When Religion Makes Things Worse

volcanoLet me begin this post with a test.  It’s a true-false test, and there’s only one question, but it may be the most important question you will ever answer.  Ready?  Here it is:

Q: Is your understanding of God true, or false?

Several years ago I got to hear Alan Hirsch speak.  Hirsch is originally from South Africa.  He has worked as a church planter in Australia, and has become one of the leading voices in the missional church movement.  I wrote down almost everything he said.  But one thing that stood out from all the others:  Hirsch said, “If your conception of God is radically false, then the more religious you are, the worse it is.”  Think about that for a minute.  The word radical comes from an old Latin word meaning “root,” and you could picture it this way: if the way you think about God is false at the root, then the trunk will be twisted, the limbs will be lopsided, the branches will be bent, and the fruit you find on that tree will not be the kind of fruit that will do anyone any good.  In fact, it could be poison—bringing death and not life.

All of which makes me want to ask, “Is our conception of God radically true?  Is the trunk straight, the limbs strong, the branches full of good fruit?”  It’s a question I’d like every Christian to consider because many of us have spent our lives going to church.  We’ve been to Sunday school and Bible school; we’ve sat through more sermons than we can count, spent hours in Bible studies and small group discussions; we’ve been on retreats and mission trips.  We should have learned something about God by now, but what have we learned?  Is our conception of God radically true or radically false?  Because if it is radically false—as Alan Hirsch warns—then the more religious we are the worse it is.  But how would we know?  How could we be sure?  In what may be the most important “True-False” test we will ever take how can we be absolutely, positively, one hundred percent certain that our conception of God is true, and not false?

I think that’s the question that got Nicodemus out of bed in the middle of the night, the question that had him up wandering around the house in his pajamas until he finally got dressed and went to see Jesus.  John tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees were some of the most religious people who have ever lived.  They had as their motto the words of Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”  But they had interpreted holiness first of all as righteousness, which they did by keeping all 613 of those Old Testament rules, and secondly as purity, which they did by separating themselves from anything impure or unclean.  Jesus, on the other hand, ate with sinners and tax collectors, he didn’t always wash his hands before meals, and sometimes he broke the law by working on the Sabbath day.  And yet Nicodemus couldn’t deny that the Spirit of God rested on this young prophet from Galilee, and that the things he did and said seemed uncannily true.

He needed to know more.

“Rabbi,” he said, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  It was his way of starting the conversation, of acknowledging that Jesus was onto something.  He didn’t come right out and ask, “Do you think my conception of God is radically false?”  But that’s the question Jesus answered.  “Yes,” Jesus said.  “Your conception of God is radically false.  It needs to be ripped up by the roots and replaced with something new.  You need to start from scratch, Nicodemus.  You need to be born again.”  And Nicodemus said, “What?!  Can a man enter into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” But maybe what he meant was, “Are you asking me to give up my conception of God, the one I’ve worked so hard to acquire, the one I’ve spent my life perfecting?  I’ve been to seminary, Jesus!  I got all the answers when I was there.  I sealed them up in logic-tight compartments.  And now you’re asking me to open those compartments and conceive of God in a whole new way?  I can’t do it, Jesus!  It would be like trying to crawl back into my mother’s womb!”

One of the real problems people were having with Jesus in those days—and it wasn’t just the Pharisees—is that he wasn’t what they were expecting at all.  They were expecting a Messiah, a political and military leader who would run the Romans out of Israel and restore the nation to its former glory.  When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was Peter said, “You’re him!  You’re the Messiah!”  But when Jesus began to explain what kind of messiah he was—that he hadn’t come to conquer and rule but to suffer and die—Peter said, “God forbid, Lord.  This shall never happen to you!”  He said it because he hadn’t been born again yet.  He hadn’t given up his old conception of God, or of God’s Messiah.  But on the Day of Pentecost, after he had taken a few deep breaths of the Holy Spirit, Peter began to say that this same Jesus who had suffered and died had been raised from the dead, lifted up to sit at the right hand of God, received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and poured it out upon his church.  “Let all Israel be assured of this,” Peter said to the crowd: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).

