Category Archives: Christianity
I knew the American evangelical church was in trouble 20 years ago.
That’s when I first noticed the emerging Millennial generation (like Gen X before it) starting to leave the Church. But they weren’t leaving their faith necessarily (although many formerly-churched now have done that too) but only the building.
In the early 2000s, Millennials just stopped going to church. As young adults they “loved Jesus but not the church.” It was a wake up call the American church essentially chose to snooze through. This exodus created some alarm but most church leaders were too busy building and branding their churches.
Instead of figuring out WHY Millennials (and even Gen X) before them had their issues, most churches (most still led by Boomer clergy, elders and deacons) moved to cheaper imitations of the cultural expressions that Millennials (they thought) liked. We put coffee shops in our foyers. Video clips in our sermons. Fog machines in our worship. Still other churches doubled down on their own boomer-driven “Woodstock” worship and passive “sit and soak” sermon-heavy discipleship model. Still others chose to be locked inside a nostalgic pre-1990 church (these types doggedly clung to their hymns, pews and pulpits).
These strategies were not without their successes, but they only worked to attract a certain cohort: more Boomers (now graying nicely and in their 40s and 50s). It turns out that Boomers loved good coffee, lighting schemes and pop culture-infused sermons.
But what was lost in these ecclesiastical 1990s remodels? Actually quite a bit.
Evangelism turned into “sheep stealing.” As some mainline denominations turned to the left, their congregations exited to the right…choosing a new nondenominational Christianity. Smaller churches, unwilling to change with the times, closed. Meanwhile the larger churches evolved their “seeker-sensitive” model to new levels. Altar calls, church membership and evangelistic revivals were left behind like a pagan at the Rapture. Most churches now grew by transfers. Most adult baptisms were “re-baptisms” of the sprinkled or improperly immersed type. Some “outskirt” churches grew simply because their rural setting was now a new, popular crowded suburb. People were on the move.
Worship turned into a concert or “Sunday show.” People were encouraged, some forced, to stand through entire worship sets. Auditoriums were darkened and the stage lit. Theater chairs replaced hardback pews. Pulpits were eliminated for bar stools and music stands. Applause was encouraged. Lighting and sound were the new stage rage. Large video screens replaced crosses. And, in some cases, fog and smoke rolled. The volunteer worship director or song leader role evolved a full-time paid professional music artist position. Choirs and organs were abandoned for worship teams, full bands and background singers.
Preaching turned topical, social and “feel good” (boring texts, “hell, fire and brimstone” and deeper theology were largely abandoned). Relational activities and interactive traditions (responsive readings, greeting times, congregational prayer, testimonies) were cast aside. With some notable exceptions, most churches saw their “outside the sermon” discipleship programs and activities–Sunday School, small group, elective studies, revivals, retreats–fade and fail. Everything was now focused on the weekend “service.” It was discipleship by sermon. We counted nickels and noses.
During the 90s and 00s, a third generation (Gen Z) grew up even more irreligious, agnostic and post-church than the Millennials and Gen X.
Today, as the boomer generation grows long in the tooth (currently in their 60s and 70s), the writing is on the wall. The rock and roll generation is dying off. And with it the boomer-driven church model introduced in the 1980s.
It’s WHY the evangelical, nondenominational American church will face extreme reductions in church attendance–even to the point of massive closures–in the next 10-20 years. By 2040, with the Boomer generation mostly gone or too old to attend church, there will be few left to fill their chair space. Gen X is “done.” And the Millennials/iTechs/Gen Z are choosing “none” (no religious preference, agnostic). Many megachurch children’s and youth ministries are already in stagnation and decline. The average age of the average, regular and semi-regular church attenders is north of 50. In general, the American church is balding, graying and wrinkling.
Yes, there are some Millennial models that still work in select markets…but again they are mostly attracting a remnant group who has stayed with church. The majority of young adults and teens are spiritually discipled through social media (YouTube videos, Facebook conversations, Instagram memes, Twitter blurbs). This cyber-discipleship has produced an increasingly shallow, narrow, biased and warped view of biblical ideas, theology and practices. It’s also opened up our formerly-churched kids for easy pickings by atheists, agnostics, evolutionists, cultists and other false religionists.
WHAT WE NEED IS NOT ANOTHER REFORMATION OR RESTORATION…BUT RATHER A DECONSTRUCTION AND RECONSTRUCTION OF “CHURCH.”
We need to “system restore” the operating system. We need erase the hard drives and get back to the Original DNA of “church.” And we need to do it sooner than later.
Our ecclesiastical DNA is found in Acts 2:42…“They (followers of Christ) devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
In this simple DNA statement we learn WHO met, WHY they met, and HOW/WHAT they did WHEN they met. It’s how the Church has operated for 2000 years and still operates in many places around the world even yet today. But it’s not widely seen in America.
What does this “Original DNA” Church look like?
INTERACTIVE: a place of fellowship. Connective. Conversational. Collaborative. Communal. I Cor 14:26 says every person contributed (a hymn, testimony, teaching, revelation). When’s the last time you attended a church service where anyone (other than someone especially allowed on stage) said a prayer, sang a “special” number or gave their faith story? It’s getting pretty rare. If you attend a large church, when’s the last time you made a new friend at church (not just a quick hello)? If you attend a small church, when’s the last time you had a visitor return because felt included and wanted?
PHYSICAL: a place of contact. Hand to hand. Face to face. Eye ball to eyeball. Acts 2:44-45 says people were so close that they KNEW everyone’s needs (and met them by doing things for them). In this Covid moment, social distancing is popular. But it’s also inaccurate. We are physically distancing ourselves (isolation, separation, sequestration) but we’re not truly social distancing ourselves at all. Social media has kept us all connected during this time. Its physical moments–in churches, halls, arenas and stadiums–that are lacking. It’s why cyber connection can be just as real as in person. In a Zoom or video chat we look at each other’s faces. We enter their homes. Is it tiring (Zoom fatigue)? Absolutely. But most physical meetings are just as wearisome. This new cyber culture hasn’t disconnected us at all. It’s given us a new mission field for relationships to develop…in places far away and unimaginable…if the Church will only catch that vision!
EDUCATIONAL: a place of learning. Learning is what’s left after the facts are forgotten. It’s why lectures and lecturers fail. To learn we must practice, experiment and experience. We learn best through conversational, sensory moments. It’s why Jesus taught faith on a lake in a storm. Or used manipulative objects (wheat, rocks, dirt) to teach truths. The early church “learned” (Greek: mathetes)–just like how we learn math–the “apostles’ teaching.” Biblically, preaching and sermons were for the unconverted while teaching and lessons were for life transformation and discipleship. Ephesians 4:11-16.
