Archive for the ‘Evangelism’ Category

Dangerous Grace

September 16, 2019

Here’s a good (thought-provoking) article challenging the latent notion in most Christians that the faith is primarily about them doing good things and not doing bad things, rather than about the perfect and final act of Jesus Christ on their behalf.

Honesty

September 6, 2019

I like honesty.

I say that fully admitting that I am incapable of it.  That in the entire history of the human race there have only been three people perfectly capable of it and two of them threw that ability away pretty much right out of the starting gate.  None of the rest of us can be perfectly, absolutely honest all of the time.  But we can try, and trying makes all the difference sometimes.

And for me the hallmark of honesty is the willingness, the humility to admit that you might be wrong.  That you might be deceived yourself or trying to deceive others.  If there is that humility there is room for discussion.  Room to really hear other people and really be heard by others.  If there isn’t that humility, there is no discussion and ultimately there can’t be growth.

I like intellectual honesty, grappling with reality as we know it and experience it and trying to make sense of it.  I’m reading Justin Martyr’s First Apology, and I love his willingness to tackle the prejudices and ideas of his day head on with the assumption that truth can be found and honesty will lead to that truth.  He wasn’t afraid to present a demand for honesty to the Roman Emperor himself and all those who claimed or desired to be purveyors of intellectual honesty.  Justin was convinced that Christianity and the Bible could fare well in that sort of encounter.

But we have to recognize that in these confrontations Christianity is a threat to other people.  It threatens what they know or believe, or what they prefer to know or believe.  It threatens these things by insisting that there is an objective truth and reality that can be known and that knowing is life-changing.  Not simply an intellectual assent to a propositional statement but something that penetrates to the very heart and spirit of us to transform us.  To bring life from death.  So it’s a threat.

This morning I met with a young man in an addiction recovery program.  We’ve been meeting for three weeks  or so now, each week, as part of the program’s option to provide clients with a spiritual mentor.  While I don’t like the title, I’m willing to spend time with guys who want to search out the spiritual aspect of their recovery and lives further.  More honestly.

After several weeks of running around in philosophical circles about what can or can’t be known, as he was preparing to get out of my car today he said I think I want Christianity to be untrue, or I want to convince myself it isn’t a reasonable option because it would challenge my identity, and I don’t know what I’ll have to give up if I accept it as true.

Honesty.

A recognition that  the call to follow Christ is a call to self-denial.  A call to transformation.  A call to allow God to use us as He chooses rather than as we prefer.  A call to fully acknowledge the depth of our depravity and brokenness, that we might better praise and exalt the God who delivers us up and out of these things.

The Gospel reading for Sunday is Luke 14:25-35.

Jesus clearly does not understand our influencer social media culture.  Here he is with thousands of people following him and hanging on his every word.  Imagine how rich he could have become with a few well-placed product placements!  But instead, Jesus’ response is to turn around and challenge those people.  Do you really want to follow me?  Because following me is going to cost you everything.  Are you willing to give it all up?  Are you willing – more accurately – to live as though it isn’t yours in the first place? 

I think many Christians think this sacrifice comes when they enter the faith, which for many means as an infant.  I think many Christians presume there won’t be any further sacrifices demanded of them.  That they are entitled to live the rest of their lives more or less like the larger culture.

But Jesus’ words directly contradict this.  Because if we’re going to be honest about who we are as fallen and sinful creatures, we have to embrace a humility, a recognition that we might be wrong on any given matter and therefore open to being guided.  Open to growth and learning.  Conviction is fine – I’m convinced of the truth of the Bible and the real identity of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Son of God who defeated the powers of sin, death, and Satan on my behalf through his death and resurrection.  Being humble and listening doesn’t mean everything is up for grabs.  But it should mean I’m listening.  That I’m willing to engage in the discussion like Justin Martyr or Josh this morning.  And that I’m understanding that this may lead to changes in me personal.  How I like to think of myself.  The things I enjoy.  Even some of my convictions.

It may, in fact, lead not to the general approval of the people around me but to my death.  Don’t think Jesus’ use of the cross is metaphorical or symbolic.  His hearers knew all too well what the cross meant, as did Jesus.  And we are called to that level of humility, if necessary.  To being branded a criminal when we are not, as Justin Martyr insisted.  On being convicted by an unfair double-standard, as Justin pointed out.  To suffering and dying in acceptance not of the truth as stated by our world, but as defined by God, as Justin ultimately was willing to do.

