Tag Archives: Church

Churches Shaped By Mission

NT Wright on “Church Shaped by Mission” from Fuller Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

If you lead or serve in a local church, than this post is for you. Hold off on watching the video above for a second.

Last week I was in a meeting of a group of ministers and seminary professors who were trying to figure out how churches and seminaries can work better together for training future ministers.

It was an incredible meeting, and kudos to our seminaries for caring enough to ask the question, “How can we do better?” One of the more interesting parts of the conversation came when one of the ministers was talking about the tension between the ideal and the real. The way he said it was that he was, “I learned in seminary to be suspicious of anything that worked. Because pragmatic or practical ministry involves compromise and using methods that are less than ideal.”

And immediately we all knew what he meant.

I mean can we really say that the Cross “worked?” Isn’t Christianity a faith about dying to ourselves? Should we really compromise in order to be more effective?

But the problem is that in order to lead a local church you have to compromise and learn to work pragmatically. You are dealing with real people with problems that don’t come in textbook formats. And you learn quickly in ministry that for all your preparations and theories that the local church isn’t a laboratory. And that what works in theory doesn’t always work in practice.

So back to this video. This video is from the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright teaching at Fuller Seminary a few years ago. They were asking him about this exact thing, he was talking to preachers from churches from a hundred different traditions, who were basically wanting to know how to do we hold this tension between the ideal and the real?

I love his answer.

Keep the ideal in mind. Remember that there is a new Heaven and a New Earth coming, and remember what that vision for the future looks like, because that’s more than just the Christian hope. That’s the Christian mission.

It is the mission that should inform every church.

Let’s just hopefully and pragmatically stumble toward that.

When The Saints Go Marching In

130521083430-01-ok-tornado-0521-horizontal-galleryIt’s been a heavy week. Especially if you live in Oklahoma.

But It’s been a hard week for anyone with a heart, we’ve all seen the pictures and video, and most of us have gone home and hugged the people we love a little harder.

Maybe you heard about the theological and political debates that it immediately spawned, or maybe you didn’t. But let me tell you what I’ve learned: Whenever something tragic like this happens, we immediately see two things happen. People try to leverage the event for more power or influence, and some people run to it to serve the ones who are hurting.

Why Bad Things Happen

So there’s this one time where Jesus is walking toward Jerusalem and some religious people stop him and ask him a pretty pointed question. They ask Jesus about these current events where some Galillean Jews had gone to the Temple and Pilate, for some reason, had gone in and slaughtered them

And so they were wanting some commentary from Jesus on why this happened.

Now in asking Jesus this question about suffering they are conjuring up all kinds of images, and thoughts that were common in the 1st century.

Actually they are common in all centuries.

They’re asking why, why does this happen, what does God think about this, is God angry, is this God’s punishment? They’re just enunciating a question that has been around since time began.

And that’s why Jesus answers the way He does. He brings up a natural disaster, and he tells them that these people didn’t die because they were more guilty, that we are all broken.

Now I think what Jesus does here is pretty genius. He doesn’t let them draw a straight line from cause and effect for specific sin to specific punishment.

Which is what religious leaders sometimes do, it seems like every time there is a natural catastrophe someone will try to leverage others pain for their own temporary glory. It’s started within two hours of the Moore tornado, because it always does. But I’ve noticed when they say that a certain catastrophe was due to a specific sin they tend to say that it’s a sin that they don’t struggle with.

No religious leader ever says the reason God sent that earthquake is because they were being materialistic, or prideful.

But Jesus response to tragedies like this isn’t to name a specific sin, but to point that there is this deep brokenness in the world. And unless we forget it’s in us too.

That’s why Jesus says Repent, because we are part of the problem, but we can also be a part of the solution.

In fact, as soon as I hear about tragedies like this week, I immediately wonder how long it will take before the world sees the church show up.

Because It seems like we always do.

When the Saints Come Marching In265904e9a0dbb6758fffb87f7635fe87

A few chapters earlier in the same Gospel, Jesus starting getting people to help share in his ministry.  He sends out 72 of his followers to different villages to preach and to heal.

And when they get back, they say, “even the demons submit to us in your name.”And Jesus responds with something that I love. He says:

 “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.  I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.  However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

He saw Satan fall like Lightning.