SPIRITUAL: a place to experience God intimately and personally. There was a devotion to congregational (not just pastoral) prayer, the Lord’s Supper (“breaking of [the] bread”), silence, stewardship of time, talent and treasure. Worship was more than singing three or four songs. It’s why experiential liturgy is attractive. Pentecostal and Catholic/Orthodox traditions have some edge here. People want to “feel” God when they attend a church. A lot of churches don’t even have a prayer anymore. Opening prayers and long pastoral prayers are history. Few preachers pray prior to their messages. Most prayer is tagged to bless an offering or to end a service.
SMALLER: a place where everyone knows each other’s names, backgrounds, interests, needs and issues. It’s why the original church–following Jesus’ lead–planted in HOMES not a public facility. It’s not that public facilities were bad or wrong, but they weren’t conducive to “smallness”: connection, transparency and intimacy. Until 20th century electrification in sound and video tech, churches were largely SMALL and limited. It’s why EVERYBODY had a part to play, even if the educated clergy created a natural “clergy-laity” divide.
I love THE CHURCH (of all sizes, types, shades and formats), but I’m no fan of “churchianity” (formulated religion).
I love the fact that Covid-19 has forced the CHURCH to get outside it’s boxes (facility, programs, curriculum, staffing) to do something NEW and DIFFERENT. We’ve been needing this moment for a long time and we best not waste the opportunity.
We need an ACTS 2:42 church. We need to reboot the system and recapture our organic, transformational, decentralized, experiential, participatory and communal FAITH…as Jesus revealed, the apostles modeled and the Church lived until AD 312 when Constantine legalized Christianity, moved house churches to converted pagan temples, created a paid clergy, gave tax exemptions to churches and, essentially, put Christianity into a box. It’s been a great 1700 year road trip…but we’re now out of gas.
We are also experiencing the greatest technological and cultural shift since 1500 and perhaps the greatest in all of history. Thanks to digital, cyber and wireless tech we can be global without leaving our living room. We can influence millions with one tweet, post or video. We can change the world with a keystroke. That’s never been possible since the dawn of time.
It’s why I like the CHURCH’S chances in this new world.
Christianity is the only religion tethered to RELATIONSHIP and that’s what we all need (more than a mantra, ritual or liturgy). Christianity is about God building a bridge to man to become culturally relative–not to embrace the culture but to TRANSFORM it. It’s about a personal, transformational relationship…and that’s highly attractive in an isolated, segregated, divisive and lonely world.
If there’s any religion that has staying power in the 21st century it’s CHRISTIANITY. But don’t be fooled: “churchianity” is fading and on life support. The current model (facility-driven, clergy-based, passive, non-interactive, corporate, entertainment) is likely not sustainable. In America, we are only a step away from losing tax exemption for religious organizations and churches–and there are movements to this end in some places. Most churches, if that happened, couldn’t afford the property tax on their buildings. It would be a game-changer overnight.
It’s why we need think outside the BOX (building)…because the “box” is dying or faces destruction.
THE GOOD NEWS?
With Jesus, the Church is always wired for RESURRECTION!
We face no ends but rather only fresh starts. Death is a new birth. We are an eternal Kingdom not a physical commodity.
It’s Friday…but Sunday is coming, friends.
Actually, I think we’re well into Saturday now.
Tomorrow is a NEW DAY.
America is deeply divided.
This past election cycle has only deepened and widened the chasm between the Left and Right, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. The Church, unfortunately, is caught in the crosshairs with both sides claiming they alone possess THE truth, God’s favor and the right path for the church’s future.
In reality, we’re following a similar trajectory as the Civil War churches (1860-1865). Back then, both northern and southern churches claimed they alone were doing God’s Will (casting aspersion towards brothers and sisters on the other side). Both northern and southern preachers taught God was on their side. Both northern and southern believers advocated their positions were biblical, true and righteous. Our eyes have seen the glory…and God’s marching with us.
Today, the new battlefields of the Culture War aren’t called Gettysburg or Antietam, Shiloh or Bull Run. They’re called Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. Every day, Americans draw their weapons of mass instruction to trumpet their “truths” and advance their agendas. We bomb each other with memes. We rattle the Sword of God’s Word and then righteously puncture, slice and wound those who post against us. We slaughter brothers and sisters in Christ with words of angry argument and strident slander. We gloriously push our brand, often unknowingly reposting fake news and doctored evidence.
The question is WHY? Why is America so divided? And why is the Church a reflection of wider culture’s tendency toward hate and hubris? Is it merely political, religious, philosophical or personal ideologies that separate us? Is it our chosen lifestyles, beliefs and values that drive the wedge? Is it, as some claim, a Satanic conspiracy to infiltrate the Church or an “end time” prophetic plan to usher in Jesus’ Second Coming?
Maybe. But I actually think it’s something much deeper.
I think the real reason America is divided (including the Church) is a natural tension every human carries between our need for LOVE and our desire for JUSTICE. With every choice, preference and attitude we either decide to LOVE or we choose to JUDGE. The deeper the LOVE or JUDGEMENT, the greater the resulting tension. From this tension a side is preferred, an argument is accepted and a narrative is created. When our narratives solidify into “our truth” then divisions emerge.
Every political post on Facebook reflects this tension of LOVE (“can’t we all just get along?”) or JUSTICE (“wrong is always wrong”). And if you’re on the “wrong” side of the issue, then pox be upon you. You’re ignorant, unstable, loony, uninformed or bigoted. The Left labels the Right as racist, homophobic, misogynist, hateful and evil. The Right labels the Left as socialist, anarchist, hedonist, hateful and evil.
It’s just our narratives speaking, reflecting our desire for LOVE or passion for JUSTICE.
Think about it.
LOVE is the answer and all we need is love, right? It’s true. But authentic LOVE also carries consequence, responsibility or accountability. Are we free to love anyone (or thing) we choose? Certainly. But that doesn’t negate responsibility and consequences (especially if our choice is outside of God’s desired Will). Love the wrong person (or thing) and you can suffer, even die. You see, there really is no such thing as “free love.” Even the Grace of Christ cost Jesus His very life.
