Category Archives: Christian Growth and Discipleship
What do you remember about your childhood church?
I remember much. And I’m beginning to miss it more and more. I grew up in the church of the 1960s and 1970s. My church was a small congregation in small-town Montana. The church has never grown larger than a couple hundred, but her influence has been wide. She produced dozens of pastors, missionaries, elders, deacons, Sunday School teachers and other leaders.
What do I recall about my childhood home church?
I remember the smell and feel of a hardwood pew (where I literally cut my teeth). I remember the clink of glass communion cups and the taste of homemade unleavened bread and sometimes stale grape juice. I recall the sounds of a dueling organ and piano, the Doxology hymn after the offering and the prayers of nervous elders around the Communion table.
I remember stained glass windows that told stories of the Faith. I remember hymns that communicated deep doctrinal truths with passion and purpose. The Church’s One Foundation. In The Garden. Softly and Tenderly. The Old Rugged Cross. Power in the Blood. Revive Us Again. When We All Get To Heaven. We had no band. No lighting cues. No fog machines. No hi-tech visuals. No sound system. Just a guy or gal waving her arm to lead us in a hymn’s tempo, whether 4/4, 3/4 or 6/8. I remember a time when worshippers sat reverently and sang loudly (in parts). Back then our worship leader used to chide that we couldn’t sing “Standing on the Promises” as long as we sat on the premises. Today we stand to worship (and sometimes are chided if we don’t) while many (especially men) don’t sing at all.
I remember congregational readings and prayer times, when we openly shared our troubles, triumphs and trials. In my childhood church everyone had a role. Some ushered. Some gave devotional thoughts. Some served the Communion. Some passed the offering plate. Some prayed. Some read Scripture. Some played the instruments. Some led the songs. Some gave announcements. Some shared a special song, poem or art. Even the kids were involved. I once did a “chalk art” drawing on stage while my preacher waxed eloquent about heaven. I was eight years old.
I remember monthly fellowship dinners where the whole church gathered to feast, but to also share stories, build community and enjoy life. I remember old ladies with perfect attendance pins (some years in the making), sermons on sin, Hell and judgment, two-week Vacation Bible Schools and revivals, all-night prayer vigils and the annual Christmas play (to a packed house). I remember hanging with my preacher in his office, his home and even on the job (he was a part-time radio broadcaster). We played a lot of ping pong and shuffleboard.
I remember, as a preteen how the boys and girls were separated for a few years (Junior Boys and Junior Girls) to learn from same-sex teachers. I remember “sword drills,” Bible baseball and other games to encourage Scripture memory. I learned how to use a concordance, pray for others, study the Word and share my Faith. And unlike today I learned without bribery, Bible Bucks or other gimmicks to incentivize my motivations. To paraphrase a popular hymn: “My faith was built on nothing less than my preacher’s notes and Standard Press.”
Above all, I recall feeling safe in my church. No matter what life brought me, I knew the saints had my back. My preacher knew my name. My teachers knew my cares. Church was a place to gather, connect and commune. We were family. The parking lot was still full long after church let out. Few beat it to the door because there were plenty of people looking to talk to you. Visitors were welcomed and often invited to join for Sunday dinner. We didn’t give visitors a gift. We gave them our lives.
I’ve seen “church” change a lot in my lifetime, but I miss “church” as it was. Today’s church seems so plastic, processed and produced compared to my church back in the day. Today too many Christians want quick, convenient and entertaining, but at what cost? Discipleship has been reduced in some churches to a Sunday TedTalk. In other congregations, especially of the non-denominational evangelical stripe, the only person who prays in the service is the pastor. The Lord’s Supper or eucharist has become a drive-by, occasional event. Worship a concert. Fellowship an accident. Evangelism something someone else does.
Some might view my reminiscing as criticism, but that’s not true nor my intent. It’s mostly just observation. If you’re younger, I understand. All you’ve ever known is the church of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. But the “church” of those decades was in transition and transformation. It’s wasn’t the “old school” church that those of us 50 and older grew up experiencing.
Personally, I’m not against change. In fact, I think there’s been many good and healthy changes in the Church since my youth. I appreciate worship that’s more culturally-sensitive and emotive. I appreciate that sermons are more applicable. And I’m grateful for the plethora of resources, helps or ministries for just about every need or problem.
Nevertheless, we have lost some great traditions. We’ve cut loose some wonderful ways we once connected. We’ve forgotten some beautiful strategies for sharing, growing and maturing Faith. I know we can’t go back. And we shouldn’t. Today’s church operates within a completely different cultural context and it’s not possible or reasonable.
If there’s one thing we do need is a return to SMALL. Bigger hasn’t been better for the Church. The bigger we’ve gotten the more we’ve lost the personal touch. Unless we can reimagine “mega” into smaller communities (where everybody knows your name), even the large churches will eventually stagnate and decline. It’s critical the Church recaptures authentic community that provides every person a place, role and purpose.
