Monday, November 30, 2009

Church for the Unchurched

In my role as a church starting missionary for my denomination I visit many different churches. I visit churches both in my own state of Vermont, where I help start new churches, as well as churches across the nation where I encourage those churches to become partners in helping us start new churches in Vermont. Most of the new churches I help start are focused on reaching the unchurched. I understand that there are many different kinds of churches, and that some new churches will appeal primarily to those who are already Christians who are just looking for something fresh and exciting. I acknowledge that this is a valid reason for starting a new church; it is just not something I am particularly burdened to be involved in. I want to start churches that God can use to draw to Himself those who are not in already in church.

In my quest to accomplish this God-given mission I have met people who have said that we should not focus on inviting people to church, but that we should take the church to them. While I agree with the idea behind this statement, which is that we should be outwardly focused instead of inwardly focused, I think the New Testament is clear that when God's people went OUT to witness, the result was the formation of new churches that people could come IN to. Therefore we must have an outward focus that touches people OUTSIDE the church with the Gospel, but we also must have a church for them to attend once they begin their journey toward God. And to be honest, many existing churches are difficult places for the unchurched to come to in an effort to continue their journey toward the Lord.

For example, I recently visited a fine and successful church in the Bible belt. I was able to interact with a number of their members and clearly they love Jesus. Nearly 2000 people worship in this church on a typical weekend, so apparently many Christians find their services quite helpful. But as I sat in the large sanctuary and looked around, I could not help but notice that everyone around me was dressed up. I don't just mean they had a clean shirt on, I mean they were dressed up like they were going to a wedding. Though I did not meet every individual or investigate every corner of the building, I did not see anyone who appeared to be poor. Don't misunderstand me; there is nothing wrong with dressing up to go to church, but clearly, if I had been a poor person who had stumbling into the church trying to find faith, I would not have felt comfortable at that church. I would not have returned to continue my spiritual journey toward Christ. Even if I had not been poor, but just didn't realize that a person was supposed to dress up in order to go to church, I would have been embarrassed when I looked around and realized I was significantly under-dressed. Would I have been able to overcome my embarrassment and return the following week with nicer clothes on?

As the worship service progressed in that particular church, it was clear that everything was pre-programmed. Right down to when the various people would walk to the platform and oversee their portion of the service. Again, don't misinterpret what I am saying; I am not against a well planned service. Administration is my primary spiritual gift, I LIKE organization! But this service was so programmed, that I did wonder where the Spirit was. Not only did nothing spontaneous happen, but it did not seem like anyone around me was expecting anything spontaneous to happen. It seemed to me, as a visitor, they those around me were expecting "business as usual" and that is exactly what they got. Again, don't misunderstand me, I realize that spontaneous is not the same as Spirit filled, but even to my very organized way of looking at the world, that particular worship service seemed to lack the Spirit in its effort to follow the program so closely. If a non-Christian had been present, would they have "felt" anything? Would anything about the service have shouted "God is here!" to them?

As the worship service continued, the music that was used, the prayers that were prayed and even the sermon that was preached all seemed focused on helping people who had been in church a very long time have a better understanding of their faith. For example, a key point of the sermon was for the listeners to ask "How can God get the glory for whatever is going on in my life?" I happen to agree with that point. And the pastor did a great job explaining to people who already know God and already live a fairly godly life why that is an important question to ask. But had I been a non-believer, I would have wondered what the word "glory" means? That was never explained. And without understanding that key word, the whole statement just falls apart. Another point in the sermon was "True repentance is never too late, but late repentance is seldom true." Again, having been a Christian since I was a young child, I was able to realize that the pastor was implying that a person who thinks they are going to wait until the last five minutes of life and then turn to Christ is probably not going to make a real commitment to Jesus and will die in their sin. But that was never really explained. Had I been an older person who had not yet trusted Christ, what I probably would have "heard" the pastor say was "Don't bother turning to Christ now, it's too late." I am absolutely positive the pastor did not mean to imply that, but to the unchurched people I spend so much time with, that is exactly how they would have heard it. Would we really have expected such a person to return the next week to learn more? After all, they were just told it was too late anyway.