The disciples has been walking over hot sand, knocking on doors, asking to see the sick, announcing the coming of Jesus. All their actions took place in the visible world, which they could touch, smell and see.

But Jesus sees more, he saw that those actions in the visible world were having a startling impact on the invisible world. What we do has both personal and cosmological implications.

When natural disasters happen, it always takes me to dark places for a bit. When Leslie and I were at the Hills Church we did Tsunami relief and it was incredibly beautiful and tragic to hear the stories. It all started because one of our members saw the Tsunami on television and flew directly to the worst hit part of Sri Lanka and started making large promises on behalf of the church. And they kept them!

Earlier this week I spent the afternoon with Jon and Joann Jones. A few years ago the Burmese people had a horrible cyclone hit their refuge camp and do great damage, and if you remember that, when you heard that story you had to wonder where is God in that? But while all that was going on my friend Jon Jones was over there.

He’s been going over there for many years, working with those people, trying to get them food. He once told me that he couldn’t see an American dollar anymore without thinking about how much rice it will buy.

But I started thinking about it, this whole time, I was seeing that picture and asking where is God?

This week as soon as heard the story about Oklahoma and the great tragedy of Moore joining the great tragedies of history. I started hearing stories about elementary school teachers protecting their children at great risk to themselves. I immediately started hearing stories about churches and first responders making sacrifices and opening homes for victims.

It’s easy to pontificate and theologize about why bad things like tornadoes and tsunamis happen. It’s easy to use them as a platform to further whatever particular axe you have to grind, but let me tell you who you want to listen to right now. Ask the first responders and those churches who have skin in the game.

Ask the saints who are marching in.

Because if you are wondering why God allowed this or what His plan might be, I think we are asking the wrong question.

You need to see what Jesus sees.

Because I’ll tell you were God is.

God runs to Sri Lanka and promises them millions of dollars of church money for relief effort.

God is running all around Burmese refuge camps trying to get money for the victims of the cyclone.

God is laying on top of elementary school kids protecting them with great risk to Himself, and He is with the churches digging through the rubble and planning to restore and rebuild it.

That’s where God is.

And I see Satan fall like Lightening.

*If you go to Highland and you would like to give toward the effort, we are partnering with Global Samaritan for all relief, and you can give directly to them here.

God at Work: Church Work

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” -Marcel Proust

“The first duty of a Christian pilot, is to land the plane.” -Tim Keller

Jesus at the office

For a while I’ve been passionate about helping people see their everyday jobs as vocations, as calling for ministry.

But this inevitably raises questions like why does “church ministry” matter? If all work is ministry than what is church work?

But to answer that I have to tell you about Strip Clubs in Las Vegas and middle-aged judges named Herbert.

A few years ago, Andres Martinez wrote a book called 24/7: Living it up and Doubling Down.  The premise of the book is that he went to his publisher and told them that he needed a $50,000 advance to write the book…for research.

His plan was to take 50 large to Vegas and to live on the money as long as possible.

The publisher loved it.

As you can imagine the story is a bit tawdry, but at one point Martinez goes to a strip club where he says, “I never expected the highlight of my time to come in the bathroom of a strip club.”

He walked in and met Joe, the bathroom attendant, was serving the patrons by handing them towels and soaps, but Joe was also reading his Bible.

All the merry conversationalists in the men’s room suddenly fell quiet. “As if Joe was packing heat.”

“You’re reading the Bible in a topless club?” one patron asked.

“I’m a minister,” Joe replied, “this is where the Lord wants me, there’s a lot of hurt here.”

Joe had been a drug dealer for the majority of his life, and now, after a stint in prison, he had been found by Jesus.  For most of his life, he wouldn’t have thought once about taking a menial, minimum wage job, but Joe had found a church, and the church had turned his job into a calling. (obviously not a calling for everyone)

G.K. Chesterton once said that, “every man who walks into a brothel is looking for God.” But that wasn’t true of Joe.

Joe was God’s way of looking for them.

The Sacred Secular

Rob Bell in his most recent book, points out that the significance of the Temple curtain ripping was huge. Because before it meant that there were places that were sacred and places that weren’t. He says:

A Temple was meaningful and useful because it gives humans a way of conceiving of the idea of the holy and sacred….Church services and worship gathering continue to have their place and power in our lives to the degree [that all work and workers do] because they remind us that all of life matters, all work is holy, all moments sacred, and all encounters with others are encounters with the divine.”