This was the practice of the early church: small, home-based communities of probably no more than a couple dozen. For centuries the Church operated small and contextualized to a particular neighborhood or town. Discipleship was in upper (living) rooms. Worship was interactive and everyone contributed. Evangelism happened by riverbanks, side roads and in prison cells. The disciples were sacrificial in their giving and no one had a need.
It sounds a lot like the church of my childhood.
Can you imagine a church like that today? I can.
For the DNA of the Church hasn’t changed. It’s the same yesterday, today and tomorrow:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread (Lord’s Supper/Eucharist) and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts (Acts 2:42-46).
The seminary, Christian university and Bible college is in trouble, so says my friend and church analyst Thom Schultz in his latest blog “Trouble at Christian Colleges.” Attendances are in decline. Revenue streams are drying up. Entire schools are folding. Over the past two years I’ve visited dozens of private Christian schools in my work. I’ve heard the stories. I’ve seen the struggles. I’ve watched layoffs, downsizing and forced retirements. I’ve even experienced it myself. It’s hard to be a Christian college professor today.
As a professor of ministry for nearly 25 years (15 years full-time), I think Thom largely hit the proverbial nail on the headmaster. I was blessed to be part of Christian higher education during its glory days. I love to teach and still miss the classroom greatly. It was a special blessing to disciple students in ministry leadership. I have hundreds of former students, most who serve successfully and lead powerfully in local churches, parachurch organizations, schools, businesses or other Christian institutions. I am still blessed to teach online at one of the best Christian universities in the world and adjunct courses at other schools whenever possible.
Nevertheless, I will confess I left the academy somewhat disillusioned by the institutional machine of modern Christian education. I served as a professor or staff in four schools, from a small Bible college to one of America’s largest Christian universities. Each had unique blessings, special challenges and proven successes. It was clear the larger the school the more she focused upon non-academic stuff, particularly sports programs and the never-ending campaign to erect the next building (supposedly to attract more students, which didn’t always happen). As a professor, I was discouraged to discover that faculty development, evaluation and improvement was minimal (with spotty training to help me improve as a teaching professor). Outside of semester student evaluations there was little constructive feedback and few budgeted resources to improve pedagogy. It wasn’t necessarily my dean’s fault either. These fine individuals were overworked, underpaid and doing the best they could.
My biggest disappointment is how schools, even those camped in the same denomination, are highly territorial. Outside of sports competitions (which naturally create an adversarial relationship), many Christian colleges operate inside their academic bubble high upon their institutional islands. There’s little cooperation or collaboration. Every school tries to reinvent the wheel, completely dismissing affordable and helpful resources easily obtained through sister colleges. Outside of annual meetings and conventions, where sister school faculty, staff and students, might occasionally rub shoulders, there is little camaraderie.
So I understand why students (and faculty/staff) move on. There are lots of learning options today, particularly digital formats. I personally believe the future of higher Christian education and ministry training is online. It’s faster, less expensive, more convenient and, in my experience, even more productive. Information is cheap in today’s cyber economy. You don’t need to pay big bucks to a school to learn something. Online education is the perfect fit for the emerging iTech generation. It’s even more fun (and lucrative) for the professor. You can’t hide in an online class and enrollments have to be sectioned small (under 25 students). Online courses require a higher degree of student commitment, involvement and attitude. Learning happens within the student’s (not the school’s) cultural context. In recent years, online learning has become popular, but few Christian schools have the expertise, funding and infrastructure to do it right, so most muddle along in mediocrity.
So WHY the “trouble at Christian colleges?”
First of all, most Christian colleges, seminaries or universities must jump through a variety of hoops to remain accredited by state, regional or national entities (essential to granting degrees). The U.S. government in recent years has pressed for clear evidence that a school is doing it’s advertised work and producing graduates. If an institution doesn’t pass the fed’s performance demands then student loans and other federal aid is at risk. Meanwhile legitimate concerns the U.S. government might soon become hostile to private Christian institutions are rising.
Second, Christian colleges, seminaries or universities focus on the theological not the practical. Many ministry graduates lament about how ill-prepared they were for real ministry, but it’s not because ministry professors didn’t want to include leadership classes. Rather, the lack of leadership training is again connected to accreditation standards. Many larger Christian colleges and universities pursue regional accreditation in order for their courses and degrees to better transfer to other state institutions. But regional accreditation cares little about ministry leadership training and demands four-year degrees to be loaded with general education courses (many of which, like math and physical education, have little value to a ministry student). And then Bible and theology departments demand their lion share of the ministry curriculum, chewing up dozens of hours. I remember a robust conversation with one Bible professor who defended his ministry epistles class as a required course. It was his only opportunity to teach “ministry,” he said. He was a good guy but his ministry experience was seriously limited. Consequently, my students lost three hours of practical education in order to take his required Bible class.
