Saturday, September 04, 2010

Centrality of the Sermon Equals Safety in the Seats

The book of Acts is a great read. In its pages are the beginnings of God's greatest thing on planet Earth since Jesus Christ...his Church! As I read the book of Acts, a few things are strikingly clear, however, they seem not to be so clear today.

In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is given to believers, apostles are imprisoned, miracles happened, Stephen is stoned to death, Saul ravages the Church with persecution, Saul confesses Christ and is now called `Paul` and many local `churches`are established in cities everywhere. How this was accomplished is of vital importance because it was due to one thing and one thing only. It's this one thing that I believe we fail to grasp. I think Acts 6:7 puts it well,

'And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.'

The word of God increasing is what brought people to the point of believing in Christ. As the believers were persecuted in Acts 8, the word says `now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.' When Philip came into contact with Simon the sorcerer, Philip preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, he believed. When Philip met the Ethiopian Eunuch, he told him the good news about Jesus. In A cts 9 after Saul was converted, he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues and confounded the Jews in Damascus. In Acts 10 Peter told Cornelius and company 'And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he (Christ) is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.` In Acts 11 those who were persecuted fled preaching the Lord Jesus. In Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas were going to Cyprus where on the way they proclaimed the word of God. In Acts 14 in Iconium, Paul and Barnabas were 'speaking boldly for the Lord'and 'there continued to preach the gospel.'

I give all these examples so as to be thorough in my explanation I am about to give. In all of the instances of 'preaching' taking place in the book of Acts, it is always done to an audience of unbelievers.

Biblical preaching is always done to an audience of unbelievers.

I am persuaded that we have quite possibly confused biblical preaching with a religious monologue. Ouch! But let's look at reality here.

1. Preaching was done to unbelievers, always.
2. Preaching was done by believers everywhere that were part of the Church.
3. Preaching was done in the public market place where hearers of every stripe could hear.
4. Preaching was done by simply proclaiming the good news of what Christ had done.
5. Preaching was done in a dialogue, a two-way conversation of questions, refutations and proclamations.

Contrast the biblical example of preaching the gospel with today's preaching.

1. Preaching is mainly done to believers.
2. Preaching is done by one appointed person, usually the same one each week.
3. Preaching is done in the privacy of church buildings to the same audience.
4. Preaching is done by crafting monologues based on proof texts (although there are some instances where pastors study, prepare and deliver godly teaching).
5. Preaching is done in a monologue, a one-way conversation that would be considered out of order or rude to interrupt.

Remember, I'm talking about preaching, not teaching here and there is a difference. Preaching proclaims the gospel of the good news of Christ to the lost while teaching instructs us how to live according to God`s word. There is a difference. There has to be for both have differing and unique purposes.

The centrality of the sermon keeps us safe in our seats.

Today's preaching is in the form of the sermon and it`s the centrality of the sermon and the confusion of what its for that is quite possibly one of the reasons why Western Christianity seems impotent to convert unbelievers. If the fields are white and the harvest is great, why aren't the proverbial barns full? I would contend that the centrality of the sermon keeps us safe in our seats. Should believers preach in a book of Acts-like fashion (see list above), and not simply leave it to paid pastors, we just may see some of the promises in God`s word come to pass. What are those promises? Suffering persecution is one of those promises. Getting rebuffed and resisted is a promise. Seeing people believe and be baptized is a promise.

So I write this not to cause problems, but rather to have people join in the questioning process. Is what we do now how it was done in the Bible? If we are doing it different, why are we doing it different? Is our answer to why we are doing it different found in the pages of the Bible? If those answers are not based on a biblical foundation, how do we justify them?

I urge all believers who may have a chance to grace this page by reading it to determine to do what all believers in the book of Acts did...take the risk, lay it on the line, tell the world around you the good news and preach the gospel!


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sincere Subjectivity

Lately I have been privy to conversations with people, discussions about God and what the Bible means. Some of these discussions have been with people who are believers. Some of these conversations have been with non-believers. It has been astounding to me how both believers and non-believers begin their statements of what they believe bout God.

"I believe...I my opinion...what it means to me is..."

