Why Church? – Good Question…

Recently, I preached a series of sermons called ‘Love My Church’. I was seeking to develop a very positive mindset toward the church, and why we should engage more deeply with it. That got me asking another set of questions, and those questions have grown into a series of posts…

For those who don’t know God…

I wonder where the church fits in the experience and awareness of the general community. Maybe the question is not one of ‘where’ but ‘whether’… I guess we have all heard the cliched responses that in the mind of the general community the church is irrelevant, or invisible, or worse. Church leaders have asked often their congregations “if our church was to disappear overnight, would we be missed?”. The question my be cliched, but the answer often troubles us, and that may be for good reason.

For those who know God…

You might expect that for those who know God and follow His Son, Jesus, there would be a more ringing endorsement. Here, the feedback varies. Some Christian love their church, and dedicate much time and energy to making their local church a really terrific place.

But how many of us would say that they love their church, and that meeting with other Christians ‘at church’ is the highlight of their week? And if their answer is not resoundingly positive, what are the factors there?

what we think about the church has enormous impact on how healthy it is

Maybe how we talk about church exposes something of the issue:

People ‘go to church’

People ‘get fed with the word at church’

People ‘have fellowship at church’

People ‘are blessed by the ministries, programs and services their church provides’

Pastors ‘work at church, serve their church, and prepare for the services to be held at the church’

My thought is that what we think about the church has enormous impact on how healthy it is, and how well it does what God calls it to do in the community and the world.

The next posts will explore these thoughts a little more.

Love to hear your thoughts…

Which Road Are You On?

Last weekend I attended ‘The Road Event’, a tremendously stimulating conference organized by Über, a Christian church in Melbourne Eastern suburbs.

The conference charted the development of cultural trends and ideas that have worked together to influence how we see life and how we view ourselves and our world. It all sounds a bit philosophical when you put it like that, but in actual fact is was down to earth, accessible, and incredibly insightful.

Much revolved around the use of the ‘story’ metaphor. The basic idea is that not only can your life be seen as a story, but that culture, too, is formed by one or a number of ‘stories’. Think of it this way: There is an overarching story or worldview that dominates our world. This ‘story’ may not be uniformly held or believed, and there might be different and competing stories. Even so, the influence of this ‘story’ is unmistakable.

There is an overarching story or worldview that dominates our world

Thinking about how ‘stories’ impact on our culture is much the same as thinking about the dominant world and life view around us. I don’t see too much difference between the different terms. What I do sense, though, is that the idea of a ‘story’ is a little easier for people to understand than the often philosophically overweight, jargon laden discussions about ‘world and life view’.

So what is the dominant ‘story’ in Australian culture? I can’t confess any real expertise, but it’s not hard to observe a few dominant themes:

• We have evolved from lesser life forms, there really is no God, we are a mass of carbon based atoms. Consequently the older ‘stories’ of faith, religion, and even traditional morality are irrelevant

• Consequently, there is no overarching ‘story’ to give life coherence and meaning. So the best way to live is to just be yourself and do no harm to others. Have as much fun doing this as you can, but don’t be surprised if you feel a yawning disconnect with everything.

• We have done terrible things in polluting our planet, so now we have to address them by reducing greenhouse gases and developing in sustainable industry

• All people should get a fair go, we should all have the same opportunities, and we should do what we can to help those who are disadvantaged

There are lots of others, but you get the drift. By ‘story’ we mean the major life views or world view that influences how we live. ‘The Road Event’ helped us see how we have been influenced by the culture of ‘the road’, an in this story where life has no ultimate destination all that matters is how we travel. All that matters is the journey. It sounds innocuous, but this view has influenced the church, Australian Christianity, social institutions, family life, our sense of self.

So my next posts are thoughts that flow on from this. I am indebted to the speakers at ‘The Road Event’: Mark Sayers, Andrew Shamy, Sarah Deutscher, and Tim Hein for their insightful critique, their warmhearted challenge, and their inspiring biblical vision.