Third, smaller Bible and Christian colleges (and their ministry students) face a different problem: professors that have little to no experience teaching a particular subject. It can happen at larger schools too. I taught several classes over the years for which I had little to no experience, little to no educational background and little to no expertise, but somehow the class still got pushed on my plate. One semester I taught “women’s ministry” to a room full of ladies (I was totally out of my element). In another I taught physical education (because I was the young athletic professor, I guess!). Even if a professor has knowledge in a subject, including personal experience, it doesn’t mean they should teach it. Teaching is much more than transferring content.
Fourth, since the 1990s, many Christian colleges have watched their local church support dollar disappear. Fewer churches back a seminary or Bible college anymore with their mission dollar. Many larger churches openly say they won’t hire a Christian college graduate (unless they’re willing to intern for peanuts first), preferring to groom their pastors from within. When I attended Bible college in the early ’80s well over 50% of my tuition was paid by local church donations. Today, in many Christian colleges, church support has dipped below 10%. Most private Christian schools are now tuition-driven and that’s a problem for ministry students who rack up huge educational bills only to serve in a field with sub-standard salaries.
So there’s a lot of issues facing Christian universities, seminaries and Bible colleges today.
With that said, I want to categorically state that formal pastoral education remains valid, critical and necessary. Historically, the three most educated people in town were the doctor, lawyer and preacher. The Ivy League schools were originally created to train the clergy. So I don’t agree with some who argue a formal Christian college education isn’t important. Too many churches today, particularly of the megachurch type, are pastored by individuals with little to no theology or Christian ministry training (and their messages, teaching and leadership shows it). The Church is a spiritual enterprise not a business or school. The greatest issue facing the church in the 21st century is biblical ignorance and the Academy can solve this issue.
Naturally, critics of higher Christian education like to point out how Jesus’ disciples were “ignorant” and “unschooled.” However, such criticism only reveals a lack of biblical and historical understanding. In reality, the average Jewish boy wasn’t as ignorant or unschooled as you might think. A synagogue education (boys only) required memorizing the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Jewish homes were spiritual centers and “houses of the Book” served Jewish children with education in secular studies. Furthermore, when it came time to take Christianity into a pagan and educated Greco-Roman culture, God chose the highly-educated Paul (not to mention Apollos and Dr. Luke) over fishing-buddies-turned-preachers Peter, James and John. Early Christianity (AD 33-400) was served well by the academics who kept heresy in check, defended the Faith and carved fresh paradigms for leadership and ministry. Catechumenal schools, cathedral schools, monasteries and eventually the university guided the Church through twenty centuries.
Yes, Christian universities, Bible colleges, seminaries and other religious institutions are in trouble, but its largely due to its inability to think outside the modern-Enlightenment box. Our ministry schools, like the the churches they serve, must reimagine themselves. The future of the Church demands a highly-educated critical thinker, culturally-astute collaborative leader and dynamic communicator. Historically, the Academy has led both the Church and culture through massive societal change and it’s no different now.
Now is not the time for the Church to jettison the Academy.
But it is time for both institutions to partner to find fresh working solutions, innovative new paradigms and creative programming in order to reach postmodern generations.
In the future I intend to share a few of my bubbling ideas on what tomorrow’s Christian college, university and seminary might look like, but my time is up.
I don’t think I need to say it, but Americans are rather selfish, lazy and weak. I’m not sure when it happened but some time after World War II, a generational virus infected the American way.
Our culture has changed significantly in how we interact.
Major technologies like television and the Internet have shifted our information streams. Television opened up the world visually. The Boom generation even knows the exact day: November 22, 1963. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX. On that day, an entire nation collectively mourned around a box in their living rooms, storefronts or local bar. That box of moving images and live news changed how we looked at things.
It not only changed how we looked at the world…and also impacted how we interacted.
Within a few years, the Beatles would beam a satellite image to a global audience, man would land on the moon and the Vietnam War would unfold in our homes. The world became much smaller and television personalities became much bigger. Television created stars. Initially, celebrities were honed by executive brass. Johnny Carson. Jackie Gleason. Ed Sullivan. Then Americans identified and molded television characters into celebrities. The Partridge Family. The Fonz. Charlie’s Angels. Eventually, reality television turned the camera on us. Average Americans suddenly became “apprentices,” “survivors” and “idols.”
With the advent of the Web, things changed even more rapidly.
The Internet allowed every human with a mouse and modem to become a celebrity. YouTube became channel one for narcissism. Facebook and Twitter allowed us to tweet and post our every move, accomplishment, thought and behavior (whether it was a good thing or not). In the process, countless relationships were damaged. Social media has provoked societal ills from racism to terrorism, from addiction to divorce, from sexual abuse to cyberbullying.