These have been commony used phrases to introduce people's opinions as to what the Word of God means in their given situations. What they were talking about is irrelevant. For me, you or anyone else to hinge the will of God upon the subjectivity of our own opinion is simply unwise. For this reason Western Christianity is run amok with false doctrines and errant teachings. Why? Because all of these false doctrines and teachings are substantiated with what "I believe...I think and what it means to me is..." Think about it, no matter how sincere one may be, to relegate the meaning of God's word based upon how one feels, thinks or on their opinion is asking for disaster. It poses the danger of not simply ignoring God's word, but rebelling against it.

In Genesis Chapter 3 mankind's very first act of rebellion against the word of God is written. When the serpent tempted Eve, he brought up what God said and twisted it. While God said that they could eat of every tree in the garden, he said they could not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When he brought it up to Eve, she added her opinion, what she thought, what she believed. She said, "you shall not eat of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it lest you die." She was passionate and sincere in making her case but she was sincerely wrong for God simply didn't say that.

There are many things that people are experiencing in Christianity today that, although are believed to be right, simply should not be accepted without scrutiny and judgement. Be it a manifestation of some sort, someone's experience in a 'move of God', someone's spoken word of prophecy or their behavior, it is all, I repeat, all subject to the boundaries of the word of God. There is no room for personal subjectivity on what Jesus commanded. There is no place for blatant disregard for the teaching of Paul on church order. There should be no tolerance for blatant rebellion of the Ten Commandments even.

Why is it that we accept the sincere even when it deviates from Scripture? I like to say what Phil McCutchen shared once as he quoted someone when he said, 'people have raised emotion to a level of irresistable force.' We give permission for disobedience when we embrace emotion over obedience. We tolerate error because we desire personal satisfaction over personal sacrifice. This mentality produces a spiritual kind of 'do what feels good' lifestyle.

In the book of James, chapter 1, James is writing to the Church. He is encouraging steadfastness during times of trial. He encourages them to put away filthiness and wickedness and receive the implanted word. In verse 22 he goes on to say, 'be doers of the word, and not hearers only....' It was the word of God that was to dictate the believer's interaction with the world he lived in.

In II Timothy chapter 3, Paul was explaining that eventually there would come a time when people would be corrupt. As a matter of fact, he described them as 'lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having an appearance of godliness, but denying its power...' Paul went on to urgently tell Timothy to continue with what he had learned form the sacred writings (word of God). Then he wrote this in verse 16, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."

We have forgotten what the Word of God is actually for.

God's word isn't given to us to be subjetively interpreted so we can live out experiences to make us feel good. It was given to us to tell us how to live. Perhaps that's why people have a problem with it. When something seems whacky, it's OK to judge it based upon the Word. When people openly err from the truth a rebuke is in order. When people are wrong, as we all sometimes can be, correction is acceptable. While people are sincere in their beliefs they can be sincerley wrong.

God's word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our paths. It is there to guide us and is THE standard to which we conform to so to be fashioned into the image of Christ. It teaches how to live and tells us how to love. It absolutely has our best interests in mind. So I encourage everyone to let obedience to the Word of God be your source of joy, fulfillment and satisfaction instead of a sense of clinging to a right to a subjective, experience-based faith. Read it, know it, speak it and live it!

You, and those on your journey with you, will be better for it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Trying to Pull It Off

Rick Warren is a mega church pastor in California that has reached a level of acclaim and notoriety almost unrivalled in contemporary history. He has done so using the momentum of his New York Times best seller's list work known as "The Purpose Driven Life".

Notoriety, popularity or whatever you want to call it, can be accompanied by many things; wealth, fame, favor, sometimes even scorn and criticism. Be that as it may, it at the least calls attention to one's self, desired or not. One of the interesting things about notoriety, escpecially in Christian circles as I observe, is that it gives the notion that the popular person is a source of knowledge that is to be sought out, listened to and followed. This is a common North American attribute of the famous.

In one of Rick Warren's latest emails to subscribers he communicated some things that at first glance are timely, practical and current. After some not so deeper examination, call it a second read, I find his comments empty, lacking and void of God's wisdom. I think he misses the point of Christianity and the Body of Christ and indicates erroneous thinking. After reading the quote I'll explain.

"It takes enormous amounts of energy, creativity, commitment, time, money, and preparation to pull off a worship service that will attract visitors and focus them on Jesus. Why go to all this trouble trying to bridge the cultural gap between the church and the unchurched? We do it in service to Jesus and we do it because we care about the lost people Jesus cares about."

