It was the type of opportunity about which one can only dream and pray to come to pass. A group of exchange students from more than two dozen countries visited Northland Church in order to have a 90 minute presentation and Q&A about Christianity and Jesus. They came as part of a program, supported by The State Department, with the intent of encouraging dialogue that leads to mutual respect and a lowering of tensions around the world.
There were a few things I hoped to accomplish with my time. One was to help them understand that what tolerance really means is that I respect you as someone made in the image of God and treat you with dignity, even if I disagree passionately with what you think. In the past there was a common cultural ethic that said, treat one another with respect, engage people with different ideas, debate those ideas, and seek truth in the process. The current understanding of tolerance says, you cannot tell anyone that your ideas are right and theirs are wrong. But the end result of that new tolerance is to not pursue truth and disrespect and marginalize anyone who claims their ideas right and others wrong. We need to get back to a place where we can say what we think, agree and disagree with others, respect them as people, and never attack the person, only the ideas.
Second, in light of that understanding of tolerance, here is what I believe about Jesus, why I follow Him, and why I think He is the only way to Heaven. It was a delight to hear the questions that students asked regarding Jesus, why I thought He was the only way to Heaven, what place I thought Mohammed had in God’s plan, the Bible vs the Quran, and a host of other questions. Even though my answers clearly showed that I disagreed with much that Islam teaches, they loved the open yet respectful honesty of the answers.
Third, in the midst of our dialogue, questions and answers, I wanted them to see in real life the tolerance I just told them about, so they could actually experience someone who disagreed with them yet loved them. You see it is one thing to talk about tolerance and respect and dignity, but it is another thing altogether to demonstrate that in the real life tussle of questions and answers over difficult topics that are passionately embraced.
Not only is this type of understanding and tolerance needed between Muslims and Christians, it is even more needed among Christians of various stripes and theologies. We can’t really expect to engage, in a respectful Christ-like way, people who do not follow Christ, if we are unable to do it with people who identify themselves as Christ-followers.
In recent weeks my quiet time of prayer and Bible reading has included an in-depth study of Paul’s 1st and 2nd Letters to the Thessalonians. As Paul writes to the young Christians in that Greek city he makes a curious and profound statement in chapter 2 verse 8, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us”. This verse strikes me as the perfect balance in an ongoing debate over the relationship between evangelism that focuses on speaking and preaching the Gospel and that which focuses on serving people at their point of need.
Why is it that so many of us in the Christian community are unable to hold things in tension and balance. We so quickly go to extremes. We want to make so much of following Jesus into an either or proposition when much of following Jesus is “both/and”. We have been doing that when it comes to preaching the Gospel or living the Gospel and doing so for generations. This is not an either or proposition.
Clearly Paul preached the Gospel. He verbally shared that wherever he went. He lived out what he says in Romans 10:14“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” We cannot get caught in the serious error that downplays the necessity of people actually hearing the truth of Jesus. The famous quote attributed to St Francis, “At all times preach the Gospel, when necessary use words”, may have been a great corrective for those who only used words, but to somehow use that to make preaching the words of the Gospel into a last resort tactic, is wrong-headed in the extreme. Paul makes it clear, we must, absolutely must, tell people the Good News that Jesus came and died and rose again so that by trusting and following Him as Lord we can have eternal life. That is non-negotiable.
Yet just as clearly Paul believed it was not enough to only preach the Gospel verbally. He was compelled to share his very self, his life, with the Thessalonians. The way that played out was that Paul served them, loved them, lived with them as a brother. He was open, transparent, and vulnerable. As a result his life became another way to demonstrate the Gospel. When that life was coupled with the preached Word, then you had a powerful testimony to Jesus Christ.
It shouldn’t be at all surprising that our message is to come in the form of BOTH the spoken, preached Word, AND the shared life of Christ followers. The is exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t send a message from on high, a voice coming out of the clouds, with the truth of trusting in Him. He actually came into the world and shared in our lives. It is what the incarnation is all about. Jesus came into the world and took on flesh, He lived among us, shared our joys, griefs, temptations, and victories. He became like us in all things with the exception of succumbing to sin. Jesus lived a both/and life. He spoke the Gospel and He shared His life.
For some of us the speaking part is easy, the sharing life is hard. For others the sharing life is easy but the speaking part is hard. Let me propose that followers of Christ embrace both in their lives. We must, absolutely must develop a culture in which we both speak the truths of the Gospel, hard as they may be, and share our lives with those around us, both those following Jesus already and those not yet, as hard as that may be.
The result of people like Paul sharing their very lives and speaking the truth of the Gospel was that the early church became of community of people who did the same. As they did so, others on the outside of the community wanted to be included on the inside. Some wanted in because they resonated with the preached word. Others wanted in because they resonated with the love they received. Some wanted in for both.
Are you more a speaker than a life sharer? Is it the other way around? What do you need to do to become better and speaking the Gospel? What do you need to do to become better at sharing the Gospel through sharing your very life?
Just days before we boarded a plane for South Sudan, another fight broke out along the boarder between Sudan and South Sudan. Three days and five flights later we arrived in Malakal, a boarder town that just a few months ago witnessed two days of street fighting between rebel infiltrators from the north and South Sudanese militia. It was just one more of countless such battles that have taken place during the decades long civil war that ended with independence for South Sudan in July of 2011. The war, which claimed more that 2 million lives, has officially ended, but the fighting has not. In fact Sudanese President Bashir has recently declared that he intends to retake South Sudan and incorporate it back into Sudan. I have no doubt that the South Sudanese will resist that prospect with all they have. The latest round of fighting was set off when Sudanese planes bombed a town in South Sudan. The south retaliated and actually captured Heglig, a town in Sudan’s oil fields. Since then the sabers have been rattling overtime. Security in Malakal is a constant concern as I learned when I opened the door of the SUV we were to ride in and found that I was literally riding shotgun. An AK-47 was placed between my seat that the middle arm rest. A bullet hole was in the windshield in front of me at forehead level.