In the summers of 2013 and 2014 I trained church leaders and teachers on the eastern slope of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. In this part of Africa, including larger cities like Moshi and Arusha, I discovered a world without hi-tech. Television remained rather non-consequential. The local bars showed a movie (usually 10-20 years old) or a soccer match but, for the most part, news still traveled slow and on paper. The Internet also remained obscure and largely unused.
What technology did Africans employ the most? Not surprisingly, it was their cellphone. But for reasons that might surprise you.
You see, above all other things, what matters most in Africa (to Africans) is their relationships. Every day, as our team drove through town and country, we found Africans talking to one another, waving to one another, honking at one another. It’s so important to remain in relationship that Africans will answer their cellphones, even let them ring, during situations that most Americans find offensive (like our training events). In fact, to not answer the phone would communicate the relationship was damaged, broken or over. You have to answer your phone in Africa, whenever possible (although I recall no rings during Sunday church).
The only thing that trumps a cell phone ring is an African holding conversation with another person. At that moment, nothing else matters. The relationship is central to all that’s happening. So you’d never answer your cell phone if you were talking with someone, you wouldn’t even look at it. It’s disrespectful.
Western culture—fueled by television and Internet tech—has created new social pathologies. We are narcissistic. We like to take “selfies” and post them. We are information-geeks. We want to know everything now. The Africans have not been corrupted by television and the Web. And its very noticeable. They don’t even like a camera pointing their direction. It’s a sign of hubris.
Americans and American churches can learn much from Africans. In our high-tech, info-soaked, 24/7/365 world, its critical to not lose the personal touch. Relationships matter. Communication is key.
Like the old Verizon cellphone commercial once asked, “Can you hear me now?” Good. Because if you can, give someone a hug. Reconnect with an old friend. Start a conversation. Forgive an offense. Share a memory. Tell a story. Confess a problem.
Maybe if the church looked more like a relational experience than a sit-and-soak event, it would recapture the heart of a postmodern America. It’s amazing how someone can go to church, particularly the mega ones, and never touch or talk to another person.
The Africans know better. And we’d do well to listen and learn.
It seems like a few do most of the work. And yet, there’s energy and enthusiasm when everyone’s working together as a team. There’s an old church sign that read: “CH_ _ RCH? What’s missing? U R!” It’s true. Church isn’t a spectator sport. We all have a ministry. We all need to find our place to serve, even if its only for a year, a month or a weekend. U-R needed.
In part one of this blog, I shared how Jesus’ parable of the soils (Mark 4:1-20) reveals why a church struggles to attract and retain guests. Essentially, the hard and shallow soils represent an inability to meet intrinsic human needs for security, pleasure, connection and community. And if a plant can’t root, it’ll never grow fruit. Consequently, I suggested churches have to create stickiness or natural attraction through relational strategies so they’ll be ready for deeper discipleship and leadership development.
In part two, I introduced how many teachers and leaders plant thistles in their seeding of spiritual growth by employing incentives (rewards and punishments) that asphyxiate discipleship. We think these are innocent strategies to motivate but they backfire to create a consumer faith rooted in perfectionism. Consequently, many average Joes and Janes in the church operate rather spiritually anemic, struggling to understand God’s Will and how to use their spiritual giftings.
Which leads us to the final soil. For even if we properly and purely motivate, leadership development requires providing choice, releasing control and allowing contribution. After all, deep down, we’re all control freaks. We all want to be large and in charge. In the good soil, we discover the need to produce fruit.
GOOD GROUND: Regular attenders/mature disciples. NEED: Ownership. The average churchgoer will change churches every 3-5 years. Very few individuals root or, if they do, produce lasting fruit. Of course, some of this is due to our transient culture. We move a lot more today than 30 years ago. But it’s also due, I believe, to a church’s inability to mature and empower leaders. We have plenty of plants but few of them are producing fruit. We seemed to forget Jesus’ ultimate test for a disciple was his or her fruit. A motivated, producing leader won’t change churches unless absolutely necessary.
Most churches can effectively produce followers but fail miserably to move these individuals into leadership. Why? I think the good ground gives us the key: everyone leads differently. The good soil, Jesus said, produced different harvests (30, 60, 100X). Most churches treat every leader the same or want every leader to perform at the same pace, level or commitment. We have to think different. Every person is a leader (in some way) and every leader is UNIQUE. Every leader has different needs, desires, experiences, education, skills and feelings…and potential. One leader might be ready to go now. Another leader in 3 months or 3 years.
This is why you can’t take “no” or “not now” for an answer. WHY does the person say “no?” Sometimes they’re busy (but will they always be busy?). Sometimes they’re afraid (but can’t you help them overcome fear?). Sometimes they feel inadequate (but can’t you train for competence and confidence?) Sometimes they’re burned out (but what if you promised rest and relaxation as part of future service?). You see, every excuse can be EMPOWERED to give emerging leaders (and all people are leaders in some form or fashion) ownership.
