Spiritual Theater or a Spiritual Gym

Iwarfare.1up.qxdJohn 6:26-28 MSG Jesus answered, “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free. (27) “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.” (28) To that they said, “Well, what do we do then to get in on God’s works?”(29) Jesus said, “Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent. That kind of a commitment gets you in on God’s works.”

Eventhough Jesus cared for people, healed them, and fed them He was never big on leaving them in some sort of consumer relationship.  The kind of authentic Christian life Jesus sacrificed to bring into existence is not living as a finicky spiritual consumer picking and choosing the best God deal at the lowest cost. It really is living a life consumed by Him (a people for His own possession).  Titus 2:13-14  looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus,  (14)  who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.

Not long ago the wife of popular leader stood in front of their large congregation on a Sunday morning and sent shock waves of controversy with a statement she made about serving God.

“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy. So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?” (The congregation applauds.)

It triggered quite a bit of debate about this mentality that critics referred to as a propagation of cheap me centered Christianity. Even at the time the story was breaking it was hard to rectify God’s main goal of “God wants you to be happy because when you are happy that what makes God happy” with other headlines about Christians being martyred in Iraq and Syria.  Those losing their lives obviously didn’t get the message from the leader’s wife about God’s goal of happiness.   

Is church to be like a movie theater or a gym?

These types of issues bring up the whole idea of consumer Christianity versus the call to gym“make disciples (those who lay down their lives for His sake in order to follow Him) who obey everything Jesus commanded” (Mt 28:18-19).  When the goal of the Gospel and the church is about making us happy then “going to church” becomes more like going to the movies rather than going to the gym.  Why do we go to the movies?  Primarily to be entertained.  They even have movies that offer more entertainment and comfort with reclining chairs and bottomless appetizers.  You go there to watch with the goal of being entertained and happy.

We were never called to be watching stones but living stones actively working to see His house become what He intends her to be       1 Peter 2:1-4.

The gym on the other hand has different goals.  Ultimately happiness is part of those goals but it is a happiness that comes from becoming healthy.  You go there to be active, not to watch.  You sacrifice, sweat, and become uncomfortable, but those sacrifices ultimately cause health which in the end truly satisfies.

The most important issue for disciples is that they become like Jesus which leads to eternal happiness beginning now.  There is an exercising of faith that is part of the process.  In becoming like Jesus there is often a denial of selfish interest for a greater purpose, being with Him, and becoming like Him.  Paul says that was a main aim in Jesus’ death.   

2 Corinthians 5:14-17   For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died;  (15)  and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf…(17)  Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.

When churches appeal to consumer instincts in the way they practice church it sends mixed messages.  The highest good is being happy.  Following anything that would make us happy is never to be questioned. They can say God wants us to be like Jesus but the subtle message is only if you feel like it, it makes you happy, and it requires no self denial. This can present a relationship with Jesus that is really more of a no-obligation relationship.  You can have a relationship with Jesus as long as you feel like it … and if not, that’s totally okay. Come and go as you wish.

I remember a marketing campaign for multiple services that a church put forth in advertising it’s services, “Because Christians should have choices.”  I have seen other churches over the years launch marketing campaigns for their openings with letters, phone calls, and post cards appealing to this same consumerist nature. These things can be good in getting the word out about a new church.  The problem comes with the subtle but often clear message, we will give you what you want.  One church offered, “energetic music with fresh hot Starbucks coffee waiting for you at the front door!”

God’s purpose through Christ isn’t about Christians as consumers getting what they want.  It is about God’s design and getting what we need that should reign supreme.

Consumerism turns the God of mercy into a god at our mercy who lives to satisfy our wants and desires.

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Trendy or Transcendent?

Christianity liteWe are called to advance God’s Kingdom.  We must identify the spirits of the age lest we become immersed in the culture and end up advance its agenda in the name of Christianity.   We are called to impact the culture not be impacted by it.  If we don’t see this distinction we will offer a form of “Christianity lite” in which we promote culture with a watered down version of Jesus.  If we are simply reflecting culture what is the point of our mission?

We are not called to offer a Christian version of culture to entertain people and get them to consume a cultural Christ.

We have already been discipled by culture as we grow up.  How about discipling the culture by the Kingdom and power of God? 

Salt and Light is Transcendent 

Mat 5:13-16 MKJV You are the salt of the earth,…(14) You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden… (16) Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven.