The root of the problem in Sudan and South Sudan is that Bashir has declared that Islamic Sharia law is to be imposed on all Sudan. He originally was content to let the Christian south secede so that he had little or no interference with his plan. It seems he hoped to also drive out Christians from Sudan and force them to move to South Sudan. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Christians remained in the north and continued to live out their Christian faith and witness. Despite threats, loss of jobs, destruction of homes, and numerous other hardships, they remain. Not only do they remain, but their service and love of their Muslim neighbors has resulted in continual conversions from Islam to Jesus. So Bashir’s latest statement is that the conflict will end either in Jubba, the capitol of South Sudan or in Khartoum, the capitol of Sudan. His meaning is clear. One country or the other will have to conquer and impose it’s will militarily.
For three days in Malakal, Pastor Gus Davies, John Tardonia, Alan Carpenter, and I had the blessed honor of working with some of the most courageous and gracious people I have ever met. I have been to numerous countries over the last several years and encountered people in all sorts of situations. Never have a met a group of people who have endured so much, for so long, with such grace, courage, and even joy. The pastors and leaders that we are working with in Sudan and South Sudan have known nothing but war for their entire lives. They all know people, including family members, who are among the 2 million dead. Yet, they see nothing but opportunities to love their neighbors and their enemies. Often those two groups, neighbor and enemy, are one and the same. It seems that they view this fact as being convenient. Instead of needing to love a neighbor and an enemy, they get to love both in one person, half the effort.
Not only is the war part of daily life, but so is poverty, sickness, and deprivations that we in the west would find shocking. Consider two numbers. First, 95% of South Sudanese will never finish primary school, or what we in American call elementary school. Second, 50 out of every 1,000 women giving birth will die doing so. One person told us, “If you are sick and go to the hospital you will die. If you are healthy and go to the hospital, you will get sick and then you will die”. Yet as these wonderful people speak of the hardships in their lives they do so with a smile as they talk about all the doors such hardship opens for sharing the Gospel and loving the needy. They don’t seem to knotice that they are among the needy.
At Northland Church we talk about the Church Distributed. By that we mean, every follower of Christ takes the church with them, everywhere, everyday, and that a gathering of two or three people in Jesus name is the church gathered. You don’t need buildings to love and serve people for Jesus and you can start churches anywhere, in a home, a business, under a tree. In Malakal we completed the second level of Distributed Church training for 74 pastors and leaders. In the 5 months since they attended Level 1, nearly 1,000 people have come to faith in Christ because of their efforts, and churches are being started in homes and numerous other locations. Among the trainees were fourteen from Sudan. At the end of the training we gathering them together to pray for them as they were returning north to an uncertain future. There was no fear, anxiety, or consternation in any of them, only the anticipatory joy of heading back into the lions den in order to conquer the lion with the love of Christ. One of them told me of being threatened with his life on numerous occasions. With a laugh he told me that his response is always the same, “I say to them, if you kill me I just get to go and be with Jesus in heaven that much more quickly”. I know that he says it with all sincerity and with a joyous smile on his face. The response is always the same. They either walk away or get this puzzled look on their face which opens the door to talking about the Jesus he loves so deeply.
During the time in Malakal we also met with the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese, the Anglian Bishop, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Sudan and the Minister of Health for Upper Nile State. Each of them demonstrated the same courage, faith, and joy that had become so common in our time there. All four are desperate for us to work with them in changing the culture of South Sudan. From training their pastors, of the 475 Presbyterian pastors less that 40% are trained, to providing medical care and clean water, the doors are wide open for ministry that will glorify God and change lives.
Since returning to Florida several people have asked if we were frightened to be there. The fighting going on was about 100 miles from Malakal. Pastor Gus and I have spoken often on this subject and the conclusion is always the same. When you know that God wants you to be someplace, then the safest place you can be is in that place. The most dangerous place you can be is someplace, anyplace, else. That doesn’t mean there is no danger. Things could go badly, quickly. But that is where one must trust that the Lord of the Universe, who called you to that place, has a better perspective than you do. Additionally, the South Sudanese are not nameless, anonymous people. The pastors we trained are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are family. Our being there, if only for a few days, was a huge encouragement to them. They were reminded that they were not alone, that Christians from as far away as Florida were standing with them in the furtherance of the Gospel and the changing of the world. How could we possibly stay home in our comfort, knowing that family needs us? Putting up with a few days of no running water, 100+ temperatures with no A/C, and bed bugs that made my hands look like I stuck them in a fire ant mound, was not even worth fretting over if it meant being able to witness the grace and courage of these amazing saints.
Pray for them. Pray for Sudan and South Sudan. Pray that these pastors and leaders are able to change the culture and change their world. Pray that God will in deed supply all they need through the riches available in Christ Jesus our Lord. When you hear a news report or read a magazine article that mentions Sudan and South Sudan, don’t just gloss over it because it it over there, somewhere. Instead let that be the reminder that you too are connected with people there. Stop your reading if only for a moment and ask God to continue to bless them with grace and courage. While you are at it, ask Him to increase those things in your life too.