But you see, that’s a radically different conception of messiah than the one Peter had started with, and he couldn’t take hold of the new without letting go of the old.  I think that’s what Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus: that his old conception of God won’t allow him to be part of the new things God is doing, and that he can’t just modify that old conception, he’s got to give it up.  In another place Jesus says it like this: “You can’t put new wine into old wine skins” (Mark 2:22).  When the new wine begins to ferment and bubble it will blow those old, brittle wine skins to pieces.  You’ve got to put new wine into new wine skins.  You’ve got to open up those logic-tight compartments and get a fresh conception of God.  Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You’ve got to be born again, friend—born of water, born of spirit, born from above.  You’ve got to let God’s spirit blow where it will instead of trying so hard to control it.  You’ve got to learn to follow, not lead.”  I think Peter got that in the end.  The Spirit led him into a true understanding of who Jesus was even as Jesus had led him into a true understanding of who God was.

Which brings us to the Doctrine of the Trinity.

May 22 is Trinity Sunday, and as preaching professor David Lose likes to say it is nobody’s favorite day to preach.  “But,” he argues, “behind all the convoluted doctrinal, philosophical, and hermeneutical concerns that found expression in the Trinitarian controversies of the third and fourth centuries pulses the more concrete and urgent desire to describe the [true] nature and character of God.”  In other words Trinity Sunday is that one day each year when the church looks at its conception of God and tries to be sure that it is not radically false, to be sure that it is, in fact, radically true, and we do this by looking at God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As I’ve suggested, the Spirit led Peter into a true understanding of who Jesus was even as Jesus led him into a true understanding of who God was.  David Lose says, “Perhaps the best way to approach the Trinity, then, is to think of it backwards. It is through the power of the Spirit that we can receive Jesus as God’s surprising and unexpected messiah who reveals to us the gracious and loving nature of the Father.”[i]

He focuses on one verse in particular, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  “What is striking about this verse,” he says, “is that everywhere else in John the word that is translated here as ‘world’—kosmos—describes that entity which is hostile to God. So we would not be remiss to translate the opening of the verse, ‘God so loved that God-hating world that he sent his only Son.’”  He says, “This verse has profound implications as, according to the Fourth Evangelist, all of God’s work in Jesus through the Spirit is to save us from our own folly and penchant for self-destruction. In fact, as it turns out God has no particular designs or plans for our punishment or rejection.  Instead, God only plans and works for our salvation and health. God desires for us only life, life in all of its abundance here and now as well as in the age to come.”  In other words, he concludes, what we learn about the Father from the Son through the Spirit, is that “God is, above all else, a God of love.”[ii]

Now, let me ask you: what kind of tree is going to grow from the root of love?  What kind of trunk, and limbs and branches will it have?  What kind of fruit will it bear?  If your conception of God is radically true, then the more religious you are the better it is—for you and for the world.  But if your conception of God is radically false, then being religious will only make things worse.  And there are some radically false conceptions of God in the world.  One of the more popular among them seems to assume that he does have particular designs and plans for our punishment and rejection.  This is one of the reasons I led a Wednesday night workshop for my church on the doctrine of the Atonement, trying to understand how the death of Jesus can make us “at-one” with God.  It’s a difficult doctrine.  I’m still not sure I understand it.  But at one point I said to the people who sat there listening, “I’m telling you all this because I don’t want you to be afraid of God,” because there are some theories of the Atonement that can do precisely that.

The worst is the one I’ve come to call the “Virgin-in-the-Volcano” theory.  When my daughter Catherine was studying abroad in Costa Rica she took a side trip to Nicaragua and visited an active volcano that her tour guide described as one of the “seven entrances to Hell.” In primitive times the people of that region thought that some angry god inhabited the volcano, and when it would start to rumble they would throw virgins or young children into the volcano to appease it.  That’s unthinkable, isn’t it?  We reject that as primitive, pagan superstition.  And yet there is a theory of the atonement that sounds almost exactly like that.  It suggests that our sinfulness so offended God’s holiness that he was on the verge of destroying us, and none of us was perfect enough or pure enough to appease his anger.  But then along came Jesus—the sinless Son of God—who offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins.  And that did the trick; God was no longer angry.

That may sound familiar to you.  It may sound like something you learned in Sunday school.  But think about what it does to your conception of God: it teaches you that God is angry with you and wants to destroy you, and that the only thing that will appease his anger is the sacrifice of his sinless son.  If we were still talking about the god of the volcano we might say that there wasn’t a virgin on earth perfect enough or pure enough to satisfy him.  That in the end he had to give the people his own son, so that they could throw him back into the volcano, so that his anger could be appeased.  Can you see how twisted that logic is?  And can you see that if your conception of God is anything like that then the tree that grows from that root will be similarly twisted, its branches broken, and its fruit rotten?