JUSTICE is also desired. The truth is we’re all prejudiced to some degree. We all carry bias from which we JUDGE the world around us. We all believe our own press and suckle from sources that support, enable and promote our prejudices. There really is no such thing as “objectivity.” We all see through rose-colored glasses with biased shades.
Let me cite a couple controversial examples:
- Many liberal and progressive Christians today feel that being gay is okay. We should be able to love anyone (of any sex) we choose. Besides, culture has evolved and ancient biblical passages no longer apply. Conservative Christians believe homosexuality is a detestable sin that God forbids. Culture may have evolved but God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and hasn’t changed His mind. In both cases there is LOVE and JUSTICE happening. The gay Christian believes he was born homosexual and a LOVING God wants him or her to be happy (gay). Therefore, it’s divinely JUST to lift the stigma on homosexuality and cease the bigotry. On the other hand, traditional Christians choose to LOVE the sinner but hate the sin, and a JUST God will not be mocked. Consequently, homosexuality is not right and the most LOVING (and biblical) response is to help the homosexual out of the bondage.
2. During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings a sense of JUSTICE emerged. The Left argued that Kavanaugh was not qualified for the Supreme Court due to his past “partying” indiscretions, including sexual predation upon women. The Right saw these midnight charges as fabricated and false, an injustice and travesty to the long legal career of Judge Kavanaugh. Both sides wanted justice. Both sides felt an injustice was happening. But, ultimately, only one side was justified.
It’s always about LOVE or JUSTICE.
One side says LOVE while the other side says JUDGE. One side feels distressed, oppressed and suppressed (by the judgments) while the other side feels emboldened, ecstatic and enthused (by their affections). It’s why Christians, for example, can be deeply divided left or right, conservative or liberal, pro-life or pro-choice, anti-gay or gay pride, capitalist or socialist, Tea Party or anarchist, Trump or Never Trump. It’s why Christians can look at the same Bible (or situations) and walk away with completely different conclusions: our LOVES or our JUDGEMENTS drive our prejudiced interpretations and conclusions.
It’s something to consider because America has been in a culture war since the 1960s. We’ve now come to the place where everyone has taken a side. Everyone has their narrative. There’s little middle ground with neutral opinions. Furthermore, this culture war could be far more costly, ugly and bloody than the Civil War. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve seen the worse.
All I know is JESUS CHRIST and authentic Christianity resolves this tension between LOVE and JUDGEMENT through attitudes and acts of GRACE. And this Grace is messy, nonsensical, strange, glorious and beautiful. Jesus felt this tension in his humanity but executed flawless love and justice. With tax collectors, zealots, whores and adulterous women, Jesus showed LOVE, but with religious conservatives (Pharisees) and liberals (Sadducees), he expressed indignation and JUDGEMENT (see Matthew 23). Jesus gives us a model to follow, even if we follow it imperfectly at times.
Civil (or cultural) wars rarely end well.
America has been here before and it took decades to recover.
America the Divided again? Yes.
And may God shed His Grace on thee!
Sometimes God doesn’t show up.
Sometimes prayers aren’t answered our way. Sometimes we lose, fail, stumble, break and never find restoration, healing or blessing. Sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason. Sometimes people die, cancer spreads, finances fail, careers end, injustice prevails, evil wins and all seems lost. Sometimes life is Hell and salvation never knocks. Sometimes prodigals never come home.
But that’s a short (and shallow) view of life.
God is ALWAYS working a Purer Plan, weaving my blues into His Majestic Quilt. Ultimately, it isn’t about my puny prayers being answered to MY good or for MY glory, but rather to HIS Grand Desire and Great Design for my life. Therefore, I don’t need to be right, first, avenged, healed, placated, patronized, lionized, or have all things work out to my needs, desires or purposes. I believe in God even if there is no blessing, no healing, no reconciliation, no restoration. I believe in God even if all I ever experience is Hell on earth.
The secret of life is there is no secret. If anything, maybe it’s answering a simple question: Do you know YOUR birthright?
For whatever years I live, with whatever blessing I enjoy, I am but a homeless heir to a tycoon Dad desperately wondering where in hell I am. I am a filthy rich vagabond, sometimes selfishly lost in my own agendas, ever seeking God through my own rose-colored glasses, but always positioned with a Father patiently waiting my return. I just have to remember MY place and keep walking Home.
Because what is won’t forever be. Someday this wretched and weary, tried and tested, soiled and surly soul will top eternity. Someday I will stand before the King who haunted my heart. I will praise the God who pursued me relentlessly and recklessly, willing to harbor the grandest hypocrite and secure the greatest sinner. Someday I will completely understand the Mystery, fully recognize the Reality and absolutely accept the Promise.
That’s when EVERYTHING will make sense and my Reward finally revealed.
I will, in that moment of Truth, see my life for what it was, what it is and what it will be.
That’s when I know I’m Home.
That’s when I will relish how God used me for HIS good, for HIS gospel, for HIS glory…,even in my trials, troubles and tragedies…even in my poor choices, pathetic sins and pitiful perspectives.
The truth: I am not the center of any universe.
I am merely a moon that reflects the Son.
But what a moon I am! And so are you.
Two thousand years ago human history was friended by God.
For three and a half years, those who followed this Galilean guru saw the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the dead rise. With a word this man could calm seas, feed thousands, forgive sinners and call out demons. No one who met him left unchanged.
And yet, the religious elite didn’t believe him. The lawyers sought to trap him. His hometown didn’t want him. Even his own disciples betrayed, denied and left him.
Nevertheless, this man still loved everyone regardless of his or her status, religion, circumstance, behavior or past. He loved the outcast, the forgotten, the despised, the prejudiced, the homeless, the young, the old, the injured, the oppressed, the sinner and, yes, even those critics who didn’t like, want or understand him.
He loved because he was LOVE in the flesh.
Then one dark Friday this man who claimed to be God surprisingly, willingly and purposefully gave up his life. He was charged with crimes he did not commit so one day the truly criminal (you and me) could enjoy Freedom. He was abused with obscenity so one day the horribly profane (you and me) could experience Peace. He was punctured, beat and whipped so one day those who get crucified by life (yes, you and me) could embrace Healing, Joy and Hope.
Basically, he died so that you and I could truly LIVE. For those who accept this Truth and follow His Teaching, death no longer stings. Death no longer separates. Death no longer has power. And that makes LIFE worth LIVING.
Yes, many religious leaders have proposed to know the way to God, but Only One Man claimed to be The Way. Many prophets have proclaimed they had found special truth but Only One Man professed to be The Truth. Many spiritualists have promoted soul work to improve your life but Only One Man testified to be The Life.