Matt 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
In a time of revolution and upheaval, and following possibly the most violent century on record, it seems almost laughable that there could possibly any real hope of bringing peace into the world. Yet Jesus seems to think that there are peacemakers and that they have some special relationship with God. So what is it that these peacemakers do and why such a special relationship with God?
The first thing we need to come to grips with is our understanding of peace. The definition we commonly accept, the absence of war, is woefully lacking in-depth and has little to no relationship to the Biblical understanding of peace. We have become so accustomed to wars, both global and local, that we have accepted the absence of bullets flying and rockets falling as somehow constituting peace. By such a definition the blessed peacemakers would be those who get the bullets and rockets to stop. When I was a child and through my teenage and early adult years, the United States and the Soviet Union were not shooting at each other. Yet there was no peace. We called that time, The Cold War. Nobody really felt that we were at peace. During elementary school we had regular drills on what to do in case of nuclear attack. Our neighbors actually built a bomb shelter in their back yard. It was not a time of peace.
The most commonly known biblical word for peace is the Hebrew word shalom. It means far more that just the absence of bullets and rockets. When you great someone with shalom you are pronouncing that you pray their world is one filled with the joys, blessings, and contentment that can only come with a right relationship with God. True peace is about healthy relationships of openness, trust, and love.
The ultimate blessing of Shalom is when you are at true peace with God. This is not a concept that is readily considered in our world. Most people seem to assume that since they are not in a fighting war with God that they must be at peace with God. After all, God would never be mad with us would He? Isn’t the idea of an angry God an ancient, superstition born out of ignorance? Not according to the Bible. Because of our sin we are literally at war with God. We fight against the reign of God in our lives. We worship anything but God. We act as if things are fine because we are not standing on the mountaintop shaking our fist at God and He is not hurling lightning bolts at us from the heavens. Yet the Bible says that “since we have been justified though faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” Romans 5:27 Prior to coming to faith in Christ we are not at peace with God. We were still God’s enemies. Yet out of His love for us, while we were still sinners, Jesus Christ died for us so that we can have true peace, peace with God as out Father.
So how does this fit with the blessed peacemakers of The Beatitudes? If you have peace with God you have something that you should be sharing with others. You become and ambassador for Christ. Consider what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God as reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God”
So the peacemakers are those who are giving their all to see that people are reconciled to God. Why are they called sons of God? Because they are following in the footsteps of the Eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was given the ultimate ministry of peacemaking on the cross. There is nothing more important that you can do for someone than to help them find ultimate peace with God through Christ. That doesn’t mean that efforts to stop the bullets and rockets are waisted. They are extremely important. But we should never settle for the lack of such things as being true peace. We humans are so very prone to accepting something that falls short of the God’s best design for us. We accept the good and fail to experience the great.
If you have been reconciled to Jesus, then you need to be a peacemaker and give yourself to the ministry of reconciling others to Him. If you have not been reconciled with God, the with Paul, I implore you to do so. You will never have ultimate peace in your life until you do.
Outreach Magazine deals with trends that are helping churches reach more people. Recently they did a feature article called “The New Virtual“. It’s about using technology so people can gather for worship and reach out to their community without attending a conventional church building. They interviewed me about what we are doing at Northland. This will give you a very good picture of how people can connect and worship together and still be thousands of miles apart. The whole idea of people being able to connect with one another and be part of a body of people yet never be in the same room is a bit radical for many folks. But purely from a theological standpoint, we know that followers of Christ are connected to one another by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. All the technology does is give us a way to communicate with each other and experience that connection.
I have traveled enough to have seen my share of Third World Poverty. From Swaziland, to the Amazon Basin, to India poverty has a somewhat familiar face. There is a difference between the rural and urban face of poverty but generally speaking when you see rural poverty in one country it looks a lot like rural poverty in another. The same can be said of urban poverty. Or so I thought. A few days ago I was introduced to rural poverty like I have never seen it before. The Western Province of Zambia is about the size of England yet has only a million people. Mongu is the largest town in the province with about 30,000 people. But don’t let the word “town” fool you. From what I could tell most of those 30,000 people live in grass huts no different from the rest of the province. Folks outside the town live in small grass hut villages ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred people.
It is estimated that in Western Zambia there is close to a 50% HIV/AIDS infection rate. Before the introduction of ARV’s or antiretroviral drugs, the infection rate was about 30%. So why the rise in infection rates? The ARV’s are helping people live longer. The tragedy in that is that lots of those folks are not changing their sexual habits and simply passing on the disease to more people. Included in that culture is what young girls go through after they experience their first menstruation. I small, closet sized straw enclosure is made outside the house. It has no roof and no door. It is a glorified walled fence with no door. it is built-in such a way that you can’t see directly in. The girls are placed their as the place where they now live and are forced to keep silent in order to learn submission. But every sex offending guy in the area knows this. So it is common for these young girls to be repeatedly raped and they must keep quiet the whole time. Not only do they suffer the trauma of that violation butit comes with the astronomically high risk of HIV infection.
As if it could not get more shocking, three out of five children in Western Zambia die before the age of five. So 60% of all children never see their fifth birthday. What do they die from? Well AIDs is a big factor but so are very preventable and basic things. Scores of children die from drinking water that is not clean. In little ones, the diarrhea that results is quickly followed by death. Also high on the list is death from malnutrition. Even though Zambia is a net exporter of agriculture, the western province has been shut out and ignored by the central government. There are almost no roads leading into the area. Roads the do exist are either crater filled dirt roads or subject to flooding several months out of the year. So because of tribal disagreements, apathy, and the lust for power, children die.