Rick Warren

1. Like many North American pastors, the 'worship service' has been relegated to an event. No longer a corporate expression of the Body of Christ together, no longer an experience by all who gather to be edified together, the worship service is a show that is put on by the professionals or the ones who have auditioned and been deemed 'competent enough' to lead worship.

This thinking flies in the face of scripture and the writings of the apostle Paul when he wrote 'offer yourselves a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, this is your spiritual worship." (paraphrased). He encouraged the believers when they came together to speak to one another with spiritual psalms, making melody in their hearts. Worship was not reduced to a few pros on a platform, it was how you lived your life. Based on the teachings of scripture, a worship service isn't just something you 'pull off'.

Based on the teachings of scripture, a worship service isn't just something you 'pull off'

2. Attracting visitors. This is where I believe most people simply just get it wrong. It's not even their fault. We have inherited a Christianity that doesn't look like early Christianity and do the things we do without even knowing why.

The purpose of a worship 'service' is not, nor should it ever be, to attract visitors. A look at the New Testament writings of Paul would explain this fully. Ephesians 5:19 states, "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord," The gathering of believers for corporate worship was for them and not to attract and impress unbelievers. The expression of worship to God in both Old and New Testament contexts was to always be from a place of holiness and concecration. Even in the Old Testament Tabernacle time, unbelievers could be permitted in the outer court, but, for worship and sacrifice they could not enter the inner court.

Philippians 3:3 explains it this way, "For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh..." Worship was for the believers, those of what Paul called 'the circumcision' referring to the covenant relationship between God and his people.

All of this added to Rick's comments on how it takes a lot of time, creativity, commitment, money etc. etc. all point to even more things wrong with this philosophy. A worship service of showmanship will always be meant for impressing/attracting unbelievers. True worship will cost you nothing and you won't have to have a planning session or rehersal to 'pull it off'.

Bridging a 'cultural gap'. Many North American churches believe, teach and pursue this thing called 'cultural relevance'. I need to be frank here. I don't see Jesus, the apostles or even the early church fathers concerned about this. Jesus' parting words were to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature and to make disciples. I would contend that being culturally relevant can be fun, creative, and attract attention to religious organizations and personalities, but it is not on Christ's top listing of priority. Why? I write this because when one examines what people do to be 'culturally relevant', we see nothing more than mimicking a worldly, earthly pattern of finding significance. Some try to have dramatic presentations, others focus on current music styles while others incorporate the arts. I do not forbid the use and enjoyment of any of these as I firmly believe that they are good and given to us to be enjoyed. But that's it. They are not given to make disciples because they cannot. That is what believers do in relationship with other human beings. In the end, vast amounts of budgeted monies are spent on religious entertainment to validate paid professional positions in churches and organizations.

Final thoughts

As I walk my journey of faith I am challenged to, instead of accept the inherited Christianity we've been handed, read the scriptures and find out what they mean and try to live it. Sometimes I don't like the answers to my questions. Sometimes I don't like the fact that I have to change what I used to believe. Sometimes I don't want to change how I live. Yet, in all of this, it's the living Word of God that transforms all of us. The Holy Spirit is our teacher to help bring understanding to it all.

I have no personal vendetta against Rick Warren, nor do I write this as a personal attack. I do however have a personal passion for the correct and paramount regard for the teachings of scripture, not the mere interpretations of man. Counting myself among the company of imperfect, flawed humanity, I encourage you to re-examine what you do and why you do it and ask the hard questions. Re-read the scriptures and find their meaning and understanding. That's the one thing we all need to know how to pull off.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

"Happy Easter"

"Happy Easter" the stranger said as he greeted dozens of families at a hockey tournament. Sounds so nice and polite, so sanitized. "Happy Easter" is what a couple of parents said to me as we all left our dinner party and headed to our hotel rooms. Happy Easter. "Easter" is the title of all kinds of photo albums on Facebook depicting little ones and their 'second Christmas' of the year. Happy Easter. "Got the kids a puppy for Easter" was another post I read online. Happy Easter. "What is your favorite part of Easter" I asked my own kids. "Candy" was their answer. My God where have I gone wrong? Where have we gone wrong? Happy Easter.

For he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him and by his stripes we are healed.

