Which Jesus Will We Give Them?

cappucino and cross“When you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens an espresso bar.”

That was one of the better lines from my recent, two-part sermon series called “The End of the Road.” I had been talking about how the church in America is in decline, and how some church leaders seem willing to do whatever it takes to get people back into the pews and their dollars into the plates. I followed it with this story:

Not long after I graduated from college I was I was called to serve as a part-time youth minister at a small church in Kentucky. I wanted to have the biggest and best youth group in town and one of the first things I did was weigh every kid who came on Wednesday night because it sounded so much more impressive to say that we had a 1,136 pound youth group than to say we had a group of fifteen kids. I did everything I could to increase attendance: we started our own radio station, held the “World’s Biggest Kite Contest,” and made regular trips to the amusement park. But I remember the day it changed for me, when I called to invite one of our youth to something we were doing and he said no thanks, that he and his friend were planning to go to a movie. And that’s when it hit me that I could never compete: that these kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more, and the only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting everywhere else…was Jesus. So, I made up my mind to do that—to give them Jesus—and to keep it up even if the youth group withered away to less than a thousand pounds.

In one way or another, that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.

But what I said in the sermon is this: that “giving people Jesus” can mean more than one thing.

I was reminded of that when I was at the BGAV meeting in Fredericksburg recently. There we were—a thousand Baptists from Virginia all gathered together in a single room. You would think that we all held the same views, wouldn’t you? But as one speaker after another talked about Jesus I could tell that we thought about him in different ways, and maybe that shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. After all, there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which means that we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. And then there are Paul’s letters, which are more about the risen Christ than the earthly Jesus, and about what his death and resurrection mean for us. And then there are the other writers, like Peter, James, and the author of Hebrews, who each have their own perspective. And finally the Book of Revelation, in which the risen Christ appears with “hair as white as wool and eyes like flames of fire” (1:14). So if I’m going to “give them Jesus” I have to ask: which Jesus am I going to give them?

Because I think we tend to “cut and paste” when it comes to Jesus. We take what we like about him from the Bible, and from the hymn book, and from the pictures that hang in our Sunday school classrooms, and the songs we learned as children, and we put them all together to make this composite picture we carry around in our heads, and that’s “our” Jesus. Sometimes the confused looks I see on your faces when I’m preaching are not because you don’t understand what I’m saying, but because “my” Jesus doesn’t look like “your” Jesus. My Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom, and urging people to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. Your Jesus may be saying, “Go, make disciples of every nation,” or, “Come to me, all you who are weary,” or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I was thinking about that on the way home from Fredericksburg when it occurred to me that even if you put all these cut-and-paste images together you still get the picture that God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us. I said it out loud: “God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us.” And something about that rang so true I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Stage One: to Love Us. In John 3:16 we learn that God loved the world so much he gave his only son. I’ve pointed out to you before that the word world is often used in a negative way in the New Testament, as in, “Love not the world, nor the things of the world” (1 John 2:15). We are led to believe that the world is a sinful, dirty, and unrepentant place, and yet God loves it anyway; he loves it so much he gave his only son for it. And if you read the Gospels even casually you can see that the son he gave loves the world just as much as he does. Jesus is always spending time with the sinners and the tax collectors, always hanging out with the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. God sent him to love the world and he loved it, he loved it enough to die for it, which makes me think that as the body of Christ we should love it, too. What if we believed that our first responsibility, as Christians, was simply to love people? Not to judge them, or condemn them, or convert them, but to love them? Is this the way Jesus approached his ministry? Did he think, “I’ve got to begin by loving the world, because that’s what my father sent me to do”?

Stage Two: to Save Us. Jesus himself says that he didn’t only come to love the world, but “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). I’ve told you before that the word save in the Gospels is a bigger word than we sometimes imagine. It doesn’t usually mean to save someone from hell; it usually means “to help,” “to heal,” “to make well,” or “to make whole.” More often than not, this is how Jesus used it. He said to the woman with the flow of blood, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to that one leper who came back, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to Blind Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you.” In other words it has helped you, healed you, made you well, and made you whole. What if we believed the second responsibility of Christians was to do that? To help people, to heal them, to make them well, and to make them whole? One of the most important ways we can do that is to let people know that their sins can be forgiven—those things that fill them with guilt and shame, that cripple them and keep them from becoming all God made them to be. They need to know that all those things can be forgiven, forgotten, washed away, so they can move on to Stage Three.