How do I know? Because This Man did something they couldn’t.
He backed up his claims of Divinity by His Own Resurrection. I know, that’s crazy, right? But He did. Check it out for yourself. His tomb is still empty…He has RISEN. Indeed. And He is still Alive!
Jesus of Nazareth was fully human and fully God.
He is the Messiah. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords.
You can believe it, reject it, deny it or mock it.
But everyone will one day will face the Truth.
No one gets out of here alive.
Except this Jesus…and those who trust Him as Lord and Savior.
It’s unbelievable to consider. It’s amazing to comprehend. It’s beautiful to embrace…and IT’S OUTRAGEOUSLY TRUE!
That’s why if I was the last voice to confess Jesus is alive, I would. If it meant losing everything to share Jesus is The Way and Truth, I would. If it meant dying to proclaim He is The Life, I would. What can anything or anyone do to me? I fear no man, no weapon, no challenge, no demon, no trouble and no circumstance. My Faith is in GOD alone. My life is not my own. My sin is forgiven. My Calling is clear. My Joy is complete. My Hope is secure.
I believe with all my heart that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Do you? Will you? Can you?
I hope so.
Today is a very good day to start.
What’s truly “good” about Good Friday?
Could it be something as simple as three little words?
“It is finished.”
It. Is. Finished.
These three words were proclaimed at exactly 3 p.m. on Friday of every Passover week. The Jewish high priest stated these words after thousands of lambs had been slain for sin sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish people. They were the words of a religion that operated by rules, revealed imperfection, demanded justice and offered sanctuary. This phrase of “it is finished” signaled both the END of the week’s sacrifices and the Passover festival itself.
It is finished.
These words also carried heavy memories. Its utterance reminded Jews of an ancient story of deliverance. It taught the Israelites that no captivity lasts forever, even a brutal slavery four centuries long. God instituted the Passover as an eternal reminder of His Power, Provision and Protection. Every plague leveled against mighty Egypt was an attack upon one of their “gods.” The final plague attacked the favored first born, who enjoyed special privilege. The Israelites had escaped every plague to that point. Now they were commanded to generously swab lamb’s blood across their door frames, prepare a frugal meal and be ready to leave the land. With this deadly plague, Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go…and Israel plundered Egypt of its riches when they did (Exodus 12).
It is finished.
No more slavery. No more Egypt. No more Pharaoh. No more pain and suffering. No more longing for something better. “It is finished” were words of freedom, victory and fresh starts. These three words gave Jews a sense of shalom, a presence of Peace. From that point forward God dwelt among them, as a cloud by day and fire by night. He rescued them at the Red Sea. He fed them manna and quail in the wilderness. He supplied water from a rock. He gave them the Law on Sinai. God fought their battles and gave them a new land, flowing with milk and honey. The end of Egypt meant a new beginning for a young Israelite nation.
It is finished.
These three words were also the last words uttered by Jesus upon the cross, but they were certainly not the last words He would breathe as a human.
It is finished.
Jesus said these words at exactly 3 p.m., just when the high priest would’ve proclaimed the same inside the Holy of Holies. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was now the Final Perfect Sacrifice. It’s no wonder that those three little words had the power to tear a thick temple curtain, to split the earth with an earthquake and even open tombs to resurrect dead people (Matthew 27:50-52).
“IT IS FINISHED.”
With Jesus, those words signaled the END of the sacrificial system. The END of the Old Covenant. The END of a system of religion. The END of captivity by sin and Satan. The END of the way things used to be. Ironically, just forty years later (the same amount of time the Israelites wandered in the wilderness), Jerusalem and her temple would be destroyed by Rome. Jesus prophesied the end was coming for those who rejected Him and the religion they held so dear. Since AD 70 the Jews have not had a temple, a Holy of Holies, a priesthood or a sacrificial system. God had left the building.
IT WAS FINISHED.
From that point on, Jesus has been “making all things new (Revelation 21:5).”
Jesus was creating a better Covenant with man, a new Covenant of Grace. We are now His temple. We are the resurrected ones participating in a Kingdom not of this world. Jesus has opened a New Jerusalem for His People to enter, experience and enjoy. A Heavenly Jerusalem that lives up to its name: City of Peace.
IT WAS FINISHED.
Similarly, when Jesus’ blood is applied to the door frames of our heart, the “death angel” passes over us. Death no longer carries a sting. The grave no longer holds. We LIVE eternally. We LIVE with God as His People. Like Adam and Eve in the garden and like the ancient Israelites, God now dwells personally with His People, the Church of Christ. We are a Spiritual Nation with no boundaries. All people of all nations are welcome. We are free. We are protected. We are blessed.
IT. IS. FINISHED.
And “it is finished” means it was finished.
Trust me, those three little words truly change everything.
It’s what makes Good Friday GOOD.
Recently, I had the distinct honor, privilege and opportunity to tour the inside of the new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) Temple in Meridian, ID on two different occasions, including once as part of a VIP group. The VIP group was given longer access and featured more interaction opportunities. In fact, my second tour (for the public) was rushed, shuttled, dismissive and forgettable.
For a Mormon this building is a sacred place to perform baptisms on behalf of the dead, seal marriages for eternity and meditate on God’s goodness.
As a non-Mormon, the only time I can see the inside of an LDS temple is during these special previews or “open houses.” Shortly the temple will be dedicated and only Mormons with “temple recommends” (for keeping God’s commandments) will be permitted inside.
Both tours included a 12-minute opening video on why Mormons have temples and a closing reception area to ask missionaries questions (although in the public tour I saw no missionaries in the room). We were not allowed to take any photos or videos, go any place other than a strictly and highly secured path to certain rooms, including the baptismal font (a round pool built on the backs of 12 bulls representing the 12 tribes of Israel), instruction and sealing rooms for marriages and the “celestial” room for meditation.
From an architectural perspective, no expense was spared. Every room featured exquisite and expensive furniture, crystal chandeliers, beautiful paintings and fine carpets. Everyone wore paper booties to keep dirt damage minimal. I was very impressed. It was a truly beautiful building.