As painful as that reality may be, the most shocking reason for this mortality rate was that some children are killed by their own parents in obedience to the dictates of the local witch doctor or shaman. Friends who I stayed with told me of the horror of learning that a family just a hundred meters down the road killed their baby. The local witch doctor told them the baby was cursed and the needed to kill it. So they buried the child alive. By the time my friends heard this and rushed to save the baby, it was too late. Lest you think that is one, extreme, unique situation we heard similar stories on several occasions.
But there is hope. My friends, Paul and Marinette Van Coller are living in Mongu and leading an effort called The Zambia Project. Along with an amazing team of people, including their 5 and 3-year-old sons, the Van Collers are providing education, health care, job training, a safe house village for abused children and are taking the Gospel to all parts of the province. Their vision is to plant a church within walking distance of all 1 million people in the province. Walking distance for them is not what it is in the west. Six or seven kilometers or about an hours walk is their target. That means they are working towards planting 6,000 churches.
The reason for planting the churches is simple enough. The only way to break the hold of animism and witch doctors, and sexual abuse of kids, and provide clean water and dignity is if there is a healthy church that is serving people in Jesus name. These folks need the freedom and power that can only come from the Gospel.
The process is actually rather simple. A group of people, including Zambians who are being raised up for leadership will head off into the bush in four by fours. They will go to a village and live out of their vehicles for a week or two at a time, building relationships and talking about Jesus. Eventually some people come to faith and become the beginning of a church. The team then stays in contact and trains local leaders to begin the process of improving their lives in the village. Eventually those new believers duplicate the process in villages nearby. If that all sounds very “first century Book of Acts” to you, you’re right. It is exactly that.
What inspires me is that people like Paul and Marinette and James and Jess, Lehana, Moses, Stephen, Maurice, Scott and Naomi, and Ruani, have dedicated themselves to serve others as Jesus would. Some of them are from the province and they are struggling desperately to bring Jesus to their homeland. Others are from outside Zambia but they know that God would not let them ignore the needs of others. In the developed world we find it easy to insulate ourselves from the harsh realities faced by most people on the planet. Just by reading this blog you have allowed yourself to move out of your isolation and see the stark reality of life that is normal for others. The question is, will you slide back into your comfortable world in the next five minutes or will you allow what you have learned to change you into a different person? Will you live more simply so you can give to others? Will you give up your vacation in order to go and spend two weeks feeding babies or even planting churches in Zambia? Will you reach out to the homeless person you pass each day on the corner? Will you spend more time with Jesus so you can learn to love as He loves and tell others about Him?
Okay, it has been awhile since I have posted on what I consider to be a stupid move by Christians. Not that there hasn’t been any material to work from. But this one is over the top and I just had to say something before my head exploded. It is being reported in CNN that a Florida preacher is planning a burning of the Quran, the book considered holy scripture by Muslims. His hope is that this will have some evangelistic impact and cause Muslims to repent and follow Jesus. Are you kidding me?
Look I am all for trying to bring Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ. I am convinced that only by faith in Christ can one be assured of a place in heaven. So my objection to this burning of the Quran has nothing to do with thinking that every religion is as valid or true as the next. My objection is that this is as far from a biblical way to act as one can find and will in fact have the exact opposite effect. Far from causing any Muslim to reconsider his or her faith, this will only serve to alienate them further from the Gospel and will have that same impact on countless non-muslims who see this as one more angry Christian who is out of his mind.
Let’s look at this from a perspective that Jesus so clearly teaches, “love your neighbor as yourself”. Let’s suppose for a moment that this scenario is turned around. Instead of a Christian pastor burning the Quran to get Muslims to repent, it is a Muslim Imam burning a Bible to get Christians to convert to Islam. What do you think the reaction of Christians would be? Exactly! Many would be screaming about the horrors of Islam and how the Bible is our sacred book and that Muslims are just showing once again how evil they are. So why do we think that Christians burning the Quran will have any beneficial impact and cause people to want to follow Jesus?
It is far to easy to make an outrageous statement and burn a book for Jesus. What Jesus wold rather have is that we do the hard work of preaching and demonstrating the Gospel as He tells us to. The Bible says “speak the truth in love”. We don’t hold back from declaring that Jesus is the only way to heaven. But we do it as we serve people in need and as we weep over the fact that they are lost without Jesus. I mush prefer what Christians in Lebanon did a few years ago during a time of fighting between Muslims in Lebanon and the Israeli army. Instead of standing around and burning Quran’s and being excited that the Muslims where finally getting their due, the Christians sheltered and clothed and fed Muslims who had lost their homes or were simply fleeing the violence. When asked why they were doing this the Christians replied, “because Jesus said we are to love our neighbor and care for the hurting in our midst”.
You tell me, which kind of Christian would you rather be associated with? Whose Jesus would you rather follow?
A few days ago in central Florida, a five-year old boy went missing late in the afternoon. He was last seen chasing after a dog. Almost immediately hundreds of volunteers along with police and fire rescue personnel began searching for the boy. With darkness setting in it became an all out effort. Fortunately the boy was found safe and sound around midnight almost a mile from home. It was a wonderful ending to the type of story that often has a tragic ending.
The story got me thinking about Luke 15 and Jesus telling three parables about three lost things; a lost coin, a lost sheep, and ironically a lost son. In the story of the lost coin and lost sheep the owners of the lost items conduct and all out frantic search for them. When they are found the owners rejoice and dance and shout with incredible delight. When the lost son returns home, the father throws a party and pulls out all the stops in order to celebrate. Clearly the lost coin, sheep, and son are of immense value. Finding them meant the world to the people who had lost them. Just like the lost little boy in central Florida, no effort was spared because it was potentially a matter of life and death. No one would argue with that kind of laser focused effort or huge expense when life is on the line.