The parable of the soils summarizes the process of attraction, retention, mentoring and empowerment. All programs, events, services and activities need to be “sticky” (relationally-rich, pleasurable and create security) for the seeker and spiritually sensitive, but they also must “empower” through environments loaded with grace, self-worth and ownership. There are no shortcuts. You can’t microwave Christian maturity or fast-track leadership skills. Incentives that bait or beat, reward or punish, only cheat the process. It took Jesus three years to empower a group of misfits, fishermen and average Joes into world-class disciples.
And He did it through feeding real needs. Jesus mentored with Grace through community, recognized individuality, allowed choice, fostered pleasure and created security.
It’s no wonder the seeds he planted eventually changed the world.
Finally, don’t forget the rule of 3s:
- A guest will decide to return within the first three minutes
- A regular guest will decide to commit to solely attend your church after three visits
- Every regular attender will decide about membership within three months
- Every member will decide to stay for the long haul and serve through thick or thin within three years.
The process of discipleship and leadership development can’t be manufactured. It’s a natural thing, just like growing a plant. As leaders and teachers, we have the responsibility to break up the hard ground, deepen the shallow, pull the weeds, fertilize and water the good soil for maximum spiritual growth.
It won’t be easy, but the harvest remains plentiful.
Let me meddle a bit…with the person behind the pulpit. But let me warn you, it’s probably not what you want to hear.
After all, if you go to the average church this Sunday nearly every preacher (I’d say ALL but refuse to use generalities!) will speak for 30-50 minutes employing the least effective (for retention of material) technique: lecture/monologue.
Yes, I pointed out the elephant in the sanctuary: most sermons communicate little to nothing. Communication is more than talk. Communication is retention (understanding) and practice (application). If what you say doesn’t produce changed minds, attitudes and lifestyles, then you’re not communicating.
And most sermons don’t communicate.
Think about the last homily you heard? What do you really remember? Be honest. At best you recall how you felt (inspired, angry, confused, sad). Maybe you can recite a point or general idea, but largely we’re just left with a feeling. And for many church-going folk they feel bored and that’s why preacher makes a good roast for Sunday dinner.
Perhaps this is also why we want our members to take notes. I know its WHY professors want their students to take notes! Somehow academicians feel if their learners fill up notebooks with their brilliant insights and ideas then they will do better on tests (some truth to that) but its what happens after the class is over or when the degree is issued that matters. I used to have dozens of notebooks for classes (or files) and most have been slowly and systematically trashed. I only took good notes to please the professor not for my own future use.
I think deep down we know if our people don’t write what we say down, it’s basically speaking into the wind. We KNOW it’s not that effective in a visual, experiential and interactive culture but keep doing it anyway. Perhaps out of tradition. Perhaps out of habit. Perhaps out of laziness. Perhaps out of self-interest. After all, if we become “less” important to the Sunday morning experience, the people might get the idea we’re not needed. Which says more about what you do the rest of the week than on Sundays!
If visuals are used by a preacher, it’s a poorly- or minimally-produced PowerPoint with words only or a few scattered, poorly picked photos. Granted, some preachers are better than others in this department, but far too many sin in a basic communication principle. After all, if a “picture is worth a 1000 words” then why say a thousand words when one picture will do the trick? Great communicators employ visuals because they preach deeper, longer and harder than mere words.
Many preachers in larger churches use the jumbo screens for a better view of themselves. This isn’t exactly the visual that I’m talking about! I understand the need to be seen, but I do wonder how Jesus taught thousands without the benefit of large screens. Probably because he realized that the MESSAGE was more important than the MESSENGER.
If video is used, it’s used to introduce a message not supplement and I have NEVER witnessed a preacher who gave up his sermon time to show a lengthy video (something teachers do all the time). And yet, if we’re honest, a few of those short 15-20 minute videos out there (beautifully produced, insightful and memorable) are a far better pick for retention. What’s the last movie you saw? Chances are you can remember MORE of a two-hour movie (plot, quotes, characters) than a twenty-minute sermon. Now do you SEE my point?
Perhaps a little history is helpful. The idea of the sermon as central to the church service is a novel innovation of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther (a trained teacher, by the way) re-engineered Lutheran services to focus on the Word rather than the Eucharist. At that time, people were ignorant of church stuff. The liturgy was performed in Latin and German people couldn’t understand a syllable. Thank God for stained glass windows to tell the story of the gospel (a visual)! Luther and other reformers made preaching (and teaching) the Word central to the worship service and, to be fair, in balance with the Eucharist celebration. Catholic churches, to this day, still have short homilies (around 10 minutes).
The Protestant Reformation merged with the Enlightenment and eventually modern cultural sensibilities produced strategies rooted in reason and words. A sermon had a point (eventually three) and relied upon clever oratory, debate and motivational techniques. Sermons also continued to lengthen. In a pre-visual media age there was no harm here. People would listen to favorite orators (like today) for hours, even days and weeks.