God’s call upon His people revealed throughout the Bible can be summed up with the phrase, “God’s family of Spirit filled disciples together on God’s mission.”  A central feature of this call is being salt and light.  The idea of salt and light has to do with our contact and influence on the world. In Biblical times salt made an impact by being directly applied on something, like meat, in order to slow down the deterioration process. Salt had a way of impacting and preserving.

The idea of light, as a city set on a hill, spoke of the distinct culture that gave testimony of a different way of living (God’s way). In our case it is the culture of heaven (as revealed through God’s word) demonstrated through the church. In that day cities were places of distinct culture and life. In our day as individuals walk among God’s community there is encouragement and reinforcement of His ways.  This helps all of us stay on track with God and provides a collective witness of Heaven’s culture lived out on earth.

Trendiness without Transcendence

In an effort to be both salt (able to be rubbed on unbelieving humanity) and light the ideacool Jesus of trendiness comes up. A while back I read of a church in England that unveiled a bronze statue dubbed “Jesus in jeans” depicting Christ as a man of the 21st century. One of the local leaders was quoted as saying, “You are always looking for new ways to enrich people in the experience of Christianity and it is good people can be open-minded to appreciate it.” The good side of this argument is portraying Jesus and Christianity as relevant to the 21st century. Obviously if Jesus walked the earth in physical form today He would probably wear blue jeans at some point. This is part of the idea of incarnation which is God coming in the form of common man.

One thing we must be careful of however,  is that we chase the idea of being trendy while neglecting the real impact of Jesus and the power of God which leads to transcendence. Many churches and Christians seem to always look for the newest, coolest, most trendy approach that comes out. This is great and important as long as we do not lose sight of the real foundation of Christ and Christianity that affects culture summed up with the idea of transcendence.

The salt and light are in the alternative life that is only in Jesus.  The transcendence is the powerful changes Jesus makes in the lives of people that have no earthy explanation.

It is the alternative way of living that originates and is sustained by the power of God. It is the change Jesus makes in every area of our lives. This has both the quality of salt and light in it.

Example of Transcendence in the Early Church

We can be trendy but not transcendent. All through the history of the church the thing that made impact was the transcendent lives that real Christians lived. Unbelievers noticed the changes, not by their cool clothes or trendy style, but by their changed lives.   There was an early letter written sometime around the year 100-150 AD called the letter to Diognetus who was a well respected pagan. It extolled the virtues of Christianity over paganism. In it you see that the thing that caused Christians to make great impact was their transcendent lives. Here is the letter.

If there is no transcendence among God’s people that demonstrates an alternative way of living by the power of God then we are just offering dead religion in contemporary clothes.

 “Christians are indistinguishable (cannot be distinguished) from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries (invented by the ingenuity or speculation of men) inspired by the curiosity of men.

Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine (nor do they advocate mere book learning). With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is  Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them (practice infanticide). They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated.

 A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As  the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures.

Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments. Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the

Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.”

You can see that the world wasn’t impressed by Christian’s trendiness or contemporary “coolness.” It was the alternative way of live they lived out before an unbelieving world. Obviously this is why they were so persecuted in the first three centuries and also why they made such an impact as salt and light.

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Worth the Fight #3: Narcissistic or Kingdom Advancing Relationships

Everything exists for me

Everything exists for me

Author Rodney Clapp wrote, A noted western Philosopher introduced to the world in 1926 was one day sitting on a log when he heard a buzzing sound.  He was puzzled and fell to pondering.  As his leading chronicler remembers the event he reasoned along the following lines.  “If there is a buzzing noise somebody is making a buzzing noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing noise that I know of is because you’re a bee says the Poo.  Then he thought another long time and said, “And the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey.  And then he got up and said, “And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.” 

Unfortunately Winnie the Poo’s attitude reflects how mankind often approaches their lives. Like Pooh they see “the only reason” things exist is for our personal likes, desires, and consumption.  It is a reflection of a narcissistic approach to life that is all too common today.

Narcissism is based on the Greek myth of Narcissus, the proud young man who saw his reflection in a pool and fell in love with it.  Narcissus was unable to break away from his own gaze, and eventually died by the side of the pool.  The psychological definition of Narcissism is an egotistical preoccupation with self, personal preferences, aspirations, needs, success, and how he/she is perceived by others.   

This is what the Bible calls “pride” which is the opposite of humility. C. S. Lewis aptly described humility as, “not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

Pride and narcissism are bad in any arena but especially among the people of God. It will result in taking precious truths of the design of God and making them about our glory instead of His.  We can do this with something as important to our lives as relationships with God and others.  This is why Jesus was so clear in His calls to follow Him in which He clearly puts “self” in a secondary/denied place.  