But here’s the good news:

A Trinitarian theology won’t let us get away with that kind of thinking.  To speak of one God in three persons is to insist that Father, Son, and Spirit work together, that they share a common purpose.  You can’t have one person of the Trinity angry with us, eager to destroy us, while another person of the Trinity loves us, and steps in to save us.  No, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit work together tirelessly toward the goal of our redemption.  As it says in John 3:17, “God didn’t send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world,” and it must mean to save it from something other than God’s wrath: I think it means to save it from us.  We’re the ones who keep threatening to blow the world to smithereens.  We’re the ones who keep going to war with each other.  We’re the ones who can’t seem to love our own neighbors, much less our enemies.  We’re the ones who don’t love God as we should.  And maybe it’s because—at the heart of it—we don’t love ourselves.  We look in the mirror and what we see is not a beloved child of God, but a miserable sinner who deserves no better than death.  It’s not hard for us to believe that God would be so angry with us that he would want to destroy us.

“Enough of that!” the Father says to the Son.  “Go and show those people how much I love them.”  And Jesus does.  He comes and loves us and loves us and loves us.  And some of us can’t accept it.  We reject it and we reject him.  We put him to death on a cross.  And he goes willingly, not so God will finally stop hating us, but because he wants us to know that God has never stopped loving us, and that there is nothing he wouldn’t do to show his love.  Not long ago I went to a friend’s ordination service, and at the end of the service communion was served in the Baptist way, with deacons passing out little pieces of bread and little cups of juice.  I’m usually up front leading communion.  I don’t often get to sit out there and contemplate its meaning.  But on that Sunday afternoon I did, and as I looked down into that little cup I didn’t see the blood of sacrifice, I saw the wine of celebration; I saw Father, Son, and Spirit loving me enough to forgive my sins and restore our relationship; I saw the Holy Trinity raising a glass and proposing a toast to our now-and-forever friendship.

Now, you tell me: what kind of tree will grow from that root?  What kind of trunk will it have, what kind of limbs will it lift up, what kind of fruit will it bear?  Is it the kind of fruit that will nourish the world God so loves, or the kind of fruit that will make it sick to its stomach?  This is a “True-False” test, and as I suggested earlier:

It may be the most important one you will ever take.

–Jim Somerville

[See the video! Click HERE]

 

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[i] David Lose, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, from his comments on the Trinity Sunday reading for Year B (John 3:1-17) at the Good Preacher website.

[ii] Ibid.

KOH2RVA: Day 351

breathing2A few years ago I told someone that if I were writing a manual for new members at Richmond’s First Baptist Church I would want to stamp one word on the cover: SENT! Because now, more than ever, I believe that’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

What is the first word of the Great Commission? (Matthew 28:19-20): “Go.” What does Jesus tell his disciples in that upper room in John’s Gospel? (20:21): “As the father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” What does he say to his followers just before his ascension in the Book of Acts? (1:8): “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I call these the “Three Great Commissions,” and in each of them Jesus makes it clear that disciples are not supposed to sit around singing Kum-ba-yah: they’re supposed to go.

But I also believe they are supposed to come.

I was reminded of that again in worship yesterday. Kaky Minter and Rob Reinstein shared testimonies of how the church had ministered to them in times of illness and grief. Later in the afternoon someone told me how much the fellowship of the church means to her, and how it’s just not the same to watch the webcast on her iPad. Last week Clint Smith, the vice-chair of the deacons, acknowledged that while people don’t seem to come to church like they used to in America, they will always be attracted to other people, and “love is the most powerful force in the universe.”

So, here’s Jesus, telling us to go out into the world, and here we are, coming back to the church. I’ve been trying to think of it not so much as a tension between going and coming, but rather a rhythm of going and coming, like breathing. You can’t live very long if you only breathe in, but you can’t live very long if you only breathe out.

It takes both to keep the body healthy.

In the same way, keeping the body of Christ healthy seems to depend on coming together for worship, study, nurture, fellowship, encouragement, healing, and then going out again to do the things Jesus told his disciples to do. Yesterday we came to church. For the rest of the week we will be on the mission field. If we do it right we will need to come back to church at the end of the week, for all those things listed above. And if we do church right, it will send us back onto the mission field, re-energized and ready to serve.