Q: what ‘stories’ do you think dominate our culture? Leave a comment, and start a discussion!

Will God really protect me?

One of the primary questions people ask about Christianity is whether it produces actual outcomes: whether it makes a real difference to their lives. We know that Jesus is God’s son, that he died and rose again, that he rules the universe, and that he is returning to complete his restoration of all things. But does this make a difference to how we live?

This morning I read in Ps 94 how God is the avenger of those who are victimised and oppressed. He judges the earth. He does not reject his people or forsake his inheritance. He rises up for his people against his enemies. God is our fortress and our refuge.

Can you see how our view of God influences how we engage with our world and how we live in it and how we live with others? If God is our fortress, I don’t need to bolster myself with my status, or my possessions, or my reputation. If God is my refuge, I don’t have to take refuge in my orthodoxy, or in my church.

My comfort is that God’s plan will come to fruition irrespective of my circumstances

Today, my day is in God’s trusting hands. I move into my day knowing that I am working in his plan, so I don’t have to cajole him into working in mine. My comfort is that God’s plan will come to fruition irrespective of my circumstances. This is true for his plan for me, as well as his plans for my world.

Here’s the question we all need to ask: Do I actually believe God will protect me today? In my work, my living, my witness, my relationships, at my rock and my hard place?

Or are these things just nice thoughts to start the day with, but they have no ultimate power to impact my reality?

Following and Sacrifice

At first thought, following Jesus seems easy. It seems a matter of changing your mind about who Jesus is, recognising and accepting him as Saviour, and acknowledging him as King and Ruler. I suppose it is easy, relatively speaking, to see ‘following Jesus’ as a ‘decision’. Western Christianity often focuses on people making ‘decisions’ to follow Jesus, or to accept him as Saviour. In some places, these decisions are pretty much the only thing that matters. So, evangelism strategies and even services are focussed around getting people to make those decisions.

Many people who operate from an atheist or agnostic point of view will sometimes ‘the decision’ as the major battleground: with the focus being on the intellectual arguments as to why someone should follow Jesus, or whether there is a God, or an afterlife, or whatever. This makes some sense, because the primary battleground is the inner realities of human life: the heart, the mind, the will, the soul. People do need to assess who Jesus is with their mind, they do need to yield their will and bow before Jesus’ supreme and majestic authority. People do need to offer themselves – to give their heart – to this King as worshipful subjects.

Even so, if all I give is my inner realities, as significant as that may be, I don’t think I have begun to follow Jesus the way he intends me to follow. The inner realities are the starting point, sure, but those realities are connected to my behaviour and my attitudes. Here’s the rub: Jesus wants the change in your inner reality to come to concrete, consistent, continual expression in a changed life. Behaviour. Values. Attitudes. Talk. Generosity. Relationships. Business ethic. Lifestyle. Eating habits. Sexuality. Yep, pretty much everything.

This is why yesterday’s thought was so challenging: ‘think of those areas where you are not obeying Jesus, and start changing them now.’

See, friends, it is easy to ignore the call to changed behaviour and attitudes, and just concentrate on the ‘inner life’. We’re OK with change, as long as we can ‘spiritualise’ it, and restrict that change to comfortable areas like ‘growing in knowledge’, or ‘having a stronger faith’. Stressing ‘inner change’ while neglecting behaviour change is like paying attention to the safety features of your car, but still driving like a maniac. It makes no sense. It endangers to your life and the life of others. James the Apostle reminds us that the Devil has excellent knowledge of God, and that inner faith without outward expression is nothing but death.

So, God is calling you and me to change. Real change. Change that will be difficult. Jesus, in Luke 9, says that following him is like losing your life (9:24).

Are you up for that?

