Monday, July 29, 2013

The Dimming Church - Why Community is a Three-Way Street

I am blessed to serve in a local church where community is an established anchor among each ministry function. However, as the case with most churches, our community isn’t perfect. And though I can accept the fact and move along, it’s hard to leave the issue hanging without vulnerable musing.

The truth is we were made to hunger for unity within community. But the reality check is we tend to only enjoy it in comfortable doses. Could it be we need to sacrifice a measure of personal comfort to fully understand the type of community God created? Besides, how are we supposed to know if we’re at such a breaking point in the first place?

In Acts 2, koinonia is introduced into the post-resurrection picture as joint participation in communion, sovereignly designed to preserve the authenticity of relationship:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” ~ Acts 2:42-43 (ESV)

Note the catch in verse 43: “And all who believed were together

Talk about a simple yet profound point! At the day of Pentecost, we, as believers, were given a Spirit-led template to cultivate and foster exemplary fellowship in a transparent way. Yet, flash forward two millenniums into a time when distractions are at an all-time high, and can we honestly assign words like "exemplary" and "transparent" to the eminence of modern church community? Regardless of stance, it's important to understand how community alone can’t maintain its authenticity if the church is divided among believers who neglect accountability for the sake of personal agenda.

Before I continue, let the record show I’m an advocate of the church being externally active in extending the Gospel outside the sanctuary; however, it’s important for believers to be mindful how the internal structure of koinonia can be hindered. For when community loses its God-centered authenticity, it's only a matter of time before the church turns into a gas station, where truth is fuel, and the social landscape becomes a non-romantic verison of "Christian Mingle". And in today’s individualized society where everything is compartmentalized and young people possess a sixth sense in detecting counterfeit community, “koinonia” can easily disengage from worship, especially when priorities are misaligned and our needs are equalized to God’s want.

Perhaps the crux of the issue lies in how "personal agenda" collides with "church agenda". Granted, I’ve only been alive for a quarter-century and my observations only carry so much weight; however, I’m fairly confident the church has grown significantly among certain demographics: soccer moms, workaholic dads, homebodies, social media addicts, church hoppers, the easily offended and parents who place a premium on their kids’ success and emotional state over everything else.

Don’t get me wrong; I fully believe in expanding the qualities of Christian community into extra-curricular activities and positioning yourself to be daily led by the Spirit. But sometimes, I can’t help but feel Christians are just as bad when it comes to rushing through life, failing to look both ways before proceeding through the intersections of life.

In order to be effective witnesses, we need to be able to discern the difference between pouring out and soaking in, while realizing being like Christ requires a balanced application of both. And since achieving this balance isn’t always easy, it should be no surprise how the lines between temporary experience and ones with eternal value can become blurred.

Contrarily, if we treat community like a lock-in, then we’re essentially stiff-arming the Great Commission for the sake of personal intimacy, which like the overly busy believer, can result in spiritual stagnation if pursuit becomes idol (Note: the heart of this dilemma is brilliantly captured by the latest Willow Creek findings - see prior blog @

For the church to grow, it has to get real. So why not ask ourselves: Is the church becoming the poster entity of hallow community? After all, we know we need it. We love to have it. But ultimately, the quality of koinonia can only be as deep as the point where everyone starts raising their walls (i.e. agenda, busyness, insecurities, misaligned priorities, etc.).

If we were created to stand out, then why is it we’re so content to be hidden, whether inside the church, outside the church or both? What ideas contribute to us thinking the church is a waste of time? Is it wise to think we can manufacture discipleship and evangelism in a way that completely circumvents the house of God? Are we so easily satisfied by shining light one way, when we’re called to radiate it in multiple directions?

The time is now to evaluate our habits and barricades by refreshing our paradigm of Christian community. For we’re all destined to be faithfully engaged in both – to be active in epitomizing Hebrews 13:2 alongside Romans 12:9-10, Philippians 2:4 and Psalm 55:14.
"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." ~ Hebrews 13:2 (ESV)

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” ~ Romans 12:9-10 (ESV)

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” ~ Philippians 2:4 (ESV)

We used to take sweet counsel together; within God's house we walked in the throng.” ~ Psalm 55:14 (ESV)
Yes, we may be shining our light out in the world, but we can’t forget to leave the light on in the lighthouse as well.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