Temple Prayer

A few years ago, I spend the day with Larry James, a preacher who now runs an incredible non-profit.  Larry still believes deeply in the church. because, he says,  “The people who are sitting in the board rooms on Monday, and the court benches and classrooms and creative meetings on Monday are sitting in the pews on Sunday. The problem is preachers aren’t helping them connect what they do with the Gospel.”

He’s right.

I talk with accountants who don’t know that their job is a ministry. But if Jesus is right, then they see a person heart better than any counselor. I talk to mechanics who don’t see what they do as a ministry, but they give oil changes to single moms for free, I talk to carpenters who don’t see what they do as a ministry…even though it’s the job Jesus had!

A church at her best gives us new eyes to see the rest of the world, and how God is working within it.

Eyes Wide Open  

In 2008, Paul Herbert, a municipal judge from Ohio began to realize that he held a position that was a rare opportunity. He was in a place to make a real difference in society, but he wasn’t. Herbert was a Christian, he’d gone to church his entire life, but hadn’t connected his job with his calling.

But Herbert had a minister who prayed for God to open his eyes to use his work as ministry.

And Herbert started seeing things differently.

He noticed that there was a revolving door on the girls who were regularly paraded through court on prostitutions charges. He began to research the demographics of these women, and found that most of them had been sexually abused at a young age, had run away from home, and started masking the emotional trauma with drug abuse.

Suddenly, they became more than just criminals, Herbert started seeing girls.

And Herbert was tired of just putting these girls in jail.

So he started a program for counseling and rehabilitation with an option for Higher education for these women. And it’s working like gangbusters. Women are walking away from the world’s oldest professions, and toward universities and vocations.

Judge Herbert went on to say:

The Holy Spirit continues to reveal how much I’ve been forgiven, and how similar I am to the individuals that come before me. That’s really hard to say! [My] job is to judge. But the farther I go along [in my faith], the more I realize that I’m just like most of them—and that makes me more understanding, more kind, more merciful.

What I love about these stories, is that the church didn’t merely call people out of the world, but in Gospel ways, it called them deeper into it.

Sometimes God calls people to work as a missionary to reach the men who go to the strip club, and sometimes he calls them to change the legislation to reach the girls who work there, and sometimes he calls preachers to help the judge and bathroom attendant see how to re-see their work.

It’s not just a job, it’s a ministry.

It’s the church at work.

Inspi(re)ality: God in the Neighborhood

inspireality-navy This month Inspi(re)altiy is dedicated for churches/ministers who are wanting to develop vision. I’ve asked my good preaching friend Steve Cloer to give some practical advice for what it means for a local church to develop a vision.

Steve is an incredible leader and preacher who works with the Southside Church of Christ in Fort Worth.  A couple of years ago, Steve and I were having lunch together and I asked him how ministry was going, and his eyes lit up talking about the new local medical clinic they were starting in their property. He’s passionate about serving the neighborhood, and just being a good local church. If you are interested in being a part of a church that serves the community than here’s some great practical advice on how to do it.

Meet my friend Steve:

A minister’s job is to be active and discerning in three spheres: God’s word, God’s people, and God’s world.  Alan Roxburgh suggests the image of a poet as a metaphor for a preacher.  A minister is called to discern all three spheres and weave together a vision based on what God has said, what the congregation is gifted to do, and what the world’s brokenness demands.  While this all sounds good, the practical problem is that ministers often get held up in the first two spheres, they never get to the third.  With sermons to write, lessons to prepare, the sick members to visit, and the hurting members to counsel, often there is not enough week left to actually get outside of the walls of the church building to spend time in God’s world.  Yet this is crucial.

If the church is going to be the instrument of God’s redemptive presence in a location, someone must be exploring that location, venturing out to see what is God is doing within the neighborhood.  I believe the preacher has that responsibility.

I have seen many examples of churches that were disconnected from its surrounding community.  My family was on a trip a couple of years ago and we decided to stop for worship services in a small, rural town off the Interstate.  I knew there was a congregation in this town, but I was unsure where it was.  To save time (and an argument), we stopped in a gas station to see where the location of the building was.  I asked one attendant if they knew where the Church of Christ was located.  She did not.  She asked a few others in the store: they did not either.  So they picked up the phone book to look for the address.  When she found it, she remarked, “Oh, that is right down the street!”  She was right.  Less than a half-mile away was the building, but no one in that store knew anything about it.  The adage of “If our church closed our doors, would anyone in the community care?” comes to mind.

