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?

KOH2RVA: Day 320

2013-07-22 13.51.16I’ve had this fear that First Baptist Church’s year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA might not make it all the way through to the end, that it might get off to a good start but then, halfway through the year, sputter to a stop.

That fear was unfounded.

If anything, it seems that our mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, has been picking up speed lately, making a final sprint to the finish line on September 8.  On Wednesday night I was sitting at the supper table with a half dozen of our members when Emily Johnston came over to say hello.  I had been wanting to see her, to tell her that I had received the message below:

Hi, Jim!

Hope to see you tonight, but if not, wanted you to know that Bill and I went over to Essex Village yesterday and had a grand time! It gave us a chance to work with children again, and that in itself, was great…the children, as you know, I’m sure, are very well behaved and most of them really want to learn. I can tell you more about our enthusiasm when we see you; it would be nice if more folks would give a little time to these people… the little ones still talk about Pakistan, where they were born.

Talk to you soon.

Emily

We talked for a while and as we did I looked around the table and realized that every person there had gotten “off the bus” and onto the mission field this year; in other words, there was 100% participation in KOH2RVA.  And this was not the elite missionary corps I was sitting with; these were “regular” church members who have begun to think of themselves as missionaries.

I know that what was true for my table on Wednesday night is not necessarily true for the entire church, but I was encouraged by what I saw—greatly encouraged.

I could almost hear the Kingdom coming closer.

KOH2RVA: Day 89

2012-12-05 19.08.37This is Thomas Roane.

Not long ago he gave me a little green flashlight. It’s just one of the things Thomas does: he buys little flashlights and gives them away to people. Maybe he knows there are times when we could all use a little more light in our life.

I had one of those times recently.

I was on my way to my nephew’s wedding reception, which was way, way out in the country. I was driving down a narrow, twisty two-lane road after dark when my right front tire began to go whump-whump-whump! There was no brightly lit gas station by the side of the road where I could pull over and take a look. I had to settle for the first wide spot in the road. I went around to have a look at the tire, but even with the headlights on it was too dark to see.

And then I remembered.

In my glove compartment was a little flashlight Thomas Roane had given me. I got it out, clicked the button on the end, and a bright beam of light shot up into the night sky. I was able to see that a small branch had gotten caught under my right front fender; that’s what was making the noise. I yanked it free, tossed it over the fence, and was on my way in no time, thanks to my little flashlight.

Thomas gave me his card along with that flashlight. He said, “If you ever run out of gas, or have a flat tire, or need a jump start, give me a call.” This is what he does: he provides roadside assistance—free of charge—mostly to elderly women but also, occasionally, to Baptist preachers.

And he also does this: Thomas lives at Imperial Plaza, one of the retirement communities in our city. Imperial Plaza pays $500 to anyone who refers a new resident. Thomas says it’s a nice place to live, and that if you mention his name when you sign up he will give his $500 to First Baptist Church.

I don’t know what moved Thomas to do all this. Maybe he got stuck on a dark, country road one night without a flashlight and vowed that he would never let that happen to anyone else. Whatever it was, this has become his way to bring heaven to earth—to be the person who shows up with a gas can, a tire iron, some jumper cables, or a flashlight—to be the one who rescues damsels in distress and the occasional Baptist preacher.

This is how Thomas lets his little light shine.

KOH2RVA: Day 71

There are so many things in this article that seem relevant to KOH2RVA–our year-long, every-member mission trip. The emphasis on relationships, the return to Jesus, the community focus, the conversational orientation, the rise of the laity…all of these could describe what happens when a church decides to get up off the pews and bring heaven to earth. Thanks to all of you who have joined us on this mission trip. May God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven!

Holy Soup

Is the American church fading away? Will the losses in membership and attendance lead to a marginalized church presence such as that in present-day Europe? What will the American church look like in ten years?

Church leaders, denominational executives, and religion researchers gathered in Colorado recently to examine the church’s health and prognosis. The Future of the Church Summit was sponsored by Group Publishing.

After evaluating current trends, Summit members predicted a number of likely scenarios for the American church in the next ten years:

  1. Emphasis on relationships. Whereas the church and congregational worship today are largely spectator-oriented, the new coming trend will prioritize spiritual growth through personal relationships.
  2. Return to Jesus. The current church is preoccupied with the “ABCs”—attendance, buildings and cash. A Summit pastor said, “We need to deal with the idols of the church.” The coming church will highly focus its mission, goals, measurements and message on…

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KOH2RVA: Day 47

My brother Gray once said, “You can’t change what you don’t love.” I’m not sure where he got it. Maybe he made it up. But it struck me as unusually wise and I’ve remembered it ever since. Maybe that’s why, when I go for my morning run, I always yell out “I LOVE THIS TOWN!” as I run across the bridge over I-195.

Linda Moore loves this town, too.

Linda is a graduate of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond who worked at a church in Massachusetts for a few years before coming back for some additional training and a residency as a pediatric chaplain at VCU Medical Center. In the process she claims to have “fallen in love with Richmond all over again.”

Linda is a member of First Baptist, and in her pictures you can see that she has fallen in love with the church all over again, too, but it’s not only that. She loves the James River, Shockoe Bottom, Byrd Park, Maymont, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, the Farmer’s Market, Downtown, Richmond Hill, nature, and maybe Krispy Kreme doughnuts (smile). If you click on the link below you can see a slideshow of Linda’s Richmond pictures. Don’t feel like you have to look at all 119 pictures; just look at enough of them to make you fall in love with Richmond—for the first time or all over again.

You can’t change what you don’t love.

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Click HERE for Linda Moore’s Pictures of Richmond

KOH2RVA: Day 32

I talked with someone on Monday who said he was bothered by the Lord’s Prayer.

Actually, it wasn’t the prayer that bothered him; it was the way we had changed the prayer. It had been my suggestion to pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday during this year-long, every-member mission trip we’re on, and to say, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven.” It’s the prayer we’ve been saying in staff meetings for four years. It’s a way to focus our attention—and our mission—on this place we call home.

But it bothered this man to hear it that way. It bothered him, first of all, because we were changing the words of the Lord’s Prayer—words Jesus himself had spoken. He didn’t think we should do that. We should leave it the way it is. But the other thing that bothered him is that we were praying for God’s kingdom to come in Richmond and he lived in Deltaville. He said it made him feel left out.

And that’s what got me.

I don’t think it bothers Jesus when we pray that God’s kingdom will come in Richmond as it is in heaven. Jesus loves Richmond. He wants the kingdom to come here. But Jesus also loves Deltaville. He wants the kingdom to come there, too. Maybe that’s why he taught his disciples to pray the way he did, because he didn’t want anybody on earth to feel left out of God’s love, God’s will, God’s kingdom.

That doesn’t mean we’re changing the name of our mission trip to KOH2THEWORLD. It helps to start where we are and work outward. I think that’s why Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and all of Samaria, and to the ends of the world. He had the world in mind from the beginning, but in the beginning he told his disciples to start where they were.

I could say the same to my friend from Deltaville. I could ask him to pray—fervently—that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done in Deltaville as it is in heaven. And not only to pray for it, but to work for it, to roll up his sleeves and make it so. If every Christian, everywhere, would do that, I believe God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will would be done…

On earth, as it is in heaven.

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Photo: sunset over Deltaville

Why We Can’t Do Things the Same Old Way

If you have five minutes, check out this remarkable presentation on the way the world is changing.  I watched it full-screen with the sound turned up and at the end of it my jaw had dropped–literally.  It makes me think the future is going to embrace people who can adapt quickly to sudden change, and that the innovative and adventurous will thrive in ways others cannot.