With that said, as both a biblical scholar and church historian, I left the experience with many thoughts, mostly due to the claims and statements by our LDS tour guides:
1. CLAIM: LDS TEMPLES ARE SIMILAR TO BIBLICAL TEMPLES. This idea was presented multiple times by different individuals and was mentioned in the literature we received, but it’s simply FALSE. First of all there were no “temples” in biblical times (pagan temples excluded) but only A TEMPLE (in Jerusalem) and it’s purpose was for the Israelites to come and make sacrifices (bloody animal, bird, grain) and offerings for their sins (I Kings 6-8, Hebrews 9:1-10). There is NO biblical or historical example of any marriages or baptisms (for the dead) being done in the temple of Solomon (pre-captivity) or the later reconstructed temple of Herod (Jesus’ time). This is a purely Mormon idea. You won’t find it in the Bible. To be honest, you won’t even find it in the Book of Mormon!
2. CLAIM: THE ANGEL MORONI (WHO REVEALED THE BOOK OF MORMON TO JOSEPH SMITH) IS NAMED IN THE BIBLE. Again, simply FALSE. I actually asked our VIP guide (who made this claim) to tell me where Moroni is cited by name in the Bible and he quickly back peddled. He mentioned a verse in Revelation 14:6-7 regarding an “angel” that the LDS interpret as Moroni but then conceded he was not uniquely named. Ironically, the Bible names a few selected “angels” (Gabriel [Daniel 8:15-27] and Michael [Jude 9], most notably), so if Moroni was such a special and important angel, why doesn’t the Bible mention him? The more difficult problem is the fact Revelation 14:6-7 predates Moroni by four centuries! According to the Book of Mormon, Moroni is a human prophet and the son of Mormon (who lived c. AD 421). And yet the Book of Revelation was penned in the first century long before Moroni even lived! Even if you believe humans become angels after death (another biblical fallacy), there’s no way the Revelation angel could be Moroni (as he wasn’t even born yet).
3. CLAIM: THE TEMPLE IS A PLACE FOR PEACEFUL MEDITATION. I will agree it was a “peaceful” and beautiful place. I have no doubt that it’s meditative for my Mormon friends, but I personally experienced no “peace” in either of my visits. That’s because I know, from personal experience and testimony, that this “peacefulness” only extends to Mormons in good standing who possess a temple “recommend” (there’s actually a bonafide black market that exists for “temple recommends” I’ve learned!). I believe a primary reason Mormons open their temples to “outsiders” for a brief “open house” isn’t necessarily for the curious “Gentile” (non-LDS) but rather the countless Mormons who can’t enter their own beautiful temple because they fail to live up to the “word of wisdom” (special LDS commandments), tithe fully their income or agree completely with the “restored gospel” (and there are many Mormons who fit this category). From an orthodox and historical biblical view, this is also a FALSE IDEA. The biblical temple was a place for the “unclean” sinners to come and be made right not a place only for those “recommended” or already living “right” (Hebrews 9:13,18-22).
4. CLAIM: MORMONS PERFORM BAPTISMS FOR THE DEAD TO ALLOW THE DECEASED A SECOND CHANCE FOR SALVATION. Baptism is necessary for salvation (something many orthodox Christians believe, by the way) so what about those who die without hearing that “gospel” or live a reckless life and realize after death they were wrong (and desire baptism and salvation)? This is why the LDS (and only the LDS) practice “baptisms for the dead.” But this, too, is a FALSE idea. Yes, the Scriptures mention being “baptized for the dead” (I Corinthians 15:29) but this single verse is hardly a justification for a “second chance”after-death salvation (and if the entire chapter and thought is read, the reference to being “baptized for the dead” has nothing to do with biblical baptism or Christianity). The truth? Scripture is very clear: you die and it’s judgment time (Hebrews 9:27, Matthew 12:36; Revelation 20:11-12). There are no second chances after death, which makes this peculiar LDS doctrine “comforting” only to the ignorant and insolent. In reality, if the biblical testimony is true, there’s hell to pay for those who don’t take care of business this side of Heaven.
5. CLAIM: MORMONS SEAL MARRIAGES FOR ALL TIME ALLOWING FAMILIES TO BE “FOREVER FAMILY.” Personally, I find this a beautiful idea and who wouldn’t desire to be with their family forever. The problem? It’s again unique to the LDS faith. No other expression of Christianity promotes this idea. In fact, Jesus himself said there would be NO MARRIAGE in heaven when expressly asked about it: Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:29-30). Jesus is right. Most of the popular ideas about what will happen in heaven or hell (and after death) are more Hollywood imagination, Dante’s Inferno and wishful thinking. Maybe all dogs do go to heaven (I don’t know), but I do trust Jesus when he says marriage isn’t forever. The problem is most people “do not know the Scriptures” or the Bible (and that includes the LDS).
Now, if you’re still reading, I want my Mormon friends and family to know that I don’t share these “claims” and counterpoints to argue, defame or hurt. I have great respect for faith, values and goodness. Some of the finest people I know are LDS. The Mormons I know live impeccable lives, strive hard to be “perfect” and are great friends, co-workers and neighbors. Many are genuinely “happy” people. But that doesn’t mean their religion is right and, let’s be brutally honest, none of that stuff means a hill of beans on the day you die. You don’t get extra credit or special points for temple work, good deeds and looking nice. Ultimately, it’s what you believe about JESUS.
And I believe JESUS IS ENOUGH.
The Apostle Paul wrote the Galatians something I think we all need to hear, but particularly my LDS friends and family:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven (Moroni?) should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Galatians 1:6-9)
Now some of my readers might think I’m picking on the Mormons here. In fact, I suspect some of my good Mormon friends and family might feel I’m judging, criticizing or attacking them. That is simply NOT TRUE. I have nothing but LOVE for all people, regardless of what they believe. But that doesn’t mean that what every belief or doctrine or faith system is TRUE or RIGHT or of GOD.
Like I shared with a beautiful LDS “sister” missionary on my first visit: if her house was on fire she would want me to tell her. She was affirming to that notion and I suspect you would too. If I have erred in anything I’ve penned here, please correct me. And if my own spiritual house is on fire (heresy), I give you permission to rescue me. That’s what friends and family do.
And that’s all I’m doing in this post. I’m not attacking the PEOPLE–the good and wonderful Mormons–who believe they need a temple and must do special works (baptisms for the dead) or be sealed in the temple (to be “forever family”). I have no doubt that such ideas and “works” give comfort, peace and hope.
But that doesn’t mean these “endowments,” “sealings” and “rites” are BIBLICAL ideas (even if you attach biblical “proof” texts to them). For, again, they present a DIFFERENT GOSPEL (way of salvation) from the rest of Christianity (and tend to look more Masonic in origin and type than Christian). Regardless, it’s very clear that Mormon theology rests on “works” to be saved (as evidenced by the need to be “recommended” to perform more “works” to reach the highest “celestial heaven”).
