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 239

cookiesFrom time to time I hear the criticism (often third hand and through unnamed sources) that this year-long, every-member mission trip we’re on is just a way for a bunch of do-gooders to go around doing good. The implication seems to be that our mission isn’t “Christian” enough, that we aren’t focused on making converts. But before anyone else makes that assumption let me say:

1. Some of us are focused on making converts. When I first started talking about bringing heaven to earth people asked me how to do it. I said, “It’s not hard; just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, roll up your sleeves, and go to work.” Since we each look through our own eyes, we each see the thing that looks least like heaven to us. For many of us that “thing” is people who are wandering around without any saving knowledge of Jesus. For instance, when I asked First Baptist member Billy Davis how he was planning to bring heaven to earth on our mission trip he said, “Through evangelism,” and last week he showed me some pictures from Central Virginia Raceway Ministries, where volunteers go to the Richmond International Raceway during race week (when the Raceway itself becomes the third or fourth largest city in Virginia) and give away free water, free cookies, free NASCAR trivia, free gospel tracts, and the love of Jesus (which is always free). Although they are not pushy, they always hope that someone who doesn’t know Christ will get the message.

2. Going around doing good is a good thing. In Acts 10:38 Peter sums up the earthly ministry of Jesus by saying, “God anointed [him] with the Holy Spirit and power, and he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” If it was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for his followers.

3. This is how you build relationships. Ask any missionary and they will tell you that before you can make a lasting difference in someone’s life they have to get to know you and trust you. The friendships and partnerships we’ve been building in these last few months will have results we cannot foresee. It’s like scattering the seed of the gospel everywhere in the hope that some of it will grow.

4. Doing good is part of loving God. Harvey and Lois Seifert remind us that “there are two wings by which we rise, one being personal piety and the other community charity. No one can fly by flapping only one wing. It is impossible to be sincere in our worship of God without expecting to do the will of God. It is equally impossible to do the full will of God without the guidance and empowerment of a vital personal relationship with God” (from Liberation of Life).

Once again, the lesson seems to be that missionary work is not either/or, but both/and. As I once heard evangelical activist Ron Sider say: “We have to give people a cup of cold water and we have to give it in Jesus’ name.”

So, let’s get out there missionaries. It’s Day 239. Do some good for Jesus’ sake!

KOH2RVA: Day 198

student artI spoke with someone yesterday whose brother belongs to an evangelical church and who sometimes goes from door-to-door with members of his congregation to talk to people about Jesus. Their approach is to knock on the door and ask whoever answers some version of this question: “If you died tonight do you know where you would spend eternity?” (I tried to imagine how it would feel to open my door to a stranger whose first words had to do with my death. I’m pretty sure it would get my attention and I’m pretty sure that’s the point). At any rate, he had called her recently to tell her about it and about the kind of results they were having.

“We had five conversions the other night,” he said.

“Were they real conversions, or were people just trying to get you to leave them alone?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

And that’s part of the problem: we don’t know. We don’t know if those kinds of efforts bring people closer to Christ or push them further away, but we do know we have been commanded to “go, make disciples,” and this is one of the ways Christians try to do it.

But let me tell you about another way.

I had a talk recently with a woman named Brenda who has been visiting First Baptist for the past two years. Brenda is an artist, and a good one; I’ve seen some of her work. She was telling me how much she has enjoyed coming to church and how she has wanted to get involved in our mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but she didn’t really know where to start. She mentioned the elementary school we are partnering with this year—Glen Lea—but she also talked about the exhibit the Fine Arts Team is putting on in April. As we talked, the two began to come together.

I can’t remember if it was my idea or hers but somewhere in that conversation we began to talk about putting some student artwork in the exhibit, and the more we talked the more excited we got. “I think that’s a great idea,” I said. “Really?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “I think you should get in your car and drive over to Glen Lea Elementary right now and ask the art teacher if she has some students whose work could go in our show.” “Really?!” she asked again. “Yes,” I said, and she got up from her chair right then, and put on her coat, and headed out the door. We were nowhere close to the end of our appointment, but she couldn’t wait.

She was that excited.

Now, the door-to-door evangelist might say that hanging student artwork in an exhibit doesn’t bring those kids one step closer to salvation and he might be right, but he might be wrong. As with door-to-door evangelism it’s hard to know what happens in the human heart. We have to leave that part up to God. But here’s what I was thinking about as Brenda left my office:

  • I was thinking about how excited she was, and how different that is from the way we sometimes do evangelism, as it were a chore.
  • I was thinking about how excited those kids would be to find out their artwork had been chosen for display.
  • I was thinking that they might beg their moms and dads to take them to First Baptist Church for the exhibit.
  • I was thinking about fifty or sixty students and parents from Glen Lea Elementary showing up at our church.
  • I was thinking what a wonderful opportunity that would be to greet them, visit with them, brag on their artwork, and make them feel special.
  • I was thinking how they would go home from that experience, smiling.
  • I was thinking how that might make Jesus smile.