Lesslie Newbigin suggests that the Spirit’s work in the world is the prevenient work of the kingdom of God.  There are occasions in Scripture where the Spirit is pointing the church out into the world in directions they were never thinking.  Acts 10 and 16 are great examples.  Peter never suspected to be in Cornelius’s house (a Gentile).  Paul never thought he would be taking a ship ride to Macedonia.  But the Spirit was pointing the way.  The Spirit is not just located within the church building.  It is in the house of the Gentile.  It is in Macedonia.  It is in the neighborhood.  The question is will we take the time to step out of our “church realm” to see what God is doing and seek to join Him?

But how does one do this?  Let me offer some practical suggestions on how a preacher can venture into this third realm, discerning the Spirit’s work in the world and the opportunities to be a blessing to the community.

First, take the position of a learner.  Focus in on the immediate neighborhood surrounding your church building.  Then decide you will learn as much as you can about that area.  A preacher told me one time about a visit with Ray Bakke in Chicago.  Bakke took him and his colleagues around to see the city.  He “exegeted” Chicago for them and afterwards, the preacher remarked that after learning what he did about the city, he was ready to minister there.  It is hard to be a blessing in a location, if one does not know the location.  Take some time every week to do just that: get a tour of nearby hospitals, meet up with business leaders, see if the city has a guided tour, visit colleges and talk to administrators, meet with school principals.  You will be surprised how impressed these leaders will be that a preacher cares to learn about what they do and their city.

Second, find some kind of neighborhood organization that you can be a part of.  Typically, in every city there are different organizations that seek to bless, build, or revitalize the city.  It could be a civic club, a neighborhood association, a business group, or something else.  A good rule of thumb I use is if I am only the minister present in this organization, then I am probably in the right place (obviously this principle does not always apply!).  But I am a part of two neighborhood revitalization groups.  Routinely, I am the only minister present along with bankers, real estate investors, business owners, residents, and other leaders.  Immediately respect for our church went up because they could see we were interested in the neighborhood.  But also, through these avenues, partnerships have been created to bless our community.  Regularly, businesses contribute to various compassionate ministries of our church.  Neighbors have volunteered in some of our ministries.  I was asked to sit on a board of a development fund to help low-income areas.  The list goes on and on.  At one meeting, I was telling one person about an upcoming ministry outreach to the area our church was doing, and he committed on the spot to give me a significant amount of money to help the cause.  When the neighborhood finds out the church cares, they will join with the church in accomplishing God’s vision for the city.

Finally, beware of demographics.  Often when someone thinks about getting to know their neighborhood, they immediately think of doing a demographic survey of the area.  There are different groups that will help do this for a fee.  I have done this.  The results are sitting in my office collecting dust.  Numbers can help provide an overview of the area, but they are not as powerful as narratives.  It is far more motivating to mention in your sermon about the middle school nearby that you visited where 90% of the children are low-income and many come from unchurched homes.  Or to tell about the conversation that you had with a community leader who desperately desires justice in the neighborhood but is unsure how to make it happen.  Or to describe the apartment complex that you visited in the neighborhood where a single mother has no bed, no food, and no hope.  These stories help the congregation not only get a picture of the neighborhood, but it stirs their heart to join God in His mission within the neighborhood.

A minister cannot be all things to all people.  He cannot know everything about the Bible, counsel every member, or help everyone in the neighborhood.  Boundaries are critical, especially in this third sphere.  But if a minister can bridge the three areas, God’s word, God’s people, and God’s world, and be able to articulate the intersections to the congregations, then, as Roxburgh suggests, the poet comes forth and the preacher is able to lead the congregation to discern how they might be the instrument of God’s redemption in that neighborhood.

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Invitation to the Highland Church

The average person visits a church website 5 or 6 times before they actually attend the church. Maybe they want to make sure there won’t be snakes or kool-aid, but more likely, they want to know if this church has them in mind at all. They want to know if this church is welcoming to guests.

