I have a love/hate relationship with church signs.  OK - most of the time, I confess, I hate them.  While I have seen a few good, effective church signs, 99% of them (by my calculations), are tacky, cheesy, rude, hateful, or just plain stupid.  If you want proof, just go to Google images and search for "stupid church signs" (just prepare to laugh, shake your head, scratch your head, be disgusted, and waste a perfectly good afternoon).  Those signs actually do more harm than good.  I saw a new one the other day ...

"We Believe in Sunday School" 

My first thought was benign, "Hmmm, that's nice."  But soon I began to delve deeper into the issue.  Please note two things right off the bat:  1.) This is not an attack on Sunday School.  I like Sunday School (sort of).  I have taught, led, promoted, and trained all things Sunday School related for several years.  Sunday School can be a wonderful method of reaching out to make Jesus known in the community and reaching in to build up the local body of Christ.  2.) This is not an attack on any local church.  I don't now anyone at this particular church, and so I'm somewhat reading my own observations into the situation.  OK - so that's totally what I'm doing.  I think I am correct in my thinking, but I could be wrong.  I simply want to use this little rant to provoke some honest thinking of the methods all churches use in their local contexts, especially as they relate to evangelism.

I want to ask a few questions about this idea - "We Believe in Sunday School".  First, what would lead a church to make a sign that said this?  My theory is that this church, and many others like it, see other churches moving away from "traditional"  methods (1950's-60's, give or take a few decades), toward more "modern" methods of cell groups, small groups, in-home fellowships, etc.  Many are threatened by anything new that might change how "things are done around here".  So, in reaction to the changing church landscape around them, this church decides to hunker down deeper into their traditions and declare, "We Believe in Sunday School"!  Nothing inherently wrong (or right) about this so far.

My next question, however, is what is meant by the word, "believe"?  Surely, they do not intend to indicate that the members of this church are trusting in, or placing their faith in, some sort of man-made method of evangelism/discipleship called Sunday School.  Not in the same sense they would use the word "believe" about their personal trust and faith in the person of Jesus Christ, for salvation.  Let's give them the benefit of the doubt here that they really mean that they simply enjoy and have decided to utilize the method of Sunday School to evangelize their community and disciple one another.  So, again, nothing wrong other than a bad choice of words.

Third question about this sign - who are they trying to communicate to?  Are they simply reminding the church's membership to come to Sunday School?  If they truly believe in it, then why would they need this reminder to attend?  So, maybe they are declaring what kind of church they are to other Christians who are looking for a new church to join.  Perhaps this is their way of weeding out those who are looking for a less traditional model of church and attracting those who see things their way.  Believe it or not, there are several churches out there who have found a niche by promoting themselves in these traditional ways.  Some churches tell you that they are "King James Version only", or "Pastor led", or even "Male leadership".  Basically, they are saying that they are not like those other guys down the street.  I do wonder if this church thinks that putting this sign in front of the church building will help them in their evangelism efforts in their community, assuming there are such efforts being made.  I do know of churches whose evangelism consists of putting up bright, colorful, and expensive signs (I know of a church that spent close to $100,000 for a sign, because the pastor received a word from the Lord), letting all who see that they are welcome here.

All of this leads us to taking a look at the real issue here.  For me, the issue is that this church (and thousands just like it across the world), have lost touch with the community around them.  I'm not talking about being relevant here.  I'm really talking about compassion.  Honestly, most churches don't care enough about their neighbors (who are lost without Christ), to do anything about it.  Those that do feel compelled enough to act don't seem to know how to effectively reach out and share the gospel.  They resort to safe models and default to doing things "the way we've always done them".  In other words, these churches are employing methods that may have been successful at one point in time (probably decades earlier), to reach a community where those methods are now ineffective, foreign, offensive, and even harmful.

My suggestion is simple - Allow the context of your community to determine the methods you use to reach them.  Don't begin with a predetermined method of evangelism, even if it's the only routine you know.  Start with the community around you.  And yes, I realize the community around most of our churches has drastically changed (and is continually changing).  Most churches don't realize this.  Begin by getting to know the lost in your community.  Just as a good Sunday School teacher might exegete Scripture, the members of each church should exegete their own neighborhoods.  It's really simple, because it is just getting to know (and growing to love) your neighbors.  Once a church begins to understand the people living, playing, and working around them, then they are well equipped to choose which methods will work best to reach them.  Perhaps it will be Sunday School.  Perhaps not.

Just down the street from this particular church is one of the nation's most diverse communities, with people gathered from all corners of the globe.  Most of them have no clue what Sunday School even is.  Most have never stepped a foot inside a church building.  And many of them have not even heard the name of Jesus.  Who will go to them?  Who will tell them the good news of Jesus?  Who will make disciples of these nations?  I'm afraid the answer from this particular church is, "someone else".  And, unfortunately it will take someone else with more compassionate methods.

Please, don't let your tried and true or old and worn methods limit you in the task of preaching the gospel to every creature, whether you believe in Sunday School or not.  Do you believe in Jesus?  Do you love your community?  Will you obey?  No church signs required!