So that got me wondering. Why are we so lackadaisical when it comes to those who may be lost for eternity because they do not know Jesus Christ and are not following Him? I was especially touched by this on the heals of my recent trip to India. I had the honor of spending time with numerous Christians whose lives are dedicated to finding and rescuing lost people. They are living out their faith in the midst of hostile Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists and doing so all in the hope of bringing glory to Jesus by having others come to worship Him.
What a contrast that is to so many of us in the West. We have complete freedom to live out our faith and tell others about Jesus and yet seem so reluctant to do so. I wonder, would we be reluctant to help search for a five-year old who lives next door and went missing? Of course not. Then why are we so reluctant to reach out to those around us who are clearly “lost” from an eternal perspective? I have heard all the answers to this. “I don’t know what to say”. “I might get it wrong”. “Faith is such a private, personal thing”. The excuses go on and on.
I think the real reason is actually rather simple. We do not love Jesus or our neighbor nearly as much as we think we do. If we loved Jesus more, then we would be wanting to tell others about him with every fiber of our being. When you are first in love with someone, all the people around you know without a doubt that you are in love. You can’t help yourself talking about your beloved. You speak of their wonderful qualities and sing their praises to anyone with ears to hear. If we really loved Jesus that would be the same.
If we really loved our neighbors then we would be willing to go out of our way to serve them. That was one of the things I saw so clearly in India. Christians in hostile countries are actually being Christ-like servants to the lost people in their midst. That servant attitude is bringing lost people into a relationship with Jesus. When you love you neighbor as you want to be loved, they want to know why you are the way you are. That is what 1st Peter 3:15 is all about. When they ask, you have an open door to tell them about the love of Jesus. You are not forcing religion down their throat. You are responding to the way the Holy Spirit has opened their hearts to the message of Jesus.
Maybe part of our problem is that we don’t really believe that people are lost and destined to an eternity in Hell. In India, China, Bangladesh, Indonesia and a host of other countries from which I spoke to followers of Jesus, they have no doubt that people are lost. Their hearts break for those people and so they pull out all the stops in order to love them into the Kingdom. They also desperately love Jesus and as a result want more and more people to know and love and worship him.
Clearly we are missing something in the west. Have our hearts grown cold? Have we lost our first love? An easy way to answer those questions is to think of how often you pray for people you know to come to faith in Jesus. Think of how often you open your home and show hospitality to someone who does not know Jesus. Think of your response when you hear that someone has come to faith in Jesus. Is it a rather sedate response or do you break forth in celebration like the angels in heaven when they hear the same news? Think of how often your heart breaks when you think of people who do not know the love of God. Do you ever have your heart break? Do you ever really think about those lost people? The answers to those questions will tell you where your heart is.
The problem arose when someone who loves Jesus raised a concern. According to the law of the land, since the cheerleaders are a school sponsored group serving at a school sponsored event, they could not “promote” a particular religion with the clearly Christian sentiments. So the cheerleaders had to stop making and displaying those kinds of banners and resort to the more typical ones encouraging determination and teamwork. I assume they did not call for the other team to be castrated or even circumcised.
But a law that applies to the cheerleaders does not apply to the fans. They can say whatever they want on their banners. As a result this town of 9,600 people now has not one but dozens of Bible verse banners at every game. Of course there are also lots of banners about not being silenced and not be ashamed of Jesus. So in one sense by following the law they went from one banner about their faith to dozens. I think that most people following Jesus would think that the added number of Bible verses was a good thing. The more scripture people see and read the better.
Of course there are some people who are furious with the person who raised the concern about the banner. Some of the reactions are less than charitable. What they don’t understand is that the woman who raised the concern was trying to do the school a favor and save them from a law suit that was sure to come someday from people who really objected. It would be a law suit that the school would certainly loose. You really can’t have cheerleaders at a football game holding up a banner about Jesus for the team to run through. Imagine if by some twist of fate most of the cheerleaders happened to be Hindu and they made a banner that said “Shiva is our strength, He will destroy our Opponent”. I suspect that lots of Christians would freak out over that. Well there is that old saying about something being good for the goose as well as the gander. Jesus said something about loving your neighbor as yourself.
What is appropriate is not that the cheerleaders, but that private citizens exercise their first amendment rights and make whatever banners they want. One of my deeply held convictions is that for far too long Christians have leaned on the government and government related institutions to help prop up and promote our faith. Arguments about prayer in school and “In God We Trust” on our money fall into that category as does cheerleader produced banners. The idea of being a Provocative Christian is that our lives are such a compelling witness for Jesus that we don’t need such artificial supports for promoting Jesus. According to 1 Peter 3:15 people should see the hope we have in our lives and be provoked to ask us about the reason for it. So I like the fact that the Christians of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School are relying on their on ability to witness and not that of the cheerleaders.
What I find a bit disconcerting is that the banner production and overwhelming displays have taken on a defiant tone. It seems motivated more by outrage that the cheerleaders have been silenced than out of a love for God and neighbor. Unfortunately that is usually what motivates many Christians to start speaking out for their faith. We get outraged at some perceived injustice to our faith, some supposed removal of rights we think we have, and we react just like an indignant world reacts. We protest. For starters I am not at all convinced that such displays and protests really lead anyone to ask about the reason for the hope we have in Christ. In fact I think most people who don’t follow Jesus are more put off than brought in.