Stage Three: to Change Us. Marcus Borg says that every major religion is about transformation, and Christianity would be at the top of that list. Jesus didn’t think it was enough to save us: he wanted to change us, to help us become what we have it in us at our best to be. And Paul, perhaps more than any other writer in the New Testament, takes up that charge. In dozens of different ways in his letters he describes what a Christian life might look like. In Galatians 5, for example, he talks about giving up the works of the flesh in favor of a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit. Those of you who have tried it know what a constant struggle that can be: the flesh keeps doing its work. And yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to keep on trying, keep on changing, until we grow up at last into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph. 4:15). And well before we get there we may be ready for Stage Four.

Stage Four: to Send Us. After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). As I’ve said before, this is the moment when the disciples became apostles: when they were no longer “learners,” but “sent ones.” And you’ve also heard me say that I think Jesus intends for us to do the same: to graduate from Sunday school and go out into the streets, to be sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we need to give up gathering for Sunday morning Bible study, but when we stand before Jesus I don’t think he is going to ask us where Paul went on his second missionary trip; I think he’s going to ask us where we went on ours. That’s what KOH2RVA was all about, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with KOHx2 as we look for partners who will work with us to bring heaven to earth, in Richmond and around the world. We believe that we too have been sent, that we are on a mission, and that we can’t give up until it is accomplished.

Which stage are you in? Which stage are you in today? Which stage will you be in tomorrow? And which stage will that person be in you encounter on the street, the one who shuffles along with her head down, wondering if there’s any reason to go on?

Which Jesus will you give her?

The Kingdom Just Keeps Coming!

partnershipRecently I challenged the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church to help me take our mission to the next level.  For a year the whole church was working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia (KOH2RVA).  By the end of the year it was obvious that the job was too big for any one church to do alone, so we began a year of mission called KOHx2 (Kingdom of Heaven Times Two), with an emphasis on partnership.  In the same way that Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to do the work of the Kingdom, it made sense to us to work with other individuals, churches, agencies, and organizations to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond and beyond.

I call this new mission “KOHx2: Bringing It Together.”

I challenged the staff to collect pictures and stories that would illustrate this mission, and to share them with me so I could post them on my blog.  A few days ago I got this email from Senior Associate Pastor Lynn Turner:

Jim

I don’t know if you can use this or not in your blog, but felt compelled to write it just as a reflection from my heart this past week.  It has caused me to think about this partnership thing in a totally different light.

Lynn

What Lynn wrote came out of her regular work at church, which reminded me that church work at its best IS the work of the Kingdom, and sometimes church people step up and help out in ways that truly bring heaven to earth.

Take a look at what Lynn wrote:

Reflections on KOHx2: Partnership and Generosity

It began with phone calls this past week of various needs within our church family: One family, out of full time work, medical needs, and needing some help catching up on bills; Another family, having faced extraordinary medical circumstances, still in the hospital, and their heating system out in their home with no funds at this time to get it fixed: Another family moving into an apartment with need of furniture and the basics to get them on their feet; all members of our congregation and all legitimate needs.
And thus the partnership and generosity wheels began turning…

An anonymous gift to help with current bills, a heating company stepping in to donate a used system and time to install, and an envelope of money given to me by a church member this past week with the words, “Sometimes ministers just need some discretionary funds to help folks out, use this as the needs arise.”

I have been overwhelmed this week with the way God has revealed to me that bringing the kingdom comes with partners….all kinds of partners…with a spirit of generosity that just points to Jesus.

KOHx2 has been hard at work this week. Blessings abound!

The Cutting Room Floor

cutting room floorMy friend Don Flowers has a blog called “Didn’t Make the Sermon.”  I love the title, and I would guess that every other preacher does, too.  We know there are plenty of things we think about putting into the sermon that we eventually leave out, often with good reason.  And we all remember those times we left something in that should have been left out.

I went back and forth on this introduction to yesterday’s sermon, but eventually left it out, reasoning that it was more about last week’s sermon than this one.  Still, there was something there that I liked–the idea of the church as a place of unconditional love and acceptance.  So, I’ve rescued this intro from the cutting room floor and posted it here for what it’s worth:

We are still on the road with Jesus, walking with him on the way to Jerusalem, watching everything he does, listening to everything he says. Last week he was talking to the scribes and Pharisees about what you do when you lose something precious, like a sheep, or a coin, or a son. Jesus implied that you drop everything to look for it; you don’t stop looking for it until you find it; and when you find it you rejoice. It made me think about those who are wandering away from the fold of the church in America these days, and what we are doing about it. A lot of them are young people who simply don’t find church compelling any more. They’re not afraid they’ll go to hell when they die. They don’t know why they should show up and listen to someone tell them how to live. But some of them are leaving because they’re afraid that if we knew everything about them we wouldn’t want them to come. They don’t think of the church as a place of unconditional love and acceptance; they think of it as a place where people will judge them for who they are and how they live. It made me think we need to find a way to let them know that this place is not that kind of place, that we need to do a better job of seeking, finding, and rejoicing.