It’s not so hard, is it? Just breathe in.

And then breathe out.

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 316

Anne4It was great to be back in church yesterday.

I preached the story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42 and ended up talking about “holy moments.” At the end of the sermon I asked the congregation to recognize that that very moment was a holy one—when we were all gathered together, sitting at the feet of Jesus, soaking up every word, just like Mary in the story.

But there was another holy moment that came later that afternoon.

I was in a meeting with the Associate Pastor for Communications search team, the team that is trying to find someone who can take David Powers’ place as when he retires at the end of next month. It won’t be easy. David is, in so many ways, irreplaceable. But we had a promising candidate at the table who had just asked an interesting question: “What is the mission of First Baptist Church?”

There was a brief pause, and then Anne Keo offered an answer. She started by saying that she had been at First Baptist all her life—almost literally. She was dedicated a month after she was born. She talked about her days in the youth group, when kids came to First Baptist from 36 different high schools in the area. “But since Pastor Somerville has been here,” she said, “there seems to be more of a push to be on mission where we are the rest of the week, and not only on Sunday mornings—for everyone to be a missionary.”

From the moment she said, “But since Pastor Somerville has been here,” I had been holding my breath, wondering what she would say next, but when she said that—about everyone being a missionary—I let it out in a sigh of relief.

It was a holy moment.

Because since I’ve been at First Baptist I’ve been trying to help it become a more missional church. Missional is different from “mission minded.” First Baptist has always been mission minded. We’ve been sending missionaries to other parts of the world forever, supporting them with our money and our prayers. But in the missional church everyone is a missionary, and the mission field is not only over there, but also right here where we are, where we live and work and play. This year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA is simply a way of putting that idea into action as we “labor alongside the Lord Jesus” to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

Looking back on yesterday’s holy moment I realize that when Anne said there has been “a push” for everyone to be a missionary since Pastor Somerville’s arrival she didn’t say it was a good thing. She might have been wishing this pushy pastor would leave things the way they were when she was in the youth group. But I could tell from what she said later in the meeting that she was learning to think of herself as a missionary, and that she saw this as different, and much more important, than simply “coming to church.”

It seems so simple: “Everyone is a missionary.” And yet to know that in your heart, to feel it in your bones, to begin to look at the world around you through “missionary eyes” can take years. I believe Anne is getting it, and who knows how the world will be different because she is?

KOH2RVA: Day 272

car-without-engine-640Mike Breen, one of the leaders of the missional church movement, has predicted that unless things change that movement is going to fail. He says, “We are a car without an engine, a group of people addicted to and obsessed with the work of the Kingdom, with little to no idea how to be with the King.”

John White, commenting on that prediction, quoted the late great Lesslie Newbigin, who believed that too much of missionary thinking was pervaded by the idea that salvation could be achieved through human effort alone. When we think like that, Newbigin wrote, “Mission is conceived as a task, rather than a gift, an over-spill, and an explosion of joy.”

Mission as an “explosion of joy.” There’s something to aim for. It’s what I have in mind when I tell the people of First Baptist that, “As children of the Heavenly Father, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to labor alongside the Lord Jesus in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth.”

And it’s what I find in the occasional updates I get from Jeremy and Monica Chambers—a couple of young, enthusiastic church planters living and working in Richmond—whose approach to mission is wonderfully organic and whose epistles overflow with the kind of joy Lesslie Newbigin was talking about. When I read them I often feel that I’m reading a chapter from the Book of Acts. Take a look at this one:

Praise the Lord for these breakthroughs!

(1) One girl is beginning to follow Jesus for the first time in her life! She had a “christian” background but NEVER knew what it meant to be a TRUE FOLLOWER of Jesus! At our “faith discussion” she acknowledged a lack of purpose in life, and distance from the Lord. In our follow up we have seen her move (by the power of the Holy Spirit!) towards wanting to learn the Word and to become a follower of Jesus. We reminded her that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Romans 10:13) and, just as the book of James tells us, if you draw near to the Lord, HE WILL DRAW NEAR TO YOU! She has embraced these truths and is internalizing/acting on them and BEGINNING TO LIVE THEM OUT FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HER LIFE! (can you feel the excitement? Think about this, this is HUUUUUGE!!! This young lady is walking with Jesus for the first time in her life!!! She also approached us asking for one of the Ephesians “In Him” posters that we made!) because she wants to meditate more on her identity in Christ. We have begun a process of helping her to learn to understand the Word, and how to be a seeker of God. Praise the Lord for His overpowering LOVE endures forever!