I believe that Brenda was thinking all those same things, and that’s why she couldn’t wait to get in her car and drive over to Glen Lea Elementary that day. There is something about this kind of work—about bringing heaven to earth—that fills people with joy.  I’ve got to believe it is the joy of the Lord, and that the Lord will know just how to use it to accomplish his eternal purposes.

KOH2RVA: Day 149

Personal TrainerMy friend Peter is a personal trainer at the Jewish Community Center.  He is also a committed Christian.  Yesterday he asked me how far he should go with the Great Commission in a place like that.

“Well, that depends,” I answered, “on whether you’re trying to make converts or disciples.

“When you try to make a convert,” I said, “you’re hoping to bring somebody around to your worldview.  You want them to believe all the things you believe.  As a Christian, you might want them to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that he rose from the dead, etc.  And if you try to do that here, at the Jewish Community Center, you might lose your job.

“But making a disciple is different,” I said.  “Look at the way Jesus made them: he didn’t ask those fishermen to believe that he was the Son of God, he just asked them to follow him.  It was only after months of listening to him preach and teach, watching him help and heal, that Jesus asked them, ‘Who do you say that I am?’  And that’s when Peter said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!’

“So, why not simply invite people to join you in Christ’s mission, instead of trying to convert them to a Christian worldview?  Eventually they will come to see him for who he really is.”

And then I talked to Peter about his work as a personal trainer.  I said, “You don’t want people to sit out in the lobby and read fitness magazines; you want them to come in here and work out.  You don’t want them only to believe that exercise is good for them; you want them to experience it.  When they do, you won’t have to convince them; they will know it for themselves.  That’s the difference,” I said, “between a convert and a disciple.”

In yesterday’s blog I mentioned Warren and Julie Pierce, who have been helping refugees get resettled here in Richmond.  Today I want to share this invitation from Julie (below) to help out with a massive clothing distribution for New Americans (i.e. refugees) this Saturday.  This could be your opportunity to follow Jesus in discipleship and to invite someone else to come with you.  You don’t have to say, “If you died tonight do you know where you would spend eternity?” (the standard street-corner evangelist’s question).  You can just say, “Hey, I’m going to help distribute clothes to refugees on Saturday…

“Want to come?”

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Dear ones, this is a two part message –

(1) an opportunity for you to bring heaven to earth and

(2) an update on the New American ministry

We appreciate your time in reading this, and also your response whether in person or through much needed prayer.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, NKJV).

We are offering another of our quarterly massive clothing distribution events hosted by Westover Baptist Church, 1000 Westover Hills Boulevard, just across the Nickel Bridge.

Saturday, February 9th

8:00-9:00am Team needed at Outreach Center** to load clothing bins & hanging clothes – transport to Westover BC and unload (trucks/station wagons needed)

9:00-10:30am Set up team needed to unpack and display clothing on tables and on hanging racks

10:30-11:30am Actual event

11:30am-noon Break down – load bins/racks and transport back to Outreach Center, all leftover clothing to Goodwill

12:00-12:30pm Sweep and clean church

All done in ½ day!

Any questions, please respond to this email and if you can volunteer for all or part, thanks for letting us know. If you have donations, you may bring them on that day to Westover BC, however, they must be received during the set up time between 9:00-10:30am. Thanks for bringing dresses, blouses, all coats and men’s shirts on hangers if possible on that day. We are in desperate need of coats, hoodies, sweaters; all sizes, all types. We have very few men’s clothes at this time. Please take a look in your closets and get those to us before February 9th.

**Outreach Center address: 2944 West Marshall St. 23230 3rd building back from corner faces Altamont, yellow w/brown doors.

–Julie Pierce

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Editor’s Note: Julie is being ordained as a deacon tonight.  Do you see what happens when you begin to follow Jesus and work alongside him to bring heaven to earth?  People notice.

KOH2RVA: Day 148

couchDo you think it was ever part of Jesus’ plan that most of his disciples would come to church and sit in the pews, sing some hymns, say some prayers, give an offering, hear a sermon, and then go home until the next Sunday when they would come back and do it all over again? Do you think it was ever part of his plan that most of us would be spectators, rather than participants, in God’s mission to love, and save, and redeem all of creation? I don’t think that it was. And I don’t think that when Jesus said to his followers, “Go, make disciples of every nation,” he was only talking to people who had the gift of evangelism, because I don’t think he meant primarily that they should go out and try to convert people to Christianity.