But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the entire service was the invitation to action that was given at the close of the service. The sermon was about how God can get glory no matter what happens in our lives, but as the sermon came to a close the final challenge was to "join the church." The pastor waxed eloquent about how some people were looking for a great church and he believed they had found it, so it was time to join up. I am still at a loss as to figure out how "joining the church" was an adequate conclusion to a challenge on how God can get glory by what is happening in my life. As a Christian, I went away somewhat baffled, had I been a non-Christian, I would have went away quite confused.

There are some reading this post who at this point are thinking that I am being judgmental about this pastor and this church. That is not the case at all. This was clearly a strong and healthy church that is doing a great job of reaching people who are already in church. Christians who are looking for a large, well programmed, well dressed congregation with a deep understanding of theological terms would be hard pressed to find a church better than the one I described above. I commend that church for their success in reaching such people. And most churches that I visit across the country are just like the church described above. I could have written this blog about almost any of the churches I have visited in the last two years and just happened to pick this one because it was one of the better examples of how to do church well in order to reach those who are already churched.

But here is my problem, most of my friends are not all that well dressed, nor do they have a deep understanding of theological terms, nor does a well programmed "event" speak to them of the power of Almighty God. Many of my friends are not even sure if they believe the whole "God" thing yet. They are curious and they do want to learn more about God on the spiritual journey they are taking. My own theological commitment to the sovereignty of God in all things tells me that they would not have this spiritual interest unless they were of the elect and were being drawn by the Spirit toward Christ. But if most churches are like the one I described above, and that just does not meet the spiritual needs of so many of my friends, then where will they go to church? Now you understand my deep commitment to starting churches that speak to the unchurched. It is a long and difficult process, but one to which I have committed my life.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Church as a Spiritual Hospital

When Jesus walked among us He was often criticized by the religious elite for spending too much time with sinners. The way Jesus responded to these criticisms was to use a metaphor about health and sickness. Jesus said that the healthy do not need a doctor, but the sick do. The clear implication of His metaphor was that He had come to seek and to save those who were lost. Yet, in our modern North American culture, most churches actually spend the bulk of their energy trying to attract those who are already Christians. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most obvious is that Christians are the easiest to reach. They speak our church language and agree with the primary principles of our theology.
Reaching those who are not yet within the Christian fold is much more complicated. It takes a lot of energy and effort. It often takes a much longer period of time than we anticipated. It is almost always "messy" in a variety of practical ways. The church where I am an elder has put a lot of energy into reaching out to those who are not yet Christians. By the grace of God, many non-Christians are responding and finding new faith in Jesus Christ. But the process of helping our friends make the journey from a sinful nature toward a godly nature is not without its bumps along the way. Our church was reminded of the messy aspect of reaching non-Christians at our recent Thanksgiving Eve service. We had a large crowd for the worship service and about half the crowd were teenagers who we have reached through our youth ministry. Though the bulk of the teens were very focused on what the Spirit was saying to the group, a small group of young men were sitting over to the side of the sanctuary and were talking during the entire service. Two of the ladies who have strong friendships with the group had already gone over and attempted to quiet them, but the boys did not comply with their request. Though I was sitting on the platform, another man was preaching, so I was watching the entire affair. About half way through the sermon they got so loud that it was becoming difficult to pay attention to the young man who was preaching. I left the platform and made my way over to where they were sitting. It was my intention to send the "leader of the pack" to a different seat and then sit with the rest of the group for the remainder of the service. Needless to say, my plan did not work out so well. The leader of the pack, whom we have had difficulty with before, decided to make a scene. He said a few obscene words. At that point I called for the deacons to come and they escorted him out of the building. I wish I could say the situation ended there, but it did not. The young man became even more belligerent in the parking lot and the deacons regretfully had to call the police to come and help resolve the situation. I suppose I should point out that this is the fourth time in two years that the police have had to come to our building to assist us in situations involving difficult people. Like I said, reaching out to non-Christians is messy. I understand why most churches don't bother to do it. But if churches are not willing to get their hands dirty and reach out to people with problems, then who will help non-Christians find Jesus?
I did not go home with an uplifted spirit that night, but I did go home with an even firmer commitment to reach out to the lost. I don't know if we will ever reach that particular young man or not, but there are many other young men just like him whose hearts are not yet hardened to the Gospel. Those are the kind of people Jesus would be reaching out to, and so we must walk with Jesus in this journey, even though it is often painful and messy. We must avoid the temptation to do it the "easy" way and just reach out to the religious elite who already think they have it all together. We must continue to be a spiritual hospital reaching out to the spiritually sick. I am thankful that the Great Physician is the leader of our church, for He can heal those who are sick. I commit myself afresh and anew to do what I can to assist Him in His great work.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Important Thoughts About Baptism

Baptism has been a key component of the Christian faith since Jesus Himself walked into the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus was baptized to set an example for us and to bring glory to His Father. We know from the Scriptures that God the Father was pleased with Jesus when He was baptized.