Sometimes I think Christians are more willing to embrace and affirm the idea of martyrdom rather than be open to the possibility of the Holy Spirit changing their opinions about things here and now, in the safety of their own routines and lives.  Then again, theoretical martyrdom is far more romantic and exotic than the unpleasant business of dealing with other people.

I pray for honesty.  For the blinders to be revealed and removed whenever and wherever necessary from my eyes.  I pray that knowing full well it might be highly uncomfortable.  And so when I pray for that kind of honesty and engagement for and from others, it hopefully isn’t under the assumption that I’ll get what I want that way.  But Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. (Ephesians 4:15)

Clashing Worlds

August 15, 2019

She is very young.

In the language of today, which must constantly judge and categorize, she would undoubtedly be called privileged.  Sheltered.  But that is to some extent the condition of the young.  And here she is on the other side of the ocean from her home, interning in the court system in our town for a few weeks as part of her course of study in law in her home country.

She arrived home harried, which is not uncommon, but also agitated.  Today I went someplace I never want to go again.  I guessed where she had been before she revealed it – the jail.

Not as an inmate, but as an observer.  Her first time in a jail, and the first time is always overwhelming in one fashion or another.  It was terrible, she said.  It’s easy to know what the law says and know that if I break the law I could go to jail.  But people think they won’t get caught, won’t go to jail, and if they do, it won’t be that bad.  But it’s bad.  It’s terrible.  

I think back over my many years ministering in jails.   Yes, it’s bad.  But what you learn over time is that there are worse places.  That for some, three squares a day and a bed and a shower and a lot of regiment are just what they need.  Far better than the uncertainty of addiction or crime.  But that first time, well, the first time you simply know it’s terrible.

And by extension, you know the people there are terrible.

Why else would they be there, right?  For all the media talk about misjustice and injustice and all manner of very serious and very real issues, the vast majority of the people behind bars are there for very sound, real, good reasons.  Most of them will admit this to a greater or lesser extent.

It’s easy to see only the crime and not the person.  Probably as easy as seeing the person without seeing the crime.  And of course there is a tension between the two, a relationship to be acknowledged, a dance that must be completed and hopefully not repeated.

She gathers her dinner plate.  Mostaccioli and salad and toasted garlic cheese bread.  We’re eating out back on the patio tonight.  It’s cooler than inside and we have three extra guests tonight.  Three women, at least one if not all three who were at some point or other – perhaps very recently – in jail.

Repeatedly.

Addiction does that.

But they are gathered for dinner at our house tonight because for the time being they are working very hard to beat the odds and their addictions in hopes of a life free from jail in the future.  You wouldn’t know it to look at them.  A statuesque blonde.  A young Hispanic woman with beautiful long straight hair, though she looks with admiration at the naturally curly hair of my wife and daughter.  All three of them laughing and carrying on together like girls and women do together, enjoying food and the cool evening air.

I wonder what she would say if she knew.  Knew that but for a glitch of timing she might have met these ladies in jail, in that terrible place with terrible people who have done terrible things to themselves and others.  Her  disgust and disdain are palpable, but she’s happily engaged speaking in another language with one of our resident guests.  She doesn’t know.

I pray that as she enters the field of law she will be able to walk the difficult tightrope of never forgetting the law but also never forgetting the people.  That she will remember that ultimately our hope is not merely punitive but restorative, and that her faith – however perfunctory it may or may not be – will guide her to give  both thanks and praise to the Creator.  The God who created her in her youthful inexperience, as well as the people in the jails and prisons of our world.  People who perhaps need to be there, but hopefully don’t have to be there forever.  I pray that she never loses hope that lessons can be learned, debts to society can be repaid, lives restored, and glory given not to the magistrates or parole boards or wardens but to the God who alone has the power and will to restore life from death, hope from ashes.

And I pray that if she can be sustained on that tightrope, she won’t be adverse to sitting down with people she may have been required to put in jail at one point or another, in anticipation of an eternal feast where our places are guaranteed not by the purity of our lives but by the grace of our Creator through his Incarnate Son, who pays the penalty for our sin that we might be set free.