That paragraph comes from a sermon I preached a few months ago, before we launched our year-long, every-member mission trip at First Baptist Church. I was talking about how to make disciples and suggesting that, like Jesus, perhaps we could simply invite people to join us in our mission.

I wonder: what would happen if Warren and Julie Pierce, who have been helping refugees get resettled here in Richmond, were trying to move a couch into an empty apartment and somebody was just standing there watching? (let’s call him Lester). What if they said, “Hey, could you give us a hand?” and he did. And then what if he asked them why they were doing what they were doing and they said, “Well, these people are coming to this country from refugee camps in Nepal, and they don’t know anybody, they don’t speak the language, I mean, can you imagine? And so we thought this was the kind of thing Jesus would do: help them get settled in a new place. You know how he said, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?’ Well, this is it. This is what we would want someone to do for us if we had to start a new life in Nepal.” And Lester hears all that and gets it, and even though he doesn’t have much use for Jesus—at least, not yet—he thinks maybe he’d like to help. He remembers how it was when he was just starting out.

And so for the next few months Lester helps Warren and Julie with refugee resettlement. He gets good at it. He learns how to pick up donations of furniture and household items and store them until they’re needed. He learns how to set up an apartment so that it’s ready for a new family to move in. He even learns how to give driving lessons to people who don’t speak English very well and it scares him to death. But he also learns something else from Warren and Julie: he learns how to share the love of Christ with people who desperately need it, and at some point he realizes he’s one of those people. And the next time they invite him to come to church he does, and the sermon sounds like it’s just for him, and when the invitation is given, he comes down the aisle saying he’d like to follow Jesus, and get baptized, and belong to a church like this one, where the love of God is not just something people talk about, but something they put into action every day.

I talked with someone yesterday who has been reading a book where the author suggests that people are more likely to come to know Christ not because someone invites them to join the church, but because someone invites them to join his mission.

I wonder if that’s true?

KOH2RVA: Day 122

Baby-Jesus-SleepingI keep thinking about the evangelist whose story I shared yesterday. He is a former Muslim, converted to Christianity, and eager to make a billion more converts. He is doing it by telling school children in India the “true story of Christmas,” which somehow ends with the message that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and savior you will perish in the flames of hell for eternity.

That’s not the message I get from the true story of Christmas. In fact, that’s not the message I get from either of the Gospels that tell the Christmas story (Matthew and Luke). I challenge you to read either one all the way through, from beginning to end, and conclude that it’s about how to stay out of hell. Hell doesn’t figure into these Gospels very often. Jesus mentions it 7 times in Matthew, 2 times in Luke. But he makes reference to the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, a staggering120 times in the Gospels. And when his disciples ask him to teach them to pray he says, “Pray for this: that God’s kingdom would come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

That was his mission.

So, where did we get the idea that our mission is to keep people out of hell? The evangelist I talked with on Sunday might say that he gets it from John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“See?” he would say. “That’s the true story of Christmas. God loved the world so much he gave his only son, like a Christmas present, wrapped in swaddling cloths.” And I would agree; that is the true story of Christmas. “But if we don’t receive the gift of his son,” he would add, “we will perish everlastingly.”

And that’s where I get stuck

Love with an “if” in it is conditional love. I believe that God loves us unconditionally. I sometimes say to people, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do to make him love you more. There’s nothing you can do to make him love you less. All you can do is choose to receive the gift of his love.”

What if those Indian schoolchildren heard that message? Wouldn’t that sound more like what the gospel is supposed to be—good news? And if they could really believe that God loved them unconditionally…

Wouldn’t heaven come to earth?

KOH2RVA: Day 121

indian_schoolchildrenI met a man yesterday who is passionate about his mission. In his lifetime he hopes to bring one billion people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Did you hear that?

One billion.

This is his approach: he goes to schools in India, talks with the principals, and tells them that if they will let him share “the true story of Christmas” he will give every child in the school a free pen.

I asked him to tell me the true story of Christmas and he said, “Well, it’s about Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus, of course, but that’s only the beginning.” And then he told me about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, his preaching of the Kingdom, his healing of the sick, his death on a cross, and his resurrection. But it sounded as if the story he tells eventually comes down to this: that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and savior you will perish in the flames of hell for eternity. And then he invites the children to say the sinner’s prayer with him and be saved, and many of them do. He says he has been able to share “the true story of Christmas” with 600,000 children so far.

Only 9,400,000 to go.

Later I thought about this man and his mission and how it is a different mission than bringing heaven to earth. His mission is keeping people out of hell. And that did to me what it always does: it made me ask, “Is that what it’s all about? Is the ‘true story of Christmas’ a story about keeping people out of hell?”

I would appreciate your thoughts on that as we enter this new year, and the final two thirds of our year-long, every-member mission trip. I would love for us to go forward with this man’s energy and ambition.

But I don’t want us to go in the wrong direction.