Monday, February 20, 2012

Cool for Cool's Sake Is Not Cool

Recently, (as in a few weeks ago) a friend of mine sent me a blog post that had been circulating around.  She wanted to hear my thoughts on the article as she was dialoguing with one of her friends about the content.  Their discussion was great and it was cool to see college students talking about what they believe and why they believe it.  You can find the article here. 

They brought up some great questions.  But there was one statement that was a bit concerning to me as I read through their dialogue.  She wanted answers  (you should not ask me for answers unless you have a few minutes).  In the course of their discussion, her friend said something along the lines of  “The Church is not primarily for evangelism but rather for worship and edification of believers.”  What?  This is how I responded. 

“This is a false dichotomy.  Worship and evangelism are inextricably connected.  One is not to be practiced while sacrificing the other.  That would be non-sense!  In Acts, it is apparent that every sermon that was preached had non-believers present. Acts says that the new followers of Jesus met together every day of the week and that unbelievers were added to their number daily. How could we conclude that evangelism is not part of the church's primary purpose when unbelievers were added to the number daily? Why would Jesus leave the disciples with the Great Commission?  To say that the church gathered is not for the purpose of evangelism falls so short I don't even know where to start. By it's very nature, preaching must be evangelistic. Anytime you talk about Jesus or proclaim Jesus you are evangelizing.

Jesus said that he came for the sick--not for the righteous. So Jesus answers the question about who Church is for--it is for unbelievers and believers. One of the purposes of the church is to proclaim to unbelievers the Gospel of Jesus so that they might become believers. The Church is also tasked with equipping believers to do life and mission and to be agents of reconciliation. Additionally, the Church exists for corporate worship.  Doesn't Paul say that belief comes through hearing? And then he goes on to ask, "How will they know if someone doesn't tell them?" The imperative (instruction) is clear--church--preach the word! The New Testament is clear that the church is for evangelism, preaching, the edification of believers, the transformation of unbelievers, worship and mission.  One of these purposes is not subordinate to the other.  They are inextricably connected.

There are three "marks" of the church. These three things must be present for a church to be a church. They are the preaching of the Word, the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper) and discipline (biblical structure--elders, deacons pastors etc who oversee the church).  Since we're talking about evangelism I will just pay attention to preaching of the Word. When Jesus called the disciples he sent them to preach and to cast out demons. This means he sent them to preach the Gospel (the good news about Jesus) and to display God's authority over the demonic. Paul builds on this a bit in 2 Corinthians 5 when he says that “we are agents of reconciliation”--we who are saved are to evangelize! When we preach we declare the glory of God, the work of Jesus Christ and his power over sin and death. This is evangelism.  This means the church, when faithfully preaching Jesus is evangelistic. 

We need to rethink not just our view of the church but our view of evangelism. Jesus clearly saw the church as an evangelistic tool. The Great Commission is very clear. In Acts 1, Jesus' last words and instructions are, "and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth."

Is it okay for a church to be cool while evangelizing?  Well, I think that depends.  If your culture is considered cool than you had better be cool because you are cool and not because you are trying to be cool (that was pretty cool).  Why does the church debate “being relevant?”  Ironically, Jesus talks a lot about preaching the Gospel and says very little about the daily and weekly function of the church worship gathering. Jesus’ main statement about the church is that he will build his church on the confession that He is the Christ.

Additionally, the entire New Testament says very little about church gatherings--when to meet, what time to meet, how to do the things we are told to do when we meet, etc. There are no exact instructions on preaching a good sermon, music, how much music, how long of a sermon, topical sermons versus exegetical sermons and so on. In other words, God has allowed much freedom when we gather for worship. That leads me to the article concerning cool vs. un-cool. God used a jackass to get his point across (story of Balaam in the OT), he certainly can use pipe organs or electric guitar. He can use churches with incredible multi-media abilities and others with overhead projectors and transparencies.  Take Stone’s Throw for example.   I think that many people see what we are doing at Stone’s Throw and think that we are a seeker-friendly church--this just isn't true.  At least it isn’t true in the sense that they are defining "seeker-friendly." If by seeker-friendly they mean that we are trying to tell lost and broken people about Jesus--then by all means--call us seeker friendly. If by seeker-friendly they mean we are trying to be cool to reach lost people, or watering down the Gospel in the name of relevance--then they obviously haven't been to a worship gathering and are certainly not experiencing the community in which we live and breathe. It is okay for a church to be cool if they are preaching the Gospel, worshipping Jesus, and reaching people with the Gospel. It is not okay to be cool if they are just cool in the end.

My opinion is that churches trying to act cool are like kids in school who try to act cool--it comes off weird. Churches need to figure out how God wants them to execute the Great Commission and how this plays out in their community through their weekly gatherings, their evangelistic effort, their worship and so on. This will look different for every church--that is why Stone's Throw is different than other churches.  Stone's Throw wants to reach unchurched and dechurched people...that is why we preach the way we do and do church the way we do. Our emphasis is on being a church of missionaries. That is why we have Community Groups and also why we view our church gathering as only part of the church and not the centerpiece of church.   We do things differently because we are trying to reach a different kind of person. 

That is why Saddle Back Church in California (Rick Warren) might not work in New York City but Redeemer (Tim Keller) does. They are reaching different people groups. That is why a church in Jamaica will not work in Spain and why Stone's Throw might not have a chance in Africa. Sadly, many westernized people do not think through their theology to the ends of the earth--they have a westernized view of worship, God, church, evangelism and the like.   That is why we are so wrapped up in whether or not the church should try to be relevant.  Each church should try to be as relevant as a missionary who is working with the hidden people groups of the world. 