Acts 16:6-10 and Change

July 23, 2019

By all  accounts it was a successful trip so far.  Wonderful reunions with congregations Paul founded on his first mission trip.  Congregations in Derbe.  Lystra.  Iconium.  Psidian Antioch.  How the Holy Spirit was at work!  How much more might be accomplished!  Plans were made to build on these successes by further mission work in the area to the north.  But such plans came to nothing.

What does it mean to be forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia (v.6) ?  Was it clear to Paul and his associates that this was the case?  Did the Holy Spirit reveal the divine will in this matter?  It would seem not.  They attempted to go to Bithynia and were unable to.  Confusion.  Frustration.  They had the will and the ability, why couldn’t they make good on their plans?  Why did they reach nothing but dead ends despite all the good work accomplished thus far?

More time should probably be given to considering verses six and seven, to the simple statements that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul and his companions from sharing the Gospel in certain areas.  What a strange thought to us today, who are so certain that we control evangelism, we make our plans, we execute them!  Confident that the Holy Spirit desires all to hear and be saved, how can we make sense of the possibility that for the purposes of God, and without conflicting with the reality of a good God who desires that all would be saved, God the Holy Spirit might for his unrevealed reasons frustrate the plans of faithful Christians to share the Gospel with certain others?  I’d argue we can’t, and we don’t even try any more.  But that’s a secondary consideration for me right now.

In the midst of confusion and frustration comes a vision.  More than a dream, perhaps.  Something visible, and something with supernatural overtones.  Paul can see this man.  Perhaps he can hear him as well.  He understands him despite an accent perhaps.  He sees the different clothing.  Somehow Paul understands where this man is from, where this man represents.

Morning comes.  Paul reports his experience to his associates.  Silas.  Timothy.  And based on the sudden change of pronouns in v.10, many presume also Luke himself was there, the author  of the book of Acts.

What to make of it.  The message is clear – an appeal for help in Macedonia.  Moving from the Asian continent to the European continent.  An entirely different arena for sharing the Gospel.  The vision was clear, but what to do about it?

I imagine that the men were hesitant at first.  After all, they’d had such success in the area of what we call Turkey today.  Thriving congregations!  Certainly, they hadn’t been able to travel north as they intended, but surely that would resolve itself in short order and they could continue with their plans.  Surely there were other opportunities closer to hand.  They weren’t doing anything wrong, but what they were doing wasn’t working the way it had previously.  Was it clear to them this vision came from God?  I presume not necessarily, as we’re told in v.10 they concluded it was.  There was some level of analysis, consideration, prayer.  And the result of all those things was a determination that God was behind this and it was time to follow.

Change is hard.  It isn’t what is expected.  It isn’t what is familiar.  Yet small changes can yield incredible results.  A diversion from Asia to Europe – such a small matter in the moment and yet the history of the world is changed no doubt as part of that change.  Would the Holy Spirit still have worked through Paul and his associates if they came to the conclusion that while the vision was interesting, they really were better suited and preferred to stay in Asia?  Of course.  They might have been mistaken, but that certainly wouldn’t have made them bad or evil.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit would have sent a clearer indication of the proper path.  Perhaps He would have worked with them where they were.

It’s good to remember ultimately that the Church claims that God the Holy Spirit is behind everything we do.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t prone to error, it doesn’t mean we don’t interfere.  It doesn’t mean that things are always clear and simple and easy.  But we have to trust the Holy Spirit to work in and through and at times despite us.  And this should foster a level of humility, a willingness to acknowledge our limitations and brokenness and therefore the very real possibility that we might be mistaken.  And it should drive us to hear in others the possible voice of the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t like or agree with what they say.

Change is difficult.  So is staying the course.  Such forks in the road are an opportunity for faith to work itself out in surprising ways.  Not necessarily pleasant ones, but surprising ones, with the trust and confidence that the Holy Spirit is working things out to the glory of God regardless of what is motivating us and our decisions.

Humbling indeed.  But comforting as well.  Sola dei gloria.  Always and in all situations.

 

Don’t Forget the Seed

May 30, 2019

Last night’s Bible study was very instructive.  We were working our way through the parable of the sower in Mark 4.  Before we continued on to Jesus’ explanation, I had the class flesh out what they thought the various aspects of the story represented:  sower, seed, path, rocky soil, weeds, good soil, etc.  Good conversation and some good insightful answers that often paralleled Jesus’ own explanation.

When Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the parable to them, he defines the seed as the word.  What did the disciples make of this explanation?  If we assume Mark’s gospel is more or less chronological, this comes pretty early in Jesus’ ministry and the disciples would likely presume the word to mean what Jesus was proclaiming himself in his ministry – the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.