So while I am glad that the proclamation of the faith has not been left to a cheerleader produced banner that a group of teenage football players run through and tear to shreds at the start of a game, I am concerned that we still haven’t gotten it right on how we should proclaim Jesus. I am thinking that having hope in the face of economic downturns, cutting the lawn or shoveling the snow of the widow next door, sitting for hours with the person grieving a death and simply being a strength with your presence, inviting international students to your home for Thanksgiving Dinner and using the opportunity to tell about being thankful to Jesus, these are the things that will change the world for Christ. But I forgot, it is easier to let the cheerleaders make banners, and if that fails we will make banners and hold them up in a crowd of other people with similar banners and be certain we are standing up for our faith and showing what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
As the saying goes, you can’t be all things to all people. That bit of cultural wisdom is geared towards helping us cope with the many demands people place on us to try and meet their expectations and standards. It is intended to give us the freedom to be ourselves and not compromise for the sake of others. Certainly one would expect that in Christian circles the idea of compromising is not highly valued. Truth is after all not something to be easily set aside for convenience sake or to fit in with popular opinion.
If this high value of truth and the resistance to compromise is truly a biblical Christian virtue, then how in the world does the Apostle Paul say that not only can we be all things to all people, but that he himself strives with great effort to be all things to all people. He says it this way:
“I have become all things to all men” 1 Corinthians 9:22
That just flies in the face of what most people would consider to be the way Christians should live. Think about it. How many times have you heard preachers bemoaning that fact the people are compromising with the culture and this is the downfall of humanity? In the extreme you get Christians living in their own little enclaves of only people who are very much like them and very unlike the rest of the world. The Amish come to mind, but so do certain fundamentalist varieties of the faith.
What is important to understand is that your motivation can make all the difference in the world. If you are compromising in order to avoid conflict or difficulty, or to be accepted so you don’t have to make a stand, then you are heading down a dangerous path. But when we look at Paul’s words in context we see that his motivation needs to be our motivation as well. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 1 Corinthians 9:22-23
Paul is saying that when it comes to being able to help others know and follow Jesus, then we must be ready and able to fit in with them in their culture. In this chapter he says that to the Jews he lived like a Jew, to the Greeks, he became like a Greek. Whatever the culture was in which he found himself, he did all he could to fit into that culture for the high purpose of demonstrating to people what Jesus is all about. In that way he did exactly what Jesus did. Jesus became like us in order to win us to himself. Our whole theology of the incarnation, of God becoming man in Christ, is about compromising for the sake of the Gospel. We need to cross the cultural gap between Christians and non-Christians in order to help them see Jesus.
That means that followers of Jesus need to being willing to eat, dress, talk, play, and generally do the things that others do, as long as we are not sinning. We do this in order to be Jesus in their midst. On a simple level it may mean something as mundane as learning to bowl and joining a bowling league in order to meet people who don’t know Jesus. Just make sure it is not a church based league filled only with other church people. For twenty years I volunteered as a high school football coach at two different public schools. I went to practice, games, and out to eat after games with the guys I coached with. It was clear that I was a Christian, but it was also clear that I enjoyed their company and was willing to be one of them as much as possible. I accepted them and honored them as people even though we might have very different views of Jesus. As a result of that ministry I have done weddings, funerals, marital counseling sessions, visited hospitals, prayed with numerous people, shared the Gospel many times to entire teams, and been blessed to help some people come to faith in Christ. It could only have happened by being willing to become “all things to all men in order to win some to Christ”.
I wonder, in what way do you need to become like the people around you in order to let them see, up close and personal, what a follower of Jesus is like? What do you need to do in order to be close enough to people for them to experience the love of Jesus through you? If you really want others to come to know and love him, you will find a way to become all things to all people.
If your Christian experience has found you in a more conservative church that focuses on people asking Jesus into their hearts then you have probably been trained that the Gospel is all about loving God and making sure you will get to heaven. If your experience is more of a church that focuses on serving the poor and needy then you have been trained that the Gospel is all about loving your neighbor and making sure that they experience a bit of heaven right here on earth. Both of those understandings of the Gospel are mutated aberrations of what the Bible really teaches.
I have seen both of these extremes in action so many times that they have almost become cartoon caricatures in my mind. On the one hand you have the folks who regularly come up with some new gimmick for telling people about Jesus. It might be a Christian version of a Rubik’s Cube or multi-colored wrist band, or a little blue booklet that you pull out of your pocket at the most inappropriate times. In some cases it is the obligatory altar call at the end of a sermon. The message may have had nothing to do with the grace of God and the church may have the same 75 people who have been coming for decades, some of whom have walked the aisle multiple times, but we must have a chance for people to pray a sinners pray and punch their ticket to heaven. No consideration is given to the trauma or pain in their lives. No attempt is made to minister to the needs of the poor and broken in order to love them to Jesus. It is all about the message and getting that prayer done.
On the other hand there are growing numbers of people who are serving the needs of the poor and broken. They are offering the cup of cold water, giving shelter the homeless, clothing to the naked, visiting the prisoner, and a host of other wonderful things. This is especially true in the under 30 crowd in Christianity, although it has a long history in the liberal branch of the faith no matter what the age. There is a lot of cool stuff going on, but what you might never hear is anyone actually telling the poor, or the prisoner, or the homeless person that they need to submit to the Lordship of Christ in their lives and follow Him. We can’t say that for fear of sounding exclusive or arrogant and we don’t want to offend anyone.