Here's another little rant I wrote a while back on Pastors and Disciple Making

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Where Is My Mission Field? 5 Practices

Often, many people who are willing to begin making disciples don't know where to start.  The question of "Where is my mission field?" can actually be misleading.  Sometimes, we don't recognize our current location as a genuine harvest field.  While it is true that God may send some of us to a new place, most of us will be called to stay where we are and bear fruit where we are planted.  There is a much better question to begin with.

Instead of asking "Where?" we should ask "Who?"  Making disciples doesn't depend on the place - it can be done anywhere!  Making disciples is about people.  All of us know people.  Many of the people around us are without a relationship with God.  There are some who haven't heard a clear, understandable message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In fact, without realizing it, some of us have neighbors who represent an entire group of people who don't have real and ready access to the gospel, except for me and you.

So, to begin making disciples, no matter the place, we can engage in these five exercises:

1.Love - Ask God to love people through you.  We must not skip this essential step.  If we do, then people become a project, and the gospel message becomes a sales pitch.  Instead of making disciples we'll be making converts - something we are not commanded to do.  As we begin this process of identifying who we should focus our energies, let us ask the Lord, who is love, to fill us with His love.  May we be instruments of His compassionate, faithful love.

2.List - Make a list of your own sphere of influence, your social network, people whose lives you are already engaged.  They could be friends, family members, neighbors, or anyone you associate with on a regular basis (through work, school, teams, shared interests, etc.).  Your list will probably consist of around 20-25 people.  Which ones can you start sharing the gospel with?  Which ones can you enlist to help you share the gospel?  From here on out you'll need partners!

3.Locate - Identify and prioritize which groups of people to focus your work based on need for and openness to the gospel.  Go on a prayerwalk.  Walk through your own neighborhood, or pick one that has folks from different backgrounds or cultures.  Maybe hang-out at an ethnic restaurant or shop.  Take note of anything God shows you, people you meet, or any significant experience.  Ask God to lead you to someone who needs to hear the good news of Jesus. You can even begin doing this on a regular basis, going to the same places, sharing the gospel, or simply asking to pray for people you meet.

4.Look - Discover a person of peace from within each of these groups.  As you share the gospel, you will encounter barriers, opposition, and even rejection.  Don't worry - God has promised His word won't return void - there will be fruit as well!  You are looking for those who are receptive and eager to hear the gospel.  Once you find this person, spend lots of time with them, sharing in Bible studies, explaining the gospel, praying, and making much of Jesus.  This person of peace will be the key to reaching the entire group.

5.Listen - Follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  No formula or plan works.  God works.  And often He works through a plan or pattern of best practices.  But sometimes He does things in new and surprising ways.  Pray continually.  Learn to listen to the Lord and follow His lead.  Get wisdom and confirmation from your partners.  Stay in the Bible.  Stay on your knees in dependence.  Walk out in obedience and confidence in what God is telling you.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Considering Joy (Pt. 2): "The Serious Business of Heaven"

Read Considering Joy (Pt. 1):  "Wherein is Pure Joy?" here


In "Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer", C.S. Lewis writes:

I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity.  I do think that while we are here in this "valley of tears", cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous.

For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End:  to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order - with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate, and beautiful order?

How can you find any image of this in the "serious" activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life?  Either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some degree, a via crucis?

No, Malcolm.  It is only in our "hours-off", only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy.  Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for "down here" is not their natural place.  Here, they are a moment's rest from the life we were placed here to live.

But in this world everything is upside down.  That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends.  Joy is the serious business of Heaven.

Lewis is saying that Heaven is the most joy-filled place in existence.  God is the most joyful being.  And Jesus is the most joyful human ever.  It follows, then, that the more Christ-like we become, the more joyful we become, and the more fit for heaven.  Below, I want to take a brief look at the book of Philippians and what it can tell us about this serious business of heaven and how to grow in joy.