Christianity is about GRACE alone (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Essentially, JESUS IS ENOUGH.
So I guess this is my way of knocking on the door (with love) of both my Mormon friends and anyone considering converting to Mormonism with an invitational and revolutionary idea: you don’t need a temple or a “recommend” or to do any more “good works” to gain or better your salvation.
You don’t need a church, a code of conduct, a word of wisdom, a living prophet, a priesthood, a recommend or any other golden ticket.
All you need is JESUS.
When Jesus died on the cross the Jerusalem temple veil was torn in two, opening the way for ALL men to have access to the Father through the Son (Matthew 27:51). The book of Hebrews particularly addresses the reasons why temples, sacrifices, priests and other human rituals are no longer necessary (Hebrews 10:1-18). This physical Jewish temple was destroyed very shortly after Hebrews was penned (AD 70) and has never been rebuilt (and I believe never will)…because it is UNNECESSARY.
Simply: JESUS IS ENOUGH. Just read (like a child) the New Testament. It’s very clear and simple.
In conclusion, after my own tour of this beautiful edifice, I would echo Paul’s words to the people of Athens (Acts 17:23-25):
“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god [for me this was revealed to me in the “Celestial Room”]. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives EVERYONE life and breath and everything else.”
Yes! JESUS IS ENOUGH! Amen and Amen!
Today is a significant day in Christian history.
On October 31, 1517—500 years ago—a German monk sounded a clarion call to reform the abuses of the medieval Church he loved. Martin Luther purposely chose All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saint’s Day (a revered day in his Roman Catholic tradition) to hammer 95 thesis statements into the wood of a Wittenberg church door. Luther’s act inspired the Protestant Reformation and ignited countless other movements—from the Great Awakening to the Jesus Movement—in the next five centuries.
I am personally a product of a nineteenth century “restoration movement” (Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone) who sought to restore the Church to ancient principles and practices. I have a deep respect and admiration for my ecclesiastical forefathers who worked tirelessly to restore biblical Christianity. Unfortunately, even this great fellowship of churches eventually adopted secular models over sacred expression, whether in church leadership or worship service or preaching style.
In other words, the “Restoration Movement” didn’t restore the Church, at least not fully. Rather, and to be brutally honest, it became a “nondenominational” denomination in its own right. And today this once dynamic movement has stiffened into a monument in many places. Too many of my dear brothers and sisters prefer to divide over non-essentials, battle over unnecessary causes and alienate over pet interpretations.
So today, in honor of Martin Luther, I pick up my own hammer and offer more than a reformation, renewal or even a reimagination. What we desperately hunger for is a true and complete biblical restoration of the Church.
And I think this (RADICAL) RESTORATION is easily captured in 9.5 statements:
THESIS ONE: The Church of Jesus Christ is Essentially One. We are not the only Christians but we must seek to be Christians only. When the Church operates in the unity that Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23), we are an unstoppable, unbelievable and undeniable Force for good and God.
THESIS TWO: The Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Church is not a “plan B” or some ecclesiastical or eschatological after thought, as many preach and teach today. The Church is God’s Best Idea (along with a Messiah). It is the Kingdom predicted by Daniel (Daniel 2:44-45), revealed by Jesus (Mark 9:1, Luke 17:20-21) and promoted by the apostolic Church (Acts 8:12; 19:8; Colossians 4:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Revelation 12:10-11). It is a Kingdom of Salt that seasons, a Light that reveals, a Joy that pleases, a Grace that releases, a Power that energizes and a Hope that inspires.
THESIS THREE: The Church is Bigger than it’s Monikers. There is no “one true” denomination and no particular human expression of “church” that is better than another. At best we all see things dimly, in glimpses and partially (1 Corinthians 13: 12). In Heaven there will be no Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Amish, Seventh-Day Adventists, Quakers, Charismatics, Reformed, Evangelical, Fundamental, Progressive, Conservative, Liberal or “non-denominational.” In Heaven, as it was in the beginning of the Church, there will only be one label for all: Christian (Acts 11:26).
THESIS FOUR: The Church was created for Radical Community. The Church is about circles, not squares; community not cliques; interaction not isolation. In Christ we all have a place at the table of Communion in the Eucharist that binds all Christians together. The Church is described as a Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and Bride (Revelation 19:7; 21:2). We are a creative, connective and collaborative Family (Galatians 6:10). Consequently, we lead with forgiveness (2 Corinthians 2:10), love with purpose (1 Corinthians 16:14) and learn in community (Acts 2:42-47). Our gatherings must be immersed in interaction. No one should visit a Christian gathering without being tattooed by a relationship.
THESIS FIVE: The Church is guided by Matters of Faith not Opinion, Interpretation or Tradition. The Apostle Paul has given us the only creed the Church of Jesus Christ needs (Ephesians 4:4-5): we are one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. Everything else is interpretation and opinion, including end-time positions, views on God’s sovereignty, spiritual gifts, musical style, day of worship, organizational values, leadership roles and any other divisive human tradition. It’s fully time the Church ceased dividing over matters of opinion and focus fully on matters of faith. We need to simply agree with a statement attributed to Augustine: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”
THESIS SIX: The Church is a Body not a Building. For the past seventeen centuries the Church has confined itself within basilicas and cathedrals, halls and chapels, sanctuaries and auditoriums. The vocabulary of the modern church now erroneously reflects “time and space.” Many Christians will say they “go to church,” but this contradicts, even betrays, the inherent power and purpose of authentic ekklesia. In reality, Christians are THE Church. As the Body of Christ, we are a Divine Organism not a human organization. We are faces not a facility. When the church devolves into a business, school or any other cultural institution, as it has clearly done in recent years, it creates handicap and dysfunction. It’s why the early church operated from homes not a “temple” or a “house of worship” (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15). God doesn’t live in our building (Acts 7:48-49), but within our hearts (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Consequently, the building should never be labeled a “house of God” or “temple” and neither is it a facility Christians attend.
THESIS SEVEN: The Church is composed of baptized believers only. In our baptism we are “born again” into Christ’s Kingdom (John 3:5). Baptism is our “Red Sea” experience (1 Corinthians 10:1-2), our Divine garment (Galatians 3:27), our spiritual cleansing (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5) and salvation (1 Peter 3:21). And while visitors, guests, seekers and other interested persons are always welcome to journey in our Divine story, all those who follow Christ must identify fully with His death, burial and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6:3-4). It is a Christian’s mark–a circumcism of the heart (Colossians 2:11-15). This is especially critical and necessary before anyone is allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper, as Communion or Eucharist is not something for outsiders, the ignorant or unrepentant (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:27-29).