At which point the hearers might have wondered what the gospel, the good news, really was.

I asked the class what they thought Jesus meant by the word in his explanation of the parable in Mark 4.  One said the commandments – this is how you ought to live your life.  Another thought love was the word.  It was clear there was a struggle.

These are answers we like – that the word is basically instructions, insights, secret tips on how to live our best lives now.  Variations on familiar themes.  Encouragements, exhortations, pleadings, even threats – do what you know to be right or else!  Those are things we can deal with.  We can’t fulfill them, of course, but we can allow ourselves to be whipped into a frenzy for short periods of time, believing we can and must and will fulfill them.

But that places the word in ourselves.  We are the answer, the solution, the key to a bountiful harvest in our own life.  We would essentially be Buddhists.  Or Hindus.  Or Muslims.  Or secular humanists.  Or pretty much any other belief system on earth, all of which ultimately place the responsibility for change and accomplishment, for enlightenment or obedience squarely on our shoulders.  Do it.  Discern it.  If you do, you can be proud of your accomplishment (though this is a relative accomplishment, in relation to other people but almost never our own metrics, let alone  God’s!).  If you fail to do it, it’s your own fault and you deserve what you have coming to you.

Only the Bible gives us a word that is outside of ourselves.  Completely, totally, forever outside of ourselves.  And that Word is the Word made flesh, the Son of God, Jesus.

So I wrote out John 3:16 on the board for the class, suggesting that this is a good encapsulation of the good news, the gospel, the word, the seed.  Then, substituting whoever or whosoever with an actual name, I repeated this verse to every single person using their name.  I gave them the seed.

How easy is it to talk about the seed, to reference the word but never define it, never spell it out?  How easy it is to presume that everybody understands what Jesus means by the word, when even his own disciples probably didn’t get it.

This is my job, and I need to remember it and break it down as simply as possible as often as possible.  I’m scattering seed.  It’s not my seed.  It’s not my job to make the seed grow – I can’t do that.  I can simply scatter the seed.  Explicitly.  Spelling it out, as it were, to make sure people actually get the seed.  Are they a well-worn path or rocky soil or full of weeds?  I can’t know that for sure, and I may not be the one to discern that.  But I cast the seed.  If that person is a hardened path with no crack for the seed to fall into, I pray someone else, at another point in time  will cast the same seed again, when perhaps the ground will be more receptive.  That someone else will scatter the word again, when the soil is less rocky, or when more of the weeds have been pulled.

But for the love of God, make sure to preach the Word!  Clearly.  Without assumptions.  Spell it out.  Make it personal and specific.  Make sure you don’t pass over good soil and toss out lint or chaff or anything other than the seed of God, the Word of God!

The Log in Our Own Eye

May 6, 2019

I’m all for mission work.  The task of taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to other places and peoples who haven’t heard it already or need greater teaching and grounding in it has been understood to be part and parcel of following Jesus since, well, pretty much Jesus.  This work does need to continue, by all means.

But I’m struggling with an issue in my own Christian denomination, where troubling times and failures on the home front of evangelism are compensated with by directing people’s eyes overseas.  In my local regional polity of our denomination, there is a push to unite our congregations in support of mission work in India.  I think this is wonderful.  There are many people in India who have not heard the Gospel and we should reach them.  It isn’t that I’m against this effort.  But what I would prefer to see alongside it is an equal effort to figure out how to share the Gospel here, in the United States, on the West Coast.

But that’s harder work, and people feel stymied.  There isn’t an obvious rallying point.  People can be hit up for a few dollars to send to India, and know that their spare coffee money pays for entire school buildings and equipping dozens of missionaries.  There is, quite literally, a bigger bang for the buck in this sort of mission work.

But here at home, the situation is not far removed in grimness or urgency than the pictures of overseas children with smiling faces as they huddle over a Bible or a bowl of porridge.  Our children are killing each other, their teachers, strangers.  We’ve lost the ability to discourse civilly on important ideas and concepts.  We’re barely able to love our friends let alone our enemies.  We are hooked on drugs – prescription or illegal – and monumental amounts of alcohol (particularly wine) to help us cope.  The only answers our culture has offered are to legalize drugs or ban weapons or determine that opposing ways of looking at an issue or  the world are due to psychological dysfunction or literal brain damage.