There are many different ideas of what baptism means and when a person should experience this wonderful spiritual moment. According to the New Testament, baptism is the way that Christians publicly proclaim their faith in Christ. In the New Testament people were not baptized until they were old enough to make the decision for themselves and they were always baptized by being immersed or dipped completely under the water.

Baptism is a picture of how Christ died for us, was buried for us, and rose again for us. When we stand in the water we are saying that we are taking our stand for Christ. As we are dipped under the water it symbolizes us "dying and being buried" to our old way of life and when we come up out of the water it symbolizes how we are raised to "new life" through our faith in Christ.

Baptism does not save us from hell, instead it does show the world that we have already been saved from our sin and received new life in Christ. The New Testament makes it very clear that every person who has trusted Jesus as their Savior and made a commitment to follow Him should be baptized after making that decision. Obviously, if a person has never been baptized at all, then it makes sense that they would be baptized after they make a sincere commitment to Christ. If we realize we are in this category, we should pray about getting baptized out of obedience and devotion to Christ. It will enhance our connection to God and improve our personal spirituality.

Sometimes parents have their infant children baptized before they are old enough to understand what it was all about. While that is a very lovely ceremony to watch, we cannot find any examples in the Bible of an infant or small child being baptized. There are some examples in the Bible of children being "dedicated" to the Lord and that is definitely appropriate for parents to do for their children, but we should not confuse a baby dedication with the rite of baptism.

When people who were baptized by their well meaning parents make their own choice to become Christians, they should get re-baptized as a testimony of their own faith. It does not mean they didn't appreciate what their parents did for them, nor does it undo their previous baptism, it simply means that now they are making this decision for themselves.

Parents should rejoice when our children come to a place of committed faith in Christ. Parents should support our children in making their own faith decision, even if it means they want to get re-baptized as a symbol of their personal faith in Christ. One reason that it is important for parents to show this support is because children who were baptized at their parents request when they were infants might decide to drop out of church altogether when they are older if they feel forced by their parents to be a part of a church that really does not meet their needs. It is better to have our children be active in a Christian church of a different denomination than to be inactive in a church that the parents had them baptized in as an infant. Though this is a difficult thing for parents to work through, our child's spiritual health is at stake. If you have a teenager or young adult child or grandchild and they express interest in being baptized, please encourage them to follow through on this important spiritual experience. Even if they were baptized when they were an infant or small child, don't discourage them from making their own choice to be baptized. This is a very special moment in their lives and they deserve encouragement and support, not discouragement and judgment.

In many churches when a person is baptized, they automatically become part of that church or denomination. While there are a number of scriptures in the New Testament that do seem to link baptism and church membership, there are also many that separate these two issues. For example, the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 came to personal faith in Christ and was baptized in the middle of the desert. There was literally no church for him to join. Philip baptized him anyway, resulting in him being a baptized Christian but not a member of any particular church. He most likely became part of a church at some future date, but not at the moment of his baptism. This passage indicates that baptism and church membership are NOT automatically connected. Please understand; I am not against church membership. It is very important for people to make a commitment to a specific church so they can serve the Lord with their spiritual gifts and be accountable to the Biblical authority of that church. But the Bible does not teach that baptism and church membership should be as closely connected as many churches have made them. There are going to be people who get baptized as an expression of their faith in Christ but will not join a specific church until later. Churches must learn to accept the reality of this.

If the link between baptism and church membership has been keeping us from obeying the Lord's command to be baptized, then we must prayerfully consider the Biblical teaching on these two issues do not have to be automatically connected. We should seek baptism as soon as possible after salvation. It was clearly commanded by Jesus. Then we should prayerfully seek a church we can join that helps us grow in our faith. It may indeed be the same church that we were baptized in, but it may not be. The goal is to grow in faith, not just add our name to a church membership role.