I wonder what would happen if we put a big sign on the front steps of the church that read: “This is a place of unconditional love and acceptance.”  Would it bring in the wrong crowd?  Or would it bring in the right one?

And who gets to decide which is which?

What Millennials Want

rachel-held-evansLast night I read this article by Rachel Held Evans to the deacons at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. It’s one she originally posted on her blog, and it went “viral” as they say, with everybody passing it on to friends and family until it had been seen by millions of people. So, maybe you’ve already seen it, but I read it to the deacons last night because I have a deep concern for this younger generation sometimes referred to as “Millennials.” My daughters are both in that age group. I love my daughters. I want them to love Jesus and I want the church to help. So, take a look at what Rachel Held Evans has to say and, whether you agree or disagree, let it focus your thoughts on how the church might become a more hospitable place for young people.

July 27th, 2013
08:33 AM ET

Opinion by Rachel Held Evans, Special to CNN

(CNN) – At 32, I barely qualify as a millennial.

I wrote my first essay with a pen and paper, but by the time I graduated from college, I owned a cell phone and used Google as a verb.

I still remember the home phone numbers of my old high school friends, but don’t ask me to recite my husband’s without checking my contacts first.

I own mix tapes that include selections from Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but I’ve never planned a trip without Travelocity.

Despite having one foot in Generation X, I tend to identify most strongly with the attitudes and the ethos of the millennial generation, and because of this, I’m often asked to speak to my fellow evangelical leaders about why millennials are leaving the church.

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.

I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.

Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …”

And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.

Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.

But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.

In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.

Now these trends are obviously true not only for millennials but also for many folks from other generations. Whenever I write about this topic, I hear from forty-somethings and grandmothers, Generation Xers and retirees, who send me messages in all caps that read “ME TOO!” So I don’t want to portray the divide as wider than it is.

But I would encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.

Their answers might surprise you.

Rachel Held Evans is the author of “Evolving in Monkey Town” and “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” She blogs at rachelheldevans.com. The views expressed in this column belong to Rachel Held Evans.

KOH2RVA: Day 359

2013-09-02 10.59.19It’s the Tuesday after Labor Day, and for many the first day of school. Parents all over the region are rousing their sleepy children, feeding them a healthy breakfast, helping them into stiff, brand-new, back-to-school clothes, and then getting them onto the bus or dropping them off at the front door of the school with a lump in their throats. Say a prayer for those parents and children (and for teachers and administrators) today.

Education isn’t easy.

But yesterday I saw a different kind of education going on. It didn’t look easy, but it did look like fun.

I was at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, participating in the “Sidewalk Chalk of Love” event (the concept is simple yet brilliant: show up at school on the day before it starts and write messages of encouragement on the sidewalk with chalk; it’s especially brilliant at those schools where children need a little extra encouragement, like the Cooper School or Glen Lea Elementary; some of our members showed up at both). There I was, trying to think of something encouraging to write, when Claudia Harris and her daughters, Morella and Isabella, showed up.

Claudia went to work immediately, sketching the outline of a gigantic unicorn, and then her girls went to work making it beautiful. Morella made a rainbow-colored horn and a rainbow-colored tail. Isabella thought it would be fun to chalk the bottoms of her feet and then fill in the outline with her purple footprints.

Apparently it was.

But I imagined the conversation that took place before all the fun began:

“Girls, we’re going over to the Anna Julia Cooper school to write encouraging messages on the sidewalk.”

Why?

“Because not every child is as lucky as you are. They don’t all have two loving parents who encourage them every day. They need a little extra boost.”

Oh. OK.

But think of the education those girls were getting yesterday. Even before the start of school they were learning that we (followers of Jesus) think of others and not only ourselves; that we try to help and encourage others, especially those who don’t usually get much help or encouragement; and that we are willing to make some sacrifices toward that end, even if it means taking an hour out of our own activities on the last day of summer vacation.

I said to Claudia, privately, “I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing for your girls,” and she said, “Oh, we love our church. There are so many great opportunities!”

That’s music to a pastor’s ears.