The Gospel is needed here, in the United States, every bit as much as it is in India.  And just because it’s hard or difficult or confusing shouldn’t mean that we ignore this mission field.

Evangeless-ism

March 11, 2019

Evangelism is getting harder, according to one of today’s oft-noted theologians and pastors, Tim Keller.  The reasons Keller cites for evangelism getting harder than it was just a few generations ago are several.  Some are external to Christians and some are internal.

First he cites that evangelism  is more complicated in a highly diverse population that does not have a general, cultural understanding of the Bible and Christianity.  Without a common baseline understanding, evangelism requires a lot more effort.  To someone conditioned by our culture to not know what sin is, and once you explain it to them, to reject the notion as depressing or relative means the person trying to witness has a lot more ground to cover.

Next he cites a greater difficulty in sharing the faith because our culture no longer has a basically good attitude towards Christians and the Church – even if they themselves are not Christians or church-goers.  Emphasis on the abuses and sins of the Church both historically (slavery, religious wars) as well as currently (pedophile priests and other sexual scandals across the denominational spectrum) mean we can’t assume the person we’re talking to even thinks Church or God  is a good thing as a whole for society.  I’d argue that in addition to these factors, there is the deliberate downplaying or ignoring of valuable roles that the Church has played historically and currently, whether in the development of universities and hospitals or current social justice issues.

Finally there is the relativism that pervades our culture now, so that any time someone wants to share the truth, that truth is seen as relative and subjective – maybe good for the sharer but maybe not good or necessary for the hearer.  This can in turn lead to a lower level of empathy among people which makes it hard for them to see things from another person’s perspective.

In a typical evangelical response, Keller cites Christians as basically the problem despite the overwhelming issues noted above.  Nor does he mention sin and an active – though defeated – Satan as elements that contribute to the difficulty of Christian evangelism.  I think he would agree with all of those things he just doesn’t mention them here.

He thinks Christians need to be more humble and sensitive in their witness, and I’d argue that’s always a good thing.  He also thinks Christians need more courage, and of course this is always good as well.  Finally he argues that Christians ultimately don’t really care enough about others to evangelize.  Here I disagree.  I know plenty of Christians who care a great deal about others but their efforts to evangelize have been stymied by many of the factors noted above.  That doesn’t denote a lack of love on their part, but rather a reality of our age.  I question the evangelical assumption that every Christian needs to be an evangelist, since there are pretty few Scripture passages that can be interpreted that way (and those that can are often argued as not applying to the average Christian).

Rather than blaming a lack of love, perhaps we should blame churches for inadequatey catechizing their members, teaching them not only what their church believes but also why.  Perhaps we should blame churches that presume that just because people are members they believe everything the Bible or the church teaches, when in reality most of their lives are lived out in thoroughly secularized school and work environments that are actively hostile to Christians and at times seek to make evangelism an actual offense that could affect admissions or promotions.

Yes, Lord, change our hearts.  But also grow and strengthen our churches and pastors to better ground and equip their parishioners in the faith.

Creating Community

February 28, 2019

Last August my wife  and family and I decided that we wanted to begin a new ministry outreach.  Some of our spiritual giftings are in the area of hospitality and helping people feel comfortable, welcome, respected, safe.  For years, I’ve been working in the recovery community locally, engaging each week with men and women committed to a year-long residential addiction recovery program.  I’ve had many joys in getting to know these people in their journey.

The difficulty is that for many of them, the relationship I build with them is viewed as part of their recovery program.  Thus, when they graduate from the program, I never see or hear from them again.  In one sense that can be good and fine.  Some are from out of town and head back to their own areas to continue their life of recovery.  Other times, I know they’re still local.  I give them my contact info, but I think there’s the idea that I was part of their recovery program and now they’ve graduated from that and moved on.  Yet the life of recovery – modeled after the life of Christian faith – is grounded in relationships and community.

So we decided to begin inviting small groups of 3-4 clients from the women’s program over to our home for dinner each week.  Over the course of two months all of the women came over.  Our  goal was simply to provide community and relationship.  To give them three hours to be in a home where there are no expectations other than being together.  They can relax.  Sometimes they help in preparing dinner or setting the table.  They help in clean up after we enjoy the meal together.  Often times there are board games or video games for them with our kids.  Each night is slightly different based on who is with us.