There is something powerful about being baptized. It gives us a sense of spiritual cleansing. It makes us feel close to God. It is also a step of obedience to God, since He is the one who told us to do it once we had trusted His Son as our Savior. If we have not been baptized at all, we should do it as soon as we can. If we were baptized as an infant but it had no real meaning to us, then we should consider being re-baptized as our own expression of faith in Jesus Christ.

Monday, November 16, 2009

If the North American Church is in Trouble, No One Sent Young People the Memo

My church planting ministry takes me to many places not only in my beloved adopted state of Vermont but across the nation as I recruit church planters, sponsoring churches and raise prayer and financial supporters for these new church plants. In my travels I attend a lot of meetings where it is common to hear people complain how few young adults they have in their congregations. The 18-24 year old age group in particular seems to be missing in many churches. If you listen to what is said in these meetings, it would be easy to believe that the North American church is in trouble and may even cease to exist in another 25 years. But I find myself asking if all this "doom and gloom" is an accurate portrayal of the "big picture" or just the reactionary comments of people who have lost touch with young adults.

In my own interactions with young adults, I find them very interested in spiritual things. They seem eager to experience the reality of God. They are interested in investing time, energy and effort in making the world a better place through a practical expression of their faith. The church where I am an elder is reaching many teenagers and a growing number of young adults for Christ and from our perspective, the future looks bright for the church. But much of what we have done in our own church was more of an "accident" than intentional. I have been looking for some models where churches set out intentionally to make a significant impact in the lives of young adults.

Recently I was blessed to attend Midtown Fellowship in Columbia, SC. This four year old congregation has several hundred young adults who attend one of five services each Sunday. As a 42 year old, I was clearly one of the "old people" in the group. I watched as college students and young professionals worshipped God with passion. While their music was much more energetic than most churches, the focus of the music was on Jesus, not entertainment. I was amazed at how forcibly the congregation was challenged in a biblically based sermon to grasp God's concepts of stewardship and what that meant in the lives of those present. The preacher may have been dressed in blue jeans, but the sermon was not some watered down version of the Gospel, it was a radical call to live like Jesus. After the worship service, several of the staff members took time to go to dinner with me and share what drew them to be a part of this exciting venture. One thing that really drew them was the ability to actually serve the Lord in a key leadership role as a young adult. One young man said, "I'm 25 and my wife is 24 and we wanted to be part of leading ministries to others. That was just not acceptable in most churches, but at Midtown they let us use our gifts in a huge variety of ways." Another young man said that what drew him to the church was the sense of "family." He had attended a very traditional church while growing up that went through a painful three way split when he was in high school. He felt that if people in that congregation had actually known each other, loved each other, and treated each other like family, then the split would not have happened. Midtown has created that family atmosphere. What I took away from that dinner discussion is that two keys to reaching young adults are allowing them to serve in leadership roles and creating a family atmosphere in the church. WOW, that sounds easy!

While the people at Midtown clearly enjoy their faith and have a lot of fun being together as family, everything is not fun and games at Midtown. They shared, with much difficulty, how painful it was to exercise church discipline on a couple who had been part of the core group and how hard it was to have 20 people leave their new mission as a result. But they agreed that their church was stronger today because of their commitment to make it clear that they actually expect their members to live according to biblical principles. That is a concept that many older traditional churches may need to consider.

What blessed me most about this group is that they are not just starting a church for their own enjoyment. They are a church planting church and have multiple interns in the congregation who they are sending out to start new churches in other places. These are young, Spirit filled, biblically based followers of Jesus who are absolutely convinced that God has called them to use their gifts and abilities to change the world with the Gospel. And I believe they can do it. If the North American church is really in trouble, clearly someone forgot to send the young adults at Midtown the memo!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Godwink Experience