Last month, we made this promo video for the Highland Church sermon series that is starting this week. If you are a member at Highland, feel free to share this video online or email it to invite your friends. If you live in Abilene, we’d love to invite you to join us as we study through Jesus’ teachings on how to live the best life. Here’s our invitation to you:

This is the time of year when a lot of us are trying to change. It’s when we go after the latest fad diet or the most recent personal development book. Now is when we think about change. This year as you are thinking about your future, join us as we look at what Jesus says the best life really looks like.

For the next few months at the Highland Church of Christ, we are going to be looking at Jesus’ most famous sermon. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s changed the course of human history! It is Jesus telling us what it looks like to live fully human. It’s filled with practical wisdom on what it looks like to live the good life. Jesus talks about everything from our relationships and how to deal with anger, to the danger of religion and how to not let the things that we own become things that own us.

Jesus words are as old as the New Testament but are as relevant and powerful as ever. He turned the world upside down with this sermon.

It has changed the world, let 2013 be the year that it changes you.

Names #5: The Towers We Build

In the 18th century, there was a Spanish philosopher named Miguel de Unamuno who came up with one of the best questions to illustrate the human condition. This was the question: If you had to choose between creating amazing works of art that would last forever and would make the world a better place, but you would remain anonymous; or you could become a famous, world renown artist and painter but your works would be totally forgotten. Which would you choose?

Insignificant fame or Anonymous blessing?

So this is a series on a small theme in the book of Genesis. Namely, that Genesis cares a lot about names. Apparently the Bible cares a lot about the language we use to describe the world and each other.

Last week I talked about how after the fall in Genesis, Adam and Eve try to find their own names, independent of God. But what happens when that stops just being a problem for a couple of people and starts to be the way the whole world operates?

Just eight chapters later, Genesis tells us about how the how the whole world was speaking the same language. And they all got together because they wanted to build a tower. Which actually sounds like a pretty good idea. I mean we build towers all the time. But Genesis is telling us something here. They are trying to exceed the limitations of being human. They are trying to be gods.

The real reason they wanted to build a tower was because they wanted to “make a name for themselves.” (The actual Hebrew here is Donald Trump).

Now think about this for a second. They aren’t actually concerned about the project they are building. Their real goal is to be important. Their real goal isn’t the tower, but to justify their existence.

And God doesn’t like that goal at all.

So God comes down, and confuses their language, in a little project called “Let’s Stop Talking” God takes back their ability to name each other…Not because God is cruel but because only God can make a name great.

But what’s fascinating about this story to me, is that just a few verses later, God is going to approach an elderly, barren couple and ask them to leave their home and family and scatter (the very thing that people of Babel were afraid of). And then God tells them this:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

The very thing that the people of Babel wanted, God was going to give Abraham and Sarah as an act of grace.

Most of the time when I hear people talking about the Tower of Babel, they are talking about whether it really happened or not. The truth is, the Tower of Babel is a story that happens all the time. Continue reading Names #5: The Towers We Build

Names #4: Curses and Poetry

So this is a short series about names in Genesis, and more specifically about why the Bible seems to make such a big deal about names and the language we use. It’s why names matter more than we think they do.

The other day I was talking with another preacher friend of mine, who is a minster in another state, and we were talking about church work and about the different ways that church volunteers serve.  And ultimately the conversation turned to how bad preachers are at getting people to volunteer. Not that we can’t get people to volunteer, that part is easy, but that preachers aren’t that good at getting people to volunteer in ways that help the volunteers just as much as the people they are serving.

The temptation of preachers, or bosses, or anyone who cares about a certain project is to use people. 

I’m going to let you in on a dirty little church leadership secret.  If you have pride…I can get you do almost anything. But it will almost never turn out well.

Let me explain:

One of the more interesting things about the book of Genesis is how it starts. If you’re familiar with the Bible at all, then you probably know that Genesis chapter 1 is the story of God creating the world. But what you might not know is that Genesis 1 is written as a poem. It’s got a rhythm, it’s got beat and a cadence.

Genesis 1 is about God doing the work of creation, but he does it with a song.

He makes the universe like he’s writing a poem.

And then the crescendo, the climax of this song is when he makes Adam and Eve. God passes on to them things that he doesn’t give the other parts of his creation, he asks them to name and create with him. In other words, he let’s them sing along.