Are you prepared to change those things in your behaviour and in your attitudes that you know really do need to change? Are you prepared to put to death your love of wealth? Or your proclivity to gossip? Or your thirst for influence? Are you prepared to step into the compassionate lifestyle God calls you to have? Are you prepared to reduce your personal comfort to maximise your engagement with God’s mission? Are you committed to loving the people as an expression of the love for God in you?

Jesus gave his life for you on that terrible torturous cross. He counted his heavenly glory as nothing. But is following him actually costing you anything?

True. There are burdens that come as a consequence of truly following Jesus. They are felt when you start working out what God has worked in you (Philippians 2:12-13). And while it’s not a popular thing to say to comfortable western Christians, these burdens hurt and they chafe and they are weighty. This is what Jesus calls your cross (Luke 9:23).

You want to follow? Then take up your cross. Take it up daily. And, knowing he has called you, this cross, his cross on your shoulders, becomes easy, and light.

One last thing: Jesus never calls you to do this work on your own. Through his Spirit, he is present with you. He will give strength and endurance. He will give you all you need to follow, to change, to carry his cross.

So, about that change: what will it be for you? Make a commitment now: write it down, share your change with a friend, and ask them to keep you accountable.

Follow Me!

Reading Matthew 4 this morning I was again struck by how this very simple passage communicates such profound and (possibly) unnerving truths about Jesus.

Jesus shows up at the Sea of Galilee, and proceeds to call his first disciples. There is no promotional tour, no bus with a banner, no advertising campaign. Jesus just shows up, and says ‘Follow me”. Two words. Two little words. But they contain a universe of meaning.

Surprising

Jesus words are surprising in their simplicity. Simon, Andrew, James and John had no idea who this Jesus was. And we do not know what compelled them to leave their livelihoods, their trade, and follow. But they did. It is a surprising outcome.

Uncompromising

Jesus words are uncompromising. Very un-politically correct. There is no ‘please consider’ or ‘if you wouldn’t mind’ or even an ‘excuse me, but…’. They are a bold, bare imperative. A command. “Come, follow me”. Amazingly, the four men left their nets and followed him immediately.

All of us have behaviour and attitudes in our day to day lives which are destructive and which have to stop. Or things which are disobedient to God, which work against the world he desires. Or the sort of pure and simple indifference where we couldn’t give a toss. Jesus uncompromising call comes to us today and says, “follow me.”

George MacDonald, quoted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, says “It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not do anything he tells you … but you can begin at once to be a disciple of the Living One, by obeying him in the first thing you can think of in which you are not obeying him. We must learn to obey him in everything, and so must begin somewhere.”

It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not do anything he tells you

So: think of those areas where you are not obeying Jesus, and follow his uncompromising call. Why wait? Do it now.

Audacious

It’s an audacious claim, isn’t it? Whether it is Jesus’ words to the four followers, or his word to you, the implication is that Jesus’ rule over people is both universal and absolute. The audacity is that Jesus’ claim is presented as simply true. True, whether you accept this reality or not.

Jesus’ call to the four men, and their surprising and equally uncompromising decision to follow – and therefore obey – shows us not only that Jesus is true ruler. His claim also shows us that his rule starts in the hearts and lives of those who follow him. With people. Jesus’ followers are, in a sense, under new management. Jesus is directing their lives, and the impact is seen very clearly. In a sense, every follow says ‘Jesus is in charge, and this is what it looks like.’

Q: what would be the first things to change in your life if you were to follow Jesus and obey him in those areas where you currently are not obeying him?

PS. If you are intrigued by the phrase “Jesus is in charge, and this is what it looks like”, and you’d like to know more about Jesus (without all the religious clutter) I encourage you to get a copy of NT Wright’s new book, “Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters” . Wright’s book opens our eyes to deeply scriptural emphases and to the life changing reality of Jesus. Koorong still notes the book as ‘not yet printed’ but you can definitely get it on line at Amazon and The Book Depository (and the latter does not charge freight!!). If you have a Kindle, iPad, or other eReader, you can access a copy right now.