But in case you haven’t noticed that world is history. Music videos and commercials are brief. The most viral YouTube videos are 3-5 minutes at best. TedTalks are less than 20 minutes. The only people who don’t get short messages are politicians, professors and preachers. The world has changed.
In a post-modern culture, the communicators use much shorter messages (15-20 minutes) and employ visual stimuli (vibrant photos, compelling videos, engaging objects), sensory experiences and interactivity to weave their messages. Rob Bell’s Nooma videos are a perfect example.
The biggest problem is we’ve re-defined preaching largely as talking (a lot). I get that. The few references to preaching in the New Testament suggest a verbal strategy. But with exception to Paul’s “talking on and on” until Eutychus fell asleep and to his death (Acts 20:7-12), all other examples (including Jesus’ famed “sermon on the mount”) are rather short. In fact, it’s probable Jesus’ “teaching” (see Matthew 5:1-2) was a collection of short homilies not one long one as captured by Matthew.
And I’m not sure Paul appreciated Luke’s retention of his fatal story for all time! How would you like to kill someone with your preaching and have it forever captured and broadcast on YouTube? It’s not a model of great preaching and I imagine Paul would say it wasn’t one of his better “talks.” Thank God for resurrection, eh? Paul was far more interactive in his preaching. A better example is his message to the Athenians (Acts 17:16ff). Paul’s talk here is brief, interactive and visual…and it had better results!
Let me wrap this up: in a postmodern culture the Vertical Church focuses on the Message not the messenger. The purpose of our gatherings is to reproduce what the early Church did so well and that’s a devotion to the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread (an early reference to the Lord’s Supper) and to prayer (Acts 2:42). In today’s churches we have it strangely backward: we start with prayer (maybe), sing some songs and greet a neighbor (and call it fellowship), distribute communion (quickly) and then devote most of the time to one man’s ideas and insights. The result? Just look around. Passivity. Biblical ignorance. Apathy. Could it be HOW we deliver the “apostles’ teaching” is the problem? I believe so. Could we be more concerned with our legacy than evangelism, discipleship and equipping leaders? I’ll confess I had such inclinations. Play it safe and keep the paycheck. Do what was expected and stay in the job. Don’t rock the boat and avoid criticism.
I think that’s why Paul never stayed any place very long. Outside of Ephesus (three years) and Corinth (18 months), Paul preached, converted, taught, discipled, equipped and then vacated the premises. Today we celebrate preachers who have served churches for lengthy terms and criticize those who move every few years. And yet the best test of a preacher is not his tenure but his departure: for WHEN he leaves or retires does the church continue to grow or decline?
Face it, people today have itchy ears. Preachers like to scratch the itch.
Frankly, I’d rather cure it.
And evidently you don’t want to get Jesus riled either. Because when the Messiah’s hot under the holy collar he steams with righteous indignation, and the Pharisee fur really flies. In the final days of his life on earth, Jesus clearly had had enough with religiosity. His target: the theological elite (Pharisees) and legal eagles (Sadducees) of his day.
Jesus starts with a suggestion: obey what they say; just don’t do what they do (Matthew 23:3). Why? Well, Jesus was woefully underwhelmed by their religion. A lot of history had passed beneath the bridge since God stamped a covenant with Abraham. He personally delivered Commandments, designed a Tabernacle and opened a Temple. God also liberated his people from Egypt, conquered a Promised Land, reluctantly crowned kings and protected Jews captive to foreign conquerors.
For twenty centuries God ordained prophets to speak for Him and priests to satisfy Him. And now it was time for Jesus to inspect the house and see if everything was up to code. The façade looked fantastic. A temple exquisitely designed, impressively manicured and finely furnished. The priests and rabbis were second to none, cut from impressive human pedigree and highly educated. Everything looked perfect at first glance, but Jesus knew appearances could be deceiving. So he probed deeper and hit play dirt. The game was up, for Jesus uncovered foundations crumbling beneath heavy human traditions. He discovered deteriorated plumbing, rusted by personal agenda and pet doctrines. And then there was of clear evidence of theological termites, a voracious pest who chewed holes in pure religion and reduced the Law to empty rules.
Jesus inspection didn’t last long. He delivered his irate report then issued a complete building condemnation (Matthew 24:38). In the process, he vilified the renters (religious elite) and called them every name in the good book. They were blind guides (v. 16), hypocrites (v. 23), whitewashed tombs (v. 27) and even snakes (v. 33). No, Jesus held nothing back and, for many readers, he does seem overly harsh. I mean, seriously? Did he have to call them names? Did he have to be so mean? I thought Jesus was all about love.