(2) Praise the Lord with us as we are seeing a deepening rhythm with young men for the first time since we moved here. For our first few months we just focused on getting to know people, and from months 3-6 of living in Richmond, we started having a lot more relational momentum with young ladies but only a few young men, which made us wonder “why?” Recently, however, the Lord has brought a larger number of younger guys across our paths and we are starting to formulate the beginnings of a bible study with a few of them (as we are also doing the same with some of the ladies). These are the beginnings of a church plant! IT IS HAPPENING!! Praise the Lord! (Keep in mind, we started from NOTHING here, so these steps are amazing confirmation of the Lord’s provision, movement and growing momentum in the lives of individuals!)

(3) Random guy: so, this one is CLASSIC! I walked behind my apartment to throw away some garbage, and a local guy (who smokes weed… and grows his own plants in the alley way) was back there planting seeds. He asked me what I do and within minutes we had this excellent discussion about the claims of Jesus (claims to be the Way, the Truth and the Life – John 14:6). We talked about what Jesus’ true intent was when He communicated with people (so we talked a bit about the woman at the well, and numerous stories from Mark, Luke and Matthew). This young man has many issues he is working through, and some of his ideas are WAY OUT THERE, like… if I told you … you probably would not even believe that people ACTUALLY believe some of the things that this guy claims to believe. But you must keep in mind: he is regularly doing drugs, he is shaped by every wind of teaching that comes his way, like a wave of the sea he is blown and tossed by the wind … he is not walking in the Truth of Jesus, and he doesn’t know the Way. He needs a LAMP for his feet and a LIGHT for his path. The MIRACLE is this: HE IS OPEN! He is open to talking about Jesus! He is not hostile (as many people we meet tend to be hostile to Christ, full of distrust and hatred), not at all, he is willing to enter into major contemplation of who Jesus is! He will also be attending a game night that we are regularly doing and these conversations will absolutely continue with this guy.

It’s hilarious how God does some amazing things in the alley behind our apartment! HA! But do you see what is happening here? The gospel is being fleshed forth in freshly contextualized ways, reaching people in all sorts of subcultures! This is what we have been praying for and God is answering the prayers! Keep praying!

Jeremy and Monica

I don’t think Mike Breen could read that update and conclude that Jeremy and Monica’s mission is “a car without an engine.” It may not have wheels. It may not have doors. But it has an engine. Their mission is powered by the Holy Spirit.

And the joy is contagious.

KOH2RVA: Day 267

PastorShaunKing-133It’s Monday morning, friends, and after a big, exciting, celebratory day in worship yesterday it’s time to get on with the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth, right?

Well, maybe not.

Steve Blanchard forwarded an article recently about a pastor who resigned from his mega-church in Atlanta two years ago because people loved the dynamic Sunday worship experience he had created but didn’t love “caring for people and meeting the needs of the city” on the other days of the week.  Let me warn you: this example is extreme, but I do think there are some lessons here that every church–and every pastor–could learn from.

Take a look at this post from John White’s “Stories of the Revolution” blog.

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Mega church pastor: “We are completely off base with what discipleship means”

Shaun King stepped down on September 1st [2011].

Shaun resigned from the church in Atlanta that he started three years ago. Called “Courageous Church”, it was, in Shaun’s words, a “super cool Sunday worship-service-centered church with 700 people”. A mixed race congregation, it was seen as one of the cutting edge churches in the city. Highly “successful”!

Leonard Sweet, scholar and author, called Shaun, “One of the most dynamic, entrepreneurial, creative and passionate leaders on the American scene today.” How could this guy possibly fail? What would cause him to throw up his hands and give up?

Shaun stepped down not because of any scandal but because he was disillusioned and burned out. He had followed the advice of church planting experts on how to develop an exciting, growing church by focusing on a dynamic Sunday morning “experience”. He writes, “I sold my soul for church attendance in our first week and I could never quite get it back.”