Neither of those approaches is faithful to Jesus or the Gospel that He preached. When Jesus began His public ministry he gave a very clear picture of what the Gospel is in Luke 4:17-19:
17And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
andrecovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus said that He was sent to proclaim the Good News, the Gospel. They mean the same thing. So the Good News, the Gospel includes both speaking and doing. It is about telling people something and showing people something. You tell the poor the Good News, but you also set free those who are oppressed. It is about redemption. In the Old Testament there is a long history of the idea of redemption. It is about restoring something or someone to its rightful place. Often times people would have to sell themselves into slavery because of a financial disaster in their lives. If a relative came about bought them out of their slavery then that relative was called their kinsman redeemer. The idea was to restore the person to the completeness of what was lost. The got their lives back because someone paid a redemption price. The was certainly Good News to the slave.
Jesus is our kinsman redeemer. He paid the price for our restoration. We are restored through Christ to the relationship with the Father that was lost due to our sin. That restoration is not just about a place in Heaven with God. It is not just about having our lives in this world made better. It is both. The Gospel is holistic. The Good News is that life now and life to come are both to be changed by Christ. The implication of that for people who follow Jesus is that God cares about the spiritual and the physical. He cares about eternity and the here and now. He redeems our soul and our body. If God cares about such things then we should as well. We should be prepared to share the Gospel in word and deed. We should demonstrate the Gospel for our neighbor by showing them the love of Christ as we cloth them, feed them, house them and heal them. We should tell them of the love of Christ for them by proclaiming for them the message of liberty and freedom found in Christ.
That is the Gospel. It is not a lopsided mutation of only preaching or only serving. Jesus did both. He calls us to do both. If we serve people as He did, then like Nicodemus in John chapter 3, people will come to us. They will have been provoked to ask why we are the way we are. Then we can proclaim how we have been set free by Jesus.
I find it very interesting to consider “worst-case scenarios”. A few years ago I even bought a board game by that name. (By the way, don’t bother getting it. It became the fulfillment of it’s own name) But thinking about the worst-case scenario recently I thought, what would the typical church going American do if attending worship at a church building with lots of other people was no longer an option? What would you do if for some reason it was no longer legal or possible to do so? What if it was still legal to be a Christian, you just could never gather in a group of more than a few people at a time? What if terrorist threat levels meant there were no longer any large group gatherings, not just churches, but sporting events, schools and theme parks and concerts. Sound crazy? Often worst-case scenarios seem to be crazy until they actually happen. Think, The Black Death, The Titanic, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina.
But lets just stick to the church gathering part of this scenario. What would you do? How would you continue to follow Jesus and grow in your faith if you could no longer gather in a “church building” with others? What would you do differently from the way you live your Christian life right now if you had no worship team to lead you, no pastor/teacher to instruct you, no large gathering to make you feel upbeat about your faith? I know that in some cases, maybe even a majority of cases, people would end up with a faith that withers and shrivels beyond recognition. The reason I am sure of that is that for large numbers of people that is the only activity that connects them to their faith.
For those of you who would keep there faith growing and vibrant in such a situation, I suspect that it would look something more like this. First of all you would have a radical commitment to spending a considerable amount of time each day in prayer, worship, and study of God’s Word. That prayer time would be less about giving God updates on you life since He already knows all that, and more about pouring out your love to Him and listening for His voice. The study of His Word would be systematic and not the Bible roulette verse of the day that is forgotten tomorrow. It would probably include writing your thoughts a journal.
Then there would be the time spent with a couple of other Christians during the week, Maybe you would meet in your home or office or even Starbucks. But it would be consistent and a top priority. That time together would include sharing insights from your time with God, what you learned, what psalm or hymn or spiritual song really grabbed you in your worship time. It might include being honest about areas of struggle in your life and being prayed for, really prayed for, by the others in the group. In between those meeting times you would be on the phone to each other or email one another, urging one another on in love and good deeds.
There would be lots of time in your schedule to meet with that new follower of Christ whom you are mentoring since leading them to the Lord a few months ago. You would be talking with them about what the Lord is teaching them and about the obstacles they are facing recently. You would be encouraging them by letting them know that this is fairly normal after a few months. The early honeymoon of following Jesus, blessing that it is from God, is now winding down and the road is getting a little steeper. But you encourage them with the assurance that you will be with them every step of the way and remind them that the person they led to Jesus last week needs encouraged in the same way when the time comes.
You will head home to get dinner ready for the next door neighbors who you are loving for the sake of the Kingdom. It started when you cut their grass while they were on vacation and then invited them over for dinner once they got back. You thought of loving them that way, because last year when you went on vacation you wished someone had loved you like that. You came home to grass way too high and a refrigerator way too empty. One day while your neighbor was away you remembered Jesus telling us to “love our neighbor as ourselves”. When they ask why you did that, you are prepared to give a defence for the hope that is within you. You are determined to not say something lame like, “Oh it was nothing” and instead say something like, “Jesus said we are to love our neighbors”.
You would end your day praying for the people in your life who don’t know Jesus. You would pray for open doors to love them with Jesus love and for the chance to answer questions about Jesus that they bring up. You would spend a bit more time reading God’s Word, just as a snack before bedtime since you already ate fully from His Word through out the day.
Does that sound like how you would want to live out your faith if you could no longer go to a building on Sunday with lots of other Christians? Well let me ask the obvious. Why do you need to have a worst-case scenario in order to live out your faith like that, when that is exactly how Jesus wants you to live out your faith, 24/7, no matter what? How provocative would your life for Jesus be if that was the norm and the large gathering was just icing on the cake?
