Pastor's Blog

I don’t want either of my readers to lose sight of why I’m writing.  I am trying to pass on a way to think about church – a philosophy of ministry – because I’m not going to last forever.  I’m temporary and the next generation must know not only what to do, but why.

I am suggesting that in the pendulum swing of history, American evangelicalism may have swung too far toward an individualistic and libertarian approach to the Christian faith, i.e. my faith is merely, primarily, or only personal – just between me and God – and needs to move back the other direction and grasp the importance of the role of the church as a body, of what we are as a people together.

I can’t speak for the whole world – only from the perspective of my own life and my own eyes.  The world that I grew up in – the society that I grew up in – seemed to me more trusting, more friendly, more caring, less suspicious of others.  Not that there weren’t problems; just that they didn’t take center stage and they weren’t constantly being thrown at you by the media.  You dealt with your own life – the world around you – not what was happening every moment in Washington or at the southern border or in China or Russia.

That has all changed now – and it seems that we are more in touch with the larger world, but almost removed from our next-door neighbors – or even from the people we go to church with. 

And that is not a good thing…

Our society is not just divided; I believe we are fragmenting and isolating.  We are told to be suspicious of others.  We are afraid for our children, afraid to let them run and play, afraid they might be kidnapped and have awful things done to them.

Not that those fears are without foundation.  But as Adam Smith said in his Theory of Moral Sentiments :  “Society cannot subsist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another.”  It gets harder and harder to live among people that we can’t trust, if we are constantly on our guard, like finches at a bird-feeder that struggle to pluck out a few seeds because so much time is given to alertness to predators that might snatch them up in a moment of heedlessness.

As creatures, we struggle with that level of suspicion.  We need people around us that we can trust – people with similar values, people who support and encourage us in our way of life.

If the USA continues in the direction it is going, despite the cries for unity you are not going to see unity – except by government force.  The perspective that is in power right now is primarily about destroying things, not creating things.  It survives by creating chaos, tumult, and revolution.  It believes this is the way the world must work.

But WE believe real unity cannot be created by force from the outside in or imposed from the top down.  It comes from inside hearts united around that which is true and works its way out. 

I believe that people struggling in the harshly constructed desert of a tyrannical world will instinctively look for what we have; they will look for good people and for people who understand, not a theory of goodness, but the actual living out of the goodness of love for one another.

“Springs of living water” I believe Jesus called it.

That’s what the Spirit working through the church is supposed to be.  Just being what we are called to be will become a powerful evangelistic outreach.

 

 

 

Years ago I worked in a chocolate factory.  One day I was dumping blocks of solid chocolate into a heated tank – a hot, slippery, messy, and mindless task.  I was surprised when the guy working with me asked, “What does John 3.16 say?”

I quoted John 3.16 to him and asked why he asked that.  He paused a moment, confused, and then said, “So…what does that have to do with football?”

I would love to say that in the conversation that followed I led my co-worker to believe in Jesus.  Instead, I had another slippery and messy task -- explaining why Christians felt a need to shove religion down his throat at a football game.

Evangelicals who do this sort of thing subscribe to what I call “the magic words theory”.  Utter the magic words – “God loves you!” or “Jesus died for you” (or hold up a placard with that reads ‘John 3.16’ in the end zone so it gets on national TV) – and maybe the magic words will save the soul of someone who sees it.

The task of the church is not to help people understand the words, or to put the words in a context to be understood, but to make sure the public sees (or hears) the words.
            Tack them onto the end of a sermon or slip them into any conversation.
            Write them on notes or birthday cards or spray them as graffiti on a wall. 
            Post them on a billboard or a banner behind an airplane at the shore.
            Write them on the cash you leave as a tip.
            Insert them into movie scenes or song lyrics.
Just say the magic words whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Or even when it doesn’t.

I believe this idea and this practice to be well-intentioned, but more of a stumbling block to the gospel than a helpful vehicle for it.

We are not here to merely shout magic words at the unbelieving world in hopes of magically altering eternal destinies.

Our destiny is changed because our relationship to God changes when we understand the gospel (not just hear magic words) and believe.  When we understand and believe, God saves us and alters, not just our destinies, but our everyday lives.  Christianity is not about eternal life insurance.  It is about eternal life – life begun now that will be lived for eternity, doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

And eternal life is not life lived in isolation, but lives lived together in relation to God and to one another – lives lived out of love. 

The greatest commandments are “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself”.

Jesus said that all people would know we are His followers if we have love for one another.

It is not good for man to be alone.  Never was and never will be.

The work of evangelism isn’t founded on the proper uttering of the right magic words, but on Christians living out a new life together as a sign of the truth of the existence of God’s new creation.

 

Many see evangelism as merely a matter of laying out “magic words” to the public.  Just say the magic words.  Preach them from a pulpit.  Shout them out on a city street corner.  Put them on a billboard.  Hand them out on leaflets to strangers in airports and restaurants.  Leave them in restrooms and lobbies.  Just get the magic words out!  That’s your sole responsibility.  This is what many evangelicals consider “preaching the gospel.”

The best Christians, they think, are the ones that say the magic words most often and most loudly.  Those are the people that care about souls.  And those that don’t say the magic words loud and often are portrayed as fearful and not willing to stand for Jesus.  They are taunted with guilt and hand-wringing for failing to “get the message out.” 

What if today is that soul’s last chance to hear, and you didn’t say the magic words of the gospel?  What if that soul dies and go to hell tonight because you didn’t say the magic words?  How will you feel when you see them on judgment day?

This approach to evangelism seems to me to cheapen the gospel and human lives.  People who throw the gospel at people seem to care about the task more than they care about the souls they are talking to. 

The gospel doesn’t work magically.  It is not just hearing the words of the gospel.  The words must be understood.  There must be context to the word that makes them applicable to the life of the listener.

Jesus said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13.35).  If you, followers of Jesus, love ONE ANOTHER (not just your family, not outsiders, not the whole world – each other), then ALL PEOPLE (outsiders included) will know that you are followers of Jesus.

This is Jesus’ KEY marketing strategy.  How we conduct ourselves – how we talk with each other, work with each other, handle conflicts with each other, whether we rejoice with each other, weep with each other, care for one another in times of need, how we enjoy one another in the good times – all these things point other people to the One we follow.

Think about people that grew up in environments in which they learned to be suspicious, to be critical, to be defensive.  Many believe others are always out to get them and that they must be combative and mean-spirited to survive.  Many of them have learned to hate and fight others.  Many learned to manipulate others.

Many have a hard time believing that people with truly genuine hearts exist – people that love one another, forgive one another, accept each other warts and all;  people that can correct and be corrected and still be friends, people who stand up for each other and  have each other’s backs no matter what. 

Some have never seen those things lived out.  Jesus says they should see it among his followers.

Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” 
Gandhi’s words hurt.
They should.

Perhaps we are wringing our hands about the wrong things.

 

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