It was great.  We enjoyed it and the ladies enjoyed it.  Our goal was that this would be an ongoing thing.  Never an expectation or requirement but always an option for them.  But once all of them came over, the staff assumed that was the end of it.  After some further conversations  and explanations, we started up the dinners again this month, and have another one tonight.  Again, good experiences.  Not always easy, but certainly fascinating.

But tonight was a first.  One of the ladies who attended one of our very first dinners last year called my office up.  Normally she plays softball on Wednesday nights but due to rain, the game was cancelled.  She remembered coming for Wednesday Bible studies at our church, and I think in part because of the different kind of relationship she experienced briefly in our home, she felt comfortable reaching out.  I picked her up and brought her to our regular Wednesday night, informal pot-luck dinner at our church and then she stayed for Bible study afterwards.  She indicated she planned to start coming to our Thursday dinners at our house next week.

It  was a very affirming moment.  Building relationships is long, slow work.  Our congregation recently was blessed to have some missionaries to Turkey come by and speak with us for a bit.  He described a relationship with a couple and family, and the ups and downs of that relationship and how God the Holy Spirit brought others into the relationship as well to move it along.  Eventually the couple became Christian, which changed their lives and led now to the curiosity of their children about the faith, having seen how much happier their parents were in their new faith.  At the end of his sharing I asked him how long this relationship had been going on.  How long had he and his wife been working with this couple.  Loving them.  Caring about them.  Getting to know them and allowing themselves to be known.  Ultimately being able to share the love of Jesus Christ.  Well over 20 years, he responded.  Over 20 years for that relationship to grow and develop!

So little baby steps are a huge blessing.  To see that in opening ourselves and our homes, we can leave impressions, make impacts on people that may not be recognizable initially.  Not for weeks or months or years.  Sometimes not for decades or lifetimes!  It was a further confirmation of the direction my family and I are being drawn in through ministry.  It’s exciting and invigorating even as it’s exhausting.  But it’s nice to hope that it’s making a difference.  Slowly.  One person at a time.

Two Cultures

February 26, 2019

I spend a lot of time thinking about the shape of the Church in the coming years.  As our culture continues to move away from any sort of consensus about much of anything, let alone an interpretation and understanding of reality and humanity that calls us to limit ourselves rather than indulging ourselves in every manner possible, what will the Church look like?  Will the Church be able to adapt?

I’m convinced that adaptation will mean the recreation of the Church from an institution that presumes everyone else agrees and should support it to one that acknowledges it is very much alone in a sea of competing ideas and beliefs.  In this regard it will be no different from the first century of the faith.  However there must first come a transition where the Church finally acknowledges that this is the case and begins to act like it.

A lot of congregations acknowledge the first part to one degree or another, but the second part – changing practice in response to this understanding – that’s a lot slower in coming.  The result is inevitably shrinking congregations and dying congregations.  Congregations that – if they can’t replenish their membership through births among their members – won’t be able to sustain their larger-scale church models in a time when congregational size overwhelmingly will be much smaller than ever before (with the obvious exception of a small percentage of mega-churches).

Part of making the second change, starting to act like we aren’t the default option, requires first an understanding.  I’ve talked with plenty of congregations in varying situations of comfort or distress.  All of them talk about mission, all of them talk about evangelism.  Most of them don’t really mean it.  Those that actually mean it are really talking about reaching out to disaffected or former church members of one denomination or another.  Their concept of evangelism basically boils down to fishing in an aquarium.  This isn’t bad, but it needs to be recognized.

Bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ who aren’t already Christian or formerly Christian to some degree requires a further awareness of what we think it looks like.  I think oftentimes when congregants talk about evangelism or bringing people to Christ, what they really imagine is bringing people to church.

Isn’t that the same thing you ask?  No, it’s not.  Bringing someone to faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God who died and rose again in order to save our eternal lives is one thing.  That is the cultural shift from unbelief to belief, from faith in something or someone else to faith in the triune God of the Bible.  Many Christians assume this means bringing that same person into the Church.  Their church.  Their church culture.

Sharing the Gospel isn’t the same thing as sharing church.  Sharing the Gospel is much different from then presuming that new Christians will value your existing experience of the faith and expression of the faith.  Yes, new Christians become part of The Church, the gathering of all the saints past, present and future in Christ.  But that doesn’t require them to adopt our church culture.  The Christian Church around the world has many common features that look and feel very different based on the culture of the area and people.  This culture naturally influences Christian culture and church culture.  That influence can be good and beautiful or problematic, but it’s going to happen to some extent.