“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” 1 Peter 3:15
When is the last time, if ever, that someone who did not follow Christ asked you why you were always so hopeful? It seems to me that it rarely happens. A vast majority of people I know have never had someone approach them and ask about their faith after seeing in them a life of hope and joy. How sad is that. Peter seems to think that this should be a common occurrence. It should be something that happens with such frequency that we are always ready with an explanation. It is this verse that is at the heart of what it means to be a Provocative Christian. Our lives should be so running over with hope that people are drawn to us and want to have that hope. Our lives should provoke the question, “why are you so hopeful, or loving, or joyful, or kind, or whatever?”
In the off chance that we get asked, Peter says that we must be prepared. If this verse ever gets dealt with in sermons and Bible studies it is usually to focus on this part. Usually we focus on what kinds of answers to give people to convince them to follow Jesus. Sadly we usually focus on answers to questions that nobody is asking. Trust me, the average person who is not following Jesus really doesn’t care about things like, the rapture, how Jesus is present in communion, or if the King James is the only reliable translation. Don’t get me wrong. Truth in all it forms is important. But arguments about truth is not what attracts most people to Jesus. Lives well lived, following Him who is the Way, Truth, and Life, will attract people and provoke them to ask questions about our hope.
So why doesn’t it happen much? Part of the answer is in the first phrase, “in your hearts set Christ apart as Lord”. If we really loved the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength then our hope would be assured and it would shine through. So if no one is asking about the hope you have, maybe you need to take a closer look at whether or not Jesus is in fact set apart in your heart as Lord. Is your day filled with thoughts of how to serve Him and love him and serve and love others in His name? If so, your hope will be obvious. Do you find yourself thinking of Jesus and talking to Him throughout your day? If so, your hope will be contagious.
Another reason why people may not be asking you the question is found in the last phrase, “do this with gentleness and respect”. Far too many people have the picture of Christians, not as people of hope, but of angry people who are mad at the world. We have got to learn how to disagree with someone and be gentle and respectful. If you want a role model for that just look at Jesus when we dealt with people like the woman at the well, or the one caught in adultery, or Peter after the denial. I think that often the person who argues the loudest and goes on the attack is the person who is most insecure in what they believe. I think we have a lot of insecure Christians out there. The person who is prepared in their faith and has Christ set apart in their hearts is a person who can be gentle and show respect.
Finally, if you feel like you have set Christ apart in your heart and you are gentle and respectful, and you do shine forth hope and still no one is asking about it, there may be a very simple solution. Stop hanging out with so many Christians all the time. Let me put it another way. Start rubbing elbows with people who do not know Jesus. Most people who have been following Jesus for more than two years, have no significant relationships with non-Christians. Oh you may know some and have a passing acquaintance, but you don’t share life with them. People aren’t asking because they don’t see enough of your life to see the hope in times of trouble, or the love for others in time of suffering. You need to get closer to them and let them see your life. Invite them over for a barbecue. Get tickets for a sporting event and make them your guest. Offer to babysit their kids so they can have a date night. Find some way to serve them in Christs love and build a relationship. Oh, and make sure you are ready with an answer for the hope you have, because trust me, if you live that way, the questions will come.
Okay, shameless self promotion time! Recently I was asked to write an article for Church Solutions Magazine about the use of the internet in Christian ministry. The article has been published as part of their online magazine and will appear in the print version in March. So here is the link to the online version.
It is a strange phenomenon to me that followers of Jesus need to be encouraged to tell others about Him. There seems to be an almost universal reluctance on the part of Christians in the west to tell other people that they love and follow Jesus and that the listener should love and follow Him as well. This reluctance seems to violate both the command to love God and the command to love your neighbor.
What is perplexing is that love is not something that we need to be told to express. Think about a close friend who suddenly met the love of their life. Did you have to drag it out of them, this information about this new, life changing relationship? Of course not. In fact, the reality of the existence of their beloved probably oozed out of every pore in their body. They couldn’t help but talk about the one they loved. Or think of the parents of a new born. Their love for their child just beams from their face. They don’t need to be encouraged or coached to tell others about their beloved child. Love that involved your heart, mind, soul, and strength will be abundantly obvious to everyone who knows you.
If we truly love Jesus in a first commandment way, then the effort would be to try and hide that love. The work would be found in trying to think or talk about something other than our love for Jesus. In a related way, if we truly loved our neighbor, then we could not help but let them know of our beloved Jesus. If you are in love and you also have a best friend, you are desperate for your beloved and your friend to know one another. Their relationship brings you even greater joy.
If what I have said is true, that our love for Jesus should just pour out of us, and out love for our neighbor should compell us to introduce them to Jesus, why is evangelism so lacking in our day? Why do we spend millions of dollars and hours trying to convince people to tell others about Jesus and give them the latest easy gimmick to use in the process? I think the answer may be found in another question. How much do we really love Jesus?
People know that I love my wife. It is obvious that I love my sons. They way I talk about them to others makes that clear. That is the way of love. So I can only conclude that in some way we really do not love Jesus as we should. Oh we are grateful to Jesus for our salvation. We are thankful that we can go to Him in times of trouble. We enjoy being able to get blessed in times of corporate worship. We are relieved that we can look forward to heaven and not hell. But do we really love Him? As the Bible tells us, we know by the fruit we bear. If there is little evidence of our love for Jesus then maybe the fruit is not there.
Once when Jesus was about to heal a man, He asked if the man beleived. The response was facsinating, “Lord, I beleive. Help my unbelief.” Maybe we need to say something similar when it comes to our love for Jesus. “Lord, I love you. Help me in my lack of love.”