Recently I was talking with a friend who is an agnostic about how I know for sure there is a God. Though he is still young, he is widely read and quite articulate about his agnostic faith. Though I could have given him a long list of Bible verses for why I believe in God that would have been pointless since he does not accept the Bible as truth. Therefore I shared with him some experiences that I have had in my life that proved to me that God is real.
I had my first supernatural experience when I was in the 8th grade. The church that I attended at the time did not believe that God did those things any more so I was left to sort out the experience on my own. As the years have gone by, I have had numerous experiences that can only be described as supernatural. One example is what I call the Green Bean Miracle. When I was a young father my daughter pulled a pot of boiling green beans off the stove. She should have been horribly burned. The green beans were in a circle around her body, with hot boiling water running all over the floor around her. But not a drop of boiling water or a speck of hot green bean was on her. It was a miracle. It is scientifically impossible for such a thing to happen, and yet it did. The Green Bean miracle is not based on faith because the miracle is a FACT. It actually happened. It was a real experience. I could make a list of similar experiences that have happened to me during my life just like the Green Bean miracle that proves to me that God is real. But to be honest, I don't need multiple experiences, because just ONE would have been enough. Each time I have another such experience; it just reinforces the FACT of God's existence in my mind.
Such experiences are actually quite common in our society. I asked a group of teenagers who attend the youth group at our church if they had any such experiences. Most of the teenagers in the group did not grow up in Christian homes and very few of them would be able to articulate their faith using theological terms. Yet, one by one they went around the room and shared stories of brain tumors shrinking, marriages being put back together, victory over various addictions, as well as a variety of physical healings. Though some of those teenagers have not yet made a commitment to become a Christian, the vast majority did believe there was a God because of the FACTS of their experiences.
I was pleasantly surprised to recently hear that a man named Squire Rushnell has written a book called "When God Winks." This book is filled with stories of these kinds of experiences which Rushnell has gathered from all over America. He calls these experiences "Godwinks." I like that term. Rushnell believes that when we have an experience that can only be described as supernatural, it is actually God winking at us to remind us that He is there and that He is involved in our lives. Rushnell is not some half crazy television preacher trying to make a quick buck off of naïve old ladies. He is a veteran ABC network television executive. Under his leadership the program "Good Morning America" rose to number one in its time slot and its ratings increased by 140%. He was also the person who developed the acclaimed Schoolhouse Rock series and the ABC After School Specials, which earned 75 Emmy Awards during his career. He left that lucrative and powerful career to travel the nation sharing how we can know for sure that God is real. You can order his book and read more about his life at his website:
Perhaps it is time for all the skeptics among us to stop using the "I can't just take it on faith" argument and instead start looking at the FACTS of both God's existence and His involvement in our lives. If God has winked at YOU lately, leave a brief description of your experience in the comment section below. I will rejoice to read your story of your belief in God is based on the facts of your experience with Him.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dishonest Skeptics

Over the course of the last two years I have had many opportunities to discuss spiritual matters with young people. I find most of them open to learning about spiritual issues and have learned many things myself from these discussions. Though we do not always agree with each other's theology or conclusions, most of the young adults I engage in conversation with enter into the discussion with the honest intention of having an open mind, and I try to do the same.

But occasionally I encounter what my friend Adrian Despres refers to as a "dishonest skeptic." These are people who claim to be looking for truth but actually have already made up their minds about whatever it is they believe in. They are not really interested in learning the truth; they simply want to argue with anyone who will listen. Perhaps they like the attention or perhaps they think they will win people to their cause through their aggressive actions. Adrian calls them dishonest skeptics because they have lied to themselves about being open minded. Dishonest skeptics are narrow minded and have closed themselves to learning and growing. They frequently accuse Christians of ignoring the facts, yet when Christians show them the facts, dishonest skeptics choose to ignore them. It is clearly a hypocritical position for them to take, but they feel self justified in taking it. It is clearly a judgmental position for them to take, but they feel justified in taking it.

One reason it can be frustrating to talk to people like this is because they tend to change the rules mid-conversation. For example, they may say they cannot accept the Bible as truth for a certain reason, but when you show them a logical way to resolve that particular conflict, instead of accepting the logical reason, they discard the logic you showed them and simply come up with another reason for not accepting the Bible. And if you show them the answer to that objection, they just come up with yet another reason. The reality is that they have already decided they are not going to accept the Bible as truth and no amount of logical discussion will convince them. Whether the Bible is true or not is just one example of the many issues about spirituality that dishonest skeptics have closed their minds to learning about.

Though I encounter dishonest skeptics of all ages, in my experience they are most often young adults with little experience in life and often incomplete college educations. They should be at a point in their lives when they are learning new things and expanding their understanding of the how the world works. Regrettably, they think they already know it all. As frustrating as it can be to engage dishonest skeptics, it is something that Christian leaders must remain committed to for the sake of the Gospel.