Happy Easter. An innocent man was murdered. He claimed to be the Christ and after death, rose again. While we have claimed that Jesus is the only way, truth and life, we have mingled the common with the holy. We have done so as an attempt to make the taste of Christianity more palletable to non-believers. Have we really remembered the significance of what Christ did? Do we really commemorate it and if so, how? With eggs? Chocolate? Bunnies? Bonnets? Have believing parents discussed the scriptures with our children? Have we opened the pages of holy writ, read it to them, questioned them and reiterated the truth we hold dear or have we reliquished this holy time to the infiltration of counterfeits?

The only way to commemorate 'Easter' is with the cross and I don't mean by displaying one. I mean, and spiritually, getting on one. This symbol of death does not look good or make us feel good. It should make us feel uncomfortable. It reminds us to put to death the deeds of the flesh, something we've forgotten in North American Christianity. It reminds us of the wages of sin. It reminds us of our human condition and the need for a savior. There no place for fun and games at the's all business; God's business. He's in the business of judging sin and giving grace and that's exactly what he did when Christ became sin and God's wrath was satisfied on that day.

It's a solemn occasion when someone dies. It's a special occasion when someone gives you a gift. "The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life" are the very crux of what happened on that first 'Easter'. Do we understand the deep meaning behind all of this?

May you experience the deep appreciation of knowing sins are forgiven and the liberty of God's grace while never forgetting what had to happen to make it all possible.

Happy Easter.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Will the Real Christian Please Stand Up?

Twice this week I have heard the quote 'we don't know what we don't know'. I have taken just a little bit of time to think about it and it is absolutely true. Those things that are outside of the scope of our current realm of personal knowledge really are unknown to us. It is from this thought that I bound into one of my points.

Several weeks ago one of my co-workers shared with me how they had heard Billy Graham's daughter being interviewed on television. They shared that they were a bit uncomfortable with the fact that she was saying that Jesus Christ was the only way to have sins forgiven, that Jesus was the only savior and outside of him there was no other way to know, see or please God. I must admit, being on television being viewed by millions and saying that can come across as a bit arrogant to some. Maybe elitist to others. Make no mistake though, as she uttered those words she did so with a passionate clarity. She drew lines that made it very clear what she believed and intended to communicate to those listening.

As my co-worker shared her discomfort with those statements with me, I shared with her about the interview I watched on Larry King Live with Joel Osteen. Osteen, who pastors the largest attended church in the United States was asked by King if Jesus is the only way to get to heaven or something to that effect. Mr. Osteen responded with some very uncomfortable utterances of things resembling, "I don't want to judge anybody. God knows a persons heart." etc. When Mr. King asked Osteen if Jews, who believe in God, were wrong and not going to heaven, Osteen back peddled and offered no definitive answers but only more words of things like, "Only God knows a person's heart etc. etc.".

Compare the two responses and one will clearly see a difference. Billy Graham's daughter made no apology and said Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through him. Mr. Osteen was simply bent on not offending anyone with what the Bible says and insisted, despite what the Bible says, that we really can't know who has been a recipient of God's saving grace, only God can know that.

While Mr. Osteen is preaching the message that we don't know what we don't know, Miss Graham seemed more intent on focussing on what we do know. The difference in deciding on what to say to the people around us is found in the consequences stemming from what we have said. While it is more palatable to be the bearer of good news and supply all the warm fuzzies for people, one can find themselves being thrown under the proverbial bus for actually standing up and proclaiming Christ.

As we read Philipians, specifically chapter 1, we notice Paul saying something quite interesting. Our pastor at church pointed this out and hovered on this one Sunday morning. Paul said that "it has been granted to us that we should not only believe, but also suffer for his sake..." (I paraphrase verse 29).

In this amazing little verse we see that it is possible, it is within the realm of acceptability for the Christian, yes, even perhaps to be expected, and then taken as no surprise, that suffering may be part of our journey with Christ.

This isn't Sunday morning-bring-your-friend-to-church stuff. This is real life, at work, talking to someone about Christ and the Bible stuff. This is where the world meets Jesus in you and in me. What my co-workers don't need to hear is that I don't know what I don't know. What they need to understand is that God loves them, Christ died for them and that somehow, through an imperfect, awful person like myself, they can be introduced to the saving grace of God through Christ by getting the message that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

I finished my conversation with my co-worker defending Miss Graham for it is her that stood up for what was true with passion and conviction despite the barrage she may have taken. My co-worker said, "I'll give you that, that's a good point." While one Christian was proclaiming Christ, the other was hiding behind what he didn't know. Would the real Christian please stand up? Are you standing?