LEGACYouth: White-Water Reflections

 The concept of “river” is quite unique, as it is a fitting symbol for life and the Holy Spirit.
As a metaphor of life, a river possesses both positive and negative connotations. For instance, a river can have peaceful moments marked by tranquility, but occasionally be rocky and turbulent. Sometimes, we feel buoyant, enjoying the thrill of the rush; other times, we feel like we’re sinking, barely keeping our head above the water.
As a metaphor of the Holy Spirit, a river is a current of God’s nature, channeled through the Spirit to us. Unlike the prior comparison, the river as Spirit is a purely uplifting allegory. For instance, a rushing river, according to Scripture, is a symbol of peace and intimacy with God, in addition to a place where we can feel safe and secure. In the Bible, multiple authors compare life with the Spirit to being known in a prosperous habitation, and life without the Spirit as being lost in a desert wasteland.
In John 4, Jesus dialogues with a Samaritan woman mired in her own wasteland – a complex mix of rejection and shame. Intersecting her pursuit for physical water, Jesus tells the woman if she knew the gift of God (i.e. Christ’s identity*), she would have asked for what she didn’t know to ask for: living water. In other words, Jesus was going after the deepest form of thirst possible, so deep, the woman had no cognitive recognition of it.
What is this “living water”? It is the Lord’s ever-present way of bringing life to the very places we’re called to love out of (i.e. heart, soul, mind, strength). *By his mention of gift, Jesus not only refers to his immediate presence, but foreshadows the Holy Spirit that was to come. So not only is “living water” a living illustration of the good news of the Gospel – a celebration of our continual relationship with God, but it’s also Jesus himself.
So in light of what we know of “living water”, why is it we’re afraid to get a little wet? Furthermore, what keeps us from going in for the full soaking? If life with Christ is like a river, it makes little sense to want a few droplets of water splashing onto us.
Illustration: You got to ask yourself if you’re an ankle wader or a full-on swimmer.

Visual: If anyone is parched and wants a drink of water, yet only pours a sip into a cup, why would we think this is smart or desirable? Talk about ridiculous, right? However, how often do we come to the Lord like this? Do you think Jesus is content with giving us a drop of His "living water" or do you think He'd rather sweep us away in his current, which is how He is able to take us where we need to go: in Him and in life. 

Landing: The river runs for those who seek His face. The question is: are we constantly seeking it? Or are we seeking it only some of the time? Are we being honest with ourselves if we say we’re truly content with the “river as life” metaphor only? Or will we accept God’s invitation to go deeper with him, risking vulnerability at the surface for unfathomable satisfaction in the deep places.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Fat Christianity

In a recent study conducted by Willow Creek Community Church, findings revealed startling evidence concerning the evangelical church’s understanding of Christ-centeredness. After exposing the ineffectiveness of church programs as the premiere pathway to spiritual advancement in prior surveys, new data is suggesting Christians who consider themselves to be Christ-centered serve and give less than believers who do not or are unsure. Talk about hard to fathom, let alone swallow. The idea itself not only steps on the proverbial toe, but opens up a giant can of worms. Is this a widespread epidemic or specifically tied to certain denominations? Is the matter a result of lost vision based from poor discipleship? Or are we incorrectly supplying “program” in place of a better alternative for those hitting a certain point on the road to spiritual maturation? So many questions, so few answers. Thus, as I appraise my thoughts, please note I do not wish to stereotype the sanctity of God’s dwelling place; however, I do believe it is fair to draw observations from trends and be guided by the Holy Spirit to discern truth and direction.

As we dive into the enigma of the upside-down church, let’s ask ourselves a basic leadoff question: Although the church may be winning souls, are we perpetuating the Lord’s victory by an authentic demonstration of God’s love? Or are we creating mini-cultures throughout the world, deceiving people into equating “being fed” to growing in the Lord? For many are actively seeking God, but are growing disinterested once the high of “first love” fades. And as apathy knocks, many Christians are beginning to view the church as either a catering service or a health clinic. Yes, God is our deliverer, but a relationship with Him is more than consuming truth. Yes, God is a God of healing power, but a relationship with Him is more than medicating brokenness. What keeps us from realizing such an ironic cycle? Why can't we see how our manufactured attempts at intervention with  indifference always compounds the loss of vertical momentum and deep-to-deep satisfaction?

Somewhere in the reaching in, reaching out and reaching up, we have to be constantly mindful of our Christ-centered paradigm. Like mind, heart, soul and strength, one’s belief in the Christ-centered life should be continually open for molding and shaping. But when we blindly place roadblocks in the way of vulnerability and humility, we’re essentially spitting in the eye of meekness and telling God we really don’t care about inheriting the earth. And we wonder why God doesn’t give us territory we desperately desire. Hello! It’s called grace, ladies and gentlemen.

