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Archive for July, 2009

In the last few years I’ve really struggled to find what I am looking for in a church family.  For the most part, it’s a moot point.  As a minister I don’t get to shop much for a church family; I’m pretty much bound to the congregation I preach at and though I strive to mold that church into the model of what I think Jesus wants out of his congregation the leaders and the congregation have a lot to do with whether those changes are made.  My wife and I have long asked ourselves, “What congregation would we go to if I were a plumber who just moved to this town and were looking for a congregation to be a member of?”

I should write a book about my journey.  But here’s the short version.  I knew that I did not want to be in any of the dead, tradition-for-tradition’s sake, culturally irrelevant churches that are dying all around America (and sadly, that I was a minister in until coming to my current congregation).  When the average age of the membership is over 60, the worship style is stuck in the 50’s and the baptisms are measured in single digits per decade you know that this is not a church you want to be a part of.  That’s a no-brainer.

So, on Saturday nights and other times when I could attend a church as a visitor I would seek out the uber-contemporary churches, sure that they were what I would want if I were seeking a church.  For the most part I liked them better than the 1950’s era churches I was used to.  There was more energy, the music was more like what was playing in my car, the dress was more casual (why that mattered, I don’t know), and the sermons were more interesting.  Not only that, but these were the churches which were growing: their average age was in the 20’s, 30’s at most, the parking lots were full, their buildings were huge.  I would leave those churches feeling better about church and wishing that I were a part of them instead of the dying church I was in.

Yet.  Yet.  Yet, something was still missing.  It was almost like going from spinach to cotton candy.  Sure, it tasted better, but I didn’t feel like I was actually full.  I couldn’t see those churches being a place where I would grow if i were a member.  Sure, I enjoyed the show and the professionalism and the music, but that’s not really what being a part of the Body of Christ is all about.  It finally occurred to me that things like musical style and dress code (or lack thereof) shouldn’t really matter in the long run: those things are not what make a church.  I enjoyed the show in the contemporary church (it was like getting a free Christian concert), but could not see a lot of growth coming from there and the message preached was usually superficial and trite.  They seemed to be appealing to the lowest common denominator; not really challenging the congregation for fear of losing numbers.

What was the answer?  I thought about home churches, even liturgical churches, but it all seemed lacking.

I think I’ve finally found some guys who are doing it right.  What is “right”?  “Right” is faithfully proclaiming the Gospel, preaching the Word unashamed (one church I went to was loathe to quote scripture or have a cross displayed for fear of offending the lost), teaching the truth about sin, punishment, redemption, grace and sanctification while still being culturally relevant and having an impact on the world.  Translated, this means a church that has muscial and preaching styles which speak to the culture while not diluting or changing the message of the Gospel.  You can play music that sounds cool which says “Jesus is Lord and we are sinners in need of saving” instead of “Jesus is my boyfriend and I’m so happy”.  You can preach messages which are interesting to listen to and which speak to people in our culture without them being sappy, pragmatic, “How to be happier in our culture” sermons.  You can be a church that speaks to our culture without selling out to it.  You can impact the world with mission and love while still proclaiming the Jesus is Lord and the only way to be saved.

I’m glad to know that there are churches doing this.  Although my experience with them is only through podcasts and books, I think Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church in Seattle is doing this.  Matt Chandler’s Village Church in Texas is doing this.  They are actually impacting and changing their culture without selling out to it.  Here locally I’ve been glad to visit Sojourn Church in Louisville on a regular basis; I can honestly say that if I moved to Louisville as a plumber I would be more than glad to be a member there.  The worship is very relevant to today’s culture but their message is one of belief, repentance, and obedience to Jesus as Lord.  They speak the language of the culture, but in so doing they are speaking the Message of the Gospel.  And the cool thing is these churches are large, growing, appeal to younger people, and are making a difference in their cities.  They are showing that you can be “successful” in our culture while still being faithful to the Gospel.

My goal as a minister is to model that in my own congregation: to reach our culture (which is very different from that of downtown Louisville) without compromising the Gospel.  Instead of spinach, instead of cotton candy, it’s savory meat that only the Lord can prepare.

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Hard to Let Go

I was reading John 6 during my sermon yesterday about hungering and thirsting for righteousness.  John 6 is such a fascinating chapter in that it flies right in the face of what we do in the church today in the United States in the evangelical camp.  Jesus is preaching to the masses, over 5,000, and sees that they are hungry.  So, he makes them all a fish meal out of 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes; you know the story.  But here’s where we usually quit reading.  The next day the crowds show up again, and then some.  Here’s the thing, though: they aren’t coming for Jesus’ preaching, they are coming for the free meal!  How do I know this?  Jesus says so in John 6:26.

Now, here is where Jesus goes against every church growth, seeker-driven church model out there.  I mean, let’s do the math.  He easily makes fish and bread and the crowds come to hear him; in fact, they CHASED him across the lake (he had to walk across the water just to get away from the crowds).  What would most church leaders (including myself) do if we found some simple device that would attract huge crowds?  We’d be making some fish sammiches!  Not only that, we’d be writing books about the fish-driven church and speaking at conferences.

Our rationale would be, “Hey, we get ’em in with the fish and then we give them the Gospel.  We are just trying to attract our culture with fish, then they get the Gospel.”  After all, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that after coming for the fish Jesus would preach them the pure Word; what else would you expect from Jesus?

But what does Jesus do? Basically, he shoos them away because they were just coming for the fish.  He ups the ante and tells them how hard it is to follow him.  We see the payoff in John 6:66, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”  It’s as if Jesus would rather have committed disciples than crowds following him for the wrong reasons.

I gotta be honest: as a minister, I have a hard time with this.   Lately, I’ve been preaching sermons that are more and more Christ-centered: less focused on ‘felt-needs’ and more on exalting Jesus.  Those aren’t popular messages; I know, I’ve been stepping on my own toes (yesterday I pretty much told the “Christians” in my congregation that most of them needed to repent and get saved since they weren’t hungry for righteousness).  But the thing is, the more you exalt Jesus the more you alienate our culture; the more you speak about God’s grace and holiness the less you talk about ‘felt needs’ which are garbage compared to knowing the Gospel.  You tell people they need to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood instead of giving them “Five Tips for a Better Sex Life” or “Ten Reasons to Love Yourself” and you’re going to have John 6:66 in your church too.

I confess that I struggle with the idea of people leaving the church because the Gospel is preached the way Jesus presented it.  I’m like most ministers: I count the number of people sitting in the pews as an indicator of how “successful” we are as a congregation.  If someone leaves the church I don’t do like Jesus did to the Twelve and ask if they want to go too: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve (John 6:67).  Instead, I want to chase those who left and ask what it will take to keep them and maybe attract more of their friends.  Everything we do as a minister and as a church is measured (wrongly) by numbers, budgets, buildings and worldly success.

God, grant that we could be faithful in proclaiming the Gospel, trusting in Your sovereignty to attract those who are not just looking for bread and fishes but who will say like Peter did, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

I’m afraid that as a minister I am more tempted to go with bread and fish and attract people than to proclaim the words of eternal life and the true cost of  carrying the cross and take the chance of only having 12 disciples.  Dirty, dirty pride is what it is, though.  God, help me to be faithful.

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