Evidently not when he’s inspecting for fruit. Jesus had already withered a fruitless fig tree on the spot (Matthew 21:18-19). Now he was evaluating the religion of the Jews. From man’s perspective, the house looked great. Two thumbs up! But God is rarely impressed by appearances. Jesus saw past the ivory facades, golden overlays and silver shellacking to the heart of biblical Judaism. Jesus studied the DNA of their Faith and found it tragically porous, polluted and poisoned.
The DNA? God’s Original Plan. The Divine Design. The way God wanted it to be. The DNA infused into Creation from day one. The DNA that covenanted with Abraham and chiseled commandments into stone for Moses. The Original Plan was a deep, naked and unashamed relationship between man and His Maker. Unfortunately, ever since Eve took a bite, man had been hiding. God slapped leather to cover man’s butt for thousands of years while bloody sacrifices baptized sin, but not the soul. No covenant or commandment, tabernacle or temple could fully satisfy God’s deepest longing: to be reunited with his greatest creation. It would take an act of God to build a bridge to everywhere. God wanted to be back in the house and with man. He hungered to hang in the living room not a back closet.
You see, by the first-century the Jews had replaced God’s Original Plan (DNA) with a box called a temple and assorted traditions, rituals and rites. The religious elite should have known better, for they were well schooled in God’s DNA, but in reality completely ignorant. They were so blind they couldn’t even recognize the Messiah right under their phylacteries. For these educated fools it was all about facility, offerings, convenience, appearances and keeping the pomp in any circumstance. Every good Jew knew a Pharisee, and most didn’t like them much. Jesus called it right. They were self-righteous hypocritical know-it-alls.
And they had built their own little religious empire.
Sounds like a lot of churches and preachers today, doesn’t it? And that only causes me to further pause. What would Jesus say about today’s Church and clergy now that another two thousand years have passed? If he inspected the foundations and tested the DNA of today’s Church how strong and pure would we be? Would Jesus criticize and condemn us with the same laundry list of crimes? I’ll let you chew on that camel because I’ve got one more gnat to swat, if I may.
Church growth has been a buzzword in congregational leadership for decades. Every preacher wants his church to grow. Every denomination wants its group to grow. Noses and nickels make the church go ‘round. For some, growth is a sign of human success or Divine blessing. For others it reveals God is working or, at least, a program is working. Still for others, church growth means there’s hope for tomorrow. More numbers produces bigger offerings and better opportunities. Like I said, nickels and noses.
I get all the reasons. But none of them are biblical. God wants His Church to grow so that it can change the culture. Let me repeat: God wants His Church to grow so that it can change the culture. It’s not about counting people, it’s about making people count, inside and outside the Church. It’s about growing a Kingdom not a castle. That’s why Jesus described the Kingdom (read: Church) as a seed that matures into a massive tree house for birds, or as yeast that is worked throughout the bread (Matthew 13:32-34).
Jesus said a tiny seed sprouts into a towering tree that birds flock to enjoy. But who are the birds? Be careful. One thing is sure: the birds in the trees aren’t Christians (for in a later teaching Jesus describes believers as “the branches” [John 15:1-8]). The birds are unbelievers. The birds are our neighbors, our community, even our nation. The job of the Church isn’t to flock anyway (though that’s what we tend to do every Sunday); our job is to grow and go. We are a massive Body (a tree) that invites birds to fly our way and rest upon us. The tree isn’t a building nor are the branches programs. The branches are you and I. It’s our role and responsibility to support, service, supply and shade the “birds” (unbelievers) who perch upon us.
To cement his point, Jesus furthers the illustration using yeast, a compound that grows a ball of bread (Matthew 13:33). The kingdom of heaven leavens the loaf, he taught. In this case, and using the same logic, the bread is the world. The Church is the yeast. Our role is to dissolve into the world and change it. Yeast is “worked all through the dough.” Can our mission be any clearer? We are to go and grow.
How do you know if your church operates like yeast? Easy. You look for how much your influence changes your community (dough) without ever being noticed. The efficacy of leaven is you don’t see it working; you only see it worked. It’s at the heart of St. Francis of Assisi’s admonition to “preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Exactly. But most churches prefer to be the bread. We want to feed our culture the good news. We like to bake sermons, lessons and programs. We want to be the next best thing to sliced religion. I’ve got news for you. We aren’t the Bread of Life, that job has been taken (John 6:35, 48). We’re the leaven. We go and grow. Jesus feeds.
If your church suddenly disappeared from your community, would anyone know or even care? Have you noticed there hasn’t been a Jewish sacrifice for sin in nearly 2000 years? The temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 and the Jews scattered throughout the world. God left the building long ago. He’s not one to be confined by walls. I fear that God has left many church buildings as well. In fact, I wonder if God would say to us what Jesus shared with the rich young ruler desirous of eternal life: “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me (John 18:22).”