Over time Shaun came to understand that “the overwhelming percentage of our time, energy, skills, budget and creativity were spent preparing for Sunday morning services, getting people to our Sunday services and getting them to volunteer for our Sunday morning services.” Then, Shaun made a big “mistake”. He tried to change all of this. He tried to create a discipleship oriented church where the “time, energy, skills, budget and creativity” went primarily into caring for people and meeting needs in the city. And, since he was the senior leader, he could make this work. Right?

Shaun planned to move the whole congregation into small missional groups with one large meeting each month. He worked with his leaders to develop the new structure. He preached a whole sermon series on the new vision (Preaching changes people. Right?). He reports that, as long as he was preaching about it, the people loved it.

But, once the “shift” took place, in his words, “all hell broke loose”. Three months later, 85% of the congregation wanted to go back to the “super cool worship-service-centered church”. Four months later, Shaun stepped down as the lead pastor. Here’s his evaluation…

“What I am saying is that church attendance, Sunday morning services, sermon-listening (or even sermon preaching), song-singing, hand-clapping, amen-saying and all the other things that “Christ-ians” have lifted up so high look so little like Christ himself that I am utterly convinced that we are completely off base with what discipleship means. Considering all of this, I think I have given up on church as I knew it. Big buildings. Hugh crowds. Few disciples. I’m not with it. It’s inefficient and just doesn’t feel right with my soul. This is not a rejection of big buildings or huge crowds, but an indictment on how few disciples are being made in the process of it all. A better way has to exist.”

Well, Shaun, welcome to the growing number of traditional church leaders (perhaps 1500 a month by some estimates) who are coming to the same conclusion. That is, that the building-centered, Sunday big worship-service-centered “experience” (one mega church here in Denver calls this “the big magic”) is a great way to entertain people but an inefficient way to make disciples. Not only that, but it takes a terrible toll on the pastors and on their families. (In my next post, I’ll tell you what Shaun’s wife wrote about this whole experience. I’m telling you… this lady shoots straight!)

And, yes, Shaun a better way does exist.

–John White, September 19, 2011

 

KOH2RVA: Day 220

sunriseI’m sitting in my room at Graves Mountain Lodge, in Syria, Virginia, watching the sky getting gradually lighter in the east. It’s the last day of a three-day staff retreat, and I’m almost sorry to see it end.

We’ve taken the time in these days to share our stories, to tell each other how things are going for us and what we’re struggling with. It always amazes me, when you take time for such things, how much there is to share. It seems that everybody is dealing with far more than you would know, which means that everybody is pretty good at keeping most of those things to themselves, most of the time. But the Bible tells us to “bear one another’s burdens” and that’s one of the things we’ve focused on during this retreat.

It’s been holy.

We’ve also been talking about the missional understanding of church, and I’ve tried to sum it up by using a phrase I learned from Alan Hirsch, one of the leading voices in the missional church movement. He says: “The church is not the goal of God’s mission, but the tool of God’s mission.”

That’s profound, and it represents a profound change in thinking. If Hirsch is right about that it means, first of all, that the church doesn’t have a mission, God has a mission, so that instead of asking, “What should we do?” we begin to ask, “What does God want us to do?”

Yesterday I said that I think God made the world and everything in it, that he loves the world and everything in it, and that it breaks his heart to see the world so lost and in such ruin. I said that I think God’s mission is to redeem all of creation. That’s why he sent his Son, but as Alan Hirsch and others add, that’s also why he and the Son sent the Spirit, and why he, the Son, and the Spirit sent the church.

If that’s true, then I can almost picture God—like a patient gardener—using Richmond’s First Baptist Church as a tool to redeem this part of his creation.

Do you see how different that is from thinking of the church as the goal of God’s mission? If it’s the goal then our job is to get everybody out there in here—get them into the baptistry, into a good Sunday school class, and into the habit of regular worship—and if we could do that we could probably do it while the world around us was going to hell. But what we learn from the story of Jesus is that God loves the whole world; he doesn’t want any part of it to go to hell. Paul says that the whole creation groans, awaiting its redemption (Rom. 8:21-22).

This morning, from where I’m sitting, the creation is not groaning, it’s singing. The sun has just come up over the mountains and the birds, the budding trees, and the gurgling brooks are rejoicing. But this afternoon I’ll be back in Richmond, beautiful Richmond, where there is still much work to be done, and where God may need a tool just like First Baptist Church to do it.

And where he may need all of us to help.