Claudia meant that there are great opportunities through First Baptist to educate her children, to teach them how to be generous, selfless, faithful followers of Jesus. But Claudia and her husband Noel are taking responsibility for much of that education. After all, we didn’t send a bus to her house yesterday; she brought the girls herself. She and Noel want them to learn how to do the work of the kingdom. They are grateful for all the good opportunities the church provides.  And me?  I’m grateful for them.

May their tribe increase.

KOH2RVA: Day 353

martin-luther-king2It was 50 years ago today that Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. The way I heard the story he was going on and on about jobs and justice and the audience was losing interest when Mahalia Jackson, the blues singer, who was sitting right behind King, said, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” And that’s when he fell into the preacher’s cadence, and shared the prophet’s vision, of a day when this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: that all men are created equal. He said:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

That speech captured the imagination of millions, and inspired them to do the kind of work that would make the dream come true. Fifty years later we’re closer, but we’re not there yet. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

King’s words remind me of another young prophet who used to tramp the hills of Galilee sharing his dream of the Kingdom. When people asked him what that Kingdom was like Jesus said:

The Kingdom is like a sower who went out to sow some seed. It’s like the shepherd who went out to look for his lost sheep. It’s like the treasure you stumble upon in the field, or the precious pearl you find at the flea market. It’s like the king who throws a party for outcasts, or the dad who kills the fatted calf for his no-good son. It’s that place where Samaritans pay your hospital bills and sinners go home from the temple justified. It’s where those who worked an hour get the same as those who worked all day and where the beggar at the rich man’s gate ends up in the bosom of Abraham. It is, finally, that place where the last are first, the least are great, and the lost are found forever.

Those words captured the imaginations of his hearers, and inspired them to do the kind of work that would make Jesus’ dream come true. And yet, 2,000 years later, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

So, I’m going to stop writing blog posts, and roll up my sleeves, and get out there and do some work. I’m going to see what I can do to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven a little bit closer to Richmond, Virginia. Because if there is one lesson to be learned in all this it’s that dreams don’t come true by dreaming:

Dreams come true by doing.

KOH2RVA: Day 348

Kendrick2I had lunch with my friend Kendrick Curry yesterday. Kendrick is pastor of the historic Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and when I call him “my friend” what I mean is that he and I get along easily and have a lot in common and have often agreed that we would surely be good friends if we ever had a chance to spend time together. So when I realized I was going to be in Washington during the lunch hour I called and asked if he could join me.

He said he could.

I met him at a place called CHOP’T in Chinatown where a hive of worker bees behind a long counter take your order and then collect and chop and toss the ingredients of your salad into a bowl with the kind of showmanship that makes you think there should be drum rolls and cymbal crashes after each move. There weren’t, but the place was packed, and so noisy that I’m still not sure what I ordered.

Whatever it was, it was delicious.

Kendrick and I sat side-by-side at a narrow counter in the front window, looking out at the city of Washington walking past us on the 7th Street sidewalk as the bright, midday sun poured in. I dug into my salad and Kendrick dug into the conversation at a level most people wouldn’t attempt, “cutting to the chase” as they say, of what’s going on with the church in America today. In one way or another that’s what we talked about the rest of the hour, each of us adding our thoughts about what is most essential for the church’s survival and success.

“For me,” I said, “it comes down to Jesus. I believe he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I’ve come to love him and trust him. And even if the Way he is should lead me to a locked door (though I don’t believe it will) I can’t imagine that I will ever regret following him.”

I told Kendrick about an article I’d read by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, who said that “The conservative Christian view of Jesus in the New Testament is framed not around the person and work of Jesus, but around Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return in judgment on sin (the Book of Revelation). This explains the astonishing disinterest in his life and teachings.” I pointed out that the Apostle Paul refers to the earthly ministry of Jesus only once in his letters that I know of, when he talks about the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. If you were in a church where most of the preaching came from the Epistles and not the Gospels, you might begin to believe that the life and teachings of Jesus weren’t all that important. You might focus only on the cross, and not the Kingdom.

But if you read the Gospels even casually you begin to see how important the Kingdom was to Jesus. He mentions it some 120 times in the Gospels—far more than anything else. He wants it to come, on earth as it is in heaven. He teaches his disciples to pray for that. He shows them how to work for that. It’s the reason we have spent most of the last year trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  I asked Kendrick, “If we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus shouldn’t we care about the things he cares about? Shouldn’t we do what he tells us to do?”

“Maybe it’s time to re-boot Christianity,” Kendrick said in the end, and I smiled at the thought of pulling the plug on all that has been added to our faith through the centuries—all the rituals, doctrines, divisions, and denominations—waiting a few seconds, and then plugging it back in again:

And starting with Jesus.