Following Jesus in China

When Christians in America talk about China it usually is a conversation filled with a sense of foreboding focusing on how hard it must be to follow Jesus in a country that has not historically been seen as friendly to Christians. What I found in on my recent trip was that it is very possible that Christians in the west are the ones who are really at a disadvantage. Why? In many ways it is just too easy to be a Christian in America and other western countries where Christianity has historically been strong.

Consider that on Sunday morning we went to church in Beijing. This church has 5 services each Sunday. Eight hundred in the main auditorium and 500 in an overflow. It is packed for all five services. What was really incredible was that people stood in a line for half and hour before each service just to get a seat. It was near 90 degrees out yet they waited patiently. Twenty minutes before the service and the place was packed. In most churches in America people regularly come in late and leave early.

When the worship team started the singing on the part of the congregation was inspiring. They nearly took the roof of the place. Everyone was engaged and seemed to want to make sure that Jesus knew they were praising Him. There were no casual folks looking to be entertained. They were either legitimate seekers deeply interested in finding out about Jesus or in most cases, already following Him and glad to let the nations know that their Lord is King.

In speaking with the pastor I got an even clearer picture of what it is like for people to follow Jesus in China. There is very little in the way of programs that the church can do to impact the community. Organized church evangelism projects or even programs intended to serve the needy are frowned upon by the government. To actively evangelize is viewed as disturbing the balance and harmony of society. So the church can’t program that. Organized programs to meet the basic needs of people is the role of government. So no church food banks, or clothing drives, or other common ministries that churches carry out in the west.

So how is it that the church is packed and growing if it can’t do evangelism programs or serving ministry for the needs of people? Simple, the church can’t organize these things but individual Christians can do these things. And guess what! They are doing it. Without fancy programs and events and staff organizing things, these followers of Jesus are living out their faith, everywhere, everyday. As a result people ask them about Jesus. When that happens you are free to share the Gospel. If you see a person in need you are free to meet that need, just like the Good Samaritan that Jesus taught about in Luke 15. They are being living witnesses and doing what the Bible tells them to do. As a result Christianity in China is alive and well.

Is it harder to follow Jesus in China. Sure it is. But not for the reasons we usually think. It is harder to follower him there because it is too easy to follow him here. In reality I am not sure what many of us Christians in the west are doing can really be called following Jesus. It is far too easy. There is no cost to it, no deep personal investment. We look to Jesus to be our spiritual and emotional fix-it guy. If suddenly there were no church programs to do ministry I fear that Christian activity in the west would slow to a crawl. In China the opposite is true. They are not handicapped by our expectation that the church does everything. They are instead living for Him no matter what. Their lack of programs has meant that as individuals they own their faith deeply and follow Jesus gladly and with passion. Maybe for them it really is easier to truly follow Jesus. It is harder for them to do church than it is for us, but that is not exactly the same thing as following Jesus.

Lessons from a Little Boy Lost

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.

God, Football, and the First Amendment

I read a news article about a Georgia high school forbidding certain Christian statements and Bible verses being painted on banners that the cheerleaders made for the football team. (School bans Bible Verses) Having played football and served as a coach for 20 years, I have seen my share of cheerleader produced banners. Most of them are wonderful and inspirational. Occasionally they cross the line, like the one that encouraged our team to “Castrate Trinity” the opponent for the night. What it gained in poetic flow it lost in the details of the encouraged activity. But such was not the case at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. Instead the banners said things like, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus” (Philippians) and “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline” (II Timothy).

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.

Provocative Bible Verses: All Things to All People

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.

Is Anybody Asking?

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.

If You Love Him, It Will Show

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.”