If people don’t have a churched background or mindset already, we have to recognize that when the Holy Spirit brings them to faith, they’re going to need to plug into a worshiping Christian community.  We call this a church, but that is now shorthand for a lot of things that aren’t necessarily part of being a Christian, but have come to be viewed that way by generations of Christians in a similar cultural context.  Oftentimes, the Christians in that shared cultural context expect that new additions to the body of Christ will assume those cultural contexts.  They’ll step in and keep things going the way they have been for generations and decades.  But this isn’t necessarily the case.  It is necessary for a particular congregational culture, but not necessary for the new Christian.  This isn’t a situation where we have to define one perspective as bad and the other good, but we ought to acknowledge that there might be significant differences.

If we want to talk about bringing people to Christ, about actively working with the Holy Spirit to share the good news of Jesus with others, we need to be careful that this is what we’re sharing rather than our particular church culture.  One emphasizes the objective, historical reality of the incarnate Son of God.  The other tends to focus on programs, things to do, a community to be a part of.  These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they are not the first thing.  Faith in Jesus first, then the other things.  And when it comes to the other things, it is possible that a new convert to Christianity will emphatically affirm their faith in Jesus, yet struggle to adapt to a particular church culture.

This presents opportunities to form new church cultures that preserve core aspects of the Christian life as lived by people over 2000 years – worship, study, fellowship, love and care for neighbors, etc.  But how these are accomplished might look very different.  How resources are allocated might look very different.  Still faithful to God, not not easily compatible with one another.

I think this is part of the disconnect many congregations are experiencing right now, why so many struggle.  They expect that people are just naturally going to understand and desire to be an active part of a church culture, when they may not, even if they have faith in Jesus Christ.   Being able to recognize the larger changing cultural landscape will ultimately be crucial to the adaptation of the body of Christ to new cultural values and perspectives.

Fishing in the Aquarium

February 15, 2019

Last week’s Gospel reading was Jesus and Peter, some empty nets and a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11).  The net result, so to speak, was Peter’s recognition (undoubtedly he had a similar response at the wedding at Cana in John 2) that Jesus was something more than just an ordinary rabbi.  In response to Peter’s confession of sinfulness, Jesus conveys the equivalence of absolution in telling Peter to get up.  There are things to be done, and Jesus is the one who is going to make Peter capable of doing them.  And there in the boats in the hot mid-day sun on the Sea of Galilee, as the fish pulled up and weighing the boats down undoubtedly began to grow rather pungent, Jesus tells Peter that from now on he will be catching men.  People, not fish.

That fishing was going to be real fishing.  Not on the Sea of Galilee but throughout Judea.  It was real fishing because while they were casting nets and lines among God’s chosen people, they were bringing them into something new and different.  Not sacrifices and festivals but the presence of the Son of God, the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.  Everything was changing, and people needed to be brought from where they were and what they knew (or thought they knew) into the new reality unfolding around them so that it might unfold within them.

Our congregation had an outreach Sunday a few weeks ago.  Like many congregations, we watch our members grow older and our numbers begin to shrink.  In response, some of our leadership determined that we needed to be intentional about inviting people.  A date was set, a brunch was planned, and we had multiple visitors that day.  More than I expected, frankly.  It was great.  And now we’re in the midst of follow-up and hoping that they will return and become part of the community permanently.

I’ve felt guilty, as I’ve talked about with my wife, because I don’t believe that ultimately this sort of thing is the answer to our congregation’s long-term viability.  I would never say we shouldn’t.  In fact, we shouldn’t need to have outreach Sundays because people should always be thinking about inviting people to church!  Yet I don’t feel that this will solve the long-term challenges facing the vast majority of Christian congregations of all stripes around our country today.  Long-term challenges that are being encountered in very short-term timeframes.

Am I just a pessimist?  Many would say so.

But my wife pointed out that invite-a-friend Sundays are useful for inviting Christian friends, neighbors, and family to come to church with us..  People who might not have a church home at the moment, or maybe have been away from church for many years but still consider themselves a Christian.  They haven’t rejected Christ or the Bible or the Christian faith, but they’re out of the habit of Christian worship and might need a little nudge (or a big kick in the rear) to get them back where they should have been all along.  In other words, we’re reaching out primarily to people we already know and people who are very likely already Christian.