You want to operate like yeast? Pursue anonymity. Go stealth. Dissolve and disappear into your community. Since the fourth century the Church has enjoyed building castles not the Kingdom and, frankly, we’ve gotten pretty good at it. For sixteen hundred years we’ve operated more like bread than yeast, more like the tree than branches and, far too often, like the rich ruler who left Jesus spiritually poor. It worked within cultures that Christianized (hence: Christendom), but it ain’t working anymore. The birds no longer flock. The bread is flat. The building is desolate.
It’s time for a New Restoration. It’s time to recapture our Original DNA.
So what would a “yeast of these” Church look like?
I can’t wait to tell you.
“And the Lord added to their number daily those where being saved”
I’m a die-hard fan of a few things, most of them you can probably guess.
I’m clearly hard-core fan about baseball, particularly the St. Louis Cardinals. The Birds on Bat have been my team since the early 1990s when I first lived in St. Louis and caught Redbird fever. On my bucket list is the goal to see as many baseball stadiums as possible before I die (just in case you’re planning a trip to Fenway or Camden Yards anytime soon). I sacrifice, scrimp and save to cover my annual bill to MLB television so I can watch every Card game on either my computer or iPad or iPod.
I’m also a devoted follower of the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Boise State Broncos (college football) and the Minnesota Vikings (pro football) and the Los Angeles Lakers. With exception to BSU, all these teams have been “my team” since my youth.
Fans do crazy things, don’t they? Just look at the way they dress, yell and advertise.
In fact, the word “fan” originated from the world of baseball when “fans” was either short for “fanciers” or “fanatics.” A fan is hopelessly devoted to his or her team. Fair weather fans need not apply.
Of course, success always packs the stadium and boosts the gate receipts. A team that’s winning draws attention, affection and attendance while a losing streak, off year or lengthy slump (think “Mets” here) can produce apathy, anger and absences. Some teams (like the affable Chicago Cubs) are lovable losers.
I’m also a fan of certain eateries. Five Guys burgers. Chick-Fil-A. Old Spaghetti Factory. You also can’t beat regional and local restaurants like Lamberts (Home of the Throwed Roll) in Missouri or Jack Stack BBQ in Kansas City or In-N-Out burger in California or Graeters ice cream in Cincinnati.
I’m a huge music fan. I love classic rock (Kansas, Boston, Led Zepp, BTO), blues (Stevie Ray, Eric Clapton, Jonny Lang), Christian rock (Switchfoot, Third Day, Kutless, Audio Adrenaline), among many others (Gov’t Mule, Black Stone Cherry). A year ago, my son and I went to see U2 play in Salt Lake City and it was one of the finest concerts I’ve ever experienced.
And let’s not forget television. I’ll confess, I’m a reality nut. I love Survivor, Apprentice and Idol. I’m also a fan of The Deadliest Catch, The Office, Big Bang Theory and CSI, though I still enjoy the oldies like the Brady Bunch, M*A*S*H, WKRP and Cosby. Right now, I’m hopelessly “lost” to Lost.
I guess I “fancy” a lot of things. I’m sure you have your own list, too. But these things pale in comparison to my “fanatic fandom” of the CHURCH, JESUS CHRIST and CHRISTIANITY.
I absolutely love watching the Church grow in Grace, love with Mercy and go with Power. The long history of the Church and its tremendous impact and influence upon wider culture makes it a formidable brand. We are the Yankees of the religious world. We are a Divine Dynasty that’s never perfect but always a winner.
The contributions of the Church to the world cannot be understated. The next time someone informs you of all the “bad” the Church has done (with nods to Inquisitions, religious wars and priest abuse), you just point to the many hospitals, thrift stores, food banks, YMCAs, YWCAs and other church-run social programs out there.
When there’s a tragedy like Joplin or New Orleans or even Haiti, guess who’s the FIRST to arrive and the LAST to leave. You guessed it: the Church! And I’m thankful the Church has made her stand against the negative cultural ideologies and influences throughout history. Sure we get blamed for being “close-minded” or “bigoted” or even “fanatical” but, in the end, when the Church stands together mountains of moral trash are moved, even eliminated.
The question I’d like to pose to you today is “who’s fan are you?”
It’s easy to tell you know. One look at a bank account will show priorities. Jesus said “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). A simple look at a daily schedule will tell, too. Time is more valuable than money and we spend it so carelessly and cheaply. And don’t forget the people we hang around with and, yes, the stuff we ingest through our eyes and ears (movies, television, music). All these show our loyalties.
The thing about fans is while they may love a lot of things, they are rabid about the ONE thing. For me, that’s Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church.
With every breath I take and every beat of my heart, I hope you see Jesus in me. No, I’m not perfect, but in Christ I’m clearly a winner. I’m a fan of Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness and Self-Control. I’m hopelessly devoted to GRACE!
We’re all fans of some things but I pray you are (or become) a fan of the One thing that truly matters.