First, to grow in joy, we must Look Back and remember to ...
  • give thanks (1:3; 4:6) - Living in a continual attitude of gratitude is joyful living!  I know of no quicker way to restore the joy of our salvation than to list all the things you are thankful for, verbalize them, and give thanks to the Father who always gives good gifts.
  • intercede for others (1:4; 4:6) - I've never felt as close to God as when I'm on my knees, praying for others.  To make this a regular practice - taking our eyes off of our own circumstances and standing in the gap for another - is to walk in joy.
  • work together for the gospel (1:5; 4:1-3) - These three practices are interrelated - thanksgiving, intercession, and community.  They help to spur one another on to love and good works.  A Christ-centered community, living in unity and focused on a gospel mission is the most joyful group of people on earth.  Is this not what the church is called to be?
These practices will help us remain confident in Christ (1:6) - the joy of our salvation will be kept fresh and real on a daily basis.  Second, to continue in joy, we must Look Out for those things that can rob us of joy, specifically ...
  • lack of unity and fellowship (2:1+) - Most churches or communities do not experience the joy that God is setting before them because they are unwilling to experience it together.  They are robbed of joy because of a lack of forgiveness, unresolved issues, busy schedules, disunity and a basic love for one another.
  • religious rule-keeping (3:2+) - Another way to miss out on joy is by striving to keep man-centered rules or even God-centered commands in our own flesh and strength.  Show me a person who is highly religious and law-focused, and I'll show you a person who is without joy - tired, burdened, and probably angry or confused.
  • losing vision of "things that are above" (4:8) - It's real easy to lose focus.  The things of this world crowd in on our vision of the eternal, causing us to shrink back from the joy of the Lord.  The best we feel we can do, then, is to simply manage our time and find ways of coping or escape.  But God has shown us a way out of the mess we're in, with it's long days and fleeting, temporal moments of "happiness" into His eternal joy.  By meditating on Christ and the reality of His kingdom (see Mt. 6:33), we are given His perspective - one of eternal, abiding joy - even in the midst of the cares of this world.
Finally, we will grow in joy and therefore, in Christ-likeness, if we Look Forward to ...
  • resurrection hope (1:21+; 3:10+) - The great salvation we are promised will bring resurrection - new life out of death.  The last of the human freedoms, says Viktor Frankl, is "to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances."  The follower of Jesus can always choose hope.  To choose hope is to ultimately choose joy!
  • Jesus' reign on the earth (2:5-11) - Our hope, if it is in Christ, is not misplaced.  Christ will, one day, rule on earth.  His kingdom will be advanced to every corner of the universe.  Until then, our work is to proclaim this good news.  This task of gospel advancement is a difficult but joyful business.  Let us work 'til Jesus comes!
  • future glory (3:20+; 4:18-20) - The entire book of Philippians was written and received in a context of suffering and persecution.  Paul's, as well as his hearers' bodies were slowly fading.  We know this weariness of body and weakness of mind.  And our hope is not in some ethereal future - floating about among the clouds - but is an earthy, solid ("harsh" according to C.S. Lewis), unshakable reality, where the glory we will share in will shine like the stars.  And our joy will be made full!

"Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!"  -Philippians 4:4

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How Do You Read the Bible?

A funny thing happened today.  I picked up a book I had been reading, "Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes" by Kenneth Bailey.  Here are the last couple of paragraphs I read before putting the book down:

"In the Western tradition serious theology has almost always been constructed from ideas held together by logic.  In such a world the more intelligent the theologian, the more abstract he or she usually becomes, and the more difficult it is for the average person to understand what is being said ... In contrast, the popular perception of Jesus is that of a village rustic creating folktales for fisherman and farmers.  But when examined with care, his parables are serious theology, and Jesus emerges as an astute theologian.  He is, as noted, primarily a metaphorical rather than a conceptual theologian ... A metaphor communicates in ways that rational arguments cannot.  Pictures easily trump but do not replace abstract reasoning.  A powerful television image communicates meaning that a thousand words cannot express.  When used in theology to create meaning, the parable challenges the listener in ways that abstract statements of truth cannot approach....Theologians often use "illustrations" to infuse energy and clarification into their abstract reflections.  A metaphor, however, is not an illustration of an idea; it is a mode of theological discourse.  The metaphor does more than explain meaning, it creates meaning.  A parable is an extended metaphor and as such it is not a delivery system for an idea but a house in which the reader/listener is invited to take up residence."


Then, a couple hours later, I picked up another book, "Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes" by Brandon O'Brien and Randolph Richards.  I didn't even think about the similar theme as I began to read; I was mainly thinking of how I was supposed to return this book to my friend Jayson Georges several weeks ago, and that I probably wasn't going to finish before I saw him again.  I opened the book to where I had dog-eared the page - sorry Jayson! I hadn't cracked the book since before Christmas, so to read these words just two hours after reading the ones above were, for me, quite remarkable:

"When it comes to communicating the truth, Westerners drift more towards propositions than to artistic expressions.  Because we are somewhat uncomfortable with the ambiguity of metaphors, we tend to distill propositions out of them.  We want to know what they mean, in categorical terms.  A philosophical description of God ("omnipresent") is better than an anthropomorphic one ("his eyes roam to and fro throughout the land").  Or, so we think.  This is why books on Jesus talk more about the facts of his life than his parables.  To us, things like metaphors and parables sometimes seem like unnecessarily frilly packages for a hard truth.  We want to get past the packaging to the content; we want to know what it means.  These assumptions about the value of propositions and our unease with ambiguous language put us at something of a disadvantage when it comes to reading the Bible.  The biblical writers didn't make the distinctions we make regarding when metaphorical and potentially ambiguous language is appropriate.  We relegate it mainly to informal communication.  But the writers of Scripture recorded the profoundest truth in similes, metaphors, parables and other colorful and expressive (and potentially ambiguous) forms of language."


Interesting, huh?  What do you think?  How do you read the Bible - particularly Jesus' teachings and parables?  Maybe it's time to re-read them.  And although I haven't finished either of the books mentioned above, I recommend them to you.