Luk 9:23-24  And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.  (24)  “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it (MSG Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self).

Mark 8:34-35  “If anyone wishes to come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s shall save it (See also: Matthew 10:39,  Luke 17:32-33, Matthew 16:24-25, Mar 10:21, Luk 18:22, Luk 14:33).   

In the church world “relationships” or “fellowship” conjures up images such as sitting around a living room, eating refreshments, talking about life, enjoying each other’s company, and doing fun things together.   Being around people who are interested in our life is a very appealing.   A good relational church can be imagined as a nice sheep pen in which the sheep are cozy with one another and the shepherds are constantly attending to their needs.  Even Biblical ideas such as “accountability” can be viewed narcissistically.

Accountability can be twisted to simply cause us to be a little more open and honest.  We may share more about our struggles and challenges if we know others have imperfections like we do but where does it lead us?  Instead of motivation to change it becomes almost therapeutically comforting to know we are all imperfect, and God loves us just they way we are.  What about growth, change and progress in pleasing Jesus? 

This type of relational life seems very safe, sanitized, tame, but also self serving. It can seem like a “nice” effort designed to produce “nice” people that feel better about themselves.  While these things have their place, if this is the extent of fellowship then we are missing something very important.  God joins people together for His purpose, not ours.  The church is not to be a narcissistic body consumed with itself.  It is a body designed for a purpose beyond itself. 

Eph 1:22-23  Msg…The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.

God isn’t about simply filling the confines of the church with cozy groups of fellowship.  He wants to fill the whole earth with people expressing His life.

Kingdom Relationships Should Stimulate Zeal for God

An important element that is often missing in “church relationships” is seen in Hebrews. Heb 10:23-25  Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful;  (24)  and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,  (25)  not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

The word “stimulate” one another is a very interesting word.  It is far from the safe and sanitized form of relationships.  The word “stimulate” means “incitement, provoke unto, contention.”  It means such things as “to call into action; to arouse; to excite; to provoke anger or wrath; to provoke war; to excite or challenge; to stir up or arouse.”  It means to incite to action with a zeal for God.

This isn’t a tame word!  There is an element of danger and forward action in it.  As the church goes forward and “fills everything with His presence,” darkness is destroyed.   It is the idea Jesus declared when He said in Matthew 16 “I will build my church and the gates of hell can’t stop its forward advance.”   When our relationships stimulate us to go forward, the fire of God moves through us to destroy the works of the enemy in every square inch of our lives and God’s earth.

The prophet Zechariah spoke of these types of relationships among God’s people.  Zec 12:5-6 “Then the clans (social units) of Judah will say in their hearts, ‘A strong support for us are the inhabitants of Jerusalem through the LORD of hosts, their God.’  6  “In that day I will make the clans of Judah like a firepot among pieces of wood and a flaming torch among sheaves, so they will consume on the right hand and on the left all the surrounding peoples, while the inhabitants of Jerusalem again dwell on their own sites in Jerusalem. 

Like Samson, Jesus gathers His people around His fire

Like Samson, Jesus gathers His people around His fire

A great Old Testament story that depicts these types of relationships comes from Samson.  Their enemy, the Philistines, had planted crops on God’s land.  Samson, who was a judge God raised up to deliver His people and advance His purpose, did something very interesting.  He caught 300 foxes, put a torch between every pair of them, and tied their tails to that torch.  He then set the torch on fire and sent each pair throughout the enemy’s crops.  This resulted in the crops that the enemy had planted to be burnt down.

Jdg 15:4-5 NASB  Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took torches, and turned the foxes tail to tail and put one torch in the middle between two tails.  5  When he had set fire to the torches, he released the foxes into the standing grain of the Philistines, thus burning up both the shocks and the standing grain, along with the vineyards and groves.

What a story to show us what this type of Biblical fellowship is like!  God’s sets His fire (Holy Spirit) among us, and ties us together with Him and each other.  If we are on fire for God as we move out, “two by two,” we end up spreading a fire that destroys the work of the enemy.  This is what Peter and John did when they went together to pray in the temple.  They encountered a beggar and out of the Spirit filled fire among them they prayed for him and he was healed.

Our relationships should “stimulate” us to action and Kingdom advancement.  They should work to light the torch of the Spirit among us.  They should produce a zeal for God and change in us. These type of relationships destroy the enemies crops in our lives and in the lives of others.   This is far from sitting around a living room having coffee and therapeutically focusing on ourselves.    Let us seek the type of relationships that “stimulate one another” by the fire of God to overcome the work of the enemy.   

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