THESIS EIGHT: The Church gathers for discipleship, fellowship and worship. The ancient and Original DNA for why the Church gathers is found in Acts 2:42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Essentially, we gather to learn the ancient teachings of Jesus and the apostles, to experience connection and community, to participate in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist and to pray. It’s clear from other New Testament passages that these gatherings included congregational singing (Ephesians 5:19), testimonies (1 Corinthians 14:26), corporate prayer (Acts 4:24-31; 12:12) and even meals in these home fellowships (1 Corinthians 11:20-21). It also infers each “gathering” was small, from a few to perhaps a couple dozen believers. Consequently, these micro-congregations were discipleship-driven, fellowship-based and worship-focused.
THESIS NINE: The Church is led by “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” Apostles are those commissioned and sent on a mission (i.e., missionaries). Prophets are those who lead the church forward through prophetic message and/or leadership. Evangelists are those who share the “good news” (gospel) of Jesus. Pastors are those designated to oversee and shepherd a group of believers (a.k.a. elders, overseers). Teachers are those called to instruct and equip. Spread throughout the Body of Christ are lay leaders or ministers (males and females) who administrate, serve, repair, maintain and direct specific acts of ministry, a.k.a. deacons or deaconesses (Acts 6:1-6; Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13).
THESIS NINE POINT FIVE: The Church was originally commissioned as a decentralized Body of believers. The centralization of the Church, nearly four hundred years after it’s Pentecostal launching, was never God’s desire (who initially had twelve tribes led by multiple judges, priests and prophets) or Jesus’ model (who discipled twelve men rather than one). The Original Expression of church leadership was clearly decentralized through multiple apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or elders, teachers and ministers. Everyone in a church enjoyed opportunity, influence, power and control (1 Corinthians 14:26). There were no reverends, vicars, rectors, parsons, priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, lead pastors, senior ministers, executive ministers, associate pastors or any other leadership label that centralized power to a few individuals. Rather there were only general responsibilities to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all [emphasis mine] reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13).
In conclusion, I am not naïve in the knowledge that some or all of these statements will provoke controversy, argument or even division, for no great reformation, revolution or restoration was created without conflict, criticism and complaint. Nevertheless, I can no longer be silent on a clear and simple reading of Scripture, the long testimony of the historical Church and a leading by God to invite all those who love the Church into a conversation on where we’re at and where the Church is headed. In fact, I would ask that you read the Scriptures linked to each point, please.
If I have erred or unintentionally misrepresented myself, the Church or my Christ, I humbly seek correction. I will never claim infallibility nor boast in my positions. I simply and humbly lay them before each man and woman to consider.
Nevertheless, I will desire, until my dying breath, to initiate a UNITY of the Church of Jesus Christ on planet earth and promote a committed and purposeful invitation to simply be Christians. We do not need denominational labels, human creeds, mission statements, auditoriums, chapels, cathedrals, pews, stained glass, stages, lighting, sound, fog machines, PowerPoint, Apple products, videos, performances, hip sermons, coffee bars, offices, bulletins, websites, special programming or any other human invention. They are tools, but they are not necessary tools. Nor can we allow the traditions of man to supersede clear biblical teaching. If the Scriptures say to do it, just do it.
Ultimately, we need only three things, as Paul so eloquently revealed to his Corinthian readers: FAITH. HOPE. LOVE. Faith is our confidence in what was and now is. Hope is our fuel for what will be. And Love is the bond to everything else. It’s why Paul identified LOVE as the GREATEST of the three. For without Love, our Faith is reduced to dogma, tradition and isolation. And without Love, Hope can become abstract, fuzzy and blinding. Ultimately, Love is the “greatest” because it’s the glue that binds Faith and Hope together.
So whether you agree or not with my 9.5 Theses is irrelevant to me.
I will still LOVE all people fully. I will remain FAITHful continually. And I will HOPE incessantly.
Here I stand, I truly can do no other.
It’s time to preach a hard truth.
It’s becoming clear the lecture is dying as an effective communication strategy in today’s postmodern cyber culture.
No, it’s not extinct yet but the writing’s on the Facebook wall.
The sermon (as lecture) had a great 500-year run, thanks to academic reformers like Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin who refocused Protestant worship from the experiential Eucharist to the authoritative Scriptures. The sermon-lecture found particular efficacy in the Enlightenment era when Great Awakening preachers like Jonathan Edwards, Alexander Campbell and George Whitefield roused their flocks using rhetoric and reason. And once technology permitted sound to be amplified and images televised the sermon was staged and spotlighted. From Billy Graham to Bill Hybels, from Mars Hill to Saddleback, power communication and “personality” preachers wired countless churches.
Of course, none of this matters to a postmodern culture that’s grown frustrated and disconnected by the conventional, traditional and typical church.
Millennials (b. 1982-2004) are voting with their feet. One study suggests three in five churched Millennials graduate high school and church on the same day. A recent blog ignited social media fire (and ire) for daring to outline “why Millennials are over church.” Some of the more insightful reasons included “nobody’s listening” and a desire for mentoring instead of a sermon.
But these sentiments aren’t just from Millennials. Gen X (b. 1961-1981) has also lost heart with the Church. Call them “church refugees” or “dones” or whatever, but these 40 and 50-somethings are equally troubled and tired. Church has become painful, irrelevant and disconnected. “It’s just a concert and TedTalk anymore,” one Gen Xer opined about his church experience.
When Gen X began its exodus in the late ‘80s, churches merely shrugged. It’s just how that generation handles stuff. They’ve always been anti-institutional. Then the Millennials commenced their departure (early 2000s) and everyone was puzzled. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Millennials were the church’s “baby on board” bunch. We created amazing children’s and youth ministries just for them. We cajoled and coddled them, even bribed them with candy, Bible Bucks and other prizes.
Now they’re leaving? Shocking.
So WHY are they leaving? Simple. They struggle to hear us anymore.
In my book Sermons Reimagined: Preaching to a Fluid Culture, I explain the problem is rooted to communication. Post-modern generations (Gen X, Millennials, iTech) simply can’t “hear” or “understand” the Message because they process and communicate information differently than older generations (thanks to changing technology). This cultural shifting is nothing new. Approximately every 500 years, culture evolves when new “mega-techs” re-orientate cultural interactions.