It’s like fishing in an aquarium.  Fishing among fish that have already been caught.

And the problem with that is that very quickly you deplete the aquarium.

Our culture is in the midst of a massive shift.  It has been for decades and now we’re really seeing it pick up steam, as what was once marginal issues for fringe elements of our culture has become front and center and mainstream.  That shift is driving people away from church.  It is convincing parents that they should not force their children to come to church but rather let them make up their own minds.  The result is predictable.  If faith is not a core matter to the parents, it isn’t going to be for the kids either, barring some sort of miracle.

And what is rapidly happening is that the number of fish in the outreach aquarium of pre-existing believers not already in a congregation is shrinking.  Ideally, congregations everywhere should be struggling to reach these people and draw them into Christian community where they can be nurtured and cared for and discipled in the faith.  Hopefully, there are a lot of nets and a lot of lines being cast out there.  Either those folks are going to be drawn into Christian communities (hopefully!) or they will refuse to be.  Either way, the pool of available fish in the aquarium will continue to rapidly shrink and there are going to be fewer and fewer fish to replace them.  If fewer and fewer people are going to church in the first place, there will be fewer and fewer people with a Christian background or upbringing or even just a familiarity with some Biblical or doctrinal basics that, for one reason or another, quit going to church and wind up in the aquarium, hopefully to be reeled back in at some point.

What the Church needs, in my opinion, is not to quit fishing in the aquarium, because by all means, those people need to be brought in and plugged in to Christian community.  But more and more the Church needs to retrain itself to fish out in the wild.  On the lakes, in the streams, out on the ocean.  Casting out nets and throwing out lines to draw in people who have very little or no Christian or church background or experience.  The Church needs to go back to what the apostles and the early Church had to do – preach the good news to people who didn’t know it already because they’d never heard it.

For that type of fishing, an outreach Sunday isn’t the right tackle.  Not the right sort of bait.  If someone knows nothing of the Bible or church, has never heard the Gospel, that the Son of God took on humanity in order to suffer and die and rise from the dead to reconcile us to God, then a Christian worship is not going to make any sense.  All the shorthand and lingo that Christians take for granted is going to go right over these other people’s heads, or going to hit them between the eyes in an offensive manner.  Worship is  an action appropriate for those who have come to faith and who are learning what that means for  their life.  It isn’t ideal for someone who has no clue.

Some congregations might be inclined to say that fishing in the wild doesn’t sound very appealing.  They don’t have the gear for that.  They’ve not worked with that kind of bait before and don’t know what sort of weights to use or the right time of day for that kind of fishing.  But the reality is it doesn’t matter if you think you’re equipped.  You’re going to have to learn how to do it because the aquarium will be depleted at some point, and either you’re learning how to fish in the wild, or you starve and die.

Most congregations and Christians, in my opinion, prefer to take their chances.  We’ll just be the best aquarium fishers out there, and we’ll get all those fish, and we’ll keep going longer than the others!  I can’t say it’s not a reasonable strategy, but  I’ve rarely seen a congregation go all in on that, follow up their preference with action in a meaningful, sustained way.

But I’ve really never seen a congregation that wholeheartedly decided it was time to put their emphasis into fishing in the wild.

Locally, in their own community and city or neighborhood.  I’ve never seen a congregation that realized that missionaries are now appropriate for their city, not just for some distant group of people living in the forest somewhere and speaking a different language.  But that’s the kind of fishing Jesus called Peter and the other apostles to.  Wild fishing, but local fishing.  There wasn’t an aquarium at that point.  They had to learn how to preach and teach the Gospel.  They had to learn how to trust the Holy Spirit to be at work preparing their hearers ahead of time and working in their hearts and minds during and after their preaching and teaching.  They had to learn to see the people they had grown up with and worked next to and even worshiped next to as people who needed a missionary, fish needing to be brought in to the Good News.

Fishing in the wild is hard and frightening.  It takes  getting used to.  But it’s part of being faithful, and I believe that congregations will need to recognize it and begin adapting themselves to it.  And quickly.  Because as rapidly as you see our culture shifting and changing before our very eyes? As rapidly as you see people deny truth and embrace death as victory, that’s how quick the aquarium is being depleted.

That’s how quickly you’re going to need to start fishing in the wild, locally.