The Church must always contextualize the Gospel.  Jesus spoke in parables about fields, mustard seeds and farmers because he was speaking to people who knew about fields, mustard seeds and farmers.  Churches must never compromise the Gospel, but contextualization is absolutely necessary.”  

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Breath of Jesus

Today, I received a phone call from my good friend Paul, asking if I was available to go and pray with a family in our church.  You see, their 22 year-old son, Joseph, is fighting for his life.  He and his family have been at war with a deadly form of cancer for over two years.  Over 200 tumors are attacking Joseph's body and yet he continues to fight.  I was given the privilege of holding Joseph's hand, kneeling by his bedside, and praying with him as his family prayed along side of us.  Joseph and I have spent time praying together after church on Sunday's.  I never heard Christian platitudes coming out of Joseph.  I heard the Gospel.  I heard him making much about Jesus.  I watched him fight gracefully and with a strength that is only supernatural.  I saw him sitting in the back row on Sunday's when he could have been home resting.  He had every earthly right to withdraw.  Today, I could feel Joseph squeezing my hand as I asked Jesus for comfort and peace that only the Savior can bring.

Today, as I listened to Joseph fight for every breath I realized that I was holding the hand of Jesus.  Before you accuse me of blaspheme listen to Jesus' words, "Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me."  One of his Aunt's greeted us at the door today and said something along the lines of, "Do you want to see the glory of God?"  This indeed, is holy ground.

Joseph's fight reminds me of the battle that Jesus fought and won on our behalf.  He battled with our enemies and he dealt death the death blow.  I imagine that the breath of Joseph must not be unlike the breath of Jesus on the Cross as he battled our enemy and carried the weight of sin and death on his shoulders.  Jesus breathed every breath he was meant to breathe--not one more and not one less.  Jesus did not breathe his last until it was finished.  Praying with Joseph and kneeling by his bedside was a picture of Cross.  God allowed me to see a glimpse of what it means to do battle with the evil effects of this world.

I watched as Joseph's family members and friends prayed and read Scripture around his bed.  His uncle.  His Grandfather.  His Dad.  His Mother.  His Aunt.  His Sister.  They pray, they hold him, they read God's inerrant Word.  Each of their Bible's are worn out.  They have notes in them.  The covers are cracked and worn.  The pages are in disrepair.  As Joseph's uncle read from Isaiah, his mother quoted the Scripture alongside him without needing her Bible.  This was not a picture of religious motion.  This was the very presence of Jesus in Joseph's room.  His aunt was right--even in a room where death could be imminent the glory of God is shining around us.

I am still praying for God to heal Joseph.  His family is still praying for healing.  I hope that you will pray along side of them.  Joseph has pressed on toward the mark.  He has run the race that has been marked out for him.  He has fought a fight that most will never have to fight.  All the while, he has clung to Jesus.  He did not let go and let God. Rather, he has been holding on to Jesus and allowing God to work in and through him.

Today, I walked on holy ground.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Redoubling My Effort

I am a church planter and a preaching pastor.  There are some Sundays where I feel really good about a certain message.  There are other Sundays where I can't wait to reach the end of the sermon so that I can allow the precious people in the congregation to get back to their lives.  In either case it is usually not a lack of effort.  I put many hours into each sermon.  I struggle through tough passages and try to draw fresh meaning from easier passages.  I read a ton of material each week--commentators, journal articles, scholarly books, practical books and more.  I listen to and read sermons from preacher's that I respect and admire to see how they handled a text.  I even have a research team that helps me shed light on the passage as they shine lights in corners I may have missed.  

Even with all of this effort--which is usually the same amount of effort each week--I can never really know how a sermon will "turn out" on a Sunday morning.  There are some great Sunday's where I am feeling on top of my game.  On those Sundays I wonder how it would be possible for God not to use my sermon that week!  There are other weeks where I feel like crap after preaching.  I went too long.  No one responded.  Heck, I personally didn't even connect with the sermon.  After a bomb I can't wait to get back to the process to redouble my efforts so that I make sure that never happens again.  

"Redouble my efforts."  This is precisely what a pastor needs less of in his life.  In Colossians, Paul asks the church for prayer with these words, "At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak."  He asks that they may pray so that a door may be opened for him to walk through and that he might preach clearly when it does.  Paul depends on God and not his own effort.  This is very convicting to me.  I am tempted to redouble my efforts so that I can put the next sermon in the ground.  But preaching, just like all living, is about dependence upon God--not redoubling our efforts.  

A pastor can build an excellent church all by himself and with a great team.  But that church is no different than a skeleton that has strings attached and is being manned by a puppeteer.  A truly living church is built by the Holy Spirit working through God's people who are compelled by the Gospel with a love for God and for others. 

I believe that working hard is required by the Scriptures.  Paul went away for three years after his conversion before he really started to amp up and preach.  He worked hard throughout his entire ministry.  There are times where we need to "redouble our efforts."  But our effort must be viewed in light of the grace that God gives.  He is using us--with out faults and skill alike.   I think the bigger question is why we are redoubling our efforts in the first place?  Is it to bring glory to God or to ourselves?  

I am going to try my best every week knowing that my best is not the only way God uses me.  God uses us at our best and at our worst for His glory and His purposes.