Now if you are familiar with this story, you know that this doesn’t last long. Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden and they are given permission to do anything they want, the only prohibition God gives them is that they can’t eat from one tree. They can do anything, and remember they’re naked at this point, it’s like God is making it easy on them to think about other stuff. But they do the one thing we probably all would do, they disobey, they fail to trust God.

And this is the story that we’ve been living out ever since.

But what’s really interesting about this chapter, is that after Adam and Eve disobey God comes to them and curses them. But some of the Rabbi’s don’t refer to this section as curses, they say that God is now observing the way that reality has now changed. If you haven’t read this chapter recently go back and take a look. Because it’s pretty fascinating what God actually tells Eve and Adam.

To Eve, he tells her that her desire will be for her husband.  A few years ago, I had someone point out to me that this word desire is the same word we might translate as “lust.” Which changes that sentence I think. Because to lust is to want something out of someone that they can’t give you. And now Eve will want something from Adam that he isn’t able to give her.

This is the Rabbi’s point. Adam and Eve used to know who they were. They were, after all, actually named by God in just the previous chapter. In other words, He used to tell them who they were. They used to get their identity from the one who made them. But now that the relationship has been broken, they’re just naturally going to look somewhere else. And Eve is going to look to her relationships.

God isn’t cursing them…he’s just telling them where they are going to try and get their names. Continue reading Names #4: Curses and Poetry

Names #3: People of a Name

Have you ever noticed how ugly names can be? I’m not talking about bad names like Hubert or Lance, but more about the ugly ways that we use them. Names can unite people, but they can also divide us. So I belong to group of Christians who traditionally didn’t want to be named anything, we started off as non-denominational (non-named) Christians. The only problem with that is that we named it “Churches of Christ” and then pretended like it wasn’t a name at all.

Which is the theological equivalent of saying something like “Oh that’s my friend Steve, he doesn’t have a name.”

But “Churches of Christ” has been moving along as a non-denominational denomination for well over a hundred years. And we really like our name. If you ever doubt that, just go up to one of us and ask us to change the church sign.

But having a name isn’t a bad thing. Everything depends on what you do with it.

I have a friend who’s a few years older than me, and until a couple of years ago he and his wife led what most of us would consider a pretty normal American life. But that was before they met Heather. Heather was a teenage girl who had come from a very broken home, she had been coming to the church they attended for the past few months, and they started to get to know her…then she started staying with them…then she wanted to be their daughter.

Now my friends hadn’t planned on adopting, but they loved Heather, and so they gave her a ton of options other than full adoption. They told her she could keep staying with them until she went to college, they would be willing to become her legal guardians, and if she really wanted they would legally adopt her, but she could keep her last name, and she could still make a lot of her own decisions and remain relatively independent.

But, my friends made clear to her, if you want us to fully adopt you and give you our name, then it’s going to be an entirely different situation. We are going to expect a lot more of you than we would just some resident.  If we give you our name we are going to ask you to live a certain way. So no more abusing alcohol or drugs or dating boys we don’t approve of. Because if we give you our name it comes at a price.

And Heather said yes.

Even though she knew changing her life this much would be painful, she wanted more than a roof over her head. She wanted a name that meant something to her.

So this is a short series on why names matter. But more specifically it’s a series on why the book of Genesis talks so much about names. For the longest time I’ve wondered about why Genesis is so preoccupied with the idea of naming and names.

One of the things that is interesting about Genesis is that when Noah names his three sons, one of them is named Shem. Which is the Hebrew word for name. I have a friend named Jonathan who teaches Hebrew at a seminary in town, and since both of our parents really nailed it in the name department, I was asking Jonathan what he thought. Here’s what he said:

Family trees in the Bible are pretty boring. Kind of like graduation pictures—just a lot of faces, all in the same monochrome robes. Or like those names on the Vietnam Memorial. You know, boring.

Obviously, I’m writing this tongue in cheek. Graduation pictures are riveting—when we are in them. If we can seek out a name we know on the Vietnam Memorial, it can be the most meaningful experience ever. And even family trees fascinate us—as long as it’s my own family tree. Continue reading Names #3: People of a Name

Judging the World

I read this story over a decade ago, and it’s been haunting me ever since. A month doesn’t go by that I don’t think about this story. It’s in Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace. A friend of Yancey was a Christian counselor in Chicago, and a young woman had come to him with a severe addiction. She had to started to prostitute her body out to provide for her substance abuse, and when that wasn’t enough money, eventually she started selling her 2 year old’s body  as well.