2000 AD – present
Mega-Techs: Printing Press, Mechanized Clock, Telescope
Mega-Techs: Internet, Television, Cellular Phone
Closed. Print. Passive. Control.
Open. Image. Experiential. Choice.
|Content: Organized, Never Changing||
Concepts: Organism, Always Changing
Reason: Scripture as Textbook
|Revelation: Scripture as Letter|
|Generate answers: get to the point||
Create questions: embrace the process
|Lecture, Sermon, Monologue||
Experiences, Interactivity, Visuals
For many postmoderns—Christians or not—going to “church” is eerily like going to another class lecture (boring!).
Postmoderns want to talk about Faith. We want to talk at them.
Postmoderns want to experience Truth. We want to define Truth through principles, propositions and points.
Postmoderns want to see God working. We want them to hear God’s Word.
It’s no wonder we’re losing touch and becoming irrelevant. We’re like an 8-Track cassette: great music but packaged by obsolescence.
It’s why the sermon is dying.
The lecture is over.
(this blog was originally posted to REFRESH THE CHURCH on 2/27/2017)
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 most influential person in history wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He didn’t grow up in the lap of luxury banking on some family fortune. He wasn’t educated by the elite, groomed by the fashionistas, manicured by the media or mentored by the successful. His birth made no headlines. His biography was brief.
And yet this man remains the most quoted, respected, honored and successful person in history. He is loved by celebrities, kings, presidents, potentates, tycoons, poets and academics. His legacy is felt in the minstrel’s music, the painter’s brush and the poet’s line. All other great men and women pale in comparison to this one single life.
This influential leader was born in a relative’s outbuilding in a small, obscure town under foreign oppression. His desperately poor parents were troubled by scandal and tortured by a political paranoid. They even relocated temporarily to another continent to escape death. The boy grew up in a sketchy town widely known as the butt of a joke, hanging with people considered ignorant, average and common.
Maybe that’s why the hoi polloi loved him. He gave them help and hope, love and liberty, respect and restoration. He was their type of guy. Working class. Middle class. Redneck and blue collar.
Surprisingly, this influential teacher was largely rejected. Many in his own family avoided him. His peers criticized him while opponents attacked him. Ultimately, he was deserted by even his closest friends. He’s not what anyone expected. He didn’t fit their mold. He didn’t work their system. He didn’t play by their rules. He never labored abroad, earned a degree, won awards or wrote a book. He never sought fame, power or riches. Most of his influence and impact would happen after he was gone.
In life he proved a controversial failure. He never built a successful brand or business, nor owned land or property. His resume was a litany of losses. His references suspect. His authority questioned. His ideas challenged. Thousands abandoned him. He angered the religious establishment, confused the governmental powers, discouraged the seekers and disappointed his disciples. He was labeled a loose cannon, rebel and heretic. He was called a liar, deceiver and fool. Even his closest followers denied, doubted and betrayed him. Unlike other revolutionaries he never raised his voice or the sword, used threats or bribes, censored critics or complainers. This man of sorrows, with a life tattooed by failure and rejection, was charged for crimes he didn’t commit, sentenced to a death he didn’t deserve and executed by those he didn’t offend.
And yet, he still changed the world forever.
On his deathbed, only a scattered few paid their respects. He died in his prime…mostly alone, surprisingly despised and roundly rejected. He was crowned with thorns, nailed naked to wood and hung beside crooks. He was smeared, sneered and speared, then hastily buried in a borrowed tomb. His only property left to gamblers. The few that still followed locked themselves behind doors, fearing they were next.
Jesus did everything wrong. He loved the wrong people. He taught the wrong things. He performed miracles on the wrong day. He picked the wrong disciples. He angered the wrong powers. He was born into the wrong family, under the wrong circumstances, and grew up in the wrong place. He had the wrong education, the wrong plans and suffered a wrong ending.
And yet every wrong made it all right.
After all, you can’t keep a good man down…especially if He’s more than a man.
Jesus did what no man can do: He rose from the dead. In doing so, he proved His Divinity. He also revealed the last can arrive first, the least can end greatest, the insignificant can become important, the weak can be strong, the small can grow tall, the old can be new, the wrong can be right and the dead can live. He showed you don’t need breaks, luck, license or blessing. You don’t need the right name, face, place, race or gender. You don’t need to build a media empire, carve a social standing or amass a business fortune. You don’t need the biggest church, the largest budget, the most programs, the best facilities or the sharpest staff. You don’t need an agent, promoter or publicist. You don’t need magic tricks, incentive plans, investment strategies or clever programming.
You just need to follow this Man. And that’s not easy. You might lose everything. You might be hated, mocked or criticized. You might even get crucified.
It’s no wonder that two thousand years later Jesus the Christ remains the most influential, respected and loved person. Everyone knows his name, even if they utter it in curse. His disciples cover the planet. His teachings blanket the world. His impact surrounds the earth. Jesus’ birth and death are revered holidays. We mark history by his life. We quote his sayings, reproduce his teachings and model his behavior. His followers have erected hospitals, shelters, and food banks. They’ve started countless missions, ministries and movements in His Name.
Nobody ever did what this Galilean guru did. Nobody will do it ever again.
His solitary life changed everything. And so can you.
Perhaps you feel like a failure. Perhaps you are deeply wounded. Perhaps you are weak, sick or dying. Perhaps you doubt God’s goodness and power. Perhaps you question Jesus’ love and grace. Perhaps you’re addicted, victimized or abused. Perhaps you feel lost, forgotten or hopeless. Perhaps you wonder how you’ll survive another day or next year.
Life is hard. Thankfully, Jesus came to earth to show us how to LIVE.
And this Messiah modeled success in failure, confidence despite fear, victory over temptation, joy within tragedy, and life from death. By all human standards, Jesus should be at best a historical footnote. A nice story of a good guy who tried hard and failed.
But the Christmas gospel is more than a nice story, it’s a testament to how Divine Power mixes with human frailty, fault and failure. It’s about angels on high and dirty shepherds, a Bethlehem star and a stable of manure and hay, and Holy God inhabiting infant flesh. It’s about LIFE abundant. The real good news is that Jesus didn’t come to make you good or nice or religious. He came to bring you LIFE no matter what.
No matter where you started. No matter where you are now. No matter where you’re going.
No matter what…Life! And life beyond measure…a wonderful life!
No doubt the real reason wisemen still seek Him.