Let the record show I advocate increased participation in church program functions; they have a place in the house of God; however, when a body of believers assumes the spiritual discipline is equal to the sum of knowledge obtained through small groups and service groups, is “shallow” being inadvertently subbed for “hallow”? We have to re-evaluate perspective on what Jesus meant when he gave us the blueprints to living a Christ-centered, God-fearing life:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” ~ Matthew 6:33 (ESV)

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” ~ Mark 16:15 (ESV)

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” ~ Romans 12:1-3 (ESV)

"But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.’ It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” ~ Jude 1:17-23 (ESV)

We need to remember Christ-centered living is an emotional pursuit, not a pursuit to emotion. Unfortunately, many are inverting the two right off the back, re-routing a journey to God’s heart back to themselves. And with priorities flipped, absorbing a feeling-driven Christianity is becoming a more serious reality. Do we not see how individualized spirituality robs us of the joy found in giving light to others? Do we not realize the premium on passion as the pinnacle of a Christ-centered lifestyle is part of the reason our light is dim? Yes, intimacy is a primary component of the Christ-centered walk, but since when does byproduct take the lead over source? Are we hungry for Jesus or intimacy with Jesus? We can desire a feeling of closeness with a person, without really opening ourselves to valuing the relationship. To be Christ-centered is to live with Christ fully engaged in both action and word; it’s not a measure of how close we feel. Besides, what's the point in feeling the presence, if we won't respond to it?

It’s time we wake up and smell the brew of God’s heart. For we are fed so we can burn. We are equipped so we can tackle the peaks in our lives. Why veil God from the inspiration we crave? He is the inspiration! Why separate program and experience? God is learned through a balanced blend of both! We must run the race God’s way and not put ourselves in position to quit without realizing it. We need to understand real faith requires deep employment of the deep truth we hunger for. For when our new life begins, we’ll be judged not on intake alone, but how we applied the intake (i.e. the knowledge, intimacy and spiritual disciplines) in reflecting Christ to others.

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Open Hands

Lately, I've been questioning my heart whenever I've subtly expressed a condescending "He/she needs Jesus" attitude, rather than confess the "higher road" truth of "I need Jesus just as much as anyone else". When deflating encounters with moody cashiers, irritating drivers and patronizing employees occur, how do we navigate the temptation to tighten clenched fist when our default remark comes knocking on the door of our tongue? Why is it we occasionally manipulate faith into a hollow, religious rock we hide under as a means of "self-control"? If God understands our hearts better than we do, wouldn't it make sense to fully honor God's ability to know us? We may evade deeper trouble by diluting anger to a silent sneer, but permitting the cancerous effects of indifferent entitlement is anything but a demonstration of salt and light. The lure of depreciating others on the heels of an embarrassing or unjust moment is an surmountable trap when we allow the better alternative of, "I need Jesus too" or "Jesus, I need you more than yesterday" to manifest within us. 

People need to see Jesus in us before they can know to need Jesus. Yet, if the equipped Christian cannot discern an "open door" opportunity to bless people, what does this say about the 21st century evangelical church? While I believe in the God-given desire of men to influence others, if consistency lacks, then we risk turning away the heads of those already blind to their need of a Savior. We cannot underestimate the power of an offensive spirit with self-exhalting undercurrents, no matter how pure we deem our hearts to be. To be Christ is to be an extension of grace to those overcome by guilt (the difference in where a person thinks he/she is with respect to moral standards to what he/she believes is the absolute apex) and apathy (the "passion level" difference between a person's desire to live for the self as compared to God/others). 

To effectively represent the Kingdom requires living with open hands, palm side up. Add a few cups of humility and dependence and suddenly, you have a practically efficient recipe in making God's day, as well as the desperate soul who needs a refreshing dose of genuine altruistism.

To judge righteously means not jumping to conclusions based on the tip of the interactive iceberg. Why waste a moment to love a life by revealing God's character for the sake of justifyingly ranking people based on perceived demeanor. 

Thus, I'm boycotting the "some more than others" mentality. We all need Jesus. End of story. 

Scriptural Inspiration

"7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin." ~ 1 John 1:7 (ESV)

"If we claim that we experience a shared life with him and continue to stumble around in the dark, we’re obviously lying through our teeth—we’re not living what we claim. But if we walk in the light, God himself being the light, we also experience a shared life with one another, as the sacrificed blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purges all our sin." ~ 1 John 1:6-7 (ESV)

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