Now this counselor has got to report her. But first he asks her a question, he asks her, “Have you ever thought about going to a church?” And she says, “Church?!! Why would I ever go there? I already feel bad enough about myself.”

Told you it’s a haunting story.

So for the past several weeks I’ve been writing about the need for Christians to live in a community that is able to judge each other in loving ways, and today is the last post in this series. And on some level this whole series has all been a set up for this post.

Because despite that first story, I do think that Christian communities should be known as the places where we are able to speak the hard truths into each other lives. I do think we should be known for being lovingly judgmental, but not in any sense like Christians are known today.

The real problem with the Western Church today is not a lack of programs or leaders, it’s not us not having the right building location. The real problem we have is a lack of American Christians looking like Jesus. The Barna Group is a famous research company that surveys American Christians, they basically ask us “What has following Jesus changed in your life?” And every time the Barna group comes out with another survey, the answer is always the same, “Not much.”

We sleep around at the same rate as non-Christians, we use our money the same way non-Christians do, we are just as likely to beat our spouse or divorce as a non-Christian is. Christians are even more likely than non-Christians to object to someone of a another race moving into their neighborhood.

I like the way Dallas Willard talks about this:

Non-discipleship is the elephant in the church. It is not the much discussed moral failures, financial abuses, or the amazing general similarity between Christians and non-Christians. These are only effects of the underlying problem…It is now understood to be a part of the “good news” that one does not have to be a life student of Jesus in order to be a Christian and receive forgiveness of sins. This gives a precise meaning to “cheap grace” though it would be better described as costly faithlessness

In other words, The biggest problem is that Jesus followers don’t follow Jesus. Continue reading Judging the World

The Grace of Truth

So I’ve been writing the past few weeks about the need that we have for Christians to be able to speak the hard words into each other’s lives. Next week will be my last post about this, but I’ve been thinking about this because I have a hunch that we’ve reacted so much to the idea of not judging each other, that we’ve used it as an excuse to really living in community with one another. We live in social circles and call it church.

So there’s a time in the book of James where he talks about how anyone who knows the truth and doesn’t act on it is like someone who looks in a mirror and sees what’s there and immediately forgets it. I like that idea.

Because just about everybody I know looks in the mirror everyday. And for some of us it’s more painful than others, but we do it, and we stand in front of that mirror as long as we have to before we go out into the world. And we do that, no matter how disturbing what we see in the reflection is, because what we are looking at is reality.

And reality, whether we like it or not, is our friend.

A few years ago, a young woman came into my office who I had known in passing. We talked for a few minutes, and then she just kind of blurted out that she had an eating disorder. She was anorexic, and was paranoid about gaining weight, to the point where she was slowly starving herself. And I was shocked. On the outside, this young woman seemed to be emotionally healthy and happy, she was very thin and pretty, had a great job and a healthy dating life. And so I asked her why this was such a concern for her. And she told me that she had always struggled with her weight.

I don’t know what led me to ask this question, but the next thing I found myself saying was, “What do you see when you look in the mirror?” And without a second of hesitation she replied, “I see a very fat person.” She couldn’t have weighed over 120 pounds soaking wet.

Sometimes mirrors lie.

And so I spent the next few minutes just talking to her about the lie that her mirror was telling her. I talked about having an identity in Jesus versus identifying with our appearances. And then I asked her about her friendships. I wanted to know if she had anybody in her life who she was very close enough with to share what she was struggling with, and who could speak some truth into her life.  She couldn’t imagine that, and then she went on to tell me that she didn’t plan on radically changing her behavior, or even the way she viewed herself, she just wanted to get it off her chest with her minister. And I think most of us know why she didn’t want to take this further.

Because some mirrors are more painful than others.

The book of James is probably the most practical book in the New Testament. James is trying to create a certain kind of church. And so James talks about judging each other with mercy, he talks about the power of the tongue, and how we should not use our mouth to put people down or gossip, he talks about how faith is something that leads to action, and how we shouldn’t treat people better or worst based on things like how much money is in their bank account. And then here’s how James’ ends his letter:

 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

That’s it. That’s how he ends it. He says that and then drops the mic and walks away.  Continue reading The Grace of Truth